Culture: Stories & Lit
A Tale of Dogs, Flatulence and Giardia
People’s names in the story I am about to tell you are not real. To protect the health and safety of the husband who told me this story, I’ll call him Harry and the woman’s name will be Sally — because if she finds out, he gets hurt. In fact, I am changing the name of the couple’s dog to protect the dog’s identity. You can see this is a serious situation, so don’t start laughing, OK? The name of Harry and Sally’s dog is Rocky.
One day, as Harry and Sally sat in the living room watching television with Rocky at their feet, an odor like passing gas filled the room. Naturally, Sally thought it was Harry and Harry thought it was Sally. Not wanting to embarrass the spouse, neither of them mentioned it for several weeks. But when Harry smelled gas and Sally wasn’t home, it became apparent that Rocky was the one passing gas. The couple called their veterinarian.
The vet said to retrieve Rocky’s stool (I am not talking about what he sits on but something he leaves outside) and bring it in for testing. This was done, and it turned out Rocky had giardia. The couple lived in San Francisco, and Harry had been walking Rocky around the neighborhood. Rocky was a chick magnet, and women would stop to admire him, which made Harry a happy man. Rocky would lick the women’s faces and hands. (Remember, it was Rocky doing this, not Harry.) Based on how many times this happened over the last year, it’s safe to say that fifty percent of women in San Francisco now have giardia.
Now, back to the vet’s report. When the report from the vet came, Harry and Sally started treating Rocky right away. At this time, they both admitted to having a gas problem themselves. Sally looked up information about giardia on the Internet and found out that humans can get giardia; one symptom was gas. Since Harry and Sally’s problem was lasting several weeks, they concluded they should see a doctor and be tested for giardia. The couple went to a local clinic and saw a woman doctor — which made Sally comfortable but almost caused Harry to pass more gas, especially when he was examined and poked in the stomach by the woman (but he didn’t lick her face or hands).
Thinking in advance, Sally and Harry had brought stool samples with them in a small cooler. (They probably never again will put anything in that cooler.) The doctor said the samples might have been contaminated by urine, as they were fished out of the toilet (how I don’t want to know), and so more samples were needed. To accomplish this, Harry and Sally were given something referred to as a “hat.” Harry described the hat as something no one with a sound mind would ever wear. It’s made of plastic, and you place it on the rear of the toilet seat and sit down. Then you “take care of business,” according to Harry. They each had to prepare samples from four different occasions, if you get my drift. On top of that, the samples had to be refrigerated until dropped off at the doctor’s office.
As chance would have it, the couple was entertaining friends for dinner. Sally warned Harry to make sure his samples were covered in plastic bags in the refrigerator, just as hers were, so they could not be detected — in case a guest got up to get something out of the refrigerator before he could be tackled. Luck was with them, because bad weather caused dinner to be rescheduled. This allowed time for the couple to complete the samples and drop them at the doctor’s office. Now they had to wait for the lab report, which would tell them if they had giardia.
It was three days later when four couples joined them for the rescheduled dinner. Everyone was having a wonderful time, chatting away, when the phone rang. Harry and Sally each assumed it was a solicitor, so they ignored the call and let the answering machine pick it up. This was a bad choice. In the middle of the dinner conversation, this message erupted over the chatter: “This is Doctor Bartlett. Your test results came in this evening, and I wanted to alert you. You both have giardia, which as you know is highly contagious. Please come into the office tomorrow and pick up the prescriptions you need. We will have to check your stools again after you’ve been on the medication for ten days. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me.”
The room fell silent — like it was a wake rather than a dinner. All the guests suddenly remembered pressing events requiring their presence at home. In less than five minutes the four couples had left; some even forgot their coats in the closet. As for Harry and Sally, the last time we talked, Harry said they were starting to provide another round of samples, Rocky’s stools were now clear, and they were thinking of moving to another state.
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.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Harvard puts canine cognition to the test
My dog was a little late for her test at Harvard University. Penny Jane was clearly nervous. Then she saw the testing room’s slick linoleum floors and the glare of the fluorescent lights, which screamed veterinarian’s office to her. She trembled and panted lightly as she scanned the shadowless room, probably for a syringe. When she turned her black nose up at a salmon-flavored treat, I worried that my Border Collie mix was going to flub her Ivy League school exam.
Both of our anxieties were misplaced. No one was going to get an F or a vaccination. Penny Jane’s “test” was part of an ongoing study at Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab. The lab was started in early 2009 by Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition, to research how domestic dogs think. To do so, Hauser has enlisted the help of Boston-area dog owners such as me to provide the tailwagging subjects for his research. A couple of thousand pooches have been tested so far. Penny Jane was somewhere around number 350.
Many a dog owner through the centuries has wondered what goes on in his pooch’s mind. But the question has held little interest for scientists, who have devoted endless hours to studying how other species think— especially rodents, pigeons and primates. Meanwhile, the animal brain right at our feet or in our laps went unexamined.
That is changing. There are currently canine cognition labs at the University of Florida, Duke University and Barnard College, as well as several in Europe. In July, some 500 scientists from around the globe gathered at the second Canine Science Forum in Vienna, Austria, to deliver papers on dogs’ understanding of human communication and how domestication has shaped their social skills.
“The field is a little crowded just now,” says Hauser.
The scientist, who has worked with cotton-topped tamarins since 1992, is a relative latecomer to the trend. This is his first cognition study with dogs. Why Hauser switched from diminutive monkeys to the family dog speaks to the practical reasons behind the growing interest in canine cognition. For starters, funding for primate research has become scarcer and scarcer, according to Hauser. Working with pet dogs means a lab does not have to bear the expense of keeping animals. Pet dogs also provide Hauser with volume. Rather than study 20 tamarins, Hauser will have results from several thousand dogs by the end of his current study. If one dog’s trial, say Penny Jane’s, goes awry, it won’t statistically throw off the whole study as it would with only 20 animals.
Moreover, scientists can explore issues with pet dogs that they can’t with other species, such as how domestication has affected a species’ thinking, or if there are ways Canis lupus familiaris has become more like Homo sapiens. “Unlike all the other animals, there is some possibility that they have acquired some of our moral behavior,” Hauser says.
And as always, by studying another species we can learn about our own, and chip away at the age-old question of how we became unique. In my specific case, I feared the study would demonstrate, despite all my efforts to the contrary, what an anthropomorphizing egomaniac I was. Though I prided myself on what a cool head I had about animals, I’d gotten off to a bad start before the two of us even arrived at the lab by bragging to all my friends that Penny Jane was going to Harvard. Did I, like so many dog lovers, ultimately see my pup as a reflection of myself?
That question was not on Hauser’s list. Rather, he’s investigating how dogs respond to physical as well as emotional cues, how much patience they have, and whether they understand the concept of sameness, as in two identical objects. To answer these and other questions, dogs are ushered into a large, mostly bare room with a broad window facing south on one side and a mirrored wall on the other. Here, pups are repeatedly asked to choose between two identical buckets, but in varying circumstances.
As scientific experiments go, there’s a lot out of Hauser’s control. For one, the dogs hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are trained, as Penny Jane, whom I taught to open cereal boxes (this has come back to haunt me). Others are hardly trained at all. The pups range widely in breeds, sizes and ages. The owners are also a big variable. Some might overly prompt their dog or grow frustrated. “Some think they should be more involved and won’t listen to us,” Hauser said. “One owner felt compelled to say we are doing it all wrong.” I didn’t do that, but I did repeatedly drop Penny Jane’s leash at the wrong time.
In the early months of the study, Hauser and his lab assistants worked out the trial’s kinks. They found that some dogs were distracted by the window, others liked to stare at themselves in the mirror and some wanted to play with the experimenter. They tweaked the trials to keep the dogs’ attention as best they could, though some would still lie down and fall asleep, as Hauser’s own Newfie did.
There was no way Penny Jane was going to nap. She stepped gingerly into the experiment room with her whitetipped, curled-in-a-letter-C tail tucked between her legs even though the research assistant proffered treat after treat. To find out what Penny Jane was thinking, the long-limbed, lean young woman directed us to a far corner of the room, where there was a chair and a square outlined in black tape on the floor. I took a seat, as did Penny Jane, but not in the marked box, so I had to push her like a lump of clay into the square, then scoot her around again to face the assistant. She looked at me over her shoulder with wide brown eyes that begged, “What are you thinking?”
The assistant tried to warm up Penny Jane by dropping treats in a bucket with a flap and setting it on the floor for her to investigate. But once seated in the square, Penny Jane was glued to it. The dog who once excavated an entire beach to unearth a single Cheeto now remained frozen, no matter how we egged her on in our chirpy voices. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me what she was thinking, which was, “You two humans are freaking me out.” I was thinking, “What will I tell my friends if Penny Jane gets kicked out of Harvard?”
Finally, I gave her a familiar cue. “Find it,” I said, and my girl ever so carefully approached the bucket. Then she caught the whiff of a treat, curled a paw around the flap to lift it, and dug her nose deep into the bucket and grunted happily. She trotted back to the black square chewing, her tail at full curlicue.
With Penny Jane now a willing subject, the official trial began. Over the next 20 minutes, she sat in the black square and repeatedly pondered which bucket to approach. A few times the lab assistant pointed to the bucket with the treat, and Penny Jane gave her the equivalent of a canine “duh” and followed her index finger to the correct one. When the lab assistant pointed to one bucket with her foot, Penny Jane paused and then walked to the other one, the empty one. But when the lab assistant hoisted a small television in both arms and then pointed to a bucket with her foot, Penny Jane readily went to the correct one. The lab assistant explained that this showed that Penny Jane understood contextual signals, meaning she saw the lab assistant’s hands were occupied so that she had to use a foot.
I began to swell with pride, though I fought it by repeating “bad girl, bad girl” in my head. My Penny Jane, the unsocialized pup who was described to me as the “scaredest” dog in the shelter, was turning in a solid B performance, and at Harvard University, no less. Then, in a section designed to test dogs’ sensitivity to human emotions, the lab assistant picked up a bucket in her hands and scolded it: “No, no, no.” As I feared, Penny Jane essentially put her pencil down. She stood up, walked to my side, lay down and looked out the window. The dog who’d never been corrected, never been spoken to sternly, wasn’t going anywhere near the now scary lab assistant or buckets, not even if filet mignon were stashed inside. We were going to be one of those test results.
After a break, Penny pulled herself together and finished the entire trial, including a last section that tested how she used her sense of smell to differentiate between the identical buckets. In the end, her results were pretty typical, except that she chose the correct bucket each time in the very section that gave her trouble.
As we left, the lab assistant handed me a Harvard diploma of a sort with Penny Jane’s name inked on it in big letters. I laughed it off to the lab assistant, but called my husband on the drive home to crow that our pound pup had a Harvard degree. The results of Hauser’s study and what they say about how dogs think are still in the offing, but as for what it said about me, the results were already painfully clear.
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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A woman, a man and a dog--three lives intersect
First-Place Winner in Bark's Short Story/Fiction Contest
The urge to offer Anya Graceen to Lemuel B. Garrett came upon Emma Roland Mystyshyn as powerfully as a lightning bolt the drizzly day Lem walked both woman and dog along the old canal. In the gray cold, he explained how the river had risen the second summer in which she and he had known each other in the second degree as friends of a mutual friend. At the edge of the again-rising river, when, to point, Lem let go of the hand she had slipped into his, Emma was overtaken with a raw and gnawing emptiness.
In an hour, she would head home from the city to the mountains, turning up the heat and turning down the music in her truck, following the river back to its source in an effort to return to the simple satisfactions of being a woman living with an easy dog. But when Lem took his hand away, Emma was aware too quickly, too clearly and much too keenly that she did not want to be without him. This realization and the urge to offer him Anya Graceen arrived within her simultaneously, viscerally, and with more force than any impulse she could remember in any of her sane years.
She bit her lip. What would even one day be without the warm scent and singular sound of breathing with which Anya G filled the shared space in which they lived and Emma worked? What would become of their familiar routine, of the ease with which woman and dog shared hours? Would Emma wake if Anya Graceen did not stare at her at dawn? Would noon pass unnoticed if Anya Graceen did not set her heavy jaw in Emma’s lap to request the mid-day walk? Could Emma rest at all without the nightly stroking and cooing that settled Anya G in her nest of blankets, without the comfort to them both of Emma’s tucking Anya’s little afghan around her thick brindle-bullish frame? And if Emma slept, would she wake in the night, alarmed not to hear Anya G snore?
Although Emma sought the aching knowledge that the absence of Anya Graceen could forge her a connection with the man Lemuel B. Garrett, what if he did not want Anya? What if he mistakenly assumed Emma did not love Anya fully but wanted to be relieved of her? What if Lem failed to see Emma’s offer of the dog as her first gesture toward something that might be called love? What if he would not share with Emma in this or any other way? What if—after giving away her Anya, after Lem understood and accepted Anya Graceen to be the living symbol of the profound and sustaining connection Emma so deeply desired to forge with him—what if then Emma herself again wanted no part of life with a man, even one as thoroughly good and sweet as this man?
So Emma Roland Mystyshyn swallowed the urge to put her palms to Lemuel B. Garrett’s clean-shaven cheeks and beseech him to let her give him, if only temporarily, the most precious gift of her dog. And as she worked to put down what rose in her that might form words offering Lem dog and endearment—while this desire, so suddenly and powerfully risen, also powerfully refused to be squelched—Emma became aware that the throb in her throat was not the stone of fear, but her heart, moved finally, then caught where it might choke her.
All this passed in her mind with blinding speed in the moment Lem’s unencumbered hand pointed above the muddy, roiling river. Of his part in this, Lem remained unaware. He brought the hand down and placed it in his pocket, effectively throwing Emma first into a brief state of relief that, reeling, she had not retched, and then into murk.
Though he had not actually acquired one, Lemuel B. Garrett had given deep and long thought to living with a dog. He had not given equal consideration to having a woman mucking around in his life, especially one so contextualized in full catastrophe and trailing a dog. Emma Roland Mystyshyn and the moon around her that was her sanguine Pit-Bullish bitch meteored into his orbit by accident, though he fleetingly pondered how much of their recent series of seemingly happenstance close encounters Emma herself may have, however haphazardly, arranged. Yet despite the whir of life’s chaotic, worn and sometimes partially dismantled machinery around her, Emma evoked in Lem the feeling created in most by white noise. Lem was not prepared to use the word serendipity, but there was in him sometimes a warm and not-quite-latent awareness of the potential for contentment, if not outright happiness, in their erratic trajectory. Lem smiled when he thought of Emma. They docked together briefly and irregularly, halting and jerking, and then they clanged apart, without either scheduling the next linkage. But increasingly, when he was with Emma, Lem noticed, he lingered.
“I’ve thought about getting a dog,” Lem said, petting Anya Graceen, who was positioning her butt beneath his hand. “I was thinking someday a Shiba Inu.” As he spoke, Lem looked at the velvet face and furrowed brow of Anya Graceen.
“Oh,” Emma responded to the back of Lem’s head. “A Shiba Inu.”
Emma found their differences magnetically compelling. How like Lem that he would want a dog of visibly distinguished breed, a compact independent sort, with a quick and prickly alertness he himself possessed but hid behind a closely considered and carefully managed countenance of comprehensive calm. She herself preferred and sought the sturdy not-exactly-identifiable mutt, the opportunistic and wide-ranging village dog on whom the natives might have poured their boiling water had it strayed into their unfenced yards so obviously and ardently in search of the next bit of sustenance and comfort. A village dog treated well stayed and quietly stood guard over what it recognized as its very good things, but a Shiba Inu was an escape artist, a wily screaming sprite of independent will whose need to be watchfully attended would wrap Lemuel B. Garrett into a man-dog duo tighter than the inner turn of its beautifully up-curved tail, a space in which there would be no room for Emma Mystyshyn or the motley gene pool of her thickly lovely and lazy Anya Graceen. And someday? Really, someday?
“Puppy or rescue?” Emma swallowed hard around rightnow and her lumpen heart.
“Adult,” said Lem. “Rescue. Like Miss Anya.”
It was something, so Emma breathed again.
And then Emma rifled the questions Lem might ask about Anya Graceen’s care, should she offer and he accept the gift of Anya’s shared time. What would his questions reveal? Although Emma craved knowing everything about Lem, even—perhaps especially—that of which he was not himself aware, Emma would take great care to anticipate and mitigate what, in answering, she might inadvertently reveal about herself. They were very un-alike, Emma and Lem, in ways she was convinced mattered. The man ate more and better meat in one day than she consumed in a week. Though she would not have been able clearly and succinctly to explain how, this, she felt, was a profound difference. What if he asked “Would a little bacon fat over Anya Graceen’s kibble be too rich for her digestion?” Emma could picture Anya Graceen’s rapturous wriggles as she anticipated such fat fragrant delicacy. But Emma needed practice answering. Despite ingrained habit, Emma would not allow herself to blurt that good drippings should not be wasted on a dog, because what Emma very much wanted to say to Lem was: “Dear man, you may do exactly as you please.”
To Emma, the man Lemuel B. Garrett was in his personal characteristics very like her beloved Anya Graceen. He hung back, observing, stepping forward into companionship quietly and on his terms. His pace was unique, irregular and—except for the moments in which he experienced powerful excitement—slow. He liked to be curled, covered and warm. He made direct, nonjudgmental eye contact. He was sweettempered but cautious. A very few things could in an instant set him snarling, but he backed off fast and seemed not to hold grudges. Rubbing roused him to generate a deeply rolling, guttural, subconscious hum. He snored some. And, like the dog, who generously gave dry little Pit Bull kisses and sometimes also tender, nibbled affections, he was superbly gentle with lips, tongue and teeth—and in the use of all these he was astonishingly and endearingly skilled.
And so, should Emma Roland Mystyshyn offer Lemuel B. Garrett even the short-term loan of her is-it-partly-Pit-Bull village dog Anya Graceen, Emma knew she would not—despite what his good nature might lead him to think—have at heart Lem’s best interests but her own. About this she tried to feel no guilt: from both observation and experience, Emma knew one took care of one’s own self best. But looking out well for one’s self did not necessarily obviate potential, practical or pleasurable good ends from sundry sharing, especially that of the most thoroughly intimate sort. Might not Emma’s best interests and Lem’s entwine? Emma watched Anya Graceen go loose-jointed with drunken-faced happiness as Lemuel stroked her. The dog moaned softly and then fell over in a post-petting stupor. In the unguarded moment between man and dog, Lem grinned, laughed out loud and bent still lower to rub the dog’s hot, pink belly with his open palm. Anyone who saw them would see, in that moment, man and dog were together supremely and thoroughly happy. Anya G’s doggy presence in Lemuel Garrett’s home might allow Emma ingratiating ingress to his life in a way she could hardly dare—or bear—the fullness of anticipating.
Intermittent walks, a little butt-rubbing. What they had was plenty good enough. But where, oh where, might it all lead? Dared Emma hope? Then again, why risk messing up what they already had? When it was over, when the familiar habits were mostly gone—however, wherever, they went—each might remember the way one would recall a film of someone else’s true or fictive life. Though now such things seemed gifts, some of their accumulating customs and routines would surely become annoyances each would rejoice in the loss of, though perhaps also simultaneously and differently grieve. And there would, for certain, be losses. There would most definitely be grief. There would, it was inevitable, be pain. Yes. Despite the restlessness that accompanies the breeding season, no matter what the news, the rabbit always died. But Lemuel stood, Emma said nothing and they walked together with the still-unbalanced Anya Graceen.
His pocket things settled on her table. His pants crumpled on her living room floor, from which, rising before him, she picked them up when Anya G was not nested in their folds. Though Lem set Emma’s bag near his bed, though it pleased him, comforted him, to see it there, the sight of her baggage startled them both, just as it was always a mild surprise to each to see Emma’s purse and keys near his door. He listened to her sing as she cooked, and they smelled each other in sheets and towels after they parted. Yet they had their days and weeks alone. They came and they went, entering and leaving, each accepting the unfathomable sorrows they had brought and might still bring on. What loss had they learned to live with, had perhaps come to love? Still, this once, this last time, why not allow some things, like joy, simply to be? Why not choose a shared way? If not now, when? Why not let all the rest work for, around, this contentment?
And so, when Lemuel B. Garrett turned toward her, Emma Roland Mystyshyn, like her dog Anya Graceen, positioned herself for possibility: Emma turned her face up to the rain and smiled at Lem. Lem raised an eyebrow and smiled at Emma. The dog Anya Graceen, observing the river, stood alongside. Whatever came next would be just fine.
Culture: Stories & Lit
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Heartfelt wishes bridge profound differences
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
The day after Thanksgiving is a busy one for the shelter
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
What are the odds the past and the present will collide on a Manhattan street?
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.
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,
“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.
“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.
“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.
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