PHALANX, THE STORY OF A BORDER COLLIE BY Devon Pitlor, M.A. econ.
I. Christmas Day, 1997.
Alex Naylor's grandmother was the first to drink herself to the floor around noon on the 25th. She fell with a thud and the vodka glass squirted from her hand and smashed into fragments against the dining room wall. Alex's father, Evan, pondered his drunk mother for a minute and, deciding suddenly to pick her up, arched over, lost his balance and careened into the table sending the Christmas goose and all its trimmings to the floor alongside the old lady, who snorned peacefully now and eventually rolled over and used the roasted goose for a head cushion. Evan rose to his feet and staggered into the back yard. Alex watched him collapse onto the grass into some piles of dog shit left by Aristotle the family doberman. In the spare bedroom, Alex's aunt was also snoring by noon. Alex passed her bed looking for her purse on the chance of finding some spare bills and noted that she smelled like the diesel fuel his father pumped into his rig. For a moment, he pondered setting her on fire with a match. He supposed that she would burn up right away at the touch of a flame.
In the living room, Alex's mother Jeannie was flat across the sofa gazing at a huge pair of scissors which someone had given her for Christmas. Her yellowing eyes glazed blankly as Alex passed, and she grinned in undisguised inebriation. She opened the scissors and made a gesture of passing them over her wrist. "Gotta die somehow," she burbled to no one in particular.
Alex looked at the unopened presents under the tree and wondered if he dare to open those marked with his name. He had decided not to---in order to avoid the inevitable "disciplinary beating" that his father would later give him--when he heard a low-pitched woofing sound coming out of one of them. The little box was wrapped in sloppy, stained butcher paper and tied with twine and had holes poked into it. "Alexander" was scrawled across the top. Something alive was inside.
II. Phalanx the border collie emerges.
At eight years of age, Alex knew that animals could not last long in boxes with tiny holes in them and made the brave decision to liberate whatever it was inside. It turned out to be a brown puppy with three legs.
The puppy seemed healthy enough and had a huge set of doleful eyes which seemed like black pools of coal tar. Its ears were perky enough, and its nose was wet and cold. It acted happy to be free and bounced around by Alex's knees.
From the bedroom came a dull thud.
On cue, Alex's aunt had rolled off the bed and hit the carpet.
All was normal this Christmas, Alex thought. Except for the puppy. He had asked for one two or three years before and never got it. For some reason, they had thought to get him one this year---a year in which his mind was already turning to other, darker, things.
The puppy jumped into Alex's lap and peed. Then it jumped off. It woofed at him as if it wanted to play and started jumping around. The missing leg, of which not even a stump trace remained, didn't seem to hinder it. It seemed happy. That was a lot of happiness all at once for Alex, who was not used to it at all.
The oft-used term in the Naylor house "cut-rate" came to Alex's mind. Someone had found him a cut-rate puppy. The missing leg must have made it cheaper, or maybe free altogether.
He stroked the little puppy with a hesitating hand. Never having known much tenderness in his life, Alex was not sure how to befriend a puppy or even if he should.
He decided to name the puppy Cut-Rate.
III. The puppy gets a new name.
Alex Naylor had been told many times that he was named after the Macedonian hero Alexander the Great. He had no idea of why or how. His parents were not readers, but he himself had looked at pictures of Alexander in the school encyclopedias that year. "Alexander wept because he had no more worlds to conquer" read the caption of one rendition of the great warrior. "His phalanxes had traversed and subdued the known world of his day," the caption went on. He asked his teacher how to say phalanxes and what they were.
So for some reason that day, Alex decided as his stupefied family snored in blissful inebriation to re-name the puppy Phalanx.
Timidly and in small steps, Alex opened up to the little dog and started to play with it. He had no idea of how to play with a dog. The only dogs in the Naylor family were "watchdogs" and whipped daily to make them mean. Alex had been many times warned to leave them alone. His father liked mean, barking dogs. Dobermans.
But in an hour or so, just around the time that his red-eyed grandmother, finally pulled herself to her feet and staggered off to the bathroom farting, Alex had made a little three-legged friend, and he was determined to keep him a friend. In the Naylor family, Alex had always been surrounded by enemies. An only child in a household of violent drunks and vicious dogs, his only shelter had always been in his own fantasies. And these fantasies had lately centered around the Alexander the Great, of whom he had learned and for whom he had been named. Now Phalanx was his "friend"---perhaps his only friend. Alexander had phalanxes. Now Alex had one too.
There was a beating soon coming. Alex could feel it. It was his dad's way of relieving himself during a hangover. Maybe Phalanx would protect him.
Maybe Phalanx would grow suddenly huge and bite his father's head off.
Alex wished and dreamed.
IV. Christmas 2000. Alex becomes a menace to his father's health.
By age eleven, Alex had become tough as wang leather. For two years now, he had lifted anything heavy he could find and had built up muscles that visibly bulged and shoulders that proclaimed a rigid muscularity far beyond his age.
He had needed to do this because his father was determined to catch him in a lie or whatever and beat him senseless. In fact, his father had threatened to kill him, and his grandmother would help. His mother's suicide was layed squarely at his feet. His father, in moments of cruel sobriety, said that Jeannie had done herself in in 1999 because of Alex. Alex was uncontrollable and wild, he said, and had driven his mother to suicide. Actually, Jeannie had killed herself because of Alex's father. During their troubled marriage, Evan had managed to knock three teeth out of her head and dislocate both her hip and shoulder multiple times. He claimed that she, also, lacked control.
But the biggest reason Alex had built up his strength was to defend Phalanx. Alex's father was convinced that the three-legged dog was the servant of the Devil. Only the Devil would have allowed a three-legged dog to survive. No one in the house ever knew who had put the puppy under the tree in a box, but Evan was determined to kill it. Phalanx lived mostly in Alex's bedroom and closet and sometimes hid in the basement. Like Alex, Phalanx had grown large and strong, and beneath his soulful eyes was a broad set of jaws furnished in sharp fangs that had more than once torn into Evan's flesh. Only Evan's drinking saved Phalanx because the former could never catch the dog. He carried a loaded revolver around looking for an opportunity to shoot Phalanx, but the dog managed to elude him for three years. Blame alcohol, but Evan never did. He just said the dog was evil and could disappear.
V. Christmas 2002. Alex cuts his father with the jagged edge of a vodka bottle.
Phalanx had crept out to watch the fight. Alex had been drinking from one of the open bottles too along with his grandmother, aunt and father. They had all been vowing to kill someone or something. Phalanx growled at Alex every time he took a sip of vodka and weaved across the dining room floor. It was as if Phalanx was still trying to protect him, as the dog had always done. But this time it was from himself. Alex had discovered the bliss of inebriation.
Phalanx almost leaped on Evan as the latter lunged at Alex with the butt of his revolver, but Alex was quicker and sliced his drunken father through the front of his shirt with a broken bottle. Blood darkened the man's chest, and he looked in wonderment at the wound. Then he passed out. Alex threw the bottle by his side as his dad bled to death. For once he was happy on Christmas. He took Phalanx and went outside. A police car was arriving. The boy and the dog walked away, both happy. Phalanx's tail was wagging for the first time in weeks. Alex, though slightly drunk, was almost skipping.
Both boy and dog were absent at the brief funeral.
VI. Phalanx disapproves of Alex's friends.
In 2005, Alex quit school. He had hardly been attending anyway, but now he had the legal right to drop out. In his mind, he had dropped out years before, and he had only remained for the sex he sometimes got from the girls in his class. He beat up one girl too, but that was another story. He became known as "the boy who killed his father." The police had cleared him of this, but Alex himself made sure everyone knew the truth. Phalanx and he had ridded the world of another vicious drunk, and Alex took great pride in this accomplishment.
The neighbors and kids who knew Alex knew to avoid him and especially avoid his dog.
Phalanx followed Alex everywhere, always with the same huge soulful deep eyes and ready fangs in case trouble should arrive---as it always did among teenagers.
Alex continued to say Phalanx was his "best friend." But one day, Alex made another friend.
VII. Alex's new friend in a plastic package.
White powder wrapped in a package about the size of a brick was what Alex had stolen. Because these days Alex always stole something. Alex had been taking chunks and drams of this powder for two years now, but this time he stole the whole pack. In fact, he stole two of them. He had begun by snorting the stuff up his nose, but that had been a couple of years ago. It made him feel strong, and it made Phalanx look at him pleadingly and bark in disapproval. Then someone showed him how to cook it and smoke the pieces in a metal tube taken from a tire pressure gauge his father had left behind. Once again, Phalanx rumbled in disapproval. One time Phalanx had almost sunk his fangs into Alex, as the latter hit the metal tube stuffed with Brillo one too many times and passed out---falling flat to the floor in the manner favored by his family.
But this time it was more serious. Perhaps the dog knew it. Perhaps he didn't. After the injection between his toes, Alex stretched palpitating across his bed as Phalanx licked the former's sweating face and bloated cheeks. The needle had become an hourly routine by now. And Phalanx, ever at Alex's side, was a witness to the 19 year old boy's inevitable downfall. Phalanx licked Alex's face and emitted low barks---as if he were asking him to come outside and play the way they had once done together. It was all in vain. Alex's new friend had him firmly in his grasp. Phalanx licked the place on Alex's chest where the visibly pounding heart drummed its irrythmic tattoo. He whined, but Alex never heard.
VIII. Did Phalanx understand the phone call?
Everyone had always commented on how intelligent Phalanx was. The three-legged dog seemed to know everything and understand everything. But did he understand the warning that came over the phone that evening as Alex staggered to mix another solution for his syringe, tearing open still another brick of the white powder?
The Jamaicans were coming for money that Alex didn't have.
They would kill him and burn down his house, and they would. There was simply no question about that. No one crossed the Jamaicans. They had been robbed one too many times. Alex was on his way to being dead. Phalanx must have known.
The eleven year old dog, grown rather shaggy and ragged, raised his grizzeled muzzle to watch Alex inject himself one more time. Alex petted his friend's graying head and scratched his ears as he drifted off into the opiate slumber he so desired.
The Jamaicans were not totally sure it was Alex who had robbed them. Armed with guns they burst into the house and ran around looking for their product. Alex's grandmother, terrified, begged them not to shoot her. Alex's aunt hid in the basement.
The Jamaicans saw Alex sleeping on his bed and began nattering among themselves whether to shoot him. One said yes, the other said no. A third reminded them that there was no powder to be found in the house, nor any signs of plastic wrappers. Alex could not have hidden that much cocaine. What he had in the syringe he may have just bought as he always did from them. With great deliberation and a nascent sense of morality, they decided it would be wrong to kill him because they were not sure he was the thief. One scrap of evidence, like a piece of plastic wrapper, would have condemned him at once. But none was to be found.
In a hustle of commotion, the Jamaicans suddenly rushed out, jumped in their pickup and vanished down the street. The thief was someone else they figured.
Alex Naylor, oblivious to what had transpired during his stuporous slumber, awoke, peed and washed his face. His grandmother was already drunk and cowering in a corner. His aunt was nowhere to be found. His syringe was intact but empty. He looked for the powder to mix another hit. There wasn't any.
He also thought briefly of his dog. Something must be wrong. Phalanx was always at his side. Alex called for him but received no response.
The dog had disappeared.
When Alex did find Phalanx, the three-legged dog was dead, collapsed with his head sunk into his water dish on the porch. His wide coal-tar eyes were glazed over and his tongue, coated in white powder, was hanging limply out of his muzzle. In his throat were scraps of plastic wrapping. In his stomach was nearly a half-kilo of raw cocaine. Phalanx had eaten it all, even the wrappers. He had then dropped dead of an immediate seizure. The Jamaicans had never bothered to check the dog.
Alex stroked his former puppy's head lovingly. Tears flowed freely from his eyes. He remembered the box Phalanx had come in so long ago, the wrapping, the twine...
Phalanx had truly been his best friend.
But Alex learned this too late to thank him.
Devon Pitlor, July 2008