Forgive Me, Mr. Doug by Jean Ferruzola

Roberto had to bury the dog before sunrise. He was not a big talker, so he liked the quiet work: the feel of the wooden handle of the shovel pressed against his callused hand as he dug. As he labored in the backyard, his wife and son slept in the house. Nearby, a train rumbled past, the tracks beneath it protesting its heavy load. He kept digging.

The dog had been his idea, one his wife hated. They went back and forth on it for a while:

“It will be good for him,” he said. “A friend.”

“Hector is five,” Elena replied. “Who’s going to be the one walking it?”

“I’ll walk it,” he insisted. “He needs a dog. He needs somebody else there.”

Hector got the dog. That week, Roberto took him to a shelter in town where they looked at rows of forlorn canines. They meandered for some time until Hector stopped suddenly in front of a cage. He took a step forward and peered in, wrapping his little fingers around the links in the fence, Roberto barely managing to squeak out “Careful!” before a pink tongue slipped through and licked Hector’s nose. The boy squealed in delight. He pointed at the dog before him: a short-haired mutt of some kind, sandy in color, with an ear missing.

“He’s missing a piece,” Hector said. “Like me.” He pointed at his own face, where his left eye was gone. Roberto looked between them. The dog looked up at him, panting expectantly.

They took the broken dog home, where Hector named him Mr. Dog. At first, Elena was not pleased at all. She didn’t like the size of him: a boxy, muscly thing, like a walking brick house. But even she came to love the dog—it was hard not to love an uncomplicated thing—and, soon, their house was filled with the sound of Hector’s happy chirps: Mr. Dog, Mr. Dog, Mr. Dog! Whenever the boy uttered the dog’s name in excitement, the words bent out of shape, sounding more like Mr. Doug, until Roberto started calling the dog Doug, and the dog started answering.




Now Doug lay on a towel at his feet, his body limp and broken. In the driveway, the only evidence of what had happened was Roberto’s front bumper, slightly dented from the impact. Doug must’ve gotten out through the fence somehow. The thought of Hector’s impending heartbreak mingled with his anger at Elena, who would say she’d been right and blame him for hurting the boy.

Roberto thought she coddled the boy too much. Hector had been a sick baby. He arrived in the world two months too early, and spent his first weeks of life in a plastic box. Roberto can still conjure him in there now: pink and wormlike, bound to his tubes. Even now that Hector was grown, he still marveled at how such a small, weak thing had the will to live.

As a newborn, an infection spread, and Hector’s eye went with it. For a time, they didn’t know if he would live or die, and while Elena mourned, Roberto did not know what else to do but disappear. One day, he was at her side, and the next, he had shorn up into himself, as if preparing for an incoming hurricane.

Weeks went by. Family and friends came and went. He accepted hugs and flowers, and passed on his regards. But he could not face Elena. Did she blame him? Was it him that carried such grotesque genetic code? He did not feel the warm rush of fatherhood everybody told him about; before him, only new evidence of his inadequacy.

So he left Elena alone in her room for hours at a time, unmoored, too afraid to do anything but retreat. He walked around like a ghost, praying, although he had not prayed in a long time. And after it all passed, there was no great celebration for Hector’s birth, only the relief that he had not succumbed.

When Hector was better, Elena never let him out of her sight. She guarded him like a lioness. At first, he let her. She had earned her right to keep the boy in whatever way she wanted to keep him.

But then the trouble came, and like a new disease, it spread. When he held Hector, she took him away, because he was doing it wrong. When he fed Hector, the spoon found its way into her hands. When he tried to rock him to sleep, she’d tell him to go to bed. “Please, Roberto,” she would say. “Just let me.” It became a kind of mantra in the house: just let me.

He began to forget what it was to hold the soft of his little head, and he bore the absence of it in silence. Roberto was always there, in all ways except the ones he wanted to be.




His work in the yard was interrupted by the sharp, searing pain of a splinter lodging itself beneath his nail. He cursed and let loose the shovel, which hit the ground with a thud. The splinter was large, and his finger had started to bleed.

He turned  to the house, fumbling around in the bathroom for Elena’s tweezers. He tried to act quietly, and quickly. Soon the light would wake Hector, and the morning would begin. When he found them, he plucked the splinter from his nail swiftly, cursing softly once more. As he washed his hands, he glanced at his face in the mirror: wan, worn, and covered in sweat.

Inside the small room, he could tell how the scent of whiskey was still sharp on him, a sweetness turned acrid. Stickier somehow. He opened the cabinet and pulled out mouthwash.

That morning, he’d argued with Elena. “The dog needs to be outside,” he’d said. “We have a yard. There’s no reason to keep him locked up.”

This was not a new fight. They went back and forth about where to keep Doug at night. She wanted him inside, and he wanted the dog to have a choice.

“Something could happen, Roberto.” Elena was unmoved in her opinion.

“Like what?”

She threw her hands up in frustration. “I don’t know,” she said. “Another dog could bite him. He could eat something poisonous. For all we know, a vulture could get him—the point is he could get hurt.”

“You can’t protect him from every little thing,” he shouted. “You have to let him go.” The room fizzed with his anger, and she stared back at him.

After a long silence, she finally spoke. “Do what you want,” she said. “You don’t need my permission.”

Filled with indignation, he installed the dog door connecting the house and yard that very morning. When he left, his anger seemed to froth all around him. He went to work and passed the day at the corner store quietly, making transactions and organizing the shelves. The anger didn’t leave him, and when it seemed like it might fade away it circled back to him like a wave. He was right about the dog, he thought.

At closing time, he found he couldn’t will himself to go home. So he said he’d be late at work, but instead, he went to the bar. There he asked for a whiskey, a drink he used to have as a young man.

In his hometown, they called Roberto the Twister, because of how sharply he could contort himself during matches. He had wrestled since he was a young boy, the slick thud of the mat beneath him as familiar a feeling as his own body. He was a strong boy for his weight class. A real contender. After tournaments, he and his teammates would drink whiskey in the parking lot, exchanging assessments of their challengers. He could not remember a time when he felt more alive than in the moments after the whistle blew.

So he chose whiskey, the taste of it different than he remembered as a boy, not quite as sweet as it’d been, not a promise. It went down hot and hit the bottom of his stomach like an anvil. Still, he asked for another pour, and then another.

Eventually, he could not hold off his homecoming any longer. He drove just a little too fast. He took the turns a little too sharply. And fumbling drowsily with his radio as he shifted toward home, he missed the shape of the dog that had wandered into the road.




The sky began to change hue. Dark purples erupted into the yellowing light of morning on the horizon. There wasn’t much time left. After a few more shovels, the hole in the yard was deep enough. He turned his attention to Doug, lying still beside him. On his collar was tied a little yellow ribbon, a gift from Hector who loved the dog almost as fiercely as the dog loved his boy. It was double-knotted; he remembered marveling at Doug’s patience as Hector fumbled with the ribbon, adjusting and re-adjusting, how remarkably still he was under the hand of the boy. He could not recall seeing anything of greater love than a dog sitting still for his owner.

Roberto leaned down, tucking the towel tight around Doug’s body. He tried to remember what last rites were so that he could give him, but he remembered very little of what he learned in Catholic school. As a boy, he was asked to give confession before his first communion, an act that struck him as deeply embarrassing. He sat silently on the other side of the screen for such a long time that the priest finally said, “I know it’s hard to tell the truth. The only way is to go straight through it.”

He began to cry. He thought of Elena in her hospital room, alone to bear the burden, and he felt the depth of his own shame. He had kept it close for a long while, and the house in which they all lived had become riddled with reminders. The shame lived there too, in the faucet, in the coffee maker, in the trousers he put on for work, hemmed at the feet by the woman he’d let down. Time passed. He got stuck.

There was only one way to go, and it was through. He would tell them what happened. He would bear the brunt of Hector’s broken heart. He would be better than he’d been. As he shoveled the last of the soil on top of their sweet dog—sweating, crying, hands bruised—he remembered the moment Hector was born; wailing and body sticky with life.

After Elena, they handed him the tiny, birdlike body and he uttered a phrase that came from him like a hiccup: “My boy.” The words lived in his heart even after they took him away, passing him to and from doctors, putting him back into his mother’s arms, again and again, ad infinitum: my boy, my boy, my boy.




Jean Ferruzola‘s work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Brevity, Hobart, The Pinch, and others. She lives and writes in Seattle. Find her at



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