The Dead Spit

t. f. nicolay


                It was the third Sunday of October when Minerva Hopewell saw the doppelganger. The double-goer. A fragment from the old German teacher’s tuition broke loose and shot up from the shadowy floor of her memory, the lower darkness into which she had consigned the unpleasant episodes of her life. She hadn’t wanted to go out that afternoon. An insistent pressure behind her eyes told her that nine miles north, clouds were gathering over the lake. Against her better judgment she’d agreed to walk her brother’s dog, a tawny old shepherd not much acquainted with open spaces. In its eagerness to be at last on the other side of the chain-link fence that enclosed its narrow run, the animal had scrambled out of the gate before Minerva could barely free the latch.  She had to jog to keep up as it rounded the corner of the house, its long nails scratching against the two cracked and broken cement tracks that had once been a driveway. When the boy emerged from the crimson hedge of viburnum, the old woman was already winded.

He was thin, the boy. Too thin to her mind, even for someone so young. His black sweatshirt, faded to a slightly lighter shade than his pants, hung loose around his upper body. He wore the hood lightly atop a mass of dark hair, one lock across his forehead. Minerva wondered if it bothered him, the way it practically covered his right eye. A long silver chain hung from a belt loop and disappeared in the back pocket of his jeans. Another hoodlum. She shook her head as she extracted a neatly folded tissue from the pocket of her sweater and wiped her nose. This neighborhood is going to pot. The white rubber tips of the boy’s canvas sneakers were scuffed and dirty, their frayed laces skimming the pavement as he walked. Slim had a pair just like that. He was tall and lanky, too, her brother, back in those days—his shirtsleeves barely reached his wrists. Would they still be considered doubles, she wondered, if the two people were over sixty years apart? “I don’t see why not,” she said to the dog who was moving his muzzle back and forth among the clover that grew between the cement tracks. “That boy is the dead spit of Slim when he was nineteen.”

                The young stranger pulled a cigarette and a silver flip-top lighter from the front pocket of his sweatshirt. The snap and click caught the dog’s attention. It jerked its head up from the clover and began to scramble down the drive, dragging the woman along at a jarring clip in its efforts to catch up with the boy who travelled along the sidewalks with long and sweeping strides. How fast he moved! Minerva marveled at how the boy’s feet seemed to barely touch the pavement. He seemed to glide noiselessly —it was almost like floating!— through intersections without even slowing down to check for cars. Now a full block behind, the dog strained against its collar, coughing and choking as it tried to catch up with the boy. The old woman in her turn struggled to keep pace, clinging to the leash with both hands as the dog pulled her farther and farther away from her house.

She didn’t like to wander far from her own block. She wanted to get back to her brother, to make sure he was alright. When the dog wouldn’t yield, Minerva spun on her heels, hands behind her, her back bent in an effort to pull the dog along with her, but succeeded only in slowing down its inexorable forward motion. What made her think she could overpower the dog? Her shoulder was throbbing. She wondered if she had dislocated it. At the very least she must have pulled a muscle. What if she’d torn something? She tried to remember the name, something like rotation cup. What if she’d torn that? She’d have to see the doctor. He’d ask her a lot of questions, probably put her arm in a sling. Then how would she take care of Slim? Damn that dog. Why did she let the animal do that, let it plant its paws like that? Why didn’t it understand that she was the one in charge?

She had intended to take the dog out for “just a short walk.” That was all she had promised. She wouldn’t have gone at all except that her brother insisted, saying that it was cruel to keep the animal penned up all the time. He would take the dog himself, he told her, if he were able. But his chest was bothering him again, and he needed to rest. His lungs felt so heavy, it was hard to breathe. Suppressing the urge to point her index finger at him, Minerva allowed herself to arch one eyebrow. Had he forgotten to take his blood pressure medicine again? Was he using the calendar she’d given him so that he could put a check mark next to each day he took his pills? And had he taken his water pill? Not today, he mumbled. Maybe yesterday or the day before. Well, when was it? For heaven’s sake, Jason, you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your neck! She wondered out loud what he would do without her. He swore he didn’t know.

Then I shouldn’t take the dog out. I should stay here, just in case. She followed him into the kitchen and stood behind him as he pulled open the refrigerator door. In case what? Hunched over in the V of the open refrigerator, his shoulders began to shake. Was he coughing or smirking? She wouldn’t be laughed at, not in her own house. In case something happens to you. Pushing aside the orange juice, reaching behind the seltzer to find the last bottle of Coca Cola, he assured her that nothing would happen, not unless the dog didn’t get out soon. And then how would she like it when the animal used her spotless kitchen floor as a toilet? She looked at the freshly waxed floor. She’d spent the morning on hands and knees scrubbing it, stripping off the old dirty wax and applying a fresh layer. There’d be hell to pay later when her sciatica flared up, but it was worth it to have a clean house. You never knew when a neighbor might stop by. And if the house was not kept up, well, neighbors would gossip, wouldn’t they? Especially the wives.

But if I’m not here, who will look after you? This time he laughed outright at her solicitude. He was old enough to look after himself. When would she get that through her head? You’ll get into mischief, she told him. He popped the cap off of the green bottle and tossed it into the trash below the sink. For God’s sake, Minnie. What kind of mischief can an old man like me get into? He emptied the bottle in one long pull. He could still do that.

Don’t you be smart mouthed with me, Jason Ellison! You know full well what I’m talking about. For starters, there was the liverwurst she had hidden in the fridge behind the jar of dill pickles. Her brother loved the one and hated the other. Didn’t even like to touch the jar, so would never search behind it. When they were children, liverwurst meant a break from peanut butter sandwiches (Oh, how Mother counted every penny to make ends meet). When they were older and bought their own groceries, they would slip potato chips between the meat and the bread. How Mother (God rest her soul!) would have hated that! Her brother couldn’t eat that sort of food anymore, but she was as healthy as a horse, as their mother would say (That’s because you eat your vegetables, my Skinny Minnie). She could eat anything she liked. As for Slim, well, it was best to hide such indulgences from him. He really had no self-control. But she, Minerva Ellison Hopewell, had taken great care to save her big brother from his own bad habits. Oh, yes, there were other addictions besides fatty food. There was hard liquor and cigarettes, not to mention reckless driving.

Oh, the smoking was the worst! Stinking up the house, leaving an ugly yellow shadow on the lovely pastel green walls of his room. It had been her sewing room, so bright and cheerful, with sunlight streaming in from windows on the south and east. She had given it up for him, that second bedroom, the one she herself had painted apple green, not knowing if God would send a boy or a girl. She didn’t mind what it was, she told all the wives on the street, just so long as the baby was healthy. Then when the doctor said there would never be children, not ever, she had not cried. She simply stopped referring to the little bedroom as The Nursery. Mother (May she rest in peace!) had always taught her to be sensible, after all.

There where the crib would have been stood her mother’s old Singer with its graceful black curves and spoked wheel rising solemnly out of the carved mahogany chest, its unfolded top a gleaming worktable. She had positioned an upholstered rocking chair in the corner where the windows met. How many times had she imagined herself there, her infant in her arms? Well, her mother was right, there was no point in crying over spilt milk. You’ve just got to make the best of things, Minnie. So that’s just what she did. That back room, so full of natural light, would be the perfect place to do needlepoint. She’d always wanted to learn, and now she’d have plenty of time to become really good at it. Honestly, she’d always wanted a sewing room. That’s what she’d told her husband. It wasn’t until years later, after Hugh Hopewell had passed away, that Slim moved in. Neither sibling saw any reason to paint the room or even replace the ruffled white Cape Cods and aluminum rods that she’d so carefully selected from the Sears catalog. When they finally arrived weeks later, how proud she had been to install the rods and hang the curtains without any help from Hugh.

Minerva had long suspected that her brother had been drinking, but she couldn’t find a bottle anywhere. She’d looked downstairs in the workshop, where Hugh used to keep his vodka in old mason jars hidden inside empty coffee cans. These days there were no coffee cans, but there were some empty paint cans stacked in a corner. One afternoon when her brother was sleeping she’d plucked a flathead screwdriver from its perch on the pegboard above her head and pried open each lid. There was nothing in them but dried paint, not even an empty jar.

Once when she was raking leaves behind the garden shed, she found a half-dozen cigarette butts, the kind without filters, jammed into the aluminum leg of an old lawn chair. Its woven straps flapped back and forth as she shook it to dislodge the crimped stubs. A tiny skeleton, from a mouse or a mole, dropped from one of the other legs. Minerva kicked it away from the pile of butts. She put on her old garden gloves and picked them up one at a time, placing each one into a little plastic bag. Then she scouted around behind the shed and found another pile underneath an overturned clay pot. If I were him, I would’ve just field stripped them. It’s almost like he wants me to find them. She put those in the bag as well and folded the little flap before placing it neatly into the ash can in the garage.

When she confronted him, her brother swore they weren’t his. Frankly, he told her in that joking manner that seemed to make light of all her worries, he was surprised that she would even think to look in such a place to begin with. Minerva opened her mouth to speak, then closed it when she saw her brother’s usual dismissive manner became solemn. Oh, it was that husband of yours. He had taken her hand when he said this, but she pulled away with a twist of her wrist that made him wince. Anyway, Minnie, how would I get cigarettes? You won’t let me drive anymore. (She had hidden the car keys in her underwear draw, knowing her brother wouldn’t dare to look there.) When she mentioned his motorcycle, his wry smile returned. They both knew that it was nearly as decrepit as he was. Ride a motorcycle? I can’t even walk into town anymore. She had him trapped, he told her. I surrender!

Minerva thought of how he used to yell those words every time she found him curled beneath the cellar stairs when they were kids playing hide and go seek in the dark. Those days came back to her in dreams. But in her dreams her baby brother was drowning, treading water in the cellar while she looked down from the doorway at the place where the stairs should have been. How she wept for him! But her tears only added to the rising water until the little boy was completely submerged. She couldn’t save him. All she could do was watch as he sank slowly beneath the black surface of the water.

Why couldn’t he see that she was his protector? Why must he always cast her as his jailor? And now he was asking her to walk his dog, as if she didn’t do enough for him already. She had good reasons for not wanting to. First of all, the animal was too strong for her. As old as it was, it could still pull her halfway across the neighborhood. She was convinced that one day it would dislocate her shoulder when it suddenly decided to take off. Or the animal might run circles around her, wrapping its leash around her legs. She could trip and fall, even break a hip. Then she’d have to go to the hospital. She might even be killed right there in front of her own house! The sight of a squirrel or a stray cat could vault them both into the street just when one of those big brown trucks came flying around a corner. Who would take care of you then, Slim? When I’m dead and gone? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’d have that crazy Polly LaPorte move into my house. Her with that old blue valise she carries all over town. Well! You know what I say to that? Chance would be a fine thing!

To these claims her brother offered no rebuttal. He simply handed her the worn leather leash and stroked the dog’s head before padding noiselessly back to his bedroom. The door clicked closed behind him, blocking out the eerie glow of the portable black and white television.

A sharp pain in her shoulder pulled Minnie’s attention back to the dog, who was straining at the end of the leash. She used both hands to yank the animal backward. It began pawing the ground and whimpering. The sound, so filled with longing and pathos, was strange to her. She didn’t like it. Stop that, Duke! For pity’s sake, what are you crying for?

A heavy cloud passed overhead, and the wind began to pick up, sending the points of brittle oak leaves scraping along the pavement. Minnie imagined hundreds of tiny mouse skeletons scampering along the sidewalks. “What an odd thing to think of,” she said, knowing that the dog was more intent on the stranger than her. For the first time she realized that in following the boy, they had wandered several blocks from home. “We should go back, Duke.” Even as the wind chased her words along the pavement toward her home, she let the animal pull her down the long road that led to the railroad tracks.

The doppelganger stopped for a moment to light another cigarette and once again resumed his swift, graceful gait. All three—the boy, Minerva and Duke, a block or so behind—sped past side streets that she had known as a child. “The New Streets.” That’s what everyone called them, even though some of the houses in her own neighborhood were built later, what they call midcentury modern. Homes in this part of town were smaller, little postwar colonials. But vestiges of the craftsmanship still remained, the smaller architectural features that made each one different from the others. Barrel roofs over brick porches with scaled-down Doric columns that held them up. Leaded glass windows, some with stained-glass insignia like a coat of arms she had seen in the Encyclopedia Britannica. She and Slim grew up among these homes. Back then, children wandered from house to house as they pleased, playing red light green light, Simon says, or kickball right in the middle of the road. Now it was so quiet. Like a ghost town, she thought. No one was home anymore during the day. If there were any children in these worn-out houses, they were hidden from sight.

A blast of frigid wind snatched Minerva from her dream of the past. The dog was barking loudly, his front feet rising slightly off the pavement in time with the staccato sound. The young stranger stood just across the street, under a sign with a familiar name. “We grew up on this street,” said Minerva. But not even the dog was listening now. All his attention was straining toward the boy. The old leather strap snapped, and the animal, finally free, bolted across the road to the boy, who knelt on one knee to stroke the back of its head.

Heavy drops of rain began to darken the sidewalk, washing away the pleasant smell of decaying leaves and wood smoke. One by one the streetlamps flared into sodium life. The wind picked up speed, driving the rain against the old woman’s shoulders. Turning away, a sudden gust took her breath. Her heart convulsed. When she opened her mouth to call the dog back, a blast of rain hit the back of her throat. It seemed to rush down her windpipe, like a sink-full of dishwater after you’ve pulled out the stopper. She felt she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t fill her lungs. Doubled over, more in panic than pain, Minerva forced herself to cough, bringing up water and blood-speckled phlegm. When she looked up, the boy and the dog were walking toward a group of people who had gathered in the mist beneath one of the old streetlamps. Why isn’t it raining over there? Why aren’t they getting soaked like me?

“Slim, wait up!” she cried.

The teenager turned a smiling face toward the old woman and waved a pale hand.  A torrent of rain carried the sound of his laughter rushing past her. For a moment she had the wild thought that the sound had moved though her. Another gust of rain blinded her. When she looked again, the boy and his companions had disappeared. Water swept leaves and acorns and dirty cigarette filters into the sewer beneath her feet as she stood calling for Duke, who seemed to have disappeared along with the boy.

Minerva could feel the icy water through the back of her sweater as she began to walk up the long street that would lead her back to her own house. The dog’s broken leash felt slick against the palm of her hand. How could she tell Slim that she’d lost his dog? She looked around, surprised by the darkness, and quickened her pace. By now her socks were completely soaked, her feet were sliding inside her shoes. Water was everywhere. The sidewalk was a stream, the street a river. Lawns had turned to giant green sponges that seemed to have soaked up the clouds and could hold no more. The houses glistened and the trees dripped clear marbles of rain that exploded on her head and ran into her eyes and ears. The water seemed to have gotten inside her head, muddling her thoughts, for she was sure that she heard the boy’s laughter echo all around her. Did he mean to mock her, now that he’d had his fun? He had led her on a merry chase and then abandoned her. And now the dog was gone, too. Why had it run so eagerly to the stranger?

The rain was a moving wall now. Water poured down either side of the invisible arc in the asphalt road. When she stepped off the curb, Minerva found herself ankle-deep in a surge of filthy water. Up ahead a dark sedan floated through the intersection by her house. In its low beams she saw the shape of a large dog loping across the road. She followed the animal as it cut across the neighbor’s yard. The ground, long past saturated, seemed to ripple beneath her. Her left foot slid out sideways, and she fell face down in a great green pond. Earthworms floated past her gaping mouth. A small stone had wedged itself inside her lower lip. A line of diluted blood flowed from a gash in her right knee where it had scraped against the corner of one of the bricks that stuck out like broken teeth around a small garden. Already her knee had begun to throb.  After a few moments of scrambling and clawing at the slick grass, Minerva pushed herself to her feet. She looked down at her legs. They were streaked with mud and blood. Oh, dear! I hope none of the neighbors are watching!

By the time she reached her kitchen door, she had lost her shoes. (She was not entirely convinced that they hadn’t been sucked into the neighbor’s lawn.) Her wool socks, now three times their normal size, slapped against the shining linoleum as she lurched across the kitchen. When she reached the stove, she looked down and saw her reflection in the polished floor. Large swaths of hair had matted themselves against her face. Broken twigs stuck out of her sweater in gravity-defying patterns. An oak leaf clung to her chest, and a chestnut had somehow managed to work its way inside her bra. Guess I should be thankful that one of those crazy squirrels shelled it for me. In the dim light of the hallway she could see that her brother’s bedroom door was still closed.

“Slim!” she cried. “You awake? The strangest thing just happened. Slim!”

When he didn’t answer, she rushed to his door. Several times her wet hands slid off the glass knob. She tried wrapping her sweater around it, but only succeeded in squeezing a puddle of rainwater onto the floor. She feared that if she didn’t wipe it up, the water would leave an ugly black stain in the hardwood. She got two dishtowels from the kitchen. She used one to dry the floor. With the other she managed to turn the doorknob by wrapping the towel around it and holding on with both hands. Still holding the towel, she pushed open the door. The hall light barely illuminated the shape of her brother in his bed. He was lying on his side, the blankets drawn up around his head.

Minerva hurried into the room, her wet socks squishing against the low pile of the green carpet. “Jason, wake up! Wake up! You’ll never believe where I just was and what I saw!” She was breathing heavily now. A chill had come over her, and she began to shake. Her brother didn’t stir.

 “Slim!” she cried, “Wake up, Slim!” She shook the old man by his shoulders, but he remained still. She walked around the bed. There on the nightstand she found a tray that held a plate with a half-eaten liverwurst sandwich and an empty potato chip bag. Next to the plate was a highball glass. She picked it up and sniffed, then set it back down on the tray. Bourbon. Next to the lamp was an old art deco ashtray with the butts of two unfiltered cigarettes.

Still in her dripping clothes, Minerva stood for a long time just staring at the nightstand. Outside the world had become dark. Only the yellow glow of the neighbor’s porch light through the ruffled curtains let show the outline of her brother resting in his bed, the old tawny dog curled up beside his legs. Minnie leaned down and turned on the lamp. She reached into the small circle of light and picked up a brown vile, heavy with pills. Squinting, Minerva read the words Jason Ellison printed in neatly typed letters across the top of the label. Below them, the prescription read: For fluid reduction, take one daily.




T. F. Nicolay is an award-winning educator who has published books on American women writers as well J.R.R. Tolkien. She holds a BA from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an MA and PhD from the University of Rochester. She teaches writing and literature in upstate New York.