Literary Orphans

A Backyard Sanctuary
by Ted Gogoll

dmaria

“You’re not gonna make me sing by myself, are you? Aw, geez, hold that thought, Max. I gotta go water the goddamned daffodils.”

Joseph put the sweaty can of Meister Brau on the plastic table. A chorus of cicadas rose to a crescendo, the sun’s laser point cutting through the backyard maple trees. He walked to the edge of the yard, unzipped his dungaree overalls, and released a long sigh as he urinated on the yellow flowers.

Max hadn’t moved. Joseph returned, crouched down and fastened a triangular hat onto Max’s shaggy head. He stared at the candles in the shape of an eight and a zero burning over the cake.

“C’mon, Max. For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s… Goddamned it, Max, just hum a few bars, wouldya? Aw, the hell with it. Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me,” he sang, blowing out the two candles.

Max laid down on his belly, his eyes downturned. The cicadas began again. Joseph clicked on the radio for the Yankees game. The low din of the crowd filled the yard with a soothing hum. He set the cake aside, guzzled his beer, and threw the can into a bin of empties before grabbing another from a cooler.

“Jesus, how old you again? Fifteen? Shit, that makes you older than me, don’t it? Wait, wait, shhhhh…Swing for the fences, you rotten son of a bitch! SWING! Oooh oooh!”

The radio announcer’s voice swelled as he projected a homerun but then it shrank when the ball veered foul.

Joseph sat on the canopied swing, emptying another beer. Max yawned, shook off the grass that had gathered on him, and climbed alongside him.

“This ain’t so bad, Max, eh? We got it pretty decent. Who needs Florida and those lousy retirement communities, right? I’ll grill a few sausages and then put us on speaker later when Janice calls from Tokyo.” He patted Max’s head. “Oooh, this should be good. Clutch hitter coming up with two men on”—the crack of a bat sounded over the radio—“Aw, fucking worthless. Who pops out on the first swing? Jesus H. Christ, what are they paying you for?”

He filled Max’s bowl with beer, and set it down on the grass. “Oh, c’mon, already,” he said, noticing a new crop of weeds growing in the vegetable garden. He walked over, adjusting his overalls, and kneeled down to pull it out. Basil, tomatoes, and cucumbers were compartmentalized in neat rows.

His bad knees gave him shooting pains while he crouched, so every time he did so, he figured he may as well stay there for a while and do the job right. He pulled his serrated knife out of his overalls and finally cut a few tomatoes and two fists of basil, which he’d use to freshen the pasta sauce he was already defrosting.

He returned to the swing, and grabbed another beer. Max was asleep. “You’re probably dreaming about Kathryn, aren’t you, old boy? I miss her, too, the pain in the ass she was.” He made the sign of the cross, and then flipped the lid on the cooler. No more beer.

The cicadas sang again. Neighborhood kids raced down the station wagon-lined block toward the ringing bells of an ice cream truck. The faint sound of kids splashing in a pool echoed several yards away. A motorcycle thundered up the main street. Then the cicadas’ decrescendo, as if they were being put back into a box.

Joseph tossed the empty beer cans into a blue recycling can. Then he refilled the cooler with another case of Meister Brau. The radio announcers discussed a recent arrival to the line-up from the minor leagues. Joseph batted his hand dismissively toward the radio.

Max’s eyes opened, followed by a long yawn. He lapped up some beer from his bowl. Joseph set his beer on the top of his rotund belly, and closed his eyes. “Max, we gotta rehearse what we’re gonna say to Janice. You know how she gets and everything. How could I not bring it up? Poor kid still thinks it’s her fault.” He opened an eye, and reached for his knife. “Max, are you listening to me? Salute your commanding officer when he’s talking to you! Those damn Koreans will eat you for lunch!”

Max’s eyes burst wide open. He darted to the hedge between yards howling before escalating into a ferocious bark.

“What flew into your ass, old boy? You’re giving me a goddamned coronary already.” Joseph had never heard such a storm come out of him, nor has he ever seen him run like a bat out of hell. But there he went.

Max’s little legs had sprung him several feet into the air. The barking was furious, drowning out the cicadas and the Yankees game.

Joseph hobbled over, beer in hand, in time for a rent-a-truck pulling into the neighbor’s driveway. What looked like a father, mother, and teenage son sat in the truck’s cab.

“Whaddya think of that, Max? Moving into the Franklin’s old place after all this time,” Joseph said, clicking his false teeth.

Max’s vicious barks had transformed him from Snoopy to a frothing Rottweiler in a party hat. Joseph put his beer in his left hand and waved at the new family. “Don’t mind the pooch here. I think he’s a little drunk,” Joseph slurred. “Welcome to the neighborhood. If you need some sugar or something, lemme know.”

The family disappeared into the house. Joseph returned to the swing, Max in one arm, a beer in the other. Max had finally settled down, and lapped up beer from his bowl.

Joseph poured some charcoal briquettes into the hibachi and crumbled in newspaper. Then he doused it with lighter fluid, the flames spitting into the air. Max’s eyes lit up, but then quickly softened. “No batter, no batter!” he shouted after the radio announcer said a Red Sox power hitter was approaching the plate. “Throw the curve, you fucker! Curve ‘em up!”

He placed six Italian spicy sausages on the grill, and closed the lid. Without realizing it, he’d leaned into the cooler for a fresh beer while he still had a half-full one in his hand. “Strike ‘em out, you scumbag!”

The sun softened but sweat still dripped from Joseph’s shock of white hair and down the back of his neck. The undershirt under his overalls was sopping.

Joseph arched a lazy eyebrow the second the new neighbors had turned on booming rock music to motivate their move-in. They’d formed an assembly line from the truck to the front door, passing brown boxes to one another. Max perked up, running back toward the hedge, barking. Joseph walked over.

“You guys need a hand?” he asked, and proceeded to clap his hands vigorously with a hearty laugh. “I still got a little oomph left in me, if you need it.”

The father, a bullnecked guy in his early 30s with muscles rippling out of a white tank top, shot Joseph a confused look. “Nah, old timer, go back to your baseball game. We’re about done.”

The son laughed so hard he had to put his box down. Just 15 years old, he already had a sleeve of tattoos and diamond studs in each ear. His black hair was gelled into a pseudo Mohawk.

“Ming, old timer?” Joseph said quietly. “Old timer, my ass. I’ll put-cha in a fuckin’ box, is what I’ll do. Makin’ a goddamned racket out here, ya sons of bitches.”

The music had gotten obnoxiously loud. He sunk into the swing bench and rocked, guzzling beer after beer. He’d over enunciate his burps in a passive retaliation. Max whimpered, the party hat now tilted on his little head.

The sausages smelled done. Joseph put together two bowls of Fusilli bucati pasta, sliced sausages, homemade red sauce, with basil leaves on top. It’s a plate he first prepared after returning home from the Korean War and living by himself as he courted his future wife, Kathryn. Max dug in, gnawing on the sausage with his side teeth. Joseph guzzled another beer, his stomach in knots over the music. The phone rang.

“Look alive, Max. That must be Janie calling.”

Max had already slipped into a food coma, just mustering enough energy to wag his tail.

He clicked the button. “Hello, hello, Janie? Janie?”

“Papa, are you there? I could barely hear you.”

He put it on speaker.

“It’s me and Max, honey. Thanks for calling. Really, thanks. Appreciate the hell out of it.”

“Look, Papa, I don’t have much time. I gotta meet a friend in a minute. Just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. Can’t believe you’re eighty! Bet you’ve already had eighty beers today, am I right?”

“Nah, nah, just a couple with Maxie, is all. I wanted to talk about Mama for a minute. Do you mind?”

“Sorry, Papa, I gotta run. Some other time, OK? I’ll call you. Promise.”

The phone went dead.

“Janie? Goddamnit! Max, she’s gone. All my girls are gone.”

The Yankees had lost, and the announcer was running through the game’s lowlights.

“Some birthday this turned into, Max.”

The neighbors’ music now thumped through closed doors. Joseph sat on the swing and watched the lightning bugs flicker across the yard. He carefully pulled the hat off Max’s head.

He managed to make it into the house. Despite the lagoon of beer he’d had, he still had the presence of mind to swallow down the 15 pills he took nightly. He put his teeth into a champagne glass, and collapsed onto the couch with Max at his feet. He hadn’t slept in his bed since Kathryn had died.

The following morning, Joseph was on the swing bench, sipping black coffee. Max surveyed the backyard, sniffing here and there. The cicadas’ chorus filled the atmosphere.

“I didn’t sleep so well, Max. Really wish Janie hadn’t hung up like that. It gets to me, ya know? Aw, the hell with it. So whaddya say, more of the same today?”

He threw the rest of his coffee against a rose bush behind him, and then reached into the cooler. Max trotted over at the crack of a fresh beer. Joseph rubbed his head and his throat, and filled his bowl. He sat back onto the bench and tuned the radio to 1010WINS news.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something flying in the air. He squeezed his eyes and looked again. A few balloons were tied to what appeared to be a small package, floating at the tree line.

“Max, get a load of that, up there.”

There was laughter coming from over the hedge. Joseph noticed the barrel of a rifle sticking over the hedge, and the sound of expulsed pellets. The boy was shooting at the package. There were a few thwaps, and two balloons popped, sending the package crashing down into Joseph’s yard.

Joseph creaked to his feet. “Hey kid, what the hell ya doin’ over there?”

The laughter stopped.

He inspected the downed package. It was a dead frog attached to the balloons with a series of strings. He just shook his head, and then turned to the hedge. “You just moved in and you’re already shootin’ frogs out of the sky? What kinda sick bastid does that? Tell me. I’m dying to know.”

Joseph stomped over there, adjusting his overalls. Max began barking, growing in a parallel crescendo to the cicada chorus. The boy was gone.

“Can you imagine that, Max? Frogs falling out of the sky! What are we, in France during World War II?” he laughed.

Max darted across the yard, doing laps along the periphery. Joseph couldn’t remember ever seeing him so worked up. He sat down and cracked a fresh beer. The radio weatherman predicted temperatures nearing a hundred with a dew point beyond the sweaty zone. Joseph pulled his serrated knife from the chest pouch of his overalls.

“I’d love to get some fishing in today, but this heat. Pheeeeeeeeeewwww. Too much. Been a while since I’ve gutted a bass, ya know?”

Max sat like a statue in front of him. If dogs were capable of smiling, that’s about as close it came. Joseph reached down and rubbed Max’s white belly. “Maybe I’ll throw the hose on you later. You’re gettin’ rank, old boy.”

Then the thump of music arrived from next door. Joseph just stared up at the white house over the hedges. He felt his blood quicken. Max plunged into a frenzy, running laps and barking.

“My last fuckin’ nerve, they’re working, Max.”

He tuned his transistor radio to his favorite oldies station. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” crackled through the tiny speaker.

“These goddamned vagabond shoes, Maxie!” he said, grabbing a fresh beer.

Still, the hip hop music from next door overpowered Sinatra—and Joseph’s mind. Max barked again and again. The cicadas were barely audible. Finally, Joseph creaked to his feet, marched over to his neighbor’s front door, and pounded on the wood. Max stayed behind the hedge, howling like a rabid beagle.

“Son of a bitch, don’t these animals answer their door?” Joseph said through gritted teeth.

After working himself up a bit, he took a seat on their stairs, the bass and drums vibrating in his 80-year-old chest. Sweat dripped from his temples. He got back up and began kicking the door with everything he had. Neighbors across the street began looking out their windows, craning their heads from front doors.

The father walked up the street. When he saw Joseph, he broke into a sprint.

“Where’s the fire, old timer?”

Joseph’s face was beet red, thick veins rose from his neck.

“The fire? From inside your fucking house! You’re in the neighborhood 30 seconds and ya already giving me 30 kinds of agita!”

“Settle down, old timer. You’re gonna kill yourself over there. Now look, it’s a little music. Whaddya think kids my boy’s age do? They listen to a little music before going to work. Ya gotta break down my door for that?”

“Little music? A little fucking music? I can’t hear myself breathe!”

Max ran out from around the hedge and lunged, teeth first, toward the father’s ankle. The father let out a scream, and then smacked Max’s head. Joseph hobbled off the stairs. The father began punching Max in the head until he finally released him, whimpered, and ran behind the hedge.

“I’ll kill that fucking dog, ya know? Fuck!” the father said, inspecting the bloody teeth imprint on his leg.

“Hey, ya know, look. I didn’t mean for Max to bite ya like that. Are you OK? Should we call an ambulance or something?”

“Nah, no fucking ambulance. Just g’head, get off my property. That damn thing got rabies or what?”

“No rabies, that dog’s clean as a whistle. Honest to God.”

Joseph looked up at the house. The son was in the window, the curtains draped around him, giving Joseph the middle finger. By the time Joseph got back to his swing bench, The Platters’ song, “The Great Pretender” crackled on the radio.

He opened a beer, and pushed the sweat back through his hair. Max was at his feet, panting and crying softly. Joseph checked him for injuries, and rubbed his little head.

“Man’s best friend is what you are, Maxie. You’re a good little shit, ya know that?”

Joseph caught his breath and guzzled the beer down. He got a fresh one from the cooler, and filled Max’s bowl. He closed his eyes and sank into his afternoon nap.

An hour later he awoke, disoriented, with drool pooled at the corners of his mouth. Cicadas crescendo was rising, a song he didn’t recognize played on the transistor. He let out a lion’s yawn, stretched his stiff back and arms, and reached for a fresh beer.

“Max, where are ya, pal?” He guzzled the cold beer, and looked around for his beagle. “Max? C’mon, we got the Yankees game coming on.”

Joseph saw Max asleep in the back of the yard and walked over. He got an awful feeling in his gut because Max only ever slept at his feet. He hobbled over, finding his dog on his side without his ribcage moving from breathing. He fell down to his knees and put his face to Max’s—nothing, no signs of life. A half-eaten hot dog was inches from his mouth, in the grass.

Everything slowed to a crawl. The cicada decrescendo had put Joseph’s entire life into a small box, shuttering his senses. He rubbed Max’s belly and touched the pads of his paws. One of his earflaps was overturned, so he flipped it in place, and scooped him up. He carried him to the swing and sat down with him across his lap. He stared at the thick maple trees he’d planted over 50 years ago when he’d just moved in with Kathryn.

After a while, he became oriented enough to find Max’s weight uncomfortable on him. His head cleared, and he made the connection with the chunk of hot dog in his backyard, his sanctuary, that he knows he hadn’t cooked. It then didn’t take long to set his teeth on edge. He laid Max on the grass, and then covered him with the cloth from the swinging bench. After finishing his warm beer, he grabbed a cool one and downed it quickly, the sudsy liquid dripping down his chin.

He walked purposefully to his neighbor’s front door, and pounded away with both fists. Finally, he grabbed hold of the doorknob and turned it. Inside, he could hear a television blaring from the next room. The son’s sitting there with his feet on the coffee table.

“You kill my fucking dog? Didja? Answer me, you good-for-nothing! Where’s your old man?”

The boy was startled at first, shifting his weight farther down the couch and away from Joseph. But then he rallied.

“Get your ass outta my house, you piece of shit. I’m gonna call the fuckin’ cops in a minute. Do me a solid and take out the garbage on your way out, ya ancient fuck.” He clicked the remote to a reality show on another channel.

Joseph went numb. He pulled his serrated knife out of his overalls and stormed toward the boy, grabbing him by his fake Mohawk. The boy squirmed but otherwise offered very little resistance. Joseph pressed the blade to the boy’s neck, and his wriggling ceased abruptly. He then pulled him off the couch, through the foyer, and out the front door.

“Ya see, I still got some goddamned oomph left in me. C’mere, I got someone I want-cha to meet.”

The boy screamed bloody murder. “You could suck a fuckin’ dick, old man!”

Neighbors poured out of their houses and into the street, some in bikinis or swimming trunks.

Joseph had him by his scalp and one arm, his body going for a bumpy ride through his backyard. When he reached his beagle’s body, he slammed him sloppily to the ground, and delivered two rabbit punches to his face, breaking his nose. Then he propped him onto the swing bench, grabbed him in a headlock, and removed the blanket over Max. Then he pulled his knife back out of his overalls and pressed it against the boy’s neck.

Neighbors entered his backyard. A woman from down the block, breasts heaving from her bikini top, became hyper. “Joseph, what is it you think you’re doing to that boy? C’mon, drop the knife before he really gets hurt.”

“Nah, don’t worry. I just wanna introduce him to Maximilian.”

The neighbors gasped when they saw the lifeless beagle. Blood poured from the boy’s nose.

“You really expect to live after killing a man’s dog?” Joseph asked the boy, squeezing tighter on the choke hold. “Just be a man and admit whatcha did. Ya know, we were gonna eat fish today. Max sure loves fish.”

Sirens blared, coming closer. Neighbors had taken out their cell phones to film the madness. The boy’s father entered the backyard, on the verge of hyperventilation. He was cracking his knuckles, and shaking his head.

“You better getcha goddamned hands off my boy, right the fuck now, ya hear?”

“Go fuck yourself, he killed my dog. G’head, take a step closer and I’ll slice his head off,” Joseph said soberly. “I got nothing to lose, believe me.”

First two uniformed cops ran into the yard, followed by a half-dozen more. Guns drawn, they broke through the small crowd, and inched toward Joseph.

“How ya doing today, sir? What’s your name?” one cop said.

“Ah, ya know. He killed my fuckin’ dog, so it comes to this,” Joseph said, staring out at the trees.

“I’m gonna have to ask you to drop that knife, OK? Let’s not make this any worse,” the cop said. Other policemen had filed into the yard behind where Joseph sat. More sirens blared from a distance.

“Can’t do that, officer. Can’t help ya out. This kid’s gotta admit what he’s done. Look at my Max. What if he did that to your dog, eh?”

“Can we call someone? Is there anyone in the house? C’mon, let’s resolve this. Kid, you OK? How’s that nose?”

The boy’s father tried to rush toward Joseph, but the cops restrained him. He resisted, and they put the cuffs on him and carried him to the front of his house. The boy’s face shined with blood, sweat, and tears.

“I can’t fuckin’ breathe! Get this lunatic off me!” the boy hollered.

“Sir, can you just, ya know, loosen your grip?”

“I gotta take a mean piss, officer. I’m just gonna let it flood, ya know?” Joseph said, the crotch of his overalls turned from faded dungarees to dark blue.

“We got your daughter Janice on the line, Joseph. It is Joseph, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. You got Janie there? Hey, Janie, they killed Maxie! I ain’t got no one left,” he shouted out.

“If you drop the knife, I’ll give you the phone, sir. OK? We straight on that?”

“Nah, can’t do it, can’t do it. Put her on speaker or something. G’head, I’ll wait. After I talk to her, I’ll talk to you.”

The boy’s father was shouting from out front. Flashing lights ricocheted off the trees and house. Janice came on the policeman’s cell phone speaker.

“Papa, you there? What are you doing?” she said, her voice echoing on the international line.

“Janie, is that you? They got Max, poisoned the little guy. Ya know, ah, I don’t know what’s going on. He’s sitting here in front of me dead.”

“Aw, papa, I’m sorry. You gotta let that boy go, please. You still got a life left. Please, papa.”

“I was trying to talk to you last night, Janie. We gotta talk. You gotta come back home, OK? Mommy was sick. She couldn’t take it; she didn’t want to put us through it. It’s not your fault, Janie.”

Policemen stood just feet away, some with their arms crossed, and others with guns still drawn. The boy had given up squirming and had gone limp in Joseph’s clutches.

“Papa, she didn’t have to kill herself. She had years left. Papa, I came home for a visit to that…to her on the bed. I can’t do it. I’m not coming back to New York ever again. I can’t do it. And now look at you. What the hell are you doing to me?”

One of the cops sighed and retracted his head in astonishment.

“Janie, ya gotta understand. I love you very, very much. I need you here. Please. We could work on it.”

The cop snapped his cell phone shut. “OK, sir, I really need you to drop that knife now. No bullshit. The boy needs help.”

“I’m not fucking done talking. Get Janie back on the line! You fuckin’ piece of shit!” Joseph said, pressing the knife harder to the boy’s neck. “I just wanna listen to the Yankees game with Maxie, for Chrissakes!”

The first shot hit his upper chest, above his heart. The second round was a dead center shot to his forehead. The radio announcer was introducing the starting line-up. The Yankees star pitcher had pulled a muscle and was placed on the three-day disabled list. The chorus of cicadas began into a roaring crescendo.
–Story by Ted Gogoll