|Fiction by Neil Smith
For some reason I rolled over one night and felt in my body that feeling of dead limb come back to life through the rush of blood into it like an empty room suddenly filled up with happy children. My entire body felt the way your arm feels when you have to hold something over your head too long or sit on an old person and talk and then your legs don't want to walk away. . I felt it though, lying there trying to rustle my head awake and pump the blood back into my calloused hands and toes. It tingled, and as I moved slowly it began to hurt a little, as though a thousand grasshoppers were digging their heels in my skin. I shook awake and looked down at the blanket and saw how the moon had come in through the bars of my window and turned the thing into a zebra, no, as though the blanket were made from the prison clothes they wore in old movies. Then I sneezed, again and again I hocked up something grainy yet soft, like caviar, into my hand. Then it occurred to me that I might be dying, or had already died and this was my penance, to tingle all over and have trouble with my sinuses for eternity. I got out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom, my eyes clamping shut in flood of light and then, slowly, in the mirror I saw that I had changed color, that somewhere in the night I had become black. Not black like Michael Jordan or Billie Holiday, black like the hide of an angus or the dropped crow's feather, bright black. It might have been amazing if it weren't so real. My eyes were two jade coins in a black bear rug. I'm a spitter, so I cut one loose into the sink and watched the little ants doing laps around the drain, and then I realized, as I looked into my face which was wondering who turned on the lights. They all seemed to be running and screaming about some apocalypse, or maybe they were laughing to each other about the one they had invaded and now the jig was up. They tumbled around on my face, got thick in one spot or another, and then finally they all went to my mouth from the rest of my face and turned around and around, and I suddenly realized I was smiling at myself in the mirror without moving my face, the ants had done it for me.
An Archer In Cover
The whole story has a lot to do with insomnia.
That was why I was there at the edge of the woods that day. That was why I was lying on my stomach watching a phlegm-colored pit bull terrier through the scope of my rifle from a hundred yards away. I watched it as it ate, behind the slate gray diamonds of its pen as it pushed its metal food bowl around with its face. I waited until the dog cornered its bowl in its pen and flipped it over with his snout. I rested the cross hairs of the rifle on the base of its skull and breathed deeply. I gasped out the breath, took another one in, and exhaled a bullet that flew like a cannon ball across the newly plowed field of North Carolina dirt and blew the dog's head off.
One night, a week before that afternoon there at the edge of the woods watching the dog consume his food, I could not sleep. I had not been able to sleep for weeks. All I could claim of sleep, actually other worldliness, were three of four hours in the early morning before my alarm clock went off, when my body completely shut down. When this happened I laid in bed, my mind essentially awake in something like an opium trance, watching the morning light creep like gray smoke into my room.
I did not know why I couldn't sleep. I would figure it out a year later after I discovered football, and the way it takes your brain from your head and rests it on the sidelines. I would go back and remember the thoughts I was having just before bed which were of how bumblebees seem like small black and yellow eyes watching you as they hover in the air. Those thoughts were of cherry red cardinals flashing in the brown thickets at the edge of the woods. My thoughts remembered my cattle in the summer time, in the thick sweaty nights after we'd sold the calves they'd just weaned. The cows would go to the fences around our property and call for their calves that seemed to them to be suddenly gone. They would stand there looking out into the darkness letting out deep bellows, their, eyes wide and straining, the sound coming as sudden and furious as a train whistle. I had insomnia, though I did not know what insomnia was. I would drag about my days like a gut shot bear, listening to teachers speak and other boys curse, none of it really making any sense.
The night in question was a night in late May. The frogs had stopped burping love songs to each other. The fore flies twinkled in the back yard. The night light over my garage made everything pale and dim. The cattle were in the pasture beyond the yard snorting and swishing their tails in the dark. My father was snoring in the room beneath me. I was lying in bed beside my open window with my head propped up on the meat of my palm listening to all of this, knowing that it would keep me awake for the rest of the night. It was so hot that my chin kept slislipping off of my palm from the sweat on my face. I was looking at the old granary at the edge of the yard when I heard the enormous Boxwood under my window swish and crackle as something crawled into the base of it to lie down and pant. It was Dingo, the family pet, though he was the sort of pet that was fed every evening before the family ate, and was asked, not ordered, to come inside from the cold. Dingo was actual Carolina Dingo, also known as Carolina Yellow Dog. He was a bit shorter from the nose to tail than a German Shepard, with a flat, squarish snout, pointed sturdy ears, and hair the color of wet straw. Dingo had black pearl eyes like a barn owl. His waist was thin, and he possessed a look of worry, of always wanting to have fun, but not being able to for some reason. Dingo continuously looked like he would be running around in the yard snapping his teeth on butterflies and trying to pin them down in the clover with his paw, if only, I suppose, something weren't bothering him. Perhaps he couldn't get any sleep either.
On this particular night Dingo crawled beneath the Boxwood underneath my second floor window, and then I could hear him twisting and rolling in the soft dirt. In the pale light I could see the bottom branches moving, and I heard that scuttle engine sound that dogs make when they scratch their backs on the ground. "Hey Dingo. Hey boy," I said, the tip of my nose pressing against the screen on my window. When he heard my voice, Dingo's tail began to flap against the branches of the bush. I heard him whimper slightly and then go silent. I looked up at the stars in the clear night sky, inhaled, and was about to speak when something I'd never heard came from the bush. It was the sound of Dingo growling. The growl from the bush turned into a snarl too, both of us aware of something at the edge of the yard. And then there was another sound coming from the edge of the yard beside the old granary. It was a growl also, and in the dim light another dog came from the shadows. I could not make out its color, but it walked to the exact middle and pointed at the bush under my window. The growling became louder. Beyond it all I could still hear my father snoring, as though he were another dog in the fray but was out of breath. And then I thought that I was going to get to see a dog fight. I was going to get to see Dingo kick the shit out of another dog in front of me and chase him back to where he'd come from. I was going to watch a fight, and so I slid the window screen up, hung my head out into the night, and waited. The small dog moved like a wisp of fog across the ground toward the bush and as he got closer he got larger. He disappeared under the bush beneath me and suddenly the bush was alive. The huge green thing had suddenly turned into a snarling, wild monster thrashing about in a fit. The top of the bush shook five feet from my window.
"Dingo?" I said, and sprang back from the window.
The next thing I knew I was standing in front of the gun cabinet shoving two plastic shells into my grandfather's double-barreled shotgun. The commotion had pulled my father from his snoring and he came running out of his room in his underwear, his eyes squinting in the light, his hair loose on his head. When he saw me he said nothing. He simply stood with a look of absolute disbelief on his face. Perhaps he thought he was still dreaming. I was in my underwear also. Wearing anything else would have made sleeping impossible so late in May.
I came out of the door of the back porch, snapping the barrels of the gun shut when I'd made it down the steps. I turned the flashlight on in my left hand and cradled the gun in my right hand, the barrel pointing ahead with my finger on the first trigger. The sound of the fighting had stopped along with the crickets, the cows, and everything else. The yard was as quiet as a black and white photograph. I turned the flashlight to the bush first. The dark green monster that had seconds before been about to climb up into my window was still. I took a step toward it casting the flashlight around the yard and it caught on the bulldog at the edge of the yard where he'd come from. He was watching me. I saw now that he was only slightly smaller than Dingo. His jaw hung open. His eyes sparked white in the glow of the flashlight. I stood there and heard the screen door squeak open behind me and saw the porch light come on that cast a glow across the yard as my father came out of the house. The bulldog's chest and front legs were red and dark. He did not growl. He only stood there looking at me as though he expected me to feed him, as though that was all he expected from anything on two legs. I dropped the flashlight and raised the gun and beaded between his eyes, and for a second nothing in the world seemed to move. He was just a dark red rock in the night at the end of the barrel of the shotgun. And something imperceptible changed in him. He went from silent and curious about me and wanting me dead the way I imagined bone colored ghosts wanted to share violent death with the living. His eyes ran up the barrels of the gun into mine and brought goose pimples under every hair on my body. It was as though I was staring down a pair of black train tracks at the gray and red locomotive with two dim, wet eyes. When he looked at me I couldn't have moved if I'd been standing in melting glass. And suddenly he was gone. He disappeared into the corner of the yard from where he'd come. I aimed at the spot in the bushes where his tail disappeared and pulled the trigger. The barrel spewed sparks and plumes of smoke, the sound cutting the night. I saw the bush where he'd run fly apart and cackle as the dry leaves tore.
"What in the hell!" my father shouted.
I turned around and saw him standing at the base of the steps, his pale skin seeming to glow in the night. I could even make out the lines of his farmer's tan. He still had the look of disbelief on his face, and he moved slightly back behind the screen door when he saw the gun in my hand and the look on my face. Inside the house I heard my sister begin to scream and cry in her crib and then the howling stuttered as my mother picked her up and bounced her slightly. I turned back around, laying the shotgun down and picking up the flashlight.
Dingo was in a pile on the ground in front of the bush and when I got to him he was lying on his left side with his underbelly facing away from me. His head was pointed across the yard where the bulldog had gone. He was dead and bleeding silently. I walked up to him, turned the flashlight back on and saw that his left front leg was lying on the ground about four feet away from his nose. I also saw that his lower jaw was gone. Later I found it near the bush where the fight had happened, and I threw it into Dingo's grave before I began to cover him with dirt.
The next day I sat at the breakfast table with my father and neither of us spoke until he looked across its wooden surface and said, "What a hell of a thing."
I looked at him
and then down at the bowl of cereal in front of me and said, "It
was Ritchie Cantrel's dog. That one he uses for fighting."
"I saw it,
it was that pit bull bulldog mix that looks like an oyster. You know
anybody else around here that owns a dog like that?"
"It was him. I know it."
My father sighed and said, "Well, it's done now. Dingo was a good dog, but it's done now."
I looked up and saw that he was staring at me, checking my eyes. His coffee cup was frozen in front of his face. A four-inch flag of steam was waving from the cup under his nose. His left arm was resting on the table. His hand was in a fist as usual. He began to lightly tap the toe of his boot on the linoleum. He was still watching me.
"It ain't done," I said.
My father sighed again and stood up. He walked to the coat rack and took his hat off of its peg and put it on. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "If it was Cantrel's dog he probably hosed the thing down as soon as he saw the blood this morning. He'll say it wasn't. It'll be his word against yours. Even so, he might come by today and apologize, and if he does, come get me. I'll be fixing the fence on the back side." He walked to the back door, paused, and said, "I'm going out to the shed. I'll need you later." The door closed behind him.
That afternoon my father and I were driving to town to pick up a cake for my sister's first birthday. When the truck came to the end of the road I lived on, it paused in front of Ritchie Cantrel's house where the stop sign was. My father gave no indication of the house being special today. He checked left and right, raised his forefinger over Ritchie Cantrel's House and mine, which were two miles apart at opposite ends of Gwyn Road in the Northern part of Clay County. My house was a two story white farmhouse like his. Mine had flaking paint and black shudders like his, except mine had a front porch built over both floors of the front of the house while Ritchie's was built in the Victorian style. His house had gables. Mine did not. Ritchie's front porch wrapped around the front and sides of the house and had a wooden floor. It held six rocking chairs, a porch swing, four dog bowls, and several old logs that were used for hunkering down. No one hunkered down on my front porch. All mine held were four white columns and the floor of the porch was poured concrete that heated up in the noon sun until it hurt your bare feet. No one ever really sat on my porch since the sun would chase your feet across it as it heated up the concrete. It was too open. It never kept the rain away and lacked shade other than the two uniformly trimmed boxwoods that bordered it. The real shade was in the front yard that held five red oak trees, each of which was over two hundred years old, and three of which had been struck by lightning a total of seven times. The first of the trees died some years later when a bolt of lightning shook the house and split the tree down the middle like a sprig of broccoli. Ritchie Cantrel had no shade in his front yard, which looked like a barren looking space, covering the thirty or so feet between his mailbox and his porch steps. It was a brown eroded patch of baseball infield that could only produce the occasional tuft of wild onion. My front yard was two acres wide. The grass was deep emerald and spotted white and pink with clover and rose angel. The driveway to my house left the road and wound through an acre of pine trees until it came to the side of my house as though everyone was forced to take a service road to it. Ritchie's driveway was a few smooth rocks packed into the ground by a thousand truck tires.
Behind my house were a row of sheds that held two ancient tractors, enough rusty old farm equipment to fill a museum, sprayers, a sail boat, an arc welder, and a wood whacker, and assorted sling blades that my family used to keep our front the back and side yards looking nice and new, as though they were to be photographed everyday. Behind Ritchie's house were a row of tobacco barns, tractor shed, smoke houses, hog and lots, and dog kennels. My father grew rust colored cows, vegetables, blueberries, and taught school. Ritchie's father grew tobacco, hogs, and pit bulls he used for fighting.
They found the dogs in the auto repair shop owned by Ritchie's uncle. The shop was at the edge of a community that was called Altmahaw-Ossippe, which was a Cherokee word meaning something about a river. The community was placed along the edge of the Haw River, perhaps the most polluted and filthy vein of water in that part of the country. It occasionally smelled like someone's gym shoes. The concrete pit where the dogs fought was where Ritchie's uncle stood when he worked under cars. It was eight feet long and three feet wide and was deep and black. They would gather at the repair shop on Thursday and Saturday nights. There would be Ritchie's family and friends, a man from town that acted as the referee, and whatever luckless black man, Mexican, Cajun, or foreigner that happened to have heard about it and come there with his own dog. They never fought roosters which was considered comical next to the snarling of the dogs. Ritchie would be squatting on the ground above one end of the pit with his dog, petting its head and holding its collar. He would be whispering in its ear telling it things like, "I won't you in there fightin'", or "Git mad, now, Git mad." At the other end of the pit would be the man who had come to fight, whispering I imagine something of the same to his dog.
I remember the eyes of the animals, their teeth bared and chattering, saliva dripping down. I knew that they did not remember their last fights beyond the picture of their opponent lying dead beneath them, of feeling the other dog's pulse go still through the only thing they carried around, of the soft shredded hide, the watery eyes.
If they had remembered and seen the logic of it, they would never have gone into the pit, I thought. One of them would have said to the other, "Hey. One of us will not come out of this. One of us will choke slowly and have our nose pressed into axle grease. We'll fling and cry and that will be it."
And the other would have replied, "My God, you're right. I've spent my life snarling and killing for this fool that has me by the collar even though he's kept me locked up and has fed me things like bone meal and steaks laced with gunpowder. He has beaten me to make me reactionary and angry all the time. Why in the hell have we been doing this?"
When the fight began, both dogs would not fly into the pit at each other's throats as they normally did. They would lightly jump down into it, put their noses together and sniff each other's tails and get acquainted. They would push each other on the head with their paws in a friendly way and look around.
This never happened though.
The wagered money was on a table in the corner beneath a rack of silver wrenches. I know all of this because I'd seen it when I was a very young boy, when Ritchie and I had been friends before we knew what money was. All of them would be standing around the pit eyeing the dogs in the dim yellow light of the shop. Some of the men would have their arms crossed. Some of them would have their thumbs hooked in their belts and at the buckles of their overalls. They all wore hats, I remember, pulled tightly above their eyebrows. They never shouted or really moved at all, like men are always doing when a dogfight happens in the movies.
The man from town would say, "Pit 'em!", and both Ritchie and the man who'd come to fight would pull the collars off the dogs and launch them into the pit. What followed was the sound of a nightmare fetus, everything blind and fluidly elemental. It always ended within five minutes and one of the dogs would be pulled out by the scruff of its neck, still snapping blindly at the air in front if its face, its teeth clattering like the first small rocks at the start of an avalanche. The dog always looked as though it had been held by its tail and dipped in blood. Ritchie's dog usually won. The winner was put quickly in its cage and left alone until it calmed down. The loser, dead or dying, was prodded by its owner with a broom handle that had a sharpened nail embedded in its end. The man would shout at first, and then implore softly to the animals to get up. No one would get near the pit until the animal was pronounced dead, and when he was, he was usually left in the field behind Ritchie's house, far from the road, to wait for the heat and buzzards. This was when we were both young enough to appreciate nothing beyond what fish would bite and frozen Hershey bars.
I knew about the dogfights, though I wasn't invited to them at some point. Somewhere before we became fourteen I turned respectable-started leading the church choir and learned the fastball- and Ritchie did not. He was a small meaty boy at fourteen. His hair was always in a slate gray crew cut. His eyes were too far apart. His front teeth bucked out. He looked like a cross between a wart hog and a rabbit. At school we saw each other in the halls as I went from honors English class to Gym, and he went from woodshop to detention. Once in woodshop Richie took a half-inch metal bolt and its nut, screwed the nut on a half a turn and filled it with the white tips of kitchen matches. He then screwed a second nut on the other side of the bolt and handed it to another boy and told him to throw it. It would make a bang, he said. When the boy threw the nut and bolts the metal sparked inside it and ignited the tips of the matches and sent one of the bolts flying back at the boy who'd thrown it, cleaving off two if his fingers. Ritchie had been standing at the back of the shop watching with his arms crossed, smiling. When the boy doubled over with his hand in his lap dropping blood over the sawdust on the floor, Ritchie had yelped in laughter.
Ritchie was always hurting people in dramatically inventive ways. He wasn't any good at anything that went on at high school. He sat on the gym bleachers and stared down the brown tips of his boots muttering obscenities at the girls who pretended not to see him. He slept in class, and was not afraid of teachers. Once, a teacher, tired of Ritchie sleeping with his head resting on his folded arms above his desk, walked up to him with a small plastic cup she used to water the flowers in her room. She leaned over, said "wake up,",softly, and poured water down the exposed back of Ritchie's pants. Ritchie started up, looking the women square in the eye. I was in class then, and no one laughed as the teacher had thought they would. Ritchie did not say a word. He raised his arm. The teacher said, her voice wavering "Think, now Ritchie." Ritchie did not think. He slammed his knuckles into the teacher's face sending her to the floor unconscious. He crunched the water cup under his boot and walked out. He was suspended for two months and came back as if nothing happened. I hated him for that.
Five years later Ritchie Cantrel would hang himself with a towel at Butner State Mental Hospital after he was arrested while trying to destroy his girlfriend's garage with his car. He was nineteen years old, and told everyone he was going to kill himself if they sent him there and they sent him anyway.
And so, that week in May, I did not sleep. I only looked down at the Boxwood under my window and heard it growling and saw it thrashing about. I had waking nightmares of opening my eyes and seeing my window completely green with the shaking crazy leaves of the bush, as though it had grown up around the house. I heard Dingo growling over and over, and I constantly saw the gray rock dog at the end of the shotgun when I had had every opportunity, then, to split him down the middle like the oak tree. I tossed and turned as my father snored beneath me. I did not eat much and my stomach grumbled and spit during honors English class. My eye sockets took on shades of black that I have never really gotten rid of. Every day I rode by his house and saw the dog lot with the high chain link fence. The pit bull that had killed Dingo was always lying on his side in the afternoon sun or pushing his food bowl around.
I resolved to tell the sheriff about the dog fighting since it was illegal. I called and reported where and when the fights were held giving my name and address. I told him about Dingo since he seemed oddly interested in why I was calling. The only thing that came of my call to the sheriff's office was that two days later, while we passed each other in the hall at school, I caught Ritchie's eye and he caught mine. We both stopped. I was a large boy for my age, and Ritchie had to look into my face. As we stood there, I felt my body begin to tense up and I felt elated because I thought he was angry. I thought that the sheriff had been out to his house. I thought the sheriff had taken the dogs and destroyed them. I imagined the pit bull terrier shoved into a plastic cage with no holes save a single opening it its side that was attached by a hose to the exhaust pipe of a car. I imagined that dog thrashing about in a small white egg as it choked and fought as the smooth sides of the cage gave nothing to bite or hold onto. I imagined Ritchie had to listen to it snarling in the box and had cried while it went on and his father had to hold him down to keep him from doing something. While we stood looking at each other in the hallway, I was prepared to beat Ritchie into a different person. I wanted him to swing first, as his dog had done, so I would have been completely within my rights to pound on him. Ritchie stood and I stood as students slammed their lockers and called to each other. He did not swing first. He simply grinned slightly at me and shook his head. His mouth made a small ticking sound that comes from the tongue popping on the top of mouth and teeth. He looked at me and went, "tick, tick, tick" with his mouth. And walked away. I walked to my next class and then home and then to my bed and rolled over in it and sweated.
Everyone is a child when they sleep. They close their eyes, shallow their breath, and slide down a white tunnel into the fog in themselves and dream and dream. They are helped on their way by things like the sound of rain on rooftops and warm milk and honey. I remember that from the Bible, milk and honey. A person sleeps in the same way anything else sleeps, the body suspended above a calm ocean at night, watching their thoughts move beneath them fluidly and gracefully like whales, a light casting up into the body's eyes from far beneath the surface, miles beneath the surface.
When I tried to sleep it was like I was standing in my yard by the stone well which was a tunnel of sorts. The hole in the well was covered by a metal lid held down by half of a cinder block that had a pulp in the middle of soft milky spider webs. As I tossed and turned in my bed, I was pulling off the cover that had been tattering and sharpened at the edges by rust. I was letting it clatter at the ground behind me and staring down into the well, a deep hole lined with jagged rock covered in moss and calico lichen. At the bottom of the well there was a black mirror of water that looked so solid it seemed like the burnished head of a nail driven to the center of the earth. All that I saw there was the outline of my head staring down, my eyes peering in.
In three days I remember eating a bowl of grits, a slice of meatloaf, and a blow pop. I drank water all the time. Once, I began to urinate in my pants before I could get the bathroom door open. I did not study. I only read books until my eyes swelled shut and the next day I forgot what I had read, so I read it again that night. One day I told my father this while he was attaching the barrel of a fertilizer spreader to one of our tractors.
When I was done, he looked at me and then shook his head back at the tractor and said, "You know, I wonder about peach pits."
"What?" I said.
"Peach pits," he said and bent down and picked up the peach pit that he'd been staring at and thinking about the entire time I'd been talking while he worked. "They're at the middle of that sweet fruit. Those things have got so much sugar in 'em they damn near lock the blade of my knife shut when I pare one, but in the middle they've got these stones." He held the brown seed in his fingers in the air between our eyes, his face never leaving it. "Peaches are just so sweet, and the outside of 'em are like velvet. But the seeds, they're just so . . . jagged."
I know that it was some time during one of those sleepless nights that I decided to kill the dog. I decided it liked one would decide to go to college and then graduate school. The decision was eerily natural and wonderful, like a blue flame. I think I may have even gotten a bit of sleep after I decided to do it, just enough to take me a few feet into the well, close the cover behind me and weigh it down with the half cinder block. In the tunnel, bracing myself in the pitch black, I breathed in the musty smell of lichen and felt the dry flaky abandoned skins of black snakes left in the crevices of the rocks. And I decided to kill the dog.
On Saturday I waited until morning and put my boots on. I put on my camouflage hunting jacket and pants. I put on what is called a head cover, which is a piece of camouflage mesh that fits over your head with two small holes through which you are suppose to see. I walked down the steps to my room to the gun cabinet and opened it. The house was silent that early. My father was still snoring in his bed, but when the door of the old cabinet creaked open the snoring stopped. I stood with my heart pounding up into my throat and heard my father say "What's wrong?", and then the bed springs creaked as he rolled over and began to snore again. My rifle was a .35 caliber Wellen with a lever action. It has a black handle underneath the trigger you crank down after you have fired. The handle ejects the spent shell, chambers another one, and pushes the hammer back. I liked it because it was the rifle that was used in movies about cowboys. The bullets I used for it were called "soft shells", which were not pointed like rockets. They were shaped round and looked like the nail on the smallest finger of a large man's hand. I was a very good shot. I was pronounced a "good shot" by my father and my uncle when I was twelve years old and shot a Coke can off of a fence post from eighty yards out with a squirrel rifle.
The next two hours were spent walking and keeping the sunrise behind me as I made my way through the woods that connected all of the farms on Gwyn Rd. I followed cattle trails to the edge of my property and then walked through sand creek beds for two miles. I pushed branches from my face and squeezed through the barbed wires on fences. I sloshed through mud. I surprised cattle and deer as the early morning haze burned away from the fields. Eventually I knew I was on Ritchie's land because about every fifty feet I began to see signs that told people trespassers would be shot. I found the field where the dead pit fighters would be dragged and then made my way to the back of Ritchie's farm and house. When I got there I guessed it was around ten o'clock. The sun was like the burning nose of a flame-thrower. The birds were twittering in the bushes and the morning smelled of light air and water. I had small things stuck to my clothes, which are called cuckle burs that I picked off and pinched between my fingers. I saw that my fingers were slightly numb and colder than they should have been after walking so far in the early heat.
I came to the edge of the woods beyond the field and saw the back of Ritchie's house. His back porch was exactly like mine. It had a back door and was wrapped in gray screens to keep bugs out. Beside it in the yard was a clothesline that held white sheets that swayed slightly in a breeze that I could not feel. On the side of the house opposite the clothesline was the dog lot of chain link fence and inside it was a small green doghouse with black shingles on its roof. Behind the dog house a piece of ply wood had been braced against the fence and hammered into the ground. That was were he had gotten out, I thought. Beyond the dog lot I could see the front of a pick up truck pointed at where I was standing. Beside the dog lot was what looked like a wooden catapult that was set up on lawn mower tires. It was a vertical frame built in the shape of a V that had a horizontal wooden beam balanced across it, the end of the beam hung out a few feet over the top of the fence of the pen. The other end was wrapped in burlap bags, which made the thing look like a huge brown match. Near the end with the burlap bags was a big metal washbasin. I squatted down and looked across the field and then lay on my stomach and propped the rifle up and looked through the scope. The doghouse took up half of the view of the scope. I peered through it and breathed and waited. I was waiting for a truck to leave his driveway. On any given Saturday in May, I knew that Ritchie and his father would eventually be in any one of a half dozen tobacco fields. They began work at around ten o'clock and worked into the evening. After Ritchie and his father left there would be no one home since his mother had left years ago.
About an hour later Ritchie came out the back door and slammed the screen door of his porch behind him. I jolted awake, and found that I had actually been doing something like sleeping. There was something comfortable about lying there with the rifle in my hand. Ritchie walked to the side of the yard opposite the dog lot to a wooden box about the size of the doghouse, which was propped up on four legs three feet off of the ground. Ritchie stopped when he got close to the box. He turned and looked at me. Without thinking, I put the cross hairs of the rifle on his nose as my spine iced. His eyes kept moving, scanning the woods, and I watched until I knew that he hadn't seen me. Briefly I wondered if he'd see a glint that the lens on the scope of a rifle makes when the sun hits it just right, but he did not appear to. Then his eyes scanned the sheds and hog lots in the distance. When he was done looking around he turned back to the box and walked to it. The top of the box opened like a lid and he reached inside with his right hand. He pulled out a white rabbit by its ears, its small legs bucking against the air. When the lid of the box slammed shut, a bark came from the doghouse inside the lot and the pit bull that had killed Dingo came out of its house and leapt at the fence. His toenails hooked in the diamonds of the fence and it jingled when his body fell back to the ground. The dog jumped and leapt and barked at what he saw. Ritchie carried the rabbit over to the dog lot. He reached up and took the end of the beam that was wrapped in burlap and swung the whole contraption around so that the end that had been over the dog lot hung in front of the cage. As it moved away from him the pit bull jumped, what I judged to be five feet from the ground, and tried to latch onto the end of the beam but it was too wide for him to get his teeth around. It seemed to hammer him back to the ground. The dog went crazy. With the white rabbit struggling in his hand, Ritchie picked up a length of clothesline from the ground, looped one end around the rabbit's head and tied the other end around the end of the beam. He then swung the beam back towards the pen and over its side and pressed down on the end wrapped in burlap until the choking and twitching rabbit hung ten feet over the pen. The dog sprang at it from the ground. Clear strings of saliva flew from the corners of its mouth. The rabbit hung in the air and Ritchie moved the catapult back and forth so that the rabbit swung in the air above the dog, which spat and snarled and barked. Ritchie was saying things like, "Oh yeah, now, oh yeah boy! You won't it don't you! You won't that thang don't you!" He swung the rabbit back and forth in the air above the dog, which did not seem to even land on the ground after it leapt. It seemed to just hover close to the dirt and then fly back up at the small rabbit, sounds coming from its throat that made the hairs on my neck stand and quiver. Through the scope I saw that the rabbit had pale red eyes. After a minute of this, Ritchie let up on his end of the beam a little and the rabbit dipped down into the cage. The dog was in mid-leap and it latched its jaws around the bottom half of the rabbit. When it did so Ritchie pressed down on his end of the beam and the dog and the rabbit hung in the air. Ritchie had all of his weight the beam, his legs kicking at the dirt under him, and the dog hung there shaking his head, his body quivering in the air. I saw the stub of his tail flying back and forth. He shook and shook. There were clear strings of saliva hanging from him.
The rabbit came in half eventually and when the dog hit the ground with it in his mouth his head blurred when he shook it. Ritchie swung the beam back around, took the other half of the rabbit, tossed it into the pen, and swung the beam back out over the pen. The dog kept jumping back up at his end of the beam until Ritchie said something low and soothing to it and it stopped, and I saw it wag the stub of its tail. Its tongue was curled and quaking with its breath. It sat down on its haunches and pricked its ears up at him. Ritchie approached the edge of the pen and opened the small gate and went inside. The dog hadn't moved. Ritchie sat down with is back against the side of the pen and crossed his legs. He and the dog were three feet apart. He then tapped the palm of his right hand on the knee of his jeans and the dog moved toward him, its ears pressed back against it skull, its back bowed into the air with its tail between its legs. Ritchie held out his hand and the dog put its nose into it and Ritchie pulled up its lips and looked at its teeth. He then rubbed the dog down its length and tugged at the scruff around its neck. The dog moved closer and he picked it up, opened his legs a bit and held it in his lap. The dog turned to the side slightly and let Ritchie scratch its belly. He held its head in the crook of his arm and hugged it close to him, putting his face against the side of the dog's head, and hugged it.
Ritchie was smiling. His eyes stretched into small slits and his bucked front teeth shone in the noon sun. He looked at it in wondering satisfaction and kissed the dog's nose. He rubbed and petted it until it did not move and rested its chin on one of his legs and began to blink its eyes while Ritchie slowly smoothed his hand over the dog's fur. I could see his mouth moving through the scope and saw that he was whispering to it. He was kissing the top of its head and staring at it, lovingly. He could not seem to hold the dog close enough to his chest. He hugged it again and again until it squirmed in his grip and rolled over on its back and pawed up at him while he shook its underbelly. The dog let out small, pleased yelps. I took my eye away from the scope and sat breathing in the noon air. Sweat was pouring down my face behind the mesh head cover. I looked back through the scope at the yard and saw a figure standing in the doorway of the back porch. I looked again through the scope, moving as little as possible and saw Mr. Cantrel staring from the doorway out to the yard. He face was fixed and relaxed. He looked happy and proud. He was shirtless and barefooted. I did not remember him as a bald man, but his head looked like a pale ostrich egg in the sun. One strap of his overalls was in a loose ribbon at his waist. He was leaning against the doorsill on his elbow watching Ritchie. He stood for a moment looking as though he had just been paid on Friday. He turned and went back inside, the screen door clapping when it shut.
When the door shut, both the dog and Ritchie jolted around to look. The dog had gone from turning and twisting its body under Ritchie's hand to standing straight and tense. Ritchie stood and looked at the house carefully. He then turned back to the dog, which was moving toward him again, trying to put its head under his hand. Ritchie beat the palms of his hands on his chest and the dog leapt up to him, its snout hitting the bottom of his chin. He bent down and petted it again and whispered something else in its ear, nodding his head and speaking as if explaining something. "Okay? Okay?" he seemed to be saying. He then put a hand on the dog's chest and held it back as he opened the gate and moved himself through. Outside of the gate he pressed his palm against the fence and the dog licked at it. He turned away smiling and walked into the house.
A short time later, Mr. Cantrel appeared at the side of the house and got into the truck, slamming the door. The dog in the lot pricked up its ears and watched as Ritchie came behind the man and got into the truck seat beside him. He was gnawing on a piece of toast. The truck cranked up and the dog began to yelp and squeal in its pen. The truck began to back down the driveway and suddenly stopped and the side door swung open and Ritchie jumped out. His father was yelling at him as he ran to the dog lot and knocked the cover off of the metal wash basin and quickly pulled a grain scoop of dry dog food from inside. He reached over the side of the pen and dumped the food into the metal dog dish. The dog began to attack it and push it around his pen, ignoring the entire world, still hungry. Ritchie then turned and ran to the truck, which was at the edge of the driveway and backing out into the road. I saw his father spin the steering wheel of the truck and it lurched down the road. Ritchie had the door half open, and when he tried to get into the cab his father pushed the gas pedal a bit and the truck moved forward, throwing Ritchie out of the door almost underneath the rear tire. Ritchie tried again to get into the car and the truck lurched away again. He tried a third time and got a hand on the handle inside the door and hopped, his legs still hanging out the open door, inside. As the truck tires squealed on the asphalt I saw through the scope that his father had turned bright pink with laughter.
I lay on the ground at the edge of the woods and smelled the sweet gun oil in the breech of the rifle and felt the sweat drip off of my nose into the mesh mask. I took my eye from the scope and put the rifle down and rolled onto my back. My eyelids fluttered and drooped as I stared up into the web of leaves in the trees above me. I felt something I had not felt in weeks. My body was going to sleep. My muscles seemed to expand and relax and I heard my heart slowing down in my chest. I was drowsy and calm. The tips of my fingers began to tingle. I closed my eyelids, but something about the blackness behind them made my heart pick up again in my chest and I felt the blood pushing through my veins. I was suddenly falling freely down into the well, letting go of the sides and feeling the tepid air on my face and then. And then for no reason, shoving my arms and legs out and stopping myself, freezing with all my might there in the darkness against the huge black eye of water beneath me. I was suddenly more awake than I'd ever been in my life. I felt the pine needles under my hands. I smelled the grass around me. I rolled back over to my stomach, picked up the rifle and found the dog pushing its bowl around the pen. I waited, holding each breath and gasping it out. Sweat tickled the end of my nose and stung the edges of my eyes. The dog had cornered the bowl. He began to push it up trying to turn it over with his nose. When he finally got it turned over it clattered to the ground. He stared down at it proudly. I put the cross hairs on the base of its skull and squeezed the trigger on the rifle. I remember the trigger gave easily, like pressing on the side of a boiled egg. When I fired, the rifle kicked at my shoulder. I looked again at the pen. The dog's body lay on its side. Its head was somewhere else. And then I walked home. And I cried somewhere along the way. And I slept.