Sleetmagazine.com

Volume 12 • Number 2 • Fall - Winter 2020

Jason M. Thornberry

Air Escaping

You could hardly call it a day, barely ripening midmorning, culminating a few hours later when, weary and bored, the sun turned its back and went home.

Some took advantage of the daylight. Returning with a warm loaf of bread, one old man tilted his head in the direction of a dark, motionless shape. Looking away, he tucked his chin, passing quickly.

The black camel who knelt at the sick man’s gate wore a sign around its neck:

  I AM A SERVICE ANIMAL
I AM WORKING
PLEASE ASK BEFORE YOU PET ME

  Children being children, they put their tiny hands all over its hump, prickly, and fuzzy like a coconut. The black camel was indifferent. They stroked its ears; they laughed. It never looked at them. Its job was its job, and it continued to kneel and wait. 

A boy about seven tried to climb aboard the black camel, and a member of the sick man's family opened the door and shooed him away with a rolled-up copy of The Seattle Times. She muttered something, closing the door, and the children returned to hang from the camel's curving, rope-like neck, playing with its long eyelashes.

They asked it silly questions, answering themselves in deep camel voices. They rubbed its long black snout. One little girl hummed while she scrubbed his ribs with her fingers.

The black camel tried not to groan.

A middle-aged man in faded pajamas emerged from the house, his arms around his younger brothers' necks. He was pale and skinny, barefoot, and unshaven, with crust in the corners of his eyes and chapped lips. His brothers grunted, hoisting him onto the black camel. The man's delicate pressure and the man's labored breathing in the camel's ear made it open its eyes, a puff of air escaping its protruding lips.

Everyone watched as the black camel stood, and the sick man rode it into the middle of 24th Avenue, easing right with midday traffic, ambling south toward Market Street. The Number 40 bus eased behind.

The bus did not honk.

Eyes that Catch the Light

Max was taller than Bobby or me. A Doberman Pinscher, Max growled and shook his head from side to side, his silver choke chain reflecting the white California sun. Bobby and I took turns holding on to Max’s chain, trying to ride him when Bobby’s mother wasn’t looking. Max’s ears stuck up like a bat’s because Bobby’s parents had them cropped. They told Bobby cropping couldn’t hurt Max because Max was a puppy and puppies didn’t feel pain.

Max grew up fast. He terrified the mailman with his pointed snout; he petrified the paperboy. If anybody came near the house, Max rushed from the backyard to the wrought iron gate, his head, neck, and shoulders poking between the skinny black bars, digging a trench with his slender paws, snapping his long sharp teeth, foaming, barking, straining to get through.

Then one day, Max was gone. He’d hung himself with his choke chain, trying to squeeze through the bars to bite the pizza man.

In Max’s place came a duo of Chow Chows—jolly, fuzzy specimens that looked like overstuffed bears with purple tongues and curly tails. Nora, Bobby’s mother, warned us: chows did not like children. We should not invade their personal space. So, we trailed after them at a distance. And wherever they went, they left dangling clouds of fur behind, like exhaust from a cartoon diesel. It was a copper-colored cotton candy fur—a quantity hanging like a window dressing of cobwebs at Halloween. His parents rubbed their clothes with Scotch tape—roll after roll.

Tyrone, the male chow, attached himself to Bobby’s father like Velcro, following him everywhere. Bobby’s father even took the dog running with him. One day, Tyrone died. Who knew a dog could have a heart attack?

Around the time Bobby and I started middle school, Bobby’s folks became interested in cats. Otis, a metallic grey Persian, joined the family. Bobby’s father quickly corrected me—Otis was a blue cat. They’d really wanted a blue chinchilla silver. Otis was all the pet shop had. A frowning cat with a tiny nose, yellow eyes, and abundant grey fur sticking up, Otis sulked, loitering near his cat dish beside the fridge, hissing when you walked by.

Come grooming time, Otis growled and moaned. From deep within his furry chest came the sound of a motorcycle rider twisting the throttle. Bobby’s father turned the TV up as Nora kneeled over Otis like a cop, pulling an old brush through his tangled fur. Cursing to herself and shoving discarded fuzz into a grocery sack. The only way that cat could make her leave him alone was by biting her. So, when Nora suddenly put a finger in her mouth, Otis fled. And he remained under Bobby’s bed, hissing, batting at you with his soft clawless paws.

When Otis died, a pair of Scottish Folds appeared, carefully investigating the rooms of Bobby’s parents’ house, falling asleep on the furniture. Bobby’s parents intended to breed the pair and sell their exotic descendants. Scottish Folds possess a gene mutation producing an owl-like appearance. Their ears tucked like the corners of a handkerchief—little heads seemingly wrapped in cellophane. Their eyes occupy most of their face—silver dollars for eyes—eyes that catch the light.

Bobby’s parents quickly neutered Otis. But Woody, with his glossy orange body, white belly, and creased ears was destined for a manner of fatherhood out of proportion with the domesticated feline population of our little town. Woody and his girlfriend Jessica (the “perk”) were meant to become a kind of kitten-producing machinery. You had to breed a “perk” to a “fold” if you didn’t want a deformed litter, with extra-thick tails. That’s what Bobby’s mother said.

Bobby’s father stored the names of potential kitten buyers on a computer, and he warned us that the bloodcurdling sounds of cats making love was to be ignored. I think we were sophomores by then. We never heard a thing.

After the cats died, his folks talked about getting a dog again: specifically, a wire hair fox terrier. A breed framed with fur like steel wool—the kind of dog that traveled with hunters in England, burrowing in pursuit of fugitive foxes. Hauled from tunnels by banana-shaped tails, the terriers gripped their dripping quarry in their teeth, all set for stuffing and mounting on a mantle.

Nora and Bobby’s father grabbed a pair of wire hairs from a puppy mill, enrolling them in obedience school, implanting microchips in their necks in case someone stole them. The terriers’ tails, like Max’s, shortened with surgical scissors. They were show-quality dogs. It was essential to maintain what Bobby’s folks called a breed standard. And his parents paid a bundle to get them groomed to look like reindeer.

The wire hairs led exciting lives. Nigel (the male) riding in the passenger seat of the car, his face poking from the window, smiling, bristly grey hair flowing up into his eyes; Nigel posing for pictures like an aristocrat on the family couch, gazing into the camera, head cocked ninety degrees, easygoing brown eyes shining. When I was home on leave, Nigel shook my hand, like an English gentleman.

Nigel collapsed on the day of his first dog show. Distraught, Bobby’s parents put his ashes in a vase above the stereo. The other dog, Shelby, would not enter the room.

A neurodivergent writer, Jason M. Thornberry is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University. His work has appeared in The Stranger, Dissident Voice, Praxis, Adirondack Review, In Parentheses, ALAN Review, Response, OC Weekly, and elsewhere. His work examines disability and social justice. He enjoys birdwatching, especially crows.