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As he came home from the office most days, George’s mind was so preoccupied with commodity futures that he forgot all about Mrs. Ardor’s pit bull. Seemingly at random, the dog would attack, sinking its teeth into his calf or thigh or briefcase. You name it, and it had scars.

George’s meticulously treated lawn was hedged on the western border, which he shared with Mrs. Ardor, and which the dog had no trouble breaching, and then galloping across the silky grass, spitting rocks out of the gravel walkway, pinning George to the chain-link fence on the east side of his yard. George’s eyeglasses were tinted because his eyes were sensitive in the sun, and he’d had the frames replaced a week ago at great expense, after just such an episode.

Safe in his upstairs window that night, he observed Mrs. Ardor sitting in her wheelchair and smoking on her back porch. Her yard was starting to get uneven, and he made a mental note that he needed to mow it for her again. From his perch in his study, he had been memorizing lines for a part in a community play in which he was a grumpy miser. In reality, despite being somewhat stiff and wearing his business clothes—shoes and all—right up until bedtime every night, he was a congenial bachelor. He loved his flower beds. So this grumpy role was a particularly difficult part for him, and it was giving him second thoughts about trying to pick up theater as a midlife hobby.

He stood and leaned out the window to wave to Mrs. Ardor. Scrunching up his nose to keep his glasses snug, he said, “It’s a fine night,” though not loudly enough for her to hear. Storm clouds warped and shifted like tectonic plates overhead, bringing a cool breeze and the promise of thunder. The dog lay before her, fairly snuggling with her feet. George rubbed a bruise on his hip, endured from the pit bull’s ironclad snout a couple of weeks ago. He wanted to say something to her about the animal, but he couldn’t: she had only adopted it from the humane society on his own suggestion, after her husband died and her only son, a tattooed brute, had moved across the country to chase some blonde.

And besides, it was his own carelessness that brought on these injuries. The more he thought about it he theorized that when he walked on the grass instead of the sidewalk leading to his front door, muffling the clacking of his wingtips’ heels, he was quiet enough that the dog didn’t seem to notice his approach. He hadn’t tested this enough to be sure it was foolproof, and that was exactly the point: he hadn’t done all he could to fix the problem, and so he didn’t feel he was in a position to complain, especially when the dog was her only companion.

The next evening, George was calculating standard deviations in his head as he walked up to his front door. Estimates were due to his second-largest client in the morning, and he had a long night of work ahead. His heels clacked with each step, and he jingled his keys at the door.

At that, the dog exploded through the hedge, fore and hind legs scissoring furiously, and George’s vertebrae seemed to fuse, his tail bone tingling. His brain converted the scene to slow motion and for an instant he thought he could jam the key into the hole, throw open the door and leap inside—all before feeling that earthy, metallic breath moisten his skin. The rain-soaked yard caused the dog to slip and tumble, lathering its left side in mud, but it wasn’t much of a delay. By the time George had his hand on the knob, the dog’s teeth were clamped on his right forearm like a bear trap. George let out a bark of his own, a walrus-like exclamation, and, off balance, he weakly swatted at the beast with his left fist.

And then, mysteriously, as it always did, the dog released him and strutted down the street, as if taking a victory lap, tongue lolling. It was as though the dog did it all for sport.

With his front door creaking open, his briefcase upside down like a tent and surrounded by office paper, George collapsed on his front stoop. He breathed hard for a few minutes and then rolled up the sleeve of his tattered dress shirt to reveal a ragged gash that displayed the stringy inner workings of his wrist like a how-does-it-work infographic.

Fight or flight, he thought. First, he was all flight, trying to rush inside his house, adrenalin surging like a flash flood in his veins. It was the story of his miserable, passive life, he thought, but now, as he watched the rear end of the dog waggle victoriously, he felt his fight instincts filling every muscle in his body, and he clenched his teeth with pleasure. The dog was gone, and so the target was clear: he marched across his lawn, barged through the hedge and pounded on Mrs. Ardor’s front door.

He pounded three more times. Given the pain and the delay, it took some effort, now, to keep his rage at a sufficiently high level for the righteously indignant effect he desired.

Finally, the doorknob clicked quietly like a weighty insect, and there at his belly button was Mrs. Ardor in her wheelchair. At six-thirty in the evening, she was already in her pale pink muumuu pajamas. He hadn’t seen the inside of the home since her son left, and the marks of a hoarder were evident: the stacks of magazines piled five feet high in the hallway leading to the kitchen, where cans of beans and unwashed dishes spilled over the counter. The bitter smell of full ash trays burned George’s nostrils, causing him to take half a step back.

Still, he thrust his almighty finger in her face and raised his voice as though he were onstage. “That evil creature did this,” he hollered. He shook his fist, lined with rivulets of blood. Then he amped up his anger and growled, “Is that what you call a guard dog? I’m your neighbor!” He turned on his heel and stomped back to his own yard, a sheen of rancorous sweat on his brow.

That night, he could not fall asleep because his arm was throbbing. He also couldn’t bring the curtain down on the images in his head, thinking of the horror on Mrs. Ardor’s face as he screamed at her, and wondering whether she might be up tossing and turning as well.

He was vigilant in walking on grass on the way to his front door the next few nights, and went to the doctor to get his wound properly dressed during one lunch break. That weekend, he took command of the stage and even produced some spontaneous spittle to accompany his angry lines on opening night, letting his lips remain wet during the wild silence that electrified the air like a cold front hanging over the audience.

The stock market cooperated that week, as well. Man and nature and society seemed to be colluding on his behalf, and his step was lighter than he remembered in years. Moreover, the dog of Satan had been thwarted by his new and improved stealthy approach to his front door every night.

In fact, he hadn’t seen Mrs. Ardor on her back porch lately, and the dog’s water bowl was missing. Surely, he thought, he would have noticed a moving truck if she had left town?

After work the next day, he decided to walk next door. He had tried to bury the memory of his confrontation with her, but he still felt a pang of remorse whenever he arrived home and saw her shaggy grass.

He rapped his knuckles four times on the wooden door and waited. Again, and he waited. Finally the hinges groaned, and a stunning blonde woman appeared. He guessed she was thirty years old. Her eyes were the color of caramel, and she had the figure of a leading lady. Wearing jeans and a V-neck T-shirt, she stepped onto the front porch, still towering one step above him, and closed the door behind her, as if not wanting his visit to disturb a meeting indoors. This much closer, he could see she had wrinkles around her eyes and was likely closer to forty, only about ten years younger than he was, which made her even more bewitching, more like a real person and not a perfect, unattainable image in a magazine. He caught a glimpse of her bare feet and painted toenails, and he tensed every muscle in his neck to keep his eyes from wandering down her body and making a fool of himself.

“Can I help you?” she said, folding her arms.

“I am George,” he said. “The next-door neighbor. We haven’t met?” He extended his hand. She allowed him to touch her fingers in a half-hearted shake.

“I couldn’t help but notice,” he went on, “that I haven’t been chased off or bitten of late.” He smiled, trying to connect with her, to let her in on an inside joke.

She narrowed her eyes.

“The pit bull.” He tilted his torso like a teapot and lay his hand flat in the air, indicating the height of the wretched canine, which, he realized, was about the same height as a wheelchair.

She was expressionless. She said, “We put Katherine down last week.”

“Katherine,” he said.

“I’m sorry, but I’m in the middle of something.”

“And Mrs. Ardor?”

“She’s staying at Grand Living now. Out of state.” And with a pretend smile that, in George’s mind was accusatory, she closed the door.

Slowly, he walked away, his polished black shoes thwacking the shin-high grass in Mrs. Ardor’s yard. He stopped at the thinned-out crease in the hedge and decided not to squeeze through it but to walk around instead, out of respect. Inside his house, he paused at the armchair, but it seemed too comfortable at a time like this, and he felt compelled to keep walking, so he continued up the wooden staircase to his study and sat in the office chair near the window overlooking the hedgerow and the back porch where Mrs. Ardor used to smoke in the dark.

Katherine, he thought. Not the name of a young girl; it was always shortened to Katie or Kathy for a girl. Katherine was the name of an elegant lady, of a queen. And now a dead pit bull.

Had Mrs. Ardor put Katherine down because of his theatrics at her front door? He put his hand on his forehead, the flesh of his face growing heavy. Was it done because he had shamed her, or because she was so horrified by the thought that her pet was doing such harm without her knowledge? Was it done out of love for him?

He opened one of his scripts and laid it on his desk, trying to occupy his mind. He stared at the pages.

More likely, he thought, she had been teetering on the need for assisted living for some time. He imagined that perhaps her son finally talked her into it, and a casualty of the decision was that Katherine had to go.

Mrs. Ardor in a home for the elderly. When she was his age, she likely never thought the day would come so soon that she would be abandoned by the world. And he had been the one to deliver the final words she would ever hear from a neighbor. He glanced out the window, and in his mind, Katherine still lay in front of her wheelchair, warming Mrs. Ardor’s feet, twitching a fly away, quietly wheezing, a pair of content ladies of the past.

 

Brian McMillan earned his MFA in creative nonfiction writing in 2009 from Northern Michigan University. He is the author of a slim volume of poetry called Winter Walking Home, published in 2010 by March Street Press. Check out his paintings on Instagram @brmcmillan.
 


I was at church one Sunday when a middle-aged man said to a group of men that a neighbor's dog bit him every time he walked past the house.
For some reason, I thought that was hilarious. That night, I wrote a draft of a short story in which I imagined this man as a vulnerable,
stuffy sort of fellow--someone who seems like he belongs in a pre-modern novel. The story came together quickly, and I had one of those great
discovery moments when the main character is walking to Mrs. Ardor's house after the dog disappears. I had no idea who would open the door
until the door opened. That made the story fun to write.




 


 




  


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