It’s the wailing of a dog that draws me across the train tracks to a campfire set amongst a copse of pine trees. The two men lookup at my approach, both bearded and wrapped in layers of mottled brown clothing, most of it ragged, some with logos stitched on shoulders. The one, Cabella, turns and spits a syrupy jet into the fire. I can see him shift his tobacco between his cheeks.
The other, he’s got Santa’s eyes, has a small dog at his feet. He twists a cord and the beast yowls in pain. “You heard that, I bet. Come to investigate.”
There are a number of log-rounds on end and I pick one furthest from the men. I sit, my eyes never leaving the pair. “You get a kick out of torturing creatures smaller than you?” I’ve already picked out a sturdy branch only part-way into the fire.
“Well that’s the thing, ain’t it?” Santa twists and the dog yelps.
Cabella spits again. “Yousef and me, we was just having a philosophical discussion. This here mutt is having his say, too.” He choke-chuckles, hocks up a wad of phlegm and shoots it toward the fire, only, it’s stringy and ends up on his knee. “Goddamn it. I just found these pants.”
“Found em?” Santa Yousef seems fascinated with the slick on Cabella’s pant leg as it slides glimmering into the dirt.
“Yeah, found em too close to the exit of that fancy outdoor store.”
The dog begins to whine, high pitched, beseeching me to intervene.
“What kind of heinous discussion involves the torment of a little dog?”
Santa Yousef perks up. “Exactly.” He gives a solid yank and the cry that emerges from the dogs throat nearly drives me to seize the stick and beat the living crap out of Satan Santa. The man sees me flinch and nods knowingly. He soothes his victim, for I’m sure that’s how he views the dog—his victim, with a series of strokes down its side.
Cabella crosses his arms and legs and arches back. “Go on, Yousef, your turn at rebuttal.”
I haven’t stopped giving Yousef the hardest stare I can. I see that he’s missing fingers from the hand that holds the rope. He tilts his whole frame to one side, too, like he’s been suffering from scoliosis for decades. “Yeah, Yousef, rebuttal your way out of this.” I attempt bravado, but using the man’s name is pushing it.
He laughs though. “We were discussing the purpose of pain, if you care to know.”
I tilt my head and give him a confused look.
Yousef smiles and holds up his misshapen hand. “Pain’s evolutionary purpose is for survival. Agreed? If it hurts, you run, you hide, you pull back your hand, you do whatever you can to stop the pain from going on and on. And you remember. Right? You remember the next time you see pain comin’. Nuh-uh, no way. Not this time. You get me?”
Then he takes the cord and really gives it a twist sending the dog into spasms of agony. And he keeps at it and the dog howls so loud another dog, miles away, picks up its call and howls back.
I come off my seat. “Stop it. Goddammit, stop!”
Over the noise he yells, “But why does pain keep on keepin’ on?” He quits and the dog collapses into wretched huddle. “What’s the purpose of pain that never ends? Of chronic hurt and misery that gnaws at your mind like a cancer, feral and relentless? Why does the Universe give us pain like that? Evolution? Bah. You don’t learn from a paper-cut you just stupid. Stove hot? That’s plenty to teach a youngster. But pain don’t stop at ‘just enough’. No, pain has to drive poison nails into your skull, into your back and muscles. Why? No reason. No reason a’tall. It’s the Universe saying, your suffering means nothing. So, suffer you will.”
My mind reels at the torture and the man’s callous indifference. And his words. From somewhere deep, my fascination with the balance of nature opens a door. “What about joy? Joy beats pain any day.”
I can see the look of approval on Yousef’s face. It doesn’t last. From within the folds of his garments he pulls a baggie. When he begins to finger its contents, the hound’s ears perk up. Yousef hands the dog a treat and gives him a pat. The dog, oblivious of its recent treatment, snuggles up to the man’s legs.
“How many treats of joy would you say little Dizzy here has earned tonight, all of them?” Yousef dumps the bag onto the ground. Dizzy gobbles them up in seconds.
Cabella snorts. “Hey, you were gonna share those.”
“Fact is, pain is inexhaustible. Joy? Joy is over and gone by the time the pain returns and consumes every living fiber in your body and mind. Ain’t that right, little Dizzy. Ain’t that right.”
“Please don’t hurt the dog anymore.”
“Oh he won’t. He thinks he won the argument. ‘Specially with an audience like you ’round to act the acolyte.”
I take Cabella at his word. I rise to leave but Santa hasn’t finished with me yet.
“Come around same time tomorrow. We’ll be discussin’…”
Cabella reminds him. “Fear.”
“We’ll be talkin’ about fear.”