Ben sat on the edge of the bed, watching Molly struggle with a clasp on a new wine-red blouse. Her arms were contorted behind her neck and her elbows poked the air. “You look like an insect,” Ben said. “You want help?”
She turned her back to him. “The top one,” she said. “What kind of insect? A preying mantis? A mosquito?” She held her hair up with one hand and swayed like she could still hear music.
The tiny blonde hairs on her neck glowed in the dim light of the bedroom. Ben worked the clasp free and kissed her. “A black widow,” he said and pinched her softly on her hip.
“Be nice!” She danced forward a step and squealed a little laugh at him in the mirror above the dresser. Her look turned serious. “Carol’s right, you know.”
“She was drunk,” Ben said.
“Probably. But there’s a war, remember?” Ben’s Reserve unit had received its deployment orders. A four-month tour in Afghanistan. He’d half expected this would happen when he retired from active duty and joined the Reserve, but now that it had he found himself anxious and irritable in response to the wait. He noticed the war everywhere now. Carol was their only friend not in the Air Force, or married to someone who was, and her loud assertions about Ben’s heroics had been pissing him off all night. “It’s a job,” he said. “That’s it. I’m doing what I’m getting paid to do.”
Molly removed her earrings, placed them one-by-one in a small floral-patterned box on the dresser. She turned to face him. “It feels nice when my friends are proud of you.”
“I just don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I’ll be sorting mail for four months. Nothing dangerous but the heat.” He knew it wasn’t fair to argue with her about this.
Molly chewed on the inside of her cheek. “If you don’t want to talk about it, fine by me.” She lifted her skirt and pulled her pantyhose off with both hands. They rolled up into an impossibly small lump, which she tossed at the hamper in the far corner. “Find the dog, would you? I want him to sleep in here tonight.”
“He’s fine where he is.”
“It’s an important step in him getting used to living here. With us,” she added. “It strengthens the relationship. I read about it online. There’s a name for it. I can’t remember exactly what, but it’s very important.”
“Molly,” he said.
She pulled her blouse off over her head and took a step toward him, smiling now. “I’ll be here when you get back,” she said. “Make it quick, or I’ll start without you.”
They’d had the dog almost a month. Molly had set up a lavish play area for it in Ben’s study. This annoyed him at first, but he never used the room and the dog made Molly happy, so he gradually surrendered the study to the Lone Ranger’s pillowy bed and drippy chew toys, and only felt anything about it when he remembered to. “Here, boy,” he said into the dark room. The musky trace of hair and breath was faint. “Lone Ranger!” He listened for the tick of the dog’s claws on the hardwood floor back in the hall, or the wheezy rattle of its snoring. But there was nothing. The dog was jumpy and skittish when people were over and liked to hide in unusual places. Two weeks before, Ben found the Lone Ranger asleep in the narrow space behind the bed in the spare room, its eyes wide open and rolled back into its head. He thought it had suffocated itself until he nearly got his hand bit off when he reached to pull the little piece of shit free.
He opened the back door and called twice into the cold. Just after they moved into the house, when ideas for its improvement were still exciting and easily conceived, Ben special-ordered half a dozen railroad beams to construct an herb garden for Molly. Their heavy shape was visible on the far side of the yard. In June he measured a ten-foot-wide rectangle out with four stakes with a knot of orange flagging tape on each end, which now waved in the breeze like some kind of terrible reminder to buy a shovel and finish the job. It’d been almost a year since he and Molly moved off base. They bought the first house they looked at—a three bedroom in one of the newer subdivisions that seemed to Ben to appear over night on the dusty hillsides. Barely a mile to the east was the shallow reservoir where three summers ago John Bailey, Ben’s commanding officer when he was still active duty, taught Ben to windsurf.
He cupped his hand to his mouth and called for the dog. The motion-activated security light above the door turned on. Ben stepped out into the irregular oval of yellow light on the deck. Beside his foot there was an uneven spot in the dark stain. He’d promised to add a new coat before he left. Molly liked a color called Bourbon. He whistled loudly with two fingers in his mouth so that when he came back to the bedroom without the dog she would know that at least he’d tried.
The dog was not under the couch, nor in the kitchen, nor in the coat closet beside the front door. He checked not because he thought the dog would be in any of these places but because he believed in exhausting his options. In the bedroom, Molly was asleep beneath the cream-colored comforter. The bedside lamp was on and in its shallow light Ben could make out the denial of her faded gray pajamas. He took a cigarette from a pack he knew she kept hidden in the bedside table.
Up and down the street the leaves of the young Japanese maples that were planted in front of each house on the block pulsed in the wind. The night was unusually cold for August. One of the guests had left a glass on the arm of the wooden Adirondack Ben’s father made as a wedding gift. He picked the glass up and ashed into it. He’d promised himself the day his deployment letter came that he’d quit smoking as soon as he got home. They discussed this at length and Molly agreed that quitting before a 120-day deployment was asking for failure. As he stood on his porch and smoked one of Molly’s menthol cigarettes nearly down to the filter, he felt the weight of the list of things he needed to do bearing down on him like a wild animal.
Just above the lip of the gutter he saw the suggestion of something solid in the dark. At first he thought it must be the Liu’s cat, which for some reason Ben had never been able to figure out, sat in his driveway and cried on cool nights. He clapped his hands loudly. But the shape didn’t move. It was late, closing in on one-thirty in the morning—tomorrow already. He made his way through what might have happened. A drunk driver, a fidgety dog, a car tire. Ben dropped his cigarette in the gutter next to the Lone Ranger. It slapped and fizzed in the shallow green water. There was some blood, and the Lone Ranger’s mouth was open, exposing tiny pills of teeth, which had before seemed vicious and judgmental and were now only a delicate reminder of how guilty he felt for having hated the dog so much.
There was an unopened box of thirty-gallon garbage bags on a shelf in the garage. He removed two, placed one inside the other and then reached both hands in up to his elbows. He straddled the gutter and leaned over the Lone Ranger, covering the dog with the bags. Briefly, he checked for a pulse, but felt only soft muscle and the taut rails of tendon. In one hand Ben took hold of the dog’s head and with the other its hind legs, pulling it up into his arms and turning the bags inside out. The first time they changed the sheets in their shared bed, Molly taught him to put pillowcases on this way. The dog was heavy. Ben had touched dead things before and the weight was familiar to him, but when the dog brushed his knee, its solidness made him recoil. He tied the four corners into a double knot and placed the bags into the back of Molly’s station wagon. No way was he wasting his own gas on this. He reached in, pushed the knot down into the lumpy contours of the dog. Air rushed out and a black plastic Lone Ranger took shape as if Ben had had a statue made to remember this by. The car smelled like air freshener and the cigarettes Molly claimed to smoke only when she’d been drinking. He slammed the door shut and went into the house for her keys.
The sticky aftertaste of the night’s drinks grew in his mouth as he drove along the empty streets. A deep earthy sourness filled the car, seeped into his nose and released far back in his sinuses. It was as if the dog was clawing toward him over the seats, barking and growling the way he did whenever he touched Molly in its presence.
He tuned the radio to one of Molly’s nostalgic presets and tried to concentrate on a song he vaguely recognized from when they were first dating. After a verse or two he hadn’t known he remembered the words to, the bright sign of a convenience store came into view. Ben made himself stop even though he knew they wouldn’t have what he needed. Inside the store a tall redhead stood behind the counter. She looked up from a magazine at the electronic ping of the door. Ben stood still and stared back. “Can I help you find something?” the girl said. She turned the page of her magazine but kept her eyes on him.
“No. Thank you,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. I seen worse than you,” she said. “You better hurry, though. We lock the fridges at ten til.”
“Mr. Johnson?” a male voice said. Ben scanned the tops of the aisles but didn’t see anyone. He looked at the redhead. Behind him he heard the voice again. “What are you doing here, Mr. Johnson?” He recognized the voice as belonging to Vinny Liu, the neighbor kid who had once or twice mowed Ben’s lawn and who, he’d always suspected, failed to let the family cat inside on cold nights.
“I didn’t know you worked here,” Ben said, smiling before he turned to face the boy.
“It’s just a summer thing.”
“We ran out of beer,” Ben said.
Vinny approached pushing a long broom straight out in front of him in both hands. He pointed to the glass doors of a tall refrigerator with the broom handle. “There you go.”
“Right,” Ben said but didn’t move. He watched the muscles in Vinny’s forearm ripple with each grip of the broom handle.
“Looking for something in particular?”
“Not really. No,” Ben said. “Just beer.” He scratched at the rough stubble on his cheek like he was trying to decide between brands. “Actually,” he said. Vinny’s red uniform shirt was several sizes too large and hung on his thin frame loosely. Ben took a couple steps toward him. His shoes squeaked on the floor. “You wouldn’t,” he said, “happen to carry shovels?”
“Shovels?” Vinny asked loudly. “Serious? We don’t have shovels.”
“I need a shovel.”
“Hey, man,” the redhead called out. “There’s no loitering here and I can’t sell you beer in five minutes.”
Ben looked at his watch.
“We don’t sell shovels,” Vinny said.
"It's no big deal." Molly always slept in late on Sunday mornings. If he got up at seven, he could make it to the hardware store for a shovel, find a place to bury the dog and be back in time to make breakfast. The risk, of course, would be Molly waking up hung over and suspicious about him being gone. Then he’d have to explain the missing dog and his choice to keep the fact of it from her. That was a fight he didn’t feel like starting. He’d have to ditch the Lone Ranger some place tonight.
“It’s your lucky night, Mr. Johnson,” Vinny said. “If I get a shovel for you, will you do something for me?” His voice dropped to a whisper. He leaned forward on the broom, rested his chin on the handle. “I like Heiniken. In bottles.”
Ben looked at the fridge, then Vinny and then the redhead. He could see Molly’s car through the window. Otherwise, the parking lot was empty. One of the street lamps flickered. “Fine,” he said. “When are you done here?”
“Just give me a minute. I’ll tell Tammy you’re my ride home.”
Ben took a twelve pack from the fridge and placed it on the counter in front of Tammy. The bottles clinked. “Not too late, am I?”
“Nick of time,” she said.
He waited in the car for ten minutes, watching the boxy green numbers add up on the clock. Finally, Vinny came out of the store in a pair of jeans and baggy hooded sweatshirt and walked to the car’s passenger side. He leaned into the window. “Come to the back. I have something for you.” Ben drove around the building and stopped facing a small walled-in area about ten feet wide. He could make out the lid of an open dumpster above the concrete wall. Vinny emerged with a flathead shovel in his hand. He rapped on the back window with his fist, opened the door and laid the shovel across the seat.
“Where’d you get that?” Ben asked.
“We use it to get cigarette butts and shit out of the gutter in front.”
“Will they notice it’s gone?”
Vinny walked in front of the car. His shadow was long and black on the wall. “Probably not,” he said, climbing in the front seat. He buckled his seatbelt. “Where are we going?”
“Who said we were going anyplace? Deal’s done. I’m taking you home.”
“Shit, man. What are you going to do? Bury some dead bodies?” Vinny punched the air in front of him a couple times with his fists. He exhaled sharply like a boxer sparring. “You’re in the Army, right?”
“Air Force,” Ben said. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“You guys kill people all the time.”
“I didn’t kill anyone, Vinny.”
“Then why not just buy a shovel in the morning? Did you have a landscaping emergency?” Vinny laughed at his joke.
“Something like that,” Ben said.
“Ok, ok. Have your secrets. This whole thing, though,” he waved his hand around the car, “this doesn’t look real good. I’m just saying.”
Ben looked at the clock on the dash. It was too late for this juvenile blackmail Vinny was trying to pull. “Alright, Vinny, you win. Know my dog?” He said. “My wife’s dog, actually. The Lone Ranger?” At the mention of the dog’s name, Ben thought he smelled it again, a warm blast of death and blood. He covered his nose with his hand and breathed deeply into his throat.
“Little wiry dog with white fur. What about it?”
“Shit,” Vinny said.
“It got hit by a car, I think.”
Vinny turned in his seat, looked back into the darkness. “Is that what’s in the bag? You’re going to bury it.” He cracked his knuckles on both hands. “That’s so gross.”
Ben thought about this for a moment. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“Why don’t you just ditch it someplace? Leave it in a dumpster.” He pointed to the wall. “No one will know.”
Ben put the car in gear and backed up. “I got to do what’s right.”
The access road ran parallel to the highway for a quarter of a mile before it turned sharply to the east and met up with the road to the reservoir. Ben knew the road well. In the summers he parked his truck on the wide shoulder and walked down the short incline to the rocky beach where he would pull his wetsuit up over his shoulders and assemble his sail and board. Just south of the reservoir the valley narrowed and on perfect days the wind funneled into the opening, gushing so strong that Ben’s board seemed to hover above the rough whitecaps and churning grey water.
“You know about this place?” Vinny said. “I didn’t know adults came here.”
Ben smiled at how young this made Vinny seem. He could remember existing in a world in which a public park could be a secret kept from everyone except your friends. “I guess they probably don’t much in the middle of the night,” he said and added, “except for certain reasons.” Vinny grunted in agreement. Ben drove slowly and listened to the gravel and dirt crunch beneath the tires. The cloud of dust behind the car glowed red and the uneven white beam of the headlights washed over tree stumps and brown clumps of grass. He half expected a cop or a park ranger to jump out from behind a rock and arrest them both.
“You kids come out here often?” In his mouth this sounded older than it did when he thought the question.
“Yeah,” Vinny said. “It’s a quiet place. No one gets in your shit out here. Pull off over there.” He pointed to stocky maple beside which there were two wide grooves in the dirt from years of other cars parking in the same spot. He sipped at a beer. As soon as they’d hit the dirt road, Vinny opened a bottle for each of them with the end of a plastic lighter.
“I can only guess what you guys do out here,” Ben said. There was a sun-bleached picnic table and a wide fire pit that overflowed with ash and melted cans. It was a clear night. They sat on the picnic table with their feet up on the bench, facing the water. On the far side of the reservoir, headlights from an occasional car rushed by on the freeway. The ripped twelve-pack on the bench between their feet shook as Vinny nervously pumped his leg to some rhythm only he could hear. Ben started to feel his drunk kicking back in, and with it the poison of sentimentality. He wondered if he’d make it back here, back to the reservoir, to his surfing and Saturday picnics with Molly. It was stupid, he thought. Four months in the desert was nothing. There was a McDonald’s on base.
“You’re not going to try anything, are you?” Vinny said suddenly. He picked at a loose piece of wood that had curled up off the edge of the table.
Ben watched Vinny’s jaw clench, the softness of his skin, the faint outline of a moustache above his lip. Vinny tore the strip of wood off the table, tossed it onto the dusty ground. “I didn’t even want you to come with me, remember?” Ben said. The maple cast a wide green shadow on Molly’s black car.
“I’m not like that,” Vinny said.
“Neither am I,” Ben said, but he felt defensive about it, as if Vinny had uncovered some great truth Ben hadn’t been aware of himself. He took a pull from the bottle. The wind picked up. A series of waves overtook the rocky shore. Ben shook his head to clear his thoughts.
“My mom told me you’re going to Iraq,” Vinny said. He was looking down at the beer in his hand, turning the brown bottle in the moonlight.
“Afghanistan,” Ben said. “I leave next week.”
“That’s so fucked up.”
“It’s just a job,” Ben said. He took the last drink of his beer and tossed it. The bottle caught the wind and whistled softly, splashing into the black water with a flat tearing sound.
“I wouldn’t think of it like that, I guess,” Vinny said.
“I didn’t think I would either.”
“Yeah, I’m scared,” Ben said. He took another bottle from the box and held it out for Vinny to open. “What do you think?” Vinny finished his beer and placed the empty bottle back in the box. He took another, opened it and raised it to his lips. Some ash from the fire pit blew in a tight circle in front of the table. “Molly got the dog to remember me by. She said she wouldn’t feel alone with a dog to take care of. And now it’s dead. What does that make me?” He looked toward the car.
“What’d your wife say when you told her?”
“I’d never hear the end of it if I told her. All I’ll think about is losing my legs or getting myself killed anyway. Last thing I need is Molly having some kind of premonition about it a week before I go.”
“She’ll notice,” Vinny said. He pulled his hood up over his head. “What’re you going to tell her?”
“Dogs run away all the time,” Ben said.
Ben stood up from the table and walked slowly to the car. He’d held bigger lies than this before. But still, something about burying the Lone Ranger had convinced him he was betraying himself right along with Molly.
He put the keys in the ignition and flipped on the headlights. A thick whiteness enveloped the grass and dirt in front of the car. He picked a spot just to the right of the beam, a yard from the tree, and took the shovel from the backseat. He drove it into the dirt. “What do you think?” he called to Vinny. “This look like a good place?”
Vinny stood up from the table, took the beer and walked over. “What about the roots?” He set the box down on the hood of the car and hopped up next to it.
“I think this should clear us of the biggest,” Ben said. He lifted the shovel straight up and dug the blade hard into the ground, forcing it downward with his foot. The dirt was brittle and veined with cracks. It took a couple minutes to break through the thick top layer to the softer, muddy soil underneath. It was hard work and his hands ached immediately. Vinny’s feet dangled above the front wheel and cut ghostly shadows in the overflow from the headlight. Without speaking Vinny opened another beer, stepped down into the thin fog of dust the digging had kicked up and walked to Ben. He handed the beer to him, took the shovel and began to dig. Ben leaned on the car and watched. Vinny pulled his sweatshirt off over his head. He breathed heavily. The pile of dirt beside the hole grew fast, faster than it did when Ben was digging. In no time, Vinny was standing up to his shins in a lopsided circle about three feet across. He leaned into the shovel and looked up at Ben.
“You could fucking bury me in here,” Vinny said and coughed in the dusty air. “How deep do you want it?” He ran his arm across his forehead, hocked a thick mouthful of spit onto the dirt.
Ben spread the pile into the wash of headlights with his boot. Dirt climbed into the air and hung like the weightless spray from a wave. “Deep enough,” he said. “It’s got to be gone.”
He listened to the shovel slice into the dirt. It was a clock. Ben made a wide circle around the hole until he was behind Vinny, who kept digging while Ben watched. With each thrust of the shovel Ben felt the minutes ticking off. Time was running out until he had to go home to Molly without the dog, and then right away it seemed he’d leave and come back changed or maybe not at all. He watched Vinny’s rhythm closely for a minute or so, read the cadence of it to time his move perfectly. Vinny’s shoulders rose up bony and skeletal from his thin back. Ben took a step closer, balanced his toes on the edge of the hole, and followed a down-thrust in. He put his hand on the end of the shovel handle and pushed it to the ground before Vinny could swing at him. Then Ben wrapped his arms around Vinny’s arms, pinning them down against his side. “What the fuck?” He pulled Vinny close, smelled the sticky sweat in his hair and on his skin.
“What the fuck?” Vinny said again.
Ben kept his face low and pressed hard into Vinny’s shoulder. He smelled a musty familiarity.
“What the fuck!”
“Nothing,” Ben whispered. “Nothing.” They fell to the ground and Ben reached a leg around Vinny’s thigh, pinned him hard to the rocky mound of dirt beside the hole until he stopped moving, and the only sound Ben could hear was wet breathing. With a hand, he reached for Vinny’s hair, dragged his fingers through the sweat and dirt, and then down over the lumpy texture of the face, the moist swamp of lips and down to the throat.
“Please,” Vinny breathed.
“No,” Ben whispered. He felt himself get hard against Vinny. “No.” They lay together like this until the dust settled and Vinny’s breathing slowed down.
When Ben finally let go, Vinny crawled away from the hole and fell to his side. He held his knees and was silent. Ben took a swipe at the boy’s shoes with the flat of his hand like he was trying to swat away his anger, but he missed. He righted himself to a knee, stood slowly and walked to the car where he opened the back door. The smell nearly knocked him over. With one hand he covered his nose and mouth and with the other, lifted the dog and threw it the length of the car. The heavy package landed with a scrape just short of the headlights. Ben dragged the Lone Ranger into the hole. Then he stepped out and began filling it in, tossing overflowing shovelfuls down onto the dog. Vinny sat up and watched as Ben shoveled. Soon a dark mound of soil rose from the dusty ground.
When it was done, Ben stood still, waiting for the stench of the dog to finally disappear. Vinny rose nervously to his knees and crawled to Ben. He stood up slowly, one hand on the ground, the other on Ben’s leg.
“It’s ok,” Ben said. “It was the right thing to do.”
They drank until the beer was gone. Vinny placed the box with the empties in the fire pit and lit a loose corner. The flame grew and was orange and green and then orange again, and died out almost as soon as it had started.
In the smoldering remains of the box, Ben thought he could see how all this would end. He’d tell Molly about the dog in a letter. Tonight, though, he’d get home, climb into bed and pretend that nothing had changed. In the morning, he’d console Molly, tell her that dogs run off. It’s just what they do, he’d say. All week he’d hope with her. He’d approve the Lost Dog flyers. He’d even offer to hang them up around the neighborhood and on the message board at the supermarket around the corner from the house. He’d feel ridiculous about it, but as he pushed the pin through the paper into the corkboard and took a step back to see if the flyer was straight, he’d be halfway convinced that it’d bring the dog home to her after all. Maybe Molly would call him in tears when it happened. Everything is right now, she’d say. You’re coming home safe. And he’d cry a little bit too, but not much, and say, I know. I knew all along.
They listened to an early morning commute show as Ben drove. Rain was forecast. Ben’s hands were streaked with sweat and dirt. He thought he saw the indistinct outline of Vinny’s lips between his thumb and forefinger. At the convenience store, Vinny got out of the car and replaced the shovel inside the concrete enclosure.
Before they’d even turned the corner onto their street Vinny had his seatbelt off and his hand on the door handle. His leg bounced up and down wildly. Ben pulled into his own driveway. The large picture window in the living room was illuminated with a light Ben didn’t remember leaving on. He parked and Vinny half stumbled across the adjoining front lawns toward his parents’ house. When he reached the door, he lifted a hand and waved in the direction of the car. Ben waved back and walked up his driveway. Through an opening between the curtains, he could see Molly sitting on the couch with her arms crossed over her thick white robe. He opened the door quietly and stepped inside. He pulled his boots off and tossed them into the closet. Before he was in sight of the living room, Molly started. She said, “Where have you been?”
He looked past her down the hall to their room. His hands ached and his shoulders burned. The dawn had begun to sneak in, graying the lights inside the house. “Ben,” she said. “What were you doing?”
He closed his eyes and with his tongue searched the inside of his mouth for the answer.