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Breaking Leather on the Dog

We threw a party. We were neither of us party-throwers. I can’t remember now why we threw it. Something to do with my wife’s work, the accounting firm she worked for. Maybe it was her turn to throw a party. We’d been to some of the others.


Not many people came. Maybe a half-dozen. We were far outside the city. A bedroom community.

One of the last ones to arrive was my wife’s boss. He came in and after the perfunctory hellos, he walked over to the stereo and turned it down. I was already not having fun and when he did that, I thought, This party is over—I’m getting drunk.

One of the accountants’ parties we went to, there was baklava. I had never had it. They eat it in heaven, you know. The angels and all the saints, sitting around eating baklava.

I don’t know what they drink. Irish whiskey, I hope.

But what do they read? If the saints and angels are gathered at St. Peter’s Heavenly Fiesta, eating baklava and drinking Jameson’s, what are they reading? Joyce? Heaney? Plato and Aristotle?

God, I hope it’s not Plato and Aristotle. I mean, they’re good, but that would be a hell of a party.

And accountants? At the baklava party, thrown by one of my wife’s co-workers in an apartment somewhere in the city, we were sitting there in the living room, and I was looking around. Discreetly turning my head, scoping out the premises. I turned to my wife.

“They don’t have any books.”

There were shelves with knick-knacks, and there was the entertainment center—every home in the entire country had an entertainment center, even if it was just an old TV on a table—but there were no books.

She couldn’t believe it, either. We had books. We even read them. Plato and Joyce, though I don’t think she read those. She was into lighter stuff, Danielle Steele and Agatha Christie. When she wasn’t reading GAAP updates. Accounting was always changing. She had to keep up.

I’m not trying to brag. I’m just saying. But these other accountants—they didn’t have any books.

There was a game called Trivial Pursuit. My wife and I had a copy. We kept it on one of our bookshelves, next to the almanacs.

I read one of the almanacs. Cover to cover. What I remember of it now is Mrs. Morden’s Owlet.

I don’t think Mrs. Morden or her bird made it to Trivial Pursuit. They could have. I wouldn’t be surprised.

I was working then as an investigator for a law firm. Criminal defense. Even if my wife’s boss hadn’t turned the stereo down, I’d’ve wanted to get drunk anyway.

This was a Saturday, the day we had the party. Saturday night. I worked Mondays through Fridays. The day before had been long.

I don’t remember what we served at this party. This happened a long time ago. I don’t know why it stuck with me. Something about the way my wife’s boss just walked right over and turned the stereo down, first thing.

We must have had chips and dips. Canned beer. Maybe wine, but probably not. I don’t know what else we had. Not baklava. I’m sure of that.

I wanted to tell him, Get the fuck out of my fucking house. The rest of them, too.

She wasn’t an accountant when I married her. That came later.

We never threw a party until we threw the one hardly anyone came to. The one where her boss was a jerk. I don’t think he smiled once that entire evening. I probably did. Smiling is one of my weaknesses. The disarming gesture of the fundamentally weak.

Fucker. That’s what he was and that’s what he wanted. Pun intended.

I don’t remember now how it was I knew that. He didn’t say anything. Didn’t make any passes. But I could feel it. She was beautiful—dark sloe eyes and small, slightly perfect nose, and straight white teeth, and slender, and smart—any man who wanted a woman would want her. I’m surprised no one was able to take her away. I can’t see that I’m any great prize.

We had a new client at the law firm. We always had a new client. That’s the thing about criminal defense—there were always new clients. Or potential clients. But they had to have money. If they didn’t have that, there was the Public Defender.

That’s just how it worked. We weren’t a charity.

This new client, the case was, his son died. Two-year-old son. Mysterious circumstances. The police and the DA were suspicious. But there was no hard evidence. Not then and maybe not ever. Charges were never filed.

Did we have a fruit tray? Sliced raw vegetables with two or three different dips? Mixed nuts? Pigs in a blanket?

He came in and barely said hello and crossed from the entryway through the foyer and across the living room directly to the stereo and turned it down. I stood in the kitchen, by the breakfast bar, and watched. What could I say? He was her boss. I wasn’t stupid.

But it was my home. He didn’t even ask.

The day before, I’d had to go out to the new client’s house. Way the fuck out of town, except it wasn’t out of town—it was one of those new suburbs that went on for miles, oversized boxy houses on undersized treeless lots along curving streets that made no sense—I had to stop at three realtors’ offices and ask for directions. Each one was able to get me a little closer to my goal. By the time I got to the house I knew this was a neighborhood that could drive anyone mad.

What were we going to do at this party? Smoke tobacco cigarettes, eat chips and dip, drink beer, and talk. About what? Reagan was president. These were accountants. We would talk about money and the things that could be bought. And I would get drunk. Wasn’t like I was going to have to drive, I lived there. I could pass out on the living room carpet at the end of a very short commute.

I don’t remember these people. Not clearly, not anymore. The boss, Mr. Stereo Downturner, was a man of average height and average B-team build, average face and curling but receding hair. Probably played racquetball. I don’t remember if he wore glasses. As for the rest, they are ghosts to me now. A dark-haired woman, a slender man, others I can’t picture even as clearly as that. Even my wife is little more to me now than a dream I had once and woke from a long time ago.

The new client was a young man, somewhere in his mid-to-late twenties. His wife was about the same. She was a little heavy. Not much yet. It would probably be more later, if she lived long enough. It was her baby who had died. Hers and his.

Neither he nor she were much to look at. Not good-looking, not hard on the eyes. Just a young couple, both working at jobs in the city, doing their god-awful commute from way out in the suburban boondocks—no stores or restaurants or anything, just mile after mile of houses, with a convenience store every once in a while along the main arteries. Get gas for the car, junk food and coffee for distraction along the drive, maybe something for the kid, though he was still pretty young.

The Mobile Crime Lab was parked out front of the client’s house when I arrived. The client and his wife were gone. That was the deal. The police were there to execute a search warrant. I was there to watch and take notes.

It was early afternoon when I got there. A half-dozen cops were inside. They were suspicious and defensive. They don’t like defense attorneys or anyone who works for them. We’re all bad guys in their eyes.

There was a sergeant, four detectives, a uniformed cop, and a medical investigator. I think the uniform was there to keep an eye on me. They all had guns. I didn’t.

There was a dog in the back yard and the uniform went out there for some reason and the dog made to—well, I didn’t see it, but I heard the racket. The uniform came back in flustered. “That dog freaked me out,” he said. “I thought it was going to attack me, I pulled my gun.” The detectives teased him about that for a while. “You broke leather on the dog?”

One of the detectives left to get lunch for everyone and bring it back. Or not everyone. They didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. I don’t remember if I had brought anything to eat. I probably did. A couple protein bars. Those were my protein bars days. Too much work and never enough time to eat. Home late to dinner.

Same for my wife. Long days, but she usually got out for lunch. That’s what she told me. We rarely had the chance—or took the opportunity, if it existed—to have lunch together on days that we worked. A lot of the time we weren’t even in the same town. I’d be taking witness statements in some house trailer on the outskirts of a hamlet three towns south, she’d be poring over spreadsheets in the main office of some small quango two counties to the northwest.

One of the detectives was a woman and she was in charge. She took notes and told the others what to do. She told me to stay in the kitchen. The design was open and I could see most of the rest of the house from where I stood. The uniform stayed with me except for when he went out back to meet Jesus.

Sometimes the dog was allowed in—I could see dog hair on the carpet—and maybe being stuck outside was the issue with the dog. The house was nicely furnished. A little cluttered, but your standard young and rising middle-class suburban love nest. Lots of photos on the living-room walls, mostly of family, or what I took to be family, and of the kid.

The detectives examined everything. The fridge and pantry were well-stocked, with the usual stuff you would expect to find in a home like this. Canned goods and boxed meals. Mustard and mayo, juices and butter and milk. Mugs chilling in the freezer door, frozen meats from the supermarket. A bottle of cream liqueur. Shot glasses and a cocktail mixer.

No books.

The range was gas. The knobs had been removed and were stashed in a drawer next to the stove. Baby caps were on the electrical outlets.

The sergeant left not long after I arrived. He talked on his phone before he went.

“We’re not naming suspects.”

I don’t know who he was talking to.

There was a children’s plastic trike in the living room. A toddler’s wooden rocking horse in the kid’s room by the crib. A small child’s bike helmet.

After they were done and before the young man and woman and their family returned, the detectives let me look around. There was a lot of heavy, hard wooden furniture. Nothing ornate. Functional, solid, lower-middle-class pieces with right-angle projections at the level of a toddler’s head.

There was a small rocking chair in the kid’s room, along with the rocking horse. I heard the detectives talking about another small wooden chair they had reason to believe existed. They didn’t find it. One of them even went out to the back yard to look, and looked over the back fence to see if it could be behind the lot. The dog was confined in a side run and viciously barked.

The medical investigator, who was a woman, arrived about an hour after I did and stayed for less than a half-hour. The detective in charge took her around the house, showing her the rooms. They stopped in the living room and the detective filled her in.

“He had two skull fractures a couple months ago. Supposedly he was sitting on the couch and fell off backwards.”

A couple of times before the medical investigator arrived, the detectives went to the garage to talk where I couldn’t hear them. The uniform stayed with me to make sure.

The phone rang repeatedly. It was not answered. The detectives told me they only answered ringing phones when they were serving warrants on drug dealers’ homes.

“There was this one time, I swear, a guy called and asked for Dave and I said, ‘Dave’s not here,’ and he said, ‘Well, I got the stuff, man, and Dave’s expecting it. He said he’d be there and I’m bringing it by.’ I said, ‘Cool, man, he should be back soon.’ So the guy came by. Two kilos of primo coke.”

The detectives cut out a piece of the wall-to-wall carpet and tagged it into evidence. There was a plastic freezer bag on the high chair that held a couple bottles of children’s prescription medicine and a smaller bag with a lock of the kid’s hair. They didn’t take this. After the family arrived back at the house and before the cops left, the detective in charge approached the young mother and touched her on the arm, said, “I’m sorry about your loss.”

My instructions were to call the young man during the course of the warrant service and keep him apprised of the progress. I did that several times. The young couple—I’m going to give them names, I can’t keep referring to them as the young man or the young woman, let’s call them Mike and Jen—were spending the day out with Jen’s parents and brother and sister. They got home around 7:00 and the detectives realized, Hey, we’re finished. The one in charge went over the Return and Inventory with Mike and me. Exactly what had been seized was not clear—there were general descriptions, but not a lot of details. Some of what they took I knew about precisely—I saw them take it—but other items, like “various papers from office desk,” could have been tax returns or Christmas cards or grocery receipts, for all I knew.

Almost immediately after the cops left, someone knocked on the door. Mike and Jen’s brother answered. I was behind them, across the room. A young man in a navy blue suit asked if he could ask a few questions. I said, “Wait wait wait wait wait” and walked directly and quickly to the door. I asked him who he was. He said he was a reporter for Channel 19. I politely told him I was employed by the family’s attorney, and they had no comment to make. He politely took his leave and I closed the door.

Earlier in the evening, before the family got back, a reporter and camera crew had set up across the street for a while, where they could get the Mobile Crime Lab and the house in the background of their shot. They left after the 6:00 news window closed.

I talked with Mike and Jen and their family about the media. Jen was upset about the possibility of being hounded. I told her and the others not to talk to the media or anyone else about this, that media attention was something that was out of their control. I told them the reporters would soon enough be off on another story and would leave them alone.

The kid had hurt himself, or been hurt, several times over a space of a couple months. He kept running into things, or falling down, or having accidents on his trike or his little indoor swing or his rocking chair. His parents took him to the doctor. They got him a crash helmet he could wear pretty much whenever he was awake.

Jen’s parents told me they spoke with the ER nurse the last time the kid was hurt, when he was in the hospital where he died. She told them she didn’t think the injuries were accidental, that he didn’t have any of the peripheral bruises that would have happened with the accidents Mike and Jen described. Later the nurse said, to Jen’s parents and her brother and sister, “A blow this severe would have rendered him unconscious instantaneously.” The sister asked the nurse if he would have felt any pain. The nurse told her he would never have felt a thing and “would never have known pain.” That last time, when he was hurt, it was Mike who brought him in. Jen had already gone to work. Their boy’s skull was fractured in three places.

Mike and Jen told me about how the cops had grilled them at the hospital the night their child died. It was a couple detectives, neither one of them part of the search warrant team. They read Mike and Jen their rights, which Mike and Jen declined to waive. This pissed off the detectives. They said that if Mike and Jen didn’t have anything to hide, they didn’t need attorneys. One of them said, “I’m real pissed off about your boy’s injuries.” He took his badge off and laid it on the table in front of him and said, “All badges off, speaking parent-to-parent, you people have really screwed up and we’re gonna find out what happened.” The other one said to Mike, “I know you’re guilty because you’re not upset enough—you’re not crying.”

Mike and Jen asked me if I thought they would be arrested soon. I told them I didn’t think so, but that if it did happen, they should go peacefully and call us as soon as possible. I made sure they and their family had all my boss’s phone numbers and all mine, too. “Call anytime, night or day—I mean that.”

I told them to start keeping a written record—journal, notes, whatever—of everything they could think of about this situation—no detail, no matter how insignificant it seemed, should be left out. I also told them to keep whatever they wrote in an envelope clearly marked as Attorney/Client Privilege, and to keep it in a secure place. Jen said she was already keeping notes. She had them in her car. I told her that was good, because if they’d been in the house, the cops would have them now.

By now it was a little after 8:00. There was nothing more we needed to talk about, and I left.

It was a long drive home. The subdivision was way the hell out of the city one way, with no lateral cross streets to take me to my own subdivision. I had to go back to the city and loop out again on a slightly different vector.

I thought about—

When I first saw him, when he and his wife and their family first came to the office, I saw them in the reception area and I looked at him, at his face, and I knew it. Right away. I already knew the basic outline of why they were there. He and I didn’t make eye contact. I was coming out of an office at the head of a short hall and I don’t think he or his wife or the rest of them saw me. They had other things on their minds.

But I saw his face and you know how you just know things—you just feel them, you sense them, something comes in and the pieces lock into place—and I knew it. I thought, That fucker.

Our party, we couldn’t even get everyone up enough for a genuine game of Trivial Pursuit. There’s a board and playing pieces and a die and cards with questions. We dispensed with everything but the cards and we sat around and showed off to each other by asking and answering them.

It didn’t last long enough for me to get drunk. I did that the next day, Sunday, with a bottle of Irish whiskey I’d kept hidden from the partygoers. Started early and didn’t stop until that bottle was empty and I was screaming in rage and sobbing like a heartbroken bride.

Had a hell of a hangover Monday morning. Got home that evening and told my wife, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore.”


Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His short fictions have appeared in such publications

as NOON, Atticus Review, Cloudbank, Four Way Review, Book of Matches, and best microfiction

2019. His poetry has previously appeared in J Journal. He is the author of the memoir High

Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012) and the children’s book Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015).


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