From a work in progress.
The kid takes a steady, probative sip, but still the half-moon ice clatters in the glass and he feels the jolt on the lip like electrocution. He’s pretty sure that it’s possible to ascribe volition and malice to the Alpha. The kid had been out in the yard, tossing wieners to the dogs, per ma’s standing request, and the dogs had gone apeshit, per usual, racing wildly around the dog run, stamping frenzied at the frozen soil, Dolt so aboil with nervous ecstasy that he seemed practically to levitate, and when the kid had backed into the door, his own heart buzzing with the infectious joy of the animals’ apeshit cavorting, the Alpha had timed his standard rebound off the trailer’s side wall—a kind of climactic farewell trouncing of the aluminum-sided hull—and struck the still-canted door such that the knob had nailed the kid right in the balls, and as he lunged reflexively forward, convulsing into a protective fetal crouch, the blade edge of the door panel itself, somehow missing the protuberant schnoz, smacked him square in the mouth with enough residual maentum to ding the buried nerves in his gums and split the top lip, which subsequently swelled up like a gumdrop.
Before he could boot the door closed, three or four dogs had breached the aperture, and they set upon him like a felled carcass, deploying tongues, sniffing furiously, basically giving him concerned what-for.
The pain, each time he dips his face into the cup, is uniform, the same low-voltage sting of slung acids on raw skin, and it bothers him not too much because he is, above all, a compound kid, and has long since grown inured to all manner of grievances and disappointments, physical and spiritual. This shit is atmospheric, elemental. Like eight fit Dobermans who have never known a leash, a non-negotiable term of existence. Like most of the compound’s kids, he’s learned to live with it.
The kid has mastered the ability to see himself clearly, and to love himself somewhat, regardless. He reads his life’s unfolding as if it were an entry in a dictionary of North American childhood, a dictionary with a narrative logic and sensibility, as if every experience were representative and definitive.
See, for example, his pose, in his Eddie t-shirt and toughskins, Indian-style on the oval weave rug superfluous in the carpeted living room, near enough to the tv to change the channel manually, as needed, glass of cheap cola off one knee’s port bow, craptronic Intellevision controller in his clawed grip. It feels, to the eye as much as the hand, more like a calculator than a joystick, like someone’s crude idea of futuristic technology, a flat plastic plank with a nonsensical keypad and an odd disc-lever for steering. Slick game-specific inserts of flimsier plastic slide over the buttons to sheathe the worst of the keypad’s nonsense. The cord connecting controller to console is coiled and insulated like the one for the touchtone, the gizmo’s basic color palette echoing the unit’s own drab interior, its mix of wood-paneling and dingy laminate—the technological future being, in this case, just a hodgepodge of the here and now’s constitutives recombined in the most awkward way possible.
The cola is RC, Royal Crown, the kid’s ma’s beverage of choice for reasons unbeknownst to him, though the kid sometimes speculates. The console is Intellevision (not Coleco or Atari); the cartridge, Burger Time, and the kid steers his avatar up and down ladders, across spindly girders, shambling over cross-section components of a deconstructed hamburger, with veg, while fried eggs and hot dogs for some reason try to thwart his tiny chef’s progress. The guy has to march across the surface of, say, a bun, the traversal of which makes his jaunty steps go gummy, as if the guy has to sort of smoosh the bun’s dome with his wingtips to get it to descend to the next layer of the board—this being the game’s sole object. And he has, in some apron pocket too detailed for capture by code this primitive, a pepper shaker with which he can dust the bogeys and slow them down. They flop on the ground, wither and writhe as if they’ve been effectively singed or tased. The kid, as he plays, feels an appropriate amount of resentment for the gift’s quality and thoughtfulness quotient. He keeps things in perspective. The dogs in the yard are quiet, the winter cold more without than within.
After a while he knocks off, does an air-kung-fu roundhouse that makes the coffee table wobble, scarfs a few bland ChipAhoys with a finger-swipe of low-sucrose frosting from his birthday cake, and before snuffing the last lamp and bedding down on the sofa, he peers through the slats of the home’s port window, sees the light still glowing in the trailer opposite, where the twins used to live, the current occupant just a suspicion or phantasmagoria behind the heavy curtains, and the dogs all seated in a row like eight little Indians, backs straight, rumps down, pylons of darkest night at the fenceline, peering too.
Morning, the kid wakes to the sound of an infant wailing. He strides to the far end of the trailer to dress, inspects the lip in the mirror (less swollen and tender—just a small scabbed divot in the flesh betraying injury), then doubles back to the kitchen where he gulps a shard of kringle before stepping out into the dog run. Nighttime temps above 25, the dogs sleep outside, ass to muzzle in the shed. Most of the dogs rush him (he counts incursions by Intake, Mischief, Dolt, Pinto, and Hammer, though the Alpha still sits, distracted, at the fenceline and nothing could disturb the inviolable idiocy of Dipshit), jaws open and teeth gleaming in the icebox air, all menacing smiles and corded muscles, stump tails waving. The kid’s bottom half’s bedecked in the other jeans, the heavier wool sweater up top, so he acclimates pretty fast to the weather situation, and he hauls out the kibble bin from its slot under the trailer, peels off the lid, and the dogs’ snouts descend ravenous, lifting to nip at his sleeves, dragging tongues that leave a trail of chill across his hands in genuine canine gratitude. Though he stands amid eight adult, feeding Dobermans, the kid feels not a jot of fear, and he slaps at their flanks, pats their skulls, congratulatory.
The dogs hoist inquisitive heads and emit woofs, ears antennaed, jaws still chomping, when they hear the cage door rattle: that’s the kid making for ma’s Concord, the button locks erect as golf tees behind the frosted glass. The kid’s got large-denomination birthday money in his billfold, but he slides in and roots in the cupholder where he scores three gunked quarters which he funnels into a pocket with an air of permissible transgression: ma’s said she doesn’t begrudge him as long as the dogs get fed. She’s still snoring in the front bedroom. Fewer kennel sounds, pacified infant, maybe the kid hears her. The closed climate of the cabin alerts him to the fact that he’s squashed a fresh turd under his Pumas. He inspects his soles, takes it all in, and he feels that sensation, almost like discovery, dawning inside him, some knowledge that’s always at the edge of his consciousness but never countenanced squarely and redressed. He lets the knowledge fester like that, subcutaneous, an ingrown hair.
If there had been a time before the dogs, the kid couldn’t recall it because, far as he was concerned, ma had always been breeding. He’s still not sure whether dad’s untimely exit was cause or consequence of ma’s decision to surround herself with seedstock Dobermans, but he’s seen the nativity photos of the dogs dipping their muzzles like jailbreak felons into the laundry basket, where the kid lay cushioned on beach towels, that placid dazed expression of a baby contemplating umpteen canine teeth and whiskers stiff as brush bristles. Also inexplicable is how the kid survived infancy when the possibilities for carnage were so numerous and imminent, but here he is, lo these dozen years later, still consuming resources and riding upon the Earth’s surface under the lucky Dog star of his birth.
He’s long since stopped trying to deduce ma’s angle in this, her apparently unremunerative second side business. Because she doesn’t actually breed Dobermans, the lone attempt to integrate a female into the pack having ended catastrophically (ma refused to disclose details), so now, ma just trafficked in purebred semen, which she collected in labeled vials by mysterious means, though the kid sometimes speculates, and shipped still refrigerated during winter months only to likewise icebound clients in the upper Rust Belt. Excepting these business transactions, ma showed little interest in the dogs, expressed no affection for them, and harbored no fondness for wildlife in general, broadcasting her mute, tough-titted scorn via pitchfork and wheelbarrow when tetrapod vertebrates got flattened in the compound’s drive. For ma the non-human world held about as much fascination as the human, which is to say, not much.
The kid knew, obviously, what the other kids thought of ma in her role as the compound’s property manager—this being her main side business, which secured for ma and son the dubious privilege of tenanting the first accessible unit lot, nearest Sheridan Road, as well as screening potential occupants. To the other kids, ma was just a flabby troll in a battered housecoat, dark southern Italian, with the kid’s large schnoz but her own large pores, eyes black and smeary as motor oil.
The kid has time to kill before the arcade opens. He feels the contours of said time, its spongy form and mass, like the pressure of the chill air seeping through his meager layers, clamping down on his frame with escalating firmness and conviction. Still the kid lingers at the roadside in his soiled Pumas, tests the damaged lip with his tongue, takes in this view of the #2 trailer, its blue waffle cone siding and balustered porch deck, the notch in the gravel where the twins used to park their Spree. Decorative wedges of beveled 2×4 ring the welcome sign that abuts the main drive, and the kid’s wheeled to scrape, head down, his shoe clean against them, but the process leads him, wedge by wedge, in a tight semicircle until he’s fronting again this diagonal view of units #1 and #2, slice between them of the pointless field that borders the compound, fanning out across space between here and the drive-in before arcing around to bracket the park’s far west end. Along the pointless field’s near margin runs a single track scuffed into the earth, like a property demarcation line, just a wobbly foot-scrawled boundary drawn between the compound’s something and the pointless nothing of low scraggly vegetation legible only in the language of bees, bent stalks of indestructible weeds, pendant shapes of burst seed pods, general aura of interred garbage, eighty-sixed cola cans’ slow erosion, lumpy hillocks of cast-off moped tires, and motley slumbering soil-borne contaminants—a topographical barrier of what isn’t, walling off stuff that evidently is—along which track the kid was last summer speeding on the twins’ Spree, spraying soft apples at bug-bit runts skulking in between-unit yards, spewing streams of smacktalk in the compound’s unrepeatable vernacular, and the kid’s hair’s all torn up by the wind of his loco-motion, shit-eating grin stretched from ear to ear. Kid’s scouting loci of memories.
Aladdin’s Castle’s change machine converts quarters into flimsy faux-gold tokens, stamped with the arcade’s logo and a suitably Arabian backdrop (oil lamp, minaret). The kid recognizes that this is a shrewd business practice, on the casino model, requiring kids to burn their money at this arcade, instead of strewing quarters all over town. Bun N Games, the nearest competing sanctioned arcade hall, is practically audible from the parking lot of the Market Square mall-space housing the Castle, but every retail outfit, gas station or bowling alley, with both cash register and wall socket boasts a cabinet console to sop up the city’s flow of loose change. The kid’s even heard tell of a porn-style game at the train station—reportedly called Cherry Popper—whose graphics, per his informant, were virtually jerkable. This kid himself has dropped incalculable amounts into the Punch-Out! machine at the southside Supervalu, but he still can’t beat the third Bald Bull, a kind of cartoon Clubber Lang whose savage uppercut combination, preceded by a crouched, pogoing bull rush, is all but unstoppable. A good game, he concedes, can be enjoyably vexing. The Aladdin’s Castle token strategy feels tacky, bespeaks an abject desperation with which the kid can readily identify, but if the kid were a betting man, he would pick this chain, with its shameless pandering and anxious larceny, to outlast all contenders and comers.
The kid has a feel for these things, the slow creep of death’s stench across everything that’s knowable.
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.