Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Dog

BY MARISSA SCHWALM

I realize that I want my dog to die. Not the old dog, fat and farting in the corner, Mauser, but the young one, Kaiser—freshly six years old.

 

“He bit someone again,” I say to Mark.

 

“Nips,” he corrects.

 

A coworker this time, one who has a neurotic dog himself, who listened to every direction that I gave. No eye contact. Don’t bend down. No quick movements. Don’t touch him until I tell you to. Stay in the kitchen by the counter when I let him past the gate. Don’t ever—ever—put your face near his.

 

“What do you want me to do? What can I do?” Mark asks. We are getting married in four months. We’ve been together almost a decade. What he really means is: What can I say or do to make you stop being upset? But what I really hear is: We’ve had this same conversation so many times. “You want me to put him down? Take him out to the woods and kill him?”

 

My chest feels tight and I know that he could do it. Our house is littered with the skulls of animals he’s killed, whose meat he stores in the giant chest freezer in the basement. There’s a skinning pole in our backyard. On his truck’s dashboard are tails of small animals he’s shot. He’s a meat cutter by profession, a hunter and fisherman by birthright. He could do it. Take the dog out to the woods where we’ve gone hundreds of times and shoot him in the back of the head with the .22.

 

I turn to him. “Yes. I want you to kill him.”

 

***

 

Six years ago in Pittsburgh, our third city together, there is an empty burning in my stomach. We live in a giant house with one of my best friends who I can’t let go of.  She and I barely talk, just pass each other on the way to the bathroom. Mark and I are moving to Boston in a few months, and I know that I’ll never see her again—she’ll be lost to drugs and drug traffickers and I can’t save her. There is a hole that for years I pressed and molded her presence into, often ignoring who she was or who she was becoming. With her pulling away, I look to fill the hole, to jam something else into the space.  So Mark and I drive out to the middle of the woods where a man has a litter of German wirehaired pointers. It’s a shack of a house surrounded by woods where the scrappy-looking man walks us to a fenced-in area where fat and floppy puppies fall all over each other. Mauser, Mark’s aging dog, is a German shorthaired pointer and is classically lovable and we’re imagining that the new dog will be similar; the breeds are basically cousins.

 

Mark, sucked into the tornado of my want, follows behind as I practically skip to the puppies. He doesn’t want another thing to take care, doesn’t understand my longing. We already have a dog. And a cat. And are moving. Again.

 

But spring is brand new so everything seems unusually green, bursts of leaves in the trees surrounding us. In the distance, chained to a post, is a large German wirehaired pointer and when the man sees me stare, he stops chewing on his gums. “That’s the bitch.”

 

Some of the puppies, brown and white, sleep in piles. I pick one up and place it on its back to see how submissive it is. It flops over my forearm, stares up at the sky. Mark pokes at a few and looks up at me to say, Well, what’s it gonna be?

 

***

 

Eventually, in each house we live in, a neighbor will wander out to find us. Perhaps we’re getting the mail. Pulling in from work. Bringing in the groceries.

 

“Your dog,” they say, wringing their hands, pacing in our driveway. “Every time you leave he goes nuts. It sounds like he’s dying. Like he’s going to come right through the window.”

 

We shake our heads, grimace when they do, roll apologies out and out toward them.

 

***

 

Standing among the puppies, my eye is caught by a brown spot moving up the hill toward us. The old man yells, “How’d you get out? Get over here!”

 

Squeezing its way through the gate, the puppy saunters between Mark and I, his little nub of a tail shaking. I pick him up and stare at Mark.

 

***

 

South of Boston, we live on a lake with a dock that stretches far into the kidney-shaped water. The first time I see Kaiser jump off the dock after a ball into the water I’m taken by his sheer power. His body curves upward, paws reaching forward. He swims outward until he grabs the ball and then turns back toward me, emitting a high pitch whine as if he is terrified of his own enjoyment. Soaking wet, he finds his way back to my side and drops the ball, looking up, saying: Again.

 

***

 

The first time he bites me is when the UPS man knocks on the door. Kaiser is only eight months old. Barking a shrieking, violent sound, he tries to power through the door, the window. When I pull him back, he bites up my arm, chews, as if he’s extending the barking onto my arm. I raise my shaking arm to my chest, feel my legs go weak. When I look up, the UPS man is gone.

 

***

 

On the car ride home, the puppy forms a perfect circle in my lap. The warmth of his tiny body travels outward from my legs, so that everything for a few moments feels okay. When we arrive, Mark takes Mauser for a walk before the first meeting. The puppy twists through our yard. He hasn’t grown into the shaggy hair that the breed is known for, nor does he have the standard yellow eyes. For now, his coat lies flat on his back; his eyes are a radiant blue that I can still see as the sun sets in the back yard. Mark approaches with Mauser whose tail wags furiously. But the puppy jumps in front of me, plants his feet firmly into the grass, and emits a deep-throated growl.

 

***

 

We name him Kaiser. We joke that it’s after the movie The Usual Suspects, though spelled like the German word for emperor. In the movie, it’s the name of the bad guy no one sees coming.

 

***

 

One day, when Kaiser has just about settled into our home, I see my phone light up with the name of my best friend—soon to be ex-best friend, a pain that radiates through me daily, the imminence of it.  “Hello?” I ask, cautiously.

 

“You have to get home as soon as you can. The puppy…”

 

When I arrive I think of Law and Order, all of the crime scenes I’ve seen on TV. In my bedroom, the floor is covered in blood, small puddles of it seeping out from the corner where Kaiser’s crate sits. It smells of urine, feces, the sharp sting of iron. She holds the puppy, a towel wrapped around his leg. His eyes flutter, seconds from passing out. With our lease coming to an end, we both know that this will be the last time we ever ride in the car again, ever do anything together again after a decade of friendship. We rush him to the emergency vet who stitches up his leg, which has been rubbed down to the bone where he squeezed out of the top of his crate in his raging desperation to get out, get out, get out, and find me.

 

***

 

The next time we move, Mark goes back to our hometown. He moves into his childhood home left empty by his brother, and I move an hour south for my Ph.D. program. At first I come to visit regularly, but then a few months pass and the next time I arrive, I stand at the doorway as Kaiser, who seemingly counted every minute I was gone, cries and whines as he runs back and forth around me. These aren’t regular cries, but full-on screams of loss, of grief, of joy at my return. Mark laughs at first but then grows silent—neither of us have ever seen a dog respond in this way. He whimpers and throws himself at my feet, and as I bend down to rub his stomach, I feel tears move out of my eyes and onto my cheeks.

 

***

 

At his full size he’s much larger than we expected. In fact, he’s huge. Mauser weighs in at seventy-five pounds, and before we know it, Kaiser towers over him. He has legs for days, a giant barrel chest, and scraggly hair that covers every part of him. His eyes are shadowed by pointy fringes of hair. He sprouts a long goatee, and eventually, he becomes eye level with a kitchen counter. He looks mangy, like a nightmare Jim Henson creature. Sometimes people ask if he’s an Irish wolfhound, others yell out from a safe distance: “What is that?” But mostly when we walk down the sidewalk people cross the street.

 

***

 

The second vet he lunges to bite in the face.

 

***

 

Out on my weekly walk with Kaiser and Mauser on the canal in Boston, a bird soars above Kaiser, and he rears up, barking loudly. Then he yanks the leash and pulls us toward the bird. It escalates quickly until he’s twisting in the most unbelievable ways, and joggers stop; people fishing turn, and I beeline it to the car. I gasp, my chest heaving, as the old dog lies down in the backseat and, next to me on the passenger seat, Kaiser barks his face against the window, leaving small circles where his nose presses against it.

 

***

 

Out in the woods on a snowy afternoon, everything covered in wet and heavy whiteness, I snap a dozen or so pictures of Kaiser and Mauser running, playing with each other, rolling in the snow.  Mauser is stout, like a small tank, but Kaiser moves with a trot familiar to dog shows or dog food commercials. It’s as if, for a moment, watching him makes an extension of me graceful, lovely. Flipping through the photographs at home, there’s the two of them in one shot: Mauser almost posing for the picture, head turned to smile, and there’s Kaiser—teeth bared, ears wildly pointing straight up, and his eyes that deep red and white color from the flash.  I frame it, think that I’m somehow embracing the truth of the two them. Unlike my family, my fiancé, my friends or myself—Kaiser has no secrets. The worst parts of him are so present that it’s often hard to remember the good things.

 

***

 

The first trainer, whose website is full of images of so-called aggressive breeds, comes to our house and never even sits down. He hands me fistfuls of pamphlets, but he won’t stop staring at the dog who snakes around him. Every time he turns toward Kaiser, the dog rears up. The trainer shakes his head and is in his car before we can even discuss prices.

 

***

 

I am not immune to the classic cute things that he does, the licking of the paws, the curling up into a tight ball on my feet, the nuzzle of his nose into the palm of my hand. I know the tender squeezing in my belly, just as I know what follows.

 

***

 

We try three different crates over two years, one even specially purchased for airliners so that no dog can escape. He scratches until his paws bleed. I find teeth in the bottom of the crate. Most crates only last a week or two, and then, when we’ve exhausted the options, we hope that he can’t chew through the front door.

 

***

 

I contact a vet through Cornell’s special program for troubled dogs. “You’re familiar with autism, right?” she asks as we go through his many symptoms—anxiety, panic, aggression, obsession, separation anxiety, destruction.

 

She suggests medication. She suggests looking into another trainer. She suggests as much physical activity as we can give him. As we’re hanging up, she pauses, and I want to ask her about worst-case scenarios, the most horrible stories she’s ever heard, so I can prepare myself for all possible versions that might be ahead, but instead she just solemnly wishes me good luck.

 

***

 

The second trainer we look into has us bring Kaiser to his training center, which is really a large garage off the back of his house.

 

He’s a beefy man, all arm muscles and no neck. “Listen,” he says, staring at Mark. “Dogs need a firm hand. They need to know who is in control.” He points to me, “With a tiny woman like her, there has to be a clear alpha so that he can fall into rank.”

 

I sit up in my seat. Though I am small, barely five-three, I resent his suggestion. I grew up with a German Shepherd, a black Labrador-Doberman mix, and a pit bull. I used to walk massive dogs at the Humane Society for years.

 

“What you need to do is leave him here with me for two weeks. It’s a grand each week, but when you get him back, he’ll be perfectly trained.” He reaches behind him for a black collar that has a little box on it. “We’ll shock him into submission,” he says, smiling.

 

I drag Kaiser out to the car, and as we pull up the driveway, my head shakes from side to side so hard that the horizon starts to blur.

 

***

 

While moving back home, I talk a longtime friend into letting Kaiser stay with him over a weekend. Just don’t leave any windows open; he’ll go right through them, I say. Just be careful who comes over. Don’t try to lock him in any room or anywhere—he’ll get out.

 

On the second day I get a picture on my cell phone. The friend’s bathroom door is chewed through almost up to the doorknob—a ragged chew line right across the middle. He shut himself in while I was out at the store, my friend texts. In the picture, Kaiser is lying down in the background sleeping.

 

***

 

A year before we’re married, I officially move all of my things up to Mark’s once again and commute for my last year of my program. My mother mentions how often she sees my ex-best friend around town—in the grocery store, at a stoplight, walking through the mall—and I feel a mixture of emotions, but mostly the dull sting of loss. “You’ve always had trouble letting go,” my mother says, and as she says it, I don’t picture the many boyfriends it took me too long to leave or break up with, or the friends who I held onto long after our lives had split in different directions, but the hairy, brown and white face of Kaiser.

 

He follows me around the house, sits or lies as near to me as he possibly can. He pushes the door open to the bathroom and curls up on the bathmat while I shower. He was always my shadow dog, following me around instead of Mark, but now he seems to have crawled into my skin, made himself part of me. I wonder if a chorus plays in his head as he stalks me through the house: never leave, never leave, never leave.  When Mark sends him to his own bed, instead of on the floor next to my side, Kaiser turns toward him and growls, teeth bared.

 

***

 

The truth is, I wanted something that was mine entirely. The truth is, I know his anxiety at a bone level. I know what it’s like to shake and his reactions feel like every one I ever try to suppress come realized. The truth is, he never leaves.

 

***

 

There are many good days, normal days, boring days. He chews through his rawhides—the only thing he can have since no toy is strong enough—barks at the mailman, sits on the deck in the sun, convinces Mauser to play with him, and presses his face into my hand a thousand times a day.

 

***

 

While down at my Ph.D. program I had the cat with me, and though Kaiser grew up with him, we worry that the three years they were apart might be too long for them to entirely remember each other. I carry the cat inside, his small paws clawing into my chest. I keep him behind a kid fence so the dogs can smell him but can’t get near him. Mauser wags his tail, sniffs in his direction, and then heads off to a corner to sleep. Kaiser tries to tear through the gate, emits ear-piercing yelps. That night, as the dogs are locked in the bedroom with us, the cat wanders the house. I try to sleep but think of unspeakable worst-case scenarios. Mark snores in my ear. I want to shake him awake and say: If he hurts my cat—now our cat—I swear to god. But I’m not sure what I’m swearing to do. I’m not sure where the line is, what it would take.

 

The next morning, as Mark lets the dog outside, I sit in the guest bedroom that overlooks the backyard and convince the cat to come near me. He presses his face into my hand and sits down, purring loud protests.

 

Through the window, Mark tries to convince the dog to come back inside. But there’s a high-pitched sound, a desperate squeal of some sort, and  then the noise seems to rattle and grow silent.

 

I sit up in the bed, my throat tight.

 

“Marissa?” Mark calls up to me.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Don’t come down here!” he yells.

 

I stand up but don’t walk toward him.

 

“A stray cat. I’ll—” he pauses. “I’ll take care of it.”

 

***

 

It is a fierceness to love something unpredictable, to love something wild. It is insanity.

 

***

 

Often at night Mark and I talk, especially after a bad day (Kaiser bites Mark’s friend in the ass; Kaiser bites Mark’s cousin in the arm; Kaiser growls and lunges at my stepfather when he wears a baseball hat in the house; Kaiser has chewed a couch cushion), about the future with Kaiser in it. Can we have children with this dog?

 

“I think he’ll be okay,” Mark says. “We’ll do that baby blanket thing that people do, where they bring it home for him to smell.”

 

I shrug, remember the years I spent as a dog walker, the cruel irony of my inability now to control my own dog. One day, I arrived to walk the dogs, and the family for whom I worked told me about how there was only one dog now—not two—since earlier that week their Great Dane puppy chased after a ball and careened into a tree snapping its own neck.

 

I look down at Kaiser who, instead of on his bed across the room, is sleeping on the floor as near to me as he can be.

 

***

 

In Mark’s childhood home, we’ve placed cinder blocks, handles of old yard tools, chicken wire, tent stakes, and anything else we can find up against the fencing. Though enormous, Kaiser squeezes through any gap, slinks beneath any hole, and digs so he can roam the neighborhood terrifying anyone outside. Our neighbor to the right stops talking to us, and we even catch him one day spraying Kaiser through the fence with a bottle of Windex. More days than I’d like to recount I run up the street in my pajamas and slippers, a leash in hand, screaming his name, the neighbors staring from their windows. Oddly enough, off leash and outside his own house, he passes people by, is friendly to dogs, and trots along happily until I arrive. Then he drags me, sometimes on my knees, back to our home as if to say: we are here together trapped forever.

 

***

 

Sometimes when I am out in the backyard throwing the ball for Kaiser, an activity that often occurs twice a day, I think about that Great Dane puppy.  How hard would Kaiser have to hit the tree in order to snap his neck?

 

***

 

The third trainer is a smaller woman; she carries treats in a small pouch on her hip. She lets Kaiser hump her for many minutes upon their first meeting because she wants to see how long he’ll do it. Mark and I sit at the table across from Kaiser as he thrusts his hips angrily against her. She teaches us some boundary techniques but warns us: he’s a special needs dog, he will never do the things normal dogs do.

 

***

 

Four years after the Boston bird fiasco, I finally get the courage to take the dog out once again for walks. For an hour beforehand I try to wear the dog out in the back yard. We start by going only three houses up the street before turning back. Two years later we’ve only progressed to the end of our block. The neighbors call out, “Who’s walkin’ who?”

 

When he’s at the end of my leash I feel powerful. I feel like I know karate or could stop a robber. When we run up and down the same block, over and over, turning away from any conflict heading our way and our strides match, both of our legs hitting the ground in time, it all feels right. A surge of triumph lights through me.

***

 

Three weeks before our wedding, we prepare to move once again. This time: Charlotte. Would Kaiser be less neurotic if we had only ever lived in one place, one state? I let the dogs out into the back yard and see the three little kids in the yard behind us chasing each other. It’s the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend and every yard around me is full of people barbecuing, of sprinklers reaching out to the sky. I walk my lunch to the table on the deck.

 

As I step down, I see the children pointing, their faces staring toward our yard. Mauser runs to the end of the backyard where Kaiser moves from side to side, jumping and barking. I move forward slowly, place my plate on the grill and then hear the kids yelling, screaming for their mother, hear the piercing gargle of a cat. Then I’m leaping off the deck, tearing through the yard. In Kaiser’s mouth, being shaken back and forth violently, is the cat I had seen just the day before slinking through our driveway.

 

I look around, spot a branch a few feet forward. “Stop! Stop it!” I scream, my voice echoing off all of the houses. It all sort of happens in slow motion, and then speeds up, then slows down. I see a flash: the cat’s face, its yellow eyes. And then it is fast again, all fur and both dogs ripping and yanking and grabbing for it. I see another flash: Kaiser’s teeth directly in the cat’s neck, shaking, shaking. Then it is fast again: Mauser pulling on one end and Kaiser on the other. I drive the branch into both of them as hard as I can. I plead with cliché phrases: Jesus Christ. Oh God. Please no. Don’t. No.

 

For a moment, Kaiser releases his grip and I picture it, the fantasy of this story: And then, when I thought the worst might happen, the cat got away. But it doesn’t. He snatches it back up and shakes it one more time, hard.

 

***

 

Years earlier, when a man directly next door in Pittsburgh gets shot in the face in his driveway I am in bed alone, hear the shots, and look to the dog. He jumps to attention, sounding the alarm.

 

***

 

Through the years with Kaiser I find myself drawn to anything to do with special needs. I watch Born Schizophrenic and dozens of other similar TV shows, read books about Autism, non-typical family structures, and endless memoirs about families whose lives they imagined going one way but actually ending up drastically different. I see many parallels, revel in the similarities, but of course Kaiser is a dog, not a child. Mark wonders if I’m preparing myself for motherhood. I wonder what I’m searching for.

 

Each of these stories seems to have a moment where the parent or parents respond to the familiar question: “And if you could do it all over again, knowing everything, would you?”  I always lean forward in my seat, watch the parents’ faces, or read their words slowly and carefully, wait for one to say: “No, no I wouldn’t. I would want something other than this.” But they always say, “Yes, I would do it all again.”

 

And when variants of that question—Why don’t you give him up? Couldn’t you bring him to a shelter?—are directed my way, I respond the most truthfully that I can: I don’t know.

 

***

 

When I was young, my mother told me about watching her neighbor shoot her new kitten dead for getting too near his pigeons. This is what I think of when I picture the cat’s soft and slightly pinkish underbelly—that I have never seen anything really die. I lock myself in the bathroom, and every part of me shakes from the sobs. I want to be far away, walk out the door, and have there be only a white space. But instead, Kaiser pants on the other side, his nose rattles the handle, then he lies down, tiny tufts of his fur sticking under the door.

 

***

 

One summer evening when the house is thick with air, Mark and I brush our teeth in the bathroom. When the cat paws at the lever in the tub, I lean down and pull the lever so a small stream of cool water pours out. Kaiser, panting incessantly, strolls past me, steps into the tub, and joins the licking cat, their two tongues reaching out, both of their eyes closed in delight.  Mark and I fall into each other’s arms with laughter, and Kaiser steps out of the tub to rub his damp head along our legs.

 

***

 

The morning after the cat dies a most gruesome death, I pause before opening the back door to let Kaiser out. I stare at the backyard. I hope that the kids in the house behind ours stay inside until we move. I hope that wherever we go next has a better fence. I hope for things I can’t even narrow down into words or images. Kaiser twists in circles, barks loudly, rears up until I turn to face him and then he sits—knowing the cue—and I pull the door open in one firm jerk.

 

 



Marissa Schwalm is an Assistant Professor of English at Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, North Carolina where she teaches English literature and creative writing. Previous to that she received her Ph.D. in English literature and creative writing from Binghamton University in New York, and her M.F.A in creative writing from Chatham University. Her creative nonfiction and poetry have been published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including The Dallas ReviewCheat River ReviewAnderboThe Clockhouse ReviewSamizdat Literary Review, and others.