The sun was lost in an orange circle of haze and falling in the western sky. I wanted to smoke a cigarette but thought better of it. My phone buzzed in my pocket and it was Wes.
“What’s up?” I said, positioning the phone between my ear and my shoulder.
“Notta. Bout to get off work. You want to come out here?”
“LA?” I asked, pulling into the slow lane and setting the cruise.
“Na, motherfucker. Thailand. Yes, LA. Where I live.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you know?”
“I just can’t think right now.”
“Yeah. Back to Louisville.”
“Where you been?”
“Was on my way Nashville. I think I had a heart attack.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Felt like I was having a heart attack.”
“A real heart attack?”
“Felt like it. My arm went numb and there was this heavy pressure on my chest. Couldn’t breathe for a minute or two.”
“Now you’re driving?”
“I went to a gas station and it went away. I took some aspirin and got a water. Thought about buying a bottle and a shotgun and going to my uncle’s cabin."
“A shotgun!” Wes yelled through the phone.
“My uncle blew his head off with a 12-gauge on the top of this knob outside the city. I was thinking about getting a bottle and going up there and drinking, and if his ghost wouldn’t talk to me, well, that’s why I needed a shotgun."
“But now you are on your way home?”
“Yes. I told you that. I went to a liquor store. I knew there was a gun shop down the road. I sat in the parking lot for an hour watching people buy booze.”
“Goddamn, Ben. What’s wrong?”
“Mary’s been quiet.”
“After everything you’ve been through you’re going to kill yourself over this boring dentist?”
“It’s not her. It isn’t. But it doesn’t hurt when I’m with her. And there for about an hour I thought I might not let it happen. I thought I might not lose anything ever again.”
“You don’t have to leave her. I was just saying that the other day.”
“It’s over. After my chest started hurting back there, I knew.”
“You some kind of psychic now?”
“I’ve been trying to talk to ghosts. They won’t talk to me. I figured my uncle’s wouldn’t
“Go to the hospital when you get back. And when you get out, go to a meeting.”
“I’m serious, Ben. I don’t want you dying. You’ve been through too much. I’ve been through too much. But it’s all coasting for us now, baby. Nothing but coasting.”
I heard Sascha whimpering in the living room after I put the key in the lock. When I opened the door, he jumped on me, and there was Mary and her ex standing by the coffee table with beers in their hands.
“You look nice, Mary. You, too. What’s your name?” I yelled, pushing Sascha off and scratching his head.
The guy glanced at Mary, then back at me. “Connor,” he said.
I rubbed Sascha’s black and white coat, took a couple steps and extended my hand. “Nice to meet you, Connor.” I said, shaking his hand. “I don’t think we were introduced the other night.” I looked at Mary standing there in a dark grey dress I’d never seen. “Mary, you didn’t introduce Connor and me the other night, did you?”
“I thought you were in Nashville,” she said, glaring at me.
“Didn’t make it to Nashville. That dress is stunning. You’re stunning, Mary,” I said while smiling and petting the dog. “Just like Sascha. I can never figure out which one of your is more gorgeous.” I crouched down and rubbed Sascha’s ears with both of my hands. “You’re a pretty boy, aren’t you Sascha? Look at those blue eyes. If you had your balls, you’d be the king of the neighborhood.”
“Want a beer?” Connor asked, smiling.
“Nope, Connor. I can’t drink a beer. I’m a crack addict. If I drink a beer I will end up in Mr. Washington’s trap house down at 15th and Market draining my bank account. You believe that, Connor? You know what happens in Mr. Washington’s place?”
Connor shook his long head.
“I’d tell you what happens down at Mr. Washington’s place, but then I’d feel awful about myself.”
“I didn’t know,” he said, looking at me sideways.
“Yep. Hell of a life, Connor boy. One hell of a life. Nice beard you grew in there,” I said, rubbing my own face. “I don’t recall a beard when you were here at my girlfriend’s party last weekend. Did you have that handsome beard then?”
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“Nope. I’m positive you didn’t have that beautiful beard that night. That’s one hell of a beard for a boy your age. Better than any beard I could grow.”
“Ben, we’re going to be late. We’re meeting some people—”
“Well fuck me. Don’t let me hold you up, Mary. I have to take a leak. Let me take a piss real quick and I’ll get out of here. Come on Sascha. I’ll get you a treat.”
I twisted her house key off my keyring on the way to the bathroom, laid it on the kitchen table and picked up a white crystal that was in a bowl of change. I put the stone in the pocket of my jeans, grabbed Sascha’s leash and went out the back door with the dog.
“Still hot as hell,” I said to Sascha as I hooked the leash to his collar and led him off the deck.
I was about a quarter of the way to the alley when I heard the backdoor open.
“Ben, what are you doing?” Mary yelled while sprinting to the railing.
“I’m taking your husky for a walk. He hates the heat just like me, but we both need walks.”
“You can’t take my dog,” she said clutching the rail.
“It’s just a walk, Mary. I’m not taking your dog.”
I turned back toward the alley, then I heard steps and turned to see Connor walking toward us on the concrete path.
“Connor, you take one more step toward me and this dog and I’m going to put you on this dead grass and stomp your teeth through the back of your skull.”
He stopped and looked back at Mary, and I turned and walked on toward the alley.
I could see through the screaming in my head once we came to the park. Sascha led me toward the jungle gym where several kids were playing. The back of my t-shirt was soaked with sweat and I was damn tired, so I took a seat and tied his leash to one of the wooden slats and we sat there together watching the kids.
After a couple minutes, I needed to talk.
“Sascha, it wasn’t much better when I was a boy,” I said. “My dad always told me that if I couldn’t enjoy being a kid, I had no luck at enjoying the rest of my life. Fuck him for that, Sascha. Fuck all of everything.”
The dog was panting like mad. I looked around for a bowl or bucket of water, but there wasn’t one.
“Sascha, there’s no water. I’m sorry.” He turned his head back and forth as if he was trying to understand.
“No one understands, boy. None of us know what is going on. But I know one thing. I liked being with Mary. I liked when she explained how everything in the universe is always changing. And I liked to see her smile in her white coat when I brought her coffee at the office. And I liked how she held me when I told her about being nearly beaten to death in Chicago. I guess I fucked up in telling her. I don’t know, boy. But I’m not going to see you guys anymore.”
I pulled up the bottom of my shirt and wiped my face. When I could see again, I spotted a black and white cruiser parked on the north side of the park.
“Here they come, Sascha. It might get bad. I’ll try to say the right things.”
The two cops made their way across the park and stopped about five feet from the dog and me.
“Gonna be a hot night,” I said.
“I guess it is,” the taller of the two said.
“Is that your dog?” the other one asked. He had a tan face, and he wiped it with his shirtsleeve.
“No, sir, it isn’t.”
“Whose is it?” he asked.
“My girlfriend’s. Or my ex-girlfriend’s. Frankly I don’t know if she was ever my girlfriend. Complicated. I would say that it’s complicated.”
“Did you threaten a man about twenty minutes ago?” the tall one asked.
“I don’t know anything about a threat,” I said.
Both of them nodded their heads.
“Can we trust you to take the dog back to the owner immediately?”
“Yes, sir. We were just about to head that way. It’s too hot for this guy. He’s supposed to be in the snow.”
“OK, sir,” the taller one said. “Take the dog back and have a good evening.”
By the time we made it back to Mary’s, the sun had dropped below the trees and the streetlights were popping on up and down the block. I thought about tying Sascha to the fence out front, but when I got there, I walked straight to the door and knocked.
Mary opened the door. She had changed into a pair of black shorts and a tank top, and for a moment I thought I might throw up everything I hadn’t eaten that day.
I handed her the leash and the white crystal I had taken. She looked at it in her palm and then back up at me.
“Ghosts,” I said, turning to the street.
“Ben,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, looking at the broken concrete.
“I know,” I said, and walked on toward my car.