Brad Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He studied at Mississippi State University and The University of Alabama, has taught at Alabama, Harvard, The University of West Florida, Ole Miss, The University of California at Irvine, and now in the MFA Program at The University of Wyoming. He has published three books: Last Days of the Dog-Men (winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), The Heaven of Mercury, and (in 2010) Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. His stories have have appeared in places like Granta, Ecotone, Narrative, The Oxford American, Greensboro Review, Idaho Review, The New Yorker.
Last Days of the Dog-Men
When I was a boy my family always had hunting dogs, always bird dogs, once a couple of blue-ticks, and for six years anywhere from six to fifteen beagles. But we never really got to where we liked to eat rabbit, and we tired of the club politics of hunting deer, so we penned up the beagles, added two black Labs, and figured we’d do a little duck.
Those were raucous days around the house, the big pen in the back with the beagles squawling, up on their hind legs against the fence, making noises like someone was cutting their tails off. It was their way. At night when I crept out into the yard they fell silent, their white necks exposed to the moon, their soft round eyes upon me. They made small, disturbed, guttural sounds like chickens.
Neighbors finally sent the old man to municipal court charged with something like disturbing the peace, and since my mother swore that anyway she’d never fry another rabbit, they looked like little bloody babies once skinned, she said, he farmed out the beagles and spent his Saturdays visiting this dog or that, out to Uncle Spurgeon’s to see Jimbo, the best runner of the pack. Or out to Bud’s rambling shack, where Bud lived with old Patsy and Balls, the breeder. They hollered like nuclear warning sirens when the old man drove up in his Ford.
After that he went into decline. He liked the Labs but never took much interest, they being already a hollow race of dog, the official dog of the middle class. He let them lounge around the porch under the ceiling fan and lope around the yard and the neighborhood, aimless loafers, and took to watching war movies on TV in his room, wandering through the house speaking to us like we were neighbors to hail, engage in small talk, and bid farewell. He was a man who had literally abandoned the hunt. He was of the generation that had moved to the city. He was no longer a man who lived among dogs.
It wasn’t long after that I moved out anyway, and got married to live with Lois in a dogless suburban house, a quiet world that seemed unanchored somehow, half inhabited, pale and blank, as if it would one day dissolve to fog, lines blurring, and seep away into air, as indeed it would. We bought a telescope and spent some nights in the yard tracking the cold lights of the stars and planets, looking for patterns, never suspecting that here were the awful bloody secrets of the ancient human heart and that every generation must flesh them out anew. Humans are aware of very little, it seems to me, the artificial brainy side of life, the worries and bills and the mechanisms of jobs, the doltish psychologies we’ve placed over our lives like a stencil. A dog keeps his life simple and unadorned. He is who he is, and his only task is to assert this. If he desires the company of another dog, or if he wishes to mate, things can get a little complex. But the ways of settling such things are established and do not change. And when they are settled and he is home from his wandering he may have a flickering moment, a sort of Pickett’s Charge across the synaptic field toward reflection. But the moment passes. And when it passes it leaves him with a vague disquietude, a clear nose that on a good night could smell the lingering presence of men on the moon, and the rest of the day ahead of him like a canyon.
Which is how I’ve tried to view the days I’ve spent here in this old farmhouse where I’m staying with my friend Harold in the country. I’m on extended leave of absence from the Journal. But it’s no good. It’s impossible to bring that sort of order and clarity to a normal human life.
The farmhouse is a wreck floating on the edge of a big untended pasture where the only activities are the occasional squadron of flaring birds dropping from sight into the tall grass, and the creation of random geometric paths the nose-down dogs make tracking the birds. The back porch has a grand view of the field, and when weather permits we sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes and sip coffee in the mornings, beer in the afternoons, often good scotch at night. At midday, there’s horseshoes.
There’s also Phelan Holt, a mastiff of a man, whom Harold met at the Blind Horse Bar and Grill and allowed to rent a room in the house’s far corner. We don’t see a great deal of Phelan, who came down here from Ohio to teach poetry at the women’s college. He once played linebacker for a small college in the Midwest, and then took his violent imagination to the page and published a book of poems about the big subjects: God, creation, the confusion of animals, and the bloody concoction of love. He pads along a shiny path he’s made through the dust to the kitchen for food and drink, then pads back, and occasionally comes out to the porch to drink bourbon and to give us brief, elliptical lectures on the likes of Isaac Babel, Rilke, and Cervantes, gently smoking a joint which he does not share. In spite of his erudition, thick, balding Phelan is very much a moody old dog. He lives alone with others, leaves to conduct his business, speaks very little, eats moderately, and is generally inscrutable.
One day Harold proposed to spend the afternoon fishing for bream. We got into the truck and drove through a couple of pastures and down an old logging road through a patch of woods to a narrow cove that spread out into the broad sunlit surface of a lake. The sun played on thin rippling lines that spread from the small heads of snapping turtles and water moccasins moving now and then like sticks in a current.
Harold pulled a johnboat from the willows and rowed us out. We fished the middle, dropping our baits over what Harold said was the old streambed where a current of cooler water ran through down deep. The water was a dark coppery stain, like thin coffee. We began to pull up a few bluegill and crappie, and Phelan watched them burst from the water, broad flat gold and silver, and curl at the end of the line, their eyes huge. They flopped crazily in the bottom of the boat, drowning in the thin air. Phelan set down his pole and nipped at a half-pint of bourbon he’d pulled from his pocket.
“Kill it,” he said, looking away from my bluegill. “I can’t stand to watch it struggling for air.” His eyes followed the tiny heads of moccasins moving silently across the surface, turtles lumbering onto half-submerged logs. “Those things will eat your fish right off the stringer,” he said. He drank from the little bottle again and then in his best old-fashioned pedagogical manner said, “Do we merely project the presence of evil upon God’s creatures, in which case we are inherently evil and the story of the garden a ruse, or is evil absolute?”
From his knapsack he produced a pistol, a Browning .22 semiautomatic that looked like a German Luger, and set it on his lap. He pulled out a sandwich and ate it slowly. Then he shucked a round into the gun’s chamber and sighted down on one of the turtles and fired, the sharp report flashing off the water into the trees. What looked like a puff of smoke spiffed from the turtle’s back and it tumbled from the log. “It’s off a little to the right,” he said. He aimed at a moccasin head crossing at the opposite bank and fired. The water jumped in front of the snake, which stopped, and Phelan quickly tore up the water where the head was with three quick shots. The snake disappeared. Silence, in the wake of the loud hard crack of the pistol, came back to our ears in shock waves over the water. “Hard to tell if you’ve hit them when they’re swimming,” he said, looking down the length of the barrel as if for flaws, lifting his hooded eyes to survey the water’s surface for more prey.
Harold himself is sort of like a garment drawn from the irregular bin: off-center, unique, a little tilted on his axis. If he were a dog, I’d call him an unbrushed collie who carries himself like a chocolate Lab. He has two actual dogs, a big blond hound named Otis and a bird dog named Ike. Like Phelan, Otis is a socialized dog and gets to come into the house to sleep, whereas Ike must stay outside on the porch. At first I could not understand why Otis received this privilege and Ike did not, but in time I began to see.
Every evening after supper when he is home, Harold gets up from the table and lets in Otis, who sits beside the table and looks at Harold, watching Harold’s hands. Harold’s hands pinching off a last bite of cornbread and nibbling on it, Harold’s hands pulling a Camel cigarette out of the pack, Harold’s hands twiddling with the matches. And soon, as if he isn’t really thinking of it, in the middle of talking about something else and not even seeming to plan to do it, Harold will pick up a piece of meat scrap and let it hover over the plate for a minute, talking, and you’ll see Otis get alert and begin to quiver almost unnoticeably. And then Harold will look at Otis and maybe say, “Otis, stay.” And Otis’s eyes will cut for just a second to Harold’s and then snatch back to the meat scrap, maybe having to chomp his jaws together to suck saliva, his eyes glued to the meat scrap. And then Harold will gently lower the meat scrap onto the top of Otis’s nose and then slowly take away his hand, saying, “Stay. Stay. Stay. Otis. Stay.” Crooning it real softly. And Otis with his eyes cross-eyed looking at the meat scrap on his nose, quivering almost unnoticeably and not daring to move, and then Harold leans back and takes another Camel out of the pack, and if Otis slowly moves just an eighth of an inch, saying, “Otis. Stay.” And then lighting the cigarette and looking at Otis for a second and saying, “All right, Otis.” And quicker than you can see it Otis has not so much tossed the scrap up in the air as he has removed his nose from its position, the meat scrap suspended, and before it can begin to respond to gravity Otis has snatched it into his mouth and swallowed it and is looking at Harold’s hands again with the same look as if nothing has happened between them at all and he is hoping for his first scrap.
This is the test, Harold says. If you balance the meat scrap, and in a moment of grace manage to eat the meat scrap, you are in. If you drop the meat scrap and eat it off the floor, well, you’re no better than a dog. Out you go.
But the thing I was going to tell at first is about Ike, about how when Otis gets let in and Ike doesn’t, Ike starts barking outside the door, big woofing barks, loud complaints, thinking (Harold says), Why is he letting in Otis and not me? Let me IN. IN. And he continues his barking for some couple of minutes or so, and then, without your really being able to put your finger on just how it happens, the bark begins to change, not so much a complaint as a demand, I am IKE, let me IN, because what is lost you see is the memory of Otis having been let in first and that being the reason for complaint. And from there he goes to his more common generic statement, voiced simply because Ike is Ike and needs no reason for saying it, I am IKE, and then it changes in a more noticeable way, just IKE, and he loses contact with his ego, soon just Ike!, tapering off, and in a minute it’s just a bark every now and then, just a normal call into the void the way dogs do, yelling HEY every now and then and seeing if anyone responds across the pasture, HEY, and then you hear Ike circle and drop himself onto the porch floorboards just outside the kitchen door. And this, Harold says, is a product of Ike’s consciousness, that before he can even finish barking Ike has forgotten what he’s barking about, so he just lies down and goes to sleep. And this, Harold says, as if the meat scrap test needs corroboration, is why Ike can’t sleep indoors and Otis can.
The other day, Harold sat in a chair in front of his bedroom window, leaned back, and put his feet on the sill, and the whole window, frame and all, fell onto the weeds with a crash. I helped him seal the hole with polyethylene sheeting and duct tape and now there’s a filtered effect to the light in the room that’s quite nice on cool late afternoons.
There are clothes in the closets here, we don’t know who they belong to. The front room and the dark attic are crammed with junk. Old space heaters in a pile in one corner, a big wooden canoe (cracked) with paddles, a set of barbells made from truck axles and wheel rims, a seamstress dummy with nipples painted on the breasts, some great old cane fly rods not too limber anymore, a big wooden Motorola radio, a rope ladder, a box of Life magazines, and a big stack of yellow newspapers from Mobile. And lots of other junk too numerous to name.
All four corners of the house slant toward the center, the back of the foyer being the floor’s lowest point. You put a golf ball on the floor at any point in the house and it’ll roll its way eventually, bumping lazily into baseboards and doors and discarded shoes and maybe a baseball mitt or a rolled-up rug slumped against the wall, to that low spot in the tall empty foyer where there’s a power-line spool heaped with wadded old clothes like someone getting ready for a yard sale cleaned out some dresser drawers and disappeared. The doors all misfit their frames, and on gusty mornings I have awakened to the dry tick and skid of dead leaves rolling under the gap at the bottom of the front door and into the foyer, rolling through the rooms like little tumbleweeds, to collect in the kitchen, where then in ones and twos and little groups they skitter out the open door to the backyard and on out across the field. It’s a pleasant way to wake up, really. Sometimes I hang my head over the side of the big bed I use, the one with four rough-barked cedar logs for posts and which Harold said the mice used before I moved in, and I’ll see this big old skink with pink spots on his slick black hide hunting along the crevice between the baseboard and the floor. His head disappears into the crevice, and he draws it out again chewing something, his long lipless jaws chomping down.
The house doors haven’t seen a working lock in thirty or forty years. Harold never really thinks about security, though the bums walking on the road to Florida pass by here all the time and probably used this as a motel before Harold found it out here abandoned on his family’s land and became an expatriate from town because, he says, he never again wants to live anywhere he can’t step out onto the back porch and take a piss day or night.
The night I showed up looking for shelter I just opened up the front door because no one answered and I didn’t know if Harold was way in the back of the big old house (he was) or what. I entered the foyer, and first I heard a clicking sound and Otis came around the corner on his toes, claws tapping, his tail high, with a low growl. And then Harold walked in behind him, his rusty old .38 in his hand. He sleeps with it on a bookshelf not far from his bed, the one cheap bullet he owns next to the gun if it hasn’t rolled off onto the floor.
The night that Phelan arrived to stay, fell through the door onto his back, and lay there looking up into the shadows of the high old foyer, Otis came clicking in and approached him slowly, hackles raised, lips curling fluidly against his old teeth, until his nose was just over Phelan’s. And then he jumped back barking savagely when Phelan burst out like some slurring old thespian, “There plucking at his throat a great black beast shaped like a hound, ‘The Hound!,’ cried Holmes, ‘Great Heavens!’ Half animal half demon, its eyes aglow its muzzles and hackles and dewlap outlined in flickering flame.”
“Phelan,” Harold said, “meet Otis.”
“Cerberus, you mean,” Phelan said, “my twelfth labor.” He raised his arms and spread his fingers before his eyes. “I have only my hands.”
How Harold came to be alone is this: Sophia, a surveyor for the highway department, fixed her sights on Harold and took advantage of his ways by drinking with him till two a.m. and then offering to drive him home, where she would put him to bed and ride him like a cowgirl. She told me this herself one night, and asked me to feel of her thighs, which were hard and bulging as an ice skater’s under her jeans. “I’m strong,” she whispered in my ear, cocking an eyebrow.
One evening after she’d left, Harold stumbled out onto the porch where I sat smoking, bummed a cigarette, braced an arm against a porch post, and stood there taking a long piss out into the yard. He didn’t say anything. He was naked. His hair was like a sheaf of windblown wheat against the moonlight coming down on the field and cutting a clean line of light along the edge of the porch. His pale body blue in that light. He kept standing there, his stream arcing out into the yard, sprayed to the east in the wind, breathing through his nose and smoking the cigarette with the smoke whipping away. There was a storm trying to blow in. I didn’t have to say anything. You always know when you’re close to out of control.
Sophia left paraphernalia around for Harold’s fiancée Westley to find. Pairs of panties under the bed, a silky camisole slumped like a prostitute between two starched dress shirts in Harold’s closet, a vial of fingernail polish in the silverware tray. It wasn’t long before Westley walked out of the bathroom one day with a black brassiere, saying, “What’s this thing doing hanging on the commode handle?” And it was pretty much over between Westley and Harold after that.
I must say that Sophia, who resembled a greyhound with her long nose and close-set eyes and her tremendous thighs, is the bridge between Harold’s story and mine.
Because at first I wasn’t cheating on Lois. Things had become distant in the way they do after a marriage struggles through passionate possessive love and into the heartbreak of languishing love, before the vague incestuous love on the long-together. I got home one night when Lois and I were still together, heard something scramble on the living-room floor, and looked over to see this trembling thing shaped like a drawn bow, long needle-nosed face looking at me as if over reading glasses, nose down, eyes up, cowed. He was aging. I eased over to him and pulled back ever so softly when as I reached my hand over he showed just a speck of white tooth along his black lip.
“I read that story in the Journal about them, and what happens to them when they can’t race anymore,” she said. She’d simply called up the dog track, gone out to a kennel, and taken her pick.
She said since he was getting old, maybe he wouldn’t be hard to control, and besides, she thought maybe I missed having a dog. It was an attempt, I guess, to make a connection. Or it was the administration of an opiate. I don’t really know.
To exercise Spike, the retired greyhound, and to encourage a friendship between him and me, Lois had the two of us, man and dog, take up jogging. We’d go to the high school track, and Spike loved it. He’d trot about on the football field, snuffling here and there. Once he surprised and caught a real rabbit, and tore it to pieces. It must have brought back memories of his training days. You wouldn’t think a racing dog could be like a pet dog, foolish and simple and friendly. But Spike was okay. We were pals. And then, after all the weeks it took Spike and me to get back into shape, and after the incidental way in which my affair with Imelda down the street began out of our meeting and jogging together around the otherwise empty track, after weeks of capping our jog with a romp on the foam-rubber pole vault mattress just beyond the goalposts, Lois bicycled down to get me one night and rode silently up as Imelda and I lay naked except for our jogging shoes on the pole vault mattress, cooling down, Spike curled up at our feet. As she glided to a stop on the bicycle, Spike raised his head and wagged his tail. Seeing his true innocence, I felt a heavy knot form in my chest. When Lois just as silently turned on her bicycle and pedaled away, Spike rose, stretched, and followed her home. Imelda and I hadn’t moved.
“Oh, shit,” Imelda said. “Well, I guess it’s all over.”
Imelda merely meant our affair, since her husband was a Navy dentist on a cruise in the Mediterranean which had put Imelda temporarily in her parents’ hometown, temporarily writing features for the Journal, and temporarily having an affair with me. It was Imelda’s story on greyhounds that Lois had seen. It was Imelda who said she wanted to meet Spike, and it was I who knew exactly how this would go and gave in to the inexorable flow of it, combining our passive wills toward this very moment. And it was I who had to go home to Lois now that my marriage was ruined.
Imelda left, and I lay there awhile looking up at the stars. It was early October, and straight up I could see the bright clusters of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Cygnus, and off to the right broad Hercules, in his flexing stance. I remembered how Lois and I used to make up constellations: there’s my boss, she’d say, scratching his balls. There’s Reagan’s brain, she’d say. Where? The dim one. Where? That was the joke. Looking up at night usually made me feel as big as the sky, but now I felt like I was floating among them and lost. I got up and started to walk home. There was a little chill in the air, and the drying sweat tightened my skin. I smelled Imelda on my hands and wafting up from my shorts.
The door was unlocked. The lamp was on in the corner of the living room. The night-light was on in the hallway. I took off my running shoes and walked quietly down the hallway to the bedroom. I could see in the dim light that Lois was in bed, either asleep or pretending to be, facing the wall, her back to the doorway, the covers pulled up to her ears. She was still.
From my side of the bed, Spike watched me sleepily, stretched out, his head resting on his paws. I don’t imagine I’d have had the courage to climb into bed and beg forgiveness, anyway. But seeing Spike already there made things clearer, and I crept back out to the den and onto the couch. I curled up beneath a small lap blanket and only then exhaled, breathing very carefully.
When I awoke stiff and guilty the next morning, Lois and Spike were gone. Some time around midafternoon, she came home alone. She was wearing a pair of old torn jeans and a baggy flannel shirt and a Braves cap pulled down over her eyes. We didn’t speak. I went out into the garage and cleaned out junk that had been there for a couple of years, hauled it off to the dump in the truck, then came in and showered. I smelled something delicious cooking in the kitchen. When I’d dressed and come out of the bedroom, the house was lighted only by a soft flickering from the dining room. Lois sat at her end of the table alone, eating. She paid me no attention as I stood in the doorway.
“Lois,” I said. “Where’s Spike?”
She cut a piece of pork roast and chewed for a moment. Her hair was wet and combed straight back off her forehead. She wore eye makeup, bringing out the depth and what I have only a few times recognized as the astonishing beauty of her deep green eyes. Her polished nails glistened in the candlelight.
The table was set with our good china and silver and a very nice meal. She seemed like someone I’d only now just met, whom I’d walked in on by her own design. She looked at me, and my heart sank, and the knot that had formed in my chest the night before began to dissolve into sorrow.
“He was getting pretty old,” she said. She took a sip of wine, which was an expensive bottle we’d saved for a special occasion. “I had him put to sleep.”
I’m surprised at how often dogs make the news. There was the one about the dog elected mayor of a town in California. And another about a dog that could play the piano, I believe he was a schnauzer. More often, though, they’re involved in criminal cases – dog bitings, dog pack attacks on children. I’ve seen several stories about dogs who shot their masters. There was one of these in the stack of old Mobile Registers in the front room. “Dog Shoots, Kills Master,” the headline read. Way back in ’59. How could you not read a story like that? The man carried his shotguns in his car. He stopped to talk to his relative on the road and let the dogs run. One of them jumped into the backseat and hit the trigger on a gun, which discharged and struck him “below the stomach,” the article said. The man hollered to his relative, “I’m shot!” and fell over in the ditch.
There was another article called “Death Row Dog,” about a dog that had killed so many cats in his neighborhood that a judge sentenced him to death. And another one sentenced to be moved to the country or die, just because he barked so much. There was another one like that just this year, about a condemned biter that won a last-minute reprieve. I’m told in medieval times animals were regularly put in trial, with witnesses and testimony and so forth. But it is relatively rare today.
One story, my favorite, was headlined “Dog Lady Claims Close Encounter.” It was about an old woman who lived alone with about forty-two dogs. Strays were drawn to her house, whereupon they disappeared from the streets forever. At night, when sirens passed on the streets of the town, a great howling rose from inside her walls. Then one day, the dogs’ barking kept on and on, raising a racket like they’d never done before. It went on all day, all that night, and was still going the next day. People passing the house on the sidewalk heard things slamming against the doors, saw dog claws scratching at the windowpanes, teeth gnawing at the sashes. Finally, the police broke in. Dogs burst through the open door never to be seen again. Trembling skeletons, who wouldn’t eat their own kind, crouched in the corners, behind chairs. Dog shit everywhere, the stench was awful. They found dead dogs in the basement freezer, little shit dogs whole and bigger ones cut up into parts. Police started looking around for the woman’s gnawed-up corpse, but she was nowhere to be found.
At first they thought the starving dogs had eaten her up: clothes, skin, hair, muscle, and bone. But then, four days later, some hunters found her wandering naked out by a reservoir, all scratched up, disoriented.
She’d been abducted, she said, and described tall creatures with the heads of dogs who licked her hands and sniffed her privates.
“They took me away in their ship,” she said. “On the dog star, it’s them that owns us. These here,” she said, sweeping her arm about to indicate Earth, “they ain’t nothing compared to them dogs.
On a warm afternoon in November, a beautiful breezy Indian summer day, the wind steered Lois somehow in her Volkswagen up to the house. She’d been driving around. I got a couple of beers from the fridge and we sat out back sipping them, not talking. Then we sat there looking at each other for a while. We drank a couple more beers. A rosy sun ticked down behind the old grove on the far side of the field and light softened, began to blue. The dogs’ tails moved like periscopes through the tall grass.
“Want to walk?” I said.
The dogs trotted up as we climbed through the barbed-wire fence, then bounded ahead, leaping like deer over stands of grass. Lois stopped out in the middle of the field and slipped her hands in the pockets of my jeans.
“I missed you,” she said. She shook her head. “I sure as hell didn’t want to.”
“Well,” I said. “I know.” Anger over Spike rose in me then, but I held my tongue. “I missed you, too,” I said. She looked at me with anger and desire.
We knelt down. I rolled in the grass, flattening a little bed. We attacked each other. Kissing her, I felt like I wanted to eat her alive. I took big soft bites of her breasts, which were heavy and smooth. She gripped my waist with her nails, pulled hard at me, kicked my ass with her heels, bit my shoulders, and pulled my hair so hard I cried out. After we’d caught our breath, she pushed me off of her like a sack of feed corn.
We lay on our backs. The sky was empty. It was all we could see, with the grass so high around us. We didn’t talk for a while, and then Lois began to tell me what had happened at the vet’s. She told me how she’d held Spike while the vet gave him the injection.
“I guess he just thought he was getting more shots,” she said. “Like when I first took him in.”
She said Spike was so good, he didn’t fight it. He looked at her when she placed her hands on him to hold him down. He was frightened, and didn’t wag his tail. And she was already starting to cry, she said. The vet asked her if she was sure this was what she wanted to do. She nodded her head. He gave Spike the shot.
She was crying as she told me this.
“He laid down his head and closed his eyes,” she said. “And then, with my hands on him like that, I tried to pull him back to me. Back to us.” She said, No, Spike, don’t go. She pleaded with him not to die. The vet was upset and said some words to her and left the room in anger, left her alone in her grief. And when it was over, she had a sense of not knowing where she was for a moment. Sitting on the floor in there alone with the strong smell of flea killer and antiseptic, and the white of the floor and walls and the stainless steel of the examination table where Spike had died and where he lay now, and in that moment he was everything she had ever loved.
She drained the beer can, wiping her eyes. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I just wanted to hurt you. I didn’t realize how much it would hurt me.”
She shook her head.
“And now I can’t forgive you,” she said. “Or me.”
In the old days when Harold was still with Westley and I was still with Lois, Harold had thrown big cookout parties. He had a pit we’d dug for slow-cooking whole pigs, a brick grill for chickens, and a smoker made from an old oil drum. So one crisp evening late in bird season, to reestablish some of the old joy of life, Harold set up another one and a lot of our old friends and acquaintances came. Then Phelan showed up, drunk, with the head of a pig he’d bought at the slaughterhouse. He’d heard you could buy the head of a pig and after an afternoon at the Blind Horse he thought it was be interesting to bring one to the barbecue. He insisted on putting it into the smoker, so it would have made a scene to stop him. Every half hour or so, he opened the lid with a flourish and checked the head. The pig’s eyelids shrank and opened halfway, the eyes turned translucent. Its hide leaked beaded moisture and turned a doughy pale. People lost their appetites. Many became quiet and left. “I’m sorry,” Phelan stood on the porch and announced as they left, stood there like Marc Antony in Shakespeare. “No need to go. I’ve come to bury this pig, not to eat him.”
Finally Harold took the pig’s head from the smoker and threw it out onto the far edge of the yard, and Phelan stood over it a minute, reciting some lines from Tennyson. Ike and Otis went sniffing up, sniffing, their eyes like brown marbles. They backed off and sat just outside of the porch light and watched the pig’s head steaming in the grass as if it had dropped screaming through the atmosphere and plopped into the yard, an alien thing, now cooling, a new part of the landscape, a new mystery evolving, a new thing in the world, there whenever they rounded the corner, still there, stinking and mute, until Harold buried it out in the field. After that we pretty much kept to ourselves.
We passed our winter boarded up in the house, the cracks beneath doors and around windows and in the walls stuffed with old horse blankets and newspaper and wads of clothing falling apart at the seams, the space heaters hissing in the tall-ceiling rooms. We went out for whiskey and dry goods and meat, occasionally stopped by the Blind Horse of an early afternoon, but spent our evenings at home. We wrote letters to those we loved and missed and planned spring reunions when possible. Harold’s once-illicit lover, Sophia the surveyor, came by a few times. I wrote Lois, but received no reply. I wrote to my editor at the Journal and asked to return in the late spring, but it may be that I should move on.
It is March just now, when the ancients sacrificed young dogs and men to the crop and mixed the blood with the corn. Harold is thinking of planting some beans. We’ve scattered the astonished heads of bream in the soil, mourning doves in their beautiful lidded repose. The blood of the birds and the fishes, and the seeds of the harvest. I found the skin of our resident chicken snake, shed and left on the hearth. He’s getting ready to move outside. The days are warming, and though it’s still cool in the evenings we stay out late in the backyard, sipping Harold’s Famous Grouse to stay warm, trying in our hearts to restore a little order to the world. I’m hoping to be out here at least until midnight, when Canis Major finally descends in the west, having traveled of an evening across the southern horizon. It rises up before sunset and glows bright above the pastures at dusk, big bright Sirius the first star in the sky, to wish upon for a fruitful planting. It stirs me to look up at them, all of them, not just this one, stirs me beyond my own enormous sense of personal disappointment. And Harold, in his cups, calls Otis over and strikes a pose: “Orion, the hunter,” he says, “and his Big Dog.” Otis, looking up at him, strikes the pose, too: Is there something out there? Will we hunt? Harold holds the pose, and Otis trots out into the field, restless, sniffing. I can feel the earth turning beneath us, rolling beneath the stars. Looking up, I lose my balance and fall back flat in the grass.
If the Grouse lasts we’ll stay out till dawn, when the stellar dog and hunter are off tracing the histories of other worlds, the cold distant figures of the hero Purseus and his love Andromeda fading in the morning glow into nothing.
And then we will stumble into the falling-down house and to our beds. And all our dreams will roll toward the low point in the center of the house and pool there together, mingling in the drafts under the doors with last year’s crumbling leaves and the creeping skinks and the dreams of the dogs, who must dream of the chase, the hunt, of bitches in heat, the mingling of old spoors with their own musty odors. And deep in sleep they dream of space travel, of dancing on their hind legs, of being men with the heads and muzzles of dogs, of sleeping in beds with sheets, of driving cars, of taking their fur coats off each night and making love face to face. Of cooking their food. And Harold and I dream of days of following the backs of men’s knees, and faint trails in the soil, the overpowering odors of all our kin, our pasts, every mistake as strong as sulfur, our victories lingering traces here and there. The house is disintegrating into dust. The end of all of this is near.
Just yesterday Harold went into the kitchen for coffee and found the chicken snake curled around the warm pot. Otis went wild. Harold whooped. The screams of Sophia the surveyor rang high and clear and regular, and in my half-sleep I could only imagine the source of this dissonance filling the air. Oh, slay me and scatter my parts in the field. The house was hell. And Ike, too, baying — out on the porch – full-lunged, without memory or sense, with only the barking of Otis to clue his continuing: already lost within his own actions, forgetting his last conscious needs.
Why did the title story to this award winning collection “Last Days of the Dog-Men” not appear in a magazine? How did this happen? What was the effect of that if you believe there was one?
I sent it (no agent, then) to all the most prominent magazines and journals, hoping for a big publication because I was unknown. Story Magazine took two other of the stories but not this one, nor would any of the other more famous mags of the day. The upside to this was I kept revising the story after each rejection, no doubt making it tighter and better; the downside was it never had a shot at the prize anthologies. At some point it was press time and we couldn’t send it out anymore. I don’t know if the anthologies help sell a book, or not, but I do think they often extend the life and audience for a particular story, which is nice.
When did you get your first dog?
I guess you could say I’ve never gotten my own dog. Our two dogs, Maji and Dutch, were both taken in by Nell from foster dog agencies. They’re my dogs, too, now, but Nell made it happen. I never had a dog growing up, as did my older brother, who had a couple of German shepherds who not only bit the paperboy but made him wreck his motorcycle. He then forced us to give the dogs away to other people.
Tell us about your first relationship with a dog?
There was a little mutt dog lived across the street, with the Echols family, who thought he was our dog, and I got along with him okay. The Echols called him Jack, but we called him Runt, because he was the runt. We had witnessed the strange mating (as children in tight-knit cul-de-sac neighborhoods will do) between the big alpha dog of the street, Lonesome, and the tiny sweet bitch, Honey, with as much amazement as amusement. It was like watching a tiny furrry arrow being fitted to a large furry bow, nervously. Our sexual education. One of the pups was Jack/Runt. Jack/Runt would come over to our house for extra affection. He was one of those slightly irritating dogs who always rolled onto his back before you could pet him, ignominiously demanding or pleading for a belly rub. But you couldn’t do that because he was a leaker and his sheath was always disgusting. I remember him so fondly. Also there was a lumbering mutt from one street over who we could persuade to hump just about anything: a leg or arm, an unsuspecting neighbor on all fours, a smaller dog’s head. This was our pre-adolescent entertainment in 1960s Mississippi.
When your book “Last Days of the Dog-Men” came out, how did you deal with the fact of not owning a dog? Did you confess?
I was embarrassed at first and feared being thought a phony. I asked my friend Harold McLemore to let me claim his dog was part mine, that we shared the dog. So I would say, “Yes, I have a dog lives on a Christmas tree farm with my friend in Montgomery,” but it was a lie. Later on, I stopped lying, confessed that I’d never owned a dog, and rationalized that the book would have been different if I’d been a dog owner and not purely a dog– and dog owner-observer.
I’m thinking about your new collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. If you had an alien visit or if you became an alien, what would role would you like it to play in your life? How are we all aliens at times? When do aliens seem necessary as a writer?
I’m thinking it’s interesting we’re talking about having dogs/pets one moment, and then what it would be like if, in effect I “had” an alien, in the next moment. I like that a lot. In fact, a novel that didn’t work out and from which the title novella of “Aliens” emerged had, at one point, a bereft young man and his estranged child becoming the pets of some (unintentionally) malevolent aliens during the alien family’s beach vacation on Earth. They were pretty much the alien boy’s pet dogs. I liked that set up, even if the book didn’t work. I may be able to salvage other things from it, too, though. I believe in salvaging from the wrecks. That way, no writing truly goes to waste.
I do think we’re all aliens at times, and some of us are aliens most or all of the time. Aliens among those like beings around us. My past lives seem as if lived by an alien and imaginatively projected past version of myself. I can look back them and sometimes make fiction because it’s as if they were lived not exactly by me, and what’s called memory is as suspect as the accounts of those who claim to have been “abducted.”
In this story “Last Days of the Dog Men” Brad, what we are left with is an enormous feeling of loss, and there is something huge about a momentary bad decision and how ruinous that can be and there is no going back. Anything you can share about this subject in your work?
So much of my life has seemed to turn on decisions that had disastrous repercussions. For a while there, I was paralyzed, couldn’t make a decision to save my life, and I needed to — save my own life. But I couldn’t get past the horrible feeling that any decision I would make would be wrong. And it put me into a kind of position not unlike the man in James’ story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” except reversed: instead of expecting that something great would happen, I was expecting something horrible. It hasn’t entirely left me.
Does everydayness drive one to recklessness sometimes, or a lot of the time?
Maybe. It’s hard to deal with everydayness. If you are the sort to be melancholy, or bored, or both, you’re in danger of reacting recklessly to everydayness. How common is this? It must be very common. I think of the friend who quoted a suicide note that read, “All this buttoning and unbuttoning!”
Did you know these characters before you wrote the piece, or did you discover them in the process of writing it?
Harold is based loosely on my great friend Harold M., who I will otherwise leave to his privacy. The real Harold is a poet, a complex and hilarious person, and such a great raconteur that I could never have fit him into this story, so I had to borrow moments or parts or glimpses. The narrator I extracted, as you would oil from a nut, from some tendencies in my own self, and I was at the time living in a house like that with the real Harold. The dogs were there, too, and it only remained to translate their lives into some kind of human language. Interesting you can see my early interest in the abduction stuff. Lois was invented. It all came out of a time, a swirl of a time, I was living outside Montgomery Alabama and working on a paper, and I had this old story, a bad rough draft, that the experience of the time helped to coalesce.
To me as a reader the turning point, when fate becomes engraved in this story… is when Lois says “And now I can’t forgive you… or me.” That is so interesting and I don’t want to be a plot spoiler… It feels very much like the death of a child, and how that kind of guilt can ruin a marriage almost instantaneously.. What does guilt do to people as they try to move forward? What kind of moving forward is possible if at all?
I think they move backwards into time and memory as they move forward, and they move deeper into their own minds as they move forward, and they become more difficult people to live with, and it becomes more difficult for them to live with themselves. I’ve known people who claim the ability to reject guilt, or to “eschew” it perhaps, but I haven’t been good at escaping or avoiding it at all. At some point it was hardwired, and I think it was very young. Might take some serious couch time to find that or figure it out.
What is happening now in your writing life and what are you looking forward to next?
I’ve started a new novel and two or three new stories, but I have two unfinished novels also that I keep around and attend to when I can like alternately stingy and prodigal pets or aliens, yes.