Putting Harrison’s iguana in the freezer was a big mistake. Or maybe finding it in a Tupperware container is what set off my wife. If I’d preserved Spike in Saran Wrap maybe Molly would have come to her frightening discovery in an unfolding series of logical deductions. Something like this: “No, that’s not a piece of fish; Maybe—no—not smoked sausage either; I wonder if it’s that pork tenderloin I’ve buried in here somewhere. Why, no. It’s Harrison’s iguana. Of course. What was I thinking?” But instead, Molly had cracked open the frozen plastic lid and taken in its contents all at once. Spike had died with his eyes open.
Spike belonged to our son. Harrison was eight. The only thing worse than not buying him a pet, I’d thought, was getting him a dog that would later bloody a bumper. A cat was out of the question. Molly’s allergic.
Besides she already had Skippy, the Hollywood Chihuahua that came with our marriage. Skippy, she said, was far too high-strung to accept another dog in the house. She was right. The week after Harrison was born, Skippy sulked and refused to eat. He was the alpha male of the house, an attitude indulged by my wife.
Harrison is a gentle, quiet boy. He complains rarely, never demands. But he deserved a pet. I bought a fish tank and your basic start up variety of die-on-contact guppies.
The blue light of the aquarium reflected off his face as he regarded the most recent armada of floaters. “Dad, if it don’t eat or crap,” Harrison said, “how can it be a pet?”
We converted the aquarium and purchased Spike.
It was coincidental that most of Skippy’s photo shoots that summer were on Saturdays. My son and I sat on the sofa, Harrison nestled under my arm, and watched Braves baseball while Spike curled up in his lap. We were a family. We didn’t exclude Molly, but the bond among the four of us just wasn’t there.
“How’d it go?” I said to my wife. Andruw Jones tripled to put us ahead. Harrison and Spike and I exchanged high-fives.
“Great,” Molly said. She wore that yellow skirt I like, and her eyes were bright green in the lamplight. Molly is still a knockout. Skippy was outfitted in a red cowboy hat with matching handkerchief around his neck and six-guns at his side. “There was an agent there, Joe? A real agent? From Atlanta?” She smiled down at Skippy, whose giant bug eyes always made me nervous. I’d heard stories about Chihuahuas as fractious as this one getting so wound up their eyeballs popped out. “We have an audition in Charlotte next week, don’t we?” she said to the dog.
“For what?” I said, my eyes returning to the game.
“A hotdog commercial, one that’s going national.”
“Going national” was an expression Molly often used when she responded to newspaper reporters from Marion or Dillon or Latta, papers with a circulation you could count on two hands.
“Skippy will look cute in a hotdog bun,” Harrison said, trying to join the conversation.
“Nobody’s putting my baby in a hotdog bun,” she said, nodding to reassure Skippy, who for the first time seemed to comprehend the final destination of dogs in buns. “We’re going national,” she said, exchanging smiles with the rat-faced K-9.
Skippy’s career began ten years ago, soon after the Christmas pictures I’d taken. Molly gave me a camera as a gift, and I’d snapped a series of photos of Skippy the day she’d bought him. I was just learning about lenses, lighting and shutter speeds. I placed the docile, shivering pup in different settings for effect. “Oh, that’s precious!” Molly said when she saw the shot of tiny Skippy in the teacup. That’s the photo that catapulted him into local fame, the one that later earned him a spot as the dancing dog in Darlington’s Southern 500 parade. It was my least favorite of the series, which included a shot of Skippy inching toward a giant mousetrap, one of him swimming in the toilet (I included my hand on the lever in the shot) and one of him standing in a saucer of water sniffing an open electrical socket. My favorite, the one that resulted in Molly’s temporarily postponing our engagement, was the one of Skippy in the blender. But it was Skippy in the teacup that made the papers.
And for most of the next decade, Skippy was a holiday staple, appearing in the local newspaper wearing a black and white pilgrim’s cap and shouldering a musket at Thanksgiving, sporting a white beard and red cap at Christmas, decked out in a set of bat’s wings for Halloween and holding miniature roses and wearing a tux for Valentine’s Day. We have an 8 X 10 glossy of Skippy with thick black sideburns and a guitar slung from his neck to celebrate January 8th, Elvis’ birthday. Molly even gave Channel 11 in Florence permission to superimpose Skippy’s face over President Clinton’s on President’s Day. In this part of South Carolina, that picture was so famous it ended up on Myrtle Beach T-shirts.
The two red-faced Memphis cops alternated in the interrogation of Pete Hump. One would ask a question or two, look away to keep from busting out, then flee the room to compose himself. Whereupon the second cop would take over. Pete didn’t find this Moobie-Doobie tag team act so amusing. After six hours of bad sleep in the city jail, he was still badly hung over. His head pulsed and his bowels churned.
The two cops hovered before him. “What’s so damned funny?” he asked.
“How’d you get that face?” Officer Moobie said. “Foul play written all over it.”
“Looks like it caught on fire and somebody put it out with a hammer,” chimed Officer Doobie, his faux professional face a pre-cardiac red.
“One more time,” his partner sighed, turning his back. “Let’s go through this one more time.” The cop’s shoulders shimmy in stymied laughter.
“No,” Pete said.
“You don’t get a laxative until you talk.”
“I’m not under arrest,” Pete said. “Can I go now?”
“I don’t know if you can go or not, pal.” The cop stepped in. “You’re the one asked for the laxative. Lucky you didn’t choke on that key.”
“Ha, ha,” Pete said. “You clowns just crack me up.”
Doobie gave Pete a gawking look then tilted his head to one side, like a bantam rooster studying abstract art. “What kinda haircut is that?” he said. “A Less-hawk? You know, the opposite of a MO-hawk?” The turnip-faced cop raised his hand as if halting traffic, drew his lips tight in an abortive effort to squelch his laughter, then blew a convulsive mist of spit. Howling, he lurched from the room. Moobie loped behind, leaving Pete alone.
Ten hours earlier when the Memphis police cruiser pulled up beside his truck, Pete Hump’s Plumbing #1, Pete’s first thoughts had been of Russ Watts. Russ would take one look at Pete, his hands duct taped to the steering wheel—his head taped in the center where the airbag awaited—and ask the question: Where’s Chloe?
When Pete answered with the truth, I don’t know where she is, Russ would back the rear bumper of Pete Hump’s Plumbing #2 into the front bumper of #1 with enough force to release the airbag and take off most of Pete’s head. So when footsteps neared his window, Pete felt his bowels go all loose. Now he wished he had shit his pants. At least he’d have his truck key.
Doobie, the cop who’d discovered Pete, had apparently been taught to remove duct tape in the it-won’t-hurt-if-I-snatch-it-off Band-Aid method. The back of his hands, one side of his face, and his left ear felt like someone had taken a belt sander to them. His face and ear were the over-ripe strawberry color of his hands, and the area just above his ear—a space the size of his palm—still throbbed with a bleeding sensation. But there was no blood in the divot where his hair used to be. While Pete’s fingers gingerly explored the hairless trough above his ear, the door of the interrogation room opened yet again.
“What do you call that?” a new voice said. Pete looked up.
“Who are you?” Pete said.
The new cop wore a tan uniform.
“That,” the cop said, lifting his hand to the side of his own head. “That’s one funky haircut you got there, dude.”
“Says who?” Pete said.
“Darlington, South Carolina. Sheriff’s Department.”
Doobie entered. He tilted his palm spilling what looked like two pieces of Chicklets chewing gum onto the table and left the room. Pete reached but the deputy’s hand covered the laxative tablets.
“Not until we’re done,” he said.
Pete repeated what he’d told the Memphis cops about him and Chloe, about their running off together, first to Dollywood then to Graceland, about their having drinks at the Blue Suede Shoes Bar in Memphis last night, about Chloe’s decision to choose freedom over love and his Jim Beam-inspired decision to swallow his truck key to keep her from leaving him. And about Chloe’s husband, Russ, trailing them. He didn’t mention Chloe’s cracking his skull with the bourbon bottle. He said he’d passed out. And it was unnecessary to explain about Chloe’s duct taping his hands and head to the steering wheel. Moobie and Doobie had squirmed like over-sexed junior high cheerleaders at that part of Pete’s misfortune.
“Well let me tell you what I got,” the sheriff’s deputy said, raising fingers in enumeration. “I got a jealous husband who has disappeared. I got a cheating wife who has disappeared. I got the husband’s ex-best friend with a Less-hawk and a truck key in his bowels.”
Pete had no reply.
“And that’s not all,” the cop continued, losing count. “In Charleston, I’ve got a love nest with a broken-down door. And in Darlington I got a Smith & Wesson .357 and a big old knife with the wife’s bodily fluids on it. Plus I got some of the wife’s clothes in a shallow hole under a billboard off I-95. And guess what that billboard says?”
Pete scooped up the two tablets and began chewing.
“It says, ‘Pete Hump’s Heat Pumps.’ That’s what it says. Where are Mr. and Mrs. Watts, Pete?”
“I wish I knew,” he said, swallowing hard. “I wish I knew.”
A few hours later, Pete walked out of the Memphis police station holding his truck key and feeling like a featherweight. He hadn’t been charged, since neither swallowing your truck key nor having your head and hands duct taped to a steering wheel by your former lover is a crime in Tennessee.
In the parking lot near Pete’s truck the Darlington deputy rested against his unmarked cruiser, dredging his nails with a pocketknife. “Pete,” he said, not looking up. “You could have saved yourself a whole lot of trouble.” Pete kept walking. “You wanna hear something funny?” The cop stepped into Pete’s path, stopping him cold.
“Not particularly,” Pete said. “Comedy don’t look like your line of work.”
“Them airbags? They don’t open unless the engine’s running. Ain’t that a hoot?”
Pete felt a hot churning in his gut. He stepped around the cop and kept walking. “When you get back to Darlington County,” the cop shouted, “I’m gonna be on you like white on rice.”
“That ain’t funny,” Pete said. “I heard that one before.” Then he slammed his truck door and jammed the key into the ignition.