Whippet
by JAMEY GALLAGHER
It’s 2:11 a.m. when I get out of bed and pace around what was once my uncle’s bedroom, the baseball-sized scab on my scalp itching like a son of a bitch.  The room is small, square, and crammed full of decades of my grandparents’ stuff—hundreds of glossy crocheting magazines, homemade afghans in soft stacks that reach the ceiling, doodads on the dresser, including a dried baby crocodile, brittle and brown with matte black eyeballs.  The frame of the crocodile’s body is reinforced with wire, its teeth are tiny and yellow, and I wonder where they got it anyway.  This early in the morning the crocodile seems almost alive, and all I want to do is get away from it.  There's nothing to do but go downstairs and make myself some of my grandmother's herbal tea.

Grandma is awake, too.  She sits in her easy chair in the parlor, a thick white nightgown blanketing her body, her head looking shrunken, pale blue light shining from her eyes. 

"So,” she says, “how's the convalescent?"

"Don't you ever sleep?"

"Not anymore."

The dog, a Shih Tzu, doesn't sleep either, and now he hops off Grandma's lap, where he'd blended in with the nightgown, and follows at my heels.  The dog is mute.  During the day he sits on the kitchen table mime-barking for long hours.  He probably had a name at one point, but now everyone just calls him "dog."  When I get around the corner I kick at his muzzle a little.  He crouches on his forepaws and acts like he's growling, but all you can hear is the tic-tacking of his scrabbly nails.  When I pull my foot back again, the dog hauls ass back to Grandma.

“What did you do to him?” she calls.

“Nothing,” I yell back.  Raising my voice makes pain pump into my head, which is like a kid's science experiment on pressure.  Sometimes it feels like it's floating off of my neck, and sometimes it feels like it's splitting open.  The scab is one constant itch.  I figure that's a good thing, that it means I'm healing properly.

Even though it's been a month since I moved in with my grandmother, I’m still not used to the house, how things are arranged in it, so I have to root behind the Ovaltine for a couple minutes before I come up with the Celestial Seasonings.

My grandfather's been dead for ten years, and my grandmother never complained about living alone until she saw a fat man wandering around the block holding a butcher's knife with a “dazed expression” on his face.  At a family meeting it was decided that I was most expendable because of various things that had happened—job loss, for instance.  So here I am.  I haven't seen anything suspicious in the neighborhood yet, but I try to be on my guard. It’s an old neighborhood in a Massachusetts mill city, and when some elderly German or Irish person dies a young immigrant family will move into their empty tenement apartment.

Most of my days are spent looking across the street at the Kingdom Hall, where the Jehovah’s meet, at lots of nice-looking women in black nylons passing in and out of the doors.  The Kingdom Hall is squat and made of brick, with two wide smoked-glass doors.  Once in a while I mow the lawn or hose down the walkway or drive to the drugstore to pick up Grandma’s prescriptions.  It's not a bad arrangement.

I microwave a mug of water, drop in the almond tea bag.

"One good thing about the head," Grandma says when I sit down on the sofa in the parlor.  "Your hair'll grow in fuller."

"If it comes in at all."

"There has never been a bald Woodhall," she says.  "Never."  I wonder if it’s true, and what it means if it is.

We sit for a while.

The next day, I sit on the steps of the front porch, looking away from the Kingdom Hall and up a steep hill of tenement houses.  When my grandfather was alive he'd had a regular schedule for painting the porch.  Every year he slathered the porch with thick sweeps of maroon.  After his death my grandmother decided that white was the order of the day, so she hired someone to slap even thicker white paint over the maroon.  Now the white is dirty and chipped in high traffic areas, and the maroon shows through.  Things are getting ugly.  The lattice has seen better days.  At interstices, the wood is rotting, the staples have iodized and then blackened, and whatever vines were growing up the lattice when I was a kid aren’t anymore.  I have a headache like demonic possession—wicked and unshakable.  Even thinking about doing something is too much for me, so I just look at the neighborhood.

On the street just in front of my grandmother's driveway, a squat Hispanic man seems to materialize, his chest and shoulders popping up from the asphalt.  He walks back and forth, steamed.  My senses prick up: danger.  He crosses the street and paces in front of that house, the house where, when I was a kid, the Bananos lived.  The Bananos didn't celebrate Halloween, and the children always wore black, formal clothes.  A perpetual wake.  But in back of the house they’d had an in-ground pool, and sometimes I'd just catch sight of part of the body of one of them, in a bathing suit, jumping into the water.  I figured there were at least two worlds across the street that I would never understand.

"Just look at that Puerto Rican," my grandmother says when she pushes open the screen door and steps onto the porch, gripping two glasses of lemonade.  She’s still wrapped in her white robe.  In the sunlight she looks older and out of place.  Systems and subsystems of wrinkles are inscribed on what's exposed of her porous-seeming skin.  Grandma was once a burlesque dancer in Boston—a big family secret that everyone knows—who called herself Red Ruby the Oyster Girl.  She’d hopped out of a clam in heels and showed her gams.  My grandfather met her, wooed her, carried her away from her seedy life and brought her to the mill city.  Then he got her pregnant and went off to war.  She still retains a hint of her former beauty, a sense of style.

"He hasn’t done anything yet," I say.

"Who knows, who knows."

She hands me my lemonade and goes back inside, where she stands, arms crossed, glaring out the window.  The dog mime-barks on the kitchen table.  Grandma’s face is immobile, carved with worry and hate, like a bowsprit.  Eventually the guy walks away and I hear him yelling at someone down the street in Spanish.

"Close one," I say to Grandma behind the window, giving the thumbs-up.  She doesn't hear me, she doesn’t see me.

***

It's been about three months since I worked any kind of job.  My brother is an art professor, my sister married a sports analyst, my cousins are things like electrical engineers.  Life seems to veer out of control sometimes, like the clock at Pizza Hut with the second hand that just flies around the face.  One minute you're working your usual job, winding transformers, which might not be much but is something, and the next minute you're laid off.  Eventually unemployment runs out.  You're too old and you have no skills that make any sense anymore.  Right now I'm recouping, I'm planning, I'm getting the big picture into focus.

When I have nothing else to do I lie in my Uncle’s old bed fingering the dead baby crocodile.  It seems like an artifact from a simpler world, a world where nobody wondered whether it was right or wrong to kill and stuff baby crocodiles for tourists.  A world where nobody knew smoking caused cancer.  A world where somebody could learn something and just do it for the rest of their life.


Later in the day Grandma puts on a flowery black shirt that has a complicated front of folds and strings that I'm pretty sure she hasn't secured properly, white slacks and cream-colored half-pumps.  Her ankles look enormous, like four baked potatoes in abnormally brown nylons. 

"I want you to meet Henry Screw," she says.  That can't possibly be his name, but I don't ask her to repeat it.

"Sounds good," I say.

"Henry is a friend of mine."

"I figured.  Should I change?"  I'm wearing a light tan Allman Brothers t-shirt that I found in the drawer of my uncle's old dresser, covering his stash of Playboys from the 1970s, women with huge breasts shot in soft focus, horses and willow trees.  The shirt smells like old wood and has a number of runs.

"Shut up, you," Grandma says.

Henry Screw lives across the street, in the only single-story house in the neighborhood, next to the Kingdom Hall.  A fence separates his yard from the side parking lot, but Henry has made a square hole in the fence and he's sitting on a lawn chair in a scurf of weeds in front of the hole, drinking a beer.  He wears black socks and brown sandals, Florida retiree gear.  He lifts his ankles to scratch viciously now and then.

"Hey," Henry says.  "There she is."

"Here I am all right," Grandma says.

We pull up two lawn chairs.  It seems okay that no one introduces me.  After a while Henry looks over.

"The spics use your head for a baseball or something?" he says.

"Don't even talk about it," my grandmother says, then laughs.  Henry laughs with her. 

"Here," Henry says.  He throws two beers at the same time, the cans making lazy parabolic trajectories into our hands.  We open them, and I drain half of mine right away, even though I know, with the head, that it's a bad idea.  Henry hasn't looked away from the hole in the fence for more than a few seconds at a time, but he doesn’t seem interested in what's happening over there, which is just a couple people going in and coming out.

"Not what it used to be," Henry says.

"You can say that again."

After a while I hear keening coming from Henry's house.

"Let the dog out, will you," he says.

When I open the back screen door of the ranch-style house, a small animal rushes past me.  It's like a greyhound, but much smaller.  It starts circling the little yard, moving too fast for me to tell whether it's gray or brown.

"Whippet," Henry says.

"Right."  I sit back down and count the revolutions; I stop when I get to a hundred.  I grab another beer from a Styrofoam cooler near Henry's chair.  "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," he says.  I nod.

"You mow this lawn once a month, I'll pay you twenty bucks," he says.

"You're on."

He nods and grins like he's just conducted a shrewd business deal.

After a while Grandma goes into the house with Henry and I'm left alone with the dog in the side yard.  I squinch over to where Henry was sitting before, knocking his chair out of the way, so I can watch the good-looking women in black nylons.  Maybe I should leave, but Henry's beer is good.  I try not to picture what's happening in the house behind me.

Ten years from now, there won't be anyone like my grandmother or Henry Screw living in this neighborhood.  Their houses will be torn down and tenements or apartment buildings will be put up.  Maybe they'll turn Henry's place into additional parking for the Kingdom Hall.  The lot is too small now and Jehovah’s park up and down the street and walk all over the sidewalks.  On certain days, the whole street smells like dry cleaned clothes and perfume.

The whippet falls asleep balled on my lap.  The itching of the scab, which had been crazy when I'd first started with the beer, goes away.  I can anticipate what it will feel like tomorrow: Fire, cracking, bleeding pain.  At this point it's best to keep drinking.

I go back to my grandmother's house with two of Henry's beers.  In my uncle’s old room, I leaf through old Playboys, but it feels more like research for something I don't want to do than enticement.  The lesbian scenes are all intimation.  Everything is so soft I feel woozy.  I pick up the dried baby croc again.  It crackles to the touch and seems like something somebody would pray to, something with a soul still in it.  I put it on my chest and lie like that for a while.  The crocodile seems to communicate something to me.  I can’t put it into words exactly, but it has something to do with getting up, getting out, being young, taking action.

I borrow my grandmother's El Dorado and drive across the state line, back to my old hometown.  I drive past the homes of all the people I once knew, wondering if any of them are unlucky enough to still live there.  In front of the house of somebody I hardly knew, there’s Bob Hemsworth watering his lawn, or his parents’ lawn.  He’s wearing shorts that are cuffed around his fat thighs and his thumb is jammed in the hose opening, creating a fanspray of water.

I raise my hand and he raises his back, but I can tell that he doesn’t recognize me.

Girls I had crushes on, guys who beat me up, people I hated and people who hated me—they all lived in this town once.  Now it’s just another place.

I pull into Denny’s and order a Grand Slam breakfast, amazed at how young the kids are in here, how obviously drunk and high and annoying they all are.


“So, tell me about your head,” my brother-in-law says, in his sports analyst voice.  My real brother is drinking wine and sitting on a lawn chair.  This is a Sunday family dinner, a throwback to the old days.

“It feels like it’s splitting open,” I say.  Because of all the beer the night before, this is truer than ever.

“No, I mean what happened?”

“Don’t even ask,” Grandma says.

“It was just a slip,” I say.

“You can say that again,” Grandma says.

It was one of those freak chilly summer nights and I had nothing else to do, so I walked down to the factory where I used to wind transformers.  I’m not an angry guy but the empty building was too much.  I threw a few rocks at a few windows and then tried to climb up the building and get inside.  I didn’t make it.

“You were drunk, right?” my brother says.  “Please tell me you were drunk.”

I don’t say anything, and for a while nobody else does either.  We go through the ritual of a family dinner, but it breaks up sooner than it ever did back when my grandfather was alive.


I like Henry Screw's dog.  I like the fact that he has no name.  It's just "dog," just like Grandma's dog is just “dog.”  It’s a return to elemental forms.  When I go over to cut his lawn, I take Grandma’s dog to play with Henry Screw’s dog and they mime-bark together.  I can’t tell if Screw’s dog is mocking Grandma’s dog or if it’s a show of compassion.  The whippet runs rings around the Shih Tzu.  I put them both in the middle of the yard. After a while the Shih Tzu sinks down on the grass and follows the blurred shape of the whippet with its head.  Its eyes leak and it looks wasted. 

I put them both inside while I mow the lawn, and they jump against the window with every pass I make, their little dog noses and dog tongues making marks on the pane.


On the way back from the vets, we stop at a hot dog shack by the industrial river and watch sludge-colored water pass beneath us.  The hot dog place is only busy on weekends now, when people who grew up in the town but moved away to safer towns come back for nostalgic foot-longs.  Grandma’s wearing a matching purple velour sweatsuit.

“This is it,” she says.  I don’t know what she means so I don’t say anything back.

“I’m selling the house,” she continues.

“Why?”

You see those people around there.  You know what it’s like.  And it’s not going to get any better.”

“I haven’t had any problems,” I say.

“You also don’t have any money.  And there’s no way I’d just give you the house.  Drive me to bingo,” she says.

I drop her off at the front door of the senior center.

“It’s been nice having you around, though,” she says when she gets out, like it’s the last time she’s ever going to see me.

When I pick her up after an hour and a half her nose is red, her eyes water. 

“Broke even,” she says.


Henry Screw throws a birthday party for himself.  Cars are parked up and down the street, but they're for the Kingdom Hall, which is having some kind of ceremony.  At the party it's just me, Grandma, Henry, and the dogs.  We drink beer.  The stitches have dissolved into my head.  The only problem I have now is an occasional headache.  I sleep maybe two or three hours a night.  I'm thinking of looking for a job.

"How's it feel," Henry asks, "to have the hottest grandmother in the world?"

"Did he ever race?" I ask, pointing at the whippet.

"They beat him like hell," Henry says.  He puts on a party hat and blows a noisemaker that doesn't make noise.  I wonder if he actually bought this stuff, or if it was just hanging around in his house.  It’s stuff a grandfather would just naturally have.  I’m not sure if Henry is a grandfather, but it stands to follow.

People leave the Kingdom Hall slowly, in ones and twos.  Me and Henry watch them.

"Let's dance, Henry," Grandma says.

They go inside and leave me alone.  I have nothing to do.  I just sit there with the dogs.  Grandma's dog is asleep while Screw's dog keeps looking up at me, like he expects something.  I give him a sip of my beer.

Then I pick the whippet up and walk around the fence.  I hold him like protection as I walk into the Kingdom Hall.  I’ve always wanted to know what happens in here.  I’ve never had the guts to find out.  If not now, then when?  The "hall" is just a large, plain room full of folding chairs.  There's nothing happening.  About twenty people sitting on chairs in a corner of the room turn to look at me, but their expressions don't change.  They look like people who have always been here.  People who don’t have a doubt in their heads.

I place the whippet down on the smooth, buffed wood floor.  He starts circling the room, slowly at first but then faster and faster, his nails scrabbling on the wood.  He's running away from something, I think.  He's a blur.  Round and round.  The sound of his nails becomes one constant noise.  The twenty people watch, staring, like they don’t know what to make of us.  I’m trying to put the big picture together, I want to tell them.  Finally the dog loses its footing, slams into the front door and lays on its side with its tongue out, looking around.

JAMEY GALLAGHER lives in New Jersey.  Two of his stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and his work has appeared in Cutbank, LIT magazine, Long Story, Diagram, and other places.