It was a cold morning, cold. Thin-aired, the way winter was. The moon had stood out like a bare bulb the night before and now the morning was purple-blue—rhapsody in blue, thought Kelly Winsome, like that Gershwin song Laura used to hum. He’d parked on the street, which meant he had to carry the replacement window all the way up the cement driveway and around to the back door of his rental unit. That was they called it, him and Laura, the “unit,” because it was an investment for them, like a government bond, only more trouble. The tune to Rhapsody in Blue was just coming to him when there was a gentle give in the region of his groin, just north and east of his privates, a soft tearing of tissue like layers of Kleenex, as if a painless pressure had built up without his even being aware of it until suddenly, just like that, when he lifted his left leg to step up to the back porch, there it was. Not painful, no, not at all. Just a release of sorts, like a rubber band had quietly snapped.
He leaned against the back door a moment, rested the window on the slivery porch railing while he took careful breaths and tried to decide if it was panic time. He pictured his belly, its capacious softness hiding something he’d been up to that point unaware of, presented under the glass like a mass of squashed white cotton. I’m a goddamned work of art, he thought, keeping one hand on the window where it balanced on the railing and slipping the other into his corduroys to press his fingers against the hairy warmth of his flesh, feeling for what had torn. He’d gained weight in eight years of marriage and no surprise—Laura liked rich, loving dishes thickened with flour and browned butter.
The fact was, what he clutched wasn’t really a window, just an expanse of glass, four feet by four feet, big enough to be unwieldy, yet dangerously wobbly somehow, as if its capacity to cut was only delayed, not prevented. Maybe it would’ve been smarter to replace the whole window, frame and all, instead of just the broken glass. But this way was so much cheaper.
“Anything to save a buck,” Laura would say, if she could see him now, if she were here instead of elsewhere. He’d always been the penny pincher of the marriage, she the spendthrift. A monetary Jack Spratt and wife, a financial ying and yang, but then what do you expect from the union of a petroleum engineer and a yoga teacher?
“Certified advanced Ashtanga instructor,” He imagined Laura correcting him sharply.
Nothing felt amiss. As his fingers probed the clefts of his groin, it seemed unlikely that anything vital could have ripped deep within, like an oil well whose spew was visible only after damage was done to the depths beyond. Still, he was acutely aware that he wasn’t very good at perceiving the little warning signs that flickered beneath an otherwise smooth surface, clues that massed together like dots in a pointillist landscape until the picture was so flaming obvious it was embarrassing. Last summer, he’d had to wear an EKG monitor for two days because he ‘d ignored chest pains until they got so bad he had to sit down in the middle of a presentation. Which, in the end, turned out to be nothing but a spat of extreme acid reflux. All that panic for nothing.
“No more chicken cacciatore for you,” Laura had said. “You’re getting fat.” But she made it again, all the same.
Pulling his hand out of his pants, he rapped on the backdoor. Through the pane, he could see a table cluttered with dishes, a ketchup bottle, a bedraggled spider plant, a stack of phone books. He knocked again, this time more insistently, but there was no answer and he cursed his shortsightedness in not calling ahead.
It was past one already and he had a one-thirty meeting in Wynachuck, a good twenty minute drive. His idea had been to leave the glass and explain that he’d be back on Saturday to install it.
On impulse, Kelly tried the door. Of course, it was wrong, a violation of tenant rights. Later, he will theorize that his plan was to merely slide the window into the cluttered kitchen and leave a note for his tenants—Joachin and Chili—saying he’d be by on Saturday to install it. He’d never asked if they were married. Who knows, these days?
“You’re not allowed to ask a goddamn thing,” he’d said to Laura. After he’d first met the tenants, he’d described them to her—”the guy has braids and earrings and the gal has a flat top and tattoos. You’re not sure who’s who anymore.”
“Like you need to be?” she’d said. As it happened, she’d been practicing a headstand at the time, her feet in the air, her blonde hair tumbled down around her bent arms. “Sirshasana,” she’d explained, blood rushing to her face. “It shifts your innards back into place.”
“That’s not my point,” Kelly replied. “It’s not normal.”
“Maybe it’s their normal.”
What had he said to that? Had he tuned in to the tightness in her voice that time, the way she swung her legs down, rolled up her mat and left the room? He knew what he’d said. “Normal’s not something you choose from five kinds at the A & P.” A dumb thing to say, meaningless, but not to Laura, who’d read in it the confirmation she’d been looking for, that he was a narrow-minded bastard who saw aberration in anything beyond his own viewpoint. “Aberrant”—her word for how he saw the world. Not that their marriage fell apart over that one conversation. There had been innumerable other signs that stirred the surface of their marriage and then disappeared again, disturbing little clues that accumulated one by one until they reached critical mass.
He turned the doorknob. To his surprise, the handle released and the door swung silently open.
“Hello?” Kelly called, still balancing the window on the railing. “It’s Mr. Winsome; it’s the landlord. Anyone home?” He hefted the window and stepped inside, kicking the door shut with the toe of his boot.
What happened next is still confusing to Kelly Winsome. He didn’t set the window down like he was intending, and then write a note asking Joachin to call him. That was his plan. To write the note and then walk back to his Camry without nosing around in the living room, without sliding the filter out of the furnace to see it had been replaced recently or perusing the contents of their fridge just to see what tattooed girls ate, or fingering the books in their wall-sized bookcase that held such strange titles.
Instead, he was still standing, holding the window, when he heard a basso profundo bark and the dull scrabble of paws against carpet. A black German shepherd appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, teeth flashing, head lowered.
I don’t allow dogs, Kelly Winsome thought. This is completely against the provisions of the lease. His reaction was one of immediate outrage, not at the German Shepherd but at the flouting of his rules clearly spelled out in the rental agreement. In fact, he had put certain of them in bold 14-point font and the prohibition against pets was one of them. It might even have been underscored as well, though at that exact moment, with the hundred-pound dog tensing itself, preparatory for an airborne leap straight at him, Kelly couldn’t be absolutely sure. All he knew was, at that moment, he thought two distinct things—first, that Laura was absolutely wrong if she thought her leaving him was going to change anything for him or curtail any of his ordinary activities, including the upkeep of the rental unit, and, second, why would Joachin and Chili get themselves such a huge dog when they knew—they knew!—it was against his rules. And then a third thought passed through Kelly’s head, and that was this: The black German Shepherd was going to kill him.
The dog leapt. Kelly, still clutching the window, thrust it spasmodically toward the animal and then twisted away. There was a whiplike crack, a sense that the material solidity around him was falling to pieces and then something like a moving wall knocked him backwards.
He staggered, fell sideways against the table and crashed to the floor as what seemed like the room itself collapsed in on him. God help me. Unable to breathe, he floated, waiting for the closure that he assumed was death. Gradually, with relief, he returned into himself and saw he was wrong. He was laying on the floor, surrounded by broken glass. Slowly he sat up. A warmth eased down the side of his face. He touched it and saw his fingers were red.
“I am dying,” he whispered. Then he thought he might vomit and that terrified him more than death, so that he got to his hands and knees and crept to the door slowly, over a glassy matting that crunched under his knees. He pulled it open and the good wintery cold flooded in.
He looked at the dog. It was on its side, feet paddling air. An acute triangle gleamed at its throat, one point rooted in the wet fur while a red pool inched its way across the floor. The dog’s mouth lolled open, tongue lapping over its teeth helplessly, its black lips rimmed with foam. Its eyes were fixed on him and it struggled to right itself, but it gradually became clear that, aside from the glass embedded in its trachea, the animal had a long, jagged cut down its belly.
“Okay,” Kelly breathed, “okay, buddy, okay. You just stay quiet, right there. I’ll help you out, get you some help.” He knew nothing about animals, had no idea what constituted first aid for someone else’s livestock. Call 911? Did they make emergency calls on dogs? Ignoring his nausea, he scrabbled for the phone books on the table, flipped to the yellow pages and called the first number under “Veterinarians.” Little red circles appeared on the paper in front of him, and he stared at them puzzled until he remembered and reached for a dishtowel from the counter to sop his face, a move which took a shocking amount of time and effort. He pulled out a chair and carefully lowered himself into it.
“Yeah, I think this’s an emergency,” Kelly said when a voice answered. “I’ve got a dog that crashed through glass and he’s bleeding pretty bad.”
“You’ll need to bring your dog to the clinic for the doctor to have a look,” the voice said. “Unless you want to call Animal Emergency Services. I can give you that number.”
“Uh—can you drive over or something? I mean, God, this is a huge animal…”
“If you’ll hold on, sir, I can get you the number for Animal Emergency Services. Do you want that number?”
Suddenly he was dizzy, so dizzy that the chair seemed to float away from under him and he was drifting down, down to the floor that, mercifully, rose up to meet him, so that there was no sensation of falling, no sensation of broken glass under him but only the floor that was cold as the moon. He was faintly aware of a voice buzzing from his cellphone and then it diminished, swallowed up in a larger noise that was a kind of singing and in his mind it became a song unwound, Stairway to Heaven played backwards and he strained to hear the Satanic messages that he’d been told as a boy were imprinted within it. He drifted along like that, trying to hear the music, bending all of his wits, straining his muscles, forcing all that was within him to grasp it. Yet no matter how far he tried to reach, it was always something else he encountered, wet, sharp, sodden, harm-filled.
Kelly was brought to by the sound of a phone ringing. Shivering—the back door was still open and the furnace was roaring—he heaved himself to his knees and reached for his cellphone. It was only one-forty-five. He felt like he’d been out for hours.
“Yeah,” he said into his phone, but the ringing continued. Stumbling only slightly, he made his way to the small living room and picked up the tenants’ phone, but whoever it was had already hung up. He shuffled slowly to the bathroom, leaned over the toilet and took a long piss, after which he ran hot water in the sink and washed his face, turning the water instantly red. He examined himself in the mirror, relieved to see that the cut wasn’t too terrible. Bad, sure—a few stitches, maybe? Nothing that would kill him. Then he went back to the kitchen, closed the back door and surveyed the wreckage. The dog twitched slightly when he nudged it with a toe. Too late for the poor bugger.
“Sorry, buddy. I would’ve called that emergency number, honest.” His voice sounded tinny in the cold kitchen air and suddenly he was terribly thirsty. He pulled open the refrigerator, where he knew he’d find beer, sat in one of the kitchen chairs and twisted it open.
“To single guys everywhere,” he toasted. “And here’s to you,” he added, gesturing at the German Shepherd. “Laura likes dogs, you know. I never saw it, myself, you miserable, illegal demon from hell!” His cellphone buzzed again but he ignored it. In a few minutes, he decided, he would go down to his car where he had an old blanket in the trunk, bring it back and wrap up the dead dog. He’d clean up the kitchen. He’d buy another pane of glass. Tomorrow, he’d see a doctor, get stitches if he needed them. This had been an unfortunate turn of events but no big deal, no real pain beyond the minor ache that the cut had dwindled into. He’d get on with things.
Then the dog moved. Slowly, it rose to its feet as if drawn upward by invisible cords. It lowered its head. The shrapnel of glass extended outward from its throat, glittering sharply in the afternoon sun that pierced the window, refracting light onto Kelly, bright as metal, that penetrated his white cotton shirt, pale skin, the hubris of epidermis, fat, musculature, web of vessels, the meat of him that began to shiver as the dog stood, baring its teeth.
The German Shepherd came forward, whitened eyes staring back at Kelly.
He leaped to his feet, backing away until the counter pressed against him. His hands fumbled for the drawers, pulling out one and then another, pens, rubber bands, jar lids, sticky coasters, wooden spoons, dish towels, twist ties. Then, at last, a black-handled carving knife. The dog took a second and third step, listing slightly to one side and Kelly, in a fluster of speed, crouched low and brought the knife up, aiming for the animal’s throat with its toggle of glass as the only possible point of entry in the black shape.
He drove the knife in, unprepared for how giving the black fur was, how the dog staggered back and fell in a false surrender. Kelly pulled out the knife and drove it in again, this time further down, in the region of the dog’s chest, where the blade penetrated only a little before meeting breastbone and slipping to the side. The dog was not dead but on its side, paws scrabbling the vinyl floor furiously, head wagging from side to side, lashings of saliva silvering the air. It could not understand that it was beaten, that death was coming. It would resist extinguishment, would refuse to relinquish itself until there was no alternative, until the very last.
Kelly stabbed the dog a third time, in its side, then dropped the knife. He watched as the dog’s eyes gradually turned glassy, his own body thrumming to its fading pulse, its gathering stillness. He had never seen an animal die, had never imagined it to be a falling toward as much as a falling away from. The ache from the cut on the side of his face had diminished but the subtle tearing he’d experienced in his groin earlier—it seemed like hours ago—had flared up. A sense of shock reverberated through his torso. He knew then that something vital had indeed ripped apart within himself and that later that night, alone in his broad bed, pain would come.
Tanya Perkins‘s fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Cirque, Emrys, Certain Circuits and the Wilderness House Literary Review. Canadian by birth, she lives on the shores of Puget Sound with an adoring husband, talented child and numerous animals. She has never killed a dog.