Larry rolled down the window, letting the scent of cow manure and fertilizer sift into his Ford truck. It was Friday and the Allman Brothers were on the radio, and he fantasized driving south to the hills. Instead, he was driving north to his younger brother’s farmhouse off Poden Run. He promised Mama that he would check on Campbell; it was the last place he wanted to go.
Larry spied the clump of fur at the side of the road about a quarter-mile from Campbell’s home. He slowed down to get a better look, hoping it was a deer but he instinctively knew it was Caruso, Campbell’s loyal but dumb black lab mix. He pulled over, put his flashers on and climbed out of the truck. The old boy lay on his left side, his back legs crushed and bloodied, eyes fixed. Larry covered his mouth, silencing a whimper.
His first thought was to get back in the truck and turn around, but he grabbed a blanket from the cab. He spread it out in the bed of his truck. Larry lifted Caruso off the graveled roadside, placing him on the blanket. He shivered, though the sun was shining and it was 80 degrees. It didn’t matter that the dog wasn’t his; he gave it to Campbell. He knew its friendly wag. And dead animals broke Larry. Women told him that he had a tender heart. He knew it to be true. Mama forgave him this; his father did not.
He pulled up the driveway and saw Campbell’s vintage Mustang up on the blocks and the rusting Escort parked in the grass. He decided to leave Caruso in the truck bed and break the news gently. The screen door flapped with the light breeze. Larry noted the decay settling on the planked porch floor, the empty Old Milwaukee cans, crushed and strewn on the porch and grass. This layer of crap was new.
He yelled through the screen door, “Campbell!”
He heard nothing but a mourning dove cooing on the telephone wire. Larry opened the door, walked through the front room, found Campbell passed out in the reclining chair, barefoot, shirtless, drooling.
“Hey,” Larry said. He grabbed Campbell’s left ankle. “Hey.”
Campbell opened his eyes and then closed them. He waved Larry off, saying, “I need to be alone, man.”
Larry sat down on the scratchy plaid couch he’d always hated. He sat on the edge and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this.”
Campbell opened one eye and looked at Larry. “Spit it out.”
“I found Caruso by the side of the road. He’s dead. I’m really sorry, buddy.” His throat was dry and the words felt like sandpaper.
“Oh, fuck. I left him there. Fuck,” Campbell said, pushing the hair out of his face.
“What do you mean you left him there?” Larry was confused.
“I hit him and I left him by the side of the fucking road.”
“Jesus, Campbell. He’s your dog.”
Campbell grabbed a cigarette. He lit it and slowly inhaled, watched the smoke stream up, forming a question mark as he exhaled. “I don’t know about that.”
Larry saw damage hiding in corners of the room. The bowling pin lamp knocked on its side. A shattered plate on a stack of newspapers. The curtains unraveling at the edges. “You’re drunk.”
“No shit. Leave me the fuck alone.”
Larry shook his head and turned to leave. He stopped at the door to say something. Campbell barked first. “Fuck off, Larry.”
Larry walked to his truck, looked at Caruso’s still, dark eyes, and tucked the blanket up to his neck like he was taking a nap.
He remembered Mama saying, “Some people are just born mean.” He had known then, at 10, that she was talking about Campbell. But she never took her brush to Campbell’s behind. It was as if she got all of her slapping and whipping out on Larry. By the time Campbell was born, she was slapped out.
He took the long way home, driving through town where the square’s lilacs were comforting. He heard bluegrass music playing, a dulcimer and banjo. The sun filled between the buildings, casting long rays that glinted off car bumpers. He cried.
He would bury Caruso in his back yard, digging near the grave of Pepper, Caruso’s older brother. What we give away returns to us, changed, Larry thought. He would give away Campbell; he would let go of this place.
I never met a dead dog I didn’t like.
Aw, Tony. Well, thanks for reading. 😉
How families can break your heart. You’ve captured it so well–and through the touches on mother and father, I can feel that Larry’s cry over his brother & the dog is just scratching the surface of his hurt.
Yeah, I was introducing a whole lot of neuroses in this — maybe will have to explore that more. Thanks for reading, Jennifer! xoxo
Oh, Meg, this made me so sad…but your details, and that message in the final 2 lines were just perfect. You unroll the truth of Campbell, and of their upbringing, so gently, with even, balanced timing and bring poetry to the self-destruction and ugliness of his life. You are such a powerhouse at plot, theme, scene and characterization! Such a moving piece, my friend. xo
Sorry I made you sad!! I just realized I kinda used the same last couple of lines in another recent piece — totally unintentional but think I like the idea of repeating it…as if the two were related somehow. ANYWAY…sorry for the derail. Thanks for your insightful reading, one of the many reasons I love you so. xo
So sad. It just goes to prove how different two siblings could be. I have tears in my eyes…that poor dog. Your writing pulled me in, made me care, and broke my heart with your words. Oh the pain…it reminds me of my own sister and almost strikes a bit too close to home except she would treat animals better than family and people. This was brilliant. The pain and hurt is real. ♥
Thanks so much for your kind words and reading, Kathy. Sorry it reminded you of your own sister. Families are full of pathos.
I’m a cat person, generally, and I was sad reading about poor Caruso. This was brilliant, and moving.
I’m a cat person, too, Michael! Glad this story was able to reach beyond the cat shield. 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting, my friend.
touches of raymond carver…excellent and immediately involving short piece…small touches throughout (part. use of the mother’s thoughts and the likes of ‘he gave it to Campbell’) skillfully bring emotional involvement whilst maintaing taut economy of words…I liked the restrained final thoughts, left to spread and seep in like the long rays glinting off the car bumpers. 🙂
Wow. Now I’ve got to read some Raymond Carver! I’ve actually been reading a short novel by Michael Ondaatje but will add Carver to the list. Stephen, you always make me feel like a better writer than I am…which I hope helps me to become a better writer. Thanks for your generous, thoughtful reading and comment. Hope you are well, friend.
Great pacing – I like how you let the nature of the relationship unfold very deliberately.
Thanks for the lovely comment, Cyn!
Wow. This felt like something out a 21st century “East of Eden.” I loved this section in particular: “Women told him that he had a tender heart. He knew it to be true. Mama forgave him this; his father did not.”
Aww, thanks, Ruby. I *wish* it was even remotely like “East of Eden” — one of my all-time favorite books! You do my heart good with that comment. Congrats on your top row story!
Nice piece! Tension is unrelenting from start to finish.
Thanks so much for your wonderful comment, Phil! Please come by again.
Thanks so much for your wonderful comment, Phil! Please come by again.
I’ve been off-line for the better part of a month. Catching up reading my favorite bloggers/writers…This piece reminds me why I love your writing so much. Now I have to cry a little before I move on to more reading. My neurotic need for a happy ending wants Campbell to return to his brother in better shape than Caruso.
Such a sad story. There comes a time to move on sometimes. This was so gently told. Even though it’s so sad there is hope at the end.