An excerpt from the novel-in-progress Sinkhole by author Young Rader:
It was bizarrely acute, my desire to work at the pizza emporium. Pizza Kingdom was a short distance from my high school and it was a truly remarkable establishment that sold everything imaginable pertaining to pizza, from flat-bottomed silver pizza sauce ladles to Napoli commercial pizza ovens. I’d put in an application weeks before school let out for summer break, carefully completing the form with my best writing implement – a handsome 0.3 mm ballpoint pen with a tan aluminum body that fit perfectly in my hands and whose construction clicked satisfyingly when the end was pressed with the pad of the thumb. But that summer, the summer of my sixteenth year, I ended up working at Dad’s racing greyhound kennel.
Mom and Dad knew of my intentions to work at Pizza Kingdom, and for the better half of the school year, I parlayed with Dad at the dinner table about my summer job prospects. Looking back at this moment, I suspect Dad somehow knew all along that I would end up working for him; it had all been arranged in his mind, and these dinnertime tête-à-têtes were just a formality in child rearing. I thought I had a decision to make when in actuality the decision had already been made for me. This is the unspoken law of adolescence. Dad always concluded his side of the gentle argument with, »I could really use your help at the kennel.«
Work at the kennel lacked the glamour of Pizza Kingdom, and it was hard on the body. I knew this, and so did Mom, who worried about my fingers because she still entertained the hope I’d become an acclaimed pianist. »But what about his fingers?« she’d ask.
»Don’t worry. He’s not going be a pianist,« Dad would answer. I’m certain his aim was not to be unkind, but my heart would shrink at his words. I knew he was right. I think Mom did, too.
I’d quit the piano suddenly two months earlier. I did not love it anymore.
Under my piano teacher’s guidance, I’d mailed a cassette tape of 30 minutes of my playing to a prestigious music conservatory she’d attended as a young woman. While I waited for an answer, I continued performing at nursing homes and at sites of cultural interest throughout the city. I can’t remember why I was without my car, but after one of these informal gigs, my piano teacher’s husband, a rangy bassist from Poland who had also attended the music conservatory as a young man, drove me home.
It was a cool afternoon. The palm trees were wrapped thickly, like a fox fur stole around a fine, attenuated neck, in humidity. It smelled like summer. It was January. I did not know my piano teacher’s husband very well. I only knew that he’d become a toxic tort lawyer after a profitless career in music and that, like my piano teacher, took pleasure in consuming exorbitant amounts of alcohol and wearing expensive leather shoes that looked like bedroom slippers made out of bacon. It did not take me long to recognize that he was drunk.
The nape of my neck grew hot. I bit the inside of my cheek. I watched the speedometer’s orange needle rise and fall. The car coasted down the country roads. Insects crackled to death on the windshield. »I heard you sent in an audition tape,« the piano teacher’s husband said. His voice was muscular, accented. He kept his eyes trained on the road.
»Yes, I did,« I answered.
»Thank you,« I replied.
»You need to practice more,« he said, his voice harder and darker than before.
»You have to.«
The car wobbled. »Okay,« I said, trying to disguise the alarm in my voice.
»How many hours do you practice a day?« my piano teacher’s husband asked.
The car accelerated.
»Maybe one hour,« I answered shamefully, pressing the heels of my feet down on the gray car mat.
»One hour?« The car slowed as we rounded a curve. »That’s not enough.« He reached over and placed his hand on my knee and then began moving it lightly up and down my thigh, his eyes focused intently on the road ahead of us. »You need to practice more. At least four hours a day.«
»Okay,« I said, trying to watch his hand discreetly because I didn’t want to embarrass him. His fingers were long and spatulate; and his nails were thick and rosy; and in that moment, I was anointed with slow, tepid drops of insight, and I became profoundly aware of why he’d failed as a musician. This realization was brief; it is impossible for me now to describe even a part of it.
The peripheries of my vision grew dingy like I was peering through a keyhole and all the cells and molecules in my body seemed to slow down and move centrifugally with huge determination so that my core was left empty, weightless.
I stayed as quiet as my piano teacher’s husband’s hand.
When we arrived at my house, I thanked him and he turned his head to look at me. »Think about what I said,« he said, lifting his hand from my leg and placing it back on the steering wheel. When I stepped out of the car, my shirt, the color of nightfall, swelled with the wind. I was oddly uncoordinated. I had difficulty closing the door. It took me two tries; and the part of my leg where his hand had been rubbing was cold. It was drizzling outside; I hadn’t noticed in the car. Mom had heaped all the dead palm fronds next to the mailbox. They tittered in the rain.
I never did see my piano teacher’s husband again. I did practice though. I practiced four hours each day, as he’d recommended. I practiced as though practicing would sponge out the memory. It didn’t. But something did happen. I started making mistakes, a multitude of them, and I’d hardly ever made mistakes before.
And then, in the middle of the performance of my program at a statewide Bach competition, a competition in which I’d taken first prize in the previous year, the notes I held in my head for Partita No. 6 in E minor vanished abruptly and entirely from memory. What I remember most about this horrifying and humiliating experience was the smell of the auditorium.
The seats had recently been reupholstered in a burgundy fabric and the acetic, chemical odor of this brand new fabric was like a barb in my nose. I felt sick and dizzy. Center stage, illuminated in a milky hoop of spotlight, all the life in my fingers left, and my hands rested silently atop the gleaming keys. White as a sheet, I stared down at them, dumbfounded. My head felt heavy. I blinked three times, very slowly, and then swiftly toppled backwards. My skull struck the stage floor. I was conscious long enough to hear a chorus of gasps. Someone offstage let out in a whisper, »Ohhhh my god!«
Sinkholes are formed by a collapse of the surface layer of the earth. They are voids that potter towards the exterior for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. The resulting depressions, the pitted terrain, typify what is known as a karst landscape.
I grew up in an area of the country classed as karst landscape. A variation in groundwater levels, or a sudden increase in surface water, brings about a collapse. It was not uncommon to read about a car being swallowed up on the turnpike or a three-meter deep sinkhole appearing overnight in the kitchen of a house. Or automatic frost sensors in long strawberry fields setting-off sprays fed from boreholes and causing hundreds of small sinkholes. I always enjoyed reading these kinds of reports in the newspaper.
Many strange things occurred in that part of the country. Still do.
And I must digress now and describe one particular incident that has left an indelible impression on my mind. And perhaps, one might speculate, this event sheds some light on as to why I am the way I am.
When I was nine or ten years old, an actor, who in times past played Tarzan on the silver screen, kept exotic animals at his home; and one of these animals, Bobo, a six-year-old Bengali-Siberian mixed tiger, went on the lam. The striped cat scaled a four-meter concrete wall and slunk off into a glooming clutch of palmettos, slash pines, and palm trees.
For weeks, wildlife trackers and deputies searched vigilantly for Bobo. We were all on the lookout and asked to call 911 if we spotted the tiger. »Bobo has a good heart,« Bobo’s owner, the actor, stated tearfully during a press conference. His shoulder length hair was silver with hints of gold. »Please don’t hurt him.«
»What about that time, two years ago, Bobo attacked your housemaid?« a reporter, among many, asked.
»Er, Bobo was young then. He was confused. He must have felt threatened,« the actor replied, twisting a thick gold band around on his thumb.
Bobo was never found. A deep perturbation rose in me, one that hasn’t yet diminished. Bobo’s whereabouts became an eldritch leitmotif at sleepovers and around campfires. Countless nights, with Bobo looming in my imagination, I was too scared to pad down the hallway to use the bathroom.
Bobo was underneath my bed. Bobo was behind the bathroom door. Bobo had devoured Mom and Dad.
No matter where I am, there is always a loose tiger out there, stalking the outer edges of my field of vision. In fact, I’m sure that everyone who was old enough to remember the story of the tiger’s escape, and who was also within a 50-mile radius of the actor’s home, has a story to tell about when he or she sighted Bobo.
There is always some »tiger« to keep us all on our toes.
But to return to my sixteenth year. Two weeks before summer vacation, I’d had a delightful interview at Pizza Kingdom with the managers there, Krystal and Matt, and was eagerly waiting to hear back. I felt triumphant. They gave me a ProDough – a silicon based disc with dough-like texture and consistency to simulate real pizza dough, and used to practice and develop pizza throwing skills – as well as a Toss Like a Pro DVD. Dad had all but given up hope that I’d come and work for him. Our dinnertime conversations migrated to other matters.
Then a band of heavy, low cumulus clouds came ashore. It rained sheets for eight days straight.
The groundwater levels had fallen and below us, the sandstone and salt chambers that had once been filled with water were untenanted and frail. The rain was a blessing. The severe drought conditions we’d been experiencing all throughout that winter and spring vastly improved. But, the much-needed rainwater added to the weight of the surface layer of soil, and it was too heavy for some of the empty and weak chambers below to bear. Keep this in mind.
There were four chairs at our table, and we all sat at our specific places. Perhaps this is how it is in most families. The position of where one sits is somehow worked out interiorly, taking age, temperament, anatomy, and relation into consideration, and this information silently transmitted to all members of the family.
I sat across from Dad. Mom sat beside me. The fourth chair, adjacent to Dad and opposite Mom, remained unoccupied and pushed under the table, its wooden lathe back resting flat against the table’s edge. Sometimes Mom stretched her legs out and propped her feet up on the seat of this chair while we ate. I never thought to sit in Mom or Dad’s chair. Sometimes, when I was feeling silly, I sat in the fourth chair and Mom would say, »Why are you over there? Come, sit here,« putting down a stack of plates onto the table and pulling out my usual chair. I would comply and slide obediently into my routine chair.
This seating arrangement prevailed until I went away to university, and it resumes whenever I visit. Moreover, I noticed that at restaurants, we position ourselves in the same way without any discussion.
The morning the rain halted at last, I marched into the kitchen with my black hair still damp from the shower. Before reaching the table, I noticed that the newspaper had been set across my placemat. This small detail put me in good spirits because, even though I hardly ever read an article through to its end, I liked leafing through the newspaper before Dad.
Dad always put creases in the sheets and never folded the sections up properly when he was finished with them, which drove me absolutely crazy. And to add, if Dad knew I hadn’t yet thumbed through the paper, he would nonchalantly ask if I’d heard about so-and-so or this-and-that global event, knowing full well that I hadn’t. Dad knew I was keen on the movie reviews and often quizzed me on whether or not it was worth seeing a movie in the theaters. »Should I pay to see this movie, son?« he would ask. »Hey son, how about this one? I’ve worked really hard for my money, so should a guy like me pay to see it?«
If he inquired about the latest releases, and I hadn’t yet had the chance to read the reviews, I would become exasperated, squirm in my chair, and would be nearly in tears, because at that age, the opinions of others were my opinions. I think Dad liked seeing me this way. To come to the point, flipping through a newspaper after Dad had manhandled it did not give me any pleasure. So I was thrilled to see that the paper was waiting for me that fateful morning.
Oftentimes when I reflect on this memory, I want to kick myself for not discerning the trap that had been plainly set out for me. Didn’t I think it curious that Mom and Dad were not in the kitchen, as they usually were at that time? And who had retrieved the newspaper from the driveway and positioned it so nicely on my placemat? Why? And why wouldn’t he or she have delved into it before me?
I pulled my chair out and sat down before the newspaper; and in that instant, probably because they’d been observing me from the doorway, Mom and Dad appeared all smiles and joined me at the table. I knew something was up.
»Good morning, son,« Dad said.
»Good morning,« Mom said.
»Umm,« I said, looking across at Dad, and then turning my head slowly in Mom’s direction. »Good morning.« I was cornered.
»What’s happening in the world, son?« Dad asked, pointing his chin at the newspaper. My stomach dropped because I could see then that Dad had already perused the pages, and that despite his best efforts to be extra careful, their original creases had been softened with his slapdash turning. I looked at him and narrowed my eyes. »Well,« he said. »Why don’t you have a look?«
»Son, go ahead,« Mom said. »Ha-ha-ha!« she burst out laughing.
»Shh,« Dad said. »Let him see for himself.« His head became a deep shade of red because he was trying to suppress his own laughter.
I unfolded the newspaper. My eyes scanned the headline: Kingdom Come, Kingdom Done: Pizza Kingdom Swallowed Up in Massive Sinkhole.
My fantasy of being employed at Pizza Kingdom was shattered in an instant; and to my great dismay, talk of working at Dad’s greyhound kennel was back on the table. It was too late for me to put in applications for other jobs; by then, my classmates had staked their claim to the best, and most sought-after, positions in town, such as crewmember at the slow-churned ice cream parlor or ticket taker and concessionist at the movie theater. The only jobs available were as cashier at the grocery store, busboy at the 24/7 diner, or dishwasher at the burger franchise. It seemed that fate had truly vanquished me.
Mom and Dad formed a fearsome alliance and our dinnertime talk often unraveled into the ilk of something like nightmare. Tempers flared. Appetites were lost. These conversations would all begin congenially enough; but, without fail, the good-natured masks we sported would fall off to reveal scowling, bickering faces. Mom, who’d worried earlier about the condition of my fingers, became a staunch and vocal supporter of Dad. All my fingers could have fallen off for all she cared. When I insisted I didn’t want to work at the kennel, Mom’s voice would climb an octave higher as she declared I was an ungrateful son. Then they would talk about me as if I weren’t present. »We’ve raised a bad son,« Mom would say. »A spoiled boy!«
»You know what I think it is. He’s scared of hard work,« Dad would add, shaking his head.
»I’m not!« I’d counter, but they would continue on as though I didn’t exist.
»He can’t handle hard work,« Mom would say. »Plus he has all those allergies.«
»Where does he think all the money comes from? The money to buy him new shoes and new clothes?«
»Or all the food he eats?« Mom would add. »And he eats a lot,« she would emphasize.
»He should be more thankful for the greyhounds,« Dad would say. »That’s where the money comes from.«
»He’ll never be thankful. He thinks he’s better than that kind of work.«
»Better than us,« Dad would say, wiping his chin with a napkin. »We should have him pay for his own food and clothes. How would he like that?«
»I’m right here!« I’d scream.
»Why are you yelling?« Mom would yell.
»No reason to yell!« Dad would yell. »We were having a nice, normal discussion.«
»It wasn’t normal,« I would say, rolling my eyes. »And it definitely wasn’t nice.«
»Did he just roll his eyes at you?« Mom would ask Dad.
»You rolled your eyes at your father?«
»Just…leave me alone,« I’d say, standing up from my chair
»You better not leave,« Mom would say. »Sit down.«
»If you leave,« Dad would say, »I’ll make sure you regret it.«
I would sit back down.
Finally, after some negotiating, I agreed to work the morning shifts at Dad’s greyhound kennel. Monday through Saturday. These shifts typically lasted five hours. The job necessitated that I wake up at an unaccommodating hour, at least two hours before sunrise. This was especially unaccommodating for a kid who had just become competent in trigonometry. But, I reasoned to myself, working the morning shift would give me the rest of the day to do what I wanted.
In inky darkness, I drove to the kennel compound, the radio turned on low, the wipers working at the dew that had beaded on the windshield overnight, as I gently rubbed sleep from my eyes. I met Earl and Pam, Dad’s employees, in the sandy lot before the kennel.
There were sixteen kennels; all of them were squat, narrow, and windowless structures – twice as wide as a school bus and just as long as one, too. They were painted white, their trim curiously in spearmint green, and each had, installed shambolically into a wall, a hulking air conditioner unit that whirred round-the-clock and leaked droplets of ice-cold water. Dad’s kennel was the one at the very end. Kennel 16. And that’s where I met Earl and Pam at the start of every shift.
They always arrived before I did; when I pulled into the lot, I could make out their willowy and baleful silhouettes leaning against the hoods of their cars, or standing with their hips just touching their respective driver-side doors, their elbows positioned coolly on their car tops, as though they’d been waiting for me forever in the thick quiet, lost in thought. One good look at their cars and you could tell they’d come from up north by the paint and metal eaten away by road salt; and I’m sure they’d driven down non-stop without a passenger and without ever cracking open their windows. I’m convinced, too, that their center consoles were packed with loose cassette tapes, old lighters, crumpled up receipts, old sticks of chewing gum, dog hair, and pennies. They always had an extra-large Styrofoam cup of coffee and a cigarette in their slightly tremoring hands. They were bleak-looking people, not the kind of faces that were pleasant to greet that early in the day. But they were reliable. They came to work on time, worked, and then left. And sometimes, they said goodbye to each other. They’d been in the greyhound business for over thirty years, and together in Dad’s kennel for eleven years; even so, I think they would have been hard pressed to name five details about the other’s life.
They were probably in their late 50s and looked like brother and sister, with their sallow skin and sunken cheeks and hooded eyes, their pronounced collarbones and long, stick-thin arms and their tumid middle knuckles, nearly twice the width of the rest of their spotted fingers. And the pads of these fingers were hardened, shiny like a just-wiped-down plastic menu. And the hair on top their heads was thin, fine, and dry. Strawberry blond with smears of white. And their eyes were blue as a doll’s. They wore loose fitting T-shirts, washed-out jeans, and fat white sneakers they tipped the sand out of every day. They had the same slow manner of speaking, drawled expletives at the rowdier dogs, the ones that mounted the other, more deferential dogs, between drags of their unfiltered cigarettes. They didn’t mind the flies circling their heads. The mosquitos didn’t bite them. They weren’t the kind of people to look up at the pines, just beyond the kennel compound, in hopes of spotting the woodpecker that had begun to pummel some bark.
It was clear that Earl and Pam loved the dogs. They came to life when they let the greyhounds out of their crates in the morning. Their slow-moving, stiff-jointed bodies became limber (I pictured their bones like frozen sticks of butter softening in a microwave) as they patted the dogs’ deep chests, scratched between and behind their ears, and greeted their favorite ones in childish voices. »Key-Key my bay-bay!« »Whoa Andy boy!« »Come here, Bill! Bill motherfucking Paxton!« »Who’s gonna win tonight? Is it you Mister? Yes, it’s you, isn’t it? You motherfucker. Isn’t it?« And the dogs unquestionably loved Earl and Pam.
It was only in the early 1980s that the term »human-animal bond« was officially coined. This was at the International Symposium in Vienna. There are three principal theories with regard to the human-canine bond, and one of these, the one I’m most concerned with here, has been dubbed the self-object theory. This theory submits that an animal can be a »self-object« and deepen a person’s sense of self, become crucial to one’s well-being. The animal engenders the human’s personality. The human sometimes feels stronger and more protected, even tenacious, in the company of their animal companion. The etiolated version of Earl and Pam I observed outside by their cars, predawn after predawn, differed drastically from the Earl and Pam that moved about so boldly inside the kennel with the greyhounds.
You see, beyond the sphere of the kennel, there was no one waiting for Earl and Pam at home. From the little snippets of information I’d gathered from Dad, I knew they were set at odds with their families; both had divorced. Both had children they hadn’t seen in years, and conceivably, in over a decade. Neither one of them had friends. The dogs were their kin. Their coterie. The greyhounds actuated them, set all their molecules in motion. Provided them with purpose. Listened to them. Safeguarded their secrets. Didn’t break their hearts. Never cast wounding rejoinders. Precipitated felicity. Were always eager to see them. Sad to see them go. Fought and barked for their attention.
I didn’t realize then, but Earl and Pam’s dedication to the dogs was something that many strive to pinpoint and name at some juncture in their lives – verifiable passion. And though I cannot say they were the friendliest, or most enjoyable, coworkers to work alongside of, I came to admire, retrospectively, how honest they were with themselves and with this passion. They couldn’t care less about what anyone else thought about their profession. They’d chosen it just as much as it had chosen them. It fulfilled them wholly, and they knew they were lucky that it did; and though it was not the most remunerative or attractive occupation, it was what they’d wanted to do, and they’d gone ahead and done it; and this, to undertake what one really wants to do in this life is, simply put, beautiful.
For the most part, I liked the dogs. I did not enjoy the work.
First thing in the morning, the dogs were let out into their respective pens with their muzzles on, the females on the left and the males on the right. There were as many as 35 of them in each pen. Some of the dogs planted their forepaws onto my chest; some of them slapped my legs with their bony tails. Some foisted their noses into my crotch. Some of them weren’t interested in me at all. »Hey. Down. Careful,« I meted out unconvincingly.
I milled about them in the sand, careful where I stepped. I replenished the large pails of water. I made sure the dogs’ muzzles stayed on. I’d been warned. If a greyhound somehow managed to oust the muzzle from its head, its prey drive would be set in motion; after all, they lived in a pack, and a very large one. The muzzle-less greyhound would either set upon the one with the most submissive temperament, or the pack leader. Hysteria would spread throughout the pen. Chaos. Dad had described to me the dogfights he’d seen. The punctured throats. The hard muscles in the hindquarters rendered threadbare. Ears cleanly bitten off.
I waited for the dogs to do their business and scooped it up, pitched it into a plastic bucket crowned with flies, while Earl and Pam swept and mopped up the rows of wire crates, one stacked on top of another, inside the kennel. The sky lightened. The frequency of the soft droning of airplanes increased. All 16 kennels had their dogs out in their pens. Someone called out a name. Someone else whistled. Someone said, »Whoa!« The woodpecker commenced its work.
By and large, I was an obedient, quiet son. I was never really attracted to the rebel, or nonconformist, lifestyle. I wanted to be a deferential, responsible person. I coveted good grades. I played Schubert and Chopin at nursing homes. I was a sterling citizen. But because of this, I think, it wasn’t long before I found myself entangled in a miserable pattern of sleep, one I couldn’t escape from the entire span of that summer. During the day, I was an obsolete simulacrum of myself. At night, my mind was as unfaltering as a hungry mosquito.
Dad was a strategist. The man working behind the scenes. The greyhound business was like a highly elaborate dance, he explained to me. »Samba!« he said, which was also supposed to be a joke, because he owned a greyhound named Samba. He was obsessed with names. »Samba! Samba!« Timing and consistency were essential. The dogs required the most extreme of routines. Dad owned several kennels in that part of the country, and he had to work out an elaborate system in which he could most efficiently shuttle his dogs about the various kennels, depending on how well or how poorly they raced at the corresponding racetracks. They needed to run profitably. This required tremendous mental wherewithal. He had to communicate with haulers, track functionaries, and his employees. He also traveled regularly to greyhound auctions and assessed and ordered kennel essentials. Flea and tick repellent, wormer, hormones, large cans of spinach, tall bags of kibble, and solid blocks of raw, unthawed meat.
Dad’s modus operandi was to, at the beginning of each week, make several irate phone calls and then, in the unnatural quiet that ensued immediately thereafter, methodically record the names of all his greyhounds down on a vast sheet of quadrille paper he had to frequently reorient so as to be able to write them all down, for the sheet was too long and too wide for his desk. All this as a golf tournament played out in a clement whisper on TV. Once all the names were written down, Dad commenced the task of inscribing, within the cells in the rows after each name, one of the following symbols: an X, an O, a /, or a \, or a star.
I do not know what these symbols signified, only that as the week progressed the sheet of paper grew more and more cluttered and that the range of symbols increased. Additionally, towards the end of the week, perhaps by Thursday or Friday, when Dad’s vexation and stress were also on the rise, he would employ a protractor and the largest of his triangle rulers to link symbols with names and names to names and symbols to symbols. Links made with a straight line denoted something entirely different than links made with a curve. And to top it all off, Dad used an assortment of colored pens, pencils, and markers. Each symbol and line was a distinct color. He would fold this piece of paper up, cram it inside his pants pocket (it was a miracle it even fit), and take it with him to the kennels, racetracks, or to miscellaneous auctions, where he would unfold it and scribble additional notes with whatever writing implement was at his disposal. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons, I would sneak into his office only to take a peek. I don’t deem Dad a very creative person. He considers galleries boring, tedious. He’s a guy that enjoys »the simple things in life.« But the paper, such a crazy and highly ordered mess, was a masterpiece and never failed to impress me.
Because, as I’d mentioned earlier, I was an obedient and responsible son, I didn’t want to let Dad down; and the greyhounds, as I’d also mentioned earlier, required an unwavering routine. I didn’t want to let them down either. They had to be turned loose into their pens every morning at the same time, plus or minus a minute or two. Carrying out this task beyond the specific parameters of this period of time could adversely affect a dog’s performance at the racetrack. The bladder sphincter could constrict; the dog could develop problems peeing; and this could lead to kidney complications. Similarly, the greyhounds had to be fed precisely within a certain interval, and the amount of grub allocated to each dog had to be portioned out exactly. The kennel dance was not so much of a samba. It was just systematic. Machine-like. I guess an extreme version of the robot.
I was paranoid I’d wake up late and sabotage the rather tenuous equilibrium that had been designed, it seemed, only to be destroyed. I imagined Dad whimpering over his weekly quadrille sheet of names, symbols, and lines trying to mend the slew of problems my tardiness would have certainly caused. It hadn’t occurred to me that if ever I did oversleep, Earl and Pam would simply continue on without me, and nothing detrimental would actually occur. In fact, it had just been the two of them before that summer. They didn’t really need my help. Unlikely as it might seem, this thought never crossed my mind.
I went to bed at a regular hour, tired and hopeful I would immediately fall fast asleep. But deep down, I knew another sleepless night lay ahead of me. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was wide awake. It was unquestionable: my body was exhausted. But my thoughts made it impossible for me to actually shut down. Unconsciously, my legs would violently start to shake. The entire bed would grow warm with the heat radiating from my shuddering body and it wasn’t long before I had to escape from between the stifling sheets and mattress. In the dark, I felt my way down the hallway and through the other rooms of the house, ran my hands along the silent piano, tried to conjure up the images held within the shadowy picture frames hanging on the walls. In the dark, all the furniture looked swollen and menacing. The world never seems so elaborate and mysterious as it does in those quiet hours. I could hear snores blistering behind Mom and Dad’s bedroom door.
I always ended up in the kitchen, where I would poke around in the refrigerator, stuff myself with pickles or olives, and sometimes leftovers from the restaurant we’d been to earlier that evening – we often fell into periods of eating out exclusively for dinner. Then I would switch on the light and sit down at the table in my chair, where the heavy emptiness of night would drape itself over me like a soaking wet white dust cover. Time was slippery. Minutes would sometimes feel like hours and vice versa.
I always looked at the fourth chair. The fourth chair demanded this of me. I obeyed. I did only that – look. No other thoughts trickled down through the folds of my mind other than what my retinas transformed into electrical impulses and shipped off to my brain via the optic nerve. The fourth chair occupied my brain exclusively, and that being the case, I ceased being a living person. I became a chair instead. It takes great focus to be just a chair. To block everything out experienced by the body and to exist, inanimately. I don’t think I could do it now. In this way, night began its slow tilt toward morning.
After a certain period of time, minutes or hours, I would hear the ticking of the wall clock or the refrigerator’s coils quivering a tune and would snap out of it, so to speak. I would cease to be the chair, and in an instant. There is a kinetic sculpture by the artist Arthur Ganson. It’s called »Cory’s Yellow Chair.« A yellow chair the size of a standard coffee mug bursts apart; its pieces slowly whirl away from a core, across a black backdrop, by well-oiled mechanical arms that resemble safety pins. These arms slowly and smoothly bring the pieces of the chair back together again, only to rip it apart an instant later.
The fourth chair in my mind was like Cory’s chair. It would explode in dramatic fashion and release me from its hold, but inevitably reassemble itself in the center of my thoughts the following night. And if existing as the fourth chair was one phase of my sleeplessness, a second phase would begin as soon as the fourth chair exploded in my mind, a phase in which I would become almost superhuman. If before I was inanimate, I was now alive, and to an extreme degree, meaning, for example, that I could feel every single piece of hair atop my head, I could detect the sensation of my fingernails growing, and I could feel, even hear, every bumping and dividing cell in my body.
I would surrender my hopes of finding sleep that night; and because the world is known to sometimes play cruel tricks, the moment I accepted this realization, my body and mind would suddenly plunge into complete exhaustion. I would rise slowly from the table, make a pot of coffee, and get dressed. I always arrived on time to the kennel. But usually, I could not remember driving there.
Essentially, I was a hydrotherapist. My principal job at the kennel was to lift the greyhounds in and out of a Jacuzzi specially built for them. It was a tub placed outside the door, next to the deep freezer we kept the blocks of meat in, and beneath the corrugated fiberglass roof. The Jacuzzi was just tall and wide enough for a greyhound to stand in, and constructed out of durable blue plastic with six underwater jets. Before lifting any dog into the Jacuzzi, I had to test the water’s temperature. I would plunge my arm in past the elbow, swirl it about, remove the mucky film of hair from the filter, and then come to some conclusion.
The water could not be too warm. The dogs would panic in that case. Or overheat. The water could not be too cold either. This could tense already sore muscles. If the water was too warm, I had to scoop out bucketfuls of it and replenish the Jacuzzi with cold water from the hose. And if the water was too cold, I had to wait an hour or two so that the temperature could rise. Rarely was the water at a suitable temperature. But achieving ideal Jacuzzi conditions for safe soaking was something I enjoyed; it was something I had mastered. I was utterly wrapped up in it, scooping out one bucketful of water, turning on the hose for a handful of seconds, turning it off, and then dipping my arm in the tub before deciding it was necessary to repeat the process all over again. »Jesus kid,« Earl would say, watching me from the doorway while smoking a cigarette, shaking his head.
»Is he messing around with the water again?« Pam would call out.
»Tell him we don’t have all day.«
»You heard the lady. Look kid, we don’t have all day.«
They were right. And so I would begin.
The greyhound has a large heart, a small waist and a flexible spine, employs the double-suspension gallop, and has the highest percentage of fast-twitch muscle of any dog breed, all factors contributing to its remarkable speed. Within its first six strides from a standing position, it can reach 45 mph. Only the cheetah has a similar degree of acceleration. While running, the greyhound’s paws come in contact with the ground just a quarter of the time; it practically flies; and its massive heart can beat up to five times per second.
Because the greyhound is such an incredible sprint athlete, it was imperative that the day after it had competed, chased the mechanical hare around the oval track, I lifted it into the Jacuzzi so that jets of warm water could massage its hardworking muscles. There were only a handful of dogs that didn’t enjoy the experience. Most of them stood blissfully in the churning water as I gently rubbed the grit from the corners of their eyes and checked their tattooed ears for ticks. When the three-minute timer went off, I lifted them out of the Jacuzzi and set them down on the ground. Most could not stand momentarily, slumping onto the wet sand. I would towel them off and let them loose one at a time in the pens, where they would fully regain the use of their muscles, shake off the excess water, and dart up and down the length of the enclosure, feeling good, barking playfully. Curls of steam would rise slowly from their fortified bodies. This was my favorite part of the day. They looked positively supernatural.
If you own a racing greyhound, you are entitled to naming it, of course. When I was a little boy, I loved helping Dad come up with names for his dogs. A name could be up to 25 characters long, and three names had to be written down on an official carbonless copy certificate. Your first preference followed by two alternates. Mom was partial to any name that included the words twilight or starlight; the names she put forward had a certain, yet off-putting, elegance to them. It was like watching someone eating chicken wings with a fork and knife, or French fries with a spoon. Mom was the poet of greyhound names. But like many great poets, she was burdened with a curse – any dog christened with a name including some variant of twilight or starlight turned out to be a bona fide dud at the racetrack.
Sometimes Dad would name a dog after something only our family could truly appreciate. For example – as the story goes – I had unimaginably hot feet when I was a baby and always pulled off my socks, pair after pair of socks every day, so Dad named a greyhound Baby Hot Foot. And once, Mom backed the minivan into the mailbox and inspired the name Mailbox Crasher. Dad also liked naming dogs that sounded anomalous whenever the track announcer chronicled the race live over the track’s loudspeakers. Names like Grandpa, Grandma, Last Place, or The Slow Dog. »And that’s Last Place in the lead!« Or, »There’s Grandpa, flying up the back stretch!« And how about, »The Slow Dog for the win!«
During the summer I spent working at Dad’s kennel, track officials began offering more money per win to dogs named after celebrities. I’m not sure what their objective was here. In Dad’s kennel alone, there was a greyhound named Reese Witherspoon, JLo Lives on Your Block, Bill Paxton is the Man, Yeah Scotty Pippin, and Dang Maggie Smith (very likely because someone had already laid claim to Dame Maggie Smith). There was also a dog that Dad had named after me. I found this infuriating. I’d asked him a number of times not to do this whenever he’d joked about it. »Why not? You should be honored,« Dad would always retort. And then he’d finally gone ahead and done it. It pleased him greatly, I thought, that it bothered me. I refused to call this greyhound by its name – my name; instead I called it Dog.
Dog was a nearly 80-pound male with a shiny pitch-black coat, and was one of the few greyhounds that did not like the Jacuzzi experience. Whenever I lowered him into the water, he’d stretch out his legs in a panic and plant his forepaws resolutely onto the tub’s blue edge. Whenever I tried to coax him into the water, he would whimper and attempt to spring free from my grip. »C’mon, don’t be such a baby,« I’d whisper angrily. Then, after a few seconds, I would say more calmly, »It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.« But all my attempts were futile. His withers never did see a drop of water.
And for a while, Dog also happened to be an accomplished racer. In fact, one of the best at the track. Dad would arrive at the kennel every day to help with the feeding, assess the general well-being of his greyhounds, and make additional notes on the folded sheet of paper stuffed in his pants pocket. »Son,« he would call out. »Could you come here for a second?«
»What is it?« I’d answer.
»Stand here. Don’t move.«
Dad would unfold his sheet of paper and smooth it down as best he could across my back. I would feel the point of the pen, or the pencil, or the marker working through the paper and through my shirt. Sometimes it would tickle.
And, without fail, whenever Dad came to the kennel, he would pamper Dog, bring him chunks of raw sirloin steak and let him out into the pen by himself before the other dogs, which, for some reason, got under my skin. »He’s just a dog,« I said one morning after Dad let Dog out into the pen. »Don’t you think you’re spoiling him?«
»He’s a fast dog,« Dad replied. »We don’t get many like him.«
»Did you see his last race?« Pam asked, joining Dad and me outside, a smoldering cigarette dangling from her mouth.
Earl whistled behind us. »He’s fast shit.« He was shoving armfuls of shredded paper into Dog’s crate for added comfort.
»He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen,« Pam said. »Got great early speed. Way he’s going, could be special.«
»Won by at least six lengths,« Earl said. »I’d say he’s a great closer too. If he keeps winning like that, he’ll be bringing people in.«
I suddenly felt stupid standing there. I looked out at Dog. Then up at the sky. I thought: I’m tired of Dog. I thought: I’m tired. I was tired of that entire place. »He’s just a dog,« I repeated, more to myself than to anyone else.
»Took the turns like a pro,« Dad said. »We have to make sure he stays happy, and most importantly, healthy.« He crouched down and trained his eyes attentively on Dog, whose snout was busy scanning the sand in the pen. »Is he tied up?«
Earl stepped outside and stood by Pam, their arms crossed in front of them. They followed Dog with their eyes. It was quiet. Dog walked in a circle, then another, and then finally raised his leg, sent forth a steady spray of pee. »Nope,« Earl said.
Dad stood up. »Good.«
»You know he hates the water,« I said. »He’s annoying to lift into the Jacuzzi.«
»He doesn’t have to like the water,« Dad said. »Just be careful whenever you handle him. That dog is bringing in some serious money.«
The passing of time is one of those features in life that constantly stupefies mankind. In this, it has something in common with love; and of course, death, since time’s passing, that wild note as of wings beating with solemn abundance, only signals the approach of the great and ineluctable unknown.
I thought summer would never end. The start of the new school year seemed impossibly far off. My afternoons were spent sleeping. I shut my eyes to the thought of playing the piano. This was my way. Nothing seemed to transpire. I’d grown strong. The greyhounds had given me muscles. I hadn’t noticed. I’d wake up, unhappy. I was so much skin and flesh, I’d think in a panic. One glass of water was not enough to slake my thirst. A thirst close to legend. One day was already another, and again and again, another.
Then out of the blue, it seemed, it was August and how quickly the sun tumbled down into the trees! Everything happened all at once. Already it was within spitting distance of the end of summer, and then during my last working week at the kennel, the dogs went crackers over Earl as he was letting them out of their crates. »Goddamn,« he kept saying. »Goddamn. What’s gotten into you all?« They kept jumping up on him as if he were the track lure. Pam had to pull the more persistent ones off of him. »Git! Git out! Git out you shits!«
»What was that all about?« Pam asked, evidently alarmed.
»A mouse must have worked them up overnight,« Earl said.
»I don’t know,« Pam said. »Then they would have pissed their crates.« A thought entered her head. She smiled.
»What’s so funny?« Earl asked.
»Now c’mon. What is it?«
»You must smell like shit.«
Earl laughed. »What the fuck. The only thing that smells like shit is the words coming from your mouth.«
They both burst out laughing.
Then the rest of the day went on as usual.
But the next morning, when I pulled into the lot, I spotted only Pam standing by her car. »Where’s Earl?« I asked as I approached her. She shrugged. She was smoking and drinking her usual extra-large Styrofoam cup of coffee. We stood there a minute and waited. »Should we call him?« I asked.
»Guy like Earl, probably never missed a day of work in his life,« Pam said, staring unblinkingly ahead of her at an unexceptional patch of ground. She made a sound like the tail end of a yawn. »He’s dead.« Her words shocked me, drew my eyes to her leaning profile, but I knew they were probably true. She finished her cigarette and then said, »C’mon. Let’s go.«
We started without Earl. We didn’t talk much. Didn’t have to. And no more mention of Earl was made until Dad arrived a few hours later. He looked about him, asked where Earl was.
»No show,« Pam said.
»Did you try calling him?«
Pam shook her head.
»He didn’t call either?«
»No,« Pam said.
»That’s not good.«
Dad went to check on Earl while Pam and I wrapped-up with the greyhounds. »You don’t have to wait around,« Pam said when we were completely done. She stomped the sand from her shoes. »We’re all finished here.«
We were outside, where it had become unsparingly hot, and stormy clouds had piled up in the distance. »I hope Earl’s okay,« I said.
»Oh honey,« Pam said. »Shit,« she shook her head and moved closer to me. »You know,« she started, shaking her head again, searching for her next words. I could smell coffee on her breath. »You know. That’s just life.« I regarded her face. And I knew by the vague quality it suddenly took on that she had wept in wasted effort countless times before. Nothing would break her strength anymore. Not a single tear for Earl would spill out onto her cheek.
Earl was stretched out on the floor of his trailer when Dad found him. He had been dead for hours and in the heat, a stench was already rising from his body.
By the end of the week, Dad hired Michelle. Michelle was a round, cheerful, and enthusiastic woman from Orlando who could not be mistaken for Pam’s sister; and Michelle asked Pam a great deal of questions. I could tell Pam was annoyed, doubtless annoyed at the fact that Earl had died and left her with this woman, but she always politely answered Michelle’s questions.
By that time, Dog’s glory had faded dramatically. He’d tumbled from the upper echelons of distinction to the ordinary, losing a succession of races. Dad stopped pampering him. I knew he was disappointed. I was somewhat sad, felt a bit guilty as though I had, by some means, elicited this unexpected change.
»What happened?« I asked Dad one evening over dinner.
»Well,« Dad said, »some dogs give up.« He poked at the potatoes on his plate. »When they see that they’re not in the lead anymore, they just don’t push themselves to try and win. Maybe another track is better for him. I’m going to ship him out.«
On my final day, after I’d lifted the last greyhound out of the Jacuzzi, Pam wished me luck. »I’m sure I’ll see you around,« she added.
»Yeah, sure you will,« I said.
Michelle ambled outside and dipped two fingers into the water. »Oh my,« she said. »Feels a bit warm, don’t you think?«
I looked past her at Pam, who had turned around, but not before I caught sight of the wide grin spreading across her face.
I checked the mailbox after school one afternoon in early September. My heart scrambled up my throat. A letter had arrived from the prestigious music conservatory. I wish I could say that I’d forgotten about my application, and that during the entire summer I hadn’t given it a single thought, hadn’t thought about the jury of musicians – smartly dressed, their contemplative faces, their critiques, their praises – listening to my playing; but that would be a great lie. I’d thought about it every day; and everyday, I’d splintered the thought over and over again, only to unhappily feel it gather together again and stand up tall in my head.
I took the letter to my room and sat on the edge of my bed, looking down at it, turning it over and over in my hands. Then I studied my fingers. Had the work at the kennel changed them? Had they been damaged, as Mom once feared? Would my knuckles swell up like Earl and Pam’s? Earl and Pam, I thought, and the world cracked open below me. Earl and Pam. I couldn’t open the letter. I couldn’t decide whether or not I really wanted to.
Later, I carried the letter outside in the blue dark of night, not really knowing what I’d do with it. The air smelled wormy. I crossed the backyard, barefoot, with dignified industry. I stood by the fence and looked out into the preserved swampland fanning out on the other side. It looked one-dimensional. The sound of so many birds fell on my ears. I listened with careful propriety.
In retrospect, I’m surprised how easy and anticlimactic it was. I crumpled the envelope up, just like that, and in one effortless motion, pitched the ball of paper over the fence and into the dark and heavy wild. And I was satisfied. Free. I rose up out of myself to some undefined point where I was without a body or a name. Time passed and made a small gasping sound like a rind being peeled away from its fruit.
No. Actually nothing of that sort happened. Only that I wanted to move across the lawn like the moon traversing the sky. Nothing happened, then all the birds continued to make noise. There, and nowhere else in the world. And as I turned back toward the house, I spotted something in the corner of my eye. I’m certain of what I saw – a striped tail, a tail that only a tiger could have.