The New Yorker, January 9, 1989 P. 26
Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.
It’s twenty-five years later. I’m walking along Forty-second Street in Manhattan, the sounds of the city crashing beside me—horns and gearshifts, insults—somebody’s chewing gum holding my foot to the pavement, when that dog wakes from his long sleep and imagines me.
I’m sweet again. I’m sweet-breathed and flat-limbed. Our family is stationed at Fort Niagara, and the dog swims his red heavy fur into the black Niagara River. Across the street from the officers’ quarters, down the steep shady bank, the river, even this far downstream, has been clocked at nine miles per hour. The dog swims after a stick I have thrown.
“Are you crazy?” my grandmother says, even though she is not fond of dog hair in the house, the way it sneaks into the refrigerator every time you open the door. “There’s a current out there! It’ll take that dog all the way to Toronto!”
“The dog knows where the backwater ends and the current begins,” I say, because it is true. He comes down to the river all the time with my father, my brother MacArthur, or me. You never have to yell the dog away from the place where the river water moves like a whip.
Sparky Smith and I had a game we played called Knockout. It involved a certain way of breathing and standing up fast that caused the blood to leave the brain as if a plug had been jerked from the skull. You came to again just as soon as you were on the ground, the blood sloshing back, but it always seemed as if you had left the planet, had a vacation on Mars, and maybe stopped back at Fort Niagara half a lifetime later.
There weren’t many kids my age on the post, because it was a small command. Most of its real work went on at the missile batteries flung like shale along the American-Canadian border. Sparky Smith and I hadn’t been at Lewiston-Porter Central School long enough to get to know many people, so we entertained ourselves by meeting in a hollow of trees and shrubs at the far edge of the parade ground and telling each other seventh-grade sex jokes that usually had to do with keyholes and doorknobs, hot dogs and hot-dog buns, nuns, priests, preachers, schoolteachers, and people in blindfolds.
When we ran out of sex jokes, we went to Knockout and took turns catching each other as we fell like a cut tree toward the ground. Whenever I knocked out, I came to on the grass with the dog barking, yelping, crouching, crying for help. “Wake up! Wake up!” he seemed to say. “Do you know your name? Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!” I’d wake to the sky with the urgent call of the dog in the air, and I’d think, Well, here I am, back in my life again.
Sparky Smith and I spent our school time smiling too much and running for office. We wore mittens instead of gloves, because everyone else did. We made our mothers buy us ugly knit caps with balls on top—caps that in our previous schools would have identified us as weird but were part of the winter uniform in upstate New York. We wobbled onto the ice of the post rink, practicing in secret, banged our knees, scraped the palms of our hands, so that we would be invited to skating parties by civilian children.
“You skate?” With each other we practiced the cool look.
“Oh, yeah. I mean like I do it some—I’m not a racer or anything.”
Every school morning, we boarded the Army-green bus—the slime-green, dead-swamp-algae-green bus—and rode it to the post gate, past the concrete island where the M.P.s stood in their bulletproof booth. Across from the gate, we got off at a street corner and waited with the other Army kids, the junior-high and high-school kids, for the real bus, the yellow one with the civilian kids on it. Just as we began to board, the civilian kids—there were only six of them but eighteen of us—would begin to sing the Artillery song with obscene variations one of them had invented. Instead of “Over hill, over dale,” they sang things like “Over boob, over tit.” For a few weeks, we sat in silence watching the heavy oak trees of the town give way to apple orchards and potato farms, and we pretended not to hear. Then one day Sparky Smith began to sing the real Artillery song, the booming song with caissons rolling along in it, and we all joined in and took over the bus with our voices.
When we ran out of verses, one of the civilian kids, a football player in high school, yelled, “Sparky is a dog’s name. Here, Sparky, Sparky, Sparky.” Sparky rose from his seat with a wounded look, then dropped to the aisle on his hands and knees and bit the football player in the calf. We all laughed, even the football player, and Sparky returned to his seat.
“That guy’s just lucky I didn’t pee on his leg,” Sparky said.
Somehow Sparky got himself elected homeroom president and me homeroomvice-president in January. He liked to say, “In actual percentages—I mean in actual per-capita terms—we are doing much better than the civilian kids.” He kept track of how many athletes we had, how many band members, who among the older girls might become a cheerleader. Listening to him even then, I couldn’t figure out how he got anyone to vote for us. When he was campaigning, he sounded dull and serious, and anyway he had a large head and looked funny in his knit cap. He put up a homemade sign in the lunchroom, went from table to table to find students from 7-B to shake hands with, and said to me repeatedly, as I walked along a step behind him and nodded, “Just don’t tell them that you’re leaving in March. Under no circumstances let them know that you will not be able to finish out your term.”
In January, therefore, I was elected homeroom vice-president by people I still didn’t know (nobody in 7-B rode our bus—that gave us an edge), and in March my family moved to Fort Sill, in Oklahoma. I surrendered my vice-presidency to a civilian girl, and that was the end for all time of my career in public office.
Two days before we left Fort Niagara, we took the dog, Duke, to Charlie Battery, fourteen miles from the post, and left him with the mess sergeant. We were leaving him for only six weeks, until we could settle in Oklahoma and send for him. He had stayed at Charlie Battery before, when we visited our relatives in Ohio at Christmastime. He knew there were big meaty bones at Charlie Battery, and scraps of chicken, steak, turkey, slices of cheese, special big-dog bowls of ice cream. The mess at Charlie Battery was Dog Heaven, so he gave us a soft, forgiving look as we walked with him from the car to the back of the mess hail.
My mother said, as she always did at times like that, “I wish he knew more English.” My father gave him a fierce manly scratch behind the ears. My brother and I scraped along behind with our pinched faces.
“Don’t you worry,” the sergeant said. “He’ll be fine here. We like this dog, and he likes us. He’ll run that fence perimeter all day long. He’ll be his own early-warning defense system. Then we’ll give this dog everything he ever dreamed of eating.” The sergeant looked quickly at my father to see if the lighthearted reference to the defense system had been all right. My father was in command of the missile batteries. In my father’s presence, no one spoke lightly of the defense of the United States of America—of the missiles that would rise from the earth like a wind and knock out (knock out!) the Soviet planes flying over the North Pole with their nuclear bombs. But Duke was my father’s dog, too, and I think that my father had the same wish we all had—to tell him that we were going to send for him, this was just going to be a wonderful dog vacation.
“Sergeant Carter has the best mess within five hundred miles,” my father said to me and MacArthur.
We looked around. We had been there for Thanksgiving dinner when the grass was still green. Now, in late winter, it was a dreary place, a collection of rain-streaked metal buildings standing near huge dark mounds of earth. In summer, the mounds looked something like the large grassy mounds in southern Ohio, the famous Indian mounds, softly rounded and benignly mysterious. In March, they were black with old snow. Inside the mounds were the Nike missiles, I supposed, although I didn’t know for sure where the missiles were. Perhaps they were hidden in the depressions behind the mounds.
Once during “Fact Monday” in Homeroom 7-B, our teacher, Miss Bintz, had given a lecture on nuclear weapons. First she put a slide on the wail depicting an atom and its spinning electrons.
“Do you know what this is?” she said, and everyone in the room said, “An atom,” in one voice, as if we were reciting a poem. We liked “Fact Monday” sessions because we didn’t have to do any work for them. We sat happily in the dim light of her slides through lectures called “Nine Chapters in the Life of a Cheese” (“First the milk is warmed, then it is soured with rennet”), “The Morning Star of English Poetry” (“As springtime suggests the beginning of new life, so Chaucer stands at the beginning of English poetry”), and “Who’s Who Among the Butterflies” (“The Monarch—Anosia plexippus—is king”). Sparky liked to say that Miss Bintz was trying to make us into third graders again, but I liked Miss Bintz. She had high cheekbones and a passionate voice. She believed, like the adults in my family, that a fact was something solid and useful, like a penknife you could put in your pocket in case of emergency.
That day’s lecture was “What Happens to the Atom When It’s Smashed.” Miss Bintz put on the wall a black-and-white slide of four women who had been horribly disfigured by the atomic blast at Hiroshima. The room was half darkened for the slide show. When she surprised us with the four faces of the women, you could feel the darkness grow, the silence in the bellies of the students.
“And do you know what this is?” Miss Bintz said. No one spoke. What answer could she have wanted from us, anyway? She clicked the slide machine through ten more pictures—close-ups of blistered hands, scarred heads, flattened buildings, burned trees, maimed and naked children staggering toward the camera as if the camera were food, a house, a mother, a father, a friendly dog.
“Do you know what this is?” Miss Bintz said again. Our desks were arranged around the edge of the room, creating an arena in the center. Miss Bintz entered that space and began to move along the front of our desks, looking to see who would answer her incomprehensible question.
“Do you know?” She stopped in front of my desk.
“No,” I said.
“Do you know?” She stopped next at Sparky’s desk.
Sparky looked down and finally said, “It’s something horrible.”
“That’s right,” she said. “It’s something very horrible. This is the effect of an atom smashing. This is the effect of nuclear power.” She turned to gesture at the slide, but she had stepped in front of the projector, and the smear of children’s faces fell across her back. “Now let’s think about how nuclear power got from the laboratory to the people of Japan.” She had begun to pace again. “Let’s think about where all this devastation and wreckage actually comes from. You tell me,” she said to a large, crouching boy named Donald Anderson. He was hunched over his desk, and his arms lay before him like tree limbs.
“I don’t know,” Donald Anderson said.
“Of course you do,” Miss Bintz said. “Where did all of this come from?”
None of us had realized yet that Miss Bintz’s message was political. I looked beyond Donald Anderson at the drawn window shades. Behind them were plate-glass windows, a view of stiff red-oak leaves, the smell of wood smoke in the air. Across the road from the school was an orchard, beyond that a pasture, another orchard, and then the town of Lewiston, standing on the Niagara River seven miles upstream from the long row of red brick Colonial houses that were the officers’ quarters at Fort Niagara. Duke was down by the river, probably, sniffing at the reedy edge, his head lifting when ducks flew low over the water. Once the dog had come back to our house with a live fish in his mouth, a carp. Nobody ever believed that story except those of us who saw it: me, my mother and father and brother, my grandmother.
Miss Bintz had clicked to a picture of a mushroom cloud and was now saying, “And where did the bomb come from?” We were all tired of “Fact Monday” by then. Miss Bintz walked back to where Sparky and I were sitting. “You military children,” she said. “You know where the bomb comes from. Why don’t you tell us?” she said to me.
Maybe because I was tired, or bored, or frightened—I don’t know—I said to Miss Bintz, looking her in the eye, “The bomb comes from the mother bomb.”
Everyone laughed. We laughed because we needed to laugh, and because Miss Bintz had all the answers and all the questions and she was pointing them at us like guns.
“Stand up,” she said. She made me enter the arena in front of the desks, and then she clicked the machine back to the picture of the Japanese women. “Look at this picture and make a joke,” she said. What came next was the lecture she had been aiming for all along. The bomb came from the United States of America. We in the United States were worried about whether another country might use the bomb, but in the whole history of the human species only one country had ever used the worst weapon ever invented. On she went, bombs and airplanes and bomb tests, and then she got to the missiles. They were right here, she said, not more than ten miles away. Didn’t we all know that? “You know that, don’t you?” she said to me. If the missiles weren’t hidden among our orchards, the planes from the Soviet Union would not have any reason to drop bombs on top of Lewiston-Porter Central Junior High School.
I had stopped listening by then and realized that the pencil I still held in my hand was drumming a song against my thigh. Over hill, over dale. I looked back at the wall again, where the mushroom cloud had reappeared, and my own silhouette stood wildly in the middle of it. I looked at Sparky and dropped the pencil on the floor, stooped down to get it, looked at Sparky once more, stood up, and knocked out.
Later, people told me that I didn’t fall like lumber, I fell like something soft collapsing, a fan folding in on itself, a balloon rumpling to the floor. Sparky saw what I was up to and tried to get out from behind his desk to catch me, but it was Miss Bintz I fell against, and she went down, too. When I woke up, the lights were on, the mushroom cloud was a pale ghost against the wall, voices in the room sounded like insect wings, and I was back in my life again.
“I’m so sorry,” Miss Bintz said. “I didn’t know you were an epileptic.”
At Charlie Battery, it was drizzling as my parents stood and talked with the sergeant, rain running in dark tiny ravines along the slopes of the mounds.
MacArthur and I had M&M’s in our pockets, which we were allowed to give to the dog for his farewell. When we extended our hands, though, the dog lowered himself to the gravel and looked up at us from under his tender red eyebrows. He seemed to say that if he took the candy he knew we would go, but if he didn’t perhaps we would stay here at the missile battery and eat scraps with him.
We rode back to the post in silence, through the gray apple orchards, through small upstate towns, the fog rising out of the rain like a wish. MacArthur and I Sat against opposite doors in the back seat, thinking of the loneliness of the dog.
We entered the kitchen, where my grandmother had already begun to clean the refrigerator. She looked at us, at our grim children’s faces—the dog had been sent away a day earlier than was really necessary—and she said, Well, God knows you can’t clean the dog hair out of the house with the dog still in it.”
Whenever I think of an Army post, I think of a place the weather cannot touch for long. The precise rectangles of the parade grounds, the precisely pruned trees and shrubs, the living quarters, the administration buildings, the PX and commissary, the nondenominational church, the teen club, the snack bar, the movie house, the skeet-and-trap field, the swimming pools, the runway, warehouses, the Officers’ Club, the N.C.O. Club. Men marching, women marching, saluting, standing at attention, at ease. The bugle will trumpet reveille, mess call, assembly, retreat, taps through a hurricane, a tornado, flood, blizzard. Whenever I think of the clean, squared look of a military post, I think that if one were blown down today in a fierce wind, it would be standing again tomorrow in time for reveille.
The night before our last full day at Fort Niagara, an Arctic wind slipped across the lake and froze the rain where it fell, on streets, trees, power lines, rooftops. We awoke to a fabulation of ice, the sun shining like a weapon, light rocketing off every surface except the surfaces of the Army’s clean streets and walks.
MacArthur and I stood on the dry, scraped walk in front of our house and watched a jeep pass by on the way to the gate. On the post, everything was operational, but in the civilian world beyond the gate power lines were down, hanging like daggers in the sun, roads were glazed with ice, cars were in ditches, highways were impassable. No yellow school buses were going to be on the roads that morning.
“This means we miss our very last day in school,” MacArthur said. “No goodbyes for us.”
We looked up at the high, bare branches of the hard maples, where drops of ice glimmered.
“I just want to shake your hand and say so long,” Sparky said. He had come out of his house to stand with us. “I guess you know this means you’ll miss the surprise party.”
“There was going to be a party?” I said.
“Just cupcakes,” Sparky said. “I sure wish you could stay the school year and keep your office.”
“Oh, who cares!” I said, suddenly irritated with Sparky, although he was my best friend. “Jesus,” I said, sounding to myself like an adult—like Miss Bintz, maybe, when she was off duty. “Jesus,” I said again. “What kind of office is home goddam room vice-president in a crummy country school?”
MacArthur said to Sparky, “What kind of cupcakes were they having?”
I looked down at MacArthur and said, “Do you know how totally ridiculous you look in that knit cap? I can’t wait until we get out of this place.”
“Excuse me,” MacArthur said. “Excuse me for wearing the hat you gave me for my birthday.”
It was then that the dog came back. We heard him calling out before we saw him, his huge woof-woof “My name is Duke! My name is Duke! I’m your dog! I’m your dog!” Then we saw him streaking through the trees, through the park space of oaks and maples between our house and the post gate. Later the M.P.s would say that he stopped and wagged his tail at them before he passed through the gate, as if he understood that he should be stopping to show his I.D. card. He ran to us, bounding across the crusted, glass-slick snow—ran into the history of our family, all the stories we would tell about him after he was dead. Years and years later, whenever we came back together at the family table, we would start the dog stories. He was the dog who caught the live fish with his mouth, the one who stole a pound of butter off the commissary loading dock and brought it to us in his soft bird dog’s mouth without a tooth mark on the package. He was the dog who broke out of Charlie Battery the morning of an ice storm, travelled fourteen miles across the needled grasses of frozen pastures, through the prickly frozen mud of orchards, across back-yard fences in small towns, and found the lost family.
The day was good again. When we looked back at the ice we saw a fairyland. The red brick houses looked like ice castles. The ice-coated trees, with their million dreams of light, seemed to cast a spell over us.
“This is for you,” Sparky said, and handed me a gold-foiled box. Inside were chocolate candies and a note that said, “I have enjoyed knowing you this year. I hope you have a good life.” Then it said, “P.S. Remember this name. Someday I’m probably going to be famous.”
“Famous as what?” MacArthur said.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Sparky said.
We had a party. We sat on the front steps of our quarters, Sparky, MacArthur, the dog, and I, and we ate all the chocolates at eight o’clock in the morning. We sat shoulder to shoulder, the four of us, and looked across the street through the trees at the river, and we talked about what we might be doing a year from then. Finally, we finished the chocolates and stopped talking and allowed the brilliant light of that morning to enter us.
Miss Bintz is the one who sent me the news about Sparky four months later. “boy drowns in swift current.” In the newspaper story, Sparky takes the bus to Niagara Falls with two friends from Lewiston-Porter. It’s a searing July day, a hundred degrees in the city, so the boys climb down the gorge into the river and swim in a place where it’s illegal to swim, two miles downstream from the Falls. The boys Sparky is visiting—they’re both student-council members as well as football players, just the kind of boys Sparky himself wants to behave sneaked down to this swimming place many times: a cove in the bank of the river, where the water is still and glassy on a hot July day, not like the water raging in the middle of the river. But the current is a wild invisible thing, unreliable, whipping out with a looping arm to pull you in. “He was only three feet in front of me,” one of the boys said. “He took one more stroke and then he was gone.”
We were living in civilian housing not far from the post. When we had the windows open, we could hear the bugle calls and the sound of the cannon firing retreat at sunset. A month after I got the newspaper clipping about Sparky, the dog died. He was killed, along with every other dog on our block, when a stranger drove down our street one evening and threw poisoned hamburger into our front yards.
All that week I had trouble getting to sleep at night. One night I was still awake when the recorded bugle sounded taps, the sound drifting across the Army fences and into our bedrooms. Day is done, gone the sun. It was the sound of my childhood in sleep. The bugler played it beautifully, mournfully, holding fast to the long, high notes. That night I listened to the cadence of it, to the yearning of it. I thought of the dog again, only this time I suddenly saw him rising like a missile into the air, the red glory of his fur flying, his nose pointed heavenward. I remembered the dog leaping high, prancing on his hind legs the day he came back from Charlie Battery, the dog rocking back and forth, from front legs to hind legs, dancing, sliding across the ice of the post rink later that day, as Sparky, MacArthur, and I played crack-the-whip, holding tight to each other, our skates careening and singing. “You’re awol! You’re awol!” we cried at the dog. “No school!” the dog barked back. “No school!” We skated across the darkening ice into the sunset, skated faster and faster, until we seemed to rise together into the cold, bright air. It was a good day, it was a good day, it was a good day.