Congratulations to Richard Rosenbaum whose first collection of short stories, Things Don't Break, is now available from Tightrope Books.
Joyland published a story from this collection in 2011, and we are thrilled to present to you again.
Acclaimed writer Richard Rosenbaum’s short stories range in genre from realism to speculative, and stylistically from literary to experimental. In his stunning first collection of short fiction, Things Don’t Break, readers will discover stories about relationships, robots, videogames, the moon, giant evil chickens, and more.
Every morning before work, Carrie Durning walks her dog in the park down the street from her house. Iggy the Golden Retriever is now twelve years old — only weeks younger than Carrie’s daughter Andrea (Andy) — and besides some mild arthritis and a bit of a weight problem is in remarkably good health for a dog his age. When Andy was born Carrie’s husband insisted that they had to have a dog as well. A child needs a dog, he reasoned. Even more than good parenting, a dog was the best, most surefire way to teach a child how to love and be loved. His parents had never let him own a dog growing up and he firmly believed that this was the main reason for his intimacy issues, through which he and Carrie worked in couples therapy beginning surprisingly early into their marriage. Andy needed a dog or she would be forever stunted and incomplete. Carrie was not convinced. But to indulge her husband she did let herself be dragged to the breeder a month before bringing little Andy home from the hospital. There she fell instantly and irrevocably in love with a puppy whose fur was the exact same colour that Carrie had been dyeing her hair since the summer before starting high school.
Andy’s father still believes that a dog is essential to any child’s mental health — which is why he insisted that Carrie, and not he, keep Iggy when he left their family for a woman the same age that Carrie was when the two of them first met (at the festival commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock).
When Carrie leaves the house in the morning sometime between 5 and 6 a.m. to take Iggy to the park, Iggy is always already awake and Andy is still asleep. When Mark was there it was not a big deal, but once it was just Carrie and Andy it became a bit of a problem. The dog had to be walked, and it couldn’t wait until after Carrie came home from work, but she also didn’t feel right about leaving her child all alone while she took Iggy to the park.
But the first night that Carrie decided she’d just run the dog around the backyard once Andy was off to school, Iggy had an unprecedented accident on the floor immediately outside the door of the master bedroom, which Carrie, bleary-eyed and barefoot as she staggered to the bathroom that morning, encountered in a very unpleasant way. Carrie interpreted this as a sign that she should not even have considered disrupting Iggy’s schedule. And while she didn’t actually believe that the dog had somehow known what she had planned that day, she did sometimes feel this sympathetic, if not quite telepathic, pet/owner bond that made Iggy very sensitive to Carrie’s thoughts and moods, and that she owed it to him not to mess with his life any more than was absolutely necessary. The poor thing had been traumatized enough by the departure of Mark, who had doted on him and fed him cheese things when Carrie wasn’t looking. The cheese was a major contributor to Iggy’s borderline obesity, which did not help his arthritis, which made it even more important for him to get regular exercise as he developed a sort of aversion to movement in general as he aged.
Often Andy would spurn the couch to lean up against Iggy in front of the television after school. In this position Carrie would find them when she came home from her job at the publishing company where she copy-edited high school History and Geography textbooks. Andy’s hair was also the same shade of yellow as Iggy’s fur, their follicular issuances melding into each other as they lay there together on the living room floor. The mother had no clue where her daughter’s blonde-hair gene had come from, didn’t think it was very likely that the peroxide had just slipped into Carrie’s DNA over twentyish years of scrupulous weekly colouring. Nonetheless she was happy about it because it meant that they got a lot of “you two look exactly the same!” when they went out together, which Carrie always felt was meant to be some kind of compliment on the quality of the strength of her genome if not explicitly on her actual parenting. But nobody had ever said that Andy resembled her father, which, to Carrie, was something, at least.
As for hiring a professional dog-walker, there were none who were willing to take Iggy out before sunrise, and anyway what is Carrie made of money or something?
Andy was sleeping like the dead, having crashed hard after an extremely successful Halloween candy haul the previous night. This morning it’s the first of November and sadistically cold when Carrie puts the blue polyester collar around Iggy’s fat, furry neck, wraps herself in her blue wool coat, and heads down the street to the park. When she reaches the park to find it completely enclosed in chain-link fence that had certainly not been there the day before, she doesn’t immediately understand.
Carrie says, “What the hell?” — her first words of the day — and then feels vaguely guilty about it, and looks down at Iggy, who doesn’t appear particularly offended by the expletive, or even especially concerned by the presence of the fence, for that matter. Carrie, though, is very concerned. This is her park. Not just hers, of course, everyone’s. But hers no less than anyone else’s. And more important, it is Iggy’s park. Adding up the time spent walking Iggy here, before coffee, before even the sun, she had left her child for a total of something like one hundred and eighty-two-and-a-half days just to come to this park. More than half a year, over one thirty-fourth of Andy’s life spent by her mother, and her dog of course, at this park. Math was never Carrie’s strong suit but this calculation disturbs her. Sure, Andy was unconscious for all that time. But that’s beside the point. It’s the principle of the thing. Nobody has the right to deprive Carrie, or Iggy, or anyone, of their access to the park’s green grass or thin young maples, or its round, still duck pond. Well, this is outrageous. Carrie begins to boil under her wool coat in the cold autumn morning.
“Don’t worry,” she says to Iggy. “I’ll get you in there. I’ll get us in.”
The dog looks up at her and maybe raises his eyebrows like, seriously? But it’s dark so she can’t be certain. She wraps the end of Iggy’s leash through a link in the fence with the deathlike sound of chain clanking against chain, ties it into a loose knot. She pulls the membranous black fake-suede gloves down over her wrists and tucks them into the sleeves of her coat. She reaches up then, hooking the gloved fingers of both hands through two links above her head and the tip of one boot into a link six inches off the ground. Once Mark had left and she was on her own she’d let her Climbing Club membership lapse, she just couldn’t justify the expense anymore, but she had learned a few tricks. She knew how to get to the top of something and over the other side.
Nobody is around — nobody sensible and diurnal, anyway — but Carrie casts a circumspective glance behind her before beginning her ascent. She lifts herself up and up and up the same way she once saw a snake scale the side of a house when she was a child. It scared her to watch it then and it scares her to imitate it now. Something unsettlingly real about it, uncanny in a way that the safe, indoor climbing walls never were, those things specifically constructed to be mounted up vertically by human bodies that were not materially built for travelling in such a counterintuitive direction. Her heart shouts but her limbs remember, and she moves.
Upon reaching the top of the fence she looks down and for a moment can’t remember what she is doing there. Then she sees, dimly, the figure of Iggy looking back up at her from the grass and it returns. She flips a leg over the top of the fence. It’s not barbed or anything as complicated as that, but its peak is crowned with half-links of chain sticking up into the air like a string of antennae or a row of flowers. Carrie imagines someone coming around with a pair of incredibly sharp shears and cutting the fence walls from a rolled-up spool of metal, like wrapping paper or aluminum foil. The inseam of her pants catches on one of these outcroppings and when she flips her other leg over she hears a distinctive tear, then feels a terrible chill.
She swears, then hopes that Iggy didn’t hear her. Dogs have good hearing. They weren’t nice pants or anything, just her old camo-coloured jeans, baggy from before she lost all that weight, blobbed irrevocably with butterfly-yellow paint from redecorating her daughter’s bedroom. She needed new ones anyway, Andy was always saying so. And yet they are familiar and comfortable and she hates to lose them and she holds this fence personally responsible for their mutilation. Furious sweat scratches her scalp. Humiliation scorches her face. She does not believe her now-exposed thigh is bleeding, but cannot yet be sure. Too dark, too sweat-sticky. She may require a tetanus shot. Someone will pay for this.
Carefully she extricates herself and begins her descent. Probably faster than advisable. But she’s growing more and more upset with the situation. She’s losing her cool. Her boots lock into one link after another, each lower than the last, down and down and down, and a bit less than a metre from the ground she just jumps.
Her ankle buckles, her foot turns sideways and goes horizontal to the ground. Not broken — it still moves — not even sprained, she’s pretty sure, but it hurts, radiates pain and heat up her leg. Bruised, maybe. The sheer irresponsibility — of the police, the Department of Parks and Recreation, whoever it is. She practically foams with sulfurous anger, embarrassment, conviction, righteousness.
Time for all that later. Now there is a mission to accomplish.
In the dark, Carrie creeps along the edge of the park along the inside of the fence, just within its interior perimeter. Keeping her weight off the hurt ankle she makes eye contact with Iggy through the chain links. The dog regards her skeptically. It is an expression she recognizes. She has seen it before.
She reaches the corner of the fence, at the edge of the park where two of the knitted metal walls meet and lock together on the perpendicular. Stops. Where the hell did this thing come from?
Bending at the knees, gently, Carrie examines the spot where the two walls of the fence come together on the ground. The sun has only just hinted at rising, bruising the eastern sky a mauve convexity. The thing, the fence, she sees, is stable enough but not infrangible; obviously it’s not intended to be permanent. Rather than line posts set into concrete to keep it standing, Carrie now notices that it’s actually a bunch of individual panels of wire netting slammed together, and not all that securely. Something of a slapdash effort, Carrie muses, and is suddenly very relieved that she didn’t uproot the thing by climbing on it — she could have come away with a lot more than a bruised ankle. Or possibly not come away at all. Which, thinking about it, only makes her angrier: she could have killed herself up there! Who on earth would erect such a shoddy, ill-conceived enclosure? Besides the absence of a top rail, there’s no bottom wire either, and only some kind of flexible, if durable, vinyl ribbon thing holding the panels together, not even tension bands. The incompetence, the sheer arrogance of it. Isn’t there anyone in charge here? Is it some kind of a trap?
Carrie straightens herself up and kicks at the bottom corner of the fence where the two panels meet. She wants to open it, yes, but now she wants to hurt it, too. It makes a sound like a bottle hitting the kitchen floor but failing to break. Iggy looks up. The panels separate just a little. Enough to encourage Carrie to continue. She kicks at it again. With the ball of her foot, the intact one, so she won’t break all her toes inside the leather boot. She’s not an idiot. The panels part a little further. Another kick, another couple of inches. Two more quick blows with the boot, then another, and now there’s a distinct gap, an isosceles of absence large enough for a person to get through. Well, to crawl through. That ought to suffice.
As Carrie Durning gets down on her hands and knees in the frost-capped grass and squeezes herself, inch by inch, through her new rupture, she fully comprehends how ridiculous this must look. But she has no choice. Fortunately no one is watching. Except Iggy. Carrie drags herself through the hole, muddying her gloves, further staining her pants, wind pouring into the rip at her thigh. On the other side, the outside, she stands up again. She looks down at Iggy and says, “Don’t look at me like that. I’m doing this for you.” She unties the end of the leash from the fence and kneels back down, says, “Come on now,” and squirms through the gap once more, this time with the Retriever shuffling uneagerly behind her.
Inside now, the both of them. Carrie gets to her feet, leash in hand, triumphant. Finally the poor old dog can have a shit in peace.
Dawn begins to burn in the distance. Limping, shivering, Carrie takes Iggy through the park along their customary spiral trail, their orbit declining till they reach the centre, the duck pond which they circle once, then straight back out, normally taking ten or fifteen minutes. As the sun gently rises, Carrie starts seeing things. The park is not familiar. It’s different.
Broken pumpkins like smashed open heads, orange brains splattered over dead icteric grass.
Exploded eggs everywhere like hand grenades, white shell shrapnel, yellow splashes of spoiled potential.
Broken glass caltrops, shards of brown and green, sticky and almost imperceptible.
Naked trees mummified in toilet paper, humiliated blind and terrified, wrapped with the pulped and processed remains of their brethren.
Spray-painted obscenities swelling across every visible surface — the trees, the benches, the concrete paths and monuments. Random imprecations, different colours and styles of script arguing over each other on which race or culture ought to get out or to get fucked. Inartistic swastikas.
Iggy the golden retriever noses dubiously at the ground. Carrie Durning forgets to breathe. Nobody could stop this?
Then the smell.
As they get closer to the heart of the park they stumble upon, huddled culticly around the spew of dross from overthrown trash bins, corpse upon corpse — squirrels, raccoons, sparrows and pigeons, even a cat or two — white foam bubbling from their every cold orifice, bodies swollen and contorted in echoes of agony. Not too far off, Carrie sees ducks floating upside-down at the lip of the pond. Her stomach rises as her heart falls, and when Iggy tries to investigate Carrie shrieks like a demon.
Iggy snaps backward by his leash before Carrie realizes she’s done it, but once it hits her she bolts for escape dragging Iggy behind. In her panic, in her rage, she can’t think or consider, can’t sort out aggressors and defenders or establish cause and effect. She’s just angry. She’s going home to do something irrational. Carrie runs.
The dog moves slowly.