From his kitchen window, Snowden watched the Corvette grind up the driveway and skid across the front yard until it stopped just behind his truck. The driver got out, and the dust settled around him as he drummed on the roof of the car like he was playing the bongos. The evening breeze blew softly, pushing right into his face.
“My God it stinks,” he said.
The girl on the passenger side put her hand to her forehead and said, “Well, what did you expect, Ray?”
The dogs in their pen at the corner of the lot bawled away at a steady chop, all seventeen of them. Snowden finished his beans and ground beef then wiped the plate with a crust of bread and ate that too. Through the window screen he watched the girl light a cigarette. She wore a floppy straw hat and dark glasses.
“That noise is driving me nuts,” she said. “This is what you want in your own back yard?”
The young guy laughed and leaned backward, holding onto the roof of the car with both hands. He had a nervous, energetic air and spoke so quickly it was difficult for Snowden to make out what he was saying. The only word he heard clearly was music. He rinsed the plate in the sink then washed his hands and face.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he said into the tea towel.
The baying of the hounds turned up a notch when he opened the front door and stepped onto the porch.
“How you?” he called to the man.
The visitor struggled to suppress a smile. Snowden was tall and rangy, with thin hair that had gone white well before its time. He suffered from a form of dermatitis that turned his skin lobster red and made it itch. He was always rubbing one arm with the palm of his hand or scratching his shoulders or scalp.
“I’m fine,” said the young man. “We spoke on the phone last night?”
“Yep. You the one looking for a coon dog?”
“Well you sure come to the right place,” said Snowden.
He stepped down from the porch and held out his hand, keeping the other cradled in the crook of his arm. After shaking hands, Snowden leaned over to get a better look inside the Corvette.
“Hey there,” he said.
“Hey yourself.” The girl blew a stream of smoke in his direction.
“Stevie,” said the young guy. It was hard to tell whether he was introducing her to Snowden or warning the girl to behave herself.
Snowden asked if he wanted to have a look at the dogs, and the guy immediately started walking toward the pens.
“You coming too, Stevie?” Snowden’s voice had a croaking quality that most people found quite pleasant.
Stevie said she’d wait in the car, thank you very much.
“I guess you’re not a dog person.”
She lifted her chin and said, “I love all living creatures.”
The guy came back to the car and stuck his head through the open window on the driver’s side.
“Get off your dead ass and come see these dogs,” he said. “Why do you think I brought you here?”
Before she could reply, he straightened up and started walking toward the dog pen again. Snowden fell in behind. He had no desire to see the expression on the girl’s face just then.
Snowden’s property occupied one corner of a block in a largely undeveloped area west of Miami. From his front porch to the eastern reaches of the Everglades was no more than a twenty-minute drive. He worked as a steeplejack and built the ranch house with his own hands eight years before but hadn’t ever got around to installing a sprinkler system. The grass in the front yard, exposed all day to the sun, was so thin that the white marl it grew on showed through in patches. Behind the house stood two spreading ficus trees that kept much of the backyard in shade. In the far corner of the lot, Snowden had planted a gumbo-limbo tree that gave a patchier shade, and that was where he’d built his pens.
“How long you been running coons?” he asked the fellow.
“Oh, I’m just getting into it. Been out Turner River way a couple times with Arnold Armstrong. He’s the one who recommended you.”
“Oh well. You and Arnold friends?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” He’d picked up the note of censure in Snowden’s voice. “But we’ve known each other for years. He speaks very highly of you, by the way, and your dogs.”
“Arnold still have that big black-and-tan?”
“Rambler. Yeah, he gets meaner by the minute.”
“I went out one night with Arnold to the Big Cypress and the dogs treed a coon in about five minutes, right off the firebreak. Before we could get up to them, that old Rambler turned on one of mine and like to’ve killed him just under the tree. I had to go in and pull them apart, and that’s when he come chopping up my arm, all the way from hand to shoulder. When I look over, Arnold’s just standing there, holding the light on us and laughing his ass off. Last I’ve seen of him.”
They’d reached the dog pen, but the guy wasn’t looking at the dogs. Instead, he stared at an old picnic table that stood in the yard outside the pen. A chickenwire cage rested on top of the table, and inside the cage two raccoons paced back and forth, their triangular heads held stiff between thick shoulders. Droppings and bunches of withered grapes littered the floorboards.
Snowden turned his head just in time to see the guy’s girlfriend getting out of the Corvette. Besides the straw hat, all she wore was a tee shirt and shorts, and even from a distance it was evident her legs were nice and shapely. She slammed the car door and folded her arms over her chest, then started walking towards them, her face shielded by the hat brim. Her feet were bare but she walked without hesitation over the pebbled yard that was just cooling off from the heat of the day. She was a country girl, he realized. The way she walked—self-contained, unhurried, pleased with the body she’d been given—reminded Snowden of a girl he’d liked in high school.
The whole pack of dogs pressed against the gate of the pen, their baying more hoarse and frantic now that people were nearby. The girl came up and stopped a few feet away, her hands pressed to her ears. Raising her arms like that created a gap between tee-shirt and shorts where Snowden could see a patch of her soft, dimpled belly.
The dogs heaved themselves against the gate and jumped on top of each other. Quick, vicious fights broke out among them. The young guy had to shout to make himself heard.
“I’m partial to blue ticks myself. You ever deal with them?”
“No I don’t,” said Snowden. “I stick with the walkers. They’re a good strong dog and there ain’t no quit in them.”
The guy stepped back to where his girlfriend was standing.
“Baby, look at this,” he said. “There’s raccoons and everything.”
She looked where the coons were pacing in their cage and folded her arms over her breasts. Her hair was light brown and thick and hung to her shoulders.
“Poor things,” she said. “They look scared to death.”
Then she noticed another, smaller cage that was made of chicken wire and mounted on cinder blocks. She pointed with a crimson fingernail and turned her face to Snowden.
“That’s a armadillo,” he said. The creature was pressed into a corner of its cage and rolled into a tight ball, its armored rat’s tail stretched out flat behind. He wished she’d take off the sunglasses so he could see her eyes. He wanted to know if there was any trace of kindness there.
“One thing I can’t figure out,” the young guy shouted in his ear. “How in hell am I supposed to choose among them?”
The dogs behind the gate were all pressed together and writhing against each other. They had white coats with tan- or liver-colored patches.
“I’m gonna show you how they work,” said Snowden. “And you can decide from there.”
“All righty, then. Let’s see what you got.”
Snowden approached the chainlink pen and as soon as he touched the gate, the barking shut off like an unplugged TV. The pack swelled up, with each dog pushing to be the first one out. They whimpered and grunted with excitement. When Snowden flung the gate open, the dogs poured forth and their baying rose again in one murderous scream. The girl clapped her hands over her ears, and her boyfriend started laughing, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
The whole pack ran straight to the cage that held the raccoons. The dogs bashed against the legs of the two visitors until they gave way to make room around the cage.
The coons squeezed themselves into a corner, one huddled on top of the other. As the dogs crowded around and snapped viciously, both coons pissed themselves in fear. The urine puddled on the floorboards. Two of the dogs had their muzzles right up against the chicken wire. As they barked, their breath flattened the coons’ fur in patches.
The raccoon on top tumbled backwards into the middle of the cage. Scrambling upright, it bared its teeth and lunged at a hound’s liver-colored nose where it pressed against the wire. The coon’s pointed snout slipped through one of the hexagonal gaps, and at once the dog had it in its jaws. The raccoon tried to pull free, but the dog’s jaws had locked. The hound stood on its hind feet growling, suspended from the raccoon’s snout. A mixture of saliva and blood ran from the dog’s jaws and dripped onto its throat and belly. Its eyes rolled back until all that showed were the filmy whites, while the coon moved in slow motion, pawing the wire, its hind quarters splayed out behind.
A long wail split the cacophony of the hounds. Snowden turned to see Stevie with her hands pressed against her face. Her boyfriend stood immobilized, rapt with excitement.
Snowden waded through the milling hounds and positioned himself. He gave the offending dog a good kick in the belly.
“Turn him loose, Ace,” he said and took off his belt and beat the dog on the head with the brass buckle. The blows had no other effect than to bring the dog’s eyes back into view, the whites around them shot with blood.
Snowden found a length of cable on the ground beneath the picnic table and forced this between the dog’s teeth then twisted it into a loop below the jaw. Taking the loop in one hand and the dog’s upper jaw in the other, he slowly forced the mouth open, all the while growling between clenched teeth, “Turn him loose, you son of a bitch.”
Freed, the raccoon fell backwards and then started pacing the length of the cage. Its partner came up and sniffed its butt, then stopped and pressed one paw on its back. The dogs still howled on all sides, but now the raccoons seemed deaf to the racket they raised.
Snowden herded the dogs back into their pen. He did this by kicking them, then picking up stragglers and throwing them forward over the pack. He glanced at his visitors. Stevie stood paralyzed, with one hand cupped over her mouth. She pleaded with her boyfriend to take her home.
“Let’s go right now. I want to get out of here.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he told her. “Why do you think I brought you here in the first place?”
“Stop saying that. I told you I didn’t want to come.”
Snowden finished with the dogs and then stood by the pen for a minute threading the belt through the loops on his pants. When he was done, he ran his hand over his scalp and then up and down his arm. He meant to wait until it was obvious whether a fight was going to develop between the two.
The dogs grew calmer. A few still barked, but their heart wasn’t in it anymore. The others paced aimlessly or waited, looking to Snowden for some indication of what would happen next. The one called Ace slurped at his water bowl, his curved tail held stiff and upright.
Snowden asked the guy if he’d seen any dogs he liked.
“Did I what?” he said with an edge to his voice.
“Is there any of these dogs you like in particular?”
“I like that old Ace. He’s a killer.”
“Well, I’m sorry but he ain’t for sale.”
“You haven’t heard my offer yet.”
“Don’t need to either. He’s my lead dog and he ain’t for sale.”
“Ha!” said the guy. “Everybody’s got their price.”
Snowden couldn’t help but look at Stevie, and the guy gave him an encouraging smile.
“I don’t like where this is going,” said the girl.
The older man felt his mouth go dry. What a treat it would be, he thought, what sweetness. He knew the guy was only playing with him, teasing. Without thinking, Snowden reached into the untrimmed grass beside the pen and lifted up a long piece of bamboo. It looked like a cane pole for fishing, but instead of tapering, it was as thick at one end as the other. A piece of clothesline ran the length of the stick and formed a noose at one end. As Snowden held the stick upright and the noose waved in the evening breeze, the contraption took on the appearance of a portable gallows. The sight of the bamboo stick set off another explosion among the hounds.
Snowden opened the top of the raccoons’ cage. Widening the mouth of the noose, he hooked it around the neck of the other coon, the one that hadn’t been bitten on the snout. Yanking upwards, he tightened the noose and levered the animal out of its cage. The coon hung with its front paws gripping at the rope around its neck. Its hind quarters rolled up until the tail covered its face. The dogs were going nuts.
He lowered the raccoon to the ground and dragged it behind him over the grass. The animal stayed on its back like a turtle that couldn’t right itself. Snowden walked to the other corner of the yard and from there back to the middle, where he described a large circle with the coon over the ground. Then he dragged it to the base of a ficus tree. Raising the stick again, he settled the coon on one of the thick, horizontal branches. The animal scampered in to the trunk, climbed higher, and settled itself in the fork of a branch. It looked right at home now, in spite of the stick that hung from its neck and reached almost to the ground.
Snowden walked back to the dog pen, climbed in, then tossed out three dogs in quick succession. First Bess, a neutered bitch who was already starting to get fat, and who’d never shown him anything on a hunt. Then Otis, her pup from the only litter she’d ever thrown, a big rangy dog with a deep voice and cold nose. Finally, Stroker, a halfway-decent dog with no special gifts but who would shine in contrast with the other two.
The dogs made straight for the cage, and when they’d confirmed for themselves that one of the coons was missing, they began to yelp and quiver with excitement. Snowden climbed out of the pen and walked into the yard. He whistled and called the dogs by name.
They rushed in a bunch to his feet, then pressed themselves to the ground and raised their muzzles pleadingly.
“Git ’im,” he cried.
The hounds sprang back from the man and ran in tight circles with their noses to the ground. Stroker, the smallest of the three, struck first, lifting his narrow head and squeezing the air from his lungs in a booming howl. The other two began to bark, and the trio moved over the course Snowden had marked with the raccoon as if they were stapled together. When they reached the ficus tree, their barking turned short and choppy. All three placed their front paws against the trunk and strained upwards until they caught sight of the raccoon where it rested. As the visual image merged with the scent in their noses, the dogs began to yap savagely.
Then Stroker dragged himself onto one of the lower branches, stood upright, and looked around to get his bearings.
The young guy laughed, delighted with the spectacle of a dog climbing a tree. His laughter had a smacking quality that struck unpleasantly on Snowden’s ear.
“Goddamn, look at that. He’s going right up after him.”
“Can’t you make him stop this, Ray?” said the girl.
“Can’t you just shut up?”
In the tree, the dog proceeded to another level, and the coon raised itself and came in to meet it. A struggle followed that ended with the dog pushing the raccoon out of the tree. It fell to the ground, where the other two dogs sprang on it immediately. Unable to contain itself, the third dog jumped on top of the writhing heap.
A little bored, Snowden watched the fight unfold. He knew what the outcome would be, having witnessed similar contests on dozens of occasions. He was more interested in what was taking place just outside his field of vision, where Stevie still pleaded with her boyfriend.
“You know I can’t stand to see an animal in pain,” she said.
“You don’t like it, go back to the car.”
“That wouldn’t stop this. Can’t you ask him to call them off?”
“Why don’t you make nice and ask him yourself?”
This wasn’t a suggestion; the guy was giving her an order. It only took her a second to respond.
“Hey mister,” she said, her voice turned husky.
Snowden turned, already certain of what he would see. She would make that cross-armed movement, take off her shirt, and wave it over her head.
Instead she removed the sunglasses, and he could see she had the eyes of an old woman. The skin around them was crowfooted and wrinkled, aged well beyond anything else on her body. Was this a sign of insanity? Beneath one of the eyes he could see a crescent of green and purple. Faded, not fresh, the bruise would disappear completely in another day or two. She stared at him without a word, allowed him to consume that painful gaze in all its depth and tenderness. A gaze that drew him in and repulsed him, inspired both fascination and fear. Then she put the glasses back in place, turned on her heel, and walked to the car.
Snowden watched her go. Beneath the ficus tree, one of the dogs had had enough. It backed away from the fight and barked once, then affected indifference and squatted to pee.
Another of the dogs yelped in pain and backed off. The smallest of the three found itself alone with the raccoon, which had flattened its chest to the ground and bared its teeth. When the dog feinted and lunged, the coon raked one paw across its eyes. The dog squealed and retreated. While it blinked and shook its head, the raccoon ambled to the base of the tree unchallenged. Still attached to the bamboo pole, it climbed up and made for the same forked branch it had chosen earlier.
All at once, Snowden heard a staccato clapping sound, as if the guy’s hands stuck together each time they met and had to be pulled apart. The weird applause confirmed what Snowden had suspected all along, that he wasn’t going to sell a dog to this person.
“What a performance,” the guy said. “Amazing.”
Snowden gave him a sidelong look and could see the false smile pasted on his face. It was quiet for the first time since the visitors arrived; the dogs in the pen had shut off completely.
In the yard beneath the ficus tree, the three dogs lay in the shaded grass and panted, their jaws dripping with saliva. The biggest of them turned onto its back and squirmed for a moment with paws in the air. A column of gnats boiled up and found the last slanting rays of the sun. Up in the tree, the raccoon settled itself and waited for the man to come out and get it.
This story was published, in a slightly different form, in The New Quarterly’s winter issue, 1999.