It started in the summer of 1968 when I was 13. That’s when my Uncle’s dog began looking directly into my eyes, not as a challenge, but sad, as if she had something to say. There was an anticipation and an impatience in her countenance, as if she were looking to find the words she couldn’t say, because she was a dog, something to describe what it’s like being a dog.
After staring me down, she’d turn her head sideways with an inquisitive look, then bark, running and jumping in circles. At first, I believed she wanted to be free, to go out and play. So, I opened the door. She ran out desperately, squatting with a look of embarrassment, releasing her bowels on the front lawn for the world to witness. This dread had her longing for two legs and a round bottom to privately place on a toilet seat, when and however often she wished. The idea of waiting for a human hand to open a door for release from the prison of paws made her stomach turn. One day, after picking up a full head of steam she ran right through the screen door, in an act of defiance… to her own limitations.
How she wished she were all thumbs, it would be better than all claws.
Yet, at other times, that puzzled look didn’t mean the obvious, as she didn’t bolt for a fire hydrant and continued her rambunctious activity. Are you hungry girl… fleas? She gawked at me as if she wanted to converse, to explain what was on her mind, but she couldn’t get it out, stuck in the declarative constipation of being trapped in the wrong species. It seemed at these moments she actually attempted to verbalize her barks into some kind of sense for human ears. Although, she never said a word. In all likelihood she was having a metaphysical breakdown, a nervous collapse on the realization that she remained a dog.
What made matters worse was her inability to express her mute intelligence and the disability of not being able to live the life she envisioned, finding herself misunderstood by both man and beast. She became the epitome of a philosophy without words, limited only by the imperfection of her birth and the grand faux pas of her biological misplacement, the humiliation of being a bitch with anthropomorphic ideas.
This dog had a wealth of fantasies. I’d watch her dream, stretched out on the floor, making weird motions with her legs, her eyes wide open and rolling in her head. She twisted and spun in a yoga of happy hallucinations, smiling, in repose. On waking, she’d bear her artistic soul in a modern dance of torments, grunts and sloppy speculations, which ran off her long pink tongue like the wet ideas she couldn’t enunciate.
She’d often sit in the shade thinking about the future, why she was a freak of nature. What a horror, so misunderstood, an anxiety-filled human mind inside a frolicking dog’s body. She yearned for miracles, a soul and a justification for the raw deal that’s the seven-one ratio of life span between her two worlds. It wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t think of such matters. She had the worst of both worlds, the awareness of a human mind and the short life of a dog.
Her name was Queenie, and she enjoyed watching TV with me (sports, dramas, game shows). I knew she understood the plot and action of the programs, because during commercials she’d get up, go to the kitchen, eat some Gravy Train, and lap up some water. She’d get her entire face, breast and legs soaked just to get a couple of drops of H2O down her gullet. While eating, she always had a look of disgust and self-loathing, her eyes peeled as if she might be attacked at any moment in her vulnerable feeding position. Dining shamed her, as she yearned for a table, a fork and a mouth that operated in a fashion that kept the food off the floor; longing for a set of teeth more conducive for chewing than biting. At heart, she was a connoisseur and would’ve preferred dining at a more leisurely pace, sipping wine before dessert.
The psychic blows she suffered from her flea-bag status were evident in her mute locution. She wanted to abandon dog impulses, instincts and the servitude of bringing me the newspaper, but more important, her inability to read it. This made her want to roll over and play dead. She had to sit with me, and listen to Walter Cronkite read the headlines of death counts from Vietnam, race riots and assassinations.
Her impalpable confusion was perceived as anger while chasing a cat up a tree, when in reality, she was simply attempting to discuss the point of life and death in the reformatory of who one is. Whether that’s a cat, a dog or a human. That place in time where every day turns into night, the world spinning monotony of sniffing another dog’s butt in search of nirvana, the simple happiness in chasing a tennis ball until exhausted or the motivation behind digging a hole to hide worthless piece of garbage.
Her floppy ears, sunken head and droopy tail seemed to ask, why not just end it all? Why not run out into traffic, bite the tire of a moving bus, hang around the railroad tracks with eyes and ears closed to this world forever.
In the first few days of October, when the sun gradually sets earlier, I’d watch her chase cars down the road, glaring at the drivers in her crisis. It was absurd. Everything began to irk her as her nerves were shot. Bugs drove her nuts, birds made her crazy, squirrels annoyed her. She snickered to herself when she spotted one plastered to the street with a tire tread down it’s back. “There’s a lucky one,” she whispered to herself, eyeballing the pancaked carcass with innards popping out both mouth and anus. “No more telephone poles or high wire acts for you. I wonder who’ll be eating all those nuts you hoarded this summer?” She laughed at her own sick joke as she took note of a grasshopper jumping over an army of industrious ants; they were dragging a mountainous crumb back to their hole. “It’s useless, you living automatons.”
That autumn she became wild, out of control, growling at children and old people. She’d chase the mailman and raise hell. Around midnight, I’d hear her sneak out through the torn screen door. From my bedroom window I could see her head for the woods. Later, after returning to bed, her distinct bark could be heard, with some other dogs, howling at the moon. I pictured her with her gang, getting into trouble, their noses flared and teeth showing.
One night, I waited up for her return. She appeared from out of the trees just as the sun was making its appearance. Her coat was filthy, her paws were muddy, she stumbled to the back door as if she were inebriated, but decided to sleep under the porch instead. She didn’t wake up until way past noon, she was in a real state, as if she’d been in a war. She gave me a new look of wanting to say different. This type of demeanor went on, way into the cold part of November, after all the leaves have fallen and the earth becomes cold and hard.
Her insolence changed to indifference and then to a melancholy so overwhelming it changed her very appearance. She seemed to exist about one inch above the ground and her rear legs appeared like luggage that she dragged behind her. She was mangy, with yellowish crud that congealed in the corners of her bloodshot eyes. She no longer slept, afraid of her dreams, pacing all night. Her upper lip would twitch, shaking her whiskers in spasms while exposing her dull gray teeth.
One day, returning home from school, I found her having an epileptic fit. I stuck my sneaker in her mouth and the convulsions began to subside. After that episode she slept for a week without eating or drinking. She just laid there, moaning as if in prayer to a merciless God, motionless, like a hairy bag of bones. Each day after school I’d bend down onto the floor in the corner where I’d made her a little palette to rest. I’d built it out of apple crates and a cushion from an old chair my uncle had put out to the curb for the junk man. Petting her head and rubbing her back I’d sit and talk to her for hours. She always turned those sad eyes on me as if to say, “It’s no use, there’s no place for me, except this box and the reality that haunts me. You can’t take on my burdens, because you don’t know what it’s like to be a dog, but I do know what it’s like to think like a human being.”
Looking into her eyes I could’ve sworn I heard her say, “You humans, you love to call us dogs. Always with and ‘over here boy,’ and a ‘come get it girl,’ but ultimately it’s your own life you’re calling. We dogs become attached to you as masters, just like you humans become attached to your master—life. We’re good dogs, obedient pets to our human masters, just as humans are good pets to their superstitions and longing for explanations. How self-centered and credulous, as if there’s a reason, an explanation for what’s a mystery only to humans. We dogs are realists, you people are confused dreamers, and make believe that you co-exist with your God and hope for the best. Being a dog that thinks like a man has taught me something. It’s better not to think at all. Look what it’s gotten me. It’s preferable to live without any illusions, as life is as serendipitous as finding a penny on the sidewalk or as tragic as a train running everything that serendipity discovers.”
In the last few days of winter, Queenie got up and walked out the torn screen door. Gingerly passing that happy bird eating a worm, ants working, squirrels inventorying last summer’s provisions, while the cat eyed the robin eating the worm, but she didn’t give them the time of day. At that moment she was giving the world her farewell. She didn’t leave a note. My uncle concluded, “She’s run off with hunters, as it’s deer season and she’d chase after any man with a gun.”
I think he was dead wrong. She simply disappeared.
Sometimes, in moments of weakness, or perhaps strength, I don’t feel human. I feel like a beast. My awareness bordering on being nothing, but sexual desire, and a lot of unfounded fears ingrained by religious beliefs. Debilitating moments such as those make me think of my uncle’s dog.