I Love Dogs Ben Gwin
I was driving down Fifth, writing my wife’s updated contact information on a napkin, when I hit a pothole and spilled the coffee wedged between my legs. I burned my lap, and the cup fell and rattled around at my feet. The dog came out of nowhere. Now I’m standing over a crippled Labrador on the edge of the university lawn.
I take off my tie to use it as a tourniquet but I can’t locate the source of the blood. Easy boy. It’s OK. His back legs are smashed. If the dog is lucky, it will die soon.
I decide to lift him into my car, and take him to the veterinary school downtown. I almost have the dog in the backseat when a couple slips out of the crowd—two street kids screaming about their pet. They startle me. I drop the dog, and its head thuds off the floorboards.
The girl opens her mouth to speak then stops, drops to her knees and holds the dog’s face in her hands. Her partner digs at a scab on his arm with the pointed end of a Clinton/Gore pin. “Mister,” he says, “how could you?”
A crowd of strangers gathers around us. I loosen my collar, run my bloody hands over the grass. “It was an accident.” I stare at my palms.
The girl looks up at me, crying. “He’s all we have,” she says. Faint streaks of the dog’s blood cross her cheeks, her hands colored red with it. When her shirt rides up, I see the line of her spine, slight blond hair down her lower back.
“Mister,” says the guy, “Help us. You have to.” He paces in a tight circle. Pedestrians part around him as if he were a rock in the river. He unzips and zips his fanny pack. Dreadlocks bounce off his back and swirl when he pivots.
There’s blood on my glasses. I try to clean them off but I just smear the blood around, and I can’t see through the streaks. I drop my glasses in my shirt pocket and wipe my eyes with the crook of my elbow while the crowd tightens around the three of us and this dog. It’s almost a hundred degrees out, and humid.
“The veterinary school is downtown. I’ll drive you.” I say.
Robin and Foster introduce themselves on the way. I tell them my name is Leon, which it isn’t.
I sell condiments in Southwestern Pennsylvania. A year ago, my wife, Janet had a breakdown. I checked her into a facility in Conneaut that was immediately bought out by a bigger healthcare conglomerate. Company insurance did not cover her condition. When I showed up for a visit, the head orderly informed me that if I wanted to make sure nothing happened to Janet, it would cost a little extra. Sometimes, I can’t keep them away from the female patients, and a pretty one like that. Since that visit, I’ve been embezzling rather large sums of money from my company to pay for Janet’s care.
Tonight I’m supposed to meet Denise Mellwood, CEO of Avalon Condiments, at the downtown Hyatt to review tomorrow’s presentation for the Board. Denise has been asking about the numbers.
Near Uptown, Fifth is down to one lane. In the backseat the dog shivers and howls. There is blood all over the new vinyl interior.
Robin says, “There’s puss.” She wears a piercing through the side of her face and bird tattoos on her collarbones. Feathers crest the neck of her filthy Duquesne University t-shirt.
“Do you go to Duquesne?” I ask.
“My mom teaches there,” she says.
I roll down my window and it smells like hot asphalt and garbage. Roll it up, homelessness and dead dog.
Foster fiddles with various dials on the console, dials I haven’t even explored yet. “How’s he look, Honey?” he asks Robin.
“Not so good, Baby,” she says. Her feet tap over my briefcase full of un-collated charts and graphs.
Foster flips down the visor and pulls at one of his eyelids. “Mister, we’re gonna have a problem if you can’t help us.” He’s wearing a Pirates t-shirt with the sleeves torn off.
Several men in blaze-orange vests surround a cordoned-off pothole, but there doesn’t appear to be any construction going on. The traffic cones are so close I could reach out and take one.
Foster takes the pin off his fanny pack and picks at his scabs. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Mind if I drink?” I reach under the seat for my flask and rest it on my damp lap.
The dog’s tail rattles between two boxes in the back. I imagine Foster and Robin fucking on a bare mattress in a homeless shelter or an abandoned building, something with cold cement walls and graffiti everywhere. In this vision, it’s winter and sleeting.
I feel something crawling in the sweat on my neck and wipe it away.
“So. Voting for Clinton? I am.” I take a drink and try to remember if I decided it was better to keep the windows up or down. “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Spot,” says Robin.
The dog is a spotless, Yellow Lab.
“Your birds,” I say, “they’re very red.”
“Thanks,” she says. “I figured, everyone gets sparrows, so I told the guy at the shop, ‘No way. I want a different bird,’ and then since my name…”
“I bet you’re a Bush guy.” Foster says. “Fascist. You fascist dog-killing asshole Reaganite fascist.” Foster opens his fanny pack and rolls a cigarette. Tattooed on his hands are two black Xs, four different dates needled in green ride up the inside of his right forearm below the phrase, Just for Today. The dates all have lines through them.
“Straightedge?” I ask Foster.
“I tried it.” He wrings his hands then slips one back to Robin who takes it in hers and licks his palm.
“Staying clean is hard,” I say.
“Spot needs air,” Robin says.
I crack the back windows.
“Mister, you better hurry.” Foster runs his hand around the rim of the too-small cup holder. Ash burrows into the seat. Melting plastic mingles with the scent of dying dog. Foster turns on the radio to a Meadville preset that comes in as an oldies station. “Only the Lonely” plays.
Drumming my fingers on the wheel, I play catch with Robin in the rearview mirror. “You like this one?” I ask. Her eyes look bloodshot, but sharp—the left opens noticeably wider than the right. I watch her rip open the picnic sampler case by Spot’s tail.
“I like it alright,” she says. “I dig his glasses,” she adds of Orbison.
“Fuck Roy Orbison,” Foster says. “It’s Elvis or nothing. Honey, don’t you love Elvis? I fucking love him.”
“Baby, you know I do.” Robin reaches up rubs his arm, and I think I she gives me a glance, but it could just be her big eye. On her collarbones, the birds are singing.
Foster’s wilting cigarette cooks the hair on his knuckles. “Just get us downtown, mister,” he says.
Spot twitches. Robin’s lip trembles. We drive fifteen feet and stop.
When I met Janet, she was a 19-year-old artist working in the coffee shop near the bar that looks like a castle. When I stop there, I still expect to see her behind the counter, hair spun into braids, smile lighting up the whole place. At her apartment one night she and I listened to Roy Orbison and got high with a few students we’d worked with on the Dukakis campaign. These friends of hers liked to strip naked, write poetry all over each other and read it aloud as if it were some form of extra-high art. Six of us sat on the floor between unfinished paintings and pieces of sculpture. When the others started stripping and coloring each other, Janet took me out onto the back balcony off her bedroom. The view went all the way to Ohio.
“I want to touch your cheekbones,” she said.
“I can’t even feel them.” I poked at the inside of my mouth with my tongue.
Janet stood on my feet. We leaned against the sliding glass door and shared cigarette after cigarette while she slowly brought the sensation in my face back.
When I last went to visit Janet up in Conneaut, her eyes were cloudy. She sits for hours and stares out a window that won’t open. More than anything she wants a visit from someone she remembers.
Spot’s cry goes from a whimper to a roar.
I take a drink and offer some to Foster who wraps his mouth around the top and swallows. Robin has a sip, coughs, drinks a little more and thanks me. Again, I think I see something in her eyes, her neck, her shoulders. The way she opens towards me.
“I am going to eat this relish,” she says. Three at a time, Robin tears the packets with her teeth and slides them past her lips making a weird seeeeethhhh sound.
Spot whimpers and drools on Robin’s lap. Traffic is at a near standstill. I take another drink.
My scam was brilliant. I put together a presentation for Denise Mellwood, and requested additional funding for a marketing campaign. Then I created fake surveys for fake focus groups and devised an algorithm to produce fake data. As part of my re-branding effort, I updated the company motto to: Avalon is the Solution to Your Condiment Equation! Our new logo: A dancing jar of mayonnaise named, Marty Mayo. On paper, sales are at an all time high. The money allotted to this campaign pays for Janet’s care.
I offer my passengers a Marty Mayo shirt as we creep through the Hill District. They both choose the white-on-purple design.
“Can Spot have a shirt?” asks Robin.
“Of course, please.” I smile.
Robin shovels shirts into her backpack then folds one and places it under Spot’s head. I worry about negative brand-recognition when I picture every gutter punk in Pittsburgh wearing an Avalon Condiments shirt, panhandling in front of the bar that looks like a castle.
The light goes red, I hit the gas, make it through the intersection and sit in gridlock. Spot is quiet. His eyes have gone white. There’s no way he’s going to make it.
Robin reaches around to the far side of my seat where Foster can’t see, and she un-tucks my shirt.
Foster carefully rips the sleeves off the shirt I gave him. “Why are you helping us, anyway, mister?”
“I love dogs,” I tell him.
Back in college, Janet and I used to meet for drinks at the bar that looks like a castle. One night, sitting in the shine of cracked beer signs and medieval amour, we discussed the growing trend of corporate reliance on focus groups. We stopped going there when we found out the bar was owned by white supremacists.
I doubt Robin and Foster are white supremacists. Only Robin’s head is shaved and only on the sides, and their tattoos are of leftists slogans and punk bands I haven’t listened to since I went to school in the late 80s before I chased a steady check into a bland house in Crawford County where the white supremacists meet at the bowling alley over pitchers of beer and claim to be Freemasons organizing the neighborhood watch program.
We inch past the Civic Arena. Traffic starts to let up.
“Spot’s not breathing,” Robin says.
Foster leans back between the seats. “Wake him up, Honey.” He grabs Spot’s collar and smacks the dog in the face. “Spot. Wake up.” He starts shaking the dogs head, and it bounces repeatedly off the back of his seat. Then comes a sound like a snapped branch. Foster stops shaking, lets the dog’s head hang limp.
“Spot is dead, Baby,” Robin says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. Relieved. Sad.
“We have to bury Spot.” Foster sits back down fumbles with his pin.
“Uh-huh. I understand,” I say. “Where can I drop you off?”
“You’re in this now, fascist. You’re helping. No backing out.”
“Really, I’m sorry,” I say. “I have a meeting I can’t miss. They’ve been looking too closely at the numbers. It’s my wife. The orderlies. It’s very intricate.”
Wavering, Foster says, “We have to bury Spot.”
Robin says, “Baby, come here,” and reaches for Foster. She grabs a fistful of dreadlocks and pulls him close. Violently they kiss above Spot’s carcass. I pull over and watch them for several minutes. When I merge back into traffic, Robin reaches around my seat and grazes my hip with her bloody fingertips.
Foster’s eyes well up and pour tears over Marty Mayo’s square head. “I want to bury him with a steak.”
“I don’t think he’ll know the difference,” I say.
“I will know.” Foster says.
“There’s the Shop ‘n Save on Second,” I offer.
“Fuck your corporate steak, fascist,” Foster says. “I know a guy.” He rips off his sleeve and pulls it over his head, his dreadlocks now contained in a pale blue cloth tube. “Follow that white truck.”
Robins’ eyes dart like moths. “Heaven,” she says. “Spot is in Heaven.”
Tenth Street Bridge over the Monongahela. Sunset burns the edges of the city and the skyline looks angry, as if it realized it’s reaching for something that just flew through its fingers. Robin exhales onto the window and draws hearts in the fog of her breath. She rubs the glass clear. Foster starts ripping his other sleeve. I take another drink. The Ohio staggers beside us.
The car smells like burnt lemons and death. I pull into the Twenty-Four Hour Sober Living Facility & Billiard House, and park by a rusted-out snowplow in the weeds near the edge of the lot.
Foster rolls a cigarette. “My guy’s meeting ends soon.”
“Just go get him,” I say.
“Have some respect.” He lights the cigarette. Tobacco spills everywhere.
“I have somewhere to be,” I say.
“Then you shouldn’t have killed our dog.”
The car idles. The smell of Spot’s corpse thickens.
We were living up in Meadville, when Janet—artistically stifled and tormented by domesticity—started to slide. One summer, she took up bowling and joined the neighborhood watch. The “Freemasons” told Janet our housing development was unsafe. Occasional methamphetamine use would allow her to better observe the patterns of the undesirable element that had dulled the once vibrant town. As an added bonus, meth would promote creativity. Give her more energy to sculpt. The drugs and Janet’s existing predisposition to mental illness proved catastrophic. She spent our first wedding anniversary rearranging the garage and watering the lawn that had been dead since mid-May.
At 7pm, the recovery club parking lot fills with confused smiles, uncomfortable hugs and cigarette smoke.
“Give me seven.” Foster turns to Robin, and she produces a handful of little bags from her pack. Foster wraps them in his detached shirtsleeve and knots it with his teeth.
Robin’s nails cut into my side.
“Don’t even think about leaving,” Foster says.
I think about it.
Foster slams the door shut behind him and walks towards a dark and rust-colored van by the dumpster where a stocky kid in a tank top and Buddy Holly glasses greets him with a complicated handshake.
I dream of sleet falling through a cracked window and of myself and those birds. Halfway through a song about prison I don’t really care for, I ask Robin if she likes Johnny Cash.
“Spot likes him,” she says and cries uncontrollably.
I reach back and lift her chin, let her tears wet my fingers.
I was asleep when Janet started scrubbing the kitchen. She scrubbed every inch of every surface on the first floor, and when she was done she decided to give our beagle, Ike, a bath. After affixing his muzzle, she scrubbed Ike so hard, she took off all the fur on his sides and broke all his ribs. Then she dipped him in the bucket of Ajax she used on the tile and soaked him and scrubbed him till I came downstairs and found her sitting in the middle of the living room, gluing pieces of plaid upholstery she’d cut from the couch to Ike’s sinewy frame.
That night I left my wedding ring on the dresser and drove to the bar that looks like a castle and drank. It wasn’t like I thought it would be. I mostly stared at my glass and ran my hand over the delicate ridges on the bar top, watching the beer labels lacquered into the surface collide, sitting in the same seat I did when I first met Janet. The night we met, we left after last call, and she took me to a bonfire under a bridge. We waded in the heavy water then sat in the mud, talking nonsense till we couldn’t anymore.
The door ajar sound beeps, and the dome light blinks on.
Foster sits back down and slams the door. His face is vacant. “Back to Oakland.” He eyes us both and tosses a steak thick as a phone book on the dashboard.
I take a drink, pull out onto West Carson, and head back the way we came.
The sun is gone but the heat is still suffocating when we get out of the car in the depths of South Oakland. Streaks of light escape through the blinds and under the door. I cough up something deep and pick tobacco out of my teeth.
“We’ll bury him around back.” Foster points at a toppled swing set poking out of a brush pile behind a condemned Victorian.
Balled up in my pocket is that napkin with half an address scrawled beneath Janet’s new phone number. I flatten it out on the windshield and clip it beneath the wiper. Robin grabs Spot out of the back seat and slings him over her shoulder like a bag of sand. We walk towards the backyard, and I look around for something to dig with and what else I can bury here.
Ben Gwin is the Fiction Editor at Burrow Press Review. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Word Riot and others. His novel manuscript Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton, was shortlisted for the 2014 Pressgang Prize. He lives in Pittsburgh with his daughter.