Duchess, the dog that Jack and his dad brought home from the Dodgeville animal shelter, is sitting by the kitchen table in a pair of women’s underpants. They’re white cotton briefs with a pattern of tiny blue flowers, phlox or forget-me-not, Jack isn’t sure. The dog’s been in heat, leaving spots of blood on floors and carpets throughout the house, so Jack’s dad fitted her a pair of underwear that his mom had left behind. He cut a tail hole in the seat and lined the rest with tissue. Now Duchess waits obediently, wearing the makeshift arrangement and gazing at Jack so abjectly that he can’t look her in the eye.
She’s a handsome dog, a yellow Lab with a cream-colored coat and a strong, short-coupled build. She has the deep chest, sloping shoulders, and muscular hindquarters of her breed, but there’s something fine about her face. She lacks a Lab’s wide-skulled, snub-nosed simplicity. Even in the afternoon light of the kitchen, her lines seem both subtler and more distinct. Jack thinks it’s a sign of intelligence, but his dad swears there must be a pointer in the woodpile.
“How’s my good girl?” Jack asks Duchess, hoping she’ll somehow understand that none of this was his idea, but she just shifts from paw to paw and glances down at her haunches. All week she’s seemed conscious of something afoot and has nervously worked a spot on her belly, licking the skin nearly raw. But now that the underwear covers it, she’s been denied that simple relief, the comforting sting of touching her tongue to the sore. When she looks up at Jack, her brown eyes are moist, almost plaintive, and something rises in his chest, a knot of pity and affection that he’s been suppressing since the day he first saw her two weeks ago. “Don’t worry,” he says, trying to tamp it back down, “everything’ll be okay.”
He steps to the sink and pulls back a curtain at the window over the basin. It’s a brilliant day, the peak of summer. Above his neighbor’s rooftop, elms are stirring in the breeze, shimmering green and silver in the glaring August light. Jack squints and raises a hand to his eyes. He’s dazzled by the porcelain sky, the riffling leaves and sunbathed shingles. It’s all so bright, so intensely alive, that it makes his sinuses ache. Awash in such radiance, even the sagging stockade fence, unkempt flowerbeds, and buckled garage of his own backyard seem to shine like some splendid ruin.
Still, this trick of the light won’t hide things for long. Jack knows that just out of sight his dad and Big Ed have set up at the edge of the driveway. They’ve decided to make a day of it. With a battered ice chest, portable grill, and radio arranged on the grass between them, they’re kicked back in lawn chairs and sipping tallboys as if camped on the infield at a stock car race. And this afternoon’s prelim is underway. Somewhere out beyond the garage, Big Ed’s bloodhound Duke is roaming, avidly scouting the yard.
Jack closes the curtain. When he turns back to Duchess, she lowers her head and thumps the floor a few times with her tail. “Good girl,” he says again, his voice filled with praise and consolation. It’s breeding day, the only way out. Otherwise, she’s just a car ride away from another stay at the shelter, from a three-day watch and then the shot of sodium phenobarbital. The vacuum chamber. The incinerator.
Jack offers Duchess a feeble smile. “How ’bout a little fresh water?” he says, but she won’t oblige. She just flattens her ears and hunkers into a long, thin whine.
Ever since Jack’s mother left, his dad’s been on this mission. He’s hellbent on breeding the ultimate canine companion. Of course, it’ll be more than a man’s best friend. Jack’s dad vows that when he’s through he’ll have a dog that puts even Lassie to shame. Forget about fetching the ranger when little Timmy falls down a well. He’ll teach his dog to use the toilet, to get him a beer from the fridge. And it’s going to be his own creation, not the rheumy-eyed whelp of somebody else’s registered breed. So he’s chosen the sire and dam himself, selected for size, proportion, and substance. Now he’ll let Mother Nature handle the rest. If he’s done his job—assembled the right mix of animal talent—there’s bound to be a champ in the litter.
He has a theory about this: the best in all species spring from a mingling of common stock, not the congress of blue bloods. “Look at the great ones,” he likes to say. “They’re mutts, always mutts. Spartacus, DaVinci, Lincoln, Babe Ruth . . . That’s nothing but a pack of orphans, bastards, and slaves. Yet they’ve made their mark, goddammit.” To survive in this godforsaken world, he claims, to really compete and succeed, you need some dirt under your fingernails, a little hunger in your gut.
Jack turns from the window and shakes his head. He’s heard his share of surefire schemes and crackpot theories lately. Propped on a chaise in their mangy backyard, his dad has tackled everything from the secret to beating the house in blackjack to the absolute fact of a second gunman on the grassy knoll. Whether it’s dog breeding, Vegas, or JFK conspiracy theory, one thing remains the same: Frank Wilson is the resident expert, the brash, six-packing pundit of North Hawley Road. Whatever the subject, he’s ready to size things up and deliver an ironclad opinion—all in between sips of Meister Brau or Pabst Blue Ribbon, whatever’s on sale that afternoon.
‘Look at the great ones,’ he likes to say. ‘They’re mutts, always mutts. Spartacus, DaVinci, Lincoln, Babe Ruth . . .’
Today it’s Old Milwaukee, but the problem at hand has yet to yield to standard lawn chair logic. Jack’s mom has been gone since April. They haven’t even heard from her in a month. Still, Jack’s dad insists that there’s no cause for concern. “It’s a bump in the road,” he said this morning. “A few months from now we’ll look back at this and wonder what all the fuss was about.” But Jack doesn’t need all the answers, just one. How do people let go?
Jack angles past the kitchen table. He stops near Duchess and strokes her neck, whispers a word of assurance. Then he hooks two fingers under her collar and leads her to the back door.
• • •
As they cross the threshold, he feels the sun and the tepid broth of August air on his skin. The sky is gleaming, scalded silver-blue, and the undulant song of cicadas drones in the treetops. It’s high summer, when afternoon is eternal. In this pitiless light, it seems decades since his mother left. He can hardly remember her voice.
“Let’s go then,” he says, and he ushers Duchess down the back steps.
When they stop at the foot of the porch, he releases her collar and she quietly sits by his side. She lifts her muzzle, sniffs at an errant breeze. Then she narrows her eyes and begins to pant. For the moment, she’s at ease, spellbound by the heat and the pollen-scented air. And Jack wishes that they could just stay there, drifting on the cascade of leaves, the drone of cicadas, the backyard radio’s faint play-by-play. He’d close his eyes and time would fade into memory. Things might return to the way they once were.
They linger like this for a moment, but then there’s a whistle and the unmistakable call. “Hey, Jackie!” his dad yells from beyond the edge of the house. “Bring’er on out. Let’s get this show on the road!”
Jack sighs and lowers his head. When he opens his eyes, Duchess is looking right at him. “I guess that’s our cue,” he tells her.
The driveway is cracked and pitted, two strips of concrete laid street to garage in approximate parallel. Over the years, tree roots and winters have shifted the slabs, so Jack moves slowly, steering Duchess along a swath of crabgrass bristling between the wheel rows. At the edge of the house, before they can enter the yard, he tugs at her collar and pulls up short of the downspout. “Those have to go,” he says, looking her over. Then he crouches beside her and reaches around for the underwear. With a quick swipe he strips the pair off, nearly sweeping Duchess’s legs out from under her, then he pitches it back toward the porch. “Jesus,” he whispers. “Her underwear.”
Beside the garage, Jack’s dad and Big Ed are lounging on folding lawn furniture, a chaise and a chair with aluminum frames and plaited nylon webbing. They’re spending Sunday in the usual way—drinking beer, talking sports, and trading friendly insults. It’s been their custom, weather permitting, since baseball season opened in April. They find a game on the radio, kick back and crack a few beers, then kibitz their way through all nine innings, calling for bunts, pinch hits, stolen bases, and intentional walks. In between sides, they argue the merits of Ford versus Chevy, gripe about work, even rail at the state of the union. When it comes to life’s debatable topics, they’re the ultimate armchair skippers, a couple of veteran second-guessers untempered by years of futility.
Jack leads Duchess into the yard and up to this afternoon’s encampment. She balks a little as they move toward the men, but he heels her around the jumbled array of their lawn chairs, radio, cooler, and grill.
“Young captain!” his dad barks, raising his beer in salute. He’s in high spirits, basking in the August heat, a six-beer buzz, and his dream of canine perfection. Nothing, it seems, will dim his visions of glory.
Even Big Ed, after his fashion, echoes the enthusiasm. “Yo, Jackie,” he says, “Cubs up three in the third.”
When they step out in front of the men, Jack draws up on Duchess’s collar and soothes her into a seat on the grass. “Hey, Mr. Nesky,” he says. “Hey, Dad.”
In spite of Sunday and the heat, Big Ed is wearing his work clothes—loose gray coveralls with navy blue cuffs, a white T-shirt, and steel-toed boots. It’s an unlikely outfit for a day like today. If not for the wrecker parked out front, the streaks of motor oil and grease on his sleeves, and the name “Big Ed” stitched in cursive above his left breast pocket, he might be mistaken for someone who’d just made a jailbreak. But it’s not just the clothes. There’s an institutional air about Ed, a look that comes from experience. He’s an ex-Marine and an ex-convict, a man who’s accustomed to keeping things simple. The wipe-and-dry haircut, shatterproof glasses, and standard-issue apparel; they’re all a part of his regimen. Yet Jack can tell there’s more to him than habit.
In this pitiless light, it seems decades since his mother left. He can hardly remember her voice.
Jack’s dad, however, has dressed for the day. He’s sporting his Hawaiian shirt, a riot of orchids and ultramarine that he brought back home from a junket to Vegas in June. It’s loose, completely unbuttoned, exposing a pale, incipient paunch at the waistband of his canvas shorts. Cinched with a length of old clothesline, the shorts themselves look a couple of sizes too big. With wide-cut seams and huge pleated pockets, they balloon from his thighs like a pair of jodhpurs. To top it all off, he’s wearing a cap with a handkerchief hung from the back like a havelock to keep the sun from his neck.
“So how’s our girl doing?” his dad says, rocking forward and straddling the chaise. He reaches out and tousles Duchess’s ears with his free hand, grabs her collar and gives it a shake. “Huh, girl?” he says as he pulls up close to her muzzle. “How we doing, Duchess?”
The dog lowers her shoulders and backs away, straining against his hold on her collar until her flanks are trembling.
“She’s fine, Dad,” Jack says. “Let’s give her a break, okay?”
His dad looks up, then releases her collar and slowly leans back into the chaise. “Easy there, Kemosabe. I was just giving her the ol’ Wilson welcome.”
“Yeah,” Jack says, “I could see that.” He waits for some kind of reply, but his dad glances off then smiles and swigs at his beer, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand.
“You know, all the pros say to bring the bitch to the stud,” his dad finally says. “The male’s supposed to be more stressed out by the move to a new environment. Well, I’m not sure, fellas. This is Duchess’s home field, but it looks to me like Duke over there is the loose one.” Beyond the garage, Duke has appeared along the edge of the yard. Tongue slack, dewlap swinging, long ears paddling on the breeze, Big Ed’s bloodhound trolls the fence line, browsing scattered daffodils and tulips. He’s a spectacle of flesh, and Jack can’t help but stare. Loose skin pleats his forehead, hoods his eyes; it hangs in heavy folds that drape his neck. Folds gather at his shoulders, too, and spill across his chest, sagging so much that he seems un-tucked. He’s been bathed and brushed, and he’s wearing a new leather collar, to which Ed has fastened a black bow tie. He must have intended a touch of class, but it still looks to Jack like some bachelor party prop. In fact, the whole length of him looks baggy, disheveled, as if he were wearing another dog’s coat.
As the men look on, Duke hauls up to a big red tulip and cocks a leg in the air. His nostrils flare as he stands there sampling the breeze, then he lifts his muzzle and narrows his eyes—the male-of-the-species urinary trance—and issues a stream that sets the flower wobbling. When he’s through, he takes a few steps then absently kicks up some dirt behind him.
Ed sits up and lets out a low, appreciative whistle. “He may be loose, but one thing’s for sure. When it comes to tulips, the boy’s a natural-born killer.”
“I’ll grant you that,” Jack’s dad replies. “The original one-eyed sniper. No flower is safe.”
The men have a laugh, but Jack is silent. He’d helped his mom plant those tulips the autumn that he turned ten. She’d primed him for weeks, teaching him the names of perennials, and he still remembers a few: chicory, periwinkle, valerian, nightshade . . . Then one day she laid out trowels and bags of compost and bone meal. She took from the fridge a big paper sack filled with bulbs, and together they cleared a bed at the fence line, where she told him what to do: dig three times as deep as the bulb is wide . . . Lay an inch of compost and bone meal into each hole . . . Stagger the bulbs, root-side down, at six-to-eight inch intervals . . . And cluster them, no rows, for a truly natural look . . . Then backfill, water, and wait.
While the men talk, Duchess backs off and quietly sits by Jack’s side. She’s utterly still, her eyes fixed in Duke’s direction. Then, as if on cue, she starts to growl. It’s barely perceptible, a low rumbling at the back of her throat.
Jack’s dad squints, sips at his beer, then lowers the can and rests it against his belly. “Duchess, I can’t say I blame you. That boy is one ugly bastard.” He lifts his chin in Duke’s direction. “Look at him, he’s got more wrinkles than last week’s laundry. Somebody ought to take an iron to the slovenly son of a bitch.”
‘Tell me about it,’ Ed says. ‘If wisecracks were cash, your old man would be a goddamn philanthropist.’
Big Ed huffs, half laugh and half dismissal. He slowly bends forward, stirring a squall of creaking aluminum, and plants an elbow on his knee. “He’s a bloodhound, genius. He’s supposed to have wrinkles.”
“A bloodhound?” Jack’s dad exclaims, raising his eyebrows in mock indignation. “Why that boy’s nothing but a wet-necked lurcher impersonating a bloodhound.” He glances over his shoulder and grins. “You know what a lurcher is, son?”
Jack sees it coming, the whole routine, and he wishes he weren’t any part of this. Drinking beer, dressing up animals, swapping stale exaggerations—his dad and Big Ed have managed to strike up a regular backyard burlesque. At least that’s what his mom would have called it. And the stage is set for their big closing bit, the “blessed union” of the Duke and Duchess. Before they brought her home from the shelter, Duchess’s name had been Lucy. Jack’s dad dubbed her Duchess just for the sake of this show. So what can Jack do but slip his hands in his pockets, idly rock from heel to toe and play the teenage straight man. “No, Dad,” he says, “I don’t think I do.”
His dad leans back and laces his fingers around the can at his belly. “Well, a lurcher is your basic four-legged buzzard. It’s a sneak and a scavenger, the kind of crossbred hound used by poachers to hunt down bunnies and baby deer.” He gives Jack a sly wink and then turns to Big Ed. “Isn’t that right, old buddy?”
“Now don’t start peddling that shit again,” Big Ed says. “I’m no poacher, and the dog had nothing to do with it.”
“Aw, come on, Ed. You pistol-shot a doe you’d penned up and fed for a month,” Jack’s dad says. “And Duke over there probably helped you find her.” He leans out over the arm of his chair and flips up the lid of the cooler. Alongside a six-pack on ice, a bundle lies wrapped in white butcher paper. “Venison Steak” is scrawled in grease pencil across the tape on the package. “Now you’ve fired up the Smokey Joe and you’re ready to toss her tender parts on the grill,” he goes on. “If that’s not some kind of poaching, then I’m the king of Siam.”
“Jesus,” Ed says, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. “How many times do I have to explain?”
Ed still seems pretty sore about it. If Jack doesn’t interrupt soon, his dad may go too far. “There is no king of Siam,” Jack says. “It’s Thailand now. You’re thinking of some Yul Brynner movie.” He waves off his dad and turns to Big Ed. “Don’t listen to him. He’s just giving you crap, Mr. Nesky.”
“Tell me about it,” Ed says. “If wisecracks were cash, your old man would be a goddamn philanthropist.” He rubs at his eyes, nudging his glasses onto his brow.
“Hey, I call ’em like I see ’em,” his dad goes on, “and that’s some pretty suspicious deer meat.”
“Yeah? Well, you see ’em about as clear as a cataract,” Ed replies. “I got news for you, brother. Sometimes the angel of mercy comes packing a .44 Magnum. And he counts it a sin to waste a supply of perfectly edible venison.”
“Angel of mercy, ha! Since when does an angel weigh 300 pounds and run his own auto repair shop?”
Ed spits in the grass then straightens up and pokes his glasses back into place. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he says.
Jack’s dad laughs and hitches a thumb at Big Ed. “The world according to Lug Nut.”
This is their ritual. It seems to Jack a time-honored practice—men drinking beer and trading abuse.
His dad and Big Ed have their own favorites. They’ve always been partial to pithy one-liners that set men back on their heels, the kind of casual threats perfected by tough guys like Dirty Harry: “Go ahead, make my day” or “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” They’re fans of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen, masters of the steely gaze and withering delivery. But when push comes to shove—and it usually does—they always return to the Duke, John Wayne, the patron saint of kicking ass and taking names. He’s a man who lets his fists do the talking, so when he starts drawling low and slow you can bet he’s just serving notice: “You get crossways of me and you’ll think a thousand of brick had fell on you. You’ll wish you was back at the Alamo . . .” Jack’s seen True Grit with the Duke as Rooster Cogburn, and he thinks he understands. This is the gospel according to John. Wayne, that is. Life is a lonesome hardship, and a man is a brute, simple thing. Better to shut up and take your lumps than to make a goddamn spectacle.
He glances at Ed and takes a deep breath. “Alright then,” he says. “What now?”
“That’s pretty much up to them, I expect,” Ed replies, then he takes the last pull from his beer.
“Oh, don’t be coy,” Jack’s dad interrupts. “She’s in season, and he can smell a flea fart a half mile away. Trust me, they’ll be making each other’s acquaintance inside of 30 seconds.”
This is the gospel according to John. Wayne, that is. Better to shut up and take your lumps than to make a goddamn spectacle.
It seems just an instant before Duke has finished marking the yard and he’s jouncing on toward them, his dog tags clinking, his tail erect. Duchess sits still, but she’s growling louder now, and Jack can’t tell if she’s poised to run or to fight.
“What did I tell you?” Jack’s dad says. “Here we go, gentlemen!”
Jack reaches down and takes hold of Duchess’s collar. “Here we go,” he says to himself.
• • •
They’re all on their feet now—Jack, his dad, and Big Ed. As Duke approaches, Jack braces himself, ready for one of the dogs to lunge or to run. Instead, Duke slows as he nears them. He lowers his tail and stops a few paces off. Then he lays out his neck and leans toward Duchess, his nostrils flaring, his flews gently lapping as he sniffs at the air between them. It’s attentive, this attitude, almost courtly, and Duchess falls silent. She stays seated near Jack, but slowly levels her own neck and stretches her muzzle toward Duke.
The dogs remain still, their necks craned, nostrils twitching, eyes locked on each other. While it’s more civil than he’d anticipated, there’s a tense equipoise in this standoff, and Jack won’t move for fear of upsetting the balance. But he needn’t have worried, he soon understands.
“It’s high noon, Duke,” his dad announces. “Time to draw your iron!” And that’s all it takes. Duke starts from his spot, his nose dropped into tracking position, and cuts a path straight for Duchess’s hindquarters.
She snarls and wheels away from him, baring her teeth and snapping as he tries to outflank her. In spite of Jack’s grip, the swift turn wrenches her collar out of his hand, and Duchess is suddenly loose. She drops to a crouch, ready to break in any direction, but keeps her eyes on the Duke. For his part, Duke just stops and stands there, his head drawn back, his eyes peering out from beneath those sagging lids. And his mouth stays open, tongue shuttling in and out. He looks like a puppy, chastened and waiting for his next command, and, strangely, Jack feels sorry for him.
His dad, however, is less circumspect. “Grab her, Jackie!” he calls out.
Duchess hesitates for a moment—and Jack does, too—but then she’s suddenly off, tearing straight down the driveway and out toward the street. Before Jack can even call her name, she’s made the apron and turned for the road. Kicking up a trail of dust behind her, she bounds away like a race dog: eyes wide, ears swept back and tongue flapping, straining toward a finish that Jack can’t even imagine.
His dad just stands at the edge of the drive. He turns out his palms and slowly raises his hands. “What the hell,” he finally says.
“Well, that was something,” Big Ed says, calmly stepping into the drive to cut off any pursuit. “I’m pretty sure the experts would fault your breeding technique.”
“Son of a bitch,” Jack’s dad replies. He scowls and glances left then right until his gaze falls on the Duke, who’s still standing there, a befuddlement of wrinkles. “Maybe next time you should hang a pork chop around his neck instead of that bridegroom’s noose,” he says to Ed, gesturing at the bow tie.
“Now come on, Frank, don’t blame the dog. He’s been an honorable suitor,” Ed says. He reaches down and unclips the tie from Duke’s collar. “Let’s just take a lesson from this.” Ed steps to the cooler, grabs three beers, then hands one to both Jack and his dad. After he takes a deep breath and exhales, he pops the tab on his tallboy. “Here’s to the kingdom of crippled ambition,” he says, raising his beer. “Better luck next time, boys.”
Jack’s dad lowers his chin to his chest. A few moments pass as he shakes his head, brooding, but finally he shrugs and moves to Jack, hooks an arm over his shoulder. He looks at him and then at Ed. “Cheers,” he says, hoisting the beer in his free hand. Then he gives Jack a squeeze, tips back his beer and drains it in a single long draught. When he’s through, he crumples the can and tosses it over his shoulder. “Someday, son,” he gasps, sweeping an arm out over their man-camp of barbeque, cooler, and chairs, “all of this will be yours.”
Jack looks away and clears his throat. Down the road, the shape of Duchess is growing smaller, dimmer in the distance. In fact, he can hardly tell that it’s her anymore—just some stray on the run.
In this stillness, Ed steps up and lays a hand on Jack’s shoulder. Then he reaches over and pops the tab on his beer. “Frank,” he says, gazing out into the afternoon, “don’t threaten the boy.”