A GOOD DECISIONby Tonya K. Dale I know why the dog next door cries at night. He’s the black-and-white mutt, the shaggy prisoner of a fenced-in portico…four feet by four feet. Cement floor. No one is home, usually, where he lives, except for him. And so he talks to himself, and me, and the other neighbors. The man who lives there, with a family of indifferent children and a submissive wife, is unkind. He makes me pull my shades and blinds closed and lock my doors. His face is cold, like that cement floor. Tonight, I listen as the dog tells me his story; he draws me outside in pajamas and a robe of lightweight cotton, not fit for cold, November nights. I stand, silently absorbing his cries deep into my soul, while my body shivers with his. Many months had passed since I last saw the dog in the yard that he could see but rarely touch; I had watched as he pulled the girl walking him in joyful circles, trying to smell every smell, see every sight, and touch every tip of the bright, soft, green grass of summer. I was fearful of joining them to ask the girl for his name and to scratch his soft head; the man had stood nearby, staring vacantly at the dog and the girl. There was no need to see a visible clock to know it was ticking down to the return of the accused to his cell. What crime, I thought, could have left such a mark that a creature so filled with joy at the scent of a blade of grass would only know of hard cement and brick walls. Ironic, I thought, that there is another black-and-white mutt, living next door, with a fenced-in yard and retriever toys, who wants desperately to share his bounty with the dog he can smell but rarely see. The border collie would run back and forth in his yard, whimpering and bouncing at the sight of his neighbor, who doesn’t know what a playmate is. I wanted to see him smell his fur and race back and forth in the sunshine, barking loudly to all who would listen. One dog knew of joy and wanted to share. So did I. I wanted to let the other out of his life, let him run on the damp grass and stir up the fallen leaves that lay everywhere…askew, unruly, inviting. I wanted to watch him play in the sunlight and run with sticks in his mouth. I wanted him to have new stories to tell through no other means than to stare at me with joy for releasing him from iron and neglect. That’s what I want; I think, somehow, that is what the dog wants, too.
***Indifference is a painful blow on cold winter nights. There are many stars shining tonight, but the moon is small; she can’t see him through the glass doors of the breezeway. A dim light is on in an otherwise dark, small house. A car is in the driveway. And a dog is left outside, like the trash can. While a woman next door listens and cries too. Until she walks quickly back in her house, puts on her slippers, and runs downstairs. Outside, in the cold, she stands alone on a wooden deck. There is a crescent moon tonight, small and dim…the kind of moon that invites a poor decision. The cries are softer now, fading; she worries that her fear will make her cry out as well. She walks down the deck stairs without looking, unconcerned with falling. Footsteps are soft upon a million leaves; a small woman in a black robe slips through the night and vows to introduce herself to the only neighbor she hasn’t met. Her back is to the street now; there is only a vague promise of light at the corners of the yard and nowhere to hide should a resident of the house arrive home at this hour. And a dog, now utterly silent, stares at her and has nothing to cry about, while fate has found a willing victim. Latches easily give up their prisoner, and a small black-and-white dog finds joy in the simplicity of space and freedom. He follows her soundlessly, bounding across the driveway and onto the grass. His tail wags in circles; his body is so consumed with joy that direction is meaningless, and sniffing is secondary. And there is no need to cry, at least for him. In the dim light, the dog leaps and races in circles, with no fear of colliding with a tree, or a shed, or the woman who answered his cries. There is no fear, or cold, or pain. They don’t live with him anymore. The woman joins him, jumping and throwing her arms in the air; she thinks of friends who joined her in childhood games of hide and seek and tag in her backyard, and she smiles in the darkness. How long it had been since she had felt such joy! They ran in circles, around the trees, and up to the deck. Oh, the sounds of his paws on the wood! They sounded like horses galloping in a canyon, and the dog fancied himself a stallion, leading a pack of wild horses on a dangerous adventure. He was a dragon, breathing great puffs of smoke in the cool night air, his wings lifting him high above the soft, damp ground to soar over the trees! He dove and leapt just below the stars, dancing to endless music of wind and light. How brave he was, and handsome! Such a dog was he! No other was his equal on this grand and perfect night! He stopped to catch his breath, the cool air filling his lungs, promising him the strength to run for hours. And for the rest of his life, under glorious stars and endless sky, he would be free. Another dog barks in the distance, and the sounds of the night pull gently at them, as the air grows cold and damp. The dog is aware of being spent, of having lived many years in but a few minutes…a crowd of many days and nights, finding itself in a small room. He walked quickly across the deck to stand next to the woman. He knew he would never leave her side. She knelt to stare into eyes whose light was a different color and gently scratched the soft fur between his ears; his breath gently moved her hair in soft, warm bursts. They walked over to the unlocked door, and she turned off the light switch as they entered the kitchen. The dog stood next to her in the dark room, silent, staring at her with an equal respect of the need for caution. The woman gazed down at him, seeing him clearly even in darkness, and she knew she had heard him cry for the very last time. A gentleman joined a lady in her bed that night, and both were changed forever as a result. In time, clarity would lift her gaze away from noble gestures, and she would realize that such “deeds” often landed someone’s name in the paper. And, too, she would realize that she absolutely did not care. Sometimes, she thought, clarity is highly overrated. So is status. The next day, sunlight joined them in a paradise of warmth and soft blankets; sounds were unfamiliar, yet suggested no threat. Sufficient time had passed to discover that a pet was missing, and yet a neighbor’s morning had passed, undisturbed. The woman knew a trip outside with her new beau was unavoidable, and considered hastily written scripts with strange, unfamiliar actors. She didn’t really know what she or her neighbor would do, but the gaze from a dog’s eyes stirs fierce instincts in those who love him. And, because she truly loved him, fierce instincts also stirred hasty decisions. She quickly rose from her bed and donned the robe and slippers she’d worn the night before, when she had committed a crime. To her, they were armor; such was her resolve. The dog followed her quickly down the stairs, across the cold kitchen floor, and out the back door. She didn’t hesitate as the morning cold stirred and wrapped her in its own cloak; she felt nothing but a brave love for this long-neglected dog, and she knew she would fight with all she had to protect him. The neighbor’s house seemed empty, and the car previously parked in front was no longer there. She walked confidently to the door and knocked loudly. The dog had not followed her, stopping timidly as he neared the edge of her property. She turned to glance at him, to ensure his distance, and once again knocked on the glass door. “Yes?” The voice was deep and hollow; she turned to see the man standing at the edge of the garage, glancing from her to the dog and back again. His stare was no longer vacant, and she fancied steel as having more warmth. The slight shiver she felt was lost in the heat of hearing the dog whimper. “I took your dog last night,” she said. “And I am keeping him.” No words. No sound. “He is not a prisoner, and I am not a criminal, and we are going to live here together, next to you and your family. We will stay in our yard, and you will stay in yours.” She knew of men like this, emotionally bankrupt, threatening without a touch or sound. Broken men who could not be fixed; how, she thought, had this man ever found his way to living next to her? And fear began to sting her eyes. “You take my property and then threaten me?” he said, glaring. “I will decide what happens. You are standing at my door, telling me you came onto my property and committed a crime.” “He is not property! Do you hear him? He is crying from nothing more than the sight of you! You have no claim to him now or in the future, and should you threaten us, I will tell the authorities that I’ve heard you beating him. And I will give them evidence!” Shaking, she realized she had channeled the sounds of his cries into her voice. Such unruly children, tears…always bringing you to your knees in the eyes of others. He stared at her, silent, visceral; through her tears, she stared right back. She could not match his physical threat, and the air she desperately needed had long since run away. Two people, one dog, and no options. She suddenly found her voice. “I’m going home, with that dog. And you will tell your children that the dog lives with me now, and they are welcome to come over and see him at any time. You, however, are not.” She turned and walked across the grass to her driveway, aware that this scene had required acting skills she did not possess. The dog shook, and she bent to pick him up as she walked faster to her back door. He whimpered again but licked her cheek as she stepped on the deck and neared the back door. The door with the lock. And the kitchen with the phone. As she sat the dog down on the kitchen floor, she turned quickly to lock the door behind her. The man had not moved, choosing instead to watch her go; she caught his gaze as she locked the door, and from the safety of wood and metal, she did not cringe from his glare. And finally, he appeared to tire of the standoff; he turned, opened his front door, and closed it behind him. And scene, she thought. That’s it. The dog sat at her feet, watching her, and gave a hopeful bark as he sensed the fear finally leave her body. The woman turned and sat down at the small kitchen table, taking deep breaths and clutching the robe closer, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. This young man at her feet was now a part of her family, and she had work to do to make him comfortable. The love she felt for him, however, required no effort at all. From the warmth of a small kitchen, a woman and her new beau shared their first breakfast together, and a warm bed with soft blankets found the perfect spot near her chair. And as night tempted them outside once again, they jumped and danced under new stars, with soft leaves beneath them, and dragons with tails flying high overhead. And a crescent moon that welcomed a good decision.