by Patricia Russo
She had plunged both hands into the fire and fished in the flames for long, long seconds, fished deep, so Randall couldn’t simply give her the cup of coffee. Must hurt like crazy, he thought, trying not to think about it, for other people’s pain made his stomach clench. The woman dropped down on one of the splintery crates in the alley behind the twenty-four hour fruit stand. Stuck, he dithered for a moment, but then bent and put the paper cup to her lips. It was hard. He was shaking, though she was not, and coffee glugged out of the little hole in the plastic lid and onto his own hand, making him yelp.
Maybe coffee hadn’t been such a good idea anyway. Maybe tea would have been better.
The wind was crazy today, gusting then abruptly dying down, then gusting again. It gusted now, blowing dirt and dust, slapping Randall with the smell of burning paper, and the stink of rot.
Mr. Gwinette, his boss, stared out at them from the bakery’s delivery entrance, which Al, the bread guy, had propped open with a brick. Against the rules, that, keeping the back door open. Health department didn’t like it.
Gwinette looked grim. Randall pretended not to see him. Al, who tended to get talkative towards dawn, claimed the boss-man stayed half-sloshed most of the time. Randall couldn’t swear to it himself; he’d only been working at the bakery for a couple of weeks. But he’d known the woman for years, well, seen her around for years, winter and summer with her layers of sweaters and that violet pompom hat. Folks in the neighborhood called her Nellie, though it was probably not her name.
Nellie’s hands smelled like charred hotdogs. Randall hoped the smell came mostly from seared dirt and the other thing and not her flesh. She had her hands in her lap, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at them.
At the end of the street, the laughing men were still laughing.
“You,” Mr. Gwinette bellowed. “Get back to work.”
His shift at the bakery was three to three, a.m. to p.m.; longer if Gwinette, who came in around noon to start busting people’s chops, felt like it. Randall didn’t think the boss had seen what had happened.
“Nellie,” he said. “Coffee? It’s good. With sugar.” He’d grabbed the cup from the Jorge, the counter guy, before running outside. Probably pissed Jorge off. The customer, too. But he’d wanted to have something with him when he went to Nellie. Something to give her.
It was February, the noon sun pale and weak. Randall was starting to shiver, though Nellie seemed all right in her layers of sweaters. Probably why the men had started the fire in the first place, he figured, to keep warm. Five or six guys, laughing too loudly for February, too loudly for noon. Young, most of them. Younger than Randall, anyway. He wondered whose idea it’d been to throw the puppies into the blazing oil drum. One of them had had to think of it first.
Nellie seemed all right, except she wasn’t talking, and her eyes were locked on something very far away.
“Hey, you. New guy. Scumbag,” Gwinette yelled. Like scumbag was his name and Gwinette had just remembered it. “Get your ass in here, now.”
Of course, they weren’t really puppies.
But they had been alive, at least for a little while.
He’d heard the whining for a couple of days.
Walking to work in the February dark, his hands pushed deep in his pockets and the cold numbing his ears, Randall did his mental bookkeeping. He’d get his first check from the bakery Friday. All his life he’d been a careful man. Never been in jail, other than a couple of times; never had to live on the streets; never had to beg. He’d managed his life better than his sisters and most of his cousins, better than the people he passed on the long walk from the bus stop to the bakery, lumps of humanity wrapped in charity blankets, the lucky ones huddled over heating grates. The city was rough in the winter.
His muscles ached from hauling hundred pound sacks of flour. His hands were chapped from washing the mixing machines’ heavy cast-iron bowls; half the shift, he had his hands in water. His jeans were stiff with splashes of batter, his sneakers caked with dough.
It had rained earlier in the day, a brief, pounding downpour; the temperature had been high enough for the precipitation to hit the ground as liquid. Now all the little puddles had frozen over, black ice, invisible in the night. Cars skidded. Pedestrians slipped and cursed.
Waiting for a red light to change, Randall found himself staring at the huge pothole he always had to skirt whenever he crossed this street. The damn thing had gotten bigger since yesterday. It was at least a yard across, and nearly as deep in the center. The mother of all potholes, he thought. Yeah, the thing was definitely growing, its circumference widening, its edges crumbling away, the pit broadening. The edges of the hole looked ragged. Chewed. He imagined rats with steel teeth tearing bites out of the asphalt, and smiled.
The pothole was full of water. Black liquid, rippling slightly in the chill wind from the east. Too much water to freeze quickly, Randall thought, which was logical, but at the same time he had the strange feeling that if he were to dip his hand into the hole, the water would feel warm.
Idiot. It would be warm enough in the bakery, anyway. Free sauna, every night.
There was a penny in his pocket. Randall drew it out, held it for a moment. He pictured himself tossing it into the water, the arc of the new coin under the streetlights.
He shoved the penny back into his pocket and walked on.
The bakery hunched on one end of Aster Street like a dark, brooding toad. A fire-breathing toad. Al the bread guy had propped the back door open again, and heat billowed out, making the air steam.
As soon as Randall set foot on Aster Street, he heard the whines. Whimperings, high-pitched though muffled, and plaintive. He’d been hearing them for a couple of days now, and he wasn’t alone. In the front of the bakery, the customers talked about it. A litter of puppies, locked up in a basement? Or perhaps fallen into a sewer. On the street, during the day, people stopped, looked around, looked down. Al insisted he didn’t hear anything, but more than once Randall caught him looking around, looking down, too.
The sounds, whimpers and soft yips, came from underground. Not from some basement, Randall thought, nor from a sewer grate. At the other end of Aster Street, a large rectangle of bare ground interrupted the concrete. Years ago, the city had begun a project to plant trees down here to combat the factory smoke and car exhaust. Aster Street never got its tree, but the empty plot set in the sidewalk remained. In the summer straggly weeds grew on it; once someone had planted marigolds there, but the flowers had died.
The first day he heard the whines and yips, Randall had walked up and down Aster Street, burning up his few break-time minutes, pacing slowly, head down, tracking the sounds. He kept coming back to the empty plot, the bare dirt cracked with cold, the few dead strands of grass on it dry and yellow.
Once he turned and found Nellie standing beside him, silent and frowning, the pompom on her violet hat bobbing gently.
“What is it?” he asked, his heart suddenly starting to pound. “What’s under here?”
Nellie didn’t say a word, but an old man, passing, paused. His face was as wrinkled as a prune, his white hair wispy. “Earth dogs,” he said. Randall couldn’t place his accent. Philippines, maybe, or maybe China. “Once in while, earth forms animals. Sometime dogs, sometime pigs.” He looked at them, his eyes bright in an almost dead face. The old man’s coat was open, flapping in the wind. Randall wondered why the guy wasn’t cold. “Sometime humans.”
Nellie nodded, slowly, as if in recognition, or agreement.
From the bakery, someone shouted. Al. Breaktime was over.
“Should we do something?” Randall asked.
“It is lucky to raise earth dogs,” the old man said. “Earth dog brings good fortune. But be certain before you dig. If you uncover, you must take care of them.”
“Earth dogs,” he said to Nellie now. Randall lowered the cup of coffee; she hadn’t even tasted it. Her face was turned up toward the sky, her eyes fixed on something far away.
At the other end of the street, the men were still laughing, slapping hands, bumping chests, celebrating. Young men. Almost kids, Randall thought. A couple of bottles circulated, brown necks poking out of paper sacks. But that was no excuse.
To one side of the group of men, the rusty old metal drum they’d dragged out of the alley, filled with trash and newspapers, and set alight. To the other side, the plot of earth, excavated now, dug up by the laughing men with the help of an old tire iron, a discarded mortar trowel, a couple of screwdrivers. Clumps of dirt lay scattered over the pavement, and pebbles, and little knots that might have been roots. The hole wasn’t very deep; the puppies had formed close to the surface. Still, to Randall the fresh hole looked like a gaping wound.
The wind gusted again, blowing the smell of fire and the stink of decay into Randall’s face. The fire-smell came from the rusty metal drum, the flames within it still burning high. The rot came from the hole.
Nellie stood up.
“Wait,” Randall said, shaking harder. He had to put the coffee down, or he’d have spilled it all over himself.
“Son of a bitch!” Gwinnette yelled. “You’re on the clock! And you’re going to pay for that coffee.”
The men had worked hard to dig up the puppies. They’d pissed on the plot to soften it up, but the earth was frozen, a bitch to penetrate with tire iron and trowel. They had sweated, banging on the cold earth. Their hands had blistered. Randall had seen it all, from beginning to end. Al the bread guy hadn’t bothered him; nor had any of the others, the prep guys and the post guys, the icers, the decorators, the trainee muffin baker. They’d all let him stand outside and watch, though all refused to look themselves.
The men hadn’t been laughing while they dug. They had been grim, purposeful.
The February sun was weak and pale, but Nellie seemed to be staring directly into it, her eyes moving slightly, tracking…something.
Uncovered, the puppies had barked loudly for a few moments, the thin, yippy voices of the litter sounding alternately furious and joyful. The men had not been laughing then, either.
Nellie began to walk, her burned hands dangling loosely at her sides, her gaze still fixed on the sky.
Gwinnette bellowed again. Randall glanced at him. The boss’s face was purple, his hands meaty fists, his belly swelled up with rage.
I have always been a careful man, Randall thought. All my life, a careful man.
How many puppies had there been in the litter? He didn’t know. Lots. The killing had seemed to go on forever.
Of course they weren’t really puppies.
But they had been alive, for a little while.
One of the men had had to think of throwing the earth dogs into the fire first. Randall wondered if it really mattered which one it had been, for within seconds they had all joined in.
Grimy hands plunged into the hole, came out gripping wriggling, squirming, yipping forms. The puppies were fat, their bellies round and hairless; their tongues were pink, their eyes closed. The first one tossed into the flaming barrel twisted as it arced through the air, and gaped its mouth wide. When it entered the fire, it screamed.
And then the men had laughed and whooped, cheering each other on like guys at a pick-up game, swish, nothing but net. Points for technique. Overhand, underhand, lob, slamdunk. Scream.
Nellie had burst out of nowhere, scattering the men with furious windmilling arms, though they continued to laugh, laughing at her now, even when she leapt to the metal drum and thrust her hands into the fire. She had hunted in the flames for terribly long seconds, emerging finally with one puppy that still wriggled, still yipped.
Nellie had stepped back and tossed it up into the air.
Now, the men at the end of the street nudged each other as Nellie began to walk toward them again. She ignored them. Her gaze was turned to the sky.
Once more Randall glanced at Mr. Gwinette. Boss-man was cursing steadily, pacing now in front of the propped-open back door, about to burst with rage. Over Gwinette’s shoulder, he caught a glimpse of Al, frowning, probably worried Gwinette was drunk enough to lunge out and start kicking ass.
Randall turned his back on the bakery. He took a deep breath. He strode after Nellie.
He didn’t have to look into the hole to know what had happened to the earth dogs the laughing men had left inside. Uncovered and uncared for, the creatures had swiftly decayed. The stench of rot hung heavy in the air. Not needing to, Randall glanced anyway. Dark, viscous liquid covered the bottom of the hole. Due to the cold, the liquid had begun to congeal around the edges, yet a few clots of matter, no more than semi-solid, still floated within it. Shapeless lumps, inchoate. Nothing identifiable.
And the first ones, the burned ones, all dead. Not even their smell lingered. The fire in the drum cast up the odors of burning paper and scraps of wood, a hint of lighter fluid, nothing more.
Nellie walked past the hole, past the fire, past the men.
Randall followed her.
For the puppy she had grabbed out of the flames, the blackened, mewling thing she had held aloft and then thrown up in to the air with all her might, had flown.
It had twisted in the air, stretched out its limbs, stretched open its mouth, stretched out its curly tail, stretched open its eyes at the other end of the street, Randall had seen the red of its tongue, the glint of its crystal eyes and had flown. Had flown like a bird fresh-sprung from a cage, into the pale blue sky.
It was still flying. Nellie, head tilted back, neck turning slowly, tracked it. It was flying, and she, her pace measured, unhurried, her burned hands limp at her sides, followed it.
Randall passed the hole, passed the barrel, passed the men. Their laughter chased after him; he heard it for a long time, as if had leaped onto his back, sunk claws into his jacket, and meant to ride him forever. But the earth dog had flown, and so Randall walked on, following Nellie to wherever she might lead him.
Published in Not One of Us #30, September 2003