Training by Joseph Mills
Toto had to be kept on a leash otherwise he’d be gone. Onto the field. Into the bleachers. Over a stroller. Across the highway. He’d disappear, and it wouldn’t be one of those incredible journey stories with him showing up on the doorstep after a week or a month. The dog would get lost and be too stupid to get home. Everyone bragged about how smart their pets were. My dog saved us from a fire. My cat makes amazing breakfasts. Toto didn’t do much. Except sleep and eat and crap and dig. Faith wasn’t going to pretend they had some kind of super pet, which was a relief. You couldn’t admit that your kids were stupid, even when they did things so mind-blowingly idiotic, you thought that it had to be performance art. But you could say your dog was dumb. It wasn’t nice. People might get indignant or angry, but you could do it without worrying that someone would call social services or that the dog would end up in therapy.
Even on a leash, Toto was hard to control. He almost pulled her arm off each time he saw a squirrel or another dog or a baby or an empty wrapper or anything that moved. He seemed governed by only two questions. Should I pee on it? Can I eat it? If she wasn’t paying attention, he would munch on thrown-out fast food bags or diapers. Once, she had looked over to find a condom hanging from his mouth. At first she had thought it was the skin of a snake. “River eels” Liam called them.
Faith tried to convince herself that it was a good work-out for her forearms, but it was just one more irritation, reminding her that the kids didn’t train Toto, despite their pre-dog promises. Just as they didn’t walk him. feed him or clean the yard. It was up to her. Even though she hadn’t wanted a dog and didn’t like dogs. Even though she had said, repeatedly, whenever the discussion had come up, “No, we shouldn’t have a dog. I don’t want us to have a dog. No dog.” Then one morning Liam and Cal had gone for eggs and milk, and they had come back with a dog. Some Pet Society had set up outside the grocery’s entrance with dogs in crate. They had asked Cal as he walked by, “Do you love animals? You don’t want to see them killed, do you?” It should be a crime to target kids like that.
She hadn’t been mad at Cal. She had been furious at Liam who had thought it was funny. Who still thought it was funny. Who didn’t care if Toto got on the furniture or chewed it to pieces. At first, he would say, “It’s a dog” as if that not only explained behavior, but justified it. Being a dog, for Liam, seemed to mean you got to do anything you wanted. After several fights, Liam knew better than to tell her to take it easy or chill out, and she knew better than to suggest that since he had so much time now he could easily walk Toto more. He would once in a while, usually when he wanted to sneak a cigarette, but that was about it. Since he still wasn’t home much, supposedly job hunting and “retraining,” whatever that meant, he probably figured that Toto didn’t require much care. You went around the block. You threw some food in a bowl. What did that take? Five minutes?
Faith had faked appreciation of Toto for a while. She had posted the obligatory puppy pictures on Facebook. She had tried to tell herself a dog would be good for the kids. Help give them strong immune systems, help teach them responsibility, help them develop empathy, help them be better people somehow. But taking care of Toto had ended up being one more thing to fight about, one more chore to nag about, until she did it herself.
She had been happy when Cal was out of diapers. It had been liberating to toss the diaper genie in the dumpster. No more crap to clean up, except for the occasional sickness. Now, here she was with plastic bags in her pocket and no end to it in sight. How long did a dog live? Fifteen years? Unfortunately they didn’t live on that busy of a street. She would never purposely leave the gate open, but if it happened…and if she had by some terrible coincidence taken off Toto’s collar to wash it …
The only good thing was that Toto could pee anywhere. Faith was still having fights with her son about this each time they were about to leave the house.
Have you gone to the bathroom?
I don’t need to go.
I don’t need to.
Then, inevitably, from the backseat would come, I gotta go. Bad. Usually when they were somewhere that she couldn’t stop.
What was it about boys and peeing? Why the inability to anticipate a basic repetitive function? Why couldn’t they recognize that they went yesterday and the day before and the day before that, so they were going to have to pee today. Yet each time it took Cal by surprise. He didn’t have to go. He refused to try. And, then I have to go! Now! Suddenly it was an emergency, and he was a twisted up pretzel, his head about to blow off like a cartoon fire hydrant. She wouldn’t be surprised to look out at the field and see her son with his shorts down. It had reached the point that she was considering letting him pee his pants to teach him a lesson, even if the lesson would be that she was a bitch. The only reason she didn’t was that she didn’t want to deal with the laundry. It would end up being more work for her, and he would probably start peeing in his pants because it was easier. Why had she worked so hard to get him out of diapers? That special potty. Those training treats?
She should train Toto to make Cal pee before they left the house. Have the dog stand at the bathroom door and growl until the son made the effort. She also needed to make Toto more fierce-seeming, or at least, train the kids to pretend he was fierce. Last week, that guy had come up and asked if Toto bit, and Kristi had said, “Oh no, he’s really friendly.” That’s not what you said to a stranger, to someone who was potentially sizing up your house to rob, to someone who might kidnap you. You said, “Yes, he bites. Yes, he’s vicious. I wouldn’t get too close.” They should have called him Killer or Butcher. Something other than Toto. A stupid name for a dog this size. A stupid name for any dog. She had refused to use it at first, calling him Mr. T. — I pity the fool who messes with my dog, — but it hadn’t caught on, and the kids, particularly Kristi, had been upset when she did it.
Faith was surprised and scared by her children’s openness with people who came up and started talking. Would they get in a car with someone? She had assumed that they knew better. Didn’t they learn Stranger Danger from Arthur and the other PBS cartoons. At what age, did you introduce fear and suspicion? It definitely should have been done by now. She and Liam had taught them not to go up to dogs because they might get bit, but apparently they hadn’t taught them that about people. They needed to. In fact, Cal and Kristi needed to know that even people you thought were your friends were dangerous. Backstabbed you. Didn’t stand up for you when you thought they would. They needed to know this before they got to the Hunger Games that was middle school. But what kind of conversation would that be? Kristi, there are people here, in this park right now, who would hurt you if you gave them the chance. You don’t know which ones. You don’t know what they look like. They might even seem nice at first. Beware! Her daughter would never come to the park again. How did you train your children to be wary and joyful? Maybe she could turn it into an opportunity. She could suggest in the conversation, But Toto will protect you if you take care of him and clean up his poop and walk him.
She looked at the dog, “Toto, are you going to keep my children safe?” Hearing his name, he looked up at her, then, when he realized she didn’t have any food, went back to sniffing and peeing on the park’s sign posts.
A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills has published six collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently “Exit, pursued by a bear.” More information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com. The story “Training” is part of a larger collection entitled “Bleachers.”