Copyright is held by the author.
TONIGHT MY daughter killed my neighbour’s dog. It was an accident I am told, through tears which are forced rather than genuine. Marcia has the ability to dramatize, and is not beyond using such tricks to garner sympathy or deflect my lecture about her failure to meet curfew. She is a plump girl and when she cries she seems bigger as though she needs to increase her mass to force out her liquid contrition.
Sitting in our dimly lit kitchen she explains to me and Richard, her brother, how a shadow, a blur really, darted and then became a thump beneath the rear tire of my minivan. Since she was nearly home, a half hour past her curfew, she did not stop.
“Perhaps it was already dead,” Richard suggests. Like conspirators, they whisper to avoid waking my wife, Carol, who I assume is sound asleep upstairs. We are all perceptive enough to want to keep Carol out of this discussion. She would badger until the truth was beaten out of one of us.
“Like the dead racoons you see at the last minute and can’t avoid,” he adds quietly, head down, avoiding our eyes.
I do not tell her that his suggestion is plausible. Nor that he may have been the one to have hit the animal. We live on a cul de sac and this late at night the only traffic is local. Unknown to her, Richard had arrived shortly before her and his pick up would have crushed the dog which I think it is. Is this as close he comes to a confession to spare his sister further grief?
Earlier in the night, lying in bed waiting for my children to return, I had listened to Park, my neighbour, whistle for his dog, a German short hair appropriately named Fritz. I know the ritual well. Whenever the dog bolts Park will call for Fritz; then blow the whistle and finally when that doesn’t work he will get in his car and travel the neighbourhood expanding his search. At this time of the winter, the dog out for its final pee probably saw a rabbit or heard a rustle and began its pursuit. Neighbourhood opinion is on the side of the dog disappearing forever. In his younger days Fritz destroyed Mrs. Dacosta’s flower beds in pursuit of his game; pees and shits repeatedly in the Young’s pool and terrorizes the lap dog set. Neighbourhood barbecues have, after being satiated on beer and scotch, placed attractive bounties on the demise of the dog.
I feel sorry for Park. He and the dog live alone in their big house. His wife has been institutionalized with advanced Alzheimer’s. Park visits her twice daily at lunch and supper to feed her. He does not talk about the visits and so we all assume the worst. I live in a neighbourhood of seniors so rumours and gossip is rife since they have little else to do. Once, so the story goes, Park took Fritz to see his wife and she became so angry that he would bring the dog that she hurled shoes and other loose objects at them before she was restrained. Needless to say the dog does not visit her. The neighbours opine that she can’t be all crazy if she hates the dog.
My children do not know of Park’s activities tonight although several times we have heard the clarion call of his whistle. If they have connected the pieces together they do not say. They look at me in silence. We have nothing to say and I suspect they wish I were not here. Their days of needing me is past. They have friends from whom they seek constant electronic guidance and counsel. I am an intruder. Three weeks ago Richard had called and said, “Dad, I need to come home.” A year ago he quit school and moved in with his girlfriend, an Egyptian girl whose father was a diplomat in the Foreign Service. Carol was totally opposed; the girl was using Richard for her own agenda which did not include her son. Angry words had been exchanged and for a long-time mother and son did not speak. Since his return Carol has restrained herself from saying ‘I told you so’. Knowing my wife, a moment of reckoning waits. Richard keeps to himself. He works shift so is able for the most part to avoid family dinners. He spends most of his time behind closed doors on his cell phone speaking we assume to his estranged girlfriend or playing video games. Tonight was the first time that he had gone out.
Richard brews a cup of herbal tea for his sister. To me his sudden generosity suggests guilt. She is slowly calming down. Her eyes are dry and she has deflated to her normal plump size.
There is nothing more to be done tonight. The three of us share a secret as fleeting as candle light. Tomorrow our lives will continue pretending as though nothing happened. I return to my bed and after several moments I hear Marcia and Richard come upstairs.
Richard’s tympanic steps are still foreign to me. He does not consider others as he runs up the stairs and enters his room slamming the door. Carol stirs beside me. She turns to me and I can detect Pinot on her breath. Even though it is dark I can see her face, or at least imagine it. Her small nose added as though it were almost an afterthought. Her curvy upper lip, open to reveal her orthodontic perfect teeth. Almost thirty years I have looked into that face and still it is a puzzle to me.
This evening, alone for the first time in many months, I cooked dinner. Pasta and seafood, a chilled bottled of Pinot Noir — her favourite — served by candle light.
“How lovely and considerate,” she said when she saw the candles burning on the table. She attacked her meal quickly, famished by the absence of lunch and consumed three glasses of wine. She vented about her job, about how she was made to work with assholes and incompetents. I listened sympathetically, nodding, agreeing when appropriate but I realized it could be anyone else sitting there. We had come a long way together and somewhere in the past we had taken, unknowingly, separate roads. That she held the key to my salvation she did not know; nor could I express it. What could I say? Save me from becoming involved with someone else?
I had been grounded for medical reasons and she was now the only source of income.
Outside Park began to whistle.
“Why doesn’t someone just kill that dog and give us all some peace,” she said. Then she realized I was present, looking no doubt like a child awaiting his reward, and finished her wine. She said she wanted to take a relaxing bath while I cleaned up dinner.
Afterwards, I went to search for her. She was in bed sound asleep.
When I was still flying to the exotic parts of the Arctic I became involved with an employee. She was much younger than I, a daughter almost, who preferred older men. She preferred me. As in all things new she made me feel that I was the centre of someone’s life, that I had something to offer. She wanted nothing only that I love her and like an old fool I believed her. She did not pressure me but held my hand in the dingy bar in which we frequently met in Yellowknife. At the end of an evening when I had told her everything about myself, about Carol and my family she said, “Stay.” After the second time when I refused she called me a coward. A third time, if offered, I knew I would not accede to cowardice.
There was no third time since I was furloughed from flying for medical reasons.
Shortly after five I was awoken by a distant pounding noise. At first I thought I was dreaming for it was not a steady sound. Like someone beating a pillow and for a moment I thought it might be Carol having one of her periodic nightmares. But she snored quietly beside me. Her alarm would go off in an hour and I let her sleep. Now, completely awake I continued to hear the muffled thump . . . thump. I knew I could not fall asleep. Getting older my sleep cycles were being regulated by the state of my bladder. Quietly, I pulled myself up and sat on the bedside hoping not to wake Carol. Thump …. Thump. It came from the backyard.
Seated on the toilet I could see a light moving at the bottom of Park’s yard where it joined the ravine. The dog? Had he finally trapped it? I could hear no whistle. Again the muffled thump and I wondered if Park had lost it and was beating the dog. Once when the dog had been gone for several days returning with a half alive bunny in its mouth, a gift of consolation, Park had beaten his dog. When I told him to cease he told me to mind my own business. The dog was not being beaten because he had run away but because his prey was still alive.
Downstairs, dressed, I pulled on a winter coat and boots and walked towards the light. The thumping noise was louder and definitely coming from the direction of Park’s yard. I walked slowly along the fence line, realizing for the first time how cold it was. In the dim early morning light snow was falling. With my thinning hair I wished I had put on a toque. Ahead I saw a flashlight making erratic patterns. It was Park.
As I got closer I realized that I did not know or had forgotten Park’s first name. I recalled something like Josef but wasn’t sure. Neighbourhood gossip had it that Park was not his real name. He was rumoured to be Polish, a name ending in “ski.” Park was his wife’s maiden name which he had adopted. Seems, so the rumours went, that Park’s family had supported the wrong side in the last war and an English name provided better cover. Park’s former masters had told him that a gentleman hunts and for hunting one needed a dog.
As I approached I noticed Park, his back towards me, digging a hole amongst the tall evergreens, trying to break the surface frost with a pick. Beside him was a toboggan that his grandchildren had used when younger from which four snowy legs extended from beneath a bulky blanket. I hurdled the fence in one jump feeling proud that I was still able to do that.
“A little early to be digging for gold,” I said loudly. Park snapped around swinging the pick. Swerving and retreating from his swing I cried, “Whoa! Whoa! Hold on Park!” His eyes were wild and for a moment I feared for my life.
“Just a joke. A joke.” Park dropped the pick and looked over at the toboggan.
“No joke,” he whispered. I could see that he had barely broken the surface layer. Sweat poured down his tired face and in the dim light I thought I could detect tears. He was breathing heavy.
“Let me give you a hand,” I said, thinking that if he kept on the hole might be for him.
Gingerly, I took the pick from Park. He stared me straight in the eye for a sign. I looked away. He thinks I did it. Well perhaps in a way he’s right, we all have. I took the pick and began to attack the ground. At my first swing the pick ricocheted with more force than I had put into the down stroke.
With the surface layer finally broken, I took a break. The greyness of the sky was getting lighter but there would be no sun today. The snow continued to fall and the lump on the toboggan was getting larger.
“Did you notify the police?” I asked trying to sound concerned without raising suspicion.
“What police?” he growled. “They would tell me to take him to the Vet or the Humane Society. Not letting some strangers cut him for experiments.” I nodded in agreement then walked carefully to the toboggan and retrieved the shovel. I made sure not to touch the snow laden blanket.
It took an hour to dig a proper hole. Once we thought we had finished but when we laid the blanket into the hole the dog’s legs folded up and stuck too close to the surface. I almost laughed; it reminded me of a scene in a kids’ cartoon.
“Coyotes in the ravine,” Park offered to no one in particular. “This time of year they will dig him up.” Retrieving the dog it struck me how ephemeral life could be. A few hours ago he had been alive, providing joy and companionship, and now a frozen carcass. I began to dig wider regretting ever having come to help. My penance for the irresponsibility of my children?
When I paused I could see lights through the snow in my house, sanctuary. Carol was up getting ready for work. At least this was a story I could regale her with at breakfast, if I was ever released from this prison.
Finally, the hole was finished. We lowered the blanket and when the dog rested, Park draped the part he was holding carefully over the dog as though he were afraid he might catch cold.
I waited for a moment before filling in the hole. I expected Park might want to say something. Whatever was said was in silence. Park’s cheeks were raw from the cold and tears. I began to throw the dirt over the dog. After two shovels Park whispered, “Wait.” He took from around his neck the dog whistle and dropped it into the hole. “Won’t need that anymore.”
In a few minutes the hole was filled and Park helped me pull the frozen turf over the hole to make it look as natural as possible. He piled the tools on the toboggan and alone slowly started towards his house, disappearing in the snow like a shadow. I had expected no thanks and received none.
I hesitated. Something was holding me back. For a brief moment I reflected how lucky the dog was no longer needing to answer the whistle of obligation, of trust and honour, of deceit and cowardice, of life.
It began to snow harder. In the snowy half-light of dawn I saw my kitchen door open. Carol peered out. Behind her, over each shoulder, I could see the faces of Richard and Marcia. And for a moment I heard their whistle calling me home.