Last Days of the Dog-Men
Winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. In each of these “weird and wonderful stories” (Boston Globe), Brad Watson writes about people and dogs: dogs as companions, as accomplices, and as unwitting victims of human passions; and people responding to dogs as missing parts of themselves.
“Elegant and elegiac, beautifully pitched to the human ear, yet resoundingly felt in our animal hearts” (New York Newsday), Watson’s vibrant prose captures the animal crannies of the human personality—yearning for freedom, mourning the loss of something wild, drawn to human connection but also to thoughtless abandon and savagery without judgment. Pinckney Benedict praises Watson’s writing as “crisp as a morning in deer season, rife with spirited good humor and high intelligence,” and Fred Chappell calls his stories “strong and true to the place they come from.” This powerful debut collection marks Brad Watson’s introduction into “a distinguished [Southern] literary heritage, from Faulkner to Larry Brown to Barry Hannah to Richard Ford” (The State, Columbia, South Carolina).
“Brad Watson is a writer still mystified by his own immense talent. How could he not be? He writes sentences you wait a lifetime for. Tells stories you’ve never heard. Last Days of the Dog-Men is the best I’ve read in ages. Mercy for none, but salvation for all.”
—Robert Olmstead, author of The Coldest Night
“A sad, beautiful meditation on love, loss, and dogs…. Watson’s best writing is full of an unusual sort of lugubrious humor and depth.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The dogs are not pets so much as fully realized characters, the equals – sometimes the betters – of the men and women stirring up today’s Deep South. Watson writes with surprising emotional force.”
—Amy Hempl, Elle
Excerpt from “Last Days of the Dog-Men”
When I was a boy my family always had hunting dogs, always bird dogs, once a couple of blueticks, and for six years anywhere from six to fifteen beagles, But we never really got to where we liked to eat rabbit, and we tired of the club politics of hunting deer, so we penned up the beagles, added two black Labs, and figured we’d do a little duck.
Those were raucous days around the house, the big pen in the back with the beagles squawling, up on their hind legs against the fence, making noises like someone was cutting their tails off. It was their way. At night when I crept out into the yard they fell silent, their white necks exposed to the moon, their soft round eyes upon me. They made small, disturbed, guttural sounds like chickens.
Neighbors finally sent the old man to municipal court charged with something like disturbing the peace, and since my mother swore that anyway she’d never fry another rabbit, they looked like little bloody babies once skinned, she said, he farmed out the beagles and spent his Saturdays visiting this dog or that, out to Uncle Spurgeon’s to see Jimbo, the best runner of the pack. Or out to Bud’s rambling shack, where Bud lived with old Patsy and Balls, the breeder. They hollered like nuclear warning sirens when the old man drove up in his Ford.
After that he went into decline. He liked the Labs but never took much interest, they being already a hollow race of dog, the official dog of the middle class. He let them lounge around the porch under the ceiling fan and lope around the yard and the neighborhood, aimless loafers, and took to watching war movies on TV in his room, wandering through the house speaking to us like we were neighbors to hail, engage in small talk, and bid farewell. He was a man who had literally abandoned the hunt. He was of the generation that had moved to the city. He was no longer a man who lived among dogs.
It wasn’t long after that I moved out anyway, and got married to live with Lois in a dogless suburban house, a quiet world that seemed unanchored somehow, half inhabited, pale and blank, as if it would one day dissolve to fog, lines blurring, and seep away into air, as indeed it would. We bought a telescope and spent some nights in the yard tracking the cold lights of the stars and planets, looking for patterns, never suspecting that here were the awful bloody secrets of the ancient human heart and that every generation must flesh them out anew. Humans are aware of very little, it seems to me, the artificial brainy side of life, the worries and bills and the mechanisms of jobs, the doltish psychologies we’ve placed over our lives like a stencil. A dog keeps his life simple and unadorned. He is who he is, and his only task is to assert this. If he desires the company of another dog, or if he wishes to mate, things can get a little complex. But the ways of settling such things are established and do not change. And when they are settled and he is home from his wandering he may have a flickering moment, a sort of Pickett’s Charge across the synaptic field toward reflection. But the moment passes. And when it passes it leaves him with a vague disquietude, a clear nose that on a good night could smell the lingering presence of men on the moon, and the rest of the day ahead of him like a canyon.
Which is how I’ve tried to view the days I’ve spent here in this old farmhouse where I’m staying with my friend Harold in the country. I’m on extended leave of absence from the Journal But it’s no good. It’s impossible to bring that sort of order and clarity to a normal human life.
The farmhouse is a wreck floating on the edge of a big untended pasture where the only activities are the occasional squadron of flaring birds dropping from sight into the tall grass, and the creation of random geometric paths the nose-down dogs make tracking the birds. The back porch has a grand view of the field, and when weather permits we sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes and sip coffee in the mornings, beer in the afternoons, often good scotch at night. At midday, there’s horseshoes.
There’s also Phelan Holt, a mastiff of a man, whom Harold met at the Blind Horse Bar and Grill and allowed to rent a room in the house’s far corner. We don’t see a great deal of Phelan, who came down here from Ohio to teach poetry at the women’s college. He once played linebacker for a small college in the Midwest, and then took his violent imagination to the page and published a book of poems about the big subjects: God, creation, the confusion of’ the animals, and the bloody concoction of love. He pads along a shiny path he’s made through the dust to the kitchen for food and drink, and then pads back, and occasionally comes out to the porch to drink bourbon and to give us brief, elliptical lectures on the likes of Isaac Babel, Rilke, and Cervantes, gently smoking a joint which he does not share. In spite of his erudition, thick, balding Phelan is very much a mood old dog. He lives alone with others, leaves to conduct his business, speaks very little, eats moderately, and is generally inscrutable.
One day Harold proposed to spend the afternoon fishing for bream. We got into the truck and drove through a couple of pastures and down an old logging road through a patch of woods to a narrow cove that spread out into the broad sunlit surface of a lake. The sun played on thin rippling lines that spread from the small heads of snapping turtles and water moccasins moving now and then like sticks in a current.
Harold pulled a johnboat from the willows and rowed us out. We fished the middle, dropping our baits over what Harold said was the old streambed where a current of cooler water ran through down deep. The water was a dark coppery stain, like thin coffee. We began to pull up a few bluegill and crappie, and Phelan watched them burst from the water, broad flat gold and silver, and curl at the end of the line, their eyes huge, They flopped crazily in the bottom of the boat, drowning in the thin air. Phelan set down his pole and nipped at a half-pint of bourbon he’d pulled from his pocket.
“Kill it,” he said, looking away from my bluegill. “I can’t stand to watch it struggling for air.” His eyes followed the tiny heads of moccasins moving silently across the surface, turtles lumbering onto half-submerged logs. “Those things will eat your fish right off the stringer,” he said. He drank from the little bottle again and then in his best old-fashioned pedagogical manner said, “Do we merely project the presence of evil upon God’s creatures, in which case we are inherently evil and the story of the garden a ruse, or is evil absolute?”
From his knapsack he produced a pistol, a Browning .22 semiautomatic that looked like a German Luger, and set it on his lap. He pulled out a sandwich and ate it slowly. Then he shucked a round into the gun’s chamber and sighted down on one of the turtles and fired, the sharp report flashing off the water into the trees. What looked like a puff of smoke spiffed from the turtle’s back and it tumbled from the log. “It’s off a little to the right,” he said. He aimed at a moccasin head crossing at the opposite bank and fired. The water jumped in front of the snake, which stopped, and Phelan quickly tore up the water where the head was with three quick shots, The snake disappeared. Silence, in the wake of the loud hard crack of the pistol, came back to our ears in shock waves over the water. “Hard to tell if you’ve hit them when they’re swimming,” he said, looking down the length of the barrel as if for flaws, lifting his hooded eyes to survey the water’s surface for more prey.
Harold himself is sort of like a garment drawn from the irregular bin: off-center, unique, a little tilted on his axis. If he were a dog, I’d call him an unbrushed collie who carries himself like a chocolate Lab. He has two actual dogs, a big blond hound named Otis and a bird dog named Ike. Like Phelan, Otis is a socialized dog and gets to come into the house to sleep, whereas Ike must stay outside on the porch. At first I could not understand why Otis received this privilege and Ike did not, but in time I began to see.
Every evening after supper when he is home, Harold gets up from the table and lets in Otis, who sits beside the table and looks at Harold, watching Harold’s hands. Harold’s hands pinching off a last bite of cornbread and nibbling on it, Harold’s hands pulling a Camel cigarette out of the pack, Harold’s hands twiddling with the matches. And soon, as if he isn’t really thinking of it, in the middle of talking about something else and not even seeming to plan to do it, Harold will pick up a piece of meat scrap and let it hover over the plate for a minute, talking, and you’ll see Otis get alert and begin to quiver almost unnoticeably. And then Harold will look at Otis and maybe say, “Otis; stay.” And Otis’s eyes will cut just for a second to Harold’s and then snatch back to the meat scrap, maybe having to chomp his jaws together to suck saliva, his eyes glued to the meat scrap. And then Harold will gently lower the meat scrap onto the top of Otis’s nose and then slowly take away his hand, saying, “Stay. Stay. Stay. Otis. Stay.” Crooning it real softly. And Otis with his eyes cross-eyed looking at the meat scrap on his nose, quivering almost unnoticeably and not daring to move, and then Harold leans back and takes another Camel out of the pack, and if Otis slowly moves just an eighth of an inch, saying, “Otis. Stay.” And then lighting the cigarette and then looking at Otis for a second and then saying, “All right, Otis.” And quicker than you can see it Otis has not so much tossed the scrap up in the air as he has removed his nose from its position, the meat scrap suspended, and before it can begin to respond to gravity Otis has snatched it into his mouth and swallowed it and is looking at Harold’s hands again with the same took as if nothing has happened between them at all and he is hoping for his first scrap.
This is the test, Harold says. If you balance the meat scrap, and in a moment of grace manage to eat the meat scrap, you are in. If you drop the meat scrap and eat it off of the floor, well, you’re no better than a dog. Out you go.
But the thing I was going to tell at first is about Ike, about how when Otis gets let in and Ike doesn’t, Ike starts barking outside the door, big woofing barks, loud complaints, thinking (Harold says), Why is he letting in Otis and not me? Let me IN. IN, And he continues his barking for some couple of minutes or so, and then, without your really being able to put your finger on just how it happens, the bark begins to change not so much a complaint as a demand, I am IKE, let me IN, because what is lost you see is the memory of Otis having been let in first and that being the reason for complaint. And from there he goes to his more common generic statement, voiced simply because Ike is Ike and needs no reason for saying it, I am IKE, and then it changes in a more noticeable way, just IKE, as he loses contact with his ego, soon just Ike!, tapering off, and in a minute it’s just a bark every now and then, just a normal call into the void the way dogs do, yelling HEY every now and then and seeing if anyone responds across the pasture, HEY, and then you hear Ike circle and drop himself onto the porch floorboards just outside the kitchen door. And this, Harold says, is a product of Ike’s consciousness, that before he can even finish barking Ike has forgotten what he’s barking about, so he just lies down and goes to sleep. And this, Harold says, as if the meat scrap test needs corroboration, is why Ike can’t sleep indoors and Otis can.
The other day, Harold sat in a chair in front of his bedroom window, leaned back, and put his feet on the sill, and the whole window, frame and all, fell out into the weeds with a crash. I helped him seal the hole with polyethylene sheeting and duct tape and now there’s a filtered effect to the light in the room that’s quite nice on cool late afternoons.
There are clothes in the closets here, we don’t know who they belong to. The front room and the dark attic are crammed with junk. Old space heaters in a pile in one corner, a big wooden canoe (cracked) with paddles, a set of barbells made from truck axles and wheel rims, a seamstress dummy with nipples painted on the breasts, some great old cane fly rods not too limber any,more, a big wooden Motorola radio, a rope ladder, a box of Life magazines, and a big stack of yellow newspapers from Mobile. And lots of other junk too numerous to name.
All four corners of the house slant toward the center, the back of the foyer being the floor’s lowest point. You put a golf ball on the floor at any point in the house and it’ll roll its way eventually, bumping lazily into baseboards and doors and discarded shoes and maybe a baseball mitt or a rolled-up rug slumped against the wall, to that low spot in the tall empty foyer where there’s a power-line spool heaped with wadded old clothes like someone getting ready for a yard sale cleaned out some dresser drawers and disappeared. The doors all misfit their frames, and on gusty mornings I have awakened to the dry tick and skid of dead leaves rolling under the gap at the bottom of the front door and into the foyer, rolling through the rooms like little tumbleweeds, to collect in the kitchen, where then in ones and twos and little groups they skitter out the open door to the backyard and on out across the field. It’s a pleasant way to wake up, really. Sometimes I hang my head over the side of the big bed I use, the one with four rough-barked cedar logs for posts and which Harold said the mice used before I moved in, and I’ll see this big old skink with pink spots on his slick black hide hunting along the crevice between the baseboard and the floor. His head disappears into the crevice, and he draws it out again chewing something, his long lipless jaws chomping down.
The house, doors haven’t seen a working lock in thirty or forty years. Harold never really thinks about security, though the bums walking on the road to Florida pass by here all the time and probably used this as a motel before Harold found it out here abandoned on his family’s land and became an expatriate from town because, he says, he never again wants to live anywhere he can’t step out onto the back porch and take a piss day or night. The night I showed up looking for shelter I just opened up the front door because no one answered and I didn’t know if Harold was way in the back of the big old house (he was) or what. I entered the foyer, and first I heard a clicking sound and Otis came around the corner on his toes, claws tapping, his tail high, with a low growl. And then Harold eased in behind him, his rusty old .38 in his hand. He sleeps with it on a bookshelf not far from his bed, the one cheap bullet he owns next to the gun if it hasn’t rolled off onto the floor.
The night that Phelan arrived to stay, fell through the door onto his back, and lay there looking up into the shadows of the high old foyer, Otis came clicking in and approached him slowly, hackles raised, lips curling fluidly against his old teeth, until his nose was just over Phelan’s. And then he jumped back barking savagely when Phelan burst out like some slurring old thespian, “There plucking at his throat a great black beast shaped like a hound, `The Hound!,’ cried Holmes, `Great Heavens!’ half animal half demon, its eyes aglow its muzzles and hackles and dewlap outlined in flickering flame.”
“Phelan,” Harold said, “meet Otis.”
“Cerberus, you mean,” Phelan said, “my twelfth labor.” He raised his arms and spread his fingers before his eyes. “I have only my hands.”