Atticus

Marcy finished picking up after the dogs and tied the plastic grocery bag with two simple knots. The three greyhounds barked when they saw she was done because they wanted treats.

“Hush dogs,” she said. She crossed the yard and opened the side gate that led to the front of the house—and the two late Thursday afternoon trashcans that would be emptied on Friday morning garbage day. She swung the gate behind her as she usually did and proceeded forward across St. Augustine grass of the front yard.

When she did so the purebred, silvery dogs raised their heads like chickens around a cock. They were waiting for the click of the gate. This was the sign to stay put, though the opposite had been true during their racing days. The starting cages would snap open, and nothing would have been better than to finally sink their teeth into the fake white rabbit that was always just out of reach. Men would have bad days because of them, and some lucky men would name their own kids after their winning bets. Now, standing around in the yard with ears pinned back, the dogs can’t quite remember how the track and rabbit would, without fail, be replaced by wire cages and rough human hands, but they remember other things.

Before they could really understand what they heard, they were running—the three of them— streaking across the yard. There had been no click, and the first dog to hit the gate and force it open yelped. Marcy hadn’t even reached the trashcans when they ran past. In all her years of rescuing dogs, she had never once yelled after the ones who got out. They would come back.

Blocks away, an old man was trimming stray branches off of a tree in his front yard. The look in his eyes was that of a meticulous man, but his dry, cracked hands made him clumsy. His white undershirt was a good fit, and the wrinkled dimples of his forehead overflowed their narrow banks with sweat. The sunlight coming through the branches and leaves made it look like he was underwater. Occasionally he would stop his work and look toward his house, perhaps in anticipation that his wife might bring him some water or lemonade.

Across the street, a boy passed by his living room window and saw the old man cutting the trees. He doesn’t know the man’s name, but he doesn’t remember many people’s names. His mother says that he should be starting high school now, but the high school said no, so now he doesn’t go to school “for the time being,” his mother said. His own name is Peter, and it helps him understand the man cutting trees better if he imagines his name is Peter too.

Moving away from the window, Peter picked up a pen from his mother’s desk and went into the kitchen to draw on the newspaper at the kitchen table. He would add details to the pictures. Not mustaches and missing teeth, but instead birds and other people, standing in the background. His principal once told his mother that he was troubled, but Peter hardly ever got in trouble. His hands got dark with newsprint, and Peter started thinking about the other Peter, who could still be heard rummaging in the yard.

When he was younger, Peter would play in his front yard or in the street, and once, the old man came and talked to him. The old man reminded Peter of a horse riding character from a movie, and his voice was like a bassoon. He didn’t introduce himself as is the way of most old gentlemen, but his name is, in fact, not Peter, but Sergei. Sergei asked Peter questions he didn’t understand about his father, and then he said he was sorry. Peter was still thinking about the Western he had seen and finally asked Sergei what he knew about horses.

Instead of answering the question directly, Sergei began telling a story, as is the way of most old men. He said that when his parents first arrived in America with him when he was very young, they had had a very rough time. His father had been a skilled taxidermist, which Sergei explained is when you stuff an animal, and Peter nodded in understanding.

“He could make no money doing this in the cities, though, so he answered a letter from his older brother, telling him we would join him in his new home in Kentucky. He lived in a small town outside of Louisville, Kentucky, and he worked in the only ambulance. My father was able to start stuffing the animals that the hunters wanted as trophies, and we were soon able to live in our own small house, and my mother worked in a restaurant.”

His uncle had always told his father that they should all go see a horse race in Louisville. Sergei’s father would sit amongst stuffed ducks and cardinals and think about the horses gliding over the mud and all of the rich men cheering their favorites. Sergei’s father had never gambled outside of poker games with friends, but the thought of hugging a horse with a collar or roses lifted him beyond the musty seclusion of bird feathers. He began setting aside money for his first bet.

“Then one day, my father took my mother and I to Louisville for a horse race. He asked us to dress in our church clothes, and he wore a fancy tie he had made for himself out of the colorful feathers of ducks. In the car, we passed horse farms that went on forever, and I could see the horses playing games and asking their owners for food along the fences.”

The track was exactly how Sergei’s father had envisioned it, and he kept his hand in his pocket, feeling the greasy dollars and lint inside. Sergei watched as his father placed a $50 bet on a horse called “Sea Wolf,” and when his father finished, he turned and winked at his son. Because they couldn’t afford seats in the grandstand, they stood along the fourth turn railing.

“When the race started, Sea Wolf was in the middle of the pack, and we were all yelling. The leader started slowing down though, and Sea Wolf took the lead! My father’s voice broke when he screamed with excitement, and our horse sprinted toward our turn, leaving the others in his dust. My father was watching his $50 become $500, and my mother couldn’t contain herself.”

Sea Wolf started making the fourth turn, and as Sergei clutched the white railing, something began to happen. Sea Wolf’s leg buckled in the mud, snapping her femur. The jockey was thrown as the horse fell and lay motionless and unconscious. The other horses just barely avoided the two as they flew toward the finish line. The horse made horrible sounds as it lay there in the mud, looking wildly around in pain.

“The horse looked at me, and I yelled at it to keep running. It was sad, but I didn’t understand. Three men came out and restrained the horse while a fourth inspected Sea Wolf’s leg. With his back still turned to us and the grandstand, he brought out a needle. The horse kept screaming, and then that was it, and it was silent.”

Sergei’s father lost his bet, and a man in a nice suit and hat made fun of his tie as they exited through the turnstiles. The story made Peter upset, but he didn’t say so, and he began playing again as a sign for Sergei to return to his yard.

Peter kept scribbling in the newspaper, only stopping momentarily to drink a glass of orange juice. His mother called, and he explained to her what he was doing. She said she would pick up dinner on her way home.

Sergei opened his garage door and brought a trashcan out to the curb for trash pick up. His white shirt somehow seemed even whiter now as it soaked through and sparkled with sweat. Very few cars were on the road. Sergei started working in the flowerbed nearest the front door. He wasn’t wearing gloves for this, and as he pulled dollar weeds from the flowers, black soil would get stuck in the cracks in his hands.

From the kitchen table, Peter first heard dogs barking and then the shouts of a man and then something closer to screams. He went again to the living room window. Sergei lay on his back in his yard, and the three greyhounds were sinking their teeth into him and scratching at him with their paws. Peter could see some of Sergei’s blood on his white undershirt, and it scared him. Peter thought about the other Peter being attacked by the dogs, he thought about Kentucky, and he remembered what his mother had always told him about being a gentleman.

Peter walked out of his front door, and he crossed his yard. As he crossed the street, the largest kitchen knife his mother owned reflected the sunlight like a playground slide. Without hesitation and with the methodical movements of a livestock farmer, Peter brought the knife into the dog nearest himself, and he thought of butter. The dog reeled on Peter with its jaws but too slowly. Sergei was so badly torn that he wasn’t fighting as much anymore. Peter moved to the second dog with equally passionless movements. A butcher might have had more misgivings than Peter. The third dog, now without the advantage of his pack, lifted his blood-filled jowls and growled. Peter stepped over Sergei and lifted the knife. This time, though, it was the dog that was quicker, and it ran back down the sidewalk in the direction it had come from.

Peter turned from Sergei and the two dead dogs, and he started walking back toward his house with the dripping knife at his side. A crowd of neighbors had gathered on the sidewalk, and they quickly rushed to Sergei after letting Peter pass. Peter cleaned his mother’s knife off, and sat back down at the kitchen table. He wished his father was there, but he quickly forgot about everything as he returned to the newspaper.

Marcy opened her front door. It was a prospective adoptee, who was there to see her greyhounds. Marcy was about to explain that her dogs had just gotten out and hadn’t come back yet, the third dog wandered up the sidewalk to her front porch. It smelled the other woman before nuzzling against Marcy’s outstretched hands. Marcy sighed and said, “Yes, of course, these are great family pets.” The dog had already licked its jowls clean on the walk home.