Don’t drink and fuck around with power tools; that’s how I lost three fingers. One the doctors were able to sew back on, one they couldn’t, and one was eaten by our dog Buster.
When I got back home from the hospital with my list of physical therapy exercises and Norco prescription, I thought ok, I can move on from this. Take my meds when I’m supposed to (making sure to taper off), do my exercises when I’m supposed to (making sure to ramp up my reps), go back to work and try not to punch anyone who’d give me shit about screwing up so badly.
Everyone was so supportive; the problem was Buster. A mutt with a lot of Pitbull mixed in; we adopted him several years ago, a real sweet dog. A real sweet dog who didn’t have a problem with eating one of my severed limbs. In the hospital my wife kept telling me it was going to be ok, Buster was just being a dog. It’s not like he’s going to kill and eat me the moment I turned my back.
He kept acting like nothing had happened, jumping up to lick me all over when I came back, just like he did every day before the accident when I got home from work. I kept waving my hand out of his way, afraid he was going to slobber on my stumps, or worse. It might have looked like I was being resentful, not wanting to play with Buster like I used to, but then I might have had one more finger if it wasn’t for him.
“You’re going to have to get over this,” my wife said. “Take Buster to the dog park.”
So I got in the car and Buster hopped in with me, hanging out in the back seat and breathing down my neck. At the park I let him go, chatting with Willie, who had a chocolate lab; we often drank tallboys together while our dogs wore each other out. “How’s the hand?” he said and I said “it’s healing” meaning I really didn’t want to talk about it. He offered me a beer and I said I couldn’t.
Buster seemed more social than usual with the other dogs. He was chasing them, they were chasing him, then they were all running around the dog park in a circle together. “Looks like Buster’s climbed up in the pecking order,” Willie said. “Maybe eating a piece of his owner will do that for a dog.”
I called out to Buster to come home, and he looked up when he heard me. The other dogs looked over too, then back at Buster. Buster seemed to think for a minute, then he ambled over. All the other dogs in the dog park trotted over as well; there was a lot of dogs. They were wagging their tails and jumping up and down around us. I felt panicky; I didn’t like the way that felt. I was a dog person, but maybe I wasn’t anymore. Buster barked, and the other dogs ran back into the park.
On the way home Buster stuck his head out the window, and every house we passed that had a dog or dogs, that dog or dogs somehow went into the yard and barked at us. All these dogs would follow us for a block or two, then they’d split off (I think they were telling all the other dogs on all the other streets) and then even more dogs would follow us. By the time we pulled into the driveway it seemed like all the dogs in the goddamn world were there. Buster leapt out and he just waded into all those dogs like a rock star. Fuck they were loud. They’d look at him, then they’d look at me, then back to him. Yip yip yip, bark bark bark.
If he was like this after eating one of my fingers, I wondered what eating a whole arm would do? I bet Buster was wondering the same thing. The dogs more or less went home, but there was always one or two more than usual around. Buster was clearly planning something, he was delegating.
I told my wife we should take Buster back to the pound because I was really creeped out. She said, “Do you know what they’ll do? They’ll put him to sleep. You’re not killing Buster.”
“I just think it would be better if Buster was someone else’s problem,” I said.
She stared at me like I was the one who crapped in the yard. “Are you asking me for advice or are you asking me for help?”
“Help,” I muttered.
“BUSTER!” she yelled, and Buster raced into the kitchen toot sweet, his paws skittering on the linoleum. He was wagging his rump. “Who’s a good dog? Who’s a GOOD dog? Are you a good dog, Buster?”
Buster jumped up and down, up and down. Of course he was doing the goddamned happy dance – he was the motherfucking emperor of all dogs everywhere.
“No more organizing the dogs into an army. You hear me, Buster?” She had that firm don’t mess with me look in her eye, and her voice made me want to hide under the couch. Then she gave him a dog biscuit, said “that’s a good dog,” and that was that. No more stray dogs, just ordinary life, doing my exercises and taking fewer and fewer pills.
But one night, a little later, Buster must have snuck into bed with us. I woke up facing him, breathing in his dog breath, and I couldn’t remember the dream I had. He just looked at me like he knew an amazing secret that nobody else knew. He wasn’t going to tell me, and I didn’t want to know. It was just getting light, two hours before I had to leave for work. So I put on some clothes and took Buster out for a walk.
As the sun was coming up, I kept seeing my neighbors walking their dogs. I waved to Bill and his pug Trixie, I said hi to Mary and her golden lab Philo. The morning shift of the birds was starting to sing. Everyone was smiling like everything made sense. I tried to decide if this outbreak of happiness was me or if Buster was manifesting another one of his secret powers.
I decided it wasn’t worth worrying about. I still felt this sourness in me, but that was never going to go away regardless of how many fingers I had. I was ok with that. Buster was sticking his nose in all the corners and spots where the dogs marked their trees out in this part of town, and he kept pulling me like a kid would pull their dad deeper into the fair. So I went.
I am a good person.
I am a good person.
I am a good person.
Yes, I am.
About the Author: Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in The Fabulist, Joyland, Vestal Review and Gigantic. His short story "Taylor Swift" won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a member of the unranked faculty collective bargaining team at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.