THE MAN WHO COULD TURN HIMSELF INTO A DOG

 

"Youíre full of shit!" his uncle told him. "You donít know your ass from your elbow! Your generation doesnít know a thing!"

The young man, who was only young compared to his uncle, was deeply hurt. His parents had separated when he was a child and his mother ran off with someone else, but had the goodness, at least, to leave him with his aunt and uncle rather than on the steps of a church or an orphanage. Because his uncle had raised him even though he was not his flesh-and-blood son, the young man felt a special obligation towards him and a terrible sense of guilt for the slightest pain he caused him, and yet, he had been taught the importance of individual conscience from his years of religious schooling and his studies in college, where he had encountered Epictetus and Thoreau. His heroes, now, were Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, great men who had stood up to the prejudice of their times and risked bringing justice into a world that didnít want it. But surely, none of these great men had ever had an uncle like his!

"But uncle," protested the young man, who was back visiting his substitute home, the island left by mother in the sea of her unwillingness to be a mother. "The war was started on false pretense. It was unnecessary! It has wasted thousands of lives, and damaged our reputation abroad."

"Your generation is an ungrateful one," his uncle fumed. "Ungrateful! Self-centered Ė unwilling to sacrifice! And you who could have served your country Ė you had to get asthma and become a philosopher! Donít you understand Ė the rest of the world isnít like you! It hates you, it holds you in contempt! Why do you feel compelled to bend over backwards to please men who would take away your freedom and kill you in an instant?! Did you ever study history? Does the name Neville Chamberlain ring a bell?"

"But uncle!" the young man exclaimed, again. "Diplomacy is no sin! Forging alliances is no proof of weakness, it is an indication of intelligence!"

"Donít yell at me!" his uncle raged.

"Iím not yelling!"

"Are you calling me a fool?"

"No, Iím simply disagreeing with you. You say I should be willing to die for freedom, yet accost me for exercising my freedom by having an opinion that is different than yours."

"Wise-ass!"

"Uncle!"

"After all I did for you!"

As the young man staggered out of the handsome house which had rescued him many years ago, the house that had once been filled with the smell of his auntís cooking, the home-baked bread and coffee, he felt that his cheeks were red and as hot as fire; his thoughts were incoherent like a puzzle which had fallen on the floor, and there was a terrible emptiness and pain in his heart, a desolation that he could not bear. His uncle, his loving uncle, felt betrayed! And he had shouted, as the young man left, "Donít ever think of coming back!"

The young man was a very sensitive man; he was in agony, tortured by guilt and by loneliness. The only one who had ever put up with him was done with him. It might have been too much to bear, if not for the fact that the young man had a very special ability, an amazing skill which allowed him to survive moments of utter anguish such as these, forced upon him by his apparently self-destructive conscience. He could turn himself into a dog.

It was a talent he had discovered some years ago, but only recently learned how to put to use. He had been with Sarah in those days that he first discovered it, a lovely girl who everyone said was perfect for him, although he doubted that they were meant to spend the rest of their lives together when she put down the copy of Emersonís Self-Reliance which he had given her on her birthday after only several pages, and never returned to it again. Instead, she preferred airy romance novels which he found as horrifying as Nazi propaganda tracts, though they were, of course, merely mindless and not sinister at all. He had wanted to tell her, in the days when the worldís admiration of her good looks kept him tied to her as if by a chain, that he had discovered he had the ability to turn himself into a dog. But she had never read anything about mythology or shape-shifting and he didnít know how to introduce the subject to her. One night he tried, as they lay together after a relatively enjoyable session of sex Ė for with Sarah, who was highly critical and sensitive, one never knew how things would turn out, so that making love to her was like charging across an open field at Gettysburg. You did not know if you would live or die. He thought that in the afterglow of what seemed to him to be her enormous pleasure, she might prove more receptive to the idea that the man she lived with believed he could transform himself into a dog. "Sarah," he began, hoping to tell her, because it was something he felt he ought to share with her.

"It was good," she replied, tired out and ready to sleep. "This time you didnít botch it."

"I am glad," he replied.

"You have a most amazing way of doing it crooked. Iíve never been with anyone, before, who had such an incredible ability to outthink anatomy."

"That is not the only incredible ability I have," he said, as a way of attempting to broach the subject; but she merely told him not to ruin a good evening with his habitual sarcasm, and turned her back to him. That beautiful back inside of her translucent nightgown was as definitive as the Berlin Wall. And thus, he never told her.

But as their relationship began to sour - the victim of two souls with nothing in common except their sexual organs, held together as a couple by the expectations of the world, and as silent as deaf-mutes - he began to practice his unusual skill more frequently, behind her back, and to gradually grow adept at it. He simply did not tell her as he left their home; and she did not care that he left, so that she did not ask him what he was up to. When he returned, strangely contented, she was absolutely certain that it was not because of another woman. (She imagined it must be from reading a book or from being struck by a thought which she preferred he would keep to himself.) Sarah felt that every woman must be as intrinsically demanding as she was; and, at the same time, paradoxical as it seems, she considered herself to be uniquely tolerant, at the forefront of the human raceís capacity for enduring imperfection, so that she believed that she alone of all the billions of women on the planet could possibly put up with him. Any other woman he tried to cheat on her with would surely discover his faults before he could get her into bed, but not be as forgiving of them as she was. Concerning him, Sarah was quite certain that she had little to fear, and very little to lose.

One day when he told her that she was cruel after she berated his love-making performance, because he had allowed himself to climax before she did (as rare an occurrence as a snowfall in the tropical rainforest), she told him that she was through with his abusive ways. She left him, even as he withered from guilt (he thought he must be abusive, after all, since she had accused him with such conviction.) In this way, he lost her touch, which, though it came at such a heavy price, was still a touch, as well as the many friends who had respected him because of her splendid physique and compelling face. Without her at his side, they realized how undeserving he was of being their friend. Alone, unloved, silently despised for not being good enough to keep her, he took to exercising his secret talent more than ever.

He had still not fully recovered, but felt himself to be improving, when, all of a sudden, thanks to the ruthless interference of a divisive president whose policies found the breaking point in the most important of his relationships, his uncle and he feuded over a war neither of them had anything to do with in spite of all their passion, and a loss far greater than Sarahís occurred.

Now, there was nothing at all to sustain the young man in the world but his unique ability to turn himself into a dog.

Shortly after the terrible and decisive fight with his uncle, he climbed down the stairs of the apartment where he was living, wearing nothing but a raincoat. After a quick glance around, he walked with hurried steps, as usual, for he did this often now, to the alley on the side of the building, where he put on a dog collar and a leash, and removed the coat (which left him utterly naked), then hid it behind a dumpster. He then got down on all fours and barked three times in a human voice, passionately wishing, as he barked, that he were a dog. The fourth time he barked, the voice that left his throat was that of a dog.

Happily, eagerly, the little white poodle with the cute black nose and wagging tail, pranced out of the alley way, made his way down to the front of the 24/7 deli/ donut shop on the corner, and carefully positioned himself next to a little fence in front of it in such a way that it seemed to all who did not overly scrutinize the scene that his leash must be attached to the fence, and that his owner most probably must be inside the shop buying something. This was important, as otherwise people might avoid him as a stray, or else try to catch him and turn him over to the dog pound. Obviously owned and safe (unlike an unpredictable stray who might try to bite), people would come up to him as they passed by, and responding to his anxious little trotting back and forth, and seeming invitation to visit him, they would come over, talking to him in the most absurdly affectionate voices, letting him stand up on his hind legs and lick them, as they petted him, scratched his ears, and told him how beautiful he was.

"Oh, youíre so cute! What an adorable little fellow you are! So sweet! If you didnít have a collar, Iíd take you home to be mine!" That was an actually rather attractive woman of about forty.

An old lady who could barely walk hobbled over with her cane, joining her to tell him: "Hello Puddlie. I used to have a dog just like you, my wonderful Puddlie. Youíre his spitting image. My, how I loved my Puddlie!"

"What a sweetheart," another lady agreed.

A man came by with a big dog, straining on its leash, which was a little scary for him, but he knew the man would try to keep things under control and so he put up with the bothersome sniffing of the Labrador, especially after the man said: "Usually, I donít like little dogs, but this oneís a real cutie."

"Youíre just trying to impress the lady," the young man thought with irritation. Yet even so, he felt flattered. Given the events of his life, he wasnít about to throw away a compliment.

He was happier still when a man who looked very much like his uncle passed by, stopped to look at him, started to walk on, then came back to pet him, telling him: "Maybe your owner will come back with a treat for you."

After they had all left, and the coast was once again clear, he ran back into the alley, crawled behind the dumpster, stood on his hind legs and barked three times wishing to be a man. The fourth time he barked, the bark came out as a human voice. He took off the collar and leash, put on the raincoat, compressed the collar and leash in his hands and put them back into the pocket of his coat, then returned to his abode.

The terrible pain and loneliness inflicted upon him by his conscience and sense of justice were relieved; the unbearable burden of life was once more light enough for him to carry.

He knew that the future would present further challenges: that was inevitable. But as long as he retained his ability to turn himself into a dog, he knew that everything would be all right.

 

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