Lump in the Gutter

by Charles Hale

He wasn’t in church, wasn’t going to make it this week, and it wasn’t exactly because Melinda was out of town. He hadn’t missed church since he started dating Melinda, but whatever the series of events had been last night, and he was certain he would never know exactly what they all were, but they had left him forgetting the alarm clock, forgetting about church and Christ altogether. And then there was the pain, in his forehead and the bed shifting around on him and room spinning when he closed his eyes.

But Jacob didn’t want to forget about church, he had found comfort in the teaching and in the discipline. And it was something Melinda valued. But after the room stopped spinning Jacob saw the yellow shirt he was wearing. He didn’t recognize it as one of Melinda’s. It had low cut neck and hung slightly off his right shoulder the sheets smelled like sex, raucous sex. And Melinda was out of town for the week. “It must have been a good time,” Jacob said just to make sure his voice was still working. And it was probably whomever’s shirt he was wearing, he thought but couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud, as if saying such a ludicrous thing would make it more real than it was already becoming. Slowly, as to not agitate the pain that had spread from his forehead throughout his body, Jacob pulled the shirt off, threw it on the floor and found his boxers under the comforter. Then he put on a t-shirt and walked out of his bedroom. His tongue was sore.

In the bathroom Jacob prayed while he was pissing and prayed while he swallowed three ibuprofen. It wasn’t church but it was something. The men in his prayer group had witnessed to him many times about the direction Christ had provided them when they most needed it. They had given their lives over and had thus been rewarded. They believed God had chosen them and their successes were the result of his love. Jacob was still struggling to turn himself over completely, yet he wanted to. It was strange to be thinking of these things while holding on to the bathroom counter to keep from falling. But as he was becoming aware of the night before and the severity of the potential consequences, this morning he wanted direction to be given to him. He wanted Melinda to be his wife, needed her to, but now his inebriated infidelity thumped through his veins like strong liquor. Slowly, as if doing so in that way would make the sound gentler, Jacob flushed the toilet and ran a bit of water into his hand and splashed it on his unshaven face.

Though Jacob had been praying and listening, Christ hadn’t provided any answers by the time he made his way into the living room and saw Ed asleep on the couch. And the quiet there was broken only by Ed’s gentle breathing and it was the quiet that reminded Jacob of the dog. Melinda’s dog that he had volunteered to watch and who wasn’t stirring around and the driving pain in his forehead dropped and sagged against the waistband on his boxers. He looked around the room moving only his neck, but the dog wasn’t there and when Jacob made a little clicking sound with his mouth and listened, nothing stirred. His feet wouldn’t move; he tried them again and they were still too heavy to lift. But he needed to find that damn dog.

<style=”text-indent:125px;”>* * *Jacob had planned to shop for rings soon; at 32 it was time, and Melinda was an answered prayer before he had become a praying man. She had moved to town not long before they met and after two dates they were together. She made him feel like a grownup. That first night they met she corrected him on something – he couldn’t remember what now – but politely she told him that he was mistaken. That kind of thing didn’t happen to Jacob very often and it caused him to follow her around for most of the rest of the evening. He enjoyed listening to her talk, it was calming and exhilarating all at once. He asked her to dinner. Before he met her he had begun to feel left behind. But then she was there and they were together and he didn’t feel so old. And people invited them places, she brought him to Christ, and people prayed for them. A life he deserved and not one to let slip away.

<style=”text-indent:125px;”>* * *“Have you seen the dog? Wake up. Where’s the dog?” Ed rolled his face out of the cushion of the couch. When he opened his eyes Jacob asked again if he knew where the dog was.

“Dude, you had it outside with that chick from the bar.” Ed sat up and rubbed his face. “What was the deal with her?”

“I don’t know,” Jacob said, momentarily losing track of the missing dog. “I don’t really remember.” As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Melinda didn’t need him as much as he needed her and she was too composed of a woman to live with an excuse of being drunk. He had already begun searching for a way to explain it to her, a way to confess and have her still love him.

“I was half-passed out on the couch when ya’ll started up the freaky stuff in here.”

“Sorry about that.” Jacob said. Finally able to move he walked to the back door.

“I’ve never really seen anything like it.” Ed said and followed Jacob through the house. “That girl ran out here naked and then started clapping her hands. Then I had to see you come out of your room in nothing but her shirt. All that flapping in the wind wasn’t something I needed to see. You should have kept that shit in the bedroom, modeling the shirt for her, walking across the room and twisting your hips. Then you started to vogue and I rolled over and tried to pass out.”

Jacob opened the back door and started calling for the dog with no response. When Ed reached the door he told Jacob that he had taken the dog out the front door when they had first gotten home from the bar, then he continued his play-by-play of Jacob’s debauchery. Details didn’t seem to be the important thing when he made his admission to Melinda, but as he searched for the dog from the back door he also searched for the words to balance his need to be honest and his desire to protect her from truths she didn’t need.

“Then I heard something hit the floor, it was loud, really loud like I thought you might have passed out, but then I heard sucking and moaning. I didn’t want to look, fuck.”

Jacob stood with the front door open and stared out to the street. A dark lump of something was in the gutter. His eyes fixed on the lump, waiting for it to move and trying to figure out what he would do if it didn’t. Ed was oblivious to the door being open or to whatever it was out on the street and kept talking.

“You were lying flat on your back and that chick had one foot in your mouth. That’s fucking gross, dude, I didn’t need to see that shit and you didn’t need to be doing it.”

“Shut up, Ed.” Jacob finally said and Ed looked outside. As if the consequences were circling like buzzards just above the tree line while the two men stood on the stoop and watched the street. It was early, earlier than Jacob should have been awake with such a hangover, and out on the street everything was still. The wind wasn’t blowing through the leaves on the trees, cars weren’t passing on their way to work, and no one was walking. There wasn’t even a sprinkler running. If Melinda had been in town, Jacob thought still staring at the lump in the gutter, none of this would be happening. He needed her to stay with him, it was her role. He had a role as well: to provide, protect, and decide. She should’ve known better than to leave him like this. The roles of each member of a family were often discussed at prayer breakfasts and Jacob had come to embrace the rigidness the New Testament provided. The head of the dead dog might have been staring at Jacob or he could’ve been imagining it, but he wanted something to make some noise somewhere so he would wake up in his bed with much less of a hangover than he had but nothing stirred.

“Fuck,” Ed said after the kind of prolonged silence that could drive men crazy. “That’s not good.”

“No it’s not,” and he had difficulty finding more breath. “It’s not at all.”

Jacob sat down on the stoop steps and his hands propped up his chin. Ed patted him on the back and walked down the stairs. “I gotta get home,” he said and walked out across the lawn. He cut across the yard avoiding the dead lump in the gutter and never looked back. Jacob was envious of Ed. He could remember when he was young enough that he could only care about himself, young enough that each day stood on its own and the sins of one day never lasted into the next. It was one of the few blessings of a young man that Jacob missed. He never seemed to worry about the present anymore, only the future and at this moment his future looked as if it was on the verge of rotting in the gutter.

He had a pity party on the stoop for a little while, one like Jacob hadn’t thrown since childhood. And he wasn’t even sure if there could be a pity party if there was no one there to witness. This day wasn’t supposed to be like this and he lulled himself for nearly an hour before his prayer group came to mind. They had often talked about these types of times and how Jesus would want them to react. Jacob prayed harder, out on the stoop, than he had ever prayed before. He knew that clasping his hands wasn’t necessary but did it anyway until he realized he was gripping himself so tight the circulation to his fingers was cut. Then the passage from John came to him. It was one that was often quoted and for the first time Jacob could see the importance of this passage in his own life. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go out and bear fruit-fruit that will last. Then the father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” Jacob said this several times, just loud enough that he knew he was speaking and not just thinking. With Melinda and Jacob together they could do great things in the name of Jesus, but he had seen his life without her in it and it was headed for damnation. And as he spoke the passage over and over again he felt the words of his savior finally reach him and he knew what had to happen next.

<style=”test-indent:125px;”>* * *The present negativity wasn’t his future. The men in his prayer group stressed the future to Jacob, and they taught him to think of the works he will do in his savior’s name, not the things he has done in the past. And so Jacob thought of his wedding day and how his marriage to Melinda was what God wanted. It was God that brought her to him, and now that he had heard the word, the directions kept coming. So as he went inside and grabbed the yellow shirt before returning to Obie dead in the gutter, he was aware that he was now in service. His mind was elsewhere when he nudged the dog with his foot onto the yellow shirt. Jacob didn’t want to touch it, to touch Obie, but he couldn’t get him squarely on the shirt with just his feet so he quickly moved the dog completely onto the shirt and then wrapped it and picked it up. It was heavier than Jacob had remembered and his fingers ached as his grip began to slip.

He was up the driveway and behind his car when his fingers gave way. The sound of a dead dog hitting concrete angered Jacob. He wanted to be in prayer group and telling the other men how his savior had spoken to him and how he was now in complete service. But he wasn’t there yet and he reached his leg back and kicked the dog. It didn’t move. After kicking the dog a second time with the same results he knelt down to it. This time instead of holding it away from his body and using the strength in his hands to carry the weight, he flung Obie, still wrapped in the woman’s yellow shirt, over his shoulder and carried the cumbersome sack that way.

The weeds and brush had grown up some and there wasn’t much grass in the backyard. Jacob found a spot out of sight of the back door and dropped Obie. It sounded like an old tire but didn’t bounce. Then with a shovel from the carport Jacob pried the first clumps of dirt up easily. Slowly he began to outline the grave, not exactly a perfect rectangle but he wasn’t much concerned about precision. There were things he needed to do after burying the dog and since this was the most unpleasant of his tasks he hoped it would be over soon. Before the pile of shovel dirt was larger than the dog he understood why he always saw several men leaning on their shovels while one dug. The sweat dripped off his eyebrows and saturated his shirt. But he didn’t rest long before jamming his foot down on the shovel and into the dirt.

“Goddamn it,” he yelled after hitting another root. Digging a grave was considerably more difficult than he had expected, his corners had turned round and the center was a good bit deeper than the sides. He was digging from inside of it now, his boots caked and mud splattered on his legs. After forty minutes of swearing and digging he threw down the shovel and picked up the dog in the shirt. It seemed like it had gotten heavier while lying there and he flung it into the hole. Little black legs hung out of the grave and none of it was deep enough to completely submerge the dog. He stood back and tried to will it into being good enough, but it wasn’t going to happen. Then Jacob thought he heard someone talking in the neighbor’s yard. But after looking around he was convinced it was nothing.

With Obie out of the grave, Jacob set back to sharpening up the edges. Mud was on his shirt and he could feel it on his face, sticking to him and irritating his skin. Nearly each time he stomped on the shovel his shoe slid off. He couldn’t make as much force as he wanted to and he swore. Over and over again.

His pants and shoes were ruined by the time the grave was deep enough. This time Jacob slid the dog into the hole. The grave wasn’t perfectly square nor was the dog’s body so Jacob mashed the dog’s head with the flat side of the shovel until it would tuck into the body and fit. Then he stomped down on one of the legs so it wouldn’t stick out. Something in the leg cracked. But the dog was in, completely.

He found refilling the hole much easier than digging it out. It was almost if he didn’t think of it as a dog anymore. The fill dirt packed in nicely and without a tremendous amount of effort. When it was completely covered he packed down the dirt by slapping the ground with the flat side of the shovel. The sound seemed to echo; it was squiggly, that sound, and it almost made Jacob laugh. Then he moved leaves and sticks over top of the grave and scattered the excess dirt. From a couple of steps back it looked OK, so he looked from different angles. He could tell where the grave was but that was because he had dug it, he knew Melinda had no reason to look for it. And she never went in that part of the yard. Besides, a proposal would take her mind away from a missing Obie. It was done and Jacob prayed.

With his grave-mud-covered pants and shoes outside the back door, Jacob ran the water for a shower. He didn’t know exactly when Melinda would return from her weekend away but he wanted to have flyers made and hung and a ring purchased before she arrived. As the soap and water washed away the filth, he thought about the flyer. He figured he should keep it simple: lost black lab, very friendly, call 801-4349 seemed like message enough. He could print twenty and tape them up around the neighborhood. If they were already up before Melinda got home it would demonstrate how serious he was taking this and then there would be nothing to do but check to see if the pound picked him up or wait for someone to call.

He typed the flyer with a towel wrapped around him and the verse from Matthew came to mind. As the copies spit out of the printer he went back into the bathroom and brushed his teeth again. He knew his plan had plenty of opportunities for failure but Jacob believed he was being assisted. Besides, the hole digging had gone better than he had expected and he really loved Melinda and their marriage seemed like a logical and preordained event. He was merely accelerating the process. He spit and rinsed and repeated then hung his toothbrush back in the rack. Melinda’s was there, though he couldn’t remember when she brought it over. Their bristles were facing each other almost like they were about to kiss or whisper something important. Jacob felt an ache inside and lingered a moment. He felt a ripple of fear go through him at the thought of her taking back her toothbrush back just as he heard the front door open.

She wouldn’t understand his devotion, and he searched for the words as she called out to him and he walked toward her. His moment of doubt. “Hey Jacob,” she called out again after he didn’t respond the first time. And then they met on opposite sides of the living room where hours before he had been in some other woman’s shirt and now he was wrapped in a towel. Soggy from everything but the shower. And Melinda smiled and he knew what was required, a moment of God’s trying, and he felt called and tested and resolute now. All of it came from her.

“Honey,” he said and sat down hoping she would as well. “Obie got out this morning. I don’t know what happened.” He watched Melinda sit slowly on the couch and desperately watch him for something. He knew she needed him now, she needed Jacob to be the rock, to be their solid foundation and he was ready. “I’ve been out looking all morning.” And there it was, the lie had been sowed and the tension in Melinda’s body seemed to seep out of her. “He didn’t come when I called and no one’s answering at the pound. I’m thinking somebody has him inside their house.” Melinda took her bag off her shoulder, she was moving in slow motion or so it seemed. He watched her face for any trace of doubt, but there was only silence. The kind of silence that can make men do stupid things and Jacob was terrified now that if she didn’t say something he would confess to it all. So he prayed. The silence was only seconds but long enough that when Melinda asked him what happened he felt that his prayer had already been answered. He explained that he had gotten up early that morning and let Obie into the backyard and that he must have escaped while he had fallen back asleep. “I just printed some flyers to hang. Do you want to help me?”

<style=text-indent:125px;”>* * *Fifteen minutes later they were two streets over. Melinda had started calling out as soon as they walked out the front door and Jacob started doing the same. They worked opposite sides of the street, taping flyers where they could and looking into backyards and up driveways. He could hear the desperation in her voice, each call of Obie’s name a little more haggard and horse. And thus Jacob yelled louder and louder. Once, when he thought he saw something move behind someone’s trashcans he darted up the driveway, his heart rate jumping, only to find a plastic grocery bag. It surprised him when he realized he was disappointed. At the end of the block they looked at each other across the street. Jacob gestured with his hands to ask her if she had seen anything. His gestures were sad, almost as if he was believing that their mission was unsuccessful, but even from across the street he could witness Melinda’s mood spiraling downward. Her head shook from side to side in painful and deliberate repetition. He wanted to call out to her that they would find Obie soon but as he searched for breath it wasn’t there. Instead he nodded up and down, an indication of the communication divide that was soon to emerge, and then pointed for them to turn the corner.

Three driveways from the corner Jacob saw Mr. Carroll picking up his paper. The two of them had met at church several months ago and sometimes attended the same Sunday School class. Mr. Carroll’s tie was loosened off his neck and Jacob guessed he had just returned from the late service. After unfolding the paper and glancing at the headlines Mr. Carroll looked up the street and waved to Jacob.

“You missed an excellent lesson on forgiveness today,” Mr. Carroll told Jacob as the two men walked toward each other. Jacob thought of three nails and a cross and felt slightly embarrassed and surprised that his absence had been noted.

“I really hate I missed it,” Jacob said as they shook hands. When Mr. Carroll motioned to the flyers in Jacob’s hand he sighed before telling Mr. Carroll about the missing dog. “Melinda loves Obie so much, I’m sure he’s in someone’s house licking them to death. We need to find him.”

“Melinda’s a good woman, a real good woman. I’ve been a fan of hers for several years.” It seemed that Mr. Carroll wasn’t too concerned about Obie which only made Jacob more committed to finding the dog.

“Yes she is, but I’m afraid I’ll lose her if I don’t find her dog. You haven’t seen a black lab running loose?” As Jacob was asking he was looking over Mr. Carroll’s shoulder trying to see anything moving. As the moments passed he grew more and more agitated with Mr. Carroll’s indifference and took a step past him while he waited for an answer. But then Mr. Carroll stepped with him and said that he hadn’t but would be on the look out.

They walked in silence a few steps, Jacob’s eyes darting from one yard to the next and back and forth across the street. Melinda was further up the street and when she stopped and taped a flyer to the stop sign she turned and saw Jacob and Mr. Carroll walking together. She waved and they waved back.

“You should marry that girl,” Mr. Carroll said. “I’ve been praying on it some and I think the Lord would bless your union in spectacular fashion.”

Jacob called out for the dog before telling Mr. Carroll he had been thinking the same thing. He told him that he planned on shopping for the rings any day now and believed that the Lord had spoken to him. “Obie,” he yelled and then said, “I truly believe together we can walk into the Lord’s light.” Jacob didn’t stumble over the thought of Mr. Carroll praying about him, instead he felt comforted knowing that a man of his stature would consider him worth prayer. It seemed deserved and confirmed his belief in what he was doing out on the street.

“Since we’re talking Jacob,” Mr. Carroll said. “We’ve got a position opening up in a couple of months at the company. I’m sure it will pay better than what you’re doing now, and it’s something you could really grow with. Think about it and we can talk next Sunday after church. But I think you can be a key man in what we’re trying to do.” Mr. Carroll patted Jacob on the shoulder a couple of times and then turned and walked back toward his house.

And there it was. He had more answers than he ever expected and Jacob quickened his gait on the way to Melinda. He would tell her what he could tell her, but the desire to pretend to be searching for Obie was rescinding from his mind. There would be some searching tomorrow, a call to the pound, but their future was bigger than a dead dog. A dog was such an earthly possession, and instead he would kneel and place a ring on her finger. Like it had been written before it happened. And soon she would forget about the dog and they could live their life in service of Christ. And he would one day, years from now, speak in prayer group to a younger man about being tested and listening for the word and recognizing when it was spoken.

*

Charles Hale lives in a duplex in Fort Collins CO where he owns a small window cleaning business. He is a contributor at the music blog Ninebullets.net and blogs about nothing and everything atcharleshaleblog.wordpress.com. His fiction has appeared in Kitty Snacks, Metazen, and Smokelong, and others.