Saul is sick after eating a late lunch and leaves work three hours early. Between the pain lacerating his stomach and his thoughts about meeting Robbie later, getting anything done at the center is impossible. Robbie tells him he will not meet in public places. He picks up scrap metal and free food, buys plastic half-gallon bottles of vodka, and talks to people when he has no other choice. He guzzles the vodka alone in his room and stares at his television. No one needs him. If he drinks coffee in a restaurant, the black dog will find him and kill everyone there. If Saul wants him to keep talking, they have to be alone.
They are at Robbie's apartment the next night. He rents a single room in a wilting A-frame house two blocks north from the courthouse square. A short, fat old woman in a purple nylon gown waves from the front porch. She is slumping deep into an iron-frame lawn chair with thick yellow cushions. It looks like she is melting into the seat. Robbie says she sucks down cigarettes and never gets his name right. When she sees a television documentary about killer germs, she pays Robbie to staple visqueen strips over the windows. Robbie says she thinks it will keep the air pure inside. They are gray plastic sheets covering cold eyes.
There is a small bed, a silent television, and a short wooden table in his room. Stains spot the bed's thin white sheets and Saul sees an empty pint bottle of vodka on top of the television. A fraying hardcover dictionary props up one table leg and a thick layer of duct tape cuffs the leg inches above the floor. There is a small window open above his bed and the smooth concrete walls and floor gleam under the ceiling light.
"I don't have a chair." Robbie flings a hand towards the bed. "Sit there. I'll sit on the floor."
Robbie crosses his legs when he sits. He pulls his legs tight against his thin body, plants his elbows on each leg, and rocks back and forth. He stares at his lap.
Saul frowns. "I'm glad you want to keep telling me your story, Robbie. I'm here to listen and help if I can."
Robbie snorts and looks at Saul. "It's okay that you think I'm crazy. I don't give a fuck. But don't treat me like a moron..."
Saul raises his palm and his eyes widen. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
Robbie leans forward and shakes his head. "Fuck what you meant." He leans back and sighs. "We both know you think I'm nuts, but you'll listen. That's why I want to tell you. Someone needs to know."
"What happened to me." He whispers and lowers his head.
He cannot leave his tent for two days. Whenever he unzips the flap and starts pulling it back, the black dog charges the tent. Robbie screams, closes the flap, and scrambles away from the door. He curls into a ball and waits to die, but death never comes. No one hears his throat-scarring screams for help. He guzzles a gallon of vodka in thirty-six hours but does not sleep. He hears it pacing outside.
The pacing stops on the third day. The sun is setting and the tent is a gray, humid dome in the dwindling light. The stink of sweat, urine, feces, and rotting food burns his nostrils. He is deep in the stomach of a beast, digestive smells swirling around him, and heat soaking and spoiling his body.
The black dog is gone. The trees near the tent are not moving and the world is silent. Robbie opens the door and crawls out of the tent. There are no footprints or claw marks in the dirt. The dog is not here, but a static charge hangs in the air and causes the hair on his arms to rise.
"I don't understand, Robbie. Why would it keep letting you go if it wants to kill you?"
"It's playing with me. Like a cat with a fucking mouse." He shivers and looks under his bed. "Mind moving for a second? I gotta get my backpack from under the bed."
Saul scoots to the foot of the bed and Robbie pulls his backpack out. He unzips it, takes out a quart of vodka, and breaks the bottle's seal. When he tilts the bottle up, his eyes are staring at the ceiling and blinking like someone falling asleep. He chokes with each gulp.
"Do you drink like that all of the time?" Saul lowers his voice and cocks his head to the side.
Robbie's moist eyes bulge out of their sockets. He licks his lips and sneers. "Fuck you, man. I drink when I want to."
Saul's shoulders with a deep sigh and his head drops when he exhales. He wants to listen, he wants to smash the walls of alcohol and clouds of hallucination cutting Robbie off from the world, but every word is a frantic, white-knuckled slur and his glancing blows leave no mark. The humming frustration building inside of Saul sparks the urge to grab Robbie's shoulders and shake him, pleading with him to stop drinking, begging him to believe that there is no dog stalking him. You need help, Robbie! Please listen to me! I just want to help you.
Saul sighs and raises his head. "How long ago did this start?"
"It'll be a year in four days." He lunges forward coughing. His body thrashes and a knot of phlegm shoots out of his mouth. It hits the floor and a small glob creeps down his chin. Saul moves and none lands on him. Robbie rubs his hand across his chin and wipes it off on his pants.
"Where's the bathroom? I'll get something to clean that up."
Robbie shrugs and clears his throat. "To the left, by the kitchen."
The bathroom is small. The yellowing sink slumps on the wall, dark stains freckle the corners of a small circular mirror, and the floor around the toilet is rotting and damp. Saul tears a short strip of toilet paper from a half-used roll and, as he turns to leave, sees his reflection. He stops, puts his hands on the sink, and leans forward. There is a hairline crack in the glass extending from one corner to another. It segments his face into disjointed halves and the grime on the glass blurs his image. Who do you think you are and what are you doing here? I am sick, lost, and here to help this man. He wants to die and someone has to care. Someone has to stop him.
Robbie cannot stop. When Saul comes back to his room, Robbie cannot stop moving. He massages his hands and pops his knuckles. He rubs his neck and taps his legs. Robbie cannot stop talking about the dog. It keeps coming.
It finds his new camp the next morning. The black dog tears open the tent and bites into Robbie's leg. He screams for help, pushing his voice out of his body so hard it feels like someone pinching his tonsils, and digs his fingers into the ground. There is no escape. The dog drags Robbie out of the tent and releases his leg. He clutches the gushing wound, his hands vanishing in a bloody tide, and pleads for his life. The black dog stands over him and blocks out the morning sun. Its head weaves towards him. Robbie crawls across the ground and, when he looks behind him, sees its long mouth curling into a smile. It takes slow, long steps towards him.
When Robbie staggers to his feet, the dog lashes his back with its thick claws. They hook into his body and strip off a layer of skin. Pain inflames every nerve and muscle. He drops to his knees, rolls onto his side, and cannot stop screaming.
The pain is gone. He is not screaming, he is not bleeding, and there is no scar on his leg. He is sitting in the center of the clearing, crossing his legs, the morning sun warming his face. He hears the dog walking behind him. Its crunching footsteps are coming closer. Its breathing sounds like a drain spitting up a fountain of fluid and coats the back of his head and neck with a mist.
Robbie lunges forward, but the dog claws into his shoulder and jerks him to the ground. His back slams into the dirt and the impact knocks the wind out of him. He opens his eyes and sees the dog staring down at him. He opens his eyes and sees the dog staring down at him. It is panting, snarling, and the flames surround its head unite in a bright halo. When Robbie opens his mouth to scream, a tide of blood explodes from the dog's mouth, pours over his face, and fills his mouth. It tastes like vinegar and gasoline.
"Blood?" Saul's voice cracks when he asks the question. He is wading in dark water and cannot measure the depth.
"It hit my face forever and made me choke. And I could hear the dog breathing the whole time." He clinches his fists tight and they look like knots of bone. "I couldn't move for a long time after it stopped."
"Where was the dog?"
"Gone." Robbie drinks more vodka and grits his teeth. "Gone and there wasn't a drop of blood around."
Saul wrings his hands and looks at the floor. Robbie is spinning in a short cycle, sinking into depression, exploding with anger, and trembling in fear within minutes of each other. He is pouring a stream of vodka down his throat that spins the cycle faster. Saul gulps when a hot swell of pity rises from his stomach and burns his throat. He cannot look at Robbie. If he raises his head, he will see the faint tinge of yellow coloring Robbie's tense, fluttering eyes. If he holds his gaze, Saul will cry. The tears will flood over his cheeks, his body will shake, and Robbie will not silence his sobbing. Saul is alone. Robbie is not here. It is Saul and the black dog, invisible, watching and taking form through a story told by a dying man.
"I know what you're thinking." Robbie's voice gurgles and, when he coughs, he spits out lime-colored phlegm. "He's a fucking crazy drunk. He's dangerous to himself. He's dangerous to other people. I'd be thinking that too."
Robbie's eyes are wet and his right cheek quivers. The hot swell of pity rises again and Saul reaches out to Robbie. He pats his shoulder twice, but Robbie pulls out of his reach and stares at him.
"You told me you were from a town up north. What town?"
Robbie frowns and slides further away from Saul. He lights a cigarette. "Why? Ain't gonna tell you anything."
Saul is digging, not backing off, and sifting through the stories, gestures, and decisions for the root causes or conditions. He is spinning in his own cycle and, while the shifts are slower, he wavers between probing, listening, or leaving. He smiles at Robbie and shrugs.
"Just wondering. I'm from Indianapolis." He shrugs again. "Just trying to get to know you, that's all. You don't have to tell me, okay?"
Robbie opens his mouth to speak, but pauses and sighs. "Martinsville. There you go. What's that tell you about me?" His voice grows louder and his shoulders rise. "Huh?"
The sharp edge of anger in his voice quickens Saul's heartbeat and causes him to squirm. "I'm sorry, Robbie, I didn't mean to offend you, I..."
Robbie stabs out his cigarette on the concrete floor, throws his hands through the air, and swings his head from side to side. "My family's gone. That's what you're gonna ask now, right? Well, save it, 'cause now you know!" He whips himself to the right, grabs his vodka bottle, tilts it up, and drinks three long gulps.
Saul lowers his head, puckers his lips, and nods. He knows they are orphans. They are motherless, childless, and graying men dissolving in liquor, fading into swivel chairs and sleeping bags, weeping in apartments and tents. Saul knows why he is here.
"It's tough, Robbie. I lost my mom just three months ago."
Robbie glares at him. Blood rushes to his face and his wide eyes twitch. He throws his head back, screams, and staggers to his feet. He points at Saul.
"I'm sick of your shit! Get the fuck out of here now, you motherfucker, now!"
Saul jumps from the bed, holds up a hand, and nods. "Whatever I've done, Robbie, I'm sorry, just calm down, alright? I'm really sorry."
Robbie lurches a step closer to him and spits on the floor. "You're always sorry! I'm the one who's sorry, motherfucker!" He closes his eyes, sighs, and drops his head. Saul is tense, but he cannot look away. Robbie's long breaths rattle and wheeze from congestion. Saul sees him tighten his hands into fists and shake his head. He whips his head back and Saul gasps. Robbie rushes towards Saul and grabs him by the shirt. Their faces are inches apart and the smell of vodka causes him to retch.
"Why are you still here? Go!" Robbie opens the door and jerks Saul towards it. "Get the fuck out!"
Saul pushes and pulls Robbie's arms, but cannot free himself. The vodka makes Robbie stronger, infusing his body with frantic, angry power. "Let go of me, goddammit!"
When they reach the open doorway, Robbie shoves him and Saul tumbles backwards into the hallway. He lands hard against the opposing wall. When he looks up, Robbie is standing in the doorway. His skin is the color of a power blue bruise and thin red rings surround his dark eyes. He is not screaming, smiling, pointing, speaking, or shouting. He says nothing to Saul and slams the door shut.
Robbie watches his mother choke every morning. She wants a cigarette as soon as her legs are dangling over the edge of her bed. Robbie gives it to her and lights his own. Before she slides on her oxygen mask, before she eats or drinks, before he helps her walk to the bathroom, she sucks down a long filtered cigarette. The coughing and choking start before she can finish. At first, the coughing is a dry hack, the choking just something caught in the throat, but it flares into crippling explosions of air and hoarse gasping for breath that doubles her over. Robbie puts his own cigarette out and braces her shoulders to keep her from falling. She keeps the cigarette between her fingers and her thrashing leaves wide gray halos in the air that ring their bodies in smoke.
Throughout childhood and his twenties, Robbie's mother Abby crackles with energy. Jumping from job to job, wrestling with three sons while dad is drinking somewhere, or else rotting in a jail cell, she is talking, always talking, and the words burst out of her mouth. She moves through life the same way. Her legs bounce after sitting for ten minutes and her hands jitter when she speaks. In his mind, Robbie sees her pacing, pointing fingers, stomping, barking orders, asking questions. Abby is slender, muscular, and the cloud of smoke shrouding her face billows from fires no one can put out.
It takes six months for lung cancer to do what no one else can. Robbie cradles her on a long December night while she crouches over the toilet and heaves up thick, black clots of blood. By late June, she weighs ninety pounds, gasps for air, and needs help walking to the bathroom. When she sleeps, Robbie drinks. He is thirty, the youngest of three brothers, and a year out of prison. It is not his first time locked up or lives with his mother after release. Abby's oldest son, Kevin, sells cars and the middle son, Terry, owns a gas station, but it does not matter. Robbie is her favorite, her blind, arms open wide concession to love. He looks like his dead father. It doesn't matter when he snatches hundreds of dollars from her purse. She never calls the police or turns her back on him. It doesn't matter that he drinks every dime he has and leeches off her. She blinks twice and says he can't help it.
His brothers hate him. They grit their teeth when Abby brushes off the arrests. Robbie isn't drunk, some asshole cop has it out for him, or it's the crowd Robbie runs with landing him in trouble. Who or whatever the cause, it is never Robbie's fault, but when Kevin has a pregnant girlfriend three months after his sixteenth birthday, Abby gives him a week to find a job and get out. Who or whatever the cause, it is never Robbie's fault, but when the police pull Terry over on his eighteenth birthday and haul him in for drunk driving, the first and only time Terry lands in trouble, Abby throws his belongings into the front yard and kicks him out of the house. Eighteen years later, whenever people ask about their brother, they say he is dead.
Even now, with their mother dying, they will not speak or stand in the same room with him. When they visit Abby for two hours each afternoon, Robbie leaves the house. The brothers raises their voices, pleading, threatening, reeling off Robbie's misdeeds, but Abby wheezes and waves their words away. She will never make Robbie leave, he needs her, and there's nothing else to say. The brothers bristle when she talks about Robbie's hard life. They have the same mom, the same dad who slaps them around just as hard and as much as their little brother and neither of them drink, do drugs, or serve prison time. Abby breaks their hearts. They make the best of a difficult situation, go further in life than Abby, but it isn't enough for her. They never have it as bad as their little brother. They can never be Robbie.
Abby dreams about Robbie on the day she dies. She is floating inches above a thick sea of smoke and gliding over its surface. Long streaks of red, like splashes of paint, stain the powder-blue ocean and the sky is dark. When Abby turns her head from side to side, she sees green flares of light illuminating the distant horizon. The light does not reach her. Nothing can touch her here. There is no coughing, there are no cancers, and though the world is gray, Abby is whole once again, drifting in an invisible vessel of heat.
The sea surface parts and Robbie rises out of the ocean. His naked body is moving alongside Abby. She stares at him. She sees he has the body of a thirty year old, but his face is eight years old with its plump cheeks, small mouth, and clear, pink skin. I have my son again, he is here with me, she thinks. He is whole once again.
Robbie turns his head towards Abby and smiles. She wants to touch his face, but when she extends her hand, the smoke rises and pulls him out of reach. He screams as he moves away and his body begins turning into ashes. When Abby screams, red tentacles erupt from the sea and tighten around her throat. She cannot breathe. The tentacles are pulling her under when she wakes up, rolls out of the bed, and falls coughing to the floor.
Robbie hears her fall. He is standing over the toilet and, despite her steep weight loss, the impact rattles the bathroom mirror. When he rushes into her bedroom, he spots her beside the bed, curling into a fetal position, coughing and shaking. Her fingers are clawing at her mouth and blood spilling off her hands puddles on the floor. She tries to speak and scream, but spits and gasps instead. Robbie scoops her up and places her on the bed.
When the paramedics wheel her into the emergency room, she is vomiting streams of blood and draining her bowels onto the hospital floor. Robbie stands in a corner, watching his mother die, mouth gaping and fingers digging into the walls on each side of him. His brothers are on the other side of the room. Terry is watching from a chair, his hands covering his mouth. Kevin is on his knees, crying, face staring at the ceiling and hands tight in prayer.
Roaring voices surround the brothers. There are doctors barking directions, nurses shouting numbers, and orderlies with huge eyes begging the brothers to leave the room. Everyone is glaring at tall, beeping monitors, but the brothers are not scanning the digital screens or listening to the voices. Robbie does not feel the pain slicing through his fingers, Terry cannot move, and Kevin's prayer is an open mouth that cannot speak. All senses save sight short circuit and they are staring at their mother. Their mother, a sagging coat of skin. Their mother, thrashing and flailing, clutching at the air, heaving and hissing out fading gasps of breath. Their mother, pain pinning her eyes open, her short, scattered plumes of gray hair waving side to side like thick wisps of smoke rising off her head. A loud beep fills the room and Abby stops moving.
The doctors and nurses step back from the bed, glance at each other, and frown. A young doctor with a blonde crew cut, dark tan, and trim frame is standing near Robbie. He turns to face him.
"I'm sorry." He whispers and extends his hand to Robbie.
Robbie slumps to the floor without looking at the doctor. He is looking at the hospital bed. All he sees of his mother is the chalk-white sole of her foot jutting over the side of the bed. Her foot calluses look like fat gray worms burrowing under the skin.
Read Part 3 here.