Carnival Wolves (Peter Rock)

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  Polyester is not one of those fabrics that breathes. On the hot days I walk back through the bottom of the gorge, where the air is cooler. Stone steps descend, over a hundred feet, and as flowers hang on for dear life along the cliffs, as trees reach down and stretch upward, the sound of the creek rises to meet me. The creek has run here for millions of years, wearing down shallows and digging pools beneath its falls. High above, the bridge spans the gorge. The bridge is metal, with holes in the bottom. Cars shake and echo as they pass; looking up, you can guess their make and model from their shadowy underbellies.

This is something that happened to me. I want to say it all, to see how it sounds.

The flagstones along the creek fit together, cracked by frost. I had been on my feet all day, walking. The college girls lay like sleeping mermaids along the stones. Their clothes folded and piled to one side, they held books frozen open in their hands, never turning a page, and the clear, cold water licked at them, pulled at their bathing suits as it reluctantly slid away. I would like to take off my shoes and sneak close, to run a finger along their throats. They are perfect, languid. I doubt if they have belly buttons, if they could unwind umbilical cords from inside themselves. I would like to take off my clothes and rest myself alongside them, our bare shoulders touching, our skin dulled by water. I would pull leeches from the backs of their smooth thighs, I would rub until sensation returned, I would ease snails from between their toes.

They did not look up until I was past them. I went around a bend, leaving the girls behind, my mind still turning them over. The gorge narrowed and I walked through the shadows, the walls closing in. The creek ran slower, deeper.

At first, looking up at the sound, I thought it was squirrels or maybe a raccoon--yet they are always certain of their holds, they do not lose their balance. The tree was collapsing in sections, top to bottom, the branches slashing down and then slapping back, loosening again. Birds escaped upward. I stopped walking to make sense of it. Flashes of white were coming down, hidden as the branches gathered, separated, and cracked. Spots of black stretched into lines. It was no mistake that I was there.

The dog came out headfirst with its legs swimming in the air; its eyes seemed to watch me as I stood motionless. It fell frantically, inevitably, all at once. I heard the splintering and the solid collision; the dog's body recoiled from the flagstones before it settled. Then, miraculously, it stood, took ten steps toward me, and collapsed again.

There was no time to doubt that this was happening. Branches and leaves were still coming down in its wake, and the dog was whining, crying. I leapt off the path, cupped my hands, brought water to where she lay. Her snout was caved in and thick blood ran out, and from her ears, and from her anus. I ran my hands over her skin and there did not seem to be any cuts--as if everything had been broken inside and held there.

A bird's nest lay on the flagstones; I could not see any eggs, cracked or otherwise. Flies were everywhere, as if they had followed the dog down through the sky. She was a dalmatian.

You're fine, I believe I was saying. Everything is perfectly fine. I could see the bridge from where I was kneeling, cars passing. Many students jump from that bridge each year--some say it's the stress, others say the damp clouds--and I've heard that sometimes the bodies roll along the bottom, held under the falls and beneath the rolling creeks, and don't surface until the runoff eases.

A small crowd had gathered. Someone had been shouting. The dog still lay on her side, bleeding, wheezing desperately as she tried to breathe through her broken face. It sounded as if teeth were lodged in her throat. I brought her more water. I said someone should go for help.

Aren't you a policeman? a man said.

I didn't know if I should pick the dog up myself, or if that might be exactly the wrong thing to do. People moved on once they'd lost interest. Others pushed their way past on the narrow path, breathing hard under backpacks, muttering to themselves. The blood was tracked all around, footprints growing fainter from where she lay.

A girl in a bikini top with a towel around her waist came barefoot down the path.

What did you do to your dog? she said.

All I could do was keep on with the water, with the words. I did not know what else to do and I could not sit still. Her eyes spun in their sockets. Her breath rasped and whistled. Then I saw the ambulance on the bridge, its red lights silently revolving. People were gathering on the bridge, looking over, hoping for disaster. In a few minutes the paramedics came down the path with their tackle boxes and their oxygen tanks.

Where are they? the one said.

Here, I said.

You all right?

It's the dog, I said.

Wait a minute, he said.

I heard the other one talking into his radio: It's a fucking dog. Yes, that's right. D-O-G.

What are you waiting for? I said. You already brought all that stuff down here.

Exactly, they said. Someone's going to have to pay for it.

The owner's name's on the tag, I said.

They turned away from me, whispered to each other, and then turned back. They told me this really wasn't their job.

Listen, I said. This dog is dying.

This went on for a while. When they finally took her, they didn't even run with the stretcher. The dog whined when they hit the steps. I could not tell if she looked back at me.

I did not go with them. I had done my part. I slid my feet along the flagstones, trying to scrape the blood from my shoes as I continued on down the gorge. I followed the path to the bottom, where it let out onto the streets downtown, and I passed through all the shops that sell crystals and pottery, holographs, designer clothing.

Above the Chanticleer, the neon rooster was not yet turned on. A man wearing baseball cleats sat beneath it, bending wire hangers and adding them to a giant cage attached to the handlebars and seat of his bicycle. Keychains hung everywhere in the mesh, stuffed animals imprisoned here and there. The man looked up, past me, into the sky.

Inside, the felt of the pool table was worn down, stained and torn. Quarters lined the rail like silver eyes. I stood next to the skee-ball game and had a shot of Wild Turkey, sticky and sweet.

This area secure? the bartender said.

Enough, I said.

Outside, though, the man in the cleats was throwing an x-acto knife at a tree and talking about how it wouldn't stick. I could only agree as I passed him, as I kept on into my neighborhood. Down there, there are brick houses where the bricks are peeling away; they're just sheets of shingles, made to look like bricks. My house is like that. All the black guys laugh as I pass them, pointing at my uniform. It's ninety degrees and they're wearing sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up. They double over, just behind my back, and I keep going. At my house, I look back through the trees, all the way up to where the museum sits like a giant coffeemaker on the hill.
* * *

So-called indigenous peoples--from the rainforests or wherever they live--say we never look into the sky. They wonder how we can see what's coming. The fifth floor of the museum has windows all around and, looking down, I can vouch that this is true. I can see the small people below, their eyes on the ground in front of them.

From the windows I see the town below, the treetops, the lake deeper than anything, its bed cut by glaciers. Inside the museum, old people without their bifocals make me anxious. Children tangle my nerves. All the once-verdigris breasts of the bronzes have been burnished; all the genitals shine. We have two life-size Zorach bronzes, wrestlers, facing each other, and I've seen children stand between them, arms outstretched, with a hand around each penis. I've caught men pretending to sodomize them, joking with their friends, and I let them know that the moisture from a fingerprint can, over time, wear a hole in the metal. It's my job to tell them this, whether or not I believe it.

The other guards and I play a hand of poker at seven-thirty every morning; that tells us where we start, which floor, and then we switch at intervals, whoever's on break going up to the fifth and everyone moving down one. We do this all day, not speaking, just waving, nodding, descending. They all have children, trailers, problems we don't talk about. On the radios we refer to each other not by name, but by number, and even these numbers are not our own, but those on whichever radio we've been given that day.

They say I have done my job well if nothing changes. I watch the lush green jungles of Rousseau, lions and tigers with soft whiskers, their jaws almost smiling; they look too gentle and bewildered to trust. I ask you to step back from the Kandinsky full of stick horses, steeples, sharks in the waves. I'm not allowed to lay a hand on anyone, and to touch a mother's child is to invite untold wrath, curses upon your person and home. The paintings need constant temperature, constant humidity, and the machines never work. Polyester is not a natural fiber, it never kept anyone warm, animals don't grow it. I can whip off my clip-on tie in one motion, use it as a weapon. I am not allowed to touch anything or to touch anyone. I circle, turn a corner to meet the Giacometti who cannot escape me despite his long legs.

People get close. They want to touch the paintings, and this has made me a psychic of movements--I can tell what comes next, if someone will get closer or retreat out of my concerns. I myself go inside the paintings, hidden behind the flat slabs of the Leger, blindfolded in the Chirico but still looking out, watching you all pass, seeing myself--I know the creak of every floorboard, I have walked them all--listening as girls follow me, all long hair and unraveled sweaters, corduroys singing between their thighs, yawning and trailing perfume as I follow, as they hide behind sculptures. They watch me close.

When I am up on the fifth floor, early in the mornings, I catch flies against the huge windows and throw them back against the panes. I collect their dead bodies in my pockets. All the Asian art is on the fifth, but mostly people turn their backs to it. We have all sorts of Buddhas, ceramics from before time began, snuff bottles painted on the inside with paintbrushes of three horsehairs; we have landscapes on rice paper whose vertical symbols make children kick and karate-chop each other. People come up here for the panoramic view. They miss the delicate screens, the mahogany furniture, the sculpture of bone. When there is a fire in town, the people come here to watch it, to second-guess the firemen, and when someone jumps from the bridge they come to watch the rescue, the winches and ladders and trucks, frogmen in wetsuits, the stretcher spinning like a fat propeller at the end of its line. Standing there, at those windows, I could see the jagged white of broken branches, the very trees that slowed the dalmatian's fall, the edge she had failed to recognize.

If I could entice you to step back from the windows, if I could guide you by the shoulder, your hip, the small of your back, I could show you art that will straighten your hairs. All in gold leaf, men wearing turbans smile as they work themselves deep into women with rings on their toes, contortionists with their legs around the man's neck, jewels on their throats and arms, one hand down behind her, tearing at flowers--they are in a garden somewhere, on a bench--and the other deep in his beard, her ankles at his ears as beautiful birds and a sky full of insects pass overhead, watching it all.
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Excerpted from Carnival Wolves by Peter Rock. Copyright © 1998 by Peter Rock. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.