From the bridge crossing Selser's Creek, Jimmy looked down on Quint Holster's body. The dead kid’s arms were stretched out like Christ, or a tossed marionette. His sneaker, reanimated by the current, moved in circles, like the bastard wouldn’t give-up. Quint wore his Class of ’98 letter jacket, the wool more taupe than red, the white sleeves soiled brown.
It was one of those “meant to be” moments in life. Jimmy’s dad had used the canal for discarding dying dogs. Pushing his hair behind his ears, he smiled, thinking Quint looked like a bloated, mangy mutt. He figured he was the first to see the body. While most people crossing the bridge were headed to work, Jimmy was making the mile trip to get the day's suitcase of Natty Light. Spitting on the body, he mounted his bicycle and peddled towards the store, eager to tell his momma she’d no longer be a victim, wouldn’t be writing more checks to the meth-head.
“How do you like him now, Dad?” he said to the shadow, his father’s spirit, riding the handlebars. “Guess somebody thought he was just another doomed dog.”
He’d first seen the demise of a dog at age nine. Jimmy could see the dog’s fate clearly. Its head slumped, ears and tail tucked, patches of hair missing, mucus like globs of dried glue circling its eyes. Pupils so big Jimmy thought he would fall into them. Days passed, and open wounds began to sprout in the bald patches. Carl, let him feed it table scraps, but the dog wouldn’t eat. At school, the dog’s condition kept Jimmy in a heavy fog, and his momma was the dog’s only chance. She’d always protected Jimmy from the other dog’s deaths, and shown mercy before, but only if the mutt had a chance of being saved. When he got home, he heard her working at her sewing machine. When that motor whirred like one of his daddy’s jigsaws, Jimmy stayed away, knowing it as her alone time. Tthe dog’s condition made him break the rules.
“Momma, is Daddy gonna kill that dog?”
Head bent low, both hands feeding fabric under the stabbing needle, she said, “It looks pretty sick.”
“But I can tell he’s a real sweet dog.”
“I’m sure he is,” she said, sitting up straight, “but you know he’s in pain. Your dad wouldn’t kill them if they weren’t.”
“He likes doing it,” he said.
His momma put down her dress and turned to him. Her red hair fell off her shoulders as she bent forward. “Your dad loves animals. Haven’t we kept them and fed them before?”
Jimmy nodded and began to speak, but she stopped him. Her eyes were steady. “Just because something’s down on its luck doesn’t mean we put it down.” Her voice stern, but nurturing. “But when something gets too sick to care for it properly, we don’t let it or us suffer. We deal with the situation. Do you want that dog to suffer?”
Jimmy didn’t know how to answer, but he didn’t have the chance. Paula sat-up as they both heard the rumble of Carl’s truck. He followed his momma, hoping he could put off his dad’s executioner duties. At the door, Jimmy said, “Daddy, I got an A on my math test.”
“Great, son,” Carl said and kissed his wife. “Told ya you just need to study.” Satisfied by his dad’s praise and his ability to distract him, Jimmy began retreating to his room. His dad, kicking off his work shoes, looked ready for the recliner. But he said, “Now, get your boots on.”
Paula’s head tilted. She tucked one side of her bottom lip and the wrinkle underneath it disappeared. Jimmy knew her smooth chin meant for him to listen. So he rushed outside. The mutt, always excited to see him, wagged its whole body. His dad came out with a .22 over his shoulder, and the dog went still.
They walked behind the house to the trail through the woods, the dog following behind. It wasn’t far to the canal, but the drop-off looked taller than his dad, and it felt like walking to the end of the world. Jimmy always thought of it that way, like mariners used to believe they’d fall off if they sailed too far. The world is round, he knew, but he believed he would plunge into nothingness if he stepped off the edge.
Carl stopped a few feet from the drop, and Jimmy a few feet behind him. Ignoring the two figures it had been following, the mutt ran right up to the edge and peered down. Carl took aim and popped the dog in the back of the head. It went quick, Carl always said. The snapping of the gunshot echoed in Jimmy’s ears. The dog tumbled forward and disappeared. He always hoped the canal brought them somewhere else. To a better place. He muttered a prayer, and felt the tears he couldn’t dam-up running down his face.
Carl turned, and propped his gun against a tree. Kneeling, he grabbed his son’s shoulders. “You know why I do this, don’t you?”
Jimmy nodded, wiping his face.
“That dog was in pain, and there wasn’t nothing we could do about it. Sometimes an animal is just doomed. It gets so sick it can’t be fixed, and we got to help it,” he said. His voice was gruff, matter-of-fact. “Listen, cry now, but when I’m not around to do this you better take care of it. Be a man. You hear me?”
“Yes–sir” Jimmy mustered through deep, sharp breaths.
“Promise you won’t make your momma do it.”
“I promise,” Jimmy said.
Once after Carl died, nearly twenty years later, Jimmy had to do as promised. But he couldn’t bring himself to use the dusty .22 hanging in his dad’s closet. Instead, he set out a bowl of anti-freeze. By afternoon the sweet green liquid had been lapped up, and the dog staggered around the yard puking nests of mangled grass. That lasted for almost two days before the dog finally fell over and kicked for another hour. Jimmy kneeled by the mutt, his stringy hair hanging over the dog, his momma hanging over him. She rubbed her elbow as she instructed him to tie a rope to its leg and drag it to the canal with the riding lawnmower. When Jimmy pushed the dog over the edge, the splash rippled like a gunshot. He cried, wiping a flannel sleeve across his nose. From outside the house, he saw his momma talking to Quint at their dining room table.
Patches of light, peaking through pine trees lining the narrow country road, illuminated potholes in Jimmy’s path. As he peddled, Jimmy wiped what he told himself was sweat from his eyes. With Quint tossed in the same canal, the sad truth of dozens of dogs’ final resting places had been revealed. He wanted to shake hands with the killer, his vindicator. He doubted he’d find the man, or woman, who’d granted him the favor.
“Almost as good as if Quint hadn’t been at the restaurant that night,” Jimmy said. “Shithead didn’t give me enough time to react.”
As the bike coasted, he cranked the pedals backwards.
“You've got to find a job,” Carl said. “Ya got no direction, son.”
Jimmy hunched over the linen tablecloth and picked at a thumbnail, his long blond hair hid his face from the other diners in the restaurant.
“It's not his fault he got fired from the carwash,” Paula said. She placed a white napkin on her lap and motioned for Jimmy to sit-up straight and do the same.
“He's twenty-five damned’d years old,” Carl said. “When you gonna stop making excuses for him?”
“It ain't an excuse,” Jimmy said, pushing hair behind his ears. “That fucker at the carwash didn't like me.”
“Jimmy, language,” Paula said. Throwing her grey and auburn streaked hair over her shoulder, she surveyed neighboring tables. The wrinkles under her eyes bunched as she smiled.
“I'm not supporting you the rest of my life,” Carl said.
“He needs to spend more time in his studio,” Paula said, looking at Jimmy. “How else is he going to get rich and famous?”
“With what, one of his pansyass paintings?” Carl said. “He gives up too easy. Never takes that next step. What you gonna do when we're gone?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“The hell you can,” Carl said, looking over his shoulder, anxious for his steak. They'd been eating at the same restaurant in Podunk Chieftain since Jimmy turned fourteen. Every week Carl ordered the same medium-rare strip and wolfed it down in minutes. “You’re not living in that studio the rest of your life, either. I don't know where I failed teaching you responsibility.” Carl said, “Damned shame.”
Jimmy played with the cuffs of his flannel shirt, open in the front to show his worn-out The Smiths t-shirt picturing a young soldier, the message “Meat is Murder” on his helmet. “I guess I'm just a disappointment. Jimmy Meeks, the piece of shit son of Carl Meeks, Chieftain's citizen of the millennium.”
“Jimmy,” Paula said. “You’re father does a lot for you. Thank...”
“Damn punk,” Carl interrupted. His eyes moved to Jimmy's shirt. “And close your damned shirt. I don’t want to see it while I’m eating.”
Jimmy expected more berating, but the waitress appeared. Steam swilled from Carl’s dish. Jimmy saw in his eyes, the way his throat tensed, that Carl felt entitled to the meat as a king feels entitled to the crown. He tried to look away as Carl cut the end off and let thin blood ooze onto the white plate. His teeth scraped the fork with a metallic squeak. Jimmy cut his own ten-ounce rib-eye, clearly inferior to his father's slab of cow. He didn't care much for the taste of steak, but the chicken dinner didn’t put as much weight on Carl’s bill.
Paula, trying to cut a sautéed shrimp, pushed her fork too hard and launched pink coils onto the table. “Whoopsi-daisies,” she said.
At first, Jimmy thought his dad was laughing. Carl’s expression appeared joyous, eyes wrinkled and upturned at the corners, mouth open, but his knife and fork fell from his hands, clattering against the tile. Paula gasped, still holding her fork stuck into a shrimp on the table. Jimmy looked into his father's eyes and saw panic, something he thought him incapable of. Carl stood away from the table, knocked his chair over, and clutched his throat. Jimmy watched, but a blurred line between disgust and affection for his dad kept him sitting.
Quint Holster appeared and wrapped his long arms around Carl. He heaved and squeezed on Carl’s round stomach. A gnarled hunk of meat popped between the old man's lips and landed on the ground. The other diners, already standing at their tables, moved towards Quint and started clapping. But the show didn’t end. Carl grabbed his chest and fell to the floor.
Jimmy stood, knife and fork still in his fists, as Quint descended on Carl.
“He's stopped breathing,” Quint said.
Jimmy's legs were heavy, pulling him back to his seat. His momma, mouth agape, kneaded the skin on her elbow between her fingers. He wanted to tell her to do something other than goldfish air. Watching Quint's hands pump on Carl's chest, Jimmy felt the pressure on his own heart. Fear dug a ravine keeping him from his dad.
Quint’s hair gel slicked head covered Carl’s as he pushed breath into the old man. He twisted his ear to Carl’s lips, straightened and looked around.
“He's breathing,” he shouted. The restaurant filled with applause and cheers.
Paula joined Quint on the ground. Stroking her husband’s baldhead, she turned, and her dry eyes cut through Jimmy. He looked down and saw his white napkin on the floor at his feet.
Three days later, Jimmy sat on the couch in his parent’s living room. A dozen newspapers, all dated March 12, 1998, were stacked on the coffee table. The headline read “Hero at 17.” Jimmy had seen them taped like monuments to shop windows. Quint’s smile, the smile of achievement, a self-assured smile, what Jimmy now thought of as the Peak Smile, followed Jimmy through Cheiftan. He knew Quint’s newsprint image would eventually discolor, crack, and disappear. But Carl had made sure Jimmy wouldn’t be able to escape the headline.
Carl had the article framed with a white mat and thick gold frame. It took the place of an old family photo, made in ’86 when Jimmy was thirteen, that hung behind Paula’s chair in the dining room. In it Jimmy’s had shoulder length hair, and wore a black leather jacket with silver zippers on the pockets. He had been trying to imitate a picture of his dad, but the teenage Carl had been trying to look like James Dean; pompadour, sleek leather jacket, white t-shirt, switchblade in hand, and jeans rolled to reveal white socks stuffed in loafers. Carl had called Jimmy a punk. The metamorphosis of style and attitude was lost on him.
Jimmy sat, arms crossed, one leg slung over the other, as Carl hovered, directing Paula in the kitchen. He could see his momma’s face turning red with every command Carl gave. But she swallowed the heat and did as he asked. After all, it was only a request, she would have said.
Quint arrived on time wearing a white oxford, ill-fitting slacks, red tie, and his letter jacket, bright white and dark red. Jimmy remained on the couch as Carl rushed to the door like a teen waiting for a date. They all passed through the living room, past Jimmy, no handshake or introduction, into the dining room. From his spot on the floral sofa, arms tightening across his chest, he listened. Framed by the doorway, three shadows moved on the dining room wall.
“This is to you, son,” Carl said.
“You had it mounted?” Quint said. “That’s so cool, Mr. Meeks.”
“You saved his life, we’d build a statue if we could,” Paula said.
Jimmy’s arms slackened from his chest and fell to his lap. Swinging his leg, he stood. His momma appeared, wiping her eyes.
“Be nice,” she said, tucking her bottom lip, but the wrinkles on her chin remained. As though he’d never noticed before, Jimmy became aware of her age, her weakness, her passivity. He thought about her inaction at the restaurant.
Carl stuck his head through the door and motioned with a backwards nod of his head. Jimmy obeyed, and stood in the doorway.
“This is Quint,” Carl said.
“Nice to meet you,” Quint said, hand extended. His hazel eyes, skin smooth around the edges, like no worries had yet to crease his sun soaked cheeks, watched Jimmy with genuine interest.
“You, too,” Jimmy said, giving the boy a limp handshake. “I guess, thanks for jumping in there and saving him.”
“I’m glad I was there. Just got my lifeguard certification that week.”
“How lucky,” Jimmy said. And smiled at Carl.
“Let’s take a walk before dinner,” Carl said, running a hand over his slick head. He grabbed hat and led Quint out the back door.
Jimmy let them disappear. He caught his reflection hovering in the glass over Quint’s article. Turning, he watched through the window on the other side of the dining table as Carl and Quint set out on the trail. Jimmy followed.
Passing dark tree trunks, leaves above their heads bright green, Jimmy couldn't tell where the sunlight came from. Slats of hazy yellow peeked through the canopy but faded before they could reach the ground. Jimmy stopped, caught by a tiny flashbulb in the dusk. To his right, a swarm of lightning bugs danced in the shadows of the forest. He watched the lights go in and out between boney ferns. Heart beating fast, hairs prickling on his arms, he turned to tell the other two to look. They were standing at the drop-off to the canal; both peered down with Carl's hand on Quint's shoulder.
Jimmy thought of how the dogs always ran right to the edge. He still didn’t like being so close to the fall, but he joined them at his father’s side. They were looking at nothing, just muck, as though they’d missed the forest.
“Quint’s going to medical school,” Carl said. “He wants to find a cure for cancer.”
“How noble,” Jimmy said.
Paula’s voice, faint but commanding, echoed through the trees. “Dinner time,” Carl said.
As they turned to go, the cuff of Jimmy’s jeans caught on a rusted nest of barbed-wire, remnants from his grandfather’s fence. He pulled, but his leg wouldn’t come free.
“Little stuck there, son?” Carl said, chuckling along with Quint.
Jimmy ignored them, kept working at the knotted wire. He heard a familiar metallic click, looked up, and saw a shiny switchblade pointing at him. Jimmy took the knife, cut the bind, and gave it back, blade exposed. Carl folded it in his palm and held it towards Quint.
“Ever seen one of these?” he said.
“Aren't they illegal?” Quint said.
“Yeah,” Carl said. “Hold it like a remote, with your thumb on the button there.”
Quint twisted the handle between his finger and thumb and pressed the release. Jimmy shivered with envy. He wanted to snatch it away and say something like, “Kids shouldn't play with knives.”
Before he could, Carl patted Quint's shoulder and said, “Keep it.”
“Are you sure?” Quint said.
“Absolutely, son, you saved my life.”
Jimmy watched, tongue swelling, the air in his lungs cold, as Quint closed the blade and tucked it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Coasting into the gas station's gravel lot, head fogged with memory residue, he stumbled trying to let down the kickstand. He scanned the bulletin board outside and found a flyer with Quint's picture. He looked older than Jimmy. A reward for information, low, but fair considering the person, had been offered by Quint’s parents. That didn’t matter any more. Jimmy had a new mission he hadn’t even considered, something that was rightfully his. At the register, he handed the boy a twenty for the case of beer.
Before leaving, he snatched the flyer down. Jimmy began peddling back to the bridge, Quint’s image balled in his fist.
Just before Carl died, Quint’s picture had appeared in the newspaper one other time.
“Look at that,” Jimmy said, throwing a folded newspaper on the counter in front of Carl.
“What?' Carl said, coffee cup to his lips.
Jimmy jammed his finger on the counter. “Your savior got himself into a little trouble,” he said, sticking his chest out.
Carl read the headline, saw the picture, and snatched it from under Jimmy's rigid finger. “Local Hero Making Meth,” Carl said out loud.
Jimmy crossed his arms. “Why don't you get that one framed,” he said, smiling.
Carl read the article in silence, stuck it in the garbage can at the end of the counter, and walked out of the room with his coffee mug.
“At least I never made drugs,” Jimmy said. His arms loosened and fell to his sides.
“James Meeks,” his momma said, startling him. “How can you do that to your father? If anything we should try to help that boy.”
“Help him with what?”
“He’s just down on his luck.”
“How’s that our problem?”
Paula moved fast across the kitchen and slapped Jimmy hard. She’d never struck him before, and the sting burned deeper than his cheek. He wanted to retreat, but her steady, ferocious gaze held him in place. “That boy saved your father’s life while you just sat and watched. Isn’t that enough?”
She turned and followed Carl’s exit. Jimmy watched his momma’s shape disappear down the dark hallway. First time he’d seen her follow through and stand-up to someone, and it had been him. The bridge of his nose tingled, and the sensation spread to his eyes. He squeezed them shut and shook his head. Pulling the newspaper from the trash, he ripped it in half.
Jimmy hadn’t talked to Quint in the four years since he came to the house that one time. He hadn’t even been at Carl’s funeral, but Jimmy didn’t mention it to his momma. He knew she was aware. She greeted people, one eye towards the door, fingers steady at work on her elbow.
But Quint had been to the house twice since then. The first was the day Jimmy used the tractor to bring that dog to the canal, almost a year to the day of Carl’s death.
After returning from the woods, he could see them both through the dining room window. His momma was drinking a cup of coffee and Quint had a glass of bright green Mountain Dew. His cheeks had sunk to his teeth, where he still had them, and it looked like a meteor shower had assaulted his once golden skin. One thumb jabbing his chest, Quint kept pointing at something over Paula’s head. From outside, Jimmy watched as Paula raised her hand. Quint stopped, lowered his hands, and drank from his glass.
Jimmy could tell her thoughts were beyond coffee and conversation. Paula’s features shifted, like the expression she wore earlier that day when she had told Jimmy to drag the dog with the lawnmower. Not quite vicious, just matter-of-fact. As though she were at her sewing machine, her lips moved rapid stitching Quint right up. She rose from the table and went to her purse. With her back to the window, elbow moving, Jimmy guessed she was writing a check.
She turned and held it towards Quint. He stood and hugged Paula. Her chin hovered away from his shoulder, her hands balled into fists on his arms. She pulled away, and carried their drinks out of the room.
Jimmy parked the bike by his studio and put his case of beer in the mini-fridge. He went into the house. The cutting scent of bleach smelled heavier than usual. He heard muffled whirring down the hallway. He hadn’t spoken to his momma in a week, the last time Quint came to visit, around the time he had gone missing. Jimmy assumed she had written another check.
He snuck through the house to the garage. The pair of white shrimping boots were stuffed under his dad's old workbench. He used a stick to knock them around, test for bugs and rats. When nothing escaped the dark holes, Jimmy beat on the heel. The grooves of the sole were filled with mud that felt fresh to the touch. He slipped them on. The anti-freeze bottle he thought he’d hidden was sitting by the door. Guilt surged as he passed.
Jimmy followed the trail into the woods. Rain had softened the ground, but the storm hadn’t washed away evidence of the poor dog being drug behind the lawnmower two years before. Tire tracks and a large rut were carved in the ground as though he had just been through.
Edging up to the drop-off, he peered over. It had been twenty years since he first witnessed a dog topple over the edge. But he still believed it to be the end of the world, ready to swallow him. Too afraid to jump, his knees locked.
Like bulbs in the dark forest: Quint’s body flashed, Carl handing Quint the knife flickered, and the boy pumping Carl’s heart sparked.
Jimmy took the step, fell, and heard a splash. The front of his clothes and his hands were covered in mud. The side of the ravine stretched over his head. He looked south, towards the bridge just around the bend, two hundred feet, maybe less. The canal was shallow but wide. He walked, the slopping suction of mud pulling at his boots. Thick splashes spattered his face with icy droplets of dirty water.
Around the curve he saw the bridge. Empty. Jimmy could just make out Quint’s body in the bridge’s shadow. He kept going, almost there. Balling his toes like fists to keep his boots from slipping off. Cramps formed in both feet, but he kept thinking of that old picture of his dad. The James Dean pose, the leather jacket, the switchblade that Carl should have passed to his son. Jimmy wondered where his dad’s old leather jacket hung, wrinkled and dry rotted.
A car passed, wheels thump-thumping overhead. He stopped and looked down at Quint.
Jimmy’s hair hung wet on his cheeks, shirt clinging to his back. His legs felt loose, and he let them take him down. Crouching by Quint, elbows resting on his knees, he could smell decay. Not death, but a life festered and corroded. Quint’s eyes were open, milky.
“I’m glad you’re dead,” he said.
He pinched the flap of Quint’s jacket, pulled it back, and reached into the inside pocket. His fingers searched the silk lining. Empty. He checked others, but couldn’t find the switchblade.
Jimmy dove his hands into the canal around Quint’s body. He searched the mud for anything solid, only pulling up sticks and rocks. He screamed and began running upstream. His boots stuck and slipped off, but he left them. Jimmy dug his fingers into the side of the ravine. He stretched, kicked, and clawed, but the ghosts of a dozen dogs bit his ankles.
He sat in the mud. Wasn’t this what he’d expected? “Is this what you expected, Dad?” he said. “He’s still better than me.” He knew Quint would always have his birthright.
Finding a fallen tree further upstream, he used it to climb out. Weighted by wet clothes and discontent, pine needles pricked his bare feet as he walked home.
Later that night, Jimmy searched out his momma in the house. He followed the rhythmic whirring from her room in the back. She would understand, tell him it was okay. As he passed through the dining room to the kitchen, he saw a dark object on the kitchen counter. Picking it up, he held it out, pressed the button, and a shiny blade flipped out. He turned, and Paula stood, framed by the doorway. He thought about the smell of bleach, the fresh ruts in the dirt trail, the unearthed bottle of anti-freeze in the garage.
“Did you?” he said, not quite surprised.
Her eyes in shadow, hands hanging at her sides, she remained quiet. They watched each other. Jimmy thought he saw her shoulders shrug. He nodded, closed the blade, and stuck it into the depths of his front pocket. Paula turned and disappeared down the dark hallway.
Story Copyright of Dusty Cooper