Alex Koplow

The Oilers Jacket

Alex Koplow

When passersby call my dad “Dave the Dog Man,” I’m told that he smiles, accepting the name along with any spare change. If they leave food, he divides the scraps among his ever-growing pack of mutts before taking anything for himself.

Discarded furniture and stacks of mess filled the muddy alley where he camped. Towers of waterlogged magazines. Pyramids of baggied dog shit. Jagged-lipped plastic buckets of rainwater.

I kicked a shopping cart against the brick building so I didn’t surprise him. Dogs tied to a torn box spring howled and whined. Loose ones leapt at me. Others squatted, pissing and licking.

Gripping that Saturday’s skinny paper, Dad emerged from behind the green dumpster, his face wrinkled but shaven. I clung to the cardboard boxes I carried to prevent a hug.

His clothes had lingered in those boxes in Mom’s garage since the divorce. On the drive there that chilly morning, the stuck-on stench of a decade of exhaust and turpentine had forced my car’s windows open. But the noxious smells were lost in his alley.

He sat on one of the several rusty patio chairs arranged in the alley like the dumpster was leading a meeting. I told him that Mom finally sold the house. She was moving back to Birmingham.

“Al-a-ba-ma?” He tongued the syllables like they had a funny taste. “Figures. Nashville was never hick enough for her.”
He asked me about work and Janet. I was surprised he remembered her name.

“Everything’s okay,” I inched my weight onto the sturdiest chair. “She’s on another round of fertility. We’re still trying.”

“The trying’s the best part.” His red-gummed grin was a crooked reminder that, if we ever can conceive, my kids would be related to him.

At my feet two lean terriers humped both ends of a complacent black dog. I slid the boxes away from them. Harsh growling erupted behind the dumpster. Dad pulled himself up and separated the fighting dogs with a wooden pole.
Next to me, the humping accelerated. Asthmatic panting wheezed from the dog staring at me. I popped up from my chair, jealous of whatever it was every day from the past two years that convinced me not to come looking for him. “Dad,” I begged. “Come look through the boxes.”

One at a time he draped the items on the lip of the dumpster. Blazers, khakis, monogrammed dress shirts, wingtips, and a flashy silk tie I remembered borrowing for a school dance. Mom must have sent me there because she knew the clothes were so impractical for him.

He burrowed his nose into the soft wool of an expensive suit. I remembered as a kid hearing him joke that the best part of suing the pants off a Korean was that they’d be steam-pressed.

Bunched up in the second box was the baby blue jacket he bought when the Oilers relocated from Houston. He got two season tickets and we spent game day weekends in Memphis for the year they played there until Nashville finished their football stadium. I was only 14 but he let me drive the two of us all the way down there in his Jag.

After the first few trips, Dad would leave me in the hotel after dinner, encouraging me to go through the mini fridge and order movies. Hours later he’d call the room with raspy directions to an apartment building. He’d climb in the car reeking of JD and a slow cut through the perfume counters in Macy’s. Sunday morning we’d get pancakes and holler for the team that would be renamed the Tennessee Titans.

Behind the dumpster he tucked away the folded cardboard boxes and took off his black sweatshirt. The tattered layers had concealed his stump well. His skinny elbow prodded the air like a mangled question mark.

Mail Truck Hits Dog Man, the story whipped around the web, although most sites glossed over the gruesome details of his severed forearm. Blogs mentioned how his family refused to comment, as if we were somehow guilty. He received a large settlement and donated it all to an animal shelter.

“Come on,” he ordered me and the dogs, after snapping the red buttons on the shiny Oilers jacket. He hooked the leashes of three of the tamer dogs around the patchy scar of his stub.

“Forget about her,” he said when I pointed at a straggler, a scrawny lab with nipples that nearly scraped the pavement.

Before the Oilers’ second season Dad got me a cell phone, and he tried our Memphis routine at home. I still didn’t have a license, but I picked him up from a hotel bar downtown. He passed out before the first stop light.

I swerved his convertible into potholes to shake him alert so we could think of a story for Mom, but he instantly bobbed back asleep. Outside our house I shouldered his drunken heft, and we stumbled up the semi-circle driveway. My younger sister was in the foyer, cussing and yelling that she knew what was going on.

He swung at her with shocking precision. The punch split her lip and knocked her head into the banister. Dad collapsed on the stairs, re-defeated by booze.

“I know how to drive,” I kneeled and confessed to my bleeding sister. “I can sneak you to the hospital. No one has to know.”

But she scraped herself off the tiled floor and ran upstairs to Mom’s room, exposing everything.

The sneers equaled the waves as the people downtown watched our parade of dogs pass Polk’s tomb. Tugging him up the hill, the dogs yapped and fought and shat. When a squirrel darted from the base of a dying pine, the pack pulled him to the ground, dragging him across the cold grass.

With the city and the stadium circled around us, I helped Dad off the ground and handed him the leashes of the escaped dogs. I brushed the brown grass off his Oilers jacket, admiring the clean lines of the blue and red derrick.

His bruised cheeks twitched. The wind ballooned his jacket, narrowing his feeble legs.

“Dad,” I whispered, rattling my car keys like a treat. Janet had warned me to never bring him or the dogs into our house. But there would be time, I thought, to slip him in and let him have a fast, hot shower.