Every evening, I run. Rain, snow, sleet, fog, doesn’t matter. I get home from my job supervising a waste management facility, kiss Hannah and Lucy hello, peck Kate on the cheek, change my clothes and head out. I don’t even take the time to stretch properly first.
This routine annoys Kate. She needs a break from Hannah and Lucy after a day spent refereeing their fights over what to watch on TV and who got to be the mom when they played house. She wants me to take care of the girls, have a relaxing supper. Kate can be annoyed all she wants, but she can’t get angry. When we got married, this was part of our agreement. She has no choice but to understand.
I am a creature of habit. I run the same course every evening. Down the hill into town, away from our modern subdivision and past the clapboard homes built a century before, when the railway rolled through filled with corn and wheat and soybeans, and barges laden with timber cleared from northern woods eased downriver. When the town was an entity onto itself, instead of the bedroom community it has become.
Shaded by towering trees fifty years old, I run across Summit Avenue, down Filmore Way, along First Street and into River Park. I take the path that follows along the river, back up Vine Street, across Summit again to my house. Five miles of running, of freedom, it isn’t much, but it’s enough to keep me from entirely reverting into something other, something wild. They try to wean addicts off heroine with methadone. Running is my methadone.
This day is hot and muggy, the sky hazy, the forecast calling for late night storms. I am panting heavily by the time I reach First Street and find it closed for construction. Barriers are up and workers, long since gone home for the day, have jack-hammered the asphalt into large chunks. I cannot run my usual path without risking a twisted ankle, so I backtrack and head down Second Street, which will still lead me to the River Park path and put me back on course.
The houses on Second Street are markedly different from those on First Street. First Street lines the river, and has expensive Victorians built by logger barons in the town’s heyday, with docks and boat houses and lush lawns that roll down to the water’s edge. Because they are not on the water, the Second Street homes are not prime real estate. The houses are small and boxy and simple. Most, though, are well-kept, with freshly painted facades, trimmed bushes and crew cut lawns.
I hit my zone. That point when my strides are even and effortless, my mind filled with the happiness of nothing. No angst over work, over bills to pay, over how Kate and I will ever afford college tuition for the girls. This is why I run, to forget, to remember.
I smell the dog before I see her, or even hear her. The scent of fear fills my nostrils, breaks my stride. Then the barking begins, not warning barks, not excited-to-see-you barks, but barks that come deep from the throat and rise to an almost imperceptible pitch. Barks pleading for help.
The dog stands behind a tall privacy fence that surrounds a small ranch house. The fence panels are pushed out in a couple of places so that she can stick her dark snout through them. The house itself has a crumbling stoop, a weather beaten door, cracked blue siding with the texture of alligator skin. A square of shingles above the one car garage has come off and lays in the frayed branches of a bush below. A tricycle has been abandoned on a lawn that is more creeping charley and broadleaf than actual grass, rusted rims, a torn saddle, handlebars askew. Weeds grow high around it. A satellite dish is attached to the chimney. On the driveway sits a Harley, all polished chrome and leather, with an engine bigger than the ones they put in compact cars these days – probably worth more than the house.
The dog continues barking, begging for me to stop. I continue on. From time to time the girls ask me if we can get a dog. I always turn them down, even though I rarely deny them anything, even though I know there are plenty of good dogs at the shelter on the edge of town, in need of a warm bed, two meals a day, little children to pet them and play ball with, dogs that need people to protect, to protect them. But I can’t take the chance. To have one always around would be too great a temptation, make it too easy to revert. An alcoholic shouldn’t keep beer in the fridge.
A door slams open behind me. A voice shouts, “Shut the fuck up.” Hard leather hits the dog’s side. It yelps. It whimpers.
I stop running and turn around. It is not just because of the dog, but because of the tricycle. A child lives in that house. And any man that would hit a dog for making too much noise would hit a child for a misspoken word, for being tired, for being hungry, simply for being. I think about my own girls, safe at home, with two parents who are not perfect, but who love them, would never hurt them for the world, and try each day to raise them right.
I go around to the back of the house. Through the gaps in the fence I see the dog, short, gray-black fur, a pointed snout, sharp eyes, part pointer, part lab, perhaps she even has some German shorthair. She lies in the far corner of the yard, in the dirt beneath a tree, licking herself. Her ribs are visible beneath dull, matted fur. A few chew toys are strewn about the yard, old and faded.
She notices me, but does not bark. Instead, she struggles to her feet, walks towards me slowly, head and ears low. She tells me, not with words, but with her scent, her body language, that she is in trouble. I tell her, in the same way, that I understand.
I limp to the front door just in case anyone inside is watching. The doorbell has been removed. A couple of bare wires stick out from a hole next to the door. Inside, a TV blares. I rap on the door, step back.
No one answers. A second knock, louder this time. Eventually, a man answers. He is thin, with sunken cheeks, close set eyes, muscles tight beneath his t-shirt. Bony fingers clutch a beer can. There is dirt beneath his fingernails, stubble beneath his chin but nowhere else on his face. His teeth are yellow and he reeks of cigarettes.
I put all my weight on my right foot. “Sorry to bug you, but I was out running, twisted my ankle. Can I use your phone to call my wife, ask for a ride?”
The man looks me up and down. I keep my head low, slouch slightly to show I’m no threat. “Sure,” he says, stepping aside.
The house looks smaller on the inside. To my left is a living room, wood panel painted white, floor layered in carpet remnants. A couch that sags in the middle faces a wide screen TV. The coffee table is littered with beer cans, a plate with half-eaten pizza, hunting magazines.
“They seem to start the preseason earlier every year,” I say, nodding towards the TV. The Giants are playing the Packers in the sweltering summer heat.
“Phone’s in the kitchen,” the man gestures down the hall. I pass a small bedroom and a bathroom on my way to kitchen. The only furniture in the bedroom is a box spring and mattress. An odor emanates from the bathroom. Clothes and towels are strewn across both rooms.
In the kitchen, the sink is filled with dirty dishes, the oven hood grimy with grease. One of the cupboard doors has been chewed up by the dog. A water dish sits empty.
A sliding door leads onto a backyard patio. The dog sits on the other side of the door, panting, wagging her tail. She wears a collar. Two metal tags jingle from it. I bend down to read them. The first one tells me that her rabies vaccination is out of date. The second has her name, a phone number. The name does not register in my mind. It is a name given to her by the man in the living room, a slave name. No doubt, he got her because he thought she would help him flush out pheasants, retrieve mallards shot out of the gray autumn sky. Probably gave her some name like Hunter or Scout. Fool. One look at her tells me she’d make a poor hunting dog. She’s too skittish for the discipline. No, her name is not her real name because it was not given by someone who understood her, was not given out of love.
The man did not follow me into the kitchen, as if he was used to having people come in and out. He has turned the sound up on the game. Packers are winning, 21 – 10. The phone hangs on the wall. It is cordless with a built in answering machine. The red light on the phone blinks a red five. Five messages waiting to be heard.
I pick up the phone, push the message button. He will know I’ve listened to them because the flashing will stop, but that won’t matter. By then, I’ll be gone, and he doesn’t know my name or where I live.
There is a message from a window company offering a free quote, another from a credit card company, reminding him he has an outstanding payment. Two messages are from some guy who doesn’t give his name, asking where the hell he is and wanting him to call back. The last message is from a woman. Her tone is angry, and she sounds as if she had been crying.
“Check’s late again. School’s coming up. Ellen needs clothes and supplies. I need to pay JJs sitter. It better be here by the end of the week. Next call is from my lawyer.”
So there are no children in the house. Not anymore, at least. He may be a deadbeat dad, but at least he won’t be able to hurt his children.
As soon as I start to leave the kitchen, the dog begins barking. She has expected me to help her. I promised I would. But I can’t. And there’s no way to make her understand. Once, I would have ripped out a man’s throat to save a dog like her. I’ve run with a pack, know what it’s like. We may have squabbled amongst ourselves over food scraps or the shady spot in the vacant lot on a hot day, but if some stray we didn’t know tried to horn in on a piece of road kill we’d found, we’d send him scampering, his tail between his legs. I have a different pack now, my wife, my girls. They are the ones I have to look out for.
The man shouts for the dog to shut up from the living room. His shout makes me shudder. I do not want her to get hit again. I kneel at the door, try to get her to be quiet, communicate to her that I’ll stay. But she can tell I’m lying from my scent. She keeps barking.
I straighten when the man enters the kitchen, swearing all the while. He moves to open the sliding door. “It’s okay,” I say. “She’s not bothering me.”
He stops, glares at me, then glances at the phone. “You been listening to my messages?”
I back out into the hall. He moves on me. “Who the fuck are you?” He shoves me. I fall backwards. My spine cracks on the bathroom door jam, keeping me from hitting the floor. The dog is barking louder and more frantic than before. The man follows me as I turn and run through the living room and out the front door and gives chase. I’m in better shape than him, and I lose him after half a block. Only when I reach the park do I slow to a jog.
Three pre-teen girls are cooling themselves in the river. A woman walks her small child down the path a little ways while pushing an empty stroller. A young couple sits almost on top of each other on a park bench, the girl laughing and looking to the sky while the boy stares at his feet and mumbles something about tomorrow.
It has been a long time since I ran away from anyone or anything. I do not make a habit of it. When it came to the flight or fight, I always chose to fight. The loner who wanted in on the dumpster behind the Green Dragon Chinese restaurant, raccoons and possums cornered in alleyways. I would always stand my ground. The last time I recall running from anyone, it was some workmen who came into an abandoned building we had taken over. We had made it comfortable with beds of old blankets and crumpled newspapers, would scavenge the nearby allies for food and come back here to sleep in relative safety. The workmen were there to start rehabbing the place, were shocked when they saw us, chased us away with shouts and waives of their hammers. One of them kicked at me with his steel toed boot and grazed my side.
My new life has tamed me. I have become as frightened as everyone else. I left that dog, that poor girl, alone with that man, angry and drunk and looking for a fight with someone who would not fight back. I turn, start running back to the house.
I steal up to the fence and undo the latch to the back gate. The dog is no longer in the yard. I do not see her or the man through the screen door or through the windows. No doubt the man is in the living room, watching TV. I peer through one of the basement windows. The dog lies on the cement floor chained up near the furnace, no blanket, no water.
I debate going back home, calling the police. They came out when a dog was being abused, didn’t they? But what could they do? A dog was property. It had no rights. They would talk to the man, might even take the dog away, but what then? A shelter, if she was lucky, a no kill one. Maybe she’d get adopted, maybe not. There were lots of other younger and cuter dogs looking for homes.
I smash the basement window with a rock, reach in and undo the latch. I call to the dog, and she comes to the window, wagging her tail, letting out little yelps of hope, of joy. I don’t know how I’ll get her up to the window, or even if she’ll fit. I haven’t thought that far ahead. For the first time in a long while, I am acting on instinct. It feels good, to act, not to think things through.
A hand grips my shoulder from behind, spins me around. The man punches me in the face. I hit the ground, my nose bleeding. He closes in on me. I put my hands up and speak before he can hit me again.
“I just want the dog,” I say, then add a lie. “I had one like her, once. I’m willing to pay.”
He stops at that. “Cash?”
My wife insists I run with my wallet. “In case something happens,” she would say, “You might need your driver’s license and credit cards. Can’t be too careful.”
I pull my wallet out from the inside pocket of my shorts. “I’ve got a hundred bucks.”
“She’s my dog.”
“Not really,” I dare.
He turns away, looking as if he’s going to cry. “Used to have a family. She’s all that’s left.”
I begin to understand. His marriage is over, his children gone. The dog reminds him of what he has lost. It has made him angry, frustrated. Still, it changes nothing.
“A hundred bucks,” I repeat. I take a wad of bills from my wallet, stretch them out towards him.
He takes the money, shoving it into the pocket of his jeans. “Need a leash?”
I shake my head. He heads inside, comes out a moment later with the dog. She follows me out of the yard. As soon as we reach the street, we both begin to run. She breaks into a sprint, but I keep pace. As we reach the park she turns towards the water. I follow, taking me off course.
As we enter the river, splashing wildly, I begin to wonder what the girls will name her. Whether, after a while, they’ll still call me Dad.
Manfred Gabriel’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tales of the Unanticipated, Forbidden Speculations and Not One of Us. He lives and writes in Western Wisconsin with his wife, three daughters and two very big, very old and very sweet mutts.