“Stolpestad,” from The Architect of Flowers
Was toward the end of your shift, a Saturday, another one of those long slow lazy afternoons of summer—sun never burning through the clouds, clouds never breaking into rain—odometer like a clock ticking all those bored little pent-up streets and mills and tenements away. The coffee shops, the liquor stores, laundromats, police, fire, gas stations to pass—this is your life, Stolpestad—all the turns you could make in your sleep, the brickwork and shop fronts and river with its stink of carp and chokeweed, the hills swinging up free from town, all momentum and mood, roads smooth and empty, this big blue hum of cruiser past houses and lawns and long screens of trees, trees cutting open to farms and fields all contoured and high with corn, air thick and silvery, as if something was on fire somewhere—still with us?
That sandy turnaround—always a question, isn’t it?
Gonna pull over and ride back down or not?
End of your shift—or nearly so—and in comes the call. It’s Phyllis, dispatcher for the weekend, that radio crackle of her voice, and she’s sorry for doing this to you but a boy’s just phoned for help with a dog. And what’s she think you look like now, you ask, town dogcatcher? Oh, you should be so lucky, she says and gives the address and away we go.
No siren, no speeding, just a calm quiet spin around to this kid and his dog, back to all the turns you were born, your whole life spent along these same sad streets. Has nothing to do with this story, but there are days you idle past these houses as if to glimpse someone or something—yourself as a boy, perhaps—the apartments stacked with porches, the phone poles and wires and sidewalks all close and cluttered, this woman at the curb as you pull up and step out of the car.
Everything gets a little worse from here, boy running out of the brush in back before you so much as say hello. He’s what—eight or nine years old—skinny kid cutting straight to his mother. Presses himself to her side, catches his breath, his eyes going from you to your uniform, your duty belt, his mother trying to explain what happened and where she is now, the dog, the tall grass, behind the garage, woman pointing. And the boy—he’s already edging away from his mother—little stutter steps and the kid’s halfway around the house to take you to the animal, his mother staying by the side porch as you follow toward the garage and garbage barrels out back, you and the boy wading out into the grass and scrub weeds, the sumac, the old tires, empty bottles, rusted car axle, refrigerator door. Few more steps and there—a small fox-colored dog—beagle mix lying in the grass, as good as sleeping at the feet of the boy, that vertigo buzz of insects rising and falling in the heat, air thick as a towel over your mouth.
And you stand there and wait—just wait—and keep waiting, the boy not saying a word, not looking away from the dog, not doing anything except kneeling next to the animal, her legs twisted awkward behind her, the grass tamped into a kind of nest where he must have squatted next to her, where this boy must have talked to her, tried to soothe her, tell her everything was all right. There’s a steel cooking pot to one side—water he must have carried from the kitchen—and in the quiet the boy pulls a long stem of grass and begins to tap at the dog. The length of her muzzle, the outline of her chin, her nose, her ear—it’s like he’s drawing her with the brush of grass—and as you stand there, he pushes the feather top of grass into the corner of her eye. It’s a streak of cruel he must have learned from someone, the boy pushing the stem, pressing it on her until, finally, the dog’s eye opens as black and shining as glass. She bares her teeth at him, the boy painting her tongue with the tip of grass, his fingers catching the tags at her throat, the sound like ice in a drink.
And it’s work to stay quiet, isn’t it? A real job to let nothing happen, to just look away at the sky, to see the trees, the garage, the dog again, the nest of grass, this kid brushing the grain of her face, the dog’s mouth pulled back, quick breaths in her belly. Hours you stand there—days—standing there still now, aren’t you?
And when he glances up to you, his chin’s about to crumble, boy about to disappear at the slightest touch, his face pale and raw and ashy. Down to one knee next to him—and you’re going to have to shoot this dog—you both must realize this by now, the way she can’t seem to move, her legs like rags, that sausage link of intestine under her. The boy leans forward and sweeps an ant off the dog’s shoulder.
God knows you don’t mean to chatter this kid into feeling better, but when he turns, you press your lips into a line and smile and ask him what her name is. He turns to the dog again—and again you wait—wait and watch this kid squatting hunch-curved next to the dog, your legs going needles and nails under you, the kid’s head a strange whorl of hair as you hover above him, far above this boy, this dog, this nest, this field. And when he glances to you, it’s a spell he’s breaking, all of this about to become real with her name—Goliath—but we call her Gully for short, he says.
And you ask if she’s his dog.
And the boy nods—mine and my father’s, he says.
And you touch your hand to the grass for balance and ask the boy how old he is.
And he says nine.
And what grade is nine again?
The dog’s eyes are closed when you look—bits of straw on her nose, her teeth yellow, strands of snot on her tongue—nothing moving until you stand and kick the blood back into your legs, afternoon turning to evening, everything going grainy in the light. The boy dips his hand in the cooking pot and tries to give water to the dog with his fingers, sprinkling her mouth, her face, her eyes wincing.
A moment passes—and then another—and soon you’re brushing the dust from your knee and saying, C’mon, let’s get back to your mother, before she starts to worry.
She appears out of the house as you approach—out of the side door on the steps as you and the boy cross the lawn—the boy straight to her once again, kid’s mother drawing him close, asking was everything okay out there. And neither of you say anything—everyone must see what’s coming—if you’re standing anywhere near this yard you have to know that sooner or later she’s going to ask if you can put this dog down for them. She’ll ask if you’d like some water or lemonade, if you’d like to sit a minute, and you’ll thank her and say no and shift your weight from one leg to the other, the woman asking what you think they should do.
Maybe you’ll take that glass of water after all, you tell her—the boy sent into the house—the woman asking if you won’t just help them.
Doesn’t she want to try calling a vet?
No, she tells you—the boy out of the house with a glass of water for you—you thanking him and taking a good long drink, the taste cool and metallic, the woman with the boy at her side, her hand on the boy’s shoulder, both of them stiff as you hand the glass back and say thank you again.
A deep breath and you ask if she has a shovel. To help bury the dog, you tell her.
She unstiffens slightly, says she’d rather the boy and his father do that when he gets home from work.
In a duffel in the trunk of the cruiser is an automatic—an M9—and you swap your service revolver for this Beretta of yours. No discharge, no paperwork, nothing official to report, the boy staying with his mother as you cross the yard to the brush and tall weeds in back, grasshoppers spurting up and away from you, dog smaller when you find her, as if she’s melting, lying there, grass tamped in that same nest around her, animal as smooth as suede. A nudge with the toe of your shoe and she doesn’t move—you standing over her with this hope that she’s already dead—that shrill of insects in the heat and grass as you nudge her again. You push until she comes to life, her eye opening slow and black to you—you with this hope that the boy will be running any moment to you now, hollering for you to stop—and again the work of holding still and listening.
Hey, girl, you say and release the safety of the gun. You bend at the waist and gently touch the sight to just above the dog’s ear, hold it there, picture how the boy will have to find her—how they’re going to hear the shots, how they’re waiting, breaths held—and you slide the barrel to the dog’s neck, to just under the collar, the wounds hidden as you squeeze one sharp crack, and then another, into the animal.
You know the loop from here—the mills, the tenements, the streetlights flickering on in the dusk—and still it’s the long way around home, isn’t it? Wife and pair of boys waiting dinner for you, hundred reasons to go straight to them, but soon you’re an hour away, buying a sandwich from a vending machine, calling Sheila from a payphone to say you’re running a little late. Another hour back to town, slow and lawful, windows open, night plush and cool, roads this smooth hum back through town for a quick stop at The Elks, couple of drinks turning into a few—you know the kind of night—same old crew at the bar playing cribbage, talking Yankees, Red Sox, and this little dog they heard about, ha, ha, ha. Explain how word gets around in a place like this, Stoli, ha, ha, ha—how you gave the pooch a blindfold and cigarette, ha, ha, ha—another round for everyone, ha, ha, ha—three cheers for Gully—the next thing you know being eleven o’clock and the phone behind the bar is for you.
It’s Sheila—and she’s saying someone’s at the house, a man and a boy on the porch for you—be right there, you tell her. Joey asks if you want another for the road as you hand the receiver over the bar, and you drink this last one standing up, say goodnight, and push yourself out the door to the parking lot, darkness cool and clear as water, sky scattershot with stars. And as you stand by the car and open your pants and piss half-drunk against that hollow drum of the fender, it’s like you’ve never seen stars before, the sky some holy-shit vastness all of a sudden, you gazing your bladder empty, staring out as if the stars were suns in the black distance.
Not a dream—though it often feels like one—streets rivering you home through the night and the dark, that déjà vu of a pickup truck in the driveway as you pull around to the house, as if you’ve seen or imagined or been through all of this before, or will be through it again, over and over, man under the light of the porch, transistor sound of crickets in the woods. He’s on the steps as you’re out of the car—the lawn, the trees, everything underwater in the dark—and across the wet grass you’re asking what you can do for him.
He’s tall and ropy and down the front walk toward you, cigarette in his hand, you about to ask what’s the problem when there’s a click from the truck. It’s only a door opening—but look how jumpy you are, how relieved to see only a boy in the driveway—kid from this afternoon cutting straight to go to his father, man tossing his cigarette into the grass, brushing his foot over it, apologizing for how late at night it must be.
How can I help you?
You’re a police officer, says the man, aren’t you?
Sheila’s out on the porch now—light behind her—a silhouette at the rail, she’s hugging a sweater around herself, her voice small like a girl’s in the dark, asking if everything’s all right, you taking a step toward the house and telling her that everything’s fine, another step and you’re saying you’ll be right in, she should go back inside, it’s late.
She goes into the house and the man apologizes again for the hour and says he’ll only be a minute, this man on your lawn pulling the boy to his side, their faces shadowed and smudged in the dark, man bending to say something to his son, kid saying yes sir, his father standing straight, saying that you helped put a dog down this afternoon.
And before you even open your mouth, he’s stepping forward and thanking you for your help—the man shaking your hand, saying how pleased, how grateful, how proud, how difficult it must have been—but his tone’s all wrong, all snaky, all salesman as he nudges his boy ahead to give you—and what’s this?
Oh, he says, it’s nothing really.
But the boy’s already handed it to you—the dog’s collar in your hand, leather almost warm, tags like coins—the guy’s voice all silk and breeze as he explains how they wanted you to have it, a token of appreciation, in honor of all you did for them.
It’s a ship at sea to stand on that lawn like this—everything swaying and off-balanced for you—and before you say a word he’s laughing as if to the trees, the man saying to put it on your mantle, maybe, or under your fucken pillow. Put it on your wife, he says and laughs and swings around all serious and quiet to you, the man saying he’s sorry for saying that.
Nice lady, he says—and when you look the boy is milk-blue in the night, cold and skinny as he stands next to his father—man telling how he made it home a little late after work that night.
Was past nine by the time he got around to the dog, he says, dark when the two of them got out to the field—the boy with the flashlight, himself with the shovel—almost decided to wait until morning, didn’t we?
He nudges the boy—startles the kid awake, it seems—and the boy says yes.
Anyway, says the man, couldn’t find her for the life of us. But then we did. Not like she was going anywhere, right? Took us a while to dig that hole, never seen so many stones, so many broken bottles.
He turns to the house behind him, the yellow light of windows, the curtains, the blade of roofline, black of trees, shrubs. He lets out a long sigh and says what a fine place you seem to have here.
You say thanks—and then you wait—watch for him to move at you.
Two boys, you say.
Younger or older than this guy here?
Few years younger, you tell him.
He nods—has his hand on his boy’s shoulder—you can see that much in the dark, can hear the sigh, the man deflating slightly, his head tipping to one side. So, he says, like I was saying, took us a while to get the hole dug. And then when we go to take the collar, the dog tries to move away from us—like she’s still alive—all this time and she’s still alive—all those ants into her by now, imagine seeing?
He hums a breath and runs his palm over the boy’s hair, says the vet arrived a little later, asked if we did this to the dog, made us feel where you’re supposed to shoot an animal, slot right under the ear. He reaches his finger out to you and touches, briefly, the side of your head—almost tender—smell of cigarettes on his hand, your feet wet and cold in the grass, jaw wired tight, the boy and his father letting you hang there in front of them, two of them just waiting for whatever you’ll say next to this, man clucking his tongue, saying, Anyway—helluva a thing to teach a kid, don’t you think?
A pause—but not another word—and he starts them back toward the truck, the man and the boy, their trails across the silver wet of the lawn, the pickup doors clicking open and banging closed—one and then the other—engine turning over, headlights a long sweep as they ride away, sound tapering to nothing. And in the silence, in the darkness, you stand like a thief on the lawn—stand watching this house for signs of life—wavering as you back gently away from the porch, away from the light of the windows, away until you’re gone at the edge of the woods, a piece of dark within the dark, Sheila arriving to that front door, eventually, this woman calling for something to come in out of the night.
Collection Excerpt, 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt