Fresh Blood Orange [Excerpt]

Beaten to a Pulp 2

Fresh Blood Orange

 

by Callum McSorley

 

Queen of Junkyard Dogs

junkyard_dog[1394].jpgClem hadn’t thought about the junkyard in years. Not since Bobby phoned her up long-distance to tell her Paw was dead. She wasn’t surprised; nobody was. He’d been turning yellow with tobacco and whisky twenty years ago when she first packed up and moved to the desert. And now, five years after they put him in the fallow ground, Bobby was on the phone again to tell her they were selling up.

“That’s good, Bobby,” she said. “I mean, I think it’s a good thing.” She could hear Bobby breathing over the line.

“Right, sure,” said Bobby. “We won’t get much but you’re entitled to your share.”

“No, that’s all right. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“No, I guess it wouldn’t, but Tilly wanted me to call anyway.”

That’s right, Tilly was Bobby’s wife. Clem could never remember who belonged to who and how many kids they all had, who was getting hitched and who was in school. “How is she?” she asked.

“Doing fine.”

Bobby and Clem had been the eldest of ten kids. Twins. Clem split for Nevada not long after their twenty-first birthday. She had already waited too long. Bobby stayed and inherited the Astor family business.

“Right. Is there anything you need me to do, or sign, or…”

“No. Paperwork is all in my name.”

Clem’s place was never quiet. The dogs made sure of that. But over the phone there was a silence, empty and still. It was the quiet of the junkyard on a spring evening, just before the rain started pattering on the steel roofs of a thousand scrap metal cars. “How are the kids?” she asked.

“…I’ll let you know when it’s gone through. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Again the room was filled with barking and the dry, dead afternoon heat. There was a shrill edge to it. Clem registered this like a strange noise in a car engine. Feeding time. “Shut up!” she yelled. She picked a spoon out of the sink and banged it against a metal food bowl but, if anything, the noise intensified. It pitched up another gear when she stepped out with four bowls heaped with dry food and gelatine which she carried balanced up her arms like a waiter.

There was a run of cages on the west side of the house, penned in on all sides by high chicken wire fences. The unfriendly teeth of razor wire coiled along the top, a steel python sleeping on its tree branch. These were for the males. Bullmastiffs. They were as tall as men when they stood up on their hind legs and all muscle. They had rows of incisors, each an inch long, and paws bigger than plates. There were eight of them; they would have to fight for their share.

Clem slid the bowls in through an opening at the bottom of each cage. One dog, scrawnier than the rest, its ribcage sharply defined through matted grey fur, poked its flat head out of the opening as she approached. A thick strand of spit dangled from its jaw. She gave it a swift kick with her boot and it retreated with a squeal, hunching up, tail tucked away. She wasn’t happy about that one. It had been large for a runt so she’d kept it against her better judgement, but she had come to learn that it wasn’t all about size. It had the mentality of a runt and nothing could change that. It couldn’t be starved out, it couldn’t be beaten out, it couldn’t be unlearned and it couldn’t be soothed by love. Clem had nine brothers who had taught her everything she needed to know about dogs.

Las Vegas gleamed like a mirage on the horizon. On a clear night Clem watched it twinkle from the porch. Dog fights were almost as lucrative as the heavy-weight bouts and those in the know came to Clem for their champions. They came to her in their thousand-dollar suits and polished wingtips, gold Rolexes and designer shades hiding black-hole pupils and burst blood vessels, pulling up in sports cars and limousines bathed in dust and sand. A couple of times tight-lipped Asians with tattoos had come to enquire about her dogs. (“Yakuza,” Merle had told her with a conspirational nod. Merle watched a lot of television, squinting through the fuzzy bars of static interference.) They all wanted to know the secret of her success.

“Treat ’em mean to keep ’em mean,” was Clem’s answer. Her champions spent most of their early lives in cages. They lived in their own piss and shit, smothering in the smell and the heat. They fought over scraps. When a bitch was in season she would parade it up and down the rows of cages. The boys would break their teeth on the bars to get a sniff of her. (One time a male had torn right through the bars to molest the bitch, killing her in the process. He was wild and had to be put down. The carcasses lay there in the sun for a day: a warning. Also, it was important that they got a taste for dog meat.) They fought daily just to survive. It wasn’t about training. Winning a dog fight was mind over body. She bred a dog to survive, and, therefore, it would win every fight until it died trying. A runt had no will to live.

She kept the bitches on the other side of the house. Two of the four were currently pregnant, one was feeding a fresh litter and the fourth would be in heat again in a month. It was a constant cycle. Once the litter stopped feeding they were swollen with pups come next season. A life her mother knew well, she reflected. Clem never wanted kids so was careful never to have any. A hysterectomy at thirty-five put paid to it for good.

Out back, with a good acre to run in, was the stud. He was called Rocco. He fed on chicken and beef and last night’s leftovers. Clem patted his head and tossed a tennis ball for him.  In the air was the noise of snarling, chomping and the shrieks of nipped ears and clawed bellies. To Clem that was the sound of the country. It was every bit as natural as the sound of crickets or bug-zappers.

In fact, it was surprising how little she thought of the junkyard, really, because it had led her in a straight line to the present moment. The junkyard, Bobby, and the Legend of Razor Fang.

The junkyard spread out for a square mile at the back of the Astor’s house. It was a graveyard. Thousands of cars parked and abandoned. Narrow, shifting paths wound here and there, closed in by the skeletons of rusted family autos and caved in write-offs. Brush and weeds grew and tangled through the hollow ribcages. Out towards the perimeter were the fresh bodies, not yet turned to bone.

For the kids, it was a playground. They ran over the roofs, smashed windows with bricks, and investigated the interiors of dumped camper vans. They put dents in the bodywork with BB guns. Clem became a good shot. When they were little they would sit behind steering wheels and pretend to race. When they got older the wrecks became a place to hang out and smoke stolen cigarettes and drink cocktails made from a half inch of every bottle in Paw’s liquor cabinet. There was a Buick somewhere still out there where Clem lost her virginity to Bobby’s friend, Mark Evans. She was thirteen, he was fourteen. They were both terrified and uncomfortable and it was over in one brilliant flash of pain. The radio still worked but it only got country and western. It played ‘My Achy Breaky Heart’ while Mark struggled to light up a cigarette for them to share afterwards. Clem wasn’t much of a smoker but she’d watched this scene in films and it seemed like the right thing to do. Bobby broke Mark’s nose when he found out.

It was long before that when Bobby first told Clem the Legend of Razor Fang, the King of Junkyard Dogs. They were eight-years-old. There had always been wild dogs roaming the scrap. They came looking to take shelter from the rain or the afternoon heat. Occasionally the kids came across a baked corpse in the summer, or a frozen corpse in the winter, which they’d poke at with sticks or toss stones at.

The dogs would howl at night. The strays came together in a misfit pack to hunt rabbits and birds, and anything else they found. They were led by Razor Fang. Razor Fang was a wolf that had come down from the mountains and across the plains. He was almost the size of a horse, had a mane of jet black fur and blood-red eyes. He could shapeshift into a shadow. So Bobby said. He also had a taste for human flesh.

Clem didn’t dare go out into the junkyard after dark. The sound of the metal creaking as it cooled haunted her sleep. Every squeak and twang was one of Razor Fang’s gnarled claws gouging into the paintwork of a junker as he stalked the scrapheap, getting closer and closer to her bedroom window.

But Razor Fang didn’t come for her in the night. No, he tore a path straight towards the house in broad daylight one summer morning, snarling, barking, and foaming at the mouth. His terrible eyes rolled wildly in their sockets. He ripped into the fly screen and charged at the front door. The flat top of his head hit the door with a sickening crunch. He whirled round and rammed at it again, and again, and again, until his blood was dripping down the wood and soaking into the door mat. Clem listened as the thud, thud, thud got quieter and farther apart. Paw sat patiently on a chair he’d brought through from the kitchen, rifle resting in his lap, cigarette hanging from his lips.

“That should just about do it,” Paw said when it had been quiet for around five minutes. He opened the front door to find the dog lying twisted on the mat. Sleeping or dead? He put a bullet in its head to make sure.

It wasn’t Razor Fang. It wasn’t big enough, it wasn’t black, and its eyes weren’t red. But it was infinitely more ferocious than any monster Bobby had described to her.

Now here she was, thirty years later, with an army of Razor Fangs she’d created herself and bred to perfection, and the junkyard was to be sold off. Good riddance. Rocco rolled over to let Clem rub his belly.

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