by Matthew R. K. Haynes
It was the nicest day in two weeks. High spring. Seventy-five, slight breeze. Winter had been long and painful, filled with an ended relationship and the keen fracturing that it brings. The park was loaded with parents donning tight faces, letting the sun release the grip of their own snowy fevers. Kids played on swings and monkey bars, rolled in the grass, and made new friends. I was playing tennis, an hour in, having won the first set with clean forehands, straight up the line. During the set break Sean, my tennis partner, tended to his seven-year-old daughter and their eight-week-old boxer, who played just outside the tennis fence. A man walked by carrying a guitar with his black and white spaniel. He unleashed her and threw a ball. A woman in a pink tank top walking three small dogs stopped to pet Sean’s puppy. A family with their motley-colored, floppy-eared mutt sat across the playground, eating sandwiches, drinking Gatorade.
We all heard it coming—the loud barking, the piercing whine; it was the rowdy dog, a beautiful caramel pit bull, probably no older than a year. It was escorted by two young boys, no older than fourteen, their shaggy-boy hair weighing heavy over their eyes so they had to constantly hand sweep the mops or toss their heads. It was clear from the pulling and jerking that this dog wanted to run free. It was also clear from the rapturous barking when in line sight of another dog, that this pit wanted to play, or fight. Beyond that, it was most clear that these boys barely had the strength to handle this dog, and that made the ease of the sunny day difficult to sit in.
People began leaving, annoyed with the dog barking and the boys swearing and being those kinds of boys. First the lunching family, then the three-dog lady. Two of the playing kids became fearful, asking the boys if their dog would bite, to which one responded, “Maybe?” That dog was their show off. It was tough—just like they wanted to be. The scared kids left moving behind the tennis courts, past a small creek wooded with short willow and full Russian olives, and further back to a mobile home park. As Sean and I continued playing, the boys and their pit bull moved closer to Sean’s daughter, so we broke to address the issue.
“Hey, is that dog okay?” Sean asked.
“Is he okay around other dogs?”
“Well keep control of him. I have a puppy and daughter over there. If he’s out of control you should take him home.”
“Hey, we can come to this fuckin’ park too. It’s fuckin’ public.” It was not the sort of dialogue Sean had wanted, although he seemed to expect it.
“Just watch it,” Sean said, clearly frustrated with their lack of respect, trying to maintain composure, the day inching further away from me.
We continued hitting but, again, play was shortly suspended when the scared boys brought their dad with them; dad had a strut, as he emerged from the trees, and an every-other-step wobble, which made him seem drunk. He was short-bearded, wearing a Pennzoil cap, faded blue jeans, and a gray t-shirt, his belly pushing out.
“Are you threatening my boys with your dog?” he asked.
“No man. Our dog’s cool.”
“You better not be sickin’ your dog on my boys.”
“He’s okay. And we can fucking be here if we want.” There it was again, that tone and anger and claiming to public land, as if these boys had been kept at bay all their lives, told they could never.
Sean joined in and the two dads softly told the two boys they needed to be careful, that the dog looked strong and could pull away, and that he seemed a bit ferocious, though his tail was wagging and the dad was petting his head.
“He’s a nice dog, but he’s not trained,” said the dad.
The boys just said they’d be sure to keep control, then snickered as the man walked away.
Sean’s daughter crawled into the kennel with the puppy. The boys wandered around. Other dogs came and went as the pit bull barked and whined. Play resumed but was unfocused. Long ball. Net. Backhands that sailed over the fence. No rallies.
Then, it happened when I was serving, the sun at a point in the sky to make me shift my stance from slice to flat. I saw the boys and the dog walk to the water fountain. I saw the old lady cross the street with her caramel-tufted Pomeranian. I saw the slack in the Pit’s leash. And as I tossed and swung, their dog jerked free and bolted. Parked cars blocked my view, but I heard the woman scream and the boys yell. People began running, scurrying from homes. We dropped our racquets and rushed to the scene.
There it all was: the woman—in her 60’s-70’s—purple glasses, purple shirt, loose, hemmed jean shorts, trembling, breathing rapidly, holding a leash to which attached was her Pomeranian, firmly locked in the jaws of the pit bull, the boys yelling, “Scooby, let it fucking go!” and tall, built guys who leaped from a white Chevy flatbed from across the street prying the dog’s mouth open. When Scooby finally released, the Pomeranian dropped to the grass, twitching. I called the police but it was a while before they arrived. During that time, more people came to see what was the matter. The boy, who clearly owned the pit bull, barrel hugged the dog, crying, slobbering out, “Why Scooby, why?” The old lady stood, whimpering, tears revealing white streaks through her makeup. Sean was aggressive, yelling at the boys that he told them this would happen, that they were “fucking stupid kids,” I’m sure pained by the running clip in his head of what could have happened to his daughter and puppy. Friends of the boys joined, came running from somewhere; they rubbed the crier’s shoulders, patted his back. The two scared kids paced the periphery saying, “See. See.” The Pennzoil dad walked up shaking his head, “Shit.” Finally, a stranger offered a ride to the woman—there was a vet hospital a few blocks away. He loaded her into the car saying, “You’re going to have to hold the dog, ma’am.” She raised her hands in the air, frozen, said “Please, no.” As the car pulled away, Scooby’s boy moved from the crowd, yelling, “I’m sorry lady. I’m so sorry.” Then for some reason, maybe because I was the only one doing nothing, saying nothing, or maybe because I was holding the phone, I had made the call, the boy looked me in the eye, and said, “They’re going to fucking kill him.”
After the police arrived, the stranger came back and reported that the Pomeranian had been chewed pretty hard—bleeding badly, a broken back and neck. The doctor put it down.
Sean and I slumped back to the court, picked up our racquets, and tried to play, tried to really find that day again. Serves landed three feet before the net, hands fell limply, feet misjudged movement. Sean couldn’t stop glancing toward his daughter. The motivation to win any point had subsided. A few balls in, play ceased. He packed up his daughter and boxer, and left with a shallow, “Let’s never play here again.” I opened the door to my truck, looked at the police still listening to stories, scratching notes, loading the boy into the back seat, Scooby held at bay in the shade of an oak tree, then I looked up, the sun on my face, noticing the breeze moving boughs across the sky.
I hated that boy as much as he hated me. I was Scooby’s snitch, and he was a reminder of the dark cloud I had been trapped under for five months. They stole my day, that boy and that dog. Too disappointed to outright bawl, I drove away and cried just a bit, my teeth grinding on the notion that winter had not ended.
Matthew R. K. Haynes’ new novel, Friday, was released in May 2015 from Anaphora Literary Press in 2015. His multi-genred collection, Shall We Not Go Missing, was chosen for the Wayne Kaumualii Westlake Monograph Series and is forthcoming from Kuleana Press in 2015. He is at work on a new short story collection titled Blue Hawai’i, from which a story, “These Are Private Joys,” was honorable mention for the Glimmer Train Short Short Story Award.