the Marlboro Review No. 6. Summer/Fall 1998 the Marlboro Review, A Short Story from issue 6
Richard Schmitt, the Showdog

purple line

A tin knock in a piston shaft, a ping of escaping gas with each explosion, a high-pitched squeak in the left rear brake heard by no human ear, a dry bark from the transmission when the truckdriver downshifts onto the lot, these particular sounds pull the black dog out of sleep, onto his feet, out of his house. He lets loose a low whine, then one sharp yelp before turning to face the chain that holds him, and pulling straight back until the collar slips over his head he's off across the lot like blackwater through rocks.

He zigzags under mist between trailers, over wet pavement, low- down nose, ears upforward, nostrils open to one smell only. Sleek as a black line, narrow and snakelike, leading with pointed face too fast for the cluttered terrain except, this is the place he knows, this is his home. He avoids puddles, leaps low dips, skids around electrical boxes, hops waterhose, waste drain, extension cords, shortstop skirts the doorstep pallets, kids bicycles, a rival canine chomping a bowl of nuggets, a lost kitten -- can't bother now -- legs churning a hard lop and hitting the open area behind the tent he sees the truck where he knew it would be.

And the idle truckman with his smoking mouth. And the dangerous cat man with his long-handled, doubledged hacking blade with which he'd lop off a set of backlegs in a single sweep. The black dog has seen him do it. An old poodle came too close once. The backlegs sweep, then the howling head, hack, two fast whacks and into a tiger belly. The hacker pocketed the rhinestone collar.

The truck came each day for a time in the general vicinity of horse killing. Not malicious killing. Horses simply unwanted by humans so knocked in the head, but wanted by other animals so worth a few bucks. Dogs wanted them, but horses were for the cats. Always in the morning the horses came, as if they'd spent the night getting killed and chopped up.

The truckman pulls the canvas back and the hacker jumps into a shimmering black cloud of golden, greenbacked flies. He claws out the parts with his hands. Horse heads on necks, hocks and hearts, lank flanks, shoulder blades and ribcages. The fly eggs hatched and burrowing into the meat stick to the hackers hands and the edges of the black raincoat trailing over his rubber boots.

The black dog watches from a safe distance, under a wagon, behind the wheel, unseen, unhackable. He studies the hacker and listens to the cats going mad inside their cages. He never looks directly at the cats. They slam and scream, rock their cages nearly over, jam their claws through the bars and slash up the air. He knows better than to look at them. Even their eyeballs can cut you.

In the elephant tent the swaying beasts give each other knowing looks, one sounds a mighty trunk blast, mocking the cat's rage.

In the horse tent the confused horses snort and stomp. Their men rise from the hay to comfort them.

The hacker jumps from the back of the truck onto the pile of parts and the truck grinds away. He takes up his blade and hacks off meal size pieces, spears them with a wooden stick, and moves within clawing range of the cats. Most of the cats snatch the meat cleanly and bury their faces. But the hacker has his enemies. Those cats who watch him with purposeful sidelong glances, the clever ones who hold back, waiting, pretending they can't reach. Then moving fast they pass the meat and hook his stick with one claw, pull him off balance and with the other claw reach for his loose coat. The hacker knows these tricks. He's been with the cats a long time. He too holds back, pushing the meat within reach then pulling it back when he senses the claw coming. He laughs when they rage. He curses them in his Gypsy tongue and they scream and reach to snatch off his arm while he pushes out the meat and pulls it back, and in the middle of this game, the black dog makes his move.

Like ink spilled across a page, a black line to the pile of parts, pulling free a legbone the hoof still attached, he is spotted too late by the hacker. By the time the hacker drops his stick and grabs the blade the dog is gone around the cat cages and under the tent flap. It is not lost on the dog that the cats are unwitted allies. If he could communicate with the them he might choose his move precisely timed to distract the hacker at exactly the moment his enemy could reach his flapping coat tail and pull him to the bars. But the dog has never found a way to talk sense to cats. Elephants could be dealt with but the dog finds cats and horses hopeless.

He stays under the seats, not moving, in the dark, until the cats are quiet. Then he picks up his prize and cautiously, balancing the big bone in his mouth, takes a longer, safe way home.

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