“At The Dog Park” by Yasmina Madden

At the dog park I pull in behind a gold SUV with a bumper sticker that reads: “Don’t let this fool you, my real treasure is in Heaven.” Additional stickers read: “The Spirit Moves Me” and “ReJOYce.” I know the woman who drives the car. She tells me her daughters don’t like her, but she has many friends at the park and often whips out her cell to load up someone’s digits. ReJOYce wears expensive jogging suits, and her dog has its very own quilted down vest with a fashionable collar that turns up. My dog, Oscar, looks at me with his pleading, brown, Cleopatra eyes when he sees ReJOYce and her yappy Jack Russell, Portia. Oscar is a large, gentle Golden Retriever, and dogs like Portia make both of us nervous: her shrill bark and sprightly dance steps—back and forth and around—forever moving.

I will admit that I sometimes walk around the park with ReJOYce. She tells me about making Mega Nachos and watching football with her husband. ReJOYce even gives me the recipe for the nachos and I nod enthusiastically as if I’m going to make them. And then I do make them. I don’t watch football, and my husband isn’t home, so I eat the nachos right off the tray, standing at my kitchen counter, listening to a story on the radio about a group of kids who, it seems just because they can, leave a man to die in a well.

At the dog park there is a dog named Satan. He is part Shar Pei and part Boxer, and he is wrinkled and earnest. Satan, one might say, is eager to please. I often walk the park with Satan’s master, who is bearded, large, and very friendly. He borders on gleeful when he introduces his dog to someone new at the park. Sometimes ReJOYce, Satan’s Master, and I walk together with our dogs. It would be nice if one day Satan’s Master asked ReJOYce about her real treasure in Heaven, but only so much can happen at the dog park.

At the dog park, it does sometimes happen that Satan’s Master, ReJOYce, a Philosophy Professor, and I all round the path at the same time. We walk together, a loosely tethered pack. The Professor doesn’t talk to us much, but when he does, he always gesticulates wildly. Most of the time he texts while he walks. His dog, Heidi, short for Heidegger (of course), is an affable mutt. After I hear the story about the kids who leave the man at the bottom of a well, I ask the Professor to explain to me how it’s possible for people, even children, to do something so horrid. He talks first of compassion and empathy and then about mankind’s capacity to find wonder and even pleasure in evil acts. He throws some phrases at me: The normalization of deviance is one of them. I want to get more examples of how people find pleasure in evil, and I’d like to get his opinion on whether he thinks my husband might qualify as one of these types of people, but before I get a chance Portia nips Satan, and our group disintegrates.

One day at the dog park, I find my group and amble along the dirt path, watching Oscar swish through the tall grass. Per usual, it’s the Professor, ReJoyce, Satan’s Master, and me. I’d like to say that on this day ReJOYce and the Professor get into an argument about salvation. Unfortunately for me, that never happens. But what does happen, as we are all loping through the park with our sweet dogs, is that in the not-too-far distance, a car spontaneously erupts into flames. Big, tall, heaven-licking flames. There is smoke, fire, and general chaos as Satan’s Master and I sprint towards the blaze. My ribs ache from running and probably because they never healed right after being broken. The dogs race ahead of us, their muscled haunches propelling them forward, and even Oscar, with his dysplastic sway of a gait keeps up with the pack, a trail of dust kicking up in their wake.

In the lot, other dog-park people huddle in small groups not far from the car. “What in the hell happened?” Satan’s Master calls out to no one in particular and I watch people shrug their shoulders and raise their hands in confusion. “We were walking through the lot, and it was just boom and flames.” This from a petite woman whose Rhodesian Ridgeback, Tyco (the Psycho), often body checks Oscar midstride. I don’t fault Tyco for doing this; it’s instinct passed down from his lion-hunting ancestors. Not his fault. The woman keeps repeating her story to anyone who comes on the scene, so I move away from her. The car is pretty much obliterated, a charred mass pouring out smoke. The air is heavy with fumes, and the scent of exhaust and fuel makes me nauseated. The Professor walks closer to the car and several yell for him to stay back. “But we need to see if anyone’s inside, don’t we?” He asks. “Well they’d be toast,” replies Satan’s Master, and I give him a look. Sirens blare in the distance, and I know it’s a matter of a few minutes before the cavalry arrives. I back away from the flames and watch ReJOYce stride purposefully toward the car, brush past the Professor, and crouch next to what would have been the front seat. “Get away from there,” I shout. “You could get hurt!” She ignores me and circles the smoking wreck.

The firefighters and police tell ReJOYce and the rest of us to go back to the park and leave it to them. We follow their orders and begin another circuit of the trail, each of us exclaiming How horrible! How strange! We speculate. “More likely than not,” says Satan’s Master, “the car had some kind of engine malfunction, or some factory defect that made it blow.” He shakes his head up and down, sure of himself, and I wonder what expertise he has that makes him so confident. “Yeah,” concurs ReJOYce, and I’m surprised and disappointed that she doesn’t have something more to say. She never says what I think she might, considering the stickers she plasters on her car, and I often feel deceived by her. “Maybe someone made the car explode,” I offer. The Professor looks up from his phone and squints at me: “Why would you say that?” I reply, “Because it happens.” “Yeah, well, I’m sure that’s not what happened here.” The Professor starts texting again. “How do you know?” I ask. It seems as plausible to me that someone blew up the car as it does that the engine malfunctioned. “Because people don’t do things like that unless they’re crazy,” says Satan’s Master. He looks over and gives me a little shrug and neck jut. Duh.

I don’t say anything else, but what I’m thinking is that people do things like that all the time, even when they’re not crazy. Kids leave a terrified man at the bottom of a well to die because they can. A husband breaks his wife’s ribs because she’s late, or breaks her nose because the dog chews up his book. That husband isn’t crazy, and I don’t think those kids are either. And while I haven’t done the following, I can imagine it easily: sinking a silver knife deep into my husband’s flesh, just beneath his ribs; or the solid thud of a wooden bat connecting with his skull; or maybe the way his skin would melt and then char if I rigged his car to go boom and then up in flames. I’m not crazy, but I could do all of these things.

It is only when my husband kicks Oscar’s weak leg so hard it pops the dog’s hip out of socket that I leave. I pick up my beautiful boy, who cowers at the edge of the rug, looking at me for an explanation, and I carry him out of the house, my face buried in the fur beside the silky flap of his ear. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I whisper, and Oscar turns his head to try and lick my face.

I don’t need anyone to point out the irony of leaving my husband only when he kicked the dog. I know better than to try and explain to my closest friend how it’s different, but I do anyway. Yes, I tell my friend, my husband is a monster for breaking my nose and my ribs, but it takes an altogether different kind of beast to kick a dog when he’s down. When I exaggerate the literally that caps off this explanation, my friend fidgets and looks away. It probably doesn’t help that I proffer a stiff ha-ha-ha, I shouldn’t even joke. I know nothing about the situation is funny, but I don’t know how else talk about it. And so I stop.

There is a German surgeon visiting the vet program at the state university, and I use part of my savings to buy Oscar a new titanium hip the surgeon has designed and will implant. Oscar will be the first dog in the state with this kind of hip and I don’t bat an eye at the expense. The surgeon’s long explanation of why this titanium hip is superior and worth the cost is completely unnecessary. I can’t stop thinking of the way Oscar tried to stand up after my husband kicked him, his dislocated leg dragging uselessly beneath him. I keep seeing the stark white x-ray image of his leg—the ball of his femur pointed violently and unnaturally away from its nest of a socket. Ligaments and tendons must tear clean through, and the joint capsule must rupture, in order to produce an image like the one I saw. It seems only right that Oscar at least gets the best hip on the market.

After his surgery, my bionic boy hobbles along beside me, supported by a towel that I loop under his belly and hold by its handles, taking some of the weight off his back legs. We are a sight as we shuffle along through our new neighborhood. A six-legged oddity. When we walk, I scan my new neighborhood for my husband’s car, a black SUV with one of those embarrassing marathon stickers boasting 26.2 slapped on the rear window. How is it that I chose this man, I often think. He is supposed to stay 100 yards away from me per the protection order I was granted, but my husband is a bender of rules. He is a man who finds a way to the front of every line without upsetting anyone, who creates a parking space where none exists, who talks his way into a table at the restaurant that’s been booked for months. He is a man who can beat up his wife and be forgiven. Charming is what certain people might call him.

During Oscar’s recovery, the dog park is off limits for three months, and I wonder if he misses Satan and Heidi, possibly even jittery Portia. Since we started going to the dog park a year ago, we’ve rarely missed our trice-weekly visits. I even went with my nose still swollen, purple shadows beneath both eyes. When I told the dog park crew that I’d been hit in the face with a fastball at the company picnic, only Satan’s master looked at me for a beat too long. I wonder whether any of my dog park friends would spend five grand on a titanium hip for a dog. I decide ReJOYce is the only one who would, yet another thing we have in common.

Now, instead of the dog park, twice a week Oscar and I drive to the state university for his physical therapy. He walks on a treadmill in a glass tank of water to build up the muscles in his hindquarters. I don’t tell anyone about this. There is only so much most people are willing to swallow when it comes to caring for a pet, and, like a titanium hip, hydrotherapy isn’t one of them. Oscar slow motion canters in the water tank, and the feathered fur on the back of his legs streams behind him like golden seaweed. Though I know it it’s not possible, I imagine muscles and tendons growing stronger, wrapping around the gleaming titanium of his hip, repairing what’s been broken. His leonine head occasionally turns towards me, checking to see that I’m still there and I call to him, Keep going, Oscar! That’s a good boy! I clap and yell encouragement like a demented cheerleader.

It’s required, in order to avoid dislocation post-surgery, that Oscar be crated at night, and anytime I’m not at home. Oscar hasn’t spent a day of his life in a crate, and though I know that many dogs supposedly find them comforting, I hate the idea of him being in what, let’s be frank, is a cage. But I’m told it’s a must if Oscar is to heal without incident, so I buy the most gigantic crate I can find, and Oscar still seems crowded in it. He has enough room to lie down, and turn around and resettle, but it’s like seeing the Siberian Tiger at my city’s zoo: wrong. I once watched that tiger obsessively pace the quarter-mile perimeter of his cage, when he’d naturally roam and hunt in a range of thirty or forty miles. What is he thinking, I still wonder, during the hundreds of caged laps he performs each day. Is he thinking? Whatever the circumstances of his being there—born into captivity, rescued from poachers, nursed back to health—does it make a difference if his biology demands he be able to roam?

In our new apartment, I position Oscar’s crate by my bed and we stare at each other for a few minutes before I remove one side of the cage, drag the comforter off my bed, and sleep on the floor beside him. It goes on like this for a month. Oscar’s nose twitches in his sleep, and his legs jerk slightly as he dream-chases a rabbit or squirrel. His sighs are soft and contented, but occasionally, in the deep of night, he emits a strangled squeak or bark in his sleep, so I reach out to him, run my hands through the crest of fur and loose skin at the back of his neck, and tell him It’s okay, I’m still here.

Often, in the middle of the night, Oscar whines to go pee and I have to rig up his towel harness and take him out to my building’s front yard. Each time, I’m sure this will be the night I see my husband’s car drive past. He doesn’t have my new address, but I imagine it wouldn’t be hard to get. Just because I’ve never seen him, doesn’t mean he hasn’t been here. In the landscape of my head, his car glides through the thick darkness of my neighborhood like a like a two-ton shark. Some nights I dream of how and where he’ll show up: I turn the corner of a hallway in my office building, and there he is; I open the door to leave my apartment and he stands so close I can smell his breath; he stands in the doorway of my childhood bedroom in a house two states away; he comes toward me, the tall grass in the dog park swirling around his legs. When I wake from these dreams I am cold and relieved. He is a man who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dog park. A bastion of bougie weirdos and housewives is what he called it.

In the summer, Oscar gets the okay to return to the dog park. I scan the fields for Tyco the Psycho before we enter, worried that his signature body check might be too much for Oscar’s hip, bionic though it may be. I cringe at the thought of his slick titanium femoral head slipping from the curve of his radiantly new acetabulum. But, as soon as I open the gate, Oscar makes a break for the prairie grass, his sickled tail waving its goodbye. I find him with our group among the Indiangrass and Bluestem at the far end of the park, and they call out their Hellos! and Where have you beens? The Professor even pauses from texting: “I was so worried Oscar had died.” The way he throws his arms out from his sides, shaking his hands spastically, is oddly soothing to me. ReJOYce wants every detail of Oscar’s surgery and recuperation, and is duly impressed that Oscar runs on the only titanium hip in the state. “I would have done the same for Portia,” she tells me, and I am triumphant that I’ve predicted ReJOYce would say this. Satan’s Master gets down on his knees and holds Oscar’s head, letting the dog’s long pink tongue lap at the bare skin above his beard. I feel my chest tighten, and a tingling ache spreads through my thoracic cavity and tunnels up my throat. For a moment it’s as if I’m underwater. I feel the slight, almost soft, resistance against my body, and then we begin to walk. I describe Oscar’s hydrotherapy in detail and they have many questions about how he negotiated being crated. When I tell them I caved and slept on the floor beside Oscar, Satan’s Master responds, “What other choice did you have?”

My lawyer tells me my divorce will settle quickly. I’m not asking for anything, so there’s nothing for my husband to fight me over. While I wait for the divorce to go through, my husband never shows up at my job to harass me. He never pounds on my door in the dead of night, threatening me or pleading with me for forgiveness. He never corners me in the parking lot of my apartment building or follows me home from work. He never does what I imagine or dream he might do while we wait in marital purgatory.

Until one day he does. The day after our divorce is finalized my ex-husband shows up at the dog park. We are circling the back loop when Satan’s Master points and remarks, “Who comes to the dog park in a blazer? What a douche-nozzle.” I look up to see him, about fifty yards out, striding purposefully towards us in crisp, dark jeans and a gray blazer. There’s no denying that he’s an attractive man—lean, long legged and classically handsome. If he were a dog, he’d be a Weimaraner: alert, athletic, and bred to hunt. “Which dog is his?” asks ReJOYce. He’s getting closer to us, and I call out for Oscar who comes bounding to my side. “Well,” I say, “Once Oscar was his dog. I mean we shared him.” The Professor looks up from his phone and glances at my ex, who’s closing in. “He shouldn’t be wearing such nice shoes in a dog park.”

I hear a buzzing noise and I’m not sure if it’s inside or outside my head. There is so much to tell these people in the minutes before my ex is upon us. There is one story that they’re telling themselves about him, as he approaches, and then there is the story I could tell them. But all I can say is, “He can’t take Oscar. He cannot take my dog.” I repeat this again and again, and I can see that ReJOYce is alarmed. She stares at me, blinking rapidly. Satan is circling us, chasing after Portia, and Oscar leans against my thigh. Heidi, the Professor’s dog, starts barking, as if she knows my ex doesn’t belong. The buzzing in my ears gets stronger and I feel a pulsing ache in my head, like I’m upside down and all the blood in my body is rushing to my skull, filling my sinuses, the sockets behind my eyes, any pocket of space in my cranium.

“He won’t take Oscar.” I think it’s ReJOYce who says this, but the voice sounds muted, like I have water in my ears. “He hurt Oscar,” I blurt out. The professor puts his phone in his pocket and ReJOYce stops staring at me and turns to face my ex-husband, who is now just feet from us. Oscar whines and Satan’s Master starts walking towards my ex, ReJOYce on his heels. “My nose that time,” I say, and Satan’s Master, ReJOYce, and the Professor all stop to look at me. “He did that to me.” It’s such a simple thing to say, I think. And then they are upon him.

biophotoYasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa and has published short stories, flash fiction, and nonfiction in The Idaho Review, Word Riot, Fiction Southeast, Carve, and other journals. Her story “Piper” was a finalist for Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Contest.


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