Dusty Cooper's character has such an all-consuming vendetta against his newest little neighbour that it threatens to alienate him from his friends.
He was only five years old, but for four years he had been a nuisance in my life. More than a nuisance, he was a constant attack on my wellbeing. He arrived like a plague, a flea carrying the Black Death. Out of everyone he had singled me out for his invidious acts. My friends, including my wife, believed our feud was a figment of my imagination. They didn't see him for what he was, a beast that deserved nothing more than to crawl on all fours.
It started on New Year's Eve, 2002. Our little street vibrated with anticipation for the ludic night of drinking ahead. It had become a tradition among the six couples that lived on the eleventh block of Nine Street. Shep and Terri Young, our next-door neighbors and best friends, were the designated hosts for that year's party. Being twenty-four and twenty-six they were the youngest couple on the block. My wife and I at thirty and thirty-one were the oldest. The women always laughed whenever someone would refer to them as the Young couple, like it was such a clever pun. I made it a point to call them by their first names.
Just a few hours before the party, Shep and Terri returned from adopting the abandoned little shit. It seems every city and town has a depository for the unwanted. Apparently hundreds get tossed each year, and I understand why. The couple named him Shep Junior, after his new father. I didn't understand how they could name him Junior. I thought the title was reserved for the first-born and they didn't give birth to him.
Shep and Terri stood in the doorway holding him up to greet everyone. All of the wives stopped in the foyer and passed their cheese platters and vegetable dishes to their husbands so they could cluck at him and say some form of, "He's soooo cute." When everyone had arrived, the hosts invited everyone to sit in the living room. All of the furniture had been pushed back and a large blanket was spread across the floor.
"We thought it would be fun to have a picnic so Junior could crawl around with all of us," Shep said.
Everyone else sat in a circle on the blanket, but I opted to sit on the couch. All the women eagerly awaited their chance to hold him and coo over his soft pudgy face. He crawled from person to person, eating up the attention admonished upon him. Even the other husbands seemed to be entranced by him. After a few minutes, everyone in the room had held him except me. Karen, our other neighbor, had gotten a hold of him and looked my way.
"Tony," she said excitedly, "you haven't even paid the smallest bit of attention to your new neighbor. You better get to know him, you live next-door."
I refused; I wanted nothing to do with him, his milky breath and "new" scent. She was holding him in front of me, her elbows locked in place. His feet dangled above my lap, kicking just a little. I grabbed him just where Karen held him and everyone gasped, "Careful, he's delicate." Just as I took him, he began to pee all over my brand new shirt, a shirt I had purchased specifically for that occasion. He continued to nonchalantly move his little feet, a vacant glaze over his eyes.
Everyone in the room laughed and thought it was so cute.
What a funny story for them to tell everyone.
"Oh, remember that time Shep Jr peed on you?"
Yes, what a great story. How exciting. I get pissed on and everyone thinks about what a great story it will make.
No one thought to say, "Hey, let's get some paper towels," or, "Oh, no. I'm so sorry, Anthony."
The pee was something I could let go. He didn't know any better at the time. That was our first encounter, but it isn't what caused the rift. It was the second incident that really made our relationship sour. Shep and Terri were going out of town for a weekend, but they couldn't take their new addition with them. They asked my wife, Sheila, if we would baby-sit for them. She agreed without asking me. She knew I would have said no.
While I was at work that Thursday, they brought him over with all the things he needed for a four-day weekend. When I got home that afternoon Sheila greeted me at the door with a cold beer. At first, I thought she was confused about the day. (Friday, my busiest day of the week, is beer day.) I tried to argue, but it was too late. The Youngs had already left town. That night we put him in our room. He cried until Sheila put him in the bed with us. She made sure to place him as far away from me as she could.
I worked all day Friday, thankful for the first time that I was in my cubicle punching numbers and instant messaging coworkers. I spent Saturday in the yard away from his cries and whines. Sheila stayed inside and cooed over him the whole weekend. The weekend was our time to tend to our yard. It was what we liked to do, and he was taking it from me.
That night he whined until he got to sleep in the bed with us again. He had his own bed and I didn't understand why he couldn't sleep there. He would eventually have to learn to sleep in his own bed, why not now? At around three o'clock in the morning it happened. I felt something warm on my back. Then, it turned into something wet. He had peed again and it had seeped over to my side of the bed. I jumped up screaming, shaking and flailing my arms. Sheila jumped out of bed, terror streaked across her face at the sound I was making. She ran over to me and asked what was wrong.
I pointed at the bed and said, "He is what's wrong. He peed on me again."
Sheila tried to keep a smile from breaking across her face, but couldn't hide it for long. Her face slowly cracked and she began to giggle into her hands. I lost it again, screaming and pointing at him. Shep whined from the bed.
Sheila ran over to him and cradled him in her arms. "He's just a baby. He doesn't know any better."
Oh, he knows better. He did it on purpose, I thought to myself. I boiled inside, knowing that if I voiced my opinion that he did it on purpose she would think I was crazy. He just did not like me. So what he was still technically a baby, that doesn't excuse anything. Frustrated at my own wife I showered and slept in the guest room.
Shep grew into a fetching young pest and our malice for one another grew, too. Whenever he was in the yard he taunted me, making sure I knew he did not like me. Every time I tried to pat Shep on the back or give Terri a hug he would position himself between us. I dealt with his little antics, but anytime I tried to shake a finger at him or correct him everyone would take up for him.
"He's only two."
"He's only being playful."
"He'll learn to like his Uncle Tony."
Lies, all lies. He never grew to like his "Uncle Tony." I guess I was as much his uncle as Shep and Terri were his mother and father.
It was New Year's Eve 2004 at the Young house, two years to the day, when the feud became a full-fledged war. Due to the unusually warm temperature that year they decided to have part of the party around the pool. They uncovered the pool and filled it with floating candles. They had even rented tents with heaters hanging from the ceilings just in case he became too cold. It was an "all out affair," or so the neighborhood called it.
Shep Jr had taken a liking to the pool in recent years. Shep had warned everyone that his "little man" needed to be kept inside. The "little man" liked the floating candles and had been tipping them over. He wiggled out of the sliding glass door when someone was bringing a food dish to one of the tents. I was the one who caught him and put him back in the house. He was wearing a sweater his mother had made for him. It was red with a little yellow duck acorss the chest. It looked stupid on him and I had told him so.
I said, "Shep, that sweater makes you look stupid."
He just looked at me and walked away, but I know he understood what I said.
He watched me through the glass door, waiting for another chance to get out. I asked Shep why they didn't make him play in his room, and they said they wanted him to enjoy the party, too.
Twenty minutes after I had dragged him back into the house he escaped again. I was enjoying one of the crab cakes Terri had made. They were the best I had ever eaten. Crab cakes were my favorite finger food. Yes, were. Oh, how I do miss that breaded patty of crabmeat and spices.
It happened in a flash.
I had just taken a bite from one of the four crab cakes I had on my plate. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a red streak.
He rounded the pool and, before I could swallow the large bite in my mouth, he pushed me in the pool. Sharp needles pierced every inch of my skin. It was like the cold hit me slowly, then all at once. I sucked in a gallon of water along with the rest of my crab cake. I came up out of the water choking on fried breadcrumbs and chlorinated water.
A barrage of hands grabbed at me and pulled me out of the freezing water. They sprawled me out on the cement among their penny loafers and pointed designer shoes. My eyes caught site of him across the pool, hiding behind his mother. I lifted my head and turned on my side. I vomited crab and pool water all over Gary Williams' thousand-dollar suede shoes (Shoes that I later paid for. Gary wouldn't stop telling the story, so I offered to buy him a new pair if he would shut up.) To this day I cannot eat crab cakes. I can hardly think of one without feeling bile jump into my throat.
New Year's Day 2005 I began plotting my revenge. I was not going to let this two-year-old tormentor grow into a three-year-old tormentor. He was going to learn his lesson, and I was going to teach it to him. In public, I pretended to make light of the incidents, especially around Shep and Terri. I never wished him any harm; I only wanted to patch, so to speak, our feud. I was willing to do what his parents were too soft to do.
The first step was the easiest. I had to make him understand I was the alpha male. I had to give him the warning: call a truce or expect retaliation. During one of our game nights at the Young house I caught him in his room. He was there among all his toys, remnants of Batman action figures and G.I. Joes. The destructive little tyke had broken most of the toys the day they were given to him. I scanned the room, trying to understand why the Youngs would spend so much money on toys that would be destroyed in a matter of hours, even minutes.
He was standing in the middle of the carnage, an army man dangling from his mouth. The body was covered in his drool. It was disgusting. I bent over to get just about eye level with him. He held my gaze, chewing his toy, uninterested in my presence. I took a deep breath and let it out through my nostrils.
"You have two choices," I said to him. He remained still, seemingly disinterested in what I had to say.
"You can stop this feud now. We can make a truce and be friends. Or, the next time you make a fool of me I will retaliate. If that happens, and believe me when I tell you, it will be a retaliation exponential to anything you have ever done to me."
They were big words, but the words didn't matter. My tone of voice got the point across to him. I stood straight up but continued to hold his gaze. Slowly, he walked closer to me and let the army man drop between my feet. Then, he broke my stare and looked at the fallen army man. It was a truce, then. He was defeated. I turned and walked out of the room, my head held high.
I had won.
But, I had not won.
I had only been led to believe I had won. My guard was down. For three months after my warning all was peaceful. My regular trips to the Young house with my wife passed without incident. Our game nights and parties were fun again. I was my old self with my friends, people I had always enjoyed being around until he arrived. Now, with our feud behind us we were cordial to one another. He acknowledged my presence and was respectful when I was around. I even grew to like him a little.
But, like I said, it lasted three months. They were great months. If only it could have remained peaceful. I could have let the past be in the past. I would have kept our friendship at arm's length, but for the purpose of appearances, I would have faked a congenial demeanor with Shep Jr; pat his back, ruffled his fuzzy head, told him I liked his sweater.
The day he tore it apart, the day he broke any hope of keeping things civil, was a beautiful spring day. Sheila and I had invited all of our neighborhood friends over for a barbeque. The weather was perfect and our backyard had finally filled in with vibrant green, lush grass. I had been waiting to have a party in the back yard since we moved in, but the grass had never fully covered the yard.
I woke early that morning to set out the grill and brand new patio set we bought for the occasion. I set up the badminton net Sheila gave me for Christmas that year. The paper lanterns were strung around the patio and down the fence. The yard was a picture perfect barbeque scene. As I stood back to capture the image in my mind I realized I had forgotten to get ice. I drove into town to fill our two ice chests and buy beer for the guys. I stopped by the bakery to buy a red velvet cake with white icing, Sheila's favorite.
It was such a beautiful day.
I arrived home thirty minutes before our guests were invited to arrive. I brought the cake in first, my way of buttering up to her before I began drinking. When I opened the box to reveal the dessert her face lit up. She looked beautiful in her flowy white dress. I wanted to bring her to the bedroom right then, but she wouldn't let me. She turned and placed the cake on the counter. I grabbed her around the waist and turned her around. I kissed her and pressed my hips against hers. She pushed my chest back and stopped kissing me.
"The guests will be arriving soon," she said, and returned to chopping vegetables.
I pouted over to the sliding door to the backyard, stopping with my fingers on the handle. I stared into the yard, the yard I had meticulously mowed and Weedeated. The yard I had decorated, where I set up tables and placed them with real silverware and plates, the brand new barbeque pit, the snack table with the carved watermelon center piece Sheila made by hand.
I opened the glass door and my face smashed into the screen door. Shaking, I opened the screen door, and walked through the disaster that had once been the setting for the perfect backyard party. The watermelon was smashed and the snacks were missing. The tables and the barbeque pit had been knocked over. The yard had been scarred and torn up. I took a few steps onto my beautiful hand seeded lawn and felt a squish beneath my shoe.
I didn't need to look down to know what I would find. But, I looked anyway. There it was, the one piece of evidence I needed; a big, brown, stinking pile of Shep Jr's shit. I looked over at the snack table and its white tablecloth. There was a streak of yellow where it draped to the ground.
"Sheila," I shouted as I turned on my heels and stormed to the gate. I heard the glass door open, and Sheila's gasp follow. She called after me, but I was already walking through the open gate, heading for Shep and Terri's house.
Did I leave the gate open? Why did I leave the gate open? I should have known better. I might have been muttering to myself, or the thoughts could have been rushing silently through my mind. At the time, I wasn't really paying attention.
I was in the Young's yard before Sheila was able to catch up to me. She grabbed my wrist, but I pulled it away from her. I banged my fist on their door, and shouted for Shep Jr. I could barely hear Shep call out for Terri to get the door. A low, grumbling bark accompanied his shouting. Terri answered the door with a perturbed look across her face.
"Anthony? What's with the banging," Terri asked.
"Where is he Terri? Where's that son of a bitch," I shouted at her.
Sheila was behind me, trying to calm me down, telling me not to shout. I ignored her, he had gone too far and it was their fault, too.
"Shep Jr, get your ass out here," I yelled over Terri's shoulder. Then, she shut the door on me. I banged again until Shep answered the door. His face was red. He squared his body in the doorway as though he was ready for a fight.
"This is between me and him," I told him, trying not to shout.
"Anthony," he started, then stopped and shook his head. "Are you crazy? He's a dog, my dog. It's between you and me, he can't defend himself. What are you talking about, anyway?"
Oh, but didn't he know? Couldn't he see what Shep Jr was doing? Didn't everyone see how he was tormenting me, trying to make me lose my mind? He had planned everything from the first day.
"Shep, he can defend himself. We had a deal," I told him.
"What? I didn't make any deal with you," he said perplexed.
"No, not you and I. He and I made a truce. We've been staying out of each other's way for months. He's crossed the line today. Go see what your sweet little son has done to my yard."
I stopped and waited for him to say something. Instead, he stood there, studying my face. He began to smile; he must have thought I was joking. Then, his smile quickly faded. Sheila rested her hand on my shoulder.
She whispered, "Oh, honey."
I turned to see her face bathed in concern and worry. A rustling sound from inside the house caught my attention. I peered behind Shep, and there he was, smiling with his tongue hanging out his tail wagging slightly.
"I hate you," I said to Shep Jr.
"Why do you hate him so much?" Shep asked.
"Because he's just like the rest of them. He's just like Buddy."
"Your dad's dog Buddy? Is that with this has been about?" Sheila asked.
I turned away from the Young's house and shuffled back to my own. I locked myself in the dark of my room. I passed the rest of the day sulking through memories.
Buddy was my dad's dog, but he was supposed to be my dog.
I was eight when we picked him out at the animal shelter. He immediately took to my dad. He slept in my parent's bed, shadowed every step my father made, and quickly became over protective of my dad. I couldn't even hug my dad without Buddy growling and trying to push me away.
I believed Buddy had taken my place in my dad's heart. It was like my dad had used him as a substitute for another son. He was always talking to Buddy, and asking Buddy to go for a ride to the store. Buddy was allowed to treat me however he wanted. If I tried to discipline him for growling at me, or begging for the food on my plate, dad would fuss at me and say Buddy was just playing. But, like Shep Junior, I knew Buddy hated me. Whenever Dad wasn't around he would want me to scratch him behind the ears, but he ignored me when dad was in the house.
It was my responsibility to make sure his water bowl was full and he was fed twice a day. I fed him dry dog food and Dad fed him scraps from dinner. I had to pick the ticks from his back and spray him down with the flea spray. Buddy knew me as the "tick picker" and Dad was the "scrap giver." There was no real wonder why Buddy didn't like me.
Since he was "my dog" it was also my responsibility to clean up his messes in the backyard. I used a shovel to scoop it into a paper bag. I wasn't allowed to just throw it in the trashcan, I had to bury it in the woods. There were times when I would be scooping up a pile and Buddy would squat right next to me and take another shit, staring at me the whole time.
I vowed to never own another animal in my life, but I never got my revenge on Buddy.
After the neighborhood heard about my "attack" on the Youngs they decided not to show up for the party. Nobody even called to find out my side of the story. By the end of the day, I was known as the crazy man down the street who talks to dogs. Our friends abandoned us over a dog. It was Dad and Buddy all over again.
Within a week the truth came out. It was a group of neighborhood boys that had been the cause of destruction. I was forced to apologize to the Youngs. I even had to get down to Shep Jr's level and apologize to him. He licked my face and everyone "awwwed." It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.
But, I secretly vowed to retaliate. Shep Jr. had shit in my backyard.
That night, after I hit him, I threw him in the trunk and drove out to the area of the neighborhood still under construction. All the tools I needed to bury his remains and wash off the bumper of my car were there waiting for me. Everything had been arranged by divine intervention.
As I threw shovel after shovel onto his lifeless body I imagined he was Buddy, and I was burying him with his shit like when I was a boy. I patted the last shovel of dirt on the grave and felt a cool breeze of relief wash over me.
Looking up at the full moon I howled triumphantly.