The old man stared at the empty food dish on the floor, his eyes tracing over the three red letters engraved into the side. YAZ. He sat hunched on the hard chair, hands dangling between his knees. He didn't know what he was waiting for. The dish had been empty for almost a year now.
Yaz was a yellow lab and the old man's best friend. Named after his favorite left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, he was put to sleep in June. The dish had been empty since.
The old man was Peter Marshall. In a former life he had carried a man named Sylas Warner over his shoulder through a foreign jungle. Sylas, his lower body blown apart by a land mine, was dead by the time Peter reached his platoon. Peter washed the kid's blood off his hands in a dirty river.
Now retired, Peter spent most of his time waiting to die. Everybody else was dead. Martha was gone four years now and their only son took a header off a bridge six summers before that. The body washed up 2 miles downriver without shoes, and Peter was pretty sure there had been drugs involved.
Yaz, crippled as he was, had outlived them, leaving only Peter behind.
Peter stood, glancing at the clock. There were better things to do than sit there staring at a damn dish. He tinkered with the dirty plates at the sink for awhile until finally turning away in disgust. Outside, the sky was falling to the ground in tiny white flakes, feathers from a torn pillow.
No two snowflakes are alike, he thought.
Some memory from some other time.
Peter grabbed his coat.
It wasn't even half-past-two in the afternoon when he pulled himself onto a stool at Sammy's Tavern. Frankie waved a finger in his direction, and in less than a minute Peter had a beer pushed in front of him. He stared down into its froth and frowned.
"What the hell is that?" Peter asked.
"It's an Oktoberfest," Frankie said. "Just try it. On the house."
"You outta Bud?" The beer was the color of ink and honey. "Come on, Frankie, are you kidding me?"
Frankie poured a Bud into a clean glass, shaking his head.
"Should try something new every now and then, is all," Frankie said.
"Bah." Peter took a sip from the new glass and sighed. "You young guys don't understand tradition. You have too many choices. All these microbrews."
"Choices are good, Peter. Why do the same thing over and over? Isn't that the definition of insanity?"
"It's called loyalty. I wouldn't expect a guy from Seattle to understand."
"Touché." Frankie winked, clucked his teeth and then shuffled toward the end of the bar where a youngish guy stood scratching his nose. The guy had holes in his ears and purple hair. Peter stared into his beer.
"How're the Sox gonna do this year, Petey?" Frankie asked when he came back. "Gonna win the Series again?"
"John Farrell's back," said Peter, one hand curled around his pint. "They're gonna lose Elsbury though, and maybe Napoli."
"I'll never understand how a guy from Oregon grows up liking the Sox."
"I'm cursed," Peter said. "Just like the team."
"I thought the curse was broken in '04."
"And whatta year that was!" Peter waved a hand in the air and his eyes went wide. "Magic."
The bartender grinned. "Another beer, Pete?"
He stepped out into what was left of the afternoon and lifted his collar against the wind. Shadows crept along Main Street, and the alley where he parked his car was already dim. The sidewalk was slick with fresh snow, and he shuffled cautiously so as not to fall on his ass.
When he reached the car, he stopped to fish for his keys. A dog barked somewhere behind him, and when he turned, his foot shot off the curb. For a short, bright moment he was airborne, falling backward, arms pin-wheeling, and then he landed with a thud.
"Damn son of a bitch!" Peter howled. He tasted blood on his tongue where he had bit into it. He heard padded feet crunching through the snow, coming toward him. Then he felt a cold nose in his ear.
"Get outta here!" Peter yelled. He tried to sit up but heard something creak in his back and thought better of it.
You carried a gun, he thought. You outlived the jungle. You paid off your mortgage. You ate Martha's cooking. You can get your ass up off the sidewalk!
The dog pushed in next to him, panting in his ear. He turned toward it and felt its hot breath wash over his face.
"Get away from me," Peter said. "Can't you see you've done enough?"
He pulled himself up, using the bumper to keep his balance. His ankle was tweaked and he could feel it swelling underneath his sock. Got to get that on ice. He shot a glance at the dog; some kind of mutt, matted brown and black hair, little white tuff on its chest. Beady eyes. Sharp ears that came up off its head like two horns.
"Mongrel," Peter scolded, and the dog dropped its head. Peter sniffed, spat on the ground, and then hobbled around his car.
His ankle kept him off his feet for the next two days, but the first day was the worst. Just putting pressure on it seemed to ignite a wrath in his foot that lingered for hours. Ibuprofen was useless. He had two Percocet left from another injury, outdated by seven months, but he took them anyway. They helped a little.
The damn dog. If it hadn't been for that damn dog.
The second day was better. By the third he could walk again, if slowly. It had warmed up by at least fifteen degrees outside and the snow was gone. The sun was working its way through the patchwork of clouds, and the street was steaming.
Peter went out on his porch to stand in the sun and lit his pipe. The taste of cherry tobacco filled his mouth, his nostrils, the air around him.
Mary Jenkins was in her driveway across the street, wrestling with an oversized garbage can. Peter watched, and when she saw him she flipped him the bird.
Peter waved. "Back atcha toots," he mumbled around his pipe.
Next door, that Avery kid was playing in his yard. Some kind of game with an invisible ball, but the kid more or less looked like he was having some kind of fit. When he stopped to stick his pinky finger up his left nostril, Peter went back inside.
In the kitchen, Yaz's dish stared at him from the floor. It screamed at him, that dish, demanding something that he just couldn't give.
Peter tapped his pipe out into the sink, rinsed the used tobacco down the drain, and then jammed the mouthpiece back between his teeth. He chewed on it, thinking, then finally conceded to what had been gnawing at him all morning.
The dog wasn't there when he went back to the alley. He stood in the middle of the sidewalk for a long time, watching the cars pass by on Main. At last, he made for the bar. Another enlightening discussion about baseball with a Mariners fan.
There was a place he and Martha used to go in the warmer months. Back in the hand-holding days, when Martha wasn't sick. Before the tumor in her lung. Before the pain pills and the doctors.
Independence Park was less than a mile from their home. A goodish walk for an old man, especially when the sun was hot, but in those days they shared their strength.
Peter had taken Yaz up there a couple times after Martha died. It wasn't the same, and the dog struggled with the walks. Maybe it was his hips, or maybe the dog understood the place was haunted. Lingering ghosts of lost conversations still audible upon the wind.
Peter didn't know why he was going there again. The walls were closing in on him, and the dish was screaming again. So he started to walk, and eventually he could see the park looming in the distance.
He sat down on a bench and listened to the wind, watched it move through the grass like colorless fingers. Overhead, a single leaf hung suspended from a high branch, brown and curled and dead. It twisted there like a ballerina, as if afraid to let go.
Peter sighed. How had it all become so odd for him? Each day was simply a precursor to the next, and none of it seemed to matter anymore.
The park was a large expanse of grass and dogwoods and maples. In the spring those trees were beautiful, but today they were like skeletal soldiers pleading with an angry sky. Beyond the empty trees were evergreen shrubs and fences, and beyond those an unknown neighborhood of houses.
Peter wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Despite the cool temperature, his skin felt almost feverish. His palms were clammy. The walk must have taken more out of him than he had thought.
Ah Martha, what have we become? What of this place? Everything is old, including you and me.
The wind gusted as if answering his question, a cold breath escaping the setting sun. He thought he ought to start back down the hill.
When he stood, something tightened in his chest. A sudden nausea swept over him, and he rocked back on his heels. The sky swooned, and then came back almost brighter than before.
"What the hell?" The words were no more than a ragged whisper, his breathe hard to find.
There was pain, sharp like a dozen needle teeth, biting into his chest, and it held there for awhile after its initial birth. Then it finally began to fade away into a throbbing echo, tender like a deep bruise.
The walk, he thought. The walk zapped me more than I thought. That's all it was.
His arm was numb. Didn't that mean something? He bent over, sucking at the air until finally the band around his chest loosened.
Don't fool yourself, old man. You know that was more than just the walk. You know…
"Shut up," Peter said. "Just shut up."
The sun had begun its decent and the trees in the park were starting to grow long shadows. He moved slowly around the bench until he was confident enough to let go.
Another gust of wind swelled around him, and he watched as it picked a piece of paper up from the park lawn and made it dance in the air. Above him, in the maple tree, that single leaf let go and invisible hands snatched it away.
The old man shoved his hands into his pockets and started down the hill.
He told himself he would call the doctor in the morning. By the time morning came along that seemed like a bad idea.
He wandered around the house until the house would have him no more, and then he grabbed his Sox cap and threw open the front door. He hesitated there for a moment, his gnarled hand resting on the jam, then went back inside and rummaged through the hall closet. Yaz's old collar and leash were buried behind a box of old paperbacks and Martha's hospital suitcase, still packed with her change of clothing. The leash was cold and limp, like a dead thing, and it made him shiver just picking it up. The leather handle was worn but the steel was good. As good as it ever was.
He found the dog, a dirty little mongrel indeed, curled up next to the stone façade of the alley side pub wall. The dog didn't lift its head as he approached, but watched him with mild consideration.
Something's wrong with it.
He could see the dog's ribs poking out the sides of its long body. There was grease streaked through its fur, as if it had been crawling through the back of a garbage truck, looking for dinner.
Hungry. That's all.
No collar, but he didn't expect there to be one. No tags. No name. No home.
Peter pulled the collar and leash from his pocket and let the chain fall until it hung only inches from the concrete. The dog lifted an ear at the rattling sound. It eyed the chain warily and licked its chops.
"Easy kid," Peter said, holding his free hand up. Should have brought a treat or something. Should have thought about that. "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Even though you did make me fall on my ass and twist my ankle. Cost me two days in the hole, you son of a bitch.
The dog moved awkwardly, sitting up on its rear haunches. Peter took a step toward it and the dog flinched.
If the dog had a history of abuse, then he could be pressing his luck. The dog was smaller than a yellow lab, but its teeth looked like they were in good working order, and if it felt like it was cornered…
Peter stopped, considering this. "Alright," he said, studying the dog. "Alright."
Someone flicked a lighter behind him, and Peter glanced over his shoulder. Leaning against the wall was a guy in jeans, combat boots and a flat brim cap. He wore an oversized Portland Trailblazers coat that hung almost to his knees. The guy winked at Peter, then lit his cigarette with the Zippo. Before he put the lighter away, Peter saw it had a yellow skull on it.
"That your dog?" the guy asked. He was neither a man nor a kid. He scratched at the cluster of acne on his cheek and blew smoke into the gray air.
"Nah," Peter said. He straightened and tightened his fingers around the leash's chain, the dog no longer in the front of his mind. Something about the guy standing there seemed off, and Peter's internal alarm was banging away.
Flat Brim took another deep drag off his cigarette, eyes squinted and locked on Peter. "Just a mutt then."
"Something like that." Peter turned around, looking for his car, confused. Then he remembered. He parked on Main this time, two buildings down from the pub. Why did he forget that? He wondered if Frankie was working today as he scanned the alley. He supposed he could run, or he could stand his ground. Neither would benefit him much.
As if reading his mind, Flat Brim stepped away from the wall, one foot off the curb and in the street.
"You gonna take it home or something, pops?" the guy asked. He finished his cigarette and tossed it in the alley, where its red eye blinked out almost instantly on the wet pavement, smoldering. "You one of those old geezers that like to take home stray dogs?"
"I don't want any trouble," Peter said. He could feel a hand clenching his chest, and he actually looked down, thinking it was his own. He recognized that belt of pressure, recognized the throbbing pain in the hollow of his temple, and he started to panic.
"What if that was my dog?" Flat Brim said. He took his hat off and ran his fingers through his dirty blonde hair. His eyes were offset just a little, and his pupils were a yellowish color, as if jaundiced. He smiled, and then set the cap back on his head, backwards this time. "You fucking with my dog old man?"
The leash dropped from Peter's hand, his fingers no longer feeling anything. Everything seemed to constrict inside his ribcage. The edges around his vision started to go gray and his head felt like it was now just a tethered balloon, floating somewhere above his body.
Flat Brim reached into his coat pocket and pulled out something long and black. At first Peter didn't understand. In his oxygen deprived mind he reasoned that maybe this really was the dog's owner, and that what he held was only a leash, not unlike his own. But when Flat Brim held the leash up to Peter's face, clarity finally dawned; not a leash but a gun, and it was pointed at his left eye.
"Want your cash," Flat Brim said, reaching for Peter's arm.
"Let me see your wallet old man." Flat Brim jerked Peter's arm, the gun somewhere, still pointing at him.
Peter didn't think about the gun. He thought about the leash. He brought it up over his head, meaning to hit the guy, but the leash was no longer there. He stared at his empty hand in surprise.
Somewhere a dog was barking.
Yaz, he thought. I can't fill that damn dish no more. Can't do it.
Flat Brim pushed Peter, and a new kind of pain bloomed across Peter's chest. He leaned to his side, trying to catch his breath, and something hard hit him across the face.
The dog. Somewhere. Growling now.
Flat Brim no longer held Peter's wrist, but the world was spinning, and he fell into its vortex.
He felt the cold concrete underneath his cheek, and reckoning came as hard as the ground he lay on. He had fallen, although he didn't remember doing so. He had a slanted view of the curb and beyond it the alley asphalt, littered with cigarette butts and fast food wrappers. Somebody's black boots stepped into his vision. The tread on those boots was thick and scuffed and they reminded him of the army boots he laced up for the first time right out of high school.
The dog leaped past Peter. He felt the wind of its wake, smelled wet fur and rage. Flat Brim screamed.
Peter closed his eyes.
There were machines and there were strange faces. The machines whooshed and beeped and the strange faces shifted their positions. They looked like smudged pink thumbprints, those faces. All of them blurred and ambiguous.
Peter let his eyelids flutter and then close. When he woke again, the machines were still whooshing. The thumbprints were gone.
He tried to sit up, but there were too many cords coming out of his body. No, not cords. Tubes. Highways of fluid moving in and out of his body. There was an IV in his hand and oxygen blowing up his nose.
He lay there for a long time, staring at the ceiling, and he determined that if he was dead this was certainly not paradise. The door opened and a tall lanky man in a white coat approached his bed. The man was smiling, and Peter wondered what might be so funny about lying on a hospital bed in hell.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Marshall? Okay?"
Peter tried to speak but there was a log in his throat. He choked on it.
The doctor put his hand on Peter's arm. "Sorry, Peter. Don't work too hard. Take it easy."
Peter let his head fall back onto the pillow. His head was swimming and the room was suddenly too bright. There was a gorilla on his chest, strangling him. His fingers folded over the metal bed rails and he squeezed until the purple veins bulged in his forearms, coughing.
"Easy big guy," the doctor said.
I'm drowning! Drowning in my own body!
Peter finally managed to swallow. He gulped at the air, mouth wide open like a fish.
"You are one lucky man," the doctor said.
Peter raised his eyes and studied the man. The name on the badge hanging from the guy's coat was Edelson.
Dr. Edelson spoke with a kind of calm grace, as if the words he spoke were words he had given to a hundred patients, a thousand.
"You had an acute myocardial infarction. A heart attack."
"Someone called 911 just in time, Mr. Marshall. You had people looking out for you."
Peter relaxed his arms. His mouth hung open slightly and he was breathing through his mouth. His chest made a hoarse wheezing sound that reminded him of the wind blowing through shells on the beach. He stared at the ceiling tiles, trying to remember. He saw pieces but not the whole picture. He remembered the guy in the flat brim hat. And the gun.
"You have a visitor," Dr. Edelson said, catching Peter offguard and making him jump.
"Who?" Peter turned his head.
"He says he's a friend. Came in behind the ambulance and has been here since. You can have ten minutes if you're up for it, or I can tell him to come by--"
Peter waved a weak hand in the air. "No. I want to see."
The doctor nodded and left the room, and Peter watched the door.
Almost five minutes later the door opened again.
"Frankie," Peter whispered.
"Hey, there's the guy," Frankie said. He softly closed the door and came to the bed, carrying a plant with a purple flower and a teddy bear. The teddy bear was wearing a Mariners hat and jersey and had a mitt on one hand. Frankie put the plant down on the counter next to the sink and held the bear up for Peter to see. "I couldn't resist."
Peter groaned, but the slightest smile touched his lips.
"You had us all worried," Frankie said. "All of us at the bar. I heard that dog howling and…"
Peter's eyes went wide. "Dog? Wha…dog?"
"Yeah, that mutt. I've seen it out in the alley a couple times, even fed it some scraps from time to time. You know, cuz it looked sick or something. Anyway, that dog comes jumping up on the front door, paws scratching on the glass, yelping until someone opened up. I come out to see what gives, and that dog goes tearing around the corner. I followed and there you were."
Peter tried to sit up but couldn't. The dog. The mutt?
"You were lying on the ground, and that other guy was trying to get away on his hands and knees. Crawling down the alley, bleeding all over the place."
"Flat Brim," Peter said.
"I seen the gun on the pavement, not far from your head, and I figured this guy tried to jump you or something. That's the way it looked anyway. But that dog… it goes ripping after that guy, its teeth bearing into his ass and making that guy howl. I've never seen anything like that before, Pete. I figured it was that dog that done that to him in the first place. To his hands and face. Made him crawl and bleed like that."
"Where's the dog?"
"Somebody wanted to call the pound, but I wouldn't let them. Not after what that dog did. I called my wife and had her take the dog home until I got the chance to see how you were doing." He wiped his mouth, and Peter realized Frankie was on the verge of tears. His face had gone the color of ash and his eyes were bloodshot. "That dog's a hero, Pete. He probably saved your life."
When they released Peter, Frankie was there waiting for him. Good old Frankie.
The dog was in the front seat of Frankie's car. He had been bathed and now wore an awful aquamarine collar, but he still looked mangy. Still looked like a mutt.
It shied away from Peter when he opened the door, hopping over the console and into the back. Peter eased into the passenger seat and turned toward the dog.
"So I hear you know how to fight," Peter said.
The dog lowered its head and sniffed at the seat.
"Come on," Peter said and patted his knee. The dog's ears perked. It approached Peter slowly, one paw first and then the next, tail between its legs. But it came, and Peter wrapped one big hand over the dog's head and stroked.
"I suppose you can take him home," Frankie said. "Or whatever."
Peter ran his hand over the length of the dog, feeling the bones underneath the thin skin and shedding fur.
"You want to come home with an old man?" Peter asked. The dog licked its chops.
"Got to have a name," Frankie said, pulling into traffic.
"Teddy," Peter said.
"Ted Williams. Greatest hitter of all time, and kind of a mongrel himself." Peter thought about it and nodded. "I got a bowl at home, but you can't have that one. That one has another name on it. But I'll get you a new one. With a new name."
"Sounds good Pete," Frankie said.
"Yeah. A new bowl and maybe a new bed. That sounds pretty good." He looked out the window and watched as the gray buildings and dead lawns passed by. The sky was cold and hostile. Another storm brewing. He stroked the dog's fur, feeling the dog's warmth in his hand, feeling the rise and fall of the dog's short breaths.
You can't always fill the empty places with the same things, or the same people. But sometimes you could let new ones in. And sometimes those things fit almost just as well.
Peter closed his eyes, and for the first time in a long while he felt peace.
"That sounds just fine," Peter said. "Just fine indeed."
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Sean Ealy. All rights reserved.