Doug always seemed to attract people who brought out the worst in him. There was his ex-girlfriend, Suki, who he’d met online and followed to Pasadena before discovering that she was a drug dealer. There was Big Josh, a recovering alcoholic who owned a pawnshop and debt collection company but whose real passion was collecting coins and training Sally, his un-spayed pit bull, to kill. And now here was Reginald, the small, delicate man sitting across from him at the Run-a-Ground. Reginald owed someone six grand and Big Josh had hired Doug to collect, yet here he was, buying the third round of drinks.
“So,” Reginald said, “what do you know about peacocks?”
Doug stared down into his rum and coke, his face close enough to feel the tiny pricks of carbonation jumping out of the glass. It wasn’t that any of these people were inherently bad, or that Doug himself was a bad person. It was just something about the combinations he made, adding himself to the girl, to these men, that quickly became toxic. Doug thought about peacocks. He tried to picture one. The fact was, he didn’t know one thing about them besides their bright green feathers.
“They’ve got feathers that look like eyes,” Doug said.
Reginald nodded vigorously, his own eyes bulging. Reginald had a thyroid condition. He slapped his hand on the bar.
“Exactly, my man. There you go.”
The bartender, a fat man who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five, scowled at them, and moved closer, wiping an area he’d already wiped in a move Doug interpreted as intentionally menacing. He felt like pouring his drink on the bar.
“Maybe something you don’t know about them, though, is that people use them as guard dogs on chicken farms. Those spooky feathers keep away foxes and other critters going for the goods. They think it’s some kind of monster.”
Doug considered this. It certainly seemed plausible. He’d heard, at any rate, more outlandish things that had turned out to be true. He’d once spent almost an hour trying to fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times before admitting that it didn’t seem possible. A bird guarding other birds? Why not?
“Something else about peacocks,” said Reginald, “is there’s a whole bunch of them over in Flintridge they want to get rid of.”
Doug looked at Reginald’s bald head. Balding black men seemed strange, somehow, in a way balding white men didn’t. As Doug considered the taut, brown skin of Reginald’s pate, he began to feel something he’d felt many times before: the gradual bunching of seemingly shapeless folly and boredom into a bad idea. Over the years, he’d noticed that alcohol seemed to augment this bunching, but since he never knew quite when it would strike, it had never made sense to completely abstain. After all, Doug had been happily drunk any number of times without getting caught up in anything more sinister than his bed sheets by the end of the day. But today he’d been duped: he’d figured Reginald for an innocuous boozer, and here he was, about to bring out the worst in him.
“Whatever you got planned,” Doug said, “I’m in.”
He felt electrified.
The jukebox began to play “We Are The Champions,” and Reginald slapped Doug on the shoulder. “That’s the right attitude,” he said. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say.” He looked Doug up and down, then took on a severe expression. “But we’re going to have to get you out of that tux.”
Doug looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar. It was tight, a little too small, maybe—he didn’t have full movement of his arms—but the cummerbund had a slimming effect that made him look a few years younger. “I don’t know,” Doug said. “I kind of like the way it makes me feel.”
The tuxedo was a rental, had been Big Josh’s idea, and to the man’s credit, was an earnest attempt to bring new ideas to the business of debt collection. But Doug had been wary right from the start. “It’s something I saw over in Spain,” Big Josh had said. Apparently, if you had outstanding debt in Spain, tuxedoed men would follow you around, draw unwanted attention to you—it was a big embarrassment. Apparently, people in Spain gave in after a day or two, driven to save face by striking an agreement with their debtor. What Big Josh had failed to understand, from Doug’s perspective, was that for this to work, people who witness the whole act have to know what’s going on.
He’d found Reginald easily enough that morning after picking up the penguin suit, and had followed him through a grocery store until he’d stopped, asked what Doug was doing. Instead of being embarrassed, however, Reginald had seemed to enjoy the attention. They’d paraded through town all morning as people gawked, looking around like they were on Candid Camera, and by midday Reginald suggested they get a drink.
By the time they got to Flintridge the booze was wearing off, and Doug was beginning to suspect that Reginald hadn’t really thought this thing through. First of all, the U-Haul, which Doug had paid for against his better judgment, seemed like a strange way to transport wild birds (though Doug had to admit he couldn’t think of a better way.) Secondly, Reginald didn’t know the precise whereabouts of the peacocks. Flintridge wasn’t a big town, but Doug found Reginald’s suggestion that they just “drive around” severely lacking. It was an affluent area, and Doug couldn’t help thinking that a U-Haul trolling up and down the tree-lined residential streets would look suspicious. He’d spent so much time on the wrong side of the law that he now often felt guilty even when doing nothing wrong. It was an overactive fear gland, he liked to say, and it was presently, as they passed the meticulously landscaped sign welcoming them to La Canada Flintridge, overacting.
“The city put a few bird traps around,” Reginald said, “so keep your eyes peeled.”
They turned onto a street called Olive Lane.
“What do they look like?” Doug asked.
“Look, do you want to make some money or not? You’re fighting me on this, my man. You need to relax.”
Doug glanced at his passenger. He would easily win in a fight with Reginald. The man was thin; he had a thyroid problem. Doug turned onto Alta Canyada Road. There was a small rise, and the houses quickly grew larger, the lawns greener. Perfect, Doug imagined, for peacocks.
His family had once tried their hand at chicken farming, though Doug had left the house by then, and only noted it from afar or when staying at home between girlfriends. He didn’t recall any peacocks. But then, it was mostly his little sister Dora who’d taken care of them. When he was around, he’d follow her into the small coop and watch her feed them, throwing seed down on the packed, shitty dirt. He’d found it rather disgusting, actually. He’d found disgusting all the various animals his parents had kept over the years. There was something terrible about looking into the inchoate face of an animal that couldn’t speak. It was as if in that silence lay judgment.
“Ha!” shouted Reginald.
Doug followed the man’s bug-eyed gaze off to the right side of the street where, in the shade of a tall pine, sat a broad, squat metal crate. He pulled off the road.
The crate looked empty from the road, but when they approached it they saw that it did indeed contain a bird. It was about five feet across, and on one side had a long mesh corridor opening inward that was apparently impossible to leave through. The bird—a large, mottled gray thing that looked to Doug like an outsized pigeon—just walked slowly back and forth, pecking at the seed spread there for bait. It seemed almost unbearably sad for a moment: this dull, sorry bird, contentedly pecking away inside its wire-mesh home by the side of the road.
“That a peacock?” Doug asked.
“Naw,” said Reginald. “I think it’s a turkey.”
“It’s no turkey,” Doug said. “My folks used to raise turkeys.”
“Your folks farm?”
“Something like that.”
When his parents were killed two years ago they were still at it, though they’d moved on to low-maintenance animals, having only three sheep, each of which had a name. They were frankly more like pets than farm animals, Doug thought. He’d been responsible for finding a new home for them, had posted signs along the road by their land. The signs had been up for no more than an hour before a man came by and said he was interested. It had been a fairly tense affair, the man trying to bring Doug down on the price, and Doug, feeling like his parents’ honor was somehow on the line, not wanting to budge. In the end, though, he’d just given them away. All or nothing, he’d thought. It had seemed a fitting time to be absolute.
“Maybe it’s a baby,” Reginald said. “A baby peacock.”
Doug looked to see if he was kidding—the bird was obviously full grown—and a flash of bright iridescent green in the distance caught his eye. Across the street, in the large yard of an elegant if austere one-story rambler, stood a lone peacock, staring at them. Reginald was still focused on the caged bird, but when the peacock made a loud squawk he turned, too.
“That’s the ugliest sound I ever heard,” he said.
True enough, Doug thought. It sounded like a crow with a cold.
“It sounds like a mean cat,” Reginald said.
They listened for it to cry again, but the peacock stood motionless, unimpressed.
“Well?” Doug finally said.
“Well, we get that sucker in the truck.” Reginald hopped in the driver’s side, started the U-Haul, and made a u-turn while Doug watched. The top-heavy truck swayed after it stopped, and Reginald left it idling while he got out, went around back and opened the rolling door. Next he pulled the ramp out, a stiff tongue licking the dirt, and waved to Doug, still on the other side.
“Come on,” he said in a loud whisper, as though he’d been over there walking on cotton.
Doug crossed the road, his eyes fixed on the blue-green bird. Its feathers were folded behind it, not raised, and they dragged on the lawn as the peacock walked pensively down the grass toward them.
“She’s gonna make this nice and easy,” said Reginald. “Atta girl, come to Reggie.”
The peacock let out another nasal honk, and brought its feathers up behind it slowly, as if there was great effort in the raising, but once they were partway up they quickly slid into place. The feathers fanned out in a great halo of color and pattern, the eyes staring right at them, accusing them. It was truly majestic. The two men stood still for a moment, a moment of respect. Doug had a strong sense that this was not going to work, but he bullied his way through it, forcing himself to step forward.
“Good,” Reginald said. “Circle around back, and just… herd it toward the street.”
“You know, just, kind of coax it.”
Doug gave it a wide berth, and all the while the peacock spun slowly in place, watching him. After he’d set foot onto the stiff, formal lawn, like a great green toothbrush, he noticed a small girl in the window. He stopped for a moment, smiled, and kept going. What did she think of them? Did she have so many people tending to her lawn that this seemed normal to her? She didn’t seem to be scared, merely curious, but Doug kept checking on her, looking back and forth between the girl and the bird.
“The first one is always hardest,” said Reginald.
“Christ,” Doug said. “Is that as a general observation, Reginald, or a conclusion specifically arrived at through your vast experience trapping peacocks?”
Reginald scrunched up his face in an expression Doug would probably be able to read if he knew the man, but as it was they were strangers, and his feelings were a mystery.
Doug’s phone rang. It was Dora. He held up a finger and answered.
“Hey sis,” Doug said. They hadn’t spoken much since meeting to clean out their parents’ house. Doug’s plan at the time had been to move in, but that was before they discovered the massive debt their parents had been hiding from them. The house had to be sold to cover it. Dora had been living, he knew, in New York, but had moved to Providence, where her husband was in grad school for some kind of art degree. Sculpture? He tried to remember, in case it came up.
“Doug, I have some really exciting news. I didn’t know who to call. Can you talk?”
Doug looked around: Reginald was shrugging and shaking his head, as if Doug had blown their chances by answering the phone, and the girl in the window was now standing beside an older woman, presumably her mother, who looked alarmed. Doug waved. He couldn’t really blame her. There was a man dressed in a tuxedo standing in her yard, trying to coax a peacock into the back of a U-Haul truck.
“Of course,” he said. “What’s the news?”
“Shya and I are going to have a baby.”
“Holy shit, Dora, that’s great!”
Doug shouted across the yard, and pointed with his free hand at his phone. “My sister’s going to have a baby!”
Reginald took out a large tobacco pipe.
Doug spun around and shouted at the house. “My sister’s pregnant!” The mother put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders, and led her away from the window.
“Man,” said Doug. “I wish mom were here.”
There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment, then Doug heard his sister sniffling. She was crying. “I know,” she said. “I know.”
The peacock took a cautious step forward down the lawn and from where Doug was standing he could see that it was walking toward the bird trapped across the street. Maybe Reginald was right after all, thought Doug. Maybe that was a baby. Maybe this peacock was a mother.
“You know what?” Doug said.
“You know what? I’m going to come there. To Providence.”
“I’m going to come to Providence to help you… with the baby. To help out.”
The line was silent again, but the sniffling had stopped. Doug wondered how many peacocks he’d have to catch to earn enough money for the airfare. You couldn’t get much further away from Los Angeles than Providence.
“I’d like that,” Dora said. Her voice seemed small, delicate, as if she were twelve years old. Was that how long it had been since they’d been friends?
“I’m coming,” Doug said resolutely. “I’m coming out… next week, no, this week, shit. I’m coming… can I call you back?”
“Yes, yes,” Dora said. “I really hope you can come.”
They hung up, and Doug put his phone away, breathing deeply. He straightened his suit.
“I gotta go,” he said.
He walked past the peacock and down the lawn, put the ramp back in the truck, and brought the back door down with a slam. Reginald looked at him, eyes projecting, but remained calm, puffing his pipe into the warm afternoon air.
“What the fuck you talking ‘bout?”
Without saying another word, Doug hopped in the U-Haul cab. It was still idling, and he dropped it into gear and shot off back down Alta Canyada, looking for Olive. He didn’t hear anything over the engine noise, but he could see Reginald in the rearview mirror, smoking, still shaking his gleaming bald head, while behind him the peacock stole slowly across the road.
Doug pulled up in front of Big Josh’s house and killed the motor. He hadn’t done something truly illegal, specifically illegal, in almost a year, and he was proud of that. It hadn’t been the easiest year, and yes, he’d bent the rules a few times, but there was a difference between doing something against the law, and doing something illegal. Nonetheless, he felt none of the bunching he’d felt in the Run-a-Ground with Reginald. He felt decidedly calm. He was going to see his sister.
Doug called the shop, and when Big Josh answered he hung up. He got out of the car and walked around back of the house. It was a small house, one story, no basement. There was a three-step poured-cement stairway to the back door with a rusted handrail of twisted wrought iron, and Doug leapt up and peered through the window: the kitchen. He turned the doorknob, because any burglar is a fool not to try that first, and leaned back, looking back and forth for open windows. He was just one coin collection away from getting out of Pasadena. He saw a promising window to the right—a window he could get in by standing on an old planter full of dirt—and he was about go give it a try when he heard a kind of rattle from inside the house, a clicking. He looked back into the kitchen to see an enormous, stark white Pit Bull with a wet, pink nose. Sally.
The bunching began, but Doug turned his back on the beast and took a deep breath. He could do this. When he was ten years old he’d broken into his neighbor’s house and stolen a big mason jar full of change. It had been late spring, May or June, and for the entire summer he’d been able to buy Dora treats from the ice cream truck that passed by every day. Every time one of his parents asked where he’d gotten the money to buy it, he’d told them it had been given to him by the one who hadn’t asked. It was a great system, and he’d taken pride in it. But when he was about halfway through the jar, Dora suddenly stopped wanting ice cream. It was a whim, maybe, or maybe it was because she’d tried all the flavors and had moved on. Whatever it was, Doug had never forgotten how embarrassed it had made him feel the day he’d heard that screeching ice cream truck song and ran to get some change, only to have his little sister shrug and keep playing with her dolls. That night he’d taken the jar to a spot in the back yard where the mowed lawn met the overgrown field beyond it, and buried it there, change and all. He’d told Suki, right before he left her, that this was when he’d learned how to be a criminal. But it was also when he’d learned that he didn’t have to be.
Comforted, he peaked back through the window. Sally was still there, sitting a couple feet from the door and looking up at him, her head tilted to one side. Her tail was wagging.
“Good girl,” he said. “Good girl, Sally.”
Her tail wagged harder, thumping against the blue-specked white linoleum floor. This was a trained killer? It occurred to Doug that Big Josh could have been lying about his training, about his killer dog. Why he’d do this Doug couldn’t say, but he’d heard stranger things. Doug walked down the steps and around to the window above the planter box. It was small and frosted: a bathroom. It wasn’t visibly open, but when Doug reached up and pawed at it with the tips of his fingers it moved, so he climbed onto the planter and pressed harder. The window shot right up. He heard the dog entering the bathroom, its nails rattling against the tile. It wheezed slightly.
Because of the tux, Doug had trouble raising his arms over his head, but he forced them up to get a hold of the window frame, and leapt forward with the aim of heaving his upper body through the opening. But as he rose into the air the tuxedo jacket bunched around his armpits, audibly tore, and violently pulled him back down. He landed, and the box gave way underneath him, spilling him forward as his feet slid back on a small mudslide. Doug caught himself on the side of the house, but he’d destroyed his leverage and torn the skin on his palms. He stepped back and glanced around the yard for something else to stand on. The yard, such as it was, was entirely paved, yet in the corner sat a lawnmower, and Doug looked at it and laughed, slightly out of breath. California was a cruel place.
He wondered whether he should try to contain the dirt a little, not leave a mess for Big Josh, and as he surveyed the damage a slight glimmer caught his eye. He bent down, thinking some change had spilled from his pocket, but as he brushed the dirt away he saw that it wasn’t change at all. It was a key.
“Ha!” he said. “Ha!”
He ran up the steps to the back door and slid the key into the doorknob.
“Ha!” he said again.
Inside, Sally stood on her hind feet, welcoming him with kisses. This was not an attack dog. This was a lover. Doug knelt down and let Sally lick his face, and for a moment was lost in the greeting, lost in the exuberant twinning.
“You are a good dog,” he said. “Yes you are. Yes you are.”
“So where are your daddy’s coins?”
He stepped through to the living room, and was surprised to find a clean but sterile space that felt distinctly unlived-in. The leather couch was non-descript; the landscape painting above it generic. Big Josh had been good to Doug—giving him work on the strength of one false start in AA—but he had to admit they’d never shared much detail about themselves. Doug was a little disappointed. He liked to imagine people leading private lives richer than those they made public, not the other way around. This living room pointed to nothing so much as a failure, thought Doug, of the imagination. He entered the bedroom. A waterbed left only enough room for a dresser and a small desk. Doug began opening drawers, not knowing exactly what he was looking for—a bag?, a small safe?—until he realized that right there on top of the desk was a thin volume that said “State Quarters Collector’s Folder” in bold black letters over a flapping American flag. Inside, small, quarter-sized impressions were pressed into clear plastic, each identified with the State’s name needed to fill it. Doug sat down at the desk and gave Sally a pat.
“A coin collection and a dog trained to kill, eh Sally?”
His phone rang. It was Big Josh.
“Hey Big Josh,” he said.
“How’s the job going? Our friend Reginald break yet?”
Doug looked down at all the missing coins. He didn’t even have Arkansas, Doug’s home state. Doug wondered whether Reginald had found a ride back to Pasadena. He pictured him walking along the side of the road, his thumb hanging from his hand, his eyes ready to burst.
“I think he’s getting close,” Doug said. “Everyone is pointing and laughing.”
“Good. Good! See? Those Spanish know how to break a man.”
“Yep,” Doug said. “You were right.”
They hung up. Doug put the folder back on the desk, and made his way back to the kitchen with Sally at his feet, pacing along after him, happy as could be. Someone with a dog so trusting, he felt, just didn’t deserve to be robbed.
Doug had spent no more time with his parents than absolutely necessary, but once they were no longer around he felt acutely adrift all the same. It wasn’t unpleasant, always, but it was there, always, always there along with whatever other thing he felt, containing it, competing for attention. The feeling had arrived first when he’d put those three sheep into the back of the truck after giving them away, and it was there now, as he drove across town to return the U-Haul. It was there as he drove his own car to take back the torn tux, and it was still there, he couldn’t help notice—it was perhaps even a little more pronounced—as he made his way to Suki’s apartment. He hadn’t seen Suki in weeks, but he knew she still lived in the same hovel. Most importantly, he was almost certain she still had that box of hundred dollar bills under the bed. She’d been saving for years, saving to get herself out of the business, to put herself through school where she had dreams of earning her teacher’s certificate, or becoming an accountant. “Most people still pay taxes,” she’d say. “Don’t they?”
Suki was always pretending she didn’t know what normal people did. When someone—a customer, for instance, biding time with small talk—would bring up a television show, she would invariably cock her head to the side, bite her lip, and say she’d never heard of it. She also grew visibly nervous at malls, making a show of screwing up her face and shaking her head as if to say, so this is what everyone keeps talking about. But this was a ruse. Suki’s real name was Jennifer, and she’d grown up in an affluent neighborhood north of San Diego. In some ways, though he disliked the dishonesty, Doug was inspired by her determination to leave her old life of privilege behind. Surely it was her right to do so, he told himself. It was a noble endeavor, even. But it made her ambitions of returning to school seem strange and disjointed, and Doug had never been sure she believed what she was saying, how far she’d actually gone toward convincing herself.
Doug parked in front of Suki’s apartment building, and looked up at the darkened windows. It was dusk. On the last night they were together, they’d fought. They’d been drinking, and had fallen into a disagreement about the relative legality of drug dealing. Suki had never agreed with Doug’s careful if inarticulate distinction between “illegal” and simply “against the law,” and through his boozy blur it had suddenly become clear to him that in arguing against this distinction, Suki was erasing any chance for her own redemption.
“Don’t you see,” he’d said, raising his voice, “that if what you’re saying is true, you’re just an ordinary criminal?”
Doug’s tone had grown dark and judgmental, though he hadn’t meant it to, and he’d looked at her almost sheepishly, fearing a cruel rebuke. Rather than be upset by his words, however, Suki had smiled broadly, risen from her chair, and come to sit with him on the couch. She threw her arms around his neck, and breathed heavily into his ear.
“Why do you think I fell in love with you?” she said.
Doug shook her off and stood. The apartment was saturated with smoke from the cigarettes Suki always had lit, and very dim—it was dusk, but they hadn’t yet turned on any lights. Outside it began to rain, and the soft patter of raindrops on the glass seemed amplified by the building black. How had he ended up with someone who was downwardly mobile? When he’d first met Suki—even in spite of her vocation—he’d often told her what a shame it was that his parents had died before he’d finally met someone worthy of bringing home. But he was happy they couldn’t see him now. Doug paced around the room as Suki watched, her smile slowly draining from her face.
After a few minutes of tense silence, she lit another cigarette and threw her lighter across the room. The noise of it seemed to mock them both. She was growing angry, impatient, and Doug walked faster, his feet pounding on the floor, charged with the small thrill of being taken seriously, of being in agreement. They’d have it out once and for all, he thought. They’d get to the bottom of their disagreement and perhaps he’d even ask why she wanted so badly to escape her family, her privilege. He’d squeeze the motivation out of her like juice from a lemon. Dealing drugs doesn’t make you a hardened criminal, he’d say. It doesn’t make you evil. It all depends on how you look at it, he thought, rehearsing his lines. He turned to face her. Don’t you see? Don’t you see it’s just a matter of perspective?
Doug got out of the car and walked up to Suki’s building. The evening was warm, still. There was no one else on the street. He’d never felt entirely comfortable in this neighborhood, and he didn’t feel comfortable now. Doug pressed the buzzer, but Suki didn’t answer. Sometimes she took a while to come to the door. As he waited, he looked at his reflection in the wire-mesh security glass: he was no longer wearing a tuxedo, and he looked drab, a blur of browns and grays. Behind him, a truck rolled by without headlights. Doug buzzed again, and the intercom crackled behind its bent metal plate.
“Hey baby,” Suki said.
The truck slowed.
“An Ordinary Criminal” is from a collection of linked stories called Look No Further. Shya Scanlon is the author of The Guild of Saint Cooper, Forecast, Border Run, and In This Alone Impulse. He runs www.twinpeaksproject.com, and tweets at https://twitter.com/shyascanlon.
“An Ordinary Criminal” was originally published in Opium Magazine, Issue 8, 2009.