Urban Waite is a brilliant new talent about to publish his debut novel The Terror of Living (Little, Brown, February 2011) which Stephen King has called, “A hell of a good novel, relentlessly paced and beautifully narrated. There’s just no let-up. An auspicious debut.” Keep reading for the first of two short stories that will appear on MulhollandBooks.com.
I heard about Eddie on the news. Of course they didn’t say his name or list anything more than what happened. There was a police raid on a farm outside Seattle: about ten dogs were seized and a man had been arrested. For a long time I sat there. Shocked. Bathed under the dull flicker of the television, recounting the newscaster’s words. And then, after a while, I got up and stared out the window at nothing in particular. The weatherman was talking about rain, and as I watched, the wind kicked out the branches on a nearby tree, the water coming down out of the sky, highlighted and then lost in the shadows of the tree branches and leaves.
Anyone who knew Eddie Vasquez knew what he was doing out there with the dogs wasn’t right. “A man’s got to have his delights,” Eddie said, his hands on the steering wheel. This was many years ago in a Safeway parking lot.
I had asked him straight out, “What are you doing, Eddie?” The cat-piss smell of his truck wafting up through the cab, ammonia and dog hair mixed into the fabric of the seats. I hadn’t seen him in years. I was twenty-five. Newly married with a son beginning to take his first wobbly steps.
“How long has it been Raph?” Eddie said, more exclamation than question. I was standing in the parking lot, with my elbow up on his passenger door and a bag of groceries for the baby in my other hand. “Jesus Raph! How long has it been?” he said again.
I put a hand through my hair and stepped back from the truck, “Ten years.”
“Ten years,” Eddie repeated, as if it was something giant and wonderful.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
I asked because the last time I had seen Eddie was just before we moved out of Long Beach, a month or two after my father had left and my mother decided she didn’t want to be in California anymore. We were fourteen and standing at the counter of a Walgreen’s, stuffing cheap silver Casios into our pockets. And as Eddie stuffed the silver bands down his pants, he listed them off in dollar amounts, five dollars, ten dollars, fifteen, like he was putting together an inventory.
“What does it look like,” Eddie said, turning a hand over the back seat of his truck, and motioning to about thirty pounds of beef on the floor of his cab. “I’m shopping.”
I looked at the meat and then I looked at Eddie. A wave of guilt passed over me, like it did whenever I thought of Eddie. I hadn’t even jaywalked in ten years, and here I was talking to my former partner in crime. It made me want to step back away from his truck and run all the way home. But for some reason I didn’t.
Eddie was listing off the various cuts of meat: a few chucks, a strip, some loin, and even a few miscellaneous bones.
“Are you having a barbeque?” I asked.
Eddie laughed, “No,” he said. And then after a little while, after he had stared off at the end of the parking lot, where the cement sloped down and entered the street, “Come on, I’ll show you something.”
I thought about not getting in, I thought about my baby at home. I thought about my wife. But what I did was get in the truck with Eddie. He was my brother, or as close to a brother as could be, without being related by blood. He had lived down the street from me all my life, right up until we moved to Seattle, and in the dusky nights of our childhood, we had run around on the Bermuda grass, playing soldiers with the other neighborhood kids. And no matter how uncomfortable I was with him, I knew he would never purposefully hurt me.
We turned out onto the street and took the onramp for I-5; we passed through downtown and headed south on the freeway. I was still holding a grocery bag full of diapers and baby food in my arms when I asked, “What is all the meat for?”
“Dogs,” he said, not turning from the windshield, as he hit the turn signal and merged onto the 167.
I looked at the meat in the back of the truck, measuring the dollar amount in my head, estimating numbers inside the plastic bags. I thought about the meat. I thought about what Eddie had said—dogs—and then I asked, “What are you doing, Eddie?”
“Good and evil,” my mother had said. I traced a finger along her nurse’s nametag. The twin snakes of health and sickness, the winged staff of Hermes, these two forces fighting for balance; it was all part of it. “It’s like night and day,” my mother said. I was sitting in the front room of our house in Long Beach; my mother had quit her job at the hospital and was home at all times now. She had been working the night shift, while my father taught math out at Fullerton, a strange stability evolving out of this. And in her way she was telling me about my father, “Night and day,” she said again, crossing through the front room on her way to the kitchen. There was anger in her words, the way she walked, spitting off insults as if I were her husband. I thought about how things can change. I thought about sons and fathers, happiness and sadness, love and hate, marriage and divorce.
I stood at my living room window for a long time. The house quiet around me, and it had been like this for more years than I cared to remember. My wife left me when I was midway through my thirties, taking my son. They live across the Sound now in a small town, where she sells croissants, breads, and pastries from her bakery on Main. And most of my nights are spent in this fashion, watching the weather come in, or sitting for hours in front of the television, although, if asked, I could not tell what I had watched the night before, or any night this week.
I couldn’t believe it. I looked out into the darkness beyond the windows, my own empty house reflected across the pane. I couldn’t believe that they were talking about Eddie. And I thought about all the things that had surprised me in life. I closed my eyes and felt the emptiness of my house, the pure and simple fact of its failure. I thought about Eddie, knowing that he was the one they had taken from the barn, the one they would not name, but hoping all the same that he was not.
Eddie was a good person who did bad things. This is how I had always known him. When we were kids we snuck into the El Dorado Country Club and stole balls for a profit. And when we couldn’t sell them all, we went to the park under the guise of batting practice and hit them, high-flyers, over the street and into the surrounding neighborhood, to which we would listen, waiting for the sound of glass breaking, or the echo of tin reverberating as golf balls hit garage doors.
We exchanged looks of surprise, half wary of our wrong doing, while Eddie talked about the batting angles of stance and posture. In the few months that remained of Long Beach, after my father left, Eddie would say, “Point your foot,” standing at the pitcher’s mound in the middle of the diamond. He tossed the white ball up in the air, waiting for it to swivel then fall into his hand. I felt the chalky earth at my toes, the way the rubber caught in the dirt, and turned up like two black-felt erasers clapping against each other. “Arch your back, get under it.” He tossed the little ball up into the air again; shielding his eyes from the sun as the ball fought gravity, then fell back into his hand. “Get this one,” he said, picking his leg up off the mound and throwing the ball, arm over shoulder, closed hand swinging until fingers released, and the little white ball shot across the space in between.
The bat made a sound, the ball floating up into the air as if it were being pulled up on a string. Fast at first, and then as it gained some distance, slow, seeming to float out above us. Finally falling, hundreds of feet in front of us, faster and faster towards the earth.
There was no sound; the ball simply ended. It went down over the roof of a house, and Eddie said, “Je—sus,” in that dreamy, drawn-out way people sometimes use when something has happened that is hardly believable. “That’s a home run for sure.”
“Did you hear anything?” I asked.
“Slick as a whistle.”
I stood on the first base line and waited. I didn’t hear anything. It was a sunny day with a high pale blue sky. Out on Stearns Boulevard cars were passing. Across the street I saw a woman come out of her house and pick a newspaper out of the grass. She stood for a moment reading the headlines, then turned, not looking in our direction, and went back into her house. Nothing happened, and Eddie tossed another ball up into the air, a big silly grin on his face, waiting for me to take another try.
My mother said there was something wrong with Long Beach. We were in the car on the 405. I turned to look back at the city; my father was out there somewhere, my aunts and uncles, my house, my friends. I heard the car shift down, the bend of a corner curving up, and then the city disappeared. We were leaving a large silver trailer behind us. Everything we owned was inside, pictures of my father and mother, my baseball bat and glove, my brother’s toys.
“You’re my little man now,” my mother said.
I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t like the old times when my mother would rush through the house and hug my father, saying over and over again, “You’re a lucky man to have a wife like me.”
No, it was not like this. She said it in a way that made me feel sad about it. And I pressed myself closer on the seat, looking for the familiar buildings of my city but finding only the haze of things I could no longer recognized.
And what I hated most of all, was that my father had let her down somehow. I could hear it in her voice when she asked, “You’ll be my little man, won’t you?” Taking a hand from the steering wheel and running it down the back of my head, until it came to rest on my neck, and I could feel the weight there, like the question, waiting for a response.
Eddie’s barn was south of Seattle in a place called Auburn. In the distance I saw the high stands of a horse track, and in every direction there was the flat, low-lying fog of farmland. I smelled the dogs before I saw them. The odor about the place was that of a kennel, earthy and sweet, like urine left to dry in the sun-warmed dirt. “This is it,” Eddie said, climbing down out of the cab and facing the burnt-red building, with its gray, tin roof, and slumped walls, which leaned close against each other.
There was an eerie feel to the place. It felt as I must imagine the aftermath of war felt. The sleepy taught-ness of a place that had once been in motion, and now sat slumbering in wait. There were all the smells, cow dung, hay, and grass seed. The muddy earth below my feet showed multiple paw tracks, and from the shadows I could see the slight movements of animals within the barn, tucked away below the doors, back into a place Eddie was walking to, and that I feared to follow.
“What is this place?” I asked, following close behind Eddie, pausing as he entered the shadows of the barn.
“I’ll show you.”
I could see the animals in there, the pacing of their bodies against the cages. But what disturbed me the most was that there were no sounds. Not a single animal made a noise. The dogs simply paced, back and forth along the edges of the cages, like a cat at the zoo, waiting for its opportunity.
And what I saw—what Eddie had brought me to see—was a long line of cages, built roughly along the edges of the barn. I counted twelve in all. Chain-linked and squared up against the wooden walls of the barn. And in the center I could see a ring, built of wood, and lined along the bottom with sod and packed earth. I came to a stop at the center of the barn, looking down into the ring, seeing the red splatter along the walls, the rouge of dried blood at the edges, where, after staring down into the pit for a long while, I assumed the dogs had gone to die. “Jesus, Eddie,” I said. “What have you gotten yourself into?”
“It’s a terrible thing,” Eddie said. “Almost an addiction.”
And I could see from his face that he meant it, but that he could do little or nothing to stop himself. “Why am I here, Eddie?” I felt the dogs all around me. I smelled them. I heard their feet pacing in the cages. The hairs on the back of my neck had risen, and I felt their eyes on me.
“It’s my business,” he said, as if this would satisfy all the questions.
“You’re a dog fighter?”
“I know,” Eddie said, shrugging the idea off his shoulders. He looked around at all the cages, taking a few steps over to a milky white pit bull, letting it run its nose across his knuckles as he leaned down and put his hand to the fencing. “It’s a horrible, brutal thing to fight dogs. It’s bloody, it’s mean, it’s everything that is evil in this world.” And he paused looking back at me from the crouched position he kept by the dog. “But it’s what I’m good at.”
“This is what you do,” I said, and I realized I was almost yelling. I realized I was scared and that it had been a long time since I had been scared. “I sell insurance,” I said “that is a normal job, that is a job you can tell people about. I don’t want to know about a job like this.”
“I don’t want to know about a job like this either, but I’m good at it, really good,” he said, standing now and rubbing his two hands together, his knuckles into the palm of his hand. “And I know people don’t want to know that a person like me exists, but you know me, and there is no changing that.”
I looked around at the dogs, at all the cages, at the ticked out holes of sunlight coming through the walls. “You’re lonely,” I said.
“Yes.” And he looked me straight in the eye, until I turned my eyes away.
I didn’t know what to say. We had been friends once. But I didn’t know if we were anymore. “How long have you been here, Eddie?” I asked
“And you’ve been doing this the whole time?”
“I run fights on the weekend,” he said, “I take a percentage of the winnings. I kennel a few dogs for a little extra cash. And, yes, this is what I’ve been doing.” He walked over and put his arms down on the rim of the dog pit, his toes touching the boards where they met the earth. “Haven’t you ever been good at something?” he asked, his eyes skipping over me before coming to rest on the floor of the dog ring again.
I thought about my marriage, I thought about my son. I thought about all the things in life that I had been a failure at, classes, jobs, women. But what I thought about most was that I was a father. “I have a son,” I said.
Eddie made a low whistling sound; he leaned back from the walls of the pit, finding the shadows of a beam of wood above. “That is something special,” he said.
But what I know now is that as much as I wanted it to work, my marriage failed, and in the midst of all this I lost my son. And that it has been life’s cruelest agony knowing I will never have him back the way that I had always pictured, the way I was picturing him then, with Eddie leaned back away from the dog pit, and me dreaming about all the things in life that I thought I was talented in, that I thought I had natural skill. And knowing this, having faith in myself and my son, I knew what Eddie was talking about when he said he was good at it, that there is little-to-nothing that would separate me or him from our desires.
Eddie took a moment and after a while he said, “A son.” Giving the same slow whistle. “How old is he?”
“And when was he born?”
“April 1st,” I said.
Eddie looked off down the barn. I could see a door at the end of the building, it was open a crack, and within I saw a single mattress, a few pieces of clothes thrown out along the floor. “Fools’ day,” Eddie said.
I didn’t see Eddie much after that. It was the last and only time I would go to his barn. And in the years that followed, I believe he became respected in his field, in his art, with his gift for terrible things. But I never saw it.
Instead we would meet from time to time at a bar, or to grab a little food, never more than three or four times a year. In short, we became as acquaintances become, simply tolerable of each other, civil towards each other, like a pair of old lovers when there is little but history left over. From what I gathered, Eddie was still a lonely figure, as he must be in his profession. And I can imagine that his time, like my own, was dedicated to the pursuit of that one desire which so easily and totally overcame his schedule.
Our relationship was one of convenience, one in which we avoided the things in our lives which made us us. It went without saying that I would not ask Eddie about the things he did in that barn down south, and he would not ask me about my family. Instead we preferred to talk about the casual, convenient topics of men. Over burgers, we talked of football, we ran statistics back and forth across the table. We talked about baseball: batting averages, RBIs, homeruns, stolen bases. And if it rained, or the fog settled into the hills, we talked of weather. It was that simple.
And then Eddie asked one day, while I sat close up to the bar with a pint in front of me, “Isn’t your son’s birthday coming up?”
I pulled back, straightening the crease of my pants with my hand. “Yes, the first of April,” I said.
“I thought so.”
Eddie didn’t say anything after that, and I waited, trying to act nonchalant about the game on the television, but then I asked, “Why’d you think of that?”
“No reason,” he said. “Just thinking.”
And in a week I had my answer. I was in the kitchen talking over a few bills with my wife, it was my son’s sixth birthday the next day, and the counter was covered with party decorations, streamers, and open cookbooks. My wife’s hands were white with flour, and the kitchen had the smell of burnt sugar and lemon zest. I was talking with my hands, adding figures one at a time on my fingers, my wife with her hands buckled back on her hips, the whites of her fingers held out from her clothes, when the door bell rang.
I knew who it was before I got there. What Eddie had asked me at the bar had been on my mind; his question hadn’t sat right with me. It was an intrusion. It was an unnecessary part of our friendship, a malignant bump, threatening something, although what I did not know.
And so Eddie was there, a big smile on his face. It was the same smile I recognized from our time as boys, watching the golf balls sail high over the neighborhood, waiting for their time to fall. I said, “Eddie,” following the tilt of his grin toward his arm, and then along his arm to his hand, in which I could see a leash, and at the end of this a small puppy. From the size of the puppy, I guessed it was a month old, maybe a week or two more. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“I’m surprised,” I said flatly. “What are you doing here, Eddie?”
“I brought it for your son.”
I turned to look back at the kitchen; my wife was standing in the door, looking at us. She was cleaning the flour from her hands with a dishtowel. I pushed Eddie back and stepped out onto the front lawn, closing the door behind me. I raised a hand to my forehead. “I wish you would have said something, Eddie.”
“It’s a puppy,” Eddie said.
“We don’t want a puppy.”
“How can you not want a puppy?”
I looked down at the dog at Eddie’s feet. It had a blonde coat, feathery and light, like newborn hair. “I’m sorry,” I said, “But I can’t take it.”
Eddie took a step back, “You know what I do for a living,” he said.
“Well, it’s not a nice thing.”
“I know,” I said.
“There is nothing glamorous about what I do. There are no rewards. It is about money, it has always been about money. And I’m good at it.”
“Eddie, I can’t—”
“It’s a dirty business. But there are little things,” he said.
“I can’t be a part of this.”
Eddie looked down at the dog, “You know what will happen to him if you don’t take him. He might be the next champ,” Eddie said. But he paused here, the look in his eye: downward, studying the grass at his feet, and then after a while he said, “Or he might not.”
“I’m not going to be the one to decide that,” I said. “You’ve got a sickness,” I said. “It’s not right.” I took a few steps back toward my house, a distance opening up between us. Eddie was standing in the grass, his truck parked at the curb.
“It is the one good thing—” Eddie started to say.
“I can’t, I have a family,” I said, “These things you do, they don’t wash off because you want to give up a dog.” I watched him standing there. I couldn’t take the dog. I didn’t want the dog. But something in me wanted this dog, too. I wanted to know about Eddie, about the things he did. I wanted to know why he did a thing like dog fighting. How a person could be good at it. I wanted to help him. I wanted to understand. But in the end I knew that Eddie might have had a gift for the things he did, but so did I, and I was barricading against Eddie’s to protect my own.
I didn’t see Eddie anymore after that. And in the years that followed I thought about how I stood in my front lawn, watching him drive off around the corner. There were many opportunities to think about this moment. I thought about Eddie because my wife would leave me a few years later, when things were not as good as they were then.
And I thought about Eddie, because I realized after the fact, after I started coming home to an empty house, that all this time my wife had been lonely. She had been lonely in a way I did not see, in a way that I had not accounted for. And I thought about Eddie, because I wondered how having a dog in our lives could have helped to fill up that loneliness which I had never realized, and had seeped slowly, but accurately, into the heart of ours.
I had always thought that being a good father meant working hard. I wasn’t interested in becoming my own father, a man who had cheated on his wife, and left his children in the middle of the night. So I worked. I worked because it was something my father hadn’t done. And in the early evenings I would come home to a house that I had bought, to a family that I supported, kissing my wife and giving my son a hug.
And then one day I came home to nothing. The house was in boxes, the divorce complete. I sat in the kitchen eating leftover pizza. The pizza was cold and I didn’t even bother to warm it in the microwave. There was no sound in the house. I heard a few cars passing outside, fathers and mothers like me who had worked all day and now were returning to their families.
The pizza tasted like cardboard and what I really wanted to know was where I had gone wrong. I thought I was good at something and then one day, just like that, I found out the problem I was treating was not the problem at all. I was a good father. I thought I was doing the right things. I played games with my son on the weekend, talked to him about his homework, and drove him to school in the mornings. But what I thought was the solution was really the problem. And I didn’t realize it then. I realized it later, that I had forgotten my wife along the way. A woman I loved, a person I thought was as solid as anything in life.
“What are you doing?” I asked once, coming home early to find her putting the last of the boxes in her car.
She kept on walking. “What does it look like,” she said.
And because I was pissed off, and tired, and I had come home early so that I might catch my son at school, before my wife picked him up, I said “It looks like you’re ruining my life.”
To which she stopped, holding a cardboard box in her arms. “You ruined it a long time ago,” she said.
What I said then was what I had said again and again in court, I said that I was working to make things better, for money, and for a better life for my son, better schools, better colleges, a bigger house for my wife.
“I never cared about that,” she said, still holding the box in her arms. “Couldn’t you see that I was lonely?”
“Don’t do this,” I said.
She put the box down in the back of her car, “It’s too late.”
And I could see then that she had already turned her back to me, that I wasn’t even really standing there, and this wasn’t her house anymore. I had forgotten about her, I had lost her, and by losing her I had lost my son. I never saw it coming. I thought I was good at something, like Eddie was good at running the fights. But in the end it didn’t matter how good I was. I had forgotten about all the other things that come from the periphery to blind-side a life.
It bothered me that Eddie had been arrested. It worried me. When I woke in the morning, the house felt as lonely and empty as it had the night before. I checked the news, but nothing was on it about Eddie. It was a Saturday, and for the most part, the news was about the college games, and the weekend weather. It made me think that nothing was wrong in the world, and that Saturday mornings were meant for sitting around without a worry.
But what I got to thinking about was how quiet my house was. And I wondered how quiet it must be in Eddie’s cell, if he had talked with anyone, if he had slept? It made me feel guilty, sitting in my big house, with no one to talk to and a coffee pot brewing in the kitchen.
He had done a good thing for me once. In a strange way he had saved me on that field, with the bucket of golf balls in my hand, and a bat in the other, motioning with his hand, saying, “Keep going.” I owed him something. Because it wasn’t only me he had saved, it was my mother and my family. I knew it when I heard the faith in her voice as we drove out of Long Beach. One way or another, I knew that she had not lost me, that I was more hers than I was my father’s. Eddie had been the one to protect us—whether he knew it or not—from all the bad things that were swirling high overhead in the tornado our lives had become.
I drove by the police station three times before I pulled over and switched the engine off. I didn’t know what I would do when I got inside. I thought about all the scenes from the movies, the chain tied to the bars and the car pulling away into the night. I pictured the walls coming down, the dust rising off the ruble and Eddie stepping through.
I got out of my car and closed the door. The air had a touch of ocean dew, salty and crisp. The morning was cold around me, no clouds in the sky, and a pale yellow sun in the east. I walked ten steps up the sidewalk toward the station when the doors opened and Eddie walked out.
“Hello,” I said.
He looked at me twice and then he said, “Hey,” the grin on his face rising off him until all I could see were the round bulbs of his cheeks and a row of his teeth. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” I said, shaking his hand. He was older around the eyes, the worry lines along his forehead more pronounced. But I could still see the boy in there, the way he smiled and the way his eyes lit up when I pressed my hand into his. “I heard about you on the news,” I said. “I’m here to break you out.”
“Well I’m out,” Eddie said.
I watched him shiver a bit in the morning sun. He was wearing a black silk shirt, open at the neck, with a pair of chinos and leather dress-shoes. A group of patrol cars left the station lot, and I could see the officers looking down the block toward us. “Come on,” I said “I’ll drive you—” but I stopped and didn’t finish my sentence. I didn’t know where to drive him. I was going to say that I would drive him home. But I didn’t know if he had one, or if he was still living in the back room of the barn, although he dressed like he had a place up on a hill somewhere.
“I’d like that,” Eddie said. “Drive out by the ocean,” he said after we had gotten in the car and driven down the block away from the police station.
We didn’t say anything for a while after that. We just drove and after we climbed a hill and could see the ocean I asked him how he managed to get himself out of jail. I told him about what they had said on the news; how I had known it was him, how even without a name I knew.
“Criminals aren’t the only ones who bet on dogfights,” he said. “People with money bet on dogfights.” We were parked in the thin line of spots along the beach in West Seattle, across the water from the tall buildings of downtown. “These people look after me.”
I could see families out on the beach. The tide was out, and the children were looking in on all the pools left behind by the ocean. We got out of the car and walked down to the water. Eddie lit a cigarette and smoked, the wind taking the smoke over his shoulder and blowing it out along the beach. “It’s peaceful here,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. I was tracking the course of a ferry out on the Sound. It made me sad to look at it. Many of my weekends had been spent on one of those boats, traveling across the water to see my son. “Eddie,” I wanted to say, “why do you do it?” But I didn’t. Eddie smoked the cigarette down to the filter and then flicked it out onto the water where it floated on the green ocean.
“I like it out here,” he said. “It’s nice after a night inside.”
“Are you ever scared?” I asked.
“I’m scared all the time,” Eddie said. “But it’s part of it.”
The ferry was crossing directly in front of us, and I wondered if it was going across to my son.
“It seems,” Eddie said, “that it’s part of life. Being scared is just like anything else, you live with it long enough that you don’t even feel it anymore. It’s still there, but it becomes part of you.”
I thought about this. I thought about a lot of things. Eddie took out another cigarette and smoked it down to the filter again. I wanted him to talk more, but he didn’t, and after a while, after the ferry disappeared and the children had all climbed up off the beach, I nodded to Eddie and we went back to the car.
There was nowhere for us to go, so I drove back to my house. Eddie did not have a house on a hill. He lived on his land. But couldn’t go back just yet. There was still the appearance of an investigation going on. The dogs were gone. He was sure of that. He wasn’t worried though; he said he still had a few matches to run off in the woods somewhere.
I thought he would say more, but when we got to my house I could see that he was tired and that it had been a while since he slept. I set him up in my son’s room, letting him borrow a few things from me, a shirt, some pants. We didn’t say anything. And as I closed the door to the room, I wondered how to save a man like Eddie or if he was even worth it.
The sky clouded over on the third day after Eddie came to stay with me. It snowed through the morning and into the afternoon, so thick and heavy that the schools were let out early and I could see the children in the fields throwing snowballs as I drove home.
I thought about my son across the water. I saw the flakes drifting heavy onto the ocean and the water absorbing them. I pictured the green and white ferry, the lights along the roof, and the snow falling through the lights. I imagined my son outside his mother’s house. I thought of the clean expanse of her lawn, and the tracks they made as they crossed the grass.
It never snowed in Seattle and when I got home Eddie was standing in the living room with a framed picture of my son in his hands, looking out the window. “Look at this snow,” he said, thrusting the picture out with his hand. “Can you believe it?”
I was looking at the picture. I couldn’t believe it. “Eddie,” I said, “what are you doing with that picture?”
“Oh,” he said, as if he had just realized he was holding it. “I was looking at it.” He tilted the picture up so that he could see it. “I wasn’t going to ask.”
“I’m divorced now.”
Eddie put the picture back up on the mantle with the rest. We both stared out the window and I could see the snow falling and melting on the hood of my car, the ribs of metal beneath the aluminum showing.
“Was it you?” Eddie asked after a few minutes had passed.
I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge. “Here,” I said, giving Eddie a beer and watching the snow come down. It was an almost perfect silence. There was the light flutter of the wind and the soft falling of snow. I heard Eddie crack his beer and we both sat back in the living room chairs watching the snow. And I didn’t answer Eddie for a long time.
“Come out with me tonight,” Eddie said. The snow had stopped falling and the roads had all been salted and plowed. Outside in the backyard I could see a white layer of snow stretching off into the darkness.
We had talked the whole afternoon, sitting in front of the windows, drinking beers and swapping stories. The snow outside was calm and clean, like polished stone, and where the light fell it shined back at us. It made me feel reckless, it made me feel like walking around all night in the snow, dragging my feet, breaking perfect things. “Yes,” I said, “I’ll go with you.”
“Good,” Eddie said. “Wear something warm.”
“You’re taking me to a fight, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Eddie said.
I looked over at him. He was wearing one of the dress shirts I had loaned him, a yellow oxford, which he wore open at the collar. He looked a lot like me, the black stubble under the skin, the creases around the eyes.
“You called it a sickness,” Eddie said.
We were in the kitchen, sitting in the nook, a row of beers lined up along the windowsill. I didn’t say anything back to him. I just stared out across the table, looking him over, trying to figure out how a man like Eddie could be a man like Eddie. He didn’t look like himself. He looked like someone else. He could have been anyone, someone who led a normal life, who did normal things, capable of anything and nothing all at the same time.
The light was very dim when we pulled off the highway and went down into the woods. And as we drove, it was almost like the stars were absorbing the darkness. The snow opened up ahead of us and I could see as clearly as if it were day. Here and there I saw animal tracks leading off through the woods. They crossed the road several times then led back into the shadows where the stars did not reach and the snow slipped away beneath the trees.
“Turn your lights off,” Eddie said.
We were driving up a dirt road. In between the ruts, the snow was gray from the cars that had passed ahead of us. I turned the lights off and we saw the way the ground drifted away around us. Up ahead, everyone had gathered beneath the trees. Eddie rolled down his window to let the night in. I could hear the ache of the tires on the pressed snow. And as we got closer we could see and hear the popping of a fire in the trees. There was a group of cars. Dark sentinels of metal, waiting along the edges of the forest.
There were more people than I had thought would be at a dogfight. People who looked like me, wearing jeans and a wool jacket, people who looked like Eddie, their hair slicked back, a leather jacket I had let him borrow. There were women amongst the crowd, whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics. And everyone watched us as we pulled up, our headlights off, the fire burning in the middle of the forest.
“Be cool,” Eddie said.
We were sitting in the car. Eddie didn’t say anything else. But I realized then that I was an outsider. That Eddie had been arrested and I was coming with him, days afterward, like a cop on the inside. “I’m cool,” I said.
We got out of the car. The clap of the doors carried out into the forest. It was mostly birch, the white trunks of the trees coming through the snow, a low moist feel to the land. Once people saw that it was Eddie, they either turned away or kept staring. A few of them whispered to each other, looking at me.
A skinny man, wearing jeans and a padded flannel walked over and shook Eddie’s hand. “Strange weather,” he said, looking up into the sky. A few small flakes were falling, dusting everything with a thin sheet of flour. “Is this your friend?” the man said, nodding in my direction, but looking Eddie in the eye.
“Raph, this is the sheriff,” Eddie said. “Sheriff, this is Raph.”
“You’re not a cop?” the sheriff joked, laughing and then looking back at Eddie while he shook my hand. “You the one with the house in Seattle?”
“Yes,” I said, realizing that Eddie had been setting this up all along, the sheriff’s hands still cupping mine.
“It’s good of you.”
“He’s a good person,” Eddie said.
“Not too many of those,” the sheriff laughed again. “Are there, Eddie?”
Eddie played with a clump of snow at his feet. “Not in this world at least.”
“You want to get it started then,” the sheriff said, turning to walk back toward the crowd.
“Come on,” Eddie said, waving his hand for me to follow.
I found a place on the outside of the crowd. The logs were cracking in the fire, red embers near the base where the snow had melted away. I watched as pieces of the fire drifted up into the night until I lost them amidst the stars. It was quiet at first. But then I heard Eddie call out for the money; he was taking it from everywhere, counting it. A shorter man standing nearby wrote down the figures as Eddie told him.
Eddie motioned me up, but I raised my hand and waived him off. The night felt black and limitless behind me, the snow falling across my shoulders and resting in my lashes. I could see the sheriff back in the trees, the thin line of his legs going out into the forest and then the way the crowd parted as he came back, leading his dog by the collar.
All I could see was the way the crowd pushed back to let him in. I saw the faces of the men and women across the circle, the orange light of the fire caught on them. The people in front of me fading out of sight, like the night behind me. They felt like ghosts, every one of them. The dark shadows of their heads drifting from one side to the other, as they watched the dog come through the crowd. I saw them whispering to each other, sizing up the dog for the fight. A man yelled out, his voice lost in the crunch of the snow and the rising excitement coming off the crowd. People were shifting now, the feeling building among them.
I saw another man enter. I did not know from where, but the crowd parted and came back together. I could see them in there together, one man facing the fire, the other with his back to it. Staring off at each other over the distance of the ring. The orange light catching on a face, on a back, each man like the opposing sides of the same man.
There were murmurings in the crowd. People were still calling out, making side bets. Eddie had the money in his hands. I could see it, the silver-green of the bills under the moonlight, snow falling gently amongst us all. The fire popped. I felt the night cold against my neck, the warmth of the crowd bringing me closer in. People were straining to see the dogs, leaning one way, then leaning the other, looking over the shoulders of their neighbors.
Eddie raised his hands. I saw the two men look up. There was a pause. The world slowed down, the snowflakes falling through it all, and then Eddie dropped his hands and I heard the weight of the dogs come together. There was a snarling, a brief sound of something tearing. But mostly, all I could hear was the sound their feet made on the snow, snuffling against each other, their paws scraping at the ground, and the heaviness of their bodies breaking apart on each other.
The dark backs of the crowd shifted in front of me. The light from the fire coming through at different angles until it seemed the crowd was swimming under water. I caught brief glimpses of the dogs moving, circling in on each other. I saw legs and torsos, a bloodied ear, the snow beneath them dotted now with hints of red. But they were quick, little clouds of steam rising off their coats. Little puffs of steam rising off us all, filtering up into the air above.
I looked for Eddie in the crowd. He was there, the fight mirrored in his eyes like a frozen pool. First dark then light, then dark again, as the fire flicked out into the crowd and the dark shapes of the dogs turned around and around in the midst of the ring, the blood dropping like water onto the snow.
Eddie was part of the inner circle, part of the edge of people who made it all. I watched from the outside, knowing that every turn of the dogs brought the crowd closer. I heard the dogs come together, the brief stutter step, fighting for balance, as they went up on each other, chest to chest. The crowd in front of me leaned left then right, a parting of the blackened heads. “Good and evil,” my mother had once said, I was thinking about this, feeling daggers of cold at the tips of my ears.
I could see the dogs now, their chests against each other, the veins in their necks bulging as they twisted. It was a certain type of beautiful. A horrible type, a terrible type, but something, none-the-less, that I could not look away from. Something I kept watching although I knew I shouldn’t. Watching as the dogs twirled, each one reaching for the other’s life.
Originally published in Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Best of the West Anthology.
Urban Waite, 28-years-old, grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington on a partial scholarship focused on minority achievement in math and science, preparing him to be the next big Mexican/Italian/Welsh engineer. Instead, he became interested in fiction (where he could make up anything). He went on to study writing at Western Washington U. and Emerson and lives in Seattle with his wife. Little, Brown and Company will publish his first novel, THE TERROR OF LIVING, in February 2011.