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Today's Story by Travis McIntosh

But when Rex saw her, he knew he had to help, knew he couldn't stand by.


He was a marked up, worked over, used car of a dog, his fur matted and clumped with a bald spot just above his tail that grew over time, like a fungus.  Harry called him Rex, because that’s what dogs were supposed to be called, and because Rex wagged his tail when he heard his name, even the first time.

Harry found him near the pier.  Rex looked rough even then, his eyes cloudy white, as if he had breathed to much of the smoke that poured from the jutting smokestacks that dotted the harbor.  Rex was thinner than Harry, even thinner than Old Mac, who wandered down Market Street selling yesterday’s newspaper for a dollar and waited outside Starbucks every morning begging for a Latte.  Harry wasn’t so picky.  He looked for his coffee in a paper cups in the trashcan out front, sometimes they were still full.  He made up stories about the man who bought a cup of coffee and then tossed it without taking a sip and told them to Rex, who listened with his head cocked to one side and his ears rotated forward like radar dishes.

They met on a bench plastered with an ad for a dozen new condos in Oakland.  Harry had positioned himself so that his green coat spread out wide enough to cover the smile of the real estate agent on the bench’s back.

Harry knew the instant he trotted up that Rex was his dog, that Rex had always been his dog.  Rex knew it too, and he dropped down at Harry’s feet exactly like he would a thousand other times on a thousand other benches, his head on his paws and two ragged ears laid back against his skull.

Harry reached out his hand, fingers closed around an imaginary treat and he whistled, then whispered low, “What you doing here boy?”

Rex wrapped his rough red tongue around Harry’s fingers and wagged his tail, forgiving Harry instantly for his empty hand, sympathetic to another scavenger in such a cold and windy city.

Harry slept on Forth Street, in front of Charlie’s Cafe near the bus stop, with Rex stretched out under his coat.  He and Rex together had a kind of power over the cold January nights that made Harry forgot the violent desperate shaking that once forced him up and wandering, his teeth chattering so loud they sounded like pool balls colliding.

They had a system, or maybe it was an act.  Harry sat on the ground with his cup and Rex lay next to him with his eyes wide.  When a young couple walked by holding hands, or a middle aged man glanced down at the two of them for just a little longer than normal, Harry tapped his cup against the pole and Rex whined low and long and the couple or the man would stop and stoop low to pet him.

“Is this you’re dog?” They’d ask, and Harry would nod and grin his toothless smile with his cup held out, and they’d drop a few coins in and pet Rex harder, since they had paid for the privilege.

Harry bought dog food with the extra money.  It came in a small paper bag with pictures of beautiful, well fed animals with large golden eyes.  Harry didn’t let Rex see the picture.  He blotted it out with an old marker he found at the bus stop, inking away their shiny fur with black lines that couldn’t seem to hide the images.  Somehow their perfect coats and shiny fur remained beneath the messy black scrawl and Harry threw the bag away the next day, tossing into the dumpster before it was even empty, instead sharing his own meals with Rex.  He regretted it a little, dog food was cheap and Harry had found it tasted fine if he was hungry.

Old Mac said Rex reminded him of his father.  “He was just like that, you know.  Dark.  Big eyes.  Like he was thinking something, all the time.  You ever know someone who was thinking all the time?”

Harry said he never had.

Old Mac ran his tongue over yellow teeth and coughed from someplace low in his gut, a sound like a old carburetor.  “He always had something to say, but he never said it.  His eyes was so big, you know.  Like he knew stuff.  Like he knew what you were thinking, but it was all right with him if you thought it.  Like he wouldn’t say word about it.  Not to a soul.  Not even if they put a knife at his throat.”

Harry nodded and scratched at the rough beard on his chin.  “Did he have a dog?”

Old Mac laughed, a wild sound that seemed to get away from him, to fly past and around the old brick buildings and bright clear glass that fenced in the alley where he and Harry sat, both with hands on Rex’s back.  “My dad never had a dog.  Never wanted a dog.  He was a dog.  Me and Ma once caught him howling at the moon, when he’d been drinking.  He could drink.  He could drink the ocean if there was alcohol in it.  He would have too.”

Harry grinned.  “Who wouldn’t?”

Old Mac licked his lips, but he frowned and didn’t reply.

Some days Harry took Rex to the park to play, a special treat when their bellies were full or the sunlight was bright enough to cast shadows through the oak leaves and pine needles.  Harry would imagine, then, that he was one of the other half dozen men walking on the street.  He pictured himself snapping worn fingers in the air and turning for home with Rex behind him, climbing stairs tightly sandwiched between plaster walls with his hands on a thin wood rail.  When he reached the top he would stop to throw off his shoes, and collapse onto an old sofa and sleep, perhaps for days, while the sunlight gently painted shadows across the floor.

Harry loved to play fetch even more than Rex, who was a master, who could find any stick, any pine cone, wherever it landed, though the grass was high or the bushes so thick Harry couldn’t hope to follow.  Sometimes they would play for hours, the two of them running in circles on the grass while mothers pulled their children to their feet and away to another part of the park.  Once or twice the stick would fly from Harry’s hand and land in the pond, and Rex would dive in after until he could grab the wood in his teeth, later shaking the chill water so fiercely from his fur that Harry would get soaked himself, even standing a few feet away.

Harry had a theory about Rex’s former owners, and Old Mac listened quietly, his head slightly tilted to point his good ear in Harry’s direction as he sipped at his Latte.

“Criminals,” Harry said gesturing with two hands, “Mobsters maybe.  They were probably really pale too, like they wouldn’t go outside if they could help it.  And they drove black Cadillacs.”

“All of ’em?”  Old Mac skewed his jaw and his paper thin skin stretched like rubber over his skull.  “They all drove Cadillacs?”

Harry considered, “Yeah, all of them had Cadillacs, a hundred of them.  I’m guessing if you saw them going down the same street in a row all you’d see was black Cadillacs, miles and miles of them.”

Old Mac nodded, impressed, and waved for Harry to go on.

“They got him when he was still a puppy, raised him as an attack dog, real vicious and mean.  Then they made him guard this warehouse, where they’d bring all their drugs and guns, you know, where they kept all their best stuff, because the knew Rex would keep it safe.  But this one time they brought this little girl, had her all tied up, blindfolded too, said they were going to ransom her.  But when Rex saw her, he knew he had to help, knew he couldn’t stand by.  So he got real quiet, like he was thinking real hard, then he growls low and mean, and POW!” Harry slapped his hands together, and Rex jerked next to him, startled.  “By the time he was done with them, they were a hundred miles away, and they never stopped running.”

“What happened to the girl?”

“She got free.  She was real grateful, you know.  She loved Rex, wanted to take him home to live with her in her mansion with a hundred rooms.”

Old Mac frowned.  “So why’s he here?”

“Well, Rex here, he knew she’d didn’t need him, that she’d be fine without him, so he ran off.  She looked and looked, searched the whole city, put up fliers and everything, but if Rex don’t want to be found, he ain’t gonna be found.  So then the next thing is,” Harry grinned, “He comes and finds me.”

Old Mac let loose one of his wild laughs.  “Crap.  That’s what that is.  A load of crap,” he clapped his hands together and laughed again.

Harry frowned and ran a hand down Rex’s back.  “I’m not saying that’s what happened, I’m just saying that it could have happened that way.”

A few months later winter froze the world solid, the winds off The Bay stronger, and harsher than any Harry could remember.  The city seemed to empty, the dense crowds that packed the streets thinning to only a few dozen shoppers with long red scarves and caps who never stopped moving, bouncing and slapping their puffy jackets with mittens waiting for the light to change.  Harry’s cup never filled, some days he made only five dollars, other days three or even two.  He started buying dog food again, sharing it with Rex a handful at a time huddled in doorways that only partially sheltered them from icy rain that fell like bullets from the sky.

One morning, when it was still dark, a cop kicked Harry lightly with a steel toed shoe where he lay asleep on the street.  Harry blinked his eyes slowly in the harsh light of two flashlights and struggled his way to sitting, Rex growling low.  Harry silenced him with a slap to his cold nose.

“You can’t sleep here, sir,” one of the faceless men spoke, his breath visible as steam in the white beam of his flashlight.

Harry sighed.  “Okay.  We’re leaving.”

“This is the forth time we’ve found you here.”

“There isn’t anywhere to go.”

“Sir, there are a number of shelters nearby.  There is one on Jones Street.  We can take you there now.”

“They don’t take dogs.”  Harry was on his feet now.  One of the flashlights flicked downward, Rex’s brown eyes reflecting red in the light.

“Your dog will be fine without you.”

“No he won’t!”  Harry knocked the flashlight still pointed a Rex out of the policeman’s hand with a heavy fist.  He was yelling, “What do you know about dogs.  I know what there is to know about dogs.  Dogs get cold.  Dogs get as cold as people.  You can’t just leave a dog in the rain.  You can’t leave a dog alone in the cold and the rain.”

“Sir, calm down.”

“I’m calm.  I’m as calm as they get.  You come here bothering a private citizen, waking him in the middle of the night and then telling him he has to leave his dog in the cold, and then you tell him he has to be calm.”  Harry took a few steps towards the policemen, his hands waving like semaphores in the air.  “Well there isn’t any law saying a man has to be calm if he doesn’t want to be calm.  And I don’t want to be calm.  Not when you’re trying to take my dog.”  He took another step towards them.

Both policemen stepped back, one of them with his hand at his gun, the other’s voice as cold as the ice that covered the sidewalk.  “Place your hands on your head.  Now!”

The wild panic drained from Harry’s eyes, his breath coming in great heaves that slowed gradually into silence, Rex pacing at his heels.  Harry put his hands on his head.  When he spoke again, his voice was barely a whisper.  “My dog needs me.”

They drove him to the precinct with his hands handcuffed behind his back, shoved into the back seat of their cruiser.  It was warm inside and Harry’s limbs thawed as he strained to turn his head and watch Rex trotting after the police car, still in sight for almost the first mile, though by the time they reached the station Harry was alone.

He only stayed one night on the warm benches of the jail cell, the other prisoners keeping their distance and complaining loudly of his smell.  Harry curled himself in a corner, his back to the wall and slept, his dreams populated with lights and dogs, and cold winter ice.

Harry awoke to the light metal bells of jingling keys in the cell door.  A short, dark eyed policewoman jerked her head in Harry’s direction, and he stood up slowly, gathering his body a piece at a time, and followed her out.

They let him go.  They didn’t tell him why, just made him a sign his big shaky X on a white form and handed him back his coat, cup, and enough change to ride the early morning bus back to Market Street where he found Old Mac begging across from the Mall, the waves of shoppers parting before the thin old man like the waters of the Red Sea.

Harry hurried up to him, his breath coming in ragged gasps though he had barely run a dozen steps.  “Have you seen him?  Have you seen Rex?  I lost him.  The cops took me and I lost him.”

Old Mac offered Harry a sip of coffee and a shake of his head.  Harry pushed the cup away and peered into at the crowds flowing through the streets looking for Rex’s small brown form.  He wandered down the street for hours amidst the streams of people that flowed like blood through the city’s veins.

Harry stopped shoppers for an hour, asking if they’d seen Rex.  He described him carefully each time, making sure to mention his brown fur and his gentle eyes.  No one had seen him, one old man asking a dozen questions about Rex’s breed and size.  Harry told him that Rex was a medium sized dog, a mutt, and a kind, friendly dog, and the old man nodded and said he would keep his eye out.  Harry made his way to the park, but it was empty of mothers and sticks and dogs.

“The little girl must have found him,” Harry said to Old Mac weeks or months or a hundred years later in a cold alley where empty store fronts stood like open graves.  “She must have been searching all this time and she finally found him.”

Old Mac snorted and tilted back his head, finishing his coffee in a single swallow.  He crushed the paper cup in his hand and threw it onto the street as a grin spread across his yellow lips.  Harry sat nearby, his back against the wall and his eyes turned up so that he was staring straight into the bright blue sky.

“Maybe she needed him again.  Maybe her dad got sick, really sick with cancer or the flu, and he was dying and the little girl had no one else, not another soul in this whole world to turn to.  So when she found him, he didn’t run away this time.  He went with her, because she needed him again, and he’s there now, with that little girl in the mansion on the hill with a hundred rooms, eating sausage and playing fetch, and sleeping next to her in a huge warm bed.  And he won’t come back, because she’ll always need him now, for her whole life, and he’ll miss me, but Rex is a dog who goes where he’s needed, not where he wants to go.”

Old Mac laughed again.

Harry listened to the sound of Old Mac’s voice echo off brick and concrete and dirty glass, and he thought of Rex and police and begging for change at bus stops and malls with cold wind cutting through your only coat.  He thought of little girls captured, of mobsters defeated, of rescues and mansions on hills with a hundred rooms.  He thought of police cars and dirty city streets and mothers in parks and dog food covered with old black marker and he threw back his head and laughed too.  He laughed, and his voice mingled with Old Mac’s and flew into the sky.


Travis McIntosh lives in Los Angeles and reads far more than is healthy.
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