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Entangled in sleep, Omar lay across the porch in front of the door like a sack of laundry. I nudged him softly with my sneaker. The evening ritual consisted of me stepping over him while I balanced a stack of stainless-steel dog food dishes. Their tongues hanging, the other dogs quickly got to their feet, beating their thick tails against my skinny legs. Several years older than me, Omar was a combination of Saint Bernard and Labrador with a black body and tufts of white fur around his legs. When Omar was conscious, his bark was a hoarse croaking gasp, like the steely roar of a bear coughing—a bear that coughed while chain-smoking and singing along to Tom Waits records.
I was nine, and until recently, I had lived with my mother and stepfather, Gary. And when I moved in with my father and stepmother, my mother left Gary. But after Gary took to stalking my mother, breaking back into their house, beating her up and threatening her at gunpoint, she left town for good. We gradually adjusted to different lives, far apart.
Living with my mother and stepfather, I had been within walking distance of my elementary school. My father enrolled me in a private Christian school seemingly a full day’s drive from his house in the sticks. Everything felt far away. A trip to the grocery store seemed to take half the day. We did not have cable TV, so Pat (my stepmother) made the weekly jaunt to Video Mart, a tiny shop across town, returning hours later with a white plastic sack full of Beta cassettes to feed to our VCR.
Apart from watching the same three movies over and over, there was little else to do. At night, when I wasn’t reading novels my grandparents sent from Oregon, I perused the sizzling static of my tiny AM radio for signs of life.
Like all kids, I had my share of chores. Dad paid me to work in the yard—mowing the lawn, disposing of weeds, plugging gopher holes, painting the fence. After dark, I fed the dogs.
When I used to come over for the weekend, in the months before I moved in, Omar stood at the bottom of the steep driveway, welcoming me with his rasping voice. Like an alarm clock just out of reach, Omar barked and barked and barked and barked and barked and barked and barked and barked and barked—and in the process of all this barking, he sired a Tolstoyan multitude of puppies, even a few with our gravitationally-impaired basset hound, Purdy.
Pat called the puppies Bass’tards.
My father left my mother for Pat. At least, that is what my mother says. My father says it was more complicated. In the early 1970s, he had cofounded a drug treatment center called Agape House, and Pat, a short, skinny blonde from El Centro was among his clients.
My stepmother and I became close, especially as I saw my mother less often. Phone calls to my mother went unreturned, and the weeks passed. Pat became the person I talked to about school and growing up and the story of life—especially as I became older. Her quiet patience was a commodity, a resource, a kind of insulation in the years that came. She was opinionated and funny, and she had a penchant for leaving joke books around the house. I considered this later, and I realized that humor kept her from feeling estranged from others. Her parents and her old neighborhood were three-hours away. My real mother, who I saw every seven or eight weeks, seemed to live in another time-zone. And my father was early into his career, and I saw less of him now. But I spent every morning with my stepmother, trading jokes and talking over breakfast. Over time, I began calling her Moms.
The house my father built after he passed the bar exam was a two-story Spanish-style domicile which looked as though it landed from outer space, coming to rest amongst the gazania flowers and the row of tiny new cypress trees at the dead end of a newly-zoned street. In the middle of nowhere. Our few neighbors were off in the distance of their own lives, a block away in one direction, and on the other side of a long, barbed wire fence in the other. With a partner, he developed and sold the other three houses on our block.
My father mastered the looping signature and official colloquialisms of his new career, spending his afternoons at Court Street West, a bar across from the county courthouse, where the area’s legal eagles drank with gusto, recalling the drama of the day for giggling court reporters. At night, he returned to his kingly residence, where his pregnant wife, his son, his animals, and an endless yard awaited him.
Much of San Bernardino, at least the part where I lived with my mother and scary stepfather, was one row after another of stuccoed suburban tracts and stretches of pavement demarcated by potholes. To a child, the middle of nowhere is another country. Meadows of foxtails and other weeds traveling a mile uphill from the freeway toward my father’s quiet street. Pausing there, resuming beyond his back fence. The weeds continued toward a curtain of eucalyptus trees separating the withered sagebrush from the mountains.
There are a few things that every boy needs. One of them is a balance of environment—a separation from the world of concrete, brick, and glass. Not every boy is fortunate enough to have this. Living now on the outskirts of town, I had it in abundance. I could open the kitchen door and count my neighbors on one hand. I could walk outside at night and see darkness. I didn’t learn about light pollution until I moved to the city decades later. Another thing a boy needs is the companionship of a dog.
My dog’s name was Misty, a Golden Retriever-German Shepherd mix. Misty grew awkwardly into her own version of domesticity, keeping her own hours, maintaining principles of the half-wild. But she loved me. And I loved her, the way a nine-year-old boy loves someone that follows him while he’s following them. Someone who’s always happy to see him. I held Misty tight and I kissed her wet black nose.
I told Misty how confused I felt about my new living situation and the loss of contact with my mother. I didn’t know if she understood. But she acted like she did, and she kissed me back, covering my face and my neck and my hands and my arms with her scratchy tongue while I squeezed her and rubbed the top of her yellow head. Around and around the house I chased Misty and she chased me. The other dogs were excited and joined us. But I was in love with my new dog—and her affection was mine. The other dogs could hardly compare to Misty. While I chased Misty, Omar stood and barked at us.
Before my father and stepmother escaped to the edge of town, they rented a tiny little place on “E” Street. I used to spend every other weekend there. A pack of dogs (fourteen at one point) filled the tiny cattle pen of a back yard. Inside, I listened to my father and stepmother’s records. My father couldn’t stand Kiss, who were my favorite group at the time. But he didn’t mind me listening to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Electric Light Orchestra, Earth, Wind & Fire, Santa Esmerelda, The Doobie Brothers, The Who, Deep Purple, or Jimi Hendrix. One of Dad’s friends gave me an old Ludwig snare drum and a pair of sticks. The snare stayed at their place. But when I returned to my mother’s house, I brought the drumsticks, and I listened to Kiss records in my bedroom, playing quietly on my pillows.
I pretended some of Dad’s dogs were musicians. We became a band. So, Omar played bass and sang, just like Gene Simmons of Kiss. At least, I pretended that he did. I played the drums, like my heroes, Peter Criss, John Bonham, and Keith Moon.
Whenever Kiss brought out a new LP, like 1977’s Love Gun, I pretended that we were playing their songs in various concert halls. I imagined Omar standing on all-fours, playing bass. Sugar Bear, a female St. Bernard, played guitar, along with another St. Bernard we called Woolly Bear. We were famous.
My stepmother gave me a t-shirt for my birthday—a white ringer with dark blue ribbing along the collar and sleeves and fuzzy dark blue iron-on letters that read: THE DOG BROTHERS BAND.
The rest of the time, I lived with my mother and Gary a mile away, on Marshall Boulevard, in a pressure cooker of animosity. My mother and Gary argued behind a locked bedroom door. Like smoke, the animosity crept under their door, permeating the house, shrinking the walls. I didn’t know how to be a little boy at my mother’s. I felt like I was in the way. Gary was as tall as the ceiling and his hands left enormous red marks on my naked backside.
In one of my earliest memories of Gary (I might have been four), I can still hear him call my name. I had done something to anger him and I can hear him stomping down the hallway toward me in his size-16 work boots. Gary called them “waffle stompers.” As I stood in my bedroom and listened to the sound of his feet, I urinated into my pants. Around my feet, on the hardwood floor, the puddle expanded. Looming over me, growling, fists clenched, Gary readied himself.
Meanwhile, my father told me how much better life would be with him. And my stepmother considered me her son. He took me to see the new house as it was being built. And he told me they wanted me to live with them. I could start a new life.
I moved in over the summer between fourth and fifth grade.
Misty and I were rarely apart before that Christmas morning.
After we all opened presents, Dad and Moms and I went next door to celebrate with the Rhodes family. Next door in our neighborhood meant the other side of Brent Rhodes’ barbed wire fence, a several acres away.
Returning home, my father discovered a kitten, lying flat across the kitchen doorway. He had selected this particular kitten from a neighbor’s litter a few weeks ago. Apart from leaving it outside Christmas day, he nurtured it, walking about with it in the crook of his elbow, talking to it, rubbing its belly, and listening to its tiny, scratchy kitten voice meowing back at him. Now it was dead. Misty had eaten a couple of stray cats around that time; she immediately became the prime suspect, even though Omar had a spotty record of his own.
Breakfast had been abruptly postponed one morning when my stepmother opened the garage door to find a scattering of fuzzy, detached kitten heads, tiny stiffening carcasses and a patchwork of gore seeping into the powder blue carpeting. The gassy whiff of exposed internal organs overpowered the fading tang of animal urine. Omar was off in a corner, wholly uninterested.
“He didn’t even eat them!” my stepmother said.
Omar got a beating from my father that day.
This time around it was my young hound, who fled a hail of garden tools. My father galloped after Misty, orbiting the large house, hollering and heaving shovels and rakes like Olympic javelins. Misty was perforated but kept running, bleeding. The other pets retreated to various corners of the back yard. Even Omar, who had nothing to say.
Dad pursued Misty until exhaustion caught up with them both. She lay on the front porch, trembling. My stepmother and I sought shelter in the dining room. Staggering inside, my father gasped, and then he stomped up to the master bedroom and I heard the closet near his side of the bed open. He hid the key, but I made it my job to know where things were up there. My father must have hidden whatever substance he was using somewhere else, but his collection of guns was there.
I could hear him rummaging and slamming things.
I watched my pregnant stepmother light another cigarette. One smoldered in the ashtray beside her. Moms poured from a bottle of brandy, stirring it into her coffee, taking a long drag, exhaling. Her hands shook. My stepmother’s husband had become darkly unpredictable. Whenever things didn’t go his way, he might smash a nearby telephone or punch a hole in the wall. Or scream.
Moms took a drink before he marched down the stairs, a Mini-14 semiautomatic carbine rifle in both hands.
“This is the last time,” my father declared, sweating, eyes wide and bloodshot like a cartoon character, and he yanked the front door open.
Misty looked up into his glowing face from her shelter on the porch. A halo of flies hovered where she lay. I stood, adrift, between my father and stepmother, near the dinner table. I can still remember the acrid stink of the two cigarettes. And I can still hear the silence that lay outside, beyond the porch. Swooping upward and through the doorway like wind, enabling the rhythmic patter of a clock balanced on a nail in the living room to sound like quiet footsteps.
My father whispered, the barrel of his rifle a few inches from my dog’s face. Misty was too tired by now to understand. She wanted to be left alone, knowing I would feed her later. I would rub her tummy; tell her it was all a mistake. She might have forgotten all about the kitten by then, even if she was the one who killed it.
The sudden recoil sent my father’s elbow bouncing off the door as the gunshot echoed along the porch and into the house, muting the cheap clock. Moms inhaled quickly, grinding her teeth, and her wrist bumped the ceramic cup. I saw a spent casing fall from my father’s rifle, bounce once and land beside my dog. My stepmother’s drink spilled out onto the placemat, seeping into the blanched almond cloth.
With his right hand up, elbow bent, bicep muscle flexed like a racquetball player, Dad backhanded the heavy door hard enough for the jamb to collide with the doorframe. Slamming shut, it quickly bounced back open, the half-inch of black rubber rain seal along the bottom of the door sliding athwart the tile entryway. For an instant, the scene was memory and then I saw Misty again, hemorrhaging. Eyes wide open seeing nothing. Bushy blonde tail stationary amongst the sediment of the porch. A paw tapping out Morse code, receding and then at rest.
I ran past the doorway, up the stairs and into the bathroom. Something told me I should throw up. As my sense of hearing returned, I began to hear my stepmother’s muffled whimpering downstairs. I stepped out of the bathtub, opened the door, and crept back down.
My father had come from the garage with a fistful of brown plastic trash bags and he was trying to shove my dog into one. Misty wouldn’t seem to fit, but he cursed his way to completing the task, looking for places to wipe his hands. I left through the kitchen door and made my way toward the front of the house. Outside in the grass, in that gauzy state of unbelieving, I couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to stop from feeling I was dreaming.
I looked around, hoping to see Misty prancing through the grass in the front yard, noticing me and wanting me to play with her. The clumsy shape in the swollen trash bag could not be her. I remember when she used to jump into the back of my father’s truck. I would drag the long front gate open, and then we’d all head for the dirt roads, a mile or two off in a direction I’ve forgotten. I would sit up front with Dad, a rifle or a shotgun in the rack behind my head. Dad left the little back window open, so he could call out to Misty and tell her what a good girl she was and here comes a bump be careful now.
On Christmas day, 1981, Misty lay in a sack, leaking at the top of the driveway.
My father dragged a length of green garden hose from the side of the house, and he sprayed off the porch.
The Little League Western Regional Headquarters was a few blocks away. It boasted a spacious manicured baseball diamond, with an infield of powdery terracotta clay and a spotless Kelly-green outfield. The ballfield, the bleachers, and the adjacent offices, sat unoccupied, all year. Situated in a place where the land might have been reasonably priced, the field peacefully awaited the annual Little League championships. Owing to its customary vacancy, my first Little League team, the Athletics, practiced at that field once or twice. Dad was the manager.
Today, he drove us there, in a hurry.
I sat on the long bench-seat, as close as I could get to the unlocked door of the truck. We cruised over to a dumpster near the edge of the wide, empty parking lot in front of the ballfield. My father and I sat, the engine idling. I couldn’t feel anything. I could only hear the engine of the truck burbling, like the lid of a pot left on the stove. When a minute had passed and he was sure we were alone, my father flipped up the flat metal lid of a dumpster, and he heaved Misty inside. We hurried back to the house, so he could wash out the bed of his truck. The dogs avoided the porch for weeks, including Omar.
A neurodivergent writer, Jason M. Thornberry is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University. His work appears in The Stranger, Praxis, Dissident Voice, In Parentheses, ALAN Review, and elsewhere. His work examines family, disability, and social justice. He reads poetry for TAB.