Exhaustion Therapy

Stephen-Paul Martin

I became a killer this morning. A dog darted out in front of my car on the freeway. I didn’t even have time to take my foot off the gas, let alone hit the brakes. It was a big dog, a pit bull the size of a German shepherd. He tried to jump a split second before I slammed into him. I felt him getting crushed underneath the car. Three seconds later I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the dog on his back, legs in the air. Then another car ran him over.

There was news on the radio, something about Afghanistan, then an advertising jingle. I couldn’t tell what they were trying to sell. My body started shaking. I pulled off the freeway, killed the engine, stared at the dashboard. I wondered why the radio was silent. Then I saw the ignition key in my hand and remembered that I’d just turned off the engine. Cars were zooming past, sunlight glaring on chrome and windows. I thought of the many beautiful hours I’d spent with dogs throughout my life. I’d always thought that having a dog was the greatest thing in the world. Now I’d killed one. I knew it was the owner’s fault, not mine. He never should have let his dog run off leash near a freeway. But blaming him didn’t change the fact that the dog was dead and I was the one who killed him.

I left my car and walked back on the shoulder of the freeway. By the time I got to the dog, he’d been run over many times. His skull was crushed and his body was mangled. Cars kept whizzing past, running him over again and again. It would have been dangerous to go out and try to pull his remains off the freeway. I looked around for someone who might have been the dog’s owner, but there was no one else there, just speed limit signs and billboard ads for booze and cars and cell phones. I didn’t know what to do, so I walked back and sat in my car, shaking and crying. I hated myself and everyone else, the whole human race with its deadly machines of pleasure and convenience. I swore that after I drove myself home I would never drive again.

Getting home took three times as long as it normally would have. I took back roads I’d never been on before. I got lost twice and had to stop and try to read the county map I keep in the glove compartment. It was difficult because my hands kept shaking. When I finally got home I called in sick at my job. Then I called my friend Ben and told him what happened. He asked if I’d been physically hurt, if my car was damaged. He tried to get me to calm down and stop feeling bad for the dog, to see that I’d been lucky it wasn’t a person I’d killed. After all, Ben said, if I’d run over someone’s child I’d be facing hysterical parents and major legal complications. He also reminded me that the dog was a giant pit bull, probably used for intimidation and fighting, a dangerous animal. But I couldn’t calm down. I kept seeing the dog in front of my car. I kept feeling the moment of impact. Ben could tell I needed help, so he said he would change his plans for the day and we set up a time to meet for lunch.

That was two hours ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to read, but I can’t focus. My hands keep shaking. I read a page, forget what I’ve read, read the page again and still can’t remember. Finally I can’t sit in my chair any longer. I’ve got to get out and try to walk the disturbance out of my body. The late November weather is perfect, stiff wind, lots of clouds, a few patches of blue sky, about fifty degrees. I live in an old seaside town, a great place for meditative walks. But nothing is helping me now, not the cupolas and gables of the old houses in my neighborhood, not the oak trees throwing patterns of light and shade on the lawns and sidewalks, not the snow-covered mountains ten miles east of town. The image keeps coming back—the dog in front of my car, the moment of impact.

I look at my watch and see that I’m due to have lunch with Ben in forty-five minutes. I decide to go to the restaurant and wait. They almost always have newspapers there, and maybe I can distract myself by reading about what’s happening in the world. The restaurant, a converted Victorian house, is only a few blocks away. It’s called The View because it looks out on the ocean. Normally such places are expensive, but the owner bought the house for almost nothing forty years ago, and since he did most of the renovations himself, he can afford to keep the prices down. A good lunch is less than five dollars, and then you can sit with coffee and a book for the afternoon, listening to the ocean.

As soon as I get there I start to feel better, especially since I know that Ben will be here soon. But the papers are full of the usual violence, threats of nuclear war with North Korea, continued conflict in the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t need more evidence of how mentally disturbed our species is, how large a part the United States plays in sustaining that disturbance. I focus instead on the two women at the next table. I keep the paper in front of my face, pretending to read, so they won’t know that I’m tracking their conversation.

Soon it’s clear that their names are Colette and Patty. I haven’t looked at them carefully, since I don’t want to seem intrusive. But I got the impression when I first sat down that they’re in their mid thirties. Patty has a deep voice and talks quickly. Colette giggles a lot but doesn’t sound stupid.

Patty says: You didn’t know me back then, but I used to lie all the time. I couldn’t control it. I even used to lie to my therapist. But he could tell when I was lying, or at least that’s what he said. I—

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