Severn House Publishers, 224pp., 2011; $28.95
It’s been way too long since the last Holly Winter mystery hit the shelves — 2007, to be precise, when All Shots was released. But finally, oh finally, our patience is rewarded with the 19th in the series: Brute Strength.
Fights, frights and mysteries break out at every turn in this new book. Amazingly, none of them are of the canine variety. Rather, Holly’s family and friends are the ones doing the scrapping. Turning down adoption applicants for her local Alaskan Malamute rescue group doesn’t win Holly any points, either. The big story, however, is the way catastrophe seems to surround a new neighbor, a woman with a gorgeous and slightly overweight Malamute female, the latter of whom has her almond-shaped eyes on Sammy, Holly’s young Mal.
Add references to Jane Austen, clueless (and careless) breeders, and observations on real-life training techniques and the scientific investigation of dog cognition and you have a literary meal dense and rich enough for the hungriest Malamute. Speaking of which … Over the years, I’ve learned as much about the behavior of northern breeds by reading this series as I have from much more serious works. At least once, and usually more often, I find myself smiling in recognition as Conant describes a typical behavior — in this case, the mealtime feeding frenzy, which Holly chooses not to train her dogs out of: “I have seen sick and dying dogs become indifferent to food and refuse it altogether. These raucous displays of appetite are confirmations of health, and I revel in every leap and every shriek.” To which I say amen.
As she frequently does, Conant keeps multiple story lines going, wrapping them up tidily at the end, albeit with a major scare as part of the conclusion. Now, when’s the 20th Holly Winter mystery coming out?
Culture: Stories & Lit
The brief lives of dogs leave deep tracks.
I woke up in my warm bed, my hand automatically stretching to feel Vesper’s warm, silvery fur. I knew of course that she was not there. On an ordinary morning, I might actually have snuck out of bed, cautiously hoping that neither she nor my husband would wake and that I could brew coffee or even read an article or two in the paper without attending to their needs. Today my cozy kitchen was chillingly empty.
Most often during the past dozen years, Vesper had gotten up before me, her long body stretched against the wainscoting of the hall, waiting for her belly rub, her food, her walk. We shared the early hours of the day. I would pull on some clothes, and we would head out and make our way to the Brooklyn Promenade. We’d look at the harbor, Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the small boats, the Staten Island Ferry, Lady Liberty and the new park growing at our feet. Vesper would bare her teeth and growl at dogs who came over to “say hello,” and I would wearily explain to their owners that she was “scared” and “private,” not unfriendly. Even though she was 13, she was so slim and beautiful that people regularly mistook her for a puppy.
Vesper and I usually had more quiet time before my household, now consisting only of my husband, woke up. He was as crazy about her as I was.
Since our daughter was a toddler, some 50 years earlier, I never witnessed him being as openly affectionate to anyone as he was toward the dog. I confess that I was jealous. Sometimes Vesper responded to his entreaties; most often, she only accepted—demanded, really —caresses when she was in a mood. She always had a mind of her own.
Both my husband and I had grown up with dogs. Thereafter, our lives were too full and complicated to include canines. It was David, our grown son, who, for one of my birthdays, gave me Sasha, a wirehaired Dachshund puppy. It was an ideal gift for a writer living in an empty nest. Sasha and the books I created made me feel that I was still a fertile young woman. The dog was perfect company. In the apartment, he followed me from room to room, just as my children had done when they were small. In the morning after I straightened the house, we repaired to my study. Sasha curled up under my desk where my bare feet could touch his fur whenever I needed reassurance. I thought that he slept deeply, but once, when I cried while writing an emotion-laden passage, he rose in distress, ambled over and vigorously licked my bare legs.
Life is hard. David had been infected with the HIV virus at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He was fortunate in that the deadly virus went about its work without undermining his ability to enjoy life. I will be forever grateful that David let me be his care-partner and allowed me to try to pack the love of a lifetime into whatever time he had left. My husband and my daughter surrounded me with love, but their heartache was as great as mine. It was comforting that upon my return from spending time with David in San Francisco, Sasha let me know in no uncertain terms how much he had missed me and how relieved he was that I was back. David died in 1993, and taking the dog out three times a day, feeding, bathing and caressing him helped me regain my composure.
Four years later, when Sasha died, it was as if I had to relive all of the agony of my son’s death.
We thought that we were all done with dogs, but the next April we heard of an 18-month-old female wirehaired Dachshund who needed a home because she refused to learn to hunt. I liked that dog’s attitude and we went to see her.
“Try her for a week,” the breeder said.
“You can return her, no questions asked.”
Well, that was that. Vesper had never been on a leash or peed on asphalt, but she weathered the transition to city life. She was very different from Sasha— more even-tempered, less aggressive, less slavishly devoted to me. At first I considered her a poor substitute for Sasha, but gradually I fell in love with her determination, her quiet nature and the affection she showered on me and mine.
Soon after we got Vesper, we moved to our summer residence in Maine. The bark-less city dog fiercely defended our one wooded acre from neighboring pets, chipmunks and even the occasional ducklings approaching us by the lake. Vesper never trespassed on neighboring property, patrolling our land so precisely that I was asked whether we had an electric fence.
One day my husband and I took her up Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. We huffed and puffed for a good hour, but she scrambled ahead. When we reached the peak, our threesome met three fierce-looking dogs. Vesper barked; the other dogs called her bluff. An instant later, my dog had vanished. We all searched for her, but she was nowhere. Thirty minutes later, I abandoned the peak, believing that I had lost her for good. I met an upward-bound party. “Nice day,” they said. “Yes, but I lost my pup,” I answered tearfully. “Well, we saw a dog hot-footing it down the hill.” When we got down, there she was, f lat as a pancake, hiding under our car! She was always so good at managing her problems.
Vesper stayed with us for 11 years. Then she started vomiting. The vet gave her antibiotics. She got better, then she got worse and the animal who had eaten voraciously all her life was not even tempted by a spoonful of peanut butter. She got weaker and weaker, but maintained her clean habits, peeing and pooping on the street, trying as the vet said “to please.” She wagged her tail when my children or grandchildren came. Five days after she got really sick, we decided, together with our vet, to end it.
I am by now familiar with grief, but I was surprised by the intensity with which I responded to her loss. It was all so familiar. I held her while she received her fatal life-robbing injection. I had the vet put her in a box. I searched for a canine crematory, then was shocked by the unctuous prose and the prices. Unlike my son, whose apartment I had to empty in San Francisco, Vesper did not have many possessions, but there were leashes, food, drugs, feeding bowls and the many toys we had bought her over the years. I packed the latter in three bags to give to the fellow dogs in the house. The owners will probably throw them out—I would—but the idle gesture helped me.
I know that I will feel better— we humans have an amazing ability to recover from loss—but how I wish that I did not have to go through so much pain.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Living on the east side of Milwaukee, a narrow strip of land between the green corridor of the Milwaukee River on the west and the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan on the east, I’d heard many stories of coyotes prowling the neighborhood. Two children reported seeing a “wolf” in the park; a Schnauzer, cornered in his own backyard, was rescued by his owner heroically banging on a pot. The only coyote I’d ever seen, though, was a frightened, mange-ravaged creature skulking through a neighbor’s yard and away down the alley, not a symbol of the healthy persistence of wilderness in the city.
In truth, the wilderness that persists in this area is hardly a picture of health by any measure. When my dogs and I take our morning walks, I try to enjoy each moment the way they do, which is to say thoughtlessly: I breathe deep, in awe of the reds and golds of a sunrise made more vivid by particulate pollution; I shiver at the chilly shake of dew from competing monocultures of alien plants around my feet; I try to read my home turf through enthusiastic eyes (or maybe, noses) that relish the presence of every tiny life, whether or not it has any legitimate claim on being here.
My younger dog, Boo, is an appropriate observer of this environment precisely because she is such a misfit herself. She is certainly not the dog most people would choose for an urban family pet. When, five years ago, a friend found her wandering along a dirt track in the Smoky Mountains, she was malnourished, missing her left eye, pregnant with 11 pups, prematurely graying, and so used to fending for herself beyond the human world that she had to be taught to climb stairs. (Later, when she was X-rayed for a shoulder injury, we learned that she also has a chest full of birdshot.) We’ve always called her a Lab mix, but over time her uniquely expressive voice and amazing acuity as a squirrel hunter have convinced me that her pedigree, such as it is, probably runs more to Mountain Cur. When people ask her breed, my husband answers, “She’s a loud black dog.”
Despite her feral roots, Boo had so little difficulty bonding with our family that a leash has seldom been a feature of her life. But last spring, she suddenly began running off every morning on our walks along the lakefront. A half-mile down the beach from where we started, she’d abruptly turn, go crashing up the bluff face and vanish in brush. I’d call and call, terrified that this time she might not pause, with a glance over her shoulder as if to say, Just a minute, OK? I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done over here … What if this time, she mounted the top of the bluff, crossed the upscale lawns, raced out into the stream of traffic winding downtown for another day at the office? Every morning for a week, I found myself abandoned, wandering along the beach calling her name until tears came; eventually I’d hear her bark and she’d burst back downhill to me, frowzy and unapologetic.
Finally, it occurred to me to track Boo on her wild ascents. The first few tries were futile: struggling uphill, I did my best to follow, but always she’d dissolve before my eyes into brambles and silence. After five or 10 minutes of clawing through the underbrush, I’d skid back down to the beach with burrs in my hair and sleeves, only to find Boo rolling in the sand.
One morning, approaching the spot where Boo kept running off, I clipped a leash to her collar. When she pulled toward the bluff, I tagged after, clambering over the snags and deadfalls she scrambled through, the leash impeding her progress as I unclipped and reattached it several times. She moved with purpose, tolerating the hindrance of my presence. Halfway up the bluff, she turned and half-slid into a steep gully hidden from both above and below. A jutting pile of broken concrete slabs thrown down there years earlier formed something like a cave mouth on the opposite side, and Boo was pulling me directly toward it.
I started to scold her in frustration, but my breath caught in my throat. There, across the gully, four fat coyote pups peered out at us from their den, pricked ears and black button noses alert to our presence. And there, at my feet, sat Boo, her tongue flicking in and out, tail wagging, whimpering under her breath as if comforting babies she’d mothered long ago.
Culture: Stories & Lit
“How are the kids?”
1. Ask about the name.
2. Yes, he’s adopted.
3. Race is an acceptable topic.
4. Flatter him, flatter me.
5. Ask about his poo.
6. Eyes in the back of our heads.
7. Discuss major minor rights.
8. Forget about birthday parties.
9. Compare routines.
10. Are we having kids?
Culture: Stories & Lit
I think I’m the only writer in Los Angeles without a script to show around at dinner parties and AA meetings. But success in “the industry” has finally come to me. After living here for over a decade, I finally made my way into Hollywood’s inner circle. All thanks to my Beagle, who was just killed.
After being discovered on the street and cast as a female dog named Ruthy, my dog Jerry demonstrated his remarkable acting chops on the set of an upcoming film. No, he didn’t pull anyone from a well, or save someone from a burning house. But he did stand up—right on cue—while wearing yellow doggie pajamas. And, I might add, the director was most pleased with my coaching.
Which brings us to our second day of shooting. It was a night that would culminate with Ruthy’s (Jerry’s) death scene, and he was ready for action. On the drive out to the miniature golf facility, where the scene was to be shot, Jerry rehearsed playing dead in the back seat, though he sometimes broke character with a loud snore.
We arrive at midnight and he perks right up when the scent of toaster waffles from the set’s buffet table wafts into the car. We both head through the medieval castle arcade to find the crew. At first, we’re told that the director is ready for us, but then there is one of many delays on the set. So we head off to the putting greens, where Jerry burns off some of his nervousness by chasing a squirrel through the windmill and down past the candy house before ultimately losing the pursuit after it scampers into the clown’s head.
To kill some more time, Jerry and I rehearse. I had read the script beforehand, so I knew that Ruthy was to be hit by a car. We spend some time going over what I had taught him already. Jerry was to roll onto his side and simply put his head down for this trick. Even though he refused to stop breathing, he would lie still for a few seconds, looking like a miniature beached whale, before popping up to see if there were still some Rice Krispies treats left at the buffet.
Then we were called to the set. The night air was thick with movie magic. There was to be an establishing shot, in which one of the actors would hide in a wooden barrel with Ruthy. At some point, Jerry is supposed to pop his head out of the barrel and look cute. We hadn’t known about this scene beforehand, and I admit I was a bit worried. Sure, Jerry has proven that he’s got great range—what with the standing up on cue and all—but coming into a scene like this so unprepared would unsettle any performer.
The actor, who was wearing a pith helmet, climbed into the barrel and then I carefully lowered Jerry inside. Confused, he looked up at me, his floppy ears pinned anxiously against his head. In his six long years of life, clearly this was his first time squatting inside a barrel with a total stranger wearing a funny hat.
But when the director yelled “action,” Jerry’s inner thespian took over. The actor spoke a few lines of dialogue, which was my cue. Standing off-stage, I then called to Jerry, who popped his head up out of the barrel and stared right into the camera with a bleary-eyed expression normally found on pet-store puppies.
It was golden. The audience was going to eat it up, I thought. It was so perfect that they only asked for six more takes before, I supposed, we would be moving on to the death scene.
But then something curious and a bit sad happened. I was told that Ruthy’s demise would not take place as planned. It had been decided that there would be a shot of a car crashing into the barrel, followed by a close-up of Ruthy’s red leash lying amongst the wreckage. Her death was to be implied rather than shown for a greater emotional payoff.
No on-camera death? This was to be Jerry’s career-making scene—the very onset of his 15 minutes of fame (which, in dog years, equals an hour and 45 minutes, by the way). I wanted to call Jerry’s manager or his agent, but he had neither. I wanted to scream, “But this is when you’re supposed to kill Jerry!”
But it was futile. So we just grabbed some cookies and left. As we reached our car, I heard a screech of tires and a sudden crash. “Well, I guess you’re dead,” I whispered. Jerry just smiled—he does that.
During the drive back home through the blossoming Los Angeles morning, Jerry continued to dazzle me with his “death” pose in the back seat. It was brilliant, until he broke wind. But even without that fatal scene, my dog now has a résumé and I think he might be eligible for his SAG card.
The movie is due to be released in 2005. It’s called Think Tank. If Jerry’s scenes don’t end up on the cutting-room floor, then I highly recommend this movie. So please go and see it. And if Steven Spielberg is reading this, have your people call Jerry’s people (that’s me).
Culture: Stories & Lit
An apology for my dog-owning deficiencies
Alvy, I owe you an apology. I haven’t been the easiest person to live with over the past few months, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your patience with me. I did so many dumb things when you first arrived, I don’t really know where to begin.
I’m sorry that I named you Alvy Singer, which I’ve been told is pretentious. In my defense, “Roman Polanski” seemed too political.
I’m ashamed to admit that a few days after you arrived, I fantasized about sending you back to the breeder with a sign around your neck that read: Rosemary’s Fur Baby. (I will always treasure the “devil’s pepper” amulet that you came with.)
I’m sorry I never finished that Temple Grandin book—all those Temple Grandin books, actually. I’m embarrassed to admit that I read the entire 66-page complaint filed by Al Gore’s masseuse instead—well, “skimmed” is probably more accurate. I’m even more ashamed of the fact that I listened to the Mel Gibson audiotapes. Three times. Each.
That Google search—“how to sedate + puppy”—was just me goofing around. I would never have done it for real. I didn’t “garrote + cat,” now did I?
I swear to god, I have no idea how Children’s Benadryl got into your water dish. I don’t even have children!
I’m sorry that I skipped so many important puppy-training classes, including the ones where the commands “Sit,” “Stay” and “Leave me alone, I’m eating” were taught. (I really regret missing that last one.) It hasn’t slowed your progress, though. You’re sitting like a pro! It’s almost as if you’ve been doing it all your life. You’re doing it now and I didn’t even ask you!
I feel terrible about the things I said about you when you first came here. I take it all back. You are not the Antichrist, and neither are you a Morlock. I know you didn’t bite me on the nose because you wanted to make me cry (though you didn’t do yourself any favors when you high-fived the cat immediately after).
I feel sick about the time I called in one of those dominance trainers to help me deal with what I later realized was just your puppyness and not some perverse desire on your part to turn me into your petrified valet. (You were only 11 weeks old! How sick was I?) You’re really going to hate me when I tell you that when I made that desperate call, I was fully aware that the alpha-dog theory had been discredited by serious animal behaviorists long ago—I did get that far in Grandin’s book. I promise never to do anything like that again. In fact, if I ever encounter another one of those jerks, I’m going to alpha roll him.
I’m sorry that sometimes I forget you’re a dog and not a baby. The BabyBjörn was absolutely too much, I agree. (It’s in the closet with your bonnet and sleeper, if you were wondering.) But just so you know: that sailor suit you tore to shreds wasn’t cheap.
I should never have compared you to Marty, my first dog. You two are very different. He was perfect and you’re evil—kidding!
I feel terrible about the first time I took you for a walk, which was really more of a prolonged drag. Now I’m the one being dragged on the walk. But it’s good for me. It’s helping me lose the puppy weight.
I’m sorry I didn’t realize you were trying to loosen me up, show me that life can be fun and not an endless march to the office, the gym and, ultimately, inevitable extinction. I still march, but dammit if there isn’t a spring in my step! That’s owing to you, my little Morlock.
Finally, and this one is hard for me to talk about, I’m sorry I lost my temper and screeched at you like a banshee that night. That really was our darkest hour, and I swear it will never happen again (yes, I know, it did, one more time; but never again!). I learned a valuable lesson from it though. I can be an animal sometimes, too.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The other day my daughter confided that she and her friends had that day engaged in an argument, one that’s been raging, it seems, forever. They weren’t discussing the origins of war, or why evil exists, or whether God exists, but a question just as troubling— is Goofy a dog?
My heart was warmed that these young people were confronting the same issues I’d confronted when I was their age. How well I remember those youthful discourses!
Pluto is a dog— that’s a given. And yet Pluto cannot speak. Goofy appears to be a dog, yet he possesses the power of speech. What’s the deal here?
Take a trip around Duckburg. See the Beagle Boys? They have shiny black noses like dogs, yet they walk just as men! Most of the citizens of Duckburg, as a matter of fact, are some kind of bizarre dog/human hybrid— werewolves, if you will, or some ungodly mutant created by Gyro Gearloose in his fiendish laboratory. And who paid for it? I’m not going to accuse anybody in print, but I will say that every time I see that miserly plutocrat Scrooge McDuck my blood runs cold.
But let’s not go there.
Instead let’s look at the larger picture. What are the Cartoon Rules of Dogs?
1. All cartoon dogs like bones. If they don’t have bones, they scheme to take bones from others.
2. Cartoon dogs are always male. There are a few exceptions (Lady comes to mind), but if you look at the pantheon— Deputy Dawg, Tramp, Mighty Manfred, Snoopy, Foghorn Leghorn’s nameless adversary, or the cast of All Dogs go to Heaven— they are always male. Female dogs only exist in cartoons so a male dog can howl, slaver, make his eyes bug out and get distracted by them, so some other dog can steal his bone.
3. If a dog has a comfortable existence inside a warm, cozy house, some outside force will arrive to drive him into the yard where it’s always pouring rain. This outside force is usually a cat. If a dog has a comfortable existence in his doghouse, some outside force is always trying to get him to leave it. This outside force can be represented by many things— a mailman, a cat, a bird, even a rival dog trying to gain access to his bone.
4. In the cartoon universe, if a dog is the protagonist, a cat usually represents the force of evil and/or chaos, unless it’s a cute little fuzzy kitten. Either way, the dog will be distracted from his bone.
5. Cartoon dogs can go from joy to rage in an instant, and back again.
6. A dog’s personality is determined by its breed. Sheepdogs are loyal. Dobermans are fierce. St. Bernards are tenacious. Shepherds are protective. Chihuahuas are nervous. Poodles are vain. Bulldogs are irascible. Mutts are scrappy. Etc.
7. If a dog is clever, he’s usually not clever enough. If a dog is stupid, he usually perseveres— that is, he gets the bone in the end.
8. Dogs are never evil. They can be obsessive, but never self-absorbed.
9. There are no cowardly dogs. If they’re needed, cartoon dogs always come through.
10. In confrontations with cats, dogs usually lose. In the cartoon universe, mice and cats defeat dogs.
I think these rules are pretty much written in stone, don’t you? So what does that make Goofy? Well, he’s male, he’s stupid and he’s not evil. But does he like bones? No. Do cats give him a hard time? No.
I have to stand by my original assessment, and I’ve had a lifetime to think about it. I don’t know what the hell Goofy is. He may even be part dog for all I know, but by and large I’d have to say that Goofy is the unholy spawn of hell, an unnatural creature who should be destroyed while there’s still time. But that’s probably just me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Size matters — or does it?
“I’ve always had big ones,” Marian said.
“But that’s over.”
The volunteer glanced up from her clipboard. “Why?”
“You don’t seem —”
Marian broke in. “Last one was a Rottweiler.” She clenched her teeth to head off tears. “He needed lifting, toward the end. You need to be strong for that. Young. By the time the new one needs that, I’ll be pushing 80.”
The volunteer nodded.
“And don’t tell me to get an older one, or even a middleaged one, so that its time will come before I get decrepit, because I’ve done that before, and won’t do it again now, at my age, and go through the whole death thing again in just a few years. Don’t try to steer me. I know what I want.”
Marian could hear herself, and could hear what the volunteer was thinking about her — Whoa, what a witch — but she just set her jaw in a harder square.
“Give me something small. Fifteen pounds max. No more than two years old. I don’t care if it sheds. Or if it’s not perfectly behaved. I know how to train.”
Another silent communiqué via the volunteer’s arched eyebrow: I bet you do.
Years ago Marian had been turned down by this same shelter, because she didn’t lie on the adoption application as most people undoubtedly did. She had admitted that her fence was only four feet tall instead of the required six.
Rules were rules. That was understandable. But the dog she had selected, the one she had visited for six hours over three consecutive days, might not have understood why she left him behind.
This time, if they were going to turn her down, she wanted to know up-front.
“I’m sorry, but right now we don’t have any dogs of that size.”
Ha, just as she’d expected. A polite way to say Get out.
Marian shook her head. “I find that hard to believe.”
“The smaller ones go quickly, in general. Many people think they’re easier to care for, so — ”
“I don’t think they’re easier to care for,” said Marian. “I know they are. It’s common sense.”
While Marian foraged for sarcasm in the reply, the girl went on. “We’ll give you a list of small-dog rescue groups. You might even find a purebred through the breed-specialty rescues.”
“I don’t care about purebred. I’ve told you what I want.”
“Yes,” the volunteer said. “You have. I’ll walk you to the front desk so they can help you.”
Help, thought Marian, was nothing but a word at this place.
Ordinarily she would have walked out and not bothered with any more of these people’s double-talk. But while Karl was ill, she had developed a bladder infection. The doctor said because of the stress, but what did he know? It had more to do with neglecting to drink enough water, she was sure. In any case, even after a week of antibiotics she still had to visit the restroom constantly.
“It won’t be so bad,” someone murmured as Marian walked in. “It’ll work out fine.” Sobbing followed. Then the sound of panting. Marian stepped back and checked the sign on the door. It was indeed the ladies’ room. A whine escaped one of the stalls.
“Shh,” said the voice. “It’ll be fine, baby. Everything will be OK.” Whoever it was blew her nose. Marian bent down and saw, under the stall door, two feet and four paws. Large paws. She entered a stall. While she sat there, the feet and the large paws walked by and left.
Karl’s paws had been the biggest most people had ever seen. It was one of the things she enjoyed about him — his size and the ability of that to fool everybody into thinking he was dangerous. Rottweilers could be dangerous, of course. So could Chihuahuas. She had always felt that she herself would have been more dangerous than Karl, had the need ever arisen. He trusted people.
Once, she had come home from work and found him snoozing in a patch of sun on the patio, at the feet of a tall, white-haired man who stood very still. It took her several minutes to recognize the man as Joel, her second husband, someone she hadn’t seen in over a decade and Karl had never met.
Technically, Karl could have ripped her ex limb from limb — with some justification, since Joel had come to ask for money. Joel had recognized this, but too late, after he’d trespassed into her backyard without having noticed the Rottweiler in it. Luckily for him, aggression wasn’t that dog’s forte.
Karl had other skills. He sat quietly while she strapped on his safety harness in the car. He excavated tunnels three feet deep in pursuit of gophers, but never in the lawn or among her beloved camellias. When in the mood, he fetched the newspaper from just inside the front gate, which, despite frequent complaints, was as far as the delivery boy’s arm could throw. And every evening Karl curled his giant frame into a tidy ball to nap on the ottoman, leaving just enough room for Marian’s feet, keeping them warm while she read in the chair.
Marian smiled. Then her eyes stung. She yanked a length of toilet paper off the roll and swabbed at them.
While washing her hands, she saw that her eyeliner had run, leaving streaks down each cheek. It took forever to clean them off with the shelter’s cheap paper towels. Couldn’t they spring for stronger ones? You’d think they would, given that probably all animal shelter restrooms doubled as crying rooms.
She came out just wanting to go home. As she reached the front door of the shelter, she heard a whine, and looked back.
A large dog was there, at the counter. He sat next to a girl of no more than 18 or 19. Same feet, same paws from the restroom.
“Breed?” asked the woman behind the counter.
The girl said, “Irish Wolfhound mix, I think.”
“Reason for surrender?”
For a long moment the girl didn’t answer.
“Sorry, but I need to write something here.”
The girl nodded. “Money.”
“Financial hardship,” the counter clerk edited. “Age?”
“He’s eight, maybe. I’m not sure. When I found him, the vet said he was probably six, and that was a couple of … a couple of years — ” Her voice broke.
“Let’s go into an office,” the clerk said softly, and stepped around the counter to touch the girl’s arm, “where it’s more — ”
“No. I can’t stay. I just… He won’t be…” The girl shut her eyes, then looked straight at the clerk. “You won’t put him down, right?”
“As long as Buzz is adoptable, we’ll keep looking to find him a home.” The girl nodded. She looked at the dog. “I have to go now, Buzz. I have to go.” She knelt. The dog melted into her arms, a spot he must have filled a thousand times before. His colossal shaggy head rested on her shoulder. His mouth opened in a panting grin. Marian noticed how white his teeth looked, not bad for an eight-year-old.
The girl stood up and fished something from her shoulder bag. “His toothbrush. His teeth were bad when I found him. As long as I keep them clean — brush every night — he does great.”
She set the toothbrush on the counter, then walked out.
The clerk, the dog and Marian watched her go. Then the clerk stroked Buzz’s head, took up the leash and led him away.
Marian saw a donation jar half full of coins on the counter. “Small Change,” said the sappy pink handmade sign over it, “comes from Big Hearts.”
Her heart wasn’t feeling big. It had been attacked, she felt, by all of this — the girl, the dog, this whole place. She had to get out.
In her laundry room, Marian folded a basket of towels, then the last of the blankets from Karl’s bed. He’d gone through two changes of them almost every day for those last months. Carrying him outside umpteen times a day, with the towel wrapped around his belly, hadn’t always prevented accidents. Her back still ached.
If that volunteer couldn’t understand that older people had to be careful about what kind of dog they got, she was an idiot. Or maybe people these days didn’t nurse old dogs. They just dumped them, like that girl and her big Wolfhound cross.
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, Marian’s throat caught. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt ready to burst. What were the symptoms of a heart attack? She tried to remember. A few weeks ago, while Karl was ill, she called the doctor about a fainting spell. Stress, he said, and asked her how much sleep she was getting. That was his answer for everything — stress.
But she didn’t have the pains in the arms or jaw or any of the other things the doctor had listed, just the awful fullness in the chest. With nothing more than that for warning, she exploded into tears. She stood there over the dryer, unable to stop.
Was this about Karl? There had been a good deal of crying about him already.
No. Now it wasn’t about him. She felt shock, along with a sharp stab of guilt. Disloyalty. It wasn’t about Karl at all. This was about that dog. The one at the shelter. The first impulsive thing Marian had ever done was marry Brian, lead singer in a band called The Needles, at age 18, and that had turned out so poorly that it had also been her last impulsive move. She sat in her car, waiting for a break in the rain, wondering if something was happening to her. Maybe she really had had a small stroke while caring for Karl, or a heart attack that morning in the laundry room with the shortness of breath and the crying. At her age she was not too young for dementia, either.
Otherwise, why would she be here, back at the shelter?
Inside, she wore her sunglasses and kept the hood of her jacket up, in case she ran into the volunteer from yesterday. The chaos in the kennels made her head spin. Bark after bark banged against her ears. Dogs flung themselves at the bars, yelling all manner of things at her: Let me out! When are my people coming back? Do you have any food? And at each other: If not for these bars I’d kill you! Do you want to play? Hey, are you in heat?
Maybe she should get a cat.
It seemed somewhat storybook, when she thought about it later, that the one she had come for would be at the very end of the kennels. That she almost turned around and left just before she got to that last run. That he would be silent. That he would be in a corner, despondent, and wouldn’t look at her when she whispered his name.
She squatted. Pain shot through one of her knees, so she hauled herself back up, grabbing onto the bars. When she looked up again he was there in front of her.
No wag. No grin. Just a tentatively sniffing nose — cautious interest. And he was bigger than she remembered. Maybe it wasn’t the same dog.
But he had the same outsized head and amber eyes. Same well-groomed, shaggy gray coat, same stub of a tail. And his name printed on the run’s card.
The day after she’d adopted Karl, from a neighbor who was moving, she’d gotten her handyman to add two feet of mesh to the top of her fence, figuring there must be good reasons why the shelter demanded that height. Now she could honestly answer the adoption questionnaire with that fact, plus the fact that she had no children under the age of five, or of any age, and that her dogs always lived indoors. But maybe, since she’d last seen that application over a decade ago, they’d added more questions.
She bent over, ignoring the ache in her back, and said the dog’s name again. His plate-sized ears perked up.
The light color of his eyes made his gaze eerie, but she liked that. It would scare people.
He sat, which caused his head to lift, making him look even taller.
He kept that intense yellow gaze on her.
“On the thin side, but that’s healthier for you larger fellows, isn’t it?”
The head a little beyond proportion, but from the neck down, what magnificent lines. A broad chest tapering to a narrow, athletic waist and muscular hips. He wore his age well.
“Are you a good boy?” she asked.
That, finally, brought a small wag of the stub.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
Suddenly Buzz jumped up, making Marian take a startled stumble backward. He planted his mammoth paws on the bars, almost above her head, and let out the smallest, silliest, most frustrated yip.
Marian laughed. “All right then. Should I go see what can be done about getting you out of here?”
In line at the counter, Marian felt a sense of unreality, as if she were someone else there waiting to adopt that dog. Exactly the kind of dog she had not wanted. Things seemed disjointed — the man in front of her scribbling a grocery list, the yowling of a cat in a carrier atop a desk — all like a TV show you were only half-watching while you balanced your checkbook.
She imagined herself walking with Buzz. A cold, foggy morning. The kind when she hated to exercise, being uncomfortable about the things she couldn’t see, but feeling safe with Buzz. As she had with Karl.
Herself and Buzz on the ferry to Montauk, where she and Karl spent a month every summer in a little cabin. Now that she’d retired from the phone company, they could go for the whole summer.
A volunteer — a different one than yesterday’s — gave her the interview, and in a matter of minutes, she sat in a small outdoor enclosure.
Although the rain had stopped, the ground remained soaked. Buzz seemed careful about getting his paws wet. A good sign. The girl must have kept him indoors. He nosed around, made his mark on a fence post, then came to her.
“Hello again,” she said.
He sat. She held out her palm. He sniffed, then laid his cheek on it, and slid it up to his ears.
“Oh, so you like your ears rubbed?” Marian obliged.
She noticed then how white his muzzle was, and his prominent spine, and the slight milky glaze over his eyes.
There were his eight years, after all. Maybe more.
At Montauk, he could swim, if he wanted to, though Karl never did. It was good exercise for older dogs, she had read.
Buzz’s head whipped up. Marian followed his gaze. Behind her, just outside the fence, stood a girl. His girl.
In less than a second, he was pawing at the gate. The girl opened it, and Buzz flew to her, nearly knocking her flat.
A volunteer hurried over. “You OK?”
Buzz had sat the girl on the ground to wash her face. “I’m here,” she said, laughing and crying simultaneously, “to get my dog.”
Married to Brian, Marian had lost a fair amount of hearing. This came from attending all his concerts in a futile effort to prevent him from picking up groupies. Later, married to Joel, the losses had been less permanent — her savings, her credit, the jewelry he’d pawned. Over the years, she had recovered those and more.
Most losses, in fact, could be recovered. Even the hearing she had somewhat restored by developing the ability to read minds. Not telepathy, just observation. Expressions. Gestures. The smallest things could say a lot.
While the girl and the shelter manager spoke, Marian sat outside the office, listening to their faces. The manager felt the girl was lying about having found a job overnight. And about how she could afford to pay the fee that the shelter would require, out of her savings. The girl in fact was lying. She needed the dog. With Buzz, she would find a way to make it. It had been a panicky mistake to give him up.
In the confusion earlier, someone had handed Buzz’s leash to Marian. Beside her now, he quivered. He panted in short, anxious bursts. Everything in him attuned to the girl, waiting. The manager studied the girl, too. Then she looked at Marian.
Some losses, you couldn’t recover. Not love. Too delicate. Prone to all manner of injury.
Not deaths. Those were permanent. There would never be another Karl. And he, Marian decided, would be her last big dog.
At the front door of the shelter, Marian watched Buzz’s mincing steps through the rain and the parking lot puddles. He wouldn’t have wanted to swim at Montauk.
He leaped into the girl’s battered sedan. The girl dried him with a towel, then used it on herself, and got in beside him.
The rain kept up. Dogs came and went — volunteers exercising them, filling the lobby with the smell of damp fur. None of them small. But some not very big. One put a warm muzzle in her palm and wet paws on her knee.
After the girl drove away, Marian found a chair. She opened her purse.
To fit her check into the jar under that sappy sign, she had to fold it up. The slot wasn’t big enough, having been made only for small change.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A call for improving our etiquette with older dogs.
Like everyone else in a society loudly lamenting a decline in civility, I recognize there are new breaches of etiquette every minute. On any typical day, cell phones alone account for the rudeness factor going off the charts.
But I believe there is one type of impolite behavior among adult humans that goes pretty much unchecked. I’ve been guilty of it myself and slinked away feeling really stupid. It just isn’t something that makes it into the etiquette books and it apparently isn’t even worth Miss Manners’ fleeting consideration.
I am referring to the blunt, utterly uncensored and often just plain mean things people say to us about our dogs (by “us” I mean dog people). My close friend Pam has a 12-yearold German Shepherd who is visibly aging. So are the rest of us, human and canine, but to what person would you ever be so crude as to say the following: “Is that your mother? Wow, she looks awful. She can hardly move!” Yet this is the unsolicited blubbering my friend endures from strangers, all day long, about her old dog. I empathize because I’ve been through this three times, beginning with our family Beagle, Sam, who lived to be nearly 17, mostly out of spite.
“How old is he?” People would ask this unrelentingly about my now-departed Irish Setter, Amos. I didn’t mind telling them that he was 12 or 13. “Wow. They don’t live much longer than that, do they?” How tacky is this?
But it gets worse. When my big, hairy mutt, Louie (we called him our “Bavarian crotch-smeller”) was old and frail, someone once asked me, “Have you thought about putting him down?” First of all, that’s kind of like asking a woman in her 40s (this also happened to me), “Have you ever thought about having children?” “Gee, there’s an idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” When your dog is old and sick, the end is pretty much all you can think about. Your heart is breaking and you’re preparing yourself to come to that decision in a way that spares your dog unnecessary suffering while giving yourself time to feel as peaceful as possible about letting him go.
People assume they can say anything they like about a stranger’s dog. While they’d (I hope) refrain from saying, “Excuse me, but it looks like your husband is losing his hair,” when Louie was suffering from Cushing’s disease, strangers constantly took it upon themselves to point out his hair loss. “Do you know your dog is losing his hair?” And what can you do except mumble, um, yes, this is my dog, he’s part of my family, I’m nearly always with him, I bathe him, I brush him, he sleeps with us, and throughout most, if not all, of these activities, I am looking at him! And it’s always too late when you think of how you could’ve said, “Do you know you have a wart on your chin?”
Pam is at the point where she dreads walking her dog in public because she knows passersby will make insensitive comments she can’t bear to hear. Out in the world she is thoughtful and tender enough not to remind everyone she encounters that they are mortal. Like the rest of us, she can tell when a person’s on his or her last legs, but she keeps herself from saying, “Gee, you sure are slowing down” or asking the person’s daughter, “So how long do people in your family tend to live?” When approaching people like my friend, it helps to remind oneself that she knows her dog is old. She knows it every waking second of every day.
The last years and months we share with our geriatric dogs are among the most bittersweet times in dog lovers’ lives. We know, from the moment we choose these guys as puppies or meet their limpid stares at the animal shelter, that our hearts will be torn apart some day. What makes it so much worse is that the older they get, the sweeter they get, and when they reach absolute critical sweetness—you simply cannot love them any more than you already do—they grow completely exhausted and die. So a person patiently coaxing an old dog on his increasingly shrinking route is someone who could benefit from a little compassionate restraint. Like a simple hello for the owner, or a tender pat on the head for the doggie emeritus.
Dog Inc. author explains the high cost of canine cloning.
Canine cloning businesses like to tout their services as akin to resurrection—but the reality is much more complicated. In our video interview, John Woestendiek, author of the new book Dog Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend, exposes the high cost of canine cloning—for both the people who invest their money and emotions in the procedure, and the laboratory animals used to create the clones.
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