Dad fed broken glass to the neighbor’s pet Rottweiler—I think his name was Spot. When I was a kid the dog kept coming over into our yard and tearing up the garden and pissing on the siding and one night eating hamburger meat that my dad had left out by the grill as he walked in for a refill. So my dad broke one of the many bottles of Genesee he’d run through and ground it into tiny pieces in one of those mortar and pestle bowls like he was grinding up a guacamole dip and he took the pieces and wedged them carefully into a piece of that very same hamburger meat, buried them meticulously and with such intent of purpose that I remember the way the blood started oozing from tiny cuts on his fingertips. More than that I remember the way that the neighbor’s dog scarfed it down and how I watched from my bedroom window as the dog whined and cried out on its front porch, vomiting chunks of half-digested beef and bloodied curds of bile onto the porch until the owners came out in a panic, hollering and dragging Spot away. Dad laughed from the other room.
Unlike Spot, Dad never did anything to Dusty—the black lab we had around since I was seven years old. With Dusty he’d always buy the highest quality dog food, take him on every car ride down the Jersey Shore, past the beach bars and the Springsteen jukeboxes and the shadows of the teenagers making out on the dunes. When Dusty was bad or when he’d tear up the couch or shit on the floor my Dad would just whisper in his ear and tell him it was okay and that everybody made mistakes and that it was going to be alright in the end. He’d named Dusty after the bar where Dad hid most nights, and the bar where we started hiding when we started using library cards as fakes.
Dusty saw all of the things that my Dad did—all of the other things: the nights he didn’t make it off the couch, the doorframes he’d use as stops for mine or my brother’s face, how he’d wait until my sister Rosie fell asleep before he entered her room some nights. He saw the belts and the cigarettes and he saw the splashes of blood and urine. He heard the cries and the grunts and all the sounds in between.
My Dad died when I was twenty-one years old. I’d been out drinking and I’d gotten the call that they’d found him by the train tracks—he’d been away from home for a few nights but it wasn’t anything unusual, me and my brother Clay usually found new and exciting ways to engage in bullshit when he wasn’t around while Rosie would just stay at home and breathe in the peace of an evening without him coming for her.
At the funeral, we three stood around the casket and waited until it was at its emptiest and it was Clay who spoke first.
“What is?” I asked.
“All of it. All the bullshit. We’re free. You hear me, Rosie? We’re free.”
“I hear you,” she muttered.
“What’s holding us back now?” he said. “Who can fuck it up now? Nobody. Absolutely nobody.”
She just shook her head. “Somebody else won’t be the ones fucking it up. That’s how it always goes.” She fingered the bruises on her biceps, the black gloss on her fingernails, the scars along her wrist. “You just get handed the gun you kill yourself with.”
I shook my head and Clay told her to shut up. He said it was going to be okay and we’d take care of her and we’d all take care of ourselves together, like a real family. And I wanted him to be right, more than I think I ever wanted anyone to be right about anything, but I saw his eyes when he said the word family, like it was alien to his tongue.
But beside the casket I saw Dusty sitting with his face wedged into his paws, eyes ever so slightly upwards, towards Dad. I imagined Dusty sitting at the foot of that casket for a day or a week or a year or a decade or a millennium, waiting for the absolution of seeing Dad one more time, telling him that he loved him more than he ever loved anything, that they were together again and forever and nothing would part them.
Eventually Dusty stopped going outside, stopped eating, just sat inside scared and crying, waiting for something that would never come. He died only a few months later, if you can believe, by the same train tracks they found Dad.
Clay and Rosie and I left the funeral that night and went down to Dusty’s and said that we were only going to have a drink and then we’d head out. We stayed there all night. We stayed there the next night too. We got jobs in different places and different towns with different families for a couple of years but then it was back at Dusty’s playing the same songs on the jukebox with just a few more cracks and lines in our faces.
“Well?” Rosie asked us one night, even though nobody had spoken for some time. We were shitfaced, and the conversation had drifted to silence.
Nobody answered. We just sat there, like Dusty did, paralyzed by the lack of it, even the ugliest version of it. Rosie took two of her fingers on her right hand, folded them into the shape of a pistol, and shot the mirror facing us behind the liquor bottles.
We just sat there quiet, staring at our reflections, each of us waiting.
Andrew Cusick lives and teaches on the Jersey Shore. He's been published before in New World Writing, Booth, Orca, Sky Island Journal, The Hunger, trampset, Flash Fiction Magazine and more. He's currently working on what will hopefully be his debut novel. When he's not writing you can find him running on the boardwalk, hanging with his wife and kids, or attempting to surf and failing.