January Short Story – Grist for the Mill
Below is the short story for January. My plan is to post a short story once a month for the year. This one is kind of rough and loosely based on a true story I overheard. There is some rough stuff in here involving dogs so please be warned (I’m a dog person myself). Thanks for reading.
Grist for the Mill
You know, in this light, I can just make out the big dipper. It starts with the dot right…here, right on your clavicle, and the handle goes down here, right…above…your right breast. That’s the bottom of the dipper and then it angles back up toward your shoulder, right there. Hiding any other constellations, baby? I’d love to have a look around your heavenly body. Ok, that’s funny, but Uranus is a planet, not a constellation, smart ass. Plus, you just ruined the mood. I don’t care that you’re lying there naked, you did ruin the mood.
That? No, that’s not the light. That’s a scar. Yeah, it’s…it’s big. It doesn’t matter how I got it. Doesn’t matter. Well, you ruined the mood anyway so I might as well tell you.
I was shot with a rifle when I was 16.
Well, it’s not something I tell just anybody and I’d appreciate it if you kept that information from leaving our little love nest, here, OK? Seriously, I don’t like people knowing. Because it’s not badass, it’s traumatic. I don’t like talking about it.
No, I don’t need to tell you, but since you were kind enough to do that thing you did with your mouth a few minutes ago, you’re currently on my good side. OK…OK, but I need to warn you, this isn’t a party story. This isn’t something you’re going to like hearing. It sucks and there are some parts that are going to be really hard for me to get through. If you really want, I’ll tell you, but you’re not going to feel good afterward. I promise. Are you sure?
You know I grew up in Nebraska before I came out here, right? I was kind of a hybrid of a farm kid and a city kid. My folks, they still have a farm that’s on the outskirts of a city so I did chores and I baled hay and all that, but I also went to shows and got stuck in traffic and went to a big school. It didn’t seem weird at the time. It was how I grew up and it was all I knew.
As a farm kid, I had a bunch of different kinds of jobs but when I turned 16 I hit the motherlode – I got a job with a surveyor whose job it was to check on crops. Basically I drove around a 50 square mile area in the summers and I checked soil moisture and checked on crop damage and reported back to my boss who would tell the farmers what their fields were doing and what they needed to do to fix it. Then, of course, he would sell them a solution to their problem from a company that give him kick backs and sent him to Las Vegas three times a year. It was a pretty sweet deal and he paid me really well to basically drive around in an old truck, stick some tools in the ground and sweat my ass off.
No, some hunter didn’t think I was a deer. Quit trying to guess.
I found out pretty quick that the further you get from the city the sketchier things can sometimes get. Sometimes trucks would follow you around for no reason along the dirt roads off the highway, sometimes folks were clearly cooking drugs, sometimes you’d see kids in rough shape. My boss told me to mind my own business and get the numbers I needed and get out of there. After a while, it started to weigh on me.
Then, there were the Troyers.
Bill Troyer had about 200 acres about 45 miles outside of town. An acre is…well, this room isn’t an acre. It’s a lot of land, OK? A few acres is a lot bigger than a football field, like you know when you fly over a rural area and see those squares of land sectioned off? Those are likely 50 acres or so. Bigger farms can run 1,000 acres but the Troyers, they had about 200, so not that big. Yeah, I looked really cute in a ballcap, now zip it, baby, I’m getting to it.
The Troyers were rotten and everybody knew it. Their farm was visible from the highway and they had this barn that was so old the second floor had caved in and it was completely useless but they never bothered to tear it down. There were old cars all over the place, old Pontiacs and Chevys and trucks that were rusted so you couldn’t tell what they were, just junkers piled up along with other crap and garbage and cow shit and a falling down barn. The place looked like it was rotting and the rumor was Bill Troyer’s wife had a meth habit. I don’t know. You think, with meth, there would be enough energy to clean some of that crap up.
Everyone know they had a puppy mill going out there, but…I don’t know it’s hard to describe why no one busted them on it. I guess they knew the Troyer’s needed money and the way things go on a farm, you see animals come and go all the time. It’s not a huge leap from raising cattle to selling puppies and killing the ones that don’t sell, I guess, but even the worst farmers I knew had figured out how to humanely treat their animals. Not the Troyers. I had heard horror stories that they had let horses starve to death and let dogs freeze in the winter and all sorts of terrible shit. I was raised on a farm and my dad, he made sure I knew what the pigs and the cattle were for, but he also taught me that when an animals was suffering you either help or you end that suffering. There’s no need to let an animal die slowly.
We had a dog get sick when I was 9. He was the family dog we had named Gizmo, a Golden, and he started limping one weekend. We took him to the vet and turned out he had cancer and there wasn’t much we could do, so mom and I had a day full of all of Giz’s favorite things. We took him for a walk and gave him a hamburger and cuddled and all that and then we said good bye and dad took him out back and shot him. It all made perfect sense. It was sad and he slept in the house but he was an animal he was suffering. That’s what I learned, that’s where my head was at.
So one day, late on July 22nd, I roll up to the Troyer’s land and I get my camera and all my instruments and start working and I immediately hear barking but it didn’t sound normal. It was higher and sounded…I don’t know, desperate. I tried to mind my own business, but that barking started burrowing right into my stomach and each time I heard it…it was like everything I knew about the farm went out the window. I justified it to myself that I wasn’t that far away from the noise and I should have a look. If they didn’t want anyone to know they had dogs, they would quiet them down, right? So, I creep over there, through the corn which is high enough for me to hide in, and there they are.
They were all daschunds or wiener dogs or whatever you call them, those short little ankle biters, but they were all skinny and fevered looking and covered, head to toe in shit. It was obvious no one had tended to them for more than a day because, I remember this really clearly, there were 12 cages and at least two to a cage, sometimes three and all their water bowls were bone dry. It gets up there, high 90s in July and those dogs were just baking. There were a couple of dead ones and…I don’t want to get too gross but the other dogs had picked the dead ones apart probably because there was no water. There were two cages were the mammas were, the ones they used for breeding and even they were collapsing. They kept barking when they saw me, but got a lot more frantic in their cages.
I don’t want to sound like a wimp or anything but I started tearing up because I love dogs and had never seen any of them trapped and left to die like that. I remember all their eyes were so big and they were just pleading and pleading so I came out of the corn, found a hose, filled up their bowls and started spraying the dogs and it was like Christmas morning. They were whining and wagging their tails and one of them tried to get up on his hind legs and banged his head against the cage as the water rained down. It was the joy of a creature that knew it was going to die and got a temporary reprieve, you know? They were so happy in that moment that I almost didn’t notice Mrs. Troyer come barreling out of the house.
She was waving a shotgun.
Again, I don’t want to sound like a wimp but I hauled ass back into the cornfield and back toward my truck. I got Gerald, the guy who ran the surveying company, I got him on my cell phone and told him to send the police out to the Troyer farm right away. He asked me why and I started to tell him and that’s when the gunshots started.
I was a ways away. I had parked cattycorner from the puppy mill but that old lady wasn’t going to catch me even if she wanted to. She wasn’t shooting at me. She was taking care of the puppies before the cops showed up. Destroying the evidence, yeah. I knew what was going on but the yelps I heard after one of the gun shots pretty much confirmed it.
Gerald said he’d send the police and after he hung up I just sat in the truck. Every thirty seconds or so…pop…I’d hear the gun go off again and I knew, all the way in my guts, that I had to do something. I didn’t know what, but I had to do something so I got out of the truck and started back through the corn. As the gunshots are getting louder I hear the Troyer lady yell “get back here, you little shit!” and all of a sudden one of the wiener dogs, a brown one with matted brown fur and a really long nose, comes right up through the corn and jumps into my arms and starts crying, that long, sustained whine that a dog in trouble gives you.
That’s when the shot hits me…well…OK, baby, this is the unpleasant part. Yeah, I know a lot of this has been unpleasant but…you signed up for this, OK?
The way a shotgun works, at least the kind that the Troyer lady had, is they don’t have one bullet. They scatter the shot around, right? You’ve seen this? OK, so she comes through the corn and I don’t know if she’s high or drunk or what but she sees the dog in my arms, sees me, and shoots the dog. The little guy’s head explodes and the shot, it goes through the dog and into my shoulder and part of my neck and arm. She was a ways away so it wasn’t one of those “lucky you survived” things but there was blood everywhere. Mine and the dogs, all in my eyes and my mouth. I don’t remember the pain so much as I remember thinking “this is a mess” and, of course, what had happened to the dog.
The impact knocked me over and she kind of gave me a quick look, sniffed really loud and went right back to shooting the dogs. She didn’t say anything to me. Not a word. Just went back to the shotgun and the loud yelps.
I fought really hard to stand up but I was dizzy and nauseous and couldn’t manage it right away, but when I finally got up the shooting had stopped. She had run out of shells, near as I could tell, and there were about six dogs left so she headed back to their shitty red farm house. As fast as I could I went and popped the locks on all the cages of the dogs that were left alive and two of them went running and the other four were too weak to make a break for it. One of them, a black and tan one, looked up at me and I was able to cradle him in one hand and make it back into the corn before she came back out. She killed the rest as I watched and then seemed pretty proud of herself. That’s when the cops showed up.
The other two dogs, not the one I was holding but the other two, they had gathered around me and they followed as I went to the edge of the road and waved them down. The cops were ready for a puppy mill, they see worse than that sometimes, but they weren’t ready for a bleeding kid so they freaked out a little and drew their guns and stormed the house. They didn’t just find all the dog corpses and the bad conditions but they found meth and illegal guns and all kinds of shit. One of the cops, who came up to me while the ambulance was taking care of me said there were things in that house that could have ripped me in half if that’s what the Troyers wanted. That phrase “rip in half” still haunts me a bit.
It all got written up in the paper and a couple people thought I had done a heroic thing. Not my dad, though. He said I should have minded my own business but he let me keep the dog. Cute little guy, still lives with my folks.
We named him Dante.
Well, because he had been to hell and back, hadn’t he? But you’d never know it to look at him. He’s a normal dog now if a little skittish, which is why I don’t want you blabbing to all your girlfriends about this. It was a thing that was terrible, but it happened, the less I think about it, the better and now I’m somewhere else doing things I like. And people I like. Yes, that was directed at you.
Yeah, I know I could impress a lot of women with that story, but I don’t want to. I’ve got a perfectly fine naked woman in my bed as it stands, plus I didn’t save most of them. Not even close. And, yeah, something is better than nothing but tell that to the dogs that died dehydrated and alone and covered in shit. If I were any sort of hero…I don’t know. I got a scar and a dog and a lot of bad memories out of the deal.
That’s more than I need.