Every Friday night we feature a short story, essay, personal narrative,
poem, spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.
Tonight’s short story is from Barbara Harroun
The standoff occurred at a backwater gas station in Kentucky, and involved a lost dog tethered to a gas pump by an unraveling rope, a couple who looked more like siblings with their matching dreadlocks, tribal piercings, sleeve tattoos, a priest, two high school girls who were twins, looking for all the world as though they had been found, blue-eyed and corn silk hair in an Indiana field, their father, and a philosophy professor. I was there too, but had just woken up when the 15-passenger van lurched to a stop. We were all exhausted from demonstrating against the School of the Americas, and screaming for the Indigo Girls, and from unleashing our righteous indignation via chants and thrusting our homemade signs and birds of peace high in the air. None of us crossed the line though or got arrested, not even the radical couple only married to anarchy, because we had school to return to, grades to earn or calculate.
I was there because of the priest and the philosophy professor. I was in the professor’s graduate seminar and attended mass where the priest, the newest and youngest priest, seemed radical himself. Radical and gorgeous and earnest. I had just returned to the Catholic faith, on Ash Wednesday, after having gotten truly drunk and dancing with and French kissing someone who was not my husband. Someone I didn’t know. I was so filled with guilt the only thing to do was to go to confession. I chose Father Pat’s line, by chance. Confession was face-to-face, and when I began to cry, he took both of my hands in his, and said, “Sister, clearly you are aggrieved and repentant. It is only human to want to be seen as attractive, to be wanted by others especially if you are far from your partner. Stop stoning yourself. Let this drop from your heart, but go and sin no more. Be blessed and be a blessing. Two Hail Marys and an Our Father.”
“Is that all?” I asked, disbelieving.
He smiled then, and it seemed fitting he was in a church where the purple and red light fell about him. “Dear heart,” he said with great kindness, “You have repented and prayed far more in the two weeks since this occurred. You have done your penance. But come see me any time, if you feel lonely, lost or even happy and found.”
As I left I saw my philosophy teacher, kneeling, eyes closed, the ash cross on his broad forehead. And then he opened his eyes, and we regarded one another, as though naked. I had thought of him naked, but really it was his brain, his pattern of thought, his slow and deliberate speech that I wanted to spread out on a table and devour, but I was coming to know that sometimes sex seems the quickest way of bypassing the borders our skin sets up. I hurried down the aisle, having no idea that in mere weeks we would travel together, be forced to share a room, although not a bed, not unless we chose to.
In that time I was a graduate student. I had been married for two years. I considered myself plain as a kitchen table, although photographs reveal otherwise now. I suppose too my hunger for social justice, my naiveté, and earnestness made me attractive to some, but I did not see it, and my husband, who had always seen it for me, telegraphed it back to me through grilled meat and red wine and sex almost daily was far away. His work was elsewhere, and while he supported my studies, he would do so from afar, through emails short enough to slide into the belly of a fortune cookie, and brusque phone calls between clients. I longed for him to speak to me in long unspooling skeins of yarn, to recreate the life I could not see, but he had never been one for words and he could not understand why I would have him change now. In the end we could not change our essential natures, but that only became clear in Kentucky, at the gas station, looking into the face of that lost dog.
The couple spotted the dog. His name was Ken, and her’s was Sally, but both spoke with great longing of changing their names to symbols or numbers, something liberated from the oppressive systems at work. They would not speak of their backgrounds beyond the fact that they had been privileged and they had shrugged them off beyond allowing their square parents to pay for school. They were 20, both olive skinned, and smelling of sweat and patchouli and sex. Their dark hair was bound in dreadlocks and they both had their noses pierced and wore great rounds of abalone shell in their ear lobes. They were among the most abrasive people I have ever met, so certain were they of their moral superiority, and yet I saw behind that front to their terror, their smallness in the face of a world teeming with such wrong. They called me “Sunny” although my name was Suzanne, but they said I saw the bright side even if I had to imagine it. I only knew them for 4 days, but what they said cut because it was true, and to this day people call me by the name they gave me and I tend to claim it as my own. Ken and Sally hated that the dog was tied up, so they marched inside and asked the attendant about it. He admitted he’d tied the dog up, hoping whoever left it would come back, but so far, in six hours, they hadn’t. No one had bothered asking about the dog. They brought the dog beef jerky and a bowl of water. They kneeled in the dust and proceeded to wash the haggard dog in love.
I watched the idea be born as they ran their hands the length of its scrawny body. It was a mutt, and the dog kept his left, back paw lifted gingerly. The flies buzzed and it was clear it had been bitten by something. It was infected and glistening with pus. Its muzzle was scratched too and it had a collar but no tags. Father Pat joined me in watching them assess the dog. He rubbed my back. Father Pat believed in massage and the laying on of hands and smoking two cigarettes a day with great mindfulness and prayer. He also believed in tennis and exertion and laughter and joy, and one night over cheeseburgers and beers (because I had gone back and a friendship of sorts seemed already between us, an ease of being that Pat attributed to God although I was far less certain), he explained that celibacy was his gift to God, and it was meaningful and a true gift because it was so difficult. We looked at one another across the pub table. I nodded. Father Pat took my hand, and I squeezed his. He had a head of brown curls that glinted golden red in the right light. He was freckled across the nose and had brown eyes flecked with the yellow of amber.
Once I saw a Tiger’s rock and thought about Father Patrick, wondered what had become of him. “The sin isn’t in loving, Suzanne, it’s in choosing not to love.” I was so confused. In philosophy I had learned to unfold thoughts and ideas as if they were all made of origami and I did this here too. Did he love me? Did I love him? And how and in what way did we love one another? How to take the fact that often, when we walked, he would put his arm around me, across my shoulders, and I would place my arm around the small of his back? To hold hands with a priest as we ate? To look at one another in a way I had only beheld lovers? To hug and kiss one another’s cheek? To go to mass on Sunday morning, and receive communion from him? His eyes welling with tears?
My philosophy professor joined us as Father Pat lit his cigarette and glanced heavenward. James Robichaud. He was my professor for eight more weeks. He took in Sally and Ken and the dog. “This does not bode well for anyone,” he said. The night before he had asked me to undress for him, not to sleep with him, but to simply undress and let my hair down and turn. He’d had prostrate cancer years before and he was impotent, but he said, propped up on three pillows, a book in his lap, and his glasses on the tip of his nose, that he wanted to worship the beauty of my form with only his gaze. He was 63, had once been married, and had once been a father before his 11 year-old daughter had been hit by a car. I told him I would do what he asked if he would talk me to sleep. If he would use his voice as if they were hands to massage my temples, loosen the fist of anxiety in my chest. I loved him, I suppose, because in spite of all the world had done to wreck him, he still believed as I did, that there was glory and possible change. And it had little to do with God and everything to do with being human.
The twins came out of the gas station, and they were singing a Nellie Furtado song in harmony: “I’m like a bird/ I want to fly away/ I don’t know where my home is.” They both stopped short when those glaciered eyes landed on the dog. Father Pat exhaled and whispered, “Oh, sweet Jesus.” It was both a prayer and a curse. Their father trailed behind them, opening a Pepsi. The girls squealed and jogged to the dog. They were freshmen in high school and purity rolled off of them in giggling waves, and shared songs in perfect harmony and harmless bickering. Their father loved them in a way that made me ache, and I wondered if I would ever have the courage to bring children into this world, to take them to demonstrations at the age of 14.
“Daddy!” They proclaimed in unison.
“No!” He said, halting. “No. No. No.No.”
Ken said, “We have to. We have to bring this dog back with us.”
It should be noted that even the Anarchists admitted they were raised Catholic. It was why we were all in a van in Kentucky, why we had demonstrated in Georgia– although I am no longer a Catholic. Dr. James Robichaud would tell me I am a cultural Catholic no matter what, but no, in the wake of the child abuse scandal, I cut all ties and denounced the church.
The Anarchists were vegans. Vocal vegans. In 1999. We had heard at great lengths their reasoning, and honestly, I understand them better now. I am older and wiser and want less and less to be the reason an animal has died.
“Look,” Sally explained with mock patience, “Ken and I will adopt it. It just has to ride back with us.”
The twins’ father said, “It isn’t happening. First, it could have rabies. Second, this is a university vehicle. No pets.”
“Who’s going to know?” Ken asked.
“Yeah, unless you narc?” Sally added.
The man shook his head. “This dog is not driving in a van, the same van carrying
“So you’d leave this dog to starve to death, tied to a gas pump, after demonstrating for the worth and dignity and value of all human life because of fear for your daughters? Is that what you’re claiming?” Sally’s voice rose up like a kite.
The dad didn’t respond.
“Is that what you are claiming?” Sally cried out. She stood up. “Does this dog seem violent? This is one of God’s creatures as surely as your daughters are.” She turned to Father Pat. “Tell him Father Pat.”
Father Pat crushed his cigarette under his running shoe. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. You wouldn’t know he was a priest. “The Catholic Church blesses animals but in terms of doctrine, I’m not sure it believes humans and animals have the same moral standing. But I will happily bless this dog.” He moved to it, laid his hand upon it, and closed his eyes. After a moment he backed away.
“This dog will die if we don’t take this dog home. Can you live with that, Teach?”
She was looking at James.
He cleared his throat. “Any number of things could happen. There are all types of variables to consider. I suppose I can live with not knowing the fate of this animal. So much of life is uncertain. What is certain is that I desperately need to use the facilities.” He walked toward the gas station.
Sally called to his back, “We’re all animals. Every single one of us. We’re all animals. It’s what makes us equal. Strip away the fur, and we’re all bones and muscles and tendons and hearts. Have you ever had a dog? If you ever had a dog you’d know some are more human than the bunch of you. All of you are heartless pieces of shit.” She turned, and knelt in the dust and buried her head in the dog’s neck. The dog bore all of this with great patience.
The twins knelt too, solemnly. I watched Sally’s back rise and fall with the heaving nature of her sobs. Ken placed a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off. Father Pat sighed a terrible sigh, and took my hand. We were accessories to a murder, I felt, and it was as we stood there, our fingers laced in the ways lovers braid their fingers that James came towards us. I looked into his face; one that age had carved in the same way water carves rock. I had undressed for him, and stood in the light of his gaze. I had turned, slowly and with great care. When he seemed sleepy and full, I went to my bed, turned out my light and he had spoken with such grace and power that I felt startled awake, as though I would never sleep again, but I had slept finally and it was the sleep we often hope for but rarely get.
In the dark room, his voice came to me like a secret and he told me much I had never even wondered about. And part of me wanted to slide into bed with him, align my body with his, place my mouth to his shoulder and taste his skin there. I hadn’t. But now he came toward me. He’d had a dog, once, and a wife and a daughter, and once he had been an animal proud of his animal body and strength, and once he’d had cancer, and time and again he had survived, all of the deaths, the small and the large, and life had domesticated him, his body but not his mind, his wild thoughts and ideas. His imagination. He saw Father Pat’s fingers laced with mine and I saw the animal he’d been play behind his face, knew he’d growl if he could, leap, teeth bared even though he loved this priest, this man, as a brother, and I let go of Father Pat, I let go of so much, all of these identities—being a student, being a wife and I walked toward James, aware of the blood circulating, the sun on my skin, going towards what I desired and choosing, perhaps not once and for all, but for now, for the time being. Our teeth collided, and it was not gentle. We forgot the world around us, truly, in our attempt to consume one another through kissing, through our pathetic lips.
It was James, dear James, James now gone, part of him sprinkled in the spine of his favorite book, part in the great river, part around the base of his favorite tree, part of him in me, my wet finger into the ashes as I wept and without thinking into my mouth, it was James who untethered the dog and wrapped the rope around his great hand, who decided the dog would come home, but with him, with us, where James would often whisper into his silken ear, words I could not hear, but words I knew the cadence and quality and texture of, so I could not help but go to him, place my lips to where such richness spilled.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, Rappahannock Review and Iron Horse Literary Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.