by Brian Cox
I’m talking about this terrible time when I realized what I had to do. This one moment I came down on a side I’d fought long and hard against considering. This dreadful, deciding second when I conceded there could not be a compromise. It was an instant like the instant you grasp you’re in love, and it broke my heart.
This time I’m telling of is about five months ago. We go and return from a shower for the baby we’re having in the new year. In the car home I say to her, “How you feelin’?”
She says, “Tired.”
I tease, “Then you wouldn’t mind if I took all your clothes off and took you to bed?”
She says, “How ’bout we put the baby stuff away first. It’ll take five minutes.”
“How ’bout we put the baby stuff away in the morning?” I say.
She says, “Are you kidding? You barely wake up in time to take out the dog.”
I can’t argue with that so I let it go. I want to say things don’t have to be different just because we’re having a baby, Cheryl, but I don’t because it’s clear she believes everything’s changed. She sees then and now and there is a sharp bold line dividing the two into distinguishable eras. I drive the rest of the way home in silence, watching the skyline of Chicago take shape and then wonder at the dark moody lake as we head north up Lakeshore Drive. The weather out over the water is shifting for a storm.
When we get home, I unload the car of new baby things I never even knew existed and then I walk the dog.
The shattered glass everywhere on the pavement makes me nervous he’ll cut his feet. It’s dusk and warm and people are out. The past week has been nothing but a depressing lid of clouds and, in the weatherman’s words, the threat of rain. I lead the dog across the street to the large park that is the front of an enormous high school that resembles a penitentiary. He raises a leg and pisses against the stone wall that separates the park from the street. A pack of children play not far away. One blonde girl in black shorts and a blue T-shirt swings a stick as if it were nunchucks.
I watch them and Manhattan because he does not like children who run or shout or make quick movements, which means most. I do not want any of them to get too close, and I tighten my grip on his leash. He pays them no mind, but I do not let them out of my mine.
I named him Manhattan because a big dog should have a big name. He came from a litter of border collie and Irish setter mutts boxed up and abandoned at the animal shelter. He has the black and white markings of a border collie and the lean hips, long snout, and shaggy coat of a setter. He is a hybrid beauty. Everyone remarks on his looks, though I discourage strangers from petting him.
He sniffs along the base of the wall, widening his circle as he looks for a place to take a dump. When he locates it, he squats, and I look away back to the children who are still playing.
“Everybody get the fuck down!” yells the girl in black shorts. “Everybody get the fuck down now!”
I wonder at her with a furrowed brow. I don’t think I said the word fuck until I was sixteen. This girl can’t be more than ten. She pokes her stick at a friend who twirls like a martial artist and kicks at her midriff. Another kid runs and kicks over a large green garbage can, apparently just for the hell of it.
Jesus, was I this violent as a child? I think. But then I recall shooting my brothers countless times, and being shot and dying. Arrows, bullets, knives, grenades. The times I killed as a child. The times I died. I remember it was fun. Now I just see wildness and unpredictability and a risk of injury.
The dusk deepens. On the other side of the park, two Hispanic teenagers kick a soccer ball between them, neither saying a word.
“Everybody get the fuck down!” I hear again. I cannot imagine what they’re playing. They run and leap and spin, alone or in pairs, as if they are on drugs, and I wonder a second time if as a child I appeared to be on drugs, wired and irrationally prone to violence or if these children here, preparing for some future urban war, are so different from myself as a child that I cannot in the least comprehend their play. They appear nearly alien to me.
Manhattan moves on, sniffing around the shrubs that grow beside the school. Occasionally he stops to eat shoots of grass for his nervous stomach, which I’m convinced he gets from me. He raises his leg several more times. We move past the pack of children and behind the school where I cannot keep my eye on them and now have to worry about one of them darting around the corner, startling Manhattan and causing him to jump them.
My dog is not an unpredictable dog. He is a threat, certainly, but he is a predictable threat. This makes him manageable, despite what my wife says. Only twice in eight years has he caught me off guard. He bit a neighbor that came up out of nowhere and startled us in a stairwell and then later knocked down and clawed a nine-year-old boy who came running at him yelling like he was storming a beach. I would have expected nothing less in both cases. I know my dog and he is fine so long as it is him and me and we are left alone.
Behind the school, it seems terrible things could happen. It is an untended corner hidden from the street where weeds sprout from cracked concrete and vines choke a chain-link fence. It is a drug-free zone, but even I can see it is a perfect spot for moving drugs. I worry there may be used hypodermic needles hidden in the stunted grass. As Manhattan snuffles through the brown weeds, his tail thwapping against the fence, I stay alert, my eyes up and out, watching for movement. I cannot be off my guard. It is like we are on patrol. Like I am working point. Like I am a bodyguard, unsure of where and when a threat may appear.
I had Manhattan before my marriage. I brought him home at eight weeks to an apartment that had two chairs, a television and a mattress on the floor. He slept near my pillow, rode to work in my truck, finished the food from my take-out container. He howled at the theme to Jeopardy! When he was a pup, I sneaked him into the library under my coat and he napped in my lap while I read. At drive-thrus, I ordered him junior cheeseburgers with no pickles and he licked the straw from my shake. He was jealous and wary of women I brought home and I would tease them by saying the dog and I came as a package deal. The woman who became my wife said she understood, but ultimately there were lines I didn’t want to see, boldly drawn though they were. Since she became pregnant I have maintained coexistence is possible through my diligence, but she remains unconvinced.
Behind the school, a gnat flits in my eye and I blink and reach to wipe it away. It is a single moment of distraction I suppose I cannot excuse.
The blond girl in black shorts shoots around the corner without warning, waving her nunchuck stick and laughing. She is too immediate for me to adapt to the threat and Manhattan lunges with a spooked snarl. I tense the leash and curse. But it is the girl who saves herself, skittering back out of Manhattan’s range with a shriek. I move between her and Manhattan and he lurks behind my legs.
“He scared me,” says the girl.
“Sorry about that,” I say. “You startled him.”
“Can I pet him?” she says.
And I say, “It’s not a good idea. He’s not very good with kids.”
“Oh,” she says. “Why not?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I wish he was.”
And she says, “Okay,” and takes off back around the corner.
I take some breaths before squatting to reassure Manhattan. I stroke his head and pat his side while he snorts in my ear and licks at my mouth. I shake my head and sigh, “Goddamnit, Manhattan.”
And that is the moment I’m talking about. When I confess I can’t stay vigilant enough.
About Brian Cox
Brian Cox is a newspaper editor in Detroit. He’s received a variety of journalism awards and has published a handful of short stories. He is the artistic director of Pencilpoint Theatreworks in Ypsilanti, Michigan. His full-length play CLUTTER received its world premiere at Theatre Nova in March 2017 and received the Wilde Award for Best New Script. He published his first crossword puzzle in the New York Times July 26, 2017. He and his wife Dana have two children, Elijah and Annie.