JUNKYARD DOG

            I was fifteen and rabid, roaming the streets of Los Angeles like a wild dog, watching videogames on TV, old boxing matches on YouTube, Tik-Tok and Instagram on my phone, listening to no one at home who was real. My mom, to get me out of the house and under control, sent me to stay with her sister, who lived in a decent neighborhood, and was married to a black man named Steve. Steve owned his own business — a junkyard in the middle of South Central — and would put me to work all summer. Longer if necessary.

            Steve and I had brushed acquaintance before, at a couple of family barbecues, once when I had, by my own count at least, kept up with him in beers. At over six feet and 200 pounds, his athletic frame seemed to contain a carefully controlled swagger, like [Lawrence Fishburne]. Steve was a handsome man, with teeth that were capped in gold and etched in front with asterisks and slivers of moon. When he smiled it could be a frightening thing.

            Steve wasn’t, in my experience at least, a violent man, and he never treated me with anything but courtesy and respect. Although I did gather from family talk that he was subject to mood swings; it was scary to think of all that weight swinging around. Much later I heard that he had gotten into some kind of trouble down in Georgia, something to do with a card game, and a man who was killed with a knife. That was before he came to L.A. to make his way. I once overheard him say to another black man at a barbecue, “I ain’t afraid of no man.” When he spoke, it seemed to be with the voice of John Wayne. It was said he had white women like Jack Johnson. I never mentioned this to my sister.

            I remember coming up to him once at a party and asking him about some pills. “I don’t mess with nothin’ but drink,” he said, “and I strongly advise you to do the same.”

            At the time I didn’t listen to anybody. I felt that I could run and dodge like Ali or Sugar Ray without anyone catching me, endless fast-foot shufflin’ till I ran off the face of the earth, which, in fact, would all right with me. But somehow, through every frequency of my finely tuned body, I believed him. Which was just as well. He was going to be my boss. And I was about to become his junkyard dog.

            It was hot, 10 A.M., already between 80 and 90 degrees. I was manning my post, standing water watch in the cutting hole, holding the hose and facing a rusted ‘84 Monte Carlo that the crane on the tow truck behind me had just put on its side. The foot-deep hole was filled with oil, sludge, dirt, grease, auto body parts, and, most of all it seemed, my own human sweat. I had just finished stripping the car of its seats and insulation, and if any remaining cotton caught fire, I would put it out so that Steve, standing next to me with his iron mask and flaming torch, could go on cutting. Canisters of acetylene and oxygen ringed the perimeter like howitzer shells. These, along with the cutting torches, were the tools of our trade.

            Poony, as small and thin as his name suggested, was at the controls of the crane. He was a quiet guy, with deep ebony skin, Coke-bottle eyeglasses, clothes that hung on him like rags, and a loaded .38 in his pocket. CW, who specialized in cutting out motors, was taking “five” on a milk box against the tin shed that housed his set of sledgehammers. CW’s job was to cut all the links that held the engine to the body, jerk it free with hooks from the crane, and, putting one foot on the motor block, swing the sledge to knock the bolts off. Even sitting relaxed in the California sun, his arms remained taut like black steel cords. All around the yard were large hills of motors. He, Steve, and Poony had brought in the Monte Carlo last night. It was the first of five cars we were going to do that day.

            “Hey, white boy, watch Steve don’t singe your manhood,” said Poony leaning out from his perch in the crane. I heard CW chortle: “Ain’t nothin’ that hippy gon’ miss!” It seemed as though I was the only hippy those boys had ever seen — although I wasn’t really a hippy, I just had long hair. They mostly called me “white boy,” or “boy,” or “the hippy.” I weighed 98 pounds. They thought everything I did was laughable.

            Oddly enough, Steve’s own junkyard business was similar to my former life of prowling the streets, although his prowling was usually done at night and with a clear purpose. He and his crew, sometimes including myself, would steal old or abandoned cars — junkers we called them

— and occasionally a car left on the wrong street at the wrong time, and tow them back to the yard. The next day we would break them down into parts: tires, steering wheels, windshields, seats, and metal for recycling: chrome, copper, tin, and steel. Nonstop jerking and smashing for $9 a ton or whatever a person might give for a missing part on their car. It was wonderful healthy outdoor work — if you were a cretin or a slave. Working for room and board, I guess I was the slave. 

            So there I was, standing water watch next to a hot torch under a broiling sun, possibly the only white guy in a ten-mile radius, when this dog comes walking up. He wasn’t one of ours, since we didn’t have a dog, since we had basically nothing to steal.

            It was so goddamn hot you could roast hamburgers on a car grill, which was what we sometimes did, and this dog’s tongue was hanging out like the long arm of a palsied bum begging for change. The mangy creature looked like a cross between a wild boar and a ridgeback, with thick head and stubby nose, and a light brown fur that was all gnarled and scarred, with chunks missing here and there. A veteran of the street life, like me.

            “The dog needs water,” I said. I was, like, Gunga Din; I figured it was okay to say this.

            “Leave that dog alone,” said Steve, before removing his Darth Vadar mask and staring at both me and the dog. He was sweating like Sonny Liston.

            “Hey, man. It’s hot. I’ll pay for the water.”

            “You don’t pay for shit. Stay away from that dog.”

            But I was already kneeling down and had put my arm around this dog. A low steady growl was coming from its chest, like a train in the far distance, barely discernible but coming down the tracks. “Nice doggie,” I said. “Nice doggie.” I poured water from my hose into a large hubcap next to me; the dog leaned down and took a long slavering drink. He finished, the water dripping from his jowls. I poured, and he drank again. Then he turned and slowly walked away. I didn’t see him for the rest of the day.

            The day ended, as usual, with all my fingers pink and raw from stripping and pulling, muscles aching from lugging car seats, band benches, sledgehammers and other tools, brain frazzled from holding the heavy vibrating hose in the hot, unrelenting sun. But finally I was breaking down the torches, rolling up the hoses, locking them away in the tool shed along with the breakers, crowbars, benches, hammers, and oxygen and acetylene tanks. This fucking job was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.

            I was sweeping out the cutting hole when Steve said to me, “Got somethin’ else to cut, go get them torches.”

            It seemed these guys never slept. It seemed to me I had earned my place in the shade with my own lips pursed around a bottle of beer. But I dragged myself over to the tin shed, opened the rusted door, and there was the dog — that same pig dog — sitting on top of the torches, staring at me. He started to growl, baring his teeth. “Nice doggie, nice doggie” I said, “now you’re gonna have to move so I can get them torches.” Instead of moving he responded with a frothy flash of his filthy incisors, and his growl ratcheted up so that it reverberated in the tinny shed.

            I strolled over to the guys who were sitting around, joking, having a beer and waiting for the torches, “That dog is sitting on the torches,” I said. “I can’t get anywhere near him.”

            There was silence. Finally Poony rose, carefully put down his beer, and said: “I’ll get them fuckin’ torches.” I walked over to the shed with him, and on the way he picked up a flat square shovel. I stopped ten yards in front of the open door — through which I could see the dog lying languidly on his throne — while Poony continued on around behind the shed, took a stance, and, raising the shovel, smashed the tin shack three times. The dog leaped from his perch and came right at me. I screamed and started to run. But not fast enough. Immediately I felt his fangs sink into the back of my lower leg. It was the most humiliating and hurtful pain I’ve ever felt — I damn near buckled. Yet survival superseded fear. Arms pumping, legs doing some crazy high-stepping dance at full tilt, I was flying! The dog jumped and bit me on the right hip. He was on me — biting me — and I was going “Help me! help me! help me! — running down the middle of the yard in front of these guys laughing and spilling their beer.

            Those guys were howling like dogs themselves, holding their sides, rolling onto the ground. I didn’t even realize the dog had given up till I looked behind and saw that he had walked back toward the shed. I slowed, leg and thigh burning. and limped back to this gang of thugs. And they were still howling, slapping their knees and shaking their heads. “H-h-he — bit me!” I shouted, and all over again they started rolling in the dust and the oil and the grease.

            When they finally caught their breath, Steve said, “Don’t worry ‘bout that. Just go get them torches.”

            I started to protest, but, embarrassed, finally clamped my mouth and walked back to the shed.

            And damned if the dog wasn’t back in there, panting triumphantly on his throne of torches! I immediately went back to the guys. “I ain’t doin’ it. He’s still in there.”

            “I’ll get him out,” said Poony.

            “No, No! Wait, wait,” I shouted. I searched frantically around the yard, saw an old junker,  got in, and slammed the door.

            Again Poony ambled over to the shed, started slamming the shit out of it with the shovel, and the dog leaped out — and went right for me in the car — just as I noticed that all the windows were open! I went to roll up the front window — but there was no handle!

            The dog leaped up, his thick neck and head straining into the open window — wide excited eyes bulging like they were trying to wrap themselves around me, his nails scrabbling on the junker, his slather spraying my quaking flesh. I whirled and pulled some cotton batting from the skeletal seats and shoved it in the dog’s snorting, ugly face. Each time the dog leaped up to get at me, I shoved more cotton batting at him. I could hear the guys laughing in the yard. Finally something clicked in this useless brute’s brain. He thumped down and began slowly circumnavigating the car.

            After a while the boys resumed their beers, and finally their conversation, and, after a much longer while, the dog walked out of the yard and disappeared.

            The next day I showed up black and blue, cut and sore. At the end of that very long shift, Steve said to the crew, “Let’s go over to Mindy’s.”

            Mindy was a fat old boy who sold chips, juice, beer, tobacco, bait, as well as a selective range of auto parts out of a store that had no signs in a black neighborhood that had no other stores. At Mindy’s we jawed around and played some cards. CW did his balancing act with mops and sledgehammers and a loaded shotgun. We had some beers, they called me “hippy,” and finally I decided to walk back home to Steve’s, where I was living in a nice cozy tool shed out back. It was dusk, a nice cool evening for L.A.

            All through the neighborhood people were hanging out, some of them drinking. I took a detour through a section I’d never been in before where all the clapboard houses were just about crumbling down and no one was hanging out. I passed one empty weedy yard after another when suddenly I heard a familiar growl, did a bug-eyed double take, turned, and there on the other side of the rusted link fence, was my ridgeback pig dog tied with a chain to a thick steel stake. In his mouth was a piece of asphalt big as a dinner plate and over it his beady eyes were looking at me. A growl was coming from deep within his chest as he worked the asphalt back and forth in his teeth — like it was a poor substitute for my head. “We-e-ell, doggie,” I finally said, “what have we here…how-do-you-do” — and he let go of the asphalt, went furiously head over feet trying to break the chain to get at me. I couldn’t believe it.

            Right then and there I decided to do something about this relentless mangy critter. I pondered going back to the junkyard to get a hammer, or crowbar, or one of CW’s sledges to smash this filthy cur’s head in, smash his bellowing body till it was just like that mass of cotton wadding I used against him yesterday. I figured I could stuff and hang him over my mantelpiece. I would even build the goddamn mantelpiece, just for the occasion. I looked carefully around the derelict neighborhood as the dog continued to snarl and lunge. No one else was around; no one had appeared in a doorway or come to a window. It was as though the whole neighborhood was use to this animal’s stupid, demented, caterwauling behavior and, as it happened, were leaving it to me. I turned back. We were alone in the world, just him and me. I stared into the red eyes of this rude beast, so goddamn stupid he couldn’t even tell the difference between hurt and help, between hate and love. This poor crazy scarred and scraggly fuck’s whole life was just a mindless blur between one frustration and another, one antagonism and another, one insane impulse and another. I could have done anything I wanted to him. Just him and me on this thankless, desolate street in this forgotten and unforgiving neighborhood. Until I saw something in this dog that seemed familiar. Too familiar.

I looked around, took one final look at him, and walked away.

My stories have been published in The Sun, New Phase, Scottish Life, and Portland Monthly Magazine, Kerem, Response, Jewish Currents, New World Writing, Bewildering Stories, and Webdelsol; the adaption of my story in Webdelsol won a NYU Filmmakers’ Award.

I often read my stories in New Haven and have been featured numerous times on Connecticut Public Radio. I live in Hamden, CT, with my wife and two daughters – the best Papers I’ve produced.

Henry Alan Paper

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