By Evan Gorzeman
No one is quite sure where all the dogs go. Old wives’ tale around Archer, Texas say that all the chemicals from the mines leech into the groundwater and the dogs lapping at the front yard sprinklers get so much lead in their brains they go crazy and run away, or get hit by cars, or jump off the cliff at the old quarry. I never heard it from my momma though—she’s as lost as those dogs. But the people here in Archer don’t have much else to do but spread gossip, so sometimes we get to talking about those dogs.
While I’m not one for gossip, Archer doesn’t have much else to do, so to pass the time I ride my bike aimlessly. As I ride, I watch the heat melt the horizon into something more pliable and watch as the make-believe world lingers on the roads even long after the sun has set. I swear I don’t have any lead in my brain, but often, after I make that turn to the quarry, I have half a mind to cannonball straight over the side. In those hazy moments air, ground, water—it all looks the same.
At the quarry, I usually throw rocks over the side and wait for friends, hoping one would make a meaningful sound. It’s a child-like thing to do and maybe I just do it now because I always have. That’s been changing like I’ve been changing, and today is the first time I’ve felt like I don’t belong.
It’s the summer and I’m starting high school in the fall. All the time I’ve spent here and I’ve still never seen any dog take the plunge. Maybe it’s all made up, I always found the lead excuse to be an easy out, anyway. It’s funny that lead paint from China plastered on every action figure in a Toys R Us is national news, but when it’s natural, when it’s seeping into our pours, we turn a blind eye. I always just thought when it was the dog’s time to go it just ran away from Archer. The lands flat and if you followed the train tracks you could run all the way to the Pacific Ocean if you had the willpower.
Either way, everyone here has water filters now which are supposed to remove all the chemicals. That’s what they’re supposed to do, but my Dad and I don’t have one at our house and I’m fine. People try too hard to explain things.
Once school started us wanna-be cool kids sweat away lunch periods in the Texas heat. The talk starts and stops on girls. We all try to keep our lies straight. It’s tough. Too many cavemen around the campfire, I think, and some of us more evolved are relegated to the outside. It was here Aaron Maker said he’d seen a dog jump right over the edge of the quarry. Said he was puffing away at one of his older brother’s Reds, waiting for Natalie Gold to come suck him off when he saw some poor Dalmatian swan dive into the pit. “It’s a long drop, you know,” he added, as if we didn’t.
“Bullshit,” I said. I didn’t say much at these hubbubs, mostly because I haven’t kissed a girl and didn’t know how to lie about it, so my interjection got a rise. “Bullshit,” I said again. “You never seen anything like that.”
Maker flicked a zippo in and out of life and looked up at me. Shoulders parted so he could get a clean view. “I’ve seen them plenty,” he says. “What you know about the quarry?” A chorus of nods shook the circle. “I saw it too,” Ben Green adds. “My brother and I go there for target practice. Mrs. Bellows terrier did the same thing. Bombed right off the edge.” A couple other of the outsiders threw their hat in with some half-hearted contributions, but it was enough.
“See,” says Maker, “you don’t know shit.”
I didn’t hang around the benches after that.
Usually now after lunch, I cut out of my last period and went to find my dad. He was a sometimes this and sometimes that, but right now he was a mechanic at a gas station. He’d only been there three months or so, and already had dried out his one joke: “I change more highlighter fluid than oil!” Oh well, at least now we eat name brand cereal and order a pizza when football’s on.
Dad was sitting in the back of the station wiping grime onto a rag that could only make his hand dirtier. “School out early?” He says today. I sit down across from him, squinting in the sun, perched on a rusty weathervane.
“No,” I say. “Had something important to ask you.”
“Carl still work here?”
My dad nods as Carl strides into view and we watch Carl methodically scuttle around an SUV with a drill, its long cord getting snagged every few feet. “Watch this,” Dad said. “Hey, Carl, you rotated the wheels on that one, yeah?”
“What?” he calls back.
“They wanted their tires rotated.” My dad made a whirring noise with his mouth.
“Fucking hell, Henry. Write it on the slip then if that’s what they wanted.” He bends down and starts undoing the lug nuts again. We laugh at Carl’s ass crack.
“Remember our dog, when I was young. Mona. Where’d she go?”
“Dogs just run away. Nothing much you can do about that.”
My theory is the dogs has got to do with the carnival train that stops in Archer twice every year. The carnies stop once when they head west and again when they head back. It’s not like they possess more animal magnetism than your average person. Maybe the dogs like the extra company, the chaos. Maybe they carnies eat them. Carnies are strange folk.
My dad gets along with these freaks. He doesn’t like it when I called them that. He likes them. When they pass through, he goes out to the train tracks with a bunch of booze. He packs all the bottles in a sack, wrapping each one in some newspaper so they don’t break. It takes him forever.
Some carnies are really small. Some are crazy fat. They all have some ink on their arms and face—even the lady ones. Some lady ones had beards, too. I try not to stare when I see them in town. Dad told me people pay money to stare at the freaks, but that I shouldn’t, because they’re just normal people trying to make a living, I asked him why, if he was just going to drive the wine out there, why he wraps the bottles up. Dad scratched his nose and said that he’d never actually met them, he just tosses them bottles of wine over the railroad fence.
Maybe he was scared of them. I was when I was younger. Maybe you had to be a freak to drink with them. I wasn’t sure. Dad’s face said don’t ask because he wasn’t really sure himself.
It became a thing. Twice a year he’d roll up the bottles in the towels and place them in his car he’d take off for the day.
But this year Dad got the nerve and went drinking with them, and on their way back from the east coast, my second semester of freshman year, they came to our house. I was out at the quarry when I came back and found them around the backyard firepit, drinking wine from the bottles and smoking cigarettes. The strongest one, Viking, he called himself, packed into our garage playing pool. One guy had a tattoo gun and sat on the back leg of a sun-bleached stool giving everyone spider webs on their elbows. Only later did I find out Dad got both his elbows inked. I stood in the corner next to the trash cans, leaning against the brick wall, watching all the carnies drink and laugh and smoke.
One of the tall ladies with a dagger tattooed on her face broke away from the group and tip toed over to me. Her fingers had writing all over them. LOVE and LOSS on the knuckles. LOVE holding a cigarette that swan dived through the air as she spoke, LOSS wrapped around the top of a wine bottle.
“Hey there, honey,” she says. It sounds like her voice hurt her throat—like she needs to sand down her windpipe. She leans up against the wall and crushees a cigarette underneath her foot. I nodded back at her. Without breaking gaze, she grabs another smoke, lit it, took a deep drag, and, without exhaling, took a long gulp from the wine bottle. She swallows the wine and breaths the smoke out over my neck. I feel her warm breath.
“How’d you do that?”
She bowed and her leg crossed in front. “Here,” she says. “Give it a swig,”
“I shouldn’t,” I say. “My dad would kill me.”
“You’ve never had it before, have you?”
“Sneaking Daddy’s beers don’t count.”
“Been to parties a bunch,” I say. “This ain’t nothing new.”
She held the bottle out and I knock it back.
“Daddy isn’t going to kill you, see?”
“I know,” I say. He was next to the fire pit, arms around a large, shirtless man.
“You don’t like it?” She lets out an overly dramatic sign. “C’est la vie. More for me.”
I grab the bottle and take another sip. Some wine runs down my neck. She wipes the wine off my neck with her sleeve. “It’s fine,” I say.
“Better than that beer you had, I’m sure.” She pulls a cigarette out of her purse and holds it out. “You’ve definitely smoked before, right? Don’t tell me you haven’t dear, I’ll die.”
I grab the cigarette, eager to look mature. I knew how to smoke.
“God, what, how old are you? Honey, if you had done half the things I did at your age.” She flicks her lighter and I lean in and puff. She takes a swig of wine and watched me inhale, one eyebrow disappearing into thick black bangs.
“We think your dad’s going to come work for us,” she says after a bit.
“That right?” I keep my mouth shut and exhaled, watching the smoke stream out of my nose.
She smiles. “For the rides, you know. He’ll fix them, he’s a decent mechanic.”
I nod. “He’s good at that sort of stuff.”
“You going to come along?”
“Maybe,” I say, trying to remain cool. “I don’t know.”
She puts her arm around me and I felt those dainty fingers trace my ear. Her breath smells sharp and acidic, she flicks her tongue in and out like a snake. My ear is warm and wet. “You should just come,” she says. “How old are you?”
“That’s how old I was when I left.”
“Actually, I was younger. Fourteen, maybe.”
The wine bottle has heated up in my hands and I choked down another gulp. I scan for my dad but he’s not in the yard. A dog barks in the distance and car backfires a couple blocks over. A woman is spinning a plate on her finger, tossing it from hand to hand. The tattoo gun is buzzing incessantly. Men are shouting over at the pool table and I realize I didn’t all that much care where my dad had gone off.
I turn back to the woman.
“You want to be stuck here all your life,” she says.
“No,” I say. “But you’re never anywhere for long, isn’t that the same as being stuck?”
She contemplates the dead grass. “Maybe. Sometimes. But I think it’s the best job you could have.”
Her hand leaves my shoulder and slides down my back until it nestled into my jean pocket. I reach behind her and gave her a slight squeeze. “Do you have another cigarette?”
The woman leans down and I felt her lips on mine. Her eyes are closed. My hand is on her breast and her tongue in my mouth. I taste the smoke. One long finger strokes my earlobe and I feel my face fill with blood. She pulls away with my lower lip in her teeth and I yelp in pain like a puppy. Her mouth curls bemused at my first experience. She holds out the bottle of wine. “Hold this.” As she lights up another cigarette I take a swig. My dad has returned to the fire and I watch him sing along to the chorus of a song that has broken out in the dying daylight.
After the party, Dad starts to go away more often, sometimes for days. One day he left for a month and I put up lost posters for him.
You never noticed all the missing dog posters on telephone poles until you put them up yourself. They’re mostly blank paper now. Once in a while you can sort of make out a picture or a name. The sun bleaches them so thoroughly it’s mostly blank paper now. I’d poke my finger through and not feel wood all. One telephone pole made up of posters. The poles are like a missing pet almanac. I poke at them when I go for walks just to see what other dogs had gone missing; lots before mine and lots after. All kinds of dogs that go to the carnie trains. Small ones. Big ones. Fat ones. Dumb ones. It’s funny, imagining all the dogs with all those people on the trains, going one way, then another.
Dad got a job out on the rigs which took him away for a month or two. How truthful this is, I’ll never know. When I turned eighteen, I packed a bag with some underwear and socks, waved at the empty couch, and schlepped my way out to the tracks. Some carnie train was there and I waited in the bushes for most of the day, watching the yard workers stroll up and down with poles and tools. When the whistle went and the train’s engine started hacking smoke I slipped under the station’s fence, tossed my backpack in a boxcar and heaved myself up after it and cowered in the corner until all that passed in front my view was hills of sand.
Evan Gorzeman is a writer from Long Beach, California. His writing has appeared in Spry Literature, Entropy, the Columbia Journal and elsewhere. He is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
We began without any seed money and rely on reader support to fund our operations. This includes costs like managing our website, hosting our podcast, as well as our mission to begin paying contributors.
If you like what we do, believe in platforming conversations about literature and mental health, and want exclusive access to bonus content, please consider joining our Patreon.
Make a one-time contribution. You may contribute as much as you'd like.