Vigilantes: Watching Out for Dogs

A neighborhood comes to the rescue, sort of.
By Bonnie Schroeder, December 2019
dog trapped in car

People swarm like ants to the “estate sale” at Anna Mott’s house halfway down the block.

Three days running I hadn’t seen Anna push her walker past my house to the corner and back, and I suspected the worst. After her husband died last summer, their home began to look shabby and sad, the shrubs overgrown, the draperies drawn day and night.

Now I’m the only widow left on our quiet, leafy street. I push that thought away and enjoy this bright February morning—brisk and cool even with sunlight streaming down. This kind of morning is why people flock to Southern California. And I’m alive to enjoy it, still able to wheel my own trash barrel out to the curb—it’s collection day.

When my late husband George and I first moved here, the houses were all new, and most of the neighbors were our age. George joked he bought the house as a present for my 25th birthday. Our son Kevin grew up here. Forty years later, Kevin lives in Oregon, George is gone and the neighborhood is changing.

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Every year, the older population thins. Dorothy, who lived across the street, died right after Thanksgiving, and her heirs have removed most of the furniture and family keepsakes; I watched it go and imagined the big, emptied rooms sighing with loneliness.

Dorothy’s middle son, Tom—a contractor— bought out his brother and sister and has been renovating the house for his son and daughter-in-law. Tom backs his red pickup into the driveway most mornings and sets to work plumbing and plastering and painting. Sometimes his wife Lana comes to help. On the days he works alone, if I’m out gardening, Tom usually walks over to chat a few minutes. Maybe he gets spooked by the empty house where he grew up; maybe he feels the flutter of his mother’s ghost as he unscrews light fixtures and rips up frayed carpeting.

I get spooked sometimes myself, even now that younger people have begun moving into the neighborhood. The newcomers take nightly strolls, healthy-looking husbands holding leashes of frisky Golden Retrievers while the wives grasp toddlers’ hands. Seeing them makes me miss George all the more, if that’s possible. I thought I was too young to be a widow, but the day of George’s funeral I saw myself in a mirror and thought, “Grace Summers, you have become one of those old ladies you used to joke about.”

The trash barrel tries to roll away from me as I wheel it down the steepest part of the driveway, so I do a careful zigzag those last few feet. The barrel isn’t heavy, just clumsy.

“Ma’am, do you need help with that?”

Where did she come from, the tall, skinny woman offering help? Not one of my neighbors—probably a treasure-hunter on her way to the estate sale.

I land the barrel safely at the curb and dust my hands on my faded blue jeans. “No, but thank you.”

Do I look like I need help?

Maybe so. I try to see how I might appear to this 40-ish woman in her soft blue jersey dress. Can she see beyond my gray hair and wrinkles? All of a sudden, they’re the only parts of me I can think of, undeniable signs that I’m not young anymore.

She hesitates a minute, maybe trying to decide if I’m fit to declare my own competence, then nods and heads toward the Mott house.

I give the trash barrel one last shove and peer down the street at the growing crowd. I almost envy them, having a goal this morning, even if it’s only to pick over the bones of the Motts’ estate.

A lonely, useless, loose-end feeling comes over me, and I get an urge to slap a for-sale sign in my yard and move away. But where? You can’t run away from who and what you are, now can you?

As I turn toward my house, I feel a familiar twinge in my lower back. Maybe I should have let that woman help me. Then a car parked across the street catches my eye. A dusty white Honda sedan with a punched-out taillight, it’s blocking my neighbor’s trash barrels. Now, that is the height of discourtesy. One of the estate sale vultures, no doubt.

Then I see something on the back-window shelf of the Honda: a dog. A furry little thing, not much bigger than a cat, with pointy ears. It wags its tail as I approach. None of the Honda’s windows are open, not even a crack. The morning is still cool, but the sun’s gaining strength, and if the driver doesn’t return soon, that dog will be in trouble. Isn’t it against the law to leave a dog in a closed-up car?

I memorize the license plate, repeating it to myself as I go home and scribble it on a scrap of paper. Then I look up the phone number of the local humane society. I used to know it by heart from all the dogs George and I adopted over the years. The last one, Rusty—a Collie-Shepherd mix—was my main comfort when George died. And then less than a year later, Rusty followed George, just like he’d always done.

Why haven’t I gotten another dog? Mostly it’s because I don’t want to give my heart over and get it broken again. And it’s cruel work, picking out an animal at a shelter. Cage after cage, the dogs look at you with pleading eyes, tails wagging, each one seeming to cry out, “Choose me, please take me out of this place!” I always wanted to bring them all home; George was the strong one who made the hard choice for both of us.

I dial the humane society, and an actual person answers the phone. I tell her about the dog in the car. Her voice never changes tone when she asks how the dog’s behaving: is it panting or pacing around?

“Not yet,” I tell her, “but the sun’s just now hitting that car.”

She says the dog’s owner will probably come back before they’re able to send out an “animal services officer.” She says if the dog does start acting distressed, call them back.

I set to work cleaning house, trying to take my mind off that dog. What kind of person leaves a helpless animal alone in a parked car, with no ventilation? In my mind I form a picture of the dog’s owner: a frowzy, middle-aged woman with permanented hair and three chins, ankles bulging out around her shoes, rumpled clothes that haven’t seen a washing machine lately. A greedy look in her eyes, so set on finding a bargain that she neglects her pet. I hope I see her come back so I can give her a piece of my mind.

While I run the vacuum cleaner, I glance out the window now and then. Every time I do, that Honda’s still there. I can see the dog, waiting and watching. Dogs will do that forever, I guess.

This house is getting a little beat-up with age. George did a much better job of maintaining it than I can. But I love its worn wood floors and the graceful sweep of the staircase, even though it gets harder to climb every year. I love the big windows that bring sunlight to my parlor palms. I love the view of the mountains in the distance. I love everything about this place except the memories.

Forty-five minutes later, Tom’s red truck backs into what used to be Dorothy’s driveway, and as he’s unloading his equipment, I go out to check on the dog, which still seems okay.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Tom calls out. He’s tall and friendly with big, calloused hands and a comforting man-smell of sweat and sawdust. This day he’s come without Lana.

I explain about the dog and how I called the humane society. He asks me for their number as he whips out his cell phone.

“People like that make me so damn mad.” His fingers dance over the phone’s screen.

“Yeah,” he says into the phone, “some fool has left their dog in a closed-up car in front of 2121 Ridgemont. The dog’s acting scared, and it’s panting a lot.”

He makes a face at me, to let me know that he knows he’s laying it on thick.

I’ve always liked Tom the best of Dorothy’s kids. He and Kevin are the same age, and they used to play together; I can still see them pedaling their first bikes down this street.

He puts his phone away. “Humane says they’ll send somebody soon as they can.”

We linger beside the Honda, watching the people leaving the Motts’ with their treasures: garden tools, a globe, books, kitchen appliances.

A young couple approaches, holding hands. “That your car?” Tom asks, challenge ringing in his voice as he jerks his thumb toward the Honda.

They stop walking, and the man shakes his head. “Nope—why?”

“There’s a dog inside,” I explain, “and the owner left the car all closed up.”

“No open windows?” He walks around the car, checking for himself. He and the woman wear matching tan “Loyola” sweatshirts, and I’m pretty sure they don’t belong with that poor dirty Honda.

The woman peers in at the dog. “Who would do such a thing?”

Her brown hair shines in the sunlight, the way mine used to do, and her face—what I can see of it around her big sunglasses—is rosy and smooth. The man wears a baseball cap, and curly blond hair pokes out from its edges. Something about them feels familiar, like they belong in this neighborhood.

“We’ve called the humane society,” I tell them, pointing to Tom to include him. “Want to call too? Maybe if enough of us phone in, they’ll send help.”

“I’ll do better than that,” the man says, pulling out his cell phone. My God, everyone’s armed these days. “I’ll call the police.”

I eavesdrop as he makes his call; evidently, they put him on hold. While he waits, we all introduce ourselves. He’s Andy, she’s Denise, and they live over on Newmark. Neighbors, like I thought. Moved in late last year.

It’s after 10 now, and the tide of people returning to their cars has thickened. The four of us speculate which of them might belong to the Honda. Every time someone approaches and keeps going, we joke that the sight of us glaring at every passer-by would discourage anyone from stopping, even if they did own the car. We gripe about the humane society not showing up, the police keeping Andy on hold, the shiny German cars that speed down our quiet streets, jeopardizing pedestrians and bikeriding kids.

“You know,” Tom observes, “we could pop out one of those windows.”

Andy nods and holds the phone away from his mouth. “Or slash his tires. That’d teach him.”

“Andrew!” Denise protests, shaking her head.

George was like that too, always needing to do something. He hated to stand around and wait.

The sun’s rays soak into my black sweater and I touch the Honda’s roof to test its temperature: heating up. Tom checks the car’s surface too and yanks his hand away, shaking it dramatically.

“I’ll get my crowbar,” he says. “We’ll get a window open, and if the guy who did this shows up, maybe I’ll use it on him.”

Is he serious? What have I gone and started?

I don’t know I’m doing it until my fingers close around the Honda’s door handle. “First, let’s try the obvious,” I tell them.

The door opens. For the tick of a heartbeat nobody moves. Behind us I hear a woman’s laugh, the slam of a car door, the whine of an engine starting. A crow shrieks from one of the big oak trees.

Then the dog, which up ’til now has been so calmly watching the goings-on, jumps down onto the back seat and starts barking: a loud, deep ruckus from that small creature. The tail’s not wagging now; it’s fluffed out like a scared cat’s. The dog’s ears are flattened against its head, and its sharp teeth flash with each bark.

Before I can shut the car door, the dog leaps out and takes off down the street.

Andy drops his phone.

Denise cries out. “Oh!”

Neither Tom nor I move. I don’t know about him, but I’m paralyzed by dreadful visions of a furry little body crushed under car tires.

Among the people walking toward us is a fellow with spiky black hair, wearing creased khaki trousers and a pale green shirt open at the throat. He’s carrying an armload of what looks like board games. I recognize a Monopoly box, frayed at the corners.

The dog runs right at him. Its tail streaks out behind, its legs moving so quickly it’s practically flying. That’s how Rusty would react when I called him. He’d focus his whole self on getting to me, and he’d act so happy to see me, even if we’d only been separated for a few minutes. Unconditional love—so, so sweet.

The man drops the boxes and holds his arms open. “Pepper!”

He kneels, and the dog leaps into his arms, squirming and licking.

The guy gets up and glares at the four of us standing by the Honda, its passenger door still gaping. “What the hell happened?” he demands. “You let my dog out?”

He walks toward us, his body stiff and straight, although he doesn’t look capable of doing any damage. Up close I see he’s a scrawny young man, with pale eyes. He’s quivering with anger or fear or some combination of the two. Safe in the arms of its master, the dog looks more at ease than any of us humans.

“We were trying to help,” Denise begins. “You left your dog in a closed-up car. It was getting hot.”

“How dare you! That’s breaking and entering! I’m calling the cops!”

“Already did,” says Tom. “Animal cruelty’s against the law.”

“Animal cruelty my foot! He was fine until you interfered!”

Andy picks up his phone. “Your dog was roasting alive while you were out buying toys.”

I keep my mouth shut; I have no words to add.

The guy stomps past Tom and looks inside the Honda, like he’s checking to see if we stole anything. Then he moves back to close the door and brushes against Denise, who’s still standing by the car. She backs out of his way so quickly she stumbles against the Honda’s fender.

“Hey!” Andy yells. “Don’t you shove my wife!” His hands clench into fists.

Something crackles in that winter sunlight. The air stiffens. I feel a sizzle of electricity, hear the hum of a high-tension wire. It’s like that moment when kindling sparks. First you see a tiny curl of smoke. Then you smell something burning. Then—whoosh! I taste copper and sulfur, or maybe it’s only the match that Tom just struck to light his cigarette.

I wish Tom would do something to defuse the situation, but he makes it worse. “Let’s lock you in that car for a while and see how you like it,” he says with a rough voice I don’t recognize.

Think fast, Grace. George always said I was a good woman in a crisis, although I never knew where he got that idea.

I square my shoulders and take a breath, then step between the men scowling at each other. When I speak, the voice that comes out surprises me: no hint of old-lady wobble.

“You should not have left your dog in the car without any windows open,” I tell the dog’s owner. “Not even for a few minutes. What if something happened and you couldn’t come back right away?”

The guy lifts his chin. “Like what?”

Like someone boxed your ears and taught you some manners, I want to snap, and then I remind myself that I am the grown-up here.

“Oh,” I say, “you should always expect the unexpected. What if you tripped and fell down?”

Tom snickers, and it’s a precarious sound.

I plunge ahead. “I’m sure you didn’t realize how hot your car can get, and I know you didn’t deliberately do something that might hurt your dog. But it’s dangerous for an animal to be left closed up in a car. We were all worried for his safety.”

The guy looks at me like he’s trying to make up his mind about something, and then evidently, he decides. “I get it,” he says, and holds up one hand, palm facing out. The other hand cradles the dog. “But you shouldn’t have broken into my car.”

“We didn’t mean to,” I reply before Tom or Andy can jump in and argue. “We thought maybe we could open a window for the little guy. Which you should have done before you left him.”

“Maybe so,” he says, stroking Pepper’s head. “I didn’t think about it.”

Andy’s posture relaxes, and Denise lets out a soft sigh, like the hiss from a kid’s plastic wading pool when you open the valve, unnoticeable at first, except for that sound of escaping air.

Tom grinds out his cigarette on the pavement and picks up the butt.

I look back to the boxes strewn in the street. “I’ll help you get your stuff.” He starts to protest.

“No, that’s—”

But I’m already walking toward the pile of board games, with Tom right behind me.

“That would be nice,” the Honda guy says. “Thank you.”

Still holding his dog, he follows us to the spilled boxes. The Monopoly game opened when it fell, and little plastic houses are scattered across the asphalt, so I squat to scoop them up. Collecting them revives memories: Kevin loved to play Monopoly when he was a boy, and he grew up to play it for a living—he’s a real estate developer.

“Thank you,” the dog’s owner says, as Tom picks up the boxes. “And I will be more careful with Pepper.” He makes a heart-crossing motion.

Tom doesn’t reply except to carry the boxes to the Honda and set them on the back seat.

“Thank you,” the driver says again as he puts Pepper in the car. “Pepper and I are grateful. Aren’t we, Pepper?”

Pepper yawns and sniffs the board games. His owner starts the car and drives away, leaving a whiff of exhaust.

I don’t know about the others, but even if we nearly caused a riot, I’m proud that the four of us didn’t look the other way and let that dog bake in the car.

“Bet he’ll think twice before he pulls a stunt like that again,” Andy says.

Tom hefts his toolbox. “Damn straight. We showed him. Right, Grace?” “Right,” I reply. “We did good.” Andy shakes my hand and then Tom’s, and Denise hugs me like an old friend. “We’ll see you around,” they both say at the same time and then laugh as they stroll away.

Tom walks toward his mother’s empty house. “You have a good day now, Grace,” he calls out over his shoulder and starts to whistle.

“You too.”

What kind of new neighbors will move into the Mott house? And how will Tom’s son be? I’ve scarcely ever seen the boy. Once again, I consider selling, getting out while I can still walk.

From the foot of my driveway, I try to see my house with a stranger’s eyes. The yard looks good, even in late winter. White azaleas thrive in the shade of the camellia bushes, which are still blooming crimson and pink. I admire the window curtains I sewed myself, the year before George died. He installed the drapery rods for me. There’s a gouge in one windowsill that only I know about; Rusty liked to bark at the window, and his claws dug into the soft wood too deeply a couple of times. George never got around to repairing the sill, and I let the mark stay—a reminder of that faithful dog.

I try to imagine myself somewhere else, but all I see are crowded sidewalks full of strangers. Then I picture this neighborhood, this house, without me, and I feel a blast of cold, musty air, like when a cellar door opens.

My new neighbors will be fine —nice people like Andy and Denise.

When I come in my front door, the freshly vacuumed floors look kind of forlorn. Almost too clean. When Rusty was alive … I shake my head to dislodge the memories.

I keep seeing little Pepper flying toward his master, and then I think of all those poor animals at the shelter.

Dangerous thoughts, Grace. Dangerous thoughts.

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the fifth grade. After escaping the business world, she began writing full-time, and now has several published works to her credit.