By Jim Powell
No takers since the mid-afternoon drunk who’d crunched the curb when he pulled over. The little dogs had moaned and scratched the travel crate in fear. Monte first refused to sell to him, then figured business was business. “Puppies 4 Sale” his sign offered. Total for two days—
five dogs sold, three to go. Monte sat on the concrete steps, one arm rested on the metal mesh while the other waved a cigarette in the air whenever a car slowed. Traffic was thin on State Street today, his last with this litter. Food cost him the humiliation of scavenging scraps at Kate’s Café or behind the Village Pantry east on Prospect. If they didn’t sell, after dark he’d drown the dogs—he refused to call them puppies except with clients.
Few of those nearby though the neighborhood stayed busy, rehabs and new restaurants a few blocks over near Fountain Square, and especially down at the corner where the latest renovation picked up speed. Monte saw the money guy who’d bought three of the four corners—the brick buildings—surveying the exterior handiwork on the one that neared completion. The next block north he watched his once friend Sandi, now a red-haired meth whore in ripped jeans, wiggling her scrawny hips beside a bus stop as if some stranger might descend and buy. But her skanky tit-tats and wobbly platforms were no more enticing than her bad teeth. Monte wondered how a man could allow his dick to enter such decay. He’d told her “no” several times since he’d gotten off the meth himself after two despairing weeks dabbling with it. While he couldn’t say he felt in all ways cured yet, at least he could enjoy the sunshine on his bare arms without scratching, or squinting to avoid seeing the world around him for what it was. Eyes open it was pretty damned crappy, but the neighborhood was his reality, his life.
The dogs whimpered and he almost broke down to scratch one little nose pushed through the wire. The renovator man paced toward him as if measuring the empty lot between his building and Monte’s house. “Shush up,” Monte told the dogs. “You’d eat good with this guy, believe me.” He gentled the carrier like a cradle then stood.
He couldn’t remember the money man’s name but tried to smile. About thirty like Monte, he’d power-washed the ancient two-story so the brick came clean and sharp-edged. He’d put in new doors—at the back wooden ones with mosaic patterns and, on the front, silvery scroll work and hinges shaped like Arabian swords. Above that door he’d placed a limestone wolf’s head. The bastioned battlement around the roof’s edge made the place look like a fortress.
Mr. Money hollered, “Hey, brother,” giving a two-fingered salute. His step quickened and Monte remembered the name—Travis, like a traveling salesman. His work clothes, cowhide carpenter pants and suspenders over a flannel shirt, remained unstained even in the heat. But at least he was doing a lot of the building work himself, so they had something in common. Last year, when Monte lost the go-pher job at the woodworking plant he’d hoped would lead to an apprenticeship, he got right back to work building the “kennel” behind the house he’d inherited from his mother, his single legacy. Only his ex-girlfriend Vicky “helped.” They even made a stab at putting up a high wood fence until he realized that if the posts weren’t cemented the whole thing would fall. He realized that, of course, only when it happened.
Travis put out his hand and Monte took it tentatively. “I got some cute puppies here, mister … Travis,” he stammered, embarrassed at the guy’s quick shake and dismissal.
Travis peered into the cage, hopefully attracted by their unusual features. The dogs yelped in relief from their boredom. Monte hoped they sounded like good property guardians.
Monte had no idea what work was still going on inside the building, but knew that Travis also bought Sammy’s Saloon nearby, long closed despite its notoriety as a 20s honky-tonk speakeasy. Signs of the past were easily forgotten in these parts. Kitty-corner from the reno, a carved limestone “F. & A. M.” still ID’ed the three-story Masonic lodge that now housed a used clothes store and crappy studio apartments.
One of the tenants there, a puffy woman in a Black Sabbath tee-shirt, neared them pushing a stroller. She said, “Say ‘hi’ to the neighbors, honey,” and both Monte and Travis nodded to the toddler, who sported a mullet. The tyke rode bare-chested and surly-looking, concentrating on the Popsicle he grasped like a prize. The dogs quieted and the kid said nothing. The woman shrugged and walked on.
Travis, like Monte, barely contained his laughter. “Man, that’s some hairdo on a baby. Travis giggled into his hand. “Our neighbors,” he said. “At least until next October.”
So the Masonic building would be emptied and redone, too. Travis had supposedly encouraged the going out of business sale at the Used Tire Depot that filled the fourth corner. Who knew what so-called progress might develop there if the public housing project under debate for that block fell through? Restaurants he’d never afford or a Starbucks for people with time to waste.
Monte smiled as if the idea of change made him happy and Travis asked him to bring one of the dogs out into the light. Monte fiddled with the lock and their tongues gooed-up his knuckles. His skin was still touchy after four weeks clean. Thank God he’d wised up before he ended like Sandi. He grabbed one of the dogs by its scruff and closed the door on the other two. “This one’s got the spirit.”
Travis petted between the dog’s big ears. Monte figured he might not want as much fight in his dogs as most people in the neighborhood. “But the patience of an angel, too,” quoting something his mom once said about him.
Monte held the little dog so its legs kicked. Its coat shone in the sunshine, short yellow-brown fur. Wind up around forty-fifty pounds, but tough with shepherd and terrier in the mix. “Here, you hold him. Cute guy’s not a biter.”
Travis took a step back and eyed the dog all around as if examining a statue. “I need a watch dog for the building while we finish the upstairs’ lofts.” He waved his hand back and forth in the dog’s face. To see how the eyes tracked, Monte guessed.
He bounced the dog a little, to shake out more reaction, but it cooed and drooled, not a single yip or nip. “Oh, he’s gotta lot of life, mister. Just woke up from a nap. “Full shepherd.”
Travis tightened his mouth. “Part maybe.” He petted the dog’s rump, then pulled his hand away and wiped it on his thigh.
“Or I’ve got another bitch ready to drop that’s part pit bull.” Another month before he could sell any of those potential killers. He’d regretted borrowing the ill-tempered stud when he witnessed its aggressive mating.
Travis chuckled. “I don’t think so, bud.” He scanned down State in Sandi’s direction, as if the next block might make good property for him. He grimaced when he caught sight of the girl, who gave a come-hither wave and bent over a bit so her tits showed white amidst the ink. “Christ,” he muttered. “Maybe I should hire her. No one would dare break in on that.”
Sandi took the attention as an invitation and staggered toward them, scratching her arm. Monte tensed. She wasn’t a bad person, he reminded himself, or once hadn’t been. Christ, they’d been kids together at McKinley Elementary when the new building opened. In fourth grade she’d kissed him by the swing set before she moved on to more experienced boys and other cities. Been a hairdresser or something. She’d come back home only to be kicked out by her parents. He wished he didn’t know where she lived.
“Hey, Monte,” she crooned. “Cute little puppies, huh, mister.” Her words tripped out over ragged teeth. Red scabs dotted her cheeks and neck like measles. “Buy me a puppy, mister, and we’ll be your friends for life.” Even her girlish giggle mocked the real thing.
She reached toward Travis’ arm, but he pulled back. “Sorry, sister, nothing for you.” He drew himself up. “Except some advice.”
Sandi raised her eyebrows and chuckled and Monte worried Travis might slap her. He stood in case he needed to step between them.
“You can get help at the Center,” Travis said, referring to the new community center a few blocks north across Washington Street where renovation work continued—of people as well as buildings—making that neighborhood feel better, at least for the moment. “All you have to do is walk in the door and ask.”
Sandi snorted and glared, but at Monte, not Travis who turned his back on her. She pushed her lips together in a fake kiss. “You assholes have a nice day, you hear.” She spat on the ground toward Monte. “You got cute puppies, Monte. Glad you made some friends.” She scowled then stalked away.
Travis stretched his shoulders. “Don’t think I’ll be hiring that for anything.” He again scanned the dog. “And I can’t use your dog, either. Sorry, buddy.”
Monte sat down and brought the dog into his lap. “But maybe you could hire me.” He straightened. “I’m tougher than I look.” He scratched behind the dog’s ears. “I’m about done with this puppy business.” It was true. He was making bread money, not mortgage. He didn’t want to go back to working the pick-up crews with men in worse shape than him, or selling dope. Working for this asshole would be a new start. He restrained the wriggling dog easily, his muscle tone rebuilding, more beefed up considering his distance from poor Sandi’s fall.
Travis towered over him, scanning Monte like he had the dog. “Dude, you are skin and bones.” He scanned Monte’s house as well. “But maybe you could sell this place to me. Must be a lot for you to take care of.”
Monte thought his house not so bad, paint chipped and shingles faded but gutters unbent. Plenty around here had weathered worse. His mother had put pride into it, and their neighborhood where people looked out for one another. Now most of her generation were dead or moved. It didn’t matter. He had no place else to go and the mortgage crisis made his lender forgiving, seemingly unaware that investors like Travis might take interest in the decay.
“Nah, I been in here three years since my Mom died. And this is my neighborhood since I was a kid.” Travis wasn’t giving, so he might as well push back. “Besides, you Fountain Square big-shots think you’re improving the neighborhood so much, my house might really be worth a few bucks to you before long.”
Travis snickered. “Oh, so happy to give you folks some hope.” He reached out—Monte feared to punish his insolence—but only tapped the dog’s head and turned away.
Good riddance, Monte thought. Whose renewal was this urban renewal stuff anyway? The guy hadn’t dealt with despair one second of his life. Monte opened the crate and scooted the dog back inside. He wondered how soon the whole corner would advertise “lofts” or “flats.” The business renovations seemed never to end and the little houses built on half-lots in the early 1900s were thinned out by foreclosure and demolition all the way over to Fountain Square.
The dogs shuffled around on their over-sized paws. Monte rocked the cage and squinted after Travis who stood in the weedy lot reading a newly planted plastic sign titled “New Public Housing—Hearing Sunday.” He pulled the invitation from the ground, rolled it into a wand, and used the metal stumps to poke the ground. Then he sniffed the air.
He called back to Monte. “Man, I can smell your dogs from here. You’re gonna have to do something about that.” Travis gave a thumbs-up and nodded as if he assumed Monte’s agreement. He turned on his heels like a soldier, marched to his building, and disappeared inside.
Now that Monte smelled for it, he found plenty of dog in the air—so what? He rattled the crate and the three dogs whimpered at his anger. “Like hell I’ll get rid of you,” he whispered.
Up the street Sandi sat against a spindly tree. Weeds nearly covered her body, her once-pretty face showing like a dried flower. Monte squinted. They were all refugees in their own neighborhood. He couldn’t offer his spare room, but he’d walk her to the community center. Otherwise she might disappear into the haze he’d almost entered until the litter’s birth returned his sense of responsibility. He’d watched their mother nurse them, her irritation growing until Monte started to wean them. Brushed them. Petted them. Scratched their ears and in the empty lot buried the runt that died.
Monte wiped his eyes, sore and moist. He rocked the carrier and the puppies woofed. He talked back to them, promising that even if he had to move, he’d find each one a good home.
Puppies 4 Sale has been previously published in the book Only Witness.
Jim Powell returned to writing creatively in 2010 after a “sabbatical” as of 25 years administrator, editor, and teacher. His fiction has since been published in Bartleby Snopes, Fiction Southeast, Storyscape, Typehouse, and other journals. He founded the non-profit Writers’ Center of Indianapolis (now the Indiana Writers Center) and served as its director from 1979-99. Recently retired from teaching creative writing at IUPUI, he is enjoying again living in his fictional head. A nineteen-story collection of his work, Only Witness, was recently published by INWords. Author Dan Wakefield writes that the stories “bear insightful and lyrical witness to the everyday comedy and tragedy of our time, with an admirably authentic Hoosier flavor. Powell joins the great tradition of Nicholson, Tarkington and Vonnegut.”