It was just after 5:00 A.M. and the mist was so dense that it gathered in droplets at the corners of the windshield. My father had hired two men with a wrecker truck to retrieve my car. They were gruff, rotund, and had filthy mouths from cigarettes and four letter words. I smelled a mixture of their uncleanness and the morphine lollipops the driver incessantly lipped to curb his chronic back pain. I lay strung across the sleeper cab with my feet facing the ceiling, cupping a Sprite in my hand to avoid vomiting from car sickness. I could hear Ripper barking and scratching his nails on his kennel. It was strapped with a rope to the back of the truck, teetering as we headed down the driveway. I had asked my father if Ripper could ride in the cab on my lap, but it was too long of a drive, he said.
We drove east to Kansas, eight hours both ways on a one day trip. We planned to trade Ripper for a 1957 Oldsmobile Fiesta station wagon buried to its rocker panels in grime and covered in spiderwebbing rust.
“A rare son-of-a-bitch, that car,” the driver said, “only ‘bout 1,500 or so Olds Wagons came off the lot that year. Good find.”
My father had seen the wagon a year previous while hunting with its owner. He asked if the man was willing to sell it as a project car, but the man agreed to trade it for a puppy out of our next breeding. We had been car connoisseurs for quite some time and the prospect of a father-son, ground-up restoration of such a rare vehicle was too good for Dad to pass up. My father owned twelve acres and ten dogs of varying breeds and made a modest earning on the side selling the dogs to farmers, hunters, and people who wanted guard animals. The man with the wagon owned sixteen acres and eighty-some odd dogs he used to hunt raccoons and “roll.” In Kansas, dog fighting was, until very recently, a misdemeanor, and hunting wild animals using dogs as weapons is still legal.
The trip was tedious and the sickening-sweet smell of the morphine lollipops began to saturate me after only an hour. No one spoke. We all just stared at the road in front of us, and I breathed in deep through my mouth to avoid vomiting.
Muddy road now. Unfamiliar. Thick foliage licked the both sides of the wrecker. I heard Ripper whimper and slide in his kennel as the truck blundered over the washboard. A clearing in the brush revealed a hidden drive and I was faced with two mobile homes side by side and several barns crafted from rotten wood. A large dog with cropped ears barked as we pulled in, straining his chain. A circular trench matching the radius of his confinement, dug with claws and frustration, indicated his toothy reach.
“Shut up, Sticker!—I have to keep him up here away from everybody else. The dumb bastard kills anything he gets close enough to touch.”
Our host walked from one of the trailers toward the wrecker. He was larger than the other men with hands like boulders and sturdy legs, a gargantuan, black beard and mussed hair. He asked how the drive was and all the men shook hands. He told us the car’s in the back; we would have to drive down. The man from the trailer walked in his worn army-green sweat pants to the back of the wrecker and peered into the kennel that held our boy, Ripper.
“This is the one you were talking about?” he asked my father.
“Yeah, he’s too drivey for my yard. He keeps getting out and messing with the other dogs.”
I nodded, reluctantly, but it went unacknowledged.
The man pulled open the kennel doors and slung Ripper to the ground by his tail and the scruff of his neck. The dog reared back at his arm and growled, trying to bite him. The man laughed. When the dog hit the ground, he tried to run and the man moved to grab the skin of his back. Rip yelped. I turned away.
The man addressed me now.
“These patterdale terriers will pull a raccoon out from under anything! They’ll lose an eye or break a leg and just keep fighting with the damn thing; you’ve got to see it. Your dad says this one’s a firecracker?”
I nodded again. I had seen many dogs leave our home but never had I seen where they ended up. I hadn’t even wondered what became of them after they left our yard. Ripper was one of many dogs that had gone to the man from the trailer, but it was different for me this time; he was one of my favorite dogs. He slept in my room at night, and I pulled him around with a toy rope on our kitchen floor. I was home that summer, helping my father tend to the house while he was at work and Ripper had become my occupational companion, running loose in the field, chasing prairie dogs as I cut thistle down with a shovel. I had been informed only that morning he would be traded for the car.
The man picked up Ripper again and asked us to follow him across the yard. It was then I learned the scope of my surroundings. It was a fortress, surrounded thickly by trees and barking voices. Dogs everywhere. Tied to trees with chains, and imprisoned in chicken coops, drinking from five-gallon buckets and kiddie pools, ripping apart the leg bone of a cow, and latching mouths onto the flesh of other canines. Some ran loose. A three legged girl, small pit-bull, followed closely behind us after running out from under a junk car. Upon closer inspection I realized she had four legs. One dragged limply behind. It looked as if she was made of paper and someone had chosen to crumple her up. The man kicked at her and told her to run along.
“One of my game dogs got a hold on her a while back and really fucked her leg up. I didn’t think she was going to make it.” The man was silent a moment as we walked. “She’s a fighter though,” he said.
We walked to one of the barns and the man fiddled with a pad-lock on the door. It creaked open to reveal the smell of stale flesh and excrement. Dogs inside the barn began to bark and whimper. The light from outdoors blanketed the room and unveiled four dog pens crafted from rotting plywood and a stack of cages with metal pans under them to catch urine, each filled with a spitting image of Ripper. The wooden pens each held a litter of puppies and their mother. The man, still holding Ripper by the scruff of his neck, looked briefly in each and continued to walk. My stomach was sick again. In one corner there was a crude treadmill with a rotten goat’s leg, stripped of hair and skin, dangling from a chain in front of it. The wrecker driver asked the man if this was where he “trained” his rollers. The man nodded. He threw my boy Ripper into one of the metal cages and turned to us, indicating another pen I had not seen at first. We all walked to it and looked inside. The man from the trailer explained.
“I took these two boys out last week and they caught a couple of ‘coons that had buried themselves under a tree. I couldn’t get a shot off with the .22 before they cornered ‘em and these two pulled ‘em out healthy. You guys brought Ripper just in time! These two boys won’t be able to go out again for a while, they’re hurt too bad.”
I knelt to look in the pen and discovered two dogs, mangled. The hair had been scratched from them and their ears were in tatters, barely recognizable. They lay side by side, one panting, the other turned away. The man knelt next to me.
“The back one got stuck down in the hole with the raccoons and they really had it out with him. Mean bastards when they’re cornered!”
The man whistled. The animal turned its head to reveal not a dog, but a mangled biological machine. The skin had been stolen from his face; his nose removed entirely, his lips torn away to reveal a freakish and pained, permanent smile; his tongue visible to the back of his throat. He laid his head back down, the freakish smile resting on a bed of hay and excrement.
I shut my eyes tight and opened them again. The dog was still there. I breathed in deep, frozen and sick. It’s a fucking car, I thought.
The other men were standing behind me, but my father had already left the barn. I couldn’t have looked at him if he had been there. We all looked in the cage for a moment more and no one said anything. Then the man stood up and began to walk to the door. He turned to address me again.
“I’m glad to have Ripper, young man. He’s a hunting dog now.” A pause. “Well, let’s go load up that wagon.”
As we walked out of the barn, I glanced at the men’s faces. There were freakish smiles all around.