and Other Storiesby Michael Knight
“Ten stories cut like gems from American family life . . . [with] a gracious patina and a drawl of violence.” —Los Angeles Times
“Ten stories cut like gems from American family life . . . [with] a gracious patina and a drawl of violence.” —Los Angeles Times
Now back in print, the acclaimed debut that launched Michael Knight’s literary career.
A Los Angeles Times Notable Book, Michael Knight’s stunning debut delivers ten tales of ordinary people seized by extraordinary circumstances as their attempts at human connection result in frustrating false starts and ruinous misunderstandings. Knight expertly unveils fragile family ties, secret compulsions, and the nagging doggedness of love as he taps into our collective human experience to remind us, with unerring, piercing insight, of what it means to be alive. By turns unpredictable and wise, sorrowful and triumphant, Dogfight and Other Stories reveals the transformative power of life’s small struggles.
“Ten stories cut like gems from American family life. . . . [They] have a gracious patina and a drawl of violence: [Knight’s] stories emphasize the pivotal moment, the decisive moment.” —Los Angeles Times
“Wonderfully humane . . . What’s impressive about these stories is that they gather their considerable power not from stylistic flash or conceptual cleverness but from the fact that they tell us only what we need to know.” —Playboy
“Michael Knight’s stories are tempered with both pathos and humor, and seasoned with many an unexpected twist. Dogfight and Other Stories has a bite more than equal to its bark.” —Madison Smartt Bell
“Like Raymond Carver, Knight has the knack of portraying ordinary people coping the best they can with extraordinary circumstances. But Knight’s voice—inflected with wry humor, lingering regrets, and the occasional flash of unfounded optimism—is distinctly his own.” —Greg Marrs, barnesandnoble.com
Praise for Goodnight, Nobody:
“An exquisite piece of writing.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“If good writing is like a good suit—durable, seamless, and decidedly non-flashy—then Michael Knight [is a] master tailor.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Smash & Grab” from Dogfight
At the last house on the left, the one with no security system sign staked on the lawn, no dog in the backyard, Cashdollar elbowed out a pane of glass in the kitchen door and reached through to unlock it from the inside. Though he was 99 percent certain that the house was empty (he’d watched the owners leave himself), he paused a moment just across the threshold, listened carefully, heard nothing. Satisfied, he padded through an archway into the dining room, where he found a chest of silverware and emptied its contents into the pillowcase he’d brought. He was headed down the hall, looking for the master bedroom, hoping that, in the rush to make some New Year’s Eve soiree, the lady of the house had left her jewelry in plain sight, when he saw a flash of white and his head was snapped back on his neck, the bones in his face suddenly aflame. He wobbled, dropped to his knees. Then a girlish grunt and another burst of pain and all he knew was darkness.
He came to with his wrists and ankles bound with duct tape to the arms and legs of a ladder-back chair. His cheeks throbbed. His nose felt huge with ache. Opposite him, in an identical chair, a teenage girl was blowing lightly on the fingers of her left hand. There was a porcelain toilet tank lid, flecked with blood, across her lap. On it was arrayed a pair of cuticle scissors, a bottle of clear polish, cotton balls, and a nail file. The girl glanced up at him now, and he would have sworn she was pleased to find him awake.
“How’s your face?” she said.
She was long-limbed, lean but not skinny, wearing a T-shirt with the words Saint Bridget’s Volleyball across the front in pastel plaids. Her hair was pulled into pigtails. She wore flannel boxers and pink wool socks.
“It hurts like hell.” His nostrils were plugged with blood, his voice buzzing like bad wiring in his head.
The girl did a sympathetic wince.
“I thought no one was home,” he said.
“I guess you cased the house?” she said. “Is that the word—cased?”
Cashdollar nodded and she gave him a look, like she was sorry for spoiling his plans.
“I’m at boarding school. I just flew in this afternoon.”
“I didn’t see a light,” he said.
“I keep foil over the windows,” she said. “I need total darkness when I sleep. There’s weather stripping under the door and everything.”
“Have you called the police?”
“Right after I knocked you out. You scared me so bad I practically just shouted my address into the phone and hung up.” She giggled a little at herself. “I was afraid you’d wake up and kill me. That’s why the tape. I’ll call again if they aren’t here soon.” This last she delivered as if she regretted having to make him wait. She waggled her fingers at him. “I was on my left pinky when I heard the window break.”
Cashdollar estimated at least ten minutes for the girl to drag him down the hall and truss him up, which meant that the police would be arriving momentarily. He had robbed houses in seven states, had surprised his share of home owners, but he’d never once had a run-in with the law. He was too fast on his feet for that, strictly smash and grab, never got greedy, never resorted to violence. Neither, however, had a teenage girl ever bashed him unconscious with a toilet lid and duct taped him to a chair.
“This boarding school,” he said. “They don’t send you home for Christmas.”
“I do Christmas with my mom,” she said.
Cashdollar waited a moment for her to elaborate but she was quiet and he wondered if he hadn’t hit on the beginnings of an angle here, wondered if he had time enough to work it. When it was clear that she wasn’t going to continue, he prompted her.
“Divorce is hard,” he said.
The girl shrugged. “Everybody’s divorced.”
“So the woman I saw before . . .” He let the words trail off into a question.
“My father’s girlfriend,” she said. “One of.” She rolled her eyes. “My dad—last of the big-time swingers.”
“Do you like her?” he said. “Is she nice?”
“I hardly know her. She’s a nurse. She works for him.” She waved a hand before her face as if swiping at an insect. “I think it’s tacky if you want to know the truth.”
They were in the dining room, though Cashdollar hadn’t bothered to take it in when he was loading up the silverware. He saw crown molding. He saw paintings on the walls, dogs and dead birds done in oils, expensive but without resale value. This was a doctor’s house, he thought. It made him angry that he’d misread the presence of the woman, angrier even than the fact that he’d let himself get caught. He was thirty-six years old. That seemed to him just then like a long time to be alive.
“I’m surprised you don’t have a date,” he said. “Pretty girl like you home alone on New Year’s Eve.”
He had his doubts about flattery—the girl seemed too sharp for that—but she took his remark in stride.
“Like I said, I just got in today and I’m away at school most of the year. Plus, I spend more time with my mother in California than my father so I don’t really know anybody here.”
“What’s your name?” he said.
The girl hesitated. “I’m not sure I should tell you that.”
“I just figured if you told me your name and I told you mine then you’d know somebody here.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Cashdollar closed his eyes. He was glad that he wasn’t wearing some kind of burglar costume—the black sweat suit, the ski mask. He felt less obvious in street clothes. Tonight, he’d chosen a hunter green coat, a navy turtleneck, khaki pants, and boat shoes. He didn’t bother wearing gloves. He wasn’t so scary-looking this way, he thought, and when he asked the question that was on his mind, it might seem like one regular person asking a favor of another.
“Listen, I’m just going to come right out and say this, okay. I’m wondering what are the chances you’d consider letting me go?” The girl opened her mouth but Cashdollar pressed ahead before she could refuse and she settled back into her chair to let him finish. “Because the police will be here soon and I don’t want to go to prison and I promise, if you let me, I’ll leave the way I came in and vanish from your life forever.”
The girl was quiet for a moment, her face patient and composed, as if waiting to be sure he’d said his piece. He could hear the refrigerator humming in the kitchen. A moth plinked against the chandelier over their heads. He wondered if it hadn’t slipped in through the broken pane. The girl capped the bottle of nail polish, lifted the toilet lid from her lap without disturbing the contents, and set it on the floor beside her chair.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I really am but you did break into the house and you put my father’s silverware in your pillowcase and I’m sure you would have taken other things if I hadn’t hit you on the head. If you want, I’ll tell the police that you’ve been very nice, but I don’t think it’s right for me to let you go.”
In spite—or because—of her genial demeanor, Cashdollar was beginning to feel like his heart was on the blink; it felt as thick and rubbery as a hot water bottle in his chest. He held his breath and strained against his bonds, hard enough to hop his chair, once, twice, but the tape held fast. He sat there, panting.
The girl said, “Let me ask you something. Let’s say I was asleep or watching TV or whatever and I didn’t hear the window break. Let’s say you saw me first—what would you have done?”
He didn’t have to think about his reply.
“I would have turned around and left the house. I’ve never hurt anyone in my whole life.”
The girl stared at him for a long moment, then dropped her eyes, fanned her fingers, studied her handiwork. She didn’t look altogether pleased. To the backs of her hands, she said, “I believe you.”
As if to punctuate her sentence, the doorbell rang, followed by four sharp knocks, announcing the arrival of the police.
While he waited, Cashdollar thought about prison. The possibility of incarceration loomed forever on the periphery of his life but he’d never allowed himself to waste a lot of time considering the specifics. He told himself that at least he wasn’t leaving anyone behind, wasn’t ruining anyone else’s life, though even as he filled his head with reassurances, he understood that they were false and his pulse was roaring in his ears, his lungs constricting. He remembered this one break-in down in Pensacola when some sound he made (a rusty hinge? a creaking floorboard?) startled the owner of the house from sleep. The bedroom was dark and the man couldn’t see Cashdollar standing at the door. “Violet?” he said. “Is that you, Vi?” There was such sadness, such longing in his voice that Cashdollar knew Violet was never coming back. He pitied the man, of course, but at the same time, he felt as if he were watching him through a window, felt outside the world looking in rather than in the middle of things with the world pressing down around him. The man rolled over, mumbled his way back to sleep, and Cashdollar crept out of the house feeling sorry for himself. He hadn’t thought about that man in years. Now, he could hear voices in the next room but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. It struck him that they were taking too long and he wondered if this wasn’t what people meant when they described time bogging down at desperate moments.
Then the girl rounded the corner into the dining room trailing a pair of uniformed police officers, the first a white guy, straight out of central casting, big and pudgy, his tunic crumpled into his slacks, his belt slung low under his belly, the second a black woman, small with broad shoulders, her hair twisted into braids under her cap. “My friend”—the girl paused, shot a significant look at Cashdollar—”Patrick, surprised him in the dining room and the burglar hit him with the toilet thingy and taped him up. Patrick, these are Officers Hildebran and Pruitt.” She tipped her head right, then left, to indicate the man and the woman respectively.
Officer Pruitt circled around behind Cashdollar’s chair.
“What was the burglar doing with a toilet lid?”
“That’s a mystery,” the girl said.
“Why haven’t you cut him loose?”
“We didn’t know what to do for sure,” the girl said. “He didn’t seem to be hurt too bad and we didn’t want to disturb the crime scene. On TV, they always make a big deal out of leaving everything just so.”
“I see,” said Officer Pruitt, exactly as if she didn’t see at all. “And you did your nails to pass the time?” She pointed at the manicure paraphernalia.
The girl made a goofy, self-deprecating face, all eyebrows and lips, twirled her finger in the air beside her ear.
Officer Hildebran wandered over to the window. Without facing the room, he said, “I’ll be completely honest with you, Miss Schnell—”
“Daphne,” the girl said and Cashdollar had the sense that her interjection was meant for him.
Officer Hildebran turned, smiled. “I’ll be honest, Daphne, we sometimes recover some of the stolen property but—”
“He didn’t take anything,” the girl said.
Officer Hildebran raised his eyebrows. “No?”
“He must have panicked,” Daphne said.
Cashdollar wondered what had become of his pillowcase, figured it was still in the hall where the girl had ambushed him, hoped the police didn’t decide to poke around back there. Officer Pruitt crouched at his knees to take a closer look at the duct tape.
“You all right?” she said.
He nodded, cleared his throat.
“Where’d the tape come from?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was out cold.”
“Regardless,” Officer Hildebran was saying to Daphne, “unless there’s a reliable eyewitness—”
Officer Pruitt sighed. “There is an eyewitness.” She raised her eyes, regarded Cashdollar’s battered face.
“Oh,” Officer Hildebran said. “Right. You think you could pick him out of a lineup?”
“It all happened pretty fast,” Cashdollar said.
And so it went, as strange and vivid as a fever dream, their questions, his answers, their questions, Daphne’s answers—he supposed that she was not the kind of girl likely to arouse suspicion, not the kind of girl people were inclined to disbelieve—until the police were satisfied, more or less. They seemed placated by the fact that Cash-dollar’s injuries weren’t severe and that nothing had actually been stolen. Officer Pruitt cut the tape with a utility knife and Cashdollar walked them to the door like he was welcome in this house. He invented contact information, assured them that he’d be down in the morning to look at mug shots. He didn’t know what had changed Daphne’s mind and, watching the police make their way down the sidewalk and out of his life, he didn’t care. He shut the door and said, “Is Daphne your real name?” He was just turning to face her when she clubbed him with the toilet lid again.
Once more, Cashdollar woke in the ladder-back chair, wrists and ankles bound, but this time Daphne was seated cross-legged on the floor, leaned back, her weight on her hands. He saw her as if through a haze, as if looking through a smeary lens, noticed her long neck, the smooth skin on the insides of her thighs.
“Yes,” Daphne said.
“Yes, my name is Daphne.”
“Oh,” he said.
His skull felt full of sand.
“I’m sorry for conking you again,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. I mean, it was such a snap decision to lie to the police and then that woman cut the tape and I realized I don’t know the first thing about you and I freaked.” She paused. “What’s your name?” she said.
Cashdollar felt as if he was being lowered back into himself from a great height, gradually remembering how it was to live in his body. Before he was fully aware of what he was saying, he’d given her an honest answer.
“Leonard,” he said.
Daphne laughed. “I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “I didn’t think anybody named anybody Leonard anymore.”
“I’m much older than you.”
“You’re not so old. What are you, forty?”
Daphne said, “Oops.”
“I think I have a concussion,” Cashdollar said.
Daphne wrinkled her nose apologetically, pushed to her feet and brushed her hands together. “Be right back,” she said. She ducked into the kitchen, returned with a highball glass, which she held under his chin. He smelled scotch, let her bring it to his mouth. It tasted expensive.
“Better?” Daphne said.
Cashdollar didn’t answer. He’d been inclined to feel grateful but hadn’t the vaguest idea where this was going now. She sat on the floor and he watched her sip from the glass. She made a retching face, shuddered, regrouped.
“At school one time, I drank two entire bottles of Robitussin cough syrup. I hallucinated that my Klimt poster was coming to life. It was very sexual. My roommate called the paramedics.”
“Is that right?” Cashdollar said.
“My father was in Aruba when it happened,” she said. “He was with an AMA rep named Farina Hoyle. I mean, what kind of a name is Farina Hoyle? He left her there and flew all the way back to make sure I was all right.”
“That’s nice, I guess,” Cashdollar said.
Daphne nodded and smiled, half-sly, half-something else. Cash-dollar couldn’t put his finger on what he was seeing in her face. “It isn’t true,” she said. “Farina Hoyle’s true. Aruba’s true.”
“What are you going to do with me?” Cashdollar said.
Daphne peered into the glass.
“I don’t know,” she said.
They were quiet for a minute. Daphne swirled the whiskey. Cash-dollar’s back itched and he rubbed it on the chair. When Daphne saw what he was doing, she moved behind the chair to scratch it for him and he tipped forward to give her better access. Her touch raised goose bumps, made his skin jump like horseflesh.
“Are you married?” she said.
He told her, “No.”
He shook his head. Her hand went still between his shoulder blades. He heard her teeth click on the glass.
“You poor thing,” she said. “Haven’t you ever been in love?”
“I think you should cut me loose,” Cashdollar said.
Daphne came around the chair and sat on his knee, draped her arm over his shoulder.
“How often do you do this? Rob houses, I mean.”
“I do it when I need the money,” he said.
“When was the last time?” Her face was close enough that he could smell the liquor on her breath.
“A while ago,” he said. “Could I have another sip of that?” She helped him with the glass. He felt the scotch behind his eyes. The truth was he’d done an apartment house just last week, waited at the door for somebody to buzz him up, then broke the locks on the places where no one was home. Just now, however, he didn’t see the percentage in the truth. He said, “I only ever do rich people and I give half my take to Jerry’s Kids.”
Daphne socked him in the chest.
“Ha, ha,” she said.
“Isn’t that what you want to hear?” he said. “Right? You’re looking for a reason to let me go?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
He shrugged. “Who’s to say it isn’t true?”
“Jerry’s Kids,” she said.
She was smiling and he smiled back. He couldn’t help liking this girl. He liked that she was smart and that she wasn’t too afraid of him. He liked that she had the guts to bullshit the police.
“Ha, ha,” he said.
Daphne knocked back the last of the scotch, then skated her socks over the hardwood floor, headed for the window.
“Do you have a car?” she said, parting the curtains. “I don’t see a car.”
“I’m around the block,” he said.
“What do you drive?”
Daphne raised her eyebrows.
“It’s inconspicuous,” he said.
She skated back over to his chair and slipped her hand into his pocket and rooted for his keys. Cashdollar flinched. There were only two keys on the ring, his car and his apartment. For some reason, this embarrassed him.
“It really is a Honda,” Daphne said.
There was a grandfather clock in the corner but it had died at half past eight who knew how long ago and his watch was out of sight beneath the duct tape and Cashdollar was beginning to worry about the time. He guessed Daphne had been gone for twenty minutes, figured he was safe till after midnight, figured her father and his lady friend would at least ring in the New Year before calling it a night. He put the hour around 11:00 but he couldn’t be sure and for all he knew, Daphne was out there joyriding in his car and you couldn’t tell what might happen at a party on New Year’s Eve. Somebody might get angry. Somebody might have too much to drink. Somebody might be so crushed with love they couldn’t wait another minute to get home. He went on thinking like this until he heard what sounded like a garage door rumbling open and his mind went blank and every ounce of his perception was funneled down into his ears. For a minute, he heard nothing—he wasn’t going to mistake silence for safety a second time—then a door opened in the kitchen and Daphne breezed into the room.
“Took me a while to find your car,” she said.
She had changed clothes for her foray into the world. Now, she was wearing an electric blue parka with fur inside the hood, white leggings, and knee-high alpine boots.
“What time is it?” he said.
But she passed through without stopping, disappeared into the next room.
“You need to let me go,” he said.
When she reappeared, she was carrying a stereo speaker, her back arched under its weight. He watched her go into the kitchen. She returned a minute later, empty-handed, breathing hard.
“I should’ve started small,” she said.
He looked at her. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s a good thing you’ve got a hatchback.”
For the next half hour, she shuttled between the house and the garage, bearing valuables each trip, first the rest of the stereo, then the TV and the VCR, then his pillowcase of silverware, then an armload of expensive-looking suits, and on and on until Cashdollar was certain that his car would hold no more. Still she kept it up. Barbells, golf clubs, a calfskin luggage set. A pair of antique pistols. A dusty classical guitar. A baseball signed by someone dead and famous. With each passing minute, Cashdollar could feel his stomach tightening and it was all he could do to keep his mouth shut but he had the sense that he should leave her be, that this didn’t have anything to do with him. He pictured his little Honda bulging with the accumulated property of another man’s life, flashed to his apartment in his mind: unmade bed, lawn chairs in the living room, coffee mug in the sink. He made a point of never holding on to anything anybody else might want to steal. There was not a single thing in his apartment that it would hurt to lose, nothing he couldn’t live without. Daphne swung back into the room, looking frazzled and exhausted, her face glazed with perspiration.
“There.” She huffed at a wisp of hair that had fallen across her eyes.
“You’re crazy,” Cashdollar said.
Daphne dismissed him with a wave.
“You’re out of touch,” she said. “I’m your average sophomore.”
“What’ll you tell the cops?”
“I like Stockholm Syndrome but I think they’re more likely to believe you made me lie under threat of death.” She took the parka off, draped it on a chair, lifted the hem of her sweatshirt to wipe her face—exposing her belly, the curve of her ribs—pressed it first against her right eye, then her left, as if dabbing tears.
“I’ll get the scissors,” Daphne said.
She went out again, came back again. The tape fell away like something dead. Cashdollar rubbed his wrists a second, pushed to his feet and they stood there looking at each other. Her eyes, he decided, were the color of a jade pendant he had stolen years ago. That pendant pawned for $700. It flicked through his mind that he should kiss her and that she would let him but he restrained himself. He had no business kissing teenage girls. Then, as if she could read his thoughts, Daphne slapped him across the face. Cashdollar palmed his cheek, blinked the sting away, watched her doing a girlish bob and weave, her thumbs tucked inside her fists.
“Let me have it,” she said.
“Quit,” he said.
“Wimp,” she said. “I dropped you twice.”
“I’m gone,” he said.
Right then, she poked him in the nose. It wouldn’t have hurt so much if she hadn’t already hit him with the toilet lid but as it was, his eyes watered up, his vision filled with tiny sparkles. Without thinking, he balled his hand and punched her in the mouth, not too hard, a reflex, just enough to sit her down, but right away he felt sick at what he’d done. He held his palms out, like he was trying to stop traffic.
“I didn’t mean that,” he said. “That was an accident. I’ve never hit a girl. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life.”
Daphne touched her bottom lip, smudging her fingertip with blood.
“This will break his heart,” she said.
She smiled at Cashdollar and he could see blood in the spaces between her teeth. The sight of her dizzied him with sadness. He thought how closely linked were love and pain. Daphne extended a hand, limp-wristed, ladylike. Her nails were perfect.
“Now tape me to the chair,” she said.