March 23: “Ball” by Tara Ison

I don’t have a dog. It’s a sad thing, because I really like dogs, the idea of dogs, the companionship of dogs, how much love they bring to the whole family. I’m not sure why I don’t have a dog, other than my family has a cat—Salami Sandwich—who is a lot like a dog, but in a cat way. We also have a big white rabbit, Peter Rabbit, who we rescued from my younger son’s daycare, who we love, too, even though he kind of stinks. We’ve talked about getting a dog, and I’ve even promised it, but the time has never been right. We’re busy a lot and fear having to take care of something that needs that much care (cats and rabbits don’t need to be taken outside six times a day); we spend time away from home, be it weekends or longer trips. Really, though, we could have gotten a dog a long time ago and we would have figured it out. Dogs are great. Salami, one day, would forgive us.

I had one dog in my lifetime, from when I was nine until I was twenty-three. His name was Corky and he was my best pal. The only reason I got over Corky’s death—his health failed, and rapidly—was that my father died five days later. I was devastated by Corky’s death—I was away at grad school when it happened—but then my dad’s death forced me to move on pretty quickly.  It put things in perspective, to say the least. That was 1997.

My best excuse for not having a dog now is the emotional attachment I know it would involve. Within minutes of bringing that dog home, I’d be hooked. Then that affection would grow for years and years. Maybe we’re not home enough. Maybe we’d piss off the cat. But really, I need to be ready to to give myself over to something like that. It scares me.

Tara Ison goes down a similar—but to be clear, not same—path in the title story from her collection Ball, out last year from Soft Skull. “Ball” is the story of an unnamed woman who, at twenty-five, buys a house and realizes she can finally have a dog. She goes to the pound, thinking she wants a puppy, but when this tiny mixed-breed poodle, apricot-colored, drops a ball at her feet to play, she’s intrigued. The fact the dog, Tess, is house-broken and already fixed appeals to the protagonist, who realizes she has no desire to train a dog, just have one. After a trial period, she falls hopelessly in love with Tess and a little family is formed.

It should be noted, at this point, that Tess has a major obsession, and that’s playing ball, which eventually becomes the capitalized Ball. It’s basic dog stuff—Tess wants a ball thrown to her, every second of the day—and it’s annoying as shit. She’s sweet, but she’s needy. The narrator bends to her whims, but Tess doesn’t know when to quit. Early on, this is an eccentricity. Later, it becomes a major conflict.

The narrator’s love for her pet takes on a weird obsession. It’s not obvious right away, not for a long time. The story jumps ahead several years to a point when the narrator is dating a man, Eric. Soon, her relationship with Eric and her relationship with Tess become entangled. During a very physical sex scene, Tess jumps on the bed for Ball, and when Eric nudges her away with his foot—a nice way of saying he kicks her—the narrator rethinks her relationship with Eric. It makes sense—why would you have anything to do with the guy who kicked your dog—but Ison doesn’t depict it as that simple. The lead-in to the sex scene pits Eric on the couch, amorously scratching Tess’ belly, which, in a roundabout way, turns the narrator on; at the very least, it makes her want that kind of attention from Eric. From that point on, Eric and Tess are always linked, in similarly suggestive ways.

As the story moves forward, the narrator’s little quirks regarding Tess start to add up. In the first paragraph, on the first page, there’s a detail about the narrator examining Tess’ vagina, and it gets pretty descriptive. It’s striking, for sure, but is forgotten for a while, almost a throwaway detail, when the story proceeds more normally, absolutely no animal genital description for many, many pages. Along the way, more subtle gestures toward Tess avalanche, and well before Ison gets us to the climax of her story, we can tell the narrator has an unconventional relationship with her dog. I commend Ison for her patience and admire her guts to carry out her ending, which I was more surprised by than any ending I’ve read for this project this year. I recommend you read “Ball,” for sure, but also recommend you come prepared.

“Ball” is about unnatural obsession, the relationship we have with people, with things. Tess’ relationship to her ball isn’t any different from the narrator’s relationship with Tess, or Eric. Ison points out that love can be very personal, even selfish, especially selfish. It isn’t always healthy and isn’t always controllable. If you can’t put the rubber ball down, it might be better to drop the ball in a Dumpster and move on, no matter how much you love it. Better that than destroy it, or let it destroy you.

I can’t say that reading “Ball” from Ball by Tara Ison has made me want to run out today and get a dog. More likely, I’ll hold off, knowing how I get, how much of myself I’ll give. I will, however, say that Ison is a pretty remarkable discovery for me during Story366, one of the reasons I’m doing this, to find that new voice. Ison is bold and unrelenting and limitless in her ability to tug at emotions. Her fourth book, Ball is one worth investing in.

Tara Ison