Saturday
Sep062014

This One Will Hurt You

Paul Crenshaw


 

Brian’s on his front porch when I get there, leaned back in a two dollar lawn chair, a beer resting on his stomach and his vaguely Western shirt unbuttoned halfway. There’s a splotch of paint on his shorts. His fingernails are dirty. There are trimmed limbs down in the yard, and the air smells of cut grass.

He hands me a beer as I walk up on the porch. His dog sits up and wags its tail. It’s early on a Sunday afternoon in October, and the day has warmed. The leaves are just changing colors on the trees, and the nights are cool. Lawn mowers rattle up and down the street. We stand on the porch in the warm afternoon and smoke and drink, waving at the neighbors out for a walk. Brian’s dog shuffles between our feet. He barks at a man passing on the sidewalk.

By the time Quinn arrives, we are deep into our second beers. The afternoon football games have started on TV, and we alternate between the porch and the living room, coming out to smoke, cursing the players on the opposing team during time outs and commercials. Brian tells us those sons of bitches couldn’t play for his junior high team. He says they all ought to be shot for such poor play. 

The dog wanders off during one of the front porch smokes, and we circle the block until we find him. It is not a great neighborhood. Brian’s end of the street is fine, but not far down, the empty lots and sagging houses begin. One of the houses sells crack, we are sure. The three men who live there sit on the porch much like we are doing, but cars pull in and out all afternoon. A woman parks, gets out on shaking heels, climbs the steps. One of the men holds the door for her. Ten minutes later she comes out and drives away.

Inside, our team is losing, or winning, it doesn’t really matter, but it seems to matter then, before the kitten. The windows are open and the warm day comes in, the curtains sucked in and out by the slight breeze. A last few bumblebees buzz around the newly-trimmed shrubs that flank Brian’s house. The air smells of honeysuckle.

The dog whines at the back door. Brian has had the dog for longer than I’ve known him, though for the first two years of their relationship, the dog never came close enough for Brian to touch. He ate the food Brian put out and slept under the porch and ran away when anyone approached. He was half wild, almost feral.

When we go back out on the porch a few leaves are falling from the trees. We turn up our beers. The sky is so blue it hurts to look at it. The sun is shifting slowly toward the west now, and I think that when the shadows start to run together we will regret the end of this day. There is work tomorrow, responsibilities, and when it gets full dark and the stars begin to come out and the air turns cold enough that we can measure our breaths before us, we will wonder why all good things must come to an end. We will think of all the time we have wasted, the savings accounts we haven’t yet started, the family members we haven’t visited in years.

Halftime of the game we head for the back yard to throw the football around. Brian’s dog chases it from person to person. If anyone drops it he tries to get it, and we have to fight him off. He thinks it a great fun game. After a couple of years the dog began to follow Brian when he went for walks through the woods. He’d chase squirrels and rabbits, would seize woodchucks along the banks of creeks and shake them to death. Gradually, he domesticated. Brian let him inside the house.  

Our team completely loses it in the second half, and we curse and scream at them. Their bad play chases us to the front porch again. One night last summer we heard shouting from across the street and came out to watch a man and woman standing in their front yard cursing one another. The woman threw armloads of clothes out the front door while the man threatened to strike her. The man was drunk. The woman drunker. The fight meandered over the yard until the man finally climbed in his car. The woman tried to block him. When he got past her he roared around the neighborhood until the cops caught him.

As we stand on the porch there seems to be something waiting for us, some thing hovering in the air that we can’t quite define. It might be the work none of us want to go to in the morning. It might be that we just don’t want the day to end, the long Sundays of fall when we have nothing to do, no responsibilities to wives or families, only men gathering to drink and burp and curse one another in jest. Another woman pulls in at the crack dealer’s house and another man goes inside with her and we know she is most likely going down on him for crack. Brian declares the entire football season a loss, then ignores me when I wonder aloud why we get so upset over two teams trying to control the space of a hundred yards. We smoke and stare at the sun settling in the turned leaves, lighting them like fire.  

At the end of the game Brian throws up his hands. His dog begins to bark at the back door. We do not see the little kitten stealthily crossing the back yard, but the dog does. He shoots out the door like a rifle when I open it. Brian yells for him to stop, but he does not stop.

By the time we pull the dog off, the kitten’s back is broken. Its eyes are wide, full black. It is bleeding from the dog’s teeth, the white fur turning pink. Its front paws claw at the ground but its back legs don’t move so it only spins in a circle, hissing at us in fear. Brian takes the dog inside. It barks at us from the back door, its legs splayed against the screen.

We stand looking down at the kitten. We look at one another. Brian says Goddammit very softly. The sun sits just above the house and our shadows stretch long. I reach down to pet the kitten but it hisses at me, spinning, trying to get away. I can tell it is terrified, and confused. For the next few months I will replay the scene in my head again and again: the dog shooting out the back door, none of us quick enough to realize what he is doing. The pounce onto the little white blur, the quick shake of the head that snaps its back.

The kitten is white with a few black spots. I kneel down beside it and look up at Brian and Quinn. A few years ago we went to grad school together to learn to write, and what we came up with were stories about women we’d slept with and fist-fights we’d won, the false romantic notion all too often portrayed in male fiction, the Hemingway-esque idea of tough drink and tougher fists, of man embracing his animal nature, his darkness and depravity. When the kitten looks up at me, I realize we had no idea what we were writing about, not a fucking clue.

Beside me, Brian says Goddammit again. Quinn says, also very softly, as if he doesn’t want to scare the kitten, that its back is broken. I want to tell Quinn No fucking shit, Sherlock, or something just as cutting and condescending because it is obvious the kitten’s back is broken—quick head shake, snap—but I don’t. I realize Quinn needed to say something. I realize I need to say something but I don’t know what it would be.

The dog is still barking at the back door. Another lawnmower fires up on an adjacent street. My shadow looms large and distorted on the lawn. There is an empty lot past Brian’s fence, and I find myself wondering why the damn kitten didn’t use the empty lot, why it had to come into Brian’s yard. I wonder who its owners are and curse them for not taking better care of it, but I only do all this because I do not want to look at the kitten or think about the thing that is right in front of us. I want the sun to go down and the day to be over. I want darkness to fall and to be sober, to be in bed with my wife or reading to my children upstairs.

Brian goes back inside to shut the dog up. I hear him telling the dog he is an asshole. Quinn says, I can’t look at this, and goes inside. The cat opens its mouth when I try to pet it, but no sound comes out. The dirt is scuffed in a circle where it has been trying to get up and walk. The blood is already drying in its fur, matting it together. Leaves and dirt stick to the blood. Its sides heave in and out. It no longer tries to spin.

I yell for Brian to bring me a beer. I don’t want to leave the cat. What I mean is, I absolutely want to leave the cat. I want to run down the street to home, or to the crack dealer’s house, or the house of the guy who yells at his wife while she heaves his laundry into the front yard. What I mean is: I don’t want to be here, watching the cat die. What I mean is: I don’t want to be here, hoping that it dies soon.

Brian brings me a beer. My pleasant October buzz is gone. The lawnmowers are too loud. I look at Brian and Quinn. We discuss options without saying real words, skirting the issue we know is in front of us. All our options circle around one thing: its back is broken. We could call a veterinarian, but its back is broken. We could call a nurse Brian knows, but its back is broken.  

There’s not a damn thing you can do for a broken back, Brian says, which is what we’ve all been thinking: There’s not a damn thing you can do.

Quinn has stopped drinking. I feel sick. The grass in the empty lot is too high. We hear a siren somewhere across town. There is a terrible thing about the October light in the late afternoon. Even the kitten throws a shadow. Brian says, Everything that ever happened happened in October, and I think he is drunk until I realize he is quoting one of his own lines from a long-ago story. It seems as if we are reading an old story, only we know how this story ends. There’s a climax, then an unknotting that reveals the true meaning of everything. Or maybe we don’t know how this will end at all.  

The kitten has managed to crawl under an old board a few feet away, dragging its lower body behind it. We hear it meow once, a cry like a newborn in the night. Quinn says I can’t, but doesn’t tell us what he can’t do.

Brian goes in for water. Quinn won’t look at the cat. The dog is still barking. The air feels too warm now, though it is growing colder. My mouth tastes like bile, but I keep drinking.

Brian comes out carrying the water dish carefully and places it beside the cat. The bowl is too high for the cat to reach so he goes inside for a saucer. The kitten scoots away as he sets it down. He pushes it closer. The kitten’s pink tongue laps delicately at the water. It closes its eyes for a moment.

We step back a few paces so the kitten won’t hear what we are saying. We wonder where we can get a veterinarian at six o’clock on a Sunday evening. We wonder what the fuck he could do.

This leaves us standing in the back yard not looking at one another while the shadows stitch themselves together. Quinn suggests we wait. He says the kitten could only spin in a circle at first and then after only a little while crawled under the board. He says the kitten began to lap at the water. Brian goes in for food. He opens a can of tuna and places it beside the water saucer. We decide to wait and see.   

We go onto the front porch. More cars pull in and out at the crack dealer’s house. We are certain the men deal crack. We are certain now, in this mood, that the three men have guns and hand grenades. We are certain the man who yelled at his wife is wanted in five states. We are certain the wife is wanted as well. We take turns wandering to the back of the house to peer out the window. We say things like It might have moved a little and I think it ate some tuna. We splash water on our faces at the sink. We drink more beer, but it doesn’t help. Brian turns the music off—it doesn’t seem right to have it on. I nod my head at him as if he has done something noble.

When we go into the back yard again the kitten hasn’t moved. It hasn’t gotten better. It’s not going to get better. Its sides still heave. The blood is dried dark on its fur. It hisses when I try to pet it. The grass is too high in the empty yard. The light is terrible. Brian says Goddammit again. Quinn says We should wait, but we all know there is nothing to wait for, and no reason. We can see the pain in its milky eyes.   

Which leaves us standing in a circle looking at one another. Things pass between us unsaid. I won’t explain what they are. You should understand by now where this is going.

Brian says I can’t. I can’t fucking do it. Not in any way. Not happening. Quinn shakes his head. He walks a few steps away and then walks back, still shaking his head. He raises his hand and lets it fall. No, he says. Not ever. I can’t, and this time we all know what he can’t do.

And now you listen to me, for I want you to know what I did, what I think about sometimes late at night in a quiet house when everyone else is asleep. The thing’s back was broken, its eyes like clouds on a backdrop of blue sky. One paw twitched. It shook its head to keep the flies away. It lay bleeding into the dirt, and though I knew my suffering would last longer, I did not think it would be as much. I remember now the quality of the light. I remember thinking of my daughters. I remember thinking I am about to kill this thing, all thoughts as distant as the wind, the terrible sun starting down, ending this fine day in October, when everything that ever happens happens.

Brian and Quinn went inside. I stood looking down at the kitten for a while. I might have said something to it, offered some words of comfort or farewell. After a time I adjusted the board to where it covered the kitten’s little head. It meowed from under the board, a low whine of fear. I told it Hush now, hush. Then I brought my heel down on the board hard and quick and I want to say I heard another snapping sound but I do not trust this memory any more than the earlier one, less so for I was having trouble seeing with my suddenly doubled vision and trouble hearing with the whine and cry and shatter that ran through my head, the sound of things breaking, not all of them on the outside. I stomped on the board again, wanting it to be over, making sure it was. My eyes were hot. A hard cold lump had formed in my stomach. I walked to the fence and leaned over and vomited, trying to get everything out of me.

Brian and Quinn ignored my red eyes. Brian put a hand on my shoulder. He said something, words. Quinn did too. I don’t remember what they were. I doubt they meant anything. Brian got a shovel from the shed and we dug a hole at the far back of his yard and put the kitten in the hole and covered it. Its eyes were still open: none of us had the strength to close them.

I don’t remember if we said any words or not. I doubt they would have meant anything. We are shameful creatures, scared of death, so we hurried back to sit in the front room without looking at one another as the afternoon passed into evening. After a time Brian got up and went to the refrigerator and grabbed three beers and passed them around. We stood in the gathering darkness and drank, trying to forget, which I can tell you for sure never works.