Poisoning the Neighbor's Dogs
I stand at the fence, the suit still on my back, the tie at half-mast around my neck. The moon sits on the housetops, yellow and full and low.

"Your dog," I explain to the neighbor lady. "The little one, there. He barks frequently, disturbs me, my wife. Disturbs the other dogs, for that matter." I smile, try to be polite, off-handed. "You'll have to make an effort to control him. Please."


"Because it's the responsible thing to do. It's the law, anyway."

"Do I even know you?"

"No, but I live here. Plenty of people around here you don't know, I don't know them either. It doesn't have anything to do with what we're talking about here."

"And what is it we're talking about here, stranger?"

"Common decency."

She twists her mouth up, like snapping a change purse shut.

"I need peace," I confess. "My grandmother, she's not well."

"Does your grandmother live in that house with you?"


We stare at one another.

"It s a dog," she says, and stares through me, a yellow moon dancing in each black eye. "It barks. Bow-wow," she says, and walks away as if that's all anybody would need to know about it. She turns, framed by the light cast down inside her open doorway.

The police, I'm about to say. I'll involve the police.

She flops one pointed breast out of the strapless sundress and wiggles it in my direction. "Who says I'm decent, or want to be?" she asks, calling down the short length of dog-rutted turf. Greatly amused.

§   §   §

Early summer and the patch of garden by the back door planted and staked. My grandmother slides, cancer of the pancreas, inoperable. She's in a hospital bed, breathing through a tube. The rotted pit of her mouth flung open, gasping air. Hawk's nose, auburn hair running white from the scalp. Asleep in the arms of Demerol.

I stand staring at a row of blackjack tables as absently as you watch water flowing. To my right a young couple. The kid plays badly and the girl worse than that. Every time the girl decides something that results in a losing hand the kid laughs at her, calls her an idiot, an imbecile, a cute little moron.

It's like the Indian thing, I tell myself, staring at the cartoon characters who mob the aisles. Maya, the world of illusion. Finally I say to the blonde, "Have you been dating him long?"

The blonde looks puzzled, uncertain.

"This man you're sitting next to. How long have you been dating him?"

"Two years," she says, smiling. Flashes the ring. "We're engaged to be married, October the ninth one year."

"You should be careful," I advise. "Be careful how you choose."

"Is this, like, some stupid joke," the kid says, looking up from his hand of cards. "Is there, like, a hidden camera, filming this?"

"No joke," I tell the kid. "Far from funny" I glance down at my own spreading middle with the resentment of a man who'd expected the graceful thinness of middle age. Instead, it has been replaced by an equally awkward corpulence.

"I can have your job for this," the kid threatens.

"Take my job. Please. See, that's a joke."

"Get me your supervisor," the kid says, stammering. "I want to talk to the pit boss."

"I am the pit boss," I inform the stupid kid. To the blonde I say, "You should be careful how you choose. It's important. You think it's not? Just take a good look at me if you don't believe it."

§   §   §

On the shuttle that takes us back to our cars Harvey says, "I had this job, one time, when I was in high school. Carting dead dogs out to a place in the woods. The shelter I worked for was killing them, then I'd take them away. Back then the doctor did them with a needle right into the heart. You'd watch them stiffen for a second, then go soft. I always remember how limp the bodies were, still warm, you'd see the fleas still clinging to them. I'd open the tailgate and jump in there, right in the middle of the pile. Just start tossing them into the pit. Then I'd throw a couple of bags of lime over them and pick the shovel up."

He laughs, stands up in the aisle when the bus comes to a rocking halt.

"It was illegal dumping, Phil. I was making more than any other kid in my high school and buying my girlfriend gold better than what her mother was wearing. When she found out what I was doing, though, she ditched me. People are a fucked up bunch of people," he observes. "I keep living my life and watching them live theirs and I keep coming up with the same sorry conclusion."

§   §   §

Thursday, another night off, more free time.

Home from the hospital we open wine, start a late supper. The trumpet of Miles Davis fills the house, breathes in and out the curtainless windows, pencil-thin, bone-bare. "On Green Dolphin Street."

"I'll do it," offers Anna. "You relax. Sit in the yard. Have another glass of wine. Try to rest. They said they'd call. And I'll call the rest of your family. They've been leaving messages on the machine all week. Just sit down for a bit. Just try and relax."

I slump down with a glass of Chardonnay under the drooping branches of an overgrown holly tree. The Chihuahua barks, settles in, barks again. The basset hound follows, out of character. A shrill bark, two deep barks, then other dogs in other yards join in. The Rottweiler on the next block over: Woof woof. Woof woof.

"How do you do it?" I asked Harvey. "Tell me again."

"You snip the end off a hot dog and cut a small slit in it and into that slit you insert two or three pills. You say, 'Here, little fella. Take two of these and call me in the morning, little good-fella. Woof woof.' That's how you do it."

Behind the stockade fence doglegs slant and flicker. I've prepared one piece only and my intention is to fling it over the fence, carefully at the little dog's feet. Try my luck, hope for silence. But just as I'm ready a low-flying bug sails into the arc of my own porchlight, lands on my own lawn chair. A praying mantis, I observe it close up: the round unblinking headlights of its eyes; the hooked mandible, precise and elegant. The mantis sits upright on the slippery Grosfillex, cocks its backleg forward and grooms the splintered stick of its own body, dog-like. I nod; the insect tips its armored head sideways. Bluejays screech and rustle in the holly branches overhead. A telephone rings. Dogs bark. A door creaks open. The neighbor lady stands alone on her back step, waving and smiling frantically. "Hi neighbor!" she cries out. "Hello, neighbor, hello!" She calls the dogs into the house in the exaggerated style of a movie farmer calling pigs. "Here, dogs, dogs dogs dogs! Heeere, dogs!" She gathers the Chihuahua up into her arms, instructs the snuffling basset to hurry up. Kicks the door closed with a flourish behind her. I stand for a moment in the backwash of silence. The space of light above her door blinks into darkness. I touch my closed fist to the side of the lawn chair and the praying mantis floats up into darkness. "Come back," I say: but in front of me only the evidence of this day and time of day: a dozen Gypsy moths twisting in the porchlight as if looped on sewing thread, the flowering tomato vines by the back steps staked and tied with ribboned bedsheets, Anna's shadow expanding and contracting just inside the backlit door space. Behind the screen the scent of dinner.

--- From The Old Priest
Anthony Wallace
©2013 University of Pittsburgh Press
Go to a
of this book

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH