Letting Loose the Hounds: Storiesby Brady Udall
“Funny, unpredictable, and abounding with strange beauty . . . a fierce new voice of the American West.”—OutsideExploding with an unsettling exuberance, Brady Udall’s stories traverse a geography of lost love, fragmented lives, and satisfying revenge. From the night a six-foot-three Apache Indian holding a goat steps into a/p>/em>… See more details below
“Funny, unpredictable, and abounding with strange beauty . . . a fierce new voice of the American West.”—OutsideExploding with an unsettling exuberance, Brady Udall’s stories traverse a geography of lost love, fragmented lives, and satisfying revenge. From the night a six-foot-three Apache Indian holding a goat steps into a moonlit Arizona backyard in "Midnight Raid" to the pivotal moment when a man, delirious from a dental extraction, gets rescued by a stranger in the title story, Udall injects his stories and characters with equal parts darkness and humor. These are sad and sweet stories, moving from the familiar to surprising destinations. But even when disaster looms, Udall's fine comic sense sustains his men and women in their sometimes extravagant efforts to connect and cope. Plunged in the moment, these stories have velocity; they spray gravel as they take off.
Udall's carpenter chic self-consciously draws him to men "stricken with heartache and fracture and fallen hopes": men, in other words, who drink too much, live too hard, and suffer "the confusion that comes with being lost in the world"though for no- account losers and "irretrievable failures," they sure do speak eloquently. In "Midnight Raid," a divorced and drunk dad sneaks up on his ex-wife's new house to deliver a pet goat for his son, against the mother's wishes. Another regular guy, a handyman who drives a "cowboy truck" and is irresistible to women, finds himself infatuated with a pretty girl suffering from a nervous disorder ("Junk Court"). "Ballad of Ball and Chain" makes its cynical comment about marriage pretty explicitly: A bachelor-party prank leads to the groom's accidental death and leaves his guilt- ridden best man with only one way to punish himselfby getting married. A teenage boy's perspective lends some innocence to other tough-guy tales: In "Buckeye the Elder," the narrator's sister takes up with a man who charms the whole family, an illiterate reformed alcoholic who's converted to Mormonism; and in "He Becomes Deeply and Famously Drunk," a juvenile delinquent whose father died when he was five returns to the ranch his father worked and discovers responsibility in work as a cowboy. In the most affirmative story, "The Opposite of Loneliness," a middle-aged divorced man discovers real familial joy as the supervisor of a group home for the "developmentally challenged."
The macho blather wears thin, and the mystery men aren't as intriguing as their creator might think, but beneath the affected surfaces it's clear that Udall has talent. He remains a writer worth watching.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
Roy growls and gives me the evil eye from inside his doghouse. He's flustered; I'm fairly certain this is the first time in his life a six-foot-three Apache Indian holding a goat has walked into his backyard in the middle of the night. Roy, there under the comfort of his own roof, seems to be trying to come to a decision. He doesn't know whether to raise hell or to make friends with me. I slowly take a step closerno sudden movesand ask him, as sincerely as possible, not to make any undue racket. He pokes his head out of his house and yaps, causing the goat I'm holding to let loose a thin stream of piss down my leg.
I suppose this ought to be explained: Roy is the pet of my ex-wife Amy and her new husband Howard, whose backyard I am currently lurking around in. The goat is a present for my seven-year-old son, Tate. Tate is somewhere in this immense, tacky house and my plan is to get this goat to him without Amy or Howard finding out about it. This is Scottsdale, Arizona, close to midnight and not too many degrees shy of a hundred. I would be untruthful if I didn't say I was a little drunk. I have dead grass in my hair and my belly feels like it's full of sharp sticks. Small, silvery fish are swimming around in my head, flashing behind my eyes like coins.
I'm positive that what I'm doing is the correct, the honorable thing. In that earnest, heartbreaking penmanship of his, my boy has written me at least half a dozen times asking for his pet goat, and no matter what my wife has to throw at me, the injunctions and restraining orders and so forth, I am going to get it to him.
"Roy," I say, looking up at this pink stuccoed mansion that's big enough for two zip codes, "where's Tate?"
Roy has no idea. And he's wondering how I know his name. Fact is, it's written in big capital letters above his little door, exactly the way they do it in cartoons. Roy tiptoes out of his house, his head cocked to one side, to have a better look at me. He's perplexed and not afraid to admit it. I hold out my hand, the universal peace offering, and he gives me a doubtful sniff. From the looks of him, Roy is not a pure breed of any kind. He has a thick, wedge-shaped head and bulging Marty Feldman eyes. His butt is as pink and hairless as a baboon's. He circles me once, paying particular attention to the goat. I think he's beginning to understand that neither of us are here to cause any harm.
Two lights are still on upstairs; I'm going to have to wait here until everything is dark and quiet before I make my move. Meantime, I'll sober up, gather my wits, get to know Roy a little. The backyard I'm in is nothing more than a football-field-sized patch of dry grass with a doghouse in the middle of it. There's no swing set or old soccer ball or anything else you'd expect to find in the yard in which a seven-year-old plays. Poor old Roy here doesn't even have a rubber bone to chew on. This is more a wasteland than a backyard, as if the soul of the desert still festers in this very spot, refusing to be driven out with sprinklers and lawnmowers and fertilizer. I sit down on the baked, crunching grass and look up at the drifting clouds that have been turned murky shades of orange and green by the lights of the city.
It would have been much more simple and comfortable to wait in front of the house in my air-conditioned truck, but this beefy woman security guard kept walking by, asking what my business in the neighborhood was. I made up elaborate lies about a surprise party for my mother-in-law who lived just down the street. Pretty soon she started asking for names and addresses. She wanted to see some identification. I mumbled and coughed and acted drunker than I was and she told me I'd have to leave or she'd call the cops. So I parked my truck at a mini-mall about a mile away and came in on foot, sticking to the shadows and bushes, the goat heehawing and complaining the whole time. I had to be particularly careful because nearly all the houses around here have huge floodlights, as powerful as the kind you might find at Yankee Stadium, that are specifically designed to keep people like me away.
Theoretically, the art of sneaking and hiding and stealing through the night should be in my blood. I'm three-quarters Apache, a registered member of the White Mountain tribe. They say my ancestors could melt into the underbrush, run at full speed without making a sound, crouch as still as a tree stump for hours on end. Soldiers of the U.S. Army used to swear that the Apache had the power to make themselves invisible. Right now, I would settle for just being able to keep this goat quiet.
I never lived the Apache lifestyle, even by today's standard; I grew up in a middle-class section of Winslow where my father worked at the post office. Most of my extended family lives on the reservation and when I go to visit they all laugh at me. They tell me I talk like John Wayne. The say I smell like a department store. And I married a white woman which did not go over too well. What has being an Indian meant to me? A scholarship from UCLA, a boring job at an electronics firm and suspicious looks from the clerk whenever I go into a 7-11.
Most everybody thinks that the breakup happened because of the pressures and conflicts that go along with an interracial marriage. Actually, this had nothing to do with it at all. Our divorce was an honest, smash-mouth affair based on past indiscretions and betrayals on both our parts. Until the very end we went on pretending that everything was perfect, never looking one another in the eye. Then one day my wife came home and accused me of "malfeasance." Right then I knew it was all over. You don't come into your own home throwing around words like "malfeasance" unless you've been talking to lawyers. Amy got the boy, our classic Cadillac and most of the money, leaving me with the house and the pickup. Now she's married to a retired rancher who has the money to waste on lawyers who have the arcane ability to twist the law, make it so that a father cannot even see his own son. "Damn the law," I say to Roy. "Damn the Constitution." Roy licks his chops and doesn't disagree.
In the backyard that adjoins this one somebody has begun making a racket, splashing around in their pool and burping and singing snatches of old Sinatra songs in a way that is painful to hear. After awhile I can't stand it anymore and I walk over to the fenceit's quite a long walkwith Roy following behind. The fence is much too high to see over so I just have to yell, "Will you put a lid on it over there?"
"Who said that?" the guy calls out. By his voice I'd guess he's around retirement age and has a good bit of beer in him.
"Over here," I say.
"Are you my neighbor?"
"I could be."
"What's the yelling for?"
"It's to quiet you down."
"I think you're just jealous of this nice pool I've got. You're the only goddamn one in this whole goddamn neighborhood without a pool. It's common knowledge around here."
I don't have anything to say to that so I keep my mouth shut.
"Well, why?" he says.
"Why don't you have a pool?"
I think about it for a minute. "Because I'm a horse's ass."
"Ten-four," he says.
I go back to my spot next to Roy's doghouse and sit down on this lawn that's as soft and inviting as the bottom of a skillet. It really makes me wonder what kind of sense Amy and this Howard character have. What's the point in living in a place like this, knocking elbows with the rich and the famous, and not owning a pool? I could be taking a few laps and cooling off while I wait instead of sitting here, covered with a grainy film of sweat and smelling like a world war. I think if I was the goat I'd be complaining too.
Tate loves this damn goat more than anything in the world and for reasons I can't understand, Amy won't let him have it. I've fought with her about it, called her up on the phone and told her that for a child to grow up without a pet is not right. She told me Tate had a pet, a dog that he got along with rather well. Tate wrote me a letter to set the record straight. He said he didn't like the dog much at all; it was ugly and stupid and had bugs living in its fur. Though Roy does have his positive qualities, I would have to say Tate had him pegged pretty good. All I want, Tate wrote, is Jumpy, my goat. That tore my heart in two meaty halves, brought water to my eyes, and here I am, doing what I can to make my boy happy.
As long as the truth is coming out all over the place, I might as well admit that the goat I'm holding in my arms, the one Roy is sniffing warily right now, is not the original Jumpy. Tate found the original Jumpy tangled in some barbed wire near our home in Flagstaff. We were never able to find the owner so Tate kept it. It was a cute little thing, so tiny, with its flopping ears and old man's beard. Tate loved it so much he kept it in his room for the first few days, put Pampers on it and fed it with a bottle. After the stink got to be too bad I built a small pen for it out back. A few months passed and we noticed that it wasn't growing at all. We took it to the vet and he told us it was not a baby goat as we'd thought all along, but an adult pygmy goat. He held up one of its hind legs and said, "See there? Fully developed gonads."
"Adult?" we said. "Gonads?"
The vet said, "Adult as it gets. It's a pygmy goat. It's small. That's the point."
We didn't have the heart or the know-how to explain to Tate that this cute little pet of his was not an innocent baby, but an adult with an active sex drive, fully developed gonads and the whole bit. We let him live with that childhood notion that it's possible for things to stay the same, that everything in this world does not have to become old and tired and undone.
When Amy left with Tate, she wouldn't let him take Jumpy. Maybe, like me, she saw the goat as a symbol or a reminder of something: our shared life, our togetherness. They went away and I never fed the goat again. I don't know how long it was before it died; I stopped going to work, I was drunk and fairly deranged twenty-four hours a day. I came unglued; there were pieces of me all over my suddenly too-large house. I wandered room to room, shuffling my feet and knocking things over like a clumsy ghost. One day I looked out the window. Down in Jumpy's pen were several buzzards and some crows all crammed in a huddle as if discussing secret matters. I grabbed my shotgun, intent on blowing those carrion-eaters into next Sunday, but in my condition I couldn't even find the safety on the gun and those evil birds got away scot-free. Jumpy was just a little pile of bones that looked like the remains of somebody's chicken dinner. He had eaten every last weed and blade of grass inside his pen and the bark on the lower sections of the cedar fence posts had been completely chewed away. Right then I would have turned the gun on myself had I been able to locate the goddamn safety.
I let almost a year go by before the guilt, eating at my insides like an ulcer, drove me to do something about it. It took two weeks, around four dozen phone calls and a three-hundred-mile trip to Albuquerque to find a pygmy goat that looked anything similar to Jumpy. The guy that sold it to me was an old Mexican bean farmer with unnecessarily perfect teeth. I guess he could see the desperation running rampant on my face and he couldn't stop smiling about it. He told me he wouldn't part with this goat for less than one hundred and thirty-three dollars. He said he had special feelings for this particular animal and to give it up to a stranger like me would cause considerable pain no matter what the price. I coughed up ninety dollarsit was all I had to spareand on my way down here I stopped at a Burger King and bought the goat a Whopper, some fries and a shake.
We've been together two days now and this goat is beginning to get to me. Sometimes, for no reason at all, it raises its tiny head and lets out a high-pitched squall that sounds like the screech of car tires. It has already bitten all the buttons off my shirt and swallowed them, not to mention the pissing and shitting every half hour. Roy, who apparently has come to the conclusion that neither of us provide any great threat, sits right next to me, his butt jammed against mine, and looks up at me with these glossy, rolling eyes. I give him a squeeze. We all need love and Roy is no different. He sighs in my face and I inform him his breath could be better.
Both of the lights upstairs go off within seconds of each other. I get up and wander around the back of the house, checking the windows and the sliding glass door. All locked. A dry, cottony panic expands in my throat, shutting off my air. I had this crazy idea in my head that I could just crawl through a window, locate Tate in the slumbering household, leave the goat with him and be on my way. This was the plan I came up with after a few rounds of tequila at the bar earlier this evening. Now that I'm bordering on sober, I'm aware that that it's not going to work. No doubt Howard has an alarm system rigged up to protect his house; Amy wouldn't just marry any idiot. And if there's one thing I don't want, it's to get the police involved.
I lie down on the grass and squeeze my head between my hands, trying to think. Lord, this heat! Hell could not do much better than this. It feels as if all the moisture has been sucked out of my brain, leaving it as useless as a punctured football. My teeth and eyeballs are like old wood. Roy comes over and goes to work licking my face. I take an after-dinner mint from my jeans pocket and give it to him. He gnashes it into a fine green paste, smiles at me and waits for another. I pull my pockets inside out to illustrate there is no more where that came from.
My watch tells me it's already one a.m. I have to do somethingI can't spend all night commiserating with a dog in this pounding heat. I stand up and look around for something to throw; there's nothing in the grass, not so much as a stick or a pebble. I peel one of the tar shingles off Roy's doghouse and sling it like a Frisbee at what I hope will be Tate's window. The shingle misses by a good five feet and thwaps against the side of the house, causing a shower of stucco dust to float to the grass like pink snow. For some reason this sends Roy into a barking frenzy and before I can get him quieted down a light comes on upstairs. I crouch behind the doghouse, my chin between my knees. I hear a window slide open and Amy say, "Roy, will you shut up?" in that beautiful voice of hers that sounds like rain falling on a lake. Back when we were going out I used to call her answering machine when she wasn't home just to listen to the puff and slide of her vowels.
I can't help myself. Staying where I am I say, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
There is a long, thunderous silence before she says, "Jerry?"
I stand up. No more sneaking around like a coward. I pick up the goat and say, "I'm here toI brought thisI'm absolutely serious, dammit."
She is a black cut-out against the light behind her. I can tell she is straining to see; she takes her contacts out before she goes to bed. She whispers, "Oh, Lord."
She moves away from the window and seconds later a light blinks on in the living room. I tuck my shirt in and try to shake the debris out of my hair. She opens the door and sticks her head out. She's wearing black-rimmed glasses and an expression of bewilderment. Roy barks happily and the goat gives me a solid kick in the ribs, a blow akin to being jabbed in the midsection with the fat end of a pool cue. Howard appears at the top of the stairs and begins an uneven, thumping descent. From this distance, he looks younger than his sixty-one years. His skin is the polished bronze Hollywood actors would sell their souls for.
Holding my gut, I push the door open and step inside. A frosty air-conditioned current swirls over me and it's as if I've just stumbled into heaven. I shut the door behind me so as to not let any of this wonderful air out. Roy puts his nose on the glass and looks up at me as if I've betrayed him.
"For God's sake, Jerry," Amy says. Why would she have to be wearing the green satin nightgown I bought for her birthday a few years ago? This is the nightgown that shows up in a good many of my fondest memories. I can smell the aloe lotion she likes to use on her skin.
"I brought this goat, for Tate," I say. My voice is a wounded, struggling thing in the cool elegance of this living room. "Just two minutes to give him the goat and say hello and I'm gone. You won't even notice me."
Howard limps up next to Amy and I see under the hem of his bathrobe that he has one normal, tanned leg and one that is made of shiny, flesh-colored plastic. His white hair is like the bristles on a toilet brush. Can it be that my wife left me to marry this liver-spotted senior citizen with dentures and an artificial leg? Then I remember how rich the son of a bitch is and it makes me feel a little better.
"Would someone kindly inform me as to what in the name of hell is going on here?" he says. If it is possible to make a western drawl sound refined and high-minded, then this guy is pulling it off. We are standing on a circular rug that is made from the hides of at least six cows. Expensive Navajo rugs hang from almost every wall.
"Is Tate's room upstairs?" I ask.
"Now wait right there, son," Howard says, standing between me and the foot of the staircase. "You're breaking the law here. You've just entered my house without permission and broken the terms of the restraining order placed on you last month. You're up shit creek and sinking fast."
Did he call me "son"? I look at Amy to see if she is as astounded by this as I am. Her arms are folded over her chest and she's chewing on her thumbnailtick tick ticka habit that used to drive me crazy until I bought her a self-help book that aided her in finding the inner power to stop.
I start for the stairs and Howard blocks my way, resting his hand lightly on my shoulder. He gives me this terrifically sincere look and says, "You and the farm animal are invited to leave."
I shift the goat to my left arm and hit him in the mouth with my right. He teeters for a moment on his good leg, his lower lip already sprouting blood, before he goes down. I know that he is handicapped and older than my own father, but who ever accused an Apache of fighting fair? Maybe when everything is finished Howard will count himself lucky that he made it through this whole situation without getting scalped.
What I feel climbing the stairs is not the mindless, teeth-grinding anger that usually rises up when I'm in a situation that involves confrontation and punches and blood. At first the only thing inside me is the blinders-on determination that I'm not leaving this house without seeing my son, but something else comes over me, a sudden ache of sadness at the measures we have to take, the desperations and last resorts. I feel an unwieldy heaviness, all thirty-eight years of me pressing down, and as I haul myself up those last few steps it's all I can do to keep from dropping the goat down the stairs.
I open all the doors in the upstairs hallway and the last one is Tate's; I can tell it instantly by the smell of dirty socks and model airplane glue. I put the goat down and kneel by his bed in the strip of light coming in from the hall. Can there be anything more sweet and beautiful than a sleeping child, especially your own? He snorts and rubs his face in his Robocop pillow, oblivious to the adult idiocy going on around him. Amy stands in the doorway for a second, most likely to make sure that I'm not doing anything drastic, and I have this terrible sense of deja vu: after dinner and TV, Tate wrapped up in his covers, me telling boring stories about my college years in the hopes it will put him to sleep, Amy looking in on the both of us.
When I glance up again Amy is gone. I can hear her downstairs exchanging whispers with Howard. Looking down at my sleeping son, feeling his heart vibrating through the blanket, I'm nearly paralyzed with the thought that in a matter of minutes I'll be forced to walk away, leave him here in this strange room, in this strange house. It takes what little strength I have left to move away from the bed, turn on a lamp, retrieve the goat from over by the desk where it's chewing on one of Tate's baseball cards. I empty out his toy box and put the goat inside so it won't be able to run loose. I sit down at his miniature desk and write him a short note with the only writing instrument available, a fat neon-green marker shaped like a dancing dragon. In a shaky, trailing hand I remind him to make sure to feed the goat every day and to mind his mother. I tell him that I love him and to remember me in his prayers. Before leaving, I tidy up his room a little.
Downstairs, Howard is on the phone, blood smeared on his chin and a shiny old-style silver and gold pistol dangling from one hand, explaining calmly and eloquently to the police that an intruder, a crazed Indian no less, has violated the sacred boundaries of his home. He informs them that if someone does not arrive on the double, he may be obliged to use the kind of deadly force you read about in the newspapers.
I stand at the bottom of the stairs unsure of what to do next. Amy is nowhere to be seen. I know I should get out of here fast if I don't want to be making conversation with druggies and car thieves in the county jail tonight, but first I feel something has to be said, some apology made.
Howard puts down the phone and says, making sure I can see the gun in his hand, "Are you on your way out?"
Unable to come up with anything better, I say, "This is a real nice house you've got here, Howard."
Amy appears out of the kitchen with a glass of scotch in her hand. She stares at me blankly, as if I'm a salesman who has entered her house to demonstrate a product she has no interest in.
"You might think about getting a pool, though," I say. "A pool would be nice."
"I can't swim," Howard says.
"It's late," Amy sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger.
"Migraine?" I say.
She says, "Please, Jerry."
"Okay, yep, no problem." I'm talking on my way to the front door just to fill the silence. "I better be leaving. Bye-bye."
Once Howard has shut the door on me and I'm outside, empty-handed and loping across the scorching street, I feel more lonely and lost than I ever have in my life; it's as if I've been completely scraped out from the inside. I make it to the end of the block before I do a one-eighty and sprint back to Amy and Howard's backyard. I open the gate and Roy is waiting right there as if he knew I would return. "You want to come?" I whisper and he goes haywire, huffing and yapping, his tail whipping all over the place. He ricochets off my chest and runs around in a tight circle. I take out my pocketknife and scratch a few words above the name on his doghouse so it reads like a short farewell letter:
I'm long gone Love, ROY
I grab hold of his collar and lead him out into the street. I don't have a leash, but he stays right with me, his shoulder sporadically bumping my leg. We're trotting across someone's front lawn when I have to pull him into the bushes to let a patrol car go by, lights pulsing. I get my wind back and we're off again, ducking and sprinting from house to house, dodging through sprinklers and hiding behind an occasional decorative cactus, keeping to the shrubbery and shadows when we can.
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