A Cage of Dogs

Two days after he turned sixteen, on October 12, 1955, Paul LaFrance fought off four dogs. They’d broken through their chicken-wire fence. One bit Paul’s thigh. Another, his breath a meaty stink, planted his forepaws on Paul’s skinny shoulders. At Paul’s screams, the owner came running. With him came his two daughters.

The owner of the dogs, a man Paul knew only as the German, lived two blocks below Paul’s house. The dogs, Dobermans, had thrown themselves against their wire fence before, but they’d never snapped its flimsy posts. Even so, knowing it might happen, Paul most often chose a more roundabout way home, one that began with a long flight of hillside stairs. The second route took twenty minutes longer, so Paul, especially on rainy nights, made himself brave the dogs.

He braved the dogs for another reason, too. Looking in the German’s windows from the dark outside, he sometimes saw the family’s daughters. The chance to see the older daughter, Karla, gave him courage.

The daughter closer to his age, Lise, on the night he was attacked, waded in and whacked a dog. Her father pulled back the beast that was snarling in Paul’s face. The two remaining dogs obeyed commands Karla, the pretty girl, shouted. They sat at her feet while she stood as calm as a Greek statue, her right hand on one’s head. Lise struggled with the beast she’d wrapped her arms around, but she was squat and strong, and the squirming dog stayed caught.

From what Paul’s friends had told him, Lise, for fifty cents, would lift her skirt and let a person see her private parts.

The dog that bit Paul’s thigh barely broke the skin. Paul’s mother took him to a doctor, though. Because of the bite, and the rip in Paul’s corduroy pants, Paul’s father, Mr. LaFrance, spoke to the police. Paul told his side of the story. The German lied and said Paul had been throwing rocks at his dogs. In the agreement finally reached, the dog’s owner agreed to pay to replace Paul’s pants and to reimburse Paul’s parents for what they’d paid the doctor. Also, the police required the German to cage his dogs behind a stronger fence, one made of steel web.

Even knowing about the sturdier fence, Paul used his alternate route until March. The first time he walked past the German’s house again the dogs set up their frenzied barking. He saw both girls appear at a window. Lise had pulled a curtain back, but Paul locked eyes with blonde Karla. He had denied throwing rocks at her family’s dogs, but that wasn’t entirely true. Although he hadn’t thrown them on the evening he’d been attacked, he’d thrown them two times before, not to tease the dogs but to silence, if he could, their fearful barking.

Lise, who was Paul’s age, cleaned houses. She sometimes crossed paths with Paul on her way home. They didn’t meet often because Lise rode the bus, and except in the worst kind of downpours southeast Alaska can unload, Paul, to save money for college, always walked home. In the last week of Lent, though, he climbed the bus’s wet steps and saw the only other passenger was Lise.

Paul had a fifty-cent piece in his pocket. Fifty cents was what he earned per hour wiping seaplanes down on the cold waterfront after school. He pulled the coin out and pressed it between the index and middle fingers of his left hand, and when he passed Lise he flashed it in a way he knew she’d see.

When Lise stayed seated past her usual stop, a tremor shook Paul. He shut his eyes. He knew he planned a dirty thing. He imagined his disapproving mother, the priest to whom he made confessions, and sterling men from history, like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Edison. In his imagination, all of them drew back from him. Their faces all showed shock.  

When the bus reached the stop that served the stairway, he and Lise got off without sharing a look or exchanging a nod. Paul led the way down a road barely wider than an alley. It brought them to the hillside stairs, made out of planks, which now glistened from the rain. When a barking cocker spaniel darted out, Paul glanced back to make sure the dog didn’t frighten Lise.

She plowed along behind him, indifferent to the yapping animal,

The stairs brought Paul and Lise to a street of homes, each on its own plot of clearing carved out of the towering woods. The street paralleled a ravine hidden by those hemlocks and spruces. In the evening quiet, Paul could hear Lise’s steady breath as she plodded behind him. At a spot equal distant between a house ahead and a house behind, a trail opened into the woods. Paul halted to wait, and Lise, who gave no sign acknowledging his presence, moved past him with the calm determination of a matron. She might have been a household helper assigned to clean a bathroom. She showed no emotion. On the trail, out of sight from the street, she halted.

Paul took out his coin and Lise held out her palm. When she’d pocketed the coin, she nodded her understanding. She pushed the wet branch of a skinny bush aside. Paul followed her to a clearing that had, near its center, a platform of rock. Moving with the same deliberation she’d shown in walking, she faced Paul from about ten feet away and pulled up her skirt. She held the bunched-up part of it out of the way with her left hand while with her right she worked down what looked like knitted underpants. A stain of dark showed against the whiteness of her belly. In the six or seven seconds she allowed Paul to stare he trembled in cartoonish lust, like boys in a pornographic cartoons who have bulging eyes and sweat beads flying off them.

Lise dropped her heavy skirt. Behind its modest shield she pulled her underpants up. She preceded Paul to the street and stayed in front all the way up to a crossroads, where she turned right to go downhill while Paul climbed to his own house a block higher up.

His younger sister, Kate, and younger brother, Jack, washing and drying the dinner dishes, glanced up to see Paul come through the back door. Mrs. LaFrance hurried his dinner from the oven while Paul, in the downstairs bathroom, washed up. His father, from his easy chair beside the living-room stove, called a cheerful welcome. Paul answered, “Hi,” but the syllable came out strained. He guarded the glances he gave his mother. He feared what she might discover if she looked into his face.

Later, while he did his homework, his imagination plagued him. For English, his teacher had assigned sentences to parse. The tide of sex swept in to interrupt his concentration. He saw in his imagination what he’d seen in the wet woods. He groaned. Jack, at his own desk, heard and asked him, “What?”

Paul snapped, “Nothing.”

“You sound sick.”

“You’re the one who’s sick, Jack. You can’t mind your own business.”

A few minutes later, Jack left for downstairs. His voice, mingled with his mother’s voice, rose from the kitchen. Paul feared he’d hear his mother climb the stairs. She would ask him if he felt all right. There’d be a long interrogation. Something bad would happen.

But Jack returned alone. He sat again at his desk. He bent over his homework and groaned the way Paul had. Paul said, “Are you sick?” knowing Jack would take it as a joke. That’s what happened. The brothers laughed, and after that, for Paul, the work of parsing sentences came easier.

Out with his friends Saturday night, Paul saw Lise’s beautiful sister, Karla, surrounded by boys her own age. They had come in a crowd from the same movie Paul had, a Donald O’Connor comedy. The boys repeated, for Karla’s benefit, the movies’ funniest lines. The way she touched her honey-colored hair spurred each to wittier efforts, and their reward was hearing her lilting laugh.

The jokes he’d been trading with his own friends struck Paul suddenly as lame. He stood branded, in his own estimation, as unsophisticated. He watched a car pull up and Karla stoop to seat herself in back. The boy who’d opened the door stepped in behind her. The door closed, and the car pulled off to blend into the night.

Later, in bed, Paul made himself, in his imagination, one of the boys who’d joked with slender Karla. He said perfect things to make her laugh. He became the boy who’d followed her into the car’s back seat. His fantasy expanded—he called Karla for a date; he sat beside her in the movies; he became the owner of a car; he was the one she drove away with.

Next morning, he wrote Karla inviting her to the movies, but he lacked the nerve to ask his mother for a stamp. He carried the letter with him all day, and when he came home that night he tore it up.

The next week, on a wet Thursday night, Paul boarded a bus. Lise was the only other passenger. He showed her two quarters, and, as she’d done before, she got off with him at the stairway stop. They passed the yapping cocker spaniel and climbed the street to where they could enter the woods. She took his quarters and would have passed him, but he growled, “Tits, too.”

Lise halted with his coins on her palm. Paul saw in her glance that he’d have to pay more. He added dimes and nickels till what he’d placed in her hand totaled a dollar. She went then, as if she’d memorized the spot, to the rock platform. She unbuttoned her blouse. The tilt she gave her head to concentrate on loosening her bra showed Paul how braids she’d coiled around the top of her head looked like a crown. As he gazed, she shook her breasts loose. Paul gaped. When she bunched up her skirt and pushed her black underpants down, he slid his penis from his pants. He quickly came. As he did he loosed a groan.

“Don’t tell,” he croaked to Lise when she passed him on her way back to the street. She avoided glancing his way, and even after she had started toward the crossroad he hung back in the shelter of the woods. He eyed a house across the street. The place, cube shaped, looked closed and forbidding. He feared people in the dark house had noticed two teenagers enter the woods. He berated himself for choosing the same place of rendezvous twice.

The pork-chop his mother had kept waiting for him was dry and had no taste. Jack and Kate squabbled over who should wash and who should dry the dishes. Paul’s father read aloud a headline from the newspaper about Communists. Paul’s mother remarked on what he’d said. They traded opinions back and forth about the Soviet Union and the menace it represented. They sounded smug to Paul—full of conviction, knowing for certain what was right and what was wrong. What would they say about a boy who masturbated in the woods? He couldn’t imagine.

Later, when Paul was worrying over math homework, his father shouted from the bathroom. The wax seal around the toilet’s connection to the soil pipe had been leaking. Mr. LaFrance had unbolted the toilet. He told Paul to help him lift it aside so he could put a new wax ring in place. Paul and Mr. LaFrance had grunted the heavy toilet aside when a mouse, the color of lint, popped out of the floorboard hole and made a dash for safety. Mr. LaFrance struck it. He had in his hand the hammer he’d use for prying up nails. The mouse died with red froth coming from its mouth.

When his father said to throw the corpse away, Paul couldn’t make himself touch it. On his knees, he crawled backwards from the corpse. His brother, Jack, called by the bang of the execution hammer, had rushed to the bathroom door. He and Paul collided.

“Are you sick? What’s the matter?” Mr. LaFrance demanded.

Jack asked the same thing as Paul pushed past him to escape.

For the rest of the evening, Paul, in his bedroom, heard his father pry up screaming nails. The noise lasted until Paul and Jack were climbing in their separate beds. Before they turned their lights out, Mrs. LaFrance knocked and entered. She asked Paul if he was all right.

He said he was.

She stroked his hair a moment before she kissed him, then she kissed Jack and, saying no more, left and closed the door.

Near midnight, Paul woke to silence. He slid out of bed, and, in the bathroom, fished the body of the mouse out of the trash. He wrapped the mangled remains in toilet paper and left them on the displaced toilet’s lid. In his room, he pulled his pants on, and his socks and shoes and shirt. Jack slept undisturbed. With the mouse wrapped in its toilet-paper shroud, Paul crept downstairs and out into the night. He trotted down the hill to Lise’s house. The German kept a back porch light on, and Paul could see the fence that caged the dogs. He fished the mouse out of his jacket pocket. He threw the corpse, and watched the mouse, its toilet-paper wrapping waving like a flag, drop in among the sleeping dogs.

The next time he saw Lise on the bus, he sat in the seat across the aisle from her. He made it a point to avoid looking at her. He didn’t know if she glanced at him. He hoped she would see in his face the distance he had placed between them, but even feeling in control he couldn’t relax. He couldn’t escape the feeling his self-control was artificial, and when she left the bus at her usual stop he abruptly rose to follow her. He walked, a dozen paces in her wake, all the way to her house.

The next time he rode the bus with Lise aboard, he almost did the same thing. But setting out in back of Lise he told himself he must be a creep consumed by sex. Lise could well call the police. At the thought of things that she might tell the cops, Paul turned around. He walked to the next bus stop, the one with the stairs and the angry, menacing cocker spaniel.

On a third rainy night, when he got on the bus and saw Lise sitting halfway to the back, he chose to sit at her side on her two-person bench. When she rose at her stop and stepped past him to leave, he blurted a surprising invitation.

“I want to take you to the movies.”

His assertion blazed before him as if it had been seared by lightning on his eyes. He could not believe he’d said the words aloud, except that Lise had turned to him in shock. She’d reached the aisle. The bus had stopped. The driver worked the lever that swung the door open. Lise nodded once, then plodded out into the rain.

Paul’s sole thought was What have I done. At his own stop, he stepped off the bus in a daze. When the mean cocker spaniel rushed at him barking, he welcomed the animal’s fierceness and anger. The yapping seemed to him what he deserved. He knew he would be seen with Lise. They would be thought of as a couple at the movies. People would call what they were doing a date, except crudeness would be stamped on it by anyone who knew what Lise did for fifty cents.

He couldn’t call to cancel their date. He didn’t know Lise’s number. He didn’t even know her family’s last name. He’d have to find another escape, and in his private thoughts he plotted ways to back out of his offer.

In his house, eating the chow mein his mother had kept warm for him, brooding on the disaster of his proposal, he became aware in gradual stages that his mother and father were happy. Mr. LaFrance called his wife, Frances. She called him Henry. She trooped in and out of the kitchen. His father, in the living room, read in his favorite chair. Their conversation never flagged. Nothing either said was out of the ordinary. They talked of neighborhood news and the prices of groceries. It was household talk, but it was gilded by gaiety and lightness.

Paul thought for one brief instant of his parents as lovers, but he buried the idea. The joy he was witness to, he believed, must be due to something else.

And yet he changed his mind about reneging on the offer he’d made Lise. The shame of hurting her would curtain him off from something else, maybe the kind of happiness his parents shared. He knew he was not his parents. He knew he was his parents’ son.

Riding the bus, he told Lise the day and time for the movie and said he’d meet her at the theater. If he picked her up at her home, which he knew would have been the normal thing to do, he would have to speak to her father. How much would the man know about the two encounters in the woods—the fifty-cent encounter and the dollar one when Paul had masturbated?

Paul, alone in his room, held his head and groaned. He wished to be invisible, yet he was obliged to take Lise to the movies, and they would be seen.

On a Saturday night at seven, Paul met Lise in front of the theater. He paid for their tickets. Inside, he bought popcorn, one bag they shared while they watched a travelogue about Great Britain. After the feature had been playing ten minutes, Paul put his arm around Lise’s shoulders. She gave no indication she noticed. Ten minutes later, when his arm began to feel heavy and numb, he brought it back to rest in his lap. After that, he let himself be caught up in the movie, which had Bob Hope in it and was blessed with that comedian’s many jokes.

Together, sitting side by side, Paul and Lise rode home on the bus. Paul got off at Lise’s stop. At her side, he climbed the hill. In front of her house, he said, “This was fun.”

Lise gave a slow nod.

On the climb to his own home, Paul told himself he had done what he had said he’d do. He had taken Lise to the movies. He could congratulate himself on fulfilling his contract.

Two nights later, his brother, Jack, who had spent the evening playing Monopoly at the home of a friend, returned just as Paul was undressing for bed. “Did you take Lise to the movies?” Jack asked.

Paul, with his shirt in his hand, said no.

“Dean’s dad saw you.” Dean had been Jack’s Monopoly host.

“He saw someone else.”

“He’s seen you before. He knows it was you.”

Paul eyed his brother but said nothing.

“You were buying her popcorn, Paul.”

Paul punched his brother’s face. Jack punched back. They were still throwing punches when their mother burst into their room. They kept flailing at each other as she stepped between them. “What are you doing?” she shouted.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Paul wailed back.

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Robert Kinerk writes mostly about Alaska in the 1950s and 60s. His stories about that time and place have appeared in Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. He workshopped “A Cage of Dogs” with Tom Jenks in New York City in 2016. He is currently at work on a novel with the same southeast Alaska setting as his short stories. Seven of his picture books for children have been published. Five of his musical plays for children have been produced. He claims the distinction of being author of the longest-running play in Ketchikan, Alaska, “The Fish Pirate’s Daughter,” first produced in 1966.