Featured in Colorado Review
The Dogs of DetroitFeatured, Fiction
Published Summer 2014
Nights when Polk cannot hunt the dogs, he instead attacks his father. He has grown to crave the hot pain spreading over his face, the bulging of his knuckles when they connect with bone. His father fights back just enough. They roll around on the floor, struggling and grunting, sneaking in shots to the ribs and the temples. When they tire, they each collapse, wheezing, moaning. They rub their flushed faces and lick away the blood pooling on their gums and retreat to their corners. No resentment or words, as if they are not punching each other, not exactly. A narcotic hunger being fed, one that brings no joy, but rather is a conduit for torment.
After their fights, they lie there, panting, blinking back tears, and only then does Polk confide in his father. He lists off the revenges he wants to take on the universe. He imagines the worst things possible: toddler coffins, flayed penguins, pipe bombs in convents, napalm in orphanages. He hates himself for it, his selfishness, his appetite for sloppy justice. Always he ends up wondering the same thing: Does God hate me more than I hate God?
His father reaches for Polk’s hand, but Polk pulls away. No touching unless it is to create violence. “Patience,” his father says. “We must learn grief.”
After school, Polk hunts. He ranges across the urban wilderness of the East Side, ducks through the cutting winds off St. Clair. He lugs a Winchester bolt action by the barrel, dragging the stock on the ground, leaving a crease in the snow. He tracks dog prints through the industrial fields, through the brambled grasses and split concrete and begrimed snow. Through decomposing warehouses and manufacturing cathedrals that nature has reclaimed. Hundreds of deserted acres. These are wild dogs he kills, no longer bearing any trace of domestication. Few people left, but the dogs—tens of thousands of dogs, abandoned during this great human exodus. There is no Atticus Finch to blast the rabies from them, no little girl to drag them home by the scruff to her father and say, May we please? As all else crumbles, the dogs remain.
And then one day: his mother’s tracks, long and narrow, weight on the outside ridges. Keds. She always wore Keds. She has been gone two months now, disappeared. She was there when Polk went to school, sitting at the kitchen table, sucking on a menthol, gone when he got home. But these are her prints. He knows them. They mix in with the dog prints, as if she has joined them. Perhaps she has been hunted by them, perhaps something else altogether.
Eventually, he thinks, I’ll whiten the canvas, leaving only her tracks. Eventually, a pattern will emerge. But with each dog he kills, his palate mutates: joy. The heavy thunk of bullet piercing a ribcage. Eliminating a contagion. A growing pleasure to be found in mindless violence. Carcasses left to rot, to be ravaged by predators. Always there seem to be more dogs, like a muscle in need of constant stretching.
At school, he sits alone. He is a large boy, the largest in the junior high school, his feet flapping on the concrete hallways as if they were made for an adult but then attached to him instead. The art teacher, Mrs. Roudebush, prods him to rejoin the world. More pictures of Mom, Polk? More charcoal? Why not try the acrylics? Some greens and yellows and magentas.
“No thank you,” he says. His face remains placid, all its topography flattened, grown numb, unable to flex. He refuses to look up, and she soon wanders away to check on other students.
After school he walks home to their house on the East Side, then through the tunnel of tall grasses, which have swallowed up all but the second story where they never go. Collapsed staircase, plywood windows, a contentedness in allowing it to erode.
These winter days, the sun never truly rises. No direct light, no marbled streaks or roiling clouds, just a vast gray slab. Slowly, the night mottles into blued steel as if other colors have not yet been discovered. He grabs the Winchester and sets off, follows the freshest of the dog prints as far as they will take him, across the freeway and toward the old Packard compound, its remnants. He nestles onto a hillside, his favorite perch, downwind. A sniper in Stalingrad. He takes down two dogs quickly, the echoes of the rifle shots ballooning out in waves. The sun droops. A mangy pit bull trots into the field, and Polk takes it down, the round ripping through the dog back near its haunches, and it stumbles, tries to limp away, dragging its paralyzed legs. For several minutes it struggles forward and Polk watches. Then it stops moving. Polk trudges home, stomping wide holes in the snow, the butt of the Winchester digging a crease behind him. His mother’s prints, which had been clear the day before, have vanished, taken by the wind.
Mrs. Roudebush introduces tertiary colors: chartreuse, magenta, russet, azure. “These,” she says, “are the gems. The true colors of nature. Turned leaves are not red or yellow or pink. They are citron, plum, vermilion.”
“Hey, Poke,” one boy with shaggy hair and an earring whispers across the table. “Hey, mama’s boy.” Polk used to know the boy’s name, but he has forgotten it. Usually, they leave him alone, but sometimes he is such easy prey they seem not to be able to help themselves.
The kids at his table whisper just loudly enough that he can hear. “His mom used to smoke crack,” a girl says.
“I know it,” another girl says. “I seen her do it with my stepdad.”
“Poke likes crack, too, don’t you, Poke?” The boy leans across the table, but just then Mrs. Roudebush kneels next to Polk.
“This is one of my favorites,” she whispers. She hands him a tube of paint. “Viridian. I wonder if you might try it today.”
Polk feels that this lesson is designed specifically for him. Adults talk differently after tragedy, as if he is suddenly six years old rather than thirteen. He paints a picture of his mother at the kitchen table. The tip of her cigarette is viridian, the smoke coiling off is slate. Her hair is russet, the table is buff. The clock on the wall, which is actually yellow, he decides to paint plum so that it barely distinguishes itself. He catches the shadows with gray-browns and blue-grays, and before long the scene emerges from his memory, protrudes through the paper like a hologram.
He paints her teeth, paints the spaces between them, wide enough for a pencil point. Her rotting gums are some mix of gray and brown, like frozen mud. Her foggy eyes tired, unable to focus. Her head rocking, as if to some silent melody. He paints his father standing in the doorway, arms crossed. He is half looking at her, half looking at the floor, as if he cannot decide which is more painful.
“Fetch your mother a Diet,” she says to Polk, and he does. It’s warm. Broken refrigerator. She tries to light another menthol, but she shakes too badly. She puts her elbows on the table, leans down toward the lighter. Polk watches her struggle and fail, and then he snatches the lighter, bends down and lights the cigarette for her.
“You love your mother, don’t you, Polk?”
“Marie,” Polk’s father says. They stare at each other.
“I know it,” she says. “Tomorrow.”
“Time for school,” his father says, reaching for him, drawing him away from the kitchen, out the front door. What he remembers now is that he never answered her question—You love your mother, don’t you, Polk? He went to school instead. Yes, he should have said. Even like this.
That afternoon she vanished.
Polk’s father is waiting for him on the front sidewalk. Polk tries to sidestep him and go in the house and take the Winchester and do his duty.
“Polk,” his father says. “No more guns.”
Polk stares blankly.
“The police called again. They’re done understanding.”
“Have they found her or not?” Polk asks.
“Polk, that’s not—”
“I know what you think.”
“I know you don’t miss her. I know that. You never even cried.”
His father sits on the top step. He won’t look at Polk. “I know you feel like you’re stuck with me now. I know you loved her more. I can’t do anything about that.”
Polk points toward the industrial complex. “I see her prints.”
His father squints. “All kind of bums and druggies hide out in that place. What are you doing over there?”
Polk doesn’t answer.
“You can’t trust those. Those could be anything. We both knew her.”
“I can tell when people think I’m lying,” he says.
His father sighs and looks away. “Polk,” he says, but then decides not to finish. Finally, he says, “We can’t keep doing this.”
“You don’t believe me. You never believed her either.”
“Polk, I believe you.”
“Don’t do that.”
“Polk, you need to stop this.”
Something in Polk fractures. Can’t compartmentalize anger and pain anymore. They bleed together. He puts his hands on his knees, tries to slow it, long breaths, closed eyes.
His father recognizes the signs. “Can it wait?”
Polk shakes his head, no, and his father nods, all right then.
They stomp through the high grass and dirty snow of the front yard, tamp down a wide circle that feels like a cage. Polk tackles his father but can’t bring him down. He yanks and twists a leg, secures it under his armpit until his father finally goes down, knees to the snow. They’re trundling around then, back and forth like a rolling pin, neither gaining position. Polk takes an elbow to the sternum, which knocks his breath loose, and he rolls to his back. He kicks up, punches, his father smacking Polk’s face raw and red. Polk feels the meat of his fist half-connect with something but doesn’t know what. White noise and blur. His nose gets mashed, and the tears come then, no stopping it. He bucks, letting loose the last bit of his anger, exploding up, pivoting at his hips and driving his father down, then hammering his fists into chest. He clasps his fists together and churns his arms down like a piston, boring his way down onto his father.
And then it’s over. No more energy, no more anger. They exist together. For several minutes they hardly move, just pant and cough. This is the normal trajectory. Soon they will rise to their knees, then stand and move into the house.
“Syringe Ebola into baby formula,” Polk says. He’s gasping, the words pulsing out in blurred waves. “Hack a newborn giraffe with a machete.”
“Dynamite the Statue of Liberty.”
“Grocery bags full of puppy ears.”
Polk stops sleeping in his bed. Too soft, too warm. Goodness to be found in small miseries: cold floors, festering splinters, fingertips burnt on light bulbs. He lies on the floorboards, no pillow, no blanket.
Outside the wind ravages the old house. The dogs, he can hear the dogs, howling and snarling, and then more snow comes, dampening the yelping echoes and covering old tracks. There is no sleep, not anymore, only an untended aggression that needs to be fed.
She is near, he knows this. He begins smelling her perfume, flowers and vanilla. More than once he moves her old ashtray from the table to the counter, only to have it moved back by the morning. His father does not smoke. And of course, her prints. Is she too ashamed to come back? Is that it? Or is she angry with him because he didn’t say he loved her?
He sees her tracks again one morning, fresh tracks in the fresh snow. Not twenty feet from the front door, pacing around the grass cage where he fought his father. Keds, very clearly Keds. They slither through the tall grass, around the north side of the house, up to each of the front windows. There they shrink and push deeper into the snow. On her tiptoes, peering in. He feels her lingering presence, as if they are trying to occupy the same space, as if she is trying to make sense of what has happened since she left. He examines each print, follows them out the backyard and through the split chain links. He tracks them north, fifty yards into the fields, the longest he has ever been able to track her, but then they enter into a depression of ice and evaporate. He circles around looking for an exit point, but there is none. Gone again.
Nearby is the pit bull mix that he shot the week before. It has a distinctive brindle pattern to its coat. Dilutions of gold on a black base crawl as if trying to escape. He is exposed, vulnerable without his rifle. Its stomach has been opened up, devoured. The other dogs, hungry for whatever protein still exists in this wasteland. And he thinks for a moment of the oddity of it all, how he kills the dogs and leaves them to rot, how the other dogs eat their pack mates to survive. He hunts them and hunts for them. This canvas will never whiten. He isn’t sure what all this means, but he does know that the natural order of things has been upended, that he is caught up in it somehow.
Polk steals paint from school, tertiary colors, fills in every set of prints that might be hers. He squeezes paint into each print, filling it fully, cleanly, spreads it over every contour, and then moves on to the next print, and soon her trail glows, emerging from the snow and mud like collapsed stars. The paint will harden, freeze, will remain fixed there for as long as it takes for Polk to make sense of them. No more disappearing trails. He uses his stash of paints to categorize them by color, by direction, by time frame, then draws a tape measure around the expanse of the compound, slowly, from one set of prints to another, even measures stride lengths. He notes everything.
The dogs eye him but keep their distance, curious and mocking. Like an undertaker gazing at a body, perhaps. Polk doesn’t feel hunted exactly, but he feels something at the base of his skull, their lurking curiosity, feels how little he now belongs in this place. It belongs to the dogs.
Nights, he sits at the kitchen table. He moves the ashtray with her menthol butts to the counter, begins drawing a scaled map, every feature of the area, every print of hers, every color noted. He feels like a scientist tracking the migration patterns of some near-extinct species of bird. In time, her own patterns will emerge, her location. They must. For the first time since she disappeared, he feels a goodness in himself, a warmth not from violence.
“What’s this?” his father asks.
“I’m not allowed to shoot the dogs anymore.”
His father sits next to him, looks the map over for a moment. “These are places you’ve seen her trail?”
Polk keeps drawing, tracing a pencil across a ruler. Slow, precise movements.
“Polk?” his father says quietly, but Polk ignores him. He spends all evening drawing a map of the area, each set of prints noted and appropriately colored to indicate a timetable.
“My little cartographer,” his father says, but Polk ignores him still. This is more than a map. This is a time line, a psychological study.
The next day, her ashtray is back on the table again. There are cigarettes in it, menthol butts that do not seem new but that he can’t recall seeing before.
He begins to see her footprints everywhere, glowing at him. They emerge from his father’s eyes. He sees them in headlights and oddly thrown shadows; during art class; in his dreams when he sleeps in short, hateful spurts. Sometimes the dog tracks morph as he stares at them, become longer, narrow, deeper on the ridges. Sometimes they are large and sometimes small, but they are all hers, this he knows.
“It’s not fair,” his father says. “None of it. I know that.” He tries to massage Polk’s shoulders, but Polk shies away. These attempts are clumsy and practiced now. They aren’t a family; they’re remnants of one. When she disappeared, their tripod crumbled.
There was a time, not very long ago, when they had been happy. He knows this now because he never thought about being happy. They had jobs, his father at the machine shop, his mother in the deli at the Kit Kat. She always brought home bologna that was almost expired, and they would fry it up until it bubbled and popped.
He clings to a single memory. Sledding down a small scoop of a hill near baseball fields, dirty snow packed down. He tries to remember where this hill was, but the location eludes him. Is it a false memory? he wonders. Something he has manufactured to cope? His mother would give Polk a big shove, and he would slingshot down the hill, skittering and spinning where it turned into ice, and when the speed became too much, he closed his eyes, afraid to see what lay below. Each time he shot down the hill, he lost control, but always he would end up at the bottom, face up in the snow, always his father waiting, asking, Should we go again? Then walking back to the house, having to wedge himself between his mother and his father because they were holding hands. He remembers the smell of her perfume. When they got home, he took a shower, but the water had gone cold again. Bad plumbing, dud water heater. When he walked into the front room, still shivering and wet, his father pulled a towel from the oven and swaddled him with it, and his skin slowly softened, his breaths lengthened until he felt whole and content.
Polk stops going to school, spends the days painting tracks, updating his map. He is meticulous, always bent over a set of prints or making notations. The pattern will emerge, the methods to her movements, this he knows. He plunges deep into the grounds of the Packard compound, even venturing into the buildings when he is feeling brave. Sometimes he sees vandals, other times photographers, but mostly he sees dogs and homeless people who share the various buildings in relative peace. He maps and paints, maps and paints. He stops sleeping, just expands the map, growing weary and unpredictable. Everything begins to feel random. It begins to look like a star map, with constellations emerging, glowing at him.
One day, Polk comes home to find Mrs. Roudebush sitting at the table with his father. She clutches her purse and smiles at him, her sad smile like an apology. “We’ve missed you,” she says.
Polk looks down, and his eyes land on his hands, his large and awkward hands smeared with paint. He looks back up at Mrs. Roudebush, but before he is forced to speak, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a paper bag. She sets it on the table. “I was doing some cleaning,” she says. She stands up to leave, hangs her purse from her shoulder. “My husband,” she says, “he died three years ago.”
Polk feels himself flinch and stares at her.
“I used to roll over in the middle of the night, and he was in bed with me. Sometimes I even heard him snore. I swear I did. Sometimes I would wake up, and his radio would be going. I told my sister about it, but you could tell she didn’t believe me. That was hard. I couldn’t understand why it had to be like that. I refused to change the sheets because I thought he was in there somehow. I slept on those sheets for a year, every night, hoping to feel him or smell him or hear his snores. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t. It was all I thought about. I moved the microwave and the television into the bedroom. I lived in there. One day, my sister found me like that, and she made me take a shower and wash the sheets. Do you know what we found when we stripped the bed?”
Polk shakes his head, no.
“A small painting, an acrylic on canvas, no stretcher. At first I didn’t recognize it, but then I realized it was a scene I had done, probably thirty years ago, not long after we were married, my husband thin and clean shaven, me thin and with a long ponytail. We were standing in front of our first house, not far from here. I had forgotten about that painting, but there it was under the mattress pad.”
She looks to Polk’s father. “There’s no explaining that.”
“Did he put it there?” Polk asks.
“I don’t know, dear. I really don’t. But I think the dead teach us how to grieve,” she says. “I don’t understand it either, but that’s what I think. Sometimes people can be gone and not gone at the same time. They know things we don’t know.” She smiles at him. “God doesn’t hate you, Polk.”
That night Polk lies on the floor. The bag of paints sits next to him. He hasn’t yet opened it, but he knows what’s in there. He wants to go outside right then and use them, take a flashlight and find the tracks and paint them. What are you trying to teach me? he wonders. He finds himself packing a bag of supplies: bottles of water, beef jerky, Skittles, dog treats, extra socks, a Maglite, toilet paper. He rolls his set of maps up tightly.
He walks out into the kitchen, where his father is sitting at the table. He turns to look at Polk, and dangling from his lips is a cigarette butt. Remnants of her. It has been stubbed out and twisted, unlit, hanging limply. His father is startled. “Polk,” he says. “Can’t you sleep?”
“She’s out there,” he says. “Every night, right now, she’s out there. Her tracks are freshest in the morning.”
“No,” his father says. He pulls the cigarette from his mouth and delicately places it back in the ashtray, as if it is some fragile treasure. “You’re not doing this.”
Polk shrugs. It’s time, he knows this. If he waits much longer, he’ll lose her.
“I’ve let this go on too long.”
“You have to sleep at some point,” Polk says.
“I won’t allow this.”
“I’ll bring her home,” Polk says.
“She’s not out there, Polk. You’re looking for trouble. You want to join her.”
“You’re just glad she’s gone. You don’t have to help her now.”
His father smacks him then, the flat of his palm on Polk’s cheek. This is by no means the first time his father has struck him, but this time is different, this is anger.
Polk pounces on his father. They tumble over the table, spill onto the floor. They struggle. Polk hears himself grunt and snarl. He doesn’t punch and kick so much as he thrashes wildly. Then he catches an elbow to the eye, and the world blurs. He yelps with the pain, grabs at it with both hands. His father stops, bends over Polk to examine it.
“Let me look at it, Polk.”
There is a cut clean through his eyelid, like a half-peeled orange. It won’t close all the way. Even when he tries, light seeps through the crack. Everything is mottled, ill-defined edges, blurred colors. They put ice on it, then a hot rag, then some ointment. “Polk,” his father says. “Jesus, Polk. I didn’t—”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“You need stitches.”
“Stop.” Polk wheezes and coughs. “It felt good, didn’t it?”
His father looks like he is the one who is wounded. “Do you really think that?” His face is drawn, defeated. He bends and picks up the ashtray and butts and sweeps the ashes into a pile. He doesn’t look up. “If you want to go, I can’t stop you.”
The moon glows full, or near full, throwing an eerie sort of light, like the structures themselves blush. Polk must cock his head to the side or cover his thrashed eye to see more clearly. Soon he is trolling the site, rummaging from building to building, tracing his way methodically, following his maps. Even after months of scouting dogs, tracking his mother, noting everything, he has explored only a fraction of the compound. It is like a series of cave systems that turn out to be linked, spreading out forever in all directions. But he has supplies. He will mimic her movements for as long as it takes.
He sniffs his way through one building at a time, one floor at a time, scouring every closet, every side room, behind every pile of rubble, his flashlight flickering in every direction. Collapsed staircases and crumbling masonry and bowed walls. Drips through the open roof, frozen like milky stalactites. All abandoned, as if in haste: filing cabinet drawers thrown open like gaping maws; a ’57 Clipper, no engine block, sitting mute on the line; rebar poking through split concrete; cottonwood trees growing from floorboards, leaning away from St. Clair’s wind. He shoos away dogs, passes sleeping bodies without a word. For the first time, Polk feels real fear, a coldness clenching his torso. The feeling that he is not alone, that he is the one being tracked now. Until now he didn’t care what happened to him, but the vast quiet of this crypt is too terrifying, the fact that he sees shapes and colors more than fully defined objects.
He soon feels that he could map this system for years and still be no nearer to finding her. All night he explores, makes notations on his maps, stoops to examine prints. Prints all over. This is a populated world, crowded with life: dogs, cats, foxes, at least one coyote. Humans. He passes them silently as they lie curled, backs to the wind. Some of them shiver, but most seem not to notice him. He is certain he hears a baby cry at one point. He stands still, waits for the cry to pierce the silence again, but there is only the long quiet, the creaking of the buildings. When he moves off, there is a long and shrill howl of a dog, first a single wail, and then others respond, some far off, but others nearer, too near. He twists his head to listen. Are they communicating? Pack mates on the hunt?
Then a crawling sensation, like the shock from a nine-volt on the tongue. Then the smell: his mother’s perfume, flowers and vanilla.
He spins around. No one. He narrows his eyes like an eagle, glares into every crevice of the room, tilts his flashlight at every angle, sees nothing, no one. He tilts his head, uses his good eye. Nothing. He sniffs deeply: menthols.
“Are you here?” he says. The first words he has spoken all night. Then: “Why here?”
This is when he would usually attack his father, loose that confused anger onto the world where it might dissolve. But there is no one here, no violence he can inflict. He tries to think of brutal things to do to the world, but none come to him. It is as if some awful weariness has flattened him. How long has he been here? When did he last sleep? Everything is tertiary colors pulsing from a fuzzy black background, moonlight, haze.
When he moves away from the wall, it is green moss everywhere. Where there was snow, now there is moss. Plush, spongy. Her prints stamped into it. They should be his own prints, but they are hers. The deeper trenches at the ridges, the veiny webs on the soles, the short span between each heel strike. They are hers. He follows them, careful not to trample. They lead up a grand staircase, through a series of offices, over creaking wood floors and concrete ground into gravel. Silence, all silence, and the cutting reek of menthol.
He follows the trail, follows the smell. They tug him along as if he wears a belay line. Soon he is trotting, climbing upward, ignoring the stomping noise he makes, the commotion of disturbing a closed system. He emerges on the roof, a surface so vast it seems like he is back on the ground. He meanders among a grove of cottonwoods that poke through the concrete. They are leafless, their icy limbs shaking in the wind, clattering and creaking. The tang of menthol grows stronger. He coughs and has to wipe away the hot seep from his eye. He doesn’t trust this, none of this. To the east, a small breech in the darkness, the sun climbing toward the horizon, the moonlight diffusing. The scent dissipates. He turns and looks behind him. No moss, only snow, pure and untouched but for his fat mashed footprints. He gazes around, everything blurry, like he is underwater. There is nothing here, not his mother, not even traces of her.
Another high-pitched wail, closer this time, washing over the whole rooftop. Silence for a few heartbeats. Silence. And then the response, an answer that seems to emanate from the cottonwood grove behind him. The limbs clatter in the wind, camouflaging its stalkers.
Polk walks on the sides of his feet to dampen the sound, but his commotion still echoes about. He moves to the edge, looks down at the vast fields below. Then he sees it: glowing prints. The paint. Whether it is the foggy haze, moonlight and sunrise occupying the same world, or perhaps his own split eyelid distorting things, or if it is perhaps God himself, he does not know. But those painted tracks glow. All those tertiary colors erupting from the ground. Colors that do not belong to this season or to this place.
Polk sits on the edge, his feet dangling. He stares at the painted prints. It is the prettiest thing he has ever seen; he cannot look away, like staring into the belly of a fire. New colors. He loses track of time, just stares, his breaths coming quicker. They seem alive, crawling tracks, blurry emissions from the core of the earth.
“Is this what you wanted me to see?” he says aloud, his voice bleating through the hush. He waits for a response he knows is not coming. After all this? Mrs. Roudebush was wrong.
Polk hears the soft padding of paws before he sees the dog. A thin squeaking sound, fresh snow being tamped down. Not so much a palpable noise as an echo with no architect. He is afraid to turn around, to see what he already knows is there. When he does turn, he first notices the ribcage bulging through skin and fur. Such hunger. That distinctive brindle pattern, writhing, uncoiling around the torso. The low rumbling of anger, not a simple growl but slow-burning fury surfacing. Behind it, more movement in the cottonwood grove, a slow swaying not caused by wind. Polk stands slowly, his heels hanging over the edge of the roofline, afraid to make any quick movements. Is this about survival? Or is it revenge? The pit bull encroaches like a lurching shadow, deliberate and menacing steps, its muscled haunches tightly drawn and trembling. Polk edges along the roofline, but there is no retreat, no escape.
He turns away, looks back down at the glowing prints. He can see very far, miles, the individual glass panes of windows in the skyscrapers downtown and the mossy roofs of hundreds of houses on the East Side. All the city is out there, yawning itself awake. He looks down. Is it far enough to kill him? Or just to maim? To break his body apart. He pictures this for a moment, tries to feel the swelling terror in his gut as he plummets, the piercing ripple shooting through his legs, collapsing his body into an accordion when he strikes ground. Would this be the moment of relief? He wonders when the pain would strike, how long after impact? One second? Five? Never? He wonders about the precise instant when life stops and death starts. He wonders about that moment for his mother, for all the dogs he has killed.
The low rumbling draws closer, so close it seems to emanate from Polk himself. He squats down, his back to the pit bull, cinching his body into a defensive crouch. He squeezes, fights against trembling. And yet some strange joy tempers the fear, like a return to the world. He closes his good eye and waits, several ragged breaths he waits.
When he opens his eye again, he sees in the distance the baseball field, the chain-link fence of its backstop. That small scoop of sledding hill next to it, so much smaller than he remembers. There it is, not so far away, a handful of blocks to the west. Has it been there this whole time? His mother pushing him down, his father dragging him back up. And then he is falling, skittering downward, spinning in some wobbly oblong orbit, the pull of gravity on his stomach. He will crash—he can feel it; he is moving too fast, out of control. Once unleashed, gravity takes over, no stopping it. Blood pulses into his head and he clamps his eyes shut and multicolored stars pour over him like a meteor shower. A piercing throb. His breath catches and he clenches, hardening muscle into concrete, bracing for impact, and when it comes it jars the breath loose from him, and all seems lost until his father pulls him up and brushes the snow from his face and says, Should we go again?
Brad Felver’s fiction and essays have recently appeared in the Minnesota Review, the Beloit Fiction Journal, Bull: Men’s Fiction, and Fiction Writer’s Review, among other places. He lives with his wife in northern Ohio, where he teaches at Bowling Green State University and is hard at work on a novel.
Image by Memories by Mike