by Brian Sutton
–Sammy, in John Updike’s ‘A & P’
Along comes the old man, walking his dog like he does every night.
‘Stupid fuck,’ Eddie mutters, glaring at him. Then he turns back to what he’s doing, which is basically me. We’re on that street next to Rigsby Park, outside his old Chevy truck with the big wheels. My back is against the driver’s-side door and he’s up against me.
Not that Eddie and me are a regular thing. This is basically a hookup, a word that also applies to what Eddie’s finger is doing, he having jammed his left hand into my jeans and down my panties (while he checked his phone with the other hand) a minute or two earlier. Not complaining. Just glad he’s doing something to make me feel good, getting into my pants. Most of these guys who hang at the park, usually they grab your hand and shove it down their pants and expect you to go on from there. Which I do.
Why do I do this? Because it feels good (sometimes). And because this way I’m free, down at the park with everybody I know and not trapped in that shithole apartment with my whack-job family. And because by now it’s what I do without even thinking, like soaping your armpits when you shower. If we are what we do, as I heard somebody say once, then I do it because that’s who I am.
So that’s why I’m there with Eddie when the old man shows up.
Everybody notices the old man. For one thing he wears this iridescent yellow vest, plus he carries a flashlight. For another, he’s different. This block is home turf for people pretty much like me—young, poor, looking for something that we don’t even know what it is. And white. The old man is none of these things.
We don’t have gangs or nothing, so it’s not like the old man’s in danger, not really. Especially since he’s with that dog that looks like she’s got some pit in her, which who knows what she’ll do if anybody tries to mess with either of them. But nobody else even remotely like him comes here at night, ever.
Now that Eddie’s no longer distracted and in fact is getting a nice rhythm going, I glance over at the old man. He’s short, but he’s built solid and dressed like some golf pro on TV. You can tell he takes good care of himself.
There’s cars parked everywhere with all sorts of shit going down inside them, plus Eddie and me aren’t the only ones outside the cars doing whatever. Across the street you can just make out the shapes of people moving around in the park itself, doing whatever it is they do. Voices drift out of the darkness, mostly hollering fuck this or fuck that. Plus all this music, rap and country and metal, blares from the cars and from devices in the park. And the old man must know we’re all watching him. But he holds himself erect (not that way!), eyes straight ahead, and he just keeps walking, not speeding up, not slowing down.
The dog’s just a mutt, nothing special, but clean and groomed. She’s not as focused—glances around like her head’s on a swivel. She’s still just a puppy, all energy and impulses. But clearly the old man’s been training her, because for all her glancing around, she don’t try to stop and sniff at people or nothing.
With cars on both sides of the street and people messing around outside, the old man has only this narrow aisle down the middle for walking. Then a car comes by and blows its horn to get him out of the way. Even though he never so much as glances at Eddie and me, he has to swerve close to us.
A little too close as far as Eddie’s concerned, it turns out. ‘Adios, spic,’ he growls over his shoulder. ‘Go back where you belong.’
‘Eddie, I don’t—’
‘Shut up,’ he says to me, then turns back to the old man. ‘Outta here. Back to the old folks’ home in beanerland.’
The old man just keeps walking, his face blank. I figure maybe he don’t understand English so he don’t realize he’s been insulted, or he couldn’t hear what was said over all the other racket, or maybe he knows better than to confront Eddie in a place like this after dark.
Then another possibility occurs to me: maybe to somebody like him, insults from a guy like Eddie aren’t worth noticing.
Eddie keeps glaring at the old man, so I force my hand down his (Eddie’s) jeans to distract him. From what I can feel, after a second or two it works. Eddie even kisses me, which isn’t usual. He smells and tastes like weed, Marlboros, Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, and Doritos. The Doritos part reminds me that I’m hungry, having missed supper because I hung with Madison and Crystal straight from when school let out until Crystal drove us down here. Still, the kiss feels good.
But toward the end of it I open my eyes to look at the man and the dog. And Eddie, whose eyes have probably been open all along, sees me looking.
Evidently this either excites Eddie or pisses him off, or both. He starts pushing down on my shoulders with one hand while he unzips his fly and undoes his buckles with the other. ‘Go down,’ he says.
I freeze. I won’t lie, he’s not telling me to do nothing I haven’t done lots of times before. But here in the street, with everybody around? It’s one thing to do that hand-job stuff, which it’s so dark you can’t see what’s going on anyway. But once I’m on my knees with my head bent, everybody will know what’s (and who’s) going down.
‘Down, bitch!’ he says, an edge in his voice. ‘Do it.’
And I do.
Or at least I start to. But then out of the corner of my eye I see the dog suddenly lurch out to the end of her leash. For a panicky second I think she’s coming after me because she sees I’m down on her level. But then she bends her head low, toward the street.
The old man turns on his flashlight and shines it near the dog, and I can see about five or six chicken bones scattered in the light. They look disgusting, covered with dirt and God knows what else, but of course the puppy still wants them.
Not surprising to find the bones there. Nobody here bothers with the trash cans nearby, so there’s all kinds of shit on the pavement. Used needles and empty whip-its and beer cans and the occasional wadded-up homework assignment, plus all those empty Swisher Sweets packs that Alex drops everywhere as he makes his deliveries, like he thinks he’s Hansel and Gretel and the empty cigar packs will lead him back home. But mostly it’s wrappers and cups and shit from MacDonald’s or Jack in the Box or whatever. Plus tonight, chicken bones from KFC.
The dog’s head kind of shoots out the way a frog’s tongue goes after flies, at least in the cartoons. And now there’s this little chicken bone sticking out of her mouth.
The man jerks on the leash, not hard enough to hurt the dog but hard enough to raise her head up. ‘No,’ he says, not angry but firm. ‘Drop.’
And just like that, the dog drops the chicken bone.
And I just stare.
The dog trots back to the old man, who scratches her under the chin for a few seconds. ‘Good girl,’ he says. I don’t hear any accent.
‘Ah, let her have the fuckin’ chicken bones, man,’ says a voice out in the darkness somewhere.
The old man don’t even look up to acknowledge this. Instead, he bends over and unleashes the dog.
All of a sudden things get real quiet around the park. Like I say, the dog looks like she’s got pit bull in her, plus it’s dark. Everybody’s watching.
The dog looks a little confused at first, then starts toward the chicken bones.
But the man just says, ‘Come on, Queenie. Let’s go,’ and starts walking. Doesn’t even need to say ‘No’ a second time.
And the dog goes along with him. Now the dog is walking just like the man, straight line, eyes front, like she never even knew that chicken bones were a thing. And like none of the rest of us are even there.
The man never turns around to look back at us or nothing, but somehow, I feel like he’s looking straight at me. I stare after him until he and the dog have dissolved into the darkness.
There are no words to describe what’s going on inside me during all this. That even a puppy can resist just doing whatever feels good at the time, can learn to listen to the voice that knows when to say ‘No,’ even when she’s been set free to do whatever she wants . . . this idea knocks me off my feet.
Or it would knock me off my feet if I weren’t already on my knees in front of Eddie.
Who now says, ‘What’s the holdup, whore?,’ except he says it ‘ho,’ like he’s some rapper dude. ‘Get on with it,’ he adds.
I pull my head up and back, freeing my mouth. ‘No,’ I say.
Maybe to imitate the man and the dog, I look straight ahead as I say it. Of course this makes it seem like I’m saying ‘No’ to the part of Eddie that’s hanging down (sticking out, actually) right in front of me. Which is maybe a good way for me to get the message across.
Anyway, I then get up off my knees, having had enough of the close-up view. It occurs to me that I’ve gotten so low that a dog is now my role model for better behavior. Kind of sad.
Eddie looks mad. ‘Say what?’
Eddie tries to slap me or something. Except now that I’m no longer gripping his butt cheeks in each hand, as soon as he raises his arm, his pants fall down. I start laughing.
Then I think a little more about having the puppy as my guide. How what got to me was when she dropped a bone—a little bone—out of her mouth. I laugh even harder.
‘Me and the puppy,’ I say.
‘That don’t even make sense, bitch!’ Eddie shouts as he struggles with his pants and the zipper and so forth. His voice cracks so it comes out as kind of a squeal.
‘Makes sense to me,’ I manage to say. I’m laughing so hard I’m afraid I might pee.
‘Stupid cunt!’ he hollers. ‘You don’ even know what you talkin’ ’bout.’
‘Do so,’ I say. ‘Talkin’ ’bout fuck you. Which I ain’t doin’ no more. Never comin’ back here!’
And I turn and start to walk away.
‘You gonna regret this, bitch!’ he screams. ‘Few more nights an’ you’ll be here again, beggin’ me to take you back!’
He keeps this shit up as I go. But the funny thing is, after I’ve taken the first few steps I can’t hardly hear him and couldn’t care less what he’s saying anyway.
Madison and Crystal have gone off into the park with three, maybe four guys, so I don’t have a ride home if I want to leave right away. But I only live about four blocks from here, and once you’re away from the park it’s a perfectly safe neighborhood—little ranch-style houses one after another, very middle class, until you get to the shitty apartment buildings on my block.
And once I round the corner it’s like the park and the kids who hang there don’t even exist. I’m just out walking under the stars, admiring the big Texas sky. I remember how I used to love looking at the stars, and I wonder why I never noticed them all those nights at the park. I look around for the man and the dog, but they’re gone, probably down one of the side streets and back to their home.
I want to believe I’ve changed, left the park and those people behind for good. But I know Eddie may be right: I may be back there soon, begging for more. I can remember other girls, and a few guys too, who’ve tried to leave that scene. I can’t remember any who weren’t back a few nights later.
I know it’ll be tough. True, Eddie hasn’t showed up for school since October, so I don’t have to worry about seeing him there. But lots of people from the other cars saw and heard everything. I know that back at the park I’m now the bitch who walked out like she thinks she’s better than everybody else. It won’t be easy for me in the hallways at school. And it’ll be even worse online, where the feeding frenzy doubtless is already underway. I’m afraid to look at my phone.
By now I can see our apartment building, gross and depressing, sticking up behind the orderly little houses. I tighten up inside as I feel how hard (difficult) things are gonna be from now on.
But then I raise my eyes and look at the stars, and for some reason this gives me a little hope. Keep your head up, girl, I tell myself. Maybe things can still turn out good.
Brian Sutton’s work has appeared in The Journal, Apalachee Review, Crack the Spine, Seventeen, and other periodicals. Four of his plays have been produced, including the musical Searching for Romeo, which played on 42nd Street in New York has now been performed at the high school, college, community-theatre, and professional levels. As a student at The University of Michigan, Sutton won three Hopwood Awards for Creative Writing, two for short stories and one for one-act plays.