The Country/The Country

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9. 'No Dogs'

Of course, there was a simple, reasonable, psycho-babbling explanation for the state of mind that could imagine so dire a scenario as the ominous dream-vision inflicted upon the aging Keel, and that so disturbed his waking thoughts.

So later that day, around his customary mid-to-late afternoon departure time, Keel set off once more to confront the charged setting that had likely, in some complicated way, provoked his darkly visionary dream.

He squared his shoulders, closed the storm door carefully behind him, and set off down Yester’s Lane for Pike Street on his usual route.

Should he not alter his direction this day, and instead of turning down Pike Street take some other some street that would bypasses the scene of his crime? Change his routine? -- if only by a block or two. He could walk toward the square on a parallel public way. It would take him only a few minutes longer to reach the square and might even prove stimulating in its offer of fresh, though likely modest, sights and sensations. Wouldn’t that be the sensible thing to do?

Of course, it would.

It would also mean that the Dormands had won.

That they had outlasted him and successfully asserted their right to let their indolent, irresponsible style of dog ownership control the quality of public use of the sidewalk adjacent to their property, reducing that quality several degrees below miserable and therefore rendering this piece of public passage way effectively unusable. And, therefore, also challenging Keel’s long-held assumption that free passage on public ways was one of those unenumerated citizens’ rights people were entitled to exercise simply by being human beings.

No, he decided, shaking his head, shouting down the inward voices of moderation that told him he had made a mess and now was preparing to step in it.

No, he would not give in. A citizen was entitled to think his own thoughts. And take his own walks.

Mind made up, Keel walked on, telling himself to expend no further thought on the impending contretemps. Letting his mind drift: His mind refused to drift.

He crossed a street and knew he was on the block where the lovely Dormands lived.

Of course, their dogs would be there. They were always there.

They were not there.

He stopped dead, without intending to.

No dogs!

He turned his head to stare frankly through the wire fence. Some toys; dog toys. Something made of red plastic, perhaps just small enough for a big dog to get his jaw around. A few black plastic pots, probably for garden use. The wooden railing of a low inner fence line that somewhat hindered a view of the lawn space reserved for the house’s human occupants, off-limits to the canine. And the sparse, flattened green space given over to the dog’s daily tedium, the ‘lack-of-exercise’ yard in which they waited all day for an opportunity to express their stored, anxious, neglected irritation on innocent passersby.

Their absence, it was clear, meant only one thing. Could only mean one thing.

They knew the dogs were the reason someone had thrown a rock at their house.

Did they also know who that someone was?

Once again that night the local network TV-nooz compelled him.

He didn’t wait for the news hour to show up on the ‘leets’ station -- that new term of abuse the Pegasso party brain-washers used to deride people like himself -- probably derived from the old saw “a leetul went a long a way.” People who had unusual habits and tolerant opinions of others’ life-choices. People who thought they knew better than ‘ordinary’ people because they read more. Because they had been educated more deeply. They read big city nooz-docs. They knew the names of famous (or once famous) writers, or social thinkers, or philosophers. They knew that cities had been designed with various kinds of green spaces because their presence soothed the spirit and inspired the mind. They knew that “scientia est potentia”; that thought, the life of the mind, made societies healthier, more alive, more active. They went to the theater, at least once in a while, and visited cultural capitals at least once or twice in their lives. Keel had once stood on line one day in the great capital city of UCanna for an hour to buy a ticket to see a serious play written by an author of national repute. The experience stayed with him. Keel had also once boarded a flying machine so he could go to the live theater every night for a week in Landivium, the old country across the water.

Of course not everyone had the good fortune, the means, the opportunity, to pursue such activities. But even his city of Monro had a modest symphony orchestra. Why weren’t all the seats filled for every single public performance? In recent years the orchestra had reduced the cost of admission to donation-only -- pay only what you chose -- in an effort to increase attendance. And still there were as many empty seats as filled. And you could see examples of all the arts on the screen. Everybody had a screen, didn’t they? Did the people who voted for Pig refuse to watch the stations that broadcast concerts and dance and works of serious theater on principle, simply because people they hated, people like Keel, did? The leets. Was it a crime against ‘the people’ now, the ‘real people’ of his once proud, no longer quite so flourishing nation to be interested in the greater world? In history? In the problems of the future? In what scientists (did ‘real people,’ however, still understand that scientia kept them fed and healthy) were learning from excavating the deep past of the people-species? Or in what they suspected might lay beyond our own planet’s cozy little neighborhood in a still expanding cosmos?

‘Real people’? Keel thought with a start. Listen yourself: Was he something other than ‘real’ himself? ‘Real people,’ he brooded, tuning in with new care to his cascading thoughts, hated people like him, people who (unlike them) knew that one’s own little planet held a host of different belief systems, values, ‘explanations for the existence of people-intelligence,’ the mysteries of which dwarfed the little that was known for certain.

So there was no hope, he decided at last, of learning about ‘them’ if he continued paying attention only to ‘us.’

He resolved to abjure the comfort of watching nooz on the sophisticated station (for people like us) with its international stories and ‘expert’ guest commentators in favor watching local-people nooz, on the local TV station.

Besides, he now had other reasons to tune in to local news. He wished to find out whether investigators had learned anything more about the disturbing graffiti on the subverted church message board. And were they still looking into the attack on the Dormands’ house?

That night Headline-Nooz was filled with local or semi-local disasters or near-misses. A man with a knife tried to rob a convenience store on a strip of relatively dark road between the city and one of its smaller neighbors. The clerk had only a few metrics in the register at that time of night but he was gathering it up for the man with the knife when a couple of customers entered the shop and spooked the would-be robber, who took to his heels. Words like ‘lucky’ and ‘happy coincidence’ were tossed about on the screen and echoed in the newsroom.

Then the show flew to another locus, where a smoky fire in a backyard shed drew firefighters to the scene, who donned their heavy suits of armor and put out the small blaze before it could threaten nearby houses. Neighbors speculated on the cause.

“Kids, probably.”

“Smoking in the shed.”

No political stories, Keel thought. Nothing about ‘real people’ versus the ‘leets.’ When, abruptly, the studio host-reader’s mien changed, as if the teleprompter was now prompting in large black letters, singed in their corners and smoking faintly.

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