books

« February 8, 2013

'Better This Way'

By Benjamin Reed
Illustration by Jason Stout

When you appear in my dreams, we're always inside some small room. Once it was a little cedar cabin. We sat at a table. Through the window I could see that it was black outside and snowing. We had a good talk. Then I thought of something I wanted you to see. "Come on, Mike. Let's go." But you said you couldn't go. You could never leave any of the small rooms.

***

After you died I inherited Hooch, your one-hundred-and-ten-pound mastiff-shepherd, the hulking dog with a beautiful widow's peak of black fur diving between his sad, brown eyes. He was already living with me a week before you committed suicide. I had come back by your house – I still had my key, remember? – to borrow your Sawzall. I'd accidentally locked the bar's keys in the storage shed and needed to cut away the big, fuck-off padlock. I drove to your house and just after I discovered you'd pawned all your power tools – as well as the torque wrench and floor jack I'd left behind in the move – I let myself out into the backyard to find Hooch panting in the summer heat. His plastic bowl held only a tepid skin of water buoying little floes of his saliva. When I tried to fill his bowl, I discovered the water had been shut off. Again. I grabbed your monkey wrench and walked to the curb and lifted the lid from the meter but saw that the city had installed its own fuck-off padlock on the valve. I helped Hooch climb into the cab of my truck and drove us to my new house.

***

A week later I woke on the living room couch, my cell phone vibrating across the coffee table. Jacob, a bartender at the place I managed, told me you'd hanged yourself in your closet with an extension cord. Your friend James had crashed at your place the night before. He was the one who had found you. "Don't go over there," Jacob said. There were cops all over the place. I thought, Why would I be afraid of cops? Later, a little after midnight, your house was empty when I let myself in. My girlfriend Caroline had driven us there because I was hammered and worn out from crying. We sat on your bed and flipped through the album of wedding photographs you'd left lying open on your pillow. I got up and looked in the closet. Caroline said "Don't." All your coats and pearl-snap shirts had been shoved to one side. The extension cord was gone. Later, when I could talk about it, I'd say what happened next was the most morbid thing I'd ever done. As if we're all granted that one thing, that inexplicable moment of ghoulishness. I sat in the spot where your body must have been found. I rested my palms on the floor on either side of my body and under one hand I felt something hard through the heavy pile of white carpet. It was your wedding ring.

***

God, look at your tattoos. Forty, fifty of them, hardly two alike. No symmetry of style, no theme at all, unless you consider the general lack of quality, black ink becoming green where once-clean lines had burst and bled into capillary bifurcation. What a soup of mistakes. Look at my own tattoos. I'm halfway there.

***

But sweet Jesus, Mike – did you have charm. Dirty charm. Six-foot-three and skinny as a pipe cleaner, walking into my bar on a Wednesday night, wearing a Motörhead T-shirt and faded black denim shorts, wallet chain and holey Chucks. (The gray Dickies jacket? That was mine, on permanent loan.) You'd have maybe six bucks in your pocket, but you knew that was just for tips; you'd be able to drink until two. My night off, I'd be sitting at the bar with my back to the door and I'd hear you before I saw you. "Hey, Buttsex! Where'ya smokes?" You'd nudge me and smile, and I'd open my pack of Luckies. Help yourself. "Thanks, Chief."

***

Your ex-wife Annie came back from Vegas in time for the impromptu wake I held at my new house. With twenty people watching she broke down sobbing when she saw your dog in my backyard. "I want Hooch," she said. "He's all I have of him." She knelt and held your dog and he wagged his tail, deliriously happy.

***

When I told you I was moving out, I said it was because I wanted to live with an old roommate again. "Greg. You know Greg." He was my best friend, I said, the cat I'd lived with in college. Like you, Greg had just felt his marriage crumble through his fingers. I said I wanted to help him out, but the truth was you scared the shit out of me, Mike. You hadn't had a full-time job since you put me on the lease, you smoked five-dollar crack rocks like they were Camel Lights, downed tall boys like Cherry Coke. You were thirteen years older than me and I could hear the promise, like a distant siren, of one day waking up as you. All I had to do was nothing.

***

Austin was your town. You had a thousand friends in orbit, every one of us caroming off a breakup, a job termination, or ninety days in Del Valle. I moved in with you because your landlord wouldn't run a credit check. We spent that summer piling Hooch into the bed of my pickup and driving to swimming holes, drinking warmed Coors Heavies on stony banks, watching your dog slosh through green water. At night you'd wake from a nap ten minutes before the liquor store closed and steal my truck to buy a bottle of plastic vodka, returning to leave my old Ford parked with one tire on the curb and just enough gas to get halfway down the street.

***

The wake lasted several days. We made a shrine. On my piano we placed two white candles and that framed photograph from years ago, of you wearing one of Annie's bikinis, her Chihuahua in the crook of one elbow, a Keystone Light and a cigarette in your other hand. We played music you liked: Reverend Horton Heat, The Pogues, Flame­trick Subs. There were people in the house at all hours. I'd wake up to make coffee and there'd be four people weeping on my couch. Greg, my new/old housemate, was okay with all of it. He liked you, even loved you. One morning while I made toast he asked me, "Have you cried yet?" "I've cried," I said.

***

The first time I saw you in a dream, it was just days after you died. We were in a cinderblock room painted light green. No windows, no doors. A bank of fluorescent lights flickered above us. At first I didn't realize it was a dream and I was ecstatic that you were alive, that there had just been a misunderstanding. You asked me if I had a smoke. I reached reflexively to my breast pocket, but it was empty. "I'm sorry," I said. But you just shrugged. The light fixture in the ceiling began to fill with the bodies of moths.

***

Fat girls you disliked were "cows," fat girls you liked were "tootsie rolls." You preferred sodomy to sex. Called girls' buttholes "balloon knots." Even though you talked about assholes relentlessly, really you had a thing for feet. James liked to watch girls urinate. The two of you discussed this at length and at my bar one night the two of you came up with the idea for a trans-fetish porn site called PeeFeet.com. A site where barefoot girls peed. Or peed on their own feet, I don't remember. Compared to most of the schemes you dreamed up, I thought it sounded promising.

***

Our last conversation was over the phone:

"Dude, thank you so much for taking my dog."

"Don't mention it. He can stay here until you get the water turned back on."

"Really? Thanks, man. Even if it's a couple weeks?"

"Mike, seriously. I can keep Hooch as long as you need."

"Thanks, man. You're the best."

"Mike. Seriously. Don't worry about it."

***

I never tell anyone about the dreams where we talk, about the small rooms you cannot leave, but one day out of the blue Jacob tells me he started having dreams about you, how in his dreams you and he are always on carnival rides. Roller coasters. Tea cups. The Tilt-a-Whirl. I imagine these dreams smell like popcorn and taste like cotton candy.

***

Your funeral was in your hometown, three states away. I didn't go. Neither did Annie. I told people I couldn't afford it. Annie said she couldn't face your old friends; they were just going to blame her for everything.

***

Annie left Austin for six days and came back driving a U-Haul truck crammed with her things, things she moved out of your house only a year and a half ago, a few months before I moved in. I witnessed her return in disbelief, wondering why she'd left in the first place. The next thing I knew, Annie and Jacob had hooked up. Their affair was secret, then quiet, then known. And then she dumped him.

***

I was sad to lose Hooch, but relieved that he was no longer my responsibility. I gave your dog a bath and the next day Annie came for him. Two weeks later she called to ask if I could watch Hooch while she went camping with her new fiancé. I said Sure, no problem. She dropped off Hooch at ten the next morning. I had to work that happy hour because Jacob had called in sick, but right after I opened he stormed into the bar, red-faced and drunk. He paused, then picked up a venetian candle and flung it through a window. The hole punched through the glass was surprisingly circular.

***

Weeks went by, then months. No word from Annie. I told Hooch, "You're not going anywhere, pal." He wagged his tail and nestled into my leg, leaving a snail trail of saliva on my jeans.

***

Caroline's lease expired. She moved in. Greg met a girl and moved out. Caroline and I got married by the Justice of the Peace on Halloween day. When I came back from my honeymoon Jacob mentioned, off-hand, that he saw you in a dream again. He'd talked to you on a ferris wheel. I asked, "Was it snowing?"

***

Years pass. A lump the size of a racquetball appears on Hooch's shoulder. We have it removed.

***

Miraculous accident: Caroline's belly is swollen. Henry if he's a boy, Mathilda if she's a girl. "What if it's twins?" Caroline asks. "Then I'm jumping off a bridge," I say, and laugh.

***

The lump on Hooch's shoulder returns. More tumors appear in his throat. Yet another cancer grows in his cheek, twisting the tissue until the moist flesh of his jowls hangs like a fatty cut of blackened brisket.

***

Your dog spends his final night sleepless and wheezing. In the morning I have to carry him to the front door. I rest him on a patch of clover and he trembles like a newborn calf. He cringes and I'm shocked that the sudden torrents of piss and shit are visually indistinguishable. After coffee I lay an old bed sheet across the back seat of Caroline's Honda and drive Hooch to the vet in Hyde Park, where we wait in the shade of the parking lot for the normal people to leave with their birds in cages and cats in brown boxes. Hooch tries to walk away, once, as if sensing the inevitable. When the lobby is empty I lead your dog inside, and the old, bearded vet offers to help me lift him onto the steel table but I say That's okay. He's gotten so light, so easy to lift. The vet holds Hooch's paw and slips the first needle into his skin, a chartreuse-colored shot to numb and pacify. Hooch's eyes sink deep into his head. His breathing, which had been labored for days, now becomes quiet. Life is painless again. The vet asks me if I'm ready for the second shot. I nod, unable to speak, and look at Hooch. I haven't stopped stroking the hair on his head. The second syringe is a primrose load of irreversibility, speckled with bubbles, like pink champagne. The vet slides the needle into the same paw, and plunges. A moment later Hooch's eyes widen in surprise, then soften and dim. After a few heavy breaths your dog's face twitches once with the last of his electricity, and I look into his fading eyes and I know that you are gone forever.

***

The week before, when it became clear that his time was short, I took Hooch for his last long walk. We wandered down to the baseball field by my house, where I unclipped his lead. It was night, early spring, the trilling cicadas still a shade of their August intensity. Hooch sniffed and trotted. I'd hoped, for reasons I couldn't fully explain, that he would live long enough to meet my son, but by then I knew this was not to be. They were going to just miss each other.

The towering lights staked along the foul lines had been left on for no apparent reason, flushing the empty outfield with a harsh radiance and obscuring everything beyond, as if the universe was this field, these green bleachers, and then infinite, glaring space. Each halogen lamp writhed with a corona of fluttering insects, and if you waited patiently, you could hear the twisting squeak of a bat snatching a moth from the air. I wanted to be indulgent and unhurried, to be merciful, to let Hooch have whatever kind of walk he wanted. But when he paused, still and uncertain, I prodded. When he lingered, staring, I called to him, slapping the side of my leg.

I followed Hooch to the edge of the field, where the ground fell off into a creek kept in shadow by overgrown hackberries and wild ligustrum. The black water pushed plastic bags around shipwrecked shopping carts. Hooch paused where the shorn grass met a sheaf of dead winter rye, listening for something in the wild tangle of weeds just beyond the reach of the groundskeeper's blade. Suddenly spry, he leapt after a milk white cat that sprung from the grass and loped into darkness. I lunged and grasped Hooch's collar. I held him as he strained away from me, and led him back toward the field. Hooch tensed in the direction of the cat, struggling to turn around, but I told him No, no, let's keep moving forward. I told him it's always better to keep moving forward.

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