If you ask my friends, they’ll likely say I’m the last guy they’d expect to haul off and hit someone – so this bastard was about to get the wrong impression of me. I don’t even know how hard I can punch, but what else could I do? Yell at him? Forget that. You yell at someone who hits your car with a shopping cart. From what little I saw of him, he’s probably bigger than me, but as the saying goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. I’ve got plenty of that.
The moment I saw the car, I knew it was his. How many people put a glossy red paint job on an old Chevy station wagon? This boat was its generation’s version of a mini-van, driven by necessity, not choice. I know – I was the kid riding in the stow-away third seat that was littered with sticky hard candies and broken Hot Wheels cars, and none of those Hot Wheels was a lame-ass station wagon. Every kid wanted a Mustang or Corvette or something cool, not a friggin’ Ford Country Squire. The same was true for every dad, but with Hot Wheels, you didn’t need to adjust your tastes to accommodate kids and dogs and life. Nothing would have given my dad less hope for the next generation than seeing someone spend money trying to make a station wagon look cool.
I had given up on seeing this car again, yet there it was when I hopped off the bus, sitting just a few parking spots down a side street – in plain view, like the driver never did anything wrong, like he thought karma was taking the day off. It was as if he was challenging me to call him on his shit. Well challenge accepted, dickhead. Nothing pisses me off like someone thinking they can get away with something because the victim won’t confront the problem. That ain’t me. I won’t let sleeping dogs lie. This dog wasn’t even asleep – he was dead. You don’t get off scot-free for that.
I walked toward the car, my mind flooding with memories as my body filled with adrenaline. I’d know the driver when I saw him. I got a good look at him just before it happened, nearly five weeks ago now, and his face matched the car: a lame-ass douche trying to look cool with a 70s mustache and Roy Orbison glasses and a dirty mesh-cap, his whole personae looking like it was ordered from AgingHipster.com. There was no chance I was going to hit the wrong guy. I just had to wait for him to get there.
As I got close, I pretended to admire the car, really just wanting to confirm one detail – and there it was, the front corner staved in the smallest bit, the bezel around the headlight misshapen. Not much damage, but a soft dog doesn’t leave much of a mark on hard steel. I stepped back from the car, leaned against a mossy concrete retaining wall, and waited.
If he had stopped his car when it happened, I wouldn’t have been pissed. Diego was a nutcase, I knew that. He’d had a bunch of close calls over the years, and not one of them put the fear of God –or cars – into him. I should have kept him tied in the yard, I know that, but I didn’t have the heart. He loved everyone, and with a bus stop just a few houses down from us, there were a lot of people to love. He’d see a familiar face coming up the sidewalk and lower his head, the speed of the tail wagging increasing as a person got closer. Most folks knew him by name and enjoyed petting him as much as Diego reveled in their attention. If I was home in the afternoon, he’d whine at the front window until I finally took my coffee out to the porch so he could ambush the neighborhood teenagers with his little wag as they walked home from the bus after school. We had more foot traffic than car traffic, and he’d mostly stay in the yard no matter who was coming, but all bets were off when he saw a squirrel. When he did, he didn’t see anything else, and that’s how it happened with the wagon. I didn’t see the squirrel until the switch had already flipped in his head, the one that put a laser on the rodent and blinded him to that red Chevy. I saw the driver, saw Diego bolting, and knew the guy was one second away from feeling like a sack of shit. If he’d stopped, I would’ve run over and picked up Diego and told the guy to drop the tailgate so I could put the dog in the back; as we sped to the vet, I could have assured him that it wasn’t his fault; when he dropped me at their door, I would have called us square and thanked him for the ride.
But he didn’t feel like shit. He stopped momentarily and craned his neck to see over the hood, then stepped on the goddam gas. So instead of putting Diego in the back of the wagon, I had to run to a neighbor’s house – no one home – then another – no one home – then another – no one home. Finally I had to pick up Diego and carry him to the fuckin’ bus stop because I don’t have a car of my own, trying to run but feeling like the world was made of mud. With no bus in sight, I collapsed with him in my lap, telling him everything would be okay, quietly cussing that asshole in the wagon and the schedulers at the transit office and everything else in the world. Suddenly a car skidded to the curb and a woman I didn’t recognize yelled through her window, “What can I do?!” I climbed into her back seat with Diego and told her where the vet was, already suspecting I’d been lying to Diego about everything being okay. “I know the place,” she said as she stomped on the gas pedal. She drove way too fast and I thanked her for it, but all she said was, “talk to him”, so I did, calling him a crazy idiot and praising him for being so wonderful, talking him through the pain and confusion until he seemed to go off to somewhere else. By the time we got him inside the vet, I knew it was too late. The vet tried, but there wasn’t anything left to try with.
I remember the vet letting me stay as long as I wanted in the sterile little room, then telling me to come back tomorrow, we’d deal with everything tomorrow, and was I going to be okay? I said yes, because that’s what you say, even if you didn’t really understand the question. I tapped my back pocket and remembered my wallet and bus pass were still at home, and I heard someone say, “I’ll get him home.” It was the woman who had brought me there, who was probably unsure how to get out of this sudden whirlwind she had found herself in, or maybe didn’t think she should get out just yet. She said goodbye to the vet by name and we went to her car. I sat in the front, and as we drove, she asked me how long I’d had Diego, what he was like, and I answered her as best I could, still trying to process it all. I told her my address and as we pulled up to the curb she asked, “You good on tomorrow? Do you need a ride over?” I told her I was fine, and that I couldn’t thank her enough for stopping, for helping. “Of course”, she said, like there was no other way a person could respond to the situation, but I had seen first-hand that there was another way – you could drive off like a goddam coward.
That night, a dark cloud of anger began spreading through my house. I was in the fog as I washed and stowed Diego’s bowls and bagged up his coveted chew toys; it grew thicker the next day when I bused to the vet to numbly discuss “my wishes”, none of which were anything I had wished for; and it filled the house entirely by the time I sat down on the couch and realized that the empty cushion next to me was going to remain empty. I couldn’t even remember sitting on that couch without Diego settling in with me. The house had been sucked of its life and the anger grew to fill the void. I burned with it, and if I had seen the driver of that red wagon in that first week, I swear to god, I would have punched him until he was dead.
But I didn’t see the driver. I went back to work, watched a lot of TV, and while the fog slowly lifted, it left a film over everything, a residue I didn’t know how to clean. Two weekends later I resumed my habit of sitting on my porch. People from further up the road, outside the range of my neighborhood news network, would ask where Diego was and I’d tell them there’d been an accident. I didn’t say much, and they’d say they were sorry and they were glad I was okay, which was barely true. Eventually the anger exhausted me, and since sadness was easy and available, I settled into that for a couple of weeks. Sadness and rum – there was a lot of both in those weeks.
The anger was a fire that had been starved of oxygen, slowly waning but never extinguished, and the blast of adrenaline when I saw the red Chevy was a splash of gasoline on the coals. Suddenly I was the one starved of oxygen. As I waited to ambush the bastard, I had to think about inhaling and exhaling, just to make sure I was actually breathing. I thought about what I would say, editing the single line that would precede my right hook, wanting it to be just right, a cinematic moment that would be repeated excitedly by neighbors to the investigating police officer – “seriously, that’s what he said. It was kind of awesome, really.”
The first people to turn the corner and walk toward me were two teen girls, nondescript in their teased hair and generic stylishness. I could hear their laughter before I heard their voices, but they quieted as the one on the left noticed me. This was a situation Diego could have helped with – he would have loved these girls, barely distinguishable from his afternoon bus rider parade. He would have lowered his head and gone into his slow wag and assured them that things were safe, and they would have crouched to rub his neck. But without him, I was some creepy guy standing on the sidewalk, a predator waiting for prey. Which I was, really, and that made me feel like a creep. I tried to act nonchalant, but that must have made me seem creepier because their pace slowed as they got close, and one of them stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street. I was feeling shitty about that when I realized she wasn’t crossing the street – she was going around to unlock the driver’s door of the red wagon.
I hadn’t considered that the right car might have the wrong driver. I didn’t want to unleash on someone, I wanted to unleash on him. As the girls got into the car, I felt exhausted again, more exhausted than ever. When I saw the passenger hurriedly lock the door, I moved up the sidewalk so I was even with the front wheels of the car, a courteous distance from the door, and motioned for her to roll down her window. She looked at me with suspicion but cranked the old car’s window handle and lowered the glass a couple of inches. I squatted so I could see the driver and said, “Ask your dad how he got that dent up on the corner.” I pointed to the place.
“What?!” The girls were pretty enough to get attention from strangers and seemed to be trying to figure out what my angle was.
“When you get home,” I said slowly and clearly, “ask your dad how he got that dent in the front of the car.”
They looked at each other, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
“Just ask him,” I said as I stood up, then stepped closer to the car and pointed at the dent. I turned away and didn’t look back. Fuck it, if he wasn’t going to answer to me, at least he’d have to answer to someone. He’d probably just lie, but he’d know someone was on to him, and I hoped that would chew on his soul like a tenacious dog, forever.
When I got to the corner, I looked at the store signs – bagels, shoes, a stationary shop, and a bar – but I couldn’t remember why I’d bused over in the first place. I started for the bar, but stopped at the stationary store and bought a pen and a simple white note card.
In the bar, I ordered a beer and downed half of it in one pull. I thought about what to write on the card, but every variation on “thank you” seemed small and insufficient. I thought about what Diego would want me to write, what he’d have to say about all of my fire and failed vengeance. When I figured it out, I scribble the note, finished my beer, and left a five on the bar.
When I got to the Vet’s office, the receptionist greeted me with a bright smile and hello before her expression gave away that she’d suddenly remembered my last visit. She asked softly, “How are you doing?”
“I’m better. Thanks.” I was glad to realize that it felt like the truth. “But I was wondering, do you remember the woman who drove me and Diego here?”
“Sure. Dog and two cats.” She scrunched her nose. “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you her name. It’s a legal thing.”
“That’s fine. But is there any way you can get this to her?” I slid the card across the purple Formica counter. “I can pay for the stamp.” It was only then that I realized I hadn’t taken the envelope that came with the card. “And the envelope. Sorry about that.”
She shook her head as she picked up the card. “We’ve got all that, but sure, we’ll make sure she gets it.”
As I headed for the door, I could see in the reflection that she was looking at the card.
Thanks so much for stopping.
What you didn’t hear that day in the car
is that I really did almost catch that squirrel.
It was glorious.