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Christopher Klim
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dog3.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2011

The Dog

 

 

Christopher Klim

 

 

Our dog was a German Short-haired Pointer named Greta, with vanilla-chocolate fur that smelled of decaying leaves when wet, which was as often as possible. A birddog never shies from water, cutting through the shallows of lakes and streams like an invading troop. Searching for water, Greta seized upon open spaces with jailbreak speed. In all seasons, we kept the front door sealed, making cautious passage, preparing our legs as blockers. I’d witnessed the dog’s ears perk as the doorknob turned and the latch clicked free. No matter where she lay in the house, the dog leapt to the pads of her feet as if sniffing the daylight slicing through the crack. And Greta ran with enviable desire.

 

In proportion, the dog was smarter and more resolute than her keepers. She controlled our family, even as we leashed her to the pantry door. Learning to enter the back porch with a single paw, she pulled the screen door wide enough to pass, escaping into the yard as she pleased. If food slipped from our plates, she would snatch it midair, never letting it hit the floor. She was vigilant, always watching. Before the rest of us thought to hide, she heard my father pulling into the driveway and slid behind the couch. I recall this now, as my own children cling to me upon arrival. Greta knew that the back of the couch, beneath the coffee table, and the dark corridor in the center of the house offered refuge during sirens, lightning storms, and the aftermath of a bad day at the office. Greta was a savant of perception, a genius of reaction, skills I’ve honed over decades to mere workability.

 

On a Saturday in the fall when the air felt dry and braced the skin in the late afternoon, I rode my green bicycle with the sparkled banana seat and sissy bar. In those days, only professionals and old people owned bicycles with handbrakes. The rest of us either slowed gracefully to a halt or reversed the pedals and skidded. I was a third grader, skidding preferred. Racing toward the garage, turning, dropping one leg as I reversed with the other, I strafed the cement with black rubber, stopping just short of the painted white overhead door.

 

I tested the handle. Usually the garage door was locked from the inside, and it felt like an incredible weight, when in fact it would never budge. This time, the door lifted fast and light, springs creaking, rollers turning over rickety metal tracks, a glorious noise to an eight-year-old boy. The heavy door rose as if I’d thrown it into the air, as if I was stronger than my age.

 

Before I edged my tire over the uneven lip of cement that separated our home from the street, Greta rushed into daylight. I gripped my bike handlebars and watched her gallop toward the nearest intersection of our suburban neighborhood. Her paws reached and gathered, extended and crossed, as only an animal astride can do.

 

My father emerged from the shaded interior of the garage, near the tool bench piled with abandoned projects. Immediately I knew that he’d locked the dog in the garage for a purpose that I would never understand, other than to keep her penned in a single place at a certain time. This decision surprised me as much as my timely arrival for dinner had caught him off-guard.

 

He approached, hot and sweaty from a weekend project that a white-collar executive would rather avoid. “Stupid son of a bitch.”

 

Of course, he wasn’t referring to the dog. I’d already concluded that my father and I were different—my pensive ways, never saying what I felt, hesitant to a fault, and failure. Insulting me didn’t reflect badly on him, not even when he barbed me in front of the neighbors for laughs.

 

Expecting to be smacked, I waited for the burning sensation that followed a swipe across the head. To this day, I cannot hear well from my left ear, and I guard against being blindsided that much more. Boxers know that a right-hander impacts your left side. As for me, whether debating politics, religion, or the total on a dinner check, I spy for the punch. I prepare for the sudden repercussions of being wrong or at the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a hand that waits to rise and block.

 

Dad burned from his miscalculation. I’d complicated an imperfect day at home. Built for bars and boardrooms, he dominated places where adults assembled to pretend like kids without a mission. He understood false faces and tales, laughs on cue, and reassuring morbidity. I was the variable he couldn’t avoid, the one who never respected the unstated rules. The one who wanted the truth.

Across the overflowing boxes and piles of trash, he gave his command. “Don’t come back until you get her.”

 

Shedding my bike in the doorway, I ran like Greta.

 

 

 

The dog was champion of the tease and chase. I’d played it with her on occasion but never this late in the day, alone, or with my father so angry—not with this much at stake. Usually Mom gathered my three sisters and me into the sky blue station wagon, and we would tail the dog around the block, begging from rolled-down windows for Greta to rejoin us. She always did, after what seemed like hours but was no less time than it took for the pasta water to over-boil on the stove.

 

“That’s it,” Mom often threatened. “I’m doing something about this.” She vowed worse and in specific detail—abandoning the dog, a one-way trip to the vet—but typically the punishment was a few hours on the leash at the pantry door, where we visited our incarcerated family mascot in shifts, showering her with more attention than she’d gotten in weeks. The dog’s perception of events amounted to this: free play through the neighborhood, including an investigation of neighboring garbage cans; a ride in the family car with her head out the window, ears flapping in the breeze; and temporary confinement for a nap and private petting sessions with the kids, culminating in a full dinner after dark. A good percentage of the human population would settle for this day-capping ritual.

 

By myself, Greta sensed my vulnerability, which I often wore upon my forehead in a furrowed brow. I was certain that everyone noticed and the dog recognized it, too. She passed the miniature windmill outside McGory’s house where I’d planned my first assault to take hold of her metal-studded collar. She pranced past the Martino’s ever-growing curbside trash heap and the Steiner’s perfect garden beds. Keeping at least twenty yards ahead, she gauged my deliberate steps. Each time I stopped, the dog paused, glancing over her shoulder. If she didn’t see me moving, I’d close the gap, but Greta knew.

 

At the corner, she eyed me longer than usual. I suppose she saw a chubby kid in a striped shirt with short sleeves and blue jeans with raggedy patches on the knees. She sniffed anxiety in the air, the scent I carried in most situations, the stench of stifled breaths on the sporting field, during tests at school, and in conversation with others. From a distance, Greta’s eyes looked brown, but they were almond-colored and wild up close. Scrapping a paw in the patchy lawn beside the curb, she made an unpredictable move. She turned left instead of right. A right turn led us around the block, and in the past, she had never circled more than twice, yet always circled. Today she turned left, leaving harbor for the first time.

 

I imagined my father’s confession at home. Mom would notice me not washing my hands for dinner, the splash of water and soap that splattered mud across the bathroom counters. She would look for my filthy sneakers beside the door. Searching my sister’s faces and then my father’s, she would recall the garage door rising earlier, and then my father would have to speak. He’d set the radio to a jazzy tune and rock my mother from behind, creating that invisible envelope where no other noise filled the house. With a whisper or a vague notion, he’d make it appear as if he had warned me, as if I had volunteered to go, assuring her of my eminent return. The belief was that I had set events in motion, which I unknowningly had, but I swear from a distance of years that the day belonged to Greta. All decisions were hers.

 

The dog broke from the neighborhood, and as we traveled out of bounds, awe and loathing filled my heart. Greta was more interested in distance than learning, passing sights that had lit her imagination prior—a stack of car tires, piles of leaves, a split-open bag of trash.

 

As we moved into unfamiliar neighborhoods, the houses stood stone-faced and quiet in the approaching dusk. In the late 60s, Saturday night dinners had not yet been abandoned in the suburbs, and although a preponderance of drugs, rock’n’roll, and war would soon lay waste to tradition, tonight nuclear-decaying families gathered around tables, beyond the view of a boy and dog traipsing across driveways and unfenced backyards in neighborhoods where neither Greta nor I recognized the smells and sights or even the names of the streets.

 

I was lost without Greta, and she paused to let me catch up. With a whine that trembled in her throat, she called me, led the way. The few times in the past that she’d escaped unnoticed from the house, we couldn’t find her for hours. Did this sleek running machine know where she was headed? Had she a secret path unknown to us?

 

 

 

 Near dusk, we reached Route 33 buzzing with traffic. Like the border between countries, the two-lane highway divided our town. The people who lived on the other side, we only met in school and church where the rules were formal and scripted to a common protocol. The highway was widely considered a “no cross zone,” the only passport being an adult chaperon.

 

With traffic speeding from both directions, Greta waited beside the road. Worry consumed me. Would I catch her? Or would I witness her death as she leapt into a line of speeding cars? As she stepped onto the blacktop, I knew I had to follow her and accept a similar fate—anything rather than return home empty-handed or, even worse, with a dead or wounded dog that I couldn’t possibly carry. At eight years old, I hadn’t learned to cut loose the wild horses inside me that would one day almost destroy me, yet pull me back from the brink of a life spent in anger and regret. By the roadside, I froze as the first car honked and the brakes engaged. The smell of burning rubber snapped me from a trance.

 

An army caravan was coming up from behind. A line of vehicles—canvas-roofed tractors, camouflage jeeps, gun-wielding flatbeds, wagons, supply trucks—stretched for miles and out of sight. Greta stood before the lead truck, wagging her tail, barking at the driver. It was a canine conversation that no one translated, except that on her day of crossing borders and boundaries, she had stopped the U.S. Army dead in its tracks.

 

“Greta?” I eased after her. Car exhaust and motor oil filled my nose. The adrenaline rush of idling engines just waiting to run me down caused me to stagger. Stumbling toward the dog, I reached, grasping only the wind of her escape. She sprinted into the fields beyond the highway. I’d been so close, and I was finally angry.

 

“Damn it!” I shouted the words that were forbidden at home, school, and even in private. Stomping in pursuit of Greta, I heard her panting through the crunch of the dried weeds that rose to my waist. Stickers caught in my clothes and scraped my bare arms, and my sneakers sunk in the spongy soil until they were soaked and muddy. Part of me wanted the dog to race back into traffic and end the stalemate.

 

Instead, Greta brought me out into an unfamiliar neighborhood. Smaller houses than my own, their yards were cramped with tiny plastic pools and ramshackle sheds—décor as afterthought. A mile or more away, the spire to our church—just the tip of it—poked above the rooftops, and as dusk overtook daylight, a vengeful sun retreated into suburbs, setting the clouds on fire.

 

I’d been on the hunt for hours, sweaty and cold from the chase. My legs felt heavy, and blisters formed in unfamiliar places on my feet. Dropping to the curb, I was spent of breath and the little confidence that I’d mustered from the start. I’d been cheated from my moment of spite. When I left the house with my father’s marching orders, I had intended to not return until I held Greta’s collar. My father would have gotten her. He would’ve accomplished it. A failure again, I would have to face him, and I hated it. I hated everything, including my father. Tonight, I hated him as much as he hated me, as much as I hated myself.

 

Clearly I was nothing like the man who wanted nothing to do with his embarrassment of a son. This was the man who on the day I was born went to a bar and got drunk, rambled in celebration through the neighborhood, and handed out cigars. How could I have inherited nothing of the successful businessman, that skilled negotiator of deals and promises? My hands were slender, woman’s hands, doomed to pencils and paper, quiet detail work, the scribe of complex thoughts and poignant undeclared statements, not the powerful grip of a man who handed out fistfuls of handshakes over cocktails and contracts. Too often I reminded him of himself, while demonstrating none of his talents—a failed legacy. My father excelled in a crowd, best at acquaintances. People were his business, his clay to mold. I was unworkable, to be overlooked, a throwaway appointment on his calendar. Suffering in crowds, in threesomes even, my passion burned in other ways, better in one-on-one meetings, unearthing the details, best alone with women, not the son of a wife-beater who triumphed in humiliation as well, yet I made women comfortable with their words, thoughts, and nakedness expressed.

 

Greta sat on the grass several feet from where I hunched over my knees. I was full of sorrow and self-loathing, yet brimming with the anger that I would need to survive the future. I was alien, relieved to be in a place where no one knew my name. As a young man in my twenties, stranger would be my name, and my history would reveal a series of forwarding addresses without a useful termination.

 

As soon as I took to my feet, Greta ran off. The dog matched my slower pace. Trotting, stopping, allowing me to stay at her heels, she taught me to dance, moving deeper into the unfamiliar neighborhood. The fuse of my anger fizzled with the sunset. Exhausted, my emotion drained away, and a dividing line was drawn in the absence of fear. It was OK to hate my father, choose to despise him of my own freewill. I could bury it deep, make it the coal of the engine that drove me for the next decade.

 

 

 Beneath a carport to a tiny brown bungalow, a woman leaned from the doorway. Her hair was set in curlers and a hairnet, and in the glow of a yellow porch light and circling insects, she watched the cat and mouse game between Greta and me.

 

“Hey, kid,” she called.

 

I knew to ignore strangers, but at the moment, I had no direction.

 

“Hey, kid, does your dog like baloney?”

 

Greta loved any variety of table food. She even ate lettuce. She might throw it up later, but with a little salad dressing, she ate it.

 

“Sure,” I said.

 

The woman disappeared into the carport door and returned with a cool slice of baloney. It was the cheaper kind that my mother bought when the better lunchmeat wasn’t on sale. My stomach growling, I considered eating it myself. “Thanks.”

 

As soon as I held the baloney in the air, Greta was at my waist. I snatched her collar like a person latching onto a railing or tree limb to avoid a greater fall.

 

“Ma’am, thank you.” I held up the slice to return it.

 

“Give it to her, kid.”

 

Greta gobbled down the baloney, licking my fingertips. She never made a move to escape.

 

“Thank you,” I said once or twice more. “Do you know where the highway is, ma’am?”

 

“Do you live around here?”

 

At that point, I told the first lie that I can recall. I wasn’t about to give up my liberation, escorted home in the rear seat of a stranger’s car. “I’m around the corner. I’ve gotten confused, that’s all.”

She eyed me suspiciously. Kids and politicians make bad liars, although kids fess up a lot faster. “Just follow Wisteria to Adams and straight from there.”

 

When I looked up at the purple sky, I remembered to follow the direction of the setting sun. At my back, blackness and a hint of stars absorbed the horizon. How hard could it be to find the highway with the compass of the sky? I already heard the cars and trucks roar over the rooftops—the same sound I heard from bed at night. I walked toward what I knew.

 

 

 

In the thickening night, we traipsed through the streets. My back ached from bending over to grip Greta’s collar, and I tripped on the uneven sidewalk so many times that my jeans tore, my knees bled into the frayed material, and my palms were as raw as scuffed leather, but I didn’t care. I’d caught the dog and was returning home with her in tow. Once I walked through the front door, I would release her, and instead of cowering, I would face my father, mirroring his contempt. He could smack me until my ears rang into deafness, and I would stand there and take it.

 

With a glimpse of Route 33 and the neon lights of a familiar convenience store between the houses, I saw my long but certain path home. Greta tugged at her collar, and I dragged her to a standstill.

 

“Come on, girl.” I yanked harder.

 

Whining, tugging backward, she resisted forward progress. Beyond the sidewalk lay a small park with an even smaller pond. In a day of firsts and newfound liberty, a day when I glimpsed my future self, I received a seminal moment of intuition. I released the dog’s collar, and she headed straight for the water.

 

In the light of an early moon, I found a park bench to rest. The dog splashed and jumped, not unlike my kids do nightly in the tub—the joy of water, life, free of inhibition. That summer, Americans walked on the moon for the first time, while others lost count of the body bags coming home from overseas. No one paid much mind to me. Bigger sensations were afoot than a dumb kid and a water-happy dog in the park after hours.

 

For half an hour, Greta drenched herself in the cool autumn and then returned to my side. Shaking the dampness from her fur, she baptized me on the spot. This time she let me take her collar without resistance.

 

As we headed home, I didn’t feel any different, but Greta had taught me how to be unbreakable and how to stick to my point despite my fears. Although it took years before I seized upon her advice and learned to ply it as my own, today I listen for the phantom creak of a door hinge, feel a slight draft in my soul, see the break of daylight as if it were my final chance—and then I set to running.

 

The dog’s spirit was so strong that eventually my father put her to sleep and in a way defeated himself.  Dragged before the needle on a cold stainless steel table of a vet whose name I cannot recall, Greta panted her last breaths with no one from the family allowed to ease her into the next phase. Certain images can never be fully imagined or forgotten, but I will always remember Greta. That late afternoon in October, I hold close, as if grafted to my heart.

 

 

 

“The Dog.” From Klim's story collection True Surrealism (Hopewell Publications, August 2011).

 

 

Christopher Klim is the author/journalist of several books, including the satires Jesus Lives in Trenton and The Winners Circle. His other books include Idiot!, Everything Burns, Write to Publish, and the Firecracker Jones series. True Surrealism gathers his stories into a complete set for the first time. He is the executive editor of Best New Writing and the chair of the Eric Hoffer Award for books and prose.

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