There is a man on a gallows whose tongue lolled out of his mouth even before he was hanged. He is unsympathetic because of his tongue and other oddities, such as walking with a left foot hitch and speaking as if he can’t get that lolling tongue out of his way, which wouldn’t have been so bad—we can have sympathy for a defective—but what he said through his obtrusive tongue was usually lies, so we are not so disturbed that he is getting hanged today. Lied about the wrong person, we assume. Offended the wrong ears. Or maybe it was that one time he told the truth and the one time somebody believed him that got him on the gallows today. In any case, we are glad to be rid of him.
We see he has a note in his pocket. It’s about to fall out as the hangman tightens the noose around his neck. He inclines his head toward it and says something urgently through his tongue. He is terrified, naturally, we give him that, so he’s making even less sense than usual, but we know, and the hangman knows, he wants someone to read that note.
Dead men, or just-about-to-be dead men, deserve one final wish, so long as it’s not an evil wish, so the hangman obliges, grabs the note and reads:
“I am Lucifer in the flesh and God has got my tongue. He pulled it so hard the last time I teased him for losing at checkers that he ripped the muscle and I haven’t been able to draw it back in the whole life I have been trapped in this limping body. I thank the hangman in advance and I thank all of you watching for giving me this dramatic new beginning. Out of this ugly carcass I will be restored a handsome devil with a silver tongue I can keep in my mouth, for heaven’s sake, and I can tease and tattle again as eloquently as I was made to do. You all do me a favor this day and I thank you. Hang me quickly! My tongue is sandpaper dry and I’m dying to be dead!”
The hangman frowns and we see the paper trembling in his hand. We are a superstitious people, we don’t mind telling you. We won’t even have decorative devils on our damper pulls because we worry so much about inviting him into our houses. Though those damper pulls are awfully cute, we can’t risk it! So how can we risk releasing the very devil now? What do we do with him? He’s probably lying, but the devil is the best liar, isn’t he? And this would be the very best lie.
We are a God fearing, fearing people too, and if God trapped that rascal in this body and pulled his tongue out, who are we to kill him and have the undertaker respectfully lay that tongue back in the empty corpse’s mouth?
The hangman looks out over us and we look at each other and back at him, and though we are looking at him and not each other now, we all know we are nodding our heads. Let him go. Let God’s punishment stand. Let the flesh be a prison. Let the tongue go so dry it eventually altogether falls off. Up with God’s will and down with this man off the gallows which, we think, must be the hard way God intended.
The hangman, his name is Collin incidentally, nice fellow, lifts the noose from around Lucifer-in-the-Flesh’s neck and Lucifer jumps down off the gallows, spritely as a schoolboy playing hooky. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I can untie my hands myself.” We hear that perfectly despite his tongue. We also hear perfectly his rattling laugh as he hightails it, long fingers working the knot, off into the desert.
(No one would believe it, so I had to take a picture. When I originally wrote this, before editing, it came out to exactly 666 words! All by itself. Ha! Wicked cool!)
There was a man who had white hair like an albino, though his skin was dark. One morning, while his desperate little city woke up in the glaring, smoggy light of winter, he looked out from behind the oily screen of his living room window and saw a dog. He saw that the dog was skinny, ribs showing. Brown like his skin. Something like a pit bull mix, common for this neighborhood, but otherwise not distinguishable. He realized, after having looked at the dog for a while, that he never saw this dog before. He knew all the stray dogs in the neighborhood. He carried bits of ground beef for them in his pockets when he walked to and from the 7-11 for cigarettes each day, each day telling himself he would only buy one pack and that this would be his last pack.
But this dog he didn’t know. He took a long drag on the last cigarette of his last pack, blew the smoke through the oily, yellow screen, put on his green coat with ground beef already in the pockets, and started out to the 7-11 for his next last pack.
The skinny dog greeted the man on his front stoop, wagged his tail, and sniffed his butt as he turned around to lock the steel security door. He knew the butt sniff meant they were already best friends for life. Perhaps, he thought, the dog smelled the hamburger through the screen and wanted to be the first and the friendliest to hopefully get the biggest portion. Smart dog. Crafty dog. He knew this would really make them best friends for life.
He dug in his left pocket and made a double size meatball for the dog, forming it with his first three nicotine stained fingers. He offered the meatball to the dog. The dog sniffed it but did not take it. Instead, he sat down, matter of fact, cocked his head, stared at the man, and thumped his tail, matter of fact, against the gray plastic doormat that had “Go Away” stenciled in white across it.
The man offered the meatball to the dog again. He didn’t even sniff the meatball this time. The man sniffed it. He had put the meat in his pocket only this morning, but maybe it was old. It would have had to come from the grocery store old, (maybe he didn’t see the expiration date right), because he didn’t give his dogs old meat. In fact, he made a habit of checking around the neighborhood for where people had left poison meatballs out to kill the stray dogs. He liked to pick up the poison meatballs and smash them into the mail in those people’s unchecked mailboxes. Let their birthday money be covered in poison and rotten meat and let the dogs live another day.
His sniff told him the meatball was at least OK. He offered it one more time to the dog. The dog cocked his head the other way, made three more matter of fact thumps with his tail, and again did not take the meatball.
Strange dog, this one, with the face he still couldn’t make out quite right, even being this close. He thought it was the oily screen that had blurred his view, but now he thought maybe it was his 70 year old eyes. He put the meatball down on the corner of the “Go Away” mat, and tried to walk around the dog. The dog stood up and in his way. He went left. The dog was left. He went right. The dog went right.
He crossed his arms and said, “Buddy, we’ve got to come to some agreement here or we’ll be dancing all morning.” The dog did not move.
“If you don’t want to stop dancing with me, can you at least dance me down the block a ways?” The dog stood up and they did a little tangled leg pirouette off the stoop together.
A few houses down, they were met by a German shepherd mix he knew well. His name was Atticus. “Good morning Atticus,” the man said and offered him a meatball. Atticus also sat, refused, and thumped his tail. Something in the air with these dogs today.
He met Bananas a few more houses down, another pit bull mix, brown and white. Bananas was so named because she liked to bark like bananas when she saw him and saw that meat coming. A “Hi! How are you!” Bark, not the “I’m gonna fuck you up” bark that came from behind so many neighborhood fences. He understood. Freedom could make you bananas, captivity made you mean. Recently sprung from the state nut house himself, he understood Bananas deeply.
But today, Bananas was quiet. She came up to him wagging, but softly. She also didn’t take the meatball. When he offered it to her, she bent her head to his hand, but rather than grabbing the meat, she softly licked his wrist, then nuzzled into his arm. He put the meat back in his pocket and gave her a scratch on the neck that made her right leg wiggle. Maybe he loved Bananas the best, but don’t tell any of the other dogs that.
Definitely something wrong with this meat. For sure. Best to ditch it at the next asshole’s mailbox that comes up. That would be, let’s see? Paula’s mailbox. Paula thought she was too good for this neighborhood. She, with the front lawn not just mowed in straight rows, but squares so perfect, for a long time, he thought it was astroturf. The only reason he knew it was real grass was that one day, Ariel, a rottie so named because she liked to run through sprinklers and was obviously half mermaid, stood on Paula’s lawn, munched a few blades, then barfed it back up on Paula’s plump orange roses.
That grass was the real deal and Ariel’s puke made his week.
He loved to rub poison meat into Paula’s mail and mailbox. After Ariel puked on her roses, and perhaps pissed on them a few times too, he found she left a trio of what were surely poison meatballs for the dog in the munched-on spot in her perfect yard. That was the first time, and not the last, that he had taken the poison meatballs she left and smashed them into her mail. It was a hundred degree day, that first time, and one of the pieces of mail he smashed the meat into was some notice from the DMV. Greased up and fried in the mailbox with the poison meat, he was sure whatever the DMV had to say would make her week, the way Ariel’s puke had made his.
Today was cold, or as cold as it gets in desert Southern California, so the obviously not fresh meat he had to rub into her mail today wouldn’t be extra gross by the time she got to it, but there appeared to be two Christmas cards in her box, hand addressed, almost calligraphic in their perfection, so he smashed his whole pocketful of meat between the cards and it was, two days before Christmas, already a merry Christmas for him.
By the time he got near the 7-11, about half a mile from his duplex, he had a pack of seven or eleven dogs following him closely behind, which was normal, with the addition of the new dog, the skinny dog whose face he could still not quite make out thought he had been looking down at it frequently the whole way. Skinny, he was calling him because he couldn’t for the life of him come up with any name that seemed really right, had walked the whole way in perfect step with him, at his left hip. So perfect you would think there had been a leash or something binding them.
He pressed the stoplight button and turned to his pack. This last street he had to cross was a four lane free-for-all crossing a six lane nightmare. He didn’t like the dogs to cross with him here. The cars were so hot and careless on the button, he had images for a long time of one dog straggling along a little too far behind and getting nailed by some asshole driver looking the wrong way.
“All right, ladies and gents,” he said to his pack. “You stay. Stay. Staaaay.” He put both hands out in a stopping gesture. “Pappy will be back and maybe bring us all one of those nasty hot dogs to share if you’re good and if you stay. Stay. Staaaay.” He put his hands out again and, all at once, the whole pack sat except Skinny. This guy. What to do? He knew he would not leave his side. Hopefully at least he’ll let me go in the store by myself! The owners are mean and barely let my smelly self go in there, let alone my smelly self and this smelly, skinny, stubborn dog.
He heard the electric bird tweet, turned around, and he and Skinny stepped into the street.
He could have sworn he heard the electric bird tweet, but now he wasn’t sure. What rung in his ears now was squeal and pop. And howling. Seven or eleven dogs yipping and howling from the corner. Something like a splintering in his legs, something like twist and crush in his chest. Yipping. Howling. Howling from the corner. And relief.
He stood up. He saw some nerd get out of white Prius, shaking. He saw the front end of the white Prius all smashed up and he smiled. He looked the other way and saw, attached to the smashed up Prius’, Paula’s worse smashed up black Escalade. And his smile turned into a full belly laugh. He felt good. He never felt so good.
He looked down at Skinny, still there with him at his left hip. “Did you see that, Skinny? Look’s like today is our very best day.” He noticed this time, as he looked down at Skinny, his ribs weren’t showing anymore, (he would have to come up with a new name), and his face had come clear and he could swear it was not one clear face, but the clear face of every dog in his seven or eleven pack. The same faces with the same light and love in their eyes they had each day he greeted them with a new, fresh meatball. Not-So-Skinny-Anymore pressed his body into the man’s leg, took the fabric of his empty meatball pocket into his mouth, and, step by sure and gentle step, led the man across.
-M. Ashley My first stab at fiction in ages and ages. Let me know what you think.
My ancient fiction professor at Vanderbilt once told us about a man he knew who drank Dr. Pepper hot. When work was over, this man would get into his after-fives and stir it in a saucepan over low heat, delicately, like he was handling milk. “Sometimes,” Professor Sullivan said, “it’s all right to let your characters take life a little too far.”