It’s my day off. I’m writing on my laptop when my dog bounds into my lap and starts licking my face.
“What do you want now?” I ask.
Buster looks at me, panting expectantly.
“Dog park?” I ask. “You want to go play?”
Buster emits a low growl. That’s “yes” in his particular language.
I put Buster on a leash, grab my coat and keys, and head out the door. The park is a short walk away. I need the exercise.
The weather is sunny and pleasant. The dog park will be full. That’s good. There’ll be plenty of dogs for Buster to chase. My dog is small but someone forgot to tell him that. He mixed it up with a Rottweiler once. Buster likes to write checks his body can’t cash.
As we head toward the park Buster whimpers, straining expectantly on the leash. This is his favorite part of the day. Come to think of it, it’s mine too.
As I expected the park is packed. The place is teeming with dogs and owners of all shapes and sizes. As I walk through the gate I see the Russian woman making baby talk to her poodle. A couple of young guys are talking about football as their dogs playfully slug it out. An old man and woman hold hands as they watch their Italian Greyhounds prance gingerly around the fracas, as if somehow they’re above it all.
I walk inside the gate and let Buster off his leash. Suddenly I hear a dog cry out in pain. I turn my head towards the noise. A man is holding a puppy by the scruff of its neck and shaking it violently.
My vision tunnels. I’m aware of nothing else.
“What the fuck are you’re doing!” he yells at the dog, “What the fuck!”
The man throws the dog on the ground hard. Then he kicks it.
The dog whimpers in pain and rolls on its back. The man goes to kick it again.
“HEY! STOP KICKING THE GODDAMN DOG!” I hear a voice roar.
The man stops mid kick and looks at me. With a shock, I realize it’s me who’s yelling.
“YOU SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH!” the man screams.
Our eyes lock. I suddenly have a vision of me kneecapping this asshole with a tire iron, kicking in his teeth, and asking him how he likes it. An immense wave of anger erupts inside my chest and my vision clouds red. Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.
But some part of my brain, conditioned by years working in mental hospitals, reasserts itself. There was something in that man’s scream. Something brutal and stupid, something fearsome and ugly, that makes me pause. My vision untunnels. I become aware of the fact that the guy I yelled at is 6’3, 280 pounds, and built like a brick shithouse.
The man continues to stare at me. Suddenly I realize I’m no match for this guy. Suddenly I realize I’m afraid. The dog of war slips its tail between its legs and runs away.
I’m breathing hard. The man eyeballs me. He’s processing his options too. Everything hinges on his response. If he comes after me, I’m running. If he catches me, well, then I have to go down a road I don’t want to go.
The man grunts and walks away. Thank God.
I stand by the gate, shaking with unexpressed fury. I consider going home. I’ve seen enough animals for one day.
But then I reconsider. I’m not letting some Cro-Magnon meathead run me off. Fuck him. I walk onto the field.
Cro-Magnon regards me idly. Not being a complete idiot I walk over to the far side of the park. A cluster of people walk over to me.
“You all right?” the Russian woman asks.
“Dude,” one of the football guys says, “That guy’s fucking huge.”
“I noticed that.”
“What an asshole,” another man says, “I saw him do that to his other dog a few months ago.”
“Jesus,” I exclaim, “He’s done this before?”
“Yeah he lifted his dog over his head and threw it on the ground.”
I look over where Cro-Magnon is sitting. He’s puffing on a cigarette and yelling into his cell phone. “
Buster scampers up to me. He’s got a new friend. Of course, it’s the puppy Cro-Magnon was kicking. It is a pit bull/
I hold out my hand. The dog licks it. I look into its eyes and I feel mine threaten to tear up. I want to bundle him up and put him in my car. But I can’t. I clamp down my emotions. You can’t save everyone or everything.
I give the dog a pat on the head and he runs off.
“Any idea why the guy was so angry?” I ask.
“I think his dog bit him,” one of the young guys answers.
I laugh ruefully. “If I was his dog I’d bite him too.”
“He was disciplining his dog,” another guy says.
“There are better ways to discipline a dog,” a woman counters.
“Whatever,” the guy says.
Cro-Magnon becomes aware that everyone is staring at him. After what seems like an eternity, he leashes his puppy up, gets into his car, and drives away.
“Well,” I say, “That’s that.”
“Jerk,” a man says.
“World’s full of ‘em” I reply.
“You’re lucky it ended there,” the man says, “He looks like he’d enjoy hurting you.”
“But you made him think,” the man chuckles.
“Maybe I did.”
We return to watching our dogs play. Buster sees a German Shepard four times his size and attacks. The Shepard doesn’t know what to make of him and runs away. Buster skids to a halt and does a little victory dance. He’s king of the hill. I have to keep an eye on him. One day he’ll tangle with the wrong dog.
It’s true what they say. Dogs become like their owners.
And I have to be more careful.