UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Nature of Dogs and Hitchhikers
Alfred got out of his car gripping the burlap sack. The chicken struggled and beat its wings enough that the bag swayed in Alfred’s hand.
“Sorry Buddy,” he said. He walked to his yard where Hambone and Shem, already salivating, stood on their hind legs and let out high-pitched whimpers, their tails whipping about, slicing the air. He let loose the slack-jawed bag, releasing the chicken to the waiting dogs below.
“Share nice,” Alfred said. He didn’t stop to watch as Hambone scrambled, pawed and tore into a flurry of blood and feathers. Shem sat by, panting and waiting with one long strand of saliva trailing the cement. He’d been buying chickens for about two weeks now and though the cries of the chickens bothered him a little, he hadn’t stopped himself from doing it. Everyday he drove over to East Side Avenue in Jersey City, to the one guy who still sold live birds. The short Korean man named Stevie didn’t care if the chicken was for soup, a fighting ring or for your dog, just so long as you paid him.
The door was locked. Alfred looked through the window, and saw his wife Amy standing there in the sunlit kitchen making out with some guy, her arms slender and pale and wrapped around his flannelled back. His one arm gripped her waist, the other hand roughly tangled in her hair. Alfred felt alarm, then something hard and bitter rising in his gut. His arm flew up and punched through the nearest window, a shower of light and glass and sharp edges. Amy gave her husband a look of what seemed to be pleasant surprise. The dogs exploded into a frenzy of barking, their jowls bloody and dripping.
Amy opened the door and barred Alfred as the man escaped unscathed over glass shards amid the din of growling and yelping.
* * *
Sunday morning. Two weeks had passed. Amy walked through the kitchen in underwear and a tee shirt, stirring a bowl of oatmeal. She looked out to the tiny yard. It was feeding time again. Their elderly neighbor Mr. Ormsby stood on his side of the fence. He stood in his sweat socks and leather house slippers watering the patch of grass that was his yard. He eyed the dogs suspiciously. He would probably call the authorities and Amy hoped it was soon. Four weeks of blood and broken feathers and crying.
“The chicken thing is really gross,” she said. He didn’t answer, not right away. He sat at the kitchen table and watched her pace back and forth in her pink fur slippers.
“Lucky Hambone isn’t gnawing on your leg.” He reached out for her thigh to pinch her but she wriggled away closer to the window and looked down to where Hambone gnawed amiably enough on a thin flexible thighbone.
The phone rang and Alfred answered it. It was brief. Clipped barked phrases, “Yeah. Uh-huh.” Alfred slammed down the receiver. His hands tightened. He turned his back and looked into the far room where the television showed a man with a spatula that also worked as a whisk and serving tongs. The man smiled and had about a hundred teeth.
“Who was that?” she said.
“Your boyfriend,” Alfred said. He almost spat when he said it.
“That’s funny,” Amy said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
She ate a spoonful of oatmeal, placed it in her mouth topside down, pulled it out and then pointed the spoon at him.
“You’re just mad because you thought you were the only one who was going to do anything.” She smirked at him then, tossed the bowl into the sink, snapped the band of her underwear at him and walked off to the bedroom to dress.
He stormed after her down the narrow hallway into the back room where she pulled on a pair of knit pants. She rummaged through bureau drawers for the right top.
“I’m angry because you were making out with him in our house!”
“Gimme a break Alfred, this was all your fucking idea okay?” She took a breath to refuel. “Carla is coming over later. I have to make food and entertain her and then get ready for work tomorrow. I open at eight a.m., and I’m tired Alfred, all right?”
She pulled out a green ribbed turtleneck from the top drawer, found the opening for the head. She pulled it over her face and stood there, her arms dangling and a patch of hair poking out the top. “Help me with this?” she said. He pulled at the bottom of the shirt until Amy’s head popped out, her golden brown hair sticking up with static electricity.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” he said. And she looked at him from under her wild hair and said with a hard smile, “Come on, he’s cute.” She was enjoying this. He swallowed hard, and tasted metal in his mouth. She left him there in the bedroom, alone, the tingling of static still in his fingertips, and he thought two things: he never should have told her the truth; and, for all the trouble that his honesty caused, in the four weeks since his agreement with Amy, he had only had sex with his secretary five times.
She was lovely, younger and shy. She wore innocent tan stockings. Her tweed skirt with the slit and her small painted nails had made him weak with desire. She had a tinny laugh and it hurt when he thought about her. He sat in his office and his fingers would involuntarily flutter in the thought of touching her. He once stroked the sweater that hung over her chair when she went out for lunch and felt longing and shame. But somehow, the spirit of it, the adventure of an affair, was lost on him. He only remembered that when he had sex with her, it wasn’t very fun. It had all been just clever packaging. He felt he could cry because the pain and desire were still there and he didn’t know how to make it go away.
When Alfred entered the kitchen Amy was on the phone with one of the waitresses at Snuffy’s. She stalked back and forth from the fridge over to the chopping block, bent down to get this pan or that, and he watched her. So graceful, and for one second, he felt true regret. He got up and caught her just as she hung up. Came up from behind her and threw his arms around her waist, pulling her slightly off her feet. She laughed a bit, even threw her head back before she recovered and pulled away. He didn’t let go.
“Oh shit. Go get the window before they close?”
“Fine,” he said, releasing her. “I’ll go see your boyfriend.”
“Be nice,” she said. She turned away from him. “Get back in time for your sister. Dinner, remember?”
Alfred was in the Corolla and out on the road not five minutes later. Hambone came along for the ride, slobbering and turning 360’s in the front seat until he collapsed in a blue-black heap. Jersey City was a mass of two-families stuck together, with small yards for jump rope or a football toss. Streets with sidewalks lifted and broken from the roots of overgrown trees that lately were being cut down to stumps. Out of the neighborhoods and onto to route 440, a McDonalds, the Difeo Auto Mart with its multicolored plastic pennants that always made it look like a grand opening. Stolen grocery carts lay abandoned in the gutters. Far to the right, the early rising whores, on the day shift, wobbled on their heels in front of Chinese joints. The sun was high and hard.
“Picking up the window,” he said. And he thought of Barry, who worked at the hardware store, wondered if he’d slept with Amy and what it meant that he was now going to pay this kid for a new window. His hands were on the wheel and he remembered Amy’s hair, the run of taut skin over her knuckles, too knobby for a woman’s. He remembered why he’d wanted someone else; he had felt trapped.
He wanted to try new things. She could too, if she wanted. Amy didn’t take his idea very well. She stood there in the kitchen in a floral print dress that went down to her calves, her arms folded.
“I don’t want you to do this,” she said. “Guys in Snuffy’s flirt with me all the time, but I don’t want them. I’m happy with you, Alfred. Aren’t you happy?” Alfred couldn’t remember the exact conversation after that. She kept saying “But why?” a lot, and other things like they were married and wasn’t she enough for him and that sort of thing. The skin of her eyelids was a raw pink that reminded him of Easter rabbits. She cried in her hands with those enormous red knuckles of hers.
He neared Tonnele Avenue and realized, exactly as he passed the Wilson Carpet statue, that perhaps she went along with his idea just to punish him. And yet she had seemed so against it. Patient and grave, a “get-it-out-of-your-system” kind of attitude as she reached up on her toes to hug him and said, “Do what you want.” And she wouldn’t make love to him after that. She closed off, her back towards him as she slept, her knobby vertebrae resembling a closed zipper. Her knees pulled up to her chest like a broken bird. She was so hurt. And he had actually felt bad about it.
But then there was the incident with the window. Amy looked him straight in the eye, her lips curled in nearly a smile, the moment she realized he was there, just before his hand flew and the glass shattered to the floor. He had never taken his wife to be a vengeful woman.
“That bitch,” he murmured to himself. Hambone raised his eyebrows at Alfred, but otherwise remained motionless.
Alfred pulled up at the hardware store, wedged between a bodega and an oil change place.. “Stay, boy” he said to the dog. Barry was working. In a moment he felt the simmering rage, and the excitement of meeting him without Amy to bar his path. Alfred strode in to the store, his eyes flashing. Barry was behind the display of Pergo paint cans. They were arranged in pyramid formation, all the shiny labels facing forward. Alfred had his fists balled up, the money tightly wadded. Barry caught his eye and edged from around the pyramid.
The window lay off to the side, wrapped in brown paper. There was no one in the store except for some old man in a red baseball cap that Alfred vaguely remembered seeing at the driving range across the street from the Duncan projects.
“Here for the window,” Barry said tersely, wiping his hand on his red apron as if they were dirty. He stepped almost instinctively behind the counter.
“Yeah,” Alfred said. He felt his face get hot, imagined it red. “You’d think you would pay for the window, after what you did.”
“Look Alfred, she approached me. Told me you were both free to do whatever. I don’t want any trouble.” But much of this didn’t register for Alfred. He hauled back and punched Barry hard in the jaw. Alfred saw it all in slow motion. Barry’s skin rippled with the impact. The money was free of Alfred’s fist and was swimming in the air, fluttering slowly. Barry’s head teetered and wobbled and his arms rose as he moved backward from the force. His blond hair gently falling as he landed deep against the wall behind him with the boxes of shoe nails and thumbtacks. The boxes crumpled with the force and the muscles in his neck and shoulders seemed flaccid and doughy when he landed, upright and stunned. His lips were loose and rubbery, the start of a red leak appearing in the corner of his mouth. He slid down to the floor wordlessly and that too would’ve taken time except for the fact that Alfred couldn’t see him past the counter and also for the fact that now, not two seconds after the blow, he felt his hand grow hot and saw it enlarge. The pain was huge. This was the second time in two weeks he’d busted his hand.
“What did you do?” he said. He leaned over the counter and peered down at Barry who Alfred just realized was only about twenty-five years old, and who in fact was their paperboy about eight years ago. Barry garbled a “no” because the blood was thick in his mouth and starting to ooze. Alfred looked around the store with all the neat aisles of brackets, hammers and screwdrivers, drills with the various size bits and farther along, paintbrushes and stacks of wallpaper.
The old man in the red hat hobbled over to Alfred on his horseshoe legs, wielding a rifle, maybe a deer-hunting gun. In an urban section of Jersey. He should have been afraid, but the sight struck Alfred as excessive. Possibly funny. Alfred had done what he wanted. Punching Barry felt good, but already he was feeling the pain throb inside his wrist in time with his rushing blood. He would do more yelling. Maybe walk around the counter and kick Barry if the yelling had riled him up again. Then he would leave. But the old man was twitching and shaking and holding the rifle tightly.
“Get the hell out of here,” he said, “or I’ll shoot you, I swear I will.” He shoved the rifle in Alfred’s face. “You heard me, get out of here!”
Alfred picked up the window carefully and with one look at the old man said, “Tell him to pay for it.” He looked down at Barry and said, “And you stay away from her.”
Back in the car, Alfred sat and just breathed. Hambone was excited and stood up to sniff him. “Come on boy, sit down,” he said, but there was blood on Alfred’s knuckles. Hambone licked Alfred’s hand clean and gave a low whimper. “I’m not hurt,” he said. He put the key in. He drove with his left hand. He didn’t feel like going in tomorrow and seeing his secretary. He briefly considered not going back to work at all.
He drove past the Dunk N’ Sip. At the stoplight an old woman dragged a grocery cart filled with tomato soup cans and what looked like cat food. It took her so long to cross that he had to wait for another red light and by then, she had just made it to the curb. It disturbed him. A man was hitching a ride off 440. He was young and beat-up looking. He needed a shave and had a cardboard sign that read “Boston.” By the time Alfred got home, he felt sorry that he hadn’t picked the man up, but by then it was just too late.
His sister Carla was already there. Her yellow three-cylinder piece of crap was in front of the house. He pulled up behind it and realized that he had forgotten to get Hambone and Shem a chicken for dinner. Amy was right that it was gross and yet it was a dog’s nature to hunt and stalk. He didn’t know why this idea had become so important to him lately. He only knew that he felt sad when he looked at them locked in the tiny yard with those fake meals dumped into serving bowls once a day. But they were just dogs, just pets, and now the whole idea seemed silly.
He didn’t bother to carry the window out of the car. His hand was throbbing badly now so he just let Hambone out and opened the front door. Carla and Amy were at the table and stopped talking as soon as he walked in, then shifted the conversation to him.
“Hey, get the window?” Amy said, standing up and walking over to him for a kiss. She grinned in his face. He kissed her rather deeper than was necessary, especially because he was in front of his sister. But she responded and kissed him back.
“Sure did,” he said fiercely.
“I made a beef stew from scratch,” she said. “And how about some sandwiches. Is that okay?” Carla was real quiet when the tuna on rye and egg salad sandwiches came out. She stared out the back window to the yard.
“Is it true you’ve been giving Hambone and Shem live chickens for their meals?” Alfred sat down gingerly.
“Yeah, why?” he said, taking a bite out of a sandwich. He was careful to use his good hand.
“This is New Jersey, for Christ’s sake,” Carla said. “Why the hell would you do something like that?” He shrugged at her. “No really Al, that’s sick.” She was hesitant to take a sandwich. But Amy answered, “I think it’s weird too, but Alfred says it’s their instinct. It’s what they do.”
“Yeah, in the wild. They don’t have to. That’s why you give them Alpo.”
Dinner went nicely enough, with no mention of Barry or the window. When everyone was about finished Amy noticed his hand.
“My God Alfred, what the hell happened?” she said. He could tell she was nervous, and despite himself, he was happy for her alarm.
“I got into a fight,” he said. Carla looked down into her lap. Amy gave him a pointed stare. Just like that, he knew that Amy had told his sister everything.
“A fight?” Amy said.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. There was some bum hitchhiker and I figured I’d pick him up and all. He started asking me for cash. I tried to kick him out of the car but he started pushing me, so I had to hit him to get him out. I busted my hand up real good.” Carla seemed horrified and put her hands up to her mouth just like his mother had always done when something was shocking. But Amy knew better.
“Well, I’m not surprised,” she said. “It must be the nature of bums.”
“Well, no, not really. They don’t have to be like that,” he said.
“How interesting,” she said. Then to Carla, “Alfred is fascinated by instincts and nature. I’m starting to find it pretty interesting too.” Alfred glared at her and couldn’t eat another bite.
When Carla left, she whispered something in Amy’s ear, and she kissed and hugged her, even though Carla was usually pretty reserved.
“Bye, baby brother,” she said, and without a hug for him, walked out. Amy followed Carla to her car. When Amy came back inside she shut the door, leaned against it, cocked her head and said, “A hitchhiker, Al?”
“Did you want me to talk about your man? In front of my sister?”
“She knows already anyway,” she said.
“Yeah, thanks for that,” he said.
“Let’s not start again on everything,” she said. She dropped her head and walked out of the kitchen. The silence and the distance hung between them and he saw something in her drooped posture and fallen shoulders.
“You know what Amy?” he said. She stopped, took a deep breath. Didn’t turn.
“I changed my mind, okay? I did. It was all a stupid idea.”
“I’ve got to open early tomorrow and I’m going to bed,” she said. “Coming?”
But Alfred didn’t go. He got in his car and drove. He looked for the hitchhiker along 440, but by then the hitchhiker was nowhere to be found. He circled around and pulled into the Stop and Go. The store was empty. The entire city seemed deserted. He bought cheap steaks for the dogs. They would be happy enough with that. As far as wild animals went, Hambone and Shem were pretty disappointing. He drove through the empty night with the bright stoplights and vast land of neon signs pulling away from him and going on forever. He considered calling the secretary, but the thought just depressed him.
When he got home, Amy was in bed and her eyes were closed. She didn’t turn to him when he entered. He figured it was because he was walking so softly. She lay on her back, with her slender knees pointed up to the ceiling. The streetlights filtered into the room edging her body in silver.
“Hey, I’m back,” he whispered.
“I know,” she said. He lay next to her in the darkness and she felt the mattress give beneath his weight. “You shouldn’t have done it,” she said.
“He’ll live,” he said.
“You shouldn’t have done any of it.” He felt like going on about how she shouldn’t have either. How she wasn’t remotely innocent in all of this. That she had been a bitch and had flaunted her affair in his face. But he didn’t.
“What do you think about what I said? No more?”
“Yeah. Sure,” she said. They lay in darkness for what felt like a solid half hour. His eyes adjusted to take in the soft dark forms of the bedroom, the everyday objects that made up their lives. He ran a finger over her arm. She resisted slightly.
He would need to go to the hospital. It was definitely broken and would be long in healing. Hambone and Shem started bawling from somewhere out in the backyard. They almost sounded like children.
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