One Night On The Max was first published in Crack The Spine, Issue 249, in the Winter of 2019.
We were on the Orange Line headed back down toward Milwaukie, Jake and me. It was late, damn soccer game didn’t start until eight. They got on one stop after us. You could tell what they were the moment they got on. He was a gaunt fella, cheap tattoos up and down his arms, kind of stooped over. She was a bigger gal, but more puffy than fat, you know, the way they get. Both had the sunk in faces. He had a backpack. She had a one of those giant hard plastic mugs, the type you buy down at the 7-11. They had a dog on a leash, just a puppy, it wasn’t a bad looking dog.
People started eyeing them the moment they got on. You know, sideways glances with the occasional blank stare broken as soon as the two of them looked over. Hell, I can’t get on no high horse, I was doing it myself and I’m pretty sure Jake was doing the same. It's a pretty normal human reaction. Old savannah instincts kicking in, at least at first, at least until it shifts into morbid curiosity and disgust. There was one girl down on the other end. Pretty girl, at least the prettiest girl on the train, which isn’t saying much on the Orange Line at 11:30 in the evening, but pretty enough I guess. She just kept staring, biting her lip and staring. None of it made me feel very comfortable, you know, having them right across from me, but what was I supposed to do? Just get up and move? You never know what’s going to antagonize such people.
The puppy started barking a little when they first got on. The puffy woman wasn’t having any of that shit.
Her voice was a gravelly stab through the air. The voice my mother used to have late in the day when she just couldn’t take our shit anymore. The guy reached down and gave the puppy a pat. He mumbled something to it that I couldn’t hear. He moved slow and his hands were shaking. It kind of looked like not all the signals were getting through. I don’t know about Jake, but I mostly concentrated on the puppy. I guess I could’ve stared at the wall or something, or the window behind them, but it's pretty hard to concentrate on nothing when you got a puppy leaping around a right there in front of you. Like I said, it didn’t look like there was anything wrong with it. They had it in a harness with an okay looking leash, and a small bell hanging around its neck that tinkled as it moved around. It acted like every other puppy I’ve ever seen. Sniffing everything and wagging its damn tail.
I don’t know if the guy was smiling, I tried to avoid looking at his face, but he at least seemed to be enjoying having the puppy there. As soon as they sat down he got out a piece of rawhide and laid it down next to the puppy. He brushed the rawhide along its face a bit, you know, to see if it wanted to play, which it did a bit, tugging at the rawhide, but not for long. Puppies have short attention spans. Then he reached in his bag again and pulled out this rubber pig, probably about a third the size of the pup. He put it on the floor and gave it a squeeze, unleashing a pretty realistic pig grunt. The puppy though didn’t seem interested in that either. The guy didn’t seem too perturbed about it. He just reached forward with his shaky hands and scratched the puppy behind the ear. It seemed to like that, it really leaned into him. When the man reached down I could see the track marks on his arm. That kind of puzzled me for a bit. I was thinking one of the other ones, but hell, I guess people can enjoy all sorts of flavors. You don’t have to pick one.
The puffy woman kept smacking her lips. Opening and closing her mouth. I did my best not to look at her either, but I could see the motions, and its just natural to look now and again. It’s just the way things are. She had these real piggy eyes, with the skin sagging around them. It made her look really tired. She opened up her giant mug. It was full of ice. She pulled some out and popped it into her mouth. The guy took some of the ice and let the puppy lick it in his hand. The woman licked her lips and smacked her mouth. The guy leaned over toward her. His voice sounded just like a little boy in church. You know, just above a whisper, with just a hint of fear that maybe even then he was talking too loud.
Her voice wasn’t quiet. Her voice raised some heads towards their direction.
“My damn mouth is dry.”
All the attention seemed to make the guy nervous. At least that’s what it looked like to me. His whole body shook for a moment. The kind of pretty gal was really staring then. God you should’ve seen her. Tight curls framing her pale face. I kept my eyes on the dog, you know, just using my peripheries. Jake kept shifting in his seat.
The guy reached into his backpack and pulled out a liter bottle of Mountain Dew. He cracked the top gentle as you please and poured the whole thing into her mug. I kind of saw his face when he did it. There was a little forced smile on his lips and his eyes reminded me of my mother when I was really sick and she brought me cough syrup. He struggled to put the top back on the mug, what with his hands shaking the way they were, but he kept at it and managed it in the end. The woman watched him while he worked. When he was done she took a sip, let out a tired sigh, and leaned up against him. The train kept moving, and things got kind of quiet for a bit. The kind of pretty girl was still staring, so I stared at her until she felt uncomfortable and looked away.
We were about four or so stations in by this point, just starting to cross the bridge. I had expected them to get off by now, but maybe they were going to the east side. I don’t know why I assumed they’d be getting off before the bridge. Lots of places for people like them everywhere. Really none of my business, it wasn’t like they were bothering anybody. They were just sitting there.
The puppy was gazing up at the guy. It made a little noise in its throat. The guy smiled down at it.
“What is it buddy?”
The puppy made the sound again, pawing the ground in front of it. The guy looked a little puzzled, then his eyes brightened up. He reached into his bag and pulled out what looked to be a cold chicken finger. The puppy started panting the moment it saw what he was holding, its tail whipping back and forth at high speed. The guy tore off a chunk and fed the puppy a piece, tore off a chunk himself, and then tore off a chunk for the woman leaning against him. The puppy lifted itself up a bit on its hind feet to say thanks. The woman just chewed on the chicken without a word. Once all of it was gone he pulled out another one and repeated the process, then a third. I was beginning to wonder how many chicken fingers the guy had, but he didn’t pull anymore out after three.
The puppy started making the sound in its throat again. The guy showed it his empty hands.
The guy took the mug from the woman and drank a sip of Mountain Dew. The puppy was pawing at the floor. It started whining. A good loud whine. The guy looked sadly down at it. The woman had less sympathy.
The puppy laid down, its head between its paws, that chastened look that dogs get on its face. I looked back up the train. The kind of good looking girl had changed seats, up the aisle a bit, where all the seats face front. All you could see was the back of her curly head.
When I looked back the puppy was staring up at me, giving me the infamous puppy stare. I don’t know, something about it just twinged the right spot. I just wanted to reach out and give it a pet, but I didn’t. No reason to ask for trouble or get involved in anything I really didn’t want to get involved in. The couple were kind of not looking at anything, you know, staring at the floor, but seeing nothing. The puppy started to nose around a bit. It crossed the aisle to our side. Jake reached down and scratched it behind the ear. I reached down and patted its butt. It was really the least that we could do.
Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons user Cacophony