I was wild. Roaming the streets of Los Angeles like a rabid wild dog. My mom, to get me out of the house and under control, sent me to stay with her sister, who lived in a decent neighborhood, and who had just married a black man named Steve. Steve owned his own business -- a junkyard in the middle of the ghetto -- and would put me to work all summer. Longer if necessary.
Steve and I had brushed acquaintance before, at a couple of family barbecues, once when I had, by my own count at least, pretty much kept up with him in beers. At over six feet and 200 pounds, and with an athletic frame that seemed to contain a carefully controlled swagger like James Earl Jones, Steve was a handsome man, with perfect-looking teeth that were goldcapped and etched in front with asterisks and slivers of moon. When he smiled it could be a frightening thing.
Steve wasn't, in my experience at least, a violent man, and he never treated me with anything but courtesy and respect. Although I did gather from family talk that he was subject to mood swings, and it was certainly scary to think of all that weight swinging around. I did hear that he had gotton into some kind of trouble down in Georgia, something to do with a card game, and a man that was hurt real bad. That was before he came to L.A. to make his way. I once overheard him say to another black man at a barbecue, "I ain't afraid of no man." When he spoke it seemed to be with the voice of John Wayne. It was said he had white women like Jack Johnson. I never mentioned this to my sister.
I remember coming up to him just a week before at a party and asking him about crack. "I don't mess with nothin' but drink," he said, "and I strongly advise you to do the same."
At the time I didn't listen to anybody - I felt that I could run and dodge without anyone catching me till I ran off the face of the earth, which, in fact, would be just fine with me. But somehow, through every frequency of my finely-wired body, I believed him. He was going to be my boss. I was about to become his junkyard dog.
It was hot, 10 a.m. already 80-90 degrees. I was manning my post, standing water watch in the cutting hole, holding the hose and facing a rusted '84 Monte Carlo that the crane on the tow truck behind me had just put on its side. The foot-deep hole was filled with oil, sludge, dirt, grease, body parts, and, above all, my own human sweat. I had just finished stripping the car of its seats and insulation, and if any remaining cotton caught on fire I would put it out so that Steve, standing next to me with iron mask and flaming torch, could go on cutting. Cannisters of acetyline and oxygen ringed the perimeter like howitzer shells. These, along with the cutting torches, were the tools of the trade.
Poony, small as his name suggested, was at the controls of the crane. He was a thin, quiet guy, with deep ebony skin, coke-bottle eye-glasses, clothes that hung on him like rags, and a loaded .38 in his pocket. CW, who specialized in cutting motors, was taking "five" on a milk box against the tin shed that housed his series of sledge hammers. CW's job was to cut all the links that held the engine to the body, jerk it free with hooks from the crane, and, putting one foot on the motor block, swing the sledge to knock the bolts off. Even sitting relaxed in the California sun, his arms remained taut like black steel cords. All around the yard were large hills of motors. He and Steve and Poony had brought in the Mone Carlo just last night. It was the first of nine we were going to do that day.
"Hey, white boy, watch Steve don't singe your manhood," said Poony leaning out from his perch in the crane. I heard CW chortle: "Ain't nothin' that hippy gon' miss!" It seemed as though I was the only hippy those boys had ever seen -- although I wasn't really a hippy, I just had long hair. They mostly called me "white boy," or "boy," or "the hippy." I weighed 98 pounds. They thought everything I did was laughable.
Oddly enough, Steve's own junkyard business was similar to my former life of prowling the streets, although his prowling was usually done at night and with a clear purpose. He and his crew, sometimes including myself, would steal old or abandoned cars -- junkers we called them -- and occasionally a car left on the wrong street at the wrong time, and tow them back to the yard. The next day we would break them down into parts: tires, steering wheels, windshields, seats, and metal for profit: chrome, copper, tin, and steel. Nonstop jerking and smashing for $9 a ton or whatever a person would give for a part missing on their car. It was wonderful healthy outdoor work -- if you were a cretin or an indentured slave. Working for room and board, I guess I was the slave.
So there I was, standing water watch next to a hot torch under a broiling sun, possibly the only white guy in a twenty mile radius, when this dog comes walking up. He wasn't one of ours, since we didn't have a dog, since we had basically nothing to steal.
It was so goddamn hot you could roast hamburgers on a car grill, which was what we sometimes did, and this dog's tongue was hanging out like the long arm of a desperate bum begging for change. The mangy creature looked like a cross between a wild boar and a ridgeback, with thick head and stubby nose, and a light brown fur that was all gnarled and scarred, with chunks missing here and there. A veteran of the street life, like me.
"The dog needs water," I said. I was, like, Gunga Din; I figured it was my place to say this.
"Leave that dog alone," said Steve, before removing his Darth Vadar mask and staring at both me and the dog. He was sweating like a Muhammad Ali.
"Hey, man. It's hot. I'll pay for the water."
"You don't pay for shit. Stay away from that dog."
But I was already kneeling down and had put my arms around this dog. A low steady growl was coming from its chest, like a train in the distance. "Nice doggie," I said. "Nice doggie." I poured water from my hose into a large hubcap next to me; the dog leaned down and took a long drink. He finished, looked up at me, the water dripping from his jowels. I poured, and he drank again. Then he turned and walked away. I didn't see him for the rest of the day.
The day ended, as usual, with all my fingers pink and raw from stripping and pulling, muscles aching from lugging car seats, band benches and other tools, brain frazzled from holding the heavy vibrating hose in the unrelenting sun. But finally I was breaking down the torches, rolling up the hoses, locking them away in the tool shed along with the breakers, crow bars, benches, and oxygen and acetyline tanks. This fucking job was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.
I was cleaning out the cutting hole when Steve said to me, "Got somethin' else to cut, go get them torches."
It seemed these guys never slept. It seemed to me I had earned my place in the shade with my own lips pursed around a bottle of beer. But I dragged myself over to the tin shed, opened the rusted door, and there was that dog -- the same pig dog -- sitting on top of the torches, looking at me. He started to growl, baring his teeth. "Nice doggie, nice doggie" I said, "now you're gonna have to move so I can get them torches." Instead of moving he responded with a frothy flash of his filthy incissors, and his growl ratcheted up so that it reverberated in the tinny shed.
I strolled over to the guys who were sitting around, joking, having a beer and waiting for the torches, "The dog is sitting on the torches," I said. "I can't get anywhere near him."
There was silence. Finally Poony rose, carefully put down his beer, and said: "I'll get them fuckin' torches." I walked over to the shed with him, and on the way he picked up a flat square shovel. I stopped short ten yards in front of the open door -- through which I could see the dog lying languidly on his throne of torches -- while Poony continued on around behind the shed, took a stance, and, raising the shovel, smashed the tin shack several times. The dog leaped from his perch and came right for me. I screamed and started to run. But not fast enough. Immediately I felt his fangs sink into the back of my lower leg. It was the most humiliating and hurtful pain I've ever felt -- I damn near buckled. Yet my survival superseded fear. Arms pumping, legs doing a fan dance at full tilt, I was flying! The dog jumped up and bit me on the right hip. He was on me -- biting me -- and I was going "Help me help me help me! -- running down the middle of the yard in front of the guys laughing and spilling their beer.
Those guys were howling like dogs themselves, holding their sides, rolling onto the ground in the dust and oil and grease. I didn't even realize the dog had given up till I look behind and saw that he had walked off in the other direction. I slowed, leg and thigh burning. and limped back to this gang of thugs. And they were still howling, slapping their knees and shaking their heads. "H-h-he -- bit me!" I shout, and all over again they started rolling in the dust and the grime.
When they finally caught their breath, Steve said,"Don't worry 'bout that. Go get them torches."
I started to protest, but, embarrassed, finally clamped my mouth shut and walked back to the shed.
And damned if the dog wasn't back in there, panting triumphantly on his throne of torches! I immediately went back to the guys. "He's still in there."
"I'll get him out," said Poony.
"No, No! Wait, wait," I shouted. I searched frantically around the yard, saw an old junker, moved to it, got in, and slammed the door.
Again Poony ambled over to the shed, started slamming the shit of it with the shovel, and the dog leaped out, and went right for me in the car -- just as I noticed that all the windows were down! I went to roll up the front window -- but there was no handle!
The dog lept up, his thick neck and head straining into the open window -- wide excited eyes bulging like they were about to wrap themselves around me, his nails scrabbling on the rusted junker, slather spraying my quaking flesh. I whirled and pulled some cotton batting from the skeletal seats and shoved it in the dog's snorting, ugly face. Each time the dog lept up to get at my space, I shoved more cotton batting at him. I could hear the guys laughing in the yard. Finally something clicked in this useless brute's brain. He thumped down and began slowly circumnavigating the car.
After a while the boys resumed their beers, and finally their conversation, and, after a much longer while, the dog walked out of the yard and disappeared.
The next day I showed up black 'n' blue, cut and sore. At the end of that very long shift, Steve said to me, "Let's go over to Mindy's."
Mindy was a fat old boy who sold chips, juice, beer, tobacco, bait, as well as a selective range of auto parts out of a store that had no signs in a black neighborhood that had no other stores. At Mindy's we jawed around for a while and played some cards, CW did his balancing act with some mops and sledge hammers and a loaded shotgun, we had some beers, they called me "hippy," and finally I decided to walk back home to Steve's where I was living in a nice cozy little tool shed out back. It was dusk, a nice cool evening for L.A.
All through the neighborhood people were hanging out and drinking, and then I took a detour through a section I'd never been in before where all the clapboard houses were just about crumbling down and no one no one was hanging out. I passed one empty weedy yard after another when suddenly I heard a familiar growl, did a double take, turned, and there on the other side of the rusted link fence, was my ridgeback pig dog tied with a chain to a thick steel stake. In his mouth was a piece of asphalt big as a dinner plate and over it his beady eyes were looking at me. A growl was coming from deep within his chest as he worked the asphalt back and forth in his teeth -- like a poor substitute for my head. "We-e-ell, doggie,"I said, "how-do-you-do..." -- and suddenly he let go of the asphalt, and went head over feet trying to break the chain to get at me. I couldn't believe it.
Right then and there I decided to do something about him. I pondered going back to the junkyard -- my own yard -- to get a hammer, or crowbar, or one of CW's sledges in order to smash this filthy cur's head in, smash his bellowing body till it was like that mass of cotton wadding I had pulled from the seats, and which I would then use to stuff and hang him over my mantelpiece. I would even build a mantelpiece, just for the occasion. I looked carefully around the derelict neighborhood as the dog continued to snarl and lunge and, remarkably, no one else was around; no one had appeared in any doorway, or come to any of the other houses' windows. It was as though the whole neighborhood had become used to this animal's stupid, demented, caterwauling, behavior and, as it happened, were leaving it to me. I turned back. We were alone in the world, just him and me. I stared into the red eyes of this demented rude beast, so goddamn stupid he didn't realize he couldn't even tell the difference between hate and love, between hurt and help. This poor crazy tied-up fuck's whole life was just a blurred movement between one frustration and another, one unsatisfied impulse and another. I could have done anything I wanted to him. And then I realized -- this dog was me.
I took one final look at his pitiful ass, and walked away.
Hank Paper's stories have been published in many magazines, including The
Sun, and Response; the second of his trilogy of Israeli stories appears in
the current issue of Jewish Currents. He lives in Hamden, CT, with his wife,
Lynn and dog, Bogart. His most accomplished Papers are his daughters Djana