Father of pretense, orphan of imagination
Originally appeared in Esquire, June, 1977, Vol. 87, page 108-109. Copyright: John Irving.
    Janet listened from the kitchen to the story Kemp made up for Pete.  Like many of the stories Kemp told Pete and Roger, it began as a story for the children and ended up as a story Kemp seemed to have made up for Kemp.
     "There was a dog," Kemp said.
     "What kind of dog?" said Pete.
     "A big dog," said Kemp.
     "What was his name?" Pete asked.
     "He didn't have a name," Kemp said.  "He lived in a city in Germany, after the war."
     "What war?" said Pete
     "World War Two," Kemp said.
     "Oh, sure," said Pete, who was five.
     "The dog had been in the war," Kemp said.  "He had been a guard dog, so he was very fierce and very smart."
mean," said Pete.
     "No," Kemp said, "he wasn't mean and he wasn't nice, or sometimes he was both.  He was whatever his master trained him to be, because he was trained to do whatever his master told him to do."
     "How did he know who his master was?" Pete asked.
     "I don't know," Kemp said.  "After the war, he got a new master.  This master owned a cafe in the city; you could get coffee and tea and drinks there and read the newspapers.  At night the master would leave one little light on, inside the cafe, so that you could look in the windows and see all the wiped-off tables with the chairs upside down on the tabletops.  The floor was swept clean, and the big dog paced back and forth across the floor every night.  He was like a lion in his cage at the zoo; he was never still.  Sometimes people would see him in there and they'd knock on the window to get his attention; the dog would just stare at them-- he wouldn't bark or even growl.  He's just stop pacing and stare until whoever it was went away.  You had the feeling that if you stayed there too long, the dog might jump through the window at you.  But he never did; he never did anything, in fact, because no one ever broke into that cafe at night.  It was enough just having the dog there."
     "The dog
looked very mean," said Pete.
     "You've got the picture," Kemp said.  "Every night was the same for that dog, and every day he was tied up in an alley beside the cafe.  He was tied to a long chain that was tied to the front axle of an old Army truck, which had been backed into the alley and left there-- for good.  This truck didn't have any wheels.  And you know what cinder blocks are," Kemp said.  "The truck was set on blocks, so it wouldn't roll on its axles.  There was just enough room for the dog to crawl under the truck and lie down out of the rain and the sun.  The chain was just long enough so that the dog could walk to the end of the alley and watch the people on the sidewalks and the cars in the street.  If you were coming along the sidewalk, you could sometimes see the dog's nose poking out of the alley; that was as far as the chain would reach-- no farther.  If you tried to pat him, he would duck his head and slink back into the alley.  The way he stared at you made you think it would not be a very good idea to follow him into the alley or try very hard to pat him."
     "He would bite you," Pete said.
     "Well, you couldn't be sure," Kemp said.  "He never bit anyone, actually, or I never heard about it if he did."
     "You were there?" Pete said.
     "Yes," Kemp said.
     "Pete!" Janet called from the kitchen; she always eavesdropped on the stories Kemp told the children.  "That is what they mean by 'a dog's life'!"
     The responsibilities loomed for Kemp, every time.  What is the instinct in people that makes them expect something to happen?
     "Go on!" Pete cried impatiently.
     Kemp went on.  "Well, the dog was either under the truck or at the end of the alley; he never stopped in between.  He had his habits and nothing disturbed them."
     "Nothing?" Pete asked, disappointed-- or else worried that nothing was going to happen.
almost nothing," Kemp admitted, and Pete perked up.  "Something bothered the dog; there was just one thing.  It alone could make the dog furious; it was the only thing that could even make the dog bark.  It really drove him crazy."
     "Oh, sure, a cat!" cried Pete.
terrible cat," said Kemp in a voice that made Janet stop what she was doing and hold her breath.
     "Why was the cat terrible?" Pete asked.
     "Because he teased the dog," Kemp said.
     "Teasing isn't nice," Pete said, with knowledge; Pete was Roger's victim when it came to teasing.  Roger should be hearing this story, Janet thought.  It is clearly wasted on Pete.
     "Teasing is terrible," Kemp said.  "But this cat
was terrible.  He was an old cat off the streets-- dirty and mean."
     "What was his name?" Pete asked.
     "Didn't have a name," Kemp said.  "Nobody owned him.  He was hungry all the time, so he stole food.  Nobody could blame him for that.  And he had lots of fights with other cats, and nobody could blame him for that, either.  He had only one eye; the other eye had been missing for so long that the hole had closed and the fur had grown over where the eye had been.  He didn't have any ears.  He must have had to fight all the time."
     "The poor thing!" Janet cried.
     "Nobody could blame that cat for the way he was," Kemp said, "except that he teased the dog.  That was wrong; he didn't have to do that.  He was hungry, so he had to be sneaky, and nobody took care of him, so he had to fight.  But he didn't have to tease the dog."
     "Teasing isn't nice," Pete said again.
     Very definitely Roger's story, Janet thought.
     "Every day," said Kemp, "that cat would walk down the sidewalk and stop to wash himself at the end of the alley.  The dog could come out from under the truck, running so hard that the chain wriggled behind him like a snake that's just been run over in the road.  You ever seen that?"
     "Oh, sure," Pete said.
     "And when the dog got to the end of his chain, the chain would snap the dog's neck back and the dog would be tugged off his feet and land on the pavement of the alley, sometimes knocking his wind out or hitting his head.  The cat would never move.  The cat
knew how long the chain was and he would sit there washing himself, with his one eye staring at the dog.  The dog went crazy.  He barked and snapped and struggled against his chain-- until the owner of the cafe, his master, would have to come out and shoo the cat away.  Then the dog would crawl back under the truck."
     "Sometimes the cat would come right back, and the dog would lie under the truck for as long as he could stand it, which was not very long.  He'd lie under there while the cat licked himself all over out on the sidewalk, and pretty soon you could hear the dog begin to whimper and whine, and the cat would just stare down the alley at him and go on washing himself.  And pretty soon the dog would start to howl under the truck and thrash around under there as if he were covered with bees.  But the cat would just go on washing himself.  And finally the dog would lunge out from under the truck and charge up the alley again, snapping his chain behind him-- even though he knew what would happen.  He knew that the chain would rip him off his feet and choke him and throw him on the pavement, and that when he got up the cat would still be sitting there, inches away, washing himself.  And the dog would bark himself hoarse, until his master, or someone else, would shoo the cat away."
     "That dog
hated that cat," Kemp said.
     "So do
I," Pete said.
     "And so did I," said Kemp.
     Janet felt herself turn against the story-- it had such an obvious conclusion.  She said nothing.
     "Go on," Pete said.
     "One day," said Kemp, "everybody thought the dog had finally lost his mind.  For one whole day, he ran out from under the truck and all the way up the alley until the chain jerked him off his feet; then he'd do it again.  Even when the cat wasn't there, the dog just kept charging up the alley, throwing his weight against the chain and heaving himself to the pavement.  It startled some of the people walking on the sidewalk, especially the people who saw the dog coming at them and didn't know there
was a chain.
     "And that night the dog was so tired that he didn't pace around the cafe; he slept on the floor as if he were sick.  And the next day he did the same thing, although you could tell his neck was sore because he cried out every time the chain snapped him off his feet.  And that night he slept in the cafe as if he were a dead dog who'd been murdered there on the floor.
     "His master called a vet," Kemp said, "and the vet gave the dog some shots-- I guess to calm him down.  For two days the dog lay on the floor of the cafe at nighttime and under the truck in the daytime, and even when the cat walked by on the sidewalk or sat washing himself at the end of the alley, that dog wouldn't move.  That poor dog," Kemp said.
     "He was sad," Pete said.
     "But he was smart," Kemp said, "because all the time he'd been running against the chain, he'd been moving the truck he was tied to-- just a little.  Even though that truck had sat there for years, and it was rusted solid on those cinder blocks and the buildings could fall down around it before that truck would budge--
even so," Kemp said, "that dog made the truck move, just a little."