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The dust of 100 dogs, p.10
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.10

           A. S. King
 
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  The trailer park seemed like the land that time forgot. There was a pay phone fifty yards away from our place, under a streetlight, and the gravel roads had huge potholes that filled up when it rained. There were no kids, and most of the people who lived there were old enough to be my grandparents.

  Junior didn’t come around anymore, after we moved. It could have been the two guard dogs the old Italians in the next trailer kept chained to their fence all night, or the fact that we had nothing left. Or maybe he’d overdosed and had fallen into a lake and died. With drug addicts, it’s like that. You never really know.

  By mid-April, school had become my main focus. Even though I hadn’t tried, I started to become more popular because of my grades. It was nice. Up until then, I’d thought my senior year was going to be the same boring waiting game that my whole life had been, but I actually was having some fun.

  First, Susan convinced me to join the Quiz Bowl team. Ms. Houseman put me in the starting line-up as the history expert, even though I couldn’t make it to the after-school practices on account of my night shift at McDonald’s. I made a few friends and had a good time traveling from school to school competing, even though we didn’t always win.

  Then, Susan dragged me to a few weekend baseball games because she had a crush on Jay, the second-base kid, and she wanted to show off the new car her parents had given her when she got her license. She even talked me into going to the spring break dance, which was a complete waste of my time—though I did get to watch what normal high school students spent their time doing (mainly necking, drinking, smoking pot, and having sex in cars).

  “You should go to the prom,” Susan said one Sunday night, when she picked me up from work and drove me back to the trailer park.

  I laughed.

  “I’m serious. You should. You’re going to be the valedictorian, right? So, you should go to the prom.” She stopped at the red light opposite the gun store.

  I stared at the samurai swords in the front window. “Yeah, okay. So who will I ask? Mr. Jones?” I giggled. Mr. Jones was my film and media teacher. “Mrs. Lindt?” She was the Home Ec teacher who always had lipstick on her teeth.

  “You could ask someone from your smart club.”

  “Quiz Bowl.”

  “Sorry. Quiz Bowl. Is there anyone you like?”

  What was I supposed to say? Of course there wasn’t anyone I liked. Seanie Carroll was not on the Quiz Bowl team. Luckily, we were just pulling through the trailer park gates and I didn’t have to answer.

  “Damn! Can’t they pave these roads? It’s like you live in backwoods Arkansas or something.”

  “Yeah. I know. Watch out for the—”

  She drove into the hole and swore. Trying not to feel the red-hot embarrassment I felt every time she drove me home, I looked out the window at the dark line of dirty singlewides. As we passed by them, I saw a young guy sitting on the steel steps of #20. He waved.

  He was there again the next Saturday, and after I called Susan from the pay phone I decided to say hello. It was nice seeing a young face, acne-scarred or not, in the land of wrinkled retirees.

  “Hey.”

  “Hey,” I said. “I’m Saffron.”

  “I’m Sam.”

  I shook my head, but had no idea what to say next.

  “You’re on the Quiz Bowl team,” he said.

  “You go to Hollow Ford?”

  “Only since January. I live with my grandparents now.”

  “Oh.”

  “And you work at McDonald’s. I see you there all the time.”

  “Really? That’s weird. I don’t remember seeing you before.”

  Maybe that was a stupid thing to say. It made Sam look at his feet and shuffle. He reached up to his mouth and picked a small scab of dry skin near his lip.

  “Are you going to Senior Skip Day?” he said.

  I’d completely forgotten about Senior Skip Day. Susan told me I had to do it, but I knew I could get in trouble and so I hadn’t made up my mind.

  “I don’t know. Are you?”

  “I figure we’re only seniors once.”

  “True.” I looked at my watch. “Shit. I have to go.”

  “See you around.”

  “Yeah.”

  Twenty minutes later, as Susan rounded the dusty corner to pick me up, Sam was still sitting on the front steps of his grandparents’ trailer. When I slid into the front seat in my God-awful polyester McDonald’s uniform, she said, “Who’s that guy?”

  “Dunno.”

  Then he waved at me, smiling, and I flogged him for it.

  “You don’t know?” Susan raised her eyebrows.

  “He’s just some guy.”

  “Sure he is.”

  I reached for the volume knob, turned up the music, and waved to Sam as we drove by.

  Nine hours later, Harry, my manager, dropped me off on the main road. As I walked back to our trailer, I saw Sam was still outside #20, building something.

  When I got close enough, I saw that it was a plywood ramp.

  And yet, I asked, “What’s that?”

  “It’s a wheelchair ramp.”

  “Oh.”

  “My pop’s coming home from the rehab hospital next week,” he explained.

  “Right.”

  “So, did you think about Skip Day?”

  I shrugged and made a gesture like I had to get going. “I’ll think about it some more,” I said, and then walked slowly down the gravel road to our trailer—where I found my parents asleep on the couch with the heater set on high. I turned it down and opened one of the push-out windows to clear the burning kerosene smell. Then I peeked back toward #20, trying to ignore the small feeling of excitement gathering in my stomach.

  DOG FACT #3

  Always Trust Your Nose

  One of the most important aspects of dog behavior is their need to scent their boundaries, defend marked territory, and locate approaching rivals—all of which is achieved through their amazing sense of smell. Dogs have about two hundred million olfactory receptors. Since humans only have five to ten million, they fail to understand why a dog may react to things his master cannot see. Most dog owners don’t trust the hunches of a pet enough to change their plans and follow wherever the dog may lead (Lassie was a fictional exception, of course). Sometimes, though, you might want to pay more attention to your dog’s bizarre olfactory behavior.

  I learned this on the night of August 22, 1831. It started with the usual after-dinner walk to the tavern—man and his black Labrador retriever. My master was a bachelor named Tad Wheelan, whose family had lived in Southampton County, Virginia, since they’d gotten off the boat from Bristol in the New World fifty years before. He worked on a nearby plantation as a manager of exports. Tad was a subtle fellow, never bragged, rarely swore, and always dipped his hat to passing ladies.

  It was a hot night. An hour or so before Tad and I started our walk, Nat Turner (an over-enthusiastic lay preacher or a revolutionary, depending on who you talk to) and his slave rebels rioted and murdered every white person on their plantation, several miles away. Of course, neither of us knew this then, or we wouldn’t have gone out. I’d had a definite whiff of danger before we left the front yard, but ignored it. I knew I smelled something bad, I just didn’t know it was something really bad.

  Sometimes when you’re a man’s best friend, you have to make tough decisions. You can’t bark at any old thing that you sniff. You can’t get your master out of bed in the middle of the night over a nesting rat or interrupt Christmas dinner because of a passing wagon. You have to choose your moments. But if the snout picks up the scent of spilled white blood, a Southern dog in 1831 would best use that moment wisely. I didn’t.

  By the time I identified that horrid smell of death, we’d g
one too far. I nudged Tad’s leg, stopped, and sat. He kept walking. I raced ahead and sat down in front of him and he laughed, thinking I was playing a game and hopped around me. I began walking home by myself, barking, but Tad continued to walk toward the tavern. By the time I caught up with him again, it was too late. Turner’s rebels had started at us, a mangle of blades and clubs and a musket or two. Tad didn’t move. I think he’d been daydreaming and was caught completely by surprise. The best I could do at that point was try to protect him, so I latched onto the nearest leg I could—and was promptly beaten to death still clinging to it.

  Dogs trust their noses because it’s their nature. In this instance, I should have trusted mine sooner. Humans don’t trust anything—because that’s their nature. Half of them have gut feelings they continually ignore. It’s not their fault. Instinct rarely fits on the pages of a day planner, and even if it did, human beings would manage to complicate the hell out of it.

  Fred Livingstone looked at his watch. It was five thirty and he still hadn’t heard from his partner in Miami. He walked to his large teak desk, snatched the telephone from its cradle, and dialed. He waited through ten rings and hung up, then paced back and forth in front of his million-dollar Caribbean view and dialed again. This went on through sunset, and then into the evening until someone finally answered.

  “Winston, what the hell are you still doing there? You said you’d call me at five,” he gruffed.

  He listened carefully, then raised his voice. “I don’t care who wants it! I gave you the fucking money, and now I want the fucking keys!”

  Winston was Fred’s live-in companion. At first, he was the gardener and pool boy. Then he moved in and started taking care of the place full time, decorating it with his wild eye for island artwork and doing laundry. Once he started doing housework and cooking, the relationship grew into a friendship and, eventually, both men agreed to become lovers for the sake of company.

  “Get me that house and get your ass back here,” Fred snapped. “Or else you’ll be a beach bum again, eating from hotel garbage bins!”

  After slamming the phone down, Fred stood by his window and bit his fingernails. A dog barked from deep inside the condominium and he realized he’d not fed Rusty, his large Doberman Pinscher.

  He arrived in his kitchen to Rusty jumping up and down like he was in some sort of circus act. Fred kicked him hard in the ribs. “Down, boy.”

  Rusty winced and cowered low to the ground, looking up with dumb, lovesick eyes. As Fred went to the cupboard to find dog food, Rusty jumped up again, planting both of his huge paws on Fred’s back.

  “Rusty, get down,” Fred boomed, and punched the dog in the face.

  Rusty knew the routine. Every day was like this. Even when Winston was around to feed him, Fred would always get a kick or a slap in somehow. Soon it would be Rusty’s fifth birthday, and as far as he could remember, every day for five years Fred Livingstone had beaten him. Most times, Rusty pretended it was nothing and acted playful, but sometimes he felt fierce, like a dog his size should, and would growl a warning under his breath. Once he even had a dream that he’d swallowed Fred whole.

  “Hello,” Fred said into the phone while Rusty ate his dish of canned meat. “I was wondering if I could make a reservation for two … nine o’clock? Livingstone. Splendid, splendid. See you then.”

  He dashed to his bedroom and undressed, leaving the pile of clothing where it fell, and stepped into the shower. After a quick shave and his ritual application of athlete’s foot cream, Fred stopped and peered into the mirror. No longer able to pass for forty-something, he’d stopped dying his hair and working out. It left him looking like his father. Gone were the days he could flex a bicep in the mirror to feel better about himself—now he felt upbeat when the shower drain wasn’t clogged with runaway hair or his skin wasn’t blotchy. The best days were when he could avoid seeing his reflection completely.

  He got dressed in a white linen suit, a short-sleeved, pink, button-down shirt, and a pair of loafers. He transferred a bulging wallet to his back pocket, combed his hair, and turned off the light behind him. After stopping at the marble bar in the foyer for a quick shot of bourbon, he looked down at Rusty, who was now standing at the front door. “If you shit on the carpet, I’ll kill you.”

  Fred Livingstone felt the stares of a dozen husbands as he walked to his private table. He felt them slice into his back, his sides, his groin. How many of them would be surprised to see him here with Sarah? Had they watched her walk the same route earlier and tried not to notice her? Would they envy him?

  When he rounded the corner to find the table empty, he turned to the maitre d’ and barked an order.

  “A bottle of your best red,” he snapped, and sat down facing the dining room. He felt silly and stupid. A dozen husbands would snigger to themselves, knowing he was eating alone.

  He looked at his watch, drank a glass of wine, then looked at it again. For a half an hour, he looked and poured and drank and looked. At nine thirty, he ordered a second bottle. At ten, he ordered a small plate of salad. He ordered a third bottle at ten thirty.

  “Surely she knew I was serious,” he mumbled to himself. “Or did she stand me up on purpose? Fred Livingstone, you know how women are. Especially the married ones. One can never tell what they want. Roses? Jewelry? Too much expectation, not enough instinct, I say. Women always want too much anyway.”

  He thought like that for the rest of the night, his dark eyebrows burrowing deeper and deeper into a frown, making his usually attractive face seem ugly. When he was finished, he swaggered to the door, muttering. “I’ll find her on the beach tomorrow. She’s probably a little prick tease anyway. She’ll soon find out who owns this town.”

  The Island Hotel Restaurant was empty but for the staff and two tables of tourists. Fred knew, somehow, that the dozen husbands would find out he’d been shafted, and he cast a suspicious eye on the remaining waiters and bartenders. He stumbled into the humid night air and drew a deep breath, coughing a little on the exhale and adjusting his waxed hair to the left. He called goodbye to the maitre d’ and walked down the dark gravel road to his condo, talking to himself.

  “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, then raised his voice so she could hear him. “You’ll see!”

  Five minutes later, after much trouble finding the right key for his pink, bougainvillea-dressed condominium, Fred opened the door and was immediately jumped on by Rusty. His first reaction was to lash out with a kick in the dark, and he didn’t know he was kicking the dog squarely in the bladder until he reached for the light switch. Rusty stood by helplessly as over four hours’ worth of urine spilled out of him, uncontrolled. By the time the lights turned on, Fred was standing in a puddle of acrid pee that slowly crept up his trousers.

  He bolted into action. Even though Rusty was a huge animal, Fred tackled him, squeezing the scruff of his neck until the dog squealed in pain. He then caught him by all four limbs and fashioned a mop out of him, making sure every part of Rusty’s body was covered in his accident before he was through. He opened the door, tossed the dog out, and slurred, “Go and find another asshole to piss all over. And don’t come back!”

  This was the routine whenever Winston wasn’t around to take care of the dog. And it would be all Winston’s fault, Fred decided, as he showered to clear the scent of red wine, nervous sweat, and dog piss from his skin. He bagged his dirty linen trousers and threw them out the back window into the concrete alley. Before morning, some poor sod would find them and need them badly enough to scrub out the stains at the hem.

  Thoughts piled up in Fred Livingstone’s brain as he tried to relax in his king-size bed. His foul mood worsened just after midnight when Rusty didn’t come back. Fred lay in bed, listening for the familiar scratching or the high-pitched whine the dog usually let out when he’d been bad and wanted to make up. The more he tried to listen for the dog, th
e drowsier he got, and finally he fell asleep.

  At six, there was a scratch at the door. Fred groaned and rolled over. At seven, after a full hour of seething over being awake and hungover, he got up and stepped into the nearest pair of boxer shorts. He walked hurriedly down the long, sunlit corridor and opened the front door, expecting the usual sight of Rusty laid out in the morning sun. When the dog wasn’t there, Fred felt angrier. He looked both ways and made a clicking sound between his teeth, but Rusty didn’t come.

  In the kitchen, while making a cup of instant coffee, he thought back to the night before and marveled at the pain in his head. He stirred sugar into his cup and walked to a wrought-iron, glass-topped table by his office window. Sitting down and scanning the beach for his runaway dog, Fred mourned the end of tourist season. The beach was nearly empty. Only a few weeks before, a group of college girls would jog by every morning at seven thirty, followed by equally attractive jogging college boys. Fred didn’t know which he enjoyed more, but he missed them now that they were gone. In fact, he missed many things that were gone now, a thought which made him sigh and feel old again.

  He thought back to Sarah. Had she said yes? She distinctly did. “She said nine o’clock tomorrow, I heard her,” he mumbled to himself.

  But the fact was, Fred hadn’t really asked Sarah out to dinner, and he knew it. In his golden days on the island, thirty years earlier, he’d been a real gigolo. But once he started making proper money from his real estate dealings in the 1980s, things changed and women didn’t matter anymore. Before he knew it, he was white and saggy from ten years at a desk, and shagging his personal assistant. The closest he got to beautiful women was through the lens of a hand-held telescope. Some days he would perch for hours in front of his huge window, peering at the topless European women, the round American girls, and even the flat-chested teenagers, all the while talking to them, muttering, inviting them to dinner, to a spin in his yacht, to Paris. Sometimes, when Winston wasn’t around to cook him dinner, he would play out the role beyond his living room. He would make reservations for two and get stood up. He would sit for hours next to a packed picnic basket and small campfire on the beach, wondering where she was. This week it was Sarah, but there had been others.

 
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