The hill was an escape, a portal to an easier world. In fact it wasn't much of a hill at all, more like a rise in the ground and a path that went up among the rocks under the trees. Kaiser, the Rottweiler, watched them from behind the fence and barked at Chano because it was too stupid to see that he was a trusted friend and that no one had put Chano in the back of the yard inside a fence. The smart dog lived in the house where it was warm because she was old and gentle and took a piece of toast smeared lavishly with butter and honey out of Chano's hand with such a degree of caution the young man was truly touched.
It was the end of March and the ground was hard and blotches of snow were still stuck to the earth even though it hadn't snowed in two weeks. Aldan had asked the smart one if she wanted to come for a walk up the hill but she had politely declined and curled up on her blanket in the corner of the kitchen where the light that leaked in through the dingy curtains kept her warm and content. Chano looked at her as they left the house and she apologized with her big black eyes and rested her jaws comfortably on a skinny foreleg. Cats darted and sprinted across the brown grass. When you stepped out of the house your first thought was that you were over-dressed. The sun was bright and you felt warm and cozy, even a bit cocky as you walked along with your bare hands swinging at your sides, but when you got to the top of the hill and felt the wind scrape across you like a dull saw blade you changed your outlook.
At the top of the hill the land leveled off and there were piles of snow here and there where the wind had pushed it. Skinny trees stood few and far apart as if there were some ancient quarrel among them, some bent this way, some bent the other, some prepared to make amends, some still bitter and stubborn. Chano took a rumpled pack of Pall-Mall's from his coat pocket and tried to ignite one but the wind kept blowing the fire out, his thumb going like crazy on the lighter, his free hand cupped around each hopeful spurt of flame. He turned his back to the wind but it put its arms around him and snuffed them out, one by one. Aldan didn't smoke, not cigarettes anyway, and he thought it was funny. When Chano finally had his cigarette going he sucked madly on the filtered tip until the cherry at the other end glowed deep red, but as they walked on the wind did most of the smoking and very shortly all Chano had left was the filter.
Aldan couldn't see the point of getting hooked on something that didn't make you high. Chano suggested that toast and butter and honey didn't make you high either but Aldan was hooked on it. Sure, but that doesn't kill you, Aldan said. Everything kills you, Chano said. And this was how their conversation went a good deal of the time. Philosophy-light, they called it. They had to shout at each other as they walked because the wind ripped the words out of their mouths and flung them far and wide like buckshot. After you walked about two hundred yards or so you came to a big tree where stone fences merged and it was under this tree that Aldan and Chano paused and took turns with a bottle of Wild Irish Rose which was about the cheapest wine you could buy and nearly twice as strong as your garden variety wine. Two people could get a fair buzz off a single bottle, and when you were as close as Aldan and Chano you didn't bother to wipe the bottle on your coat-sleeve before you took a drink.
By the time they reached the woods on the other side of the open field they were feeling alright. Back in the kitchen with the sweet old dog life was warmer but harder because they looked at it sober. It was pleasant to be in the woods with a little buzz going and to walk among the birch trees and the stunted pines. When they came to their usual spot they sat down out of the wind with the deadfall behind them. The Wild-eye came back out and went the rounds, and Aldan took out his pipe and a little plastic bag and rummaged in the bag for some good sized buds which he put into the pipe. After a while you were in a different place, a different time, a different life. The smoke curled and drifted up, disappeared into the trees.
Today was an unusual day because in less than a week Chano and his folks were moving upstate. It wasn't as if Syracuse was on a different planet but it was far enough away to mean that the two friends would no longer have much opportunity to see one another. Chano's sister had been attending the University and his folks wanted to move out of the sticks anyway. Chano wasn't looking forward to the move and neither was Aldan. They had both been out of school for nearly a year and both had jobs at a local canning plant. It was getting closer to April but sitting there in the dead woods with the wind whistling through the tops of the trees it felt like the very heart of winter. They were sitting on the ground and that made it colder still.
The two friends were stoned out of their minds and at first they thought it was a vision of sorts when off in the woods they saw three white-tail deer padding delicately across the mouldering leaves and brush and irregular blotches of snow. Aldan put his finger to his lips but realized he didn't have to because Chano was looking in the same direction, his big gray eyes scored with red and his eyelids heavy and puffy as if he had just awakened from a twenty year sleep like Rip Van Winkle. It was a buck and two does. They walked along slowly and there among the white birch trees they looked almost ghostly and somehow out of place, although the only ones who were out of place were the two young men who watched them with their sense of perception intentionally out of joint.
It seemed to take a long time for the deer to walk gently and purposefully out of sight, but in fact it was only a minute or so. Aldan and Chano sat very still and barely breathed, like two burglars hunkered down in a shadow when the front door of the house opens and the kitchen light comes on. The first thing Aldan thought was how it was a good thing that Susie hadn't come along. But then if she had she'd have been tromping around on the leaves and sticks and making a racket so the deer wouldn't have come that close. He remembered when she was young and how she could never sit still. She had to be out running around. Aldan's father would take her bird-hunting and there were pictures of Susie with a dead bird in her mouth looking proud and useful, her tail sticking up like a flag announcing her usefulness to the world. You didn't hear that tell-tale crack echo across the open field up on the hill any more. Or the sound of Birk's flat-black dirt bike tearing up the ground and yammering in the green distance like a chain-saw let loose from somebody's hand. Birk was way up north, in Maine, with his girlfriend Sandra and their sixty foot trailer, happy as clams. And his father's hunting days were over, which was alright seeing as Susie's hunting days were over as well.
"Jesus, that was cool." Aldan said, and he was whispering even though the white-tails had dwindled into the scenery.
"Fuck." said Chano.
After a while they stood up and were glad to get their freezing hindquarters off the hard ground. They took a path which Aldan had beaten many years ago which wasn't really a path but merely a series of visual reminders which led them out of the woods and into another open field. From there they had a panoramic view of the mountains in the distance and the dull gray clouds that moved across them. Chano didn't feel like going too far, and so they walked along the fringe of the woods without actually taking to the field. A bird with long dark wings took off from its perch in a clump of trees out in the middle of the field and went flapping slowly and regally into the woods. Aldan tracked the bird with an invisible rifle, one eye closed and the other squinted and pealed along the invisible barrel.
"As if." Chano said, as he watched Aldan track the bird.
"I could if I had to." Aldan said, and the rifle dissolved in the crisp air. His nose was running and he sniffled every few seconds. "And Susie'd go get it, and we'd make a fire and have bird for supper."
"That old dog?"
They walked along the fringe of the woods and then stopped to finish off the Wild-eye. Chano stepped into the trees to light a cigarette and they handed the bottle back and forth until there was nothing left. Aldan put the empty bottle back in his coat and the two friends decided it was time to head back. It was too cold. If the wind hadn't kicked up so much they could have made more of a go of it. Their faces were red and drawn back, and neither of them had thought to wear a hat or gloves.
Chano told Aldan about that time when he was a kid and he and two friends decided to go for a hike up Blackrock mountain in the dead of winter to look off the old train trestle. Chano was new to the area and new to the north-eastern climate in general. He and his family had lived in Florida until coming up north when Chano was eleven. Chano had decided to wear sneakers that day and no one had thought much about it until they left Parker's house and walked the mile or so down Old Mill Road and started up the hiking path. There was an ache in his feet before they even made it up to the trestle, and what was more it had started to snow. Being kids they kept going despite the snow and Chano didn't feel like complaining. But by the time they made it to the trestle Chano was in agony and past the point of trying to put on a brave face. Jesus, you can't hike in the snow with sneakers on, they told him, and Jeff was laughing like an idiot. Parker asked Jeff to shut the fuck up but Jeff kept laughing anyway. So off they went, back down the path. Parker was telling him he could get frostbite and maybe even gangrene and while he hobbled down the path Chano was picturing himself going down the hallway in school on crutches because he had lost his feet. When they got back down to the road Chano couldn't walk any further and Parker decided he would hurry home and have his mom come and take Jeff and Chano back in the car. It seemed like forever until the old Buick station-wagon came along and Parker's mom was acting like a crazy person. She couldn't believe they had let the poor dope walk through the 'god-damned' snow in his 'god-damned' tennis shoes, and up a 'god-damned' mountain no less. It turned out that Chano got to keep his feet after all, but he had learned a whole new respect for things.
"Did you think about staying here or do you want to go with them? Aldan asked.
"I thought about it," Chano said, "It's not as if I want to go."
"I guess I'd go if I were you," Aldan said, "Not like anything's keeping you here."
Chano didn't say anything, though he felt a twinge of guilt in the pit of his stomach as the silence lingered out and words failed to fall in line behind his teeth. His tongue felt like a manhole cover inside his mouth. He opened his lips but nothing came out. It was like when you open the door of a room where you expect to find someone but all you see is the nothing inside the room, so all you can do is close the door and deal with the nothing or leave it hanging open for no good reason.
"I think I'm going to head out west," Aldan said, and Chano looked at his friend with surprise.
"Where'd that come from?"
"Always wanted to. Drive along Route 66, see all those old gas stations, run down stores, old motels."
"Well, I guess you can do that then."
The two young men walked along. The wind had picked up and it pushed at their backs now, shoving home the innocents. Chano tried to get a cigarette lit but had to give up. Aldan's eyes were fixed and seemed lifeless, because he was looking backwards, inside his head instead of out of it. A jet passed overhead, low. There was an air-force base close by. The young men looked up and watched the big silver machine float through the freezing air.
At certain points in your life there were uncomfortable situations which were a great deal more uncomfortable than most. The young men were smack in the middle of one of those. In a little while Chano would go home and that would be that. Aldan wasn't close with anyone else, not even his parents. Once in a while he saw one of the guys from school. He didn't have a girl. The only friends he had were on their way to someplace else. Aldan thought of Susie. If he decided to head out west he would take her along. Or maybe that would be a cruel thing, to uproot the old dog from the only home she ever knew, to take her out of the woods and the green hills and bring her to a big, flat, empty place. Maybe that would kill her. But if he left home and Susie stayed behind, maybe that would be cruel too. In either case she didn't have long to go.
When the two young men got back they milled about in the basement for a while, and Chano smoked a cigarette. When Chano was ready to go home the two looked at each other awkwardly. They shook hands and Aldan said quickly, "I'll probably see you before you go."
"Sure." Chano said, and nodded his head, though neither one of them believed it. Aldan watched Chano get into his green VW and drive off down the road under the trees and the gray sky, smoke puffing from the exhaust pipe.
His parents were in the kitchen. Aldan looked around for Susie. "Where's that old dog." he said out loud, not to anyone in particular. Aldan's mother looked at him.
"Thought she went along with you and Chano."
"Haven't seen her." Aldan's father said.
Aldan looked in all the places she might be, but she wasn't in any of them. He went outside, back into the cold. The wind was blowing hard. It punched at him from every which way with its cruel fists. Aldan put his face into the wind and made his shrill whistle. Susie had her own door and could come and go as she pleased. Kaiser came out of his house and barked. It wasn't like that old dog to go out into the cold. Maybe she had to whizz. Aldan went down off the porch and looked around, whistling and calling. If she had been close by she would have come trotting up. A tiger-striped cat darted across the flat grass.
The sun was lowering in the gray sky but there were a few hours of daylight left. Aldan headed off towards the hill and whistled a few times, looking this way and that. Maybe at some point Susie had decided to go with them up over the hill and into the fields. At some point they had missed each other: they hadn't seen Susie leave and she hadn't seen them return. Maybe that was it. Or maybe she had just gone out to whizz. It was too cold to go back into the fields, and Aldan was angry when he got back into the house.
"Damn it," he said, and went all through the house, calling her name. He came back to the kitchen and his parents were looking at him.
"We didn't see her go out, but she must have," his mother said. She looked worried. His father was reading the newspaper.
Aldan went to his room and put on a hat and a good pair of gloves. When he passed through the kitchen he told his parents that he was going to look for Susie. There were a few hours of daylight left. He would be back before dark, with or without that old dog. Aldan's father told him it was too cold too be outside for long. "I got my hat and gloves," Aldan told him. "I won't be too long."
"Sometimes," his father said, "they just go off by themselves when they know their time's come. They don't want to be a nuisance. Sometimes you don't ever find them. She's a damn good dog."
"What if somebody took her?" his mother said. She looked even more worried than before.
"Who the hell would take an old dog like that?" Aldan's father said. Aldan closed the front door hard behind him. "Take Kaiser with you!" the older man called out. Aldan walked straight past that mean bastard of a dog, and Kaiser trotted along the fence whimpering and barking.
"Fuck you," Aldan said to Kaiser.
Aldan walked up the hill and out into the field. It was better with the hat and gloves. He felt like he could walk for miles. His blood was hot from anger, from the adrenaline, and he was still buzzed from the wine, though slightly off kilter from the weed. He wished he hadn't smoked the weed. He was having a strange mixture of thoughts and visions. For a little while the field looked like a scene from a faery-tale. He imagined tall horses with black riders racing along over the irregular blotches of snow. He liked these visions. But after a while the field was different. He saw soldiers running towards the center of the field from either side, screaming and shouting. He saw smoke spitting from the ends of their rifles, heard popping sounds as bullets flew. Warfield, battlefield. Bayonets, rifles, pistols, swords, clubs, a hodge-podge of whatever instruments of death his mind called up. Virgins with pink cheeks lay all over the ground, staring wide-eyed at the slow-moving clouds.
Aldan walked fast, and all the while he called out and whistled, but Susie was nowhere in sight. He began to feel even warmer. He wanted to take off the hat, but thought better of it. He felt strong and hot. His heart pounded vigorously, and he could hear the blood pumping through his ears. Susie Jesus. Before long he was past that juncture of stone fences and the big tree where he and Chano stopped to share the Wild-Eye. He kept his eyes in front of him now, examining with great interest the hard furrows and the piles of snow scattered here and there like litter.
Winter was always trying to hang on, but it never won out. Every year it was the same. Winter would come and blast everything. The birds were fewer and father between. It was cold and windy and wet and miserable for many months. But then it began to lose its grip and the green would come. You heard the birds singing. Winter would never win out. But it wasn't that way in a person's life. You had one Spring, one Summer, and only one Winter. Some people didn't have much of an Autumn, and some people, their Autumn lasted a very long time. Sometimes you didn't get an Autumn, and your Winter was cruel and quick, so quick, and so efficient, that you didn't even know you had it.
Susie was lucky. She had a long, long Autumn. She had plenty of time to get ready for Winter. Maybe his father was right. She had wandered off because she was ready to die and didn't want to die in front of her masters, neither the old master nor the young one. She was a damn good dog, and that would be just like her now that he thought about it. Or maybe someone had taken her, like Aldan's mother had said. Aldan didn't think that was the case. She still had some fight left in her and besides they would have heard her. She wasn't stupid, and she was loyal. She wouldn't go off with someone else without a fight.
In what seemed like a short while Aldan was into the woods and arrived at the deadfall. He saw her lying on the ground, just as he had imagined he would. He said her name into the wind and the wind threw it back at him. He stood there for a few moments. The wind was not as bad once you were in the woods. Sometimes it seemed to stop altogether, and the silence was bright and loud. Aldan realized that his ears were burning from the cold. They burned hot. So she had come to the deadfall to join Aldan and Chano in their favorite spot. Or maybe she had just come to lie down on the ground and go to sleep.
Aldan crouched and his breath curled up out of his mouth like smoke. He stroked the dog's side and felt her knobby ribs. He thought of the stories he had heard about hunting dogs who would lie down beside the dead bodies of their masters and lay there in perfectly good faith until they died. People would come upon two piles of bones in some remote place in the woods. Susie was a damn good dog. She would have done something like that.