The Dry, Hot Earth
by William Michaelian

With age, his knuckles and earlobes grew, the last of his hair fell out, and his world grew smaller and smaller. But there was still the worn-out braided rug upon which he paced, the small oak table where he ate, and the square patch of weeds, melons, and tomatoes that he called his garden. These were enough. These, and the good luck of having a sister in town who still drove, and a telephone.

Other things happened. His front porch slowly gave way, and became unsafe to walk on. He used the back door instead. The lemon tree by his bedroom window was infested with scale. As a result, it had more dead brush on it than leaves, and only two lemons. Both were too high to reach. The stray dog he had been feeding was run over by a pickup in front of his mailbox. With half its entrails out, the poor creature dragged itself across the road and died on a bed of dry leaves under an orange tree.

It took every bit of his strength to drag the dog out from under the tree and bury it. It was hot out, and he was bathed in sweat. The ground was hard. Flies buzzed around the dog�s mangled remains, then stayed to investigate.

The job took over an hour. As he worked, he thought about what had happened and grew angry. Over the years, he�d seen more than his share of animals wander into the road and be killed. He knew it couldn�t be avoided. What angered him was that the driver didn�t bother to stop. This was a quiet, rural area. People here cared about their animals, and when one was hurt they tried to see if there was anything they could do, no matter who it belonged to or how busy they were.

The driver�s name was Nyman. Nyman worked in town, and lived about three-quarters of a mile up the road. He wasn�t a farmer. He rented a house on a piece of property that had been sold to a large farming outfit when its owner died.

The old man walked back across the road. He put his shovel away and dusted off his pants, then went inside to wash his hands and arms. Nyman had hit the dog on his way to work in the morning, and wouldn�t be home until after five.

He turned on his kitchen fan. It was time for lunch, but he was too mad to eat. He opened the drawer where he kept the telephone book. He took the book out and put it on the table. He put on his reading glasses and scanned the pages for Nyman�s number. He found it listed under Nyman, Daniel, 17593 Ave. 396. He underlined the number with a pencil, picked up the phone, and dialed.

After the second ring, a woman�s voice came on the line. He cleared his throat. �Nyman�s?� he said gruffly, and the woman said, �Yes, it is.�

He felt his heart beating. �Your husband hit my dog,� he said. �I had to bury it this morning.�

Confused, the woman asked who was calling.

He told her.

�Are you sure Dan hit your dog?� she said.

�Yes, I�m sure. I saw him do it.�

The woman apologized. �If he did,� she said, �I�m sorry. I really am.�

�There�s no ifs about it,� he said. �Except if he�d stopped, he could�ve told me he was sorry, not you. Or maybe that seems strange to you.�

The woman didn�t answer.

�Mrs. Nyman? I said, maybe that seems strange.�

�I heard you,� she said. �I�ll talk to my husband when he gets home. That�s all I can do. I�m sorry.�

Before he could say anything else, she hung up.

The old man spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for his neighbor. Despite the heat, he sat under his walnut tree by the road so as not to miss him. It was almost six when he spotted Nyman�s pickup heading west on Avenue 396.

Nyman was driving much slower than usual. Even from a distance, it was obvious he was looking for the dog. Twice, he almost stopped. He peered into the vineyard behind the old man�s house, and into the dark shadows of the orange grove on the other side of the road. He continued on toward the house, scanning the yard. The old man got up, walked to the side of the road, and waved both arms.

Nyman stopped. He rolled down the window on the passenger side. �Hello,� he said.

The old man shoved his face into the opening and said, �Looking for something?�

�I sure am,� Nyman said. �You seen a hurt dog anywhere around? I hit him this morning.�

�I�ll say you did. You did a real good job of it, too.�

Nyman�s expression changed. �I guess I did,� he said. His concern was obvious by the tone of his voice. �Is he pretty bad off?�

Dead�s more like it. I had to bury him. If you�d�ve stopped, you�d�ve known.� The old man pointed. �He was over there, under that tree,� he said. �His guts were right beside him. Shoot. Why the hell didn�t you stop? I mean, don�t you have any feelings? I know it�s not a person. But a man�s dog � well, around here, a man�s dog means a lot. You oughta know that by now.�

Nyman turned off his engine. He sat dumbly, his hands resting on the bottom arc of the steering wheel, his eyes glued to the gauges in his dash. He looked positively ill. �I do know,� he said finally. He looked up. �And I do have feelings.�

The old man�s voice softened a little. �Well, anyway, you might�ve said you were sorry. That would be worth something.�

Nyman sounded genuine, but a bit confused, when he said, �Okay. I�m sorry. I�m sorry, and thank you for burying my dog.�

The old man frowned. He rubbed the area above his right eyebrow. For a long time, he and Nyman studied each other.

�I thought he was a stray,� the old man said eventually. �I�ve been feeding him for the last couple of weeks.�

�He wasn�t,� Nyman said. �He belonged to us.� He reached for his keys, then let his hand fall into his lap. He exhaled and shook his head. �When I hit him,� he said, �it made me sick. I didn�t stop. I should have. When I turned at the corner, I was going to come back. But I pulled off the road and threw up instead. Then I went to work. I went on into town, and I didn�t come back. I left you with the dirty work. I�m sorry.�

Again, Nyman reached for his keys. This time, he went ahead and started his engine.

The old man stepped away from the window. Ashamed, he stared blindly down the road until his neighbor put the pickup in gear and slowly drove away.

The old man waited. He watched Nyman�s pickup until it turned off the road a minute or so later. He looked at the orange tree where the dog had died, then turned and walked back to the house.

William Michaelian�s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian�s other books and links to this site�s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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