Bye Bye Skinny Cow – Hamilton Perez

“Excuse me,” Cash tried again, “you’re not a doctor, are you?” Another bemused look and shake of the head. “Oh, okay, thanks anyway,” he said to their backs. The warm bundle in his arms groaned uncomfortably. It was the first Cash had heard from him all day. He took it as a good sign—beggars not choosers and all.

One after the other, people came and went from the office, filtering in and out fluidly by some alien osmosis that always kept Cash at bay. Sure, he could enter. But if he entered uninvited, he might be asked to leave, and then there would be no hope for him.

Cash watched them lead their sick or injured, augmented or gene-spliced companions beside them: furry lizards in need of hormones, bipedal hamsters overdue for flu shots, half-cat half-dog—cags—to be spayed or neutered. Unnatural creatures born from science and an excess of money. They all looked at Cash and his raw need with perplexed annoyance.

Are you a doctor? Excuse me, are you a doctor? You’re not a doctor, are you? Hey, I’m not asking for money or anything, but are you a doctor?

“I don’t carry cash,” someone said in passing.

It felt prophetic.

“Young man…” a voice called, “I don’t know if you should be out here doing that.” An old woman stood behind him, round as Granny Smith apples and just as sour. She was leaving the office with a disgruntled Pekingese in matching attire, and gave Cash a dubious look in passing. “You know there’s a shelter just down the street,” she said like an accusation.

“Thank you,” was all Cash could manage. He didn’t want any trouble. He just wanted her to go. Instead she stood there, and Cash felt the weight of her eyes scrub him down from his mop of blond hair to dark-stained pants that quit before his ankles. She sneered at the knobby head of the guitar peeking over his shoulder, and when her eyes fell on the black and white Jack Russell cradled in his arms, she scrunched her face in disapproval. “Thank you,” Cash said again to appease her.

Ultimately, the woman merely shook her head and slumped into her car before heading home disgruntled, though Cash felt the itch of her eyes linger on his skin for some time after.

The sun was beginning to set. Business hours were almost up. This was the third office he’d been to today. The others had told him they couldn’t help without an appointment. The technician at the last office offered dog treats as a consolation. “He’s not eatin…” Cash said on his way out the door.

Now the sky above him reddened and bruised, begged for the cold relief of night. An imminent despair tapped at his back, though still he shook it off. No… Not yet, he told it, and occasionally wondered if he’d spoken aloud.

It was almost an hour before a determined looking man in a white button-down and blue tie stepped from the office. His clothes were crisp and perfectly pressed, his shirt tucked flat into his pants. Cash couldn’t find so much as a stray dog hair or misplaced button. He was neatness, itself. And that terrified Cash, reminded him of men he’d known growing up: men immaculate on the outside and rotting within.

The man stood before the door, hands on his hips, scanning the strip mall parking lot with furious purpose. When he spotted the trouble, half-hidden behind a stucco pillar, it sent a wave of panic clawing up Cash’s spine. Was he about to be berated? Attacked? Asked to leave? Hey kid, fuck off already, or Do you want me to call the police? A call for help was always a threat. Cash took a deep breath and pulled the Jack Russell in his arms tight against his chest.

“Hi, sir,” said Blue-tie, approaching without hesitation. “Can I help you?” The man was on the verge of middle-aged, with crow’s feet flanking his eyes and silver creeping through his hair. Still, he called Cash sir. Cash didn’t know what to make of that—feigned respect or condescension.

“Are you a doctor?” Cash had to force the words from his mouth. He now waited for the inevitable I’m sorry, you can’t be here, knowing it would break him.

“I am. Who’s your friend?”

Cash winced, the response too unexpected. “This is Jack. He’s sick.” Cash freed one hand to wipe his cheek before it darted back.

The doctor reached out gently and rubbed Jack’s head. “Hey, Jack! I’m Doctor Burke.” Jack eyed him curiously but otherwise didn’t move. He grumbled when the doctor withdrew his hand.

“He says nice to meet you…” Cash muttered.

“What’s been wrong with him?”

“He’s not eatin…” said Cash. “Then this mornin I couldn’t get him to follow me, so I picked him up, but he just fell over. He can’t move at all, and I don’t have any money or nothin’, but I can work. I can brush animals or clean up after em—whatever it takes, I’ll do it, you just tell me and I’ll do it!”

The doctor raised his hand. “It’s okay. Just breathe…” Cash didn’t argue; he took a breath, and it rattled like loose change all the way down. “Let’s not worry about that right now, okay? Let’s just take care of Jack. What did you say your name was?”

“Cash,” he admitted begrudgingly. The doctor made a face like he misheard him. This was not uncommon. People thought it was a joke. An irony concocted while high. “Like, Johnny Cash,” he explained.

It was Cash’s mother that had named him; she’d always loved the artist more than the arts. When asked why she didn’t just name him Johnny, she told him, “Everyone’s named Johnny. Nothing special in Johnny. It was always either Cash or Sue, and your father wasn’t about to raise no queer.” Cash had long wished they’d gone with Johnny. Nothing special.

“Oh, cool!” said the doctor, smiling with straight white teeth. “Well, Cash, why don’t you bring Jack inside? I’ll take a better look at him there.”

The doctor turned back inside, and Cash just stood there paralyzed. Good things were rare enough, and life experience had taught him not to trust them. There’s no cleansing grace but rain, his father used to say. And even that can kill you. Cash felt the fear tugging his arm to go. The soles of his feet itched to leave. But then a wet tongue licked his hand; a soft head nestled in the crook of his arm.

A blonde woman in green scrubs locked the door behind them. She avoided eye contact as they walked past, even when Cash startled at the sharp clack of the bolt. The woman smiled, though not at him.

“Do you want me to wait?” she asked.

“Oh, this shouldn’t take long…” said the doctor.

“Thank you! Thank you so much…” said Cash, knowing words were not enough and yet he had nothing else. Or do I… he wondered. Nothing good comes free. How many times had his father tried to beat that into him? Cash only ever learned the hard way.

The doctor led him down a long hallway, past a never-ending series of closed doors, each one concealing a perfectly useable room, or so Cash figured. They passed an open area where anxious dogs barked from cages and technicians prepped syringes.

An old chocolate lab rose slowly in its cage, opened its mouth to bark, but the sound that escaped was only, “I love you!” in a tinny, electric voice. Cash startled at that, and stopped.

“Voice box implantation,” said the doctor casually, as though that explained all. He gestured Cash onward.

I love you! I love you! I love you!” said the labrador as they walked away, but the hair raised on its back said otherwise.

At the very end of the hall, a door hung partway open. No light came from within. “In here,” said the doctor. Cash wondered if it was an order. He stepped inside anyway, waiting for the light, or else the curtain to draw. For it all to be a joke. A trap. For the rug to be pulled out from under him and take the whole world with it. Wouldn’t be the first time…

The doctor stepped in behind him.

Click!

And then there was light. Sterile, florescent light. The room was barren, save for a hand-washing sink and stainless steel table. Utilitarian in the extreme with one exception. On one of the vast beige walls hung a small painting: yellow dogs running through green fields, circling a red barn under a blue sky. Everything was in primary colors—simple, unjaded things. It was all very bright and happy.

It was also a lie, thought Cash.

Any moment now, the walls would come alive and swallow him. Undercover cops would appear and arrest him for loitering, for drugs, for disappointing his parents. Men in hazmat suits would charge in, restrain him, and drag him away to be experimented upon. No one wonders about the missing homeless.

The doctor shut the door. Was that a lock he heard?

“Why don’t you set him there?” The doctor pointed at the table.

Despite his nerves, Cash didn’t argue. He laid Jack gently across the table and stepped back, standing rigid as a scar while awaiting the next command or question. The doctor snapped into his blue latex gloves. Primary colors, thought Cash. Lies…

The doctor probed Jack’s ears, listened to the whisper of his heart, molested him with rubber fingers. Cash watched the doctor closely for sign of trouble or recognition, for some perverse grin or an Ah-ha! But the doctor’s eyes were too far away to read, as if they were looking at the space between Jack’s molecules—analyzing, scrutinizing, dissecting.

“Are you a musician?”

It took Cash a moment to realize the doctor was speaking to him, not Jack. “I’m sorry?” he said, wondering how he had known and whether the doctor had just revealed his hand.

“The guitar…”

Cash had nearly forgotten about the battered acoustic slung across his back. “Oh,” he said, feeling so foolish he nearly smiled before catching himself. “Yes.”

The doctor grinned and continued the exam, occasionally muttering soft assurances to Jack, who panted and licked his lips. “What sort of music do you play?” said the doctor.

“Uh… Folk songs. Classic rock. I guess.” Keep it short, non-committal, thought Cash. People do all kinds of things with personal information, and music was both his income and his passion, the addiction that fed his addiction. The thing that lifted and crushed him. Like teeth, he supposed.

“That’s great!” The doctor smiled at him, warm and kind. “Like Bob Dylan, the Stones?”

At their mention, Cash was triggered. So few wanted to talk music with him anymore—about the messy purity of Richards and Jagger, or how Bob Dylan was a prophet straight from Heaven. Cash’s walls tumbled down without him even realizing the earth was rumbling.

“Yeah yeah! Stones, CCR, The Doors. Me and my friend Donald play on street corners, and we try to put our own twist on em, you know, cuz you can’t just play it straight without a full band. You gotta get creative to make the sound big and full, but when you think of those really great artists, it’s usually just one or two people that made it great, you know, so like, why not simplify their—”

“Would you mind playing something?” asked the doctor, staring deep into Jack’s eyes.

“What?” Cash was suddenly aware of how much he’d given away. He felt the heat of every bulb boiling microbes on his skin.

“A song. If you don’t mind.”

“Is that, uh… allowed?”

“Sure! Why not? Jack seems tense. Might calm him down.”

Cash sensed a trap in this, but with Jack helpless and immobile in the doctor’s hands there was no point in questioning. He swung the guitar around his shoulder. “Any, uh, requests?”

“What does Jack like?”

Cash smiled without realizing it. He gripped the guitar’s neck, strummed the opening riff to “Have You Seen the Rain,” and soon his voice cut through the chords with that classic Fogerty twang.

With Cash distracted and relaxed, the doctor continued his exam. He snapped his fingers in front of Jack’s eyes, measuring their reactions. Jack blinked belatedly and jerked his head. “Has Jack had any recent head trauma?” asked the doctor.

Cash stopped just before the final chorus and stuttered, the guitar hanging in his arms like a dead thing. He didn’t want to tell him about the fight he got into with another homeless person. Jack had jumped into the fray, tearing clothes and flesh and catching a wild punch for his trouble.

“He got in a tussle, yeah. With a dog, yeah.”

“He may have brain swelling,” said the doctor. “That would explain the gradual paralysis.”

“Oh.” Cash didn’t know what to make of brain swelling. Was that a cancer-thing? He imagined Jack’s brain blowing up like a balloon, pushing against his skull until it popped.

“That seems the likeliest possibility, though there are other, rarer maladies as well.” Cash stood frozen, listening helplessly. “Fungal infections, slipped disks, brain tumors—Hell, it could be depression?”

“Depression?”

“Yes. It’s not just for people.”

“So what do I do?”

The doctor stepped back, hands on his hips, considering. “Well, normally I would suggest an MRI to give us a better sense of what’s causing this sort of debilitation. Unfortunately, we don’t have an MRI scanner. We’re still fairly small and scanners are—as you might imagine—quite expensive.”

“I understand.” Cash didn’t understand. Here they treated animals with cybernetic limbs and pets that were made of other pets. How was this so different?

“The good news is it doesn’t change our first course of action. I’m going to give you some anti-inflammatories. If it is brain swelling, this should help Jack recover. If not, it won’t hurt him, and we can go from there.”

Cash was speechless. Indeed, he could barely breathe. This was more than he’d dared hope. His face felt like a black hole, everything collapsing towards the center in sudden relief. Unbidden tears streamed down his face, forming brown specks on the floor. He dug desperately through his pockets for a napkin or handkerchief.

“It’s okay,” said the doctor, walking over and placing both hands on Cash’s shoulders. “I’m glad to help. But I want to make one thing clear: I wouldn’t normally release a dog in this state. He should really be at an intensive care facility. Now, my hope is that this will make him feel better and he’ll gradually start to recover… But you should consider how you want to move forward if he doesn’t improve.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, I don’t want you to worry any more than you’re doing. But if it comes to the point that Jack isn’t getting better and he still won’t eat, just know that you can bring him here and we’ll help him pass on peacefully. Okay?”

Okay? That’s how the exam went. At once an affirmation and a question, an ellipsis. Some crisis resolved, some threat left hanging. Okay… Cash felt anything but. Come back and we’ll kill your dog, they said. Okay?

Home was a small park tucked within the curve of the Watt Bridge onramp. Their sleeping bag was laid along the cement wall so that no passing cars or dog-walkers could see or harass them. No one could tell them to leave or go home. That made this home, Cash figured.

Not so very long before, Cash had migrated nightly from couch to couch. At the very least he’d have a pillow and blanket on somebody’s floor. But it was hard doing that with a dog, and harder still since he split with the friends he got high with. It was just the two of them now. He looked out for Jack and Jack looked out for him. Better to be clean in the gutter than dirty in the house, though even that sometimes proved too much.

Cash laid against the bushes that blocked out the wind, with Jack curled up beside him. They’d given the first pill back at the office, but Cash worried it had been too late. A hundred questions crept like cockroaches from the shadows of his mind. What if Jack died in his sleep? What would he do with the body? What would he do with himself? And the worst of them wasn’t a question at all, but a hard certainty: he would get high.

It was a comfort cold as anything, but at least it numbed him, removed him from the terror of all this. Cash could go back to being a junkie. He had little enough, but he had that—a backdoor escape that was always near to hand no matter how far he ran. It was either that or face the grief that gnawed his heart like a worm through an apple.

Cash stroked Jack’s black and white fur, whispering to him words of love and warmth until his speech slurred and his eyelids grew heavy. “It’s okay, skinny cow… You’re okay…

Several times he startled at some screech of tires, worried Jack had yelped in pain as his heart gave out. Cash only got back to sleep once reassured by the gentle rise and fall, rise and fall of Jack’s breathing.

All through the night, Cash shook from the cold and the fear. His dreams were fierce but vague, shadows dancing and blending together. They kept him panicked, kept him trembling and confused. One moment, he floundered and drowned in a cold, roaring current; the next he was carried by an angry mob, their raised torches singeing his flesh. Here he was lost; there he was ferried helplessly away, as impotent in his dreams as in the waking world.

But in the morning, Cash awoke to a wet nose sniffing his face, and it almost made him cry. His companion stood on all fours, as stable now as he’d ever been.

“Jack!” Cash rolled him to his side and kissed his head, while Jack’s tail smack, smack, smacked the soft earth beneath them. Cash repeated his name again and again, and each time Jack’s head swiveled toward him, panting, smiling. A blessed light had shown, and all the fearful questions now scurried back into their shadows, invisible in the black of his mind, to watch and lurk and wait.

“So dey juss gayoo sum druds, uh?” said Donald, another homeless musician plucking his way from meal to meal. He grinned at Cash, who felt uncomfortable despite trying not to. “Spose ah shuh git a dog too.” When Donald spoke, all the gravel and dirt of the streets came up through his voice.

“Not those kinda drugs.” said Cash, distracting himself by rubbing Jack behind the ears.

The afternoon sun had baked cement and asphalt into a steamy haze, but they’d found some respite in the shade of an empty alleyway.

“Lemme seeyum,” said Donald, hand outstretched. Long dark hair hung in inky clumps over Donald’s weather-beaten face, melting into a wild thicket of facial hair flecked with debris. But all of this could not hide the grin, nor the mischief fire in his eyes.

Cash tensed. “They’re for Jack,” he said, hoping it sounded firm. “They’re makin him better.”

“Ah juss wanna see,” Donald insisted, unblinking. He set his guitar in the felt-lined case beside him, his glare striking bone-deep. Who could guess what those eyes unearthed when they squared on you? What weakness, what fear? Cash handed over the small blue bottle. Donald didn’t bother reading the label. He popped the tab and fingered through. “Aw hell…” he said. “Ah cun tay dese.”

“Don’t,” said Cash, clutching the worn neck of his guitar.

“Yoo don ian wanna try? Look a’ Jack, man! If dese cun mae im bettuh, juss tink wha dey can do fah us! Open new wirls, new chore progressuns, rhyddms, melodees!”

“Doesn’ matter…” said Cash. “Those pills are for Jack.”

Donald appraised him through the dark strands of hair that glued to his face and, once satisfied, offered a mere chuckle. It was all just a joke. Just play after all. “Ey, man. Ya don’ wanem, ya don’ wanem.” He handed back the pills.

Cash stuffed the bottle back into his pocket, grateful to have avoided conflict. But when he glanced up, he caught Jack watching him with sharp, unblinking eyes that sent a tide of shame rolling over him.

Somehow, Jack understood what was happening whenever he and Donald got high. He’d whine pitifully, passing worried glances between them. Sometimes this was enough to fortify Cash’s resolve. To tell Donald no and mean it. But other times, Cash would look away, and for a few hours find a more complete relief than any other. It was a hard thing to refuse when the world was at turns too hot or too cold, and always stingy with its blessings. But when Cash came out of the fog, he always found Jack lying head down, eyes glazed and unwilling to meet him.

The look Jack gave him now was different. It was as if he were studying Cash, absorbing him in some vague but obvious way.

Donald plucked the open strings of his guitar from e to E. “Leds stot,” he said, ever the one to lead. Donald strummed a percussive, palm-muted rhythm that invoked the intro to “Sympathy for the Devil.” Cash quickly followed, finger-picking both the piano and bass lines in one unified melody.

Though Donald’s speech was nigh unintelligible, when he sang his voice reached beyond language, tapping into some incommunicable ache that throbbed at the core of all living things. Cash, himself, was not without his talents: at turns making a guitar drip with heartache and longing, or charging the air with rowdy, joyous chords. He was digging into the lead when Donald called a stop.

“Wassee doin?”

Cash glanced up and found Jack thumping his paws fitfully against the ground. Terrified, Cash stopped playing. Was this a seizure? A stroke? He jumped to his feet, and Jack followed.

“Jack! You okay, skinny cow?!” Cash feared this odd behavior was a symptom of something new bubbling to the surface, but Jack just smiled back at him, panting happily. “Why’d he do that, you think?”

“Ah dunno, man. Look lite he drummin. Ya say dere wuh awl dat shit iniss brain—”

“Swellin…” said Cash distantly.

“Yah, wull mayee now dat dass gone heez learnin frum you. He wanna play, man, leh im play.” Donald dug through his mismatched belongings and withdrew a beat-up pair of bongos. “Ere, man. Lettum play withis.” Donald set the bongos in front of Jack who sniffed at them, then looked up to Cash. “Play, man! Play!” Donald encouraged. “Giffussum tunes!”

Cash knew better than to trust Donald’s ramblings, but right now he needed the odd distraction. Some simple answer to the questions that hounded him. He strummed the chorus of “Wayfaring Stranger” and Jack thumped his paws discordantly against the bongos, just as Donald suggested.

“Eez geddin ih, man! Eez geddin ih!”

Cash watched, amazed. Jack’s timing was off, but he was close, which is nearer than most first-timers, and Jack was also a dog. Cash stopped playing, and Jack sat still.

“I toll you, man. Dem druds opun up the mind! Ere, tae duh bongos. Yoo neum mo den ah do rye now.”

At first, nothing happened. Cash had left Donald shortly before dark and spent the early evening “home,” trying to teach Jack how to play bongos. Cash played his guitar, something with an easy rhythm, but Jack just stared passively. “Come on, skinny cow…” Cash muttered.

Jack whined back at him.

The night was growing late. Already the city slept and dreamed. A lazy wind yawned through the park. Cash rubbed the weariness from his eyes, but found them no less heavy, and his fingers were growing sore.

Cash lifted Jack’s paws and physically pressed them against the skins. Jack whined and sat back down. This was ridiculous, Cash thought. He picked his guitar from the ground beside him and began plucking another melody from its strings.

The song was new to him, something sweet and light. But it kept urging him quicker, calling for the panicked clamor of chords between the finger-picking. His easy glide across the guitar’s neck became frantic, his hands clawing, clutching, running across the neck.

Up and down and to the sides, the song pulled him—quicker, quicker—as if it were trying to get somewhere. His hand was a raft drifting helpless down the neck, singing its narrow path around discord and calamity.

Cash was so focused on navigating the song he didn’t catch when the bongos came in. They popped, cracked, and snapped with life. They gave a perilous timing, like the river of song was urging him towards a fall. The finger-picking turned to hard, crunching chords. But soon even they were blending—sliding and hammering and crashing together.

Together, he and Jack twisted through the melody, pulling something somber and forlorn from its sweet beginnings. They played until Cash grew tired, when the chill of pre-dawn numbed his fingers and only the tears warmed his face. The song ended on a precipice, its fall unwritten—or else, just a bit further downstream.

Cash sighed, wiped his eyes and looked to Jack who watched him curiously, then ran one paw over his own face.

The next day Cash showed Donald all that Jack had learned, and Donald sat back with a smile and said, “Wuh godda drummuh.” They practiced all afternoon, tucked away in a dank but undisturbed alley, running through their most popular songs until Jack developed a beat for each one.

Cash showed Jack a few tricks and soon his rhythms became more intricate, his paws crossing over and under each other. He watched the humans carefully as they strummed and plucked their strings. And they watched him also.

Donald laughed between verses, delighted by their new gimmick. Occasionally, he’d change the words and sing his joyful thoughts to Cash. He’d sing of Jack’s focus and how you could almost see the wheels turning behind his eyes.

Cash smiled and nodded while he played, but he didn’t see any of that. He saw eyes that never blinked or looked away. Eyes that gave nothing—only took.

Around five o’clock, the traffic outside the alley started to pick up, and Donald announced they were ready. “C’mon,” he said, grinning. “Almose appy our.”

They found a street corner along a popular bar block and claimed it. Occasionally they’d see some other hopeful street performer pass by. “Kee moothin…” Donald would growl at them, and Cash was simultaneously grateful and shamed to have Donald there, standing on his side.

Before they started, Cash took Jack into a nearby coffee shop to bathe in the bathroom sink. When a nervous barista stepped up to address him, Cash quickly said, “He’s a service animal!” Donald had once told him that businesses couldn’t refuse you with a service animal. They couldn’t ask for proof or documentation either. They just had to take your word for it. Often enough, this worked, though Cash learned not to try the same place twice.

Cash rinsed his face, arms, and hair. He tried to scrub out the stains in his clothes with little to no success. One thing he’d learned over the years: no one wants to look poverty in the face. The less homeless you looked, the more money you made.

He scrutinized himself there before the mirror. Wondered if he looked truly homeless, or just disheveled, if he was “put together” now. Either way, he felt lighter without the weight of the world’s refuse on his shoulders.

He gave Jack a once over with warm water, which Jack groaned passively about. Before they left, he held Jack under the hot air dispenser to dry him off.

“Ya luhk good,” said Donald once they emerged.

“Thanks,” said Cash, smiling like he’d finally washed out a stain that had stuck to him for years.

“Ah’s talkin ta Jack!” Donald had a good laugh at that.

Cash set Jack against the wall of a building and placed the bongos in front of him. He and Donald stood on either side of Jack, guitars slung around their necks like some fateful albatross.

The first piece they played was an old Irish folksong. Donald started off slow and melodic with a thick, husky voice that was made for open fields and foggy days. Then Cash joined in, strumming hard and heavy, and with him was Jack, sitting upright and thumping his skins, as wild and crackly as fire.

People were drawn almost immediately. They stopped from their walks and were late to their dinners and dates. Meanwhile, all three of them dug into the music, grinning like mad ghosts. Jack even bobbed and swayed, just like Cash.

They played old classics and songs they’d written. People sang along to the ones they knew, and a brief community formed there on the streets. Between songs, there was laughter and applause, cheers and flashes of light.

Afterwards, people approached Cash, wanting to know what kind of pet-mod he’d gotten for Jack. Was it implant or hormone treatment? What did they charge? Who’s your doctor?

Cash just smiled at all their questions and ideas. “Jack’s an all-natural skinny cow,” he told them proudly. “We don’t mess around with those drugs and stuff.” Even as he said it, Cash felt the lie of it. But for a moment, he enjoyed the lie—the What if?

Several people asked to have their picture taken with Jack. Cash said of course, but Donald cut in: “Pithuhs aw ten dollas.” Money poured into the open guitar case, easy as that.

At the end, Donald’s case was lined with bills and rattling with change. The two of them felt rich as kings. They ran their hands through it all, not bothering to count their plunder, just taking it in with their fingers and eyes. Jack circled around them, tail wagging. He barked gruffly to be included and threw his own paws in as well.

When they divvied up their spoils for the night, Donald claimed the larger share.

“I don’t know if that’s right…” Cash tried. “We’re partners. And they paid to see Jack play.”

“Thass rye,” said Donald. “Mah bonjoes.”

By the third night, people were waiting on the corner for them to arrive. Cash and Donald didn’t know what to make of that, so they smiled uncomfortably, pushed through, and took their places—backs against the wall, as they always were. There was laughter and applause as they set up their instruments, and they didn’t know what to make of that either.

Cash didn’t like crowds. They made him nervous. In the susurrus of shifting bodies he thought he heard a whisper: You don’t belong. But when the music started, that sound was stamped out. Jack’s drumming popped and cracked and killed the whispers, and Cash dared allow a smile. There were plenty now to go around.

After the show—and the inevitable request for pictures—one man lingered behind. He was dressed in tan slacks, their fold lines raised and prominent, and a pale blue polo buttoned all the way to his neck. Cash recognized him immediately. He was what Donald called an “easy mark.”

More than that, Tom Lord was a businessman. He introduced himself and told them he’d recently opened a café downtown. On Tuesday nights, they had live performers but only the bands’ friends showed up, and they just took up seats. Tom Lord was in need of something special, something unique, something that would draw people in.

“What do you say, guys? I’d pay you, of course, and you’d get all the coffee you can drink!”

“Sounds great!” said Cash. He couldn’t believe how things were turning around for him. At this rate, he could soon afford new clothes, he could get a job, he might finally get him and Jack off the streets. Clean was the word, the future he imagined for himself, and it burned at the back of his mind like a stage light.

But Donald shook his head. “Ah dunno ih thass rye fuh us.”

Cash looked to him, confused. This offer was only good news for them. Cash wanted to speak up, to take charge, but instead he followed Donald’s lead.

Tom Lord looked distressed. “Uh, okay,” he said. “How about this! Free meals. Eh? We make a heck of a grilled cheese.” He grinned ear to ear, as pleased with himself as his mother surely was.

Things only got better, thought Cash in disbelief. He almost shouted his excitement before Donald spoke again.

“See, da prawlum is, ya don’ wan two shlubs lie us comin off da streets ta ya nice estabushmin.”

Tom Lord squinted at Donald, as if that would make his words any clearer. “Ah, hmmm, isn’t there a shelter you can go to…?”

Cash deflated; Donald would lose this for them. He considered jumping in, accepting Tom Lord’s deal in spite of Donald. But if he did that, Donald was like to be spiteful back, to not show up at all, perhaps even demand Cash return the bongos.

Shelder?!” Donald scoffed, waving his hand. “Man, I god shelder. I god shelder wih my oalady! Nehermye. Wuh goud.” Donald stomped off, dismissing Tom Lord, and reluctantly Cash followed.

“Wait!” said Tom Lord desperately. “Commit to a few shows and I’ll set you up somewhere. You can get clean and have a good night’s sleep beforehand.”

Donald stopped, so Cash stopped too.

“Eh, ah spoze tha’s okay.” He looked to Cash thoughtfully and nodded. Cash tried to hide his worry and excitement and nodded. Beside him, Jack nodded as well.

Easy mark or not, Tom Lord was smart enough not to rent an expensive suite on their account. Still, the small two-bed motel room was nicer than any they’d stayed in since making their way to the streets. They were given the room for two nights, one for each show they would perform. Originally, they would only have the first night, but Donald had successfully pushed for a second.

The afternoon before their debut, Tom Lord stopped by with a barber and dog groomer. “All right, boys,” he said. “Let’s get pretty!”

Donald was first to shower and get trimmed, and disappeared entirely once finished. Meanwhile, the freshly-scrubbed Cash sat with a towel wrapped around his shoulders, waiting patiently for his turn.

“How do you want it?” the barber asked him.

Cash wondered how best to say, Not homeless. “Clean?” he shrugged.

The cold steel was sweet on his skin, as were the warm fingers sifting through his hair. Cash couldn’t remember the last time anyone touched him like that, or touched him at all, really. He shut his eyes and was so relaxed he near fell asleep. When, at the barber’s gentle command, he opened his eyes, Cash didn’t recognize the face that met him.

His greasy, twisted hair was cropped short against his scalp, with the top a thick sheen running from front to back. Seeing himself, Cash felt like a new man. Like all the ugly past, the addictions and mistakes now lay behind him. He was this—this image of normal. He had a job. He paid his bills. He went home at night. Surely.

“I don’t have a tip…” he realized, embarrassed.

“That’s all been taken care of.” The barber gathered his things and left, and Cash felt like he took some part of him too. Some small dignity Cash didn’t know he had until it was lost, like a crumpled dollar in a back pocket.

When Jack came trotting out of the bathroom, his white on black coat glistening and smooth, he startled at Cash’s new appearance. A low growl built up to a bark.

“Jack! You can’t do that here!” Cash walked over and scooped him up, and Jack lay rigid and uncomfortable in his arms. He sniffed Cash but didn’t recognize the shampoo smell, and growled again.

Before Cash could scold him, the groomer emerged from the bathroom carrying a used towel and a bag of cleaning products. “Boy, he needed that,” she said, wiping her brow with her forearm. “There was fungus growing in his fur!”

Homeless,” Cash shrugged with a grin.

She didn’t think it was as funny as he did. Jack still growled, but shrugged as well.

Inside the West Ender Café, a packed house awaited them. Some of the faces Cash recognized—fans and friends that watched them perform on street corners. There was applause as they came in through the side door with Jack trotting behind.

Tom Lord introduced them, giving a name they’d never claimed or asked for: “Give it up for Skinny Cow and the Street Rights!” The room erupted with cheers.

Jack started them off with a bongo solo that created an uproar of excitement through the crowd. Donald and Cash came in together on guitar, strumming quick and sweet to Jack’s rhythm, while Donald growled the lyrics to “Whiskey in the Jar.”

Around them cameras clicked and flashed, people laughed, they clapped, and Cash felt so happy he near collapsed. His face was tingly and warm, his fingers blissful sore. He strummed away, digging into the music and singing along with Donald who glanced back to him, grinning pure and simple. They fed off each other’s energy, until even Jack was barking behind them, inspiring gasps and cheers from the crowd.

Afterwards, Tom Lord approached them, giddy as can be. The café was so packed they had to turn people away at the door. He gave them each a hundred dollars in cash, which Donald claimed wasn’t enough.

“I believe that’s what we agreed upon…” said Tom Lord.

“Fells short ta me. Dey came fuh us,” he said, gesturing his hand across the crowded room.

Cash was nervous, feared Donald might lose this for them after all, but he had to trust Donald. Who knows what they might come away with this time.

“Ah tink ih ya wan us ta come back, weh nee a lil more.”

Tom Lord looked to Cash who looked to Donald who didn’t flinch. A moment later, Tom Lord was counting fifty dollars into Donald’s hand.

As they left, Cash applauded Donald’s business acumen and asked for his share of the extra money.

“Wha?” Donald looked at him perplexed. “Ah raced the price, I tae duh cut.”

They didn’t talk all the way back to the motel. Once they got in, Cash couldn’t take the quiet and went for another shower—his third that day. He lost all sense of time in there, with the water washing away all his discomfort and ache. The warmth and privacy let him process things without the accompanying stress.

And tonight he was coming to terms with being taken advantage of. It wasn’t Donald that troubled him, but Tom Lord. Though they’d never met, he’d recognized the businessman upon sight. In another universe, their lives might have been switched. Either way, they still bowed to anyone that pressed. In Tom Lord, Cash saw all the qualities he disliked most in himself. All the weakness and fear and the pathetic struggle for control.

It had to change, he determined. He would make it change.

When Cash emerged from the bathroom, he found a woman dressed down to her underwear, lying on his bed, petting Jack, who lay beside her.

“Uh, hi,” Cash managed to get out.

“Hi.” She barely glanced up before turning away, bored.

Cash stood there, confused, not knowing what to say. Donald was missing, but a moment later the door beeped and swung open.

“Finally…” said the girl as Donald entered. “I’ve been waiting forever.” She rolled away from Jack and sat slouched on the edge of the bed.

“W-who’s your friend?” asked Cash.

“Aw, sahhy,” said Donald, apparently surprised to find Cash standing there. “Dis Cyntia.”

Cindy,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Cinny.” Donald smiled but wouldn’t meet Cash’s eyes.

“Well, did you get it?” asked Cindy.

“Sha dih, darlin.” Donald withdrew a bag from his pocket and sat beside her on the bed.

Cash watched them, speechless and still like a piece of furniture. He looked to Jack, who watched them as well, sniffing the air for hint of what was in the bag.

“Ey, man. C’mon. Wuh godda celebrade. Geh in on dis.”

“Uh, I dunno…” He thought a moment. “What is it?”

“Juss coke, man.”

Just coke. When Cash was a teenager, he’d gone from coke to crack to heroin, and then back again, thinking if he turned to something less potent it would curb his appetite. No matter how he bounced between them it always ended in him strung out with a tube tied around his arm. Still, he wondered if there weren’t some happy middle-ground.

Donald held up the bag to his nose and smelled it. He kissed his finger, dipped it in the bag, and rubbed it across his teeth. Beside him, Cindy or Cynthia leaned close, wrapping her arm around his and staring lustily at the bag, and Cash wondered: Why shouldn’t I take part?

They were in a safe place, well off the streets. Shouldn’t he enjoy himself? Hadn’t he earned that by now? It was growing dark in Cash’s mind, the cockroaches slipping from their shadows, one by one, to join and mate and spread. Cash stared at the bag in Donald’s hands, considering, and just the consideration made him feel weightless and heady, ready to float over, another ghost searching for the light. But a sharp whining pulled him back to his body.

“I think your dog wants some,” said the girl, glancing over at Jack who stood at the edge of the bed, whimpering. The girl laughed pathetically. Even her own jokes bored her.

Cash avoided Jack’s eyes though. He didn’t want to see the desperation, the plea he knew was waiting. Cash had already surrendered to the possibility—the maybe just tonight. If he didn’t get high now the desire would linger in his skin for days. Jack fidgeted and growled, demanding Cash see him.

But I need it… Cash almost said aloud.

Jack watched him, unblinking, and barked.

“Ee cant do dat ere, man,” said Donald, snorting a line from the bedside table.

Suddenly, the seductive hue of getting high turned sour. More dirty than alluring. Like he’d mistaken oil puddles for rainbows. Cash shivered for another shower—where he could be washed clean, or just washed away. Where the desire for drugs would run down the gutters and back down the drain. But there was Jack, caught between him and his addiction.

When Cash picked Jack up from the bed, the girl flinched as if he might come in for a kiss. Donald didn’t even look over. Cash almost walked out the door then, returned to the curve of the Watt bridge onramp, leaving the room to Donald and his new friend. But as Cash turned to bow out, he thought once more of Tom Lord—and refused to be him in an instant.

YOU can’t do THAT in HERE,” said Cash.

“Do whah?”

“Get high!” Cash hadn’t intended to shout, but at least he now had Donald’s attention. Jack squirmed uncomfortably under his arm. “You need to send Cindy outta here. And I want my money. We should be 50/50. I want my cut. Now! Please.”

Donald chuckled and set another couple of lines.

Cash stepped forward and threw his hand across the table, spraying white granules everywhere. Before Cash knew what was happening, he was knocked onto the other bed while Donald’s fists smacked repeatedly against his cheeks. Jack flew over him, yelping as he hit the floor.

Cash didn’t know when it stopped. His face throbbed and throbbed like tiny, endless blows. He just became aware he was sprawled across the bed, floating away. When the spinning and throbbing finally stopped, Cash lifted his head as much as he could to look around. Donald and Cindy were gone, with not but a smear of white powder across the nightstand betraying their existence at all. The room was quiet, lonely, and afraid.

S’okay, skinny cow.” Cash slurred before slipping out. “S’okay.

There was no response.

It was early morning when Cash awoke, feeling heavy and sore and hung over. He called for Jack, but Jack didn’t come. He called again, feeling something was forgotten or out of place.

Cash rose slowly from the bed, the world spinning and wobbly. He braced himself against the wall until it stabled. “Jack?” he called. But there was nothing. He rubbed his head and called again. A thump thump thump came from the other side of the bed. Cash stumbled over quick as he could.

Jack lay on the floor, eyes scanning passively and tail smacking the carpet but otherwise unable to move. All across his body, thin white stalks broke through the fur.

Cash was speechless, the blood and breath fleeing his face to hide in some deep, dark place. He bent over Jack and stroked his fur, moving his lips and trying to find the air for words. “Hey, skinny cow…” His voice was like a whisper on the wind, something carried from very far away. “Donald!” he called. “We gotta get Jack to a vet!” But when he looked to the other bed he remembered that Donald had gone. Remembered the events of the night—why his head ached so sorely and the room felt so cold.

Cash was alone in this.

He scooped Jack in his arms and rushed him from the room. Jack didn’t move, but Cash felt thin, spindly stalks slide over his hand, searching the lines and cracks in his skin.

“I need help!” Cash shouted through the lobby, and every suburbanite, technician, purebred, mutt, and mod-pet turned sharply in his direction. People pointed and stared when he walked through the door. They muttered in hushed whispers.

“Excuse me, sir,” said a receptionist. He looked ready to lead Cash back out the door when he spotted the white fingers stretching everywhere through Jack’s fur. He let out an exasperated breath.

“Okay folks,” he said, stealing the room, “I’m sorry but I need everyone to escort their animals out, please. Yes, now. No, I’m sorry, this is not a joke.” He directed Cash away from them, kept him sequestered.

Before the lobby had fully emptied, a technician in full hazmat suit appeared from the backroom. The suit was bright yellow. Everything’s okay, thought Cash forcibly. The hazmat visor was blurry and reflected the fluorescent light, obscuring the face. Cash couldn’t see if the technician was man or woman, if they smiled or frowned or had compassion in their eyes. They were just this suit.

Jack sat heavy in Cash’s arms, and when the technician took him, the sudden relief left Cash feeling hollow, scooped out. The hazmat said something indistinguishable. Probably, Wait here. Cash just nodded, ran his hands through his hair, over his face, trying to find some purpose in his body to occupy himself.

Doctor Burke came out, looking concerned as clients rushed their pets out the door. “Cash?” he said, squinting. Cash nodded, figuring the doctor didn’t recognize him with a haircut and clean clothes. He hadn’t yet realized the right side of his face was swollen like a tumor, as purple as sunset. “Are you okay?” the doctor asked with alarm.

“They took Jack… He’s got stuff growin…”

Time passed, or didn’t. Like the world around him, time was all a blur. Cash wiped his eyes. He sat in one of the comfortable chairs uncomfortably. He hunched forward, then slouched back. He stood up. He paced. He sat back down.

He tried to lose himself in the television where men in suits scoffed at recent politics. He watched the technicians come and go hurriedly, making phone calls and printing charts. Outside the world chugged along, oblivious.

He was alone. Like a castaway on a barren island, contemplating the rough waters and dreaming of some chemical oblivion.

Ey Cash, may ah sih wittew?

Cash startled and turned. He hadn’t noticed Doctor Burke approach. “What?”

“May I sit with you?”

“Okay.”

Doctor Burke slowly lowered into the leather chair beside his. “How are you hanging in there?” he asked.

“Okay.” It was the only thing Cash could say out without crumbling.

“Before we talk about Jack… Is everything else all right? Are you safe?”

Cash didn’t know what to say to that. Right now he felt like the tide was lapping at his feet, calling him in, away from the rough and craggy landscape of survival. “O—” He choked before he finished, tears breaking from his eyes, nose, and mouth. Cash wiped desperately at his face. “Is he dead?” he finally got out.

“That’s a difficult one to answer, actually. Cash, do you remember how we thought Jack might just have brain swelling, but I said it could be something else?”

Phycomycosis exemplum was a rare fungal infection that affected cats and dogs. Once rooted in the brain, it bypassed neural pathways, copying the behavior of organisms outside the host to better infiltrate a potential host-group. When fully matured, it spread through the rest of the body until its spores broke through the skin.

“So all that stuff he was doin… playin’ bongos was just…”

Phycomycosis exemplum,” said the doctor clinically.

Cash thought to all the ways Jack mimicked him, all the ways his best friend seemed human. Now he was told that wasn’t Jack at all but something even further from humanity. Some gross, mindless mockery of it.

“It’s impossible to draw a sharp line between what was Jack and what was the infection. But for him to push through in the end would require a tremendous effort of will that we don’t often see unless the animal feels threatened.”

“What are they doin to him?”

“Right now they’re sanitizing Jack, killing the fungus right down to the base.”

“So he’ll be okay?”

Doctor Burke’s face grew long. He looked away. “Perhaps I haven’t been clear. The fungus actually replaces the brain of its host. It becomes like a copy until it’s time to spread. The good news is that, aside from a little confusion, Jack was probably never aware it was happening. But I’m afraid he’s been gone for some time…”

Cash felt as though something heavy and important had collapsed inside him. His heart, he thought. But it couldn’t be that. That still ached and beat and bled.

He stood up abruptly with nowhere to go, and just as abruptly walked towards where the hazmat had taken Jack. Cash didn’t know where he was going or what he was going to do, but he pushed through door after door, past surprised technicians who said he couldn’t be there and walls of caged animals who watched him quietly with fear in their eyes.

Doctor Burke ran after him, calling him back and discouraging technicians from getting involved.

Cash came to a dead-end at a large steel door, like a walk-in refrigerator with a big circular window at eye-level. “Cash, don’t…” he heard behind him, but he ignored it. Peering inside, Cash saw Jack lying across a stainless steel table. The hazmat circled around him, spraying a white mist from something like a fire extinguisher.

Thin wisps of smoke rose from Jack’s fur as the stalks crumpled into dust, leaving red holes freckled over his body. The tail wagged cruelly, thumping once, twice, before the technician sprayed it and it stopped for good.

Cash clutched his scalp, his nails digging into the skin. He needed to get out of there. He thought about finding Donald, losing himself for a while. He’d have to apologize, of course. Make amends. And then he could blast his brain, with all its dolor and woe, so far into oblivion that he wouldn’t feel anything but a flicker of nostalgia for better days.

Before Cash turned away, his eyes caught his own reflection, saw the hopelessness and grief and the red welt that bloomed across his face. That’s what Donald’s friendship had brought him. Suddenly, getting high never felt so low. Going back was just as empty as staying put.

The world lost all sense after that. Time and space fused together or broke entirely apart. He was weeping under florescent lights; he was on the streets alone; he was in the cursed room with Donald and Cindy. People were there beside him one moment, gone the next. Disembodied hands pat his back, led him elsewhere. Stray voices whispered like ghosts.

Every squeak of metal or rubber sole scuffing the floor sounded to him like a yelp, making him turn sharply in search for Jack, only to realize his mistake—the void that now awaited him.

It made that last memory come bubbling up through the grief—Jack standing on the motel bed, begging him not to get high. It was a memory that scared and shamed him. So much hung on the precipice of that moment, and yet all he wanted was to go back to it. If the fungus’ goal was to fit in, why hadn’t Jack just gotten high with him? Why couldn’t they just share that together, him and Jack transcending time and space and all their troubles on a chemical journey?

Doctor Burke’s words now came floating back to him: …to push through in the end would require a tremendous effort of will…

The realization struck him sudden and unexpected, like garbage thrown from a passing car. The last time Cash saw Jack—the real Jack—he was pushing through the fog, doing what he always did for Cash: calling him back from folly. To now go back to Donald, back to the drugs, would be to dishonor this final act. Maybe even his life entire.

“I know this can’t be easy for you,” said Doctor Burke, appearing beside him. “But with this rare infection in town, there will be others. There will be pets that are scared and families that don’t know what to do. We’re going to be very busy trying to manage this, and we’re going to need help—lots of help—taking care of them all. We’re going to need someone on staff that understands what’s at stake… Someone that cares. Maybe someone looking for a second chance…” He put a warm hand on Cash’s back, and for a moment, the world was just a little bit less cold.

In the weeks ahead, sleep was hard to find. Like his prayers to the beyond, it rebuked all his efforts to connect. Though Cash now had a job, a room, a bed, their comfort was too alien to soothe his heartache. At night, he’d toss and turn, shift pillows and blankets about himself, and finally he’d consider sleeping on the streets just to feel a little closer to home.

The cravings kept him anxious, kept him fidgeting and uncomfortable. And the relief was still out there, somewhere, waiting for him. Always ready to take him back, to swallow him and all his grief if he only surrendered. The thought made him ill.

Once sleep finally came, it swept up and dragged Cash away like a current roiling beneath the surface. Cash rarely slept deep enough to dream, and often assured himself he hadn’t dreamt at all, only fell into a black stupor. But occasionally he would startle awake, sure he heard Jack whimper, or yawn, or bark, and he’d accept then that he had indeed been dreaming, and dreaming, no less, of Jack.

In that moment, the distance between them didn’t feel so far. Cash felt at once comforted and heartbroken then, aching for that connection that seemed so close he swore he heard Jack snuffling before realizing it was just the damp, sweaty sheets sliding over his body. He wept like he only had as a boy—breathy, voiceless, and trembling. Then, freshly exhausted, he curled up with pillows and sheets, shivered once for the warmth they couldn’t give, and slept, and dreamed, and recovered.

About B. Morris Allen

Editor and publisher of the vast Metaphorosis empire.

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