Joshua Cross grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, but now lives with his wife in Oklahoma, where he is a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University. His stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal and Evening Street Review.

Follow him @JCrosswords

The Dog You Feed

posted Jan 27, 2015

You can't remember the last time you thought about the day Todd Haze drowned in the YMCA pool. Perhaps you forgot. More likely, you kept that memory like a chained dog you knew would snap its lead when it ground against something sharp.

This is your weekend with Jake, so you wait in the car idling in front of Marsh Fork Elementary. After the divorce, Ami moved in with a man she'd been screwing, an MSHA inspector named Don, and took Jake to live with him down in Black Bear Creek, a pimple on the asscrack of nowhere. This means you have to drive an hour to pick up Jake and another hour to take him back to Beckley, all on the two-lane Route 3, which winds along the Coal River and passes through one unincorporated town after another. Be glad you left the mines after the divorce and avoided ending up in some rusted-out trailer parked on a blind curve in some shithole like Dry Creek or Rock Creek or Naoma.

You got out of the mines but you can't escape them. Reminders rise from every direction in this valley. A coal silo towers above the school, a mere hundred and fifty feet behind the building where Jake spends five days every week breathing in the dust that scatters across the playground and works its way into the groundwater which then comes through the faucets and drinking fountains. Marsh Fork students miss more days due to illness than any school in West Virginia, maybe in the nation, and Jake has missed his share, most of them from unexplained stomachaches and migraines.

The dust that coats the playground can't be seen from this distance, but walk across the grass there and your shoes will stain black. But you can't walk across the playground. The area where Jake takes his recess every day is encircled by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire like some Vernichtungslager. You're not sure whom the fence is supposed to keep out. Or worse, why they keep the children fenced in.

But the worst reminder of the mines is what can't be seen from the ground, the slurry dam topping the ridge four hundred feet above the school. The leaky dam is all that stands between the school and three billion gallons of toxic sludge. This is the life Ami has brought upon your son.

No, you can't escape the mines, just like you can't escape memory. No matter what you forget, memories find you over time.

The radio plays the Rolling Stones' "Shine a Light," but Brian Jones isn't what brings back the image of Todd floating facedown in the shallow end of the pool. The memory comes at the sight of a woman walking through the school's front doors with her hand around the back of Jake's neck. Not in a way that suggests she'll force Jake to do her will, but in a way that suggests comfort and guidance. The woman, her red pea coat and cream scarf swept against her in the January wind, brings back the memory. She doesn't remind you of Todd, not directly, but of Laura, Todd's sister, the first girl you loved.



Third grade, watching Laura walk the perimeter of the Maxwell Hill Elementary playground by herself. She had friends, but she didn't play with anyone at recess. Her brown hair curled in rings to the point of her chin, except the bangs that curved up and out before they dropped to meet her brow. Sometimes another girl would walk beside her, but most of the time she walked alone, her hands in the pockets of her puffy pink coat.

No one had discovered girls yet, the softness of eyes and glisten of smiles. Games occupied the boys—the allure of rubber balls that could be thrown or hit or kicked. The girls' names were called last when picking sides, except for Christina, who could hit the back wall of the gym in kickball, or Summer, who was taller than all the boys and could guard anyone. Girls raced boys during the Presidential Physical Fitness tests and many of them won, but you didn't pay attention to the pale legs that stretched from those blue and gold shorts with each pulling stride. Laura was not particularly fast, could not catch or kick or shoot, so she was picked only when necessary and went unnoticed except those times she walked alone around the playground.

Then fourth grade when no one could help but notice her absence. Her father, Todd Sr., was blindsided when his heart stopped during Christmas pageant rehearsal at the United Methodist Church. Everyone's parents said he'd never had heart trouble before the cardiac arrest that killed him. Their whispers about Mr. Haze implied they were thinking the same could happen to any one of them.

Laura didn't come back to school before Christmas break. You thought that was it, she was gone. No one understood death, only its finality, and the finality for survivors. Their lives ended too. There was no returning from a parent's funeral, so no one expected to see Laura again.

But she came back after New Year's, and Mrs. Wickliff gave her the seat next to you, the classroom rearranged into rows of two-person tables so you could not hide from Laura. Death had made her exotic, her silence alluring and her eyes so bright with distance. Everyone wanted to say something comforting, but no one knew what. Mostly you wanted to ask what death was like, how it felt to go on living even though you had no right to.

One night you dreamt of her standing in the field beyond your grandmother's garden, the field abutting the treeline that sloped downward to the mouth of the gorge. In the dream Laura wore her puffy pink coat and stood with her hands in her pockets and the wind blew her hair to the side. She did not see you. In the dream you loved her, so you woke loving her and kept loving her for months after although you did not know what it meant to love someone and have that love returned.

You never figured out what to say to her other than to talk about classwork and slap bracelets. Sometimes she would whisper when the teacher was at the front of the classroom, but her words were never conspiratorial. The other boys called her your girlfriend with jokes and shoves during recess or in the bathroom. But she didn't know you loved her.

And then her brother drowned in April. Her mother pulled her out of school for good then, and they moved away, having lost all the men in their lives in a span of four months. One day someone belongs to a community and the next they do not, though you did not understand this at the time, understood only the ideas of presence and absence, and never understood how Laura could flit between present and absent until she was gone.


In the shadow of the school's front door, Jake points to the car and the woman begins to lead him toward you. Something is wrong. Observe Jake's body language, the slouched shoulders and hanging chin that suggests defeat. Even though Ami left and took him away seven years ago, you've seen him in trouble enough times to recognize his physical reaction to the threat of punishment. Open the driverside door but leave the engine idling against the cold.

"Hey Dad," Jake says without eye contact. "I'll wait in the car."

When Jake has shut the passenger door behind him, the woman takes her right hand from the pocket of her red pea coat and reaches out. "Mr. Collison," she says. "I'm Ms. Petty. Jake's teacher."

Tell her to call you Jacob. Take her hand, thin and cold, and remember not to squeeze her fingers. Say: "What happened to Mrs. Shumaker?"

"Back surgery. I'm subbing the rest of the year."

You never liked Mrs. Shumaker. She was a rickety old bitch at parent-teacher in the fall. She seemed too old to deal with kids this young. Her back bent with a hunch above one shoulder and she had steely sideburns. "Jake is slower than the rest of the children in his class," she had said. "But you can't blame the boy. Children of divorce face a disadvantage."

Ms. Petty seems better already. Make her for twenty-three, twenty-four. She stands straight in what seems painfully perfect posture. Her hair is darkest brown, one shade lighter than black, and hangs almost to her shoulders, another three centimeters and the ends would touch her clavicle. This near miss bothers you. Her bangs slant off to the side from the part, and the wind pushes them flat against her brow. Something about her suggests she should be prettier than she is, though she is not ugly, not even plain, just not as pretty as you thought she would be as she approached the car.

"Jake got in a fight today at recess," she says. "He split the other boy's lip."

This is the first time you can remember Jake fighting. He always seems so gentle. Timid even. Ask who started the fight.

"Jake says the other boy started it."

Feel proud of Jake. Tell her she can't blame him. Tell her he should stick up for himself.

She will answer, "This is the third fight he's been in since I took the job."

Feel your pride wane. Try to think of an excuse; he's a good kid after all. Maybe there is a pattern of bullying and Jake is only sticking up for himself, or better yet, maybe he's sticking up for other kids being bullied. But this line of thought coupled with the three fights in such a short time frame suggests it's more likely Jake is the bully and you never knew it.

"I've talked with the principal and he agrees that Jake needs counseling for his anger. We want to schedule a meeting with you and your wife, on Monday if possible."

Raise your left hand and press the thumb to the back of the ring finger to show there is no ring. "Ex-wife. You probably want her new husband, they've got custody."

She looks away, turns her head so the wind sweeps her hair beyond her shoulder. What about her reminds you of Laura? Her hair and eyes are too dark, even her coat is not pink but red. Maybe the cock of her head or the wind at her face, like she was in that dreamt field behind the garden.

"I'm sorry." She sounds genuine. "I didn't realize."

Tell her it's an honest mistake. This is not the first time people have assumed you're still married. The gesture toward your naked finger has become a stock response, a performance reserved for women, as though they need proof. Her left hand has not emerged from the pocket of her coat, so you can't check her finger for a ring.

"You should talk to Jake anyway," she says. "Maybe you can help him control his anger."

Jake has never been an angry child. Your half-brother Edom had been angry, had fought you every day growing up, was the first to throw punches or club with soup ladles. Even as adults you had your share of bloodshed. At your sister's wedding reception ten years gone, drunk on the bottle of gin you split, you gut-punched him and turned to walk away when Edom knocked you unconscious with a glass ashtray. But Jake, who has no siblings, not even stepbrothers or stepsisters, has never once fought another child to your knowledge, has never lashed out at inanimate objects or even thrown a nasty word toward his parents.

Say, "I'll do that," and the teacher will smile. Consider asking for her number, but she is too young and she would say no. There are probably rules against dating a student's parent. That's what you'll tell yourself, but recognize the truth even if you don't want to admit it: You've reached that age where being an older man is no longer exotic. Before, you could land younger women when you cared enough to try. Sure, they rejected you as often as not, but there was something fierce in those rejections, something carnal. Lately the rejections suggest pity.

Watch the teacher return to the school, the hem of her coat blown before her, and think of what a shitty job it must be to teach kids, to grow so close to them for a year and then lose them. But know you're projecting.


Wonder: How did anyone learn for certain, that day in school, that Todd had drowned during swim lessons at the YMCA? Try to remember. The teachers must have announced it at some point; how else could it have been confirmed? There was never a mass announcement over the intercom. Remember the rumors that drifted into and around the classroom, that a boy had drowned, but you thought they were just that, rumors. Then Laura was called to the office, and you thought, no, not her brother, not so soon after her father. But she never came back, and everyone knew.

Think. Can you remember Mrs. Wickliff telling the class? Can you remember her crying? Not specifically, but that day everyone cried. The classrooms and hallways ran with tears. Even those people who never knew Todd, not directly at least, acted as though he were their brother. He was a quiet kid, not popular but not unpopular. He played on the basketball team, competed in Math Field Day, won the science fair. Maybe you sat near him on the bus. You know he never spoke to you. Still, you cried. Everyone did. Everyone lost him, everyone shared in that grief.

Coach Bradley, the gym teacher, took his death hardest. Under his supervision, Todd had drowned in the shallow end of the pool without anyone noticing until he was dead. In Coach Bradley's defense, Todd had an embolism or an aneurysm or something that had waited in his brain for that precise moment to awaken and drown him in three feet of water. There was little anyone could do—something that had waited dormant inside him for eleven years had decided to burst and would have killed him on its own, but his lungs had filled with water before he died, and that made his death a drowning.

No one could have saved him. Still, Coach Bradley blamed himself. The day he returned to teaching, he had grown out his beard, and it struck you how gray the beard was, how stark it seemed against the dark hair of his head, and how odd it looked on that always shaven face. Even now you associate mourning and beards. That first day back, Coach Bradley sat on the edge of the stage in the gym with the palms of his hands dug into his eye sockets. He sat doubled over. The class played dodge ball or kickball or something, but Coach Bradley didn't look up once. Everyone on the gym floor could have drowned and he wouldn't have noticed.


Think about all of this during the drive back to Beckley because you want to avoid what Jake's teacher said about his anger. But then remember you have only fifteen weekends with him a year, not counting holidays. Only fifteen chances to parent him.

Jake has always been quiet around you, and every weekend he seems quieter still. So far he's been stone silent on the drive. He scans stations on the radio, looking for something he likes. Most of the stations have gone sports or talk radio lately, so there is little music. Jake settles on a country station with some girl whining about some boy who done her wrong so now she's going to smash out the headlights on his pickup. All it's missing is the hound dog. You can't abide the twangy pop that passes for country music these days, and you certainly can't abide some teenage girl singing about heartbreak like she knows anything about anything. Turn the radio off. Let Jake know you need to talk. Let him know you need to be heard.

He won't bring up the fight. You'll have to if you want to make progress this weekend.

Say: "Teacher told me you busted some boy's lip."

He won't respond to that simple bait. It isn't even a question. You have stated a fact obvious to both parties. He scratches at his eyebrow with the back of a fingernail and looks out the window.

Try again: "What happened?"

But that won't be enough either. Jake will shrug. Come at this from a different angle, be more specific. Start by asking what the boy's name is. Then ask what the boy did to get his lip busted.

"He mouthed off," Jake says.

Your impulse will be disbelief. "He mouthed off? Since when is it your job to bust every lip that mouths off?"

He will raise his voice slightly: "Since he started in about my daddy putting his daddy out of a job."

He has never raised his voice before and has never talked back. Now he has done both. Wonder who this boy is, who he thinks he is. He's not the child you remember from three weeks before. Wonder whose attitude this is. You want to blame Ami or Don, so blame them both before the meaning of his words occurs to you.

Try to think of what you did that could have put anyone else out of a job. During the summer, you work on a friend's landscape crew, digging holes and planting trees, and the rest of the year you clean professional buildings and office parks overnight.

Then realize he's talking about Don, Don the inspector who can shut down a mine for not venting its methane properly, or at least for having management who won't grease his palm. Don can put dozens of miners out of work with a single signature on a single memo, and if you were still in the mines he would be able to put you out of a job just as quick. Get angry that this other man has replaced you in your son's life. Think about turning the car around and driving back to Black Bear to give Ami a piece of your mind. Think about calling your lawyer and suing again. Think about getting redneck and challenging Don physically like you've always wanted to.

But none of those options seems feasible. Besides, you've never had trouble controlling your anger. You never fought anyone who didn't start the fight, and only then if you had an advantage. Self-preservation was always your first instinct. Fight when you don't have any other choice, duck when you can, and always take an opening.

Instead of revisiting those old battles with Ami, correct Jake: "Don's not your father."

Jake turns and looks at you for a second and turns away as fast. "Well, Samuel shouldn't of been mouthing off noways."

You don't want Jake to have anger problems, but know he's right about the other boy mouthing off. There's a time for fighting, and one of those times is taking up for kin. More than anything, knowing that he took up for Don tells you where you stand, what you stand to lose, and what you've already lost.


Remember the way it feels to let anger win.

In that school of tears, there was one boy who didn't cry the day Todd drowned. Jamie Cottle was the principal's son, a spoiled sow of a boy a grade below who bullied everyone, older or younger. Every boy in the school harbored fantasies of beating the fire out of Jamie Cottle. But no one dared touch him. He ran the school through fear, making demands of everyone and threatening to tell elaborate lies to his father if anyone dared disobey his commands.

Jamie Cottle wore wire-framed glasses made for an adult because they were the only size that would fit around his head, but the lenses were too large for his sockets and accented his tiny squinted eyes. He had no athletic talent besides blocking off space, but he always made sure to be a team captain at recess. When he didn't make the school basketball team, his father started a J.V. squad and coached it himself.

The day of Todd's death, the teachers tried to go forward with lessons, but no one could pay attention, not even the teachers, so they gave an extra recess. You stood on the playground with the other boys, everyone holding a kickball or a basketball or a soccer ball, though no one could think of what to do with them. They seemed forgotten toys from a foreign civilization, like backgammon or Go.

Jamie Cottle came up to the circle. "One lousy kid dies," he said, "and everyone's going boo-hoo."

You never knew who threw the first ball at him, but everyone was pelting him with everything they had. The balls bounced off him and you picked them up and threw them again. He tried to run, but everyone ran after him, hitting him again and again. He fell over and you hit him. He cried and threatened as he tried to stand, tried to run, but no one listened. This was release.

You cannot remember the teachers intervening that day.


Continue to fume about how Jake feels toward Don as you wind through Glen Daniels and come to the T-section of Routes 3 and 99, but you want to prove you're Jake's father. Defaming his stepfather will do nothing to help find understanding with Jake, but will make him curl inward and keep you further removed from the peripheries of his life.

Tell him: "Teacher says this is the third fight you've been in here lately. Says you got problems controlling your anger."

Jake throws one hand in the air and then slams it down on his lap. You can't remember seeing this odd gesture before, from him or anyone else. Where did he learn this? He does it again: His left hand shoots up almost eye level and then he smacks it down against his thigh. He does it a third time.

Ask him what the shit he's doing. He stops smacking his thigh and begins to rub his palm against the same spot he'd just been swatting, as though he wants to rub away the imprint of this action.

"What does she know?" He rubs his thigh faster. "She's just a sub. She don't know me."

The voice is not Jake's. His attitude seems learned, just like this strange gesture he's acquired. Some changeling rides shotgun in your car and you wonder where your son has gone. The body is Jake's, but he isn't the boy from three weeks ago. This means you have to reclaim your son, and to do that you must reclaim your role as father.

Think about what you can tell him. What can make him understand? What will leave an impression? Tell him you understand anger problems, you understand fighting. Tell him about how his uncle Edom had anger problems too. Tell him about all those fights the two of you got in from the time he was walking all the way through adulthood. The fights stopped only after Edom tried to swim the New River drunk on grain and got smashed against the rocks and never recovered from the cerebral hemorrhaging. Now he can't speak. He drinks through a tube down his throat and pisses in a bag. Leave that last part out. Leave out the accident all together. Jake's never known Edom, so why bother with all of this now.

Instead, explain that Edom's anger caused him problems in life. Problems keeping a job, problems with women, problems with drugs and alcohol. Realize you sound like an after-school special, but maybe you're getting through to him with this trite morality tale. Finish with fatherly wisdom, one of the fables granddaddy used to tell, the one about the two dogs.

Tell him: "You got two dogs that live inside you. One's this weak, timid mutt that gets itself kicked around, pisses itself soon as you raise your foot, and the other's this vicious dog, this pit bull or Rottweiler that'll take off your leg soon as you try and kick it. Know which dog gets bigger and takes over?"

Jake seems interested. He's looking at you now, keeping his eyes focused on your face, a first for today. "Which one?"

"The dog you feed."

Jake will sit back in his seat and look out the window, thinking it over, figuring it out. Feel proud because you made an impact on him. Look around at the scenery, the leafbare trees that patchwork the mountains on both sides, the muddy river seeming not to flow anymore but lie stagnant, the cinderblock outbuilding with "Scabs go home" spray-painted by an unsure hand.

You still have time to save Jake from all this.


Remember those swim lessons.

Every year, Coach Bradley took each grade to the YMCA the first week of April. They gave patches for how far people progressed during the week, and each patch corresponded to an aquatic species: Minnow, fish, flying fish, shark. You never progressed past guppy, the step above polliwog. Polliwogs used floatation devices. You got stuck at guppy because you couldn't master the freestyle, turning your head at the same time you swung your arm over and out. The other boys made fun, and you were angry, wanted to hurt someone, especially Edom who was two years younger but already a fish. Still, everyone looked forward to swim lessons because they disrupted your ordered life.

Remember fourth grade, April Fool's Day. You rode the bus to the YMCA and the sky was metallic with the threat of snow. Sean Lee wanted to play a prank on Coach Bradley. When Coach Bradley left the locker room so the boys could change into their suits, Sean slammed you against the lockers and started pretend punching. Several of the other boys were in on the gag and gathered around, chanting Fight!

Coach Bradley swung open the door, told everyone to knock it off and get dressed, then let the door slap shut. Everyone put their swimsuits on in quiet disbelief. But as soon as you reached the pool, as soon as you saw the steam collected on the glass windows and felt the chlorine sting your nose, everyone got rowdy again.


Now remember what you don't want to admit.

At the end of your lesson, the bus came to return the fourth graders to school and to drop off the fifth graders. Everyone was dressed and ready to run to the bus with their wet hair freezing against their scalps when you realized you left your goggles on the bench beside the pool. You went back for them.

You've never told anyone you went back for your goggles, that you saw Todd floating facedown in the shallow end.

The lesson had not begun. The fifth graders were horsing in the water, and Coach Bradley scolded you for coming back in your streetclothes. He walked you to the stairs that climbed to the lobby. Maybe you were the reason he noticed Todd too late, but you saw him on your way out, his brown hair flowered out around his head as he floated on his stomach. Dead man's float. You thought he was playing.

Then later, when you heard the rumors that a boy had drowned, you knew what you had seen. You knew right away what this meant for Laura, and you wanted to protect her. Still, you didn't tell anyone.


Feel ashamed, a quarter-century later, for mistakes made when you were Jake's age. Wonder how he would deal with this situation. Would he tell anyone what he saw, or lock it away to have it come back unbidden twenty-odd years later?

There's a machine parts company outside Beckley that spells out cute slogans on their marquee board. Few of these slogans have anything to do with machine parts, and most of them read like the aphorisms found in fortune cookies instead of actual fortunes. A few weeks back, the board read, "Memory is the mother of wisdom." Bullshit, you thought then, though you weren't entirely sure why. Now you know. Memory is a motherfucker.

You've never told anyone about Todd, but you think you should. Seek release. Unburden yourself to Jake. Tell him: "When I was your age, a boy drowned during one of our swim lessons."

Jake will look at you and wait for more. He will wonder why you're telling him this. You'll read the wonder in his silence.

Continue. "I saw him dead in the pool but didn't know what I seen. I thought he was playing so I didn't tell the teacher. I regret it like hell."

"Is this like the dog story?" Jake will ask, and you can tell he's trying to figure out what he's supposed to learn from your tale.

Answer him. "No, it's not like the dog story. This really happened."

Think about lighting up because your body needs nicotine to get through this. Anytime you feel strong emotion, you need a smoke to cope. You smoke when you're angry, when you're sad, when you're fit to be tied. But you've vowed not to smoke with Jake in the car. Not that it will matter much since Ami smokes a pack a day and doesn't have the decency to step outside and away from Jake. This is one of the ways you make yourself feel like the better parent, so you'll resist the urge this time. Plus, you're almost home.

Wind up the mountain to Beckley, pass the city limit signs, and suddenly you're in civilization again. Pass the turn off to Tamarack ("The Best of West Virginia!" the nauseating orange and purple sign claims), and Harper Road stretches on in a run of chain restaurants and hotels. You have a theory that all the chain restaurants in Beckley have seating for a population twice the size of the city's, but you've never bothered to look up the numbers.

Know Jake will want to eat out tonight. He wants to eat out every weekend with you because there are no restaurants in Black Bear except the lunch counter at the back of the filling station. Plus, he says you can't cook, so you overpay for bad food in the theme restaurants he loves most. The weekends he stays in Beckley are like a vacation for him. But this time, you need to get through to him. This needs to be a lesson, a chance to bond in some meaningful way instead of the usual ignoring one another over chicken wings or fried trout.

Ask Jake if he's known anyone who died.

"Grandpa Corn," he will answer. Ami's father, Cornelius, died last year. You lost out on one of your weekends with Jake so he could go to the service.

"Were you sad when it happened?"

"Not really. I didn't like him. He smelled bad and his hands were hard. It hurt when he hugged me."

Tell him you hope it's a long time before someone he loves dies. Tell him nothing hurts more than death. Not for the person who dies, but for the people who don't. Because if you've learned anything, you've learned that death is something that happens to those who go on living.

Then look over at him. Really look. See him. His hair has grown a little too long in the back and his body is filling out around his bony frame. He has your mother's nose, that sharp angle that Edom inherited but you did not. This is your son. The body is his, even if the voice is changing and the words he has formed today do not sound like your boy. Still, this boy is Jake, and you look forward to these weekends with him throughout the three weeks that separate them.

"It's OK, Dad," he says. "You didn't never tell anyone about that boy who drowned because you were feeding the weak dog inside you. I won't do the same."

You fucked up. Granddaddy told you about the two dogs because he was trying to teach you to stick up for yourself, to fight back, not to be kicked around, or worse, tuck tail. The lesson you've just taught Jake is the exact opposite of the lesson intended. Remember Edom, all the stitches and broken bones, and think of those other fights you couldn't avoid when you were Jake's age, and all the fights you've avoided when you shouldn't have.

Feel like an idiot and wonder how you can undo your error without seeming an even bigger asshole. Give up as quickly. If you admit your foolishness, he will know you are a fool. He will grow up knowing your breed exactly.