Friday, December 10, 2010

Fiction: Caesar Coconut Caesar By Bruce Holland Rogers

In the back yard, Caesar started to bark. Melody was on her way to tell him to hush when the doorbell rang. Through the peephole, Melody saw that the woman on her porch had turned to look at the street, so Melody couldn't see her face. Even so, Melody could tell that this was a stranger. Melody didn't know anyone so big. If any of Melody's friends had that kind of a weight problem, they'd get to the gym or check into a hospital to take care of it.

She opened the door and the stranger turned around. The woman wore a vast t-shirt, shorts that revealed thick, pale legs, and flimsy beach flip-flops. The stranger took a drag on her cigarette and said, "You Mrs. Johnson? I think you got our dog." Caesar barked again. "That's got to be him."

"Your dog?"

"Yeah, our dog, Coconut. The little mutt ran off and got hisself picked up and sent to dog jail."

Dog jail. The woman must have meant the county animal shelter, where Melody had found and adopted Caesar.

"I know a guy at the pound," the woman continued. "He looked it up for me. He says you got him, that he's yours fair and square now. I'd let it go, but my girls been crying their eyes out to get him back."

Melody had considered that there would be a downside to adopting a stray. All of her neighbors owned AKC-registered pets, from the Holman's golden retriever to the Geary's Schipperkes. But Melody had reasoned that adopting a street dog would be a good lesson for her daughters. Besides, the Holmans drove a Prius. The Wallaces had a photovoltaic roof. Melody could at least have a shelter dog.

"I know you had to pay some fees at the shelter," the woman said, "but maybe I could pay you back? I couldn't pay it all right away."

"This is a problem," Melody said. "I've got two girls, and they're crazy about Caesar. That's what we call him. Caesar."

"Oh, Lord," the woman said. "I don't want to make no trouble for your family. This whole mess is my brother-in-law's fault. I could just strangle him. That dog is the world to my girls."

"Well, maybe..." Melody found herself saying. "Maybe he could visit your girls."

"Share a dog?" The woman laughed a raspy smoker's laugh that ended with coughing. "Well, sure. Why not? A week at your place, a week at ours. Heck, they do that with kids, don't they?" She laughed again.

Joint custody hadn't been what Melody had in mind. By visit, she meant visit. But now that she thought about it, maybe sharing a dog wasn't such a bad idea. The family took vacations several times a year, and if Caesar had another home, it would mean that he wouldn't have to be kenneled. "Let me talk it over with my husband," Melody said. "Can I call you?"

"Phone's not working. I'll just come by again. I've got a bus pass." Then she said, as if it were all settled, "I'll tell my girls. Half a cake is better than none." She turned to go, then turned back. "My name's Rose, by the way."


Arthur liked the idea. "It'll be good for the girls to share," he said.


When Rose returned, she and Melody decided on a date and time. Friday afternoon. After school. Melody also thought that it would be less confusing for the dog if he had only one name, so Caesar would be Coconut now, whichever family he was living with. The next week, a red pickup truck slowed on the street in front of Melody's house just after the girls had trooped upstairs with their book bags. Melody saw the truck's bare radiator through the space where the grill should have been, and she noticed that one tail-light assembly was patched with duct tape. The bumper sticker said ARMY OF ONE.

Out of the cab came Rose's husband, who was carrying some extra weight, but not like his wife. He looked Mexican. Two skinny brown-armed girls scrambled out of the cab, and one of them jumped up and down, saying "Coconut! Coconut!" until a sharp word from Rose froze her.

"Jessie! April!" Melody called to her daughters. "Our company is here!"

Minutes later, all four girls were alternately romping with Coconut, playing on the swing set, bouncing on the trampoline, and racing in and out of the backyard playhouse. "Wow," said Rose's husband, Mike, admiring the yard. "That dog never had it so good!"

Melody didn't ask how their yard compared. She had been across the highway. She had some idea what the houses over there were like.

"Pirates!" shrieked Jessie as she bolted out of the playhouse. Flora and Digna and April followed right behind her. "This is the island where the pirates can't come!" Jessie announced as she climbed onto the trampoline.

"Seems like they're having a good time," Melody said.

"Yeah," Mike agreed. "Maybe we'll be able to take the dog away without anybody crying."


The transfer always took place at Melody's house. The Ibarras drove up in their truck, the four girls played in the yard with Coconut, and then Coconut stayed behind or went away, depending on the week. "This is a good thing," said Arthur, who had never met any of the Ibarra family. "Our girls are getting a wider view of the world."


Then one week, when it was time for Coconut to return to the Ibarras, Rose called to say that the truck wasn't running. Could Melody bring Coconut by on Saturday? Melody asked Rose for the address again, copied down the house number, street name, and cross street. At dinner that night, Arthur said he wanted to come along and finally meet Coconut's other family.

Late Saturday morning, Arthur, Melody, Jessie, April and Coconut all climbed into the Escalade for the drive across town. As Arthur steered them under the highway overpass, they encountered the first pothole in the road. The closer they got to the address, the more potholes there were.

At the cross street, Coconut alerted, raising his ears and trembling with excitement. By the time Arthur pulled to the side of the crumbling road, Coconut was scratching at the window and whining.

The house was tiny, one of a row of such houses. Every other house seemed to have at least one junked car in front. Yards without junked cars displayed junked furniture instead --- couches and stuffed armchairs left to molder.

"Can we let him out?" said Jessie.

Melody didn't answer right away. She was looking at the man wearing only shorts who was bent over the open hood of his car. His arms were blackened with tatoos, and he stared at the Escalade. Across the street, there was a two-story apartment building. Some residents of the upper floor were sitting outside their front doors with cans of beer, watching children play in the parking lot.

"Sure," said Arthur. "Let Coconut out."

The Ibarra girls came out of their front door, and Coconut barked. When Jessie opened the door for him, he tore out of the Escalade. Then Jessie and April ran out behind him.

"That is one happy dog," Arthur observed. The open door let in the sound of two loud radios from the apartment building, tuned to different stations. Both were blaring ads at the moment, one in English, the other in Spanish.

The tattooed man was watching the four girls play, now. His hands were stained with engine grease.

Melody wasn't ready to get out of the car, but Rose had come out of the house, and Arthur had already opened his door. Melody followed him. She told Rose that maybe it would be better if the girls played in the back yard. "There ain't none," Rose said, and showed her. The house backed onto a fence. On the other side sat a jumble of rusting vehicles and machines surrounding a corrugated metal building with a sign reading WAR HOUSE FOR R NT.

Melody drank down the iced tea that rose offered, declined a refill, and said that they needed to get home soon. She had a busy day, she said, and was grateful when Arthur didn't ask what she was talking about.

The four girls and Coconut had drifted across the street and were playing tag with a swarm of kids in the parking lot. Arthur said again, "This is a good thing we're doing."


On Thursday afternoon, Melody met her daughters in the entryway as they returned from school. "I've got a surprise!" she said. "It's in the laundry room!" She led them downstairs. From the other side of the door, the puppy yipped with excitement, giving itself away. Melody opened the door, and the girls squealed.

"He's so cute!" said Jessie. "Is he a golden?"

"Yes," Melody said. The puppy was an AKC-registered golden retriever.

"Is he ours?" April asked.

"You have to help take care of him," Melody said. "A dog is a responsibility." She had made the same speech about the other dog, the one that she hoped the girls would be too distracted to ask about for a while. "His name is Caesar."