Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Training dogs to use their indoor voice
A dog can’t jump on visitors if he’s sitting. He can’t run off if he’s on a stay. Training an incompatible behavior is a reliable way to squelch the unwanted.
But what about barking? Boston could bow and bark, bounce and bark, beg and bark. He barked on a stay, he barked while running with a ball in his mouth.
Boston was my guide dog, and though he loved to serve, he also loved to vocalize while on duty. At work, I often had to run him outside for an emergency bark break.
My husband, Bob, and I first thought of teaching him to speak on command in the hope that he’d learn to only bark on cue. We’d chase him around the house while tooting loudly on a beer bottle, a game he loved that set off a cacophony of woofs. “Speak,” we’d yell, and throw a treat as soon as he vocalized. It took Boston only two sessions to learn to speak.
Now we had the irrepressible Golden barking both on and off cue … but what, I wondered, was an incompatible behavior?
The epiphany came when I realized that it need not be exactly incompatible, just suppressed. We taught Boston to whisper.
This was super-easy to shape. Each day, only a softer bark elicited a treat. In a week, we had turned the volume down by half. A month later, Boston was whispering very quietly indeed.
When Boston retired, he became Bob’s pet, and they certified together under the Therapy Dogs International program. When they visited children in classrooms, Bob demonstrated how Boston could both speak and whisper on command. (Teachers often reminded their overly loud classes that even the dog had an indoor voice.)
Years later, when we adopted Dayton, another bouncy and vocal Golden, we put “whisper” into practice right away. Though the command hasn’t eliminated Dayton’s barking altogether, after a few woofs, he often reverts to whispering softly to himself as he roams the yard and house.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There’s a trail along the river near my house where I often jog with my Flat-Coated Retriever mix, Sylvia. I let her run off-leash until I see someone fishing along the bank. Then I lunge for her collar.
Sylvia is usually good about staying close. She’s a classic Retriever that way — laid back, happy-go-lucky, eager to please. But if she hears the thrash of a hooked fish or the whir of a reel, forget it. She’s headfirst in the water, greeting the fish as it’s reeled ashore. Or worse, startling the fish so it breaks the line and swims free.
This wouldn’t be a problem if other anglers felt the way my husband, Scott, and I do. We go fly-fishing about 50 days a year, and Sylvia joins us every time. Unfortunately, ask most fishermen about bringing a dog along and you’ll get this pithy advice: Don’t. A dog, they’ll tell you, will blunder into a promising hole, scattering wary trout. A dog will get tangled in your line. A dog will prevent you from catching as many fish as you would alone.
They’re right, of course.
But the dogless fishermen are, I think, missing the point. I don’t choose a fishing companion — human or canine — because he or she will help me land more fish. I choose to go fishing with someone who makes it fun. By that definition, I can’t imagine a better fishing buddy than Sylvia.
Then again, Sylvia isn’t your typical fishing dog. She doesn’t get bored and wander off. She won’t chase ducks or squirrels. When we’re fishing, Sylvia channels all of her energy into fishing, too. She watches every cast, her eyes glued to my fly as it floats downstream. She knows at what point in the drift a fish is most likely to bite, so she positions herself for a good view of the action. Her entire body quivers with anticipation.
Occasionally, I snag a submerged stick. If I were alone, I’d be disappointed to reel in a piece of wood instead of a fish. But with Sylvia there, it’s not a bad consolation prize. I unhook my fly, then place the branch in Sylvia’s open mouth and watch as she cavorts around in a sort of victory lap.
Once, Scott and his father stood on the bank of a wide river and debated their strategy for fishing it. They saw bugs all over the surface of the water, but no fish were swimming up to eat them. Suddenly, Sylvia splashed into the river, plowing a wake as she paddled to the other side. Scott and his dad squinted. Sure enough, in the shade along the far shore, fish were rising. The humans weren’t paying enough attention to notice, but Sylvia was.
Like any weathered angler, Sylvia has endured fishing-related mishaps. She got her foot caught in a beaver trap. She bit down on a fly and the hook pierced her tongue. She once came home from a day on the river — too early in the season, we thought, to warrant topical pest treatments — with dozens of ticks caught in her coat. Nothing has dulled her enthusiasm.
One winter, Scott went steelhead fishing several weekends in a row. To have a chance at catching these huge, sea-run trout, he had to be on the river by sunrise. His early awakenings set Sylvia’s internal alarm clock, and when the season ended, we couldn’t turn it off. Every morning at exactly 4:30 am, she crept up to Scott’s side of the bed and nudged him awake.
We once spent a Memorial Day weekend flogging three renowned trout streams from sunrise to sunset. But constant rainstorms had swollen and muddied the water, so we never felt a bite. By the end of the third day, casting my line was an exercise in meditation more than function. No matter what fly I tied on, I wasn’t going to catch anything. Why even bother?
Then I’d look down at Sylvia, her brown eyes still focused on my line. Her rain-soaked hair stood in otterlike spikes. Her pink tongue darted from her lips to her nose. Her muscles were tense with unwavering optimism. She was, I realized, more than a good fishing buddy. She was the perfect angler. She embodied the fascination that pulls every fisherman to the river, the singular thought that keeps us drawing back our rods, again and again.
This next cast, she seemed to be thinking, this could be the one.
Editor Note: On 10/8/17 The New York Times published a very thoughtful, and well-commented, OpEd by this author about guns and regulatiing firearms. Confessions of a Sensible Gun Owner.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Dogs shape our lives, so what do we do when they’re gone?
I'm in the Palatial Tampa Theater with my husband, eating fistfuls of hot popcorn and watching Oscar-nominated animated film shorts. This is just one of the activities he has planned for us while we’re in Florida, in what will be a series of valiant efforts to get my mind off my grief.
The last entry, Mr. Hublot, is an 11-minute film about a charming little robot man who lives alone in a house full of clocks and mechanical plants. Every day, Hublot rises at the same time and goes about his chores in the same order—winding the clocks, watering the plants—before jetting off to work. One morning, mid-routine, Hublot catches sight of a robot puppy as it darts into a discarded box on the street. Then he sees the city garbage truck lumbering toward it.
Hublot saves the puppy, and his daily routine expands. Each morning, after winding clocks and watering plants, he feeds the robot pup breakfast. It’s a rich diet of nuts and bolts, motor oil, and chains, and soon the pup grows so comically large that Hublot must widen his thresholds and hallways. When the dog grows too tall for the room, Hublot must make a decision: get rid of it or find a bigger home for both of them. In the movie’s final frame, the two sit happily side by side in an enormous empty warehouse.
The lights come up, but I don’t move. My husband and I sit quietly, shoulders touching, until the crowd shuffles out and the echo of voices fades. Then he pats my thigh.
“C’mon,” he says gently. “We have to go.”
We’re in Florida for a few days because my husband has work here. He is an artist who travels around selling high-end work to wealthy patrons. I’m a writer who works mainly from home in a tiny upstairs office with three dogs I call my employees. Until recently, that is.
“Let’s go to work!” I’d say every morning, and they would scamper upstairs and take their places on the rug and under the desk and in the chair beneath the window. When they were older and could no longer manage the stairs, I carried them up one by one—a human ferry, depositing them on the landing and instructing them to wait until I got the next one, and then the next one. At lunchtime, we’d reverse the process, and after lunch, we’d start all over again.
But a year ago, I put the 12-year-old to sleep (her heart was failing), followed by the 16-year-old a month ago (his liver was failing), followed by the 14-year-old a week ago (everything was failing, and she was a wreck without the other two). For the first time in 36 years, I am dogless. Cocker Spaniel-less, to be exact. Not that the breed matters, except that Cockers happen to be especially cheerful dogs, loyal to a fault and worshipful of their owners. Having three was like being the benevolent dictator of an extremely happy country.
“You should come on this trip,” my husband suggested, a few days after we put the last dog down. “It would be a good distraction.”
We’d go to the movies and explore downtown St. Pete and the Dali Museum. While he was at meetings, I could write. None of this excited me. But when I weighed the option of staying behind in a house newly emptied of dogs against taking a trip I didn’t want to take, I decided the former was worse.
So I packed. Out of habit, I moved stealthily from suitcase to closet, sliding my feet as if on snowshoes though there were no dogs in my path to trip over, and none tailgating. I once read that writer David Foster Wallace liked to get into a cab and ask to be taken to some ridiculously un-urgent destination, such as the library, then adding, just for fun, “… and step on it!” It made me think about my dogs, always skittering behind me, their precisely aimed noses pushing urgently into the backs of my knees, as if to say, To the kitchen, and step on it! To the sofa, and step on it!
My husband and I file out of the Tampa Theater and walk through the darkened streets to the car. It has rained, and the air is cool. The smell of garlic drifts from a nearby restaurant.
“I’m starved,” he says.
“That was sad,” I say.
He reminds me that everything ended well for Hublot and his dog. Then he puts his arm around me and pulls me in close. He knows what I mean. Even a happy story is a sad story for a sad person.
But it’s not just that Hublot’s sweet tale of rescue and devotion feeds my grief. It’s that the larger story —the endless accommodations Hublot made for the dog and the all-consuming dedication that ultimately came to define him—is my story as well.
I almost never travel with my husband. Partly this is because I’m the kind of person who clings to home, who likes to cook and putter and take walks around my own neighborhood more than I like to explore new places. But mostly I didn’t travel with him because I hated to leave the dogs for more than a night, even though I had a sitter who loved them almost as much as I did. Despite the fact that she’d worked for us for 20 uneventful years, I worried that in my absence my dogs were lonely and bored and in near-constant danger. It was a worry that ruined everything from overseas trips to overnight jaunts.
Two years ago, my husband convinced me to go on a week-long excursion to France. He would do everything— research tickets, make our accommodations, plan our days—if I’d just learn to operate the Blackberry we’d use while overseas. I agreed. Upon our arrival in Paris, I was immediately distraught because I could not remember if I had engaged the dog sitter (I had, of course), and I could not call her.
This was because I’d discovered that learning to use the Blackberry caused me to think about being away from the dogs, so I didn’t do it. I spent our entire first day stumbling down the Champs-Élysées and in and out of pastry shops and the Louvre staring down at the tiny, mysterious phone, punching random buttons, willing it to call home. When at last by some miracle it did, it was three in the morning back in the U.S., and the dog sitter was groggy and alarmed.
“Are you okay?” she croaked into the phone, her voice gravelly with sleep. “Yes!” I shouted. “Are you at my house?” “Of course,” she said, sounding bewildered. I apologized profusely for waking her. Then I apologized profusely to my husband for the distraction. Within an hour, I was worried again, afraid the dogs were sad without me and that the sitter would forget to padlock the gate when she went out. But that was then and this is now. There are no dogs pining for me at home or on the edge of danger. The worst that could happen has happened.
My husband’s art rep owns the 23rd floor penthouse condo in St. Petersburg where we are staying. Like the theater, it’s palatial. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the living room, offering a dizzying view of the bay, a busy small aircraft landing strip and the Dali museum. We waste no time selecting one of the four enormous bedrooms to drop our bags and learning to operate the espresso machine in the kitchen. We kick off our shoes and take our coffee onto the balcony. Below us on the street, people and cars and horse-drawn carriages mill about, all of it so far down that the symphony of voices and engines and clopping hooves barely reaches us. It is as if we exist in a world apart.
My husband loved the dogs every bit as much as I did. He loved to snuggle with them and take walks, and he, like me, marveled endlessly at their quirks (look how she folds her paws under, like a lamb; look how he buries his head behind the pillows, like an ostrich!). Whenever we went out, he turned on the golf channel.
“They love golf,” he’d say, grinning at them lined up on the sofa.
But I was the one who’d pulled them off the streets. I was the one who fed and bathed and took them to the vet and managed their pills and their diet and their days. And not just the three Spaniels, but the four dogs before them as well. There were mornings, washing my hair and brushing my teeth, that I wanted to scream from the boredom of it, the repetition (hair again?! teeth again?!), and yet never did I weary of asking my dogs whether they were, at suppertime, ready to eat; or at potty time, to potty; or at walk time, to walk, even though I knew the answers to these questions were yes, yes, always and forever yes.
Like Hublot under the spell of his growing pup, my meticulous tending to the ever-expanding needs of my dogs became the point of my life. It was what defined me. It was not what defined my husband. I know for a fact that he never once thought his life would be pointless without dogs.
Our second day in St. Pete, we do everything else on my husband’s list of distractions: Dali Museum, antiquing, lunching downtown. At 2 pm, he catches a cab to a meeting and I walk back to the penthouse. I stand in the silence of the living room, then make coffee and take my laptop out on the balcony. Thirty minutes later, having done nothing but watch prop planes glide in and out of the airport, I go back inside and lie down facing the back of the sofa. Two hours, later my phone rings, jolting me out of the blackness of sleep. “The meetings went great!” shouts my husband. I’m to meet him downstairs in an hour. I put down the phone and walk over to the window. Below, the street still swarms with traffic and crowds and horse carriages. It looks frantic to me, like throngs of people desperately seeking diversion from boredom or sorrow or regret. To pleasure, and step on it!
I often wonder how it’s possible to know the end is coming for your dogs, and to still be shocked when they die. How, when they could no longer breathe or eat or shit—the advance guards of imminent death—and you made the decision to euthanize, you could somehow feel you’d been heartless. As if, had you truly loved them, you’d have engineered something beyond biological possibility. You’d have made them immortal, like Hublot’s mechanical dog.
Suddenly I am visited by a crushing homesickness. I’ve fled back to home from wherever I was for so long, I still feel urgently that I must go there, regardless of what does or doesn’t await me. Even without dogs there is alive in me the same panicked, compulsive tending—once to their presence, now to their absence. I think of devoted Hublot, in a final sacrifice to the ever-expanding needs of his dog, moving to an empty warehouse, marking a renunciation of life as he knew it. As if to say, There is now only this. Only us. What began as expansion—saving a pup—becoming, in the end, a contraction. A narrowing. A sealing off of the exits.
This was not what I intended. This is why, when our last dog died, my husband asked for a year before getting another. And this is why I agreed.
I leave the condo and walk down to the harbor. The sun is hot on my neck, the water calm except for tiny swells that form around the boats, are swallowed up, form, and are swallowed up again in a rhythm that is hypnotic to watch. When at last I look up, my husband is standing over me, his tall, lanky form backlit by the sun. He sits down, puts his arm around me and kisses me. His shirt and lips are still cool from the chilled indoor air of his meetings. For now, there is only this. Only us.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I was sitting on the sofa thinking about sleep when you walked into the room. Standing in front of me, you gazed into my eyes, your mouth opening and closing and opening again like you had something to say. Maybe fatigue was making my thoughts a little fuzzy, but in that instant, I realized that I loved you.
Do you remember the day we met? I do because I had gone looking for someone else, not you. I dragged my husband out because I wanted to see the white speckled dog with the broad head whose photo graced the front page of the animal shelter’s website. When I asked about him, the adoption counselor told me that he was too energetic for a first-time dog owner. Then she directed me to you: your elbows scabbed, your body slightly misshapen, your white-and- brindle coat patchy. If I were more assertive, I would’ve told her that I didn’t like brindle dogs because they looked like criminals, but she was already putting a leash on you and I didn’t want her to know about my canine prejudices.
“He’s not all brindle,” I said to my husband as we followed you and the counselor outside to a dusty enclosure. Your name was Dante then, but that didn’t matter because you didn’t answer to it. You ran to the opposite side of the enclosure to look at something much more interesting than us through the chain link. I wondered if you were deaf. You weren’t, just indifferent.
Only a couple of minutes passed before the adoption counselor asked, “Well, what do you think? Do you like him?”
“I guess he’ll do,” I said.
The counselor beamed and directed me to the office to fill out paperwork. Looking back, I think she wasn’t a very good adoption counselor. Either that or she was brilliant. Regret was already washing over me, but I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d changed my mind. I’d never had a dog before, and a realization of the upheaval that you would bring was slowly sinking in.
My husband lifted you into the back seat of our car and I crawled in to sit next to you on our journey home. Was your heart beating as quickly as mine that day? Were you as filled with fear and anticipation?
Those first few nights, I’d wake up to see you standing next to me, watching me as I slept. Then I’d hear the click of your nails on the hardwood as you went to the other side of the bed to watch my husband for a few moments more before returning to your own bed. You made this journey many times during the night.
In the beginning, I wanted to take you back to the shelter. I never told you that, did I? I was unprepared and inadequate. Secretly, I was afraid for your life and mine. You weren’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. It was a disaster. My husband made me keep you.
Do you remember the day you learned to sit? Was that as amazing for you as it was for me? Do you remember all the time we spent in the backyard, me teaching you to jump over boards propped up on paint cans? I had big plans for you. We were going to compete in agility. The only problem was that you didn’t like to jump over anything … ever. You also didn’t fetch. Which was fine because I think that’s a dumb game too.
I do like having you around. I like the way you run at the back fence when someone walks down the alley, the way you kind of tap dance through the house when you’re in a playful mood, the way you roll around on your back in the sunshine after a bath.
The steady rhythm of your snoring keeps me company on nights my husband works late. When we walk down the street, people often call out to me, “That’s a really good-looking dog.” I say thanks.
You lay on the floor behind me breathing heavily as I write this love letter to you. I hope that after all this time, maybe you love me too.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A small dog charms, people try to claim her.
For a good part of my life—16 years —I had a dog named Lala. During our time together, she was stolen from me three times. Now, Lala was not any kind of pedigreed canine, but rather, a small mixed-breed, part Chihuahua, part Dachshund and part something else, possibly German Shepherd. She looked like a miniature German Shepherd—blonde with black tips—and weighed around 11 pounds. She was undeniably appealing—dark, expressive eyes and chronic joyousness—but she was not the kind of dog you could fence for money.
With people, Lala was the friendliest, most loving dog imaginable; I’ve never met another dog with so purely affectionate a nature. She, in turn, inspired affection and even goodness in the most unlikely and even unlikable human beings. Although when it came to other dogs, Lala was fearless and ferocious.
I used to say that her motto was two-fold: come from love and kill big dogs. If she’d had a different kind of owner (if, indeed, she’d stayed with her second captors) she might have become a bear dog, a fyce (as Faulkner calls them), one of those little yappy things who runs right up to bears, barking and nipping, but is too small and too close to the ground for the bear to reach underneath and eviscerate with a claw swipe. As it was, I once had to pry an Airedale’s teeth off her throat. Lala antagonized other dogs, especially those larger than herself.
Ah, but humans, Lala adored and trusted indiscriminately. Once, in a supermarket parking lot, she shot out of my car and ran across two aisles to greet a family of strangers as though they were her own long lost kin. She made human friends wherever we went.
I found her at a small sawmill in the Southern Sierra foothills where I routinely stopped to fill my trunk with scraps for my wood-burning stove. One day, a small puppy with an infected eye came up and licked my ankle. “Whose dog is this?” I asked the owner.
“Yours,” he said. Then added, “Somebody left three puppies in the ditch. Please take her, or my wife will.”
I took her. And drove directly to the vet, who pulled a foxtail out of her eye, gave her puppy shots and said that she was around four months old. Maybe two weeks later, she was stolen from me for the first time.
I was living in the country, amoung the oak- and grass-covered foothills outside a small town I’ll call Mayville on the banks of the Chula River. (I’ve changed names to protect the guilty—and to protect myself from the guilty.) On Memorial Day, I drove into Mayville to see my friend Fanny. Her back yard was on the river. We spent the hot afternoon walking several hundred yards up the bank, then floating downstream in inner tubes. Fanny’s two dogs and Lala ran up and down along the bank with us. People were in their yards, barbecuing, and cooling off in the river. Lala made friends left and right, with families and retirees and an old hermit, and was an instant hit with a small pack of eight- to 10-year-old boys. The dogs were always there to greet us as we pulled ourselves out of the water. Then, at one point, Lala wasn’t with them.
Fanny and I spent the rest of the afternoon scouring Mayville, calling and whistling, to no avail. I came across the pack of boys who’d befriended Lala. They’d seen her, but couldn’t say exactly where, or when, or agree which way she’d gone. I gave up searching after dark, and had a very bad night.
The next morning, Fanny called from work; she was a teacher’s aide at the local school. One of the little boys, she said, had had an attack of conscience. He’d admitted that he and his friends had stolen Lala and put her in an outbuilding behind his house in Mayville. Fanny gave me the address, directions and the eight-year-old’s description of the place. I drove into town.
I found the address easily—a house on an acre of shady land with at least five outbuildings on the property. Nobody answered the door of the main house, so I walked around to the back. Three sheds were locked, and another was an old outhouse filled with gardening tools. The last building was a small substandard dwelling —Mayville was filled with uninsulated shacks and shanties that people once vacationed in—and I was heading toward it when a woman came out of the main house. She was slim and good-looking, with black hair in the big, sprayed style of a cocktail waitress. “What are you doing?” she said. Not friendly.
“I’m looking for my little blonde dog,” I said. “Your son said she’s here, in one of the back buildings.”
“No,” said the woman. “I told him to take the dog back to you yesterday, and he did. There’s no dog here.”
“I’d just like to look in there,” I said, pointing to the one unsearched building.
“I can’t let you in there,” said the woman. “It’s not mine. And there’s nothing in there, anyway. It’s empty. You won’t find anything.”
I wavered. It felt rude to insist. The woman seemed so certain, and so hard. She was not someone to mess with.
Then I heard something. Or thought I did. A yip. Or a hunch of a yip.
“Still,” I said, walking past the woman. “I’m going to look.”
I reached the door and turned the knob. The door opened. I did not see an empty house. Rather, I took one step inside a room crammed with electronic equipment—televisions, stereos, soundboards, stacks and stacks of them. There was only a narrow aisle through all the stuff. And suddenly, swerving around a pillar of speakers and running full tilt, there was Lala.
The boys, when tired of her, had simply put her in with all the other stolen goods.
Lala, wriggling with pleasure, let me kiss and pet her briefly, then ran outside, and took a good long pee on the lawn. (Now, that’s a good dog!)
“You have to go now,” said the woman.
I ignored her and, turning on a faucet, gave Lala water out of my hands (she was very thirsty). We left only after Lala drank her fill.
Mayville, as is obvious, was a quirky little town; there were near-luxury homes and small ranchos in the nearby hills. Modest, well-tended riverfront properties alternated with falling-down, paint-thirsty, more rustic constructions. The town itself was a few blocks long with few merchants and no prospects—no economic base, no industry. Locals logged, or commuted 12 miles to the next larger town to work. There were a couple of bars, some small grocery stores, a gas station, a post office, a struggling café, two struggling dinner houses, a decent hardware store.
Juvenile dognappers and stolen-goods-keepers were not, unfortunately, the town’s only or worst criminal element. Mayville had its own homegrown sociopath, who was in jail when I first moved there, but I heard all about him.
Wren Hickles was known for stealing; wrecking other people’s property; running cars off the road; and sudden, unprovoked, violent assaults. He was prodigious in his antics and there was hardly a family in Mayville who had not suffered at his hands. For a long time, nobody would press charges against him because they were too afraid of him. Finally, a man whom Wren had beaten savagely for no reason in broad daylight on Main Street had him arrested and convinced several reluctant witnesses to testify. Wren Hickles was sent to Soledad State Prison for three years.
As those years were coming to a close, a murmur rose in the town. His name came up more and more. The old stories took on new life. This wedding party ruined by drunken rampaging. That truck full of firewood forced off the mountain road. This house broken into, trashed. That bloody fistfight.
And then Wren Hickles was back. The news rippled through the small community. He applied for a job in the hardware store; the owner, a friend of mine, said Wren seemed friendlier and smarter than before, and also funny. “One thing, though,” said the owner. “He was leaning against that glass display of pocket knives while he was talking to me, and when he left, half the knives were gone as well.” My boyfriend at the time was a local. It was his brother who had succeeded in having Wren Hickles sent to jail. “If you see him,” my boyfriend said, “Don’t do anything to attract his notice.”
Not long after his return, I saw Wren Hickles for the first time. I’d stopped at the convenience store to pump gas and there was a lean snaggle-toothed guy, shirtless, his back tattooed with a clumsy lightning bolt and the word Mayville. A prison tattoo. He was smoking pot with another guy right by the pumps while, a few feet away, a woman wept in a car. A bad scene. I decided to get gas elsewhere.
I told my boyfriend that I’d finally laid eyes on the notorious parolee. “Stay below his radar,” my boyfriend said. “Or, believe me, you’ll regret it.”
Lala disappeared on a weekday. I was driving in to work, and I was a little late, and she chased me farther than usual, past the gate to my property and partway down the side road to the highway. I stopped the car and yelled at her and ordered her home. I wasn’t worried she’d get lost. We often walked this far together, and every morning, she and my Lab, Olive, went for long exploratory runs in the barely populated hills. But when I came home nine hours later, Olive was there and Lala was not. I drove around the neighborhood calling her, and the next morning, I contacted all the neighbors. Nobody had seen her.
I made handbills and hung them up on telephone posts and fence posts, in the Mayville post office, on the supermarket bulletin board. Days passed. A week. Nobody phoned. Then, one day, I came home late at night to a message on my answering machine. “I know where yer dog’s at,” said a man in a thick backwoods drawl. “An’ this is Lawrence …” No further message. No call-back number. Just a click.
Lawrence. I didn’t know any Lawrence. I asked around. There was a retired dentist named Lawrence “This didn’t sound like a dentist,” I said. I played the message for my boyfriend and watched his face darken. “I’ll handle it,” he said.
I begged him not to. I promised to talk to the deputy sheriff the next morning. I promised I wouldn’t approach Wren Hickles myself.
And promptly broke that promise. The next morning, I went into town to pick up my mail. I’d heard by then that Wren Hickles had a job at the Mobil station, so I drove on over. He was washing the office window. “Hi,” I said. “Are you Lawrence?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, turning. He put the squeegee in his bucket and offered me his hand.
We shook. “I’m Michelle,” I said. “I think you called me about my dog who’s lost.”
“I seen your sign in the post office,” he said. “The Greens got her—you know the Greens?”
Of course I did. The Greens were a big notorious mountain family, all men, except for the mother whose name was—I kid you not—Ophelia. The father, Robert, was a hunting guide; one son was a logger, another was a tree surgeon. The third was the runt of the family who was actually called Pipsqueak —he was trustworthy and a hard worker, the one people hired for chores around the house and yard. The youngest son was a beautiful hunk who soon moved south to star in pornographic movies.
“I was gonna call you again,” said Wren Hickles. “Nice little dog. You better get her quick, ’fore they get any more attached to her.”
I drove straight up the mountain road to the Greens’ house. I parked behind a row of pickups and flatbeds. As I got out of the car, the first living thing I saw was Lala.
She took one look at me and tucked her tail between her legs, as if she’d done something very wrong.
“Oh, Lala,” I said. “You’re okay, I’m not mad.” And shortly, she was there, licking my face.
With Lala in my arms, I knocked on the door. Only Ophelia was home. Her husband, Robert, she said, had found “Sunny” on the street where I lived. “She would’ve come home,” I said.
“I thought she was someone’s pet,” Ophelia said, vaguely. “We were going to put an ad in the paper.”
When?, I wondered.
Ophelia reached out and stroked Lala’s head. “She’s the first dog Robert’s let in the house in years.”
I took Lala home and she didn’t get stolen again for another 13 years. But I did have one more exchange with Wren Hickles. He pulled up next to me in his car at a highway stop and asked if I got my dog back. Not long afterward, less than a year after he’d been paroled, he fled the state. He’d carjacked a vehicle, locked its owner in the trunk and sent it off the side of a mountain; while the owner survived, Wren’s parole was definitely in violated. The last thing I heard, he was being extradited from Missouri.
Lala and I moved back to the city— first to Pasadena, where we lived for six years in a courtyard of Craftsmen cottages. We didn’t have a yard, so I walked Lala several times a day, and in sunny, mild weather, tied her to a faucet out front so she could lie in the sun and greet her many friends going up and down the courtyard walkway. If I didn’t put her out for a few days, it was not unusual for strangers to knock on the door and ask after her. Oh, Lala and her legion of friends.
From Pasadena, we moved to Atwater, an odd little suburb of Los Angeles near Griffith Park. We had a huge fenced-in yard, and Lala took her responsibility —guarding the property—seriously, at least when it came to other dogs. Every perambulating canine was announced, and many barked back. Except for this constant ferocity, Lala befriended the entire neighborhood— which is more than I can say for myself.
We were happy in Atwater except for one thing. One major thing. We had a crazy next-door neighbor, a woman who had repeatedly been charged with being a “neighborhood nuisance.” Therese was in her late 70s and surely mentally ill; she was filled with hatreds, resentments and frustrations—and that’s putting her pathology nicely. All of my neighbors warned me about her. She called the authorities about everything, real and imagined, any infringement, no matter how small. When people, forgetting something, pulled back in their driveways and ran into their house, she called parking enforcement if they blocked the sidewalk. If a car was parked in one spot over the 72-hour limit, or with a bumper in the red zone, or more than 18 inches from the curb, she called to have them ticketed.
She must have had a list of every petty authority and enforcer in Los Angeles County. She called the county agriculture inspector many times about my garden: when I mulched my roses with straw (she believed mice live in straw and therefore, the day I mulched, called and told the inspector I had an infestation of vermin). She called him when I made a compost heap (she thought it was garbage) and when I fertilized with steer manure (she said I’d strewn excrement on the premises). When I first moved in, she phoned my landlord every time I had a house guest or a visiting dog and told him I had a new roommate and/or a new pet. He didn’t care, and began hanging up on her. Everyone in the neighborhood avoided and ignored her as much as possible.
Except Lala. Lala was as happy to see old Therese as she was to see almost anybody. Also, despite my endless requests to the contrary, Therese constantly fed Lala table scraps. Lala was perhaps the only living creature who ever exhibited even the slightest pleasure at the sight of this bitter, vindictive old woman. (Therese’s own husband, a timid man, would sometimes raise his voice in unmistakable agony, “Therese, you are an evil, evil person,” an assessment with which we neighbors, wincing in sympathy, unanimously agreed.) Lala had more compassion and humanity—and a greater love of table scraps—than all of us combined.
One chilly Sunday afternoon, I was watching videos in bed with my boyfriend. We were watching the Prime Suspect miniseries, one episode after another. The only problem was, the phone kept ringing. And it was nobody good, nobody whom I wanted to talk to more than I wanted to watch Helen Mirren solve crimes. Finally, after someone called to ask how to make pot roast, my boyfriend said, “Don’t answer it anymore, okay?”
Lala was in and out of the house at her whim, sometimes joining us on the bed, sometimes patrolling the yard. The phone rang several times over a period of an hour. “God, you get a lot of calls on a Sunday,” said my boyfriend.
Then, someone was pounding on the door.
I jumped up, pulled on a robe and answered the door. It was Therese, with her weary, sagging face and hideously swollen legs. She was 80 by then and nearer the end of her life than we even hoped. My house sat deep in the lot; it must have been an enormous effort for her to walk all the way down my driveway. She’d been banging the door with her aluminum canes.
“A man stole Lala,” she said. “I’ve been trying to call you. He just opened the gate and stepped in and picked her up. He had white hair and a white moustache and a whole bouquet of white flowers. He probably stole those too,” she said.
My boyfriend and I went into action. Dressed. Grabbed cell phones. We were so steeped in Prime Suspect, it seemed as though we were setting off into our own crime drama episode.
In my truck, we drove up and down the streets, stopping and interrogating every person we encountered: “Have you seen a small blonde dog with a white-haired man?” We had asked maybe 10 people before we got the answer we wanted.
“I saw them,” said the man. “I asked him, ‘Where’d you get that dog?’ and he said he’d found her in the street.”
The man, he went on to say, hung out at the liquor store over on Fletcher, by the Foster’s Freeze. We drove off in hot pursuit.
We found our prime suspect sitting on a cinderblock wall at Foster’s. “Where’s my dog?” I asked him.
“Your dog? I haven’t seen your dog,” he said.
And then, in the long grass behind him, I saw a familiar black-tipped tail. When he saw me see her, he said, “I tried to call you and tell you I found her lost in the street.”
I was running across the parking lot, yelling Lala’s name. Lala jumped off the wall and into my arms. I was shaking with fear and loss and relief.
The dognapper asked my boyfriend for a reward.
My boyfriend said something suitably macho and dramatic—“If I ever catch you anywhere near our house, or that dog again, you’ll be sorry you ever saw that dog …”
And thus was Lala restored to me, again through the agency of a public enemy. We laughed about it— the high drama, the solving of a crime—but I was also keenly aware that it could have turned out very badly indeed.
I had almost 16 happy years with Lala. As with many dogs, she was a study in unconditional love, but in her case, it was unconditional love of the most extroverted and expressive variety. She could beguile and charm even the worst of human beings, and somehow make them behave admirably on her behalf. She forced me to see the faintest spark of goodness in people. She made it impossible to thoroughly despise some of the most feared and disliked citizens in my community, for she brought out the best in them, brought out whatever trace of affection and responsibility slumbered within them. An entire town feared and despised Wren Hickles, and for excellent reasons, but my interaction with him was only positive: he did me a great favor. And while I suffered living next door to horrible old Therese and was frankly relieved when she died, I cannot hate her unconditionally, for she did, when quite ill, make her long, slow way to my house to tell me Lala had been taken.
Ah, Lala. You were a better human than I—except when it came to other dogs.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A vacation in Mexico opens doors, and hearts, to a stray dog.
My friends knew that kayaking the Sea of Cortez was a big entry on my bucket list, so when I turned 50, we planned a February trip to Baja California to do just that. Over the years, this group of women and I had hiked and kayaked in some adventurous places, but little did I know that this trip would change my life and the life of a street dog in ways I never imagined.
When we got off the plane in Loreto, Mexico, a wave of excitement went through me as I looked at the small airport terminal with its thatched roof and felt the warm sun on my face. We were picked up by a van sent by our hotel, a small eco-tourist establishment catering to kayakers. When we reached the hotel, I noticed an emaciated dog next to the entrance.
The dog sat quietly, almost as though she knew that if she were too eager, we might be put off and ignore her. I reached into my pack and pulled out crackers I had saved from the flight and held one out to her. She took it ever so gently. Most starving dogs would have lunged, but not this one. She sat there quietly and looked at me with beautiful brown eyes. I gave her another cracker and again, she gently took it from my hand. By this time, everyone was out of the van and the innkeeper was calling us to check in. The dog didn’t move; she sat there and watched me as I entered the courtyard and hotel office.
It had been a long day and we went to bed almost immediately. The next morning, after a light breakfast, we headed into town to explore before meeting our guides. As we left the hotel, I turned to see the dog trailing our group, close to me as I brought up the rear. She was very friendly and let me pet her; in fact, she rolled onto her back so that I could rub her belly. I assumed that with the tourists, this submissive posture won her friends easily. She was very dusty and I noticed that she had recently nursed puppies.
As we got to the eastern end of town, we came upon the Sea of Cortez. It was beautiful, and I was happy that we would be out on the water soon. As we took pictures along the sea wall, the dog stayed near, always keeping us in sight.
That night, we walked into town to a small café, again with our four-legged friend behind us. During dinner, she sat outside. It was clear to me that this was one smart dog. Partway through the meal, Rose handed me her napkin filled with chicken bits and tilted her head toward the dog. I smiled as I put the napkin in my pocket. Following dinner, we gave her the chicken bits and she once again took the food with a gentle mouth. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small grocery and bought a package of bologna, which we shared with the dog before we turned in for the night.
We left the hotel early the next morning on our way 10 miles south to our starting point. As we loaded our bags into the van, I noticed the dog sitting in her usual spot at the hotel entrance. I stroked her head and said good-bye. It is hard to describe the sweetness in her face. She had the most expressive eyes, eyes that looked through to my soul. I have never seen a dog with such a gentle way about her. It drew me in.
As the van left the curb, Sally noticed that the dog was trotting behind us, following the van as we left town. As our speed increased, the dog began running. She ran for two miles before giving up. I sat silent in the front seat, tears streaming down my cheeks, touched deeply by this dog who was chasing me out of town. It would be hard to forget.
It was a wonderful week of kayaking. We explored islands and slept in tents on scenic sand beaches. Our guides spoiled us with delicious meals and serenaded us with flute music each night. One moonlit night after dinner, we paddled out and were mesmerized by the luminescent plankton excited by the movement in the water—the sea seemed to catch fire. Every day we explored new areas, snorkeling through blue water with fish and coral in colors hard to describe. However, the street dog was never far from my mind. Her look had penetrated my heart and soul.
As only someone who’s in sync can do, Annie knew what I was thinking without me saying a thing. Our last night out on the islands, as we watched the sun set over the Baja, Annie said, “I know you’re thinking about that dog.” I sat there in silence. She asked what it was about that dog. I said I could certainly leave Mexico without the dog … sure, I would think about her for a long time, but would eventually forget. We had two dogs at home whom I loved dearly, so I wasn’t dog-deprived. “But,” I then said, “when I looked in the dog’s eyes, I saw God.” Her response was, “You had to bring God into it, right?” At that point, she shook her head and said, “You have my support whatever you need to do.” Now, there is a true partnership.
The next morning, we paddled back to the mainland and loaded our gear, trailered the boats and piled into the waiting vans. As we approached our hotel, I scanned the front entrance, but there was no sign of the dog anywhere. I thought she might appear as we unloaded our gear, but still, she was nowhere to be seen. We checked into our rooms; unpacked our dry bags; and took long, hot showers. After a late lunch, we walked into town.
I was trailing the group, likely going a bit slower in the hope that I would see the dog, when I heard Annie call my name from up the street. As I looked in her direction, I saw a dog jump up and begin running toward us. “Our” dog had been sleeping in the town square, and the sound of Annie’s voice roused her. I was never so happy to see a dog in my life, and her jumping and licking made it clear that she was happy to see us, too.
She stayed with our group for the afternoon and sat outside the restaurant during our farewell dinner, where we toasted our great friendship and another wonderful adventure. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a grocery store and got a can of dog food, feeding her small portions one at a time. She was still so very skinny, and I didn’t want her to get sick from eating too much, too fast. And I realized that— despite what I’d told Annie about being able to leave the dog behind—I’d made up my mind: I was going to bring the dog home.
The following morning, our group was scheduled to go to the coast to see the migrating whales. I stayed behind, knowing that getting the dog home to Massachusetts was going to take some work, including having her checked by a vet, purchasing a kennel and making flight reservations.
I asked our hotel receptionist if she thought I was a crazy gringa to try to bring a street dog back to the U.S. She quickly replied, “Oh, no! The police in our town poison the street dogs regularly because tourists do not like to see so many sick dogs,” which confirmed that my decision to bring the dog home was a good one. It was not going to be easy, and I was not quite sure what obstacles we would face, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
In hindsight, I have to say that we were blessed in our journey to get the dog home. The first blessing was that there was a feed store and veterinarian right across the street from our Loreto hotel. When it opened at 8 am, I went to check it out and the dog followed me. We waited while the lone proprietor sold feed to a few customers, and then I asked about getting the dog an examinación. I spoke very little Spanish and the vet spoke even less English, so we were left to muddle through using my informal Spanish phrases.
The vet was kind and gentle and knew what was needed. But before he started the exam, he asked for her name. I said I didn’t know, as I had not named her, although I had been calling her “honey” as a term of endearment. He smiled and said, “Miel” (Honey) and that was that. She has been Honey ever since.
The vet gave Honey her first rabies shot and noted that she was in “good health” on her medical record. Before we left, I purchased a leash, kennel, food and dog bowl for our journey home. As I was leaving, the maintenance man from our hotel was waiting outside to help me carry everything across the street. He also brought us some old shirts from the laundry to line the kennel so that Honey had a soft place to lie down. Another blessing: the kindness of strangers.
My next task was to make reservations for Honey on our flights home. We were scheduled on Aero Mexico from Mexico to Phoenix, and America West from Phoenix to Hartford, Conn. They took my credit card number and everything was good. Now, my only worry was what would be required of us when we landed in the U.S. Would the paperwork I had from the vet be enough? Would Honey be quarantined? I could not imagine what I would do if I had to leave her in Phoenix.
Our last night in Loreto, Honey shared our secondfloor room. I put towels on the floor for her, but in true street-dog fashion, she slept directly on the quarry-tile floor. We woke very early and I took her for a walk in the neighborhood, all the while worrying that someone would come by and say that she was their dog—which was crazy, since clearly, no one had been feeding or caring for her. At 6 am, we were in front of the hotel with her kennel, waiting to board our van for the airport.
The two-stage flight on an old prop plane from Loreto to Hermosillo and on to Phoenix was uneventful. When we walked off our first flight onto the tarmac to change planes, Honey was sitting in her kennel on a baggage cart, calmly tracking me as I came down the plane’s stairs. It was amazing to see how much she trusted me. I felt that we truly communicated, that she knew I would take care of her.
We landed in Phoenix and entered the airport via international arrivals. When I finally got to the customs officer, he looked at my passport and paperwork, then at me and said, “What’s this about a live animal?” I told him I was bringing a dog back from Mexico and gave him her papers. After giving them a quick glance, he pointed behind him to the area where the oversize luggage arrived and said, “You’ll find your dog over there,” then stepped aside to let us go through.
I cannot even begin to express how surprised and happy I was at that moment. We were back in the U.S. and Honey was with us. Could it be this easy? (But wait, the story isn’t over.)
As I went to the oversize-baggage area, my friends grabbed our bags and immediately rechecked them for Hartford. We had a three-hour layover and I wanted to walk Honey, so we put her kennel on a luggage cart and took her to the “pet walk” area just outside the terminal. Then we went to the America West ticket counter to check in for our flight to Hartford.
When I got to the counter and gave my name, the agent noted that a dog was included on my ticket. He asked me where the dog was, and I pointed to the kennel behind me. He looked alarmed and said, “I’m sorry, but your dog has to fit under the seat in front of you. We don’t transport dogs in the baggage compartment.” Obviously, Honey wasn’t going to fit under a seat and would not be accommodated on the flight.
My first thought as I walked away from the ticket counter was that I could rent a car and drive from Arizona to Massachusetts. That was a problem, as I was scheduled to be back at work the following day, and after being away for 10 days, could not afford more time off. My next move was to find an airline that would fly dogs in the baggage compartment from Phoenix to Hartford. Eventually, I learned that while either American or Northwest could fly us to Hartford via Chicago or Detroit later that day, a major winter storm and cold front on the route meant that neither would take the dog; airlines will not allow dogs in baggage if the temperature is below 40 degrees in the arrival city. I totally understood this from a safety perspective, but was worried as my options continued to dwindle.
While on the phone with a very patient American ticket agent, I told him my problem and asked him to get us as far east and north as possible. After trying numerous cities, the agent finally said, “I can fly you to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., via Dallas if you want.” We would not arrive until 1:09 the following morning, but there was room on the flight and I could get tickets for both myself and Honey (and Annie, who decided to join us).
The next challenge was to set up a one-way car rental in Raleigh-Durham, which I was finally able to do through Avis. Although the office closed before our flight arrived, the agent succumbed to my pleading and agreed to stay a “few minutes” so we could pick up our car and hit the road for home. He said that if it were more than a few minutes, we’d have to get the car during regular business hours.
After another trip to the airport dog park, we all checked in for the flight to Dallas, where we landed about 8 pm. We had an hour layover and wanted to be sure Honey was transferred, so I stayed to watch her be unloaded and Annie went ahead to our departure gate. To my alarm, I watched the baggage cart with Honey’s kennel head in what I was sure was the wrong direction. Panicking about Honey missing our next flight, I sprinted down to our departure gate to check in with Annie, who gave me a thumbs-up as a dog kennel was loaded onto our flight.
The main cabin door had closed and the plane was backing away from the gate when the flight attendant came down the aisle and spoke to the women directly behind me, saying, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Smith, your dog is on the flight.” When I asked him how many dogs were on the flight and he said one, I shouted, “I have to get off this plane and get my dog!”
The attendant told me to be quiet and settle down, then went to the front of the plane and got on the phone to the pilot. The plane stopped backing up. People were looking at me as though I were crazy, but I didn’t care. There was no way I could leave a Mexican street dog stuck in a kennel at the Dallas airport. She trusted me and I needed to make sure she was with us.
I looked up and saw the pilot coming down the aisle to my seat. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I was bringing a street dog home from Mexico and she had not been loaded on the flight. So, I needed to get her on the flight or get off the plane. He looked at me for a long moment, and then said, “Give me a few minutes.” Going back into the cockpit, he moved the plane forward and docked it. He then got off the plane.
I asked Annie to look out the window to see if she could see what was happening. Within about 10 minutes, a baggage cart with Honey’s kennel pulled up and a few minutes later, the smiling pilot came down the aisle and said, “Don’t worry, Ms. Priest, Honey’s on the plane.” I was so happy that I started crying. We had a dog-loving pilot on our flight that night, another blessing for our journey.
We made good time in the air, landing in Raleigh- Durham at 1:05 am, a few minutes early. Annie went to get the rental car (and give the agent a nice cash tip) and I went to baggage claim to get Honey. It’s hard to explain how relieved I was when the baggage handler brought her kennel to me. I let her out and we moved outside to the arrival area, where Annie picked us up. Honey immediately fell asleep in the back seat as we headed north. We drove for about three hours, then took a break for an hour nap in a rest stop. About 8 am, we stopped at a grocery store, where we bought dog food and water for Honey. She ate, drank and fell asleep again. We drove on, fortifying ourselves with lots of hot coffee. The farther north we got, the colder it was, and we realized that all we had were the clothes on our backs, since our luggage had gone on ahead with our friends to Hartford. Both of us were wearing sandals; short-sleeved shirts; and lightweight, quick-dry pants: perfect for kayaking in Mexico, not so great for February in the Northeast.
We crossed from Maryland into Delaware about 11 in the morning and drove into a light snowfall, the edge of the storm that had prevented us from flying through Chicago or Detroit. The snow picked up as we hit the New Jersey Turnpike, and it was soon blizzard conditions. At our next stop—a turnpike rest area—the ground was covered with two to three inches of snow. I woke Honey and opened the car door. She stepped out and immediately retreated. I put the leash on her and encouraged her to try again. When she got out of the car this time, she lifted her paws high with each step, no doubt wondering what she had gotten herself into.
It was slow going. A trip that should have taken us four hours took 10, and at times, we were in complete gridlock. The storm was affecting much of the Northeast, and we started to worry that the roads would be closed and we’d be stuck. But we persevered (slowly) and finally, finally arrived home just after midnight. There was two feet of snow in our driveway, which we were able to plow through enough to get the car out of the road.
We could not have been happier to be home. The garden walkway was covered in at least three feet of drifted snow, so I picked up Honey and carried her into the house.
Our dog sitter had already left, and our two Lab mixes, Rosie and Seal, were happy to see us. But wait, who’s this other dog? They smelled her and looked at her, and then at us. Who is this?
Our first order of business was to bathe Honey. The second was to get us all to bed. I carried her upstairs and put into our large bathtub, then soaped her up and rinsed her off. We toweled her dry and she lay down on a blanket by the bedroom woodstove, the Labs on either side of her like bookends. From the first, they accepted Honey, and there was never an issue among them. Honey was finally home.
Honey, who was about two when I found her, has been with us for 12 years. As I write this, our “street dog” is nearing the end of her wonderful, beautiful life. Everyone who knows her story says that she was one lucky dog, but I tell you the honest truth: through it all, I was the lucky one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
During the mid-1970s, I directed one part of a multi-agency study of the responses of elk to logging in the northern Rockies. My study involved an area in western Montana on which we mapped site-specific annual levels of elk use by counting pellet groups on contour transects. I was always accompanied—and often surprised—by my Norwegian Elkhound, Tigre, who was inclined to herd anything on four legs.
His technique with elk would always start with a sniffing exhibition. He would rise up on his hind legs to get his nose well above the surrounding undergrowth and walk along that way for 10 to 15 feet. Once he was sure of his quarry, he would take off running, but very quietly. At that point, I had no more than five minutes to find a big tree to stand behind. I needed the big tree because the consistency of Tigre’s work was simply outstanding. At the end of his silent run, he would suddenly explode into an army of barking dogs, and shortly thereafter, a herd of elk would come stampeding toward me.
This was not a random occurrence; it happened at least once every year that we did the pellet counts. I cannot imagine how you would ever train a dog to do this. It has to be natural and instinctive, and even that explanation seems a little farfetched unless you’ve seen it happen.
The talent, however, was not confined to elk. One morning, a colleague, Freddy Hartkorn, and I were walking through a field in Lupine Creek to the start points of a couple of transects. Tigre started barking, and I knew right away what it was (you could tell by the tone of the bark what he was herding). I told Freddy, “That’s a bear bark.” We had just come even with a large maple shrub when a big black bear bustled down the hill and turned left.
Imagine the scene, arranged within three corners of an equilateral triangle. The maple is in the middle, Tigre is at the apex, and the two basal angles are occupied on one end by Freddy and me, on the other by a very perplexed bear. After skidding to a halt, he just sat there and looked at us. The expression on his face was absolutely priceless. Tigre was also sitting quietly, although you could almost hear him thinking, There he is, boss. All yours.
The third corner was the one that reacted, or at least Freddy did. He started yelling and waving his arms and carrying on something fierce. Dumb me, I didn’t join in; I was too busy looking at that poor bear’s face and trying to keep from laughing. (It was one of those “you had to be there” moments.) When he finally figured it out, the bear turned around and ran off. Forever after, Freddy was willing to tell anybody who would listen, “That damn dog of Jack’s is really dangerous. He’s going to get somebody killed.”
As it happens, Freddy’s prediction didn’t come true, and Tigre and I had other adventures that also turned out well.
One morning on a pellet route in Burdette Creek, we saw bears on the other side of the drainage, too far away for Tigre to notice. So, later that day, when I was sitting down writing notes and heard an animal stirring around downhill from us, I figured it was another bear. Unusually, Tigre seemed more interested in sitting right next to me rather than chasing it. This behavior aroused my curiosity, so I stood up to have a look. Lucky I did, too. The mountain lion was almost as surprised as I was—I’m sure he thought Tigre’s bobbing white tail belonged to a great big bunny.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Walter Joe shows how a dog can be adoptable but not “shelterable.”
Sheila D’Arpino was the first in the country to complete a one-of a-kind program: a three-year postgraduate combined study of shelter medicine and animal behavior at the University of California–Davis’s well-regarded veterinary school. She had wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, but once the California native became one, she found it wasn’t enough.
With so many shelter dogs euthanized for their behavior, Sheila believed that to truly help those animals she had to treat their minds as well as their bodies. At UC Davis she became the equivalent of a psychiatrist. She studied shelter dog behavior and learned how to treat their problems with training or, in some cases, with drugs. The biggest lesson she learned in the end, however, was philosophical: Every dog is an individual. There is no one kind of fearful dog, for example. Behind the crouches and tail tucks, a unique personality exists. That’s a long way from the thinking of the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, which stymied our understanding of animals for more than three centuries and still holds sway in some quarters. Descartes argued that animals were not only soulless but lacked any kind of reasoning. They had no more intelligence or interior life, he believed, than that of a well-oiled clock. He called animals “beast machines.” Even in the seventeenth century, many pet owners must have disagreed.
Now canines are the darlings of scientific cognition studies, and “every dog is an individual” has become the buzz phrase of the shelter world. It is, however, one of those simple proclamations that are easy to agree with but surprisingly difficult to apply, especially in an institutional setting, where labels and generalities come easily. It is especially hard to apply to growling, biting dogs such as Walter, who are often dubbed inherently “bad” or “dangerous” and are put down as a public service, as one shoots a marauding grizzly bear. Granted, a dog such as Walter, who behaved like a Terrier from hell his first day at the ARL, poses a practical problem: If no one could handle him, there was no safe way to keep him in the shelter. Luckily, a veterinarian with special training and an enlightened outlook happened to work for the shelter just then. Even more luckily, D’Arpino had a yard and an enclosure where Walter would, she hoped, calm down. Only then would she see who this dog was behind the flashing teeth and growling, if he was, in fact, a “dangerous” dog or one who snapped when he was scared out of his wits. Slowly she got some answers. Once Walter moved into her house, he kept his distance for about a month. Then he began to follow Sheila around. He would playfully run around on his short, squat legs, mouth open in a smile, his long, narrow tongue flapping. Then he climbed into her lap.
When Walter sees D’Arpino, he leaps off the dryer and runs to her. When she sits cross-legged on our hallway floor, he plops into her lap. He puts his front paws on her chest so he can look into her eyes while she strokes his back. His glassy eyes brighten. He doesn’t flinch when she clicks on his collar. We glimpse who a happy, relaxed Walter might be. I sink to the hallway floor next to her, hoping that some of her charm will wear off on me. After about ten minutes of chitchatting with Scott and me while she pets Walter, she has to go home to her family and her multiple dogs. I hold Walter’s reattached leash so he won’t follow his only friend in the world as D’Arpino leaves.
“Sorry, Walter,” I say as I close the door.
The night returns to normal, kind of. I have to pull Walter down our front steps in the chill of a wintry evening to go for an overdue walk. He shivers as we head up and down the icy sidewalks. I wish I could put a jacket on him. Back inside, he hurries down our long hallway to the safety and warmth of the dryer. Then, for some reason, maybe because we’re tired, Scott and I do something we never do. We lie down on the floor to watch TV. Not long after we have stretched out on our sides and arranged throw pillows just so, we notice Walter’s small silhouette in the hallway. He pads tentatively toward us and then stops. He lets his head droop.
“Look,” we whisper to each other, meaning “Look out of the corner of your eye.”
Walter takes a few more steps toward us. When he has almost reached the living room’s light, he pauses again. He seems to be thinking. Maybe he’s thinking he’ll have to make do with the two knuckleheads on the floor. Maybe he’s thinking about the nice massage he just got from his only friend in the world. A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest. We quietly raise our eyebrows at each other.
Walter slept with us from that night on, often putting his head on our pillows or worming his way under the blankets. He hopped into our laps whenever we sat down. He began to play, dashing up and down our long hallway while we yelled, “Mad dog, mad dog!” Walter was so crazy to ride in the car that we had to spell the word to each other, otherwise he’d bolt for the front door and start squeaking pathetically. He shadowed me, even sat in the bathroom while I took a shower. He also followed Penny Jane, who, in her aloof way, seemed to like him.
Eventually we could take the Terrier’s leash off and put it on, and then his collar. He did nip me once, as I tried to brush road salt off a back foot. I knew I shouldn’t have, but he was limping. Luckily I had a thick glove on, and he only bruised my hand. He had become a pet dog again, though one whose feet you’d best leave alone.
We sent him to the shelter with a good report card: loving, housebroken, funny. The dog who’d once been a gnashing mongoose clearly had a future as a family pet. Yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel. For fear he would nip someone, only D’Arpino or I took him out. When he saw either of us, he exploded with happiness. When we left, he shut back down. I got word that the shelter was thinking of putting him down. How could they put a dog up for adoption whom they couldn’t handle? I had never wanted a Terrier, especially a Jack Russell. I had never wanted a male dog, or a little dog.
When we brought Walter home for good we goofed up his name some to put our official stamp on him. He became Walter Joe Jr. We started calling him Waltie-Bear or Joey or Junior or Dub-yuh or Mister or Champ or Bubbles—all names he learned. Though he showed no signs of it in the shelter, he was completely capable of living in a home, not to mention riding in canoes, staying in hotels, and lounging on the beach. He was, as they say, “homeable” but not “shelterable.” To be the former, as it turns out, does not mean a dog can be the latter.
These dogs are such conundrums. Shelter staff have to decide if a dog can be safely adopted based on his behavior in a stressful environment that in no way resembles a home. The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, bedridden, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character? Or would you see the equivalent of Walter in the shelter? Luckily I haven’t seen many Walters since I began volunteering. Most dogs manage okay enough in the enervating tedium, at least at first. Some even improve with regular meals and walks. But even the dogs who seem to thrive can, over weeks, months, appear to deteriorate. They bark more, jump more, maybe start to lunge at strangers or other dogs. They become obsessed with balls, as happened with Gwen Stefani. These dogs can begin to seem less and less adoptable, which makes it harder to find them a home, which means they stay in the shelter longer and longer. A vicious cycle begins. It’s not always enough to find a dog a home. You have to find one quickly.
Excerpted from Rescuing Penny Jane by Amy Sutherland. Copyright © 2017 by HarperCollins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
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.
“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
I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visual record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flesh-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know. The camera stayed in the truck.
The kind man in charge of the ovens had just gone out into the noon blast of July in the San Fernando Valley to check on the progress of your burning. I’d followed but stopped thirty feet back as he’d asked me to.
“You don’t really want to see—it’s something you probably wouldn’t want to see… The. … uh …,” he’d mumbled, faltering in a way that had won me over instantly.
“You mean if she isn’t done yet?” I’d said, completing the thought for him.
“Yes, exactly. The, uh… sometimes they’re not completely …” He’d paused, looking as pained as if he’d known you the way I had.
“Yes,” he’d blurted out with a slight squeak in his voice. “It isn’t pretty.”
“No. I can imagine it wouldn’t be,” I’d said.
“Not at all pretty.”
He had stood there, putting on his fire-retardant gloves and his sunglasses, still looking at me as if needing to say something more. And I had waited. It’d already been a hell of a long morning, so I hadn’t been in any big hurry at that point.
“I do this all the time, but I couldn’t personally, you know, do this.”
I’d thought I understood more or less what he meant.
“My uncle’s dog,” he’d continued, “I had to do that one, and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.”
“I understand,” I’d said.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He’d started backing sideways toward the oven. It was one of the three on the back lot that seemed to be in operation, as evidenced by the grey smoke rising from their steel-pipe smokestacks into the smoggy haze above us. As inappropriate as the thought might have been, I somehow couldn’t help but think of the much larger indoor ones I’d once seen in the Dachau concentration camp memorial. I’d felt a momentary urge to ask if these ovens had been manufactured in Europe, but it had passed.
“Please stay back here while I check and see how she’s doing,” he’d then said.
“OK,” I’d said. “And how do you check?”
He’d stopped side stepping toward the oven. “I open the door and look.”
“She might not be done. She might not be ready.”
“Yeah. OK. I’ll wait… ”
“Plus, it’s real hot. About 1,500 degrees.”
“I’ll wait here then.”
“I’m so sorry,” he’d said, tugging down the bill of his navy-blue ball cap and turning toward the oven. He’d said “sorry” several times since I’d arrived, and he seemed to mean it. “Sorry for your loss. I am truly sorry.”
After a minute spent carefully peeking through the slightly opened oven door, he’d closed it and walked back to me. “I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. Another ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Should I go back inside to the waiting room, then?”
“Yes. If you don’t mind. Sorry. I’ll let you know just before I get her so you can come and watch me do everything. Check, you know, to see if… see that… ”
“Yeah, good. OK, thanks.”
A tall, well-groomed black poodle named Paris, as I’d overheard her being called when I’d first arrived at the crematorium office, had been staring at me for a while. From her position under a sort of anaemic-looking potted ficus by the doorway to the office, she was able to monitor all comings and goings. Suddenly, she rose and bolted straight for me, jumping up on the couch right next to me, barking excitedly. Her breath smelled like boiled carrots. Sort of sweet and not altogether unpleasant, but not something I craved at that moment. The receptionist called Paris, no doubt trying to keep the dog from further upsetting me, the grieving customer. Paris was not bothering me at all. I understood that she had been barking for attention, not out of aggression—probably bored out of her mind in this place where all other dogs were dead and burning or about to be. She hadn’t even barked that loudly, really, and her company was comforting in a life-goes-on-and-there-are-lots-of-nice-dogs-in-the-world-sort of way. Paris gave me one more quieter bark right in my left ear, licked my face and left me to see what the receptionist wanted.
“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said, as she led Paris into the back of the office area.
“That’s OK,” I said. “She wasn’t bothering me. Female, right?”
“Yes, she certainly is. I am sorry for your loss.”
I know she meant it as well. Expressions of sympathy for the customer would to some degree have probably been obligatory for the crematorium personnel, but everyone did seem to be personally and genuinely concerned. People doing their utmost to run a decent family-owned business with kindness and compassion. The compulsion to record all of this got the better of me, finally, and I went out to the truck to look for my notebook. After a quick scramble through the papers, books, cameras and other assorted commuter debris on the back seat, I found the notebook. Although I had not had the time to take many pictures or to sit down and write much of anything lately, a camera and something to write in are always in the car, or in whatever bag I carry, just in case a moment special to me presents itself to be stolen. Resisting once more the temptation to take the camera, I grabbed the notebook and a pen and returned to the waiting room to begin writing this.
Kind strangers have given me a few handsomely bound journals and notebooks over the years. Some, like this one, are bound in beautifully tanned and tooled leather. This one’s cover has a giant oak tree cut into it, with other old oaks on a distant ridge beyond it. The big pewter button used for tying the notebook closed with a leather thong is cast with an oak leaf and acorn detail. I am not much good at keeping a diary, or diligent about any sort of regular journal entries. My way to remember has usually been to write stories, poems or more often than not, to make photographs or drawings. I felt a little rusty and awkward writing in the waiting room under the quietly watchful eyes of the receptionist and Paris. Maybe it didn’t seem at all odd to them, my scribbling away. Probably what bothered me was my own sense of guilt over being inclined to record the events surrounding the processing of your body. Just a short time earlier I had been openly weeping while crossing the city in morning rush-hour traffic. I suppose we humans can be resilient—nearly as resilient as you were, Brigit—and as accepting of life’s unpredictably rough patches as most animals seem to be. Whatever the reason, I found I could not write fast enough in my attempt to describe the events of the day.
“Do you want to come out while I clean this out?” the kind voice of the oven-minder asked softly, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I looked up and nodded.
“Yes, please. I’ll … let me … let me just finish this sentence—this paragraph. I’ll be right there.”
“Do you write a lot?” he asked, as I followed him outside.
“Nice-looking book you got there.”
“Thanks. Yes, it is.”
I closed it, marking my place with the pen, just as he stopped and turned to me. I was standing on the same spot I had been asked to watch from earlier. “Please stay right here. I’ll shut her down and get everything. You’ll be able to see everything happening, but it is very hot now, and also …”
“Yes, ok I’ll wait here.”
As I stood still in the by-now withering heat and watched him switch off the oven and open it, I suddenly realised that there had been no muzak, no music of any kind playing in the waiting room. That was a pleasant surprise and seemed remarkable to me. The tact involved in such a choice on their part told me that they really must care.
The ovens were out behind the small, one-story building that holds the tidy crematorium office, some oversize freezers and the very pleasant air-conditioned waiting room. The property was surrounded by twenty-foot-high stacks of automobile carcasses, entire auto bodies and an enormous variety of neatly sorted bits and pieces—fenders, doors, hoods, seats, side mirrors, steering mechanisms, engine parts, dashboards, roofs, etc., arranged in row after row—apparently according to year, make and model. The sprawling salvage yard dwarfed the crematorium and its modest parking lot. Although there was no vegetation in sight, the colourful, encroaching heaps and rows of rendered vehicles almost looked like exotic organic growth, a sort of postmortem environment that seemed to me to perfectly complement the pet-burning business. The thick, lightly buzzing strands of heavy-duty power lines drooping as they crossed some thirty feet above us from one massive steel support to another only added to this entirely man-made, and remade, end-of-nature garden. Its perfume was a blend of acrid and oily-sweet, of melting rubber and asphalt, of taffy-thick black engine grease, of yellowing plastic and peeling paint sluggishly wafting upward and blending with the constant dead-fish reek of Los Angeles smog.
I had risen very early—or, rather, got out of bed early, as I hadn’t slept at all. Knowing it was today that I was scheduled to pick up your refrigerated corpse at our trustworthy local veterinary hospital and drive it out to this industrial hinterland for cremating had kept me from being able to rest. Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative.
I’d arrived at the back door of the vet’s office feeling like I was complicit in some sort of underworld transaction. As had been the case all week, the morning sky was overcast, and the clammy grey marine layer had only added to the death business I was now part of. Two men in overalls had come out with what looked enough like a curled-up “you” shape inside a light-blue trash bag. As I had taken the thawing bundle and carefully laid it on the towel-covered passenger seat of the pickup truck, I had looked at the older of the two men. He’d nodded, seeming a bit uncomfortable, and then had turned and followed his colleague back inside the building without a backward glance or farewell. I had been very tired, a bit teary-eyed, and had not said a word myself. Probably not the most pleasant person for them to be around. I had gotten in the car and begun making my way to the 405 freeway. Moving slowly, stuck in the usual massive commuter caravan headed north toward the Sepulveda Pass, it had occurred to me that tomorrow would mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then I had thought, not for the first time when passing the Sunset Boulevard exit, about O.J. Simpson’s bizarre televised journey in the famous white Ford Bronco. I had continued in that vein for a while, my mind becoming cluttered with a dizzying assortment of images involving unforgivable murders and other perversions of justice. The ideals of compassion had seemed distant, insignificant. I’d felt resigned, passively understanding that life moves forward just as traffic eventually does. Suddenly, the cars in front of me had slowed abruptly and I had braked hard, glad to see cars in my rear-view mirror doing the same.
The bagged corpse had slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I’d tried to pull it back up with my right hand. It had been quite heavy, and I’d realised it would be a difficult and dangerous task to accomplish while driving, so I had made my way across two lanes of traffic and off onto the side of the freeway. As I had come round the front of the truck and opened the passenger-side door, I had decided I’d have a look at you to see if you were intact. I had straightened out the towel on the seat and lifted the bundle back onto it, then poked a hole in the plastic bag, now wet with condensation, where I could feel one of your frozen paws. Long black hair, long black nails. Not much like any of your paws. I had quickly felt for the body’s head, finding a stiff tongue projecting beyond clenched teeth, and then a collar around the neck. We had taken your collar off when you’d expired at the vet’s, and I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet today. This dog was not you. The absurdity of it all had hit me immediately as I had stood up and stared at the mass of moving cars through the poisonous-looking heat waves. The sadness of it had been suddenly overwhelming, as was the smell of initial decomposition, which I had not been aware of until that moment, like that of a dead deer that’s been hanging for a few hours from a tree.
I had never really wanted to live in Los Angeles. Here I was, on yet another ridiculous errand, feeling vaguely like I was being punished for some past transgression, marking time and forced to make sense of an oddly evolving riddle. I had secured the corpse and made sure the towel was placed so as to keep the dead stranger from touching the seat or any part of the truck’s interior. Eventually, I’d got myself turned around and headed back to the vet’s, feeling sorry for this poor dog I did not know, and for its unwitting owner. En route, I had called the crematorium and informed them that I would be late for our oven appointment because I’d been given the wrong dog. They’d been very kind, had said I should get there when I could, and that they were very sorry.
Now the crematorium is about two miles behind me as I sit listlessly sipping coffee at a Mexican restaurant. This is as far as I have got, with my new cedar box containing your remaining bone fragments and ashes. I had asked the oven-minder to please not crush your bones if that was what he’d planned on doing.
“Yes, normally we do very gently break down the bone matter so that it fits comfortably in the box or urn as the case might be. If you prefer, though … ”
“…we can also not do it and just try and place her, the bone matter—the bag, that is—in the cedar box for you. If they’ll fit—if it will fit—that is.”
“That’s ok, I can do it.”
Earlier, out by the ovens, I had been allowed to scoop up all your burnt bits from the metal tray that the man had scraped the cooling, fragile ghost-shape of your skeleton onto. I had stopped several times to carefully examine some of your more distinguishable pieces. Vertebrae, hip parts and most beautiful of all, the rounded piece of bone that I instantly recognized as the top of your skull. We have petted that part of you so often. I can feel its shape even now, in memory, feel the bone through your smooth fur, feel your warmth and your happiness. All of it had gone into the plastic bag he now held.
“Ok, sir. As you prefer.”
I proceeded to gently rearrange the bag and its contents inside the box, and then placed your crematorium nametag and the receipt for services provided on top of your remains before closing the lid with its little brass clasp.
“We would like you to consider the cedar box a gift from us due to the unfortunate mistake that was made this morning. We are very sorry about that.”
“Oh. Well … thank you …”
A woman who seemed to be the oven-minder’s boss, and perhaps the owner of the establishment, stood up and came around her desk to address me. “We are very sorry that … Brigit?… that Brigit got confused this morning.”
I almost pointed out that you had not been confused at all, being quite dead, but I resisted the temptation, knowing what she meant.
“It is very unusual that something unheard of like that would happen,” she continued. “Very unusual, and we are extremely sorry. If you prefer a larger box or don’t like cedar as a wood type… maybe an urn would be more to your liking?”
I was truly moved by her words and the generous offer.
“Is it Western red cedar?” I asked, for some reason unknown to me now—perhaps being at a loss for anything better to say by way of response.
“You know, I am not real sure about that,” she replied, a bit thrown off by my question. “I certainly can try and find out for you, if you like?”
“No, thanks. I was just wondering. Just curious, I guess.”
“Would you like to replace the cedar?”
“Replace? No. I like cedar. Smells good, looks good. Thank you.” I now felt like a complete idiot. “You don’t have to give me the box, though. Don’t have to give it… I’m happy to pay for it.”
“We insist. It’s something we want to do for you.”
“Thank you very much. Very kind of you.”
“If Brigit doesn’t fit comfortably, not being completely dust and all… ”
(“Comfortably?” Never mind… ) “No, that’s fine. She fits. I got her in there ok. And it’s a beautiful box. Thank you.”
“Me podría traer un poco de arroz con frijoles, por favor?”
“Would you like anything else with that?” the waitress replied, in heavily Spanish-accented English.
“Gracias, pero la verdad es que no tengo mucho hambre.”
She looked at me calmly, and said “I’ll bring it right out. Warm up your coffee for you?”
“Fijese: ahora que lo pienso creo que sí me gustaría una pequeña ensalada de lechuga y tomate… y cebolla, si hay.”
“Ok,” she continued in English, “and will you like some dressing—vinaigrette, ranch, French, blue cheese, or oil and vinegar—for that?”
Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while my gringo looks or perhaps my Argentine accent seem to be held against me like that. She glances at the cedar box resting on the table to the right of my place setting. I wonder if she has seen this sort of box before. The crematorium isn’t far, and maybe other people stop here now and then as I have, unable or unwilling to drive any further. Maybe they sometimes come here and get a little drunk, become indiscreet and open their boxes to look at what’s left of their animal friends. Maybe they cry and have to be consoled. I do not look at my box, just hold the waitress’ gaze when it returns to me. I’ve taken an initial dislike to her because she seems to refuse to speak Spanish with me, so I’m certainly not going to give her any more clues now.
“Will that be all, sir?” she asks dryly.
“Sí… y si me puede traer la cuenta con la comida—y un poco más de café—se lo agradecería.”
She looks at me for a moment longer, then reluctantly mutters “Por supuesto, señor,” as she turns to go place my order.
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