New York City skyline at night

Fiction

 

 



The Grey Dog
Christopher Cappelluti

Drawing by
Michael Cappelluti

Once upon a time, I dreamt in space, and forgot where I was going.

I left my room on Minerva Avenue for the damp city, looking for liberation. As it happens, it was Friday, the last day of September. I say city, though truly, Binghamton wasn't a city. Not really. It was more like a shell of the industrial center it had once been. I had to get out. As I approached the Greyhound station, sheets of newspaper carpeted the parking lot, muffling my leather steps. I dodged several scattered puddles of black water, each one graced with a putrid luminescence.

I was a bookish twenty-one-year-old then; an awkward mixture of certainty and doubt. A dreamer. I didn't trust many people, and those few with whom I held conference were only allowed bits of truth. About the platonic, romantic, and professional happenstance in my compartmentalized life, parents and friends were kept in the dark. I was a mirror, exploring other psyches without revealing much of my own. Some people called me a little closed off. When I did open up, it was usually with a perfect stranger at a bar or airport terminal. But on that Friday, September's last, I felt the need to open up, and exchanged a bill for a ticket on the first bus leaving crum-bum Binghamton—the five fifty-five to nowhere.

After some circular pacing, I boarded early and waited inside the bus, taking a window seat somewhere in the middle. I retrieved a New York Times crossword puzzle from my bag and gave in to my longstanding addiction of writing letters in little boxes. Outside, an obese man zipped by on an electric wheel chair through a group of pigeons, interrupting their pecking. When he was gone they resumed fighting over the boxed remains of a fried chicken meal.

Then, I saw her—the first beautiful sight the world offered in months of drowsy participation. She was slender, leaning against the building and smoking a cigarette. Raven black hair cascaded over her shoulders and her crossed legs were fitted with dark blue jeans. She didn't have any baggage, so I assumed she was a townie. Yet, a townie touched with an aura of sophistication. She looked like the kind of woman men have dreamt of for ages.

If I believed in love at first sight, then I loved her. I dreamt: she was mine. I possessed her, kept her for my own, devoured her intentionality and desire. I covered her over and spoke for her in times of trouble. I bought her endless trinkets and fragrances and fashioned her into the vision of woman that danced before my inner eye of yearning. She was mine, and it wasn't bad.

Then, I dreamt: I was hers. I was the centerpiece of her universe, existing for the sole purpose of creating the spawn of her madness. I was the diluvian plain which received the endless torrent of her fickle whim and fury. I was showered upon with physical and emotional affection until fulfilled, and sick of it. Yes, I was hers. And that, too, wasn't bad.

At five fifty-two, the bus driver labored up the steps and turned over the engine. I walked to the front and handed him the ticket. His name tag read: Jason.

"I felt like getting on early," I said. "Do you want my ticket?"

"I don't want it," Jason said. "But I'll take it."

Jason laughed. I didn't. His navy blue sweater, embroidered with the Greyhound logo, fit snug around his potbelly. He cleared his throat before clicking on the mic.

"Now boarding the five fifty-five," he garbled. "Five fifty-five, now boarding."

I walked to my window seat and watched as the swarm milled around the bus. When the last person boarded, my love flicked her cigarette butt into a puddle and approached the bus. I studied her hips, holding my breath. I leaned into the aisle and watched her give Jason her ticket. Her suede shoulders were flecked with rain. She walked the narrow aisle and sat down in the seat across from me. I stared out my window.

When the bus had accelerated beyond city limits, I returned to my puzzle. At intervals, I rubbed the peach fuzz on my chin. She gazed out her window, paying me only occasional glances. A blur of telephone poles produced a silent, lulling rhythm. Rays of sun punctured the clouds, kissing the towering silos. I turned to the window, focusing on my own reflection. I wished for her to speak to me, ask for the time, anything. When she did catch me in her eyes, I looked away, wrestling with the tormenting possibility of her not saying anything at all. Then I decided, I must attempt communication, regret was the only alternative.

But, before I could make up my mind, she spoke. "What are you working on?"

I looked across the aisle. Her voice filled my ears, like honey rolling through the wrinkles of my brain. Her eyes were black and shaped like walnuts. She blinked them slowly, it made me feel naked. How dare she?

"I'm doing a New York Times crossword," I said, trying to sound uninterested.

"Those are hard aren't they?" she said, leaning over the empty seat.

"They're highly regarded among people who do crosswords," I said. "They increase in difficulty from Monday to Sunday. As it happens, this is today's—Friday's puzzle." "Interesting," she said. "Wow, Friday! I didn't know that. But, I don't do word puzzles." Her smile was like a half moon.

I tried to mirror the smile.

"So," she asked, "what's your name?"

"My name is Arn Tali." I waited before prying. "What's yours?"

"Cleopatra," she said, beaming her half moon.

I stared, noncommittally. What a name. It was just perfect.

"Where you headed?" she asked.

"Not sure," I said, gazing out the window behind her. "I just want to go somewhere."

"I'm going to Toronto," she said. "But I have to transfer in Syracuse."

"That's far away." It was the only thing I could think of to keep her looking at me. She asked me what kind of a name Tali was anyway. Spanish, she guessed. Greek? Italian? No, I told her, inhaling deeply as if I had explained this to her before. The name, I explained, is of Latin origin. I told her how throwing a tali, the plural being talus, was a dice game in ancient Rome. She seemed interested. Then she told me, as far as dice games go, my name sounded a lot better than Arn Craps. I laughed, reaching for the nape of my neck.

"As it happens," I said, "the winning roll was called a Venus Throw."

"I like that," she said. "Sounds sexy."

Her half moon was adorable. I looked down to my puzzle. When I glanced back up, her eyelids were drooping.

"Buses make me tired," I said, as the Greyhound bobbed up and down.

"I like sleeping on a bus." She yawned. "Makes the trip go faster."

I was captivated by the way her hair fell over the left side of her face; how her walnut-shaped eye pierced through the dark veil. We swayed for a while, half asleep half awake. But as we passed Marathon, inexplicably, she moved my bag to the floor and sat next to me. My stomach churned with all kinds of nausea, but I spoke with her. In reality, though, Cleopatra dominated the conversation. In the window seat, I was her captive. She told me about the rolling stones in her life, as well as the moss gatherers; about drinking from red plastic cups and getting cozy by the bonfire. She told me, in confidence, what alcohol made her black out, and about the boys who used that knowledge against her.

After some time, I fell out of love. I looked away, ruminating, retracing the unfurled thread connecting us, seeking a weak spot to gnaw at. Though, Cleopatra kept speaking without eye contact. She told me where to find good camping in New Mexico and how tolerant speed limits were out west. She conjured images of flat tires and creepy gas stations. For a rare modicum of time, I stopped thinking.

By six-forty, the bus careened passed Homer up route eighty-one and the red sun sank behind trees. Raindrops ran across the window. Some met along their paths and merged while others traversed the pane without ever touching. Weariness crept behind our eyes, but we kept speaking. Her eyelashes drooped, giving her an elegant look. As our speech slowly grew lax, I felt a change. My eyelids drooped too, like wet canvas tarps. Where am I, I thought, where am I going? Maybe I could still love her? The rain would not cease. I wanted to listen forever. Forever and ever, but alas, I was finally caught by the vise grip of slumbering solitude….

I awoke with shards in my eyes, smelling fast food. We were parked. The lights were on and people were filing back onto the bus. Cleopatra was asleep, her head on my shoulder. Her hair smelled like rain and cinnamon and made my heart beat through my shirt. I wondered, how could she sleep through all of that? I wanted to wake her, but would've felt too guilty. Outside my window I saw a thin, grey dog licking the pavement. It worked at the ground with its tongue, shivering. I looked away.

Then I remembered the dream I had. It was rare when I remembered dreams, but this one was majestic. Cleopatra was there. We were standing at a stone altar in a deep wood. A silver chalice stood upon the mossy altar and a spring bubbled up from the ground and flowed downhill. Sparrows flew around us, piping their song as a breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle. Sunbeams broke the canopy and filtered down in golden shafts. I filled the chalice with cold water and we took turns drinking.

Suddenly, a bickering couple sat down right in front of us. I didn't recognize them; they must have gotten on at the last stop. Jason turned the engine over, and when everyone was seated, the Greyhound was back on the road. Many people were asleep in minutes while most of the rest were silent. The bus smelled like a deep fryer. I listened to people chewing and coughing into napkins. It was, as it happens, quite disgusting. The two passengers sitting in front of us wouldn't stop griping. While they tried to keep their voices down, they didn't try hard enough. At first I wasn't sure, but the man seemed to be biting open sugar packets, which he took from his jacket pocket, and pouring them into his coffee. He did it again and again. By the time the man was pouring number ten, the woman must have finished off her meal, and started picking at the man's lap.

"Goddamit," he said, "these are mine, Shirleen. Why didn't you get enough for your own damn self?"

"Shut up, Barney," she said. "Some way to talk to your wife. What a gentleman.

What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine. It's just a fry."

"Would you quit that," he said. He tore open his sixteenth packet, letting the refuse fall to the floor.

"How many of them you need?" she asked, stealing another French fry. "You're gonna go and contract diabetes if you ain't careful." She reached for more fries.

"Goddamit, Shirleen," he said. When he tried to push her hand away, he brushed the box of fries onto the floor. "Well, kiss my ass! Now look what you did."

They were a regular Bonnie and Clyde alright. For a while, it was difficult to tune them out. I wanted to wake Cleopatra, to dissolve in her conversation again. After time, though, Shirleen put her headphones on and Barney stared out his window, letting the caffeine and sugar seep in. All was silent, except for the windshield wipers and interstate ambiance. Then I heaved a deep sigh, feebly attempting to rouse Cleopatra back to life again. But, it was no use, so I let her sleep. She must have been a really deep sleeper. We wouldn't have been able to speak freely anyway, not with all those other people trying to sleep. But then, I thought, who cares? I paid for a seat on the bus, too. Or did I just pay for a seat to sleep? Where am I, I thought, where am I going?

I was a heartbeat away from waking her up, but then didn't. It wouldn't have been right to wake her just because I wanted to talk. Still, she rested right there, her precious head on my shoulder. I damned those cold, grey people. I heaved another sigh, damning my indecisive mind. I synchronized my breath with Cleopatra's. The bus dipped and my heavy lids lowered. The smell of food lingered and I thought about that grey dog licking pavement. The smell made me a little sick. And my flesh, weak as it was, succumbed yet again to the call of sleep.

… A fire blazed in a grove of monstrous black walnut trees. My leather shoes were dirty, smoke infused my fabric. She kept dancing counter-clockwise circles around me, howling to the moon, while blue smoke and orange embers swirled. The revelers breathed a cacophonous laughter. A dog howled in the distance as I reached out to her. But, she remained beyond grasp, twirling and skipping. Then a dozen others joined her train, and they looked just like her. Glossolalia flowed from her wet mouth and the string of spasmodic followers trailed. She approached, slithered her arms around my shoulders, up my brain stem; tingling me. Then a mangy grey dog stalked into the grove, snarling with curled jowls. The feast took to the trees like a troop, whispering indistinct incantations downward. That was when she started to use her nails. Her fingers explored under my shirt, over the rising goosebumps. She kissed my open mouth, dripping saliva. It made me writhe, I lost my balance, and after an eternity I looked to my palms. Red, blood stained, I held my innards; like pieces of sausage. At her command, I threw my entrails to the grey dog. She didn't smile or laugh but just continued her circumambulation, around me, always, with me…

"Hey buddy," Jason said, rousing me from sleep. All the lights were on, bright white. "You missed the transfer. This here's Syracuse. Stay on if you're heading to Cicero, but you gotta get off here for Rochester or Albany."

I yawned in his face, rubbing crust from my eyes. Cleopatra was gone. "Did the bus for Toronto leave?" I asked.

"Yep," Jason said, "you missed the transfer. Have to wait for the next one."

I released a loathsome sigh. "Where am I? Where am I going?"

 

Christopher Cappelluti is a writer with an interdisciplinary master's from NYU and research interests including James Joyce, Dante, and Rod Serling. He has worked as a travel writer, editor, teacher, carpenter, and organic farmer. Christopher's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Anamesa, American Book Review, and berfrois.