Friday, August 9, 2013

Old Smokey

A story by Kim Freeman

August 23

Man, work was rough yesterday. Seems every day, I figure I’ve had as much as I can stand of Old Smokey, then I go back. Hell, I’d rather be picking up trash on the highway or cleaning johns for Parks and Rec than this misery. See, I got the choice of sitting here with one view out my sliver-skinny window, or I can put on the cuffs and get five minutes of real air and sun on the walk over to Animal Control. 

Either way, I got to look at that smokestack.

I swear, the white heat blasting out of that monster will knock you back if the wall of smell doesn't. The face on 'em going in, that’s what gets you. There’s still trust in those dead pleading eyes, and I got to tote them in the wheelbarrow and shovel ‘em into the oven. Some days, I’d rather sit staring at four walls, but work is work. A man’s got to have it. Even in prison.

There’s times I get to wondering whatever happened to my old dog. I had him back in the yard, chained around the pin oak for pretty near five years. Damn fool got loose from his collar and took off; I ain't seen him since. Course, that was in the days before my B&E time-- before I started the robbing.

August 29

Got me a new cellmate today. Tom Dawley. Says he’s in for domestic disturbance. Damn sum-bitch claims his wife came at him with a knife. Thing is, I believe him. He's got the fresh marks on him, and from the sound of that woman, yeah, I think she done it. Maybe she was full-on provoked, but she sure sounds like the type. 

He was shaking mad when they brought him in, sweat dripping off his chin, arms hunched up like he was freezing to death. I told him, "Look Dude, I got no interest in your butt hole. You got nothing to worry about from me."

Once he'd calmed down some, he told me what his wife done. When she came at him with a black-handled kitchen knife, all he could remember was the smell of burned toast in the air and his coon dog, Smokey, leaping up, barking and pawing between them. Tom thinks the dog was protecting him. Says his wife never did like that dog, even threatened to poison it once.

Meantime, I'm still working the elbows over at the Smokehouse. It's been a lot of cats lately, poor limp little things nobody wants. Sometimes I feel like one of them. My guts get caught in my throat and I barely got the strength to push that wheelbarrow. Maybe it’s the blast of the oven, but the tears start and I can't keep them from dropping. All I can do is watch them fall into the fur of some grey-striped cat or fawn-colored puppy. That there's got to be the hardest: throwing some innocent little two-month pup into the flames of Old Smokey. You try it sometime, and tell me you didn't cry.

September 2

Visiting day. Nobody come for me, but this sad-sack cellie of mine saw his wife--the one that poked him. He come back to the room, curls himself up on his bed and I sit and watch his shoulders shake. It ain't easy to do in a room no bigger than a dog kennel, but I left him alone as best I could.

After lights out, he gets up to piss in our toilet hole and tells me his wife came by--all dressed up in her slick little skirt and pink high heels. I guess she came to rub it in--he's in jail and she ain't. Worst of it is, she puts on a big wide smile to tell him she's had his dog sent to the pound. Said she called Animal Control the day after their fight, and they come right out to get him. 

All she had to do was make up some story about how it turned on her that night, all snarling fangs and spit, growling whenever she moved. Tom said that was all true: old Smoke was trying to keep the woman off him. But the part about him biting her was nothing but a cold, mean lie.

Tom asked me to look tomorrow when I'm at work: gray dog with a skinny white stripe down his face. One white paw. I sure as hell hope if he is there, he'll be in a pen and not the wheelbarrow.

September 4

I checked every cage and burn report, and no grey dog with a white stripe has been though. Tom was damn glad to hear that news. I was damn glad to tell him. Maybe his snide pink-heeled wife just told him that so as to get her talons tighter round his balls. Sounds to me like that bitch should be the one pissing in the hole, not old Tom.

September 5

I found the dog. Grey, white paw, and scared to death. They put him way back in "Quarantined" with the rest of the "Not up for Adoptions." That's how come I missed him yesterday.

When I came up on him there in the pit, I seen how every muscle on him was twitching--he's just quivering all over, scared of life, like he done something bad wrong. Of course, it could be he was plain freaked about being in this hellhole. Don't tell me those dogs back there don't know what's going on 60 feet away. 

The burn furnace is that close. Hell, the way the smoke pours out of that chimney, they got to be able to smell it. Sometimes I wonder, can they tell which dogs is burning from the molecules drifting around in the air? I watch the black and brown smoke sometimes, and it’s like all those animal souls floating up to heaven.

Now I got to tell Tom his dog is on death row.

September 8

I started scrawling in this notebook, I'll never know. It's like it makes me live through everything twice, and if you ask me, one time is plenty.

I was waiting for a load, standing by with my wheelbarrow, when I saw the vet lady put a big yellow dog to sleep. Yeah, I seen that before, but this one, he was wagging his tail, sweeping it smooth and gentle over that steel grey table. Then he licked her hand while the needle went in. God, that was rough. If I'd had a smoke, I sure would have took a break and sucked it right down to the filter.

Last night after supper, I told Tom I found his dog. He didn't take it too good, and I can't say as I blame him. I was gonna wait until lights out in case he went to crying, but he kept asking and I don't lie as good as I used to.

I left out the part about Smokey being in Quarantine. See, those pitbull dogs don't never get a chance at adoption, that's why they're in the back. I heard most were provoked from some kid cutting their ears or pulling their tail, and they just snap--get fed up with bad treatment, kind of like some of the cons around here. I hear their stories all the time about how the world just got to 'em one day, how some red wrath comes over them--all the unfairness they had all their life and then it's time to get back.

Anyway, these last two days Tom Dawley just sits on his bed, looking out that slot of a window we got, watching the smokestack all day, even into the night. I gave up on that view a long time ago, but I know what he's seeing: that tall silver pipe ringed in soot, chalky black and thick around the rim. Even when it's not heaving the tall plumes of smoke, you can still see shimmery waves of heat, pulsing out all around the thing. Almost like it's breathing.

Now that I know Tom's dog is named Smokey, I can't call the green oven that anymore. Used to be I could laugh about it, the thing with the big vault door and fat round belly, like a giant barrel, always hungry.

Nowadays, I think about the Nazi time, back when all Jews got rounded up in Germany. I hear the Nazis had the prisoners run the ovens there, too. All day, they say, like a factory, killing and burning as many as they could get hold of. No reason either, except they was Jewish. Those folks didn't commit any crimes, but got burned up anyhow, just like all these creatures.

You know, that's the derndest thing about that dog Smokey: he's got eyes green as pasture grass. He looks up at me so mournful, and it's like Jesus asking me to forgive.

September 12

I don't hardly want to write today. Tom still stares out the window, and I figure his dog has been over there going on five days now. Ten's the end of his quarantine time. That's when the owner is supposed to come get him, once they make sure there's no chance of rabies.

Things is, I know good and well that woman ain't gonna come and get him. Unless Tom gets his hearing and out of here before Friday, well, that's the date marked on Smokey's cage.

I know that dog hasn't got the rabies, but them's the rules, and I found out right quick they keep up with the timetable pretty good. See, I got the idea to change the tag on old Smokey's cage so as it looked like he had two more weeks. Nobody pays attention to those dogs back there, anyway. It would have worked out, I think, except they got some computer database now keeping up with all the dog inmates. Tracks them by day and somebody checks it every morning.

So I got busted and here I sit back at the prison, nothing to do but stare at Tom Dawley and wonder if the smoke he's watching is his dog. I been suspended three days, and I got to say, it sure as hell makes me miss work, even the kind of awful work it was.

Soon as I get back, if they'll have me, I got to check on old Smokey. If my figuring is right, he's still got two days to go.

September 15

First day back at work. Tom's hearing got pushed to next week.
The very first thing I did after signing in at Animal Control--you guessed it--went to check on that poor lonesome dog.

I get there to his row, and down to his pen, and it’s an empty cage.
Some security guard spots me in my con suit and asks me, "Who you looking for?"

I say, "A green-eyed dog."

The man laughs and asks why I'm looking in among the live ones. He bends over and whispers, "He's gone to meet his maker."

I got a real sick feeling and doubled over right there against the chain link.

The man hands me a rag he's been using for God-knows-what. "Take a break, con. Get some air. We got enough mess and vomit on this floor already."

I stumble out to the sunlight and right there is a wheelbarrow full of burnt bones, cooled and waiting for the rendering truck. I've seen loads of bones and ash before, but this one might have been some of Smokey. 

I turned away and not thinking, propped against the big green barrel, still hot from a load that morning. It scorched my palm enough to make me scream, and that was it. There I was, crying like I ain't never cried before, broad daylight and me blubbering like the worst kind of pitiful creature.

Behind me I heard all the dogs start to whine and bark. Something big dropped in the oven. It felt like the world was coming apart, and all I could hope for was allied planes flying over like in World War II, coming to save the suffering. Up in the air, back behind the clouds and smoke, I did hear the roar of a plane, but I saw the contrail, and knew it wasn't nothing but a single engine from Briscoe Field.

I watched the smoke and contrails swirl together like some kind of black and white dance and thought about what I was going to tell Tom when I got back. Watching the smoke drift higher, I realized, at least old Smokey is free. That dog, and plenty others, have gone on to a new place, one without ovens and prisons and fences and gates.

The way I see it, I just got to tell Tom old Smokey finally found a good home.

Kim Freeman
Freelance writer
Lost Cat Detective

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