When I was in high school, I was a member of the GHS forensics team. My sophomore year, I did a ten-minute dramatic interpretation of The Story of Jerry and the Dog from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. This was my first exposure to Albee’s work, and the beginning of a quiet love affair that would culminate in my directing A Delicate Balance nearly 5 years later.
Recently, The Story of Jerry and the Dog has resurfaced in my life, brought up by Ben, who is performing it for his theatre class. This is the second man in my life to have performed this monologue (the other being Derek), a monologue that touched me deeply in my formative high school years. So tonight, tipsy on whiskey, I grabbed my copy of The Zoo Story and re-read it. And, in doing so, I’ve rediscovered why I love this goddamn monologue so much.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present The Story of Jerry and the Dog:
What I am going to tell you has something to do with how sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly; or, maybe I only think that it has something to do with that. But, it’s why I went to the zoo today, and why I walked north … northerly, rather … until I came here. All right. The dog, I think I told you, is a black monster of a beast: an oversized head, tiny, tiny ears, and eyes… bloodshot, infected, maybe; and a body you can see the ribs through the skin. The dog is black, all black; all black except for the bloodshot eyes, and … yes … and an open sore on its … right forepaw; that is red, too. And, oh yes; the poor monster, and I do believe it’s an old dog … it’s certainly a misused one … almost always has an erection . . . of sorts. That’s red, too. And… what else? … oh, yes; there’s a grey-yellow-white colour, too, when he bares his fangs. Like this: Grrrrrrr! Which is what he did when he saw me for the first time … the day I moved in. I worried about that animal the very first minute I met him. Now, animals don’t take to me like Saint Francis had birds hanging off him all the time. What I mean is: animals are indifferent to me … like people [He smiles slightly] … most of the time. But this dog wasn’t indifferent. From the very beginning he’d snarl and then go for me, to get one of my legs. Not like he was rabid, you know; he was sort of a stumbly dog, but he wasn’t half-assed, either. It was a good, stumbly run, but I always got away. He got a piece of my trouser leg, look, you can see right here, where it’s mended; he got that the second day I lived there; but, I kicked free and got upstairs fast, so that was that. [Puzzles] I still don’t know to this day how the other roomers manage it, but you know what I think: I think it had to do only with me. Cosy. So. Anyway, this went on for over a week, whenever I came in; but never when I went out. That’s funny. Or, it was funny. I could pack up and live in the street for all the dog cared. Well, I thought about it up in my room one day, one of the times after I’d bolted upstairs, and I made up my mind. I decided: First, I’ll kill the dog with kindness, and if that doesn’t work … I’ll just kill him. [PETER winces.] Don’t react, Peter; just listen. So, the next day I went out and bought a bag of hamburgers, medium rare, no catsup, no onion; and on the way home I threw away all the rolls and kept just the meat.
When I got back to the rooming-house the dog was waiting for me. I half opened the door that led into the entrance hall, and there he was; waiting for me. It figures. I went in, very cautiously, and I had the hamburgers, you remember; I opened the bag, and I set the meat down about twelve feet from where the dog was snarling at me. Like so! He snarled; stopped snarling; sniffed; moved slowly; then faster; then faster towards the meat. Well, when he got to it he stopped, and he looked at me. I smiled; but tentatively, you understand. He turned his face back to the hamburgers, smelled, sniffed some more, and then … RRRAAAAGGGGGHHHH, like that . . . he tore into them. It was as if he had never eaten anything in his life before, except like garbage. Which might very well have been the truth. I don’t think the landlady ever eats anything but garbage. But. He ate all the hamburgers, almost all at once, making sounds in his throat like a woman. Then, when he’d finished the meat, the hamburger, and tried to eat the paper, too, he sat down and smiled. I think he smiled; I know cats do. It was a very gratifying few moments. Then, BAM, he snarled and made for me again. He didn’t get me this time, either. So, I got upstairs, and I lay down on my bed and started to think about the dog again. To be truthful, I was offended, and I was damn mad, too. It was six perfectly good hamburgers with not enough pork in them to make it disgusting. I was offended. But, after a while, I decided to try it for a few more days. If you think about it, this dog had what amounted to an antipathy towards me; really. And, I wondered if I mightn’t overcome this antipathy. So, I tried it for five more days, but it was always the same: snarl, sniff; move; faster; stare; gobble; RAAGGGHHH; smile; snarl; BAM. Well, now; by this time Columbus Avenue was strewn with hamburger rolls and I was less offended than disgusted. So, I decided to kill the dog.
[PETER raises a hand in protest.]
Oh, don’t be so alarmed, Peter; I didn’t succeed. The day I tried to kill the dog I bought only one hamburger and what I thought was a murderous portion of rat poison. When I bought the hamburger I asked the man not to bother with the roll, all I wanted was the meat. I expected some reaction from him, like: we don’t sell no hamburgers without rolls; or, wha’ d’ya wanna do, eat it out’a ya han’s ? But no; he smiled benignly, wrapped up the hamburger in waxed paper, and said: A bite for ya pussy-cat? I wanted to say: No, not really; it’s part of a plan to poison a dog I know. But, you can’t say ‘a dog I know’ without sounding funny; so I said, a little too loud, I’m afraid, and too formally: YES, A BITE FOR MY PUSSYCAT. People looked up. It always happens when I try to simplify things; people look up.
But that’s neither hither nor thither. So. On my way back to the rooming-house, I kneaded the hamburger and the rat poison together between my hands, at that point feeling as much sadness as disgust. I opened the door to the entrance hall, and there the monster was, waiting to take the offering and then jump me. Poor bastard; he never learned that the moment he took to smile before he went for me gave me time enough to get out of range. BUT, there he was; malevolence with an erection, waiting. I put the poison patty down, moved towards the stairs and watched. The poor animal gobbled the food down as usual, smiled, which made me almost sick, and then, BAM. But, I sprinted up the stairs, as usual, and the dog didn’t get me, as
usual. AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT THE BEAST WAS DEATHLY ILL. I knew this because he no longer attended me, and because the landlady sobered up. She stopped me in the hall the same evening of the attempted murder and confided the information that God had struck her puppy dog a surely fatal blow. She had forgotten her bewildered lust, and her eyes were wide open for the first time. They looked like the dog’s eyes. She sniveled and implored me to pray for the animal. I wanted to say to her: Madam, I have myself to pray for, the coloured queen, the Puerto Rican family, the person in the front room whom I’ve never seen, the woman who cries deliberately behind her closed door, and the rest of the people in all rooming-houses, everywhere; besides, Madam, I don’t understand how to pray. But … to simplify things . . . I told her I would pray. She looked up. She said that I was a liar, and that I probably wanted the dog to die. I told her, and there was so much truth here, that I didn’t want the dog to die. I didn’t, and not just because I’d poisoned him. I’m afraid that I must tell you I wanted the dog to live so that I could see what our new relationship might come to.
[PETER indicates his increasing displeasure and slowly growing antagonism.]
Please understand, Peter; that sort of thing is important. You must believe me; it is important. We have to know the effect of our actions. [Another deep sigh.] Well, anyway; the dog recovered. I have no idea why, unless he was a descendant of the puppy that guarded the gates of hell or some such resort. I’m not up on my mythology. [He pronounces the word myth-o-logy.] Are you?
[PETER sets to thinking, but JERRY goes on.]
At any rate, and you’ve missed the eight-thousand-dollar; question, Peter; at any rate, the dog recovered his health and the landlady recovered her thirst, in no way altered by the bow-wow’s deliverance. When I came home from a movie that was playing on Forty-second Street, a movie I’d seen, or one that was very much like one or several I’d seen, after the landlady told me puppykins was better, I was so hoping for the dog to be waiting for me. I was … well, how would you put it … enticed ? … fascinated ? … no, I don’t think so … heart-shatteringly anxious, that’s it: I was heart-shatteringly anxious to confront my friend again.
[PETER reacts scoffingly.]
Yes, Peter; friend. That’s the only word for it. I was heart-shatteringly et cetera to confront my doggy friend again. I came in the door and advanced, unafraid, to the center of the entrance hall. The beast was there … looking at me. And, you know, he looked better for his scrape with the nevermind. I stopped; I looked at him; he looked at me. I think … I think we stayed a long time that way … still, stone-statue … just looking at one another. I looked more into his face than he looked into mine. I mean, I can concentrate longer at looking into a dog’s face than a dog can concentrate at looking into mine, or into anybody else’s face, for that matter. But during that twenty seconds or two hours that we looked into each other’s face, we made contact. Now, here is what I had wanted to happen: I loved the dog now, and I wanted him to love me. I had tried to love, and I had tried to kill, and both had been unsuccessful by themselves. I hoped … and I don’t really know why I expected the dog to understand anything, much less my motivations . . . I hoped that the dog would understand.
[PETER seems to be hypnotized]
It’s just … it’s just that … [JERRY is abnormally tense, now.] … it’s just that if you can’t deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS ! [Much faster now, and like a conspirator] Don’t you see.? A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people … SOMETHING. With a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror … no, that’s too hard, that’s one of the last steps. With a cockroach, with a … with a … with a carpet, a roll of toilet paper … no, not that, either … that’s a mirror, too; always check bleeding. You see how hard it is to find things ? With a street corner, and too many lights, all colours reflecting on the oily-wet streets … with a wisp of smoke, a wisp … of smoke … with … with pornographic playing cards, with a strong-box . . . WITHOUT A LOCK … with love, with vomiting, with crying, with fury because the pretty little ladies aren’t pretty little ladies, with making money with your body which is an act of love and I could prove it, with howling because you’re alive; with God. How about that? WITH GOD WHO IS A COLOURED QUEEN WHO WEARS A KIMONO AND PLUCKS HIS EYEBROWS ! WHO IS A WOMAN WHO CRIES WITH DETERMINATION BEHIND HER CLOSED DOOR … with God who, I’m told, turned his back on the whole thing some time ago … with … some day, with people. [JERRY sighs the next word heavily.] People. With an idea; a concept. And where better, where ever better in this humiliating excuse for a jail, where better to communicate one single, simple-minded idea than in an entrance hall? Where? It would be A START! Where better to make a beginning … to understand and just possibly be understood … a beginning of an understanding, than with …
[Here JERRY seems to fall into almost grotesque fatigue]
… than with A DOG. Just that; a dog.
[Here there is a silence that might be prolonged for a moment or so; then JERRY wearily finishes his story.] A dog. It seemed like a perfectly sensible idea. Man is a dog’s best friend, remember. So: the dog and I looked at each other. I longer than the dog. And what I saw then has been the same ever since. Whenever the dog and I see each other we both stop where we are. We regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion, and then we feign indifference. We walk past each other safely; we have an understanding. It’s very sad, but you’ll have to admit that it is an understanding. We had made many attempts at contact, and we had failed. The dog has returned to garbage, and I to solitary but free passage. I have not returned. I mean to say, I have gained solitary free passage, if that much further loss can be said to be gain. I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves; and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion. And what is gained is loss. And what has been the result: the dog and I have attained a compromise; more of a bargain, really. We neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other. And, was trying to feed the dog an act of love? And, perhaps, was the dog’s attempt to bite me not an act of love? If we can so misunderstand, well then, why have we invented the word love in the first place ?
[There is silence. JERRY moves to Peter’s bench and its down beside him.]
The Story of Jerry and the Dog: the end.