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T. J. Forrester

Hand Me Down Blood

When the bus opens its doors and riders spill into the aisle, I remain in my seat and peer out the window at a man sitting on the sidewalk. Sunlight bounces off a wine bottle--MD 20 20--cheap, nasty, buzz guaranteed. Between his feet, a dog licks at a brown puddle. Vomit, I assume. The man has knotted hair, a loose-jawed expression. I wonder if he knew my father, if they went to Happy Hour and bought each other two-for-one draft beer. Got drunk and talked about women, spring days that warmed their pickled skins, the best steaks they ever ate.

I make my way to the front and down the steps. The feed store is adjacent to the terminal and the air smells musty as a compost pile. It's a settled-in smell, a going nowhere odor, and it's the same as the day I left.

The driver drags suitcases from the luggage compartment and sets them at his feet. I give him my claim ticket--Taz Chavis #650-569--and tell him the duffel bag is mine. I have a construction job waiting back in Atlanta and I'm traveling light. Eight day trip. Three days coming, two days here, three days going.

The driver hands me my bag and I step around the man on the sidewalk. The dog shows his teeth and I lash out with my foot. A yelp, and the dog sidles down the sidewalk.

"Stupid mutt," I say, then say it again.

Last time I was in this town, my voice was high-pitched. Now it's deeper, a man's voice, and I like how it sounds.

I walk past the courthouse in the square, the barbershop on the corner, the Farmer's Mercantile Bank next to Rexall Drugs. On a bench outside the VFW, old men sit like birds on a wire. A breeze, grittiness that abrades everything it touches, blows off the desert and down the streets. I grew up here, in the middle of nowhere. Hawkinsville, Wyoming--king of nowhere--man's intrusion into mesquite, cacti, sand, and rattlesnakes.

Four blocks along I stop in front of Roy's Tavern. I spent my evenings watching my father through these windows. Dressed in a hat, suspendered jeans, and unlaced tennis shoes, he drank beer and ate pretzels seven nights a week. The door, refugee from an old time saloon, had been jimmied so it swung inward, a concession to residents who complained about exiting drunks knocking sober citizens off their feet. That door . . . I hated that door and its physical imposition between me and my father. Some evenings I imagined it was my portal to manhood and in my dreams flung it open and exclaimed, "Pop, the next one's on me." But I never did. I knew better than to bother my father when he sat on a bar stool.


Pop was county dog-catcher, and he drove a pickup that had a cage in the bed. At the pound it was his responsibility to kill unclaimed animals. He called the gas chamber Canine Auschwitz, and his tone was without humor. His job led him to the bottle--my opinion--but mother put his drinking to hand-me-down blood, said my father's father was a drunk and to watch out or I'd go to hell with the both of them. I endured her sermons until she ran off with an evangelist who drove a Cadillac and sported a ring on every finger. She sent me Christmas presents from towns in Arizona, Maine, South Dakota, Michigan, and Colorado. I appreciated her effort, but the presents were infantile, like she didn't know I was growing up. Pop told me she died of ovarian cancer. Town rumor had her jumping off the Golden Gate or suffocating in a mine collapse in West Virginia. I settled for suicide by bridge. There was something romantic about flying through air while water approached at an exponential rate.


"My father used to come here," I say.

I've gone through two pitchers and started on my third. Maria, a barfly who wandered over soon as I pulled up a stool, murmurs appreciatively, something she's done since I slid the first beer her way. Maria wears her hair pulled away from her forehead. She has a broad face, brown as toast, someone who I imagine likes tortillas and sun. I look toward the window and think about my father. How did he feel about my nose pressed to the pane? Mother said I had his hair, his eyes, his jaw. She said I had a Chavis jaw, strong like a bull. She said my eyes were black as midnight, and my hair was a young woman's dream. Did my father see himself? Did he brag about his boy?

Maria stuffs her blouse into her jeans and limps, cowgirl boots scraping the floor, toward the jukebox. She plunks four of my quarters into the slot, pushes a button, and a dusty old song fills the room. I guzzle beer and listen to her stumble over lyrics about skinning bucks and running trot-lines. When she hits the part about surviving, I pull her chair closer to mine. She sits and I put my hand on her thigh.

"Drink up," I say.

She lifts her beer, takes a healthy swallow, puts the mug on the bar. "You're a little skinny. You sure you don't have AIDS or something?"

"Prison food, it'll starve a man to death."

"Three hots and a cot," she says.

I pour her a full one and listen to her tell about life back in Fort Redshire. I tell her I've never heard of that town and she says it's too small for the map. She says she grew up there.

"One time--this was when I was sixteen--I fell and broke my arm when I was riding my pony. Snap, just like that. One snap is all it took. . . . You may not believe it to look at me, but I have fragile bones."

"Life's a bitch."

"What are you talking about?" she says.

"I'm drunk."

"Me too."

She looks down at my hand.

"That won't do me any good," she says. "Feeling my leg like that."

I withdraw and return to my beer. Cunt. Or maybe I've lost my touch. I don't know which, and don't care. Maria raps her leg, a solid sound.

"Walnut," she says. "Motorcycle accident down in Tulsa. Would have killed me if I didn't have my helmet on."

I move my hand to the other leg. It's warmer and softer and I'm damned drunk to have rubbed a wooden leg. The door, the one I despised for so long, swings inward and the drunk at the bus terminal falls through the sunlit opening to the floor. We look at him, then return to our beers.

"I'm thinking of getting a room," I say.

"We could go down to the Mesquite Motel. You know that one? It's got vibrating beds and pink wallpaper. Nicest in town."

"Did you say you knew my father?"

"I didn't catch his name, sweetie."

"Wesley Chavis. Friends called him Wes for short."

"Wes?" she says.

"Wes Chavis. He used to come in here when I was a kid."

"Oh, sure. I knew Wes. Everybody knew Wes."

Her tone makes me think she's lying, but I don't care. If she wants to get naked it's okay with me.

We get up and I take one last look around.

"Did you know my father?" I say.

"You already asked me that, sweetie."

"I'm fucking plastered," I say.

"Me too, sweetie."

We step around the man, open the door, and shuffle into afternoon sunlight. She drapes her arm around my waist and we lean on each other. I push the door and watch it go in and come back. The dog sits on the sidewalk. He looks at me and I look at him. I tell Maria to wait a minute and I go in the bar and buy three pickled eggs. I go outside and put the eggs on the sidewalk. The dog comes over to the eggs and eats them in two gulps. Let's go, I say to Maria. We walk up the street and I don't look back.


Awake hours were the hardest thing about prison, and I envied the guys who could sleep fourteen hours a day. Tony Dobson was one of those guys. One morning, while we dressed for breakfast, he told me he got nine years for raping his secretary. We were in prison blues, buttoning our shirts, backs to each other in the six-by-twelve cell. I told him I was doing a year for dealing. "Sold bootleg jeans out of a van, had a coke business on the side. DA dropped the bootleg charges but sent me up on the coke. I was getting by, you know?"

That was our first real conversation. Most of the time he slept, while I stared at walls, picked at food, and tried to stay on good terms with the guards. Toward the end of my stretch I received a letter. I knew without looking it wasn't from anyone I'd met on the east coast. I'd lived in Atlanta for seven years, getting spun on coke, drinking till I passed out, and I'd met a lot of people. None who would write me a letter. On the street, friends were like Styrofoam cups. Some got crushed, others blew out of sight. Nothing was permanent on the street. A guy went to prison and a week later he never existed.

I spent my night thinking about what was inside the envelope. Whenever I slid my hand under the pillow and picked at the flap, I felt buoyant--a man floating into a new day--someone with places to go and things to see. When I couldn't take it anymore, I lit a match and read under flickering flame. My father was dead. There was a will. I had papers to sign--formalities--could I please come to Hawkinsville when released. Tony heard me cussing and asked what's the matter.

"Nothing," I said. "Burnt my fingers on this damn match is all."

I tucked the letter in the envelope, put my hands behind my head, and listened to cons snore in the cell across the hall. Hawkinsville. I hadn't thought about that town in years.


Maria and I come to a tavern and go inside. This one's same as the first: country music, cheap beer on tap, a couple of regulars humped over the bar. I've decided to see the lawyer, so I'm sipping coffee, doing my best to sober up. Maria drinks beer and nibbles pretzels. I put one in my mouth and work my tongue around a salt crystal. We're at a table next to the window and through the smudges I see the dog moving around on the sidewalk.

"That dog," I say.


"That dog, it followed us."

"I'm worn out," she says. "I can't walk any farther."

Maria rolls up a pant leg. "Doctors wanted to give me one of those titanium thingies, but I wanted one made out of wood."

"It looks heavy," I say, and pour cream into my coffee. I sip, then add more cream. Overhead, suspended from a mayonnaise-colored ceiling, a fan turns slow circles. The air smells faintly of bleach, like someone is cleaning the restrooms.

"Do you want some coke?" Maria says. "I can get us some coke, meth too. But I don't like it as well as coke--"

"That dog," I say. "He'd be looking at the gas chamber if my father was alive."

"They don't do that anymore."


"They use drugs and a needle to put them to sleep."

I go over to the bar and buy a package of potato chips, take it outside to the dog. I say to the dog, you are one lucky dog, then pour chips on the sidewalk.


Pop's sobrieties began January 1st and usually lasted a week, sometimes two. When I was six, he went almost eight months. It was a happy time. My mother sang when she did laundry, and I jumped up and down like my legs had Superman springs. My father brought home soda and peanuts, and in the evenings the three of us curled on the sofa and watched TV. Whenever one of them got up, like to pee or get more ice, I felt warm on one side and cold on the other.

One Saturday--this was one of those times when Pop was on the wagon--he drove me into the desert to see wild horses. He knew a spring where the herd watered twice a day. Once in the morning. Once in the evening. We went in the evening because Pop liked to sleep late when he wasn't chasing dogs. We stood on the downwind side, in a sandy patch behind waist-high mesquite. Pop talked in whispers.

"Watch when they come in," he said. "The stallions, watch the stallions. Always keep your nose in the wind, boy. Always be on the lookout."

I nodded, but I wasn't much interested in horses. I wanted a puppy, something I could pet and feed and let lick my face if it wanted.

After what seemed like forever, the herd browsed up and over a hill while two stallions circled toward the spring. One stallion was black, the other was chestnut. They stomped sand and tossed their heads up and down.

"Watch," my father said. "See how they've got their nose to the wind. See that? They're looking for danger."

"Stupid horses."

"Shush, you’ll scare them away."

"I want a puppy!"

My father's hand, a back-handed blur, connected with my cheek and I tumbled. I got up but stood off to the side. Later, on the way home, he bought me a soda and I put my head on his shoulder. He tousled my hair and called me a good boy.

Looking back, I suppose he was explaining his troubles with alcoholism. But then, he might have been telling about horses.


"Can you believe this?" I say, and show Maria the check. We're outside the lawyer's office and she sits on the curb with her leg extended like she dares someone to run over it. An ice cream truck, repetitive song blaring, turns the corner and comes up the opposite lane. I look over at the dog. He sits ten feet away, eyes on my face.

"That's a ton of money," Maria says. "With money like that we could buy a car and drive to California. Open an orange juice stand and sell fresh squeezed orange juice. All you can drink. We'd make a million, I bet."

"That dog's watching me."

"Scat!" she says. A ratty tail beats the sidewalk.

"It's like he knows what I'm thinking."

"They're smarter than people."

"Dogs," I say.

"This leg, it gets so heavy sometimes I wish I had a grocery cart. I'd put it in there and hop around behind it. Everyone would say, 'Here comes Maria the bunny hopper.' You never know what people will say. I'm on disability, did I tell you? Nine hundred a month. Got a room up on Roundtree Avenue, but the landlord, she don't allow any male visitors."

A man in a suit comes out of the lawyer's office and gets into a pickup. He drives off, hood ornament flashing like a mirror turned toward the sun. Down the way, a Mexican comes out of a clapboard shack and sits on the sidewalk. He takes his hat off and fans his face. It's hot, a different kind of heat than back in Atlanta. There the heat feels wet and warm; here it feels dry and blistery. My shirt is salt-stained and so is Maria's blouse; mine around the collar, hers under the armpits.

"The lawyer gave me a letter," I say. "From my father."

"Open it."

"I did already."


"It says," and I skim the letter. "It says. . . . This is what he wrote--it says if he could do it over again, he'd never touch a drop--he says he hoped I turned out all right--he says to do something good with the money."

"You look to me like you turned out all right."

"I'm all right," I say. "I'm doing all right. Got money I didn't have an hour ago."

"We're stinking rich."

I stare at her leg, nudge it with my foot. "You're the first one legged-woman I've seen. There was a one-armed Mexican back in Atlanta but I didn't know her very well."

"Give it a rest, sweetie."

I stuff the letter in my pocket. "My father would have killed that dog."

"He hated dogs?"

"I'm not sure," I say. "I really don't know."

"You're not an ax murderer or anything like that? You wouldn't rape me and chop me into little bits?"

"That's a stupid question."

"Never mind," she says. . . . "You can carve your initials into my leg if you want."

We get up and walk down the sidewalk. My duffel bag is gone and I can't remember where I left it. Maria asks if she can lean on my shoulder and I tell her okay as long as she doesn't step on my feet. The dog walks close to my heels. He smells like he rolled around in road kill.

"Einstein," I say.

"Pardon me?"

"That's his name."

"Einstein?" she says.

"That dog's one smart dog."

"I think he likes you."

"You think so?"

Her eyes are big and round and soft. "I think he'd follow you anywhere."


In eighth grade, I started smoking weed. No big thing. I rolled three joints in the morning, smoked one on the walk to school, the second during lunch, the third behind bleachers at gym glass. When my grades dropped, the counselor called me and Pop for a meeting. Pop was semi-drunk; I was semi-high. The counselor, this creep who wore bowties every Monday, said I was a stoner and suggested therapy. I stared at a bobble-head Elvis on his desk. Then pushed the head and watched it bobble. I giggled like crazy. Like I couldn't stop. I giggled until my stomach hurt and my throat burned.

On the way home, my father drove the pickup harder than normal. In the bed, the cage slid toward the cab when he braked, then slid toward the tailgate when he accelerated. He had his hat off and the pink spot where his hair was thinning gleamed with sweat.

"The counselor said we needed to spend more time together. Said your mother leaving and all that screwed you up in the head."

"Alcoholics Anonymous meets every Wednesday," I said. "Down at the Methodist church. We could sit together and cry big fat tears."

"Don't be a smart ass."

He pulled up to a stop sign and waved an old woman across. She had her head down and she pushed a cart filled with grocery bags.

"Paper or plastic," I said.


"I'm thinking of getting a job. Down at Green's Grocery, maybe bagging--"

"Nope," he said. "I already got you a job. Come Monday, you get out of school you walk your sorry ass down to the pound."

From that point on, Monday through Friday I fed and watered dogs, then cleaned cages with a water hose. Every other Wednesday I herded dogs down a hallway and into the gas chamber. Some dogs went with tails between their legs, others growled and snapped. My father shut the door, turned knobs, and stood in front of the porthole. I stood to the side and watched him reflect the struggle behind the glass. It was like watching a slide show where one picture fades into the next. The first few seconds he was the man who left the house after eating cereal for breakfast, a man in a hat and untied shoes headed for his everyday job. As time progressed--time that felt like hours but was only a few stretched-out minutes--his body stiffened like he resisted a strong wind. The skin on his face stretched and his jaw melded into something cold and hard and immovable. I looked at him for as long as I could, then looked away. When it was over, and I looked back, I saw another man altogether. But this was someone I recognized. This was the man who left work and headed to the bar. His voice was brittle, his eyes held defiant shame. His movement, when he lifted carcasses and put them in the wheel barrel, was slow and shaky. I wanted to put my arm around him and tell him it was okay, but we didn't have that kind of relationship.

One Wednesday, he walked up while I smoked a joint on my break. It was a hot, clear day and I was sitting on the picnic table behind the pound and dreaming about anywhere but here. Mostly I thought about jumping a freight car and going wherever it took me. I never dreamed about what I would do when I got to where I was going. My dreams were leaving dreams.

"I need you inside," he said.

"I hate this job."

He sat across from me and pulled off his hat. He fiddled with the brim. "They're just dogs, better off dead than running the street."

"You hate it Pop, I can tell. You hate the living hell out of this job."

"Put that shit out and get your ass back to work."

He went inside and I smoked the joint until it shrunk to a roach too hot for my fingers. The door to the pound swung open and Pop came back out. His arms were crossed and his hat was squished down on his head. I got up and spoke in a voice too boyish for the moment.

"See ya, Pop."

I turned and walked to Piper's Truck Stop, where I caught a ride with a trucker headed east. Those were the last words I spoke to my father. There was nothing left to say.


"There's a whole lot we could do with the money," Maria says. "It wouldn't hurt to dream a little. We could go on a cruise to Alaska, see some whales, maybe feed some sea lions."

The motel room is exactly as she described. Vibrating mattress and pink wallpaper. Her leg is propped against the wall within easy reach of the bed. She's showered and her hair is wet and limp and fans across the pillow. She wears bra and panty, both green, a floral pattern embedded in cotton. Einstein, on the sidewalk, paws the door. I look from her to the door, then at her, then at the door. We pass a whiskey bottle back and forth.

"Listen to that retard," I say.

"We could fly out to Seattle and get on a ship. That's where those Alaska cruises--"

"I don't want to go to Alaska."

"Or we could go to the Bahamas. I happen to know they have some great cruising down that way."

I look at her stump, then stare over at the wooden leg, tilt my head so I look at it from different angles. Disconnected, the leg looks lonely.

"Hey," I say.


"If we had a shipwreck we could use your leg as a life-preserver."

"That's my sweetie," she says. "Now you're thinking."

"I think I'm going to give Einstein a bath. Buy some flea powder and give him a good dusting." I swallow whiskey and put the bottle on the floor. I take my shirt off and sling it over a chair.

"We need us some coke. Something to get us revved up. I can fuck all night long on coke."

"Shut up about the coke," I say.

"Quarter's only forty--"

"Shut up!" I raise my hand like I'm going to backhand her. It's a bluff; I never hit a woman who didn't hit me first.

"You smack me around and you'll wake up tomorrow without a dick."

Taz Chavis walking around without a dick strikes us as funny and we laugh. When we settle down I tell her coke put me in jail and damned if I was going back.

"No coke. Got it?"

The softness leaves her eyes and irritation takes its place. I'm no idiot. She offered love hoping I'd get her high. Now she's mad for wasting her time. Tough luck, is what I think.

We lie on the bed without talking, then I remember about giving Einstein a bath and go over and open the door. I coax him and his road kill odor to the bathroom and run warm water in the tub, set him in the tub and squirt motel shampoo on his back. I work sweet-smelling bubbles into his fur. He's angles and knobs, skin stretched over backbone and shoulders.

"Hold still," I say.

He quivers but his legs are stiff like he wants to run but made up his mind to endure. I ask him if he wants some Wild Turkey, we have half a bottle in the other room, then tell him to stay clear of the coke head with the wooden leg. I tell him today is my last fling and tomorrow I'm flying straight. I tell him I haven't dreamed dreams in a year. I tell him Pop never dreamed, that he was a drunk who killed dogs. I tell him the lawyer said Pop hid in his closet and shot himself in the head. I tell him Pop's better off, wherever he is. The dog cocks his head and lifts his ears and looks at me. His eyes are black and wary, and I wonder if he feels like he's looking in a mirror. I scrub until water swirling the drain turns clear. Then I towel him off and set him on the floor. He shakes and droplets fly. I call into the other room.

"I think I'm going to order a pizza, something with meat on it. I bet he likes hamburger."

When I don't hear an answer, I look around the door. Maria's eyes are shut and her mouth is open; a rhythmic hum comes from her nose. I go over and turn on the TV loud enough to drown her out. The dog, smelling like fresh-picked strawberries, goes to my side of the bed, curls around three times, and settles on the carpet. I call down to the front desk and ask if anyone still delivers pizza in this town. I write down the number, make the call, and order a large pizza with extra hamburger. I can afford the extravagance.


It's morning and my head hurts. I don't remember much about last night. Maria's gone and so is her leg. She took fifty bucks out of my wallet. That leaves me with change and the check. I suppose, if she thought she could get away with it, she would have stolen it too.

Einstein and I leave the motel room. Above, the sky is gray, slow to wake after a night's sleep, but in the east flame crawls across the horizon. I've forgotten about desert sunrises, how they begin so far away and seem so alive.

I ask Einstein if he's hungry and consider his wag an enthusiastic yes. I have a hungry dog, a seven thousand dollar check in my wallet. I have a headache and a cottony tongue--

In my peripheral vision, a fist appears. A punch that catches me by surprise. It's a wide loop that misses my chin and spins my ambusher in a circle. I smell sour breath, cheap wine, unwashed clothes. I see a head matted with dirty hair and recognize the man at the terminal. Maria stands behind him and she wears a twisted smile.

"Told you," she says. "Told you he was stealing your dog."

"That's my dog," the man says.

Maria's eyes are twitchy, and she chews her lip. She's high, tweaking on my fifty.

"It's my dog," I say.

"Liar." The man raises his fist.

I pull change from my pocket and hold the coins palm up. It's enough for a bottle of MD 20 20.

"Have one on me," I say.

"He'll pay more," Maria says. "The asshole will pay a thousand dollars for this dog. He loves this dog."

The man throws another punch, a lazy arc. I duck and then I have him by the throat, then I have Maria by the throat. I back them up against the motel wall. Coins fall to the ground; my words are flat and hard. "Do you know how many dogs I've killed?"

The man's eyes are unfocused, but Maria glares at me.

"Seventy-seven," I say. "Do you understand? We gassed them. You ever seen a gassed dog?"

I release my grip and point to the coins at my feet. I tell them that's all they're getting.

"Don't fuck with me," I say.

Einstein and I leave them huddled against the wall and walk across the parking lot to a street that curves around a gas station and heads east. We come to the city limits and cross a sand-clogged gutter. I think of when I left Pop at the pound. Then I think of dreams I've had since then. I list them in my head. Buy a house. Learn to play the guitar. Hike the Appalachian Trail. I head down the road and come to an intersection that branches toward the cemetery. I shield my eyes, trying to see the barbwire fence and the bone-white headstones. The sun is over the horizon and the desert is on fire. It's burning up. I turn and walk back into town. It's time to cash this check and feed this dog. Pop will get over me not visiting his grave.

T. J. Forrester is a long distance hiker who has backpacked the three trails that compose the Hiking Triple Crown. He's writing a linked short story collection about characters whose lives intersect the Appalachian Trail. His fiction has appeared in Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, and Night Train, among others. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He can be reached at

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