Precious Cargo, My Year Driving The Kids on School Bus 3077, by Craig Davidson, Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalist for Catarct City


A Mean Utility

(excerpt)


Midway through the pitch I pass a note to Mitch Edmonds, big kahuna of graphic design: This is going good? He grimaces and scribbles back: If by "good" you mean heart-stoppingly BAD, then yes, everything's peachy. Diarrhetic adjective use aside, I suspect Edmonds is correct. In fact, the pitch is veering towards a crash of Hindenberg-like proportion: I feel the heat of compressed helium flames and charred tatters of zeppelin-silk buffeting my face, hear Herbert Morrison's breathless voice screaming "oh the humanity!" into a giant wind-socked microphone.

Supp-Easy-Quit is a stop-smoking aid in suppository form. The science is sound: the rectal arterial clusters, feeding directly into the larger sacral and iliac branches, are ideal nicotine-delivery channels. Yet the stone-cold fact persists: most smokers—most human beings—exhibit a distinct disinclination to propel foreign objects up their bungs. They'd rather chew Nicorette until their mouths seize with lockjaw, festoon their bodies with the Patch, Christ, insert flaming nicotine wedges beneath their fingernails. The hardwired predisposition renders the product a tough sell.

Don Fawkes, lead hand on the Supp-Easy-Quit account, aims a laser-pointer at a storyboard montage. "Okay," he says, "so here's this smoker who's trying to quit. He's in a smoky tavern—upscale, jazzy, bit of a speakeasy feel—tipping a few bevvy's, itching to fire off a lung-rocket." Don believes his timely employment of hipster lingo is key to the middling success he enjoys. "So our man slips into the men's room and enters a stall, jazz music swells, he exits all smiles. Fade to black on the product logo."

The Supp-Easy-Quit reps—a power-suited Eva Braun flanked by a pair of lab-coated scientist pastiches—sit with arms crossed. The trio strike me as just-the-facts-ma'am types: their ideal commercial no doubt involves clinical footage of suppositories inserted into rectums, endoscopic cameras filming the dispersal of nicotine molecules into the blood stream.

"Tell me: do you like it?" Don Fawkes: Ignoramus Extremus, asks. "Do you love it?"

Fawkes's towering colossus of ineptitude fails to elicit any surprise or sympathy for two reasons: (1) last month Don single-handedly scuttled the Juicy Jubes kosher ju-jubes account, enraging a group of Hasidic entrepreneurs with the utterance of his ill-conceived tagline: Juicy Jubes are Jui-y JUI-licious!; and (2) a large chunk of meat is missing from my left calf, a chunk roughly correspondent to the bite radius of a rottweiler named "Biscuits." The wound is cleaned and dressed but the calf is a fussy area, a locus of veins and connective tissues—blood seeps through the bandages, pooling in the heel of my Bruno Magli loafer.

I was mauled two nights ago, at a scratch and turn dogfight held in a foreclosed poultry processing plant outside Cobourg. Dottie, a three-year-old pit bull and my wife Alison's darling bitch, was matched uphill against a hard-biting presa canario named Chinaman. Dottie was a ten fight champ with heavily-muscled stifles and a bite to shatter cinderblocks; Chinaman was cherry but his lineage legendary with chest and flews capable of deflecting bullets. Betting skewed in Dottie's favor on account of her experience and ring generalship.

After Alison gave Chinaman a thorough inspection—the breeder a bucktoothed hillbilly who'd been known to soak his fighters' fur in poison—the dogs were led into a chicken-wire pen. White worms of chicken shit dotted the floor, some with downy feathers stuck to them. The concrete was puddled with blood from the previous fight.

Dottie started out fast, butting her muzzle into Chinaman's chest and tearing a gaping hole above his right shoulder. Chinaman looked ready to buckle—it's the first critical injury that separates gamers from curs—but when Dottie went for his front leg he snapped at her skull, canines opening deep furrows across the bridge of her snout. Blood flowed down Dottie's chest and sprayed in her eyes. Alison gave a little moan. Chinaman's handler hollered, "Get at it, boy! Sic! Sic!"

The presa rushed hard and tried to pin Dottie against the pen. Dottie backpedaled a few paces before fastening her mouth around Chinaman's advancing foreleg and ripping free a network of muscle and tissue. Chinaman kept pressing, chewing on Dottie's head; it sounded as if his teeth were raking bone. The crowd pressed around the pen, slapping the chicken-wire, stomping their feet. The smell was close and hot, sweetly animal.

The bell rang. Men with blunt baling hooks reached over the wire, digging into the dense muscling of the dog's chests, prying them apart. In the corner, I held Dottie while Alison went to work. After rubbing powdered Lidocaine into the dog's gumline to kill the pain, she chemically cauterized the facial wounds with ferric acid. Then she saturated a Q-tip with adrenaline chloride and swabbed the rims of Dottie's nostrils and ear holes, her anus. The dog's eyes, previously glazed, attained a clear focus.

The bell rang. Both dogs scratched the chalk line.

Dottie lived up to her reputation as a wrecker in the second. She butted hard into Chinaman's stifles, attacking that shoulder wound. Chinaman gave as good as he got, slashing at Dottie's dewlap, shredding it. At the eight-minute mark a fibrous snap heralded Chinaman's shoulder breaking and the presa was down to three legs. Dottie pressed her advantage, forcing Chinaman back, attacking the throat, a blur of snapping teeth, questing jaws, and bloody ropes of saliva as each dog angled for the killing clinch.

Chinaman managed to close his mouth around Dottie's muzzle, gripping her entire upper palate. The sound was unlike anything I'd ever heard: a brittle splintering, soda crackers crushed in an infant's hand. Dottie's spine stiffened and her claws tore at Chinaman's belly.

The bell rang. An acne-scarred teenager mopped up blood and redrew the chalk line.

Dottie's face was in ruins: bloody and cleaved open, shards of bone free-floating beneath the skin. Half her nose was torn off and presumed swallowed. Her dewlap hung like tattered curtains. Alison debrided the worst wounds with hydrogen peroxide and Betadine before slicking them with mixed adrenaline and Vaseline.

"Pick your dogs up!" a man hollered. "That's enough. Enough!" The crowd jeered him.

"Maybe I should," Alison said. "Pick her up."

I'd've rather cut my foot off and eaten it but didn't tell her. "Look at that one," I said with a nod at the presa, who was burrowing his head in the breeder's chest like it wanted to climb inside and die. "Bet you a steak dinner it doesn't toe the scratch."

Chinaman's breeder grabbed the dog by its neck and whipsawed it back and forth, growling, "Don't flake on me, you goddamn cur. Don't you fucking flake."

Before the bell Alison injected 10cc's Epinephrine into Dottie's haunch. I felt the dog's fluttering heart rate normalize. Chinaman staggered from his corner, front right leg limp as a cooked noodle. The presa's muzzle was frosted white with Lidocaine.

Round three ended it. Dottie feinted at Chinaman's bum leg off the scratch and, in one deft move, rammed her skull into his good one. Forced to support his entire forward weight, Chinaman's left foreleg snapped. The presa toppled face-first, front legs splayed to either side, hinds scrabbling feebly. Dottie started clawing at Chinaman's eyes. Before long the baling hooks pulled her off.

After squaring all bets I was lugging Dottie through the parking lot—blood saturating her doggie blanket, dripping through the kennel crate's metal honeycombs—when this raspy barking kicked up from behind. I wheeled to see a huge rottweiler bullrushing my blind-side. It wore an inch-thick studded leather collar against which the striated muscle of its throat and neck pulsed, links of twenty-gauge chain spitting gravel between its legs.

I dropped Dottie and fired an off-balance kick. The rottie passed under my leg, clamping down on the meat of my calf.

Events unfolded at the dull narcotic pace of a fugue. My right knee buckled and I went down, blacktopped gravel dimpling the ass of my cotton Dockers. My skull caromed off the ground and everything whited out for a moment. Then I was struggling up, fists beating a frenzied tattoo on the dog's head as its square dark muzzle worried into the wound. Dottie pressed her busted face to the kennel's grate, growling low in her throat, bloody bubbles forced between her black eyes and orbital bone. The rottweiler wrenched its head sideways, teeth sunk deep into the sinews of my calf, gator-rolling me across that chill November tarmac.

Five sausage-link digits grasped the underside of the rottie's jaw, thumb and index finger pressed to the axis where upper and lower palate met, forcing the mouth open. The woman restraining the animal was an eclipse of ghostly flesh clad in what appeared to be a pleated topsail, calves thick as an adolescent pachyderm's and networked with bluish spider veins. A slimly-ironic menthol cigarette hung off her bottom lip, defying all known laws of gravity.

"Bad Biscuits," she chastised the dog in a breathy baby-voice. "The manners on you. Why you want to go bite the nice man?"

Alison arrived in a blur of shawls and indignation. I noticed she poked her fingers through Dottie's crate before arriving at my side. Bright arterial blood pumped from my calf. "Stop squirming," she told me, breaking out the peroxide and catgut, tending to my wound with the casual detachment of an E.R. nurse.

The woman waddled to her idling Cutlass Supreme. She opened the driver's door—sunblistered dashboard lined with neon-haired Treasure Trolls, bingo dabbers spilling from a sprung glovebox—swatting the dog inside. A shrewish, stoop-shouldered man sat in the passenger's seat, wearing camouflage fatigue pants and the kind of sleeveless white tee-shirt favored by aged Italian gardeners.

"You can't," I said, reaching out to her. "Can't just...your dog bit me!"

She tucked her chin to her chest, setting in motion a rippling domino-effect of subsidiary chins. "Biscuits got a touch of the ringworm, misser. Gives him the cranks." Her look suggested I wasn't much of a dogman if I didn't know that. "Every one my babies is papered and rabies-free. Don't need shots, promise."

"That dog should be destroyed!"

"I'm'n a pretend I didn't hear that, misser."

She jerked the door shut and fishtailed down the row of diagonally-parked cars. Biscuits hurled his body at the Cutlass's rear window, barking wrathfully, white froth slathering the glass.

"Did that woman just—?"

"Yes," Alison palmed me a vitamin K tablet to promote blood clotting. "Let's go."

"But you can't—"

"What do we tell the cops?" she said. "We were at this illegal dogfight and..."

"But we live in a polite society!" I raved. "We operate under civilized rules!"

"Hush."

"I should bite her-bite that gargantuan ASS!"

"Hush."

Halfway home Alison pulled off the highway. Dottie was emitting low wheezing sounds from the back seat, thrashing mindlessly on the blood-thick blanket and tearing open her stitches.

We wrangled the kennel crate onto the rough shale of the breakdown lane. In the dead white of an arc-sodium streetlight I broke the kennel down, there being no other way to get the her out. Alison held the dog's square head in her hands, massaging the neck and stomach, anywhere not gored. The medicinal smell of Epinephrine seeped out of the Dottie's many cuts.

"Oh, Jesus. I can't bury another dog, Jay."

Alison touched Dottie's head, tracing her fingertips along the muzzle, kneading the expanse of slick fur between the ears. The dog looked up with sad, grateful eyes. Crickets chirped in the long reeds bordering the ditch.

Near the end Alison injected Lidocaine into Dottie's temple, between the ring and index fingers on my left hand, which were cupped over the dog's tight-lidded eyes. Cars moved past on the highway, bathing our bodies in headlight glow. Dottie vomited blood. Her eyelids fluttered against my palm.

"I should've picked her up."

"She wouldn't allow it," I said. "Dottie was a deep game dog."

The dog started shaking, then, the convulsions wracking her bones, radiating outwards.

"Are you loving it?" Don Fawkes repeats for the umpteenth time. "Tell me you love it."

But the Supp-Easy-Quit reps are clearly not loving it, a fact Helen Keller could've gleaned, but to which Fawkes remains blissfully unaware. Eva Braun jots in a faux-calfskin dossier with aggressive, slashing cursive while her lab-coated bookends eye Fawkes as they might a particularly offensive strain of bacterium smeared across a specimen slide.

Mitch Edmonds passes me a doodle: some guy with a gourd-shaped head in which a candle burns jack-o-lantern style, one eye twice outsizing the other, buck-toothed and drooling, squiggly stink-lines and bowtie flies and a speech bubble reading: You love it! You really, really love it!