The Dogs by Burt Barr

BOMB 24 Summer 1988
024 Summer 1988
​Stephen Mueller

Stephen Mueller in Burt Barr’s The Dogs, video, in production 1987/88.

During the summer when the weather had become most oppressive in the city, I received an offer to spend a month away, not far from the ocean; a couple I had met some months before, phoned one afternoon, a day so hot that I could do nothing except sit, and ride out the heat. They said they had decided to leave their summer home to travel abroad; they mentioned that they needed someone to watch over their property while they were gone and would be pleased if I accepted their invitation. I agreed at once and began making arrangements to leave.

Later that week, my car stalled on a busy street. I was stuck for almost an hour; the road was searing, the cars emitting noxious fumes. Not knowing about engines there was little I could do; no one stopped, including two patrol cars. Finally, a motorist came to my aid; he made a few adjustments, then started the car and told me that the engine needed additional work. It was late in the day and most of the garages were closed; I drove to the parking lot not far from where I live. Before turning off the ignition, the car died.

I telephoned the couple and told them of my difficulties. They said a car would be useful but not a necessity if I did not mind the walks to the sea; they said their home was about a mile from the ocean and that the walk was a pleasant one, along a wooded road. They apologized for not being able to leave their car with me, then we made plans to meet the following day.

Early the next morning I left the city. After a tiring ride by bus I reached the small town where the owners met me. The main street was quiet, everyone moving at a slow pace, a summer day; we walked along while they pointed out stores and new shops; they spoke of a restaurant where they said I might like to take a break from the isolation of the house. I do not remember when they stopped talking; I was thinking about the bus, that it had taken over three hours to reach the town and I was still bothered by its many stops and delays. For the2 past few days in the city I had thought of little else other than swimming and after the agony of the ride that desire was even greater. We were in a checkout-line of the supermarket when it occurred to me that they had stopped speaking.

After buying food for the coming weeks, we headed toward the coast, arriving at a large stone house which was situated in the midst of open fields with shade trees hovering over it. They explained the problems, if any, that I might encounter in the running of the house, telling me that it was in excellent shape and it looked like it was. As they were leaving they spoke of the peaceful stay I would have; I watched their car go down the dirt drive and remained on the porch until the dust settled.

I walked to the back of the house and into the field, its furrows still existent even though the ground had been neglected, overgrown with knee-high weeds and grass. I looked up at the building; it was three stories high, a massive structure built of stone; its uppermost level was composed of rooms with gabled roofs and dormer windows; I wondered about its history.

Inside, the house was cool. I made another quick tour of the floors and chose a corner bedroom on the third floor overlooking the fields in back that stretched away, then disappeared behind a rise that cut across the land. I would have chosen a room that faced the ocean but due to the foliage of the trees, nothing could be seen from that side.

Anxious for my first swim of the season, I did not have lunch but left the house. The road was hot and dry, the sun overhead, and the stunted pines scattered along the side provided little protective shading. I had been walking several minutes and not one car had passed. The couple had said that the cove at the end of the road was not frequented by many people; another road ran north from the cove, which I was told, was private and used by the estates that lined the water. I wondered if the few houses set back in from this road were even inhabited.

Ahead was a more densely wooded area where the trees were taller and the undergrowth thicker. I saw a movement in the bushes, as if it were an animal. I walked slower, straining to see what it was. Just as I approached, it moved again. It was a large dog, a mongrel, and it ran out from the trees, growling. It stopped yards in front of me, blocking my path. It defied me with its stance and I dared not go further.

Giving up hope that its owner might appear, I made a slight move forward which caused the dog to bare its teeth and growl. I was afraid that it might leap upon me and the fear of being attacked caused me to stiffen and a swelling arose within my chest and I could not move.

Gradually I did inch backward, dreading that the dog would charge, but it stood firm and continued to growl. As I gained some distance, I moved faster and after a considerable stretch, I turned and broke into a run. When I looked back, the dog was sniffing the ground where I had stood.

I reached the house drenched in sweat and trembling. I sat on the porch and tried to resist the waves of nausea; I became sick and after the spasms stopped, I lay down on the cool grass and stared up into the trees. Later, I went inside and showered, then spent the remainder of the day in the house, my afternoon ruined by the dog.

In the morning when I awoke it was still dark. While I made breakfast I kept turning off the lights until I could see by the grey-blue light of dawn. I sat at the table, watching the room grow lighter and looking at the vague forms become distinctive shapes. I kept closing my eyes for seconds at a time, then opening them and noticing new details, the dawn rising fast. A shaft of light came into the room, the first sign of the sun; it became a square of sunlight and it moved across the floor growing larger; when it came close to my chair, I felt it was time to leave for the ocean. I packed a bag with food and other items that I would need for the day’s outing, then I left. Before reaching the road I stopped; a dog was howling but its barking seemed to be coming from far across the fields and I resumed walking.

The sun was warm and felt good in the otherwise cool morning and I was elated by the fresh air. Only when I approached the stand of trees where I faced the dog the day before, I became uneasy; however, I walked carefully and without incident.

I came to a low damp stretch of road, where on one side tidewaters seeped in, filling the carved-out grooves in the earth. I watched the water rise, and breathed in, absorbing the first smell of the sea. The water set afloat strands of weeds, carrying them to further inlets. Leaving this marsh, I entered an area where the odor of the sea mingled with the scents of trees and grass, then it was lost.

Ahead was a blind curve from where I hoped I could see the horizon of the ocean but when I rounded the turn, I was startled at the sight of three formidable dogs. In spite of the long distance between us, one of the dogs sat down in the middle of the road with the other two standing alongside, all looking at me. They did not bark or move. In back of them I could see a sliver of the ocean just above the height of the trees near the end of the road. But I could not go ahead. We stayed still for what seemed like a long time, then they turned, heading toward the sea.

Uncertain of the road before me, I began walking. When the dogs turned into a driveway, I stopped again. They reappeared and looked back at me, then moved on. Several times they entered side roads and lanes, then returned and watched me where I had stopped. I could now see more of the ocean but it remained distant as I trailed behind the dogs. From one particular turnoff they did not emerge and I passed by with care. When I reached the water, the sun was high and the cool part of the morning had passed.

There was no one at the cove, but a man in a car arrived soon after I did. He was to be the only visitor that day. I asked him if he could give me a ride back when he was through fishing. He was reluctant, but said yes and that I would have a long wait. Too concerned about the dogs and afraid that the man would leave me stranded, I did not enjoy the water. It was evening when we drove back.

Daily, there were dogs on the road. The same three were frequently present and I always had to follow behind them. Then there were a number of strays who did not openly challenge me but the specter of them prevented me from going ahead. The mongrel from the grove of trees appeared once more and when it did, I returned to the house and stayed inside.

I began carrying a stick but I knew I would not use it; I did not want to get that close to the dogs. I considered different ways to reach the sea; one alternative was across the fields, but the fields were alien for me compared to the paved road and I would be more vulnerable in the open spaces. I could walk back to the main highway, to the town and to the town beaches, but that would be many miles; there was no bicycle in the house and the cost of a taxi was prohibitive; and besides, I did not care for the summer beaches. I preferred the cove. Some days I did not feel capable of leaving the house, and I was confined, consumed with fear of the dogs.

One morning when it was still dark I was awakened by a noise that came from the back of the house; going down the stairs I heard the noise again. It was just becoming light and by the time I reached the first floor I could see profiles of furniture. I waited, listening, then went toward the back door. From the kitchen window I saw the three dogs; they had overturned the garbage cans. When they were through eating, they walked around to the front. I followed them, window by window. On their way down the driveway, they paused; they turned and looked back at the exact window where I stood.

After that incident I would not take the risk of walking again. My vacation was half over and I did not want to return to the city. I decided to wait at the end of the driveway each morning and hitch a ride to the ocean, making sure that I could get a return lift.

That morning I did not get a ride from the small number of cars that passed and I quickly gave up and went back to the house. The next day a pick-up truck stopped. The old man who was driving told me he was a caretaker for one of the large homes that bordered the sea. He let me off at the cove and said he would come by later in the afternoon. Assured of a safe return, it was the first day I stayed in the water and swam. He came back as promised and at the sound of his horn I climbed up the rocky ledges.

After getting in the truck he said he was glad he could give me a ride but wondered why I did not walk, the distance not being far. I told him of my fear of the dogs. He came to a stop in front of a white house, vacant and shabby, a house I had walked past before. He confided that a taxidermist had once lived there who disliked dogs; the man had shot and mounted them and at one time the grounds had been littered with stuffed heads, some of them sitting on pedestals. I asked what became of the taxidermist but before he replied, he laughed, delighted that I had inquired. He digressed, trying to give his answer the greatest impact but I became annoyed and demanded a concise reply. Shaking his head from side to side, he only said that they had taken him away.

As he droned on about the area being over-run by dogs, I felt trapped and did not want to listen but I was afraid to walk. He told me that the summer renters abandoned dogs at the end of each season; we rode on and he spoke of the winters, of the bitter winds from the northeast storms, the coast locked in ice. And he spoke of the frozen dogs, dead along the road. I looked away, across the fields, and heard no more.

I spent the afternoon and evening on the porch, rocking in the chair. I thought of the ocean and how serene it must be in the early morning before the sun rose over the eastern edge of the water. I thought of the gulls soaring in the first light, the birds skimming low in search of food, and of the tidal pools amongst the rocks becoming visible. And when the day became warmer I thought of how it must be to dive from the uppermost ledges and swim out to the island of rocks, where the breakers rolled in, and almost over, at high tide. October 1975

Burt Barr is currently working on a video, The Dogs, which is an adaptation of this short story starring Stephen Mueller. Burt Barr is a video artist who also writes short stories. He lives and works in New York.

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BOMB 24, Summer 1988

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024 Summer 1988