Cerberus Sleeps was previously published in The Berkeley Fiction Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
He rests his head against the bars, feels his lip caught on the steel and leaves it there, his teeth flashing like a wild beast's and who cares. He closes his eyes halfway, snores. It's the same old drill.
"Daddy, Daddy," the call of a twelve-year-old girl down the hallway.
"Oh, Honey, look," a dainty wife dragging a thick-palmed man behind her.
"Now that's a daw-og," two syllables, the man says, claiming his territory, pissing everywhere.
Cerberus dreams of sundown. At night the coyotes wail. He hears them through the walls of this place, imagines them wild-eyed, shadow-hunting under the eaves of suburban houses, scrawny and on the verge. Rage against the dying of the light, the poet said. Better than Euripides; better than Aeschylus. One of the few perks of living this long. The howl of it all, the raging muzzle pointed skyward, not in praise or prayer, just a deep night's siren moan, the roundness of the vowel, the howl. Do not go gently into that good night, but this is what he dreams, to go gentlyif only he could. He imagines darkness enfolding him forever, a sweetness he can never have. He falls asleep listening to the sound of the river that was his youthful home.
The family turns away, back down the corridor.
Next day, and here they are again. Mother, father, the girl who liked the dark circle over his left eye, called the layers of thick skin folding around his neck cute.
"Cerberus?" says the father, squinting at the animal control tag on Cerberus's cell. "What the hell kinda name is that?"
The volunteer, a twig of a woman with grey hair to her waist, shrugs. "We get so many dogs. We do our best." Her voice trails off; her hair falls across her face. Then the metal grate of his cell creaks open and the leash comes out, the collar. Should he waggle around like a mortal dog, tongue lashing with affection? Should he succor favor?
He ambles out of the cell, and he can't help it: when the girl throws her arms around his neck and squeezes him, his butt wiggles. He feels that dog-smile crossing his jowls, and he hasn't smiled like this in half a century. It's something about her. She laughs and he can't hold back, lets his pink tongue slather her face from chin to forehead, and goddamn, he thought he'd finally outgrown this. His heart thumps like a caged rabbit against the inside of his ribcage.
"C'mon on, boy," the father says. The man opens the back door of the SUV and pats the seat.
Cerberus stands still. The seat is four feet off the black asphalt. He hasn't jumped that high in ages, isn't about to start now.
"Up, boy. Up, Cer-cer-cer-berus." The man coaxes. Cerberus sits. The man grimaces, bends at the waist, and hoists all fifty-five pit-bull pounds of Cerberus into the SUV. "We're changing that name," he says.
"I like it," the daughter says.
The man's fists tighten around the wheel. He looks at Alma in the back seat with her arms around Cerberus. "You're going to be responsible for walking that dog." He wags his finger, his happy coin flipping in the air and landing on rage now. "And feeding him."
"He's mine. I know, Dad. He's my dog. Aren't you, Cerbie, yes, you are." She buries her face in Cerberus's neck, and god that feels good. His taut muscles go limp.
The father shifts into reverse. "Damn right he's your dog." It slips through his lips like a serpent. The wife rests her hand on her husband's blue-jeaned thigh. "She'll be fine, Keith. She's old enough for some responsibility." Helen turns to the back seat, "Aren't you, Alma?"
Alma nods, and Cerberus's heart sinks with hope. There's the we-want-to-give-a-homeless-dog-a-home type; the a-pit-bull-like-this-is-good-protection type; the we-want-to-try-a-dog-before-having-kids type; and this: a-dog-teaches-a-kid-responsibility typewhich means if Alma forgets to feed him, the parents won't do it. No walk, same thing. He is her responsibility. If Alma does not love and care for him, Cerberus'll be back in the pound, a lesson to her. He's been around the acropolis a few times, and still, he closes his mouth and rests his ancient head on Alma's lap. She melts into him. Under his short white and brown hair, his jowls flush pink.
At home now, dinnertime, the father helps his own father to the table. The younger man curves his body over the old man's bent figure, hands resting next to his father's on the walker. They walk as if they're spooning, the son a parenthesis around his father. Cerb hears the son's voice, You're so old, father, who are you father, out of pitch to humans, out of pitch even to the man who speaks it, and then, "Goddamnit, Dad," because the old man has steered off course again. The two of them teeter, until the son grabs the edge of the dinner table, coffee splashing from cups. "Shit, Dad. Why can't you just… shit!"
I wish I could just shit, the old man says, decibels above human comprehension, and Cerberus chuckles, a slobbering guffaw. He watches the geezer leave the walker behind, toddle forward, and sit in the chair. He sees the old man's eyes, what the son would call empty, but what any dog at the pound knows is defiant.
Helen brings Pyrex dishes and sets them on the table. Sloppy Joes; a salad.
The elderly man smiles at her, his pointy chin stubbled with white. Keith stands behind his father, flexing his jaw, but tries for kindness. "It's okay, Dad," says it as softly as he once spoke to his wife, days when he was courting her. He no longer courts her.
Cerberus closes both eyes, dreaming of the old man's future, death waiting in the threshold to cradle him as it will never cradle Cerberus. He twitches in his sleep, wakes to the sound of Alma's footsteps running through the front door, across the hardwood floor, out of breath, "Hi, Cerberus," passing him like a warm, Aegean breeze.
In the hanging fog of sleep he almost stands and rears his head, like in the old days, so big, so ugly that writers always exaggerated it: three heads, one hundred heads, a thousand heads, they said. It was one head, he wanted to tell themimpressive in size and ugliness to be sure, but just one head. Cerberus was the same as any other dog, save for the fact that his life would go on forever and ever, amen. He sighs now, and rests his head on crossed paws. The family eats. Cerberus watches from his animal distance.
After dinner, Helen cleans the kitchen and Keith snores in his chair, the old man conked out on the sofa next to him, both men's jaws hanging open like barn doors. Alma has homework to do. "You can play with the dog after you're finished," her dad says, so Cerb spends the evening in the living room with his chin resting on the old man's shearling slippers. He likes the smell of them, the sweaty stink that lingers on life. But he likes Alma more, would rather be with her; he fights his feelings when he's awake, but in his sleep, he dreams of her. When he hears her voice outside the dream, "Out for bedtime. Cerberus, c'mon. Out before we go to sleep," he springs to all fours, surprises even himself with spryness, and the jolt rouses the two old men.
"Wha wha wha?" Keith says, confused. Then his eyes light on Cerb, the cause of the commotion, and he hisses. Cerb cocks his head in question. Hadn't Keith wanted him when Cerberus was behind bars? Hadn't Keith been the one to say, Now that's a daw-og? Centuries past, and Cerberus has never grown to understand this trait of humans: wanting; getting; throwing away. Wanting again.
Keith's father barely opens his eyes, sees Cerb and smiles, "Heh heh," he says, no one listening.
"I hope he's housebroken," Keith says.
"He is, Dad. Look at him." Cerberus slips past Alma, lumbers out the door, and shits happily. It takes the chilly night exactly three seconds to seep beneath his thin coat and give him a shiver. He lifts his leg, pisses. "Good boy," Alma says. Cerberus turns his head toward her midstream, can't stop looking at her even now. He finishes up, then runs toward the door. Hope is the thing with feathers, he hears his own heart pitter-pattering, and he tries to will it away.
"Well, make sure of it," Keith calls.
"I just watched him. He went right out and peed."
"Leave him out, Alma. Close the doggie door."
Cerb keeps his pace, running toward Alma. All he wants is to be around her, and then she sighs the way young girls sigh when they're tired of following their father's rules, and the door slams in Cerberus's face.
He stops in his tracks; sits. The cold concrete patio presses against his scantily-haired flanks. He's tough, sure, one of the toughest dogs in history, but cold is his bane; he has not a wafer-thin layer of fat to warm his bulging muscles.
Sometimes, he knows, if he stares at a door long enough, a two-legged will wrap those opposable thumbs around the knob. If his staring persuades Alma now, he'll be inside, warm, and snoozing by her bed in seconds. Alma will not let him sleep outside, not with his thin coat, his old bones. She won't let him down.
Half hour later he's still staring, shivering. Finally, he saunters into the yard, sniffs the grounds, listens to the stories told through the scent of layered dirt. One sniff and his nostrils catch the fresh green smell of rain in a village built here eons ago (he remembers the village), the musty tickle of wet loam farmed by the villagers (he remembers the fertile ground), the distinct aroma of newly mown grass (Keith, last week). The scent of history, of time passing, it's all right here, under the first layer of soil. He howls softly, a hum melodic enough to make people look up from reading the nightly news, watching TV, or surfing the net; but not loud enough for them to identify it as a howl. They wonder, then go back to their tasks.
Meanwhile, Cerberus pads around the backyard, his nose full of stories, and finally settles on staring into Keith and Helen's bedroom window, a buttery glow of light inlaid into the side of the red brick house. He sees the silhouette of Keith disappear into the master bathroom, then return wearing just T-shirt and boxers. In this room, Keith loses his strut. His shoulders fold inward. He paces from bed to window a few times, then stops, looks out. But what Cerberus knows is this: You can see from darkness into light, never the other way around. And so, he watches as Keith reaches under the bed, pulls out a blue steel barrel, a gun. The soft V under Cerb's ribcage seizes. He sniffs the air, picks up the scent of regret, self-loathing, and holy shit, he knows this story.
Even from here, Cerb can hear the tick-tick-tick of Helen's shoes, the scuff of Alma's slippers on the hardwood floor in the other room. He hears their voices, Want a cookie, Mom? Ice cream? Helen calls to Keith, Dessert, and when there's no answer, she puts an edge in her voice, Honey, we made chocolate chip cookies. Your favorite.
Still no answer, and she sighs, and she must sit down because the sound of her footsteps goes quiet, and Cerberus sprints to the back door, barrels into the doggie-door panel with a boom, then scratches like crazy to get inside, howls for someone, anyone, to open the door, he's freezing, yes, but that's not the point. He runs back to the buttery window, sees Keith balancing the butt of the shotgun of the floor, resting the barrel on the roof of his mouth. He hears the rush of an ancient river through his ears, and he howls now, howls at the top of his lungs, and Keith pulls the trigger, a click, a practice shot, no ammo, and Cerberus knows this stupid trick, the rehearsal. Keith slides the 12 gauge back under the bed, stands, and opens the bedroom door. "Alma!" he hollers. "Will you get that barking son-of-a-bitch dog of yours in this house, now!"
The distinct scuff of Alma's slippers, and the door flings open. Like a pit-bull shot out of a cannon, Cerberus barrels past Alma, past Helen, thrashes down the hallway, knocks Keith against one wall, and bursts into the bedroom, barking, snarling with his nose pointed to the dark space under the bed.
"Son-of-a-bitch." Keith comes at him now, arms raised and ready to beat the dog, and yeah, Cerb's mother is a bitch, but so what, for chrissakes, and Keith keeps coming at him and Cerberus makes his ball-of-muscle body as flat as possible because if he can just get that goddamn gun in his teeth, but his claws slip on the hardwood floor, scratching it all to hell, and Keith rages, Cerberus bearing the brunt of it, and he almost fights back, but he thinks of the dog pound, and living without Alma, and just then, Alma comes to him. She slips her lithe body between Keith and Cerb and she's crying.
"Leave him alone, Daddy!"
"Teach that dog a lesson!"
"No!" Alma wraps around him like a blanket and the blows of the father stop.
Cerberus hears breathing now. That's all, just huge gusts of air rushing through the house: that's how it sounds to his dog ears. Keith takes in shallow breaths. Helen shivers in the background. The old man snores like a hive of bees in the living room. And in the midst of it all, Cerberus hears Alma's heartbeat, the in-and-out of her breath, a small wind across a beautiful landscape.
Soon Alma's pulse is almost back to normal, about thirty beats slower than his own. He weighs more than half her weight, but she picks him up like a kitten in her arms. Her eyes are swollen. He licks them. She carries him out of the room, says, "I hate you," as she passes her father, and Cerberus waits for more beating, more rage.
But there's none. Keith remains quiet.
In the hallway, Alma sets Cerberus down. "Come on, boy." She opens the door of her bedroom. Cerberus looks back at Keith, tries for some eye contact. Nothing.
He follows Alma. He wants to tell her of the comfort she gives him after so many eons of loneliness. But language is beyond him. He's a minimalist, his mouth shaped only for survival, tearing meat, scaring the shit out of people and cats, stuff like that. He has never felt anyone cry for him before. It's better than any honeycake he ever tasted in Elysium. He trots to the foot of her bed, curls up on the mat she's put there for him. He would follow her anywhere.
Cerberus sleeps. He sleeps with centuries of memories fading. He sleeps, at last, with the sense of home wrapping around him, a silence he's never heard before, not the absence of noise but the presence of (can he even think the word?), of love. Friends he's known forever pass by his window in the night sky: Orion and Venus; his distant relative the Hydra; the crab that nipped at Hercules's heels as the bully slayed the Hydra, all part of that age-old game.
Still ensconced in half-sleep, he raises his head, readjusts his old hip bones under him, moans a deep, content dog-moan. Before he lays his head back down, he glances at her. And he stops. There, in the soft-edged night, he sees her back rising and falling as she breathes, and he glimpses the unmistakable sign, her shoulder blades coming to two meringue-like peaks, the stumps of two unformed wings rising from her back. In earlier days, she'd have been scheduled for apotheosis or consorting with some god, any number of things that would have turned her immortal. She could have been one of him. Eternity exists for us like a tongue for a deaf mute, said the poet, and Cerberus wants Alma to speak the language of forever as if it were her native tongue.
Cerberus stands up, rests his head on her bedside. He watches her sleep. He knows better, but he can't help himself. He places one paw on the edge of her mattress. She doesn't stir. And so the other paw goes up, and then one back paw, until the full weight of his slobbery pit-bull presence is on the bed, next to her. She wakes slightly, feels him there, tosses her arm around him, and he curls up small as he can make himself, fitting neatly into the curve of her body. He feels her pulse thrumming in his right ear. The sound resonates in his own chest, and he sleeps like a pup, fragile and powerless, at last.
Dawn fingers its way between the slats of Alma's blinds, makes her room blush, and she wakes. "Oh, Cerberus," she says. She pushes her nose right up close to his, her arms wrapped all the way around his body. "But you shouldn't be on the bed,". She nudges him off, and he scrambles to get to all fours. She walks to the closet, her long legs swimming in her pajamas, which she leaves lying in a pool on the floor as she pulls on a pair of low-riding jeans, two t-shirts layered, and a pair of canvas tennies. "I don't mind, but you know Daddy." She raises her eyebrows. He pads closer to her with a spring in his step, his mouth open and panting the way any good dog does when he's happy. "Gonna miss you today," she says. She gives his flanks a few solid pats, then she's out the door, on her way to school.
He presses his wet nose against the glass storm door. Alma meets up with some mortal kids at the corner. They're wearing earphones and talking to her at the same time, deaf to the music of her voice. Cerberus folds his feet under him, slides his wet nose all the way down the glass. He's sound asleep by the time he hears, "Oh, crap! Cerberus!"
He wakes to see Keith standing above him, almost cowers, but then remembers who he is. But Keith is the cheery version of himself this morning. "Aw, jeez," Keith says, and walks to the kitchen, comes back with some Windex and Brawny. Keith rubs until the glass shines, then opens the coat closet, dons his morning windbreaker, grabs a flannel for Pops, and a dog leash. "Helen, me and Dad are walking the dog," he calls.
Helen pokes her head out of the arched kitchen doorway. She smiles. "You're getting to like him, aren't you?"
"You shoulda seen him looking out after Alma this morning." Keith cocks his head in admiration.
Helen looks from Cerberus to Keith to Cerberus, an Alma-like smile crossing her beautiful face. "Well, he can have the bacon grease when you get back," she calls.
Bacon grease? Cerberus's jowls drip with desire. Bacon grease for him? He feels that full body waggle overtaking his tough-guy posture.
Keith stands in front of his father, his legs spread wide and low to steady himself. Morning comes hard to Keith's old man, light slamming against his veiny, paper-thin eyelids, his bony legs still half embedded in the sofa bed where he sleeps. "The doctor says you gotta be up." Keith opens his arms and coaxes his father to stand, then leans forward, places the old man's hands on his own shoulders. "Hold on to me, Dad. Gotta be upright to take your meds."
The old man rises stiff as a totem pole, and Keith catches him, and for a moment they accidentally embrace. Quieter than Cerberus has ever heard him speak, Keith says, "Dad." Cerb watches, amazement washing over him. There's a beauty here he's heard humans speak of, but he's never noticed it before. If there were music, this could be a dance, Keith dipping his father low, holding him, then twisting outward and away in a little dosi-do, and finally placing the old man's hands on the walker, so the two can stand separately, alone. Then the dance ends.
"You're going with us, Dad, no arguments" Keith says.
The old man makes a noise like sucking marbles and humming at the same time. It goes on for a solid minute or so.
"Come on, come on," says Keith. "We're taking the dog for a walk. Dad, you love dogs."
The old man's lips part like one piece of flesh severing into two. His voice roils up from his gut. "I don't get no good service around here. Where's the manager of this hotel?"
"Right, okay, Dad, let's go." Keith walks backward, pulling the walker forward with each step. The old man toddles toward his son. Keith watches his father struggle, and Cerberus sniffs the air. He can smell the scent of memory all over Keith, the mustiness of an early spring evening when the same guy Keith's looking at now, the old geezer, walked nimbly into the same living room where they are now, landing his solid fist into a soft leather baseball glove. Cerberus can smell the boyish excitement of a father-son game of catch leaking through Keith's fifty-year old pores, and he can smell Keith husking it all off, too, the tough guy resurfacing. When Keith finally bends down to clip Cerberus's collar to the leash, Cerberus knows his senses are right: the scent of nostalgia drenches this guy. It's the purpose of aftershave, to hide the pheromones of masculine emotion. Cerberus can smell right through it all.
"All right, Dad, let's go," Keith says, and the old man shuffles forward as if he can't help himselfhe must follow his son to the door. Keith hollers to Helen, "Back soon."
It's a bright autumn day, red leaves against the blue sky and a few bare branches at the very tops of trees. Cerberus notices these details. He shakes his head. Thousands of years he's lived, and he notices now? He can hardly keep from breaking the leash. Has he ever smelled air this crisp? His nostrils sting with the scent of red and orange leaves. The desire to run pumps through his ancient legs. He remembers days when he used to sprint twenty, sometimes thirty miles an hour, his jowls flapping in the wind, his eyes squinting to keep from watering.
He ambles next to Keith on the leash now. They walk slowly, accommodating the old man.
"I know, Dad, but…" Keith argues with his Dad, but what does Cerberus care? He's out in the world for the first time in eons. His paws hit the pavement, remembering dirt, remembering rivers, the glory of slimy algae as he dog-paddled through a fish-stinking pond. Ah, the perfume of aged trout. Please let's go to the dog park.
And just then he hears the jabbering of the two men stop. The air turns jagged with silence. "I'll help," Keith says, eventually. "I'll help you do it."
The tenor of Keith's voice is copper, tinged with green and about to corrode. The sound wraps around Cerberus's chest like metal, sends his butt straight to the concrete, a stubborn dog not into walking. He waits for Keith to rage at him.
Keith faces his father. The old man can barely make eye contact, his lower lids red, sagging, the weight of the world pulling his skin and bones closer and closer to the ground each day. Eyesight is not Cerberus's best sense, but he thinks he sees the father's lower lipcandy-red, always a little too shiny with spittrembling. There's nothing weak about the man, nothing self-pitying. But he stands there, facing his son, and his lip trembles uncontrollably. In what's not meant to be a whisper, he says, "Thank you, son." It's all the sound he can muster.
Keith hears it, and his chest sinks, and he cranes his neck back and looks to the sky and places one hand on his head and he turns in circles right there on the sidewalk. There's a sound coming out of him, like cold water trickling over rocks, like the water is too cold and the rocks are creaking beneath it.
They turn and walk back toward the house. They haven't gone anywhere, and father and son turn and head homeward. Cerberus follows.
Inside, the old man points to a bathroom cabinet, and Keith pulls out a small baggy full of pills, a piece of paper, some string. He tells his father, yes, okay, yes, and the scent of loss grows so thick on his skin that Cerberus thinks it might smother him.
"Cerberus!" Helen calls, and he wants to run to her, he does. But he can't get the walk off his mind, the smell of Keith, the jagged silence. Finally, Helen's sweet voice seduces him. He runs, his black toenails clicking on hardwood, and he skids around the corner, lands in a sit, right at her feet. His eyes follow the slender curve of her calf muscle (bare beneath her morning robe) and rest on the blue of her long-lashed eyes. "Good boy," she says. "Keith, I think he's trained. Look how he sits. He comes and just sits." She pets his head and he leans into those wonderful legs. Then she walks to the stove, comes back with a Campbell's can of bacon grease.
Jeez, has he gone to heaven? Before he eats, he sits on the floor and bites himself on the ass, chews it a little, just to make sure he's not dreaming.
Nope, he's awake, and he dives into the bacon grease, laps it up like Dionysus sucking a liter of wine.
It leaves him feeling drunk, too. Not drunk-happy. Just slower. The lumpy-throated sadness after the high. He can't fit into his own skin. Something's different. He remembers Alma sleeping, her ghosted wings, her almost immortality. He can't shake the sound of Keith's voice, Yes Dad, I'll help you. His brain brims with the image of Keith with that gun, and the violence he tried to swallow, and he suddenly feels things he's never felt before and without language, who is he to name these feelings?
Keith has left for work now, has taken his old man to senior day-care, and Helen has gone off, too, her hair forced into a little blonde shield, like Athena's headdress, belying the natural human beauty he's come to know this weekend.
He tries to sleep, like any good dog should do at this time, but he keeps seeing that gun, and he has this springy feeling in his chest for Alma, yes, but it's also there for Helen, the old man, even Keith. He's a smart dog, sure, but soon enough, he finds himself wobbling back to the bedroom, diving under the bed, taking the wooden butt of the gun in his teeth, and carrying it to the living room. By noon, his mouth is full of splinters. Then he goes for the ammo. He carries box by box down the hallway, and out the doggie door. He rips some of the shells to pieces, buries the rest. Black powder lodges in his gums and he hacks it up, and that's fine, because the gun's destroyed and the ammo's a pile of nothing.
First one home, three o'clock, after school, is Alma. Cerberus can smell her coming from all the way down the street. She's got this male human with her, Jayden, and his dark hair hangs over his eyes, and his smooth, tanned cheekbones are handsome, though his height, almost six feet, makes him awkward and withdrawn. He knows he's only posing as a man. When Alma opens the door, Cerberus comes running. He wags his whole body, almost whimpers (and this he did not plan, acting like a pet).
"Cerberus!' Alma kneels down, hugs him, and Cerb's mind goes blank. He hears only the buzz of life around him.
The man-boy stands behind Alma. "Cool dog," he says, his voice pleated and breaking in the middle.
"Isn't he great?"
"What's his name?"
The man-boy laughs. Two low pitched chucks, and then his lanky body folds like a suitcase, and his knees bend and he's on the ground, petting Cerberus like an old friend. He wrestles with Cerberus, and the man-boy growls like a dog, and then Alma says, "Holy shit, Jayden."
Alma stands with her head in a Raggedy-Ann position, looking at the splintered gun.
"Holy fuck." Jayden stops playing with Cerberus. He chuck-chucks another laugh that isn't a laugh. "Your old man's gonna be pissed."
Cerberus sits, cocks his head. Two millennia and he has not learned to speak with words. He looks from the gun to Alma. He hears whines coming out of himself again, those high-pitched hums that he wishes were words.
"What did you do?" Alma says.
He remains seated, but scoots backwards.
"Clean it up," Jayden says. He stands fast, and he's almost like a man now. He starts picking up the splinters. "Your old man won't know. Clean it up."
"Right. Right." Alma's voice breaks, too. She runs to the kitchen, returns with a DustBuster, and starts in on the mess Cerb made. Cerberus can hear the thrum of her heart again. He wants to comfort her, and he moves closer. "Git," she hollers, and he jumps back. "Just go. Outside. Now!" She points to the back door, and Cerberus begins the long walk.
"Think your dad'll let you keep him?" Cerberus hears Jayden say.
There is silence, and he's not there to see Alma's response. Can't smell it either. All he can smell is sadness.
Cerberus sits in the backyard. Molehills of dirt surround him, and beneath them, the ammo he's buried. He feels proud of his work. He feels like a hero. He shivers in the chilly air.
Must be an hour later by the time Alma comes out, and he runs to her, and again, she rejects him. "Holy shit. There's more, Jayden!"
Jayden goes to the garage and returns with a shovel. He slams the backside of the shovel on top of the little piles of fresh dirt. "Why'd he dig like this?" he asks.
Alma shrugs. She stomps on the freshly dug up dirt with the flat of her tennies.
"Those little rat dogs, they dig like hell. But this dog? Shit." Jayden steps toward Cerberus and pats his solid back. Cerberus sits by Jayden. His tongue presses the roof of his mouth, trying to feel the seed of a word.
Cerberus expects Keith to go ballistic. Helen expects Keith to fly into a rage. Alma lies on her bed in her room, staring at the ceiling, one hand hanging off the side of the bed, resting on Cerberus. She knows what her father will do.
Keith comes home. Cerberus runs to the front door, sees Keith through the picture window, and his body wags about to break in two in the middle. He rests his chin on the sill, watches Keith get the new wheelchair from the trunk, and help his father from the car. There is that dance they do again, and it makes Cerberus's tail stop smiling, calms him with a feeling he can't fathom. He feels like Prometheus, his chest split open, some strange bird tugging at the fiber of his heart. Bark. Fuck. Bark. Fuck. Bark. Fuck.
He watches the two men walk. Most dogs either have permanent Alzheimer's or they're Zen masters, so in-the-moment they can barely remember the last time they peed.
Cerberus remembers. He knows what he's done.
Keith places his hand on the doorknob and Cerberus knows what is in store for him.
What happens next freaks Cerb out. Freaks him right to the core.
There's no rage. No fists. No threats.
Before bedtime, Keith goes outside with Cerberus. He waits in the night, while Cerberus takes a long, pleasant piss.
Afterwards, Cerberus trots up to Alma's room, noses his way past the half-closed door, gets ready to sleep.
And then it comes. He hears his name, Keith's voice. Cerberus stutter-steps, forward, then backward, in the threshold of Alma's door.
He makes a decision. He can face his fate. He plods into Keith and Helen's room.
Keith is alone, there on the bed, the same place he was when Cerberus watched him through the window. Same position, too: Chin in palms, elbows on knees, gravity working hard on him.
Cerberus takes it like a man. He sits squarely in front of Keith. He awaits his retribution.
Keith remains still. Cerberus does not fidget. He looks at Keith and Keith looks back. Perhaps there is a recognition. Cerberus would like to think there is, but he's just a dog.
After a while, Keith reaches out. He scratches behind Cerberus's ears. He says, "It's fuckin hard, man." Keith opens his eyes wider, looks off to the side, something Cerb has learned men do to keep water from falling onto their cheeks. Into the thin air, Keith says, "Can't do it. My own father needs me, and I can't do it." Cerberus worries his brow. He rolls his tongue in his mouth, lets it hang out, panting, yearning for the shape of a word. "Yeah," Keith says. "Yeah, I know."
Keith's hand feels good on Cerberus's head; when he withdraws it, Cerberus misses the touch. He watches Keith turn down the covers and curl up like a seed under the sheet.
The old man snores on the couch. Helen's footsteps work their way toward the bedroom after a long day. Alma is already asleep.
Cerberus stands in the hallway, head low, motionless. Tomorrow, he thinks, he will go back to the pound. Keith will come to his senses, realize what Cerberus has done. Finally, he takes a few steps down the hallway, turns into Alma's room.
There she is. In another lifetime, she'd have had wings. Cerberus watches her sleep. And he makes it a habit. He places one paw, then the next, on the bed. He's sure she feels the weight of him on the mattress. But she does not push him away. Instead, she curls her legs up tighter toward her chest, pressing Cerberus closer to her body. Cerberus sighs, a big huge pit-bull sigh. His jowls flubber.
In the middle of the night, half awake, he feels it. It's enough to make him writhe out of bed, enough to send him howling like a coyote in the night, the myth seeping out of him, mortality seeping in. Eternity exists like a tongue for a deaf mute. Cerberus hears better than any human, and yet he cannot speak.
He opens his eyes in the darkness. He remembers the world: blue sky, green leaves that bleed to red, that fall to brown. The musty scent of night. The breath from his own lips. Alma turns in her sleep. For a moment, her touch leaves him. And he longs for it.
So this is it. This is mortality.
He feels the beauty of loss falling all around him. It startles him, after so many years of forever. He hears the old man in the living room. He hears Helen speaking in a soft voice to Keith in their bedroom. He hears Alma breathing, feels her chest rising and falling against his own. Constellations cross the dark window. Everything has changed now. Cerberus feels the comforting impermanence of things. He closes his eyes. He sleeps.
Though we generally speak of telling a story, writing seems more, to me, like an act of listening. I heard Cerberus Sleeps in-between the lines of writing a novel with a voice completely different than Cerberuss. Inevitably, as I'd sit back to ponder the novel, Cerberus--that immortal hound from hell--would start barking at the door. It was annoying, at first. Cerberus had lost his mythical gleam and looked just as jaded and downtrodden as the next being of this century. But, you know the way a dog spills into the house after it's been outside too long and it wants to be with you? That's how this story came to the page. The main character came without me calling him, a stray dog wandering the streets of the place where wordless stories wait to be heard by some human who has the unique power (and limitation) of language, the thing we plaster everywhere, sometimes as a means of mundane communication, and other times, gratefully, as a gesture of art. I think art / writing is like any secret. It begins with listening to a whisper.
BK Loren's writing appears in anthologies and periodicals including, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Future of Nature, Orion Magazine, and many others. She is grateful to Mary Roberts-Rinehart Foundation, the Ucross Foundation, the Colorado Arts Council, and others for fellowships and awards granted to her. With her first novel finally wrapped up, her new project is a book of linked stories.