Mr. Wrongende named the dogs after the books he felt matched his personal philosophy. He'd never read these books, but heard them mentioned in enough conversations to figure he had the main arguments of the philosophers. Wrongende named the dogs Machiavelli and Sun-tzu. The Boss, who lacked his boss's pretensions, called them Sunny and Mac.
When Wrongende died under the wheels of a recycling truck on an icy morning in the first week of January, life began to improve for the dogs. It wasn't that the Boss was an especially humane man, but without Wrongende to spur on and inspire new tortures, a mellowing trend entered the dogs' daily regime. The Boss had new responsibilities, and the hounds had never figured high on that list. He assigned the care of Sunny and Mac to a boy named Samuel, who saw no reason why the dogs shouldn't have enough to eat and a chain long enough to let them run around the yard. The boarders hated the new situation, but the dogs loved it and the Boss could hardly be made to give a damn.
Now, Wrongende had owned the dogs and done his damage in the first weeks of their lives. Those of you who have raised a dog from birth know that these first-- usually six-- weeks are known as the imprinting stage of a dog's life. This meant that the dogs were broken, never to be fixed. Wrongende might be dead, but he was still worshiped and dreaded in the minds of Sun-tzu and Machiavelli.
The dogs, until the days they died-- of tetanus (Sunny), and starvation brought on by tooth-decay (Mac)-- could never be fully trusted. Even the boy, Sam, who never claimed the dogs' worship, but won their friendship and adoration, never spent an unguarded moment with them. He'd spent his life around enough broken men and women to sense the disquiet in the dogs, and though they might roll and whine like puppies when they spotted him walking up the road, he warned himself that one miscalculated movement could trigger the sleeping fury in their broken minds.
The Boss, seeing 'his' dogs well-fed and energetic for a change, made just this mistake. On that day he received a bite on the arm that penetrated flesh and muscle to bounce of bone. The jaws, however, did not lock, and when the Boss was finished with the dog (it was Mac) he turned on the other, his rage not yet vented, so that they both ended up heaps of shattered bone and blood-soaked fur and when Sam found them, whining and trembling in separate corners of the yard, he felt as though someone had stuck straw down his windpipe and he gasped until he was sick.
In their lives a veterinarian never once laid hands on either Sunny or Mac, but in the weeks after the attack Sam cared for them and realized what Nature has proven for thousands of years: a dog can come back from a hell of a beating. In the end, Mac took the worst from it. The Boss had done something to the dog's hips which left them twisted-- and gave him an awkward shuffle for a walk-- for the rest of his life. The one upswing of all this was that the Boss never again entered the dogs' yard, and left their care, after that point, entirely to Sam. So it was that he was with them the day that Mr. Rickett showed up with his dog, Sandwich.
Sandwich was the first to notice the dogs in the side-yard, moving slowly up and down the chain-link enclosure where they slept, played, fought and frequently shit. It was the smell of excrement that had alerted her minutes back that two sexually mature males had a territory not far from where she was walking. They were brothers, she could tell; neither one neutered. The virility in the smell jumped out at her, made her wag her tail and begin presenting.
“Sandwich!” Mr. Rickett had barked, “Sandy! Calm down, sweetheart, we're gettin' there.”
Sandwich did calm down, not because she understood the specifics of Mr. Rickett's message to her, but because he had addressed her in his almost angry voice. Sandwich loved Mr. Rickett. He was her Pack Leader. She did not want Him almost angry with her. Still, she whined and tugged.
“We're getting there, baby girl,” said Mr. Rickett. “We're getting there.”
A few minutes away, Sam was playing with his dogs. Sam wore Steve Ranch every time he went to play with the dogs. When he fed them or hosed them off or screamed at them to 'shut the fuckup for Chrissake!' he forwent it, but when he decided that the dogs needed a little fun, he put Steve on.
Steve Ranch protected his penis and testicles. Sam had bought the device when he tried out for football. His older brother Jeremy had christened it later that year, when he'd come home inebriated and upset.
“The fugger,” his brother had slurred. “I do all the talkin', the real goddamn legwork, an' that shithead vulture swoops in on 'er. Every time we go out 's the same...”
In a fit of drunken inspiration, he had grabbed a marker and Sam's protective device from where it lay on the floor and scrawled Steve Ranch on the hard plastic casing. He tossed it to his brother.
“There,” he'd said. “Nothin' gonna get through that.”
This was important when Sam played with the dogs. He knew that they were prone to biting for reasons he couldn't decipher. He was willing to risk his face and hands to such an unknown threat, but there were some regions no man would imperil. This was especially important because Sunny was a relentless crotch-sniffer, often burrowing his face through Sam's defensive pushing to reach his prize.
Sam's crotch gave as much socio-sexual information to Sunny as his own territorial leavings gave Sandwich. Sunny knew that Sam differed from him in some very fundamental way, so it didn't bother him that many of the boy's smells were alien. He could still decipher quite a lot-- and the stranger information he continued to work on, like an American tourist in Europe.
He was working along like this-- his face buried in the boy's groin, wet nose pressed up against the hard plastic of Steve Ranch under Sam's jeans-- when Mac sent up an alert.
Sunny turned and raced to the fence where Mac was already jumping and sniffing. He saw the figure advancing slowly-- stopping, puzzled. Sunny and Mac were both letting out warnings now. Behind them, the Boy had also begun to make the high, keeling noise that He made when excited. This made them send their warnings out even louder.
Sam, in fact, was screaming at the dogs. Part of his job was making sure that they didn't wake up the boarders, half of whom slept during the long afternoons at the Merryman. Sunny and Mac were prone to bark at anything that climbed over the hill into their vision. Before too long Sam recognized what they had spotted.
Some kind of collie-mix, un-attended, stood with her head cocked towards the sound of Sunny and Mac's frantic barking. A moment later a second figure-- that of a man-- rose over the hill and began guiding the Collie towards the Merryman. Sam screamed at the dogs to be quiet, but this prompted them to lend their howls to his own. He would have laid his hands on their necks, except that the excited and abused dogs couldn't be trusted not to bite.
Instead, as the man and his dog came near them, Sam leaned down next to Mac, the more excited of the howlers, and began to bark the dog's name to him-- a clear sign that he was doing wrong.
“Mac!” barked Sam, “Mac! Bad dog!”
Mac turned his face to look at the boy with tremulous eyes.
“Yeah,” scolded Sam, “That's more like it.”
He turned to Sunny and the dog seemed to know right away, slinking with his head down and lowering his howling to a low growl. Now that they were calm, Sam put his hands on both dog's backs-- still far from their necks-- and murmured to them softly.
And then the man and his dog were standing in front of them.
“Funny looking dogs,” said the man. “Some kinda German Shepard mix?”
“Something like that,” said Sam.
“That the local squatters nest?” asked the man, nodding his head at the Merryman. He probably meant it as a joke, thought the boy.
“Yeah,” said Sam, and he got up to lead the new boarder inside.
That probably would have been it, if it weren't for Sandwich. The collie edged up to the chain-link fence and began to thoroughly sniff Sunny's snout. Sam held his breath, but Sunny just sat there, ears cocked back and a look of perfect canine confusion on his face. Then, after a moment of this, the collie began to gingerly lick his face from between the links of chain in the fence. Sam watched as the look in Sunny's eyes changed from surprise to a calm bliss. The dog stopped moving entirely, fixing his gaze on some distant point, and the new boarder laughed.
“Looks like someone made a friend.”
The new boarder, Sam soon discovered, was named Rickett. Mr. Rickett was a musician from back East. Sam liked him as soon as his dog licked Sunny's face. The other borders at the Merryman liked him as soon as they heard a few of his stories. Even the Boss got along with Mr. Rickett.
When Mr. Rickett asked Sam if Sandwich could be housed with Sunny and Mac, explaining that she'd been operated on to keep her from having puppies, Sam demurred.
“Those dogs have some kinda history?”
Sam nodded, but couldn't meet the new boarder's eyes.
“You can tell by the way the big one walks,” said Mr. Rickett, and he led Sandwich up the stairs to his room.
Mr. Rickett played the trumpet. It was a mean instrument in the right hands and Rickett played it to sound mean. Mr. Rickett drank whiskey with ice, even though gin was the popular drink in the clubs where he played. Like half the boarders at the Merryman he was out all night and slept like the dead through the heat of the afternoon.
Because Samuel took Sandwich outside to play with Sunny and Mac in the mornings, he learned Mr. Rickett's schedule quickly. The wiry man would stumble in around sunrise, immaculate suit now wrinkled, flower or silk cloth or other small token of affection hanging out of his breast-pocket, and his footfalls on the steps would wake Sandwich, who slept most nights next to his suit case. Mr. Rickett would put a single long finger up to his aching lips and snap gently-- twice-- then point toward the door. Without a sound, Sandwich moved past the sleeping boarders in the room to find Sam downstairs already, awake and preparing breakfast.
Sam, she knew, could be whined at and liked to play and would give her things to eat. And so the day would begin.
Though he was still reluctant to let Sandwich sleep with the other dogs, Sam couldn't think of anywhere else to keep her during the day. She was relentlessly underfoot and tended to wake boarders with yelps of surprise and little curious noises. Still, it was only after rooting through a man's pack and narrowly avoiding a steel-toed boot to the head that Sam decided to risk her out with Sandy and Mac.
When he opened the gate to the side-yard, the two brothers rushed the opening, straining against the chains that held them just inside the yard and barking as though to usher in revolution.
“Goddamnit, boys, shaddup!” screamed Sam.
Sandwich stood at the boy's hip, looking at the two rioters in the yard with her mouth closed. She didn't seem intimidated by the display, but more as though she was straining to remember something important. She yawned and Mac and Sunny broke into fresh peals of madness.
Then, without looking once towards Sam, she advanced towards the gate. Sunny and Mac broke ranks, charging back against the rear of the yard and howling like maniacs. The collie trotted towards first one brother and another and a long and formal round of butt-sniffing commenced, with each dog twisting and whirling to get a better angle from which to examine a new and foreign anus.
Sam watched the parade until he felt safe to leave Sandwich with the big mutts. Then he went to the kitchen to wash dishes. By the end of the third day, he wondered why he had ever worried. He still had the collie sleep upstairs near Mr. Rickett's suitcase, but during the day he left Sandwich, Sunny and Mac in happy friendship.
Finally, the day came when Mr. Rickett decided it was time for a rest. The regular night-life, when pursued with the zeal of a Spanish playboy or New York heiress for weeks on end, can be as taxing on the body and mind as the most strenuous of careers. Rickett wasn't much wealthier than when he'd entered town, but he certainly wasn't any worse off.
He was of the enviable constitution that can switch from nocturnal to day-time living with a minimum of fuss, and he did so now, waking early and taking Sandwich for morning walks before positing her with Sunny and Mac. He spent his afternoons drinking with the other boarders and playing cards on the porch. Occasionally he went with them to the race-track. To Sam, it seemed almost possible that Mr. Rickett might support himself thusly without end.
One afternoon, however, Rickett walked down the Merryman's porch steps with a heavy tread, making his way to the yard where Sandwich was chasing Sunny while Mac barked encouragement and hobbled after them. Sam noticed that Mr. Rickett walked more slowly than normally and wondered what was on the man's mind. He realized suddenly that Rickett was making his way towards the gate of the dog yard.
In a moment, Sam was standing beside the tall man.
“Come to make sure I don't get bit?” drawled the musician.
Sam shrugged his shoulders. “Those dogs can get mean, Mr. Rickett.”
The trumpet player nodded his head at Sandwich. “She don't think so.”
“Not towards other dogs, y'see, or women or probably kids, but they're scared of men, and that'll make 'em bite....”
“Because of their history,” finished Mr. Rickett. “Well, too bad. 'Cause I'm a man and my only friends in this boardinghouse are men, and those dogs need a walk. And we're going to walk.”
“We?” asked Sam.
“That's right. You, me an' Charlie the Mormon.”
“Charlie the wha-?” asked Sam.
“The new guy. Been here about three days. He needs a break from the cards and horses as bad as I do.”
Samuel shook his head. “The Boss'll never let us. He hates those dogs. If he didn't think they protected the Merryman, he'd cut'em loose!”
Mr. Rickett snorted and waved his hand dismissively in front of his face. “Let me handle Mr. Big Shot. You wrap up some leather on the end of those dogs' chains so you don't blister up your hands holding them back. An' meet me an' Charlie back here in an hour!”
"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” barked Charlie the Mormon. “JESUS wept, tits, whore!”
Sam couldn't help but stare. Charlie the Mormon, at five feet, four inches, stood maybe up to Sam's shoulder, but he was a sight. Bushy white hair and a long gray beard sprouted out of a face that fit comfortably anywhere from age forty to sixty. Thick glasses rested on an aquiline and protruding nose. He wore a cheap suit with the sleeves rolled up to reveal an anchor and bare-chested Hawaiian girl tattooed to his right and left forearms, respectively.
Charlie the Mormon coughed and spit. The whole process seemed exaggeratedly complicated to Sam as he watched the huge wad of fluid land on the ground at the Mormon's feet.
"The trick is not t' mind what comes outter me mouth,” said the Mormon with a wink. “Can't help half of it. Got the devil firm in th' head. Don' even know what I'm sayin'. Shit burger! SHIT-eatin- burger!”
He sighed. “Ah, there she goes!”
“Urmm,” said Sam, turning to Mr. Rickett, “the leashes are all fixed up...”
The musician smiled. “Alrighty! Let's get this show on the road!”
Sam led the party with Sun-tzu pulling hard. As soon as he was out the gate, the dog was nose-deep in everything they came across, so that Sam's arm was soon tired from reeling him back from a new scent and pulling him away from old ones.
“That boy's an explorer,” remarked Mr. Rickett.
“That he is!” chuckled the Mormon.
The two older men were having less of an upper body workout. Sandwich, a veteran of long walks, conducted herself with characteristic grace at Mr. Rickett's side while Mac's hobbling walk gave Charlie the Mormon little trouble. Because of the Merryman's peripheral location in town, it wasn't long before houses and roads were lost to memory. Mr. Rickett began to whistle a swing piece. Before long, Charlie the Mormon was singing along in a not unlovely voice, only rarely interjecting with a filthy word or suggestion barked from deep in his stomach. Sam swayed his shoulders to the music, beginning to enjoy the beautiful spring weather and this break in his normal routine.
“Alright,” said Mr. Rickett., suddenly. “This is as good a place as any. Let's let these boys off the chain!”
Sam froze where he stood, almost letting Sunny pull himself to freedom. He recovered, pulling hard back on the chain and turning Sunny's wheezy breathing into harsh chokes.
“No,” said Sam with hesitation, and then, “No. Mr. Rickett, we absolutely cannot let these two off the chain. If there were people around... If they ran off...”
But Charlie the Mormon had already unclipped Mac, and the big dog was hobbling around in circles, unsure of what to do with his new freedom. Sandwich was unhooked too, and sitting, poised, at Mr. Rickett's side. The change in things hadn't gone unnoticed by Sunny, who now pulled nonstop at his collar and whose choked breathing was causing Sam more pain by the moment.
“But I could lose my job...” said Sam.
“You won't lose anything,” said Mr. Rickett. “I talked to th' big Boss. He knows who'se leadin' this little excursion. Besides, Sandy's th' boss'v your two pups-- got'em cowed! She'll herd those boys away from trouble.”
“Horseshit!” coughed the Mormon.
“The only folk these dogs'll come across out here 're tramps,” continued Rickett. “Tramps 're smart enough t' stay away from loose dogs.... ain't that right, Charlie?”
“Been my experience so.”
Sunny's coughing had turned pitiful, but Sam kept his grip tight on the chain.
“Hey, Sammy,” Mr. Rickett had turned his deep, chocolate brown stare on the young man. “This town's not too big. I've played the clubs 'an they were fun, played cards with the boys, an' had a real good time at the race-track. Me an' Sandy 'll probably be here tomorrow, but I'd be surprised if we were still here at the end of the week.
“Point is, these dogs have the chance to run aroun' free an' skippin' like they were in doggy Heaven this afternoon. They might get that chance again, but as a gambling man, I gotta say I doubt it.”
“Hukh,” murmured the Mormon, “Cunt.”
“I guess that's it,” said Sam, and he unclipped Sunny.
The dog squirmed for a moment and bounded out of reach. He stopped abruptly a few feet away and took several heavy, wheezing breaths. He sniffed a patch of grass, and Sam could've swore he saw the moment when the animal seemed to understand the extent of his release. Sunny turned to Sandwich and Mac and yipped his excitement, and suddenly Sandwich was chasing him across a warm green field that smelled of Spring, and even Mac was running, giving chase, and letting off the idiot barking of a happy dog at play.