R. Harlan Smith
They sat wrapped in their cobijas around a quiet little fire that made dancing shadows on the Sajuaros. Cocopeli, the coyote, watched them from the brush with great curiosity, trying to think of a trick to play on them. He kept an eye on Dolores.
Manuel opened another beer. He was going to tell them about the Secret of the Dogs, but he kept putting them off. Sometimes Storytellers do that. Finally, he said, “Whoever said there are no stupid questions had the monopoly on stupid statements.”
Ricardo was on his sixth beer. The emptys were lined up between his feet. He liked the feel of a bottle under his foot. “Manuel, what’s the dog’s secret? C’mon.”
Ricardo was Dolores’ little brother. She was there because he was there. She looked after him. They were excited, Ricardo and Alberto and Alex, because they knew Manuel’s stories were told to aggravate Dolores and bait her into an embarrassment. Manuel’s mother was a curanda and they thought Manuel knew things a brujo knew, so they gave him a walking stick to stay in his good graces. Alex made it and carved a crow at the top. Manuel kept it with great pride. He loved his friends and they loved him.
Manuel took a long drink and settled into his rickety old chair. He had a captive audience. “The secret is, all dogs are singers.”
They went silent then, waiting for Manuel to start his story. It was a silence a Storyteller used with great skill to take up any errant slack in attention. He let them wait and spoke.
“The reason dogs don’t sing so much is because cats sing, too. But dogs don’t usually like cats as a rule, so they won’t do anything cats do. But all dogs are singers. Once in a while, a dog’ll sing somethin’ to a siren, or a train whistle. They like singin’ with accompaniment. It’s kind of irresistible for’m. Cats, they like to sing in duos or groups, but they’re strictly A Capella. Another difference is, cats sing to each other, but when a dog sings it’s a prayer.”
Dolores was nodding, not so much in agreement as in a fixed state of aggravated tolerance. Manuel was pissing her off by putting off getting to the story. The younger set was not so tolerant of the old techniques of Storytelling the old men used, but that’s the only way Manuel learned. She swore she was going to put a bullet in Manuel’s lip someday, and everybody believed she’d do it. She was the only one among them who wore a gun belt. Manuel thought she looked so hot in her jeans and her gun belt and her sleeveless top that hid her marvelous tits that he could only dream about. He dreamed about them and longed like a dog praying to the moon for the privilege to kiss them. He was convinced she had the greatest pair of tits since Eleanor Roosevelt. Manuel was nice to Ricardo, so he would hang around and Dolores would be there, too. She was twenty years old and just the sight of her took Manuel’s breath away.
Manuel took another drink to swallow his desires. “Yep. Their secret is, all dogs are singers.”
“Tsk, Uhh!” Dolores rolled her eyes up into the universe.
Manuel winked at Alex. “My father and his twin brother and some of the other old folks used to drink their home brew around the fire at night and tell stories.”
“Your father had a twin brother?” Alberto said. “Were they identical?”
Manuel stopped to think. “Well, they went before a magistrate once for fightin’ with each other. The magistrate looked at my father’s straight hair and his brother’s kinky hair, not to mention my father was handsomer and taller, and the magistrate said, ‘You don’t look much like twins.’ My father said, ‘Yep,’ and his brother said ‘Nope’, and since both answers were right, the villagers thought they must be Storytellers; them and an old Indian named Pete.
“Pete? Who’s Pete?” Dolores said.
“Yeah. One of my father’s friends was an old Tohono O’Odham guy. He kept his hair long and parted in the middle, and his face was dark and all wrinkled and rutted. His cheeks had little craters between the creases from when he had the pox as a little kid. He was ugly. We were scared of him. The fire made shadows on his face that made him look like an old Sajuaro stump with long, white hair. And every hair in his mustache was as thick as a pencil lead.”
“Oh, geez!” Dolores said.
“He said his name was Pete, but everybody knew his name wasn’t Pete. His real name was so hard to say you could swallow your tongue just tryin’. His name in Tohono O’Odham meant, ‘Some snakes you go around, some snakes you make a U-turn.’ The people who could say his name were his friends. The ones who tried, but couldn’t get it right, he’d just go around’m. The people who didn’t even try, he’d turn around and go the other way. There were others who said no Tohono O’Odham would have a name like that. They said Pete was an Israeli.”
More or less through her teeth, Dolores said, “Manuel, will you get on with it? Please?”
Manuel was delighted. He had her attention. Manuel loved Dolores in secret; her and her Reservation Pig sun glasses she wore even now in the middle of the night. It made the fire easy on her eyes. “Okay, okay! Man. You’re gettin’ to be a mean drunk, Dolores!”
“Let him talk, Dolores. Let him talk,” Ricardo said.
“I am not a mean drunk!”
Manuel went on. “Sometimes they told stories everyone could hear, even the women and children. Other stories were exclusive, only the elders could hear. Some of the older boys could listen from outside the circle. And when Pete began to tell us his story with the fire makin’ shadows on his face, very seriously he said, ‘All dogs are singers.’ He usually started with the names of all the relatives and family who were there when the story happened. It’s the custom, but I’ll pass that part up.”
“Thank God!” Dolores shifted in her chair.
“Well, it was the early part of the twentieth century, nineteen aught somethin’. There was nothin’ left of the old West except Buffalo Bill, and he was in England.
“Why’d they call him Buffalo Bill?”, Ricardo said. “Buffalos don’t have bills.” Ricardo Ortiz was the youngest among them. Dolores glared at him. He hunched his shoulders and looked at his foot. He was only wearing one shoe.
Manuel ignored Ricardo. “There was a scientist named Percy.”
“Percy?” Dolores said. “Why do you have to give him such a sissy name? Why not Bob, or George, or something?”
“Or Alice,” Alberto said.
“Or Eduardo,” Alex complained. They’re not all gringos.”
Manuel leaned over toward Dolores and looked through her sun glasses into her gray-as-gray-can-be eyes. “Because his mom named him Percy. That’s why.
“Yeah, Percy, he liked numbers. He said his numbers could prove there was another planet, but nobody could see it yet. They laughed at him, the other scientists. They said he was makin’ things up. He said, ‘No, I’m not. When it goes by the other planets, it makes’m wobble a little and slows’m down,” and he said his numbers could prove it, and they did, but still they wouldn’t take him seriously.
“Then one day somebody made a better long eye that could see farther out into the stars.”
“What’s a long eye?” Alberto said.
“That’s what Pete called a telescope. And, sure enough, some farm boy from Illinois saw Percy’s planet. They said it probably wasn’t a planet at all. It didn’t obey the rules the other planets obeyed. It didn’t go around the sun on the same plane with all the other planets. But what scared everybody was what they saw out there with it. There was somethin’ movin’ around Percy’s planet. ‘It must be a moon,’ they said. But it wasn’t a moon because they saw it move form Percy’s planet to the planet Neptune and it circled around Neptune for a while. Then it went to Uranus. By then they were positive it was bein’ steered by somethin’ intelligent. It looked like it could go anywhere it wanted, and it was lookin’ at all the planets.
“This was an important discovery. They didn’t think they should tell the media and everybody right away, but after a few months they did tell the president. The president took one look and said, ‘It’s lookin’ at Mars. It’s comin’ here next.’ “
As Manuel spoke, he reached into the cooler and took out the mason jar. He motioned to Dolores with it. She held her glass out to him and he poured more wine for her. She looked at him them in a very gentle way that made his heart jump. He screwed the lid back on and returned the jar to the cooler. He wiped the icy water on his jeans.
“By then people in other countries saw it, too. They all agreed it was comin’ to the earth next.
“When the word got out, people got scared. Somethin’ was comin’ from outer space, man. Who knows what it would do when it discovered people? Anything could happen. Everybody got real worried, and since dogs were man’s best friend, they got worried, too. Everywhere dogs began to sing. Rich dogs, poor dogs, city dogs, country dogs, even dogs that didn’t have voices, suddenly they could sing.”
Dolores said, “Dogs that don’t have voices?”
“He’s right,” Alberto said. “There’s an African dog, the Basenji, it doesn’t have a true bark.”
They all wondered how Alberto knew that, but they were too interested in Manuel’s story to ask.
“Right,” Manuel said. “The singin’ went on for days, hyenas in Africa, wolves in Siberia, dingoes in Australia, and every other conceivable kind of other dog in all the cities, hamlets, and villages of the whole world. What a racket they made.
Alberto pointed a finger at Manuel. “A hyena ain’t a dog, Manuel.”
“Yeah, well. You know how hyenas are. They try to muscle in on everything.”
“Chihuahuas in the Sierra Madre,” Ricardo said.
“Bulldogs in Boston,” Alberto said.
“Corn dogs in Coney Island,” Alex said.
Dolores closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Yeah. And that’s how they discovered all dogs are singers, and the planet Pluto at the same time. Pete said this planet was known for uncoverin’ things that were long time secrets, and it was no wonder they found out all dogs were singers. That was almost a hundred years ago. And, y’know, old people die and new ones are born, and if the story don’t get passed on, people forget. That’s why today everybody knows about Percy and the planet Pluto, but hardly anybody knows all dogs are singers, except the Storytellers.”
Alex was barely holding back a smile. He looked over at Ricardo and Alberto who were doing very well in keeping a straight face. They were waiting for Dolores. She was seething, staring out toward the stars. They knew she was getting angrier by the minute. She had to ask the obvious question. Alex thought her teeth were clenched as she took the bait.
Manuel waited. There was not a peso’s worth of patience left in her voice. He knew she would sound grim. Although she wondered if it was a stupid question, in her anger she barreled over the thought and demanded to know, “What about the God damned thing that was coming toward earth, Manuel? Jesus Christ.”
“Oh, it went away.”
“What?” Dolores sat up. “It went away?! What the hell am I supposed to do with that?! It went away.”
Manuel shrugged. “Dolores, everybody knows if there’s dogs, you don’t go there.”
Alberto and Ricardo and Alex screamed with laughter. They stomped their feet and shook their heads, and Alex said, “Tu comer te la,” and they laughed even harder.
Dolores leaned back, muttering. “Pendajo. Estupido pendajo.”
She twirled the wine in her Mason jar. “He’s insane! He’s freakin’ loopy!”