I Killed a Dog

When I was twelve, I killed a dog.

We lived in a rent house next door to Frank and Ethyl McMillen, a nice older couple who allowed our entire family (dad, mom, me, sister, two little brothers) to tromp into their living room every Monday at 8 p.m. to watch Gunsmoke on their nice big console television. The adults sat in chairs, Frank and Ethyl in their recliners, we kids on the floor–they had carpet– and sometimes Ethyl would serve us homemade cookies but only when my mom said okay.

McMillens had a dog named Penny. Her muzzle had started to turn gray and her black-and-white body had taken on some extra weight. Little terriers like that don’t handle extra weight very well. She walked like a sausage with legs. We weren’t encouraged to pet Penny. She moved stiffly and had her own ideas about company. But she never growled or scared us.

Each day I walked to school down a long gravel alleyway that ran from beside our house (and McMillen’s house) due west to the end of the block. The route then took me across railroad tracks, then alongside the athletic field and into the north wing of Will Rogers Elementary where I attended sixth grade. When school was over, I walked home.

One day as I returned home, I heard kids shouting and screaming. I spotted a group of kids jumping around on the far side of McMillen’s house, so I ran over there. At least six kids of various ages had gathered around the flower bed where Penny and another dog were in a fight. Only Penny wasn’t fighting. The other dog, a brown boxer more than twice her size, had her by the throat and pinned down.

One little girl screamed, “He’s going to kill her.”

I saw that was true. I ran around and knocked on the McMillen’s door, but I already knew they weren’t home. I looked around for a weapon—a shovel, a stick—something I could use to pry the dogs apart. I considered reaching down to pull the boxer off Penny, but then I worried the boxer would attack me. I thought of calling for help, but everyone there had been yelling and no one had come.

I was the oldest kid there, a head taller than anyone else. Someone had to do something, and the task fell to me. I couldn’t stand there and watch Penny be killed.

So I kicked the boxer. In the head. With my saddle oxfords, big heavy shoes I had to wear with specially-made arch supports inside so I wouldn’t get fallen arches. My feet in those shoes dangled from the end of my legs like concrete blocks. It wasn’t without some serious clout that I aimed and fired with the toe of those shoes.

The boxer didn’t budge. In retrospect, I suspect my assault may have only intensified his determination. I kicked his head, careful not to also hit Penny. She had collapsed by now, resting against the red brick wall of the house and the well-tilled soil of Ethyl McMillen’s rose garden.

I kicked again and again, each time terrified I’d miss and hit Penny or that the boxer would turn and sink his teeth into my leg.

Why didn’t he let go? Why didn’t somebody come, a grown-up, someone who would know what to do? My heart pounded. Sweat poured off me. I was shaking all over.

Finally the boxer let go. Penny didn’t move. The boxer trotted away. The kids dispersed. I went home.

Two or three hours later, my dad stood outside talking to a man. My dad came back inside and asked me if I knew what I’d done. I told him what happened. He shook his head.

“That man,” he said, gesturing. “He came down here to tell me that his kids’ dog just died. In their bathtub, bleeding from his nose and ears. He said you kicked him to death.”

I stood there as all the feeling drained out of my head and chest. I couldn’t breathe. I had killed a dog. It wasn’t that my dad lectured me or seemed angry with me. He seemed bemused, unsure what to think that his oldest child had done such a thing.

The man had told him they paid fifty dollars for that dog. Did my dad have to pay him for the dog? I don’t know.

I don’t remember if my dad said I’d done something wrong. But I felt terrible anyway. No one hugged me and said they understood, that everything would be okay. No one seemed to recognize the trauma of my experience.

I think I cried later, after my sister in the twin bed next to me had gone to sleep, when no one would see or hear me.

I didn’t mean to kill a dog. I was trying to save a dog. Surely everyone understood that. Who else had any idea of what else I could have done? What anyone could have done? But it was my fault their dog died and they were mad.

Penny died, too. She would have died even if I hadn’t killed the boxer with my big heavy oxfords. My right foot.

It was their fault the boxer died, not mine. I understand this now. They had a dog who for no apparent reason invaded Penny’s home turf and attacked her. A dog like that shouldn’t have been allowed to roam loose, but in those days, leash laws didn’t exist. For all I know, the boxer may have killed other dogs in that neighborhood.

At the time, I knew none of that. I only knew that I had kicked a dog to death and its owners were mad at me and my dad was uneasy with the whole thing. I think the McMillens thanked me, but I don’t remember that part.

I remember the deep red of the brick, the soft sun-warmed dirt, the rose bushes and the big evergreen at the corner of the house. I remember the agitated neighborhood kids jumping around, yelling. I remember that boxer straddled over Penny as her big dark eyes bulged, her mouth gaping while the boxer kept his jaws firmly fastened over her throat. I remember the impact in my body of each kick, of holding myself steady for yet another carefully aimed blow to the boxer’s head.

I remember the impact of my foot against that dog’s skull. It traveled up my leg, through my hip, up my spine, and lodged in my head where memories stay forever.

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Those Pesky Emotions

Upon waking, I had thought to visit the library in search of more books by John Banville, a particular author who inspires me with his style of writing. I am currently halfway through one of his books and have periodically laid the volume aside to hack again at a long labor of mine, alternately caressed and despised, for nearly fifty years. This memoir relates a seven-year period of my life, if it ever sees print, both gut-wrenching and pathetic, a lament, self-aggrandizing, a confessional if you must.

Banville’s style is similar to my earlier writings, what came out of me in those days before I had published anything. My technical articles had seen print, and even essays on various personal topics—dreams, remembrances, all of it boiling with emotion. But after that first book, my writing wasn’t my own. I felt watched, self-conscious, fully inadequate to create anything of merit. What did I know, anyway?

Since then I have detoured into historical accounts of one thing or another, not anything to be ashamed of but nevertheless not of any emotional import. My slim efforts at fiction, where in theory emotion must reign supreme although within the harness so eloquently described by Frost, have failed to engage me—or readers. I have been terribly disappointed in that effort, as it seems I am unable—unwilling, in fact—to express or convey emotion because I steadfastly refuse to experience emotion. This failure is, as one of my characters says in a flash of fury, a response to the reality that emotion leads to pain.

Not just any pain, but a deep intractable burn that settles in the bones and leads like a labyrinth to all the many experiences of pain that I have swallowed down in the years of my life. Why should I willingly lay myself open to examine those hopeless dead-ends and hidden mortuaries? It’s not as if a re-examination will make anything change. I can’t excise the pain like a surgeon removing a misshapen, hidden tumor. Looking at and expressing it does nothing to ease its ability to wound. And re-wound.

But yet, as a writer, I must create stories that convey the experience of pain, of sadness, loneliness, despair, and all other human torments (alongside joy and pleasure, the light part of duality, the yin-yang) in order to give readers what they want. There’s some sickness in that formula, that readers seek new sources of pain in order to exhume and then exorcise their own long-hidden suffering. Is it that we don’t know we have pain? That we must cast our eyes along the pages to learn what we’ve hidden from ourselves? Is it that in living through fictional pain, distant as we are from any personal experience of it, that we can set aside the dragging fingernails of our own grief?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I only know I that must write, and in so doing, I become caught up in the expectation that what I write will have some meritorious impact, and in that I will gain not only self-respect but also some small congratulation even if only from a few. And so I daily strive, like today, to expand my understanding of how and why people read. I endeavor to learn more closely the peculiar ways in which successful authors manage their craft. John Banville wields words like an expert swordsman and inspires me to take a fresh look at my memoir in the belief, perhaps delusional, that if I can only find the right words, a more musical phrasing, a more authoritative approach to my efforts, I might then be able to invoke the appreciation Banville has garnered.

However, the morning nearly gone and having attended—shall we say deviated from my original intent?—to various uninspiring tasks and only just now trying again to read for inspiration, I am distracted by my plan to visit the library. I am only halfway resting in my chair, so urgent is my sense of duty to get in my car and go.

Which makes no sense because I have a half book left to read and therefore no urgent need to visit the library. I have business at the bank and mail to drop, but that’s only side dressing to my actual underlying urgency to visit the library this very moment. It’s not that I wouldn’t like a couple more Banville books in order to compare his style from one work to the next. Of course I would. The real underlying truth is, I want to escape this duty and secure a stack of romance novels to get lost in, to vacate any responsibility to learning or writing, and simply disappear into a fictional world not of my own making.

This leads me to suspect that if I was able, theoretically, to set my emotions free from their harness to run rampant across the page, I would be confronted with feelings I might not want to hear or see and be forced to start cudgeling them back like the wild beasts they are. Or, as I once understood it, I might start screaming and not be able to stop, embarrassing me, my pets, and the neighbors.

Its or It’s?

Unique to humans, language is our most widespread way of communicating. The more clearly we express ourselves, the better our chances of success in any life endeavor. Not only do better communication skills help us interact with others, these skills also allow us to organize our internal thoughts better.

As a former English teacher, I’m often pained with the confusion of language pouring into our ears and eyes on a daily basis. But hey, we were all so young when we sat in our last English class. Much of what we heard went in one ear and out the other without lingering even one minute in our frontal lobes. Therefore, as a public service certain to garner scorn heaped upon my head, I will now embark on a few brief lessons in grammar.

#1 – The most conspicuous in this communication confusion is the wayward apostrophe. This little quirk of ink is meant, most of the time, to show possession. Its close twin in usage is its role in substituting for a missing letter, as in a contraction.

In possessive use, I’m talking about Marcie’s shawl. Or Tom’s briefcase. The apostrophe is NOT meant to show plural, as in “There were twelve Marcies in the room.” NOT “There were twelve Marcie’s in the room.,” the latter suggesting that there twelve of Marcie’s something in the room.

The use of an apostrophe in showing more than one (plural vs singular) is an invasive creeping blight that appears in all kinds of places. You’d think sign painters and retailers would have a glimmer of awareness about this problem. Maybe they just don’t care that their failure to communicate could cause puppies to die.

Or at least lead to Grammar Nazis convulsing on their front sidewalk.

Now this apostrophe problem would be easy to solve for most people if that’s was all there was to it. But apostrophes show up again in contractions such as “I’m” meaning “I am” and “it’s” meaning “it is.” Not too many people miss the “I’m” and “can’t” and “Tom’s” punctuation, but an endless stream of “it’s” show up when someone wants to describe the problem with “its,” in this usage referring to a sled. In “its long path downhill…,” “its” shows possession without an apostrophe.

Simple rule for “it’s”? If you can substitute with “it is,” you’re doing it right.

Otherwise, ask yourself if you’re using the troublesome little quirk in place of a missing letter. That’s a contraction. [Notice my clever usage of the apostrophe in place of the “i” in “That’s,” as in “That is.”

For yet another discussion in this endless harangue over apostrophes, there’s this article in The Atlantic magazine.

 

#2 in our list of confusing grammatical mistakes is the endless conundrum about contractions. I’ll simply insert this instructive meme here in hopes of making my point without belaboring it. If the language offends you, please accept my apologies. The creator of this learning aide merely meant to gain your devoted attention.

#3 in our list of confusing grammatical mistakes is the dangling modifier. This is not, as some might think, a reference to certain anatomy. Well, maybe. In some cases. But stop and think—what is a modifier? Or more fundamentally, what does “modify” mean?

Modify means to refine something. Add to it, clean it, change it in some way, large or small. A mechanic overhauling an old car is modifying it. A carpenter repairing a broken staircase is modifying it. Likewise, our communications aren’t “Dick ran.” or “Mary fell.” These words and ideas need modifiers to help us understand more about what we’re trying to say.

When words are added to modify the meaning of a word or phrase, the modifiers add a better understanding of what the modified word means. For example, in the sentence “The boy ran,” we get the basic idea. It’s the noun (boy) with the verb (ran), noun and verb being the skeletal structure of any sentence. But if we say “The seven-year-old boy ran fast.” we have modified “boy” with the adjective “The” and the adjective term “seven-year-old.” We’ve also further explained what we mean about “ran” with the adverb modifier “fast.”

[Clearly, the term “adverb” means adding to the verb. The term “adjective” is less obvious, since it doesn’t explicitly say “adding to a noun.” But that’s what it means.]

Modifiers can be single words or entire phrases. I’ll leave it at that, although in the foggy heights of grammar, entire sentences can also modify. And often do.

Actually, while I’m slightly off-track, I’ll go ahead and say that to some extent, most of what we might say or write serves to modify an initial idea or statement. In a novel, an entire plot concept is modified through hundreds of pages of development and explanation.

But back to the heinous task at hand. Let’s add a bit more information to this basic sentence: “Worried about missing his dinner, the seven-year-old boy ran fast.” Here the initial phrase “Worried about missing his dinner” is a further modifier of “boy.” The mistake that often occurs is that the speaker/writer will not directly connect the modifier to the word it modifies but dangles in some other part of the sentence. You might see this error as “The seven-year-old boy ran fast worried about missing his dinner.”

This type of error occurs frequently because our minds gather the words and work out the meaning even if the word placement is somewhat garbled. Even though the modifying phrase is most closely situated next to “run fast,” we could easily understand that the modifier refers to the boy, not that it tells us anything about his running or how fast. This kind of short cut occurs all the time, especially in the media where the objective is to skip through as much language as possible in order to dispense more information in a shorter period of time. Viewers have the advantage of watching body language or seeing images that help modify the limited spoken words.

Shortcuts like these don’t work as well in written media where only words are present to explain what is meant. For example, this sentence attempts to give information about an archaeological discovery:

“Archaeologists have unearthed a 2,400-year-old burial containing the remains of men, women, and children arranged in an interlocking spiral shape while investigating the ancient settlement of Tlalpan in southern Mexico City.”

But because the modifying phrase does not appear next to the word(s) it modifies, the sentence is awkward if not confusing. Better: “While investigating the ancient settlement of Tlalpan in southern Mexico City, archaeologists have unearthed a 2,400-year-old burial containing the remains of men, women, and children arranged in an interlocking spiral shape.”

Multiple websites hosted by Grammar Nazis offer a multitude of similar examples. The following are from one such site:

“Hoping to garner favor, my parents were sadly unimpressed with the gift.”

Problem: This is a dangling modifier because we do not know who or what was hoping to garner favor. It is unlikely that the parents were hoping to garner favor, since they wouldn’t have given an unimpressive gift to themselves.

Correction: This sentence could be corrected by adding a proper subject, or identifying the person who was hoping to win over the parents. For example,

Hoping to garner favor, my new boyfriend brought my parents a gift that sadly unimpressed them.

Now, the modifier is no longer dangling, since the subject- or the person- who is hoping to garner favor is identified.

“Hoping to excuse my lateness, the note was written and given to my teacher.”

Problem: Here, it seems as though we have a subject- my. However, my is part of the modifier and not the subject itself.

Correction: We need a subject that is modified by hoping to excuse my lateness, since obviously the note didn’t have those hopes.

Hoping to excuse my lateness, I wrote a note and gave it to my teacher.

Now, the problem is resolved. I am the person who is hoping to excuse my lateness, so I wrote a note and gave it to my teacher.

After reading the great new book, the movie based on it is sure to be exciting.

Problem: Again, we are left wondering exactly who read the great new book. The phrase can’t possibly be modifying the movie, since the movie can’t read.

Correction: A subject must be added so the modifier has something to describe, change or limit.

After reading the great new book, Anna thought the movie based on it was sure to be exciting.

In the remote possibility that you’re still reading at this point, I’ll just sign off my duty as a worthy citizen by offering this link to yet more common grammar mistakes. Hey, it’s a hellish job but somebody’s got to do it.

 

Re-Blog — Writing Blocks

By Lesley Vos Once upon a time, someone somewhere told people they couldn’t be creative writers if didn’t have particular genes or characteristics of brains. Gone are those days when we believed those yucks. Writers have learned to unlock and develop creativity with particular daily routine and lifestyle. Positive thinking, mindfulness, tons of writing techniques, and […]

via 5 Sly Habits Able to Poison Your Writing Creativity — Interesting Literature