A half-mile from the Canadian border I said, what are you going to do in Montreal, you idiot—panhandle? You don't speak French. What'll be different there? You'll still be you, and that's something you can't ever change. That alone seemed like a good enough reason to turn back. Plus, I didn't have a passport. So my days would have to blur together someplace less exotic.
For nine hours, I stuck mostly to Route 11, a quiet, two-lane country road with a terminus in New Orleans. I figured that'd be a nice place to clear my head, or to fill it with nonsense.
Snaking along the Susquehanna, I battled the static of a diminishing radio signal, straining to hear my favorite song by Supertramp. Like always, I was startled by the slide whistle. Such a whimsical surprise in such a melancholy song. My life had been rotten with surprises, and very few of them were whimsical. I felt I could be logical about it, though. Or at least detached.
When I crossed the Mason-Dixon, the DJ announced the time: 4:45 AM. That meant I'd been chugging along for three days straight on two hours' sleep and probably needed to pull over.
Past a bar called the Weepy Flea and a town called Toe (Pop. 1177), there was a stretch of marshland, shimmering faintly with prairie cordgrass and clusters of cattails. A fluorescent glow rose on the horizon, and upon rounding the bend, to my surprise, I saw a modern convention center teeming with people. My first impulse was to sleep in the parking lot, but when I saw General Admission to the "Greater Toe Dog Show" only cost $2.50, I scraped ten quarters out of my glovebox and took the chance. When you're living from your car, the possibility of a clean restroom is something like a Holy Grail.
The facility was a vast open area with a warehouse ceiling, partitioned into eighths by tall velvet curtains and lined with metal bleachers. A banner hung from above, announcing the dog show's theme as if it were prom. It said, "The Ravening Wolf."
After using the restroom (good, solid A–), I pushed past a clutch of children bearing deep-fried dough and sat in the "Agility" section. It would be nice to get my money's worth before I nodded off, and the signs marked "Obedience" and "Hygiene" hadn't sparked my interest.
Three seats to my left, there was an old, scraggly-haired woman slurping a bowl of fettuccine. Between bites, she lifted her oxygen mask, turned a knob on the tank and breathed deeply. With each tortured gasp, rivulets of Alfredo sauce dripped and fogged up inside the transparent plastic. At least I have it better than her, I thought. It's not really living out here, is it? Though it's funny how quickly a life can unravel. A patch of bad luck, a few medical bills, and the next thing you know, you're on your last bankruptcy, driving past a city limits sign that says This Town Was Built on Moonshine and Dynamite.
A greasy, goat-bearded eccentric sat down beside me and began writing furiously in his notepad. "Say, stranger," he whispered, "you know how to spell 'guillotine?'"
"Nah," I said, focusing on the hoops, hurdles, and ladders on the AstroTurf below. A well-groomed Scottie dog was deftly leaping her way through the obstacles while a Jack Russell and his owner waited in the wings. The owner offered him what looked like a nugget of steak tartare, probably more appetizing than anything I'd eaten in years.
As my stomach rumbled, something in the air shifted slightly, or darkened, and I heard a sudden and high-frequency whistle driving like a spike through my skull. I perceived no reaction from the others, save for one pigeon-chested boy who plugged his ears with his pinkie fingers. The Scottie ascended the ladder in a blur, fading black, and that terrible shriek seemed to fill the world...
When I came to, my nose burned, and I could hear a scuffling, a general bristling of the crowd. I saw two people removed from the audience on stretchers, moist white sheets clinging to their bodies. The boy's seat was empty.
"You should really try to stay awake," said the goat-bearded man. He was holding a small white packet beneath my nose.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Smelling salts. I always keep a pack. I work at a funeral home."
"Uh, thanks," I said, distracted by the hairless dog stiffly running the course on long, splindly limbs. Only later, when the world darkened and the high-pitched shriek began anew, did I realize this figure was a naked woman. In the wings, the pigeon-chested boy rested on all fours, waiting his turn, a choke collar cutting into the flesh of his neck. It would be simpler for him now.
I squeezed my head between my hands as the whistle screamed on, the goat-bearded man lowered his head in defeat, and the old woman held her mouth agape, a long strand of fettuccine slithering out from between her lips. My head roared with pain in a steady stream, like blood guttering from a split scalp, and then I fully detached, a man no longer, the lobes of my brain peeling apart like Velcro, ripping, ripping...
From a distance, the hunter who found my body thought I was some pervert's discarded blow-up doll, my mouth wide open, arms and legs bent at ninety degrees, body stiff and fishbelly white. Before the authorities arrived, he removed the leash from my neck. It jingled like a handful of coins as he balled it up and heaved. It landed among the cattails, a soft clunk of metal on a mound of wet earth. The tag read, DID NOT PLACE.
At supper that evening, solemn-faced, the hunter muttered to his family, "I 'member a time when a man could die with dignity," though when his wife pressed him for particulars, he couldn't provide them.