I love the poem, “In Heaven,” by Matthew Dickman: “No dog chained to a spike in a yard of dying/ grass like the dogs/ I grew up with, starving, overfed, punched in the face/ by children, no children, no firecrackers/ slipped down the long throats of bottles in the first days of summer.”
The dogs I grew up with disappeared. Crawled under the gate or chased traffic to the sun. Ate batteries. Woke up too many days.
And the dogs my parents raised before they had us kids, when my parents wore flannel and still had friends and got drunk. The babies had allergies and the dogs had to go.
When I was twelve and visited my grandparents (technically, my third cousins), their dog barked for a week straight. Now, every time I see my grandfather, he reminds me he used to have a dog and the dog was good and the now the dog is buried under the porch.
I won my first dog in a church raffle on Christmas Eve. The raffle was fixed by the priest—“The boy is sad and needs a dog.”
But I grew up and moved away and so did my mother. The dog was given away and my mother cried and my sister cried and my brother cried, and when I saw my father on holidays, my father asked about the dog, because the dog used to sleep on his belly, and one winter the dog pulled him down the icy steps and my father’s ankle still gave him trouble.
The dogs I grew up with didn’t like sleeping so they barked instead, and when my friends and I were done playing video games and smoking, we howled with the dogs until our minds were blank, then passed out in piles using dogs for blankets.
Dogs that wore diapers. Dogs that ate the Easter ham. Dogs named after ex-girlfriends, dogs the disabled man paid me to feed. Warm tongues and the smell of the earth.
But I wasn’t finished growing and dogs watched my body shift in the dark, and her body, and when we were done, we scooped up the dogs and let them circle our legs under the covers.
And when she and I were done, after she carried her boxes to the car and asked if this would make me happy, I stared at the dogs and waited for them to talk.
The last time I went home, it had been six months since I had seen my nephew, and now he was talking, and now he said, “woof, woof,” every time he saw a dog.
I walked outside to shovel. I sweat through layers and could hear my body working inside, my lungs pumping against the snow and wind, as if I wasn’t alone. My nephew stared from the window, holding his Snoopy doll by the neck. He watched the white dust my face, the white blow off the ground and carry me away.
David Bersell’s essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, and more. He lives in Nashville, where he helps run a pizzaria and record label.
Photo by Rodrigo Paredes