Our neighbors Peter and Christina have been training their dog in German. “Nein!” they say. “Stopp! Bleib!” I had to look that last one up to learn it means Stay.
The dog is a German Shepherd, but still. “We thought it was a cute idea,” Christina told my wife and me. “My father suggested it. He was a boy in Germany before my grandfather moved everybody to Pennsylvania after the war. That’s how we ended up here, just a hop, skip, and jump to where he’s moved into a retirement community.”
Cute or not, in June, three months ago, that dog, whose name is Rolf, bit me while I was at the mailbox. Not badly, just a nip. The dog bounced over while Christina stood in her yard as if leash laws were a well-kept secret, and for a second or two, I thought it was an opportunity to get acquainted. Then its hair stood up, it growled deep in its throat, and bit my arm.
Christina professed sorrow as I showed her my arm. She said, “Bose hund” twice, catching me off guard with what seemed to me a perfect umlaut sound. “I’m so glad he didn’t break the skin. Rolf will learn as he grows. You’ll see.”
The evidence of Rolf’s learning curve advancing was slow to reveal itself. Two weeks later, he bit my wife as she trimmed the rhododendron next to our house. She was wearing pants to keep insects, especially ticks, away, but she was surprised and then afraid. “For no reason,” she said. “Like it was testing me.”
The third incident was with our own small Chihuahua. Rolf had Sally by the throat in no time and would have killed her, for sure, if Christina hadn’t been right there hollering Nein! and Stopp! followed by a flurry of gibberish Rolf finally seemed to accept.
Nothing I said throughout July made any difference, not even “stop,” which, when I tried it with an accent, I thought might work. But I admit, after it bounded into our garage, and I had to sit in my car for a while until it lost interest, I looked up the German words for “put down” and “euthanasia.” And then, coming to my senses, I called the police.
So, Peter and Christina were served, and a hearing was scheduled, a silence opening between us. Peter and Christina spent most of their August evenings in their back yard loudly talking German to Rolf, maybe adding nuance to their commands or maybe, my wife, the pessimist, says, explaining the reasons why they hate us.
Look, they had a collie until last winter that they spoke to in perfect English. The kids of our neighbors on the other side played with it. So did we, even in our seventies, not worrying about being knocked to the ground.
It was right after the collie died that Christina told us she and Peter had gone to one of those DNA web sites— My Heritage— and discovered they were nearly entirely German, 96%, the both of them, about as close to a perfect score as one of those tests ever claims. Plus, Peter chimed in, the other 4% came from places nobody would be ashamed of.
They observed a week of mourning for the collie, posting photos of the Lassie lookalike from puppy to just the week before it passed. Then Peter came home with the ten-week-old German Shepherd puppy.
It was early February, too cold for the screened-in porch, but Christina called us over to have a look, asking us to stay outside the door because the new dog, understandably, was a little high strung. She told us the dog’s name was Rolf and explained it meant “famous wolf,” nothing political like some of the other names they could have picked like Kaiser. “Or Brunhilde,” she added, “Ha ha.” Neither my wife nor I knew what expression we were supposed to muster, but Christina carried on. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we’re getting right into training it. Do either of you know German?”
By May, that screen door had a hole ripped in it. “A bit of ugliness,” Christina said, “but at least it’s convenient, right? And Rolf doesn’t bother any of the other screens.” She patted Rolf on the head and softly said “liebling” three times in succession. And then June began, and her sweetie (I looked it up) bit me.
At the hearing, Peter and Christina pleaded no contest. They paid a fine, but the dog stayed safe because the judge declared that even a second incident would only call for a larger fine and a stiffer warning. “Unless it kills someone,” their lawyer said, “then all bets are off.”
Here it is September and the dog seems to have made an accommodation. Sure, it snarls and issues low growls from deep in its throat that, if you’re busy, you have to learn to tune out. Likewise, we’ve learned to walk Sally out through the side door and down the street away from Peter and Christina’s house. The rest of the time we keep her inside, not much of an inconvenience with the weather turning colder
We’ve planted a long row of forsythia along the border of our yard that faces Peter and Christina’s house. It will fill in quickly. A couple of years and we won’t even see them unless I keep it trimmed. Sure, for now, the dog crawls through the open spaces, but it seems to be okay with staying near the border, settling in the afternoon shade or basking in the morning sun. Rolf, when he’s lying nearby, mostly snuffles. He’s only a body’s length inside our yard, and only a dog’s body at that.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection, The Sorrows, was published early this year by Stephen F. Austin. Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction, he is currently co-editor of the annual international anthology Best Microfiction. His story ‘The Corridors of Longing’ has been selected to appear in Best Small Fictions 2020.