A journal of narrative writing.
Death of the Dog Boy
Page 2

The dog-boy's regression was even swifter than his development. Yolanda remembered when and how it began, but for years afterward puzzled over the why. Cuddled against Aaron in the love seat, with Chris curled at their feet, she was watching a newscast—which included something about a relief mission in Somalia. During a commercial break, Aaron patted his son's head and said, "Hey, fella, bring me a Bud Lite from the fridge, okay? Pretty please?"

Christopher Bernard stood, stared at the TV screen and, without moving a step, began to tremble. "Jesus, what's wrong, fella?"

Trembling more violently, the boy collapsed and laid his head in Yolanda's lap. "Hold him there, Yolo, and I'll get some Tylenol."

The medicine seemed to help. The trembling stopped. Without a word Christopher rose, turned, and ascended the stairs to bed. The next day Yolanda noticed that he was dragging his left leg, and that his left arm seemed somewhat stiff. Two days later, however, his body behaved normally again. "He'll be okay, Yolo, don't you worry. He's a good one," Aaron said.

But he wasn't okay. The boy began retreating to a vacant corner of the living room,

his hindquarters crouched a few inches above the carpet, staring straight ahead. Then he would get to his feet and dash madly around the room, head turned toward his backside, where the stump of a tail was emerging. "What is it, Chris? Tell me, what is it?" Yolanda would ask. He would either stare up at her dumbly with watering amber eyes or try to answer in deep-throated monosyllables.

"He'll be okay, Yolo. Just give him time," Aaron said, but didn't sound too convincing. "Probably just a phase he's going through, like the terrible twos. Like the pediatrician said, we've been expecting too much from him. Give him time to get back into . . . to be a more normal kid."

As the body-hair with which he was born began to reappear, Christopher Bernard became more restless, hurling himself against the kitchen door until Yolanda let him out. After several hours he would return, exhausted and hungry, whining for food and attention.

Then came the disturbing phone call. "Hi, honey, this is Janice—you know, the gal who runs the beauty shop down the road from your place. That's right, the Country Clipper. Anyway, I hate to complain and I know you must be pretty stressed out, but your . . . your son has been coming here almost every afternoon and rooting around my rhododendron shrubs."

"I'm terribly sorry, Janice. I'll come right over and . . . ."

"I really wouldn't mind so much about the flowers, and I'm used to dogs—love 'em, in fact. It's just that my clients are starting to complain."

"I'll be there immediately, and make sure it doesn't happen again."

"Don't you bother. I've got a free hour, and I'll bring him over. As soon as I find the rest of his clothes. His jeans and shirt are here, but I haven't yet rounded up his shoes and socks or his underpants."

Yolanda didn't say anything to Aaron about the call, but either Janice or her clientele must have gossiped. Home from work the next evening, Aaron simply clamped his hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eye, and shook his head. The next day he brought home several rolls of snow-fencing, along with plenty of six-foot metal stakes, and worked far into the night to create a small enclosure around the house.

Christopher Bernard was strong and cunning enough, at first, to wedge his way between broken slats of the fencing, and escape into the meadow and cornfields behind the house. Yolanda would set off in search and pursuit, coaxing him back home with her singsong call and the lure of a cube steak.

For a while after Aaron reinforced the fence with barbed wire, the dog-boy would gallop around its inner periphery, stopping to test its former openings, yelping when his nose got wedged between the wire. Yolanda was sometimes tempted to open the makeshift gate for him, but remembered her husband's warning. "He's gotta learn, Yolo. We can't let him have the run of the neighborhood. We've probably spoiled him rotten, and now we've gotta discipline him. I know it's tough on you, but you've gotta let him know who's boss. If he doesn't quiet down, or do what you tell him, put him up in his room, lock the door from the outside, and don't let him out until he's ready to obey."

Aaron was right. It was difficult for her to listen to his howling and scratching at the bedroom door, or trying to gnaw his way out. Before Christopher Bernard was compliant enough not to require isolation training, Aaron had replaced two doors for the dog-boy's bedroom. Eventually Christopher Bernard learned to heed their commands, especially Yolanda's, who hugged and kissed him when he did as told. On especially good days, she would take him outdoors where, joined by Janice's gregarious Airedale Rudy, they would romp down the meadow and into the cornfields across the creek adjoining their property. Sometimes she would remove her bra or halter, take out her bobby pins, and let the wind stream through her hair and against her body. At the end of an active day outdoors, she loved to bathe Christopher, knowing how much he enjoyed being soaped, rinsed with piping hot water wrung from a washcloth, and toweled dry. On cold or rainy days, she would seat him at her feet, reading him nursery rhymes or Dr. Seuss stories, feeling his head bob to their rhythms.

When Aaron realized what was happening to his son , initially he responded according to whatever mood he was in. If he'd had a good day at work, he might bring home a half-pound of ground sirloin or a T-bone for Christopher, whose ears always rose at the pick-up's arrival, and who always greeted Aaron at the back door.

On one such evening the dog-boy received the name to which he answered for the rest of his life, and by which Yolanda was to remember him. Aaron entered the kitchen with Christopher Bernard yelping happily at the blood-stained package in his hand, stooped to scratch his son's neck, and said, "Hey, hey, Buster Brown, glad to see your old man, are you?"

"Buster," Yolanda repeated. "Buster. That's who he is. Remember, Aaron? That evening in the cornfield? Buster."

Hearing the name pronounced four times, Buster turned from the meat Aaron had brought him, trotted over to Yolanda, and rubbed against her thighs. "You're right, Yolo," Aaron said. "I sure do remember."

Sometimes, though, Aaron came home weary and irritable, pushing Buster away and complaining that Yolanda wasn't training him properly. And as the months went by with no change in Buster's behavior, he became increasingly critical of his wife and son. "What're we going to do with him, dear? He's not getting any better, and you know it. I'm paying good money in taxes to the state. They must have some sort of training facilities, some . . . institution . . . for kids like him."

"We're not putting Buster in any institution, Aaron. He's our son, and he's staying right here with us."

A few weeks later one of Aaron's construction sites was flooded, and he drove home early to find Buster, Yolanda, and Rudy returning, soaked to the skin, from an afternoon romp. "What is this, Yolo? Don't you have any pride, any shame? What'll people think?"

"People understand. And for all I know, they accept him."

"And why can't you accept the fact that your son's retarded? Severely retarded. All this time you're spending with him doesn't change that fact one bit. He'd be better off—we'd all be better off—with him in an institution."
"He's not retarded. He's just special. He's . . . Buster." She fell to her knees and rubbed her chin against the dog-boy's glistening fur, inhaling the odor of damp cornfields.

So Buster remained at home, while Aaron stayed away more and more often at night—checking blueprints with an architect, he said, going over accounts in his office, or helping crew members celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries. On one of his home evenings, he let the evening paper drop from his hands and stared at the opposite wall as tears rolled down his cheeks. Buster crawled over to him and laid his head on Aaron's lap. Aaron began stroking his son behind the ears, then dropped his hand . "Why did it turn out like this? Why?"

Yolanda came over and put her arms around his neck, bending to kiss him on his bald spot. He remained motionless, staring at the wall.

The last phase of Buster's life began about two months before his death, on an evening when Aaron returned home late, slammed the pick-up door more vigorously than usual, and strode to the kitchen door with a white plastic bag in hand. "Here," he said. "Something for Buster.

Yolanda reached in and withdrew three plastic cylinders, amber with white screw-on tops. "What in the world . . . ?"

"Thorazine. Depakote. And Prozac. For Buster, like I said. I made another visit to his pediatrician. It's not important how I got the prescriptions. The main thing is that we have them, and that Buster take them regularly."


"Why do you think? To give him a chance. The chance to become a more useful, normal member of society. Isn't that what you want?"

That night, and every morning and evening for several weeks afterwards, Aaron pried open Buster's mouth and Yolanda thrust three pills down his throat. One of them held his jaw shut until he swallowed, then she rewarded him with several swigs of red pop or root beer.

For ten days there was no obvious change in the dog-boy's behavior. "Don't expect an instant miracle," Aaron said. "I've been reading up on these drugs. You have to wait 'til they reach a therapeutic level in his blood stream."

After three weeks, Buster had gained five pounds, most noticeably as baby fat in his cheeks and under his chin. Outdoors, he began to squint against the sunlight, and to balk at Yolanda's attempts to make him run or walk with her and Rudy. He lost interest in the friendly Airedale, who wandered forlornly around the fenced-in yard while Buster spent more and more time indoors. The dog-boy's digestion reacted to his medication with a hardening of the feces, until Yolanda was forced to supplement his pills with twice-daily dosages of Milk of Magnesia.

Lacking physical, outdoor exercise, Buster grew increasingly restless and temperamental, pacing around the parlor like a philosopher groping for forgotten revelations. Often he mumbled aloud in an unintelligible vocabulary, alternated with yips and high-pitched whining. In the midst of a Dr. Seuss story by which Yolanda momentarily quieted him, he would shake his head, leap to his feet, and resume his pacing.

After his insomnia set in, Buster—if allowed-- would roam the house all night. Only by lying next to him, pinning him against the wall, could Yolanda keep him in bed. Hour after hour she would sing to him the lullabies recalled from her childhood, or folk songs from her ancestral home in North Carolina. Sometimes her singing would lull him to sleep. Sometimes she would fall asleep before he did, and wake up the next morning to find him still next to her, staring at the ceiling.

At first Aaron accepted his son's restlessness as a sign of reawakening intellect. As weeks went by with no improvement in Buster's behavior, his attitude changed from approval to grudging tolerance to overt criticism. As she was trying to sing her child to sleep, Aaron would stand outside the door. "For Christ's sake, Yolo, come to bed. With me. I can't get a decent night's sleep when I know you're in there, still awake." Or he would return from work to find her reciting nursery rhymes to Buster, and a note on the kitchen table: "Leftover casserole in fridge. Heat it in the microwave, and help yourself."

Just two weeks before the dog-boy's death, Yolanda herself found a note when she came down for breakfast. "When I can't even compete with my own mongrel son, it's time I find myself another woman. Good luck with Buster." Clipped to the note were six twenty-dollar bills.

The next afternoon she learned from Janice that Aaron had taken up with a girl named Lureen, the seventeen-year-old daughter of his business partner Jason—a sultry brunette whose pubic hair, according to widespread report, glowed and crackled in the dark. "At least you know where he is, honey," Janice said. "When my Freddie left me, I hadn't the foggiest where he went. The son-of-a-bitch!" The following Saturday a check for $120.00 arrived in the mail. Left alone with Buster, she devoted herself all the more fully to her son.

For an hour after the accident, she sat numbly behind the locked door of her kitchen, brooding, recollecting, Buster's still-warm body laid out beside her, refusing to let anyone intrude, while the telephone rang and rang until the answering machine clicked on. Finally she roused herself enough to pull the plug on the machine, change into clean clothes, and put her bloody jeans and underpants to soak. Returning to the kitchen, she filled a dishpan with warm water, spread an old towel on her lap, and swabbed her dog-son clean.

When she decided to listen to her voice mail, Janice's sympathy was the first to reach her. "I'm so sorry, honey. Buster was a real sweetie, and I know how much he meant to you. It's a terrible thing, a terrible loss, but you really can't blame the bus driver. It was probably a rabbit or squirrel he was chasing across the road."

She knew, however, that Buster had never chased small animals—had never romped and seldom run during the previous weeks. Something else had driven him under the wheels of that bus, she suspected: a chill, dawning awareness of what he had been, what he was, and what he never could become.

And she knew now what was left to do. At Aaron's basement workbench she pried loose two slats from a leftover length of snow-fence, painted them with quick-drying white enamel, and nailed them together as a cross. On the horizontal slat she inked Buster's name, with his dates of birth and death. In another hour it would be dark. She would carry him to the old Toyota panel truck Aaron had left for her, load on a pick, shovel, and spud bar, and drive into the cornfield where Buster had been conceived almost three years earlier. After burying her son, she would return to telephone Jason, who was sure to tell her where he, Aaron, and their crew were working. The next day she would spot a mud-spattered red pick-up truck at the construction site, tell Aaron what she had thought and done, and ask him to come home.