The neighbors’ dog had been barking for hours, through supper and kitchen clean-up, through the pictures we took of my nephew and his prom date, through the opening of my mother’s birthday presents, the sharing of her birthday cake, and the massaging of parental feet. Nighttime medications had been consumed and nightclothes donned—my father happy with his potpourri of sherbet, chocolate brownie and pumpkin bar in a bowl, my mother with her black jellybeans—and still the dog barked, all the way through the world news. The dog barked as I helped my parents to their separate beds, as I pulled their doors closed behind me, but not all the way—and kept barking as I pulled out the sleeper couch, made my bed for the night, and opened the front door for some fresh air. Of course, then the barking was louder.
If I would have been at my own house in Arizona and this was my own neighbors’ dog, I probably would have gone to investigate. I might have left a nice note, in hopes for a better tomorrow, then I would have walked backed home, stuck in my ear plugs, and gone to sleep. I might have ignored the situation altogether if I only had four and a half hours to sleep anyway before getting up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a flight. But since I was in Minnesota and my parents had complained about this dog before, I pushed the screen door open and walked in my bare feet down their front walk, across the boulevard, across the street, and up to the neighbors’ house, where a very nice dog was tied to the porch railing, barking.
“Hi,” I said, and we played together in the front yard for a few minutes before I climbed the front steps and knocked. There were lights on inside and other signs of life, so I hoped I would have the opportunity to let the owners know in a cheerful way that their dog had been barking all evening and all night, and while I hated to complain, I was hoping that they could take the dog in so my elderly parents could get some rest, thank you so much. That was my plan.
I knocked on the door and waited, but nobody came. I tried the bell, but it didn’t work. I knocked again, a little more assertively, but there was still no movement in the house—I could see that plainly through the front windows. I balled up my fist and banged on the front door like a police officer might. I did that twice. Nothing was happening, so I turned around and looked at the dog. I glanced across the street to my parents’ house, glowing its peaceful glow. Then I untied the dog’s rope from the railing, opened the front door, and put him inside, rope and all.
I walked quickly down the porch steps and across the neighbors’ lawn, already wondering what I could do to make the situation right if the dog decided to defecate inside the house, or worse, pee and poop everywhere, and then rip all the furniture to shreds. That’s what dogs do, right? I mean, that dog was outside for a reason while his owners were gone. What if he ate something out of the garbage and got sick? What if his rope got tangled and he choked to death? Where were all the coping skills I had learned in rehab? My left thumbnail was still growing out from where another patient’s seeing-eye dog had accidentally bit me when I was roughhousing with him on the basketball court, the black spot a constant reminder of where I had been, and why, and why life was going so well now. I knew better than to act on impulse like that, had known it was wrong as I was doing it. I thought briefly about going back and at least taking the dog’s rope off, but it was too late. I would only make it worse by returning and getting more fingerprints everywhere.
I brushed off my feet before opening the screen door to my parents’ house, and stepped inside. My mother stood on the other side of the pull-out couch in her floral nighty. This could easily have been a Saturday night thirty years ago: me tumbling in drunk with mud on my shoes, her waiting for me on the couch before turning on all the lights with one flip of a switch. Tonight, though, I wasn’t drunk, and she wasn’t in the dark.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“At the neighbors’,” I said. “Their dog was barking.”
“Well, I certainly hope you didn’t raise a ruckus because we have to live here,” she said.
“No, it was fine,” I said. “I just asked if they could take the dog in because he was barking, and they said okay. Don’t worry, we do this all the time in Arizona. People are always nice about it.”
This lie made itself up and came out of my mouth without any effort on my part. When she asked who answered the door, I hesitated only slightly before answering, “A young man.” She nodded and said a man’s name. I nodded too.
I got my mother’s walker—she is forever without it because she’s not used to having it yet—and helped her back to bed. I walked through my parents’ little house and triple-checked all the windows and doors. I stood by my dad’s bed for a minute, making sure he was breathing, and finally slipped under the covers on the pull-out. In three hours I would be up and gone, long before my parents awoke. What would they do without me, I worried. How would I protect them?