The International Writers Magazine: Life and a certain disdain for dogs
From our archives
Ready For Action
I was between jobs living in the woods outside town off Forest Creek Road. My wife had kicked me out. She said my dogs were too much and I needed to get my own place. One of them chewed a hole through the dry wall of her garage with his incisors like he was gnawing through butter. I came in, saw the hole, and saw his nose caked in white dust. As amazing as it was, she didn’t think so.
“They’re hunting dogs for chrissakes,” she said. “They belong in the country.” She had hidden her disdain for them for a long time. “I’ve been very miserable with you for the last year.”
“Really, an entire year?” I said. “I’ll get some of my things and be on my way then.”
Not knowing where to go and having no money, I got in my old Chevy and drove off with my dogs, the engine rattling like machine gun fire. On some mornings for no apparent reason, it wouldn’t start at all. I’d have to get under the hood and jiggle a bunch of wires until I got lucky.
The next morning I answered an ad for a carpet cleaning job. I didn’t really want anything that could lead to a permanent career or anything like that. I didn’t plan on staying around that long. As soon as spring came and I had a little cash, I thought maybe I’d head for Alaska. I needed adventure in my life and the drudgery of most jobs was dragging me down – killing me slowly like a malady.
During the interview I told the boss that when I was in the Coast Guard they taught me how to be punctual and how I liked the good work ethic they practiced, though I thought most of them were overzealous lifers who were into it way too deep and had forgotten about the outside world and what it was like to be free. I told him about how safety counts. I think that was what landed me the job. “Can you start tomorrow,” he said.
“Absolutely,” I said, projecting some enthusiasm. But inside I kind of loathed that my life had come to this, cleaning revolting carpets to keep myself from living on the streets. I didn’t have any family or friends close by; I had left everyone I knew and moved from Ohio to Oregon to marry Malinda and support her career. I was a struggling writer and a stupid house husband. I ended up cleaning most of the time instead of writing because I didn’t want Malinda castigating me for being a bum and wasting the day.
She hid her disdain for my writing too, just like she had for my dear dogs. She let it slip one day though and I caught her, but she didn’t know I caught her, just went on talking about herself and how she had worked her way up the ladder to become project leader for the wildlife service.
“You should work on getting a career,” she said, but I was. I wanted to become a writer, and not much else. I missed my family.
“I need to live in a counter-culture,” she had said.
We met in our senior year at Ohio State. She was three years younger than me since I had spent time in the military. Optimistically, I thought I could join up and make a difference, maybe save lives, but I didn’t. I spent most of my time in the engine room cleaning up dirty oil and polishing parts, a disillusioned grease head who puked all the time.
I had my tent set up a half mile from the road in a secluded spot so I couldn’t be seen. I strung out a huge tarp and put down some dry straw for my dogs, whom I left tied up for the day. “Stay here guys, you’ll be okay.” I had to get up early to make it to work on time. I got out of my sleeping bag, climbed out of my tent in the cold and dark, turned on my headlamp and watched my breath rise under the gloomy and smoky mist. Shivering, I marched through the woods to where I had my truck backed up off the road behind a wall of brush, hidden. I started the engine and cranked up the heat. By the time I rolled into town ten miles away it was warm inside. I stopped by McDonalds to get a dollar-cup of coffee. I sat in my car sipping it under the street light, cozy inside and reluctant to go to work.
My boss never knew I was homeless. He acted like I had a house somewhere close to town where all the yuppies and baby boomers lived, with their fenced property and franticly-trimmed lawns. He assumed I had a phone too. He’d always ask me for the goddam number. “I’m going to need your phone number to fill out the paper work.”
“I don’t have one,” I said the first time he asked, but for some reason it didn’t register. After that I always told him it was being worked on and that they were getting me a different number. Finally he just quit asking me for it.
It was just the boss and me who did the work. He hired a young guy soon after me, but he got fired for driving recklessly on the freeway. Somebody called it in since we had the name of the company right on the outside of the work van, Rug Master. Sometimes I envied the guy for not having to do this job anymore. We cleaned carpets in million-dollar houses and in one-room apartments. Some carpets were so filthy, full of fungus and putrefaction that I nearly puked. First I had to spray down a row of soap on the carpet with a wide metal nozzle. After it started to react with the dirt, I then went back and sucked it up with the same apparatus. By the end of twenty passes or so, the clean soapy solution I had started with was jet black and full of soot and grime. I grew to hate carpets like the plague. They were the perfect sink for diseased dirt, rotting food particles, and hatching fleas. I’m not sure if people knew how much filth was pulled out of their carpets, the same one’s that they had been living on for the last two years no doubt. It’s a wonder the whole western, carpet-loving world wasn’t seriously ill.
I spent the rest of the winter cleaning nauseating carpets during the day and camping with my dogs in the dark, wet woods at night. The dogs would always be so glad to see me, and in the evening we’d go for a little jog in the forest before bedtime. I let them run completely free for an hour. There was no one around to see or hear them, just me. The three of us would roar through the forest in its isolation and immensity, the dogs yodeling and howling after some animal they were tracking, and me trying to chase them down. It was the only part of my day I liked. Then we’d eat a little something, dog food for them and bread and cheese for me, and sometimes get smashed off a three-dollar bottle of wine to deaden my disenchantment. We’d all crawl into the tent and snuggle up together before the night got really cold. And I’d read a little while listening to the rain patter down on my tarp. I was reading At Play in the Field of the Lords.
“So long as he kept moving he would be all right. For men like himself the ends of the earth had this great allure: that one was never asked about a past or future but could live as freely as an animal, close to the gut, and day by day by day.” It hit me man, like a brick in the head. I had to get out of here.
On a sunny morning I was working at the Methodist Church cleaning carpets that must have been fifty years old. The halls were mostly quiet, but a few people lingered around. I could hear people praying and reciting the holy bible in the next room while I stood outside in the lobby sucking up dirt and cursing. “This shit reeks,” I’d say a lot. “It really stinks.”
Just about when I had the lobby finished, in walked Malinda, surprised as hell to see me. Oh, the horror on her face when she saw me, mainly because I was doing such a menial job. She tried to hide it, but I could tell. She seemed to pity and hate me both at the same time.
“What are you doing here?” she asked awkwardly. I didn’t say anything for a moment and just looked at her with a calm half-grin on my face.
“Working, can you believe it?” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Attending a conference on salmon distribution,” she said. She quickly glanced around, first outside and then inside the building to all my work gear. She was tense, like she was at the scene of a crime or something. “Huh, you know you left some things in my house.” It was her house after all. She owned it before I moved in.
“I’ll come by later to get them.”
“Okay, but could you hurry, I need the space.”
“Sure thing,” I said. We stood there nodding and trying to be polite, not really knowing what to say to each other. There was nothing left to say, like the artificial things that had propped up our relationship for a year hand crumbled to the ground in ashes. What we had, if we even had anything before, was dead and buried.
“Well, it was good to see you,” she said and walked down the hall. I saw her leave a few minutes later out a different door with a man in an expensive suit. They got into a black Dodge Durango and drove off together down Graham Boulevard.
After she left, a group of college girls came in for a sorority banquet of some sort. They were wearing trendy clothes and saw me down the hall on my hands and knees scrubbing a rug. I bumped into the putrefied holding tank and it spilled all over me. I was yanking my shirt out of my pants and spitting rank shit that had got in my mouth. They saw me, my pants sliding down my ass because they had gotten wet and heavy from the liquefied dirt. I was about ready to scream, and they saw me and started laughing as they slid into the next room. I could hear them in their talking to each other. “What a reject,” I heard one of them say, and then all of them giggling. I was really pissed by then, and ashamed, not of myself, but that someone would have to clean the sludge and funk of snobbish people and not even be able to afford a decent place to keep his beloved dogs. Well I hurled that sludge fest of a machine along with the tank all the way down the hall. It went crashing and banging off the wall and floor like grinding thunder. People came out to see what had happened. “You can clean up your own shit,” I yelled. Then I marched heavily out the front door leaving everything strewn all to hell.
I never went back to Malinda’s for the rest of my things. I had no use for them anyway, and I figured she could just deal with them. I never saw her again. A few days later I broke down my camp and loaded up my truck. I had plans for a summer of adventure in the Alaska wilds. But first I had to go to home. I had been away too long. I drove down the dirt road, turned onto the main highway, and followed it through town doing twenty-five. I drove past all the nice shops with people strolling casually along the sidewalks obliviously. I had my dogs in the front with me ready for action. Then I continued on through town and turned onto the interstate and headed for Ohio where I was born. My parents were still there, and all my brothers. I was taking my dogs, the only thing I wanted to keep of this life, and heading home.
© Dave Metz February 2015
Bio: I grew up in Roseburg, Oregon. I studied English and Biology at Portland State University. I’m the author of a memoir called 'Crossing the Gates of Alaska', which is about my four-month trek in Alaska. Many of the stories I write about have an element of my dreams in them. For fun I like to go hiking with my two dogs.
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