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"Clean Kills" by Greg November

by Greg November

The dog rushed from between two large junipers flanking the road on the straightaway at the McCallisters’ place, so Denmore stomped the pedal and let the ABS take it from there. The squeal of polybutadiene rubber fusing to pavement—although it could have been the dog making the sound, he couldn’t be sure—flushed Denmore’s blood from thorax to extremities, where it pulsed like many small heartbeats. When his truck came to a stop, Denmore rubbed where the safety belt had dug into his neck, hit the flashers, and got out. Scanning for onlookers, for witnesses, he grimaced at tire streaks burnt to asphalt (no use pretending he wasn’t there now) but felt a degree of satisfaction that his rig-jobbed breaks did the trick.

Denmore knelt by the dog, a russet purebred with satin fur and deflated-balloon ears, laying dead by his fender. The dog was on its side, legs tucked as if snoozing. Only her head and neck were unnaturally angled in a howl’s pose. There was little blood, no gore, and Denmore caught himself thanking gods he couldn’t name that the kill had been clean. He’d seen worse only a week prior, when he’d taken his nine-year-old nephew, his sister’s kid, into the big woods of Fulton County and the boy had misfired, removing half a whitetail’s face and spreading it across granite and moss. 

Denmore pushed against the dog’s ribcage and something hard inside slipped from where it should be. At least this time he wasn’t burdened by a whimpering child along with the killed animal. Standing, he surveyed his surroundings. Large poplars and smaller dogwoods demarcated suburban property lines, everyone sectioning off what was theirs, letting foliage draw more than just physical boundaries. It was like the people on this street slept better knowing everyone knew what was theirs. One house, across the street and down a bit from the McCallister’s, was half-painted a pleasant yellow color, and a tall ladder leaned up against the front. From the looks of things, and because Denmore had never been called to that house, he bet whoever lived there was doing the work himself. They were doing it right, too, taking their own action. The street wasn’t a total lost cause.

The day was hot and humid, like being inside a mouth, and Denmore checked his watch before heading up toward the McCallisters’. This time of day, she’d be home alone. He rang the bell and knocked two seconds later. Lissette opened the door looking like she’d just awoken from a nap, and went to shut the door right away but Denmore got his hand on the jamb. He eased the door back with his forearm. “I’m not here for you,” he said.

“You better turn around.”

“I said I’m not here for you.”

“Allen will be home any minute.”

“I doubt it.”

“Go away!” She pushed at the door.

“Lissette, I hit a dog.”

“You what?”

“I hit a dog.”

“With your fist?”

“I hit it with my truck. Killed it. Thing’s laying in the street.”

Lissette stopped pushing at the door and peered around Denmore. Her eyes widened. “Jesus God and Moses.” Denmore thought she sounded disappointed more than anything else, which raised his spirits slightly. Meant he hadn’t fallen all the way in her estimation. Not yet at least.

“I need to know whose it is,” Denmore said. He looked at his watch again.

“You’ve got somewhere to be?”

“Jim has me scheduled in Simsbury to do an estimate in half an hour.”

“Talk to me about responsibilities, Luke.”

“Lissette, do you know whose dog it is?”

“No.”

Denmore knew she was lying. Lissette was an awful liar. If she were better, they probably wouldn’t have had to end things. He tried a smile. “Lissette, just tell me whose dog it is and I’ll leave you alone.”

Lissette squinted in the direction of the dog and the truck. “Looks like Ella. She belongs to Eileen Fink. Two houses down on the other side of the street. Blue house with cedar shingles. Jesus. She’s a widow, Luke.”

“Is she home, you think?”

“How should I know?”

“Thanks, Lissette.”

“That dog was all she had.”

Denmore leaned in. “You look good,” he said. “How are things at the hospital?”

“Save it. What are you even doing on this street? Were you spying on me?”

Denmore scowled. That’s exactly what he’d been doing. “No,” he said.

Lissette ran a hand through her messy, tangled hair. Sleep lines circumnavigated her face but she held her looks well. Always had. “Goodbye, Luke. Don’t come back.”

Denmore took the steps in one bound and then set off across the McCallisters’ lawn rather than using the flatstone walkway he’d laid down with his own hands the previous summer. His boots left impressions in the grass. Denmore turned toward the house and waved, knowing Lissette would be watching through the window.

At his truck Denmore knelt and slipped arms beneath the dog, feeling its full weight, more like a sack of beets or eggplants than an animal. He was always struck how quickly in death what had just been living became a thing. Mass and volume; a hulk. The phrase “dead weight” seemed to pinpoint it. His sister had not been happy one bit with Denmore for taking Max hunting, but that’s just what the boy needed. She had him enrolled in clarinet lessons, for godsakes. There’d been a scene when they returned and Max squealed to his mother about the whitetail. Had it been his son, Denmore would have had to knock him around some, nothing cruel, just enough to underscore the need to keep quiet about such things in front of women. Despite the gore—or perhaps because of it—the experience would benefit Max moving forward. He would know death, and that would give him power over others his age, who would have no such knowledge. But Max wasn’t his boy and although Denmore appreciated the roots of manhood showing in the kid (not to mention the horror on his sister’s face, an added benefit to the whole thing) he just stood by and watched. Clarinet lessons.

Denmore carried the dead dog down the street. He found the house no problem. He’d seen it before, of course—although it wasn’t one he’d worked on. It was just as Lissette had described. A two-story colonial sheathed in blue-painted cedar and boasting a mounted flagpole above the garage from which hung the state flag. At the center of the widow’s half-acre of neatly mowed front lawn, three stone gnomes gathered like they were fishing. The front steps were stone as well, some kind of cultured risers with granite treads. Denmore knew shoddy masonry when he saw it and this was about as low grade as it got. The risers were uneven, skewing three or four degrees to the left, and at least two of the treads were chipped and bulging. The old man must have done it himself, he thought. Maybe that’s what killed him. Denmore set the dog on the landing, shuddering at the senseless mixture of styles: natural stone, granite, concrete. What the hell was the theme here? Some folks had no business building steps.

He knocked on the door and waited. He wiped at a stain on the front of his shirt, some death liquid secreted from the dog, and held finger to nose. At that moment the door opened and what stood there was a redhead, like the dog, twice Denmore’s age but still with that hair. Her face crinkled up like a walnut and she wore the largest pair of glasses he’d ever seen not in a joke shop. Immediately, he bet she was the driving force behind the steps, that she knew what a travesty they were, and that she didn’t care a whit. It made him dislike her even more than he might otherwise, and he swallowed against his bubbling irritation at the histrionics that were bound to ensue. Why couldn’t it have been a man’s dog?

The widow was staring at the dog. Finally she looked up at Denmore. “Did you find her or kill her?” she said.

“Killed her, I’m sorry to say.”

“What happened?” The widow shook her head at the dog on the concrete between them, as if she didn’t know what it was. “She’s dead?”

“Hit her with my truck.”

“Posted speed limit on this street is fifteen miles per.”

Denmore knew that. He’d driven the street many times. “I had no intention of hitting your dog.”

The widow looked up. “I should hope not.”

“She ran into the street. Came jetting out from the junipers down there.” Denmore pointed but the widow kept her eyes on him. “That’s not your yard,” he said.

“I let her wander the neighborhood on nice days like this. She was trained.” The woman shook her head. She removed her glasses. “Poor thing probably saw a bunny or something. She couldn’t help herself around bunnies.” The widow peered down at the dog again. She didn’t say anything and Denmore gave a brief thought to slipping away.

“What’s your name?”

“Luke Denmore.”

The widow looked toward the street. “Mr. Denmore, is that your truck out there with its flashers going? That where it happened?”

“It is.”

Denmore didn’t like the look she gave him. A mother and a schoolteacher and a girlfriend all rolled together.

“I’ve seen you around,” the widow said. “You’ve been fiddling with Allen McCallisters’ wife.”

Though he felt punched, Denmore held his ground. “That’s right,” he said.

“You sorry about it?”

“Course.”

The widow appraised him. “No, from the looks of you, I wouldn’t say you are.” She wiped palms on the sides of her blouse and sighed. “Burying her. Come on, Mr. Denmore. That’s the only thing to do.” She turned and reentered her house. The screen banged shut. “You walk around,” she said. “Don’t come through my house in those boots.”

“Listen,” Denmore spoke through the screen. “My truck’s in the street.”

“Of course it is,” the widow said from inside. “But you owe us, Mr. Denmore.”

“I’ll come back,” Denmore said. “I just can’t stay now. I’ve stayed too long already.”

The widow returned to the screen. It pressed her red hair. “Walk around,” she said.

When she was gone, Denmore stood on the landing with the dog. He checked his watch, looked toward his truck. Jim expected him in Simsbury any minute and if Denmore hauled it he could be at the site no more than ten minutes late. “Jesus shit,” he said. Recently, since he’d hit the skids with Lissette and his nephew blew that deer’s face off, Denmore had felt himself being observed. Not always, but on and off. Now, certainly, he felt eyes on him. Denmore didn’t believe in ghouls or ghosts, and of course God was for featherbrains like his mother and sister, but the feeling of eyes was inescapable. Men, he knew, were judged by their actions. Who did the judging didn’t concern him. “Shit,” he said again, then bent and picked up the dog once more. He walked off the front porch and around the side of the house.

The widow was standing in the backyard. “Spade’s in the shed,” she said.

Inside the shed everything was neat. Old but neat. Yard tools, paint cans, beverage boxes filled with gear and unnamable metal things. The space smelled of diesel fuel and was dominated by an ancient green Bolens riding mower with the blades mounted backside under a black housing. Fresh grass mottled the tires. Denmore took a closer look. The thing was a genuine gear and shaft drive, beltless except the mower. An old, well-maintained machine. Denmore palpated the exposed engine and pictured the widow bumping along, edging around those stone gnomes. Wasn’t everyone that could keep a machine like this running. When he returned to the yard, he began digging where the woman pointed. It was a patch of grassless dirt by an unfinished teak bench and a post on which hung a few small suet cages.

“That your rider in there?”

“Who else’s would it be?”

“Your husband’s, maybe.”

“It’s mine.”

Denmore dug the hole. The widow came over and sat on the bench. She watched Denmore work. It was different than the feeling of eyes that had driven him to the backyard in the first place, unrelenting but familiar. Women never stopped, never took a break. His sister was the same way. Their mother, too. Except with those two, it wasn’t enough to appraise: they had salvation on their minds. Why they couldn’t let Denmore alone to live the life he saw fit was beyond him. He suspected things would have turned out differently had he been allowed to know his father. Denmore had seen a picture of the man in a green Pendleton shirt smirking with a beer bottle in one hand and a cigar in the other. Taken on the day Denmore was born. His mother never even told him the man’s name, only that he was a gambler and boozer who’d left before Denmore could sit up. So he’d been cursed from the start. Except Denmore didn’t believe in curses. He believed in featherbrains. He knew being raised this way made him incomplete, damaged. But it didn’t help to dwell. All these women. Not a one of them would let you off the hook, not for a thing. You had to fight your way out, just like his father must’ve—or die trying.

The widow watched from her bench. “What happened to your husband?” Denmore said, tossing a spadeful of earth to the side. Maybe that would be enough to get him off this chore.

“Crispin’s in the family plot in Glastonbury,” the widow said. “It’s only animals get buried in the back yard, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

As Denmore dug he worked up a sweat. A slow breeze blew but it didn’t do much for the humidity. The widow sat and watched, hands clasped in her lap. At some point she started talking, and Denmore kept his head down while she did.

“This is where Ella and I used to sit and watch the chickadees and nuthatches go at that suet. I originally put the post in after Crispin died to entice the woodpeckers from banging away at the house but it didn’t work out that way. Seemed no matter what suet I used it only attracted smaller birds. The woodpeckers continued to feast on our cedar. I hung a second suet box but it made no difference. All I got were small birds. Brown creepers, bushtits, a few wrens. No matter. Ella watched those birds and panted like a fool but Crispin’d trained her well. My husband believed in two things his whole life: having a well-trained dog and getting the good guy price. He bought and sold hinges. Well, not just hinges. Hinges and other such items. Hinges is where he got his start, years ago, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Started his business from scratch. From less than scratch. Always get the good guy price, he said. That’s one thing I learned from my dead husband. Always make sure you get the good guy price. Someone has something you want, you never pay what they’re asking. Never. The way Crispin saw it, everyone overvalued, at least for him. The good guy price was for those who knew what they were looking at. Crispin always knew what he was looking at. Before he bought something, anything, a hinge or anything else, cars, dinner, before he bought anything, he did his research. He showed up prepared, so that he’d get the good guy price.”

Not for the first time in his life, Denmore found himself wishing he’d known a man, rather than the woman he’d encountered. The widow kept talking. As she did, Denmore dug, occasionally wiping his sweaty forehead with a dusty, dirty arm. The Simsbury appointment was a goner and he would have some explaining to do. He began to work it out in his head. You see, Jim, I hit this dog and it belonged to a talkative widow and she wanted me to bury the dog in her backyard. You should have seen this rider she had in the shed.

“The dogs came later,” the widow was saying. “I guess he always had dogs, but the training of them, I mean. Took him two weeks, three weeks, with Ella. When he was done, those birds would swoop and dart and Ella just watched. Only thing Crispin liked more than the good guy price was no price at all. Doing something himself rather than paying another to do it for him. He was big into self-sufficiency, although to be honest sometimes it veered into the land of arrogance. But I didn’t mind. There’s worse things than being married to an arrogant man.” She paused. “You know, Crispin would have killed you. Probably rip that shovel from your hands and brain you with it.” The widow shifted her weight on the bench. “Guess it’s your luck the man’s not alive.”

Denmore only half-listened. What concerned him now was the dead dog on the lawn. Hot as it was, Denmore feared the body might start reeking, or be overrun by insects, but aside from a few flies, which he scattered with the shovel, the body remained undisturbed. At one point, a handful of birds—Denmore had no idea what kind—touched down on the suet and then darted away immediately.

“They know,” the widow said. “It’s got them all upset. Used to be they enjoyed working on that suet, I think. Today they can’t bring themselves to do it.”

Eventually Denmore rested the spade on his shoulder. He was breathing heavy. His shirt was dark.

The widow took a peek at the hole but didn’t get up from her seat. “Not quite yet.”

“That hole’s big enough for a dog just as it is.”

“Keep digging.”

Denmore scowled as he dug. Women and their commands. At least she’d stopped watching him, and for the moment had turned her attention to the birdless suet cages. Denmore was sweating something fierce now, but the breeze had picked up. At some point clouds had moved in, heavy and bulging with moisture. The temperature had dropped some, too, and the widow began to rub her arms. Eventually she said, “That’s enough. That will have to be enough. We should get this done before it rains, don’t you think.” Then she stood, looked up at the graying sky, and took a few steps toward the shed.  Over her shoulder she instructed Denmore to remain with Ella: “Think of something good to say when you put her in the ground.”

Denmore looked at the dog and thought again about running. It was probably only a few hundred yards to his truck out there in the street, flashers still going. He’d have to circumvent the house of course, and jump the fence, but that wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe he could even put the dog in the hole before he left—that, and digging the hole, listening to the old woman, should be enough to make up for killing the dog, which had been accidental, after all. But before he could make a move, the widow exited the shed grasping a nameless tool with a curved blade.

A time or two, Denmore had had to fight for his life, and once in the parking lot of a gentleman’s club a diesel dog pulled a Ruger on him. Now, as the widow approached with her weapon, Denmore felt the adrenalized pulsing he usually associated with fistfights.

“What’s the idea?” Denmore said.

The widow didn’t answer. Instead, as she came up to Denmore and the dog, she gestured with her blade, as if instructing Denmore where she wanted him to stand. Right by the hole he’d dug.

“Crispin would have something good to say about Ella,” the widow said. “Now hurry and get her in the ground. It’s going to rain here any moment.”

Denmore got down on one knee, keeping an eye on the widow, and slid Ella into the hole. She thumped at the bottom, snout pointed up.

“Stand,” the widow said. When Denmore stood, and when he looked toward the widow with her blade, he thought he saw a man standing behind her, cross-armed and frowning at Denmore.  The breeze waived the frowning man’s hair like the tufts of a deer’s tail.

“Throw some dirt,” the widow said.

Denmore didn’t make a move.

“It’s time to throw some dirt on the body,” the widow said.

The man behind her continued frowning as Denmore took a handful of dirt from the pile and tossed it into the hole. Most of it landed in the dog’s open mouth.

“Now say something good,” the widow said. “Make amends for what you’ve done.”

“I dug the hole,” Denmore managed.

“You’re not done. Say something good.”

Denmore opened his mouth but no further sound came out. His voice failed him. Where was his strength? His goddamn Bolens in the shed? It was the time for action, but his muscles locked. His saliva dried. Denmore knew how to fight, didn’t he? He’d done his share. Then, with a shudder, he saw that it wasn’t just one man standing behind the widow. As Denmore watched, the men grew in number. They looked angry. Denmore recognized some: coworkers, a friend or two, his own grimacing father next to Allen McCallister, who seemed to be putting twos together. The man who’d first appeared—Crispin Fink, Denmore suspected—put an arm around Max, who’d just shown up. Fink’s hands were big as bear hearts. They all watched Denmore and waited for him to say something good about the dead dog. Denmore stalled in their presence. 

“Say something,” the widow repeated, as the blade wavered in her shaking hand.

Denmore looked away. “I dug the hole.” It was all he could get out.

The widow came over and looked into the hole. She shook her head and sighed. “You didn’t deserve any of this,” she said. “You were a good, kind creature. But don’t worry about me. I know you will, but you don’t have to. I’m standing, and I’ll be all right.”

She pointed the knife at Denmore. “Now you,” she said.

Denmore couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. She meant to put him in the hole. The men still watched.

The widow waited, then sighed heavily, and turned toward the suet cages. She opened one, extracted the lump of suet and, in her hand, sliced it into smaller pieces with the blade. Then she returned the suet pieces to the cage. As Denmore watched, she did the same with the rest of the suet in the other cages. The breeze kicked up and the smell of rain came through the yard. Denmore watched the widow work, thinking maybe she’d forgotten he was there, engrossed as she was in slicing up the suet for the birds. The wet wind picked up, leaves really going now. There was a flash. The widow, still with her back to Denmore, looked at the sky. Denmore counted but the sound of thunder never came. The storm, perhaps, was further off than it seemed.

Greg November lives and writes in Seattle, WA. His stories have appeared in Juked, The Oddville Press, Crab Creek Review, Orange Coast Review, The Writing Disorder, Entasis, and in the collection Philly Fiction (Don Ron Books, 2006) among other places. He has an MFA from UC, Irvine, reads submissions for New England Review, and teaches at North Seattle College and Highline College.

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