The Parable of the Dead Dog

David James Poissant

This is a story where no dogs die at the end.

This is a story where a dog dies at the beginning. And another in the middle.

But none at the end.

The fiction writer sits at a table with other writers, and the writers talk about writing, which is boring but which is one of the things that writers, gathered, do. They talk and they wait for their hamburgers and fajitas to arrive.

The writers sit at Chili’s, a restaurant no one likes but which is convenient to campus and air-conditioned and not so noisy that the writers have to shout. The writers can hear one another talk at a safe volume, which is nice, and the service is slow, which gives the writers plenty of time to talk, which is also nice, because writers like to talk.

The writers move from talking about writing to talking about dead dogs until talking about dead dogs becomes a way to talk about writing.

“Someone should begin a story, ‘This is not a story where the dog dies at the end,’” a writer at the end of the table says. Her head is shaved except for a filigree of bangs.

“Not a bad opening line,” the fiction writer says.

“You can have it,” she says.

“You mean it?” he says. “Because I’ll write it. I’ll write that story today.”

“It’s yours,” the writer with the shaved head says.

The hamburgers and fajitas arrive. The writers eat.

Somewhere in the world, a dog dies.

Twelve years before Chili’s, at a summer conference, the fiction writer reads a dead dog story to a room of 200 writers on the same morning that two other writers have just read dead dog stories to the same room. Three dead dogs is at least two dead dogs too many before noon. One writer’s dog takes a shotgun to the head. Another’s is thrown into traffic. The fiction writer’s dog is run over in the driveway by the husband of a cheating wife. The readings are not planned to coincide in their dead-doggedness. It is, instead, some cosmic joke, a coincidence of timing and luck, though no one at the conference will believe the three writers. And why should they? Why should anyone believe that, of all the subjects in the world, three writers, picked at random, each given fifteen minutes and a microphone, would, of all things, choose to read about dead dogs?

After the reading, a friend of the fiction writer will turn to the editor of a prominent literary magazine. The friend will say, “I didn’t know you could get a dead dog story published these days,” to which the editor will say, “You can’t in my magazine.”

In truth, the editor will be the editor of a small, distinguished journal, but the fiction writer likes to exaggerate. When he tells the story, he will say prominent, because he will decide this makes the story funnier, but also because he likes stories in which more is at stake.

The story the fiction writer reads is fiction. His wife has never cheated. He has never run over a dog.

A year before the day of three dead dog stories, the fiction writer moves to Arizona to live in the desert and learn how to write.

Driving through town, the fiction writer hits a prairie dog, which does not count as one of this story’s promised dead dogs. In reality, the prairie dog is hit as the writer pulls into town for the very first time. But doesn’t that sound far-fetched, like a bad omen in a bad movie?

The fiction writer sits in a classroom in a building in the desert where a fiction professor provides two subjects about which no fiction writer should write. The first is dead babies. The second is dead dogs.

The fiction writer writes a story about a dead baby. Months later, the fiction writer writes a story about a dead dog. The fiction writer likes writing things he’s told he should never write.

The dead dog story that the fiction writer writes is about a man who lets his dog off leash each morning so that the dog has the run of the neighborhood for an hour. When the man whistles, the dog comes home, until one morning the dog doesn’t come home, and the man runs over the dog backing out of the driveway on his way to look for the dog.

Thirteen years before the fiction writer moves to the desert, the fiction writer’s father lets their dog off leash every morning. When the father whistles, the dog comes home, until one morning the dog doesn’t come home, and the father finds the dog, later, poisoned. Whether the dog got into someone’s poison or whether someone poisoned the dog, the veterinarian cannot say. The dog is sedated. It takes the dog two days to die. The fiction writer, a boy at the time, cannot face the dying dog. In the two days it takes the dog to die, he does not go to see the dog. He does not forgive himself for those two days.

Twenty years after the poisoned dog, the fiction writer’s best friend begins work at a Petco. “We don’t call them dog owners,” the best friend says. “We call them pet parents.”

The best friend’s boyfriend is a vet tech at a small clinic in Pensacola. The boyfriend sees a lot of dogs die.

Two years after his dog is poisoned, and nine years before the fiction writer moves to the desert to learn how to write, the fiction writer gets a job at Chili’s. No dogs die, but the fiction writer does accidentally stick his hand into a lettuce shredder, slicing three fingers deeply, one to the bone. The fiction writer is afraid of stitches, so he tends to the wounds with Neosporin and duct tape. Because he is young, and lucky, his fingers heal quickly with no lasting damage, save a lost deposit on music lessons because, for two weeks, the fiction writer can’t bend his fingers to play the guitar.

The Chili’s at which the fiction writer worked, and next door to which he took guitar lessons, is not the same Chili’s in which this story opens, because there can only be so many coincidences and connections in one story before a reader is liable to suspend belief.

Two years after the fiction writer accidentally sticks his hand in a lettuce shredder, the fiction writer meets the woman who will become his wife.

Three years later, the two marry.

Four months later, they buy a dog.

Sixteen years later, the dog dies.

On the day the fiction writer’s dog dies, the fiction writer, who is now a professor of fiction writing, sits in a classroom in a building in the subtropics of Florida. His job is to teach students how to write, but all he can think about is his dead dog.

The fiction writer teaches students how to write, but, in reality, his students are writers already. As the fiction writer is fond of saying, if you can tell a joke, you can tell a story. Although, he concedes, some people can’t tell jokes.

The students write stories, and the fiction writer reads them. Usually, the stories are good stories with bad sentences in them. The fiction writer believes that all of his students could be published writers if only they learned to stop writing bad sentences.

The fiction writer lives by the physician’s creed: “First, Do No Harm.” To that end, the fiction writer never tells his students what they can and cannot write about. The fiction writer would never, for example, tell his students that they cannot write a story about a dead dog.

The day the fiction writer’s dog dies, his students present him with candy and a card that says they are sorry his dog is dead. The fiction writer cries, another thing a professor once told the fiction writer that a character, in fiction, should never do.

We are approaching the end of the story. In the beginning, the story promised no dead dogs at the end. But stories lie.

Hours before the fiction writer is handed candy and cries, the fiction writer cradles his sixteen-year-old dog in his lap and cries.

Eleven years before he cradles his dead dog and cries, the fiction writer’s story—the story of the husband (who is not his father) who runs over the dog (that is not his dog), the story that will be read to the room of 200, upsetting the editor of a magazine in which the fiction writer will never publish—is published.

In the story, there arrives a scene in which the dog owner/pet parent is brought to a room set aside for the dispatching of sick animals, what the story calls the veterinary clinic’s “euthanization room.” The editor of the magazine in which the story is accepted for publication argues that there is no such thing as a euthanization room, that dogs are killed in standard veterinary office rooms, so the fiction writer removes the story’s room.

Eleven years after the fiction writer removes the story’s euthanization room, the fiction writer sits in the euthanization room in which his dog has just been euthanized. This room is not a standard veterinary office room, but a room with a couch and two plush chairs. The walls are pink. The chairs are white. A table holds two tissue boxes, one for each chair.

The fiction writer buries his dog. He has nightmares in which, again and again, he watches his dog die. He forgives his boyhood self for not saying goodbye.

Eleven months after he buries his dog, the fiction writer eats hamburgers and fajitas with other writers at a Chili’s that is not the Chili’s he worked at as a boy. A writer with a shaved head and bangs says, “Someone should begin a story, ‘This is not a story where the dog dies at the end.’”

Twenty hours later, the fiction writer sits down to write a story in which a dog does not die at the end but accidentally writes a story in which a dog dies at the end.

But that’s okay. The fiction writer has long since stopped letting others tell him what to write.

One year later, a fiction editor asks the fiction writer to send him a story.

“How much?” the fiction writer asks.

“How much what?” the fiction editor asks.

“How much of the story needs to be fiction?”