Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Short Fiction/Final Part
Ted bought me a sketchbook at Murphy’s five and ten cents store on Light Street, but who knows why? I turned thirteen in October, so maybe that was it. Maybe not. Anyway, I loved it, ’cause it made me feel like a real artist. In the front I drew things I wasn’t good enough yet to draw—like that big cannon on top of Federal Hill Park that points dead center at the city—and in the back of the sketchbook I wrote stuff I didn’t understand. I’d go back and back to those mystery items, trying to dope them out. There was a bunch of crap in there that Ronnie told me Alice said about me. He said his momma called me “One sick snake,” so I wrote it down. And she claimed I had too many opinions—that I could find fault with a sunset—and I was lazy and sat on my laurels, whatever they are. He also said Alice said she made allowances for me, but I never saw a penny of it. I wrote it all down. One time Alice hollered right to my own face that I needed to learn a lesson, that one day I’d be taught a hard lesson and she’d do the teaching of it and she couldn’t wait to see the day—all that and she never took a breath. None of it made zero sense, so I wrote it down to study on later.
Most times I followed art rules when I drew in the sketchbook, but when I didn’t it was because I rushed too fast to see how the picture would turn out. Once, during recess at school, I did a naked woman for Tiny for five cents. Naked pictures were dangerous to draw on school property, but a nickel was a nickel. For some unknown reason that fat doofus Tiny liked his women skinny, and skinny is hard to draw. Fat people have big rolls of flesh—clouds of meat—so it’s easy to get a pencil line around that, but with skinny folks you’re desperate for something to make a decent shape out of. The fingers on my woman looked like spiders. Hands are hard, period, but skinny ones, well, you can just forget it. I had to erase one of her hands five times and do it over and it still came out dumb.
That night Ronnie said I was a lousy drawer again, but that wasn’t why I ambushed him from behind his bedroom door and twisted his arm up his back and shoved him face-first into the wall—SMACK! The sound was beautiful, like in a gangster movie. I did it again—SMACK! Ronnie didn’t try to escape but let me keep him pinned, almost like he liked it. Again I did it, even harder, SMACK! Ronnie went limp, zero resistance. It was perfect but no good, ’cause he gave up too easy. “You know what’s up, Ronnie. Admit it.” Not a word from him. “Say it!” He kept on quiet. I slammed him again—SMACK! Ronnie started to whimper. I yelled, “Say it! Say it! SAY it!” He started to cry. I cried some too. See, Ronnie knew what was up with his folks but he wouldn’t admit it. Ted was on the way out the door—maybe for good—and Ronnie could stop him. Maybe. At least maybe. Anyway, it was worth a try. It was worth that much. I leaned into Ronnie harder, maximum body pressure, shoved his arm up to just before the bone broke. “Damn you, Ronnie!” Not a word from him. Nothing. Nothing.
That next day Ted used a pitchfork to make the back yard dirt loose. Me and Ronnie shoveled it off to one side, careful to keep it away from Alice’s flower bed, away from her tulips that would come up again next spring. Meanwhile, Ted’s old dog was laid up in the shade by the tree trunk looking peaceful, like he was asleep. Ted forked over the last clump of dirt. “She’ll never know,” he said, meaning Alice.
Ronnie did his usual suck-up. “Never, Daddy. Momma will never know. Never, never, NEVER!”
Ted smiled. “We’ll tell your momma some of it, but not all of it, but what we do tell we’ll tell at an angle.” He picked the dog’s body up by its ears and held it over the hole. “Feel him, Andy,” he said.
At first I didn’t want to, but then I did, so I touched it. The dog’s belly was cold and just a little soft, like a school eraser.
Ted swung the body over so Ronnie could feel it, too. “Nice,” Ronnie said, and grinned real big.
“Ice cube cold,” Ted said. “See where old age gets you?”
I said to Ted, kind of sharp, “You plan to tell Alice he died, though, right?”
“Sure I will, but she don’t have to know where we planted him.”
“She don’t like you to fool her,” I said. “Might chase you off.”
Ted laughed. “Ain’t likely, Andy. No sir. Right now I plan to still be around here when the next dog dies, and the next one after that. Why, I already got me the replacement for this guy on order.” He dropped the dog in the grave hole. Ted pointed at me and Ronnie, then at the shovels. That was our signal to go to work. “This ol’ boy don’t ever plan to not have him a dog,” Ted said. “Yes sir. And, somehow, I plan to keep me a woman close at hand as well.”
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Click the image for a larger view. To purchase reprint rights for this comic strip, buy a framed print, or have it reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, aprons, etc., visit the CartoonStock website by clicking the sidebar link. If you would like to own the original of any of my selection of more than 500 cartoons, contact me for information about price and availability. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Short Fiction/Part Four
Ted used heavy string to tie a little hangman’s noose around the rotten chicken neck, then he dropped the bait off the pier into the harbor. “Crabs are so dumb,” he said. “Once ol’ Mr. Crustacean grabs onto his smelly treat he forgets how to let loose, and that’s his undoing.” In no time flat a crab took the bait and Ted pulled it to the surface slow, hand over hand. I scooped it up in the net Alice made for us out of cheesecloth and an old broomstick. When I dropped the crab in the basket, Ted said, “Big one. That’ll eat good.” Alice did her crabs in a huge pot with water and beer and secret spices. The trick of cooking crabs, Ted claimed, was to let the liquid come to a boil and drop them in fast and slap the lid on. They never knew what hit them, he said. They went in blue and lively and came out red and dead—steamed to death.
Daddy had promised to take me crabbing but never showed up. Didn’t call, nothing, so Ted volunteered. Me and him and Ronnie went to Wagner’s Point. We got up at five and left the house at six. Alice was invited, but she said no. She claimed anyone who got up that early and didn’t have to was a damn fool. Ted picked a pretty spot on a falling-down pier by a refinery, close enough to smell the oil. We watched the dark outline of the city across the harbor get lighter in the warming air. The sky was clear except for a smear of orange smoke from Sparrows Point steel mill. A blue heron flew over with a fish all a-squirm in its beak. Ted knew it was a heron by the general shape, the long crooked neck, and how its legs hung out behind in the air. Judging the direction, Ted figured the bird was headed to the marsh grass in behind Fort McHenry. We crabbed and crabbed and the sun got hotter and hotter. Pretty soon me and Ronnie got bored and went to explore the rubble of an old pier shack. We climbed inside—at least it was shady cool in there—and scrambled over piles of boards and tar paper and other trash. At first I didn’t feel the plank piece stuck to my foot, and then I did. It hugged the the bottom of my sneaker like an extra sole, held there with a rusty ten-penny nail in my foot. After five minutes it got to hurt pretty bad but I didn’t cry. Ted left the wood where it was until we got back to the house, then he yanked it off and cleaned the nail hole with peroxide, like when he used to be a medic in the Army. Ted put a bandage on to stop the blood and took me to the hospital for a tetanus shot, cussing Daddy all the way there and back.
That evening Ted hollered at the radio in the living room, “Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” From where I was in the hall I could hear him but I couldn’t see him. He hated it if our team made a mistake. When our shortstop missed an easy grounder, Ted yelled, “JERK!” Meanwhile, I was watching Alice framed in the kitchen doorway, her back to me, how she took a bottle from behind the cleaning stuff under the sink and poured some in a glass and gulped it. Ted kept on at the radio, but I turned him off. The silent movie of Alice in the warm light from the bare kitchen bulb kept me mesmerized, how she emptied the glass and poured and poured. She gulped a last one, then rinsed and set the glass in the sink. Then Alice leaned on the counter top with both hands, shoulders pushed up so her neck disappeared. That caught my attention. I was focused on the round shape of her shoulders, the sad way they shook.
Most nights after supper Alice would sit with Ted on the sofa. Other times she wouldn’t, but when she didn’t he made it a point to sit with her. Ted would go at her all in a good mood and cuddle her. Other times she went at him, but when Alice went at Ted it could be a good mood or bad mood, either one. He never knew what to expect. There were days when Alice started at Ted in a bad mood but it ended with her happy and laughing a little, at least for awhile. But soon enough Ted would get tired of how hard it was most times to even get her to smile. Alice, though, once she got going, she kept at him. When it was her at him like that, after a while he would move her off him, off to one side—but gentle—and he would go on about his business. So even if they were at it only a minute ago—she at him or him at her—they were not anymore because he had decided not to play anymore. Ted would just go off somewhere and Alice was left to think about what next—dinner, maybe, or bedtime—something else altogether.
The next day Ted took me and Ronnie for a walk at Fort McHenry and I could tell it was because Alice had been at him that morning in a bad way and drove him crazy. But Ronnie didn’t let on like there was anything wrong between his parents. Anyway, who knows for sure what Ronnie ever thought? When it came to his folks, Ronnie’s mouth mostly stayed zipped. That time Alice was on Ted’s case because of the back yard, the mess his old dog made back there. When she went at Ted like that it usually rubbed off on Ronnie, too, so he had to know that something was up between them. The yard was Alice’s pride. Ted kept his old animal chained to a dog house back there that looked like a seaside cottage in some movie. The dog walked the ground smooth as far as the chain would let him, back and forth, just short of Alice’s flower bed. Alice claimed Ted never picked up the dog turds. The big problem, though, was when the dog dug a trench under the shade tree and flopped in it to stay cool. When he was in it, with his chin on the edge, all you saw was his wet nose, his brown eyes that followed you back and forth, and long ears twitching off flies. It was early fall, still real warm out, and Ted hadn’t filled in the trench like he promised Alice.
Meanwhile, at Fort McHenry, people were clumped together on the big lawn that went from the cannon walls down to the seawall. One family had a humongous picnic spread out on a tablecloth. Some teenage boys played football catch. A fat guy napped on the grass with a bath towel over his eyes. There were five kites high in the breeze over the harbor. The barn swallows that worked the grass were long gone, but some neighborhood chimney swifts still swooped low for what bugs there were left. Before long, Ted claimed, the bugs would disappear and the swifts would fly off to South America. In the harbor tugboats moved huge steamers into the main channel, or helped them dock at piers across the way. Sailboats went by. We walked the path that ran next to the seawall and Ronnie held tight to Ted’s hand, used his other hand to grip his daddy’s forearm like he was afraid he’d lose him. Ronnie was acting real pussy for a guy almost thirteen. Ted put up with Ronnie’s arm lock but when he had something to say he said it to me. He pointed at the sidewalk. “Duck shit looks like cat shit, Andy—small perfect turds in a pile. And gull shit, that whitish-greenish splatter? That looks like it could be from a fat man who just cleared his throat and spit.”
Ronnie didn’t laugh at that but I did. Most likely, Ronnie didn’t even know it was supposed to be funny. Alice hated when Ted used such words, but what he said about the different kinds of shit was true. I never would have thought of gull poop that way—how it looked and all—if he hadn’t said it. It got on toward sunset and me and Ted sat on the seawall to watch the light change and change while Ronnie went off to intimidate ducks. In no time flat the light on the pier buildings went from red-purple to the best gold I ever saw. I guess it reminded Ted of something, because that’s when he told me a pretty lie. “Andy,” he said, “this time of day if you climb up to our roof real quick—really, really fast—you get to see the sun set twice.”
The fifth and final part of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.
Short Fiction/Part Three
We listened to “Sky King” together on the big floor model radio in the living room, almost like a real family. Afterwards, Ronnie whined at Ted about when he planned to buy a television. He kept on and kept on. Pretty soon Alice and Ted got sick of him and sent us both to bed. No fair. To say goodnight, Alice kissed Ronnie on his cheek and patted me on the shoulder. No fair again, but I didn’t care. She made us swear we’d do our homework until lights out at ten o’clock. Before we were even out of the room Alice made Ted put his paper off to one side, so they could talk. That was a bad news for him. Up in Ronnie’s room I could tell he was in a mood, too, because the first thing out of his mouth was, “Know who’s a better artist than you, Andy?” When I didn’t say anything, he answered himself. “Betsy the chimpanzee.”
I stayed quiet and took my shoes and socks off. Ronnie already had his off and was spreading and un-spreading his toes for exercise. We always did our homework barefoot. Ronnie said, “Just because you’re the best favorite in Miss Laura’s art class, that don’t make you—”
“Well,” Ronnie said, “anyway, that monkey is twice as better than you. Three times as better.” I could care less what Ronnie thought since I knew he didn’t know anything about art. Anyway, Betsy couldn’t draw, she just smeared finger paints around to make a mess. Ate more paint than she painted with. “Betsy’s the real genius,” Ronnie said.
“You read that in the News Post—same as me.” I could tell something else was on Ronnie’s brain. When he got bothered by whatever, Ronnie liked to fight me and he had to win, to show who was the boss. It was pitiful.
“Betsy had her pictures printed in Life magazine,” Ronnie said. “And where was yours?”
I came back at him with a low blow: “Yeah, and how come your daddy don’t come home from work most nights anymore—huh, Ronnie?” Give back better than you get, that’s my motto. Why not? “Ain’t seen Ted at the dinner table with food in his mouth for days.”
Ronnie gave out a puny, “Don’t care,” then he cried some. He used first one sleeve and then the other to wipe off tears and snot, then he shut down and stayed quiet for a long time.
After awhile I said, “Look, Ronnie, I didn’t mean to say that, what I said.” He kept on real quiet and pretty soon I caught on that he was staring at my bare feet. That was so creepy I quick pulled them up under me. “You shithead, Ronnie!”
“Your feet are so little,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to say that. “I’ve got ’em memorized.”
“You know, Ronnie, you’re really one dumb fucker.”
“In case you come up hurt or dead, see?” Ronnie did a laughing snort. “Say one foot gets cut off and mixed in with a bunch of other feet, in a war, say—or a train crash? You’re laid up in the hospital delirious from pain. They go to sew your foot on and there’s a whole pile to choose from, but you’re in no condition to say which one? I’d know the one to point to.”
“They don’t sew stuff back on people that’s been cut off.”
“How about Frankenstein?” Ronnie waited to see if I saw some sense in that dumb statement, but I kept quiet. Ronnie kept at me. “Say you come up dead in the harbor, your head cut off. Hands and arms gone. What’s left for identification?”
“Feet and legs and—”
“Forget legs,” Ronnie said. “Legs are no good for identification—but feet, especially if someone swears they know them particular feet, that would work. You’d be easy, Andy, ’cause your feet are perfect and tiny.”
It took all I had to keep calm and not tell him where to shove his dumb idea. I just said, “Millions of people have little feet.”
“Not in South Baltimore.” Ronnie smiled. “One hundred, tops.”
“At least five hundred.”
“Not perfect-shaped like yours!” Ronnie gave me an oily grin that flipped my stomach. “Don’t worry, Andy, if something happens to you I’ve got ’em in my brain.”
“Ronnie, you best quit with that feet shit.”
“Even better—how about if your feet were a special color? Think about it. Blue, maybe! Blue is lucky. Yeah! If your feet were the only perfect blue feet in South Baltimore, why, anybody could identify ’em, assuming they knew Andy Givens had perfect tiny blue—”
“Screw you, Ronnie!”
“Let me paint ’em Andy!”
When he begged like that I first wanted to gag, but instead I just yelled, “Go to hell!” That was part fake, though, ’cause I was really mad and happy all at once. Ronnie was crazy—yeah—but in a good-bad way. He made it be really strange fun sometimes, us two living in that room.
Some nights Ronnie couldn’t go to sleep if he knew Alice’s tall glasses were mixed in with her short glasses. He’d wait until his folks were conked out and sneak downstairs and go through the kitchen cabinets. We whispered about stuff until we heard their snores. Ted was easy to spot because he snored big. Alice did tiny grunt sounds. When Ronnie got back from his kitchen raid he always saluted me like John Wayne and said, “Mission accomplished.” The next morning Alice would find her glasses in neat rows, arranged by height and color. She must have wondered how they got that way, but as far as I know she never let on. Ronnie did other crazy stuff, too. Like, that one night when he came in and went straight to his bed like he didn’t see me. He turned around five times and sat down. I kept my mouth shut. After awhile he got up and went to his closet and stood there, just faced the closet door, didn’t open it. It was like he sleepwalked over there. He waited awhile, then went back to his bed and turned around five times and sat down.
Finally I couldn’t help myself. “You must be crazy,” I said.
“Uh, uh—Huh?” Ronnie said it like I had just woke him up out of a dream.
“You’re nuts, Ronnie.”
“Another thing is, you’re also a big pussy.”
“Take it back,” Ronnie said.
“I will, Andy, I will.”
“Yeah? You and who’s army?”
“The three of us,” He said. And of course I knew what came next. Sure enough Ronnie said, “Me, myself, and I.”
That was so lame. Sometimes Ronnie disgusted me too much to even bother with. “O. K.,” I said, “you win.”
“No, Andy—first take back what you said.”
“I do, Ronnie. I truly do take it back.”
“No, say, ‘You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.’”
“O. K., you’re not a pussy.”
“Say my name, too.”
“You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.”
“Good thing, too,” he said. “That was just in time.”
Yeah, right, like what if I didn’t take it back? Ronnie was hopeless, so I gave up and shut up. The next morning, as per usual, I felt his sheets. So far the average for his sheets being soaked was five days out of seven. By the time Alice changed the beds each week all Ronnie’s piss had dried into yellow stains that overlapped and made rusty patterns—kind of pretty designs—light to dark and back again. Alice never let on and neither did Ronnie. Neither did I. That would have been just too mean.
One night I watched Ronnie with one of my eyes, the other one blocked by my pillow. I had been in the middle of a good dream about earwax when some kind of noise woke me up. Ronnie was on his bed by the window, moonlight behind him that made him look like a cutout. At first I didn’t move, kept my head down, half-stuck in the pillow. Ronnie sat still on his bed except when he swayed. He’d be still for five seconds—listening for who knows what?—then he’d do small rocking moves side to side. The sways were so tiny you could hardly tell. He’d rock side to side some and then sit like a statue, then do more moves. The house was quiet. I think I saw a bat go by the window, but maybe not—they’re so fast. Ronnie claimed bats were nighttime swallows that wouldn’t suck your blood. No matter what I heard about bats, I shouldn’t believe that, Ronnie said. “Trust me,” he said, “no bat will every drink a drop of your blood.”
Another night, Alice screamed from down the hallway and Ronnie glanced up from his jigsaw puzzle at the bedroom door, then back down. It was so split-second I almost didn’t catch him—one smooth action—just his eyes moving. That jigsaw was humongous. It had all the animals in some African jungle, plus grass and trees and bugs, and huge-beaked birds. Ronnie had the edges done on three sides and some on the last side. It was a big jaggie rectangle, empty in the middle. He pretended to work at it for five minutes—zero talk, just tiny whimpers—the same puzzle piece in his hand the whole time. Ronnie’s hand didn’t move. More time. Then Alice screamed again and grunted real big—then a bunch of grunts that went from high-pitched to low and then back up again real high. In the nighttime quiet her grunts came down the hall like a church bell. Ronnie still kept still. Then Alice laughed a big screeching laugh and Ronnie smiled but didn’t look up. Then his hand moved over the jigsaw like a helicopter and dropped the puzzle piece in exactly the right spot.
Part four of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.