Dog Day Afternoon
Wrapped in the skin of contentment, under mounds of cottony cover, a long forgotten memory comes to me. It was the summer of my fourteenth year, 1969. Carol and I connected instantly, as if it was our destiny to play the part of best friends in a story written long before, a story of opposites attracting. She was the wild, beautiful tomboy and I the plain, girly bookworm.
School was out and the summer ours. We lived only houses apart and spent our days lying on an old quilt in her backyard, soaking up the brutal Texas sun, generously slathering baby oil mixed with iodine over our bodies, skin cancer a futuristic notion.
A new family had moved in next door to Carol. We had said hello to the lady of the house, but she hadn't replied. We thought she hadn't heard us. But the second time this happened our minds switched into private sleuth mode. It looked as if our first summer adventure might be in the making. For here was an alien creature, an unkempt woman dressed in what was most likely her husband's discarded work shirt with cut-off shorts. Her legs were pale, desperately in need of sun. Her hair was a mess, she wore no makeup and she didn't care for chatter. Our mothers wouldn't have been caught dead looking like that in public, and they spent hours cackling together like hens.
The woman's husband was a scrawny, stooped version of a man. He left early in the morning and came home late in the evening, so it took a few days for us to get the chance to say hello. He never took his eyes from the ground as he nodded at us. They had a son about our age, but he turned his fat eyes away every time he saw us. We were used to that; shy boys were a dime a dozen. It was the woman who had piqued our interest.
We watched her for weeks. She always looked the same, and never once joined the other women on the block who congregated in their yards to talk. I don't know what the other women talked about, but I'm pretty sure my mother talked about my father. That's all she ever talked about. She seemed to enjoy replaying the fights they had, relishing every bad thing he'd ever done to her. She was like the needle of a record player, stuck on the same bad line of a country song.
The new family had a dog; a scruffy white poodle. The first time we saw him the woman had just let him out, and he high-tailed his way over to us. But she snapped him back with her harsh command. He cowered, stuck his tail between his legs and slunk back to her, rushing in the house under her hateful gaze. That was the only time she came out of the house, to let the dog out or check the mail. She became to us an evil specter, a wicked witch keeping her family and pet trapped in a sad and lonely existence.
But after a few weeks we grew tired of our surveillance. It was summer, we were busy being fourteen, swimming, running, climbing, dancing with lightning bugs under the big Texas moon, inhaling freedom. We dismissed the family as boring, and the woman as just plain, white-bread mean--until they disappeared.
It took almost a week for us to realize they were gone. The house looked just as it always had, the paint faded and peeling, an old house embarrassed by it's looks, hiding behind its neglected grass. But now it had an air of abandonment about it. In the evenings we watched for the husband to come home from work in his truck. In the daytime we waited for the woman to let out the dog or check the mail or the boy to come out and get on his bike. But the mail piled up, the bike remained propped against the house, the truck was never in the driveway.
Their absence hadn't gone unnoticed in the neighborhood. There was speculation that they were on vacation, or had had a family emergency. Carol and I would have left it at that if it hadn't been for the unpleasant smell we began to notice every time we walked by their house. With each passing day the smell grew stronger and more pungent-a ruined smell. The house screamed for us to investigate.
So at dusk one evening, looking around stealthily to make sure we weren't being watched, we peeked in the front window. It was covered in grime, with sheer, dark curtains hanging in it, but in the gloaming we could see the shape of a couch, a TV, things scattered on the floor. Like young cat burglars we hunched our way around the house. The back door was unlocked, but that was nothing out of the ordinary, everybody left their doors unlocked. Quietly, carefully, Carol opened the door, which led into the kitchen as I peered over her shoulder.
What greeted us was beyond belief. The smell slammed into us with the force of a thousand landfills. Our hands instinctively shot up to cover our mouths. The table had been abandoned mid-meal. There were three plates with unrecognizable shriveled food caked on them. Bowls sat in the center of the table with rock-like portions, spoons poised for a second helping. A mountain of dirty dishes filled the sink and lined the counter. A mouse scurried under our feet but we held in our horror, fearful of being discovered trespassing in hell. In a corner, maggots swarmed among the trash piled in the filthy white plastic trash can. Roaches walked the table, crawling around on the plates and in the bowls with brash confidence. An army of ants marched in formation.
We were torn between the urge to run and the grip of human nature. Like watching a car wreck, we couldn't seem to turn away. From the living room came a steady, alive, buzzing sound. Filled with foreboding, we held onto each other as we crept into the room. Lying on the floor was the poodle, flies greedily buzzing in and out of his every orifice. His body was stiff as a doll's, his eyes glassed over, his soul gratefully released from the prison his owners had left him to die in.
We freaked out, tripping over each other to get away from the horrible image and out of that house. We were on fire with relief when we reached the outdoors, falling on the ground in Carol's backyard, breathing in gulps of the clean air. My heart was beating as if it would jump from my chest. Our tongues were frozen, how could we speak after what we'd witnessed?
When we recovered our voices we talked of telling our parents. I was afraid of bringing the burden of someone else's misery into my already troubled home; Carol of what her father would do if he found out she'd been trespassing. He was a staunch patriot, a firm believer in the civil liberties of citizens. He might see what we had done as an invasion of privacy. The world was a different place back then, at least in the world Carol and I lived in. Kids were to be seen and not heard. And there was no such thing as the SPCA that we knew of.
Motivated by fear, we held what we had seen inside. In doing so, we felt like accomplices, wearing matching coats of guilt we had stolen from that house. But in my secret, black heart, I was relieved. I had discovered a family that made even mine seem normal by comparison.
Neither of us slept worth a flip that night. Like cameras, our minds had saved the images of what we'd seen, protecting us from having to take it in all at once. As the night wore on, the pictures developed. By morning, the full spectrum of the atrocity was clear and unbearable.
Why? That was the question. We hashed it out for days. Yes, the filth of that family's house was disgusting too, but why was their dog lying dead in the living room? We created a scenario in which that had been the reason for everything. The family had discovered the dog's poor, dead body and it had driven them insane. They'd wallowed like pigs in their grief. Then suddenly, over dinner, their sanity had returned. Faced with the horrible state of their house, they'd fled in revulsion. We didn't believe this for a minute. We were just trying to make sense out of a senseless act. What we had witnessed was by far the most disgusting and inhumane thing either of us had ever seen. What made matters worse was that we had overheard talk in the neighborhood that the family had been spotted--at cafes and in shops—living somewhere else in town I suppose, oblivious to what they had done. This knowledge convince us that we had no choice but to tell our parents about the dog.
Then we heard the rumble of serendipity. We were sitting in my front porch swing when we heard the commotion at the end of the street. We thought it was the Saturday morning trash truck and ignored it. But when the noise grew louder, we looked up to see a bizarre caravan rounding the corner. There was a bulldozer, followed by a dump truck, and behind that the pickup truck of the missing family, the husband behind the wheel. In the bed of his truck sat four Mexicans.
We raced through my house and out the back door. We had front row seats to the drama unfolding across the street. The husband parked his pickup in the field next to the house and the other men followed suit. They all got out, listening to him as he pointed and shouted instructions. We couldn't believe what was about to happen. They were going to tear the house down, and the man hadn't even made a move toward it, as if he had no plans of going inside before it was demolished. But what could we do? We were watching an adult show. The bulldozer driver got back behind the wheel. He cranked it up, shifted gears, moving it back and forth while the other men gave him directions until he had the earth mover positioned in front of the house, angled away from Carol's house, toward the field.
The noise brought the neighbors out and we waved at Carol's mom standing on her porch. At least now we didn't have to tell, but instead of being relieved, we were disappointed in ourselves. The man truly was destroying evidence, obliterating what his family had done, unaware that the two kids watching from across the street knew their secret. Still… we did nothing.
The monstrous jaws of the bulldozer hit the house and it moaned before it gave way. A giant rat ran for the high grass behind the house, and we knew all his roach, maggot and ant friends would follow, or bury themselves in the ground. Carol was hoping her father's sturdy redwood fence would keep the nasty creatures from making their way over to her house. Within an hour, the house was flattened, a huge pile of lumber, concrete, paper and metal, roofing, furniture, wiring and filth; the burial ground of one scruffy white poodle.
The bulldozer driver's job was done and he left. The job assigned to what were obviously illegal aliens was to shovel the debris into the bed of the dump truck. The husband stood and watched, one leg propped up on the tailgate of his truck, smoking cigarettes, shooting the breeze with the dump truck driver while someone else did his dirty work. We hated him in that moment, and felt sorry for the workers. We knew what horrible things filled their shovels, and the thought drove us away from watching.
We went inside and to my bedroom. I turned on the stereo. We yearned for a loud dose of rock and roll, loud enough to drown out all thought. We lay back on my bed and listened as Janis Joplin screamed that she was going to try a little harder. Later that evening, after supper, Carol called and asked me to come over. We sat on her front porch, soothed by the benign chirping of the crickets, watching the round orange Texas moon rise to save the night from darkness. It shone on the yard next door, on the dead soldiers of plumbing, stumps of murdered trees, all standing around in clumps of rock and dirt, a battlefield after a war, one that wounded the innocence of two fourteen year old girls.
I haven't seen Carol nor heard from her in years. We remained friends through high school, though not best friends. We had played that part for the length of time fate designed, I suppose. She went off to college and I moved away with a husband much like my father. We kept in touch. I visited her after she got married. We called each other and wrote letters. But unfortunately-like so many friends--our communication slacked off, then stopped, neither of us more guilty than the other; Grown up life moves so fast. After my divorce I moved back to my hometown. Just a few weeks ago, I ran into Carol's mother. She looked great, and I was thrilled to hear that slow southern drawl of hers. We gave each other bear hugs of glee, so glad to see one another, like long lost family. She showed me a picture of Carol she just happened to have with her, as any proud mother would. Seeing that picture must have jogged this awful memory.
As I recall what happened so vividly now, and am reminded of that family, though I will never understand why they did what they did, I do believe that somewhere, in some way, they were made to pay. Just as I believe Carol and I paid for our silence with the weight of our guilt. I don't think any of us goes unpunished. Nor do we go unrewarded.
For here I lie, thirty-five years later, under my pink cotton bedspread, in a room filled with books, next to the kindest, most gentle husband. On the floor our white Jack Terrier sleeps in his own bed. And there is Carol in the picture her mother showed me, standing in the shallow water on the banks of a lake in the piney woods of East Texas, her big bear of a husband beside her. She has on blue jeans with a red plaid lumberjack shirt. Rubber waders reach her thighs. Her hair is cropped short, spiked all over her head. She's holding the biggest fish I've ever seen and the look on her face is pure ecstasy.