Afternoon daylight sifts in through the rental’s window blinds, the sun sunken low enough now in the western sky that it’s just beginning to burn orange. Grant’s skin is clammy with the dampness of his own sweat and a waking flash of anger overcomes him before his vision even blurs into focus. He fights and kicks the single sheet down the bed until it rucks up in a wad around his ankles, heat rolling off his body like an engine doused in water. All the surrounding air is laid on thick and stifling and other than the faint banter of songbirds outside four walls, the rest of the world rings silent.
He’d stripped off his coveralls and left them on the kitchen floor when he’d stumbled in after daybreak, but his undershirt still smells a little like fish guts and sea grime, briny and faintly rotten. Grant hadn’t bothered to shower after work, only peeled off his boots and socks beside the mattress and fallen headfirst into his pillow.
The air conditioner must have turned itself off or overheated while he was sleeping, but he doesn’t make any move to go check it when he sits up in bed. His phone tells him it’s half past six and he pulls his shirt over his head but keeps it bunched in one fist while he stares at the closet door, standing half-open and draped with a drying towel across the room.
The glint of red metal shines like a beacon on the closet’s top shelf in an otherwise colorless space. Grant’s old lockbox—once full of tumbled stones and borrowed skin mags and an old prescription bottle full of collected shark teeth—, though it doesn’t hold anything but some loose papers and a pawn shop handgun, now. The only crack of light seeping through a part in the plastic blinds has come to rest on it and nothing else. Like a golden arrow spun due north, pointing the way.
Grant stands to pad across the carpet on bare feet and takes the lockbox down from the shelf. Loose bullets roll and clink around on the interior like lead beetles while he carries it down the short hallway and into the kitchenette, stepping over his forgotten coveralls to settle it on the counter.
The combination hasn’t been set or locked in the seven months since he left Raleigh, and the lid comes open with a creak in the stagnant air. Grant picks up the gun and hefts its strange weight in his palm, as cold and solid as he remembers, and then checks the chamber. It’s empty. Still, he stands there at the counter next to an open box of Cheerios and presses the muzzle first to his right temple, and then lower against the soft spot tucked underneath his chin.
He stands motionless, only blinking and gently breathing before turning the gun around and guiding it up to his mouth in a mechanical sort of afterthought. The barrel tastes weakly bitter, the flavor of dirty rag soaked in gun oil, and clinks against his two front teeth when he wraps his lips around it. Like licking a spoon clean. A bead of sweat gathers between his shoulder blades and slides down his back with the weight of a cold fingertip.
Grant doesn’t touch the trigger, but he pulls the gun from his mouth and leaves his spit shining on the barrel. He loads the magazine with a full round and then sets the gun down next to the cereal box. There is an overflowing pile of junk mail on the countertop and he rifles through it until he finds his checkbook hidden beneath, the top page dog-eared at one corner. It takes the better part of five minutes to dig up a drying ink pen lost in the back of one of the kitchen’s otherwise empty drawers.
Rent isn’t due for another three weeks but he writes out Marlon’s name and signs and dates the slip for the last full figure he remembers seeing in his checking account. Tears it out and leaves it on the counter under a beer bottle with two swigs of stale brew left at the bottom, and then goes over to his coveralls to look for his cigarettes.
The paper carton crumples flat in his hand, empty save for his cheap plastic lighter. Another pang of petty annoyance surges up in Grant’s body, building like a wave before rushing out again, and its dwindling momentum steers him back into the bedroom to pull on a t-shirt and jeans from the basket sitting at the foot of his mattress. He steps back into his boots and does them up one at a time, careful not to knot the laces too tightly. Takes a quick piss in the toilet but won’t meet his own eye in the mirror while he rinses his hands at the sink and drinks a cupped handful of flat tap water.
He pockets his wallet and doesn’t bother locking up the apartment behind him when he steps out into the afternoon heat, key ring and phone still left on the counter inside. The Florida humidity stings like a hard slap and he pushes his fingers through his sweaty hair, letting out a deep breath where he stands on the small wooden deck overlooking the rest of Marlon’s property.
The man himself is out in his blooming jungle of a yard in the last hour before twilight, broad frame folded and hunched into one of his wooden dove coops. Grant can see him through the chicken wire with the softly cooing birds, cleaning off their perching rails and filling up a shallow trough with fresh drinking water. Even here from the apartment built above the garage the gentle timbre of Marlon’s voice carries across the yard and reaches Grant’s ears. He murmurs conversationally to his birds, telltale but indistinct, something like that first whiff of orange blossom on the air come spring when the wind shivers just right.
The Dove Man, the other boys on the gutting line called him. None of them knew his first name or cared to learn it, but they baptized him with rumor and any number of other crude things that Grant didn’t know for truth or hearsay beyond the fact that the man raised birds. Dove Man aside, Marlon had given him a fair price on the room above the garage and had been kind enough to help him haul his bare mattress and the two suitcases holding his worldly possessions up the stairs and into the bedroom. Left his phone number on a piece of paper and pressed that and the apartment key into Grant’s hand with all the frankness of an old friend, and that had been that.
Marlon is good people as far as Grant can tell, whether the things the other guys said had any truth shining on them or not—a decent man who didn’t need to get his hands dirtied by anything outside his circle of doing. Grant looks around the yard and thinks of the shady patch of grass overlooking the woods behind the garage, where honeysuckle climbs up the gnarled body of a dead oak outside his bedroom window. About as peaceful as anything he’s seen since he crossed the state line, quiet and modest in its slow but steady returning crawl toward wilderness.
He’ll go out there and have one last cigarette. The single shot will spook the birds, but Marlon will think it was one of the neighbors going after squirrels or an armadillo again and be none the wiser for a few good days at least. Grant doesn’t think about it much beyond that.
There’s a long gravel lane that butts up to the front road, just two dirt tire tracks set into the yard leading to a hinged gate strung with an old bell. Grant passes the dove coop on foot as he makes his way up to the paved asphalt, drawing the indifferent stare of the resident golden-eyed calico where she sits vigil beneath the shade of a thorny lemon tree, but Marlon doesn’t hear him come or go until the gate swings open and his head whips up at the familiar sound.
“Afternoon there, Grant,” he says by way of greeting, nodding a little bit. He’s holding a peaches-and-cream colored bird between two hands, the creature gone still and docile. “You off to the docks this early? On the day before Easter proper, good Lord.”
Grant swallows in the thick drape of afternoon heat but makes his slack mouth form a smile that feels like it was cut and pasted onto his face. “Was just heading up to the corner store before it gets dark,” he says, closing the gate behind him. The bell sounds too-loud in his ears, the tinkling harsher than it has any right to be. “I’ll be back after while.”
“On foot?” Marlon asks, standing up a little straighter. “I mean, I’d be more than happy to give you a lift if you’ll wait long enough for me to put this damn bird down and wash my hands off real quick.”
Grant can feel the other man’s eyes, curious but lacking the shaming burn of any judgement. He can’t bring himself to meet them in full, afraid he’ll somehow give it all away.
“Nah, think I’m all set,” he says, holding up a hand in a parting half-wave. Marlon’s face changes a little but doesn’t darken, still watching him with a thoughtful sort of expression. “You have a good night if I—” Grant starts, and wavers for only half a second before finding the fumbled fuse of his voice. “If I don’t see you again.”
“Take care,” is all Marlon says with a smile that causes crow’s feet gather at the corners of his eyes, and then opens his hands to watch the peachy dove flutter its wings and fly higher to join its kin on their roost.
There’s an old corner station down the way about two miles or so, tucked in the dusty armpit between paved street and an old clay road leading back deeper into where the orange groves start to sprawl. No car ever seems to stop there for gas or the advertised window-wash but the open sign is always facing out, hanging crooked on a piece of twine in the glass door.
Grant spots the ugly little runt of a rundown building from about a quarter-mile away and vaguely wonders what it might’ve been before the gas pumps were brought in and set in concrete. There’s a ghost of a mural painted on the western side, flaking off and baked by too many years under the beating sun, but it hints at a bygone and wilder time in Florida’s past. He thinks he can see mangroves and swampland, brown-skinned Seminoles and white folks on horseback driving their cattle out to scrubby pastureland.
He wasn’t born here, raised up on the coast of North Carolina a few more skips of a stone further than anybody else around these parts, but Florida had snared him in like it did any of the other foreigners who found themselves sucked into the state’s orbit by more chance than choosing. Flat and ugly and plowed over by asphalt and big ticket tourism, but stippled with a southern-fried sort of charm if you veered off the beaten path and got a closer look at what was tucked away in the land’s nooks and crannies. Grant had only ever stepped far enough to find fish guts and shrimp broilers and the potholes in the road between Marlon’s property and a strip of bars on the dockside marina, but he couldn’t deny what was there beyond his line of sight. He just hadn’t found any reason left to go and see it for himself.
Rust-colored dust starts kicking up around Grant’s boots, powdering the toes with a fine layer of parched clay. He squints ahead at the gas station and only sees one car parked off to the side, an old blue station wagon wedged up right near the ice cooler. His shirt is stuck flush to the small of his back and he wants for a cold drink something awful, throat gone drier than it’d been when he left the apartment.
More importantly than that, he really needs a goddamn cigarette.
The orange clay gives way to crushed oyster concrete, bleached so white that it hurts his eyes to look at. Grant sees the ancient Joe Camel poster hanging in the dirty window, the neon Budweiser sign glowing nearby with the B long since burnt out. His vision tunnels in on the front door like the means to an end and it’s just by mistake that he even glances off to the right at all, eyes shifting the barest bit when they catch something out of place at the corner of the brick building.
There’s a dog, lean and beginning to go white in the face, sprawled out on its side in a shrinking patch of shade. It’s dug itself a shallow trench in the clay earth and flopped down in it to keep cool under the relentless blaze of afternoon. The old cur is the color of wild honey, a dark and tawny blonde with two white feet. It doesn’t move when Grant scuffs his boot heels on the pavement and only the small rise and fall of its gaunt ribs belies the fact that it’s breathing at all.
He stops and whistles to it, the sound ringing sharp across the empty lot, and the dog’s ears prick while one eye cracks open but it doesn’t move any more than that. Neither the animal nor the patch of ground surrounding it gives off any sign of tenure. There’s no collar to be seen, no mismatched food or water dishes set out, not even an errant scrap of foam tray to eat table scrapings off of. Grant lingers for a moment and then sniffs to himself before going to the door, letting a weak gust of AC out into the heat as he steps inside and heads for the front counter.
The clerk working the till is a woman caught in the no-man’s land of hazy middle age, too many cigarettes and long years of hard living putting her anywhere between forty and sixty-five. Her hair had once been bottle-blonde but has been left to grow out wiry and greying at the temples, all of it wrapped up and twisted at the back of her head in a bright yellow banana clip. She eyeballs Grant with the hardened but indifferent stare of somebody who’s seen the dregs of humanity and done nothing but light another smoke and use her middle finger to point them toward the door.
“We’re outta ice,” she says before he can even open his mouth. “Machine’s been broke since last week.”
Grant stares up at the wall of tobacco cartons behind her while he fishes his wallet from his pocket, eyes swiveling past tins of dip and some parched-looking cigarillos until he finds what he came looking for.
“Just a pack of Marlboro Reds,” he says, eyes still caught on the prize. His vision is crystal clear but there’s a fogginess lingering in the back of his head, quietly numbing, like his skull’s been overstuffed with cotton batting. “No ice.”
The clerk doesn’t hurry with moving off her three-legged stool, still leveling him with a bored look from across the counter. “You want Kings or 100s?”
“Hundreds,” Grant says, bringing a thumb up to brush against his mouth. The woman finally gets up to pluck a pack of cigarettes off the wall but Grant’s eyes have strayed out the dirty window, where they watch empty road until the old cash register opens with a tired jangle of coins and the woman slaps his Marlboros on the counter.
Grant passes his last twenty dollar bill into her hand, opens his mouth and then closes it. She’s breaking a new roll of dimes into the drawer when he wets his bottom lip and tries again, listening to his own voice as if it’s coming at him from the other side of a deep tunnel.
“That dog out there belong to you?”
The clerk arches a penciled eyebrow up at him, pinching her mouth together so the creases in her upper lip fold like origami paper. “That ain’t no dog of mine,” she says. “Been chasing it off for two, three days now. Keeps coming back.”
“Anybody been feeding it?” Grant asks. He’s not meeting the woman’s eye, gaze settled somewhere on her forehead. He can feel his own pulse beating in his neck, steady and sure, and reaches up to press a fingertip to it before dropping the hand away.
“I damn sure haven’t,” she says, pushing his change across the counter. “And if it’s out there in the morning I’m gonna have to call a fella down here to either pick it up or shoot it, because it don’t look healthy no-how. Got something wrong with it.”
Grant blinks and feels like he’s wavering while standing in place, a stopped clock somehow still ticking. He looks at the clerk for the first time since walking inside, really looks at her, and then glances at his untouched change and Marlboros still sitting on the counter before turning to go back to the drink cooler at the rear of the store.
The clerk watches as he takes a bottle of water and grabs a long stick of beef jerky from a box in the snack aisle, only returning to the front counter to slip his cigarettes into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Let me go ahead and refigure this change,” the woman says with a withering sigh as she reaches for the money, but Grant gives a half-shake of his head.
“I don’t need it,” he says, and then turns to push back out through the door that brought him in, letting the din of a passing truck rattle inside before he turns and disappears around the corner of the building.
Outside dusk has rolled across the flattened land like the innards of a broken flask, spilling burnt ochre and mint-penny copper in its wake. Grant sets the bottle of water and jerky on top of an empty newspaper stand at the corner of the building and sticks a cigarette between his teeth, holding a flame up to the tip until it catches and starts to glow.
He breathes in deep through the filter before blowing out a cloud of smoke, watching it unfurl and disappear on the air. The nicotine’s spell is almost instant and he takes another shallow drag before tapping a curl of ash onto the sidewalk, attention finally turning back to the bottle already starting to gather beads of sweat.
The plastic lid twists off with a crack and Grant takes a swig off the top, cigarette caught between two fingers while he drinks. He licks at the cold water against his mouth and then steps off the sidewalk to peer around the side of the building where the dog is still lying motionless at the base of the mural.
Another whistle doesn’t make it move this time, so he plods through the dust and squats down on his haunches where it can see him with one eye. “Hey there,” Grant says, holding out a hand with the palm up. He rests the water bottle between his boots and takes one last puff on his cigarette before snubbing it in the dirt and flinging it away. “C’mere, man. Got something good for you.”
Grant pours a little bit of water into his cupped hand and holds it out, making a soft kissy sound between his lips. The dog’s tail thumps once but it stays where it is, watching through dark chocolate eyes as he lets the water dribble into the dirt.
“Hard to get, huh,” Grant murmurs, tipping his head to wipe his mouth against the shoulder of his t-shirt. He stays squatting there for a long moment, watching the dog while the dog watches him in kind, and then rises back up on creaking joints. He comes back with the beef jerky stick in hand, tearing into the plastic wrapper with his teeth before peeling it back enough to start breaking off little morsels.
The dog raises its head, blinking slowly in the evening light. Grant tosses a piece of jerky into the dirt and it lands around the halfway point between where they each sit. He pops one into his mouth and slowly chews around the sweet smoky flavor before pitching another piece out in offering.
“Go ahead,” he says, sitting proper in the orange dirt now. “The rest is all yours.”
A big rig roars past on the road and the dog’s nose twitches, idly testing the air. Its body shifts in the dirt and slowly draws up until it’s resting on both haunches, white paws stretched out in front like the body of the great sphinx. Grant doesn’t move and it’s not until his chest starts aching that he remembers to breathe.
He draws in a deep lungful of air and looks away, eyes following the long line of his own shadow pulling like taffy across the weedy dirt. The dog lifts its head in his peripherals, and when he feigns interest in picking at some grit on the ground the old cur finally stands but doesn’t take more than a step, stretching its neck out to nibble the closest piece of jerky.
Grant breaks off another piece and tosses it between them and waits. Takes a swallow of water and debates having a second cigarette but decides against it for the time being. The dog moves inches closer and snatches the next tidbit before drawing back again, eyes peeled wide and wary. It’s lame on one back foot, Grant notices—doing a limping sort of three-legged hop every time it has to take a step. Ribs move under its skin like a grotesque undulation of fingers pressing against leather from the inside.
He cranes his neck around for a peek and decides that the It is definitely more of a She, and probably mother to more than just a few litters of puppies in her heyday judging by the looks of her. This feels like a new truth caught between them and even though all her milk’s long since dried up Grant tries something new, keeping his voice held steady and low.
“C’mere, mama,” he says, holding out the jerky stick in the open palm of his hand. An old Cadillac rumbles into the lot and a door opens and slams but he doesn’t budge or startle, letting the sky grow darker around them. “Come on, pretty lady—it’s alright. You need to have another bite to eat and drink some of this water for me.”
The beef jerky slowly gets smaller piece by piece, shrinking down every time the dog takes another step nearer. Grant only has two scraps left when she finally gets close enough to smell his palm, and he smiles when he feels the cold wetness of her nose brush the heel of his hand. One more piece of jerky and he manages to rub a hand against her bony flank, keeping her close with the last of the snack polished off clean from between two fingers. He pushes his fingers a little more through her fur and she doesn’t dart away this time, standing there with her tail drawn between her legs.
“Good girl,” Grant says murmurs, and when he moves to reach for the water bottle she limps away on her bum leg but turns to eyeball him with something like timid curiosity on her tawny face, one ear perked up to listen while the other folds over against her head. She watches the cap twist off and then as Grant pour another dash of water into his hand, holding it out while he beckons her back over.
“I know you gotta be thirsty laying out in this heat,” he says, sitting there in the dirt with his shirt sweat-soaked and stuck to his skin. “I just about died even getting up here to this shithole.”
His throat tightens up a little around the words and his eyes start to sting even though the sun sinks behind him. A sudden rush of anger and hurt and something else he can’t name aches like a hard knot lodged deep in his chest, and he thinks about kicking the water away and getting up and walking in any direction but back to the empty apartment—straddling the painted yellow line on the asphalt like a fraying tightrope, maybe, probably, until he finally spots a semi’s lights approaching on the horizon.
But then the dog is limping closer, tail wagging low between her legs, and noses into his hand before gently lapping at the wetness gathered there. She looks back up expectantly when it’s gone, lightly stepping between her two white feet while the back leg anchors her steady. Grant pours out some more water without a word, letting her drink again and again until she’s had her fill and the legs of his jeans are splattered with flecks of drool and damp clay. He sets the water bottle aside when it’s mostly empty and reaches up to scratch around one of the dog’s floppy ears, soft as shaved velvet. She sits back on her haunches in front of him and leans into it, pushing her head further into his hand while the streetlamps begin to flicker on one by one further down the highway.
Grant keeps one hand on the dog and uses the other to reach for his cigarettes and lighter. He sticks a smoke in the corner of his mouth and then gathers his knees up underneath himself, waiting until he’s back on his feet to better appraise the fallen knife of nightfall.
“You stay put for a second,” he says, picking up the jerky rapper and absently crumpling it in one hand. “Don’t go anywhere ‘til I get back.”
The station clerk looks up with the door swings open, still sitting on her three-legged stool with a ballgame running on a tiny TV behind the counter now. Her eyes flash with something untold and then narrow, one hand reaching underneath the lip of the register for a weapon Grant can’t see. “You know I can’t tolerate folks loitering around this place,” she says while Grant brushes orange dust off his denim with a lazy sort of slap, unlit cigarette still jammed between his teeth.
“Looks like I need a couple of those quarters back after all,” he says. “If you don’t mind.”
“Just a couple?” the clerk asks, eyes whetted sharp. The crack of a bat rings out from the television and the stadium goes wild, filling the empty store with phantom applause.
“Whatever it takes to put a local call through the payphone out front,” Grant tells her. He pulls his wallet out and unfolds a piece of creased paper from the inner sleeve that he hasn’t read or looked at since it was pressed into his hand seven months ago. “I found a man to take that dog off your hands.”
An old truck dusted with clay pulls into the lot and cuts its diesel engine, leaving the headlights burning where they fall against a wall of painted mural. The door swings open and Marlon steps out, one hand caught around the open window frame while his eyes swivel to the pair of silhouettes sitting on a curb at one corner of the building.
“I’m glad you called when you did,” he says, easing the truck’s door shut before starting at a walk up to where fluorescent light is spilling through the station window onto gum-pocked concrete. He palms the back of his neck, and the way he moves with a swing in his step means he’s got a piece strapped somewhere up under his shirt. “Got a little worried with you heading off on foot so close to dark, being near the highway n’ all. Was debating on whether or not I was fool enough to go out looking for a grown-ass man.”
Marlon slows to a stop a few yards away, hitching both hands up on his hips to watch Grant blow smoke away from his companion. He tips his head forward, standing there at the edge of where light has bled across the lot. “You reckon she bites?”
“Hasn’t bit me yet,” Grant says, running his free hand down the dog’s back. Her body has tensed since Marlon pulled up, tail motionless and head held high, but she hasn’t growled or made any move to run. “She’s got something wrong with her hind foot, though, so I wouldn’t be touching it if you can help it.”
Grant drags his cigarette down to the filter and stubs it out between his boots with two other butts. Both men stay quiet, eyes pooled together on the dog, and they seem to be stuck at a draw until Marlon clears his throat and scuffs the sole of his boot across the pavement.
“Well,” he says, squinting even though any sign of daylight is long gone. “Pound’s closed up shop for the night. What did you want to do with her?”
“I don’t know,” Grant says, reaching around to scratch under the dog’s jaw. He thinks of what the clerk told him earlier but can’t seem to repeat it again, wondering why he suddenly feels like a little boy again, caught outside after curfew with an old belt waiting across his daddy’s lap. “She can’t keep staying out here.”
“I didn’t really figure she was going to,” Marlon says. When Grant looks up there’s a little knowing smile pulling around the corner of his mouth, amused but kind. “Obviously she’s got somewhere better to stay—for tonight, at least.”
Grant nods at that and doesn’t know what to say, doubts he could even manage to speak if he tried, so he stands up and walks over to Marlon before squatting back down on his heels to call the dog over. She balks at first but then slowly slinks over, doing a little crow-hop to keep her weight off the bad leg. She sniffs at Marlon’s boot and then his offered hand, tail thumping against Grant’s side like another heartbeat when it starts to wag.
“Could you help me load her up in the back?” Grant asks, drawing up to his full height even though his gaze is stuck somewhere on the decaying mural. He can feel Marlon looking at him but doesn’t turn into it, not wanting to ask with anything more than his voice. “She can’t make the jump on her own.”
“We ain’t putting her in the back,” Marlon says with a snort, like Grant really ought to know better. “Let her ride in the back seat, it won’t hurt much of nothing.”
He kneels down by the dog’s side and lets her shyly smell him again, sniffing along the sun-browned and freckled backs of his arms and hands. Marlon scratches around her ears and she bows into it, leaning into him hard enough that he’s pushed off balance.
“You’re just a sweet old gal, hmm?” he says, quiet but not quiet enough that Grant can’t hear. “That’s alright, now—come on, sugar.”
Careful not to jar her leg, both men heave the dog between them and help her into the back seat. She’s large in frame but hardly weighs anything in their hands, more skin and bone than meat and muscle, but plops down on the bench right away and sits pretty. Her face turns to look out the windshield, already braced and eager for some unknown new adventure.
“She used to belong to somebody,” Marlon says at the sight, stepping back to jam the door shut without slamming it too loudly. His mouth has pressed into a thinner line, an expression Grant hasn’t seen up close before. “Already knows how to ride in the truck.”
“They don’t deserve her,” Grant says, rolling the hem of his t-shirt between his fingers in lieu of lighting another cigarette. His voice feels like winter when it touches upon the humid night. “Anybody who let her get that way isn’t fit to keep her.”
Marlon slowly nods as he walks around the bed of the truck, palm making a hushed sound as it passes over the old paint. He stops at the opposite side before he reaches for the driver’s door, watching Grant through the golden streetlamp light.
“Have you eaten yet?” he asks. It’s an honest and simple question, extended like a handshake between them. “I was just getting around to supper when the phone rang, but I’d just as soon pick something up while we’re in town.”
Grant thinks of the remnants of his last twenty dollar bill sitting on the station clerk’s counter inside the building, and then tries not to think of his checkbook on the kitchen counter back at the apartment. “I haven’t been paid yet this week,” he lies, reaching up to brush something off his nose that isn’t there. “Money’s a little tight right now, but I do appreciate the offer.”
“It’ll be my treat, then,” Marlon says, patting the side of the truck like it’s a done deal. “C’mon. There’s a place on the way up to the feed store we can stop at, dine-out so you can sit outside with the dog.”
Grant’s mind feels like it’s moving too slow for the uptake, still wading through a web of that damp cotton. “The feed store?”
“This old girl has gotta eat too, don’t she?” Marlon asks with a little laugh. “Can find something up there to mix in with some ground chuck I got back at the house. And before you try and tell me I’m going out of my way, I was gonna head up there tomorrow to get bird feed anyhow.”
Grant stares at him, hard, and feels the line of his own throat bobbing in place. “Why are you doing all this?” he asks, feeling the itch for another cigarette thrumming down to the tips of his fingers.
“Consider it a tax write-off on my yearly good Samaritan quota,” Marlon says. “Or if you want the honest truth, maybe just because I feel like it.”
Grant squares his jaw and shakes his head. “I don’t know what to say.”
Marlon only smiles and opens the truck door. “If you’re taking suggestions, ’alright’ could be a good place to start.”
He slides in and cranks the engine over, idling there in the empty lot until Grant finally opens the passenger door and hauls himself up into the seat.
Darla’s Dine& Drive is lit up with pink and violet neon, just a few cars short of being slammed for a Saturday night. Marlon parks next to an empty convertible and gets out to rummage around under the seat until he comes back up with a length of braided nylon rope, something he passes over to Grant before making to head inside.
Grant stares at it in his hands, eyes gone a bit glassy and distant when he looks back up. Marlon’s skin looks periwinkle under the neon, hair soaking it up and turned to indigo.
“In case anybody tries to give you trouble about her being off leash,” he says, shutting the truck door but looking in through the open window. “You got a hankering for anything in particular? I was just gonna get a bag of burgers and fries otherwise, nothing fancy.”
“That’s fine by me,” Grant says, quiet. He hasn’t eaten anything but a piece of gas station jerky since last night’s mid-shift break, and even then it was nothing but bologna and hot sauce smashed between two pieces of white bread. “I’m not too picky.”
Marlon nods and heads off toward the diner, leaving Grant to twist around and reach into the back seat until a cold nose presses against his hand. He pets the dog’s forehead and rubs her soft ears, earns a lick or two across his knuckles before she lets out a low but pleased sigh.
“C’mon, mama,” he says, quickly tying a loose loop at one end of the rope before slipping it over her head. “Let’s get some fresh air.”
They’re both sitting on the pavement near the back of the truck when Marlon comes back out carrying a paper sack of food. He drops the tailgate and gestures for Grant to hop up and take a seat, setting the burgers and fries off to one side so the smell of salt and grease spikes on the night air. Grant’s stomach growls despite himself and he hopes it wasn’t loud enough to hear, but Marlon lets out a snort and digs a cheeseburger from the bag before passing it over.
“Stomach must be gnawing clean through to your backbone,” he says, and then reaches back into the bag to search for something else. The foil wrapper peels back to reveal a grilled beef patty without the bun and dressings, and he breaks it up into a few pieces before handing one off to the dog.
She gobbles it up in a second flat and then sits at their feet, looking between Marlon and the open wrapper still cupped in his hand. He tosses her another few small bites and then reaches into the bag to pull his own sandwich out, making a mock toast in Grant’s direction before digging in.
“What are you gonna name her?” he asks around a mouthful of burger, picking up a wad of fries and nestling the container between their hips on the tailgate. Marlon swallows and then fishes around for a napkin before pitching out another piece of meat for the dog.
“What?” Grant sputters, feeling his stomach dip and twist at the question. It startles a laugh out of him, something that bubbles up stark and foreign from the back of his throat. “I didn’t—I mean, I can’t—”
“Lady needs a name, man,” he says. “You ever try to call a pretty woman over from across a bar by whistling at her? Won’t get you anywhere good or fast, ‘less you go over and ask for her name first.”
Grant glances down at the half-eaten sandwich in his hands, mind turning over like a choked crank. He rips a piece of bun off and bends at the waist to feed it to the dog, who takes it more gingerly than she had the chunks of beef. “What makes you think I wanted to keep her?”
“Well, I wouldn’t be the one to stop you if you wanted to,” Marlon says lightly, dragging a French fry through a smear of mustard on his burger wrapper. “Never said there was a restriction on animals in the lease, now did I? Unless you started hauling boa constrictors up in there or some wild mess—then we’d have a problem.”
“Anyway,” he says with a wave of his hand, eyes somewhere across the lot where a group of teenagers are spilling out of the diner with milkshakes and swirled ice cream cones. “That can wait for now, but we still gotta call her by something.”
Grant looks down at the dog and she looks back, ears cocked in something akin to interest. She’ll need more than a name, he knows—food and water and a bath and a bed, not to mention a trip to the vet and whatever it takes to mend a gimp paw. Time and money, the last two things Grant wanted to hold himself accountable for when he’d woken up in the final leg of afternoon.
“What does she look like to you?” he asks, dipping a hand into the fries while Marlon takes a hard gander at the dog with a thoughtful look poised across his face. “You must be good at naming things, what with all the animals you got on your place.”
“A mouser cat and a coop full of birds ain’t exactly a petting zoo, but I’m glad I still hold some clout as an expert,” Marlon says. He smiles a little wryly, more to himself than anything else. “They still call me Dove Man down at the fish plant?”
Grant nearly drops his food on the pavement but can’t think of a good reason to lie. “How’d you know about that?”
“People talk,” Marlon says with a half-shrug. “Been talking for the past ten years since I moved down here. Sticks and stones, y’know—no real skin off my teeth. If that’s the worst thing they call me, I’d say I’m sitting pretty in the grand scheme.”
Grant can’t bring himself to mention the other things, the crueler things, keeping them hidden and unsaid under the flat of his tongue. He figures Marlon must have heard it all before and even if he hasn’t, Grant wouldn’t want him to know. But his curiosity prickles a little more than before, and there are still the birds to talk about instead.
“How’d you get started?” he asks, picking up another fry but leaving the last one untouched. “Raising doves, I mean.”
Marlon laughs under his breath, eyes casting high up over the diner’s roof. “I’d probably bore you to tears with the whole story,” he says. “It was something I…kinda married into, so to speak. More like an inheritance.”
Grant turns to watch him and knows Marlon’s mind has gone somewhere else, another place far beyond Florida’s reach and the parking lot they’re sitting in. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard of anybody inheriting birds.”
“Most people wouldn’t,” Marlon says. The corner of his mouth twitches, a smile caught between something fond and somber. “Somebody I—someone who was real important to me passed on, and when they did I wasn’t gonna give up what they loved. Felt bigger than me somehow.”
“It’s satisfying work, and I like it,” Marlon adds, sliding off the tailgate. “Therapeutic, guess you could say. Peaceful.”
He crumples up his empty burger foil and drops it in the paper bag before running his hands down over the thighs of his jeans. “Would you tell me your name if you could talk?” he asks the dog, kneeling back down to where she’s sitting with the nylon rope neatly coiled and looped in a loose necklace around her neck. “Something fine and pretty, hmm?”
“She shines like honey in the sun,” Grant murmurs, thinking of the mongrel he’d first seen lying at the base of the mural. “Some kind of golden whiskey color, almost.”
“Butterscotch,” Marlon suggests, and then starts ticking off a longer list of names. “Taffy, Clover, Cookie, Caramel—hell, I don’t know. How about Jackie Daniels?”
“Nah,” Grant says, letting his empty burger wrapper join Marlon’s in the trash before reaching for his pack of Marlboros. “I don’t know if any of those are suiting. Never really liked naming things after food.”
Marlon swears low under his breath and then lets out a coyote-barking laugh. “You’re the one over there saying she looks like honey and whiskey! Jesus is probably gonna rise up and roll out of his resurrection tomb tomorrow morning before you can decide on something.”
Grant taps ash off the end of his lit cigarette while both brows knit together in a seam on his forehead. He pulls in another drag and exhales, watching the smoke filter up through shades of bright pink and purple.
“You said tomorrow’s Easter, right? Earlier—in the dove coop.”
“Well yeah, thought you knew that already,” Marlon says, running a hand down the dog’s back to feel along the sharp ridge of her spine. “Not that I make any big shindig out of it or nothing, it was more like a casual observation.”
“Easter,” Grant says again, and then nods down at the dog with a little grin ghosting around his mouth. “She’s an Easter girl.”
Marlon silently mouths the word to himself like he’s got to try the shape of it on for size. “Easter,” he says, ruffling the dog’s ears before straightening back up. He shifts his weight over onto one hip, standing there with one of his boots cocked out to the side. “I mean—it ain’t terrible.”
Easter only smiles, pink tongue lolling out one side of her mouth when they load her back up in the truck and start the drive further into town, making a wide loop around the feed store lot before turning around to head back home.
The bell strung on the chain link jostles when Grant gets out to jimmy the gate, letting the diesel truck rumble further down the lane until he can pull it shut behind them. There’s only one window shining in Marlon’s place, lit up like a gold tooth set back into its darkened face. The rest of the property is draped over in shades of blue-black, all the doves long since huddled together and gone to bed even though honeysuckle and orange blossom still lingers in a perfume daylight left behind in its wake.
Grant sits silently in the passenger seat as Marlon steers further down the drive, past his own house to the little above-garage apartment at the back. There are no lights left on here, save for a security lamp that flashes on at the corner of the building when it senses the truck pull up. Easter sits quietly in the back seat with a sack of bird feed and a hefty bag of dog kibble, the latter of which she keeps sniffing around and scratching at with one of her white paws.
Marlon steps down out of the truck before Grant can fully think to protest, slinging the bag of dogfood over one shoulder. He keeps Easter from jumping out on the pavement while he waits for the other man to come around and get her, holding a steadying hand against her chest.
“I’ll help you up with this real quick,” Marlon says. “You think she can make it on the stairs all right?”
“Maybe,” Grant says, feeling somewhat dazed. His clothes feel stale and heavy on his body, weighed down with sweat and the hot breath of humidity. The pack of Marlboros is halfway empty now but seems heavier than a clay brick in his pocket. “Listen, Marlon—you’ve already done enough for me today. I’ll take that up after I get her settled.”
He helps Easter down onto the gravel and leads her over to the stairs at a careful hobble, takes the first two wooden steps up and then calls to her, whistling and patting his thigh. “Come on, girl,” Grant says. “One at a time, you can do it.”
The dog watches him and thumps her tail but doesn’t make any move to go up, body wriggling while she whines on the ground and stares at him with both front feet prancing in place. Grant tries to coax her again, doing everything he can to keep raw nerves from seeping into his voice.
“Take her up and I’ll follow you with this,” Marlon says after a minute, patting the bag of food still hefted on his shoulder. “It’s no trouble, and I promise I won’t keep you.”
Grant blows out a sigh but bows his head into agreement, leaning down to gather the dog up into his arms. She stiffens but doesn’t struggle, heartbeat pattering against his forearm once he’s got his hand hooked under her rib cage. They take the creaking stairs one at a time, Marlon trailing along close behind with one hand held out as if ready to catch anything that falls.
The door swings open without a key and Grant steps over the threshold with Easter still held close. It’s pitch dark inside, not even the neon-green numbers of an alarm clock or radio there to light up their passage, and he sets her down before turning to try and keep Marlon from moving any further inside.
“Hit a light would you, I can’t see for shit,” Marlon grunts from somewhere to Grant’s right, boots already thudding on the linoleum. He slides a hand along the wall until he finds a switch and the first one flips on the bulb above the kitchen counter. “There we go—uh.”
The light shines down on everything Grant had placed there earlier in the evening, all of it untouched and just the way he’d left it. Box of cereal, a single check, an avalanche of mail halfway scattered in the floor and his loaded gun.
Grant breaks out into a dizzying kind of sweat, swift and sickening. The room seems to spin around him for a moment, blurring at the edges like a finger dragged through wet oil paints. “I’ll take care of it all,” he says, dumb and thoughtlessly, not even hearing his own voice when it moves through the air. As if he’s blindly picking a phrase written on a piece paper from a fishbowl. “You can get on—get on back, to the house.”
Marlon sets the bag of dog food down at his feet but doesn’t budge, eyes pivoted straight over to the name scrawled on the check in black ink. Easter is standing like the third star point of an equal-sided triangle, watching them where she waits at the mouth of the kitchenette, uninterested for the moment in exploring her new surroundings.
“Your rent isn’t due for another three weeks,” Marlon says, gone strangely quiet, the words tilted a little on one side. “Grant,” he says, touching two fingers to the check where it rests on the counter. He pulls it from beneath the beer bottle so he can look at the amount written there, a crease deepening between his brows. “That’s too much.”
“I know,” Grant rasps, looking anywhere and everywhere but the other man. Shame is beating through every ounce of blood in his body while black spots begin to dance in his vision. “I know.”
Neither of them move, and then Easter lets out a sharp bark that rings through the kitchen. Marlon clears his throat and doesn’t speak, though he steps past Grant to take a dishtowel hanging off the refrigerator’s handle before returning to look at the spread laid out on the counter.
He picks up the gun and checks the chamber and magazine before dumping all the bullets into his left hand. They clatter on the countertop like dropped marbles, and then Marlon switches the safety on and goes over the gun’s barrel and body with the cloth, methodically wiping away his own fingerprints until it’s clean.
“Where do you keep this?” he asks, looking up at Grant with a neutral expression painted across his face.
“The lockbox,” Grant hears himself say. He presses his back against the wall and slides down it until he’s sitting on the kitchen floor, not even really aware he’s done it until Easter limps over to join him. He can’t even raise his hand to point, arms slumped in his lap while the dog presses her thin body closer. “Over there by the microwave.”
Marlon breezes past again and opens the box’s lid before setting the gun inside, leaving it swaddled in the faded dishtowel. The hinges creak shut and the lock clicks in place after he spins the dial into a jumble, turning then to nod toward Easter.
“I don’t think the stairs are gonna be kind to her until that foot heals up,” Marlon says, passing a hand over his mouth like he’s thought long and judiciously on the matter. “Might be best if she sleeps on the ground floor for the time being, you know—bathroom breaks and such.”
“Yeah,” Grant says. “She’d be better off at your place.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Marlon says, rubbing his palms together. “So go ahead and grab your toothbrush and whatever it is you need.”
The words sound so sudden and strange that Grant tips his head back to stare at him, lips slightly parted to draw in a shallow breath. “What?”
“I mean, the guest room ain’t exactly a hotel suite but it’ll do in a pinch,” Marlon says, bending over to pick up the dog food again. “Easter can sleep in there with you for the night, if you want.”
The front door has been standing open since they walked in but Grant hasn’t noticed until now. A chorus of cricket song and the distant call of a night bird suddenly erupts around them, popping the bubble of silence in his ears. A warm breeze rustles outside, passing through the citrus trees and tall palms casting shadows across Marlon’s yard before getting swallowed up into the wilder thicket of gnarled oaks and stinkweed vine.
Grant senses the balmy sheen of sweat on his face, how it feels cooler in the air moving through the apartment. He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out the crumpled pack of cigarettes before tapping one out into his hand and bringing it up to his mouth. The lighter’s flame flicks and catches and he draws in a deep enough pull that it hollows his cheeks out, the chemical ritual of it leaving the rest of his body feeling quieter and sated.
Marlon holds out a hand to help him off the floor and Grant takes it without pause, hauling himself up to his feet with the smoke still jammed in the corner of his mouth.
“You wanna lock up real quick?” Marlon asks once they’re standing together, his fingers warm around Grant’s palm until they gently fall away. The slow fan of Easter’s wagging tail is the only other movement beyond their quiet breathing.
“Alright,” Grant says and then nods, for Marlon and for himself. He can’t quite smile but tries for a laugh that comes out shaking along the edges, splintered but still whole. “Alright.”
He palms his keys and phone off the counter and whistles for Easter before they both turn and follow Marlon back through the open door.
Hannah is a native Floridian and earned her BA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida in 2015. She is a dog walker by day and a writer of softer endings by night. This piece as it appears in sea foam is her first accepted publication, but you can keep tabs on her upcoming writing adventures over at www.dreamrafters.tumblr.com