A. J. ORTEGA - EL FEO
A.J. Ortega is a writer from Texas. His writing has appeared in Rat's Ass Review, Poetry Quarterly, Rio Grande Review, Door is a Jar Magazine, American Book Review, Dreich Magazine, The Loch Raven Review, and others. He is an active member of the Popular Culture Association, where his presentations focus on combat sports and Mexican American identity. A.J. produces and hosts Writers and Fighters: A Podcast.
Hector was studying for his accounting test when Feo nipped at his leg. He batted the dog away and then stared at his textbook. His eyes moved from the book and re-focused on the dog. Feo was inching toward Hector’s leg but was stopped by his owner’s hand.
“Stop it,” Hector said, holding Feo’s mouth shut.
“You started it.”
Feo left Hector at the dining-room table and went to paw at the door. He sat and whined, looking at the yard through the glass.
“Ah, shit. I’m sorry, Feo.” He let the dog out. Feo sniffed around then peed on the larger of two trees.
While his name was Spanish for ‘ugly,’ Feo was actually a nice-looking dog, just different. Clara, Hector’s ex-girlfriend, had brought Feo home one day without warning.
“What the hell is that?”
“I know, but what kind?”
“Some sort of cattle dog, they said.”
“Qué feo.” Hector wanted a Pitbull, or an American Bulldog, at the very least.
He had looked the dog over. Floppy ears that perked up on occasion, familiar Rottweiler black and tan pattern. The dog’s body was white and light grey, with black and dark grey spots. Hector thought the head and body looked like they were from two different dogs. Clara started scratching the dog’s back and it fell to the floor and stuck its legs up. She rubbed his belly.
“Poor guy,” Hector said when he noticed the dog had been neutered. “Well, take him back.”
Clara had cried and cried. Hector eventually gave in, not because he wanted the dog, but because he’d wanted Clara to stop annoying him.
“We’ll name him Feo,” Hector said. Clara agreed, thinking Hector had attached a term of endearment to the dog.
For the next several weeks Feo would sneak off to chew curtains, tear clothes, and knock over trash bins. And then, Clara left Hector on his own to clean up Feo’s messes.
Now, Feo ran laps around the yard after his afternoon pee.
“Come on, I have work to do.”
Feo stopped at the far end of the yard. Hector walked over to get him to go inside. Feo was eating the fruit from a tomato plant. He spit out the green pulp, licking and drooling. He picked it up again, biting into it and spitting it out. He did this until Hector took the slimy golf-ball-sized tomato and threw it to his neighbor’s house, laughing at the possibility that it would land on someone’s porch or that it might even hit some playing children. Feo dug at the foot of the wooden fence.
“Stop that!” Hector took Feo by the scruff of the neck. He was opposed to having Feo wear a collar because he thought it gave the illusion of holding two separate dogs together. Hector had told Clara about a Russian scientist named Demikhov who performed experiments like that – swapping dogs’ heads, keeping severed dog heads alive without a body, grafting two heads onto the body of one dog. Feo used dead weight as his defense and laid himself in the dirt.
Hector looked through the wood slats of the fence and saw his neighbors’ makeshift garden. Void of any rows or organization, there were tomato plants, watermelons, peppers, and maybe some other things, but he couldn’t tell. They probably saved the seeds of what they ate and threw them at the back fence, hoping they grew where they landed. The tomatoes were the only ones thriving enough to spill over into his yard, growing on both sides of the fence.
His neighbor, a hippie-looking woman, came out to water her grass. Hector knelt, putting enough weight on Feo to hold him down but not to hurt him, and looked through the fence. She had locks in her hair, some with multicolored beads. She wore a tan skirt and small t-shirt, one that would have fit her small frame well had she not been pregnant. Her belly was completely showing. She watered her lawn and garden, droplets falling onto her motherly stomach. Hector thought her attractive, pregnant and all. Perhaps more attractive than Clara.
Hector was going to leave, but his neighbor turned to water the plants by their common back fence. As water made it through the wood slats, Hector made effort to stay still and not let the woman see he was eavesdropping. Feo, who was still laying on his back with a knee over him, licked the water off Hector’s arm.
A man appeared behind the woman and reached around her belly. Startled, she spun around and dropped the water hose. The man wore pleated khaki pants, which reminded Hector of his accounting professor, a white dress shirt and loose tie. Her husband? He leaned in to kiss her, but she pulled away.
“What are you doing?” she yelled. “You’re going to make tracks in the house with your shoes. My skirt is wet now. Don’t scare me like that. Move.” She pushed him aside and walked into their home. The man turned off the water and followed her in.
The bathroom door reminded Hector every morning why Clara had left. Two fist-sized holes looked back at him at eye level. Another, easier to ignore, was located lower, at his knees. In the bathroom, he washed the sleep from his eyes.
As he sat on the toilet, elbows propped on his thighs, Hector lowered his head onto his hands. He thought he might have slept for a moment before Feo licked his face.
“Get out,” Hector said. Feo continued to lick, moving toward Hector’s mouth.
He shoved the dog out of the bathroom and closed the door. Feo stuck his snout into the lower hole on the door, sniffing. Hector took a hand towel and swatted him away. Feo groaned, took a few steps back, circled, and laid himself on the carpet. Hector didn’t know if or for how long he’d been asleep and expected that his shit might have dried. It hadn’t, and he concluded he had only nodded off.
Still sitting, Hector took a bottle of mouthwash from the sink and swished it. He spit it into the gap between his legs and into the toilet. Some of the liquid landed on his legs and genitals. He stepped into the shower.
Hector washed himself. He let the warm soapy water run over the scabs on his knuckles and forearms, seeing if some of them could be brushed away without drawing blood. His ankle was still sore, but his shoes and pants had kept him from getting cut on the wooden shrapnel of the door. His right forearm was scratched from his first punch.
His fist had gone straight through the door with little effort, and his arm had scraped the lip of the hole. There were splinters stuck in him, but by the time he noticed, he had already punched and kicked the door, adding two more holes. Clara had yelled for Hector to stop and said that Feo was scared. Hector insisted it was only the sound that scared the dog, and that Feo would never be scared of him. Once Hector had calmed down, Feo licked the blood off his knuckles. Despite the violence, Clara had cleaned his wounds with peroxide, bandaged them, and gone to sleep.
Shaking out the water from his hair, and the memories of the door incident, Hector now stepped out of the shower, dripping onto the bathmat. Without drying, He put on a pair of basketball shorts and went to the kitchen to pour himself some cereal. He ate his breakfast and Feo began to lick the moisture off Hector’s legs. Feo was about done with Hector’s right leg when the doorbell rang. Feo’s ears perked up, followed by relentless barking and growling and scratching at the front door.
“¡Cállate! Shut up!” He pulled the dog away and looked into the peephole. A cop.
“Ándale, perro.” Hector dragged Feo into the bedroom, the dog’s nails clicking over the tile the whole way.
He opened the front door and greeted the officer. She was a woman. Blonde, her hair in a tight braid. A very feminine face, with nice skin, but a muscular and compact body.
“There’s been a complaint filed against you and your wife.”
“She’s not my wife. And she doesn’t live here anymore.” Hector paused. “A complaint?”
“A neighbor complained about your dog barking.”
Hector could hear Feo barking his lungs out. If Clara were still here, things would have been calmer. She had a knack for keeping things nice between the neighbors. Since she had left, there had been a complaint about his car being too loud, music blaring, and now the dog.
“That’s what dogs do.”
“Could you keep it under control, Mr. Benítez?”
“I’ll do my best, but I have to leave him out while I’m at school.”
He couldn’t help but think of Clara, again. She would watch Feo while Hector went to school. Feo was hardly ever alone. Now he had to spend several hours outside.
“Maybe you could try keeping him inside. Thanks.” The officer looked bored. Tired of the mundane calls and complaints, most likely. As she left, Hector watched her backside and thought about how she might look if she didn’t wear those awful pants up past her belly button. She was almost to her patrol car when Hector shouted.
“Can you tell me which neighbor complained?”
“No, sir.” And she got into the patrol car and drove away.
But Hector knew. There was only one neighbor who didn’t work during the day, and that’s because she couldn’t.
Hector left Feo outside, despite the formal complaint filed against him. He did so partly because he didn’t believe he did anything wrong, but mostly because he wanted to see the police officer again. He arrived home to see Feo digging at the back fence.
“Quit trying to get those tomatoes Mendigo perro.”
After Hector pulled Feo away and got him to come inside, he opened his accounting textbook. Feo pawed at the door, wanting to be let out.
“No. You were just outside.”
Feo walked over to Hector, bit his leg, sat, and wagged his tail. Hector grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and threw him out.
Feo barked and barked. Half a chapter of reading later, Hector could hear whining at the door. Another half and Feo finally stopped.
“Gracias a dios.” Hector continued reading.
Hector thought about his hippie neighbor and her pleated-pants husband. He couldn’t understand why she had been so rude to the man when he only wanted to hold her and their child inside her. Hector wanted to be held like the hippie woman and to hold like the businessman husband.
He thought of the holes he punched in the door and about Clara leaving him the following morning. She had kissed him goodbye and whispered something like, “I just don’t think you know how to love.” He was still groggy. Hector didn’t realize until that evening, when she didn’t return from work, that it hadn’t been a dream. The following day, while he was at school, Clara picked up her things and moved out. She had left a note that read, “My new apartment doesn’t allow pets. I’ll try and find a home for Feo soon.”
After that, Feo had sniffed Clara’s side of the bed at night. Hector thought about taking the dog to a shelter a few times, but the animal was the only thing she had left behind. Just as he wished the police officer would return, he had wished harder that Clara would come for Feo and so that he could apologize for the yelling and his violent temper. He would have held Clara as if she were pregnant and he were wearing pleated pants.
Now, Feo stopped whining and was out in the yard, silent. Hector attempted more reading, fewer distractions. He was studying derivatives when he heard a shriek. Not a child’s scream, but a scream you would hear at the site of a car wreck or murder scene. He ran outside. The screaming continued.
“Drop it! Fucking dog, drop it!”
Hector ran to the far end of the fence and saw through the wood slats that his neighbor was trying to whip Feo with a water hose. He also saw that she wasn’t pregnant anymore. At Hector’s feet was a hole going through the dirt and tomato plants and into the neighbor’s yard.
“Shit.” Hector jumped up and held himself at the top of the fence. He swung his legs over and landed on the other side, squashing several tiny tomatoes underfoot.
The woman’s husband appeared on their patio, holding a tiny newborn baby with a pink knit cap. The man had ditched his pleated pants for cargo shorts and sneakers. Shirtless, he held the baby and tried to shield its ears from the screaming and growling.
Feo ran laps around their yard with something in his mouth. Hector first thought it to be a flattened football or baseball glove.
“Give it to me!” the woman screamed.
“Feo, come here!” Hector ran after the dog, but Feo was too quick for him. Hector slipped in the garden and smashed more plants and fruits. By now, the woman was crying.
Hector juked and spun around like a football player, trying to get the object from Feo. He finally got a hold of it. It was thick and caked with dirt, more pliable than leather. It smelled like warm garbage.
“What the hell is this?” he managed to say as he struggled with Feo.
“It’s my fucking placenta!” the woman yelled. “Dug up from my garden!”
Hector let go and Feo ran off again.
“Honey, maybe we should go inside,” the husband said, too quietly.
The woman swung the water hose at Feo, striking him in the head. Feo yelped, his tail between his legs.
“Watch it, lady. I’ll get it back.” He reached for the water hose, so she couldn’t hit his dog again. She held onto and a struggle ensued.
“Fuck you and fuck your dog!” The woman spat in Hector’s face and yanked back on the hose at the precise moment that Hector let go of his end. The momentum caused her to fall backward and into the grass. Feo stopped running and his ears perked up.
“Call the police,” she cried. “He just assaulted me.”
“I did not!”
From the backyard Hector could see the woman’s husband calling the police, cell phone in one hand, baby in the other. The woman still cried where she’d fallen. Hector walked slowly up to Feo and was able to take the afterbirth away from him. He found the hole where Feo had dug it up and dropped it in, using his feet to cover it with dirt.
The police showed up. The blonde was not with them. They took statements from everyone. Hector said nothing. Without his collar and tags, the police couldn’t confirm that Feo was indeed Hector’s dog, or that Feo had had his rabies shot. Animal Control arrived. Hector was handcuffed. Feo was caught with the help of a catchpole as he tried to unearth the placenta yet again. They were led out of the neighbors’ backyard while Feo whined and whined.
“I’m sorry,” Hector yelled as a police officer pushed his head into a patrol car and an Animal Control officer put Feo in a cage.
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