A dark, endearing tale about the creature comfort of man's best friend, and it's price.
By: Nathan Izzo
Burt felt the tiny nudge in his ribs but tried his best to ignore it. He felt the spell of sleep lifting, but kept his eyes closed in the hope that he could drift away again. He concentrated on the comfortable embrace of rest, but light and wakefulness was pulling against him now. Burt shifted his position as he tried to find comfort against the overpass' concrete wall. The aches and pains from sleeping under the bridge were minor enough that he could ignore them. The glow from his eyelids told him the sun was up, and the growing blanket of humidity was beginning to warm the air for the day ahead. He sighed as he realized he was waking up. He hated the idea of facing another day as "Burt the Bum". Another day of scraping and struggling to better his position in life. He repositioned himself again and felt his filthy clothes move with him. He frowned in disgust at every spot where his greasy rags touched him. As the day warmed, the crusty clothes will become sticky, clingy impediments. He felt warmth on his forehead and swiped his brow with the back of his hand, it came away wet. He was already sweating, he gave up on sleep and opened his eyes. His first sight was a 90 lb. mass of greasy matted fur, pointed teeth and a lolling tongue. The stray stared at him with quiet interest, drool escaping the pointed maw at the corners. Burt put a hand on the muddy head and gave it a shake, "morning Fido." Burt gave the dog a strong pet, and the dog leaned into it affectionately. Burt wiped at his nose and drug himself to his feet. The aches and pains of a fourty year old man sleeping on concrete screamed their concerns from a hundred joints and muscles. Burt took inventory and decided that there were no new or out of ordinary hurts, so he shrugged them off. They will work themselves out once he started moving. It's the humidity, Burt thought as he watched the dog walked around him in a circle. He suppressed the urge to feel affection for the dog. How long will it be around anyway? He called it Fido most days, but Spot or Bingo worked just as well. He wondered if the dog ever had a real name or family or a place on a farm or something. If he had a name already, Burt decided it would be best not to give it a new one. Maybe he was projecting, but Burt believed that if someone had something good in their past, its best not to confuse it by blending it with the present. Trying to hold onto it in the present will only cheapen it. No need to bring something good into this terrible present.
Burt shouldered his tattered backpack and climbed the loose rock embankment up to the railroad tracks. The dog plodded along a few feet back, until he saw which way there were going. Then he would race ahead and sniff and investigate until Burt caught up to him, then he would race ahead again, smelling and marking territory as he saw fit. Burt had learned to ignore the manic running around. It was a crazy orbit around Burt's lead. Burt was glad to have the company and protection the dog offered, and after a few minutes of walking, Burt started looking around himself. He kept an eye out for soda cans or salvageable metal, and there was always the slim chance he may find something of real value. After ten minutes, Burt had found a few cans and Fido had found a particularly smelly patch of ground that he had to roll around on. The first few buildings that indicated they were at the town loomed over them. Here, Fido stayed closer to Burt, and Burt felt his confidence wain. Here he wasn't a man with a dog, here he was a homeless vagrant. A social pariah. A problem.
In town, the two moved slower and closer together, still looking for discarded value. Burt looked for coins or metals, the dog looked for lady dogs or friendly people. Their first stop was a convenience store. Burt searched the parking lot for dropped coins or a lost winning lottery ticket, occasionally a regular who knew him might buy him a cup of coffee or a sandwich. The dog scrounged around the dumpster for half eaten food or cheese stuck to a wrapper. Somedays, Burt would buy a cup of coffee if he could afford it, but today found him with only 37 cents. The parking lot yielded only a few more pennies. Cars pulling in and out would beep at him. Some saying hello to the town oddity, some angry that the town blemish was slowing down their important day. Burt kept his distance, where the hellos and kind words couldn't reach him, but neither could the anger and hate. Burt gave a quick whistle to let the dog know he was moving on, and after a few lingering sniffs at the dumpster, plodded after him. Burt made his way through the construction site and warehouse dumpsters, collecting whatever scrap metal he could. The sun kept rising and brought the temperature along with it. Burt stopped at a gas station restroom to freshen up and drink some water. He filled an old bottle with water and poured it out for the dog, who lapped it up greedily. Burt felt a pang of guilt at not having watered him earlier. By one pm, the sun made it too hot to keep digging through trash piles, so he made his way to the scrap yards and traded his morning work for $7.58. it was enough for a soda and a sandwich he could split with the dog. The two ducked off the road and made their way into the woods. The shade by the stream was always a bit cooler, and the dog could drink, so they ate there and relaxed. The dog jumped into the stream and splashed around as Burt found a comfortable spot to settle down. Before they could get comfortable, however, Burt heard the graceless crashing and branches breaking that could only be people. Burt snapped his fingers to bring the dog to him and the two pushed their way into the thicker bushes, away from the path and the stream. Burt knew that it could be anyone, police or hikers or hunters, but he knew it was more likely to be trouble than a new friend, so he crouched behind a bush with a restraining arm around the dog. Better to let them pass. A few minutes later three big men in work clothes thundered past, bottles of alcohol clinking in their arms. He waited a few minutes after he could no longer hear them before he let the dog go and headed off in the opposite direction. Burt waited until they were almost back in town before he stopped and split the sandwich with the dog. Burt felt a little annoyed that even a simple thing like enjoying a lunch in peace gets messed up, but he resolved not to let it bother him and he made his way through the business district. He stopped at every store, asking if there was any work that needed doing. Women usually reacted fearfully, telling him no but really just trying to get him to go away. Some men got angry, offended that he would even speak to them. A few just apologetically said no, and a few just handed him an application for employment, where he was asked unanswerable questions like, "what's your phone number?" or email address, or address. The option of homeless was never on the form, so he never filled them out. The dog would quietly wait outside when Burt went into a building, and even if Burt didn't see him when he came out, he never got more than a hundred feet before the dog was back by his side. He would just seemingly reappear from out of nowhere. The sun was getting low and Burt was getting tired, but he decided to return to the convenience store one more time. The store was on his way anyway, and he was only 30 cents away from a cup of coffee. The lot was a lot less crowded now that the daytime rush hour had passed, but the extra space didn't seem to be yielding any more coins. He was about to give up when he saw a flutter of paper in his peripheral. He turned to look and saw that shade of green that is only ever seen on money. He scrambled after it. A dollar would get him a coffee and a beef stick to split with the dog. He got to it as it fluttered again, threatening to take flight in the summer breeze. Burt brought a beat-up work boot down on top of it, and noticed the 20 on the corner of it. Burt felt a rush of excitement that the promise of a full belly held. He scooped it up and walked into the store. He bought himself a full meal, a large coffee and some real dog food for Fido. The walk back down the tracks was a much quicker and happier one. The dog picked up on it and hopped and played as he loped around Burt. They settled down at their camp and dined on their spoils of the day. They relished every bite and enjoyed the cool breeze and settled into a restful contentment. They were still enjoying the afterglow when they heard the crunching of footsteps making their way down the railroad tracks. An occasional raised voice made its way ahead of the approach. Burt grimaced as he forced himself to stand. He called the dog over and the two retreated into the woods. He had just squatted behind a tree when he saw the same group of three men, now obviously drunk, reach their camp. The biggest of the men called to the other two and pointed at their camp. "what's this?" he asked them. "Someone's sleeping out here." The group stopped and made their way to the camp. Burt sank lower and gripped the dog tighter. The dog recognized Burt's fear and began a low throaty growl. The leader looked in their direction and the dog began to twist in Burt's grip, rustling leaves and snapping twigs in the process.
"Hey," the leader called out. "Who's out there?"
Burt stayed quiet and felt relief that the dog had stopped squirming. One of the others started poking around Burt's pile of collected scrap metal. The third spoke up as he saw him. "that's scrap metal, we can sell that. It's probably 20 to 30 dollars worth right there." The leader turned from the woods to the pile. Burt felt he had to do something, that pile had taken a month to accumulate. He gathered his courage and hoped for the best as he stood and called out, "Hey!" he had tried to sound friendly, as if talking to a co-worker. The group turned and watched as he stumbled out of the woods. The leader, a sweaty block of a man with a stained tee shirt and coveralls spoke first, "What, do you live out here?'
Burt tried to shrug innocently, "No, naw. I'm just camping. I like roughing it." Burt lied. The one near Burt's scrap metal, a skinny guy with messy hair and missing teeth countered him.
"He ain't camping. He's got this scrap pile and no sleeping bag or tent. He's living out here"
Burt felt trapped, moreso now that he had already tried lying, "No. No. I'm just out camping with the dog." Burt gave a nod to the dog, who was keeping his distance and still growling a little. The third guy picked up a branch and pointed it at Fido
"He gonna bite me?" the third man had an edge in his voice. "Why's he growling at me?"
Burt put up his hands in a sign of supplication. "Naw, he's just afraid, is all" Burt instantly regretted having said "afraid". The toothless guy picked up a pipe from Burt's scrap pile.
"That thing better not come near me"
Burt was all set to reassure him when the leader spoke up. He had been studying Burt since he spoke.
"You're one of them homeless fellas, ain't ya?"
Burt looked from the leader to the men with weapons to Fido, who had continued growling. The big leader continued, "I see you around. You steal from us hard-working, honest folk and then come out here and get high, don't you?" Burt tried to interrupt to correct him, but the big man was drunk and on a roll. "Last week I had a socket set go missing from the back of my pick-up. Did you sell it for drugs? Is that what happened to it?"
Burt tried to object. The big drunk was working himself up, his words were slurring more as emotional took the wheel. The two friends with weapons were caught up in it. They started inching forward. The big drunk was still ranting about low-life's as Burt tried to talk him down. The next thing Burt knew, a big, sweaty fist exploded in his face. His vision went white and gravity disappeared until he felt himself hitting the ground. He saw Fido leap at the skinny guy, jaws open and fury in his eyes, but the pipe swung out and caught him in mid-air. The big drunk grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him towards him. Only to be greeted by a series of vicious punches to the eyes and head and jaw. He was internally still trying to talk to the group, to get them to stop. He caught a glimpse of the other two crowded over Fido, reigning down blow after blow on him. This caused Burt to try to fight, but it was too late. The punches just kept coming and he couldn't get a fix on where he was. Burt's head was starting to fog and he lost count of how many times he'd been hit. He must have lost consciousness, because when he looked next, he saw the men gathering up his scrap metal. He blinked and they were a hundred yards away, noisily crunching down the tracks. Burt groaned at the giant swollen mess his head was. He felt blood running down his face and neck. He pushed the pain away and rolled onto his side. He saw Fido lying ten feet away. He crawled the ten feet over leaves and rocks until he reached him. It was a bloody mess. He looked for movement. He looked for breathing. He put his hand on the smashed ribs and he couldn't feel any life there, either. A new kind of pain began as Burt passed out.