Culture: Stories & Lit
Size matters — or does it?
“I’ve always had big ones,” Marian said.
“But that’s over.”
The volunteer glanced up from her clipboard. “Why?”
“You don’t seem —”
Marian broke in. “Last one was a Rottweiler.” She clenched her teeth to head off tears. “He needed lifting, toward the end. You need to be strong for that. Young. By the time the new one needs that, I’ll be pushing 80.”
The volunteer nodded.
“And don’t tell me to get an older one, or even a middleaged one, so that its time will come before I get decrepit, because I’ve done that before, and won’t do it again now, at my age, and go through the whole death thing again in just a few years. Don’t try to steer me. I know what I want.”
Marian could hear herself, and could hear what the volunteer was thinking about her — Whoa, what a witch — but she just set her jaw in a harder square.
“Give me something small. Fifteen pounds max. No more than two years old. I don’t care if it sheds. Or if it’s not perfectly behaved. I know how to train.”
Another silent communiqué via the volunteer’s arched eyebrow: I bet you do.
Years ago Marian had been turned down by this same shelter, because she didn’t lie on the adoption application as most people undoubtedly did. She had admitted that her fence was only four feet tall instead of the required six.
Rules were rules. That was understandable. But the dog she had selected, the one she had visited for six hours over three consecutive days, might not have understood why she left him behind.
This time, if they were going to turn her down, she wanted to know up-front.
“I’m sorry, but right now we don’t have any dogs of that size.”
Ha, just as she’d expected. A polite way to say Get out.
Marian shook her head. “I find that hard to believe.”
“The smaller ones go quickly, in general. Many people think they’re easier to care for, so — ”
“I don’t think they’re easier to care for,” said Marian. “I know they are. It’s common sense.”
While Marian foraged for sarcasm in the reply, the girl went on. “We’ll give you a list of small-dog rescue groups. You might even find a purebred through the breed-specialty rescues.”
“I don’t care about purebred. I’ve told you what I want.”
“Yes,” the volunteer said. “You have. I’ll walk you to the front desk so they can help you.”
Help, thought Marian, was nothing but a word at this place.
Ordinarily she would have walked out and not bothered with any more of these people’s double-talk. But while Karl was ill, she had developed a bladder infection. The doctor said because of the stress, but what did he know? It had more to do with neglecting to drink enough water, she was sure. In any case, even after a week of antibiotics she still had to visit the restroom constantly.
“It won’t be so bad,” someone murmured as Marian walked in. “It’ll work out fine.” Sobbing followed. Then the sound of panting. Marian stepped back and checked the sign on the door. It was indeed the ladies’ room. A whine escaped one of the stalls.
“Shh,” said the voice. “It’ll be fine, baby. Everything will be OK.” Whoever it was blew her nose. Marian bent down and saw, under the stall door, two feet and four paws. Large paws. She entered a stall. While she sat there, the feet and the large paws walked by and left.
Karl’s paws had been the biggest most people had ever seen. It was one of the things she enjoyed about him — his size and the ability of that to fool everybody into thinking he was dangerous. Rottweilers could be dangerous, of course. So could Chihuahuas. She had always felt that she herself would have been more dangerous than Karl, had the need ever arisen. He trusted people.
Once, she had come home from work and found him snoozing in a patch of sun on the patio, at the feet of a tall, white-haired man who stood very still. It took her several minutes to recognize the man as Joel, her second husband, someone she hadn’t seen in over a decade and Karl had never met.
Technically, Karl could have ripped her ex limb from limb — with some justification, since Joel had come to ask for money. Joel had recognized this, but too late, after he’d trespassed into her backyard without having noticed the Rottweiler in it. Luckily for him, aggression wasn’t that dog’s forte.
Karl had other skills. He sat quietly while she strapped on his safety harness in the car. He excavated tunnels three feet deep in pursuit of gophers, but never in the lawn or among her beloved camellias. When in the mood, he fetched the newspaper from just inside the front gate, which, despite frequent complaints, was as far as the delivery boy’s arm could throw. And every evening Karl curled his giant frame into a tidy ball to nap on the ottoman, leaving just enough room for Marian’s feet, keeping them warm while she read in the chair.
Marian smiled. Then her eyes stung. She yanked a length of toilet paper off the roll and swabbed at them.
While washing her hands, she saw that her eyeliner had run, leaving streaks down each cheek. It took forever to clean them off with the shelter’s cheap paper towels. Couldn’t they spring for stronger ones? You’d think they would, given that probably all animal shelter restrooms doubled as crying rooms.
She came out just wanting to go home. As she reached the front door of the shelter, she heard a whine, and looked back.
A large dog was there, at the counter. He sat next to a girl of no more than 18 or 19. Same feet, same paws from the restroom.
“Breed?” asked the woman behind the counter.
The girl said, “Irish Wolfhound mix, I think.”
“Reason for surrender?”
For a long moment the girl didn’t answer.
“Sorry, but I need to write something here.”
The girl nodded. “Money.”
“Financial hardship,” the counter clerk edited. “Age?”
“He’s eight, maybe. I’m not sure. When I found him, the vet said he was probably six, and that was a couple of … a couple of years — ” Her voice broke.
“Let’s go into an office,” the clerk said softly, and stepped around the counter to touch the girl’s arm, “where it’s more — ”
“No. I can’t stay. I just… He won’t be…” The girl shut her eyes, then looked straight at the clerk. “You won’t put him down, right?”
“As long as Buzz is adoptable, we’ll keep looking to find him a home.” The girl nodded. She looked at the dog. “I have to go now, Buzz. I have to go.” She knelt. The dog melted into her arms, a spot he must have filled a thousand times before. His colossal shaggy head rested on her shoulder. His mouth opened in a panting grin. Marian noticed how white his teeth looked, not bad for an eight-year-old.
The girl stood up and fished something from her shoulder bag. “His toothbrush. His teeth were bad when I found him. As long as I keep them clean — brush every night — he does great.”
She set the toothbrush on the counter, then walked out.
The clerk, the dog and Marian watched her go. Then the clerk stroked Buzz’s head, took up the leash and led him away.
Marian saw a donation jar half full of coins on the counter. “Small Change,” said the sappy pink handmade sign over it, “comes from Big Hearts.”
Her heart wasn’t feeling big. It had been attacked, she felt, by all of this — the girl, the dog, this whole place. She had to get out.
In her laundry room, Marian folded a basket of towels, then the last of the blankets from Karl’s bed. He’d gone through two changes of them almost every day for those last months. Carrying him outside umpteen times a day, with the towel wrapped around his belly, hadn’t always prevented accidents. Her back still ached.
If that volunteer couldn’t understand that older people had to be careful about what kind of dog they got, she was an idiot. Or maybe people these days didn’t nurse old dogs. They just dumped them, like that girl and her big Wolfhound cross.
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, Marian’s throat caught. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt ready to burst. What were the symptoms of a heart attack? She tried to remember. A few weeks ago, while Karl was ill, she called the doctor about a fainting spell. Stress, he said, and asked her how much sleep she was getting. That was his answer for everything — stress.
But she didn’t have the pains in the arms or jaw or any of the other things the doctor had listed, just the awful fullness in the chest. With nothing more than that for warning, she exploded into tears. She stood there over the dryer, unable to stop.
Was this about Karl? There had been a good deal of crying about him already.
No. Now it wasn’t about him. She felt shock, along with a sharp stab of guilt. Disloyalty. It wasn’t about Karl at all. This was about that dog. The one at the shelter. The first impulsive thing Marian had ever done was marry Brian, lead singer in a band called The Needles, at age 18, and that had turned out so poorly that it had also been her last impulsive move. She sat in her car, waiting for a break in the rain, wondering if something was happening to her. Maybe she really had had a small stroke while caring for Karl, or a heart attack that morning in the laundry room with the shortness of breath and the crying. At her age she was not too young for dementia, either.
Otherwise, why would she be here, back at the shelter?
Inside, she wore her sunglasses and kept the hood of her jacket up, in case she ran into the volunteer from yesterday. The chaos in the kennels made her head spin. Bark after bark banged against her ears. Dogs flung themselves at the bars, yelling all manner of things at her: Let me out! When are my people coming back? Do you have any food? And at each other: If not for these bars I’d kill you! Do you want to play? Hey, are you in heat?
Maybe she should get a cat.
It seemed somewhat storybook, when she thought about it later, that the one she had come for would be at the very end of the kennels. That she almost turned around and left just before she got to that last run. That he would be silent. That he would be in a corner, despondent, and wouldn’t look at her when she whispered his name.
She squatted. Pain shot through one of her knees, so she hauled herself back up, grabbing onto the bars. When she looked up again he was there in front of her.
No wag. No grin. Just a tentatively sniffing nose — cautious interest. And he was bigger than she remembered. Maybe it wasn’t the same dog.
But he had the same outsized head and amber eyes. Same well-groomed, shaggy gray coat, same stub of a tail. And his name printed on the run’s card.
The day after she’d adopted Karl, from a neighbor who was moving, she’d gotten her handyman to add two feet of mesh to the top of her fence, figuring there must be good reasons why the shelter demanded that height. Now she could honestly answer the adoption questionnaire with that fact, plus the fact that she had no children under the age of five, or of any age, and that her dogs always lived indoors. But maybe, since she’d last seen that application over a decade ago, they’d added more questions.
She bent over, ignoring the ache in her back, and said the dog’s name again. His plate-sized ears perked up.
The light color of his eyes made his gaze eerie, but she liked that. It would scare people.
He sat, which caused his head to lift, making him look even taller.
He kept that intense yellow gaze on her.
“On the thin side, but that’s healthier for you larger fellows, isn’t it?”
The head a little beyond proportion, but from the neck down, what magnificent lines. A broad chest tapering to a narrow, athletic waist and muscular hips. He wore his age well.
“Are you a good boy?” she asked.
That, finally, brought a small wag of the stub.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
Suddenly Buzz jumped up, making Marian take a startled stumble backward. He planted his mammoth paws on the bars, almost above her head, and let out the smallest, silliest, most frustrated yip.
Marian laughed. “All right then. Should I go see what can be done about getting you out of here?”
In line at the counter, Marian felt a sense of unreality, as if she were someone else there waiting to adopt that dog. Exactly the kind of dog she had not wanted. Things seemed disjointed — the man in front of her scribbling a grocery list, the yowling of a cat in a carrier atop a desk — all like a TV show you were only half-watching while you balanced your checkbook.
She imagined herself walking with Buzz. A cold, foggy morning. The kind when she hated to exercise, being uncomfortable about the things she couldn’t see, but feeling safe with Buzz. As she had with Karl.
Herself and Buzz on the ferry to Montauk, where she and Karl spent a month every summer in a little cabin. Now that she’d retired from the phone company, they could go for the whole summer.
A volunteer — a different one than yesterday’s — gave her the interview, and in a matter of minutes, she sat in a small outdoor enclosure.
Although the rain had stopped, the ground remained soaked. Buzz seemed careful about getting his paws wet. A good sign. The girl must have kept him indoors. He nosed around, made his mark on a fence post, then came to her.
“Hello again,” she said.
He sat. She held out her palm. He sniffed, then laid his cheek on it, and slid it up to his ears.
“Oh, so you like your ears rubbed?” Marian obliged.
She noticed then how white his muzzle was, and his prominent spine, and the slight milky glaze over his eyes.
There were his eight years, after all. Maybe more.
At Montauk, he could swim, if he wanted to, though Karl never did. It was good exercise for older dogs, she had read.
Buzz’s head whipped up. Marian followed his gaze. Behind her, just outside the fence, stood a girl. His girl.
In less than a second, he was pawing at the gate. The girl opened it, and Buzz flew to her, nearly knocking her flat.
A volunteer hurried over. “You OK?”
Buzz had sat the girl on the ground to wash her face. “I’m here,” she said, laughing and crying simultaneously, “to get my dog.”
Married to Brian, Marian had lost a fair amount of hearing. This came from attending all his concerts in a futile effort to prevent him from picking up groupies. Later, married to Joel, the losses had been less permanent — her savings, her credit, the jewelry he’d pawned. Over the years, she had recovered those and more.
Most losses, in fact, could be recovered. Even the hearing she had somewhat restored by developing the ability to read minds. Not telepathy, just observation. Expressions. Gestures. The smallest things could say a lot.
While the girl and the shelter manager spoke, Marian sat outside the office, listening to their faces. The manager felt the girl was lying about having found a job overnight. And about how she could afford to pay the fee that the shelter would require, out of her savings. The girl in fact was lying. She needed the dog. With Buzz, she would find a way to make it. It had been a panicky mistake to give him up.
In the confusion earlier, someone had handed Buzz’s leash to Marian. Beside her now, he quivered. He panted in short, anxious bursts. Everything in him attuned to the girl, waiting. The manager studied the girl, too. Then she looked at Marian.
Some losses, you couldn’t recover. Not love. Too delicate. Prone to all manner of injury.
Not deaths. Those were permanent. There would never be another Karl. And he, Marian decided, would be her last big dog.
At the front door of the shelter, Marian watched Buzz’s mincing steps through the rain and the parking lot puddles. He wouldn’t have wanted to swim at Montauk.
He leaped into the girl’s battered sedan. The girl dried him with a towel, then used it on herself, and got in beside him.
The rain kept up. Dogs came and went — volunteers exercising them, filling the lobby with the smell of damp fur. None of them small. But some not very big. One put a warm muzzle in her palm and wet paws on her knee.
After the girl drove away, Marian found a chair. She opened her purse.
To fit her check into the jar under that sappy sign, she had to fold it up. The slot wasn’t big enough, having been made only for small change.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A call for improving our etiquette with older dogs.
Like everyone else in a society loudly lamenting a decline in civility, I recognize there are new breaches of etiquette every minute. On any typical day, cell phones alone account for the rudeness factor going off the charts.
But I believe there is one type of impolite behavior among adult humans that goes pretty much unchecked. I’ve been guilty of it myself and slinked away feeling really stupid. It just isn’t something that makes it into the etiquette books and it apparently isn’t even worth Miss Manners’ fleeting consideration.
I am referring to the blunt, utterly uncensored and often just plain mean things people say to us about our dogs (by “us” I mean dog people). My close friend Pam has a 12-yearold German Shepherd who is visibly aging. So are the rest of us, human and canine, but to what person would you ever be so crude as to say the following: “Is that your mother? Wow, she looks awful. She can hardly move!” Yet this is the unsolicited blubbering my friend endures from strangers, all day long, about her old dog. I empathize because I’ve been through this three times, beginning with our family Beagle, Sam, who lived to be nearly 17, mostly out of spite.
“How old is he?” People would ask this unrelentingly about my now-departed Irish Setter, Amos. I didn’t mind telling them that he was 12 or 13. “Wow. They don’t live much longer than that, do they?” How tacky is this?
But it gets worse. When my big, hairy mutt, Louie (we called him our “Bavarian crotch-smeller”) was old and frail, someone once asked me, “Have you thought about putting him down?” First of all, that’s kind of like asking a woman in her 40s (this also happened to me), “Have you ever thought about having children?” “Gee, there’s an idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” When your dog is old and sick, the end is pretty much all you can think about. Your heart is breaking and you’re preparing yourself to come to that decision in a way that spares your dog unnecessary suffering while giving yourself time to feel as peaceful as possible about letting him go.
People assume they can say anything they like about a stranger’s dog. While they’d (I hope) refrain from saying, “Excuse me, but it looks like your husband is losing his hair,” when Louie was suffering from Cushing’s disease, strangers constantly took it upon themselves to point out his hair loss. “Do you know your dog is losing his hair?” And what can you do except mumble, um, yes, this is my dog, he’s part of my family, I’m nearly always with him, I bathe him, I brush him, he sleeps with us, and throughout most, if not all, of these activities, I am looking at him! And it’s always too late when you think of how you could’ve said, “Do you know you have a wart on your chin?”
Pam is at the point where she dreads walking her dog in public because she knows passersby will make insensitive comments she can’t bear to hear. Out in the world she is thoughtful and tender enough not to remind everyone she encounters that they are mortal. Like the rest of us, she can tell when a person’s on his or her last legs, but she keeps herself from saying, “Gee, you sure are slowing down” or asking the person’s daughter, “So how long do people in your family tend to live?” When approaching people like my friend, it helps to remind oneself that she knows her dog is old. She knows it every waking second of every day.
The last years and months we share with our geriatric dogs are among the most bittersweet times in dog lovers’ lives. We know, from the moment we choose these guys as puppies or meet their limpid stares at the animal shelter, that our hearts will be torn apart some day. What makes it so much worse is that the older they get, the sweeter they get, and when they reach absolute critical sweetness—you simply cannot love them any more than you already do—they grow completely exhausted and die. So a person patiently coaxing an old dog on his increasingly shrinking route is someone who could benefit from a little compassionate restraint. Like a simple hello for the owner, or a tender pat on the head for the doggie emeritus.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Definitive Essay
~ 1 ~
When I was a kid, I loved a song by Pete Seeger, the title of which I can’t recall, but it had this refrain: “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.” I played that record until the needle on my phonograph wore down to a nub. The song was a call-and-response for the human body — Seeger would sing, “You put your right foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do”; “You put your left foot out,” etc. Oh, that song was irresistible! Nowadays, although I’m in my mid-50s and my step-kids are grown, I still sing it. And all I can say is that my dog loves me for it. She gets me, my Labrador girl. She dances right along.
~ 2 ~
Her name is “Nira,” my Labrador. She’s a guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. She’s a light yellow Lab with honey-colored ears, and she tilts her head from side to side when I sing. She loves the Pete Seeger song, but she’s OK with almost anything. I could sing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” and she’d think it was a good development. This isn’t because she’s naïve or smitten. Her good cheer is a function of the canine genome. Dogs are happy in the morning. They are happy in ways that your spouse and your children are not.
~ 3 ~
“Why,” you ask, “are dogs happy in the morning?” You, good reader, are smart, and you’d like some empirical evidence. You’d like it if I wrote something like this: “Studies at the Uppsala Institute for Canine Human Acculturation have shown that dogs have a diurnal endorphin release co-determined by a gene, a doggy gene that pre-dates human agriculture.” (I like this. It makes good sense.) But the truth is that dogs are predators, and all predators wake up happy After all, it’s a whole new day of hunting and eating! Oh yes! Oh yes!
~ 4 ~
Back in the age of Aristotle, dogs saw that those humans who got up early and were disposed to singing were the people who had “leftovers.” Aristotle would throw on his stained toga and do a skippy dance because he had cold moussaka in the Agora. There was also calamari under the caryatids. O, look for the singing men in the whirling bed sheets, doggies!
~ 5 ~
I am telling the truth. Nowadays if you write nonfiction and tell the truth, readers are liable to think you’re pulling their legs. Nonetheless, dogs love us when we sing at sunrise. They know that cold pizza is in the offing. And since we’re on the subject of nonfiction, let me add that this is the point in the essay where a writer is most likely to lose his or her readers. Many think this dicey moment occurs at the beginning, but really it comes right now. This is because the reader thinks she’s got the point and that’s it. But in the name of all dogs, I challenge you to read on!
~ 6 ~
Dogs are not shallow. Dogs are way too sensitive to be short- sighted and small-minded. So yes, they love our cold spanakopita, but they also love our vocalizations. How do I know this? Because I’ve submitted the matter to the scientific method. Now admittedly, my test is too small to warrant a press conference. In fact, I’ve only tested the matter with my own dog and a neighbor’s Poodle. (I’m still seeking funds for a larger study from the National Science Foundation.)
~ 7 ~
Now, the Poodle next door (a big Poodle, an American Standard, I think) has never received any leftovers from my hands. Nor has she received any evening leftovers, just to be exact. Picture me in the wet grass, pre-dawn, the houses still dark, picture me dancing and singing to the fluffy, white Poodle I’ll call “Willow”— picture me singing, “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.”
~ 8 ~
Yes! Willow loves the song! She bounces! She whirls like a cyclone. She barks in joyous harmonization! Cock-adoodle- doodle baby! It’s almost sunrise! It’s time to savor the yips and yaps of the mystical appearance of all living things! Yes, it’s dark out here. If my neighbors saw me (or if my wife saw me for that matter), well, they’d probably call the cops. I dance like an unseemly, arthritic clown. You put your left foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do. But look! I’ve proven that dogs love us for our songs, not for a promise of pizza. And because we’re simpatico —happy to be awake on this rare, blue planet — we are wondrous, holy fools together.
~ 9 ~
So it’s the ecstasy of living, and of singing about it, that dogs love. You see, dogs love us for the right reason.
~ 10 ~
You can’t get a cat to dance without a string, no matter what you say.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Or, how I became a certified dog person
Four years ago, I was in the dairy section of a supermarket when my cell phone rang. My then-23-year-old daughter was on the other end. “Which would make you angrier,” she asked. “If I told you I was in jail or if I told you I bought a puppy?”
“How long would you be in jail for?” I said. “Dad, she’s the cutest puppy in the world,” Kate said.
I stood and stared at the different brands of cottage cheese on display and knew the plans my wife and I had made in anticipation of having a life of our own again, needing to care for no one other than each other, had just vanished. We were not those parents who dreaded the empty nest. Quite the opposite. We embraced it.
Don’t get me wrong, we loved our two kids, doted on them, gave them the best home and education we could. But now, we were ready to move on. Their lives as adults were about to begin and ours were ready to re-emerge after more than two decades of parent/teacher conferences; flighty babysitters; play dates; teenage tantrums; countless drives to an endless array of birthday, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations; weeks devoted to college tours and applications; flights to and from cities we would never have visited had our kids not been in school there; meals with parents we would have never met and probably will never see again.
All of that now sat in our rearview mirror. We were free to travel, sell the house and move back to the city, eat in restaurants we had read about, go to the theater and to concerts, get hockey season tickets or just sit on our favorite chairs, reading or viewing a rented movie. It was there waiting for us.
A week later, Willow came to visit. She was then a four-month-old miniature Australian Shepherd with an awkward body but the cutest eyes and warmest disposition. Kate was working as a production assistant in the film business and had landed a job on a Bruce Willis movie that required her to work 18- hour days for the next three months. There was no way for her to take care of a puppy.
Soon, I was walking Willow several times a day, learning to house-train a dog, something I’d never had a desire to learn. I played ball with her in the back yard and was amazed at how she easily adapted to the game of running and fetching, never tiring, just loving the idea of playing, always very eager to please. As much as Willow and I bonded, she had grown completely attached to my wife, Susan. Willow followed her everywhere she went in the house and ran to the nearest window whenever she ventured out to head for work or run a few errands. And Susan, an even more reluctant dog owner than I was, never seemed happier than when Willow was by her side, sitting next to her while she worked at her computer, or curling up on her lap. Within weeks, the two were inseparable.
Two days after the movie wrapped, Kate came by to tell us the great news. No, she wasn’t taking Willow back. She had been accepted in the Teach for America program and would be gone for two years.
Willow was now our family dog.
By this time, our house had sold and the Manhattan apartment was ready for us to move into, and we found ourselves with a very active dog in need of more exercise than an Olympic athlete living in the city. What to do? The solution was found in Biscuits & Bath, a seven-day-aweek full-service dog gym. We signed Willow up and reserved weekends for trips to our home in Bridgehampton, where I quickly discovered she was a natural swimmer and would spend hours in the pool doing laps or chasing a tennis ball. “Well,” I said to Susan one night, Willow curled up between us, “this will work. She’s good company. The cat doesn’t seem to know she’s here, and we have a lot of Kate’s friends willing to housesit if we want to go anywhere.”
Besides, I had really grown to like being with Willow. There was a serenity about her that brought with it a relaxing comfort. I appreciated the rare feeling of unconditional love, of how Willow cared for us, wanted to be with us as much as we wanted to be with her. I felt better knowing she was around. She was a good friend to have, even if I did need to ice my arm on some nights after a long day of ball tossing in the yard. The call from my son, then in his senior year at Vanderbilt, came a few days before the end of fall semester about two years later. “I got a puppy,” he said.
“What’s his name?” was all I could manage to ask.
“Not sure,” Nick said.
“How about Gus?”
When my son was a boy and went through the gamut of lizards, gerbils and other caged rodents kids seem to acquire, Nick named each of them Gus in one form or another—Gus, Gus/Gus, Gus, Jr., Gus the Third. Why break the pattern now? It also seemed the perfect name for an Olde English Bulldog.
Nick finished college, landed a job within a month of graduation, and we were once again confronted with one of our kids having to work long hours and a puppy in need of care. So, Gus packed his bags and moved into our apartment, along with me, my wife, Willow and Casper, the oldest living cat in America.
Gus is the exact opposite of Willow, John Belushi to her Audrey Hepburn. Where she is gentle, he is rough. Where she is refined and shy, he is hyper and eager for action. He is big, strong and stubborn and pouts if he doesn’t get his way. In less than three days, he knew he had me and I knew my life would never be the same.
We signed Gus up for Biscuits & Bath and he took to the playtime like a pro, never tiring, eager to run and rumble with the other dogs. The crew at B&B grew to love him almost as much as we did and forgave him any indiscretion. Gus was a charmer, born to please, never giving the slightest indication he had done anything wrong.
In Bridgehampton, I put up a fence along part of the yard, allowing both dogs freedom to run at will: Willow chasing tennis balls, Gus barking and chugging the length of the fence trying to scare away the deer and the rabbits surrounding the property.
I can’t say it’s been easy. Gus suffers from skin allergies and gets a medicine bath once a week and injections to keep the problem under control. Willow has a sensitive stomach. Even with pet insurance, it’s a hefty freight.
My wife and I have not traveled much since we got the dogs, certainly not as often as we had planned. We leave dinner parties early because we need to get home to the dynamic duo. Our living room furniture will never be the same and we make sure not to invite non-dog lovers over for a meal.
When we drive to and from Bridge - hampton, Gus takes the front seat, next to me. Willow rides in the back, snuggled next to my wife. The sight of that always brings a smile to my face. Gus loves to look out the window, eyes taking in the action, on the watch, reminding me of an active street cop on the job. Where Willow is indifferent to the outside world, content to keep her inner circle close to her side, Gus wants to know what he can about anyone who ventures near, earning the visitor either a low growl or an invitation to pet his head. He looks fierce but is gentle as an infant. Willow is the one with the temper, losing patience with anyone who comes between her and the pack she feels her duty to protect. Gus is always up for a party. Willow prefers quiet nights at home.
And they are crazy about one another. I feel as close to Gus as I do to any person in my life. I trust him as much as he trusts me, which is to say completely. He is a good friend and great company. He has changed my life and I am convinced it’s for the better.
I have become what I never thought I would, what an old friend (his wife bred Neapolitan Bull Mastiffs) used to call with affection “those people.” I am a dog person, certified. I would rather spend a night in front of the TV, Gus asleep on one corner of the couch, Willow no more than six inches from my wife on the other end, the two inseparable, both at ease, relaxed and happy. The outside world nothing more than an annoying distraction.
This is my family now—Susan, Gus, Willow and Casper. They are my world, my friends, the ones I turn to for comfort, reassurance and love. Four years ago, I could never have imagined my life with a dog, any dog.
Now, I can’t think of a day without Gus and Willow in my company. They have my loyalty and respect and I have theirs and, living in uncertain times in an uncertain world, we give each other much needed comfort and reassurance.
They have won my heart.
And my life without them would be a sad and empty one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lessons from an elderly Afghan
I kneel in front of the kennel that holds my first dog of the day. Sweetie, an Afghan Hound, peers out from a rear corner,where she’s arranged her reddishbrown body into a deceptively small heap.Her large eyes glow with the iridescence of glaucoma. I’m nearly three months and 100 dogs into grooming school and you’d think I’d no longer be nervous, but my trembling hands give me away as I fumble with the kennel’s latch. I wonder if Sweetie notices? An index card clipped to the kennel lists her age as 14 on her first visit nearly a year ago. It also says she’s deaf. I’ll just have to let my hands do the talking, I think as I reach in and slip a blue nylon leash around her neck and gently coax her out of the kennel.
Like many of the dogs I’ve groomed during my time as a student, Sweetie seems nervous as we cross the brightly lit classroom, passing an overweight Lab and a pair of sablecolored Sheltie sisters and side-stepping to avoid a huge Akita.When I gather her willowy body into my arms to lift her onto my table, I’m surprised by how light she is. I set her down and her toenails click as she scrabbles for purchase on the pebbly surface. Tethered to a table high in the air, she’s unsure. Conspicuous. In full view. Just like I feel most days amidst my mostly younger classmates.
Sweetie crouches into a “down” position, shaking like a leaf. “It’s okay, girl.” Forgetting she can’t hear, I reassure her over the din of barking dogs and fussing groomers as I review the instructions: Sweetie/Afghan Hound/4- strip/Smooth Crown/Clean Face.
I run my fingers through the soft, ruffled fur between her ears that gives her a distinct resemblance to Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend. I continue petting her while waiting for her initial wave of fear to pass, taking a few deep breaths to calm myself as well. Spread out along the countertop behind me is my array of equipment: various styles of combs and brushes, an undercoat rake, a shedding blade, a stripping knife, two types of nail cutters, several pairs of gleaming stainless-steel scissors, and two types of motorized clippers with a wide assortment of clipper blades and guard combs—all razor-sharp blades and pointed teeth, all menacing-looking to various degrees. Please don’t let me hurt this dog, I think for the thousandth time since beginning grooming school. My mantra for the duration.
When she stops shaking, we begin. I clean the insides of her ears and clip her nails. Then, bracing one of her legs at a time firmly between my elbow and rib cage, I carefully remove the hair from the bottom of each foot with my clipper, gently working it into the V of the large pad at the back of each paw to remove the excess hair that traps dirt and debris.Although thin, for an old dog, Sweetie stands well.
I find myself trying to imagine each dog’s story. Some are puppies, in for the first time. Others come from rescue groups. A few have standing monthly appointments.Running my hands over Sweetie to check for troublesome irritations or growths, I wonder about the circumstances of this dog—a now 15-year-old Afghan whose first grooming at the school came just a year ago. The search turns up a single wart on her throat and some matted fur behind each ear. But those jutting hipbones! The delicate tendons running down the backs of her legs! You’ll just have to be extra careful, I tell myself as I attach the #4-blade to my clipper.
Eyes glued to Sweetie’s thin body, I run the buzzing clipper through her inch-long fur in long strokes.Keeping her skin pulled taut with my free hand, I clip down her back and over her rib cage, all the while envisioning an Afghan in full coat—arguably the glamour girl of the canine world. I picture luxuriant locks cascading from a long-limbed frame as small mounds of red-brown hair fall soundlessly to the table.We’re taught not to second-guess the owners —our clients—but sometimes that’s hard.
Perhaps for reasons outside of Sweetie’s control, she’s been passed on to a new owner? Or perhaps she’s owned by an older person who can no longer handle the intensive brushing needed to keep up her longer coat? Possible scenarios chase one another through my mind as I move on to untangle the mats knotting the silky fur behind her ears. Preliminaries complete, we cross the narrow hallway into the bathing room, where a dozen high-velocity blow dryers drone in the background. The earthy scent of damp dog envelops us as I whisk my charge into an open tub, securing the plastic safety cable around her neck before turning on the water.We look on as a chorus line of wet dogs high step and twirl atop a row of oval drying tables, dodging the streams of air rushing from cone-shaped nozzles wielded by their groomers. The smaller of the Sheltie sisters—assigned to one ofmy classmates—barks furiously, while the larger one—assigned to another—makes little snapping bites at the nozzle. Both double-coated dogs are nearly dry already! As usual, I’m off to a slower start than my classmates. Sweetie’s iridescent eyes fix on mine while we wait for the icy water pouring from the water wand to warm.
All dogs look soulful when their faces are wet, and Sweetie is no exception.With the pads of my fingers, I work oatmeal shampoo into her wet fur and down her twig-like legs, gingerly lifting one foot at a time to massage the creamy soap between her toes. “This shampoo is good for your skin, girl,” I tell her, again forgetting she can’t hear. One tub over, the Akita shudders vigorously and flying water soaks the back of my thin smock. Sweetie, however, stands perfectly still, as though the bubbly lather she’s wearing is as familiar as an old terrycloth robe. It’s partly physics—old dogs can’t shake like younger dogs. Or perhaps, like my childhood dog Queen, Sweetie has simply grown into her calmness. I rinse the smooth planes of her head and her bony body, imagining a younger,wilder Sweetie racing alongside a gangly, bicycle-riding girl and her baseball-playing brother.
I carry her swaddled in a towel to the waist-high tabletop of a large drying cage, blotting dripping water from both of us before turning on the wall-mounted dryer at half-velocity to get her used to its raspy hum.Wisps of downy undercoat float through the humid air like cottonwood. This part is almost relaxing, but any minute I expect my teacher to make her rounds and shout in a voice loud enough to carry over the sound of the dryers,“How much longer,Denise?”Embarrassed, I’ll have no idea how to answer.
At 45, after a successful career in another field, I find it frustrating to know so little. I keep waiting to see new skills grow. Instead, I feel inept. Clumsy. Interminably slow. Sweetie stands patiently as I increase the dryer’s velocity, a sharp contrast to the Akita, now two stations away. He pulls violently against his tether, growling, biting aggressively at the dryer nozzle while his frustrated groomer—one of the newer students— scolds him. The metal pole he’s tethered to begins to bend. “You might want to try cage-drying him,” I suggest, pointing out the empty cage available underneath Sweetie’s table.
As Sweetie’s fur dries, it’s looking fluffier. Shinier.When she’s completely dry, I repeat the clipping process, backcombing between passes. I try to keep an even pressure on the clipper, overlapping each stroke slightly as though I’m mowing a lawn. Just as I’m ready to move to her legs—a difficult part— Sweetie suddenly lists dramatically. Like an uprooted tree, her entire weight presses into me and I feel her heart beating wildly against my shoulder. Setting the clipper aside, I’m aware of the Akita now in the crate beneath her banging his powerful body repeatedly against the metal bars. With all of my worrying, I hadn’t even heard him! Poor Sweetie …she must feel the violence directly beneath her.
I wrap my arms around the terrified dog, making a conscious attempt to slow my breathing, letting her feel my heartbeat, which is so slow and steady it surprises me. Eventually, she relaxes and rights herself, and I finish the clipping, moving onto the scissor work. I trim around her feet. I brush out her ears and tail, scissoring stray ends.When it’s time for the clean face—new for me (and truly scary)—I call the teacher. She does one side, using a #7 blade against the grain, cutting the hair to a sixteenth of an inch, and miraculously, I do the other! Sweetie trusts me to run the buzzing clipper under her eye and down the bridge of her long nose, under her chin and over her muzzle, leaving her face as smooth as a peach. With my teacher nodding her approval, I step back to assess my work.
Under the bright lights, Sweetie’s short auburn fur shimmers like velvet. Her clean face dominated by those large glowing eyes is beautifully expressive. I smile broadly, gazing at her, and I swear I see Sweetie—like some lovely flower unfolding new petals toward the sun— stretching her old but still-elegant frame to new heights.
Culture: Stories & Lit
At our local humane society, most dogs seem to fall into one of two equally pitiable categories: those who sit cowering in the back corners of their cages, and those who lunge at the chain link with a fierceness infused with fear. But Addie was different; she was sitting dead center in her cage, just watching. Before I came there as a client, I’d been an employee of this particular humane society, and so I was granted the privileges of the initiated, like the right to unclasp cages and visit up close and personal with any dog I liked.
I’d considered a handful of dogs by that point—taken them out on leashes to the lawn in front of the shelter, thrown tennis balls in the gravel-filled run. Each time, I tried to convince myself that I was feeling something akin to what I’d felt toward the dog I’d grown up with, because all of these dogs so obviously needed to make their way to permanent loving homes. But something inside told me to wait, told me to trust that I would know when I met The One.
The tag on the cage informed me that Addie was a Lab and Rottweiler mix, about six months old. To look at her quickly, there is nothing to suggest she’s anything more than a purebred Lab, but if you know what to look for, the Rottweiler is unmistakable. It’s in her short muzzle, her muscular build and the deep, loud bark she uses so infrequently that each time I hear it, I’m taken by surprise, amazed at the volume contained within such a normally quiet creature.
But it’s also in other things, things I wouldn’t realize were traits of the breed until I got to know more Rottweilers over the years and discovered that they are known for their docile manner. That they like to sit or stand on your feet, or curl up on your lap as though a fraction of their true size. That they are as loyal and true as any dog could be.
When I entered Addie’s cage, she barely moved, just calmly followed me with her big brown eyes. I sat down next to her, looking out in the same direction as she was, toward the whitewashed cinder- block wall of the shelter. And here is the moment that seems almost unbelievably sweet, even to those who aren’t “dog people,” even to me when I think about it after all these years. As we sat, serenely staring out at nothing, Addie leaned her head toward me until it came to rest in the curve between my shoulder and my neck. And there it stayed. In that moment, it was clear to both of us that we’d found our home.
When the Dog Yawns, Sleep Follows
Getting catty over cats — jealous even — is not our intention. But it seems like every really juicy superstition, every prickles-on-the-back-ofthe- neck story, every bit of old-fashioned, been-around-forever folklore is in the cat’s corner, leaving dogs out in the cold, pawing at the back door, dolorously.
Exhibit A: A black cat crossing your path at midnight stirs up all kinds of heck. Forget animal superstitions; this is probably one of the best known of all superstitions, ever. And we’ve been a mite jealous about the whole thing. Not just the mystery and allure and glamour of inspiring such an oft-told tale, but that it is hard to even think up a dog-based superstition when put to it.
Being fond of folklore, and being fond of pups, we went nosing about for some told-and-not-so-true fables inspired by canines. Many millenniaold stories are based on wolves, wolf packs and all manner of moan-at-themoon lycanthropes, of course; few are as potent and as widely repeated as the ol’ black cat chestnut. But we were more curious about myths surrounding dogs living as pets or companions, not those animals found running over moors, howling romantically (and creepily).
We came across an eyebrow-cocker in the 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions, which reads, “It is unlucky to meet a barking dog early in the morning.” Really, though, does that make just about every dog owner on the planet unlucky? Hardly a day goes by when, before noon, the furry ones at our feet aren’t yipping to go out, giving the mailman what for, or simply telling one another to step away from the chew toy, pronto.
That said, the same encyclopedia predicts that “a strange dog following you is a sign of good luck.” True. We would add that it is a sign that you’ll be on the phone for most of the afternoon, looking for the dog’s family, and you’ll be photocopying fliers, and you may well be adopting that strange dog if no one ultimately claims him. That’s the modern retelling of the superstition.
Superstitions from Europe, translated by D.L. Ashliman, features a number of delightful folkloric nuggets, especially this: “Girls should pay attention to where the dogs bark on Saint Andrew’s Eve. Her groom will come from this area.” Mutts as mystical matchmakers? We like this.
The Dog Hause, a website with a bevy of beastie-based yarns, touts a superstition we adore, mostly because we’re mad for Matt Groening. According to the creator of The Simpsons, “A dog with seven toes can see ghosts.” You believe this, right? We do. In fact, we’ll call this one nearly verifiable truth. Call in the paranormal researchers. Art Bell, even.
Gaze between a dog’s ears while the pup is staring at seemingly nothing, says the same site, and you’ll see a ghost. We might add that if the dog has seven toes, you’ll be in for a major supernatural startle.
And while we’re always fond of a spirited spirit tale, we like the timeliness of this superstition, which we eyed at HistoryofDogs.com: “If you scratch a dog before you go job hunting, you’ll get a good job.” Positive words. Of course, we’re curious how thorough a scratch is required — are we talking a quick ear-stroker, or a full-on, get-thegrowler- on-his-back scratch-a-thon of the belly? Two different things, as every dog lover knows, though the justpressed interview suit might need to take care before heading out to the big meeting.
(The asterisk on that one, of course, is that if your interviewer is a big dog person, then a little Pug hair on your lapel may inspire instant rapport.)
Over at Writing.com, we came across a bit of folklore for fans of the Dalmatian, that celebrity of spotty snouties: “It’s good luck to meet a dog, particularly a Dalmatian.”
And dog + eating grass = rain, a superstition we’ve come across somewhat frequently, also receives play in the same list. Maybe the grass is dewier, fresher and tastier before a rain? Again, a question for the experts.
The more we perused, the more we got to pondering: Superstitions are always developing, changing, evolving; the tales we know now will be different 500 years hence. And the negative bent of some old superstitions — the barking-at-the-beginning-of-the-day bit — wrong-way-rubs us. So why not develop some of our own sayings, even if we mean to enjoy and retell them just within the confines of our own home?
Here’s a few we’re toying with: “When the Golden Retriever lingers at the door, a walk you shall take within the hour.” Tell us this isn’t nearly 100 percent accurate!
Or, “Stand not over the kitchen sink, but over the Brussels Griffon, as you consume your buttered toast; the morning sun shall later reflect a clean, un-becrumbed floor, and a dog that is licky-of-lip, and well-satisfied.” Also true. Might we add, we’ve seen the sun’s first rays reflect off the buttery lip of a Griffon, and there are few sights more heart-gladdening in the world. This is lucky indeed.
And, while we’re on a roll, let us consider the two words before us: dog superstitions. Doesn’t this also mean superstitions held by dogs? Our own pups hold (we think) a couple of credos: “If lady stands near treat bin, within minute, treat.” Or: “When water in tile room runs, soon fur shall be wet.”
All dog-loving humans should possess at least a half-dozen household superstitions of their own, to lend color, joy and fun to their houndfilled households. And likewise, every dog should be the taddest bit superstitious. After all, one needs something to ponder in the long hours stretched out in the sun or snoozing on the couch. One’s thoughts can’t be about “next walk, next treat, next walk, next treat” all the time. A hint of mystery, a little superstition, does the heart good.
Culture: Stories & Lit
In the 10 years that my dog Rex and I have been together (and that constitutes nearly the entirety of his life and a quarter of mine), we have moved 10 times. The reasons for this had more to do with indecision than instability, but I admit it wasn’t ideal. We went from a farm in rural Nebraska (Rex’s first place of residence, hence my ongoing guilt that his life has been all downhill from there) to a friend’s house in suburban Nebraska and then to Los Angeles, where we lived in a studio apartment in the Santa Monica Mountains for four months and in a sublet near Venice Beach for three months. Then we went back to Nebraska and lived briefly on another farm before moving to a house in town. After several months, we moved back to California, where we lived in another sublet in the Hollywood Hills and then a rented house in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake. Finally, I got serious and bought a house. It was tiny and lacking in many amenities, but it was near the dog park.
Throughout all these moves, Rex never wandered off, had an accident, chewed on anything he shouldn’t have or refused a meal. Docile to the extreme and a nonbarker (at 12 weeks old, he barked nonstop for an entire day and then gave it up completely), he’s more than just a good traveler — he’s a canine Zen master. He can lower your blood pressure simply by leaning against your leg. He can saunter past a yard of frothing, gasping, yapping Chihuahuas and not so much as glance in their direction. Despite some well-meaning advice early on in my moving adventures, I never for one second entertained the thought of not taking him along.
I have, however, occasionally allowed myself to think about how many more housing options would have been available to me sans pet, especially an 85-pound yak-like sheepdog like Rex. As any dog owner who’s ever been in need of a rental knows, it’s not the house that matters, but the area that surrounds it. You need some form of yard — a strip of grass, a cluster of bushes, a patch of dirt. Ideally, this area is fenced. The neighborhood needs to be relatively pedestrian-friendly, since it’s nice to be able to walk the dog without butting up against a freeway or a crack house. Moreover, you need a landlord who isn’t going to look at a shedding, slobbering yak/dog and tell you they’d rent to a high school punk band before letting that beast walk on their newly refinished floors. In other words, you have to rent from other dog people. And dog people tend to have dog properties.
How can you tell a dog property? If you’re more concerned about where your dog goes to the bathroom than where you go to the bathroom, chances are you’ll wind up in such a place. If it’s a stand-alone house, the floors will be scuffed and the grass will be brown. If it’s a multi-unit situation, most of the neighbors will have dogs themselves, and while this may at first seem like an asset — “We all pet-sit for each other when we go out of town!” — the place will inevitably come to feel like a combination of kennel and psychiatric institution. The woman with three small dogs will be crazy in a nervous way. The woman with three large dogs will be crazy in a politically strident way. There will probably be a guy with a parrot.
If you’re in a sublet, as I was too many times, the primary tenant’s dogs will sometimes come with the deal. Such was the case in the Hollywood Hills house, where a Border Collie and an Australian Shepherd ascended and descended the stairs all night as though they were training for a boxing match. During the day, they hurled themselves in and out of the dog door until I had no choice but to close it, which caused them to whine like toddlers. Rex, naturally, just stood there and stared at them blankly, the canine equivalent to shaking your head in pity.
Which I swear is what he did to me when I uprooted him for the 11th time recently. After I got married (to a man who dreams of moving overseas and imagines Rex is up to it), I sold my house and rejoined (temporarily, we hope) the ranks of the renters. And, yes, this is a dog property. There’s no dishwasher but the landlady likes dogs, and that matters more. The yard looks like hell, but all I care is that it’s there. I may still be indecisive about my housing, but I know this much about my home: It’s where the dog is.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Another finalist in The Bark’s First Annual Short Story/Fiction contest
“Wake up, Georgie boy.”
The cop gave the bottom of my shoe another sharp kick with the toe of his boot. I opened my eyes just enough to peer through the lashes, but I didn’t move yet. Start moving right away and you give up your dignity.
“Let’s go, George. You know you can’t block the sidewalk.”
I quietly started pulling my bags together and got to my feet. Dignity is one thing, but if you move too slow you just end up with a pissed-off cop. The young ones were especially easy to irritate, and this guy had only been around for less than a year.
He liked to call me “Georgie boy.” I guess he figured it riled me up and showed some sort of dominance. I didn’t care either way. My name wasn’t even George. That was just something I told the police a few years back and no one cared enough to verify.
He was still talking while I gathered up my bags and loaded my blankets into my cart. I hadn’t bothered to learn this one’s name yet. I need to see they’re gonna stick around a while before I make the effort.
I grunted something to indicate I was listening and started pushing my cart down 25th Avenue while he was still talking. I’d been on the streets long enough to register when a response was expected and when they just wanted me to be somewhere else for a while. This was the latter. I probably scared a tourist. It happened a lot in this city.
The shopping cart rattled loudly on the uneven sidewalks. You think it’s rough when you’ve got one wobbly wheel in Kmart, try pushing a hundred pounds of your belongings while trying not to run into a jogger. For the most part, the path cleared in front of me like I was Moses leading my people. Few bothered to look directly at me. The only ones who ever looked me directly in the eye were the kids of tourists, and that only lasted until mom or dad told them that wasn’t polite. Then the whole family ignored me.
After a few minutes of walking, I could feel a shadow trailing behind me. I didn’t even need to turn and look. I just knew he was there. He was scruffy and light brown with a ragged, unkempt beard almost like we shared fashion tips. Small enough to avoid scaring folks, but big enough to take on a D.C. rat, the dog had been my companion since the beginning of summer.
I’m not sure where he came from or how we came to be a team. I woke up one morning under a tree that stands guard near the K Street Bridge, and there he was curled up a few feet away. I thought I woke up first, but now that I think back on it, I’m pretty sure he was looking through his lashes at me.
We’d been together since then, almost three months. Not every day. Some days he just isn’t around. I don’t know where he goes, and when I see him next he doesn’t say. I don’t figure it is any of my business. He doesn’t badger me when I come back from the soup kitchen to know the details of my life. I reckon I owe him the same courtesy. Living on the streets is hard and I can’t pretend that it ain’t. Wintertime can be especially rough, but you learn the tricks to survive. You know which churches will give you a warm place to stay and a nice meal with the minimum amount of preaching. You figure out which of your neighbors are just chatty crazy and which are more likely to stab you in the night if you don’t watch yourself.
I guess I had life more or less figured out when he came along. I think that’s why we get along so well. He doesn’t try to change me and I don’t try to change him. I tell him what I’m thinking, and he listens carefully with those big brown eyes. Sometimes he just isn’t interested and he’ll wander off right in the middle of one my stories, but that doesn’t happen often and I know I tend to blather on at times. By the time he comes back, all is forgiven and I usually share some of my food with him.
It’d probably be more interesting if I said he occasionally hunts down a rabbit and returns it to me so I can clean it and cook it up for the two of us. That’d be a lie, though. I doubt he knows how to hunt rabbits, and I sure as hell don’t know how to clean one. Lighting a fire is a good way to get the cops to come down hard on you.
I was just happy for a little companionship, and that he did just fine.
I parked the cart under a big white oak in Rose Park. Traffic was steady in the road down in the ravine, and joggers were constant. As soon as I spread my blanket and took a seat, he went off into the underbrush for a nice look around. I guess he’s just more curious than I am. I don’t have his nose either. To me, it’s all just weeds and bushes, but he seems to get a lot out of it.
By the time he came back, I was eating a snack of beef jerky and I tossed him a piece. He ate it, but it looked more like a chore than a treat. After a few circles, he lay down a few feet away from me with his eyes focused farther back into the park.
We both watched the rich dogs playing with each other while their owners chatted. Every so often, one of the dogs would look over at us and decide we weren’t worth the effort. My partner seemed to feel the same. The owners didn’t look at us at all.
“You could go play with them if you wanted.”
Brown eyes told me that I was wrong. The dogs might not mind him joining in, but the owners wouldn’t want him there. He was fine right here. I was glad he stuck around, even if I didn’t understand all the dynamics involved. As I fell asleep, he still watched the play area, but I couldn’t tell if it was longingly or just because it was more interesting than facing the street.
I woke up with the sun early the next morning. He wasn’t next to me, but that wasn’t unusual. He usually woke up earlier and went off to do whatever it was he needed to do. He usually joined me later in the morning.
Lunch time passed and I had collected a few dollars in change and was hoping to get something to eat. He hadn’t come back yet. Not unheard of, but definitely unusual. Maybe he was tired of the rut we’d gotten into. I kind of liked it, myself.
As dusk settled across the city, I started to worry, although I didn’t like to admit it. In the early days it was normal for us to spend a day apart, but over the last couple of weeks we had never gone more than a few hours on our own. Did something happen to him? Maybe a car got him or some kids hit him with rocks. I knew that people can be mean. Is there such a thing as a dog catcher? I’d never seen one, but on TV growing up it seemed that dog catchers were always scooping up mutts.
I stayed in the park again that night. I could have moved. He knew our regular spots and would have checked them all, but I thought I’d keep it easy on him, especially if he was hurt or sick. No sense making him walk halfway across the neighborhood.
The morning came and went, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was sad to think that our time together was done. If he had decided to move on to someone else then I couldn’t say no to that, but if he was hurt I wanted to help out. I just didn’t know how.
I pushed the cart back toward 25th Avenue. I liked it better over there even if I did get kicked out every so often. The grates blew warm air and the foot traffic was strong, so I could usually do all right on money.
On the way there, I saw Officer Baez parked at the corner. He was one of the good ones. He still woke me with a kick to the shoe and made me move along from time to time, but he was friendly and asked if I was getting enough to eat.
I stopped a few feet away from the window. I didn’t think it was a good idea to walk right up to him. We weren’t that good of friends. He noticed me pretty quickly though.
“Hey there, George.”
I shuffled my feet a bit and looked around for the words.
“You need something? You been getting enough to eat?” It was nice of him to ask, but I wasn’t worried about food today.
“The dog is missing,” I mumbled.
Baez looked at me and then over to his partner. I didn’t know her name since she was new. They regularly put the new officers with Baez.
“What dog is this? You have a dog?” “Not my dog,” I explained. “Just spends time with me. Can you ask the dog catcher?” I felt sort of stupid asking since I wasn’t sure the dog catcher was real.
“Well, the pound doesn’t regularly just drive around and scoop up dogs anymore. What’s he look like?”
“I think I know where he is. Never mind,” I said quickly and shuffled away.
I didn’t have any idea where he was, but it felt wrong to be talking to the police about him. Even if it was Baez. Our relationship was a quiet one and it was something I didn’t feel like sharing with outsiders. He’d either turn up or he wouldn’t. I couldn’t force something to happen.
My unease shifted to sadness and then eventually to acceptance as the days passed. I hoped that my little brown friend was still out there, but I figured he probably got hit by a car. I’d been almost hit lots of times crossing the street with my cart, and I’m pretty hard to miss. He wasn’t so easy to see, and even when we were right out in the open people tended to not really see us.
I missed our talks and those gentle rebukes he gave me with those eyes when I said something stupid. I had a few other friends on the street, but none who got me the way he did.
The leaves were starting to fall, and I was sitting on my favorite grate on 25th Avenue. As the weather got colder, I stuck more and more to my grate unless forced to move. The police seemed to go a bit easier during this time of year, even the young ones who liked to give me a hard time.
I watched a family approach, but tried to not seem too interested. They were locals. That is usually easy to spot. Dad was pushing a stroller, and mom was wearing a pink Redskins hat. It was the little girl holding the leash that had my attention.
As they passed by, the dog pulled over toward me and got close enough to give my hand a lick. The little girl seemed to find that funny, and she gave the dog enough slack in the leash to get close. She was probably only six or seven, but the dog was small enough to be handled by her without concern.
Mom and dad had pulled a few feet away before noticing they’d left part of the pack behind. The girl was staring at me, and the dog stood in between us looking at me with big brown eyes. He looked serious, just like I remembered, but he looked happy as well.
“Jilly! No! Don’t let him do that.” Mom came back and grabbed her daughter’s hand and actually looked at me. I’m not sure if they’d even registered me the first time they walked by.
“Sorry about that,” mom said, while daughter and dog watched.
“‘S’okay. He’s a good dog.” His eyes seemed to thank me.
“His name is Piper,” the little girl said. Mom looked impatient to continue on, but I don’t think she wanted to drag the girl away from me and look insensitive to the plight of the homeless.
“How do you know that?” I asked. The dog turned his big brown eyes on the girl as if awaiting her answer as well. She seemed a bit confused by my question.
“Cuz that’s what we named him. He’s Piper.” As though the logic was irrefutable.
The dog wagged his tail slightly every time the girl said “Piper.” He turned his gaze back to me. I looked at those eyes that knew so much and nodded. “That’s a good name. Good boy, Piper.” His tail wagged ever so slightly, and then mom was pulling Jilly along by the hand, and the dog had no choice but to follow.
As the family walked on, the dog was looking back at me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
“Why does the Director want me? Am I in trouble?”
My boss shrugged, clueless as usual, and waved me into his office. “That will do, Carl,” said a thin but strong voice. My boss bowed out and left me alone with the woman behind his desk. She was stern, gray and no bigger than a minute.
“Meghan, sit.” I did, half expecting a cookie reward. “Your file is interesting.”
“I have a file?” I asked, regretting my reply at once. Even the dogs had files.
“You’ve worked in animal shelters all over New England.”
A blur of happy-sad memories. “Well, I just…uh…love dogs.” Brilliant! “I didn’t know Happy Meadows had a Director.”
She frowned. “Where do you see yourself five years from now?”
Unemployed seemed likely at the moment.
“I’ve been following your career. Watching you.”
What career? My hackles rose. Who was this? FBI? CIA! PETA?!
“Good recommendations from your supervisors. You’ve written some articles that were well received. And the dogs seem to like you.”
The dog part was true and I enjoyed writing, but “well received” was a stretch.
The Director closed my file. “I have a special job for you.” Visions of nuclear-powered pooper-scoopers danced through my head. “I need a new caretaker for an unusual facility.”
Clyde’s stocky legs rocked easy with the heavy ocean swells. He steered the small boat with one hand; the other gripped an enormous mug of coffee.
“Are you sure you don’t want some sunscreen?” I asked, squinting into the tropical bright while slathering myself with white cream, my ponytail whipping so hard I thought it might snap off.
Clyde guffawed, his lobster-colored face crinkling into deep, weathered furrows. “Never use the stuff! But you go ahead — shame to bake that pretty face.”
I was ten years past pretty but still young enough to be his daughter. Was he hitting on me? A wave broke over the bow, showering us with spray. I cawed and grabbed for the rail — graceful I had never been. “There she is,” Clyde declared, steadying me with one hand and pointing with his coffee mug. “Dog Island.”
“That’s not the official name, but Dog Island’s what I’ve always called it. Have yourself a look.” He handed me a pair of binoculars. I tried to focus on the rise of land but could see only jobbling water. “Try the beach,” he suggested, tilting my shoulder until sand came into view through the glasses. I saw a cluster of black Labrador Retrievers playing. Their heads lifted in unison and turned toward us, their mouths working. We were too far away to hear the barks, but they sounded in my head. Hi! Hi! Hi! The dogs broke and raced down the beach, kicking up sand plumes behind. They were dancing at the end of the dock by the time we bumped alongside. Clyde leapt nimbly ashore despite his girth and was swarmed at once. “Get offa me, ya mangy mutts!” he cried, then thumped his chest, inviting them back up to slobber his face while he roared with laughter. When he was thoroughly soaked, they nosed his pockets for treats.
A stick of a man shuffled onto the foot of the dock.
Clyde turned. “Mawhnin’, Jed!”
“And a fine one it is,” Jed replied, his voice quavery and old. The Labs dashed to form a furry entourage around him. “That doesn’t look like a dog you’ve brought me today.”
It took a moment to realize he meant me and another to wonder if I’d just been insulted — I was here to replace him, after all. But I sensed he’d meant no harm and have been called worse anyway.
“Nope,” Clyde agreed. He busied himself unloading boxes while Jed and the dogs approached. I’d seen enough arthritic animals to recognize the ginger gait in a human — I guessed his old joints screamed fair Jesus when the weather turned damp, probably most days in this climate. When he finally reached us, Jed offered a thin hand that I shook with care, and the introductions were done.
“See you in a week,” he told Clyde, who nodded, stepped off the dock and untied the boat. As it motored away, Jed said, “Let’s go. I have a lot to show you and I’m not getting any younger."
There was only one house on Dog Island, a sprawling wood affair on a gentle grass slope overlooking the sea. It was wrapped by a wide porch held down by a dozen grizzled dogs baking in the sun. A Golden Retriever, frosted nearly silver, tail-tapped a reserved greeting as we passed through, but the rest slumbered on, oblivious. “Hey, Pete,” said Jed. “How’s the old fella?” Jed turned to me. “Pete really runs this place — I don’t do anything without his say-so.” A pillowpadded rocker with a tattered book beside it told me the dogs weren’t the only old ones who passed long, slow afternoons up here. We entered a tidy, bright kitchen. I accepted his offer of coffee to be polite, but in my experience no one made worse java than old men. The watery, bitter crap I was expecting, however, turned out smooth and rich. Jed gently lowered himself into a chair at the sturdy wooden table. He took a sip, started to speak, then reconsidered and had another.
“Not sure where to start,” he finally said.
“How about the beginning?” Jed laughed. “This island has too long a history to tell right now and you can read all about it in the library anyway.” He looked around the kitchen and out the window, considering the place. “Guess if you have enough money, anything’s possible.”
He laughed again. “No, I’m just the caretaker. The Director handles the business, but the money isn’t hers, either. There are plenty of rich folks who like the idea of this island and would rather spend their money on dogs than on people.”
“Do they come here?” I asked envisioning hordes of weekend pet owners with chips on their shoulders and attitudes up their —
“Nope. Never met ’em. Haven’t even met the Director — not this one, anyway. The one who hired me…well, she’s moved on.” He glanced out the back window up a forested hill rising behind the house. “I doubt the contributors actually know where this place is. The only person I ever see is Clyde when he brings supplies or a new dog.”
“How many live here?” “One hundred. No more, no less.”
I’d worked in larger facilities, but not solo. “That’s enough.” I remembered the Lab clones from the beach. “Learning the names must take a bit.” A thought occurred to me. “Do they even have names?”
“Giving a new dog its Island name is important,” Jed said. “They’re starting new, happier lives here and finding the right name is part of that. Some names will come to you right away, others take longer. If Fi-Fi or Toodles pops into your head, keep thinking.” He waved a hand. “You’ll learn. One of ’em farts, you’ll know who did it and what they ate that made ’em do it.” He gestured at a thick notebook on the table. “I’ve written down most of what I do, how things work and what doesn’t.”
“On the mainland. You got big trouble, call Clyde and he’ll fetch ’im out, but you’ll learn to handle the little stuff yourself. I’ve done more stitching than I can remember and splinted my share of broken bones.” A chorus of yips outside interrupted us. Jed’s eyes rolled. “Heelers! OCD, every frigging one of ’em. Only the gun shuts them up.”
I followed him to the barn and helped wheel out a tennis-ball launcher. Jed cranked it up. “Near ruined my arm before I thought of this,” he laughed. Thwupp! A green rocket streaked down the hill. A dozen dogs raced after it. One came up with the prize and the others circled back, eyes gleaming. Thwupp! They ran again, sleek bodies flying over the grass. Thwupp! Thwupp! Thwupp! Dogs and balls everywhere. Two heelers jumped for the same one and collided in mid-air. The dogs fell to the ground and the ball sailed untouched in between. Jed and I fell, too, clutching our sides, laughing. The dogs were up again immediately and we fired another volley. After an hour they’d finally had enough.
“I love the gun!” I said and fell back into the grass. “I could get used to this.”
Jed held up a hand. “Talkin’ to the paw!” He gazed across the sea of happy, panting dogs to the sea of water that separated us from the world of humans.
“I can’t imagine not being here anymore,” he said. “Not taking care of them. But I’m too old now. They deserve better.”
“I’m not sure why the Director picked me,” I replied, “but these dogs will want for nothing while I’m here.”
Jed nodded. “That’ll do.”
I memorized Jed’s notebook over the next two months. It made caretaking straightforward, though not easy. I slept deeply each night surrounded by the porch dogs who’d made it clear that the king-size bed was communal property. I didn’t mind the company, although some nights “gastrointestinal challenges” among them forced me to evacuate.
According to the calendar stuck to the refrigerator with bone-shaped magnets, it was late August when one evening I’d finished all the chores with some daylight still left. I’d been meaning to investigate the library for the history of Dog Island, so I ventured through the doorway marked Canis Libris.
Inside was every book ever written about dog breeds, caring for dogs, or caring about them. Many were familiar and good but not of interest tonight. Past them was a hodgepodge of homemade binders. I selected the first one, dated 1820. Inside, penned in black ink on pages of stiff parchment, were sketches that stole my breath. An Irish setter: “Lucy 1812-1820.” A bull mastiff: “Theodore 1808-1820.” A mixed-breed with a big smile and gentle eyes: “Henrietta 1817-1820.” I sat on the floor and paged through a baker’s dozen. Some had lived long lives, others short ones or maybe they had just been old when they arrived here and got their Island names. I closed the book and pondered that Dog Island had existed for nearly 200 years, an impossibly well-kept secret. I had considered myself plugged into the dog community but never heard a whisper. Yet here I was, and here, two centuries ago, had lived another caretaker who commemorated her charges with these amazing sketches. I sagged against the bookcase, overwhelmed by inadequacy. I could fill a bowl and scoop poop, but drawing even stick figures was beyond me.
The volume for 1821 held eight more sketches and 1822 had nine. The following year had 34. Bad luck? Disease? The dogs looked healthy but maybe the caretaker had sketched them in their prime. The volume for 1837 was full of poems, and I surmised that a new caretaker had arrived. This rhyming love was less intimidating; I could work with words. I skipped decades, looking for different caretakers. Each had recorded in his or her own way the island’s history, which I realized was not about the people who made it possible but the dogs who made it necessary. One caretaker did needlepoint. Another shot Polaroids. I put the volume back and left the library to join the snoring old dogs on the bed. Words that would paint their pictures and tell their stories were swirling through my mind already, and I fell asleep smiling.
I smiled much of the next day watching the dog’s antics. Seeing no reason not to start right away, I stuck pen and paper in my pocket to capture random thoughts I found particularly endearing. There was so much to tell and my heart soared as I mentally teased the words into place.
I stopped smiling at dinner when one bowl of food remained uneaten. I knew whose it was without looking, and my heart sank as I went out onto the porch. Pete lay in his spot beside the padded rocker. His tail did not greet me as I came out or when I spoke his name. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I cursed my naïve scribblings as if my eagerness to write them had made Pete’s heart stop beating. I knew it wasn’t true, but felt I had let him down anyway. I resolved to write his story the best ever as I wrapped his cold body in a blanket and went to radio Jed. “It’s Pete,” I said when he answered.
Rain was threatening at dawn and I was afraid that Jed and Clyde wouldn’t come, but an hour later the boat nosed alongside the dock and I tied the bowline to a cleat. Clyde shut down the engine and helped Jed ashore. “Are you coming?” I asked Clyde.
The craggy man shook his head. The bigger they are, the harder they cry.
“Where’s Pete?” Jed asked.
“On the porch.” I didn’t add that I’d spent the night in the padded rocker beside him knowing Jed would have done the same.
“Why don’t you get the ATV,” he suggested.
Cradling the swaddled bundle, Jed climbed onto the seat behind me and directed me behind the house and up the forested hillside onto a road I hadn’t had time to explore yet. We bumped along in silence, climbing steadily, finally emerging from the forest into a grassy clearing. I released the throttle in surprise. Hundreds of small stone markers spiraled in to a larger monument that rose from the middle. The clearing overlooked a steep drop-off to the sea. I killed the engine and in the sudden silence heard waves pounding below. Jed climbed off and I followed him to the monument. The markers closest to it were dated 1820. On the side facing the ocean was carved, “Here lie the dogs who made this world a better place by being in it.”
Jed walked out from the monument until he found an open spot among the smaller stones. He set Pete down and took the shovel from me. I tried to help but he gently pushed me aside. When the hole was ready he laid Pete at the bottom. Beside the body Jed placed a threadbare squirrel toy, a rawhide chewie and a tattered copy of A River Runs Through It. I added a sweater of mine I’d taken to wrapping around Pete each night. When the hole was filled, Jed stepped back. “I call this the Stepping- Off Place,” he said. He paused, perhaps trying to voice thoughts he’d never spoken aloud before, at least not to another human. “I want to — need to — believe that from here they go to a better place. One that’s perfect for dogs, not just an island hidden from the rest of our world.”
I held up a hand. “Talkin’ to the paw.”
Over the next two years, I made several trips to the Stepping-Off Place. I didn’t call Jed again — it was my responsibility now. Afterward I’d return to the house and write each dog’s story for Canis Libris. Between those sad days were many more filled with hard work and great contentment. I was taught that to merely sit on the stream bank with dry feet was to miss the point of water; it needed to be thoroughly splashed through to fulfill its purpose on earth. Beach sand had many purposes — like scratching one’s back, hiding special treasures to dig up, or just being run across. I learned that there is a sound to the joy in life and it is Thwupp! Thwupp! Thwupp! And I strove to perfect the art of baking my bones on the big porch while contemplating the meaning of the universe — or just taking a long, well-deserved nap. Days passed, seasons turned and a few years went by. Then Clyde called. “It’s Jed.”
Clyde rode with me up to the clearing this time. He helped me dig a grave just inside the line of trees at the back edge where I saw that the markers were larger and fewer. When the work was done, neither of us could think what to say. Clyde produced two bottles of beer and we drank in silence while the ocean crashed against the rocks below and the grass rippled. From somewhere on the island first one dog voice rose, then another, then a chorus. “That’ll do,” I said.
I never ran out of Island names for the new arrivals. Never resorted to Fi-Fi or Toodles or ran out of the right words to tell their stories in Canis Libris. Clyde’s son took over the boat and was so much like his father I sometimes forgot that he wasn’t. My hands slowly became gnarled, unhelpful things and I sometimes napped entire afternoons away on the porch, but it wasn’t until my eyesight went that I knew it was time to call the Director.
She was a he now, a man I’d never met. “I have just the person in mind,” he said. I taught Keira as Jed had taught me and Pete had taught him. I was eighty when I went back to the world of humans and I lived there for a dozen more years, but my heart never left Dog Island. Eventually I returned to join my fellow caretakers at the Stepping-Off Place, where together we wait at the door between our world and theirs, holding it open, hoping one day they’ll return to make ours a better place by being in it.
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