“Salty Dog and Uncle Sam”
by Ann DeWitt

New York. 1981.

The cops are on the horn again.  They say there are reports of a child running up and down FDR Drive.  The news has just come in over the radio.  The child is standing in the middle of the highway, pointing at the large green signs overhead yelling out the exits to the drivers of oncoming cars.  Over the phone, the head cop asks me suspiciously, “Does your child own a pair of red boots?” as if to say that is the only way I might recognize her.

I remember that dream now as I look across the street.  It is winter.  Cat is wearing her red galoshes, standing in a graying snow drift, pointing up at the pharmacy window and reading the local circular pasted in the glass. Justin holds her arm out, moving her pointed finger slowly from left to right, helping her to sound out the words.

This is Cat’s new favorite hobby.  In the fall, our walks were longer.  We often toured the various neighborhoods of the city reading the signs in the storefront windows.  Whenever Cat saw a particularly long word, she stopped and pointed her finger at it.  ”That’s my friend in this crowd,” she said.

Now that it’s winter, most mornings we’ve been forced to take our reading indoors.  The want ads in the Sunday paper.  The words are fairly short – needed, seeking, for hire – the sort of thing she can sound out and whose definitions she can understand.  I let her circle the keepers with my blue pen.

I don’t remember learning to read.  As I watch Cat, pointing up at the flyer in the window on the dirty street corner I am proud of her restless searching in the cold.  On her last report card the words Staunch and Independent appeared in plain, green ink.  During our conference, the teacher elaborated softly, placing her hand on my knee.  “Duck out of water,” she said.  I was sitting across from her then in a small orange chair that made my knees ride up to my stomach.

It is New Years today.  This is why we have gone walking.  Justin is here.  He has spent the first day of the New Year with Cat and I ever since her first winter. Every year just the same – he rings the bell.  Cat answers the door   He stomps his feet on the mat before coming into the house.  Cat laughs.  “The East Side smells like eggs,” he says.  The three of us go to the diner.

Justin takes Cat on the weekends when I go to Connecticut to visit Stuart. Nowadays Justin’s more her pal than mine.  He says babysitters are like clocks for sinning on somebody else’s time with.   “She needs me,” he says.  Each Sunday Cat comes back with some piece of him, one of the bangles that his old lover, Ted, brought him back from Tibet, a new swear.

“What else?”  I say.

“Oh,” she says, “We danced in the kitchen.”

***

Montana. 1973.

I left home the night they played the new Bergman picture.  It was on at the art house in the center of the town.  The Flick was only theatre open during the afternoon on Thursdays and they had fans instead of air – even in the summer.  The owner, Mr. Lee, was deaf.   By the time I was a teenager, the theatre had taken to playing the same five movies in succession – all Lee’s favorites, the ads in the local circular said.  Most afternoons, it was just the two of us.   Lee upfront.   Me three rows behind.  Humphrey Bogart’s The Big Sleep, was the matinee favorite.  Once, I sat in the same row several seats over.  I thought I caught Lee mouthing the line, “You go too far, Marlowe,” over and over.

The afternoon of my final visit the theatre was playing Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.  Every time the screen faded to red I could see the back of Mr. Lee’s head shake as he threw back his neck and let loose a noise that Bergman himself might have adopted.  I left before the credits.  A man should be able to scream in private.

They say there is one defect that recalls a family.  Something that transcends all permutations of face and personality – kidney stones, scoliosis, a bum liver.  As I came into the house after the movie that afternoon, from the hallway I could see my mother standing in the kitchen in her slippers (she was pigeon toed and never went barefoot, even in the house).  She was standing in front of the yellow clapboard cupboard on the green Formica, the weight of her hips swaying from one slipper to the other as her cigarette smoke wafted though the window.

She was asking into the sink, listening to the America album which she had stolen from my sister the previous fall when rifling through her drawers looking for those new parts of the world she suspected she smelled on her clothing.

The first time I heard it, my sister had played me the America album over the phone from her dorm room in college, tapping her own along to the same song which my mother now beat her foot to in the kitchen.  That night they had announced the end of Vietnam.  “Peace is at hand,” the headlines said.  Two months later, my sister brought a newspaper back on the bus to Montana.  The front page of The Times featured a photo of big red bombs exploding on the horizon.  The next day I caught my father reading Nausea aloud in the barn.

The son of a wealthy father who owned a local factory, Father grew up in Saratoga betting on the racers where he’d fallen into the habit of keeping some wealth, a dog, and Easter Yellow Caddy which some of the ranch hands called Big Yeller.  Father spoke rarely.  What words he had he saved for the horses which he raised on a mixture of intuition and the existentialist cannon.

“Where you going, Daddy,” I remember calling to him as a child one summer after helping him shuffle the stallions indoors from the paddock.

“No place special,” he said.

***

Santa Fe.  1973.

The day we met, Sam was seated outside the bakery with his back against the graying clapboard.   The old black newsboy hat and jeans which he wore were weathered, the pants torn into shorts, each leg shorn at varying angles so that, when he stood, it was impossible to tell if he was standing on a slant or if one leg was longer than the other.

The street was one of the stocky unpaved sidebars which lined the old plaza, one of the few thoroughfares which remained untouched by the varnish of blacktop and the tourist traps with their fake adobe and plastic ornaments.

Sam was old and yet the geometry of his tanned boy – the planes of skin created by his exposed chest and stomach and the calves which stuck out from beneath his jeans – were a garment not unlike those my mother would have run through her fingers like she did the fabrics at the store, stopping at the upright plaid and remarked – “quality material.”

I overheard him talking to one of the regulars as I entered the café.  “Strange time,” he said.  “Stranger people.”

That night, I threw my backpack into the dirty flatbed of his truck as he turned the old blue pick-up toward the mountains.  The seat of the cab was familiar beneath my legs – warm, tanned, the only attributes I had known of men.  I needed a place stay.  ”Hop in,” he called through the window, slowing the car as he watched me try to lower myself under the bottles of beer and bags of groceries.

As we climbed the highroad out of the city, the clock lit up the dashboard.  On the floor beneath my feet I saw the cover of the America album my mother had been listening to in the kitchen the afternoon before I left Montana.  We hummed part of the title song together.  By the time we pulled into the depression of mud which acted as a drive for the narrow little cabin where we would settle, we knew things about each other.

I remember watching the first lightening bolt over the ranch with my father as a child.  One of the few times I was allowed to crawl into his lap and be coddled.  We sat in the loft, looking out from the top of the barn with an old woolen horse blanket over our shoulders, his arm securely around me.  Why I remembered this image that first night in the cabin with Sam, I don’t know.

What recollection I do have is that Sam sweet-talked every last one of us at the cabin in the time it took to exchange a dime for nickel.  I loved him because he was something bigger then myself.  Bigger than my mother at the window and Mr. Lee at the art house.  Bigger than all the stallions gone to stud.  Bigger then a terrible red, scream.

Amongst the squatters, the colony was called Beneficio. The house was a hotbed of deserters.  Some of us were running from the war.  Others from the bed they thought the war was in.   Others from nothing at all.

That there were many young, what Billy called recruits, that often came back to Beneficio in Sam’s cab, didn’t bother me.  His body had a way of casting light around the room

At the fire pit by the brook most nights Sam got drunk and ran his mouth off.  He spoke of a blindness that was beginning to move through the communities with the ingenuity of a ten-speed bicycle.  The higher you shifted the bike into gear, Sam said, the less you had to peddle and the further adrift you would coast.

Nat and Billy were what you might call the title owners, though they didn’t much bother with this or each other.  What little of each other they still claimed lent scarce evidence to prove that theirs was a love any more permanent than that which took place under innumerable blankets shared amongst regular and squatter alike .

Billy was what my father would have called a two-bit.  The war had reduced him.  He slept most nights in the corner of the living room, his body wrapped around the only working radio in the home, as if waiting for the news to invade his stomach directly.

How Billy’d come to offer Sam his home, was never clear.  At times, the two men seemed like brothers, one creating the other’s wounds so that the other could spit in them.  They operated on silent principles.  When money was short and food was scarce, Sam and I took Billy’s pickup and drove down the highroad into town.

Nights Sam didn’t come home, Billy and I used to sit out by the old barn and watch the cat chase the rats while smoking hash.  “He’s indecent, you know,” he said.  “I don’t want no crazy-eyed girl with enough city blood to stock a china cabinet coming up here without a sense for that.”

***

Santa Fe. 1976.

When they picked me up mother said my eyes were so black, she wondered if there was blood in them.   The running joke in the precinct that night was that the sergeant’s car had been skunked.  Mother spent the night cleaning me while I sat on the toilet in the corner of the cell with my legs spread.  She washed me with a bucket of soap and water they gave her.  In the morning my toenails were missing – stolen, missing, perhaps I had pulled them off.   Later that day I was released on bail.

On our way out of the precinct, they gave me back the dress I was wearing – an old red gingham which I’d taken from Mother – which they’d folded into a triangle and placed in a bag.

***

In the winter now I wear wool socks so thick that Cat says they feel like an animal’s coat.  One of the few things I remember of the highroad is they way Sam used to bathe me.  He would rub me down in the mud from the stream bed until I was so smooth that I swore I’d just been born.  In the summer, laid out on the rocks, slathered in mud, I taught him that children’s poem about the birds baked in the pie.

The night we were picked up we rode down the highroad together – loaded, sad or almost sad. Though it was dark, I remember craning my neck out the window into the breeze to watch a flock of geese overhead and thinking about how you can tell when a freeze is coming by the way the houses near a meadow fill up with mice.   Like mice, birds know when to migrate in the winter, to go south before the first big snow.

We parked the car in the old plaza and wandered into the square.   “Whistle Dixie,” he called into the cold.  A crowd gathered around us.  I remember the feeling of rattling bones inside the loose cotton of my mother’s red dress, something which I had found that night in my old backpack.  In the wind, the red dress billowed out behind me and I pictured Mr. Lee’s face in the theatre.

While the cops were booking Sam, I did a jig on the roof of the cop car.

***

New York. 1986.

“Mommy,” Cat says, “He’s looking. ”

We’re crossing Houston and 2nd, going to visit a friend who’d worked with me years ago at the Limelight, another outcast of the old neighborhood.  The woman was clean now.  I’d seen her on the street pulling a kid and some groceries in a little red wagon.

I will remember this moment as the defining point of my aging, the summation of the length of time it took Cat to be a child.  Years later when she will gave birth to her own first born, the memory will repeat, and I will have the vague notion that I could trace her lifetime back to that moment on the sidewalk when he looked at her and she looked up at me.

“He’s looking,” she says.   Her hand shifts in mine, our palms slightly off balance.   Her fingers begin pressing my cuticles just at the line where I always bite them, pulling back a hangnail and drawing a tiny speck of blood out from under the nail.

Children are fond of collecting things.  Stray dogs, popsicle sticks, pennies, split knees,  lonely old courage teachers.

Crumbled up in a heap next to the dumpster on the corner of Houston, I think I see the familiar outline of his body hunched over in that cell in the desert where I had left him.  I scan the man’s outline for the familiar patches of skin, running my fingers together like my mother had years ago in the Woolworth’s where she bought fabric.

Cat looks.  I look.  The light changes.  Someone honks.

That night, unable to sleep, I throw open the windows, the smell the desert hangs in the drapes like the smell of the dead in the pasture after a thunderstorm.  Coyotes having come down from the hills in search of frightened prey during the storm.

“Nearing forty is like walking to a water tower to look out,” Justin tells me the next day.  Justin friend is thirty-nine.  He knows better news.   About aging he says, “You had best pick a tower far away from any trees if you expect a view.”

Last Christmas I bought Cat a puppy so we could feel young again.  “What’s it name?” she said as she tore off the bright red bow.

“Sam,” I said.

“Sam the man,” she said.

Sam is not a complicated animal.  A thick boned bloodhound.  Sure he harbors his own strangeness and moods.  Lately, as Cat says, he been “Playing hunter.”  Each morning that I’m lazy I let him out to do his business on the small concrete slab we share with the neighbors who call it a patio.  Afterward, there is at least one or two chipmunks on the stoop.  If Cat doesn’t find them first, I find them and cry. Together, we put them in a box and walk them to the park where Cat digs a shallow grave and gives them a proper burial.

Today there is another one.  “You’ve been dreaming again,” Cat picks it up and says.  It is raining and March.

When we get home, I let Sam out to do his business.  The way he paces, it’s as if he is planning.  Cat is at the window, sipping her coffee. I am table napping.

In my half sleep, I think I hear a young girl bounding into the kitchen, her bare feet pounding.  I reach for her but can’t make the catch.  She’s running toward the image of the dog in the window.  “Uncle,” she cries just before she leaps.

Outside, the dog’s body is thick and sleek as it streaks by the glass.  “What Are You Doing For Preparedness,” I think.

The man with the gun steps through the door of the kitchen just as the girl’s body crashes through the glass.  “I Want You,” this old grey-beard says as he points his finger right at me.

It’s hard to say how any of us prepare.  I cut the onions and wash a few plates. Each day we meet like any other.

 

Ann DeWitt’s writing has appeared in elimae, BOMB.com, art+culture.com, Esquire.com, EverydayGenius.com, Jerry Magazine, The Faster Times and is forthcoming in NOON and the anthology, The Short Course: An International Anthology of Prose Poems, edited by Alan Ziegler due out from Persea Books.  Ann is at work on a novel.