I was on fire. It was an accident (I don’t want you to get the wrong impression). This was on the fourth of July. I was drunk and a little stoned and in a beach chair on Jenny’s back lawn at her barbeque with my eyes closed, and I was imagining that I was on a beach watching over baby sea turtles, shooing away gulls and these mean crabs and anything else that looked threatening. No sea turtles would die on my watch. Maybe I was half asleep, I don’t know.
What happened was: this dog was at the barbeque, a real muppet of a dog, with thick, wiry fur that pretty much always looked dirty, and she’d found this old half-rotten tennis ball, and she was going up to each person at the barbeque and seeing if they would throw it. The ball itself was pretty nasty and had been found God knows where. Jenny wasn’t the dog having kind. There weren’t many takers, and the ones that did take the dog up on her offer soon found that she was a particularly single-minded dog. She didn’t want to be pet, or her belly rubbed, or to play fetch with a stick instead, or to sit—she wanted you to throw the goddamn ball, and then throw it again when she brought it back. She was just that kind of dog.
She tried a lot of people before she got to Joan. I like Joan, genuinely I do. She’s got a friendly face and lousy posture, which is a combination I can trust. And it’s not like it’s her fault that she really loves dogs, but her roommate’s allergic, and so she tries a little too hard to get dog owners to notice that she really loves dogs so that they will remember her when they have to go out of town suddenly to attend a grandparent’s funeral and she will get a chance to feed Banjo or Waffles or whatever this particular dog’s name was. I don’t blame her one bit for it. A freak occurrence. Couldn’t be helped.
What happened was the ball was a little slimy and all from dog spit, so when Joan reared back to throw it, showing as much enthusiasm as the dog, it slipped loose, took an errant bounce off the base of a shade tree, and rolled to a stop underneath the still-live barbeque pit. It was one of those cheapie circular grills on three legs that Jenny set up for the veggie burgers.
You can guess how it went from here, I imagine. The dog careened into the grill, knocking it out from under itself, spilling live coals over the dog’s back. Joan screamed. The dog’s wiry hair caught fire, and she didn’t even yelp, because she had the ball, and she was headed back toward Joan, whose scream sent her running away in a panic. All my drunk friends jumped and turned toward the sound. They all looked at Joan first. Me, I’d seen it all happen. I was watching the dog.
I don’t know when precisely the dog knew what kind of trouble she was in—I still think about it, sometimes—but she kept running towards and then away from people, and the look in her eyes, and the flames rising off of her too awful for mythologizing, and the smell, and the big bald cliché of a horror so inexplicably cruel.
No one knew what to do. Steven threw his drink. Mark ran away from the dog when it headed toward him. Joan kept screaming. I sat dumb in my chair wishing I were sober. Wishing there was something sensible to do when a dog is burning to death. But there isn’t anything.
When the dog turned toward me, it felt like I knew what would happen. She came close enough that I was able to reach out and hook a finger through her collar. Her momentum knocked my chair over, and even though my legs got all tangled up in it I was able to land sort of on top of her. I held her down as best I could while she squealed and bit at me. I knew I was being burned too, but mostly I held tight and tried to keep a clear head. I locked my arm around the dog’s neck and squeezed as hard as I could. The dog stopped struggling, and I felt something give in her throat. Someone ran up with the hose.
People said I was a hero, but I don’t know. I think they think I was just trying to hold her down or smother out the flames. I wasn’t. It seems cruel, and more than a little useless, to try and correct them.
I ended up with some minor burns and a ruined shirt and some very awkward sex with Joan, which maybe isn’t worth mentioning, but to me it’s part of the story. The dog’s owner, who I didn’t personally know, slipped quietly out of all of our lives, probably as relieved and eager not to see us again as we were. Last I hear he’d taken a job out in Las Cruces.
Every year when the new grad students come to town, somebody sees fit to tell it again. It’s always told a little wrong, just like every story. More often than not, the fresh-faced response is to turn to me and say that I was so lucky to not be hurt worse. I guess that’s true: I was lucky. A thing I may as well believe.