Volume Four, Issue 2

Bessie Smith

Richard Oyama

Over the mountains the cloud-blanket had not lifted for weeks. The clouds were like plowed ground, furrow upon furrow going as far as the day was long. There was no patch of blue.

The park was empty and forlorn. Bessie and David Shimamura sat atop the picnic table under a dying mulberry, looking past the chain-link at the wild bushes and vestiges of human presence—cloth tarpaulins, plastic bottles, hamburger wrappers, blank shooters—onto cars zipping on the interstate with an amphetamine death wish, the backwash sounding like Krautrock.

‘Tis the season of ever-winter.

David wrapped his arm around Bessie’s ribcage—she was an athlete with impressive breath control. She would fetch a ball enthusiastically a couple or three times, capture it, then collapse into a cool depression under the naked mulberry, ball in mouth like prey.

Bessie disdained other dogs except for the petite lapdogs that held so much fascination for her or else she humped a couple of submissive curs to assert her butch dominance. She barked at men with caps, men with beards, men with canes, children who ran, women on the rag, dogs who ruffled her territoriality or jealousy, or the odorous homeless, all whilst semaphoring a black-tipped tail frantically like a poisoned pen.

David thought Bessie was a serious beauty the first time he spied her at the eastside shelter. In the gated pen she was partly buried under her sister who displayed full-on lion-like, Chow regalia—a monarchical ruff, a thick coat. They were the wicked queen and the bad sister. Like Cinderella, Bessie was melancholy and chastened under her sister’s imperious command. Her brown eyes were soulful. David loved the soft pads of her paws.

He fell head over heels.

She was also incorrigible. Bessie was stubborn and willful, intractable and relentless. She was Houdini. As often as David paid for chickenwire to raise the height of the fence in the backyard, Bessie spotted a flaw. She was William Holden in “Stalag 17.” In the afternoon David would pull up in front of the house only to spot Bessie romping aimlessly in front, her tongue waggling excitedly. She never ran away from home.

David kissed the top of Bessie’s furred head, flopping ear, black muzzle. Her jaw unhinged itself and the tongue unfurled like a genderless snake and her eyes showed gladness. She fastidiously returned his affection, doling out a delicate lick or two on his snubbed nose and pockmarked cheek, an atavistic habit of the wolf cub wanting her mother’s regurgitated meal.

The Westminster Kennel Club would not have thought her magnificent. She was after all a mixed breed, a mulatta, a mutt. But mutts lived longer since they didn’t have the genetic disorders of purebreds. Hybridity and impurity mingled in her bloodstream. David loved her gold-brown eyes, her broad nose, the arrow of her torso, her bottom’s erotic shimmy and the patterns and markings on her back that made her shoulders look like a matching pair of wings.

However, Bessie was no angel. She was a queer combination of offense and restraint. She tended to circle around the circumference of conflict and play; she was more a private nose scenting for clues, an obsessive-compulsive watcher. David swore that she gazed at her own image in the hallway mirror not out of vanity but from a sort of self-recognition and sentience; that is to say, Bessie possessed canine cognition and will. She was not, as Descartes claimed, a soulless machine. He had seen it too often in her attitude. The scientists would disagree. She has the mind, they would say, of a two-year-old child. He was “anthropomorphizing.”

Shimamura’s animal essence knew better. Bessie was preternaturally calm, yet was disturbed by frequencies beyond human ken and movement and odor unnoticed by mammalian eye. Her wisdom was as ancient as the blues: eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re dry.

She was a Zen master.

Bessie was Nihonjin.

The following conversation took place telepathically:

I’ve been sacked from my job, said David.

What meaning? Bessie asked.

I sacrificed my life to work. Now I have nothing.

Is work who you are?

It’s what I do.

Are those two different things?

You do good works to ascend to heaven.

What is this what you call Heaven?

I don’t know but I sure as hell know what Hell is.

Where is Hell? Bessie asked.

Hell is an interlocking series of underground sewers, David answered, through which the rotting waste and vegetable matter flows into and despoils our rivers, streams and reservoirs. There Satan’s minions live—empty suits, mortgage bankers, whitepower webmasters, bullyboy traders, tech drones, tax-evading billionaire dealmakers, Saudi oil magnates, simian robocops, coke-sniffling speculators, headhunting corporate raiders and right to work union-busters.

Dominance asserts itself, Bessie said. First law of the pack. Dogs take our cues from you. We are your closest observer.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. As does the means to acquire it. David surrenders to a wistful dream of a post-apocalyptic revolutionary future.

Anarcho-syndicalist cells communicate nationally via deepweb stealth safe-line cell phones off the grid, guerrilla vids and live links of demos broadcast across the globe. Their stealth models are Comandante Zero and the Zapatistas, hackers, drug dealers, mujahedeen, assassins. Maybe in the form of encrypted strategizing and organizing and spontaneous demonstrations against globalization and for income parity, alternative sources of energy, desalination plants, water pipelines that snake coast to coast like big rivers, WPA 2022 to repair infrastructure, writers, artists and photographers documenting the movement toward sustainable living.

Sleeper cells, like packs, are amorphous. They mutate and reshape and repurpose like a wild mercury sound. That’s what makes them difficult to track. They are soi dogs roaming the night, neos, free agents, wildcards, loosed canons of alt-lit. All the old institutions—and their thought—rot.

What you sense is, Bessie said, the odor of rotting meat. Old dogs retire from the fray. Puppies have the energy of eternal delight, they learn how to negotiate non-pack assignations. We wolf ancestors are better at social arrangements than you humans.

Tell me about it.

I can’t go on.

You go on.


One does not ask.

What meaning?

No words but in deeds.

As performance?

Always live. Unto death.

It hurts.

Pain is the master, you are the slave. The dog is a stoic. Our play is inseparable from mayhem. Each encounter a dance, a careering, a ballet of power and submission. Power is essence. The puppy is tolerated but not indulged. She acquires either confidence or trepidation. The law is established. The hurt is how the world crashes into us. What you do is endure. Sometimes you whimper and hide or curl yourself into a small ball.

Like a rebozo dusk-shadows cover Bessie and David, his right arm slung over her winged shoulders, a mother and child tableaux.

Who is who. It darkens; they merge.

I eat and hump and play and defecate, said Shimamura.

The instinctive life, said Bessie.

What feels good is good.

In a dogsbody.

The dancer is the dance.

The singer is the song.

And so on.

The play’s the thing, Bessie said.

The transient joys, David said.

Dogs run swift as the day is long. We sleep. Humans enslave time, put themselves on the clock, time is money. We chase our shadows and decapitate dolls. Humans with their mad vehicles and devices. We fleet until our hips give out. Humans make a mythos of love. Our generative impulse is pheromones. Humans are what they own. Dogs are the green stride of their torsos. Rationality is a construct. The dog is pure impulse. The human goes to war, contesting ideas of a monotheistic faceless god. The dog has no concept of god. That is what makes her holy.

I am old, David said. I roll my trousers rolled.

We are all our ages, Bessie said.

What persists is memory.

For the human. The dog detects ghostly presences, culinary habits, status and health and emotion through the olfactory organ. We know the world through our bright but unfocused eyes and supernatural ears and nose.

And dog-memory?

It is primeval blood-consciousness. Faulkner is a dog. D.H. Lawrence is a dog. Garcia Marquez is a dog.

You are superior to the human.

You domesticated us. For work, for companionship, for show. We are a heightened version of yourself. We live fast and, without stimulants, die fast. Your toxicities—carbon, speed, gas, brutality, greed, excess, guns, mendacity, self-alienation, your terminal technocracies—hasten our small deaths. What you see in us is the full arc of a sun crossing the sky in time-lapse photography into the last night.

Call me Missus Bone, Bessie said.

Richard Oyama: "My work has appeared in Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, The Nuyorasian Anthology, Breaking Silence, Dissident Song, A Gift of Tongues, Malpais Review, Mas Tequila Review and other literary journals. The Country They Know (Neuma Books 2005) is my first collection of poetry. I have a M.A. in English: Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. I taught at California College of Arts in Oakland, University of California at Berkeley and University of New Mexico. My first novel in a trilogy, A Riot Goin’ On, is forthcoming."

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