Saul would rely upon the dogs to keep him warm through winter. Except for his roustabout roommate, the enigmatic Cowboy, there would be no other source of heat in the house this winter.
There were seven mutt dogs now, pacing and howling in the improvised kennel in the back yard. At a glance, the kennel looked like another abandoned sculpture project that littered the yard — just another rusted, cavernous and ghostly carcass of found objects, tied, glued or welded together. Once, a visitor, a former patron of Saul’s — the former "functional" Artist Saul — referred to the back yard as “The Sculpture Garden of Poverty and Despair.” Saul liked the title. It fueled the illusion of the virtuous artist's necessary suffering. It nourished him, but it did not keep him warm.
The gate of the kennel was a metal box spring with modified coils thoughtfully coaxed and painstakingly worked into the shape of hearts. Saul had been in love briefly with a gypsy fiddler that had passed through town and danced through the wide gate of his heart, and then out, and then was gone.
The dogs, with their thick mutant shepherd coats, thrived in the harsh weather. On the lower north bank of the river, just west of downtown, winter was bitter and exceptionally cold. The frozen air turned everything to lead. As long as Saul could keep the electricity on, he could heat a kettle for water, or broth. Saul would sleep fully clothed in the black insulated Carhartts he wore all winter. At night he covered himself with wool army surplus blankets. By December he'd move all the dogs into the house.
When he invited Cowboy to move in the year before, Saul thought Cowboy would help pay the bills. Cowboy had no money though. He was resourceful, however, and was right at home living on the periphery. In the summer Cowboy collected wild asparagus from along the road, and bagged grapes and apples from the neighbor’s yards. Cowboy even snuck up on an unsuspecting goose and wrung its neck with his bare hands. The macabre sight of Cowboy coming up through the brush from the river bank with the dead goose was visual treasure for Saul. The two men and the dogs sipped on goose broth and ate the tender gamey meat for one bountiful week. Cowboy was no great companion, however. He rarely spoke, and he would disappear with the dogs for weeks at a time without warning. Saul didn't ask questions. He just wrapped himself in blankets, and sipped warm water and occasionally something stronger, and waited.
Back when Saul still had a little bit of his fishing money, and could afford wine, visitors would come around — other artists, fishermen, and family — to check in on him. Some of them were investigating rumors that Saul was psychiatric — maybe using heroin, some suggested, or smoking crack others quipped. They came to behold Saul the aspiring artist spiraling downward, the talented sculptor, living in squalor with the survivalist and all those barking dogs — gloriously unhinging from reality.
There was evidence to support these rumors. It was known, for instance, among the fishermen that Saul had not been invited back to fish in Alaska — his reliable yearly source of income. The boat captain cited his "peculiar behavior" as the reason for his dismissal. The most alarming of these was the discovery that Saul had been saving his bodily fluids in containers and squirreling them away throughout the ship. He'd also become paranoid and was caught hoarding food out of the ship's pantry. Saul's shipmates were convinced that he was moving beyond the eccentricities they haplessly afforded him as a talented artist and moved into the realm of a mad man. Mad men are dangerous at sea.
Cheryl was talented and beautiful and she loved Saul. An artist herself, she lived a few houses down along the river, and would stop by Saul's for coffee before the period of madness. At first Cheryl had been there for him. She tethered Saul to reality by showing her confusion, anger, and disappointment. Saul languished, though the pain and drama of her disappointment was like a salve to his madness. Soon though, exhausted, Cheryl cut her losses, afraid that if she spent too long in the depths of Saul's despair and madness, she would not have the strength to pull herself out. She never imagined Saul that way though. Everyone who knew him believed his madness was ephemeral and necessary. It was expected for an artist of Saul's caliber. It was justified. This idea was so commonly conveyed that it sufficiently neutralized the concern, disappointment, or disgust of Saul's acquaintances. It prevented anyone from intervening.
The theory was not sound, nor did it provide any comfort to those who would have required it when Saul's partially eaten, frozen corpse was discovered by the police after a concerned caller left an anonymous tip. It was a gruesome, unimaginable sight. The cheeks of Saul's face had been gaunt and hallow from malnutrition and hunger, yet when his corpse was discovered, that gauntness was exaggerated by cheeks picked clean of meat. The side of Saul's face was eaten, his hands eaten — one to the wrist, the other completely gone. The remaining lower forearm was bone and sinew. The dogs, hardy as they were, remained alive, but when they were come upon by the landlord, they were stark raving mad. Saul's favorite dog, the original and thus, the most affectionate and beloved companion, was conspicuously thin and withdrawn as if it had with some great insight refused to partake in the frenzy.
Cowboy was nowhere to be found. He had not been seen in months. Those who knew of him questioned whether they had ever really met him at all, or whether he had been one of Saul's manic projections. A hopeful, resourceful projection — an enigmatic provider and protector.
The inventory of Saul's possessions by his brother produced evidence of this. There was no item lacking consistency of ownership of the mad artist, impoverished, desperate, and detached in a mad swirl of mental and physical decline. But there was nothing in the house that could be attributed to Cowboy. No clothes, no documents, no pictures or personal effects of any kind. Only Saul's life was evidenced there. He had accumulated a great collection of fine art in trades and acquisitions from other notable artists. Saul was fond of one painter in particular, and over the years he had acquired three of his works.
The artist painted grotesque figures in whimsical attire and ominous settings and when Saul gazed upon them he was filled with joy. The frail old man with a birthday hat on his head, juggling balls on fire. The fat, angry little dog in the ballerina dress. The buzzard eating a steak from a plate with a necklace of pearls. These were Saul's prized possessions and when Saul's partially eaten, half frozen corpse was discovered, all of them were gone.
Saul's brother noticed the paintings were gone the first time he paraded through Saul's postmortem squalor. He knew they were valuable, and would have commanded several thousand dollars each to collectors. The artist had substantial regional success and was verging on national recognition. Saul's brother informed the police that the paintings had been stolen.
Cowboy was not the obvious suspect. He was not a patron of the arts and it was hard to imagine him trying to hock three postmodern grotesques for traveling money. The police didn't think the disappearance of the paintings were necessarily linked to Saul's frozen, half-eaten corpse.
"He could have sold them," his brother proposed to the family. His sister disagreed.
"He wouldn't sell those paintings." She was confident in this. "That douchebag writer friend of his was always trying to muscle them away from him, but Saul never budged. He told me he'd burn them before he'd let that asshole have even one."
It was true that Big Butch wanted the paintings for himself. Enamored with the work, and acquainted with the value of the paintings, Butch was part-patron of the arts, part-opportunist. He tried all manner of ruse and stratagem to get Saul to sell the paintings to him. Believing rumors that Saul had succumbed to certain unhealthy habits, Butch had come sniffing around out of the blue one day, to try and zero in on Saul's particular vulnerability. The ploy was obvious enough that Cowboy, otherwise uninterested in Saul's business adventures, saw right through the script and shot Butch a look that frightened the pudgy, mediocre writer right to his core. Saul was irritated and sent Butch wobbling out the door in defeat, not even thanking him for the tequila and weed Butch had brought over to grease the wheels.
Cowboy came back two weeks after Saul's corpse had been discovered. The house was almost empty by now, and the yard's many sculptures in some state of dismantling. When he showed up on Cheryl's doorstep she was shocked to see something that registered as emotion on his face.
"Where are my dogs?" Cowboy asked urgently. Cheryl was confused by this question. She had been prepared to address Saul's fate with Cowboy, not the dogs.
"They were taken away," she said quietly, trying her best to set the stage for what she had to tell him next. "Saul died, and they ate him.” She thought it better to be blunt with Cowboy, no matter how uncomfortable it made her. "They had to put the dogs down.”
“All of them?" he asked. She nodded.
Cowboy clenched his jaw. His face, always grave, gave way to anger. His eyes welled. Cheryl resisted the urge to give herself to him, to embrace him. His pain was no invitation for intimacy.
"Some of his paintings are missing," Cheryl blurted out. She wasn't sure why she said it or what her intentions were. Maybe she was just changing the subject. The pain registering awkwardly on his face was too much for her to bear.
"What paintings?" Cowboy asked.
"The ones Saul loved." He knew the ones. Even to the detached roustabout, those paintings were Saul's pride and joy. Cowboy knew he could have sold them to the shit-head writer for thousands and lived like a prince all winter, but he hadn't and now Saul was dead and the dogs were dead, and the paintings were gone.
"The asshole writer has them," Cowboy said dryly.
"How do you know that?" she asked
"I just do. What's his name?" She was afraid now. His voice was menacing.
"Butch?" she asked warily.
"Yeah, that's the little faggot. Do you know where he lives?"
"No," she said, secretly relieved that she didn't know. But her brain was at cross-purposes. "He hangs out at that bar you and Saul go to sometimes — the one downtown.”
"Yeah, that's it."
It took almost a week, sitting for hours on end in the bar before Cowboy came upon Butch, but he had nothing better to do. He was already lost, drifting, and confused and this new fresh bitterness gave him direction. He chewed on it, and sucked its marrow for nourishment. It was calming, numbing medicine.
When Butch saw Cowboy sitting there glaring at him, he looked like a spooked horse. He'd seen that look before, down at Saul's, and he assessed correctly that being on the wrong end of that look for too long was a dangerous place to be.
“The only way out is in," Butch thought. He ordered two beers and walked to the back of the bar, straight toward Cowboy, enduring his stare, and noticing that his tactic had caught Cowboy by surprise. Cowboy's glare softened just a little.
"I'm sorry about Saul," Butch stated. It came off more as a declaration. He placed a beer in front of Cowboy. Cowboy nodded, acknowledging the statement, and considered the beer.
"Did you take the paintings?" Cowboy got right to it.
"Yes," Butch said, averting his eyes. Then he continued, "I didn't know what to do. I was worried about what might become of them. That place was a disaster. The dogs ate his face!"
"You were there?" Cowboy asked, confused. He was considering reaching out and choking the little bastard.
"Yes, I went to visit him, and the dogs were going crazy, and the door was unlocked, so I went in and it was fucking horrible.”
"And you took the paintings — that's what you did, you stole his fucking paintings — you didn't think to call someone, to do something for the dogs — you just took his shit and left!" Cowboy had the little Jew writer by the collar now and was about to smash his soft pumpkin face.
“No, I did call the police right away after I left, and I took two of the dogs — that was all I could do! I was scared.”
"You have two of the dogs?" Cowboy let go of the writer.
"Yes.” Butch sighed. "Do you want them, they're yours — take them."
Cowboy took a deep breath. He suddenly felt nothing but a new debt of gratitude toward the man in front of him. Two of his dogs were still alive. He didn't care which ones, he loved those mongrels. "Yes, I want them, friend. Thank you." The seldom-used voice broke.
About Mike Dragan
After living as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia for seven years, Mike Dragan has returned to Spokane to work for the Air Force at Fairchild Air Force Base. He is a 2000 graduate of Eastern Washington University's Creative Writing Program. He has two dogs, Jack and Henry, who wouldn't hesitate to eat him to survive.
About the Contest
The 56 entries we received this year represent a record for our fiction contest. Either the theme — debt — weighed heavily on people’s minds or the unemployment rate just left a lot of aspiring writers with nothing to do but write. Either way, the submissions this year were strong, in addition to being numerous. These stories — about the things that break people, the things that heal them, and some very obedient fleas, among other things — are our favorites.
— Luke Baumgarten, Section Editor