The Dog That Bit You

       A theme old as dirt…


        The day had started so right. How could it have gone wrong so quickly?
        Danny’s eyes teared, only in part from the scalding mouthful of burnt coffee, black and bitter as his mood had become.
        Susan put the empty coffee pot in the sink. “You’re angry, and it’s my fault. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let things take the direction they did last night. I don’t want to hurt you.”
        He forced a weak smile. Too late. “No, I’m fine.”
        “You sure? I mean, it would be uncomfortable. With us being neighbors. You know.”
        “Yeah, sure.”
        “Okay, then.” She smiled, gave him a peck on the cheek. “Friends?”
        Danny bit down on his burned tongue. He wanted to shove Susan onto the kitchen floor and make love to her again, wanted to throw a tantrum, like a toddler who’d just been told he couldn’t have that thing he wanted in the checkout line. He felt his face reddening, realized he needed to leave now. “Uh, yeah.” He patted his pockets to locate his keys and smokes, flashed an insincere smile and went for the door. “I’ll see you ’round.” She didn’t even see him out.
        Downstairs in his apartment he popped a couple of Paxil so as not to vomit his breakfast of coffee and crushing humiliation. And he lay on his bed, still in jacket and boots, smoked a cigarette and stared hard at the ceiling. His eyes burned holes through it, into Susan’s bedroom, where last night he’d made love to her as he’d never made love in his life.
        Involuntary tears spilled from his eyes. He sat up and crushed out his smoke. He had to get out, find something to distract him, to loosen this knot in the pit of his stomach. He hauled himself to his feet and made his way to the door to leave the apartment.
        Just outside his door, a girl stood with one hand on her shoulder bag, the other poised to knock. She had chin-length blond hair sticking out from beneath a knit cap, a denim jacket, and the face of a child lost at a mall, a barely-concealed panic.
        “Whaddya want?” he snarled. He pulled the door shut behind him, and she backed up a couple feet to give him space. Smart girl. He had no desire to interact with females. Not today, maybe never.
        “Um…can you tell me if Jacob Sanders lives here?” The words came out shaky.
        Danny sucked in a long breath, let it out slow. “Yeah. He’s my roomie. He’s spending a few weeks in the Hamptons with his fiancée.” It seemed to take a moment for his words to register. “And no, I don’t have his number,” he added. He shrugged, walked past her and started down the stairs.
        “Bastard,” he heard her mutter.
        Danny felt the word like a light blow to the chest. He stopped. “Beg pardon?”
        She stepped up to the railing, looked down at him. “Oh, not you. Him. Jacob. But maybe you’re a bastard, too. Most men are, from what I’ve heard.”
        Any other day, Danny would have laughed, blown it off and gone on his way. But there was a nest of vipers twisting in his rib-cage, just waiting to spit venom. He spun on a heel and stomped back up the stairs glaring daggers. The blonde’s face went white and she retreated a few steps, looking ready to scream for help. He jabbed a finger in her direction. “Listen, you…I don’t know what the deal was between you and Jake, maybe he was a bastard, maybe you got what you had coming to you. Think you need balls to be a dick?  I’ve had high heels ground into my heart more times than I care to remember. I been baited and bludgeoned senseless by beautiful bitches who had nothing in mind for me but a paid dinner and maybe a good fucking. Next day I’m as done as last night’s condom. I’ve bitten into so much fruit that looked sweet and tasted like vinegar, I figure I must have some kinda invisible tattoo that says ‘sucker’ on my forehead that women can see a mile away. So sorry, you won’t find a whole lotta sympathy here.”
        She stared at him, clutching her bag to her chest, eyes brimming.
        Danny rolled his shoulders to let go of the tension in his neck and traps. He felt tight as a hanged man’s noose. “Look, I’m sorry. Just…not a good morning.”
        “No,” she agreed. Water spilled down her cheeks. “It’s not. I’m sorry, too.”
        He snorted. “For what?”
        “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt a lot.”
        Danny’s mind jumped back to his first heartbreak. Cecilia, seven years ago, he was fifteen. Man, that one still stung. He thought at the time that he’d never get over it, that he’d never fall hard for a girl again. But he had. Again and again.
        The girl swiped at the tears and ran the back of her hand under her nose, sniffled.              Geez, she looked pretty young. “How old are you?”
        “Eighteen. Why do you want to know?”
        He felt a sympathetic smile pull at the corners of his mouth despite the pain in his chest. “You know you got a lot more shit like this ahead of you, right?”
        “I hope not.”
        “It always hurts, but you get over it quicker as time goes on.” He said the words before even considering whether they were true. He thought maybe they were.
        “Yeah?”
        “Yeah. I think so.”
        A door closed upstairs. The clack of boot heels on laminate floors, and then down the stairs. Susan. Danny could feel his pulse in his ears. Susan glanced at him, then at the girl and stopped in her tracks for just a second. Danny noted the quick, forced smile, the piercing look she gave this girl. She cleared her throat as she passed between them. “Good morning,” she said, and went down the stairs. Her eyes rose for one more furtive glance.
        Danny took a deep breath and let it out. He assessed his mental state. He felt a little shaky, but not too bad.
        The girl watched Susan for a moment, then turned to Danny. Her eyes fired a question at him. He ignored it.
        “What’s your name?” he asked.
        “Christine. Tina.”
        “Tina. Whatcha gonna do now?”
        “I don’t really know…I’d planned to…” She looked like she might start crying again.
        “I mean, Jacob’s history, right? You’re not gonna waste your time trying to hunt him down, right? Because it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. You got taken in.” Tina threw an angry glance at him. Danny shrugged. “Right? I mean, you’re not alone. I know something about that.”
        Hint of a smile. Tina looked at him from beneath long lashes. “That one? The one who just passed?”
        Danny rubbed his nose, thought a moment about how much he should admit to. What the hell. She’s nobody to me. “Among others. Like I said, I don’t seem to catch on really quick. I’m not a moron, but I’m a little–I dunno, a little–”
        “Gullible?”
        “Nah.”
        “Obtuse?”
        “That mean thick-headed?”
        “Uh-huh.” She smiled.
        It was a nice smile. Danny noticed she had a few freckles on her nose. And she was smart, too. “Yeah, I’m a little obtuse.”
        “And I’m an ingenue.”
        Danny smiled back, decided not to ask what that was. “I was just about to go grab some breakfast. My fridge is empty. Could I…you wanna…” Blue eyes locked onto his, waited for him to finish. “You hungry? You wanna go grab a breakfast or cup of coffee somewhere?”

 

        Shit.
        Danny turned his head on the pillow to look at Tina, napping beside him. He carefully pushed back the bed cover and sat up, put his feet on the floor, reached for his cigarettes on the nightstand. Damn, that had moved quick. Probably because she was feeling shitty and insecure, having just found out about Jacob. Danny himself was feeling a lot better than he had this morning. The saying, “the hair of the dog that bit you,” came to mind.
        He hadn’t had to do much. Buy her breakfast. Listen to her talk. Nod and smile while he wondered whether she wore bikinis or a thong, what her tits looked like. What had gone on between her and Jake. He didn’t ask.
        He lit a cigarette and smiled. Turned out they were pretty nice tits. But not exactly worth the trouble of putting up with her. She was sort of annoying. Talked too much about too many things he had no interest in. Her family. Her art studies. Her ex-boyfriends.
        Danny glanced back over his shoulder at her, then at his watch. Half past five. He thought about heading downtown, grabbing some pizza and then hitting a club or two. It was Saturday evening, after all. But this chick in his bed…damn. How did Susan do it? Oh yeah: “I have a very full agenda today, so if you wouldn’t mind getting your things together…I need to get out of here in a little while.”
        He he’d managed to keep it together in front of Susan, but he bet Tina wouldn’t. He thought about leaving a note and telling her to lock the door behind her when she left, but then worried that she might trash the place. She seemed immature enough for that.
        He sighed. Then he twisted around and grabbed her shoulder, shook it a little. “Yo, Tina…I need to get out of here in a bit. Think you could get dressed now?”
        She looked at him, sleepy, confused.
        Shit. He’d have to lie to get her to leave without a scene. “I’m supposed to hook up with some friends this evening. I…we’re helping one of our buddies move.” Okay, that didn’t sound too bad for being off the cuff.
        She smiled, twirled a lock of hair between her fingers. “I could hang out here…wait for you. Be here when you get back. I could pick up some things…cook dinner. You know, to pay you back for breakfast this morning.”
        Danny felt a panicky rush. No. No, he couldn’t let her into his life just to save her feelings. Jacob was a player, had this shit down. So did Susan. He could do this.
        He shook his head. “No, you can’t.” Look her in the eye, man. You got this. “Look, Tina, today was real nice, and I had a great time, but that’s what it was. We both kinda needed to be with somebody, and found each other for a day, y’know? I shouldn’ta let things go as far as they did. Sorry about that.”
        The tears he expected, but her face reddened. With anger. “You bastard,” she said, and bit her lip, tossed the covers back, got out of bed. “So that’s how it is.” She plucked a pair of pink bikini panties from the floor and pulled them on. “Just one more bastard in a long line of bastards. This is what I’m supposed to get used to? I don’t think so.”
        “I’m sorry,” Danny said. He was. Not for trying to brush her off, not for trying to lie to her. Sorry he couldn’t get her out of his apartment without a scene.
        She yanked her jeans up and finger-combed her hair back from her face. “So Susan fucks you over, and you get back at her by fucking me over? Oh, you’re a real prize, just like Jacob.”
        Danny stood frozen, the ash on his cigarette growing long. He almost didn’t recognize her as the same girl who stood in front of his door this morning, pale and teary-eyed. Her face was livid, her jaw set like a steel trap as she glared at him. Any features he’d found attractive in her had fled. She snatched her bag from the floor, rummaged through it and pulled out a handkerchief.
        Who the hell still uses handkerchiefs?
        It was wrapped around a .22. She pointed it at him. “I was hoping to meet Jacob here this morning, but I don’t think he’ll mind if you take a message.”

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The Filling of Empty Spaces

Sean stood in the scalding spray, wishing the hot water could wash away the crap inside of him as well as the reek of sweat and sex. No, he thought. For that I’ll need vodka. Maybe check the medicine cabinet, see if she’s got anything good. The buzz he’d had going when she’d picked him up at the club was ancient history.

He turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. A thick, pink, Turkish towel had been left on the vanity for him. He tossed it over his head to dry his hair, toweled off his body and let it fall to the floor. He leaned into the mirror, finger-combed his dark hair.

There was a tentative knock at the door and it opened. Sean’s skin tightened at the air-conditioned draft, his junk retreating like a turtle into its shell. The old lady, in a silky, flowered dressing gown, held his clothes in a tidy pile. Raccoon smudges of mascara encircled her dewy eyes. She smiled a shy-schoolgirl kind of smile in spite of the fact that she was twice his age and then some. “Your things,” she said, holding out the pile.

“Thanks.” He took it and dropped it on the vanity, grabbed his boxers off the top and climbed into them without looking at her.

She made no move to leave, and it wasn’t his place to ask her to, but he wished she would.

“You really are a very handsome young man.”

Please…please go away. “Thanks.”

“Would you like something to eat? Are you hungry?”

He pulled up his jeans, shook his head. He tried to smile, but couldn’t make it work. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Oh dear, I’m a mess,” she said. Sean looked up. She was gazing at herself in the bathroom mirror. She reached for a tissue, wet it on the tip of her tongue and wiped beneath her eyes. She saw Sean looking at her and it seemed she might tear up again. She fought it with another forced smile. “I was very pretty once. Not beautiful, but nice enough to catch a wealthy husband. A good husband.”

Sean pulled on his t-shirt and tried to even his breathing. “Um…I gotta go.” He sat on the closed toilet and stuck his feet into the deck shoes, then stood.

“Of course. Let me call a cab for you.”

She sat on the barely rumpled bed and picked up the phone. As she gave the dispatcher her address, phone tucked between ear and shoulder, she replaced her wedding band on her ring finger. When she’d taken it off, before she’d even undressed, Sean had thought it hysterically funny. Husband’s been worm food for five fuckin’ years…Now it made his chest hurt to think about it.

She pulled open the nightstand drawer, took out an envelope. From it, she counted out five hundred-dollar bills. She replaced the envelope, stood and held out the money to him. “Here you are, Sean. Thank you.”

Despite the air-conditioner blowing hard enough to move the heavy drapes, Sean was sweating. “Um, you know, two would be fine.”

“No, you said five hundred, and I agreed. Take it. I’m sure you could use it.”

Sure. More booze. More dope. “I dunno, I–”

She took his hand, pressed the folded bills into his palm. “Hush.”

Minutes later, a cab pulled into the driveway beside her parked Jaguar. She walked Sean to the door. “Forgive me for not seeing you out.” She smoothed her penny-red salon job. “I don’t look fit to go outside.”

He thought it would have been a nice gesture if he bent to kiss her forehead, told her she looked just fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

 

“Five hundred dollars!” Raul exclaimed. “Five. Hundred. Fucking. Dollars. Drinks are on my man Sean tonight!”

Gregory laughed. “What did she want you to do for it? She was old, right? You have to eat her? Was she all shriveled up?”

Sean felt his blood rise. “Fuck you both.” Straight sex. That’s all he’d done. Missionary position. And she’d wanted him to hold her. “She was just lonely, man.” The laughter died to a few chuckles. She’d wept when he slipped into her, and he thought maybe he hurt her, but she said no. She cried quietly the whole time, and then clung to him long afterward.

Fuck the money. It wasn’t worth it. He’d rather have two dozen casual meet-ups for a Jackson apiece than have to do this again. “Tell you what,” Sean said. “I ain’t doing it again.”

Jacob, stretched out on the sofa with a spliff, craned his neck to look at Sean and smiled. “Ah…so you do have a soul, Sean. Afraid you might find your humanity and lose your living, huh?”

Sean’s face warmed. “I didn’t get into this to be somebody’s therapist. I just want to make a buck, y’know?

He could still feel her hands holding onto his arms, still hear her sobbing quietly into his shoulder. It was what made him resolve to never love anyone, to never grow old.

What It Takes

I slouched in the passenger seat of Ricky’s shitty-looking Chevy Cavalier and cracked my knuckles. We were parked across the street from the place I had to go. I knew the building, knew the whole ‘hood pretty well, growing up on the edge of the projects like I did, like Ricky did, like all our crew did. The good feeling from the blunt me and Ricky shared earlier was fading fast, replaced by a nest of writhing snakes in my gut.

A gray-haired old woman in a blue and green flowered mu-mu crossed in front of the car without raising her eyes. She pulled one of them fold-up grocery carts behind her. I thought, if Ricky smacks the horn right now, she’ll probably have a heart attack. She wasn’t fat, but had ankles like tree trunks above her white sneakers. She tugged the cart up over the curb and limped along the cracked walk to the building.

“Hey, you goin’, hijo?” Ricky asked. He flicked his cigarette out the window. The sun had just dropped down below the buildings and the long shadows had disappeared like ghosts in daylight.

“Yeah, gimme a minute.” I wiped my clammy palms on my shorts, took a deep breath. It came back out in a long, stuttering sigh.

“You want a popper? I got a couple amyls in my pocket. Do one, then knock on the door. Give you some cojones, bro.”

I sat up, glared at him. “What, you saying I don’t got the nerve? Fuck you and your amyls. I don’t need no damn drugs to bust a cap in some asshole’s head.” I reached under the seat and grabbed the Glock, then leaned back and shoved it into the waistband of my shorts, pulled my shirt down over it. The salt in my sweat made the day-old tattoo on my chest sting.

Ricky smiled all cool. “That’s m’man.” He put out a fist. I bumped mine on it and slid out of the car. “Party with the homeboys tonight, you do this thing, Leo.”

The building was eight stories of brown brick, surrounded by a black iron gate. There was a couple short lampposts by the front stoop, but only one threw out a weak, yellow light. Some kids were playing on the steps, a little girl jumped rope on the walk.

I went round the front of the car and started across the street, wiped my hands on my ribs. Shit, they were slick with sweat again.

“Yo, perrito,” Ricky called.

“Yeah, what?”

He motioned me to him, so I came back to the car.

“You know the dude, right? Apartment 4D.”

“Yeah, Bones pointed him out to me.” I started back toward the building.

“Yo!”

“What?”

“Make sure you take it off safety first, perrito.” He grinned.

“Man, fuck you…”

Like at fourteen I’m still a “puppy.” My older brother Diego was a daddy at fourteen. His babymama Adriana was two years older. I don’t think pulling a trigger is any harder than making babies. Both take cajones, but you don’t gotta be grown-up to do either one.

I looked up at the row of windows on the fourth floor and crossed the street. Music came from one of them on an upper floor, but the hum and rattle of the dripping air conditioners in most of the others nearly drowned it out.

The little girl jumping rope stopped and smiled up at me, front teeth missing. The girls on the steps only threw glances at me as I went into the building.

I decided to take the stairs up. It would give me time to think, which maybe wasn’t such a good thing. I could feel my whole body vibrating. It wasn’t I was shaking, but more like everything in me was buzzing like a power line.

I pulled the gun from my waist and flicked off the safety. Then I stuck it in the back of my shorts and climbed the stairs. When I got up to the fourth floor, I peeked through the strip of wired glass in the metal emergency door. I couldn’t see shit. I wiped my face with the hem of my shirt and pushed the door open, looked down the hallway before stepping into it. It stank of cat piss.

The hall went off to my left. I followed it past the elevators. The grime was so thick on the cracked linoleum floor, I couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be. Most of the walls had graffiti on them, some in spray paint, a lot in pencil and Sharpie. I could hear music, and people talking. A TV blared some game show from behind one of the doors I passed.

I came to 4D. The door was painted a gross pale yellow, a rotten-egg-yellow, and looked like some little kid had smeared shit all over the bottom half. I looked up and down the hall. Nobody. I tried to pray a Padre Nuestro real quick, but couldn’t remember the words after the first few lines. I tried again. I knew the damn prayer but the words wouldn’t come to me. God probably didn’t want to hear my prayer right before shooting the brains out of some dude I don’t even know.

Get it done and they gonna throw me a party. Get drunk, get laid. And Diego, he’ll know that I’ma be okay, I can take care of Mama and Adriana and little Roberto. I know he’s been worried. A few months ago when me and Mama went to visit him, he said, “Leo, you gotta be the man while I’m locked up. You gotta look after them. You’re young, but not too young to be a man.”

I took out the gun but kept my hand behind my back. Sweat was stinging my eyes, scorching the spot on my chest. I knocked on the door. A little dog started to yip behind it. I heard steps coming up to it and prayed again, this time that I wouldn’t piss myself.

The door opened. It was the old woman with the tree-trunk ankles, varicose veins wrapped around them like vines. She had on glasses with thick lenses, one of them scratched up. The little dog, same frizzy gray as her hair, looked up with black bead eyes and growled, about as scary as a teddy bear. The smell of bacon, and of arroz y frijoles wafted out into the hall like perfume, covering the stink.

“Si?” Behind her, sitting at a table, eating and watching a TV was Tomaso, the dude I was to take out. He didn’t seem to notice that someone was at the door, kept eating and watching TV. He looked a little bit like my brother Diego, but older, maybe three, four years. Old lady musta been his abuela.

When Ricky first told me what it would take to come into the gang, I was ready. I knew from Diego how it would go down. I got through being jumped in, no problem. I felt I’d been dragged over a demolition site after, took weeks for some of the bruises to go away. But it felt good, too, on the inside, knowing I took it like a man. This here was my final test. I could pop the old lady and get Tomaso, too. Or I could just knock her out of the way and get up close to Tomaso before he could even get up from the table. I was ready. But Tomaso was eating, watching TV. He wasn’t coming at me, was holding a fork, not a gun. If I shouted his name, he might come at me. Then I’d have reason to pop him.

Something didn’t seem right. The fear left me, but so did my reason for being here. It didn’t make sense no more. I was confused.

The old woman brushed away a fly that landed on her face. Then she looked back to me. She smiled. “Que pasa, mijo? You look for somebody?”

I swallowed. “Yeah. I’m looking for…Freddy.”

“Lo siento. No Freddy. No Freddy live here.”

I nodded and she closed the door. I flipped the safety back on the Glock, slipped it back into my waistband and took the elevator down. I didn’t think my Jell-O knees could handle the stairs. But the nest of serpents was gone.

I came out of the building into the growing darkness. Ricky had moved to this side of the street and had the engine running. His eyes were wide, questioning me. I shrugged and got into the car.

“Well, Leo?”

I put the gun back under the seat. “He wasn’t there. Just an old lady and her dog.”

I felt more like a man than I ever had.