The boy, low on money, went to visit his father. Angry with himself and feeling weak for having to do so, he vowed not to show any gratitude. Normally he wouldn’t accept the money, but he’d quit is job and his father had offered and, really, he needed it. Rent was due.
The drive down the washboard dirt road was long and therefore annoying. It was hot out, his AC didn’t work. It puzzled him that his father couldn’t just live in the city, closer to his job. He could appreciate nature but this, this dry and hostile land of cactus and rattlesnake, was too much. A rabbit darted in front of his truck and he pushed down on the gas, forcing the frightened creature through a barbed-wire fence. He hated the desert.
His father’s trailer, a single-wide, sat at the end of the property line, fifteen miles through dirt and mesquite. A decorative yet dangerous patch of cactus lined the front porch, installed the year previous by his stepmother. Unlike his father, his stepmother was a good person, honest and compassionate. A once pretty woman, a woman who’d actually raised her children rather than allowing her over-worked spouse to do so while she drank herself away and watched football. Apart from the fact that his father had aged well, appearing fit and handsome into his fifties, the boy couldn’t understand why his stepmother was attracted to the old man. The entire family, especially his sister, kept telling him to give his father another chance, that he’d changed. After all, he didn’t drink or smoke anymore (though these were doctor’s orders) and he’d had his job, a well paying one at that, for over two years (though it was his first in fifteen.) “I’ll give him credit for that,” the boy told his sister, “if he keeps it up another year. It never lasts.” This upset his sister but she knew it was true: their father had lost many jobs, and usually his sobriety ventures lasted less than a month. “Still,” the sister had said, “he’s trying.”
But even so, even if he was trying, did it make up for the years? The forgotten birthdays and complete lack of financial help, even in the form of federally-regulated child support. Yet in all those years of not assisting the family his father could still afford a case of beer and pack of cigarettes. Every day. What about that money? Not much, sure, but enough for lunch money, enough for a real haircut, enough to afford a yearbook at the end of senior year.
Climbing out of his truck he was immediately assaulted by the dogs, cute and friendly and dirty and covered in fleas and ticks, the large purple-bodied ones found deep in the fur and clustered in the ears. He recalled, long ago, watching his father burn the ticks off one of his dogs using a heated piece of metal. “It’s the only way to kill them,” his father had said, red tick-juice dripping from his fingers. He patted each of them, including a new pup he’d never seen before, and made his way up the porch to the front door, knocking. His stepmother’s son, a bright but indifferent young boy answered, beckoning him in with feigned interest.
It was cooler inside. First he cleaned his hands of the dogs, using the dishwashing soap above the sink. His stepbrother trailed off down the hallway and soon lasers and screaming were heard. He stood alone in the empty kitchen, which adjoined the living room, wondering if maybe he should just leave, find a new job, sell some stuff. He checked the fridge, finding a six pack of non-alcoholic beer. Pathetic. A door closed behind him and he turned to find his stepmother drying her hair with a dull pink towel, beaming at him.
“Hey honey,” she said, embracing him with an authentic smile. “How are you?”
“I almost forgot how handsome you are. You know, you look just like your father. Let me go wake him up, he’s taking a nap.”
“I can come back another time?”
“No, no, no. He wants to see you. Plus he has some money for you, but don’t tell him I said so,” she said, and entered the master bedroom attached to the living room. He wasn’t surprised to hear his father was sleeping at this time. It wasn’t even six yet, and it was Saturday. The old man had probably awaken early and was already passed out drunk, hence the six NA’s left in the fridge. It was all so typical, and he laughed inwardly at his sister’s naïveté.
“He’ll be out in a minute,” said his stepmother, emerging, “he’s getting dressed.”
“Sit down,” patting the couch cushion beside her, “tell me what’s going on.”
In the twenty minutes it took his father to get dressed she managed to fill him in on every detail of her life since she’d last seen him, around Christmas.
“And did you see Banjo?”
“Our new puppy, the beagle. Your daddy got me him for my birthday. He’s such a sweetheart.” The boy didn’t know if she meant the dog or his father. After a few more laser blasts from the other room and what sounded like a school-bus being dropped from the clouds into a rock quarry, the master bedroom door opened and his father came out, wearing a pair of torn jeans and looking quite awful. His hair was disheveled, his eyes bloodshot. Twenty minutes and he couldn’t even manage a shirt.
“Hey, kiddo,” said the old man, placing a large hand on his son’s shoulder and giving a not so gentle squeeze. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” said the son, watching his father ease into a recliner. “Same old.”
“You still in school?”
“Yeah,” said the boy, masking his irritation at the question. “I’ll be done next year.”
“Cool,” said his father, who leaned back and sighed. The old man’s flesh had loosened up a bit since the last time the boy saw him, and it now sagged more around his once hard stomach. Most of his chest hair was grey now, overcrowding the dark brown hairs that somehow still prevailed upon his head, much like his sons’. And his eyes weren’t even bloodshot, but completely red, a solid dark spot forming in one corner that didn’t look very healthy. The tattoo on his arm was nearly faded, and white spots of what was likely some form of skin cancer flecked his shoulders and biceps. The old man had spent his life in the sun, working construction jobs until they fired him for drinking on the clock or showing up hammered.
“Do you want something to drink?” asked his father. “A beer?”
“Do we have any beer?” the father asked the stepmother, whose smile was only partly sarcastic.
“No, you know we don’t,” she said playfully. Turning to the son, “We don’t keep any beer in the house anymore. I let him have one a week now, on Sunday or Monday, when he watches the game.”
“Yeah,” said the old man, who seemed to begin thinking about the game.
“He’s a lot grumpier now, the old fart, but maybe he’ll live to see some grandchildren now.”
“Yeah,” the old man repeated, half-asleep.
“Oh, you know what,” the stepmother said with bright wide eyes, “I’ll go pick up some from the super-market, I need to pick up some things for dinner anyway.”
“Don’t worry,” said the son, “I’m fine.”
“You do like beer?”
“Yeah.” Pause. “Occasionally.”
“I’ll be right back then.” She leaned over the old man, kissed him on the forehead, picked up her truck keys and vanished out the door. Silence closed in, the son looked at the mix of southwestern kitsch and football memorabilia covering the walls.
“You see that new Scorsese?” the father asked. This was the usual. Hour-long movie discussions, their film tastes being about the only thing they seemed to have in common.
“Yeah, it was good. Did you?”
“Yeah. Oh, that part where they’re all lined up and the camera just goes down them, all getting shot, that fucking rolled, man,” his father said with a laugh.
“Yeah,” said the boy, trying not to agree too much, though he did. It occurred to him how strange it was that they always did enjoy the same movies, at least since he was a teenager and developed some opinion. In other regards there wasn’t much common ground. The old man only listened to classic rock, the son liked reading, the old man loved sports, the son was able to enjoy a few drinks here and there without his life falling apart.
“Seen any other good flicks lately?” asked his father, who got up to pour a glass of water.
The son began to answer but the front door interrupted him, bursting open as his stepmother came flailing into the house, screaming with black tears flowing through her mascara.
“Oh, God! Oh, God!” she moaned, “I hit him, I hit him with the truck!”
“Hit who?” the father shouted, already out the front door, his wife clinging to his arm. “Hit who?” he asked louder, grabbing her.
“Banjo,” she cried, “I hit Banjo.”
“Goddammit,” the old man said, halfway down the drive. The boy followed them outside, his stomach turning upside-down.
“Where?” asked his father.
“By the truck,” moaned the woman. “I couldn’t stop, he just ran out in front of me. I couldn’t stop oh God oh God I hit him.”
They approached the truck. The engine was running, driver’s side door still open, headlights glaring through the dusty southwestern air. The old man crouched in the tumbled dirt; the pup was nowhere to be seen.
“I killed him” wept the woman, wiping her face across her sleeve.
“Where is he?”
“He ran off, over by the house.”
“Well Christ then, let’s go find him.”
The boy’s stepbrother, watching the commotion from the porch, came and took his mother’s arm. “Take her inside and get us flashlights,” instructed the old man. The young boy hurried his mother away and into the trailer.
The son and his father walked together in the last of the dusk, pink screaming from beyond the mesas, outlining the ridges. The snakes, warmed, slithered back to their holes. The young step-son came out with two flashlights.
“Go back to your mother,” said the old man. Then, to his son, “Come on, let’s find the stupid fucker.” They split up at the porch and the son watched his father walk away. He noticed the old man wasn’t wearing any shoes, and that they also walked the same, a fact his mother pointed out year’s ago, when he was proud to be his father’s son. He hunched over and directed the light below the trailer, walking its perimeter while stepping over bicycle parts and mesquite thorns. Enormous ants and fluffy white bugs covered the desert floor, fleeing from his footfalls. The sun was gone now. He called the pup’s name.
“Banjo!” in a loud whisper. “Banjo!”
“Banjo!” the father’s voice came from the dark. “Where are you goddammit?”
The boy edged in closer to the trailer, cautious of rattlesnakes and scorpions. Something like a whimper came from below.
“I found him,” yelled the boy, crouching down to see the pup, careful not to get his pants dirty. The pup sat far in, below some sort of tank, wide-eyed and shaking. They called to it, clapping and whistling. It refused to come.
“At least the dumb bastard’s alive,” said the old man.
“Maybe she just hit his foot or something,” the boy hoped.
They returned to the trailer, the old man stopping for a moment to remove a thorn from his calloused heel. The stepmother, near hysterics, rushed into the old man’s embrace.
“I killed him, I know I killed him!”
“He’s okay,” said the old man.
“Don’t lie to me,” the woman moaned.
“Don’t you lie to me,” the woman pulled away, grabbing the boy’s father by the flesh of his arms and staring him in the face.
“I told you, dammit, he’s fine.”
“No he’s not!” the woman screamed. She slapped her husband’s face. The boy stepped back into the kitchen; the old man grabbed his wife’s free hand.
“It’s true, he’s okay,” said the boy. His stepmother looked in his eyes and resumed her weeping, burying her wet face into the old man’s grey chest. She sobbed with violence. “He’ll be alright,” said the father, massaging the woman’s back.
“I thought I killed him. He ran right out in front of me.”
They sat on the couch. The boy paced the kitchen. Ten minutes or so passed and his stepmother calmed down.
“Will you check on him again?” she asked the boy.
Outside, below the trailer’s tank, the pup sat in the same spot, still shivering. He called again, again no luck. He went back inside.
“Where is he?”
“Below the trailer. He’s scared a bit but I think he’s just fine.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” said his stepmother, a bit shy, “I am now.” She placed her hand on his father’s leg and squeezed. “Now how about those beers?”
With the woman gone the father and son went back to films, as the younger expected. Throughout the conversation the old man continued to sigh with every movement, as if lifting his leg were really that exhausting. He was only fifty, the son twenty-five. Maybe, the son thought, if you’d done a little less drinking, you wouldn’t be so worn out. You’re even lucky to be alive, what with your own father drinking himself to death before I was even born. He told his father about new movies in the works by respectable directors, and the old man wrote the names of a few on the margins of a local newspaper, leaving the pencil between the index and middle fingers of his right hand and occasionally lifting it to his mouth and biting it. When the topic of movies was finally exhausted the old man started in with personal questions, much to his son’s chagrin.
“So you got a girlfriend?”
“Yeahp,” lied the son.
“What’s her name?”
“Cool,” said the old man. “That’s good.”
The boy’s father checked his watch again and yawned. His once well-defined jaw hung slack; his breath came with the wheeze of a lifetime smoker; hard stubble dotted the lower half of his face, the skin between hairs a shade lighter than elsewhere. The man walked into the kitchen, stepping from carpet to linoleum. He removed a large container of tea in what was once a pickle jar and poured most of the contents into an equally large pink plastic cup, holding the lip of the container with one massive hand, his fingers on the interior. Rather than returning to the living room he leaned against the counter and tucked his left hand into a faded pocket. Silence.
“I’m gonna check on that dog again,” said the son.
Out in the desert stars were shining, and in abundance. No city glow, no planes overheard, just stars and a helicopter blip far away. Cicadas ruled the night, rattling passionately on all sides. Tapping the flashlight against his thigh the boy circled around the trailer, pausing across from an open window to watch his father standing motionless in the kitchen. His eyes were closed. The boy continued on to where he’d found the pup. Kneeling with caution (no point in getting clean pants dirty) he flipped on the light. He called its name, Banjo, Banjo, Banjo, and watched its stomach fail to breathe. The dog was dead.
“Fuck,” said the boy. He swallowed a gulp of spit, opening his constricted throat for air, and retraced his steps to the living room. When the door opened the old man’s eyes came wide and awake and stopped on his son.
“I think Banjo’s dead.”
“Fuck,” said the father, closing his eyes again, tight this time, and shaking his head. With clamped eyelids he rubbed his forehead either in deep thought or migraine prevention. “Goddammit. Where is he?”
“Same spot as before.”
The father took the flashlight from the boy and they walked out together, the old man still barefoot, trudging through stickers and anthills. “Stupid fucking dog,” the father muttered as he walked, “God fucking damn it.” At the same spot the father dropped to his knees and half stuck his head under the trailer. “Banjo! Banjo! Goddammit!” he yelled, reaching, with no luck. The pup failed to respond and the father gave up on stretching and climbed without hesitation under the trailer, dragging his flabby belly across the desert floor, hopefully-evacuated cobwebs bunching in his graying hair. He finally reached a hind foot and drug the limp pup out without delicacy. Its eyes were dead wide; dry blood flecked its mouth; flies were already buzzing. The boy, stomach aching, failed in holding back his tears, but wiped them away long before his father could see. The old man brushed the webs from his hair with a dirty hand while staring down at the pup. For a moment he looked almost livid, and the son feared his father might start beating the lifeless creature. “You stupid fucking idiot,” the father said, his head falling in a sigh. “You dumb son of a bitch.” The boy turned away, tracing the outline of the nearby mesa against the moon-bright sky. “You dumb fucking son of a bitch,” the father whispered, “she’s gonna flip when she finds out. Goddamn you.”
After a silence, the old man stood.
“Well,” he said, “guess I’d better get him buried before she gets back.” He disappeared with the flashlight around the building and clanking was heard. He returned with a splintered shovel and handed it to the boy, then crouched again and tenderly lifted the pup, its limp head nestling against his arm. Then he walked away into the desert dark.
The boy trailed with flashlight and shovel, trying to illuminate a cactus-free path and keep up with the old man, who walked fast, looking away down the moonlit road. The boy remembered walking this road on dark winter mornings to his bus stop, afraid and cold, while his father slept, drunk and warm. The old man stopped muttering obscenities and trailed his eyes along the ground. He stopped walking and began to brush aside twigs and bugs with his foot. Setting the pup nearby he took the shovel and began to dig, stomping hard on the flat end to break up the dry Sonoran earth.
“Isn’t that deep enough?” asked the boy.
“I don’t want the coyotes to get him,” replied the father politely, pronouncing the word ky-oats.
When the hole was finished the father placed the dog inside and, after wiping his hands on the back of his pants, stared down at the animal for some time. The dogs eyes were still open, which bothered the boy, but before he said anything the man began loading the dirt on in rapid shovels. Blood from the pup’s mouth ran down the father’s arm, but he didn’t seem to notice. “God damn you,” he started again, picking up nearby rocks and covering the grave, “you god damned fucking idiot.”
They walked back to the trailer without speaking, the father in the rear, looking over his shoulder as if the coyotes were already moving in. Back indoors the boy washed his hands, wondering what was next and knowing it wasn’t movie talk.
“Don’t say a damn thing to her when she gets back.”
“Okay,” said the boy. He stood near a shelf of movies and tried to read their titles but couldn’t stop watching his father, who stood alone in the kitchen looking more exhausted than before, even though his bloodshot eyes were wide and responsive. His hands were clasped tight, his mind visibly racing while his breath came deep and slow, almost calm. The boy remembered that the pup was a gift for his stepmother, who he’d forgotten completely in the last ten minutes. He wondered what his father would say to her. How would she react? Would she throw herself on the ground? Drive away crying? Hit his father again? It was enough that the pup had died, but that she’d been the one who killed it was too much. Maybe he’d better leave now and avoid the upcoming scene. It would take long hours to console the woman, and he’d be stuck here till she calmed or fell asleep. His father would have to hold her all night, and talk to her, even though he looked so tired it seemed impossible. It occurred to the boy then that this wasn’t even an issue: his father would do it, and would not complain. No, not complain—he would not mind. The boy knew he couldn’t do it, but the old man, his father, could.
“You might wanna head out before she gets back,” said his father.
“Yeah, I think so.”
The old man walked away into his bedroom, the boy’s stepbrother came out of his own room, wearing pajamas.
“Are you leaving?” asked the stepbrother, whom the son had forgotten was there.
The boy’s father returned, handing him several large bills, which he’d also forgotten about.
“Is Banjo okay?”
“Yeah,” briefly smiled the father. “It’s bed time.”
“Will you tuck me in?”
“Yeah, give me a minute.”
The stepson hummed down the hall. His bedroom light flicked out.
“Thanks,” said the boy.
“Yeah, you’re welcome,” the father said absently.
“Well I’d better get going.”
“Yeah. Alright. Goodnight,” said the old man, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezing.
The son returned the squeeze, said “Goodnight, Dad,” and left the house and climbed into his truck and drove carefully away down the dark unpaved road.
Before he reached the highway headlights came toward him. He slowed and pulled right. The approaching vehicle stopped next to him, his stepmother’s face smiling.
“You leaving already?”
“Yeah, I have to wake up early.”
“Sorry I took so long.”
“Did your daddy fall asleep on you?”
“No he’s still awake.”
“Damn him, he knows he’s gotta wake up at four. Well, you take this beer then,” she said, extending a six pack from the seat beside her.
“You don’t want it?”
“No, your daddy might try and drink it.”
The boy sat the beer next to his leg.
“You better come see us again soon. You hardly ever visit.”
“Okay then. Goodnight, honey.”
The stepmother drove away, home, to her trailer and her young son and her dead puppy and her tired graying husband. The son sat for a moment, his truck idling, thinking he might cry. The desert air smelled sweet and fresh and not like the air of the city. He didn’t cry, though. He opened a beer and drove away.