Issue #2 |

Two Guys Watching “Cujo” on Mute

‘People are actually scared of this movie? I’ll grant that that’s a big dog. Sure. But it’s not like he’s bulletproof. I don’t get what’s so horrific about this.’

‘The horror has more to do with the like existential betrayal of the situation. The way a pet can turn on you. What can and can’t be tamed.’

‘Man’s best…friend?’

‘I mean it either scares you or it doesn’t. Listen. I knew a kid once was afraid of dogs.’

‘How old are we talking about?’

‘Back in grade school. MacDougall Lewis. Spindly kid, pale, Prince Valiant bowl cut. He for one would hate this movie. And it had nothing to do with the size of the dog, either, I can tell you that. His fear. Couldn’t even come to a sleepover without the dog locked up. And I’m talking your typical family dog: black lab, basset hound, Boston terrier. Even a little rat dog like that, the parents knew to keep it in back. “Is MacDougall coming?” That sort of thing.’

‘What exactly was he afraid of? Did they ever bite him?’

‘They never had time to bite him. MacDougall burst into tears at the very sight of them. Big blubbery tears. The kid just had a lifelong deathly fear of domesticated dogs.’

‘“Domesticated.”’

‘I’m coming back to that. But note that that’s what so crucial about Cujo. What Dougall would hate and find horrific about the movie. Cujo’s not just some wild hound—he’s someone’s pet. Look, he’s about to get himself bitten. Nosing around in the barn like that.’

‘The bat’s rabid, obviously.’

‘Yeah. Oof.’

‘So Dougall thought the dogs were rabid?’

‘No one knew what MacDougall thought. We just learned to keep the dogs locked up. Because if we didn’t—say someone left the door open, oops, or the parents forgot MacDougall was coming over—there’d be that dreadful moment when we first entered the house. I remember once it actually was a Boston terrier. A little handbag of a dog. Mark Carlin’s place. We were all coming in through the front door, and the terrier rushed from out back to greet us. Scrabbling across the floor our way. Yipping excitedly. MacDougall froze. Everyone saw it coming.’

‘It jumps him.’

‘Thing zeroes right in. Who knows what’s going through his head, what it is he thinks he sees, when he sees it rushing at him: a werewolf, you’d guess, just from the waterworks. And of course it leaps up on his thighs to try to lick his face, which just gets him weeping harder.’

‘Christ.’

‘The worst part about the weeping, of course, for MacDougall, was that it only confused the dog. And the little dog—sensing his distress and fear—tried you know to ingratiate itself and prove its friendliness by leaping up higher on his thighs and taking heartier hungrier licks at his face. Completely humiliating. MacDougall began to whimper and then sob and then hysterically scream for someone to get it off him, get it off him.’

‘And? What do you do?’

‘What can you do? Carlin there’s calling the dog’s name, but the dog just ignores him. Finally someone has to rush in and yank its collar, still shouting its name. This, by the way, was the very thing that horrified MacDougall above all, I was to find out later.’

‘The name?’

‘How it could just ignore its own name. Anyway, that’s more or less the way it would always play out. Before kids eventually learned to keep their dogs locked.’

‘Yours too, I take it.’

‘Didn’t have a dog, growing up. But one time MacDougall did come over to spend the night, just the two of us, and my dad scarred him for life, inadvertently.’  

‘Hard to imagine you having a scary dad.’

‘Yeah, well. He was a big guy. Burly. A construction worker, you know, a plumber. But built like a barbican and with these fat strong fingers that could unscrew screws and his sheer physical presence had impressed upon us all terribly, as children, my friends and me. MacDougall most of all. He was the kind of big that he got an ironical nickname: Cookie. “Mister Cookie,” to MacDougall. We can watch something else, you know.’

‘No, come on. It took us half an hour to settle on this. We go back to Netflix, we’ll browse, bicker, it’ll be another half hour before we’ve agreed on anything. This is fine. Just let it play.’

‘All right, you’re right.’

‘So your dad and Dougall.’

‘The thing about my dad was that he loved jokes and knew a lot of jokes and got a kick out of goofing my friends whenever they came over. But there was one joke in particular he loved to play. Practical joke. It starts out as just a story he’s telling you, a memory he’s remembering, this long and rambling anecdote concerning a road trip he supposedly took to New Orleans in his twenties. While there, he tells you, a group of his friends talked him into having his palm read by one of those street-corner chiromancers, a wizened old woman decked out in geodic jewelry and a flowing gown and a purple turban and heavy eyeliner, who my dad says he’s immediately skeptical of but decides to humor anyway, for his friends.’

‘This is a real memory?’

‘Hold on. So he says that he sat on a folding chair at this woman’s picnic table and paid her and let her take his hand in hers—and here, while telling the story, he likes to take your hand in his, and begin idly tracing your palm with one of his big fingers, a hypnotic massage such as he is supposedly receiving in the diegesis of the joke—but when the woman took his hand, he says, she squinted down at his palm and gasped, telling him that his was a soul rich in reincarnations. That his past lives were many and vivid and preserved with uncommon clarity in his lines. The whole spiel. He says he was expecting her to flatter his pride, tell him he’d been a Napoleon or an Alexander. And when she started to trace a curve—and his own finger is imitating hers by circling your palm like—she told him that this was a mark made on his soul in ancient Rome. He perked up here, he says: Was he a Caesar? No, she told him—he’d worked with a crew on the aqueducts. Now my dad looks you in the eye and shakes his head and sighs: a plumber. Quips that he just can’t win. You know, he was a plumber even in his past lives, his soul will be sweating and toiling for all eternity.’

‘“No respect.”’

‘Right. Exactly. Then he says that the woman began tracing in another direction—he’s still holding your palm this whole time, remember—and that she told him here was a second mark, etched into him in ancient China, where he had worked under similar conditions on the Great Wall. Which my dad obviously milks, mugging at you and slapping his thigh with his free hand, like, “Damn!”’

‘I’m confused. Are you supposed to know this is a joke?’

‘No, he’s telling it like an actual story, like what actually happened to him.’

‘So he goes on with the story.’

‘Right. True story. The woman started to trace a final line in his hand, he tells you, this one leading down to his wrist—his own finger meanwhile tracing down to your wrist—and she gasped even louder this time. Said she’d never encountered such an eloquent line. In this past life, she told him, he says, he’d been a guard dog, a ferocious cur kept right there in New Orleans, on one of those antebellum cotton plantations, where he had been tied to a sturdy live oak by a choke chain around his throat and left out all night to bark, alerting the master of burglars or runaway slaves. And so ferocious and terrible a dog was he, she told him, he says—and here he’s like subtly and maybe even subconsciously squeezing your hand—that he would pass each night leaping against the choke chain, snapping it again and again to its full length and gnashing his terrible, ferocious jaws at the darkness.’

‘A regular ol’ Cujo, your dad.’

‘Just about. He says he smirked and asked the woman how she could tell so much from one measly line in his palm, and she smiled too, and replied that it wasn’t his palm she’d been looking at—it was the collar of lines around his throat.’

‘Spooky.’

‘And he tells you that she leaned forward to touch two fingers to his neck—now he’s actually palpating his own thick neck, with his free hand, while still holding on tight and squeezing you with his other hand—and she said it was just as she suspected. That his throat’s deeply rutted lines were a leftover soul impression, engrained in him from this past life’s nights of ceaseless straining against the choke chain. And she claimed that she could even feel where the collar had left a ring of scar tissue embedded under the muscle, mystically unhealed and metempsychotically preserved across his various intervening reincarnations. Here, while telling the story, my dad will stop palpating his throat a moment and chuckle: it’s funny, he’ll muse, but he really can feel the so-called scar tissue, right where she said it was. Probably it was just stress knots in the muscle, from work, and as for the cock-and-bull about his canine life, that was obviously an act: no doubt something she’d scripted to deliver to all her customers.’

‘“And yet…”’

‘Right: and yet, nevertheless, he says, it was impressive about the neck. At this point he invites you to go ahead and feel, right here, and he thrusts out his throat to you and takes your hand in his and gently guides it to his jugular, letting you run your fingertips over the leathery flesh there, kneading deep to try to feel the stuff yourself, leaning in closer and closer until—’

‘I think I see where this is going.’

‘Until without warning, when you’re least expecting it, my dad springs forward like a mastiff from his kennel, eyes gone white and his mouth roaring RAR RAR RAR with rabid passion, the spittle flying in your face, gnashing his teeth at you point-blank.’

‘Tell me he didn’t do this to Dougall.’

‘Well that’s the thing. This was my dad’s favorite joke. Pounced on any opportunity. If someone made an unwitting reference to reincarnation, palmistry, voodoo, or even just New Orleans, he’d sidle into the conversation sly as anything and announce, you know, has he got a story about reincarnation, palmistry, voodoo, or New Orleans. My whole life, growing up—at all my parents’ football parties, when the adults were gathered around the coffee table eating chips and dip and drinking beer and laughing—I would keep one eye on my dad. Because no matter what conversation he and the other adults were having, I could tell—I could just tell—that the bastard was sitting there biding his time. Lying in wait and listening for the least mention of reincarnation, palmistry, voodoo, or New Orleans. Assuming he wasn’t insidiously steering the conversation in that direction himself. It could be like watching a cat hunt birds, at times—his grace and patience. It got to where you started to wince anytime you heard a newcomer say, some uninitiated friend, “I’ve been reading about reincarnation lately.” You just knew what was coming. My dad didn’t miss it. He’d been waiting for it the whole night. The gleam in his eye.’

‘So, what? MacDougall comes over one weekend and says, “Mister Cookie, Mister Cookie, do you believe in reincarnation?”’

‘Close enough. My dad and MacDougall are talking, and MacDougall says something that leaves him wide open, and I see the gleam. And from behind MacDougall I’m shaking my head like Noooo! in slow-motion, the way you do when someone strikes a match near gas. But how’s Dad supposed to know? We don’t have a dog. He’s never seen MacDougall burst into tears. And it’s not as if I’ve given him any prior warning.’

‘You let it happen.’

‘I was transfixed.’

‘You did nothing.’

‘The second my dad took MacDougall’s hand in his hand, it was over for me: I

could only stand there, helpless and paralyzed, and watch with nightmare dread as the joke unfolded.’

‘MacDougall falls for it.’

‘Because of course he does. He’s twelve, thirteen.’

‘He leans in to feel the neck.’

‘My dad hasn’t barked for half a second before he’s blubbering, “Mister Cookie, Mister Cookie!”’

‘“Get him off me, get him off me.”’

‘Exactly. I don’t need to tell you that my dad was mortified. He made it up to MacDougall, and we never talked about it.’

‘Only MacDougall’s secretly traumatized.’

‘Never does come back to my house. Always an excuse, a scheduling conflict, so that whenever we hang out it has to be at his place. But his face darkens over at any mention of my dad, and I can tell he’s getting real introspective and troubled. Stuck in a thought rut. Like the memory of my house—like my house itself—is something to avoid.’

‘The shame of it.’

‘The scene of some crime. Years later, we’re in high school, I finally ask him—you know, “Doogie, what’s the deal with dogs?”’

‘He’s still afraid of them?’

‘I mean he’s not bursting into tears anymore, no. He’s got a little more grip on himself, and he’s even more or less a normal kid, by this point. But if we’re in the neighborhood, someone’s walking their dog, he’ll still freeze in this kind of barely disguised terror until the dog’s gone. Trying to pass it off like he’s checking the time or tying his shoes, but you watch his eyes, he’s always got one eye on the dog. Not blinking. Pulse jackhammering in his throat. Which one day I finally ask him, like—what, were you bitten as a kid? Is there some root to all this? No, he says, nothing like that. Not that he can remember. And I say come on, there has to be something—you have to have suffered some traumatic childhood bite, right? Maybe even in infancy. Like a repressed snap or nip or snarl. Anything. No, no, he’s quite sure. He even asked his parents, and they couldn’t remember anything. It really was an irrational phobia, causeless, just something he was born with. So I say well tell me what it is you’re afraid of. Walk me through your worst case. Say we’re in the neighborhood, a lady with a dog comes by, you freeze—what is passing through your head?’

‘What does he say?’

‘He says it’s a fantasy. All his life, when he sees a dog, he can’t help playing this one fantasy in his mind’s eye. A kind of recurring daydream or waking nightmare. The fantasy is a big what-if scenario involving the dog. What if it spots him. What if it can tell he’s afraid. So when MacDougall freezes stone cold on the sidewalk and stares at the dog from across the street, he says, what’s passing through his head is that all these gears are turning: he’s imagining the worst that could happen. He takes my example for an illustration. Say MacDougall sees a lady with a dog. An older woman, white tennis outfit and sun visor, walking a golden retriever on the opposite sidewalk. The retriever is trotting happily alongside its owner, tongue hanging out. But internally, MacDougall is already asking himself: what if? What if the retriever spots him? He imagines that it stops trotting and pauses on the sidewalk. In the fantasy, its body goes rigid with tension the second it sees MacDougall. The lady, oblivious, stops walking as well. Thinking the dog just needs to pee. And maybe it makes a show of nosing the monkey grass, as if it’s interested in some scent there. But in truth it’s merely buying time to eye MacDougall. Even as it snuffles the grass, it keeps raising its liquid eyes to peer clear across the street at him, meeting his own eyes with a prison-yard stare. What would I do if this actually happened, is what MacDougall’s asking himself. And the answer is that he’d have to will himself to remain perfectly still. The last thing he wants to do, in the fantasy as in real life, is break into a run or any other sudden movement that will provoke the dog. Nor can he leave until the dog does, obviously. Whenever it lowers its snout to the grass, it keeps its wet dark eyes rolled upward slightly, to let him know it’s watching.’

‘You’re right. He would hate this movie.’

‘Too much grist for his mill—his fantasy’s sinister enough as it is. Because no matter how long he stands there, the retriever just keeps sniffing the grass. As for the woman, she remains completely duped by this little ruse of its. She has no idea what psychic transactions are passing between her dog and MacDougall. Maybe she bends down to murmur something into the creature’s flappy ear, urging it to hurry up and “do its business.” But MacDougall is its only business. It has no other business in mind. Something about MacDougall has set it off, he can tell. A mistake or misunderstanding has taken place inside the dog, and it thinks that he means some harm to the woman.’

‘The woman being essential.’

‘As in?’

‘As in an intrinsic component of the horror of the fantasy. It’s never with loose or wild dogs, the fantasy.’

‘I ask him that. Claims to have zero fear of wild dogs. If he sees a loose dog in the street, no owner in sight, or even if there’s a pack of them, his what-if scenario is over in seconds. Just reaches its logical conclusion. Oh, there’s something I forgot to mention.’

‘That “MacDougall Lewis” is an anagram for “Sic a dog: maul well.”’

‘…’

‘…’

‘How long have you been working on that?’

‘Pretty much all night.’

It’s that by this time in high school, MacDougall’s started doing Tae Kwon Do: a blue-belt already, real little bad-ass in training. I mean he spends every afternoon after school in his backyard, punching posts for the numbness—got these knuckles like bamboo shoots—and doing flexibility stretches for his high kicks.’

‘Great. Got it. Jean-Claude van Dougall.’

‘Well the point is that, with wild dogs, the what-if scenario doesn’t terrify him. Even if they attack him all at once, he figures he gets some bites, some blood loss, flesh wounds at worst. But he’s sparred with multiple assailants down at the dojo. He knows that he can just roundhouse kick the dogs or karate chop their spines or pry their jaws apart until they snap or snap their necks, if he has to, in the fantasy. It’s an action movie for him. He loves it. Dogs are flying off him, he may as well have nunchucks. But with domesticated dogs it’s different. That’s how he explains it to me. He says that his fear is more emotional or even philosophical in nature than strictly speaking physical. He’s afraid of being attacked not because of the injuries he might sustain, but because of all the emotional and even philosophical implications that that attack would entail.’

‘So in the case of the retriever.’

‘In the case of the retriever, it’s integral that the owner remain oblivious. If she notices the dog’s agitation at all, she has to misinterpret it, scanning the street for a squirrel or cat or something. Because another intrinsic component of the horror of the fantasy is how alone MacDougall and the dog are in their standoff. The owner can’t have the slightest idea that this dog, her pet, has just turned on a primal or an atavistic dime, metamorphosing itself into a man-eater on its master’s behalf. That’s why she keeps such a flimsy grip on its leash.’

‘Naturally.’

‘Because the next what-if in the fantasy is obvious: what if the dog—maintaining spine-chilling eye contact with MacDougall at this point—lunges forward in one sudden, terrible motion, tearing the leash outright from the old woman’s hand? That’s what fills MacDougall with dread. What does he do? All it seems he can do is remain standing stock still on the sidewalk, watching in terror as the dog—sprinting toward him now and barking—churns the ground with its galloping legs. There would be no point in running, MacDougall knows, for the retriever would retrieve him in seconds. His flight would only provoke the animal, frenzying it to a keener bloodlust. He says he’s conducted this fantasy countless times with countless breeds of dogs—anytime one passes him in the street, his mind automatically executes the thought experiment—and that of all the different versions of the fantasy, for him the absolute worst and most nightmarish version, the only time the fantasy ever left him cold with sweat, was when he decided to go ahead and try to flee. Says he’s never even bothered budging a foot since then. Doesn’t even let himself consider it.’

‘Clearly you wouldn’t want to flee in a situation like this one here: trapped in a station wagon, St. Bernard under the car.’

‘Well what happened with Dougall was that he was walking his bike home from school one day and he saw a greyhound about a block off. A lean, ash-colored animal, being led on an extendable leash by a jogger. The dog didn’t notice him, but the mere sight of it was enough to set off the gears of his fantasy. So MacDougall paused there on the sidewalk while his mind did its thing, working its way methodically through all the familiar steps. He imagined the greyhound spotting him, stopping short. There was the nosing around in the monkey grass and the periodic sidelong glances at MacDougall. The ratcheting tension. Then at last the lunge that breaks the leash, the bark like clockwork. Except now what was different?’

‘The bike.’

‘Right. This time MacDougall had his bike with him, in the fantasy as in real life. And so he wondered: what if I got on this bike? What would happen if I just mounted it and pedaled away? The answer, of course, is that the greyhound chased him. Even as he was looking straight ahead, zooming away on his bike in the fantasy, MacDougall could somehow still tell—as in a dream—that the dog was racing right behind him. He could feel it sprinting on its skeletal legs, keeping perfect pace with the bike. He could even hear the greyhound’s horrible huffing, a choked salivary sound as its whole body heaved to keep up with his machine.’

‘This is miserable.’

‘And remember that back in real life MacDougall was just standing frozen on the sidewalk, fantasizing all this. Meanwhile, in the fantasy itself, he was biking away, hightailing it down the middle of the road, which, like a road in a nightmare, was completely empty except for the him and his pursuer. So MacDougall knuckled down in the fantasy, leaning into the bike’s handlebars and pedaling harder, waiting for the greyhound to give up the chase.’

‘Why didn’t he just bike home? In the fantasy?’

‘Then what? He’d still have to get off the bike to get inside, and the greyhound would be right there, at his front door. No, all he could do was keep biking and hope that it quit. Note too that stopping the fantasy is not a real option, for him: he can’t simply open his eyes and wake up. The way MacDougall’s mind works, he’s in a kind of trance, an almost autistic or obsessive-compulsive trance. Has to answer every branch of the what-if for himself. Every decision entails a consequence, so he’s stuck standing there until he has ramified the scenario to its likeliest conclusion.’

‘He’s made his bed, mentally, so to speak.’

‘Pretty much. And in this particular case, he had cast his lot with biking off. So what if? What would happen? What he decided to do was keep pedaling, zooming blocks and blocks beyond his neighborhood, miles, with the greyhound chasing the whole way. He tells me that the fantasy became explicitly surreal and dreamlike, at this point. In no time at all he had biked out of city limits altogether. He entered some deserted Hitchcockian countryside, pedaling down a narrow dirt road in the middle of vast cornfields, all while the indefatigable greyhound—which he still couldn’t see but could hear the horrible huffing of—heaved its body behind him. And here a terrible realization struck MacDougall, he tells me. For at last he understood: the greyhound was never going to give up the chase. It had been bred to keep up the chase. Any other dog, any other breed, and he might have been fine. But all MacDougall had accomplished by mounting the bike was transforming himself into a racetrack rabbit, a robotic bait zooming away on a tantalizing circuit, which the greyhound was happy to chase for dozens and dozens of miles, at top speed, if it had to. Because this and nothing else was what it—the dog, down to its very DNA—had been bred for centuries if not millennia to do. MacDougall says that the logic of his dread was vertiginous. The fantasy was infinite now, he realized—it never could reach a conclusion. He would be stuck in his own head, being chased by the greyhound, forever. For the harder that he pedaled, the more determined the greyhound would be to catch him; and the more determined the greyhound was to catch him, the harder he would have to pedal. His terror of the dog spurred him to flee, which spurred the dog, which spurred his terror, ad infinitum, until MacDougall became mired in this morbid Mobius strip almost, self-perpetuating and impossible to stop. Even as his fear of being fed on fed into his flight, his flight was feeding into the dog’s desire to feed on him, which fed right back into his fear, creating this like literal feedback loop of—’

‘All right all right I get it.’

‘He says that in the fantasy he kept biking farther and farther through the Hitchcockian cornfields until finally the fantasy self-aborted. When his mind couldn’t compute the feedback loop, he was just suddenly transported back to where the fantasy started—plop, right on the street in his neighborhood, where the jogger was still standing on the sidewalk with his extendable leash. And when MacDougall saw that he had just made a great big circle in the fantasy, he snapped his eyes open: the street was empty. In real life, the guy and his greyhound were long gone. But MacDougall’s heart was pounding and his palms were slicked with sweat, and he had to stand there another ten minutes before he’d calmed down. That was when he realized that fleeing the dilemma would always be worse than facing the dilemma.’

‘The dilemma?’

‘Okay, recall the thought experiment from earlier. The old lady in the white tennis outfit and sun visor with the golden retriever. The retriever is still sprinting toward him in the fantasy and MacDougall’s still standing there standing his ground, because he knows—from his unspeakable experience with the greyhound—never to try running in the fantasy. So the dog is about to attack MacDougall while its owner watches, and the dilemma is that he has two options. One, he can spare the dog. Instead of killing this woman’s pet before her very eyes, he can be manly and self-sacrificing: just shield himself as best he can and bravely let the retriever have at him until the woman calls it off. Figures the worst-case scenario is a bite wound or two. Maybe the woman doesn’t call it off, and MacDougall has to wait for some bystander on the street to intervene.’

‘Or option two.’

‘Two is that he can defend himself. As with the feral-dog fantasy, he can dish out Tae Kwon Do with extreme prejudice, roundhousing the retriever or else grabbing its skull in his hands and twisting its neck. The only problem is that if he does this, then he’s left standing there with a limp ragdoll in his hands, holding this dead dog, and when he looks up across the street, whom should he see but the little old lady in the tennis outfit and sun visor? Watching on in horror. The tears streaming down her grief-reddened face. Even worse in this respect would be if he didn’t kill the dog, at least not cleanly. If instead it somehow managed to sink its teeth into his forearm, such that MacDougall had to kneel down over the beast on the sidewalk and pound its head into the ground with his fist, the way UFC dudes do on TV, trying to pry its jaws apart. And the whole time the little old lady watching on and weeping, calling out her dying dog’s name while he brains it.’

‘The name!’

‘Exactly—this is what horrifies MacDougall above all. The fact that as this mankiller is trying to rip into his throat and thighs, some old woman is calling, “Scooter! Scooter!” Its name is Scooter! It wants to tear him apart, and its name is Scooter. Or its name was Scooter—that’s precisely what’s so horrible. The little old lady thinks that this is still her dog, that she can call out “Scooter” and that it will answer. But in reality Scooter has left “Scooter” far behind: it has already gone feral, retreated into some nameless part of itself. So the woman can shout “Scooter!” all day long and receive no response. It doesn’t know Scooter from Adam. MacDougall and the dog are alone now, stranded on the nameless side of its mind.’

‘This being the philosophical dimension of his fear in the fantasy.’

‘That there is something pre-symbolic inside the dog. Some primordial core. Like a little black tailbone, Tefloned against interpellation: the name rolls right off it. You can domesticate your dog, train it as a puppy and give it a name, but somewhere deep inside there will always be this wild residuum. The part of your dog that’s not your dog. Hence the horror of rabies: rabies is what uncages that namelessness.’

‘Cujo stops being Cujo the moment the bat bites him.’

‘This detail would not have escaped MacDougall’s attention, no. He would invite us to consider the prominence of the dog’s name in the movie. How people keep calling “Cujo!” How the movie’s even called Cujo. The whole point is that the dog has a name. It’s not a wild dog that’s terrorizing people, it’s somebody’s pet. That’s gone and betrayed its name. Which is a thousand times more frightening, from MacDougall’s point of view. Now other monsters, they don’t even need names. If it’s a shark movie, the title’s just the most salient body part: jaws—what’s going to bite you. If it’s subterranean sandworms, the title’s just their calling card, their like signature seismological tocsin: tremors—what warns you they’re coming. Naturally we refer to the shark as Jaws and the worms as Tremors, colloquially, but these aren’t names the way Cujo’s a name. What’s terrifying about Cujo is precisely that he’s called Cujo. Or that he used to be. Or so MacDougall would say, if he were sitting here with us tonight.’

‘And so that’s the philosophical component of his fear. Whereas the emotional component…’

‘Sure. The emotional component is this very discrepancy. All the guilt he’d feel. That the woman, standing there and weeping over the retriever, thinks MacDougall is killing Scooter. Good old Scooter: Scooter who licks her grandkids, Scooter who brings her her slippers in his mouth, Scooter who can roll over and writhe like in a Western when you make a finger-and-thumb gun at him. She thinks poor Scooter has attacked MacDougall, inexplicably, and that MacDougall is killing him. Whereas actually Scooter stopped being Scooter the moment he attacked. The state this retriever is in, he’s not going to be fetching slippers or playing dead, to say the least. He’s forgotten all that. So MacDougall is technically killing everything that isn’t Scooter: he’s being attacked by what’s-not-Scooter inside Scooter. And the heartbreaking part is that the woman can’t know this, she just can’t know. Watching and weeping like that, in the fantasy.’

‘Presumably wild dogs dodge these philosophical and emotional complications by dint of—what?—they don’t have owners or names?’

‘There’s no dilemma there.’

‘But with a dog on a leash, every time MacDougall sees one, this is what’s going through his head.’

‘Well he’s weighing it. What his mind is doing when it executes the thought experiment is deciding. Could I fend off this dog awhile? Or is this a dog I would have to beat to death immediately? Is there a tree nearby I could climb? Or is this a dog that could outrun me to the tree?’

‘Could I hide in the station wagon with my kid, like this mom here, or would Cujo just stalk around the car slobbering all over the windows?’

‘Right. And the owner, too. She’s part of the fantasy’s what-if algorithm as well. Is this owner a person who would understand? If I killed her dog, would she know why I had to do what I was doing? Or would I break her heart by doing it? In short, he’s asking himself what the worst that could happen is. The thing you have to remember, it’s the dilemma that frightens him. Its twin horns. More I mean than any physical danger posed by the dog itself. That’s why a yapping Chihuahua freezes him up just as much as some foaming Doberman type.’

‘Even as a kid, this fantasy.’

‘His whole life! I couldn’t believe it. But when I ask him about it in high school, he tells me that for as long as he can remember he’s been conducting the fantasy. All those times in grade school, at all our sleepovers, that was what was scaring him. When the Boston terrier barreled at him and he burst into tears, and when he yelled out for someone to get it off him, get it off him, it wasn’t being bitten that he was afraid of.’

‘He was afraid—’

‘He was afraid of what he might do to it! Afraid he might snap the little rat’s neck, right in front of all of us. Even as its owner was standing there, yelling its useless, unavailing name.’

‘And your dad.’

‘Good call. MacDougall brings that up himself. He admits to me that he had been completely caught off guard by my dad’s joke but that hands down the most terrifying part of it was when he had had to shout “Mister Cookie, Mister Cookie” to try to get my dad to stop. Because there was a second there when my dad didn’t hear him. And didn’t stop. And for the first time in his life MacDougall was brought face to face with what was nameless in man. He tells me that he had never conducted the fantasy with a human being before but that in that split second of fear he compressed the entire what-if scenario down to one instant, to one eidetic flash, and in the unfolding of the flash he saw that if my dad actually were to attack him—if my dad had some primordial core in him, which wouldn’t respond to a name and couldn’t be caged in a name, some past-life kernel left over in him from his canicular preexistence—MacDougall knew what he was prepared to do. He saw in the fantasy’s flash, in all awfulness, what he was capable of.’

‘Obviously not planning to wring your dad’s neck. Twelve, thirteen years old.’

‘No, but he admits to me—he tells me this—that out the corner of his eye he noticed a steak knife nearby, lying on the dinner table. And for that whole second, he says, he was worried he’d have to stab my dad. Right in the throat, where the dog scars were. The thought sickened him, but he knew he’d do it. He’d carried this murderous memory around with him for years afterward, he said. Too ashamed to share it.’

‘Wherefore the face-darkening.’

‘Right.’

‘Jesus.’

‘Oh you just know he’s the kind of guy now, goes around poisoning neighbors’ dogs. There isn’t really even any question.’

‘You keep up with him?’

‘Lost touch in college. I looked for him on Facebook recently. I think he’s working admin at the old alma mater.’

‘What about your dad? You ever tell him about you and Dougall’s talk?’

‘No. No, I never did.’

‘Hey now. Now your face is darkening.’

‘I just remembered something, is all.’

‘Come on, man. Don’t hold out on me. Did Dougall poison your dad’s dog or something?’   

‘No, nothing like that. I just never made the connection before now. Between this particular memory and MacDougall. I must have forgotten all about him by the time it happened. But talking about him tonight, it’s funny. How I didn’t see it.’

‘Let’s hear it.’

‘The thing is, after my mom died, Dad actually did end up getting a dog. A little mixed-breed beagle. He lived alone with it awhile, just over a decade, and around sixty he retired. He’d been doing construction for forty-something years, and the work had taken its toll on his body: overweight, bad back, heart attack. He was pretty run-down. Big guy—’

‘“Barbican.”’

‘Obese. Had to stay sprawled out on the floor or the couch for his back half the day. Walking in Wal-Mart got him winded, so you’d see him in those little electric wheelchairs they have, puttering down the grocery aisles in a golf cart. Long story short he was not throwing Frisbees and sticks around in the backyard anymore for the beagle. But it kept him company, and besides, it was no spring chicken itself—probably a septuagenarian or something, in dog years. They fell apart together. The dog was in even sorrier shape, in the end. Stone blind for one thing, with these gaseous white eyeballs. Had to navigate the living room by memory, and was constantly being flabbergasted by the furniture. Staggering into sofas, nightstands, et cetera. Sometimes my dad’d find it trapped under a chair, penned in between the legs, walking back and forth and bumping off the railings. Just the most depressing thing. Incontinent, too. There was a while there it could still smell where outside was—the greenness of grass, sunshine—and it would hobble on its decrepit legs to the doggy door. Stagger out, do its business, stagger back in. But at some point the effort got to be too great and it just started going wherever: living room, bedroom, kitchen, it didn’t care. My dad, with the weight and the back, he was in no shape to follow the dog around all day and watch when it needed to go and pick it up and carry it outside himself. He took pity on it and let it have the run of the house. Nor were his efforts to sweep up its messes especially Herculean. Which after only say a weekend of neglect they’d need to be: to go find all the blind dog’s crap and piss puddles around the house, and then to mop them. It really was an Augean job, for someone in my dad’s condition. So his house became a sty. He lay on the carpet, stretching his spine, surrounded by all the droppings that the dog in its blindness had left, and he dreaded the day when it would finally die. For my part, I was ambivalent about the dog’s death. On the one hand, it was my dad’s only companion; on the other, I didn’t exactly relish the thought of him lying around in a sea of its filth. So every now and then I’d ask him whether he’d considered the needle. Just putting it to sleep and giving it the dignified end.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Like it was his wife or something.’

‘In sickness and in health.’

‘“I can’t give up on her!” “So she’s an old dog!” “She wouldn’t put me to sleep!”’

‘Not like this mom here. Look at her. Beating on Cujo with a baseball bat. Cold-blooded.’

‘If the beagle’d gone rabid my dad would have been absolutely defenseless, no question.’

‘Old Cooge. Battered to death by his own neighbor.’

‘I wouldn’t count Cujo out just yet. He may look dead, but I bet he’s got some gas left in the tank.’

‘What was her name anyway? The beagle?’

‘Clarabelle. As I said, I was ambivalent about her dying. I knew it was only a matter of time. Whenever I called my dad to check up, I braced myself to hear him say she’d passed. Preparing myself to console him and so on. Well finally I call one day, we’ve been talking an hour, and after a pregnant pause he says, “And there’s some sad news about little Clarabelle.”’

‘Oh geez.’

‘Found her under his bed, died in her sleep. He’s getting choked up as he tells me this. Eventually he just says, “And I think that’s all I’m going to say about that.”’

‘Poor guy. Natural causes, though, right? This isn’t where Dougall comes in?’

‘No, listen. We’re on the phone, and I ask him, you know, did he bury her? And there’s this long silence at the other end of the line. And in that silence I realize what a grotesque question this is. Of course he didn’t bury her. How could he have buried her? My dad, can’t walk ten feet in a Wal-Mart to pick up a loaf of bread, supposed to go out in the backyard with a shovel and dig down in the dirt to bury his dead dog? But when he finally responds, what he says is, “Yep,” in this quick, clipped voice. And I don’t ask him any follow-up questions. Because I don’t have to. In that moment I know—I know exactly what he did with Clarabelle. In my mind’s eye I can see it. It unfolds in a vivid flash, the entire scene. I see my dad putting Clarabelle’s body into a black trash bag. It breaks his heart, but what else is he going to do? I see him toting her down the driveway to the garbage can, wheezing the whole way—hobbling, from the pain in his back and from the weight of the bag—and slinging the corpse unceremoniously into the plastic dumpster.’

‘You don’t think—’

‘What else? He just couldn’t bring himself to admit it to me. Too ashamed. Broken up over it. That he couldn’t give his own dog a proper burial. A little stake in the ground with her name on it.’

‘Her name.’

‘In retrospect, in a weird way, it feels as if MacDougall won or something. Got his revenge. As if this was my dad’s punishment for springing the joke on him, all those years ago. I can’t explain it.’

‘Karma.’

‘Not that MacDougall could have even known about Clarabelle. Or remembered me or my dad, for that matter—it’d been years. But I still can’t shake the image of him rubbing his hands together somewhere, grinning at the news.’

‘Working that MacDougall voodoo.’

‘The ironic twist of fate. The cosmic comeuppance. Just as my dad had pretended to be a dog, and ignored the sound of his own name, so he had to lose his dog to namelessness. And not by way of rabies—not by a bite from a barnyard bat. But by his own hand. That’s the tragic aspect. His punishment was that he had to throw her away himself, like some common greasy pizza box. He who had loved her so much and refused to euthanize her and treated her with human dignity was the very same one who, in the end, had to reduce her to this primordial core. Because by depriving her of a dignified burial, he was depriving her too of her name—she wasn’t Clarabelle in that trash can, just some cold dead animal, which is what she would have to remain for all eternity, decomposing up on the landfill. And he was the one who had done it. He and no one else had cast her out, back into that dark part of herself, and for the rest of his life he’d have to live with that.’

‘Almost like a mother burying her baby, before baptizing it, is what you’re saying.’

‘Something like that. Anyway that’s what was going through my head, when you asked me.’

‘Heavy.’

‘I mean I think Dad got over it pretty quick. He bought a basset hound about a year later. Hey—look at that. What’d I tell you?’

‘Come on. You’ve seen this before. How’d you know Cujo’d come crashing through the window like that? One last attack.’

‘I called it.’

‘You’ve seen this before.’

‘I called it.’

‘Turn this shit off.’

‘Yeah. Let’s check if Netflix is streaming Jaws.’

‘MacDougall afraid of sharks too?’

‘Now have I got a story about sharks.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah. Here. Here. Feel my neck.’

‘Aw fuck you.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Yeah.’

Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer Franklin Crawford

Bennett Sims is the author of the short story collection White Dialogues and the novel A Questionable Shape, which received the Bard Fiction Prize and was a finalist for The Believer Book Award. He is a recipient of a Michener-Copernicus Society Fellowship and winner of the Rome Prize for Literature 2018-19. His fiction has appeared …

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