in a Short-Short Story:
“How To Touch a Bleeding Dog”
I first looked at Rod Kessler’s story, “How To Touch a Bleeding Dog,” as a good example of how to develop ambiguity in a short story. The more I analyzed the story, however, the more I believed that the ambiguity was unintentional. Still, I thought this is a good specimen to study and learn from: If ambiguity is there, how did he do it? If ambiguity isn’t there, why not, and what would I do to improve the story? The fact that Kessler raises these questions for me in a short-short story, i.e., in less than 1500 words, adds to the intrigue.
First, the title: “How To Touch a Bleeding Dog.” The title is descriptive, mechanical, objective — a strange title for a work of fiction, better perhaps for a user’s manual or a veterinary textbook? But the title is key to the duality Kessler is developing: even the title contributes.
The first paragraph foreshadows the central thematic conflict of the story symbolically: (p. 120)
It begins as nothing, as a blank. A rose light is filtering through the curtains. Rosy and cozy. My blanket is green. My blanket is warm. I am inside. Inside is warm. Outside is the dawn. Outside is cold. Cold day. My arm reaches for a wife who is no longer there.
Not only is the narrator of the story alone, he is separated from the light (truth, reality). He literally sees the world at this point through rose-colored curtains if not eyeglasses, a sign of his naivity or a sign that he has not yet accepted the reality that his marriage is over and/or that his wife is gone. In a good bit of writing, Kessler develops very simple sentences for a complex issue (separation, divorce, relationships — death?) and also develops his images in parallel to one another: inside/outside, rosy versus green, warm versus cold. Finally we understand: the narrator “reaches for a wife that is no longer there.” The missing element is the touch, one reaches to touch. Our narrator forgot or suspended his reality (“it begins as a blank”) and now remembers. In some ways, reality is “dawning” on him as well. Also, this first paragraph could be taken as a birth experience, perhaps his “rebirth” as a single man.
Once established, Kessler carries these themes and symbols thoughout his story to maintain the sense of separation and ambiguity he’s created. Reality comes crashing in on our still and quiet scene: (p. 120)
The stillness is broken by the voice of a neighbor, yelling from the road outside. “The dog. Your dog’s been hit!” It’s the farmer down the road, keeping farmer’s hours. “The dog!”
Again Kessler is creating both tension and ambiguity. Tension is in the situation — the dog has been hit on the road. Ambiguity is present by Kessler assigning a fuzzy ownership to the dog, like the fuzziness of the narrator’s waking experience — it’s “the dog,” your dog,” “the dog” again. The farmer is outside, in the cold — based in the cruel reality of the light, “keeping farmer’s hours.”
Finally, in the third paragraph, we get to the players in this reality, and to the situation at hand: (pp. 120-121)
It’s not my dog, but it is my responsibility. It is Beth’s dog. I don’t even like him, with his nervous habit of soiling the kitchen floor at night. I used to clean up after the dog before Beth came yawning out of our bed, and that was an act of love, but not of the dog. Now it doesn’t matter why I clean up. Or whether.
We find that the dog really doesn’t belong to the narrator — he belongs to Beth. Yet it is the narrator that still has possession of the dog, is responsible for the dog (“it is my responsibility”), and it was the narrator that cleaned up for and tends to the dog now in crisis. This ambiguity of ownership runs through the story, and is central to the theme of marriage: Kessler makes Beth the wife, so the central characters were married, i.e., had a written contract. But even though the contract may be terminated, the feelings continue, blurring the concept of ownership further. The narrator is suffering from the feelings and memories of relationship if not ownership he still has for Beth through the dog. Notably too, only Beth, the absentee wife, is named – not the dog, not the narrator. In the passage above, especially in “responsibility,” the dog is referred to as “it,” a further distancing of the narrator to the dog, which is in conflict with what we the readers feel and what the narrator might feel toward Beth and the dog. Is this a reliable narrator or not?
Repeated images and colors from the opening scene run through the story and add continuity, as well as a Jungian, archetypal feel in contrast to the cold, methodical attitude being displayed by the narrator. Warm and cold oppose one another. The narrator finds the dog off the road near the garden gate, “where the rose bushes bloom.” (p. 121) “Red stains appear here and there on the dull rug of his coat.” (p. 121) “A thick brown soup flows out of his mouth onto the dirt.” (p. 121) The narrator’s confusion on the phone mirrors his confusion waking up again, his coming to terms with reality. The veterinarian tells the narrator to “wrap the dog in something warm,” and the narrator literally wraps the dog in the same green blanket he was covered with just minutes before. In a touch of foreshadowing, the dog becomes “gravity’s dog,” someone else’s dog, giving in to natural forces, like the car or truck that hit him, like death, like the end of the relationship with Beth for the narrator. Kessler also plays the cold objectivity of nature and of the veterinarian against the narrator struggling to both find and deny any warmth throughout: The vet “points out some puplillary response is missing,” “seems relieved that he needn’t bother to act appropriately for the sake of any grief on my part” (p. 122); and says, “it’s good you weren’t attached to him” (p. 122).
Empathetic stories of the dog and Beth run like threads through the story, as the narrator tries to remain objective. “Beth found him at the animal shelter, the oldest dog there.” (p. 121) The narrator worries that he was clumsy with the dog: “Would Beth have touched him?” We get small glimpses at their relationship: “It’s a wonder that she thought having a dog would help.” (p. 121) “Beth, I remembered, enjoyed taking the dog for rides in the car.” (p. 122)
The turning point of the story, indeed of the narrator himself, involves touch, like the title foreshadows: (p. 122)
He [the vet] seems relieved that he needn’t bother acting appropriately for the sake of any grief on my part. He asks, “Did he run in the road a lot?”
“Never,” I say. “He never ran at all.”
“What do you make of that?”
“Beats me,” I say, lying. I watch the dog’s chest rise and fall, He’s already far away and alone. I picture myself running out into the road.
I watch my hand volunteer itself and run its fingers through the nap of his head, which is surprisingly soft. And, with my touch on him, he is suddenly dead.
The narrator assumes (“’Beats me,’ I say, lying”) that the dog ran out into the road as an act of suicide, either feeling the weight of age or the weight of the broken relationship (the dog’s relationship with Beth). The narrator becomes the dog: “I picture myself running out into the road.” In that moment the narrator changes. He comes to a realization that what has been missing in his relationships has been touch, a symbol for emotion, for caring, for subjectivity and warmth versus objectivity and cold. In an earlier passage the narrator approaches and picks up the dog: “I make a mitten of the green blanket and scoop up the dog. The thought of touching his gore puts me off, and I am clumsy.” (p. 121) And even the cool, cold the veterinarian “touches a spot below the dog’s eye.” (p. 122) An interesting argument could be made that Beth recognized this flaw in the narrator, indeed picked out “the oldest dog in the shelter” exactly for this purpose, that the narrator soon confront, show his feelings. But she was too late; the relationship didn’t last long enough for the narrator to discover his feeling, his touch.
And here is where Kessler makes a final judgement: Will the narrator be able to continue with his new-found emotion, his ability to express himself better, to feel more? Unfortunately the answer is no, told symbolically in the last paragraph: (p. 122)
I walk back to the car and am surprised by how early in the day it still is. Blood is drying on the green blanket on my hand, but it will come off in the wash. The blood on the carpet of the car is out of sight, and I will pretend it isn’t there. And then there’s the touch. But soon the touch, too, will be gone.
After all, the narrator associates his touch with death: “And, with my touch on him, he is suddenly dead.” No, the narrator hasn’t changed enough to improve his relationship skills next time, perhaps, but he has at least grown and faced the reality of his separation form Beth through the untimely death of the dog. Blood has replaced roses, he’s realized the truth, but can still “pretend it isn’t there.”
Kessler uses many story elements to support his thematic development, and works back and forth with characters and solid images to maintain the ambiguity of whether the narrator cares for the dog (himself, his relationships, others) or not. The fact that he was able to develop such a rich story in under 1500 words is a tribute to his writing skills and to the short-short story form as well.
However, there is a flaw. Reading the story closely, I am not certain whether Beth has left (as in a separation, like a divorce) or whether she has died, i.e., forcing a permanent separation. One might ask if it matters to the story. I think it does. If Beth has left and is no longer living with the narrator, an element of choice and blame creep in. The narrator must live with himself knowing that he contributed somewhat to the separation, that he may be flawed. However, if Beth has died, the act is an act of nature, and we are more sympathetic with the narrator’s (and the dog’s) position.
There are interesting possibilities but questions either way. If Beth left by choice, why did she leave the dog? Why did she pick out the oldest dog in the pound versus a puppy — was her dying prolonged? Did she relate more to the old dog? Or did she want to show the narrator that death is a natural thing? Or is she being cruel and not giving him the warmth of a replacement or surrogate love when she dies (which of course adds another dimension to Beth’s character)?
A college English professor of mine once told his creative writing class: “Shakespeare is ambivalent. You people are vague.” In the final analysis, I’m afraid Mr. Kessler is trying to be ambivalent but is instead vague. My recommendation is that he fix the vagueness by defining why the wife is absent. Something small would do it: “Reaching for a wife that isn’t there, dead for three days or three weeks now, I couldn’t recall.” Personally I like the idea that the wife is absent because she is dead, because it makes me feel more sympathy for the narrator, tragic sympathy. But they could be separated instead, just as easily, which also needs to be stated early — but then to me the narrator is little more than an immature and self-centered schmuck who gets one shot at a real relationship and blows it.
Thanks for the lesson, Rod.
Kessler, Rod. “How To Touch a Bleeding Dog,” as found in Flash Fiction: 72 very short stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazura. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1992.