Charlie Sterchi is an MA candidate in creative writing at Auburn University. He serves as an assistant editor at the Southern Humanities Review and Fiction Editor at Kudzu House Quarterly.
The Running Dog
Grandpa’s on suicide watch, but I’m not allowed to watch him anymore. Not by myself. Not after the incident involving his Buick, a smashed retaining wall, and the manually disengaged passenger side airbag. Grandpa’s on suicide watch, and here I am in the bosom of his creaking home, in his bedroom, by his window that looks out over the hills stacked one on another like the layers of dung and rotten cabbage in a compost heap, watching him with his breathing tubes and the shudder of his breathing machine; his pills and his bag of piss and his skin like spent wax paper; the smell of diarrhea and applesauce and the smell of vintage tweed from the open closet. I am not alone, but with my sister who’s brought her cello down from Maryland to watch us both and to join in our perspiring. Decades of daily use and nightly disuse have rendered the air conditioning busted.
“Does that thing have a quiet setting?” I say.
My sister says, “The breathing machine? Don’t be stupid.”
My sister wipes her brow with one of grandpa’s monogrammed paisley hankies.
“Sister,” I say. “Fetch me a drink, won’t you?”
“And leave you alone with grandfather?” she says. “I don’t think so.”
I look out the window and watch the dog running circles in the yard.
Grandpa says, “Cathy always told me, ‘Take what you can get, Johnny.’ So, I took what I got and I made an ice-cream of it.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
My sister says, “Very good, Grandfather.”
“Grandpa, you’re unintelligible,” says I, “and, oh, how those pills make you slobber.”
I receive a merry wink from the old man.
I go downstairs and pour my own drink. On the other side of the kitchen window, which is open, the dog still runs, his tongue dragging across the dirt where he’s trod and he’s trod again.
Grandpa used to take the dog and me hunting. We’d shoot doves from behind the mulberry bushes. Then the dog would disappear into the scratching of the marsh reeds. We’d listen to the fading bustle of the dog. Often, all traces of the dog would disappear into the fog. We’d wait without exchanging a word, without stomping our boots to keep out the cold of morning, and I would wonder how we’d find all of those dead doves if the dog never came back. The dog always came back. Its name is something like Sally-Go-Home-Lucky VII or Cyrus of Westover. I don’t remember.
I become aware of my sister’s cello sliding down the banister. It’s playing something from Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, which opens up the air in these halls. It breaks up the curtains of dust, sends a breeze through the structure, and I inhale as if with the assistance of a brand new, third lung. I rattle the ice against the walls of my glass in a counterclockwise motion because it amuses me to do so.
I watch the dog for a while and I wonder if the dog will ever die, or if instead the dog will continue running circles in the yard, dragging its tongue and sniffing around for dead doves beyond the time at which my grandfather joins the soil and manifests in the pears from the tree by his waiting grave, beyond the time at which I, too, manifest as a sheet of tears dropping from the same pear tree to rot or to be eaten by deer, beyond the time at which the pear tree dies, and the deer die, and the dove marsh and its doves become no more than a film of dust on the earth’s fallow crust, beyond the time at which all else – the strip malls and the golf courses, the Taj Mahal and the Little Ceasar’s Pizza on Chapman Highway, all else – has fallen to the great yellowing gyre of the sky. It strikes me as probable that even in the second scenario the dog, having borne the weight of perpetuity, will cease to lick the dirt and will in turn be licked by the dirt.