Story — From the November 2017 issue

Bad Dog

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Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Back when she and Tim thought they wouldn’t have kids, they adopted this dog from Tim’s friend who was moving out to Boulder. Maybe the friend didn’t love it enough to take it, but they did. Mostly black Lab, with a golden retriever’s long fur and an inbred golden’s stupidity. Fur that catches burrs all over and stinks even if they get him a summer trim. He can’t be kenneled, got banned from the kennel because, I guess, he was too dumb to realize, Hey, we’re all in this together, let’s just be calm and make it work. On family vacations he’ll make a mess of things — dig into the garbage, paddle desperately into the lake after anyone swimming or canoeing or water-skiing until he needs to be saved, and so on.

I’m telling you about this dog because I’m going to kill him.

Kathy’s brushing her teeth after half a granola bar. She sometimes eats right before bed because otherwise, she says, she feels like she’s going empty-handed to the underworld. Before retirement, she had insomnia from dealing with stress down at the high school and I slept a fast, earned sleep. Now she sleeps deeply and doesn’t remember her dreams, while for me, often as not I’m up half the night.

Sometimes there’s a gentle creak from the attic, but I still can’t tell the difference between the bones of the house moving and Stevie padding around on his size-thirteen feet, though it’s near on nine years since he moved back in. A night owl with a minifridge full of Diet Coke.

Three children separated by three years apiece is as tidy as a Chinese puzzle. Someone at the school, another parent maybe, told me that once. But I never looked up what type of puzzle this meant.

Kathy is over watching Rose during the day while Abby and Tim are at work. The dog is resting in front of the sofa. Rose is playing with her toy kitchen. Kathy is reading and gets up to make tea. There is a yelp, a scream.

Rose is dazed and about to cry. The dog is standing awkwardly like he doesn’t know where to go. The bleeding from Rose’s scalp is scarier than the actual wound, but still it takes seven stitches to close it properly. Kathy isn’t looking when the bite happens, so it’s not clear what precedes it, but the guess is that Rose walked behind the dog and he startled, spun, and nipped her.

The second time, again nobody is looking. The dog is eating his food, and suddenly Rose is crying and has a small cut on her left cheek. Again it’s anybody’s guess what has just happened. They’re careful to put sunblock on the spot so the scar will fade, fifty-fifty it’ll go away or not, the pediatrician says.

She should be too young to remember anything that happens now, though I don’t know how complete this kind of amnesia is, for either fear or loss. Rose, always smiling, keeps stretching the cut as it heals. She comes over with Abby and Tim late one afternoon to chase the rabbits in the yard, sprinting, pouncing, shrieking with joy. When she gives me a big, wonderful three-part kiss goodbye the cut opens again.

I’m guessing Abby and Tim’s thinking about the situation is sort of screwed up by the fact that the first time needed stitches but the second time didn’t. Less of a big deal. They so badly want to let the dog off the hook. I decide to talk to Tim, father to father. It’s not a move I make without thinking, sidestepping Abby like that, because she’s a girl — a woman — and she’ll always be the youngest and sensitive about other people making choices over her.

I set things out very straight: How will you feel if it happens again? If you heard this about other parents, what would you think? How will it look if you have to explain three separate bites to the pediatrician? You can’t even use that stupid “He’s never done this before” line. If someone else’s dog had done this to some other kid, would you let Rose around it? Even if he did it by accident, those accidents are now a pattern. Sometimes you get a dog that’s a lemon. Plus, he’s almost ten, he’s had more good years than are even natural, he’s easily agitated. Nobody’s going to adopt him. Not everything you do regarding the pet is going to give you pleasure and satisfaction. What is responsible pet ownership? It is taking responsibility for the pet, and that includes getting rid of it when the time comes.

Tim doesn’t really have any good reasoning, it’s all yeah wells and I guesses, and most of them unsaid. In any case, I’ve said my piece. I’ve said what I’m going to say.

A few days later, when I’ve looped in the boys by talking to Stevie at home and Jack on the phone and thought of some new points and refined others, I say my piece to Abby, since it doesn’t completely duplicate what already happened with Tim.

What if it’s her eye next time? And so on.

Abby and Tim hire a dog behaviorist.

This woman goes to their house Friday afternoon. Abby, whose idea this apparently is, gets Kathy to drop by and watch Rose during the visit, so she overhears a lot of what the dog woman says. Kathy tries to present it all very neutrally, like I am the one with strong feelings, irrational even, and she just wants what’s best for everyone and is letting me know some extra facts, but the facts speak for themselves.

I know in my mind what this woman looks like, and sounds like, and also that she doesn’t have kids. I hope I never know how much she charges.

The dog woman asks, Is his bowl always facing into the corner like this? It’s a very restricted space.

The dog woman says, Well, he seems calm and not agitated to me. This doesn’t seem like a big deal.

I can imagine her looking at the dog and at Abby and then back at the dog and giving them to understand that everything is okay, raising her eyebrows as in, Hey, I was expecting a problem dog, we can work with this!

The dog woman says something along the lines of, It doesn’t sound like he really meant it. Attacking Rose, that is.

The dog woman listens to them awhile and tells them that the dog probably has an eating disorder that makes him especially irritable. Super picky, not no appetite. If you give him the tastiest stuff he’ll eat that. But not the regular old boring food that is provided to him unfailingly, without any cost or effort or expectations, in an arrangement probably unheard of in all but the past seventy or a hundred years of the however many thousands since dogs have been domesticated, when the rest of the time if he’d behaved like this he would have been beaten or starved or put out into the wilderness.

The dog woman says he should be given his food outside. And that is it. They are going to separate him and Rose at mealtimes, and generally hope he’s not around her with too little supervision.

For a dog therapist I guess the dog has to be the real victim here. I’m sure there’s no professional body governing this. And this make-believe expertise is somehow being invited to push aside parenthood and guardianship.

Kathy and Stevie and I are having dinner when Kathy fills us in about the dog woman. Stevie pipes up: But did the lady talk to the dog about his feelings? Stevie almost lands one here but it’s a little too eager.

Abby is pregnant again.

For a long time after my sister took to the bottle and whatever else she could get her hands on, and until a few years before she finally used herself up and died, every week or three years she’d show up. This one time, when Abby was really little, and even Jack couldn’t have been past fourth grade, before the kids had learned to go inside if they saw her come by, Abby sees this tanned, leathery woman appear, doesn’t recognize her, and asks, Who is that Indian? I remember getting caught off guard by that and kind of choking on a laugh or laughing into a sob at that moment but not what I said to Abby as I sent her inside, still blond then like Rose is for now, and missing the front teeth she’d knocked out chasing after her brothers.

Irma always came for money and to make big promises and plans. Once, a different time, Kathy heard a noise in the garage and I went to check it out and it turned out Irma had jimmied her way in there to sleep and she started up with, Oh, I was looking around, it’s so messy in here, I was thinking I’d help you clean it up.

The garage always was and is spotless — I’d rather err on the side of purging, and do it decisively, so the stuff can’t just drift into limbo, and the satisfaction is complete and irreversible, and when it comes to what remains, all the things are always in their proper place, the tools on the pegboard have left a permanent shadow where the sun has bleached the rest — but what really got me was that Irma had her damn dog with her, in the garage.

Same dog as she’d had earlier, the time she pulled up and confused Abby, noble Hiawatha with a wolf companion. It was a German shepherd mix, and it didn’t look in the best repair, though easily better than she did. He actually looked a lot like the dog we had when we were kids until our parents left him in the car at the grocery store with his leash tied to the steering wheel and he jumped out the window and hanged himself. Her dog also made me think of that ploy, maybe honest sometimes but still a ploy, when a dog is used as a panhandling prop by the homeless, which Irma was always one step shy of being and but for the grace of God or maybe just my ignorance at some point might actually have been.

Irma was family, but this dog, it was just the family of some other dogs. Who was this dog to insert itself in the middle of things? The dog was not helping her. I know you might have an instinct otherwise, that it gave her an anchor of some kind, even a reason to live. But I knew my sister. And my take is that it made things worse. I think it made her feel more like she was a normal person who didn’t need to change. Like not only is love unconditional but so is companionship, tolerance, acceptance.

Every few days Bert Wittnauer, around the corner on Hamilton with the lot adjoining ours to the northwest, gets drunk and shouts at his terrier. Today it doesn’t make sense: sounds like she’s pooping too much or not pooping enough or pooping wrong. The wife left Bert about eight years ago, and I think he follows this ritual for the conversation. I don’t remember if it’s always been the same dog.

Abby and Tim are taking Rose to do a one-night camp. Since they’re gone less than twenty-four hours, they’ll leave the idiot with extra food and he’ll be fine. They’ll reinstate his lost doggy-door privileges.

My phone makes an emergency-broadcast screech. Then I hear it from the rest of the family plan, Kathy’s phone in the kitchen and Stevie’s in the attic. I know he’s opted out of Amber Alerts, so this has to be a flash-flood warning.

Outside, the sky has turned gray-blue like the clouds are soaking up ink spilled somewhere near the horizon. It’s colder. I can feel the low pressure, making a space for something else, that empty windy hollowness pulling in other things. I smell the ozone and the big-weather-system wind picks up.

It’s one of those clobbering, sheeting rainstorms, where if you saw it in the movies you’d think, That looks fake, water doesn’t fall like that, they’ve just got some guys out of frame tossing buckets. It goes on for half an hour, the worst of it about the middle, and winds up fast.

In the back yard, rabbits are wandering out the blown-open door of the bike-and-garden shed. It’s fresh like the world has just been created and destroyed at the same time. Where the sun breaks through the clouds it shines on raindrops, pebbles, anything. Tall stalks of sunflowers are twisted limp, the greenest they’ll ever be but dying. The new sun umbrella from the deck is halfway across the yard, bent crazy and lying still like a murder victim.

Across the street, a bolt-straight paper birch has fallen like a stiff cartoon drunk onto the Sundersons’. It’s too light a tree to do much damage but the gutter and some shingles will have to be replaced.

In the garage I cut a twelve-foot length of chain from a longer piece. I take the mateless, rusty forty-five-pound dumbbell probably last used by one of the boys for bicep curls in their late teens. And I take two old combination locks. Plus some other odds and ends. All this in a duffel bag I can barely lift, plus my bike stuff.

And the bike. I got it through Jack when he worked at the big bike store near campus in college, and since he was majoring in art, I let him choose the color for me. It’s blue — but when I say blue, it’s not the kind of blue you think of when you’re thinking about blue. It’s an unexpected color.

Stevie comes out on the porch as I load in the bike, he’s changed since he got home from work and is wearing his old thick glasses even though he’s going on a date later, which must mean some particular allergens are stirred up and his contacts are bothering him.

He asks me: Going somewhere?

Stevie, always so gentle and cautious, always keeping tabs on everyone yet worried about prying, asks these non-questions, or adds an extra pre-question, so much of the time. I’m sure when Kathy left fifteen minutes ago for her singing group like she’s done every Friday since who knows when, he had to confirm it. You could be sitting there reading the newspaper, or washing the dishes, the kind of things that, if we were playing charades, he would guess immediately, and still he’ll ask, Whatcha doing?

I’ve got a bike in the back of the station wagon, I’m wearing cycling shorts and tennis shoes and a windbreaker. Sometimes the way I feel is, Goddamn it, just ask me where I’m going. But not this time. Thank you, Stevie, not this time.

I tell him, Yeah.

This isn’t about any antagonism I have toward this dog or dogs generally, and like I said, I had a perfectly good dog as a kid. It’s a safety issue.

I stop at the Walmart at the edge of town and buy a leash and a walking harness. There’s a special on cases of Diet Coke, but I hesitate since I don’t remember whether it’s Zero or One or None that Stevie prefers these days, and I don’t want to actively encourage a bad tendency, and then I think, He’s thirty-four, let him buy his own.

When I reach the city I leave the car near Union Park at an entrance to the hike-and-bike loop and follow that most of the way to Illinois Heights, to the railroad crossing, which is as far as I can go before I have to turn off the last five or six blocks to Abby and Tim’s.

The twilight now is actually lighter than the late-afternoon storm sky was two hours earlier, but I’m pretty sure no one sees me. I’ve left my rear L.E.D. flasher off and the houses are glowing warm and private, the day forgotten.

I punch the door code, leave the lights off. The dog is lying there in the enclosed breezeway between the garage and the house and he looks up at me, gives me a few silent tail-swishes but doesn’t stand. When I go through the back door and close it, though, he follows me out through the doggy door.

The land past the fence was ceded years ago to the Department of Natural Resources, and they converted it back to native grassland. Beyond this new-old prairie it’s just scrub forest out to the interstate. There’s still a steady breeze and the tall grasses are hissing in a chorus with the louder strains of the trees.

The big black oak has five or six low spreading branches, two of which reach out over the back fence, and one of those is so long and sagging that they keep it braced with two-by-fours, but still it might not be safe even for Rose’s weight.

I knock out the two-by-fours, and the branch lurches downward and bobs and shakes its crown. I crouch on the branch at its base and square my back against the trunk. I wager two knee arthroscopies and five inches of hardwood against three years of kettlebells and 10Ks. I try to expand myself out through my legs. No good. I pull back. The crown bounces upward, shakes, and settles.

I turn around so I can use my arms too and try again. This time there is a sharp little crack. Then a peeling crack, and the branch is down and so am I.

I get up and check the fence. The knotty pine is gray and rotted, twenty or thirty years old. I pull away two loose pickets and lay them on the ground as they might have landed if the falling branch had knocked them aside, leaving a ten-inch gap.

The dog has been a little curious through this, but not very. I open the door back into the breezeway and stand there until he follows me in. I get out the harness and leash and he comes over. It’s the wrong time of day and I’m the wrong person, but he’s still willing to go. I wonder briefly if this is all too complicated, if I could choke him out right there on the cool polished concrete with the smell of spent rain drifting in the window screen, his pulse under my fingers and his flossy ears in my face. But a plan is a plan.

We slip out and I ride slowly back up the streets, then onto the trail, him trotting alongside me. A couple of times he forgets we’re a tandem act and stops to go on a smell exploration. We pass a few joggers and it’s so quiet over here, no wind at all, that I can hear their headphones and his sniffing.

Then he poops. The leash I bought doesn’t have a bag dispenser. I’m waiting for him to finish, staring into a spot just past him where the base of a streetlamp is buried in the blackberry bushes lining the trail, so when he does finish and I pull him away I don’t notice the woman who’s walked up behind me. At the moment I see her she sees us leaving and looks at the poop and looks at me and I look at the poop. I see it for the first time. It’s big, terrible, unmissable: segmented like the body of a prehistoric boneless armored fish.

She tilts her head a little sideways and narrows her eyes, both reflexes, and gives me that look I know I’ve given.

You going to pick that up? she decides to ask.

“It’s not my dog” are the words that form in my brain, but what comes out is, “Mind your own fucking business.”

The dog and I keep moving.

As we reach the parking lot, a city garbage truck cuts us off. We wait while it reverse-beeps into place to hoist the park’s dumpster into its backside. The reverse-beeping feels even more pointless than usual. I wonder whether all the human suffering caused by however many millions of hours this beeping goes on every year is greater than the amount the beeping prevents. But then how do you weigh millions of hours of annoyance, lost sleep, distraction against, say, the death of one toddler? Is one finite and the other infinite? I suppose I mean in some kind of a moral or spiritual way, not the actuarial tables I remember from a couple of college accounting classes.

The hydraulics hiss and the truck is gone.

There’s Leech Lake, Lake Winnie. There’s that giant pond near Waltham whose name I don’t know. Holy Name, down near Medina. Keketinka. Slough 786. Lake Bulova. The Spring South Mine Pit.

Can’t be more than forty minutes away.

Can’t be so deep that there’s a permanently cold bottom layer where stuff gets preserved for years.

Can’t be a place where lots of boaters anchor and might haul something up.

That leaves only Wagonsa. Last in a chain of three successively smaller lakes whose water picks up more and more agricultural runoff as it moves downstream. Not too deep, but deep enough. And anyway, you couldn’t see your toes if you were up to your neck: Secchi depth won’t be better than four feet this far into the summer. Filled with algal blooms and underutilized. Warm and fetid, no municipal water contribution, no kids swimming, no houses.

I’ve been through this list plenty of times when I’m up at night, the practical questions. I don’t want to make it look like this is all executed cleanly on the fly, like I’m some kind of Rain Man.

Wagonsa has a gravel launch where some nearby homeowners and the university’s limnology center leave beat-up wide-bottom canoes and rowboats hauled up. I right a green aluminum rowboat that has oars poking out from underneath it.

Walking the dog and getting the dog into the truck have followed procedures and expectations, but what comes now does not. I sit down and encourage the dog to sit. He sits. I shuffle over to him and put my legs, knees bent, on either side of him. I unspool duct tape from the roll but that sudden sound perturbs him and he goes and stands a few feet away, blinking past me.

I act casual and unhurried, then repeat the first steps with the tape open. I reach forward and firmly, not so fast as to startle and not so slow that he can start thinking, wrap the tape five or six times around his front legs.

The back legs are more difficult. I have to pin him against the ground with my right leg over his shoulder. Again, quickly enough to take control and count on the firm projection of human authority but not so quickly that it seems like aggression. I have to convey, This is for your own good.

He pistons his front legs, trying to loosen the tape, arches and hunches his back experimentally, but mostly just tries to keep his eyes on me. It’s easier to bring the boat to the dog than vice versa, so I drag it over and load us in. I push off and hop in the boat. This dog has tried to swim after some boat or other carrying a family member countless times, but I don’t remember him actually getting into one.

The moon is bright and the sky clear except for a few storybook clouds, dark in the middle and lit up on the edges, so I can see the whole lake and the weeping willows over where we launched drooping into the water and making the whole place feel more humid and hopeless. It’s quiet except for the splash of the oars and the now distant strumming of green frogs and when the dog says something.

The squirming starts. Wildly switching his front and rear bipods together and apart, twisting all over, trying to push himself up against the side of the boat. He starts really howling. I think we’re too far from anyone who might hear, but it’s still making me cringe.

There are too many not-normal things happening for him to keep it together. I thought maybe he would be confused and placid but he’s understood that something very familiar has become dangerous.

One thing I should have done earlier is thread an end of the chain through the D ring on his harness. Another would have been to tape his muzzle. He’s trying to get at me now as I try to do the first thing, not quite to bite me. He has a wild open mouth that it seems he doesn’t mean to close, almost like he just wants to put a scratch on me. As if the gesture of showing that we’re enemies would be enough to satisfy.

I lock the harness end of the chain to itself. The dumbbell end is already done: tight turns around the handle, another padlock. But the dumbbell is in the stern of the boat for balance. If I try to stand and reach over him, lift the weight, we might capsize. So he has to go first.

I get down low with him, wedge my back where the seat meets the hull, and roll him up the diagonal opposite side with my bare feet, pushing first into the loose skin of his abdomen, then his ticklish ribs, then the spiky summer-shaved fur of his back.

He goes over. The boat rocks and he’s splashing. I sit up and see he’s making that one movement he still can, faster than before, reaching his leg pairs far apart and back together. He’s doing a decent job of keeping his nose and mouth above water. No vocalizations now, just panicked breathing.

I scoot forward to the dumbbell, grab it with both hands, and heave it clear. A huge ploomp like the world’s biggest pebble, the tik-tik-tik-tik-tik of the rest of the chain running over the gunwale, and then there’s no more slack in the line.

I haven’t been to church in years. Don’t believe in God, if you’re wondering. Used to go with the family because Kathy had it from her parents, but they were mostly educated dishwater Episcopalians, so it never really took. About thirty years ago I stopped going Sunday mornings, and pretty soon, after that one time Abby quietly took off all her clothes during services and suddenly everyone noticed she was just sitting there like a certain kind of angel they didn’t know how to greet, Kathy and the kids stopped, too. Everyone was relieved.

As I drive back tonight I notice the church I’ve noticed whenever I pass through Gruen, on the way to or from the picnic spot on the granite mounds near Medina or where I used to drop Jack for painting camp or pick up a turkey for Thanksgiving or a whole hog for the winter from the farms in Elgin River.

It’s low and unassuming but has nice bones, correct proportions. It’s Lutheran, antebellum. Now that I have slowed to a stop I see that, yes, if you trace from the low steeple down the slope of the roof into the transepts on either side, you have mirrored Fibonacci spirals, an upside-down heart.

They’ve left a light on and the door open, just in case (in case of what, I don’t know, but here we are).

The lines inside are studied and true. The work was done with obvious pride but no fuss. The backs and sides of the pews meet in tight dovetail joints rather than mortise and tenon. The floorboards, painted glossy white, span the width of the building — even at the transepts, about forty feet across — without a butt joint in sight. Every plank had to have come out of some primeval forest, back when there was thousand-year old growth stretching this far into the continent. The paint is tidy, though I can’t tell if that’s from fresh coats or a lack of traffic. There are little flourishes of copper, small and simple and rectilinear: as caps on posts, on the upper edges of the pews, cladding the joists and the original cross.

This is the God I would like to believe in, if I could make the effort at this point. A sturdy unassuming God of maple and copper, of brilliant white linseed paint. This is where I want to end up.

Abby and Tim put up signs around their neighborhood, offering rewards, even. I remember the woman who scolded me and let it pass.

Tim brings in the contractor who did their deck to replace the whole fence, which needed doing anyway. I come over to help him trim some branches that are too close to the house.

Not like him not to come back, Tim says, looking out into the prairie patch. He’s not a cat.

The grass out there is now nearly as high as the new fence, and even in the smallest wind it waves at us up on the ladders. Now and again I spot a more local disturbance, could be a pheasant or some kind of weasel. I think about how Stevie has said it’s a good thing that the dog went away, again him stating the obvious but again I don’t mind, I’m grateful.

Big storm like that, I say, maybe it shook him up somehow. Gave him some kind of idea.

Tim gives me what might be a weird look, or I might just be on edge.

Funny thing happened, he says. Neighbor knew we were away and saw a bike parked out front, didn’t think much of it but then wondered.

I know how it is, I say, neighbors, tight-knit street, not a lot of traffic, always shouldering their way into everyone’s business. Kind of nice that you guys found that up here in the city, though.

Tim nods.

Maybe he’s in a better place, I say. And it’s such a dumb thing to say, turning head-on into things after steering around, that I think it flushes from Tim’s mind whatever strange thoughts he might be having.

But I stick with the thought. I think of the dog now ruling over a gloomy kingdom of minnows and milfoil weed. Maybe he will dream forever about whatever it was he liked best. Maybe he’ll wake up on the other side of a vortex and shake himself off and walk away into paradise.

Abby’s new baby is going to be a boy.

The dog’s name was Rinehart.

I sell the bike the next week, to a college kid who drives down from the city. Of course there’s the timing, but I’ve been meaning to do this for years, the frame is just too ambitious for me at my age. I feel a brief guilty feeling of betrayal, since Jack picked it out for me, and then Bill Olson calls up a few days later and asks did someone steal your bike, just saw it chained up in town near the capitol, recognize it anywhere, that blue color. I say no, all above board, nothing to call the cops over.

The garden is overflowing with the late-summer vegetables, we can’t pick them all fast enough. Every year we learn a new lesson in what we secretly hate or what you just can’t use or give away that much of. Zucchini, green beans, Swiss chard. The best things, like peas and tomatoes, always fail or get picked off by birds and chipmunks. The rabbits are already into their fourth or fifth litter of the season, but they’re easy enough to keep out. For now the biggest problem is the deer, which Kathy deals with by stringing bars of cheap bath soap between posts around the garden. The deer stay away because the soap smells like people.

The wind is knocking around the house tonight, but I would be awake anyway. I’m having this fantasy I used to have when we were all away on vacation, that someone would call and tell us the house had burned down, all gone, nothing left to worry about.

The wind is making the noise of a million fallen leaves being blown around but never going anywhere, and I can tell it’s a high wind, going up far into the night. Abby’s old bedroom is now basically a walk-in closet for us, with not nearly enough clothes to fill it, and the eaves above her bay window have that new copper edging I installed last week, bouncing the moon right onto my pillow, an effect I didn’t foresee.

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