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Sunday, May 13, 2012

An Unintentional Visit to the Burger Shack

[This is the now (since I have changed the order of the stories and will be rewriting the one that formerly came in this place) the third piece of my ten-story cycle, a series connected more or less tenuously, depending on the story, by the Rocket’s Burger Shack setting. If you missed the first story, you can read it here, and the second one can be found here. These are interrelated stories rather than a novel, but the last story brings them all together. So now, once more, "Thank you for coming to Rocket's! May I take your order?"]

Remembering Running©

      Running was the little dog’s most vivid memory. Every night he dreamed of the way it used to be, when he had lived free, running through fields and woods so fast that his paws scarcely seemed to touch the earth before flying joyfully up again, the air as much his element as the earth. More than pictures in his head, these dreams occurred in the muscles of his body, all of which were fully engaged in the dream of running.

Awake, his awareness centered in his black, moist,  delicately quivering nose, that marvelous receiver of information from earth and air, from the strongest odors to the most subtle hints, all of them deliciously commingled but sortable, too, into separate strands. The awareness of his nose was pure, conscious experience, unmediated by reflection, and his muscular responses had been immediate, too.

Nowadays he had such experience and responses only during sleep, when in dreams he ran free again.

      During daylight hours now, inside an imprisoning fence, with only a small piece of hard-packed earth to explore and his every movement constrained and hampered by a heavy chain, it was a far different story. He could no longer afford to let his nose push other senses aside, as it had in the woods. Now he had to employ eyes and ears, as well, nonstop, to watch vigilantly and listen without lapse of attention, ever on guard, because he could no longer run either in pursuit of prey or away from threats (let alone for sheer joy), and here in this place he was visited, always without warning, by a threatening man and dog.

      The unpredictable man sometimes arrived in a pickup truck, other times in a car, and once or twice on foot, which meant that he might roar up with a loud, rumbling engine or purr in gently or glide up to the fence in near-silence with padded cougar footsteps. He brought a different smell from that of the little dog’s prison, but the smell varied from day to day, the little dog noted without understanding. Sometimes, on the most alarming days, there was a fear odor emanating from the man, but it seemed to come from his clothes rather than his skin. It was more like a smell from a place he had been, maybe the place he visited before coming to this place. On the least frightening days the man smelled like fresh water and fish, but the little dog could not relax his guard even on those days, because the man never came with any gesture of friendship, and he never came alone.

There was a big dog that came with the man.

Not chained or leashed, the dog seemed bound to the man by an invisible tether, moving at his master’s side like a shadow, his every step choreographed to match those of the man. Perhaps alone the dog would not have been so threatening, and perhaps without the dog the man, at least on days when he smelled pleasantly fishy, would have not have been so frightening, but together they made the little dog’s hair stand on end. When the man shouted, the big dog growled; other times the dog growled first, and then the man laughed.

The big dog was handsome, tall and stately, with a black and brown brindle coat, but his eyes seemed to radiate hate as he stared through the diamond openings of the chain links at the little dog inside. Was the hate real? There was something confusing in the big dog’s smell that the little dog could not interpret. He never had much chance, anyway, because the man carried a long, heavy stick, and he liked to slam it against the fence when the dogs least expected it. The banging never failed to throw the big dog into a frenzy. At the first blow to the fence, the big dog hurled himself against it, as if the fence were an enemy. He barked and snapped and snarled, while the little dog, inside the fence, the dog who had once been free to run, jumped in alarm at the stick banging and the fence rattling and the dog attacking the fence. He pulled as far back from the fence as his heavy chain would allow, and he danced back and forth, desperately seeking escape. The first few times he had cowered, but growing anger quickly replaced fear, and not for long did he crouch and shake like a sere beech leaf in winter, clinging to a twig. Instead he began to snarl and growl like the big dog as he danced back and forth at the end of the chain that held him. This made the laughing and barking and shouting and snarling of the man and the big dog outside louder still.

After these upsetting visits the little dog on the chain remained agitated long after the man and the other dog were gone. He continued to strain against the maddening chain, twisting and lunging in a miserable dance of anger and frustration and longing, as if to escape another animal whose grip he might break free of at last, but the chain, stubborn and inanimate, never grew tired, and at last the little dog stood still, quivering and panting, covered in dust. Over time he wore a raw spot on his neck from these dances. Perhaps in some way he felt their uselessness, but not to respond to life’s challenges was outside his repertoire. Some dogs might find it in themselves to give up. He could not.

He had never been a show dog. He wasn’t at all what his mother’s owners had hoped for from the litter, which is why he was left one night, to live or die, as might happen, by the side of a country road,. He was not yet a year old when abandoned. Originally his short-haired brown and white coat was clean and neat. After living outdoors a while he was dirtier but still neat, in his way, clean as he could keep himself. He had a small, handsome muzzle, dark-rimmed brown eyes, one ear that stood up and another that stood up halfway and then flopped down in a soft little triangle, while his tail curled up over his back and waved like a busy signal flag when he slowed from a run to a trot. Such, that is, such had been the behavior of his tail in the old, free life. That same tail now was most often held at half-mast, thumping happily against the ground only during dreams. Whatever had happened between his former life of freedom and the tedium of the pen (broken only by the terror of the threatening man and big dog) had long ago receded into the mist.

There was one other man, more predictable, who showed up once a day, every day. This other man was silent, but his truck was old and made many noises, announcing his arrival, and the man himself moved in an invisible cloud of layered smells, mostly very old and all mixed together. This man always turned off the truck engine and sat in the cab for a while, unmoving, watching through the windshield, and the little dog learned to sit unmoving, also, waiting by the fence without a sound. He learned that sooner or later the short, squat, very smelly man would open the door and slide slowly to the ground from the seat of his truck. In his hand was always a white plastic bag from which he slowly and deliberately drew out a piece of red meat, pulling it out and tossing it over the fence with one long, slow, continuous, curiously graceful gesture. The meat landed on the ground the first couple of times, but the little dog soon learned to catch it in mid-air. This man did not laugh. Neither did he speak. But after the first few days, when the little dog heard the sound of the truck his heart lifted, and while he sat by the fence motionless and silent, his nose quivering with the man’s smell, he was completely alert and felt alive in every cell of his body. Watching and smelling the man and waiting for the meat became the high point of his day.

The meat man stood and watched while the dog ate, and then he turned, climbed back into the truck cab and drove away. Nothing more happened, but the little dog was vaguely grateful. He appreciated the predictability, as well as the food (and the absence of threats) that the meat man brought. Still, these pleasant visits were far too brief, each one only a very small oasis of time in the otherwise long, tedious, anxious day, the desert of life on a chain.

The little dog would have liked the man to stay longer, even to sit longer in the car before getting out and throwing the meat over the fence. That would have drawn out the anticipation, which was the best part of the meat man’s visits. If the man had cut the meat into pieces and thrown the pieces over the fence or through the openings one at a time, it would have turned the interlude into a game. Without exactly envisioning these variations, the little dog longed for them, for while he could not help eating the meat as fast as he could bite and chew and swallow, there was nothing to look forward to when it was gone. Eating spelled the end to excitement and the prelude to the return of empty anxiety.

One day the meat man failed to appear with the plastic bag, and the dog man and big dog did not come, either. Pacing back and forth at the end of the chain that held him, the little dog watched and listened and twitched his nose apprehensively through a hot, still afternoon and into the twilight, hunger and anxiety growing apace. From far off in the distance came a rumble of thunder. He remembered thunder. It usually meant the coming of a rainstorm, sometimes frightening if the thunder and lightning were local and heavy but exhilarating, too, especially at the end of a long, enervating summer day. The dog sat back on his haunches and raised his head into the air, nose upwardmost. Let it come! Let something happen!

A soft pattering came first, large drops with lots of space between them. This brief period was followed by sudden high wind blowing sheets of rain sideways. Trees along the dirt road leading to the pen were bent by the wind, protesting, their crowns thrown in all directions. The storm had become so loud, its noises so varied and insistent, that the little dog saw the bright streaks of headlights approaching through the woods before he heard an engine. A truck splashed into view. It was not the meat man, not the dog man.

It was two strange men. They came toward him lit from behind by the headlight beams of the still-running vehicle, bent over and hurrying, cursing loudly. The little dog could see only their backlit silhouettes, but through the rain and thunder he could hear the loud engine and the angry, impatient voices. One of the men opened the gate so the two could quickly sidle in. The second man was holding one end of a long stick with a loop hanging ominously from the end away from his fist, and as the men entered the enclosure, the dog caught a tangled mix of sharp, pungent odors cutting through the rain. The strange odors set off alarms in his brain, and he began to shake violently and to growl, his instincts telling his muscles to leap and flee, even as the chain held him fast.

Suddenly the loop was over his head and tightening around his neck. He twisted and fought, but the noose only tightened. His fear was coming in surges now, waves of it that almost blinded him. He felt rather than saw that the anchor end of his chain was moving now at the same time that the prod at his neck pushed him toward the open gate.

There were small coffinlike boxes in the back of the truck, and into one of these the little dog was half-lifted by the noose around his neck and by strange, burly arms that roughly grasped his hind legs. In order not to be strangled or held, he inadvertently helped the men lift him by half-jumping toward the open door of the nearest little box on the truck bed, and in this way he found himself shoved inside. In a moment the door was quickly slammed and locked, and the tailgate also slammed back into place. The men disappeared, and then the truck began to move, jolting forward and up and down and side to side through the downpour.

There was not room enough for the dog to stand in the box that held him. Having gone in headfirst and facing blackness at the front of the box, he struggled frantically to change direction and tore his shoulder on something sharp before he managed to make the turn. Because the heavy mesh door of the box was blocked by the truck’s tailgate, there was still nothing much to be seen, but as the truck bounced up and down through potholes in the road, the dog recalled a similar jolting ride from the day of his arrival at the enclosure. So they were leaving that place. Good! There were many confusing turns in the dark, all on bad dirt roads, some flinging him painfully against the side of the box on his injured shoulder, but the turns and bumps in general somewhat reassured the dog. It felt like the route by which he had been brought to his place of captivity, and he was not sorry to be carried away again, wherever happened next.

The truck at last hit smooth pavement and picked up speed. From behind came headlights of other vehicles. So, a road! Still the rain pelted down, and still the wind blew the rain in sheets across the road and tried to push the truck sideways.

How much time elapsed or how much distance they covered before the slide and subsequent crash and stillness, the little dog had no way of knowing. The crash itself, impact and rollover, lasted only moments. In the rollover, the door of the box was sprung open, and the moment the truck came to a rest on its side, the dog jumped free and ran. He still carried with him the weight of the heavy chain that had held him captive for so long, but now the dog was free, the chain only dragged along helplessly, no longer his master, wherever the dog might run.

He tore away from the highway and then ran parallel to it. He ran without thought, propelled by emotion and nervous energy. He ran until he grew tired and his breath came in ragged gulps, and still he ran, dragging the chain but in no way held by it. He punished the chain, dragging it for miles. Finally, he ran back along a tall board fence and took refuge behind a dumpster, then crawled under its dark edge to crouch underneath.

The ground was filthy and streaked with rivulets of cold rainwater coming off the adjacent lighted parking lot, but he was sheltered from the falling rain, and no one could see him. He could stop running for a while, long enough to rest. Maybe he would sleep without dreams for a change. At least, if he did dream, maybe he would dream of rest now rather than running


Gerry said...

This had terrific energy. Of course you know you cannot leave the little dog hiding out under the dumpster. Stories must resolve, even if ambiguously. But they don't have to resolve right this minute. I'm interested to see how you're going to work out the structure of the whole cycle.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for your interest, Gerry. And thanks to others who have e-mailed helpful suggestions.

Dawn said...

I know! He can't stay THERE!!!!

Laurie said...

Gripping! Terrifying! Wrenching! Good job of getting inside a little dog's head. Whew!

Helen said...

I agree with Laurie: I experienced your story from inside the mind of the dog. Amazing -- and enviable!

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, Laurie, Helen--I'm glad you didn't stop reading in either total confusion or outright boredom. He's a scrappy little guy, isn't he?