“Loyalty Comes Free” by Max Detrano


On the first day of Charlie Stokes’ retirement he ate oatmeal at the Formica table he and his wife, Anna, bought the year they were married. The Stokes’ were a happy couple, according to anyone who measured happiness by shelf life. They had been married forty-five years. While they had no children, they had one another. For forty-five years Anna kept house and Charlie went to work. In the evenings after dinner they watched television, reruns mostly, of shows that had been popular when they were young; they both loved Archie and Edith Bunker, Lucy and Desi, and Ozzie and Harriet. Sometimes in recent years, Charlie had wondered aloud what people did before television.

“They talked,” said Anna.

“About what?” said Charlie.

While Anna washed the dishes at the kitchen sink, Charlie sucked the last drop of coffee from the bottom of his cup. He stood up from the table, crossed the room, put his arms around his wife’s waist, and said, “Now that I am retired, Anna, we have all the time in the world to spend together.”

Anna flapped her soapy fingers. “You may have all the time in the world, Charlie Stokes, but I have work to do.”

Charlie dropped his hands to his sides, crossed the room and opened the basement door, flipped on the light, and stepped onto the landing. Turning to face the old wooden stairs, he reached for the handrail. He’d been meaning to put up a handrail for at least a dozen years. Tomorrow, he promised, he’d put up a handrail.

Charlie’s fingers traced a line in the crumbling concrete as he descended the stairs. This was Charlie’s domain. He had decorated the damp walls with a pegboard where he hung his tools: hammers, saws, screwdrivers, wrenches, grips, clamps, and cords. On the bench below lay a soldering iron, a staple gun, and a pair of wire clippers. Charlie could not for the life of him remember why they were there. He put the tools back up on the pegboard. He’d never been handy with tools, even as a young man. Now his arthritis made that sort of thing more difficult.

He killed two hours reorganizing the pegboard, and then he heard Anna’s feet on the landing.

“I’m going out, Charlie.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to the store.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No, no. You’ll get bored.”

Charlie heard the car back out of the driveway.

He climbed the stairs wishing again he had a handrail to help pull himself along. On the landing he stopped to catch his breath. Although he hadn’t done a damn thing all morning, he ought to eat lunch. Finding a packet of sliced ham and some American cheese in the fridge, he put together a sandwich with plenty of mustard. Wrapping it in foil, he put it in his jacket pocket. He’d eat it at the park. He didn’t want to be sitting at the table like a lump when his wife came back from the store.

* * *

At the park Charlie found a bench alongside the lake where he could eat his lunch. He took the sandwich out of his pocket, peeled back a corner of the foil. Two ducks, a male and a female, made a beeline in his direction. The male with its iridescent green head hung back while the female walked up the slope to Charlie’s foot. His hand trembled as he broke a crumb off the bread. The duck quacked for Charlie to hurry.

“Hold on. I’m not giving you the whole enchilada.”

He was just about to toss the crumb into the water hoping the duck would follow it, when Charlie noticed something moving beneath a blackberry bush. Leaning forward he saw the grisly face of a one-eyed dog lying on its belly, baring its teeth at the duck. The dog made a half-hearted lunge for the bird. The other eye had been sewn shut.

The duck turned and ran, flapping its wings, back to the safety of the water. The dog turned its one milky eye toward Charlie, or rather, toward the sandwich.

“Well. I guess it’s you and me, old timer.”

The dog’s face was a roadmap of misery. Coupled with its one milky white eye, it had an under-bite so bad that its tongue flopped out forcing its mouth into a twisted smile. Once all the way out from under the bush, Charlie saw that the real horror was on the other end. The dog had only one hind leg, which appeared to be frozen at the knee. The other had been chopped off at the hip like a butcher might whack off a turkey leg.

“I bet that had to hurt,” said Charlie breaking off an inch of the sandwich and laying it on the grass. The dog stared but made no move to come closer.

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

Charlie pushed the food closer. The dog pulled forward on its front paws and gobbled the bit of sandwich. Charlie looked for a collar or a tag but there was neither.

“You have any people, old timer?”

The dog smiled its twisted smile.

“No, I don’t suppose you do. Can you walk?”

Charlie stood up. The dog pushed up on its front legs, arched its back, and dragged that stiff leg into position, like a crutch, and hobbled forward.

“Well, I’ll be damned. You do all right for a gimp.”

Charlie sat back down. He broke off another piece of meat and put it on the grass. The dog scarfed it down. Charlie took a bite for himself.

“I hope you like mustard. I got no use for people that don’t like mustard.”

Charlie shared the rest of his sandwich, crumpled the foil, and sat watching the ducks that were waiting their turn.

“I’m afraid they are not going to find any leftovers,” he said to no one in particular, watching the dog lick the grass where the food had been.

* * *

Charlie looked down at his watch. It was 4:50. He stood up. The dog pushed up and dragged its leg into position.

“You don’t want to follow me, old timer.”

The dog hopped alongside Charlie’s foot nonetheless. When he reached the path, where there were other people, Charlie saw a look of horror cross their faces when they saw the dog. He couldn’t help feeling embarrassed, realizing these people assumed this dog belonged to him. At the entrance to the park, Charlie stamped his foot and tried to shoo the dog away. The dog backed up but refused to leave.

“You can’t come home with me, old timer. My wife doesn’t like dogs.”

Charlie resumed walking; the dog stayed put. But after Charlie rounded the corner, walking fast, he turned to see the dog was following at a safe distance. Charlie pressed on up the hill toward his house, thinking the dog would be unable to keep up. But half a block from his house he saw the animal still following, although slower now, hopping on that stiff back leg. Charlie stood still watching the animal’s gait. Then he turned, walked back to where the dog struggled, and laid his hand on the animal’s head.

“Well, you ain’t no quitter.”

Charlie reached down, picked the dog up, and carried it to the house. At the back door, he put the dog on the grass and told it to wait.

“I’ll take you to the shelter. That’s the best I can do, old timer. My wife won’t want you in the house.”

Charlie closed the door behind him and peeked back out the glass, seeing the dog lying on its belly with its head on its paws, he went to the basement door, opened it, and stepped onto the landing. He reached for the handrail that wasn’t there, trailed his fingers on the crumbling concrete. In the basement, behind the workbench, he found a piece of clothesline that would do fine to make a leash. He tied a slipknot at one end and a handle on the other. He climbed back up the stairs out of breath and promised again to put up a handrail. His wife Anna was at the door peering through the glass.

“Charlie, where did you find that ugly dog?”

“I found it in the park, Anna.”

“Why did you bring it home?”

“I’m taking it to the shelter.”

“I should hope so. That is the ugliest animal I have ever seen.”

“Don’t be cruel, Anna.”

“It looks like death.”

“Yes. They’ll probably have to put it down.”

Anna opened the back door. The dog looked up at her.

“Why Charlie, it’s only got one eye.”

“And three legs.”

“It makes me sick, just looking at it.”

“It gets around pretty good… considering.”

“Now don’t get any ideas, Charlie.”

“It’s a nice dog. Besides, I don’t think they will find a home for it. They’ll have to put it down.”

“Don’t make me feel guilty, Charlie. That animal is a mess.”

Charlie strung the loop handle through the slipknot.

“If I wanted a dog, I wouldn’t want that dog! Maybe a Pekinese? Something I could vacuum.”

“You don’t vacuum dogs, Anna.”

“I knew a woman who vacuumed her Pekinese. It didn’t mind it a bit.”

Charlie went out the door and into the yard. He slipped the clothesline around the dog’s neck. The dog struggled to stand up.

“Oh my God, it can’t even walk,” said Anna.

“It walks better than you think.”

Anna watched as Charlie led the dog to the car and attempted to coax it into the back seat. The dog wriggled its way onto the front seat. Charlie coiled the clothesline beside it and said, “I guess it won’t hurt to let you ride shotgun,” then closed the door.

* * *

Charlie pulled into the lot in front of the animal shelter. The dog whimpered.

“You know this place, do you?” said Charlie.

As the animal struggled to its feet, Charlie saw a woman through the window pointing her finger at the dog. She was coming out from behind the counter, her blond ponytail wagging behind as she walked. She was heading out the front door saying something Charlie couldn’t hear.

Charlie opened the car door. Before he realized, the dog slipped out. The blonde woman was outside now and she was shouting. The woman’s skin was covered with tattoos; her arms bulged in her animal shelter t-shirt. She was moving fast toward the dog, her arms stretched out in front of her.

“Don’t let him get away. Shit… he’s doing it again.”

There was a tug at the leash. Charlie looked down and saw the dog pull backward, the leash slipping over its ears. Charlie yanked hard. The leash came up empty.

“God damn it. There he goes.”

The dog limped across the parking lot. The blonde woman ran after it with her arms extended.

“Sneaky little fuck,” she shouted as the dog ran into the street directly in front of an oncoming cement truck. The woman shielded her eyes. The truck sounded its air-horn and swerved, the big mixer wobbled, and the truck seemed to go right over the animal. Only when the truck had passed did Charlie see the dog on the opposite side of the road disappearing into the woods.

“Three legged lucky son of a bitch,” said the woman now walking toward Charlie. Her name was Ginger. She had four dogs tattooed on her fingers: a Dachshund, a Schnauzer, a Boston, and a Chihuahua. Charlie stared at her hand.

“Those are my little dogs,” she said. Then pulling up her sleeves. “These are my big dogs.” On either arm were the faces of a Pit Bull and a Doberman. Paw prints walked up the soft skin of her forearm around the names Wanda, Igor, At-a-Boy, Chauncey, Diesel and Floyd.

“Come on in. I’ll tell you the little fuck’s story.” Her ponytail wagging behind. “Fucking dog has nine lives.”

Inside the shelter, Ginger told Charlie that the dog’s name was Felix. He had gotten away from a volunteer. Much the same as he’d gotten away from Charlie. The dog was a regular Houdini.

“Where did you find him?”

“At the park. He followed me home,” said Charlie.

“He adopted you?”

“My wife is not a dog person.”

“You a dog person?”

“I like dogs.”

“I knew it.” Ginger slapped Charlie hard on the shoulder saying, “I liked you the minute I saw you.”

“So he lives here?”

“Felix can’t live here. We’re not running a hotel. You think that dog can get adopted, Mister? Not very likely. But when you work around here you have to believe there is someone for everybody. Even an ugly little fuck like Felix.”

A sign behind the counter listed fees. Adoptions fees. Microchip. Vaccinations. Neutering. Under the fees someone had written in big block letters… LOYALTY COMES FREE.

“Felix came in a month ago. We scanned his chip. He’d been put down in Utah.”

“Put down?” said Charlie.

“Yeah. Put down. Euthanized. Gassed. Put in the box, closed the door… turned on the gas.”

“Then how is he here?”

“The little fuck wouldn’t die. They opened the door. And there he was. Just sitting there. Smiling. Gotta love the little puke. Must have held his breath.”

“So what now?” said Charlie.

“Fuck if I know.”

So Charlie got back in his car and went home.

 * * *

Charlie pulled the car into the driveway, got out, and unlatched the gate. He couldn’t get the vision of Felix crossing the road out of his mind, the dog hopping across the street, the air-horn, the gas chamber, the scar where that leg had once been, and Ginger saying, “Fucking dog has nine lives.” He threw open the gate and walked into the back yard. He closed the gate, turned toward the back door, and then he saw it, sitting there, smiling up at him.

“Well, don’t that beat all?”

Charlie got down on his knees. He took the dog’s head in his hands and kissed it on the forehead. “I can’t believe you are alive. Somebody up there likes you!” Charlie grabbed the stair rail and got to his feet. Felix’s one eye followed him up the stairs, as Charlie opened the door to the kitchen.

“I’ll talk to my wife,” he said. And closed the door behind.

“Over my dead body,” said Anna.

Charlie told Anna the story. About the truck. The sound of the air-horn. About the ponytail lady. About the sign where someone had written the letters. About Felix being euthanized. How he survived.

“Charlie, I don’t care. He’s too ugly.”

“Well, Anna. I’ve made up my mind. That dog has nowhere else to go?”

“I won’t have that ugly dog living here.”

“He’ll stay in the basement.”

“I said, NO, Charlie!”

“Anna, do you know how selfish you sound?”

“What’s come over you, Charlie? It’s just a dumb dog.”

“That dumb dog and I will both live in the basement then. You can live up here all by yourself.”

Charlie opened the basement door. He took the first step down the old wooden stairs. He reached for the handrail. Found nothing, and tumbled forward. Boom… boom… boom…  like a bag of laundry, all the way down the stairs.

* * *

Charlie woke up in the hospital with IV tubes in his arms and straps across his body so he couldn’t move. He tried to roll over and a sharp pain shot down his leg and up his right side. He remembered reaching for the handrail. He remembered Anna screaming. He remembered the medics. He remembered Felix in the backyard. He’d forgotten to take care of Felix.

Charlie tried to roll over. He groaned. An orderly with spiked hair and a blue hospital gown tightened the straps that held Charlie down. A pretty nurse with long fingers turned a knob on the IV. And Charlie went to sleep.

He floated in and out of consciousness. He heard Anna saying, “It’s just a dumb dog.” The truck roared down the road with its air-horn blasting. Ginger shouted, “Sneaky little fuck.” And the names Wanda, Igor, At-a-Boy, Chauncey, Diesel and Floyd floated over his muddled brain along side the sign that read: LOYALTY COMES FREE. He saw Felix smiling that twisted smile. He tried to move. He tried to say something, but no words came out. He tried in his delirium to call the shelter. But in the end he slept.

When he finally woke up, several days had passed. He didn’t have to ask. Anna had taken the ugly dog to the shelter. Charlie felt tears well up in his eyes and salt run down his throat. He was nothing but a useless old man. And now, a useless old man with a broken hip.

Anna came every day to sit with him, but mostly she talked to the nurses about what he’d need when he came home. Would he need a wheelchair? No, he’d be able to get around on crutches. Physical therapy?  Yes, that was important. They talked about him as though he weren’t there. Saying, “He this,” and “He that.” And mostly he didn’t care. He didn’t want to talk to Anna. He was an invalid now. The doctors said he’d walk again. It would take a while. Yes, he could go home tomorrow. And when he was able to walk again, he knew exactly what he was going to do. He was going to find an apartment. A place where they allowed animals. A basement, maybe in a house with a fenced yard where a dog could do his business.

He didn’t ask his wife about Felix because he was sure what she would say.  He was just a dumb animal. He had a dream about the dog being put in a gas chamber. He remembered Ginger, pulling the rubber band out of her hair saying, “We’re not running a hotel.” It wouldn’t do to have a fight. After forty-five years, Charlie knew the rules: Pick your time. Pick your battle.

He’d divvy up their retirement money; Anna could live alone. He’d buy a piece of land and adopt the worst hard-cases from the shelter before they had to be put down. Maybe? Who knows? Maybe?

As soon as he could walk without crutches, he’d call Ginger. He’d say he wanted to volunteer. He’d tell her he didn’t need money. He’d explain that he needed a place to go, a place where he wouldn’t feel so useless. He’d tell her about the land. He’d tell her he had a plan.

* * *

Anna took Charlie out of the hospital in a wheelchair.

“You can leave it in the parking lot,” said the orderly with the spiked hair.

The ride home wasn’t too bad at first, once he got the pressure off his broken hip. But then Charlie found some of Felix’s fur on the armrest. When he reached over to pick at it, a pain shot up his side so severe that he whimpered.

“Are you okay?” asked Anna.

Charlie tasted salt in the back his throat, and he realized that he was crying.

“Is it the pain?” asked Anna. “Should I stop the car?”

“No, Anna. It isn’t the pain.”

“It’s that dog? Isn’t it?”

Charlie stared out the window. He didn’t want to look at Anna.

“It’s going to be all right, Charlie.”

“How’s it going to be all right, Anna?”

“You’ll see, Charlie.”

“Damn it, Anna. Don’t you see?”

He balled his hand into a fist and hammered his useless leg. “What will you do with me, Anna, now that I’m a mess?”

He was being ridiculous. He knew that now that he was in the car. He’d never be able to walk that well again. He’d never be able to volunteer. He’d never move out from Anna. There was no plan. Charlie was going nowhere.

Anna helped Charlie onto his crutches in the driveway after opening the back door to the kitchen. Charlie hopped with the crutches, through the gate, up the stairs, and into the house. Once inside the kitchen, he hopped across the linoleum, past the Formica table, and out into the hallway. He heard the sound of the television. Anna must have left it on when she went out. Hop. Hop. Hop.  He inched closer. Hop. Hop. Charlie saw Ginger sitting on the couch, her hands clasped behind her head, the faces of the Pit Bull and the Doberman alongside her ears.

Ginger seeing Charlie, unclasped her hands, touched her finger to her lips and mimed, “Shhhhhh!”

Charlie blinked. There was Felix on the floor in front of the TV, sitting on a big fluffy pillow with his stiff hind leg stuck up in the air. His head was tilted sideways, like the RCA Victor dog. He was watching Lassie. There was a bow in his hair, and he wore a collar better suited for a Pekinese.

Max Detrano’s words have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Sun, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, DuLügstSoSchön, FICTION on the WEB, Foliate Oak and Mouse Tales. He is often seen scribbling with friends at coffee shops in stormy Seattle, WA. Learn more at: www.maxdetrano.com.

Read Max Detrano’s comments on Noah Ashcroft’s “Mr. Vargas.”

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
The voice in “Loyalty Comes Free” is sincere and forlorn, capturing our interest and tugging at our hearts in the most unexpected ways. We instinctively understand our protagonist’s struggles and desires, and want to fight for him, want to see him win. Charlie Stokes is a dear man we might have known in a grandparent, father or uncle, a man we would never want to become, but a man we want to love. This story has a way of reaching our very core and filling us with a tenderness that might come with cuddling a newborn.

Comments on this story by Brett Pribble, author of “Welcome Home, Kiddo”
In “Loyalty Comes Free,” Max Detrano taps into the desire inside us to search for something greater when life becomes fixed and comfortable. The wistful prose draws you into the melancholy world of Charlie Stokes, a character whose complexities unfold throughout the story. The resiliency of the three-legged dog, Felix, awakens a survival instinct in him. They have both been counted out, and in Felix’s twisted smile we can see the happiness Charlie receives from going against the grain. It’s impossible not to root for him and share his pain, yet through it all this story reminds us of our greatest strength: kindness.

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