a literary and art journal
Max Blagg

A Sheep is a Gift

 

Christmas was coming. The rent was past due. A pile of chocolate colored powder lay on the table by the back window of the loft, a former machine shop with solid concrete floors and ceiling. Soundproof, bullet proof.  Photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine and manuscript pages were randomly pinned and taped to the walls. A Selectric typewriter stood on a table fashioned from the graffitoed marble slab salvaged from a toilet stall, lying flat on an iron frame. A crude bathroom in one corner and a dirty white stove, which looked incapable of boiling a kettle. My room mate Arturo’s easel and painting materials stood next to a huge rectangular canvas tent suspended by ropes from the ceiling.

Beside the easel was a large cage containing an Amazon parrot named Veronica, even though it was thought to be a male. Veronica had a limited vocabulary consisting mainly of Spanish swearwords, “cabrone, chinga tu madre, pendejo!” which it repeated loudly and harshly until a silk cloth was laid over the cage and the bird became instantly silent.

The powder on the table looked and tasted like chocolate, or cocoa. It was mescaline, allegedly, but nobody ever checked the provenance of these substances, we simply ingested them and hoped for the best. I was doubtful this stuff would get me high but in the absence of cocaine I sniffed a couple of lines anyway. Arturo decided to pass on the chocolate. He would wait until we met Maya at the bar. She always had something. We walked out into a mild December evening. By the time we had reached Chambers Street I looked at Arturo and realized that this chocolate wasn’t Cadbury’s. A vein was throbbing in his forehead like a snake under parchment. He looked beautiful as a Caravaggio, still halfway innocent somewhere deep down beneath this tornado of drugs and booze that continued to engulf us both on a daily basis.

A silvery glow like Saint Elmo’s fire was running along the edges of the buildings that arched way up into a blue velvet sky, soft and luscious, a massive breathing canopy above our heads.

We reached Canal Street and stood there for some time as the traffic roared by. I studied the signs imprinted in the tarmac, trying to decode their hidden meanings. Concrete poetry. Their shapes changed with each passing truck, The walk sign glowed permanent red. Each time we were about to step out into the street a fresh wave of traffic came surging up from both directions, highbeams crisscrossing like searchlights at a border.

Then I saw the dog. Not the little black shadow dog that followed me around when I was depressed, but a fair sized cream colored mutt. It was lying in the gutter. I studied its muzzle through the magnifying lens of mescaline.  Probably a lab mix. Words sizzled and sparked in my head.

Was Labrador part of the dominion of Canada?

Dominion was a juicy word when you squeezed it.

Were labs bred in labs?

Laughter bubbled in the cauldron as I looked over at Arturo, waiting with Aztec patience to cross the street. I was seized by a terrible thought. They killed my dog! My stomach bounced into my throat, then I remembered I didn’t have a dog.

We crossed the street, and I glanced at the dog, not my dog, unmoved by this small urban tragedy. Around the corner was La Cornue, the bar where Arturo had arranged to meet Maya, his current girlfriend.

Maya was a long sensual streak of Jersey girl, a gogo dancer with beautiful cornflower blue eyes already going blank from endlessly exposing her private parts to the salacious gaze of the neckless geeks who ogled her nightly from the sidelines of the luck-free bars she worked in.

She didn’t like what her beauty had brought her, and had begun to acquire scars, tattoos, any kind of imperfection to spoil and conceal whatever it was that made men stare and click their tongues and call out to her in the street.

The bar was packed. The sight of the dog had invoked other animals. Badgers and pigs and geese crowded the tables. Two hippotami were squeezed into a booth. A low mooing and the whinnying of horses occasionally penetrated the wall of music and noise.  Maya was already there, lynx-eyed, serene among the quadrupeds. Two minutes after we had sat down next to her a man in a business suit approached our table. There was something asinine in his slender physiognomy.

‘Why the long face?’ I asked, but he ignored me and began jabbering to Maya. It was obvious they had some kind of history, he was probably one of her lovesick johns. His bland, expensive suit and red suspenders marked him as a toiler in the pits of Wall Street. One of the capitalist pigs we loved to hate, ordinary mortals who made vast amounts of money by some mysterious sleight of hand, standing around the stock exchange and shouting at each other all day.

The man briefly turned his attention to Arturo.

“Oh, you’re an artist,” I heard him say, “well you must be starving, let me buy you a drink.”

Arturo’s lack of fluency in English frequently enraged him, and I shared his frustration as the condescending donkey monopolized Maya with his tales of high finance. This arrogant interloper needed to be straightened out, and a punch in the face seemed too obvious. As I sat there, mellow yet judgmental, I suddenly remembered the dog. I saw a balance, with the dog in one scale and the donkey in the other, canceling each other out. Justice would be served. Just desserts.

“The desserts in here are not very good,” I said to the donkey,  “but I’ve got something for you, something special. Don’t go anywhere.” The mark was so entranced with Maya he didn’t even hear me.

I quickly left the bar and retraced my steps to Canal Street. There was the dog, still lying in the gutter, smiling, as if I’d come to rescue it from this undignified place. A medium size lab, maybe part Alsatian, obviously not fully grown – its paws were huge. I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and carried it back toward the bar, a question flitting through my head. Why did it not seem unusual to be carrying a dead dog along West Broadway?

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” the drug answered as I reached the bar and pushed my way back inside, the dog swinging slightly as it hung from my fist. There was a scream from one table, a glass smashed on the floor. Stirrings of pandemonium. The bartender shouted, “You can’t bring that dead dog in here! ” That seemed to make sense, but was it really dead, or only sleeping? Why take a dead dog into a bar? I couldn’t think of the answer to that question either, it was obscure as a zen koan, or the first line of a joke.

‘A man takes a dog into the bar…’ – now I remembered, I was giving it to the insolent donkey talking to Maya.

I approached the table and gently laid the dog across the broker’s feet. The man looked human again, and stunned. Maya smiled. She loved trouble. A trickle of blood from the dog’s head leaked onto his shoes. The bartender, who knew me, had come out from behind the bar. “Max, what the fuck are you doing? Why did you bring that fucking dog in here?” I don’t know, Tom,” I replied, and I truly didn’t.

It had seemed the perfect response when I was listening to the man braying away, but now it seemed, not necessarily wrong, but somehow out of synch. Endorphins were scattering like roaches in my brain. Right, wrong, right, wrong, each time I tried to decide the focus shifted. I certainly hadn’t meant to interfere with anyone’s night out.

Tom, the bartender, began to pick the dog up and bloody drool spilled from its mouth. He dropped it and gagged, then ran into the bathroom to puke.

The broker seemed too astonished to move, even though the dog had dropped back onto his feet.  “It’s okay Tom,” I yelled through the toilet door, “I’ll take the dog out.  Where’s his leash?”

Then I excused myself to the broker and hefted the dog again, feeling almost cheerful. I had something to do. For a moment I wished I were somewhere else and the dog was still alive, but that was the past, this was now, it was better and it was worse.

The crowd, already jittery, parted like the Red Sea as I walked back outside with the dripping corpse. Further down Grand Street a dumpster was stationed outside a building under renovation. I swung the dog back and forth to gain momentum and then tossed it underhand into the dumpster. Blood sprayed around as it flew through the air and tumbled out of sight with a dull thud. But I couldn’t shake a nagging sense of unease, the idea that something foolish had transpired without my informed consent. It caused little bursts of heated embarrassment that were quickly dispersed by the soothing action of the mescaline.

A small cluster of people from the bar had followed at a distance and were looking in my direction.  Little purple-colored haloes hovered above their heads. What the hell were they staring at? They stood there like a flock of sheep. Was I acting drunk? I didn’t feel drunk, what the fuck were they looking at? Arturo suddenly appeared at my side. “What the fuck happened?” He seemed incredulous too.

“Where’s Maya?”

“Oh she’s inside. She’s trying to calm that guy down, he’s flipping out.”

“She’s inside? She’s staying?” I said, astonished that she wasn’t with us, outraged at her infidelity to the cause, whatever our cause was, after such a grand gesture on her behalf.

“Yeah, come on, we should get out of here before Rachid shows up. I heard the waitress on the phone to him.” Rachid, the owner of la Cornue, was a notoriously moody Arab of Berber origin.

I didn’t share Arturo’s sense of urgency as we strolled up West Broadway to another bar where we knew the night manager.

Jimmy Furlong, known as 8 to the Mile, looked like Art Garfunkel might have if he had taken a lot of acid. He greeted us effusively and seemed unfazed by the fact that my hands were covered in blood.

“What’s this, the Scottish play?” he asked, deadpan, and we laughed. Everything seemed alright again.  Again. An echo. Again.

“You better clean up,” said Furlong and directed me downstairs to the prep kitchen, out of sight of the customers ruminating at the tables.

I washed the dog’s blood off my hands and walked back up the stairs. Maybe this wasn’t such a good thing after all.

“What color am I now, Max?” Furlong said, his massive afro throwing off sparks, as he handed us each a shot of Jack Daniels’.

I drank off half the shot, the raw heat of the whiskey burning my gullet.

“Do you want something to eat?” Jimmy said. We both shook our heads no. The burgers here were primeval.

To alleviate the constant irritation of greeting and seating people he didn’t like, and serving them low grade meat and beer while struggling to maintain a veneer of respect and civility, Furlong spent long hours in his tiny music studio, making tapes that juxtaposed wildly disparate musical styles, tapes which often drove people screaming from the bar. The sound track now segwayed from “Dear Prudence” to a kind of militant Arab music, interspersed with what might have been the sound of camels mating. For me it had a terrible poignancy. Several diners raised their heads in alarm, trying to pinpoint the source of this cacophony. A surge of adrenaline almost lifted me off my barstool.

“I gotta go home.”

I pushed the unfinished drink over to Arturo, who poured it into his own glass. “Yeah, you should go home. I’m going to wait here for Maya,”

Behind the plate glass window, Jimmy and Arturo observed my progress as I stood outside, looked around and then began walking south on West Broadway. The deserted street stretched away for miles, a long tunnel framed by empty loft buildings. I walked carefully down the tubular, submarine alley until I noticed a crowd of people milling around the corner of Grand Street. As I approached somebody turned around and yelled, “That’s him, that’s the guy who killed the dog!”

Another voice took up the cry, then somebody screamed up the street, “Rachid, he’s over here!” The crowd opened up to reveal in the near distance the owner of La Cornue, Rachid, a tiny ball of malevolence in an oversize leather jacket, rapidly approaching, brandishing a chef’s knife as long as his arm.

I felt oddly relaxed, like this was happening somewhere else, or that I was somewhere else, not on this street corner with violence about to ventilate the tranquil fabric of the night.

The crowd clustered around, hoping for bloodshed.

Yeah he killed a dog

He killed his girlfriend’s dog

He killed his girlfriend!

Took it in the bar

Threw a dead dog on the bar

Hit some guy with a dead dog…

I chose to ignore these random samplings of misinformation. They belonged in another movie. Instead I focused my wavering attention on Rachid, who looked deranged, as if something really terrible had happened.  I tried to cheer him up.

“Rachid, you appear like a mirage out of the desert….

That jacket looks good on you-“

“You, it was YOU who bring the dog?

What the fuck wrong with you, bring a fucking dead dog in my restaurant? You were my friend !”

Oh, not the dog again. Why was it hounding me?

I laughed at my puerile pun and Rachid looked angrier than ever, so I tried to change the subject.

“Hey, Rachid, do you have a license for that jacket?”

Why the fuck you bring that dog in my bar. A dog is bad luck!

“Why is a dog bad luck?”

“It is fucking bad luck, listen to me. A sheep is a gift. A dog is bad luck.”

“A sheep? well there weren’t any sheep around, it was late…

it was that fucking donkey, Rachid, he killed my dog, one thing led to another.”

What donkey? That was your dog? How did that guy kill it? He’s my good customer! You fucking liar! What the dog name?”

What was the name of the dog? I had no idea.

“I don’t remember, but it had a mother and father..

They killed my puppy!” I suddenly added, and burst into real tears, which lasted for seconds, followed by a gale of laughter.

The streetlights were pulsing in time with my breathing, ready to guffaw, the buildings were tittering, or sobbing, I couldn’t tell, there was such a fine line between happiness and grief.

Rachid stepped forward.

Was he about to use me for bayonet practice? I didn’t really care, the chocolate had completely euthanized my feelings. I tried to clear the cluttered deck of my medulla and launch a coherent sentence.

“It… was….nothing..personal…it was NOTHING!”

“You bring bad luck with you fucking dog! Stay the fuck out of my restaurant, next time I kill you.”

“Oh okay, but,” I paused, “the dog is the real victim here…”

Rachid, enraged by these non sequiturs, stepped forward as if to stab me. He feinted but didn’t strike. However his swordplay deluded me into thinking I had been stabbed. I felt the blade pierce my thigh and my balls seemed to seek refuge inside my body, a strangely sexual feeling.

The shock of having my testicles go into hibernation almost sobered me up, and then the mescaline came coursing back in, lifting me up into the blue air of the evening. Ying yang my string sang. I looked down at my leg far below.  There wasn’t a mark on it.

I was suddenly furious that I had been tricked, not cut. It was just as bad somehow.

I considered decking this pint-size kamikaze, but Rachid had too many assistants, all more than ready to stomp me into the sidewalk. People get angry when pets are involved.

I really wanted to explain, except that now I had forgotten why I had taken the dog in the bar, if indeed I had. English had become a distant language.

Everyone stood there for a couple of minutes, on the verge of mayhem, the night humming around us like a giant machine. Then Rachid turned and began to walk away, the backup team following him. A collective sigh of disappointment issued from the crowd. The show was over and there was no blood on the blade.

Maybe Rachid remembered that I had inadvertently saved his life a couple of weeks earlier, when I intervened in a late night confrontation between the Berber and his bartender outside La Cornue. That time Rachid was wielding two butcher knives, facing off against  Willy Gilman.  Willy, a popular but temperamental bartender, had apparently and not too discreetly pissed in the ice instead of using the bathroom during the late rush. Willy was a cold one, so cold he would have broken Rachid’s neck and then claimed to have been hugging him, or stabbed him and said he was trying to give him back his knife.  Even with two knives, Rachid was liable to get badly hurt. In a state of brotherly love generated by a combination of bourbon and quaaludes, I had foolishly tried to talk the two men out of a knife fight. Willy, after politely asking me to get out of the way a couple of times, suddenly picked me up like a toy and hurled me about ten feet into the stacked bags of garbage that the busboy had just put out on the sidewalk. This sudden flight of the peacemaker through the night air was so astonishingly comical to the crowd of onlookers that it also precipitated a storm of laughter in both participants, and suddenly the duel seemed preposterous. Just like that, everyone was friends again. The crowd went back inside, where Willy served the free drinks that Rachid provided for what was left of the night. Rachid also insisted on buying the leather jacket I was wearing, even though it was far too large for the tiny Berber. But since I had just paid a tenner for it at Canal Jean, I was happy to accept the C note Rachid offered, and that night I walked home in my shirtsleeves, rich and drunk.

Now, two blocks and two weeks from where that friendly sale had taken place, Rachid stopped, removed the jacket and began to hack at it with the butcher knife, stabbing it repeatedly. After murdering the coat he threw it at me and stomped off with his little band of Thuggees in the direction of his bar. The disappointed crowd melted away.

“My tailor can fix that,” I yelled after the retreating figures, gleeful once again, alone on the sidewalk, safe in the gelatinous clutches of mother night.

 

About Max Blagg

Max Blagg was born in England and has lived in New York City since 1971. He is the author of four collections of poetry, and several other books and chapbooks. He has collaborated with various artists, including Larry Clark, Alex Katz, Jack Pierson, Richard Prince, Jerelyn Hanrahan, Keith Sonnier, and many others. An illustrated book documenting these and other artist collaborations, Slow Dazzle, was published by Shallow Books NYC in January 2017. He is editor-at-random for Man of the World Magazine, contributing editor to Oyster Magazine (Australia) and 10 Magazine (London), and a member of the Photography Faculty at the School of Visual Arts/NYC. His highly collectible typewriter works were exhibited at Show Room Gallery NYC in 2013, at 6DecadesBooks, NYC, in 2014, and most recently at Tripoli Gallery, Southampton (2016).

 

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