Harold Barnum was awakened to a wet touch on his scaling arm. His eyelids snapped violently open like the roll-up maps his classroom had when some jackass kid tugged on one of them too hard because he was too big of a moron to figure out how the damn things worked. His head leapt off the shoulder it was dribbling drool on.
By the time Barnum’s body parts had arranged themselves into working positions and he began to search the living room for what had awakened him, the scene had emptied. The tan-brown worm hairs of the antiquated carpet and the wrap-around davenport that Hattie loved so much, that reminded Barnum of cat shit in color and in shape, were devoid of movement or life. Harold stewed on this for a moment, staring absently into the room as he came to.
“God dammit, Porter.” Barnum pivoted his head scanning for the German shepherd’s blackish back, the color of the ale he was named for. “Where the hell are y-” Porter, who had settled himself at the man’s feet to await his wakening, had heard the first call for his name and thrust his forepaws into the space on the TV chair between Barnum’s knees. Porter smiled at the man. “Jesus Christ. Where’dya come from?” The man frowned at Porter. A drop of sputum fell from the lines that sheared away from Barnum’s mouth and onto his unwashed undershirt. Porter continued to smile, his tongue bobbing loosely to one side as he breathed, a little drool of his own preparing to fall.
“Get on, Porter.” Barnum’s frown dug into his face until it turned into that of a ventriloquist’s doll. Porter smiled. “Come on now. Sit. Sit.” Porter sat. His mouth closed. His ears perked up. The skin around his eyes stretched inward and upward, as if trying to form eyebrows to animate his disappointment.
The skin around Barnum’s eyebrows skewed up and in and down, until what was left of them turned from perturbed to P.O.ed Porter, confused, pulled his head back into the fan of his neck and chest fur. Barnum sighed throatily. He closed his eyes, his head dropping onto his damp shoulder as he fell back asleep.
Porter cocked his head to square it with the man’s. The dog sat stilted for a moment, staring into Harold Barnum’s face before lying down and resting his head on his paws. The dog could only manage an attempt at rest.
Returning to a seated position, Porter began pumping his neck like a desperate lung and whimpering the sounds of ungreased pulleys. Barnum remained asleep, mouth ajar and unmoved. Porter came to all fours and walked his face to the side of Barnum’s left knee, the one the man favored. Porter rubbed his nose at the rumples in the man’s dungarees. They moved up his thighs in aimless waves. Porter whimpered faster. Barnum breathed slowly, steadily.
Anxious, Porter rubbed his head in broader and broader strokes against Barnum’s leg. His whimper worked up his throat and escaped in a cry. His jaw dropping open and cracking shut as if to lap up much needed water from the air surrounding Barnum’s hip. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Owoo. Barnum’s eyes shot open.
His head spun around the room following some imaginary fly. “What? What is it?” Ow. Ow. Ow. Barnum looked at the dog. The dog barked on. The man couldn’t discern a need for this much commotion. The damn dog was yelping as if Earhart had flown home. The house wasn’t on fire for Christ sake. “Shut up, Porter. Shut up.”
The dog didn’t shut up, though. Porter’s head rolled up the joint of his neck so far Barnum thought the dog would dislocate his skull. Ow. Ow. Oww. He kept on. Oww. And on. Oww. Oww. Until Barnum had his fill. Oww. Had it right up his arm and across Porter’s yapping snout.
The force of the blow sent Porter yelping and stumbling away from Barnum’s hand. As the dog slumped into the next room, the man immediately began to regret hitting him. His hand stung from the bone out. And Porter probably hadn’t deserved it. The damn thing didn’t know when to quit though. The law had to be laid down some-where or the fucking mutt would walk all over you.
Besides he’d only hit the dog once. Porter would get over it. Harold had only hit Hattie once too and she had. It was once when he was drunk and she made some snide comment about his strut. The slap was sloppy and hard.
She’d forgiven him in a couple of days. He’d promised he wouldn’t do it again. And, he hadn’t – except for the time when they were lying in bed and he was resting satisfied and she’d asked if he’d wasted any worthwhile energy on his whore. He’d slapped her then too – for Tammy, who was a lady, and no one’s whore.
That time Hattie’d slept on that shitty yellow couch for more than a week. Until he’d started coming home early in penance. Slowly she forgave him or stored her bitter to burn a colder day.
She didn’t light it up again until they started fighting about children, or the lack thereof. She’d maintained that it was his fault. She’d been to the doctor and he said she was fine. He probably did. The guy probably checked her twice just for the look, too.
When Harold Barnum was in Korea he’d knocked up some Moose who tried to get him to take her back to the States. She probably just wanted out of that hell hole. But he was still fine. He knew that for certain. Unless Hattie suggested he might’ve worn shorts too tight, or not eaten enough red meat, or wasted his milk on Tammy. Then, sometimes, he wondered.
After a while, the bickering got tiring. There was one more bruise than bruises were worth. Hattie moved to the couch on a more permanent basis. From time to time she’d stay in the guest room. There was no bed there. They never had overnight guests and thought money would be better spent on a crib.
It was a three-pack-a-day period, for both of them. Harold had to stop off at the store before school and after just to keep in stock. That was alright. It did him good to shoot the shit with the stock boys. He hadn’t seen much of them since they’d gone on to high school. And he liked to know who played on the football team and how many strike-outs Dickerson or Michaels had thrown in last night’s ballgame.
Besides, heaps of people came in and out of the store and now and again something interesting would happen. Some broad w o u l d c o m e i n , dressed bright as a bunting and fat as a titmouse, parading around and make for a couple minutes of entertainment. A few times somebody broke a carton of milk all over the floor. And once there was a boy, a little younger than the ones that Barnum taught history to, outside carrying around rusty paint buckets in his hands, each draped with the curious paws of beagle-mutt puppies.
“What goes, kid?” Harold asked the boy.
“My mom said I could only keep one.” The boy lifted a bucket sadly and shrugged his shoulders in feigned indifference.
“What’dya askin’ for one?”
“Not askin’. Just givin. I can’t keep ‘em and I don’t have time to go into business sellin’ pets.”
Harold picked one of the dogs up by the skin of its neck and caught its bottom with the palm of his other hand. He liked it. It was a little underfed but a good looking dog. Hattie’d like it too.
“You take a dollar for it?”
“Told you I was givin’ ‘em away.”
“I’ll give you a dollar for one.”
“I don’t need your charity.” The boy was as bewildered as bothered. “Just take the dog.”
“It isn’t charity. I’m buyin’ your dog.” Barnum pulled the dog to him with one hand and took a dollar out of his pocket with the other. He stuffed the money in the boy’s breast pocket.
To Be Continued…