Oil Dog

Kelly Dulaney



In the desert, the physicist lets the air out of his tires. They deflate and flatten into the sand, air spitting past the depressed pin and pressure gauge. His subordinates gather around him like debts and express their skepticism. The other training teams aren't doing this, his subordinates say. Are you sure this will work?

The physicist nods.

His subordinates exchange doubtful glances. They shuffle away and chafe their hands. They watch and wait.

The sun begins to weld lines of yellow light into the cold sky. Its color strikes through the sand, too, illuminating its distant and almost uncrossable sloping. The physicist feels how the light lays across his shoulders and it reminds him of other mornings and other engines in other sands. He shuts his eyes and places his palm over a tire. It begins to bend beneath the weight of his hand: It is almost empty enough.

When he opens his eyes again, an oil dog is dancing beside the idling engine. It laughs. Richard Gordon! Richard Gordon! it says. The oil drips from its fur, staining the sand. It snaps its teeth suddenly. It lowers its voice until its words sound like snares. You'll never shake me off, Richard Gordon, it says. I'll always eat at your heels.

The physicist does not acknowledge the dog but he does turn to his subordinates. They still stand in their whispering clumps. They predict their placements in either theater, or they predict their position and rank.

They cannot hear the oil dog.

I'll always try my teeth on you, it says. It bows as if to invite the physicist to play, and then it cuts to the west, where it can hide in the engine's shrinking shadow.

It's done, the physicist says. The tires won't sink into the sand and strand us. Then he stands, feeling still a soreness and a chill in his knees.



The physicist is not a physicist yet.

Thunderstorms collapse all along the lines of the red horizon, throwing dry dust and sand into the air. That matter clusters; it begins to come closer, drifting in an angry arc. The physicist who is not yet a physicist remembers how those drought clouds had once clotted his native terrain and he rolls up the windows of the tank truck. He presses in the clutch. He downshifts. The dust and sand begin to beat against the windshield and he forgets the second clutch pedal. The transmission drops with a clang and even though the motor is still rotating, he stalls.

He does not swear. He holds the steering wheel in his hands and thinks of the other transmissions he has already ruined, of the money saved and spent to come here. He thinks of the wages it will take to again cross the continents and oceans and return home.

Sand stacks in the corners and crannies of the tank truck. Its grains are angled like the circular knots of a net or like the false-start notches made in a rock face by a drill bit.

He kills the ignition. He sits back in his seat and waits for the storm to pass.

When it's over, he shoves open the tank truck's door and wipes down the windows with his palms. He hesitates. There are no others yet in this section of desert, so he bends down on both knees to look at the underside of the engine, at how badly he might have damaged it.

There is a black dog underneath his engine.

It lays on its side, panting in an irregular pattern, eyes half-open. Black blood pools around it. Its black tongue is slumped in the sand. Otherwise, it does not move.

The physicist who is not yet a physicist stares at the dog, wondering—had he hit it? Had he dragged it beneath him until the sandstorm distracted him?

Come here, boy, he says.

The dog does not respond.

He waits another moment more, and then he flattens on his stomach, reaching under the engine for the body of the black dog. It is warm and wet in his hands, and guilt aches in his throat as he pulls it from the shadows and into the sunlight, saying again and again, Come here, now. Come here, boy.

It's then that the dog startles him, snarling and snapping at his face and laughing, laughing, laughing. He lets it go, sits up, falls backwards and the dog stands and shakes the wet from its shoulders. Hello, Richard Gordon, it says. You finally found me.

The physicist who is not yet a physicist feels his face twist. He holds up his hands to look at the dog's blood, but it isn't blood; it's oil. He looks up at the dog and the dog is coated in it; it seeps between the strands of the dog's fur as if from a slow pump.

Don't worry, Richard Gordon, the dog says. You can't kill me. Still standing, it scratches its underbelly with its back leg, dislodging oil-sodden fleas. It smiles. It says, Remember how you woke up at the scabbed roadside with your leather jacket ripped all around you? Remember how you were when your father died?

The physicist who is not yet a physicist can't answer. His mouth opens and closes without sound: he too has names that he cannot say, just like me.

I've been with you even before then, the dog says, and I always will be, too. I am older than you know.



My brother waits at the edge of a canal in Kandahar, watching the waters to see where it will be safest to wade. Grapes hang over each of his shoulders, heavy with shingella bacillus and pruning wounds. Dust clings to each of his knees—dirtying the bad one worse than the other—and it makes him wheeze when he breathes in.

Hey, another soldier says. Look.

My brother stiffens around his rifle and stares: the water is pitted with oil spots. Their ugly sheen splinters the noon light into needles.

Then, in the distance, there is a repeating rifle fire. It rolls like a low laughter, saying oss, oss, oss, and the soldiers still beside the canal, flexing their fingers against triggers. What is that coming from? asks one of the other privates.

A dog, my brother answers, his eyes cut into slits.



The land gathers in on itself in the darkness. Then, the low, strange sun begins to rise. It lays down its light like white ware ceramic shards and the uneven rind of the road rises up with it, oozing asphalt and sand.

This is where the first fire smolders, under the red hood of a Triumph TR4.

The physicist's son stands to the side, watching as a taxi driver shakes cans of cola and empties their spray into the flame. Carbonation kills it, the driver explains. It's a cheap way to put a fire out, anyway. You need a ride?

The physicist's son slings his coat over his shoulders and kicks a tar clod. There's a service station down the way, he says. He points at the exit ramp. I'll just walk down it there.

You want me to wait? the driver asks.

The physicist's son shrugs and jingles his keys. Not really, he says. He waits until the taxi pulls away, then slams the scorched hood and half-clambers into the smoky Triumph. He pushes at it and it rolls forward with his weight, drifting down the exit ramp.

Somewhere, something says his name and laughs: Alan, Alan.

The physicist's son yanks the driver's side door shut, but then the fire begins again, lapping at the underside of the hood like dogs' tongues. It eats away at the interior of the engine and burns away the brake lines even as the physicist's son kicks the brake pedal again and again, swearing, until the Triumph flattens a barricade and flips over a creek-side cliff.

He wakes up under the ragged water and thrashes at the way the car crumbles all around his body. His hands stir blood and oil. Finally, he finds air and pulls himself out of the wreck and into the strange sunlight, barely breathing through the broken bones of his nose.


1985 – 2015

I have listened at every door but have never heard the tales the physicist's other children might tell of the oil dog. I have never heard the tales the other grandchildren might tell.

That is probably for the best.

I would lie about them, too.



The soldiers pursue the sound of rifle fire and their boots beat at the ground, kicking up the gray residue of the roadway. They move in formation, unfolding like foils through half-demolished structures, until their arms uncoil in every empty space and their aim covers every corner.

But no enemy lurks there: the soldiers stare through their telescopic sights at the hollow air or at each other. My brother is frantic. Where is it? he hisses through his small teeth. Don't you hear it? It's here; it was here!

The sound of rifle fire rises again, repeating in the red dune hills beyond the village, and my brother's next words are lost in the laughing report. No! he seems to shriek. No! No! The wind thickens like a tar all around him and the black crusts of storm clouds creep across the sun. The other soldiers mass where the pavement terminates—where the red dunes slope in the shape of exposed throats. The other soldiers kneel and wait for the rain.

But my brother—he runs ahead of them, shouting.


327 BCE

Alexander shoots songbirds out of the sky with a bow and arrow, dropping their bright bodies into the sand. His dogs circle his feet, slavering, and he gathers the songbirds into a bundle. For you, he says to his new wife.

But Roshanak shields herself from the sun with her hands and says, Don't shoot them anymore, Alexander.

You don't want them, he says.

No, Roshanak replies. Her hands collapse and all the light lays across her face like the strings of unknotted nets. The dogs make a ring around her and take turns leaning against her legs, where they pant against the swelter of the sun.

Alexander frowns. He says, I thought you wanted to walk with me, Roshanak.

She casts her eyes elsewhere, her gaze tracing shadows in the sand.

Ah, Alexander says. He ties the songbirds to his belt and stretches. Either come or go, he says, but don't hold me back. He calls along the dogs and begins into the long sprawl of sand dunes, smiling when she finally follows.

They wander until the day distends. At times, Alexander catches his new wife in one arm and presses his thumb against her upper lip and the sweat that gathers there. At others, he bends down amongst the dogs and watches as she rolls sand up and down her arms.

The sun slants towards the earth. Shadows dim the dunes.

They return the way they came, hand in hand. But at the edge of the dunes, Alexander slows his stride and then stands still, staring at an oil-stained outcropping of rock, and at the seep beneath it. What is that? he says.

Boats can be built with it, or it can be burned, Roshanak says. Her hand sweats in his. Don't touch it. Leave it alone, Alexander.

This is my empire now, he says, and he shakes her away to approach the seep. It shines like a stone but it skitters the light in all directions and trembles, too. He skims its surface, then dips into it, feeling through its shallows until his fingers find the flank of something warm.


1985 – 2015

No one says my name: the oil dog does not want me.

I find only its footprints: today, a swirl of oil in the runoff; yesterday or the day before, an aniline ring in ice and old snow. I stand beside my car and listen for echoes in the empty morning, my hair making the same motions a black dog makes.


1969 – 1981

The physicist captures the oil dog only once, in a photograph at Prudhoe Bay.

He leans against the window of the de Havilland, his survey camera focused on the firm permafrost. He plots out the points where he would like to lay the pipe. He calculates the cost in his mind and thinks, The steel will be worth more than its weight once bought. It's the lumber that builds the house.

Hey, Dick, the pilot says. You need to be lower? Higher?

Neither, the physicist says.

The plane presses into the air. The camera shutter opens and shuts.


Only after the snide hallway humiliations and the early retirement and the deposition in which he forgets to mention his children does he have a new cause to inspect old papers, and only then does he see the oil dog. It flattens into an adze and smiles in a developed print as if it can never be killed.

The physicist shudders, feeding the print to the fire.



The soldiers wait, crouched and cold, beneath the weight of a weird rain.

Elsewhere, my brother is battling the oil dog. He crouches in wet, red sand and balances on his bad knee. The oil dog stands at the top of sand dune. It opens its mouth. It says the first syllable of his name. Oss—it hisses, grinning.

My brother raises his rifle and shoots it, shoots it, shoots it.

Bullets begin to crawl through its stomach. The oil dog stumbles, surprised.