Blue Dog in the Crazy Truck
I have to tell you this story so I can tell you the real one.
When Pippin and I were both seven, my father and I were taking her for a walk. We were passing in front of that little store on the next block, which had been boarded up for years, only on that day some new business was moving in. Three big guys were wheeling stuff on dollies, stuff like refrigerator cases and big metal shelves. They had their tee-shirt sleeves rolled high, all three of them, sweating in the heat. They all looked a little bit alike, wheeling stuff from a moving van at the curb, passing each other on the sidewalk. Just as we crossed in front of their shop, Pippin stopped and squatted down, and I prayed all she would do was pee. Two of the guys just stopped, and a minute later the third came out and he stood and stared at us, too, with his hands on his hips. Staring at this smelly little pile on their pavement.
Well, I should make this a shorter story, since it’s not even the really important one.
The guys said, “Clean it up.” And my father said, “Come on. Give me a break. With what? My hands?” And the guys said, “Clean it up, or we’re going to call the police,” and that’s when I noticed they were all a lot bigger than him. That my father wasn’t as big as I always thought he was. “Okay,” he said, “no need for that.” They brought him a skimpy little paper napkin from inside the shop.
When we got home, he told the story to my mother. Only when he got to the part about them calling the police, he claimed to have said, “Oh, come on, you’re not going to call the police.” Right in front of me he told it like that. Like I wasn’t right there when it happened.
That’s when I learned about shame, which always feels more painful on someone else’s behalf.
Less than a year later my mother divorced us, and I didn’t see much of her after that. I always figured she must have seen it, too, somehow. Seen some little glimpse of what I’d seen. So now we both knew he wasn’t quite as big as we thought. And I was his son, so I must have been what he was, and not been what he was not, which I think is why she divorced me, too. That was always my theory, anyway. You need to be able to explain a thing like that in your head, or you’ll never get to sleep. Even an explanation that basically means you suck is better than no explanation at all.
Okay. I had to tell you that story so I could tell you this one.
Pippin and I were thirteen and a half. We didn’t live in Western New York near that little store anymore. We lived in Echo Park in Los Angeles with Alvie. My father and I were taking Pippin for a walk down Alvarado Street. It was late in the evening, maybe eight-thirty, but still--I swear--eighty-five degrees. September, that weird kind of L.A. Indian Summer where the smog and the buildings trap the heat and you can’t see the sky but you know it’s hot, wherever it is.
It’s hard for me to say what happened first, how it started, because I was looking at Pippin. She was rooting around at the edge of a vacant lot, looking for a place to pee. Pippin was a Welsh Corgi, with legs about four inches long, so when you looked at her, you were looking at the ground, and you didn’t see much else, because nothing much goes on at that level.
When I looked up I saw the man. He had greasy dark blond hair, and a tattoo on his jaw. A long vertical cross with a snake crawling along it. Right on his face. Where someone else would have a sideburn, he had this. It was dark where we stood, nowhere near a streetlight, but just for a minute somebody’s car lights lit us up. I expected the man’s knife to look shiny. I thought that was part of the dangerousness of the knife. How light was supposed to glint off it into my eyes. But it looked rusty, or just filthy, maybe. Or both. I wanted the person who owned the car lights to stop and help. Things were being said. I guess they must have been. I could hear them, in a way. I remember the sound of voices, but not what was said. My father took off his watch and handed it over.
I got that feeling again. That same feeling like watching him pick up dog shit with this tiny little skimpy napkin that barely covered his hand, with all those big guys watching. I know it’s not fair that I felt that. Believe me, I know. I’m just telling you what I felt. I’m not saying it’s fair.
At a moment like that you think things, and you feel things, and they happen fast. They don’t ask permission. They’re not always even important thoughts, and they don’t always make good sense.
Like, I thought, Jesus Christ, guy, at least take care of your knife. I mean, you’re a robber, a mugger, whatever. This is a tool of your trade.
And I thought it was good he was a white guy like me and my father, because it would be really hard to go home and tell Alvie a black guy mugged my father and sliced him up with a rusty blade and left him bleeding onto Alvarado Street. It would’ve hurt me to tell Alvie that, because it would’ve hurt her to hear it, in one of those funny little places where things get in and you can’t get in after them to take away the sting.
I make it sound like I had lots of time to think about things, but really it all happened fast.
When my father took his watch off to hand it over, he dropped Pippin’s leash. And Pippin took off running. And I ran after her. I wondered later if I ran after her because I was afraid for her, which I’m sure was part of it, or if running after something--to something--made it a less obvious example of running away. While I was chasing her I wondered if she was scared. If she was running away, too. But I knew probably not. Pippin would always run if you dropped the leash, as long as I’d known her, which was always. I didn’t figure she knew enough about this to run scared. Pippin was always scared of the wrong things. Always trying to defend us from things that didn’t matter--like the crazy dog in the blue truck, which I’ll tell you about later--and then going off on a romp while some guy sliced up my father. I’d been trying to teach her but she just didn’t get it because she was only a dog.
She ran across the street and almost got hit by a car. But the guy squealed on his brakes and stopped in time, and I ran after her, ran by in front of him, with one hand up, like waving. Like, thanks for not killing her, because I’ve never lived a day she wasn’t around. Then a car going the other way actually hit me. Not all that hard, but it did. The guy tried to stop, and maybe another six inches he would have. But the headlight hit my right hip and knocked me down. I didn’t even break his headlight, though, and it didn’t break me, because I got up and kept running. Pippin started to wear down after awhile, and I caught her leash and we ran home together. I never once looked over my shoulder. After a while I had to pick her up, because she couldn’t run that fast anymore. Being thirteen and those little short legs. Still she weighed over twenty pounds, and I was running straight uphill. Seven blocks straight uphill from Alvarado Street, that’s where we lived with Alvie. I could feel sweat running on my face; my face felt hot, radiating hot, like my skin was letting off heat. My chest burned, but I think I could have run to the top of that hill if I had to, because I had to. Because I had to get home to Alvie. If I could just get home and tell Alvie, somehow this night could be over.
We lived in a court apartment, one of the ones all the way at the top, up the steep stairs. I put Pippin down on her short legs again. Grabbed the handrail, which was a long welded pipe right up the center of the stairs. And all the way up I screamed for her. Alvie. Alvie. Alvie.
When I got to our door she threw it open, and we stood face to face. Just stood like that under the porch light, two mirror faces, and in hers I could see what she saw in mine. She had fine, dark black skin, Alvie. Shiny black, and hair in a river of tiny, neat, perfect braids. Each braid had beads at the end, and I loved the sound they made, the clattering, like a wind chime. It always made Alvie sound more alive than everybody else. But as we stood looking at each other, her hair was perfectly silent. I could see the whites all the way around the chestnut of her eyes.
I waited in Alvie’s car while she made the call. Alvie had a big old-fashioned boat of a car, an old Chevy with no hubcaps, but it ran fine. She took good care of the parts that counted, and it always ran. When she got in, I didn’t even look over at the side of her face. I didn’t want her to look at mine. I was afraid of what she’d see. Afraid she’d look at me and feel shame, like she was watching me clean up dog crap while a bunch of big guys watched.
I didn’t use my voice to show her where to drive, I just pointed.
When we got to the corner there was nothing there. Nobody. Like nothing had ever happened. Just a black puddle, like somebody drove their car up on the sidewalk and then spilled their dirty crankcase oil. Alvie always carried a flashlight under her seat. She had a knack for practical things like that, very organized, which is one reason my father and I needed her so much. We got out and stood on the corner together, and Alvie shined her flashlight on that puddle, and it turned red. The black had only been a trick of the light.
Alvie spoke three words under her breath. But I don’t know what they were. Maybe because of that sweet, thick accent, or just the way she hushed them. Maybe she wasn’t even speaking English just then. I think they had something to do with praying to God but that’s only a gut impression. Really I had no way to know.
At the hospital I told everyone Alvie was my stepmother. It should have been the other way around. She was practically his wife, and she should have been telling them I was his son, and defending my right to be there. But she wasn’t his wife, not really, and they were more interested in blood. Blood relations. Which made Alvie a poor relation, standing behind me while I tried to explain.
I told one nurse Alvie was my mother, just to see the look on the nurse’s face. Just to see her do what I knew she would, look from Alvie’s exotic blackness to my own towhead and freckles and back again. I wanted to say, “Fuck you,” to her, but I knew I’d regret it later, because it wasn’t her fault my father got cut.
“The boy exaggerates,” Alvie said, drawing it out song-like and thick, her accent still more proof that I was a liar.
The nurse shook her head as if she could shake us away for the night.
While we sat in the waiting room, while my father lay on that operating table, I confessed a sin to Alvie. It was the first either of us had spoken in nearly an hour, and it startled us both to hear the sound of my voice. “Alvie,” I said. “I told my friends from school that you were from Jamaica.” What this had to do with the moment I could not have explained. But now I see it was something about that nurse. How she took something away from Alvie--something that rightly belonged to her--by knowing at a glance we were not blood relatives. And then, sitting waiting for my father to make it through surgery or die on the table, it dawned on me that I had stolen something from Alvie, too. I had stolen her heritage for selfish gains. For stupid reasons, like the word Haiti sounding like the word hate. And Jamaica being a place you go for a vacation, to lie on white sand and drink rum. And Haiti being a place where Pappa Doc and Baby strung innocent people from trees and wouldn’t allow their neighbors to cut them down and put their bodies to rest in the ground.
“Why would you say that, Neal? You know where I’m from.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know. I’m sorry.”
She looked at me for a moment. It seemed like a long moment. I prayed I wouldn’t look too small to her. Then she set her mouth strangely and shook her head. I knew she would ask no more about it. It had flown away from her mind. “Why didn’t you do something, Neal?”
My stomach chilled strangely, and for the first time I realized my hip hurt. It wasn’t injured exactly, but it was pretty bruised up, and the sensation broke through, for the first time, and I noticed that. “Like what?” I said.
“Scream, or run out and stop traffic.”
“I don’t know.”
My eyes were squeezed shut, so it startled me when she grabbed me. We were sitting on a vinyl couch together, and she threw her arms around me, and pulled me in against her, and pulled my head to her shoulder. Then my eyes opened, and stayed that way, like they might never close again. I could see the clock on the waiting room wall, and hear Alvie’s hair clattering loud against my ear.
“Oh, Nealy,” she said. “Please forget I said that. Please?”
I nodded. But of course I would not forget it. How could I? What a gift for words, to be able to take all that free-floating guilt, all those questions, all that hindsight, and force it to the ground in five simple words. The five words I’d been searching for myself. And Alvie found them for me. Why didn’t I do something?
“It wasn’t your fault, Nealy. It wasn’t.” Nobody had called me Nealy for years. At any other time I might have objected. Then she found five more words, and I wouldn’t forget these, either. “You’re only a little boy. You couldn’t have done anything, Nealy. You’re only a little boy.”
Alvie stood behind me, one hand on each of my shoulders, while I talked to the police. I was good, too. For the first time all night, I did something right. They loved the part about the tattoo, because once you know that, who cares if he was five-ten or six feet and who cares what he was wearing because he can change his clothes, anyway. I liked it too because I knew I wouldn’t have to go in to look at a lineup unless they really got him, because if it wasn’t him they’d know, without my help. I even told them things I didn’t know I’d seen until I told them. The way the guy smiled like a dog showing his teeth, and how when the car’s lights lit us up I saw a chip broken off his front tooth. I hadn’t even known I’d seen that until later. I felt Alvie squeeze my shoulders and I knew she was proud of me.
“Can you officers give the boy a ride home?” she asked.
I’d been telling her, before the cops showed up, that Pippin had never done her business on that walk and somebody should be home with her now. I know Alvie would have cleaned it up. But the hospital was bright and loud and I wanted to go home and sit with Pippin and be nearly alone.
The cops asked if she thought I’d be okay home by myself. She said she’d be home before the night was over, and after all I was not a child, I was nearly fourteen years old. You see, I’d grown older in just those few minutes, and Alvie knew it and vouched for it. I liked that about Alvie. She wasn’t afraid to allow for change.
Just before we all three left together, the two cops and me, Alvie pulled me around by my elbow and whispered in my ear. “Don’t let them come in,” she said, and I remembered that Alvie and my father had been smoking Alvie’s bong just before we went out for that walk.
When I got inside by myself, the apartment was dark. Just the glow of the corner streetlight shining through the contact-papered windows, patterned to look like stained glass. Alvie liked them that way because she could leave the bong and the bag out on the table and no one could see in. Alvie’s orange-and-white cat was sitting on the back of the couch, looking like a saint in that stained glass glow. The way he looked at me felt like a blessing. I hid everything illegal in my father’s dresser drawer, for no real reason I could pin down.
I took a shower because I stank, because all that dried sweat felt uncomfortable, because it was all part of the man with the cross and the snake and the chipped tooth. All his fault, all his doing. I stood in the hot water until it turned cold, and then I put on just pajama bottoms. Eased them over my bruised hip, and then pulled them down again to look at the bruise in the mirror.
I took Pippin out to the very closest patch of dirt, and the whole time she was circling around I kept looking behind me.
Then I sat on the window seat in my room, and Pippin sat up there with me, but I had to lift her up there because her legs were too short. My window was the only one with no contact paper. I liked to see out.
Pippin growled low in her throat and then a minute later I heard him. Pippin always heard him first. The barking, and the low pop of that truck engine. The blue truck was a big, old thing with rust primer spots, and a beefy engine, and not much muffler. It came by every night in the middle of the night, then back up the hill in the early, still-dark morning. The downhill run made the valves pop, a little explosion like a backfire on every cylinder, and I think that dog was crazy, because he barked the whole time. Everywhere that truck went, he ran back and forth in the bed and barked. Pippin hated him. Pippin wanted to save me from him. That’s why I started calling him “just the crazy dog in the blue truck.” It made him sound less important. I was trying to teach Pippin what was important.
But that night my voice sounded like somebody else’s, small and far away. Tinny. Unfamiliar. “It’s okay, Pippin,” I said, “it’s just the blue dog in the crazy truck.” It wasn’t until I heard myself say it that I noticed I’d screwed it up, and then it didn’t seem to matter.
When Alvie came in the front door I didn’t get up. I just waited for her to find me.
She came into my room and stood near the window seat. She put one of her hands on my bare shoulder. Alvie’s long fingernails were gone. Those gorgeous, perfectly manicured nails with the peach-colored polish; she’d bitten them off. I was so used to her fingers ending that beautiful way. It was a shock to me, like seeing her with the ends of her fingers cut off, or with her eyelashes and eyebrows shaved, or with no teeth. Things that had always been there, missing.
“He’s out of surgery,” she said.
“How do they think it looks?”
“Touch and go, Nealy. Touch and go. The doctor is worried about infection. Because his intestine was cut.”
“Peritonitis,” I said. I had a friend at summer camp who almost died of peritonitis when his appendix burst. Almost died. But he didn’t die. He lived to tell me the story.
“Come on, Nealy,” she said. “You need to get some sleep.”
She took me by the hand and led me over to my bed, and I lay down on top of the covers. It was still too hot to cover up. Then she left the room for a while, and I could hear her moving around the house, but I have no idea what all she did.
A few minutes later she came back into my room and lay down on the bed behind me. Not exactly touching me, but close enough that I knew by feel how close she was. I felt her fingers on my scalp, front to back, stroking my hair the way you might stroke a worry stone. Over and over. Immediately I got an erection, and I lay there thinking about my father lying in the hospital, but that didn’t make it go away. I thought, Jesus Christ, Neal, what kind of monster are you? But I couldn’t do a damn thing about it, except to stay faced away and not make a statement on whether I was awake or not. She kept that rhythm in my hair, but never really touched me beyond that, except that she set her head right behind mine on the pillow, and part of her face rested on my neck. When she breathed through that fine, wide nose, I could feel the light brush of her breath across my collarbone, like a cool touch. I don’t know how long we stayed like that but it must have been near morning, because Blue Dog came back up the hill. I heard Pippin growl in her throat. That’s the first I let on I was awake.
“It’s okay, Pippin,” I said. “It’s only the blue dog in the crazy truck.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Alvie said, with no real reproach or judgment.
“Nothing. It’s just a private joke with me and Pippin. I’m trying to teach her what’s dangerous and what’s not.”
“She’s only a dog, Nealy.”
“I know that.”
“She’s an old dog. If she doesn’t know by now, I think she won’t learn.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s just a game.”
The side window in my room was open for the breeze, and I lay still and thought about the man with the book and the razor. He’d visited five women in Echo Park the previous summer, and the police never caught him. He came in hot weather, cut their screens with a razor blade. Stood over their beds and exposed himself, with a book in front of his face so they could never identify him.
Now that’s dangerous, Pippin.
And I was home alone with Alvie. What would I do if something bad happened to Alvie and my father wasn’t around? How much good would I be?
I lay there, still hard, thinking about that man, wondering if I was any better than him, any safer to be around. I tried to send silent signals to Pippin to be extra watchful, but then I could hear her snoring in the corner. I decided I’d have to stay awake to keep everybody safe.
Alvie woke me with a kiss on the temple. She was standing over my bed, fully dressed. Her hair clattered as she straightened up again. I usually woke up with a hard-on anyway, so I went to pull the covers up, but they were up already. Alvie must have covered me in my sleep.
She was wearing jeans and her “I am your witness” tee-shirt--the one she bought as a fund-raiser for all the women victims of the rape camps in Bosnia--and one of my father’s denim shirts open over it, like a jacket, so you couldn’t read all of what it said. But I knew it by heart, except the parts that weren’t in English.
“Are you going to school?’ she asked.
“Okay. You can come to the hospital, but you’ll have to move very fast.”
But I couldn’t get up right then in front of her, so I said, “You go on, Alvie. I’ll take the bus down in a little while.” I knew she wanted to leave right then, anyway.
“Do you have bus fare?”
She wasn’t thinking clearly. I had a bus pass to go to school. It cost no more to go to the hospital. She kissed me again, this time on the forehead, and swept out of the room. And I wondered if she’d sleep in my bed again that night.
Then it hit me, really hit me for maybe the first time, that he might die. And then Alvie would sleep in my bed every night. We’d have to be very quiet about it at first, but after a few years I’d be eighteen, and we could move somewhere nobody knew us, and if they had a problem with the difference in our ages or our colors, they could go fuck themselves. It was none of their concern. But then my father would have died. I lay there with my perpetual erection thinking, Jesus Christ, Neal. What kind of monster are you?
But he wasn’t going to die, anyway. He was going to pull through. And Alvie was going to go back to sleeping in bed with him like she always had. Like last night had never happened.
It was like the lady or the tiger except in that story one of the guy’s possibilities is good.
That night I came home from the hospital in a cab, and I waited three hours for Alvie to join me. I showered, and wore only pajama bottoms like the night before, and covered myself with a sheet in spite of the heat, all because I expected her.
If I’m remembering correctly, I was hard before she ever arrived. And I don’t know what kind of monster I was. I don’t know. Things just are sometimes.
When she got home she changed into one of my father’s long shirts, and lifted up the sheet and got underneath with me. Instead of stroking her fingers through my hair she placed one smooth, light-caramel palm across my forehead, like she was checking me for fever, and just held it there, unchanging. She kissed the back of my hair lightly.
“What did they say, Alvie?”
“Same thing they were saying before you left.”
“Still not awake.”
“No. Doctor says the next twenty-four hours will tell.”
“He said that before I left.”
“What did I just tell you?”
What I’d meant was, shouldn’t it be twenty-one hours by now? It seemed wrong to keep pointing to twenty-four hours that never got shorter, like waiting for a school bell that’s always three hours away.
We lay quietly for a long time, and she was close enough I could feel her breasts through my father’s shirt, feel them up against my back.
“I called your grandparents,” she said. “They’d be very happy to have you. If.... You know. If. If it should come to that. But they also said you’re a big boy, you can decide for yourself who you want to live with.”
“I want to stay with you, Alvie.”
“Hush!” She barked the word at my ear, tugged at my forehead in a sharp gesture that felt almost like a slap. I stopped breathing briefly. “It’s not time to claim such things. You don’t make that choice yet. Because maybe there will be no choice to make.”
“Right. You’re right, Alvie. Probably not.”
We both breathed again, and I felt her thumb move on my forehead, stroking me just the tiniest bit. “I would take care of you, though.” She breathed it against my ear, so small, like if she said it quietly enough, God couldn’t hear it and act on it.
I knew then that what I thought I’d felt the night before I really had felt, even though nothing had happened on the outside. Someone could have been there watching and never seen it, but I knew then it was real. I wanted to say, We’d take care of each other, Alvie, but I didn’t want her to bark at me again.
Speaking of barking, a few minutes later he came down the hill, valves popping, and Pippin growled at him.
“Blue dog in the crazy truck,” Alvie said.
“Blue dog,” I said, feeling we had the beginnings of a language now. Knowing if my father were here, he wouldn’t know what we meant.
Just before I fell sleep she said, “Neal.”
And I said, “What, Alvie?”
“Do you know what he would have said to do, if there had been time? If he hadn’t had the knife to watch, if it hadn’t all happened so fast? Do you know what he would have told you?”
“No, Alvie. What?”
“He would have said, ‘Run, Nealy. Run away.’ And when you got away safe he would have been so happy.”
I closed my eyes again and later I had a dream, and in the dream I was running away, and I could hear my father yelling to me, and sure enough, that’s what he was saying. “Run, Nealy. Get away.” So I was only doing what he wanted me to do, and I was making him happy. Only in the dream Pippin got hit by a car. So, once something like that happens in your life, almost no matter how it turns out, it seems like something will be lost.
The phone woke us. Alvie reached over me to pick up my extension, her body pressing against my back, pushing me forward.
“Yes, this is she,” she said. And then, “Thank you so much. I’ll be right down.”
She hung up the phone and got out of bed, taking the crush of her body away.
“He woke up,” she said. “They’ve upgraded him to stable.”
I sat up and blinked. Watched her walk out of my room without saying more, without looking back, without saying goodbye. Something had blown out of her when this new information blew in, like there was only just so much room inside her to feel.
In the same way I understood the realness of what we’d felt, I just as clearly understood that what we’d felt was now over.
My father came home three days later. I wasn’t there when he arrived; I was out walking Pippin. We’d been walking two, three, sometimes four miles a day, because I knew if I let myself I could lose the habit of ever walking down a street again. It was like overkill.
And, actually, it was not a surprise to me. I’d gone out walking that day knowing damn well she’d gone to the hospital to bring him home.
I walked into their bedroom. He was lying on his back in bed, with a sheet pulled up to his armpits. Alvie was lying beside him, stroking her fingers through his hair. Just for a minute that stopped me, literally. I just stopped in my tracks and looked at both of them, and none of us said a word. With his eyes my father said, You come over here and sit down with me, and with her eyes Alvie said, It was between us; you never say a word about it.
And I never did.
I sat down beside my father and he grabbed my hand too hard. I expected him to say something coherent and meaningful but he was still doped up on painkillers. I expected him to look small like he’d been doing lately, but instead he just looked so damn much bigger than me.
I let him squeeze my hand too hard. I purposely didn’t look at Alvie because if I had I couldn’t have said what I said next, even though I didn’t say it out loud.
But what I said to him, in the privacy of my own gut, was this: She’s the most important thing I ever had in my life, but I’m giving her back to you, because I’m that happy you’re alive.
Of course I knew in my head she wasn’t mine to keep or give back, but I told you already, this was my gut.
Also, guts don’t give up neatly, so after that not a day went by I didn’t regret the gift, wrestle with it, resent it, long to change my mind. But just at that moment I said it to him, silently, and believed I meant it, and that felt like enough.
Causes Catherine Hyde Supports
The Pay It Forward Foundation, Marriage Equality (See Human Rights Campaign), the 350 movement to help ease global climate change, LandWatch San Luis Obispo...