Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Not my best...but it's my b-day, so I had to share a story about an old man.
by Sean Kenealy
Seventy three year old Tate Gilbert was pleasantly surprised to find dog food and rat poison on the same shelf of his local supermarket. He bought both items, as well as twelve cans of spam in order to not look suspicious in the checkout line. Plus, Tate loved spam.
Tate returned home and mixed the rat poison into the dog food one scoop at a time, giving it a beige color that resembled the skin of a damp, leftover meatloaf. He laughed, knowing how ridiculous it was to take such preparation for an animal accustomed to eating its own feces, though Tate needed it to look perfect. It’s how he felt towards all food; a habit from his thirty year run as a Navy cook.
Tate carried the poisoned dog food on a metal plate and placed it on his front yard. The grass was knee high, the only house on the suburban street without a freshly mowed lawn. He then sat, heavy as could be, rocking on a wooden rocking chair to the side of three rusty lawnmowers. The only house that had these, too. Tate smiled. He looked out from his porch. And then he saw Penny.
Penny was a sheepdog, and she appropriately looked like a sheep. Bushy white hair, a fro body, and curly locks covering her eyes, which she often had to shake away like a teenage girl. Penny had no specific owner, and instead belonged to the entire suburban street just outside of Savannah, Georgia, peddling from house to house and doing what she did best: spreading joy, a true love to everyone she touched. Except for Tate that is; his true love was dead. And soon Penny would be, too.
Penny stopped at Tate’s lawn and scratched behind her left ear. She stared up, innocent as a puppy on her first day at the pound.
Little shit, Tate thought.
He whistled, encouraging Penny to trail the poison with her pink rose of a nose. She then walked, past the tall grass and the occasional lawnmower, closer and closer to the poisoned dog food, as if catching the scent of a forbidden flower. This is it, Tate thought: peace. He leaned forward. He swallowed. His lips quivered, though the rest of his face showed no emotion, like he was holding the most important hand in a poker game he would ever have. And that’s when Penny found the metal plate, hot and sticky; dripping with poison from the scorching Savannah sun. She sniffed it, nice and slow, and adjusted her adorable, fluffy ears. Beautiful, beautiful peace. And for the first time ever, Tate saw Penny just like everyone else did: a true love.
And then she took a shit on the metal plate; perfect aim. Legs spread and face shaking. Dogs can’t smile, Tate knew, but in this moment, Penny would if she could.
“Fucking dog!” Tate yelled. He stood from his rocking chair as fast as his seventy three year old legs would permit, yelling and flailing his arms. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”
It’s what always happened.
Tate then turned, and as if on cue, saw a neighbor standing at the edge of his freshly cut lawn. Like all neighbors, he regarded Tate with a curious smile. His name was Franklin, middle aged, standing with his three little boys, all dressed in identical overalls.
“Everything okay, Sir?” Franklin asked. Tate usually would have liked being called Sir. Coming from Franklin, however, it sounded condescending, like he was viewing senior citizens in the same light as a toddler.
“Fine,” Tate said. And Franklin laughed, a bit unsure of himself, like he was watching a rabid monkey behind a thick pane of glass. Penny continued her shit.
Franklin was a rich man, which Tate easily assumed by the fact he never worked and took vacations weeks at a time. He was humble, however, too humble, always dressed like a farmer and explaining to anyone who’d listen that he came from “ordinary means.” As if done to reiterate this, Franklin had a gentleman’s farm in his backyard: six chickens, a half acre of vegetables, and two goats, all of it cared by outside help, none of who dressed like farmers. That was Franklin’s job.
Penny finished her shit and walked to the family’s side, letting each boy pet her fluffy body. One of the boys, Tate saw, held a chickadee, a new addition to Franklin’s gentleman’s farm, which Penny sniffed like a mother would a baby. Even animals loved her.
Disgusting, Tate thought. What kind of dog won’t kill a chicken?
Tate frowned, alone and hunched over. He wanted to explain why he’d yelled at Penny; tell the family he was more than just a crazy old man who swore at dogs, regardless if the current scene said otherwise. Tell them how Penny had tortured him for years, no matter how many times he screamed at her, sprayed her with a hose, or even called animal services, but she still came to his house each day: and it wasn’t to spread joy. Penny came to shit on his lawn Clockwork: fresh dog shit, always on a new section of Tate’s property, as if purposefully placed to better his chances of stepping in it.
It was enough to drive any man crazy.
And there was also the mail. Penny chewed Tate’s bills, his magazines, greeting cards, which were very, very occasional, until Tate began racing her to his mailbox each morning. And although he usually won these “races,” he was still the looser, for the simple fact he needed to race a dog; feet covered in shit. This was Tate’s retirement.
Franklin and his boys stared up at Tate, silent, all seeming to blink and swallow at the same exact time. Tate knew it was pointless to tell the family any of these things, for to them, and everyone else on the street, Penny was perfect. The winner. A dog everyone loved but him. And that was the real reason Tate hated her. It wasn’t because she tortured him; it was because Penny would always be their friend. And Tate, well, the moment he died he’d be just one thing: forgotten.
“Boys hunger?” Tate asked, and he picked up the metal plate dripping with dog shit and poison.
That evening Tate began planning other ways to kill Penny. The most obvious being his gun, which he quickly decided against. Other than that, he considered knives, archery, even electrocution, though they all had the same problems: one, very messy, two, they would all point to Tate. Tate was a grumpy old man, but not stupid, well aware that killing a dog, especially one as well liked as Penny, would surely toss him in jail or the loony bin: not the retirement he’d planned. Instead, he needed something that looked like an accident, or better yet, something no one would ever know.
And it was at 1am Tate woke up from a recurring nightmare, wide eyed, sweating; and now knowing how to kill Penny.
He walked to his front yard in pitch darkness. The street was still, as it usually was after sunset, and he began digging. In an hour he had a hole two feet deep and six feet wide. And in three hours he had something large enough that required a ladder to climb out of.
Tate then dragged two lawnmower engines into the hole, which he easily found on his dumpster of a front yard. From here, he adjusted the piping of each engine so small bits of metal and blades were facing straight up. Tate smiled, testing the sharpness of a blade with his index finger and slicing it. Blood dripped down, and he laughed like a madman.
The next morning there was no hole, or at least you couldn’t see it. It was now covered with a thin sheet, and the thin sheet was covered with dirt, leaves, and ripped up grass. Any person who saw it wouldn’t suspect a thing. Dogs, too.
Neighbors had often complained to Tate to clean up his lawn, so why not start by burying a few engines? And if Penny happened to fall into the hole and land on a sharp blade, how could he be held responsible? And better yet, if Penny happened to fall in, died, and then was buried before anyone saw it, who would know the difference? At least that was the plan.
Tate rocked in his wooden rocking chair and stared at his lawn. He rubbed his shoulder, sore from the previous nights work, a pain he’d not felt in many years, at least since retiring and battling Penny became his full time job.
Little shit, Tate thought.
Tate used to love sour muscles. After his days in the Navy he started a landscaping company. Tate cared nothing about his own lawn, never did, but kept all property under his company’s service as trimmed as possible, leading to sixty hour work weeks and utter exhaustion. But Tate loved it. He loved the work. It was the feel of lawnmowers vibrating against his body that he never grew tired of. It reminded him of being back a sea, with the infinity of space before him that only an ocean can hold. It’s odd, but Tate never much liked the feel of land.
Tate looked at his watch and saw it was noon. Penny was late. He then closed his eyes, letting the sun settle on his aged skin, rocking in his rocking chair and dreaming of a far away life. He dreamed of Penny: falling into the hole, over and over; his own piss and shit one day leaking into her soon to be coffin of his front yard. He thought of the ocean, cool water splashing against his bare flesh, naked as the day he was born. And he thought of peace: beautiful, beautiful peace, until soon he was fast asleep.
Tate woke up an hour later to a loud scream. Franklin’s little boys, still dressed in overalls, stood at the edge of his lawn, motionless, as if too frightened to enter the property. They were all staring down.
“Chicken!” a boy said.
Tate wobbled off his porch, right leg still asleep, and looked into the hole, no longer covered with a sheet.
“What the fuck?” he yelled. And the boys all jumped, obviously not used to such harsh language.
“What happened?” Franklin asked. He ran to their side, out of breath and sweating through his flannel and trucker hat.
“Mr. Gilbert killed a chicken,” a boy said.
“I didn’t kill no chicken!” Tate said.
And now they all looked down, at a bloody chicken sliced from a lawnmower blade, guts sprawled to its side. Franklin’s animals often escaped his gentleman’s farm, something Tate had not taken into consideration the previous night as he dug.
“Oh, my god,” Franklin said. “Is that Deborah?”
“You name your chickens?” Tate asked. And Franklin gasped, as if wanting to shout there was nothing wrong with naming ones chickens.
“Jesus,” Franklin said. He held his boys tight, like he’d never seen such horror. “Thank God, Penny got us. Another one could have fallen in!”
“Penny got you?” Tate asked. He looked down; not surprisingly, his feet were covered in shit.
More neighbors soon poured from their houses, forming a circle around the hole and staring at Tate.
“I was just burying some engines,” Tate explained.
“Burying some engines?” Franklin repeated. “What for? What if one of my kids fell in there!”
And it was then, between moving limbs and disapproving glares, Tate saw Penny at the edge of his lawn. Today, she was torturing from afar.
Tate was silent, knowing there was no need to explain himself. They were all thinking the same thing, after all: an innocent child could have died today because of Tate’s stupid lawnmowers. As for Penny, her nose was up. She then walked through the crowd, accepting lovable pats with each step, and began tugging on the sheet. It seemed no one had noticed it before, too distracted by chicken guts and blood, though Penny wouldn’t let it go unseen.
“What’s this?” Franklin asked, and everyone looked down, at a bloody sheet still stained with evidence of camouflage. It was done. Penny was the winner, and like every other time before, Tate was nothing but a tramp.
“I’m sorry,” Tate said. He sighed, wanting to say goodbye but not knowing how. And in the distance, still spreading her joy, Penny licked herself.
“Little shit,” Tate said. There was no point in just thinking it anymore.
He then walked, hunched over, alone, back up his porch. After a moment’s pause Tate carried his rocking chair inside.
Tate spent the following night in his car. Besides occasionally checking its engine, he hadn’t driven it in over eight years, preferring to either walk or take buses to the limited places he went. Tonight, however, Tate wanted to reacquaint himself. How the leather felt against his skin; how the steering wheel seemed to wrap around his calloused hands. He remained awake the entire night, turning the engine on and off, over and over, staring at his closed garage door.
In the morning Tate pulled out to the road. It was 9am, the time Penny usually began peddling from house to house. Tate drove with ease, watching children play on their freshly cut lawns and parents reading paperback novels on their porches: the American dream wherever he looked.
When Tate saw Penny, he smiled and sped up. Closer and closer. The front bumper of the car was dented, leaving half of it to hang down and spark against the pavement. Tate, a handy man, was more than capable of fixing this, but never did; wanting to remember the accident that caused the damage. He wanted to remember Cheryl.
And Tate drove closer.
Tate met Cheryl after his time in the Navy. He was fifty six years old, an age where he never thought to look for a companion. It was two weeks after starting his landscaping company, however, that Cheryl began requesting Tate’s service to mow her lawn, not wanting any of his much younger employees. She had him over twice a week, regardless if her property only required to be mowed half as much. Cheryl, a widow, spent the majority of her time on carpentry, owner of a small business which made homemade toys and furniture. She could make anything from wood, a true artist, always working on her projects outside as Tate mowed.
“Lemonade?” Cheryl asked. She wore sundresses, long necklaces, and very light makeup when Tate was there. Cheryl, who considered herself a natural woman, rarely wore makeup, but had begun making small exceptions for Tate.
“It’s delicious,” Tate said, taking a large sip. “Want to hear a little trick, though?”
Cheryl leaned in.
“Use frozen fruit, not ice. Doesn’t dilute the water as much. And add some fresh ginger. Most people don’t know about that one.” Tate smiled. He had a trick for all foods.
“You’re handy, and a cook,” Cheryl said. “What can’t you do?” She blushed and stroked her long, brown hair.
“I can’t carve things like you,” Tate said. “Everything you make is beautiful.”
“I just made a rocking chair. Would you like to try it?”
Tate sat, his muscular, sweaty body fitting right in, and he began to rock.
“It feels like the ocean,” Tate said.
“You like it?”
“I like it.”
Cheryl refilled his glass until it overflowed. “How about you stay forever then?”
And they were married two months later. Tate never knew a person like Cheryl: a person who made his flaws perfections. If Tate didn’t bathe, Cheryl didn’t mind; she liked the scent of him because he was a man. If Tate didn’t trim his lawn, Cheryl never cared, because she thought it was natural and carefree. And if Tate had leftover food on his shirt, which he always did, then Cheryl thought it was charming, nothing else. They were in love. Tate cooked her elaborate dinners, all with fresh, organic foods, and she carved him submarines and cars out of small pieces of wood. They stayed out late, danced, and often made love in Tate’s car, just to feel silly and young.
When Tate was sixty five, he and Cheryl decided to retire in Savannah, Georgia: to live out their lives in beautiful, beautiful peace, Cheryl said. They picked a house, had everything packed, and began driving to their new home, taking a road trip across half the county. And it was fifteen miles into the trip that Tate hit a gap in the road, which seemed to appear out of nowhere, and Cheryl’s neck broke against the dashboard. Tate didn’t have a scratch on him. That was the joke. He stayed in the car for over seven hours, holding Cheryl’s body until an ambulance came.
Tate never trusted land after that. He never trusted being still. Always rocking in his rocking chair, the same chair Cheryl first got him to sit in. He retired to Savannah alone. He shut down his landscaping company, though took many lawnmowers with him, and prepared to live out his life like he always imagined: alone. And it was then he met Penny. Penny. A sheepdog who surfaced childhood nostalgia in everyone she touched. She even tried with Tate, snuggling against his wrinkly legs, though Tate only shooed her away. He yelled at her; loathed her with all of his heart, until one day they were enemies. Until one day the entire suburban street hated Tate. And until one day he was driving down the road with Penny in his sights.
That day was today.
Tate sped up his car, tears now streaming down his face. Penny, as if feeling Tate breathing on her neck, began to run. She turned off the road, now heading towards a large tree. Tate followed, not caring what he hit, who he killed, or what damage he caused. He wanted just one thing. Penny continued towards the tree, shaking her adorable, fluffy hair, and Tate continued towards Penny. And it was just seconds before they hit that Penny ducked under a stump into a large hole, safely hidden from the car, and Tate crashed headfirst into the tree. His face hit the steering wheel, splitting his nose in two. His left ankle broken, crushed under the pedal. The looser. Tate opened his eyes and saw blood and smoke, just like he saw in the accident with Cheryl. He fell from the car, spitting out teeth. As for Penny, she was right there, as if knowing there was no reason to run, ready for Tate to scream and flail his arms, but there was nothing. Tate just stared at her, breathing heavier and heavier. He even smiled, as if understanding everything there was to understand about Penny. Tate then reached behind his back and revealed a handgun. He’d spent the entire night holding it against his heart. Tate raised it, blood still streaming down his face, and Penny was still. She looked out with large brown eyes, as if knowing what was coming, and accepting it with honor. Tate cocked the gun. He limped closer. He pointed it directly at Penny’s pink rose of a nose and closed his eyes. And then he heard sirens. Tate turned and saw a police car just yards away. A young officer stood outside of it, completely still, as if he’d never seen such horror in all of his life. Behind him were the neighbors. All of them, once again watching Tate with eyes reserved for a villain. Tate wept, he bled, and Penny began to whimper.
There was a knock on the door. Tate stood from his rocking chair as fast as his seventy eight year old legs would permit.
It was Franklin, dressed in a cowboy hat and tight jeans. “How are you, Sir? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
They were still; both realizing how much time had passed by their aged faces.
“I’m here because of Penny,” Franklin continued. “She’s been…Well, I just wanted to know if you’ve seen.”
Tate smiled. They both knew he hadn’t seen anyone in a long, long time.
“You see, I was petting her the other day and she bit my hand,” Franklin said. “And she also killed one of my…” He removed his cowboy hat as if showing respect for the dead. Franklin was beginning to bald. “She killed one of my chickens.”
Tate burped. “Why don’t you just use it for meat then?”
“Well, we’re a vegetarian family, Sir.”
“Oh,” Tate said. He hated vegetarians; always the hardest to cook for. “Oh.”
“I just wanted to know if you’ve see her, that’s all. We don’t…We don’t want her to bite anyone else. Especially a child.”
“You mean you’re trying to get rid of her?” Tate said. He smiled and scratched his crotch.
“We’re not trying to get rid of her, Sir. We loved that dog. All of us. Fed her, cleaned her, but…” Franklin stuttered, as if holding back what he really wanted to say. “She’s just getting old, that’s all…Things change.”
Tate stared at his wife beater stained with spam. “Yes, I suppose they do.”
“So you’ll let us know if you see her?” Franklin asked. He put his cowboy hat back on and smiled his humble smile. “I know the community would really appreciate it.”
Tate pushed his tongue against a gap in his teeth.
“Finally killed a chicken,” Tate said, and he slammed the door.
Tate returned to his rocking chair. He didn’t sway like usual, however, but instead was completely still, as if reconnecting with land.
He thought of Penny; the dozens of people who used to love her, just like Franklin said, and how they were all gone. She didn’t have a home anymore. She just had the woods: a whole sea of it, and for the first time ever Tate saw Penny as she actually was.
Tate cracked his nose, still bent from the car accident into Penny’s tree five years earlier. He then stood and looked for his gun.
Franklin woke up the next morning and found all of his chickens dead. There were eight of them, each shot in the head. Or the heart.
“What happened to our chickens, Daddy?” one of Franklin’s boys asked. He was crying, looking down at the horror. Some were stabbed, others decapitated, all of them tortured.
Franklin was shaking. He turned in circles, beginning to hyperventilate, and saw dozens of neighbors standing on their freshly cut lawns.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Franklin yelled. He vomited on his son’s overalls and collapsed to his gentleman’s farm.
Back at home Tate sat on his couch. He ate chicken cordon bleu with a side of fresh vegetables and rice. Today wasn’t a day for spam. At his side was Penny, eating the same meal with three extra chicken bones served on a glass place. Two other chickens were frozen in the freezer, soon to be turned into another gourmet meal.
Tate burped. He rubbed Penny’s neck and felt ticks between his filthy fingers.
They might as well have been kings.
Posted by Sean Kenealy