Friday, November 12, 2010

Dog Days by Jen Michalski

We are so bad that our mother takes away our video games, our phones. She throws our DVDs in a trash bag, stuffs them into the trunk of her car, and slams it so hard we hear some of the plastic cases breaking. She unplugs our computer monitor and takes it to work with her. We watch her heave it into the back seat, where it sits like a fat, sad baby when she drives away.

We are so bored that we decide to go with Sandy to the baseball field. After lunch we push each other in his room as Sandy stuffs his bats and balls and glove into a New York Yankees duffel bag.

“What am I gonna use for a glove?” Jeremy asks. He’s younger than Sandy and I am older.

“I don’t know. Your fucking hands,” Sandy answers and slings the duffel over his shoulder. For the only one of us who plays baseball, Sandy is kind of fat. Which is funny, since so is his idol, fat fuck Roger Clemens.

“We can share the glove,” I offer. Being the oldest, I feel it’s my duty to make suggestions. I get credit from our mom for all our ideas, good and bad, anyway. “Whoever’s in the field uses it when the other ones are batting and pitching.”

“You know how much I paid for this glove?” Sandy waves his black Rawlings pitchers mitt. “You know how many papers I delivered for this?”

Unfortunately, we know how many papers and how many dollars, all 4,211 and all $177.98.

“Then I don’t wanna play.” Jeremy throws himself down stiff on Sandy’s bed. He’s skinny and dark-haired like our father and might be an asshole like him too when he grows up.

“Stay here by yourself, then.” Sandy shrugs, pushing his Yankees cap down over his eyes. Sandy looks kind of like Mom, red-haired and a soft face like a sundae with jimmies. They both needed to wear a ton of suntan lotion or otherwise they’d burn. But Sandy thinks suntan lotion is for pussies, so from late May to late September he looks like a redneck pig farmer.

Jeremy jumps off the bed because he actually is a pussy about the dark and being alone and shit, and I lock the door to the house (although it seemed like Mom took everything of ours worth stealing). Then we head a few blocks over to Patterson Park, Sandy carrying the duffel, me carrying the big water bottle full of ice and water, and Jeremy running up ahead of us, running up to breaks in the pavement before shooting into the air like a long jumper. At the park there’s three or four diamonds usually filled up with a bunch of yuppie fucks playing kickball or touch football or whatever their lame asses do, but that usually happens on the weekends and this is a Wednesday afternoon, so we have our choice of diamonds. Jeremy stands on the bench on the first-base side and takes his shirt off. He waves it around like a flag before tying it on his head like a du-rag. Ever since Jeremy turned 12 he’s been showing that concave bird chest every chance he gets. Maybe he does it to make Sandy jealous since Sandy’s 14 and has fucking man-tits. I’ve got pecks that came in real nice when I turned sixteen and hair in my armpits real thick and dark. But I keep my shirt on because it’s Tommy Hilfiger and I just bought it and it looks fucking sweet.

Sandy tosses some of his baseballs toward the mound, leaves a few behind home plate, and leans a couple of aluminum bats against the backdrop. Then he pulls the Hope diamond out of his bag, his Rawlings pitchers mitt. For six months Sandy got up at 5:30 every morning, even weekends, and delivered The Baltimore Sun to our Patterson Park neighbors. He kept his money in a little fireproof safe he got for his birthday and counted it every night before bed like some people read the Bible. Sandy was going to be an accountant when he grew up if he couldn’t be a pitcher.

“Who wants to bat?” Sandy asks, but he doesn’t really have to, because Jeremy is already standing at the plate, pounding it with one of the bats, his shirt falling on the back of his neck like he’s a sheik. Sandy, being a fat fuck Roger Clemens wannabe, will pitch to us all afternoon. He could pitch every breathing moment of his life when he isn’t watching baseball on television or doing fantasy baseball stuff on the computer. I trot out to center field, taking the water bottle with me because I figure I’m going to be running more than either of them.

“Come on, Sandy.” Jeremy cocks the bat. Sandy kicks the mound like he’s a dog looking for a good place to pee. He keeps kicking with his foot for what seems like forever before he bends toward Jeremy, his glove behind his back. It is a sweet glove, I have to say. I can’t imagine me or Jeremy owning anything so nice. We probably never will. Even the bikes our mom got us for Christmas were second hand from some guy at work whose sons had outgrown them.

Sandy looks off the nonexistent base runners before kicking his stumpy leg up high and throwing a ball that arcs about two feet left of the plate.

“What the fuck was that?” Jeremy retrieves the ball from the back of the cage and throws it back.

“Trying a new slider curve,” Sandy shrugs, spitting into his hands and rubbing them.

“Well, throw a fucking fastball so I can goddamn hit it.”

“I’ll throw a fastball when I goddamn feel like it.” Sandy sets his feet and repeats his windup. But he throws a fastball, straight down the plate, and Jeremy whiffs. Mom always has to go to school for Jeremy. If it wasn’t his acting out in class it was his doing poorly in class. Sandy and I weren’t Mensa kids, but making Jeremy sit and do one thing for five minutes was a goddamn miracle. It almost seems like he has too much energy. Whatever it is, it makes him uncoordinated as fuck. Even if he wanted to play sports, he would suck big time.

“I wasn’t ready,” Jeremy explains, putting his palms face down in the dirt around home plate and rubbing them together. For good measure, he spits in them and rubs them some more. I look around the park. There’s a bunch of other baseball diamonds that are empty except for the bum sleeping on the third base side bench of the diamond behind us, tennis courts where the retired people play in the mornings, and a basketball court, where there always seems to be a pickup game of like 50 people. No girls. Maybe the occasional runner, although you know she’s a yuppie with a boyfriend and a nice rowhouse south in Canton or west of the park in Butchers Hill.

I had a girlfriend a few months back, Erica, and I had dreamed of all the great things we would do this summer, like get ice cream on Eastern Avenue and walk along the harbor, drinking forties that Little Ra bought for the kids from the liquor store on Fairmount for a tip. But then Erica grew pretty and I stayed ugly. Now when I’m not working at Santoni’s stocking shelves I’m keeping an eye on Sandy and Jeremy. More like Jeremy, though. When Erica and I were watching TV at our house a few months ago, when our mom was working nights, Jeremy almost set the whole building on fire burning his old Matchbox cars. I guess we weren’t paying him much attention, or least I was paying more attention to Erica’s tits when I smelled a horrible smell like burned steel. Our landlord, Mr. Caretti, almost threw us out then. But I made a special promise I would keep Jeremy out of trouble. We couldn’t afford to leave, not after Dad left and we lost the house on Conkling Street last year.

“Fuckwad, what are you doing?” I look up at fat-ass Sandy staring at me, his hands on his hips like a girl. “You gonna get the ball, or are you gonna stand there all day and jack off?"

“Fuck off, fat ass.” I give him the finger and then scan the field for the baseball. It's near the third base line in left field. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jeremy trotting around the bases. I pick up my pace, grab the ball, and fire it to Sandy, whose glove swallows it up like a dust buster. Jeremy is still rounding third, but when he sees Sandy has the ball he speeds up. Sandy blocks the plate and braces for Jeremy, who is screaming with his head down, arms waving. They meet with a smack at the plate, Jeremy leveling Sandy like wet cement. But that glove is a black hole, and Sandy holds onto the ball.

“You’re out!” Sandy cries from on his back. Jeremy grabs with both the wrist that is attached to Sandy’s glove and shakes it violently, trying to dislodge the ball. Sandy hits Jeremy on the chest with his free hand.

“Stop it Jeremy, you're out.” I jog in from third base. “Get off him.”

“Fucker.” Jeremy gives Sandy one last shove before he stands up.

“First out.” Sandy walks back toward the mound, digging the ball out of his glove and spinning it in his hand. I jog back toward center field. Sandy rears up again, throws a sweet-looking ball that bends right over Jeremy’s bat and into the backstop.

“Sw-ing!” Sandy punches the seat of his glove with his hand. “How do you like that knuckle curve, retard?”

“Rob, tell Sandy to stop calling me names!” Jeremy heaves the bat toward the mound, but it only makes it halfway there before it craters into the dirt.

“Come on, Sandy. Play ball.” I take a swig from the water bottle. Jeremy is super sensitive and Sandy is like a rain man sometimes. Jeremy takes the other bat from the backstop, leaves the first on the path to the pitcher’s mound.

“Put my bat back, you ‘tard,” Sandy says as Jeremy chokes up on the new one.

“Come on, pitch!” Jeremy answers, but Sandy digs at the mound with his foot. “Pitch the ball, fat ass!”

Sandy rears up and plants a fastball into Jeremy’s left side. Jeremy crumples over, holding his ribs and howling. Sandy watches from the mound, and when he refuses to move, I jog out to home plate.

“You all right?” I put my hand on Jeremy’s back. “Why don’t you walk it off?”

“Fuck you, Rob.” Jeremy spits into the ground, and I grab him them minute his body moves toward the pitcher’s mound.

“Sorry.” Sandy is inspecting the stitching of his glove, ignoring him. “New slider curve.”

“Sorry, my ass.” Jeremy pushes against me, but I’m pretty tall, nearing six feet, and kind of strong from stocking shelves at Santoni’s, so he doesn’t go anywhere.

“We’re going home.” I let Jeremy go when I sense he’s calm, grab the bat. “I’m tired of this.”

“I need to work on my pitches.” Sandy whines. “You can go home, but I’m staying here.”

“You can’t stay here by yourself,” I say, still holding the bat. Nobody says anything about the last time Sandy came up alone and got the crap kicked out of him by some gang boys on bikes. Jeremy stomps over to the bench and lies down his back. He pulls his shirt turban down over his eyes.

“You hit,” Sandy says as I pick up the other bat. “Come on, gimmee a few pitches, Rob.”

“All right, fine.” I weigh the bats in each hand before deciding on the longer one. Sandy digs into the mound as I tighten my grip. The first pitch drops off in the dirt; somehow, I manage to lay off it. I lay off the second, too, which starts off fat and high but spins away low to the other side of the plate. Finally, when Sandy gives and goes for the fastball I’ve been sitting on it the whole time. I cock my bat and shoot a laser into left field.

“You’ve got good plate discipline, Rob,” Sandy says.

“You’ve got good movement, San,” I answer, tossing him one of the other balls that lay around the perimeter of the backdrop.

“I’m going make varsity when I’m fifteen.” He nods, tugging on his Yankees cap. As if no one in the household hasn’t known this for the past two years. That and his plan to get a baseball scholarship to Stanford. Sandy’s goals are singular and long-sighted; Jeremy’s desires seem multiple and conflicting. Which is why it’s not surprising to see him, out of the corner of my eye, playing with what looks like a stray dog. It’s medium sized, gray and black, some kind of terrier mix, and man is it matted.

“Check out this dog!” Jeremy has it in a stranglehold hug. “Isn’t he awesome!”

“He’s dirty,” Sandy answers. “But then again, so are you.”

“Do you think Mom will let us keep him?” Jeremy jogs over to the backdrop and grabs one of Sandy’s baseballs.

“Not my baseballs, fuckhead.” Sandy cocks back is arm as if to bean Jeremy again, who tears up the first base path and off into center field, the terrier flying after him.

“Let him have it.” I put my hand up, tap the plate with the bat in my other. “Come on, throw me something.”

Sandy looks off the batters and then throws a changeup. I’ve been waiting on fastball and its slower speed makes me whiff. Out in center field Jeremy holds a ball over his head while the terrier mutt jumps for it.

“Having a dog wouldn’t be the worst thing that happened to Jeremy.” I pick up the missed pitch and flick it back to Sandy.

“Until he gets bored with it.” Sandy’s glove gobbles the ball with a smack. “Remember his goldfish? His gerbil?”

“Jeremy needs something with just as much energy as he has,” I answer, knocking some dirt off my shoes with the bat.

“Yeah, but when it needs to get walked at night and Jeremy is watching TV, you or me is gonna get stuck walking it.” Sandy looks over his shoulder at Jeremy, who fires the ball across the outfield. “That’s even assuming Mom will let us have a dog.”

“Well, he needs to learn to be responsible,” I say. I don’t say it, but I imagine the dog being good for Sandy, too. Sandy, who thrives on routine, stability, wouldn't complain about taking care of a dog any more than he complained about taking care of Jeremy’s gerbil Pokemon when Jeremy grew bored with it. He even made Pokemon a ninja suit out of an old facecloth for Halloween that year. In fact, I swear that was the only time Sandy cried, when Pokemon died. Not when Dad left or we lost the house or when Grandpa died and Sandy lost his full-time practice catcher.

Jeremy runs back in from the outfield, pulling his shirt across the front and back of his body like a towel. He flops down on the third-base bench, burying his face in the same shirt. The dog sits on the ground near the third-base bench, wagging his tail, watching him.

“He likes you,” I say.

“His name is Fred,” Jeremy corrects, his face still hidden by his shirt.

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

“Whatever.” Sandy smacks his ball against his glove. “Mom's not letting you keep that thing.”

“Shut up.” Jeremy sits up, takes the terrier in his arms. It struggles a little but then licks Jeremy’s upper arm. “I’m his owner. He’s mine.”

“We could give him a bath when we get home, clean him up,” I agree. I’m liking this Fred idea more and more. Not just for Sandy and Jeremy, but for me. If their attention is on Fred, then my attention could be elsewhere, like trying to win Erica back. Instead of coming right home from Santoni’s after work maybe I could slide by the Northeast end of the park, where the girls, including Erica, sometimes hang out on the corner, eating popsicles, smoking cigarettes.

“You guys can give him a bath,” Sandy says. “Come on. I need to pitch.”

I settle back at the plate. Sandy makes some good pitches, but I connect on some of them. Fred grows bored of sitting with Jeremy and begins to fetch some of the balls I’ve hit. At first he takes them to Jeremy, who is still lying on the bench like he's dead, but then he brings them to Sandy, who pats him on the head before wiping the ball, wet with dog saliva, on his pants. Fred runs circles around the mound until Sandy tosses one of the balls into left field. Jeremy sits up and whistles, and Fred goes over for a pet. Sandy winds up and I foul it down the first-base line. I’m getting in a good groove hitting, and I wonder why I never went out for any sports. I’m hitting stingers all over the field, Fred is chasing them, and Sandy is getting frustrated, slapping his glove. He studies the seams of his baseball, trying different grips before deciding on one. Then he winds up.

It looks like his new knuckle curve, and it is moving around fast. But I’m able to reach down low and cue it off the end of the bat. It spins hard and low between the pitcher’s mound and first place and is headed out to right field. Except that Fred is there. The ball smacks him squarely on the side of the head, and suddenly Fred is still on his side.

“Fred!” Jeremy flies off the bench like it is on fire. He practically lies on top of Fred as Sandy and I hover. “Fred? Can you hear me?”

“Come on, Fred.” Sandy takes his cap off, wipes his forehead. “Walk it off.”

Jeremy strokes Fred’s head. Fred’s legs twitch a little but then he is still.
“He better be okay, Rob!” Jeremy cries. I squat near them and put my fingers on Fred’s neck, feeling for a pulse. I’m not really sure what I’m looking for except that I don’t feel anything. Not breaths, not heartbeats. There is a bump on his head from where the ball has hit him. I pull open an eyelid, but Fred does not look at me.
“Maybe you should do CPR.” Sandy crouches down over us.

“I don’t know CPR,” I answer.

“Just blow in his mouth or something.”

Jeremy rocks back and forth on his knees, his eyes a little watery, so I carefully open Fred’s mouth, push his tongue to the side, and blow in. Sandy presses on Fred’s chest.

“Blow harder,” Sandy instructs, and I pretend I’m blowing up a balloon. Sandy rubs Fred’s side like he's trying to keep him warm.

“Keep going!” Jeremy demands, but we've been blowing and pushing for a good minute, and Fred is not waking up. I place his head gently on the grass.

“I think he’s dead,” I say.

“You asshole!” Jeremy's fists begin walloping on my back. Sandy lunges for Jeremy and pins him to the ground.

“Stop it, Jeremy. It was an accident.”

“He was my dog.” I hear Jeremy cry from under Sandy. “He came to me.”

I sat back on my heels, run my hand through Fred’s fur. He would have been a good dog, I could tell. Of course, maybe he wouldn’t have been. Maybe he was a stray for a reason.

“At least he died happy,” I say finally.

“Should we take him to vet or something?” Sandy wonders, leaning back on his heels, too, now that Jeremy has been subdued.

“I don’t know.” I wipe my palms, which have gotten sweaty, in the dirt. “You think they’d charge us or something?”

“He was my dog.” Jeremy says. He drapes his shirt over Fred’s body. “We should bury him.”

“Where?” Sandy stands up and scans the field. “We can’t bury him here.”

“We can bury him at home.” Jeremy bends over and scoops Fred up. He's a little big for him, and Jeremy staggers backward against the weight. “In the garden.”

I don’t mention that our garden in the back is teeny, that it’s filled with Mom's tomatoes, and that Mr. Caretti would never go for it. But I figure we can at least take him home, call the pound or something. I gather up the balls and water bottle and Sandy stuffs the bats into his duffel bag while Jeremy watches, cradling Fred in this thin arms. Then we walk home, Jeremy first, me second, Sandy third. I didn’t have time to think about all the things I wanted to think about Fred, like picking out a collar and toys, deciding what blankets were ratty enough to be used for a bed. But I also didn’t have time to think about all the other things, like vet bills and dog food. Things we probably couldn’t afford. Things Mom would have pointed out after Fred had already scoped out the house, picking his favorite sun-lit corner, by the living room window, for a nap. After Jeremy’s heart had opened and Fred had settled into it.

At home Sandy throws the duffel on the floor with a thud and we follow Jeremy out into the yard.

“It’s too small,” I say of the garden plot. The yard is all concrete, even the five-foot walls encasing it, except for a little three by eight plot of dirt where someone, maybe Mr. Caretti, had broken up the concrete and walled it off with stones. “Too shallow.”

“How deep do you think?” Sandy pulls a small shovel from the rubber bin that Mom keeps her tools in.

“Well, three feet, at least.” I walk toward the garden. There’s really no place to dig, only a foot between most plants. “There’s nowhere to put him.”
Jeremy places Fred on a lawn chair by the back door, the one that Mom sits on to smoke her cigarettes, and begins digging between the last plant and the garden wall with his hands. Sandy joins him with the hand shovel.

“You can’t put him here,” I say. “And you need a bigger shovel, anyway.”
Sandy and Jeremy don’t listen. Dirt flies around them, but their progress is slow. I dig through Mom’s tool bin and come out with a hand rake, which I give to Jeremy. After awhile Sandy goes into the house and returns with his glove. He spears it into the soft dirt and emerges with a mound of soil, which he flicks out onto the cement before jamming the glove back into the dirt. His prized mitt is getting pretty dirty, but Sandy doesn’t say anything, so I don’t, either. I sweep the dirt they’ve dug into a pile.

“There.” Jeremy stands up after they’ve dug a shallow grave, maybe two by three feet. “Think that’s good enough?”

“No.” I take rake from him and begin stabbing the dirt in the bottom of the hole. But the dirt is getting harder, more claylike, and my hand hurts. Mom will be getting home soon, and we’re halfway through the job.

Jeremy stands over me, holding Fred in his arms. I have a bad feeling about the whole thing, but since I killed Fred, I don’t want to say anything. Maybe Mom won’t notice. I can water her tomatoes, get the dirt back in shape. Maybe Fred will be good fertilizer. But maybe Fred will stink, too. Jeremy lays Fred carefully in the grave, crossing his paws over each other. He looks like a stuffed animal that was left out in the rain and then dried. Sandy shifts dirt over him, just a little at first, as if he’s giving him a last chance to wake up and tear around the back yard. Then he and Jeremy grab handfuls of dirt from the pile I’ve made and throw it on top of him. When Fred is covered, they pat the dirt, but the mound is sitting above the garden rather than level with it, the way graves look in cartoons. The hole isn’t deep enough.

“Say something, Rob.” Sandy wipes the sweat off his brow with his forearm. Jeremy mops his face with his shirt. They look like little miniature men, tough and sweaty, shirtless, like the ones I saw in my history textbook on the chapter about the Depression. Except Sandy is too fat to have lived in the Depression. But their faces are sad, tired. Old.

“Say what? Like a eulogy or something?”

“Yeah. Something nice about Fred,” Jeremy agrees. “You’re the one who killed him.”

“Now…we lay our beloved dog Fred, pet for one afternoon in July in the year 2008 of our Lord in Baltimore, Maryland. Fred was the beloved dog of Jeremy, Sandy, and Robert Bartos. He loved to chase baseballs and run around the park. He will be sorely missed.”

Jeremy and Sandy make some kind of gesture of blessing themselves, Fred, but it’s clear they haven’t been to church in years. Sandy makes a backward cross, and Jeremy puts his hand over his heart like I’ve said the pledge of allegiance. Then Jeremy goes to get the lawn chair. He closes it and lays it across the grave before standing on top of it.

“That’s not going to do anything.” Sandy makes a face while Jeremy bends at the knees and grunts trying to flatten the mound of dirt. He looks like he’s surfing.

“I told you that it’s not deep enough,” I say. “We’re going to have to dig it deeper.”

But just then, we hear the back door open, and Mom shuffles through, a suspicious look on her face. She used to be pretty, but we have turned her into a barking gnome, hutched over, face squeezed if as if in perpetual pain from the blight her sons have put her through, hair slipping out of her bun. She still has her bus driver’s uniform on, her keys in her hand.

“What are you doing with my lawn chair, Jeremy Stephen Bartos?” Mom has skipped the pleasantries and gone right to middle names. I walk toward her, figuring I can at least give Sandy and Jeremy a running start through the back gate.

“Wait,” I say, sticking my arms out like a point guard, trying to block her view.

“What have you done to my garden?” She, being five foot nothing, peers underneath my armpit at the gravesite. “What is that?”

I turn around, try to see Mom’s tomato patch as she sees it. Not only is one of the plant stalks broken, bent over from where Jeremy tried to make more room between the wall and the first tomato bush, but you can clearly see a gray-black furry paw sticking out of one end of the dirt mound. Sandy looks at his dirt-stained mitt, and Jeremy squats on his haunches, looking at his knuckles.

Mom stands in front of the garden, her head about to blast off her neck, her crooked red frown face, her mouth open, but her questions don’t come. Sometimes we even leave her speechless. But we know what we have to do. We dig up Fred and wrap him in Jeremy’s old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beach towel. Then, after mom calls and animal control comes to pick him up, we each go to our rooms and stay really, really quiet for the rest of the night, reflecting on the nature of our sins, praying for Fred’s rapid ascent in the afterlife, and wondering whether another gerbil isn’t the way to go moving forward.

No comments:

Post a Comment