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Mike Murray


Dog with Yellow Basket by Denton Welch

For three nights now I have heard the gnawing at my front door. Each time, I choose to ignore this and fall back asleep. If a mouse or squirrel is seeking access, let it try. Come morning, when I open the door to inspect the wood, nothing is there. No scratches, no gnawing. When it happens a fourth night, at two a.m., I grab my 34” maple Rawlings and crack open the door. Nothing again. But as I turn back around, the old man is sitting at my computer playing backgammon, his left leg dangling over the arm of the desk chair, his bare foot bobbing while he charts his moves.


He turns. My God, it’s him. Looking just as he did when he died last year: ancient, a monk’s pate with a hula skirt of white hair, thick black frames port-holing genteel eyes.

“Where’s my bulldog.”

He clears his throat to repeat, minus the rasp, my bulldog.

My butt puckers. The dog is elsewhere. Given up. I retrieve a statue from a nearby shelf, a white, palm-sized replica with bovine spots parked on its haunches. Avis had it custom-made a while back. It makes a good bookend. I approach him warily. In real life—this isn’t real life, is it?—he was as frail and non-threatening as he looks now, especially down the stretch. Still, I do not know what I am dealing with here. When I hand him the replica, he cradles it to his grey spindle of a neck.




“You would know.”

“Where did he go?”

“Is that why you’ve returned?”

I regret the question the minute I release it. I don’t want to know what else he might want back. I got rid of his worldly possessions a week after he died when there was no one else to step in, cleared out his whole apartment. Grandfather clock. Mahogany bookcases. Marble this and marble that. German Lugers. His Jobims and Ellingtons. 87 business ties. 16 belts. 8 pairs of dress shoes and 13 sets of sneakers. 12 extension cords and 19 power strips. Towers of empty cottage cheese tubs. A bucket of twist ties. 18 flashlights, penlight to hazard beacon. Spent bulbs. Used dental floss picks. And on. And on.

“I miss Chauncey.”

The coins I kept. Pouches of them—old and rare? I haven’t checked. Was that wrong?

“Are you here or not?”

“Here as you.”

“Not quite. You left us over a year ago.”

“Have you proof? Where’s my obituary?”

“I didn’t publish one. You were so old you outlived anyone who knew you.”

“I can’t be dead if it’s not in the paper. When I was born, there was an announcement in the Rotogravure. Everyone knew.”

“It felt like a needless extravagance. I had to put the fire sale toward your cremation and final bills from assisted living.”

“My tomb then. Where did you sink me?”

“I scattered your ashes from a ledge overlooking the Allegheny. The wind carried you away.”

He smiles. Spiked brown teeth. Scabrous lips.

“Yet here I am, all in one piece. Sure you incinerated the right guy?”


I drive west of the city toward the last county. No vehicles join me on the four-lane. It is early morning. The sky is bronze and slate. My eyes burn from the fog of dawn. I cannot blink a tear. Miles pass without another soul, without billboard, without town. My exit is the final one before the road ends abruptly a quarter mile ahead in a wall of brush and weeds. Low hills beyond. Undeveloped land feeding a charcoal horizon. At the top of the ramp the road veers right. There, just off the highway, lie simple white dwellings on both sides of the lone street, separated by tracts of tall grass in a lush, rolling field. Dozens of people stand on opposite curbs—adults and several children. Not until I drive closer do I realize they are engaged in battle. Those to my left are hurling fist-sized rocks at those to my right, who are responding in kind. Their faces show blood rage. Rocks strike their targets with startling precision. I do not hear shouting, only the dull, sickening thud of stone on flesh. Bodies crumple and writhe.

The fight continues.

I am between worlds, and there’s no alternate route to the blocks beyond. For no logic I can summon, crawling feels more sensible than racing. I try to close my windows, but the glass is missing all around. The windshield has vanished.

Unprotected and hunched low, I cruise down the narrow street, eyes locked forward. My advance takes forever. Each second, I wait to be pelted, for
my skull to shatter, for my own blood to spill.

Long moments later, I’m past. Safe. I exhale and climb a small grade. I park in front of a windowless building, the only two-story structure around. Adjacent, on a squat double-terrace bisected with cement steps, sits a white shanty fronted with a roofless wooden porch. A girl of maybe twelve, with scraggly dark hair and a ratty white house dress, opens the door.

“I need Chauncey back, please.”

“I don’t know Chauncey.”

“I sold him – gave him – to someone from this address, I’m pretty sure. Your mother?”

She steps aside, clings to the knob. Inside, the ceiling is so low I must stoop an inch or two. Plaster crumbles onto my scalp. A twin bed takes up the far wall. I recognize the woman stretched out on it.

“I need Chauncey back.”

“He is now Fitch.”

“I need Fitch, please.”

“He’s not here.”

“Where is he?”

The girl enters my periphery. “We can’t tell you that.”

“Is he alive?”

The old woman coughs, holds up a finger. I wait. She emits several more, long and phlegmy, then sips an amber liquid from a mason jar just within reach on the nightstand. She presses her throat with bony fingers to guide it down, inhales. Her voice is a harsh whisper.

“You should know.”


When I get home, Avis is still at my desktop by the front window. He doesn’t face me.

“My radio?”

I reach into a long drawer beneath the bay window and lift out his old stereo, which, until this moment, I had forgotten I took. The speakers, small ones, are still connected to the back. I set it on the far corner of the desk, plug it in and press the power button. Static. Manual tuning changes nothing.

“My radio.”

I tap the stereo. “Right here.”

“My radio.”

I scan the room, force my memory.

“That crackly transistor thing with the silver handle you kept on your pillow? Yeah, I don’t remember seeing it when I went through your stuff at the facility.
And it wasn’t at your place when I sold things off.”

“That was my jazz, man.”

“I can call up that station you liked online. Listen while you play.”

When I reach over to commandeer the mouse, I smell the rot of him. I bolt upright, hold my breath. Then I see them, from behind, the crusty ridges topographing his crown. Like an aerial view of the Pyrenees. Deep green and brown peaks with scarlet rivers snaking through valleys. I draw in, despite the odour. I’m a hawk soaring overhead catching a moist, plasmic updraft. I glide past barren mountaintops, dive low toward scaly foothills. Cracked earth. Shadowy fissures. Mesmerized by a mystifying abyss, a severed planet. Down I go. Floating now, as if gravity has ceased. Scurried sounds from furtive pockets. Webs of slime and slurping muck.

Putrid air.

Acidic heat.

Dropping again. A freefall through…where? The full, festered history of him—every thought and experience, every grain of knowledge, every stored image, every aspiration, every happiness and regret—gone from this Earth when he breathed his last. I lose my eyes, and then my clothes, my skin. Accelerate. No wind, no sound, no bearing. My limbs detach. My thoughts corrode.




The face at the reception desk inside the facility is one I don’t recognize. It’s been a year, after all.

“If it was in his room when he passed, we collected it and offered it to kin.”

“He had no kin, no real friends. Just me.”

“And what are you?”

“The guy who lost his radio.”

“You can go on up and check with staff. Year’s a long time. Lots of dead and gone.”

When I exit the elevator on floor three, my senses have returned. I taste urine with every breath, smell soiled sheets and gowns, see the decay of human flesh in every zombied resident I skirt around. The halls are haunted by drop-jawed still-lifes slumping in random wheelchairs. Nurses recognize me with welcome smiles. For months they saw me every few days or so. I came when I could, when I felt like it. Maybe not enough. We were together, though, when Avis breathed his last.

“What little he had we gave you.”

“Was hoping maybe someone missed it—or borrowed it.”

Borrowed is met with a flash of indignation.

“It’s got sentimental value.”

“After all this time? You might try maintenance, but they discard property that isn’t claimed. It’s against policy to keep it for themselves or others. We’re strict about that.”

“Yeah, I was down there. Mind if I peek in his closet? That top shelf no one uses?”

“Room’s taken—both beds. But if an aide is changing sheets, go ahead in. Don’t enter otherwise.”

There are no aides in 309, just two grey corpses with hollow eyes trained on suspended television sets, the volumes blaring, competing. I suggested headphones a long while back to make their world civil and the programs intelligible, an idea that was vetoed. They’ll chew through the wires or
strangle themselves. And we’re not equipped for Bluetooth.

I inspect both closets top to bottom and look under the beds. I check the dressers. Then, I approach the nightstand next to Horace, the double amputee who now occupies Avis’s bed.

“Oh God!”

“How are you, Horace?”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Just want to make sure you’re good here.”

“What? Huh?”

Quickly, but thoroughly, I sift through each drawer, reaching under fresh gowns, pushing aside compression socks (whose?), puzzle books and bags of Werther’s Caramels.

“I need pain.”

“Almost done here.”

He grabs my wrist. “Oh God!”

“I’ll let them know. They’ll bring your pain.”

“Where are you?”

“Right here, buddy.”

“Jesus Christ.”


Avis swivels around expectantly.

“No radio. No dog. I’m sorry.”

“It’s lonely and quiet there.”

“Here, too, but that’s just the way.”

“Chauncey didn’t like me. I never told people that. It was a tolerance both ways. He belonged to her, my bride. When she left he had no use for me, nor I for him.”


“There we were.”

“Till death you did part.”

“I accepted contempt over nothingness.”

“I tried for a while, but he just didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to be with me.

He warmed right up to his new owner when they met. I hadn’t seen that part of him, not with you, not with me. I thought it was the right thing.”

“If only I had my jazz.”

“I can call that up for you.”

“I need my radio.”

“I don’t know what to say. I didn’t ask for this, you know? A friend stepping up. Things got bungled, things got lost. But okay, that’s no excuse.”

I hear scratching at the door. When I open it, no one is there. Chauncey is not there.

“I’ll keep looking.”

“It won’t matter.”

“Really, I’ll head out again now.”

“It’s too late.”

Avis brings his legs to his chest and tucks his head until it disappears. His feet curl into his ankles, his hands into his wrists. The limbs contract, leaving only a rounded torso so leaden that it collapses my chair. His remains tumble across the carpet and shatter my front door. Outside, they glow molten and rise through the morning air until they are the sun. Then, the sun is gone—and with it the sky.

I gather the splintered residue and stare into the void. There is here and nothing else.


About the writer:
Mike Murray is the winner of Colorado Review’s 2022 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction. His work has appeared in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters, The Rag, A River and Sound Review and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His one-acts have been produced for the stage. Explore or download Murray’s new PDF pamphlet Salton Sea now in release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

Image: Dog with Yellow Basket by Denton Welch (1915-1948). Oil on hardboard. 19 x 22 inches. Circa 1938. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization registered in California.

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