~This story was previously published in The Baltimore Review (2007).
Last night they’d eaten fried chicken in their urban row house. The chicken bones remained in his bowl, a skeleton of awful beauty, meat and veins still dangling.
Now, Thurber’s head rested against Lindsey’s thigh. He lifted it, looked up into her eyes, and put his head into her lap with the wisp of a sound, almost a whimper. Lindsey put her hand on the crown of his skull and gently stroked his brown-black coat. Thurber’s chocolate eyes looked ahead, floated up toward Lindsey, and returned to the blurred blankness ahead as she petted him. Lindsey’s hand was heavy and slow.
“You’re a good boy.” The mellow muttering was sincere, but not entirely true. If that were true, we wouldn’t be in this mess, Lindsey thought, and then hated herself for thinking it.
The scent of meat came to them from the kitchen on asphalt air, enveloping them. Thurber lifted his head and looked in the direction of the smell. He momentarily yearned for that meat; cravings continued despite his strict, dry dog food diet. Despite the undeniable mood in the room, Lindsey knew he couldn’t help it. She watched as her home companion of the past eight years looked back at her with a half-hearted tail wag and then returned his head to her lap with another pathetic whimper. Lindsey’s eyes grew red and moist again; Thurber’s had collected brown goop in the corners.
“That’s right, Thurber. Meat. Your …” She stopped herself.
Sometimes Lindsey imagined Thurber understood everything she said. Not just go for a walk or let’s eat, but understood like a reincarnated human, or perhaps something more intelligent, older, deeper. Whether Thurber understood her language or not, Lindsey was certain he understood what was happening.
Thurber had to know something was up. Lindsey had waited on him hand and foot for nine days. They sat together on the couch, walked around their courtyard out back, played. But mostly, Lindsey pet Thurber, hugged him, talked sweetly to him.
Could Thurber possibly know what was coming? These intelligent creatures who could be dropped off by disgruntled dads miles away and still find their way home; these beasts who established turfs and hierarchies and complex social systems with barks and tail positions and urine; could Thurber possibly know that he’d been marked by an authoritative stream of urine? Could he navigate the path laid out before him?
He lifted his head again and looked toward the kitchen. Normally he would be excited, all wags and smiles and playful barks, at the unusual scent of meat in the house. Now, he was a lump on the sofa, like a wadded-up electric blanket, physically warm but not emotionally. Did Thurber imagine this meat was the result of his attack?
“Let’s go see,” Lindsey said. She put Thurber’s head in her hands and lifted his face to hers, rubbing their noses together. “I love you, Thurber.” Her voice was as soft as his fur. “You’re a good boy.”
When Lindsey stood and walked toward the kitchen, Thurber remained in place, following her with his sappy eyes until she was in the archway and she looked back at him. He lifted himself on all fours as though his body was as heavy as his mood and slid from the soft couch. He ambled in after her.
In the kitchen, Lindsey ladled broth over the brown, fleshy breast that emerged from the murky crock pot’s bubbling crude. Carrots, potatoes, celery and onion floated around the mountain of meat. She had to admit, the roast smelled good even to her, someone who ate meat rarely. Thurber hovered around her feet, not begging for a bite as she’d expected.
“Another hour or so,” Lindsey said, looking down to the uncharacteristically uninterested dark blotch beneath her. “Wanna go for a walk?” Thurber didn’t wag his tail or jump and press his front paws into her. He moseyed to the laundry closet, where the leash hung.
Nine days ago they’d gone out for a walk. They did every day, just a part of their routine, until that walk nine days ago. Since then, they’d remained in the house, locked away from the rest of the world.
On that nine-day-ago walk, Lindsey took Thurber to the park. It had been more than a year without incident, but Lindsey was still careful to keep him on his leash. She was not as careful about keeping a firm hold on the leash. Once in awhile, Thurber broke away, dragging the leash behind him like an extended tail. Nine days ago was one of those days.
Liberated from Lindsey’s hold, Thurber took to the freedom she’d reluctantly allowed, flying through the green of the park and throwing up the freshly cut grass in his wake. He stopped from time to time to sniff and urinate, to communicate with his own. Then, he galloped back into his excited race, a race against the limited time he knew he’d have to play here in the park. Thurber stopped and looked at Lindsey, panting and smiling with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.
Lindsey laughed. “C’mon, boy!” He took her call as a playful challenge and resumed running large rings around her. Thurber stopped again and smiled at her. Then another figure caught his eye.
The boy was no more than nine, walking along the green with headphones detaching him from his surroundings and an oversized fashion tee that implied his desire to fit into those surroundings, to fit into a society that was too big and overwhelming, like his clothes. The boy walked toward the area where Thurber had marked his territory. Thurber’s smile curled into a sneer. The alpha dog growled at the beta boy who had stepped on his mark.
“Thurber,” Lindsey called. But the call went unheeded. Thurber resumed his race, running toward the boy. “No, Thurber! Hey you! Watch out!” But the boy did not hear her warning. The boy became aware of the world around him when he felt the sting of canines ripping through the wall of sound, through those baggy clothes and into his flesh. Lindsey ran toward them. The boy yelled at first, saw the blood on the dog’s teeth and then the scarlet stream seeping from his own leg. His yell rose to a shrilly scream and he began to cry. Lindsey restrained Thurber, who replied by growling and barking and snapping at her. She grabbed hold of his leash. Before she could ask whether the boy was all right, his mother had darted from a nearby collection of people. A collection of witnesses to seal this mad dog’s fate.
It wasn’t the boy or his mother who called Lindsey the next day. A stern voice of authority told her coldly that the dog would have to go. The boy was fine, but since the dog drew blood, they would have to determine whether he had rabies. There were two ways to go about it. They could kill Thurber now, chop off his head, cut open his brain and see whether he had rabies. Or she could keep the dog under quarantine for ten days and see if the symptoms revealed themselves. “If he goes ten days without any symptoms, we’ll just have to see if the victim presses charges. Either way, we’d advise he be put down, to avoid another incident.”
This wasn’t the first time Thurber had bitten someone. It had happened twice before. But this was the first time he’d drawn blood. This was the first time it had been a child. This was the first time the victim (or the victim’s parent) had called the police and insisted the dog be exterminated. This was the first time Lindsey had actually feared for the victim’s life and realized that if she had to choose between the boy and the dog, she had to go with the boy.
She’d had to go with the boy.
Lindsey couldn’t bear the thought of Thurber on a cold metal table with a saw cutting away at his throat. She couldn’t stand the image in her mind of his mind being severed in two and examined with frigid tools. She agreed, as much as she didn’t want to, that he needed to be put down for his own good, for the good of other people, people like this maimed boy hidden in oversized clothes and behind a wall of music that could not protect him. Thurber would be cut out of her life, but she refused to let him be cut apart.
She agreed to keep him indoors, away from other people, for ten days. Then, she would take him in. They would check for symptoms. They’d know whether the boy needed additional treatment. Then, Thurber would be injected and executed humanely.
Now, on day nine, Lindsey kept the leash tight in her hand and walked in the opposite direction of the park. She broke the law by taking him out for this walk, but he deserved a walk. People on death row got what they wanted for their last meal, got to go out into a courtyard to take in fresh air. Thurber deserved to go out for a walk. She wrapped her end of the leash around her hand and gripped it securely.
Thurber was in no mood to break free, to play, run, bark, attack. He’d had his fill of boys and chicken bones. Tonight he’d eat meat.
Lindsey didn’t understand what drove her dog to bite this time. Thurber was such a well-behaved dog, loveable, loyal, good with people. The first time, he’d bitten a woman strolling through the park with a basket full of newborn kittens. The woman hadn’t been injured and neither had the kittens she was trying to get rid of, so Lindsey had simply apologized to the woman and scolded Thurber. A few years later, a group of teenagers provoked Thurber and he set off after them, biting one in the calf. But again, not hard enough to draw blood, and Lindsey had considered it more the victim’s fault than her Thurber’s.
This time, however, Lindsey didn’t get it. A boy had trespassed on his marked territory. But how many times had that happened before? What was it about that particular boy, about that particular moment, that brought out Thurber’s vicious urge to attack?
Why did you have to do it? Thurber began to slow down and she realized she was pulling him along for a change. This walk was more for her than for Thurber. Why did I let go?
They walked heavily, as though it were a chore instead of recreation. A chill blew in the overcast air. A man passed with a playful and excited little Scottish terrier on leash, but Thurber didn’t pay it any attention.
Drizzle collected in globes on Thurber’s coat as well as her own. The droplets remained intact, perfect little spheres to be brushed away. “I guess that’s our cue to go home, boy.” She signaled Thurber with a tug. They returned to the meaty aroma of the row house.
Lindsey served the roast. “Here you go,” she said. “Your last supper.”
Thurber looked at the roast, but did not attack it the way he normally would such a rare indulgence. He sniffed it, then licked at it. He ate gingerly, carefully, as if to say I can change, I can be civil, I can fit in, conform, be what I need to be in order to survive in your law-driven domain.
So this was the price, then, for biting a person; for not understanding the rules of a society you’re not really a part of; for trusting your alpha to protect you; for protecting your territory: the death penalty. No trial, no jury, only judges and the sadness of ten quality days with the one you love, trust and would give your life for.
Thurber didn’t finish his roast. Lindsey piled the dirty dishes in the sink. She emptied the fleshy chicken bones into the trash and put fatty bits of beef in their place. Maybe Thurber would be hungry later. They still had tonight and the morning. And then, Lindsey would have days and weeks and years to wonder why Thurber had acted out of violence and why she had to let go.
Lindsey sat down on the velvety couch. Thurber stood on the floor before her. Lindsey patted the couch and watched as Thurber, with an effort that made him appear heavier than he was, pulled himself up next to her. He put his front paws, his head, half his body onto her lap. Lindsey placed her trembling hand on his skull and slowly swept it back along his thick, still-damp fur. His sappy brown eyes looked up at her, then back to the blurry blankness before him.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I was not a dog-owner when I wrote “Out for a Walk” ten years ago, and hadn’t been for nearly ten years, although I’d grown up with family dogs throughout my childhood and knew what it felt like to lose a dog. A friend of mine had recently told me about her difficult experience: her dog had bitten someone and she had to have the dog euthanized. Her experience inspired me to write this story, because it was an interesting situation, and it conjured up that sense of loss—a reminder of how strong the bond between a person and a pet can be.
“Out for a Walk” was one of those rare experiences for me in which the first draft felt good enough to submit—and was accepted. In fact, it was my first short story published in a non-academic print journal. The raw emotion I felt while writing the story may be why it was so well received, and so quickly accepted.
It’s mere coincidence (with perhaps a bit of the subconscious mind at work) that when my wife, two children, and I went to the SPCA rescue shelter to adopt a dog, we were immediately drawn to Vesta, a black lab-vizsla mix, much like Thurber, the dog in my story with a “brown-black coat” and “chocolate eyes.” It wasn’t until my recent reading of “Out for a Walk” that I realized this connection.
When I pondered which previously published story I should submit to Redux, “Out for a Walk” immediately came to mind.
Then, another coincidence came this week when, for medical reasons, we had to make the difficult choice to put Vesta to sleep.
Life and death both imitate art.
ABOUT ERIC D. GOODMAN
Eric D. Goodman has been writing fiction since a grade-school assignment turned him onto the craft. Eric is the author of Womb: a novel in utero, Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. His short fiction, travel stories, and nonfiction have been widely published. Born in California, he’s lived in Baltimore for nearly 20 years, where he writes about trains, exotic animals gone wild, and life in utero, among other subjects. Find him at www.EricDGoodman.com or www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman.