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A Dog’s Life

Chased by a chocolate lab, guilt, and memories of mother

Shalom Auslander
June 03, 2010
(Anat Even-Or)
(Anat Even-Or)

Every morning, as the sun pours through my bedroom windows and spills across my bed, I awake, the promise of a new day stretching before me like a stupid thing that leads to some goddamn whatever.

Ugh, I think.

My head aches. My neck is stiff. My knees creak. But every morning, I make my way downstairs, and, rain or shine, cold or warm, I step outside, throw a leg over my bicycle, and head off for a ride.

It is the only way I have of clearing my head, of sweating out of myself whatever toxins I now regret having put into myself the evening before, of just, for a few blessed moments, not thinking. For a precious little while, every morning, I can forget about books, and writing, and the past, and the present, and the future; freedom, a true freedom, the freedom to be nowhere, to think of nothing but my breath and the road and the pedals under my feet.

And every morning, the same fucking dog chases me.

It is my neighbor’s dog, and she—the neighbor—is elderly and alone, and the dog is all she has, and so I don’t want to call animal control. The dog’s name is Barney.

“Hey, Barney,” I say, hoping that my saying his name will stop his charging.

It doesn’t.

Barney is a chocolate lab, which is what lab owners call brown labs because calling them brown wouldn’t be cute enough. But they’re not chocolate, or mocha, or espresso. They’re not latte, or pudding, or fudge. They’re just brown. They’re dull, undistinguished, dumpy-looking, short-legged brown dogs whose only notable characteristic is that they go after things and bring them back. A friend of mine has one, and he is awed by this singularly unimpressive feat, like the too-proud parent of the dumbest kid in class, excited that little Billy’s gotten a D- and not an F.

“That’s wonderful, Billy! You see what you can do when you try!”

My friend throws a ball, and his dog brings it back. He throws it again, and his dog brings it back again. He throws it again. Guess what his dog does. Ants do this particularly well, too. Not “black” ants, mind you—midnight ants, ebony ants, raven ants, charcoal ants.

“He’s such a great retriever,” says my friend. “Did you see how he retrieved that?”

I have two dogs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and though they’re not perfect, if I throw a ball and tell them to fetch, they look at me as they should: You threw it, dumbass, you go get it.

And so every morning, while I’m trying to think of nothing, Barney chases me—snarling, filled with fury, baring his teeth, spittle flying—and I think about my father. I think about all the fury that surrounded me as a child, how even now, 30 years later, I can feel that rage just behind me, its hot breath on my heel as I write or try to write or fail to write because there it is, that hound of hell, waiting to attack, to sink its teeth into me if I provoke the furious beast in any way.

I have, you can imagine, tried to kill it.

Not with my own hands, of course, but it is a busy street. There have been times when I’ve tried to lead the son of a bitch charging after me out into the street, a little further, a little further, out onto the double-yellows now, waiting for that truck to come and do the deed for me.

“Dog came out of nowhere,” the truck driver will say.

“Damnedest thing,” I’ll say.

But no truck has come. A few days ago, I went for a ride, and there was Barney, standing at the end of his driveway, not moving. As I passed by, I noticed that his back leg had some sort of brace on it, from his hip to his foot. Maybe that truck finally came, I thought. Serves you right, asshole.

That afternoon, I ran into Barney’s owner at the local coffee shop. She asked about my kids, and I asked her about Barney. It was a problem with his hip, she said. He was getting old. What did the doctors say? There was nothing they can do. How long would he be in the brace? It’s degenerative. He’ll be in the brace forever. His other hip is starting to hurt him now, too. We’ll get through it, she said. We’ll get through it. I left, feeling bad. I felt bad that I’d hated her dog, felt bad that I wished it would die, felt bad that I’d tried to kill it.

And so this morning, I went for a ride, trying to find that freedom, trying to think of nothing, and I passed Barney, standing miserably at the end of his driveway, the best part of his life over, nothing but suffering and sadness ahead, the crows circling overhead waiting for him to die—and I thought of my mother. I thought of the way she used suffering as a form of control, of how guilty I feel even today for wanting nothing more than to simply express myself, of how much I have been made to worry, still, that every word I write and every thing I say will only cause her pain.

And I thought, Fuck you, Barney.

I pedaled away, my lungs filling with breath, the tires humming beneath me, and for the next two hours, thought of nothing.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.