The Dog Shelter and the Light Brigade
Literary spoilers below, if you care. Don’t read if you don’t want to know how a couple of short stories end.
I’ve been making my way through the book of Jim Shepard stories, and in fact yesterday’s post was in a way inspired by one of them. The story, “Reach for the Sky,” is about an employee at an animal shelter, fed up with the people dropping off unwanted dogs that will most likely end up euthanized. All day long, he sees dogs getting dropped off by people who don’t generally display much sense of responsibility. He tries not too successfully to hide his contempt for them while still trying to talk them into keeping the dogs. It’s a very short story, but it manages a really delicate shift in sympathy in a very short space. For the first while, I was quite naturally nodding along and identifying with the shelter guy – for one thing, I too hated the customers when I worked retail. For another, the people dropping off the dogs – or rather, their children, who get delegated to do the drop-off – do seem to be shallow selfish people. How dare they take responsibility for a dog and then send it off to be killed because it chewed a slipper? That is – if you’ll refer back to my last post – breaking the compact. Bad human, no biscuit. Then a man in a wheelchair shows up, wanting to drop off his eleven-year-old Irish setter. The shelter guy immediately gets his hackles up. He starts asking probing questions, trying to find a way to get the wheelchair guy to keep the dog. He fails to see the obvious: the dog is immaculately groomed; the man in the wheelchair has taught it tricks. Clearly, the man has cared for the dog, is close to the dog; and clearly, if he’s giving her up it’s because he has to, for reasons that simply aren’t any business of the man behind the counter at the animal shelter. The shelter guy’s relentless, though. He keeps asking questions and trying to talk the wheelchair man out of leaving the dog until they come to this final, impassable exchange:
“If I were you I’d keep that dog.”
“If you were me you would’ve wheeled this thing off a bridge eleven years ago. If you were me you wouldn’t be such a dick. If you were me you would’ve taken this dog, no questions asked.”
The story’s barely six pages long, and it’s a really lovely bit of craft, the way the narrator goes from seeming like a put-upon speed bump in a superhighway of inhumanity to a petty little bureaucratic thug. Of course, he’s both things, which is why he still manages to retain the reader’s sympathy in the end.
The next story I found even more effective. It’s called “Alicia and Emmett with the 17th Lancers at
Shepard’s story begins: “Alicia and Emmett find themselves with the 17th Lancers at
Conceptually, it’s kind of similar to the Mars Attacks! story I mentioned a post or three back, but for my money it works a whole lot better. The Mars Attacks! story struck me as a little too mechanistic and overly impressed with its own cleverness. This one works a lot more organically and builds to a climax that truly justifies the metaphor.
But hey, maybe this all just means I’m liking stories about dogs and babies more lately.
In other things: You may have noticed that I closed the “Which of Papa Dog's preoccupations do you find the most interesting?” poll. With a whopping statistical sample of ten votes, the final tally was a tie between the stuff about the baby and the cranky rants about bad customer service. I was saddened to see that nobody was willing to stand up for the stuff about how he really needs to read all those old newspapers. Still stuck in mid-August, if you were wondering. I’ve decided that I’m going to put new polls up every Tuesday and Friday, so you’ve got a couple of days to make your views known on the subject of my food aversions.