​​​​​​Dina Greenberg

Stray

Shatter Colors Journal 2010



Carl loaded the rest of the tile into the bed of his pickup. He figured he should hurry if he was going to beat the storm. He wanted to finish up the job and get paid before too much longer. He’d sized it up three weeks before, met the young couple at a brick ranch house they’d all but gutted. When he did the walk-through with them and settled on a price, he’d liked the husband— a soft-spoken guy, tall and wiry with a halo of curly, red hair—but hoped he wouldn’t have to spend too much time around the wife, a stick-thin blonde. She’d walked right past him and through the bare-studded house, yakking away on her cell phone like he wasn’t even there.

He pulled the weathered, blue tarp over the truck bed and started to secure the clips into their rusted slots. Before he finished, though, fat raindrops began to splatter on the dirty windshield, sending up a scent of parched earth that reminded him of the first time he’d come through what he now referred to as ‘this godforsaken, shit-hole of a state.’

Carl sprinted back into the warehouse to settle up with the cashier. The rain was coming down steadily when he headed back to the truck. He was about to jump into the cab when he noticed a flattened rear tire. He strode to the back of the truck and squatted down next to the wheel well. Looking closely between the treads, he saw what looked like a nail with the head broken off. “Jesus-fucking-Christ,” he muttered. “Just can’t catch a break.”

The first problem, he thought, was that he didn’t have a spare. “God-damned Greg. What kind of an asshole sells a truck without a spare?” Six months before, Carl had bought the truck—a ’98 Ford—from a guy on his last job and paid him in fits and starts as the cash came through. Part of the deal was a rebuilt V-8 engine and four brand new Firestones. All Carl had to do was pick up a spare and this he’d forgotten until now.

Carl slid back into the truck and slammed the door shut. He contemplated his second problem: who to call. If he got a tow to the station, just down the road, he was pretty sure they could just plug the thing and he’d be on his merry way. But the thieves at the station would charge him an arm and a leg just to tow him a few lousy miles. Tessa would give him shit for not having a spare. Calling Tessa was out. Greg was out for the same reason. I’m gonna have to call Roddy, he concluded.

Carl thought back to when he’d first rolled into Atlanta two years ago. It had been a shitty time back then—losing the business, breaking it off with Shelly—but for some reason, he’d still felt hopeful. Then—bam—he’d met this barmaid at one of the up-scale places down at Peach Tree Plaza. He’d noticed the slight gap between her two front teeth, the silver bracelets on her narrow wrists, and how they jangled against each another when she reached across the bar to grab a couple of empties. He’d liked that her name was Tessa and he thought the tiny lines at the corners of her deep-set, brown eyes made her seem like she was about to burst into laughter any second. Later, when she’d asked him if he wanted to hang around till she got off work, he answered without hesitation.

            To hell with it, he thought now and called Roddy Flick’s number and not Tessa’s. Roddy was one of the guys he hung out with at O’Brien’s, a down-and-dirty dive that served dollar beers and free food—stuff like chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, and onion rings—between five and seven on weeknights. Roddy was the kind of guy that Carl’s mother would have called ‘a pleasant young man,’ but he’d pegged him early on as a chump, always trying to please. Trying too hard, he thought, remembering the fifty bucks he’d hit Roddy up for just last week. Roddy was twenty-six and, in Carl’s opinion, not too bright. He wasn’t exactly sure what the kid did all day. Some uncle or something had given him a job at the family’s hardware store.

            “Hey, Roddy. Gotta favor to ask,” he said when the kid picked up the phone.

            “Sure, buddy. What’s up?”

“I just got a flat over at Worth’s. I’m sittin’ here with a whole load a crap I gotta get over to the job. Any chance you can cut out early? I need a lift to the service station, is all. ”

“Well…sure, I guess I could do that.”

“Awesome.” Carl felt a prickle of guilt and then the familiar irritation that hit him whenever Roddy opened his mouth. Here it was again; the kid’s ass-kissing tone reminded him of a puppy who’d follow him around from room to room, slathering him with unconditional affection and never knowing when to get out of the way. The way his mother had always bucked up the old man, even while he treated her like dirt.

            “Sure, man, whatever you want. You need me to come down there right now, though?”

            “Well, yeah, now would be good,” Carl said.

“Just give me a little while, man. I gotta wrap things up here, okay?”

“Sure, sure, whatever, just get here as soon as you can.”

Carl sat in the truck and watched the rain streaming down the windshield. Buckets, he thought. It’s coming down in buckets. He thought about getting the tile over to the job and getting set up. Then he thought about Portland, how it would rain for days on end. He thought about Rebecca, the yoga instructor he’d moved in with, the tiny tattoo of a rose on the inside of her thigh. How easy it had been to Leave Portland when she kicked him out.

He cracked the driver-side window and pulled a cigarette from the pack he kept wedged above the sun visor. Just this one, he told himself. He was supposed to be quitting for Tessa but couldn’t bring himself to get rid of the stash he always kept here. Just in case he hit a rough spot.

By the time Roddy pulled into the lot in his Plymouth Neon, Carl had smoked three cigarettes. The inside of the cab held the rank smell of dampness—his soaked-through jeans, flannel work shirt, and boots—and the unemptied ashtray. Before Roddy could cut the ignition, Carl bolted out of the truck and pounded on Roddy’s driver-side window.

“Where the hell you been?” he yelled through the closed window. The kid’s baby-faced expression—blue eyes all wide and scared-looking—irritated him.

Roddy rolled down the window. “I had a customer, man. I got here as fast as I could,” he said, swinging the car door open. 

“All right, all right. Now that you’re here, let’s just get this thing done.”

Carl left Roddy standing next to his car and trudged to the back of the pick-up. He slid, head first, under the truck, the gravel in the flooded parking lot sharp against his back. He pulled the jack out from the empty space where the spare should have been and got to work. Once he had the lug nuts off the flat, Roddy squatted down next to him to pull the tire. Both men were soaked to the skin and neither spoke. Roddy rolled the tire to the back of the Plymouth, opened the trunk, and heaved it onto a heavy, plastic drop cloth he’d spread earlier. He wiped his muddy hands on the towel he’d grabbed from the shop.

“That wasn’t so bad,” said Roddy as he edged out onto the two-lane highway. The rain had slowed a bit and the wipers thrummed rhythmically, soothing Carl’s mood.

“Thanks for coming out in this.” Carl felt unexpectedly grateful for Roddy’s company. He felt a little sorry, too, for giving the kid such a hard time back there. “There it is, just over on the right. The Texaco. Pull in there, buddy.”

At least Carl had the satisfaction of being right about the flat. A simple puncture, probably the nail he’d suspected in the first place. No tear and no shredding, but the day was shot now. He decided he might as well drop off the load of tile at the job, then meet up with Roddy and the guys at O’Brien’s like he said he would.

 

Now, half an hour after saying goodbye to Roddy, Carl backed the truck into the muddy side yard, as close as he could get to the door. The old driveway had been torn up and the contractors had placed the pegs for the new horse shoe-shaped drive that would go there. “It must’ve been the skinny bitch that came up with that one,” he said, laughing. “Complete overkill, if you ask me.”

It took him several trips with the handcart to get the tile inside the breezeway in the encroaching darkness. He’d start fresh in the morning with the front foyer, get there before any of the other workers, and make a good dent in the job. Roger, the husband, had given him a key so Carl wouldn’t have to be tied to anyone else’s schedule. Now that the dry-wall guys were done taping and sanding, he was good to go. He thought about unloading his tile cutter and leaving it along with the rest of the supplies in the breezeway but the wind and rain started up again with a vengeance. The now-steady downpour was pounding the puny saplings the landscapers had just put in, bending them nearly to the ground. A yellowish light—one Roger had told Carl he’d set on a timer—switched on outside the breezeway door. Suddenly, he heard the sharp crack of a branch from behind the dumpster, just beyond where he’d parked the truck.

“What the hell?” he muttered. Carl darted out the breezeway door and jogged over to the slate-blue dumpster. Peering in, he saw that it was nearly filled with debris from the demolition and remodeling. Nothing else. Nothing moving, anyway. He checked around the Johnny-on-the-Spot, opened the door to the wafting sickly, chemical-sweet aroma and found nothing amiss. But, shutting the door, Carl heard what sounded like a soda can rolling around among the supplies in the flatbed. His breath caught sharply in his chest and a wave of adrenaline washed through him. He picked up a length of two-by-four that lay in a pile of scrap lumber near his feet. Walking slowly and as quietly as possible, he approached the back of the pick-up. He held the two-by-four like a bat, ready to use it if he had to. Then with sudden clarity he recalled a summer thunderstorm when he and his brother were kids. How he’d felt paralyzed by the low rumblings of thunder that reverberated in the pit of his stomach.

Like then, he tried to push the fear down into his gut, but Carl’s heartbeat, it seemed, was drowning out even the loud rush of wind and rain. Still approaching, he thought he saw a hunched shadow moving inside the truck-bed. He’d left the blue tarp tossed haphazardly over the tile cutter and, at first, he thought that maybe it was only the wind blowing the rain-slicked thing around. But as he came closer he saw the bulky form of what appeared to be a man huddled against the cab of the truck. He felt a trickle of sweat snake down between his shoulder blades, now tense with the effort of holding the board in his ready stance.

“Come on out, motherfucker!” he yelled, still inching forward. The soda can skittered across the corrugated metal in reply. He transferred the board to his right hand and, grasping the cold rim of the opened flatbed, lunged onto the platform. From beyond the tarp-covered equipment, two piercingly blue eyes met his.

“A fuckin’ dog!” he said, his heart flopping wildly in his chest. Still gripping the board and holding it out defensively in front of him like a sword, he leaned in to see more closely the animal’s unyielding but not unfriendly gaze. The dog sat patiently on its haunches as though it had been expecting the man’s inevitable return to the truck all along. Carl put out his other hand—palm up, the way his father had taught him all those years ago—and waited. The dog assessed him with restrained attention, a look of intelligence, he thought. Rain beaded on its thick, powder-white fur and sparkled like tiny pellets of ice in the near-darkness. Stark, black markings, like a photo negative, defined the dog’s wolf-like face, outlined the icy, blue eyes. He decided it must be a Siberian husky. Or some breed damned close to it.

“Hey, boy,” he said, setting the board down carefully. “You know you scared the living shit out of me?” Encouraged by the dog’s good behavior—it hadn’t even barked—he brought his hand closer still. Palm up. The dog turned its large head abruptly and Carl took a quick step back. Keeping his hand still, though, the dog then sniffed and began to lap affectionately at his upturned palm. He ran his hand over the wet fur, first the solid, muscular back and haunches and finally—feeling more certain of the dog’s disposition—he stroked the bristled fur just above its ears. He felt around on the blue canvas collar for a tag but didn’t find one. Even drenched, the dog looked well cared for. Not underfed or injured. If it had been, Carl imagined, the animal would have taken his hand off.

 

The dog was a female, he noticed with little effort, and he figured that whoever she belonged to was pretty upset. He thought of the young couple but, remembering their little, two-door BMW, ruled them out as likely dog owners. His mood had changed since discovering the husky; he’d put the flat tire episode behind him. He put out of his mind, as well, his current financial state—clearly not encouraging, but he’d been through a lot worse. Things would turn around. He thought that maybe, in some weird way, the dog was a good sign. He’d changed his mind about meeting up with the guys at O’Brien’s. Instead, he thought about Tessa and how maybe he’d pick up a bottle of wine on his way back to her place. They could sit out on the deck when she got home after her shift and just talk like they used to when he’d first moved in with her. A fine rain still peppered his face but, from the look of the briskly moving clouds, the rain would be long gone by then.

“Whad’ya do, girl, run out on your folks?” Carl asked. He grabbed a piece of yellow, plastic strapping that had slipped off one of the boxes of tile and looped it through the dog’s collar. He wrapped the other end—giving the dog a few feet of lead—a couple of times around his fist. He laughed out loud, filling his chest with air, when he thought about how scared he’d been just a few moments before. The neighborhood, a thirty-year-old, middle-class development, wasn’t exactly what anyone would call menacing. He looked around at the other houses in the cul de sac. They were mainly ranchers like the one this couple was rehabbing, but also some two-story, center-hall colonials. Nothing fancy, no McMansions, but still he imagined, it was a pricey place to live, considering the quick commute to the city.

He figured the dog hadn’t wandered too far from home and that he might as well check around the neighborhood to see if anyone recognized her. He felt a little uneasy about going door to door like one of those Greenpeace crazies, but maybe he’d get lucky after a house or two, he thought. If not, he could always drop her off at an animal shelter. That thought, however, troubled him. He bent down and stroked the surprisingly soft fur of her neck. “You’re somethin’ special, girl, are’ntcha,” he said gently. He didn’t want to be responsible for dumping her off at a place where she’d be penned up with a bunch of mangy strays. He knew for certain, without understanding why, that he just couldn’t do that.

The rain had all but stopped and the pavement—sidewalks drawing the half-circle perimeter of the quiet street—smelled like what Carl remembered of those coming summer storms in his old neighborhood growing up. What had he been so afraid of then? The thunder? Being home alone with no one but his big brother Jeff to watch over him? Remembering his mother’s nervous instructions before she went out, he thought how scared she’d always seemed back then. He recalled the quick look of panic in her eyes every time the tires of his father’s Chevy chewed into the gravel driveway. I guess she’d rather have left us alone than with the old man, Carl concluded.

He stuffed that thought, too, and walked up the driveway to a tidily kept rancher. The door of the small, detached garage was open and a white Volvo station wagon sat clicking in the center of a bunch of kid’s sporting gear—roller blades, bicycles, helmets, fishing rods — all hanging from hooks or stowed on red plastic shelves. Carl smiled and shook his head seeing this picture of American family life. “Not for me, girl,” he said to the dog amiably.

He rang the bell at the front door and noticed that the husky had begun to strain at the makeshift leash. “It’s okay, girl,” he said. “Is this where you live? Is that it?” Carl heard the yip-yipping of a much smaller dog inside the house. He heard a kid running on hardwood flooring, then, “Momm-myyyy, someone’s at the doo-ooor.” He heard heavier footsteps and the increasingly frenzied yip-yipping of the small dog inside. The husky tugged hard on the strap, the thin plastic biting into his hand.

“Stay,” he said sternly. “Sit!” The dog obeyed instantly. “Good girl,” Carl said, running his hand—again and again—along the strong ridge of backbone that he could feel even through the thick fur, beginning to dry some now that the rain had slowed. He felt a little foolish crouching there with the dog, listening to what sounded like complete chaos inside the house; he felt a little like a peeping Tom. What the hell, he thought dismissively a moment later. I’m just trying to do the right thing here.

The door opened suddenly and, straightening to his full height, Carl found himself facing through the outer storm door, a plain-looking woman in her early thirties. Her chin-length brown hair was pulled back from her broad forehead and held in place with a white headband. A little girl—maybe three-years-old—clung to the woman’s thigh, peering up at Carl.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked. The little dog was still kicking up a racket in another room and he heard, even over that, a TV tuned to what sounded like cartoons. The woman, tall, but with an athletic stockiness that was wholly unappealing to Carl, assessed him suspiciously.

“I, uh, found this dog across the way,” he said, pointing across the street as though this would explain the entire circumstance of his inquiry. The commotion inside the house seemed to be getting louder. The little girl began to whine. The woman hoisted her up on her hip, the child wrapping her spindly legs around the mother’s waist, her arms around her neck. Watching him cautiously, the girl—wisps of drab, brown hair clinging to pale cheeks, turned her head and pressed her face against the woman’s sturdy-looking shoulder.

“I don’t understand,” the mother said. “You found the dog where?”

Carl noticed the purplish shadows beneath the woman’s brown, wide-set eyes, the cluster of tiny pimples at her hairline, just below the headband. He felt foolishly tongue-tied. “I thought maybe…this was your dog?”

“Oh, no, no,” the woman said, shaking her head so that her short brown hair swung from side to side. “I wasn’t sure what you were asking. Excuse me a sec.” She turned away from Carl and hollered in the direction of the TV, “Ryyy-annn, turn that off please!” Turning back to him she said, “Sorry, you know how kids are,” with an apologetic shrug. “So, you found…” the woman began again. “I’m sorry,” she said, opening the storm door a crack, “I can’t hear myself think.”

Beyond the woman, Carl saw a boy run across the living room and, immediately after that, a streak of white fluff racing behind the kid. The little dog’s yapping became a monotone of constant, ear-splitting noise. The husky yanked against Carl’s grip and let out a long, searing howl. The little dog darted through the slightly opened doorway and, in one seamless motion, the husky lunged at the white ball of fluff. She had the little dog between deadlocked jaws, shaking it back and forth like a plush toy.

“No, girl, no!” he heard himself yell. He pulled roughly on the strap. He heard the thud against the storm door and saw the little dog flail for a split second before it rolled onto its stomach and lay there trembling. The woman pushed through the door and shoved Carl aside. He saw the boy then, and the little girl, with their faces pressed—wide-eyed—against the glass.

“What? What?” he heard the woman shriek.

The husky retreated immediately with a look of resignation. Carl felt the weight of her against his thigh. He saw a few droplets of blood—barely visible, like the prick from a needle—on her thick, white fur. He felt a rush of fear for the second time that night, as if he’d just been startled awake at the wheel to find that he was driving in the wrong lane into oncoming traffic. But most of all, he felt the familiar punch-to-the-gut of guilt. Like he was seeing, simultaneously, into his past and his future and feeling that he was forever screwed.   

“Miiiistyyyy,” the woman wailed. She stooped to pick up the little dog, its white fur coated with dark red blood, but it turned suddenly at her touch and snapped viciously at the air, dangerously close to her face. Carl reached out his hand toward the woman and the dog.

“Here, please let me—”

“Don’t touch her!” she yelled. “Don’t touch her!”

“I’m sorry, my God, I’m sorry, Miss, let me…please—”

 The little dog’s mouth was open a little and a string of saliva leaked onto its fur. Carl was aware, then, of the very moment the dog’s body went slack. He saw the woman’s face washed in grief, the tears streaming down her cheeks. Her mouth worked furiously, moving like she was saying a silent prayer, until the words poured out again.

“You killed her! That monster killed her!”

“Miss, let me help you,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Get away, pleeeeez, just get away,” she wailed.

“Miss, calm down, if you’ll let me…”

The woman swept up the little dog in her arms and crushed it to her chest, the blood mottling her T-shirt. She held the now unmoving thing like a baby. Carl felt a sudden wash of sadness, the same as when his father died. It wasn’t the death itself, but the hell he’d put Jeff and his mother through that came back to him. They way they’d looked at him when he’d finally shown up—unannounced and with no explanation—two weeks after the funeral. He hadn’t understood how his mother could grieve the man who’d all but destroyed their family.

The woman was sobbing noisily, the kids still looking too terrified to come out the door. Carl placed his hand gently on the woman’s shoulder; she was remarkably warm, almost feverish, he thought. She pulled away from his touch. The dog sat calmly between them, panting mildly, obedient; she watched Carl with a look of patient expectation.

“I don’t know what to say.” He imagined that he sounded juvenile and insincere. “I can help you now, um, with the—”

“No, my husband will be home soon,” the woman interrupted. It seemed to Carl that she’d passed from that earlier, out-of-control anger into something a lot deeper. “You just go. There’s nothing more to do.”

“Well, I feel responsible. I’ll pay…”

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head slowly. That won’t be necessary.”

“Let me give you my number,” Carl said. He figured the husband would get home and blow his stack. He’d probably give the wife hell for even opening the door to someone like him. The least he could do was talk to the guy.

“No,” said the woman, standing there, her blocky, square-jawed face set resolutely and tears still sliding down her cheeks. He felt something then that might have been anger. Why the hell couldn’t she just blame him outright and get it over with? Wasn’t that the drill? He thought again of that last year at home before he’d cut out for good.

 He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket then rummaged around in his wallet for a scrap of paper. He scribbled down his name and cell phone number and handed it to the woman.

“Thank you,” she said coldly, “but I told you, there’s nothing more you need to do here.”

 Her face had taken on a numbed, empty appearance that reminded him of how Tessa looked in the aftermath of one of their many blowouts. The tears always seemed to wash away her anger, but they washed away something else, too. The calm that came over her had a price and he figured that with each surrender she’d lost just a little bit more faith in him to make things right between them.

The woman turned her back to Carl, pulled open the storm door, and stepped inside holding the little dog in a one-armed embrace like it was a sleeping baby. She briskly slammed the inside door on him and the husky. He bent down and stroked the dog’s lean flanks. She sat patiently on her haunches as though understanding the man’s indecision. When he stood and said, “Come, girl,” there was no need to tug on the leash. When he opened the door to the pick- up she leaped inside immediately.

 

Carl drove forty-five minutes west of the city to a rural stretch of land. The dog sat panting beside him. In the moonless night his headlights picked out a lone stand of loblolly pines and an abandoned shack in the distance. He pulled the truck off the road, the tires spinning a little in the sandy soil, and jumped down from the cab. “Come,” he said, his voice roughened and tired. The dog observed Carl quietly. She spread herself across the seat, taking over the place that he had vacated, her front paws splayed in front of her. “Come,” he said, more harshly now. The dog bounded from the truck, then sat attentively at the man’s side. He bent and untied the yellow strap.

“I guess we fucked things up again,” he said quietly. He crouched next to the dog and scooped up a handful of sand. It smelled like the pines and the rain. He let it sift through his fingers. Then he stood up quickly and, without any warning, slapped the dog hard on her flank. “Get outta here!” he yelled. “Just go!”

The dog ran a few paces toward the trees, then halted and sniffed at the cool night air. She lowered her head and strode back to Carl. He crouched down next to her again and ran his hand over her thick fur. He felt the sturdy texture of each bristle beneath his fingers, but then the slick, glossy coating, too.

Finally, he wondered what in God’s name he was going to tell Tessa.

 

 

 

 

 

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