Dogleg by Janet Kieffer

BOMB 55 Spring 1996
Issue 55 055  Spring 1996

Brutus had intense yellow eyes that locked onto yours when he looked at you and cocked his head, but his eyes were closed when he was on the operating table. Joe had the OR nurse cover him with blue sheets and only his feathery, mottled tail stuck out. Joe was operating on his leg.

Joe has always been smarter than me and now that he is a doctor he is a lot smarter. Or so I thought, until he did this thing with Brutus. I don’t even know where he got Brutus. We are two typical brothers, very different, but that’s okay. Joe has very delicate hands, like a girl’s hands, soft and white. I am a sawman. I sell meat-cutting saws to butchers and grocery store chains and am missing a few fingers as a result. Joe is a sawbones. We laugh about it.

Joe’s wife found out that Joe was seeing this nurse. She suspected for a long time, and then she found out for sure. So he had to do something, so he bagged the little nurse and decided to fix up Brutus because Dobie loves Brutus. She probably loves him more than Joe, now.

Dobie is beautiful. I was there right after each one of her four kids was born and before I quit drinking we used to get drunk together. Or I got drunk. I live alone and so spend a lot of time at Joe and Dobie’s. One time, we played with glow-in-the-dark cereal box toys in their big kitchen, Dobie and me, drinking beers. They were these glow-in-the-dark octopus things that you throw at the wall and they stick and walk down the wall in the dark with their octopus legs. We drank a bunch of beers and turned off all the lights and threw them at the walls and the cabinets and the refrigerator for hours. She is very beautiful.

Brutus used his three good legs as best he could when he ran around with the children in their spongy, green yard. He ran around trees and bushes and through leaves and even vaulted his ass over the snow in the wintertime with his one good leg, but sometimes he yelped. His bad leg was always a few inches off the ground, and he always smelled like the weather. He also had that clean soft smell that hunting dogs have, the ones with the soft fur with little spots. Brutus was a mutt, and it was evident he had some Brittany in him, and he had those penetrating, lock-on eyes that Labs have, but he was scrawny and his head was shaped a little like a hound dog’s head. So he looked ridiculous. But at the same time, when he looked at you, you could definitely tell somebody was in there.


I hear them in the kitchen. Dobie is banging dishes and coffee cups around, throwing away trash. At first I can hardly hear them, then their voices get louder.

“I was there Joe,” Dobie says. “I saw you.”

“What did you see?” Joe says. “Me? Having lunch in the cafeteria with a nurse? So I’m not supposed to have a life?”

Dobie doesn’t say anything.

I am sitting in the living room in an antique chair with the stuffing falling out and Brutus is there, standing on three legs with his bad one off the ground, as usual. He looks at me and blinks, then looks off toward the kitchen. He looks at me again, then flops down and puts his head on his front paws, ears perked, quietly staring at the kitchen. He takes in a deep breath and lets it all out at once. I am sitting there with a magazine and the place smells like mothballs. The whole big house always smells like mothballs. Maybe they want to preserve all their antiques. They have lots of antiques and art, and rugs so pretty that you hate to walk on them.

Joe says, “Are you obsessed or something?” He swears.

“The subject is closed,” says Dobie. I hear her cough. “I’m not going to talk about it any more. I just wanted to tell you that I know.”

“Know what?” Joe knows he is caught, but he is scrambling. He is pulling out all the stops when it comes to his acting ability.

She doesn’t say anything.

“Know what?”

Dobie knows he wants her to react so that he will have a chance to defend himself. He used to do that to me all the time when we were growing up and I recognize it. Dobie says nothing, and my brother knows he is a goner. He has been found out. No more nurse, and probably no more family as he knows it, because Dobie is not a dependent woman.

He swears again and it sounds like he throws something down on the kitchen table, a book or something. Then he comes into the living room, looking dead. His face is gray and wet.

And then he sees Brutus, who wags his tail and smiles at Joe; you can see the half moons of the whites of Brutus’s eyes on the bottom as he looks up, and all of a sudden Brutus is Joe’s best friend. The truth is that at this point Brutus is probably Joe’s only friend. He sure as hell is not my friend right now, and I do not want to call him my brother.

Joe smiles, color comes back to his face, he quickly drops to his knees and cradles the mutt dramatically in his arms, which makes Brutus emanate starry-eyed happiness as if on a hallucinogenic high, because he is not used to this display of affection from Joe. For the rest of the night the dog limps around everywhere after Joe. Joe gives him words of encouragement occasionally, but does not speak to Dobie. He acts as if he is insulted. How dare she. The angrier he becomes with his wife for acknowledging the truth, the more attention he gives to the dog.


I never knew how Joe talked two anesthesiologists into properly drugging the dog for surgery, or how they even knew the right dose for a dog like Brutus, or how he got them to keep quiet about the dog being in the hospital in the first place. I thought about this when they both administered the stuff through plastic tubing into the dog’s body, one was a young guy and the other an older female. Their eyes were all smiles over their masks. If I saw them today I would not recognize them.

Joe gave Brutus some Librium and put him in the burlap bag before sneaking him through the back door of an Illinois hospital in the wee hours of a Wednesday morning. The Librium didn’t exactly make Brutus go to sleep, it just made him dopey, and after he was in the bag you could picture his stoned hound dog head bouncing up and down in a state of stupefied confusion. Joe and I still had to negotiate some pretty long halls and get past some technicians of various ilks and persuasions; there are lots of people who work running machines in the hospital.

“Hi, Doctor,” they said, or “Hello, Doc.” Joe looked straight ahead down a long hall and nodded, determined to get past them with the lumpy figure in the burlap bag. Nobody said anything about it.

Joe opened up Brutus’s leg, on the operating table. The operating room was all alcohol and needles, hoses and rubber and it made me kind of sick. I didn’t want to look at the inside of the dogleg but I got the idea of what Joe was doing when he picked up a small metal rod from his array of instruments and paraphernalia and attached it there on the inside of Brutus. Joe had this fixed, angry expression on his face, almost like he hated Brutus. His eyes were bulging and the skin around his neck was red and sweaty. He needed a shave and his effeminate, white hands were shaking. Brutus was then the proud owner of a pin in his leg, the way people have pins in their hips or knees or the like. Joe was trying to compensate for some congenital screw-up that made Brutus’s leg bent and useless, and he used the pin to straighten it out. Then he sewed Brutus back together like a stuffed animal and we cleaned up, which left a little time for the anesthesiologists to keep an eye on him.

He came out of anesthesia a little earlier than he was supposed to. This caused a problem on the way out of the hospital, when I was behind Joe in a long hall and the bag started wiggling a little. The movement got stronger as we rounded a corner, and there was a nun there who wanted to talk to Joe, and right about then the bag started whipping back and forth. Brutus was awake and trying like hell to get out of the bag.

“What do you have there, Doctor?” the nun said. She had glasses that magnified her brown eyes, and a modern nun habit.

I knew Joe was sweating it. He could have been kicked off the staff of the hospital for sneaking Brutus in for surgery like that. The bag was twisting and whipping and Brutus was kicking with what must have been his good leg, unless Joe’s handiwork had worked instantly. You could see the hound dog head shape pushing on one side of the bag trying to get out.

Joe didn’t reply to the nun. He looked alarmed and walked away. I looked at the nun and shrugged, and she was staring at him as he walked away with the flailing bag.

I could feel the nun observing us even when we were nearing the door. She was wearing those quiet shoes nuns and nurses wear, but you could tell she was there.

Right about then Brutus lost control of his bowels. What looked like a bucketful of brown liquid came right through the burlap bag with a rush and hit the floor with a sound like somebody puked in grade school.

The look on the nun’s face was pretty much what you’d expect, but Joe’s face was something to see, because in addition to his terror at being found out he slipped a little bit on the stuff on the floor and had to regain his balance. He mouthed a few swear words and sweated bullets, holding tight to the bag. Then he ran down the hall, took a right down another long hall and I ran after him, past all those people who worked the machines in the hospital again, who were jerking their heads around to stare, and out the door he went with me after him.

One night when I stopped by Dobie was alone and very drunk. She’d polished off half a jug of wine. She was sitting on the floor in the kitchen in the middle of pieces and splinters of broken china and glass when I walked in. Brutus was sitting next to her. I don’t know where the kids were. I thought they were there at first because I heard her talking to someone when I came near the kitchen.

“And we will find out,” she was saying. “We will find out everything. When he started it, how he started it, what happened exactly, and I mean exactly. How can we do it?”

I saw her when I rounded the corner of the kitchen. Her eyes were puffy and I noticed the gray streaks in her hair for the first time. She was old and pathetic, sitting there on the floor with her veiny legs splayed, and I don’t know how but she became even more beautiful to me then. She was looking at Brutus, who was smiling up at her with his half-moon eyes and half-wagging, and she was nodding in agreement to nothing.

“Yes, we can take that additude,” she said. She had trouble saying it. Then she noticed me. She was not at all startled.

She petted the dog, and then tried to wink at him. “We’ll get to it later,” she said to him in a drunk-loud whisper. And then to me in a regular voice, “Well John. You are just in time to help me clean this shit up. Sometimes I get tired of being the only one to do the dishes.”

There was some fruit in the next room, the dining room. A peach had exploded where it made contact with a wall. She must have hurled it in there, because the fruit bowl that she kept on the table in the kitchen was on its side in the hall. I picked some of it up and went back to the kitchen to get something to clean up the wall.

“Where’s Joe?” I said.

Instead of answering, she stood up and stared at Brutus, eyes wide, and he smiled and half-wagged in anticipation of whatever it was she was about to do or say. “Brutus!” she said. “Did you hear that?”

Then she turned to me and said, “We were just wondering the same thing. We think we know, ROUGHLY.” When she said roughly, a spray of spittle came from her mouth to my shirt like a garden mister, very fine. I must have looked alarmed, because she put her hand on my arm. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Brutus is here, and he understands! He understands everything! All you need to do is look at him, and he knows! It must be some kind of tuh-telepathy! And he cares!” She looked down at him with tears in her eyes and he kind of stood at attention, very obedient.

Joe buried Brutus in the same burlap bag he had hauled him out of the hospital in, past the nun. The body was limp, and nothing came out. I went out back with Joe, with the dog corpse in the bag, and Joe didn’t say much. The dog’s leg had gotten infected before he had a chance to use it very much, and the infection killed him.

Dobie watched him dig a hole and put the dog body in it, and I watched too. There was something crazy in his eyes and on his face as he dug, he bit his lip with every stroke of the shovel and eventually it bled, and he was dripping with sweat before he was through.

It’s funny how life goes though, how the nurse thing led to blood and sweat and burying Brutus and Dobie’s not being Joe’s wife anymore. I could tell that by looking at her that day. Joe had trashed their friendship and now buried Brutus all in the same year and from this day forward Dobie would be a million miles away from him, and she was lonely and confused and very cold.

I waited until I could catch her eye there at the sliding glass door. She was looking past me, past Joe, toward the woods in back of him. I smiled and waved at her and hoped that she would do the same.

Janet Kieffer is a fiction writer who lives in Broomfield, Colorado. Her stories have appeared in the 1993 H. G. Roberts Writing Awards Annual, the Atlanta Review, and the Edifice, a Stanford University home page publication featuring women writers on the Internet. She is active in the CompuServe Writers’s Forum and teaches literary fiction writing in the Denver area.

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Issue 55 055  Spring 1996