Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Dancing Dog

Right out front, let me just offer a quick word of warning. This little story is not for everyone (anyone?). I'm sure you're a very nice person, and I'd like you to keep thinking that I am too, so if you ever have trouble dealing with distressing subject matter, just skip this one. I'll be boring you to death with notes about how listening to music on vinyl is way cooler than CD's before you know it.

If you're still with me at this point, well...As a wise man once said: "Let's do this thing."

There are a lot of things Angela doesn't remember about being young, and mostly she's grateful for it. Occasionally there would be a flash, strong and clear, but mostly she was just left with an uneasy feeling that there are things about her that are just outside the reach of her memory, so instead of pictures of what things were, she's left with an uneasy déjà vu. Then there are the things that she had spent the past thirty years trying to forget. Memories, years since scabbed over, can still be so easily torn open to bleed out, reminding us of the people we were and the things we had grown accustomed to.

In the end, when the memories got out of control and took over, the thoughts always came back to her father. The houses and setting changed every year or so, but it was the never ending string of rules and enforcement that remained constant.

Her remembrances were snapshots, overexposed to the point of washing out white, and beginning to yellow around the edges: There were hide-and-seek games that ended violently after running through the back yard laughing, forgetting that her father was sleeping after working third shift. There were afternoons spent playing with her cousin Jack in her bedroom using stage whispers so as not to draw attention to themselves.

She remembered playing with the Hot Wheels cars that had been her birthday present and getting the tires of a white tow truck caught in the forest green shag of the living room carpet. The truck wouldn't come free, so she quietly clipped away the tangled threads with fingernail clippers. For the next two months her breath caught in her throat when she noticed the shortened stubble of the trimmed carpet, praying silently that her father would never notice it. It wasn't until they had moved the following summer that she completely relaxed about it.

Every birthday memory was followed by guilt of the money spent on her.

Every game she won was dreaded because he might think she was showing off.

When she sat and thought back on her childhood though, none of the memories stood out for her more than the ones of Stanley and the house on Maple Street. When her father walked in with a 6 month old Blue Doberman, Angela jumped up on the couch forgetting momentarily the rule against putting her feet up on the floral cushions. As an aging puppy, Stanley already seemed to be a giant. His thin skin twitched nervously over rippling muscles, and he ran around the living room with his nose to the floor sniffing everything out in one continuous snort. When he got to where Angela sat on the couch he immediately buried his wet nose in her armpit. She couldn't help giggling even as she remembered herself and quickly adjusted in her seat to let her legs hang off the end of the couch. Instantly, Angela and Stanley were friends.

"Stan the Man" her father called him when on the rare occasions he paid any notice of the dog. Stanley responded immediately to the new moniker, running to his side to get petted or to go outside and work on the rusting Mustang that lived in the narrow driveway. In the evenings, when friends would come over, her father would talk about what a badass Stanley looked like, but that he was going to take some toughening up before his attitude matched his appearance. Her father's buddies would sit around the living room in a cloud of smoke listening to music while he would hold court, telling them all about the plans he had.

Angela liked it when he had friends over, because it meant she was safe for as long as they sat there on the couches in the living room. She would have to be careful and not be a pest, but if she sat quietly as they would talk and smoke she could see her father laugh. When he was feeling especially friendly, he would motion over to her and have her walk the smoldering joint they were all sharing over to his friends that were sitting too far away to reach from where he sat. She loved this responsibility and would walk slowly over to pass the joint on, careful not to let ash fall to the carpet. In his first few weeks in the house, Stanley picked up on the mood in the room while her father was entertaining and would curl himself into a tight ball on the floor and snooze, lifting his head occasionally when the laughter grew loud or he heard his name.

A few accidents happened while Stanley got used to his new home, but her father took them in stride. It was a couple of months after Stanley joined their family though, that he got into the trash. Angela found the soup cans that had been licked clean and the ignored tissues spread across the kitchen floor and quickly went to work cleaning quietly as her father slept. When the last of the coffee grounds had been swept up, she looked at the dog as he sat in the corner watching the commotion and thought that she had just saved his life.

"You're a lucky boy, Stan. You have no idea."

That evening though, something Stanley had ingested didn't sit well with him and he vomited a multicolored sampling of the family's trash onto the carpet. Her father was out of the chair immediately to land a kick to Stan's side. The dog yelped from the impact and then again as he smacked into the wall. Staggering for a moment, Stan made a run for the kitchen to get out of harm's way but was followed. Angela ran to the bathroom for a rag to clean the mess with, thinking that if she could show her dad that the carpet was ok he wouldn't kill Stanley.

Her father didn't kill Stanley, but afterwards Stanley no longer responded to him when he called and started avoiding him altogether. When he would go out to work on the car, or weed the front flower beds, Stan would find a spot as far away as possible along the fence and keep watch on his surroundings. Like Angela, Stan seemed to only relax when her father was out of the house.

"Fucking dog must be an idiot, Ang. Never comes when he's called. Never barks at strangers. All he wants to do is be with you. You guys deserve each other. Two retards in love."

Stanley and Angela spent their days on their own while her father slept in the room at the end of the hall. They would hide away in her bedroom and play as quietly as they could. Ang would whisper to him for hours, telling him secrets. She told him that she didn't like her cousin anymore because he had taken one of her dolls and put it up in a tree in the backyard, too high up for her to reach. She even told him about the carpet, and asked him to nap on the clipped spot as often as possible to block it from view. For the most part Stanley slept while she talked, but that never bothered her. It was nice to have someone to tell secrets to.

Over the next few months, Angela's friendship with Stanley started to grate on the nerves of her father, and he took to striking out randomly at the dog when it walked too close or didn't immediately jump up and move when he walked into the room.

"Keeps the fucker on his toes. Lets old Stan the Man know whose running shit around here." he would say, settling back into his armchair after flipping through the channels to find a Kung Fu movie on Nite Owl Theater. "I have to keep all of you in line in this house. If I didn't knock the shit out of you from time to time, you'd be twice the spoiled little bitch you are already."

That would be the end of the conversation for the night as he would sit back to watch Bruce Lee tear through droves of ninjas. He had been going to karate classes for years, and had become obsessed with the art. Sometimes, he would get Angie up out of bed after the Late Late Movie just to make her stand in the middle of the living room so he could throw spinning kicks over her head.

"If I hit you with one of these kicks, I'd fucking shatter that little nose of yours, sweetie. If I did it right, little splinters of bone from your face would shoot back into your brain and kill you right on the spot. Don't move now…you don't want to make me hit you." Angela would stand there, trying not to shake, afraid that if she wiggled too much his thick calloused heel might connect with her face and it would be all her fault.

Two nights a week, he would leave the house to go workout and train, and on the off nights he would lift weights in the garage and spend hours stretching. In the wide doorway between the kitchen and living room he had rigged a pulley and had a six foot length of soft cotton rope. He had tied a noose that he would loop around his ankle, and then threading the rope through the pulley, would pull the opposite end to his chest bringing his foot high into the air. He would stand in that doorway for what seemed like hours pulling his leg into the air to stretch his muscles. "I'll be kicking your ass like fucking Bruce Lee,"

he'd say. "I'll put my foot through the ceiling of this dump before I'm through."

When he was stretching in the doorway it meant you couldn't go past him to get to the kitchen, as not to throw him off balance or break his concentration. Angela once remembered her mother walking out the front door and going around the side of the house just to be able to get dinner started.

Out of all the scabbed over memories, one had been picked at and picked over more than any other and it never really stopped bleeding altogether. It had been almost a year since her father had brought Stan home. Angela woke up, confused at first by the late afternoon sun, and then slowly realized she must have dozed off. She scanned the room for Stanley, knowing he would need to go outside, but he wasn't in the room anymore though the bedroom door was closed. Quietly she opened the bedroom door and walked down the hallway to the living room to see what he was into. She was scared, because Stan was her responsibility during the day, and she would be in trouble if he had gotten into the trash again.

When she walked into the living room, Angela saw Stan with the rope around his neck, his back legs dangling limply three feet off the floor. Her father glanced at her over his shoulder smiling, and yanked the rope a few times, jerking the lifeless body into the air, his limbs flopping as if pawing at the air.

"Lookit your buddy dance, Ang. He's fucking dancin', aint he?" He jerked at the rope again, pulling Stanley even higher into the air as she turned to run.

For the rest of the day, Angela hid in her room. At first, she bunkered under her bed, but when the light began to fail she got scared in the shadows and climbed up on the bed to burrow under the covers. At dusk she heard her mom come home from work, followed by the muffled tones of conversation. Before long, her mother opened the door to the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed.

"Sweetie, Stan was a bad dog today and he can't stay here anymore. Do you understand?"

Angela nodded, sniffling back new tears.

"Your dad's gone to take him back to Mr. Reed so he can live there from now on. If you're really good, and don't upset your father, maybe we can take you to see him sometime, but you have to be really good." Her mother's stare let her know this wasn't a discussion, but rather a speech.

Things that Angela thought could never change did change over the years. Her father passed away a young man, wasting away from a cancer the doctors had yet learned to fight, and her mother eventually lost the Holocaust Survivor look that she had developed over the fourteen years of her marriage, but there wasn't much of a connection between the two of them anymore. They didn't talk. Angela always equated it to war buddies that had seen the worst of things together, leaving them with nothing of any consequence to say anymore. Angela left the house the day she turned eighteen, and didn't talk to her mother for over four years.

There were happier times as Angela went on to college, but in the back of her mind the memories of what happened in that little house on Maple Street never really left. So many times they gathered a steam that always seemed to explode with the thought of Stanley. She would wake up, first in the small apartment she shared with three other girls she went to school with, and then in the house she rented with her future husband, Derek, searching the corner of the room for Stanley and hoping he was sitting there waiting for her to wake up and take him outside.

A few weeks after graduation, Angela called to tell her mother that she and Derek were moving out of state and asked if she could come over to say goodbye.

"Sure, honey. Come on by whenever. I'm always here."

Armed with a four pack of wine coolers Angela remembered her mom drinking when she was younger, she went to get reacquainted with the stranger she had once lived with. It was an hour drive, and she realized that she really knew nothing about her mother at all anymore. It had been four years, and to Angela it felt like she had lived four different lifetimes while she was away. She could pinpoint four different people that she had been during this time as she learned and got older, and knew that her mom must be going through changes of her own, changes that she hadn't been there to see. Not knowing what to expect made Angela nervous.

She could tell her mom had been drinking the moment she met her at the door and immediately decided that was for the best. Since it appeared her mom had graduated from wine coolers to vodka, Angela quickly opened one for herself and tried to keep pace with her mom's intake.

It was awkward, but the booze helped, and it wasn't too long before they had made it past the feeling of being old friends trying to get over a falling out, to Angela listening to her mom reminisce about the past. She tried to remember the things that her mother talked about, but for the most part came up empty. There were so many months and years that she had simply shut the door on. Good memories and bad were wiped clean and left with a comforting gray that she wasn't too disappointed to have.

Her mom talked about the house on Maple Street and about how her father had almost lost an arm when his Mustang came off its blocks and crashed to the driveway. She reminded Angela how the neighbors always had to come over to cut their grass because her father could never get the mower to work. As she poured another tumbler half full of room temperature vodka, her mom grew silent looking off to a spot above Angela's left shoulder.

"Mom, do you remember Stan?" Angela asked pouring vodka for herself, the wine coolers gone.

"Yeah, Stan the Man was your buddy alright. He was practically your shadow there for a year or so," she said. "You guys were practically twins."

Angela hesitated, but only for a moment. "You know, I saw Daddy kill him. I don't know if he ever told you that, but I did."

For a moment, the old look was back in her mother's eyes. Exhaustion and fear and boozy detachment came flooding back into her face, hardening it and seeming to pull it tight. She turned, looking Angela in the eyes for the first time that night and smiled brightly.

"Yeah honey. I know you saw him dance." And then she started to laugh.


Unknown said...

Dude! That was good. Disturbing, but good. And don't worry, I still think you are a good person. LOL

Rod McKinley said...

It's slow at work so I read the internet (yes the whole internet) made it to your blog, read most of them for 2009. It wasn't on your 31 Flavors of New Years Resolutions but you've gotten better at writing. I've never been one to read fiction stories but I've never been so happy to see the fiction label at the end of a short story.