The Dog Burial
We all gather—high noon, just like in the movies—for the dog burial. Light is suffusing like water into a hole. It’s hot, cauldron-like, there’s no wind anywhere. Even the birds have quit the power lines. Under the big oak we’re so many that it might be a federal holiday. Mr. Miller and Mr. O’Henry have been set in aluminum lawn chairs, the Foleys are talking with Lynn Smith, the Cooks are here, the Baumgartners, the Doyles, Kate-Ann. The dog is lying wrapped in a flannel sheet in the grass; the kids don’t know where to look. The younger ones are looking at the dog in the sheet. They’re so still, they’re of place. All the grown-ups are crossing their arms and making sheepish faces at one another; however silly the burial, it is sad about Josephine. Mr. Miller gets some of the kids close and jaw-quakes something quiet at them. The kids go in a silent march through the fence to Mr. Miller’s yard and come back with daylilies, zinnias, bunches of wilting coneflower, strands of purple phlox. We’re so moved by the sight of them, hugging the flowers so close to their chests. It has the look of a First Communion.
Mike Foley steps forward and we all hush. He thanks us, jokes that it looks like it could be a federal holiday. Under his eyes the skin is taut and the color of liver and his hair is flat and string-like on his head. He has only just finished digging the hole. “This looks like it could be a funeral for the mayor!” he jokes. He wipes his face. Just then the Scanlons come through the fence with their big hound dog, who bounds over to Josephine and starts sniffing under the sheet. We all make clucking noises until Mr. Cook finally tugs him away by the collar. “It’s okay. He’s just missing his old friend,” Mike Foley says at the Scanlons’ apologies. He says this with such sagacity that we’re all impressed. The hound dog goes under the porch where the Foleys keep their bikes and where dead things sometimes turn up.
All over again, Mike Foley starts the burial. He makes a joke very similar to the one about the federal holiday. The kids are all still, some of us stand behind them with our hands on their shoulders, moving them a little side to side like we’re trying to keep them warm. The sun fits now between every leaf in the oak tree. Mike Foley is saying, “When Thomas and Peyton told me they wanted to do this…” His wife is trying to catch the Scanlons’ eyes so they can pull their hound dog out from beneath the porch; just this morning, Lynn Smith saw her lay a dead mouse there. “But it makes sense, because Josie was a special dog.” Although we all consider Mike Foley one of the most handsome men in the neighborhood, he often runs out of things to say. Sometimes he will begin talking from nowhere about his time at the University of Minnesota. If he is talking to Kate-Ann or to Mrs. Doyle, he will anxiously and even involuntarily begin to flirt. We start to wonder what he might say next, now that the time has come.
“Thomas? Peyton? Do you want to say something about Josie?” This makes Mike Foley seem both weak and very tender. Peyton and Thomas Foley are exceptionally good at all of the games that the neighborhood kids like to play. We all secretly want our children to show the same promise, except Peyton is now nine years old and taller than the rest and she has taken this summer to challenging the smallest Baumgartner boy to foot races only so she can gloat at him afterwards. It has been a gratifying and new habit in our homes to suggest that Peyton might be a bully. Thomas’ eyes have stayed a remarkable and clear blue, like his mother’s. The Foley kids are so quiet it’s like they’ve been yelled at.
“I’m sure,” says Mrs. Foley, “that Josie would love if Thomas told the story of the first time they met.” Thomas has on a white overlarge t-shirt that makes his arms look tan and skinny as wheat stalks. He’s so still, he’s looking at the hole, it’s like he doesn’t even know we’re all here. “Josie was the best dog,” he finally says. His voice is flute-like and piping. “She loved to go outside and say hello to the people on the street.”
We all laugh knowingly at this, Mrs. Doyle even wipes her eye. The hum of a jet plane cuts diagonal across the sky then. Mrs. Foley is so proud that she feels she must hide it. Somehow, this makes the whole thing more indecent. Mike Foley has stepped to the side and is rubbing the end of his shirt against his forehead. He has not heard a word his son has said. The sweat keeps coming on. The dirt in the hole is like ash by now.
Mrs. Foley seems to have forgotten about Peyton. “If anyone wants to say something…” she suggests. She is looking at us now. We all wonder what Mrs. Foley expects—the burial is only to indulge the kids, after all, and if we get to speaking then it would become something other. Somewhere a lawn mower starts. The noise ebbs like wax. We listen, we look off at certain chosen points, all is very still, we’re asking ourselves if we should speak, who might speak, what we might say.
Under the porch, the hound dog has gone terrifically quiet.
In truth, the Foleys had been such inadequate dog owners that some of us suspect Josephine might be better off. We had discussed and anticipated her death for so long, in fact, that its eventual peacefulness even left us feeling cheated. Kristen Johnson—who, in a sort of protest, is still at home—often confides that she expects each morning to find Josephine dead in the street. This is because Mrs. Foley does not allow Josephine to sleep indoors. She sleeps beneath the maple tree, either in the grass or on the sidewalk or a foot or even two feet into the road. Because of this, Josephine would get fleas. We could see them around her eyes and on her pink stomach and in the bare part if we lifted up her tail. Once, Kristen Johnson sprayed Josephine with a hose and scrubbed her back. The water that came off was gray and full of little teeming polka dots.
In winter we found this more absurd and almost cruel. Each December, Mike Foley would spend a whole afternoon building a sort of igloo out of the snow at the sides of the driveway. He would line the insides with tarps and worn blankets and extra floor mats from his car. Mike Foley made jokes as he did this, but grimaced if he didn’t see us watching. This is where Josephine would sleep. Our kids visited Josephine in the igloo and said it got warm and damp from the dog heat. Worse than the winters were the early springs when the igloo would melt slowly around Josephine. It was like she was sleeping in a burn pit.
If the Foleys had been otherwise perfect, then we would have called the humane society simply out of spite. But nothing has ever suggested that the Foleys are any wealthier or happier than the rest of us: Mike Foley and Mrs. Foley are not overly in love with one another, their daughter is becoming a bully, and their car is the same model as the Baumgartners’. Besides, Mike Foley lost his job at a golf equipment supplier five or six years ago after he took home several sets of new clubs. Mr. Cook also works at the golf equipment supplier; he had been the one to catch Mike Foley at it. For the sake of things, they both have tried to forget about this. They have even golfed together. Mike Foley still uses the new clubs that he took home.
We never called the humane society or the dog shelter because the Foleys are not otherwise perfect. Some nights in the summer Lynn Smith would see Mrs. Foley hitting Josephine with a rolled-up magazine to shoo her out of the kitchen. Mrs. Foley is an administrator at a school for children with dyslexia and executive function disorder. She is often quiet but so warm and attentive when we speak with her that we often wonder if she is embarrassed of her own kindness. Because of this quality, she excels at asking wealthy alumni for donations. Some days Josephine had no water so she would go through the fence and drink from Mr. Miller’s goldfish pond. Then, she would lie down and act like she was watching the goldfish. This made the dog seem very plaintive, like a sad child or a veteran.
All of this obliged us to become more and more fond of Josephine and also more certain that she would die a painful death. A few years ago, Dan Little hit Josephine with his car as he drove to work one morning. We all thought we had finally inherited something inevitable. It was autumn, there were wet leaves in the gutters. In a few months Dan Little would be dead of colon cancer. That morning, he went out with his bad leg and pretended to rake his lawn. He would tell any of us who passed about hitting Josephine, and then he would apologize. In various ways, we all told him, “It had to happen.” Like something in the stars. But that night Josephine was there sleeping beneath the maple tree, one of her back legs wrapped up, the house quiet with no lights. When, in the spring, the ambulances and the firetruck came for Dan Little, it was like Josephine had outsmarted him.
Since then, some of us got to feeding her kibble from our pockets, or Milk-Bones if we had them. Josephine was a black dog. She had big dark eyes, prone to goo, and ears that hung in perfect triangles like the sails of a ship. As she got older, her skin folded softly around her neck and her belly. A shelf of hard gray crust, like barnacles, came out along her brow. Again and again, the details of this dog’s life made us cross the road and let her bury her blockish head into our crotches. It got so that some nights, cold nights in October and November, we would send our kids sneaking over to open the Foleys’ back door and let Josephine into the mudroom. “Josephine, Josephine,” we would click our tongues and coo, each of us singing her name in rounds as we passed, each of loving and pitying and loathing the dog for all she said about our neighborhood. “She makes it look like we live in a slum,” Kate-Ann said just a month ago, and then she sweetly rubbed the bottoms of Josephine’s ears, breaking—for a moment—the crazed circles that the blowflies drew around the dog.
“Could be the moonlight,” Kristen Johnson thought to herself last night as she looked out her dining room window. “But Josie looks still as anything.”
Now the moment is passing. It all remains very still. We’re blinking into the sunlight, the sun is full and solid like poured concrete. This light is so fecund it can turn the oak leaves gold. Peyton begins to cry, her cheeks turn into ugly knotted whorls. She takes her mother’s hand; this motion relieves us of the expectation that one of us might say something. As if on cue, the hound dog comes out. He’s holding something gently in his teeth and we all pretend not to notice, even the Scanlons. “Well…” At first it seems like Mike Foley doesn’t want to pick up Josephine. He asks his wife if she will need the blanket that the dog is wrapped in. Later, when we talk about the burial, this is something we will joke about. In Mike Foley’s lean arms the bundled dog could be anything, a bag of dirt, his groceries, a baby, they could be the blankets and the rags with which he will line Josephine’s igloo come winter. But there in the hole—the cut grass and the clods of dirt, the fleshy roots, the depths—it is only Josephine; this is something we have imagined so many times.
At last the kids throw their flowers down onto Josephine. This is when the dog burial ends, when Mr. Miller notices at last that Thomas had gone into his greenhouse and picked one of his pink orchids. Mr. Miller’s whole face is astir. He decides in that moment that he will bring this up to the Foleys every day until they offer to pay him money, which he will then decline. Tonight, Lynn Smith will watch him go through the fence, working his jaw like the two halves don’t fit together, and start talking to Mrs. Foley. Mrs. Foley will have been arranging seashells—hooked mussels, blood arks, false angel wings—on the circle of new-turned dirt. But Lynn Smith will have to wait until tomorrow morning to describe this scene to us. We will have all left the dog burial in twos and threes to spend the burnt-out long afternoon in our yards and home offices and carpeted basements, unable to quite shake the feeling of something having passed; we will want a slow evening with our families, and something will pull us out onto our back patios early to light our grills, propane and charcoal, all that smoke going up in plumes and drafts and turrets to meet and hang and turn the sky over the quiet street to violet.
Garth Robinson grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Roanoke, VA. He is an MFA candidate at Hollins University.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021