Fawster, Stewp, and Jeanie
"About got it," the man reassured his dog. The mostly German shepherd slumped with a sigh. Stewp worked the tip of his dull penknife between dog and tick. He'd come to be an expert at prying off ticks, as many times as he and Fawster had hiked these woods. "Got 'im," he said with satisfaction, and popped the swollen tick into his mouth. The burst of blood against his tongue was bittersweet and warm.
"Come on." He dry-scrubbed Fawster's shoulder where the tick had been and rose from his haunches to stuff the knife back in his jeans. Fawster, a little old and a lot lethargic, waited in the weeds until Stewp added a whistle to his enticements. The two ambled uphill on a favorite route. Stewp drew deep breaths of the green breeze, happy that snow was surely over for another season, though tramping on crispy white crust was okay, too.
Over the ridge and down a pitch full of wildflowers and poison ivy, the two homed in on the shallow stream they both liked to wade in when it wasn't frozen over. In the lacing of branches overhead, some kind of bird, little and dark, gave them what-for.
Into this perfect day, an ominous form of pollution appeared—-a man standing by the creek, holding a rifle. Stewp sized him up. Short. Bony. Frowning. Alone.
"Hey," Stewp called, smiling as if he meant it. "What's up?"
The man didn't answer. His black brows dipped even lower. His eyes were black and restless. His skinny lips weren't enough to hide neglected teeth. Fawster trotted right up to the stranger to be petted, if that was on offer. It wasn't. The man backed up a step and swung the gun between him and the dog.
"He won't hurt you." Stewp tried not to sneer. "Too much a coward to bite and too lazy to hold on. What you doing?"
"Hunting." The man's voice was high. He cleared his throat and brought out a deeper tone. "What's it look like."
"Looks like you're on a long march with a funny-looking cane. Nothing to hunt out here but sparrows and mice."
"Shot me a squirrel." The man nudged at the weeds by his scarred-up work boot. "Good eating."
Hands in pockets, Stewp strolled closer to look. "That there's a chipmunk. All bitty bones and gristle—what's left of it. You that hungry?"
"Thought I heard a boom when we first come in the woods. Wrong season for hunting, I says to Fawster." Fawster's ears twitched at his name. He grunted as he settled onto a patch of sunny gravel and closed his eyes. "If you're hungry, " Stewp added, "I got half a candy bar. Found it on a picnic table a couple miles back. The wrapper still on it. Mostly."
"I ain't hungry." Not a thank you in sight.
"My name's Stewp. What's yours?" No answer again. What a sour melon. "Course my real name's Ronald. Got Stewp in fourth grade. You know, a nickname. I don't like it, but it's better than Ronald. You got one?"
The man didn't say. Didn't walk away either.
"You might try fishing. I seen crappies in this crick before." Stewp went to the bank, sat down , took off his frayed high-tops and sweat-scented socks to insert his feet in the water. So cold it burned.
"Bet you wouldn't take me back to your house for a real meal," the stranger snarled out of nowhere.
"Bet you're right. Account of I got no house. I'm homeless." Stewp said it the way he always did, as if it were an accomplishment he was trying to be modest about. No repairs, no taxes, no noisy-nosy neighbors.
The man hurled himself down beside Stewp so suddenly, Stewp nearly skidded into the creek. "I'm homeless, too. " He didn't sound as if he saw it as a blessing.
Stewp laughed. "What do you know—us meeting in this big old woods. With stuff in common."
"I came out here to shoot myself."
"Whoa! You don't want to do that!"
"I brought a bottle to give me courage." The man rolled on one hip to reach under a bush and drag it out. It wasn't some dinky little flask, either. It was a quart of gin, looked like, the color of pure pleasure.
Stewp's tongue flicked around his lips. "I'd kill for a lick of that."
"No need. I'll share." The man worked the cap off and used both hands to tilt its mouth to his mouth. His Adam's apple elevatored up and down several floors before he handed the liquor on to Stewp. He closed his eyes and savored how his chest caught fire.
They passed the bottle back and forth, back and forth, till they had to lean on one another or fall face first into the creek. They talked. Mostly Stewp talked. But once the man said, "Your dog didn't even growl at me. He knew I was okay."
"Naw. He just don't growl or go for throats. Fawster wouldn't hurt a—a terrorist."
"No? Then give me your wallet."
"Ha ha. Sure. As if I had one."
The man pulled away from Stewp, who wallowed sideways and then just collapsed on his back.
"Give me what's in your pockets," the man said, "or I'll shoot you." He hauled up the rifle and labored to stop its jiggling. Fawster slid one eyelid up and let it drop again.
Stewp patted his pockets for telltale lumps. "I named Fawster after my favorite teacher. Only had five teachers before I quit school." He dipped up one nickel and the battered candy bar and passed them to the man, who inspected them with obvious disgust. "Later I found out that's what my folks all was," Stewp rambled on. "Fawster parents. Sorta spoiled the name for me."
The man crammed all the chocolate in his mouth and washed it down with the last of the gin. He dropped back and made snowless angels in the bare dirt. "What'd you say your name was?" Stewp asked craftily.
"I'm a genie."
"Jeanie? That's a girl's name."
"I can grant you two wishes."
"Pfffff," Stewp scoffed.
"I can. Maybe even four."
"Three, dumbsnot. Anyone knows it's three." Stewp guffawed at the funniest thing he'd heard in years, maybe ever.
"What's your wish?" the man persisted. He still stretched spread-eagled on the dirt. It would be sooo easy to grab up the gun and smear him all over the scenery.
"I always wanted to hike the Rocky Mountains," Stewp played along. "Send me and Fawster to the Rockies."
Nothing happened. Of course. Stewp's disappointment came up with a belch of bile. "Some genie."
"You get your Rockies. It takes a while to confirm the plane tickets and stuff. Wish something else while you wait."
"Nothing else I want. Except you to go away."
"Okay, that's two. What's three before I split?" Silence. Birds. Wind. The whisper of water over gravel. "Come on," the man prompted. "How about a house?"
"Don't want a house."
"Wish for a house, and when you get it, give it to me." The man's voice was so hushed, so sort of gurgley, Stewp thought maybe it was the creek, not real words.
"I wish for a house." He could always sell it and buy what he truly wanted. Whatever that was.
"Your wish is granted." The man sat up, after a couple of tries, and grabbed Stewp's forearm for his full attention. "The first house you go by with a for-sale sign in the yard isn't it. Not the second house either. The third house you pass that has a for-sale sign in the yard is it. Yours. Go inside and make yourself at home."
Stewp felt the way he'd felt back in school, when the other boys would treat him extra nice one minute, and pull his pants down to his ankles the next. Real disappointed in his drinking buddy. "Sure," he said, settling his tattered ball cap low over his eyes to maybe sleep.
When Stewp wakened, the sun was going and the man was gone. By the time Stewp and Fawster cleared the woods and hit the road to town, a few street lights were stuttering on. He could have spent the night in the woods—they'd done it a hundred times—but Stewp was hungry for something more filling than berries and ants. He couldn't decide which restaurant dumpster to try first.
For Sale. The red and white sign practically jumped off the lawn at Stewp. By Owner. Fawster snuffled over and whizzed on the post.
Stewp slapped his thigh, sniggering. "Not ours." He couldn't help keeping an eye out for the second one.
And there it was, not fifty steps farther along. Fawster managed a few drops to water this one, too. For Sale. Shawna Hill Real Estate. Take one. "One" was nothing edible, just a brochure with lots of words and exclamation points, and a picture of a woman with bone-white teeth and blood-red lipstick.
Stewp obediently stuffed the paper inside his shirt. "Next one's ours," he told Fawster. He didn't have any itch to live in those first two places, big, brick monsters with steep roofs and sharp fences. Hard, gray driveways and mean little windows guarded by pulled blinds. It was kind of fun, though, looking for the third house, even though he was pretty sure the so-called genie was no such thing.
Just when he was losing interest, thinking about his empty stomach again, here was the third house. He and Fawster stopped and stared. It was nothing like the other two. It was small. A cottage with a shaggy yellow-blooming hedge, a weedy drive, a front door the color of fresh tar, and windows that reflected the dying sun. For Sale. And a phone number.
He didn't want a house. But it wouldn't hurt to look it over. He followed Fawster, who had found an interesting scent, around to the back, where looming trees turned the evening into night. Dark overran the yard and no lights showed inside. Stewp felt for the porch steps with his foot, shuffled across to the back door and knocked, hoping no one would answer.
No one did. The knob didn't turn.
What if nobody was home because the owner was standing out here on the porch! "My house," he muttered, using his elbow wrapped in his jacket to smash the door's window. "I can fix that tomorrow." He reached inside to release the bolt. Fawster watched him, head cocked.
Stewp fumbled for the light switch, and then was transfixed by the kitchen that leaped into view. Tiny. Crammed with white appliances and a plastic dinette set . Sink full of dirty dishes. Cupboards hanging open on boxes and cans of food. The refrigerator chugged and rattled, drawing Stewp over to see what it offered. Milk in a carton. A bare hunk of cheese. Pudding or gravy. Moaning, he scooped all this into his arms against his chest and fell into a chair by the table, leaving the refrigerator open for Fawster to scrounge for himself.
After their feast, they toured the house. One small living room made smaller by the truckload of furniture someone had hauled in. One miniature bathroom where Srewp relieved himself, leering the while at his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror, drastically spoiling his aim. One tiny bedroom with an unmade bed, the rumpled blue sheets all ready and waiting. Not too hard or soft. Just right, so that Stewp and Fawster were sleeping fiercely when the people who thought the house was theirs came home.
Stewp spent the next two months in—not just a house—a place Dr. Negrelli called a home. The doc was a nice enough lady, but she had barbwire hair, a styptic voice, and fingernails that could put eyes out, so Stewp was careful to tell her what she seemed to want to hear. He enjoyed her attention, though it made him squirm to admit that he'd fallen for Jeanie's bibble-babble. He wasn't anticipating any airline tickets to the Rocky Mountains. Nope. The only wish Jeanie had been able to grant that day in the woods was his own disappearance.
Stewp liked the food in this home, too. Not very tasty, but regular, without any effort on his part. He had to share a room with a guy who saw snakes on the ceiling; Stewp never glimpsed any but his eyesight wasn't too terrific.
The one bad thing—well two bad things. He couldn't hike in the woods. And he missed Fawster. At first, everyone said his dog was fine, being well cared for, change the subject. Then came the day that Dr. Negrelli told Stewp he was ready to "rejoin society." As if he'd ever joined it.
"When can I have Fawster back?"
Dr. Negrelli softened her voice to a whine. "I'm sorry, Ronald. We had to put your dog to sleep." Well, he'd known that, deep down. But it still felt like broken glass working through his innards. "What do you think about that?" Her favorite words.
He knew enough to say, "Fawster, he was old, anyways." And then when he went back to his room, he fingernail-pinched the back of the snake man's neck, all the while swearing it was a copperhead.
The home found him a dishwashing job at a restaurant. So he could find stuff to eat before it went into the dumpster. And the home found him a room in the Upper Arms apartments, which should have been called the Lower Arm Pits. First chance he got, Stewp walked the three miles to the humane shelter to look for Fawster. He spent the whole trip psyching himself down: You aren't going to find him. He's dead. He's dead.
The shelter was built like a brick beehive, and the cages in back were honeycombs of wire. Stewp paced the first row, peering in at melees of pudgy puppies. The barking hurt his head and smarted his eyes. Here was a grown German shepherd, too young and busy. Another shepherd, with too much black on his face, pressed yearningly into the wire. Moving on, Stewp swiped at his eyes, and the sweat of his hands stung them even more.
The next dog was mostly German shepherd. He smiled at Stewp and wagged his whole back end.
The dog woofed once. Yes.
One of the shelter's volunteers, a freckled woman with a too helpful attitude signed out Stewp's dog. "I can't believe I found him," Stewp kept marveling. "I thought sure he was dead."
"I'm so happy for you," Freckles said. "That'll be fifty dollars. For his shots and all."
Stewp had more than fifty, thanks to his restaurant employer's super-handy till. Their time apart had been good for Fawster, who pranced along beside Stewp into the sunlight, alert and interested. The gray in his tail had darkened to black again. Stewp had to dry his eyes one more time on his shirtsleeve, seeing Fawster so alive.
The restaurant fired Stewp the next morning, which was okay with him because now he could hike whenever he wanted. And the Arms threw him out because tenants weren't allowed to have pets. So now it was just the two of them, Stewp and Fawster, heading for the woods.
If a guy walked at a steady pace, he could go from one end to the other in about five hours. Along the way, there were spots where the trees narrowed and thinned, and scattered houses corrupted the fringes. Someone had even thrown up a treehouse where the woods briefly paralleled a gravel road. Sometimes Stewp slept on the splintery boards, though it was a struggle to haul both him and Fawster up the rotting slats nailed to the trunk for steps.
Today they kept going, Stewp whistling an endless four-note tune, and Fawster hassling squirrels. They arrived at their stream, where they settled side by side, backs to a boulder, and divided the donuts that Stewp had lifted on his way out the restaurant door. Stewp kept turning to look behind himself, thinking he'd heard footsteps. Once he threw back his head and yelled, "Jeanie?" Nothing happened except Fawster's ears stiffened and the birds went still. "He's so fake." Stewp licked the icing and dirt off his fingers. He kneaded Fawster's hide, hoping for a tick dessert, but all he found was a no-taste mite.
They explored to the sudden end of the woods, where a rock-shingled cliff plummeted to a four-lane highway. They hunkered at the top, pitching pebbles at cars till Stewp's elbow felt scorched, and then they headed back the way they'd come.
What woke Stewp was Fawster growling. They'd camped for the night about halfway through the woods in another favorite place, where bushes formed a little cave. "What?" Stewp whispered, afraid a skunk or worse had showed up to challenge them their den. "Shut up a minute." Fawster did, and Stewp listened so hard his ears hurt.
Chink. Chink. Ka-ling.
"Shhh—come on. Be cool."
They wriggled out of the bushes and straightened to sniff the air. Humus was all Stewp detected. Silver light—part moon, part dawn—filled the woods. Stewp crept toward the clanging, shushing Fawster every few steps. Through a grove of trees, they could se the glow of some kind of lamp—off, on—as trunks hid and unhid it. And dark movement, up, down, left, right. A man digging by the light of a lantern. The clearing he worked was no bigger than a double bed, a comparison that came to Stewp because of the blanket lying beside the hole. His back was turned. Stewp studied him. Stringy black hair, check. Baggy jeans, check. About the right height and weight.
The man stumbled sideways, almost stepping on the blanket. He twisted around and hefted the shovel like a baseball bat. Fawster's growl shifted into frenzied bark.
"It's just us. Fawster, cool it." Stewp moved closer, squinting at the snarling face. It wasn't quite the same, but months of living rough would drag the mouth down, droop the eyes, line the forehead. And the bad teeth sure looked familiar. "Remember me? Stewp." Fawster, whining, followed Stewp closer to the hole, which went down about a foot. "You picked yourself a challenge of a job there. Lotsa rock." The blanket, this close, turned into a bundle about Fawster's size. "Awww, sorry about your dog. He'll like it out here for eternity."
Now Stewp could see the man's eyes. They were black but they burned with too bright a light. Jeanie's eyes when he talked about being homeless.
" You remember me. By the creek more'n a year ago? You ate my candy because you had a rifle." Stewp didn't see any guns now. "You gave me three wishes." The man just stared. Which exasperated Stewp. "Where's my Rockies hike?" he yelled. "And my nickel, huh? You got me in a lot of trouble!"
Jeanie swung the shovel straight at Stewp's head. Stewp threw out a reflexive hand and the blade skinned red-hot across his arm. Anger crowded out shock. "Hell's wrong with you!" His heart galloped, shaking him all over. Jeanie pulled back and readied his shovel-bat again. He screwed his boots deeper into the dirt.
No use running—the dumbsnot would brain him from behind. No use rushing him, he'd hit a homer before Stewp took three steps. No use begging, not when those eyes glittered with that holy fever.
The blur that was Fawster flying by so surprised Stewp, he sat down hard on the lumpy grass. By the time he had his breath back, the shovel was on the ground and so was Jeanie. Stewp palmed his ears against the commotion and shouted, "He's just playing—see his tail a-wagging? Fawster, come back here. Stop it. Quit!" The dog couldn't hear over the screams, and didn't back off until he was shaking a mouthful of limp rags.
When Fawster finally trotted over to Stewp for a head rub, Jeanie sprawled like a drunk, one blood-lathered hand dangling into the hole he'd dug. Still. Stewp shoved himself up and, bulldozing Jeanie out of the way with his foot, retrieved the shovel. Adrenaline fueled him as he worked. He made the rocky soil and metal ring. Fawster prowled around, sniffing at the blanket and at Jeanie, before dropping to an alert, sphinx-like pose well away from the swinging shovel.
When the grave was deep and wide enough, Stewp lifted the blanket bundle into its place of rest. "Greyhound." he judged. "Little bony legs and arms." He paused, pondering why he'd said that. Shook his head once. Filled in the grave. The whole time, Jeanie didn't move. Didn't even twitch.
It was daylight when Stewp threw down the shovel. Fawster stood to welcome him and nuzzle his caressing hand. Stewp said, "Thanks for settling that guy."
They didn't bury Jeanie. Partly in case he wasn't dead, but mostly because Stewp was dog-tired of digging.