“Dog Heaven” by Stephanie Vaughn

By Carol Anshaw

Featured Art: Little Girl and Dog by Hablot Knight Browne

I could have chosen this story for its first line alone:

“Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.”

But much more awaits the reader in this tightly controlled yet seemingly casual narrative. Gemma, the story’s protagonist, goes on to say, “It’s twenty-five years later, I’m walking along 42nd Street in Manhattan, the sounds of the city crashing beside me—horns, gearshifts, insults—somebody’s chewing gum holding my foot to the pavement, when that dog wakes from his long sleep and imagines me.

“I’m sweet again. I’m sweet-breathed and flat-limbed. Our family is stationed at Fort Niagara, and the dog swims his red heavy fur into the black Niagara River.” [all Sweet Talk, 176]

From here, the story is passed off to Gemma as the girl she once was, an Army brat, whose family lives a nomadic existence, moving from one post to another as her father commands the batteries of long-range missiles poised beneath grassy mounds along the Canadian border, angled and ready to launch at the silent enemies of the Cold War. None of this is of much concern to Gemma and her friend, Sparky Smith. They entertain each other with a fainting game called “knockout” and with “seventh-grade sex jokes that usually had to do with keyholes and doorknobs, hot dogs and hot-dog buns, nuns, priests, schoolteachers, and people in blindfolds.” [178] At school, their struggle is a repetitious, dispiriting pursuit of fitting in, having to make new friends every time their families move. As Gemma puts it, “Sparky Smith and I spent our school time smiling too much and running for office.” [178]

Even as Gemma is settling into life at Fort Niagara, her family is about to leave for yet another posting, in Oklahoma. While they go on ahead to find a house, Duke, the dog of the story, will stay a few weeks at Charlie Battery, fourteen miles away— dog heaven because he will be pampered at the mess hall with leftovers. They take him over a day early, try to give him some farewell M&M’s. “When we extended our hands, though, the dog lowered himself to the gravel and looked up at us from under his tender red eyebrows. He seemed to say that if he took the candy he knew we would go, but if he didn’t perhaps we would stay here at the missile battery and eat scraps with him.” [188]

The next morning, the day they are supposed to leave, a winter storm leaves behind “a fabulation of ice, the sun shining like a weapon, light rocketing off every surface except the surface of the Army’s clean streets and walks.” [189] The narrator and Sparky sit outside, saying goodbye to each other.

“It was then that the dog came back. We heard him calling out before we saw him, his huge woof-woof. ‘My name is Duke! My name is Duke! I’m your dog! I’m your dog! . . .’ He ran to us, bounding across the crusted, glass-slick snow—ran into the history of our family, all the stories we would tell about him after he was dead.” [191]

The narrative develops within its tight borders a Kodacolor snapshot of a childhood in which—despite the lurking arsenal—the horrors of nuclear war are remote. When a teacher shows their class a slideshow of the human aftermath of Hiroshima, the kids are more confused than afraid. The kids in this story, like most of their generation, are protected, sequestered in a small world of mock-dangerous games, mildly dirty jokes, knit caps—a place where the barks of dogs are easily translated.

“Dog Heaven” was published in the New Yorker in 1989, then, as one of several stories about Gemma in the 1990 collection, Sweet Talk, which— regrettably—remains Vaughn’s only published book to date.

Carol Anshaw  is the author of the novels AquamarineSeven MovesLucky in the Corner, Carry the One and After the Weather. Her stories “Hammam,” “Elvis Has Left the Building” and “The Last Speaker of the Language” were selected for Best American Short Stories. She is also a painter, currently working on a show on the life of the swimmer, Gertrude Ederle.

Originally published in NOR 6

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