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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Christmas Dog
by Richard Smith

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At age 69, Michael Roe Sr. came down with a very ordinary case of lung cancer. Mike hung on long after he should have. To see his son mostly. Near the end, he grew to weak to stay at home and went to the hospital to wait for the last day of his life. His wife, Abby, visited everyday and urged Lroe, their son, to 'Say goodbye before he's gone' but Lroe played a cool game of wait and see. The evening Abby came home from the hospital and didn't cry after diner as she had the entire week before Lroe knew it was time.

"I'm here," Lroe said thickly as he strode into the hospital room. "Now what?" He couldn't think of anything else to say to Mike, watching him on the bed, smelling like an old man who takes too much medicine.

"Close the door," his father ordered. Lroe cracked a hard smile as he met his father's gaze and only looked away when he saw Mike's eyes falter; then he kicked the door with the edge of his shoe. The latch clicked and the room was silent except for the footfalls echoing along the corridor outside the room.

Quietly, as though he was already speaking at his father's funeral, Lroe said, "I've got to ask you something that's been bothering me for sometime Mike. It's an easy question...Was there a time in your life when you thought God it's great to have a son. I really lucked out getting to be a father at my age." He wanted to add, You're as close as you're going to get to worm food and still be able to carry out an intelligent conversation, so lets hear what you have to say for yourself before you cost Mom another $200 stinking this room up with the smell of death that's been hanging on you for the last 5 fucking months. Instead it came out, "I've got to go soon Mike... and you do too."

Surprising both of them, Mike sat up tall in his bed, smoothed his blankets, cleared his throat and looked around the room to get his bearings. He was drawing on the last of his reserves when he picked up a glass of water next to his bed, half full, and drained it.

"You're right! I do have to go pretty soon." And he started. "The Christmas Dog. Well, he really wasn't the Christmas dog but he came to mean something special in the best and the worst way to me. Every year, when I was a kid, my mom and dad--Santa--gave us exactly the same things: 6 pairs of sox, 6 pairs of underwear--a two pack, shoes, a winter coat--that's when they go on sale, and one toy. When I was 10 my Dad got laid off in November. He was laid off every year because he worked construction. See, that's how the business goes: one day you're working and the next you're looking for work.

"When we opened our presents that year there were 3 pairs of sox, 3 pairs of underwear--a one pack, shoes, one pair of pants, no coat and no toy. My Dad walked over to the cabinet in the kitchen, took a long drink out of a bottle he hid there and said very quietly, Santa told me your coats look like they'll last you through another winter.

"Well we sucked it up. Your Aunt Kelly, the baby, got a little misty eyed but she didn't say shit either. All of us kids went out and sat on the back porch with Mom until dark. Just before we got up to go in, a dog comes walking up and sits next to Kelly. He was a real mutt, nothing but fur and bones. She hugged him like he was some prize Dad brought home from a carnival. It got contagious and pretty soon the others were all over him too.

"My dad always said we couldn't have a dog cause they were a pain in the ass but this time he didn't. He came out onto the porch with us, sat down and lit a cigarette. After a while I could see in his face that he thought we'd lost our marbles oooohing and aaaahing over this mutt. I was waiting for him to tell me to get rid of him. That's why I held myself back: I knew this dog was a goner. Instead my dad stood up, snuffed out his cigarette and said, I don't want to climb any shit mountains growing in the back yard, you understand me Mike? Before I could answer, he went into the house.

"We all sat there quiet-like, unbelieving, until Kelly says, Lets call him the Santa Claus Dog. Then the dog barks, but it's not a normal bark. You can barely hear it and the strange thing is that when he barks it comes out a real low hoarse "HO HO HO--HO HO HO" like he doesn't have a voice box. I figured one of two things happened to him. (A)--He's something really special and someone in a prissy neighborhood owned him and had his voice box cut out to keep the neighbors from calling the police or (B)--He's a bum and got in a fight with another bum down at the railway station over some scraps of food and lost with a one shot kick in the throat. Kelly says Santa gave him to us cause Dad didn't have any work. Anyway, in the end everyone really takes to him and Kelly's name sticks. We call him Santa.

"Seemed like what ever you were doing, however you felt, that dog would do just the right thing, like he knew your mind. If you were pissed, he'd stay away. If you were lonely, he'd lay right down next to you. Everyone loved that dog. I did too--HO HO HO," Mike wiped his arm acrossed his eyes.

"One day Mom is yelling for Kelly and her friend to get into the car and settle down. Kelly is playing with Santa and tells him he has to go but the jerk keeps jumping in and out of the car. Mom finally gets pissed and yells for Kelly to get rid of him. He did the right thing: He jumped out but the car door closed on his tail. A normal dog would have been barking its head off but Santa was calling HO HO HO...HO HO HO. But you know...Mom's not paying attention and she pulled off with the dog in tow.

"It was like watching a movie. Santa's being dragged on the cement at 30 miles an hour, looking at the rear tire of the car that is about to run him over while his fur...then skin...and finally his bone is being rubbed off by the road. I could feel it with him and I knew he was wishing with all his might that his tail would break and set him free. Please God, let his tail break!" Mike called out as if he saw the tire again from his bed. He paused then a moment, collected his strength, and started again.

"At last it does break and the rear tire drives over his front legs, then his hips. Mom stopped the car because of the 'thumping sound the wheel was making'. I walked over to him slowly like...I don't know...like maybe he'd get up when I got there if I took long enough or he'd be dead. I bent down over him and he was still conscious. His eyes were glossed over and a pool of blood was spreading from the spot he rested in. He looked up at me as I held his head and he tried to whine or bark or do something but all that came out was, OH OH OH oooooh oooooh oooooooooh...

"Right then I knew that dog had tricked us; tricked our whole family. He wasn't the Santa Claus Dog. He was some old Heinz 57 mutt that some bum kicked in the throat fighting over a scrap of food. And I hated him. I hated him for tricking me and making me love him and for being so stupid as to get himself killed. I never thought about that dog again from that day on. I never completely forgot him either. Sometimes in my life I've felt just like that Santa Claus Dog. Like my tail was caught in a car door and the best thing I could hope for was for it to break off so the back tire could stop the road from eating off my skin."

When Mike finished, he was breathing hard. The story had exhausted him. When he looked at his son, he couldn't tell whether Lroe had pretended not to listen or if he actually hadn't.

"Do you remember when you were little Lroe. You and I spent everyday together. Lots of folks thought I'd just about taken leave of my senses because of the attention I poured on you. You are everything I ever wanted in a son. At least you were. Laying here the whole day gives a man lots of time to think. I love you Son, I want no fuzz on that--not now nor after I'm gone. I always have."

Lroe continued to stare out the window, a blank expression on this face, he turned toward his father and prepared to leave.

"Sometimes I've seen grown men bump into you Lroe and it's them saying excuse me, not you. At first I thought it was because of the some of the fights you been in or some of the stories about you but I noticed the same thing from strangers...I think I did that to you. I wanted you to be strong. I never meant to hurt you. Never!" Mike's voice was cracking badly. He didn't like to display weakness but he didn't hold himself in check on this last day of his life.

"Say at least you remember when you were little!" The old man was nearly crying now, then abruptly he calmed. "I'm tired Lroe, I've got to get some sleep. Stop by if you can tomorrow and we won't talk all this foolishness. I know I've been running on some. I really don't really understand what came over me. Come back tomorrow for a little while if you have the time, I need some rest now."

Lroe waited in the hall outside his father's room a half hour after visiting hours. He didn't know why. The hospital staff told him his dad should already be dead, but for some reason he was hanging on. He did remember the stories about him and Mike. They seemed faint and far away, as though they were stories about some other kid and his father. The words, "I love you. I want no fuzz on that," rang in his head like a church bell echoing over and over in the distance. He opened the door to the room again and found himself staring at the withered figure of his father, studying the lines in his face. Then unexplainably, he leaned down and kissed him on both cheeks and, hesitating a moment, on the mouth.

"Goodbye Dad."

As the door closed behind him, a final tear creased Mike Roe's face.

"Goodbye Son."

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