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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Dog - My Lord You


We have to talk about the dog. A central part of James Salter’s My Lord You concerns a large dog who appears in many scenes, shadowing the protagonist, Ardis, so intensely that you can’t ignore him (the dog). She certainly can’t.

Ardis’ first encounter with the dog is when she bicycles to Brennan’s house. No human is at home. But: “It was a dog, a huge dog higher than her waist, coming toward her, yellow-eyed. She had always been afraid of dogs…” She leaves, telling the dog to go home. But he follows her at a distance. “He seemed to float along in the fields, which were burning in the mid-day sun, on fire…He fell in behind her. She could hear the clatter of his nails like falling stones…He was trotting awkwardly, like a big man running in the rain. A line of spittle trailed from his jaw. When she reached her house, he had disappeared.”

Then the dog begins appearing at her house, as if it’s waiting for her. “There just beyond the trees, the dog lay. She could see his ears—they were small ears dashed with white…Awkwardly it rose and after a moment moved, reluctantly it seemed, wandering slowly across the fields, never looking back.”

So, let’s recall the story. Something is missing for Ardis, some passion. She meets Michael Brennan at a party; he is wild, drunken, crude—all the things she is not. He intrigues her; she unsuccessfully seeks out his poetry. Knowing he is away, she impulsively goes to his house, and discovers the dog. The dog is willful, curious about her.

Huh.

Is the dog a kind of surrogate for Brennan? A symbol of mute animal passion—the thing Ardis lacks?

I think so, best B.

How do we know Ardis is missing something that the dog somehow represents? What we know about Ardis is, well, not much. We know she feels on the outside of the party that begins the story. She notices everything—the glasses, food, the house’s décor, the hosts. “It was foreign in a way, like someone else’s house, but half-familiar.”

Brennan sits next to her, which is alarming because he’s drunk and kind of…attractive. “Who are you? he said. Another little housewife?

She felt the blood leave her face, and stood to busy herself clearing the table. His hand was on her arm.

Don’t go. I know who you are, another priceless woman meant to languish. Beautiful figure, he said, as she managed to free herself. Pretty shoes.”

Then, her husband, who’s been there the whole time but has not been mentioned by the story, drives Ardis home, saying he “should have taken him and thrown him out,” meaning Brennan. Her husband counsels, “The best thing is to just forget about tonight.”

So we do get sense of Ardis being understandably uncomfortable with Brennan’s drunken behavior—he treats her as a sexual object, but as we see, this is intriguing. Her husband seems distant and ineffectual. His lovemaking ends too quickly.

We learn more about Ardis when she goes to the library in search of traces of Brennan. He quoted Ezra Pound to her; she reads a Pound poem that mentions “My Lord you,” evidently referring to an older husband and to submission. “Of the things she had been taught she remembered only a few. There had been one My Lord though she did not marry him. She’d been twenty-one, her first year in the city. She remembered the building of dark brown brick…her clothes in a chair or fallen to the floor, and the damp, mindless repetition, to it, or him, or who knew what: oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. The traffic outside so faint, so far away.

She’d called him several times over the years, believing that love never died, dreaming foolishly of seeing him again, of his returning, in the way of old songs.”

In the library, the story sees her: “…her young face that had a weariness in it, a slight distaste for things, even, one might imagine, for oneself.

Hmm. So she reads a poem by an author Brennan likes, and it sets off an association to an early love affair she had, a sexual association, my friends.

‘Kay, back to the dog. As we mentioned last week, the dog appears at Ardis’ house after her husband has apparently left, and she escorts the dog home. There, at the house which is Brennan’s house, she enters and searches his belongings, ultimately taking off her clothes. “There in the silence with the sunlight outside she stood slender and half-naked, the missing image of herself, of all women. The dog’s eyes were raised to her as if in reverence. He was unbetraying, a companion like no other…She leaned forward to stroke the beautiful head.

You’re a big fellow. The words seemed authentic, more authentic than anything she had said for a long time. A very big fellow.”

What’s going on here? Ardis is within an erotic situation, with the dog, but the dog is, I think, not experienced so much erotically but more as a witness, a companion who provokes her to authenticity. And this is a central need for Ardis—she yearns to have real, authentic experiences because she experiences herself as unimportant. That night, she thinks that her life has meant nothing. Something about meeting Brennan, who quickly disappears, and then breaking into his house causes her to feel real. And the dog is her only witness, the only being whom she believes understands her. When she takes off her clothes, she thinks of certain girls in her past, girls whom she admired and judged herself as unlike. I think her disrobing and imagining Brennan finding her is not so much a sexual act/fantasy but a desire to do something she’d never dared do. She is experimenting with being someone new.

Of course, it is almost comical that her husband finds her at Brennan’s house, and she has some ‘splainin to do. But, as mentioned, it is later that night that she despairs at the lack of meaning in her life, imagining, as always, that it is other people who have meaningful lives. She ambiguously tells her husband “We have to do something,” and it is his turn to despair over the possibility of losing her. The dog (of course) is there again. Ardis speaks of the dog tormenting her; the dog leads her away.

But it is for the last time. At the end, we get that leap ahead in time and the news that Ardis did not see the dog again. “The dog was not outside, nor in his car, nor part of his life anymore—gone, lost, living elsewhere, his name perhaps to be written in a line someday though most probably forgotten, but not by her.”

The dog, like Ardis, like the story, disappears, and we are left with a question about what happened after. Does Ardis return to her life as a “little housewife?” Or does the experience told in the story change her, meeting the need she had for meaning?

Your call, best B.

Till next time.

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