Another Man’s Place, by Ryan Goodwin
Baby was lying in the tall grass a foot away from the far side of my mom’s front porch. For a moment, I thought she was being lazy. I called her name. She raised her head slowly, straining to look over at me. Her eyes were wet and dark. My stomach slid into an icy pool. I went and sat next to her in the grass. She lay there and let me pet her for a few minutes. I could feel the slowness of her breathing as my hands ran across her belly and chest. I thought of my older brother Nathan. He was in Austin, probably in class on UT’s campus. I looked back at Baby. Her eyes melted into me like a question: Where is he?
Baby was Nathan’s dog, always had been. There was no doubt the two had a connection, a way of understanding each other, that Baby didn’t have with any other human. She was his dog. He was her boy. For the last three years she had lived for summer vacation, for winter break, for any long weekend when he could come home to her. She was waiting for him now.
I went inside and put some milk in a bowl. I filled a second bowl with soft dog food. I sat both next to her and pet her for a few minutes. She seemed comforted by my presence, but I felt like an imposition, like my being there was making her try harder. Baby was a very vain, dignified dog. She was the only female dog my family has ever had, but she ran the show. None of the four male dogs she lived with at one time or another ever scared or intimidated her. She ate first. She was petted first. She was the alpha dog. Watching her struggle for breath was undignified. As much as she wanted me to stay, to pet her and speak softly in her ear, I could feel she wanted to be alone. She wanted silence.
I found my dog Tex in the backyard. He was so nervous and upset he was shaking. I sat next to him for a moment and talked to him like he was a child. I told him to give Baby her space. I told him to be strong and to be sweet. I told him I would be back as soon as I could. He just sat there and shook.
I checked on Baby again and left the house. It was senior skip day. I went to a friend’s house, sat in his pool, drank beer with my buddies and flirted with the girls in our grade. In the intensity of the moment, knowing we would soon drift apart, they flirted back. They gave us the attention they had purposely denied us all through high school. For that day it was like junior high again. They forgot about the older guys, the college guys they were dating or trying to date. We reminisced about our pasts, we reminded them we knew them better, knew them more intimately than any older guy could. We had been there for all of it, when they were brace faced and flat chested, when they were Tom Boys and softball stars, when they had their first kiss at recess in the sixth grade. For that day we were all friends again. We dropped the hard feelings we had developed for each other the last four years. We pretended the more we drank and flirted the slower time would progress, the more the earth would stop spinning, the longer we could avoid our futures. I drank and tried to forget about the world out of sight. I forgot about Baby.
I drove home around eleven o’clock that night, still slightly drunk and sunburned to the core. My mom was out of town for a teacher’s workshop and when I pulled into the yard none of the lights were on. I got out and called for Baby. She didn’t come. Tex started to bark and whine. I felt a chill in my stomach again. I found a flashlight in my car. I found Baby in the spot I had left her. She wasn’t moving. She was cold. The bowl of milk was half gone, the soft dog food sat untouched.
I walked out into the yard and felt the darkness around me like a tangible force. It started to rain.
I found the shovel and dug the grave next to where my first dog Shadow was buried. Shadow was like a father to Baby. He taught her the ropes. If Baby was Rocky, Shadow was Mickey.
The headlights of my mom’s car cast bright strips of light across the yard, illuminating the rain as it fell around me in fat, shiny drops. Tex stood next to me, shaking and whining, occasionally sliding a paw across the dirt. He thought he was helping. Tears built up in the corners of my eyes at the thought.
I put Baby into two black trash bags and carried her to the grave. Tex began to howl. He smelled her again and again, maybe mistrusting his nose for the first time in his life. He prodded her with a paw. I pushed him away. He ran to the opposite end of the yard and cried and howled up at the rain and the moon. I told him to shut up.
I dropped Baby into the grave as gently as I could manage. I looked behind me, at the road leading away from the house. For a moment, I thought I heard a car. My ears pricked up slightly. I leaned forward, my eyes searching the darkness for the outline of a vehicle, hoping I would see it, hoping through the blackness of the night and the wetness of the rain I would see him, my brother driving home, guided here by some sense of dread, some connection with the universe that had signaled to him like a radio wave to come home. There was no car. Nathan wasn’t there.
I looked back at the grave, at the trash bags covering Baby’s body. I had a profound feeling of being in the wrong place, of steeling my brother’s closure.
“I’m sorry girl. I’m so sorry he’s not here. He loves you so much. I love you, too.”
There was no response but a gust of wind. My wet t-shirt slapped against my body. I realized I was completely soaked. Rain was building up in the bottom of the grave, gathering in reflective pools in the curves and folds of the plastic trash bags.
I slowly dropped the first shovel full of dirt on Baby, as if I didn’t want it to hurt. I realized how stupid that was and began to cover her with an urgency I can’t explain. When the grave was covered I pounded it flat with the butt of the shovel. Then I sat down and shook in the rain. Tex howled up at the moon next to me. Water collected in the shovel, turning the dirt smeared across its blade to mud.
She climbed into the backseat and motioned for me to join her. I hesitated. I could feel the note she’d given me years ago during a church service folded in my front pocket. She’d asked if I would hold her hand because she was sad. I did as she asked and kept the note.
Now, years later, the fondness of that memory, its innocence, battled the current intensity of feeling flooding my body and mind that only sexual desire can produce. I watched her pout out her lips. I watched her index finger point my way and curl slowly back towards her. Once. Twice. A third time. She patted the seat next to her. I climbed into the back.
For three years I had waited for this moment while she sporadically dated my best friend. For three years we shared short glances, momentary lapses of faithfulness and loyalty we never completely committed to but could never fully avoid. For three years I waited for a moment when my loyalty was no longer justified, when her faithfulness was no longer warranted. And after three years of waiting, here we were.
She swung her body across my legs and sat in my lap. She looked into my eyes with a brief spark of confusion. I brushed her hair behind her ear. She grinned at me. I thought I had never wanted to kiss any girl more than I wanted to kiss her then. I thought she was both the most intriguing girl I’d ever met and the only girl I’d ever known was absolutely wrong for me. In that moment, just before three years of sexual tension ended in a slow, soft kiss, I realized we could never date. We’d kill each other. We’d scratch and crawl at each other, tear open each other’s most insecure wounds, hate each other for all the small things that reminded us we weren’t right together. But, just as we kissed, I thought we could do it. I thought it just might be worth it. If we really wanted to, we could tell the universe to get bent and try anyways. We could survive the brutal fights, the endless wear and tear of our personalities clashing for the moments like this.
Her hand found the side of my face. I felt her fingers slide into my hair. She pulled gently. The kiss ended. She bit my lip and pulled away, grinning, licking her lips. Her palm rested against my cheek. We were both breathing hard, surprised by the kiss, surprised it hadn’t fell flat after three years of build-up. I placed my hand around her waist. She smiled at me, not her sexy, playful grin, but her real smile. I turned slowly to kiss the soft belly of her wrist, and I could feel her pulse against my lips.
That clear, unforgettable moment ended and drifted into a half-felt montage of tangled limps and heavy breaths. Who’s to say who stopped first, but one of us did. Then we were just two confused teens in the back of a car, wishing the rest of the world didn’t exist to judge us, wishing that we didn’t feel wrong and that it wasn’t over, whatever had just happened between us.
There didn’t seem to be enough air in the car, or enough enjoyment in our awkward laughs. Our hands continued to find new places to rest, a knee, curled around a waist, intertwined together, but they never rested long, and soon one of us suggested we leave, suggested picking this whole thing up some other night, like we’d start right back where we were, but we never did. Probably never will.
She was still leaning against her car door when I drove away, maybe not really ready for me to leave, maybe not wanting to get in the car and be reminded of our mistake. I could feel the note folded in my pocket. I shoved my hand in it and felt the crinkled paper and watched her disappear into the darkness behind the cloud of white gravel dust swirling behind my car. I felt folded and confined.
I looked down at my uncle in his casket. I had only spoken to him a few times before his death. He had always been an asshole to me and my brother. He hated my father and allowed that to stop him from putting any effort into getting to know his older sister’s kids. Most of what I know about him comes from my mom. She always told stories about them as kids, about how close they were. I knew from an early age that she couldn’t stand to talk about how he was as a grown up, how he was as a man.
I looked down at my uncle and felt like I didn’t know him at all. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, a part of his visitation, one of the last people to see his face, one of the people gathered to send his spirit off with recollections of shared memories, one of the family members to guide conversation, to shed light on him in a way that illuminated only his best qualities. I realized, as I looked down at him, that there was only one reason I was there, my mom.
I leaned over my uncle’s lifeless face and whispered, “I wish I had known you.”
I walked away from the casket and watched briefly as my youngest cousin said his goodbyes, crying and shaking with the raw, pure grief of someone whose life, in that moment, is being drastically changed by the realization that death is unexpected, unfair and permanent. I turned to face the back of the visitation room. My mom and her younger brother stood by the back door, my uncle hunched over, crying with unadulterated pain, my mother trying to console him, short bursts of pain sliding on and off her face as she patted his back and whispered into his ear. My uncle’s wife, my aunt, went to them. She hugged my mom, said something that made them both smile. Then she turned and pulled her much larger husband into her chest. He crouched over and fell into her with the comfort only spouses can display. My mom backed away. She had no one to console her in that way, no man to hold her like he had a thousand times before, providing comfort and protection just with the familiarity of touch.
My mom turned slowly and spotted me. In that initial moment, when her eyes met mine, when her body aligned itself in my direction, when I realized she would walk my way, that I would walk her way, that we would meet each other with a hug, that she would collapse into my arms, that I had been chosen to console her, I felt anger. I felt anger and I hated myself for feeling it.
My mom took a step toward me. I rushed forward. She fell into my arms, her face laid against my shoulder, her tears pouring into the fabric of my black shirt, her mascara smudging against my neck. I clutched her tightly. I held her and tried to become stone, solid, immobile and unwavering. I tried to be a man, not just a son. I tried to be a man because my mom had raised me to be one. It was her that taught me to be strong, to control my emotions and pain so I could help others. She had shown me how to do those things by doing them, by always being there for me, by being able to turn off the world and her problems, her stresses and worries and focus in on what I needed her to be: a confidant, a consoler, a medic, an instructor, a friend. But now, in my state of panic, I was bewildered to discover it was now her that needed those things.
I became immobile, a stone. I was unwavering and strong, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t enough. I was just a boy, a boy that had never felt true loss, a boy that had never stared down at the vacant face of someone he had watched grow up, someone he shared a thousand memories with. Holding my mom as she mourned I wanted Nathan to come, to take her from my arms, to hold her, to say something meaningful and wise. I wanted anyone to come, anyone that could make her okay, that could ease her pain. I didn’t want to be a man. I wasn’t sure I knew how.
Then, holding my mom as she mourned, I realized there was no one else. There was only me and her. So I continued to hold her. It didn’t matter if I was ready. This was my moment to repay her for everything, to be there when she needed me. So I held her and she grieved.
Over my mom’s shoulder I watched my uncle squeeze the back of my aunt’s shirt into a tight ball with his fist. I saw his knuckles turn white and felt the desperation of the squeezing as his face twisted with pain. He squeezed and ringed the small section of fabric because it was real. It could be held and manipulated. It could be controlled.
About the Author
Ryan Goodwin lives across the lake from New Orleans with four dogs and a cat named Harvey. He Is an aspiring novelist and screenwriter and his flash fiction piece, "Earl and Paula at the End of the World" was published in Permafrost.