Sleeping Dogs

By MH Burkett

Henry talked as he checked the mailbox. “You wanna meet up at Nick’s when you’re off?”

The cell wedged into his collar, Henry juggled a tearing plastic bag while he searched for keys. He leaned against his townhouse door, fishing around his pocket.

“It’s celebratory…celebrating my freedom from the work force.”

The dining room curtains jumped in the draft as he opened the door. A few leaves blew in with him. Light from outside briefly brightened the room, spotlighting carpet stains: some recent, some before his time. The floor looked cleaner in the dark. Henry took phone in hand, pivoted, and pushed the door shut with his knee. The door slammed home…only to creak open. It swelled in humidity. Henry shouldered it closed, turned the deadbolt, then headed to the kitchen. His conversation never slowed.

“I had to. They called me a thief. Well…not really, but…might as well. There was a dollar in the tip jar, and somebody wrote on it YOU’RE A THIEF. I know. Yeah, probably. He musta left it out, thinking I’d pocket it—I put it in the tip jar.”

Henry dropped the bag on the counter, then went into the living room. He walked to the sliding glass doors and slipped aside a vertical blind. In the backyard his bull mastiff, Brutus, was playing with a muddy towel. Brutus was huge in comparison to the yard, like a Shetland pony in a wading pool. Wallowing in the mud with his towel, though, he seemed a pup. He rolled everywhere, worrying the once white material.

Henry rotated the wand of the blinds, then dropped his keys on the stereo.

“Typical. It is, though. You know it’s ’cause I’m black. Always is. If it were a white boy, they’d call him self-motivated. Probably promote him…”

Back in the kitchen he unloaded the bag: four dog food cans and three 22-oz. beers. He cracked a beer and put the others in the fridge. Squatting, Henry removed a metal bowl from a cabinet. He put three cans in, shut it, then opened a drawer.

“Hold on, lemme find the can opener…”

He opened another drawer, rattled it around, and sifted through junk. He slammed it shut, then stood still a minute.

“Okay, so, end of shift, I dump the jar and see that note. I knew what was up.” He lifted a dish in the sink and found the can opener rusting beneath it. He dried it with a dishcloth. “I waved that dollar right under his nose. I told him, ‘You got the wrong dollar framed over that register!’ Then I left. I mean, I’ll get my check Wednesday, but otherwise, I’m not going near him. I might kill him. That’s what we do, you know…”

Henry opened the dog food, then shook the can out with a gelatinous plop. He took two heartworm pills and stuck them in, then dumped in dry kibble. He ran a splash of water over the mixture, then squashed it all together with a fork.

“What? Yeah, all right. I gotta feed Brute anyhow. So, seven at Nick’s? Okay. Hey, don’t take no crap. Damn the man.” A laugh. “Later.”

Henry pocketed the phone, then picked up the food bowl. Walking by the stereo, he flipped on the radio. An a cappella version of “Boyz in the Hood” blasted out. He shut it off.

“Always messing with the classics…” He drew aside the blinds and removed the stick from the door’s track. Sliding open the glass, he snagged his beer in passing.

“Yo, Brutus! Supper!” Brutus jerked his head up, jowls dripping, then trotted toward the cement. He nuzzled Henry’s hand. Henry patted him and tipped back the bottle.

“Rough day?” Henry asked. “Trade you…”

His eyes lingered on the back corner.

“What’re you playing with back here?” Henry started walking. “Did you steal laundry again…”

As he got closer, it looked less like a towel. It wasn’t a sheet either. It had fur.

It was the neighbor’s dog.

***

Cleo belonged to Chad, Henry’s neighbor—a florist or something. Cleo is—was—a long poodle with various parts shaved to make other parts floof out more. Although now all the floof parts (the anklets, the earrings, the mullet and tail knot) resembled filthy cotton balls. Brutus had turned the yard into a mud pit and dragged Cleo through it.

“Oh no. HELL NO. Nonononononono…”

There would be hysterics. Henry knew it. Tears and hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Maybe police. Maybe animal control.

“You done it this time, Brute.”

Brutus, busy gorging, raised his head and wagged his stump. He continued eating.

Henry looked over the fence. Chad’s backyard was an exact replica of Henry’s but for a few differences. Where Henry had a dilapidated picnic table, Chad had a plastic table and chairs, an umbrella planted through the table. A few potted plants were by the back door, struggling as autumn gained strength. A bright mobile spun from the corner eaves, right next to the jangly wind chimes that woke Henry daily.

The yard looked better than Henry’s. The grass was thick, brown and leaf-scattered as it was. Even up to the doghouse he peered over, there were no thin spots in the grass, as if Cleo had never walked the same path twice…though the leaves were thicker in this corner.

Henry glanced at the heap sprawled at his feet. He leaned further over the fence to see in the back window. The lights were off. The place was deserted. Two paws appeared against the fence and Henry was eye level with Brutus. Brutus, panting and drooling, closed his mouth and cocked his head inquisitively.

“Well, guess there’s only one thing to do…”

Henry knelt in the mud and slipped hands beneath the poodle. A slight suction from mud…then Cleo was dead weight in his arms. Her tongue lolled out against his upper arm, eyes as cloudy as those gathering overhead. He carried her to the picnic table and gently laid her down. Brutus licked a dangling paw. Henry swatted his nose.

Returning inside, Henry went to the kitchen and rummaged under the sink. When he stepped out, he carried a bucket, sponge, and bottle of baby shampoo. He placed these on the bench, then unwound the hose.

Brutus whimpered and slunk across the yard.

“You’re next.”

Turning on the faucet, Henry hosed down Cleo, using thumb pressure to spray away the larger mud clumps. He filled the bucket. After a squirt in the bucket, Henry poured the rest of the shampoo onto the poodle. He massaged the shampoo into the fur slowly, then more briskly, as if trying to warm the body by friction. Dark hands, white fur—everything sank beneath gray suds.

“Love what you’re doing with your hair…” Henry lisped to Cleo.

He worked out clods in the ears, rubbing until every bit of grit was gone, then moved to the belly. Every dog likes their belly rubbed, right? He tried not to think about Chad, of him walking in the door and whistling for Cleo. First he’d go upstairs to empty his pockets and take off his shoes, still calling, then listen to messages as he changed.

This baby shampoo is crap, Henry decided, rubbing his eyes. Tear-free my ass.

Then Chad might step into the bathroom, start wondering where Cleo was. He’d come downstairs and head for the backyard…or he might look out the upstairs window! Henry plunged the sponge into the bucket and quickly rubbed it between all of Cleo’s toes. One hand spraying…the other rubbing… Henry ignored the bubbles streaming off the table. Brutus stepped forward and licked at the drip.

Henry turned off the hose. Feeling colder, he realized his clothes were soaked. The breeze was rising, judging from the chimes. The wind knifed through him.

No time. Henry ran inside again, this time emerging with towels and a hair dryer. He left the back door open and dropped everything on the concrete. Then he stepped back to the picnic table. Please don’t be stiff, please don’t be stiff. The body was limp, a puppet with no strings.

Henry laid her by the back door. He furiously began to towel. Brutus, disinterested now, nosed Cleo’s nose, then wandered into the house. Henry touched dog parts he’d never touched before. Poodle armpits, inner thighs. Strange shaved parts that should have been left covered in fur. Something was just not right about it.

Henry reached inside the door and plugged in the hair dryer. He tried to fluff Cleo’s floof back in place, constantly pushing Brutus away. The mastiff kept going through the back door. In and out. In and out. Henry struggled not to gag on the smell of singed hair and wet dog. Dead wet dog. Just as Cleo’s hair approached normal volume, the sky began to drizzle.

Henry stood, shaking the dryer at the clouds.

“You too?!”

He tossed the hair dryer back in the door.

Throwing the freshly groomed dog on his shoulder, Henry snuck to the back corner of his yard and peeped over the boards. The lights were still off next door. Awkwardly, using one doghouse roof to step onto the fence top…then down onto the other doghouse…Henry eased his way over. As he was stepping down, Cleo started to slip from his shoulder. Spinning and cursing, Henry dropped hard into the yard.

They landed in leaves. Henry stood, wet leaves clinging to him, and tried to brush the specks off Cleo’s coat. Shrugging, Henry knelt down and backed Cleo’s rear into the doghouse. He reached around to position the haunches as they would normally squat, then crossed the front paws and rested her head on them. That looked stupid, so he rearranged them parallel, with her head lying between them. Henry tried to shut her eyes with his thumbs, but they wouldn’t stay.

Henry hopped the fence, collecting a few splinters in his palm as he did. He picked up his flat beer, downing it as he went inside for his keys. He needed to be somewhere else. He’d have to hit the bar early.

***

Daylight slipped through Henry’s bedroom window, tiptoed around last night’s clothing, then slapped him in the face. He lay there, confused—normally he’d have been up for hours—until he remembered he was now job free. Aside from his check next week, Henry never had to go back to the restaurant again. He yawned, arched his back, stretched his toes, and twisted deeper into the sheets.

He heard a wooden squeak: second step, bottom of the staircase.

“Brutus, that you?” Henry called, but no dog.

Henry reached under the bed and pulled out a shoebox. Dropping the lid, he pulled out the .38 and flipped it open. Unloaded. He tried one of the bullets from the box. The bullet was a .45.

The pressure creak, third step from the top—someone stepping very slowly.

Henry dropped the shoebox and jumped out of bed. Gun out, he moved around the chifforobe to the door, one foot at a time.

“I don’t know who’s out there…but I’m packin’!” Henry shouted through the door. “You’re about to get trouble, ’less you leave the way you came…”

From the stairs: “Police! Open the door!”

“Screw that! I live here. I know my rights. This is private property. My lawyer’s gonna have you and the restaurant up on harassment. This is racial profiling; this is…”

“Sir, please just open the door. Slow now.”

Henry pushed the door open with his toe, muttering, “…the man always coming down…” In the stairwell two policemen—one white, one black—stood braced, guns raised. A Mexican standoff, all parties hesitant.

“They sent ya’ll out over a couple bucks’ tips?”

“Sir?” White Badge spoke. “We’re responding to a possible B&E call. There’s been some vandalism reports recently…”

“Sir,” Black Badge spoke up, “is there anyone else in the house?”

“No. I live here. Alone.” Shrug. “And my dog.”

“Sir,” the black cop spoke again, gently, “if we lower our weapons, will you put some pants on?”

Henry looked down and realized he was wearing only boxers, more or less. He bit his lip, a slow moment all around, then…he stepped back and uncocked the gun. The police responded in kind.

White Badge, holstering his weapon, said, “If we can just see some I.D., we’ll be on our way.”

“Yeah, yeah, hold on.” Henry placed the gun on the dresser and tried to pull up his pants. Losing his balance, he sat on the bed corner…which slid out from under him, and he dropped to the floor. He regained his feet, fumbling his wallet from his pocket and surrendering it to the white cop.

“See, everything’s in order. That’s me, that’s the address.”

“Sir, you mentioned a dog?” the black cop questioned over the other’s shoulder.

“Yeah, big old mastiff. Don’t know how you got past him…”

“Maybe ’cause he’s not here. Your front door was wide open. A neighbor thought you were getting robbed.”

“Damn! Yeah, the front door won’t shut when it rains. It must’ve not shut last night.”

Handing back Henry’s license, the white cop spoke again. “If you have a mastiff running around loose, you’d better find him before animal control does.”

Henry was already putting on sandals. “I will. I am. Appreciate your concern, though. Now I’m sure ya’ll have other house calls to make…”

Henry grabbed a shirt and followed them down the stairs.

As the white officer radioed central, the black officer smiled back at Henry.

“You know, you might think about getting bullets for that little .38.”

“One in the barrel,” Henry lied. “I’m a good shot.”

***

Without bass, “Boyz in the Hood” hardly rattled the car at all.

Chad turned the radio off. He liked this a cappella version and usually sang along loudly…but not today. He was already drinking and driving, what with the wine cooler from Steve. The rearview’s mini dream catcher swung to the right as Chad turned the corner. He adjusted the mirror. God, the dirt under these nails…He held his breath, feeling tears well.

Still…nice of Steve to go fashionably late to his friend’s exhibit. Too bad Chad wasn’t up for it; he could do with some perspective. Anyone in the gay community needed support. So much adversity, so much hatred

Chad wheeled up to the shoeboxed townhomes and saw his neighbor Henry sitting out with his mastiff. Henry looked like Chad felt—worn down. As he parked and felt the vent wheeze out, Chad raised bottle to brow in salute. Henry returned the salute with a brown bag, then drank a swig.

Chad locked the car and pocketed the keys. He walked to Henry’s stoop, sipping his own bottle.

“Ya’ll all right?”

Henry looked puzzled. “Huh?”

“Are ya’ll okay? This morning. Leaving for work, it looked like someone had broke in your place. I called the cops, just to be safe. I was afraid the vandals came back…”

“That was you? You called the cops? Aw, man…” Henry hung his head a moment, then turned it sideways, both ways, slowly. “Nah, we’re okay. They just let Brutus here out—Ya had a good run, didn’t ya?” He patted Brutus’s haunches.

The mastiff looked back, smiling. He butted Chad’s hand until he petted him.

“Yeah, they was just lucky I didn’t shoot ’em down, invading a black man’s property like that. But they played it straight. Hell, yesterday I quit my job, today the police wake me up. Tomorrow I’m gonna either win the lottery or drop dead.”

Henry grinned up at Chad. Chad’s face fell.

“I’m sorry, but that’s why I had to call the police. I…see…well, you heard about Cleo, right?”

“The poodle?” Henry’s eyelids drooped. “Where is she?”

“I just buried her at my work site.” Chad pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes shut. “You mind?”

Henry nodded and made room. Chad sat.

“So I got home late last night, exhausted. We finished surveying Tuesday, so yesterday was just marking off turf to leave. Well, I got in about eight last night, and it had been pouring all evening…” Henry nodded. “…so it was dark. There was this big crack of lightning. I looked out and, swear to God, there was Cleo in her doghouse.”

“I thought I was seeing things—you know, tired and upset. Then, when she stayed…maybe a ghost. But I went out and there she was. She was so stiff and cold…” Chad drank deeply.

“So how was she?” asked Henry, pulling Brutus closer.

“How was she? Dead. She was dead three days ago when she got hit by a car. Dead two days ago when I buried her back in the woods. She was dead yesterday when those hate-mongers dug her up and put her back in her house.” Chad stopped for a breath. “I’m sorry, Henry. It’s not you. I’m just sick of it all. Poor Cleo…”

Henry looked away, his hand tightening on the dog collar. He turned back, looking disgusted. “That’s messed up.”

“It is. Cleo was so sweet! I can’t think who could have done it, you know? I mean, I don’t know anybody I’ve pissed off recently.”

“Man, sometimes people don’t see nothing but a stereotype. Happens every day…”

“True.” Chad raised his bottle to Henry’s. They clinked. Both turned the bottles back and then, before drinking, poured a splash on the ground. Brutus got up to smell the drops. He licked the concrete, then moved into the bushes.

“So…” continued Chad, “that’s why I called the police. Sorry. Steve says it was probably dumb kids, but I worried maybe they had hit you too.”

“Nah. We’re fine. Thanks anyway.”

Brutus dropped a ratty tennis ball at Chad’s feet. Chad laughed. Just like Cleo…

“He’s still got some energy,” said Henry. “Go on. Run him ragged. He’ll sleep better.”

Chad threw the tennis ball down the sidewalk’s length. Brutus bounded away, ears flapping. He caught up it near an azalea bush and trotted back, chewing.

“He’ll do that all day.” warned Henry.

Fine with Chad. It cheered him.

“You know,” said Chad, watching Brutus plunge through bushes, “at least I got to bury Cleo in a better grave. I buried her under this flowerbed at work. It’ll be beautiful come spring. Hey, wait a minute…”

Chad turned to look at Henry. Henry looked strong enough.

“You said you were out of work? Wanna work for me? I always need extra hands…”

Henry looked leery. “I don’t know, man. I’m not much of a green thumb.”

“You can handle a shovel, right? A post hole digger?”

Henry looked surprised. “You do all that as a florist? I thought you just hung out near refrigerated flowers, clipped a few leaves…”

“You’re kidding, right?” Chad really laughed this time. Deep in his belly, his whole body shaking. “Oh, God, no! My partner—my business partner, Steve—handles the nursery end. The flowers, trees…that sort of thing. I landscape. I sweat for a living.” Chad slapped his workpants and dust rose. Brutus sneezed and dropped the ball.

“Wow, sorry. Good money?”

“Four times waiting tables.”

“…I don’t know. Us black folks ain’t partial to workin’ the fields…”

“Black?” Chad glanced over, sizing him up. “Never mind then. I thought you were Mexican.”

The mastiff snuffed at the ball again. Chad kept his face straight as long as he could, then burst out laughing at Henry’s expression.

“Man…” Henry laughed too. “You just want to play dress-up with a black man. Don’t forget, the revolution starts out in the field.”

Getting no response from staring at the tennis ball, Brutus lay down and began to chew it instead.

“Henry, you can fill some overalls all right, but if a revolution came, you’d probably sleep through it,” said Chad. “Hell, Brutus here is more trouble than you… Ain’t that right, boy?” Chad shook Brutus’s head back and forth. Brutus closed his eyes and grinned.

Henry was quiet. “Don’t give him ideas.”

“Yeah, looks like he’s up to no good. Oh well, anyways, thanks for hanging out.” Chad stood and stretched. “But I need to clean up. Long day.”

Chad dropped his bottle in the trashcan. He waved to Brutus and said “Thanks again” to Henry. He turned and walked to his own door. As he pulled out his keys, he heard Henry call.

“Yeah?” Chad leaned back to see Henry.

Henry rolled his head away, then back. “Just…I…” He stretched his leg out and scuffed the heel.

“Yeah?”

“What time’s work?”

Chad smiled.

“Call me just before eight tomorrow.”

That Henry. He’s a character.

——————–

MH Burkett has mainly worked with poetry and short fiction and has been published in Buffalo Art Voice and New Delta Review.  He currently lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia and is working on a first novel.


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