Barking Up the Wrong Tree

ADDENDUM: A day after publishing this story, I was contacted by a commander of the Fairfax County Police Department. The friendly commander, it seems, received a call from a concerned citizen regarding the alleged animal abuse mentioned in my story and was duty-bound to investigate.

So, in the interest of quelling all concern, I’m happy to report I didn’t actually shoot my neighbor’s dog. Despite my intimidating cardigan sweaters and n’er do-well swagger, I am neither heartless enough nor dumb enough to discharge a firearm in a residential neighborhood — especially one in which I still reside.

Take the story for what it is: a bright spot in the otherwise smoking pit of despair that is the internet.

No animals were harmed in the writing of this essay.

–sh

My wife and I bought our first house last summer in a cute little suburban development. We paid way too much for it, but in Northern Virginia, that’s the way things go.

Mostly, I’m content here. I long for a little more land, a bigger yard to do manly things like plant a half-acre garden or take a leak behind a tree without fear of having the police called.

I also wish the neighbors’ houses were situated a bit further away. I get a little claustrophobic in any population-dense situation; if you ever want to see my forehead gleam with flop sweat, take me to Target on a Saturday afternoon.

Most of the time, I can put on blinders and pretend like I can’t spit and hit my neighbor’s bedroom window. But there’s no better reminder of exactly how submarine-tight my quarters are than when they let their dog outside.

This sweet-looking Golden Retriever mix, you see, is blessed with a set of vocal cords forged in the fires of hell itself. And good lord, does she like using them.

I’m not anti-dog by any means. Some of my best formative memories involve dogs, and I can plot my childhood via dogs the way a historian charts the evolution of the Chinese people via ruling dynasties. There was Fred, the inbred bull Lab; Rusty, the smiling rescue Collie; the subsequent administrations of the Yellow Lab Party: Bonny, Molly, and Daisy.

I also understand dogs are meant to bark. It’s in their nature to sound the alarm when their territory is being encroached upon, or they sense an intruder. Expecting a dog not to bark is like expecting a human not to talk.

But this dog barks every time she leaves the house. Every. Fucking. Time.

The back door opens and this thing charges out full bore like an abused bull from a rodeo chute, loosing a chain of rapid-fire barks that would put a .50 caliber Browning machine gun to shame. After four or five minutes of this auditory blitzkrieg, the back door opens again and the dog trots through it, head poised high in pride and satisfaction.

For the last two years, I’ve tried my damndest to determine the motive behind this dog’s demonic yelps. I get when she barks at me cutting grass or chopping wood on the other side of the fence, and I understand when a squirrel crosses the DMZ to pilfer an errant acorn. But the majority of the time, she seems to be barking for no reason at all. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, sometimes bad guys do bad things because they just want to see the world burn.

It’s become a running joke in my house. Melinda and I will be sitting in the living room, splitting a bottle of wine with a fire in the fireplace when we’ll hear the beastly wails echoing through the winter night. “Dog’s outside,” Melinda will say, tipping the rest of the bottle into her glass. Or, on a cozy Sunday morning, when the sun is just starting to peek through the window shade, I’ll curl my arms around her and whisper sweetly into her ear: “Dog’s outside.”

Having a barking dog next door is kind of like living near the train tracks; eventually, you stop hearing the train go by. But there are times — when I’m stressed or trying to write or just want some goddamn peace and quiet — when I decide something must be done, justice must be served.

And then I realize, despite being the owner of a logical, college-educated brain, I have no clue how to do that.

I know what you’re thinking. I should go over there and say something, right? Just knock on the neighbor’s door and politely request they pipe that dog down.

I’m not doing that for two reasons.

One: there is absolutely zero chance I won’t come off as passive aggressive. I have a hard enough time navigating normal, conflict-free conversations without coming off like a cynical prick. My students’ most common response when I praise them for doing something well in the classroom is “I can’t tell if you’re being serious and you’re actually proud of me, or you’re being sarcastic and think I suck.”

I discovered at my 10-year high school reunion a guy I considered a friend all through childhood hated my guts because I was such an acrimonious bastard to him.

When I shook his hand and tried to make small talk, he gave me this cold, clipped response and walked away.

“That was weird,” I said to my friend Scott. “Josh was super short with me. Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” Scott said. “He just doesn’t like you.”

This blew my mind. “What are you talking about? Josh and I have been friends since 5th grade.”

“You’re joking, right? You were an absolute dick to him for all of high school.”

“I was not.”

“You made fun of him for liking Dave Matthews almost every day. And when he wore that cowboy hat senior year, you called it his ‘I fuck sheep’ hat.”

“I was just breaking his balls!”

Needless to say, I was not confident in my ability to broach a delicate subject with neighbors and not come off like Bill Lumbergh.

Hi, listen, is there maybe, possibly, potentially, any way you could or would mind trying to get your cute little pup to not bark so much when she goes outside? It gets awful loud sometimes, and gosh, my wife and I would appreciate it.”

Seriously, in what world does that conversation go down in any way other than capital A awkward?

That’s reason number one. Reason number two is that as a teenager, my family was on the receiving end of a similar request. And it did not go well.

—-

In 2001, the Reisers moved next door. They were nice, but the transition from their former urban home to the sleepier 3-acre lot in Mullica Hill was a rough one. They yelled across the yard about the pollen and cutting the grass and the stench of the manured fields across the street.

And they absolutely hated when our dog Bonny barked.

To be fair, Bonny barked a lot during the summer. Our property abutted a stand of woods, and it wasn’t uncommon for a set of deer to graze at night. Bonny, the ever-faithful guard who lived in a pen out back, saw it as her duty to make sure those deer knew whose turf they were on. I wouldn’t classify her barking as nuisance status — country dogs bark at deer — but the Reisers disagreed.

It started with a note left in our mailbox, polite but firm, bemoaning the awful noise Bonny made and the unrest it caused in the Reiser household at night. According to the note, Bonny’s barking pierced the Reiser homestead like a werewolf howling at a full moon.

My parents chose to dismiss the first and second dispatch, writing them off as the complaints of city mice adjusting to the ambiance of the country. As far as my parents were concerned, Bonny was doing her job, warning off potential invaders looking to sample the delicacies of my father’s sprawling and well-maintained vegetable garden. But the third note, delivered two weeks later, included a summons to the township’s small-claims court, as well as a highlighted excerpt of township code regarding the prohibition of perpetually barking dogs.

In court, the Reisers deployed a case that would have earned Johnny Cochran’s praise, painting my family as negligent pet owners who imprisoned their poor dog in an outdoor kennel that made the Hanoi Hilton look like Mar-a-Lago. Mrs. Reiser claimed her 6-year-old son hadn’t slept in weeks — MONTHS! — because of Bonny. She waved a copy of the township’s ordinance at the panel like Mussolini on a whistle-stop tour.

My parents had no choice but to bring Bonny in at night, keeping her in the kitchen and away from encroaching wildlife. It didn’t take the deer long to realize our bountiful garden was now unguarded, and they decimated it within a week.

The court ruling trounced any chance of reconciliation, and our relationship with the Reisers transformed from friendly chitchat to suspicious, icy glares, like North and South Korean troops looking at each other across the 38th Parallel.

So yeah, I’m a little sensitive about neighborly conflicts involving pets.

With peace talks off the table, what’s a neighbor to do? For months I wracked my brain, thinking of creative ways to quell the beast’s incessant yapping. I came up with one. Not a good idea, not even decent, but to defend my logic, let me trot out a few cliches: desperate times call for desperate measures; it’s so crazy, it just might work.

In my infinite wisdom, I decided I was going to shoot the damn thing.

Before you send Sarah McLachlan to my door or put some kind of pet-lover’s Facebook fatwa out on me, understand a couple of things:

One: I never had any intention of hurting her. My plan involved using a BB gun, the kind with the pneumatic forearm you pump. The more you pump, the faster the BB will go. Ten pumps will deliver a projectile with enough velocity to kill a bird or small animal. Three or four pumps won’t even break skin.

I know this, because after college my friends and I would play a game called Three Pump Sniper, where we’d take turns hunting each other in the back yard like a drunk frat boy version of The Most Dangerous Game. The BBs stung, but no more than a paintball.

My plan was to use two pumps on the dog, which was barely enough air pressure to get the BB down the gun’s barrel. I didn’t intend to shoot her with any more force than I’d shoot my best friend after three shots of Jaimeson. Logic.

Two: When I came to this decision, it was at the end of a bad day. It was over 100 degrees, and I was three weeks into installing hardwood floors in my house. I was hot and tired, and all I wanted was to relax.

It felt like the dog sensed my strife. Unlike most barking sessions, when she’d make a 15-minute cameo, that day she set up camp at the chain link fence and went at it for more than an hour. I know this is some total backseat “she started it” justification, but that day I swear she was taunting me.

Three: Melinda was out of town for the week, and thus, I was left to my own devices. Freedom is dangerous for a man used to being guided through every domestic decision, and I am certain had she been home, she would have squashed this hare-brained scheme in seconds.

Me: I’m going to shoot the neighbor’s dog.

Melinda: No you’re not.

Me: Just with the BB gun. It won’t even hurt.

Melinda: That’s one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. Put the BB gun away and go switch the laundry.

Me: Ok.

Four: Admittedly, I’m a shitty person. My former high school friend Josh knew this, and now you do too. I apologize.

Convinced this was the only way to win my restful evening, I loaded up my little Crossman, pumped the forearm twice, and snaked the barrel out the back door. The dog stood 40 yards away, so engrossed in broadcasting her signal to the universe she didn’t notice me.

The gun made a spitting noise, sending the BB toward my prey at such a slow speed I could track its path through the scope. It connected with the dog’s ass at my point of aim with surgical accuracy.

The dog flinched, surprised. She stopped barking, turned, and pricked up her ears. For 15 seconds, she stared at a point on the ground, cocking her head.

Success! My crazy scheme had worked!

And then the dog kept barking, completely unfazed by the whole thing.

I didn’t send any follow-up shots the dog’s way that day, nor any day after. I knew my proposed remedy was a shoddy one, and the last thing I wanted was the neighbor to catch me pumping copper BBs into her pet.

Plus, the whole thing had me feeling kind of guilty. If I really had such an issue with the barking dog, why wouldn’t I be a fucking grown up about it and go have a conversation? In what world did I think shooting the neighbor’s dog was an effective solution to my problem?

I decided as penance for my absurd actions, I should drink my evening beer on the patio, where I would be forced to listen to her barking the rest of the night. I donned my hair shirt and endured the symphony of victorious yips.

—-

The following Christmas, Melinda, drunk on holiday cheer, made approximately one trillion batches of cookies with the intention of distributing them as gifts. She wrapped them up with green and red cellophane and suggested we take one to the neighbors.

Still smarting a bit from my neighborly bad decision that summer, I begged off. But Melinda, ever my guiding light, convinced me to join her on a trip across the yard.

The dog fired its opening salvo at my first knock, crescendoing to a fever pitch when my neighbor opened the door.

The dog pulled and twisted to escape my neighbor’s grasp, emitting gagged yelps.

“No bark now,” my neighbor said in a Sweet&Low voice that was barely above a whisper. “No bark.”

“What a pretty pup,” I said, the dog’s eyes bulging with effort.

“She’s an energetic one,” my neighbor said. “I hope her barking doesn’t bother you.”

Melinda and I exchanged glances. If there was ever an opportunity for me to unload the two years of angst this rotten creature had bestowed upon us, this was it.

I grinned my best, most genuine smile, showing all of my teeth.

“No bother at all,” I said. “We don’t even really notice it.”

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