The next morning, as Nancy got ready to leave for work, she put into David’s hand a small tear-shaped device, plastic, possibly a remote.
She loved her dog. As long as he behaved.
“What’s this?” asked David.
Nancy smiled in the bright way that David had come to find repellent. “So, David. If he starts going crazy again, which I don’t he think he will, you just press that button.” She saw his confusion. “The big one.”
“I don’t get it.” The button looked ordinary: gray, oblong, denoting the harmless functionality of opening a garage door or pausing a DVD.
Nancy laughed. “God, what a city boy! It’ll zap him.”
“I put a collar on him,” Nancy said, pointing at Swat. “If he gets out of control, just zap him, zap him quickly. That’ll quiet him down. And he’ll learn!”
Nancy’s voice had risen to an aspirational level. The dog would learn something!
“I don’t want to hurt him,” said David, unable to look at her, his 48-year-old boy to Nancy’s 28-year-old woman.
“Oh, it won’t hurt him, David! It will just make him learn that he can’t cry while he’s in his cage.” His cage, she said. His home. As though Swat had chosen his fate, chosen his home.
David hesitated. He briefly played with the notion that Nancy was joking. Nancy didn’t know Swat, David thought, not really, even of she wanted to believe she did. David didn’t know Swat, either. Nobody knew what Swat thought or wanted. David hadn’t even known Sam the cat, although David was pretty sure there was darkness there in Sam’s prowling heart, his heart that always schemed, that drove their endless battle of wits, a heart that never stopped fascinating David. Nancy caught David’s expression. The cloud passed across her face, and David, channeling Swat, became afraid of Nancy. This hadn’t been the first time a woman scared him. At the first hint of wrath, he would disentangle carefully and cautiously while trying hard not to hurt feelings in the wake of his fleeing. But he felt the exhaustion now of battling Nancy. In his head he called her Darth Cheney’s daughter, and he’d even rehearsed the line. But instead he told her that OK, he’d do it if the situation required it. He’d zap Swat.
Nancy kissed David. Her weight pressed on him; the smell of wool on a chilly morning, and some sweat, too, because nobody here bathed more than a few times a week. David didn’t mind. Actually, it thrilled him. It always took a few weeks to get the New York out of him, a few weeks before he learned how to relax, before he’d wear the same shorts or t‑shirt for a couple of days, before he skipped showers in the morning, before he stopped combing his hair and instead ran his fingers through it.
After she drove off, he crouched in front of Swat’s cage. Swat peeped out, mustering a well-rehearsed woefulness.
“Look, buddy. I know you hate it in there. I know Nancy’s a total, controlling bitch. If it were up to me I’d let you out in a second. Right now. But I can’t. It’s not my fault. You’re not my dog.” Swat looked at him silently. David rose and went to his office. He tried to read through some research but he couldn’t retain anything. He reread each PowerPoint slide but nothing stuck. What David was doing instead of pretending to read was praying. He didn’t pray often. And when he did pray it involved eliminating an awkward moment. He never prayed for world peace, for example. Or a cure for cancer. Or for something closer to home, like if he had some terrible pain in his arm or stomach. That’s what pills were for. But when confronted by an embarrassing situation, or a situation that called for some kind of intervention — that’s when David prayed. To be transported instantly somewhere else, for example. Like when his dad once made a scene at the airport. What he prayed for now was for a quiet, obedient Swat, because otherwise David would be faced with a choice he didn’t want to make. And so far, the praying had worked. For the first hour, no sounds came from the porch. We broke him, David thought. Swat got the message. The relief was of the unsettled kind, the kind not entirely earned.
The quiet continued into the late morning. David managed to read and process a few dozen PowerPoint slides. He stretched in his chair and breathed therapeutically. It was almost lunchtime. He had plans to go on an afternoon hike with a friend. He remembered why he spent summers here. He reveled for a moment in his home ownership. Contentment settled on him. It was as though there had never been a problem to begin with. Nancy had been right, after all, David thought, and he felt a sharp affection and yearning for her. He wanted to have sex with her outside on the grass, so he could see the sun on those blonde pubes, burning a hole in his eyes. Sure, she had that kind of stubborn optimism that annoyed him, but stubborn optimism sometimes paid off.
A minute later came the wail — not of a child, but of a mother who had just lost her child. It grew from something small — a breath filling a cup — to a room-full of air and sound. For the first time, the cage rattled. Then came the rapid, angry barking that told David that Swat was finished. Done with the jail. Done with the jackboot of human adults. David, in a jab of self-pity, hung head to sternum and sighed his unhappiness. But there was no one to hear it, and David stood and swiped the zapper off the desk. He stopped and took his phone, too.
Standing at one end of the porch, David faced the cage at the other end, where the white floor of old planks listed to one side. On seeing him, Swat, his face surprised and anxious, strenuously nodded and encouraged David to step forward and release him. Instead, David called Nancy.
“It’s David. He’s going crazy again.”
“Well, you have to use the shocker.”
“I don’t know if I can do it. It feels very wrong, Nancy!”
“Look, you have to. He needs to learn.” This time when she said it, learn, it came out the way it should have come out the first time, and for what it really was — a punitive action by a deranged headmistress.
“Do it! It’s for Swat’s good.”
David held out the zapper, pointing it at Swat. “Okay, you sure about this?”
“David, press the button.”
For some reason probably related to television-watching in his youth, David expected to hear a piezoelectrical buzzing. But the only sound that came from that cage was a dog’s scream, drawn out like a strand of spaghetti pulled slowly from a pot. The zapping had achieved the opposite effect. David held up the phone. “You here that? It’s not working.”
“Just do it again.”
So David pressed the button again. Swat screamed and now all four corners of the cage found the air. “Ah, shit,” said David.
“He’s shaking the cage like crazy.”
“Just keep doing it until he stops. He’s got to learn!”
Then the impossible happened. Or the impossible as far as David understood cage technology. This cage didn’t follow the unsigned law stipulating that dog cages should contain the dogs no matter what. Somehow rage and pain, in sufficient quantities, could do what mere whining and whimpering could not. So the door broke open, and by broke David saw that this meant that the cheap piece-of-shit grate shot off its cheap-shit hinges. Out of the wreckage, still crying bitterly, and coming directly for David, the dog Swat.
In the one-and-a-half seconds between Swat’s escape and his contact with David, David noted the brutishness of Swat’s snout. How it pulsed, and again how it was so much like a horse’s desperate, pumping breath — pure animal. Until then, in David’s personal zoological classification system, there were animals and there were dogs and cats. Why David had made this distinction, he couldn’t say. He knew he would never make the distinction again.
When Swat hit, David fell to the floor. Swat had had plenty of room to maneuver, but chose to ram David instead of passing around him into the house. David hit the floor flat and hard: his head, torso, and legs slammed onto the planks at the same time. It hurt, of course. Shocked, David didn’t get up. He could hear from somewhere inside the house the dog Swat galloping into furniture, still howling, tossing lamps off side tables, and discarding however many years of the earnest training Nancy had invested in him. Though Swat was already a big dog, he sounded even bigger in his angry thundering. David remained on the floor. It made little sense, but he wanted Nancy to come home and find him like that, prone, injured, even better with a couple of bloody bite wounds. In his hand he still clutched the zapper. He wondered if Swat would remember this. David lay on the floor, aching, but he still didn’t get up.