Pete-O was fairly disgusting even before he lost his legs. He didn’t actually lose them. They were cut off by a doctor when his diabetes got so bad it was going to kill him. Pete-O was really fat and smelled like turnip greens. He spent the whole weekend bitching about having to get his legs cut off before he went to the hospital on Monday. We went with him because Mama said that’s what family was supposed to do. I thought she meant that we were going to have to watch him getting his legs sawed off like they do in TV shows when people stand way up above somebody in surgery in a glass room so they can look down at what’s happening. The thought of seeing a man’s legs getting sawed off made me pretty excited, so I told all my friends that I was going to watch. When it turned out that we didn’t get to see anything but we just had to sit in plastic chairs in a waiting room, I was pissed. For about an hour I sat there fuming at Mama, even though she didn’t really lie to me. She never told me we’d see his legs get cut off. I was just hoping.
Losing his legs left Pete-O angry all the time, even angrier than he’d been before, and he was usually in a bad mood even when he had both legs. We went over to his house a lot because he couldn’t do much for himself, and he was so mad at everybody and everything he didn’t want to try. “You just got to stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Mama would say, and then their sister Norva would say the same thing, “Yeah, you got to stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Whatever Mama would say Norva would repeat it like that until I wondered if Pete-O was going to just start crawling on the floor to get away from the two them. That’s what I would do if I had sisters like that to listen to everyday. I could run outside in the yard when people started getting on my nerves, but Pete-O just had to sit there in his wheelchair, or worse, lie there in his bed and listen to his sisters drive him crazy. He was too fat to move himself. He had to get help doing every little thing, and that was what Mama and Aunt Norva were there for, them and some nurses who came by everyday to help with stuff. I don’t really know what they did because I always went outside as soon as they came around. It was one day when they were there that I found the puppy. He was solid brown all over and fat, and his feet were muddy like he’d been walking a long way before he showed up hiding under a yellow bell bush in Pete-O’s neighbor’s yard. I knew all the dogs around Pete-O’s house, and this one didn’t belong to anybody. I figured somebody dumped him on the road because he was scared and shaking when I crawled under that bush to get a better look. I talked real soft to him and he let me pet him until I could get my hand underneath his belly to pull him out. At first I thought I’d take him home with me, but Mama was all the time threatening to shoot the three we had because they were always getting into her flowers and pulling sheets off the line and stuff. This puppy was warm, he liked having his ears scratched, he smelled like bologna, and he needed a home, so I decided that Pete-O should have him.
At first Mama frowned when I held the puppy up to her and told her he was a present for Uncle Pete-O. “He’s probably full of worms,” she said.
“Uh-huh, probably got worms,” said Norva, pointing a finger at the dog from behind Mama.
“He ain’t got worms. Lookit how fat he is,” I said. Mama didn’t look like she was going to change her mind. I had to think fast. “We got wormer at home. I’ll give him some and he’ll be fine.”
“Who’s going to let him outside to pee? That dog’ll make a mess of Pete-O’s carpets,” said Mama.
“A real mess of the carpet,” said Norva.
“Bring it here,” said Pete-O from inside his bedroom. That shut Mama and Norva up, so I ran the three steps into his room, holding the puppy.
“Put him down here a minute. Let me see him,” said Pete-O. He pushed himself a little straighter against his pillows and leaned forward to take a look. The little dog took a few steps towards him, leaving dirty paw prints on the clean sheets Mama had put down the day before. Pete-O put a meaty hand on the dog’s back and rubbed his fur. He began nodding. “Go get that wormer and get him cleaned up.”
That settled it and the dog was his. Pete-O named him Daryl after his favorite character on The Walking Dead, and Daryl became his favorite companion. Pete-O told everybody that Daryl was his guide dog, and later, when Pete-O got one of those special vans for handicapped people and started driving himself around town, Daryl was with him everywhere he went. I think most people knew that Daryl wasn’t really a guide dog, but nobody said anything. I found out later that Pete-O had told a few people who didn’t know him that he had lost his legs in the Gulf War, and besides that, he always wore a “God Bless America” cap with a flag pin stuck in the side. Nobody’s going to tell a man who’d had his legs blown off in Afghanistan that he can’t bring his dog with him into the Waffle House or the grocery store. I got him a “Proud to be an American” bumper sticker for the back of his wheelchair just to help shut people up.
Pete-O was still pretty disgusting. He liked to spit out the window of his van when he was driving, and sometimes he had crumbs and crap in his beard because he was always eating Little Debbie cupcakes or those orange waffle cookies that smell like cardboard. I spent a lot of time looking out the window of the van when he was talking to me just so I wouldn’t have to see his face up close, but he was the only uncle I had who would take me anywhere I wanted to go. So, I hung out with him at least once a week. Besides, Daryl was always with us and I loved being with Darryl. He ate the same things Pete-O did, and sometimes he had orange crap hanging from his mouth too, but somehow it didn’t seem so disgusting on a dog.
When Pete-O bought a pistol he let me go with him on Thursdays after school to the shooting range. Mama and Norva were just glad he had taken an interest in something and was getting out more. Mama even decided that Daryl hadn’t been such a bad idea. Pete-O and I would leave Daryl in the van with the windows rolled down a little so he wouldn’t get too hot. He’d stick his head out and bark like a fool at the shooting until we were done. I got pretty good at hitting the target, better than Pete-O. I figured he was having some eye problems because his diabetes was getting worse, but he loved to go shooting about as much as anything. Pete-O would sit up as tall as he could in his wheelchair, take aim with his left eye squinted shut and say, “Here’s yours, you son-of-a-bitch,” right before he squeezed off a few rounds. One day I asked him who he was talking about, and he said, Son, there’s a new one every week,” and then he started laughing. I laughed with him because I thought I was supposed to, but I didn’t know what he thought was funny.
On the Thursday that everything happened we stopped at Walmart like we did every week after we went to the shooting range so we could both get a Coke slush. They weren’t really made of Coca-cola, but that was just what Uncle Pete-O called it, and it was our favorite treat after an hour or two of target practice. I liked the green and purple flavors mixed and Pete-O liked the orange. His lips turned orange when he drank it and he dribbled some in his beard, so I made sure I kept my eyes on Daryl. Daryl didn’t like Coke slushes, so we bought him a wiener from the hot box on the counter. Pete-O put it on the table so it could cool down enough for Daryl to eat it. He really cared about Daryl like that. All Daryl could do was stare at that wiener like it was the last thing he was ever going to eat. His whole face was quivering and he kept licking the slobber from his lips, waiting for Pete-O to hand it to him. “Look at him,” said Pete-O, and he was smiling. “Nothing he likes better than a hotdog,” he said, reaching down and stroking Daryl’s back as the dog wolfed down the meat. Pete-O picked up his drink, shook the contents, and sucked hard on the straw until there was nothing but air. We were nearly through when the man came up to us. His hands were on his hips, and for some reason it made me think of Mama, the way he was standing there with his lips all curled in like he was going tell me to go pick up the dirty clothes on my floor or clean up the kitchen counter where I’d left a mess from making a sandwich. It was a stupid thought, but it was the first thing that crossed my mind.
“Sir, I’m afraid the dog will have to go outside,” said the man. He wasn’t wearing one of those vests like the other people at Walmart wear, the one with the smiley faces on it. He was wearing a white shirt with a tie, and he had a company nametag that said Randall. His hair was combed over his head real neat like he had just got his hair cut. He was a manager, and from the look of his clean nametag, he must have just been promoted because I’d never seen him on any of the Thursdays Pete-O and I had been in the snack bar after target practice.
“Maybe you’re not paying attention,” said Pete-O. He pushed his wheelchair from our handicapped accessible table a little and let Randall see his legs, or I guess where his legs used to be.
“Yessir, I can see your situation, but dogs are not allowed in the store. He’ll have to go.”
“My what?” asked Pete-O, and he chuckled enough that his plaid shirt shook over his belly just a little, but it was an irritated sound, not the kind of chuckle you make when something is funny. “Did you say ‘my situation’?”
“I sympathize with your handicap, sir. My own brother was in Iraq and came back without his left hand, but be that as it may, the dog has to go.”
“Well, be that as it may,” mocked Pete-O, “my dog happens to be a guide dog, and your policy says that he can be here.”
“That policy is for trained service dogs, and this dog does not have proper identification to be a service dog,” said Randall, dropping his hands from his hips.
“Proper identification?” This time Pete-O did let out a laugh, and I did, too. Anybody could see that expecting a dog to have an I.D. card like a driver’s license was plain funny. “You hear that? This guy thinks Daryl oughta have identification, like he’s some kind of police officer or something.” Daryl had been sitting back on his haunches throughout this entire conversation, but the conversation was getting loud and he must have figured something wasn’t right because he stood up on all fours and got real still.
“Service dogs have vests and their owners have papers,” said Randall, his voice growing terser.
“Well guess what?” said Pete-O, his voice rising. “I don’t have papers. All I got is this,” and he pointed to his head. I wasn’t sure if he meant that he had a brain or if he was pointing to the God Bless America and the tiny flag pin on the front of his cap. “And this is all I need. We still live in a free country, or at least we’re supposed to. But all people like you can do is to take our rights away one by one that men fought and died for, and you think we’ll just sit back and take it.”
“Sir, this is Walmart and the dog has to go outside,” said Randall. Two women had entered the snack area and were loitering near the next table, listening.
“It’s a sorry state when a crippled vet and his dog can’t even sit in a Walmart and have a cold drink,” said Pete-O.
“You ain’t no vet.” I hadn’t meant to say it. The words just came out, and from the way Pete-O glared at me I was sure he was never going to take me shooting again. I was as ashamed as I’d ever been in my life. I knew Pete-O was lying, but saying what I did like that in front of everybody made me want to throw up my Coke slush.
Pete-O was still glaring at me when he answered the manager. “It don’t matter one bit if I’m a vet or not! My dog is as much a service dog as any blind person’s with one of those fancy vests. He can bring me a magazine and he even knows how to turn on the faucet in the bathtub.”
I was pretty sure he was lying about the turning on the faucet part, but one time I had seen Daryl pick up a Guns and Ammo magazine off the floor and carry it to Pete-O. I found my chance to try and make Pete-O less mad at me about the vet thing. “That’s right,” I said, “and he can even dial the telephone.” Pete-O looked a little surprised, but he didn’t try to say it wasn’t true. The part about the phone was a lie, a big lie, but I thought that guy Randall deserved it, and I couldn’t wait to tell Mama this story. She’d think it was funny when I told her what I said about Daryl and the telephone. Everybody would. I was smiling a little to myself when I thought about telling the story to everybody as soon as we got home later that night.
“If you don’t leave with the dog, I’m going to have to call the police,” said Randall.
“Is that a fact?”
“Yessir, that’s a fact,” said Randall.
Pete-O’s lips pressed together and he reached into his pocket. His hand fumbled around for a second, and when he pulled it out again he was holding his pistol. He pointed it straight up at Randall. All the air in my mouth got sucked down my throat and I couldn’t let go of my Coke slush. “You want to call the police,” said Pete-O, “you go ahead. It’s the last thing you’ll ever do.
“Now, now, just a minute. . .” Randall took a step backwards, his hands out in front of him as if he thought was going to shield himself from a bullet.
Pete-O cocked his pistol. “Here’s yours, you son-of-a-bitch,” and then he fired. Blood spread over Randall’s stomach like a big flower had exploded under his shirt. There was screaming, but it sounded like it was coming from far away. My whole body felt numb, and I couldn’t move as I watched Pete-O put his wheelchair in reverse and begin backing away from the table. He was saying something to me, calling my name, but I didn’t really hear him. I could see his mouth opening in front of me over and over, but I just sat there while Randall fell to the floor where Daryl had been standing just a minute before. Or at least it seemed like a minute. Pete-O turned his wheelchair around and started driving away from me with Daryl trotting along behind him. I watched the two of them disappear down the aisle that ran next to the Halloween costumes and candy. I don’t know how long I sat there. I just know that the screaming didn’t stop the whole time I was at that little table, squeezing my cup until it busted open in my hand.
When I caught up to them in the doorway it was all over. Pete-O was in handcuffs, still sitting in his wheelchair. Police were all around him, and there was a wall of people trying to get a look but they were held back by another wall of some cops and some employees with smiley faces on their vests. I heard from somebody later that Pete-O had handed his gun over to the police without a word. He must have spotted me because he called my name and everybody started looking over at me, especially the cops. “Take Daryl,” Pete-O called, and then the police started pushing his wheelchair toward the big entrance doors.
Somebody had put a leash on Daryl, and one of the police officers was holding it out to me to come and take it. Daryl had that same scared look he’d had the day I found him under the bush. I put my hand on his head and he was trembling. Pete turned his head around right as they were pushing him out the big sliding doors. He was smiling the same smile he had when he was at the shooting range, like he was in charge of everything and somebody was going to get his.
Cathy Adams spent the first twenty years of her life in Alabama, about twenty more in Georgia and North Carolina, and now she lives and writes in Xinzheng, China. Her short stories have won numerous awards such as the Mona Schreiber Award for Humorous Fiction and a National Public Radio Director’s award. She has short stories scheduled for publication this year in A River and Sound Review, Bete Noire, Ontologica, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Her first novel, This is What It Smells Like, was recently published by New Libri Press, Washington. She blogs at http://adamsjackson.tumblr.com/.