story about honesty

Kennedy sniffed himself.

‘Hot dang, I stink like dog meat.’

Where the stink had come from, Kennedy couldn’t say. Nor could he say how he knew what dog meat smelled like, exactly. Did he mean that he smelled like dog food? As if he was confusing the thing doing the eating with the thing being eaten? Like that riddle about what cows drink and how everyone always said ‘milk’, just, like, on instinct?

Were those the same? A dog eating dog meat and a cow drinking cow milk? Something in Kennedy’s head made him think they totally were, even if he couldn’t make sense of it right in that moment. Probably on account of the dog meat stink that was clouding up his senses and his ability to think, even. Which was probably why dogs were such dopey thinkers in the first place, Kennedy figured. Except those dogs that walked tightropes in talent shows. Those dogs probably got all the treatment. The ones that could think and not be put off by the stink of their own meat.

Which settled it. When Kennedy said ‘dog meat’, he meant the meat that made up a dog. Not that he usually thought of the meat that made up a dog as meat at all. Because meat was something to be eaten. And who would eat a dog? Maybe a desperate person who was starving and the dog was a stray or belonged to an asshole neighbour. Kennedy had heard about dogs being eaten in Korea, but that was probably politics and invention with no basis in reality or fairness. There was a Korean kid at Kennedy’s school and he liked Kentucky Fried Chicken just the same as everybody.

None of which solved the problem of Kennedy stinking of dog meat, but did go a long way to clarifying his thinking regarding ‘Does dog meat equal dog food in this context?’ and also the Korean question, which, while never occurring to him up until now, struck him as important in terms of the sort of world he wanted to live in.

‘Goddammit, Kennedy. Haul your ass in here and give me a hand.’

‘Coming, Pa.’

Kennedy’s Pa was always ragging on him because he wanted him to be a better person so that when Kennedy grew up he would be a good person and all the ragging could cease, being deemed unnecessary on account of a parental job well done. Part of Kennedy knew that the ragging would never stop because the kind of logic that makes a parent rag on a kid as a means to moral improvement meant the ragging would just keep going on and on, what with nobody being perfect and all. But then, how do you make the world a better place if not one generation at a time, one parent at a time ragging on one kid at a time until that kid is better than even his parent was? Which Kennedy thought made his Pa a really neat guy because, in ragging on him, he was doing it to make the world a better place. And what nobler cause was there than that, for cripes’ sake?

‘Grab those, attaboy.’


‘I killed a dog, OK, Kennedy. Are you going to be an ass about it or are you going to actually help a situation for once? Now grab those.’

Kennedy grabbed the hind legs and helped drag the body out of the U-Haul’s flatbed and onto the tool shed floor.

‘What happened?’

‘Fetch me a shovel, Kennedy. Your old man’s going to teach you something real important today.’

Outside, the heat was deep and permeating, like not even the ground could resist it. It started to rain. Slow at first and then all at once, quiet and sad without any wind to stir it up and make it mad.

‘Are you standing there or are you fetching shovels?’

‘Shovels? How many you need?’

‘Two, dumbass. Or ain’t you going to help your old man in his problem solving? Instead you just going to heap on the problems by being an uncooperative sass who don’t do what he’s told when he’s told to do it?’

‘But it’s raining out. Bad.’

‘Adversity maketh the virtue greater. Mother Nature piling it on and what not. That’s biblical. Because God loves to test a man.’

Kennedy looked at the dog. ‘Ain’t that—?’

‘Boy, if I ain’t got a shovel in my hand in five seconds and you the same…’

The rain fell real loud and real steady, the tin roof of the tool shed ringing dull with each drop till it ran down the grooves and waterfalled over the doorway and into the dirt. Where it sunk down and down and maybe did some good for something somewhere, Kennedy figured.

Kennedy’s Pa put a tarp over the dog and snatched a shovel, stalked out into the rain. Kennedy started after him, suddenly giving no thought to the weather, maybe because of the heat and so getting wet wasn’t so bad, maybe because of the adversity/virtue quotient that had been quoted at him. Maybe a bunch of reasons mostly to do with duty and how a good person should be able to dig a hole and help his old man when his old man’s in a bind and maybe also something about respect for the dead even though the dead was a dog which had no soul, which never made any sense to Kennedy, but anyway, and maybe some heap of fear too, most probably. Whatever the case, he was soaked through in seconds and felt the better for it, like he could feel the adversity working already and so the virtue too.

‘Here.’ They’d only been walking ten minutes into the woods. ‘Start digging.’




There was a knock at the door.

‘Goddammit, cover it back up.’

Kennedy did as he was told. The rain had stopped but his t-shirt still clung to his skinny kid torso and made him shiver.

‘Kennedy! Get your butt out here!’

Kennedy closed the tool shed door behind him and rounded the kitchen counter. When he saw Rose in the doorway he froze before quickly telling his face to smile.

‘Hi Rose.’

‘Rose here’s worried about Alberto, can’t seem to find him anywhere, says it’s most out of character. You seen him, boy?’

Kennedy met his Pa’s eyes.

‘No, sir, I ain’t.’

‘We were playing in the yard. I only went inside for a glass of water and when I came back, he’d up and left.’

‘Now, now, dry those tears, little Rose. He won’t’ve gone far.’

‘Who’s crying? Was my daddy’s dog and he ain’t crying neither, just raising all hell.’

‘And your father’s a good man, no matter what nobody says. Wasn’t his fault what happened and even if it was, we in this household don’t keep no grudges. Ain’t that right, Kennedy?’

Kennedy nodded. ‘Yes, sir. No grudges. Ain’t biblical.’

‘Got that right. So ain’t nothing bad happened to old Alberto, not with your father being such a saint and all, even if he’s the kind of saint who’s still at that whole misunderstood phase of his sainthood, you hear?’

‘Uhm, okay. Take a poster? It’s got our number and a picture of Alberto, for in case you hear something.’

‘Well, little Rose, I think I already got your daddy’s number now, don’t I? And as for Alberto, I ain’t about to forget a face that cute, same way I didn’t forget yours now, did I? So I ain’t taking any poster as such. But we’re going to do one better, ain’t that right, Kennedy?’

‘We are?’

‘Damn straight, we are. You’re going to go with little Rose here and help her put up every last one of them there posters.’

‘Oh, no, he don’t need to—’

‘Nonsense. You’ll want to head into town, of course. More eyes there. You got that, Kennedy? You know the way you’re leading little Rose here?’

‘Sure, I guess. I just got to change my shirt.’

‘Sun’s out now, boy, so quit your procrastinating and help out a lady in trouble. It’s called having chivalry. Or don’t all them hours staring at the TV teach you nothing?’

Kennedy stepped onto the porch and felt the old timber-frame door slam shut behind him.



Kennedy knew Rose from school. She was a year older than him and wore a crop top that exposed a belly button and a barely noticeable trail of light, downy hairs. She had hairs on her arms too and Kennedy thought maybe in another life they might be nice to stroke, maybe that would be one way of looking after her and making her feel good and maybe she would, if not love him for it exactly, then at least feel some loyalty to him on account of his tenderness.

‘I wasn’t planning on going all the way into town.’

‘’kay. Then where?’

Row after row of identical wooden houses, their porches each adorned with rocking chairs, sofas, ashtrays. They walked together in wordlessness until they reached Don’s Essential Supplies Store, Kennedy stealing glances all the way and wondering just what to do with his hands, dirty as they were from digging and now nervous with romantic wonderings to boot.

‘You stay out here and hold these.’

Kennedy stared at the topmost poster, at the phone number typed there. He imagined dialling it and having Rose pick up, tell him his voice was like butter in her ear, if indeed having butter in your ear was a pleasant sensation, which Kennedy figured it must be on account of its smoothness. Or how she liked that he liked her arm hairs and would he like to stroke them, and she didn’t mind him staring at her belly and actually found it kind of nice and a sign of charming self-confidence, a cut-to-the-chase attitude that was hard to find in boys her own age, who, perhaps owing to hormonal raging or poor upbringing by parents not sufficiently invested in raising their kids to be better than themselves so that the world could be on an upward trajectory morality-wise, would avert their gaze as if her belly held no interest for them. Which made no sense in the slightest.

‘Sorry about that. I had to get this.’ Rose held up a can of PupChow. ‘It’s his favourite. Duck meat in jelly.’

‘You know, it’s a common mistake, but it’s not actually dog meat in there.’

‘What are you? Dense or something? I know it ain’t dog meat. Who or what the hell eats dog meat?’

Possibly Koreans, Kennedy thought, before remembering Kentucky Fried Chicken.

‘I’m just saying what you said.’

Duck meat, dingus. What you got blocking your ears?’

‘Not butter, that’s for dang sure.’


‘Nothing. You ever hear that riddle about the cow? It goes like such: What do cows drink?’


‘You heard it before.’

‘No, I ain’t. Just ain’t much of a riddle, is all.’

‘Most folk say milk.’

‘Well then, most folk is dummies.’

‘Ain’t that the truth.’

They paused at streetlights and mailboxes, fence posts and windscreens, pinning and tucking the posters in all the places they saw fit. Meanwhile, the midday sun had been sucking the rain right out of Kennedy’s shirt till it felt bone dry and wrong. He noticed a sheen of sweat on Rose’s lower back. It looked to him like she’d been licked clean by some devil with all the luck.

‘Don’t talk to me about devils!’

The voice cut the air, congealing as it was.

‘Ah shit, it’s Ma Claymore. Just keep walking.’

Ma Claymore was crazy as the moon. Sat all day on her porch in her wicker chair, hollering and bickering with whoever and whatever happened to be passing.

‘This here’s the heat of hell, is what it is. Devil is in our midst, Rose Bellamy. May be closer than you think. Got to end, soon enough. All of it got to end. He just staking out the path he gonna walk. Devil gonna be promenading through town just like he does your hearts. Mark my words, Rose Bellamy. Shed him now like old skin, you hear? Shed him now like old skin. Wickedness be gone! Get outta here! I can smell you, devil, stinking of you and your sulphurous hounds.’

Kennedy glanced over his shoulder and a gust of wind lifted the hem of Ma Claymore’s Sunday dress up into the air.

‘Whoo-whee, the devil has his ways. Like what you see, devil boy?’

‘Just keep walking.’

‘Go find some other town in which to do your dwelling! You ain’t welcome here, Beelzebub! This here’s a God-fearing town. Dear Lord, come strike me down if I tell a lie. I shall fear no evil. Amen! Amen! Amen!’

Ma Claymore’s amens followed them down the road a full minute more. When they stopped, Kennedy noticed Rose grinning at him, her off-straight teeth stained a creamy grey.

‘Devil boy.’

‘Guilty, I guess.’

‘Better to be a devil than a sinner.’

‘I guess.’

‘What walks on four legs in youth, two legs in adulthood, and three legs in old age?’


‘It’s a riddle.’

‘Do I got some time to consider it?’

‘Devil’s got forever, I reckon. I seen you at school, you know.’


‘Yeah. You kooky enough to seem fun.’

‘Kooky, huh? Well, OK then.’

Kennedy thought kooky was good. He could work with kooky. He could think of a bunch of girls in the history of human relations that had been wooed with less than kooky. Sure, money would help. But some folk made money with their kookiness, like the guy on NPR with his none-so-bad cuss words and his always ragging on someone or other in good humour, plus an impression of Richard Nixon that slayed Kennedy every Friday at eight. That guy definitely had a girl like Rose, plus enough money to treat her right. And all on account of kookiness. So now it was just a case of lifting some weights to get some looks so as to be the full rich–handsome–kooky trifecta.

‘You don’t talk much, do you?’

‘I’m thinking.’

‘About what?’

‘About that dang riddle, what else?’

‘You want me to just give it to you?’

‘Nuh-uh, just let me think, dang.’

‘And stop saying dang. Dang, dang, dang, all the dang time.’

Kennedy smiled. You couldn’t have love without honesty, any old dummy knew that. Plus, earnest folk made for good parents, like Kennedy’s Pa always giving it to him straight so as to make Kennedy a straight shooter too, to make him a good parent in the fullness of time so as to perpetuate the increasing betterment of the world. It was all just a cycle of increasing earnestness and love and good parenting, and now they were caught up in it too.

‘I think I got it licked.’

‘Oh yeah? Let’s hear it.’

‘It’s a human being, right? Four legs for a crawling baby, two legs for a walking man, three legs for an old timer on a crutch.’


‘What do you mean, nope? That’s got to be it.’

‘It’s four legs for a puppy, two legs for the dog after it gone got its legs maimed, and three for the mutt what’s family could only pay for the one prosthetic.’

‘That ain’t it. You’re yanking my chain.’

‘Maybe so, but least it proves you ain’t the devil.’

‘How so?’

‘Cos it shows you limited by your imagination. If the devil got to have one thing, it’s a fertile imagination.’

‘That’s one fertile imagination you got, Rose Bellamy, dang. Maybe you’re the devil Ma Claymore was smelling. Though it seems a little soon to be talking such, about maimed dogs and all.’

‘Don’t be such a sissy. Besides, Alberto’ll be back, he always is.’

‘So you ain’t really worried?’

‘Not as such. I only came knocking on account of Daddy telling me so.’


Came knocking on Kennedy’s door in particular? Of all the doors in the neighbourhood? Kennedy thought Rose was one cool customer, using duplicity to bring the truth of their love out into the light. And in that moment, it didn’t matter how many legs he had, two, three, or four hundred, such are the mechanics of walking on air.

He came back to earth all a-shudder. A dog, huge and shaggy and grey, had sprung onto the path in front of them. Its growl was low, slow as distant thunder, and its teeth were showing, sharp and yellow.

‘Get out of here, Benson. Alberto ain’t here, so get gone.’

Kennedy could hear authority in Rose’s voice, but no small dose of fear too. The dog barked, once then twice more, like it was ramping up to something. Its legs were splayed and its snout was low to the ground.

Rose backed towards Kennedy until their bodies touched.

‘Alberto and Benson hate each other’s guts. He ain’t here, or are you blind now as well as dumb? Go on, get! He must be smelling Alberto on me.’

They began to back up slowly, their bodies conjoined in fright. And, Kennedy figured, what better image of love was there than this? Their bodies moving as one, refusing to be parted, even in the face of aggression and war and the terror of violence and maybe even death too, and all the other horrors for which Benson stood then in Kennedy’s mind. And adversity. The same adversity that made the virtue greater. And what greater virtue could there be than love?

The dog pumped its legs in short bursts. It edged towards them, snarling and barking in raspy low-pitched threats. Kennedy and Rose twitched with anticipation, their bodies compressing ever more tightly together.

Thinking fast, Kennedy jumped to one side and whipped off his shirt and began twirling it over his head. The dog’s attention followed. He edged further and further from Rose towards a row of houses until his free hand located one of the fences, then a gate, its latch, the bolt. He opened the gate and tossed his shirt into the front yard, the dog launching itself after. Kennedy slammed the gate shut and watched as his shirt was torn front from back.


‘Come on!’

Rose grabbed him by the arm and pulled him after her. They must have sprinted half a mile before they each stopped a few yards from the other, breathless.

‘How’d you know he’d go for your shirt? Was Alberto’s stank he wanted.’

‘Cos dogs are dumb, Rose. You know that.’

‘Don’t I just. That was some gamble, Kennedy Brown.’




‘—disgrace. You want to know what gets me? There used to be a thing called loyalty in this country. A man had his honour even if he didn’t have nothing else, and Lord knows folk didn’t have much else. Still don’t. Man says one thing one minute then turns his ass around and goes back on his word? Then that man ain’t a man no more. Or not a man that any son of a bitch worth the name would do business with ever, that’s for damn sure. Eat your greens, Kennedy. Make you strong like your old man. Walking all through town in no goddamn shirt. All folk be looking at you and your scrawny boy body and thinking when he gonna make a man of himself? When his old man gonna make a man outta him? What? His old man failing as a father over there at number fourteen? Greens one step toward being the man you could become, Kennedy. So you eat ’em up and you eat ’em good. Cos that’s what happens. You treat a man like a dog and he becomes a dog. In a dog’s nature to fight, in its nature to kill. Maybe in a man’s nature too. Maybe it is in a man’s nature. What do I know? I ain’t no genius, I know that. Not pretending to be something I ain’t. But if you treat me like a dog – salt, Kennedy – the way that there Rose’s Pa treated me like a dog, and all the rest of us too, then we best start acting like dogs. I said salt, Kennedy! Goddamn. Cos who you loyal to really? When all’s said and done? To the people who made you what you are, that’s who. Not those big city a-holes buying your soul for a cheap suit and a Rolex watch. Got some new place lined up in the city, too. Moving the whole family out there, living like kings while the rest of us… Man, Kennedy. Don’t it make you just rage? I was real proud of you today. I seen the way you look at that little hussy. Made me real proud, you helping out your old man like that. You want more potatoes? Just goes to show, you can’t buy class. Can’t buy morals neither. Nor values. Nor anything much that counts for nothing, not if you got to sell your soul to get it. Walking round half naked. And she had you doing the same by sundown. Ha. Bring folks down to their retrograde level, making everyone wallow in the ditch of iniquity with them, like we don’t recognise no loyalty when we see it, no values, no morals, no honour. Like we can’t see it on account of none of them values being there in them to see. Well, I see it. Butter, Kennedy. Every one of them boys sees it too, no doubt. Dang near broke my back hauling that dog around. Was it half as bad as what he put us through day in, day out? Hell no. Hell no, Kennedy. I ain’t no stranger to adversity. My companion. My soulmate is what it is. Fine by me. Don’t know nothing else. Was raised with nothing else. It increaseth the virtue, Kennedy. That’s biblical. And who does he send out to do his dirty work? That girl dressed in all but nothing. Ain’t got no pride. Never a real day’s work in his life. Sorry son of a bitch ain’t got no soul, not since he gone sold it. Ain’t got no pride. Ain’t got no values. Ain’t got—’




It was gone midnight by the time Kennedy heard his Pa climb the stairs and another hour before he heard his snoring over the sound of NPR’s weather report.

Not that Kennedy needed a report, not since the rain had started up its sad, slow drumbeat on his bedroom ceiling. He’d been laying there since dinner, listening to the sound of it while having profound if intermittent thoughts on matters such as the nature of love and what we owe to each other as fellow human beings, as fellow creatures of God. He’d washed the dog meat stink off himself already, but now it was back. Whether in the room or just in his mind, what did it matter? What was the difference? Which made him teeter on the brink of more profound thoughts, thoughts he quickly abandoned in favour of Rose with her downy forearms and belly.

If he was really going to do it then he had a long night ahead of him. A long, cold night. A long, cold, wet night. But a long, cold, wet night that might just be the making of him and Rose. And, consequently, of him as a man, too. His Pa would be unhappy, sure. But the love of a father for his son was unconditional. That much was definitely biblical. Rose, on the other hand, would need to be won over, convinced, massaged towards the notion of Kennedy as a stand-up guy worthy of love, real ‘in-love’ love, the kind people really want, the kind people covet, even if that ain’t biblical.

And what sort of love could begin with a lie? Endure one, sure. But as a foundation?

Kennedy slipped downstairs and through the kitchen, grabbing his raincoat and a flashlight on the way. In the tool shed he found the shovel before lifting the door to the rain, louder and more elemental. But purifying too. After all, adversity only increaseth the virtue. He stepped out into the downpour and smiled, grimaced, and smiled again.




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