BY DENNIS LEHANE
Bob found the dog in the trash.
It was just after Thanksgiving, the neighborhood gone quiet, hungover. After bartending at Cousin Marv’s, Bob sometimes walked the streets. He was big and lumpy and hair had been growing in unlikely places all over his body since his teens. In his twenties, he’d fought against the hair, carrying small clippers in his coat pocket and shaving twice a day. He’d also fought the weight, but during all those years of fighting, no girl who wasn’t being paid for it ever showed any interest in him. After a time, he gave up the fight. He lived alone in the house he grew up in, and when it seemed likely to swallow him with its smells and memories and dark couches, the attempts he’d made to escape it-through church socials, lodge picnics, and one horrific mixer thrown by a dating service-had only opened the wound further, left him patching it back up for weeks, cursing himself for hoping.
So he took these walks of his and, if he was lucky, sometimes he forgot people lived any other way. That night, he paused on the sidewalk, feeling the ink sky above him and the cold in his fingers, and he closed his eyes against the evening.
He was used to it. He was used to it. It was okay.
You could make a friend of it, as long as you didn’t fight it.
With his eyes closed, he heard it-a worn-out keening accompanied by distant scratching and a sharper, metallic rattling. He opened his eyes. Fifteen feet down the sidewalk, a large metal barrel with a heavy lid shook slightly under the yellow glare of the streetlight, its bottom scraping the sidewalk. He stood over it and heard that keening again, the sound of a creature that was one breath away from deciding it was too hard to take the next, and he pulled off the lid.
He had to remove some things to get to it-a toaster and five thick Yellow Pages, the oldest dating back to 2000. The dog-either a very small one or else a puppy-was down at the bottom, and it scrunched its head into its midsection when the light hit it. It exhaled a soft chug of a whimper and tightened its body even more, its eyes closed to slits. A scrawny thing. Bob could see its ribs. He could see a big crust of dried blood by its ear. No collar. It was brown with a white snout and paws that seemed far too big for its body.
It let out a sharper whimper when Bob reached down, sank his fingers into the nape of its neck, and lifted it out of its own excrement. Bob didn’t know dogs too well, but there was no mistaking this one for anything but a boxer. And definitely a puppy, the wide brown eyes opening and looking into his as he held it up before him.
Somewhere, he was sure, two people made love. A man and a woman. Entwined. Behind one of those shades, oranged with light, that looked down on the street. Bob could feel them in there, naked and blessed. And he stood out here in the cold with a near-dead dog staring back at him. The icy sidewalk glinted like new marble, and the wind was dark and gray as slush.
“What do you got there?”
Bob turned, looked up and down the sidewalk.
“I’m up here. And you’re in my trash.”
She stood on the front porch of the three-decker nearest him. She’d turned the porch light on and stood there shivering, her feet bare. She reached into the pocket of her hoodie and came back with a pack of cigarettes. She watched him as she got one going.
“I found a dog.” Bob held it up.
“A dog. A puppy. A boxer, I think.”
She coughed out some smoke. “Who puts a dog in a barrel?”
“Right?” he said. “It’s bleeding.” He took a step toward her stairs and she backed up.
“Who do you know that I would know?” A city girl, not about to just drop her guard around a stranger.
“I don’t know,” Bob said. “How about Francie Hedges?”
She shook her head. “You know the Sullivans?”
That wouldn’t narrow it down. Not around here. You shook a tree, a Sullivan fell out. Followed by a six-pack most times. “I know a bunch.”
This was going nowhere, the puppy looking at him, shaking worse than the girl.
“Hey,” she said, “you live in this parish?”
“Next one over. St. Theresa’s.”
“Go to church?”
“So you know Father Pete?”
“Pete Regan,” he said, “sure.”
She produced a cell phone. “What’s your name?”
“Bob,” he said. “Bob Saginowski.”
Bob waited as she stepped back from the light, phone to one ear, finger pressed into the other. He stared at the puppy. The puppy stared back, like, How did I get here? Bob touched its nose with his index finger. The puppy blinked its huge eyes. For a moment, Bob couldn’t recall his sins.
“Nadia,” the girl said and stepped back into the light. “Bring him up here, Bob. Pete says hi.”
They washed it in Nadia’s sink, dried it off, and brought it to her kitchen table.
Nadia was small. A bumpy red rope of a scar ran across the base of her throat like the smile of a drunk circus clown. She had a tiny moon of a face, savaged by pockmarks, and small, heart-pendant eyes. Shoulders that didn’t cut so much as dissolve at the arms. Elbows like flattened beer cans. A yellow bob of hair curled on either side of her face. “It’s not a boxer.” Her eyes glanced off Bob’s face before dropping the puppy back onto her kitchen table. “It’s an American Staffordshire terrier.”
Bob knew he was supposed to understand something in her tone, but he didn’t know what that thing was so he remained silent.
She glanced back up at him after the quiet lasted too long. “A pit bull.”
“That’s a pit bull?”
She nodded and swabbed the puppy’s head wound again. Someone had pummeled it, she told Bob. Probably knocked it unconscious, assumed it was dead, and dumped it.
“Why?” Bob said.
She looked at him, her round eyes getting rounder, wider. “Just because.” She shrugged, went back to examining the dog. “I worked at Animal Rescue once. You know the place on Shawmut? As a vet tech. Before I decided it wasn’t my thing. They’re so hard, this breed…”
“To adopt out,” she said. “It’s very hard to find them a home.”
“I don’t know about dogs. I never had a dog. I live alone. I was just walking by the barrel.” Bob found himself beset by a desperate need to explain himself, explain his life. “I’m just not…” He could hear the wind outside, black and rattling. Rain or bits of hail spit against the windows.
Nadia lifted the puppy’s back left paw-the other three paws were brown, but this one was white with peach spots. Then she dropped the paw as if it were contagious. She went back to the head wound, took a closer look at the right ear, a piece missing from the tip that Bob hadn’t noticed until now.
“Well,” she said, “he’ll live. You’re gonna need a crate and food and all sorts of stuff.”
“No,” Bob said. “You don’t understand.”
She cocked her head, gave him a look that said she understood perfectly.
“I can’t. I just found him. I was gonna give him back.”
“To whoever beat him, left him for dead?”
“No, no, like, the authorities.”
“That would be Animal Rescue,” she said. “After they give the owner seven days to reclaim him, they’ll-”
“The guy who beat him? He gets a second chance?”
She gave him a half-frown and a nod. “If he doesn’t take it,” she lifted the puppy’s ear, peered in, “chances are this little fella’ll be put up for adoption. But it’s hard. To find them a home. Pit bulls. More often than not?” She looked at Bob. “More often than not, they’re put down.”
Bob felt a wave of sadness roll out from her that immediately shamed him. He didn’t know how, but he’d caused pain. He’d put some out into the world. He’d let this girl down. “I…” he started. “It’s just…”
She glanced up at him. “I’m sorry?”
Bob looked at the puppy. Its eyes were droopy from a long day in the barrel and whoever gave it that wound. It had stopped shivering, though.
“You can take it,” Bob said. “You used to work there, like you said. You-”
She shook her head. “My father lives with me. He gets home Sunday night from Foxwoods. He finds a dog in his house? An animal he’s allergic to?” She jerked her thumb. “Puppy goes back in the barrel.”
“Can you give me till Sunday morning?” Bob wasn’t sure how it was the words left his mouth, since he couldn’t remember formulating them or even thinking them.
The girl eyed him carefully. “You’re not just saying it? Cause, I shit you not, he ain’t picked up by Sunday noon, he’s back out that door.”
“Sunday, then.” Bob said the words with a conviction he actually felt. “Sunday, definitely.”
“Yeah?” She smiled, and it was a spectacular smile, and Bob saw that the face behind the pockmarks was as spectacular as the smile. Wanting only to be seen. She touched the puppy’s nose with her index finger.
“Yeah.” Bob felt crazed. He felt light as a communion wafer. “Yeah.”
At Cousin Marv’s, where he tended bar 12 to 10, Wednesday through Sunday, he told Marv all about it. Most people called Marv Cousin Marv out of habit, something that went back to grade school though no one could remember how, but Marv actually was Bob’s cousin. On his mother’s side.
Cousin Marv had run a crew in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It had been primarily comprised of guys with interests in the loaning and subsequent debt-repayal side of things, though Marv never turned his nose down at any paying proposition because he believed, to the core of his soul, that those who failed to diversify were always the first to collapse when the wind turned. Like the dinosaurs, he’d say to Bob, when the cavemen came along and invented arrows. Picture the cavemen, he’d say, firing away, and the tyrannosauruses all gucked up in the oil puddles. A tragedy so easily averted.
Marv’s crew hadn’t been the toughest crew or the smartest or the most successful operating in the neighborhood-not even close-but for a while they got by. Other crews kept nipping at their heels, though, and except for one glaring exception, they’d never been ones to favor violence. Pretty soon, they had to make the decision to yield to crews a lot meaner than they were or duke it out. They took Door Number One.
Marv’s income derived from running his bar as a drop. In the new world order-a loose collective of Chechen, Italian, and Irish hard guys-no one wanted to get caught with enough merch or enough money for a case to go Federal. So they kept it out of their offices and out of their homes and they kept it on the move. About every two-three weeks, drops were made at Cousin Marv’s, among other establishments. You sat on the drop for a night, two at the most, before some beer-truck driver showed up with the weekend’s password and hauled everything back out on a dolly like it was a stack of empty kegs, took it away in a refrigerated semi. The rest of Marv’s income derived from being a fence, one of the best in the city, but being a fence in their world (or a drop bar operator for that matter) was like being a mailroom clerk in the straight world-if you were still doing it after thirty, it was all you’d ever do. For Bob, it was a relief-he liked being a bartender and he’d hated that one time they’d had to come heavy. Marv, though, Marv still waited for the golden train to arrive on the golden tracks, take him away from all this. Most times, he pretended to be happy. But Bob knew that the things that haunted Marv were the same things that haunted Bob-the shitty things you did to get ahead. Those things laughed at you if your ambitions failed to amount to much; a successful man could hide his past; an unsuccessful man sat in his.
That morning, Marv was looking a hair on the mournful side, lighting one Camel while the previous one still smoldered, so Bob tried to cheer him up by telling him about his adventure with the dog. Marv didn’t seem too interested, and Bob found himself saying “You had to be there” so much, he eventually shut up about it.
Marv said, “Rumor is we’re getting the Super Bowl drop.”
If true (an enormous if), this was huge. They worked on commission-one half of one percent of the drop. A Super Bowl drop? It would be like one half of one percent of Exxon.
Natalie’s scar flashed in Bob’s brain, the redness of it, the thick, ropey texture. “They send extra guys to protect it, you think?”
Marv rolled his eyes. “Why, cause people are just lining up to steal from coked-up Chechnyans.”
“Chechens,” Bob said.
“But they’re from Chechnya.”
Bob shrugged. “I think it’s like how you don’t call people from Ireland Irelandians.”
Marv scowled. “Whatever. It means all this hard work we’ve been doing? It’s paid off. Like how Toyota did it, making friends and influencing people.”
Bob kept quiet. If they ended up being the drop for the Super Bowl, it was because someone figured out no Feds deemed them important enough to be watched. But in Marv’s fantasies, the crew (long since dispersed to straight jobs, jail, or, worse, Connecticut) could regain its glory days, even though those days had lasted about as long as a Swatch. It never occurred to Marv that one day they’d come take everything he had-the fence, the money and merch he kept in the safe in back, hell, the bar probably-just because they were sick of him hanging around, looking at them with needy expectation. It had gotten so every time he talked about the “people he knew,” the dreams he had, Bob had to resist the urge to reach for the 9mm they kept beneath the bar and blow his own brains out. Not really-but close sometimes. Man, Marv could wear you out.
A guy stuck his head in the bar, late twenties but with white hair, a white goatee, a silver stud in his ear. He dressed like most kids these days-like shit: pre-ripped jeans, slovenly T-shirt under a faded hoodie under a wrinkled wool topcoat. He didn’t cross the threshold, just craned his head in, the cold day pouring in off the sidewalk behind him.
“Help you?” Bob asked.
The guy shook his head, kept staring at the gloomy bar like it was a crystal ball.
“Mind shutting the door?” Marv didn’t look up. “Cold out there.”
“You serve Zima?” The guy’s eyes flew around the bar, up and down, left to right.
Marv looked up now. “Who the fuck would we serve it to-Moesha?”
The guy raised an apologetic hand. “My bad.” He left, and the warmth returned with the closing of the door.
Marv said, “You know that kid?”
Bob shook his head. “Mighta seen him around but I can’t place him.”
“He’s a fucking nutbag. Lives in the next parish, probably why you don’t know him. You’re old school that way, Bob-somebody didn’t go to parochial school with you, it’s like they don’t exist.”
Bob couldn’t argue. When he’d been a kid, your parish was your country. Everything you needed and needed to know was contained within it. Now that the archdiocese had shuttered half the parishes to pay for the crimes of the kid-diddler priests, Bob couldn’t escape the fact that those days of parish dominion, long dwindling, were gone. He was a certain type of guy, of a certain half-generation, an almost generation, and while there were still plenty of them left, they were older, grayer, they had smokers’ coughs, they went in for checkups and never checked back out.
“That kid?” Marv gave Bob a bump of his eyebrows. “They say he killed Richie Whelan back in the day.”
They sat in silence for a bit. Snow-dust blew past the window in the high-pitched breeze. The street signs and window panes rattled, and Bob thought how winter lost any meaning the day you last rode a sled. Any meaning but gray. He looked into the unlit sections of the barroom. The shadows became hospital beds, stooped old widowers shopping for sympathy cards, empty wheelchairs. The wind howled a little sharper.
“This puppy, right?” Bob said. “He’s got paws the size of his head. Three are brown but one’s white with these little peach-colored spots over the white. And-”
“This thing cook?” Marv said. “Clean the house? I mean, it’s a fucking dog.”
“Yeah, but it was-” Bob dropped his hands. He didn’t know how to explain. “You know that feeling you get sometimes on a really great day? Like, like, the Pats dominate and you took the ‘over,’ or they cook your steak just right up the Blarney, or, or you just feel good? Like…” Bob found himself waving his hands again “…good?”
Marv gave him a nod and a tight smile. Went back to his racing sheet.
On Sunday morning, Nadia brought the puppy to his car as he idled in front of her house. She handed it through the window and gave them both a little wave.
He looked at the puppy sitting on his seat and fear washed over him. What does it eat? When does it eat? Housebreaking. How do you do that? How long does it take? He’d had days to consider these questions-why were they only occurring to him now?
He hit the brakes and reversed the car a few feet. Nadia, one foot on her bottom step, turned back. He rolled down the passenger window, craned his body across the seat until he was peering up at her.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I don’t know anything.”
At a supermarket for pets, Nadia picked out several chew toys, told Bob he’d need them if he wanted to keep his couch. Shoes, she told him, keep your shoes hidden from now on, up on a high shelf. They bought vitamins-for a dog!-and a bag of puppy food she recommended, telling him the most important thing was to stick with that brand from now on. Change a dog’s diet, she warned, you’ll get piles of diarrhea on your floor.
They got a crate to put him in when Bob was at work. They got a water bottle for the crate and a book on dog training written by monks who were on the cover looking hardy and not real monkish, big smiles. As the cashier rang it all up, Bob felt a quake rumble through his body, a momentary disruption as he reached for his wallet. His throat flushed with heat. His head felt fizzy. And only as the quake went away and his throat cooled and his head cleared and he handed over his credit card to the cashier did he realize, in the sudden disappearance of the feeling, what the feeling had been: for a moment-maybe even a succession of moments, and none sharp enough to point to as the cause-he’d been happy.
“So, thank you,” she said when he pulled up in front of her house.
“What? No. Thank you. Please. Really. It…Thank you.”
She said, “This little guy, he’s a good guy. He’s going to make you proud, Bob.”
He looked down at the puppy, sleeping on her lap now, snoring slightly. “Do they do that? Sleep all the time?”
“Pretty much. Then they run around like loonies for about twenty minutes. Then they sleep some more. And poop. Bob, man, you got to remember that-they poop and pee like crazy. Don’t get mad. They don’t know any better. Read the monk book. It takes time, but they figure out soon enough not to do it in the house.”
“What’s soon enough?”
“Two months?” She cocked her head. “Maybe three. Be patient, Bob.”
“Be patient,” he repeated.
“And you too,” she said to the puppy as she lifted it off her lap. He came awake, sniffing, snorting. He didn’t want her to go. “You both take care.” She let herself out and gave Bob a wave as she walked up her steps, then went inside.
The puppy was on its haunches, staring up at the window like Nadia might reappear there. It looked back over his shoulder at Bob. Bob could feel its abandonment. He could feel his own. He was certain they’d make a mess of it, him and this throwaway dog. He was sure the world was too strong.
“What’s your name?” he asked the puppy. “What are we going to call you?”
The puppy turned his head away, like, Bring the girl back.
First thing it did was take a shit in the dining room.
Bob didn’t even realize what it was doing at first. It started sniffing, nose scraping the rug, and then it looked up at Bob with an air of embarrassment. And Bob said, “What?” and the dog dumped all over the corner of the rug.
Bob scrambled forward, as if he could stop it, push it back in, and the puppy bolted, left droplets on the hardwood as it scurried into the kitchen.
Bob said, “No, no. It’s okay.” Although it wasn’t. Most everything in the house had been his mother’s, largely unchanged since she’d purchased it in the ’50s. That was shit. Excrement. In his mother’s house. On her rug, her floor.
In the seconds it took him to reach the kitchen, the puppy’d left a piss puddle on the linoleum. Bob almost slipped in it. The puppy was sitting against the fridge, looking at him, tensing for a blow, trying not to shake.
And it stopped Bob. It stopped him even as he knew the longer he left the shit on the rug, the harder it would be to get out.
Bob got down on all fours. He felt the sudden return of what he’d felt when he first picked it out of the trash, something he’d assumed had left with Nadia. Connection. He suspected they might have been brought together by something other than chance.
He said, “Hey.” Barely above a whisper. “Hey, it’s all right.” So, so slowly, he extended his hand, and the puppy pressed itself harder against the fridge. But Bob kept the hand coming, and gently lay his palm on the side of the animal’s face. He made soothing sounds. He smiled at it. “It’s okay,” he repeated, over and over.
He named it Cassius because he’d mistaken it for a boxer and he liked the sound of the word. It made him think of Roman legions, proud jaws, honor.
Nadia called him Cash. She came around after work sometimes and she and Bob took it on walks. He knew something was a little off about Nadia-the dog being found so close to her house and her lack of surprise or interest in that fact was not lost on Bob-but was there anyone, anywhere on this planet, who wasn’t a little off? More than a little most times. Nadia came by to help with the dog and Bob, who hadn’t known much friendship in his life, took what he could get.
They taught Cassius to sit and lie down and paw and roll over. Bob read the entire monk book and followed its instructions. The puppy had his rabies shot and was cleared of any cartilage damage to his ear. Just a bruise, the vet said, just a deep bruise. He grew fast.
Weeks passed without Cassius having an accident, but Bob still couldn’t be sure whether that was luck or not, and then on Super Bowl Sunday, Cassius used one paw on the back door. Bob let him out and then tore through the house to call Nadia. He was so proud he felt like yodeling, and he almost mistook the doorbell for something else. A kettle, he thought, still reaching for the phone.
The guy on the doorstep was thin. Not weak-thin. Hard-thin. As if whatever burned inside of him burned too hot for fat to survive. He had blue eyes so pale they were almost gray. His silver hair was cropped tight to his skull, as was the goatee that clung to his lips and chin. It took Bob a second to recognize him-the kid who’d stuck his head in the bar five-six weeks back, asked if they served Zima.
The kid smiled and extended his hand. “Mr. Saginowski?”
Bob shook the hand. “Yes?”
“Bob Saginowski?” The man shook Bob’s large hand with his small one, and there was a lot of power in the grip.
“Eric Deeds, Bob.” The kid let go of his hand. “I believe you have my dog.”
In the kitchen, Eric Deeds said, “Hey, there he is.” He said, “That’s my guy.” He said, “He got big.” He said, “The size of him.”
Cassius slinked over to him, even climbed up on his lap when Eric, unbidden, took a seat at Bob’s kitchen table and patted his inner thigh twice. Bob couldn’t even say how it was Eric Deeds talked his way into the house; he was just one of those people had a way about him, like cops and Teamsters-he wanted in, he was coming in.
“Bob,” Eric Deeds said, “I’m going to need him back.” He had Cassius in his lap and was rubbing his belly. Bob felt a prick of envy as Cassius kicked his left leg, even though a constant shiver-almost a palsy-ran through his fur. Eric Deeds scratched under Cassius’s chin. The dog kept his ears and tail pressed flat to his body. He looked ashamed, his eyes staring down into their sockets.
“Um…” Bob reached out and lifted Cassius off Eric’s lap, plopped him down on his own, scratched behind his ears. “Cash is mine.”
The act was between them now-Bob lifting the puppy off Eric’s lap without any warning, Eric looking at him for just a second, like, The fuck was that all about? His forehead narrowed and it gave his eyes a surprised cast, as if they’d never expected to find themselves on his face. In that moment, he looked cruel, the kind of guy, if he was feeling sorry for himself, took a shit on the whole world.
“Cash?” he said.
Bob nodded as Cassius’s ears unfurled from his head and he licked Bob’s wrist. “Short for Cassius. That’s his name. What did you call him?”
“Called him Dog mostly. Sometimes Hound.”
Eric Deeds glanced around the kitchen, up at the old circular fluorescent in the ceiling, something going back to Bob’s mother, hell, Bob’s father just before the first stroke, around the time the old man had become obsessed with paneling-paneled the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, would’ve paneled the toilet if he could’ve figured out how.
Bob said, “You beat him.”
Eric reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a cigarette and popped it in his mouth. He lit it, shook out the match, tossed it on Bob’s kitchen table.
“You can’t smoke in here.”
Eric considered Bob with a level gaze and kept smoking. “I beat him?”
“Uh, so what?” Eric flicked some ash on the floor. “I’m taking the dog, Bob.”
Bob stood to his full height. He held tight to Cassius, who squirmed a bit in his arms and nipped at the flat of his hand. If it came to it, Bob decided, he’d drop all six feet three inches and two hundred ninety pounds of himself on Eric Deeds, who couldn’t weigh more than a buck-seventy. Not now, not just standing there, but if Eric reached for Cassius, well then…
Eric Deeds blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling. “I saw you that night. I was feeling bad, you know, about my temper? So I went back to see if the hound was really dead or not and I watched you pluck him out of the trash.”
“I really think you should go.” Bob pulled his cell from his pocket and flipped it open. “I’m calling 911.”
Eric nodded. “I’ve been in prison, Bob, mental hospitals. I’ve been a lotta places. I’ll go again, don’t mean a thing to me, though I doubt they’d prosecute even me for fucking up a dog. I mean, sooner or later, you gotta go to work or get some sleep.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Eric held out of his hands. “Pretty much everything. And you took my dog.”
“You tried to kill it.”
Eric said, “Nah.” Shook his head like he believed it.
“You can’t have the dog.”
“I need the dog.”
“I love that dog.”
Eric nodded. “I need ten grand. By tonight. That’s the price.”
Bob gave it a nervous chuckle. “Who has ten thousand dollars?”
“You could find it.”
“How could I poss-”
“Say, that safe in Cousin Marv’s office. You’re a drop bar, Bob. You don’t think half the neighborhood knows? So that might be a place to start.”
Bob shook his head. “Can’t be done. Any money we get during the day? Goes through a slot at the bar. Ends up in the office safe, yeah, but that’s on a time-”
“-lock, I know.” Eric turned on the couch, one arm stretched along the back of it. “Goes off at 2 a.m. in case they decide they need a last-minute payout for something who the fuck knows, but big. And you have ninety seconds to open and close it or it triggers two silent alarms, neither of which goes off in a police station or a security company. Fancy that.” Eric took a hit off his cigarette. “I’m not greedy, Bob. I just need stake money for something. I don’t want everything in the safe, just ten grand. You give me ten grand, I’ll disappear.”
“This is ludicrous.”
“So, it’s ludicrous.”
“You don’t just walk into someone’s life and-”
“That is life: someone like me coming along when you’re not looking.”
Bob put Cassius on the floor but made sure he didn’t wander over to the other side of the table. He needn’t have worried-Cassius didn’t move an inch, sat there like a cement post, eyes on Bob.
Eric Deeds said, “You’re racing through all your options, but they’re options for normal people in normal circumstances. I need my ten grand tonight. If you don’t get it for me, I’ll take your dog. I licensed him. You didn’t, because you couldn’t. Then I’ll forget to feed him for a while. One day, when he gets all yappy about it, I’ll beat his head in with a rock or something. Look in my eyes and tell me which part I’m lying about, Bob.”
After he left, Bob went to his basement. He avoided it whenever he could, though the floor was white, as white as he’d been able to make it, whiter than it had ever been through most of its existence. He unlocked a cupboard over the old wash sink his father had often used after one of his adventures in paneling, and removed a yellow and brown Chock full o’Nuts can from the shelf. He pulled fifteen thousand from it. He put ten in his pocket and five back in the can. He looked around again at the white floor, at the black oil tank against the wall, at the bare bulbs.
Upstairs he gave Cassius a bunch of treats. He rubbed his ears and his belly. He assured the animal that he was worth ten thousand dollars.
Bob, three deep at the bar for a solid hour between 11 and midnight, looked through a sudden gap in the crowd and saw Eric sitting at the wobbly table under the Narragansett mirror. The Super Bowl was an hour over, but the crowd, drunk as shit, hung around. Eric had one arm stretched across the table and Bob followed it, saw that it connected to something. An arm. Nadia’s arm. Nadia’s face stared back at Eric, unreadable. Was she terrified? Or something else?
Bob, filling a glass with ice, felt like he was shoveling the cubes into his own chest, pouring them into his stomach and against the base of his spine. What did he know about Nadia, after all? He knew that he’d found a near-dead dog in the trash outside her house. He knew that Eric Deeds only came into his life after Bob had met her. He knew that her middle name, thus far, could be Lies of Omission.
When he was twenty-eight, Bob had come into his mother’s bedroom to wake her for Sunday Mass. He’d given her a shake and she hadn’t batted at his hand as she normally did. So he rolled her toward him and her face was scrunched tight, her eyes too, and her skin was curbstone-gray. Sometime in the night, after Matlock and the 10 o’clock news, she’d gone to bed and woke to God’s fist clenched around her heart. Probably hadn’t been enough air left in her lungs to cry out. Alone in the dark, clutching the sheets, that fist clenching, her face clenching, her eyes scrunching, the terrible knowledge dawning that, even for you, it all ends. And right now.
Standing over her that morning, imagining the last tick of her heart, the last lonely wish her brain had been able to form, Bob felt a loss unlike any he’d ever known or expected to know again.
Until tonight. Until now. Until he learned what that look on Nadia’s face meant.
By 1:50, the crowd was gone, just Eric and Nadia and an old, stringent, functioning alcoholic named Millie who’d amble off to the assisted living place up on Pearl Street at 1:55 on the dot.
Eric, who had been coming to the bar for shots of Powers for the last hour, pushed back from the table and pulled Nadia across the floor with him. He sat her on a stool and Bob got a good look in her face finally, saw something he still couldn’t fully identify-but it definitely wasn’t excitement or smugness or the bitter smile of a victor. Maybe something worse than all of that-despair.
Eric gave him an all-teeth smile and spoke through it, softly. “When’s the old biddie pack it in?”
“A couple minutes.”
“I didn’t call him in.”
“Someone’s gonna take the blame for this, I figured it might as well be me.”
“How noble of-”
“How do you know her?”
Eric looked over at Nadia hunched on the stool beside him. He leaned into the bar. “We grew up on the same block.”
“He give you that scar?”
Nadia stared at him.
“She gave herself the scar,” Eric Deeds said.
“You did?” Bob asked her.
Nadia looked at the bar top. “I was pretty high.”
“Bob,” Eric said, “if you fuck with me-even in the slightest-it doesn’t matter how long it takes me, I’ll come back for her. And if you got any plans, like Eric-doesn’t-walk-back-out-of-here plans? Not that you’re that type of guy, but Marv might be? You got any ideas in that vein, Bob, my partner on the Richie Whalen hit, he’ll take care of you both.”
Eric sat back as mean old Millie left the same tip she’d been leaving since Sputnik-a quarter-and slid off her stool. She gave Bob a rasp that was ten percent vocal chords and ninety percent Virginia Slims Ultra Light 100s. “Yeah, I’m off.”
“You take care, Millie.”
She waved it away with a, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and pushed open the door.
Bob locked it behind her and came back behind the bar. He wiped down the bar top. When he reached Eric’s elbows, he said, “Excuse me.”
Bob wiped the rag in a half-circle around Eric’s elbows.
“Who’s your partner?” Bob said.
“Wouldn’t be much of a threat if you knew who he was, would he, Bob?”
“But he helped you kill Richie Whalen?”
Eric said, “That’s the rumor, Bob.”
“More than a rumor.” Bob wiped in front of Nadia, saw red marks on her wrists where Eric had yanked them. He wondered if there were other marks he couldn’t see.
“Well then it’s more than a rumor, Bob. So there you go.”
“There you go what?”
“There you go,” Eric scowled. “What time is it, Bob?”
Bob placed ten thousand dollars on the bar. “You don’t have to call me by my name all the time.”
“I will see what I can do about that, Bob.” Eric thumbed the bills. “What’s this?”
“It’s the ten grand you wanted for Cash.”
Eric pursed his lips. “All the same, let’s look in the safe.”
“You sure?” Bob said. “I’m happy to buy him from you for ten grand.”
“How much for Nadia, though?”
Bob thought about that new wrinkle for a bit and poured himself a closing-time shot of vodka. He raised it to Eric Deeds and then drank it down. “You know, Marv used to have a problem with blow about ten years ago?”
“I did not know that, Bob.”
Bob shrugged, poured them all a shot of vodka. “Yeah, Marv liked the coke too much but it didn’t like him back.”
Eric drank Nadia’s shot. “Getting close to 2 here, Bob.”
“He was more of a loan shark then. I mean, he did some fence, but mostly he was a shark. There was this kid? Into Marv for a shitload of money. Real hopeless case when it came to the dogs and basketball. Kinda kid could never pay back all he owed.”
Eric drank his own shot. “One fifty-seven, Bob.”
“The thing, though? This kid, he actually hit on a slot at Mohegan. Hit for twenty-two grand. Which is just a little more than he owed Marv.”
“And he didn’t pay Marv back, so you and Marv got all hard on him and I’m supposed to learn-”
“No, no. He paid Marv. Paid him every cent. What the kid didn’t know, though, was that Marv had been skimming. Because of the coke habit? And this kid’s money was like manna from heaven as long as no one knew it was from this kid. See what I’m saying?”
“Bob, it’s fucking one minute to 2.” Sweat on Eric’s lip.
“Do you see what I’m saying?” Bob asked. “Do you understand the story?”
Eric looked to the door to make sure it was locked. “Fine, yeah. This kid, he had to be ripped off.”
“He had to be killed.”
Out of the side of his eye, a quick glance. “Okay, killed.”
Bob could feel Nadia’s eyes lock on him suddenly, her head cock a bit. “That way, he couldn’t ever say he paid off Marv and no one else could either. Marv uses the money to cover all the holes, he cleans up his act, it’s like it never happened. So that’s what we did.”
“You did…” Eric barely in the conversation, but some warning in his head starting to sound, his head turning from the clock toward Bob.
“Killed him in my basement,” Bob said. “Know what his name was?”
“I wouldn’t know, Bob.”
“Sure you would. Richie Whelan.”
Bob reached under the bar and pulled out the 9mm. He didn’t notice the safety was on, so when he pulled the trigger nothing happened. Eric jerked his head and pushed back from the bar rail, but Bob thumbed off the safety and shot Eric just below the throat. The gunshot sounded like aluminum siding being torn off a house. Nadia screamed. Not a long scream, but sharp with shock. Eric made a racket falling back off his stool, and by the time Bob came around the bar, Eric was already going, if not quite gone. The overhead fan cast thin slices of shadow over his face. His cheeks puffed in and out like he was trying to catch his breath and kiss somebody at the same time.
“I’m sorry, but you kids,” Bob said. “You know? You go out of the house dressed like you’re still in your living room. You say terrible things about women. You hurt harmless dogs. I’m tired of you, man.”
Eric stared up at him. Winced like he had heartburn. He looked pissed off. Frustrated. The expression froze on his face like it was sewn there, and then he wasn’t in his body anymore. Just gone. Just, shit, dead.
Bob dragged him into the cooler.
When he came back, pushing the mop and bucket ahead of him, Nadia still sat on her stool. Her mouth was a bit wider than usual and she couldn’t take her eyes off the floor where the blood was, but otherwise she seemed perfectly normal.
“He would have just kept coming,” Bob said. “Once someone takes something from you and you let them? They don’t feel gratitude, they just feel like you owe them more.” He soaked the mop in the bucket, wrung it out a bit, and slopped it over the main blood spot. “Makes no sense, right? But that’s how they feel. Entitled. And you can never change their minds after that.”
She said, “He…You just fucking shot him. You just…I mean, you know?”
Bob swirled the mop over the spot. “He beat my dog.”
The Chechens took care of the body after a discussion with the Italians and the Micks. Bob was told his money was no good at several restaurants for the next couple of months, and they gave him four tickets to a Celtics game. Not floor seats, but pretty good ones.
Bob never mentioned Nadia. Just said Eric showed up at the end of the evening, waved a gun around, said to take him to the office safe. Bob let him do his ranting, do his waving, found an opportunity, and shot him. And that was it. End of Eric, end of story.
Nadia came to him a few days later. Bob opened the door and she stood there on his stoop with a bright winter day turning everything sharp and clear behind her. She held up a bag of dog treats.
“Peanut butter,” she said, her smile bright, her eyes just a little wet. “With a hint of molasses.”
Bob opened the door wide and stepped back to let her in.
“I’ve gotta believe,” Nadia said, “there’s a purpose. And even if it’s that you kill me as soon as I close my eyes-”
“Me? What? No,” Bob said. “Oh, no.”
“-then that’s okay. Because I just can’t go through any more of this alone. Not another day.”
“Me too.” He closed his eyes. “Me too.”
They didn’t speak for a long time. He opened his eyes, peered at the ceiling of his bedroom. “Why?”
“This. You. Why are you with me?”
She ran a hand over his chest and it gave him a shiver. In his whole life, he never would have expected to feel a touch like that on his bare skin.
“Because I like you. Because you’re nice to Cassius.”
“And because you’re scared of me?”
“I dunno. Maybe. But more the other reason.”
He couldn’t tell if she was lying. Who could tell when anyone was? Really. Every day, you ran into people and half of them, if not more, could be lying to you. Why?
You couldn’t tell who was true and who was not. If you could, lie detectors would never have been invented. Someone stared in your face and said, I’m telling the truth. They said, I promise. They said, I love you.
And you were going to say what to that? Prove it?
“He needs a walk.”
“Cassius. He hasn’t been out all day.”
“I’ll get the leash.”
In the park, the February sky hung above them like a canvas tarp. The weather had been almost mild for a few days. The ice had broken on the river but small chunks of it clung to the dark banks.
He didn’t know what he believed. Cassius walked ahead of them, pulling on the leash a bit, so proud, so pleased, unrecognizable from the quivering hunk of fur Bob had pulled from a barrel just two and a half months ago.
Two and a half months! Wow. Things sure could change in a hurry. You rolled over one morning, and it was a whole new world. It turned itself toward the sun, stretched and yawned. It turned itself toward the night. A few more hours, turned itself toward the sun again. A new world, every day.
When they reached the center of the park, he unhooked the leash from Cassius’s collar and reached into his coat for a tennis ball. Cassius reared his head. He snorted loud. He pawed the earth. Bob threw the ball and the dog took off after it. Bob envisioned the ball taking a bad bounce into the road. The screech of tires, the thump of metal against dog. Or what would happen if Cassius, suddenly free, just kept running.
But what could you do?
You couldn’t control things.