The Derelict’, Nicasio Andres Reed

Illustrations © 2021 Eric Asaris

 [ back on my couch, © 2021 Eric Asaris ] A dog is always crying outside my window. In the night, and sometimes in the afternoon. It’s been going on since I rented this room, several weeks ago now. When I can sleep, although it’s still crying, I wake ashamed.

The dog is one or two buildings away on the street running parallel to mine. It wouldn’t be too difficult to pinpoint by walking down the street and waiting to hear it behind one wall or another, especially in the evening when it’s vocalizing. I think about that a lot as I lie back on my couch, sip warm gin, and wait for it to stop.

“I’m here about the dog,” I say to the window screen. “My name is Elena and I live in the building around the way. My window faces the back of your house, so you can imagine what I hear from this direction every night.” I light a cigarette while the owner sputters. I assume the owner is a man because I’m more accustomed to the cruelty of men. He dismisses me, of course. Turns his back and says I should leave.

I’m across the room, reaching into the fridge, pulling out the bread and butter. “Did you get her as a puppy?” I ask, though it matters less whether the dog is female. “Did you choose her from the litter? What sort of life did you imagine that you’d have together, you and the dog?” The owner doesn’t admit to anything, but he gives me the dog. She sits at the foot of my couch. She shares my buttered bread. She only cries for a moment in the mornings when I go out to look for work. It’s at that point, before I give her a name, that I aim to fall asleep.

This, every night, with her unvarnished suffering echoing in every corner of my room.

One day I go to the agency and they need five people to work a third shift cleaning ballrooms at a hotel. I’ve done some hospitality catering before, so I get the job. For five days I sleep easily through the noise of rattling traffic. No blinds on the window, so I simply turn my face into the back of the couch and let it be enough. The furniture came with the room. It smells of cumin and of my cigarettes.

Saturday comes and it’s difficult to switch back to sleeping at night. The dog is louder than I’d remembered, and the time between her whines is more irregular. A break that should have been long enough for me to nod off during is instead fraught with anticipation. She cries deep into the night. I press my nose into the couch and say, won’t you die already? Morning traffic is shuddering to a start when I doze.

I’d planned to go to the laundromat on Sunday, but I wake up late and feeling fuzzy-mouthed and dull. There’s still plenty of time to organize my clothes and walk eight blocks to wash them. I’d still get home before noon. But instead I putter in my room, waste hours trying to win back some sleep, become angry with myself, and declare the day a loss.

I go to the bodega on the corner for cereal and milk, and then with my purchases in a bag I walk in a circuit around the neighborhood. The sun is neither high nor low, its light dripping intermittently through the clouds like a drizzle. Traffic is thin. There’s nearly nobody else on the sidewalks except for a work crew digging through it across the street from me. Two of them are heads and shoulders above the pavement. The third is just a man’s head leaning up onto the dirt. His eyes are closed and his hard hat is off, his hair thinning. He doesn’t move. The other men don’t seem alarmed, but by the look of him he could be a dead thing, flung haphazard into this hole in the ground. I keep him in sight until I turn the corner.

At my building there’s a letter from my brother in the mail. He’s in Alaska, says the work is grueling, the town is bleak, the weather is cruel. I haven’t bought a table yet, so I write my reply on the counter by the sink. The city is warm, very hot some days. Work is steady enough, and easy, nothing to complain about. I’ve made a friend, and barely have time to miss home. It’s alright if he does, though. He’s so much further away, and brave.

Then the night, and the dog.

I’m so thoroughly braced to hear her that it takes me some time to notice she’s late. The tension of waiting is nearly as poignant as her voice itself.

Who knows how long I hold my breath until she yelps once, twice, and I can sleep.

On Monday the agency gives me three days of work packing boxes at a printing company. The hourly pay is lower than I usually take, but it’s first shift and on a bus route I can catch just outside my door. They have spots for two people: me and another woman I’ve seen in the agency waiting room. Her name is Gema, I remember.

Gema wears her long, dark braid in a bun and says she’s been in the city for more than a year. She’s worked shifts at this place before.

“Do you have your own safety goggles?” Gema asks. I do. “Bring them so they don’t dock you for using theirs. They charge it per shift. Ridiculous.”

We’re at the end of the spiral bindery line. The last station before we pack the books is a 15ft-long machine that pierces through the paper, threads a spiral of wire through the pages, then crimps the ends of the wire to secure it. The hydraulics hiss and choke, hiss and choke. The wires come out sharp at the ends. Both of us take a moment’s lull to flip through the book we’re packing. A 55-page manual for a vending machine. We share a disappointed smile.

Sounds in this place don’t echo, everything stops twenty feet below the high ceiling and white lights. We’re far from any walls, arrayed across a featureless floor. It’s the sort of space that makes me think of how it must look from above. Spare, clean, dry. Like a home just after a family packs their life up and leaves.

There’s a half-hour lunch. I have a cigarette on the curb by the parking lot, then a sandwich in the break room. On the walls are a poster of labor rights and regulations, new and laminated, and a poster of workplace safety policies, tattered at the edges. There are only three chairs, all taken by permanent staff, so I eat fast while standing, pretending to read the posters. Gema’s nowhere to be found until we have to get back to the line.

When I came to the city, I thought I would work in a dressmaking shop, then earn enough to open my own. But my cousin’s sister-in-law, a tailor who said she could apprentice me, had a miscarriage the week I arrived. Between the medical expense and her grief, the plan stalled indefinitely. The agency finds me work most weeks, but the longer I’m here, working in these emptied-out warehouses and back rooms and industrial kitchens, the more I forget what it felt like to have a plan, a picture of a future I could want. Life shrinks, or I do. Today it’s shrunk to how the wire on the books pricks at the callouses on my fingertips.

At the end of the shift, Gema slips one of the books into her handbag. She sees me seeing her and raises an eyebrow. I tuck a book under my shirt. We tumble out the doors giggling; I invite her back to my place.

In my room, the dog has only just started to cry. She doesn’t know yet that it won’t stop.

“I’m sorry it’s so empty right now,” I say. I should find a table this weekend. There’s no point to living without a table. And a lamp—the overhead bulb washes everything bare and flat and yellow.

“You just got here,” she forgives me, and sits very near to me on the couch.

Gema takes my beer and sets it on the floor so she can take my face and kiss me. She’s so forward, all mouth and legs. I’m in the cup at the bottom of her neck when she remarks on the dog. “Will it ever stop, poor bastard?” I shrug, out of breath. She tears her skin from mine and gets up to shut the window and shut out the noise.

“I’m lonely here,” I tell her, extending my arms.

I’ve never had a dog, but there was a dog that frequented my family’s house when I was very young. She was tall and black with white paws, a long, square snout, and an odd little mustache like a dragon. Nobody knew which of the neighborhood dogs whelped her, since she towered over them all and they tended to be white or brown or brindle.

When we ate dinner, this dog would press her face right up to the screen door. With her face so long she would have to do it sideways, her lip distorting at the pressure, her long white tooth showing. She whined just like a human baby and her brown eyes pleaded. My mother smacked me if she saw me saving food for the dog, but I did it, and she ate out of my hand. Enormous, shabby, and gentle, and still hungry when there was nothing left.

Thursday night I’m drinking and smoking and talking to the dog owner out the open window again.

“You could feed her your trash.” The dog cries. “You could put her out into the street.” The dog cries. “You could cook her and eat her; you could do anything.” There’s the sound of a struggle.

I’ve never heard the owner be physically violent with the dog before—I’ve never heard the owner at all, but I’ve lived here less than two months. The sound comes again, then quiet, then the sound again. It’s in bursts, just like the dog’s crying. It sounds like a strong, frantic shaking, like the owner is holding her by the neck and lifting her off the ground entirely, throttling her and twisting her body around with huge force. It sounds like something is shaking itself out of the ground. The sound is so large, so heavy. The dog doesn’t cry during the silences, doesn’t yelp. The sound comes again, then stops. It keeps coming.

I can’t catch my breath. I’m at the window, at the door, sitting down, at the door again. I pick up my phone, though I’m not sure who I’d call. Each time the quiet comes I think, “There, he’s finally killed her, thank God.” Then it begins again. The fist closes behind my ribs. My shoes are on, I’m tripping down the stairs.

The street where the dog lives is the street where the men were digging a hole. It’s much larger now, a deep black rectangle with concrete pipe laid out beside it, everything under a fish-gut-pink streetlamp. Two women on bicycles pedal down the road, then they’re gone and there’s no noise, nothing at all.

In the spot where I’ve thought the dog must live there’s a big house behind a high wall, and next to it a vacant lot. The remains of a broken concrete foundation and the unclaimed leftovers of a building are piled, scattered in the vacant lot, a jumble I can’t see through. In the house there’s only one light on that I can spot from the street. I work to still my own panting breaths. It sounds so overwrought, like a soap opera, comical. I pat my knuckles against my chest and stand very close to the gate of the house where the dog must live. The cone of lamplight cuts my toes off from my feet.

There’s nothing at all: not crickets, frogs, cicadas, voices through the wall, not a whine, nothing. It ended while I was on my way.

The house is like a lot of houses in this neighborhood. Two stories, iron-barred windows, flat roof with a spider-legged antenna. Not more than two steps’ distance between the gated wall and the front door. In the day I’ve seen its red trim; in the night it’s undistinguished, a blank face that won’t acknowledge me. I can still feel that sound in my body, that brutal grip.

Traffic noise encroaches again. A bus stops at the corner and stands with its door open, nobody coming on or off, the light from inside the bus blinking onto the sidewalk, then closing off again, carrying its safe little world with it down the street. The dog is dead. The dog must be dead.

I try to wait for the light to turn off inside the house before leaving, but it takes a long time, so I go home.

 [ spider-legged antenna, © 2021 Eric Asaris ] The next day is my last shift at the printing company. I’d like to see Gema, but it’s someone else instead—an older white man with a red face. I worry he’ll stare at me, ask me about myself, he looks the type. Thankfully, it seems he’s just trying to stay upright. He pinches himself over and over in the same spot on his inner elbow. He pinches his flesh, the machine pinches the pages, he pinches himself, the machine sews in the wire, he pinches himself, he shuts his eyes tight, the wire is bent, the book is spat into my hands.

Did the owner bury the dog? Did they put it out with the garbage this morning? I only looked at the house through my window as I left this morning. It looked normal, the same.

“Pat,” I say my coworker’s name. “Have you lived in the city long?”

There’s a long pause. “More’n thirty years,” he says. He doesn’t sound proud of it.

More books into more boxes. It’s still the vending machine manual. How many people could need to have their own copy of this particular vending machine model? Gema and I had flipped through it the other night in my room, reeling off technical lists to each other in bizarre accents. “So stupid,” she said right up against my shoulder, and threw the book onto the floor. I don’t know if she meant the book, my silly accent, or that we’d go back the next day to stack more of these into boxes to send them out into the world, that that’s what we amounted to for this week at least.

“Do you like it here? Do you know a lot of people?” I ask. I don’t usually do this, the chit-chat, but I need another living thing to be in the room with me. Pat shrugs, then pinches his face, a wince, while he pinches his arm.

“Sure. Sure. I know you now, ah?”

Something’s wrong inside the machine. It’s not winding the wires through the pages correctly, just skewering them. Books roll out stabbed straight through, pages skewed. Work halts for three hours that we won’t be paid for.

That night it rains. A deluge of noise on rooftops, awnings, the windowpane, and the cars sluicing through the street. The smell of cold water on hot pavement. No lights are on in the house across from my window. I go out into it, I have to.

Pink street light reflects orange on the sidewalk outside the dog’s house. The hole across the street has expanded vastly, swallowed half the block, felled a tree and left its stump unearthed and abandoned, roots starving in the air. There are cars parked all along the street, but none in front of the house or the empty lot beside it, that space that yawns dark, open with rain.

I’m slick, oily wet. My sleeves are too short. There’s nobody here, and I slip around the corner of the house and into the empty lot, into the space between the ruined foundation and the house’s side wall, out of view of the street lights. Back here it’s not clear where the lot ends, though it must be about my own building’s rear gate. In that gap I walk the wall, keep my fingers along it. It’s painted cinderblocks, pebbling apart under my hand.

This is the first heavy rain since I’ve been in the city, and it smells alien all over again. Acrid, like a coin between my teeth. I put my back against the wall, and expecting nothing, I say, “Here, girl. Here.”

Right in front of me, a dog’s head lifts.

I came to the city on a bus that I’d watched drive by all my life. Orange with a white stripe, its destinations hand-painted along the side. When I was a girl, I’d catch the eyes of the passengers who leaned their arms and hair out the window. The dirt on my feet, the wind on their cheek, we’d pass each other. When I rode the bus, the window was closed and wouldn’t open. I pressed my face to the glass and watched everyone on the road, even if they didn’t watch me. Many people slept on the bus, it was a six hour ride, but I kept my eyes open. I wanted to see.

A dog’s head lifts in the dark and the wet. Low eyes, short folded ears, the color of concrete. I should have brought something. Bread, a rope. I can only say, here, girl, and put out my hand.

There are no dog-sounds, no wary dog contortions. It lifts its head and keeps rising. Taller, too tall, rising with a sound like molars grinding in an enormous mouth. There’s water in my eyes, the wall against my back. I can’t see the edge of the lot we’re in. The street is far now, indistinct. There might be the street to my right, a back entrance to my building to my left, there might be a dog in front of me, leaning closer.

It walks to me. Legs like spears, like the sound of rain on tin. Five, six, seven of them skittering like traffic under a tent of a body that accumulates from the discarded materials of the lot, a rattling shack of a body made of corrugated metal, woven bamboo walls, the locked doors of a shipping container. The dog is a house. Here and there the ends of rusted rebar curl out like fur. Extended far in front of it all is the dog’s face, worn loosely like a sock on a child’s hand. Eye sockets drooping, mouth slack, snout empty, bolts driven through the hide to hold it in place.

I think: she was white, the dog is white, I hadn’t been picturing a white dog.

My palm is still out, up, shaking with every rain drop that hits it. That face, slack and jellied, leans down into my open hand. I breathe in bursts. The assorted body sways, the sharp feet scrape against the ground, the dog or the thing that killed the dog heaves itself nearer. Its neck arched, the face in my hand, the steel doors of its chest a foot from my own heaving chest. In the cold of the rain I feel its hot breath in my palm. It puts the muzzle of its face it my hand and rests it there, its jowls puddled over my fingers. It’s a dog-gesture. It’s just a dog.

A car comes down the street, a pair of headlights cuts into our space. Everything collapses in a spatter no louder than the rain. In a moment I’m on the sidewalk, under the streetlamp, past the bus stop, through my door, in my room. Outside the window, a dog is crying, bereft, left alone in the downpour.

There’s sun in the morning. I could go to the agency, but I go to a café. I have two cups of coffee and borrow a newspaper to hold. Gema calls but doesn’t leave a message. I wasn’t expecting to hear from her again. Her name on my screen looks so strange. Like I’m holding someone else’s phone, this Elena who lives in the city.

More people work in this café than drink in it. They wipe the tables down around me. A man sits down to eat a bowl of soup. His skin hangs off his neck. He speaks loudly, at length, to the wait staff in a conversation that begins as if it’s gone on for years. His car is falling to pieces, his grandson is growing too slowly, the soup is saltier today than yesterday. When someone comes to clear my table, she calls me Miss, and I tell her my name. She smiles blankly and disappears into the back.

Gema lives in a high-rise on the north side of the city. There are shops on the ground floor, and every apartment has a small balcony. She’s on the eighteenth floor, somewhere in the middle, but dizzyingly high, precariously high, a sliding-glass door and lines of wet laundry between us and the drop. The buildings below are unreadable from this height, random roofs that could be absolutely any place, anywhere. The noise up here is nearly empty.

“I didn’t think you would call me back,” she says. She’s putting magazines into a stack, adjusting the curtain, switching on a lamp, slicing the pastry I brought from the café. It’ll be night outside soon.

“Yeah,” I say, and press her into her bed.

She’s firm. I press, I press and knead her so that I can feel the structure of her under her skin and muscle. I push away her shirt to take her flesh in my mouth. She’s body-warm, sand-brown, smiling at me like I might smile at a strange, charming child. She puts her hand on my cheek and runs a thumb across my brow, sketching my skull.

“Elena,” she says. I could sob for the sound of me in someone else’s voice.

I press her into the bed, I press into her, until the sky goes dark.

She leaves me in her apartment that night because she has a third shift to work. I wear her shirt onto the balcony. There’s a breeze up here and it flaps her wet laundry against itself, a slap-slapping noise. From here the city is a tangle of lights. Gold, yellow, white, pink. Traffic strung like a line of lanterns, high roofs blunt as teeth.

Far down, towards the train station, is a block of darkness. I mark it, and look away. I check again, and it might be closer. I look again and it might be larger.

I pinch my own arm to feel the meat between my fingers.

Gema would be home at 7A.M. I leave at 5A.M. and catch a bus to the street where the dog lives. The houses are unremarkable in the morning light. The vacant lot is a dry, still ruin like any other. There are men in the hole dug across the street again. Half a dozen up to their necks in the sidewalk. Laughing with each other, drinking coffee out of thermoses. They don’t look up when I walk into the lot.

Near the back, laid flat on a fallen wall like a lost glove, is the dog’s face. I can see the pale pink inside, the precise edges of it, its empty gums. The steel doors are across the lot, the flat metal roof propped on its side another ten feet away, the seven sharp legs with three bulbous joints scattered here and there. A line of ants is marching near to the face, breaking off in excited explorations as they reach it.

I take the face first. It’s heavier than it looks, and feels dense in my hands, like a sweater just out of the washing machine. The back gate and back door to my building are at the back end of the vacant lot, so I can get to my apartment without anyone watching, though I rush up the stairs to make sure I don’t meet a neighbor coming up or down. I put the face on the arm of the couch that’s nearest the window. In a little while, that spot will catch the sun.

I put some bread out on the floor nearby just in case. I don’t know how much bread to leave. Two slices? I keep tearing until it’s four. I could spread some butter on it, but you shouldn’t spoil a dog.

The other parts will be harder to take up to my room. The pipe legs, the door chest, the roof ribs. I’ll take my time, I won’t take a new job from the agency for a few days, to make sure it’s all inside before the next rain comes.

That night I eat a bowl of cereal. On my couch, by the open window, I smoke a cigarette and wait for the dog to wake up so that I can sleep.

© 2021 Nicasio Andres Reed

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