Winter 2006 Fiction
Dead Animal Man
by Kathleen Wakefield
The Dead Animal Man comes in the morning as the mist is rising, comes in a truck like a square thing rolling, the truck's eyes dead looking as the eyes of the animals it comes after, comes silent and bleary like it was something melting. Ricky's mother said they couldn't take Slip with them, said the damned dog would eat them out of house and home, the mangy son-of-a-bitch anyway, she said. Said he had so many ticks on him he look pearled.
This was when we didn't have any water and neither did they and both our families carried it from the house across the street, threw bucketsful down the toilets to flush them, Ricky's father going off about the same time as mine, his to I don't know where, mine to Adak, Alaska on the Bering Sea where you could see the lights of Russia across, he wrote back. This was when we lived by an alley I thought was the alley by the Alamo, across from where there lived a pinto pony and a Navajo, like in the song.
The Dead Animal Man wakes me up. I can hear the gears of his truck a mile away; swear it floats onto earth like an angel from a shadowy side of heaven. I can hear it when it touches down.
Are they Okies? I had asked my mother when they first moved in, when I had seen them out the window, Ricky, his mother, sister and father before his father went away somewhere, his father tall and thin looking, his mother a red head, collar-and-cuffs red head Ricky said, his sister the way I pictured an Okie to appear, hair messed, body all knees and elbows, and lacking in vitamins C and D. My cousin Boyd Lee in Utah had had his head grow too big from lack of vitamins C and D and I had looked out the window again at the girl, but her head had seemed normal.
The Dead Animal Man comes because of the fog that presses in at night so that birds fall from the sky and walk into things, seagulls and ducks standing in the yard looking bewildered, dogs and cats wandering into the street and under the tires of cars trying to get somewhere, too, the fog pushing in like a wave from the ocean and then leaving behind it everything confused and slow moving, sometimes dead.
Why wouldn't she take him? I asked Ricky. You can't just leave a dog behind, I said.
My father had gone off north and had said he'd send for us or come back to get us, or send money, but other than the letters about the lights of Russia, we hadn't heard anything for a long time. We were going to try and find him in some way and be reunited, but I imagined the dumb animal standing there when Ricky and his mother and sister had gone, and not having any idea what to do or how to find them, and then the fog pressing in and what would always follow one way or the other.
I remembered one time when I had gone to school and come back home, my mother had changed all the furniture around, and all I could do was stand and be uncertain, there being phantom chairs and a sofa where I wanted to sit, I thought, the chairs and sofa in their new places, the coffee tables and end tables and bookcases having a particular bewilderment too, it seemed, the same confusion I had had when coming out of the store one day and heading in the wrong direction and suddenly it was like something had shifted and only I had not changed and I wasn't completely sure about that. If the fog had come in that day I think I might have just laid down and waited for some white-winged angel to find me, lift me above to where I could see, outthink the Dead Animal Man.
She just won't and that's all there is to it, she said. Ricky and I were in love, and he protected me in the fog, when it came, held his hand out in it when his body had disappeared into its thick and dripping otherworld.
He had learned the dimensions of the sidewalk, knew where the curb was leading to the street. If I held his hand and watched the outline of his feet I wasn't afraid. It was like being led through a cloud, it rushing past and against and through me, cool and circling. We walked the block of where our houses were, the streetlights above us wide, faint halos, sounds and cries from animals weak and boxed-in sounding, the cries of the birds as if sliding down long drizzles of dampness, Ricky's hand and feet sometimes disappearing from me, my own hand disappearing.
What if your father comes back? I had said to him in the conversation about leaving the dog.
He'll know we're gone is what, he said. What did he think we were supposed to eat, anyway? How long did he think we were supposed to wait?
My mother and Ricky's had become friendly since having to borrow water, their house on the other side of the Martinez', who said they were Spanish, my mother saying they spoke Mexican as far as she was concerned. She said Ricky's mother, Jean, had said they were going back to Missouri, the Show Me state, it having it all over lying and cheating California, there being another woman involved in the mess of the whole thing and they were going back to Jean's parent's. She said the other woman's name was Hazel Dubois, of all things, like something someone would make up for that kind of California woman, and she, Hazel Dubois had followed Ricky's father off to somewhere south, leaving everything she owned, including two children. I had had dinner at their house, before Ricky's father had gone away and Jean seemed nervous and flighty to me, directing everyone to walk around the table to get what they wanted on their plate, and it was a turmoil of motion. I wondered about Jean in the fog, if she were ever out in it, would she know which way to turn.
I'd wondered if the Dead Animal Man took things when sometimes their hearts are were beating, when they were exhausted from blindness and soundlessness, from trying to determine measure and familiarity, from seeing their wings, or their bodies and feet disappear before their eyes, not knowing how far down was, where there were buildings and steeples of bridges.
All day long the dog watches the house and I'm trying to think of how and when it is that something dawns on you, something you can't see or hear or doesn't come with any particular pattern of thought. My father being gone, or AWOL, Away Without Leaving, my mother calls it because he is usually going to some next town to look for a job, or clear something or other up; there is always a point when I've looked up and said to myself, He isn't coming back. My mother might be at the kitchen table or someplace when it hits her, but it always does, and it has never been from any clear passage of time or anything else as observable. It seems more from something on the air, something beyond normal feeling, or something sour smelling as old hamburger cooking. The dog can smell or feel whatever it is and all day long he watches Ricky's house as if it would get up and rush away, and he wants to be ready, his eyes, ears and nose twitching to every sound. He seems embarrassed for the way he looks, ticks all over him rough as gravel, embarrassed that he got them there, it looks, that maybe they are why he has to keep his eyes on the house, that that's why they are leaving.
My father is a machinist and he has made the language of cars familiar to me. I can easily drop the words piston, ball-bearing, manifold, transmission into thoughts and sentences, can detect what might be going wrong with what is coming down a street, fog or no fog, what might be proceeding in its denseness if it's there, vaguely how much horsepower it has. The Dead Animal Man's truck is fined tuned and in decent working order except for a little roughness in the gear shift. It has a kind of hum to it as if it is keeping a low bass sound to the rest of the sounds of the morning, other engines and apparatus providing higher notes and rhythm. It seems as if its mission is important and it needs a good machine to do its work. I have looked out when it passes and it is sleek and sectioned, having drawer space and doors, brooms, shovels and hoses. I have never seen the Dead Animal Man. His section of truck has either just gone by when I've looked out, or the glare of early daylight has caught his window in such a way as to make him invisible.
Why couldn't we take him? I say to my mother, because she is noticing the way the dog has been lying on the sidewalk watching the house where there is more crossing back and forth in front of windows than is usual, as far as we can see, lights on in more rooms, things being left outside in back.
"I guess we'd take him on the bus," she says, knowing she has set up a tiresome, impossible picture in my mind of it.
"What do they do with dead animals?" I had asked Ricky.
"Jell-O," he had said. "They boil everything and skim off the top where the Jell-O is."
There is a sound to the fog coming in, or an absence of it, as though you are where there is sound and a wall of something with almost no sound is moving toward you, miles of it, birds trying to hurry before it. My mother and I just tuck in after awhile, her lighting up a cigarette, wetness streaking against the window. Ricky will show up at the door in the midst of it, usually, a heaven-boy, the edges of him erased.
"Where's your boyfriend?" she says to me, at some point, looking out like if she stepped off the doorstep she'd drop and spin into watery space "It's late. You don't think they'd try to go in this?" she says.
"I think I would have heard them," I say. "Their fan belt is loose."
My father had had a machine shop for awhile across the bay in San Francisco, where sometimes, when we still had the car, we went over to take him something or deliver a crankshaft he had worked on to someone, the smell of the bay, as we drove, putrid smelling, the steel loops of the Bay Bridge like penmanship evaporating into the sky. Something had gone wrong, although I never did know what, and my father had lost the shop and most of everything else, sending him into a downward, free falling spiral like the birds that pitch from the sky when the fog comes in. I know there was a woman who worked for him in the shop, a building close to the waterfront and the bay clouds, and the lights inside never bright enough to really see her where she worked, she always seeming busy when we came in the back way for what my father needed delivered. I think she was tall and brunette, but I never thought about her until Jean mentioned Hazel Dubois.
"It's Thomas," my mother had begun saying since then, "losing Thomas in the war. He just couldn't take it. Jack's never been able to forget it."
She went on, now, with us waiting in the stillness, our house a slow moving ship, the horns from the bay warning us to caution, or warning the fog, either one, steering it past us, around us, a long, mournful vessel.
"It liked to kill him," she was saying, "him and his mother. Liked to put knives through their hearts."
I always tried to remember Thomas, when she began, remembered him as the one who went off to the war, who went somewhere far away and did not come back, Jimma, my grandmother, saying Thomas had come to her in a dream and told her he would not be coming back.
"I think it did kill Jack," she says, "he never was the same."
I clear the window to see if I can see anything of Ricky or his house, listen for their car, try to see if I can see the dog, but can not see past our steps for the lifelessness of the night. I think I hear the car, think I hear one of the doors slam, the Pontiac's engine start up and then die and then start up again in the way Jean has of trying to get it going, not being able to pump the gas peddle enough when the engine first turns over. I listen for the slip-whirring sound of their loose fan belt, know they will not make it out of the Bay Area, listen and think I hear, like something distant and small, finally, them starting off, imagine Jean telling them all to get the hell in while she has the damned thing started, imagine the Pontiac rolling down the street past the warehouses at the end, the turn signal bleating red inside the curtain of dampness, and then them coasting off in the direction of the bridge, Jean not having any idea where it or Missouri is.
"I think they left," I say.
My mother looks at me from her reverie within the blank screen of window. "Well, that's love for you," she says.
"I think I ought to check on the dog," I say.
"I think you ought to leave things alone," she says. "Who made you God?" she says.
I know we are leaving soon, too, although my mother doesn't have any of the details worked out; know we don't have any money. I think of us when things started going wrong, when we were driving back from San Francisco with it glowing behind us beautiful and as though something risen and separating from its drab bay side, a spirit leaving a tired body, beauty casting off awkwardness. I think of us stopping in San Leandro at the outdoor Laundromat, my mother putting my father's dirty work clothes slick and bulky through wringers, the smell of detergent and the bay air blowing over us, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge backdrops against a misty, setting California sun, my father no doubt already part of the city's lifted and shining essence, the liberation of new horizons.
She starts packing, gets up and begins putting things in paper bags, pillow cases, anything she can find, whether she is going to put it outside or try to take it with us I don't know, how we are going, I don't know.
"Throw all of his goddamned things away," she says, and starts pulling food out of the refrigerator, although I'm sure there is nothing there of his, breaking things so that there is ketchup and salad dressing all over the floor. "They've gone, too," she says after awhile, leaning heavily against the sink, her fingers red with food coloring whose bottle has broken, or she has cut herself. "Goddamned if they haven't gone, too. Goddamn all of them," she says and sinks, crying, onto the floor. "I hate this fog," she says, not looking up. "It feels the same as my goddamned heart. I don't know where to go, or what to do. I told him I would die if he ever did this. I feel like I'm dead," she says, and then cries again.
She sits there like that, not moving. I try to comfort her but don't know what do, myself, my own spirit void and hurting, the breadth and scope of the grayness outside too much for me now without Ricky to assure me there is an end to it. It swipes against the windows as if wanting in, as if trying to work its way through wood and glass, melt me away with it for my own spiritlessness, my own drabness and nothingness. My mother eventually gets up and continues putting things into bags, not bothering to clean the floor, walking back and forth over it, tracking up the house. Then she falls asleep, her head on the arm of the couch, her hands and feet still stained and soiled.
I had listened more intently for the cars at night since my father had left, not sleeping well since, diagnosed their smallest failures for something to do. That night they went by as usual, and as usual I didn't know how they could see, pictured the rays of their headlights blunted and useless, thought of what they must be rolling over in their blindness, hoped the dog and everything else had got out of their way. I counted the pings, the slapping of rubber, the rasping of joints, waiting for the morning to break through, waiting for the landing of the Dead Animal Man, knowing he was being ferried with the light.
There was a boy who lived down the street at the other end, when we lived in that house, an albino boy, eyes red as a rabbit's. His father drove a Chrysler with one of those big V8 engines, the Chrysler's taillights the same color as the red of his son's eyes.
I hear the Chrysler at about four in the morning, hear it brake and then surge forward. I look out and see nothing but a vague glow from what seems the top of the sky, a layer of grapefruitish matter that will filter, heavy and sweet, through gray. Sometimes the light comes from somewhere else, pushing the fog away as if it is a crowd of forms, each form hurrying, for its own fears and worries. Sometimes it lifts from the street as though from inside the earth, pulsating a tan radiance.
I feel the Dead Animal Man more than see him this morning, know approximately how far away he is. The other sounds start up, warehouse and shipping yard toward the bay with their morning sounds, the shortcut Jean would have taken the Pontiac; Ricky and them sitting somewhere, I feel sure, the light of day pushing in all around them in more ways than one, the Pontiac dead in its tracks. The mist is disappearing from the street, a sheet of light underneath, when he appears, his truck moving square and liquidy.
I see the dog before the truck gets to him, know the Chrysler has hit him. I can see him in the thin line of light; see that he is lying close to where he had waited, probably not able to have understood the street from the sidewalk. The Chrysler has run over him as if he was a rag in the street, something blown from the rear end of a pickup. It looks from where I am as if he is grinning, as if he had tried to bark then decided to listen instead, hoping it was Jean, returned, the Chrysler's V8 thundering from out of nowhere.
The Dead Animal Man rolls to a stop and gets out. He is large and seems slower than he should, the mist keeping his movements half visible, the end and not the beginning of a motion, and vice versa, as though you are running your fingers over images of him on a blackboard. He breathes heavily, I can hear, and groans, or it is his truck. He climbs onto something, taking down a broom and shovel, opening a drawer when he has stepped back onto the street. I hear the dog's body hit against the metal of the drawer, and know it is useless to think how it is cold and wet and what else is in there. I wonder, too, if the ticks go on living, what happens to them.
The Dead Animal Man finishes what he is doing, and pulls himself into his truck. I see his face for the first time. It is round and blank, ungiving as the fog at night. He starts the engine again, and shifts into gear, the truck in motion, again, toward our house, in the darkness-emerging-from-darkness way it has, flatness from a flat-seeming dimension. I know there are other things on the street; ducks, seagulls, see him taking his time, the truck's lights orange for fog-sight, sweeping down with half-closed yet careful eyes, looking for what has been left behind.
When he gets to our house, he stops, the motor of the truck idling smoothly. I think he has taken time to drink something, has undone something and is drinking from a cup. But I see him looking at our house, looking it over as the water-department representative looked my mother over when he had come to turn off the water. As if she needed something and he was the man to do the job. I'm thinking about the house, the truck's idle outside in the dampness, silky as the ticking of a clock. The house is not ours and not well kept even if we had tried to keep it up; there is no grass, and weeds have begun to grow over the sidewalk, the house, I know, tired appearing as its inhabitants, my mother inside, dead looking as the dog, dirtied with what she has pulled from the refrigerator, as if she, herself, has been hit by something out of a terrible dark and is bleeding life away, too. We are a dead house. We are hardened and fluidless, and I don't want the Dead Animal Man to take us.
I go outside, walk down the steps and walkway that are overgrown, the mist rushing from me like I am something strange to behold, something come to motion before it has all the way risen and departed, Ricky's house and the Martinez' house visible, now, the Martinez' house its mustardy yellow, bright this morning as a sun coming up.
The Dead Animal Man stops his cup in mid-movement, looks at me walking toward him. His face seems rounder, closer up, his eyes unable for mine to connect with; they are the eyes of someone who takes dead things. He looks at the house and back at me as though he has seen through the walls of the house, as he sees through fog, to where my mother lies.
I know we don't have any money, but I'm thinking we have enough to get us back to Utah. I think my mother could find work there, and I could too, with my knowledge of cars. I'm thinking about how you can see forever there, how the air is so dry that the only impediments to vision are waves that rise vertical and sheer and snakelike from the heat of the ground, separating like grass when you walk through them; or they dance horizontal across streets, tapering off into shimmering visions at the feet of high, visible mountains. At night the desert air flows, clear, over you, and no matter where you stand you can see what seems to be all the stars in the sky. I'm thinking there's no point in going north to find my father, that it would be what amounts to trying to find the end of a street in the fog; it is never where you imagine it to be. And in Utah, at least, if something were coming, you'd know what hit you.
I walk up to the Dead Animal Man. He rests his cup on his leg and looks at me.
"We're moving," I say, and walk back into the house.---------------------------