This is another in a series of stories I am writing about people and animals and their relationships. The stories take place in an imaginary area of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. Earlier this fall some of you were kind enough to read and comment, and, to my surprise and gratitude, I got on the spotlight list! I am also appreciative of the commenter who referred me to an editor--I intend to submit my novella for review. My goal is to publish the novella and the stories together probably as a Kindle Short. Anyway I will be very happy to get feedback from anyone who feels like reading this. Criticism is OK!
Ben’s crutch got snagged on an old shirt and he nearly fell.
There was stuff all over the floor: pizza boxes, pop cans, some laundry, everything strewn over the layer of dried muddy foot prints. Both Ben and his house had acquired a patina of dirt over the months since Lizzie’s last visit. He sighed.
Then he disentangled his snagged crutch and swung his legs forward. Lean, drag, stand, lean, drag, stand. That’s how he moved, leaning on the crutches, draggling his legs, standing briefly, then leaning again to drag again. He had no hands free for wielding a broom. He leaned and dragged his way into the kitchen.
Something to eat. Ben opened the frig door and hung between his crutches, eyeballing the cold dismal void. Milk, probably gone bad. A stack of dreary Meal on Wheels boxes. Ketchup. Coke.
Ben let the door swing closed.
He always moved slowly, but sometimes he just ground to a halt. Ben hung motionless, like a scarecrow, suspended between his crutches. A long moment passed. In the living room the TV squawked inanities. Outside he heard the heavy sound of a truck plowing a wave through the saturated street. Somebody driving by. His shoulders began to ache. He shifted his grip on the handholds.
He was thinking about the trek back to the couch when he heard the sproing of springs, a sound like a kid jumping on a bed. Ben cranked his neck toward the door that connected the kitchen to the garage and listened. Silence. Still there could be something in the garage. A dog, most likely. The garage door didn’t come down all the way and strays got in there regularly to forage in his trash. There was lots of trash to forage in. Lizzie had, last visit, swept the house, and everything swept up by Hurricane Lizzie had gone flying out onto the cement of the garage floor.
He needed Lizzie to come back to visit again, but she was in the hospital last he heard. Sometimes the hospital, sometimes jail, sometimes rehab, most often the story was that she was here or there with this boyfriend or that one: episodes in the drama “Life of Lizzie”. The most recent story was that Lizzie was sick with something real bad. But who knows? People like to tell stories.
Since Lizzie wasn’t there, he’d have to check the garage himself.
Ben swiveled and lurched across the linoleum to the door. He opened it a crack: nothing. The garage was dark. Maybe the noise was raccoons. Ben swung the door wider and a beam of light fell across the garage, illuminating lumps of trash on the way to the old couch pushed up against the far wall.
And there was a dog: a pitbull. Its head came up and it stared back at Ben. Light caught one hard little eye. To Ben, it looked like a pretty big dog. He closed the door quickly and leaned his cheek against its smooth cold surface. After some thought he decided that it didn’t matter really if there was a dog out there. The dog wasn’t bothering him. The weather was nasty; almost cold enough to turn the endless rain into snow. Let the dog stay there.
Ben leaned and dragged his way back to the living room to the couch and collapsed. After a pause for thinking, he dug his wallet out of his back pocket and contemplated its contents: some cash, not much, but enough. He picked up the phone and dialed from memory the Bear Lake Roadhouse to get a pizza delivered. Then he turned his attention to the TV while he waited; one of those shows with video clips of guys falling in various ways that ended with near castrations. Ben watched without laughing.
Lizzie yanks a brush through in her hair and flashes a grin at Alysheea. She’s getting herself shaped up for the homecoming. They are cruising slowly through the bumpy streets between the rows of lookalike box houses and bare treeless yards. The rain has slacked off but hovers in the sky, ready for the next assault. Lizzie’s hair is clear down to her butt and knotted up from having been slept on for day after day.
“Here we are,” says Alysheea, peering through the windshield. She cranks the wheel around and pulls into Ben’s driveway. There’s no car and the garage door is stuck part way open, revealing an interior full of trash. Some of the trash has migrated out to the yard; there are tufts of white all over in the yellowed grass. Alysheea makes a tsking noise.
There’s a brown and white dog standing in the yard: probably the guilty party that dragged the trash out. The dog watches them alertly and backs away over to the edge of the yard.
Lizzie is too busy trying to drag her handbag onto her lap to notice. The front door opens and Ben leans out, his skinny body hanging between the crutches like laundry, his yellow bony face cracking into an over large smile, a smile that always gets Lizzie right in the heart. She shoves the door open, and tries to swing her swollen legs out, tries to jump out energetically, but her heavy feet won’t move right.
“Hey, careful, I’ll get your walker,” Alysheea says. She runs around to the back of the truck and extracts the walker and Lizzie’s little suitcase. Everything Lizzie owns is in that bag or in her purse; it’s ninety percent cosmetics and ten percent lingerie. Alysheea unfolds the walker and Lizzie clambers out. She grabs the handles as if the walker was an accessory and heads for the front door, trying and failing to walk normally. As soon as she clears the front of the truck, where Ben can see her, she gives him a big confident smile. His smile slips at the sight of her walker but relights in response to her face.
“Hey, Baby Brother,” she calls, trying not to pant with exertion, “How’r ya doin,?”
Lizzie is asleep on the couch. That’s unlike her; she used to be the kind of person who went sleepless for days. Ben watches her breathe. Relaxed, her face has lost all animation and shows her age. Her teeth are yellowed and cracked, but she’s probably lucky to have any teeth at all. Don’t meth addicts loose their teeth? Ben wondered. Her skin has a grayish tone to it and lies limply on the bones of her face like an old handkerchief.
He’s never seen her look like this. Lizzie was always girlish, cute. Earlier that afternoon, while she stood leaning on her walker talking through the front door to a visitor, she looked like a teenager; slim, wiggling her hips with unconscious flirtatiousness, flipping her long black pony tail from one shoulder to the other.
She had always been pretty and popular.
And, ever since her arrival, people had come dropping by Ben’s house to see her. Her daughter, who lived relatives down the street, ran in for a quick hug. A couple of Lizzie’s girlfriends showed up, leaning on each other and whispering behind their hands. Ben listened to the laughing and giggling from Lizzie’s bedroom until the friends left as abruptly as they had arrived, still huddled together, clutching their handbags. An ex-boyfriend came by, too, and roamed around the house picking things up and putting them back down, looking over his shoulder at Ben.
Even such hardened souls as their neighbor Lois—a three hundred pound woman who never saw a man she couldn’t hate, a kid she couldn’t slap or a woman she couldn’t belittle—came by to wish Lizzie well. Lois brought a tureen of soup and some homemade bread along with instructions to both of them on what they should and should not be ingesting in the way of food and medications.
But Lizzie laughed off her illness to everyone. She was going to be fine, yes, she had been in the hospital for nearly a month, yes, she had been on life support for a while! But she was Ok now.
Of course she wasn’t OK. In his hand Ben held a brochure. He found it one the floor in the bathroom after Lizzie unpacked her suitcase. It was about MERSA. Lizzie was, apparently, a human toxic waste dump. He wasn’t supposed to touch anything she had touched, not her clothes, her dishes, the girly stuff all over the bathroom counter, the shoes, purse, hairbrush or other Lizzie detritus all over the house.
At first it freaked him out; what if he got this MERSA, too? Then he decided it didn’t matter. He lived like an untouchable already. People came to visit Lizzie, not him, and they would all disappear when she left.
So he took the brochure and shoved it hard down the crack between the couch cushion and the arm. The MERSA wasn’t the real problem with Lizzie anyway.
The real problem was she couldn’t hardly walk. They were both cripples now. Her feet were swollen to the size of elephant legs; she had to cut the seams on her jeans clear up to the knees. She shuffled around the house in slippers. It was painful to watch even though she acted like it was funny.
Beside him Lizzie gave a snort and a gurgle. Her eyelids fluttered. She turned her head slowly and for a moment she looked at him with eyes that were tired and disconnected. Then life came back to her face and she smiled.
“I’ve been sleeping, huh?” she said, and pushed herself upright. Awake, she looked more like herself.
“You’re probably tired from the hospital.”
“No, I’m tried from all this crappy TV you watch. Sheesh. Gimme that remote.” She started channel surfing, clicking rapidly through a gazillion stations.
“I have some DVD’s,” Ben offered.
“Let’s watch this,” She found Antenna TV. “These old shows crack me up.” She yawned and stretched like a cat.
The next day she decided to clean the house. She started on Ben’s room because, she said, it stank so bad she could smell it everywhere. Ben hung uneasily between his crutches watching as she fished with a broom under the bed for the soiled night pads.
“Jeez, Ben,” She used the dustpan and the broom to heave the soggy pads into a garbage can. It took seven or eight scoops to get them all. Lizzie was panting, but she kept working. She tugged the bedclothes off, revealing more pads layered on top of each other, a whole history of the last six months in soggy pink and white paper. Ben watched how she tried to keep the pads away from her clothes as she swung them off the bed and into the trash. She treated the sheets the same way, gingerly tugging with the tips of her fingers until the sheet was in a heap on the floor. Ben turned and hobbled back to the couch.
From the couch he could hear her panting and grunting. Bumps, a rhythmic sliding noise: the garbage can being shoved down the hall in surges a few feet at a time. Lizzie rounded the corner pushing the garbage can with her walker.
“Come ..on..you.. mo-ther-fuck-er,” she groaned to the trash can, flashing Ben a quick grin. He watched her shove the can by increments across the linoleum to the kitchen. His legs twitched, but he kept himself seated. She disappeared from sight. Ben tracked her movements by sound.
A gritty grinding sound, more shoving. A creak and a swish; she was opening the door. An abrupt silence.
“Hey, Ben, did you know you had a dog living in your garage?”
“A dog?” He had forgotten about it.
“Yeah, it’s on that old couch out here. It’s just laying on the couch.”
Ben was quiet. He didn’t know what he thought about having a dog take up more or less permanent residence in his garage. He listened, expecting to hear a crash as she shoved the trash can down the step into the garage. That would probably drive the dog away.
Instead he heard faint gritty skiddings and rattles and Lizzie’s voice murmuring too softly for him to make out the words.
Lizzie’s walker hit a pop can and it rolled with a rattle. She froze, eyes locked on the dog. It didn’t move. Then she realized why.
“Oh. You’re hurt,” Lizzie whispered. The dog raised its head. Its small eyes were nearly engulfed by the swelling of its lacerated face. It lay curled up on the couch with its front paws extended; they too were lacerated and swollen beyond recognition.
It was cold in the garage, a clammy cold that climbed right into Lizzie’s bones and lodged there like a cancer. She could only imagine how cold the dog must be.
“Oh, you poor baby,” Lizzie shoved the walker forward carefully, plowing slowly through the trash like a boat in a no wake zone. The dog watched her without hope or interest: it was too tired and sick to think of running away. When Lizzie was close enough to do so, she reached her hand out and gently laid her fingers on the dog’s broken face. Then she put her walker to one side and lowered herself carefully onto the couch next to the dog. She spread the fingers of one hand on its shoulder and massaged gently. The dog lay its head down with a sigh.
Not a pretty dog. Mostly white with a brown saddle. Medium length fur, not thick enough for the weather. A brown spot decorated one eye and smaller spots were sprinkled on its floppy ears. Despite the clownish appearance, Lizzie could tell that this was a serious dog, a smart, assertive animal that was used to making its way alone in the world. She let her hand slide down to the dog’s belly and felt: breasts full of milk. A girl dog, soon to be a mother.
Ben waited for the sound of the trash can crash and the door closure. Instead he heard more shufflings, rattles and murmurs. Lots of murmurs. Then an unfamiliar scratching sound.
Lizzie emerged from the kitchen followed by a dog.
“Hey, look, a dog for you, Benny! To keep you company.”
Lizzie is singing in the kitchen. She’s cooking a dinner. She and Ben have gotten into the habit of eating together in the early evening followed by a movie and then bed. Lizzie naps a lot, from the drugs, she says. She’s got some pretty heavy duty medications, narcotics. She keeps her pills hidden so that her visitors can’t swipe them. By eight or nine at night she can hardly keep her eyes open.
Ben spends the day mulling the possibilities for their viewing pleasure. He has, over time, ordered off Ebay a formidable collection of used VCR tapes and DVD’s, mostly comedy but also action. He displays his suggestions to Lizzie, gives her reviews of movies she hasn’t seen, changes his mind, makes more selections.
The dog spends the day following Ben around the house, limping with determination in his wake. Not that he goes much of anywhere; just trips to the frig or the bathroom and back to the couch. But whither he goeth, she goes, too. He tells her to stay put on the couch, just wait, he’ll be back, but she doesn’t listen.
The house no longer smells like pee. Lizzie’s cooking permeates everything: garlic, bay leaves, basil, pepper; she likes food she can taste. Or she used to; lately food has appealed to her more in the abstract than the actuality. She fixes little meals for herself, but can’t eat them. Now she’s making tortillas, browning the hamburger, and singing tonelessly through her teeth.
Ben listens from the living room. He has the sound on the TV turned down so he can hear her. He spots her cigarettes on the coffee table and thinks, why not? So he fumbles the package open, taps the cigarette on the coffee table in imitation of Lizzie, sticks the butt in his mouth at a rakish angle. Getting a light is harder than it looks. Ben snaps until his thumb gets sore. He’s about to ask for help when suddenly a flame appears. Ok, then. Ben takes a tentative drag, leans back, expelling smoke.
“Awwhooo!” Lizzie shouts, “Damn that’s hot!” Grease snapping and popping from the frying pan. She shovels the spicy meat into tortillas.
Lizzie settles on one end of the couch, Ben and the dog share the other end. The tortilla dinner is on the coffee table, a movie has been chosen.
Lizzie announces, “I thought of a name for her.” They have been batting names back and forth for days: Princess, Queenie, Your Bitchness, Queen of the Dogs. “How about Lassie?”
“Lassie?” Ben echoes in disbelief.
“Sure. Look, she’s going to be pretty. Look at her.”
“She doesn’t look like a Lassie to me,” He didn’t mean just because the dog was not a collie.
“She looks like a Lassie to me,” Lizzie argues. She examines the dog. Polka dot ears on the alert, dark brown eyes emerging as the swelling recedes. She has an intense demeanor, body language that signifies yearning, eyes that track every movement. And yet, for all the neediness, this is a dog that will take shit from no one.
But Lizzie looks at the dog and sees a girl in trouble.
“Lassie,” she says firmly, “She needs a pretty name because she’s going to be pretty someday.”
Ben looks at the dog doubtfully. He isn’t sure he wants a dog at all, although he can tell the dog wants him. It’s just like Lizzie to pick up a dog and dump it on someone else as if dog care was easy, which it was for her since she wasn’t the one doing it. She did the same thing with her kids.
The harsh light from the ceiling bulb glaring in Ben’s face is giving him a headache. There’s a pizza on the coffee table and a movie in the VCR, but Ben has been watching the window more than the screen. Not that there is anything to see in the black window but the reflection of the lightbulb. Lassie stirs beside him, then slides off the couch. She looks expectantly at Ben and, when he fails to respond, she walks briskly to the door, turns and looks expectantly again.
Ben thinks do you want to go to the casino, too? Girls night out. Lizzie and her friends took off, all giggly and excited. He had ordered the movie and the pizza for her, but Lizzie said she was tired of sitting at home. Ben wonders where Lizzie got her gambling money. He suspects that she’s selling her medications.
Lassie is vibrating impatiently at the door. Oh, Ben realizes. She needs to go out to pee. He fumbles for his crutches, heaves himself upwards. “I’m coming.” She starts to dance on her toes. He barely has the door cracked before she eels her way out and vanishes into the darkness.
It’s raining. The porch light illuminates a circle of yellowed grass and a sliver of driveway. All else is hidden in darkness. The black night wind shifts and swirls, heavy and wet. Ben’s muscles tighten up against the cold and he begins to shake. There is no sign of Lassie. He is worried. There was a directness in her departure, a purposefulness, as if she had somewhere to go, as if she might not come back.
“Lassie?” Ben calls. His voice is just a squeak in the night.
“Lassie!” he calls again, trying for some volume. No answer. Ben leans forward on the crutches. Rain from the overspilling gutter hits the back of his neck. He drags his feet forward, leans, drags, gets past the line of gutter spill out into the rain. His clothes flap on his bony frame as he hurries down the wheelchair ramp to the driveway. The faster he moves, the harder his heart beats. He is imagining the couch, the lightbulb, the livingroom with no warm dog curled up at his side. Suddenly Lassie appears at the edge of the light. Sauntering idly, she stops to sniff something. Ben goes from fear to relief to anger too fast to identify any of his feelings.
“Lassie! What are doing out here? Its cold,” he scolds. “Get inside!”
She pricks up her ears and trots into the house. Ben follows.
Now they are both all wet. It doesn’t bother Lassie; she shakes vigorously before jumping her wet self up on the couch for more TV watching. Ben looks at the TV and the cold bare room under the harsh light bulb. He’s shivering, the pizza has gotten cold and it’s a movie he’s seen a dozen times. He makes a decision.
“I’m going to bed.”
As he moves toward the hall, he looks back to see if Lassie is following.
He is wakened by a low fierce snarling, a threatening grumble that goes one and on. Ben’s body goes rigid under the covers as his mind tries to catch up; is there a wild animal in the house? A cougar? He feels a shift of weight at the foot of the bed and knows suddenly that the growling is coming from Lassie.
Then a whisper, a flurry of footsteps and a giggle tells him what she is growling at: Lizzie brought some friends home. They are in her bedroom.
“Lassie, quit,” Ben whispers.
She poised alertly ready to defend him from marauding females and late night revelry.
“Come on, quit, go to sleep.” The clock says its ten thirty; that’s home early for Lizzie. Sometimes when she was out on a tear she didn’t come home for days. He curls up tightly under the covers and tries not to hear. At least its girl giggles. He hated it when she brought guys home. Having to meet them the next day, having to stand in line to use the bathroom, having to watch them to keep them from stealing stuff. Hopefully the girls would be gone before morning. Lassie snuggles up against his back. He can feel the warmth coming through the blanket like a heating pad. He wishes the soothing warmth could surround him like a cocoon.
The giggles erupt into full scale laughter and Lassie barks.
“Oh sorry, Benny,” Lizzie calls. And goes back to whispering with her friends.
Ben is staring at the TV. He hears the shuffling in the hallway that means Lizzie is finally up: a glance at the clock; it’s nearly two in the afternoon. A door closes: the bathroom. More shufflings, a silence, then the flush. Water running. Was she going to take a shower? No. He hears her walker bumping against the door and a whispered curse. The phone rings.
Lizzie yells, “If that’s Alyeesha, tell her to fuck off and die!”
A spasm shoots through Ben, shaking his whole frame. Lassie leaps off the couch, hair bristling, ready for action.
“No, no,” Ben whispers, trying to calm her, but he doesn’t feel very calm himself. Lizzie can get like this. And when Lizzie is upset the whole world will know about it, like it or not. The phone keeps ringing.
He listens tautly to the bathroom noises: bangings, clinkings, an odd popping sound followed by a curse and the rattle of metal.
Then Lizzie huffing like a steam engine on her way back to her room. The phone finally stops ringing.
The rest of the afternoon passes like that: long silences punctuated by Lizzie popping out of her room like a demented cookoo clock to curse at the ringing phone. Ben tries to watch TV but can’t concentrate. He strokes Lassie’s head to calm himself. Finally the windows blacken and the room grows dim. He gets up, stiff from sitting, and flicks on the overhead light. The harsh yellow glare reminds him of the previous evening’s long lonesome vigil.
“Come on,” he says to the dog. They move slowly down the hall to Lizzie’s room. The stripe of yellow at the bottom of her door indicates that her light is on.
He knocks softly, “Lizzie?”
There’s no sound. Ben tries again a little louder, “Lizzie?” He doesn’t expect her to pop out and yell at him. Lizzie has never yelled at him. But he does expect some kind of answer, maybe a moan or a whispered request to be left alone. But there’s nothing.
Lassie paws worriedly at the wood of the door: her way of knocking. It’s so quiet that Ben can hear outside sounds: a car swooshing by, a dog barking in the distance. The only noise from inside the house is the TV blathering in the living room, the sound of loneliness.
Ben pushes his face against the door and his voice cracks as he begs for an answer, “Lizzie?”
The first thing the cops did when they arrived was try to shoot Lassie.
Ben opened the door with Lassie beside him. He saw Willie Courbet and Bill Lanfant, in their black tribal police uniforms, coming up the wheelchair ramp. Lassie lunged forward, barking.
The cops yelled at Ben and drew their guns. “Get that dog under control or I’ll shoot it!”
Ben’s eyes filled with a vision of blood. He saw Lassie gutshot, sprawled at his feet. From an unknown place inside him a wild scream leapt out, a scream the size of a tiger. Ben seized Lassie by the collar and yanked her back. He lost his footing and fell to the floor in a sprawl. In a panic, wailing “No, No, No,” he scrabbled backwards on the floor, wresting Lassie along with his arms wrapped around her belly.
The two cops, stunned by this display, stood silently in the doorway.
They jumped, startled, when Lois billowed up the steps behind them.
She yelled, “Willie Courbet, put down that damn gun!” Willie was her nephew. The other cop was married to her ex-sister in law.
Willie yelled back, “I’m gonna shoot that dog if it tries to bite me, Lois.”
“No one is going to bite you. Cops! Think that uniform makes you somebody.” She steamrollered into the house.
Hands on her hips, she surveyed the room. There was nothing to see except Ben on the floor with his arms around his dog. “What the hell’s going on?” She demanded of the cops.
“We got an emergency call,” Bill tried to explain. “Ben called it in. She says his sister is dead.”
“Lizzie is dead?” Lois stared at the two cops. “Ben’s sister is dead and you come charging in here and scare him like that? What the hell are you thinking?”
“Now Lois we don’t know how she died and that dog—“
Lois turned her back on the two cops. Ignoring Lassie, she lifted Ben by the armpits and set him on the couch. Lassie, silent now in recognition of real authority, jumped up on the couch beside him.
Lois reached down to pat Ben’s shoulder “Where is Lizzie, honey?” she asked. She smelled something bad. “Oh, honey...”
Ben saw her expression and realized that he had peed on himself. He began to cry, great wracking sobs that shook his whole body.
“Aw Jeezuz, Ben,” said Willie from the door. He holstered his gun.
“It’s your fault, You ought to know better coming in shouting like that!” Lois yelled.
The medics from the Michlimac volunteer fire department came thumping up the wheelchair ramp. With all the shouting between Lois and the cops, no one heard them pull in the drive. Bill Lanfant and Willie stepped back to give them room and waved them in.
“Where’s Lizzie, Ben?” someone asked.
Lois sat on the couch next to Ben and Lassie. The men in uniform muttered to each other, busy with mysterious activities. Some of them disappeared down the hall, some went back outside, some milled around in the living room. Every now and then they asked Ben questions which Lois answered.
“Whose is this, Ben?”
“Read the label, Bill Lanfant. That’s a prescription medication. It says right on there who it is for and what doctor it came from.”
“Lois, this is a narcotic so I gotta ask.”
“Why’re you asking Benny? You know he don’t do drugs. The one you should be asking is down the hall.” She meant Lizzie.
Some of the medics left, pushing a blanket wrapped figure on a rolling gurney. There was some more milling around, more questions, and some more medics left. Finally the cops headed toward the door. Willie hesitated, and said, “Sorry about your sister, Ben,” Then the cops were gone too.
Lois heaved herself to her feet. She stood for a moment hands on hips observing Ben. Then she said, “Well, you know I’m right across the street if you need me, Benny.”
“Thanks,” he said.
Ben and Lassie sat on the couch in the living room. The bare bulb in the middle of the ceiling glared down at them. It seemed strange that the pizza was still there and the TV was still on. Lassie jumped off the couch and disappeared down the hall. Ben could hear her nails clicking on the floor as she went from room to room, inspecting the whole house, making sure the strangers were gone, looking for Lizzie.
She returned to the living room and stood in front of Ben, staring at him with questioning eyes. Ben sat immobilized. Lassie looked around the living room, checked the kitchen, and disappeared down the hall to check the bedrooms again. A few minutes later she swung by Ben to sniff him and gaze, once again, into his eyes.
He said, “I don’t know. I don’t know where people go when they die.”
So Lassie orbited away on another search. It took a couple days for her to stop looking for Lizzie. It took Ben longer than that.