The Last Stop

Never trouble trouble ’til trouble troubles you. That’s what my dad always said. He’s dead now and here I am with a weird dog named Kriss and wondering why I can’t sleep. I say “wondering,” but I’m pretty sure it’s about Dawn and a part of this world I still don’t understand. Now I’m sure I canunderstand, but I just haven’t yet. It’s been two months since I brought Kriss home, and we’ve formed a strange bond, probably because we both knew Dawn. She seemed like loads of trouble, but now I feel like maybe I’ve missed something.

I remember Dawn waiting. She sat quietly, wrapped in a towel, legs folded under her, paging through a Cosmopolitan magazine. She would often look up to see if I was finished working. She had a soft smile with full lips and fine, high cheekbones. She painted her fingernails and toenails light pink, tied back her dusty blond hair with a green velvet ribbon, and opened her gray-blue eyes wide, watching and waiting, like a rabbit. Often, she gave the impression she was about to cry. Whenever I was nearby, she would touch me, and her hand would linger until I moved. She would kiss me with wet, squishy lips that felt like raw oysters and feel with her tongue to see if I would come closer. Her skin seemed too warm, and she smelled like heated almonds.

“Maybe later?” she would ask.

Dawn had showed up one day, along with her ugly dog, Kriss. I was working in my garden. I lived alone in a little house with a tin roof on five acres of wooded land just off the highway north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and taught English Lit at a nearby community college. Two years ago, at age 28, I had moved to New Mexico with a full pickup truck and sad memories of a marriage gone bad. Here, at seven thousand feet, the air was sharp with the scent of pine, and the sky captured my attention every day. That morning, the clouds made silver cirrus streaks across the horizon, and the sunlight darted among the scattered trees, like frightened children looking for places to hide, places where shadows muted the glare.

I heard a vehicle making its way up the steep drive through the trees, and my dog, Charley, whined and paced in his fenced stockade that surrounded the house. Charley was a mean five-year-old German shepherd rescued from the pound. He was well-behaved around women, but he hated men, children, and other dogs. A Volkswagen came into view, a new 1971 light blue bus with curtains in the windows. I walked over carrying a beer as she looked out the window.

“Are you Galen?” she asked.

“That’s me, in the flesh,” I said.

“I’m Dawn,” she said, “from Oklahoma City. Jim and Carol gave me a map and said it would probably be cool if I stopped to visit. Carol is my best friend—do you think it’s okay?”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t really know. I had to get away from my husband, and I brought Kriss because there’s no place else for him.”

There was a big dog in back, a tan-and-white German shepherd. He was long, lanky, and his ears were huge. They looked like little floppy tents pitched on top of a bony face. He whined and jumped around.

“I’ve had Kriss since he was a puppy. Can he get out?”

Charley had noticed and was growling and showing teeth.

“I’ll take him out over here, behind the well house,” I said. “Do you have a leash?”

She put on his leash and he jumped out. He was clumsy, strong, and friendly.

“I’ll take him,” I said. I jerked him up close and made him walk at a heel in a figure eight around the trees. Then I made him sit and lie down. I had to shake him by his neck with both hands, turn him over, and then hold him down so he’d know I was the alpha dog. I hate things you can’t control. That’s mostly why I live alone.

“He hasn’t done his tricks like that for years,” she said. “He has accidents in the house, and my husband hates him.”

Charley barked at the fence. Kriss strained at the leash. Dawn looked at me with wide-open eyes and waited for me to say something. That was the first time I noticed her waiting. There was deep longing in her eyes; she looked thirsty. She stared at me with a wary look, as though she knew I felt crowded. I took a breath. Annoyed with myself, I stood in the sunlight and let my quiet day fill up with barking dogs and a sad woman with two wet eyes. Stupid, I thought.

“How long do you want to stay?” I asked.

“Just for a few days, you know, until I get organized and make a plan. I can cook and help take care of things, and I can sleep on the couch. Maybe we can tie Kriss out in back. Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just that Carol said you’d be a good place to stop.”

During her second night on the couch, Dawn slipped quietly into my bed. In the morning, she left her toothbrush and all her makeup all over the bathroom sink counter, and everything changed around the house. Dawn cooked, cleaned, and took Kriss for walks in the woods. She washed her underwear in the bathroom sink, and hung them to dry on the shower rod. I built a new separation fence in the yard so I could keep Charley and Kriss apart. They settled in to their new territory, but remained snarly.

In the evenings, we drank and smoked dope, and talked about the wreckage of her marriage and her husband’s abuse.

“He didn’t really hurt me,” she said. “Sometimes he would punch me in the stomach or push me out of the way, but he never hit me hard in the face. Everything I said was wrong. I never could do any right things.”

“Don’t you mean you couldn’t do anything right?”

“Whatever. You know,” she said.

“No, I don’t know. I’m used to complete sentences.”

“Okay, try this. He hated everything I did, and I promise you one thing, I’m done with that marriage.”

“I don’t mean to be a stickler, but things in the oven are ‘done.’ Relationships are ‘finished.’” It doesn’t take much effort to use words correctly, I thought.

“Okay, finished, gone, over and out,” she said, waving her hand. “I like it here, Galen, but you don’t talk much about yourself. Why are you alone?”

“I’m alone because that’s probably my destiny. I don’t have much of a heart anymore. I just exist, so to speak.”

“But you’re a teacher. I know you must be good at what you do. What about that?”

“It’s a living, and I need the money.”

“I don’t understand you, Galen. You seem so lost, but for some reason I want to stay with you. I guess we’re both lost, huh?”

Speak for yourself, I thought. After we had our little talks, she would shower and take me quietly to bed. Her body was gentle and warm, but her squishy lips bothered me. She would curl up against my back to sleep, like a small child afraid of the dark.

In the morning, I would work at my desk and she would read magazines and wait. Before lunch, she would shower and come out in a towel, still wet and brushing her hair. Then she would kiss me and wait to see if I wanted her. Often we would go back to bed. Then we’d get up and she would make tuna fish and pickle sandwiches, and we’d go outside and work in my garden. My marijuana plants grew in the corn where they were hard to see. I had culled all the males, and the females were lush and green. They were about ready to flower. I picked leaves and put them in a drying rack. I grew outstanding dope. For me, to exist was to be stoned.

Dawn would sit in a chair, paint her nails, and watch me work. She looked like she was waiting for a bus, and her waiting annoyed me to no end, although her dedication to my needs seemed almost heroic. Sometimes she would cry softly, and then talk about her mom, who thought she should go back to her husband and make the best of it. She irritated me, but I was often drawn to her. I couldn’t figure it out.

“She really doesn’t know,” Dawn said. “Mother doesn’t know about the hitting.”

“You should stay away from him. There’s no future there,” I said.

On Labor Day, we walked down to the river. We drank tequila, smoked a couple of joints, and ate the sandwiches Dawn had packed. The river was quiet after the summer runoff. We took off our shoes, waded in the icy-cold water, and looked for rainbow trout in the swirling pools. The stream shimmered in the streaks of sunlight, and Dawn laughed as I grabbed at a fish and it turned out to be a rock. We sat on the bank in the warm sunshine, and I reached over and touched Dawn on her thigh. She took my hand, pulled it to her breast, and held it still.

“This is better,” she said.

“Better than what?” I asked.

“Better than anything, you know, before.”

Better than alone? I wondered.

After a while, she splashed cold water on me, and we laughed and hugged each other.

On the way back to the house, she stopped and leaned back on a tree. The light fell on her hair and made shadows. She stood up tall and looked at me with bright, clear eyes that no longer waited.

“I have to do something with my life,” she said. “I can’t stay here like this much longer. I think I could be happy and have a life with you, if you weren’t so angry.”

“Angry? Is that what you think?”

“You’re angry when I wait for us to be together. You’re angry around the dogs. You’re always stoned. It’s like you’re trying to control your mind or guard yourself from something—like there’s a cloud around you. Do you know you grind your teeth when you sleep? Galen, I’d say you’re way angry, but thank God you don’t hit.”

“Maybe I’m just unhappy. Have you thought about that? There’s a lot to be unhappy about.”

“Do you want me gone?” she asked as her eyes flashed.

“Do you mean do I want you to leave?”

“Hey, I can leave tomorrow if you want.”

“Look, Dawn, it’s been great, but you should finish things up, and let people know where you are. This is, you know, temporary. Remember? You were going to stop for a while.”

“I could go back, get a divorce, and come back here. You could keep Kriss while I’m gone. We both know we could make it work, I mean, if you would let me in.”

“I have let you in. You’re here in my house, we sleep together, and you’re everywhere.”

“No, I mean let me into your soul.”

“That wouldn’t work out,” I said. “There’s not much room in there.”

“I guess I’ll get packed and leave in the morning. I’ll go back and stay with Mom for a while until I decide what to do. She has an extra room and a fenced backyard.”

She left early in the morning, just after sunrise. Charley barked and tried to fight through the fence when I went to get Kriss and put him in the car. Dawn looked at me and waited until I kissed her through the open window.

“Good-bye, Galen. Thanks for letting me stop here for a while. I hope someday you find someone to love.” She looked straight ahead.

I listened as the VW bus went down the hill, and the sound of the air-cooled engine faded. It became very quiet. Charley peed on the fence posts. I smoked a joint, let Charley out, and we walked down to the river. He kept looking over his shoulder. I sat by the water for a couple of hours and threw pebbles in the pools. I thought about Dawn splashing me and laughing. Today, it didn’t seem like the same water.

A week later, I got a postcard from Dawn with a picture of a Texas steakhouse on the front. “I stayed overnight in Amarillo, and I’m driving to Mom’s house today. You are a great friend.” I put the postcard on my refrigerator under a magnet that said, “Eschew Obfuscation.”

Carol called two weeks later.

“I’ve got some bad news, Galen. Are you sitting down?”

“Go ahead, what is it?”

“Dawn killed herself.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. They found her in the bedroom at her mom’s house. She took a bottle of sleeping pills.”

“Who’s going to take her dog?” I asked as I stood up and paced around the room.

“Her husband came and got him and took him to the pound,” Carol said.

That son of a bitch. Kriss is as good as dead right now. No one will take him the way he is. I looked out the window at the sunlight streaking through the trees. Something dreaded rose up in my throat and then stopped as I swallowed.

“Did she leave a note or anything?”

“No. Nothing,” Carol said.

“Well, I’m glad we didn’t get too close. This could be way beyond sad. She was just here, you know.”

“I know.”

“Will you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Call the pound in Oklahoma City and tell them I’m on my way to get Kriss. Whatever you do, don’t let them put him down.”

“Okay, Galen, I will. Dawn would like that.”