Martin wakes up on a stiflingly hot day feeling so depressed he can't bring himself to pick up his children - and something has to give; by Jeff Weddle.
Martin knew Jenny was calling to find out where he was. Today was Saturday and he was supposed to have picked up the kids at nine sharp. Jenny was calling to find out why he wasn't there. Martin didn't pick up the phone because he didn't know how to answer the question.
He had awakened at six, the clock radio blasting Steppenwolf on the oldies station. Magic Carpet Ride. He shut off the radio and lay still. It was so hot. He sprawled on his damp sheets for an hour, staring at the ceiling. It was early and he knew he still had time to get up and shower and dress and pick up the kids. No problem. Then he laid there another hour, staring at the wall. And then another. At ten till nine he looked at the clock and he knew for certain he wasn't going to make it.
At nine fifteen the phone rang for the first time. He knew it was Jenny and he had no idea what he would say to her, so he didn't answer it. Maybe she would figure something came up and realize he wouldn't be able to come today and leave it at that. That's what Martin hoped. The phone rang again twenty minutes later and it kept ringing every fifteen minutes or so right up till now, with Martin lying on the bed, sweating, trying to shut out the rings with his pillow.
When the room was quiet again Martin sat up. He looked around the room and saw the things he saw every day, the same oyster shell walls, the same red curtains, the same dresser and the same closet doors. The same shadows moving slowly around the room.
He slung his legs across the bed and touched his feet to the floor. He walked into the kitchen and got a drink of water in a dirty coffee cup, then walked back into the bedroom and pulled open the red curtains. Sunlight hit his eyes and Martin blinked hard, then looked out at the day. The world was a blue sky with faint white clouds hanging in it. Below was a street filled with cars and sidewalks thick with people. He stood there for a minute then dropped his hand and let the curtains close. He walked into the bathroom, emptied his bladder, and stepped into the shower. He let the water run over him for almost ten minutes before he washed himself.
After the shower Martin considered going back to bed. Instead he dressed himself and left his apartment. It was mid-summer and for two weeks the temperature hadn't been under ninety, day or night. Martin was already sweating by the time he made it to the corner. He looked at the time and temperature display at the bank across the street. Ninety six degrees at eleven fifty-eight a.m.
"Jesus," Martin muttered. "Hot."
He crossed the street and kept going in a straight line, block after block. He was amazed at the number of cars on the street. So much traffic. He had no destination in mind, but when he had walked six and a half blocks, he found himself in front of a pet store. Martin used his hand to shield the sun's glare on the window and look inside. He looked like he was saluting the puppies that lay on a blanket, caged just inside the window.
A small black ball of fur looked back. Martin tapped the glass and pursed his lips at the pup. Then he opened the front door and walked in. It was at least ten degrees cooler inside, maybe more. Martin took a deep breath and shivered. A fat, bald man in a bright green apron stood behind a counter, just inside the door. The fat man wiped sweat from his forehead. He was watching Martin.
"Hi there," said the fat man. "Sure is hot."
"Feels pretty good in here, though."
The fat man shrugged. "It's a matter of degrees," he said. "Get it?" The fat man laughed at his own joke. He stood there laughing so hard his belly shook. Martin tried to smile but it came off more like a grimace. They stood there for a moment not speaking.
"How much are your puppies?" Martin finally asked.
"Those over there?" The fat man wiped tears from his eyes. "Those dogs are three-quarters shepherd. They're twenty dollars each. Quite a bargain."
Martin stood there for another moment, he and the fat man looking at each other. Martin shifted his weight from his left foot to his right.
"I want one," he said.
"Great. A present for the kids?"
"Sort of." He walked over to where the puppies were caged and pointed to the little black puppy laying off to the side. "I want that one," he said.
The fat man opened the cage and pulled out the pup and put it in a cardboard pet carrier. Martin dug into his wallet to pay for the dog. With tax it came to twenty-one dollars and sixty cents.
"Hope your kids will be happy with that one."
"Thanks. How'd you know I have kids?"
"Who doesn't have kids?"
Martin picked up the pet carrier and walked outside. He didn't want to go home just yet. There was a theater a couple of blocks further down the street and he headed that way. He was pretty sure there'd be a one o'clock showing, probably for a couple of bucks. He had no idea what was playing, but he knew the theater was air conditioned. Martin didn't care what was on if he could sit in the cool dark for a couple of hours.
His shirt was drenched in sweat as fumbled for his wallet at the ticket window and tried to buy admission.
"What's in the box?" asked the old lady in the window.
"Nothing. A dog. I just bought a dog."
"No dogs allowed."
Martin didn't argue. He wanted to go in, but he knew there was no way the old bat would let him take the puppy inside. Still, it was so miserable, the weather, he was reluctant to go back to the apartment. Surely there was something he could do, someplace he could go and escape the heat. There was an ice cream shop a little farther on. That sounded good. Maybe a banana split. Maybe a milkshake. The place was bound to be air conditioned, otherwise, how would they keep the ice cream from melting?
Martin headed for the ice cream shop. The place was busy, packed with people trying to escape the heat. It was cool, almost cold inside. Martin waited in line for five minutes before the girl behind the counter got to him. The girl was dark and pretty and Martin enjoyed standing there in the cool store watching her work.
He wanted a strawberry milkshake. The girl made his shake, took his money and was on to the next customer. Martin took his milkshake to a table in the corner and sat and drank it. For the first time in maybe twenty minutes he thought of the dog, actually considered it sitting there in the box. Martin opened the box and looked at the puppy. It was lying on its side, staring at the wall of the box. Martin reached in and rubbed its belly and the dog wagged its tail. It didn't move around much, but otherwise seemed okay. Martin closed the box.
He finished his milkshake and thought of ordering something else, just to have an excuse to stay in the shop, but he didn't. Instead he sighed and picked up the pet carrier and walked out the door. He took one last look at the girl behind the counter. She reminded him of Jenny. But then all women reminded him of Jenny these days. Of course this girl was young. Maybe that's what Donna would look like in a few years. He winced and walked out the door.
Martin trudged back the way he had come, all the way back to his building. He went inside and down the hall to his apartment. There was a note, folded in two and tacked on the door. He set the pet carrier on the floor and took the note down, unfolded it and read.
"Bastard," it said. "Where the hell are you? How could you forget your children?"
Martin folded the note and stuck it in his pocket. He unlocked the door and picked up the pet carrier and went inside. After he'd locked himself in, Martin went into the living room and opened the pet carrier and picked up the puppy. It whined and tried to squirm out of his hands. But not too much. It didn't squirm as much as Martin thought it might. Must be the heat, he figured.
"Good boy," Martin said. "Are you a good boy?" He felt stupid for buying the dog. He didn't even know why he did it. Martin hadn't had a pet since he was nine and his cat, Spunky, died when Martin's father backed over him in the driveway. Spunky liked to lie in the driveway and soak up the sun. Usually Martin's folks were careful about it, but one day his father forgot to look and Spunky was finished.
After that, Martin didn't want another pet. His parents offered to get him another cat or maybe a dog, but he didn't want either. The family never had another animal.
Jenny, however, had wanted a cat. She always wanted a cat, but Martin was against it. Sometimes he thought that's why Jenny ended up pregnant the first time, so she could finally have a pet, even if it was a baby instead of a cat. Jenny did, in fact, mostly stop talking about a cat after Donna was born. And after Jeremy came along, Martin couldn't remember her ever mentioning animals again. He used to think that was strange. Martin kept expecting Jenny to bring up getting a pet for the kids, but that never happened.
Martin put the dog back into his box and went into the kitchen. He was thirsty but there was nothing in the refrigerator to drink. It was either lukewarm tap water or hot coffee. Martin decided on coffee. He brewed a pot, poured himself a cup and walked back into the living room. The air conditioner was broken, had been all summer, and it was so hot. But Martin drank coffee anyway. He drank his first cup, then he had another, and then one more. The puppy sat in his cardboard box and made a low whine.
After the third cup Martin picked up the phone and dialed Jenny's number. The receiver was slick in his hand. He listened to ten rings and hung up. He figured Jenny had taken the kids over to Greg's place when she realized he wasn't coming. Martin was pretty sure Jenny had planned to spend the day at Greg's place, and now she would probably be there with the kids.
He sat there for another minute, then went into the kitchen and poured another cup of coffee. It actually felt good to be drinking hot coffee on a hot day. It felt good in his throat. It also cleared away the last dredges of strawberry milkshake. It was uncomfortable having the sick, sweet, thick taste of strawberry and sugar lingering in his mouth and throat. It was too hot for it.
Martin rinsed his cup in the sink and walked into the living room. The puppy was lying on its side, eyes closed. Its breathing was rapid and shallow. Martin reached into the box and stroked the dog. It didn't do anything but lie there and breathe.
"This heat isn't good for you, is it?" Martin said. It occurred to him that maybe the puppy was dying. Maybe it was just too hot for the little dog to make it. Hell, it was almost too hot for a man to make it, let alone a little dog. Jenny, he knew, had air conditioning, and so did Greg. It had been a while since Martin had seen Greg. Maybe things would be smoother now. Anyway, Martin wanted to see Jenny, and he still wanted to get his kids. So he was a few hours late. So what? Maybe the kids would even like having a dog.
He closed up the pet carrier, made sure the top was fastened tight, picked it up and left his apartment. His car was parked out back and he got inside and turned his key in the ignition. It started up and he backed onto the street.
Greg lived halfway across town. Martin knew where he lived because, back in the old days, he and Greg had been friends. They met at work and struck up a conversation. Sometimes they ate together in the cafeteria and once in a while had a couple of beers at Lynagh's Tavern after work. They weren't good friends, but they were friends, and once or twice Martin and Jenny visited Greg and his girlfriend, Debby, at Greg's house. They'd gone over a couple of times and grilled burgers in the back yard. Martin lost track of Greg after the company downsized and laid off Greg. He heard that Greg got a job with the post office after that, but he didn't hear much else.
But there sure was more. Somewhere along the way something began between Greg and Jenny and now Jenny and Martin were divorced and Jenny was probably over at Greg's right now with Martin's children. Martin wondered sometimes what became of Debby.
Martin drove across town to Greg's place. Greg lived across the street from a 7-11 and Martin parked in their lot. Jenny's car was on the street, right in front of Greg's house. Martin grabbed the cardboard pet carrier and got out of his car. The puppy wasn't whining or moving around. He put the box on the hood and ran his hand around the inside waist of his pants, making sure his shirt was tucked in. He smoothed back his hair, picked up the box and walked across the street. His whole body was wet with sweat.
Greg had a nice place, a ranch style house with a big picture window in the front room. Martin remembered once he and Greg had stood looking through that window, watching Jenny and Debby sunning themselves in the yard. Martin had kept his eyes on Debby. He tried not to be obvious, to not let Greg know he was looking at his girl. He figured, now, that Greg was probably watching Jenny.
No big deal. The world didn't stop spinning. It was little things like that that bothered Martin, though. Like when Greg had the house done up in vinyl siding a couple of years ago. Martin remembered when he got the siding put on. Greg kept talking about it like it was something. Vinyl this, vinyl that. It was just vinyl, for God's sake.
The yard was surrounded by a chain link fence, probably, Martin figured, to keep neighbor kids away from the vinyl. Martin opened the gate and walked inside. There was a cement walk from the sidewalk to the door, cutting straight through the newly mowed grass. Greg had a rock garden going on either side of the walk. Martin walked to the door and knocked. On either side of the door Greg had placed a larger rock, each one weighing maybe ten, maybe fifteen pounds.
He heard footsteps and then the door opened. A gust of cold air hit Martin and it felt good on his face and arms. There stood Jenny in cut-off Levi's and a white t-shirt. She had her hair up off her neck. Martin always loved it when Jenny put her hair up. He loved the way her neck looked. Jenny stopped in the doorway with her mouth open, looking at him. Martin stood there, holding the box with the dog in it, and looked back at her. The dog made no noise. Martin thought, for an instant, of the girl in the ice cream store.
"What are you doing here?"
"I brought you something," he said, lifting the box a little higher in the hot air. "I brought you something."
Jenny didn't move. For the moment, there was no sign of Greg. From inside the house came the squeals of young children at play. Martin stood on the doorstep, savoring the cool air pouring out of Greg's house.
"It's too late," she said. "Don't you know it's too late? You were supposed to pick them up at nine o'clock."
Martin held the box in front of him but Jenny made no move to take it.
"Just go," she said.
"I came for the kids."
"Then I guess you're out of luck."
Jenny stepped back inside and slammed the door. Martin hesitated a second then beat the door with his free hand.
"Open up," he yelled. "I want my kids!"
There wasn't any answer. He felt foolish. He couldn't imagine why Greg didn't come out and tell him to shut up and leave. Martin stood there for a second, then turned and walked back toward his car. The dog was silent. Halfway down the walk Martin bent down and picked up a rock. He aimed at the picture window and threw it as hard as he could. He missed. The rock hit the vinyl siding and bounced off with a dull thud. Still no Greg, and no other sign of Jenny. He thought about throwing another rock but he decided against it. It was just too hot to do anything.
He turned toward the car. Before Martin could take two steps the front door opened and Greg came running out.
"Hey, did you throw a rock at my house?"
Martin turned around and stood there. He held the pet carrier at his side and he stood there looking at Greg.
"I asked you a question. Did you throw a rock at my house?"
Jenny stood behind Greg, and Martin saw Donna and Jeremy huddled together around Jenny's legs. The four of them stood there staring at him like the perfect angry family.
"I just want my kids. I just want to give my kids a dog." Martin's voice broke and he felt more ashamed than he had ever felt in his life. "I just wanted to give the kids this dog." He held the pet carrier in front of his chest so Donna and Jeremy could get a good look. "I just want my kids."
"You'd better get the hell away from my house, Martin. If you know what's good for you, you'd better leave."
Martin felt something stiffen inside. Weren't those his children? Wasn't Jenny his wife, before Greg showed up? Martin took a step toward the house. Then he took another. Greg and Jenny and the kids stood there watching him approach.
"Martin, I said get the hell out of here." Greg's face was red. He pointed his arm at Martin as he spoke. Martin kept walking toward the house. He was going to give this dog to his children and nothing would stop him. He was going to do this and then take the kids away.
Greg took a step forward and then another and then he and Martin were inches apart, face to face. They both stopped. Greg slapped his hand down and knocked the pet carrier out of Martin's grip. That was it, all Martin could handle. Martin cocked his right and ripped a hook at Greg's jaw. Greg saw the punch coming and leaned out of the way. He grabbed Martin around the waist and threw him onto the well-kept grass. Greg was on top of Martin, his knees pinning Martin's shoulders to the ground.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said. "Not in front of the kids."
"God damn you," Martin said. He wasn't struggling, wasn't making any effort to get Greg off of him or to stand up. Greg held him down for a few more seconds, then, in one motion, he stood and walked back to the door, where Jenny and the children still stood. Greg stood there with his arm around Jenny, looking straight ahead.
Martin stood up. He was shaking and he felt like he might cry. Jeremy and Donna stood beside their mother, ten feet away. Both of the children were sobbing.
"Daddy," Jeremy wailed. "Daddy daddy daddy." The boy broke away from his mother and ran to Martin, both his arms stretched before him. He wrapped his arms tight around Martin's leg, still sobbing. The little girl ran to him and grabbed the other leg, crying loudly.
"My babies," he said, bending down and hugging them together. Martin sat down on the grass, still hugging his children. The three of them sat there, Martin now crying with Donna and Jeremy.
"I brought you a present," he said, reaching for the pet carrier. The children cried more softly now but still held tight to his legs.
"What'd you get us?" Jeremy asked through a sniffle.
"I got you a dog, son." He opened up the box and there laid the puppy on its side, not moving, not breathing.
"Doggie," said Donna. "Mommy we got a doggie!"
"Why's he lying there like that?" asked Jeremy. "Is he dead?"
"The doggie's dead," wailed Donna. "Mommy!"
"Maybe he's not dead, sweetheart," Martin said, but looking at the puppy he was sure it was. Martin looked up at Jenny. She was different. The anger had drained from her face.
"Go," she said. "Take the kids. Go see a movie or something."
"Thank you," he said. Martin stood, one crying child on either side of him. "Wanna go see a movie?" he said. Both children nodded.
"Okay, let's go."
Jenny walked over and took the pet carrier from Martin. For just that moment the four of them were together and Greg was cut off, watching from the porch.
"I'll take care of this," she said. "You go on."
"Come with us?" Martin asked her.
"No, Martin," Jenny said.
"Daddy, I think the dog's dead," piped Jeremy.
"What do you expect, son," said Greg. "Your father's a loser."
This time when Martin lunged at Greg he was fast enough. His haymaker caught Greg high on the left ear and staggered him. Martin hit Greg again before he could recover and Greg went down. Martin kept hitting Greg in the face until Jenny dove onto his back and dragged him to the floor. Martin backhanded Jenny and she crumpled.
Martin found one of the stones beside the door and picked it up. It weighed at least ten pounds. He brought it down hard on Greg's face. Greg made an awful noise but he didn't get up.
The kids stood there wailing. Martin grabbed each of them by the hand and ran to his car. He got them inside and locked the doors just as Jenny ran up and began beating the windshield. Martin realized she was hideous. He was terrified. How could he have ever loved this woman? He had to go somewhere, anywhere. He had to find someplace where he could get away from all of this. Just this second he had no idea where that place might me.
"Bastard!" Jenny wailed. The children kept up a steady shriek.
Martin started the car and pulled away, knocking Jenny to the ground. He didn't look back.