Pen Harrington jerked awake as the red liquid fire of a charleyhorse shot up his leg. The muscles of his lower back and upper thighs joined in a cantata of agony; they had shrunk to conform to his scissored slump over the kitchen table. He tried to stand but he was wedged in. He had been fighting his demons of despair for the past six hours and forty-two minutes, head in his hands, moving only ever so slightly to refill his cup. He had passed out in a chair and now he was trapped, stuck in this ridiculous position, his circulation gone, his limbs no longer his to command. Elegantly, exquisitely, the pain flowed up his legs to his back. His knees levitated, hitting the kitchen table and setting a half full bottle of cut-rate bourbon to doing uncertain circles on its base.
“Dumb table.” The bottle settled down, but a small pool spread out from his coffee cup, soaking into the bare wood. He put his hand in the spill and wiped it on his shirt. He would spend the remainder of his days at the center of an ever-contracting puddle of agony as his whole body joined in the spasm.
“Damn dumb table.” He interpreted the spilled bourbon as a betrayal. That his own kitchen table would let him down thrust his agony into the background. Half rising, Pen grasped the table’s edges and began fine-tuning it, trying to reconcile its wobbly legs with the irregularities of the floor.
“Damned floor.” Getting the thing level became a study in concentration, lining up the tumblers in an unfamiliar combination lock. The whole place was off plumb and out of true, but there was a magic spot where everything was steady and reliable. He had found it before; he could find it again. Shoulders wide and arms spread, like a bus driver taking a wide turn, Pen manhandled the table. As its four legs found their usual depressions in the linoleum the table corrected itself and the charleyhorse relaxed. The pain subsided.
“Good work, team.” A celebratory draining of the coffee cup and he passed out again. From a far corner of the kitchen Pen’s yellow Labrador retriever looked up curiously, scratched, stretched and rolled over hoping to have his belly rubbed. No luck, Pen had nodded off—nothing out of the ordinary, but a dog could hope. Prince scrabbled back into his favorite spot, wedged between the refrigerator and a steam radiator.
Once Pen Harrington had been young and eager and had prospered. As a lad, Pen Harrington reveled in pastures watered by tourist dollars. A young goat, supple of knee and quick of breath, he had been content to nibble the flowers of the season. He had a job, as a full-time counterman, selling auto parts. Once Pen owned a house. He still owned the house and thought of it from time to time. The winter winds, summer gales, the wet salt air, freezing fogs and Fundy southeasters had prized up the nails from its clapboards and rotted its sills, but the house still stood. Empty and without him, it teetered on the Willipaq ledge, high above the tides, secure enough. He had bought it at a tax auction but he did not live there.
He visited the house in flights of sporadic fancy, toting a toolbox, with a baseball cap set back on his head, radiating steely determination and with a line of credit at the lumberyard. His good intentions accumulated non-negotiable credit in the Methodist afterlife his mother and aunts had promised him when he finished his vegetables and went quietly up to bed. His mother and aunts had then played cards. Pen Harrington grew up and drank. Not all the time, but the house went to hell anyway. This was all before he held forth with snappy yarns and a sympathetic ear as a part-time bartender at The Willipaq Casino—no gambling, only a pretentious restaurant with a cocktail lounge and an attached marina. There was no local trade; loose change was spent at the laundromat or the liquor store. The bartender job saved Pen from becoming one of the shirtless dropouts who haunted the breakwater in summer, draped over the benches placed by a Rotary bake sale. They compared muscles and tattoos, got nice tans, drank beer and hustled tourist girls.
The last time he visited it the house had been standing empty for fifteen years. The weather had come in through a broken window and heaved the floor but the joists and sills were serviceable though shaky. They would hold until he got around to jacking the house up and sliding in a new set. That the house still stood he was sure, for the tax bills came regularly. On clear days he could make out its cranky silhouette huddled on the ledge across Willipaq Bay. It was a thirty-mile drive.
Prince had settled between Pen’s feet where he twitched with the private anomie of a dog dream. And his ear itched. That exquisite itch that could never be totally satisfied—his favorite kind. Still asleep, Prince flopped over and scratched at his ear. From his collar a jingling of interlocking links rang a percussive counterpoint.
“No superpowers today? I would have thought one such as you would not be troubled by an everyday affliction of the flesh.” Prince looked up. Interesting dream—he was somewhere underground and the walls were speaking to him. The walls were striped green and white with mineral accretions. The head of a large animal, a cow, looked down and nodded wisely. It had a secret. “I know who you are,” said the Cow.
“So do I,” said Prince. “You are new to me. May I have a sniff?” He ranged about seeking the Cow’s hindquarters but they were buried in the stone of the wall. Prince raised a leg.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the stone head. “I am a sphinx. Cleopatra loved me.”
Prince put down the leg. “Silly, you are a cow,” said the great yellow Lab. “Cleopatra is a name for a cat. You are not a cat, you are a Cow.” Prince had seen cows on the cartons of milk Pen Harrington struggled home with. He was surprised that he had made words but this seemed nothing out of the ordinary, so he let it pass.
“I am an allegorical figure set to confound all who come my way,” said the Cow. “I am the guardian of the castle of the Dancing Lords.”
“You are a silly cow and you are deep underground.”
“As are you, silly dog. I was once high atop the postern gate. Fierce I was. But the parts you refer to—those that would produce milk and tell me if I were a common cow or, indeed, like the ancient guardians of the Hittites and Sumerians, a great, giant horrific charging bull, full with the blood of kings—are alas embedded in the stones. You will have to take me on trust.”
“Believe, me, you are a cow. Milk smells bad.” The cows and their cartons were torn open to take the bite out of too-strong coffee, then forgotten and left to spoil.
“And you are a silly dog and no olfactory beauty yourself. If I am a sphinx and confidante of Cleopatra, then I am reputed to have information. All the stories say this. There are no stories about silly dogs.”
“I have heard stories.” Prince had heard stories of trouble and women, basketball and the weather, smelled the heady thick perfume of beer and crispy cheese snacks. Pen and Harry Pease told stories for hours as he curled close to the wood stove under the crackling glare of Harry’s television.
“You have heard but you have not listened. Any reliable tale would have reported that you are an ignorant dog. You sleep on the floor and attend the natterings of foolish old men. Your head is empty if you do not crave knowledge and wisdom that it brings. You have heard only wind blowing through a hollow tree.That is about to change.”
“I, I...” The ideas—wisdom and knowledge—were strong and bigger than he was. Prince had no words to reply.
In his mind, a dream within a dream, a chestnut horse lay at rest in the meadow, knees tucked in under its glistening body. A child, a young girl with red hair tumbling over her shoulders, lay at full length atop the horse, stroking its long nose, whispering reassurances. The child was naked. The horse kept his head turned away, pretending indifference as he nibbled watercress, but his eyes rolled backwards in their sockets, riveted on Prince. Clutching at the horse’s mane with her hand, the child leaned over to caress his head. “Speak, dog,” said the Wise Child.
Prince’s lips parted. He licked the tip of his nose for reassurance, and spoke. “Wisdom is conferred.” He spoke the words even as he realized he did not understand what they meant. Words, he had words.
“Had you wanted to pass this point?” asked the girl, getting along with things. “And a riddle is what I am said to have for you before I may allow you to pass this point.”
“Not really,” said Prince. “I am happy just where I am. Here there are smells and kibble.”
“Here,” said the Cow. “Well, since you are somewhere, you obviously know part of the Wise Child’s riddle already. There are three ways to get anywhere—the way you know, the way someone has told you and the way that is intuited for you.”
“I am already here, so that leaves two.”
The Wise Child swung down from her horse’s back and threw her arms around his neck. “Very clever, Holy Dog, but you are in the way of outsmarting yourself. Careful, lad. Don’t set yourself up just to show off. And show off to who? A Cow stuck in a wall? Oh, really, silly hound.” The Cow pretended to chew its cud.
“Gotta have a smoke.” Pen’s eyelids fluttered as false dawn was gloaming, its long rays competing with the fluorescent ring in the kitchen ceiling. His hand made exploring circles and found nothing. Pen Harrington was desperately hung over and trying to regain control of his body. One flailing leg struck his dog in the ribs. Prince’s dream—the Cow, the Wise Child, the great chestnut horse—was gone, blown off like early morning sea smoke. Pen slapped his chest pocket for a pack of smokes and, finding none, levered his hams high enough off the chair to give his pants pockets a squeeze. Definitely out of butts. Prince stationed himself in front of the door, wagging his tail. Time for a walk. Pen stood shakily, the action setting off a flurry of thumps as the great dog’s tail hammered against the door.
Pen Harrington, the provider. Man the hunter. Prince loved Pen and Pen loved Prince. They sometimes shared macaroni and cheese dinners when there was no kibble left in the bag. Prince remembered where the kibble came from—C&E Feeds on North Street. Twice a month his food came down the alley with Pen stooping under the weight of the fifty-pound bag balanced on his shoulder, Prince trotting importantly at his side. Trips were special. Even though the dog and the man went almost everywhere together, the anticipation that, yes, we might be doing it again, made Prince’s blood race. There would be a rustling of preparatory activity, lacing sneakers, unpegging a windbreaker from the coat tree in the hall.
“I am totally, miserably hung over. And out of cigarettes.” His options were two: quit smoking cold turkey or stand up and get moving. Pen braced himself for action. Pen rolled his head around on his shoulders, massaging his sleep swollen jaw; time to face the elements. Look at that—five o’clock in the morning and still dark. It seemed it was always dark here at the leading edge of North America, a hazard of infelicitous positioning.
“Feet do yo’ stuff.” Cigarettes meant a trip, ready or not; there were aspirins in the bathroom.
Testing his equilibrium, Pen caught hold of the ironing board left up from the last time he had used it. Three weeks—four? The ironing board collapsed, its scissored legs splayed in a position suggesting bicycles in love. “Uhn, sorry about that,” he apologized. Testing his equilibrium, he decided he was in no shape to drive. He would walk over the bridge to Canada where there was a 24-hour convenience store. From past experience he knew Customs Canada would stick a tail on him if they smelled liquor driving through. License hassles from the Mounties Pen did not need. He reached his jacket down from its peg. The thumping became a rapid-fire staccato as Prince’s tail threatened to splinter the panels of the door. Pen clipped a leash to the dog’s collar. “Just for show, fella. We’re going over the river.” Pen dropped the leash and returned to the table where he examined the level in the bottle. Half full, enough to maintain his deepening depression at an acceptable emotional plateau till the stores opened up. Booze he could get cheaper in the States. Prince followed expectantly.
To those up top in the sunshine who still thought about him the consensus was that the best thing about Pen Harrington was Prince—big, loving, gentle and not too bright. Where Pen went, Prince went, and preferably by car. Prince sat in the passenger’s seat giant and yellow. The ebullient, effusive Pen of the days of summer girls, summer boats and summer money had gone away. When he thought about his house on the ledge at all, it was as a haven with an address where he would receive the Social Security checks that would start in twelve years if he lived, a roosting place to await the inevitable while inflation nibbled at his monthly stipend.
“Twelve fucking years...” Pen grumbled. Years of uniform sameness: companionship at the diner, crony talk at the hardware store, winter afternoons watching basketball videos with Harry Pease. Pen was a lover of women past their bloom, the night waitresses and nurses about town: lonely women he met while he was at work.
With his blue warm-up jacket half on, one sleeve dangling, Pen Harrington executed a quick and perfunctory circuit of Things To Be Looked Into Before A Trip To The Store. That was the giveaway. Prince plomped all of his 102 golden pounds immediately in front of the door and, thumping his tail on the kitchen linoleum, blocked all exit. The pantry doors were warped from decades of winter overheating and the penetrating damp of all other seasons.
Squeak. Pen inspected their larder.
“Needs toilet paper and macaroni and cheese dinners.” Prince thumped harder, the metronome of his tail picking up speed as Pen turned to the refrigerator. A putrid presence forced him back. “Phew!... something in there doesn’t like us, eh, fella?” He hadn’t been this deep in since he cleaned out the beer last weekend. “Maybe we do some defrosting today.”
Prince wagged faster and changed his tail’s direction. Its angle of moment now struck the crossbucking of the door’s bottom panel, making the screen door on the other side bounce at each hit, its rusted spring giving little squeaks.
“Well, that’s just what we’ll do.” Pen bent to unplug the refrigerator and, leaving it open, fished the trash barrel from under the sink. “Today we begin anew, facing unafraid the challenges of a new dawn.” He tied up the barrel’s contents and skidded the leaking bag across the linoleum toward Prince at the door. Prince scrabbled out of the way to take refuge under the sink with his food dish. Pen installed a new plastic liner, scooped in everything he could pry loose from the blue-green ice of the freezer, took a deep breath, held it, and knelt before the vegetable keeper. He pondered over how shapes and colors changed over months in the dark as he dumped liquefying foodstuffs from the hydrator drawers into the barrel. He liked to have salad things ready at home, just in case—a concession to healthy living.
Pen felt himself getting dizzy from lack of oxygen. He slammed the lid on the plastic barrel and boosted the empty veggie drawer to the sink where he turned the hot water on full force. The smell got worse. He turned his back on the open refrigerator, consigning the problem to the healing powers of time and nature. “Let the damn thing drip. We’ll hose ’em off later, huh?” Prince agreed. Some kibble would be nice, but under the olfactory attack from the open refrigerator he took a lap at his water bowl and shouldered his way through the door to the yard. Pen had preceded him. Pen rose from the steps where he was lighting up a cigarette to clear his sinuses and chocked the door with a bag of garbage. “Air the place out, OK?”
Prince picked up his leash’s loose end and marched on to the next new attraction—the smells! No less pungent here on the street, but different, always different. This was sometimes puzzling. Pen Harrington did not change. Pen was Prince’s pole star. Everything was right because that’s the way things were: Pen was here and all was well. Prince padded off to decorate the tires on the line of parked cars. Often they would not be where he had left them. The night before he had marked them all with a badge of reference, and now some were gone, some had moved. This implied a malleable, mutable existence as changelings. This was puzzling and disturbing. Time was when lifting a leg had been the happiest exercise of his heritage; Prince felt never more fulfilled than when he was letting fly from his bottomless bladder. Recently that had started to change. A nagging doubt that troubled the canine mind returned: the slightest suggestion that there could be more to life than kibble and bits and curling up on the linoleum.
It was the girl-child woman-person he saw in his sleep, he was sure. It was a recurring dream, but a night-dream. Never before in the daytime. There was a Cow stuck in a wall. Strange. Prince paused, leg in air, against a ’78 Volvo. He had been in a lush pasture where a young girl leaned against a great chestnut horse.
“Hello there, old fella, I am the Fata Morgana. Remember me,” was all the girl had said as the dream faded. “Be seeing you, old pup, when I come through. But first I will send a woman to be my priestess. To wrest my rites from this usurper—this Harry Pease.”
Prince snuffled puppy-happy at her feet.
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