With fists, with words, with kindness
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Ralph is the largest golden retriever to ever live, and you can’t tell me any different. His head is enormous, his chest the prow of a rowboat, his heart big enough for me to fit inside it. He’s fierce and protective, and despite his size and my fragility, we’re good company for each other. Right now we’re on a walk around the almost-empty new development beside my home. A couple I’ve never seen before wave to us from their front yard.
“Hi!” the woman says — to Ralph, not to me.
I stop. I do this often to catch my breath now. “Do you know Ralph?” I ask.
“He joins us for our run every morning,” she says.
A trim forty-something man with hair grown out and gelled back over the thin spot pats Ralph’s head. Ralph slobbers and croons.
“He runs with you?” I ask.
“Every morning,” she says.
“We average about four miles,” the man says. He stands up and pats his flat stomach proudly.
“My dog? My Ralph runs with you?”
“Chases us down and keeps up the whole way,” the woman says, talking slow and being sweet. I can tell she’s not used to being around old people.
I look at Ralph. When I let him out every morning, I thought he was napping in the yard, but clearly he’s been escaping the electric fence and roaming. Ralph pants and smiles, then does a terrific spine bend to chew his own tail.
“Seventy-five dollars to come out there, and seventy-five dollars an hour after that,” the electric-dog-fence guy tells me over the phone.
“But you set it up, and it isn’t working.”
“If you do it yourself, you’ll save a lot of money.”
“Do what myself?”
“Test the shock collar.”
“Walk over the line with it.”
“We do it all the time. It’s not that bad.”
“I’m eighty-six and have a pacemaker. Do you think I should be giving myself a shock?”
“Well, . . . it’s seventy-five dollars to come out.”
In the morning I step outside with Ralph. He has on the electric collar but runs a big circle around my house to build speed and then barrels over the shock line and takes off — all 120 pounds of him pumping away like a racehorse, rounding the gardenia bush and the lilacs before straightening at the chanticleer pear tree and bolting through the neighborhood toward the woods beyond. I’m annoyed with the fence company that installed the underground line but strangely happy at the sight of my dog harrumphing out into the world.
My neighborhood in Upstate New York is a monstrosity of capitalism gone to rot. I bought some forested land here and built my house in the seventies, when things were good for my Whetstone Knife factory. My house sat like a quiet abbey in the woods beside a small creek, and I lived here in peace until seven years ago, when a developer trying to expand on the nearby Chautauqua tourist resort bought the surrounding land, plowed along the ravine to my driveway, and laid a giant circular road with cul-de-sacs hanging off it like brussels sprouts from a stalk. Most of the lots sold, the houses were custom designed before being built, and sales went well enough that the developer cut a second circle into the forest for a new set of McMansions. Then the recession hit, and half the houses went unfinished or were sold cheap to people who could never otherwise afford the square footage. When housing values climbed again, those people got buried under property taxes and foreclosed on. Now every other yard has a wooden realtor sign pounded into the ground. I can see nine houses from my front yard: Four are for sale under dubious circumstances. The hodgepodge of remainders make up my neighbors.
Ilene died the year after the developers showed up. Part of me blames them. I know it’s ridiculous, but it gives me a place to aim my anger and disappointment.
Ralph pants back in the late morning. I remove his collar, which emits a beeping sound within four feet of the fence line. I’m afraid to go any closer and risk a shock that might monkey with whatever natural current runs through me — though another part of me, in a place too deep to name, is ready to have that inner current shocked flat and be done with it.
I walk around the east side of the house, where the last unbroken wall of forest still stands before the drop into the ravine. I stop at the lawn chair and sit. I sometimes sit here at night when I can’t sleep. Last month I saw a giant coyote at the tree line. Big as a black bear. I’ve been waiting to get another look at it ever since. I’ve read about a new creature called a “coywolf” — the offspring of a coyote and a timber wolf. That must have been what I saw. Waiting for it to reappear gives me something to do.
I stand up and trace the route of Ralph’s charge around the house, close to the fence line. I’m just about to cross the line, electric collar in hand — it will look like an accident, an honest mistake — when I hear, “Hi, Bruce.”
I look up. Eddy, the neighbor boy, is in his yard, staring at me through the lilacs I planted to create a buffer between me and the succession of buyers who’ve tramped through next door.
“Hi, Eddy,” I say.
“What are you doing?” he asks, looking at the collar.
“I was going to shock myself.”
“Why?” He’s an acorn-squash-shaped boy with a unibrow. Nine. Ten. Maybe eleven. His T-shirt has some new-age superhero punching some new-age villain. Eddy emerges from the lilacs and gets a tongue bath from Ralph, who must have a hard time living alone with me, as he will give his love to anyone.
“Would you like to give it a try for me?” I say to Eddy.
“Sure.” He comes closer, happy to do whatever I ask.
“No, no. I’m joking.” No way am I going to test the fence with this boy here. I picture myself lighting up and rattling three inches off the ground, then dropping dead in front of Eddy, and I let out a little laugh.
“What’s the joke?” Eddy asks.
“Joke’s on me,” I say, and I hook the collar back on Ralph.
At six that night the doorbell rings. It’s Eddy’s mother. She’s got the sort of trim body middle-aged women get from not eating, which leaves their faces looking tired and slack, like age is pulling them into the earth by their cheeks.
“Mr. Ferguson,” she says, “I was hoping you could help our family out.”
“You name it,” I say, all charm and spice, like a silly idiot. I open the door wide to let her in and have to hold Ralph back from putting his nose between her legs. “Don’t mind him,” I say and lead her into my living room. We sit in twin rocking chairs Amish carpenters made for me from trees removed to clear the lot for my home.
Eddy’s dad, Lenwood, is an obese wheezer with a scar-dappled neck. He owns a shady bar in Olean called the Tavern, which I’m told has a one-eyed woman tending bar, like a proper pirate establishment. Eddy’s mom, Melissa, has an event-planning job and works odd hours. They’re the fourth owners of the home next door in seven years. They often turn the music up at night and drunkenly smash plates and flip tables without any mind to the boy probably tucked away in one corner or another of that giant house. From time to time they let their little white squirrel of a dog, Pearl, outside, where she pees, yips at shadows, and scratches to be let back in. I think Pearl knows the coywolf is out there and is afraid.
“So, how can I help you?” I ask Melissa.
“Well, Pearl is diabetic and needs insulin shots. Sometimes, when we can’t make it home in time for her shots, she pees all over the house. We were hoping you wouldn’t mind giving her her shots on days we can’t make it?”
I laugh — a coming-to-my senses laugh, a pretty-women-don’t-do-much-for-me-anymore laugh. Melissa stares at me like I’m mad. I don’t think she likes my laughing at her request. I don’t think she likes me, period, but it’s no loss. I look at her and the house she lives in as invasive species.
I hold up my hand, jittery as a drunk’s. “The only shot you’d want me giving her is a lethal one, because sure enough that would be the result.”
At night I sit in my chair near the dark woods. I often hear distant gunfire, which I always told Ilene was the mating call of the local rednecks. The mosquitoes whizz around my head but find nothing in me worth taking. Sometimes I wonder if I imagined the coywolf, if my old eyes and new fears conjured her out of the shadows. I think I am trying to make a place for wonder in my life. Or maybe I have slipped off the deep end. Who knows? The coywolf had huge yellow eyes. She and I understood each other. I want Ralph to mate with her and breed golden-yote pups, wild yellow scavengers to populate the woods and drive the developers and backhoes away.
Don’t go back there, I’ll tell the workers. There’s golden-yotes roaming around those woods. I picture wolf-retrievers loping out of the underbrush with deer femurs between their jaws. My mind has gone soft with age, but I’m near giddy with the image of Ralph’s wild offspring: joyous, cagey, snappy creatures.
I hear Eddy and his mother and father clattering around the huge house they can afford only because it’s lost most of its value. I see Melissa step outside with Pearl. A red jewel of a lit cigarette draws closer to her face, flares, and fades.
When she goes back inside, the yelling starts. I can hear the tone, not the words. They’re in the middle years of life, where some seem to lean back and let go of the reins. They will smash into a tree before too long. For Eddy’s sake, I hope the trunk has some give to it.
Jessie Roberts, who lives alone in a giant house on the other side of the development’s circle, is on his bike again and pedaling at high speed with his iPhone strapped to the handlebars and its speaker repeating the same phrase over and over: “I told you you were going to be sorry. I told you you were going to be sorry. I told you you—”
The voice belongs to an angry woman with a Russian accent. I’ve been told it’s a voicemail from his ex-wife, Anastasia. He pedals like he’s on an Olympic trial run, pumping out all the vitriol coursing through him. He goes by so fast and with such fury that sometimes I hear only part of the message: “I told . . .” Then, about seven minutes later: “. . . you you . . .” This repeats as it gets darker, like the land is accusing us of something. Of our mere presence.
On the main road leading to the commuter highway, there’s a pull-off where a cider stand sets up shop in mid-August. They keep a small leaf pile burning during business hours so that the deep earth-and-ash smell floats on the cool air and reminds us of change and makes us want to drink warm apple juice and eat sugary doughnuts. Ralph and I oblige. I drive my 1931 Cadillac Fleetwood V-16 to the cider stand when it’s busy, and people stop to admire the car and pet Ralph and feed him doughnuts. Ralph wags his tail. I like the attention for him and the car. We sit there all morning. It’s something to do. Sometimes Ralph looks up at a plane leaving a trail in the sky. Maybe he thinks it’s a spider caught on a breeze with a glowing silk thread dragging taut behind it. Maybe he smells someone he could love up there. His heart is so big, I put nothing past him.
When I get home from the doughnut stand, the boy, Eddy, is in my house. On my couch. Watching TV.
“How’s it going?”
“What are you doing?”
“So you just came over?”
“Are your parents home?”
“Do they know you’re here?”
“They told me to come over and play with Ralph if I’m alone.”
He’s watching nimble adults in colored leotards and cartoonish helmets have karate battles with strange puppets. Ralph puts his huge head on the boy’s lap and whacks the coffee table with his tail.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” I ask.
“Are you hungry, Eddy?”
“I’m always hungry. My mom says I have a tapeworm.”
“Well, have some doughnuts then.”
I sit next to the boy. I have no idea what else to do.
Eddy the boy, Ralph the dog, and I spend the next hour eating doughnuts and watching television. At one point Eddy gets up and walks right to the bathroom without even asking where it is, like he’s grown up in this house. Later he walks to the window that looks toward his home. When he comes back to the couch, he’s holding a framed picture.
“Is this your wife?” Eddy asks.
In the picture Ilene is standing in front of the lake at Allegany State Park. Her eyes are a shimmering blue. They made me dizzy when we were young.
“Can you please put that back where you found it.”
“OK,” Eddy says. I watch him put the picture back on the shelf full of local crafts and tchotchkes that Ilene bought at the annual arts fair.
“Are your parents home now?” I ask.
“Looks like it.”
“Won’t they be missing you?”
“Sure.” He pats Ralph’s head and goes to the door. Before he steps out, he looks back at me. “I had a nice time, Bruce.”
To kill the rest of the afternoon, I go to the Olean Public Library. Years ago Ilene made me donate money for books, and the library purchased a collection of travel and philosophy texts in my name. I don’t know if anyone has ever read them, but I am reading them now. I thumb through a book on India and its folklore, which fascinates me. Of all the places on earth I won’t make it to, India would offer the largest culture shock. Then I read about sheep ranchers in Colorado who take Great Pyrenees pups and wrap them in freshly shorn wool. That way, when the dogs meet the sheep, they take to them right away. I imagine wrapping them in wolf fur, putting them in a wolf den, and waiting until they come out of the woods to feast upon the sheep.
I take my time getting home, going for a drive along the river, which is as lovely and interesting as any place on earth. When I get back, I work in the garden. My body is a wreck, heavy and slow, but I love the dark smell of upturned earth. It helps distract me from thoughts of playing chicken with the shock fence.
“Need some help, Bruce?” Eddy calls from his yard.
I look up at his wide, expectant face. “Don’t you have a bike or something? Ride to a park. Play sports. With other kids.”
“That’s OK. I can help you for a bit.” He walks closer, and Ralph begins dancing crotch-sniffing circles around him as soon as he passes the lilacs.
“Well. Find a weed and pull it, I guess.”
He starts pacing beside the flower bed. “How about this one?” He holds up a wilted Asiatic lily.
“No, not those.”
“It looks dried up.”
“Look here,” I say, and I dig around the base of the wilting lily, using my trowel and then my fingers to brush away dirt and expose the bulb. “The bulb pulls the energy back from the dying leaves. That way it can grow strong again.” I feel good to have taught him something.
“I used to dig up buckets of mud from the banks of the Allegheny River to fertilize this garden,” I tell him. “It worked so well the flowers damn near hit orbit. Tulips the size of boxing gloves. Deer were crazy for them.”
At night I’m tired, but I don’t sleep. I’m not haunted by anything — except yesterday, I suppose, when I almost tried to stop my heart.
I go sit by the woods and look for the coywolf, and I hear Eddy’s parents hollering at each other. I feel sorry for Eddy. His home must be a scary place to live.
On the last weekend of summer the Olean water park does a good deed, a mitzvah for mutts: before they drain and clean the huge pool, they let locals bring their dogs to run loose and swim.
“Go get Pearl,” I tell Eddy, who’s lingering at the edge of the lilacs, waiting for me to invite him over.
Once Eddy’s buckled into the backseat of the Cadillac with Pearl on his lap, Ralph jumps in and slaps Eddy across the brow with his tail. On the drive to the park, we get stuck behind a garbage truck with a sticker that says, IF YOU ARE NOT SATISFIED WITH OUR SERVICE, DOUBLE YOUR TRASH BACK.
At the water park I take a handicap spot, and though the pool is full and the man at the gate is turning away dog owners and their pooches, I limp up with turnip-headed Eddy and his puny dog and my giant golden dragging my bag of bones, and I lay it on thick, like this single event will make my long life complete. Finally the gate flunky takes pity on us and lets us in.
Almost two hundred dogs play in the water and around the pool deck. The sand pit for kids looks like a small dust cloud from all the dogs digging in there. Several have dug so deep that all I can see is their wagging tails.
I sit in a folding chair and unhook Ralph, who bolts into the fray. “What about Pearl?” I ask.
“I’m not sure she’ll like this,” Eddy says, but he unclips the overgrown ferret, who cowers under my chair. When a poodle sniffs her, Pearl lies down and goes belly-up.
“Don’t be so meek,” I say to the dog. To the boy.
Ralph is sprinting in and out of the water, barking, barking, barking. He stops to hump a Great Dane. He gets good and into it before the Great Dane’s owners huff over and pull my piston-hipped dog away.
The air smells like chlorine and wet fur. Ralph runs off and gets lost in the crowd of random breeds. I catch glimpses of him: Halfway up the roped-off waterslide stairs. Swimming circles in the deep end. Sniffing asses. Jumping up and licking a young man’s face. Humping a Saint Bernard. He has a thing for dogs bigger than him, pays no mind to ones who are clearly inferior in mind, body, and spirit.
Pearl never leaves the shadow of my chair.
“Look at that one,” Eddy keeps saying, happy to be watching such a mess. I have to admit it makes me happy, too.
Ralph’s exhausted on the drive back. Eddy can’t stop talking. When we pull into my driveway, he leans over the front seat.
“What do you like about me?” Eddy asks. As if we were a young couple in love. As if I owed him some kind of ode to his beauty. I look at his yard to see if his mother is there to summon the boy. She isn’t. I need to come up with an answer, something meaningful to tell him. There’s a reason he asked this.
“I like your spirit,” I say. “I think you could run with the wolves if you wanted. I think your heart’s big enough to hold the whole world.”
I turn away from him. From his need. I don’t think this makes me a bad person. Well, maybe it does.
The skinny trees in the lawns of the empty houses are starting to turn. Fall is upon us. Then comes winter, one long sheet of gray in this part of the country. It gets so cold the ground freezes solid, and ice crystals make glowing religious symbols on the ribs of fallen leaves. Part of me is certain I will not make it through February. It’s the first time such a feeling has come to me with an approximate date attached. I’m OK with this. I’m OK with going back to the source of the garden. Pearl the diabetic dog will pee on my dirt. I think again of taking Ralph’s collar and crossing the shock line to get it over with.
© Charlotte Mills
“Do you ever wish Ralph could walk on two legs like a man?” Eddy asks from the lilacs as I walk along the shock line, beeping collar in hand. I didn’t know he was behind me. My fist is sweating over the collar. The two steel prongs meant for the dog’s throat make indents on my skin.
“No,” I say.
Eddy follows me to my lawn chair, and I sit down. His unibrow needs to be tended to. I imagine other kids tease him about it.
“Sometimes I also wish squirrels were fifty pounds. That would be more interesting.”
“If they were bigger, people would have to stay away from them. A fifty-pound squirrel jumping around in the trees is nothing to joke about.”
“I suppose it isn’t,” I say. “Did you learn that in science class this week?”
“We learned about Yellowstone National Park. They said it smells bad.”
“The gushers at Yellowstone.”
“Yeah, geysers. They said it’s from the sulfur in the water. Smells like a skunk farting after eating bad eggs.” He laughs. A boy’s humor. Ralph appears and pushes his giant head between Eddy’s legs and lifts him into the air.
Eddy’s parents come home later. A car door slams. Pearl barks. Eddy and Ralph have run off together. I’m outside holding the shock collar like a talisman. I like to think about a wild animal circling me from the deepest woods. Coming closer. Closer. It’s taken on a life of its own in my head.
I fall asleep in the lawn chair and wake to the sound of Eddy screeching in pain. He’s by the electric fence line and shaking his left arm like he’s trying to fling off some sort of hot putty.
“Damn it,” I say. “Get away from that.”
“This really works,” Eddy says, holding up the black collar.
In the morning I let Ralph out and watch him pee on the flowers, sniff the yard, then gallop around the house and through the electric fence. He runs down the road to join the joggers.
I’m about to go back inside when I hear the shovel blade hit. Eddy’s father is digging a hole behind their house. Next to him is something wrapped in a beach towel.
“Morning, Lenwood,” I call, and he damn near drops the shovel in surprise. “Didn’t mean to give you a coronary,” I say.
He steps in front of the beach towel.
“Burying your wife’s head this morning?” I ask.
“I guess it could look like that, huh.”
“One piece at a time. That’s a good strategy,” I say. Whatever the hell he’s doing, it’s the first time I’ve seen him up so early, and I want to mess with him. I guess because I don’t like him. I’ve never seen him do anything with Eddy. I’ve never seen him engage with his son in any meaningful way. “Sure does look like you’re about to plant your wife’s severed head.”
Lenwood laughs. This man looks like he was once strong but had that power taken away somehow, beaten or drained out of him.
“We lost Pearl last night,” he says.
“You lost her?”
“Well, . . . it’s sort of a mess.”
I stare at the towel and wish I hadn’t said anything.
“We drank a bit too much, and before bed I gave Pearl her shot, because she pees all over the rug without it.”
“Then Pearl was barking, and Melissa thought I hadn’t given her the shot. So she went down and gave her another.”
Lenwood bends down and grabs the shovel. “We drank too much, you know? Who was thinking about it?” His hands on the brown shovel handle look pale and soft. I can tell he’s sick from a hangover. “I’m trying to do this before Eddy wakes up,” he says.
When Eddy comes over in the afternoon, I can see he’s been crying. I don’t ask about Pearl. Dogs die in this life. He knows this now, so I say nothing. What I do is help him with his science project. He follows me to the garage to look for materials. We find a box of embroidery supplies, a pair of tennis rackets, and boxes of magazines Ilene subscribed to that I kept but have never gotten around to reading.
“What’s this?” Eddy asks. He holds up a spool that I wound miles of kite string on years ago, when I was trying out hobbies. It took an hour to wind it all up.
“Focus,” I tell Eddy. He’s supposed to do a demonstration of the wind’s power.
We end up making a model tornado out of gray and white streamers that we hang from a hula-hoop and cinch at the bottom, so it looks like a twister. We suspend the hoop from a ladder and tape a few of his action figures into the streamers. Behind it we place a fan and a chalkboard easel with thunderclouds and lightning drawn on it. When we’re done, we turn on the fan, switch off all the lights in my living room, and use flashlights to strobe lightning strikes over our little funnel cloud.
Ralph barks when the tornado starts to sway.
I think I’m going to die in February, and this is what I’ve done with my day.
I look out the window and see Eddy’s mother smoking a cigarette behind her house.
“I’ll be right back, bud.”
Ralph thumps his tail. Eddy says nothing.
The mother’s still going for sexy and stylish but looks wispy and tired. Her arms are folded over her stomach, fingers kneading her elbows, making little circles over the bone. When I approach, she drops her half-smoked cigarette into the grass.
“I thought maybe you’d be interested in knowing where Eddy is. Should I give him dinner?”
“No. I’ll come get him.”
“He seems a bit lonely.”
“I’m not the best company. I’m pretty old.”
“He likes your dog.”
“Well, the dog isn’t a good babysitter.”
She doesn’t respond. I go home and come back with Eddy. Ralph follows us across the lawn. The boy’s mother is still standing in the same spot, making those small circles around her elbows. Her face is red, like shame is peeling her open.
Eddy glances at her with a flash of anger before he swallows those feelings down. Something collapses inside me when I see how practiced he is at hiding his hurt, how full of negative feelings he must be. I’ve underestimated him. I want to weep for the future of Eddy the boy. This woman will ruin all measure of sweetness in him. I feel like I’ve failed him, ushered him back to his parents’ self-hatred, his loneliness, that giant, ugly home.
Before Eddy and Melissa go into their house, I say, “Wait a minute. I could use Eddy’s help for something else, if he has time.”
“I do,” Eddy says.
“Is it OK with your mom?”
Eddy looks up at his mother, who reaches out to cup her hand against his cheek. She nods, and Eddy bolts back to me.
In the garage I have Eddy get the giant spool and a kite. We climb into the Cadillac with Ralph, drive to the highest part of the undeveloped development, and get out. Eddy has to help me up the incline. From here we can see the rolling hills and the first hint of fall colors.
I hook the kite to the reel.
“You get it hoisted up there,” I tell Eddy. He raises the kite. When the wind comes up the backside of the hill and takes it from his hand, I hit the lever so the string starts spooling out, out, out. It picks up speed and rises fast.
“How high will it go?” Eddy asks.
“We’ve got to be careful not to hook a big ol’ airliner,” I tell him.
“Damn near hitting orbit now,” Eddy says, and he gives me a stupid grin.
“That’s right, buddy.”
Jessie Roberts rounds the corner on his bike with the voice of his ex-wife belittling him.
Ralph has taken our lack of attention as permission to run for it, the yellow flash of him darting toward joggers on the distant bend.
I watch the kite ascend and imagine looking down on this place from that high up, seeing where I’ve lived most of my life — my radiant energy lingering, a bioluminescence trailing off like morning mist.
Eddy looks up at the sky. I want to tell him something, something worthwhile, but nothing comes to me. The kite keeps rising.
This winter is another for me to plow through, but your January 2020 issue gives me hope that maybe love, understanding, respect, and humor will run in my veins for a while longer.
Sparrow’s words of wisdom, his humor, and his offbeat writing make me feel normal. I will recommend Devin Murphy’s story “Waiting for the Coywolf” in my workshops, especially to the older writers. (The narrator Bruce’s voice is so alive.) And the heart that Brian Doyle brings to “Joyas Voladoras” [Dog-Eared Page] is astonishing.
But the true reason I am writing is Laurelee Blanchard’s photo on the contents page. The laughter and joy between the woman and the donkey take me to a world where humans and animals live together in peace.