23 June 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 2
Pointer woke me up by not waking me up.
My eyes opened before I knew I was awake, and the light came through the thin red curtains at my bedroom window bright and strong the way it always did at ten o'clock when Pointer woke me asking to go out.
Only it was 10:34 by my bedside clock, and Pointer wasn't asking to go out.
I threw off the sheet and sat up. I slept naked, so I just pulled on the T-shirt, panties, and shorts I'd dropped on the floor next to the bed the night before. I'd worn them to work, and they smelled like smoke. I felt something hard and round against my left hipbone, and I pulled the object from my pocket to look at it again. A transparent film canister, filled with dirt, with a sticky label on the front. Groundbreaking. Store #2. Breckenridge, CO. 2003. Breckenridge, CO. A place I'd never go.
Tucking the vial of dirt back into my pocket, I ran my fingers through my hair to work out some of the worst tangles and walked down my trailer's short hall.
"Pointer! You wanna go out, girl?"
Pointer lay on the couch, fifty-eight pounds of eleven-year-old black lab mix with curly hair. She lay with her chin between her paws just like when she was sleeping, but I knew right away she wasn't sleeping.
"Hey, Pointer, kiddo," I said anyway. "Too hot to get up this morning?"
Pointer weighed seventy pounds just a couple of months earlier, but pancreatic cancer pared her down pretty fast. I hadn't really thought she'd be gone this soon, though. I picked her up off the couch and she didn't feel like Pointer, just like a big heavy sack of cooked oatmeal. I laid her down on the rag rug next to the coffee table.
August south of Houston is so hot you don't think about being hot any more. You just do stuff anyway, and what I had to do that day was bury my dog. I covered her up with a fuzzy blue blanket, all except her head. Like a person sleeping. She didn't look asleep though. She looked gone.
I put on my sandals, banged out the screen door, and went down the loose wooden steps. I crossed the dirt and gravel stretch next to the road, between trailers, and up to the door at Jackie's place.
His black flatbed pickup rested crooked in the driveway because of a shallow ditch in the dirt, so the whole black metal monster sat cocked to one side like a dog's head when it's listening hard.
I could see in through the screen door, and the TV was on with the sound off but I didn't see any people.
"Jackie!" I called through the screen. No answer. "You in there?" I said.
I waited for a minute, the air thick as honey in my nostrils. I watched huge white clouds piled on top of each other, moving in slow motion, and wondered why they always looked alive to me, as if they could notice me, too.
I wiped sweat from the back of my neck.
"Yeah, I'm here." Jackie's voice came from somewhere I couldn't see, somewhere back in the bedroom I guessed.
I felt his footsteps rocking the trailer floor.
"I'm coming, Tess."
He showed up at the door in sweatpants and a grease-stained T-shirt that used to be white.
"Lemme guess," he said as he swung the screen door open for me. Without the black mesh between us, he came into focus and he stopped looking like a TV image and turned real. "Your shower quit workin' and you came over to see if you could use mine."
He grinned like a cartoon character, and I couldn't help smiling as I stepped inside. Jackie had brown hair that he hadn't cut in seventeen years. I knew how many years, because he'd told me. His hair had probably once been longer, but now it had worn away at the ends until it hung just a few inches past his shoulders. He had a red bandana rolled up and tied around his forehead. It was probably as dirty as his shirt, but I couldn't tell because it wasn't white. He had a face burned brown from working outside, and his skin shone with sweat even this early in the day.
"Nothing that complicated, Jackie. I just came to see if I could borrow your shovel."
"Why, sure, you can borrow my shovel, Tessie-baby." He stepped back and let me inside. "Wait here." He disappeared into the bedroom and I stood just inside the doorway watching a news anchor's face without the words, and I wondered whether Jackie kept his shovel under his bed or in his closet or something.
Shane, Jackie's son, appeared in the living room with his chestnut hair sleep-rumpled and his pajama top crooked. He was fourteen. He raised two fingers and one eyebrow at me in greeting, then turned away and opened up the fridge.
"Hey, Shane," I said.
"Hey," he mumbled.
Jackie came back. He'd put shoes on.
"Wait right here," he said to me. "Shovel's out in the shed." He noticed Shane. "Good morning, son."
Shane didn't answer.
"Kid's a ray of sunshine in the morning," Jackie said to me, his smile lopsided. "Ain't that right, Shane?"
"Shut up, Dad," Shane called out half-heartedly, pouring himself a mug of milk. Shane disappeared into the hallway again, and Jackie went out the front door. I wasn't interested in the news anchor's stiff hairdo, and I let my eyes wander over the bookcase. I saw the holes where a bunch of family photos used to be. An old school photo of Shane still stood on the shelf, and I saw one of Shane and Jackie next to the pickup, but all the pictures of Amy had disappeared.
Jackie hadn't said a word about his wife leaving. I'd been pretty sure for a while, but only because her car had gone and didn't come back. I hadn't been inside since then. Now I knew for sure.
I heard Jackie coming back to the porch and I stepped outside. He handed me a long-handled shovel with a rim of dried dirt around the digging blade.
"Here ya go, Tess. Keep it as long as you like, but I need it back."
I thanked him and walked from his yard back to mine.
The sky looked more like some kind of blue fabric than like pure air. It reminded me of a book I'd read as a kid with rabbits that live inside eggshells, and the insides of the eggshells are painted blue.
Digging Pointer's grave took longer than I expected. I picked a spot about halfway between the house and the back section of the chain link fence I'd put up for her when I moved in. The weather got hotter as I dug, and the sun got higher. The cicadas started in before too long so I had a counter-rhythm to my digging.
Not that keeping up a rhythm turned out to be all that easy. I would've thought cocktail waitressing five nights a week would keep me in shape, with all the walking and carrying, but I guess digging's harder work. The soil was a mix of wet, packed-down sand and thick, chalky clay as hard as rock. I had to stomp on the shovel's bent upper lip to force the metal down into the dirt after each thrust, and by the third or fourth stomp I'd bruised the sole of my right foot. I could've gone inside and changed into sturdier shoes, but I didn't want to. I just wanted to dig.
My shirt clung to my back and my face got sticky with heat. My hands blistered.
When I had a hole longer than Pointer and about a foot and a half deep, from the corner of my eye I saw Jackie come out of his trailer. I heard the truck door slam and heard him roar off down the gravel road. Dust came up in clouds as tall as my house.
When I had a hole about three feet deep, I figured it was enough. I carried the shovel with me to the back of my trailer and leaned it against the wall. I went inside.
Pointer hadn't moved or changed. She still lay on the rug with the fuzzy blanket tucked under her chin.
I propped the front door open with a chair. I picked up Pointer, blanket, collar, and all, and carried her out onto the porch, down the steps and through the yard.
By the time I got to the hole I'd dug, my breath came pretty short. As I laid Pointer on the ground and knelt next to her to catch my breath, I heard Jackie's truck come back. I didn't look his way. I heard his screen door slam.
When my breathing got easier I squatted and scooped Pointer back into my arms. I half stood up and then planted one foot in the hole. I shifted her weight and held her over the opening in the earth with my weight grounded in the grave, and then I brought the other foot in. I squatted and laid her body against the wet, sandy earth. I left her mostly wrapped in the blanket with her head sticking out.
I climbed out and found out I felt dizzy. I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since I got out of bed. I went over to the side of the house and got the shovel, and I started lifting piles of the dirt I'd moved earlier and dropping them over Pointer's body. Picking up the dirt and putting it back into the hole should have been easier than prying it out of the earth in the first place, but it wasn't. My head felt as though it weighed about half what it should've and my stomach had shriveled up like a walnut. I had to cover every inch of Pointer before I got any water, though. Something told me I couldn't leave her half buried.
Once she was covered up, I knew she'd be okay, but I didn't want to leave the grave half filled. I kept shifting dirt back into the hole. The blisters on my hands opened and dampened the shovel handle.
With a shovel full of dirt poised in midair, I looked up. Shane and another kid stood behind the back fence, fingers curled into the chain links. The other kid, the one who'd spoken, was about the same age as Shane, a blunt-nosed boy with acne around the rim of his jaw. I'd seen them together before.
"Ain't digging," I replied. "I finished digging, and now I'm filling in the hole." I threw the pile of dirt into the hole and picked up another load on the shovel. Shane squirmed in the sunshine. His companion's fingers tightened around the fence wires.
"I don't get why you're digging for no reason," the kid said.
"I got a reason," I said. I stopped looking at him and kept filling the hole. When I looked up again, a few strokes later, the boys had gone. I went on moving dirt until the hole wasn't a hole any more but a loose, moist, brown mound with some dirt scattered through the drought-thinned grass next to it.
I took the shovel into the house with me and left it leaning against the wall just inside the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of water. I liked seeing the clumps of dirt on the vinyl floor.
I thought about eating something, but now that I'd buried Pointer I wanted to finish and take care of the other thing waiting for me. It wasn't right out in front of me, but then I couldn't give it a blanket to lie under either. I took off my sandals and left them in the kitchen, and I headed back toward the bedroom. The floor felt harder than usual. I opened up the bedroom closet, shoved aside a couple of pairs of shoes and a few stray socks. I dragged the oversized cardboard box out into the middle of the floor and started going through it.
There were several expandable file folders, the kind with the elastic string that wraps around the outside to keep them closed. I'd picked them up at Office Max back when Pointer was a pup. The articles inside the folders were all grouped by subject. I pulled them out, reading them one by one, then put them back. Some I'd clipped from the newspaper. Others I'd printed off the Web.
Underneath the file folders lay neat stacks of magazines, subscriptions I'd long since let expire. Small Business, Business Success, Financial Strategies. I went through them all and restacked them on the floor next to the box.
Then there were letters I'd drafted and never sent, along with loan forms I'd never filled out.
As I stared at all the papers spread out on the floor, I thought of the guy's face the night before, staring at me in the smoky half-darkness.
The usual mix had been there at the bar. The woman in the white shirt, hair dyed a reddish brown, her wide-legged pants worn low like a young girl's. Through the shirt, I counted three ribs on either side of her back. Deep vertical lines flanked her mouth. As close as I could tell, she had her eyes fixed on a corner of the ceiling. The guy next to her, mid-twenties maybe, with blow-dried, sun-bleached hair, tanned, licking his lips and looking at the back of the woman's head, watching her frayed ponytail. He made a few false starts, opening his mouth and then shutting it, but didn't speak to her. At the other end of the bar, the girl with shiny, straight blonde hair, laughing heartily with her companions over a tall amber glass, black evening dress stretched tight over a roll of belly fat. A few seats away from her, the dark-eyed man, hooked nose, lusterless skin, eyes on his hands splayed on the bar counter, unmoving.
I'd seen some variation of every one of them before.
The woman with the dyed reddish ponytail had an empty glass in front of her. I moved to collect it.
"Anything else?" I asked her.
Her elbow jerked where it rested on the counter, as if I'd startled her out of some reverie. She pulled her eyes away from the ceiling to look at me. She smiled.
"Yeah. A good man, if you've got one handy."
Before I could give her a smart reply, I felt strong fingers pushing against the fabric of my shorts pocket. I whirled and caught the guy with the blow-dried hair. He had his fore and middle fingers hooked over the denim hem, jamming something into my pocket. I stood still, staring into his wide eyes without blinking, as he withdrew his hand in one slow, steady movement.
"It's not closing time yet," I said once his hand came to rest on his thigh. "You don't have to grab me to get me to stick around."
"No, no. It's a present." Sweat shone on his temple.
I heard the ponytailed woman chuckling behind me.
With my tray balanced on one hand, I drew the film canister from my pocket with the other. I read the location and date on the label aloud.
"What's that mean?" I asked.
"Opening week," the young man answered.
I tucked the canister back into my pocket and moved past him, collecting empty glasses, dollar bills.
"You own two stores?" I asked, glancing back at him.
He smiled and gave a small toss of his well-groomed head. "Yeah."
Someone had been skating a piece of ice across the bar counter and it had left a wet spiral trail. I reached for the ice cube and it slipped from my grasp, so I reached for it again.
"You could help me celebrate," the guy said. I ignored him, and he added, "I'm in town for two more nights." I let the ice slide from my fingers and turned sharply to face him.
"I could what?"
He was cute, sure. He was also a few years younger than I was, most likely lonely to the point of desperation. I didn't smile. His Adam's apple moved up and down with a nervous swallow.
"You could, uh, keep that. It's yours. Okay?" he said after we'd stared at each other for a few seconds.
Now, sitting cross-legged in my bedroom, I could feel the round plastic pressing against my hip. I pulled out the film canister and opened it. I dumped the dirt into the box and it scattered on the bottom. A weak puff of musty-smelling dust rose up. Then I dropped the container into the box. It hit the cardboard with a clunk and rolled into a corner. I put all my papers and magazines back into the box. I didn't want anyone to know I'd had the stuff in the first place.
By the time I finished and glanced out the window again, the blue eggshell substitute sky had been traded in for a covering of deep gray clouds. I dragged the box down the hall, through the living room, bumped it down the porch steps, and dragged it over the grass. At the street, I left it for trash pickup. As I let go of the box and stood up, I rubbed cobwebs off my palms. I went back into the kitchen, wondering for a second why Pointer didn't follow at my heels.
I opened up the fridge and decided on making eggs because everything else would take too long. I had two eggs in the frying pan, sunny-side up, when I heard someone tapping at the screen door. I let Jackie in.
"Hey, I was gonna bring your shovel back after I ate," I said.
Jackie stood right inside the door. He took off his bandana, rolled it around the back of his hand, and then reknotted it around his forehead. The cartoon smile had gone away somewhere.
"You know, I, uh, couldn't help noticing you were, uh, burying your dog out here today."
"Pancreatic cancer. You want some eggs?"
"I could, 'cause Shane, he went, uh… Yeah." Jackie pulled out one of the flimsy chairs in the kitchen and sat down.
I gave Jackie his eggs, and I sat down across from him at the table. I never ate at the table, always sitting on the couch in the living room instead, but I could sit in the kitchen once. We ate in silence.
"Were you with her when she died?" Jackie asked when we'd finished.
"Well, I was wondering, because I wasn't with my mom when she died. I only ever saw one creature die, and that was…" He stopped, and I waited, swinging some of my hair around in front of my shoulder and working on another tangle.
"Well, that was kind of embarrassing," he concluded.
Jackie scratched his chin. "Well, I was at work one day, see, about to go out on a job," he said. "And we'd stopped by the office before going out, and I found this baby bird lying on the ground near this big tree outside the office. He'd fallen out of the nest, see. And my coworkers told me to leave him alone, but I hated to let the little fellow die, you know. And I happened to have this box in the passenger seat of my truck, and I plucked a whole bunch of grass and made a nice bed in the box, and I put the bird in the box."
I stopped watching Jackie's face as he talked. I looked out the window past him instead. The clouds were light purple in the dark purple sky. Dusk.
"I kept that baby bird alive all day while we worked outdoors," Jackie told me. "I kept him in the shade, and I checked on him every chance I got. My coworkers told me to throw him out, he was just gonna die anyway, but I couldn't do that. I'd found him, and it was my responsibility to take care of the little fellow, see. So I kept him alive all day, and I finally got off work around six, had to work late that day, no way around it. So when I got off work I stopped at this convenience store, first one I saw. And I went inside to get something for the baby bird, and I realized I didn't know what baby birds eat. But I knew the little guy had to be dehydrated, and I knew he needed some nutrients, so I got him some Pedialyte, and I picked up an eyedropper.
"So I got back to the car, and, you know, it was starting to get dark by this time, but I could still see okay. And I got a dropper full of Pedialyte, and he was reaching up with his little naked neck and that big, round, pink head, you know how baby birds are, and he opened his beak in this big diamond shape and I emptied the dropper into his beak."
I watched Jackie's face again.
"Then I saw a light grow in his eyes, he had round, black eyes, and this light grew from a pinpoint somewhere way deep in his eyes and then it filled his eyes and then the light was gone, really quick. And his little body went limp and I went, 'My God, I killed him. I drowned him in Pedialyte!'"
Somehow because Pointer was okay now and because my head still felt lighter than it should've and because the shovel's point still rested on the kitchen floor, that was funny. I laughed. Jackie laughed too, and we laughed together for what felt like a few minutes.
We stopped when the screen door creaked and Shane stuck his head in.
"Hey, son," Jackie said, leaning back and twisting his head around so he could look Shane in the eye. "I thought you were at Joseph's house."
"I am. I mean, I was." I could see white in a full circle all around Shane's irises. Dirt streaked his face. A damp sheen covered his skin and hair. He stood half in and half out of the doorway, staring, looking as if he wanted to work his mouth and say something, but no sound came out and he didn't move. Jackie shot me a sharp look and stood up. I stood up with him.
"What is it, Shane?" Jackie asked, turning to face his son.
"It's just… it's…" Shane abruptly turned away and yelled into the yard, "Joseph!"
No answer. A light, misty rain had begun to fall. Shane went down the steps and headed into the backyard. As Jackie and I followed him, the rain picked up and turned to real droplets instead of just a fog. The soft cadence of it hitting the ground made a blanket of sound over everything.
Shane stopped before he got to Pointer's grave, and he whirled around and faced his dad and me. His eyes still looked big and round.
"Joseph was here, but he must've left," Shane said. "He did most of it, but he got me doing it too. Dad, I'm sorry." I couldn't tell by the light of the surrounding houses' floodlights reflected in thousands of raindrops, but I thought he was shaking.
"Doing what?" Jackie stepped toward the grave. Shane moved as if to head him off, then stepped aside, his shoulders slumped.
Jackie stood over the grave, looking in, and rubbed his chin with one hand.
"You did this?" he asked Shane.
"M—mostly Joseph. We didn't know what was here, I swear it."
I didn't have to look in the grave. I knew.
"She's dead, isn't she?" Shane asked in a small voice. I'd have scolded him for stating the obvious, except that I could see he was almost in tears.
I didn't want to see Pointer again after I'd worked so hard covering her up, but I made myself go stand beside Jackie. There she lay, partly covered with dirt but with a lot of her black, curly hair showing.
"What'd you dig with?" Jackie asked, speaking slowly, eyes still directed at Pointer's body.
"Not me," Shane whispered. "Me a little, mostly Joseph with an old tile and his mom's trowel. He just did it 'cause he said we—"
"You need to go in the house, Shane," Jackie told him in a measured tone. Shane froze for half an instant, then turned and bolted for home.
"I need to cover her up again," I said to Jackie. I turned toward the house to get the shovel.
"Let me," Jackie said. I let him go, and I stood there alone with Pointer again. Looking down at the big familiar black head and knowing she wasn't there any more, I wondered if she'd gone somewhere or just stopped like somebody had unplugged her.
When Jackie got back with the shovel, I reached out and took it from his hands. I picked up a load of dirt and threw it into the grave. The rain had gotten harder, and the dirt felt heavier.
"Whoa, stop," Jackie said. "I'll do that for ya."
I didn't exactly say yes, but he took the shovel from me and I didn't say no.
"Wait!" I said as he threw in the first shovel full of dirt.
"The blanket's gone."
He put the point of the shovel down into the grass and watched my face, waiting.
"I buried her with a blanket," I explained. "It's gone."
Jackie shrugged and turned back to his work. He finished filling the hole. What had taken me hours took him a few short minutes. He didn't so much lift and carry the dirt as command it all right back into the hole with a few twists of his shoulders.
"You gonna yell at Shane when you get home?" I asked him as he worked.
"Nah," he replied, out of breath. "No, I'll leave him be."
I watched the rain and the falling dirt mix in the air.
When Jackie had finished and the grave looked the way it had before the boys' excavation, he straightened up and looked out into the air, toward the orange horizon where light from the Texas City chemical plants' flares reflected off the clouds.
"We sure needed this rain," he said.
He leaned on the shovel, still looking far away.
"So they wanted to know what was in the hole, and they found out." I could hear him letting a long breath out through his nose. Then he snorted. "Figures. So what's in the big box in the road, next to your trash can?"
From what I could tell at a distance, the box was getting soggy. I hadn't sealed it, just folded the four top flaps over on each other to pin them down. I hoped the box wouldn't tear or anything in the rain.
"Just stuff," I said.
He looked at me, smirking, rain dripping from his eyebrows.
I wrapped my arms around my ribs, pressing the damp fabric of my T-shirt against my skin.
Jackie tapped the shovel's tip against the grass, shaking loose some of the dirt that clung to the blade. "Aw, come on," he said. "I told you my dead bird story. Now you can tell me anything."
I shrugged, looking up the yard, past the house, at the dull wet box and the water that collected on the trash can's lid, gleaming with reflections from the porch light.
"Stuff on running my own restaurant or bar one day. 'Stead of waitressing. Articles. What licenses I'd need, papers on it. That kind of thing. A few supplies, not enough for anything." I blinked, and the water on my lashes felt cold on my cheeks. "Nothing, really."
Jackie hefted the shovel parallel to the ground, squeezing the wooden handle in one hand. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and started walking up the yard.
"I better go check on Shane," he said over his shoulder when he'd gotten halfway back to his own trailer. He added when he was still just close enough not to have to shout, "You really shouldn't leave all that stuff out in the rain." He walked on to his front door.
I stood there for a while after Jackie left, hugging myself, feeling the water make a slick layer between the bottoms of my feet and my sandals' inner soles, and smelling the rubbery odor of petroleum byproducts on the moist air.
My arms still tight around my body, I headed up the driveway and walked up to the box. Wet, matted fingers of hair clung to my shoulders. I knelt in the damp grass and gravel, put my arms around the wet cardboard, and tried to stand. I couldn't lift it. I stood up and tugged on the box, but something tore underneath. Papers and magazines lay in a wide, flat arc over the gravel.
I let go and pushed damp strands of hair out of my face. I stared down at the steady drops making big splotches on the glossy back cover of an old magazine, and I wondered whether a baby bird could swallow drops the size of these.
About the author:
Sasha Vivelo is the author of novels Wings of Escape and Through a Stranger's Eyes. Her website is www.sashavivelo.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in Sunnyvale, CA.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Sasha Vivelo at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 8, No. 2, where "Burying Pointer" ran on June 23, 2008. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.