“Okay. Dogs hate vivisection and I like dogs, so I hate it too,” he offers. Luis, a good-looking Latino who sold heroin on the street, volunteers to use chauvinistic and trundle in a sentence. In his heavy accent, he says, “I am chauvinistic about my home of Puerto Rico. I would like to trundle back there.”
Not to be outdone, Stanley, who sits next to Luis, adds, “They served us bad chow today in a perfunctory manner.”
Stanley obsesses about chow, and complains daily about taste, content and portion size. A barrel-shaped man in his late 50s, he is short, grizzled and universally recognized among staff and inmates as a malcontent. Most inmates have a nickname, and Stanley has three: Stumpy, Grumpy and Toad.
Today, we are finishing a book about a man’s team of sled dogs and his love for his favorite lead dog, who is slowing down with age. We talk about foreshadowing, and how the discussion of her decline is most likely leading to the part about her death. Luis read ahead the night before, and announces matter-of-factly, “I already know what happens. The dog dies.”
“Shit, now you ruined it for the rest of us,” says Stanley. “I hate that. Why should we even bother to finish it?”
“Nah, let’s just read it,” says Ralph, a large, loud lumberjack of a man who dislikes Stanley. “Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing to Stanley. “Who cares what the goddamn ending is, anyway? It’s a good story.”
It is my practice to do a lot of the reading aloud, and I choose to push through to the end of the book today so we can start Old Yeller tomorrow. They follow along in their own copies, and it is dead quiet as they listen, except for the occasional shouts that float in the window from the yard.
But no one hears them because we are in Minnesota, where it is white cold. We see the old sled dog as she stands in a snowy field at the spot where her owner used to put her in harness. The bitter wind whips her coat as she waits patiently for him to come. But her sledpulling days are over and the dog team is long gone. Her human walks out to the field to gently urge her back in the warm house. In the swirling snow, she leans against his leg and stares ahead at where the old sled trails used to be. My voice cracks. I know where this story is going. I stumble on for a few more sentences, then put the book down.
“I can’t read any more. Who wants to continue where I left off?” The men stare at me in silence. We hear the muffled voices from the yard through the window. Someone curses, followed by a loud guffaw. “I’ll try,” says Stanley gruffly. The man they call Grumpy lowers half-moon reading glasses onto his nose and begins He gets through one page before his gravel voice quavers. He puts the book down and takes off the glasses to wipe his eyes. “That’s it for me. I can’t finish it,” he says. “Somebody else take over.”
“I’ll do it,” says Paul quietly. The paperback book shakes in his hand as he brings us to the sad end that we knew was coming but hoped would not make us feel so bad. He gets through it just fine, but his eyes are red, and there is an awkward silence when he closes the book. They look around at one another and at me, wondering who will say something to break the uncomfortable moment.
Loud Ralph points at me. “Lookit you,” he says. “You’re all pink and weteyed.” They stare, relieved to focus on me instead of their feelings. “And your neck has red splotches,” he adds. They snicker, and examine my eyes and my neck and my weakness instead of their connection to the story.
“Thank you for pointing that out, Ralph,” I say. “But get used to it. I always cry over sad animal stories. And when we get to Old Yeller, you may be the one with the splotchy neck.”
I walk to the filing cabinet where there’s a fat roll of toilet paper for guys who need to blow their noses, and unwind a few sheets for myself. “Who wants a tissue?”
“I’ll take some of that,” says Paul.
“Yeah, gimme some too,” demands Stanley. “But make sure you give me enough. This state toilet paper is flimsy crap.” The three of us blow our noses and I hear a couple of secretive sniffs around the room.