Nonfiction by Tess Fahlgren
On the farm, my family’s dogs had total freedom. They came home carrying the smells of the day: irrigation ditch, deer carcass, fresh-cut alfalfa. That’s the world our pointy brown Frankie came from, picked up a wild Montana dog at eight months old, tough and wary, her paws a bouquet of smells. If I lean into her neck too long, I know she’ll growl. Two weeks ago, she gleefully killed a squirrel. She doesn’t need me; she only allows me to love her. She used to roam below snow-capped mountains, but now we retrace the same path around our city neighborhood of unnatural grass and sidewalk.
Early Halloween morning, I biked to my therapist’s office under a clear blue sky obscured by tall downtown buildings, passing over a carpet of fiery leaves on the ground. It was the first day of a specific trauma therapy we’d been gearing up to for months. I cried a little, which felt productive, and she gave me homework. I biked home more tired than I’d been before.
Frankie immediately needed a walk. I knew it should be extra-long because Matt and I had plans to be out all night at a puppet show. I decided we would explore the park by our house, we’d crisscross and go all the way around. We’d give her the full tour of smells. She trotted ahead of me, her sharp ears and tail bouncing a little, but just as we arrived, a police car cut us off and drove clear over the sidewalk, onto the grass and down to the center of the park where it joined another police car. A man was there, talking to a cop, and on the ground with his head under a park bench, a big man in a pale coat was laying on the grass.
I walked up the sidewalk, stealing glances. A fire truck came with its lights on and firemen bounced out, carrying bags. No ambulance. I walked back down the sidewalk and the firemen climbed back into the truck and drove off. I took, of all things, a picture. For whom? For me?
An hour later I rode past again, biking to campus, and as I passed the scene I saw five police cars, crime scene tape, suits standing and talking in a group, and the big guy in the pale jacket still there, slumped into the ground, unmoved. I Google, no news. Wouldn’t it be funny if it were a scarecrow? Wouldn’t it be funny if it were a prank? Wouldn’t it be funny if that wasn’t absolutely one-hundred-percent a dead guy in the park by our house?
A couple hours later I biked past on my way back home and everything was back to normal. A woman sat in a sunbeam, taking a selfie with the fall colors all bright-lit orange behind her.
Walking into the puppet show that night, Matt and I took a tiny dose of mushrooms. It was just enough so that I cried when they got to the part when you’re supposed to shout the name of someone you love who has died. I thought of my friend who drove himself off a mountain. The pressure of wanting to expanded inside me like a balloon. (Like my dad once said in disbelief, as he smeared a calloused thumb across my wet cheek, “Oh, these are real tears.”) Someone yelled, “The guy in the park!” and I wanted to wade through the crowd and hug them.
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs after trauma when your resources are outstripped by the circumstances. There’s the amorphous trauma of having a depressive mom, of being a lonely nerd. Sometimes there’s what others expect to be traumatic, like being at the lake when that boy drowned, or catching your neighbor watch you sleep, or seeing a body in a park, and there’s actual trauma, like being hit by someone who swears they love you, and you look around and there’s no one to tell, no help to be found.
She also seems to think I have a drinking problem. True, there is a small, perfectly round scab on my foot from getting drunk and stomping barefoot on a dying bonfire, and true I wrestled a guy in our backyard last weekend and now my right shoulder is mottled red and the tattoo on my leg is bisected by a long scratch that’s spreading into a bruise, and true I’m happiest when I’m drunk and it runs in my family, but maybe drinking is a resource?
Halloween has passed, and here we are again on an early morning walk. A guy who used to punch me in the face once shuffled along in fallen leaves, inhaled the dry spiced air and smiled so big and honest I felt like I saw the child he never got to be. Now I’m with Frankie, swimming through falling leaves in the aftermath of a dream that really should have been a nightmare about falling back in love with him, or someone like him. We go to the park and cross the grass to that bench and sure enough, greasy dark smears on the concrete. I stare. Frankie, bad girl, strains hard against her harness to get her nose to the stain.
Evidence. The dead man was once a dying man.
Would you call this destructive behavior? Am I supposed to stop? It seems as though I live in a padded cell, with my pointy brown dog and my tall red-bearded person providing the safety in which to poke at my wounds. At the puppet show that night I turned to Matt and said, “Neither of us will die in a park.” Up until that point he’d been trying to make light of it, suggesting I should have asked the police to give me a tour of the crime scene. I didn’t laugh. It’s not that being witness harmed me, it’s just too sad to think about being alone and cold with your head on the concrete in a public park, wearing a pale jacket.
We carry on with our walk, connecting the dots of the scattered benches so I can check their foundations – clean. Maybe I saw it wrong. Back at the first, there the dark stain is again.
Back home, I kneel before my dog where she is regal on her throne of a couch and press my face into hers. Inhale. She smells dry and warm, like hay dust. Like the comfort of a city sidewalk. I hold her paw, its thick black pad scratchy on my fingers. I want to smell it. She pulls back, annoyed. Backlit, the sun streams over her golden head.