One exercise I do is, I look out the window at the pigeons in the wishbone trees, and I imagine not eating them. Imagine one fell out of a tree and made a pigeon hole in the snow. It is dazed. I rush out of the mobile unit and pick it up, but I do not depress my teeth. I carry it inside, reminding myself that pigeons are just triangles with poor balance and no eyelids. I lay the pigeon on the sofa and cover it with my tartan vest.
There, there, I say. You just rest and recover from your concussion.
But before the pigeon recovers, Grassy Noel comes home, and when he sees me ministering to a lame bird his eyes fill with tears. Big Cy, he says, shaking his head. I am very much moved.
I smooth down my ears. Your servant, I communicate, via not-quite eye contact.
And then we smoke a joint together.
I once saw a Lab rescue a child from a pond. The Lab held the child’s arm between his teeth, a chubby arm, and guided the child back to its parents. The parents had become distracted by a local songwriter. This was in Delaware Park, where songwriters perform and Shakespeare is put on. The child had toddled off to the pond. The grateful parents carried the Lab aloft like a wide receiver who has gotten open and carried the ball into the end zone. I watched from behind a garbage can, marvelling at the self-control of the Lab’s jaws.
My own jaws descend from my grandmother on my father’s side.
Another exercise is, make eye contact with Mrs. Mumping’s cat, Peeve. Make eye contact with Peeve and communicate via shoulder shrugs that you mean her no harm. Hello, Peeve. Commiserate with Peeve via telepathy about her longing for the pigeons. You and she share this. We must overcome this hunger for innocent blood. Do we not have plenty of kibble. Are we not full. It is well known that Mrs. Mumping feeds Peeve fried liver. I can smell it from here.
Why must Peeve adopt that tantalizing loaf-of-bread position on the roof of unit four. Why.
If I plumb my depths, I am not full.
I used to hang around the bus station, eating burger wrappers soaked in grease, my ribs countable from the outside.
Inside the station, there were many video games, each in a stand-alone box with joysticks. My favourite was called Gopher Gold. I liked to watch from the sidewalk, until some asshole sprayed the lower portion of the window with fake snow at Christmas. There is no point getting angry about that all over again. Anyway, the game involved shooting prairie dogs as they popped up in various holes across a landscape. The longer you played, the faster the prairie dogs popped up. This really resonated with me. The prairie dogs were the demonic impulses that I was trying, ineffectually, to submerge. What I longed for was a temptation-free landscape to lope across. But I was hungry. And when you are hungry, all holes are unbarred, or whatever the expression is. Up pop the prairie dogs, and it is all you can do to keep them from running roughshod over your world.
The tartan vest, with its embedded motto, Hold Fast, infuriates me. I once tore into it under the pretense of making the paw holes bigger. No one knows what I suffer. How fine the line between holding fast and mutilation.
What I want to know, though, is this: Who is better. The dog who is able to hold a fat child’s arm between his teeth without depressing them, or the dog who every morning wrestles with grandmotherly impulses on his father’s side. Who is better. The one who is naturally good, or the one who struggles to be good.
That day in the park when the Lab was carried in triumph on the family’s shoulders, I ate some garbage and followed from a distance. I sat on a bench and pretended to read a newspaper. The toddler was seat-belted into one of those cars that can be pushed with an attached rod. The Lab was unleashed but mentally tethered to the family, a sight that made me sad but also envious. These days, if Grassy and I “go for walkers,” I am always a hundred yards ahead, galloping and somersaulting, lunging for a ball, real or imagined, snapping my jaws. I am free, in short, in a way this Lab never was and never will be, now that he is dead. They ambled under the weeping willows. They were heading for that gentrified neighbourhood in which the houses are Tudorbethan. The Lab was golden with rich brown eyes and a lolling tongue. You could tell from his hindquarters that the family had one of those catapults that launches a ball much farther than a regular human could throw with his bare hands.
I knew before I saw their house that it would have mullioned windows and a covered porch. Perhaps a little garage, not for a car but for the dad’s vintage motorcycle, complete with a sidecar for the dog. I fore-smelled it all, and then, true to every detail, it appeared before me, redolent, at the end of Lincoln Parkway.
I knew then that I would kill the Lab, with his Scottish accent and fried liver breath. I stopped at the corner of Lincoln Parkway and Great Arrow, where there is a school that forbids guns, according to the glyph with a red bar through a black semi-automatic. As if anyone in this neighbourhood knows anything about hooded violence, this being an enclave of purebred Labs and Cockapoos.
My eyes were at their beadiest. I contemplated murder and inwardly shrugged. That is what a murderer feels, not rage but an inward shrug of not giving a fiche, as Grassy Noel would say. At some point, the Lab would be released into the fenced yard, and when that happened I would be ready with my ramp, which I was right now constructing with two-by-fours from the schoolyard (probably for use by skateboarders), right now dragging across the street to the yard wherein the Lab would be dispatched to do his business at dusk.
When you are hungry, you are hypersensitive, not just to the smell of food but to the smell of those who are well fed. This was how I later ended up in Grassy Noel’s car. I could smell the well-fed Canine Unit who had left his nose smears all over the interior. I could smell what he had eaten for lunch (a can of Pedigree and the orts from a border guard’s tuna sandwich). So I got into the car, the top of which was open due to it’s a convertible. I got in the car and pretended to be a Canine Unit and waited for my can of Pedigree and tuna orts.
Similarly, in my extreme hunger, I thought that I could take the Lab’s place. That I would kill him and bury him and assume his position in the yard. That the family would not notice that a beady-eyed imposter had replaced their golden-haired Lab. Or that they might notice, but then I would quickly point to the ramp and communicate that their dog had run away. But never mind, because I am ready to ride in your sidecar and save your child from ponds and dingoes.
The Lab’s eyes were deep in his gold face. I saw that he was much older than I’d thought.
What are you doing, lad.
Don’t call me lad. I am building a ramp, or a stile, over this here fence, and when I am done it is curtains for you. My mind is not changeable. So don’t wax wise or fatherly or Scottish. Nothing can save you. I am ravenous. I am at the bottom of a loaded barrel pointed at you. Yes, go ahead and pee like you aren’t about to die. Jesus, you are a few planks short of a ramp, aren’t you, old man. I have always known that about Labs. You are smart only in terms of your ability to ingratiate and subserve. Yes, you can save a child from a pond. But can you use a hammer. Can you build a ramp quietly at dusk with a hammer. Can you survive on pigeon and squirrel. Can you find your way from here to Rochester. Can you stay alive when you look like me and they want to put you down every step of your life. Okay, I’m going to shut up now and build this ramp.
The Lab watched me with those “intelligent” eyes, lying on the dark grass, as if assuming a lowly beta male position was going to change my mind.
In short, it did not. I killed him, and he yelped once but did not fight back. He was like a rag doll in my grandmother’s jaws. It was as if we were different species. How can we both be dogs when he has no inner life to speak of.
As I was whipping his lifeless body around my head in a lasso-like motion, the father of the family came out the back door with a long gun complete with scope and fired one shot, which hit the Lab, not me. I tried to unclench my jaws, but they were holding fast. Now the mother was on the back porch, screaming. The man fired another shot. I again used the Lab as a flak jacket, backing toward my stile. Release, release, I enjoined my jaws. Finally, they released. I ran for the stile but did not need it, such was my adrenalin. I flew over the fence.
From a retrospective distance, I can see that I was not all inward shrug at the moment I killed the Lab. My sense of him and me as separate species was a defence, or offence, mechanism. Inter-species killing is not murder. Intra-species killing is. Thus, if you kill, some part of you insists that the thing you have killed is not of your species. See Hamlet’s inaugural murder of Polonius, whom he could kill only from behind an arras, which is a curtain. Some part of him needed to believe, I believe, that he was killing a rat.
The next day, there were WANTED posters on telephone poles, describing me as a “pit bull mix,” and Angus (for so the Lab was called) as “heroic,” “loyal,” “beloved,” etc.
I escaped to distant townships. I travelled Dumpster to Dumpster. I got my head stuck in a paper bag and left it there for three weeks. I trotted alongside joggers as if I belonged to them.
I often saw, or thought I saw, Angus. Ay, lad, he would say, hold fast. To what, I would ask. But he did not answer. And it was not Angus, of course, but some other Lab who looked just like him. All Labs talk in tartan maxims, I have learned.
Then, around the time of the Super Bowl, I was gnawing on wing bones outside a Thurston Hunger’s when the convertible pulled in with its top half-open.
I immediately saw that the driver and I were of the same species. Spiritually, I mean. He went around the back of the restaurant, which meant he was placing a bet. I jumped in the car and pretended to be a sniffer dog. I crouched down in the back seat. When the driver came back, he didn’t see me. He pushed a button on the dashboard that bore an Isadora Duncan–type glyph, which I gathered was meant to retract the roof. But the roof did not move. The man pounded the steering wheel and put on earmuffs. That’s when he looked in the rear-view mirror and saw me, Big Cy, though that was not yet my name.
He jumped out and swore and made shooing motions. I bounced my shoulders to communicate laughter and then, via not-quite eye contact, I let him know that I was not leaving his partly converted convertible until I procured me some Pedigree. Your servant, I added.
He thought for a moment, then went back to the restaurant. He returned ten minutes later with a beef on weck. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. He gave me half. Snap. It was gone. He held the other half aloft outside the car, and I knew he planned to punt the beef on weck into distant climes. He would punt the beef and I would chase it, and he would jump in the car and take off.
On the other hand, if I stayed in the car he would continue to attempt to lure me out with food.
Five wecks later, he got in the car and we drove slowly—due to the roof being half-open, which created drag—along the Boulevard. It dawned upon me that the car, with its 82BRUTE licence plate, was not his. He did not know its ins and outs. The wind in the back seat was bitter. I climbed into the front and faced forward. We carried on at thirty miles an hour until we reached the Rainbow Bridge.
During his banter with the border guard, I learned that his name was “Grassy” Noel Deshorties. He referred to me as his dog. I blinked back tears. No one had called me that before. The guard asked for my papers. I patted my chest, as if to retrieve them. Grassy Noel said they were at home. The guard said that frankly, even with papers, I could not be admitted into the country, due to a recent ordinance banning dogs with small, well-spaced eyes and fur like industrial carpet.
Grassy was incensed. Meanwhile, I threw up the beef on wecks. Grassy told the guard that I was not his dog. The truth was, I was a carjacker. This prompted smug laughter from the guard, because I was just sitting there drooling, my beady eyes all pointy with innocence.
We turned around and were waved back into America without incident, due to the Bills game was on.
It began to lake-effect snow. Grassy pulled under a concrete bridge and tried to push me out of the car using his fists. It got ugly. During our altercation, dashboard buttons were depressed, apparently in some magical sequence, because the roof retracted. We sat there panting. Grassy’s eyebrow was broken and bleeding. I looked away. Please. I am so hungry. You said I was your dog. That means it has entered your mind to keep me.
He dabbed his forehead with his sleeve and started the car.
The Pot o’ Gold Mobile Home Park has weekly rentals and wishbone trees. The units are in a horseshoe formation. That first night, Grassy left me in the car. Snow fell in five parts per hundred. I re-ate the beef on wecks that were hardening on the floor. I could feel the Bills losing.
Sometime after midnight, Grassy parted the curtains of his unit. There was a tissue stuck to his eyebrow. We looked into each other’s eyes. Well, I looked into his. He could not see mine, probably. Then he opened the door. I wondered if it was a trick. How could I be sure he wouldn’t trap me in the unit and take off over the Rainbow. Or that he wouldn’t have me lethally injected for what I’d done to his face.
I loped across the gravel, my jaws loose in their hinges, through the open door of the warm unit. The rest is recent history.
Another exercise is, Grassy Noel drives down to the smelting pot at the edge of the lake. He thinks he’s alone in Lackofwonder. He’s lost all his money. But hang on, because here comes the Cyborg, loping across the coke ovens. Gently, I take his arm between my teeth. I pull him back from the edge. All is not lost, I communicate via my smoothed-down ears. Hold fast to me.
If you had told me, I tell him, via licking his hand, that one day I would belong to someone, and that this someone would feed me and protect me and play fisticuffs with me, if you’d said that he would name me after his dad, or a Bills tight end, I’d have said you were mad. Get out of Tonofwonder, I’d have said.
But here we are. The car with its vanity plate awaits. We put the roof down. We drive fast. Our long scarves become entwined. Yes, we are wearing scarves. We are tethered but free. We are slack jawed. We stare into the sun as it drops slowly, perfectly into the end zone.
You win, he says.
This appeared in the July/August 2014 issue.