Dogged Day (#460)

We had only to say to Charlie this morning that his aunt was coming to visit “with the dog” and Charlie, who had been taking his Saturday morning easy—touring the house in his pajamas and poking in the refrigerator—froze. His eyes opened wide, his face muscles became strained, and he kept looking over his shoulder. When his aunt and uncle arrived, Charlie ran out and then down the driveway, away from the dog (who was subsequently carried back into the car). Charlie then refused to go inside the house and stood at the end of the stone path up to the front steps, eyes on the car, and the dog.
I should note, this is not a German Shepherd, a Doberman Pincher, or a pony-sized sheepdog breed. Portia is a small dog—-the type of dog that Lady is (as in Lady and the Tramp). She is not terribly fast, reasonably responsive to commands, and pampered. Three years ago, Charlie was fascinated with her—he pulled her tail, fed her dog treats, and tried to ride her (to the consternation of Portia’s owners). Sometime between then and now, dog-fear took root in Charlie. My brother-in-law noted that maybe Charlie had some bad encounter with a dog that we do not know about and that is certainly likely—-though I have been thinking that Charlie’s anxiety about dogs seems to have arisen over the course of the past year, in keeping with his growing more alert about the world around him and his talking more and more.

Charlie stood, a stiff and fearful sentinel, for much of the morning in the front yard. I coaxed him in to practice piano; he ran out between songs to make sure the dog was still in the car. Jim had gone into his office and we had planned to meet him in the afternoon, but I decided we should take an earlier train while Charlie’s aunt and uncle visited with Grandpa and Grandma, and the dog sat in the car. We took a 1.10pm train which, after a few stops, came to a halt. And stayed there: Mechanical failure.

Charlie was sitting straight up, his face obscured by his blue fleece hooded sweatshirt. I called his name softly and realized that he was sound asleep—in no small part after spending his morning in an aroused state of fight or flight dog-fearfulness. And so I found myself in a very unusual situation: I pulled out a book and was able to read through the better part of it all the way into New York City.

The book was, as it happened, about a dog, or rather one dead dog, one live dog, and the boy who ends up owning the latter (a Cocker Spaniel puppy christened as Sandy). The book was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and I had picked it up to reread it, with a view to writing about its representation of an autism. And what was stuck in my mind as I read (rather fast; the train did get going and we were soon in the Meadowlands in the shadow of New York), was: Dogs.

Christopher Boone’s concern—attachment—for Wellington, the murdered black poodle of his neighbor, Mrs. Shears—is the “incident” that sets the narrative of the novel in motion. It is Christopher who finds the dog speared with a garden-fork (and is subsequently arrested for hitting a policeman), who decides to do detective work to find out Who Killed Wellington, who writes this “murder-mystery” in a notebook at the suggestion of his teacher Siobhan, and who therefore figures out an even bigger mystery, that the mother who he had been told was dead of a heart attack is alive, well, and living with Mr. Shears. It occurred to me as I reread, that Wellington and Christopher’s mother are parallel characters: one is dead, one mistakenly said to be dead; Christopher feels some connection to? affection towards? both; solving Wellington’s murder and finding his mother are the central puzzles that Christopher solves over the course of the novel.
A book, with its plot and its puzzles, is a world within its own covers; a boy with dog-fear presents a messier mystery to uncover. And while Christopher’s mother—a secretary who cannot spell (she writes “different” and “differant” in the same sentence)—is my parallel character in the novel, I feel even more sympathetic in some ways with Christopher, in part because of him being the first-person narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Just as I am the detective in decrypting our daily experience with Charlie, so does the reader of Haddon’s novel become, like Christopher, a detective, snooping to figure out the mysteries of Wellington, Christopher’s mother, and, too, Christopher himself.

Charlie sighted several more dogs as we went down in Manhattan and the sun came out. He said little and was very amenable to visiting Jim’s new office, getting a late lunch, and walking steadily while peering into every storefront that promised items comestible and potable. We talked about riding the merry-go-round in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library—Charlie has ridden its pastel-painted horses and frog and cat many times before—it was silent, still, and closed. Charlie stood in a line before a locked gate, looked sad, held Jim’s hand and walked down towards Penn Station. On the ride home (made longer when the train stopped twice), Charlie was sure to take a seat so he was facing forward. He walked back home with his hood pulled securely over his head, hands shoved in his front pocket; he took himself to bed before 9pm across from where Jim was sitting at Grandpa’s old desk and was out like the proverbial light.

That is a mystery I can solve, after a day of curious incidents.

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