I was sixteen and for the first time in my life I was on the move. A forced exodus. My mother packed me up and dropped me at the airport with a cursory wave. I knew she was uptight about my forays into late nights and some drinking, but damn.
I left Jersey City to spend the summer with my Pops in Lubbock, Texas. My mother suggested it was Pop’s job to teach me how to act like a man. All I could think about while waiting to board the plane were the places I had traveled to in my mind while reading books. As the plane shook and lifted, I remember thinking, “This is freedom.”
Whoever said freedom has a price wasn’t bullshitting. Lubbock was slow like a long country song. Like waiting behind somebody ordering lottery tickets when you’re in a rush. There was no place to go, nothing to do. Only Pops and his family. Only Pops and his glaring. Only Pops and his damn dog Romulus, a black German Shepherd-wolf mix who at last count had bitten eight people, including my six-year-old stepbrother.
In front of Pop’s green two-story colonial, I kissed the only thing Texas shared with me—a Mexican-American Princess named Vivian. Vivian was nineteen and pretty like a tan porcelain doll. She had long straight brown hair and always smiled at me like I could do no wrong.
We were in her brand new Nissan Maxima and it was just before my curfew. She stared beyond me toward the sound of Romulus barking. His bark was like that. He could be a mile away, but when he erupted, you thought he was on you.
I got out of the car and leaned into the window to kiss her goodbye, her pink lipstick smudged but still pretty on her thin lips. Romulus continued barking as I watched her hit the defrost button, smile, and drive away.
I limped along the walkway toward the front door, my nuts in a tourniquet, thoughts of Vivian bouncing through my head. Her sweet mouth, the curve of her hip in my hand. If Pops ever met Vivian, if he ever saw the way she smiled at me, he would respect that.
The house was empty and muted to a dirty yellow. My stepmother and two stepbrothers were visiting relatives in Houston. Pops and I had been left on our own. I went to the living room and turned the dimmer to high. Hungry, I broke for the refrigerator. A couple of stray Heinekens, an almost-empty bottle of Coke, and a half-eaten sandwich in a baggy. Thick, slimy ham. No cheese. I souped the sandwich up with mayo and potato chips and chased it with what was left of the flat Coke.
Romulus was cursing me out, his bark booming as if there were no walls between us. I walked into the living room and eyed him down through the sliding glass door, the access point to the badlands; the backyard that housed the nastiest dog on the planet.
I stared at him as he danced and growled like I was his next meal. I chewed my sandwich real slow and deliberate. That he was hungry was just. That he suffered was appropriate. Romulus was on my forever bad side, and for good reason.
A month after my arrival, during one of Pop’s drunken runs he left the sliding door open, and my six-year-old stepbrother walked into the living room as Pops grabbed another beer from the fridge. Romulus used the oversight to run inside and bite into my stepbrother’s right tricep. This ended Pop’s run of five straight nights of drinking and supposedly made him more cautious. I never really bought into the “I’m gonna be more careful” apology.
A couple of weeks after he mauled my little brother’s arm, Romulus and I went to war. I took it upon myself to get some payback. He had it coming. The dog was a daily menace. A constant reminder of how powerless we all were. Anytime anyone would get too close to that door, Romulus would kamikaze into it. The sound of teeth trying to eat through glass. The hate in his bark that went right through you.
Our war commenced after one of his attacks on the door caused my stepbrother to run into my arms crying because he thought the door would break. I stomped to my room and grabbed my BB gun. I remember thinking, Pops would respect that.
I slowly opened the window and called out, “Romulus, come here boy.” First, his ears went up. Listening. Looking. Sniffing. Stop. Ears down. Slow and steady, he tiptoed forward. When he saw me, he lowered his backside. Quiet. Target acquired. The moment he started to make his move; I popped a cap in his deep barking ass. He yelped, jumped sideways, and ran to the other side of the yard, but mounted another charge to get at me through the window. I got another shot off in time to thwart his counter attack. And so it went.
The best times were with my brother. I would put him on my lap and hold his hands in mine to keep him steady. Crack, and the dog would yap and run away. My brother laughed in a way I hadn’t heard since the attack. He would always hug me and beg for another shot. “Hey Jonny, can I shoot him again?”
The war was easy to conceal because the cheap BB gun never broke skin. My covert assaults were imperceptible, and the operation became my favorite after-school activity. The mutt used his doghouse for cover for hours at a time until Pops came home.
I finished off the sandwich and feigned a hard step toward the door. Romulus crashed his snout into the glass while biting at the air and growling in frustration. I heard Pops jiggling keys at the front door so I fell back into the kitchen to clean up my mess.
Pops was an old-school gangster who studied the History Channel like he would be tested on it during happy hour. He made no apologies for how he lived or what he did. The fact that he’d beaten heroin made him a legend in his own mind. He also built a construction company from the trunk of a Monte Carlo and now owned six or seven trucks and vans. He stood six-foot-two and sported a tight crew cut. He rubbed his graying goatee as he stepped toward me.
It was Friday night, so I checked his stroll. Pop had this walk like he was sneaking up on you when he’d been drinking. Like a snake slowly uncoiling itself. He would rise to his full height when he reached you and tilt his head to the side, take a pull from his cigarette, and inspect your insides. The mood was the thing.
“What up, Pop?”
He was holding a white plastic bag and put out a cigarette in the ashtray on the counter.
“Hey, what’s going on, little bro?”
“Nothing, just finished eating.”
“You feed my dog?”
“Yeah, ham and eggs. He loved it.”
“My dog didn’t eat yet?”
“No, Pop. Sorry.”
“You’re scary and shit, ain’t ya? Sorry son of a bitch. Why can’t you feed my dog?”
“I don’t know, Pop. Something about liking my hands attached to my arms.”
“Oh, you wanna be a funny ass, huh? I know I’m drunk. Shit. Drinking with all those crazy-ass peckerwoods all night. Drinking and shit. What you say about my dog?”
“Scary ass little Jonny Pacheco. I know you’re hungry. Scary and hungry, ain’t that some shit. You want some cake with your scary-hungry ass?”
He handed me the plastic bag, which contained two white Styrofoam plates that sandwiched a huge piece of chocolate cake. I grabbed the fork at the bottom of the bag and began to disassemble the cake, piece by moist piece.
The sliding door that led to the backyard whistled as Pop opened it. This itself was not an event. The problem was Pops was drunk, and the door didn’t immediately close.
I checked out the situation. Just outside the door, Romulus had his forelegs on Pop’s chest, licking his face while Pops smiled and rubbed the brute’s head like he was sanding wood. When their greeting ended, Pops finished off a can of Bud and Romulus peeked inside the living room like he lost something.
“Hey!” Pops yelled.
Romulus squinted as he retreated. Pops stepped inside and closed the door. I went back to the kitchen to resume my attack on the chocolate cake. I meditated hard on Vivian. About her holding out. About how I was perpetually stuck on second base. There must be something I could say or do. I mean, she was the first girl I told the words I love you. The thing was, I really meant it. What else could she want from me?
The whistling of the door rolling on its track stopped the fork from reaching my mouth. For a moment, I didn’t move. When I didn’t hear anything, I hopped off my stool and went to scope it out.
From the entrance to the living room I could see Pops petting the beast and saying his goodnights, as was his custom. On his way back in, he stopped at the threshold and checked for balance before stepping over to a plant stand that held a yellow orchid in a tan pot. He whispered something and touched the plant as if it were about to crumble between his fingers.
I reminded him to close the door. He glared at me, rubbed the tattoos on his forearms, and adjusted his Yankee hat. He looked at the door, then back at me.
“Why you so scary, man? For real, what’s wrong with you? Scary, like some punk. Come here, Romulus.”
Romulus strutted into the living room like he was leading a halftime show. He lay down as Pop bent over and proudly massaged his neck and stomach.
“Come here, Jonny,” Pop yelled.
“I ain’t going in there with that dog, Pop.”
“Stop being so scary. Be a goddamn man. Shit. I ain’t gonna ask you again. Get your punk ass in here.”
It was one of those moments where you reach another level of consciousness. Like the seconds before stepping up and deciding to fight a bigger guy you can’t beat. I didn’t want to be afraid, but my body abandoned me.
I was sweating cold. The frosting from the cake on my tongue was dry and without taste. Maybe he knows. I looked at the fork in my hand, and thought, worst case scenario I’ll do what I have to do. Pops has to respect that. My feet began moving, my heart knocking like it wanted out.
When I entered the room Romulus got up on all fours. His eyes all over me. Ears down, he began a series of low growls.
“Sit your ass down.” Pop screamed. Romulus did as he was told.
Just before I reached the couch, Romulus let out an uncharacteristic whimper. Five feet separated us. He rubbed Pop’s leg with his snout, asking, pleading—begging. I almost heard him: Please let me bite this bastid. I’ve been starving for the day to put some shit on his ass. Please, Pop. Please.
“Stay still, goddammit,” Pop ordered.
The command was followed by a backhand to his snout that caused his teeth to clack. He winced and turned his head away in pain.
Pop complained, “Both you sons of bitches ain’t worth a shit.”
Romulus sat at perfect attention and alternated looking at Pop and me. He looked at Pop and blinked his eyes. He looked at me and panted. Pop reached into his pocket and threw me a couple of biscuits. I dropped the fork. The biscuits hit my stomach and fell to the floor. Two biscuits and a white plastic fork on the brand new brown shag carpet Pops had just installed. It occurred to me the fork wasn’t much of a weapon. What kind of plan is that? I thought.
“Pick ’em up,” Pops said.
The fork looked pitiful lying there, chocolate still between the prongs. I bent down, watching Romulus the whole way, trying to think of a new plan and picked up the biscuits.
“I want you to feed this son of a bitch.”
“Pop, c’mon, man. You know he ain’t right. Why do you have to do this?”
“So what? What’s the worst thing that could happen? So he bites you. So what. You go to the hospital and shit. Be a man about it. I’m trying to teach you something, son.”
He didn’t know.
He marched Romulus over to me and commanded him to sit down. Romulus let out a deep, low groan, frenetically looking at Pop and me, trying to figure out what was happening.
“Give him his snack.”
I tried to stiffen my arm to keep my hand from shaking, but it wouldn’t stay still. Romulus growled at the attempt. I tried to ignore it. Be a man. Stay still. My hand was in front of his mouth. He looked at Pop for permission. Pop nodded his head and pointed to my hand. Oh, God. Shit. Oh, God. Romulus snatched the biscuit as I jerked my shaking hand away from his mouth.
“Look at you. Shaking like a bitch. Why you so scary? Stay still, goddammit. Give em the other one, and stop shaking like a little bitch. Wait, Romulus.”
I meekly reached out with the other biscuit. Romulus looked at my trembling hand and showed me his ugly teeth without growling. My legs started to shiver. I didn’t breathe. My hand was hanging and shaking in front of his mouth like bait on a line. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“I said, wait,” Pops warned him.
Romulus dripped saliva and yelped, sniffing for the snack inches from his nose. I looked at Pop. His nose flared and he shook his head. It was as if he just realized who I was and could not accept the fact.
I tried to hold it all in, but the breath I held deep in my chest and tears raced out of me at the same time.
Before I could say sorry. Before I could beg out. Pops punched me in the chest and yelled, “Sit your punk ass down.”
The disgust that dripped from his voice broke me. The blow landing me on the couch. Not all of me. Romulus the opportunist surged and clamped onto my left forearm. The cutting pain, the panic of losing my arm. All the rage. Romulus—ripping, shaking, growling, and taking.
Pops snatched Romulus by the throat and hollered, “Down, boy! Down!” Romulus let go because Pops was choking him, his hind legs off the floor.
I jumped off the couch and took my best shot to his ribs, the beast swinging in Pop’s arms like a punching bag. Then another, landing it clean with my whole body turning into it. Romulus whimpered and then twisted back and forth in a howling frenzy. I swung a final time, but Pops had turned to protect his beast and I caught him in the kidney. Pops buckled trying to fend me off and hold Romulus at the same time. He turned to see if I would swing again before dragging Romulus to the door and unceremoniously throwing him out.
I fell to my knees. Blood dripping into my hand sticky and warm. A swarthy mess with my arm mangled. Not looking. Hating Romulus, hating myself.
Pops was standing in front of the sliding door crooked like, trying to catch his breath, his hand on his kidney. He pointed at me.
“I’ll tell you what, that was a helluva punch, son. Respectable. Damn respectable.”
He lit a Marlboro and looked toward the badlands like he just noticed it was there. He inspected my forearm as if it were a piece of meat he had to figure out how to cut. He grunted at the punctures and tears while chasing the blood away with his fat thumb.
“FDR said, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, Jonny. I didn’t get you bit. Fear got you bit. A man fears nothing. You listening, I’m trying to teach you something, son.”
On the last Saturday night before Pops decided I was better off going back to Jersey City, Vivian and me parked next to the Empress tree in front of Pop’s house, its purple and white flowers in full bloom. The manicured lawns and sleepy silence of the neighborhood provided the perfect setting for a backseat tryst.
It was almost midnight and my curfew was up. Vivian squirmed from beneath me to sit up and straighten her skirt. It is good to come up for a breath, she said. We sat for a moment and just stared at one another, her breasts heaving in and out.
She grabbed my hand and placed it on her thigh in order to inspect the damage again. She rubbed my forearm and wrist gently to the edges of the gauze wrap, all the while scanning for where the rips and holes might be.
“Can’t you talk to him—say it’s not right to do things like that? It doesn’t prove anything,” Vivian said.
I made a wet circle on the window and peeked out toward Pop’s place. The neat paver and pebble walkway that curved from the sidewalk and straightened out to reach the front door. The Japanese maple tree I dug the hole for just to the right of the bay window.
“Maybe you can make him see. Make him understand . . .”
I put my finger on her lips and dotted her face and forehead with light kisses. She frowned and I hugged her as hard as I could without breaking her.
“I shouldn’t have been scared, Viv. That’s what it was. I needed to be a man. Next time—next time I’ll get him first,” I said.
Images of Romulus growling and pulling rushed at me like at night. I closed my eyes and held Vivian tight. Sought the smell of her perfume. Reached for her face and hair.
“No,” she said. “You’re not like that.”
We were still for far too long. I began kissing her again because my instincts told me Pops would be home soon.
Heavy breathing mixed with half words as I licked and bit her ears and neck. She was on the verge as I rubbed and squeezed and twisted. I was hard as hell and wanted to get to the home plate of it; when she finally broke down with the words I longed to hear.
“I love you too, Jonny. I want you, I want you—now.”
I’m not gonna lie. Under the Lubbock moon that night, right around twelve, I emitted sounds I didn’t know I could produce. And in the background, in between our bellowing cries of carnal joy, Romulus barked at the stars.
I looked at Vivian. She was breathing slowly and her eyes gently opened and closed. She reached out and put her hand on my face.
“You’re all the man I want, Jonny,” she said.
I remember thinking, Pops would respect that.
Friend and TLR contributor, Carlos Rivera, passed away in December, 2020. He lived in New Jersey with his wife and two children. He was a public high school history teacher. We miss him.
“Romulus,” which originally appeared in TLR: Street Cred, was part of a collection of short stories in progress.