A Story By P. Duncan Fingersnarl
Henry Raines drives away from the house he and his family had once called home. The nighttime sky was made even darker by the storm clouds forming overhead. He reaches for the radio and fumbled his way around the dial until he comes upon the local talk station. Local… meaning within a couple hours drive, if that can be considered local. The idle chatter in the background seems to have a soothing effect on him. Approaching the sleepy village of Taylor Station, Raines begins to relax slightly. At the age of 36 he was beginning his life anew. He felt invigorated. He has what’s left of the previous week’s paycheck in his wallet and his clothes and toiletries hastily packed in plastic bags from the local superstore. Eighteen years…
At the age of eighteen Henry thought himself as a Greek god on earth. He didn’t have to be wary of the world; it had to be wary of him. He had been a varsity jock, known to all his friends as Hank or #22 to the boosters; married his high school sweetheart, Susan Pritchard; and joined the army after graduation. Four years in and out again. The sum of his Army career. No medals, no honors, no action, a quiet tour as a mechanic in Uncle Sam’s peacetime forces. He returned to his home town with his beautiful wife. They bought a small ranch style home located within walking distance of Susan’s folks. A thirty year mortgage did not worry Hank Raines, he was home to stay.
The minutes of the county school board meeting were droning on the background as Henry realizes he had just relived the first twenty two years of his life and was only three miles from his home. He’d entered the Army as he drove past the village limits sign and he was only halfway through the wide spot in the road that was Taylor’s Station. The first of the four stoplights in the village flashes yellow and then changes a glaring red as the rain begins to fall. A slow drizzle but it was enough that Henry flipped on the wipers of his truck. Three more lights and he would be free. The rhythmic sound of the wipers competes with the radio. Henry snorts as he thinks they sound like a clock… tick tock… tick tock.
From the pocket of his varsity jacket he pulls a battered pack of Viceroys. His hands shake as he knocks a crumpled smoke from the pack. Something catches his eye as he lights his cigarette. The brief blur of motion draws his attention to the curb. A black dog is sitting there watching him with seeming intelligent interest. The light turns green. Puffing on his cigarette Henry rolls down his window looking at the poor, miserable, wet beast. Henry calls to the dog doing his best to entice the animal toward the old GMC. He glances up the light’s gone red again.
“Heh. Suit yourself, you’re the one who’s getting soaked.” He is satisfied with his warning to the critter and rolls up his window in disgust. The rain comes down steadily. The light turns green.
A thirty year loan wasn’t too bad. He had gotten a decent fixed rate, and he could pay it off early if he wanted. His old coach was also a foreman at the local rail yard. One phone call and he had the gig. He would only do it temporarily. Just long enough to figure what he wanted to do with his life and then use his hard earned GI Bill money to take classes part-time while working. Having served he knew he could get preferential treatment at admissions up at State. Now just need to decide what to do. His daughter was born the day of his five year anniversary at the rail yard. He passed out cigars in pink wrappers as Coach hounded him to pick a gift from a chintzy catalogue. He left work early one day to speak to a counselor at the university satellite. He was still young after all. He had ambition, just not direction.
The GMC crawls to a stop as the second light turns red. The rain comes down harder now as the drops seem to have grown larger. Henry takes a drag from his smoke while turning the volume up on the radio. Tuning in a classic rock station, Henry begins tapping out the familiar beat on his steering wheel. He’ll get a new car as soon as he finds somewhere to settle. The thought has a buoying effect on his spirits. Something sporty… yellow too. Red is too cliché. I’ll go by Hank there too, he thinks. Henry sounds so old; unfortunately Susan and Coach call him Henry. It’s almost demeaning. Shorten it to Hank like it was when he was younger, yeah that’s it. As he rolls down his window he sees the dog. The animal looks as miserable as a wet dog could be. For the first time Hank notices the size of the animal. It’s huge. It must be a mastiff. Hank always wanted a big dog. He chuckles while calling the dog.
“A big dog needs a big dog, c’mon boy.” The dog sits there, its head drooped below its large shoulders, staring impassively. “Shit.” The light is red again.
Rolling up the window Hank begins humming along to the radio. He pulls away wearing a wide grin. Another good song. Since when did the soundtrack to his life start getting airtime on the classics station?
Henry rationalized his inability to go to college. He just must not have wanted to go. He didn’t screw around and just let his bill money expire. Raines wasn’t a screw off, he was living life just the way he wanted. He was a hardworking Christian man. Hank had found God shortly after the birth of his daughter and was baptized the same day Emily was christened. The church made an event out of it, incense, bells and all the pomp and circumstance. The families were proud and the parishioners were impressed with the piety of Henry Raines. The former hellion was no longer the cocky kid who bragged about the quarterbacks he’d hurt. He’d served his country, found religion and become a generally well respected member of the community. Hank couldn’t wait for the ceremony to be over. The Bears were playing at three o’clock and he didn’t want to miss opening kick-off. He’ll go to church every few weeks, just to put in an appearance as long as it doesn’t inconvenience him too much. He took all the classes because Susan said he had to but didn’t believe all the religion mumbo jumbo.
In actuality he didn’t find the Lord. What Henry found was that if he went through with this, his bitch of a wife would shut up. He could remember the exact moment he fell in love. What he couldn’t recall was when he had fallen out of love, maybe it had been stretched out over the years. Emily did not feel well when she got home from school. Henry gave her a Tylenol and sent her to her room. He went to the bar later that night. Susan called and said Emily was sick. She had pneumonia. Yes he would be right home. She had an extremely high temperature. He would leave right away. He passed the phone back to the bartender and ordered another round. Last call wouldn’t be for two more hours. No one dies of pneumonia anymore.
Hank tosses his smoke out as he slows down at the next light. He’s startled from his reverie by what surely has to be a coincidence. The black dog was already waiting at the curb as he pulls to a stop. Anxiously, he lights another cigarette. How many has it been? Another good song. The rain is now coming down in sheets. He glances over at the dog wondering why he’s so nervous. It can’t be the same dog. It looks like it, and it has the same vacant stare. Don’t all dogs have the same blank expression though? A yellow car. Why the hell does that thing have to be black? Something imported. Maybe a Miata. Definitely not a truck. He sets the wipers to high. Damn dog. Still there. He settles on a large city, not a specific one, just any large city. An apartment. He’ll live in the penthouse. Hank glances at the dog. It looks sad, he thinks.
“Stay sad, you won’t come with me but you can’t keep me here.” He glares at the dog. The light turns green.
The funeral was the last time he spoke to Susan. She moved back in with her parents. She wanted a divorce but Henry refused just to piss her off. The bar was his home from five in the evening to two in the morning every day. Coach still liked him. He could miss a day here and there and get by. After all, he’d been a hard worker for fourteen years. He was still drunk when the phone rang. It was Coach. He could pick up his last check tomorrow. Bullshit. Henry got his check and cashed it and headed to the bar. He got home at two-thirty in the morning. He woke up unusually clear. Enough was enough. He wrote a note for Susan and taped it to the front door of the in-laws house. He threw some clothes in bags with his razor and toothbrush. He could start over. He grabbed his keys and headed for the door.
He is coming up to the last light. It’s green. Shit. Yellow. Dog. The black dog is sitting there watching the truck. What the hell. Hank is through with this town. He speeds up as the dog watches the truck as it enters the intersection. He turns the wheel singing along to the radio, thinking of his new beginning. Finally free.
Keys in hand Henry went out to his truck. He threw open the door and throws his stuff in the passenger seat. He started the engine and pulled out of the turn around speeding down the driveway. He would start over. Make his life anew. Nothing could deny him that, once he left Taylor’s Station he would never come back. He swerved pulling onto the road and swore. What the hell was that about? Stupid dog.
The flashing lights glare of off the rain soaked pavement. One deputy is looking at the twisted frame of an old rusted out GMC pickup. Another is listening to a stunned semi driver. Deputy Waters heads over to the paramedics working on the injured man. It didn’t look promising.
“Shit.” The paramedic glances up from his work.
“That’s Henry Raines.” The paramedic is distracted as he packs up his kit.
“Hank Raines. He’s the local drunk. How bad off is he?”
“There’s nothing I can do, he’ll be gone by the time we get to the ER. What the hell happened?”
“No clue. The truck driver said he was stopped at the light and then floored it like he was trying to get away from something. Truth is, he was probably going to the bar.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“Nah. Just knew him by reputation.” The paramedic nods towards the curb.
“That your dog?”
“No. It was here when I got here. It seems to keep following me around the scene though. Funny thing is I always wanted a big dog like that.”
The paramedic shakes his head and closes the ambulance doors; he walks up to the cruiser as Waters climbs in.
“Usually same shit different day. The only break in the monotony is something like this. Something I don’t want to remember but won’t be able to forget. I need to try something else. Maybe go back to school.”
“It never gets any easier, that’s for sure,” the paramedic nods emphatically. “You want to grab a drink with the guys after your shift?”
The dog jumps in over the deputy and settles into the passenger seat. The paramedic looks in the cruiser and chuckles.
“Look at that he likes you.”