By Justin Goldsmith
Sometimes the dogs bark really late at night. I pull down one of the shades over my window with my finger and look through it, at the house across the street and to the left. During the day, I can see the dogs at the corner of the black metal fence. They usually bark at me or another passerby, but at night I can never tell what they’re barking at. It’s always too dark to see past the pine trees on the side yard and none of the streetlights work anymore.
The mother is the only one that lives in the house now. I never see any cars other than hers in the driveway. Her copper-colored van barely seems to move, and it’s the same with her. Sometimes she walks the dogs, two big Labradors, and other times I see her walking with another woman in the neighborhood.
When I was younger, there was only one dog at the house. It was the same kind of dog, but it was much tamer. We barely ever heard it barking. I would sometimes see the neighbor’s kids out in the backyard with it, playing fetch or wrestling with it and laughing. When we first moved to the house, they had a block party and we were invited. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember they had a big gated pen that they kept the dog in. The neighbor kids locked me in it, and I remember feeling so small inside of the cold metal. My mother, or one of my brothers, told me that the old golden Labrador was hit by a car not long after we moved to the neighborhood. Soon after that they got a second dog, a brown one. The second dog started the barking, a low, elongated echoing sound. When it’s really quiet, you can hear the bark bouncing off of all of the houses. I don’t remember when they got the third dog, a black one, but that one eventually joined in with the barking and that’s all that comes from the house anymore.
Her name is Stacy. Her kids were older than me, but about the same age as my older brothers. The father was a psychologist in the high school. Everyone knew the family.
I remember my mother once said that she saw the son smoking a cigarette behind the green electrical box to the side of their house. I must have been nine years old, but something about the instance frightened me. I didn’t like the thought of an older kid leaving his house at night to do something bad without his family knowing. I looked at that electrical box as a sort of crime scene, picturing the neighbor kid indulging himself. Every time I went outside and saw that spot, the big green chunk of metal, I could imagine him in the dark, squatting, and smoke hissing out from between his lips.
I wanted to be friends with him, Josh, the neighbor’s son. He was probably about six years older than me and in the same school year as my oldest brother. One of the other neighbor kids would come over and ask me if I wanted to play basketball with him and Josh. He was good, a star on the high school team, or that’s how it was in my head. We would play in their driveway, and Josh would have us play two against one. He would always win and I would never mind. I would go home and tell my oldest brother about it and talk about how good Josh was. I would ask my brother if he would play with us next time, trying to make some kind of friendship between two older kids. My brother would always refuse and ask me why I talked about Josh so much.
The daughter, Lauren, was younger than Josh by about two years. She used to walk home from the bus stop with my other brother. I remember when me and some of the neighborhood kids were playing tag in the street, the daughter yelled down to me from her window about the girls I was with. She asked me which one I was interested in and I got embarrassed and went home.
One night recently I came home and parked on the street. I looked across the road and noticed the light of their living room through the bay window. There was only one lamp on, a standing lamp with an off-white shade. The room looked very calm and there was nothing moving within it. I turned my car engine off and stared into the room. I wondered if Stacy was even inside the house, if she had gone to bed and had forgotten to shut that light off. I looked at the dark green couch, the blackness of the inactive television set, and I could almost feel the room’s stale air. For a while I sat in my car and looked at the house. All of the houses on the street look the same aside from their color, but Stacy’s house looked different that night, frightening, almost. I thought about what it would be like to be inside, sitting in that dim lit room in the quietness. I don’t know what I would have been doing there, if I would have been alone or if Stacy was sleeping, but I felt like I wanted to be there. The longer I stared into the room, the more like an intruder I felt. I didn’t think about doing anything bad, stealing or anything like that, I just thought about somehow getting inside, disturbing the idleness. I felt like the house was owed something that I could give it with my presence. After a while I heard the dogs barking. I looked towards the black gate fence and could see the silhouettes of the two dogs facing me. Even when I went inside my house and got into my bed they kept barking.
Before I made it into high school Josh got sick. My family didn’t tell me much about it, but from the little I heard from my mother I knew it was bad. He stopped playing basketball, and after a while he was pulled out of school. Some other kids in the neighborhood said he was home schooled and some said he wasn’t doing anything at all. I would doubt the stories, but sometimes I would see Josh bringing out the garbage or getting the mail and he didn’t look well. I would wave to him, but I think he usually didn’t see me.
Around the same time that Josh got sick I heard bad things about his father, Dr. Stern, the school psychologist. Kids were saying that Dr. Stern was caught doing something with one of his patients in his office, a girl in the high school. When I asked my mother about it she didn’t deny it, but I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it with me. An affair, she called it, that’s all she would say. I started seeing Dr. Stern much more than usual. I saw him going in and out of the house in his scratchy looking turtlenecks and thick-rimmed glasses. Around then, the house was always full of people, going in and out and the dogs were always barking. Even at night, I could hear car doors shutting and engines starting. One night, I heard yelling coming from their house. I crawled over to my window and tried to listen, but I couldn’t make out any words over the barking of the dogs. I saw Dr. Stern come out and slam the front door and then it got very quiet. The dogs stopped barking and stared at him and he stared back at them. I didn’t want to move away from the window because I felt like if I moved at all he would notice, so I just stayed very still and watched them. The lights in the house started to go out and soon I could only see Dr. Stern’s dark outline. After a few more minutes, he moved towards the door and the dogs started barking again. He walked over to his car, got in it, and drove away slowly. That was the last time I ever saw him.
The house was much quieter after Dr. Stern left; I could never tell if it was more or less pleasant without the violent noise. The quietness disturbed me; it made me feel unwelcome, especially at night. As the years went by, the stillness of the neighbor’s house made me forget them. I didn’t hear much of Josh’s sickness and the dogs barked much less at night.
When I was in high school Lauren crashed her car into a tree at the corner of our street. I wasn’t around to hear it or see it, but my family told me it was because she was driving drunk. I walked outside and down the road and saw the tree. It wasn’t as bad as I had pictured it, but there were some deep gashes in the wood. For some reason, I thought they looked like they belonged there; like they had always been there and I had never paid attention to them. The next day everyone talked about it in school. All of the kids were saying that after the accident she got arrested, but other kids said she went to the hospital because of her injuries. I didn’t see Lauren much at all, but after the accident I saw her leaving the house with Stacy a lot.
That same year I was drunk with my friends walking around the neighborhood. We were ringing doorbells and running and hiding and laughing. We made it onto my street and one of my friends was ready to ring Stacy’s doorbell. At first I thought nothing of it until I thought about Josh. I could picture Josh and Stacy sleeping, in a moment of peace from all of the bad things that had been happening. I pictured the loud ringing pulling them awake, scaring them, and Stacy rushing to the door expecting someone but seeing nobody. I felt a bad feeling in my stomach and I tried to convince my friends to move on, to not disturb this house. After some arguing, my friends stepped onto Stacy’s yard anyway. When they did, the dogs started barking and we ran. I remember feeling so relieved that something got in our way; that something stopped us from disturbing them after I had failed.
When I was driving with my mother in the summer after high school we passed Stacy and Josh walking together in the neighborhood. Josh was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a winter cap. He didn’t look well, and neither did Stacy, but they looked happy. I remember my mother had said something about it being nice to see. I pictured my mother and I walking together the same way, but it didn’t seem as happy, as needed.
I got to college and forgot about the Sterns again until my mother told me over dinner that Josh had passed away. It almost bothered me that she was crying when she told me. I had missed it. I imagined the ambulance in front of the house, parked in front of the green electrical box. I imagined Stacy speaking to one of the paramedics, crossing her arms and raising her shoulders like she was cold. I imagined her face, stern and unchanging as she answered the paramedic’s questions while her son was quiet and still in the house with strangers’ hands all over his body.
I felt sad, but I felt uncomfortable about how his death had caused my family to stir. While I didn’t want to feel it, I did. No one close to me had ever died, and Josh and I were far from close, but when I thought about him dying it made me feel uneasy. He was just a kid in the neighborhood but I knew him from when I was very young, had memories about him, and now that was all I would have. My mother talked about how bad she felt for Stacy; for all that she’s been through. She talked about how she thought Stacy should move; how she should get out of a house that’s full of bad memories.
Stacy never did move. Lauren did, at some point, and left her mother alone in the house with the two dogs. She started walking the dogs much more during the day, and I see her deeper in the neighborhood, much farther away from her house than I had ever seen any of the Sterns. I wonder if she means to go that far; if being far away from the house makes her feel anything.
When the dogs bark at night I always look out to the neighbor’s house. The living room light stays on, and I look into the house sometimes expecting to see Stacy moving around. I’ll stare into the bay window and wait, but she never passes in front of it. The couch and the things around the living room never budge; nothing new is ever inside. I look at her car, sitting still in the driveway on the other end of the house. Every night when I hear the dogs barking I look for some change.