The dog, God, limps through the garbage and rusting cars and piles of wet lumber outside the sinking green shack set off the highway on the road out of town-out of towns-out of every town. Between small towns-towns that press the heart down in the chest-towns in long torn valleys exiled from the sun ten months of the year and bearded with mosses and sorrow-sure knowledge of a fate long fixed in failure-a religion of loss-absence of something that never was.
The dog, God, creeps along the creek bank past broken refrigerators half-submerged in the cold green water past piles of cans labels rotted off in the wet air from one shack to another. In the perpetual half-light stopping now and again he licks a sore and buries his muzzle in the matted fur beneath a leg to stifle a whimper-of pain of cold or hunger. The weather of incessant want of food warmth affection of usefulness has dulled his eyes robbed his coat of its gleam his muscles of their fullness his body of all but the most minimal necessary heat. The moss of suffering has grown through him.
The dog, God, roots in the cans of garbage beside the collapsing back stairs of a cracked and tilting hutch of a shack-a pistol- whipped shack of disappointment and pain-of resignation without peace slanted toward death-a shack of no consolation. He rises up on his back paws and pulls a can over with a ringing bang half- absorbed in the spongy forest behind fringing the opposite bank of the creek. A human voice disfigured by bitterness lurches bluntly through the blue hiss of the television. The back screen door is pulled open and the feverish light of stifled lives rushes over the stairs minting two green coins from the dog, God,’s eyes. A fat man in a sleeveless plaid in loose suspendered jeans with a shredded hem explodes in noise. The dog, God, wheels to lope painfully away-still hungry. The Man throws a can half-full of beer clipping the dog, God, inside the left ear opening one more small mouth of suffering and awkwardly shifting the pistol into his good hand squeezes out six acrid bursts of light into the palpable dark around him. As the dog, God, slips into the dark growth of the far bank the hysterical arabesques of women’s voices rise up and twine through the deep rasping arches of the spent and shaking anger-wracked curses of the Man who looking over the garbage and tipped cans curses again turns back inside tosses the door shut with a rushing bump.
The dog, God, quivers in the underbrush of a hillock behind the screen of trees on the opposite bank of the cold green creek that cuts the shack off from the woods and forces it back to look ironically at the narrow rural highway that cannot lead its tenants anywhere anymore beside perhaps the Tree Topper Tavern five miles up left on Three Rock Loop where the Man when work’s available goes after other times goes instead seeking searching pursuing some vague shade of-ah-something that he used to see in good light with flesh and bones in the old days-that only leads the Woman in her old car into some approximation of a town that mocks with its restaurant and post office with its accidentally self- mockingly-named beauty salon mocking with its phone lines and grocery store same chain as clean well-kept people go to in large pleasant cities in sunny states-that will lead-this highway-the Little Girl to her school waiting every morning in her soiled and torn little parka-coat too small at 6:15 in the morning waiting in the rain and singing in a small scratchy soprano a children’s song punctuated with little coughs insistent little cough a song about rabbits-rabbits that stayed alive that didn’t die of cold or broken on the stove or let loose for lack of feed. In the years stretching out to the road she dances watching it like a man who can’t swim’s cut off from all but the river picking skunk cabbage leaves only the TV and the Man and the Woman for the World being as she is so young. The creek forces the shack to look out to the narrow rural highway cutting through what passes for a valley in these hills that cannot do it any good like a traveler who dies of thirst in sight of water or at the rimed strand of a clean cool pool whose water’s poison.
The dog, God, wanders through the unchanging seasons. At dusk in the gravel of the roadside at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere east in the half-light a semi’s lights illuminate his lusterless coat the color of winter-bitten grasses the honk of air-brakes and the stuttering down-shift chase him into the juniper. Behind a coffee shop at dawn on a road through coastal hills in the smell of rotting grease he struggles out of a cardboard box where what must pass as sleep is broken up and blown away by the wheezing crunch of tires on gravel. The cafe’s first tired customer pulls his loaded El Camino into the unpaved lot on his way from nowhere to nowhere else. The creaking pop of a damaged door the insufficient huff of displaced air as he throws it shut with a chunk. At midnight he slinks over the edge of an irrigation ditch to try in the trimmed lawn of a development to reach the square of concrete where a food dish sits its contents half-eaten only as the first mists of rain descend onto the bare patches of his back to be spotted by the well-groomed healthy dogs and chased in a fugue of rising howls a belling din of bored spoiled dogs off through the bordering scrub to the wet greenway.
Beneath the wooden pier next to a moorage for motorboats on the edge of a lake walled in by great houses and fishing lodges that thrust bars of orange light into the water’s surface beating its skin into copper the dog, God, eats at the pile of offal torn from the day’s catch coughing at the small sharp bones within when a boat careens out of the darkness in the chopping slur of an outboard into the halogen dock light and He runs from the drunken laughter of a time hacked savagely out of the sterile and glacial flow of life and burned on a pyre of desperately trumped-up joy of a time accentuated and intensified not paused from not changed. He dodges the hail of breaking bottles that follows him up the concrete path past motor homes lights blinking on in an echo of curses.
The dog, God, limps through the unkind unchanging Seasons to turn a circle out at the spongy hillock behind the screen of trees beneath the faulty canopy of rain running through fronds across the creek from that cracked tilted hutch of a shack housing barely the Man the Woman and the Little Girl-cans buried in garbage sacks beside the back stairs.
The same tired light pours down the stairs as the door is pulled open. The screen door popping from its swollen frame swings outwards on bad hinges. The small figure of the girl some Spring still in her resilient joints humming and clapping her hands bounces down the back steps. The webbed and veiled bracket of the yard light fixed to the house at the right of the stairs blinks on smoldering and buzzing with bugs and husks of bugs. For a moment the woman’s drawn strained face framed by dusty greasy ropes of hair softens to tears almost but stops as suddenly as a door slammed shut as sharply finally as a kitchen knife got drawn across a finger. The feverish light of the house pours its cut flow into the darkness at the huffed bang of the door the Woman covers herself with. The screen door creaks. What passes for a back yard-dirt plot reaching to the creek-lies in the stale light of the yard light the dishwash of the bathroom’s smeared light mingling briefly.
The Girl hums and claps softly to herself weaving at the margins as though weaving a bright thread into the border of a dull dark ugly cloth that makes it live and prized-lovely after washing. The Girl picks up an alder twig and squats down at the creek’s edge and scrawls and scribes with her auburn wand scrolls and spells of light scoring and carving the water’s wood sent out from her wand’s green budded point meanders on the refractive skin of the responsive water-lines-curls-flashes of light. She follows the light’s curved echo to three small rocks half-buried in the opposite bank that wraps and climbs and rushes up into the dark air in the smell of earth and fem. The pale wash of movement catches up her eyes and half-immersed in fern and nettle two green coins ring out in the dark. The Girl gasps and drops her wand carried off on the skirling bier of the creek turning slowly. The dog, God crouching in the wet fern and burning oil of the nettles snuffs quivers lets a sweet high bark whose breath uncurls in brief repeated painful puffs in the once elastic ribs in the cold air-whose tail mottled and befouled lifts heavily once in an echo of joy. Ah-the Girl says-doggie! Navigating the swift little watercourse on the glassy rocks that stud the water’s surface teetering arms out-little ailerons of balance-on small foot forward into the confusing swirl steps-steps again- slips-catches chirping-other foot-again-slips again-again slipping to-finally as tragedy-pitch sideways off soft hip banging down on the round rock. The Girl’s purling chirps pour out-liquefy to a cry of fear compounding pain. In the icy churl of the shallow water her dress sticking wet to her skin like scum on a slow pond and the parka water-logged cry after cry out through the room of trees past the blizzard of televisions and the locusts of imagined fortune. The cries like a whistle send the dog. God in half circles confused and frightened up the far bank hesitates half-aware of some need-some curtained need so long without its form it’s foreign-curtained by time until and then some sudden startling reawakening bolt of liquid amber in the dog. God’s brain all sickness leeched out hale bounding down the slope a full half minute before the Man in his blue cave hears-awakening fear and anger mixed like a bubble formed on the seabed taking time to expand and rising and burst on the surface like a sleeper rising through the dark to the alarm clock bounding down the slope a blundering slosh and the dog. God seizes the Girl’s soft hood in his strong hard teeth and pulls her up and over the slippery rocks and into the mud of the near bank as the back screen bursts open the Man suddenly sober. Strong fear like hot breath in the lungs snapping full the white sail of all his long and anxious passions-terrible love-fear of loss and anger-
The Woman behind paralyzed in the doorway-the Man launching in great strides from the steps fixing the dog. God mistaken mark for the Girl’s cries with a needle of rage skipping kicks lifting the dog. God off the ground away from the Girl up bruising ribs and plucks her off the ground like an apple caught on the fly and presses her to his chest shouldering the door aside like his best high school drive.
Daddy Daddy no doggie help me doggie help me!
On the couch.
Candy turn that fucking thing off. Let’s get her out of these-You’re gonna scare us to death.
Honey you alright?
God damn dog rabid son-
Daddy! Please doggie help.
OK hold on honey.
The Woman stripping off the soaking clothes and rubbing her with a big pink blanket.
Listen you want some hot chocolate? Candy make some cocoa for the girl will you?
She’s fine damn it don’t cry she’ll be fine really alright?
But thinking in his mute angry way love love love saying-
Damn it goddamn women trouble every-
(Daddy loves you sweetie.)
Daddy the doggie helped-where’s the-
Helped you what do you mean he helped you that mutt was biting you.
No daddy he’s a good doggie.
What’s she sayin’?
That dog she says it helped her.
Wasn’t that dog that dog was attacking her.
No! Doggie helped.
OK OK honey OK he helped you.
OK! Where’s that chocolate?
Coming. You want your-
Yeah I want it hell yes I want it.
Outside the dog, God, limps off along the creek a pain in his side to compound other pain and the pain dulling to cessation forever in the damp unceasing deepening dark.
Damn thing looked last legs to me. Do you think-? I don’t know do you? Hood’s torn. She alright?
She just got bruised is all hip coupla scratches little red I put iodine on it.
She’ll be fine. Goddamn kid.
Don’t you say that.
Don’t you start with me.
I’m not startin’ anything. Here’s her cocoa.
You take it to her.
Where you goin’?
Never mind I’ll be right back.
The screen pushed slowly aside with only faint protest this time and the Man spies the dog, God, at the far end of the clearing before the creek disappears into the whorl of brush and fir tree and vine barely moving half asleep in the thick green portal stumbles righting barely on giving legs and tumbling into himself the blond patch on the night of the Man’s eyes-awakening an unknown originless concern. He goes beyond common sense to the dog. God trembling on his side in sudden inspiration ignoring the potential for a storm of teeth lifting Him up like a child his child heart pounding and sudden anxiousness bounds to the steps pulling the screen out quick with his foot.
Sonofabitch the sonofabitch isn’t here by too thick a cord that’s for damn sure.
Hot damp and dry towels! Damn! And that condensed milk.
What are you doing! Don’t bring that thing-
No (in the kitchen pushing napkin holder and sugar bowl to the ground) open the damn thing open it shit.
What? For that-?
Don’t mouth me just you goddamn do it. Yeah. Here damn animal drink drink goddamn you sonofabitch drink this…
Faint flutter of thick crusted hairy eyelid at the prying of the weak jaws apart pours small cough a sputter eyes drinking labored heart cage drinking.
Damn! That’s it you drink you sonofabitch. Come on drink or you ain’t gonna have to worry about any damn…Here in here.
But the child-
By the fire rubbing with the damp warm towel in the dry air of the firelight.
I’m opening the damper it’s getting smoky.
Kyle why didn’t…?
Get me that Indian blanket. Did you put the iodine back?
Rubbing the gum and issue sweat mud and blood.
Daddy daddy the doggie!
The doggie yeah sweet. Go to sleep OK I’m taking care of it. Here you drink some more too come on. Thanks.
Wrapping the near carcass in the blue and red wool.
I’ll stoke it up. It’s time for bed.
He’ll be here in the morning now it’s time get here to bed would you?
Carries her to bed and kiss and pause by the light switch and the barn light glowing behind the curtains. Thinking of a beer.
Shuts the light off over the never-used reading chair and embarrassed moment realizing-Hell-kicking himself-Yes the damn dog is breathing so what? Sound of cans in the kitchen. Slight headache.
Go to bed I’ll take that stuff away I’ll clean it up go up I’ll join you in bed.
Yellow greasy light of the kitchen by the old refrigerator unwashed egg on dishes gold cans empty half empty of beer green bottles all empty of white wine. Sigh and packing garbage into old grocery bags stacking plates lonely feeling at far-off headlights brushing through the distant spruce on the highway. Works an hour packing garbage out and-What the fuck for?-moves to open another beer does so and drinks watching the silent now highway over the fields knife-gouge the rind of a moon yellow too over the highway hill pours some of the beer into the drain in the yellow-enameled sink yellow yellow yellow pretty color. Washes his mouth out with the cold brackish water from the tap and spits.
Turns off the light in the kitchen the warm red and brown of the firelit living room the fitful-
Hell he’ll be we’ll be lucky he’s not dead by morning. Better get up early don’t want Annie-even Lori-hell Lori’s seen-better get up early anyway just cause.
And no reason stops squats like he used to over platte maps at a site strokes the dog. God almost unconsciously-
Golden fur-used to be gold I bet pretty color yellow-gold-gold yellow-
Through the blue-green aquarium of the master bedroom with its ragged blanket cheap veneer dresser with the mirror unused desk by the dirty window smell of the bath room. The Man turns on the baseboard shuts the bathroom door opens a window to the cold damp night air. Slight stirring of the Woman a mumble more silence turns up the electric blanket. Blue green like an aquarium like the aquarium in Seattle they went to one disastrous Spring-
Ah. Nothing. Damn. Dog.
Sits on the edge of the bed with his work shirt on his lap fishing out his pack. Pulls out a cigarette and tosses the pack to the chair with the grace of habit. Cigarette held absently between the lips digs in his tight front pocket for a book of matches. Bright crack smudge of smoke a deeper blue in the blue green light. Smokes in his undershirt in the blue-green light the timbre of deep woods an hour before the dark-foot in hand rubbing the weight of the day out. Takes it out of his mouth watches the smoke curl up around his wrist-cheap metal watch.
Turns to watch the Woman sleep. Drags again. Exhales. Minutes go by in the pure blue silence of smoking and when it gets short burns like it always does his tobacco-stained knuckle buts it out-sound of scraping sand-in the old coffee tin he keeps on the window sill. Listens to his daughter’s sleepy mumbling down the hall silky sound of his wife sleeping at his side and the short sharp breaths of the dog. God downstairs and thinking-
Tonight tonight. Who’d a thought? Quiet tonight. Gonna snow tomorrow maybe.
The filtered light of cloudy morning filled the living room the glow of coals illuminating the dog.
God and the Girl.
Don’t that dog’s not safe.
We don’t know that now leave him be get breakfast let him rest.
And picks her up and swings her into the yellow kitchen with its steaming cakes steam from the earthy coffee glasses of cold milk.
The Man touches the Woman’s arm.
What’s with you?
I don’t know.
The Man opening the refrigerator breaching its rubbery vacuum and warms the bottle with his hands
Used to do that-
Goes into the other room to crouch at the fire feeding a few sticks into the coals. Shy thump and path of fresh flame.
You surprise me. Gotta give it to you. Good thing kinda shit I’d hafta put up with if you didn’t you don’t wanna know. Look. Milk come on you took some last night milk have some milk.
Pushing with his hand and seeing the slow head up the flutter and greedy clasp of the bottle’s nipple. Babe. Sweetheart he’s drink-damn-that’s it. He’s drinking the whole damn-thing whole bottle-good guy.
Pats on the head a few more sticks and shaking his head the Man stands.
Lori help me get the car started I’ll take her to-I’m taking-I’m gonna you know enroll her you know preschool whatever.
But how? I-
I just will and then I’ll get groceries.
I mean groceries I’ll get groceries I’ll enroll her-
Where you gonna get-
I just will it’s still early I can make it if you help and I’m gonna go by-by services you know and then the unemployment and by Griff’s-Paul said they need clean up.
Clean up? You said you’d never-
I said a lot of shit just help OK?
Old green Impala’s fitful ratcheting whinny and wheeze and metal bang of small explosions fifteen minutes to the smoky carburetor roar and off. The Man to stand in line for food stamps. Begging to pay the school in pieces hangs his head in a thought of beer ducking into the Tree just a-Second couldn’t shot gun in the grandad’s old beautiful fucking thing in the trunk hurt for just-slow crunch of gravel.
And pull out again with a squeal thinking-What’d I ever fucking have kids for-
Daddy doggie gonna be all right?
Yeah. Yeah mommy’s watching him.
Sunk heart watching the rain rush over the hill-ridges to converge like troops rushing down to finish off an enemy who can’t advance can’t retreat-We’re that enemy. Being cut off.
You know it’s a little late for registration you should have come a month ago you know we mail to everyone.
Yes yes well we’re here now we can pay half and half at the beginning of the month.
And disapproval and looks like-
White trash if the state didn’t say we had to-
Gets the girl in and awkward kiss after leaving to stand in chains of lines for government charity all while beers cold in some cooler in his mind greasy with neon and charitable women with millpond husbands broken in the back and groin.
At least I got that.
One beer after humiliation in the hum of dusty central heating and whispers of-(Looks like the trash is washing out of the hills again) WHAT’S-Your-Name-I-can’t-READ-this! And a sandwich and over to beg Eddie to sweep the floors and unnatural elation with the-
Damn I don’t even damn care I don’t even damn care but I am glad.
And picking up the Girl.
I met Melinda she’s Indian she’s my new friend-do you know Indians Daddy?
I’m sorry I ever hit you sweetie.
Some eyes welling all turn quick to look in the rear view.
Nothing tell me about here here’s a pop tell me about your friend.
And the drive home through rain as always rain curling from ridge-tops smoking off the needles of the thick trees spray from car wheels the occasional blinding cloud of truck wheels a blue-green drive with the sugary melody of small voice like that bright hem-thread through sack-cloth and the long milky driveway through the grey field leaning split rail.
I should fix that damn thing.
Chunk of car doors and the man on the back stoop the Woman holding the door.
Hurry in here you’re wet Annie give me your coat go in by the fire.
Question in the Woman’s eyes taking the Man’s bags of groceries.
Faint smile and-
The Man looking around in the bright yellow kitchen the blue-green square over the sink.Did the dishes.
Looking in the dark Christmas of the living room like an arrow through the lungs the Girl stroking the pale fir of the dog. God.
Looking out the back door.
Nah wait we’re gonna have a damn dog we better fence the chickens in.
It’s wet it’s raining.
Got an hour of light I better use it.
And out into the dimming rain broad back strong arms boots up to the laces in mud the Woman in the doorway strange root-feathers stirring in the picture of rain.
And evening come the Girl and the Man and The Woman-the dog. God in the dry crack of the billowy fire.
Time to feed the dog. Again tomorrow a little solid food huh? What do you say?
And the Man and Woman feeding the dog. God from the bottle each others eyes like children shy touching like afterwards.
This place is a damn mess. Well not the kitchen.
Frig is leaking.
Bustle of brooms and-
Damn nothing’s gonna get this place-
What are you reading sweetie?
The Girl small in the easy chair under the big light like a flower in its dusty red silk shade the Woman’s grandmother gave her (-You like to read don’t you sweets well take Gramma’s lamp best in Oregon for reading my mother had it sent Sears Roebuck from back east in the teens.)
I’m looking at a book on dogs I gotta tell about different dogs for the whole class.
You’re gonna be needing a desk school gets on.
Kyle we can’t afford-
I got plywood in the shed won’t be nothing to look at winter coming hell its here-Build it you gonna build it?
Sure build it I used to be good woodworking you know anyhow that stuff’s gonna warp outta all recognition-better do something with it-cover it with that cloth with all the flowers on it stick a little lamp above it got ’em at K-Mart only seven dollars hell-even we can afford that. There in the corner. Study right here.
The dog. God stretches with great effort licking its paws yawns in the fire light.
Damn you see that? That dog’s gonna be-well looks better. I better empty this box damn thing better get better enough to go outside pretty damn soon. Patience got limits hell.
Days go by and weeks and the dog. God growing strong enough through tender ministrations to follow the Man around the Man enough to rebuild fences pile garbage and burn stack boards chop wood gravel the drive the Woman-
Owner of the store said he’d hire me as checker but you said before-
Take it. Money coming in. You know-
And soon the property sharp and trim a new shop shed a bridge over the creek. A pink sticker on the newly shiny chrome of the Impala-
My child is student of the month at-
And old strengths and tenderness stirring like dry bulbs dormant in the hard winter wood.
Where you been?
Asked one evening the Man home later than usual after scraping the concrete sweeping shavings at the mill.
You back at the Tree again?
Been at the Tree sure but not for drink woulda like to but only time enough to pass-these around.
And handing to the Woman a small white rectangle of card with blue lettering.
The Girl holding out her hand a-Let me see-runs her fingers across.
What about the mill that’s steady.
They asked me did I want to move up.
And you told them-
I told ’em hell sure I’ll keep the janitor work for now if they don’t mind and if this don’t take off I’ll take it they said this is the time and I said well then no for now and they said maybe never be another chance and I said that’s the way it is sometimes and they said-
But that would be more money.
I sure I do want more for the sake of you two but I will have more anyways and here’s how right here these cards and under my own power that’s the thing nobody takin’ anything away from us now we’re gonna make our own destiny just like we gotta break finally and I ain’t gonna screw it up this time-got the trailer with the Impala for now get that old truck up just the alternator sure I did good enough around here am I right? Sure.
Everyone remarked it already got two jobs just outta the bar and the comptroller at work’s got a big fence job. Look.
Holding out a yellow paper-
And work comes in the Man building fences straightening posts cleaning creeks and tacking shutters up and gutters hauling refuse building porches up and mouth to mouth-work coming in. Work. Work coming in. Good feeling hell.
And the dog. God lopes around the pasture snuffs the dirt at the property line marking trees and dashing through the creek pushing against the girl to keep her off the slippery rock trotting about her down mornings to the shelter the Man built to keep her dry in rain in her new coat pink with vinyl animals in blue riding with the Man from job to diet cola cans rolling back and forth in the truck bed wind feeding eager senses rebuilt engine traded for irrigation pipe laying at the dairy and magnetic sign on the door-Repair and Maintain-and the Woman at home fixing her hair for her shift at the grocery and the Day passes without Blood and-
Oh my God-
Are you mad?
The Man’s face changing.
Mad hell no hell no!
Blessed and blessed and the dog. God loping through the changing Seasons changed unchanging Christmas built around a cut blue spruce in the living room corner the talk-damn they sure turned things around who’d a thought it-and the dog. God sleeping in the smell of evergreen-two cords of wood laid in under green plastic-the Man drinking coffee by the radio the Girl writing at her little desk distinct prayer of the alphabet in large simple perfections to a nod of satisfaction and the Woman growing winter rose making shirts or doing books for the store and payroll. And the Season deepening in some small satisfaction warmth and forever something breakable and sheltering maintained and guarding grown somehow forever-
In the long torn valleys behind wretched coffee shops on coastal highways in mountain passes at interchanges the dog, God, roots in the cans in the bone heat of the smell of rancid grease from the vent by the back stairs with the sound of the cafe’s first customer limping off into the manzanita and sand into the grey dawn past broken refrigerators and trailer houses bleeding in barbed wire past wine bottles into the long dim year of the soul’s exile into the long exile of the human heart…