The day death trod beside me

The little dog nipped at my heels as I walked up the hill on Louisiana Street. It barked and circled and barked again. I stutter-stepped to keep from stepping on it. It growled and then ran off.

I grumbled to myself that people should keep their dogs on leashes. It was just a little dog, a brown and white fuzzy mutt, maybe a terrier, but it sure acted as if it wanted to bite my bare ankles as I strode along.

On another day, perhaps, I would have continued on my walk and forgotten about the dog. On another day, the dog might have gone another way instead of following me up the hill, and the tall man in flip-flops, a leash in his hand, his small daughter beside him, would have taken another path. On another day, the two guys in the red jeep might still have been in bed instead of riding atop the big wide tires up the hill. On another day, the five of us would have gone our separate ways. On this day, though, we all went the same way, passed through the same 20 square feet, and wound up linked forever in a flash of unfolding trauma.

The dog first padded up to me as I approached the crest of the hill. My pace was swift, my long legs in a good stride, as I listed to a John Sandford novel on my MP3 player. My mind was wandering to a history class I would teach the next day, and I was wondering how I could tie in the chewed-up street I was walking on, into my lecture. The asphalt on the street had been stripped away, leaving patches of brick beneath like scattered bones from an archaeological dig.

The dog’s yips and trembling upper lip yanked me out of my daydream and my novel.

“Hey,” I said to the dog. “You don’t want to do that.”

I thought about giving the dog a boot; I didn’t want it to bite me. I also didn’t want to hurt it, though. I love dogs, and I know that instinctual fear and territorialism often guide them blindly. So instead of kicking, I stutter-stepped, and the dog ran off.

It was back again halfway up the hill, then again as I made a right onto a semicircular swathe of street that passes a sorority and two fraternities and then melds into Sunnyside Drive near the chancellor’s house on the southeast edge of the main KU campus.

It was there that I first say the father and daughter. The father was tall and gaunt, his face ruddy, his black hair stringy. He carried a dog leash in his right hand as he passed me, his flip-flops snapping against the asphalt. The girl must have been 7 or 8, with shoulder-length blonde hair touching the neckline of a flowery sundress.

As the dog raced up the hill, taunting them, I concocted a storyline: They were out for a walk and let the dog off its leash so it could run free. Or perhaps the girl opened the front door, on her way to school, and the dog had squeezed between her legs. Now they were determined to get the dog back.

As I puzzled through the possibilities, I realized that I was inadvertently steering the dog toward my walking route. So I stopped, hoping the dog would come back. The man and the girl stopped near me and the dog raced back down the hill. It did a loop around its owners, staying just out of reach. The three of us formed a rough circle, corralling the dog briefly. It lurched away from the man and darted toward me. I lifted a foot to try to create a barrier.

“You don’t want to do that,” I said to the dog.

As it leaped over my foot, into the middle of the street, the jeep ascended the hill. It wasn’t going fast, and it had given us a wide berth. It wasn’t wide enough. The dog just missed the left front tire, and its paws scratched manically against the asphalt, trying desperately to get away.

There was no where to go.

The rear wheel caught the dog, rolled over it as if it were a speed bump, and pinned its skull to the street.

The man, the girl and I were barely three feet away. We all watched. We all heard the bones crunch. We all stared in horror.

The driver pulled the jeep to a stop, looking back through the open top. The father looked at the dog and then howled in horror. He turned in circles, howling again, looking at the sky, slapping his hands against his thighs, howling some more.

The little girl screeched, too. She immediately ran to the dog and picked it up. Its head was turned askew as she clutched it to her chest.

“He’s breathing!” she said. “I can feel him breathing.”

The father howled again as he and the daughter descended the hill, out of sight.

I walked up to the two guys in the jeep. Both wore sunglasses, one with a ballcap turned backward. They were about 20, college boys, fraternity boys. Their mouths hung open, their faces drooped, and they stared in disbelief.

“I’m sorry,” the driver said. “It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t driving fast. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.”

I told him that I was sorry, too, and that, no, it wasn’t his fault. The dog was loose, off its leash, and had run right into the jeep. I wasn’t sure what else to do either. The father and the daughter were both distraught, and it seemed better to leave them alone in their grief. I felt like an intruder. And I felt as guilty as the guys in the jeep.

Maybe I should have stopped earlier, I told myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have put my foot up to try to stop the dog. Maybe I should have tried to grab the dog. Maybe …

“Oh, man,” the passenger in the jeep said, a look of shock on his face.

I suggested that they could talk to the man and girl, but the driver said he didn’t want to make it worse.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he said.

No, it wasn’t.

As the girl and her father drifted away, the jeep jerked into gear and drove up the hill. I followed on foot. I put my earbuds back in and tried listening to the detective story again, but I couldn’t. All I could think of was watching the giant tire pinning the dog’s head and then rolling over it. All I could think of was the sound of breaking bones. And I couldn’t get the father’s wail out of my brain. It was primal, agonizing, the sound of regret and sorrow exploding into landscape.

A little dog had brought us together on that hill. Amid wails and death, we went our separate ways, a brief, violent encounter seared upon our souls.

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