Jonah awoke to a gloomy sky. For a long time he stared into it through the kitchen window, thinking of absolutely nothing until he remembered to check the To Do list his father had stuck to the refrigerator with Support Our Troops magnets.
The first thing on the list was “Take out the trash by ten on Friday.” So when Jonah looked at his watch and saw it was nearly eleven, he felt like he was back in Fallujah, where every move he made was a matter of life and death. This wasn’t about getting the garbage out on time; it was about convincing his parents the war hadn’t changed their son, and they could still depend on him for even the smallest things.
He ran through the kitchen to the garage and punched the automatic door-opener and hurried to grab the trash can. He was able to leap across the space where his parents usually parked their SUV next to his Tacoma. Finally, he’d convinced his mom and dad he’d be all right by himself for a few days, and got them to take a trip to Las Vegas. Already his mother had texted him several times. He remembered the last one: We’re standing in the buffet line at Harrah’s. Your dad has actually won some money at blackjack. Get some rest. Enjoy your quiet time. We love you.
He waited for the garage door to rise just enough so he could duck under it and wheel the bin across the driveway. When he reached the edge of the lawn, he looked up the street and saw the cans in front of the other houses were still full, so he figured he’d made it before the trash pickup. Then he noticed a City Animal Control truck parked along the curb. A uniformed woman stood on the neighbor’s porch. She held a clipboard and knocked on the door.
The woman’s knocking alerted Jonah’s own dog, Caesar, in the backyard. Jonah could see the animal’s nose pressed into a knot hole in the cedar fence. He’d gotten the German Shepard as a puppy and had had it for almost ten years now. It was small for the breed, but was stout and muscular and intelligent and good-natured. When he’d been in Iraq, he’d missed the dog as much as any person.
“Hold it down, Caesar!” Jonah yelled. He stopped to look at the woman again. She’d turned toward the barking, staring at the source of the sound as if it were some sort of great weight about to crush her. Jonah smiled and waved at her. She didn’t wave back. She pressed her clipboard under her arm and walked toward him.
“Oh God,” Jonah said, “Now what?”
He decided not to meet her in the yard. He went quickly to the back of the house and tried to calm Caesar. As always, the dog wanted to wrestle, so Jonah rolled on the grass and gently boxed Caesar’s ears, until he heard the doorbell.
He thought about not answering, even after the woman began to ring the bell more aggressively, as if she were honking a horn at something in the middle of the street that refused to move, “I can’t believe this,” Jonah said. He looked at Caesar. “Make her disappear,” he told the dog.
He went inside. He opened the front door and the woman was there on the porch. She seemed stiff and nervous, “Good morning,” she said.
“Morning,” he said.
She looked past him into the house. Her features were plain, but there was an unassuming prettiness in her face. Her auburn hair was drawn tight into a ponytail. There was a small archipelago of acne on her chin. She wore no makeup or earrings, but she had on a silver necklace with a pendant that was a sea turtle made of jade, “I’m with the city animal control,” she said; “And…”
“What’s your name?” Jonah interrupted. She jerked her eyes toward him, just as she’d done when she heard Caesar barking.
“Anna Clark,” she said.
“I’m Jonah,” he said; “So what’s up?”
She waited to answer. His friendliness disarmed her. Her eyes retreated into the information on her clipboard. Jonah looked at her hands, “I see you have a dog that’s been licensed – Caesar, is that right?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. He leaned into her and looked closer at what was written on the clipboard. He saw a table of names and addresses crammed together in very small print. She ran her finger down the page. Then she pointed to the address of his parents’ house, with the dog’s name and license number and expiration date, “Well,” she said. “It looks like Caesar’s license expired almost a year ago.”
He chuckled. The license had expired a few months after his deployment to Iraq. His parents hadn’t taken the time to renew it. Yes, they’d sent him care packages; yes, they’d prayed for him; yes, they loved him and cared about his safety and well-being. But they couldn’t renew the license for his dog?
“So, wait a minute,” Jonah said; “Are you telling me that you’re going around the neighborhood and checking to see if people’s dog licenses have expired?”
“Right,” she said. “That’s what I’m doing.”
“You mean you’re actually knocking on people’s doors and checking for their dog licenses?”
“Wow,” he said; “That blows my mind.”
She remained stoic. Jonah looked at the information on the clipboard again, this time hissing as he bent over. She lifted the clipboard closer to his face so he could have a better look. It nearly touched his nose, “All right,” he said. “So what do I have to do?”
“Well,” she said. “You’re not going to like this, but there is a fine for not having a current license.”
“Okay,” he said; “How much? Twenty bucks or something?”
“No,” she said; “It’s 200 dollars.”
“What!?” he shouted; “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I’m not,” she said; “But let me explain something to you,” she said.
“All right,” said Jonah; “Explain.”
“There is now a policy that dogs in the city are required to have a microchip inserted so we can keep track of ….”
“A microchip. It …”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, sir,” she said; “I am not kidding.” Her face turned stern, her eyes hard and unflinching. Jonah wondered if she’d been in the military, if maybe she’d even served in Iraq.
“Hey, did you serve?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. She turned her eyes to the clipboard. Caesar started barking again. The dog could feel the tension at the door, hear the voices. Jonah jerked his eyes toward the sound, and then back to Anna, “You can avoid the fine by taking Caesar into the city animal shelter and having the microchip inserted,” she said. “There is a 70 dollar fee for the chip installation. If you do this within ten days there will be no fine.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Well, then you will have to pay the fine.”
“And if I don’t pay the fine?”
“There will be an enforcement action taken.”
“That’s for somebody else to decide.”
In Iraq, he’d been able to calm himself, to forget about what he’d seen during a terrible day, by going to a corner of the green zone compound and finding a place to look up at the night sky. Star gazing had always intoxicated him, soothed him, ever since that first time as a kid when his parents had taken him to the Borrego Desert and his dad showed him the Big Dipper, and other constellations. He wasn’t certain how looking into the heavens calmed him, though he thought it had to with what he understood to be the great distances between the stars and planets. He remembered how, in Boy Scouts, his troop had gone to the Mount Palomar Observatory. They went into the giant room housing the telescope. An astronomer had explained how the massive lenses worked. He told the boys how scientists could measure the distance from the earth to a star or planet by the brightness of the light emanating from it.
The astronomer explained how they used a formula based on the speed of light –186,000 miles per second –to calculate the distances. And Jonah remembered how the scientist said that when a person looked up at a star, they were actually seeing it as it was millions of years in the past. It had always made him wonder if he could –someday and somehow – travel back in time. He’d thought about that more than ever since he’d gotten back. He’d even dreamed of it. In the dream he is lying on his back on the desert sand, seeing himself as he was before he went to war, traveling at a speed he could not comprehend, so fast it was as if nothing had ever happened in the dark and empty space between who or what he’d been, and who or what he was now.
Jonah closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Look,” Anna said. Her voice softened; “It’s not a big deal. You go down to the animal shelter, pay 70 bucks, and you’re done. A lot of dog owners like the microchips anyway and put them in voluntarily. It helps identify their dog if it’s lost.”
“All right,” he said; “I’ll think about it.”
“Good,” she said. Then he stopped her as she turned to leave.
“But you know this is pretty sad, don’t you?” She didn’t answer. Jonah knew she wouldn’t say anything more. She turned her back on him and started across the lawn. He yelled at her. “It’s sad that this is what I fought for: to live in a society where people are required to put computer chips in their dogs, and enforcers come around and knock on people’s doors to see if they’ve done it. What’s next? Are people going to have to have these chips put in their own bodies? It’s sad. And you know it, don’t you Anna? … Anna? … Anna?”
She drove off. She didn’t go on to the next house. To Jonah, it was a sign she was afraid he might do something. Or did she agree with him? Was she ashamed of her job?
He slammed the door and went back to the kitchen. He poured himself some coffee and leaned against the counter and squeezed down hard on the mug with his fingers. His hand trembled as he drank. Then he returned to the front door and looked up the street. Would Anna come back? Would she bring reinforcements next time? He heard the rasp and clatter of the trash truck approaching and the squeal of the metal as the truck stopped along the way to pick up cans. He listened for a while, and then went into his parents’ bedroom. His father used to keep a revolver stowed away there. Before Jonah had gone to Iraq, his dad had told him where the weapon and bullets were hidden. “Just in case you get some crazy meth addict busting through the window,” his dad had said. But certainly, now, the gun wouldn’t be there. Or would it? Would it be another incomprehensible oversight of his parents, like forgetting to license his dog?
Jonah found the gun and the bullets. They were in the place his dad had told him they would be. He laughed. Then he loaded the pistol and went into the backyard. Caesar came up to him and pressed its snout into Jonah’s crotch. “I’m not going to let them put some a chip into you, boy,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen.”
The dog wanted to wrestle again. Jonah put the gun down, and then twirled and rolled on the grass and let Caesar pounce on him. Then he stopped and lay still. He noticed how late it’d gotten. The sky had cleared and the day had turned hot and bright. He sat up and grabbed the revolver. He turned to Caesar. The dog panted and drooled. “Let’s go, buddy,” Jonah said.
He went into the garage and had the dog jump into the front seat of his Tacoma. He got into the truck and drove east on Highway 10 toward Joshua Tree National Park. Not only was it a good place to see the night sky, but he’d always loved the Joshua trees. The story was the trees had been named by Mormon immigrants because of the way their limbs appeared to reach out in supplication to God. But when Jonah looked at the trees he didn’t see this. He saw only the twisted branches reaching into the sky for sunlight.
He put the revolver under his seat. He turned on the radio. He hadn’t played it since he’d been home. It was still tuned to the stations he’d listened to before we went to Iraq, mostly Talk Radio. This time the host was someone he didn’t know, but it was the same garbage. Jonah snapped the radio off. All he wanted now was to see the Joshua Trees at twilight, and then watch the stars emerge out of the darkness. He drove straight through to the park’s south entrance. It was dusk and had turned cool when he paid his money to the park ranger at the gate. The ranger offered him a visitor’s guide but he didn’t take it.
He knew where he wanted to go. It was the place he’d gone a few days before he’d started his tour. He remembered the unmarked jeep trail about six miles in. The trail petered-out at a gravelly wash. He parked his Tacoma there and he and Caesar climbed onto the top of a rock knoll. He had the gun under his belt and against his belly. He searched for the place he’d sat before, but couldn’t find it, so he lay on some flat, sandy ground in a clearing. He removed the gun from his belt and rested the weapon on his chest and pulled Caesar close to him. The cold and the darkness made him feel as if he were falling into a deep hole. He saw Venus just up from the horizon and then other stars became visible, more, and more. He remembered again about his trip to Mount Palomar when he was a Boy Scout, “When you look up at a star, you’re looking into the past,” Jonah remembered; “When you see a star, you go back in time.”
And this is what he imagined as he drifted off to sleep.
He wakes cold. He curls himself into Caesar and stays like this until the sun shines on the two of them.
There had been wind during the night. The black gun on the ground is speckled with sand. He sits up and takes hold of the pistol. He stands and opens the chamber of the gun and empties the bullets into his palm. Then he slings the cartridges into the air and watches the brass sparkle and disappear, “Let’s go, Boy,” he says. He takes long and swift strides back to his Tacoma. Caesar jumps into the front seat and Jonah heads to the road.
He drives fast on the highway and enters the city. Something about the surroundings reminds him that it’s Saturday, the day he’d be able to get the microchip installed into Caesar. He stops at a gas station with a telephone booth and a giant directory hanging from a chain. He laughs, wondering how such things could still exist. He leaves his Tacoma running as he looks for the address of the city pound. The address is in the blue, government pages. The pound isn’t far from his parents’ house.
Just then he gets a text from his mom: We’re by the pool. Hot, but nice. Saw Eric Burdon and the Animals last night. Not good. Very old. Washed up but won’t admit it. Is everything all right?Love you! ps: Dad wants to know if you got the trash out.
Jonah smiles and shakes his head. He texts her back: Yeah. All good, Mom. Got the trash out. Love you too.
He drives fast to the pound. There’s a line outside: people with dogs on leashes. All kinds of dogs. All kinds of people. He notices some sand on his shirt sleeves, and a little on his pants. He brushes it off. Then he squats and massages Caesar’s ears and sees a woman coming down the line toward him. She’s handing people forms to fill out. She stops to look at him, and Jonah sees that small archipelago of acne on her chin, and her brown eyes, her auburn hair, and the silver necklace with the jade sea turtle. She hands him the form.
“You came. I’m glad,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m here.”
She turns to go back. Then she stops again to look at him. Somehow he knows she understands what he’s been through, where he has been, what he has seen. And so when the line he is in moves forward, he moves forward with it.