Excerpt of Christmas in July, by Alan Michael ParkerBy TNB Fiction
January 09, 2018
The girl was trying to vomit again, retching, and Blue the Dog was worried, whining with that little huffing noise, his nostrils flaring, his big tail smacking against the leg of the table. The girl had been puking on and off for about an hour, and now, worse, she lay suffering on my porch sofa. I held a cup of spring water to her lips so she could sip, but she wasn’t keeping down even a dribble—her body was being hateful, and making not to stop. She couldn’t calm her singleness: the toxins must be deep in her cells.
I put a mop bucket nearby, thinking she wouldn’t have the strength to get up and step to the railing to vomit on the butterfly bush. The butterfly bush was being so nice. Blue the Dog butted his way past the bucket, though, wedging closer. He wasn’t ready for the next moment, or maybe he was owning this. Blue the Dog sat right there staring into her, the way he does, less than a foot away, having found her and chosen her, and now she was his. Blue the Dog is always who he is: six years old, some Lab, some Pit, some Boxer, some other giant breed, block-headed, with one black ear and one white ear and an underbite, a huge mutt, and the best.
The girl would hang her head off the edge of the couch cushion, open-mouthed, spit and moan, the puke and spittle stringy, her head in the bucket, right in front of Blue the Dog. He stared, uncertain, every once in a while stamping his back feet. He hadn’t once growled at her. I never saw his dander up around her. Blue the Dog doesn’t like children, but he liked this girl.
Blue the Dog had come upon her first, in the woods. We had been moving from the birches toward the clearing to the south, a field and a swamp still to go on the way to my beehives, and even though Blue the Dog had been on a scent, he had broken form.
“Something!” Blue the Dog had said to me.
Blue the Dog talks, no matter that I don’t really understand.
“Blue the Dog? What is it?”
“Okay, buddy. Go see, Blue the Dog. Release.”
Which he had done, because he likes to make his own decisions, cautiously but sure too, all ninety pounds of him low to the ground in a stalking crouch. I had followed—something was there. He had tracked through the scruff and the ferns, the dandelions and the purple clover, run the edge of the meadow in his hunting pose. But then I had lost him. Until he had barked twice, as he was trained to do, come see, come see.
Lying on the ground, she had looked like someone’s laundry, just a balled-up heap of clothes. She had been a ball of pain. She had smelled.
“Stay.” I had given him a shred of deer jerky from my pocket. “Good boy, Blue the Dog.” Then I had tried to wake her up. I had touched her shoulder once, again, and she had moaned, half-conscious, and she had said something I couldn’t make out. I had shaken her a tiny bit, but that had scared me, shaking another person seemed wrong. It wasn’t in the universe I knew.
I think she might have said “Help.” It also could have been “Crap.”
I can always tell where I am outside, more so than in. We weren’t far. What else was I going to do? I don’t keep a phone in the summertime. I’m strong enough: I could haul her home, and help her there. So I had knotted my pouch, pulled her up gently, swung her arm around me carefully, let her weight move her forward but supporting her too. She kept bonking into me with her funny little purse, too shiny a thing. Our walk hadn’t taken twenty minutes, her leaning on me as we had trudged to my house.
Time, glory, and grief. I had felt the chemicals soaking through her clothes, leaching. Which meant I couldn’t let her inside, not that walking cloud of poisons. Thinking smart, I had laid her on the porch instead, where the air would help. If she polluted my rooms we’d both be sick.
I had eased her down slowly onto the cushions, propped her head with a little pillow. She was sweaty, and even though the day was hot, hers was a bad sweat. She had looked gray around the eyes, a light gray around the lips, a bad skin color. She had smelled light gray too, with another color in there, but I hadn’t known what. When I had laid her down, I hadn’t decided whether to take off her purple hat. I could tell she had no hair, and so the hat was probably important to her. A hat full of ego, I had supposed. All of that being, especially at her age, which I had put at fifteen. No one was ever free, I had thought, with this girl lying on my sofa.
Now she was present, toxic on my porch sofa.
Plus there was some of her on me. “Blue the Dog, stay,” I said to him, although he wasn’t going anywhere. “Keep,” I said, a word he might not know.
With Blue the Dog in charge on the porch, I hustled around back, stripped at the outdoor shower, and washed from the rain barrel, scrubbing at my hands and face with birch twigs. After, I chewed a few mint leaves for my digestion and rubbed some lavender into my beard, because I could smell her.
Blue the Dog doesn’t mind if I smell like lavender—he kind of likes it, I think, even if he never says. The bees don’t care.
When I came back around front, clean and dressed, the girl was deep asleep. Blue the Dog lay on the sofa next to her, stretched out along the length of her, kind of on top of her too, together on that narrow couch. I had never seen him behave like this. That’s a lot of dog, a heavy log of a dog on top of a girl.
Blue the Dog looked at me; he had all sorts of words in his eyes. He didn’t know what to feel.
“Shhh,” I said. “Blue the Dog, keep.” Maybe “keep” meant lie on top of a girl.
I ate my five o’clock meal, did an hour of sundown poses out back, facing the ridgeline, ending with the presence of the trees in my arms, upright, joining with the branches, and I soared my energy nicely. It was a good day.
When I came around to check on her, the girl was awake once more, leaning up a little, sipping spring water, and petting Blue the Dog, who was still flattened on the couch, even more on top of her. He was seeing her.
“What’s his name?”
“Blue the Dog.”
“Blue.” She scratched between his eyes: he liked that spot, and squinted in pleasure.
“Blue the Dog.”
She looked at me with feelings in her eyes too. “Be nice,” she said. “Blue the Dog,” she said to Blue the Dog, scratching. Then she seemed to panic: “Who are you? Where am I? Who are you? I remember…being sick…who are you?”
I waited. It was not unpleasant.
“Who are you?” she asked again. “Did you carry me?” she whispered. “You carried me,” she remembered.
Who is anyone?
“I mean, thank you,” she said. “For helping. I…I got sick….My name is Christmas.”
I think she wanted to shake hands. I felt a little proud, a feeling I don’t want. I worked to let my singleness collect before I answered. I used one of my visualizations: be like the thinnest branch of pine, be the needles with the wind tickling. Hear the tickling. Lift up into the wind, into the sky…
I didn’t realize I had closed my eyes until I opened them, and there she still was.
“Mister,” she said again. I didn’t know why.
“Blue the Dog’s hungry,” I said.
“I’m okay,” she said. She elbowed herself up a little more, not easy under the weight of Blue the Dog. “Uh-oh,” she said. “I’m fine,” she told herself.
“I’m Snow Joe,” I said.
“You asked. Snow Joe. See the truck?”
My pickup, parked in front of the house, has Snow Joe painted on both doors.
“What?” She craned her head. “That’s your name?” She pointed at the truck. “Are those snowflakes?”
“I plow driveways. Truck’s got a plow.”
“It’s July,” she said.
“And your name’s Christmas.”
I stepped by, to go fetch Blue the Dog’s dinner. Blue the Dog jumped off of her, which made her grunt, and then she struggled to sit up more fully, moved as though to stand and follow. I could smell her. Sitting up seemed to hurt.
“No.” I opened, raised my palm to the source of the conflict, calmly, with power. “You can’t come inside.”
“My house. I keep a clean zone. You’re polluted. Lie there.”
Blue the Dog pawed at the screen door, worn from where he paws. He’s right-pawed.
I lowered my hand to steady Blue the Dog. “Stay,” I told him as I scratched his ear. “I’ll bring your food. It’s okay. Hold.”
This was different, not his usual dinner in the kitchen, but Blue the Dog, he’s Blue the Dog. He panted as he lay down by the door and looked at me. I felt he might be getting upset.
“It’s okay. Hold.”
The girl lay back on the sofa, and sighed. She was only gray around her mouth now.
I think she was relieved. I was. But I didn’t know what she was, and I was working with that, too.
“What are you wearing?” the girl asked.
“This? It’s a mekumi. It’s a breathing robe. I made it.”
“Oh,” the girl said.
“Look,” I said. “Do you want to take a shower? I’ll show you. I’ve got an old shirt and some shorts that could fit. I don’t need them. Are you able to stand up?”
“I’m okay,” she said. “I feel better.”
“You’re not okay,” I said, pushing open the screen door. “We can’t trust your clothes. Just smell. You’re reabsorbing.”
“Wow,” the girl said. “You are crazy.”
We did what we did. I mixed his dinner, brought his bowl back outside. Blue the Dog gobbled his squash and venison, slurped spring water. From my cedar closet, I grabbed an old denim shirt and a pair of shorts, snatched a safety pin for the waistband. I couldn’t help her with underwear.
I showed her the clothes.
“I don’t know,” she said, eyeing me, holding up the shirt, deciding. “You’re not a creeper, are you? Okay, I guess…” Her nose wrinkled and squeezed a couple of times, like a rabbit kit. “I really stink.”
Blue the Dog finished, grabbed his knucklebone, and trotted into the yard to chew in the grass, which he likes to do after his dinner. Sometimes I bring food, join him, and we chew in the grass, lying together pleasantly.
We moved in the world. She was steadier: she showered, I waited. When the water stopped running, she could hear me. I asked the stall door, “DO YOU WANT ME TO BURN THOSE?”
“YOUR CLOTHES. I’VE GOT A BURN BARREL. IT’S—”
“NO!” I could hear she was upset. “THOSE ARE MY CLOTHES!”
I thought not to reply.
I wondered about this girl. I could hear her presence.
When people get angry at me, I take their anger, and then I don’t like that, both of those angers in me.
“WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS?” I asked the wooden door.
She wasn’t answering.
I admired her silence: the question was too big. What were my feelings? I couldn’t answer either. My life is learning.
The stall door swung slowly open, and she stepped out, dressed, my stained old shirt more of a blanket than a shirt, even though she was pretty tall, the purple hat back on her head. “Thank you.” She handed me my towel. “Here’s your towel. You don’t have to shout, you know. I’m not deaf.”
“Today was nice,” I said.
She looked at me. People look at me.
She kicked at the bad clothes on the ground. Her toenails were painted black. “Can I burn them? Really? People do that?” Her voice was little. “I want to. Not the boots, of course. Can I…can I have some socks, Snow Joe?”
“It’s cancer,” she answered, even though I hadn’t asked. She was feeding the burning clothes into the burn barrel with the burn stick, a hardwood branch I had seasoned, turning over her ruined shirt to make sure of the flame, purifying.
“No one dies,” I said.
She looked at me. “Everyone dies. Me first.”
“No,” I said. “We’re used, we’re absorbed and reabsorbed, it’s all…it’s like one shapeless sponge. The Buddha says, ‘Know the outside as false.’”
She poked the fire harder. She was angry—I felt her anger again, and again, I didn’t want it. I cannot have anger.
Poke, poke, jab, jab, she made the fire spit as the ashes rose.
I was saved by Blue the Dog, as I am. Blue the Dog barked at something in the trees, and looked at me for permission, his eyes full of knowledge.
A dog may yearn.
“Release,” I said to him.
Blue the Dog tore off into the garden, whipping around the compost, headed for the pine trees, fixed on a scent or a sound, dog muscles in concert.
The girl and I together watched Blue the Dog run, and what we felt changed to love.
“He’s such a big dog,” Christmas said. “Can I keep him?”
Was that a real question? It hurt.
“Blue the Dog is Blue the Dog,” I said.
“Jay Kaaaay,” she said. “Dude, I was kidding. It’s all right. Snow Joe, it’s cool. I was kidding.”
I didn’t know what we were talking about anymore.
The sun would be going down soon, July a month of hot sun, my favorite next to May and October and November. The girl needed to go home.
“Can I give you a ride? Let’s have a cooling beverage and then I’ll drive you home.”
We were sitting on the other side of the sleeping porch, on the chairs Buster had made me, enjoying sumac tea and the cloudless sky. The seats of the chairs aren’t comfortable, so I usually grab a cushion from the outdoor couch, but the girl had thrown up on those cushions. Buster’s special chairs were hard. He had made allowances for my height, he had measured me, and we had run through our poses together in the sunshine, as we do, and Buster had done well, so the chairs were tall enough for my legs, as he’s a good carpenter, although upholstery wasn’t Buster’s specialty. He did strike a very good mushroom pose, though, rounding in ways that I couldn’t. I had to remind myself not to want what Buster could do, but only what I could do.
I was comfortable as a body in those chairs. A chair is like a car without wheels, I was thinking, a car was a body for thoughts that move, the motion is in me.
“Listen to me!” Christmas pouted. “I was talking.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“You are such a freakazoid. Yes, I’m ready. I live with my aunt. Does Blue the Dog ride in the truck? My old dog used to get carsick. Can I ride in the back with Blue the Dog? Does he ride on the front seat? Can he come too?”
Driving, we drove. Then we were there. The aunt’s house was a house. I’ve been in houses.
“I’ll come back,” the girl said. “Can I?”
I didn’t say anything.
She gave Blue the Dog a quick hug, grabbed her little girl’s purse, then jumped down, out of the truck, and turned back to look at us.
I looked straight ahead, a good place to look, to see all of the imperfections in the windshield. Glass up close is a lesson.
I had emotions.
“Can I come visit Blue the Dog?”
I waited to know how to answer. Christmas stood there waiting. The engine was running.
I waited. “Okay,” I said. “If you help.”
“I can help!” Christmas liked that.
“The bees. I will bring in the honey tomorrow. The nectar flow—”
I looked up at the sky. Tomorrow would be a fine day, even a favorite day, hard work and honey.
“Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at two o’clock.”
“In the afternoon.”
Something made a noise in the corner of the dashboard, on the girl’s side, maybe a trapped Japanese Lady Beetle.
Why did Christmas say, “In the afternoon”?
“Blue the Dog likes you,” I said, and I put the truck in reverse, checked my mirrors, and pulled out of her aunt’s driveway.
ALAN MICHAEL PARKER is the author of twelve books, including The Committee on Town Happiness (Dzanc, 2014). The Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College and faculty in the University of Tampa MFA Program, he has received two selections for Best American Poetry, three Pushcart Prizes, the Fineline Prize, the 2013 and the 2014 Randall Jarrell Award, and the Lucille Medwick Award. He has been called “a general beacon of brilliance” by Time Out, New York.
Adapted from Christmas in July, by Alan Michael Parker, Copyright © 2018 by Alan Michael Parker. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.
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