All over town, dogs sleep. The place is dusty and airless and from lunchtime till just before supper, nothing moves. Lazy beige canines sprawl against cracked door jambs or flop their gritty hides beneath parked cars. Roosters play call and response and step nimbly around tails and paws to peck at the fleas that hitch rides on passing birds, kids, dogs.
Newcomers are startled by the carcasses discarded on the road, littering the beach, abandoned out back of shops and shacks, and think how sad that no one retrieves these poor dead dogs. A few hours in town and they realise those dogs aren’t dead, they’re just laid-back. Nor do they really have owners to notice if they went missing or to fetch their bodies from the sand. The dogs are more like vagrants, local animals that sleep and roam and somehow make their way. The people here don’t have much, and so the dogs have even less, but from the looks of things, everyone has about as much as they need to get by. On the surface, no one complains, and it’s not just the dogs who seem content.
But as with all things, there’s always one asshole who thinks he needs more, who thinks the nature of things bequeaths him the right to gripe. The kind of asshole who resents what his days lack, who sees his neighbour’s situation and only feels right when his own set-up measures a little bigger. And in this town where men with full, round bellies nap on benches in the shade, hats pulled low and fingers laced, and where dogs with full, round bellies loiter at their feet, this town where pretty much everyone comes across laid-back, there are two such assholes. One dog, one man. Gordon and Carl.
Luckily, these assholes found each other one afternoon, because the only thing worse than a regular asshole is a lonely one. Theirs is a simple friendship predicated on not making a big fucking deal about it. They slouch around town, frowns slapped across their faces, brows knitted like prickly scarves. Now and then, they dish out growls but mostly they just sniff. Carl sniffs to mock his neighbour’s new curtains, the street party flyers tacked to a post, the car cruising past with upbeat music pumping from within. Gordon sniffs more literally – at piss-coated poles and the stream of garbage juice cutting a path from torn bag to curb.
Yeah, they know the thing about owners and pets growing to resemble one another, they know it, alright, so don’t fucking bother with that joke. Privately, each believes he’s the better-looking half of the pair but rather than getting into a big thing about it, they keep these opinions to themselves. Gordon knows those ladies would never clock time with Carl without a puppy at his side. Carl hopes Gordon knows how lucky he is that Carl took him in because no one else in town would settle for such a runt.
The truth is, neither of these assholes is much of a catch. Carl is sallow and pale, his complexion a chalky tea-colour that runs to burnt orange in the summer months. His slacks are light brown, his loafers are tan, and on rare rainy days that hose the dust from the buildings and turn the unpaved roads to streams, he’d disappear if he stood still against the backdrop of mud. Gordon is short and pointy with tan-coloured fur the texture of horse hair, a tail like a brown stick dipped in white paint, and an ear with a wedge clipped during a fight. If he huddles close to Carl’s pant legs, no one sees him at first. This is actually a great little trick when Gordon is feeling feisty and up for some biting. Just stand there and wait till someone steps too close, then pop out snarling. Gordon is the sort of asshole that likes to play that way.
Gordon believes himself a dog with big ideas, and in his heart he knows the hiding-and-biting gag is a bit lame. Too simple, not a thinking dog’s game. The sort of thing people expect from a bulldog or a nervous little scrap of fur at the end of a fancy leash. But it’s not like this is a town of overachievers or anything, and sometimes Gordon figures why waste his good material on this laidback bunch of lunks? The truth is, Gordon got fat this past summer and isn’t as quick as he used to be. The truth is, it demands a finer technique these days to hide his bologna-shaped midsection behind Carl’s calves and to dart out with enough speed to snatch a mouthful of trouser before his target jumps clear. As if Gordon wasn’t already lugging enough indignity – the shame of his peers riding in purses, the spectacle of Chihuahuas above their station prancing about at the end of rhinestone leads, his own weensy “ark”-sounding bark – he had to go and get fat. Now, the chilly weather is here and with it his sweater that was already getting a bit tight last year. Now, clearly too small, the wool chafes his armpits and bunches over his gut, inching its way up his shoulders like a turtlenecked shar-pei .
Small mercy that Carl got fat, too, from an especially enthusiastic season of tamales and beer, and they puff around town at the same winded speed. Huffing and pissed off at their own bellies: Gordon at the way his bumps the curb when he crosses the street; Carl at the way his pokes out the bottom of his shirt to grow clammy and dead-feeling in the autumn air. Even before they got fat and angry at their own guts, it was easy to find things to keep this pair of assholes pissed off. But the one thing that brought them proximate to happy, very nearly content, was of all things a tree. A gnarly mesquite with furrowed bark and crooked trunk split by a little knot-hole where it met the ground. It pushed through the sidewalk, cracking the cement into a dangerous bow then stretched its branches in the opposite direction, casting shade over an empty lot. The tree marked the halfway point in their nightly walk, the delicious moment when they slumped against it and took stock of their pissed-off day. And often, although neither Gordon nor Carl would admit as much, they found themselves a little less pissed off in the presence of the mesquite.
But remember, they’re still assholes even when they’re at ease, and the things they like best about the tree are things only an asshole would enjoy. Carl isn’t just an asshole, he’s also a lazy motherfucker, and he likes the little nook at the base of the trunk, perfect for discarding the trash he can’t be bothered to carry home. Wrappers and cellophane and plastic cups and straws. Rolled-up racing pages from wagers gone stale and which brought him little or no return. The blue plastic baggies containing Gordon’s evening poop. And Gordon isn’t just an asshole, he’s a dog that eats and craps AND naps in the street. For Gordon, the tree provides a place to squat, a place to rest, a place to lift his leg and pee. Best of all, Carl isn’t the only lazy motherfucker who comes this way, and the slumping tree is always littered with pizza crusts, hotdog nubs and those soft-serve cones that never melt but just slouch into vanilla globs.
Tonight, they walked a little faster than they’d have liked but the air was cooling fast and they both wanted out of their ill-fitting sweaters. Once around the tree, they figured, and then home. Cresting the hill, their hearts sank into their globe-shaped bellies. Their tree, reduced to a heap of golden woodchips that smelled of the promise of delicious barbecue. A two-man work crew in coveralls fed the last few branches into a machine and with that, the slumping tree was gone. In that moment, Carl and Gordon knew: there was a new pair of assholes in town.