The four neighboring houses match the style of their mailboxes: modern black metal, extravagant hammered copper with a lock, willow fishing creel, and discarded plywood slap-dashed into a lopsided box (ours). At the end of the workday, each house lets loose a dog as different as the dwellings. The playmates chases tennis balls and each other, frightening pedestrians, but the tongue-agog and high-tailed dogs are as harmless as teenage boys puffed up in oversized pants, ganged together for hoops.
A sleek coat hugs the biggest dog (a Spitz-Lab mix with a blue-striped tongue), while a thick pelt inflates the smallest (a Husky-Lab mix), so all four reach hip-height by bone or fur. Similar in beer-keg size and their solid, dark coloring, though otherwise as diverse in appearance as their respective mailboxes, all except one falls under the same description by the postal carrier who must traverse their rowdy mix. He scrawls on a stiff card meant for internal post office use:
BIG BLACK DOG!
MEAN! BITES! DO NOT DELIVER IF DOG PRESENT!
The mailman lumps the third Big Black Dog (a purebred Standard Poodle) in with the mongrels, despite its having the nicest house and mailbox. The card travels with our block’s mail to alert substitute carriers, but the mailman accidentally leaves the warning in the Husky’s metal mailbox. The only dog left off the danger list is our mutt, of the same size and harmless disposition as the three Big Black Dogs. But our dog sports a medium-brown coat.
The poodle wears an electric collar that shocks the dog if he barks—he looks perpetually perplexed after strangling out sawed-off yelps, hopping around his yard looking over his shoulder—so the poodle has never so much as mewed at the postal carrier. The poodle rarely joins the mad romping of the three pound pups. But no matter how different his curly coat and well-groomed house, he is Big and Black and lives next door to other Big Black Dogs, so the mailman cannot discriminate between them; he formalizes his fears, and the post office cuts off mail service to all three houses with Big Black Dogs. To be fair, I sometimes have trouble telling our mailmen apart; they’re all male, as white as the neighborhood, and wear identical uniforms. I would think the mailman could differentiate between the distinct mailboxes and houses, if not the dogs, but he typecasts the black pets; the post office orders those with Big Black Dogs to pick up their mail at the post office. Our sleepy block is now filled with wrongly-convicted curs waiting out their sentence behind the sidewalks, pegged because their coats are the wrong color.
Meanwhile, I reach from my front door every afternoon to collect my letters and bills while my neighbors spend their Saturdays waiting in line to collect their week’s worth of mail. The only dog that has actually bitten the mailman is our Chocolate Lab mutt (mixed with a tree stump, most likely, considering his knobby head, lumpy protuberances, and dense intellect). My brown dog didn’t exactly attack the mailman—it looked more like he was jumping up to retrieve the Eddie Bauer catalogue from the carrier’s hand—but fangs met fingers, skin was broken, a blood droplet leaked from a small scrape. After my profuse apologies, we received nary a warning, and mail was delivered next day as usual. My dog doesn’t fit the profile.
The neighborhood canine-klatch reaches a collective decision to suspend doggie play sessions until after daily mail delivery, no matter how late. Mail delivery to the three homes eventually resumes. With summer weather, the Spitz owners leave their front door open with the flimsy screen door closed—not a decision I would make if my dog were on probation, but these affable neighbors are so good-natured as to trust mankind and weather to be kind to mail left in their charming basket; he is Canadian (nice! polite! no gun!), and she, hailing from a Scandinavian kingdom rated the most peaceful country in the world, darkens her hair because she is too blonde. When the postal carrier arrives, the Spitz snarls from inside the house, nose bulging the screen like a slathering poltergeist trying to cross worlds, but the flimsy barrier holds against the typewriter-shaped skull of the beast.
Though both the mailman and the dog keep to their side of the warping mesh every afternoon, the Spitz’s owners find dark speckles on the entryway wall that faces the screen door. They realize that the postal carrier is spraying their dog through the screen! With what? Mace? Pepper spray? They can’t tell. Though fresh spatter appears after each mail delivery, they can’t catch the mailman in the act. One day my neighbor touches the fresh spray and sniffs his finger, though it could potentially burn his fingers or eyes. “Soy sauce!” He deduces that the mailman is squirting his dog with Kikkoman, perhaps with wasabi. Indignant, the easygoing Canuck chases the mailman up the block to confront him. “You’re squirting my dog with soy sauce, eh?!”
The mailman drops his bags, throws up his arms, and protests his innocence. “Man, I’m not spraying your dog with anything!” Our neighbor refuses to believe him and files an official complaint, but the soy sauce spraying continues. Nobody can catch the sneaky mailman red-handed. Quite a feat, since everyone on the block hears his arrival at the Spitz’s house every afternoon, the Spitz erupting in frenzied barks—my daily warning signal to secure my dog since the mailman arrives at my house shortly thereafter, always friendly and courteous, with no suspicious canisters peeking out of his pockets.
The Spitz begins dragging its rear end around like a piece of luggage on a cross-airport haul. Fearing paralyzed limbs as a side effect of the toxic spray, the neighbors drive the dog to the emergency vet clinic, where they learn that their dog has impacted anal glands that need to be what is politely called “expressed,” a common canine condition. This involves a gloved-finger and well-aimed pressure to deflate the swollen gland—a biological whoopee-cushion. I imagine the vet stands as far to the side as possible as the pent-up hound experiences relief. Turns out that the impacted Spitz gets so worked up as he stands at the screen door barking at the mailman that his anal glands “express” themselves. What the neighbor had touched and held to his nose was not soy sauce, but his dog’s expression of animosity towards the prejudicial mailman.
When the spray settles, my dog remains the only actual offender, man or beast, yet the only one not accused of a crime. My dog is not even classified as brown, but as Chocolate. The innocent Big Black Dogs are just plain Black. Not Espresso. Not Porter. Not even, say, Shoyu.