By Claire Adas
The sixth trip up the stairs I see them. Sometimes you can go the whole day without seeing anyone, and I thought it was going to be like that. Little did I know. Maybe I just missed them or maybe they snuck in when I was down at the van. The room is piled high with boxes, and there are plenty of places for them to hide.
But they aren’t hiding. They are staring at me with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. Like I’m a bug they’d found under a box: an odd bug, one they’d never seen before, which they’d maybe like to kill and preserve and add to their collection.
“What’s wrong with your face?” It’s the girl who asks, and she’s old enough to know it’s a rude question—she’s got to be fourteen or fifteen. Although she’s one of those people who could be 10 or 70, it’s hard to tell, with her flat pale face, her fair lank hair, her poker-straight posture. I don’t answer her, cause why should I? “Moving man. What’s wrong with your face?” She gestures vaguely towards her own flawless face with a wave of her thin hand.
The boy next to her puts his hands over his ears. He’s clearly younger than her, with the same translucent skinniness, but with an unruly pile of curly hair tumbling into his eyes.
“I have a toothache.” I know that’s not what she’s talking about, but why should I care? I hoist a box and head back down the stairs. I do have a toothache, too. I almost can’t tell which tooth. It could be all of them, it hurts so bad. It keeps me up all night; it’s on my mind all day. It feels like my tooth is growing in my head, and my cheekbones hurt, my skull hurts. I can’t afford to even get a single fucking X-ray. I can’t afford to step foot in a dentist’s office. All I can afford to do is worry.
I hope they’ll be gone when I get back up the stairs, but they haven’t moved at all. They’re sitting on a little sofa–it’s got gold arms, but that’s about all you can see cause it’s wrapped in plastic for the move.
“Mr. moving man, Mr. moving man,” She says in a singsong voice, “Why o why won’t you answer my question?”
I shift some boxes trying to find a lighter one. I’m suddenly exhausted, I don’t know why. I just feel drained. If those kids weren’t in the room I’d sit for a while. “It’s a rude question.”
“Is it? It is?” She seems genuinely surprised. Her eyebrows and her voice rise in elegant little arches. The boy puts his hands over his ears again. “He doesn’t like to hear fighting,” she explains.
“Who’s fighting?” I ask. She shrugs her skinny shoulders and smooths her skirt.
“Do you like my dog?” the little boy’s voice is surprisingly husky—he sounds like my pack-a-day grandma. I jump a little, to be honest. I’m not always crazy about the dogs. They don’t want you in their house, taking all their stuff. They get nervous seeing everything in boxes, and you carting it out the door.
I try to hide the fear in my voice. “Dog? I don’t see a dog.”
“He’s right here! HE’S HUGE! HE HAS SPOTS! SPOTS!!!” He pats the air beside him about a foot over his head. The girl’s uneasy. She looks straight at me for the first time, with a mixture of embarrassment and pleading.
“That’s one hell of a big dog.” I say. “I didn’t see him right away.” I gesture to my eye. And why do I care that the boy looks happy and the girl looks grateful? What do I care about these rich brats?
“Don’t worry, he’s nice. He won’t bite you.” The boy leans against his imaginary dog and sighs.
“My brother loves his dog more than anything. My brother’s name is Brooks Tyler Rotheringham the third.“
Of course it is.
“How’d you do it? The eye? Can you see? Can you see at all?”
“I see shadows. I see moving shadows.”
“And how? How? Are you in Mexican gang?”
“Yes, yes I am. That’s it exactly.”
“His name is TigerToo!” Brooks rubs his dog vigorously behind his invisible ears.
“Ah, because of the spots, of course.”
“No! Because of our other dog! Our other dog! She’s Tiger. He’s TigerToo.”
She clears her throat with a clean, almost delicate sound. “Yes, we have another dog. Sadly she can’t stay with us for a short while. Our mother’s boyfriend already has a dog. A dog who doesn’t like other dogs. Also, he has children. Two children. So Tiger will be staying elsewhere for a short while.”
“Ah, the old farm upstate, eh?”
“How did you know? How did you know? Who told you? Have you seen her?”
“Sure, I mean, I’m sure she’ll be fine. She’ll come home with you again. Sure.”
The girl gives a nearly imperceptible shake of her head, and the boy puts his hands over his ears. He says, “Fine. Home,” with a catch in his raspy voice and I grab another box and hightail it down the stairs.
Out on the street in a fine cold rain the city smells like piss and smoke and diesel. Sirens and car horns ring in my sore teeth. The sidewalk is tented in plywood and scaffolding, and the scaffolding is leaking cold dirty water down my neck. There’s always scaffolding, and its always leaking. The whole damn town is falling down. War-torn.
But right now it feels ok to be out here. It feels better than that hot close room and the strange sad kids. I wish I still smoked. Instead—I can’t stop doing it—instead I grind down on the tooth that hurts. Over and over until my jaw gets tired.
I have to go back up eventually, of course. I have to empty the room. I have to take the goddamn sofa out from under them. They haven’t moved much, but the boy’s face is red and splotchy, and the girl is holding his hand.
“You look tired, moving man.”
“Would you care for a glass of water? I wish I could offer you something stronger, but sadly I do not have anything.”
“I do!” Brooks pipes up. “I do! Sit here sit here, I’ll get it for you! Sit!”
He pats the couch next to him, between him and his sister. He pulls a box out from behind the sofa. It’s a metal tin, the kind that fancy cookies come in. The cheerful paint is scuffed and rusty, like it’s been opened a million times with grubby hands. He pats the couch again like I’m a dog. I don’t have time for this shit, I don’t want anything to do with it. The next thing I know I’m sitting on this tiny couch between these two frail freaks. I’m a big man, I’m squeezed so close between them I can smell them. They smell like milk and money.
Brooks leans over the box and opens it with his plump inept child hands, breathing heavily through his stupidly small child nose. The box is full of treasures. A plastic dog, a matchbox car (and of course it’s a Bentley), a heart-shaped rock, a drawing of a horse, a couple of acorns and chestnuts, and a goddamn beer bottle. It’s a goddamn bottle of Schlitz. It’s dusty as hell, who knows how old it is. He lifts it up and holds it before me like it’s the holy grail.
“It’s for you. I’ve been saving it for you.”
Of course I shouldn’t drink this ancient beer, this beer the boy has probably been saving for years, this beer that will likely kill me. I watch as he opens it, with a soft skunky pssshhhhhh, a puff of dust and smoke. He hands it to me with a hopeful face. This close I see that his eyes are a murky color, with a ring of light in the middle. His lashes are soft and golden, his skin is softly freckled.
Well, it’s warm and flat and sour, but I drink it, I drink it all, I drink it quickly. It burns like fire in my tooth with a pain that radiates through my whole skull. I put my hand to my cheek.
“Mr. Moving Man, why does your tooth hurt?”
“Poor dental hygiene.”
“Get it fixed, why don’t you get it fixed?”
I don’t answer, cause why should I? Why should I tell these rich kids that I’m poor? That vets don’t always get benefits for life?
“Our dad is a dentist!” Brooks pipes up.
“Of course he is.”
“Dental surgeon.” The girl corrects him with a little uplift of her sharp chin.
“Of course he is.”
“Sadly, I can’t contact him to help you with your problem, as we are instructed by mother’s lawyer not to communicate with him.”
The boy is playing with a little utility tool from his box, one of those things with the pliers, the screwdriver, the little magnifying glass. He’s eyeing me up like he might take the tooth out himself. I want to get up. I want to leave this hot sad room and these strange sad kids. But I’m not going to lie, the beer has gone straight to my head. I’m feeling dizzy with the pain and the heat. I’m feeling like I might puke. So I sit with my head in my hands, staring at my boots, which look so large and dark and ugly in this fine room.
“Where is your dog?” It’s Brooks who asks, in his husky confiding voice. I feel like I’ve been shot again. It hurts that much, it’s that discombobulating. I cover my good eye and hit myself on the head, hard, over my bad eye, Like I’m fucking R2D2 and if I can hammer out a dent in my head all my memories will come flooding out in a faltering blue stream for them to see. I’m thinking to myself, get up, get to work, stop scaring these soft sheltered kids.
And then they pat me on the back, with their soft skinny hands, one at a time. Soft slow pats on my rough aching back. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a kind touch from a human being. I honestly can’t remember. And it’s like they press some button. It all comes out. I tell them everything.
“My dog Pepper.” I tell them. “She is a speckled dog.
“I don’t like people, I never talked to too many people or wanted to spend time with them. But Pepper, she showed up on my doorstep one day and then we were always together, together always. She was my shadow, short, in the morning walking behind me, I was her shadow, long, in the evening rushing to meet her.”
“And when she looks at you with those eyes your eyes get bruised.” Says Brooks, nodding his wise head.
“Yeah, yeah they do, that’s it exactly. That’s it exactly, Brooks. And then I get called up. I get sent overseas. I didn’t think it would really happen. Your family will be safe, they said. You’ll be safe. You’ll be taken care of for life. They said. I can’t explain to her about why I have to leave her. How can she understand that? I can’t explain to her that I’ll try to come back. So I leave her with my sister. But my sister doesn’t like dogs, doesn’t even understand why a person would have a dog. So I make her post pictures every day. Then one day the pictures stop. The messages and posts stop. Everything stops. I try to find out what’s going on and she’s been deported. My sister’s been deported. That’s not keeping her safe. That’s sending her to a farm downstate. I’m frantic and I want to know where my dog is. I’m asking everyone who can help me. Anyone. And they all say, ‘We don’t give a fuck about your dog.’ So I walk out. I just walk away. I’m going to walk home and find my dog, find my sister, all the way over the ocean. But of course they track me down, they pick me up and bring me back, and on the way back this happens, this happens to my face. I’m in the hospital, I can’t get out, they won’t let me leave. And then they make me leave. They discharge me. And I’m home again, walking the streets looking for Pepper. But it’s been so long. You know? It’s been so long. It’s been a lifetime. And nobody gives a fuck about my dog. And I lie there watching these videos about men and women going home to their dogs, the dogs jumping and singing. Grinding on my bad tooth till my head will cave in with pain. And these videos about horses kept in barns for 30 years with curled heavy hooves, about them seeing grass for the first time. And about junkyard dogs, chained under trucks, about somebody who takes them home and gives them a bath, about kittens abandoned in the middle of a highway, puppies dropped in the storm drain. It doesn’t warm my soul, it breaks my heart.
And everything is dark, everything is chaotic, everyone is cruel, ignorant, blind.”
Well, I look up, finally. I think I’m shaking, I think my voice is ragged and painful, but I’m not sure of anything.
Brooks has his hands over his ears. He’s looking scared. He’s looking at me, scared. The girl has her hand on my knee, and she’s squeezing with strong needling fingers. She’s squeezing hard. She says, “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.”
It’s so quiet you can almost hear the rain through the heavy sealed windows. You can almost hear Brooks’ imaginary dog crying in his sleep.
“What the fuck, Oscar?”
Well, it doesn’t look good. Me sitting down on the job, with a beer in my hand, between a terrified boy, and a girl hanging onto my knee. It doesn’t look good. It’s my boss, too. It’s not just one of the guys.
“Watch out there, Frank,” I say, as I leave the room. “Don’t step on the dog’s tail.”
I’m down the stairs, I’m out the door. The icy city rain burns me clean and I head downtown. All these skinny grey people on their phones, in a hurry; all wearing the same boots, the same coats, the same closed expressions. I pass a man sleeping on the sidewalk. Something black and sticky trickles out of his mouth and pools on his cardboard mat. And he’s laughing in his sleep, man. He’s just laughing. On the steamy piss-scented subway a girl has her soiled sweatshirt pushed up to the elbows so she can scratch her trackmarks, she’s shaking and mumbling. She wanders the length of the car, considering the posters and the maps, staring at the commuters. She takes a seat across from me, and she looks up at me with such a sudden beaming smile it’s like sunshine in this dark place. It’s too bright. I look away. I lower my head and look away.
My neighborhood smells like oil and onions, like it always does, and people are yelling to each other from half-opened windows and doors. They shut them tighter when I pass, but I don’t care. The door swings heavy into my building and the stairs smell like dust and rain, the stairs are sick to death of the weight of human feet. Country music jangles out of an open door down the hall, “This story has no moral this story has no end. This story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in man.”
I eat some rice and beans, cold, out of the fridge. I drink a couple beers. I close my good eye and watch the shadows in the bad eye. I chew on my bad tooth. Finally I can’t take the unholy stink of my garbage, which I haven’t emptied in weeks. I pass through the alley of filth behind my apartment to the dumpster, in the lowering dusk and the lightening rain. There’s a cool blue stillness to the air, the rats have stopped their scuttling, the birds have stopped their singing, even the neverending sirens are silent, waiting.
And there she is. She’s glowing like the moon, like the goddamn speckled moon, she brightens the whole alley. I don’t believe my eyes, my shattered lying eyes. I’m seeing shadows, memories. But when she jumps into my arms, in a whiskered frantic fastlicking frenzy, when she bites me, hard, on the nose, when she slices my hands with her pretty flailing claws, how can I doubt that? It’s my girl, it’s my Pepper. My mangy, filthy, scrawny, beautiful dog.
I bring her in, I put her in the tub, I wash the grime, and she’s shaking, shaking, but she doesn’t mind, I feed her rice and beans and the cans of dog food I’ve been saving, saving. I let her eat till her concave pink belly is round and swollen.
And I hold her skinny body in my arms all night long. Fuck the fleas, fuck my job, fuck my sore teeth and my bad eye, fuck the army, fuck the war, fuck the rain. I don’t care about any of it. I don’t care at all. I lie all night with her skinny body in my arms, the wind rattles the windows and the rain comes in sheets, the rain comes in waves and drowns out the shouting and the sirens and the car horns. I lie all night with Pepper in my arms, and when I have that dream, the dream of loss and longing, the dream where I can’t find her or reach her, I wake to find her there, find her in my arms, bruising me with those eyes.