Saturday, August 25, 2012

Chapter 8 / Byron

That was Thursday. I started the job on Monday, and by then I had only one dog. 

It was a country thing, one of those times that proved we were not of the country, even if we thought we were, or tried to be. Jaime came over with Ruth, a stalwart of our Amistad group, our rock, who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. thirty years before and hadn’t been young then. Ruth’s vision was poor now and Jaime often drove her, to help her with errands and to listen, to imagine herself back in New York and D.C. in the ’60s. 

Today Ruth had decided that what Annie needed was a blueberry bush, a cutting taken from her own hardy rows, and Jaime had driven her over. I didn’t know where I would put the blueberry cutting or when, but I thanked her and said I would plant it that afternoon. Jaime wanted to show Ruth the gardens and in moving around the yards, Ruth, who was accustomed to well-trained, obedient dogs, farm dogs, not dogs who were part wild and completely bereaved, dogs who had lost their alpha wolf, Ruth, who had always put people ahead of dogs in any case, left open both the back door and the door into the attached garage. The garage door was already open, and standing in the living room—now Jaime wanted to show Ruth the wide-angle photo of the base of the Brooklyn Bridge that stretched above our mantelpiece, taken a hundred years ago, just before the bridge went up—I saw the most amazing sight, of our two dogs trotting down the road by themselves. 

Never had I seen such a thing—never were the dogs outside of the fence, for even an instant, without leashes, from their necks to our hands. Now they hurried along the edge of the road, heads up, facing in the direction of oncoming traffic, as if they’d been trained to do that. Jethro was leading, and in the second before I started to move, to run for their leashes and then out the garage door, I could tell that Chloe was sending him dog messages: But what about our good dinners, Jethro? What about our biscuits? Jethro kept his head up, faced forward: Hurry, Chloe, hurry before she notices we’re gone

Running out of our driveway, I saw Chloe’s curled tail turn left and out of sight down the dirt road. Already my heart was pounding and my throat dry. I remembered the rule of don’t run, they’ll think it’s a game, but they couldn’t see me, so I ran. “Jethro! Chloe!” I made my voice strong and cheerful. “Dinner!” Damn, I should have brought the biscuit tin! Turning, I saw Jaime a few paces behind me—she held up the tin and shook it. At the corner Tony and Inez were on the steps of their cabin, looking stricken. Tony held a bag of potato chips, Inez a package of chicken. 

“We offered them food,” Tony said sadly. 

“They’re looking for him,” said Inez, as if I needed to know that. 

Once again I saw Chloe’s tail disappear left, onto the old logging road into the woods. Now we ran, Jaime and I, not to lose sight of them. 

“Jethro! Chloe! Dinner!”

But we lost them. A little rise in the path; Chloe’s tail disappeared, and when we got there, no dogs to be seen.  

“Oh—” My heart had gone with them. 

“Stay here,” said Jaime. She thrust the biscuit tin at me, then took it back and grabbed a handful. “Keep calling them. Let them know where you are. I’ll get the car and drive the road.”  

Minutes later I heard the car, and then a sound on the path. They were back! “Jethro! Chloe!” I called, smiling into the woods, but it was Jaime, with my fleece jacket, a baseball cap, and a package of Fig Newtons. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, but I could only shake my head. 

This had happened once before. A Saturday. I was at Jaime’s. Ed called me there, distraught; he’d mowed the lawn, left the gate open, forgot—a mistake he would have been furious about if I had made it—and Chloe had wandered off. 

I came right home. Ed worried so much, about so many things, it was always easy for me to be calm. You drive, I said, I’ll walk. 

He drove off, and I realized immediately that my search was hopeless. Our little road, which seemed so populous now—two new houses in the last two years—was backed by miles of woods on either side. If we couldn’t see the dog from the road, we would never find her. 

I did find her. She was just a few hundred yards away, sniffing around the pond in back of Nancy and Frank’s house. She gave me one of those dog looks like, what’s the problem?

This day, I walked up and down the logging road, 50 yards in either direction, calling into the woods, time and again, keeping my voice cheerful. “Jethro, Chloe! Dinner!” They might have headed left to the closed landfill where Ed used to walk them, they might be back at the abandoned cabin on this path, by now they could have reached the next hamlet. We needed an army of searchers here, as if for a lost child, but people don’t do that for small dogs that can run 30 miles an hour, camouflaged by the woods. 

Jaime took the dogs’ picture off my bulletin board and made a bold flyer with our copier and got it to the post office before closing. I prayed. Ed, watch over them, Ed, please, please don’t take them— bring them back to me. The sun slipped behind the hills. My voice began to pipe, like a cry from a wounded animal. 

I came home in the dark; the three gates to the yard were open, and I left them that way. Cold, my throat scratchy, I heated up the new soup Jaime had left. Tonight, I wished someone would stay with me, but no one had offered—dogs had been lost, not a human—and I was too miserable to ask. I slept in a sweat suit, ready to run at the first sound, and woke in the dark, remembering something else I had read somewhere, that at dawn and dusk you go to where you last saw the dog. I started coffee and sat on the deck, listening for Jethro’s howl. 

I should have known this would happen. I should have known he had this in mind. Last week he woke me bolt out of bed by sitting at the top of the stairs, howling, his nose pointed toward the ceiling. The abandoned-baby cry, we used to call it, but that night his grief was mixed with rage. I got up and sat next to him. He ran downstairs. By this time Chloe was up; we all went out into a sweet, silent night, lit by a half moon.  

The yard was fenced into two sections, the dog yard and the "back forty"; there I found the dogs. Chloe was sniffing around under the crabapple tree, looking for something edible, while Jethro policed the fence, every inch of it. Maybe a deer had stood on the other side, munching something in the compost. Maybe Jethro was looking for a way out. 

In the dark, it was easier to talk to myself about Ed . . . if he had really been leaving me, he would have taken Jethro “along for the ride.” He often did. He might have hurt me, figuring I would recover, but he would have never hurt Jethro like this. 

Jethro sniffed his way into the dog yard and then sat down, his back to the house, facing me. He sat in the middle of the yard, in the broad circle of light cast by the fixture at the back door. Basenjis have expressive faces, and right then he looked as anxious and sad as I felt.  

I squatted, facing him. He’s gone. I mouthed the words more than said them, not trusting my voice. A sob caught in my throat. You won’t find him. I extended my hand, palm up. Jethro turned away and trotted to the house.

This morning I sat on the ground at the entrance to the logging road in my winter jacket, a cup of coffee at my side. Speechless once again with grief and fear, I didn’t call out. They would smell the home scent of coffee, which equaled food. I curled myself into a ball, hugging my knees, resting my forehead on my arms. I wouldn’t see the dogs this way, but if they had survived the coyotes that sometimes howled from the landfill, they would see me, and, hungry—if they haven’t feasted on something long dead—they would come to me. 

At the sound of a car, I sat up, trying to look as if I belonged there. It was Nancy, going to work, driving out of her way to take this road. “Ach, Annie,” she said in her Scots accent, “I’ll watch for them. I have food here—” she waved a package of bologna. “They’ll come back, they love you.”

Did they? Did anyone in that household love me? Maybe Chloe. Of the two dogs, she was the more practical. We were her second pack, and in her walnut-sized brain she knew things didn’t always work out. She had been a good dog, playing nicely with her boy and girl children for two years until their parents decided to change dogs, the way you might a table lamp, and I picked her up, a day short of the shelter. This family kept her in a corner of the kitchen without even a towel to sleep on. Her coat was coarse with over-washing and she had a snaggletooth that the vet fixed easily when he cleaned her dirty teeth. I groomed her till she glowed, I changed her name from Joey to Chloe, and oh, I loved that dog.

Jethro was Ed’s first dog, since his mother would not have one in the house, chosen by him from the litter six years ago, raised, adored by him. We should have called the dog Byron, but Ed stayed with the name he had imagined years before, for a bulldog. And Jethro, in his own Byronic—dashing but neurotic—way, returned Ed’s loyalty. 

“Jethro’s ours,” Ed used to say, “Chloe’s adopted.” 

“She hasn’t bonded with us the way Jethro did,” he explained to the incredulous me.

“Jethro isn’t bonded, he’s imbued with separation anxiety.” 

Chloe and I were sidekicks—if she missed her two kids, who loved her, I’m sure, she never howled. And if Ed the Alpha Wolf and Jethro Top Dog were usually well ahead of us, we were safe together, poking along at the pace of her sniff. 

“Make her move!” Ed said once, bursting with impatience. 

“It’s her only hobby!” I snapped back. 

“Reads with her lips,” he muttered another time as Chloe investigated some important dog message. But he was fond of her, allowing her to curl up between his ankles on winter evenings as he and Jethro stretched out before the fireplace.  

Was he fond of me?

Like Ed, the dogs didn’t come back. But their bodies had not been found, so instead of preparing for my new job, where I would work harder than I ever had in my life, I looked for my dogs. I didn't make a beef stew, so that I'd have something nourishing to eat as I started this new job, I walked the woods, looking for a sign, a body, anything, and lived on soup and peanut butter. I didn’t press my clothes, I drove to neighboring hamlets, posting Jaime’s flyer wherever I could. I didn’t make a list of possible features for my new newspaper, I used my last $35 to take a display ad in it. It was Sunday, too late for a free classified, but they were kind—Tina came downstairs and introduced me to Lakota, the statuesque designer who was finishing up the Monday paper. Lakota got Tina’s permission to pull a house ad in order to use the photo. “They do come back, you know,” Lakota said quietly, as if she knew. 

And at dawn the next morning, Chloe came back. That is, she was sitting at the end of the logging road when I arrived, as if we had agreed to meet there. I went down on my knees before her and extended a hand with a dog biscuit. She did her front-leg stretch with her rear up—an invitation to play—then sat again, squinting at me; she was exhausted. I continued to hold out the biscuit until she came close enough for me to clip the leash onto her firefly collar. She was covered with burs and ticks, but I drew her close and held her, feeling like the luckiest person in the world. “Chloe, Chloe, what a good dog!” 

Finally, she leaned into me. I picked the debris off her, first one side and then the other, feeding her biscuits and hoping that Jethro was nearby. 

“Where’s Jethro?” I asked Chloe. 

She looked away, offering nothing but her profile, fox-like, silent, keeping his secret. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer