Sally, or How to Walk a Dog

by Lydia Kim

When her smallish dog became friends with a large dog, the young woman rejoiced because she had feared that her anxious little dog would never befriend another of its species, but she also knew that the large dog’s owner, an old man, was going to ask too much of her, she could tell from the way he stood too close, the way he kept stepping into the breach when she stepped away until they had completed a circle around the happy tangle of their wrestling dogs, the old man was not particularly observant or worse, maybe he was, but she could not deny how their dogs took to each other instantly and wholly, which made no sense because her dog lunged hot at other dogs and the old man’s large dog was inelegant and unpredictable, she’d seen it on the soccer field circling other dogs then get into a snapping scrum and emerge with a mouthful of backside fur, yet with the young woman’s dog it wriggled in a pile of canine happiness, plus the large dog’s name was Sally, just like the young woman’s aunt, who was a habitual liar, but the coincidence gave the situation a sheen of synchronicity, so when weighing this animal affection against the way her dog usually reacted to other dogs, rearing up spitting mad, a ridge of spiked black quills shooting forth from its spine, she of course preferred this miracle, because her dog’s vicious barking always caused the young woman to overheat and weep a little, she yearned for her dog to be calm, to be normal, to not announce its trauma so loudly, she knew the barks were signs of fear, snaps of bad memories, a misdirection of intent of a kind the young woman was familiar with from dealing with boyfriends, fathers, bosses who had endless ammunition but lazy aim, the barks spoke of the terror of being a thirteen-pound stray fighting for food, so she walked her small dog slowly and talked to it in soothing tones, tried to distract it with treats on their long walks, and it was on one of these walks that they met the old man and his dog and the two dogs crouched playfully and wagged their tails and broke into a run, side by side in long ellipses on the grass then collapsed and mouthed each other’s necks and left wet marks on ear flaps and throats, and after that they saw each other often, serendipity, though each time the old man tried to converse the young woman turned away slightly to signal that this was not necessary, each time the young woman was stunned to see her little dog turn into a gleeful tumbler, she was relieved that her dog still had a desire to play underneath its high-strung vigilance, though sometimes Sally was a bit too powerful, jawed a bit too hard and her little dog let out a soft yelp, and the young woman let out a soft oh but the old man laughed HA HA HA, they are playing, just playing, the young woman wants to be grateful, wants to be normal and not overreact but then one day the old man tells her that his wife passed away recently, and the young woman tries to ignore the unwelcome throb of obligation, she feels a door has opened and the old man is trying to wave her through it, she presses her weight forward into her toes to avoid crossing over this threshold, she makes herself aware of his dishevelment, his withered clothes, the limp shirts, pants wrinkled, nothing missing but nothing remarkable as he has all the items one needs, a shirt, belt, pants, shoes, but the clothes are not an outfit, just a covering the way that for some people food is merely fuel, she looks at her dog running with Sally, so free and easy, shiny black ribs heaving with happy exhaustion, so like a dog, but still, she feels an alarm jangling in her brain when the old man asks for her phone number, just to see when you will be out walking, he says, daring her to refuse a harmless old widower, men tend to offer up small hypotheticals so they can ask for too much too soon and then immediately abuse the boundary drawn by their earlier suggestion, she closes her eyes because she doesn’t want a passageway between herself and the old man, she doesn’t understand why there has to be more than this time on the soccer field, and of course he does message her, every single day, when are you going walking and the young woman starts to fear her device, starts to vibrate with anticipation around the afternoon hour, where do you live he asks eventually, horribly, inevitably, a message she pretends was lost to the ether, but he asks again in person forcing her to point truthfully but imprecisely towards a copse of cottages behind the soccer field, she feels an escalation, a branch added to a small fire, so to soothe herself the young woman turns her resentment into scorn, obsesses about his shabbiness, an old immigrant driven by the twin forces of thriftiness and stubbornness, much like her own immigrant parents, who are both still alive, and she pegs this old man as one way to grow old, savagely practical and intrusive — not the way she would like to grow old, which is slowly, so incrementally it does not register, to turn old without developing infirmities that require other people, what she wants is to be able to carry her own groceries, drive her own car, flip her own mattress, unmarried and without children, she finds men taxing and children a moral quandary, she will probably grow old without many friends, she has some friendly acquaintances but she employs measures to make sure they won’t become good friends, she does not want them to do too much for her because she does not want to do too much for them, she does not want people to call on her, to message her, she loathes the ping of messages, the pinprick demands on her attention, she does not want to hear pedestrian tales of woe, nor participate in dissecting conversations where the meaning is clear just not desirable, she does not want to have it suggested that she might lend anyone money or give them a place to crash, as someone asked her once, making the young woman recall headlines she’d read about squatters, she does not want a so-called houseguest to turn, over several uncomfortable months, into a squatter, a situation that could require locks on her bedroom door and passive-aggressive battles of will, salting the surface of ice cream in the freezer, swishing toothbrushes in the toilet, she cannot buy a toothbrush for every new day, so she makes excuses and works from home, works long hours because one needs money if one is to have no help, she reinforces the impassable moat around her life that keeps out marauders, which includes this old man with the dog that her dog is obsessed with, this old man nattering on about his sons and their children, stories which sound to her like hopes more than facts, she can hear him wish that his sons offered more than the occasional dinner invitation, and she can imagine these careless sons, average-sized average-looking flat-faced broad-nosed men with spiky black hair like her dog, these are things she is allowed to think because she, too, is Asian American, a thing that Americans call her because they don’t want to call her American and they can’t call her what they really want to call her, but she would never marry men like this old man’s sons, men who punch above their weight in terms of wives because of their money, and eventually the old man admits his fancy sons are sometimes unkind to him and the young woman bristles at being turned into his confidante when they could just stand there silently while their dogs play, she has begun a mental tally of this old man’s breaches of their tiny social contract, how he won’t shut up, how he talks on his phone and leaves her to watch both dogs, how he doesn’t correct Sally when the large dog jumps on her, how he has failed to train Sally in even the most basic commands, the young woman feels a bit superior that her dog is better behaved, yes, it barks at other dogs but it has never peed in the house, it comes when called, sits, stays, and even rolls over, and the young woman attributes this to luck and to the training that she both paid for and reinforces at all hours of the day, an exhausting reality that depletes her energy and patience but is necessary, she knows, as a responsible dog owner, and the young woman wonders, if this old man’s sons are so successful, a doctor and a banker, why don’t they pay for things he really needs, not just dinners and vacations so he can provide free childcare while they have date night with their wives someplace that serves cocktails with skewers of imported fruit, fruit the locals cannot afford, washed with water the locals must ration, why do they let their father walk around in these threadbare clothes, pants pilling like goosebumps, why don’t they get him a proper haircut instead of letting him keep his anemic tonsure, the ridiculous long flap of white hair lifting like a scrap of newsprint in the breeze, she knows it is because they are useless sons and not sacrificial daughters, that their shows of wealth include a kitchen renovation and a Winnebago but not a clean father with a well-trained dog, if they have any sense, these sons, they’d know the old man would never pay for dog training himself, why don’t they take care of him the way she takes care of her parents, weekly visits home with snacks and new house slippers and thick glassware to replace the glasses they keep breaking with their arthritic fingers, the way she stays calm when, in lieu of saying thank you, they say you spend too much money, but then list the other things they need, which is probably what the old man says to his sons, even though he invited himself on their vacations the way he the way he invited himself to her dog treat supply, the old man is now familiar enough to demand treats just by holding out his hand, which didn’t bother the young woman at first because her anxious little dog finally had a friend, but his entitlement has grown into a burr, Sally’s desperation has turned exasperating, the way she paws and noses into the young woman’s pockets like a Balinese tree monkey, sometimes sheer spitefulness has the young woman sticking her finger into Sally’s mouth instead of giving her a treat before sending her away, but the old man says again and again, throw Sally some treats so she will sit, to which she thinks, get your own goddamn treats, but of course she does not say this, because some long arm of a diasporic custom has pushed the young woman into an orbit of obedience and she feels guilty for even thinking such uncharitable things, it feels like telling off her own parents, which she would never do, and the old man is not, he is not her parents, he is just an old man whose dog runs with her dog until foam bleaches their mouths, no matter the distance between them they are always able to identify each other and this astounds the young woman each time, the empirical dog science behind their ability to distinguish the other’s shape even across four lanes of traffic, how they never mistake other dogs for one another, how they hate to be separated when it is time to go home, the strength of their attachment breaks her heart a little but what she doesn’t want is this old man ringing her doorbell, she doesn’t want to feed this tramp of a dog while the old man fumbles around trying to hook the broken clasp of his old leash to Sally’s collar, finally the young woman says, your leash is broken, and the old man pretends not to hear her so she says louder, the clasp on your leash is broken, you need a new one, and he says no, I like this one, and this, too, annoys her, that he lives with this difficulty for no reason other than he is cheap like her parents who also did not buy new things, who sent her to school with dog-eared folders and promotional pencils, and the old peevishness feeds a desire to show him up by buying him a new leash with her own money, to force him to accept it despite the implications, and the young woman likes this idea of shaming him with a gift, the violence of which would be difficult for him to articulate, and the idea metastasizes whenever the old man messages her, are you walking now, and on the days she ignores his messages she hates that he walks by her house and her dog can recognize Sally even from behind the veiled window, something about Sally’s shadowy gait is familiar to the young woman’s dog and it seizes and yelps like a cut wire, emits unsettling dog-screams of deep yearning, runs in large loops to and from the window, my friend my friend it is my friend, this startles the young woman every time it happens, it is so sudden and piercing, she can’t make out what is so distinct, perhaps it is Sally’s forward-thrusting throat-crushing insistence on pulling away from the old man, whose cheapness keeps generating its own vindicating evidence, like the time he took Sally to the vet because a small bag of watery flesh grew under her neck but then refused to proceed with the care plan, preferring to see if it resolved on its own which he claimed it did, though it didn’t appear to have done so, an old man so unembarrassed by his indefensible frugality, even after decades in America, that he told the young woman how, years ago, he once left Sally alone in his house for ten days while he went to some island nation with his sons, leaving Sally at home with a slit bag of kibble and a dog flap in the back door, the old man told her he was surprised, HA HA HA, to find upon his return that Sally had ravaged everything, every cushion, every book, every corner of every table, every joint of drywall, and hearing this story, so casually shared, the young woman felt a deep horror, she knew Sally had become crazed with loneliness, believing this state of solitude was permanent, and tried to eat her way out of the house while leaving the kibble untouched, she knew that Sally wanted to squeeze out through a hole of her own making into the street looking for somebody, anybody to pounce on and return to pack life, that had Sally known the young woman’s dog then, she would have run to their house, paused before the thinly veiled windows and scratched at the door until it opened to reveal her friend, and the young woman knew, if that had happened, she would have taken Sally in, if only to show the old man that there are consequences, she would have fed and washed the beast but also refused to give her back, shut the door in the old man’s face and pulled up the bridge, she would at last have a way to detach from him even if it cost her the peace and order of having only one small dog, a way to stop being his reluctant confessor, un-become his ghost daughter, cauterize yet another snipped bond and the idea was so appealing that she began to calculate the cost of dog food for two dogs, proper veterinary care for two dogs, to work out the ways she’d arrange her house and schedule to accommodate two dogs, her dog and Sally of the shedding coat and cracked paws, and as if she had spoken it into existence, the next time she saw Sally on the soccer field the person holding the leash was not the old man but an average-sized, broad-nosed man wearing an expensively light down jacket, one of the old man’s sons, and as the two dogs ran in circles the son said, this must be Sally’s friend, while the woman said nothing, she didn’t want to give away more than she had to before she knew the lay of the land, she didn’t greet Sally by name or give her treats, she braced herself as the old man’s son said that his father had fallen ill, that it started with what looked like a bruise on the back of his hand and within two days had become difficulty walking then breathing, the bruise had spread to the old man’s chest because it wasn’t a bruise but a hemorrhage, blood leaking out of splitting veins and pooling under the skin in violet blotches, the whole thing was a disgusting admission of negligence, especially from a doctor, negligence of a kind that clearly ran in the family, the woman opened her mouth and only a puff of urgent air came out, she looked to either end of the soccer field at the ways out, and the son continued, his father was not improving and they didn’t know what to do with Sally now, since Sally was, the son admitted, a handful, and he chuckled, as if a broken dog was an amusing idiosyncrasy rather than an emergency, the more the son talked the more the she sensed he was toeing the moat, these two really get along, the son said, eh, such good friends, and hearing this she felt an explosive hatred that made her rattle inside, she felt she was going blind looking at a man so thick in the face, so careless about his father’s dog, so unattached to a creature that wanted simply not to be hungry or alone, this black-haired son who laid out his troubles like a losing hand of cards he could well afford to lose, a man angling to give Sally away to a stranger, so manipulative that he’d stretch his lips thin while talking about his father’s rapid decline, who’d stand in such a way that he appeared to be holding out the leash to her, she felt a spiky ridge of bone sprout along her spine and push out against her tightening skin her eyes went white she ceased to hear words, she opened her lips and felt the wind on her teeth, she saw the son take a step back she saw the dogs spring apart and freeze she saw through the narrowing slits in her irises the old man’s son realize he had mistaken her for a friend. 

Photo credit: Theodor Vasile