Alpha Wolf by Joshua Swainston

A few months ago, I turned thirty-seven. My eight-year-old son, Landon, drew me a picture of he and I playing baseball in the backyard. I received a few cards from my dentist and the members of my cribbage club. Alison, my wife, who is three years older than I am, and who is never to be outdone, gifted me what she called “Old Man Sam’s Pre-AARP Kit.” The kit consisted of Just for Men hair color, a single dose of Viagra, and a bag of Werther’s Originals.

There are a lot of guys who care about their age. I guess, sometimes, you can put me in that category. It’s less the number of years and more about ability. I’m not able to run like I used to. I grunt when I have to tie my shoes. Yeah, I grew a little thick in the middle, but that’s natural, right? I know, you’re saying “Sam, thirty-seven is not that old.” You’re right, it’s not that old. Look at Mel Brooks or Jimmy Carter, they’re both ninety. At the same time, I don’t come from a line of people who tend to make if far past middle age. My dad died from a heart attack at fifty-seven. He worked as a longshoreman. His dad, my grandfather, died from an aneurysm at fifty-one while driving his tractor. So I guess, my dad stole a few extra years than he expected. My mom, who served as a nurse in the Navy before she got married, contracted pneumonia the winter after dad died and never recovered. She was fifty-six. It sounds like I’m worried about death, and I am. I probably got more time on me still. But, I’m the last in my line. I’m the oldest of my family. The next to go.

We’re a Christmas family. Each year we put up a giant tree done up with hundreds of ornaments, snowflake decals on the windows, and hundreds of strings of exterior lights. I married into the whole decoration thing. Alison’s family celebrated the holiday like the Griswolds in that National Lampoon movie. They even won awards from the City of Tacoma for exterior decoration. One year Alison’s dad built Santa’s village with little houses, lights and moving elves on train tracks. It made the paper. Her parents died just after we got married. Car accident. Her parents were both in their late forties.

Since Alison was an only child, we became wards of all her family’s memories. Twenty-two Rubber Made tubs filled my attic with deeply sentimental, pass-on-to-the-next-generation Venetian blown-glass balls and hand carved effigies of Santa. I took up the tasks previously executed by Alison’s father: lugging the Christmas decoration down from the attic, placing the tree, and all exterior decorations.

I relocated each tub down to the living room one-by-one. Landon helped as much has his little arms could. Then Alison said, “Don’t forget the horse, Sam. It’s not Christmas without the horse.” Landon jumped around hyper as soon as Alison mentioned it.

The horse—my aunt gave us it when Landon was born. She said with a voice soaked in White Shoulders perfume, “I found it at an auction. It’s a set piece from the Los Angeles Ballet production of the Nutcracker. It’ll be perfect with your Christmas stuff.” I harbor a love/hate relationship with the horse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful item with pastel ribbons and a real leather saddle. I’ll cherish it until I die and Landon gets burdened with it. But, the thing weighs a hundred pounds or more and stands the size of a real horse. My aunt died two years ago, from renal failure. She never raised any children of her own. Landon would gladly keep the horse. To him, it is Christmas.

I stood in our attic sweating from all the up and down, up and down. I needed some air. I didn’t remember being this winded the year before.

“Did you get the horse?” Alison sorted through the tubs. She wore a long sleeve gray shirt that read, “Grant Elementary PTA”, and blue jeans.

“I’ll get it after the lights.”

I do a lot of climbing throughout the month of December. I bought an eighteen-foot wooden cherry picking ladder for the exterior decorations. From the top of the roof, I can hook in most all the clips. If I’m fast and the weather’s fair, the outside lights take five hours.

“Hey, Sam,” Garret wore a short sleeve white shirt and Seahawk’s pajama pants to roll his trashcans across his gravel driveway to the curb. He and his wife lived next door. They were younger, maybe twenty-two. He played pitcher for the local triple-A baseball team, the Tacoma Rainers. I think his wife worked as a dental assistant, but I could be wrong. She wore scrubs when she went to work. Good people, though. Quiet.

“Hey, Garret. You decorating this year?” I leaned my ladder against the front of the house.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

I stepped up the ladder with the loop of light over my shoulder. On the third rung, my foot missed. I fell into the wood rung and grunted.

“You okay, old man?” asked Garret. He has called me “old man” before when we talked about baseball. I told him I remembered when the Rainers were the Tigers.

“I’m fine.”

“Well, if you need any help, just ask.”

I ascended the rest of the way to the second story roof. Then attached the lights from the corner of the house, with the lead hanging low enough to reach the plug-in, and ran them up to the peak of the house and back down. After finishing the first set of lights, I needed another. I can’t wait until Landon is older and can help me with this.

I stretched my foot out for the ladder to descend. I made contact with the first rung. My left foot came down to meet the right one but slipped, and my leg fell between rungs. I held onto the cherry picking ladder frame and tried to pull my leg back though. I arched and then backward. I cannot recall if I pushed off the house with my stuck leg, or if I swung my weight back too much. The peak of my house moved farther away followed by blue afternoon sky. It felt like the rollercoaster but just the anticipation and dread. Thud! It had been raining that week and the front lawn took the brunt of the impact like a sponge. It still hurt like the devil, though.

Landon came from around the back wrapped in his blue parka. He stood over me staring at my pained body. His cheeks were red from the autumn chill.

Garret came a moment later and crouched next to me.

I refused to go the hospital. My back ached, so I spent the entire evening on the couch with a bag of frozen peas. Alison and Landon speckled the house with decorations. The Douglas Fir, done up in lights, candy canes, and glass bulbs twinkled. A blank space in the dining room remained, set aside for the horse.

On Sunday, the house smelled of gingerbread. I laid on the couch watching football. Landon slouched next to me in a striped shirt. He cheered for each touchdown regardless of which team scored. At the third quarter, he got bored and went up to play in his room

Alison brought me another bag of frozen vegetables. “You’re not as young as you used to be.” She wore a plaid apron and her dusty blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. “You aren’t in the same shape you were when we met. Your belly’s gotten bigger as you’ve aged. You look like a gorilla.”

I wanted to say something about her thighs but knew better than to continue that fight. “It bugs me that I can’t do what I’m supposed to. If I can’t contribute, then what am I?”

Alison smirked, “Shit, Old Yeller, why don’t we just take you behind the barn with a shotgun.”

I knew Alison was poking fun, it still stung a bit. “If I go then what about the kid? If you look at my family history I got, what, maybe twenty years left? I don’t want Landon to remember his dad as an invalid on the couch.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t think that.” She sat on the couch next to me. “I watched a documentary the other day on wolves. It was part of Landon’s field trip to Wolf Heaven. So there are alpha wolves who are usually older. Leaders making the decisions. Then there’s the beta’s: the wolves that go out and hunt or scout. Maybe it’s your turn to be the alpha. Ya know, lead instead of hunt?”

“I like being a wolf better than a gorilla.” I shifted to lean up next to Alison. “Landon can’t do the heavy lifting yet.”

“I think maybe you need to relax. It wasn’t the age that got your father, it was the stress. That man ate bacon and a side of tums for breakfast every morning. Myra from the bank, her son is a masseuse. He’s got a shop on the other side of town. Why don’t you take off tomorrow? Relax and get a massage.”

“I’ve never been rubbed on by a stranger.”

“It might make you feel better. Hopefully good enough to finish up around here.”

I grumbled, “Fine.”

“Good. I already set it up for tomorrow afternoon.” She knew I wouldn’t have done it myself.

In twelve years at Boeing, it was only the second time I had used a sick day. I started out as a Refrigeration Tech but moved to Manufacturing Operations Analysist when the job opened. Better money, though I’m not nearly as active as I used to be. I oversee half a dozen twenty-year-olds. A lot more sitting behind a desk than I used to.

On Monday, I sat in a rattan chair across from this guy wearing rough linen pants, thumbing his iPhone six. Five minutes passed. I knew exactly five minutes passed from the digital clock blinking amid the lotions and scented candles. It smelled like vanilla.

The guy said, “I’m playing Candy Crush. Just got past level one-twenty-five. It’s kinda a big deal.” Then he stood up. “So, I’m Raymond, yeah, the massage, right, yeah, what’s been bugging you?”

I told him I want to be in good condition to finish up the decorations. I told him about the fall.

“At your age, these things happen.”

He left. I undressed to my boxers and lay down on the table. Putting my face through the donut at the head of the table restricted my vision: beige carpet.

The squeak of the door opened and then closed again. The hinges needed to be oiled.

Raymond asked, “What kinda pressure do you like?”

“I don’t know? I guess the usual.” Raymond’s bare feet shuffling into view.

Piano music faded in softly.

“The chick that I share the room with, she’s into all this new age music. John Tesh, Yanni, that shit. I’m down with the whole body wellness thing, but that doesn’t mean we gotta listen to crap. Hold on. So what kinda music do you like? I got some oldies: ACDC, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, some Metallica.”

“Can we maybe go with something mellower?”

“Okay, man I got the perfect thing.” A jarring C cord rang as Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” kicked on. “Alright, alright, I think we got everything we need now. This is a personal mix of mine. Kind of a hippy unwind thing.”

Raymond worked my back like a prizefighter. Whenever I involuntarily grunted or whined, he would ask, “You okay? Is the pressure okay?”

Thinking about that goddamn horse stopped me from saying anything other than, “I’m fine.”

At the end of the massage, Raymond said, “You know, physical activity helps ward off dementia” and charged me fifty bucks.

As I drove home, my back still ached. I couldn’t tell if the pain resulted from the accident or Raymond. When changing lanes, I twisted to check my blind spot over my left shoulder and AHHHHHH! The sudden shock of pain curled my toes and I swerved.

Behind me, a Tacoma Police Department patrol car flipped on its lights. I pulled over. In my side mirror, a stocky officer clad in his dark blue uniform leveraged himself from his cruiser. He lumbered up to my window.

“License and proof of insurance.” I handed him my information. He looked at it, then looked back at me, “Sam? Sam Chandler?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s me, Teddy Moore. From Peninsula High.”

“How you doing? What’s going on?”

“Married, kids, that sort of thing.” Teddy looked at my ID again. “Damn it, Sam, I thought you were one of those kids texting or something the way you swerved.”

“Nope, nothing like that. I checked my blind spot and I got this jolt of pain down my back.”

“It’s bullshit getting older isn’t it?” Teddy leaned back on his right leg, lifted his left and rocked it. “It’s all artificial now. Mostly titanium and screws. I’ll have to get the right one done next year.”

“That’s brutal. How does that affect the job?”

“Have to work smarter. Can’t run nearly as fast. But I got a radio and no one alive can outrun radio waves,” Teddy smirked. “At home, I get the kid to help out.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, my oldest is just about eighteen now. Strong kid. Stronger than I was. Solid meat. Smart too. Got a scholarship to U-dub and everything.”

Teddy’s radio squelched with a call. We exchanged phone numbers and he let me go without a ticket.

I parked my car in the drive, but instead of going into the house, I walked to Garret’s. He answered the door in a blue Rainers hoody.

“Hey Garret, that offer still stand? Ya know, if I need any help?” I dropped my head when I asked.

“What’s up old man?” Garret held a fist full of sunflower seeds and popped them into his mouth.

“Look I don’t like this. I mean I’m not one to be asking for help, ya know. I’m not like that, my dad wasn’t ever like that either. You saw the fall. I’m not as built as I used to be and I can use an extra pair of hands.”

“No problem.”

We worked the whole afternoon before Alison returned from her job at the bank.

I pointed while Garret climbed around the roof as directed. When we were done with the lights, I showed him to the attic.

Garret asked, “Why’s Christmas such a big deal for you guys?”

“Alison’s family mostly. It’s tradition.”

“My family’s still back east.”

“That’s a shame. Mine’s all dead except for Alison and Landon.”

“That the horse you were talking about?”

The horse stood solitary as the last Christmas item left in the attic.

That young ball player hefted it so the belly of the beast rested against his shoulder. I put a hand on it too, to guide it down the ladder.

“My aunt bought that for us. It a hell of a piece. Kinda more of a burden than it’s worth. But, then again, I’m sure Alison says that about me too.”

Garret laughed, “They need you, old man. I see the way you and Landon play ball during the summer. My dad never did that.”

“How’d you learn to pitch?”

“Kids in the neighborhood.”

I made some coffee for Garret and I. We talked a bit about baseball and pitching. He asked if he could borrow my miter saw when he redid his deck. I suggested that he and his wife should come over that night for dinner as a thank you.

When Alison got home, I told her about Raymond and Garret and Teddy. I made a joke about being the alpha wolf. She said something about using the single dose Viagra later.

That night, Alison roasted a chicken. I made my warm bread salad and roasted root vegetables. Garret and his wife, Alison, Landon and I ate around the oak dining table. I sat at the head. Garret told Landon what it was like pitching a real ballgame.

Garret said, “That horse of yours is like something I’ve never seen.”

“It’s our Christmas horse,” said Landon.

“Thanks for having us over. It gets kinda lonely this time of year. We don’t have a ton of money to travel back home, ya know.”

“Thank you for helping Sam out,” said Alison.

“It’s no problem, really, anytime. On the off-season, I’m not doing too much.” Garret then helped clear the table.

After dinner, we all went out to the living room. Landon sang “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The horse stood silently in the dining room.

*Joshua Swainston has worked as a mechanic, merchant sailor, courier, loan shark, club promoter, Ryder truck rental agent, McDonald’s grill cook, taxi driver, valet, coffee roaster, wine distributor, psychologist assistant, UPS man, Disney Store stock boy, and played Santa Claus. His short stories and flash fiction are printed in Out of the Gutter, The Frist Line, Revolt Daily as well as others. While writing editorials for the Weekly Volcano, he won a Washington Press award for his piece about Ivan the Gorilla, “The Silverback of South Tacoma.” His first novel, The Tacoma Pill Junkies, was released in February of 2013. Find out more about Joshua at joshuaswainston.com.