Through the rubble and refuse of the old downtown residential district, the light from a kerosene lantern shone through the gap at the bottom of a shed door. In daylight, the shed was camouflaged among the garbage and decaying old buildings that surrounded it. By night, it was noticeable only during the short time the light burned as the old man prepared himself. A smell of decay emanated from the tin building, but it was masked by the foul smells of every other old building and garbage pile around the dying city center.
The shed was once an auxiliary building to a home, which now lay crumbling a few feet away. It faced the back of the lot, along which a rutted dirt alley ran: a highway for drunks, junkies, and stray dogs, and the main entrance to this makeshift home.
The light went out, the door squeaked open, and an old man passed through. He was wrapped in woolen plaid and a stocking cap. Gray hair billowed out from under his cap in a lion’s mane around his head. His beard, gray and wiry, was stained brown from tobacco juice. He closed the door carefully, clicked a large padlock into the hasp, securing the door tightly, and started toward the ally to make his nightly rounds.
He was a careful old man, thin and sinewy. He walked slowly, keeping watch around him for danger, because he knew it was all around him. People hid in the shadows to rob the unsuspecting or just to hurt them. Only the sick or the insane came out at night in this place, except, of course, for the old man. He came out each night to check his traps.
His name had been Terence, back when people called him by a name. Now, though, he didn’t need a name, because no one knew him. People saw him at the city bus terminal selling his wares and occasionally someone caught a glimpse of him moving silently in the night, but no one ever spoke to him or thought much about where he came from or where he went.
The old man had lived in the neighborhood since before it became the dangerous place it was. He had lived there when it was shiny and new: when young families bought new homes and parked new cars in the driveways: when children walked the streets at night unafraid. He had lived there back when he was Terence, and he had worn a tie and driven a car, owned a home and loved his wife. But that time had passed. Now even he must creep through the streets with care. Though he had lobbied city council to put in a four-way stop at the intersection to protect the children as they crossed the street on their way home from school, now even he had to watch carefully for thugs and muggers lest they rob or kill him.
The old man had set his nearest trap close by, behind a dumpster in the alley. He moved to it surreptitiously, slowly moving in the shadows. He found it empty, but it had been tripped. He pulled the iron jaws back down, holding them with one gnarled old hand while he fixed the trigger with the other. He re-baited the trap, set it back in its spot, brushing some dirt over it, and proceeded to the next.
The second trap was not empty. A calico cat, its front paw clamped in its vicelike grip, hissed at him viciously, its back arched. The old man backed up a step and drew a tire iron from his sack, then stepped slowly toward the animal. It hissed loudly, but in one swift movement the tire iron sliced through the air, bashing the cat in the head. The old man heard the skull crunch and the cat was immediately silent. Its body tensed in a final spasm and it fell to its side, blood running from its nose and ear. He picked the trap up by its chain, compressed the springs, releasing the cat’s paw, and shook it loose. He baited the trap and reset it in the same spot, tossing the dead cat in his bag and proceeding to the next trap on his route.
Terence was born in Arkansas and lived in the Ozark Mountains until his late teens, when he left to make a better living in the city. He and his father had operated a trap line each winter in the hardwood forests that surrounded their home. It was their only source of income at times, when the woods were too wet or icy to cut pulpwood. The traps were set deep in the forest, along the streams, and it took two days to complete the route on foot. When he was ten years old, Terence’s mother died and he began going with his father on those over-night trips. She had not wanted him to learn the blood trade, as she called it, but he was too young to be left at home alone.
They camped in a lean-to his father had built at the halfway point on the nights they were out on the trap line. They brought some food with them and cooked meat over the campfire from the animals they trapped that day. Mostly they caught opossums, which tasted pretty good but were very greasy. Sometimes they caught a fox or a bobcat, but they never ate them. His father told him the meat was bad, though Terence never noticed anything different about its look or smell.
Though the nights were cold in the lean-to, Terence loved the sound of the night in the forest. The creek rustled all night long as the crickets chirped. The owls called and he could hear their wings swishing in the air over him as he lay there straining his eyes to see them.
Those nights were his favorite memories.
When the line was complete, the traps emptied and reset, his father would deliver the animals to the skinner. Terence was always amazed at the pile of carcasses behind the old wooden building where the skinning was done. Men inside worked with sharp knives, pulling and tugging and cutting, and when they were finished they threw what was left on the pile. It was red and bloody, and it was higher than his head. All the little eyeballs stared back at him and their tongues hung out, teeth bared like they wanted to bite him. It hadn’t scared him, though; he knew they were dead and couldn’t hurt him. And as he got older, and after he had killed hundreds of animals and delivered them to the skinner, he never even noticed the carcass heap. It was simply trash: that which could not be used.
As the old man made his way down the alley on his new urban trap line, he heard whining and knew immediately what it was. He stopped and backed into the shadows to wait and listen. He did not like catching dogs; they could be troublesome. He did his best to avoid trapping them by putting the traps in small spaces where a big dog would not fit, but sometimes they managed to get to the bait anyway. Big dogs were dangerous and hard to kill, but there was no other option. He had to kill them before their owners found them.
The neighborhood was populated with young thugs who kept big, mean dogs. It was another status symbol, like a nice car or a hot girlfriend. And the dog of choice among the thugs was the Pitbull. They adorned them in spikes and chains and let them run loose to fight in the streets. If one dog killed another it was nothing to get angry about. It was a fair fight and the best dog had won, but if a man killed another man’s dog it was a serious transgression. It was not unconceivable that someone could die if a dog was wrongly killed. But for the old man, there was no other option. If a dog were found in one of his traps, his livelihood would quickly end.
The trapper listened in the shadows for ten minutes. He heard nothing but the dog’s whining. He looked around carefully to see if anyone was around who might have heard the dog, but he saw no one. He crept slowly toward the trapped animal, his ears alert to any sound. It was late: after midnight, so the streets were devoid of real people. Only the night people, crazies and junkies, would be about at this hour, but he had to be careful nonetheless.
When the dog saw him, it leapt at him and growled, baring its teeth and snarling, saliva slinging from its mouth. It was a Pitbull as he had expected. He knew the trap was chained securely to the dumpster, and the dog could only move to the end of that chain. He let the dog come out as far as it could, then he moved carefully toward it as it yanked at the chain, trying to get to the old man and tear him to pieces. He slid the tire iron from his pack and swung it with all his strength at the dog, hitting it squarely on the head. It felt like he had hit a rock, and the shock from the blow hurt his hand badly. But the dog wasn’t daunted in the least. It pulled harder at the chain, lunging at the old man. The trapper slid the skinning knife from its sheath under his arm. The eight-inch blade shone brightly in the starlight as he wielded it into position. He held the tire iron in his left hand and the knife in his right. He poked the tire iron at the dog, and it bit at the steel rod, snarling as if it would grind it to powder with its teeth. The blade flashed out quickly, neatly slicing open the side of the pit bull’s neck. The dog seemed hardly to notice, but blood immediately poured from the wound in red spurts. The old man backed away slowly, slipping around the corner to wait, as the dog barked and licked its teeth.
After a few moments the dog was panting loudly, and the old man heard it drop to the ground. He waited another five minutes, then approached the animal carefully to find it lying dead in a large puddle of blood. He forced open the jaws of the steel trap, pulled the dogs foot loose, then heaved the heavy dog into the dumpster and covered it with garbage. He collected his trap and put it in his pack. He would not be setting a trap in that spot again.
The next morning, meat sizzled on the barbeque as the old man sat on a bucket outside his front door. The calico cat lay belly up on a wooden stump in front of him as he carefully cut the skin away from its body. The fur was soft and beautifully colored. It would bring him a couple of dollars. There was no market for cat fur, of course, but he made gloves, hats, and purses from the skins and sold them to anyone who would buy them. He had no trouble convincing his buyers that the fur was rabbit. No one would ever believe he had made the items from cat fur. “Oh, what happened to your kitty?” a young female voice asked.
The old man was startled and nearly sliced his thumb. No one ever walked to his door without him hearing their approach long before they reached it. But there, standing barely ten feet away, was a little girl. She looked to be no more than eight years old. She had dark hair and eyes and wore a knee length cotton dress. “Why did he die?” she asked.
The old man was at a loss for words. He hadn’t spoken to a child in years and didn’t think he wanted to speak to one: certainly not about a dead cat he was skinning. “What are you doing to him?” the girl asked. “You just stay away,” he said, before he had time to think of anything else. “But what happened to your kitty?” “Nothin’ happened to him. You just run on home now,” the trapper said gruffly. He wanted the girl to leave. He wanted to scare her away.
“But something must have happened to him, cause he’s dead, isn’t he?” The girl did not seem to be bothered by the sight of the old man skinning a dead cat, nor was she upset by his unwelcoming tone. She simply seemed curious and stepped closer, trying very hard to get a better look at what he was doing.
“Well…yes, he’s dead alright. He got runned over by a car. I just found him in the street.” Since the girl showed no sign of leaving, the old man thought he best make something up to explain the presence of a dead cat. “I’m glad that’s not my kitty,” the girl said. “What are you doing to him?” “None of you business. Now get!” The trapper stood up for emphasis and waved the girl away. “But I want to see what you’re doing.” “You just get outta here. It ain’t none of your concern what I’m doin’.” He glared at the girl, and she backed off a step or two, then stuck out her tongue and ran away toward the street. He watched after her to make sure she wasn’t coming back, then went back to his task.
When he had finished skinning the cat, he tacked the hide to a small piece of plywood and sprinkled some salt on it. The chunk of meat on the barbeque was finished, so he stuck the knife in it and removed it from the fire. He blew on it a couple of times, then took a bite and settled back down on the bucket.
The shed was dark, other than the light from one small window, and it was barely large enough to house a cot, a small fold-up table, and one chair. A stack of milk crates, filled with unidentifiable objects, lined one wall, and a stack of skins occupied one corner. The old man sorted through some items on the table made from cat hide, threw a few in his bag, and went out the door and down the alley toward the city center.
The Grey Hound bus terminal was a magnet for all kinds of human oddity, and the old man fit into the crowd seamlessly. Travelers were the old man’s best customers. He displayed the colorful fur items on a bench outside and sold as many as he could produce. This morning, he sold a hat and three purses, for three dollars each. He stopped at a liquor store on his way back to his shed and bought a loaf of bread, a pound of bacon, and a pint of whiskey: the cheapest bottle on the shelf.
As he stepped into the alley, he noticed someone behind him. He had seen the lowly looking young man in the liquor store, and the man seemed to be following him. The old man took a few steps down the alley and turned to his right, hiding himself behind the burned out hull of an old van. He could hear the man’s footsteps on the gravel getting closer, so he pulled the knife from its sheath under his jacket and waited silently. The man stepped into view and stopped. He seemed to sense the old man was near, and he turned toward him, sniffed and rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth.
“Hey, old man,” the stranger said. The stranger’s face lit up with disingenuous joy. “You mind sharing that whiskey with a down and out drunk?” “Fuck off! I aint sharing nothin.” He stood loosely but confidently, his arms hanging down his sides and the knife tucked up along his forearm, so the man could not see it. “Humph. That aint very nice, old man. How bout I just take it from ya then?” The man took a step toward the old trapper and reached out as if to grab his throat. Before he was close enough to touch him, the old man’s arm leapt forward, his hand turned and the blade angled out like a rooster’s spur. The razor sharp edge passed almost imperceptibly through the man’s flesh, slicing open the palm of his hand. The stranger jerked his hand back, and brought it tentatively to his face. As he realized he had been cut, a look of disbelief spread across his face.
“Why, you fuckin old bastard! I oughta kill your skinny ass!” He examined his hand. Blood flowed from it freely, dripping onto the ground.
“I think you ought to just be on your way,” the old man said. He held the knife low. His hands were steady and there was no trace of apprehension on his face. His eyes were locked onto the strangers face, clear and unwavering.
The stranger looked up from his wound. His expression changed as he observed the stance of the old man. It was as if he suddenly realized a giant spider was about to pounce on him and sink its fangs into his neck. He backed away, slowly, then turned and walked quickly back up the alley, holding his bleeding hand in front of him.
When the trapper reached his shed, to his surprise and dismay, the little girl from that morning was back. She was sitting on the old man’s bucket, with an orange tabby cat in her lap. She was scratching the cat’s chin as it rubbed against her. “Get off my bucket!” the old man growled. The girl got up and moved a few feet away. She was unperturbed by the grouchy old man. “This is my kitty,” she said proudly. “I won’t let him get ran over.” “Well then, I hope you keep him in at night. Else he might come up missin’.” “Oh, he won’t run away. He sleeps in my bed at night. He loves me.” “Why are you buggin’ me with that damn cat? Go away!” The old man waved his hand at the girl. “I thought you might want to pet him, since your kitty got ran over.” “I don’t have no damn cat, and I don’t want one. Now get!” “But you said your kitty got ran over.” The girl showed no sign of fear or any inclination to leave. She just continued scratching the cat’s neck. “That wasn’t my god damn cat. I hate cats!” “Why? They’re nice. Ronnie goes everywhere with me, and he lays in my lap and purrs, and he rubs on my leg when I get home from school. Why don’t you like cats?”
The old man looked down at the girl and felt a twinge of affection. She was not afraid of him; he could see that in her face. There was no fear there, no prejudgment, only trust and curiosity. It had been a very long time since someone had looked at him that way. Everyone he came in contact with treated him like he had a contagious disease. Even the people who bought the items he sold at the bus terminal tried their best not to touch him during the transaction and rarely made full eye contact. But this girl looked at him as if she did not notice his grubbiness and seemed to completely disregard his gruff mannerisms and contemptuous treatment of her.
But she was just a girl from the slums; what did she know? Seeing that the girl had no intention of leaving, the old man got up from his seat, unlocked the shed door and went inside, closing the door abruptly behind him without another word. He watched through the window as she walked away, then quietly slipped out the door and followed her to a house three lots down. He watched as she went inside. Like most homes in the neighborhood, this house exuded poverty and disregard. Garbage was piled in the yard and three junk cars occupied the muddy gravel driveway.
As he watched, a car drove up and parked in front of the house. A thin young man got out, slammed the squeaky door behind him, and strode to the front door.
He yanked the front door open and immediately began yelling, though the old man could not tell what was being said. Almost instantly, the girl ran out the back door and into one of the crippled cars, closing the door behind her and ducking into the back seat. “Vickie!” The man yelled from the back door. “Get your ass back here!” “Leave her alone, Cord. She ain’t hurtin’ nothin’,” a female voice screamed from inside the house. “You just shut the fuck up. I want her in here!” “Leave her alone!” the woman screamed again. “Just shut your fucking mouth!” he yelled as he turned and went back in the door.
The trapper watched for some time. The yelling from inside the house ceased.
Eventually, the girl exited the car quietly and sneaked back into the house. He waited for thirty minutes but heard nothing more, so he slipped silently back to his shed.
When the old man woke the next morning, he opened his door to find Vickie sitting on his bucket with her cat. “Good morning,” she said, as if she greeted him every morning. The old man stopped and stared for a moment. “What are you doing here?” “I just came over to tell you good morning.” “Who is that man?” he asked abruptly. “What man?” “The man who was yelling at you yesterday.” “Oh him. He’s my mommy’s boyfriend,” she said. “I don’t think I like him,” the old man said gruffly. “Me neither,” the girl replied, as she shook her head. “He’s mean.” She screwed her face up like she had smelled something foul.
The trapper went back into the shed and returned with another bucket. He sat it on the ground next to his front door, built a fire in the barbeque with wood gathered from the crumbling house next door, and began to cook a breakfast of bacon and pan-baked biscuits. When he finished the girl was gone. She’d left without a sound.
That night, as the old man lay in the dark sipping whiskey from the bottle, his thoughts drifted into the world that lies between wakefulness and sleep. He remembered another little girl, his little girl, greeting him in the driveway when he came home from work. “Daddy, pick me up,” she said and raised her little arms up to him.
He lifted her, squeezed her gently, and kissed her cheek; then he noticed the tears. “What’s the matter, my baby girl?” he asked. “Mommy says we’re going away and you aren’t coming with us. But I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Please don’t make me go.”
“Fucking fucked up,” he mumbled, as the whiskey and sleep wrestled for control of his mind.
He rolled over and the whiskey bottle fell to the floor, draining its contents into the litter of scribbled on paper and dirt. “Come back,” he whispered.
He felt the pain all over again. As his wife drove the car away, he heard his little girl crying for him. “Daddy, I don’t want to go!”
He heard himself again, talking to the wind as the car disappeared from sight, “I would cut off my arm with a penknife to keep you here, baby. But it would do no good. Your mother hates me.” And then she was gone. The sound of his own screaming woke him, and he sat up, kicking the bottle across the room. It was after midnight, and he needed to check his traps. So he forced himself to stand and carefully opened the squeaky door, slipping out into the comfortable anonymity of night.
It was foggy, and as he approached his first trap he thought he saw a tabby cat with its paw clamped tight. But as he moved closer, the orange fur faded to brown, and he found it was not a tabby at all, but some mongrel breed. On the next trap it was the same. He was sure he could see an orange tabby pulling at the trap with its paw, but as he got closer it faded into nothingness. There was no cat in the trap at all.
He was on his third trap when he heard a scream and nearly chalked it up to imagination, but erring on the side of caution, he backed into a dark corner and listened. He immediately recognized the voice of the screaming girl. A man was yelling back at her. He could not tell what the yelling was about, but they were moving in his direction. He waited. They were getting very near him: he could hear foot beats and the voices were becoming clearer. “No, no!” Vickie screamed. “Stay away from me!” Suddenly Vickie burst through an opening in a wooden fence into the alley, not thirty feet from where the old man was hiding. Cord followed behind her and reached out as she slowed to turn down the alley, grabbing her by the hair. She screamed and jumped and pulled as if to tear the hair out of her own head to get away.
“Stop screaming, you little bitch!” Cord said, and he slapped her in the head with his free hand.
The girl screamed louder and hopped frantically, reaching back to free her hair from him. But it was futile: she could not get away.
The old man stepped out from the shadows. He said nothing, but Cord could not help noticing him: he was nearly within arms reach. Vickie saw him too and stopped screaming. They both stood and stared, as if he were a ghost. “Who the fuck are you?” Cord asked. “Let the girl go,” the old man replied, without inflection. “Humph. What are you gonna do if I don’t?” The trapper said nothing. The shiny blade flashed as he pulled it from inside his coat. He held it in his fist, blade down, and took a step toward Cord. Cord shuffled backward but never let go of Vickie’s hair. He pulled her with him, back toward the wooden fence. The trapper followed slowly, deliberately.
Cord reached backward and pulled a loose board from the fence with his free hand, then kicked the girl toward the old man.
“I’m gonna kill you, you dirty old fuck!” Cord said. He raised the board over his head and charged toward the old man.
The trapper picked the girl up and turned away from Cord, covering her with his body. The board came down hard on his back, and he grunted with the impact. But he held Vickie until she had her feet planted steadily beneath her. “Run girl, run,” he told her. Another blow from the board landed hard on his shoulder, and he felt a bone snap. He leapt sideways, away from his assailant, and turned to find Cord coming at him for a third blow. The old man moved in under the board and pulled the knife up against Cord’s thigh, pushing it forward and up with his fist. The old man felt the fabric of Cords jeans give way, then he felt the razor sharp blade go deep in the man’s thigh as he pushed it through. A guttural scream erupted from Cord’s throat and he immediately fell to the dirt as spurts of blood pumped from his thigh like a fountain.
The old man stared down at the man bleeding to death in the gravel and wiped the bloody blade clean on Cords shirt.
“Unless that little girl runs home and tells her mother, you’ll die right here in the dirt.”
The trapper sheathed his knife, turned and walked back down the alley toward his shed.
As he laid in his cot, with only the light from the moon shining through the small window, his shoulder ached and was beginning to swell. He heard sirens, and flashing red lights sped past, heading toward the man bleeding to death in the alley.
”Where is my girl?” he wondered. “Where is she now?” Terence awoke to the sun shining in his eyes and realized someone was standing in the doorway of the shed. He tried to get up, but couldn’t. His shoulder ached terribly, he could feel the heat radiating from it, and he felt like he would vomit any moment. He thought maybe he was already dead. Then he heard Vickie’s voice. “There he is, Mommy,” and someone touched him lightly on the forehead. “Can you hear me, sir?” a sweet sounding voice asked.
He opened his eyes and saw a blurry, white profile leaning into him. The pain and nausea disappeared. “Is that you, baby? Is that you?” “Yes, its me. I’m going to take care of you now.”
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