It was Spink’s idea. It was always Spink’s idea when it meant getting into deep shit. So why’d we go along with it? Why’d we do anything Spink suggested?
For one thing, we were bored, doing what we always do. Hanging out in front of Domino’s or the Walmart parking lot, watching cars drive by, hoping one of our friends with a driver’s license would come by and pick us up. Or better, some junior or senior girls. They didn’t even need to be the hot ones, just older and cool, not the ditzy sophomore girls we’d grown up with. Mostly, we stood there like tools, smoked cigarettes (if anyone could bum some), told lame jokes and shoved each other around, like we were still in junior high.
We’d all agreed to take the bus downtown, out of our graveyard dead suburb. It doesn’t sound like that big a deal, going to the city, but it was. My parents would have grounded me for life if they knew I was out on my own with these three losers.
We needed excitement. We needed to feel like somebodies. You know how when you’re somewhere people don’t know you, you feel like you have super powers, that you can do anything you want?
In our Podunk town, people know everything about everyone. And they remember it, too. Like which one used to eat the dried glue from the tip of the bottle (me, which is how I got the nickname Elmer), or which one wet his sleeping bag on overnights (Pittuti), or who got a visible hard on the first time he danced with Kelley Myers and caused her to scream thinking some little animal popped up between them (Spink).
Sure, Spink, Pittuti, Truro and me, we knew those things about each other, but in the city, we thought we could do anything and get away with it.
So when Spink stubbed out his cig, bent over and did that two-hand shuffle thing through his white fro, like he was trying to get rid of dandruff, and said, “Let’s steal a car, man,” we didn’t automatically tune him out like we normally would.
But Pittuti shoved him against the bus stop and said, “Shut up, asshole.”
Truro, though, he smiled like he was actually thinking Spink had a good idea.
“Don’t be a douche, Spink,” I said. “How we gonna steal a car? You know how to hot wire?”
Spink puffed up like the Michelin Tire Man. Just because he grew five inches and gained fifty pounds in the last year, he thinks being bigger makes him our leader or something.
“I got my ways,” he said. Then he strode off down the street, nodding us along with his gigantic mushroom head.
We didn’t really believe him, thought he was just blowing hot air.
So there we were hoofing it near some older hotels and parking lots filled with vans and big SUVs. In some grass across the road, a man walked a Great Dane, and we passed a woman with three fru fru poodles on leashes. One lunged and yapped at us while the other two pissed on a light post.
In an attempt to get away, Pittuti stumbled off the curb. “God, I hate those little shits,” he said and visibly shuddered once we were past. “Why the hell are all these dogs around here?”
Pittuti was terrified of dogs. His aunt’s Chihuahua bit him when he was five, ran right up and nipped him in his shin. Even though he’s my closest friend, he’s hardly ever at my house because of our two black labs, Cleo and Sophie. My dogs are the friendliest in the world. As soon as I get home from school, they roll over to get their bellies scratched, and they like to lean on people just to be close. But Pittuti practically gets an asthma attack when he’s in our house. He’s so scared one of my dogs will lean on him.
I’m not sure why Spink directed us down an alley behind the Sheraton. Or why the hell we followed him? I mean, hello, didn’t he know what kinds of things happen in dark alleys?
We passed some giant garbage bins and an open door to a restaurant kitchen. Metal clinked and the smell of tasty meat grilling drifted out to the alley. You could tell Spink was on a mission because he loves food and he didn’t even raise his head, just kept plodding along. The rest of us, though, we stopped and sniffed. I’m sure the other guys were thinking the same thing I was, that a Big Mac or Taco Bell would be pretty good right then. Take Spink’s mind off his cracked brain idea.
“Come on, losers” he commanded, and we followed. I don’t know why one of us didn’t stand up to Spink.
This is where fate came in. (Okay, I may pretend to not be listening in Mrs. Lantermier’s English class, but I actually paid attention to the discussion about fate in The Odyssey. Like how muchdo your choices count, how does a fatal flaw figure in, and how much is left up to whatever life throws at you?)
Up near the loading zone to the hotel, a van sat idling. The tinted windows made it hard to see inside, but it sure looked like no one was in it. Wheels with the keys in it?
Spink gave us his crazy man grin. With that Chia pet hair and his huge mouth, he could seriously pass as a deranged clown. My heart beat some lame dance club rhythm; my head spun. God, I was afraid I’d faint like a sissy.
Spink stabbed one finger at the van. “Make sure no one’s around,” he said. He thought he was whispering, but Spink’s quiet is a normal person’s shout.
“Lower your damn voice,” Pittuti said through gritted teeth. He’s Italian with dark skin, but he looked whiter than me, a few shades paler than death.
Of course, Truro, Spink’s henchman, was already peering in the back door windows, pressing his big, flat nose up against the glass like some pudgy kid outside a candy store. “Nope, no one’s in there. Just some big boxes or something.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Spink said, and before any of us could give this a second thought, acknowledge it was the stupidest, most ass-holiest thing Spink had ever suggested, that it could land us in jail and ruin our lives forever, he was in the driver’s seat and Truro was in the passenger’s side. I was still in this outer space mode, like I was an alien looking down on earth, that we weren’t really doing this. Without thinking, I followed Pittuti into the back, slamming the door, just as Spink peeled out. He narrowly avoided a dumpster. Pittuti let out a shout that sounded like a bark as Spink swerved and almost hit the brick wall on the other side.
I gripped the seat back and stared out the front windshield. Pittuti was still making weird noises, a combination growl-bark, which was getting annoying. On account of his asthma, Pittuti breathes pretty crazy, and when he’s nervous, he’s been known to hum or make other weird noises like he has Tourette’s or something. This was way beyond anything I’d heard from him before. I was about to tell him to cut it out when he said, “Holy Shit!” and pointed to my right ear.
I turned, thinking there was some guy with a gun behind us, that we’d done the one really illegal thing in our lives and Karma was going to shoot us dead right then.
A curtain hung between the seats and the back of the van. It was partially open on my side and in the flickering light of passing street lamps, I made out the metal bars of a cage, a black nose, and a muzzle with lips wrinkled up showing teeth. It wasn’t Pittuti growling but a dog. Two dogs. The one in the cage behind Pittuti began barking.
“You stole a car with dogs!” Pittuti yelled.
“What?” Spink asked, as if he couldn’t hear the dogs.
We were passing the marquee to the hotel and sure enough, it read, “Welcome: International Kennel Club.” I pointed, “Show dogs.”
Truro slapped a hand on his forehead. “That explains all the freaking dogs.”
Master of the Obvious.
Pittuti was sweating and had his ass scooched up as far onto the seat edge as possible. He practically hugged Truro’s neck. “Pull over, man. Let’s ditch this whole thing.”
Even Spink was starting to look freaked out. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. But the thing with Spink is, he’s stubborn. Now that he actually had some wheels, he wasn’t going to give them up so easily.
“Yeah, pull over,” I said.
Spink said, “So we just leave the dogs?”
I turned to the growling one. “Hey, Buddy,” I said as soft and calm as I could. Surprisingly, it stopped growling, sat back, and thumped its tail on the metal floor of the crate. The other one stopped barking too. I pulled the curtain a little further open so I could see them better. They looked like cartoon dogs with big, black noses and long, silky hair and beards. Kind of like Old English sheepdogs, except smaller and with longer fur. The one behind me was gray; the one behind Pittuti was a creamy tan. One of my mom’s friends had a dog like this. A bearded something.
“Yep, let’s dump them,” Truro said.
I imagined us letting the dogs hop out in the city. “Jesus, guys,” I said. “These are show dogs. They’re probably more valuable than this van.” My aunt was a crazy dog person; her little Shih tzu was a dog champion, and I would bet she would care more if it were stolen than her car. It was her baby. My mom said it cost her like $2,000, which is crazy if you think of all the dogs at the pound you can get practically for free.
Spink swiveled his head to the back seat, the van swerving as he did. “We’re just gonna drive around for a while, have some fun, and then we’ll ditch the van with the dogs in it.”
The gray dog barked again, probably in response to Spink’s loud voice. Pittuti pulled out his inhaler.
This was big: Grand Theft Auto, real, not like the video game. The dogs’ owners would have already called the cops. I couldn’t breathe, like maybe I’d developed asthma too.
“Pull over,” I shouted.
“I can’t pull over now, asshole,” Spink said. “We’re in traffic. We’ll go somewhere quiet and let the dogs out.”
“You’re not gonna just turn the dogs loose,” I said, clenching my eyes shut to try and concentrate, to come up with a solution to this shitty situation we’d gotten into. It was hot too. We couldn’t let the dogs loose, but we couldn’t leave them in the van either. Unless we kept the motor on and air running. But what if it ran out of gas before someone found them? I’d heard of dogs and kids dying in locked up cars in the summer.
“A dog park,” Pittuti managed to gasp.
Truro glared at him. “What I’d like to know is how the guy who wets his pants when he sees a dog thinks of a dog park? And where the hell is a dog park?”
Once when my mom and I were picking up my dad from a business trip with the dogs in the car, we let them exercise at a dog park near the airport.
“Go to the airport,” I said.
“Okay, Einstein, where’s that?” Spink asked and then like fate stepping in again, we passed a sign to the highway leading to the airport.
“You have to take the interstate,” Truro shouted, pointing at the upcoming entrance.
Not just any interstate, the one with six lanes where three highways merged.
Everyone grew silent. Even the crazy bearded dogs stopped barking.
Spink accelerated up the ramp and into the speeding traffic. I kept looking around, sure I’d see cop’s lights flashing. I mean how stupid were we? The dogs’ owners had to have called the police by now. But every time I looked out the window, the cars whizzing by made me dizzy, and it seemed like Spink was having a hard time keeping the van in his lane. So I had to focus straight ahead or I was pretty sure I’d throw up.
The airport exit loomed when we were three lanes over.
“Get right,” I said, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible, but Spink swerved, cutting a sports car off. The guy’s horn blared. Spink cussed. He shot into the right lane and we careened off the interstate, everyone clutching door handles, seat backs, anything to hold ourselves steady.
“Dog Park,” Pittuti shouted, pointing past the airport entrance. Spink braked and veered so quickly, it felt like the van tilted on two wheels. The dogs yelped. He sped down the deserted two-lane highway, ending in an empty gravel parking lot, lit only by one dim streetlamp. Behind a line of trees, was a chain link fence.
“Let’s leave the van and the dogs,” Pittuti said.
I nodded, glad Pittuti seemed to be developing a clue.
“Are you nuts?” Spink said. “We gonna hoof it all the way back to a bus stop?”
“It’s better than going to jail.” I was voicing what I hoped everyone else had considered. Or were Spink and Truro really that stupid?
Spinks’ fingers drummed on the steering wheel. Pitutti looked like death warmed over; even Truro shifted in his seat. Behind me, the dogs panted and their claws scraped on the metal cage floor.
Finally, Truro opened the door and hopped down. “Let’s get these dogs out of here.”
Once all of us had climbed out of the van, Pittuti sprinted over to a tree to piss. Truro yanked open the back door, setting the dogs to barking again.
“Come on, come on, let’s do this,” he said and grabbed the edge of one cage. The grey beardie growled. The tan one lunged at Truro’s fingers.
“Holy shit!” Truro said, jumping back. “What the hell we gonna do?”
Spink, Truro, and I studied the dogs.
Pittuti, still hanging out by the tree, yelled, “Have Elmer do it, he’s good with dogs.”
You could barely see the dogs’ eyes through all that hair, but they seemed calm now that no one was grabbing at them. Leashes lay next to their cages. I swallowed, sizing things up.
“Hey,” I said to the grey dog. His tail thumped. I slowly reached in and picked up the leash. Spink and Truro backed away.
I put my hand on the cage. “Wanna go out?”
Amazingly, the dog that was growling a minute ago now wiggled like a puppy, his long hair swinging every which way. I opened the cage and snapped on the leash. He jumped out and then trotted along beside me like he was in a show ring, his tail up. At the gate, I fumbled with the latch, finally getting it open and turning the dog loose inside. The tan dog whined now that his buddy was gone.
“Your turn,” I said and repeated the slow process.
“You’re a frickin’ dog whisperer,” Truro said, coming up beside me at the gate. The almost full moon kept popping out of the clouds to light up the park and then disappearing again, so we could sometimes see the dogs as they tore around the field. I have to say I felt pretty proud of myself. Like fate and fatal flaws, I thought of super powers too. Maybe taking care of dogs was one of my super powers.
We turned back and crunched over the gravel. “You just gotta be slow and confident,” I told Truro.
“I’ve had enough of this love fest,” Spink said, reaching into the van and hoisting the cage out. He motioned with his head and grunted for Truro to get the other one. The cages clattered onto the ground before I could tell the guys to set them down gently.
“Get the water bowl too,” I said, and clunk! the metal bowl landed next to my feet.
“Let’s go!” Truro said.
Now that I was out of the van and the dogs were free, what we’d done and how stupid we were, came back to me. We could be caught and sent to jail. The feeling reminded me of my mom’s constant yammering about making the right choice, like if your friends are drinking, get out of the car, don’t ride with them. Why weren’t any of them thinking this through?
“I’m not going,” I said, my heart pounding like it was a gigantic drum inside my ears. When Spink and Truro got back home they’d be telling everyone I was a major wuss, that I’d backed out on the big adventure.
Spink and Truro stared at me. Then Spink squawked like a chicken and motioned Truro into the van. Pittuti was still over by the tree.
“Come on, Pitt, stay,” I pleaded.
Pittuti wavered, he really did. His head turned toward the van, me, then to the dogs off in the park. It was the dogs that swayed him. He didn’t want to be anywhere near those dogs. He shook his head and walked back to the van.
“Come on, Elmer. How you gonna get home?” Pittuti said, his hand on the door handle.
“I’m not going,” I repeated.
Pittuti shrugged and got in. The van idled there a minute. The four of us had been friends since kindergarten, but in the last year or two, I’d been wondering why I still hung with Spink and Truro. I expected them to do things like this. But Pittuti? Him going was a real sucker punch.
Truro gaped from the opened window, and I could just make out Pittuti behind the tinted glass.
Spink yelled something I couldn’t hear from the driver’s seat, put the van in gear and lurched out. I watched the taillights at the end of the lane until they were gone.
Man, I felt weird standing alone in the empty lot; I wasn’t sure if I’d just done the bravest or the wussiest thing. I guess it depended on who you asked.
The dogs stood by the gate barking at me, so I filled the water bowl from the old cement fountain and carried it into the park. Then I hefted each crate inside.
Once the dogs got a drink, they seemed happy I was inside the fence with them. They both pushed against me for pets and then they tore off again, barking and rolling in who knew what. The almost full moon spotlighted the park, and the dogs’ long, silky coats flowed like something liquid as they ran.
I plopped down, leaned my back against a tree, and stared at the sky, wondering what to do next. I hadn’t really thought this whole thing out. I’d give the guys some time to drive around and get smart enough to leave the van somewhere. Instead of using my cell phone, I’d hike to a pay phone—there had to be one near the airport—call 911 and tell them I’d seen some huge men dumping dogs at the dog park. Then I’d hoof it to the nearest bus stop and go home.
It would suck if the guys got caught. Would that be fate?
I’d made a choice. Even Truro and Spink had. Pittuti, though, his fear of dogs—that fatal flaw—overpowered his ability to choose. I sure wish he could have overcome it.
I stood, called out to the dogs, and they streamed toward me, barking. I turned my head, thinking I heard a sound from far off, thinking maybe it was a siren.
Marjorie Carlson Davis was born in New York and now lives in Iowa City, IA, where she’s been a community college writing instructor and University of Iowa writing consultant. Her work has appeared in many literary and commercial publications, including Many Mountains Moving, The Baltimore Review, Indianapolis Monthly, The Writer, Frontiers, and the Milkweek Press anthology for young readers, Stories From Where We Live: The Great Lakes. Long ago one of her first published stories appeared in the teen magazine, Sassy. She often writes about animals and nature. In researching her recently completed novel, A Field Guide to Wolves, she actually kissed a wolf.