A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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For Cristina Dorado Hughes
After three nights at the Broadway Motel out on the highway ($12.95 a night, color TV), seven nights in a forty-dollar-a-week First Street flophouse with free running roaches and dying winos, and two rumpled and freezing nights listening to the rain clatter against the roof of my car, I took to the streets of Eureka, California, on foot in search of an apartment and a job. I had just quit the drinking-and-drugging life cold and was starting over, one more time. I had in my possession a world globe, a sleeping bag, a box of clothes, a battered and thumb-worn 1969 American Heritage Dictionary, a brand-new copy of Writer’s Market, an IBM Selectric typewriter, and the unfinished manuscript of my second novel, which I knew would be scooped up by a publisher the minute I finished it, unlike the first.
Since the bottoms had dropped out of the fishing and lumber industries in the early eighties, the only people who came to Eureka were oil and acrylic painters from LA, slender and wasted young homosexual men who had migrated north from San Francisco to die quietly and inexpensively of AIDS; a few woolly, misanthropic forestry students who attended Humboldt State University in Arcata six miles north; and a handful of fog-dwellers like me, who, whether they had a dream about art or painted by numbers in the sewing room at twilight, had chosen to live here because it was cheap.
It rains a great deal in Eureka. (This is a rain forest, after all.) The coastal redwoods create their own drizzly, prehistoric microclimate, sipping the fog from the sea as if it were a root-beer float. The sun rarely shows. The pulp mill out on Samoa Peninsula chugs out its fetid orange efflux twenty-four hours a day. Eureka seemed to have more than its share of blighted neighborhoods. In my campaign for a room, I hit some striking Third World pockets, with lawns like Mesozoic tar pits and toothless drifters asking me for money and mud-splattered porches crowded with soggy naugahyde couches and busted Sears barbecues. At one house, a squat gothic relic that hadn’t been painted since 1910, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of nine answered the door at high noon in a bathrobe. I showed her the newspaper ad. “Do I have the right address?” I said.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Come in. Sorry I’m not dressed.” She didn’t seem sorry not to be dressed. The house smelled of hay and soiled diapers and World War I breakfast grease. The children gathered around, droopy-drawered and drippy-nosed, imploring me with their eyes to become their father.
The mother of nine, a blue-eyed baby on her shoulder, showed me the rental room on the first floor: a bedroom with three chests of drawers and a bed into which a circus elephant had been dropped from the rafters. The curtains hung twisted in the stale air like nicotine-stained ghosts. The ceiling launched itself high into the lumber-tycoon darkness.
“Is there a kitchen?” I asked.
“It’s through there.”
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“How many bathrooms are there?”
“For how many people?”
“Twelve — but it’s never a problem,” she added hastily. The toilet flushed, as if to underscore her remark. “Do you want to see the kitchen?”
The children all stared up at me expectantly, their eyes beseeching me to park my carriage, roll up my sleeves, and roast them a big goose with sloe fruit and farkleberries and saskatoons.
“I’m going to have a look at a few more places,” I said.
After a week of such forays, growing weary of living in my car, I finally stumbled upon an orange-and-green gingerbread Victorian, shiny-shingled, one spindle turret leaning in the mist: Apt For Rent read the sign in the curved bay window. I walked up the steps and through the door into the vestibule to knock on the door of Number I, which had the letters MGR scrawled in felt pen under the broken buzzer. A pregnant woman in her twenties answered. She seemed surprised to see me.
“Can I help you?” she said.
“Is the apartment still available?”
“Is it for you?” she said.
An angry-looking little man glared at me from the couch.
“Yes, it’s for me.”
“Then yes,” she said, continuing to stare at me. A Heart record played in the background. “You know who you look like?” she said.
The angry little man, whose name turned out to be Del, sprang from the couch and swaggered across the room, his muscular arms bowed so wide you could have shot arrows from his sides. “I’ll show him the apartment,” he said.
The apartment was ancient, unfurnished, high-ceilinged, and cold, with a huge bay window that looked out onto the street. I liked the big kitchen. I also enjoyed the absence of vermin and no fruity smell of death. The promise of my own bathroom, even if the lion-footed bathtub was barely large enough to drown a moth in, excited me.
“You can park around the side here,” said Del, showing me through the kitchen door onto a porch above a muddy yard. “Be careful of that dog,” he said, pointing to a Siberian husky chained to the house. It sat calmly in the grass, staring at us through icy blue eyes. “He’s a killer.”
“What’s his name?”
“He’s a good-looking dog,” I said.
“Meaner than a snake,” Del said.
“Who’s he belong to?”
Del jabbed a thumb into his sternum. “Me.”
After I’d paid Del the dog lover $185 for a month’s rent in advance and a $125 deposit, he told me about the junkies on welfare who lived upstairs. “I’d kick ’em out if this was my place,” he said. “But her old man owns it.” He gave a jerk of the head that I took to indicate his pregnant wife. “They give you any trouble, you let me know.”
I now had thirty-eight dollars to my name, and I had to save five dollars for gas. I went to the store and bought groceries. I didn’t have enough to buy cheese. But I was sober now, and a nonsmoker, so I could live on very little. I worked for a while on my novel, a scathing social critique that veered off inexplicably into science fiction. Everything I wrote in those days veered off inexplicably into science fiction.
Later that afternoon, I sat out on my kitchen porch for a while in the mist, and the dog and I stared at each other. Two children played nearby with a ball, which got away from them and rolled into the killer’s territory. He eyed it, uninterested: the classic killer pose. The children stared at it, too, arms hanging dejectedly at their sides. There were four more such balls molding in his domain, like gold coins in the lair of a slobbering troll. The kids turned their gaze to me.
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I’m new here. I don’t even know where the hospital is.”
The only source of heat in the building was a senile dwarf in the basement who rubbed two files together whenever the wind blew down from Nome, Alaska. Though it was spring, the weather was freezing. Eureka is never a warm place, having maybe two days in the summer with temperatures above seventy-five. I slept on the floor in my sleeping bag and periodically awoke with a start when something crashed or tumbled across my ceiling. The junkies upstairs lived on Peter Pan time. Long, oceanic lulls in the clamor were followed by squabbling, followed by the sound of spoons clattering across the floor, followed by the stereo blasting (no matter what time of night it was), followed by another long lull, then a sudden roaring burst of the theme song from I Dream of Jeannie. Occasionally, I heard a child howl or cry as if struck. Visitors clomped up and down the stairs at all hours, staying just long enough to say hello or exchange some small item, perhaps a baseball card or a slice of homemade German chocolate cake.
I looked for a job, but there simply were none in Eureka. Finally I broke down and answered an ad that had been running in the newspaper since I’d arrived. It was for a cook in Arcata, the little hippie college town six miles north. The four owners of this restaurant had all been mistreated as cooks and waitresses in another restaurant, so they’d pooled their money to open a restaurant of their own, complete with an unmanageably large menu. They tried hard to be hip and agreeable, but I could see that the fourteen-hour days, ignorant help, thieving waitresses, wily and overcharging purveyors, 242 items that had to be prepped fresh daily, number-ten cans of tomatoes mysteriously exploding in the pantry, and cooks who didn’t show up were wearing them down. Soon they would have to make certain concessions to competitive business reality and become more like the owners of the restaurant they had left behind — either that or flee into the hills and live in tepees.
They seemed happy to see me, probably because I wasn’t fresh out of jail. (How many responsible, competent, experienced cooks come walking in the door ready to work for minimum wage?) I told them I could cook only part time because I was working on my novel, which I was convinced would be a commercial success the second I finished it. “Cool,” said the kitchen manager, a nonviolent macrobiotic eater who dressed like a medieval peasant. He gripped my hand in a firm Grateful Dead handshake. “You start tomorrow.”
In my second week of living in the green-and-orange gingerbread Victorian, a pot of pinto beans simmering aromatically on the stove, I heard a kid bang through the vestibule door and shout on his way up the stairs: “Are you cooking something, Mom?” A moment later, he was back downstairs, knocking on my door.
I opened it to find a small, thin, wide-eyed boy with big pink ears sticking out from the bald sidewalls of his punk-rock haircut. He wore grass-stained orange bell-bottoms, an oversized blue polo shirt, and black mud-encrusted Goodwill oxfords. He looked to be about eight years old and had a cast on his arm with a happy face painted on it. “Are you the new neighbors?” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
“The people who lived here before got kicked out.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah.” He arched his eyebrows at me. “They didn’t pay no rent.”
“I usually pay my rent.”
“What’s your name?” he demanded.
I told him.
“I’m Henry,” he said in a tuneful little voice, extending his good hand. “I live upstairs.”
I shook his hand, which was soft and small as a mouse. “How’d you break your arm?” I asked him.
“Fell off my bike.”
“How long you have to wear the cast?”
“Eight more weeks.”
“Oh, yeah. I scratch down there with a hanger sometimes. Do you cook?”
“Yes, I do.”
“It smells good. What is it?”
“Beans,” I said. I considered inviting him in, then thought better of it.
“Where’d you learn how to cook?” Henry asked.
“Just picked it up along the way.”
“My mom don’t cook,” he said dolefully.
“What about your dad?”
“My dad’s dead.”
“Who’s that up there with your mom?”
“That’s her boyfriend, Terrance.” He pronounced the name with a snarl.
I nodded, feeling vaguely depressed. Henry pressed his lips together. “I gotta go,” he said, whirling and banging back out the vestibule door.
The next night, when the stereo blasted at three in the morning, I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. A long-nosed corpse in a porkpie hat answered. He squinted as if trying to place me.
“Can you please turn your stereo down? It’s three in the morning.”
“You a cop?”
“No. I live downstairs.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Sure thing, man.” And he closed the door.
Every night when I came home from the restaurant, I’d park in the muddy grass alongside the house, and the Vicious Killer Dog would look at me fiercely. He was so fierce, he didn’t even bark. I began to bring him scraps from the restaurant. After the checks started coming in, I bought him canned dog food. His masters visited him once a week for as long as it took to fill a plastic pan with dried dog chow that would sit against the wall under the eaves and soak up the rain. I gave Czar a can of food every morning, chucking his cornmeal sludge off into the bushes. I was careful to maintain a chain’s-length distance. He watched me with the cold, murderous calm of a predator waiting for a chance to pounce. One sunny morning, without thinking, I reached out to pet him. My hand remained attached to my arm. He thumped his tail all around. I patted his head and scratched between his ears. He closed his eyes as I rubbed, pushing his head up into my hand and wagging his tail some more. I felt like a fool. He was about as mean as I was.
Terrance, the needle-nosed junkie in the porkpie hat, seemed to think I was funny. Ever since I had walked upstairs to ask him to turn his stereo down, he had gone out of his way to turn it up. He grinned at me, yellow-toothed, in the foyer, flicking his head in a smart-aleck street challenge and greeting me as “partner” and “bro.” One rainy afternoon, he banged through the vestibule door while I was typing and, over the objections of his girlfriend (“Be quiet, Terry, can’t you hear he’s typing?”), shouted at my door: “I don’t give a damn! I’ll punch him in the face!”
There are times, especially with people who have no understanding of society other than what they learned getting their diapers changed, that you must show that you are not only unafraid of, but eager to engage in, violence. Terrance was not physically imposing. He couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds soaking wet with a syringe in his arm. I don’t think he ate more than seven or eight Twinkies a day. I thought I could probably pick him up and plant him in the yard. But I didn’t move from the table. I told myself that no benefit would ever come from punishing the dead.
But it was as if Fate had thrown two bugs into a jar and would not take the lid off until they were locked in mortal combat. That very night, an orange circle appeared on my ceiling and began to spread like the rings of Saturn. Soon a smelly spout of rusty water sprang from its center. I set a pan under the leak and ran up the stairs. I heard clucking and spoon-clattering inside. “Open up!” I cried, pounding on the door. “Something is leaking into my living room.”
The door opened a crack, and Terrance poked his skinny nose through. His eyes were purplish and heavy, like grapes at half-mast. “Oh, it’s you,” he sneered drowsily. “What do you want?”
“My ceiling is leaking.”
“So it’s coming from up here.”
He squinted at me sulkily. I saw by the way the muscles in his pale forearm tensed that he was about to close the door in my face.
“It’s coming from up here,” I repeated.
Terrance regarded me with his sagging, plantlike eyes. I was about to wedge my foot in the door when Del the dog lover, arms bowed, came charging past me, almost knocking both me and Terrance down.
“What the fuck is going on up here, Terry?” he shouted. “You jamming up the pipes again?”
Terrance gave a languid, resigned blink. His toothless, glassy-eyed girlfriend sat like a freshly killed rabbit on the sagging brown couch, licking her cracked lips. The place was hot as a gerbil cage and swimming with the miserable smell of neglect. The floor was strewn with junk-food wrappers, crusty boots, and paper plates with nacho cheese and ketchup stains. An electric heater buzzed in the corner, its bright orange coils singeing the last few atoms of oxygen out of the air.
“You live here free, man,” said Del, “and we all put up with your shit, but that don’t mean you get to trash the place. I warned you about flushing needles down the toilet.”
“I hate your guts,” replied Terrance dreamily.
“You talk to me like that again,” said Del, as he moved toward the bathroom, “and I’ll knock your junkie ass out the window.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” he said, staring at me with a gentle loathing; then he broke into a tranquil yellow smile that seemed to float by itself all alone in the room.
I must’ve rewritten my first novel 135 times before I finally slam-dunked it into the trash. It doesn’t matter how many times you rewrite something if it isn’t any good. But I still believed an article I had read in Writer’s Market that said rewriting was the key to success. I also believed many other silly things that I had read or that people with no experience or qualification had told me, including my long-held view of the world that required writers to be sots and libertines who shunned opportunity and died young, falling drunk from yachts or getting into car accidents on the way home from funerals in El Centro.
So I was rewriting one afternoon, hammering away on my IBM Selectric in that misguided, isolated, and painfully sober period of my life that I can only describe as “The Diligent Typing Era,” when I heard screaming out back. The dog has finally savaged a child, I thought, and I bolted out the kitchen door to salvage what I could. Czar was on his back, tangled up in his chain, legs drawn in, yelping as if someone were hitting him with a stick. A crowd of children, including Henry, had gathered, but no one would get close. The pregnant manager came bustling around the corner and crouched to touch Czar, who lunged at her with long, vicious snaps. When I came down the porch stairs and knelt at the dog’s side, the gallery behind me fell into a stunned silence. I ran my fingers through his coat, pressed on his stomach. I couldn’t figure out what might be wrong with him. Pretty soon, though, he got to his feet and shook himself off, panting and limping in a little circle.
The pregnant manager stared at me incredulously.
“Maybe he got stung by a bee,” suggested Henry.
The manager continued to gawk at me. “He let you touch him,” she said.
“He probably got stung by a bee,” I said.
She shook her head at me and went back inside. The children faded away, too, all except for Henry. He and I stayed with the dog.
“Pet him if you want,” I said. “He’d like that.”
“No,” Henry said.
“Nothing to be afraid of. Look, just a dog.” I petted Czar to show him. The dog wagged his tail. “See?”
Henry wasn’t quite up for petting him, though. The way Czar had lunged at his keeper didn’t help matters much. I figured if Henry himself had been tied by the neck to a wall and ignored for most of his life, with nothing to do but sit in the mud and nothing to look forward to but a pan of soggy corn stink once a week, he might’ve understood.
Then again, I thought, how much better was Henry’s life than Czar’s? He was not a healthy child. I asked him what he had for breakfast.
“A Pop-Tart,” he said.
“But they feed you at school?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Got your cast off, I see.”
“How’s it feel?”
He flexed his fingers. “Good,” he said.
“That’s good. You hungry?”
“Hold on a sec.” I went back inside and heated him a bowl of beef stew. I made sure to feed him outside, to keep the neighbors from talking.
Henry went after the stew the way Czar did the canned food I brought him, finishing it in about eight seconds flat. “That was good,” he said, licking the spoon. “What was it?”
“Beef stew. You want another bowl?”
“No,” he said. “Could I have the recipe?”
I wrote it down for him, feeling a little sick as I imagined him turning it over to his mother, who cooked only one thing, in a spoon.
After work one autumn night, I drove up alongside the crumbling gingerbread mansion and turned off the headlights. Czar danced happily on his hind legs at the end of his chain. I was happy to see him, too. I gave him a couple of bones from the restaurant, but watching him chew contentedly on them gave me none of the usual satisfaction. He was a healthy young dog, and the fact that he could move no more than six feet in any direction had been gnawing at me for a long time. I had never once seen him off that chain.
I stood up, took firm hold of his collar, and unhooked the chain. He nearly yanked me to the ground. I dragged him to the car while he strained against me, all muscle, choking to get free. Inside the car, he jumped around frantically, bounding from the front to the back to the front again. After a minute, he settled into the passenger seat and gave me a look of giddy disbelief. I backed out and headed for the beach. On the way, Czar shoved his head out the open window, prancing on the seat, snorting and rearing and smelling the air.
Clam Beach was twenty miles north. I parked in the empty lot. It was midnight. Not a soul out. No lights for miles. A heavy canopy of clouds shut out the moon and stars. Czar was in a near frenzy to get free. I opened the car door, and he shot out into the darkness and was gone.
I assumed for a minute that he would return. Surely he was smart enough to understand the risk I had taken, the trust I had invested in him. We had this bond. I had bought him canned food. We had been through a great deal together.
I strolled along the horseshoe-shaped beach, feigning calm. The tide was out. I could hear but not see the surge of frigid, rugged surf in the distance. The sand was cold and heavy under my feet and gave up the faint scent of rust and smoke and sleep. A thin black shell of sea fizzed up the hard pack to touch the tips of my shoes. I looked left, then right. No trace of the dog. I called his name, then listened, hearing only the endless hiss of the waves running in.
A sense of doom began to seep into my bowels. I walked for half an hour, first north, then south again. I paced the road above the parking lot, yelling Czar’s name. I began to consider what I would tell his lousy masters. I owed them a new dog. (Of course, had I set up a cardboard cutout of Czar, they might never have known the difference.) I called out his name. The waves flattened themselves with a whoosh onto the sand.
Maybe it was for the best, I decided at last. I was willing to pay for Czar’s freedom — but freedom for how long? I wondered. And how “free” is a domestic animal without a master or a home, a Siberian husky on the rainy beaches of northern California? I called his name again, then started the long march of defeat back to the car.
When I opened my car door, Czar appeared out of nowhere, grazing the backs of my legs and leaping nonchalantly to his place in the passenger seat, giving me a foxy, glittery-eyed look that read something like: What are you waiting for, bub? Let’s hit the road.
I should’ve stolen him then, should’ve hit the road. I could easily have moved to Crescent City or some other place just as cheap and dreary as Eureka. I had always wanted a dog. Czar and I would’ve made a great team. Nothing but a six-foot chain and an empty law would’ve been broken. Instead I mumbled to myself a bromide about the categorical obligation of humans to certain moral standards and drove him back to the green-and-orange Victorian and put him on the end of his chain. He was wet and sandy and smelled smoky and free. I pretended that I had done something noble.
© Marjorie Nichols
I was sitting in my car across the street from the house, waiting for the rain to let up one dark and drab Thursday afternoon, when Terrance the junkie strolled outside, swinging his arms. He lit up a cigarette, then turned and reached into my mailbox and groped around like a cat with its paw in the goldfish bowl. I started to get out of the car. Then I saw Henry coming down the street, returning home from school. He wore a cheap blue plastic jacket with a grease stain on the sleeve and held his weak arm up in front of him, as if he were checking the time. His punk haircut was plastered and dripping. He swiped his foot through a puddle. When he saw Terrance up on the porch, he slowed. Terrance tossed his cigarette into the grass and gestured for the boy to come out of the rain. Henry climbed the wooden stairs. Terrance leaned down, clasped the back of Henry’s neck, and spoke into his ear. Then he pointed his finger at the boy and struck him in the face with the back of his hand. Henry opened the foyer door and tore up the stairs.
That evening, Henry knocked on my side door. He stood, bedraggled and dripping, out on the stoop. I had never let him inside before. There was already tension about my feeding him. I had not yet realized that, by trying to help him, I was only making things worse.
“Come in, Henry,” I said. “What have you been doing, walking around in the rain?”
A dirty puddle began to form at his feet. “Let me get you a towel. What happened there?” I said, pointing to his swollen eye.
He gave a little shrug. “Got hit by a ball at school.”
“Oh. You OK?”
“You want a Coke?”
I got him a Coke. He slung the towel around his shoulders like a boxer and toured my apartment. There wasn’t much to look at: piles of discarded typing paper, my sleeping-bag nest in the corner, a Goodwill dining table with an electric typewriter on it. He spun the globe and said: “What do you do down here, anyway?”
“Eat, sleep, that sort of thing.”
“I mean all that typing. You’re always typing.”
“I’m writing a book.”
He sat down on my only chair and took a swig of cola. He squinted and touched his swollen eye. “What’s it about?”
“It’s a social critique.”
He stared at me.
“With violent clowns in it,” I added.
“Oh,” he said.
I was about to expound on my rosy literary future — as a matter of fact, I’d been waiting for a reply from a big-time New York agent, whose name I had gotten out of the back of Writer’s Market — when I heard the upstairs door squeak open. Henry’s mother called blearily down the stairs.
The boy and I shared a moment of apprehensive silence. “You’d better get going,” I said at last. “Your mom doesn’t like you down here.”
“My mom don’t care,” he said.
I went to bed early that night, pulled the sleeping bag up over my head, and listened to the wind from Nome, Alaska, carving its way through the crags and niches of the icebergs floating out on Humboldt Bay. About 2 A.M., the junkies woke me up with a clatter of spoons. I heard the toilet flush. I heard Henry’s voice, and then Henry crying. I put on a jacket and a hat and paced the room. I stared at the violent clowns on the sheet of paper in the typewriter. Then I went out to visit Czar, who was asleep in the soft rain. When he heard the porch boards squeak, he looked up and thumped his tail.
After I had saved up enough money, I began looking for apartments downtown. I wanted to be closer to the store and the library and the post office, and also to get out from under the junkies. I was thinking about selling my car. There were plenty of apartments downtown, but most of them were too expensive. One day, I answered an ad at an apartment building on H Street. The woman who ran the place was a wacky fascist with a telescope in her living-room window. (She claimed to work for the police.) She said there would be a studio opening up on the first: two hundred a month. I thought a complex run by a female Hermann Goering would at least be quiet, so I gave her a holding fee and headed back home.
Turning the corner, I came upon Terrance fishing around in my mailbox again. I was certain he had stolen the positive reply from the big-time New York agent. He grinned when he saw me. He had a piece of mail in his hand.
“Is that mine?” I said.
“No, it’s mine.”
“I thought I saw you with your hand in my mailbox.”
“No, man, you didn’t see right. You oughta get your glasses fixed.”
“Could I look at that piece of mail?”
“I just want to look at it.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “It’s mine.”
I tried to hit him in the face. He ducked, and we locked arms. “You piece of shit,” I growled at him. “You’ve been stealing my mail.”
“I’ll kill you,” he answered in a hoarse and depraved whisper that smelled like an old man smoking cigars in an outhouse. We grappled and grunted and stumbled around on the old porch boards.
My record in street fights, almost all of them dating back to childhood, is 4 wins, 118 losses, and 33 run-like-hells. But Terrance was no fighter either. He tried to kick me in the crotch with his muddy boot, and I caught his heel and gave him a shove that sent him cartwheeling with a rough oath over the rail and into the muck of dead irises below.
Terrance floundered in the soup of a flower bed, a bitter and indignant smirk playing over his lips. Finally he pushed off with an elbow and climbed shakily to his feet, half dipped in mud. He gave me a grim and nauseated grin, dropped my piece of mail on the ground, retrieved his porkpie hat, and slouched away around the corner.
I walked down the stairs and picked up my mail: a Kentucky Fried Chicken coupon book addressed to “Occupant.”
A month later, I was living downtown in a second-floor studio in Ms. Goering’s Security Apartment Building and Police Auxiliary. It was no less noisy and no better a place to type, but it had a row of beautiful arched windows that took up an entire wall and offered a splendid view of the Samoa pulp mill and its ocean-sky backdrop, like a piece of angel-food cake drenched in orange juice. Ms. Goering hired me to paint apartments and serve eviction notices: one month’s free rent for each apartment painted, fifteen bucks for an eviction notice successfully served. I sold my car and quit my job at the restaurant. I began another novel, which started off well but then kangarooed into the vast billabong of science fiction. The rain splattered across the high, arched windows. I watched the haggard, moribund young men in their red plaid shirts shambling desolately down the sidewalks.
Every week or so, I would walk across town to visit my old friend Czar. I usually went at night, so as not to be seen. He was always happy to see me, dancing on his hind legs at the end of his chain. I would toss his foul-smelling corn sludge off into the bushes and fill his bowl with something good to eat. Then one night, he was gone, too. It was the end of fall, getting cold, and I came around the corner to find only the chain lying in the grass. The hook that had held him was still intact. Someone had let him off. I kicked one of the molding plastic balls into the street and walked the mile and a half back home.
Every now and then it’s kind of hard to tell, but, yes, I’m still alive. I don’t even know how to canoe. Bless everyone for their concern, cards, letters, flowers, and M&M’s.
I am more gullible than most, so I must write to ask if Poe Ballantine is actually dead. I have always enjoyed his work, and was particularly moved by his essay in the June issue, “Where the Rain Belongs.” His contributor’s note in that issue says he drowned while crossing the Atlantic in a canoe. Please let me know whether this is true. As I said, I am extremely gullible — or, actually, I hope I am extremely gullible.