By the time the foul odor wafted to his nose, the treads of Paul’s boot were packed full. ‘Shit,’ he said dragging his foot in the grass. At least this time he’d noticed the mess before tracking it in the house. He continued mowing the side yard between his and the house to the north, keeping an eye out for the woman who lived there.
‘The next time I see her I’m going to start something,’ Paul said to his wife.
‘Don’t forget we still have to live next door to her,’ Laura said.
‘I don’t give a damn,’ he replied.
Paul’s Marine training had filed him to a sharp edge. When he wanted to be, he was intimidating, dimming his blue eyes to cold gray, silent and fierce as a bullet. Even his friends would tell him to cut it out if, while horsing around, he’d flash them his practiced stare.’I’ll be polite. I’m just going to ask her to stop allowing her dogs to shit in our yard.’ What he also intended to do was put her on edge, make her afraid enough that she’d pick up after her dogs for no other reason than to avoid another interaction with him.
Melody’s two mutts, both black, lived inside a chainlink dog run at the back of her yard near a small, listing garage that was flanked by tall weeds and an out of control mulberry bush. They spent every day of their lives pacing the perimeter of a ten by six-foot space. On rainy days the taller one, with a white patch on his throat, would howl in misery. The smaller one bawled at full moons. At least during the summer tall trees shaded them in the heat of the day. In the winter Melody would jerry-rig a bright blue tarp for a roof. It would fall after the first snow and stay that way, sometimes for weeks, before she bothered to fix it. Once a day, sometimes less, Melody would unlock the kennel and let the dogs run for a few minutes. They’d emerge from the pen bouncing with wagging tails, setting about the business of dogs, sniffing and marking and often wandered over the property line into Paul’s yard on the trail of a scent.
It’s not that Paul hated dogs. He’d brought Sammy’s beagle home as a surprise one rainy day and the expression on his son’s face, though it was several years ago, persisted as one of his favorite memories. He often spoke to Melody’s dogs when he was working nearby in the yard. In his sweetest big-galoot voice he would say things through the fence, ‘You’re a sweet baby aren’t you?’ and scratch their ears. His issue wasn’t with the dogs; his issue was with Melody.
‘Look at that. She’s not even pretending to keep them out of our yard,’ he said. ‘If one shits over here, she’s going to be sorry.’
‘I see her standing on her back porch watching them,’ Laura pointed. ‘She has to know they’re over here.’ Laura’s worried with her hands. Paul knew that confrontation drained her in the same way it seemed to energize him.
Despite their polarized temperaments, Paul knew Laura accepted him. His passions ran deeper than hers, but she’d long ago learned to trust him, not fear him. She told Paul that in many ways he was like her father ‘ intense, opinionated, dark. She had said that the difference between them was that she knew Paul loved her in a deep and abiding way, and it was the current of his devotion that kept her afloat during his temperamental squalls. Once, during an exchange in which they were disagreeing on a financial matter, Paul raised his hand to slick back his hair, and Laura flinched. This devastated Paul. Laura was the one person he never wanted to frighten. He’d pulled her close to him, rocked gently back and forth, and whispered, ‘I love you baby. I don’t ever want to hurt you.’
‘Is there some reason why you continue to let your dogs crap in my yard?’
She was visibly flustered. She folded her arms in front of her and stumbled for words. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I guess I didn’t know it was a problem.’
Paul pointed at her. ‘Your dogs. Your crap. Pick it up.’
‘There’s no need to be nasty,’ she said.
‘I’m not being nasty,’ Paul said. ‘You need to be more responsible.’
Paul turned around to go back home and saw one of the dogs finishing its business not far from the corner of his house. He turned back to Melody. ‘Now would be a good time to start,’ he said.
When he turned back toward his house Melody gathered her dogs into their kennel. Paul stood in the kitchen window with Laura and watched as Melody appeared through her back door with a plastic bag and searched for the mess. Once she’d located the pile she scooped it up and held it away from herself as she walked. Laura stayed at the window while Melody threw the bag into her outdoor trashcan and slammed down the lid.
‘What did you say to her?’ Laura asked.
‘I didn’t use any profanity. I simply told her to be responsible and clean up after her dogs,’ Paul told her. ‘She can’t miss it. She has to know they’re shitting all over the yard. Hell, I wouldn’t care if she’d pick it up as soon as they do it.’
‘Did she say anything?’ Laura asked.
‘That she was sorry. She doesn’t seem real bright.’ Paul turned away from the window. ‘We’ll see if she takes that warning or if I’ll have to turn it up a notch.’
‘Yesterday,’ the boy said. ‘I told her it makes you mad when you step in her dogs’ poop.’
‘That’s not a problem you need to fix,’ Laura said. ‘What did she say?’
‘She said she knew about it and would try harder. Plus she invited me to Bible School.’
‘What?’ Laura’s hands were covered in flour. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand.
‘At her church,’ Sammy told her. ‘Can I go?’
‘No, you can’t go. And when did she talk to you?’
‘Why not?’ he asked. A whine laced his voice.
‘Because I don’t want you to, that’s why.’
‘Everybody else is going.’
‘I said you’re not going.’
In protest, Sammy named three friends from around the neighborhood who were going.
‘I said no, and that’s final.’ Laura flashed Sam a look that ended that conversation.
‘When did she talk to you?’ Laura had turned her back to Sam who had slumped in his chair and begun disassembling a pen.
‘She asked me yesterday when I went in her house.’
‘Why were you in her house?’
‘She asked me to help look for Buddy because he got out of the cage,’ he said. Laura snatched the pen away. Sam wiped an inky finger on his pants.
‘She took you in her house? Alone?’
Alarm registered in Sam’s eyes, like he’d done something wrong but wasn’t sure what. ‘Yes.’
‘What else did she say to you?’
‘She said did I want a drink of water, and then we talked about Jesus.’
‘What about Jesus?’
‘She asked did I have him in my heart and did you and dad have him in your hearts. And then she wanted me to go to Bible School with her.’
‘Did you tell her that was none of her business?’
‘I told her I didn’t know, and she gave me a cookie,’ he said. ‘But it wasn’t very good.’
Paul looked up, offered a small wave. ‘Hey.’
Melody approached. ‘I’m glad I caught you. Did Sammy tell you I invited him to Bible school next week?’
‘He did, but no thanks,’ he said. ‘We’re not Bible school kind of people.’
‘A little church never hurt anybody.’ Melody chirped as she turned away, but then she stopped, turned back to Paul. ‘Sammy said you’re still upset about my dogs. I was thinking that you could leave a note on my door when it gets bad. Something simple like ‘doodoo time.’ She chuckled when she said ‘doodoo.’
‘A note?’ Paul laughed. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Yeah,’ Melody said. ‘A friendly head’s up.’
‘I’d think you could pick it up when they drop it.’
‘I do,’ Melody said. ‘But sometimes I miss here and there.’
Paul thought about saying more, but most of what came to mind was harsh, and Melody was weak, too easy of a target. He’d been trained to defend himself against aggression, not necessarily ignorance or laziness. He had the urge to threaten her but realized in the moment that wasn’t the thing to do.
Melody took his silence as agreement. ‘Good,’ she said.
Laura looked at Paul, wide-eyed.
‘There’s shit all over the yard. She can’t see that? Pick it the fuck up. It’s so fucking simple.’ Paul locked his fingers on top of his head. ‘See dog shit. See fat ass lazy bitch pick up shit.’
With the palm of her hand, Laura wiped dust off a nearby end table, then began straightening magazines and shifting knick knacks back and forth. Paul remained quiet for several moments, looking through Laura with that thousand-yard stare.
‘And no,’ he added, snapping back, ‘Sam isn’t going to her fucking church.’
‘I’m not going to hold my breath for that,’ Laura said.
Paul was quiet for a moment. ‘I could poison them dogs, and she’d never know it.’ He had that faraway look again. He’d been out of the military for ten years, but the time that he spent as a Marine he’d called the best years of his life. It had been a back injury during a combat exercise that ended his military career. He had once lamented to Laura, ‘I was too young for Vietnam, and too damned old for Desert Storm.’ He’d wanted to experience war and had been denied it. He’d never known the feeling of taking a life’at least not a human one.
‘There was a time I wouldn’t have had a problem with it,’ he said answering a question that hadn’t been asked out loud.
‘With what?’ Laura asked.
‘Killing somebody. I wanted to be a sniper.’ Paul rose to check on the meat. ‘I was an expert marksman, you know.’
Laura shifted in her chair, turned the page of a magazine splayed open on the table.
‘You could kill somebody if you had to.’ Smoke billowed from under the raised barbecue lid.
‘I don’t think so,’ Laura said, handing Paul a long spatula. ‘I wouldn’t want it on my conscience.’
‘Killing in self-defense is one thing. Sometimes it has to be done,’ he said. ‘But killing just to kill is murder. That’s wrong. I didn’t used to think that, but I know better now.’ Paul pierced the center of a burger with a corner of the spatula. It was pink. He scooped it and the others onto a platter and handed it to his wife.
‘Not even for food,’ Laura said taking the plate and the tool. ‘I wouldn’t want to have to kill anything.’
‘Somebody’s got to do it. Plus, I eat what I kill.’ Paul smiled. ‘I don’t kill just for the joy of it.’
‘Yes it is.’ Laura called back, after an awkward pause.
Melody was wearing a frumpy-looking peasant skirt that hung from just below her breasts all the way to the ground. The long strap of a large crocheted purse hung diagonally from her shoulder to the opposite hip, bisecting her heavy, drooping breasts. She held a red Bible in the crook of her elbow. ‘You’re sure welcome to come along with me,’ Melody said, approaching the deck railing.
Paul groaned. ‘Thanks anyway.’
‘Seriously, though, we’re having revival this week. It’d be a good time for you all to come.’
‘Thanks for the offer,’ Laura said. ‘But no thanks.’
Paul was wearing shorts and a pair of sandals, no shirt. His eagle, globe and anchor Marine Corps tattoo was exposed on his right bicep. Melody looked at his arm, then turned away, stepping high through the dew-wet grass. ‘Anytime,’ she waved.
Paul picked up another section of the newspaper.
‘She’s relentless,’ Laura said.
‘Paul,’ Laura scolded. ‘I’m going to scoot over to give the lightening bolt more room.’
‘Maybe we should show up and put dog shit in the offering plate,’ he smiled over the rim of his cup. ‘Do to your neighbors what they do to you, right?’
‘You’re twisted,’ Laura said.
Melody’s caged dogs stood and watched her walk down the block toward the church. Buddy whined, his tale wagging at a sharp clip, and Rascal simply went crazy with barking that sounded like agony. The chorus became a cacophony of irritation. Barking, whining, pacing. Their racket got louder the farther away Melody sashayed down the sidewalk, growing to a fever pitch by the time she was out of sight. Laura slammed her coffee mug on the glass-topped table, leaned forward in her chair and screamed, ‘Enough!’
‘It’s not the dogs’ fault,’ Paul said in a calm voice.
After he dressed, he returned to the kitchen, set his empty cup in the sink and looked out the window again. He wondered how long it would take for the lights to grow dim as the battery drained. By now, she was probably in bed and would be until it was time to go to work tonight. She would have to call someone for help. He imagined that she would knock on Paul’s door to ask for a jump, and he would be an asshole to say no.
Rather than stick around, Paul went to the barbershop where he was fourth in line. He made small talk with the other men and thumbed through back issues of National Geographic.
‘Same?’ Henry asked as he tossed the cape over Paul’s lap.
‘Oh yeah,’ Paul said. ‘Flat enough to land an airplane.’
After the barber, Paul took the car for an oil change. Then he went to Sears to look at a toolbox he’d been thinking of buying. He’d forgotten all about Melody’s lights until he returned home. There they were, still burning but noticeably dimmer. He turned his back and walked toward the house. Laura was in the kitchen putting together some sandwiches for lunch. They sat at the table with Sam and made small talk.
‘Can I go play at Corey’s house?’ he asked.
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full,’ Paul said.
Sam swallowed his bite, took a sip of water and said, ‘Can I?’
Paul looked at his watch. ‘Be home in two hours.’ Paul knew he’d see the boys playing outside since Corey lived right across the street, but he liked giving Sam opportunities to be accountable.
Sam shoved the last of his sandwich into his mouth and jumped up.
‘Excuse me?’ Laura said.
‘Excuse me!’ Sam called back as he ran out the door.
‘What’ve you got planned for your afternoon?’ Paul asked Laura.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Stick close to home. Finish the laundry. Read a little. Why?’
‘Just asking,’ Paul said. ‘I think I’ll go putter in the garage.’
‘Go for it,’ Laura said. ‘I’ll be here.
‘Thanks for lunch.’ He kissed Laura on the cheek and made his way outside. Once there he tried to concentrate on straightening his workbench, fiddling with projects he’d been putting off: a clock that needed repair, an electric drill he was determined to get working again. He was distracted by the headlights burning in Melody’s driveway. They grew dimmer with the day, and he knew that if he didn’t do something soon the light would be completely gone.
He wished that she wasn’t such an idiot. Paul believed in the importance of helping people, but it was difficult to come to the rescue of someone so aggravating. He thought about his recent trip to the hardware store when he’d seen an elderly man changing a flat in the heat of the day, so he’d pulled over to offer assistance. The old man was so full of gratitude that he gave Paul a hug. Then there was the time a blind fellow was feeling his way with a cane down notoriously busy Henderson Street. Paul offered him a ride, and the man was happy to accept. The two of them shared a couple of jokes before Paul arrived where the man was headed. And what about the time, when on the way home from Chicago during a snowstorm, he and Laura saw the car ahead of them lose control and slam into a ditch? They’d stopped, pulled the uninjured driver out of her car, phoned the police and drove her to the next exit where she could stay warm while she waited. Only when the girl, who was headed home for the weekend from college, was able to convince Paul that her family was coming and that she was fine, would he get back on the road. He liked helping people, but he didn’t like helping people who didn’t deserve it.
Paul kept his head to his workbench and managed to get both the drill going and the clock ticking. He arranged his tools on the pegboard over his workbench and then swept the floor. Finally, the headlights gave out. He’d hoped he would feel better than he did. What he wanted to do now was walk away. Go in the house and turn on the television; go to the lumberyard; find something else he needed to fix; go have a beer. But he couldn’t.
He plugged an extension cord into the outlet above his workbench and stretched it toward Melody’s car. One wasn’t long enough, so he attached another to the end of that one, and onto the end of that he plugged in the battery charger. He walked over to the sun-bleached car and lifted the driver’s door handle. It was unlocked. Strewn front to back were papers, food wrappers, empty fast food sacks, and cups crusted with dried, sticky remnants of soda. An opened Fresca can sat in the cup holder. The air inside her car smelled sweet, an odd combination of filth and air freshener. He was not surprised by any of it. To the left of the steering column the headlight knob stuck out. He pushed it in. Then he felt around the steering column for the hood latch. He walked around to the front of the car, lifted the hood and connected the charger to the terminals of Melody’s battery and then watched as the amp meter danced to life.