An Example of
The Camel's Back
by Kathy Coogan
Dark Short Fiction
Susan walked through the fog leaning into it, shoulders hunched, strong legs taking long, rapid strides. She imagined herself slicing through it like a scalpel through skin, but knew that the fog healed itself once she entered it, leaving no scar. She felt off balance, gripping the coiled empty leash in both hands.
As she walked, she thought of Alan lying back there on the couch in his den, drool staining the pillow whose cover she faithfully changed each day. She stopped once and listened, thinking that she could hear his drunken snoring, turning her head like poor old Shiloh did when he listened for thunder from the storm that only he knew was coming.
She was startled when Kitty Lang appeared out of the fog, bending to pick up her morning paper, so close that Susan almost fell over her. Susan gasped, “Oh God, Kitty, I’m so sorry.” Kitty, pulling her pink chenille robe around her said, “Not your fault, Susan. Fog’s thicker than pea soup this morning.” Kitty looked down at the dangling leash. “Hey, where’s Shiloh? Don’t think I’ve ever seen you walking without that old sweetheart.”
Susan swallowed hard and said, “Shiloh died last night.”
“Why, you poor thing. What was it?”
Susan looked into the fog, eyes tearing, trying to remember what she had planned to say. “An accident. An awful accident.”
Kitty, kindly not asking for the details, said “I am so sorry, Susan. Shiloh was a wonder, all right. Anything I can do?”
Susan shook her head. “No. Thank you though.”
Kitty nodded and said, “Like losing a member of the family, isn’t it?”
Kitty went on, “I remember when we had to put our Regis down. Named him after Regis Philbin cause he was such a brazen little guy, so cocky…Oh, this isn’t the time for that…you don’t want to hear me go on do you?”
Susan shook her head then said, “I mean…”
“No, you walk. Maybe it will help a little.” Kitty pulled a ball of Kleenex out of her robe pocket and handed it to Susan. “It’s clean, just wrinkled.”
Susan wiped her eyes. “Thanks, Kitty.”
She started walking, putting the Kleenex in her pocket where she felt the Playtex gloves, reminding her. She heard Kitty’s front door close and turned back to look, but in those few steps the fog had enshrouded her again.
As she walked, trudging hard uphill, she thought of last night, Shiloh, lying so still on his side, legs outstretched. Alan, drunk again and jealous of her attention to Shiloh, had followed them downstairs. Susan was bent over the tub, sleeves rolled up, giving Shiloh a sudsy rub-down, rinsing him with the shower nozzle, using her hands like a squeegee against his fur, the giant gentle sheepdog standing with great dignity in the knee-deep warm water.
Alan had picked up the hand-held blow dryer, acting the fool, turning it on and off behind her, on and off, on and off, waving it around, speaking into it in a drunken falsetto, as if it were a microphone, “Welcome Shiloh, old boy, to Mr. Alan’s House of Curl.” He might have killed her too, fumbling the old blow dryer, the one that she used exclusively on Shiloh’s fluffy coat, dropping it into the tub.
Reflexively, she had leapt backwards, falling away, seeing it all in slow motion, seeing the dryer spiral from Alan’s hands. She reached for the cord as she fell but couldn’t unplug it, couldn’t save Shiloh, who yelped once as he proudly leapt and caught the dryer in his mouth, playing his favorite game then falling back into the tub. The electric current entered his submerged body and shut him down, writhing, struggling to escape the killing tub.
“No-o-o-o,” screamed Susan just once. Then she shut down too, became a robot, a Stepford wife whose charm-switch has been disconnected. She rose and pulled the plug, lifting the hair dryer by its cord from the water where in now floated, an innocent device. She coiled the cord and moved Alan out of the way, gently, assuming her nurse mode, practiced in dealing with sick, contentious patients. She felt an urgency to lift Shiloh from the tub and calmly refused Alan’s help, “No, it’s okay, I’ll get him. You go on upstairs, Alan. Everything is going to be okay.”
She barely heard Alan saying, his drunken priorities always askew, “Don’t worry. I can fix this. I can fix anything. It’s a gift,” holding the burnt-out blow dryer which dripped water at his feet, looking at it closely to see what could be done. She waited until he trudged up the stairs, mumbling, “Not a problem. No Siree. Old Alan has a gift.”
She had drained the tub, and bending, using her legs, strong from their twice daily walks, had lifted Shiloh out. She sat petting him, running her fingers through his thick gray fur, still wet from the bath. No sense drying and brushing him now. His eyes were still open and he had a shocked look on his face, as if he were thinking, “Was I a bad dog?” She had leaned over and smelled him, his sweet, clean, doggy smell, fresh from the bath, overlaid with an awful burned stench.
“I’ll never forget that smell,” thought Susan, walking faster now, stretching out, her pace almost too much, groaning with the pain of losing Shiloh. And Alan, Alan, who, when sober, could fix anything. He tinkered constantly. He said that he had instinct in his finger-tips; that he could pick up any mechanical object and feel its working parts buzzing under his skin. His den, the room where he passed out drunk every night, had a work bench in the corner instead of a desk.
Alan’s latest project was the gas barbecue grill that he had wheeled inside the day before, before the booze had fully taken hold. The flame was too blue, he said, indicating an incorrect mix of air and fuel. Susan watched as he disassembled the tubing from the propane tank, laying the tiny parts on the messy work bench stacked with tools, rags, open cans of three-in-one oil and empty whiskey bottles lying on their sides. And there was the usual burning cigarette balanced on the charred edge and the glass, always the same unwashed glass.
Susan had suggested that he work on the tank outside, worrying about the fumes but he had looked at her as if she were stupid and said, “This is where I work. Here. Not outside. Now leave me the fuck alone.” She had closed the den door feeling the familiar mix of pity and hatred, ingredients that were part of her consciousness in constantly changing proportions. She did some housework then later said to Shiloh, “Come on, boy. Let’s get you a bath,” following the big, shaggy dog as he lumbered down the stairs.
Shiloh loved his bath. He climbed into the basement tub, into the warm, scented water and stood with his eyes closed, smiling as she rubbed the warm lather all over, leaning into her occasionally, as if to say, “ Right there, yes, my left shoulder, yes, you got it. Ahhh.” When he shook himself, soaking her, he looked embarrassed and nuzzled her with his nose in apology for his rudeness, loving her unconditionally.
Susan stopped walking and bent over, wrapping her arms around herself. She sobbed and sobbed, the fog absorbing the sound. She stood, breathing hard, her heart hurting, each beat hammering with memory or anticipation. She thought, gaining control, “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
After a long night, she had come upstairs, leaving Shiloh covered with his favorite blanket, his ball tucked between his motionless paws. She went into the kitchen and took rubber gloves out of the cleaning cabinet under the sink. She had heard Alan moving around his den, tromping around as he did every night, the TV on loud, ranting back at it, arguing with the newscaster or bellowing at the pitcher, until he collapsed onto the couch. She had sat on the floor outside the closed door, waiting, listening. She looked at her watch when he began to snore and knew that he was out cold. Morning came disguised by the fog as she sat hugging her knees. She felt cold and hard, chilled from the inside out.
She stood and opened the den door, walked in, not bothering to tiptoe. He was still dead to the world. She stood in front of his workbench, where the propane gas tank sat. The tubing was reassembled and reconnected to the grill. She pulled on the gloves that she had taken from the kitchen and turned both knobs to ON. She heard the hissing sound of the escaping gas. She walked over to the couch and looked down on her husband. She saw his overflowing ashtray and the cigarettes and lighter on the coffee table.
She could see it all. He would come to, and before his rheumy eyes were open, he would reach for his cigarettes, shakily tap one out of the pack, put it to his lips, coughing, needing the nicotine badly, more than a drink. He would flick his lighter. “Would it be enough?” she thought as she walked out and closed the door.
Susan was on the return leg of her morning loop around the neighborhood which usually took about an hour and a half. Without Shiloh’s stopping and sniffing and marking every vertical object, it had taken less. She approached a new house under construction. The workers were not there yet, probably held up by the fog, which was only now beginning to lift. She walked to the dumpster, the place where Shiloh usually lingered, pulling against his leash, admiring all the smells. It was filled with construction debris: lumber, pop bottles, shingles and fast food bags from the workers’ lunches. She tossed the gloves into the dumpster as she passed.
She had gone four miles in all, was almost home, when she heard it, a muted out-of-place thump. She stopped, closed her eyes and prayed, “Let it be enough.” Feeling numb, she continued on, looking straight ahead, a woman taking her morning walk in the fog, walking for the first time without her dog.
Another Example of Kathy's Dark Short Fiction
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