The pitbull raised its voice at the orange and white striped cat. The cat was batting its paw against the fence and trying to run into the back porch. The canine would not stop blocking between the thick wooden pickets of the barrier. It barked on and on as it pounced. The cat nearly slithered through as its opponent gorged its teeth into the furry flesh, defending the territory of the home and yard.
The cat let out a large shriek, starting as the normal yowl of a cat-fight and leading up to a shriek that was neither human nor animal. It was an alien scream of pain that sounded like the feedback control of an electronic musical synthesizer being cranked up to the most painful level of white-noise.
The dog relaxed its jaws and let the cat drop out in surrender. The cat dragged itself… slower… and slower… and more patiently… as it felt a strange almost paranormal stillness that appeared as if it was a moment completing a cycle being reached for for only so many years. And as the cat paused and realized Yes, this is it it embraced the light that it saw growing brighter and brighter.
The dog stared. It curled up, lying down with its black paws over its nose and hiding its eyes in a pitifully adorable and animal kind of humiliation.
The next morning Joey ditched class to give his lunch to the dog. The meat in his sandwich was undercooked and the mayonnaise went bad before his mother made the meal. Ruby, the pitbull, lapped it up. The dog jumped the fence to lick the face of the boy. Joey had never seen an animal or imagined one so hungry. The dog’s bowl was usually nearly empty, with a bit of rancid food that had never been changed. The water was murky with a dark brown film that looked like dust had meshed with dirt or bits of mud or some other remaining substance.
There was a shriek outside of the schoolyard that came from an old woman. “Who could DO such a thing?!” Her bun bounced with the exclamations of her shock. The cat was sprawled on the sidewalk. It was split open down the middle and its entrails had poured out. Joey was called out to the schoolyard. The teacher pulled his ear until it felt as if a hot needle went through it. “Why?? How could you do this??” his teacher told him. He sighed as he did not know anything of the cat or its being dead before he was summoned to the sidewalk.
“No!” he called out.
“Stop this this instant Joey Stark!” the teacher exclaimed. He might as well have admitted to it so he spoke in murmurs that even he could not decipher.
When he went back to the school he bumped into Jeremy Spokane. He was always jealous of Jeremy’s approval and grades. “Hah! Nice beret! Is it your mom’s?!” he taunted. He raised his hands up and pushed Jeremy with all the force of his palms. Jeremy dropped his tray and carton of milk with his gravy. Everyone laughed at him.
They were both utterly alone. One had a father who was in prison and the other had a dad who was a lawyer.
Joey’s mom would bring home men from the bar in the afternoon who would scare Joey. Then she would yell at him to leave and go in the backyard. While Joey was in the backyard he would dig. He loved his father dearly but hated his mother. He remembered one of the final times he got to see his father before his dad went to jail for robbery. Joey was digging. His dad looked down at him charismatically like Johnny Cash or Davy Crockett and said, “If you dig hard enough, you’ll dig down to China.”
Joey was only three at the time and with a different shovel. But he heeded his father’s words and since those were the final words his dad had ever said to him, he led his life by them. So many moments he was alone he would dig and dig, hoping to finally dig to the other end of the world. All that divided him was the ocean. But he was so sure, in his innocent and imaginative mind that he could dig underneath the ocean and all the way to the other end of the world where he could finally run away to.
Jeremy’s parents had argued. He always felt so bizarre because he felt that “normal” parents would never argue. Jeremy always stayed in his room and studied harder and harder. He felt like if he could study hard enough everyone might approve of him.
Joey asked him to come and smoke cigarettes with him. He stole his mom’s Pall Mall’s and lit one for Jeremy. There was a crack in the ceiling of the boy’s room in the barrio where he shone his flashlight. Through that wide line, he could see the stars against the vacant and empty valley of the blue sky. There was a bizarre angle of that crack so that one could not see anything from the ceiling at daybreak, but after dark if a person would tilt their head just right they could see an ocean of stars against the pregnant hollow of darkness. Joey liked to imagine the curvature of the earth with the same kind of visualization that he gave when he was sympathetically visualizing the innards of different locks that he would play with and pick just for fun.
At certain moments Joey and Jeremy would talk about who would beat who in the issues of “Spider-Man” that were laying around the bedroom, just to feel comfortable. The sky was too amazing though. The sky itself symbolized peace. It symbolized possibilities. If pilots or astronauts could reach the sky, surely they could overcome the boundaries unfairly placed on this cruel earth. If they could rise that far perhaps they could come back to earth and tell everyone if there really is a heaven and they could relay messages like from a telegram. Maybe the pilots and everyone involved in aerial or aerospace technologies could survive death or spend time with everyone that was plucked from this earth.
Or better yet, perhaps they were angels, thought the boys. Joey thought, “Yes, my grampa is definitely an angel still flying high in the sky.” He never told that to anyone though. It would make him look like a sissy and he wouldn’t threaten the other children at school who he picked on, like he liked. But sometimes a tear went down one of his eyes when he saw a shooting star and felt positive that was his grandfather showing off his skills in an F-16 plane.
* * *
“Yeah, well I don’t have a dad in jail!” Jeremy bursted out.
Joey lunged at him and plunged his fist deep underneath Jeremy’s ribs. All of the tables of the cafeteria went up in an uproar. Mrs. Statham, the principal, came back in again and noticed how wretched Jeremy looked.
She pulled him up immediately, “Get yourself together young man!”
“What? I didn’t do anything!”
“Come with me!”
She took him to the sidewalk. “You cannot do something this sick to a poor helpless animal!”
He felt tears well in his eyes and his heart sank. Jeremy did not know why he was being blamed for this. Who could do such a thing? The image of the deceased was burned horrifically into his retinas.
“I’ll give you some time to think about what you’ve done.” She stormed off with her heels clomping like an echo of marching hammers. The boy felt so helpless and alone that he reached in-between the pickets of the fence nearby and he attempted to pet the dog. It barked and bit his hand.
Jeremy let out a loud yowl.
Mrs. Statham stormed back. “What happened?? Are you okay?? What’s wrong???”
She panicked and knelt down to his level so that her face was right at eye-level with his.
The boy’s palm was bleeding. She lifted a drooping and limp hand and delicately lifted his hand, hooked very lightly in hers. She made a conscious effort not to squeeze so she wouldn’t alarm, confuse, or hurt the boy. As she inspected the back of his hand she noticed the teeth marks. When her eyes met the dogs, the pit-bull had blood dripping from it’s mouth. It looked at her in a calm manner, panting, before curling back in the other direction, its rear-end facing her and its paws shamefully covering its eyes.
Joey was already outside of the cafeteria and all the way on the other end of the playground watching all of this happen. He witnessed her on her cell-phone. Words were exchanged between the principal and her pupil that Joey could not mouth-read. She looked concerned and distraught. Joey had less feelings for Jeremy’s visible wound, since it would take time for the emotional welt Jeremy let loose upon Joey to heal.
Joey noticed the ASPCA arrive in a few moments. His tears grew fuller. The dog-catcher opened the gate as the canine trotted along without opposition to him. (After all, if the pooch would get the death-penalty, why make things harder by encouraging the dreadful experience of behavioral training?) Joey’s heart sank as the dog briefly made eye-contact with the boy, invisible to anyone else but him and the disturbed animal.
Eventually Jeremy was taken home.
While he was there Joey was making his way on to meet with the dog. He knew where one pound was that his father went to with him when his parents were briefly happier and looking for a pet. So, Joey took his skateboard and went on his way over to that shelter.
He stopped by the beach first. The sound of the ocean was a maternal hum that drowned everything else out. The smell of sea-salt cleared out his lungs and sinuses, providing him with vigor and energy. This was the ocean. This was the barrier between him and China. He did not want to swim it. He just wanted to watch and see. The stars above were not like the ones he saw in his room. The sky was like a dark glassy dome of a planetarium with millions of shiny spots that reflected vividly off of the cold bath of the ocean.
Joey rode down on his skateboard to his babysitters house. The 8-year-old boy threw gummy worms at her window. The teenager rubbed her tired eyes and opened her drapes. When she realized that it wasn’t the boy from class she was sneaking out with she opened her window.
“Don’t you have to be asleep?” she hissed to him. (Every transaction of the conversation was in a loud whisper.)
“I can’t. I want to go away.”
“Why?! What’s wrong with you?!”
“Please be my mom.” He looked down sullenly.
“I need to sleep. Go play with your friends.”
She shut the window. She lived with her parents in a beach house. How could she understand after all?
Joey was lonely so he skated to the nearest bar. He snuck in the back and watched an underground punk show. He was underneath everybody in physical stature and everyone around him appeared like part of a fun-house mirror to him. He was short and small enough to reach up and steal sips, big ones, from other people’s drinks. He didn’t like the taste at first but after two or three sips he felt he could warm up to it like everyone in the crowd.
Joey went to a couple of other bars and did the same thing. He noticed how much of blessings his short height and slimness were.
* * *
Back at Jeremy’s, his father came home late again. “Dad! Dad! Look!” He was anticipating showing his father how he had solved a math problem that was more complex than his other ones.
“Get to bed!!!” his dad screamed. His dad was belligerent under the cocaine he had scored earlier that night. His father raised his fist and struck the boy with so much power that he heard his own child’s skull crack like a whip. The boy’s ear was bleeding out from the impact of the harshest blow.
Jeremy’s father stood there stunned. He was too shocked and dispassionate to cry. Weeping would take too much energy at this rate. As his tear-ducts strained, the weeping of his nose dripped out with the slow patience of one sluggish drop of blood. Rusty pipes from overdosing on the stuff. The cocaine and sorrow and guilt mixed together in the most miserable and shameful cocktail of emotions that the parent could have.
The father had his sympathetic nervous system overcharge with horrific vibrations. He was having a nervous breakdown. He did not know who or where he was for a moment and everything appeared to be part of an unimaginable, unrealistic nightmare. As he looked deep into his hands they buzzed with swollen warmth due to his shame, guilt, and unease.
* * *
Joey found the pound. He saw the dog who he was looking for.
He felt for a couple of paper-clips he played with in his pocket. Joey picked the lock of the animal’s cell as if lock-picking was hardwired into him.
He embraced the animal there, for he knew deep inside that this animal would be his only friends and family for as long as he was alive. Being that alone, he mimicked the locking and unlocking of that door, with semi-conscious deliberation to dwell in memory far back to that place that mattered the most to him in the 50 years he would survive.