The Sace Between Us

Barnes & Noble
Flophouse Press

Other stories in the set:
Termites | Beyond the Buck | Smack Attack |
Jody's Journal | Dwarfo's Tale | Banana Jackpot

Zonker's Death

The air had curdled. Its odor dazzled me. Smells like that belong in foreign cities whose inhabitants pray to the tooth god when their mouth hurts, the bus god when they're about to make a steep descent, and the water god when their crops shrivel.

Word-holes develop when the point and match connection snaps. Everyone - TV people, radio people, uptown people and downtown people - were discussing global warming: "Have we really melted the polar ice caps; does the ozone layer have a hole in it the size of Alaska?" You couldn't buy a book about green-house gases and their effects; all the bookstores had sold out, but none of my friends had stopped driving.

In air-conditioned apartments green-house questions lead to complex discussions which formed a skin around the speaker's core. You had to peel back the facts and peek through the information before you could see anything ubiquitous, but down-here where you must unplug the fan before turning on the toaster, those same questions inspired torpid persons to flare. Blackouts, meltdowns, and thunderstorms of unprecedented violence replete with hail stones hard as coal and big as baseballs were expected. Awaited!

We were in the sixteenth day of a record breaking heatwave, and the remaining inhabitants of the East Village had begun to melt. People don't melt like wax; they don't dissolve like sugar; they become translucent. Artifice had disappeared so long ago that no one recalled its existence. We weren't dressing up; nobody was wearing underwear. Potbellies, plump thighs, sagging biceps, pubic hair, and genitalia were visible through tee shirts and cotton shorts crudely carved for maximum ventilation and minimal coverage. I had never seen so much blemished flesh.

The tainted air was on the verge of crossing the line between smelly-interesting and smelling bad. It contained an enchanting effluvium, the scent of feculent matter. Organic stuff began simmering the moment it was placed on the overheated pavement. Walking was very strenuous, and the air felt dense. It pushed you down and the heat made lifting your leg work. Everyone was sweating. It felt like we were wading through maple syrup. People didn't have enough energy left to think. We couldn't sustain our usual opaque state. It wasn't possible. All our efforts went into extracting oxygen from air that tasted as though it had been inhaled twice.

The stop light between Third and Fourth streets had been broken for three days, the garbage had not been collected from the New Odessa Restaurant for two, and all that remained of us was our feral core.


"Pitbull!" said the woman on my left to a man on her right.

"American Staffordshire Terrier wearing a rhinestone collar."

"Should be on a leash, asshole."

"Also known as Bull Terriers, nitwit."

"Dumb fuckin' dog. How many times, I tole you. I said, Zonker keep your head out the window when I'm smoking reefer. That shit makes you crazy . . ."

"Save Fluffy! Save Fluffy," wailed an old woman. The intensity of her plea indicated the presence of blood while her unyielding person warranted that the danger to onlookers was minimal. I recognized her voice. It contained two emotions that only a human can squeeze into one shout. It sounded as though she were saying, "Hurt the Pitbull." Her howl made the air shiver.

What I just described with words; I knew without their assistance. I knew it the way my bladder knows I've arrived at the door to my apartment.

"Save Fluffy. Save Fluffy," the old woman pleaded while pointing at Zonker.

I saw the old woman with my blind eye and heard her with my deaf ear. Her words were like flashing yellow lights on a dark road in a desolate place. Four persons slowed down, switched on the brights, and saw the head and hind quarters of a little white dog protruding from Zonker's mouth. Our connection was visceral.

You can't see an instinct, no matter how hot it gets, but you can feel them tugging you around. We'd been yanked in the dogs' direction.

My teeth began to tingle.

Four by-standers parted to accommodate additional persons. The crowd members weren't merely polite; they were deferential toward new arrivals. Seven people formed a circle around the dogs and gaped like rubberneckers slowing down to look at a wreck, predators in search of easy plunder.

The by-standers were mesmerized. Our eyes did not wander, our feet didn't shuffle, and we weren't glancing at our watches or complaining about the heat although the pavement was so hot the crepe soles of my shoes were sticking to it.

We had not stopped to rescue Fluffy. It wasn't that simple. Rescuers are active. I felt like I was in a theater waiting for the show to start.

Every spectator's face bore the dread of being bitten and awe of the biter.

Zonker attempted to follow his master into Tompkins Square Park, but Fluffy's leash restrained him. He'd been bred to bite and fight not to tug or pull like a draft animal. A single yank would have torn the little white dog in half or snapped her leash, but Zonker remained tethered to Fluffy who was tied to the parking meter.

The Pitbull is stuck, vulnerable. That realization spread among the by-standers in less time then it takes to read this sentence. It happened spontaneously like the beating of a heart.

My hands trembled.

Fluffy didn't squirm or yelp. Complete submission, perfect compliance, was her only option.

"Each and every one of you is that little white mutt," hollered a tall man. He had the front page of one of the daily papers in his hand. It featured a bursting thermometer oozing a substance that looked more like blood than mercury. "Every last one of you is gonna get broiled."

"Save Fluffy! Save Fluffy," wailed the old woman.

The tall man tore open a plastic garbage bag in front of the New Odessa Restaurant, and tossed a heat-wasted orange at Zonker. He missed. It stuck to the recently cleansed facade of the New Odessa and the crowd's interest dilated.

Schoolyard bloodlust. The circle around Zonker tightened. I could taste adrenaline gushing into my mouth.

The crowd had suffered a tropism. It came on as suddenly and unexpectedly as a cardiovascular accident. We'd understood the tall man; he'd said exactly what everyone wished to hear, "Pitying Fluffy justifies hurting Zonker."

Rescuers aren't culpable. Everyone knew it. Complicitous smiles, hand shakes, or complex discussions of nuances weren't necessary. Nonetheless, the crowd was bashful. We expected official intervention, a reprimand. Feral behavior is not tolerated. The bystanders peered furtively at the passers-by as though they expected a spanking. The moral faculty had to be appeased.

We'd been baked down to our core. We'd surrendered our names, our plans, our vocations, and personal ambitions. There were no tangents to get lost in or other opinions to contend with. Every passerby, without exception or dissent, joined the crowd.

It didn't take long before twenty-five pairs of eyes found Mr. Gelwicz (owner of the New Odessa), the man who had paid sixty-one hundred dollars to have that facade cleansed. He didn't like anyone messing up his operation. He made a conscious effort to keep everything squeaky-clean, yet on this particular day, on Sunday, August 30, 1994 at one minute and twenty-nine seconds before noon, Mr. Gelwicz took a big sip from a water glass full of pepper vodka and smiled beneficently.

The crowd understood Mr. G. He'd said, "Go for it," but he was only a spectator, a local merchant. We needed a leader. We all knew the rules; this was a formal endeavor.

The by-standers parted to let a young woman wearing a red tee shirt upon which the phrase "One Less Car" was printed in bold white letters walk through the crowd. The maneuver was performed gracefully as though we comprised a single body.

Everyone understood One-Less. Her chalk white hand resting on the old woman's shoulder spoke to us. It said, "This old woman's husband is dead, her children have abandoned her, and all that stands between herself and complete isolation is her little dog Fluffy" which that evil reprobate Zonker is killing."

All it took was a few charming waves of One-Less' luminescent hands to convince us that she would take full responsibility for whatever happened to Zonker.

That's when the rubberneckers pulled over, got out, and became bugeyed by-standers. I am not exaggerating. The crowd's exhilaration caused a tumescence of the eyes. It seemed as though people's eyeballs were going to pop out.

The moral check was dissolving. We'd been absolved. Spectators are innocent.

I'd never gone this far. No one had, but we knew the general trajectory a priori.

Mr. Gelwicz's Mexican dishwasher understood One-Less. She had said Mr. G. said spray Zonker in the face with ice cold water. He opened the nozzle.

Zonker glared at the Mexican. He knew not a single person would intervene if he mauled the dishwasher, but he couldn't release Fluffy.

Fluffy's long hair now lay flat. I could see her heart knocking against her ribs.

The by-standers moved within five steps of Zonker. We were right there peering into the wreck, touching the twisted metal, and moving toward the victim.

The old woman pounded on his head with her purse.

Some guy on my left suggested stabbing Zonker in the eye with a fork. He assured everyone that such a maneuver would startle Zonker and he'd drop Fluffy.

An Indian cab driver poked him tentatively between the ribs with a stick.

Zonker continued doing exactly what he had been bred to do: he remained in the center of the ring with the vanquished waiting for someone to pry his jaw open and declare him the winner.

Fluffy continued leaking vital fluids.

Harassing Zonker brought us to a fever pitch. He was a powerful dog.

Traffic snarled, honked, and overheated, a cacophony of motor noises mingled with excited chatter of fifty persons who realized that on the hottest Labor Day Weekend in recorded history all the gate keepers, no sayers, ticket writers, and school teachers were vacationing and we were going all the way.

The tall man pointed his index finger at a dark haired individual with a greasy black pony tail who looked like an American Indian. And shouted, "You should leave the girls alone.”

"Baby would you like to smoke some pot.”

"I'm warning you. Leave the girls alone."

A waitress with a ring through her pierced eyebrow flung open the folding glass door of the New Odessa and shouted in the Indian's direction, "You said those same words to me last night, Baby you wanna smoke some reefer."

No one, not one of Mr. Gelwicz's customer's, bothered to close the open door through which the cool air produced by the air conditioner fled. They too were mesmerized by the spectacle.

The tall man pointed one finger at a crude sketch of the Monster of Tompkins Square glued to an aluminum lamppost and the other at the Indian (who did resemble the sketched man).

The Empire State Building had not begun to totter, but on Avenue A between Sixth and Seventh streets both culture and infrastructure were rolling toward the low spot on the sidewalk in front of the New Odessa Restaurant where they simmered along with our sweat, Fluffy's blood, and Mr. Gelwicz's garbage in an exotic broth comprised of five local urines (pigeon, dog, cat, human, and rat) from which issued an intoxicating miasma that lit up our olfactory bulbs and woke something feral.

The tall man appeared to be hurling a rotting orange at the accused Indian, but he was really a blender grinding Mr. Gelwicz's potato peels, squashed peirogies, rotting mayonnaise, etcetera into tiny particulates that were further distilled in the cauldron into subatomic chunks of chaos light enough to hang by invisible hooks to the hairs in the noses of by-standers, passers-by, and Mr. Gelwicz's patrons. A microscopic chunk stuck to a woman's heel inspired her to pick a fight with her boyfriend. Another particle stuck to the wheel of a yellow cab. It went flat in a desolate section of Willamsburg. All it took was a few whiffs of entropy soup to knock the rookies for a loop. That odor surprised them. It seemed to be saying, "Execute Zonker."

The old woman gesticulated passionately at Zonker's mouth which contained her Fluffy. The facts were obvious.

The rookies turned to face us and they were finished.

"Kill the stupid dog," sang the dishwasher.

"Save Fluffy. Do something," chanted the waitress.

The Indian cab driver hollered in his crazy accent, "Save Fluffy."

Then all three of them chanted in unison, "Save Fluffy. Kill Zonker."

Five more people roared, "Save Fluffy. Do something.

People on the edge had never seen the dogs, but they sang with unrestrained delight, "Do something! Do something!"

The rookies heard the crowd. They were saying, "Be our heroes." Neither of them were thinking as they had been taught in the police academy. They acted as though they'd never heard of implications or procedure. They should have insisted on a pool side hookup with their captain. "Hey cap, whatta you do when you got fifty people hollering?" The captain would have phoned the sergeant and the sergeant would have known how to disperse the crowd, pry open Zonker's jaw, and release Fluffy.

But no such call was made. The rookies did not radio the station house. They pandered to us, a bunch of bugeyed thumb-twiddlers eagerly awaiting the denouement.

The skinny rookie stepped back and pointed his pistol at Zonker's midsection while his athletic partner lifted Zonker by the tail and kicked him as hard as he could in the testicles with his regulation steel tipped shoe. His aim was good, dead center. The force of that kick would have been adequate to make a football fly twenty yards, but Zonker didn't even blink.

One-Less attempted to guide Fluffy's owner from harm's way, but the old woman struck One-Less on the shoulder with her bag and started cursing in Polish.

The fear of retribution by Zonker complicated by the tension between One-Less and the old woman caused a crack. We needed her. Fluffy had to be rescued on someone's behalf, and One-Less was our liaison so any discord between them caused us to vacillate.

It was a complex moment followed by a complex silence during which the minds of the crowd began to uncouple. One-Less-Car separated from the old woman separated us from our moral cover. Everybody knew it.

Zonker tightened his hold on Fluffy. His fangs pierced the soft skin of her belly and entered her intestine which caused the plaintive yapping that fused us in a paroxysm of empathy.

The skinny rookie chambered a round.

"Shoot the Pitbull," commanded One Less Car while waving her luminescent hands around as though she were trying to hypnotize the rookies.

"Shoot the Pitbull, commanded the waitress.

"Shoot the Pitbull, ordered the Indian cab driver.

"Shoot the Pitbull, sang twenty persons in three or four distinct accents.

The skinny rookie obeyed. He fired without even pausing to advise pedestrians to clear out or think about what a bullet would do if it passed through Zonker and entered the crowd.

Zonker turned his head to see what had bitten him. He stared for a moment at the spot were the bullet had penetrated his torso, resumed his original position, and bore down on Fluffy. His teeth pierced her lung.

Everyone heard Fluffy's ribs crack.

One-Less-Car shouted, "Kill it. Kill the Pitbull."

Communication was not a problem. Zonker understood One-Less, she'd said, he smelled the way Fluffy had smelt before he sank his teeth into her. The victim always exudes that peculiar effluvium.

"Kill it. Kill the Pitbull," commanded the waitress.

"Save Fluffy. Kill the Pitbull," commanded the Indian cab driver.

"Kill it. Kill the Pitbull," commanded the Mexican.

"Kill it. Kill the Pitbull," shouted Mr. Gelwicz.

"Save Fluffy. Kill the Pitbull," sang the crowd.

The rookie fired a second shot. Zonker dropped Fluffy, curled up in a ball, and died. Catharsis followed.

The skinny rookie covered Zonker's body while the athletic one eulogized him; he spoke about how tough the pitbull had been. The Indian cabby volunteered to drive Fluffy to the vet. The tall man removed Zonker's rhinestone collar and attached it to his own throat. One-Less-Car draped Fluffy over her arms. A passionate silence, compassion of reverential proportions, accompanied her passage through the crowd. Mr. Gelwicz poured out his vodka and hugged his wife while the dishwasher hosed down the sidewalk. It wasn't a perfunctory little hug; he said thank you for loving me. The ASPCA removed Zonker's corpse, and there you were in your cute little summer- top talking about Cape Cod in September, rent-a-car reservations, air conditioning, and eggs over easy with rye-toast-butter-on-the-side.