I took my dog out for a walk one early morning and noticed he was limping. Rather than checking on him I went back to bed. The following day I found a spiked sweetgum ball stuck in between the footpad and claw fold of his right front paw. The sweetgum ball spikes pierced his skin and infected the paw, but after the vet visit and a stint of antibiotics he recovered. I didn’t tell my wife Tausha how it got infected since it happened around the time her father, James, died. Tausha told me stories about growing up with a mischievous family dog that ran into a porcupine and got quills stuck on her snout. James used pliers to carefully extract each quill from his beloved pet, and she didn’t get an infection like my dog did.
My wife ritually takes my dog upstairs to snuggle until my sleep aids kick in. Before he jumps off the bed I pet him, staring silently into his eyes. We both have this sense of dread that the night brings.
My nightmares don’t have a pattern, but lately they’ve been about James. I am walking down an unlit hallway, searching for the light switch. My hand traces the paneling, catching splinters from the knotty pine. A fluorescent light shines on James, like he’s on a stage, but he spoils the moment when he points to my bleeding hand. Droplets of blood rain against the floor like the leaky faucet I wish he’d taught me how to fix.
“You’re in luck bud; I’ve got a first aid kit behind the bar.” James voice is still deep and unaffected by the New Mexico phonetics where vowels merge.
The last time we spoke was in the summer of 2012 when he retired from the Oxbow Coal Mine after putting in forty years.
“Are you just going to stand there and bleed?”
When he was alive a cigarette would dance to the beat of each syllable on his bottom lip but in my sleep, he doesn’t smoke.
I raise my right hand and assess the piece of wood stuck in the nail of my index finger. I sit on a four-legged barstool with a Southwest geometric pattern on leather like the ones in the ski lodge that James and his father built by hand in Sugarite, New Mexico. I inspect the craftsmanship with my uninjured hand.
“The bar is a little small and lonely,” I say.
I don’t look at the tools he uses to pull the splinter but I feel the pressure. I don’t see walls surrounding the room. Just the pine bar and two barstools.
I fidget slightly left then right like my daughters do when they are about to get shots at the doctor’s. Turning my attention to him, I see that he’s wearing a white t-shirt with a left breast pocket tucked into his jeans. He’s got a sterling silver belt buckle, a gift from his ex-wife Kathy that he proudly wore every day, even after he left her for someone less. It’s studded with five pieces of turquoise gems that reflect enough light to make me turn away. I focus on his ice blue eyes instead.
“There ya go. All better.”
I am not confident he’s got all of it out. I fear the risk of infection just like my dog when I didn’t pay attention to him. He bandages my wound and I am reminded of a gentler side, the side his two daughters missed.
“So, what’ll it be today?” he asks bending and reaching for the answer in the deep fridge.
“Whatever you can’t have.”
I sense my body trying to reject the sliver that remains in the splinter’s wake.
He pops two cans of Budweiser on the counter and releases the pressure. I grab one can in each hand and raise them to toast. “To dreams, James, before they were nightmares.”
“Cheers,” he responds. “Drink up.”
His left-hand fishes out a zippo lighter from his jeans while his right hand pulls the Salem menthols from his rolled-sleeve. Since being reattached after a table saw accident, his right index finger is unusable, so he uses his thumb and “fuck you finger” to extricate a cigarette.
The scene is reminiscent of a poker table where James is the croupier dealing with something more sinister. “This must be torture for you, seeing as you don’t smoke or drink,” he says, handing me the lit cigarette.
I take a drag.
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice.”
The smoke billows to form a reflection of my face—a pareidolia. “And now it’s your turn James.” I wink and take a long swig. “Where’s your mother, James?”
“Hell, I don’t know, serving drinks to angels at the Roof Top Bar, or so I guess. Word is she made it to 94.” His head slumps. “You know the rules, one drink for each sentence; one drag, each question.” His deep voice cracks. “We’ve started.”
“I trust you have enough.”
The two cans of beer remain full, never needing a refill.
I drink and continue. “So, you never saw her when she left?”
I puff. The combination of smoke and beer make me sick and lightheaded.
His head stays down. He doesn’t look at me.
“Your sister’s not doing well with the drugs and all,” I say, trying to kill him with the truth. “She’s been in and out of prison you know. She really needs you. I am sure she misses you.”
He is whimpering now—shoulders failing to keep up with each breath just as I struggle to maintain balance and consciousness. The bacteria from the splinters are invading my cells and wage war on my spinal cord. I lose track of time but I know there isn’t much of it left.
“Your daughters miss you, James. Tausha kept your last voicemail. She listens to it every night. I had to hold her James. I had to lie to her and say it was going to be alright. You hate liars James, you made me lie. They were going to visit you in two weeks; they looked forward to those visits every year. It was four days after your 68th birthday and three days after Father’s Day. You’ll miss so many firsts, James. Your granddaughters’ first day of high school, their first varsity game, their first day of college. You missing these firsts made me decide that I didn’t want to blow my head off.”
“Drink!” he screams, stomping around the bar to force me.
My body collapses. He picks my head up and pours the beer on me, wailing and watching my muscles spasm. The tetanus locks my jaw. I grab his arms as I drown in the fluid. My last hope is to grab the snub-nosed 38 pistol tucked into the belt loop in the small of his back. The same one he used to kill himself with.
There’s only one bullet left.
I struggle to point it to my own head.
I pull the trigger—but awaken before the hammer falls.
My dog is there when I awake, stirred by the sense of my anxiety. He licks my fingers as they dangle off the bed. His pawing signals me to return the favor and I think about my own suicide while I pet him. I reflect on the pain and suffering associated with memory. I remember about a time when I cried on the phone when I talked to my twins while I was deployed to Afghanistan. It was the first time they rode a bicycle by themselves. I envision James checking the tire pressure and adjusting the seats giving the twins pointers as they slide on their knee pads and tuck in the shoelaces. James brushes their hair away from their eyes before donning their helmets. He is careful not to pinch their skin when snapping the straps. I admire his patience as he coaches them. He’s always prepared, so I am sure the first-aid kit is ready to clean the scrapes after a bad spill. They explore the Rockies until sundown and afterward play indoors. If he was happy when he was with them, then why did he drink so much as they played with his childhood matchbox cars?
My dog’s snout feels cold and wet against my forearm. James never met my dog. The last time he visited San Diego was when Tausha graduated college, before we got the dog. It would have been nice to go out for walks, the three of us bonding as we played fetch. We’d come back and go to the garage where he could teach me about motorcycle maintenance. I’d ask him tips for making turns and we’d drink while we compare the latest motorcycle models. Then I’m filled with regret because we never got the chance to ride up the Pacific Coast Highway with its memorable views of Big Sur on through Northern California and return inland through the Sierra Nevada’s. It would have been nice to return the favor for him being there for the twins.
A web of drool flows from my dog’s jowls and lands on my arm. I think about how James never got to see the twins swim competitively. How interesting it would have been hearing his stories about raising two daughters skiing at the elite level. I picture all of us packed into the car traveling from one pool to the next.
He would say something magical to motivate the girls prior to their first race. I imagine his smile bigger than mine when they won because of his words. Would they hug him just as hard as they hugged me when I returned from Afghanistan?
I am confident he would have wiped their tears if they got disqualified for a false start or an improper turn. What did he say to his daughters when they failed? What did he say to his daughters when they won?
It’s late now and my dog is deep in his trance. He sits and sways left to right which reminds me of how much fun I had pushing my daughters on the swings. They are fifteen now and will leave for college one day. Further down the road, I think of them getting married and having children of their own. The need to kill myself isn’t so strong now and I am comforted by this fact. My dog satisfied with affection and my normal state returns to his bed and we fall back to sleep.