By Jake Fuchs
All rights reserved.
Rachel Barnes kept complaining to Dan, her husband, about the Collinses, the people on the old commune down the road. Brian Collins bred pit bulls for sale and didn’t keep them properly confined, so Rachel had to look out for the dogs whenever she took a walk. Besides that, on the days the parents were away in Eugene marketing their homegrown weed to the U of Oregon kids, the three Collins boys usually came up and asked her to feed them. Since she did it, when she could have just said no, Dan wondered why she got so annoyed, but it was her business, and he didn’t mind having the boys in the house occasionally. The roving dogs were another matter, but for him to talk to Brian about them was the last thing Rachel wanted, despite her griping. She was scared that Dan might hurt Brian. This bothered him, her refusal to believe that he was now, in middle age, a peaceable man.
That was certainly a good thing for neighbor Collins, a tall, skinny gink who wore a bandito mustache and thought he was a real bad guy. His kids looked frightened all the time, as did Sunshine, his fat wife. Dan had tried talking to him, but all he got back were monosyllables and sullen looks. For sure Brian was mean; you could smell it on him like cheap aftershave. But it didn’t follow that he was bad, at least not compared with the folks Dan used to know.
They both worked in Eugene, Dan and Rachel, she as a teacher’s aid in a junior high while Dan drove a truck, delivering five-gallon bottles of water to homes and offices. Combined, the money was pretty good, but they were only able to buy their farm, out beyond Veneta, because Dan’s mom had died while he was locked up in Salem and he got the insurance money. They didn’t grow anything on the farm, not even weed. Portland natives, they were unhandy at country matters, like servicing the pump on their well or coping with a bear in a tree, which happened one time.
The bear departed after a couple of hours, but Rachel worried that it would come back. She also worried about the Collins’s dogs, the twisting rural roads, the extreme darkness of the nights. Dan knew she would rather be back in Portland, but felt he needed to be where they were, the country. Needed space, had to have it. After thirty months of sharing a prison dorm with twenty other felons, he loved having eight acres of his own.
All he wanted to do was just live, just be, be a regular person. That’s what he told both Rachel and himself. But she kept on worrying about him, that he was still a criminal in his heart, and sometimes she acted scared of him. When Dan asked what was bugging her, she said it was the way his face looked, but how could he know what look he had on his face? At moments like these, he almost regretted they had met, this middle-class, Christian woman, delivering library books to the facility in Salem, and himself with his history, drugs, guns, all that. He wasn’t like that anymore; she had never known him when he was. If his past bothered her so much, she shouldn’t have married him and come out here to live with him.
True, the tattoos didn’t help. He had a forest of them on both arms from wrists to shoulders, mostly just names, friends, guys he’d hung with in prison and out, places he’d been. On his left forearm was a martini glass containing a shapeless lump supposed to be a skull, and on the right two joined curves representing a bird in flight. Above this excuse for a bird the yard tattooist has inscribed the message “be free,” with the first “e” twice as big as the second one. These crude decorations were all souvenirs from his eight years at Coffee Creek Correctional, his first jolt. He was still young then. The next time he was in prison, Salem, he hadn’t wanted any tattoos.
He had only one professional job, just below his left shoulder: a face so perfectly round it didn’t seem human. Three big tears dribbled out of one eye. Rachel disliked all his tatts, but she hated that one.
When he was at work or just out somewhere, he kept his shirtsleeves buttoned. In the house with Rachel, he let his arms go bare. He had a right to be comfortable in his own place even if she didn’t like it. She wanted him to have the tattoos lasered off, something he would consider doing, but not until the day she gave up fearing he might blow up and hurt somebody, like Brian Collins. In fact, the tattoos were insurance against that, since they constantly reminded him of how badly he’d screwed up his life, his old life. Wasn’t the little face crying?
With his glasses and receding hairline, he looked now, he believed, like a teacher in a high school or college. He wished he’d been a teacher. His favorite hobby, really his only one, was dipping into various academic subjects, a bit here, a bit there. The guys in the dorm called him “Professor” because he took correspondence courses. What did Rachel think, that he would kill Brian Collins with a book?
At forty-four, he was too old for crime. That was the main thing. Too old for the rush that for him had always been the deep down reason to do it. Money? That was nothing. It was taking the money that counted, that act. What he’d lived for was the feeling that came from beating somebody down, no matter how you did it, and taking anything the poor sucker had, his money, his girlfriend, his dope. But each time he did it, starting when he was about thirty, the rush came less. The last few times it didn’t come at all. By then, he’d almost expected it. Other old guys told him. You lose it, like the desire to fuck, when the time comes. You don’t want it anymore. He knew he couldn’t explain all this to Rachel, but he tried to get the point across. She didn’t believe him. He saw the doubt in her eyes.
Maybe she just enjoying worrying and fretting. Besides fretting about him, she was often in a fuss about Sunshine Collins, Brian’s wife, the fat neighbor woman she didn’t even like but was polite to whenever she dropped by. Sitting limply in a kitchen chair, Sunshine moaned on about how hard the world had become. She called herself a “second-generation hippie,” born and named thirty years ago on the commune in existence then on the land where she and Brian lived now and raised fighting dogs and marijuana. Her childhood there had been all peace and love, but now people cared only about money. Why were they that way? She would never understand. When she met Brian, he hadn’t been hard like that, but now he was. It made her cry because he couldn’t help it. She would always get around to that, the tragedy of Brian, who couldn’t help it.
Dan read in the living room while the women were in the kitchen, but he could hear Sunshine droning. He wanted to go in there and say he agreed with her. Brian couldn’t help it, right, because he was a natural born asshole. But it would be stupid to bother with her or Brian. Forget about it.
Then the dogs started getting bad.
One afternoon Dan saw three of Brian’s pits on the road near his driveway as he was nearing home after work in Eugene. One of them was exceptionally big and had a striped coat like a tiger’s; he knew it would scare the shit out of Rachel if she saw it. He turned his truck around and drove back to the Collins’s place to say something, but Brian’s truck was gone and so was Sunshine’s old car. Back home, he sat on the porch for a time, but the dogs stayed on the road. By the time Rachel arrived they had wandered away. Even so he might have called Brian, but with her there he decided against it.
Soon after that a skinny brown dog came onto their property and hung around the garbage cans, pawing at them. At first Dan thought it was just a mutt strayed in from nowhere, but then he saw it was a pit, sick or badly underfed, and probably one of Brian’s dogs. When he yelled at it, it made a little run at him and barked before it ran off. Rachel was gone that day, a Saturday, so Dan got on the phone. When Sunshine answered, he asked to speak to Brian.
“Is this about the dogs?” she asked.
“Yes, one of them. At least I think it’s yours.”
“Just a minute,” she said. “I’ll go look.”
Dan heard her and Brian talking. The words didn’t come through to him, but he felt the contempt in Brian’s voice.
Sunshine picked up again to say that Brian was real busy and would call him back later. Dan said okay but didn’t expect to be called, and wasn’t.
At dinner he told Rachel about the dog’s incursion, which made her angry. But when he said he’d tried to talk to Brian but couldn’t, she looked down at the table and said, “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
“Done what? He wouldn’t talk to me. I just said.”
“I just wish you wouldn’t.”
She wasn’t looking at the table. She was looking at his arms, the tattoos. He took a breath. He reached across the table and tilted her chin up.
“Listen, Rachel. The dogs scare you, so I want to do something about it, so I call up over there. But when I don’t even talk to the guy, you get upset. You want to drive me fucking nuts?”
Speechless, Rachel gazed at him with her large, brown, cowlike eyes. He said he was sorry for the way he’d spoken to her. Finally, they ate.
Then Sunshine and her brood appeared on a Sunday morning. While Dan sat in the living room with the Register-Guardian, Rachel dealt with the four of them in the kitchen. After a short time she came into the room to say that Sunshine was leaving Brian, going to live with relatives in Bend and taking the boys with her.
“What did he do?” Dan asked.
“She won’t say. But I have to help her. I’m going with her, just for a couple of days.”
He put the paper down. “You have to help her?”
“She has no one else.”
“The people in Bend. Let them come.”
Rachel shook her head. “She has to leave right away.”
He said nothing. He was afraid of what he might say. When she asked to borrow his truck for the trip, Dan picked up the paper again. She knew where he kept his keys. About three hours later the women and kids drove off in a two-vehicle convoy. He’d kept his cool and was pretty sure Rachel didn’t know how angry he was–at her, at stupid Sunshine, most of all at Brian.
Shortly after Rachel returned from Bend, two of Brian’s dogs came onto their land just before dinner and kept jumping up on the garbage cans until they knocked one over. The lid was strapped on tight with a bungee cord, but they kept worrying the can, as if they believed they could gnaw right though the metal. It was a long time before they quit. Rachel said she felt sorry for the hungry dogs, but she was obviously upset by the noises they made, the growling and banging.
So Dan called–she walked out of the room when he did it–and left a message on the Collins’s voice mail, just “Come up here and get your dogs. Now.” And Brian did come promptly, which Dan found surprising, and proceeded to make a big fuss, kicking and cursing the animals toward the road. Dan stood on the porch and watched.
When Brian had made it almost to the road, he stopped and shouted, “Gonna talk to you. Soon! I’ll be coming. Soon!”
Dan called back, “What’s wrong with now?” He’d noticed how Brian had waited until there was some distance between them before opening his big mouth. He yelled something Dan couldn’t quite make out except for the word “bitch,” referring, no doubt, to Rachel and her role in helping Sunshine escape to Bend. Then Brian turned and started toward home, the two dogs slinking along at his side.
Rachel was upset, naturally. He told her Brian had called her a bitch, but she didn’t care much about that. She’d heard Dan’s “challenge,” as she called it, and that’s what got her going.
Just talk, he told her. Nothing would happen. She shouldn’t worry. But he himself was starting to worry, because he felt something was waking up in him that had been asleep for some time. He’d thought it was dead. When he showered that night he glanced down at the tattooed face on his arm. The three tears looked phony and mocking; it seemed to be laughing up at him.
Just live, just be, be a regular person. That was the line he’d tried out on both Rachel and himself. It seemed almost funny now. But he tried. The next night he called Brian to talk the thing out. When he didn’t pick up, though Dan was sure Brian was there, he left a message. “Your dogs are out of line, so control them. Do that and we won’t have a problem.” That wasn’t real peaceable, he had to admit. Well, he had his limits. To pretend otherwise was kind of a joke. No wonder the face was laughing.
Rachel had an early meeting at school in the morning and left at 6:15. Half an hour later, just as Dan, dressed for work, walked out of the house, Brian roared down their driveway in his old truck, leaning on the horn. He jerked on the hand brake, threw open the door, and jumped to the ground. He was holding something, a tire tool.
“Wanna explain something to you,” Brian said.
“Explain it later. I got work.”
“No, you listen to me now, you four-eyed son of a bitch.” He took several long, lurching strides forward. Dan stood calmly, arms at his sides. Brian stopped short and looked down at the metal rod in his hand, as if wondering why he had it.
“This ain’t Portland,” he began, and stopped. Dan waited for him to remember his lines.
He started over. “This ain’t Portland, I’m saying. This is the country out here. You know what that means? It means you don’t fuck with people!”
“But your dogs are fucking with me.” Dan said it calmly. It might have been the weather he was talking about.
This appeared to baffle Brian. “What?” he said. “What’s that?
That got him back on track. “My dogs? My dogs are natural dogs. They roam. They get on your property, kick’em off yourself! Don’t give me no more whining phone calls. And Sunshine and my boys are coming back, so you tell that bitch of yours to keep the fuck away.”
Dan considered. Take three steps, feint at the tire tool, go for his nuts. He took the first step. Brian hesitated for a second, then whirled and climbed up into the cab of the truck. Dan held on.
Brian didn’t. Had to have the last word.
“Do what I say!” he shouted. “Don’t make me come over here again.”
When Dan got into his own truck, he let it go. He was shaking and tried three times before he could slip the key into the ignition. Back home in the afternoon, he didn’t tell Rachel what happened. Unable to sit still, he walked back and forth across his land. The next day he was able to calm himself, but that didn’t help him figure out what he should do.
He had to do something. By now the dogs considered Dan and Rachel’s place part of their regular territory. They might pay a visit any time, and it was plain that Brian was making no effort to control them. He was the problem, not the dogs. There was no point in getting all stirred up, the way Rachel did every time one appeared. But they had to go, and that wouldn’t be all.
One morning the big tiger-striped pit turned up, and Rachel was afraid to go out to her car. When Dan pitched a few rocks at it, it moved, but not far enough for Rachel.
“Make it leave,” she insisted. “I’ll be late.”
“Just wait. It’ll go.”
Eventually the dog wandered off, but Rachel was angry with Dan for not caring about her being late for school. That was too bad, but he had something else on his mind, punishing Brian. He’d thought he was too old for anything like that, but it seemed now that he was wrong. Still, physically hurting Brian was to be avoided. He had promised Rachel he wouldn’t do that, and he didn’t want to upset her more than she was already. He owed her for coming out here with him. That was the strongest feeling he had for her now, it seemed.
Briefly, for about ten seconds, he considered selling the farm and going back to Portland with Rachel, but no. Of course, no. No way was he going to be run off his own property. But staying here and putting up with Brian’s shit? That couldn’t last much longer.
Sunshine and the boys came back from Bend. They didn’t visit. They had their orders, and while Rachel fretted about conditions on the former commune, it made her happy to eliminate one probable source of trouble with Brian. And since Dan didn’t seem angry about the dogs, she assumed that took care of another one, though she still hated having them come around.
Then one afternoon Brian Collins, in his truck, caught up behind Rachel’s little Toyota, blasting his horn and following so closely that she almost drove off the road to get away from him. She tried keeping this from Dan, who had been away at the time, but he could tell she was fretting about something and soon got the story out of her.
The dogs took to coming over in the middle of the night, joining up with the wild animals, the coons and occasional coyotes. One clear, moonlit night, Dan stood on the porch and watched them. If he made a noise, they would glance at him before going on about their business. There was no air of hostility about them. This made him think.
Several afternoons later, when the large tiger pit that had scared Rachel came on to their land again, Dan went out with a chunk of raw hamburger. He threw it down by the dog, which ate with neat bites, as if out of politeness rather than hunger. On the following day, however, it reappeared at about the same time and went straight to Dan, who gave it more meat. He didn’t tell Rachel. On the third day when she drove in, she beheld the big dog squatting placidly in front of their house, attached by a thick rope to the basketball goal installed by one of their farm’s former tenants. It wagged its thin, tapering tail and whined at her, begging for a handout.
Dan came out of the house and asked if she’d had a nice day. She screamed at him that he was crazy. “And if Brian–”
“I want to see what he does.”
“Why, Dan? Why must you do this?”
“Haven’t done anything yet.”
In the morning, Dan called his boss at the water company to say he was sick and wouldn’t be in for a few days. Rachel refused to speak to him before she left for school. He couldn’t worry about it. He stayed home the next day as well.
Dan remained in the house most of the time and watched the road, from which Brian would see his dog when he drove by, as he did several times. On the second morning, the old truck clattered to a stop just when Dan was feeding the pit. Brian saw them then, but the truck only lingered for a moment. It occurred to Dan that it might be a good idea to move his own truck around behind the barn, out of sight, and he did that. The morning dragged by. He heard Brian’s truck coming before he saw it.
He was coming, though not as swiftly as before and with no blasts on the horn. He pulled up close to the basketball goal and the tiger-striped pit. From the kitchen, Dan watched him climb down from his truck. Brian glanced at the tethered dog, which ignored him. He looked around him and saw no car and no truck. He walked up to the door, but stopped a few feet short of it. Lifting his eyes to their windows on the second floor, he called out, “You home?”
When Brian turned and bent to untie the animal, Dan came out. It was a cool day, but he had taken off his shirt.
Kneeling, Brian looked up at him. The black tattoos ran up and down his arms. His glasses made his eyes blank circles. The little round face below his shoulder cast its weird stare at Brian, mocking him. As he straightened, holding his open hands in front of him, Dan began walking toward him. Brian froze halfway up. Dan put his foot on his shoulder and slowly pushed him down. He lay on the ground on his back. The dog sniffed at one of Brian’s long, skinny legs. Dan removed his foot and stood above him.
He felt it come, the rush, the old feeling, knowing now that he could take anything the man had. It was funny. It was amazing. You just placed yourself before them, revealed yourself, and they freaked. Because they were one kind of person, no matter how they acted, and you were another. You could do anything to them, they would give you anything, everything, and that almost made him laugh, because there was nothing of Brian’s that he wanted. He already had his neighbor’s manhood, which was worth nothing. It was time to finish the thing.
“Get the fuck home,” he said.
Brian said something Dan couldn’t quite hear.
“What was that, Brian?”
“You… you want the dog?”
He almost said yes, but that would be too hard on Rachel.
“Fuck no. Take him. Go.”
But Brian couldn’t go, not then. He was having a hard time just rolling up onto his knees. Dan left him and went into the house. He didn’t look out the window. After he heard the truck start up and leave, he went back out. The dog, of course, was gone. He reentered the house and went to the bathroom to piss.
He hadn’t hurt Brian, not physically, and he didn’t have to tell Rachel what he’d done. But he wasn’t the peaceable man he’d told her he was. He knew that now for a fact. Why go on pretending? Let her know, and let her go. That was the fair thing.
Turning toward the bathroom sink, he caught sight of his shirtless self in the mirror, the face on his arm. He remembered then how he had told Rachel, told himself, too, that the ink on him had the function of reminding him to amend his life. Evidently the lesson hadn’t gotten through. That was why why the little face was laughing. It knew. It knew all the time.