He was proud to be recognized in the neighborhood as the Shelter Man. People brought him animals of all kinds. Wild birds with broken wings, squirrels partially crushed by passing cars, and even the albino bunny the Wilson girl gave him when she grew tired of feeding it…”
by chuck kramer
The white lettering on the blood red bumper sticker read, “Abolish PETA! Animals have no rights.”
Al Morgan bristled. He stood in his driveway with a bag of groceries from Whole Foods where he worked. His leathery face wrinkled as he squinted at the bumper sticker to make sure he’d read it correctly. “Animals have no rights,” it still said.
“Damn,” he mumbled, his heart beating faster. “That’s just wrong.”
He looked at his neighbors’ house. Quiet as usual. The lawn mown neatly, the curtains drawn against the afternoon sun. Schmidt sold real-estate, his wife taught school two suburbs over. A boy in high school, a girl in second grade. No indication they were such assholes.
The blue SUV with the bumper sticker stood in the driveway, the driver’s window open. “That son of a bitch,” he thought, “he’s not going to get away with that.”
Al entered his house from the breezeway. The dogs greeted him with short yips and thumping tails. He patted their heads with his free hand as he put the groceries on the counter. He hung up his coat, went into the den, and turned on the TV. He sat down with a can of beer and watched his favorite cooking show where a pleasantly-plump, matronly woman sighed and gasped over the food she cooked. He found her sensual and was always hungry after the show.
She smiled into the camera as she slid breaded eggplant into sizzling oil. Al shifted uncomfortably. He couldn’t get the neighbor’s bumper sticker off his mind. ‘Animals have no rights,” really rankled him.
The chef wiped her hands on her red apron and moved the eggplant to a baking dish which she put in the oven. “He’s wrong, dead wrong, goddamn it, when he comes out against animal rights. I’m no vegan but I’m not a hunter either. We need to protect these creatures, not abuse them.” He patted Ralph, the German shepherd, on the head. The dog moaned pleasantly and rubbed himself against Al’s legs as the other three dogs tried to push Ralph aside. Al absently stroked their backs as the TV chef opened the oven and covered the eggplant with cheese.
“What’s wrong is that damn bumper sticker shows a complete lack of respect for those of us who care. I spend three days a week at Anti-cruelty and I don’t like anyone saying animals have no rights. They have rights just like we do and we have to respect that. I’m gonna make sure he understands that.”
His eyes locked on the screen as the woman plated the eggplant with linguini and a chicken breast. His mouth watered and he sat up on the edge of his seat. “I’m not gonna let him get away with this,” he scowled, licking his lips as the chef put a forkful of eggplant in her mouth and said, “Mmm, this is so good.”
He stood up and went down the hall, followed by the dogs. He opened the basement door and pushed the dogs away. “You go lie down,” he told them, “I’ll be back in a little while.” The German shepherd barked a brief protest but the other three turned to the den and trotted off.
Al went downstairs, opened the furnace room door, and leaned back, assaulted by the strong odor of cat pee. “I got to change those litter boxes,” he told himself, as seven cats spilled out meowing happily. They followed him to the old sofa on the far side of the paneled rec room.
He sat down. Three cats climbed on his lap. The gray tom jumped on the back of the sofa and snuggled against his neck while the others brushed his legs, purring contentedly. “You guys ready for some therapy? You come to Big Al, I’m gonna take care of you,” he said, petting the calico in his lap and smiling at the others.
This was the time he spent each day with his cats. He enjoyed their quiet ways, so different than the dogs who wanted to run and play. They were content to sit and cuddle. He stroked each one, offering compliments and approval, but he spent most of his time fussing over Greta, the one-eyed black stray whose spirit he admired for her refusal to take a back seat due to her infirmity. He’d found her beneath his car one morning, already recovered from whatever attack ripped her eye out, and she touched his heart, as did almost every stray and mistreated animal he encountered.
He was proud to be recognized in the neighborhood as the Shelter Man. People brought him animals of all kinds. Wild birds with broken wings, squirrels partially crushed by passing cars, and even the albino bunny the Wilson girl gave him when she grew tired of feeding it. He wasn’t proud of his lack of judgment in using a cardboard box as a temporary home. Sasha, the Greyhound and a natural hunter, snatched it as a soon as he turned his back, snapped the rabbit’s neck, and dropped it at his feet like a trophy or a monument to his willful blindness of the dog’s underlying wild nature.
He recalled the bumper sticker again as Greta sat in his lap and purred contentedly. He fumed as he thought about it. “That son of bitch is just itching for trouble,” Al thought, standing up and herding the cats back to the furnace room. “That’s it, fellas,” he told them, “got to get me some dinner. I’m starving.”
He made a kale salad with fresh tomatoes and sprinkled it with bacon bits. He ate in the den, sitting in his recliner watching ESPN. He dozed off after he finished and woke with Ralph tugging his pants leg.
“Time for you to go out, is that it, boy?” he asked through a yawn. The dog sat back on its haunches and watched him. He got to his feet and took his dirty dishes to the kitchen. He put on his corduroy jacket, black wool watch cap, and leather gloves, the dogs now circling him excitedly, impatient to get outside. He leashed each one and walked them down the exercise trail that ran behind the homes on his street.
Forty-five minutes later, the street was dark and empty. As he headed home, he eyed the bumper sticker on Schmidt’s auto. “Heel,” he told the dogs and they immediately sat down, watching him. He stared at the bumper sticker and felt himself get angrier and angrier as he read it over and over. “Damn, that’s just not right. I’m not gonna let him get away with that,” he muttered to himself.
He pulled out the pen and notepad he carried in his shirt pocket. “Take that damn bumper sticker off your car or there will be trouble,” he scribbled. He looked up and down the street. He was alone.
“Stay,” he told the dogs, dropping the leashes. He walked up Schmidt’s driveway and put the note under the SUV’s windshield wiper. “He better listen to reason or the shit’s gonna hit the fan,” he whispered to himself as he collected the dogs and walked home.
Backing into the street on his way to work the next morning, Al saw Schmidt standing in his driveway next to the blue SUV. He had Al’s note in his hand and was pointing to it angrily as he spoke to his wife who stood beside him in a yellow housecoat with a steaming cup of coffee. Al smiled, pleased Schmidt was upset, put the car in gear, and drove off.
After he had stacked the dairy case with organic milk from a farm just outside the city, he found Lisa in the store’s breakroom. She was eating a granola bar because it was a healthy snack and had a carton of soy milk with a straw in front of her on the table.
“I got a real problem with a neighbor of mine,” he told her as he sat down. She looked at him with tired, hollow eyes and nodded.
“Tell me about it,” she said through thin, gray lips.
“He put a bumper sticker on his car that said, ‘Animals have no rights.’”
“Fucking monster,” she hissed as she stared into Al’s eyes.
“I know,” he said, “I put a note on his windshield. Told him to take it off or there’d be consequences.”
“Lucky it wasn’t me. I would’ve pissed all over his car—the front seat if the door was unlocked.” She cackled and took a sip of milk.
“I didn’t do that, not yet, anyway. But he’s gonna get rid of that bumper sticker or he’ll wish he had, believe you me.”
“That’s right,” said Lisa, leaning forward, “can’t let the assholes get away with that shit or who knows what they’ll do next.”
They nodded at each other and Al got up. “Good talking with you, Lisa. Always a pleasure.”
After work, he went to the Anti-Cruelty Society where he cleaned cages until 7:30. He liked the work, helping animals in need, something he’d done as a kid when his mother kicked his first dog Shadow down the basement stairs in a fit of rage. The animal couldn’t walk for a week and Al nursed it back to health, snuck it late night leftovers from the fridge, and cleaned up its messes until it was able to negotiate the stairs again and go outside.
Shadow’s pain was much like his own. He had also been the focus of his mother’s anger, blamed for everything that frustrated or disappointed her. When his father left, no longer willing to endure her fury and vitriolic tongue, it was Al who suffered. He left home at eighteen but continued to care for sick dogs, lost cats, and any other animal in need.
When he got home later that night, the bumper sticker was still there. He sat and stared at it before he turned off the engine. He was fuming as he got out of his car. “That mother fucker,” he thought, “he must think I’m playing.”
He cooked pasta but was too upset to enjoy his meal. He tried to distract himself with the new Sports Illustrated but found he couldn’t concentrate.
He put the magazine aside, took his notebook from his pocket, and neatly printed another note, “Your last warning. Remove the bumper sticker or you’ll regret it.” He signed it, “The Protector of Animals.” He sat back, read the message, and nodded. He felt better and went in the den to watch TV.
He fell asleep in his chair and woke with a start just after midnight. He put on his coat, went out to the breezeway, and looked around. No one was out.
He grabbed the pair of work gloves he used to clean dog poop from his yard and gathered a large handful. He quickly crossed the street and smeared the feces across the windshield of Schmidt’s SUV. Then he put the note under the wiper blade and went home.
After work the next day, Al leashed the dogs and took them for a walk. Schmidt pulled into his driveway as Al came down the sidewalk. Al stopped and glared at Schmidt who stepped out of his freshly-washed SUV in green and gold running shoes.
Schmidt eyed Al’s dogs. The dogs growled. Schmidt immediately got back in his vehicle.
Al almost smiled at the fear in his neighbor’s eyes. He led the dogs past Schmidt’s driveway and glanced at the bumper. The sticker was gone. He smiled broadly, waved to Schmidt over his shoulder, and swaggered across the street to his house. The Shelter Man had won and protected his four-legged friends. He was proud of himself.
“Nice,” he said as he opened a beer. “Real nice.”
(illustration: dee sunshine)
Chuck Kramer is a Chicago writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism and is currently the vice-president of the NewTown Writers and host the organization’s live lit reading series. He also co-host Weeds Poetry at the Hideout, work on the editorial staff of the Chicago Quarterly Review, and is a workshop coordinator with the Chicago Writing Conference. Chuck occasionally freelances for the Windy City Times and his journalism has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, and Reader. In addition to his published stories, he has written two unpublished novels and is currently working on a third Boom! August 1968. More from Chuck Kramer can be found in the Vault of Smoke.