Kenneth Radu

The Rottweilers

My neighbour caged two Rottweilers in his backyard or chained them to a spike driven into the ground. When I stood among the hollyhocks next to the fence, they ran towards me, leaped up, and almost clenched their jaws on my face before the chain choked and tugged them back. My neighbour displayed tattoos on his arms: a medusa and a cockatrice on his right forearm, and a spectacularly breasted woman straddling a flying lizard on his left bicep. Bald, he wore two silver hoops in his right ear, drove a black Corvette, and also a glinting black motorcycle with high handlebars and chrome tubing. The gas tank bulged like a goitre between the driver's legs.

Mine was a pleasant suburban neighbourhood consisting of oversized homes on extensive lots with roofs sloping like ski jumps. The grass was kept rigorously cut. Begonias, geraniums, and impatiens were the most popular flowers. Built on a former pasture, the suburb boasted few mature trees. For the most part the houses were occupied by second- or third-home buyers who had escaped the ravages of the recession and who wanted a quiet suburban life.

I know it is fashionable to mock the kind of suburb I lived in. Many people with artistic, intellectual, or counter cultural inclinations hold it in contempt. When they are not satirized, the residents there are despised. As the stereotype goes, they're materialists or philistines or pathetically straight, television addicts smothered in middle-class banalities. People who choose to live in the city's rougher neighbourhoods, in walk-up flats or in townhouses on busy thoroughfares within easy access to foreign film, art galleries and the only bakery that produces an edible bagel must, by virtue of location, be superior in every respect.

I played the cello as a hobby; well, more than a hobby, for I was a member of a classical chamber group. Three friends and myself - a clarinettist, a pianist, and a violinist - met once a week to practice Bartok or Stravinsky or whatever took our fancy. Now and then we performed at private functions or in churches, but we really played for ourselves or families and friends. The neighbour on the other side of my house used to be a professor of Commonwealth literature, now retired. A well-travelled scholar and sinophile, she had visited China five times and understood Cantonese well enough to carry on a conversation and to read Chinese newspapers. She was also an accomplished poet, having published several volumes of hallucinatory verse which I still enjoy reading, some of which gathered impressive reviews in literary magazines. Adele hated the city and moved to the suburbs fifteen years ago with her Confucian texts to avoid as she put it, "the trends," speaking as if "the trends" were a kind of insidious viral infection.

When the Rottweilers and their owner moved in, I was taken by surprise. Of all neighbourhoods this suburb would not have attracted a man with tattoos, a Harley, and a predilection for black boots and belts spangled with silver studs. I couldn't say if he lived alone for more often than not I saw an assortment of women enter his house, sometimes accompanied by other men wearing pony tails and leather jackets. Three or four vehicles usually parked in his cobblestone driveway, of different makes depending on the day of the week, almost all of them black. For instance a Citroen arrived every Tuesday morning and left by noon; on Wednesday, a Mercedes and a Buick pulled up in the afternoon; on Thursday, curiously, a blue Lada driven by the skinniest woman I had ever seen, perhaps anorexic, with red hair cropped close to the scalp and ropes of stone jewellery strung around her neck.

And so quiet.

After a year my worst fears had not been realized. A lover of solitude and reflection, I dreaded the onslaught of partying next door: people hooting, rock music rattling the windows, beer cans flying over the fence into my garden. Despite the regular gatherings in his house large enough to host a wedding reception, he managed to keep the noise down to an acceptable level.

One Saturday afternoon half a dozen cars and an equal number of motorcycles parked in his driveway and on the street in front of his house. Although I counted sixteen, I'm sure more men and women than that wearing leather gear of one sort or another spent the afternoon barbecuing in his backyard, drinking, splashing about in his small in-ground swimming pool, many smoking, some dancing. A few guests, as I could see from my bedroom window, engaged in sexual activity under the forsythia and honeysuckle bushes. Relieved that the party was not clamorous, I was able to practice Bach's cello Suite No. 6 in D, a particular favourite, without having my concentration shattered by raucous voices or booming rock 'n roll or nasally country and western songs. My neighbour preferred music of the fifties and early sixties. Not entirely ignorant of popular taste, when I allowed my attention to stray in that direction, I could hear Bill Haley and the Comets rocking around the clock, Buddy Holly, and the lamentations of Patsy Cline.

Our meetings over the fence were brief. Despite his athletic body, my neighbour's broad face and well-trimmed, grizzled beard betrayed his age. Although he wrapped his arms around young women including, as I saw at the Saturday barbecue, the anorexic Lada driver, he was well past forty, perhaps approaching fifty. We exchanged polite comments about the weather and little else. His voice was raw and throaty from smoking too much, I assume, his eyes dishwater grey and unrevealing. He wasn't the kind of man one liked instantly.

I did mention how close his dogs came to jumping the fence, that their chains gave them too much free play. Unsmiling, he said they never attacked anyone who minded his own business, they were well-trained guard dogs. I could see that, I said. They were great with children, his own daughter wrestled with them when she was a child. Not this pair, he added, but their parents, now dead. He had always kept Rottweilers. And that constituted our longest conversation.

That he had a daughter interested me. Not only were we the same age, but like me he was also a parent. My son Frédéric, however, had not spoken to me for six years, not since he left home at eighteen to form a rock band and to smoke whatever dope he pleased. We had quarrelled over his friends, his activities, his grungy clothes, his obsession with heavy metal, a form of music which I believed, and still do, execrable. Rebellion and disobedience raised their tiresome heads after his twelfth birthday, encouraged by testosterone rushing through his body. When his mother died, I could do little to console my fourteen-year-old son except take him to symphony concerts where he sat with his head bowed and hands clasped, buy him dinner at my favourite restaurants, and increase his allowance. I don't know if he understood how much I needed him, how much I needed to focus on his life to prevent mine from collapsing. He retreated to his room and plucked at the strings of his guitar, first acoustic, then electric, which he bought without my permission.

Did your daughter desert you, as well? I was almost tempted to ask. Did you feel the sting of filial ingratitude? Did you sit on your child's bed crying, knowing that you had managed it all so very badly and that, like my son, she probably would never return? Did you phone all her friends you knew for information they did not have or would not give? Did you phone the police who said she was of age and a free agent? Did you endure the agony of a parent who had lost his only child?

Of course, I did not ask impertinent questions. Perhaps the woman who drove the Lada was his daughter. She looked to be in her early twenties. With the use of binoculars, I could see through my living room window that she sported tattoos on her upper arms.

On the occasions when our paths crossed, I wanted to ask my neighbour whose name, I was not surprised to learn, was Chuck, why he wanted to live in this suburb. Even I could be discreet, recognizing the limits beyond which it was better for curiosity not to go. In time I suspected illicit activities next door, possibly involvement in drugs. I had no evidence whatsoever to support my suspicions other than boots, tattoos, Harleys, black cars, and the intimidating company. Their heavy smoking in the backyard left a sickly sweet smell in the air for hours after the last visitor had gone. Police officers knocked on Chuck's door once or twice.

Among dogs Rottweilers are not my favourite, not that I had given the matter much thought.. I was never one who felt the need of a pet, even though my son wanted a dog before his mother died. Some dogs, however, are more charming, more sociable, more well-tempered than others. Based upon what I saw of my neighbour's, I judged Rottweilers deficient in all three categories. With heads that appeared too heavy for their bodies and with jaws that would not have released their grip, Chuck's surly dogs always seemed to be watching me whenever I looked over the fence. If they broke free from their chains, would they have jumped over to rip off my face? My assured me they did not attack off their property.

In his absence during the day and, given my view of things, I knew when he left, I took to staring at the dogs. Somewhere I read or heard that one could stare a dog down, force him to avert his gaze. The Rottweilers sensed my watching even before they saw me for they would get up quickly from prone positions and whirl around growling. Sometimes I rattled a stick along the cedar rails or pointed as if casting a spell. These actions at first interested, then irritated, then enraged the dogs. Within minutes they would hurl themselves against the cage, shaking the entire frame. If Chuck left the dogs chained outside the cage, my grimacing and stick-shaking infuriated them. Forgetful of how much slack they had, the Rottweilers rushed, leaped and choked, gurgled, growled, and fell back, straining at the leash, barking until I stopped the teasing.

Perhaps I enjoyed too much leisure. When my son Frédéric left home, I did not think I could complete another day of my life and my business - I once owned and operated a music store - suffered. After a period of reflection in a stone-and-pine lodge on the shores of a placid lake in the Laurentians where attendants offered counsel and pills, I decided to sell and retire. I spent many hours playing my cello, often positioning myself outside Frédéric's room. Were it not for my age, I fancied that I could have begun a professional career as a concert artist. Compared to the cellists I admired, however, I remained an amateur in the truest sense of the word. Gendron, Fournier, Ma, Harrell, Rostropovich and Schiff all reminded me of how far I had to go even as they provided moments of beauty and respite in the shadows of my house.

Frédéric could not sit still through one of my performances. On the first anniversary of his mother's death, we visited her grave, laid flowers, and returned home where I wanted to play in her memory, if only for a few minutes, one of her favourite pieces. My wife Isabel used to do crewel work as she listened to me after dinner. Frédéric didn't want to hear the cello. We argued and he slammed the front door behind him just as I sat down, the instrument nestled between my knees, the bow ready and my heart twisted with rage and sorrow.

I loved walking the streets of my suburb. It suited me to saunter a few blocks without manoeuvring my way among pedestrians or being approached by beggars. Chuck seldom went for a walk as far as I could determine. I would have thought the Rottweilers needed the exercise, but day and night they remained in the backyard chained or caged unless he let them into the house.

From my terrace if I stood on a chair, I could see into one of the side windows. As he had hung vertical louvered blinds, I caught a glimpse of the interior between the slats. Posters covered the wall though I could not determine what the images represented. Installed when the house was built, the original wagon wheel chandelier with the globular glass shades remained. As the louver blinds in the front windows were drawn tight, I had no idea how those rooms were furnished. I did see, however, Chuck and his friends carry in a brown leather sofa one day. I was sorry not to have been at home when he first arrived with the moving van filled with his furniture.

Isabel and I never did cruise the Pacific nor, closer to home, did we hike through the hills of Cape Breton Island . The music store demanded so much time and when we finally saw a few weeks of freedom ahead she fell ill, took to bed, first in hospital then at home, listened to my rendering of Bach's cello suites, so difficult to do well when her coughing spasms broke my concentration, and died. I imagined Chuck arranged his life to suit his desires, was neither a slave to wages nor strait-jacketed by regular hours. Nor did I imagine him a hiker of misty trails.

He gave the impression of barging his way through life, of separating obstacles like the parting of the Red Sea because his will, his authority, the raucous power of his Harley, did not recognize prohibitions of any kind. I always advised my son to be careful, to show respect for people, to study hard, to be home before midnight. After Frédéric left, I reached the conclusion as I held one of his sweaters close to me that parenting consisted almost exclusively of issuing decrees like papal bulls. Of course, the young are foolish and understand little. Frédéric did not see the anxiety behind the strictures and proclamations, the terror I felt of losing him as I had lost Isabel. If I could have framed the proper combination of words, devised a magic spell, I would have protected him from the misfortunes and sorrows of the world. Unlike my neighbour, I did not keep guard dogs.

For five years I walked the streets, subscribed to rock magazines, visited record stores, made a thousand telephone calls, hired a detective for a time, even bought a television set to watch the music video stations in French and English, hoping to see that my son had indeed found happiness in a band. I discovered that he had left the city and might have hitchhiked his way to Vancouver where he would have met few hindrances in floating away. When I strolled through the neighbourhood, I sometimes fancied seeing a young man with hair shaved off in the style of today's youth, an earring like my neighbour's, ill-assorted clothes on his back, and he would be Frédéric. Without a word of criticism, I imagined that I would embrace him there in the street and say welcome home. I imagined my sorrow would evaporate like fog burned off by the morning sun.

Returning home from one such walk, I heard the Rottweilers in their yard. It must have been early October, the day clear and cool like chilled white wine. The week before I had begun turning over flower beds, inserting new bulbs, cutting down the hollyhocks. Uncaged, the dogs each gnawed on a rubber bone. What a carefree life they led even as guard dogs. I picked up my rake and scraped the rails. Once again they took offence and barked. This time I continued scraping the wood, leaned over the fence, and shouted, "you stupid, stupid dogs." I raised the rake and made jabbing motions in their direction.

The dogs took the bait. They lowered their heads, snarled, showed their teeth, edged forward. They did not rush and jump immediately, only to be tugged down and choked by the chain. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-high dogs with heads that reminded me of the Elephant man. Their barking became deep-throated growls, their teeth and tongue visible. "Stupid dogs," I again shouted, jabbing at them over the fence with the rake.

Of course I saw the leap. I did not register the fact that, although uncaged, they had somehow come unchained. I did not have time to do very much except yell and try to shake them off. One dog sank his teeth into my hand, the other caught me on the chin. Shock cushioned the pain although the first breaking of the skin felt like intense, concentrated burning. And I fell howling among the drying stalks of hollyhocks.

I remember screaming as we wrestled in my flowerbed. Instantly obedient to their master, they released their savage hold upon his command. He rushed me to emergency where I was sedated and anaesthetized as the doctor stitched my face. Several fine bones in the hand that plucked the strings of my cello had been crushed. I wore a cast for weeks. I never saw Chuck again even though he called when I returned home, knocked on my door and left a basket of fruit and nuts on the welcome mat. Too embarrassed and accepting the blame, I did not take legal action. As the Rottweilers were not rabid, they continued to gnaw rubber bones in their cage. Adele commiserated, brought over casseroles, and tried to dissuade me from moving. I could no longer bear to enter my son's room. I decided to sell the house and move into the city.

Now living in a bay-windowed apartment on a busy street, I enjoy a balcony that looks over the backyards of my neighbours who have wonderfully transformed their plots of land: cedar decks, hanging pots of fuchsia, bridal veil, trellises woven through with grape or clematis vines. No one has objected to my playing the cello in the evening when the neighbours are either preparing or eating dinner. My face is scarred, the bottom right cheek looks as if it has collapsed. To play gracefully and accurately with crooked fingers which stiffen on damp days is sometimes painful. I have given up my place in the chamber group.

I don't know what my poet neighbour was worried about as I have not fallen victim to the "trends" since I've been living here. Every week I walk to a nearby store boasting three floors of rock videos and discs. The sound is tumultuous. One day I hope to see the face of my beloved Frédéric printed on a cassette or the casing of a disc. I will know at last that his dreams have come true.


Kenneth Radu has published several books including a memoir, The Devil is Clever (HarperCollins Canada), three collections of stories, among them A Private Performance (Montreal: Vehicule Press) which won the Quebec Federation of Writers' Award for best English-language fiction, and he is now working on a fourth collection of short stories. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming online in Foundling Review, Clearfield Review, vis a tergo, fourpaper letters, Leaf Garden, Black Lantern, LWOT and elsewhere. He lives in Quebec.