Copyright 2013 David Castlewitz
Jack Baker hated Albert Richman, but the Cumberland Boys had their eyes on Puzzle Pete across the street, not the Dog Boy rounding the corner.
“Yo, Tattoo,” One-Eared Louie called. “Ya comin’?” The gang burst ahead and Baker scrambled to catch up. Puzzle Pete’s galoshes squeaked, and he walked with his hands thrust into the pockets of that heavy overcoat he always wore.
“You wanna buy a puzzle?” Louie asked Pete when the gang caught up to him. Pete grinned. Lopsided. Like his flat-on-one-side head. His eyelids flickered. No eyebrows. And bald under that felt hat. Rumor said he was an A-Bomb survivor.
“You give me puzzle?” Pete asked.
Like every other Saturday morning, Pete had a quarter from his mom. The gang always made him use it to buy a non-existent puzzle.
“You should leave him be,” the Dog Boy said.
“Get outta here, Richman,” Louie said. “Or we’ll beat you up again.”
“You should not ridicule someone who is obviously mentally ill.”
Richman’s sing-song voice irked Jack Baker and he stepped up to the Dog Boy and showed him the purple birthmark on his left cheek.
“Got any money?” Baker asked, and searched for fear on Richman’s face. He saw none. He’d suffer every insult, every punch and kick, and never show fear. He claimed the dogs had taught him how to face danger, stated in as a matter of fact that he’d been adopted by a feral she-bitch when abandoned as a baby and spent his first five years living with a pack of wild dogs, suckling at his savior’s tit and drinking water from dripping spigots.
“It don’t do no good beating you up,” Baker said. “You don’t learn nothing from it.”
“Do you learn anything from the times you’ve hit me? Or, for that matter, do you learn anything when you hit others?”
“Shut up,” Baker said. “You don’t make no sense.”
Someone else chimed in with, “You don’t even talk like you’re from around here.” The rest of the gang looked at the boy who spoke, at Little Peck, the oldest eighth grader among them. He’d come to North Philadelphia’s Hatter Junior High two years ago when his father was killed at the start of the Korean War.
Richman walked away.
“Keep your stupid mouth shut.” Baker shoved Little Peck into a parked car.
Baker didn’t want to pay Pigeon anything, but the old Cumberland Boy refused to give away the can of slops. “Two bucks, Tattoo,” Pigeon said. “I hafta get back to work, so pay up. I ain’t getting’ fired just to do you a favor.”
“Like they gonna miss this shit?”
“They use everything that don’t get burnt up.” Pigeon pointed at the smoke belching out of the chimney. Since leaving high school last year, he’d been killing pigs in a sausage factory.
Baker doled out two dollars from a sticky mess of quarters, dimes and nickels. Pigeon took the coins, counted them, and handed over the can of slops.
Baker visited the Lighthouse Club for Boys, everyone’s favorite after-school hangout, where kids could shoot pool, play ping-pong or swim in the indoor pool. Because the can of slops stank, the high school kid standing guard at the door wouldn’t let him in, but he knew the Dog Boy and said that Richman hadn’t come by that day.
Kids packed Rosie’s Penny Arcade at a busy intersection in the shadow of the elevated train, but Baker didn’t see Richman at any of the pinball machines or other games. He didn’t find him in the library, either.
Walking through McPherson Square across the street from their school, Baker encountered a trio of teenagers.
“Got your pa’s dinner in that slop bucket?” a tall teen asked, his blue-eyes blinking. His blonde haired companions could have been his brothers.
“Gonna make catfish bait,” Baker lied.
“You’re ugly enough to be bait yourself.”
“That’s what his Pa says,” someone replied.
The three teens glared in the direction of the intruding voice. Baker winced. Dog Boy.
“Got any money?” Blonde Boy asked. “Either of ya?” “How much do you want?” Richman asked. “The more you get, the bigger the curse.”
“Whatcha mean, curse?”
“Bad luck,” Richman said in an explanatory tone-of-voice.
“I don’t believe in curses,” Blonde Boy said. “Neither did my father when he took their money.”
Richman sat on a bench at the edge of a choppy lawn. “My father was a gambling man,” he began, and launched into a story Baker recognized. The man Richman called his father had taken him in when he grew too old to live with the dogs. Soon after, this father brought home a wife so they’d have a normal family. Then came problems with money.
Baker stared in amazement at the older kids listening so closely, as though hypnotized. He’d seen this happen when Richman read his essays in class or told stories in the cafeteria or encountered kids he didn’t know in neighborhoods where he shouldn’t be walking. Richman captivated his listeners.
Taking advantage of this, Baker slipped out of McPherson Square and watched from behind the cars parked across the street, until the Dog Boy emerged from the park, alone and unharmed.
“You’re crazy,” Baker said when Richman neared him. “We’re lucky they didn’t beat us up. How much money did you give them?”
“None. They were laughing so much I didn’t want to interrupt them.” Richman fell into step with Baker. “What’s in the can? It looks heavy.”
“You’ll see,” Baker said
Once back in their neighborhood, Baker put down the can and punched Richman to his knees. He pulled out an electrical cord and used it to tie the boy’s hands behind his back. Richman didn’t resist. He never did. He went limp.
“Think you’re so smart with all those stories?” Baker dragged Richman into the alley. He tied him to a lamppost. Blood trickled from Richman’s nose.
Stepping outside the alley Baker looked around at the flock of kids playing nearby. Girls jumped rope on the sidewalk. Some boys played wall-ball.
Baker intruded on the wall-ballers. “One of yas get over to Dart and Cumberland and tell my gang to get here.” The boys shrank from him. He turned the ugly side of his face towards the nearest. “You. Tell them, Tattoo’s got the Dog Boy and they better get over here.”
“Pull his pants down,” Baker said. Little Peck dragged Richman’s underwear down to his ankles and Baker pried the lid off the slops can with the edge of a dime. He wished Richman would writhe in fear, but the Dog Boy hardly moved when Baker splashed him with the blood and chopped-up pig guts.
One-eared Louie, Little Peck, George the Gimp and Hecky Peck, the four Cumberlanders who’d responded to Baker’s call, cheered. He basked in their admiration. Neighborhood legends got made this way.
Two boys climbed utility poles. Baker and two others hoisted each other to the top of a cinderblock wall. After a few minutes, half-a-dozen cats neared Richman. They sniffed at his shoes. Baker couldn’t wait to see them claw and rip and bite the kid’s flesh. These cats would turn Richman into a bloody mess.
A small dog dashed towards the cats, but raced off when greeted with a wall of hissing. The boys laughed. Seconds later, two more dogs, scruffier and larger than the first, came to the edge of the alley. Baker grinned. Cats and dogs fighting over Richman.
Barking, growling, spittle around their mouths, the newcomers leapt at the cats. Fur and dirt filled the air. When three more dogs invaded, the cats ran away.
The dogs pranced in front of Richman and tasted the pig guts around his ankles. One dog sniffed Richman’s skinny leg. He shuddered. His hands strained against the electrical cord looped about his wrists, tying him to the post. That only made the binding tighter. Baker’s father tied him to the basement pipes in this very same way, so he knew from experience that straining and pulling and twisting were useless.
A deep throated bark made the dogs twist their knotty heads towards the source of the sound: a large dog with yellow hair, paws planted firmly; its shoulders bulged with muscle and its massive head moved from side to side. The other dogs parted to allow this newcomer access to Richman.
King of the Dogs, Baker thought, expecting this yellow devil to take the first bite. But it didn’t attack. It sniffed Richman’s clothing, then stretched on its hind legs and bit into the cord around his wrists.
Now free, Richman pulled up his pants, cinched his belt, then knelt at the Yellow Dog’s side and rubbed its head. Yellow licked his face. And the two trotted off together.
The boys jumped from their hiding places and the remaining dogs ran away.
“Maybe he’s been telling the truth,” Little Peck said.
Baker punched him. “Richman’s a liar. He’s the biggest liar in school.”
“That dog saved him,” Louie said.
Little Peck, Hecky, and George the Gimp stood on either side of Louie. No one, Baker realized, stood with him. “I’ll show ya,” Baker said. “I’m gonna get that kid.”
“He was my littermate,” the Dog Boy said in that gentle voice that Baker hated. Richman stood in the schoolyard, at the wrought iron fence. An audience surrounded him and Baker overheard Richman regale them with tales of the time when he and Yellow ran wild in the streets.
Baker hated how happy Richman looked. His bravery defied him. He had to get even. He’d do to Richman what his father often did to him.
First, he’d find that yellow dog, so he armed himself by taking a broomstick bat away from some kids playing stickball. Then he went on the hunt.
He checked alleys, the basements of abandoned homes. He walked through an empty lot between two houses. He looked behind old sofas, rusted oil drums, and other debris.
All afternoon after school that day and the next, Baker searched for Yellow Dog. Several times, he encountered Richman and followed him in hopes of being led to his prey. But Richman merely went to the store for his mother, visited a candy store that sold old comic books three-for-a-dime, or to the Boys Club where he played monopoly and other games.
Finally, on Saturday, Baker glimpsed a flash of yellow fur near the line of kids outside the Kent Theatre by the el. Baker took a paper bag from a girl in black shoes and plaid skirt. She cried and ran after him, so he threw her lunch back at her after taking out the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for himself.
The Yellow Dog wagged its tail as Baker approached with the sandwich as bait. He slipped into an alley. The dog’s ears shot straight up. Its eyes shifted from the stick in one hand and the sandwich in the other. Baker backed into the alley and the dog followed.
Now that they were alone, Baker wondered what he should do. Now that he had found the yellow dog, what came next? Kill it? Cut off its head? Take the carcass to Richman’s house?
Baker gave Yellow the sandwich. The dog gulped it down. “Ain’t got no more,” Baker said. Yellow padded close to Baker and smelled his shoes. Baker stepped deeper into the alley. He saw a broken wine bottle and knew what to do. Snatching the neck of the bottle, Baker raised the ragged edge and slashed his upper arm. Blood flowed to his fingers. He touched Yellow, smearing him, and ran out of the alley screaming.
Kids in line for the movie gaped at him. A police car came to a stop. A cop jumped out.
“That dog,” Baker said. “That yellow dog.” He pointed. Yellow stood with his face marked by blood, his tail wagging. “That dog bit me.”
The cop signaled to his partner. The two policemen conferred for a moment.
“It was foaming at the mouth,” Baker said. “Like its got rabies or something.”
“Hey,” the cop said to his partner. “It’s got rabies.”
Baker clamped his hand over his wound. He beamed when he saw the Dog Boy.
The two cops drew their guns and Baker wondered if this gambit might turn out better than he’d expected. All he’d wanted was to have Yellow taken away. Like when his father took his toys or busted the radio he’d brought home or set fire to his Superman comics or flushed his goldfish down the toilet because the bowl stank.
Baker watched Richman. The Dog Boy shut his eyes when the first shot sounded. Two more followed. The crowd gasped. Richman ran to the alley.
The cops stood back, laughing and slapping one another on the back. Yellow Dog lay with blood pouring from his head, his eyes open, staring. Richman knelt by him.
“Get out of there, kid,” one of the cops said. “He’s got rabies. You wanna catch rabies?”
Baker loved what he saw next. Tears rolled down Richman’s cheeks.
“That your dog, kid? You let your dog run wild like that?”
Go on, Baker said to himself. Tell them he’s your littermate. Tell them one of your stupid, lying stories. They’ll take you away, too.
Richman wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Baker grinned. He’d finally gotten even. He’d made Richman cry.
The story of the rabid dog was told and re-told in the schoolyard Monday morning. Since the dog tested negative for rabies, Baker didn’t need to be vaccinated; but he did have stitches, and when he told the story he bragged that he took the needle and cat-gut without flinching. That was true. He’d been hurt far worse than the tiny stings made by the gentle nurse who patched his torn upper arm.
Richman came to school that Monday, but Baker didn’t seek him out. There was no need to. No one asked the Dog Boy about his dog brother, his littermate, though they pointed at him and told how he’d cried when the animal control wagon came and two uniformed workers scooped the dog’s body into a canvas bag. All the way home, Richman sniffled and wiped his eyes. Someone said they saw him rush into his mother’s open arms at the top of the steps of their Lee Street row house. Someone else claimed he’d waited on the steps for his father to come home because the door was locked. Another story claimed he climbed over the fence and sat crying in the back yard.
No one knew, Baker concluded. Just as no one knew that the Yellow Dog hadn’t bit him and didn’t have to die. No one, except Richman.
“I have a question,” one-eared Louie posed. “What were you doing in that alley?”
“Taking a piss,” Baker said.
Two dogs watched him. He saw them and his mouth went dry, his chest felt hollow, but he didn’t shudder. Didn’t shrink away. Just as he refused to run when dogs trailed him on the way home from school. Or when they sat on the corner and glared at him.
He wouldn’t let the gang know he was afraid.
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