Petaki Road was as far from town as a person could get without leaving: six miles of blacktop running parallel to the county line, hemmed in by corn and soy fields to the east and a sheer cliff face to the west. Road crews and snowplows rarely visited. As soon as inmates were released from Wannehsookah Penitentiary they found shelter on Petaki Road, or they stayed on the streets and starved, or they reoffended. Most people saw it as a just punishment: if you lived on Petaki Road, you’d done something to deserve it.
Ed liked to gaze over the fields as he drove, his left arm dangling out the window and his right draped over the wheel. The view wasn’t as pretty when the corn grew high, but when the crops were harvested he could see out to the farmhouses and barns, and the hills rising in a blue, murky haze behind them. They were best now, in mid-autumn, jumping in red and orange and yellow. He was daydreaming about walking those hills when the dog ran out, and the truck shuddered and jumped and skidded sideways into the grass. The dust settled in an even coat over the windshield. It was so quiet, for a moment, that Ed could hear individual particles ticking against the glass. He fell out of the truck and scrambled over to the lumpen black shape on the asphalt.
The dog’s coat was shaggy, coarse, entirely black except for a white circle on the back of its head like an entry wound. Ed parted the fur to look for a collar, but there wasn’t any. His hands came away sticky with blood. The left side of its ribcage was dented inwards. Its front-left leg was bent sideways. The dog tried to look at him, but couldn’t lift its head off the ground. Its wide, glassy eyes rolled up to the sky.
Sweat beaded on Ed’s cheeks. He thought about putting the dog out of its misery, pinning its head in the crook of his arm and twisting hard. Or getting in back in his truck and resuming his day, pretending there had been no interruption. He played both scenarios out in his head several times, trying to determine which one he could live with, before he scooped it up and carried it to the truck. The backseat was full of dirty clothes that he’d been taking to the laundromat in town. Ed piled them into a nest and set the dog in the center. Leaning over to set it down, he was aware of his paunch hanging pendulous, his balding head thrust forth. In Wannehsookah time had been a taboo: something best ignored as it bled away slowly, stagnating around the inmates’ ankles. Only when he was released did he remember the birthdays that had passed uncelebrated, the New Years of the past, and see the damage time had done. Now he saw himself frozen again, and shook himself out of his reverie, got behind the wheel, guided the truck out of the field, and drove back up Petaki Road to Colleen Lenart’s house.
“What happened to it?” she asked when Ed trundled in, cradling the shaggy body. “Is it yours?”
“It ran out in the road,” Ed said.
“I don’t recognize it. Looks like an Afghan, maybe, but the coat’s too short.”
“Colleen, this dog is heavy.”
She swept her arm over the dining room table, knocking books and plastic plates to the floor. Ed set the dog down. Its breath barely rustled the fur on its lips. Whatever energy it had left was focused on staying alive. Colleen ran into the kitchen and returned with her arms full of needles, bandages, pill bottles. She was a local, a descendant of the Ho-Chunk tribes, and had moved to Petaki Road after retiring from her job in Wannehsookah’s infirmary. Few of the ex-cons had medical insurance or the money to pay doctors flat, so they came to her when they broke their toes or stepped in poison ivy, remembering shamefaced their hatred for her, their threats and passes at violence. Nobody knew why she’d consigned herself to join them when she could have gone anywhere, and nobody asked. They were afraid of ruining a good thing.
Colleen spread her supplies out over the kitchen table, filled a syringe with clear liquid, and injected it into the dog’s haunch. Its eyes clouded, and every muscle went limp, and nobody moved until it inhaled again, sharply and deeply. Ed heard himself sigh in relief. He sat in the corner and closed his eyes. It was too much excitement for one day. More excitement than he’d had since he’d been released from Wannehsookah, and more excitement than he’d had inside too.
“What’s her name?” Colleen asked.
“Her?” Ed had assumed that the dog was male, though he didn’t know why. “I don’t know her name. I hit her with my car.”
“Dogs need names just like everything else, even if you run them over. It could be as simple as Ed, or as long as Wannehsookah, or Orchidaceae. That’s the Latin nomenclature for orchid.”
“What’s the point of giving it a name? It’s someone else’s dog.”
“I don’t think so, Ed. I don’t see a collar.”
The trouble with names was that there were so many of them, but so few ever fit a thing. Parents, friends, lovers, cellmates — Ed rejected them all and began searching his former life for more options, but all paths traced in memory led to the same place, a mouth or spring depending on the direction traveled. By nature of being a prison, Wannehsookah had limited his opportunities to meet new people whose names he could have called upon. Ed remembered, however, lying in his cell with a hand-crank radio, listening to 91.1 play Woody Guthrie’s music every Sunday from 10 to noon. The music had been a companion to him more than man. It was a solace, how long-buried memories could resurface when needed.
“Woodi,” he said.
“Woody’s a guy’s name.”
“No, it’s Woodi with an i at the end. More feminine that way.”
His house was a half-kitchen open to the living room area, with a bathroom and bedroom behind adjacent doors. It was about the size of a trailer, the only difference being that it didn’t have wheels. The attic was a crawlspace. There was no basement. The front doorway was choked by weeds, and when it rained, water sometimes trickled in through the gap at the bottom. After moving in, Ed had driven around to garage sales and used-furniture outlets, buying whatever he could fit in his truck. He’d started making money again, assembling and repairing tables and chairs and desks and sometimes patio furniture for old ladies around town, earning a living, whatever that meant, earning a living. Now there were two beds in the bedroom and three couches in the living room, a box TV balanced atop a leather armchair, a space heater in every corner. He’d covered every square inch of kitchen tile with rugs. Whenever he remembered how cold the concrete at Wannehsookah had been, he put another rug down.
For a dog bed, Ed superglued couch cushions to a pallet and lined it with an old sheepskin rug. Then he set Woodi inside, and she became a part of it too, unmoving except for her eyes. They followed him wherever he walked, or stared at him while he watched TV. It was like having a cellmate again. The worst cellmates were the ones who tried to be your friend, and the best minded their own business. Woodi was present, quiet, and sometimes licked Ed’s hand when he bent down to pet her. She demanded nothing. Ed’s only responsibility was to feed her and carry her outside a few times a day.
By the time Woodi began to move, she’d grown fat around the middle, and she was only able to shamble across the room to her food bowl before collapsing. Colleen came at the end of the month and took the bandages off. In her nakedness, Woodi’s fur was darker than ivory. Ed almost felt moved to bow.
“You need to walk her,” Colleen said.
“I let her out twice a day.”
“I mean, actually walk her. Get a leash and take her around the neighborhood.”
“I don’t think she can make it that far.”
“You used to play football, right? It’s just like any other training program: you start slow and build up. There’s only so long you can rest before it starts to do harm. Right now, her muscles are atrophying, and you know what else is a muscle? The heart.”
In the closet he found a pair of old canvas suspenders that his mother had bought him for high school prom, along with other detritus from his life before Wannehsookah. He looped and tied the suspenders into a collar, then used a carabiner to attach a laminated tag in front. On it he wrote “Woodi – Property of Ed Leary.”
The suspenders were snug around Woodi’s neck. Ed found a length of rope, tied one end into a loop, fastened the other end to the carabiner, and opened the door. Woodi waddled over and nosed the opening, inhaling lungfuls of outside air. Ed wondered how it smelled to her after two weeks cooped up inside, if she felt the same way he had when the gates of Wannehsookah clanged shut behind him. They made it two houses down before Woodi shit in a neighbor’s driveway — Conway, another Wannehsookah resident Ed had known in passing. Ed looked at the windows to see if Conway was watching, but all the blinds were drawn. A cluster of starlings drew up from the fields, alighted on telephone lines, and swirled again up into the sky.
For years time had flowed like those starlings, spiraling, the days blending into one another and disappearing into the fold. With Woodi’s steady improvement, they became distinct again. Soon she was walking a half-mile, then a full mile, then two miles every day, passing the scene of the accident where tire tracks were still visible in the dirt. She shed fat as she healed, as though her brokenness had been a cocoon. Ed washed her with the hose in his backyard, blasting off layers of mud and matted fur. Her eyes peeked out from under a heavy brow of Hollywood curls, almost coy. She kept shitting in Conway’s driveway. Autumn drew out like it was being stretched on a rack, memory on one end and anticipation on the other.
Colleen dropped in without warning. “Woodi’s gotten handsome,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she’s so lean now. Nobody wants a fat dog.” She bent down and fingered the suspenders around Woodi’s neck. “You couldn’t spring for a real collar?”
“It is a real collar. As real as any other.”
“You have to admit it’s lacking something. A little, what’s the word, authenticity?” She looked around the living room, at the couches and chairs and end tables and lamps. “There’s a difference between serving the same purpose and being the same thing.”
When Colleen left, Ed turned off the television and all the lights. It was never quiet in Wannehsookah; someone was always burping or coughing or scratching. Now, standing by the window in the dark, he heard only the whine of blood rushing behind his ears, and sometimes Woodi’s soft, steady breath. The fields of dead, dry grass were turning purple in the fading light. The air was starting to cool. Ed realized he didn’t want autumn to end, though he’d never cared before.
Driving into town meant driving past Wannehsookah. It was a long, low cinder building enclosed by chain-link fencing and razor wire. Watchtowers peeked above the treeline. When Ed saw those towers, his heart picked up and didn’t settle until he reached the PetSmart on the west end of town. Inside, it smelled like sawdust and metal. Fluorescent lights burned above the racks. His sneakers slapped against the concrete. He grabbed a bag of large-breed dog food and brought it to the register, fighting down the bile in his throat.
As he passed through the front door with the bag balanced on one shoulder, he ran headlong into Dan Efram, who worked the Maximum Security Ward. Ed bent his head low, muttered an apology to the floor, and tried to move past, but a heavy hand came down on his shoulder. It was the first human contact he’d felt since his cellmate shook his hand goodbye.
“I know you — Leary, right?” Efram smiled at him, but Ed said nothing. “Good to see you’re on your feet. A lot of guys get out, fuck up, and go right back in. But if someone can spend years in prison and keep living after, it proves we’re doing something right, even though most of the time I’m pretty sure we ain’t.” He glanced at the sack of dog food. “Helps you have a dog. Pets can help people rehabilitate better than halfway houses, sometimes.”
Ed sped back up Petaki Road, ran inside, and locked the door. He began to pace, then realized he’d left the dog food in the truck, so he ran back out. As he hauled the bag over the tailgate, one corner hooked a jutting edge and tore open. Leaving a trail of pellets like animal droppings, Ed ran back to the door, threw the bag into his kitchen, and locked himself in again. Woodi watched from her makeshift bed without lifting her head, eyebrows rising and falling as he ran back and forth.
The leaves had fallen from the trees. The asphalt was wet underfoot. They were two miles out and Woodi wanted to keep going. Ed was happy to oblige her. The thought of the house was repugnant on a day when he could smell the rainclouds coming over the horizon and hear from miles away the insectoid thrum of an approaching car. It was a low-rider, black and sleek, washed and waxed. There were a few gearheads on Petaki Road who cared obsessively for their cars — once they left Wannehsookah, there wasn’t much else to care for — but none of them could have afforded a car like the one approaching, with its contoured curves and an engine that hummed with the promise of foreign engineering.
As it drew closer, Ed stepped off the road to let it pass, but instead it slowed. Woodi began to wag, and then bark. Her bark was raspy, like a chronic smoker’s voice. The car stopped beside them. The window rolled down. “That dog belongs to me,” said the woman in the driver’s seat.
Ed stared at her. Behind the tinted windows he could see someone moving in the back of the car.
“Her name is Elliot. See? She recognizes me. Elliot — here, Elliot!” The woman stuck her arm out the window. Woodi yanked at the rope, but Ed held her back.
“I found this dog two months ago,” he said. His voice was hoarse. He wasn’t used to talking. “She was a stray, and I took her in.”
The woman frowned. Her hair was blonde turning white, and her eyes were hidden behind oversized sunglasses. “She has a white spot on the back of her head. She licks her paws until they get dry and bleed. Whenever there’s thunder or fireworks she hides in the bathtub. How would I know that if she wasn’t mine?”
Ed was deciding what emotion to feel. Awkward, or confused, or sad, or angry. It had been so long since he’d felt any of those things. They’d withered within him like flowers in a drought, like a fading flag.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “I found this dog at the side of the road. I fixed her up. I adopted her. You see that nametag? Her name’s Woodi, with an i, and if she’s yours she either ran away or you let her go. Either way, you don’t deserve to have her.”
The woman turned in her seat and spoke in undertones to whoever was in the back of the car. Ed started walking again, dragging Woodi behind him. When they got back to the house he brought her inside, shut and locked the windows, shoved couches and chairs in front of the door, and peeked out at the road through a crack in the blinds. The car was parked in front of his house. It idled there for an hour, maybe more, before turning around and driving slowly back to town.
Dan Efram came by two weeks later. He was wearing rimless glasses Ed had never seen before, and filled the entire space of the doorframe. “Hi, Leary,” he said. “Can I come in?”
Efram stepped inside and Ed shut the door behind him. Woodi sat on one of the couches, looking up at them. Efram stood over her with his thumbs hooked in his belt. “Mind if I have a seat? Looks like you have plenty.” Ed shrugged, and Efram perched on the edge of a leather office chair. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. He put them in his pockets, rested them on his knees, then knit them together and let them dangle between his legs.
“This isn’t easy for me, Leary. The Sheriff sent me here, since I already know you, to some extent. I’m doing it as a favor to him, but I think it might be a favor to you too.” He cleared his throat. “A formal complaint’s been filed against you. Miss Something-or-Other Bissell says you have her dog. I only see one dog around here, and it fits the description pretty good. Mind if I check something?”
Ed shrugged again. Efram extended a hand to Woodi, let her sniff it, and bent over to look at the back of her head. She wagged. Ed imagined how it would feel to grab Efram by the hair, yank his head down, and crack his skull from behind with a ball-peen hammer. Efram scratched Woodi’s head and sat back down.
“Yep. White circle on the back of her head.”
Ed didn’t like making excuses. Excuses were weak, and weakness made you pliable. More lessons from Wannehsookah. “The dog’s mine,” he said. “I adopted her.”
“You have papers to show that?”
“No. I hit her with my truck.”
“You hit her with your truck.”
“She ran out into the road, just up the way here. She didn’t have a collar. Did you always wear glasses?”
Efram blinked, then removed the glasses and looked at them as though he’d forgotten he was wearing them. “I wear contacts when I’m in the Max Ward. Otherwise someone could knock these off, and then I’d be helpless.” He put the glasses back on and blinked a few times. “I hear you’re a carpenter now.”
“I’m good with my hands.” Ed imagined grabbing Efram’s skull and slamming it against the tile floor. Or squeezing until his brains came out his ears. He’d never done it or seen it, but he’d heard guys talk about it.
“And you found a way to use them. Most people don’t get the chance to exercise their God-given talents that way. I would’ve taken football player over prison guard, but life didn’t work out. Snapped my adductor. Goodbye, athletic career.” They nodded at each other, code for I understand. “It’s tough enough getting by when society isn’t trying to spit you back out. They won’t take an ex-con at his word, Ed.”
Ed stared at Efram, gauging the difference in their sizes. He’d once seen Efram pacify a 350-pound inmate who was doing time on three assault charges, but he’d also had a baton. With only their bare hands, they might be evenly matched. He imagined wrapping his arm around Efram’s throat and squeezing, and something he hadn’t felt in years began to vibrate in his ribcage. The last time it stirred he’d kicked half the teeth out of a gas station clerk, and that had landed him in Wannehsookah. He remembered Woody Guthrie, and the quiet violence that resided within the walls of that place, and the tears his mother had shed during his trial, during his sentencing, during every visit. Her face, withered with age until it was like cling-wrap over her skull, would contort and heave with every sob as if breath alone could not relieve the pressure of her grief, until her head sank to the cold metal of the cafeteria table. Sometimes Ed thought he smelled her perfume in odd corners of the house, though she’d been dead two years by then and had been inside it only once. He forced himself to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, just like the counselor at Wannehsookah had taught him. Slowly his muscles unclenched, and then his throat.
“Woodi is not property,” Ed said. “She’s a living thing. You can’t own a living thing.”
“The law says otherwise, and I bet if they take this dog to a vet, they’re going to confirm it belongs to Miss Bissell. I don’t care if you stole it out of her yard, or if you nursed it back from the brink of death. The dog doesn’t belong to you. If the Sheriff has to come down here, they’re going to arrest you, and they’re going to make up their own story. You will go before the judge as someone whose rehabilitation has failed. Then you will be given a very long sentence — longer than the last one, which was pretty goddamn long.”
Ed stood and looked out the window. The corn stalks jutted upwards like punji sticks. In the cold, people withdrew into themselves, and the outside world took on a new sheen — a clarity it lacked before. Ed remembered the sting of the concrete. The carpet curled around his bare toes like moss.
There was only one address for a Bissell in the phone book. Ed drove out to it the next morning. It was in one of the planned communities on the other side of town, out past Wannehsookah, as far as you could get from Petaki Road without leaving the county. It was a two-story house painted bright yellow. There weren’t any cars in the driveway, and the garage was closed. A single tree stood out front, with a canopy that spread wide enough to shade the entire yard, and wrapped around its base was a length of chain maybe thirty feet long. Ed tried to imagine how far he could move with the chain around his neck. How that weight would feel, grinding against his collarbone.
He drove back to Petaki Road, to Colleen’s house. She was in her backyard, digging a hole four feet wide. “Give me some help?” she said.
Ed took the shovel from her, and as he worked he told her what Efram had said. The dirt was wet and packed hard, more like clay. His muscles began to burn as he flung it away. Colleen offered to take over for him, but he shook his head and kept digging until she told him to stop. She went inside and came back out with a cardboard box, which she dropped into the hole. It was full of hypodermic needles, glinting in the trace of sunlight that filtered down. After Ed filled the hole back up, they went and sat on the front porch.
“Air’s getting cool,” Colleen said. “It’s going to snow soon.”
“I can’t give her back, Colleen. I can’t.” Ed mashed his fingers into the dirt. His chest was tight. He couldn’t breathe deep enough to satisfy his lungs.
“I know you didn’t mean to steal her, Ed, but they don’t know that. Like it or not, the Sheriff’s still the man with the gun. If you don’t do what he says, you’re going to face the business end. If you want something more, I can give you tea. As for advice, that’s all there is.”
“You said I stole her. I didn’t steal her. I rescued her.”
Colleen’s breath crystallized in the air, specks refracting light swirling around her head, swirling and slowing and eventually stopping, hanging as Ed cut time into its smallest unit, the moment, where nothing could change. He’d passed many afternoons staring at dust floating in a shaft of light, concentrating until they moved no more. If it wasn’t for the dust, time wouldn’t pass at all.
“You know how Wannehsookah got its name?” Colleen said. “It’s made-up. They took it from a Ho-Chunk chief, Red Bird, used to be a big man in this part of the country. Red Bird sees the white man encroaching on his lands and putting his people to death — for no reason, only vague suspicions — he starts blowing them away in retaliation. They arrest him, and instead of dropping him off a scaffold like he’s expecting, they just keep him there until he dies. Then, to honor his place in this state’s history, they name a prison after him.”
“They didn’t name it Red Bird Prison.”
“His name in Ho-Chunk was Wanig-Suchka. Wannehsookah. Sounds Indian but it’s easier to pronounce. Even after they stole his name, they didn’t have the decency to spell it right.” She sighed and stamped her feet. “Yet I worked there for twenty-odd years. At first it was just a job, but eventually I started doing it to help people, the lowest of the low. Even after I retired, I moved out here to keep doing it. Guilt’s more powerful than resentment, I guess.”
Ed stood and brushed the dirt off his arms. “Is that what I am? The lowest of the low?”
“Don’t be facetious, Ed.”
“I don’t know what that means.” He walked to his truck and jumped inside. Colleen remained sitting, hugging her knees to her chest. He keyed the engine on and yelled out the window, “Does it ever go away?”
“I can’t hear you,” she yelled back. Ed waved his hand — it doesn’t matter — and pulled onto Petaki Road.
When he got home, Ed sat by the window with Woodi napping by his feet. Sometimes he bent to stroke her head, but always stopped short, his hand hovering and then retracting. Eventually she began to whine and pace around the room, so he put her leash on and brought her outside. At Conway’s house he kicked her shit off the driveway and stepped off the road to let a car pass. The dirt crunched like hardtack underfoot. Gooseflesh rose on his arms.
They came two days later, with the first snowfall of the year. Two cop cars, four deputies, and the Sheriff in his personal vehicle. They were all packing handguns and wore thick hooded jackets. Ed watched them approach through a crack in the curtains. They didn’t know cold. Real cold, a jacket wouldn’t help you. You had to forget the world was moving, forget sunrise and sunset. You had to become as rigid as the concrete and iron around you. Those walls didn’t know time.
One deputy had a sledgehammer, and two stacked behind him while the fourth went around to the back of the house. He was getting ready to swing when Ed pulled back the bolt and threw the door open. They swarmed in, muscled him to the ground, pinned him as the Sheriff checked every room in the house. Ed knew that, if he wanted, he could have thrown them off his back and killed at least two before they took him down. There was some comfort in that. Snowflakes the size of marbles lighted on his face.
Woodi had to be miles out by then, tearing across the fields, kicking up plumes of white. With evevry stride her head dipped and rose again. Ears slapped jowls. All that training, all that grooming, the human sounds she’d committed to memory — sit, stay, heel — gone in an instant with the scent of the air. The snow smelled like the sky, but also like water, and flakes of it clustered on her coat so that she smelled like water too. The fields stretched far beyond what anyone could see from Petaki Road, and then she reached the woods. Before Ed Leary hit her with his car, she’d lived in those woods, and had forgotten about kibble, forgotten her daily pattern, learned to catch a rabbit and rip the flesh from its bones. Already she was losing the dank, stagnant scent of Petaki Road, and with it her names: Elliott, Woodi. A few birds, stubborn holdouts, were perched in the trees, along with squirrels hurrying to bury their food for the spring. A stream sloshed beside, swimming with crayfish. It fed into brooks that bounced into divots carved by centuries of pounding water. Families of turkeys and turklets careened away, gobbling madly. Beneath the snow, pristine and white and still and faceless, she smelled rotting maple leaves.
Andrew Marvin lives in New Jersey. His work has previously been published in The Mighty Line, Big Muddy, and Calliope.