Dan The Man was first published in Permafrost Magazine, Issue 40.1, in the Winter of 2018.
Leo knocked the prerequisite number of knocks and waited the prerequisite amount of time. Nobody home. Somewhere in a side yard a dog barked, high and shrill, some kind of small yap dog. Leo adjusted the package in his grip. It wasn’t heavy, just an awkward shape. Narrow in height, but wide and long. Leo scanned the barcode on the box with his handheld computer. The machine thought about it for a moment and beeped. It was okay to leave the package by the door. Leo leaned the package against the door and punched in a command. The computer beeped again and gave the all clear. Leo walked back up the sidewalk to his waiting truck. The yard on either side was green and perfectly manicured. The neighbors’ yards on either side were yellow, desiccated by the summer sun. A garden gnome coyly watched from beneath a cherry tree. The high sharp yap came again. Tiny paws beat a rhythmic back and forth behind a fence before fading off around the house.
Leo climbed into the big brown panel truck with its yellow logo and put the computer into its adaptor. The next address appeared on the screen. He put on his seatbelt, but left the sliding door open. It was hot out. Leo wore a button down short sleeve shirt and shorts the same color as the truck. The shorts only came down to just below mid-thigh. They were always riding up and a little too tight in the crotch, the seam just a little too snug. Leo cranked the ignition and the truck cranked to life. The yapping raised in volume in response. A small dog was standing next to the side of the house. It looked like a chihuahua. Someone had left a gate open. It was a nice neighborhood. Old growth trees, elms and maples, lined the street, shading well kept homes. Leo hated neighborhoods like this. He always felt like such neighborhoods looked down on him. Leo ground the transmission into submission and put the truck into gear. He checked his mirrors and pulled away from the curb. He was only one house down when he felt the bump.
It was a small bump on the left rear tire, almost like he hit a small rock or a bit of a pothole. Leo hit the brakes and the truck lurched to a halt. He cut the engine. The rumbling racket of the pistons fell silent.
The word was a sharp jab into the late morning peacefulness of the neighborhood. Leo slammed his hand down on the steering wheel and let himself partially collapse in his seat, his head resting on his arms.
“Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.”
The curses came out in a steady emotionless litany. He didn’t want to get out of the truck. Just a rock. He probably just hit a rock. Nothing to worry about. Leo took in a deep breath and let it out. He took in another, held it, and exhaled slowly. Okay. He was okay. Time to follow protocol. Leo punched a code into the computer. The message went out to dispatch. Leo didn’t wait for a response. He unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed out of the truck. Leo got down onto his hands and knees and stuck his head partway under the truck. Jammed between the back dual tires was a mass of brownish hair, dark liquid dribbling across the vulcanized rubber. Leo scrambled away and puked at the base of an elm tree. He sat on the curb, breathing heavy, snorting errant chunks of vomit out of his sinuses, and spitting to clear the taste of bile from his mouth. The computer in the truck beeped. Leo rose, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and climbed back into the truck.
Leo tapped out his reply.
<At last delivery address?>
The thought of touching the mass of fur stuck between the duals made Leo’s stomach churn. For a moment he thought he might puke again.
The seconds ticked by with no reply. Leo wondered if he needed to add more. The computer beeped.
Stupid fuckers. Hadn’t he just said he was unable? Leo angrily stabbed in his response.
<Unable. Stuck in duals.>
The seconds ticked by again.
<Do you need assistance?>
Leo wanted the slam the computer against the dash. Stupid sons of bitches. No shit Sherlock.
Leo leaned back in his seat. He let in and out a couple of breaths to calm down. The streets were quiet, most everybody was at work. Two middle aged women jogged by. One waved. Leo avoided making eye contact. A blue bird leaped from a branch and winged its way past the windshield. The seconds turned into minutes. The computer beeped.
<369 en route.>
Truck number 369. Dan the Man. Shit. Of all the drivers with nearby routes, Leo had hoped it wouldn’t be Dan, but of course it was the son of a bitch. Hell, Dan probably volunteered. To call him crusty would have been a compliment. Dan was foul mouthed, foul smelling, and foul tempered. He had been a driver for thirty years, and given his general attitude, had hated each of the years at an exponentially growing rate. Dan had grown up on a dairy farm back in the Midwest, exactly where seemed to change with each telling, but he delighted in sharing break room tales of his upbringing to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot. He loved to see people squirm. His only enjoyment in life seemed to be in the telling of ribald jokes that were not designed for laughter, but only to make the people around him uncomfortable. He’d been written up for a couple of offenses, but his impeccable driving record made all forgivable. When something unpleasant needed to be done, Dan was the one to do it. The man was impervious to outside stimuli.
The two middle aged ladies came jogging back the other way. They gave Leo a strange stare, but kept going. Leo watched them through his side mirror, willing them to round the corner before Dan and his antics arrived. He checked the clock on the computer. Eleven o’clock. Shit. He’d been stopped for close to half an hour. Leo was never going to catch up. He was going have to work late. A couple cars came down the street, paused, and moved past. One driver hung his arm out the window, middle finger outstretched. Leo ignored him. A second brown truck came down the road towards Leo’s. The driver tootled his horn and pulled to a stop next to the curb across the street. Dan jumped out and started across. Leo got out to meet him.
Dan’s brown shirt was unbuttoned one button lower than regulation. He was a thin man, all bones and angles, bald except for a halo of black hair that stretched from ear to ear. A permanent five o’clock shadow that no razor could swipe from existence graced his clenched jaw. His beady eyes were narrowed against the sunlight. His movements were stiff and awkward, a marionette with over tightened strings. Leo was a head taller than Dan, but he always felt intimidated by the man. The two met in the middle of the street. Dan snorted and spit a loogie at Leo’s feet, forcing him to take a step back.
“Dispatch said you have some kind of dog problem?”
The voice was gravelly. A mixture of gargled vodka and push pins.
Leo’s voice sounded weak in his ears. A touch higher than normal.
“Couldn’t take care of it yourself?”
The tone was filled with contempt which set Leo’s teeth on edge. It was the tone used by a friend of the family, maybe your father’s drinking buddy. Somebody, given the familiarity, you felt you should impress, but someone who was under no familial obligation to make a little worthless shit feel good about themselves.
Dan eyed Leo and spit again. The slight curl of a smirk at the edge of Dan’s mouth told Leo how much the other man was enjoying watching him squirm. Leo couldn’t get himself to look Dan in the eye. Nose and mouth seemed a safer bet, though the occasional glance at the ground was needed even for them. Dan stunk of sour body odor and cinnamon gum.
“Well, let's take a look princess.”
Dan moved towards Leo’s truck. Leo was forced to scramble after.
Dan moved around the side of the truck, crouched, and stuck his head under by the duals. Dan kept his head down for several seconds, mumbling to himself and poking at the out of sight mass with a single index finger.
“Well I’ve got bad news Leonardo.”
Leo’s muscles tightened.
“Little fuckers dead.”
Dan let out a rumbling laugh deep in his throat. Leo thought about picking up a rock and bashing Dan in the back of the head. He restrained himself. Dan growled and poked between the tires again.
“You really got the son of a bitch wedged in there.”
“Can we just get him out please.”
Dan pulled his head out, stood up, and stretched his back. His eyes roved across the scene, falling at the base of the elm tree.
“That your breakfast?”
The hands at Leo’s sides tightened into fists.
“I need to get back onto my route.”
“Calm down murderer. These things happen.”
Dan spit towards the elm tree and a hand wiped the sweat from his sunburnt brow.
“You got any garbage sacks in your truck?”
“Well don’t just stand there, go get me one.”
The barked command set Leo’s legs into motion like a well trained soldiers. He clambered into his truck and rooted around for a bit before coming back with a black trash bag. He handed the bag gingerly over to Dan who snatched it away. The older man eyed Leo up and down, taking him all in. Dan held the bag up, gesturing with it towards Leo.
“Last chance to take care of this yourself pussy willow.”
Leo tried again to meet the older man’s eye. He wanted to grab the bag. He wanted to shove Dan’s words back into his mouth. He wanted to make the bastard shut up. For a moment he thought about reaching for the bag, but the vision of touching the once yapping form wedged between the tires made the back of his throat burn. Leo stared down at the brown shoes on Dan’s feet.
“Just take care of it.”
Dan’s smirk grew bigger and then faded back to its normal level. He sat on the pavement next to the truck, wrapped one hand with the bag, reached his wiry arm up between the duals, and gave a sharp yank. The organic sound of crunching bone and compressing tissue forced vomit into Leo’s mouth. He desperately swallowed it back. Some kind of thick liquid dribbled down the inside of the tire to the asphalt. Dan pulled the mass down, turning the ends of the bag inside out, hiding the furry remains from view. He stood, holding the bag at arms length. Leo felt a hard lump at the bottom of his stomach. Dan gestured with the bag.
“Take care of it.”
“What do you want me to do with it?”
Dan rolled his eyes.
“Jesus. You hit it. You take care of it. Follow the fucking protocol.”
Leo took the bag, careful to hold it as far away from his body as possible. It felt heavier than it should. Leo walked towards the house where he had delivered the awkward package. He stopped and looked back. Dan was leaning against Leo’s truck, waiting impatiently. Leo turned back and marched at a near run across the perfectly manicured lawn. He went up to the front door. He knew nobody was home, but the protocol required him to knock. He wrapped on the door in quick succession. God, what if someone was home now? What if they had been on the crapper the first time? Leo’s whole body was shaking. He counted out the seconds in his head. Nothing. He knocked again. One...two...three. Nothing. He laid the bag down next to the package and retreated. The cheerful gnome beneath the cherry tree seemed to wink at him. Dan waited until Leo got back next to the truck.
“Did you leave a note?”
“That’s fucked up. That’s real fucked up. What kind of person just leaves a dead dog in a garbage bag by someone’s front door?”
Leo climbed into his truck, found a pad and paper, and scribbled out a quick note. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he just explained the situation and ended it with an apology. He was feeling nauseous again. Dan read over the note and handed it back.
“It’s no Hallmark, but it will have to do. Hurry up and tape it to the door.”
Leo obeyed the command, his movements stiff and hurried. He felt like he had drank too much coffee. The world was a vibrating blur. Careful to give the trash bag a wide berth, he taped the note to the door and rushed back. This time the gnome seemed to be scowling, judging eyes following his every movement. Dan waited next to the truck, whistling a tune that sounded like something only in his own head. He took a package of gum out of his pocket, unwrapped a piece, and popped it into this mouth. The tin foil fell to the ground. The sight of Dan handling the gum with the same hand he had used to yank free the dog made Leo’s stomach turn. Dan stuck out the pack, offering Leo a piece. Leo shook his head. Dan shrugged and put the gum back in his pocket.
“You deliver that package on the stoop?”
Leo nodded his head.”
“Wouldn’t it be fucked up if it was a dog bed or something?”
Dan laughed again deep in his throat. The red gum snapped between his teeth. Leo felt sick. He imagined his fist connecting with Dan’s mouth. Dan stretched his back again.
“Welp, times a wasting, better get back to work.”
Dan moved across the street and got back into his own truck. The truck’s engine belched to life. Dan put it in gear, tootled his horn, and drove away. Leo watched him go. It was hot out, but not so hot that his shirt and shorts should be soaked in sweat. A bird chirped. A car drove by. The computer in Leo’s truck beeped. Leo climbed back into his truck.
<212, 45 minutes behind schedule.>
Leo breathed in deep and let it out. He cranked the ignition. The engine started. He hit a button on the computer. The next stop was five blocks away. Leo put the truck into gear, checked all his mirrors three times, and headed down the street. Forty-five minutes behind schedule. It was going to be a long day. Leo’s mouth still tasted like puke. He wished he had taken the gum.