Our original fiction this month comes from Brooklyn writer Chris Arp. In “Dog Story,” a cantankerous father adopts a dog for his daughter. Crisp observation and introspective flashes reveal a chewed up character who wants a better world, but finds dark humor in the world he has.
After one of our enormous fights, my seventeen-year-old daughter suggested that I get a dog.
“It’ll balance you out,” she said. “Dogs balance people out, this is known.”
I don’t remember what the fight was about. At that time, the fighting had gotten to where it was like going down to the basement. Nobody wants to go, but it seems like you spend half your life down there anyway, sorting the cans of tomato sauce, replacing the fly paper, scraping rust.
But the dog was a good idea. I’d always liked dogs. They don’t know anything about anything. If a dog looks at me in the street, I get a rush of superiority that makes me feel generous and alive. I say “hello” to them, and even wink at them sometimes like a nut.
So I surprised my daughter one Wednesday afternoon by pulling her out of class and driving her to 173rd street. She sulked the whole way—it was poetry class, her favorite—but when she saw the Broad Heart Animal Shelter, she said: “What are we doing here?”
I said: “Getting a fucking dog to balance me out.”
Look, I’m not Mr. Description, so let me just say this: The Broad Heart Animal Shelter smells very much like animals. And it looks like the kind of place you don’t want to look at. Every time we passed a dog, I’m thinking, “Don’t worry, buddy, I’m busting you out of here. I’m taking you home.”
I liked the big dogs. They were like the guys you meet at bars on Tuesday nights: at first, you think who’s this galoot, but soon you realize they are just as fascinating, complicated and wonderful as you are. I spent a long time with this bull mastiff who looked like she’d smoked too many cigarettes and squandered all her opportunities.
My daughter said: “She wouldn’t fit in your living room.”
“She could sleep in your bed,” I said, “You could sleep in the streets.”
My daughter took me to the room with the little dogs, leading me down the loudest hallway in the world. Oddly enough, the cages are the same size as for the big guys, but each has its own little gremlin.
My daughter pointed at a cage so low I had to squat, which with my back is no small thing. But it was worth it. The dog was shaped like sausage, with long grey hair and a mustache that made him look like Professor Stupid. He yupped at me, and it was the most bullshit bark you’ve ever heard.
So. I named him Hercules and signed him out. The Shelter gave me a free bag of dog food and a leash and a thingie of poop bags, so I gave them five stars on Yelp.
In the car ride home, Hercules shifted constantly in his crate, and made little throat-clearing noises like he was getting ready to complain. I turned the crate toward my daughter so she could reach in and touch him. She was smitten, and I was proud of her that she had chosen such an obvious loser. It is from me that she gets this compassion, and also her laziness and her goosey walk. From her mother she gets the mermaid hair and the vindictiveness and the long, exaggerated catalogue of my faults.
When we crossed the Queensborough Bridge, the city opened up behind her and what with the sun doing its thing and her face all soft with affection, she looked like a very good version of the woman she might become. I like to dwell on this moment, because this was the last of our happiness with Hercules.
That first evening, I had a lie-down on the couch to rest my back. My daughter spread some newspaper and bunched up a towel as a doggie bed. When I woke up an hour later, the apartment was finished. The couch legs were chewed up, as were the base boards along the walls. The towel was in shreds. All across the floor there were puddles of sissy. Hercules was panting in the corner, exhausted.
I yelled for my daughter.
“Why’d you pee on the floor?” She asked me, because she’s a big-time comedian.
“Get me the dog,” I pointed, which even that motion hurt my back. “Bring it here, so I can chuck it out the window.”
“This is you up and down,” my daughter said. “As soon as life gets rough, your back gives out. You gotta walk him!”
She attached the leash to the collar and dropped the other end in my lap, then went back to her room and shut the door. I endured the agony of sitting up and putting on my errand-sandals, and took the little asshole outside.
Which is where Hercules discovered that the whole city was his enemy. Everybody got the business. Lady shoppers and children in strollers, policemen and drivers and even the poor kid who carries boxes out of the basement beneath the bodega. I tried to tell Hercules: these are just people; their lives are not so easy. But no dice. He barked at mailboxes, lampposts, fences. The sound he made was bitter, heart-sick, offended. He’d launch into these whinnying yowls like the ghost of some angry widow.
And listen, I get it. This city is no good. I tell my daughter all the time: it’s fun when you’re young, but as you get older, the buildings grow taller. You shrink and shrink, in spirit, if not in stature. I’m telling you: it gets so that even the pigeons think they’re hot shit, walking between your legs like they know you’re not man enough to kick them. And they’re right.
But that didn’t mean Hercules had to be such a baby about it.