Nobody expected the bloody dog. Nobody. Not even here in South Philly where some sketchy shit could be happening behind any door, down any side street, at any time of day.
Kai tripped right over it in his gawky sprint for the field, the dog’s blood soaking the boy’s white baseball pants, covering up the shadowy grass stains his mom hadn’t managed to get out.
Aaron looked up from the plume of work emails that rose from his phone. One day a week he left his Center City office tower early to take the boy to the ball fields all the way the hell down here. He was ready to snap at Kai, urge him to watch where he’s going for once, but he saw the boy on the ground and he saw the blood.
“Jesus, Kai,” he said as he ran the two steps toward him, shoving his phone in his pocket but still feeling its warm pull.
And then he saw the dog.
One haunch was soaked with blood, the curly black fur was matted, and the cut was narrow but deep. Aaron could see the muscle, the sinew shimmery like the T-bone he’d grilled last weekend. The fur of just the one leg was speckled with glass, like the dog had almost made it across the street but for this last inconvenient leg. The dog was shivering uncontrollably, whimpering in the grass.
“Daddy.” Kai’s tone matched the dog’s. The boy was normally a torrent of words but right then he had none. He tried again. “Daddy, what happened to this dog?”
Aaron could hardly speak himself.
“I think somebody hit it, honey.” He never called the boy honey anymore, he was getting too old for it, but it slipped out, that old tenderness. They stared, the two of them crouched in the grass, frozen.
“Hit it?” It wasn’t computing for Kai.
“With their car.”
Kai’s brow was furrowed, his huge eyes on Aaron’s.
“But nobody drives here. It’s a baseball field.”
How could it possibly be his job to explain this to his son? This was the world they live in?
“I think what might have happened—” he hesitated. “You know what, gimme a minute, Kai. Just gimme a minute.” Aaron thought in hierarchies, like any lawyer should. Who’s in charge here? The governing body for the securities his clients traded? The SEC, the NYSE, FINRA. Lots of people to call if something goes down. The governing body for dogs? Christ, who knows? He watched Kai watching the dog, the tension in both of their bodies, the dog panting. Think, dummy. Think. There’s no dog mayor, no dog regulatory agencies. Then it came to him. The dog catcher.
[img_assist|nid=17781|title=Mask by Suzanne Comer|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=515|height=400]
He called 311, which was a crapshoot in Philadelphia. As in, would anyone answer the goddamn phone? But someone did. Said they’d send someone from animal control over to the field. Aaron straightened his shoulders. He’d solved the problem.
Then he heard the crunch of gravel behind them.
The boxy old Honda was pulling into the parking lot, spoiler askew, windows down despite the heat. Aaron’s heart raced, wondering if it was the driver, hobbled with remorse. Or a sadist, back for more.
But it was that chick, the boy Sergio’s mom, Angela or Veronica, or well—fuck if he knew. She talked on her phone through every practice, through every game, some conflict that needed to get rehashed endlessly, as she paced in her tight black pants, her huge hoop earrings, ignoring her child except to pass him a Capri Sun and Fritos with her phone briefly to her shoulder.
Sergio and Sergio’s mom walked toward Aaron and Kai. The rest of the team was going to be showing up soon. When the other team got there it was gonna be bedlam. Giving nightmares to the entire lineup of seven- and eight-year-olds for the forseeable future.
“That’s what I’m saying. I don’t know why she’s gotta be in my business like that.” The shellacked talons of her non-phone hand sliced the air.
“Hey, we can’t be on the field right now.” He held out his palm to get her attention, get them to stop before Sergio saw the dog.
“Hang on, I said hang on. Fine, call me after—What?” she said to Aaron. It was the first time they’d spoken.
“We can’t play on this field right now.”
She squinted at him, his pleated suit pants, starched shirt and tie, like somebody standing in her way.
“Who says?” Followed by, “Why’s there blood on your pants?” to Kai.
“Boys, go throw the ball over there,” Aaron snapped, before Kai could answer. Sergio and Kai hesitated. “Do it!” Aaron said, his nasty lawyer-dad voice coming out.
The boys slunk off, Kai still looking back fearfully toward the furry mound, and Sergio punching his glove like it was any other game.
“Whadayou, the coach now?” she sneered.
“Come here.” Aaron tilted his head toward the dog.
“You’re sending them away and you want me to go where with you?” she said, popping her hand on her hip.
“There’s a dog. Somebody hit a dog. And left it on the field,” Aaron hissed.
“What?” she said, her voice softening slightly. They looked together at the dog, its flank filling raggedly with air. “Oh my god,” Angela whispered.
And then they heard David’s voice booming behind them. Aaron had been hoping that another dad would show up, maybe James, their perpetually hungover but competent coach. David wasn’t the man he was looking for. David was a douche.
“That was a bad choice you made, wasn’t it, Sasha, not going to the bathroom at home? You’re just going to have to hold it then, aren’t you? Move it, girls!”
Sasha Michael Smith and Malia Steven Smith were trudging across the field, holding their bat bags and pushing their bikes. Their stay-at-home dad made them bike everywhere, at age 7, to keep their fitness up, though at 5’ 4” and 250 easy, he could use a bit of work on his own conditioning. And yes, they were named after the Obama girls. “To inspire excellence,” David had explained at the first practice to a bleacher full of parents with raised eyebrows. David had clearly wanted sons (“I cried at the ultrasound, man. Seriously.”) so the girls each had a masculine middle name. He claimed it was in case they ever needed to pass as a man on a job application in the future, because “there are people in this world who might think a woman is not as competent as a man. Nobody’s gonna do that to my girls. Nobody.” He had now taken to terrifying everyone by roaring “Smith Girl Power!” if the girls made a play. Which wasn’t often. David wanted to have a second chance at his own failed Little League years, reliving it through Sasha Michael and Malia Steven. It was going poorly.
Aaron stepped between them and the dog.
“Girls, why don’t you go throw with the boys,” Aaron said, nodding curtly toward Sergio and Kai. The girls turned their downcast eyes up to their dad.
“Burpees and squat jumps first, and then yeah, throw with the boys,” David clarified. “I’ve got a routine for them,” he said with a shrug.
Aaron was momentarily distracted by the sight of obese identical twin seven-year-old-girls doing burpees in the middle of the weed-filled field, butts in the air followed by heaving jumps back to the ground.
David’s voice yanked him back. “You guys are early, huh? Game doesn’t start for a half hour—you get James’s email about the time change? I like to get the girls here early, get ‘em warmed up and sharp.”
Aaron shook his head. Kai’s mom hadn’t put Aaron’s name or email on the Little League sign-up form, so this kind of crap happened all the time. It was infuriating. No respect for his time. He could be wrapping up that Enstead matter right now instead of standing on this dirty field with these people.
“Anyway, what’s goin’ on here?” David said, clapping Aaron on the back. “You don’t look ready for a game! You guys look like your dog died!”
“What the—” Angela said. “You did that?” She stepped toward him.
“Did what?” David stepped back. Everyone was scared of Angela.
“You did this to this dog?” She was in his face now, pointing at the dog.
David saw the dog, and his hand clapped his mouth.
“No! Jesus! What the fuck?” He gagged and stepped backwards from Angela, who was walking toward the dog.
“Dumbass,” she muttered. “Gimme your shirt,” she said to David. She crouched on her little espadrilles about a foot from the dog. Aaron stood just behind her. He could smell the iron in the dog’s blood, like rust, starting to stain the dirt.
“What? I don’t want—” David said, crossing his arms protectively over his enormous Penn T-shirt.
“We gotta get the bleeding to stop,” Angela said quietly.
“Well what about his shirt?” David said, gesturing at Aaron.
“Yours is big-ger,” Angela said, like she was talking to an aggravating child.
David slid it over his head, unveiling his pregnant belly sprouting grey and white hairs. Aaron felt a little bad for him then. You gotta prepare for when you take your shirt off, and David was clearly unprepared. He crossed his arms over the crown of hair on his nipples.
Angela reached the T-shirt toward the dog’s wound to try to sop up the blood. But the dog snapped at her with a weak snarl.
“Whoa!” David shouted. Aaron startled at his volume.
“All right, it’s ok, baby,” she whispered quietly.
“You’re good with dogs,” Aaron said, relieved by her effort.
“I useta have a dog, when I was a kid. I got cats now. But I ain’t done nothing yet,” Angela said.
“Is there someone we can call?” David asked.
“I—” Aaron started.
“Yeah, call 911 and ask for a dog ambulance. Just bark and they’ll come.” Angela’s nastiness was back.
“Well I don’t know,” David said defensively.
“I—” Aaron tried again.
“No. We gotta get this dog to a vet. Kai’s dad, we’ll put it in your car.”
“It’s Aaron. My name is Aaron,” he said. “No, not in my car. The interior will be a mess.”
“Are you kidding me?” Angela said, disgusted.
“Angela, listen! God! I called the dogcatcher. Animal control, whatever. They’re on their way over.”
Angela’s face fell.
“They’ll shoot him,” she whispered.
“What? No. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You dunno, you dunno what you’re talking about. They’ll say it’s more humane, he’s not gonna make it,” Angela said. “And you know what, I don’t know why you keep callin’ me Angela. My name’s Maria.”
“Sorry.” He wasn’t that sorry. It’s not like she was calling him by his goddamn name.
“Gimme your tie,” Maria said, nodding toward Aaron.
“Sorry?” Nothing was making sense, her ordering their clothes off while the kids played catch and while a dog was dying on this field.
“We gotta muzzle him. He’s scared and he’s trying to protect himself, but we gotta muzzle him if we’re gonna help ‘em.”
Aaron ripped off his tie, wishing it hadn’t been Ferragamo Friday at his office.
She didn’t say thanks.
Maria formed a circle with the fabric, stood behind the dog, and looped the circle over the dog’s mouth. She then tied it in a bow on his head, like he was wearing a $200 sailboat-patterned bandana. She stroked his head as she did this, whispering softly.
“Wow,” Aaron said, impressed.
“I trained to be a vet tech for a couple weeks, ‘fore Sergio was born,” she said. “I never did it in real life before, just on a stuffed animal. All right, gimme me a bat bag.”
Aaron grabbed Kai’s bag, dumping the bat, grubby batting gloves, Kai’s Epi-pen and some stray Cheez-its onto the ground. Aaron was on board now, obeying her. She folded David’s massive shirt and pressed it against the wound. It was soaked almost instantly.
“Hold the bag out.” Aaron pulled at the bag, making a pouch for the dog. Maria gently lifted it into the bag. Her previously immaculate white T-shirt was now stamped with blood. The bow on the dog’s head poked out. The dog was lighter than Aaron’s laptop bag. He settled the handle into his closed fist, and then, impulsively, pulled the dog to his chest, carefully holding the bloody side away from his dress shirt and feeling the dog’s rapid heartbeat against his chest.
It reminded him of Kai’s infancy, when he and Kai’s mom had tried every “baby-wearing” contraption ever invented—slings, carriers, some weird purse-like thing—to try to get Kai to calm down and sleep. She’d ordered so many of them that the credit card fraud detection unit called, wanting to confirm they had indeed made six separate $60 purchases in one day at Buy Buy Baby. Maybe if one of them had worked they’d still be together.
Then a truck rumbled up, sounding like it needed a muffler. The kids ran over, drawn by the sound. They couldn’t keep it from them any more. Everybody circled around the dog, the kids keeping their distance.
“Somebody here hitta dog?” His nametag said Ron, and he lumbered out of the truck over to where they stood. He sipped from a giant plastic pitcher of iced tea as he walked, his beige uniform shirt untucked and sweaty, looking like an unkempt scout leader.
Maria was right. Ron had a gun. Ron didn’t seem like a guy who should have a gun. Aaron eyed the gun, wondering how often Ron had to fire it.
“This how you found ‘em?” Ron asked, looking at the dog, snuggled in Aaron’s arms in the bat bag, still shivering, wearing a silk necktie-bow and a bloody T-shirt. The three adults studied Ron, and Maria’s eyes narrowed. Aaron wanted to believe he’d made the right call, but Ron didn’t seem to be the fix they were looking for.
“No, we found him on the field.” Aaron tried to catch him up. “Maria’s been able to get him, um, tied up and tried to help stop the bleeding.”
Ron slowly snapped on a pair of latex gloves.
“Set ‘em down,” he said, and Aaron painstakingly placed the dog on the ground.
Ron pulled the T-shirt bandage off. “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.” He whistled, stopped abruptly, then started to beat-box ineptly, quietly to himself, spit arcing through the steamy air, onto the dog, onto Aaron’s shirt.
“Dad, what’s he doing?” Kai asked, standing next to Aaron.
“Mm, not sure. Checking him out,” Aaron answered.
“Why’s he spitting and coughing like that?”
Great question, Kai, Aaron thought. “I have no—”
Ron cut Aaron off.
“Well, I can probably bring ‘em in. He’ll go to stray hold ‘til we can see about getting him to medical. By the time we get him out of stray hold, might be better to just destroy ‘em now. I’d ask you to bring the kids off to the side. Sometimes they get upset. Don’t understand it’s the more humane option.
Aaron checked the kids’ eyes to see if they understood. They were quiet. Since Kai was never quiet, he was hard to read.
Ron held out his chubby hands like a shifting scale. “Destroy ‘em now?” he lifted one palm up—“Bring ‘em in?” and lifted the other. “Destroy ‘em now? Bring ‘em in?”
“So you’re saying you might have to destroy him anyway, even if you do bring him in?” Aaron asked.
“Yup. I’m leaning toward destroy ‘em now, get it over with. Dog’s pretty bloodied up in there. Not so likely he’s gonna make it.”
“Dad, what does he mean, destroy?” Kai asked. Aaron pretended he hadn’t heard him.
Maria sprang up.
“You’re not shooting this dog.” She was trembling.
“Oh no ma’am. I’d give an IV. Standard procedure for emergency euthanasia.” He rested a hand on his holster. “The gun’s, just you know, in case,” he said, grinning at the kids and revealing jagged, yellowed incisors. Kai and the other kids took uncertain steps toward their parents.
Maria shook her straight black hair.
“’No way. We’re bringing him to the vet, like I said before,” she said, looking at Aaron. “His leg could be sewed up. More humane, my ass,” she spat.
Aaron sighed. He had kind of been hoping they’d settle on “destroy.” Though he didn’t really want to huddle on the playground with Kai while Ron killed the dog, and then have to bring Kai home to his mom’s and explain how the game went. She’d make this his fault one way or the other.
“Look, maybe he’s right, maybe we’re just prolonging it and we should get it over—”
“We’ll take my piece of shit car. Yours’ll stay clean, then, huh? Let’s go, Kai’s dad,” Maria said, picking up her gigantic purse.
“Don’t you think Ron has a point here? I just think it’s more efficient not to mention humane—”
“I’m not sitting here with these kids while you kill this dog. Mm-kay?” she said. She jingled her keys at him. Aaron saw Kai watching them argue, caught his eye. Aaron looked down.
“Suit ‘cherselves,” Ron sang. “Next time don’t waste my time, ‘kay? I got 15 more calls and it’s almost dinnertime.” He shuffled back to his truck.
“So where are we taking it?” Aaron asked Maria.
“Pals Pet Hospital.”
“Is that where you worked?”
“Nah, I can’t go back to the place where I worked. But Pals is the team sponsor, right?”
She shook her head at his idiocy again. She was right; they were the team sponsor. Aaron never needed a vet, so he barely noticed. What he did know was that he’d meant to ask his firm if they’d sponsor Kai’s team, and he’d forgotten, and then it had been too late, and Kai’s mom had sighed about it, how Kai would have really liked that. Like the kids ever cared who the goddamn team sponsor was.
“All right, you watch the kids ’til coach gets here,” Maria said to David, heading toward the car. “C’mon,” she said to Aaron.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” David said. “And I watch four kids?”
Maria raised her thin, arched eyebrows.
“All right, fine,” David said, realizing he might have gotten the easier job.
“Make ‘em all do some burpees,” she said, inclining her head toward the girls, who were now cross-legged lumps, picking dandelions out of the grass where they’d been circled around the dog.
Aaron shouted to Kai that he’d be back in a minute. Kai had started throwing again with Sergio, and didn’t miss a beat. Aaron figured Kai was used to his dad’s sudden departures. Aaron had a sudden surge of not wanting to sit in Maria’s shitty car, but it was too late for that, and it was either that or have the dog bleed on his car’s pale, leather seats.
[img_assist|nid=17782|title=Daytime Flight by Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=280|height=350]
The Virgin Mary and a Yankee Candle air freshener shared the rear view mirror. The front of the car was clean, if old and worn. The back was stuffed with all kinds of girly fabric boxes up to the roof.
“What is all that?”
“I sell 360,” she said. Aaron wondered if that was a drug nickname he hadn’t heard of. “Those boxes. Designer home storage, you pick the patterns. I do parties at ladies’ houses, everybody buys something. Anyway, you’re gonna have to keep the dog in your lap.”
“What about the trunk?” Aaron asked tentatively.
“My ex’s MMA stuff is back there. And not for nothing, but you can’t put a dog in the trunk. You know, it’s like, a living thing?” she said with another sigh at his stupidity.
“Dad! Daddy!” Kai was running toward the car. “Dad, can I come?”
He stood expectantly next to the open window of the passenger side of Maria’s car.
“No, Kai. You’ll miss the game. Stay here with David and the other kids. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Dad, I don’t want to wear these pants,” he said, looking down at his uniform pants smeared with the dog’s blood. “Please can we go get clean ones?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. If there’s time. I’ll be back soon,” Aaron said sharply.
“No, Dad, I wanna come,” Kai whined.
“No whining, Kai! Get back over there. Your team needs you. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Fine,” Kai said, tipping his head down toward the crabgrass.
Maria’s car jerked to life, and thudded over the ruts toward Packer Avenue. Aaron watched Kai trudge back to the other kids through the car window.
“Oh, shit,” Aaron said.
“What?” Maria said, eyes on the road.
“I forgot to tell Kai and David where Kai’s Epi-pen is.”
She looked blank.
“He’s got a peanut allergy.”
“You needta go back?” she asked.
Kai was getting big enough now that he should be able to read labels and refuse snacks that had peanuts. Three years ago, during the one and only time Kai’s mom had to stab him with the Epi-pen, Aaron had been in a tense negotiation at the office. Kai had grabbed a cracker with peanut butter from his daycare teacher’s purse, and daycare had called Kai’s mom, naturally, and she sprinted the two blocks in heels when they’d said that hives had swollen Kai’s eyes shut but they were nervous about giving the shot. Aaron didn’t know any of that when his phone rang and rang silently in front of him on the conference room table. Her texts hadn’t told him it was an emergency.
1. pick up the goddamn phone
2. don’t ignore me!!!
But then finally:
3. We are at Children’s Hospital. Call me. Asshole.
He got home that night, and Kai and his mom were curled up together in bed, watching the Muppet Movie. Kai had greeted him with his usual delighted “Daddy!” but Kai’s mom hadn’t. She’d asked him to move out the next morning while he was shaving.
Aaron hesitated, pondering the likelihood that Kai would snatch a bite of someone’s forbidden granola bar. The dog warmed Aaron’s legs like when he held Kai in his lap, and he felt his suit pants sticking to him in Maria’s un-air-conditioned car.
“It’ll probably be fine,” he said, shifting the dog to a drier spot and resting his fingers carefully on top of the dog’s soft head.
Maria pulled up to the animal hospital, and Aaron carried the bag in.
They told the story to the front desk receptionist, who was wearing a huge scrub shirt with pastel cats over her enormous, low-slung breasts. Aaron waited for her to be outraged.
“So who’s responsible for this dog?” she asked.
“Like I said, we don’t know. Somebody left him there,” Aaron answered.
“I got that part. So who’s responsible?”
They were quiet.
“I need a guarantor for services rendered,” she said, “or there’s nothing we can do for you here.” She held out a clipboard.
Maria looked at Aaron, pursed her outlined lips, and looked at her toes. The dog stirred in the bat bag against his chest. He thought about how Kai used to struggle in those baby bags, how he’d wet their shirts with his tears. He thought about that one time they’d been glad for the baby bag, when Kai had his first ear infection, and Aaron walked for blocks with him fussing and writhing, Aaron’s back aching, and he’d finally felt him settle against him, this warm live thing, and Aaron slept all night with the bag on, Kai shifting slightly on his belly and sighing, and Kai’s mom departed for the couch.
“Ya gotta pen?”
Aaron filled out the form, handed it back.
“We won’t do any procedures until you authorize them. And we’ll check for a microchip to see if we can figure out the owner. But we’ll expect you to arrange for care for after if we can’t find the owner—”
“Now wait a minute—” Aaron said.
“It might just mean taking it to a shelter, but we expect that if you bring an animal here, you are going to help bring it out.”
Aaron felt like swearing again, but didn’t, in this room full of women and puppies.
“Ok. God! Fine!”
The receptionist picked up the dog bag.
“Good work on this muzzle,” she said, nodding. “Field medicine, I like it.”
Maria’s mouth turned up slightly. “Let’s go, Kai’s dad,” she said.
They arrived back at the field with the game going, parents cheering, the ice cream truck in the parking lot. No trace of Ron or the dog. Aaron exhaled at the sheer normalcy of it. Aaron couldn’t spot Kai from the parking lot, though the kids were hard to tell apart in their uniforms. Kai’s team was at bat. Aaron and Maria walked toward the bleachers.
There was a kid lying flat on the ground by the team bench, wearing the team uniform shirt and pink shorts. As he walked up, the kid on the ground started to look like Kai. A few kids were circled around him, and Sasha or Malia seemed to be patting him. Aaron started to run.
David tried to cut him off, but Aaron dodged him, slipping a little in his dress shoes.
“He didn’t have peanuts, did he?” Aaron yelled.
“What? No,” David said. Aaron stopped, panting, and David trotted to catch up with him. “Listen, I gotta tell you, Kai freaked out after you left. Some of the other kids were making fun of him because of the bloodstains on his pants, and they didn’t believe he tripped over a bloody dog, and they were saying he’s disgusting or whatever. And he just started screaming and crying, like, ‘Get ‘em off me!’ And he’s pulling off his pants and saying, ‘I want my dad! I want my dad!’ And I mean, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t even have your number, so I gave him Malia’s extra shorts. Sorry about the pink. And I tried to get the blood off his legs with some wipes, but he’s definitely still bloody.”
Aaron’s gut was still clenched as he reached the circle of kids.
Kai didn’t answer. He stayed on the ground, whimpering and barking.
Aaron crouched next to the Smith girl. “What’s going on, Kai?”
“We’re playing dead dog.” Kai explained. “Sasha’s trying to get me to stop bleeding.”
“Oh. Ok.” He paused, trying to get his bearings. “Well, look, guys, the dog’s not dead,” Aaron said.
“No, this dog’s gonna die,” Sasha said emphatically.
“No, it’s not,” Aaron said sharply. Aaron leaned in, touched Kai’s hair. “Kai, did you bat already? How’d you do?”
Kai closed his eyes, lolled his head to the side.
“This dog’s dead,” Sasha pronounced. “Ok, my turn.”
Kai stood up. His legs were streaked with brown dried blood and looked girly in the pink shorts, which hung precipitously low on his hips. Sasha laid down on the ground.
“Kai,” Aaron said. “You wanna cut out early? Get cleaned up?”
“I took my pants off, but my legs are still bloody, Dad.”
“I know. Let’s go get you a bath.”
“I take showers now, Dad. I’m up after Sergio. I gotta go,” he said, leaving Sasha on the ground as he grabbed his bat.
“Oh. Well get your helmet then.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” Kai said, without turning around.
Aaron stood behind the cage as Kai stepped onto home plate, and he watched the Pals Animal Hospital ad buckle on Kai’s back as he shifted the bat. Aaron kept quiet about his stance and choking up and eye on the ball, and clapped for his boy as he grounded out on the dirty field.
Abby Reed Meyer has written for VIBE magazine and for WHYY Radio News in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel called The Marathon, which won the 17th Writer’s Digest Dear Lucky Agent Contest. She grew up in New Jersey, went to Haverford College, and lives with her husband and two children in Philadelphia.