Dog Years

by Edward Helfers

No-Name washed up back when I was living in the Bywater, recovering from Cheryl and other binges.  He came strutting down the middle of the street, waggling his cock like a jig lure, this piss-eyed, drool-fanged mongrel, built like a hyena only half the size and also hairless.  Somebody’s got to legislate that, I thought as I looked on from the kitchen window, but by the time I popped the shells into my twelve gauge and stepped onto the porch, he was curled up on my inflatable couch, licking his paws like hygiene was a thing he valued.

I took pity.  That was my first mistake, letting him crash in the garage until I located the owners.  His tags read N_W__X09_1_977 so I scanned the yellow pages for numbers ending in 977 and kept my eyes peeled for flyers and thought about the reward money and what I’d do with it.  I even posted my own flyers, such as, “FOUND: ONE SAD MUTT,” but we only had one taker, this slick uptowner in a sportcoat, dude drove a Porsche.  He told me No-Name didn’t fit the description, not even close, and also to get him vaccinated for rabies.

“Pal,” I said, “Are you some kind of veterinarian?”

“No.”

“A veterinarian-in-training perhaps?”

He said he was a lawyer. Samuels.  Setson, maybe.  He looked a little depressed about that, so I offered him a beer.  We sat on the porch, talked dog-owning/drawbacks thereof as the sun fell behind the billboards.  I felt strangely important, as if a duke had come to visit, and welcomed his foreign opinions with studious nods.  At some point, Stetson gave me some alimony advice, which I probably should’ve written down.  Story of my life, you might say.

As for No-Name, we tolerated one another.  Judging from the scars on his snout, he didn’t know how to eat without scrapping for it, so I slid his Big Burgers through a doggy door I’d kicked in the drywall.  After a month or so, I let him out of the garage.  He listened to CDs with me in the den, and slept ostrich style under the recliner, and never once did he drink from my beer, like if I passed out on the couch, which is more than I can say for Cheryl.  On weekends, I walked him along the levee, let him sniff whatever he felt like sniffing, and once we even went camping on the Redheart River.  No-Name loped along the river bank, chasing dragonflies and turtles and tubers with a big doggy smile on his face.  Then, last Wednesday, he died.

The taxidermist said No-Name would set me back a grand.  I asked him to quit messing with me.  That’s half my monthly income, minus any pull on the aboveground circuit.  So I tried the discount taxidermist across town but he quoted me higher.  Yakked away about replacement skins, fiberglass mounts, German tanning chemicals.   I stopped him before he finished outlining the fine selection of fire alarms, explained how I’d gotten used to No-Name, how you tolerate something long enough, it becomes normal, and was it so much to ask for affordable normalcy?

“I feel you.”  The taxidermist slid a brochure across the counter.  It was titled The Power of Pet Prayer.  On the cover, a haloed golden retriever pawed at a white staircase. “You might flip through there,” he suggested, “ I can’t budge on the price.  But sometimes price isn’t the real issue.”

I told him what I thought about that.

“Sir,” he replied, “I’m sorry about your loss, very sorry.  You’re free to take your business elsewhere.”

“That’s just what you’d prefer, ain’t it?  Send me off to one of your so-called competitors?  Collect a handsome finder’s fee?  I think not.  I won’t stand for no conspiratorial taxidopoly.”

I wouldn’t stand for it, not in this America.  I stormed out, knocking over a revolving postcard kiosk that had no right being there, but driving south on St. Claude, I started to feel like a cheapskate, like maybe his prices weren’t so unreasonable.  It was the middle of the day, the sun softening the asphalt.  On the neutral ground one of these chronically unemployable south-siders was out walking his Rotweiler.  I pulled onto the shoulder, asked him how much he planned to shell out when Butch there died.  He looked at me like I was speaking Siamese.

Right idea, wrong audience.  What I needed was a professional opinion.

As luck would have it, Mr. Nakayama was on his lunch break at Fifer’s.  Naki works as a secondhand garments speculator, serves on the side as a licensed reverend in the Church of Unified Solace.  We split a few pitchers over my No-Name dilemma, and Mr. Nakayama made the following observations, which he was generous enough to scribble on a napkin:

—No-Name was a no good dog, on account of the mange, the depression, the temper, and the halitosis.  If you hadn’t put him out of his misery, he probably would’ve himself.

—The average human funeral costs twelve hundred dollars.  Would it not be both disrespectful and wasteful to spend twelve hundred dollars on a canine funeral?   Furthermore, given your financial situation, taxidermy would significantly decrease the range of your own post-life possibilities.

—Of No-Name’s remaining options—incineration, ground-burial, burial-at-sea—ground burial is the most preferable, as stipulated by chapter seven of CUS doctrine, thereby raising his chances for admission into circle nine.

—If ground burial is indeed No-Name’s chosen path, it might be wisest to find a place No-Name enjoyed, or perhaps belonged.  Only then might he secure a place in after-life’s kennel.

I should mention Mr. Nakayama and myself, we don’t always see eye to eye, for example, when he contested my candidacy for mayor, or brain-fucked my sister with that fundamentalist CUS voodoo, but on the whole he’s got some handy perspectives.  To be specific, ground-burial did seem like the second best option, and once we settled on the Redheart, I liked the idea even more, to imagine if No-Name was still living—which, obviously, he wasn’t—he might recall what a decent time we had there.  Who knows if dog memory works that way, but mine does, and I’m the one left remembering.

In retrospect, that was my second mistake.  Not necessarily following Mr. Nakayama’s advice, but doing so without consulting someone trained in the mortuary sciences.  The exit for the state park was not where I remembered, and after two hours on the interstate, the cooler was sloshing in the backseat, flooding my truck with an odor I would describe as dead wet dog.  I rolled down the windows.  Somebody was burning leaves in a nearby pasture.  The smoke stung my eyes, making it difficult to hold my lane.  In my concentration, I failed to notice the police cruiser parked behind an underpass.  Strike three.

Now this officer looked young enough to be my son.  Not a single follicle on his upper lip and I swear that badge was tinfoil.

“License and registration,” he said.

“You know it’s a lucky thing I found you.  I’m lost is the problem.  These highways are one big déjà vu.”

He told me it was no excuse for driving that slow.

“I couldn’t agree more…Officer Boulder, is it?  Live and learn, as they say.  Boulder—did I pronounce that right?  Say I used to know a Boulder—”

“Please step out of the vehicle,” he said.

I volunteered my license, braced for the ceremonial pat down.  Afterwards, Boulder asked if I’d been drinking.

Trick question.  Anyone who concerns themselves with civil liberties in the state of Mississippi will know that legal code 60-30-11 directly contradicts the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees that no man shall forcably self-incriminate.  I was under no obligation to answer, nor was I required to subject myself to a breathalyzer, that unconstitutional (not to mention inaccurate) vessel of oppression.  Furthermore, technically speaking, even if I registered a BAC of .08% or above, there was no way of knowing whether I’d just been knocking back Scotch or preventing gingivitis.

“I know the laws,” Boulder said.

I debated him on that.

“Mr. Hester,” he replied.  “You’re under arrest on the suspicion of driving under the influence.”

“Oh yeah?”  I might have taken him more seriously if he looked a day over twenty.  “I got a lawyer who’d beg to differ.  Ever heard the name Stetson?”

“Put your hands on your head.”

“Or what?”

“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”

“Why,” I said, in more colorful language.  Then he hit, me right in the jaw.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

“Stetson ain’t going to like this one bit,” I shouted as he shoved me onto the hood.  “No sir, I bruise like a banana.  He’ll bust your ass on brutality.  You’ll be pushing paperwork until retirement.”

“That,” he replied, pointing to my blooming welt, “was already there.”

Touché.

The Jaspar County Jail was not much to speak of, a sorry looking bunker that butted up to the courthouse.  I went with righteous rage for the mugshot, it turned out well, but bail was another story.  Boulder slapped me with resisting arrest, a cocked up charge in my opinion—questioning arrest, maybe, doubting arrest, sure, but resisting seemed a little strong.  Objections aside, I had a lone phone call problem on my hands.  Normally, I would have buzzed Naki, but most of his money is tied up in silver, and as for my sister, let’s just say I was unprepared to accept her conditions­.  I only knew one other person with that kind of capital, an upstanding woman of cherubic countenance, whose beauty was matched only by her generosity, a woman who—

“Cut the crap,” Cheryl said, in that way of hers.  On the other end, I could have sworn I heard the pok-pok of tennis racquets.  “How much do you need?”

“Low five figures.”

She sucked her teeth.  “What did you do?”

“Long story.” I told her about No-Name, the taxidermists, my burial plans and subsequent detainment.  Actually, it wasn’t a long story at all.

“I can’t give you ten thousand dollars.”

“Borrow.  There’s a difference.”

“Not that you’re aware of.”

“I am a changing man,” I said.

“I wish I could help,” she said with a long sad sigh.  “My answer is no.”  But here’s the skinny on Cheryl—no matter how much she denies it, she has thing for the downtrodden, for the diseased and delinquent, because not three hours later, who should come waltzing into the booking area gussied up like a ghost-flick starlet?  She looked good, always had, even before the surgeries.  And that afternoon, as Cheryl sweet-talked the deputies and flaunted her apple-hard calves, her eyes seemed greener than I remembered, her hair, bouncier, her tits, sweeter than soft serve. Within minutes, she flirted them down to disorderly conduct, though, in all honesty, the fuzz probably were probably more than happy to send me packing.

“You’re welcome,” Cheryl said afterwards in the car, by which I mean Mercedes, flush with the scent of six-figure leather.

“Look at you,” I said, fiddilng with the seat warmer.  “All grown up.”

“Don’t touch that.”

“Hey what happened to your tattoo?”  Washed from the nape of her neck: One palm tree swaying on a sleepy spit of sand, the brainchild of honeymoon bourbon.

“Mike took care of that years ago.”

“I forgot about Dr. Skin,” I said.  “Saving the world one pimple at a time.”

“It beats cleaning pools.   Besides, I thought you hated Paradise.”

That was true.  Too idyllic for my liking.  Too permanent.  “The color was off.”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“Or maybe symmetry was the problem.”

“Let it go,” she said.  I tried, but when Cheryl turned on the radio, some country crooner was laying it on thick.  For a moment, it bought me back to bygone roadtrips, the two of us on airier terms, north to Memphis, or St. Louis, even as far as Chicago, when I was too young to see the storm clouds up ahead, too young to care.  But what can you do?  It’s like Naki always says: Hindsight is 20/40.

“Are we close,” Cheryl asked.

“Good question.”

“You don’t remember?”

To remember, I explained, you have to pay attention in the first place, and in the first place, I was already lost.

“Typical Ray.  You never finish anything you started.”

“I finished our marriage.”

“And it took you how long to sign off?”

“Details.”

“Three years,” she said, which, I Cheryl time, is yesterday.  But I’ll give her that one. Closure has never been my strong suit.  When No-Name stopped eating, I couldn’t bring myself to get him checked out.  I tried ginger ale, six different cuts of steak, a splash of Pepto.  He wouldn’t even raise his head.  In the end, I didn’t know how to say goodbye, so I didn’t.  I just crept up behind him and squeezed the trigger.  Quick and painless.  That’s how I’d want to go.  Maybe I should have rubbed his belly, or taken his picture, or thought more about the mess, but you can’t live your life looking backwards, otherwise you’ll run into something.

It was another half an hour before we found my car.  Cheryl laughed when she saw the vultures perched on my hood.   If the stench was bad before, stir in the midday sun, marinade for hours, and well, you can imagine.

“This is as far as I go,” she said, pinching her nose.

“You’ve done enough already.”

“More than enough.”

“Call me sometime,” I said.

“Yeah right.”

“Don’t miss me too much,” I said before planting one square on her cheek, which must have struck a chord.  I say that because after I fended off the buzzards, after the backdraft hit me like a mouthful of mace, after I dragged the cooler down the embankment and scoured the floodplain for a suitable resting place, Cheryl emerged from the dusk with a gallon of drugstore lemonade.

“You call that a grave?”

“You’re next,” I said.  “You know some people wouldn’t even dig a grave.”

“I know.”

“Some people wouldn’t even go to the trouble.”

“It’s getting dark,” she said, sitting on a nearby stump, “you should hurry,” and I did,  I sunk my shovel into the soft clay again and again until my arms burned, and it was good, not just giving No-Name the peace he deserved, but having someone there to bear witness.



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