by Andrea Nolan
The dog was in the pool again. David knew the dog was the same one as before, even though it was night and there was no moon. He could hear its panting, could tell that it was sitting in the deep end, between the charred VW Bug and the shrinking puddle of water left over from the short summer rainy season. The water wouldn’t last another month. Even less if the dog kept drinking from it.
The dog’s legs were the problem, because even though its black body was solid and big, the size and shape of a barrel cactus, its legs were too short to clear the shallow end.
The panting was a steady noise. A patient “hah..hah..hah” that never ended, never varied. His was the pant of the Mexican street dog, both universal and singular, because although every dog in the city across the bay breathed in slightly different rhythms, distinguishing dog from dog even at night, even in unlit streets, when they packed together, they became an endless, cascading breath. Their panting said they would always have breath—that they would always be able to run a little longer, a little faster than David ever could.
Some people in the city kept their dogs on the roof, prowling the low skyline of flat tops—growls and barks raining down. Here he just had the panting from below.
He scraped a handful of pebbles up from the abandoned hotel’s roof and lofted them into the sky so they rained the two stories down, clicketing-clacketing, onto the cement courtyard and blue-tile pool, startling a jackrabbit into a run. The dog’s panting paused for a moment and then resumed, no variation in its rhythm.
Dogs followed him wherever he traveled. On the wooded slopes of the Appalachians and Ozarks, mongrels growled and barked at him, driving him away from houses and towns; lean collies whipped around his legs, teeth bared, driving him through vast prairie as if he was a wolf at their sheep. Everywhere he walked, dogs followed him, ripping at his calves, tearing his shirt, scratching his back with their claws. He had wandered for years, riding the rails, walking the back roads. Sometimes he fell in his flight, like when grain alcohol in Tulsa trapped him in a loop between liquor store and street, until one day he broke free by falling into an open boxcar, until the bite of a railroad bull’s German Shepherd pulled him from his sleep in Utah, where he stumbled into the drowse of heroin.
He was a man without a home, and he knew the dogs sensed it, smelled the wrongness in him, a body without a place, and they drove him onward, keeping him from people, from doing harm, herding him to the edge of the continent, to the tip of Baja, to an abandoned hotel across a bay from a city named for peace, where there was no heroin, or booze, or women, or boys to hurt. The previous caretaker, an old man, welcomed him as his replacement, as though he were expected, teaching him what needed to be done, and then disappeared into the night. Now David was the lone overseer of abandonment—the caretaker of a forgotten, half-constructed hotel. And now the dog was back in the pool.
The sun was up and the dog was gone. Except it wasn’t—it hid in the coolness beneath the shell of the VW. The car predated David, and was charred black from being burned. He wished that he had been there to watch the car’s fire. It felt good to watch things burn—to see how even the strongest things could be consumed, transformed, disappeared.
He imagined that it was probably teenagers that stole the car and drove it across the desert, driving it in the dunes and arroyos until they grew bored, or maybe until the car ran out of gas. Maybe they then pushed it in from the desert, four boys sweating beneath the noon sun, getting it going fast enough so that it cleared the edge of the pool and landed on its tires. They must have filled it up with wood, maybe siphoned gas from their friends’ cars, before striking the match. The flames would have reached far above the pool’s edge; the smoke must have blacked out the sun. They must have fallen on their knees at what they had created.
Patrolling the beach wasn’t part of the job, but he did it anyway. He began in the morning, when it was still cool, and returned to the hotel just as the sun tipped past the overhead mark. He always kept the empty hotel in sight; even when six miles away he could see its dark blue smudge against the white sand beach and pink desert. He could see if anyone landed a boat at the hotel to cause mischief.
The sun burned his blond hair white, pulling all the water from his body so that his bones clicked as he walked, and so that his tongue was a flat, desert-dried oyster shell. He mentally logged driftwood as he made his way down the beach, weighing it in his mind, noting its width and length, and when the straining point of the imaginary bundle was reached, he’d stop and return to the hotel, picking up the wood as he went, returning to the hotel with a bundle almost too large to carry.
He built bonfires in the pool, on the other side of the VW, away from the puddle. But the dog was in the pool now, and if he freed the dog, the dog would chase him. Though David was larger, the dog had bite. While he could reason, the dog had endless breath. David could listen all night from on the roof, where he slept safe from predators, and still the dog’s rhythm would keep up, that laughing pant mocking him, keeping him from building his monthly bonfire on the pool bottom.
If he lit the fire in the courtyard, then it would be visible from the city, on the other side of the bay. The gringo tourist families walking the malecón, carrying their bottles of water and eating their ice cream, would see his fire and the next day they’d notice the hotel across the bay and wonder why their guidebook omitted that oasis in the vast empty space that stretched south from the city. They’d wonder, but have no way to cross the bay, so they would forget.
The Mexican families would also see the flames, but as they ordered cold agua de sandía, and watched the girl ladle the deep pink watermelon juice into cups, they wouldn’t care about his illegal gringo fire. They would put it from their minds.
But the packs of feral children might see the fire and think about coming over for a party. They might borrow their uncles’ boats and bring their bottles of tequila soda, the mixture of Coke and tequila changing as more room was made for the liquor to be poured in, so by the end of the night it was just Coke-colored tequila. His job was to protect the empty hotel, and the feral kids were worse than the dog. They’d build their own bonfires and never let him have his sleep. They would break windows, spray paint walls. They didn’t know the danger that slept within him—that could strike out, lash kids, hit them, hurt them. He needed to keep separate; he needed to keep safe. He needed to earn his life back.
He’d once been a competent man. He’d once had a son. A son that looked like him, that loved him, that he’d beaten within an inch of his life because memory had overwhelmed the present.
It was better to have the fire in the deep end of the pool, so that no matter how he built it, the flames stayed below the walls and only the orange smoke rose up to be swallowed by the black night sky. That was the liturgy. That was the way it had to be. But now the dog was in the pool.
David had other sons and daughters scattered across the United States, some of which he knew about when he had stayed long enough to see the changes in the woman before she knew herself, her growing and tender breasts, her fleshing out figure, and he’d leave before he could do any more damage, but other women he had been with for just one night or two, and nine months later a child with blond hair and eyes as blue as the Sea of Cortez would emerge wailing into the world.
Every time he left a woman who was growing full with child, he swore to keep himself away from women, to not doom another kid with his genetics, but after a while he’d slip up and crave that human touch. It came easily enough. When he was in a period of sobriety, or at least had shaved his beard and washed his skin, he still retained the handsomeness of his youth, the kind of beauty people only see on movie screens, drawing women, and men, to him like planets being pulled into the black hole of a collapsing star.
Within one year, he knocked up two nurses, one who was the night call nurse in a detox, who thought of herself as worldly and hardened by life after ten years lost to a crack addiction, and another ten years clean. But, as David grew healthier, and his skin glowed with his permanent tan from a life lived mostly outdoors, and his eyes lost their yellow jaundiced tinge, in the long midnight hours she talked with him as he wandered the ward in his insomnia, until despite everything she had promised herself that she would never do after getting clean, she found herself tangled up with him on his narrow twin bed, the plastic coating of the mattress crackling beneath them. Later, that same year, his sobriety lost again, there was the ER nurse who had tended him when the cops brought him in one cold night in Iowa City, when he lost a toe to frostbite on his shoeless right foot. After they’d removed his pinky toe, and she’d shaved him, and bathed him, and shocked by his transformation, she brought him into the sleep room, when all the residents were on the floor doing rounds with the attending, and she climbed on top of him and rode him like the cowgirl she had been in her youth, knowing that a man that pretty only comes through your life once if you’re lucky. He was so delirious with medication, he wouldn’t have been sure it had happened except for the bruises she left between his ribs, where she had held onto him to keep her grip, since he was so skinny, each rib was as pronounced as a handlebar on a child’s bike.
Nine of his children had been born into this world, six sons and three daughters, eight of which lived, all but one daughter who was born with AIDs contracted from her mother, who had also given it to David, and who David had spread to others, but thankfully, not to any more children because not long after, his immune system already blown from years of hard living, he was tested in an ER where he’d been brought after collapsing with pneumonia. People thought that being beautiful made you better somehow, but David knew that being pretty didn’t make you good, and it didn’t make you wise. But, after he knew he was sick, David did the best thing he could think of, which was to flee as far as he could to keep himself away from others, which brought him to the abandoned hotel on the wrong side of the Bay of Peace, off of the Sea of Cortez.
While he walked his patrols, David imagined a letter of complaint to the man he’d replaced. “Dear S–, The dog is in the pool again. You said I wouldn’t have to hurt anything. But the dog is always in the pool, and I don’t know what to do. Please advise.” But there was nowhere to send the letter. He didn’t even remember the man’s name. The name on the checks he cashed wasn’t his own name, and it wasn’t the name of the man he replaced, and it probably wasn’t the name of the man before that. David did not know if there had ever been a man who had the name on the check. But the caretaker before him had told him having the right name didn’t matter. It all depended on being a gringo in order to collect on a check written to a gringo name, and even though David’s skin had tanned to brown leather, his hair was bleached whiter than the sand, a color conspicuous in a sea of black hair, and so as always, the girl at the bank would hand him the stack of colorful money with her usual laughing smile. But now he could not go to the bank, and feel the accidental brush of her fingers on his palm, because the dog was in the pool. He was raised in the Church – there was an order to things, to services, a liturgy to life, and the only way David kept himself safe from those in town was to have a purification fire before he went in. But the dog was in the pool.
David once forgot his own name. He wasn’t sure when he forgot it, but when he tried to remember it, it wouldn’t come back to him for many days, maybe even months, until one day it floated back into his mind, as gentle and as quiet as a whisper. David: the singer of songs, the catcher of fish, the abandoner of friends, the maimer of sons. As soon as he had his name back, he wanted to forget it again.
Walking east on the beach, away from the hotel and toward the big blue of the sea beyond the bay, he watched as five brown pelicans flew in formation across the water, so low their wingtips seemed to dip into the bay. He remembered pelicans over a different bay, one not so steadily blue; white houses on a green island—the place of memory. An island he’d called home until he’d run away in a storm to keep his boat from his father, and had lost his best friend overboard in a storm; only learning years later that the friend had lived. David bent his face toward the sand, picked out one grain from the next, watched his feet rise and fall, until the rhythm made him forget.
The coyotes were back, prowling the courtyard, their breaths cascading into a hurricane. They were mocking the dog. David could feel their derision as they circled. One coyote jumped into the pool and then back out again, easily clearing the edge with his long legs. The others joined him, and they spun in and out of the pool, looking like their paws never touched the ground.
The dog turned in desperate circles, barking and snapping, trying to catch hold of the coyotes. David watched them from the hotel’s roof. They tumbled over one another as they ran away across the desert, grabbing each other’s tails, biting each other’s legs.
He envied their touch, their collision of bodies, and when the coyotes were gone, and the dog sat in the center of the pool and howled his loneliness, David felt the howl reach deep within his own bones.
A week passed, or maybe a month, or maybe a day. It was hard to keep track of the days when they were so long. The sun stayed up for fifteen hours a day, and was so hot and high that each day felt like two or three.
The dog spent all of the day in the shelter of the burned out VW, only emerging in the cool of night to lap at the puddle that was nearly gone. It watched him all the time, always there, always waiting. Even when the dog was hidden, he could feel its gaze.
David’s tongue turned to wool, his skin stretched tight, concave over his stomach. He listened as he drank from one of his plastic jugs of water, but couldn’t hear the slosh of it inside him. His tongue must have absorbed it all.
David ate his final orange, eating one slice an hour and letting it dissolve like a communion wafer on his tongue. He chewed the bitter seeds. He squeezed the moisture from the rind and lapped it dry.
It was time to take the rowboat across the bay to the city, to gather his monthly supplies. But first he needed a fire—that was the routine that helped everything make sense. The bonfire was his church, his way of strengthening himself against the temptations of town. If he went to the city before the fire, he might very well forget to come back to the hotel; he may start to wander and never again find a home. He might think himself stronger than he was.
In the light of the full moon he could see the deepening of the grooves between the dog’s ribs. He could see how the dog’s eyes pushed out from their sockets. He could see the scratches on the pool’s side where the dog had tried to get out. He had thought maybe this time he could let it die, but he was wrong. He would have to let it out.
The next morning he dragged driftwood around to the shallow end. It was all he had. The hotel was empty, every room was empty, with no doors or beds or dressers, just a tile and adobe shell. Sinks and bathtubs had been built into the walls and floors of the hotel rooms, made with dark blue tile the color of the deepest ocean, the same color as the pool tiles. The realization that there was no way to bring water to the hotel had come sometime after the sinks and pool but before the delivery of toilets. No way to flush waste—no way that didn’t include millions of pesos spent running pipelines under the bay, or trucking massive tankers of water across the desert to fill deep cisterns to supply the insatiable needs of gringo guests. He didn’t know how the hotel owners didn’t think of that lack of water, but he wasn’t quite sure how companies thought. Companies had never been part of his world, not even in the time before the hotel, before his beard filled the dimples on his face and made his neck and chest scratch with heat.
It wasn’t enough to push the driftwood pile in the pool, because the dog might fall through the wood—it might misunderstand and chew and gnaw and pull down the pile with his teeth, destroying its own escape. Then the dog would remain in the pool, its body would become still, bloating in the heat, leaching black bile onto the faded blue floor. It would be his fault.
Better to be sure, so he built a ramp. He pulled long threads from his grey wool blanket and used them to bind long straight logs. The best were the straight pieces of processed wood that drifted ashore from other abandoned hotels and houses, but even the salt-faded and gnarled cactus skeletons and fig branches served his purpose. He bound them all, overlapping the wood like bricks, so that the ramp grew in length, and then he wrapped the ramp in his grey blanket so that it was a solid grey board with traction for the dog’s claws.
He waited until midday, when the sun was its hottest and when he hoped the dog might be asleep beneath the charred VW. But the dog was awake. He saw its nose poke out from beneath the car when he approached the edge.
He lowered the ramp into the pool, leaving one end up on the pool’s side, scratching the blue tile edge, the other touching the rough concrete bottom.
A moment. Then the dog was there, from beneath the car, heading toward freedom. David ran for the stairs, for the roof. Claws skittered behind him. Running, running, running. Past the floors of empty rooms and without doors, without toilets, without beds, up to the roof, with its metal door. Shut just in time. Nails and teeth. Growling and snapping at the other side. Teeth grinding on metal. Always the same.
Two days passed on the roof. Enough water to last maybe three more days, but the rice and beans were almost gone, along with the cans of Sterno for cooking. Sterno cooked well, letting him save his wood for the big fires. There was one can left; enough to cook two more pots of rice.
The dog sat in the courtyard looking up at him, the half-eaten carcass of a rabbit between the dog’s feet. Dogs weren’t supposed to look skyward. It wasn’t in their nature, he was sure of it. David couldn’t read the dog’s expression.
His legs itched to walk the beach, to work his patrol, to build and light his bonfire. He walked the roof’s perimeter instead. The old scratching itch in David’s mind began.
He wanted tequila, but tequila never lasted. It dominated his thoughts, made him desperate when it was gone. But tequila made him return to the city more often. It made him linger on the streets, near rivers of people streaming past, unconscious in their lives, vulnerable to his snap and bite. It was better to never buy it, to never bring it to the hotel. It was better to keep himself apart, alone with the rhythm of the days.
David took the pair of socks from his small duffel bag and brought them to his grey blanket. He pried the lid off his last can of Sterno and emptied the pink gel into his sock. Carefully, he squeezed the sock over his food bowl, running his fingers down the sock’s length, fabric pressed between finger and thumb. He milked the sock so clear pink alcohol squirted from its tip, separated from the jelly, until the sock was flat and glued together with gummy residue, leaving a pink pool of alcohol in the bowl’s basin. It was a trick he’d learned under a bridge in Idaho, tutored by a vet who thought the rumble of the interstate was an endless military convoy.
He mixed in equal parts water, to make the alcohol last, to ease it down his throat, to keep it in his stomach. The bowl was nearly overflowing, too full to risk lifting, so David knelt before it, resting on his elbows as he lowered his face and took a long drink.
Canned heat flowed into him. He drank the mixture to its bottom, lapping the sides of the bowl with his tongue. He slept and dreamt of heat so wet with water that when you breathed, you felt like you were drowning. He dreamt of dragons snapping at him in the dark and wolves barking in waves. He dreamt of rivers of women and men, all reaching for him, trying to pull him into the current. He slept and dreamt of summer thunderstorms that ripped open the sky, and a wave that swept away his best friend. He saw a child that looked like him, a white tin house with sea foam green shutters, and he saw his hand hit that child, again and again, and again, until the child was no more. He remembered, again, the real reason he didn’t buy tequila – because alcohol no longer worked. It didn’t help him forget, it helped him remember.
Two more days and nights passed on the hotel roof. He reached his last jug of water, but did not drink from it. David prepared to die. He moved out of the shade, to lie in full exposure to the sun, and let it turn his bones to dust. He could feel himself burning into a shadow. But then he heard the silence, the absence of panting. The dog was gone.
He lay there for long minutes, wanting to go through with his death, but he could not. He could not abandon the routine of living. Instead, he crept into the courtyard, ready for there to be a trick, ready for the dog to leap at him from beneath a rock, to tear out his throat, to eat his heart, but the courtyard was silent.
David drank a quarter of half the jug of the water and then dragged the driftwood board from the shallow to the deep end, and then he pushed the rest of the driftwood pile into the pool. He cut a few fronds from a live palm and climbed back down into the blue basin to sweep the hard black dog feces into the scorched circle where he built his fires.
He contemplated the tangle: construction debris, mangrove limbs, palm fronds; driftwood skeletons of cactuses that looked like a god had spent hours whittling whorls, hollowing them, creating elaborate flutes. He spent all day arranging the wood, picking just the right shapes to complement the next, beginning with the smallest pieces and then building from there, leaving plenty of air and space between, creating an inverted woven basket—a nest for fire that grew to be. When he finished, the unlit bonfire was taller than him.
Now he only had to wait for night. He swept the dog feces and rabbit bones from around the pool deck and into the bonfire pile below. He washed his grey blanket in the bay, and hung it on the needles of a cardón cactus, its arms spread wide, and when it dried, he beat it against the concrete, salt exploding in clouds of white, until it was soft again. Finally the sun plunged into the bay. He drank the last of the water and lowered himself into the pool.
The tips of the fire nearly reached above the edges of the pool, but David no longer cared if the tourists wondered about the glow in the desert or if the lost boys of the city streets remembered the hotel across the way. He sat with his back pressed against the smooth tile and watched what he had created.
The salt of the driftwood sparked green and blue, sizzling and crackling and sending wild loops of color through the red-orange backdrop of flame. He watched the stories unfold, watched the gods battling demons and demons devouring gods leaving only people chasing, hitting, fucking and loving one another. The heat burned his skin, crinkled his beard. The magnificence and beauty filled him.
The fire burned through the night. Even when the sun was its highest, and there were no shadows to hide in, he stayed in the pool, tending his fire, pushing and arranging the wood so that all of it burned. His sweat rose as steam until his skin was dry and hot. Finally there was just ash, and then the ash cooled.
David maneuvered his dinghy between the gringo’s sailboats anchored in the bay. Those same sailors would overrun his hotel in a few months, for their annual Christmas party. It was the one invasion that he had to tolerate, as had the caretakers before him. It was how things were. He retreated to the roof for the extent of the party, barricading the door with rocks and sticks. Peering over the roof’s edge during the party, he would watch the gringo children strike the piñatas that their parents hung for them. He would imagine himself joining the party, talking with parents and children, but would not know what to imagine saying.
He collected the check from the post office with the key that the previous caretaker had given him. The key was the sole, sacred tool of his job, and he kept it on a string tied around his neck. Next, he went to the bank, to collect the money from the smiling woman.
Outside the bank, David considered getting a hotel room for the night. He could take a shower and sleep on a mattress. He could buy scissors and a razor and look like himself again. He could buy new clothes. He could abandon his post and no one would know. But then what would he do? He’d still need to figure out a way to live, a way to fill the days.
David walked the fluorescent aisles of the supermercádo. The floors squeaked under other shoppers’ shoes, but only sounded like a dusty rasping beneath his sandals.
He stopped first at the water, and emptied a half-gallon down his throat, the water sloshing in his stomach like storm waves crashing onto shore. He looked at the razors. Fondled the soap. Picked up a candy bar and set it down again. He waited for someone to brush against him—to touch his skin. When a woman came so close he could feel her heat, he shied back, rattling cans and boxes. She crinkled her nose and moved on.
He filled a cart with rice, beans, oranges, Sterno and gallons and gallons of water, paying with a rainbow of colored money.
The bag boy, tidy in his white shirt and tie, waited for instruction. David looked at the boy, and the boy smiled at him, flashing his white teeth. It was the same boy as before, and the time before that. The boy was probably fifteen or sixteen, but David felt ancient standing beside him. He pointed outside, but the boy waited and would not be satisfied with gestures.
“Vámonos a la playa,” David said, his voice cracking from lack of use. He wondered if someday he would lose his voice altogether. Maybe it would drift away some night, carried on the wind to a better home.
The boy guided the cart down the steep hill, across the malecón, to the dinghy. As the boy passed the bags and bottles to him, David arranged them around the tall laundry bag of empty plastic bottles, using it to save room for him in the center.
Together they dragged the boat back into the bay.
Standing shin deep in the murky blue water of the city, the boy knee deep, David gave him the bag of empty containers, which the boy could return for money. Then he tipped him.
As usual, he still had even more money left. He thought about giving the boy more, but he already gave too much. So much that every month the boy must watch for his coming, ready to elbow and shove to work as his bagger. He didn’t want the boy to depend on him.
David did not look the boy in the eye as he passed him twenty pesos, and then twenty pesos more. He could feel the distant judgment of the caretakers before him, men who knew the dangers of allying themselves with the normal. The normal didn’t know that their fear of the different was good, that it kept them safe. They didn’t know that with just one touch David could burn them all down; he’d make them love him, worship him, and then he’d use that love to destroy them.
The boy steadied the boat although it barely shifted beneath David’s shadow weight. David faced the beach and took up the oars and began to row. He watched as the boy departed up the street, pushing the cart of empty bottles in front of him, back up the steep hill, walking at the same speed as David stroking away from the city.
To save himself from temptation, when he reached the center of the bay he pulled the remaining money from his pocket and lit it on fire. He held the flaming bundle over the water until it burned his hands and he let the charred remains drop and sink into the pale blue water.
The dog was in the pool when he returned.