Thursday, 30 April 2009

Charlie - - Mike Hancock

I swallow another shot of whiskey as I think about the poor dog. Half-dead. Lying on his side, immobile, barely moving as he labors to breathe. His left eye is covered in a milky film from the cataracts that leave him almost blind, and his right eye is only marginally better. His coat has turned to an old matted gray. His body has developed the swayback, malnourished look of all old dogs. But still he lingers, day in and day out, there in the kennel inside the workshop in the backyard.

I sit on the bed that I slept in as a child when I came to visit my grandparents. Maw Maw is fast asleep in her bedroom and I’m staring with a drunken focus at the wall, thinking about the dog. Charlie.

Charlie is a wire-haired fox terrier and in his prime was a rambunctious, feisty, lovable little dog. Only Charlie was born crippled, his hind leg deformed. Dad and Maw Maw doubted he would live. There wasn’t just the botched-up leg. He was a runt, one of those undersized puppies which tend to get kicked out of the feeding frenzy and are left to die. So Dad supplemented his mother’s milk with formula from a baby bottle. Did that for the few weeks it took for Charlie to get some density in those fragile bones, and soon he was running around with the rest of them, albeit with a funny little gait. Dad was like that, taking over when others don’t.

Dad usually sold most of the pups from his litters, always getting top dollar because of the dogs’ great bloodlines. He had usually kept one or two but he knew this would probably be the last litter so there was no sense in keeping any. Customers came and went, flocking to pick out their favorites. Then somebody came in and bought the last two healthy males, and so there was only Charlie. The puppy nobody wanted.

By then Dad and Maw Maw had taken a liking to the crippled dog, so they decided to keep him. Not that there was much choice in the matter.

As a kid, I played with Charlie when I was here, which was a lot. But even later when I stopped in from college, I always said hello to Charlie, and he always came running, his crooked leg ill-timed with the other three, causing that funny bounce of his hip to compensate. He jumped up to me as best he could, often coming down not on his feet but on his side, and still bouncing back up to do it over again. Like most dogs, Charlie was full of love, but I think unlike most dogs, he was given a double helping of it, in thanks for the family who took him in.

I sit on the bed in the middle of the night, drunk, as I am most nights after Dad’s funeral. Charlie. Dog wouldn’t give up living as a puppy and still won’t at thirteen. Lying on his side, blind, every now and then getting up and staggering over to his water bowl. He doesn’t eat much at all. Can’t hold it down, I guess. But he won’t let go. Charlie will lie there as long as it takes, hanging on to his last few moments of life.

Now here’s the thing. Charlie’s been out there for ten days, ten days and no telling how much longer he’ll endure just for the sake of breathing in and out, just to hang on to the world a little longer. To see me coming to refill his water bowl and pet him on the head. And that’s why he lives, for me.

Now here I am these last ten days, going out to Charlie’s bed, feeding him what little food he can eat. All soft stuff, no dry food. And water. Keeping him alive out in the workshop on that shag carpet bed of his. He’s not able to do anything, all day and all night, but think about living. Think about me. Just live. That’s all.

Only a little whiskey left now. I rise, almost falling, hitting my knee on the edge of the rickety television stand. Everything’s foggy, just off to both sides. I see good straight ahead. Singular. I draw back the curtain, look into the dark rain outside and at the workshop. Lightening comes down, illuminating the shop and pens lined up in front, each with an entrance to the shop where the dogs can get out of the rain. Except Charlie’s the only one out there.

Shop’s got a heater but I wonder if he’s warm enough. Bring him inside for the night? Make him more comfortable maybe. But Charlie ain’t gonna be comfortable ever again. He won’t give up. I don’t want him to suffer any more. I’m tired of suffering.

“Fuck this!”

I turn around quickly. Too quickly. The world is spinning. I pause, wait for my vision to catch up. I grope through the kitchen, bump into the table, open the backdoor and the cold, wet air blasts my face. I have a t-shirt and jeans on, barefoot.

The blast clears my head and vision enough for me to make it down the stairs. The rain comes down in biting pellets, hitting the top of my head, my shoulders, running down my chest. It’s dark out, everything’s blurry, everything’s in shadows. Gotta go on memory, on feel. My bare feet shuffle on the concrete patio, past the table where me and Dad used to fillet fish together. I see the gate and feel for the latch.

It’s dark and smells musky. Cold in here despite the little propane heater in the corner. My clouded vision picks out the semblance of kennels inside, tools lined up on the opposite wall, and the big crack in the concrete floor. I use it as a guide, stepping on it, feeling the cool, uneven floor.

Through the musky smells of the old, damp shop, rotted wood and rusty tools, I smell Charlie’s old, sick dog smell. His breathing is muted, barely a light sigh as I stand by the chain link gate. I bend down and lose my balance, falling forward and crashing the top of my head into the cold metal. I fall on my side in agony, writhing on the damp concrete. The blood trickles down my face, whiskey making the pain into a comfortable, hazy throb.

I pull myself up from the concrete and sit in front of Charlie. He doesn’t move, just contemplates me with his cloudy left eye.

“Hey, boy, how you doing?”

He lifts his head and then slowly brings it down again. His ear is cocked and listening.

“Me leaving you out here like this. It’s my fault, Charlie. You don’t know no better.”

I edge up to the gate, leaning in. The damp smell of his coat wafts up from his bed. I feel his stare. My hand nudges the latch loose, Charlie’s ear shifts. The gate swings out.

“C’mon old boy.”

I feel around his body, pick him up and bring him out. I sit down against the metal toolbox behind me and cradle him in my lap.

“You’ve been a good dog, Charlie. You did real good, boy.”

His body is limp against my thighs, the rough, wiry hair brushing the wet denim of my pants. The world is spinning in a sweeping series of darks and grays as the incessant rain patters against the sheet metal roof. My desperate, drifting mind reaches out, wanting something far-off and unreachable. I give up and return to him. A gun will wake the neighbors. A knife is too messy. This is the only way.

“I’m sorry, old boy.”

I grip the back of his head with one hand, his nose with the other, and twist violently.

A brief whimper.

A dull crack.

I look down at his motionless body and begin to cry. I carefully place him back in his bed. I stroke the old matted fur and then close the door.

Gripping the corner of the kennel, I pull myself up and stumble outside to the rains.

“Calvin.”

“Yeah?”

I wake up in a stupor, my head exploding from the dull ache that hits at once, subsides, then returns. There’s the blurry image of Maw Maw peeking at me from the door of my room.

“It’s Charlie,” she says.

I force my eyes to focus and see the gaunt expression on her face.

“He’s gone?” I ask.

“No. He’s just lying there like he usually does, but he’s whimpering and can’t even move now. I think he’s getting ready to die.” Maw Maw narrows her eyes. “Say, what happened to your head? Looks like there’s blood on it.”

My heart recoils in horror. I didn’t kill him. He lived. Oh Jesus, he lived.

“Um. Bumped it on the desk last night looking for something. I’ll go out and check on Charlie.”

Maw Maw shakes her head.

“I just hate seeing the poor thing suffer. I know how much you and Dad loved him.” She closes the door.

I fight against the urge to vomit and stand up, the blunt pain in my head causing me to suck in my breath. I force myself to walk to the kennel.

I sit by his limp figure, listening to his low moans and wanting to absorb his pain. I sit until my back aches, until my legs cramp, never moving, never leaving. Maw Maw peers in every couple of hours and asks, “Is he gone?” and I reply “Not yet.” The rains have ceased leaving the fresh fragrance of light dew on the grass. I hope Charlie can smell the grass. I hope he can feel the newness of the world. I hope in his mind he’s playing out there now, romping about with his awkward gait as I throw him a ball.

The wind picks up and brings the sweet freshness of life into the darkness. I look down at my friend and see that he is not breathing.

“Good boy.”


Photo Credit: allyaubry on Flickr

About the author: Mike Hancock is a former hunting guide and commercial fisherman. He spent seven years guiding elk, deer, and bear hunters in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. Prior to that he was a deckhand for two seasons aboard a factory trawler in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Now living in Dallas, Texas, he is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. He holds a B.A. in English Literature and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University.

"Charlie" is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, "Fallen". This is a story of fathers and sons and of emotional bonds that transcend culture and time. Set in the looming mountains of Northwest Montana in 1870 and 1997, the novel chronicles the lives of Grey Bear, a distraught Piegan warrior in the aftermath of the Marias Massacre, and Calvin, a tortured young hunting guide, as they endure hardships and abuse, both seeking redemption in an untamed wilderness.