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Culture: Stories & Lit
Short Story: The Stepping-Off Place
Dog Island

“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.”

“You’re kidding.”

“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.”

“You?”

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.”

“Vet?”

“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.”
Jed didn’t smile but a little light came back into his eyes.

 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.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Aloha Laka: A Dog Lost and Found in Hawaii
Dog Found

It was the two eyes peering out from the thick foliage that caught my attention. Dark, unblinking. The rain was beating down steadily, saturating the black soil and creating pools of gooey ooze, and I sank in to the tops of my boots with each step. Soaked and tired, I was slowly making my way through a kipuka — a tropical oasis surrounded by a sea of jagged lava — deep within the wilderness on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Were they really eyes? Maybe my tired mind was playing tricks on me. I took off my backpack, lay my rifle against a moss-covered stump and got down on my knees, then crawled on my belly into the dripping brush for a better look. The eyes were still there. They blinked. A pig? If so, how big? Better back off, just in case — the dark eyes were only a dozen feet away.

I retreated and sat down next to my pack. The dark eyes moved a few feet closer. I crouched down again for a better view. In fits and starts, the eyes came closer and closer, and then a trembling, soaked, bloodstained dog emerged from the dense brush. When I extended my hand, the dog turned her head away from me and lay on her side.

I sat down next to her and moved my head so that her eyes could meet mine. She turned away from me again. I stroked the back of her head, ready to withdraw if she showed signs of aggression. But though she was shaking, she remained in place, and I continued to stroke her head and speak in soft, reassuring tones. She wore no collar, no tags. Her paws were raw and covered in blood, and there were open wounds on her neck and shoulders.

This kipuka was just outside a rain forest where wild boar roamed in abundance, destroying the fragile native ecosystem that is rapidly disappearing on the Big Island. It is the wild boar that hunters seek, but the region is so remote and so difficult to access that few venture in. I was one of those hunters — my pack full of survival gear and meat, rifle in one hand and walking stick in the other, 12 hours of brutal hiking behind me.

The few other hunters who were willing to make the effort use dogs, in the Hawaiian tradition, and it seemed likely that this was a hunting dog who had wandered away and become lost. Or maybe she wasn’t performing up to par and the hunter had abandoned her. Either way, it was obvious she would not survive long on her own. The dog rolled slowly onto her back, all four ravaged paws in the air. I rubbed her belly and she looked up at me. Two dark eyes, unblinking.

Cold rain was falling, and I had an hour of hiking along a vague and sometimes nonexistent trail of slippery lava rock and mud ahead of me, and an hour until darkness set in; my pack was full, my body was worn. In this remote area, there was no cell phone coverage and so no way to let my wife, Kim, know where I was. If I spent the night with the dog, my wife, fearing the worst, would call search and rescue. If I left my pack behind and carried the dog and then ran into trouble along the trail — broken ankle, hypothermia, disorientation — I would have to activate my emergency radio beacon, which would alert a search-andrescue service that would pinpoint my location and send in a rescue helicopter. In this horrible weather — clouds, rain, poor visibility — the rescue team would be at risk, and if something tragic happened, it would be my fault.

I unrolled my poncho and fashioned a crude shelter, tying the corners to pieces of brush, adequate to keep out most of the rain. I then opened my three remaining packages of field rations and poured the contents onto some moss beneath the poncho. The dog immediately crawled under the shelter and attacked the food. Two or three minutes later, not a morsel remained. I poured water into my cupped hand and held it out to her. She lapped it up and licked my palm. I repeated this a dozen times and she drank every drop I offered.

The rain beat against the poncho and the wind began to blow down off the slopes of Mauna Loa on its way to the sea. It was noticeably darker when I shouldered my backpack, picked up my rifle and turned to leave. The dog crawled after me for a few yards and then stopped. She barked twice, two soft yelps. I turned and looked back at her. Two dark eyes, unblinking.

It was nine at night by the time I got home and told Kim the story. She tilted her head and stared at me.
Two blue eyes, unblinking.
“You left her out in the middle of nowhere? In the rain?”
“I couldn’t carry her. I was already overloaded and exhausted. I never would have made it out.”
“So you just left her?”
“I built her a shelter.”
“And then you left her.”
I showered, ate dinner and went to bed. There was no conversation, only silence. As I stared at the ceiling fan, all I could see were two dark eyes, unblinking.

My wife woke up shortly after midnight, alone. I was driving south along the coast on my way back to the trailhead. The rain was still pouring and the wind was still blowing. I took a potholed road up into the mountains and pulled off at the trailhead, shouldered my backpack — this time much lighter, since I was carrying only basic survival gear and my sleeping bag — adjusted my headlamp and started up the trail. I slipped often and fell hard twice and thought all the while just what a foolish quest this was. But the two dark eyes haunted me and I kept trudging until I came to the kipuka and the poncho shelter.

No dog.

I looked around but found nothing. Suddenly, frantic barking came from beneath a stunted ohia tree 15 yards away. I turned and the light from my headlamp illuminated two eyes. I walked toward the tree, but the dog crawled frantically backward into the thick foliage. The closer I moved, the farther away the dog crawled. Afraid she would injure herself, I untied the poncho, spread it out on the ground, lay my sleeping bag on top and crawled in.

I drifted in and out of sleep; each time I woke, I shined the headlamp where the dog had been and each time the still-crouching dog was several feet closer. I was in the twilight zone between reality and dream when I felt something nudging the sleeping bag. Then, a warm tongue lapped the side of my face. I unzipped the sleeping bag and she crawled in with me, shaking violently. I zipped up the bag and held her close. The shaking slowly subsided and the two of us fell asleep, her head next to mine.

I hiked out at first light, carrying the dog in my arms. Back at the truck, I bundled her in beach towels and put her gently on the floor behind the passenger seat. As she rested, I took out the piece of plywood and felt pen I had brought from home and printed, in bold letters:

DOG FOUND. BROWN AND WHITE FEMALE.

I added my home phone number and nailed the plywood to a tree alongside the road.

Kim was waiting when I pulled into our driveway. I handed her the toweled bundle and the dog immediately licked her face. We went inside and Kim called our vet. Four months later, Laka (a name from Hawaiian mythology) — healed, spayed, microchipped and the happiest dog on earth — graduated from obedience school, albeit at the bottom of her class, since she much preferred to chase butterflies and play than to obey commands. Her relationship with our other two dogs — Gypsy, the Brittany, and Penny Lane, the Dachshund — had evolved from daily fireworks to a fragile détente to having her own place on the couch, sandwiched between Gypsy and Penny Lane.

Then the call came. Kim handed me the phone.

“Hello,” I said.
The voice on the other end was male.
“You found my dog. I saw the sign on the side of the road.”

I felt my knees weaken. It had been four months since I found Laka but I had never gone back to remove the plywood sign.

“How long ago did you lose her?” I asked.
“’Bout five months. Got her at the pound. She a scared kinda dog and it was her first hunt. I saw your sign ’bout a month after she run off.”

Five months ago. That meant Laka had survived on her own for a month in a hostile environment, living on vegetation and fetid water.

“What happened?” I asked.
“Pig got her and she get cut up pretty bad. She run away.” “Can you describe her?” I asked.

He described her perfectly, right down to the wounds on her neck and shoulders and her weight of about 18 pounds. My heart sank. I looked over at Laka, lying on the couch between Gypsy and Penny Lane. Three pairs of dark eyes, unblinking.

“I’m sure sorry,” I said. “The dog I found weighs about 45 pounds and she was in great shape when I found her. No wounds at all.”

I hung up the phone and went into the garage. Grabbing a hammer from the workbench, I went back into the house, picked up my keys and wallet, and walked toward the door. Kim knew where I was going. Three hours later, I pulled back into our driveway, the plywood sign in the bed of the truck. I tossed the sign into the trash can and went inside the house.

The four women in my life were on the couch, watching television. They all looked up at me: four pairs of eyes — three pairs dark and one pair blue. Three of the women wagged their tails and the fourth one smiled.

Culture: Stories & Lit
The Lady in Holmby Park
Heartfelt wishes bridge profound differences
Hulk

Oh, my! He’s doing so much better!” I looked up from rearranging the sling on my dog Hulk and saw the blonde, smiling, good-looking lady nearby with her little dog, Moses. “Good morning,” I said. “He is doing better, thanks.”

She bent over Hulk and let him sniff the back of her hand, the way dog-knowledgeable people do, and said,“I’m so happy for him. I think of him. I bless God.Your brave little dog has been an inspiration to me, and I pray for him.”

Hulk’s hind legs had been paralyzed and useless following an operation on his spine. I’d exercise him by holding a sling under his abdomen and lifting his rear quarters free of the ground by about an inch while he walked forward on his front legs. He’d run with gay abandon, and I’d trot alongside and behind him, lumbering like a fat old dancer trying to keep from stepping on his limply hanging hind legs. At the same time, I’d switch the sling—my wife’s best pillowslip—from hand to hand when he veered and changed direction, which was often.

The lady in the park had seen us operating that way several times and told me each time that she’d prayed for his wellbeing. She had also seen us at other times before that, when I had him strapped into a specially made cart with wheels, which, like the makeshift sling, held up his hind quarters while he propelled himself and the cart forward by his front legs. The dog and I did this for about a year, going to the park and the streets twice a day; while I developed muscles all over my body, he became a happy, trotting-on-two-frontlegs, carefree dog.

And why shouldn’t he be happy? He could go wherever he wanted, trotting along with this old Jew running beside him, holding up half his body weight.We figured that was to be our way of life and that was okay with us. That’s what we had to do, and that’s what we did. Later,magically, he got stronger and started crawling around the house without the wheels or the sling, dragging himself with his two strong front legs and pushing forward with his hind knees.We had lots of carpeting and laid down mats so that he wouldn’t rub his skin raw.

We tried fitting him with panty hose material to protect his knees. That didn’t work. Then I tried to have someone make a flat cart with ball bearings on the bottom so that he could propel himself like a dog-person on a skateboard. That didn’t work.

So we kept going out with the sling, and we kept going out on the wheels. That worked.

Then one day at home,my wife and I were stunned to see him rise from his bed.He stood wavering on all four legs. He moved forward. He tottered. He stopped. He moved forward. He wobbled. He walked. Not well or normally. But he walked.

Not long after Hulk regained partial use of his legs, the blonde lady saw us in Holmby Park .Hulk no longer on the wheel-cart or hanging from the pillowcase slip, but walking. Ungainly and looking determined, but covering ground, sniffing, occupied and serious, not unhappy.When she spotted us, she came running over, transported with pleasure and unrestrained joy that he had regained some use of his legs.

Hulk is a little 35-pound French Bulldog. His ears stand straight up in a permanent expression of acute personal interest. He has big serious eyes, wide open and direct, that stare right into yours as though you and he are having a deep, silent, important exchange of ideas.He has a fat little sausage of a body, the circumference of a football, firm, lush, and brindle in color, soft and warm to the hand. His right hind leg trembles when he stands, braced, looking like a champion, posing show-dog star. No tail, just a round soft luscious ass that fits right into the palm of my hand when I carry him.

Even when he was okay, he had attracted people. But now, limping and waddling heroically along like a wounded G.I. marching out of battle, he is a magnet to anyone with a heart, and that turns out to be almost everyone.

Let me tell you how crazy he’s made me: I realized one day with a shock that I might die before he does. So I wrote a will dictating his care. Here’s what I wrote in it:

Last will and instructions on how to take care of my dog in the event I die before he dies.

First: Inasmuch as I expect my beloved wife, Takayo, to throw herself on my funeral pyre, that kinda eliminates her from being around to look after my dog.

Second: The person or persons who do take care of my dog will be very well paid just as long as the dog remains happy and contented.

Instructions: He gets taken for a walk twice each day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon.And you walk where he wants to walk, not the other way around. That often makes for some difficulties inasmuch as you may find yourself several blocks away from home when it’s time to head back, but he may not want to walk that way.Don’t drag on his collar.Don’t yell at him. Pick him up and carry him home.

A Tip: Sometimes, after you pick him up and you’ve covered about a half-block or so in the new direction, put him down and see if he likes the new direction and will head homeward with a gentle signal on his collar. If that happens, thank whatever you thank and congratulate yourself on having a wonderful day. Otherwise, pick him up and carry him home. That’s why you’re getting all that dough. Even if you do have a good heart at the same time.

The following are expressions you might say aloud to him to describe the extreme pleasure you feel when he takes a dump:“Good boy! Goooooooood boy! Aren’t you a gooood, gooood, boy! Aren’t you? Aren’t you?” Don’t wait for him to answer, just say, “Sure you are. Yes you are. You’re a good, gooood doggie boy!”

A. If this happens on the street and there are people nearby who can hear you, for God’s sake, don’t lower your voice or he’ll think you’re ashamed of him and what he did, and he won’t shit for a week.

B. Be sure to carry two or three doggie bags with you, and I’m not talking about those cute take-home things you get at restaurants. I’m talking about the real thing; doggie bags with which you scoop up his poop in order that we leave our streets and neighbors’ grass clean.And incidentally, flash those doggie bags around ostentatiously as you walk, so that everybody will know that you’re a good guy with every intention of cleaning up after the dog. That will help keep them from getting nervous when they see the dog studiously casing and sniffing the ground for the most attractive place to do something unattractive…

And it went on like that, only crazier. That’s some of the history of the dog and me leading up to that eventful day in the park.

The lady in the park told me that she had often, on seeing us, wanted to pray over him. And I remembered the day she had timidly, almost inaudibly, asked that of me. I hadn’t responded, pretending not to hear her. The moment passed, but I remembered it always with regret, shame and discomfort. I’m not one for prayers. I’ve had a number of tough moments in life, including being shot at on bombing missions over Germany, but prayer was never a source of comfort for me. I’ve been an atheist all my life, and when she asked that favor, I became paralyzed. We were so profoundly different. I couldn’t be deceitful, pretending to be something I’m not, especially to a person so caring.

Now, she said again, “Oh, my. He’s doing so much better.” She leaned over him and touched him. “He’s been so important to me. So inspirational.He’ll recover completely. God doesn’t do his work halfway. Oh, how wonderful to see this,” she said. “Oh, how wonderful is the work and heart of God. He heals and cares and this dog will recover entirely. I pray for him at home and think of you. I pray for you at home.”

And then I said, finally, very late, “You can pray over him. You can pray over him any time you like.”

She said something quietly.Hulk was sitting then.His legs often folded under him when he changed direction too sharply, and he’d lose balance. No pain, he’d just fold. I’d sometimes help by lifting his rear end, or he’d struggle on his own to all fours. Now he was sitting looking up at us.

“Oh Lord Jesus, make this wonderful little dog well. Care for him and keep him. Help him to walk,” she said touching his face.

I knew Hulk was getting ready to get up.

“Jesus, help this beautiful creature to wellness.”

Hulk looked over to the other side of the park. Was that a squirrel, or did it just look like a squirrel? He gathered his hind legs under him. He slanted a little sideways as he generally did in his effort to rise, and then, with a little grunt, he lurched to all four feet, tottered, remained erect.

“Oh Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, dear God, for caring for this dog and this man.”

Hulk stood for a second, then took direction and wobbled away, looking a little like John Wayne in his lopsided but determined gait to get somewhere. “Thank you, Jesus,” she said with a smile that started in her heart.

“Thank you, Jesus.” Hulk stopped. He looked back at us, at her, looking directly into her eyes in that serious, penetrating way of his.We all stood there, held in that lovely green park in a lovely soft moment.

Ah, Jesus, she was beautiful, my lady in the park, Christ, she was sweet! How I loved her goodness and how happy I felt for her joy.

We were profoundly different. We were essentially alike.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Friday Faithfuls
The day after Thanksgiving is a busy one for the shelter
Friday Faithfuls

As far back as I can recall,my daughter has had a special connection with animals. I remember a visit to a petting zoo, when I said, “Look at the cow,” and from her three-year-old vantage point she observed, “That’s a bull.” Or the time at a farm when a goat jumped a fence and everyone ran away from it—and she, age five, ran toward it. She had more of an affinity for animals than I would ever have. My attention was focused on the two-legged variety as I dealt with people in a fastpaced, dog-eat-dog world.

So on the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday, when most people were sleeping late, eating leftovers or catching up on their reading—here we were at the animal shelter. Since I’d taken off work to recover from the pinched nerve that had forced me to slow down, it had become our “mother-daughter” activity.

I smiled, musing on the irony, because I had thought that having a daughter would mean dance recitals, shopping at the mall and visits to the nail salon with my little girl. My 12-year-old has exceeded my expectations, but not with ballet slippers or dolls.We had dogs: a life-sized stuffed Rottweiler; small plastic dogs; dog banks, posters and robots; encyclopedias that were dog-eared.When she was eight, we finally broke down and got a real dog, our Shih Tzu, Scooby.

Holding a writing pad and a library book, I look around, smiling once again at the small wooden sign above the front door: “Pets welcome, children must be leashed.” My daughter and I are here every Friday, photographing the new arrivals and posting them on the shelter’s Internet site. She thought of the job herself, inspired by the hours she spends on Petfinder.com, e-mailing the right dog to people she just “knows” need that dog to complete their lives. She has unbridled optimism, and is convinced that there is a home for every dog and that there should be a dog in every home.

I take in what will probably be one of the last warm days of late fall on the busiest shopping day of the year, almost as important as Thanksgiving itself in our consumer-driven society. As cars pull up, the shelter’s residents bark loudly in anticipation, eyes bright, tails wagging furiously. It almost sounds as though they’re saying, “Pick me!”

A family arrives in a silver minivan. An alpha mom, obedient dad and three boys about eight, 10 and 14 is my guess —shopping for a pet? All eyes are on the family as they walk past the pens and enter the building. Then they retreat to the car. As Mom retrieves a small pet carrier, Dad lights a cigarette, scratches himself and makes a call on his cell phone. Mom exits about 10 minutes later with her carrier purring, changing the course of a cat’s life forever.

More shoppers arrive. They move like Terriers in search of prey—swift and single-minded. Some are regular browsers, as far as I can tell; some are first-timers; others are bargainhunters, hoping to snare the occasional pedigree. Volunteers help themselves to leashes hanging on the walls. I hear them sigh with relief when they see that their favorite dogs are still there to be walked. Or is it a sigh of sadness that they haven’t been adopted yet?

A middle-aged couple stops to admire and pet Sheba, a brown-and-black mix sitting next to another volunteer’s mom, who is very attached to the gentle, two-year-old female. She once confided to me that she wished she could take Sheba home, but could not because of her five cats and blind father. She herself looks like a Persian cat, I think, with her dark hair, sable eyes and sleek movements. It occurs to me that I have probably been spending way too much time here.

Sheba wags her tail, jumps and kisses the man gently. The wife bends over and pets Sheba—Please, I think, please take her! The wife seems torn and sad, and her husband smiles weakly; then they return to their luxury SUV and leave.My silent prayer for Sheba’s future is not answered. After they drive off, I find out that they had recently lost their 19-yearold son and were looking to add something to their lives. I swallow hard. At that moment, I feel a pang for all the dogs who need people and for all the people who need dogs.

The stories go on. There is the family with four carrottopped toddlers looking at rabbits, while Grandma, who resembles a Mastiff, looks at dogs. I overhear them say that they are in search of that “just right” smaller dog to make their family complete.No luck for the Irish Setter,who would match their children’s hair perfectly. Not today.

A young woman dressed in a tweed blazer and jeans spends two hours trying to find a dog, to no avail. I wonder if she also takes such agonizing time to decide on the men in her life. She is looking for a companion to provide her with company, unconditional love and lifelong commitment. She is just not sure which one. Not today.

Volunteers keep walking in—some are regulars, taking their favorite charges out for a walk or run; others pull up with carloads of worn blankets, sheets, towels and half-empty bags of dry dog food. I see goodness, hope, sadness, joy, doubt and determination in the battered station wagons and rusty pickups that come bearing gifts.

The sun is beginning to set. I call to my bright-eyed daughter, who lovingly finishes brushing an old white Malamute mix. Time to go home and say a prayer that Spotty finds his perfect family or is still here when we come the next time. But first, we must go to the store and get dog food.

Update: Six months after this was written, Sheba was reunited with her original family. Her real name was Sandy, and we found out from the shelter that she was the hapless victim of a divorce, left there by a woman unbeknownst to her ex-husband or children. Sheba’s family spotted her photo on the Internet, and they were joyfully reunited.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Scary Math
What are the odds the past and the present will collide on a Manhattan street?
Scary Math

Jasper gets four walks a day. At 30 minutes each, he is on the road two hours daily, 14 hours per week, or 728 hours per year—equivalent to the month of April—with either Mike or me on the other end of the leash.

Given the math, it was odd that I would ask Mike to join us on one of my assigned walks that Sunday evening. But Mike’s mother had died the previous weekend and a code orange terror alert, warning financial institutions of an impending strike, had attracted swarms of cops to our United Nations neighborhood. We gravitated toward the security that only our little pack, in its completeness of three, could provide.

Neither of us was alarmed when a young man with tattoos and a shaved head sliced his way through a group of tourists in pursuit of Jasper, because Jasper, after all, is an 18-pound hottie.

Those who remember the “Thin Man” series call him Asta. In my opinion, Jasper, with his intense dark eyes, more sharply resembles a cleaned-up Colin Farrell. Reason enough, I figure, not to have argued with a woman who recently insisted that he looked just like me.

“Don’t tell me,” the hipster said. “That’s a Lakeland Terrier.”

I grinned, unimpressed.

“I had one once,” he said.

I dropped my guard. The odds of meeting someone with actual Lakeland experience are slim, like discovering a WMD in Times Square. I hope.

“They’re impossible to find. Where did you get him?” he asked.

“Pennsylvania,”Mike volunteered.

Mike did, indeed, find Jasper. I had been the holdout. Since I grew up on a farm, the combination of “city” and “dog” made no sense to me. Mike, on the other hand,
is from Manhattan, the land of leash laws, doggie day care centers and sit-down “bark” mitzvahs.

“Pennsylvania?” the hipster said. “I had a Lakeland from Pennsylvania.”

“We got him from this guy who breeds, of all things, Lakeland Terriers and Great Danes,”Mike said.“His name is M. J.…”

“…Cohen,” the hipster completed.

“Yes,”Mike said.

“I got a puppy a couple of years ago from him. Weird, huh?”

We nodded. Weird.

“Had to give him up though,” he shrugged, “for work.”

The only way I could imagine giving up Jasper would be in a Sophie’s Choice moment of desperation. When Mike returned from his mother’s side for the last time a week earlier and collapsed, exhausted by the weight of her illness, Jasper, in an atypically affectionate move, jumped squarely upon his chest and began to lick his face. Proving that dogs often know what to do when people do not.

The hipster bent down to Jasper, but his girlfriend remained standing. She studied Jasper, carefully.

And then I did the math.

The hipster said that he got a puppy two years ago. Mike and I got Jasper one year ago…shortly after his first birthday. My ears buzzed, but not from the hovering helicopters. How had threats of terror, about which I could do nothing, blinded me to the clear and present danger crouched before me on the street, intimately caressing my dog’s ears?

I considered the options. I could: (1) remain silent and pray to be wrong; (2) make a preemptive strike, grab Jasper and run; or, (3) blow our cover.

“I think this little guy was yours,” I said, blowing our cover.

“Jasper?”Mike said.

“You still call him Jasper?” the hipster asked.

I wondered if option two was still available.

“Well, of course,”Mike said.“He’ll always be Jasper. We could never change that.”

The hipster’s girlfriend looked nervously from the hipster to Mike. “This is weird,” she repeated. “He looks so different. I didn’t recognize him at first.”

Define “so different,” I thought, giving her the look.

The breeder had said that Jasper’s original owner was a photographer who had lived in New York before taking an assignment abroad.

“Oh, little buddy,” the hipster said. Jasper wagged his tail.Now I gave Jasper the look.

Mike and I had often imagined a version of this scene—the “deranged-birthfather- who-stalks-us-for-months-before- eventually-abducting-Jasper” scenario—in vivid, apocalyptic detail. Looking down upon the two of them, however, the hipster did not appear to be a dognapper.

Which could also mean that he was a very clever dognapper.

“It must have been so hard to give him up,” I said. The schmaltz was involuntary at this point.

The angle of the hipster’s head kept the tears pooled in his eyes until he stood and looked down at Jasper before gazing into the distance.

My grip tightened on Jasper’s leash.

“You guys have done a great job with him,” he said, finally.“He’s very happy.”

The hipster was not happy. He extended his hand to each of us. I said nothing in fear of suggesting visitation rights. He and his girlfriend continued down the street. Jasper did not put up a fuss, thank god.

Mike and I reached the end of the block before either one of us dared to look at the other, before we spoke and turned around, slowly, to see if the hipster was following us.

Culture: Stories & Lit
A Dog’s Tale

My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised, and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But indeed it was not real education, it was only show; she got the words by listening in the dining room and drawing room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble.

If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious; and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this, but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was.

By and by when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency-word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way—that was the word Synonymous.

When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down the wind on another tack and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash-in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment—but only just a moment—then it would belly out taut and full and she would say as calm as a summer’s day, “it’s synonymous with supererogation” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison, and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Devotion

My wife finished her first set of chemotherapy in 2002. They were aggressive drugs, and Genie fought hard. In the spring, cancer’s grip was finally broken. We thought we could rest easy.

Then something odd occurred, something cold.

Cancer took Wylie, our first sweet dog, the summer of 2002. Cancer took Ruby, our tall red dog, the following year. And when Jackson — a bigger, stronger dog — died a few years later, he too was riddled with cancer. Our first three. Gone.

They had all stayed by Genie’s side — as close as close can be — as she battled cancer in 2001 and into 2002. As jumbled and full of distractions as that period of time was, their eyes never lost sight of Genie.

Is it possible, as Genie and I believe, that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live?

I know — too dramatic, too outlandish. No way could that be. Besides, cancer isn’t contagious. Good point, I guess.

There are few things any of us know with certainty.

I know a few things. Dogs are funny. They aren’t selfish. They are loyal. They ask no questions. They never doubt. They stand by our side as the world spins, as the world darkens, as the winds howl.

Sometimes you wonder why. Is it merely because we house them, pet them, feed them? Or is it something more? Could it be something more?

We speak of devotion when we speak of people. There are devoted people, and people in blissful love. What a beautiful thing, devotion. And how sweet deep love, which leads to devotion. It’s what we all want out of life — to be loved. To have someone there when darkness falls, and to warm us when it turns cold, as the world does from time to time.

The thing about people is that sometimes they hesitate. They may come around, they may love, they may be devoted, but, sometimes, maybe for only a fraction of a second, they’ll hesitate when times turn tough. They’ll blink.

Dogs don’t hesitate. They stand by our side, no matter the odds, the reason, the depth of cold. If we step into the blackest of nights, they step with us, and sometimes — most of the time — they take the first step.

And no matter their size — from the smallest to the largest — they’ll do what needs to be done to safeguard their human companion — their friend — even if it means giving their life. They don’t weigh the odds, or ask any questions. Dogs are selfless.

Maybe Genie and I are luckier than some, but we’ve known a number of devoted dogs.

We’ve seen three fall to cancer. Yes, I don’t know for certain that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live. But from the depths of my heart, that’s what I believe. They loved Genie that much, that’s what I know. And here’s one more thing: If they bought her but a mere minute more of life and time, they’d be happy.

I’ve seen and touched and felt such tremendous love.

Devotion. A truer sounding word I can’t name.

Culture: Stories & Lit
On Responsibility
Caring for two loves

I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help all sorts of people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of who I am responsible for, truly responsible for, the list whittles down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.

Rose is white with ginger ears and an extremely alert tail. She weighs 17 pounds even though she should probably weigh 16. She had some angry-looking lesions on her pink belly that made me take her to the vet two months ago. I gave her the assigned antibiotics wrapped in cream cheese or peanut butter, depending on what was around. But the inflammation lingered and then flared, exacerbated by Rose’s very focused licking, and I decided we should go back and try again. I had heard there was a dog dermatologist in town with a three-month waiting list, but decided to give my regular vet another try. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t go to the dermatologist if I had pimples on my stomach and so I don’t see why I should make my dog go either.

My grandmother is 94, a mere 13 in dog years. She lives in an assisted-living facility three miles from my house and four blocks from my vet. Sometimes I take her with us to the vet, even though it is a lot to navigate a scared dog and a mostly blind, very confused grandmother into the waiting room. Still, she likes the excitement of barking, the snuffling dogs, the chance to comfort Rose, who is inevitably trembling with her head pressed beneath my grandmother’s arm. Rose doesn’t like the vet, which would be a point too obvious to include were it not for the fact that my mother’s cat worships his trips to doctor. They are his 15 minutes of fame. He purrs for hours after coming home at the mere thought of having received so much attention.

“It’s okay,” my grandmother tells Rose and rubs her ears. “Nobody’s going to eat you.”

But Rose, for all her incalculable wisdom, is still a dog and we cannot reassure her that something really hideous isn’t about to happen. Maybe she does think that an enormous and drooling animal is waiting to chew her up behind the door of examining room number three. She vibrates in her fear, tucking her head down and her hindquarters in until she is the size of a grapefruit. How can I explain that this was all for the good, that I would never leave her here, that I would protect her with the same passion with which she protects me from the UPS and FedEx trucks? We have such a language between us, Rose and I, but in this case it fails us and all I can do is pet and pet.

My grandmother has said her leg was sore all week. There was a bruise behind her knee, a funny place for a bump, and so my mother and I kept an eye on it. As soon as my mother flew off for her vacation, I received a phone call from the assisted-living nurse. My grandmother needed to go to the doctor, immediately.

“Are we going to your house?” my grandmother said, once I had wrestled her and her suddenly useless, painful leg into my car.

“We’re going to the hospital,” I told her. “The doctor needs to see your leg.”

“My leg is fine,” she said.

“It’s fine because you’re sitting down. Do you remember it hurting before?”

“My leg doesn’t hurt,” she said.

Her leg is blowing up like a summer storm, dark as an eggplant now across the back and getting green in the front. Her skin feels tight and hot. How did it get so bad so fast? The doctor said her blood was too thin. She’s had a bleed into her leg, which is better than a clot, and was admitted to the hospital.

If twenty minutes in the vet’s office can turn my bounding, snarling, terrier mutt into a cowering grapefruit, three days in the hospital would cast my sweetly confused grandmother down into the bottom circles of dementia.

“Where are we?’ she asked.

“In the hospital.”

“Are you sick?”

“No,” I said, leaning over to lightly tap her leg. “You have a sore leg.”

“I’ve been here before.”

“A long time ago.”

“There weren’t all these pots and pans then,” she said. “Not so many red squirrels.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Where are we now?”

“Still in the hospital.”

“Do you feel sick?”

And so we went on in our circle, hour after hour. We had stepped outside of the routine we knew and found ourselves in a place where language was utterly useless. Still, we could not stop talking, the same way I talked to Rose while we waited for the vet. “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re a beautiful dog. There was never such a good and beautiful dog as you.” I whisper to her over and over again while I pet.

I could not call Rose and tell her I was at the hospital, and I could not leave. IVs can get pulled out much quicker than they can be put back in; I had already found this out. Every five minutes my grandmother swung her feet to the floor. “Let’s go now.”

I picked them up and put them back in her bed. “You aren’t supposed to walk.”

“Where are we?” she asked.

Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable? My sense of protectiveness for the two of them is fierce. They love me, and because their love is all they have to give, it seems especially pure. I love them too, but my love manifests itself in food, medical care, rides in the car, grooming. On Saturdays, I bring my grandmother home and give her lunch, and she always claims to be too full to finish her sandwich so that she can give half of it to Rose, who does not get sandwiches at other times, especially not straight from the table. I look the other way when my grandmother whispers to my dog, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t see us.”

My grandmother longs to have the ability to spoil someone again. My dog is the one mammal left who is unconditionally thrilled by her company. I wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink after the dishes are done and Rose sits in her lap while I blow it dry and pin it up in a twist. Sometimes, when I’ve finished with my grandmother’s hair, I’ll wash Rose in the sink and use the same damp towel to rub her dry. Then they lie down on the couch together and fall asleep, exhausted by so much cleanliness.

Back in the hospital, I cover my grandmother up with a white blanket.

“Your little dog sure did give me the cold shoulder,” she said, her voice full of hurt.

“What?”

“She didn’t even come over and say hello.”

“Rose isn’t here,” I told her. “We’re in the hospital.”

My grandmother’s eyes move slowly from the window to the door, then back again. “Oh,” she said, glad to know she was wrong. She takes the white blanket up in her hands.

Three days later, my grandmother went home, her leg still sore but stable. I have told her she was in the hospital, but she doesn’t believe me.

Rose, on the other hand, remembers her antibiotic. After dinner she sits in front of the counter where the bottle is kept, wagging her tail. She thinks only of the cream cheese, not the medicine, because she knows that part of it is my responsibility.

Culture: Stories & Lit
The Dogs Go Too
Blue jeans, blue grass and faithful friends

I’m sorry to tell you, sweet girl, but I might be a writer. I might be a writer who, on occasion, squirms into a tweed jacket and gives a quick reading. I might be a writer who goes to dinner parties and laughs loudest and can sometimes tell the difference between syrah and merlot (not really, but I’m full of bull). I might lift my glass into the light and I might sniff the cork. I might be a writer who will teach his students why plot does and does not matter; why character means more than anything; and why, if I’m honest, I don’t care what they write about as long as they get a bang out of it and I don’t get fired. I’m also in debt, drink too much, don’t have health insurance and ask strangers inappropriate questions on a regular basis. Lately, I’m thinking I should stop using the word might. You should know, sweet girl, I might even be a writer with dogs.

Just last month I picked up an abandoned pile of wiggling mud from the middle of the street and took her home. I gave her a bath and let the vet fill her full of antibiotics. Now it seems I have a puppy who looks exactly like a raccoon had sex with a fox. She has a bandit’s mask, a puffy cinnamon mane and a black stripe that starts at the nape of her neck and ends at the tip of her tail. She has a white swirl on her chest and ears like a wolf. I named her Zuppa for how much she looks like the espresso-and-mocha-soaked pound cake dessert you and I shared on our first night out. I named her Zuppa so that we would both be reminded of sitting across from one another and smiling wide when we realized how good espresso and mocha could be when it’s soaked up by pound cake and topped with whipped cream. I also tasted spiced rum and amaretto, and when I watched you lick the whipped cream off your lips, it was the closest I’ve ever been to attaining enlightenment. It made me a little sorry that the man you were looking at was me.

Blue, a 13-year-old Border Collie mix, is my first love. Blue knows her left from right, the difference between the Packway Handle Band, Grass Town and Seldom Seen, and has convinced more than one female police officer to let me off with a warning. She is made happy by the sound of her own bark; embarrassed by her own farts; and if I am anxious and stressed, apt to tell me she loves me with an empathetic barf. No one believes it, but Blue knows how to give me a wink if I say something worth listening to.
 
I have dogs and a pick-up, sweet girl. No sports car, no luxury sedan. Not even an eco-friendly hybrid or an electric or anything that runs on corn oil. And when I’m in my truck, it’s blue jeans and bluegrass and baseball caps. It’s sneaking cigarettes and a pint of scotch in the glove box. Sorry, sweet girl. When I’m in my truck, I can roll up my sleeves, keep a hammer on the floorboard, eat three cheeseburgers and drink all the full-strength cokes I want.
 
But most important, when I’m in my truck I can bring my dogs. Real live dogs. Not the idea of a dog, and not some metaphorical construction. But the flesh and bone and bug-filled fur. Most of all, a soundly thumping heart. In the truck, I’m not some stuffy writer pretending to love dogs because he knows he’s supposed to; I’m just a guy on the road with his mutts. Some guy with a sorry-looking beard and a pick-up truck and a crazy-eared half-human, half-canine stretching her head out the window, snapping at flies and anything else that might drift into range.
 
The thing about dogs, love, is that they change you. It can be a subtle thing, like a voice the person conjures when talking to a dog. A sudden shift from stodgy business lip to smoldering tones and indulgent cooing. Or it can be a full-body transformation. A lightning bolt through the nervous system that sets your Soggy Susan neighbor into jiggly fits of: Who’s a cute girl? Who’s the cutest? And: That’s okay! Your Auntie Susan doesn’t mind a little mud on her skirt! Don’t fight it, sweet girl. They change you for the better.
 
The only place I go where they don’t allow dogs is the library. It’s worth it for the reading, but oh how it kills me. I know the dogs are taking turns barfing on my bed and wondering just who I think I am, and I’ll tell you, some days I’m not at all sure. It is at the library that a writer should really feel at ease. But not me. No, just a quick reading stop now and then and that’s about all I have the strength for. I need the dogs more than I need the books. That’s for certain. I think I might enjoy playing the part of being a writer more than actually being one. So, sure, I go to the library, but if they would just allow dogs, well then, I’d be a changed man.
 
When I’m in my truck, it’s a time machine. Blue jumps in and sits up like a person (because she is, dammit) on the front seat with her nose to the wind. Zuppa is still a puppy, so she curls into a sleepy ball on the floorboard, exhausted from her daily wrestling match with the neighbors’ cat. And me, I’m traveling backward full tilt, to a time before all this writing. A time before all this man-made stress and man-made worry—AND NO libraries! Right now I’m about 19, sneaking cigarettes, eating cheeseburgers, turning up the bluegrass, and all I can see is the Georgia blacktop ahead, the pine trees blipping past to my left, and to my right, two very good dogs. Two very good friends. Blue takes a french fry with her talented tongue and sucks off the salt and spits out the potato. Zuppa barks at bicycle riders and both, for about the hundredth time this month, make me ecstatic to be alive. It’s dog-made happiness, and you can’t beat it with all the fancy cars and fat salaries in the world.
 
I might be a writer, but I’m also a man with a truck and two dogs. I’m a man who gets in that truck and forgets about all the horseshit and remembers what his soul is made of. When I pull on a soft pair of beat-up jeans and roll up my sleeves, the person I want to be appears. No illusions. No metaphors. I am sitting right here in this truck. So when I show up at your house, don’t be surprised that up in the front seat, sitting like a person (because she is, dammit), licking the salt off french fries and spitting out the potato, Blue is right there beside me. She always has been. In a few short months, Zuppa will be right up to speed. But I’ve got a back seat and they’ll make room. They know you’re worth it. They know you’ll come around.
 
I’ll give up cheeseburgers and cokes. I’ll quit sneaking cigarettes and lay off the booze. I’ll even trade in my pick-up for something that runs on corn oil as long as it plays bluegrass and has room for two big-hearted dogs. Two dogs and you. I’ll do just about anything to see you lick whipped cream off your lips and smile wide across the table at a man like me. A man who might be a writer. A man who might be a writer who looks like me and who has two dogs who go wherever he goes (including one hypothetical library).
Please understand. Please don’t fight it.
 
Because when I’ve finally convinced you to join me on this journey, when we’ve come to that happy middle ground where everyone gets enough of what they need and learns to let go of what they don’t, and when you show me again that knock-out smile and when I’m finally convinced that it is really meant for me, well, I’m sorry, my dear sweet girl, but the dogs go, too.
 
And maybe we’ll get them into the library, one day. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just going to be a part of our process. Let the dogs have time out, then get some reading and writing done. But you’ll be allowed, sweet girl. They would never close a door on you.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Pet Smarts
The verdict is in—the dog did it!

When Mr. Dad and I, not wanting our kids’ psyches to be forever twisted into the knots of emotional angst that produce those hideous “parents dearests” tomes, decided that, yes, getting a dog could help build their little characters. After responsible-parent research into breed sizes, temperaments and personality profiles and scouring the local animal shelters, we narrowed the list to a number of possibilities and selected a pup.

Son One claims that our German Shorthair Pointer, Gretch(en)—so named because when we took her in the car as a puppy, she … well, it rhythms with fetch—“is the smartest dog in the whole world.”

Gretch’s obedience-school degree did produce a surprisingly high IQ and flawless manners, by pooch standards. There’s only one teeny-tiny problem: Her manners are only in effect when we’re home. Early on, it was evident there was going to be a serious absentia behavior hurdle. Miss G, you see, experiences (A) boredom when there’s a challenge vacuum—that is, whenever she’s left home alone.

Number One Son justifies: She just (B) “gets lonely.” In less than two minutes? That’s exactly how long it takes for G’s boredom and loneliness to kick in. Then the G-Girl succumbs to what I call (C) PMS (Pooch Morose Syndrome). Son Two insists she probably just gets (D) hungry. But she always has two bowls of kibble and one bowl of veterinarian-endorsed bits ready and at her paw tips. Or, says Son Three (and I contend he’s really reaching here), she suffers from (E) “Girl cravings.” This, of course, stops me cold. How could I not sympathize with such gender sensitivity? Recently, Son One raised all of these possibilities after we returned from a trip to the orthodontist.

Consider the scene: I’d prepared a pizza, sliced it and left it cooling on the kitchen counter—pushed all the way back—so we could dash home, eat and motor off to soccer practice. When, upon our return, I noticed that G’s nose wasn’t pressed to the front window, I immediately suspected canine foul play. The pizza, of course, was missing.

“Gretch? Girl?” Son One called. No happy clicking of doggy nails on the hardwood floors. “We’re home, Gretch.” No joyous barking, tail wagging, wild jumping and whining hello. Hmm.

After a brief search of her usual haunts, I apprehended G in the laundry room, where, wedged between the washer and dryer, she sat quivering. Ears flattened, she was wearing a wig (aka, my new string mop). She flashed her best apology grin. “Trouble in Dodge,” I speculated.

In the court of public opinion (i.e., our living room), I laid out my case.

Means: Consider her long-reach capabilities. Once, after finding a mauled sofa cushion, I tailed her through the house. As I watched, she stood at the kitchen counter, cast a wary golden eye over her non-shoulder, then strong-pawed a quarter-pound of plated butter to within tongue reach.

Motive: I submit any willy-nilly combination of A, B, C, D and/or E (previously noted).

Opportunity: Gretch was, after all, home alone for two hours.

Evidence: The trail led to the white brocade living-room sofa where, buried under cushions two and three, I discovered licked-clean pizza crusts. Red circles on the white Oriental rug indicated the per-PET-rator had partied—alone—before burying the remaining evidence. The trail then led to the white wool den sofa—don’t ask why a mother of three boys and one large dog decorates in white-on-white—where the per-PET-rator buried a few more slices with pepperoni and cheese. For later.

My sons countered with a Johnnie Cochran-like defense. They discounted her pepperoni-laden chops, her spicy breath, her saucy red paws, the tracks and the carpet fibers. Prints leading from the scene, they argued, could have been made by anyone. They were a size 12, Brunhilda Moxie, four pads. “Circumstantial,” the three chimed.

Guilty or not, at my insistence, Miss G has been placed under constant surveillance, and sentenced to the family traveling team. She now spends 8 to 5:30 in my home office (where she resides under my desk, making license plates), and sports a smug smile as she happily goes with us to soccer practice, swim meets and Cub Scout meetings. For me, it’s dog days, dog nights, even dog bathroom breaks.

Son One says, “I told you she’s smart!”
 

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