national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011
Honorable Mention in Fiction

Those Dogs

Cassandra Hartt  • 
Dartmouth College

Based on Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s “Your Dogs” from Lonely Avenue


With a house that looks like this, at that price, we knew there had to be a catch.

It’s 2:31 a.m. and this is it.

Those dogs. Barking in Next Door’s backyard. At the moon, the dark, each other. Barking for the fun of it. Barking for barking’s sake. Reveling in their deep pit bull voices, talking to hear themselves talk, scaring my children and Mrs. Number Four’s Pekingese (she says it wedges itself under the armchair). The sound makes my wife grapple with our sheets until she’s awake. She tries the surround sound pillow trick, which won’t work—it never does. Finally she groans and swears and gives up.

It’s been three months, but we’ve still got boxes to unpack. A lot of them, full of photo albums and all our dining ware. Let’s just say, the paper plates have worn out their welcome.

She’s made me a honey-do list about fifty bullet points long. Take care of the white birch that looms over our patio table set, crooked and bent over as Mr. Number Fifteen. Paint the family room a color, any color but the current hue. The realtor called it “Guava Jam” and tried to use it as a selling point.

Those dogs were not a selling point. Those dogs were not mentioned.

Anyone will tell you, Next Door is bad news. A hooligan. Trouble. Mrs. Number Four says he’s 24 years old, and already a dad twice. Maybe and maybe not with the same woman.

Maybe child support is why he just looked at me when I asked if he wants to chip in when I call Ferretti’s Tree Surgery to take care of the birch, so they can cut down the big dead branch on one of his own trees. Otherwise someday it will snap and fall, maybe on one of those dogs or maybe through his roof.

Nobody can say I didn’t warn him.

Those dogs. Barking as dark as the rocks I picture rumbling in the tumbler inside my head. Rocks bleeding out my ears, polished and colored, the kind my son likes to spend too much of my money on when we go to science museums.

Those dogs are an anomaly of science. They shouldn’t be able to bark so long, so loud. When they’re good and dead they’ll be studied. Some Sunday in the future, and hopefully not the too distant future, I’ll drink my coffee and read in the paper about the mutant pit bulls that terrorized Fairway Drive.

“Five hours of sleep. Is that too much to ask?” says my wife. In the dark she is elbows and knees, frazzled hair and palms pressed against her eyelids.

She wishes we didn’t move—more of a constant emotional state than a thought. My kids are young enough that they can make new friends anywhere, but my wife left behind her two brothers and her parents and her Bible study group and her favorite hair stylist and her yoga class Fridays at six. She says you can’t replace those things, but she just doesn’t want to.

I guess it’s that Binghamton is just far enough away from Worcester—a little over four hours, if it’s not the Sunday afternoon of a long weekend—that spontaneity is not an option. But it feels like it should be. Still, Binghamton has sun salutations and churches, too.

“I could call over there.” I hope the way I say it makes it clear that I won’t.

“Please. I doubt he owns a phone.”

My eyes are tight and crusted at the corners. “I could call the police.”

She doesn’t say, “We’ve tried that,” but we have. The thing about the young, anti-establishment types is they frankly don’t care. Since he’s not starving or beating those dogs, there wasn’t much the police could do about it after he said, “Okay,” then put them inside and said, “Better?”

We lip-read those lines from the bay window in our eat-in kitchen. The next night, guess which trio came barreling out of the slid-open backdoor? Here’s a hint: they like to bark.

Plus, calling made me feel old. It’s something my parents would do.

Turning away from me, my wife mutters to her nightstand, “There’s a quicker solution, if you’d just man up and do it.”

That isn’t fair, even if she’s just saying. It’s hardly a question of manhood. More a question of another man’s property and whether or not it should be respected. It should. Like how Next Door shouldn’t repurpose the balls my kids lose over the fence as doggie chew toys.

I guess my relationship with Next Door started off on something like the wrong foot: we both happened to be in our backyards at the same time. I waved. He didn’t.

My new neighbors fell all over themselves trying to prove their sympathy for my home’s unfortunate location. Their complaints could be aimed at any young person anywhere: he listens to loud music, throws parties, smokes and drinks. If he’s employed, they say, it’s only as a drug dealer. The only words Ms. Number Eighteen has for him are “white” and “trash.”

This explains some but not all of it.

 

Those dogs are nocturnal and think everyone else should be too. Most days they lie in the yard, brown and baking in the sun like their own turds, exhausted and probably hoarse from the previous night’s exertions—except for the one time the back gate was left open and they got out. It was trash day. Think banana peels and cantaloupe rinds. Corrugated cardboard and the Sunday funnies. Used Q-tips and soda bottles with the smallest sip left inside, just enough to drain on my shoe when I picked them up and sorted them back into the blue recycling bin.

I make those cans. At least, I supervise the people who make those cans. They’re aluminum, not tin, for the record. As supervisor, I listen to the Union’s complaints. They don’t like the looks of their paychecks and they sure don’t like the looks of a thumb sandwiched between metal. This accident happened two and a half weeks ago. This was somehow my fault.

It’s not Next Door’s fault, though. The thumb or the garbage. But all he’s got to do is put those dogs inside. Just let them in, is that really so much to ask?

My wife turns on the lamp and after the brief initial ache of light, our skin and the sheets and the walls glow yellow. She’s giving me a look, out of the corner of her eye but a look all the same.

“What?” I say.

“Nothing.”

“No, what?”

“Well, what else is the gun for?”

I know she doesn’t mean what she’s said, but what I don’t know is about this feeling in my stomach: is it because she’s not supposed to say this, or because she’s not supposed to have to say this?

This taunt is her favorite way to accuse me of everything without taking the time to actually count each grievance on her fingers. I didn’t help with the dishes after dinner. I said I think it’s important for the kids to have somebody at home when they get off the school bus, so maybe she should not work in the afternoons. I brought her to godforsaken Binghamton.

Tell me, who the hell wants to live in Worcester his whole life anyway?

“That’s for…burglars. If criminals broke into our house—”

“How are you going to protect us against fugitives if you can’t make a couple dogs shut up?”

I said criminals, not fugitives. And there are three dogs, which is a few, not a couple.

“You’re the one who wanted to move here,” she continues.

Here we go. I could say that I didn’t want to relocate so much as I wouldn’t have a job if we hadn’t. I couldn’t say that, despite the move, there’s a good chance I’ll be out of a job by Christmas. Downsizing. Also, finger pointing. I haven’t told her about the thumb incident. But these things are true too.

“I’m not going to shoot his dogs.”

“Why not?” she jeers.

I don’t know. I just won’t.

“Why not?” she says again. And, “Where are you going?”

“I have to take a piss.”

 

Lack of sleep does things to you. You drink too much coffee and spend the rest of the day feeling hollow. You’re always hungry. You repeat mistakes you already learned from long ago: Tuesday I locked my keys in my car, like I was sixteen years old again. And things that wouldn’t normally bother you do: unskilled baggers at the grocery store who put the eggs and bread at the bottom and the tomato soup at the top, for example. You start thinking about things that don’t matter, like missing your kid’s preschool graduation and how when you say “fork” over and over it stops being a word.

You start thinking maybe your wife’s got a point.

In life, it’s strategic to think your wife’s ideas are good ones. The home becomes a happier place. You get more sex. I doubt killing dogs would lead to more sex, but it would lead to more sleep.

I mean to say, you don’t hear about many insomniacs with crazy sex lives.

This is some but not all of it.

In the bathroom, I consider beating the barking out of my skull by hitting my head against the porcelain toilet bowl. I don’t wash my hands, because I know she will hear that I don’t and hate that.

I wonder if “manning up and doing it” could save me. As it is, I get home from work and there’s still the same number of cardboard boxes. Mostly in the basement, to trip over when we go down to take a steak out of the freezer for dinner the next night, but also in the dining room. She doesn’t want her parents to visit until we’re “unpacked and settled in,” but she doesn’t want to unpack everything until the family room is repainted.

By me.

Basically, all my fault.

I don’t go back to bed right away. Instead, I pause in front of my closet and consider the possibilities behind its accordion-fold doors. Because the bark of those dogs is the belly of my car scraping every time I roll over a yellow speed bump in the elementary school parking lot. It scrapes again when my daughter is buckled in, talking about her day at school and waving her latest papier-mâché sculpture in front of my nose. She reprimands me in an uncanny impression of her mother, tells me those bumps mean you’re supposed to slow down, Daddy.

But this is moving up in the world. The cost of living is lower in Binghamton. My job pays a little bit more. The best of the sprawl: a suburban development. A private road, where we all have to pay dues in order to coax a snowplow to come our way, or so I’m told. At the last meeting, I voted yes to make the neighborhood’s speed limit fifteen miles per hour, and to add a SLOW, CHILDREN AT PLAY sign.

It’s 3:04 and I’m tired. And this barking is rubbing me the wrong way: fingernail clippers in the blender, silverware in the Kitchen Aid mixer. Sounds like these, you can’t think.

Or, you can only think insofar as to make them stop.

I picture myself hot with adrenaline and putting a bullet between each pit bull’s eyes. Next Door sees, and I maybe threaten him with the same fate as his dogs. He doesn’t accept the challenge, just curls his lip and scowls like a surly teenager. I picture myself walking back home, silence pressing against my ears.

I picture myself loving it.

These are the types of thoughts you have when you’re sleep deprived.

I seem worse than I am, at night. Really I’m a tolerant man. Everybody ought to live how he wants. My neighbors are narrow-minded. Etcetera.

But there are things like the way that even though it’s the peak of autumn, Next Door hasn’t touched a rake. And his leaves keep blowing into our clean yard. And the tattoo on his neck, some tribal-looking scribble, and the piercing in his nose. Like a booger that can’t be wiped away.

I know you can’t judge people this way. Probably there are things Mrs. Number Four hasn’t and won’t find out, like that he had an absent father or was abandoned by his mother, shot from foster home to foster home like a pinball.

25 points every time you disappear down the trippy tunnel with the flashing lights.

50 points every time you glance off a police officer and careen in a new, exciting direction.

100 points every time one of those dogs barks.

You get three chances. Nine if you’re a cat. But you’re really more of a dog person.

I mean to say, those dogs are probably all the family he has.

But can’t he be just a little bit more like someone like me?

 

At the same time that I’m pulling-pushing the folding closet doors open, the barking changes pitch and tempo. Renewed fervor and vehemence. They’ve maybe seen a raccoon. Just a little after those dogs get excited, but before they fall back into their boast of endurance, and at the same time that I’m pulling the locked gun case across the carpet toward me, a pair of small, slippered feet race their way into our bedroom. I turn, gun heavy with possibility in my hands. My son has launched himself into my wife’s arms, where he is recounting the nightmare he just had, in no way improved by those alarm clock dogs.

Looking at the handgun and my fingers wrapped around it, I wonder if I could do it.

I think I could.

“What are you doing?” my wife lip-syncs to the barking, and the sight of those lips, exaggerated mimes over our son’s shoulder, and the whites of her eyes makes me plant my feet in the carpet. Defiant. Powerful, like I could knock down a bridge with a nudge of my elbow. Fell a forest with the shrug of my shoulders. Splash in the ocean as if it were a puddle and watch ripples become terrifying tsunamis.

These are the types of thoughts.

She unknots his arms from around her neck, encourages him to snuggle under the covers in the warm pocket I’ve left behind on my side of the bed. To me she says, “Put that away.”

“What’s it for, then?” I mock.

“I didn’t mean it and you know it.” And then she says again, voice stretched taut, “You know it.” It’s a toss-up as to whether she’s more worried for me or worried that what I’m going to do will be her fault.

Because I’m going to do it. Because I can.

“Are you nuts?” she says, forgetting to keep her voice down and our son is wide-eyed too now, peeking from sheets pulled up to his chin. “Put it back.”

You get so tired that it looks like there’s only one cause for things. Or there could be.

Those hangnails are because you didn’t get enough vitamin C last week.

My big brother went off the deep end that winter two years ago because he was never going to make it as an artist.

Our lives could be damn near perfect if those dogs disappeared.

We could be perfect.

These are the types of things you think about.

My wife blocks a sliver of the doorway with her slight frame. She says, Don’t do it. If I don’t, she’ll do anything. At least give it until the morning. Don’t act on anything you haven’t examined in the daylight, you know?

This is sort of like the time we were stuck behind an asshole on our way to the lake. An asshole who couldn’t drive. It had been a long week at work. At home too, but only in the way that life is long. I just wanted to get there, to the spider-webbed cabin and the planks of the dock and the fresh green water.

I had been planning to leave work early, at 2:00, but one of my managers started waving around a pocketknife at 1:45. So there we were, all packed into the sedan and it getting dark, when we were supposed to get to camp in time to have a cookout on the charcoal grill. The rear view mirror was useless because we had the trunk crammed full of duffel bags and a picnic basket and inflatable rafts and footwear for all weather possibilities. And this guy thought it’d be a good idea to drive five under the speed limit down a one-lane backcountry road.

Naturally, I tailgated for the next eleven miles. On the twelfth he deliberately slowed down, and when I honked, flipped me off.

The part that this is sort of like is that I started gesticulating that the man ahead should pull over and we could have it out and quit playing games.

“Knock it off,” my wife said. “Stop it. We’re not in any hurry.” So instead we stopped for hotdogs and fries from a roadside stand and let the guy get ahead.  Probably for the better: I’ve never been in a fight.

I have fired a gun, once. At a deer, the one time my dad took me hunting. Missed. But I get the gist of it.

 

Now she says, just think about this for one minute. Please?

So I think about how, after, she won’t be able to say I don’t care. Sure I do. I’ll have killed for her.

I maneuver around her and she resorts to things like, “They’re God’s creations too,” and, “You’re going to get out there and you’re going to embarrass yourself.” My daughter, her sleep also disrupted by those dogs, comes to the banister of the staircase in her nightgown.

“Daddy, what are you doing?”

I tell her, “Stay here, Sweetheart. I’ll be right back.”

My family follows me, a chain of clasped hands and choruses of “Daddy”s and “Please, Honey”s. We navigate the new house poorly in the dark, hips finding table edges and jutting doorknobs. The gun is the line leader, pulls us past granite countertops and oak cabinets, past the refrigerator with stainless steel doors and the cold tile under our feet.

Opening the back door lets in a flood of barking. The air smells crisp. At the edge of my backyard, I hover for only a moment. I wonder how this will look to me in the morning, but this thought is more interesting than it is troublesome.

I slide the door shut, hard. Seal myself out. My family stands at the bay window, a huddled pyramid of grog and apprehension. I wave.

The dew is wet on my ankles, the moon pockmarked and cold blue. Some leaves crunch under me and disintegrate between my toes.

Through the chain link fence, we eye each other. There are three. Their ears form stiff peaks. Lips peel back from teeth. I might give a snarl of my own, but I’m not sure. Mostly, I feel my legs under me. Muscles taut. Me with a purpose, and an audience. The gun is at the end of my arm, pointing and bobbing with every step.

The fence is closed but not locked, its hinges vocal but not loud. Those dogs stand their ground, fur bristled and whiskers quivering. I’m close enough to see that.

I’m close enough to know that this time, I won’t miss.

The loudest is also the closest. The fur on its back is matted and bruise-colored in the dark. Every bark sounds like paper, throats tearing.  Every bark a refusal of the unasked, “Can I sleep now?”

I steady one arm with the other. Plant my feet in the dying grass. Cock the gun. My face wrinkles, grows years older in screwed-up anticipation. But I don’t close my eyes. I want to see everything.

One for my wife: it’s blown off its feet. Its flesh explodes.

The second for my kids: to still the fallen dog’s scrambling paws, quivering jowls.

And even though I know that inert dog is good and dead, the last shot—so that its body briefly jumps with life again—is for myself.

The other dogs shudder and whine, at a loss without a ringleader.

So this is how the wind whistles in New York.

There’s the sound of maybe the last crickets before winter.

Amongst the vinyl siding and black shutters of Next Door’s house, there’s a yellow window.

He’s awake.

Panic. A little sweat, mostly on my upper lip, the palms of my hands. Don’t yell, I tell myself. Don’t run away.

And isn’t this what I wanted?

Man up, I mutter under my breath. I wonder if my wife, my children are still watching my performance.

Thirty-two years old and this is what you’ve come to.

The gun doesn’t disappear afterwards but stays heavy, hanging, an extension of my arm. I don’t know what to do with it. I think it won’t be satisfied to return to its case in the closet for another six years.

Right now, I’m pretty glad Next Door is not like me.

To do anything but go and knock on that sliding backdoor would be running away. But it would also be a hell of a lot easier. I turn my back on the dogs: their eyes and teeth, their accusations. I mount the hollow-sounding wooden stairs and knock on the glass, heart clunking along, tripping over itself to beat in time with Next Door’s footsteps.

I always forget about the greasy black hair. Does he have running water? A shower?

Eventually, we all become our parents. Maybe we keep them from visiting so we can forget that, and maybe some people live down the street from their parents, just to remind themselves.

Because I’m a coward and because there’s nothing to say, no words to say it with, I gesture behind me. With the gun, not to emphasize or anything, but by mistake.

The way his eyes stay flat, only flick over to the body before returning to my face, it’s worse than I imagined.

“You killed my dog,” he says. A statement.

So I say I’m sorry.

“Jesus,” he says.

It’s just that we haven’t slept through the night in weeks.

“Yeah?”

Well. That’s some but not all of it.

“Fuck you,” he says, and slams the sliding door shut.

But it doesn’t sound like a door. It sounds like a familiar heavy fall and clink.

It sounds like my wife saying, “You forgot to put the toilet seat down again.”

So I say I’m sorry. I uproot myself from where I’m leaning against the wall, across from the closet. My feet are cold. I return to bed, touch my son’s hair. He’s asleep. I wish I were, too.

Maybe the weed killer we spray in the spring will run off into Next Door’s yard, toxic and silent. Or the Rid-X will seep out of the septic tank and wind its way into those dogs’ favorite water puddle.

Maybe tomorrow morning we will both wheel our trashcans to the ends of our respective driveways at the same time. I will nod and so will he; he’ll have his headphones on, so he might only be acknowledging the music’s beat. But I’ll pretend otherwise.

These are the things you think about.