Short Story / Writing

The Night of the Dying Owl by Philip Hanson

        Donovan did the same thing every night after he came up. He chased Marlowe and Marlowe chased him out in the part of the yard around where the pool is fenced in. If it wasn’t, Marlowe would have been terrorizing the entire south shore. After he arrived, Donovan tried to talk me into going to a casino in South Lake Tahoe where he was hanging around some girl. I went with him, but after that first night, after I saw what he was doing, I didn’t go anymore.
        At the casino Donovan would drink for a while, which he is not supposed to do because he is medicated for anxiety attacks. Then he’d mope around here and there in the casino and finally start making his way over to the counter where this girl worked cashing in chips. He would make some meandering small talk with her, which from witnessing first hand, I am pretty sure she found indecipherable, then he would mope around some more. Every so often he would take a break to tell me he didn’t need Ante, his alcoholic Navajo girlfriend back in Berkeley, any more. The later it got, the more he drank, the more nonsensical his conversation got. I should have guessed something was happening.
         My parents thought they had talked me into coming up to the lake instead of staying in Berkeley, and I was happy to let them think so. But I was coming to wash the taste of college life out of my mouth and to revisit the geese. By the time I was sixteen I had taken over the garage up there, and my dad had caved in and stopped trying to park his car inside. I had a pool table, a full range of video and sound equipment, and enough weed to keep a wartime army.
         For weeks after our trip to the casino Donovan was out there holding on to one end of a roughed up deflated soccer ball and Marlowe, in that dead intense way of his, had the other end
in his mouth. Marlowe, our black ten month old Newfoundland, was already pushing a hundred and twenty pounds, bigger at that age than our old golden retriever had been when she died. So playing tug-of-war with him, especially when you are somewhat high from having smoked all afternoon, and in Donovan’s case having drunk vodka all night the night before and a lot of nights the night before that, is no easy feat.
        Twenty one, like me, Donovan is a long rope of a guy. He is maybe six two and a hundred and twenty five pounds. His no-sympathy mother says he is under weight because of all the M.J. His long string arms flop around like a pair of noodles when he runs and he has the longest movie alien fingers I know of. When he could get the soccer ball away from Marlowe, he would run around with Marlowe chasing him, waving it up high so Marlowe would have to jump for it. Or he would just bend over and slap his thighs to make Marlowe charge him, a dangerous thing to do with a dog that big and that crazy. He is as likely as not to hit you chest high, with his black St. Bernard type head functioning as a battering ram. I have a lot of nicks on my hands from being battered by those big teeth. Those days Donovan looked like a stretched out version of the Donovan who had been playing with our dogs since he was maybe eight. Finally he left for the casino to go back to his woman vigil.
         One night he didn’t come home until maybe four in the morning. Maybe by then he was always coming home at four. I wasn’t keeping close track. What was worse was that he was getting up before me in the mornings. I should have taken more note of those dark circles around his overly dilated eyes. But I only figured that out later, if I figured anything out at all. That particular night around two a.m. Marlowe started barking in earnest. In spite of his age, he is no fool. When he barks a certain way he has cause. Not wanting my parents to wake up, I went out to see what was setting him off. He was standing near the pool diving board barking steadily. I rubbed my eyes and looked where he was looking. At first I didn’t see it. Then its wide yellow eyes caught a shard of moonlight. The owl was standing under the diving board, probably using it as protection against Marlowe.
        At this time Marlowe was about two feet away from the owl. He was just smart enough to not charge in and get bitten or something by this creature he had never seen before and just worked up enough not to not give any ground. I know some of the workings of his duty bound brain. This owl was not coming into his yard. He was telling me and the owl that he was working up the nerve to get in closer. If he hadn’t still been part puppy he might have made his move already. So the first thing I had to do was to catch this bear of a dog and put him in the garage. He read my body language and dodged me. He dodged me maybe four more times. Clearly I was too stupid to see that we were under attack. He would have to handle this himself. He put his head down and made a wild buffalo charge at the owl. The owl left its spot and flew across the pool, but it only just cleared the water. Seeing it fly, I knew it was injured. After a completely undignified chase, I managed to snatch Marlowe’s collar. I started pulling him toward the garage; all the while he was rearing up and letting the owl know this wasn’t over. As we approached the garage I could hear his nails scraping away like mad.
        I got him into the garage but he made a quick little move as I was trying to shut the door and I caught his head in it, which hurt me more than him. His head stuck between the door and the jamb as he scrambled on the cement floor of the garage to force his way back out. After I finally forced him back into the garage, I sat down on a patio chair and stared at the owl. What
would I do with an injured owl? I took it as a bad sign that it hadn’t just flown away. If I were back in Berkeley, I could call the SPCA or someone. Whether South Lake Tahoe even had any animal rescue services, I didn’t know. I pretty much figured nobody was coming out this time of night for an owl. And it would have been depressing to hear someone tell me that owls died all the time in these parts.
        I must have sat there for a long time staring at the owl when it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him move for quite a while. He was just standing across the pool from me by the ladder that leads into the water, his yellow eyes wide and blank. Somewhere along the line I had fired up. So the whole experience seemed kind of surreal. I started walking slowly around the pool toward where he stood. When I got close, I thought he must have been pretty stunned because he didn’t make any move to fly this time. I sat down on the cement right beside him and stared at his impressive head. About that time I figured out the obvious: he was dead; he had died standing up. Whether he was old or not, I couldn’t tell. Who knows what kills owls?
        I went into the garage and found a box. I tossed a dog treat across the floor to Marlowe to keep him busy, so he wouldn’t squirt through the door and go after the owl again. At that he nearly made it through the door before I could shut it. I was going to pick up the owl and put
him into the box when I heard a voice from behind me. “What’s that?” Donovan asked. He looked like hell. The circles around his eyes were the darkest I had seen. I sat back down in a deck chair and looked first the owl then Donovan over. “He flew in and died,” I told him. “What kills owls I have no idea.” “He’s beautiful,” he said. “Yeah he is, or was.”
        The next morning, sure enough, Donovan was up before me. When I get up, he tells me his grand scheme. He met some guy in the casino the night before. This guy’s a painter. But
nobody knows how good his paintings are. The painter is Donovan’s source on this. These paintings are potentially worth a lot of money. “What does ‘potentially’ mean? Doesn’t he have to die before that happens?” But he doesn’t even hear me. He is in a kind of trance. He is going back to Berkeley. He has to “get on this painting thing.” “What does that mean? Get on it how?” I ask the back of his head as he heads for his old lime green Sebring convertible, the actual love of his life.
        When Donovan is under stress he paces around in circles and talks incessantly. So this was something new: insane decisiveness.
        I figure I am not going to see Donovan for awhile. Considering how nutty he was acting, maybe I won’t see him for the rest of the summer. I find it very annoying that he is making me worry about him, because I brought him up here to kind of keep an eye on him, so I wouldn’t have to worry. Now I might as well be back in Berkeley taking a summer class and knocking off some core requirement I was supposed to have finished two years ago and wondering if Donovan is all right. .
         As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long to see Donovan again. I had fallen asleep on the sofa in the garage with my head propped up on Marlowe. I use him for a pillow and he uses
me to remind himself of the important point that he is not alone, one of those dog values that is a holdover from the wolf pack.
         Bam! Bam! Bam! Somebody is violently pounding on the garage door. I stagger over and open it, pissed that someone is about to wake my parents, an absolute taboo and largely the only one I observe at the lake. Only there is no one there. And I still hear the pounding. It is coming from out on the road, so I have to walk around the house to see what it is. This time I
don’t restrain the dog. He is entirely welcome to join me out there in the dangerous night, mad puppy or not.
         Donovan is out front, and so far he is alone. The insane fool has spray painted gibberish graffiti all over his Sebring. Now he is trying to karate kick the driver’s side mirror off. “And you are doing what?” I say to him.
         He looks up at me and his eyes kind of expand and shimmer. “I am getting my art business going,” he says.
        “What does art have to do with kicking the shit out of your car and covering it with hieroglyphics?”
        “It’s performance art,” he says. He is mentally quick on this point, but completely in Wonderland in his behavior.
        “I have to meet some people,” he says sliding back into his significantly altered car. One mirror now dangles by a wire at the side.
        “You should probably come in,” I say. “Marlowe’s been missing you.”
        His head tilted at an odd angle and the light from the moon catches his eyes and gives him a chaotic look. For the first time ever he looks at me with distrust. “I’ll catch up with you later,” he says. “Don’t always worry so much.” Then he drives off, way too fast.
        What exactly I am supposed to do is not clear. Typically you do not rat out your friends. I also am not wholly clean myself on the use of mind altering substances, so if that is what is going on here, it is more than slightly hypocritical for me to start calling his parents or something. And getting my parents involved would be willfully deranged.
        I settle for calling Ante. I realize Ante is a weak link in a chain that now has two weak links and me, but she is a compromise between not outing Donovan but still getting someone to watch out for him and out and out exposing him. If he has escalated from weed, which we have both said we would not do, it could help to have Ante chastise him a bit.
        Ante is at least a purist. She never uses weed. She sticks to the traditional stuff that comes out of a bottle. About two months back she got robbed on Bart. She passed out so stone dead drunk she never really felt it when this guy took her purse and for no particular reason punched her in the face. She has a whole storyline of similar experiences. Before the Bart robbery she fell off a ladder at this candles and incense store on Telegraph Avenue where she worked right up until they fired her. She was so stone cold drunk, she passed out standing on the ladder. Either because Donovan was totally mad about Ante, or because it was the infinitely politically correct thing for them to do, her being a Navajo Indian and this being Berkeley, Donovan’s parents let her and Donovan move in with them for awhile, to help her get off the booze. Two or three some morning Donovan’s mother hears noises from the kitchen. She turns on the light and there is Ante, her eyes wide like those of a raccoon who has been surprised at a dumpster, standing on the counter hauling a hidden bottle of Jack Daniels out from above a cupboard. She climbed into the back seat of Donovan’s Sebring once and downed a pint of E & J Brandy in about ninety seconds. And she’s like five two.
        Ante says Native Americans lack some enzyme that breaks down alcohol and lets the body absorb it, so it’s like poison to her, but too often it is poison she wants. When she answers the phone she sounds sober. “Have you seen Donovan at all in the last couple of days?” I ask, not exactly sure how to describe my last sighting.
        “Isn’t he at Tahoe with you?”
        “No, he left, came back, and left again. I think he’s gone back to Berkeley.”
        “I haven’t seen him but he called me and told me some scheme for making money selling art. I told him he was crazy to drop out of school.”
         “He quit school?”
         “He said he wouldn’t have time for it. He had to focus on his new business.”
         I pause for a second, weighing whether or not I should tell Ante what I saw. “He told you about his business plan?”
         “I told him it was crazy, but he didn’t even hear me. Have you guys moved up to smack or something?”
         “Absolutely not,” I said. I paused and amended this. “I haven’t. I don’t know what he has been doing. He has been roaming around South Lake Tahoe every night, practically all night long. And he is burnt.” I left out the casino girl. I also didn’t comment on the irony of someone who has been in and out of rehab pointing the finger at weed heads.
         “Anyway, if you can, keep an eye on him.”
         I didn’t have to wait long to get another report. My phone started ringing early the next morning, so I knew it wasn’t Ante.
         It was Donovan’s mother, and she sounded pretty weepy. In a nutshell, Donovan had broken into a car dealership. Why, even the cop who found him in there sitting behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible asleep, couldn’t say. It took the cop maybe five minutes to figure out that Donovan was not a criminal. They probably got on to the subject of his art business. As a result he went straight to a psych ward in Martinez, the city where the car dealership was located.
It turns out they can only keep people in that kind of place for forty eight hours, then they have to release them–and they have to have someone to release them to, which in this case was Donovan’s parents. So they are going to change Donovan’s medication, and he has to see his psychiatrist but so far he refuses to be released to his family. He believes his parents have been following him around videotaping him.
         I can think of no response to this bizarre news. From normal a day ago to completely
mad now does not seem possible. I grew up with Donovan, and Donovan somehow seems to be getting erased as the minutes click away. That night I get another phone call. This one is from Donovan.
         “Can I come and stay with you guys?”
         “You are already staying with us. So all you have to do is come back.”
         “You have to sign something because they won’t let me out of here unless I have a place to go to, and I am not going back to my parents’ house.” He pauses a long time. “You might have heard they have been videotaping me.”
         So my crazy best friend whom I grew up with comes back up to Tahoe. I offer to drive him back to the lake, but he refuses. Not a good sign. He says he needs his car at Tahoe. What I don’t like is that his mother let him drive up there. In the last year or two he has told me a lot of sarcastic stuff his mother has said to him. My question? How could she be sure he would make it without some sort of hallucination halfway up? Some of those winding highways around the lake with their sheer drops are not exactly the places you want a mad man on weed behind the wheel. I tell Marlowe this. There is really no one else to tell.
         When he comes back, he looks bad. His face is actually darkened by his ordeal. His eyes seem to have shrunk down to a pair of dots. I know he is on medication, but he talks as though he is in a trance. Where is the kid I knew?
         Of course he fires up that first night. I try to talk to him, but he barely seems to know I am there. He ignores Marlowe entirely. We go to sleep in the garage early that night.
         In the morning he is gone. I call his overly blasé mother. Of course she knows nothing. The next voice I hear is that of Ante. It is about five o’clock. She has talked to Donovan on the phone. Donovan has gone up to Albany Hill early that morning. He started swinging on that rope some long-gone teenagers hung from some tree up there. About once a year some kid breaks an arm or something doing that. After he left there he went down to Albany Beach. To get all this activity in he must have left my house earlier than I thought. Down at the beach, a place where some pretty severely dangerous homeless men regularly sleep, he finished off his car. The cops found it all battered. I have been down to Albany Beach about a million times. I saw this guy once, a homeless guy about fifty, with a pink back pack. It was one of those Hello
Kitty back packs. I remember thinking I sure as hell hoped he had gotten that by just finding it somewhere. Luckily for Donovan the gods watch out for mental deficients.
         Anyway in his post liberation from the psych ward period, he next went down to the Berkeley side of Solano Avenue and got into an altercation with the owner of a small art shop. He started fighting with this woman over selling her paintings by his casino painter. The cops then took him to another psych ward.
         After this news, I can barely keep from throwing up. How can all of this happen so fast? Ante tells me that Donovan has been diagnosed as being bipolar. I go in and look that up in my obsessive dad’s humongous collection of reference books. Bipolar is the equivalent of being not right. It is so vague it doesn’t mean anything. It tells me that when they cannot explain somebody, they call him bipolar.
         I fire up at about midnight. Around one I start pacing around. I happen to notice the box I put the owl in on a counter in the garage. I cannot stop myself from looking. The owl looks totally intact, like a toy that has just come off an assembly line at a Disney factory. In death he remains beautiful.
         About three that morning I realize I cannot sleep. In a pair of flip flops and shorts I make my way down the dock. I am grateful our dock is extremely long, because I want to get as far from shore as I can. Marlowe follows, his nails tapping away reassuringly on the wood behind me, his tail moving in his reliable wag. I sit at the end of the dock, at a slight angle so I cannot see the last of the casino lights across the lake to my right. Looking straight out, it is as though I am alone, seeing the lake the way people a thousand years ago saw it. Marlowe lies down beside
me, his chin flat on the dock, one paw on each side of it in that Fisherman’s Wharf sea lion style of his, but his droopy worried eyes stay open.
         I have no idea whether scientists know that some geese stay out on the water well after dark. Tonight there are five of them, standing in the shallow water of the south end of the lake. You can walk a city block out into the water here and it is less than waist high. The geese stand on rocks. One by one they disappear. Where they go I have no idea. At last, sometime around four a.m. there is only one goose left. I hope he stays. I almost obsess about it. I think he is unwilling to let the day end. He wonders where his personal flock has gone, those geese that greet the day with that conversational muttering geese make at the first light of morning when you first wake up. Maybe he wonders if they will come back at all, or if the loss of light and the loss of his flock are permanent.
Philip Hanson studied creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in English. His short fiction has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, The Copperfield Review, Other Voices, The Dan River Anthology, and Undercurrent. He is currently an associate professor at the University of San Francisco.


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