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  • Jerome Berglund

French Wooden Clogs

“I can't stand it; I know you planned it.”

- Beastie Boys

The old crone was lying prostrate on the cement sidewalk in the backyard when the EMTs arrived on the scene. The day was hot, and the horseflies were buzzing and biting. Blind Dottie, terror of her senior condominium complex, was in the worst sort of mood.

When the emergency personnel asked her the standard questions, ‘does it hurt here?’, ‘can you move that’ and so on, she kicked off their discourse by slandering the lot of them most vociferously, spraying spittle through the air visibly in thin sinewy stands while they endeavored to coax and pry gently the answers require from her—so that they might, as summarily as reasonably possible, obtain license for hefting her up from where she lay beside the dog run area, upon which she’d found herself splayed out prone, become unable to right herself noticeably.

When they’d lifted Dottie and planted her back down she found her balance and slapped the paramedic’s hand away, calling him every name in the book. She further proceeded to level some generalized insults in the direction of those many gawking neighbors—whom she could apparently gather, either through inference or by means of that always astonishing preternatural sense she’d cultivated over the sightless decade preceding—had crept out onto their patios or tiptoed over from the parking lot and gardens to watch this spectacle playing out.

The neighbors shook their heads in repugnance, gaping in fascination at Dottie’s characteristically disgraceful conduct, but remained mum—every one being well familiar with the discomfort and bureaucratic jeopardy running afoul of that particular bitty would invariably mean for future association meetings and chance encounters in the elevator or lobby. Each was likewise hauntingly acquainted with the sort of poison-penned missives she could be counted upon to commission transcribed and printed accusingly in the building’s weekly newsletters, berating and infamously vicious, leveling unremitting ad hominems personal attacks of the cruelest most distressing varieties. No, old Dottie in her Sammy Davis spectacles demanded a wide berth and they were entirely happy to grant it to her.

Still, the EMTs had protocols they had no alternative but to follow, and that meant documenting information and ascertaining answers. When the hoary hag was uncooperative they redirected their attentions at the nearest ill at ease neighbor, a selfless long-suffering Samaritan who’d been keeping track of the blind woman’s seeing eye dog during all this commotion, had been dutifully stewarding it for some length of time while the crowd awaited help to arrive, being unable or unwilling to accept the responsibility and liability of erecting her themselves preferring to defer to the discretion of those more qualified, despite the objections of the bowled over harpy who insisted she was satisfactory and had everything perfectly under control.

“What happened?” one hangdog sap who appeared to be in charge inquired with perceptible disinterest.

"She tripped over her dog, on the way from taking it out to go to the bathroom,” the kindly woman—who lived with, and spent most of her waking hours caring for her ailing mother, a few doors down the hall from Dottie—explained, gazing down at the harried beast sorrowfully, intensely aware of the trials it must face every day sharing a roof with that, under the governance of such a tyrant. The good-natured dame shook her head sympathetically.

Nodding mechanically, the paramedic grunted in thanks, jotted something on a pad of paper and surveyed the courtyard discerningly. After a moment’s deliberation he advised the handiest residents—not tirading insensibly into nothingness, pointed a good thirty degrees off axis from where they stood—that they might as soon as possible want to consider installing a railing to block a hazardous slope which ran just alongside where Dottie had collapsed. It was sheer happenstance she had narrowly evaded tumbling ass-over-teakettle down its length. On a dark or slippery night, say in the winter season rapidly approaching, when shoulder month rains flash-froze into a skating rink across all exposed surfaces, any incautious resident—but particularly an ornery sightless bat stumbling cantankerously about like Mister Magoo—might with great ease inadvertently find themselves careening down such an obstacle, inviting quite conceivably anything from serious injury to fatality even.

The de facto representatives thanked him for this constructive advice, assured they would raise the issue and relay the recommendation at the next formal meeting of the Building and Grounds Committee, but confided what little faith they had in such a resolution ever passing. They related that such a renovation had already been suggested numerous times before actually, and been roundly rejected time and time again subsequently.

Despite some lackluster attempts at advocacy, and a perceptible majority supporting the measure, the proposal never could seem to gain any traction, or even the slightest momentum. When people brought it up the pat answer from the Board and Management Company was always the same: ‘Just look out for it!’

Well what about Dottie?!, some cheeky gadabout would always interject mischievously, halfway in jest. Because it was common knowledge that meant it would be time to brace themselves, for such commentary was inevitably guaranteed to provoke the resident in question to leap from her seat and begin indignantly insisting she didn’t need any daggum railing, that was what she had this mangy mutt here for! (*boot*…*yelp*), she was entirely self sufficient and could look after her damn self, dependably, thank you very much. Etcetera.

When the EMTs asked for confirmation regarding her ability to get back upstairs on her own without further assistance—that was to say, verify conclusively that she did not want a very expensive ride to the hospital—Dottie in no uncertain terms corroborated her full and miraculous recovery and demanded her impeccable self-sufficiency be logged and set down by them in the public record punctiliously.

Whirling dismissively, she flailed out into space then, screeching toward that helpful neighbor until Dottie had negotiated the black leather leash back into her talon-like claws. After administering upon her black lab a few chastising belts with it—to the mutual horror and disgust of all spectating, but particularly inspiring of shock and dismay by the medical professionals not yet familiarized and desensitized to such cruelty getting inflicted upon precious animals in their immediate vicinity.

Momentarily sated, Dottie harrumphed, and brushing her dress off huffily the way a Comanche woman beats out a rug, she commanded the emaciated beast to haul her wrinkled carcass like a charioteer back up to her unit.

For everyone present it was— as always—an unqualified relief to see the woman exiting center stage, and their various purviews and jurisdictions.[1] A collective sigh was expelled by all, and the ambulance men scooped up their gear and stretcher and beat a hasty retreat before Dottie could take her next imminent spill, or got an inclination to change her mind and take them up on that offer for a lift.

The tiny procession the woman and her canine made, visually approximating something between a disjointed bobsled team and a lurching conga line—the way Dottie worked the reigns, more uncomfortably resembled, at certain points, an attempted lynching quite distinctly —those witnessing it were, in each their own ways, experiencing something akin to mild or deep shame—at their own individual inabilities or unwillingnesses to intervene and rescue the poor thing, whose only sin in life was the misfortunate of having been entrusted into Dottie’s care.

They’d reported her maltreatment before, of course. A fat lot of good that had done. The state sanctioned overseers merely shrugged; the animal was ‘her property’ after all. In the eyes of the law the dog was a tool, a beast of burden bred for working which just so happened to be animate and somewhat sentient. Fortunately for Dottie this specific piece of expendable machinery had been laudably charged with fulfilling a humane and rewarding duty greater than its own base and selfish desires in service of her every capricious whim. The benefit of a superior race and species took precedence over some lowly beast’s petty interests, clearly. If that meant a few less milk-bones or frolics, well that was a sacrifice they were willing to permit another being suffer, for the greater good of humankind.

What was it God had so famously decreed? “And let them have dominion over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

The precedent was pretty cut and dry, open and shut, irrefutable by their estimation.

This was the particular animal’s Dharma, the gist of that argument went essentially. It was unfortunate, but cookies were designed to crumble that way. These rules had been set in place long before anyone alive today arrived on the scene. Antiquated and barbaric as a person might argue the practice to be, when assessed critically from a materialist standpoint, it was still widely accepted and exalted.

Consequently, public opinion was not anticipated to be shifting anytime soon. And those hound-like robots in the viral videos were still many years away from any sort of beta testing in real world scenarios, were being fast-tracked towards military applications anyhow unsurprisingly. The sightless were on their own, with limited options at their disposal. They could thump around with a cane in constant physical jeopardy and emotional turmoil like a vaudevillian mockery, or they could order up a dependable pooch. The choice seemed obvious; the fact that so many nonetheless abstained was actually something of a stunning testament to evolving understandings of compulsion and autonomy really, when you considered it.

Moreover, they’d replaced a growing slew of dogs Dottie had traumatized or mistreated several times already. Ultimately maddened and rendered useless, the two animals she’d broken before this one came along had to be carted off in disgrace, so deranged they quite plausibly needed to be euthanized. All that training and expense wasted, flushed down the proverbial toilet. If this mutt were taken it would only mean another blameless victim should inevitably be summoned to take its place atop the pyre. The cycle was vicious, seemed inescapable. They heard the objections, but were striving to minimize casualties.

This one seemed to be hanging on barely, if by a thread. It was hardy, would become accustomed to the treatment in time – not be bothered by it at all eventually – the trainers and social workers all agreed and assured. They’d always further pronounce that these dogs were bred specifically to be resilient and durable, and like fish you hook or horses you can dig your spurs right into the sides of, they did not feel the pain or experience the hurts in that same way humans do. Dottie’s neighbors could rest assured in that knowledge.

Dottie’s kicks to her dog’s ribcage, the occasion corrections she meted out with the rod – while perhaps overzealous, or offensive to the eyes and delicate sensibilities – were in fact not very dissimilar to the techniques and approaches employed by all those most famous and acclaimed dog behaviorists of their day. If they didn't believe it, they were encouraged to turn on a canine training program and note how the specialist hosting reacted to out of control animals. It was all boiler plate. ‘Don’t sweat it’, became the stock response, ad nauseam.

As Dottie yanked the Labrador toward the door roughly, cursing it malevolently and with each breath describing the hiding which awaited in their apartment, the dog glanced surreptitiously around and took careful inventory of everyone in attendance as they passed. It appeared to be apprising the expression upon the countenance of each individual looky-loo who had amassed, drawn in by all the commotion and clamor, the spectacle of those familiar firemen and paramedics whose presence seniors become quite habituated to in at buildings such as this, presenting themselves atypically through the rear gate near the smoking lounge atop the hillock—being unable to navigate their sizable mobiles up onto the parking ramp and thus being obliged to enter through the back gate from vehicles parked in one of the other old folks homes adjacent to Dottie’s. The dog carefully surveyed each face, but found only profound pity, the deep sympathy and disgust at the abhorrent treatment being shamelessly dispensed by his master’s hands. There was no suspicion or mistrust in their gazes, only flagrant dislike for his master, telegraphing they had no need to conceal from her unseeing eyes, though custom still made some of them feel subconsciously like they they ought to.

That was good.

Then again, maybe one or two of the dozen milling about did have some inkling as to what the Labrador was up to, and fashioned themselves co-conspirators, secretly prayed and hoped he succeeded at his mission?

He’d come so close this time, the nearest yet. If she’d just gone pitching backwards down that hill, rather than forward onto the pavement, it might have meant the end of his sentence, spelled liberation from her abuses! But no, Dottie just had to instinctively wobble the other way, and manage to escape with only the merest few scrapes and bruises.

He would pay for this error severely, the Labrador knew. The other times he’d tripped her up, caused her to stumble or nearly spill over in the hallways and stairwells, thus far each time she’d thrashed him nearly to the point of being no longer ambulatory. Beneath his bushy black coat his skin was a patchwork of bruising every sort of purple and red. That thick oak cane Dottie carried, and had gotten so adept at bludgeoning him with through rigorous practice and routine, had also left its share of marks – permanent and galling.

He’d tried to fight back once, when she’d been delivering his medication particularly vigorously, and had learned the error in that manner of direct approach. Dottie took especial umbrage at any growling or nipping on his part; the monopoly on violence was hers alone to wield and exercise, and she coveted it jealously. For that mistake the dog had suffered two broken ribs it was still healing from, and had spat out several teeth including one of his canines.

She truly had a gift with that rod, driving and flushing him into a crevice or corner so she could deliver whatever comeuppance she fashioned was his due. Being no match for Dottie’s stocky bulk, that brute strength lurking unexpectedly within that retired school teacher body, those practiced corporal arms honed expertly at delivering pain through every fashion expedient – via ruler, paddle, pinch or scratching.

The only avenue remaining for the Labrador had been subterfuge. He was becoming quite proficient at it, improving, day by day, ploy by conceit. The dog would have his day yet, he knew. It was only a matter of time now… And he would get away with it when he did. No one would suspect him, and if they did, well...

What kind of dog have you ever heard of intentionally causing this sort of mayhem, with that quantity of hate and malice in its heart, capable of this degree of guile and premeditation! Those evils were understood to be human’s dominion expressly. Authorities would surely never deign to allow for such an explanation, acknowledge even the smallest possibility for calculation on so grand a scale by dumb, dependent animals. Imagine the panic such an admission would give rise to!

But even the gentlest, more pure-hearted creatures in creation have their limits, a line which a person can push it to, or cross. And woe be unto he or she who invites the feral cunning and retaliation which is bound then to follow. For their end will be painful and unexpected, and go unpunished – as their assassin will be assumed by default entirely beyond suspicion, so long as fang or claw avoids contacting flesh.

All it required, the dog had come to realize, was some balletic maneuvering, carefully plotted, deftly executed. It demanded panache, trial and error, patience and a great deal of practice. The ten-thousand-hour rule, the dog might have equated it to, had he been versed in the argot of his oppressors.

But there was no reason to lose sight of the big picture, and bury the lead of this whole sordid escapade: that very afternoon victory had been within the Black Labrador’s grasp, so close he could scent it on the air, verily taste it. Next time…. He’d take his licking for now. Then, as soon as he heals up, when she next drags him out toward the backyard, reaching which requires passing along the sidewalk within inches of that steep, precipitous drop … Then it would be the dog’s turn to have his day.

Berglund has published short stories in Paragon Press’s Veisalgia and the Watershed Review, a play in Iris Literary Journal, and poetry numerous places including Abstract Magazine, the Dewdrop, Wild Roof, Lychee Rind, deLuge, GRIFFEL, Cathexis Northwest Press, and Ulalume Lighthouse. He recently interviewed the author of Bird Box for the literary journal he edits, which has published original poetry and writing from a poet laureate, a Green Party presidential candidate, and a world renowned citizen journalist.

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