1977, OR SO - Meredith Miller
There was a naugahyde easy chair and a copy of William Burroughs’ Exterminator. In the refrigerator there was half a grapefruit and a case of Budweiser in cans. I don’t know what the grapefruit was for, maybe he had some idea about staving off scurvy. Three concrete steps went down to the backyard, one of a row of dusty squares with just some tufts of switchgrass here and there. Also, there were cacti, which I didn’t expect. I walked up the road while he was sleeping and stopped on a rise where the Black Hills were visible in the distance, and I sat right down on a prickly pear. I moved my ass and thought: well, cactus, cowboys, the Dakotas, I guess it makes sense.
This must have been about 1977. There were some Lakota people living on his block and he told me you had to watch out for your dogs, they’d eat them. Why does everyone want to talk about everyone else eating dogs? As if not eating dogs is some measure of civilisation when all you have in your refrigerator is half a grapefruit.
He had a white Cadillac with a black hardtop and he let me drive it. Cars were big then. I drove out of a strip mall and down an empty road and it felt heavy and slow underneath me. I could feel the tie rods moving when I turned the wheel. I could feel every metal pound of it. I was about twelve and I guess that was the first time I ever drove a car.
The only thing in Rapid City in 1977 was the Air Force. That and a lot of bars where people came in from Pine Ridge and Rosebud. The city sat like desolation in the middle of the elaborate wilderness. We went up into the Paha Sapa, the altar of the world, and climbed into the caves underneath the blue pines. We went to the place where Wild Bill Hickok was shot with two aces and two eights in his hand. Now they say this isn’t true. It never happened. 1977 was full of things that aren’t true any more, things that never happened.
Mostly while I was at my brother’s house he slept or we smoked. But what I want to tell you about happened when I wasn’t there.
He had a dog named Sam that stayed tied while he worked and slept. I guess Sam probably drank beer. I know his other dogs did, because I remember that from when he lived in my parent’s basement with his teenaged wife and their five dogs. I wonder now if he walked Sam at all. Put him in the Cadillac and drove him up to the hills and let him run? I don’t even know what the dog looked like. I picture him as black and long-haired, sort of a collie-like shape, but really I never saw him at all. Anyway, he barked. All day while my brother was sleeping, I guess. And maybe all night while he was gone to work.
The next door neighbour was like something out of a film. She had a pilly yellow bathrobe and blue hair curlers and she smoked menthols. She didn’t even begin by complaining nicely. She just came into her dusty yard and started haranguing over the fence, shouting about the dog barking, her curlers bobbing up and down and pulling her hair tight at the roots. Then the guy over the road complained too. I wonder if these neighbours had the sense to be scared of my brother.
Because I know that one time he hit his daughter with a wrench. She was three or four. He was fixing something outside and she came to hassle him with that endless, follow-on string of questions kids have about everything. He just swung the wrench and cracked one of her ribs and she had to go to the hospital. I don’t know what they told the doctors, but his wife took the baby and left pretty soon after. I think that was why I wound up there. He got depressed and called my mother in the middle of the night and a few days later she put me on a plane to Rapid City. I guess the state of the refrigerator was a depression thing, but I didn’t get that at the time. I was the consolation, me and the grapefruit. Mercy mission.
The only things in the front room were that naugahyde easy chair and a table with a pencil and a chess set on it. He was never without a chess set. There’s a way that people take just the one thing with them when they descend into hell. When they start to disintegrate they hold on to one piece of who they actually are, the thing that helps them believe they haven’t disappeared. His was chess. He was good at it, his mind never stopped working five moves ahead. Sometimes that in itself is hell. You have to do something to distract yourself from that. When I was five he taught me to play on a little folding set made of wood. I have it now. It has his name in raised letters on plastic tape stuck to the inside. The little pieces are pegged and fit into holes in the squares. The yellow veneer is cracking off but I still play on it and I worry about losing the pieces.
I don’t know where my brother and his wife lived when he hit the baby with the wrench, but I always picture it happening in that house I visited in 1977. There wasn’t much of a back porch to speak of, and the force of that blow must have knocked her right down into the dusty yard. And I just wonder if the neighbours knew what he was like. Whether they looked at him and saw a hair trigger. Whether they started by shouting because they were too afraid to look into his eyes and speak calmly.
Anyway, what he did about the complaining was to shoot the dog.
There are things I still don’t know. One is whether he shot the dog before or after I went and stayed in that house. There was no dog when I was there, anyway. Also, I can’t picture the details. Did he leave Sam tied and take aim from the back porch? I don’t imagine him being a particularly good shot, though he must have gone to boot camp at some point. If he grabbed the dog by the collar and held the gun to his head, he would have had to clean the gore off his clothes after. Either way he would have had to lift Sam up, dead, take him in his arms and wrap him in a sheet. I guess he cried, because I knew him and he would have.
He drove up and buried him in the hills. Dug a grave and laid him in, which isn’t legal, even with a dog. He told me that sometimes in the Dakota winters people go missing and no one finds them until spring when the snow melts. They’ve wandered off drunk and been buried in the drifts, their scarves stiff with ice around their necks. In a place like that it must have been summer when he buried Sam. You can’t dig a grave with a shovel in those winters. The ground is like rock. At the Wounded Knee massacre it was December and the army left the Lakota bodies in an open ditch and let them freeze.
If he used my dad’s rifle he must have stood on the porch and taken aim. I guess Sam looked up at my brother, wondering what he was doing right until it hit him. If sound travels faster than bullets he would have had time to startle.
Meredith Miller grew up in a large, unruly family on Long Island in New York, and now lives in Devon. She is a published short story writer and literary critic with a great love for big nineteenth-century novels and for the sea. During her academic career, she has written two monographs as well as numerous articles and reviews. Her fiction has appeared most recently in Stand, Short Fiction, Prole, AltHist and The View from Here. Meredith’s debut novel Little Wrecks will be published in the summer of 2017.