Black DogS by Salvatore Difalco
Tears have their application. Windy, the sun burned behind swift-scudding clouds. My Oakleys hid the inexplicable tears from my sister. Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself, or sorry for the world. Same difference.
She picked me up at the train station. She was blonde now. My blonde sister—after a lifetime as a Sicilian brunette, olive-skinned, more Arab than Greek. Now blonde, alone, never married, as obdurate as my child-sister. A double visit planned. She had the pills for me.
“Woke up with a head.” She presented a foil pack. “Brought you six for now.”
“Yeah, pressure change. Felt it on the train. Gracias.”
“Wanna eat something first?”
I’d lost ten pounds that month. Not eating enough, yeah. But something else, blood in the bowel, bright red—every morning that blood bath, and every pair of briefs stained. Bleach works, enough of it. Then a switch to black briefs. That worked. Black works. Something was eating me from the inside. Didn’t want to know what.
At Baci, an art-decoish diner not far from the station, I ordered the triple meat special with three eggs and hash browns. My sister ordered two poached eggs, rye toast no butter.
“Did a spin class this morn.”
“Up at what time? You look fit.”
“Seven. Feeling chunky. Gotta lose five before I go to Aruba.”
“Yeah, mostly. Sandy got a deal with her broker friend. I need a week of nothing. I’m worn out. Between Che and Ma.”
The girl, black-haired, smelling of bacon, lightly acned, poured coffee with animatronic deliberation. As she poured, she looked me in the eyes with profound indifference. Her eyes were flat and brown and seemed to lack corneas.
“Mags didn’t call me yesterday. She knew I was alone.”
“What are you gonna do?” I said. “Forget about it. What does Easter mean anymore? When we were kids, okay, whatever. When’s the last time you were in church? With the two sisters out of commission, I don’t even care. I played poker last night.”
“Did you win?”
“I always win.”
“Yeah, you always win.” She showed her white teeth: not a smile. “That’s why you’re always lending me money and buying me stuff.”
I’d borrowed five grand from her a month back. She knew world peace would break out before I ever paid it back. She’d retired early from her government job and collected a good pension. She wasn’t hurting. Still, I’m no deadbeat. I pay my debts. But I was so in the red I’d be in debtor’s prison were they around, and running so bad at the poker table even loan sharks pitied me, trimming a point off the vig. Running bad—not even the term for it. I couldn’t win a hand.
Three meats: bacon, ham, sausage. Glistening pork trinity. A porky waft. My mouth watered like a dog’s. I dipped my toast in egg yolk. Hadn’t eaten a proper meal in three days. I dug right in, chewing like a dog. I ate too quickly. Three eggs and all that grease.
My forehead beaded up. I gulped some coffee.
I smiled. “Not used to all that grease.”
“Yeah, slow down.”
I summoned the girl for water.
She stared at me for a long moment before moving.
She sat in the lobby, the old aunt, Celestina, or Che as we called her. Other seniors played bocci on the lobby carpet, lobbing red and yellow plastic balls around, moving gingerly. It took her a moment, adjusting her glasses, but she smiled when she recognized us. I sat in the chair beside her. My sister squatted on an ottoman at her feet.
“Hi, Angie.” She fished for my name. “Sam—Sammy, it’s been a long time.”
“He was here last week, Che.”
She’d had a bad fall a few months back. Spent three weeks in hospital. Took the air out of her sails. Fragile as glass now, she held out her hand. I squeezed it and kissed her cool forehead. She smelled clean and fresh, almost floral—Italian soap. She always smelled of Italian soap.
Angie leaned in close, hands clasped. “Did you go to Mags' yesterday?”
Che forced a small grey smile. Her eyebrows arched and she opened her mouth as though to say something. She chuckled to herself, tapping her head. She couldn’t remember.
Angie glanced, all eyes. For a moment she looked 50 years younger than her 56.
Uncle Frank, Che’s husband, had passed last year. Dropped dead of a heart attack in his living room after his morning espresso and smoke. Ninety-two. He’d smoked his whole life, go figure. Che was 90. God bless. They’d had a good run. Mags and the kids were doing well. The twins were in university in Kingston and Katie was headed to McGill next year. The old house had been sold last week way over asking. Mags tried to keep Che at her place, but she was lost there. She didn’t resist the move. She must have known what was in the books for her.
" I held my mother’s plump, cool hand. Her blue eyes darted aimlessly. A smile twisted her lips. She lurched left as Angie gripped her left hand and looked at her infected fingernail."
What are you going to do? The world would be worse without her, but she’d had her time. And all the seniors floating around us, they’d had their time. The prospects of bocci on a lobby carpet twisted my stomach into knots. I was two short decades away from such frolic.
“How’s your mother?” she asked.
“She’s okay,” Angie said.
“Poor creature. I’ll never see her again.”
“Get Mags to take you.”
“You can take me, Angie. We won’t tell her.”
“Uh—I don’t think so. Remember what happened last time?”
Che nodded but she had no recollection. Mags had shut out Angie for a month after she took my aunt on an impromptu visit to my mother—her demented younger sister—sequestered in a high-care nursing facility five minutes from Che’s seniors home. My mother had been there six years.
“We’ll go see her after this,” Angie said, a shadow darkening her face.
“I brought you these,” I said, offering Che a small mesh bag of foil-wrapped Easter eggs.
She smiled and took them. “It’s Easter?”
Angie leaned in. “Yesterday, Che. Yesterday was Easter.”
My aunt looked pained. It said something. That was the look she wore as we departed.
She was quiet when we entered, leaning left in her wheelchair, drool bubbling from her lips. She had on a bright purple sweater and brown corduroy stretchy pants. Her hair, a shock of snow white, tilted left like the rest of her body. Angie straightened her out and wiped her face with a cloth. A fecal smell pervaded the pink confines of the room. A framed photo of me and Angie hung on one wall. A crucified Jesus glared from above the bed. Angie had brought my mother a bouquet of yellow tulips for Easter, trembling near the partially open window.
“Fucking bitches, how many times do I have to show them how to straighten her up? She can’t sit like this all day. Five years of this shit, you’d think they’d get it right by now.”
“Probably a new worker or a temp.”
“I don’t give a shit.” Angie kissed my mother’s forehead.
I held my mother’s plump, cool hand. Her blue eyes darted aimlessly. A smile twisted her lips. She lurched left as Angie gripped her left hand and looked at her infected fingernail.
“It’s not getting better. Soaked it in saltwater all week.”
“Probably needs an antibiotic.”
Angie shot me a look.
Down the hall, Joe started screaming. He’d been admitted to the home a year after my mother. Looked like nothing was wrong with him then—handsome older man with salt-and-pepper hair. Didn’t say much, and didn’t look much older than me. That changed quick. His hair turned white and his cheeks collapsed. His son used to come see him all the time, chip-off-the-old-block, nice head of black hair. After a couple of quiet years, Joe started with the screaming. It would go on all day. He’d start up in the morning and nothing could stop him, meds, restraints, hot baths. Nothing could stop him. They’d put him in his room and shut the door. That helped, but you could still hear him. You got used to it. Not really. Freaked me out, to be honest.
“Haven’t seen Tony in a while,” Angie said.
“That’s too bad.”
“Do you blame him?”
Joe continued screaming. He was in good form. I gritted my teeth. I wondered who did take the blame for all this shit.
A FEW DAYS LATER
“Che had another fall.”
I could barely hear my sister. She was calling from her car, had me on speaker phone. Some kind of interference.
“Is she okay?”
“They took her to General. Mags is there with Marcus. I’m heading there now.”
“How bad was it?”
“Mags said bad. Looks like she broke her hip.”
“Yeah, not good. She’s stubborn—refused to use her walker. I knew this would happen if she didn’t use her walker. I told Mags. Anyway, I’ll call you when I’m there.”
The news sank my spirits. At her age, in her frail state, recovery from a broken hip would be daunting. I loved my aunt almost as much as my mother. After my father died when I was 12, and my mother fell into a deep depression, Che and Uncle Frank had risen to the occasion and ministered to and kept my broken family afloat. As a troubled young man, fearing my mother’s emotionalism, I used to call my aunt whenever I got jammed up. Che was the dark sister, a Sophia Loren lookalike when she was young, but the cool one. My blue-eyed mother—an anomaly in a family of brown-eyed Sicilians—was all fire and heat. The slightest thing used to set her off, particularly after my father died.
Later that day, I readied for that evening’s poker game. My luck had to change. How long can a bad run last? I’d had them before, sure. But this was epic. I was playing with borrowed money, losing borrowed money. I was starting to feel like I was on borrowed time. I sat on the toilet. All that blood wasn’t right. Bright fucking red. My ex brother-in-law, God rest his soul, died from colon cancer a few years before. That’s how it started with him. Discharging blood from the a-hole. What a way to go when you think of it. Frankly, I didn’t want to see a doctor. If I was dying, so be it. No doctor was going to monkey around with me down there. I figured if I ever got really sick I could always score some street fentanyl and go out in a mad euphoric spasm. Fuck it all.
The bad run continued at poker. Card dead most of the night, and when I did get a hand someone always had better or someone flopped better or someone fucking turned and rivered me. That’s how it goes when you’re running bad. Your aces will fall to trip fours. Your kings will fall to aces. Your trips will lose to a flush, and so on. Sometimes there’s no winning.
Angie texted. Broken hip. Broken ribs. Five bones broken in hand. Not good.
Carmine, the 300-pound sheriff at the game, looked at me darkly. “You have to be so miserable, Sammy?”
“I’m getting my ass handed to me, Carm.”
“Join the club. Can’t win ’em all.”
“I’m talking bad run of biblical proportions.”
He sucked his teeth. “No really, why so dour?”
Yeah, poker means winning and losing, never just winning. Carmine understood.
“Ah, my aunt. She had a bad fall. She’s all busted up.”
Brian leaned in. “Sorry to hear, bro.”
“Yeah, sorry to hear,” Carmine said, shuffling the cards with thick dark fingers.
“Remember my Uncle Frank—”
“Dropped dead at 92,” Brian recalled.
“Yeah. His wife. My mom’s sister.”
A few of the other fellows at the table stirred. Eyes flashed at me or stared. Talking about an aging aunt untypical. Awkward even. Was I going to cry or something?
“Deal the fucking cards,” I said, more sharply than I’d intended.
“I think you should come in.” My sister was crying.
“She’s not good, eh?”
“Okay. I’ll take the next train in. I’ll text you when I’m leaving.”
After getting my ass reamed the night before, and smoking too many joints, I woke up with an iron helmet a size too small squeezing my skull-plates tight. Overcast, rain forecast. I drank my coffee without cream. I took one of the pills Angie had given me. Vasodilators. Migraines run in the family. Che used to get wicked ones. Called them her black dogs. “My black dog visited yesterday,” she’d say. Or, “Madonna, my black dog’s mean today.”
Mine came and went throughout my adulthood. Pain like that should mean death. But no. One of those questions I’d ask the Creator were He or She to exist, or a question I’d pose to cosmologists and metaphysicians, as well as physicians: Why the fuck does a migraine, or rather the pain of a migraine, exist? Is there any logical explanation for it? Oliver Sacks fell short of nailing it, in his book on migraines—a muddled if brave effort. Maybe our brains are outgrowing our skulls. A funny thought. Then what?
I jumped on the noon train into the city. I tried to nap but my migraine, even after the pill, would not relent. The black dog had sunk in its teeth and would not release. I gritted my own teeth and massaged my throbbing temples in futility.
Angie picked me up at the station. Her eyes were swollen.
“Barely slept last night.”
“Yeah,” I said, pressing my temples. My head felt like it might burst. A tendril of nausea tickled the back of my throat. I swallowed, adjusted my shades.
“Ugh. You took a pill?”
“Hasn’t touched it yet. Might be a two-banger.”
“Think I have one in my purse. I’ll give it to you at the hospital.”
We found Che in intensive care. Her appearance horrified me: face bruised black and blue from the fall and the fingers of her left hand, wrapped to a splint, like black sausages. She opened her eyes when I said her name, but she wasn’t all there.
I hugged Mags, my diminutive cousin, with her mass of black ringlets and faint whiff of tobacco smoke and kitchen.
“She has a fever. Fluid in her lungs. Can’t cast her hand until the swelling goes down.”
“Fuck, she looks like she got jumped by thugs.”
“She fell in her room. They think she might have passed out—her blood pressure and heart rate were so low.”
“Hey Che,” I said. “It’s Sammy. Your favourite nephew.”
I detected a faint smile. I kissed her forehead. It was cool and wet and smelled of sweat. For the first time I could ever remember, she didn’t smell of Italian soap.
Spent the next few days exchanging texts with my sister, who kept me updated. Che took a turn for the worse. She was running a fever. Fluid in the lungs. Last rites administered. Officially palliative. She’s still hanging in there.
It was raining, had been raining all week. It both mirrored and reinforced my dark mood. Reality often has a defter and more relentless touch with pathetic fallacy than filmmakers and novelists. I recall how brilliantly sunny it was when my father died. May, flowers blooming, trees budding, birdsong. And the sun shining with a sinister insistence that contrasted sharply with the mournful black procession and anguish of a Sicilian funeral.
Sicilians are reserved for the most part. But when it comes to love and death, nothing contains them. The Saracens come out. That’s why the ladies used to wear black for most of their lives. Someone always died. I was too young to really understand. I mourned, but I was shocked by the grief unleashed by everyone in my extended family. My father was 42.
"The rest of the fellas were degenerates, like me. Pot-smoking, filth-talking degenerates."
Didn’t expect the same torrent of grief when my 90-year-old aunt passed, though it would be sad. She’d lived a good, long, sometimes tough life, and her friends and family held her in high esteem for her countless acts of mercy and kindness—always baking cookies during the holidays, a constant at the processions, the first to arrive during times of crisis and grief, friend, nurse and comfort to anyone she knew. It would be sad. But the clan had tempered its outpourings of grief and joy over time, adjusting to 21st Century North American life. The mourning would be reserved.
Spent the next few days in a weird, sad state of limbo, awash in broken memories, unable and unmotivated to do anything. Everything was being taken away from me. The people I loved most, money, health, dignity. Real bum ride, even for a gambler. A gambler expects variance. But this was farcical.
Thought a workout at the gym would clear my head, but a one-hour cardio-blitz on an elliptical just triggered another headache, which happens now and then when I overexert myself. I rushed home to my apartment and took a pill and applied an ice pack to my neck. My vision was blurred and my heart raced. I had to relax.
Drank as much water as I could stomach. Dehydration can cause migraines. Too much water can cause diarrhea. Spent an hour on the can. Then the bleeding started again.
Had second thoughts about the poker game that evening. Those sharks would sniff out my weakness and do their thing. And I respect that. I’d do the same. There are no friends at the poker table.
I received a call from my sister shortly after I finished eating a plate of spaghetti con pomodoro I'd made from a simple recipe my Aunt Che taught me when I was in university. I expected bad news.
“She’s still fighting.”
“No kidding.” I almost laughed. She was one tough nut.
“At one point she opened her eyes wide—thought she was going to yell at me for something like she always does, but she couldn’t speak. Heartbreaking. Mags’ kids are here. The twins taking it hard. Katie played guitar for her. Maybe you should come in tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’ll hop on the noon train.”
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Poker at Brian’s.”
“Can’t lend you any more money, Sammy.”
“Not asking for any. I’ll manage. My luck has to change. Can’t run bad forever.”
“You been saying that forever.”
“Don’t break my balls now, eh.” She knew I wasn’t kidding.
“Ma was good.”
“She ate. She’s a little porker.”
Never thought she’d outlast her sister. She looked done after the first year, when the nursing home doctor had prescribed an antipsychotic medication that twisted her limbs into something out of a horror movie. Had a talk with the doctor after reading up on the drug—Risperdal—and told him my mother, as he knew, wasn’t psychotic. She had Lewy body fucking dementia. I told him I wanted her off the drug or I was calling in the ministry. He brusquely explained that she’d been behaving aggressively. The drug settled her down. Yeah, and turned her into a monster, I recall saying. And give me a break about being aggressive. She’s a ninety-pound 85-year-old woman. Think I made my point. He took my mother off the drug and she regained a more human appearance, though never walked again.
The game started at 9 p.m., the usual suspects. Big Carm, a Yale grad who’d starred as a defensive tackle for their Bulldogs, was a formidable presence at the poker table, possessed of an authority and mean streak ignored at one’s own peril.
The rest of the fellas were degenerates, like me. Pot-smoking, filth-talking degenerates. Vincent was there and I hadn’t seen him in a while. His bulgy tattooed forearms reminded me of Popeye’s. He was a crafty but annoying player who intimidated most of the other guys.
“Sammy, long time.”
“What up, Vincent?”
“Kid’s growing up before my eyes.”
“How old is she now?”
“Charlie’s 5 years old, bro. Can you believe it? Man, she keeps me on my toes. On Easter Sunday she asked me where the Easter eggs were and I forgot all about them so I threw her a double sawbuck. Know what she said? ‘Daddy, daddy how come you carry so much monies in your pocket.’ Isn’t that cute? Isn’t that funny? Monies. Hahaha.”
“Yeah, funny, Vincent.”
“Brian, you got beers?”
“You know where the fridge is, Vin.”
Brian brought out a box of matzo crackers, for which I had an inexplicable weakness. Every Passover I indulged in their dry mouth delight. Not this time.
“They’ll bind you up nice.”
“Put on some music. And none of that rap shit.”
Brian played with a remote. Wall-speakers buzzed.
Women think I'm tasty, but they're always tryin' to waste me...
The Stones passed. Thumbs up.
Pino barged in wearing soiled grey sweats, all 400 pounds of him. Least that’s how big he looked these days. He was bigger than Carm, albeit rounder.
“Fucking asshole, taking up two spots. Who did that?”
Carm, counting the cards, looked up. He and Pino had almost come to blows last game over a contested hand of Omaha. “What’s your problem, Pino?”
“Someone talking to you, Carmine? Cuz I ain’t talking to you. I’m addressing the proprietor of this establishment, Carmine, not you.”
Carmine flared his black nostrils but ignored Pino.
Brian, in an oversized Chicago Black Hawks jersey and a small-beaked Oakley cap barely covering his mass of prematurely white hair, looked childish if not cretinish. “Pino, you got a problem, fill out a complaint form and I’ll have my lawyers go over it.”
“Funny, haha. Haha. Who took two spots out there? Sammy?”
“I don’t drive, you fat tub of shit.” I wasn’t in the mood for him. That, and my stomach was bothering me. Not my stomach. It went deeper. Wasn’t even pain really. A dull throb.
Pino turned his huge body around to me. As he inched closer, the air moved before him and with it a tang of sweat, beer, smoke and gasoline.
“What the fuck were you doing, Pino?” Carm said, waving his hand. “Siphoning gas from someone’s car? Whew. No one light a friggin match.”
Ira and Mark Title entered, both wearing blazers, Ira camel hair, Mark navy. I liked the brothers, fish-mongers whose family was worth millions. Ira was the sharp of the two, a real player. Mark was a good-hearted if prickly nit who sometimes got lucky.
Pino took out a wad of money from his bloated leather fanny-pack, and a jam jar of marijuana. “Ran out of gas out on the 401 and had to walk a mile to get some.”
Everyone laughed. Typical.
Black-clad Craig came in with his black lab Holly. She liked me. She parked herself by my leg waiting for a cuddle. Black as night, panther black, I stroked her head—she rolled back her eyes. Good girl.
Pino glanced at me as if to say, I’ll deal with you later. But like I said, I was in no mood for his shit.
Paul and Arto the Armenians arrived and with them a scent of cloves and garlic.
I went up to the can to take a wizz between hands and sat on the toilet in case things were leaking. In seconds the bowl filled with blood. Real massacre. Yeah, I was alarmed. Not afraid. Well, maybe a bit afraid. Cleaned up as best I could. Then I padded my briefs with toilet paper.
Brian watched me sit down. “You okay?”
I shrugged. What was I going to say?
I was doing okay. I’d hit an all-in flush on Vincent’s ass and stacked him. Tell Charlie that Sammy has all of Daddy’s monies, I wanted to say.
Felt like a big fucking gorilla had climbed off my back. Life can’t be shit all the time. Smoke clouded Brian’s place. Someone asked that the fan be turned on.
“Dude, I’m fucking choking to death!” It was Ira, red-faced, hands clutching his throat.
Brian walked over to a stand-up fan cloaked in cobwebs. He brushed it off with his hand and hit the switch. Then he opened up the patio door in back. The room’s atmosphere immediately lightened.
“Whose deal is it?” I asked. I wanted to keep it moving. I needed to keep it moving. I didn’t want anything to stop this run of good luck, this rush.
Craig dealt the cards with a joint clenched in his newly veneered teeth, a fantastic beautification of his once gap-toothed grimace. Ashes whitened the front of his black T-shirt. He smiled. The teeth gave him a quality I couldn’t quite define. I hesitate to say class.
It was midnight. I owned the big stack at the table and pushed my chips around mercilessly. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. I’d been playing poker since I was a kid. I’d say I was good, but the difference between good and bad in poker is all about how you’re running. Skill only takes you so far. Sometimes skill is what kills you in poker.
I won another big hand. This time off Pino, who sulked and muttered under his breath.
“What was that, Pino?”
“What was what? Who’s talking to you? Mind your own fucking business. The world doesn’t revolve around you, Sammy.”
I could feel my blood rising. I was about to respond when my cellphone buzzed. I looked at it. My sister. I looked away. It continued buzzing for a time. Then it stopped.
Then it started again. No fucking way. Not now.
“Aren’t you gonna answer?” Brian asked.
Not now, I thought. Not now.
Silence fell in the room as everyone waited for me to answer the cellphone. Holly stirred at my feet. A surge of emotion rose through me so hot and black I thought I might pass out. Tears welled in my eyes. I didn’t want to answer the cellphone. I switched it off.
Brian asked if I was okay.
I took a deep breath. “I’m fine,” I said. “And quit staring at me, you assholes. Whoever is dealing, deal the fucking cards.”
Salvatore Difalco lives in Toronto and is the author of four books. His work has appeared in journals across Canada, USA and UK.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Salvatore on the Orson's Publishing blog.