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Jenny Dunning

The Far

"We are never more human than when we are dogs."
          —Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Not until he saw Moll, his beloved ’74 Subaru wagon, sitting in the high grass at the end of the gravel drive, did Sully know for sure where he was: at The Far, the commune where he had lived during the eighties. How he had gotten here, he couldn’t say. He had been in the Ellisville Middle School gym, intent on his star volleyball player’s back swing into her serve, the first serve of the division quarterfinals, the furthest his team had ever gotten, and all due to Carly, who had power, smarts, moves, the whole package. There had been a tremendous noise—an earthquake? the roof collapsing? but since when did southeastern Ohio have earthquakes? And now he was somewhere out past Amesville at The Far, which for all Sully knew had died of natural causes years before.

Moll. She looked the worse for wear—but then Sully had never known her otherwise. Her blue paint was so faded it wasn’t really a color, as much rust as paint anyway; driver’s side window consisted of a piece of plastic attached with duct tape; rear license plate dangled from one loose screw—OHIO DFS 6629. But oh, how good to see her again. He ran his hands across her body and then tried the door. Unlocked. He jerked up and pulled back, the only way to open the driver’s side door. Climbing in, he breathed the car’s smell: musty and damp, heady and sweet at the same time; foreign and homey, like that first whiff of pussy. God, how he loved women. The key was in the ignition—Sully pictured open road stretched out before him. Popping the glove box, he extracted his map of the continental U.S. with the routes, his escape routes, highlighted in orange marker. He spread it out on the passenger seat, let his left foot find the clutch, his right give just enough gas, the touch a muscle memory in his toes, the ball of his foot. But rotating the key, he got “chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga”; the engine wouldn’t catch. He was grounded.

Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed an unfamiliar envelope of heavyweight, cream-colored paper in the still open glove box. “Mark Andrew Sullivan” was scrawled in shaky cursive across the front, and the handwriting was unmistakable: that of his fifth grade teacher, Miss Biddlethwick, who had sent home daily missives about his misbehavior (looking up girls’ dresses from under the stairs, leaving a water-filled condom in the girls bathroom, calling Miss Biddlethwick a dried up old prune—even then he had been unoriginal). The woman couldn’t be alive still; she had to have been in her nineties back in 1968. When Sully tore open the envelope, he found a single sentence in the same handwriting: “Mark Andrew Sullivan is hereby instructed to find the family dog.”

The family dog? What dog? What family? Sully was on marriage number four. Family? He had, what, three kids of his own, the same number of step kids, or ex-step kids. He tried to keep in touch. Good intentions anyway. Not like it sounded: he had married for love and left for love, left before he stopped believing in the possibility. Never cheated. Couldn’t even explain it to himself. Good at beginnings, not middles, that’s all.

The family dog? Each time he left, the loss of the dog had been the hardest part, the part that stung most. No dog licking him awake or jumping all over him when he got home, carrying on about a walk, a ball, a treat. He especially missed sleeping dogs. Under the bed, on the bed, under the kitchen table; farts and dream-whines; belly bared and legs up—the position of vulnerability, trust. A sleeping dog. That meant home, when you got down to it.

But now he couldn’t come up with an image of an individual dog. Their features blended: runty, spindly-legged, powerhouse bear of a dog; tawny, blue, black, brindled, matted, bushy, silky, wiry-coated dog; long and narrow, stub-nosed dog; pointy, floppy, up-and-down-eared dog; pink, black-spotted, quick, little darting, sloppy, drooling-tongued dog. Cash, Gretchen, Jade, Ginger, Max, Jezebel, Stinky.

Sully looked to the left. There was the old farmhouse, right where it always had been. Twenty years at least since he’d lived here with Eileen—the years when Avis and Coulter were born, man, those were crazy times—and from what he could see, even through the obscurity of Moll’s filthy windows, nothing had changed. Peeling paint. A slate roof tile missing here and there. The whole structure slightly canted. And the front porch more than slightly. Probably the same family of possums still lived underneath the porch. The Community House, they used to call the place. Where they gathered for group suppers, the commune’s council meetings, and the solstice parties—now, those had been parties.

Stepping out of the car, Sully closed the door gingerly. He was surprised to hear people sounds coming from the house. Who could still live out here? Nobody ever knocked at the Community House door, so Sully pushed it open, finding the door wobbly in its frame as always. He stood in the hall a minute, stared up at the green floral wallpaper, remembered how he and Ray and Paul had stripped the old paper off—one of those bouts of refurbishing the place. When they peeled the paper down they found a list of names, Wyatt, Johnson, McEwen, the date 1939, and what each had done—plastered, wired, roofed. It had been Eileen who had dug up old newspaper reports of a tornado that had cut a swath through Trimble and on down to Stewart. Must have torn the roof off. To think how many generations had lived in this house, each leaving behind traces—the hatch-mark record of a child’s height, initials cut into a floorboard, doodles on the back of a closet door. Good kitchen smells jolted Sully out of his reverie: baking bread and a tangy, savory odor.

Gals used to cook up vats of Mulligatawny stew, veggie chili. He strolled down the hall, cut across the meeting room, stood at the edge of the kitchen.

They were all there—Eileen, Penny, Sheila, Brett, his four wives. Beautiful women, each in her own way. Eileen so willowy. Penny soft and warm, those love handles. Petite Sheila. Brett—God, she was pregnant; he hadn’t known. The kids were there too. Avis looked to be about five, her red hair tangled, freckled face peering into a box on the floor. “No, Coulter,” she was saying as she plucked marbles out of the carton, “box turtles don’t eat these.” Sheila’s older kid, Sully’s stepson, sat at the table. Head in a book, as usual. And Penny’s twins were singing “Miss Mary Mack,” banging their hands together and giggling over by the stone fireplace. Oh, Oren, his boy Oren: lying stomach down, coloring, pressing hard, staying in the lines. That child couldn’t do anything half-heartedly. The most intense student she’d ever taught, one teacher had said. None of this made sense, when Sully thought it through. Avis had graduated from high school last year, was taking a couple of business courses, figuring out what she wanted to do. And Coulter. Just a few weeks back, Sully had made the trip up to Lancaster where Eileen and the kids were living now, Eileen a nurse in the dialysis clinic there, to take Coulter to the B.M.V. for his driver’s exam. Oren was in second grade, tearing through math books, teacher couldn’t keep him busy enough.

They all saw him at once. “Daddy, Dad, Papa, Sully, Sull, Sully.” The last Penny’s shrill singsong. And then they mobbed him. Coulter gripped his left leg and held on, while Avis grabbed his hands and tried to walk up his right leg. Oren tugged at his sweatshirt, whined to be lifted up. The twins moved in. And the women, all of them, threw their arms around him.

“Whoa, back up there. You’re going to knock me over. A little space. Let me breathe.”

Avis jumped up and down in front of him. “We can’t find Jade,” she said.

“Ginger and Jezebel have been gone for three days,” one of the twins said.

“Papa, Stinky’s missing.” That was Oren. Mournful, like he already knew life as a series of disappointments.

Eileen added, “Cash and Gretchen have been gone a week. I put the three of them out Sunday morning and when I whistled, only Jade came. And now she’s missing too.”

He looked at Brett. Brett, whom he was married to now, or had been. “Max too?” he asked. And in the next breath, “You’re pregnant.” She was a good four inches taller than he, what they call statuesque; he tilted his face up to meet her gaze.

“Yes, Max too. I’m sorry, Sully. I was planning...I was going to surprise you.”

Eileen shook her head at him. “Sully, what are you doing here?”

For once, Sully knew the answer. He pulled himself up tall and said, “I’m here to find the dog. Find all the dogs.”

Sully couldn’t believe his good fortune. One big, happy family: his four wives, the four women he had loved most, all in the same room. And happy, even happy with him. Eileen, Penny, Sheila, Brett—each acted as if her feelings for him hadn’t soured. Such abundance. He didn’t know who to go home with.

Sated after two bowls of miso-minestroni soup and millet bread eaten hot out of the oven, slathered with Amish butter, Sully sat at the big table in the kitchen with the kids. He had built this table himself—from a lumber-yard picnic table kit, but he had sanded the surface smooth and rubbed it with varnish until it shined. They were making posters. Even Denby (the boy’s name had come back to Sully) had shucked off his sullenness and joined in. Works of art, these kids were creating: “Lost Dog” across the top, or “Help Us Find Stinky,” “Friendly Dogs, Come to Ginger and Jezzie.” Using those crayons from France you dip in water, probably a gift from one of the grandparents, each child drew a bright colored portrait of the beloved pet, or pets, below their text. As the images emerged, the distinct features of the dogs sorted themselves out in Sully’s mind, though the actual dogs bore little resemblance to the children’s renditions. They captured essences. The twins drew Ginger and Jezebel as bright yellow cartoon dogs, yet Sully saw them as in life—overweight Ginger, part lab, part retriever, tail wagging so hard she could hardly walk, and more-chow-than-not Jezzie, dense reddish-blonde fur matted and muddy, front paws against Sully’s chest. Little Coulter could only manage colored marks on the page, and that only with Avis holding his hand; Avis’ Cash and Gretchen looked like potatoes with legs. Sully pictured collie-dog Jade, the laughable mixed beagle-basset Gretchen, and Cash—a brindle streak across the meadow. There wasn’t another dog as fast as Cash. All chest and hind quarters. Oren instructed Denby on Stinky’s features: “Do his curly tail, Den. Make him white and black and gray. Now his black nose. His ears, the way they point up.” This was a first, Denby letting his brother tell him what to do. Sully saw the little terrier, a Benji look-alike, barking at a tree trunk, oblivious to what a ridiculous figure he cut. Sully himself made the poster for Max, but didn’t attempt to draw him. “Shepherd Mix Lost,” he printed in block letters horizontally across the page, and pictured graceful Max leaping and twisting in the air to snatch a frisbee.

Periodically, one of the women wandered over. Sheila looped her arms around his shoulders and whispered, “Sully, I’m so glad you’re here.” The pressure of her lips against his earlobe tingled. Brett gave him one of those head massages he so loved, a head itch, she called it; her fingers pressed circles into his temples, feathered across his bald spot and sunk into the deep of his neck. Heaven, he said to himself—and then wondered again where the hell he was, what was going on. Eileen sat facing out on the bench, took his hand in hers. “Sully, it’s so nice to see you. For the children too. Avis adores you. They both do.” She squeezed his hand. Gave him a peck on the cheek when she rose to continue peeling apples for pie. Penny, when she drifted over, poked him in the soft of his gut, giggled as he pulled her close and pressed his head against her cushiony bosom. Too good to be true.

Eileen as it turned out: the one he went home with that first night, Coulter riding on his shoulders. As he mounted the stairs made of sections of railroad tie held against the hillside with long spikes, stairs he had built himself, Sully swung Avis before him and trumpeted like an elephant to the tune of “The Mexican Hat Dance” until he was too out of breath to take another step and collapsed, laughing, with both children on top of him. When they entered the cabin, Eileen ducked around to switch on a lamp and, in the dim light, Sully saw it all—exactly as he remembered. You walked into the big room. Same ancient couch with the stuffing showing through on the arms, couch you sunk into so deeply you could hardly get up again. Toys everywhere you looked. Huge fireplace in the middle of the room, open on both sides. Kitchen extended out behind the fireplace—gas appliances “vintage” even back then, pots and pans suspended from the ceiling, dishes stacked up wherever. Sleeping loft, for the kids, hung over half the room. Bedroom to the right. Through the open door was the waterbed in the frame Sully had constructed. The bed he had shared with Eileen for eight years, his longest marriage. He closed his eyes, pictured the place as he had intended it to be—wide-plank floors laid, secondary heating system (a wood-burning furnace he was rebuilding) up and running, working plumbing with actual hot water, insulated walls finished off with salvaged barn boards, cupboards hung in the kitchen, tile countertops where the pieces of plywood were nailed down for now. He shivered. Place was freezing. No insulation, and the windows were salvage—let in more air than light. “How about I get a fire started?” he said.

Eileen turned her hazel eyes on him, ready to eat him up. “Sure, Sully.” And what a night. As soon as the kids were asleep, Eileen tugged him into the bedroom and dove under the quilts where she hooched up, wriggled around, and deposited each of the articles of clothing she had been wearing on the floor. Sock. Sock. Sweater. Turtleneck. No bra, of course. Jeans. Panties. Then the whole of her emerged just long enough to pull him to the bed, where she removed his jacket and shirt but lost all interest in stripping him once she got his pants open and down around his hips because she took his cock in her mouth. Sully couldn’t ever remember her being so crazy for it. He came, and she didn’t give him a moment to bounce back; she was all over him, rubbing his thighs and his chest and kissing him. After the third time, all he wanted to do was sleep. He started to call the dogs into the bed the way they used to, bodies against bodies for warmth. But of course, the dogs were gone.

Morning. A squat rectangle of sunlight from the single high window pooled on Eileen’s jeans, splayed like a dead animal on the plywood sub-floor. Avis and Coulter climbed in the bed and bounced on him as though he were a piece of playground equipment. He was exhausted. He could hardly hoist himself up from the jello of the waterbed, and then he recoiled when he hit the frigid air. Avis slapped at him. “Daddy, you have to get up and find Cash and Gretchen and Jade. Come on, Daddy.” Then Eileen poked her head in the room. “Oh, Sully. You’re up. Listen, before you get hunting those dogs, I just have a few little projects around the house.”

The afternoon was well along before Sully and the children set off on their search for the dogs, daffodils in bloom everywhere you looked. Sunny. Couldn’t ask for a more beautiful spring day. They began by hanging the posters. Nola and Nora, the twins, claimed the huge sycamore tree that grew along the creek, next to the bridge, for theirs. Sully held each girl aloft so they could hammer the tacks. “Jessie’s going to have babies, that’s what Mom says,” Nora said, the first Sully had heard of it. Avis wanted hers to be hung on the trees that grew along the road leading up to the house: Jade, on the chestnut oak; Gretchen, on the sugar maple; Cash on the buckeye. Oren insisted his go inside the Community House, taped onto the row of mailboxes in the front hall, despite Denby’s argument that The Far’s residents already knew about Stinky’s disappearance. To hang the poster for Max, Sully hiked all the way down Potter Road to where it joined S.R. 550, a distance of a mile or so, partly to get off by himself. Walking back, he could have sworn he saw Cash running in the field on The Far side of the valley. He called for him, but when he looked again, there was no dog.

Still worn out from the previous evening, and from splitting and carrying wood all morning, he avoided Eileen’s glances across the dinner table that night. When Penny brought him a mug of hot chocolate at the end of the meal—spring greens salad with Penny’s famous vegetable lasagna—his eyes met hers. She had never been as demanding as Eileen. He would go home with her.

Sully was surprised to wind up at the row house he and Penny had lived in when they’d moved up to Columbus, a house that didn’t belong at The Far. The sides, when he detoured to look at them, had chunks of drywall and framing boards, an inch width of oak flooring, still attached, as if a huge saw had shaved off the other units. He climbed the stairs onto the front porch, finding Nola and Nora already there, wildly shoving the porch swing from one end to the other. “Girls, girls,” he said, “it’s not made for that. You’ll rip it right out of the ceiling.” No sooner had he said it then the one side wrenched loose and the swing fell, rested at an angle against the porch floor. Was it Nola or Nora who screamed, “See what you did—it’s your fault”? Sully left them to it, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Inside, he tripped on a stray boot and landed hard on his ass, spooking the cats asleep on the back of the couch. From the floor he surveyed the place: cartons that had never gotten unpacked the whole two years they lived there stacked up in the corner, unfolded laundry wadded in a pile on the couch, homework spread out across the coffee table, notebooks open on the floor, papers spilling out from the girls’ backpacks. Penny never had been much for housekeeping. On his way up the narrow stairs to the bedroom, Sully peeked into the kitchen, setting off the cockatiel in the corner. The new gas stove he had bought Penny when he left stood pulled away from the wall, cardboard still packed around the burner plates. Now that he was here, he’d help unpack, get the stove hooked up.

Mounting the stairs, he had to lift his legs high to accommodate the non-standard risers; he rubbed his ass where he had bruised it.

“Penny, you up here?” he called.

She didn’t need to answer. From the top of the stairs he could see where she was just fine. Lying on the bed in what God gave her. How he loved the heft of her full breasts, more than he could hold in one hand, and the large brown rounds of her areolas. How he loved the line of darker hair that drew him from her navel, down the soft of her belly. “Oh, honey, it’s been so long.”

He kicked the door shut with the back of his foot and had his clothes off before he reached her. “Man, I’ve missed these.” He took each breast in turn, lifting it in both hands, nuzzling, kissing, sucking. Kneeling above her, he moved down, his hands rediscovering every tiny crease, every millimeter of flesh. His hands, and then his tongue.

Coming up for air, he thought to ask why she’d never had the stove installed.

“First thing it says in the manual, Sully, is not to use it near pet birds. Big block-letter warning. The fumes.”

“You and your critters.” As if two dogs weren’t enough—and Sully loved dogs—Penny had the cockatiel, and more cats than he could ever keep track of.

He bent down to her again. Having all these creatures to care for, that was her thing. Not his problem. She was like Boston cream pie.

Bangs, stomps and shouts ricocheted off the stair passage and bombarded the door.

“Nora kicked me.”

“Nola did first.”

As they broke into the room, shoving, jockeying for position, Sully wrapped himself up in the bedspread. Penny didn’t even register his departure, bedspread and all. He plucked up his clothes on the way out and had them mostly on by the time he got outside.

A near full moon that night, but cool. Temperatures must be in the low forties. Might be a frost by morning. In the old days when The Far gardens accounted for most of his and Eileen’s income, he would have been worried about the spring crops. Not a bad life, his and Eileen’s, or any of it. Would have been different, he supposed, if he’d stuck things out—women, jobs (he’d done bartending, newspaper work, owned a little pub for a bit, ended up of all things a shop teacher back down in Ellisville, still working on the certificate). Different but not better, not necessarily. The leaving, all the leaving, that’s what hurt. He was walking down the lane, away from Penny’s. Twisting around, he saw lights on in every room, the whole place alive, and him out in the cold. He turned back around, peered ahead, wondered where he should go. The extra rooms at the Community House were all full, Eileen had said. A group from out of state. He turned left on a path he didn’t recall and headed for the lights he glimpsed through the trees.

Brett’s place, oddly enough. The very same 1931 bungalow they had bought in Ellisville six months ago—stone on the first level, front porch with a half-stone wall and stone pillars, and wood on the second story, half repainted the aspen green color Brett had picked out. Sully knocked on the door. He waited, knocked again. Finally, the light came on and Brett’s face peeked out from behind the sheer curtain. Then Brett in the flesh: “I didn’t think you were coming, Sully. I went to bed without you.”

Sully was expecting the pout she wore when displeased, an expression that made her look childish and old at the same time. He shouldn’t have knocked. Shouldn’t have, shouldn’t have. The whole story of their relationship. But, she was grinning, all mischief. He returned the grin and stepped in. “Darling.” Her hand, which held together the two sides of her robe, dropped to her side, and the robe fell open. Brett was gorgeous. A goddess, he had called her when they were dating. She worked out, took it seriously. Big, but sculpted. No fat. She could crush him with her thighs if she wanted. He placed his hands on her hips, slid down her firm buttocks, squeezed. “Darling.”

They wound up on the couch, Sully on top, when he remembered. “Oh, babe.” He shifted to the side and rubbed his hand across her belly. “Why didn’t you tell me? How far are you?”

“Almost five months, Sully. I wanted to tell you. I meant to.” She stroked his face. “I was waiting for the right moment.”

He knew what that meant. A time they weren’t arguing. Which was most of the time lately. His erection softened.

She tangled her fingers in his chest hair. “You’re not angry, are you, Sully?”

“It’s wonderful news. I’m happy.”

“I just thought, you know, the way you’re always complaining about paying the child support.”

So that’s what it was about. He moved Brett’s legs over and sat up. Feeling old and fat and ridiculous, he pulled the afghan over his middle. She had known they weren’t going to last, known this baby would mean him mailing out another check every month, swapping the diaper bag and suitcase alternate weekends. What he didn’t understand was how he hadn’t noticed the pregnancy. Her belly was round where it had been flat. Her breasts—he stared at them—were humongous. “How could I not have seen it?”

“I didn’t want you to, Sully. I was careful about what I wore, careful not to let you see. It wasn’t hard, as much as you were away. Always something with that volleyball team of yours, your Carly.”

“Now, that’s not fair.” Here they were, starting up all over again. “I’m not the kind of guy who’s interested in kids. You know that. I was the one who said you were too young for me, remember?”

“All I know is, you weren’t home.” She was pulling on her robe, cinching the belt high, accenting her belly.

Sully began to dress. “I’m sorry,” all he could say—sorry he had knocked, sorry he had married her, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry-ass Sully. And he was out on the porch and down the stairs, at the bottom of which he stumbled over the ladder that jutted out from the bushes. Another unfinished project.

Sully’s problem with marriage, with houses, boiled down to the same thing. It wasn’t a lack of imagination. Sully wasn’t one of those people who couldn’t see potential in a fixer-upper. No, his problem was too much imagination. He saw nothing but potential. And then every time, new projects and problems arose faster than he could complete the ones he’d started with until one day he woke up and saw everything for the mess it was, saw that he would never get it finished or even closer to finished, knew that deterioration, resentment, discord would win out. The only option was leaving.

Sully spent the rest of the night on the Community House couch, a piece of foam over a wood frame that he knew every knot and warp of by morning. Then that next day, all the long day, he traversed the ridges and valleys of The Far. The morning drizzle turned into heavy rain by noon. Sully wore a plastic poncho he found hanging on the coat rack at the Community House. He came across signs aplenty of the dogs: fresh piles of shit, including a line of small turds that could only be Stinky’s—Stinky the one who couldn’t sit still long enough to finish shitting; clumps of hair—he recognized Jezzie’s red-gold fuzz, even flattened by the rain; muddy cavities of newly exposed clay, evidence of Cash’s obsession with ground squirrels. About noon, Sully heard a piece of wood snap not twenty yards from him and looked up to see what had to be the white flag of Jade’s up-turned tail. He shouted, “Jade, here girl. Here, Jade.” No Jade came. Later, it was Max who crossed just ahead of him and then melted into the rock ledge. The cold deepened. Passing the sycamore tree, Sully noted that the color had washed out of Nola and Nora’s posters, leaving soggy, blank pages. Sully turned off the road. As he leapt the creek, he slipped and soaked one boot. His foot squished with each step. Stuffed inside his pockets, his fingers were numb.

The rain became sleet and then snow. Huge flakes swirled around Sully’s face, settled on his two-day growth of beard. He stopped back at the Community House for the wool jacket he’d passed up earlier—a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in the pocket, not that Sully smoked. At first, the snow dissolved into the last-year’s leaf litter dotted with new green shoots, but after a couple of hours of steady snow fall, it began to stick.

When, at dusk, Sully saw lights through the trees, though he didn’t recall any cabins on this hillside, he turned that way. He was exhausted and famished. Approaching closer, he recognized the third-floor apartment he’d shared with Sheila and Denby, and eventually, Oren. Weird. There was the apartment all right, but just the single unit, fake Tudor trim and all, sitting on a knoll surrounded by woods. The fire-escape ladder rested against the hill, evidently the way of getting in and out, since the elevator and corridor were missing. He climbed the ladder, knocked, and wasn’t surprised when Oren opened the door.

Oren stood there looking down at Sully, who still held the ladder rungs. “You don’t have Stinky,” he said.

“So I can’t come in?” Sully asked.

Oren stepped aside and Sully climbed in. He smelled pizza. Every one of his wives could cook. Sheila’s specialty was pizza—crisp crust topped with whatever she had around, even beets or potatoes. Sully’s mouth watered. A beer and Sheila’s pizza. That would hit the spot.

“Oh, Sully.” Sheila looked up from the crossword puzzle she was working on. “I didn’t expect you. Denby just ate the last piece.”

Denby shoved a final, too big bite into his mouth as she spoke.

“Not much else in the house,” she said. “Bag of pretzels you can munch on, if you want.”

Sully checked the fridge, but couldn’t find a soda, let alone a beer. He ate a few pretzels, which were stale.

Oren had sat down at the table, chin resting in his hands.

Sully joined him. “What’s the problem, bud?” Sully rubbed Oren’s shoulder.

“It’s my fault Stinky left,” Oren said, shrugging loose from Sully’s hand.

“It’s not your fault.”

Sully was thinking the boy might have stepped on Stinky’s tail, or tripped over him. He started to explain that dogs’ memories aren’t like people’s, that dogs don’t hold grudges. But Oren interrupted him. “If Stinky really loved me,” Oren said, “he wouldn’t have left.”

Sully’s hands fell to his sides; his forehead sunk to the table. Sully’s life had been a series of demolitions. He’d left nothing but carnage behind. He hadn’t been fit for marriage, for domestication. He should have lived as a hermit. There was nothing he could say to his son. Nothing he could do to make up for having walked out on him. Sully was hardly aware of getting up from the table or moving toward the door, shutting it soundlessly behind him.

Now what? The snow was letting up, but it must have dropped to twenty-five degrees. He headed in the direction of the Community House. At least it would be warmer there. But he found a man he didn’t recognize already asleep on the couch.

There was always Moll. He crossed the high grass, opened the driver’s side door and climbed into the back seat (the rear passenger doors had been jammed since before he’d owned the car). There, he curled into a ball and tried to sleep, the cold of the vinyl upholstery and the damp air chilling him. Dust and mold spores clogged his nostrils.

After an hour, he gave up. He was too cold for sleep, and the weather had cleared; with the full moon high in the sky, and the new snow, the night was as bright as day. Sully set off down the road, thinking he might be able to hitch a ride into Ellisville, at least once day broke.

Then, not a hundred yards from the house, he came across tracks, dog tracks, and he crouched on hands and knees to study them. The three largest must be Max, Ginger and Cash; the ones positioned like sideways colons, those would be Jade—her gait was all bounce and pop; the smallest must be Stinky—such silly, dainty feet; Gretchen’s prints overlay the others—of course, she’d be in the rear. But where was Jezzie? Sully would know Jezzie’s prints anywhere. She’d been hit by a car, and her left hind foot dragged.

His knees creaking as he rose, Sully took up the trail. A mile, two miles deep into the woods, he plodded forward. He strained to reach the top of a knoll, and then drew back from the scene before him: a deer carcass, blood splattered everywhere, the story of struggle written in the fresh snow. Could the pack—of course, they were a pack now—have brought down a deer? An appalling idea. But a pang of hunger shot through Sully’s own gut. Those pretzels had been the only food he’d eaten all day. On the back side of the hill, the deer’s stomach was torn open; the one haunch was gnawed clean to the bone, and the other, apparently, had been dragged away. A gust of wind sent snow thudding off the tree branches. God, it was cold. Cold as hell. If only he could light a fire. Then, laughing out loud, Sully patted the pocket of the borrowed jacket, extracted the lighter and rubbed his thumb against the flint wheel. It lit.

Ten minutes later he had enough tinder piled up for a sizable fire, the wood damp but not green. He found a few dry twigs under a deadfall and managed to get the logs smoldering. Then he set on the deer carcass, tugged free a few hunks of meat and roasted them, weenie-style. He ate them charred on the outside, raw on the inside. Ate them with relish.

What a night. Sully was overwhelmed by the beauty of the snow, the woods, the sky. He added more wood to the fire, coughed in the smoke, but resisted moving away. For the first time all day, his hands and feet were warm, his belly full.

A long, mournful sound rose up from the hillside. At first, Sully thought it must have come from himself. But no. More parts came in. The dogs, his dogs, were howling. Each voice sang out, recognizable, yet strange—feral. He distinguished Gretchen’s deep and slow hound-howl. Jade and Stinky’s yips harmonized. Ginger and Cash barked in tandem, every few beats holding one note longer than the others. Underneath and beyond the other voices, Max sang forth, his a true howl, drawn out and soulful, the pitch of a siren. When Sully and Brett had adopted Max from the pound, that first night together, the three of them had sat on the front porch of the bungalow and howled. Now, alone by the smoking fire, Sully raised his voice to the chorus.

By the time the howling session wound down, Sully’s throat was dry and sore. His fire had dwindled to ash and he was cold again. And alone. He started down the other side of the hill, picking his way carefully on the steep slope in the wake of the dragged deer haunch. His boots filled with snow.

At the bottom, the trail disappeared where the snow stopped, up against a wall of sandstone. Hands touching the rock for balance, Sully made his way along the ledge. His hands encountered open space and he crouched down, duck-walked into the recessed opening, about four feet high, in the rock. A strong smell washed over him—rank, warm, milky. Hands outstretched, Sully continued on, deeper into the cave, drawn by the warmth, the smell. It was Stinky he came upon first, his fur so bristly it tickled. With both hands, Sully dug his fingers into the back of the dog’s ears like Stinky loved. From the dog’s throat came the peculiar almost-purr he made when contented. Sully plunged his hands into the middle of the mound, made out Ginger’s soft coat, Jade’s silky. He circled around, found Max’s long, stiff hair, and the sleek hard flank of Cash. Searching for Jezzie, he continued to inch around the mass of dogs. At the far side, he found her: greasy, dense coat unmistakably Jezzie’s. She slumbered, backside pressed against the other dogs, body curled around—Sully’s hand explored with gentle pats—yes, here they were, one, two, three...six tiny little pups.

©2008 by Jenny Dunning

Jenny Dunning's work has been published recently or is forthcoming in the Connecticut Review, CutBank, Beloit Fiction Journal, Talking River, and Harpur Palate. Her story "Reva" received a Special Mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prize anthology. An assistant professor at St. Olaf College, she received her doctorate from Ohio University and her MFA from Vermont College.

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