The gravel changes to dirt about half way down the hill to our house and it makes my feet start to slide. The highway where the bus lets us off is paved. We have to put our ears on the road before we cross it. Because log trucks don't stop.
"Especially, not for kids" Dad says.
Jake sees me. No matter how hard I try to sneak, he always knows. His chain is pulled tight and his yellow fur blocks the stairs to the front porch. And I smile. Jake smiles too but his tail is not wagging. I walk slowly, with my right hand out, palm down.
"Dogs don't know you until they smell you" Dad says. "Always approach him like this. Got it?"
I come closer. Jake is not smiling any more. His mouth is closed and his face is still, like a statue. His golden eyes with clean whites look straight through me, not afraid, not flinching, he is as tall as me. I take another step in the soft mud and Jake pulls more magic slack from the chain. Another foot. Maybe two. His nose opens up, he breathes me in, starts to growl low.
"Jake stop it. You know me."
My heart is pounding and my mouth is dry. I can smell him. Wet dog, wet pine needles and wet shit: that's Jake. I swear he does this just to mess with me. I inch forward. He's breathing in again. Snorting backward while he does. Almost there.
"You can't be afraid. He'll smell it."
"But how do I not be..."
"Just turn it off. Understand?"
"I mean, yessir."
For six months it's been like this. Ever since we came to live with Dad. Every day, home from school, the same thing. A little closer. 6-8 inches now. My chest is so tight, I can barely breathe.
I can smell the wood smoke from the stove inside. Sam must've lit it. That doesn't make sense. He sucks at starting fires. Dad's not home. His truck's not here. Maybe Sam figured it out finally. For a "big brother," he's not very good at anything. All you gotta do is blow on the coals. That makes the kindling catch. I've told him that a... My hand hurts. Jake's biting it.
My face is hot, really hot and I bite down with my teeth hard, and my left hand is in a fist, and my eyes narrow, and my lips start to frown, and my heart beats in my ears; things get slow and I can feel the hairs on my arm and neck with every drop of water in the mud and it's brighter outside now with my ears ringing and it's really quiet and really noisy and really bright with my eyes cut in slits, all at the same time. Jake is chewing my fingers with his back teeth like he is trying a new chew toy and his eyes still don't see me, but my eyes see him and my hands are cold and my face is numb and my lips are tight and my ears are back and...
"Let go of my fucking hand," I spit from behind my teeth.
Jake sees me with his eyes and he looks like a dog, and he sees my eyes, my not-scared-of-Jake-anymore eyes, and he lets go of my hand, and he sits down with his tail between his legs, and he won't look me in the eyes, and he looks at the ground, and he looks at the moss, and he looks at the mud, and: He will see me, I will make him, for all the times he didn't.
Then Jake starts to move his head to the side, to turn away from me, to get away from me, but I won't let him. I reach forward to slap his face and he opens his mouth to try and bite me again. But I am fast and he misses, and I grab his ear with my right hand and start to twist it and his head turns toward me and he yelps, and he tries to bite my face but I am so fast and he can't stop my left hand from going around his muzzle, and I hold his mouth shut and make him look me in the eyes.
And his paws are on my shoulders, and I feel his nails digging into my shoulders, and I feel my nails digging into his lips, and he shakes his head to try and get away, but I won't let him, and he pulls his head back and he digs his nails in deeper, but I won't let Jake go. And my feet start to slip in the mud, and I dig my heels in and sink over my shoes, and I won't let go, and Jake looks into my eyes and sees me, and that I won't let go. And Jake starts to whine, and he starts to pee.
"Never again," from behind my teeth.
He whines louder.
"You understand me? Never. Again." And I can feel his breath mixing with mine, and the little hairs on his nose touching mine, and together we smell like a scared Jake covered in piss that forgot to brush his teeth this morning and had milk with his breakfast.
"Michael, what the hell are you doing?"
"He bit me."
"Where? Are you bleeding?" Dad clenched his jaw, his blue eyes sharp.
"No, I don't think so."
"Then he didn't really bite you. Now let him go."
"Dad, he fucking bit me."
"Watch your mouth."
"Now let. The fucking. Dog. Go."
So I let go, slowly. My finger nails come out of the fur of his lips and his claws scratch down my chest and Jake turns away as he slides down and he melts into the mud with his belly up, still peeing in squirts. Dad takes two long steps and grabs my hands.
"The... this one," I start to shake my hand.
Dad tilts his head to the side, his eyes narrow, "Jesus fucking christ Michael, right or left? By God you should know your right and left by now... so which is it?" Sam is on the porch. His eyes are like saucers and he looks away and goes back inside. I hate these questions. Close my eyes. Breathe... think.
"Well?" his voice more forceful, thicker, direct.
"Right." God I hope so...
"Are you sure?"
"Yessir. Right... I'm sure." Dad started to look at the hand that Jake bit. My chest relaxed... a little.
"Bruising..." he sighed, "teeth marks, but no blood." He looked down at Jake, "And it's a good fucking thing." He took a deep breath and his hard eyes un-slit. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out his tobacco pouch and began rolling a cigarette with one hand.
"You need to pet his belly, Son."
"Dad... he's covered in pee..."
"I know. But it's important. And it needs done now. Understand?"
So I did. And Dad explained "pack behavior" and how I should've stood up to him sooner, and how he told me, and how me getting bit was my responsibility; my fault, not Jake's.
"We are toolmakers, Michael. Better than the animals. It's our job to speak their language, not their job to speak ours. Got it?"
"Yessir, I'm sorry." My eyes are getting wet. But I hold the water back, breathe deep.
"Well, you didn't lose your arm, and Jake didn't lose his life... So, not too bad. And it seems we now have a fully fucking established pecking order," Dad laughed. "I mean Jesus Michael, he's more afraid of you now than he is of me, and I hit him in the head with a #2 shovel when he tried to bite me."
I look at my feet, then behind us, "Dad, where's the truck?"
He laughed, "Got it stuck on the fucking cattrack on the way up to cut, so I had to ride home in the crummy. It was an early day anyway, so it was a good day for that shit. Don't think I broke anything, and Walter'll help me yard it out tomorrow."
"Let's get inside and have some dinner, Son."
"Okay... I need to feed Jake first."
"Actually, Michael," he paused, breathed in through his nose and shuffled his jaw back and forth; he was thinking, "No food for Jake tonight, and you bring it to him in the morning, not Sam. Hot and soupy with gravy. Let him know who's in charge that way. No forgetting. Got it?"
"Yessir," I nodded as we walked up on the porch. Jake's eyes were watching us from the mud he was still laying upside down in. "He'll be really hungry in the morning, Dad."
"That's why you'll feed him double."
Our house is white and long with a green stripe that runs down the side. There is moss on the porch and on the roof and on the sides and this black dotted stuff coming down the side with it thicker on top. Our house has wheels. Dad says he can pull it with his truck that is stuck in the mud at work and Walter will help him pull out tomorrow.
The metal handle to our door is always wet and cold. Our shoes always go by the wood stove and we always have to take them off inside.
"No exceptions," Dad says.
The wood stove is hot and steady today and the damper is just right. I knew Dad must've lit it. Sam was doing the dishes in the kitchen. He takes forever and still does it wrong. That's Sam. He's my older-not-smarter-not better-always-in-trouble-and-doing-something-dumb brother.
"Michael is feeding Jake tomorrow morning, Samuel," he said as he unlaced his black boots. With both ends of the laces in one hand, he moves the laces down and they click, click, two at a time, off the brass hooks. Then his hand moves to the other side of the boot and click, click the laces pop off. Dad's boots go almost up to his knees and it takes him less time to lace and unlace both of his boots than it does for me to tie one of my shoes. He's really good at it. Boot laces are so complicated.
"... which is your chore in the morning. So you'll need to do one of his chores..." Dad looked at his boots with concern. My job at night is to oil Dad's boots. Sam and I used to trade chores, but Dad got tired of his feet getting wet. So his boots are my chore now. I like it. Dad's feet are always dry now. He said so.
"It'll be something this weekend. I'll figure it out."
Dad turned, "Okay. What?"
Dad sighed. Sam never remembers. I just forgot once.
After dinner and dishes Dad and Sam are laughing on the couch while I oil Dad's boots. Dad said he needs his "corked" boots tomorrow, so I'm doing them first. I don't know why they're called "corked," but they have metal spikes on the bottom so Dad can climb trees better. He needs them because he's topping now and not gonna be felling for a while. He said we can got to work with him soon. I wanna see it so bad.
"I need to wait until we're on a flat spot, then you boys can come. But, you'll be there till the work's done, there's no crying, and you'll stay the fuck out of the way. Got it?"
I dip the brush into the blue and white can of Huberd's shoe grease that has been warming on the wood stove. It's liquidy and I paint it over Dad's boots, pushing it into the white stitches that go through the black leather. I like the smell: leather, fresh cut wood and warm grease. That's Dad's boots. Dad and Sam are still laughing. I like this. It's my favorite.
The laces are out of Dad's boots and the tongue is attached all the way to the top. The tongue is softer than the other parts and Dad folds it to make it fit when he laces them. It's almost creased in that spot. I like rubbing the grease in with my fingers. Smooth and soft and the crease almost comes out. With my hand in the boot and my other hand pressing the melted grease into the tongue. Dad and Sam aren't laughing anymore. And they're staring at me.
"Samuel says you have a question for me." For an older brother, he isn't very smart.
I asked Sam at school first. After that kid pushed me again.
"How do you fight?"
"That's a dumb question."
"I need to know."
"You just do it."
I stopped walking, "That's not an answer." But Sam just kept walking.
"Well, Michael, what is it?"
"I wanna know how to fight."
I hate this, "I want to know how to fight."
"That's better. And no, you don't."
"But I do."
Dad leaned forward, "Okay... why?"
"He won't stop pushing me," and he called me fat.
"Is this that boy in your class you told me about a couple weeks ago?"
"He's in my class, not his," Sam said with a smile.
Dad turned to Sam, his blue eyes not believing what his ears heard. Wide and sharp all at the same time. His mouth was open and Dad grunted out a burst of air. Sam looked at the floor like he lost something there and put his hands in his lap.
"Well if that's the case, then maybe his brother should've done something about it and we wouldn't be having this conversation. Would we Samuel?" Dad tightened his jaw and his nose opened wide and his lips pushed together. "But since his brother doesn't seem to have the guts..." Dad turned and looked at me, "alright Michael, you want to learn how to fight? I'll show you."
Dad stood up. Even in just his socks the whole house shook with each step toward me. It only took two. He kneeled down in front of me and his suspenders creaked into position from the buttons on his jeans. His green shirt was not moved by them and his chest got bigger as he breathed in. I tried to look him in the eyes, but he's still too tall.
I smell mothballs and pine tar and Old Spice, that's Dad. The thick, golden red hair on his arms head and face are all the same length and his green dragon tattoo stares at me from his arm.
"Put the boot down."
"Good. Now, tell me when you're ready." His face is flat. He doesn't look happy or sad or tired or mad or... anything. He just looks.
"Okay, I'm..." I can't breathe. Why can't I breathe? I try sucking in air but it won't let me, my stomach keeps pushing it out, why is Dad's fist leaving? Why can't I breathe? I'm on my knees and I can't breathe, and Sam is laughing on the couch and Dad is laughing on his knees and I am on my knees too, and I can't smell Dad anymore and it's ringing in my ears and it's too bright in here and my lips are numb and it won't stop, and I can't breathe and I don't know what to do, and I can't breathe and my stomach hurts and, and...
"Let it out. Quit trying to suck it in. And let. It. All. Out."
So I push with my stomach as hard as I can, and it hurts and cool air comes in a little, and then I push it out, and then a little more, and it's still too bright and my teeth are cold and my eyes are wet, and I wipe them off cause I don't want Dad to see my wet eyes.
"Come here, Son." And he picks me up off the floor and hugs me in his arms. But my nose is making his green shirt wet and my eyes won't stop being wet and I ry to breathe deep to stop them, but I can't, my stomach won't let me and I can feel his hand on the back of my neck and he's pressing me into his shirt and I start to breathe deep a little, but his shirt is wet and I can see it and he already knows... he already knows... he already knows: I cried.
My head sinks low in his chest and I begin to breathe slow.
I nod my head, "Yessir."
He releases me from his hug and hands me a handkerchief from his back pocket, "Okay. Clean yourself up, then come talk with me. Don't worry about the boots, I'll finish them tonight."
"Yessir." I wipe my eyes and cough and blow out snot like marbles into Dad's handkerchief. And I wipe my eyes again.
It takes me five steps to get to the couch, where Dad is sitting next to Sam again. With my head low, I hand Dad back his handkerchief. As I look up to meet his hand with mine, I see the stain on Dad's shirt: still wet, and an almost black green.
Sam looks at me and starts to laugh, "you should've seen it..."
Dad's eyes turn hard on Sam, "Maybe you'd like to try it Samuel. Maybe you could do better."
Sam's eyes find that thing he lost on the floor again, "Nosir."
"That's what I thought." Dad looked back at me and the black stain on his chest tries to hide under his suspender straps. But it sticks out on all sides.
"Your brother doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. You did just fine, Michael."
"I couldn't breathe. How did that happen?"
Dad cocked his head, "you want me to show you?"
I take a step back, "not like that."
Dad smiles, "take two fingers and hold them together, like this:" his middle and first finger stick out of his fist, like he's pointing a pretend gun.
"Good. Now start at the center of your chest and press in. Feel the bone?"
"Now follow that bone down until it bumps out a little and then gets soft underneath."
I slowly trace the bone down until I feel a bump. It hurts. Just below it's soft like a pillow. And it hurts worse there.
"That bone is called the sternum, the soft spot underneath is called the solar plexus. If you hit someone there you'll knock the wind out of 'em. Got it?"
Sam was tracing his finger on imaginary lines on the carpet from the couch while dad spoke.
"Now, when is it okay to fight?"
"It's not," Sam said like he'd been listening the whole time. Dad shut his eyes and sighed. The black stain almost hid in the wrinkles of his shirt.
"When someone pushes you," I said. And Dad tightened his jaw.
"Here's the deal boys. I don't give a fuck how the fight starts. I don't care about who pushes who or who said what to make the fight happen. All that is just bullshit. If you decide to get in a fight, you either finish it, or you don't come home. Got it?"
Sam and me together, "Yessir."
"Alright then, that's enough talk about fighting for today."
I look back at the wood stove, and Dad's boots.
"Dad, I know you said you would, but is it okay if I finish your boots?"
Dad cocked his head to the side, he looked confused. The black stain was almost completely hidden under his suspenders.
"You really want to, don't you?"
"Alright then, you may."
Today, it's two bowls, four eggs, leave the shells in and mix them with hot water. Jake's gonna be so happy. I crack the eggs on the side and drop the shells in. With hot water boiling on the stove, I pour that in too. Our house shakes as Dad Walks into the living room. He looks at the wood stove and his already rolled cigarettes on the table. He looks at me mixing Jake's food with my hands, the slimy eggs mixing with the water and the dog food and shells not soaking it up, but making a brownish gravy instead.
Get wood from outside, make kindling, bring it inside, light the fire, use only one match, put Dad's boots beside the wood stove so they'll finish soaking up the oil and be warm, roll dad's cigarettes because I wanted to smoke and I liked the cigar, and today feed Jake double because he didn't get to eat last night after I beat him up and made him pee. That's my chores in the morning.
Sam makes breakfast. And burns it. Burned oatmeal everyday, that's Sam's chores in the morning.
The cold air outside makes me shake. It's not winter, but in the morning it's cold and wet outside. Inside too, until I light the fire. It's still dark out and when Jake sees me, I stop. He sits down and starts to whine and I remember I'm not afraid of him anymore. He's afraid of me now.
As I walk up with his steaming hot, soupy food he rolls onto his back and pees. I set his food down and start to walk back to the house. Jake doesn't move. Halfway back I stop in the mud and turn to look at Jake. He hasn't moved, so I go back to him and he pees a little more.
"It's okay, Jake. You can eat now."
Jake lays still.
I kneel down and start to pet the soft fur on his chest and neck, trying to avoid the pee.
Jake starts to grumble and licks my hand.
I pull my hand back quick and my lips are numb and my nose is numb and it's really bright now for still being so dark and Jake lays still. I take a deep breath.
"You weren't trying to bite me..."
Jake lays still.
I start to pet his chest again and Jake licks me, this time with just the tip of his tongue. And I let him. And he licks my hand and keeps licking it with deeper and longer licks. I pet his chest and step over to his food.
"C'mere Jake. C'mon..."
Jake gets up and half walks, half waddles and pees as he comes over. Wen he gets to me and his food, he rolls back over again and pees a little more. I start to pet his chest and scoop a little food up with my other hand. He starts to lick it again and I put the food to his tongue where he can taste it.
"See? That's a good boy... good Jake.."
He doesn't move and starts to eat the food out of my hand upside down while I pet the soft fur of his neck and chest. I can feel him swallow. And the grumbling of his stomach.
Dad is standing just off the porch, watching me and Jake. I don't know for how long.
"Get inside, get cleaned up, and get some breakfast. It's almost time."
"He just needs to know it's okay to eat, Dad..."
He sighed, shook his head, and rolled his eyes, "clearly. Now get on it. He's a dog, he'll figure it out."
At school the kid that pushed me and called me fat is standing and talking with some other boys. I see him, and my lips are numb, my nose is numb and it's too bright outside.
"I want you to leave me alone."
"I'm not doing anything to you," he looks confused.
"The other day you did: you called me names, you pushed me. And now you're going to leave me alone," I can barely feel my hands anymore and my ears are ringing.
"Whatever," he starts to walk away.
I step in front of him, "not whatever. You're going to leave me alone."
"Get out of my way."
"No. You're going to leave me alone."
Then he pushes me and punches my face and I watch my right hand swing around and hit the side of his nose as I fall, and my left hand catches my fall in the wet grass and I stand up, and I am so fast, and he's holding his nose and his eyes are closed and there is red dripping off his chin. And I punch his hands covering his nose and I can feel his nose softer under his hands than before, and I do it again, and he is screaming and trying to get away, but I grab him with my other hand and I do it again and I do it again, and now it feels empty under his hands and something is pulling me away and I do it again, and I don't know what is pulling me away. And I can't let him get away, and I have to win, I have to win, I have to win... or I can't go home. Dad said so.
"Stop! Please! Just stop! You won... just stop..." the boy who was on my right and is pulling my back from his friend kept saying, "stop... please just stop... you won..."
I turn my head to him and look in his wide blue eyes, "how do I know if I won if he's still breathing?" From behind my teeth.
He lets me go and steps back like he's afraid of catching something. His eyes are like round plates.
"Look at him... just look... what's wrong with you?"
The boy who pushed me is on the ground, crying with red flowing off his chin, from in between his fingers and turning brown on his shirt and on the knees of his blue jeans where he fell. His friends were holding him while he cried and shook.
"He better leave me alone."
Everyone on the playground stared. And a teacher took me away.
In the principle's office, it's still too bright. That kid's dad is saying something. He's talking loud. The principle called dad. I told her not to. I told the principal he'd be mad.
"I'm sure he will," the principal said. I don't think the principal understood what I meant.
There's red down the kid's shirt. His nose is flat. His dad is telling me how, "if you were my sone I'd tan your ass."
"Let's just wait for Mr. Barry to show up and then we can discuss it," the principal said to his dad.
"He's gonna be mad."
Dad is still wearing his caulked boots. He steps on every other tile as he walks down the hall to the principal's office. Standing in the doorway with suspenders, a green shirt and red plaid flannel jacket. Dad looks directly at me, "Michael, what happened?"
"Mr. Barry, your son was in a fight and..."
"I'm aware of that," he growled back, "and I'm talking to my son."
"If that sonofabitch were my kid, I'd tan his ass! You need to..."
"I wasn't fucking talking to you either. And if you want to have a conversation with me about how to raise my son we can goddamn-well have it outside."
Dad's eyes stared at him hungry through the silence.
"Well? You wanna try me out, or not?"
The kid's dad looked at the floor.
"That's what I thought," dad turning to me, "so Michael... there was a fight?"
"Did you start it?"
"Did you finish it?"
Dad turns his eyes back to the principal, "you cost me a half day's work. Why am I here?"
"Mr. Barry, it's our policy to..."
"I don't give a fuck what your policy is. Two kids got into a fight. My son finished it. That's all..." the principal glanced at me with soft understanding eyes as dad continued to speak, I waited, "...now. Do we have an understanding?"
"Yes, Mr. Barry."
"Michael, c'mon. We're going home."
I stand up and follow dad as he looks down and measures each step to hit the tiles he missed on the way in. In the parking lot, dad bends down next to the other father's truck, pulls out his pocket knife and starts cutting out 50 cent piece sized holes out of the sidewalls.
"Dad... you can't do that..."
Hardened flat blue eyes look at me, "this sonofabitch just cost me a half-day's work. And by god he's gonna pay for it. One way or the other... and if you don't have the mettle for it, then wait in the fucking truck."
I got in the truck. When all four tires and the spare were holey, dad got in the truck with me. We went to town. Dad bought me an ice cream sundae.