A Man and His Dog

by Hal Trussell

A brute of a man walked down the sidewalk today.  A large man, tall.  A man with many years of prison behind him, I thought.  It was his stoop, his walk — face down, plodding, but consistent.  Long walks around the prison yard, in a line, in order, slow, mindless, going nowhere.

A face only a mother could love.  Heavy, expressionless.  Long, long arms that dangled, barely swaying.  Large thick hands.

My dog stuck his nose between the slats of the fence, whining and wagging his tail.  “He likes you,” I said.  Slowly the man looked up, his face softening ever so slightly.  “I see him when I walk past,” he answered. 

Slowly the man looked down again, his gait never hesitating, continuing on. Walking, plodding, each step the same repeated step.

My dog watched as he continued down the sidewalk.  Again the dog whined.  I opened the gate and let the dog run toward him.  He followed after him, licking at his hand.  The man stopped, surprised.  He looked down and petted the dog.  He stroked the dog again and again, then turned to me, “He reminds me of a dog I used to have.”

“He likes you,” I reiterated.  The man petted the dog again and looked back to me, that expressionless but sincere smile on his face.  An emotion flashed as he said, “Thank you.”  Turning, he looked at  the dog again, and walked on down the sidewalk.  The same short plodding steps, long arms hanging, barely moving as he walked.  The dog and I watched as the man disappeared around the corner.

In the back yard next to mine, a toddler played with his happy mother.  Neither knew anything of the man.  Perhaps on another day, if the man walks by again, they might see him.  But the toddler will never remember him.  In later years perhaps I might forget, as maybe the man himself might.  Or not.

So what is life?  Is it only a sequence of moments, a rise and fall of emotions, a series of activities — none of them really affecting much — only our moment-to-moment lives?  Is that life?

And what is prison?  Is it just that same life, stripped of emotion, devoid of loving expression?  Mindless, senseless, endless, meaningless?  What purpose does it serve, other than to separate the violent, the incorrigible, the psychopathic?  And what of all those others, caught in its bureaucratic net?  

Is it redemptive, or is it a punitive concept from ancient, less-evolved centuries of man’s abuse to man?  For are we all not in our own prisons, in our own cages, following our own mindless, senseless plodding walk through life?

The toddler and the dog know nothing of this.  But the man does.