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  • Zoey Miller

Skinning the Dog

Creative nonfiction by Zoey Miller.

Lorenzo Zoey Miller
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Painting: Nicasius Bernaerts

I’ve never been the type of person to insist upon anyone that what I’m telling them is the absolute truth. I try not to make it a habit to insult anyone’s intelligence who didn’t otherwise deserve it. That isn’t to say that I habitually lie to deceive others with any malicious intent but, I must admit, dear reader, that it is the duty of a writer to convey stories, fact, fictional or otherwise. The only thing I do insist on making abundantly clear is my motive for telling any such story. That is to say that I promise, with hand over heart, chin raised, and not a digit or toe crossed, that every story I’ve ever told was (in some way or another) meant to have a real world ramification. That they’re meant to create actionable consequence in a very real sense. In the grandest terms by effecting your heart, and at the very least by pissing you off in the crudest and vilest way possible. Both are the goals of any true liar and what is a writer anyway but a liar with the pretense of honorability? Anyway, I say all that to say this: the story I’m about to tell you is actually 100 percent true, that I promise. Like I said, I normally wouldn’t lead with such an insult except that I felt it was proper to do so in this case, honorable even. If only to assure you, dear reader, that as debased and hedonistic as my imagination often is, it’s in no way that damn debased or hedonistic. The following takes place during a long walk home from work. I was employed at the time with a small publication (which I will let go nameless) that existed just one township from where I was living. The walk itself was no more than 40 or so minutes either way. Just long enough to get lost in thought while listening to music in cheap, barely functioning earbuds. Every once in a while they would short-out and I’d be forced to stop, readjust my armload of (1) jacket, (1) satchel, and (1) umbrella (it was sunny that afternoon but it had been threatening to shower hours earlier) just to fidget around with the damn headphones and get them working again. It is an insufferably frustrating task, let me assure you. A lot like having to piss out a kidney stone at regular and constant intervals while on a greyhound bus headed to (let’s just say for illustrative purposes) Newark, Ohio. One opportune time however, while my headphones shorted and the audio cut out, a guttural and frenzied shrill pierced my ears. The scream echoed off of neighborhood houses and silenced the chirping of birds. It struck straight into my heart like a lightning bolt fashioned from sheer panic. My chest froze for brief seconds and then, all at once, my heart began beating again —thudding loud and hard against the cage of my ribs. I had never before heard an actual scream of mortal terror before in my life and I damn well hope to God or the Buddha or to goddamn Kant that I never do again. I allowed myself a few moments of paralyzed fear. My body seized perfectly still, mid-stride, a deer staring down the high beams of a semi-truck. I could only imagine how cartoonish and large my eyes were bulging from their sockets as I scanned my surroundings for danger or the signs of danger or the approximate eye-witness sketch of what danger could have probably been. There was nothing. Just the thin veneer of peace that sugarcoats any heavily gentrified neighborhood. Racism and social stigma boiling just beneath the surface of performative political yard signage and community gardening. A goddamn trap unto itself. After a few seconds my muscles relaxed and the blood roaring through the vessels against my eardrums quieted to an echoing murmur. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath and so I let it out in a heavy but easy sigh. The peace was short lived, however, because no sooner had I exhaled than another scream (less blood curdling but no less urgent) sounded from directly down the street. Luckily I had already shrugged off the remaining weights of whatever cowardice had rooted me still, my body launching into a full sprint toward the cry before I even had a chance to think. Figures began to come into view as I rounded the trees and bushes that had been blocking my view. At first my mind, scrambled and dull with adrenaline, couldn’t piece together the scene that was unfolding before me. I made my way closer, my feet slapping against the pavement as I ran, pushing myself against my own smoker’s lungs. Soon though, my mind was able to catch up to the rest of me as I arrived and, just as suddenly, it recoiled in shock. What was happening was a vaudeville variety show of violence, farce, and abject terror. A scene that could have only been more absurd had there been an actual cacophony of carnival music blaring discordantly in the foreground. I am no more a milquetoast than I am a liar (that is to say, only by a small margin of either) but in that instant my hand flung to catch the gasp from my mouth and I clutched desperately at my pearls, as the saying goes. Several hollow, frantic figures had formed themselves into a sort of loose semi-circle of writhing bodies. The most prominent of which —a gaunt and graying older white woman—stood there shaking. Her hands flailed uselessly at her sides as she shuffled and pranced skittishly on the balls of her feet. Her yoga pants, which once covered her thin legs with grey and neon stripes running along the sides, were now almost completely dyed a deep red burgundy. Blood drenched them wholly and it splattered in dots across her already freckled skin. She shrieked in an almost tribal undulation, pouring her entire body into a frantic ecstasy. Terror and fear vibrated from her being and everyone around her amplified it wholesale. Across from her were these teenagers. All of which were nude from the top up. Nude and brown and sinewy, just as gaunt and wiry as the old woman herself. They were shouting and waving about sticks and hurling rocks. The whites of their eyes held large, encompassing their pupils in shock and fear. They leapt about in a panic. Occasionally looking to one another to find some sense of confirmation within the moment before going back into their strange war ritual. And right there —right in the middle of this cauldron of broiled terror and agitation —were two dogs. One was a small house dog and, to this day, the exact breed eludes memory. Suffice to say that it was one of a medium/meek to small build. Perfectly suited for middle aged white women who frequently find themselves in yoga pants and whose constant high pitched yapping (the dog’s) very likely makes it the vilest nemesis of each and every person within a five mile radius. A sort of “Bill Maher breed,” as it were. The other dog was a whole different animal entirely. It had almost no charming features to speak of, at least not in the classical sense. But what it lacked in aesthetic it made up in sheer athletic bulk alone. Muscles rolled and slothed from its frame like waves on a shore during low tide. There was a grace to its musculature that made the smaller, more “traditionally” beautiful dog, seem almost inelegant by comparison. And it was using all of that grace, every goddamn ounce and pound of it, to completely eviscerate the smaller dog. Now this is beginning to make sense, the thought floated up to me, a strangely calm juxtaposition to my surroundings. Just then a wave of blood sprayed straight at me as the larger dog whipped his neck about, tearing open the wound his clenched teeth had made in the smaller one’s flesh. It yipped loudly in agony and everyone leapt back in disgust. The reaction seemed to excite the bigger pup because his eyes grew larger, his growl heavier, and he began to flail his rippled brawny body about in a rapid, non-stop effort to shake the ever fucking life out of his opponent. That just about threw gasoline on the whole goddamned thing. I mean everyone doubled down on their hysterics. The old woman’s undulating screams began clocking in over-time, until it was barely recognizable in the range of human sound at all. The teenagers, who were just attempting to distract the larger dog from its target before, were now full-on slugging the growling beast with any improvised weapon within arms reach (which at one point happened to be my umbrella). The circus of strange people, already fairly crazed by the act of animalistic violence, had now lost any sense of human logic and were throwing themselves fully into their particular frenzied acts. I alone had any sense of mind. And as a person who has avowed himself as a staunch degenerate and a dabbling liar, I was horrified at the concept. Still though, I rallied myself. I mustered every bit of courage and stifled every ‘naw-I-ain’t-no-narc’ bone in my body and I did the one thing I’ve always vowed never to do: I called the goddamn cops. Now, dear reader, I will not lecture to you in any real detail my opinion on the matter of my own anxieties pertaining to law enforcement or their perceived role in any sophisticated society in contrast to their actual capacity and presence within said society. I simply won’t. My hand to Kant, no crossed digits, etcetera, etcetera. But I will list forward the following details as they transpired, all but exactly: *Dial tone* Responder: 911, what is your emergency? Me: OOOOOOKAY. So. I’m here at (*lists exact location*) and there’s this dog here, absolutely fucking murdering the shit out of this other dog. Responder: Okay, sir, what is the — Me: I’m saying, there is blood goddamn everywhere. Just —like, fucking all over. It’s like — it’s a goddamn —HOOOOLY SHIT! *Screams* Responder: Are you okay, sir? Me: Oh man, oh. The bigger dog just whipped this thing against the pavement. There’s just —how is there so much blood still coming out of this thing? Responder: Okay, sir — Me: Like, it’s actually kind of surprising. How much blood is still, you know, happening. It’s almost like a goddamn — And it’s at this point that I have to interject, dear reader, and that’s for several reasons. The least of which being that the emergency responder had just interrupted (what I believed to be) a fairly accurate and necessary Quentin Tarantino reference. Most importantly though, what he asked next stunned me: “Is the aggressor a Rottweiler or a Pit Bull?” He asked, cutting off my fairly quippy but otherwise unhealthy coping mechanism. It seemed a fairly simple question at first, perhaps even practical. Perhaps the breed of dog would determine the number of police sent to respond? Or the type of emergency unit? Or (and I gasp at the mere thought, I assure you) the size of the actual officers sent to confront the dog? It wouldn’t do to send a 6’5” linebacker of an officer to deal with a Jack Russell Terrier. It just wouldn’t be fiscally reasonable. But it couldn’t have been a Russell Terrier. Or a Border Collie. Or a Shih Tzu. Or a goddamn Polish Tatra Sheepdog. I was only given two choices by the disembodied voice on the phone: Pit Bull or Rottweiler. And the first thing that came to my mind, the first jackass response that my facetious and sardonic existence could reflexively fire back was: “Does it have to be?” But of course, dear reader (and here’s the really dumb, infuriating thing about it), the goddamn dog just had to actually be a Pit Bull. And the fact that I had just started a circular argument only to have to admit to the disembodied voice that it was, in fact, an actual Pit Bull, won me absolutely no points in his favor. So of course I was forced to backpedal and compromise like the spineless imp that I am, all the while the grass and gravel surrounding the animals were beginning to wilt into a deep orange and a burnt amber, respectively. I was shielding my ear from the growls and the screams and the undulating while nervously mumbling out my third “yeah sorry” of the conversation, when a car suddenly stopped right by our macabre little scene and the driver stepped out. He was tall and lean, wearing a nicely tailored charcoal grey suit with a pink tie and pink striped button down. He took in the scene carefully, eyeing each person with thought and intent. When his eyes met mine I waved awkwardly and mouthed the words “on-the-way” out of some pathetic attempt to let the stranger know that the situation was well in hand. It was not.

But the man nodded knowingly anyway and I felt I had conveyed something to him. At that, he turned to his car, climbed in, came back out almost immediately, leveled a handgun at the writhing mass of fur and teeth and blood, and he fired. Silence. He walks calmly forward, aims again, and fires twice more. This time out of mercy. The man in the fine grey and pink suit looks back at me and nods again, curtly, knowingly. He then gets back in his car and drives away, just as calmly as he had arrived. I allowed my jaw to hang open as I stared after the car. We, all of us there, who were just before an untethered tempest of human emotion and a testament to the fragility of our very natures, were now all frozen in silence. This stranger had appeared and had doused us with stillness like it was cold water. A stillness that seeped right down into my marrow, disregarding all the falsities of flesh and skin. We all stood there for long moments until a sound in my ear started to call me back; it was the disembodied voice. “Sir,” it said, “is everyone okay?” Yes, I replied numbly. “Sir,” he said again, building urgency, “were those shots I heard?” Yes, I again replied. Still numb, still shook unto my very marrow. “Sir,” he started once more, “the shooter, was he black or white?” “Does he have to — ” Half the words were already out before I bit them off. I didn’t want to finish. The man, unfortunately and infuriatingly, did happen to be black. I looked at the phone in disgust and just hung up. The awkward irony must have summoned the damn cops there because just then their wailing red and blues veered calmly onto the scene. I braced myself as they stepped out. There were six of them exiting three cruisers (all medium sized males, as is customary for a Pit Bull call). They all had this very relaxed swagger with an open indignant smirk on their faces. All had the same close-cropped, neo-conservative, Great Clips discount buzz cut. All white. I stood there for a while, unsure of what to say or what to do with my arms (I left them frozen stiffly at my sides and hoped they seemed semi-natural), and waited for the officers to make the first move. They didn’t. Everyone at the scene had clearly witnessed something traumatic. The teenagers, those brave brown souls, eagerly began recounting to the cops exactly what had just transpired without even being asked. No matter how excited and animated their bodies were as they regaled the few officers that dared pay attention, it didn’t seem to impress them by any measure. Their youthful chirps washed over their blank pig faces, one actually chuckling before another rolled his eyes and walked away. These men did not want to be here. They wanted to be in the shit of it, blasting caps in black bastards and anyone dumb enough to pull a strap on their brothers in blue, 12 year old minor with a cap gun be damned. The brazen apathy of it all shocked me. Say what you will about the importance of a dog gunned down in the middle of the street, these people clearly needed something from these civil servants that they simply and curtly refused to give. That realization began to put some warmth back into my body as I tightened my fists, a low anger smoldering in the pit of my stomach, lending its steam to the rest of me. That’s when I remembered the older white woman. I glanced up to make sure she was okay and a dense and heavy pity overcame me as I took in the sight of her. The woman was clearly in clinical shock and desperately needed a blanket and a medical professional. Her knees knocked together as she shivered and shook. Her blood stained yoga pants looked to be hanging loosely from her now, as if the experience had drained her already scrawny frame. Aside from her convulsions the woman stood completely still, deathly silent and unresponsive, her stare unwavering. I was so encompassed in my pity for her that it took me a while to realize her gaze wasn’t blank or dead pan, but rather transfixed on something. I followed her eyes. Mine gently tracing her line of vision until it laid upon the source that held the woman, shaken and captive. And when I found it I gasped. I gasped and I gagged and I bit back a rush of bile trying to fight its way up from my esophagus. But I didn’t look away. I couldn’t. Just as the woman stood there shocked and transfixed, so now was I, disgusted and detained by its very image. The smaller dog, that I had all but forgotten about and had assumed was dead, was anything but. Aside from the gashes and bits of torn off fur that pocked his body, the small Bill Maher bastard was alive and well. Not only that, but he was clearly unaware that the fight was over. He stood over the corpse of the larger dog, growling ferociously. His teeth were still attached and locked on his opponent, secured into the loose black flesh just above its gums. It held a vice grip to it and yanked away like his life still depended on it. And it was effective. Because, as the smaller dog yanked and ripped and tugged at the tender flesh of the dead dog’s under-muzzle, its skin began to peel from its skull. Exposed muscle peered from where the dog’s face had been and the still living, still thriving and fighting smaller dog continued to skin the poor dead thing with all the gusto of a starving man carving apart a turkey. I finally ripped my eyes free from the putrid sight, nearly letting loose the tuna and havarti cheese melt I had eaten for lunch. Glancing up I could see the cops were still standing about smugly. Still grinning and glaring and doing everything but concealing their distaste for the neighborhood and all of its people. I couldn’t take it anymore. It was all too much and all too significant. I grabbed my umbrella, now bent and broken and covered in blood, and I walked home. The events of that day have always stayed with me, and it’s not just because of its violent nature or how vividly and rapidly the sequence of moments happened to coincide. That dead dog’s eyes, all blank and dull and absent of the rage that had possessed it before, haunts me in a more visceral way than I ever could have imagined at the time. I had a nightmare not too long after the ordeal. It was of the same scene, the same violent struggle, the same hectic mass of people screaming and writhing about, the same three gunshots. Only this time, as the smaller dog peeled apart the face of its dead aggressor, instead of the flesh and muscle looking back at me, it was my face peering out from beneath its blood and fur. My own deadpan eyes that glared up at me. All vacant and dull and absent of the rage and life that had possessed me before, and I knew exactly why that moment could never leave me. That dead, beautiful, ugly beast was everything I’d always known I’d eventually be. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that I’ll one day wind up exactly like that pup. That I’d eventually snap and lose my religion right in the middle of a theatre or an art show or a goddamn dinner party, anywhere typically proliferated by the vapidly shallow or the disingenuous white liberal. And I’d be put down like a dog in the street and thrown away. Afterwards, if I’m lucky, people will wonder what pushed me. What drove me to foam at the mouth and sink my teeth into some piece of shit Pomeranian with a God complex and an Amazon Prime account that his parents pay for. They’d peel back the skin and examine the sinew. They’d pore through my emails and my social media and text messages to ex-lovers and they’d make me into the militant martyr they so desperately need. And I’d be left looking like some freakish medical cadaver. My guts and viscera exposed to the world, the flesh below my skin staring hollowly with no love for what I’d become —an autopsy of our own cultural incompetence. An indictment of its own guiltless failures. I’m not a young man anymore and I know that. But if I’m being completely honest, dear reader (and as I’ve made abundantly clear, I almost always am), I can feel my heart getting angrier and angrier as time goes on. Each day tempered by desperation, each moment fueled by the seething and simmering truth of the universe and my place within it. So no, dear reader, I am neither a coward or a liar —I’m a sanctimonious shit. I’m a martyr and a statistic waiting to happen. I’m the goddamn movie where you know from the first fucking scene that the hero’s going to die. I am something far worse than a liar or a coward, dear reader —I’m trite. ▲

Music snob, culture junkie, and a big fan of empathy. Zoey Miller currently resides in central Ohio where he wages a not-so-silent war against all things mundane. You can find more of his works here:

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