The Gain Sum
Ken Poyner
The patchwork dog runs loosely up and down the wire, tethered with six feet of play to the twenty feet of galvanized length that could have once grown up to be prime fence link.  He barks at one end of the quivering line, then gallops to the other and barks twice as much as even he thinks he needs to.  He reaches the limit of his six feet of lash, and jerks back; and then goes six feet the other way: the line willing to bow a little if he runs nearly perpendicular to its metering grasp.

Some small children as they go by scratch him at the back of the uneven ears; some, glittering at the throttle, pat his hindquarters.  He sits still for their attentions, a capture of contentment.  Others hear him and his sound of warning and when within striking distance throw sticks or rocks, and the dog shies one way or the other, usually just out of the bully’s aim; or occasionally he gets struck by a stone too aerodynamically sophisticated to allow him to curl and curve and crisp himself out of its punitive way.

And when the children are gone, he sits in a heap of himself at the far end of the wire, tired from the morning’s parade of children off to school, and resting for the parade of children leaving school.  He has the dust to plot against in his dreams, the belly of the wire to test when he wakes.

He does not think he is a dog on a wire.  He thinks he is the protector of this twenty feet of land, a noble weapon of ownership. 

One boy, who is particularly good at finding the roundest of stones, and whose arm from the pitching of stones is a whip of green wood in a forest thunderstorm, decides one day he can show his mates what he can do:  how good at finding good stones he is, and how his arm is like no other collapse of bone and sinew anyone else can carry around.   He stands, on his way to dull moist and dry of school, just inside the track worn into abandoned ruts by the travel of boys and girls to the small building that passes for progress:  three stones laid out on the place where ruts begin to turn back into grass.  He waits, bobbing one foot to the next, like clouds of expectation stuffed into pants and a shirt, until the other children begin to coagulate around him.

He says, “I can hit that dog."  He sights along the sleeve of his oversized shirt.   He says, “No dog is faster than me.  I can hit anything, even when it is on the run.” Some children taunt him, bet him nothing outside of an unmarketable boast that he cannot do it.  Others stand with arms folded about their straight hips, unsure what he can do but imagining he will do something, and that something is happening here that is worth the watching: even if they will be scolded for being a few dialectic minutes late into the cool darkness of the classroom, scolded for being a part of what might soon become an event. Something might occur here that could be whispered between breaths as runners wait in a heap to be told recess is over.

The dog is moving in ever shorter sprints, with the children at their best stillness, massed in front of him.  No need to run the length of the wire.  No need to chase.  They are one herd, and his only job is to block them, to keep them outside of his wonderful country – unless they come to coo and praise and scratch and pat -- to hold his ground.

The boy looks about him, hoping to collect an equal number of the bold and an equal number of the retiring.  His audience must encompass the breadth of the kingdom:  those who would pet the dog and those who would torment the dog.  This lesson is for all the people, not just those who agree on what is to be done with old dogs, who agree on how one carries oneself with old dogs, on what meaning there is in the noise of dogs for young boys and bold boys and the come-hither whirlings of quizzical girls. And as the dog turns to size one end of the gathering, the boy lets fly with as short a motion as he can, the first stone and whack it is a hit to the dog’s backside:  a river stone as hard as the inside of the boy’s mouth, as though it were made of a fistful of teeth.

Down drops the dog and then back up, now at a limping trot.  The boy sights and with a scoop he has the second stone. With barely a setting of his feet he now lays out a full over hand throw and a stone, shaped and weighing like the bottom of one of the beer bottles he has stolen from his father, batters the dog’s side and the animal leaps backward, going to the end of his tether, a howl and a shuffle and a wrenching of the collar at the dog’s neck and at the wire’s stubborn, slight bow.

The third stone owns all the better aim, and the boy, with only one eye open, creases it to the dog’s nearest ear:  a dullness, a depth of bone, a yelp and a pitching forward.  And then the children are gone, running like scattered gravel for the school house: some knotted children saying they are going to tell; some asking if the others saw what they saw; many merely feeling a bit more electric than they usually do on those other thin days when they are being swallowed by the translating school house doors.  Some finger the backs of their arms with more sensation than they have ever felt at any time when they have had their formal clothes on; and some are thinking of how the boy looked with he lay full out for that second shot: a hurler; a true hurler. After school, there is no dog.  The wire stretches still but the tether is gone.  There are not many foot prints to see in the dust.  As the children point them each out, the morning’s bright boy gathers the stones he had so masterfully, so accurately used earlier: one to each pocket, and one lazily taking up most of his left hand.  The wire but two and a half feet suspended he now can lay his arm across it.  He is thinking:  this is my track; this wire should be my wire.  How fine this wire would look coiled at the foot of my bed.  He is thinking:  and with this land, every morning I will come to school early just to piss on it.  I will spray and spatter, like the rain charging out of narrow guttering, and this land will smell and stink and reek of me forever more.

There are children who now hate him.  There are children who now love him.  But there are no children who do not feel about him some way or some other. Early the morning three days into the triumph, with his boy sized man-thing in his hand still from the act of every day marking the dog’s former territory with his scent, the boy is chased from the victory yard by Mr. K., who comes flailing after him with a broom.  There are some things you do not do in Mr. K.’s yard.  Mr. K. has his standards and is like to take an ornery dislike to anyone he does not feel measures up.  And he has his cold and un-evolving list of things you must not do in his presence, or in his yard, or in his thinking:  and if he can catch you doing those things, in his broad willed anger he will hold you by the back of the neck and nip you square in the knickers. 

Ken Poyner,

latest collection of short, wiry fiction, Constant Animals, and his latest collections of poetry - Victims of a Failed Civics and The Book of Robot - can be obtained from Barking Moose Press, at, or, or Sundial Books at He often serves as strange, bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs. His poetry of late has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, Poet Lore, The Kentucky Review; and his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, Café Irreal, Bellows American Review.

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