FEEDING THE DOG
A Sam Geisler Story
Another no-show. Sam rubbed his forehead. Anthony Bromiglia had been his only appointment for the day. Sam tried not to think about the likelihood that Tony’s wife had insisted her husband not retain the former preacher as his CPA. Chelsea Bromiglia clung to her position among the church ladies like algae clinging to the bed of a stagnant lake.
Sam unfolded his long legs from under the particle-board desk. No sense waiting any longer. He could at least make himself useful in Dani’s shop. He thought how strange it was that the two of them, raised by eminently practical parents, had pursued such impractical passions. For him, it had been the church. His sister had managed to turn a bookstore-cum-deli into a successful business. Successful enough to pay her bills, anyway.
Having her brother around meant she didn’t have to hire another employee. At least, that was the fiction they maintained. And Parker appreciated another man around the house.
Parker was at school today, though. Sam had taken over breakfast when he moved in almost a year ago. Dani’s day started early: baking fresh bread for the deli sandwiches, slicing and chopping cheeses and vegetables, baking the day’s fresh cookies, starting the soup selection. Sam figured the least he could do was cook a real breakfast and make sure the kid had his homework. Then they walked the two blocks to Parker’s elementary school.
Parker didn’t know his uncle was a pariah. Sam suspected the obstinate little tow-head would have protested mightily if his mother had walked him to school, but having a six-foot-four uncle at his side was way cooler. Sam didn’t have the typical soft preacher physique, either. He never had, but the last ten months had hardened him. Exertion was a fine outlet for despair.
The door snicked closed behind him, mocking his uselessness, but he ignored it. Color and sound enveloped him. Generic Celtic music played softly beneath the low rumble of voices. Clutches of people bent over coffee cups and sandwiches or huddled near bookshelves. Dani was rushing around, balancing plates and cups and smiling determinedly.
Sam stepped behind the counter and washed his hands, tying on one of the garish “Meats and Reads” aprons. Two hardcover books sandwiched meat and vegetables while the names of authors and sandwiches danced over the fabric.
“What can I do?” he asked as Dani scooted past him to dump empty plates.
“Serve,” she responded gratefully. “And then grab a few orders?”
“You bet,” Sam answered.
The next forty-five minutes passed in a pleasant blur. When Sam had first found himself dumped on Dani’s doorstep, he’d been humbled to realize his only marketable skill was the ability to balance plates of food. He’d grown to welcome the hours spent in the deli, though. There was something satisfying about simply feeding a man’s body with food and his mind with books.
He cringed to think what a self-righteous fool he’d been in his previous life. He hoped Dani hadn’t sensed the casual contempt he’d once had for the life she’d chosen. He’d told himself that his calling was to feed souls. But in the end, he’d only been trying to keep his own dragon fed, a dragon whose belly was never full. He had lied to himself until the dragon tired of its hunger and did its best to devour him whole.
"Sam didn’t have the typical soft preacher physique, either. He never had, but the last ten months had hardened him. Exertion was a fine outlet for despair."
Three or four patrons remained in the shop, sipping cups and browsing books, but the rush was over. Dani leaned against the counter and grinned up at him.
“Crazier and crazier every day, huh?”
Her crooked smile was irresistible. Sam smiled back. How could this mad, bright creature be his sister? His opposite in every way: extrovert to his introvert, optimist to his pessimist, tiny and dark to his tall and fair, stubborn atheist to his stumbling Christian.
“If you can call a bookstore crazy. I mean, we’re not exactly Walmart on Black Friday.”
“Thank God! But this is great. I might actually have to hire someone.”
Dani made this proclamation at least once a week. She was too thrifty to give in. She’d rather run herself into the ground and squirrel away her little nuts for Parker’s college fund.
"Oh!” She started rinsing plates. Sam filled the middle sink so he could wash. “Speaking of crazy…I forgot to tell you. Have you seen the paper this morning?”
“Let me guess. Somebody crazy did something crazy, and it’s in the paper.”
Dani scowled and kicked his calf. “Damn, Sam, your legs are like iron!”
“That’s what you get for attacking me when I’m just quietly standing here, helping you out.”
“You mean earning your keep. But yeah, a crazy guy did a crazy thing. But this is one of your crazy guys.”
“My crazy guys? I didn’t know I had a collection.”
“Oh, I think you used to call it your church.”
“Calling it like I see it. Anyway, you remember Chucky Hargrove?”
“He hasn’t been Chucky since we were in middle school.”
Dani shot him a disgusted look. Sam relented.
“All right, I bite. What did Chuck do?”
“What did he not do? Got drunk, stole a car, then crashed it into a pole right in front of the police station.”
A plate slipped out of Sam’s hands into the soapy water.
“I should go see him.”
“In jail? ‘Cause I think that’s where he’s at.”
“Of course. He just – his wife left him a few months ago, took their newborn son with her. It was right before,” Sam barely stumbled over the words, “before I left the church.”
“Going out on a limb here, I’ll say he’s taking that hard.”
Sam shot his sister a stern look as he resumed washing, but her irreverence was irrepressible. Sometimes that irreverence set his temper on edge, but other times it was a comfort. Dani was more of a survivor than he, Sam thought. She survived with flair.
“In my experience,” he rejoined drily, “monumental life fails call for commiseration. So yeah, I think I’ll go visit him in jail.”
“Go on, then,” Dani shook a dish towel in his direction. “The shop’s quiet now, and you’ll be doing that useless, I’m-just-going-drift-around-and-look-out-the-windows thing if you stay.”
“All right. I’ll try to make it back by the dinner rush.”
“Sure. See you later.”
Sam had visited more members of the church in jail than anyone would suspect. He had had many failings as the preacher of the 400-odd member congregation, but indiscretion was not one. Assaults, alcohol, even drugs, brought folks beyond the grey walls. It hadn’t occurred to Sam to question the faith of those he visited here, only their strength.
"His opposite in every way: extrovert to his introvert, optimist to his pessimist, tiny and dark to his tall and fair, stubborn atheist to his stumbling Christian."
He should add naïve to his list of faults, he reflected. He’d imagined every infraction a call to grace: that the man who broken-heartedly confessed became stronger than one who lacked the courage to fall. When he’d fallen, though, not one of his congregants, not even those he’d seen here, had stood by him.
Sam shouldn’t blame them, he knew. It was his screw-up. They felt personally betrayed. Duped. No, he didn’t blame them. He blamed himself. But he missed them.
Except when he didn’t. He didn’t miss the sidelong looks of the church peacocks as they tsk-tsked the clothing of some younger female. He didn’t miss the grandstanding of the song leaders and their arias or the self-congratulatory edicts that paraded themselves as prayers. He didn’t miss the insistence on propriety over compassion, appearances over humility, sacrifice over mercy.
Small things had become satisfying indulgences. Now he considered the day a failure if he went to bed at a “decent” hour. He went to the grocery store in his sweat pants. He could hand a homeless man a meal or a dollar and not feel personally responsible for whatever the man chose to do with it. He could read the Song of Solomon without extrapolating some preposterous analogy; he could celebrate the Tamar’s revolt and Rahab’s deceit without demanding that today’s women walk more securely behind their men than had the grandmothers of Christ.
So maybe he didn’t miss them. Maybe he just missed the fiction of himself that he had believed in as much as they had.
But Chuck Hargrove was a different matter. Sam meant what he’d said to Dani. He knew what it was like to lose everything. Chuck was tumbling downhill. Maybe Sam could slow that descent.
“Is Chuck Hargrove available for a visit?” Sam asked the deputy at the desk. “I mean, Charles Hargrove?”
The deputy checked her computer. “We’ve been keeping him down here till he sobers up. He had quite a bit of alcohol in his system. Give me a minute, and I’ll bring him out.”
She waved him over to the glass window where a phone hung on the wall.
As Chuck approached the other side of the glass, he was dragging one leg, and his face was a mass of cuts and bruises. His eyes were bloodshot, his expression slack, as if he were too exhausted for emotion.
“Sam? What are you doing here?”
“I heard what happened. You look pretty rough. How are you doing?”
“Pretty rough sums it up.” Chuck was speaking slowly, deliberately, his breaths shallow. He pointed to his chest by way of explanation. “Bruised my sternum.”
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” Sam said. “What happened?”
Chuck was staring off, the phone slack in his hand. Tears stood in his eyes.
“Chuck? Tell me what’s going on.”
“She’s not coming back,” Chuck said thickly. “I thought if I helped her – if I helped her – she’d come back.”
“Do you mean Kellie?”
“I knew she needed time to recover, but…I’ve been waiting. And waiting. She isn’t coming back.”
Sam thought of his own wife.
“Chuck, man, I’m sorry.”
Chuck looked right at him. His eyes snapped so bright and clear, Sam wondered if he had imagined the bleariness.
“Sam. Do something for me?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m here.”
Chuck nodded. “Yes. Yes, that’s why you’re here. That makes sense. Sam, can you feed my dog? I don’t have anyone else to ask.”
“Feed your dog? Well, sure. Is that all?”
“Yes, if you could feed my dog…that will take care of everything. I’ll have the cop here give you my keys. Sam –“
Chuck’s voice was low.
“Sam, I’m real sorry. I don’t have anyone else. And I know you’ll take good care of it.”
“It’s nothing, Chuck. I’ll go right now.”
Chuck hung up the phone and disappeared from the other side of the glass.
"'She’s not coming back,' Chuck said thickly. 'I thought if I helped her – if I helped her – she’d come back.'"
It took about ten minutes to collect Chuck’s keys and address from the desk deputy. Another fifteen, and he was standing outside Chuck’s small suburban house, eyeing its patch of brown grass and the crumbling sidewalk. Neighbors’ houses crowded in close.
Sam keyed the door and gingerly pushed it open. He liked dogs, but that didn’t mean this one liked him.
“Dog?” he called. He hadn’t thought to ask its name. “Here, doggy, doggy.”
The house waited. Sam took a few more steps in and closed the door.
Abandoned. The house smelled abandoned. Sam wasn’t sure what that meant, but he felt it.
He stepped quietly from room to room, unwilling to disturb the gloom. Watchful and patient, the silence was its own person, trailing his steps.
He had expected to find more of a mess since Kellie had left. Clothes strewn on the floor, dirty dishes piled in the kitchen, pizza boxes, that sort of thing. It had been nearly a year, of course, but Sam had known Chuck since grade school. Chuck had never been the domestic sort. A good ol’ boy, often the butt of good-natured jokes. Sam thought he remembered Chuck doing construction work, but he wasn’t sure. People liked Chuck, but nobody expected much of him.
It had surprised everyone when he’d convinced Kellie to marry him. A bubbly, delicate beauty, Kellie had been way out of Chuck’s league. At least, that was what everyone but Kellie thought. Chuck thought so, too, doting on his wife with an almost comical tenderness. Somehow Kelli smoothed out Chuck’s rough edges, seeming as devoted to her bluff, burly husband as he was to her.
Sam knew too well that looking in at a marriage from the outside was as effective as trying to see the ocean floor through the waves.
Instead of a haphazard mess, the house appeared as if no-one lived there at all. A few pieces of furniture awkwardly pretended at purpose. A love seat, a television, a table. Sam stepped into the bedroom.
“Dog?” he said, without expectation.
The only semblances of life in the place were the photographs. On the nightstand stood a dingy lamp and a photograph of Chuck with his arm around Kellie, who held their newborn. A boy, Sam remembered. He pictured Chuck lying down in this empty bed and staring at that photo, waiting for sleep. He sighed.
More photographs lined the hallway. Most were candids of Chuck and Kellie before the baby. One frame held two photographs, composed by some department store photographer in perfect symmetry. Kellie and the baby on the left, Chuck and the baby on the right. Sam stared at their faces, trying in spite of himself to see what had happened.
Her face pale and shadowed, Kellie smiled bravely at the camera, but Sam thought her eyes were bleak. The baby looked like any other baby, lumpy and helpless. Kellie’s arms were stiff, holding the baby away from her as if the contact were too much. In the opposite photo, Chuck beamed into the lens, oblivious to his wife’s distaste. He cradled the baby in lumberjack arms.
Sam remembered that Kellie hadn’t been back to church after the baby was born. He hadn’t thought anything of it then. New moms recovered differently. Chuck had come by himself, flashing baby pictures to anyone who came within ten feet. Now Sam wondered if there had been more to it. Had Kellie had a harder time than anyone realized?
"Sam knew too well that looking in at a marriage from the outside was as effective as trying to see the ocean floor through the waves."
A pale blue door with the word “Nursery” spelled out in bright yellow letters stood closed at the end of the hall. Sam hesitated. The dog wasn’t in there. The dog wasn’t even in the house. Maybe in the backyard, or the garage.
The house waited.
Sam opened the door.
A maple crib stood in the far corner, a mobile strung with sailboats, starfish, and dolphins affixed to its side. A matching rocking chair sat beside it, blankets hung over the arm. A changing table and dresser stood against the wall. A diaper bag, overflowing with miscellaneous gear, lay in a corner.
A terrible idea whispered in Sam’s ear.
He crossed the room and opened the top dresser drawer.
Impossibly tiny diapers lined it.
He opened the next one.
Blue, yellow, and lavender clothes lay neatly stacked. Puffballs of cotton tumbled in a corner. He unrolled one to find socks the size of his thumb.
Blankets and sheets.
Chuck’s words drifted through Sam’s mind.
“I knew she needed time to recover, but…I’ve been waiting. And waiting. She isn’t coming back.”
Recover from what? Sam wondered grimly. Chuck told everyone that Kellie had taken the baby and left. But what mother would leave the diaper bag? The baby’s clothes?
On the dresser stood another photograph. A wrinkled, pug-nosed puppy dozed with the baby’s head on its belly. A sloppy grin of sheer delight lit the baby’s face. This must be the dog, thought Sam. Chuck had bought it about the same time his son was born. Every boy needs a dog.
Where was the dog?
Sam closed the nursery door behind him and headed to the kitchen. There, beside the back door where a doggy door hung, sat two dishes on the floor. Empty. Sam picked them up. Even the water dish was dusty.
He started opening cabinets. The shelves stood nearly bare. Ravioli and corned beef hash, a salt shaker. Chuck must have been eating out almost every night. Out of curiosity, Sam looked in the fridge. Beer cans and Chinese takeout.
He found a half-full bag of puppy chow under the sink, back in the corner.
Sam straightened up and looked at that back door. Oh, God, he prayed silently, please let me me wrong. I’m wrong so often. Let me be wrong again.
Reluctantly he opened the back door and stood gazing across the weed-strewn yard with aching eyes.
“I know you’ll take good care of it,” Chuck had said.
Take good care of what? No dog in the yard. Sam walked down the steps, knees aching as if he were ninety.
"Chuck told everyone that Kellie had taken the baby and left. But what mother would leave the diaper bag? The baby’s clothes?"
Against a corner of the wooden fence, irises fought nettles for supremacy. Kellie must have planted those. Two lawn chairs sat on the dead grass, their plastic seats eaten through with sun and rain. A kettle barbecue lay open, its grill rusted.
A neat rectangle of river rocks, intersected with marble chips that formed a cross. Around the rocks, a piney border grew lush and verdant.
Even in the winter, Sam thought. Even in the winter, these plants would soldier on, an unquenchable patch of life.
Sam found a shovel in the garage. He moved the rocks onto the back steps, carrying them in his bare hands till his fingers were raw. He piled the dirt onto the lawn, working slowly, methodically. He could call someone, he supposed. The police. But what would he say? My friend asked me to feed his dead dog, and I’m afraid his baby’s dead too?
Besides, he owed this to Chuck. He should have seen the man needed help a long time ago. He shouldn’t have been too caught up in his own self-invented misery to stay in touch. He’d thought the church abandoned him; he’d abandoned them, too.
An edge of blue appeared. Plastic tarp. Sam dropped to his knees, carefully scraping the dirt away with the trowel he’d brought from the garage. Gingerly he lifted the small bundle out of the hole and rested it on the ground. He lifted the corner and stared inside.
Bones, of course, a few scraps of fur, a pink collar. Clementine was engraved on the tag. Kellie must have picked that name. Had she killed the puppy too? Some sort of psychotic break, brought on by post-partum depression? Or had Chuck killed the dog to cover up the reason for the grave? Maybe he just couldn’t bear to see the creature once his son was gone.
Sam leaned on his knees, breathing hard. Dear God, he prayed again. Dear God, I don’t want to do this. Let me be wrong.
But only a couple of inches deeper, his trowel struck wood. There was no ringing sound, like in the crime shows: just the soft thud of his trowel biting into rotten plank.
“She isn’t coming back.”
Had Chuck really thought that she would? Had he imagined that a woman who murdered her own infant could somehow recover? Chuck must have blamed himself, Sam thought. He must have decided to save his wife when he couldn’t save his son. And last night, he must have realized that he couldn’t save anyone. Not even himself.
He’d driven right into the lightpole in front of the police station. An accident, they’d said.
The wooden lid was hinged. Sam thought of Chuck working in his garage, building the tiny coffin, sanding and finishing the wood with the same care he’d painted the nursery and built the crib.
Sam took a deep breath. Lifted the lid.
Just bones, after all. Flesh and fat had long since been eaten away. Sam was grateful, but he couldn’t stop the tears that flooded his face at the sight of the crumpled blue jumpsuit, the socks to keep the little feet warm in the cold earth. A rotted teddy bear and a baseball lay beside the baby’s corpse.
Sam sat back. Twilight was creeping across the yard, casting long shadows from the fence. Hands shaking, he dialed his cellphone.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“A body,” he managed. “I found a body.”
He was still sitting there when the police arrived. No sirens, just the garish spin of blue lights flashing through the dismayed, open-mouthed windows of the house.
It took a while to get the facts straight. But when they realized whose house this was, the two detectives exchanged a long look.
“Chuck Hargrove?” the shorter detective repeated. He was a small man, with smooth, dark skin and serious eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. Nguyen, he’d said his name was.
Sam nodded. His throat hurt.
“I’m sorry to tell you this.” Nguyen hesitated. “We just heard about an hour ago. Hargrove hung himself in his cell. Must’ve been right after you saw him.”
Sam stared. He was tired, he realized. Tired of taking in terrible things.
“He did? Yes. That makes sense,” Sam said, though nothing made sense.
“Come on, then,” said Nguyen, offering Sam his hand. “Get up. Let’s get your statement. You don’t need to be here. And forensics will want us out of their way.”
Sam stood up. He towered over the other man, but he felt wilted, as ragged and worn as the weeds.
“You’re pretty shook up. Let us drive you. One of us will give you a ride back to your car.”
Sam didn’t know if the cops were being solicitous or if he were a suspect, and he didn’t care. He would just go where he was told, answer their questions, until he could go home.
"There was no ringing sound, like in the crime shows: just the soft thud of his trowel biting into rotten plank."
Home. Dani’s third bedroom, that had doubled as her office before he moved in. He thought of his empty bed. He thought of the photo that stood on his nightstand. He missed Melanie. He missed being a husband. He missed lying in bed, in the dark, talking in low voices that kept the night at bay.
It was past midnight when he walked in the alley door that led to Dani’s cramped apartment. She was sitting in the living room, her face lit by the flickering of the television. She clicked it off when she heard his steps and jumped up, throwing her arms around him.
“I’m sorry I’m late.” He stiffly patted her back. “You had the dinner rush on your own.”
“I was worried,” she said into his shoulder.
Gently he moved her back. “There was – some trouble. I’ll tell you in the morning. Just- don’t read the paper before we talk, huh?”
Eyes dark, she nodded. “All right. I can see you’re exhausted. But I should tell you – Melanie called here for you.”
“Here? Why not my cell?”
Dani shrugged. “Who knows why she does anything?” Dani and Melanie had never been friends.
Sam nodded dumbly, his mind a blur.
“Go on,” Dani pushed at him. “Shower. Bed. You’re filthy, you know. You look like you’ve been rolling in dirt. Melanie can wait till tomorrow. Or next year.”
Hot water cascaded over his shoulders as Sam dug at the earth under his nails. He felt stained, soiled, as if something dark had crawled into his veins and now probed deeper into his soul with every heartbeat. He thought of King David when his infant son had died after three days of fever.
I will go to him, but he cannot return to me, the king had said. Sam hoped that Chuck had gone to meet his son. Suicide was a terrible sin, but Sam didn’t think that God’s judgment and man’s were the same.
The sheets were cool when Sam stretched himself between them. His feet reached the edge of the mattress. He rolled over, tucked a pillow under his arms, and stared at the photo on his dresser. Moonlight cascaded weakly through the cheap aluminum shades that covered the window. Sam lay there a long time, watching light and shadow and the hours move over Melanie’s face.
Author's Note: Sam Geisler is a long-time companion of mine. Like most folks, he has more stories than he chooses to tell and an uncertain path to his future. What makes him real to me is that he stubbornly believes in the goodness of the people whose flaws he knows best. Perhaps that is because he is more merciful than most. Perhaps it's simply because he desperately wants that same presumption for himself.
Cassondra Windwalker graduated from the University of Oklahoma with BA of Letters, which she parlayed into employment as both book-seller and deputy sheriff. She now writes full-time from the plains of Colorado. You can find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cassondrawindwalkerwrites.