Windsor, Ontario – 1970
The night was perfect for drowning a dog—a rare velvet evening in May along the shores of the Detroit River under the arching black shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. But parked in his aging 1964 Mustang, Bernie Michaels was too drunk, too angry and too intent on his mission to really notice. “A bitch for a bitch,” he announced. How hard could it be? Sharp points of light picked out the graceful spans of bridge, then blurred and merged with the bright shoals of Detroit’s skyline a mile distant. Transport trucks moved fitfully toward the customs booths in both directions, the noise of diesel engines and releasing airbrakes undiminished by height and humidity.
“Bottoms up!” Slouched behind the wheel, Bernie drained the last ounces of liquor from the mickey of Walker’s Special Old Whiskey. The taste was cloying and sweet. With ritual disdain, Bernie poured the brown dregs onto his neglected pile of grade ten History assignments on the floor of the convertible, blotting out the student’s name on top. “Screw you, Frank D. Phelan!”
Bernie had parked the Mustang convertible in the far corner of the riverfront passion park, known locally as ‘Hep’s,’ just after 9:00 p.m. on the last Friday of the month. He dropped the empty bottle onto the school papers and sat seething behind the wheel. The shiny brown plastic Lazare’s Fine Furs bag was ready on the seat next to him. Behind, on the back seat, the small dog whined uncertainly inside the silver-wrapped box, still tied with its red Christmas bow. It seemed fitting that he do the mutt here, in the place where a part of Bernie had so recently died—been murdered really.
Even in his irrational state, what little logic remained told Bernie Michaels the dog was not at fault. The way Bernie saw it, they were both victims. “Damn straight!” Both had been deserted by the person they loved and trusted most; the person they thought loved and trusted them right back. “’Til death do us part, right, doggie?”
Well the parting had come, brutal and irrevocable, and Bernie wished he were dead. But he’d looked at the opaque black river water and knew he couldn’t kill himself, then or now. The implacable will that allowed Bernie to control even the most unruly class of adolescents deserted him here. Yet he had to do something! Doris, his deceitful bitch of a wife, was beyond his reach, so innocent or not, he would make her damn dog dead. “Murder by proxy,” he laughed at his cleverness and pounded the steering wheel.
The dog in the box whimpered in alarm.
Bernie imagined it was Doris. Imagined grabbing his two-timing wife by the neck with both hands and choking the lies, life and adultery right out of her. Right here, right now, where Doris had told him. Where it all came to an end, just a few short months before. “Dump her in the river! Let her float on down to Lake Erie!” he muttered.
Out on the water, a giant dark angular shape moved under the bridge in front of Bernie, its huge advance eating up the million city lights, devouring Detroit with steady appetite. The horn of the Great Lakes freighter erupted in two solid blasts of sound that jarred Bernie to the marrow. “Jesus!”
The box in the back let out a series of panicked yelps, rising higher and higher, until Bernie turned around, lashed at it with both fists. “Shut-u-up!” He pounded the box into silence—almost.
Bernie heard a rattling sound, followed by a faint odour. The little dog had urinated in fear. The pungent smell permeated the closed interior of the convertible. He yelled something incoherent, wrenched open his door, reached back and grabbed up the box and hurled it to the ground. It gave out a few feeble whimpers and then went quiet. Bernie panted heavily, the alcohol and strain beginning to drain him. “That’s better.”
The Motor City’s lights winked back on as the freighter continued down-river, riding low in the water, but churning up a high wake with its powerful screw, ghostly efflorescent in the half-moon’s light. Bernie thought of the giant, twisted steel propeller grinding away beneath the surface. He thought of Doris’ lifeless body sucked into that huge wake and ground into little bloody bits. “Little. Bloody. Bits.” Bernie liked the sound of that.
Bernie shook his head to try and clear it, but was overcome with the sudden need to relieve his bursting bladder. In his haste, Bernie pissed against the front tire of his own Mustang. The zipper snagged, he swore in frustration, but finally got himself straight. “Ok, show-time, doggie.” The box lay silent at his feet.
Bernie looked furtively around the gravelled lot, located off Riverside Drive and north across from Atkinson Park and its Little League Baseball field. The intense white night-lights of the playing field were on, indicating a game in progress, and Bernie just caught the noise of the baseball fans, too far away to matter.
The lot he’d chosen had no official name but took its title from the flashing red letters of a sign, low on the waterline of the Detroit side opposite: ‘HEPPINSTALL’S’. No one seemed to know what product or service Heppinstall’s provided, but to young drivers with a license to love, it was the place to park. Clouds of hormones mixed with cigarette haze and the sweet smell of marijuana hung over the backseats of the shiny Fords and Chevys like exhaust smoke. Who knew? Students like Frank Phelan were sixteen, maybe driving daddy’s car and parking here to tear off a piece. The sudden image of Frank Phelan doped up and sex-locked with the delectable Evelyn Flowers made Bernie Michaels kick out at the box, drawing a whine and more sounds of urination. “Screw you, Phelan!”
This early on a Friday night the lot was less than a quarter full. No one paid him any notice. The Chevelle parked nearest Bernie, a half-dozen slots away, had the windows up and the radio playing low. Bernie thought he recognized the faint strains of “Save The Last Dance for Me,” from one of the Motown stations across the river all the kids seemed to favour. The music was popular with double-dealing Doris too, especially the Smooth Daddy Groove show she was always dancing to in the kitchen, shaking her ass and showing too much leg. Now the music seemed to mock Bernie. “Goddamned coon-shit!”
Bernie retrieved the brown Lazare’s bag, stuffed it under his belt and picked up the box. He swore as he realized he’d grabbed the urine-soaked side. The dog whined, but Bernie held on, determined to get it over with.
“Alright doggie, time for a paddle.” He sniggered and moved unsteadily toward the lip of the steep embankment, weaving between two of the big cement safety barriers. Halfway down, Bernie lost his footing in the loose gravel and accelerated into a stumbling run. He tripped over a rock and fell hard, face forward, arms out-stretched—and empty.
The box tumbled the rest of the way in front of him, full of high-pitched cries, and banged into the base of a dimly lit sign-post that warned:
But the only thing that mattered when Bernie pushed himself to his feet and finally got there was the dog, standing free in the lemonade moonlight, looking back at him with her stupid white ball in her mouth. ‘Angel’ said the faint letters on the ball in black magic marker.
The small dog was a Jack Russell Terrier, short and stocky, a smooth white with black markings on her face and back. Angel stood stiffly facing him, alert, but fearful and uncertain. Bernie watched the dog shake, ready to bolt. The Russell made small sounds in her throat and darted glances left and right, but always came back to Bernie. Her front feet shifted from paw to paw and her tail twitched. Shivers rippled along her sides.
Bernie forced himself to shut up and think. After a few moments, he thought he had it. Bernie made his movements slow, and sank down on one knee, keeping a careful distance. One miscalculation and it would all go to hell. How could he have been so stupid? It was just a goddamned dog!
Bernie smiled reassuringly and held out his right hand with the palm open toward the dog. He began to croon. “Ok, Angel. Daddy’s here. No need to be afraid. Come on, puppy. Time to go home. Come to daddy . . .”
Angel looked at him quizzically, still shivering with anxiety. Undecided, the dog finally sat, just the way Doris had trained her. If sitting, why not staying, he reasoned?
Bernie inched closer, talking all the time. “Good puppy. Sit! That’s a girl. Now stay! Stay, Angel.” The dog cocked her head to one side, unsure. Her small whimpers stopped, and Angel looked to be obeying.
“Ok, puppy. Treat! Treat! Come on. Shake a paw, Angel! Shake a paw!” Bernie raised his right hand, held it above the dog’s head, fingers and thumb together, in the way his bitch wife had so often done.
The Jack Russell Terrier twitched and her demeanour changed to one of hopeful anticipation. Tentatively at first, then with familiar enthusiasm, Angel dropped her ball, raised her right paw and took her eyes off Bernie to stare expectantly at the hand holding her treat.
“Gotcha, ya’ little bitch!” Bernie crowed in triumph, jerked the dog off of her feet by the paw. He shook her savagely. Angel yelped again and again. Bernie soon had her tightly by the collar, twisting and choking. “You’re fish-food now!”
Bernie acted quickly, no longer caring who might notice. The pup continued to squirm and gave out strangled cries, but weakly, her strength and will almost gone, yet even now, did not bite a hand that had fed her. Bernie pulled the plastic bag free of his belt and shook it open. The sharp stones were painful when he dropped to his knees and wedged the limp dog between his thighs. He slipped Angel into the bag then shoved her white ball in after.
“Ye-e-s-s-s!” Bernie leaned back and declared to the Spring moon.
He lined up the heavy plastic snaps and pinched them closed with solid snicks, sealing the bag’s top and Angel’s fate. Back on his feet, Bernie tottered toward the dark water, the limp brown Lazare’s bag held by the convenient vinyl handle.
Bernie’s feet found the muddy water before his mind registered the fact. The sudden chill froze him for a moment. Low river waves rolling in whitely from the freighter’s passing broke over his ankles. “Well, shit!”
Instead of stepping back, Bernie let out a cathartic whoop and did a manic River Dance that splashed his pants to the waist. He held the bag up to the moon a second time, like a holy offering to the goddess Artemis and his faithless wife. “For you, Doris. Wish you were here, bitch!”
This was the bag that had carried home Bernie’s Christmas peace offering to his wife, his marriage-saver, placed lovingly in the silver foil box and tied with a wide red ribbon. The box, like his marriage, lay empty behind him. The expensive silver fox stole from Lazare’s Fine Furs had almost bankrupted Bernie on his junior high school teacher’s salary. Doris had taken the silver fox fur too—and left him with the loan payments! “Merry goddamned Christmas, Doris!”
Now Bernie prepared himself for the final act. He planted his feet in the wet river mud, began to swing the shiny plastic Lazare’s bag back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Bernie held the stiff vinyl handle with both hands, like a hammer thrower at a highland game, increasing the arc each time. With a final effort, he spun completely around on one foot and let the bag fly . . . “Ye-s-s-s!”
He’d aimed for the wide space beyond two stands of tall cable-wrapped pilings at a point some twenty feet offshore. But Bernie was not a highland hammer thrower. He was drunk and pathetic, and ended sitting in a foot of mud and cold water where his heroic attempt and his loss of balance had left him.
The bag hit the flowing river water with a muffled splash a bare ten feet away. Bernie watched in dismay as the current caught it and floated it downstream. The possibilities of a small dog, in a large bag, filled with trapped air had eluded him.
Bernie scrambled to his feet and thrashed along after it through sucking shoreline mud. “Aw shit!” he swore again. The bag swirled eastward, straight for another stand of pilings. Sure enough, the Lazare’s bag hit the pilings and snagged on the rusty rounds of steel cable.
The plastic leapt to life, sharply bulging and giving out eerie howls.
“No! No! No-o-o!” Bernie reached the shore opposite and plunged into the water. He had to get to the bag. Hold the little dog under. Strangle her if he had to. “Goddamn you, bitch! Goddamn you straight to hell!”
Bernie didn’t know if he meant Angel or Doris.
It soon didn’t matter. Bernie howled in his own panic when the bottom fell abruptly away under his feet. His mouth filled with rank water and bubbles of sound. The dangerous undertow wrapped him in octopus arms and spun him over and over beneath the surface of the Detroit River.
Bernie stopped thinking of dying and wanted desperately to live. He popped up again and dog-paddled frantically to stay on top. He tried to shout for help, but his pleas were water-logged whimpers.
The steadily flowing water was deadly cold under Artemis’ eye. In front of Bernie, the Detroit shoreline and Heppinstall’s flowed silently by. Bernie thought of the big Great Lakes freighter, its huge twisted steel screw and powerful wake, as the current spun him slowly in kaleidoscope circles.
Now who was heading for little bloody bits?
It just wasn’t fair! Bernie added wet jags of crying to the whimpers and paddling. They were all too feeble, all too late. In the end, he was only crying. The dark cold turned warm and restful. Bernie lost all sense of time. He relaxed and went limp, lowered his eyelids and let the black arms take him.
Bernie was six feet below the surface in a languid drift toward the main freighter channel. Doris’ face floated in front of his. Her pink-frosted mouth smiled that same soul-sucking smile she’d worn when she announced she was carrying another man’s bastard in her belly—the child Bernie couldn’t give her.
They had parked not two hundred feet away from where Bernie now hung. It was Boxing Day, the night after he’d given her the silver fox stole in its shiny box and red ribbon. “So, Bernie, it’s over between us. The drinking, the other thing, I’m leaving you.” Bernie had felt his mind fragment like a slow grenade; his thoughts cut like shrapnel inside his skull.
Even now, the front of Bernie’s head exploded with pain. He moved his own feeble arms to protect it. They hugged something big and round and solid. Neurons fired in the deep prehistoric depths of his brain. His arms and legs began a slow, reptilian crawl upward. Doris drifted away below him, her expression solemn, accusing. Bernie’s body evolved. Liquid drained from his nose and mouth. He opened amphibian eyes, filmy in the moonlight, sampled the air and found it good.
There, opposite the far end of Hep’s, Bernie clung to the tarred pilings and his pitiful life.
“Help. Help me-e!” Bernie raised his right arm and willed it to wave. “Help.”
Twin shocks of headlights struck his eyes like blooming suns and alien voices shouted at Bernie in a language he struggled to understand.
Six feet away, on the far side of the black pilings, the Lazare’s Fine Furs bag burst open in a frenzy of activity and began to sink. A small white shape broke free and swam up-river toward the shore of the Penn Central Railway valley, short legs beating the water, a white ball in its mouth.
Blinded by the headlights, Bernie’s brain let the faint image go.