Haunted by the Dog Man by Ryan Sparks

Here they come around the corner of the block, the man and his dogs.  He wears soft buckskin moccasins so the sound of his feet treading the sidewalk imitates that of his two companions.  Padt padt padt.  The only difference is the rhythm of their strides.  The dogs are tall and shaggy, solemn black and white collies that address each other like siblings.  If you watch closely you can see their eyes changing colors as their heads dip up and down.  They alternate taking the lead, dog-man-dog, like it is some kind of drill, but none of them rush forward or suddenly drop back.  They weave and loop at a pace that seems directed by an internal metronome shared by all three and wouldn’t be notable except for the fact that the dogs wear no leash.  Nothing physical tethers these three together.

The man is upwards of fifty, loose gray hair cut short, tanned like he should be if he walks these wide distances all day—haven’t I seen him in two places fifty blocks apart in the same day with no discernible lag in his gait?—a few inches taller than short and a few pounds shy of husky.  He apparently has no job, no wife.  He may even be homeless, but if he is, it’s a choice he’s made, not the result of irresponsibility.  The man moves constantly around the city and the animals, out of some weird necessity, must follow.  He is the alpha.

Yet I’ve never seen him exhibit his control over the dogs.  He doesn’t call to them with code words.  He never clicks, whistles, or snaps.  The man only walks and the dogs take turns at his side.  When they reach an intersection, the dogs will go through without the man if it is clear.  They will go about as far as twenty-five feet in front without him and then fall back like the tide, but he never appears nervous that they will stray or take a turn out of his sight, cause any trouble or disturb any other pedestrian.  This is part of the man’s strength.  He has surpassed worry by clouding certain regions of the dogs’ brains.  There has been some sort of secret training behind closed doors.

The man says nothing at all, ever, even if I say good morning or someone commends the dogs for being so handsome.  The man does not even approach being pleasant.  He owns the air around him and advertises with the slightest movement of his eyes a deep prejudice against you.  Almost everyone else is somehow in his way.  Even if you are three blocks up and two over, you are somehow in his way.  The dogs are his buffer, his detail.  The collies gently herd the rest of us closer towards buildings, towards entrances, towards the safety of inside.  Because it is unsettling, even though they pass by every day.  These dogs aren’t on leashes.  They are muscular and grave and steady and free to attack.  Even if you are impressed by their manners, an inner survival alarm compels you to take a few steps back.

And so I find myself wondering why the people I wish to investigate and interview and obtain wisdom from are the stoic, the separate, the misanthropic.  I envy their distorted zen, the freedom they’ve earned by silence.  The dog man would never share his secrets.  I don’t believe he even writes down reminders to himself: it would be too great a risk to the life he has built.  I couldn’t keep to the regime even if I knew it.  I have lived by myself in the past and found it pleasant in small doses, but over time it becomes unbearable to be alone with only your thoughts or the published thoughts of others.  I am fine traveling or walking in solitude, but sitting at the bar without company, as a stranger in a room of talkative, jangly others, will overpower me with insecurity within half an hour.  Sitting alone at a table and eating, staring out the window and pretending to be interested in whatever landscape is on the other side gives me a demanding headache.  I don’t have the discipline for true misanthropy and my secrets aren’t dark enough to sustain a recluse’s existence.

So my admiration of the dog man passes like a fever; my jealousy evaporates when I contemplate his life as a whole.  The only thing that remains, especially on days like today, gloomy Sundays, caught up in a funk that even housecleaning can’t seem to dissipate, is my desire for those ghostly dogs.  I want to open the antique steamer trunks they must be stored in, let them leap out and circle me, brush their coats against my legs, hear their thoughts in my head.  Then I could shake off this mood like dander and fur and walk outside, confident again.

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