Pavlov’s Dogs by Nick Sweeney

The others fled from the night in their own ways, and, though she could guess, Carrie never knew what they saw. Only one thing was sure in her night, and that was the road. Once she’d crunched them to a halt, Ivan was out on the red earth of the roadside, clutching his head and rolling from side-to-side. Ellie fell out of the front passenger seat and followed Ivan’s movements with her shoulders. Jacob stayed slumped in the back looking a shade of yellow that, Carrie felt, suited him.

Blank, Carrie thought, as he always has been.

Not able for it, she projected at Ellie, and never was. Carrie would graffiti her grave: up for it she was, able for it she wasn’t.

And Ivan, he was dead. It hit her that he always had been, ever since the night of the Pearl Jam gig, and then the party in De Beauvoir Town, then after, when he had given in to the darkness in him and, finding it empty of words, punched her. Dead.

She left them to it, leaned on the jeep, gazed at the water.

Give me a cigarette, Ivan said.

We’re out of cigarettes. Carrie relayed it unsensationally.

We’re out of everything, Jacob aimed at her.

Carrie watched waves break, was about to raise finger and thumb and trap one when Ivan slapped her face. Out of everything, he was saying. He delivered the words in the voice of a child and, like children, they doggy-paddled slaps at each other.

Leave it. Jacob manhandled Ivan away a few paces.

No food, Ivan was calling. I need some fucking food.

No food? Ellie, all anxious eyes, appeared next to Carrie.

Go and buy some. Carrie swept an arm up at the coastline, at sand and grit and grass and billboards, spiky hedgerows, rusted fencing.

Ivan walked onto the sand and began to undress in movements that took on the momentum of a dance. He walked, was soon in the sea, vanished into the chemistry of wind and water.

Carrie tramped to the top of a dune. She pulled her clothes down and shat liquid, miaowed as she scattered sand over it.

She heard a distant grunt of effort and stood up and saw a figure on the beach. She thought it was Ivan at first, but then made out a bony, bearded man with a head of thick dark hair. He wore a flowing brown robe, and red espadrilles. He was hefting boulders across the sand to the dark line of the tide. He had to be crazy; he was making a circle of standing stones.

***

The evening before, they had gone to a restaurant whose waiter wore white shirt and black trousers, plus white gloves about three sizes too big. These are our waiters’ gloves, son, the boss had obviously said, and if you want to work here you’ll wear them.

The unfilled space at the end of each finger was speckled with ingredients from every dish into which he had ever plunged them: turmeric, ketchup, olive oil, black brine, the carbon from burnt peppers, it was all there.

Their omelettes arrived in bowls whose wells were not big enough to contain them. Carrie wiped the glove fingerprint from the edge of hers onto the tablecloth.

Ellie was halfway through hers when she choked and pointed. The ragged yellow edge revealed a fatty piece of raw meat in the bottom of her bowl. Hand to her mouth, she cried out. Ivan broke into the outrage over which he had simmered for days.

Carrie said, that one’s mine, and swapped plates with Ellie.

She doesn’t eat meat, Ivan was yelling at the waiter.

Yes. The waiter raised a floppy finger, and an eyebrow, hunched and made a smile that showed promise. He called the manager, who looked from bowl to bowl, listened calmly to Ivan, and noted Ellie’s upset face.

Okay, the manager said, and went back into the kitchen.

They waited, then stopped waiting, sulked, ate defensively. Carrie’s piece of meat was revealed, sour and corrupt as she finished the last scrap of egg.

Jesus, Ellie said. Take it away – get him to take it away, she begged Carrie, who called the waiter over to do his fingers-and-thumbs part.

God, Ivan and Jacob repeated.

They had got out of there without God’s help, though not without Carrie’s. She studied the bill and asked for it to be corrected, counted the money out. She left a small tip. You had to; it was custom.

***

Outside the restaurant, two guys had been leaning on the jeep. One of them had reached in through the busted side window to take Carrie’s Zippo from the dash. He had lit up, and was by then just playing, making it spark with a jive flip.

Carrie held her hand out for it as the guys greeted her. The one holding the lighter tried to catch her eye, perhaps to engage her in a boys’ game in which she would have to try to snatch it as he held it out of her reach. Her eyes roved instead over the dim interior of the jeep, checked the other windows, the doors: intact; the luggage: unmolested. The guy with the Zippo said something cocky to his mate, who shushed him.

The lighter was put into Carrie’s palm. She stowed it carefully in a pocket, and only then did she meet the guy’s gaze directly. What, she said.

They were conscript soldiers, heading back from leave to an inland barracks, and, having been let down, in need of a lift. Bodies of men, faces of boys. Their wishes? A broody mix of the two, Carrie guessed. She soon switched off from their convoluted tale in inadequate English, brought it to a halt with a nod. They were squeezed in.

Ellie would sit up front with Carrie, guys all together in the back. They got under way. Conversation was sporadic and led almost directly to the soldiers getting out some puff. They got into the noxious business in the back and drew Ellie into it. Each time Ellie offered Carrie a toke, she said no. She pulled the window up and down, let air in and out.

Perhaps three hours later, and running on fumes, they had reached a spot at which, the soldiers assured Carrie, they would hook up with pals in a minibus. There was only Carrie to assure; the others were on planet Zonk, poisoned by giggles and happy headache. There was only Carrie to deal with. She joined them at the back, and, looking somehow taller than they had before, they began.

We gave you something. The Zippo boy indicated the smoky chaos in the back as he and his sidekick got their kitbags together. Now you give us, yes? Custom. He seemed very pleased to have found the word.

In our country, the other one added.

We gave you a lift, Carrie pointed out, then remembered a line from the guidebook: that was the simple code of the road, a duty for all who travelled on it.

No, Ivan said. That’s cool.

Yeah, piped out Jacob. It’s only right, man, because this stuff, yeah… it was… it was…

Right, right. Ellie took over the show with a whoop and a yell and a clap of the hands. Because, when you’re… right? When you’re…

Stoned, Carrie asked calmly. She temporarily abandoned the business in hand to focus on Ellie, but even the bubbling comedy of her friend’s confusion couldn’t blank out the panic tightening her stomach.

When you’re in Rome. Ellie seemed pleased to have found that legendary city in her mind. Right? She looked around at them all, knelt up on the front seat. You have got to…

She put weight on the wrong knee, fell down and disappeared: show cancelled.

We’re not in Rome. Carrie addressed the soldiers. Listen. We’re all out of things.

They shook their heads, tossed them, tutted.

One of them was about to squeeze one of her little tits, she thought at first, until his hand spread out, and he said, teeshirt?

She was almost tempted to whip it off. That would be a thing to tell his minibus mates about: the only man in the regiment to have seen tits other than his little sister’s. She said, no.

A present? The other one was pointing at her watch.

Sorry. She made a polite wave. We’ve got to get going.

They moved, but only back into the jeep to go through the luggage, pulled zips open, rummaged in rucksack pockets. Ivan and Jacob watched. Jacob even pulled his legs out of the way to ease their progress.

Please, Carrie began. As she took the few steps to the driving seat and back, a travel alarm went into one of the guy’s pockets. A toilet bag was opened, chucked on the ground, Ivan’s shiny razor taken, some condoms, flash cologne from duty-free. Some sunglasses went, a poundshop battery fan. One of them picked up a carrier bag from which oranges dropped. Stop that, Carrie finished. Now.

Her yell gave only the illusion of violence. The reality of it was embodied in the breadknife she held; a huge thing, dull with the markings of the food it had sliced through a day before.

The soldiers took a step away in unison, like a pantomime double-act, hands wide in gestures signifying innocent outrage. One of them laughed, but Carrie saw his adam’s apple marking nervous time.

Cheap, the other one hissed at her, cheap.

What are you, she thought of later, a fucking canary? Her tongue, lips, teeth and palate were all too dry to make the mechanics needed for sounds. She had to find saliva but didn’t want to let the motion of it betray her. She drew stuff up from her throat and spat on the ground. That did the trick, and then she knew it wasn’t just a tough guy bravado seen in films.

Cheap, the canary went on. We give to you, but you don’t give to us. Cheap. He signalled the triumph of the word with a closed fist. His mate eyed the knife, and made a you-are-nuts gesture using finger and temple.

Leave. Please. Carrie got the words out, let the knife take up the message, even as the panic inside her merged with the idea that the brandishing of the blade had committed her to a course of action that would hurt somebody, probably her.

Ellie was in front of the jeep, trying to get the sky to prompt her into resuming her abandoned litany. Ivan had come out to lean on the jeep to say only, oh man. He watched Carrie and the soldiers, without seeing them. Dead, Carrie thought, and there she was, about to join him.

Go. Carrie stepped forward behind the knife. Give us our things back, and go. Without thinking about it, she picked up one of the soldier’s kitbags, and threw it. It didn’t fly far, but its emphatic landing pushed home her wishes.

The Zippo boy seemed to be about to test her nerve. He bent and put whatever he was holding onto the ground, but then picked it up again and turned. The two men jeered, and began to walk away, shedding with crashes and tinkles the clock, the aftershave, the razor. They didn’t return everything, though. Private Zippo took the carton of cigarettes out of his shirt and placed it into the carrier bag full of food. He graced the moment in his best English, embodied in the words, I fuck you.

Go fuck yourself, Carrie called. She stood there.

What’s up now? Ellie was beside her.

Carrie felt that if she relaxed even one little bit, her sphincter would open wide as a dustbin, and she would blow all her internal organs out through it. If she moved any of the muscles in her face, she would cry. She didn’t want to, and that settled it. She didn’t want to breathe, either, but the breath she let out prompted her to shove Ivan into the back. She tugged Ellie into the front by a sleeve and jolted the engine into a cough.

No, Jacob was calling.

Listen, Ivan was trying to say.

She didn’t listen. Nor did she stop in time for Ivan to throw up. It would do him no good; the poison was a mushroom cloud in his head. It brought her to a halt, anyway. Jacob hustled Ivan out, and in the act of helping him, joined him in involuntary spasms. Ellie sat there whitely, dragons in her eyes.

Carrie looked at the knife on the dash. She cried then, a little. She looked at the map. She called, come on, at Ivan and Jacob. She put a hand on Ellie’s forehead, told her, you’ll survive, babe.

She looked again at the knife. Was that really her, back there, doing that brandishing thing? It was. The soldiers were a few of miles back, she remembered. They had a minibus full of pals on the way. And they were the fucking army, after all. Christ. She got out and shepherded Ivan and Jacob back in. She drove.

***

Gulls in their thousands woke her, told her there were fishing boats passing. From high on the dune, the boats floated in the air, she could have sworn, in the glare served up by sun and sea.

Ivan, she remembered, out there, kept afloat only by the hollows in his head. When they filled with the revelation of his overpowering loneliness, he would sink. A moment of want told her to wade out, wave him in on a trail of shallows she would pick out like magic, tell him she didn’t want him to die out there; no way for a vegetarian to go, his face full of feeding fish. It passed. She sank down again but got up almost at once.

The weird beard stood on the beach in his robe, ankle-deep in the incoming water, surrounded by his ring of stones. He looked to Carrie like a man at peace with the world; he had finished what he had gone down there to do, and that had to be a good thing: he might have been mental, but at least he wasn’t dead.

She slept again, woke. The sea was empty of boats, and of fish, too, she supposed, the air empty of gulls. The standing stones were covered, the man gone. Out to sea? Home again to dream up his next weirdo goal? Happy anyway, she had the feeling. She wanted to be happy, too.

She tried to stroll down, lost her footing in places, and stumbled. Walking, it came to her, was the art of always stopping yourself from falling. She achieved her stroll as the sand levelled out.

Jacob and Ivan were talking in low voices. Where was Ellie? Carrie didn’t care. They were all stumbling, she knew, trying to correct the motion, and falling – that was their lives. Drive, she thought: that’s all I have to do, without stop or stumble, no puking, no cursing, no more customs. Just drive.

Near the shoreline lay a canvas bag. No, a trick of the light: just Ivan’s clothes. But no: that was the trick, and it was indeed a canvas bag, with the look of wet dead weight. Carrie knelt by it, and had to use two hands to tug its drawstrings apart. It was full of silver. She hefted it onto her shoulder and walked back to the jeep.

You just piss people off, Carrie, Ivan called up to her.

She said nothing.

You get off on it.

All through this trip, Jacob put in, piss people off, and screw things up for us.

Carrie reached into the back of the jeep, took out the bits that made the stove. The familiar noise of the clinking parts quieted them by setting the juices running in their mouths and stomachs, Carrie guessed: they were Pavlov’s dogs.

What’s in the bag? Ellie had appeared.

What bag? Jacob got to his feet and joined them.

Fish. Carrie snapped the stove together, held up to the light the precious dribble in the bottle of oil. If she cooked them slowly enough, they would make their own dribble. Sardines, she said.

I’m a vegetarian, Ellie reminded her.

Isn’t there anything else, Jacob asked.

No. Carrie almost smiled.

But where did you get them? Ellie looked to be on the point of tears.

There. Carrie gestured at the water. Listen. She thought she might as well try. We’re hungry, right?

Yeah, Ellie said, but…

There isn’t anything else in the sea to eat. Carrie paused on the edge of the cruelty of it, made her voice gentle. Only fish. She knelt again, set about making the stove ready.

What a bitch, Ivan said.

A bitch, was she? Well, this bitch was going to drive them all back up that trail, back to the city limits. She traced the road in her mind for the reassurance it brought: back through the shacks and shanties, back to the place that hired ramshackle cars, and goodbye.

You’re just going to sit there and eat all those fish? Jacob was standing over her. Just going to sit there in front of us, yeah, and… eat them? And us with nothing?

No. Carrie thought about it.

What, then?

I’m going to eat some of them, and save some to eat later, on the way back.

Back? That was Ivan.

Back. She presented them all with her own back. The first of the sardines were sizzling, ready. Carrie took the breadknife and stuck it under one, drew it carefully to her mouth, and began to eat.

 

Nick Sweeney

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

 

6 thoughts on “Pavlov’s Dogs by Nick Sweeney

  1. Irene and David, thank you so much for your comments. I’m glad you like the story.

    The omission of quotation marks was a thing I fooled with for a while. I think this story started without them, then had them, and then I removed them again. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and I can never work out exactly why, and close analysis doesn’t seem to help. This story (though actually made from two stories told me by friends) came together very quickly on the page, a handwritten first draft done in one session, and maybe it’s because all the elements were there from the start that the technique works… though that still doesn’t explain it, exactly. It’s Cormac McCarhy’s thing, isn’t it, and I think I’d been reading a lot of his stuff around the time I wrote this. I’m going to put a piece about the background of this story on my website, soon.

    Like

  2. Hi Nick,
    This is a brilliant example of title enhancing the story.
    There is manipulation in all walks of life but within handling family and friends it is at its most considered.
    Excellent, well written, well constructed and easy to relate to.
    Hugh

    Like

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