The pepper spray had arrived in the mail. I planned to be swift and merciless. I was tired of running. I opened the box, removed the canister from the package and read the instructions:
1) Hold can in an upright position. 2) Remove safety and direct spray at the face of an attacker. 3) Spray liberally then run for help.
I felt stirrings of excitement do somersaults in my chest. This could work.
My girlfriend disagreed. She thought I was doing the typical guy thing — which in her parlance meant something incomprehensibly stupid.
“That’s why women outlive men by seven years,” she argued. “That’s why men measure their penis sizes while women are busy raising future world leaders.”
The somersaults stumbled and fell awkwardly.
“Look, I can handle this,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”
“But, if you need exercise,” my girlfriend continued, “isn’t joining a gym better than being bullied every night? Why subject yourself to needless torment?”
“Joining a gym would be a sign of defeat,” I said. “And I refuse to be chased out of my own neighborhood by a scruffy little dog not much bigger than a loaf of bread.”
I had just moved in with my girlfriend; we were even talking marriage. She was recently divorced, and I had been waiting in the wings, so to speak, for what we hoped would be a better relationship. I had hoped for other things, too, such as a toilet seat that didn’t slip when I sat down, but a better relationship was a good start.
I had once ran track and field in college and even won some medals, but those years were behind me. I took an evening walk before bedtime to help keep the middle-aged pudge at bay. And my girlfriend’s neighborhood seemed perfect, with neighbors who were early-to-bed and rarely outdoors. When I perched above their begonias and showered the delicate petals with a gilded stream — when you gotta go, you gotta go — I preferred to remain incognito.
The little dog, however, made my evening walks a thing of dread. The prospect of exercise now meant the terror of a moppy-haired, stubby-legged creature darting out of the shadows with a mouth full of pint-sized razor blades. On several occasions, I tried to punt the little monster toward an imaginary goalpost, but it always scurried away before I could marshal a proper kick.
The wretched animal had even stripped me of my wherewithal to hold an open bottle of beer afterward without trembling, the lager spilling on the floor into wasteful puddles of unrealized inebriation. I had to do something. My pride had become a chew toy for man’s worst friend.
The little dog, however, was not my only problem.
Millie, my fiancee’s nineteen-year-old daughter, hated me as much as I hated the little dog. Ever since I arrived, she had made me feel about as welcome as mononucleosis on prom night. Sadly, using pepper spray on Millie was out of the question — I had checked the legal statutes on that one.
I assumed her resentment had something to do with the extracurricular activity I enjoyed with her mom before the divorce. Millie had once barged into one of our afternoon matinees.
What I needed was to make a better impression on Millie, to do something for her she would never forget. But first, I had to rid myself of the little dog. Millie could wait.
With the canister of pepper spray in tow, I felt armed-and-ready to face my four-legged nemesis. If the miserable mutt went for my ankles, I would wage battle — at least from a comfortable distance.
I inhaled a six-pack of Budweiser to take off the edge — much more satisfying than the time I once inhaled a wasp — and then I was off.
As I headed out the door, my girlfriend’s voice trailed behind. “The Weather Channel says it’s gonna storm!”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” I shouted back. “Meteorological hacks…all of them.”
I heard several padded footsteps coming from the house, and my girlfriend soon appeared in the doorway. With wavy black hair that crashed against her shoulders and soft, plump thighs that beckoned below her oversized t-shirt, she knew full well that if she wiled me with her curves and banter, before long I’d be dragging my knuckles on the floor and speaking in the clacks and grunts of an ancient hominid tongue.
“Millie’s at the movies with her friends tonight,” my girlfriend murmured. “If you skip that dumb walk, we could get some extra snuggle time.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t be long.”
She wrapped her arms around my waist and put her head under the crook of my neck. “That’s okay, honey, size doesn’t matter.”
I pushed her away. “Oh, ha, ha…very funny,” I said, with a trill of sarcasm.
She crowed in amusement and then with a more serious tone, added: “Hey! Don’t you think using pepper spray on a little dog is asking for trouble?”
“But I’m the one that’s bringing the trouble,” I answered, feeling a little irritated. “And I gotta say, the comeuppance will feel real good.”
“Comeuppance?” she said, tilting her head to the side. “It’s just a dog.”
“The neighbor next door said several cats have recently gone missing.”
“That little dog couldn’t do that.”
“He may be little, but he’s Godzilla,” I countered, thinking I was upping the ante.
“Have you tried talking to the owner?”
“He never answers the door. He’s probably a drug dealer.”
My girlfriend rolled her eyes and shifted her tone from voluptuous seductress to a lecturing parent. “Be that as it may, my love, I’m just reminding you that choices have consequences. You don’t have to learn things the hard way.”
“Duly noted,” I said, although I had stopped listening. Tonight would not be another feckless retreat with my tail between my legs.
I began my walk.
Shrouds of mist cast a fuzzy glow on the sleeping row of houses, and something felt different about the night air.
Up one driveway a teenage couple huddled near a garage door and smoked pot. Farther off, a man emerged from the darkness to roll a garbage can out to his sidewalk, only to be swallowed again by the shadows as he retreated.
I heard a car up ahead, and when it raced toward me, I ducked behind a parked sedan. The passing vehicle, however, was only a white pick-up, not the red Corolla. I had reason to fear that Corolla. A week earlier it had cruised into the neighborhood, and from a rolled-down window in the rear, half-eaten discards of fast food were hurled at my head. The car sped away before I could ream their shanks with a satisfying array of profanity.
I continued walking. Scattered leaves stirred to life on the sidewalk. I was getting close to where I often encountered the little dog.
Overhead, menacing clouds seemed positioned to launch an advance. The swirling air, now heavy with moisture and getting colder, formed eddies that shot icy drafts up my pant legs.
I stopped and leered at the sky. If my girlfriend was right, I would never hear the end of it.
Then, as if on cue, it began to rain — an unremitting downpour, like the inundation of the great flood in only a square mile. It was as if God had parted a cloud and pissed in my neighborhood. Within seconds I was drenched and feeling like I was floating in the Lord Almighty’s urinal.
I wasn’t looking forward to the punishing sneer of “I told you so” on my girlfriend’s face, but the rain was now falling like shards of glass. I considered if I should fight my canine windmill another day.
I noticed what appeared to be a scrap of shaggy carpet dumped on the sidewalk ahead. Drawing nearer, though, I ruled out my shaggy carpet theory: this was a clump of wet, matted fur — the remnants of a small animal, laying in a slick of its own blood.
Standing above the dead animal now removed all doubt about its identity: it was the mutilated remains of the little dog.
Now at this juncture in the story, I must admit to making three critical errors in judgment. The first mistake being a tactical miscue of the gravest consequence:
When in immediate danger, never — EVER — give away your position.
To my surprise, I felt genuine compassion for the animal. I kneeled and brushed the hair on the little dog’s head, gently tugging at an ear. When the ear came off in my hand — the EAR! — I stood and shouted at the pathetic creature: “Jesus God! What happened to you?”
My panicky outburst echoed from house to house, zigzagging like electrical sparks from a frayed wire. In response, a minor disturbance emanated from a shadowy patch in the yard across the way, a disturbance that captured my immediate attention.
Staring into the blackness, my head craned forward, my eyes straining to see in the rain, I watched the terrifying mass of an impossibly large dog emerge from the shadow, muscles rippling beneath the taut skin, the corpse of an orange cat hanging in a downward crescent from its mouth.
I stumbled back in horror, barely stopping myself from forgetting everything I had learned about potty training when I was two.
As black as the inside of a grave, the animal could not possibly exist. It was like a dark defector from the mist-shrouded moors of Grimpen Mire, and it didn’t belong — not in this neighborhood at least.
The second of my three mistakes was having butterfingers.
I fumbled in my pocket for the pepper spray, clutched it in my hand, only to let it slip through my grasp and fall into the water gushing through the gutter below.
“No!” I cried, dropping to one knee and plunging my hands into the watery torrent, fingers groping through the muddy flow but not finding the canister.
Meanwhile, the dog had flipped the carcass of the cat onto the grass and was glaring at me with savage intent. With a low, subterranean growl, the animal crept forward, teeth bared, ears pulled back, body poised to strike.
In that desperate moment, blinkered with fear and hating my life because my girlfriend was always right, I began to wonder if there was an afterlife and if they super-sized your fries there. I frantically tallied my choices, but with my last option riding a swift current of debris down the gutter, my craven instincts took charge and seized my brain with the one command that might ensure my survival — run!
Convinced I couldn’t make it back home, I bolted in the opposite direction, hoping to spring onto the hood of a parked car or jump into the ugly dumpster that sat at the corner house. It was like a sprint at the track meet again, but I was twenty years older, and my get-up-and-go had retired to the bleachers to eat a corndog.
The third mistake was a disastrous lack of common sense. The dog was like a primeval interloper from the Jurassic, and you can’t outrun the canine equivalent of T-Rex.
T-Rex snarled with contempt at my cowardly retreat and sprang into action. My plodding attempts to flee were soon in rhythmic counterpoint with the more sure-footed advance of the carnivore, its jagged toenails digging into the asphalt not far behind, the pace quickening with each step.
I veered up an embankment of ground cover adjacent to the sidewalk and scrambled toward a large palm tree on the hill, hoping to use it as a barrier between my opponent and me. The dog soon matched my ascent, consumed by frothy, growling fits.
“You’re not only fuck ugly, you drool on everything!” I wailed.
We shadowboxed on opposite sides of the tree, the dog darting its head round the trunk several times to savagely bite at my extremities, before going for the kill with a lunge and a snap at my throat that just missed the mark. I angrily shot a knee into its muscular chest, knocking it off balance. In a last-ditch attempt, I grabbed onto the hairy trunk of the palm tree and swung my body around, kicking the dog with both barrels and sending it sprawling. I rolled back down the slope and continued my mad scramble.
With the corner house just up ahead and my reserve of do-or-die attempts woefully depleted, I ran several more feet, took a running leap and launched into the air, aiming myself like a missile toward the gaping hatch of the dumpster.
My body ricocheted off the steel wall inside, and I slumped over onto a pile of garbage and lawn clippings. The impact sent shock-waves of muscle-bruising agony across my back and shoulders, and I pulled myself into a fetal position and moaned, heart pumping wildly, lungs gasping, small rivulets of pain coursing everywhere. At that point, I knew I had just bankrolled my chiropractor’s kids through college. For the rest of my life, I’d sound like an accordion when I tried to walk.
Seconds later, the dog arrived in a rush of predatory speed and deadly miscalculation, four galloping legs skidding out of control, limbs flailing madly to avoid a collision — all accompanied by a terrified yelp.
The hapless animal must have struck the dumpster at nearly full throttle. The walls shuddered with a sickening thud of muscle and bone, creating a bell-like tone that reverberated in a comical sonority, a mallet hammering a gong that extemporaneously crashed to the stage.
I listened, too scared to move. Other than my own labored breathing, there was nothing but uncomfortable silence. Either the dog was dead, or it had knocked itself out cold.
The rain had slowed to a trickle, and I felt a sudden urge to pee. Sitting up, I looked around.
The dumpster was several layers deep in clippings, pruned branches, and what looked like the decaying body of a dead possum in the farthest corner. The arresting aroma of the rotting animal had just begun to invade my senses when the metallic jangle of a door opening came from the house.
A hushed tone of voices became more audible as they drew nearer. Embarrassed by my predicament, I kept quiet and listened.
“What is it, Dad?” a boy muttered.
“I thought I heard something in the yard.”
A patter of footsteps slowly approached the dumpster, followed by a gasp.
“Dad! Look at the big dog.”
“Stand back,” the father said.
I heard someone nudge the body of the inert animal. I cringed at the thought of the canine assassin arousing from its slumber to massacre the father and son while I helplessly listened. Instead, something more terrifying happened:
“He’s dead, son. Must have been hit by a car and kicked up into the yard. I don’t want your little sister to see this. Help me lift the body into the dumpster.”
At near light speed, I estimated the inside of the dumpster was roughly eight-feet long by five-feet wide. Within seconds, the one-hundred-fifty-pound dog that had chased me four blocks and had almost torn my face off would soon be occupying the same space with me — a space that seemed infinitesimally cramped, like an outhouse in a flea circus.
I silently screamed into my brain — get the fuck out! — and with both hands grasping the edge of the dumpster, flung myself over the side and rolled onto the ground, stopping at the feet of my new acquaintances. They looked down at me in disbelief.
The father reminded me of a praying mantis wearing faded denims and a ratty t-shirt — the son his smaller counterpart. They both viewed me with bug-eyed suspicion.
“Would you mind telling me what you were doing in my dumpster?” the father finally asked.
“Do you see that dog over there?” I said, gazing up at them. “Well, it just tried to make a late-night snack out of me.”
The father shot a spindly arm down to hoist me up. I pulled a penlight from my pocket and trained it on the body of the dog, which remained motionless.
“Have you ever seen that ugly beast around here before?” I asked the father.
“It could be the Cunningham’s Rottweiler,” the father said, wrapping a bony hand around the back of his neck. “They live just up the street. They had wanted a guard dog to ward off burglars.”
“Well, midnight prowler was apparently on the menu tonight,” I said.
Somewhere in the distance, coming from a house several blocks away, the voice of an elderly male intervened. “Cuddles!…Cuddles!…Here, boy!”
None of us made a sound.
Something stirred in the yard near us, rustling the grass as it moved. I trained the penlight on where the body of the dog had rested: it was gone. I stiffened and awaited the inevitable attack from the animal.
“Look!” the boy cried out.
The large Rottweiler was now trotting up the sidewalk to his expectant master, his tail wagging, his once ferocious growl now an excited little whimper that, in different circumstances, might have been thought adorable.
My strange journey was now in the rear-view mirror. The curtain had drawn. Finis.
Yes, I was soaked, soiled, and stinking of dead possum, but my limbs were intact, and I still owned a face. The idea of going home to snuggle with my girlfriend now felt like the balmy bliss of being in the womb again. I needed that.
I turned to my acquaintances with a smile. “Well, gentlemen, it’s been one helluva evening, but mostly hell.”
The father smiled and stepped forward to shake my hand. Then his eyes widened, and he backed away as if he feared I might puke on his shoes.
Too exhausted for further alarm, I drooped my shoulders and uttered under my breath, ”Now what?”
I turned in time to watch someone hurl a burrito from a red Corolla that idled in the street. The half-eaten projectile struck me square in the forehead, the refried beans and cheese still warm and bubbly on my face.
This time I was angry — I really hated Mexican food.
I bent down, seized the remnants of the burrito and heaved the gloppy mass in a spiraling arc that caught the accelerating vehicle as it banked around the corner of the street, the burrito splattering against the rear windshield, leaving a long greasy smear as it slid down the glass.
Upon impact, the Corolla screeched to a halt, idling for several dramatic seconds before reversing direction. With another screech of its tires, it came roaring back. But I was already sprinting down the sidewalk. Somehow, I had grown accustomed to running away from things.
I had made it halfway down the street, reaching a side road that jutted up a steep incline, when the Corolla, picking up speed, swerved to the right, jumped the curb, and smashed into a garbage can, the contents tumbling out ahead of me.
“Sweet Mary Joseph!” I found myself shouting.
I leaped over the debris undeterred and veered up the hill, which I knew would end in a cul-de-sac. But that was my strategy. Instead of continuing the ascent, I ducked into the first yard I encountered and ran to the gate of the fence, where I lifted the latch and hurried into the backyard.
The yard was pitch black, and the house itself looked abandoned. I listened to the engine of the red Corolla as it continued up the street, eventually sputtering to a stop somewhere.
With jagged breath and my heart still running a track meet, I relaxed my shoulders, dangled my arms, and exhaled through pursed lips. At that moment, the shroud of blackness in the backyard felt safe, even inviting. It was the first minute of peace I had experienced since I started the walk.
The rain had finally stopped, and the foliage dripped from the earlier storm. I counted each droplet that struck a leaf — a momentary escape from reality. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the deranged occupants in the red corolla: What had I done to them? I didn’t want to find out. I had to keep moving.
Warily, with knees quivering and arms outstretched, I staggered forward into the darkness, one wobbly step at a time, feeling like a blind beggar or Karloff’s mummy. I hadn’t stumbled more than ten feet before I toppled headfirst into the deep end of a swimming pool.
Being submerged in icy black water was disorienting, and I thrashed around for several anxious moments before fighting my way to the surface, where I immediately detected it was not a well-tended pool.
The water seemed mired in a festering ooze of debris, a noxious slick that had once been leaves, dead rodents, and other nameless filth, but was now a buoyant, fetid mass — and I was bobbing up and down in it, a turd in a toilet.
As I paddled to the side, still overcome by waves of revulsion, I harbored a disquieting fear of bumping up against something human, like the body of a dead pool man — whose drowning would have been justified, considering the appalling mess in the pool.
Standing on the rock patio, I assessed the damage: a sliver of light from a nearby streetlamp revealed a layer of black sludge now hung on me like a suit made from sewage. I tried shaking myself the way wet dogs do after a bath, but the feculent goo seemed determined to remain a part of my attire.
I collapsed on the patio, exhausted. I had given up extra snuggle time for this?
My state of disbelief was at Defcon 1. Hemorrhoid flare-up, root canal, being at the mercy of an over-zealous proctologist: these all seemed like petty torments compared to the evening I was having.
“Choices have consequences,” my girlfriend had said. And boy had she been right. The proverbial tail was between my legs, and I had been schooled by the half-witted machinations of my stupid male pride.
I got up and inched toward the rear fence of the yard. Perhaps I could quietly enter the property that faced another street, outfox my pursuers, and go home with a little dignity.
I climbed onto the fence to take a look and was immediately countered by an explosive force that jumped up from the other side, unleashing a battery of vicious snarls and grumbles. I fell backward onto the ground; my face a contorted expression of dumb surprise.
Now I knew where Cuddles lived.
“Terrific! I’m still in this roach motel of a backyard,” I drizzled sarcastically, scolding myself out loud.
Responding to my voice, Cuddles seemed driven by a primordial rage. He began to wallop the shit out of the fence with such violence I feared the pickets and railings might give way.
With each impact, I imagined an insane sequence of slow-motion photography where, one by one, Cuddle’s concussive blows splintered the wood posts like matchsticks, incinerated the nails with the heat of his fury, and willed the galvanized screws to slowly reverse themselves, turning round and round till they backed out of the wood and fell into a worthless heap on the ground. At that instant, the fence would simply disassemble itself as if it had never been constructed at all.
I made the prudent decision to get the hell out of the backyard.
I crept along the side of the house and peered over the front fence: the red Corolla was parked and ready, its occupants presumably awaiting my reappearance.
A young girl stood outside the Corolla smoking a cigarette, pacing back and forth. Her door was ajar, and the cab light in the vehicle betrayed something of even greater interest: the car was occupied by three other females.
I bit my lip so hard it almost spouted a geyser.
Gone were the violent gang members I had imagined chasing me; gone were the drunken linebackers from the high school football team; gone were the sadistic prison inmates that had climbed over the wall looking for hostages. In their place: a giggling gaggle of college girls.
After the girl returned to the car, my mind reeled. Just who did these hellions think they were? Didn’t they have boyfriends to lord over? Didn’t they have legal guardians to keep them chained in the basement?
A lesson needed to be taught. I was feeling just unhinged enough to mount a proper counterinsurgency.
Again, at this juncture in the story, I must instruct on the importance of avoiding critical errors in judgment. These range from the child that burns himself on the stove to the drunk that crashes his car into a police station — and I had done both. But this clanging gaffe would put me in the hall of shame of colossally stupid decisions.
I crawled over the fence, crouched down, and watched from the shadows until I was ready — then I made my move, liberated from my earlier fears.
I must have looked terrifying to those girls as I charged toward their car, screeching like something from a recently unearthed grave and covered in that black shit from the pool — my eyes, wild and maniacal, just two white cut-outs in the filthy sludge.
Soon Dirk Diggler was out of my pants, and it was like watering my neighbor’s begonias again. I blasted the Corolla with a hot stream of urine, the muffled shrieks from the girls inside only encouraging further dousing. I sloshed the windshield, the side doors, the mirrors. Before long the entire car was slathered in piss.
I embraced my victory by stomping around the vehicle like a Viking flaunting his debaucheries. The valorous virtues of my masculinity had been vindicated — or so I thought.
Inside the car, everyone was still screaming save for one girl who sat in the backseat, rigid and magisterial, as if she were presiding over a courtroom. She glared at me with baleful eyes that seemed horribly familiar. When I wiped the sludge from my face to look closer, I realized my indictment was complete: the girl with the baleful eyes was Millie.
With the rain dance officially over, Dirk Diggler now dangled limply from my pants like a busted slinky, and all I could do was gape at Millie dumbly. Her hateful visage left me feeling like a sleazy neon sign. I tried saying her name, but my speech was slurred. Sure, that previously inhaled six-pack of Budweiser had left me a little sobriety-deprived, but that was no excuse for my vengeful exhibition. I felt nauseous. My chest grew tight; my chin began to quiver.
Millie then revealed a sly little grin — a wickedly evil grin — that stretched across her face like a funeral procession. She was pointing an iPhone camera at me — and probably had been the entire time.
She then mouthed a frightening two-syllable word: F A C E B O O K.
And just like that, my fifteen minutes of fame had been assured.
The video immediately went viral and played on multiple online services. A local news station even ran an expose on “How to Stop Neighborhood Degenerates from Urinating on Your Children.”
Unbelievably, my girlfriend forgave me for my incomprehensible stupidity — to use her parlance. In my defense, she told the judge I had just made a horrible mistake, but I was still an upstanding human being — as long as I lived across the state line.
Our neighbors were less tolerant, however, and they frequently circled the property, carrying signs, shouting profanity, and brandishing garden shears.
Sadly, the judge wasn’t as tolerant as I had hoped. I’m now doing time in the county correctional facility where I’ve received unwanted attention from the perverts in my cell block.
It’s on those nights that I miss the little dog the most. It’s on those nights — when my cellmate has me pinned against the cot and his heaving buttocks bobs perpendicular in a rhythmic fury — that I find myself wondering…
For the love of God and all things holy, why didn’t I join a gym?