Featured: Alley Dogs

From issue 8:

Richard O’Brien

I was twelve years old the summer my father helped our neighbor Victor Metzger tear down the old wood shed in his backyard. That was back when we lived in the Fairview section of Camden, New Jersey. The houses were row homes, and the yards quite small. Mr. Metzger’s shed took up half his yard before he and my father tore it down. After the junk man came by and took away the shed scraps, Mr. Metzger poured concrete over his entire backyard. When the concrete dried, our neighbor painted it kelly green. We lived in a house on the end facing Sumter Road. Mr. Metzger’s house was on Kansas Road which was perpendicular to our street. From the front of his house you could see the top of the water tower at the Camden Shipyard across Newton Creek.

In our neighborhood many of the men worked in the shipyard: welders, pipefitters, painters by trade. Most of them were Korean War vets. My father had been too young for that war, and too old for Vietnam by the time that conflicted started. He was not alone. Several fathers in our neighborhood back then fell into the category. Unlike other men in our neighborhood who worked at the shipyard, my father was employed at the post office in Camden. Before I was born he had been a letter carrier, and worked his way up to a supervisor position. Whenever the subject of war came up, my father remained silent. He had many misgivings about war, and none of his opinions were popular in our old neighborhood.

Mr. Metzger had been in the infantry in Korea, and he still had a cold-hearted stare even twenty years after the Korean conflict officially ended. He kept his salt and pepper hair cut short, military regulation style, and in the warmer months, after the set behind the houses along the common across the street from his house, he liked to sit outside drinking Rheingold Lager Beer and smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes one after the other. He was most peculiar; the kids in the neighborhood were afraid of him. It didn’t help that Mr. Metzger’s wife Gloria vanished before I was born. Later on, when people told the story, they acted as if she had been the victim of some magician’s trick: now you see her, now you don’t.

“Where did she go?” I had asked my mother one night. I was five years old, and full of questions—much to my father’s chagrin.

“Away,” my father said.

I still remember the look on my mother’s face. “We don’t talk about that around here,” she said.

That was the end of the inquiry. I never asked any other questions about Victor Metzger. In fact, I was one of those kids who didn’t talk to him. But not everyone was like me. Some kids were brave. They were not afraid of Mr. Metzger.

Among the brave was a girl name Dottie Moriarty. She lived on Tuckahoe Road. Dottie always made it a point to say hello to Mr. Metzger whenever she passed his house.

“Beautiful night, Mr. Metzger,” her angel voice often drifted through the screened windows in our living room.

“Is it?” he always replied.

Dottie used to tag along with me and my friends in the summertime. She was Darren Foster’s cousin; her mother was Darren’s dad’s sister. Dottie’s mother was divorced. In 1976, Dottie’s mother, Julie, was the only woman in the neighborhood who claimed that status. People talked about how Dottie’s father, back when he was still married to Julie, used to sneak out of the bedroom at night, leaving his wife alone, and go to sleep with his older daughter, Dottie’s sister Renee.

Then one summer night when I was seven years old, a police car and an ambulance rocketed down Tuckahoe Road, lights flashing and siren wailing enough to stir everyone on the block from their sleep, including my brother and me. We could see Dottie’s house from our bedroom window. Two of the ambulance men went into the house with a stretcher. People gathered on the sidewalk when the ambulance men removed someone from the home in a dark vinyl bag atop the stretcher sometime later. Dottie’s mother stood on the lawn fighting to break free from Darren’s father’s grip, but her brother was too strong for her. Mrs. Moriarty was screaming bloody murder, as my mother would tell the story in the years that passed, accusing her husband of the ultimate sin right out there in the humid and hot Fairview summer night with all of her neighbors and the stars as her witness.

“He killed her,” my older brother Tommy whispered in the dark.

It turned out what my brother said was true; only, not the way we had first imagined it. Dottie’s father had not used his own hands to take Renee’s life. His older daughter had done the work all by herself in the bathtub with her father’s shaving razor.

That night, as my brother and I pressed our noses against the screen in our window to get a better look, I smelled cigarette smoke coming from Mr. Metzger’s porch; sometimes, when there was no wind, the smoke just drifted up from beneath his porch roof and crawled its way up the brick wall of our adjoined houses. I heard metal peel away from metal. Mr. Metzger had helped himself to another can of beer.

“Well,” he said to no one after the neighborhood was quiet again, “I guess that’s that.”

My parents and my sister Margie who had been friends with Renee Moriarty went to the funeral. I remember Renee sometimes staying at our house for a sleepover. Margie always wanted to camp out in the living room where it was cool, but Renee insisted on sleeping upstairs in my sister’s room. On those weekend nights when she did stay with us, I heard the latch catch on my sister’s door. Margie never used the lock. My mother thought locks on bedroom doors were a fire hazard. In the summer, we used window fans. No one was able to afford an air conditioner; even if a family could buy one, no one wanted to pay the electric bill. So, my mother and my father both insisted that bedroom doors stay open.

“For circulation,” my father explained.

I didn’t know what the word meant. All I knew is that it meant listening to my father snore from my parents’ bedroom down the hall.

When my parents and Margie came home from the funeral my sister went straight up to her room. She fell asleep with her funeral dress on. Her bedroom door remained open all night.

The alley behind our house was a gathering place of stray dogs. It was a hot day at the end of August when the dogs first started coming around. German shepherds, Dobermans, mutts of every variety; sometimes alone, sometimes in small packs, the dogs sniffed along chain link fences on either side of the alley until they reached the length of fence along Mr. Metzger’s backyard with the concrete lawn.

Late into the afternoon one of the dogs, a collie, started pawing at the concrete where it met the alley. My father was at work that day. And my mother kept shooing me away from the window. On extremely hot days she rarely let any of us out of her sight. I was at the kitchen window when Mr. Metzger stepped out onto his back porch.

“Scat!” he shouted. “Go on, you little pecker licker!”

I looked at my mother. She shrugged her shoulders and nodded at the window behind me.

When I turned to look Mr. Metzger had unraveled his garden hose, turned on the spigot beneath his dining room window, and sprayed water at the dogs gathered at his fence.

“Motherfuckers!” Metzger screamed.

“Mr. Metzger,” my mother called from our kitchen window.

“Mind your business, woman!”

I couldn’t wait for my father to get home. He’d give old Metzger a piece of his mind. But my father’s arrival after work that evening was delayed. He ended up missing everything, almost.

The first police car that drove down the alley that night sent the dogs running. A police officer went up to Mr. Metzger’s back door. There were some words exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Metzger. The argument became heated. Another police car pulled to a stop in the alley. And then another. Before long, a dozen uniformed cops hauled Mr. Metzger away as he cursed and screamed and threatened to kill them.

Once Mr. Metzger was gone, two detectives stood on our neighbor’s back porch. They smoked cigarette after cigarette. Another hour passed, my mother went to the fence in our backyard.

“Do you gentlemen want something to drink?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” one of the detectives replied.

He was thin with dark hair that looked like Dean Martin’s.

“Are you sure?” my mother pressed on. “Some iced tea? It’s no bother.”

“No, thank you,” the detective said.

The other one lit another cigarette. He was older than Dean Martin, and much heavier. He stared at my mother and me as he whispered to the other detective.

My father came walking down the street. That summer, his car sat in the garage. It needed a new transmission. My parents didn’t have the money. So my father walked a mile or so to Mount Eiphram Avenue every morning to catch a bus into downtown Camden where he worked. Some nights, against my mother’s wishes, he walked home from work. That meant cutting through two sections of Camden that were said to be bad neighborhoods.

“Goddamned bus broke down,” my father said. “Can you believe that shit? I must be cursed.”

“Jack, please,” my mother said.

My father looked at me and winked. “Sorry,” he said. Then he nodded at the two detectives in Mr. Metzger’s yard. “What’s going on?”

“They took Mr. Metzger away,” my mother told him.

The older detective approached the fence. His tie was loose, and there were sweat stains on each side of his shirt.

“Talk to you for a minute?” he asked my father.

My father nodded at my mother. She led me into the house.

In the kitchen I went to the window overlooking our backyard. My mother sat the kitchen table, lit a cigarette, and pretended to be interested in a story in the newspaper.

“Did you know Mr. Metzger?” the older detective asked.

“Vic?” my father asked. “Sure. What’s this all about?”

“Would you say he’s a kind man?”

“I’d say he kept to himself, detective…”

“Grady,” he replied. “Bill Grady.”

“Listen, I should get inside,” my father told Grady.

“Did you know he was married?”

“Sure, a long time ago.”

“Did you ever meet Mrs. Metzger?”

“No, she left him before we moved in,” my father said.

“Did he have a shed over there by the fence?”

“I helped him tear it down,” he replied. “After that he put down the concrete.”

“Why would a guy put down concrete in his backyard?”

“I don’t know,” my father told him. “I should get inside. You want something to drink? Iced tea? How about beer?”

“I wouldn’t mind a cold beer,” Grady.

My mother sighed. She folded up the newspaper, and set about getting dinner together. When my father came through the back door she gave him a look. I was young, but I knew it meant something bad. My father shrugged, as if to say his hands were tied. He took bottles of Budweiser from the refrigerator and went back outside. My mother sighed again.

“Hot dogs ok with you?” she asked.

The next morning I woke up early. My brother Tommy was already awake in his bed. That summer Tommy wore his hair long and he listened to his eight-track player with headphones every night before he fell asleep. Most nights the tinny music of Pink Floyd leaking from his earphones lulled me to sleep before it did him. But that morning I awoke to what I thought was thunder. When the walls vibrated in our bedroom I knew it wasn’t a storm.

“Do you think it’s an earthquake?” I asked.

“Idiot,” Tommy replied. “They’re jack hammering.”

By the time I made it downstairs my parents were already in the kitchen. My mother was making pancakes. And my father had the Saturday morning newspaper open to the real estate section.

“Why are they jack hammering?” my brother asked.

“Something is wrong with Mr. Metzger’s yard,” my mother said. “It’s not our business.”

“You know what?” my father asked, folding up the newspaper and tucking it under his arm. “When was the last time we went out to eat?”

“We don’t have a car,” Tommy mumbled as the jack hammering continued.

Lucky for Tommy, my father didn’t hear him. He was very sensitive about his car, and the fact that it did not work.

“I am already making pancakes,” my mother reminded him.

“Dad, why are the police tearing up Mr. Metzger’s yard?” I asked.

“Is this going to go on all day?” my brother asked.

“Pancakes are almost done,” my mother shouted.

“Let’s go out,” my dad said over the din of the jack hammer. “We can walk to the square. I am sure we can sit in the bakery and eat.”

“Why would you want to go out?”

The jack hammering continued. Twice my mother pressed her palms against the pans that hung on the wall next to the oven to keep them from clanging like church bells.

“I can’t hear myself think,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tommy, “like you think.”

“We have to move,” my father announced.

As he spoke, the jack hammering quit for a moment. My mother slammed a spatula down on the kitchen counter.

“What?” My brother asked. “Are we moving? Where?”

“Be quiet, Tommy,” my mother said.

I went to the window by the back door. Looking out, I saw three policemen with shovels digging into soft dirt where they had removed the concrete from Mr. Metzger’s yard. Beyond the fence, between a police van and two police cars, six dogs gathered to watch.

“That’s a bag,” one of the policemen shouted.

“Open it,” a detective said from the shade of Mr. Metzger’s back porch.

He was taller than Grady who had shared a beer with my father the previous evening, and fatter. His meaty forearms were pink like the lamb shanks for sale at the Village Supermarket. The big detective wore a blue shirt and tan khakis. On his lamb shank forearms there were tattoos, old ones that looked blurred from a distance.

The policeman took out a folding knife, opened it, and slit the trash bag open that remained half-buried in the ground.

“Oh shit!” he exclaimed.

“Now can we go out and get some breakfast?” my father asked.

“We will eat in the dining room,” my mother replied. “Tommy,” she said to my brother, “get a few plates from the cupboard and set the table.”

I stayed at the window. My father stood behind me, placing his hand on my shoulder.

The policemen blocked our view as they removed three garbage bags from the hole they had dug. It was all over within the next minute. The bags were placed inside a police van.

“Never a dull moment,” Lamb Shanks the detective said to my father when he saw us in the window.

My father waved as the detective climbed into the van and closed the door.

One by one the cherry top lights on the police vehicles flashed. The van backed out of the alley, and drove away. The police cars lurched forward, rolling slowly down the alley until I couldn’t see them anymore.

The police didn’t even bother to refill the hole. There were chunks of concrete and small piles of dirt everywhere in Mr. Metzger’s backyard. Detective Lamb Shanks had left the gate open.

The alley dogs came trotting back down the alley toward Sumter Road after the police were gone. They entered Mr. Metzger’s backyard through the open gate. There were seven dogs in all. They stood in a circle around the hole where the police had pulled the trash bags from, and hung their heads low; as if praying over someone’s grave. One of the dogs, a female Doberman, squatted at the edge of the hole and urinated over the loose dirt. The other dogs sniffed the fresh hole for a moment before they took turn turns digging with their front paws; as if the police may have missed some crucial evidence. That’s when my father went outside and chased them off.