Barry Gifford’s work has previously appeared in our Noir and Writers at the Movies special issues. We now present an excerpt from Gifford’s forthcoming book, The Cuban Club, to be published in New York by Seven Stories Press / Random House in the Spring of 2017.
by BARRY GIFFORD
Roy liked to ride his bike up to Indian Boundary Park to look at the dingoes. There was a little outdoor zoo with a variety of smaller animals at the northern edge of the park, among them llamas, monkeys, ostriches and a patchy-furred, old brown bear. But it was the wild dogs of Australia that interested Roy the most. The dingoes were feisty, beige- or dun-colored knee-high canines that constantly fought among themselves and bared their fangs at the zoogoers who stared at them for more than a few seconds. Roy wondered why dogs were in a zoo, even supposedly wild ones. He guessed that in Australia dingoes ran in packs across a vast desert in the western part of the continent. He’d read about Australia in his fourth grade geography book which only mentioned dingoes in passing; most of the information about fauna in Australia was about kangaroos.
“Nasty little critters, aren’t they?” a man said to Roy. “Now they’re cooped up in this hoosegow.”
Both Roy and the man were standing in front of the dingo enclosure on a cloudy day in August. Roy was nine years old and the man looked to Roy to be in his thirties or forties. Roy straddled his bicycle and watched and listened to the dingoes nip and yip at one another.
“The cage is too small for them,” Roy said. “They need to be out running around in a desert.”
The man was only slightly taller than Roy and thin with a grayish-brown mustache. He lit a cigarette then flicked the match through the bars at the dingoes.
“Wild dogs,” the man said. “In China they’d be beaten to death. They’ve got police squads over there that do nothin’ but run down stray dogs and club ’em over the head, then throw the bodies in a pile and burn ’em.”
“These dogs are from Australia,” said Roy. “They’re not domesticated.”
The man gave a little laugh with a hiccup in the middle of it. Roy had never heard anyone with a strange laugh like that before.
“Pretty fancy word you got there, kid. Domesticated. You learn that one in school?”
“Dingoes aren’t meant to be pets,” Roy said.
“Neither is that fat, scabby bear,” said the man. “He shouldn’t be in durance vile, either. These cages here are like cells in the Chateau d’If.”
“What’s that?” Roy asked.
“Prison island off the coast of Marseilles, in France. Like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Nobody escapes from there.”
“These animals can’t escape from here, either. You seen the Chateau Deaf? Is it for deaf criminals?”
“Nope. It’s d’If, not deaf. Name of the island is If. I read about it in The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Man named Edmond Dantes gets put away for life but after sixteen years digs a tunnel to the sea and swims away.”
“I thought you said nobody escapes from there.”
“Not in real life they don’t. The Count of Monte Cristo is a story takes place in the nineteenth century. Edmond Dantes is an innocent man and after he gets out he finds a treasure a dying inmate at the Chateau d’If told him about and changes his name to Monte Cristo before taking revenge on the three wrong customers who were responsible for having him take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit.”
The man dropped his butt then lit up another cig and again flicked his match at the dingoes.
“How come you’re not in school, kid?”
“I’m kind of on vacation, too.”
Roy looked at the man again: his pale blue shirt had dark brown stains on it, as did his khaki trousers. When the man turned his head Roy saw that his left ear was missing; there was only a misshapen lump of skin where an ear should have been.
Roy climbed onto his bicycle seat and started to ride away but the man took hold of the handlebars with both of his hands.
“If you’re clever,” said the man, “you won’t ever let anybody take advantage of you.”
“What’s that mean?”
“There are evil spirits haunt this earth who beguile good men and women and render them useless.”
Not only was the man missing an ear but Roy noticed the mean-looking red and blue-black scar that ran almost the entire length of his hairline.
“I’ve got to go, mister. Let go of my bike.”
The man released the handlebars, removed his cigarette from the right corner of his mouth and flicked it into the dingo cage.
As he was riding Roy remembered his grandfather telling him to listen carefully to what even crazy people said because the information might be useful later. When he got home Roy would ask him what in durance vile meant.
Copyright © by Barry Gifford, 2015. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.
[Header image: Château d’If by Ralf Smallkaa @flickr. Unmodified. Reproduced under this CC licence.]