Matthew Gaspar has been teaching U.S. History to seventh graders for the past twelve years. He started writing a few years ago and loves it.
They approached the dog park to the rhythm of a loose metal sign banging against the fence. The strong wind annoyed the trees, especially the most bashful ones that had just begun to bud. Puddles, a Boston terrier, displayed an excited strut as he anticipated playtime with his friends. His hipster owner glanced at the rules and regulations like always without actually reading them.
The usual Saturday afternoon crew of dogs and owners were there, along with a few new people. You could always tell the new members by their initial compliance with rule 14, ALL OWNERS MUST CLEARLY DISPLAY DOG PARK ID WHEN IN THE CONFINES OF THE PARK.
Everyone knew the dogs’ names but not each other’s, except for Diane. Everyone knew Diane. Diane visited the dog park several times a day every day. She ran a doggy daycare out of her home, and the park provided a great place for the dogs to get exercise while she promoted her business. Rule number 3 stated that there could be NO MORE THAN ONE DOG PER ONE ADULT HUMAN, but Diane usually had three to five dogs at one time. Diane was an obese woman in her early sixties. Her short white hair framed a face that was probably very pretty thirty years ago. It was hard to tell with that scowl, though. She’d struggle getting the dogs out of her car and into the park. Then, she’d waddle to the bench, screaming at the dogs the entire way as if they understood her. Once settled in, it didn’t take long before she’d start to grieve about something, “Did you hear they’re raising the fees for the park next year?”
The park was smaller than everyone would have liked. It was rectangular, about three fourths the size of a football field. It was supposed to be covered with a thick layer of mulch, but it was mostly just loose dirt that clouded the air every time the dogs ran. Spring had arrived weeks ago, yet the water fountains still hadn’t been turned on.
Everyone respected Diane, though it wasn’t necessarily warranted. New members would hear her talk with an air of authority, and they would assume she was someone important and powerful.
“This place is a fucking shit hole and they want us to pay more? You know the money isn’t going into the park!” Diane scowled with a puss so angry you would have thought she had a real problem.
A newer member who kept a middle part in his hair and wore large cargo shorts stood with LEASH IN HAND making sure his mutt, Rocky, was CLOSE ENOUGH TO BE UNDER VOICE COMMAND. He noticed no one else was following rules 4 and 5. He approached the owner of Bambi, the poodle mix, and asked, “How often do they come around and enforce the rules?”
The lady with the purple floral shirt replied, “Um, I’ve actually never seen anyone. I’ve only heard stories.”
“Really? What kind of stories?” Cargo Shorts inquired.
“Well, apparently there’s some neighborhood guy who’s unemployed, and he can see the park from his house, so he spies on people to make sure everyone’s following the rules, and he’s been known to call the police on those who don’t,” the lady explained.
Diane was the only one who had ever seen the man, and she’d often tell stories about him. Every story painted him as an unpleasant, pathetic loser. Most people held equal amounts of fear and sympathy for this man.
The guy who always smoked a cigar pulled up to the park with his Labrador, Buddy. Buddy’s voracious fetch habit was exhausting. Damn you if you happen to answer his fetch advances, as you won’t be left alone for the duration of your visit. Cigar Man would happily throw that disgusting tennis ball the whole time.
An hour had passed, and Diane had been working up the will to get out of her seat and leave for the last thirty minutes. She took another twenty minutes to collect the dogs, insulting the ones who wouldn’t obey her. Diane left, and the park became quiet and less interesting.
The dogs played, oblivious to their owners’ social anxiety. Most felt compelled to make small talk. Cargo Shorts went fishing for conversation using the weather as bait. Purple Shirt engaged other humans by asking questions to their dogs in a baby voice. Hipster stared at his phone with a rehearsed look of indifference even though he wanted people to talk to him, especially about how cool his dog was. Cigar Man was the only one who didn’t care about that stuff. He always had two dirty hands and a smile on his face.
The same members had been there for a while when a man walked up to the dog park on the opposite side of the entrance. He gazed around through his darkly tinted glasses as if he was observing something. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair and then moved authoritatively to the side of the park where all of the people were gathered. He silently observed some more. By this time, he had pulled out a pad of paper and started writing things down.
Cargo Shorts whispered to Purple Shirt, “Is that the guy?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before. It has to be him.” she responded.
Hipster overheard them and decided to quietly chime in, “I bet that’s the guy, and he’s writing down people’s violations. Screw him! What the hell is he going to do?”
“Well, I’m following all the rules,” Cargo Shorts said while flashing an awkward smile towards the man, hoping he’d notice what a good boy Cargo Shorts was. The man just stared at everyone with a stone face.
“Oh, yeah? Well your dog took a huge shit about five minutes ago, and you haven’t picked it up yet,” Hipster quipped.
Cargo Shorts nervously jumped from his chair and began scouring the park like he was looking for a loose diamond. He glanced up and saw the mystery man look towards him and then jot something down.
“Jeez! My ID is in the car. Do you think it’s too late to go grab it?” Purple Shirt asked.
“He can’t just do this, man! Look, he’s tallying up our violations, and . . . and what? Is he just going to give us a whole list of fines or something? The fines aren’t even listed.” (They were, next to the asterisk on the bottom of the yellow sign.) “This is like, against due process. It’s unconstitutional. Go ahead, asshole; I want you to fine me! I’m not afraid to fight these fascists!” Hipster delivered this rousing speech well out of earshot of the mystery man.
The man continued to make his way around the park, observing and pausing to take notes. Cigar Man was unperturbed, smoking his cigar in a chair while one of the newer members was tossing the ball to Buddy. Purple Shirt was coming back from her car, and could be heard from a distance saying, “Oh, my! How could I have forgotten this?!” as she donned her lanyard with the attached dog park ID. Cargo Shorts had picked up most of the feces in the entire park to overcompensate for his earlier lapse. Hipster stood there indignant; his young mind had convinced him that he was the only one smart enough and strong enough to stand up to this guy.
A few more minutes passed. Cargo Shorts said, “Come on, already. Let’s get this over with. Give me the stupid fine, so I can go home!”
“I suppose we could just try to leave. He’s on the other side of the park. Maybe we can make a run for it?” Purple Shirt asserted.
“And run away from the scene of a crime? No thanks! Besides, he’s probably written down our license plate numbers already,” Cargo Shorts whined.
“I don’t even care anymore. I’m going to take my tickets straight to the mayor’s office, and I’m going to march in there . . .” Hipster stopped talking as soon as Cigar Man stood up.
Cigar Man had a pleasant look on his face, but he had grown annoyed by everyone’s dialogue. He looked towards the silent group and said, “I’m going to go over there and talk to him . . . find out what he’s doing.”
The group sat there astounded as Cigar Man walked over and began talking to the mystery man. He introduced himself, and their conversation seemed to go along pleasantly. The two laughed as the mystery man was pointing things out in the park.
Not a word had been spoken by the stunned group as they watched the exchange. Mostly they felt stupid that it never occurred to them to actually go up and talk to the guy. Finally, Hipster chimed in, “What the fuck? Does that cigar guy work for the village, too? Great! He’s probably telling him everything we said.”
They chatted for a few more moments, and then Cigar Man shook the mystery man’s hand and made his way back to the group with a grin on his face. He sat down and took a puff on his cigar while everyone stared at him with anticipation. He finally spoke, “He’s studying to be a dog trainer, and he’s out here observing how the dogs behave in a group setting.”
Everyone sat in disbelief trying to collect their scattered emotions. There was a long stretch of silence before Purple Shirt ventured, “So . . . did he say anything about what he observed?”
He puffed his cigar and responded, “Not really. He just said it was stereotypical group behavior.”