Joey was the one, my all-star, super pupil, the testament to my pedagogical skills. I’d hoped to tutor one of my proteges to the Tournament of Champions, though they’d never get past the opening rounds, let alone regionals.
You may remember, though you probably don’t unless you go combing the darkest reaches of space on the Internet, that once upon a time there was program called Jeopardy, back when people still had cable television piped into their homes. It was a quiz show where smart people answered questions in the form of a question to win money. For some reason, American contestants always had trouble with geography.
Imagine an entertainment program where you show your smarts but are forced to answer as if you don’t know. Very archaic now, as everyone is most assured about everything, irregardless of whether they actually know anything – for example, that irregardless was once considered an incorrect word people commonly used because they didn’t know better. It has since become correct, according to OED-Websters.com.
In any case, Jeopardy was very popular, even as civilization, if you can call it that, began to put less weight on knowing things and learning what you didn’t know and more weight on self-expression. The best of the best played off every year in the “Tournament of Champions.” Obviously, such a show could only run for so long, and enough time passed to allow the current Tournament of Champions contest to co-opt the TV show name for its test of superior knowledge without anyone noticing. Okay, I noticed, but it’s best not to point this out.
As I said, I make my living as a tutor, though sometimes I’m like a translator. There are still good pupils with keen recall, and if you’re lucky, even critical thinking skills, though that is lot to ask. In my line of work, it all depends on whether you find the right clients. And find him I did.
My first impressions of Joey were strong. I’d Skyped with parents Kayla and Grayson. They were excited, waxing enthusiastically about Joey, highlighting different training methods they’d used from his youngest days. I was I intrigued. An appointment was arranged.
My ride dropped me off, and I buzzed them. A moment later after they’d established my identity, they warmly welcomed me into their home. In the main living area, I saw two small children, a boy about nine with a rat-tail and a girl about six with a faux hawk. Their names didn’t register; I think they were called something like “Uselysse” and “Gonorrheal,” which I took to be some creative play on classical references that sorely missed the mark.
These two snot-balls were ensconced in reclining chairs in front of their screens, occasionally offering the odd monosyllabic grunt or giggle while gaming or streaming some video on their devices. The boy looked particularly worked up, as if constipated, and snarled every half minute. The girl kept shrieking at her mom to bring more chips, bring more chips. The children these days speak in exclamation points, not question marks. I was so grateful I didn’t have to teach these creatures, that Joey instead was in my tutelage.
Kayla and Grayson invited me to sit at the kitchen table and poured me a cup of sprout tea, not my favourite, but I thought it rude to refuse. A few of us still believed in manners, but by the look of their snot-nosed little brats too rude to raise their heads to say hello, our days were numbered.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” Kayla said.
“I’m happy to help,” I said. “You think he’s got a chance then, to be top dog.”
“He’s real top dog stuff, a fine pedigree, if I don’t say so myself,” Grayson said with a chortle.
Kayla whacked his arm with the back of her hand and said, “Oh, stop, you. Don’t get all puffed up.”
“I’m confident I can help guide him,” I said.
“We’re so glad. We tried a few other tutors, but he was pretty standoffish, even a little difficult. He’s not an alpha, but he has a good nose for people. We’ve learned to spot it quickly, mostly out of necessity, you know, to save time.”
“I understand,” I said. “When can I meet him?”
Grayson jumped out of his chair and said, “Well, why not right now? I’ve got a good feeling.”
With that, Kayla walked over to the swinging doors dividing the kitchen from the next room and opened them, saying “Joey, Joey.” There was a pause. “Come on, dear. Don’t be shy.”
The next thing I saw was his nose, which drove like a high-speed metro straight for my testicles. So, I guess here is the point I should clarify something: Joey was a black, three-year-old standard poodle, as fine a specimen of canine as I’d ever know.
For some time now, couples had been making sure their animal was smart, well-behaved, of good breeding. Meanwhile, they would let their children run amok in an effort not to stifle the little brats’ creativity. They stopped doing horribly parental things, such as telling their children no, and instead catered to their children’s every wish, all in the name of protecting the brats’ feelings. Parents began to see their dogs as the better bet, and Joey seemed a good bet to fulfill expectations, I had to agree. I gave a rub under his chin and looked into his deep, dark eyes and knew I could mold him into a champion. Already, we were connecting.
As I said, I am tutor primarily, but part of this entails communicating, which is the translator element of the job. The business is still a bit shaky; canine communication is a growing field though and is now its own academic discipline.
There’s science behind this, or at least a hypothesis. The growing view is that dogs have rapidly developed their vocabularies, while not being able to fully speak, to at least understand a vocabulary that one time would have rivalled that of a third-year liberal arts student. Part of the reason is dogs had gotten used to walking on their haunches from all the tricks they performed and, thus, developed bigger forebrains. Normally, this evolution would take countless generations.
That’s where the nuclear accident came into play, a small discharge of radioactive waste in the American Southwest, not severe enough to kill us off immediately but enough to play havoc with our genes. Through some nurturing and epigenetic variants, the dogs caught up to us quickly. At the same time, sedentary generations of young humans began to show a slight decline in their forebrains – all the games and screen time, you know. They had also been subjected to student-centered education, learning only what they wanted to – a pedagogical disaster that with hindsight seems obvious. Sure, a few of us like yours truly persevered over the years and bothered to learn about things that didn’t already interest us.
There’s an obvious problem here. What do you do with all these people, especially since many of the old jobs have been done by A.I. for some time now? Well, the serpents running the boardrooms have fixed that. When I say serpents, I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean actual serpents, who long ago started swallowing whole that distracted porcine creature known as the CEO. Fortunately, the snakes had enough smarts to know they couldn’t have a bunch of unhappy humans around with no purpose, so they came up with a system of credits for snacks, entertainment and other necessities of life. I think they still skim off the odd senior manager for a snack, but they keep most us around and well fed.
Anyway, back to Joey, the couple loved me, and made Joey do a dance for me the first night. Then we began training. We worked on the core subjects, delved into the canon, exhuming the bones of old knowledge. We did flash cards, ending with a treat; I insisted on using food as a reinforcement.
I gave him recordings of lessons to listen to while dreaming sweet doggy dreams in his bed. Sad to think all we had once asked of him and his kind was to stand on hind legs, shake a paw and speak ¬– by this I mean bark. Of course, Joey could not actually talk, as dogs did not have a larynx, but I had an intuitive sense into his thoughts. If he lacked vocal skills, I could read his woofs, interpret those subtle turns of the head. I’d reward him with treats but also remind him this was why he had to learn. Otherwise, the food might disappear – for all of us. I also brought a spray bottle for negative reinforcement, and he’d always whine as soon as he saw me pull it out.
For the tournament, Joey barely broke a pant in the qualifiers, answering question after question. Even the regionals were relatively simple. I was a little concerned one day during tutoring when he turned one ear up to me as if to ask why he had to study Herodotus. I almost went for the spray, uncertain how to approach this nonconformity, but when I scratched behind his ear, he wagged his tail. When I left that evening, I may have heard a snarl from the front porch though. I thought about asking Kayla and Grayson whether something was wrong, but I chalked it up to his having smelled some bad feces while out perambulating. (The couple told me never to use the word walk around him, lest he get excited. Who were they fooling?)
On the big night, I rented a tuxedo and got Joey a new collar and a mauve bowtie, while his parents watched from the audience inside an old art deco theater. As tutor, I was allowed back stage as coach, but no closer. A parrot sporting a monocle and white blazer sat on a perch to serve as official interpreter for the dogs in the finals. The crowd was electric, the event streaming to an almost immeasurable audience online.
For Joey, winning could mean instant fame. For me, a massive bonus from his winnings. He did not disappoint, tapping out answers by forepaw or quiet barks, then vetted through the parrot.
“Arf,” Joey said. “Louis Pasteur,” the parrot relayed. “Whoa,” said the mesmerized audience.
With every answer, they applauded. Online commentators said they’d never seen such a smart dog. It helped that one of his main rivals, a conceited border collie, was disqualified for scooting on the stage, but Joey needed little help, dominating on quantum mechanics, Greek fables, Baroque composers, the 1979 NCAA Bird versus Magic finals and Thai cooking.
“Tom yum,” Joey woofed via the parrot. I think he drooled a little; he had such taste!
He was barking out answers I’d never heard of, and I started to wonder why he needed me. Then it came time for the final question – 20th century movie classics. It was too obvious; were they serious? All Joey needed to win the Tournament of Champions was to name the 1957 tear-jerker about the Coates family and their beloved dog. This had to be a trick.
Joey turned his head one way, then the other, as if watching for a sign from me. I hissed at him to answer already. He curled his lip, bared his teeth. I didn’t know what was coming next. I hoped it was the phrase Old Yeller.
“Old …” the parrot said in response to Joey’s low growl. This was not good. Altogether the wrong inflection, unless the parrot was a halfwit, but he’d nailed every translation all night. The auditorium fell silent. I gasped, hoping this was only a dramatic pause, until the parrot broke the silence. “Those words … this is a family webcast….”
At that, Joey started growling, snarling, scratching, and the other finalists followed his lead. The flustered parrot panicked, flying off his perch, grasping for words, trying to translate all they were saying. I realized the dogs were staging some kind of revolt, with Joey their alpha leader. The bird flew from one side of the stage to the other, shitting streams that hit some of the dogs, which only made them more furious.
Joey started jumping up and down on his haunches, the parrot relaying his thoughts: Old Yeller was offensive; noble dogs presented as helpless slaves of humans; anything but a classic; mere human-centric drivel. Why did he have to learn about humans? Why was Odysseus Homer’s hero and not the faithful dog Argos? Where was his Shakespeare? The great bard used the word dog as an insult. An outrage! Why didn’t Old Yeller’s family even bother to vaccinate him? I was surprised by Joey’s oversight – the original book was set in the 1860s, before a vaccine had been discovered. I tried to convey this to him, but communication was now hopeless.
The dogs were in full foaming-mouth uproar, showing their teeth to any who dared near them, and lifting their legs or squatting to piss in protest of this vaudevillian affront. One apoplectic chihuahua named Gertie Stein was in a fit, all fangs and four-letter words, which left the poor parrot scrambling for words.
Out came the dog-catchers – one of the few jobs left for humans – rushing from the wings of the theater, carrying pepper spray, muzzle, stick, to beat the dogs into cages while the horrified crowd bolted for the exits.
Kayla and Grayson were nowhere to be seen in this melee. As I looked at the stage, Joey made his last stand, trying to bite three dog catchers, but they wrestled him into a kennel, and when our eyes met for the last time, he gave me a look as if to say all he wanted was some food, a warm place to sleep, not to be locked inside to piss himself in a corner – that was the deal we’d all made thousands of years ago, and I knew he was right. Then he was gone, carted off with the other mutts.
It’s been months now. They didn’t put Joey down, largely because of a documentary series that’s been streaming, but they did give him an orchiectomy. They tried to slip that one by him at his hearing, but he just shook his snout and sighed, insulted they assumed he wouldn’t know what the procedure meant. Please, a little respect.
As for me? I lost my job, was instantly decertified, but I’m trying to enjoy myself, getting used to those credits from the serpents, sleeping sixteen hours a day, consuming snacks and fulfilling my role of being entertained. It’s not a bad life though, even kind of a dog’s life, as the old proverb goes, all this hunger and ease.
Michael Chouinard is a British Columbia-based writer with fiction published in print and online. He is due to have a story out in Prairie Fire later this year. He has worked in a warehouse, driven a cab, and done graveyard at a convenience store. Mostly, he’s been a newspaper reporter. He is trying to find a good home for one novel, revising another, and plotting out a third.