What The Shadow Knows
“Hurry up, Russ! We ain’t got all day,” I yell as my younger brother runs to catch up.
“Jim, we gonna go to the lake today?” asks Russ as he juggles his text books on his side.
“What do you think? Course we gonna go to the lake. We need money, don’t we?” I roll my eyes at him.
“You think the lake will be iced over? It hasn’t snowed much today,” Russ says.
“Who cares? If we fall in, we fall in. Them people just want to see us fall in, but we’ve showed them before and took their two bucks,” I say with a grin.
We get to the lake; it was always a good place to make money on a snowy day. Those stupid rich kids come to see me and Russ skate across the lake when it’s iced over. They pay us two whole dollars to see if we’ll make it across and back. But if it’s not iced over all the way, and we fall in, we lose the two dollars. And they laugh, oh boy do they laugh. They like to see us poor kids do anything for a dollar. But it don’t bother me none—I usually never fall in. Me, I'm a great skater. But Russ, he’s dumb as a hell. He don’t know how to avoid the mushy spots.
“Jim, it’s cold out here. I have a hole in my shoe, and snow’s getting in it.”
“Stop complaining. You gonna take those shoes off to put your skates on anyways.” I snap.
It is a cold day in Kimmerton, but not unusual. Pennsylvania gets some mighty cold winters. The air feels like it is gonna bite my nose off at the stem. Russ is getting on my nerves something bad; he’s always complaining. I got holes in my shoes too. But I know how he feels. The snow gets in and gets your sock all wet. Then it freezes to your foot. When you get home, you gotta pry your sock off like peeling wallpaper. We got another year to make these shoes last though—Dad’s job at the furniture shop cut back his hours after Christmas. It’s either wear these shoes or start wearing our sister’s. We get teased enough as it is, so we don’t need any more material for the kids at school.
I finish lacing up my skates and check over the crowd that starts to gather. “Come on Russ, they waiting on us.”
“Youse guys ready? We gonna empty your wallets!” Russ hollers at the rich boys who are yelling over at us to hurry up. I step on the ice and its mushy ice—real mushy. But there are few patches of thick ice in between. I’ll just stick to those spots.
I step out onto the ice and skate, just brushing against the mushy spots, flinging ice flakes up into the faces of the crowd. I only stop to grab the money from the rich kids, my favorite part. Just then I hear a crack and splash behind me. I turn just in time to hear Russ scream.
“Jim! Jim! Hurry! Help!”
I skate over and pull the doofus out of the water. He can be so embarrassing sometimes. The lake isn’t even that deep. I’ll have to teach him how to swim again—he just can’t get the hang of it. I pull him over to the side where the ice is sturdy, “You know we just lost six bucks with your falling in!” I growl at him.
“I’m sorry, Jim—it was the mushy snow. You know I’m no good on the mushy snow!” Russ wipes his eyes on his coat where the cloth’s already starting to collect frost.
“It’s all right. I made twelve bucks. I’ll buy you a peanut cluster. Let’s get on home and dry off.”
* * *
As we get near the house, it’s dark already and I see the brand new ‘45 white Oldsmobile parked out front of the house. That car boils my blood every time I see it. For what Pop paid for it, Russ and me could’ve had good clothes for the next five years. But, my brother Lenny always said, Pop had different “values” then us kids. We live in a two-story house on the edge of town. It’s needed paint for as long as I can remember. When Ma and Pop fight, Russ and me make out a game to see who can collect the most paint chips. But we always get in trouble cause Pop can see the flaking around the edges. Then he threatens to make us paint the whole house. But he’s too cheap to buy the paint.
“Man, Pop’s home. Damn. He’s gonna have our asses for sure if he sees us,” I say to Russ who is still soaking wet.
“Shit, Jim, I didn’t mean to fall in. I don’t want you to get into trouble. I don’t want to get hit tonight. My ass is still sore from last night,” Russ says, crying a little more at the sight of Pop’s car in the driveway.
I hate Pop. He’s always ticked about something. Russ and me are the two youngest out of seven—two older sisters and five boys. Russ being only ten months younger than me, I have to look after him just like Lenny looked after me. But Lenny went off to war in Germany, and no use looking to Mom for help, she’s just as scared of Pop as we are. So now I gotta look out for myself and Russ. We get along all right; Pop’s usually asleep in front of the radio before we get home.
As we start up the steps, the front door opens, and out comes Pop.
“What the hell happened to you, Russ? If you keep ruining your school clothes, you gonna have to wear your sister’s! You wanna be a sissy boy? Do you, sissy?” Pop yells.
He only yells. I’ve heard him with his friends, and still he yells. I don’t think he knows how to just talk.
“Oh, leave him alone—it’s just water. It’ll dry off,” I say.
“You sassing me, boy? I think that calls for a whooping along with sissy Russ for ruining his clothes,” Pop says as he pulls off his belt. Russ cries harder.
Russ and me start backing down the steps slowly; just then, right behind us we hear a snort followed by a low growl. Russ and me turn around to see Duke standing behind us, a good eight yards away, and his growl, sounding more like a bear than a dog as he staggers towards us, dragging the red and white doghouse he’s tied to. You’d think Pop would tie him to something larger, like a tree, so he’d stay put.
Every day I see Duke dragging that doghouse back and forth from the kitchen window, chasing a squirrel or bird into the neighbor’s lot. Sometimes Duke gets so excited, I think he’d hop the fence if he weren’t attached to that doghouse. I’ve come home from school many times and Duke has dragged the doghouse to their fence, and I have to lug it back. It’s much heavier than Duke makes it out to be.
Duke stops and him and Pop have a staring contest. Me and Russ sidestep back onto the walk and watch. Duke hates Pop, and Pop hates Duke. All of a sudden Duke breaks into stride and jumps onto Pop; snarling and cursing is all we hear.
“You piece of shit dog! Get him off of me! You dumb asses don’t just stand there, get him off of me!” Pop screams.
We don’t move. Pop finally grabs Duke around the neck and peels the dog off of him.
“Youse two, don’t move! I’m gonna kick your asses. Maybe kill your damn dog too,” Pop grunts. He is panting pretty hard—Duke sure does a number on him every time.
He’s still holding Duke by the neck and starts to drag the dog and the doghouse around to the back of the house. The whole time Duke is trying to stretch his neck and his jaws are snapping away, just wanting a piece of Pop’s arm.
Me and Russ run to the opposite side of the house and peer around the side to watch Pop hammer the doghouse back in its rut until he thinks it’s good enough so Duke won’t take off again. Pop just isn’t that smart.
“I’m gonna put a bullet between your eyes one of these days, you dumb mutt,” Pop says as he walks away. All the while Duke goes nuts, shaking the chain and leaping into the air, hung frozen in mid-leap from the restraint of the chain. Duke snarls and growls so much that foam drips from the corners of his mouth.
When Pop is out of sight, me and Russ run to Duke and, when he sees us, he instantly calms down. We slide on our knees in the snow next to him, patting him.
“Good boy, Duke,” I say, rustling his fur with my hand.
“I love you, Duke,” Russ says as he buries his face into Duke’s neck. Duke licks our hair and hands with a permanent smile from a job well done.
Just then Pop appears around the corner of the house, “You pieces of shit! Yous guys can stay out here all night and freeze your asses off for all I care!” But you gotta come in sometime.” Pop chuckles as he climbs the steps and slams the door behind him. Pop’s actually scared to death of Duke. He knows he can’t get near us with the dog around. If Pop didn’t grab his neck so that he couldn’t bite him, Duke would have killed him. One day, though, Duke’ll get him.
“We gonna stay out here all night, Jim?” Russ says, nestling up to Duke.
“I am. If we go in, we gonna get it for sure after this,” I say.
“Yeah, I guess so. But I’m cold,” Russ whines, with his face still buried into Duke’s broad neck.
“Get in the doghouse—we’ve done it before. C’mon.”
All three of us—me, Russ and Duke get in the doghouse and curl up to each other like a nest full of cold birds puffing out for warmth.
Duke is the best dog in the world. Ever since Lenny left for the war, me and Russ have no one to look after us but Duke. He protects us. I’m not too sure what kind of dog he is, but once, at the movies, I saw a short film called Our Gang, and those kids had a dog named Petey that was kinda like Duke. He sure ain’t like Miss Carrie’s dog next door, a tiny terrier that has the shrillest bark you’ve ever heard. Duke has a broad, massive head. It’s so strong, I could kick him in the skull without him flinching, not that I would ever try. He is light brown with one white strip starting at his nose all the way to his neck. Not a real pretty dog, but I love to see him coming.
“What, Russ?” I say, yawning.
“Goodnight, Russ,” I say with a sigh. I look over at Russ and he’s curled up in between Duke’s legs, right against his gut. He must be freezing—still sopping wet—so I cover him up with Duke’s old blanket that smells like a musty basement and is covered in fleas. But at least it’s warm.
Russ looks so helpless—he has blond hair while mine is jet black. He’s so baby-looking, weak even. We don’t look like we’d be brothers, except for the trademark family mouth. Our mouths are so tiny that even a tiny lollypop will fill it all up. Russ and me are both eleven and in the same classes at school, him being only ten months younger than me. Mom and Pop waited on sending me to school until Russ could go. Even though he looks soft, Russ really is a tough boy, though. He don’t take shit from the other kids. Of course he’s scared of Pop just like all us, but that’s all Russ got, strength. Not too much going on upstairs. He just don’t get school. I get it; I just choose not to do it. Not like us poor kids are actually going to make anything of ourselves, especially with a cheap son of a bitch like our old man.
I look at my watch. Damn, it’s eight. Time for The Shadow—my favorite radio show. I listen to him every Thursday night. “The Shadow knows!” I say out loud in my best radio voice. Duke lifts his head and turns to the side, looking at me like I had suddenly turned into a stranger. I pat him on the head, and he licks my wrist before laying his head on top of Russ’ leg. I lay my head down on Duke’s back and fall asleep.
* * *
The next morning me and Russ wake up and head into the house. Pop’s already left, and I’m sure Mom is in bed with one of her “headaches,” so we go in to find some breakfast. I pour the orange juice and make Russ go upstairs to change. All I know how to make is toast, so that’ll have to do.
“C’mon Russ! We gonna be late.” I say, shoving toast in my mouth. School starts in ten minutes, and we have two miles to go. Russ comes running in with dirty dungarees on—but at least they’re dry.
“Okay, I’m ready.” We run all the way to school.
* * *
After school, we walk straight home. “Better not go to the lake today. Pop will be ticked if we show up late for dinner. And, knowing you, you’d fall in again,” I say to Russ.
We round the corner and see our house; Russ breaks off and runs towards the back.
“Duke! Duke, I got something for you!” Russ waves the bone he found lying outside of the butcher shop we passed this morning. He’s been carrying it around for six hours, stinking up our classroom. Smelt like rotten meat all day, but he couldn’t wait to give it to Duke as a present for standing up to Pop.
As I round the back of the house, I see Russ on his knees, crying next to Duke’s doghouse. I see the doghouse, but no Duke. Then I see his chain up and over the picket fence that separates our house from the neighbors. I run over and jump on top of the fence, finding Duke hanging there on the other side. He doesn’t move. I jump down on the other side and push Duke back over to where Russ is. Duke falls with a thud. When I finally climb back down into our backyard, Russ looks up at me, his eyes all puffy and red with snot running over his lips.
“D-D-D-uke is d-d-dead… right, Jim?” Russ stutters.
“Yeah, he’s dead, Russ.”
Russ throws himself onto Duke, crying and grabbing chunks of his fur.
Duke must have started after something and dragged that damned doghouse across the yard—then jumped over the fence and hung himself. I always knew that chain was never long enough.
I pick up Duke and lay him in my red flyer wagon and wheel him over to the graveyard just down the road next to the Baptist church where Gramps and Gram are buried. I decide to bury him right next to Gramps because he always brought Duke bones. I knew he’d take care of Duke in heaven. Gramps took care of us when he was alive—never would let Pop beat on us.
* * *
That night, Pop came home late; me and Russ were already in bed. I was so glad he didn’t see Duke—he would have had a ball. I’d have killed him if he had laughed or even grinned. I lay awake thinking while Russ lay next to me breathing in my face. Now it’s my turn. Lenny is gone, and now Duke. I gotta protect me and Russ from Pop. If I don’t, Russ won’t make it. I won’t make it. I may be eleven years old but I got at least seven more years in this house. I gotta stand up. Be a man.