Gloria was part wolf, part something else, and Gene was allowed to keep her without a special license because he and Steve were part Six Nations, part something else, and if you were a registered Native American you could have a wolf.
You’ll check up on the old place? Steve asked, by which he meant Auntie back in California, whom neither had seen since the quake.
Not sure I’ll get that far, said Gene. But if I do.
When he was back east, he hung around with Steve and his girlfriend at Slash Back, the vintage clothing cafe they ran together, and Steve seemed to be doing okay, at least for a gimpy Indian, he said. He had his guitar and the band, and he had his girlfriend whom he’d met on a volunteer stint at an orphanage in Cambodia and if Gene thought she was a little young for Steve, who was he to say? There was plenty they couldn’t talk about these days, although he tried. But then his brother would say what about this reggae backbeat, or try to fix Gene up with some friend of his girlfriend’s, and that was never going to fly. So pretty soon he decided to head out again in their old man’s beat-up Chevy with Gloria in the back.
The big animal slept in the back seat, or rode up beside him and things went okay for a while. He’d pull over to let her run off some steam, come back to the truck with her muzzle slick with squirrel blood sometimes, burrs matted in her thick, dark pelt. They’d sleep rugged up in the truck in trailer parks or public parks, sneak in behind the drifters’ SUVs, everyone gone by morning, before the moms came with their kids and dogs. Sometimes check into a motel to get cleaned up. He’d spent so long doing this, finding room to move between one coast and another that he forgot sometimes where he came from, where he really belonged.
When Gloria started acting up in Colorado, Gene thought maybe it was because she could smell her extinct timber wolf cousins in the silvery air, and then he thought maybe she didn’t like him stopping at those bars at the edge of town. Big as he was, she’d keep an eye on him from the windscreen, worry knitting her shaggy brow at a man of his size letting himself get pushed around like that, the way the truckers would lead him giggling into the back seat of their cabs, the marks they’d leave on his body and his face, from their loose-fisted love. But that wasn’t it. Gloria got worse, howled all the way through New Mexico, where he diverted to visit a friend of Steve’s they’d both known on the rez. When the man came out of the barracks to open the Chevy door for Gene, Gloria lunged across and almost took his head off. So Gene mostly kept her in the truck after that, her pelt shedding all over a blanket he spread for her, and by the time they got to Phoenix, she was so rank with a weeping mange that he had to fork out $250 for a vet to tell him she was getting old.
She was homesick, that was the thing. For the cold clear streams back east, the dark arcades of fragrant pines, and the way a paddock would snap out at you, unexpected, thistles and goldenrod at its edges. Overhead the high whistle of a drifting hawk. The further they got from all that, the worse she got. And there was something else. She seemed scared, skittish, and he’d never known her to be this way. Her hackles lifted all the time and a high musk emanated from her so that the windows had to be wound down all the way, the roar of the road filling his head with the old bad thoughts. About how the devil had gotten into their daddy and had taken him away, about cousin Ty and what happened to Steve’s leg, about the boy at the roadhouse with the strawberry mark below his right buttock. The road cracking out of the black like a whip, Gloria taut and farting beside him. Fixing him in her terrible yellow-moon stare.
The minute they crossed the California border she began to bark and bang her rump against the passenger door and scratch at the dash with her forelegs. And Gene thought he could turn back, open up that record store in Deansbridge, New York that he and Steve were always talking about, with the sale of the farm, maybe.
Well, he said, pulling over to calm her down. The farm’s not going to sell itself. We’ll check it out, that’s all. Talk to Auntie.
He tried to make himself believe this, and make Gloria believe it too, taking her great head in his hands and finding her amber gaze in his own. But it was more than that and he knew it. Gloria didn’t need to know Auntie to fear her, all she needed was to see in his eyes the years unspooled, the playback, to know that even if the farm was still there after the quakes and the drought, and even if there was anyone left in Bakersfield to buy it, it would take as long as Auntie wanted it to take. It always had.
You have an aunt? Steve’s girlfriend had said back in Deansbridge. Bring her back with you; she can live with us.
And Steve and Gene had just looked at each other over the girl’s shiny black hair.
In Cambodia maybe, said Stephen, not here.
Meaning not Auntie. Not ever.
Out of the begrimed windows of the truck, Gene saw the West coast, not of his youth, but of the intervening years. The crumbling strip malls, and shuttered neighborhoods and parking lots transformed into shanty towns. The charred hills behind. Getting lost one too many times on the desolate freeway, Gloria had set up a low keen, stopping only to snarl at the unfinished housing developments, the liquefacted fields.
But it was Auntie, standing on the porch off the old farm outside of Bakersfield, who really set her off, Gloria straining at her leash and her lip pulled back in a black grin to get at the old woman. Auntie, shriveled some since the funeral, took off one slipper and hit Gloria right between the eyes without spilling a drop of her Keystone. Gloria snapped at the slipper and Gene led her round to the back, Auntie saying after them, That fleabag shit on my squash I’ll shoot it.
Uncle Earl, who had been a merchant seaman in his younger days, died two winters ago from liver cancer. Auntie survived on palm readings and the proceeds from her vegetable garden. For Auntie the varnish-red peppers, pale bubble-skinned squash and corn of course, were about survival in more ways than one—the white way and the Indian way, and Gene watched her kneeling in the verdant rows at all hours of the day or night, graying hair streaming down her back, a small diamond ring catching the moonlight. She enlisted Gene’s help in searching for Earl’s missing diamonds, said she knew they were there somewhere and she’d looked all over for them, in the shed, in the barn which contained nothing except for cousin Ty’s old Grizzly and Earl’s rusted pickup, in the blackberry patch between the woods and the cornfield, but she hadn’t been able to find them. He’d let her choose two—she’d used one to pay for the funeral, she said—from a handful he’d held out for her once, said he picked them up on his travels, or won them, black jack mainly, a little poker or pool. She kept the ring but knew the rest of them were out there somewhere.
Go a ways toward fixing up the place, she said, but what Auntie had in mind, Gene knew, was a different kind of fix, one that involved a glass pipe and cheap Bic lighter for her boyfriend Major Buzz, who’d fought in the Iran wars and was a little young for her, Gene thought, but who was he to say.
He cleaned out the basement looking for the stones, searched the chimneys and the gutters, not that he really believed they were there, but because it made things better between them, him and Auntie. And after all, this was the family home and would be his and Steve’s one day, provided Major Buzz didn’t get his hands on it. So he did what chores he could around the farm but he’d never been very good on the land. That was Steve’s area, or was until he lost the use of his leg. When Gene wasn’t looking for phantom diamonds he worked on the game he was designing, took Gloria for long walks in the charred woods, or hung around town looking for work, found his own kind of fix at Thresher, a windowless bar down by the tracks. He built Gloria a big enclosure on the eastern side of the farm, near a twisted old pine by the cornfield where he and Steve and cousin Ty used to fool around on the ATV. It was as far away from Auntie and the house and the vegetable garden as he could get without leaving the property, but the wolf-dog’d get out sometimes, demolished a couple rows of beans, pissed a river on the squash, and Gene expected the worst, but Auntie just stood there behind the kitchen window watching, drool hanging from her lip and her fingers clawing her beer can and something in her black eyes that Gene could not read. Another time, Gene came home late one night to find Auntie trapped inside the house, and Gloria on the back porch, her forelegs on the window sill and the two of them staring at each other, Gloria’s wolf-eyes pinning Auntie’s face to the dark glass.
It’s that wild animal stink everywhere, said Auntie. I walk into the store folks walk out.
Well, folks had always walked out on Auntie, Gene thought, but who was he to say. Steve and him and even her own son Ty, heading off to die in some jungle as soon as he could, and Earl making himself pretty scarce when he retired, gone for days at a time, Auntie knew not where.
On Route 119 one November afternoon, Gene had to pull over in the sputtering Chevy to let Buzz and Auntie pass, doing ninety in the station wagon going toward the lake. He’d been at an interview at Lina’s Wieners and when he finally made it home in the sputtering truck, he saw that Gloria’s enclosure was open and the wolf was gone. He combed the ground until he came to a flattened patch of grass, a spray of blood on the bark of the pine that they’d missed in their efforts to leave no trace. When he checked under Auntie’s bed he saw that the shotgun had gone too and although he knew he had no chance of stopping what had already taken place, not in the Chevy anyway which was no longer capable of distances or speed, he got to the barn, hot-wired Uncle Earl’s big Ford pickup (something Ty taught him back at the rez), siphoned some gas into it and was on the road just as the sun was setting. He thought he might meet them coming back but he got all the way to the lake without passing a soul. He skirted the moonlit shore slowly in the truck, finally found Gloria washed up in the shallows of a rocky bay, canoes stacked up against the trees like coffins. Buzz (or Auntie, maybe, not that it mattered) had shot her in the side of the head. Her brains and bits of skull, what the water hadn’t washed away, still matted in her pelt. Her tongue hanging out and already beginning to swell. He wrapped her in a blanket, loaded her into the passenger seat. One more ride. He sat on the bonnet under a yellow crescent moon and lit a cigarette and then another one until the clouds blew up and the moon disappeared behind them with a yellow wink that was goodbye.
Back in the warming-up truck blowing on his hands, he felt unsure of what he was going to do now, or what was left of him. He felt one minute full of purpose, the next cut away from things, the rising wind keen in his ears. Hope and prayer beyond reach, immersed in noise. He started up the truck, turned onto the lake road and had gone a couple of hundred yards when he heard the rattle. It hadn’t been there before. He pulled over and took the flashlight from the glove box, left the lights on and got out. The truck bed was empty, with nothing in it but coon turds and a coil of frayed rope. Gene squatted down and shone the light under the chassis. The flashlight beam picked up an angular shape hanging down a few inches above the ground. Gene reached in and tried to pry it loose but it would not come so he crawled under with a wrench he had to go back for. He pulled the metal box, which had come loose from the wires crudely attaching it to the chassis, out onto the road, and stared at it. Earl’s old red tool box. He remembered it from when he was a boy, hadn’t seen it or one like it all these years, and seeing it now brought back all those old feelings of creeping dread, a kind of hellsickness that followed him wherever he went, squeezed him between sea and shining sea so he could not breathe, couldn’t think. Steam billowed from his mouth; his fingers were stiff with the cold. He used the wrench to pry the lock off the box, panting with the effort, awash in sweat beneath his jacket, and saw them then, the diamonds. They caught the glare of starlit cloud and threw it back at him, so that he squinted down at what he saw. A dozen, maybe more, from small to middling. He picked up a big one and held it up to the sky, saw the clouds speeding across its facets. He put it back in real slow. In the tray beside the diamonds were a pair of small pliers and a greasy paper bag in which rattled the settings, twisted scraps of metal. The diamonds sat in the tray you pulled out by a central handle, and when Gene tried to lift it, it stuck, finally jumping out into his hands, and there at the bottom of the box, nestled in a chamois, were the ears.
Dried rags of flesh, right and left ears, some clearly female, others sprouting hairs. Some had dried and darkened over time, others looked fresher, waxen, dried blood in the grooves, cartilage poking through the rotting flesh. All with piercings, singular or multiple. Beneath them a box-cutter, the kind you get at Walmart, the blade neatly sheathed. Gene squatted beside the tool box for a while, feeling the heat rise in his face, his heart pounding for so long that when he tried to put the tray back in, his fingers would not work. He blew on them, rubbed them together, and then awkwardly scooped up the diamonds, dropped them into his pocket. Packed the box back up and walked down to the lake. He dropped the whole thing in, the box of ears with the box cutter like the tomahawks buried beside the warriors of old. Afterwards he took a cigarette from his packet, split the paper, and sprinkled tobacco over the water in the only blessing he knew.
He drove back slowly, stopped on the way home at a truck stop to raise a glass to Gloria, then buried her in the woods behind the blackberry patch. Take care of the place for me, Gene told her, as if she could still hear, and then they came back to him, the words across the endless road and time: our maker has called thee home and thither will we follow. He thought of burning the place to the ground, but it would be his and Steve’s one day, if Buzz did not get his hands on it first. Like Steve said, never trust a junkie, and he would know—lame since Ty, high on China White, ran the ATV over Steve down by the twisted pine.
Gene dismantled her enclosure before dawn. He put the diamonds in a Baggie he took from a drawer, all except the one he left on the kitchen table for Auntie, so yeah, she’d know. By first light he was on his way—the Chevy, it’d make the city limits and he’d figure it out from there. He felt a little bad about leaving Gloria alone with Auntie, and he hoped she would forgive him, would understand. Because Auntie wouldn’t like living with Gloria any more than Gloria would like living with Auntie, but they were stuck with each other now, the tough old woman and the maggoty ghost-wolf who left foul droppings in the vegetable rows, and who woke Auntie in the night with her rising howl, mote-blown eyes staring from the porch window, whose water bowl was always empty by morning, and who, with her rank restless weight at the end of the bed, would be enough to scare off Major Buzz for good.
J.S. Breukelaar’s work has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Go(b)et Magazine, New Dead Families, Opium, Dogzplot, and others. Her work has been anthologized in Women Writing the Weird (Dog Horn Press), and her poetry and fiction collected in INK (Les Editions Zaparogue). She is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. You can also find her at www.thelivingsuitcase.com.