Brad Watson

Brad Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He stud­ied at Mississippi State University and The University of Alabama, has taught at Alabama, Harvard, The University of West Florida, Olé Miss, The University of California at Irvine, and now in the MFA Program at The University of Wyoming. He has pub­lished three books: Last Days of the Dog-Men (win­ner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), The Heaven of Mercury, and (in 2010) Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. His sto­ries have have appeared in places like Granta, Ecotone, Narrative, The Oxford American, Greensboro Review, Idaho Review, The New Yorker.

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Brad Watson

Last Days of the Dog-Men

When I was a boy my fam­i­ly always had hunt­ing dogs, always bird dogs, once a cou­ple of blue-ticks, and for six years any­where from six to fif­teen bea­gles. But we nev­er real­ly got to where we liked to eat rab­bit, and we tired of the club pol­i­tics of hunt­ing deer, so we penned up the bea­gles, added two black Labs, and fig­ured we’d do a lit­tle duck.

Those were rau­cous days around the house, the big pen in the back with the bea­gles squawl­ing, up on their hind legs again­st the fence, mak­ing nois­es like some­one was cut­ting their tails off. It was their way. At night when I crept out into the yard they fell silent, their white necks exposed to the moon, their soft round eyes upon me. They made small, dis­turbed, gut­tural sounds like chick­ens.

Neighbors final­ly sent the old man to munic­i­pal court charged with some­thing like dis­turbing the peace, and since my moth­er swore that any­way she’d nev­er fry anoth­er rab­bit, they looked like lit­tle bloody babies once skinned, she said, he farmed out the bea­gles and spent his Saturdays vis­it­ing this dog or that, out to Uncle Spurgeon’s to see Jimbo, the best run­ner of the pack. Or out to Bud’s ram­bling shack, where Bud lived with old Patsy and Balls, the breed­er. They hollered like nuclear warn­ing sirens when the old man drove up in his Ford.

After that he went into decline. He liked the Labs but nev­er took much inter­est, they being already a hol­low race of dog, the offi­cial dog of the mid­dle class. He let them lounge around the porch under the ceil­ing fan and lope around the yard and the neigh­bor­hood, aim­less loafers, and took to watch­ing war movies on TV in his room, wan­der­ing through the house speak­ing to us like we were neigh­bors to hail, engage in small talk, and bid farewell. He was a man who had lit­er­al­ly aban­doned the hunt. He was of the gen­er­a­tion that had moved to the city. He was no longer a man who lived among dogs.

It wasn’t long after that I moved out any­way, and got mar­ried to live with Lois in a dog­less sub­ur­ban house, a qui­et world that seemed unan­chored some­how, half inhab­it­ed, pale and blank, as if it would one day dis­solve to fog, lines blur­ring, and seep away into air, as indeed it would. We bought a tele­scope and spent some nights in the yard track­ing the cold lights of the stars and plan­ets, look­ing for pat­terns, nev­er sus­pect­ing that here were the awful bloody secrets of the ancient human heart and that every gen­er­a­tion must flesh them out anew. Humans are aware of very lit­tle, it seems to me, the arti­fi­cial brainy side of life, the wor­ries and bills and the mech­a­nisms of jobs, the doltish psy­cholo­gies we’ve placed over our lives like a sten­cil. A dog keeps his life sim­ple and unadorned. He is who he is, and his only task is to assert this. If he desires the com­pa­ny of anoth­er dog, or if he wish­es to mate, things can get a lit­tle com­plex. But the ways of set­tling such things are estab­lished and do not change. And when they are set­tled and he is home from his wan­der­ing he may have a flick­er­ing moment, a sort of Pickett’s Charge across the synap­tic field toward reflec­tion. But the moment pass­es. And when it pass­es it leaves him with a vague dis­qui­etude, a clear nose that on a good night could smell the lin­ger­ing pres­ence of men on the moon, and the rest of the day ahead of him like a canyon.

**

Which is how I’ve tried to view the days I’ve spent here in this old farm­house where I’m stay­ing with my friend Harold in the coun­try. I’m on extend­ed leave of absence from the Journal. But it’s no good. It’s impos­si­ble to bring that sort of order and clar­i­ty to a nor­mal human life.

The farm­house is a wreck float­ing on the edge of a big untend­ed pas­ture where the only activ­i­ties are the occa­sion­al squadron of flar­ing birds drop­ping from sight into the tall grass, and the cre­ation of ran­dom geo­met­ric paths the nose-down dogs make track­ing the birds. The back porch has a grand view of the field, and when weath­er per­mits we sit on the porch and smoke cig­a­rettes and sip cof­fee in the morn­ings, beer in the after­noons, often good scotch at night. At mid­day, there’s horse­shoes.

There’s also Phelan Holt, a mas­tiff of a man, whom Harold met at the Blind Horse Bar and Grill and allowed to rent a room in the house’s far cor­ner. We don’t see a great deal of Phelan, who came down here from Ohio to teach poet­ry at the women’s col­lege. He once played line­back­er for a small col­lege in the Midwest, and then took his vio­lent imag­i­na­tion to the page and pub­lished a book of poems about the big sub­jects: God, cre­ation, the con­fu­sion of ani­mals, and the bloody con­coc­tion of love. He pads along a shiny path he’s made through the dust to the kitchen for food and drink, then pads back, and occa­sion­al­ly comes out to the porch to drink bour­bon and to give us brief, ellip­ti­cal lec­tures on the likes of Isaac Babel, Rilke, and Cervantes, gen­tly smok­ing a joint which he does not share. In spite of his eru­di­tion, thick, bald­ing Phelan is very much a moody old dog. He lives alone with oth­ers, leaves to con­duct his busi­ness, speaks very lit­tle, eats mod­er­ate­ly, and is gen­er­al­ly inscrutable.

One day Harold pro­posed to spend the after­noon fish­ing for bream. We got into the truck and drove through a cou­ple of pas­tures and down an old log­ging road through a patch of woods to a nar­row cove that spread out into the broad sun­l­it sur­face of a lake. The sun played on thin rip­pling lines that spread from the small heads of snap­ping turtles and water moc­casins mov­ing now and then like sticks in a cur­rent.

Harold pulled a john­boat from the wil­lows and rowed us out. We fished the mid­dle, drop­ping our baits over what Harold said was the old streambed where a cur­rent of cool­er water ran through down deep. The water was a dark cop­pery stain, like thin cof­fee. We began to pull up a few bluegill and crap­pie, and Phelan watched them burst from the water, broad flat gold and sil­ver, and curl at the end of the line, their eyes huge. They flopped crazi­ly in the bot­tom of the boat, drown­ing in the thin air. Phelan set down his pole and nipped at a half-pint of bour­bon he’d pulled from his pock­et.

Kill it,” he said, look­ing away from my bluegill. “I can’t stand to watch it strug­gling for air.” His eyes fol­lowed the tiny heads of moc­casins mov­ing silent­ly across the sur­face, turtles lum­ber­ing onto half-sub­merged logs. “Those things will eat your fish right off the stringer,” he said. He drank from the lit­tle bot­tle again and then in his best old-fash­ioned ped­a­gog­i­cal man­ner said, “Do we mere­ly project the pres­ence of evil upon God’s crea­tures, in which case we are inher­ent­ly evil and the sto­ry of the gar­den a ruse, or is evil absolute?”

From his knap­sack he pro­duced a pis­tol, a Browning .22 semi­au­to­mat­ic that looked like a German Luger, and set it on his lap. He pulled out a sand­wich and ate it slow­ly. Then he shucked a round into the gun’s cham­ber and sight­ed down on one of the turtles and fired, the sharp report flash­ing off the water into the trees. What looked like a puff of smoke spiffed from the turtle’s back and it tum­bled from the log. “It’s off a lit­tle to the right,” he said. He aimed at a moc­cas­in head cross­ing at the oppo­site bank and fired. The water jumped in front of the snake, which stopped, and Phelan quick­ly tore up the water where the head was with three quick shots. The snake dis­ap­peared. Silence, in the wake of the loud hard crack of the pis­tol, came back to our ears in shock waves over the water. “Hard to tell if you’ve hit them when they’re swim­ming,” he said, look­ing down the length of the bar­rel as if for flaws, lift­ing his hood­ed eyes to sur­vey the water’s sur­face for more prey.

**

Harold him­self is sort of like a gar­ment drawn from the irreg­u­lar bin: off-cen­ter, unique, a lit­tle tilt­ed on his axis. If he were a dog, I’d call him an unbrushed col­lie who car­ries him­self like a choco­late Lab. He has two actu­al dogs, a big blond hound named Otis and a bird dog named Ike. Like Phelan, Otis is a social­ized dog and gets to come into the house to sleep, where­as Ike must stay out­side on the porch. At first I could not under­stand why Otis received this priv­i­lege and Ike did not, but in time I began to see.

Every evening after sup­per when he is home, Harold gets up from the table and lets in Otis, who sits beside the table and looks at Harold, watch­ing Harold’s hands. Harold’s hands pinch­ing off a last bite of corn­bread and nib­bling on it, Harold’s hands pulling a Camel cig­a­ret­te out of the pack, Harold’s hands twid­dling with the match­es. And soon, as if he isn’t real­ly think­ing of it, in the mid­dle of talk­ing about some­thing else and not even seem­ing to plan to do it, Harold will pick up a piece of meat scrap and let it hov­er over the plate for a min­ute, talk­ing, and you’ll see Otis get alert and begin to quiv­er almost unno­tice­ably. And then Harold will look at Otis and may­be say, “Otis, stay.” And Otis’s eyes will cut for just a sec­ond to Harold’s and then snatch back to the meat scrap, may­be hav­ing to chomp his jaws togeth­er to suck sali­va, his eyes glued to the meat scrap. And then Harold will gen­tly low­er the meat scrap onto the top of Otis’s nose and then slow­ly take away his hand, say­ing, “Stay. Stay. Stay. Otis. Stay.” Crooning it real soft­ly. And Otis with his eyes cross-eyed look­ing at the meat scrap on his nose, quiv­er­ing almost unno­tice­ably and not dar­ing to move, and then Harold leans back and takes anoth­er Camel out of the pack, and if Otis slow­ly moves just an eighth of an inch, say­ing, “Otis. Stay.” And then light­ing the cig­a­ret­te and look­ing at Otis for a sec­ond and say­ing, “All right, Otis.” And quick­er than you can see it Otis has not so much tossed the scrap up in the air as he has removed his nose from its posi­tion, the meat scrap sus­pend­ed, and before it can begin to respond to grav­i­ty Otis has snatched it into his mouth and swal­lowed it and is look­ing at Harold’s hands again with the same look as if noth­ing has hap­pened between them at all and he is hop­ing for his first scrap.

This is the test, Harold says. If you bal­ance the meat scrap, and in a moment of grace man­age to eat the meat scrap, you are in. If you drop the meat scrap and eat it off the floor, well, you’re no bet­ter than a dog. Out you go.

But the thing I was going to tell at first is about Ike, about how when Otis gets let in and Ike doesn’t, Ike starts bark­ing out­side the door, big woof­ing barks, loud com­plaints, think­ing (Harold says), Why is he let­ting in Otis and not me? Let me IN. IN. And he con­tin­ues his bark­ing for some cou­ple of min­utes or so, and then, with­out your real­ly being able to put your fin­ger on just how it hap­pens, the bark begins to change, not so much a com­plaint as a demand, I am IKE, let me IN, because what is lost you see is the mem­o­ry of Otis hav­ing been let in first and that being the rea­son for com­plaint. And from there he goes to his more com­mon gener­ic state­ment, voiced sim­ply because Ike is Ike and needs no rea­son for say­ing it, I am IKE, and then it changes in a more notice­able way, just IKE, and he los­es con­tact with his ego, soon just Ike!, taper­ing off, and in a min­ute it’s just a bark every now and then, just a nor­mal call into the void the way dogs do, yelling HEY every now and then and see­ing if any­one responds across the pas­ture, HEY, and then you hear Ike cir­cle and drop him­self onto the porch floor­boards just out­side the kitchen door. And this, Harold says, is a pro­duct of Ike’s con­scious­ness, that before he can even fin­ish bark­ing Ike has for­got­ten what he’s bark­ing about, so he just lies down and goes to sleep. And this, Harold says, as if the meat scrap test needs cor­rob­o­ra­tion, is why Ike can’t sleep indoors and Otis can.

**

The oth­er day, Harold sat in a chair in front of his bed­room win­dow, leaned back, and put his feet on the sill, and the whole win­dow, frame and all, fell onto the weeds with a crash. I helped him seal the hole with poly­eth­yl­ene sheet­ing and duct tape and now there’s a fil­tered effect to the light in the room that’s quite nice on cool late after­noons.

There are clothes in the clos­ets here, we don’t know who they belong to. The front room and the dark attic are crammed with junk. Old space heaters in a pile in one cor­ner, a big wood­en canoe (cracked) with pad­dles, a set of bar­bells made from truck axles and wheel rims, a seam­stress dum­my with nip­ples paint­ed on the breasts, some great old cane fly rods not too lim­ber any­more, a big wood­en Motorola radio, a rope lad­der, a box of Life mag­a­zi­nes, and a big stack of yel­low news­pa­pers from Mobile. And lots of oth­er junk too numer­ous to name.

All four cor­ners of the house slant toward the cen­ter, the back of the foy­er being the floor’s low­est point. You put a golf ball on the floor at any point in the house and it’ll roll its way even­tu­al­ly, bump­ing lazi­ly into base­boards and doors and dis­card­ed shoes and may­be a base­ball mitt or a rolled-up rug slumped again­st the wall, to that low spot in the tall emp­ty foy­er where there’s a pow­er-line spool heaped with wadded old clothes like some­one get­ting ready for a yard sale cleaned out some dresser draw­ers and dis­ap­peared. The doors all mis­fit their frames, and on gusty morn­ings I have awak­ened to the dry tick and skid of dead leaves rolling under the gap at the bot­tom of the front door and into the foy­er, rolling through the rooms like lit­tle tum­ble­weeds, to col­lect in the kitchen, where then in ones and twos and lit­tle groups they skit­ter out the open door to the back­yard and on out across the field. It’s a pleas­ant way to wake up, real­ly. Sometimes I hang my head over the side of the big bed I use, the one with four rough-barked cedar logs for posts and which Harold said the mice used before I moved in, and I’ll see this big old skink with pink spots on his slick black hide hunt­ing along the crevice between the base­board and the floor. His head dis­ap­pears into the crevice, and he draws it out again chew­ing some­thing, his long lip­less jaws chomp­ing down.

The house doors haven’t seen a work­ing lock in thir­ty or forty years. Harold nev­er real­ly thinks about secu­ri­ty, though the bums walk­ing on the road to Florida pass by here all the time and prob­a­bly used this as a motel before Harold found it out here aban­doned on his family’s land and became an expa­tri­ate from town because, he says, he nev­er again wants to live any­where he can’t step out onto the back porch and take a piss day or night.

The night I showed up look­ing for shel­ter I just opened up the front door because no one answered and I didn’t know if Harold was way in the back of the big old house (he was) or what. I entered the foy­er, and first I heard a click­ing sound and Otis came around the cor­ner on his toes, claws tap­ping, his tail high, with a low growl. And then Harold walked in behind him, his rusty old .38 in his hand. He sleeps with it on a book­shelf not far from his bed, the one cheap bul­let he owns next to the gun if it hasn’t rolled off onto the floor.

The night that Phelan arrived to stay, fell through the door onto his back, and lay there look­ing up into the shad­ows of the high old foy­er, Otis came click­ing in and approached him slow­ly, hack­les raised, lips curling flu­id­ly again­st his old teeth, until his nose was just over Phelan’s. And then he jumped back bark­ing sav­age­ly when Phelan burst out like some slur­ring old thes­pi­an, “There pluck­ing at his throat a great black beast shaped like a hound, ‘The Hound!,’ cried Holmes, ‘Great Heavens!’ Half ani­mal half demon, its eyes aglow its muz­zles and hack­les and dewlap out­lined in flick­er­ing flame.”

Phelan,” Harold said, “meet Otis.”

Cerberus, you mean,” Phelan said, “my twelfth labor.” He raised his arms and spread his fin­gers before his eyes. “I have only my hands.”

**

How Harold came to be alone is this: Sophia, a sur­vey­or for the high­way depart­ment, fixed her sights on Harold and took advan­tage of his ways by drink­ing with him till two a.m. and then offer­ing to dri­ve him home, where she would put him to bed and ride him like a cow­girl. She told me this her­self one night, and asked me to feel of her thighs, which were hard and bulging as an ice skater’s under her jeans. “I’m strong,” she whis­pered in my ear, cock­ing an eye­brow.

One evening after she’d left, Harold stum­bled out onto the porch where I sat smok­ing, bummed a cig­a­ret­te, braced an arm again­st a porch post, and stood there tak­ing a long piss out into the yard. He didn’t say any­thing. He was naked. His hair was like a sheaf of wind­blown wheat again­st the moon­light com­ing down on the field and cut­ting a clean line of light along the edge of the porch. His pale body blue in that light. He kept stand­ing there, his stream arc­ing out into the yard, sprayed to the east in the wind, breath­ing through his nose and smok­ing the cig­a­ret­te with the smoke whip­ping away. There was a storm try­ing to blow in. I didn’t have to say any­thing. You always know when you’re close to out of con­trol.

Sophia left para­pher­na­lia around for Harold’s fiancée Westley to find. Pairs of panties under the bed, a silky camisole slumped like a pros­ti­tute between two starched dress shirts in Harold’s clos­et, a vial of fin­ger­nail pol­ish in the sil­ver­ware tray. It wasn’t long before Westley walked out of the bath­room one day with a black brassiere, say­ing, “What’s this thing doing hang­ing on the com­mode han­dle?” And it was pret­ty much over between Westley and Harold after that.

I must say that Sophia, who resem­bled a grey­hound with her long nose and close-set eyes and her tremen­dous thighs, is the bridge between Harold’s sto­ry and mine.

Because at first I wasn’t cheat­ing on Lois. Things had become dis­tant in the way they do after a mar­riage strug­gles through pas­sion­ate pos­ses­sive love and into the heart­break of lan­guish­ing love, before the vague inces­tu­ous love on the long-togeth­er. I got home one night when Lois and I were still togeth­er, heard some­thing scram­ble on the liv­ing-room floor, and looked over to see this trem­bling thing shaped like a drawn bow, long needle-nosed face look­ing at me as if over read­ing glass­es, nose down, eyes up, cowed. He was aging. I eased over to him and pulled back ever so soft­ly when as I reached my hand over he showed just a speck of white tooth along his black lip.

I read that sto­ry in the Journal about them, and what hap­pens to them when they can’t race any­more,” she said. She’d sim­ply called up the dog track, gone out to a ken­nel, and tak­en her pick.

She said since he was get­ting old, may­be he wouldn’t be hard to con­trol, and besides, she thought may­be I missed hav­ing a dog. It was an attempt, I guess, to make a con­nec­tion. Or it was the admin­is­tra­tion of an opi­ate. I don’t real­ly know.

To exer­cise Spike, the retired grey­hound, and to encour­age a friend­ship between him and me, Lois had the two of us, man and dog, take up jog­ging. We’d go to the high school track, and Spike loved it. He’d trot about on the foot­ball field, snuf­fling here and there. Once he sur­prised and caught a real rab­bit, and tore it to pieces. It must have brought back mem­o­ries of his train­ing days. You wouldn’t think a rac­ing dog could be like a pet dog, fool­ish and sim­ple and friend­ly. But Spike was okay. We were pals. And then, after all the weeks it took Spike and me to get back into shape, and after the inci­den­tal way in which my affair with Imelda down the street began out of our meet­ing and jog­ging togeth­er around the oth­er­wise emp­ty track, after weeks of cap­ping our jog with a romp on the foam-rub­ber pole vault mat­tress just beyond the goal­posts, Lois bicy­cled down to get me one night and rode silent­ly up as Imelda and I lay naked except for our jog­ging shoes on the pole vault mat­tress, cool­ing down, Spike curled up at our feet. As she glid­ed to a stop on the bicy­cle, Spike raised his head and wagged his tail. Seeing his true inno­cence, I felt a heavy knot form in my chest. When Lois just as silent­ly turned on her bicy­cle and ped­aled away, Spike rose, stretched, and fol­lowed her home. Imelda and I hadn’t moved.

Oh, shit,” Imelda said. “Well, I guess it’s all over.”

Imelda mere­ly meant our affair, since her hus­band was a Navy den­tist on a cruise in the Mediterranean which had put Imelda tem­porar­i­ly in her par­ents’ home­town, tem­porar­i­ly writ­ing fea­tures for the Journal, and tem­porar­i­ly hav­ing an affair with me. It was Imelda’s sto­ry on grey­hounds that Lois had seen. It was Imelda who said she want­ed to meet Spike, and it was I who knew exact­ly how this would go and gave in to the inex­orable flow of it, com­bin­ing our pas­sive wills toward this very moment. And it was I who had to go home to Lois now that my mar­riage was ruined.

**

Imelda left, and I lay there awhile look­ing up at the stars. It was ear­ly October, and straight up I could see the bright clus­ters of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Cygnus, and off to the right broad Hercules, in his flex­ing stance. I remem­bered how Lois and I used to make up con­stel­la­tions: there’s my boss, she’d say, scratch­ing his balls. There’s Reagan’s brain, she’d say. Where? The dim one. Where? That was the joke. Looking up at night usu­al­ly made me feel as big as the sky, but now I felt like I was float­ing among them and lost. I got up and start­ed to walk home. There was a lit­tle chill in the air, and the dry­ing sweat tight­ened my skin. I smelled Imelda on my hands and waft­ing up from my shorts.

The door was unlocked. The lamp was on in the cor­ner of the liv­ing room. The night-light was on in the hall­way. I took off my run­ning shoes and walked qui­et­ly down the hall­way to the bed­room. I could see in the dim light that Lois was in bed, either asleep or pre­tend­ing to be, fac­ing the wall, her back to the door­way, the cov­ers pulled up to her ears. She was still.

From my side of the bed, Spike watched me sleep­i­ly, stretched out, his head rest­ing on his paws. I don’t imag­ine I’d have had the courage to climb into bed and beg for­give­ness, any­way. But see­ing Spike already there made things clear­er, and I crept back out to the den and onto the couch. I curled up beneath a small lap blan­ket and only then exhaled, breath­ing very care­ful­ly.

When I awoke stiff and guilty the next morn­ing, Lois and Spike were gone. Some time around midafter­noon, she came home alone. She was wear­ing a pair of old torn jeans and a bag­gy flan­nel shirt and a Braves cap pulled down over her eyes. We didn’t speak. I went out into the garage and cleaned out junk that had been there for a cou­ple of years, hauled it off to the dump in the truck, then came in and show­ered. I smelled some­thing deli­cious cook­ing in the kitchen. When I’d dressed and come out of the bed­room, the house was light­ed only by a soft flick­er­ing from the din­ing room. Lois sat at her end of the table alone, eat­ing. She paid me no atten­tion as I stood in the door­way.

Lois,” I said. “Where’s Spike?”

She cut a piece of pork roast and chewed for a moment. Her hair was wet and combed straight back off her fore­head. She wore eye make­up, bring­ing out the depth and what I have only a few times rec­og­nized as the aston­ish­ing beau­ty of her deep green eyes. Her pol­ished nails glis­tened in the can­dle­light.

The table was set with our good chi­na and sil­ver and a very nice meal. She seemed like some­one I’d only now just met, whom I’d walked in on by her own design. She looked at me, and my heart sank, and the knot that had formed in my chest the night before began to dis­solve into sor­row.

He was get­ting pret­ty old,” she said. She took a sip of wine, which was an expen­sive bot­tle we’d saved for a spe­cial occa­sion. “I had him put to sleep.”

**

I’m sur­prised at how often dogs make the news. There was the one about the dog elect­ed may­or of a town in California. And anoth­er about a dog that could play the piano, I believe he was a schnau­zer. More often, though, they’re involved in crim­i­nal cas­es – dog bit­ings, dog pack attacks on chil­dren. I’ve seen sev­er­al sto­ries about dogs who shot their mas­ters. There was one of the­se in the stack of old Mobile Registers in the front room. “Dog Shoots, Kills Master,” the head­line read. Way back in ’59. How could you not read a sto­ry like that? The man car­ried his shot­guns in his car. He stopped to talk to his rel­a­tive on the road and let the dogs run. One of them jumped into the back­seat and hit the trig­ger on a gun, which dis­charged and struck him “below the stom­ach,” the arti­cle said. The man hollered to his rel­a­tive, “I’m shot!” and fell over in the ditch.

There was anoth­er arti­cle called “Death Row Dog,” about a dog that had killed so many cats in his neigh­bor­hood that a judge sen­tenced him to death. And anoth­er one sen­tenced to be moved to the coun­try or die, just because he barked so much. There was anoth­er one like that just this year, about a con­demned biter that won a last-min­ute reprieve. I’m told in medieval times ani­mals were reg­u­lar­ly put in tri­al, with wit­ness­es and tes­ti­mony and so forth. But it is rel­a­tive­ly rare today.

One sto­ry, my favorite, was head­lined “Dog Lady Claims Close Encounter.” It was about an old wom­an who lived alone with about forty-two dogs. Strays were drawn to her house, where­upon they dis­ap­peared from the streets forever. At night, when sirens passed on the streets of the town, a great howl­ing rose from inside her walls. Then one day, the dogs’ bark­ing kept on and on, rais­ing a rack­et like they’d nev­er done before. It went on all day, all that night, and was still going the next day. People pass­ing the house on the side­walk heard things slam­ming again­st the doors, saw dog claws scratch­ing at the win­dow­panes, teeth gnaw­ing at the sash­es. Finally, the police broke in. Dogs burst through the open door nev­er to be seen again. Trembling skele­tons, who wouldn’t eat their own kind, crouched in the cor­ners, behind chairs. Dog shit every­where, the stench was awful. They found dead dogs in the base­ment freez­er, lit­tle shit dogs whole and big­ger ones cut up into parts. Police start­ed look­ing around for the woman’s gnawed-up corpse, but she was nowhere to be found.

At first they thought the starv­ing dogs had eat­en her up: clothes, skin, hair, mus­cle, and bone. But then, four days lat­er, some hunters found her wan­der­ing naked out by a reser­voir, all scratched up, dis­ori­ent­ed.

She’d been abduct­ed, she said, and described tall crea­tures with the heads of dogs who licked her hands and sniffed her pri­vates.

They took me away in their ship,” she said. “On the dog star, it’s them that owns us. These here,” she said, sweep­ing her arm about to indi­cate Earth, “they ain’t noth­ing com­pared to them dogs.

**

On a warm after­noon in November, a beau­ti­ful breezy Indian sum­mer day, the wind steered Lois some­how in her Volkswagen up to the house. She’d been dri­ving around. I got a cou­ple of beers from the fridge and we sat out back sip­ping them, not talk­ing. Then we sat there look­ing at each oth­er for a while. We drank a cou­ple more beers. A rosy sun ticked down behind the old grove on the far side of the field and light soft­ened, began to blue. The dogs’ tails moved like periscopes through the tall grass.

Want to walk?” I said.

Okay.”

The dogs trot­ted up as we climbed through the barbed-wire fence, then bound­ed ahead, leap­ing like deer over stands of grass. Lois stopped out in the mid­dle of the field and slipped her hands in the pock­ets of my jeans.

I missed you,” she said. She shook her head. “I sure as hell didn’t want to.”

Well,” I said. “I know.” Anger over Spike rose in me then, but I held my tongue. “I missed you, too,” I said. She looked at me with anger and desire.

We knelt down. I rolled in the grass, flat­ten­ing a lit­tle bed. We attacked each oth­er. Kissing her, I felt like I want­ed to eat her alive. I took big soft bites of her breasts, which were heavy and smooth. She gripped my waist with her nails, pulled hard at me, kicked my ass with her heels, bit my shoul­ders, and pulled my hair so hard I cried out. After we’d caught our breath, she pushed me off of her like a sack of feed corn.

We lay on our backs. The sky was emp­ty. It was all we could see, with the grass so high around us. We didn’t talk for a while, and then Lois began to tell me what had hap­pened at the vet’s. She told me how she’d held Spike while the vet gave him the injec­tion.

I guess he just thought he was get­ting more shots,” she said. “Like when I first took him in.”

She said Spike was so good, he didn’t fight it. He looked at her when she placed her hands on him to hold him down. He was fright­ened, and didn’t wag his tail. And she was already start­ing to cry, she said. The vet asked her if she was sure this was what she want­ed to do. She nod­ded her head. He gave Spike the shot.

She was cry­ing as she told me this.

He laid down his head and closed his eyes,” she said. “And then, with my hands on him like that, I tried to pull him back to me. Back to us.” She said, No, Spike, don’t go. She plead­ed with him not to die. The vet was upset and said some words to her and left the room in anger, left her alone in her grief. And when it was over, she had a sense of not know­ing where she was for a moment. Sitting on the floor in there alone with the strong smell of flea killer and anti­sep­tic, and the white of the floor and walls and the stain­less steel of the exam­i­na­tion table where Spike had died and where he lay now, and in that moment he was every­thing she had ever loved.

She drained the beer can, wip­ing her eyes. She took a deep breath and let it out slow­ly. “I just want­ed to hurt you. I didn’t real­ize how much it would hurt me.”

She shook her head.

And now I can’t for­give you,” she said. “Or me.”

**

In the old days when Harold was still with Westley and I was still with Lois, Harold had thrown big cook­out par­ties. He had a pit we’d dug for slow-cook­ing whole pigs, a brick grill for chick­ens, and a smok­er made from an old oil drum. So one crisp evening late in bird sea­son, to reestab­lish some of the old joy of life, Harold set up anoth­er one and a lot of our old friends and acquain­tances came. Then Phelan showed up, drunk, with the head of a pig he’d bought at the slaugh­ter­house. He’d heard you could buy the head of a pig and after an after­noon at the Blind Horse he thought it was be inter­est­ing to bring one to the bar­be­cue. He insist­ed on putting it into the smok­er, so it would have made a scene to stop him. Every half hour or so, he opened the lid with a flour­ish and checked the head. The pig’s eye­lids shrank and opened halfway, the eyes turned translu­cent. Its hide leaked bead­ed mois­ture and turned a doughy pale. People lost their appetites. Many became qui­et and left. “I’m sor­ry,” Phelan stood on the porch and announced as they left, stood there like Marc Antony in Shakespeare. “No need to go. I’ve come to bury this pig, not to eat him.”

Finally Harold took the pig’s head from the smok­er and threw it out onto the far edge of the yard, and Phelan stood over it a min­ute, recit­ing some lines from Tennyson. Ike and Otis went sniff­ing up, sniff­ing, their eyes like brown mar­bles. They backed off and sat just out­side of the porch light and watched the pig’s head steam­ing in the grass as if it had dropped scream­ing through the atmos­phere and plopped into the yard, an alien thing, now cool­ing, a new part of the land­scape, a new mys­tery evolv­ing, a new thing in the world, there when­ev­er they round­ed the cor­ner, still there, stink­ing and mute, until Harold buried it out in the field. After that we pret­ty much kept to our­selves.

We passed our win­ter board­ed up in the house, the cracks beneath doors and around win­dows and in the walls stuffed with old horse blan­kets and news­pa­per and wads of cloth­ing falling apart at the seams, the space heaters hiss­ing in the tall-ceil­ing rooms. We went out for whiskey and dry goods and meat, occa­sion­al­ly stopped by the Blind Horse of an ear­ly after­noon, but spent our evenings at home. We wrote let­ters to those we loved and missed and planned spring reunions when pos­si­ble. Harold’s once-illic­it lover, Sophia the sur­vey­or, came by a few times. I wrote Lois, but received no reply. I wrote to my edi­tor at the Journal and asked to return in the late spring, but it may be that I should move on.

It is March just now, when the ancients sac­ri­ficed young dogs and men to the crop and mixed the blood with the corn. Harold is think­ing of plant­i­ng some beans. We’ve scat­tered the aston­ished heads of bream in the soil, mourn­ing doves in their beau­ti­ful lid­ded repose. The blood of the birds and the fish­es, and the seeds of the har­vest. I found the skin of our res­i­dent chick­en snake, shed and left on the hearth. He’s get­ting ready to move out­side. The days are warm­ing, and though it’s still cool in the evenings we stay out late in the back­yard, sip­ping Harold’s Famous Grouse to stay warm, try­ing in our hearts to restore a lit­tle order to the world. I’m hop­ing to be out here at least until mid­night, when Canis Major final­ly descends in the west, hav­ing trav­eled of an evening across the south­ern hori­zon. It ris­es up before sun­set and glows bright above the pas­tures at dusk, big bright Sirius the first star in the sky, to wish upon for a fruit­ful plant­i­ng. It stirs me to look up at them, all of them, not just this one, stirs me beyond my own enor­mous sense of per­son­al dis­ap­point­ment. And Harold, in his cups, calls Otis over and strikes a pose: “Orion, the hunter,” he says, “and his Big Dog.” Otis, look­ing up at him, strikes the pose, too: Is there some­thing out there? Will we hunt? Harold holds the pose, and Otis trots out into the field, rest­less, sniff­ing. I can feel the earth turn­ing beneath us, rolling beneath the stars. Looking up, I lose my bal­ance and fall back flat in the grass.

If the Grouse lasts we’ll stay out till dawn, when the stel­lar dog and hunter are off trac­ing the his­to­ries of oth­er worlds, the cold dis­tant fig­ures of the hero Purseus and his love Andromeda fad­ing in the morn­ing glow into noth­ing.

And then we will stum­ble into the falling-down house and to our beds. And all our dreams will roll toward the low point in the cen­ter of the house and pool there togeth­er, min­gling in the drafts under the doors with last year’s crum­bling leaves and the creep­ing skinks and the dreams of the dogs, who must dream of the chase, the hunt, of bitch­es in heat, the min­gling of old spoors with their own musty odors. And deep in sleep they dream of space trav­el, of danc­ing on their hind legs, of being men with the heads and muz­zles of dogs, of sleep­ing in beds with sheets, of dri­ving cars, of tak­ing their fur coats off each night and mak­ing love face to face. Of cook­ing their food. And Harold and I dream of days of fol­low­ing the backs of men’s knees, and faint trails in the soil, the over­pow­er­ing odors of all our kin, our pasts, every mis­take as strong as sul­fur, our vic­to­ries lin­ger­ing traces here and there. The house is dis­in­te­grat­ing into dust. The end of all of this is near.

Just yes­ter­day Harold went into the kitchen for cof­fee and found the chick­en snake curled around the warm pot. Otis went wild. Harold whooped. The screams of Sophia the sur­vey­or rang high and clear and reg­u­lar, and in my half-sleep I could only imag­ine the source of this dis­so­nance fill­ing the air. Oh, slay me and scat­ter my parts in the field. The house was hell. And Ike, too, bay­ing — out on the porch – full-lunged, with­out mem­o­ry or sense, with only the bark­ing of Otis to clue his con­tin­u­ing: already lost with­in his own actions, for­get­ting his last con­scious needs.

________________________

Interview

Meg Pokrass


Why did the title sto­ry to this award win­ning col­lec­tion “Last Days of the Dog-Men” not appear in a mag­a­zine? How did this hap­pen? What was the effect of that if you believe there was one? 

I sent it (no agent, then) to all the most promi­nent mag­a­zi­nes and jour­nals, hop­ing for a big pub­li­ca­tion because I was unknown. Story Magazine took two oth­er of the sto­ries but not this one, nor would any of the oth­er more famous mags of the day. The upside to this was I kept revis­ing the sto­ry after each rejec­tion, no doubt mak­ing it tighter and bet­ter; the down­side was it nev­er had a shot at the prize antholo­gies. At some point it was press time and we couldn’t send it out any­more. I don’t know if the antholo­gies help sell a book, or not, but I do think they often extend the life and audi­ence for a par­tic­u­lar sto­ry, which is nice.

When did you get your first dog? 

I guess you could say I’ve nev­er got­ten my own dog. Our two dogs, Maji and Dutch, were both tak­en in by Nell from fos­ter dog agen­cies. They’re my dogs, too, now, but Nell made it hap­pen. I nev­er had a dog grow­ing up, as did my old­er broth­er, who had a cou­ple of German shep­herds who not only bit the paper­boy but made him wreck his motor­cy­cle. He then forced us to give the dogs away to oth­er peo­ple.

Tell us about your first rela­tion­ship with a dog? 

There was a lit­tle mutt dog lived across the street, with the Echols fam­i­ly, who thought he was our dog, and I got along with him okay. The Echols called him Jack, but we called him Runt, because he was the runt. We had wit­nessed the strange mat­ing (as chil­dren in tight-knit cul-de-sac neigh­bor­hoods will do) between the big alpha dog of the street, Lonesome, and the tiny sweet bitch, Honey, with as much amaze­ment as amuse­ment. It was like watch­ing a tiny fur­rry arrow being fit­ted to a large fur­ry bow, ner­vous­ly. Our sex­u­al edu­ca­tion. One of the pups was Jack/Runt. Jack/Runt would come over to our house for extra affec­tion. He was one of those slight­ly irri­tat­ing dogs who always rolled onto his back before you could pet him, igno­min­ious­ly demand­ing or plead­ing for a bel­ly rub. But you couldn’t do that because he was a leak­er and his sheath was always dis­gust­ing. I remem­ber him so fond­ly. Also there was a lum­ber­ing mutt from one street over who we could per­suade to hump just about any­thing: a leg or arm, an unsus­pect­ing neigh­bor on all fours, a small­er dog’s head. This was our pre-ado­les­cent enter­tain­ment in 1960s Mississippi.

When your book “Last Days of the Dog-Men” came out, how did you deal with the fact of not own­ing a dog? Did you con­fess?

I was embar­rassed at first and feared being thought a pho­ny. I asked my friend Harold McLemore to let me claim his dog was part mine, that we shared the dog. So I would say, “Yes, I have a dog lives on a Christmas tree farm with my friend in Montgomery,” but it was a lie. Later on, I stopped lying, con­fessed that I’d nev­er owned a dog, and ratio­nal­ized that the book would have been dif­fer­ent if I’d been a dog own­er and not pure­ly a dog- and dog own­er-observer.

I’m think­ing about your new col­lec­tion Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. If you had an alien vis­it or if you became an alien, what would role would you like it to play in your life? How are we all aliens at times? When do aliens seem nec­es­sary as a writer?

I’m think­ing it’s inter­est­ing we’re talk­ing about hav­ing dogs/pets one moment, and then what it would be like if, in effect I “had” an alien, in the next moment. I like that a lot. In fact, a nov­el that didn’t work out and from which the title novel­la of “Aliens” emerged had, at one point, a bereft young man and his estranged child becom­ing the pets of some (unin­ten­tion­al­ly) malev­o­lent aliens dur­ing the alien family’s beach vaca­tion on Earth. They were pret­ty much the alien boy’s pet dogs. I liked that set up, even if the book didn’t work. I may be able to sal­vage oth­er things from it, too, though. I believe in sal­vaging from the wrecks. That way, no writ­ing tru­ly goes to waste.

I do think we’re all aliens at times, and some of us are aliens most or all of the time. Aliens among those like beings around us. My past lives seem as if lived by an alien and imag­i­na­tive­ly pro­ject­ed past ver­sion of myself. I can look back them and some­times make fic­tion because it’s as if they were lived not exact­ly by me, and what’s called mem­o­ry is as sus­pect as the accounts of those who claim to have been “abduct­ed.”

In this sto­ry “Last Days of the Dog Men” Brad, what we are left with is an enor­mous feel­ing of loss, and there is some­thing huge about a momen­tary bad deci­sion and how ruinous that can be and there is no going back. Anything you can share about this sub­ject in your work?

So much of my life has seemed to turn on deci­sions that had dis­as­trous reper­cus­sions. For a while there, I was par­a­lyzed, couldn’t make a deci­sion to save my life, and I need­ed to — save my own life. But I couldn’t get past the hor­ri­ble feel­ing that any deci­sion I would make would be wrong. And it put me into a kind of posi­tion not unlike the man in James’ sto­ry, “The Beast in the Jungle,” except reversed: instead of expect­ing that some­thing great would hap­pen, I was expect­ing some­thing hor­ri­ble. It hasn’t entire­ly left me.

Does every­day­ness dri­ve one to reck­less­ness some­times, or a lot of the time?

Maybe. It’s hard to deal with every­day­ness. If you are the sort to be melan­choly, or bored, or both, you’re in dan­ger of react­ing reck­less­ly to every­day­ness. How com­mon is this? It must be very com­mon. I think of the friend who quot­ed a sui­cide note that read, “All this but­ton­ing and unbut­ton­ing!”

Did you know the­se char­ac­ters before you wrote the piece, or did you dis­cov­er them in the process of writ­ing it?

Harold is based loose­ly on my great friend Harold M., who I will oth­er­wise leave to his pri­va­cy. The real Harold is a poet, a com­plex and hilar­i­ous per­son, and such a great racon­teur that I could nev­er have fit him into this sto­ry, so I had to bor­row moments or parts or glimpses. The nar­ra­tor I extract­ed, as you would oil from a nut, from some ten­den­cies in my own self, and I was at the time liv­ing in a house like that with the real Harold. The dogs were there, too, and it only remained to trans­late their lives into some kind of human lan­guage. Interesting you can see my ear­ly inter­est in the abduc­tion stuff. Lois was invent­ed. It all came out of a time, a swirl of a time, I was liv­ing out­side Montgomery Alabama and work­ing on a paper, and I had this old sto­ry, a bad rough draft, that the expe­ri­ence of the time helped to coa­lesce.

To me as a read­er the turn­ing point, when fate becomes engraved in this sto­ry… is when Lois says “And now I can’t for­give you… or me.” That is so inter­est­ing and I don’t want to be a plot spoil­er… It feels very much like the death of a child, and how that kind of guilt can ruin a mar­riage almost instan­ta­neous­ly.. What does guilt do to peo­ple as they try to move for­ward? What kind of mov­ing for­ward is pos­si­ble if at all?

I think they move back­wards into time and mem­o­ry as they move for­ward, and they move deep­er into their own minds as they move for­ward, and they become more dif­fi­cult peo­ple to live with, and it becomes more dif­fi­cult for them to live with them­selves. I’ve known peo­ple who claim the abil­i­ty to reject guilt, or to “eschew” it per­haps, but I haven’t been good at escap­ing or avoid­ing it at all. At some point it was hard­wired, and I think it was very young. Might take some seri­ous couch time to find that or fig­ure it out.

What is hap­pen­ing now in your writ­ing life and what are you look­ing for­ward to next?

I’ve start­ed a new nov­el and two or three new sto­ries, but I have two unfin­ished nov­els also that I keep around and attend to when I can like alter­nate­ly stingy and prodi­gal pets or aliens, yes.