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Devon Jackson

Animal Control

First it made perfect sense, then it made imperfect sense.

Bypassing home for one final visit to Reena Sneerson's, Tunny Welds slid the Animal Control van into neutral and lit up a joint but did not smoke it. His pants still reeked of the ammonia he'd used to clean out one of the pens, and his eyes and muscles burned from the never-ending plume of unfiltered cigarette smoke generated by his coworkers, the shelter's veterans. Tunny figured the marijuana fumes might soften the sting of the disinfectant and maybe take the edge off his mood. His anxiety. Besides, even though he hadn't worked out in over a year, Tunny still intended on trying out next spring, next summer, next fall. Teams can always use another six-foot two-hundred-pound strong safety with speed. And only six percent body fat, he'd tell Reena over and over. (Not bad, the scouts would say. Not bad at all for a white guy.)

Tunny, a divorcee at all of twenty-three, tried to remember exactly what it was his wife had said to him at the hospital the day, the evening actually, she'd let him go. She'd said it all so well—using words like reliability and compassion—and he remembered thinking right then, as he coasted the van downhill, the engine seemingly dead and still several blocks from Reena's, that that was how he should say it to Reena. He should break it off just that smoothly. You're such a fine woman, Reena. You deserve someone better than Tunny Welds. You know where you are in life, where you want to be. I'd just screw that up. But the dope smoke and the ammonia rattled his lungs, jumbled the words together, and the squawking of the van's radio kept interrupting his attempts to reassemble them. The bits and pieces of the dispatcher's orders reminding him of his jayvee football coach, his scratchy voice yelling into him over and over: Irony, men. It's when you look at something, and at first it makes perfect sense, but then, when you look it over one more time, it makes imperfect sense. All his life coaches had been telling him things like that. Things that hardly related to football at all, things they told him he'd understand later on, outside sports. Life and football, thought Tunny, shifting the empty van into drive at Spackley and Beale, a roan Labrador sitting patiently, politely, at the corner with his little girl master, no leash between them, what did the one have to do with the other?

The shelter vets, as the trio of animal shelter veterans back at Animal Control referred to themselves, they'd been the bastards that had goaded him into this thing with Reena in the first place, they'd been the catalyst that had led to the downfall of his marriage. They were the humiliation of Tunny Welds.

Two brothers and a cousin, Gus and Zeke and Ike the cousin, the shelter vets were all in their late fifties, and they shared a double-wide a block from the shelter. They'd been at Animal Control since their teens, and the two veterinarians and the manager and the dispatcher all stayed pretty much out of their way—in the shelter's two humane buildings in the front. The vets effectively controlled the rest of the shelter—the pens and the trucks and vans.

They drank their Thunderbird from the same bottle, and whenever they went out of town on a pussy run, as they liked to call their infrequent weekend excursions to Dorchester, they always made sure to tell Tunny all about it, and they always made it a point to fuck the same whore. Or so they said. They also all chewed the same Red Man tobacco, and at times Tunny thought he saw Gus and Ike exchanging a pair of dentures, a set of fake teeth the color of yellowed newspaper. Ike, though, unlike Gus and Zeke, Ike wore his hair as thick and lapped over and unflappable as any TV anchorman. He also pressed his forest-green shelter shirts and forest-green shelter pants himself, and his black shoes were as shiny as any soldier's on parade day. It was only when he got around his cousins that his clipped yes sirs and no ma'ams gave way to fuck no and shee-it fire. It was only when all three of them were in the same room or pen or van or car that Tunny would notice the lump of tobacco in Ike's cheek, or the dentures he and Gus sometimes seemed to pass back and forth.

Tunny Welds, Tunny would whisper to Reena while she slept, Tunny Welds wasn't supposed to end up in no goddamn animal-murdering animal shelter. Tunny Welds, third-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers out of Sonoma State, he had future Pro Bowler written all over him two years ago. Never mind all those off-the-field distractions—his dad's heart attack, his wife's newfound lupus—all before training camp. That would all just be triumphant back story stuff later on, or so the Panthers' press-relations guy kept telling him. But Tunny and his rookie-camp roommate, a second-round junior out of Notre Dame, neither one of them even made it to the preseason. And not for anything as dramatic as a torn ACL or a shattered forearm or being busted for amphetamines. The coach simply cut him. Two weeks of minicamp and gone. You're not quite right for our system, he'd said to Tunny. One man cutting loose another, without a whit of compassion or a word about reliability.

Nor did Tunny fit into any other team's system. He tried out with six other teams after that and practiced maybe a day or two with each before someone from the club would walk up to him in the locker room and give him that tired old line. Not quite right for our system. Not this system, not that system. Tunny too focused on the only pro game he'd ever known to even stoop to playing in Canada or Europe or arena ball. Until finally Tunny settled back in with his degenerative wife here in eastern Massachusetts, far from his desert hometown, far from his alma mater, but nearer his wife's sister and father in Worcester, and, desperate for money, Tunny had signed on with the town's animal control shelter.

The shelter sat on the southernmost edge of town, a five-acre afterthought on one of the county's former landfills. Out near the abandoned railroad tracks, past the bus station, past the privately run youth corrections center. Behind the shelter, beyond the dog pens and the hurricane fence, lay an old oval, a barely discernible dirt track covered over with hawthorn and sumac where in the forties and fifties the city once hosted stock car races. Tunny had discovered the course the week after he and his wife had moved to town, the night of his wife's first stay in the hospital. Under half a dirty moon, Tunny had wandered out back of St. Dymphna's, stumbled onto the old railroad ties, and followed the rail line to where it paralleled the oval track, and from midnight to dawn, he'd cleared away a one-hundred-yard stretch of earth wide enough for him to run sprint after sprint after sprint. When he wasn't in the hospital, in his wife's room, watching her struggle to breathe, giving weak witness to her deterioration, Tunny was at the oval, sprinting: ten yards, twenty yards, forty, sixty, one hundred yards, doing push-ups, doing sit-ups, putting himself through lateral drills, clearing away more debris, the words of his coaches, his wife, the NFL coaches and the doctors running through his mind over and over, Tunny running them into the broken ground of the oval, tumbling, jumping, falling, covering imaginary receivers, batting down imaginary passes, intercepting imaginary balls. The stray dogs at the shelter staring at him from below the string of hurricane wire, from behind their chain-link pens, their heads cocked to one side in curiosity and consternation, their noses straining upward for Tunny's smell. Their ears twitching. Their dog eyes resigned. But rarely moving, rarely barking.

The sun salmon-green, peeking through the white ash and silver maple, Tunny bare-chested, soaked in sweat and dew, sticky with grass and leaves and dirt, near to vomiting from exhaustion when Zeke stepped out from behind the collapsed wooden bleacher. Like dogs? he said, leaning his bent-over body against one of the splintered boards. Tunny shrugged. I don't dislike them. Tunny thinking back to his dogless childhood, to the happy stories his wife would tell about Sparky, the cocker spaniel her parents gave her for her seventh birthday, thinking about how hard his wife had cried when Sparky had to be put to sleep at the end of their sophomore year in college, the year they met. Tunny suddenly aware then of the din, the rabid noise and the condemned movements coming from the pens. The dogs shrieking, swirling back and forth, up and down in their cages, frothing, biting at the metal links of the fence. The small razory smile cutting across the bottom of the tall old man's sunburnt face, the four-fingered sunlight directly in his eyes and his eyes not squinting at all. Dogs seem to like you, he said, spitting a stream of brown into the ground over his shoulder.

Two days later, after spending the first part of the night at St. Dymphna's beside his bloating wife, Tunny pushed himself close to puking again at the oval, showered at the shelter, slept through the morning in one of the empty animal pens, and drove through town all the next afternoon in his Fairlane, Gus riding shotgun, Gus pointing out the best places in town for finding pussy, for finding pooch—The best places, you'll soon see, said Gus, hardly turning his head to shoot a thin cylinder of Red Man out his window, the best places for both usually being one and the same. Tunny laughing with him that afternoon, too tired not to, too thrown by Gus's emphysemic rasp, a rasp so like his wife's lupus laugh, so like the tight-chested laughter of his high school coach. Tunny grateful right then for any kind of laughter.

The vets were all Tunny had at the shelter. In town. The veterinarians, the doctors, were both women, both fresh out of animal medical school, both more focused on their mortgages, their own pets, their two newborn girls, and their careers to much bother with Tunny. The manager, Dan, a bachelor in his early forties, he still had his eye on his old job as accounts manager at Wang, up on 128, and Tunny, superstitious, wary of the deformed and the injured, had always thought it bad luck for an athlete to get too friendly with people who limped, people who'd been in car accidents, people who, like Dan, the shelter manager, had only a thumb and a pinkie for a left arm. The dispatcher, Sheila, she had two kids and an abusive boyfriend and often showed up at the shelter bruised, in tears, with one of her teens in tow, or not at all. Leaving Tunny to the vets, the ones who'd taken him in, trained him.

Men had never especially scared Tunny before, or manipulated him, not even his coaches, but the shelter vets were of an entirely different breed. He should've left after that first month of work a year and a half ago. After four carefree weeks chasing cats, learning about canine hip dysplasia, and returning a blind old Scottish terrier to its blind old woman owner, that fifth Friday afternoon at the shelter had been Tunny's initiation of sorts, his hazing. It was the day the vets had switched him over from picking up stray dogs and shutting them up in the trunk of his Ford to issuing him an actual van. It was also that same afternoon that he'd retrieved Chin-Chin, Reena Sneerson's pride and joy, her Westminster-bound basset hound purebred. He should've noticed it right then: not just the smell of Reena's Opium deep inside Chin-Chin's fur, as Tunny hugged the dog tight to his chest and put the bubbly animal up front next to him, but that tangy mix of Red Man and Blue Ox unfiltereds staining the dog's paws and leather collar.

Bitter as the skunkweed and Thunderbird in their throats, spiteful of Tunny's youth and potential and his lack of utter disgust at humanity, and simply cruel, Tunny later reasoned, the shelter vets had gathered out back of the lengthwise row of nine chain-link fence dog pens that Friday to show Tunny one of their so-called stupid pet tricks. Stoned, drunk, drunk and stoned, they'd let an Irish setter and a dark gray mutt out of one of the cages and had tied the dogs' hind legs together and then to each other back to back. But before lashing the two dogs together, the vets had mashed two or three bananas into the back ends of both animals—so that the two dogs were simultaneously yelping and snapping at each other, their spines twisted and torqued, while trying to eat the remains of the bananas from out of their anuses.

Tunny tried to walk out, then laugh, then turn angry. All the while Gus blocked his way, or Ike winked at him, or Ike and Zeke together would kick at the dogs.

Fuckers gon' be dead by t'morrah nohow. What fuck difference it make? said Zeke, the Red Man pushing at the inside corner of his cheek like a tumor. A small pool of spittle lay between his size-fifteen Caterpillars, the laces untied as always, spidery, the zipper to his blue-gray canvas worksuit opened to just above his navel. He had on a white tank top undershirt, and Tunny could see the scythe-shaped keloid scar that ran along the inside of his left shoulder. The one Zeke called his stray shoulder, the shoulder he'd separated and reseparated and separated again and again and again trying to heave to too many rabid runaway dogs.

Chin-Chin pulled nervously at the leash, the short shelter choke chain tugging at Tunny, pleading. But not confused, thought Tunny. Familiar, as if the dog had seen this trick plenty of times before, or experienced it herself. Chin-Chin spinning a half circle one way, a half circle back, opening her mouth as if to bark, to protest, spinning again instead, half biting at Tunny's shins and ankles.

Tunny tried to watch, figuring it the easiest way to get the veterans' respect, get them to stop, get him out and home to his heaving wife. His wife home for once. He knew he smelled of Reena, and the sooner he could get home and shower her off him the better.

'Sides, I know you frat boys done much worse to them so-rorty chicks, said Ike, the steel toe of his U. S. Marines-clean workboot dulled by the stringy meat of the bananas. What's this compared to gang-bangin' a l'il ol' virgin?

True, thought Tunny. In the middle of the Panthers' minicamp Tunny's Notre Dame roommate had brought back some drunk college sophomore one night and while he mechanically fucked her from behind, Tunny and six of his fellow free agents and draftees had watched them from inside the closet, laughing at how ugly she was, the feel of their hard-ons—one against Tunny's left shoulder blade, the other against his right calf—pressing into him, the seven of them fixated at how them huge big-ass fuckin' tits of hers, as one guy in the closet practically shouted, kept flopping back and forth against the headboard. The woman's liquory face twisting, jerking around now and then at the laughter and the grunts from inside the closet, conscious, Tunny knew, of what was going on. Or conscious enough. The Irish kid, each time she tried to look back, forcing her forward with a hand twice the size of her head. Look at these hands, he'd said to Tunny as they turned in after their first day of practice. Fifteen inches long from wrist to fingertip. I can wrap these mothers all the way around a football and still have enough finger left to pick my nose. I should've been a wide receiver. I got hands as big as Harold Carmichael's. Twice as big as Jerry Rice's. The biting smell of the Atomic Balm, smeared all over the woman's backside and on his roommate's erection, filling the cramped dorm room. Up until that night, a scent Tunny associated only with back spasms and torn ligaments, Ace bandages and whirlpools, a smell now as strong and burning as the ammonia-scrubbed cement floor inside the dogs' cages.

True again, thought Tunny, his eyes still on Ike's soiled boots, Chin-Chin still gnawing at him, at his Achilles' heel, Tunny's dick shifting inside his Wranglers, the dry cum of his sperm and Reena's fluids crusty, mingled, stuck to the inner metal lining of his zipper. Too true. He'd left his Jockeys on Reena's hallway carpet hours earlier and before he could retrieve them, he'd watched helplessly, beyond Reena's undulating back, her lupus-free body so shiny and alive pinning him underneath her on her little girl's bed—How did I end up here? Why am I doing this?—as Chin-Chin scooped up the poodle-blue cotton underwear into her drooly jaws and jogged off out of sight.

Chin-Chin was due for another shot, the vets had told him that Friday afternoon. Never mind the bitch has a home, Gus had said, waving off Tunny's quizzical eyebrows, underlining another passage in his Tom Clancy book with his ballpoint. Reena, that's the dog's mistress, she forget to bring that dog of hers in last week. So now you got to retrieve her. The dog, that is. And Gus let out that wheezy laugh of his, pushing the Red Man air through his nostrils in dry spurts, a grin cracking the stubble on his chin. Gus not looking up at Tunny at all, not even lifting his Bic off the page, still doodling notes in the margins of his Clancy hardcover.

The first thing Tunny noticed about Reena was the detail she'd had specially installed in the corner of her kitchen: a miniature shower head and a drain—a small salmon-tiled area near the door and dog door that led to her backyard. Yeah, she said, handing Tunny a glass of lemonade. People can't seem to get over it. A shower for my dog?

It does seem silly, he said. Tunny aware of the steady unencumbered rise and fall of Reena's blouse. A satiny sky-blue blouse. The tiny gold cross, no bigger than Tunny's pinkie nail, suspended on a tiny gold chain, the cross haloed by the freckles on Reena's orange chest. The same mite-size crucifix Jesus as hung around the neck of the Notre Dame kid at the Panthers' minicamp.

It is, she said. But then they weren't the ones having to unclog the dog hair from my pipes every six weeks. Besides, as often as I bathe that dog, it just didn't seem right for us to be sharing a bathtub and a bed.

He sleeps with you, too? Tunny following Reena through the living room and down the hallway, past the framed photos of Chin-Chin, of Reena and Chin-Chin atop Cadillac Mountain, at the Cape, at a local dog show. Tunny trailing Reena's opiate scent as if dangling from an invisible cord.

She. Chin-Chin's a she, Reena said, turning around suddenly into Tunny's stiff too-small fading forest-green uniform, the backs of her knees brushing the edge of her bed, her nurse's smell intimate, her biceps flexing as she moved her arms upward.

Chin-Chin, afterward, stepping in and out of her dog-sized tub, nudging the shower head with the tip of her creamy nose. Dirty. Expectant. Reena naked, viscous, scooping the dog up and into Tunny's arms. It's okay, sweetie, Reena saying, this man's going to take good care of you while Mommy goes to work. You need your shots, Reena squeezing her breasts into the both of them. Otherwise, you can't compete.

That's right, said Tunny, seizing a hunk of Chin-Chin's fur in his fist, easing the hound into the passenger seat. Your Reena's right. You gotta be in the game if you wanna compete.

The vets sighed collectively, bored at the dogs, the two animals dropping to their stomachs, the vets one by one looking over at Tunny. What's the matter boy? they said, their spavined eyes, their spavined breath, closing in on him. Ike's inflamed flaky scalp peeking through the cracks of his anchorman's hair, Gus's dentures covered in a thick tobacco saliva, Zeke absentmindedly pinching at his keloid. All three stood up from the benches along the pens, moved in on Tunny. Oh, we ain't gettin' nothin' out a this 'un, said Gus, flicking his Bic-stained index finger along Tunny's Adam's apple. Not by the hair of his chinny chin chin. And they all laughed their spavined laugh.

And that was when Tunny should have run. Right then. Out of the shelter. Out of Reena Sneerson's life. Out of his wife's life. Before any of them really got started. Run now, he remembered telling himself, Chin-Chin twined around one foot, the ass-tongue breath of the three men moist on his eyes and lips. But the setter wouldn't stop twitching and snapping, its upper lip curled over its teeth in desperation, and then the other dog, the night-gray half-shepherd half-hound had started pulling in the opposite direction—and something about the dogs' movements, the way the twilight sunlight moved in and out of their red and blackish fur, reminded Tunny of the rhythms of his wife's phlegm-ridden chest and the way her bare feet stretched out beyond the end of her hospital bed, reaching for the ground, reaching to walk. Tunny unable to move. Guilty. Seized by the same quicksand terror that had moved through him right before the start of senior year in high school, during the annual mid-August scrimmage with St. Pius, when the Knights' quarterback, Racer Brady, already a pick for All-State, a beautifully sculpted black kid with a 4.14 GPA and an angelic voice, the district champion two years running in the two hundred meters and high jump, a friend of Tunny's Tunny had known since their Pee Wee days, Racer had juked the defensive end and the linebacker, faked the pitch to his halfback, and had started to cut back against the flow of tacklers, Tunny's teammates, and was about to spring upfield untouched, into the ninety-five-degree late-afternoon sun, when one of the cleats in Racer's right shoe caught on a sprinkler head, Tunny coming at Racer in full pads at 4.42 seconds per forty yards, Tunny having read the play at the line of scrimmage, before Racer had even received the ball from the center, Tunny having remembered the way St. Pius's freshman flanker wriggled his hips on Racer's previous quarterback option play, Tunny bearing down on the five-foot eleven-inch, one-hundred-sixty-eight pound Racer from the other side of the field, Tunny able to gather up all his one hundred and ninety-one pounds in that twenty-yard distance between himself and his opponent, able to gather it up and transform himself into one of those immutable laws of physics from Mr. Schiff's textbooks, Tunny transforming himself into an oncoming car, zeroing in on Racer from the weak side, from Racer's blind side, Coach Herzl's pregame talk with Tunny blinding Tunny, besieging him, provoking him, fucking with Tunny's disposition, his nature—You can't be afraid to cripple a man, Welds. We all know the risks going in. You can tear up a knee, or a shoulder, or a neck. And boom! You're in a wheelchair the rest of your life, or you're tied to a cane, or you need help just to put on a shirt. You think Daryl Stingley didn't know the risks? Preseason game or not, that hit he took was perfectly legal, perfectly clean. Jack Tatum has no reason in the world to feel guilty for crippling that man, which is why I show you boys that videotape before every game: I do not care what the score is or who you're lining up against, your mama, your brother, or if it's your own damn kid, or if it's one second left in a run-through with the second unit, until that whistle blows, you play to kill. You stick your opponent every time out with the intention that he either stays on the ground by choice or because he physically cannot raise himself. Stingley ain't nothing but a crybaby. Imagine, a grown man and he's still begging for an apology out of Tatum. Screw Stingley! He'd'a hit Tatum just as vicious if the situation had been reversed. And if he says he wouldn't'a hit Tatum as hard as Tatum hit him, no coach on this green earth of God's would want that lying pussy sonofabitch playing on his team. Not a coach on this planet, Welds. Not a coach on this planet—Coach Herzl's whole being right there inside Tunny's helmet, inside his skull, then that queer popping sound ringing in Tunny's ears right before he made contact, the sound of Racer's tendons and ligaments snapping in twos and threes, a grotesque twisting sound caused by a three-inch piece of round seventy-six-cent brass catching on a two-and-a-quarter-inch knob of four-cent plastic, Coach Herzl's tirade breaking in half, in quarters, echoing, reverberating, Racer not ever seeing Tunny out of the corner of his left eye, Tunny churning the dry uneven Arizona turf with a weird adolescent cocktail of fear and hatred, his helmeted head already angled downward, shoulder pads downward, chest downward, legs shooting upward, his calves tensed, his thighs springy in expectation of Racer's resistance, the resistance never there, then the other sound, the explosion of bone and muscle and vertebrae as loud and deep as the sound Tunny would later hear in his sleep and sometimes on the field when he least needed to hear it, the sound of someone throwing a bowling ball onto a pile of lumber, someone hurtling a ten-pound shot of iron-hard fiberglass downward, down from the uppermost bleacher at school, the ball rocketing onto the shellacked dry-rotting sixty-two-year-old wooden floor of Tunny's high school gym.

Coach Herzl nodding his head, his thin lips moving, Killer stick, Wells. Good killer stick. Racer's right shoe on the patch of dirt near the sprinkler, ten feet away. Racer's yellow Pius sock half off, torn, part of it caught on the sprinkler. The white sole of his black foot half visible. Athletic. Roman. Asleep. His wife's feet twitching and awake. The rest of her lying there unconscious. Underwater. The underwater sunlight flickering in and out of the dogs' banana-slick fur.

His burning-brown eyes squinting directly into the Saturday-evening sun ahead, the image of the roan Lab still before him, the words for Reena still ajumble in his head, Tunny backed up his van into Reena's garage but not without letting off the clutch too quickly. How funny, he thought, the van jerking, the van bumping upward, that I'm here to say good-bye to Reena when it's her dog I've really come to love. The van still in reverse, rolling downward again, Tunny recognizing Chin-Chin's muted voice behind him, underneath him. The snapping, the crunch and grind, registering a split-second after.

Jesus, Lord, what was that? Tunny said to himself, the popping of bones intermingling sweetly with the high-pitched beeping noises of the van. Tunny shifted into forward and the crunching sounds repeated, only softer this time. Jesus, Lord, he said again, stepping out of the van, stepping around the two dogs, around Chin-Chin and the fourteen-year-old beagle from next door, Mr. Puddles. Jesus Lord no, he said.

Tunny bent down, rubbed his callused palms over his stiff black jeans. A steely mix of sex and death, of wet dog hair and grease and exhaust, flowed across the smooth concrete floor of Reena's garage in irregular wavelets.

Tunny had seen dogs stuck together, but never as grotesquely as this. Mortally locked now inside Chin-Chin, Mr. Puddles licked the back of the dying bitch's neck. Mr. Puddles, whiskered, the fur on his thin legs nearly all gone, continued to pump, thrusting weakly, brokenly at Chin-Chin as if he were trying to hump the two of them back to life, or maybe just to the corner of Reena's flower bed right outside her garage, Tunny couldn't tell. If I had me a gun, he said to the two dogs, his syntax coming out of him unconsciously lately in that back-country way of the shelter vets, I'd put y'all out of yer misery. Tunny took off his green and yellow shelter cap, stroked the dogs' dying backs with the cap's bill. He could hear Reena through the garage/living room door, talking on the phone, laughing.

Reena's bedroom lay at the opposite end of the garage—in between were the kitchen, with Chin-Chin's shower, the living room, and the long purple plush-carpeted hallway leading to the bedroom and bathroom. Reena, on the phone, hadn't heard the van's warning beeps or the shattering of bones, and neither Mr. Puddles nor Chin-Chin had so much as yelped. When Tunny had trudged in unexpectedly at nine, Reena had just put down her cellular and taken off her nurse's uniform—she still had on a pair of white-sheen hose, a white-lace bra and underwear, and a plastic ID bracelet a ten-year-old boy had tied around her wrist that morning after she'd held his hand during a CAT scan. Reena, though, looked absolutely unsurprised. It's okay, sweetie, she said to Tunny, her face the same expression as on that first day more than a year ago, the same look Tunny's wife had had the night she'd let Tunny go, the night she'd talked about compassion, reliability. Loyalty.

I know how difficult this has been for you, she'd said, her voice sinking, her sister and father outside, down the hall.

Tunny's skin soaked in Reena's sweat, his pants and boots permanently faint with ammonia. The railroad tracks visible through his wife's window. A minute, a minute and a half going by each time before she could speak. I know how much football means to you and what it's given to you. Her eyelids brown, too heavy to lift, to search for Tunny, look at him, for more than a second or two. But you can't let it rule over everything you do. You can't let them dictate your life, Tunny. Tunny Welds is more than a football player, more than some guy working in an animal shelter. Tunny, the Tunny I know, the Tunny I married, Tunny's much more than he thinks he is.

Tunny reaching down to his wife's feet, rubbing her ankles and tendons, searching her lower limbs for definition, for reassurance. Holding on, barely holding on.

Remember how you held me when Mom and Dad had Sparky put to sleep? Remember how you were after Racer's injury? The light blue St. Dymphna's bedsheet half covering his wife's feet. I talked to Racer—after my diagnosis, after we moved here. Her eyes moving rapidly, rabidly, underneath her closed eyelids, moving as if she were deep in REM, sinking into a far-off dream. He's not angry, Tunny. I'm not angry. Her eyes still. It's too late for rage. Her feet cold to Tunny's caress, the sleep overtaking her legs, moving upward to her hips, her pubis, her abdomen. . . . You know who you are better than anyone else, she said, fading. It's just up to you to know that, too. For yourself. Not for me or Racer. Not for your coaches. For you. For Tunny Welds.

Saying nothing, Tunny removed his clothes and lay down on Reena's bed underneath her. In the full-length mirror across the bed and behind her, he saw her undulating back as shiny and smooth as ever.

Lying there, his spine oozing into Reena's queen-size mattress, he thought about his wife before the disease. He thought about his father, about Racer. He thought of Mr. Puddles and Chin-Chin, and his coaches always shouting, always in his head, always crowding out everything else. Get in the game, Welds! Stop thinking and just react. One coach always contradicting the other. Think! says the one. Too many mental errors, he says, pointing his red finger at his red temple, his face permanent disgust. Think about what you're doing. Stop thinking! says the other. Think about where you're supposed to be—No, just react. Irony, men. It's when your father dies the day before you're drafted. Think! It's when you cripple your best friend and you start fucking around on your dying wife. Stop thinking! It's when you know you're better than everybody else, but you take yourself out of the game anyway. React! It's when life makes no sense, no sense at all. Irony. It's when Tunny noticed how setter-red Reena's hair had become, how razor-thin her mouth turned when she came.

And the more he stroked Reena's henna-red hair, the more the room smelled of chewing tobacco and stale cigarettes. I get it now, Tunny said to himself, to his wife, to his coaches. Reena's plastic bracelet scratching against the side of his chest, lifting away tiny pieces of his skin. I don't want to, but I get it.

Seconds before he woke up, he thought he saw Chin-Chin waddle in and then steal off down the hallway with his underwear.

The last team to let him go had been the Saints. He'd outplayed all the other rookies, outcovered the veterans and the free agents, spent his nights watching film. Studying New Orleans' playbook, memorizing their defensive schemes. Staying late in the weight room, the first one in on two-a-days, always leaving with the other coaches at midnight, past midnight. What more could he have done? How much more could he have given? His father dead, his wife's condition worsening each day, Tunny not there to help her, unable even to visit her in the hospital.

The judgment so true as to be bizarre. The secondary coach who told him, Willie Simpkins, Tunny couldn't have asked for anyone less qualified to judge him, to deliver upon him. Simpkins, a journeyman at best, Darrell Green's understudy for all of two years with the Redskins. You ain't got that killer instinct, kid, Willie had said, the spittle from the Skoal clogging his words as he spoke. His words minty and wet. Tunny looking down on the black man's thirty-two-year-old head and shoulders with disbelief, disdain. The head coach gone, the weekend already there, the rest of the team back in the dorms, about to leave for the start of the preseason in Miami. No one for Tunny to turn to, to back up Simpkins's decision. You got all the tools and you work hard as anybody ever come through here, Willie went on, working the Skoal viciously, his Florida A&M accent thick and slow. But to make it at this level you can't just wanna kill. It ain't somethin you can learn, it ain't somethin we can teach you. You gotta have it in you. It's somethin you're born with, Welds, and you just ain't got it.

Tunny wanting to hit the man as hard as Tatum had hit Stingley, to hit him as hard as he'd hit Racer. Wishing he could wheel Racer in, parade him into the Saints locker room, into the locker rooms of every team in the league, show Racer to every coach who'd rejected him. You don't think I got it in me, you just ask. Ask Racer. Ask my wife. Tunny nauseated, trying to swallow away Simpkins's peppermint-stained sentence. They'll tell you. They'll tell you all you need to know.

The two dogs had disappeared from the garage. It was well past midnight and where they had been lying now lay a gradually dissolving patch of heat and sweat, saliva and hair, and from out of that led a pink and brown trail that stopped at the edge of Reena's front lawn.

It took three hours for Tunny to find them. They had crawled a distance of probably a mile, a mile and a half, and had died at the edge of the track, under a hickory tree, the tallest and oldest of all the trees that surrounded the oval. The dogs lay slumped over, Mr. Puddles's whitish belly spooned up against Chin-Chin's deformed back, the two of them as still as a small sleeping couple. Tunny picked them up in his arms and carried them over to the shelter. None of the vets were there so Tunny let himself in, left the lights off, and placed the dead dogs in the back, in the area outside the pens where the vets had tortured so many other animals every week before officially putting them to sleep.

It was early in the morning, still too early for sunup, but the fifty or so dogs there in the pound had seen Tunny at the track, had seen him come in and lay down Chin-Chin and Mr. Puddles. Some of the dogs began to bark. Most of them already know death's waiting, thought Tunny. They know Chin-Chin and Mr. Puddles are dead. They can smell death on them. They can smell death's tongue licking at the edges of their chain-link fences too, licking at the lips of their food bowls. Licking, Tunny reasoned, like death soon would at my wife's, at my ex-wife's, swollen toes.

Maybe it makes perfect sense to them, thought Tunny. But it doesn't make any sense to me, perfect or imperfect. It doesn't make any sense at all. Why hadn't his coaches ever told him that? Why hadn't his wife ever warned him of that?

Yeah, he said in the darkness, picking up the long pneumatic pistol as he moved to unlock the first of the nine pens, those fuckin' vets got one thing dead-on if nothing else. Y'all are gonna die soon enough anyway. Tunny pausing, looking beyond the pens, over to the oval, to the weeds that had sprouted up along the path he had cleared for himself last year, a path he hadn't run on since that Friday afternoon a year and a half ago. Tunny spotting something out near the bleachers: patches of moonlight bouncing off a blackened wet coat, a pale tongue slack and panting, a pair of red eyes reflecting back at him. Tunny waiting, thinking back. Waiting at the stoplight near Reena's, at Spackley and Beale, the little girl directly beneath the flashing Walk Don't Walk sign, the dog at her heel, obedient, wise—the roan Lab without the leash. Tunny muttering to himself, It ain't a game no more, is it? It ain't so ironic now, is it? Pacing back and forth before the cages, dragging the barrel end of the pistol against the metal links. This ain't no fuckin' game. Tunny tightening his grip on the air gun, hearing himself bark at the Labrador, at the darkness, watching himself from afar—opening the pens, opening the back fence, the dogs loose, dashing out and across the overgrown racetrack, yelping, galloping, disappearing into the woods. The red eyes gone, the gun still in Tunny's hand, the roan Lab never there.

He could hardly believe how easy it was, how easily he'd become so like them. So young, he said to himself, as he grabbed one dog and then the next and then the next by the fleshy fur under their necks, patted their noses and backs, looked deep into their dog's eyes—how strange that they all have brown eyes or black eyes—looking deep into those eyes for some kind of answer, or a question, something, anything that would stop him, the crack of the skulls barely audible as the force of lifeless concentrated air hit them, the contact hardly as loud as the sound of two helmets hitting. Certainly not as violent as the fracture of Racer's neck or as haunting as the damp-broken cadence of his wife's fluid-filled lungs. The stupid beasts, all these best friends, falling to the side as easy as a marriage, a parent, a career, not one of them resisting him or attacking him or trying to dissuade him from his task, all just as hopeful as the one before, all just as hopeful as Tunny had been. Such a waste, he said, repressurizing the air in the barrel. Such a waste.

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