A wet nose forces its way into the neck of my shirt, inhaling the musk and grease down there, like a great connoisseur of the unwashed.
“I’m awake,” I say to Vincent. “Heel.”
He backs up after few hearty licks to my ear and face. I raise my head, pet his balding crown, rub the flabby skin around his chest. His sallow eyes roll back and he taps his foot. Stumbles on his injured front paw when it starts to feel too good. “Take it easy,” I say, progressing from a prone to kneeling position.
Vincent moves on, leaving me to get up in peace.
He busies himself with lamppost duty, making sure our spot is marked for later.
Nothing happens in a rush these days, no matter how quickly things move around us.
Sunrise crawls over San Diego’s foggy mountainscape, opening the morning sky like a hot knife through a black pig’s stomach. Now, while everyone else is tucked into their beds, is my favorite part of the day. Everything is quiet.
We go west on Narragansett Avenue, trekking downhill, Vincent hopping on three legs. Santa Ana blows at our backs; her breath stings my sinuses, reducing me to the nasally twelve year-old boy I used to be in the Midwest.
As streetlights go out, the red-crowned parrots rise from the palm trees and screech their hellos all the way back to Mexico or Guatemala or Panama. Wherever in hell it is that they came from. Next, the seagull stock exchange opens for business along the pier; the white noise of the wind across the ocean’s hairline is drowned by their arguing over sidewalk French fries and smeared beans. Those birds are bastards.
It’s a short walk from our nook on the hill to Dog Beach, a soggy corner nestled against the San Diego River mouth, where my boy gets his fix. As soon as his paws touch the sand, the pain dissipates and he experiences a child-like ecstasy. I watch Vincent skipping across the shoreline like a horse, trying to do all his favorite things at the same time: chase the seagulls, smell for treasures in the floor, bump into people, and intimidate lesser dogs. His reflection dances alongside him, under a canopy of orange and grey.
I look down at the soggy floor near the water’s edge; an old man stares back at me.
Every dog in this veterinarian’s waiting room is a mess. They sense each other’s fear and pass it around like clap and warts.
Vince has devolved into a weakling, a shadow of himself. He whines and looks at me with a concerned mix of worry and curiosity, like I’ve grown a dolphin’s tail and started speaking Japanese.
“Calm down,” I say to him, eyeballing these prim and proper mother fuckers with their handbag pooches and exotic felines.
Our turn comes. “The doc’s name is Steve,” I tell a miniature face hiding behind a pair of thick, black spectacles.
“And he said he’d see your dog free of charge?” She talks and types at the same time.
“Yeah,” I say to the glasses. A young girlie. Her silver-blonde hair is pulled back and bound in a knot, tight as a fist. She peeks over the counter and looks at Vincent. Her bottom lip scoops her face into a warm smile when they make eye contact. “You hurt your paw, buddy?” Vince wags his tail, slowly. His one and a half ears go back. “What happened?”
“Some asshole hit him with a car. They drove away. Steve saw it and gave us a ride home. Told us to come by if he wasn’t getting better.”
“That’s terrible! When?”
I rub my eyes and try to recall the time frame. “Last week, probably.”
“He’s not feeling too good then?”
“Yeah, look.” I picked Vince up and hold out his bloody paw, giving her an eyeful of his skew nails and broken toes. He screeches, twisting his body out of my grip and landing sideways on the tiled floor. I bend down to check on him and get some teeth. A love nip. “Sorry, sorry, bud.”
Some people in the waiting room gasp at us. “It was an accident,” I tell the room. “Jesus, keep your shorts on.”
“Okay, Steve isn’t in today,” Girlie says. “He’ll be in at four, though. Can you and Vincent make it here then?”
“I think he needs some help now. Can’t another doctor look at him? I’ve got commitments this afternoon.”
Someone in the peanut gallery shuffles in their seat. “We have appointments, too.” I turn to see a nasally face, shaded by a ballcap, bleached locks covering the eyes. It’s a teenager in swimming trunks, a baggy vest and flip flops. Beside him lies an adolescent German Shepard. Pure bred. Gawky with big-dog paws and small-dog nuts.
“Sir,” Girlie says, addressing me. “We’ll definitely help you at four. Can you come back then? It’s just that these people have appointments.”
The kid gets up and nudges his dog. The temperature in the room rises.
I address the room. “What? What?”
The kid reaches for a phone in his pocket.
“Just come back at four,” someone else echoes.
The crowd puts eyes on Vincent and me, and the receptionist girlie starts to panic. “Steve will see you at four, I promise.”
Two guys in scrubs, assistants or help, pour through from the back to check that everything is under control. Vincent is back on all fours, ready to split.
I wait a moment, letting the room sweat a moment longer. “Yeah, okay, we’ll be back at four,” I say, taking a handful of mints and flyers off the desk.
The beach promenade is our home, our community center, our church.
Familiar faces stream by through the morning, offering light conversation and a few coffers to ease the burdens of human-necessity. This is everyday America for us.
A group of transient kids set up camp on the grassy knoll nearby. There’s seven of them, three girls, four guys, all pretty and young, wearing feathers in the hair and tie-dye shirts; stuff I wore at their age, except it was the real sixties. They’re burning incense and laying blankets on the ground, saying “blessings” and “love and light” to everyone that passes. Postcard hippie shit, mostly. One of them greets me from afar and I offer a salute.
People walking by can’t help but stare at them.
I get it. Street-people aren’t supposed to be this beautiful. Or magnetic.
Someone starts to play guitar, this girl who arrests your senses. She’s a tiny creature with black eyes and short, messy hair, and worn fingers with blue nails. Her dirty cheeks have golden flowers painted on them. Crows-feet around her eyes imply some wisdom and bad habits. She lowers her head and plays a riff that sounds like a Dylan or Donovan, one of their happy numbers.
People stop, look, listen.
One by one the others join in, adding new textures to the sound. Another guitar lick at first, then base from an old gasoline can and what appears to be fishing gut, then some bongos, then a tambourine. The group starts singing and harmonizing together, more postcard lyrics about love making us lighter in a world full of bad magic.
It’s catchy. I’m disgusted by my enjoyment.
There are kids dancing on the grass in front of them, their parents smiling on. The pixie girl gets up to dance with a man in a wheelchair, lighting his face up and winning the crowd’s heart. I used to dream of sharing my life with someone like her. Now I just pass out at the end of each day.
While the band plays, Vincent gets up to find Uncle Sal, or Old Dog, as people around here call him. He’s a sea dog veteran with plenty of fading blue tattoos, scars and war stories. A hard son-of-a-bitch, the type of friend you appreciate when times are unholy.
“What do you make of this?” Old Sal asks, picking at the sun scabs that fleck his lips.
“Shut up, I’m listening,” I say.
“You got smokes?”
I dig in my pocket for the stumps I gathered earlier and pass one to him.
“You got a light?”
I don’t. This is communicated to him through silence.
I fix him a look. “Jesus Christ, Sal. I’m trying to listen here. Don’t you ever stop asking for shit?” I say in my father’s voice.
He laughs, spits on the ground near me.
Vincent wants to get up, go wandering again. “Stay here, boy,” I tell him, bringing my dog close to me, feeling his front legs shake, my love and light in this world.
“The worst thing to want in life is more time”, my dad used to say.
I think of that when I hit the bathrooms in the lifeguard hut. The overhead light is brutally honest. I’m wearing the years on my face like notches on a bed post. All the dents in my cheeks, the ribs in my forehead, and the creases on my nose are stories. Of lessons and loss. Of walking blues.
Yeah, Pop, time is the only thing we all want. That and a daily shit without blood in it.
My last molar is black and rotten and has to come out soon. It’s been throbbing for months. Today feels like the breaking point. I wiggle the tooth around, but can’t pull it yet. I’m not prepared.
Old Sal is back at our spot when I leave the restroom, swaying along to the music.
“These kids are bad news,” he says. “They won’t last here.”
“Yeah, Sal,” I say, “you’re going to ask them to leave?”
“Maybe.” He sinks back into himself and watches the band play, lost in thought.
A gang of police officers form a cluster near the hippie kids. They’re watching, moving closer, somehow changing the atmosphere. Onlookers are suddenly divided by trust.
The band ends their song and greet the cops cheerfully, like they’re not being watched and weighed.
The sun is shaded by a layer of clouds.
As the afternoon marches on, I’m struck by a wave of pain. The right side of my face is inflamed and swollen. Everything pulsates from the epicenter of my bad molar. This small, concentrated center of agony that levels my body, like a sinkhole.
Vincent nudges me, trying to get my attention. “I know, boy, heel. We’re going at four.”
I should probably figure out what time it is. Sober up.
The fact that I can barely see means that my tooth is ready.
Vincent starts to whine, something awful. “We’re going in a minute, boy.”
I double over and pull what’s left of the vodka from my wide pocket, open my gullet, drain it. The sweats come instantly. Heat swims down through my core, makes an about-turn, comes back up my throat in a stream of pink fluid that tastes like infected sin. I swallow as much as I can a second time.
I head to the bathroom, take a stall and hunker down on a toilet.
I grab my tooth and everything starts moving in an anticlockwise motion.
The pain is surreal, an outer-body experience.
I see myself, an old man, a somber man, a man with nothing but good intentions, using his thumb and forefinger to tear out his last molar. His cries of relief and desperation tear a hole in the sky, leveling my cushion above him, dropping me back into my own body, where gravity is cruel.
My mouth is an axe-wound. Blood spills down my front, adding fresh stains to my good shirt. I sleepwalk back to our spot, lost in the land of bad dreams and long shadows.
I collapse under a cardboard blanket, pulling Vincent close. He squirms and flips over, facing me. His short breath is warm and foul. We doze off in the shade, watching ankles and feet fly past our faces, like bolts of lightning striking the same spot over and over and over and over.
That’s how life works.
Sal wakes me. Daylight is fading under a canopy of rolling clouds. “Fred — you in there?” he asks, tapping my shoulder, moving the box.
“What time is it?”
“Late. Buddy, look what’s happened.” Sal lifts me up by the arm. Vincent gnaws on his foot, then turns away from us and goes back to sleep.
“Those kids are busted, man.”
Cops are rounding up the transient kids, putting the gorgeous pixie girl and her friends in handcuffs. They’re screaming and calling out for justice, demanding lawyers and the right to know why they’re being arrested. Pointless questions.
Sal chuckles as one of them break free and makes a run for it down the sidewalk, a dreadlocked kid. Three cops run him down without a struggle.
I finger the hole in my gum and spit out clots.
“What’s happened?” Sal chirps, eyeballing me and my bloodied shirt.
As the hippie children are stuffed into police cars, their belongings are left idle on the grass, like the circus ditching town and leaving all their tents and cages behind.
“I meant to Vincent — he’s not moving,” Sal says.
The veterinarian’s office is still open. I rush to the front desk and scream at Girlie.
“Vincent needs to see Steve. Is he here?”
“He was here at four,” says girlie with the glasses, speaking over the gasps and sour faces aimed at me.
“I had an accident,” I say, using my free hand to pull my gum back, to show her the wound where my tooth was evacuated. “Can Steve see him now?” I wave Vincent’s bloody paw around. “See,” I tell her, “he’s bad. He’s too sick to fight me. Remember how he went nuts before?”
Her gaze is polluted by fear and mistrust. “I can’t make any promises.”
“He can’t walk. He needs help,” I say, hoping doctors in the back will here. My hands automatically start to slap my face. This feels right and well-deserved, so I keep going, hitting myself harder and harder.
“Someone call the police — this man is crazy,” says an elderly lady. She sits tall in her plastic seat, with a poodle on her lap and a clown’s serving of makeup smeared onto her goddamned whistle of a mouth.
People begin to protest my being there, my pleas, my needs, Vincent’s needs.
A man in scrubs comes around to lead me away from the reception area. To tell me that I need to calm down and stop making other people feel uncomfortable.
“Please,” I shout, feeling the tears coming up from a dormant place in my belly. “He’ll die. Please, please, please, can someone see him. I was assaulted — look at my mouth!”
“He probably did that to himself,” the lady with the fucking poodle says. “Take his dog away. I’ll pay for it. This man can’t be trusted with an animal. Look what he’s done.”
Vincent’s eyes are closed, his tongue is hanging out, and he’s panting rapidly.
She’s right. I did this. “You heard her — she’ll pay. Take him away. Just make him better,” I plead.
I press my face to Vincent’s and howl for him. “Someone, please help! Please!” Fingers dig into my collar and I find myself lifted up and moved towards the door.
“Sir. He’ll be okay with us,” says a woman in uniform, getting between myself and my dog. A man behind her is scooping Vincent off the floor. “We’re taking him to the back to get help. Come back tomorrow to check on him.”
I nod, obediently. Take my dog. Make him well.
Take my dog and make him well.
The parrots are screeching from the tops of the palm trees, like witches trading deadly secrets. My back aches, my legs old and stiffened by sadness. There’s no visible signs that the young hippies were ever here, their absenteeism marked by a patch of trampled grass where families walk through unfazed now. I feel the hole they’ve created, as I feel the gap in my mouth, as I feel the void where Vincent should be.
I go to the lifeguard hut to throw up and find my way to the sink, where the lights hit my broken face. My eyes are red, my mouth encrusted by dry tears, my hollow mouth bent wide across the landscape of these weathered features.
Old Dog pops up and takes a seat next to me, picking scabs on his elbow now.
“You got smokes?” He asks.
I don’t. I don’t have shit.
“I called the cops on those kids.”
I nod my head. “I figured.”
Sal exhales like he’s owned up to something that might be weighing on him. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Sal says, his eyes turning red as the sun starts to set.
Last night, I dreamt that I was sitting with my father at a card table on the porch of our old place. A ranch home on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, beside a creek and a dead highway. Dogshit town.
He was rolling a smoke, waiting for the mailman. Mosquitoes circled the house, whining in hungry packs. The smell of Dad’s tobacco and the surrounding Jack Pines hit my nostrils like emotional cocaine.
I was a boy in my sleep.
An elk lay on the front lawn. Its hooves were tied together, tongue rolled out onto the grass, lips drawn high against its brown teeth. She was exhausted, bleeding out from a wound. Her legs and body snapped against the ropes, but there was no real fight left.
Dad asked me, “You want to help me drive it to your Aunt Dot? I don’t think this’ll get to her in time.”
Aunt Dot died in an accident when I was five. She hit an elk while driving to our house.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“She’s waiting for us,” Dad said, putting his smoke behind his ear.
I tried to get up, but my shoes were stuck to the ground.
Dad pushed through the screen door. He walked over to the animal, pulled a cleaver from his back pocket, and raised the blade above his head. “We’ll take this to her the old-fashioned way.”
“Dad, no,” I said. Mosquitoes were all around me, buzzing in my ears, trying to get inside my head.
He smiled at me, and then his arm became the cleaver’s blade.
This story is part of the Ocean Beach collection, available here.
Click here to read Lawrence, another piece from the collection.
A wet nose forces its way into the neck of my shirt, inhaling the musk and grease down there, like a great connoisseur of the unwashed.