Oh, how I did admire that Carla Brown. She was a woman who lived next door to me, on a quiet, tree-lined street in central Texas. She was an auto body mechanic and she did most of her work right out there in her front yard, pounding away at metal slabs and slicing them up with a blowtorch in the noonday sun. Carla lived alone with a small, three-legged dog named Rodney. Rodney was not very fond of me.
I had, on a few occasions, tried to ask Carla out on dates. It would go something like this:
“Hi, Carla. That’s nice work you’re doing on that car.”
And she would say, “Thanks a lot.”
Then I’d say, “Hey, how would you like to get something to eat with me?”
“Yeah, well, see,” she’d say, “I’ve kind of given up eating solid foods. I’m trying to get away from all that these days.”
“Okay, yeah, sure,” I’d say. “I understand completely.”
Of course, I didn’t understand completely. I had no idea what she was talking about. But even so, I couldn’t help admiring her.
Often Carla hung around with a large bearded man known as Jed. She told me he was just a friend. Jed liked to call me “Willy” even though that is not my name.
One day Jed drove over in his blue van and parked it in front of Carla’s place. Carla walked out with a large backpack over her shoulder and threw it inside the van. Little three-legged Rodney followed after her. I heard Jed and Carla arguing about something and then there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there stood Carla and Rodney. The little dog eyed me suspiciously.
“I need to ask you a favor,” said Carla.
“Okay,” I said.
“It’s only for a little while, a short trip,” she said. “We’ll be back soon.”
“Okay,” I said again.
So Carla pushed Rodney inside my house and ran off to join Jed and his van. I watched them drive away and then turned to look at Rodney, who sat dumbfounded on my kitchen floor.
“Grrrrrr,” he said.
I made up my mind that Rodney and I would become pals. The truth was, I could have used a little companionship. Although I did happen to know that Rodney wasn’t fond of me now, I figured this situation could change. And if it did, then so too might Carla’s seemingly neutral feelings toward me.
Not far from my house was an area of public land known to all of us as Cuervo Gardens. The “garden” part of the name was misleading. It was a square mile of thickets and brambles and dry rock creek beds where folks liked to drive around and drink hard liquor. I took Rodney out there and let him hop about after the toads and lizards and rabbits that inhabited the land. Although I felt that Rodney’s hyperactive demeanor left something to be desired, I had to admire his resourcefulness for a dog with only three legs. He was so agile, you would have thought he preferred those three legs to four.
At some point that afternoon Rodney scampered off after an armadillo and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the day. In fact, I didn’t see him again for quite some time. I called out his name for hours, but night fell and still he did not return.
“Shit,” I thought.
I went home and drew a picture of Rodney on a piece of paper, taking pains to accurately portray his three-legged nature. Underneath the crude figure I wrote the words: “Missing, one three-legged dog—reward if found.” I made copies of this flyer and tacked them up all over the neighborhood.
The next day I got a call from an elderly woman. She told me that she had Rodney in her custody.
“I understand you are offering a reward,” she said.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
About an hour later a gray station wagon pulled up to my house. The woman at the wheel was very short, her head barely peeking over the dashboard. She wore enormous black sunglasses. Sitting behind her in the back of the wagon was a metal cage covered by a towel.
“Let’s see the money,” said the woman.
“No,” I said. “Let’s see the dog.”
The woman sighed and stepped out of her vehicle. She opened up the back door and undid the latch to the cage. A little brown mutt dashed out and began running around in circles on the street.
“That dog has four legs,” I said.
“I know that,” said the woman.
“The dog I’m looking for has three legs,” I said. “I wrote that specifically on the flyer.”
The old woman removed her giant sunglasses and peered down at the dog.
“Well, then,” she said, “I suppose your dog must have sprouted another leg.”
I told her this was not the case and I refused to give her the reward, as we had previously agreed. She tried to bargain with me, lowering her asking price significantly, but I held firm.
The morning passed by and Rodney remained missing. Each time I heard a car rumble down our street I feared it would be Carla and Jed returning early from their trip. I would have to explain to them my failure. I pictured big Jed shaking his bearded head and saying, “Aw, Willy, you really fucked it up this time.”
So I drove back over to Cuervo Gardens and parked my car in the shade so as to avoid the glaring heat of the afternoon sun. I sat on the hood and called out Rodney’s name over and over. I strained my ears listening for the jingle of his collar, or maybe a muted bark, but there was nothing. I was about to pack it in and leave when I heard a woman’s voice off in the distance.
“Isabella! Isabella!” she called out. Then she began to whistle, like she too was calling for a dog.
Another abandoned soul, I thought, out searching for her pet! She was far away, but getting closer, calling out the name “Isabella!” every few seconds.
I began to wonder if perhaps the land around here contained some kind of vortex into which wayward dogs sometimes slipped and never returned. Poor Isabella, I thought. Poor Rodney!
I wandered away from the car toward the woman’s voice. I wanted to talk to her, to commiserate over our regrettable circumstances. But as I made my way through the bushes and brambles got a little lost myself. Now I couldn’t make out where that voice was coming from at all.
I was about to call out to her when I heard a little bark. A short muffled “Yip!” Then there was a sort of “Arp!” Was it Rodney? I couldn’t tell. Perhaps it was Isabella. I wouldn’t mind finding her, either, I thought.
I ran toward the sound I had heard. I pushed my way through low-lying branches and marched over gravel beds filled with dead cacti.
And then, up ahead, I saw my car. It was parked in the shade where I had left it. I walked closer and saw that there was something large lying on the ground in front of my vehicle. It hadn’t been there when I’d left. At first, I thought it was a pile of trash, a long row of flattened plastic garbage bags someone had thoughtlessly dumped while I was away.
But, no, this was not the case at all.
There, stretched out in the shade by my car, lay an enormous snake. A giant snake. Not just a snake, but a python, a python of extremely large proportions. It was longer than my car. Its head was as big as a watermelon, its body thicker than my thigh.
“Motherfucker,” I said.
For now I saw something else which shook me to my very soul. There was a lump in that snake, right in the middle of its body—a motionless lump just about the size of a dog.
I studied it from a distance, trying to judge whether the animal inside that snake was Rodney. Did it have three legs? The lump appeared to move, as if whatever was beneath that scaly skin was struggling to get out! Little Rodney! My tenacious pal, swallowed alive like Jonah himself!
The big snake’s eyes were glassy and calm. I have heard that after a snake devours its prey, it lies in a near comatose state, its energy thoroughly expended in the effort it takes to digest a creature alive. This was my chance.
I crept closer to the beast, noting the sly position of its mouth. Why do all snakes seem to smile? This is what I was thinking when the snake lifted its head and then shot forward at me. Perhaps that digestion theory had been wrong.
There was no time to deliberate now, no time to weigh the prudence of my actions. The battle was upon me! I dodged the lunging head of the python and slipped around to its back side. I grabbed hold of its massive tail and heaved with all my might. The power of that beast! Right there in my hands!
“Dogeater!” I cried, “Rodney, I shall avenge you!”
It was a mighty struggle, but I did prevail, smashing the snake’s body repeatedly onto the hard rocky earth. In the end, its great body lay limp in my arms.
At first, when I heard the cries of the woman, I assumed it was the snake, calling out for mercy, begging for me to stop. But then, of course, I realized that snakes cannot talk, or even make any sounds for that matter.
Standing behind me, just a few feet away, was a pale-skinned young woman, her face full of shock and anger.
“You’ve killed Isabella,” she said to me.
Now, here I must admit to having earlier fallen prey to the temptation of slight exaggeration. That snake was not quite as long nor perhaps quite as thick as I had first described. As I held its limp body in my arms I realized that indeed it was merely a household pet, a snake accustomed to shag carpets and man-made tree limbs. Isabella here probably could not have fit Rodney into her mouth after all.
“I’ve made a mistake,” I said.
I placed Isabella back on the ground, hoping she would slither back to life, but she did not.
“I thought she ate a dog,” I explained. “My friend’s dog is missing and I saw a lump in her belly.”
“Isabella is pregnant,” said the woman. “Her belly is full of babies.”
Together we loaded the snake into my car. I drove as fast as I could to the animal hospital where skilled and caring surgeons removed Isabellas soft, damaged eggs one by one.
“She was searching for a place to lay her eggs,” the woman explained to me. “That was why she left home. That’s why I was looking for her.”
“Im very sorry for what I have done,” I said. I said it over and over to her.
We sat together in the waiting room, me and this snake-loving woman. “Perhaps the eggs will survive,” I told her. “We can raise them together. They’ll be bigger and more beautiful than even Isabella.”
“That would be nice,” said the woman.
I took hold of her hand and she let it sit there, inside of mine, soft and motionless.
It was about a week after that when I finally heard the tiny scratching on my front door. I opened it up and there stood Rodney, skinny and shivering on his three little legs. I stepped aside and he hopped forward into my house, wagging his bony tail, glad to see me. I cooked up some ground beef that had been sitting in my refrigerator and I mixed it in a bowl with potatoes and brown gravy. Little Rodney ate until he could eat no more. Then he passed out on the kitchen floor, fat-bellied and content.
Carla Brown and her boyfriend Jed never did return.
—Arthur Bradford’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Esquire, and Prize Stories 1997: The O. Henry Awards. His first short story collection, Dogwalker, will be published by Knopf in June. His first film, a documentary called How’s Your News?, is scheduled for release on HBO next spring.