"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
pushed it open, finding the door wobbly in its frame as always. He
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
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;
hadn’t known. The kids were there too. Avis looked to be about five,
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
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
up his right leg. Oren tugged at his sweatshirt, whined to be lifted
The twins moved in. And the women, all of them, threw their arms around
“Whoa, back up there. You’re going to knock me over. A little space.
Avis jumped up and down in front of him. “We can’t find Jade,” she
“Ginger and Jezebel have been gone for three days,” one of the twins
“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.
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
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
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
out of the oven, slathered with Amish butter, Sully sat at the big
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
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
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
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
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
of those head massages he so loved, a head itch, she called it; her
fingers pressed circles into his temples, feathered across his bald
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
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
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
couch with the stuffing showing through on the arms, couch you sunk
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
with actual hot water, insulated walls finished off with salvaged barn
boards, cupboards hung in the kitchen, tile countertops where the
of plywood were nailed down for now. He shivered. Place was freezing.
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
of it. Avis wanted hers to be hung on the trees that grew along the
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
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.
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
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
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
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
the bedroom, Sully peeked into the kitchen, setting off the cockatiel
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
Ellisville, still working on the certificate). Different but not
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
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
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
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
flesh: “I didn’t think you were coming, Sully. I went to bed without
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
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.
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,
“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.
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
was, saw that he would never get it finished or even closer to
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Tudor trim and all, sitting on a knoll surrounded by woods. The
fire-escape ladder rested against the hill, evidently the way of
in and out, since the elevator and corridor were missing. He climbed
ladder, knocked, and wasn’t surprised when Oren opened the door.
Oren stood there looking down at Sully, who still held the ladder
“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.
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
“It’s my fault Stinky left,” Oren said, shrugging loose from Sully’s
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
At the bottom, the trail disappeared where the snow stopped, up against
a wall of sandstone. Hands touching the rock for balance, Sully made
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