THE REWARD COMES NEXT
by Wynne Hungerford
Something’s going on in the shimmering green country––by invitation only.
What: A large (but not fat) Englishman has built a service-dog training facility, and the first batch of dogs have just completed the year-long training program. The inaugural Open House will include a tour of the facility, demonstrations of the dogs’ tricks & skills, and a hot dog cookout on the freshly-cut lawn, spreading for acres in mock watermelon stripes.
Issue #136 soundtrack: Dweller on the Threshold “Barnfire”
Where: The Rush Foundation Headquarters, a blinding union of glass and steel. Follow the red-tailed hawk to a gate guarded by two marble Greyhounds, go up the mile-long driveway of crushed white pebble.
When: Saturday, 10 A.M. thru 6 P.M.
The last of the morning dew has evaporated.
Cars snake down the mile-long driveway. So do short-buses and handicapped vans. The elite visitors are entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and socialites. They’re the nieces and nephews of senators, the children of big oil. They live part of the year in cottages, villas, and chateaus. They collect yachts, lighthouses, and small islands. They’ve got that Bahamian Bronze look from weekend trips to Nassau, where they dine at a world-class restaurant playfully named Sweet Plantain and go out on the dock after their after-dinner cocktails and climb aboard a vessel named Babel and ascend the Captain’s lookout, one by one, where the beautiful black ocean renders them speechless. The rich are invited so they will be impressed and donate money to the foundation and it’s the rich who come up the hill first.
Next, the disabled. The disabled are invited so that they may meet the service dog of their dreams. Look at His fine work: multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, polio, muscular dystrophy, paralysis, severe retardation, PTSD. Bulging eyes, hands curled into claws, bibs soaked with drool. They get out of their busses and vans slowly, painfully, and chug up the wheelchair-accessible ramp.
The Englishman stands in the open doorway, arms open. He greets everyone with equal charm, shaking hands, kissing hands, squeezing hands. His heart beats faster when he sees a couple approaching, a paraplegic man in a top-shelf electric wheelchair that could have easily cost ten-grand and his very blond, spiritually attuned wife. “Attuned” as in she wears braided leather sandals and a jade Buddha pendant around her neck. The paraplegic is what you’d call an anomaly because he’s rich and he’s a paraplegic and he happens to be married to the Englishman’s ex-wife. The woman with crystals in her pocket, she’s the ex-wife.
God, how he loved her.
She says, “What a wonderful day, Rush.”
The paraplegic says, “Yes, Rush, you have such a generous heart.”
The Englishman runs a hand through his flop of graying hair. His tweed suit feels a tad too small. He could use a little more room to breathe. He says, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
He built this place for his ex-wife and her new husband, who was a former downhill ski champion. You can look at his angular face––of Scandinavian ancestry, almost certainly––and imagine how dangerously blue his eyes would’ve looked against the snow and how his wind-chapped cheeks would have burned the color of a baboon’s ass at the finish-line. His face is long and his nose is the slightest bit crooked, enough to be sexy, like, Oh, you broke it boxing in college? Did it hurt? What makes a man sexy is often what causes his undoing. While skiing in small-town Montana for pleasure, there had been an avalanche that swept him up and pinned him against a tree with a broken back. This kind of thing happens, just not to you or me. So, he’s a paraplegic at this point, the legs are useless, and he’s propped against the trunk of an enormous pine tree with only his head above the snow. A few hours go by and a rescue dog appears, leaping through the snow, coming toward him like an angel with chopped-liver breath.
The Englishman made everyone think he was building the facility out of respect for his ex-wife’s new husband, to give him another dog, to give back to the disabled community in an underserved region. An article in the Greenville News went on and on about it: “Mr. Rush is a saving grace, etc.” That isn’t the whole story, of course.
There’s a bad, bad bitch in the kennels.
The head trainer, Constance Milton, is down there with all of the dogs. She puts bandanas on each of them. She keeps abreast of the latest literature and recently read an article suggesting that a dog wearing either a) clothing or b) jewelry is considered “Very Cute,” while that same dog in its natural state would only be considered regular “Cute.” The dogs wear their bandanas proudly and don’t mind them, all except one. Constance knows that Tilly, a little wheat-colored retriever, will hate the bandana. From the time Tilly arrived at the facility as a puppy, it was clear that she did not have the appropriate temperament of a service dog. She was impatient, hyperactive, and aggressive.
The chicken incident, for example. In the gymnasium during training one day, all of the copper and cornsilk retrievers were lined up for a lesson. They panted and looked at three plastic cat carriers in the middle of the gym. Constance and her assistant trainer walked along the formation of dogs like generals before battle, urging the troops to hold steady.
Looking into each pair of wet eyes, they said, “Stay down.”
The trainers knelt, opened the doors to the cat carriers, and whispered, “Come on, it’s okay.” The dogs waited. From the dark holds came tiny scratches and chirps. Little adolescent chickens hopped out and pecked along the floor, avoiding the dogs at first and then coming closer and weaving among them. The dogs raised their heads and sniffed. Somebody whined. All stayed down except for small-pawed Tilly, who snapped and caught a chicken by the wing. The bird screamed and flapped, but Tilly only bit down harder and closer to the small-breasted body. She trotted away from the group, into the farthest corner of the gym, head lowered. The assistant trainer jogged over, ordering, “Drop it,” in a firm voice. When Tilly finally eased up, the chicken ran across the floor, neck outstretched, beak wide open, tongue erect.
Later, the assistant trainer said, “What are we going to do about Tilly?”
“What do you mean?” Constance asked, feigning ignorance.
“She’s too excitable for this work.”
“We don’t give up on dogs,” Constance said. “We never give up.”
Constance knew the plan all along: Give Tilly to the paraplegic.
She had once asked the Englishman, “What do you want to happen?”
“Oh,” he said, playing with his cufflinks and imagining the cripple’s dying breath. “I’d quite like his throat to be torn out.”
Constance went along with the plan because she thought there’d be something in it for her down the road. The way you train a dog is through positive reinforcement. When a dog successfully completes a task, you give the dog a treat or praise. People are the same way. What would be Constance’s reward? She thought that maybe the Englishman would love her or marry her or at least make love to her in his office suite. There were leather couches up there, beautiful soft buttery leather couches.
Constance opens the door and steps into Tilly’s kennel. She says, “Are you ready, girl?” and Tilly snaps the bandana into her vicious little mouth, head slinging side to side, saliva flying. She can smell all of the visitors piled into the lobby for the Open House, the physical sickness of the disabled and the mental sickness of the rich, and she wants nothing to do with it because a dog can smell the truth. Tilly knows something is up, has known all along, and she’s pissed. She’d rather be anywhere than this kennel. This is bullshit, she growls through sparkling teeth. I want to roam. I want to live independently. I want to kill rabbits. I want to fuck a wolf.
Tilly steps forward, lips pulled back, nose trembling like a big wet blackberry. Tilly is looking everywhere. Tilly is assessing the situation. When the human’s guard is down, she will bolt out of the kennel and down the hall. She will paw open the emergency exit door and make haste across the rolling green hills. She will dive into the woods and find her pleasure there.
While the Englishman has had a plan for Tilly all along, she has been working on her own plan, the common plan, the most ancient plan there is––
Wynne Hungerford has published work in Epoch, The Talking River Review, The Tulane Review, The South Carolina Review, and the Weekly Rumpus, among other places. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida.
Aliene de Souza Howell is a Queens-based artist who was born and raised in Nashville, TN. In her work, animal and object hybrids strip the specificity of human features to bring the focus to gesture and movement, animals and inanimate objects functioning as metaphor for human interactions with each other, the objects we use, and the natural world. Howell received her B.F.A from Guilford College and her MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art. She also worked as muralist and educator with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. She recently completed a post-graduate fellowship, was critiqued by Steve Martin, and exhibited in New York City, Germany and Ireland. She is in many esteemed collections including Naomi Watts and Leiv Schreiber, Francie Bishop Good and Howard Tullman. For more, visit alienedesouzahowell.com.
Dweller on the Threshold is a music project comprised of Northeast punk dignitaries and longtime friends Eric Gagne (Footings, Redwing Blackbird, Death To Tyrants), Randy Patrick (The Toll, Death To Tyrants), Andrew Skelly (Kindling, Ampere), Jason St. Claire (Sweet John Bloom, Daniel Striped Tiger), and Sean Yeaton (Parquet Courts, Daniel Striped Tiger). The group has been making records together in their spare time as Dweller On The Threshold since 2010 despite being separated by thousands of miles and other full-time projects. For more, visit the band on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.