Cold House: Root Cellar | J. D. Hurley

“Get out of the rubbish.”

She pulled the rope. The coon hound ignored her. She pulled and walked forward, using her weight to pull the dog, ninety pounds against forty. She won, and the blue tic shoulders, black ears, and brown muzzle shot forward to the next oasis of dented cans and ill-fitting lids anchored with dusty bricks, with twine-tied square paper bundles, with creek-smoothed rocks. It was rubbish day. In the pre-dawn, the dog pulled and she pulled back, making jerky progress in the dim alley.

Day old bread. That’s what she’d feed it. Use what she earned Saturday mornings, vacuuming dead skin from faded carpets for the old invalid lady next door. That would buy thirty loaves at ten cents a loaf. Enough for a small horse. A small horse could live in the garage. And it wouldn’t make much noise. The rusty two door left plenty of room, only took up half, less than half even. She’d move the bicycles. Bikes could go in the cellar. Or under a carport. Nobody would mind. The horse would be so warm. And soft. 

She saw steam rising from the underbrush the dog had burrowed into. Good. Business accomplished. Pivoting, she pulled. The dog pulled back, she pulled harder, the rope loop tightened. The dog choked, making horrible gasping noises, but would not budge. She took a step, changing the angle of the rope and put her body into it. She and the dog moved in the direction of home.

Hay and manure. She could handle that. She was strong. The flat edged shovel would be perfect for manure. And the rake —not the spring rake, the Fall leaf rake with the wide strong teeth—would be for hay. And a brush for the horse itself. The one she used for her wool school uniform ought to work. Horse hair must be like sheep hair. More or less.

A nervous squirrel darted across the alley and the dog lunged madly. She fell as the rope wrapped round her forearm tightened, burned and bruised. Her knee showed red craters, with a centerpiece of gravel like peppercorns in her pale cold skin. She brushed the gravel off, keeping her sleeve out of the beads of blood.

Warmed by a surge of relief that her grip on the rope had held, that she was spared having to chase the hound, she gathered and looped the rope around her shoulder and changed her grip. A glance at her forearm. A scarlet welt was rising. She pulled her sleeve down. Two steps toward home, the choking hound resisted heavily, now pulling up, eyes bulging, drooling, focused on the chittering high in the bare tree branches.

It will need a blanket. The thought, the enormity of the requirement, stopped her. Then she remembered the Presbyterian rummage sale. Before Thanksgiving. The last hour of the sale, it was fifty cents a bag. Each of them got a bag to fill, if five dollars could be scraped up. If you stuffed it really full, you might get enough clothes for the year ahead. Presbyterians clothes always seemed new. Clean, folded, some with dry cleaning tags. But it was smart to be thorough. Check the zippers. The buttons. Look for stains. Smell the armpits. Check the crotch. Hold it up, check the sleeve length, the torso width, the leg length. Choose carefully. Prudently. 

A blanket, a warm blanket, would fill an entire bag, but it would be worth it. What if there aren’t any blankets?She considered. Maybe six or seven scarves or sweaters pinned together would work. The Presbyterians sent whatever didn’t sell at the rummage sale off to their mission in Africa. She’d seen the neatly labeled boxes, clear block letters, wrought by a thick, indelible marker pen. Did they need sweaters in Africa? She shivered.

The dog walked in front now. It and she turned right into the yard, passing between the garage and the fence, staying dead center on the frozen dirt path, avoiding flecks of chipping paint on either side.

She opened the side door, went down four wooden steps into the cellar. The smell of wet wool hung thick as the rows of mittens and socks strung on sagging lines. The dog stood quivering while she took off the rope, then it sped upstairs, nails clicking on the kitchen linoleum, heading to a spot hugging the radiator, the only warm place in the house till next Spring.

Shoes left on newspaper spread to catch the alley filth, she went upstairs in stocking feet. Breakfast in bowls round the packed kitchen table. She squeezed in at the end of the bench, said grace quietly, crossed herself and picked up a spoon.

“What happened to your knee?” Hissed into her right ear. Nothing, her faint elbow jab said.

“It would live in the garage,” she said to him, knowing it was not a good time.

Unshaven, smelling of stale nicotine and night sweat, he did not sit at the table. He wasn’t eating. Coffee, black two sugars.

“I have it all figured. Food and all. I can pay for the bread. Day old. Ten cents a loaf.”

Spoons scraped the bowl bottoms. Hurried grace …and may the souls of the faithfully departed Rest in peace. Amen. Dishes clattered into the kitchen sink. From the bathroom a tangle of splashy wet tooth brushing sounds. But not her. Not yet.

“The garage is big enough.”  Her spoon was down.

“Can’t.” He shook his head as if it might fall off, as if his neck were almost cut through.  “Zoning.” 

Her breath stopped. It felt like another name read from the altar. The Italians from Saint Clare’s, the Irish from Saint James’, the Poles from Saint Mary’s—every Sunday, week after week, all reading names of the lost, the missing, the taken. She put her bowl and spoon in the sink, pulled her knee sock up over the dried blood.

Over her shoulder she saw him reach down and stroke the hound.


©2021 J. D. Hurley
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