Wednesday, March 31, 2010
A Novel by Art Rosch
All characters in this book are either fictional or in the public domain
Home Is Where The Heart Is Not
1956: University City, Missouri
Shortly after Aaron Kantro's ninth birthday he had a revelation: he was smarter than everyone he knew. It was true his grades were not good. They were C plus type grades, arrived at with no effort and no interest with the exception of things that involved words. Spelling, for instance. He could spell words he had never heard, and often knew what they meant. There was something in their construction that guided him. He wasn't fool-proof. Some words snared him and then he got impatient, and even a little angry. He would find out what that word meant!
One such word that trapped him like a fly on sticky paper was the word Hermaphrodite. He couldn't decipher it without the dictionary. He would never have encountered it had he not been exploring his father's forbidden bedside drawer, the one where the naughty magazines were kept.
Hermaphrodite: a person or creature having characteristics of both male and female gender. Wow! The word was an entire universe, a maze down which he strode bravely with imaginary sword in hand. In order to crack the word's code he needed the good dictionary, the one at school. But the school's dictionary was inadequate, it led him to a dead end. Yes, something that was both male and female. Many kinds of snails and fish partook of both genders but that didn't explain where the word came from! It was Greek, that's all the book told him. He took a bus downtown and referred to the dictionary at the St. Louis Public Library, the big one that could kill somebody if it fell on their head.
And there, THERE, he learned not only the words Hermaphrodite and Androgynous but he learned about the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite, who had a child named Hermaphroditos. By some magic process about which he was not clear, the divine child merged with a nymph (which was always female) named Salmacis and became a single person who was both sexes, both male and female.
In spite of his mother's continual hammering at his self-esteem, Aaron knew he was smart. He wasn't Straight A-do-your-homework and pay attention to every word a teacher said SMART. That was a KIND of smart, maybe, sort of a machine kind of smart but there were different kinds of smart, he realized, and he had a special kind of smart.
No matter that his mother called him stupid and lazy fifty times a day. No matter. He didn't believe her, not any more.
Aaron was a little boy; small, thin and pale. When lined up for scouts or gym he stood pigeon-toed, looking angry and scared. His shoulders bunched high against his ears and his hands fisted tightly at his sides.
At school he could not physically compete with boys his own age, so he had been put back a year in gym class. This was a bottomless well of humiliation. He lacked strength and coordination. He wasn’t even obnoxious or funny. Without these ingredients for childhood charisma, his place in the playground pecking order was at the bottom. Last.
Sure, he was smart. He learned very quickly that being smart was not an asset and showing that he was smart was downright dangerous. Still, being smart was all he had; it was his only defense against a world seemingly arrayed against smart little children with lousy grades.
He was every kid’s favorite victim. They enjoyed goading him into a rage because of the comical results. He had a ferocious temper that would spring him into frenzies in which he wanted to maim his tormentors. When he released his rage the result was a pathetic windmilling of his arms. He was so small and light that he was easily deflected. He couldn't hurt anyone. Therefore, he couldn't scare anyone. The idea of using a stick or a bat just wasn't in him. Somehow it offended his dignity. Using a weapon was sneaky, and Aaron wasn't sneaky by nature. He was only sneaky with regard to his mother and her irrational Blockade, her refusal to allow him to be himself. He called it a Blockade because it felt like his mother was suffocating him, depriving him of all he needed to get any fun from his life. He was like Great Britain in 1940 when the U-boats cut off all the supplies of food and steel.
There were dark shadows under Aaron’s eyes, shadows signalling that The Blockade was having an effect, that he was in trouble, that he was scared. No boy of nine should look the way Aaron looked.
His reclusive and thoughtful demeanor earned him a nickname. He was called “The Professor”. It was not a happy nickname. It wasn’t like “Slugger”, “Speedy” or “A.J”. One of Aaron’s teachers started using it as a term of affection. The kids adopted it as their expression of contempt. When they drawled “Here comes the Professor” they used a throaty mocking tone that had become the currency of sarcasm and insult.
Aaron escaped into fantasies. At school, he spent most of his time looking out the window with unfocused eyes. Through the day he dreamed heroic myths. He had an obsession with Vikings and Norse mythology. He day-dreamed himself as the captain of a crew of sea raiders. The rails of his ships were lined with circular shields. As the sleek dragon-headed craft etched their tracks in the sands of the beach, the men took their shields and charged castle walls, wearing helmets adorned with ox horns. Inside the castle was a pretty blonde princess who waited to be rescued by Aaron The Strong.
He always delayed going home. His mother was at home. He was completely terrified of his mother.
Aaron’s school was two blocks from the modest house on Parkway Court. Aaron explored alternate routes. He walked around Greenwood Park, up to the railroad tracks, then across the bridge. He slid down the embankment and took the foot bridge that led through backyards onto Ruth Street. Another backyard path led to the bottom of his street, which was called a "court", where the houses formed a closed semi-circle. Number 8024 was halfway up the eastern side of Parkway Court, which was one of a twenty four street subdivision. None of the houses were more than five years old. A sapling was planted in front of each house. It would be twenty years before they would provide shade.
Hunger usually ended Aaron’s meandering. If he was lucky, his brother and sisters would be home. He could grab a snack and then slide like a ghost through his siblings' fights with each other and get into the room he shared with his little brother. Avoiding his mother’s attention was the highest priority. Little currents of fear raced along his nerves when he thought of Esther Kantro.
Aaron had a friend named Jeffrey Rubin, who lived five houses up the street. When he went to Jeffrey's house the atmosphere was so different that he could barely understand it. Jeffrey’s mom cracked bad jokes, made cookies and hugged her wriggling son as he pretended to try to escape. Things weren't tight and quiet at Jeffrey's house, things moved along in a way that was...well...things were fun.
Jeffrey's mom was very physical, a hugger, a smoocher, sweeping kids into the air with her husky arms. When Mrs. Rubin hugged and kissed Aaron, he didn’t try to escape. He shrank from her a little bit. Mrs. Rubin’s affection gave him an odd feeling, as though he was touching dry ice. He liked it but didn’t know how to hold it. When he had to leave, to go home, he felt a wrenching sadness. Sometimes, as he left the Rubin's house, he started to cry and had to press his chin into his bony chest, press it hard, hiding his eyes from the world until the urge to cry stopped and he could walk to his own house. Leaving the Rubins' got so hard that he became reluctant to go there at all. The attraction wasn't really Jeffrey, who was kind of stupid. The attraction was a home that wasn't one continuous scream of terror.
Aaron’s mother frequently said, as if to excuse her rages, "I love you the only way I can." He didn’t understand what that meant. He was sure his mother did not love him. When she said she loved him “the only way-I can”, that must mean there was something wrong with him.
Aaron was certain of his father’s love. He wanted to see his dad, wanted dad to be at home all the time, wanted his dad to talk to him, ask him questions about what he was thinking. He wanted his dad to understand that he wasn’t stupid, he was just…just too mad to think, maybe. He wanted his dad to tell him things were okay. He wasn’t afraid of his dad. Maybe love was just not being afraid. When his father was home, Esther was a different person. She didn't shake him or scream at him, she didn't squeeze his arms until fingernail marks showed.
More than anything, Aaron wanted his father to be at home.
It was a secret, this fighting that took place when his father was away.
Esther made threats. “I’ll kill you if your father hears of this”, she said one day. She was twisting a wet dish towel in her rough red hands. Aaron saw his neck between those hands. He was seeing the thought in Esther’s mind.
While Aaron tried to banish this image, his mother entered her continuing tirade. It was a conversation she had with her anger disguised as a conversation she was having with her son. In some abstract way Aaron knew that his mother wasn't really speaking to HIM, she was speaking to invisible monsters in the air. “How did the toaster get knocked to the floor? It’s broken! How did that happen? How? HOW? Your dad better not find out about this! I’m so mad I could kill you! Dad has enough on his mind. He works all day and half the night, and he doesn’t need stories about your behavior. Running around the house flying like an airplane, knocking things down right and left. You’ll give your father a heart attack!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “He’ll drop dead and it’ll be your fault! Is that what you want? Is it?”
The word "kill" was as common as pennies in the currency of the Kantro's domestic language. Killing, murder, suicide, death death death....the siblings screamed at each other, "I'll kill you," and "no you won't, I'll kill you first!"
. Sometimes Aaron slapped his hands to his ears. No no no no! His father couldn’t die! He wouldn’t tell, wouldn’t utter a word about this strange …strange…situation. That was a good word. It was a situation. It was a new word for Aaron. He liked to discover new words. It was one of those pleasures that came from inside his mind. This was a way of thinking that he enjoyed. It was the USE of his mind that he enjoyed.
Aaron would protect his father at all costs. It wasn’t dad’s fault he had to be at work so much. Mother always said it: money’s more important than anything, even love!
It wasn’t dad’s fault that he went to work so early and came back so late. It wasn’t dad’s fault that Aaron got so mad he broke dishes and never did his homework and threw a baseball through the living room window.
The problem was that without dad at home, mother could do anything she wanted. It depended on the way she felt. She whipped him with a belt on his behind. She made him stay all day in the dark closet with the door closed. He curled up into a ball and listened to her talk. Her voice got louder and then softer as she moved about the house. She was telling him what he was and she did not spare the curse words. He was stupid, lazy, ugly, a disappointment, a worthless no good son of a bitch and it would have been better if he hadn't been born.
Sometimes Aaron’s mom felt bad and sometimes she felt good but it was spooky good, there was something wrong with how she felt good. She would dance by herself around the living room, singing corny old songs, and then she would put on her mink coat and drive her car to the stores in Clayton and Lake Forest. When she came home she was moving so fast she looked like two people at once while she hid the stuff she had bought. She moved the heavy coats aside and got into the deep shelves at the back of the closet. She pushed at bags and boxes until she made room for the new shoes and earrings and bracelets.
She bought a lot of stuff and Aaron wondered if she was the reason why dad had to work all the time. Dad was scared of her, Aaron realized. He let her do whatever she wanted rather than start one of those terrible fights where screams got so loud the neighbors called the police and mom hit dad so hard his eyes went black.
Aaron didn’t blame his father. It was just bad luck. He had a vague knowledge that his mother hadn't always been this way. She was different when she and dad were first married. She looked different in the pictures. She looked happy and..and...nice!
What had happened to change her from a nice person to such a mean person?
Fighting For The Right
By late September school had already become boring. Aaron didn't have the attention span to hold on to subjects that weren't related to his interests. Numbers, chemicals, categories, all these things whooshed past him without leaving an impression.
Then, on the last day of the month, a notice appeared on the main board just outside the principal's office. It had symbols that Aaron recognized as musical notes and a floaty cartoon of several men in top hats and tuxedoes, tootling on various instruments.
MUSIC APPRECIATION. An elective course available to third and fourth graders would begin in two weeks. Those who were interested should sign their names on the numbered sheet attached. A pencil dangled from a string. This WAS interesting and promised to break the daily monotony of teachers' droning voices. Aaron picked up the bright orange nub and signed his name.
He waited eagerly. Finally, after the passage of two weeks, his home room teacher handed out a number of sealed notices. One of them was for Aaron and he found notification that today, yes, TODAY! At two o'clock, just after the end of recess period, the kids who had signed up for the class were to go to the cafeteria.
Two o'clock came and Aaron was in the biology lab with Mr. Warren, the science teacher. He presented his note. The teacher scanned it and nodded Aaron towards the door.
Aaron found himself traversing the near-empty halls towards the cafeteria. A few kids were converging on the double glass doors leading into the expanse of the lunch facility. They pushed the doors open and found an area where the long rectangular tables had been cleared away to make room for a chalk board, an upright piano and three rows of chairs.
The students found their seats with the usual clamor. After getting a glance at the teacher, kids were bumping one another to sit in the back row. They had done their lightning appraisal of the instructor and they didn't like what they saw: the music teacher looked mean.
It seemed pretty stupid to Aaron to try and get away from this strange looking woman. He took a seat in the front row at the right corner, next to the window. He counted the attendees: eleven students. Eleven out of a total of one hundred ninety seven third and fourth graders at Daniel Boone School. Of those eleven, Aaron guessed with accurate realism, there might be four who were actually interested in Music Appreciation.
The two minute bell rang before third period. Wooden floorboards in the halls amplified chatter and the sounds of hurrying feet. The staccato booming quickly died as classroom doors closed behind tardy students.
The teacher stood next to the blackboard with one hand on her hip, the other holding a long piece of chalk that she was passing through her fingers with intricate dexterity. It twirled from thumb and index finger down to the middle finger, where it stopped and whizzed around that long digit and somehow balanced on its point in the teacher's palm. The chalk then continued and found its way to the pinky and returned the way it had come. The teacher's fingers looked like five perfectly trained snakes.
Aaron was transfixed by this skilful movement. Under his desk he attempted to work the pattern with his pencil, which he instantly dropped and just as instantly picked up.
The kids were wary. A couple of girls whispered the word “ugly”. Aaron looked at the new teacher and tried the word ugly, but it didn’t fit. He rummaged his mind for a word to describe the woman. Not ugly. Not scary. Not mean. Not repulsive.
Then the word came to him. It was a word he didn’t know he knew, but somehow he knew what it meant. Maybe he had read it in David Copperfield.
The word was Homely.
The teacher was homely. Her hair was in a net. Its red brown coils were tucked in an orderly bun. She had large ears. She wore a green blouse and a pink sweater that covered a long bony torso. The sweater was too short at the waist and buttoned to the top over her large adam’s apple. The long brown skirt looked as if it was made a hundred years ago. There was a pair of checked men’s pajama pants visible beneath the hem of the skirt. The grey and green flannel pants swished over white tennis shoes as she walked.
“Take your seats, take your seats,” the woman said in a sonorous voice. When the students had sorted themselves out, the teacher began to write her name on the blackboard with brisk muscular strokes.
“I am,” she said as she tapped the chalk rapidly on the board. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. There was a pause as she finished printing her name. “I am….Mrs. Leek.”
There was an immediate titter throughout the class. Aaron agreed it was a funny name but felt that it would be rude to laugh at another person's name.
Mrs. Leek turned and put her hands on her hips. The laughter diminished but didn’t quite die out. Mrs. Leek looked at the students as if she could stab them with her eyes. Only one boy continued laughing. He was a big dumb kid named Bennie Shapiro. His eyes were closed and his head was pointed towards the ceiling as he brayed like a donkey.
“YOU!” The woman pointed to Benny Shapiro. She was holding the white chalk as if it could beam death-rays. “Do you think there’s something funny about my name?”
Benny’s face came down and turned almost crimson. His long legs were splayed out beneath the chair in front of him, his shoes almost pointing in opposite directions. “Ummm,” Benny murmured, “I was just, uh…”
“And your name is?” The teacher demanded. She had taken a small pad of paper from her skirt pocket and held a pen over it.
Benny was stunned into silence.
“Can someone tell me this young man’s name?”
“Bennie Shapiro” emerged timidly from several children.
Mrs. Leek wrote quickly on her pad, tore the leaf free and walked to Bennie Shapiro. She folded the paper once and handed it to the boy. “You are dismissed from this class, Mister Shapiro. Permanently. I don’t tolerate rudeness. Take this note to your teacher. I’m informing her of why you are no longer in this class. I’ll want her signature, and a signature from one of your parents.”
Bennie was confused and scared. He pulled his legs back under him and got up. He looked around, appealing to his classmates. None met his eyes.
Discipline problems were thus ended in Music Appreciation Class.
Aaron had never encountered a person so strange as Mrs. Leek. She sang rather than spoke. When kids were outside her danger radius, she was a ripe target for mockery. Everywhere in the school some piping voice was imitating her trademark delivery.
“Students!”, they sang, “Who can tell me the name of this music? Students! What instrument do you hear in this solo?” After two weeks the kids shaved the imitation to a lilting utterance of the single word in two notes: Students! They became like bird calls, emitting from the playground, answered from the second floor, again from the gym. “Students!”, they sang, and followed with fits of giggling.
Mrs. Leek didn’t care. She was terrifying. This capacity to instill fear was a combination of her stunning dour face and the expressions of contempt she could use to bore straight through a student’s soul. Her lips were extremely full and were marked with cracked vertical lines. They contrasted with the gaunt angles of her cheekbones and the horse-like shape of her skull. Her skin had the texture of pitted leather. Sometimes her face looked like a tree knot, a place where a branch had failed to sprout.
Her teaching methods were strict and direct. She didn’t mind getting wrong answers. At least they were answers. One day she pointed a yardstick at a boy named Mark Rabinowitz.
“Can you tell me, Mister Rabinowitz, what German composer struggled with deafness throughout his life?”
The boy yawned, blinked, appeared to think for a moment. “Umm, uh, Fats Domino?"
Mrs. Leek popped the yardstick across a desktop, making it snap so loud everyone jumped.
“All I want to know is whether or not you are alive!” the woman said. “I’m not asking so much. Make a guess, take a chance. You can’t look more stupid than you do now. ‘Duh, um, Fats Domino?,’”she mocked. “Beethoven’s Balls, most of you kids are zombies.”
Mrs. Leek’s curse had brought all the students to a state of fascinated alertness.
“I suppose I’ll get fired now,” she said calmly. “I’ll only miss two or three of you.”
Her eyes met Aaron’s and she gave him the slightest wink. Aaron’s insides relaxed with unfamiliar gratitude as he realized that he would be one of those few students.
The incident passed and the eccentric teacher did not get fired. She continued the arduous task of instilling music into the lives of her students.
She brought record albums from her collection. One day she brought 45’s by Fabian and Elvis. She played them side by side with old records by Mississippi blues men with funny names. Blind Willy this. Pegleg Joe that.
“You see how the rhythms and chords are really the same?” she asked. Two or three sets of eyes were alert. Aaron Kantro nodded but was too paralyzed with shyness to speak.
When the teacher played Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington, Aaron felt like he was on a rocket ship. He thought a fuse had been lit under his chair. The music gave him goose bumps. He felt a strange warmth at the back of his neck.
Friday, March 19, 2010
In the east
tourists release caged birds,
they open the wicker door,
the finch steps bravely forward,
pfff, wings flutter, up in the air,
gone, little bird gone.The kestrel strikes
as it makes it rounds
above the marketplace.
This quaint custom
is a symbol of the soul’s liberation
is a symbol of the soul’s liberation
from the endless rounds of death and rebirth.
The tourists don't see the kestrel
The tourists don't see the kestrel
they miss the next logical step.
When they free the yellow finch
they are feeding the kestrel and its young.
They think they have practiced virtue,
they pay a few rupees and move on,
they pay a few rupees and move on,
that the joyous flutter of wings
is not a yellow finch
restored to its free wild life
but a kestrel feeding its young
on our ignorance.
Friday, March 5, 2010
We are full time RV dwellers, and we love it. We live in a safe, well maintained Kountry Kampground north of San Francisco. Rent is cheap. A small community of “monthlies”, as we’re called, live year round in our big coaches, trailers and fifth wheels. There’s an unwritten social contract here. We leave one another alone. We want space, peace, we want to keep a low profile.
When we arrived in March of 2005 we didn’t know how to conduct our lives in a campground. We hadn’t learned how to choose a strategic site for our RV. We took what was available, a site that was at the center of the northern campground. We had people coming and going on both sides, as well as fore and aft. We had a continual round of new neighbors.
At first this was somewhat unnerving. Soon enough we discovered that if we wanted to schmooze, we could say hello, and if we didn’t, we could keep to ourselves and be left alone.
The only problem that wouldn’t go away was the strange couple living in a tiny trailer in the row immediately behind us.
When I say tiny, I’m talking about an RV model called “The Casita”. It is nothing more than a sleeping bag with walls. It’s interior is about the size of a Japanese capsule hotel room. A person can just about sit upright without banging the head. It has a little sink and a hot plate.
There were two people and a full grown Dalmatian dog living in this wheeled packing crate. It was hard to imagine how they could survive under these conditions, yet they were there, coming and going. Unfortunately, the dog didn’t get to come and go. He stayed locked in this dreadfully tiny space. He howled his loneliness and claustrophobic misery in a way that turned our lives into hell. This was our first month at the campground.
These were our neighbors .
These were our neighbors .
Fox and I we went helplessly berserk over this dog. We tried to hatch schemes to liberate him from his plight.
There was something dreadfully “off” about the couple who owned the dog. If I make the statement, “I couldn’t look at them”, I want you to take me literally.
Every time I tried, my eyes seemed to meet a force field that deflected vision. My sight could get to within a foot or so of Ms.X or Mr. Y and then my eyeballs would physically bounce a few feet farther along, repelled by a barrier occupying the space at which I was attempting to look. This was one of the strangest things I have ever experienced.
I asked one of my neighbors to look at the couple next time the opportunity arose. I asked for a brief description of the people who were living within eight yards of our coach. The dog was no problem. I could see the dog when he was let out on a chain. I couldn’t see the people. I could hear them, I could make out their voices if not their words, I knew when their pickup truck pulled into and out of the parking space. Fox and I said hello a few times and were completely ignored. That’s weird, to greet a person who responds by behaving as if you don’t exist.
The next day my other neighbor came over and said, “I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they look like. I can’t really see them. Maybe they just move so fast I can’t draw a bead.”
The human eye moves extremely quickly. It wanders, far more than we consciously know. Eye movement is the fastest muscular action in the human body. These lightning quick movements are called saccades. I read a science fiction novel recently in which alien creatures knew how to scan human eye saccades and move only during those micro-seconds when human beings were looking away. This created a ‘just-at-the- edge-of- -vision’ effect, and gave the aliens a tactical advantage in outmaneuvering their enemies.
Whatever the cause, I could not look at, I could not see these people. They must have wanted so badly to be invisible that they had created a psychological force field. This mysterious couple evaded eye contact, they moved in such a manner as to attract minimum attention. They did not engage in conversation. They had taken the adjective “furtive” to a new level. Somehow, they had established an invisibility matrix, they had tuned in to the collective saccade. Fox couldn’t see them. My neighbors saw them more than we did, but not much. My neighbors could detect a few details of clothing or hair color. He couldn’t describe their height, weight, features, ethnicity. Nothing.
Only the dog provided a common ground of agreement that they were there at all. Otherwise, they would have been “the people who weren’t there.”
When they were home, the dog came out on a chain. He looked at us sadly, wagged his tail and sat quietly, licking his paws. If one of us said, “Hi buddy,” he would come to the limit of his chain, hoping for friendly contact.
When the Xys left for the day, which was most days, the dog got stuck inside the little house on wheels. He keened piteously. We were going insane.
Other neighbors began to feel the hurt that lived so pitifully in our midst. There was no question that this was animal abuse. Solving the problem was not simple. We could call the Humane Society, but that was tantamount to a death sentence for the dog. We didn’t know what the dog’s owners would do. If they were criminals, we could find ourselves targets for retaliation. It wasn’t our style to call the authorities. Other and more imaginative solutions had to be found.
The first thing, the simplest thing, was to leave a note.
“Hi neighbors,” the note said, “if you would like help with your dog, we would be glad to take him for a walk. Just leave a note on our car (the white Jeep) if this sounds like a good idea. signed, your neighbors in site 45.”
I crossed the lane and taped this note to the door.
The next day there was a response, in the form of another note, on bright yellow paper, attached to THEIR door. It seemed reasonable to assume that this paper was their response to our request.
I went across the lane. The note was terse. “Buster’s fine,” it said. “He gets exercise.”
Buster wasn’t fine. His howls changed to a continuous scratching sound. He was tearing up the inside of the tiny RV. We began hearing a low haunting wail, followed by frantic scraping sounds.
One day the Xys came home, and I heard the woman shouting at Buster. Thwop Thwop Thwop!, she was beating him with a magazine.
We couldn’t stand much more of Buster’s agony.
Help came in the form of Roscoe and Lulu Martin. They came to the campground with their dog Barkley. They were regulars. They came almost every weekend. Roscoe was an Aussie merchant seaman with arms full of crude tattoos. He looked the part of the classic rough n’ tumble Australian. He was tall and fair, windburned. Lulu was a petite Jewish woman from Long Island, with a great cascade of red-brown hair. She had endured twenty years of an ugly marriage, then more years of frustrating single-ness. Then she met and fell in love with Roscoe.
They spent their weekends around the campfire, drinking beer and laughing at Barkley. Roscoe played wonderfully delicate songs on his guitar. Lulu sighed with adoration. They were an eccentric couple, a love story of people from opposite ends of the earth who might not meet in a million years. Yet they met, clicked and had been married more than a decade.
Barkley was a Retriever-sized mutt who was obsessed with the hammock. He would jump into the hammock as Roscoe snoozed with a half empty can of Foster’s perched on his belly. Together they would tumble to the ground in a tangle of arms, legs and tail. Lulu would emerge from the Winnie to untangle them, and the process would start again. No one begrudged Barkley his love of the hammock. He just didn’t understand the concept of sharing.
“He needs a playmate”, Lulu said. “We’re looking for another dog.”
We knew about a dog that needed another family. All that was required was for the Xys to relinquish Buster.
We described Buster’s plight to the Martins. “Alrighty,” Roscoe said, “on the morrow we shall pay a visit to these blokes and straighten things out. Eh Barkley? You want a friend?” Barkley jumped up into the now-empty hammock, his tongue hanging out, his eyes saying “I love everything about you and everything you do.”
The Xys seemed to spend most of the afternoon and evening away from the campground. They left at about eleven, returning at nine or ten o’clock.
Roscoe was going to be the point man. He would knock on the door of the tiny trailer. He would make his offer: we’ll take your dog off your hands and give him a good home.
Roscoe had balls of brass and could talk anyone into anything.
At about ten in the morning, Lulu, Fox and I took positions at our picnic table. Roscoe, leading Barkley on a leash, went across the way and knocked firmly at the door of the tiny RV.
We knew the Xys were home. Their pickup was parked in front. When Roscoe knocked, Buster began shrill barking from inside the RV. The door did not open. Roscoe knocked again. Barkley sat back on his haunches and uttered a low “Ooooo” in response to the frenzied hacks of Buster.
The Xys did’t open the door. I saw the curtain move at the tiny window. A frightened eye briefly peered out, then vanished. Buster’s shrill alarms must have been deafening from inside the tiny trailer. The Xys couldn’t hold out very long.
Roscoe circled the little vehicle, stepping over the hitch, going to the other side and around, back to the door. He knocked hard. “Come on, mates, you’re in there,” he shouted over the sound of barking dogs. “I don’t mean ya harm. I just want to make you an offer.”
Four or five minutes passed. It really seemed as if the Xys intended to just wait us out. We were prepared to wait longer.
At last the door opened, the little screen flew against the trailer’s flank and Ms. X, came outside.
Roscoe stepped backward in sudden revulsion. Even where we sat, the stench was palpable. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. Ms. X carefully closed the screen door behind her. I tried to look at her. I could see lanky brown hair, long and dirty. That’s all my eyes were permitted to register.
“What do you want?” she asked, flatly.
“This heah’s Bahhkley”, Roscoe said in his rounded Aussie vowels. “He’s lonesome and we heah you have a dog that might want a friend that…..”
“Fuck off,” Ms X interrupted Roscoe. “I love Buster. He’s my dog.”
She did a one eighty and went back inside the tiny rig, closing the door. The stink filled the air. How could people live inside that cloud of dog shit smell?
“Fuck off to you too,” finished Roscoe. He stood there for a moment. Barkley rubbed his face against Roscoe’s leg. Together they walked across the roadway.
“Unbelievable,” exclaimed Roscoe. “You would not believe what that place looks like inside. There’s stuff everywhere, and most of it’s stuck together with dog shit. Ucccchh!”
Thwop thwop thwop, we heard Buster yelp as he was hit with Ms. X’s instrument of discipline. The poor animal stopped barking.
“I think, “ I said, loudly enough to be heard all up and down the row,
”that we need to talk to the management about these people.”
Quietly, Roscoe said, “they’re up to here with the dog. I sort of saw the guy, or at least I saw something like a man, well, I saw a baseball cap, that’s all I saw. Bloody ‘ell, they’re hard to see, those people. Anyway, he was saying, Let em have the fuckin dog.’ He imitated a redneck American accent perfectly. It was funny but our hearts were breaking. “I think something will break loose in the next little bit. No worries, we’ll get poor Buster.”
I wish I’d had his confidence. We could report the Xys, we could get them thrown out of the campground, but that wouldn’t help Buster.
We went down to Roscoe and Lulu’s campsite. We wanted to put some distance between us and the Xys. It was Saturday and the campground was full. The weekly mediocre blues band was warming up on the slab surrounding the pool. Soon they would be belting out “Mustang Sally”, and we would go inside, close the windows and read until evening fell.
Barkley jumped into the hammock. Lulu spoke firmly. “Get down, Barkley, down!” Reluctantly, the dog vacated the swinging net. Roscoe popped a Foster’s and lay down in the hammock with a sigh. Barkley pushed off with his rear legs and landed atop Roscoe, and the two of them fell to the ground, foam lager slopping from the can and wetting man and dog.
“You bugger, Bahkley,” Roscoe laughed. “Got to put him on his lead or he’ll never quit.” He took the dog and fastened him to twenty five feet of nylon. It put the dog just out of range of the hammock. Barkley lay with his head on his paws. Roscoe picked up the Foster’s, brushed some leaves away and returned to the hammock.
“We’ll see mates, something will come up. Old Buster’s a nice looking dog. He doesn’t deserve that treatment.” Roscoe took a sip, closed his eyes and drifted with the breeze. Lulu was inside the camper preparing bangers and English muffins. The day went by the way so many spring Saturdays do in the campground. Fires were lit as night fell. Beer and wine were consumed, kids raced around on skateboards, people laughed. The Crazed Laugher cackled her resonant campground-filling laugh, which made everyone within hearing laugh all the harder.
We returned to our coach. Across the way, silence emanated from the tiny trailer. It was hard to keep despair from our hearts.
I experience more pain when I see animals abused than when I see pain inflicted on human beings. Maybe that makes me weird, I don’t know. It’s just the way it is. Animals can’t effectively defend themselves when humans are bent on causing them pain. They’re caged, restrained, and otherwise helpless. They have no words to express their grief. They have only cries, yelps, whines, screams. They probably don’t understand why they’re being hurt, why a man or woman is beating or tormenting them. I get very upset when I see an animal treated badly. Buster’s plight was like an ice pick in my heart.
Fox was beyond words. Her inchoate stifling made me burn with helpless anger. She could see Buster’s thoughts, read his images. It was terrible.
We went to bed that night without hope. It seemed as though we must report the doings of the Xys to Woodson, the campground owner. Woodson set a standard, and when his customers violated his rules, they were out of the campground with no warning and no second chance.
We had trouble getting to sleep that night. Buster’s pain and the ugliness of the Xys were making our first month of campground life a misery. What if it was always this way? What if there was always some horrible person to make life an ugly ordeal in campgrounds?
About one thirty, we drifted off to sleep. Both of us had bad dreams. My nocturnal visions were a chaos, a commotion of dogs howling, hands beating, pickup trucks spewing pebbles.
I always wake before Fox. I start a pot of coffee, check my email. When the coffee’s ready I take a book and go outside, to sit in one of our folding chairs.
I did the usual things. There was something odd about the world, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Something out of place, something missing. For thirty seconds I looked around. I was half asleep, not really connecting the dots. Then I realized that the tiny Casita trailer was gone. The Xys had hooked the thing to their ratty old F-150 and vanished in the night.
They had left Buster, chained to a tree.
I crossed the lane, squatted in front of Buster and said hello, giving him a sniff of my hand. He was sweet and friendly, delighted to see me. I unhooked his chain and walked with my hand through his collar over to our coach. I dragged the chain behind, and hooked Buster up to a D-ring on our awning. Then I went inside and woke Fox.
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