good fences…


My son and I were walking back from the park yesterday, and a couple of our neighbor’s dogs came out onto the sidewalk and started barking and growling at us. I picked up my kid and tried to carry him past, but the dogs circled us and one of them jumped up and nipped at my elbow. I turned on it and tried to kick it. It backed off, and that’s when my neighbor said, “If you kick my dog, I’m going to kick your ass!”

I responded, “If your dog is off your property, it’s a problem.”

He said, “My dog’s a good dog! You don’t go kicking it! I’ll kick your ass!”

I repeated, still holding my son, “If your dog is off your property, it’s a problem.”

At which point the psycho’s friend interceded and apologized, and explained how he was trying to get a fence built and was sorry for the problem, etc. etc.

This is the first time I’ve met someone who’s default setting is to threaten physical harm as their first negotiating tactic.

I forget that some people really can be born thugs. It’s a good thing to remember as a writer, but hard to actually deliver on the page. Certain characters really should have a completely different view of the world, and a completely different set of reactions to stimuli than what you might call rational.

There’s a whole chain of responsibility failures and responses that led into my conflict with the coal miner and his dogs: not to fence the dogs, not to leash the dogs, not to train the dogs, not to accept that dogs jumping on strangers is not okay, not to accept that strangers may not love your dogs as much as you do, not to know any other way to defend your dogs other than by screaming physical threats. I would call all of those decisions negligent, stupid, or insane, but he wouldn’t. The trick is to communicate that onto the page without being either condescending, or creating a caricature.

The trick is to love him and his dog and his struggles. The trick is to hate the yuppie newcomer bastards down the block who are always giving him dirty looks about his car stereo blasting. He works damn hard at the coal mine (do those yuppies even know what it’s like to really work?) and he’s off on his seven-day break and what’s wrong with having a party out in the warm spring air after doing seven 12-hour days underground in a row? All these fucking yuppie newcomers make it feel like the town’s in a straitjacket, and he knows, just knows, that every time they look at him, they’re thinking “white trash.” He grew up here, and now he’s got neighbors who spend all their time looking down on him. What happened to his hometown? Who gave them the right to take over?

This is my neighbor. We are in major conflict.