The Weight of a Blind Dog

.... by Larry Lynch

When William Bennett Perdue and his young friends were not in school, they played in or around the barbershop. The shop, operated by his father and grandfather, was attached to the house where all three generations of the Perdue family lived together. A door led from the shop into the kitchen where William's grandmother and mother baked and chattered, and warned the boys as they ran in and out to stay out from under the men's feet while they were cutting hair. No one wants their ear cut off, they told them

Their house was in the center of their small community. From the chairs on the porch, while sitting under the barbershop sign, William's father and grandfather could watch people coming and going from the bank, from the drug store, from the grocery store. From their seats they could see the church at the end of the main street, see its steeple rising above the maple trees, framed by the mountains in the background. Indeed, in any direction a person looked while standing in the main street, the mountains that circled their community could be seen. And within the circumference of the peaks were all the things needed for subsistence and reasons for venturing beyond them were few, and viewed as unessential.

William begged pennies from his grandfather and he and the boys spent them in the candy machine that was in the corner of the shop. When no one was in the shop they opened the cupboard to peek at the men's magazines while William's father and grandfather were outside seated on either side of the door chatting to passersby. The sign above the door read: Willie B. Perdue & Sons.

On a day that clouded over suddenly and the sky darkened as if a thick blanket had been pulled across the tops of the mountains, a wind blew through the window of the shop and suspended the curtain at a right angle to the wall swirling bits of hair between the two chairs. A large, black dog stood in the middle of the street and looked absently in the direction of noise or voices. It walked across the street, oblivious to the cars passing within inches of it, at times seeming to swerve headlong into them. Horns blew. When it bumped into the corner of the barbershop, it turned toward the step where William's father and grandfather were seated. Its tail was cocked to one side, brushing the side of the building as if it were feeling its way along. It then proceeded to try to get under the step. William's grandfather took the dog by the collar and tried to shoo it away. But it tried again to get under the step when it was released. The boy's grandfather crouched before the dog. Its unseeing eyes were covered with a thick, gray film. Its nose twitched in search of the scent of the old man. It began to rain heavily, suddenly, drenching them both. William's grandfather led the dog into the shop. The storm was short-lived, and soon there were many in the shop wondering about the strange dog. Everyone in the community knew everyone else? and all their children and all their pets and all their problems? but the dog was known to no one, and so the boy's grandfather kept him.

The dog adapted immediately to the shop and to the house as if it were as accustomed to being there as William was, or as all the men of the community were when in need of haircuts. It lay out of harm's way under the kitchen table while it was in the house, moving only its head to eat what William's grandmother and mother dropped on the floor in front of its face. When the dog heard the rattle of the candy machine in the barbershop it stood and took deliberate steps around the rocking chair, its tail cocked to the side then the other, feeling its way along, then deftly through the door into the shop and over to where the machine stood in the corner.

Soon it became a game with William and his friends. One side of the machine always contained chocolate covered nuts, the other jellybeans and sometimes jawbreakers. The dog would only eat the chocolates, and soon could differentiate the sound of chocolates from other candies. Though William and his friends knew that, they tried to fool the blind dog. They put in their pennies and got jellybeans. The dog would not come. Then they put in another penny and got chocolate covered peanuts. The dog took his predictable path from the kitchen to stand in front of the boys only to have jellybeans or jawbreakers held in front of his face. The dog sniffed their hands then turned toward the kitchen. When back in the kitchen, with William's mother and grandmother working around him, the dog turned in circles in one direction then the other as if to secure a level place to lie before it finally came to rest under the kitchen table.

Countless numbers of boys replayed this test countless numbers of times over the lives of William's father and his grandfather. After William's grandfather died, then his grandmother, the dog remained. William met a woman from the community, married, and began barbering alongside his aging father. Men William had grown up with came into the shop with their sons and tested the dog. To William and his wife, a son was born, and before the boy's fifth birthday, both of William's parents had died. He worked alone. The dog remained, now in William's life more than forty-five years, and was showing no signs of aging.

The sign above the shop remained unchanged, though faded, Sons a faint redness of its former boldness. Business remained good, sometimes better than he wished for. With someone to man the empty barber's chair, it would have been much easier. There were days when William hardly left his feet, trimming one head after another, making change for boy after boy as they plugged quarters into the candy machine and tested the dog. The dog. Everyday there was the speculation as to the age of the dog, and where it came from those many years ago. There were times William thought of removing the candy machines from the shop, so that the dog would not be tested, not wander into the shop, not ignite discussion over its origin and age. For William, it became monotonous. Whether the dog was fifty-five or a hundred made little difference, as tradition for William was fading, and he found himself questioning his happiness. During the brief moments when he could sit on the porch himself with no one in the shop, he found himself looking at the mountains surrounding him, curious about the view from their peaks, wondering how small their community might seem from such a height.

After hours on his feet each day, William catered to his wife, serving her tea while she sat in the den, with the dog curled at her feet. She was a frail woman. Giving birth had almost claimed her life nineteen years earlier. "Did he call today?" she would ask him. Usually the answer was, "No." Their son, John, was attending college. Rather than choosing to follow in the trade of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, or to at least attend the trade school in the community, he left to become a pilot. Their community didn't even have an airport.

On a rare day when William had no customers for hours, he sat on the porch watching the sky, watching planes string lean, white clouds behind them then disappear beyond the mountains. The dog came to stand beside him, and it too looked to the sky. "What is it?" William said to the dog. Normally the dog would turn its head in the direction of a voice, but it never flinched, and looked as if it might leave the way it came forty-five years earlier. It had several gray hairs sprouting around its mouth, and from over its eyes, as if it had grown old that morning. The dog raised it head and sniffed the air, its gray eyes steady.

William found his wife collapsed on the floor in the kitchen. Her thin limbs tangled under her, her apron only half tied at her waist. While William waited for the ambulance to come, the dog vomited on the floor of the shop, and whined at the kitchen table, the first noise William had ever heard it make.

The doctors told William that his wife might eventually regain some of what her stroke had stolen from her. He could expect that with diligent attention and practice, her lips and tongue could learn to form words that everyone could understand, not just sounds that William could innately decipher. He could expect that with help, then with a walker, and eventually with just a cane, she could maneuver about the house. With therapy, her left arm would someday be half as strong as her right. It was her confidence, and his faith, that he feared might never recover.

There was no lack of advice and support from the community. Via the men who came to the shop, women sent pies and casseroles, and offers of housework and errands. At first, William accepted more food than he and his wife could eat if both of them were healthy. He explained who brought what, and offered slices of apples pies and quiche to her. Her pride kept her from eating more than a mouthful of anything, and she shrunk to less than ninety pounds. William asked people to stop being so kind.

While trimming bangs and clipping sideburns, William received much advice. He should tell his son to come home; they said he was selfish, that it was disrespectful to not be at his parents' side when they needed him most. William received it silently, often leaving a haircut half-done to return to the house to make a quick check on his wife. When his son called, he told him things were fine, and that his mother was getting better. He explained that she was still self-conscious of her speech and that was why she refused to speak on the phone. Once, William held the phone to her ear, and allowed her, made her, listen to her son. William removed the phone from her ear once she closed her eyes and began to cry.

The dog stayed close to the sick women's side. After she fell ill, the dog would wander between the shop, the kitchen table, and the chair where the woman sat staring blankly into the backyard. Food William gave his wife to eat, she would pick at, then rap her cane on the side of her chair and summon the dog to finish. Though it was called in both directions for scraps and chocolates, the dog grew lean, hip bones and ribs clearly visible under a graying, mangy coat.

William suspected pity from the community. Men came to have their hair cut more often. William would ask them, "Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that you were here for a cut?" And they would say that they couldn't exactly recall, and that they might as well have a trim while they were there. William's days were full. More business than he could handle. More questions about his wife's health and his absent son than he cared to answer. And more trips of the ever confused dog into the shop than he wanted. William let the machine run empty of chocolate candies. During a brief lull in business one afternoon, he heard his wife clanking her cane against her chair, and he went to check on her. He found that the dog had defecated several times in the kitchen, and walked circles through its own feces, then lay down under the kitchen table in an unresponsive pile.

It was the only day that the shop had been closed for something other than a death in the family, or the day his wife was stricken. William put up the closed sign, asked the neighbor's wife to come and sit with his wife, and he leashed the dog, and led it into the back seat of his car. When he left, his wife looked distressed as the lady next door fixed tea and offered her sandwiches in a soothing and neighborly voice.

At the far western end of the community's main street was the veterinarian's office. The vet was a customer of William's, and no stranger to the dog. While William sat in the waiting room, he endured questions about his wife, the dog, his son. Two women with cats and small children waited as well. The children patted the dog; the dog licked their hands. The vet too asked the usual questions, as he put a stethoscope to the dog's rib-cage, looked into its mouth and at its teeth. "This dog is finally starting to show its age," he said to William. William asked him what he should do. The vet told him the dog seemed to be in reasonable health, and may even live another fifty years. He grinned at William. "A little malnourished," if anything he said, and gave William some tablets and suggested a change in diet. He refused William's money when William tried to pay him.

William led the dog back through the waiting room. The children patted it once more, and the ladies smiled, hugging their cats. In the parking lot, before William could get the dog in the car, it began to heave, rounding its back, and opening its mouth wide to the ground. It vomited. When it finished, William kicked dirt over the wet, slimy spot on the ground, and tugged firmly on the leash, maneuvering the dog into the car. He checked his watch, and leaned over the back seat to look at the dog. It rested on the back seat with its head hanging near the floor. William pulled away from the parking lot, and drove west toward the edge of the community, toward the mountains.

Though he had never been there, not once during his life, he knew that west, through a winding pass in the mountain, there was a city about an hour away. The road was windy, and rose steeply in places. Whenever he turned sharply, the dog floundered in the back seat. It sat up once, and turned its head about as if it could see out the windows, see that it was leaving. Near the top of the pass, and after an especially sharp turn, the dog vomited again. William cursed. The car was thick with the smell of bile. He stopped the car, and let the dog out in case it was going to be sick again. It walked in tight circles like it did in the kitchen, finding a level place to lay, then flopped down on the gravel.

William stood there. The dog laid its head in the dirt. William went to the trunk to find something to clean the back seat of the car. He noticed as he was walking back that he could see where he had come from. The community was a palm-sized collection of buildings and streets he could frame with his outstretched hands, or cover with a closed fist. It was that small.

He wiped the seat off with a rag, guided the dog back in, then continued to drive west.

As he approached a gas station, the dog began to convulse again. He stopped abruptly at the tanks, and yanked the dog from the back seat. It continued to convulse, and William draped its leash over the antenna and walked into the service station. The attendant ignored him until William spoke to him. William asked for a garbage bag to lay on the back seat. He explained the dog was ill, and that he was taking him to the vet. The attendant offered to sell him an entire package. William did not argue. He bought the garbage bags, and thanked the attendant who was ignoring him again. William spread some bags on the seat and on the floor, and reloaded the dog.

When he arrived in the city, William had to stop at two places to get correct directions to a veterinarian clinic. The streets were wide, and the multiple lanes and painted arrows confused him. Annoyed horns blew at him. The streets seemed to go on for miles, and some of them went only in one direction. Finally he found it, found a parking spot, and led the dog down the sidewalk and into the building.

The waiting room was full. He didn't have an appointment and was told he would have to wait. The entire two hours in the waiting room, no one spoke to him. No one questioned him about his dog. No one looked at him. Eventually the doctor came out and said, "You've been here long enough. Come in." He held the door for William as he led the dog in.

The vet leaned down and lifted the dog onto the examination table. "That's the heaviest, skinniest dog I've ever lifted," he grunted to William under the weight of the animal. The vet looked into the dog's mouth, felt its abdomen and back, then asked how old the dog was. William told him he was not sure. "Old," he said. William told him that the dog had come to him when he was a young boy, and that he was unsure how old it was when it came. The vet looked strangely at William and asked him where he was from. When William told him, the vet paused for several seconds, and said that he had never met anyone from there before. William explained that the dog was vomiting constantly, and soiling in the house. Without hesitation the vet told William that it would cost fifty dollars to have the dog put down. Another fifty to have it disposed of. William had fifty-five dollars in his wallet. You'll need something to take it away in, the vet told him. William went back to his car to get one of the large garbage bags. He stood in the parking lot, holding the bag in his hand, thinking of how he would explain it.

When William returned to the office, the dog was lying still on the table, not breathing. "Some people don't like to watch," the vet said, and tossed the needle and his rubber gloves in the wastebasket. He held out his hand for the bag William was holding. "It's like he was expecting it," the vet said, "he laid his head and never even flinched. Painless."

"He was blind," William said. Again the vet gave him a strange look.

William and the vet slid the bag over the dog, and knotted it closed. When William lifted it, he staggered under the weight. It was incredible. He could not imagine something being so heavy. The vet held the door for him as William struggled with his grip on the dead animal, the incredible weight of it, trying not to let the slippery, cumbrous bag fall to the floor in front of all those in the waiting room.

He struggled with it into the street, leaning it once against the building, trying to get a firmer grip on it. He hoisted it onto his shoulder, bumping into pedestrians who had not enough room to escape him as he staggered the full width of the sidewalk toward his car. He placed it in the trunk then fell into the driver's seat, exhausted. He laid his head on is arms as he leaned onto the steering wheel. Sweat and tears and frustration and loss stained his face, and he sat in the parking lot for an hour before he left, wondering the whole time where in those mountains he could dump it.


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