Monday, September 25, 2017

Dog Breeder by Frank Beyer

Frank Beyer's character finds that his father's obsession with breeding show dogs has gone too far, and he must take drastic action.

The ambulance arrived five minutes after I made the emergency call. The paramedics put a brace on Dad's neck. They got him on a stretcher, out the gate and into the back of the ambulance. Dad's eyes were open, but he didn't say anything. He was getting too old for this kind of carry on. Or maybe he was too young? He was years off being frail. One of his dogs had knocked him over and he'd bumped his head on the concrete path in the garden. The paramedic who rode with us in the back, a well-built Samoan guy, told us that he had a naughty dog too. Dad managed a smile. I couldn't, I felt bloody sick that one of Dad's dogs had caused trouble again.

As a precaution Dad was kept in overnight. I went back to the hospital straight after work the next day. A doctor wanted to see me. He was tall and broad-shouldered, the kind you expect to be supremely confident. A man of thirty with two kids, still managing to fit in club rugby on Saturdays. But this guy was tentative, embarrassed even. He spoke so quietly I didn't catch all of what he said: The blow to your father's head caused a minor concussion... few things were amiss... sweating profusely and pacing the ward last night... kept complaining that the sheets were giving him a skin rash there was no visible sign of... not symptoms of concussion. And then he said this: Did you know your father had a problem with amphetamines? Bloody hell no. I thought dexies were for dickheads down at the pub not somebody like Dad. The doctor outlined the steps for me to help the Old Man through. I had to get in touch with his GP as soon as possible, fill out such and such... I didn't really listen, dreading the forms and appointments.

I knew the drugs would have something to do with getting the dogs to win shows - what exactly? I couldn't imagine. Forcing the story out of Dad would be painful. How could a smart man be so dumb? I wasn't sure I had the patience to deal with this dog-drug conundrum.

After talking to the doc I went in to see to Dad. He was in a room of four but you could draw the curtains around each bed for privacy. The other men, reading the sports section, intermittently yelled out to each other about the weekend's matches. Dad didn't take part in this mateyness, he appeared calm, lying propped up in bed. His forehead a bit swollen. He would have been disappointed there wasn't more dramatic visible damage from the incident; he had no neck brace on now, and no tubes coming out of him. He looked at me, sighed and then turned his eyes to the ceiling... well you might as well know, how all this came about... You remember her? I had a sinking feeling he was going to tell one of his whacked out stories. He didn't usually say much, but when he did things came out in a jumble.

...She had a great face, noble even. Just what they say the breed should look like. But the judges penalized... back wasn't quite long enough, eyes could have been a shade darker. For a while I thought of giving up... but decided to keep on with it. I bred her puppies together, the ones with the longest backs. Not unusual for breeders to do this...

As a nurse entered to take Dad's drip out of his arm he fell silent. She was ancient and seemed to take and age to get the job done... Some years ago Dad got a dog and started showing it. He was one for picking up new hobbies. I went with him to a dog show just once. It was at a massive exhibition centre; the car park packed with station wagons and 4x4s. Inside was fun - dogs in cages - dogs prancing about in the show area - dogs on grooming tables. Dad didn't speak to anyone, he brushed his dog (the one with the too short back) and drank coffee. He practiced stacking her legs just so, to get her angulation looking good. Look at these perfect back legs and the width across the loins, she's got good healthy vertebrae with hips like that.

Thanks for the details Dad. In summary a decent specimen but flawed: she never won anything.

Times changed. Dad started winning with the dogs he bred. I was happy for him, dog showing was competitive and he'd got good at it quickly, without much background knowledge or support. He'd worked hard at it I guessed. He couldn't take failure. For some of us losing grates like a bad conscience. Dad was the sort you'd prefer to lose to in pool. It wasn't worth beating him if you know what I mean. He wouldn't let you go home until he won a game. After he had success with his dogs, I imagine he could actually bear to speak to other people at shows.

Unlike the doctor, Dad was not in the habit of getting to the point and once the nurse was gone he started to ramble again.

There was one puppy with the great face of his grandmother and long back of his parents. The back was so long, almost deformed - but that was the 'standard' for the breed. He'll bloody win best in show I said... but he turned out to hate judges, attacked them every time, a bad attitude... he wasn't the only one.

My dogs had become so pure bred that they had a few temperament problems, but they looked so good - I started giving them something to calm them down...

For the pretty one I came across a successful formula of giving both painkillers for his long back and something to stop him panicking and biting judges... he bloody well did fantastic after that! Best in breed, best in show.

The next generation were lethargic due to the inbreeding - Christ they'd sleep twenty-three hours a day if you let them. Judge can't check out the posture of a sleeping dog! That's where the amphetamines came in. Started slowly, very small doses... pep them up just a little bit when needed... I didn't start going down the road to the club because I wanted to play bowls son! I had a dealer there. Can you believe that! He was selling it to those geriatrics. I tried whatever I gave the dogs to check it was safe. Amphetamines made me friendly, turning me into a good sort, shouting rounds at the club. It was all good, but soon the dogs started howling for their fix more often... and jeez, now I know what they were on about... I felt like hell last night. Didn't realise it'd got that out of control. You've got to fix the dogs up mate... they'll be suffering without me.

How had I not noticed any of this? I could blame my lack of action on my eternal hope in life: smoke does not mean fire. I had known he was obsessive about those dogs but it'd seemed a safe enough outlet for his energies.

I drove over to Dad's place, I had a key to the house and the shed too. The house was tidy, books stacked neatly on the coffee table, nothing giving away any signs of trouble. If anything it was too clean, one of mum's few complaints had been that Dad wasn't one for doing the dishes - but now the sink was empty and well wiped down. The large garden brought back memories of climbing apple trees, helping Dad in the veggie patch and bows and arrows. Dad always found me the best branches to make bows from. Last time I was here the dogs jumped all over me, so enthusiastic they scared me - fighting each other to get near me. Now they just lay around, following me with their eyes, tails giving a slight flicker of recognition. Some shivered, one made a kind of a coughing sound - who ever heard a dog cough? (Kennel cough mate, they got it at a show - bloody vet never mentioned there was a vaccination). Janice stuck her head over the fence, just what I needed. Poor dears, she said, they were howling for hours before you got here. Your father hasn't been answering his phone. Reece wanted to ring the SPCA, the police, anybody to complain but I put him off. I explained to her that Dad was in hospital and the dogs were very sick... after a few more poor dears she went away. I knew Janice and Reece would be glad to have no more dogs next door.

The garden backed onto the train tracks and beyond the land sloped up covered in fairly thick native bush. There was a fair bit more gorse than in years gone by. It wasn't unusual for someone to shoot a few possums over there around dusk. As a teenager I went shooting once with Reece the neighbour, I missed, but he got one. The dead possum had a baby in its pouch, red and hairless. The thing squirmed silently. Reece, ever practical, picked it up and slammed it against the ground - an instant kill. There in the garden with the wrecked dogs it was a day for such tough mercy.

I don't know about the accuracy of human directional hearing but I went to the neighbours two doors down either side to explain. The Old Man can't look after them properly... it has to be done. Only one lady, who I'd never talked to before, said I really should take them to the vet. That would be the normal thing to do! However, I didn't want the animal cruelty people investigating, not to mention it would have cost at least $100 dollars a dog to have them put down. Everybody else was understanding. It surprised me, as people here often loved their dogs more than anything else. I wondered what you could get away with in these parts, everyone just wanted things quiet. It made me think I should get to know my own neighbours better... could be a help if anything like this happened to me... but why would it?

It was less messy than I anticipated. I was worried that the .22 rifle would be too light for the job, but it wasn't. I tied the dogs up, but after the first shot the others didn't budge. Odd they didn't go nuts? Who knows the effect of withdrawal on the canine mind. The hard work was digging the holes in the dirt at the back of the garden. I worked like a madman - the longer I had to look at those lifeless bodies, the more likely I was to think about what I had done. I dragged the bodies over and flung them in the separate holes I had dug. That seemed some kind of respect, not putting them all down there together. I didn't mark the places they were buried. The only thing left to do was hose down the dark blood, drying on the concrete. On the way home I stopped at the butcher and picked up some gravy beef for my flatmate's dog; hardly made up for the situation.

After a very rough few weeks Dad accepted what had happened and started to get himself together - but lonely is the man who can't even have animals. He kept encouraging me to get into showing dogs... I found it funny that it would obviously make him proud. Eventually his mind moved on to other obsessions - the plant kingdom was still out there for him. At Christmas his roast was as cracking as ever, he even added parsnips and garlic to his usual range of veggies. He bored me about bonsai - he was now an expert on the subject, even though he hadn't actually bought any yet. I almost wished for the dogs back and made the mistake of telling him this. I mentioned it in a joking manner. He laughed too... but he broke down after dessert. He apologised (for crying) and told me to go home. Something terrible about real tears, but Dad's that day were some of the most painful I've seen. Tears several years old. As I was leaving, it came to me... how about a game of bowls next weekend Dad?

Aren't you a bit young for that! But he agreed to it before shutting the door on me.

6 comments:

  1. A well crafted insight into human dilemmas and the struggle for connection, many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I enjoyed this story. I was surprised that Dad could so easily move on from his dogs. Maybe it had to do with the drugs leaving him lethargic like the dogs. The scene when he kills and buries the dogs was well written and appropriately gruesome. I would suggest cutting out the neighbor's names and just saying the next door neighbor or the woman at the house next door etc. They are such minor characters that naming them just detracts and slows down the story (in my opinion).

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  3. a very well written story about father and son. i liked it a lot, nicely descriptive, but not overdone. the father´s obsessions a substitute for his wife? the son a totally convincing character, lack of patience, etc
    Good work

    Mike McC

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  4. Compelling and heart-wrenching, but maybe hopeful at the end. Very nicely done.

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  5. An irresistible tale of a difficult relationship with even more difficult consequences. The short sentence writing style is particularly effective when indicating the passage of time. Thank goodness for the narrator, and what next with Dad I ask?

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  6. Affords the reader a glimpse into the world of dog breeding - not for the faint of heart! Obsessive personalities will always find something to latch onto. Well-written examination of the father-son relationship.

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