Fear-Biter

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sue Granzella

The first bite was on my front lawn. When a six-year-old poked her shoe near his nose, Cody darted out and bit the rubberized toe. When the shoe moved and I yelled, he seemed confused. The little girl scooted toward her mother, unhurt. It was over in seconds and left me confused, too, unsure what had happened.

The second time, a friend retrieved Cody’s toy and he nipped her heel. He broke no skin, but this time I knew what had happened.

On Mother’s Day, Cody charged my toddler nephew; I scooped him up just in time. When friends came to dinner, Cody rushed up the back steps and bit Alison’s heel. Eight weeks, two nipped ankles, and a torn pant leg later, it was clear. I had a problem.

•••

Back at the SPCA, where I’d gotten Cody weeks prior, the stern-looking manager and I sat on the grass in the shade. Cody leaned against my leg as I stroked his black and gold softness.

“He’s only nipped friends, so he hasn’t been reported,” I told Joe.

“That’s lucky. Is there a pattern?”

I sighed. “Four women, a guy, and a kid.”

“Yeah, kids are unpredictable, and they’re loud and fast. But it’s not just kids with your dog.”

Joe patted his thigh, and Cody approached slowly. But when Joe reached toward the dog, Cody flinched and retreated.

Joe sat back, his face grim. “An aggressive and dominant dog doesn’t respect the owner. But fearful dogs don’t trust the owner. Your dog is fearful.”

Humiliated by Joe’s implied blame, I searched his unsmiling face for hope.

“So what do I do?”

His furrowed eyebrows met in the middle, scolding me. “Don’t let that dog off leash. You have to protect people, and you have to protect him.”

It sounded like Cody’s problem was my fault, and I had no idea how to fix him. I drove away from the SPCA more dejected than before I’d come.

•••

I’d loved dogs forever, and I’d decided on the name “Norman” six years before I got my dog. But when I read the card on the cage and called out, “Hi, Cody!” his plume of a tail wagged as he turned toward me with his big dog smile. I was smitten. I couldn’t steal the name that had been his for only two days. He would be Cody. And he would be mine.

The fantasy dog I’d dreamed of would lie at my feet on a Saturday morning at a sidewalk café, his tail thumping in sleepy pleasure when strangers patted his head. My real-life Cody was beautiful, a collie mixed with Bernese mountain dog, large and black with splotches of gold and white. His eyes were honey-brown, their warmth accentuated by natural black eyeliner. With his tail waving like a flag in the wind, he sashayed when he walked. I loved my smart and playful dog unreservedly.

But he was not my imaginary café dog. Cody radiated gentleness and submission with me, my boyfriend David, my cat, and all dogs. But his nervousness around other people grew, and I became increasingly tense about keeping his mouth away from human skin. The fear cycled through my brain, the leash, his brain, and back to me until I had no idea which of us had spawned it. All I knew was that I had to make sure he kept his teeth to himself.

And then David’s cousin visited, and we all went hiking in Oakland’s Redwood Park. The cousin was uncomfortable around dogs, so I kept Cody away from him. In the car, in the coolness under the towering trees, and in front of my house, Cody was leashed at my side, safely out of reach.

Then as Ryan was leaving, he stepped in front of me. With neither warning nor sound, Cody darted forward and bit Ryan’s calf.

Ah!” yelled Ryan.

NO!” I shouted, jerking Cody back. There were only six inches of slack on the leash, but Cody had found them. For the first time, he had broken skin. The bite mark welled with blood, and a bruise already showed.

I heard a roaring in my ears. Stumbling up the driveway, I put Cody in the yard. Then I returned and saw the car door still hanging open, as if time had frozen. With a difference of just one inch or one second, there would have been no bite. It had so nearly not happened that it felt as if it hadn’t, and every time I remembered that I’d failed to keep everyone safe, my stomach dropped with a thud. Despite the exertion of a three-hour hike, I felt cold.

“Get a washcloth and some peroxide,” ordered David, attending to Ryan, now sitting on my cement front steps. I did, then wandered from the open car door to the back gate where Cody peeked through the slats, panting with his big dog grin.

“Oh my God,” I kept saying to Ryan. “I tried to keep him away. I’m so sorry.” My hands shook and I felt dizzy, as if I were floating away.

Ryan and David barely spoke to me as they left, each with lips pressed tightly together.

•••

Though I was on vacation from my teaching job, for three mornings it was hard to get out of bed. Seeing Cody meant admitting that I had a dangerous dog. I couldn’t envision how a future with him could look, yet I couldn’t imagine getting rid of him. Oblivious, he was the same as ever—wagging, obeying commands I’d never even taught him, panting and eager and sweet. Seeing him made me feel sick.

I called my most dog-knowledgeable friend and asked if I should have Cody put down. Was that what a conscientious dog-owner would do? David offered to drive Cody to a Utah ranch for animals who’d failed in society. I hired three trainers over the next few months, each of whom gave me conflicting advice. All they agreed on was that Cody’s motivation wasn’t dominance or territorial aggression. They said he was simply afraid, repeatedly pushed to do more than he was ready for. My dog was a fear-biter.

•••

In desperation, I took Cody to U.C. Davis’s vet school. At the labyrinth of hallways, I froze. There were ankles everywhere I looked. Acutely aware that dogs can smell fear, I tried to stifle my terror and start weaving through the people-choked passageways. But my feet wouldn’t move. Finally, a vet tech brought me a muzzle. Snapping Cody’s jaws shut was the only remedy for my paralysis.

We arrived at a windowless room with bare walls and metal furniture. The scent of Pine-Sol masked any residue of urine that had been puddled by years’ worth of neurotic dogs. The behaviorist sat near Cody and me, across from two vet students. One of the students fetched a less restrictive muzzle for Cody, and for two hours, the three demonstrated methods of desensitization and positive reinforcement.

Then the vet handed me an instruction packet.

“He’s afraid, not mean,” he said. “You can live with this. He’s very gentle when he’s not scared. But remember—a fear bite hurts as much as a dominance-aggression bite. Your job is to make sure he never bites anyone again.”

•••

Wearing his new plastic basket muzzle, Cody could bark, drink, eat, and pant. But he couldn’t bite. And for the next three years, lightweight plastic came in between Cody and all people, everyone except for my boyfriend, David. Cody adored David. It was a huge relief that the muzzle prevented him from biting everyone else.

The muzzle that helped both me and my dog branded him as a fierce beast; people looked at him suspiciously, warily. Then their eyes traveled upward, regarding me with similar distrust. I just patted his head and we continued down the path, a solitary team, a dog and a single woman in her forties.

•••

I’d always felt solitary, even when I had a boyfriend. Instead of actively searching for the kind of partnership I craved, I stagnated in relationships and yearned for what was missing. When I was thirty-seven, three years before I found Cody, Jeff was my boyfriend, a kind man with warm golden eyes that matched his curly hair. He was tall, with muscled arms that encircled me when I was sad. Jeff made clear his desire to marry me, but when he proposed, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” So he gave me time and space, only bringing up the topic every few months. And when I’d sniff it coming, I’d snap.

One afternoon, despite my panicky efforts to push away all relationship conversations, I was trapped.

“I still don’t know! If you can’t wait, just break up with me!” I flung myself onto the bed in our dank basement apartment.

“I don’t want to break up.” He lay down beside me, his gaze steady. “I just want to know.”

“But I can’t make myself know! I can’t!”

And the bi-monthly ritual played out. My stomach knotted, he asked for an answer, I sobbed, and he felt bad. Then we rose from the bed, my eyes swollen, his jaw set in quiet resignation. I was nauseated, but I’d bought myself another few months before my next snap.

•••

Eventually Jeff moved on, and I went out with David. He seemed the most unlikely partner I’d ever had. He had fifteen years on me and a waist-length ponytail. Slight of build, he wore frayed jeans with a tissue-thin white tee-shirt. Back when I was playing hopscotch in Catholic elementary school, David was dodging the Vietnam draft. In the summer of ’68, he was in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet invasion, while I was wearing a homemade cat costume and playing my accordion in Napa’s Fourth of July parade. A few years later, he met people in the Symbionese Liberation Army. That’s when I was the left-fielder for my own army—the Sparrows, of Napa’s Junior Girls Softball League.

But together we laughed until we ached, and his intellect thrilled me, the charge between us electric. I hoped that underneath the differences in age and life experience, we were soul mates.

Over time, David began to accuse me of not respecting his need to be a traveling free spirit, on the road for months at a stretch. I lashed back, reminding him that though he’d said he wanted a partner, all I saw was his retreat.

But there was a semblance of the love I longed for, and I was too afraid to let it go. For years I deflected my friends’ concerns and hung on tight.

•••

When David still wasn’t ready to move in with me after five years, I told him I wanted to break up. Promptly, David announced that he wanted to move into my Craftsman bungalow. I feared that he didn’t mean it, so I waited three weeks before agreeing to his plan.

Two months later, there was still no sign of incoming boxes, suitcases, or furniture. When I asked about the delay, David said I’d misunderstood. He hadn’t meant that he would live in my house with his belongings. He’d meant that he’d move in “emotionally.”

Apparently there would be no need for a U-Haul.

A few days later, David was in my cozy living room, with its warm wood paneling and built-ins. I paced from the living room through the French doors into my bedroom. Cody was curled up between us, his black, gold and white fur matching that of my calico cat, who gazed at him with disdain from atop the couch.

From ten feet away, I faced David, my arms waving in reckless punctuation. “Are you kidding me? You really thought I’d assume that’s what you meant by ‘move in’?”

David’s deep-set green eyes usually crinkled into laughter, melting me. But that night, they were flat, impenetrable.

“This house is so small,” he said, his hands marking distance the length of a pencil. “It’s too crowded for us, plus a cat and dog. Besides, I’m not wild about living with them.”

“But I’ve had them for years! You’re just now telling me that?”

I didn’t know if I was more furious at David or at myself. The animals were just an excuse. How could I have been stupid enough to believe he would ever live with me?

Cody snored quietly. David left within five minutes. And when I called him later and told him we were done, David was gone for good.

•••

I ached for months. At age forty-four, I’d never had children, and could no longer pretend that I ever would. David was the first person I’d ever believed I could marry, and for much of our time together, I’d foolishly imagined that maybe we would. What was wrong with me that I kept choosing the wrong people? Either they didn’t want me, or I didn’t want them.

This break-up felt different, though—worse than those past. Bygone boyfriends paraded before me, and at the end of the parade was a huge banner proclaiming, “You will never be loved again.” I was damaged goods. There was my string of failed relationships. Plus, I’d recently been diagnosed with a chronic disease. Though its effects on me weren’t visible, a potentially debilitating condition wouldn’t help attract a mate.

Cody the fear-biter was strike three. I could not envision my dog ever reaching the comfort level he’d had with David, and I couldn’t picture myself living with the fear that he would bite a partner of mine. I felt doomed to an unwanted solitary existence. My imagination was as paralyzed as my feet had been at U.C. Davis.

•••

That spring, I couldn’t bear to sleep in my bedroom, so I holed up on the fold-out futon in my spare room. When sadness overwhelmed me and I cried into my quilt, Cody whimpered, prodding and pawing me until I raised my head. On weekends, Cody and I trekked for hours along the Iron Horse Trail. Under the gnarled oaks with my dog padding along beside me, I thought about David while feeling my leg muscles contract and stretch, over and over. I repeated inside, “I am strong. I can get through this.”

As the months passed, I started to think that maybe I could. And after more months, I found myself browsing on Match.com, though I didn’t truly believe that behind one of those little pictures might be a man who could love me. Looking was a step, though. They were all just searching for love, too, and most looked normal enough. Maybe I wasn’t all that different from everyone else.

Then one October evening, I was lying on my bedroom floor ruffling Cody’s abundant fur, on the phone with an easy-going man named John. After many weeks, I’d chosen his profile out of the hundred-plus I’d read. He was funny and intelligent and unapologetic about wanting a long-term monogamous relationship. I was drawn to his dream.

In our conversations, I’d mentioned my rescued feral cat, and we laughed about her antics. But all he knew about Cody was that he ran to the phone when it rang.

We met on a cool November morning. I pulled my red coat tight and watched the long-legged man striding toward me. John wore a fuzzy gray pull-over, and extended a long stick-like object toward me.

As his slim build, engaging smile, and bright blue eyes came into focus, I felt a stab of disappointment. This could never work. He was too handsome. If he had looked this good in the online photo, I never would have clicked on him. I then saw that the stick-like object was a cellophane-wrapped, long-stemmed red rose, with a fun-size pack of plain M&M’s tucked alongside.

I took a deep breath.

We entered the cafe, blanketed by the warm aroma of roasted coffee beans and the tinkling of spoons against coffee cups. He had iced tea, I had hot chocolate, and our conversation flowed like honey.

“So did you reach your grandmother yesterday?” I asked.

“Yeah, she said she’d been getting birthday calls all night. And, hey—she won money from the Publishers Clearinghouse!”

“You mean that’s real?!”

We traded stories of his relatives in remote mountains and of my third-graders. He talked about his college days, and I confessed to my baseball obsession.

When I listened to him, I found that I could muffle the voice whispering inside, saying that someone so handsome couldn’t be a match for me. The longer we spoke, the more I liked this dark-haired man. I knew it was too early to discuss past relationships, and I wasn’t going to bring up my health until later. So I told him about strike three.

“My dog has bitten some people. He’s really sweet, but he’s afraid. He’s a fear-biter.” John already knew about my hostile cat. Had he figured out that the common thread between these two messed-up creatures was me?

He just shrugged. “I’m a UPS delivery guy. I can do dogs. I throw the ball, and they’re fine.”

I was convinced that John just didn’t understand how disturbed Cody really was.

•••

Two weeks later, John and I approached my back picket gate, and as soon as Cody glimpsed the long-legged stranger, he unleashed a torrent of barking. I felt sick to my stomach.

But John didn’t flinch. “Cody! Get your ball!”

Cody’s ears perked up and he shot off, returning with a slobbery bald tennis ball. John reached his fingers between the slats, I yelped, and Cody dropped the slippery ball into John’s hand. Back and forth they went, toss and retrieve, the barrier always between them. I started to let myself hope that Cody might one day understand that John was safe.

•••

A few days later, John wanted to touch Cody without a fence between them. He waited out front while I went inside and strapped the basket muzzle on Cody. Then I led him out the door.

When he saw John, he paused on the top stair, but he didn’t bark. We headed down to the grass. Emboldened by the bark-free reception, John quickly approached.

Cody rushed forward with snapping jaws, the plastic muzzle ramming harmlessly into John’s slim leg. I felt the strength drain from my limbs. If not for the muzzle, John’s ankle would have been toast.

I sank onto the steps and dropped my forehead into my hands. “What’s wrong with this damned dog?”

John appeared undisturbed. “He’ll come around. He just needs more time.”

•••

With each day, I was falling for John more and more. What had been weighed down with David now floated free. I laughed at home, with my third-graders, in my car. People at work were startled by how happy I looked. I was determined to never again feel the despair of my last relationship, and that gave me freedom. Instead of re-shaping myself into what I thought John might want, all I wanted was to be me. I would show him exactly who I was, because if that wasn’t what he wanted, I’d rather know sooner than later.

And as I showed myself to him, I found that I really liked this man. Kind, steady, and honest, he could go in seconds from brilliantly analyzing politics to giggling helplessly over South Park. He was tolerant and hilarious. Not only did I like him, but I liked myself better with him. He made me a more patient and appreciative person. My fear that I was unlovable? I was beginning to relax my grip on it. To envision that one day I could let it go.

•••

Every time John came over, we stood at the gate while he tossed the ball. Then one day he threw it without me standing there. Then he stood inside the back door and stuck his hand out for the slimy ball.

Finally, John declared that it was time to remove all barriers. He sat on the couch, and I led my dog inside by the collar. From where Cody sat, he could see in a straight line through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, right to John. Cody was obediently in the “sit” position. My plan was to walk him sedately into the living room, gripping his leash so that I could yank him back at any sign of teeth.

But before I could leash him, Cody took off, bounding straight for John, racing the full length of the house at top speed. Helpless, I ran after him, the leash swinging from my hand. I was terrified.

When Cody reached John, he jumped up and laid his head on John’s chest, panting and wriggling and jaws open wide in his big dog smile. He whimpered and whined with joy, his plume of a tail waving from side to side in soft brushes of ecstasy. John laughed, and ruffled Cody’s fur. I dropped to the floor and cried. My dog, the fear-biter, had conquered his fear of John. It had just taken longer than it takes most dogs to fall in love.

•••

John and I married when I was forty-seven. It was the first marriage for us both. I still feel my heart quicken when I come home to him, and I still laugh with him every day. Since we met, I hear it echo in my head: I get to be happy.

Some used to tell me I’d only find the “right person” when I was ready. I always hated the condescension of that, and I still do. All I know is that with John, I never felt obstacles between us, and before, they were always there. Did I choose the wrong partners before because I was afraid to really try, fearing I couldn’t be loved? Before John, I used to wonder. Now, the answer doesn’t matter. If it ever was true, I guess I let that fear go.

After the night Cody raced through my house, he never demonstrated any fear of John. He knew he was safe, and he trusted John. I do, too. I feel at rest with him in a way I never before had.

•••

Cody’s time with us ended five years ago. He was fourteen, and though he had stopped eating, he was still chasing John’s tennis ball two days before he died.

When the house-call vet knelt down by Cody, Cody stunned us. He raised his head, and nipped the vet on the heel.

“Did Cody just bite him?” I was confused about what I’d seen after so many years of not seeing it. Did it really happen?

John nodded and shrugged. Then we led him outside, into the yard where for so long he had barked at birds and dug holes and chased squirrels and napped in the sun. With our hands ruffling Cody’s fur as he lay on his side, we said good-bye.

Afterward, John and I held each other and sobbed. Then he asked me how I wanted to spend the day, and said he’d take me anywhere I wanted to go. And just like that, I knew.

So on that January morning, John and I drove to the mountain retreat where we had married. We stood at the edge of the huge heart-shaped lawn. We sat together on the cold cement steps. We walked hand in hand under the redwoods, shrouded in mist.

And all day, holding the shards of my broken heart, I was wrapped in the soft comfort of gratitude. Despite all of my rough edges, John has chosen to walk with me. That day, feeling so sharply the loss of our dog, I was also filled with a sense of how lucky I am to have found this person with the willingness to love me, the patience to help me get through my own fears, and the desire to find rest with me.

I don’t think I let go of his hand all day.

•••

SUE GRANZELLA is a third-grade teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing was recognized as Notable in the 2016 book of Best American Essays, and she is the new judge of the “Humor” category of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing has received numerous awards in that same SMK Competition, and she won second place in a Memoirs Ink contest. Sue’s writing appears in Full Grown People, Gravel, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. More of Sue’s writing can be found at www.suegranzella.com .

Read more FGP essays by Sue Granzella.

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The Vermillion Thread and the End of the World

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

Washing dishes in the kitchen, I hear the click-clack of our dog’s claws approaching. Half border collie and half Jack Russell, he’s always on the move, forced to herd humans indoors when sheep and the outdoors were unavailable. The floors throughout our small house are hardwood, so Scooter’s whereabouts are constantly audible. At first his clacking drove us crazy, but as the months wore on we grew accustomed to it, and it became a comfort, a manifestation of a happy family idyll.

Turning from the sink to Scooter, I notice a thin, shockingly red trail lead from under his furry body out into the living room. Is he bleeding? He wags his tail and gazes at me placidly from his shiny black eyes, unfazed. Dogs are usually unfazed, which is why people have them.

Directly under his belly I spot a bundle of thick vermillion embroidery thread, which he must have dropped. Scooter isn’t wounded—he’s gotten into my things again. The scamp! He’s six, yet still lapses into puppy-like urges to destroy, and narcissistically prefers soft, small, fuzzy targets.

I follow the thread’s scarlet trail into the living room and then find its terminus in my office, where I also keep my sewing things. I realize Scooter poked his muzzle into a paper grocery sack full of notions I’d picked up at a craft swap the day before. Unraveled, the thread seems impossibly long, as if it stretches out to a hidden dimension, an implication of a path whose visibility would soon dissolve. I’m more upset with Scooter’s impishness than the loss of the thread itself, which I nabbed simply because it was free and maybe someday I’d use it for something.

•••

For socks. That’s what is used it for. Our friend Matt had asked me to embroider socks for him to wear to the airport. Matt is a thinker but also an incurable stirrer-upper. He got a quickie Universal Life Church online ordination to officiate our wedding—he did an excellent job—and in his opening remarks he predictably cited Nietzsche. Shortly after that my husband and I moved to another state, and we carried on our friendship with Matt via emails and a thing we call mail art, which is us sending each other lumpy envelopes stuffed with amusingly bizarre odds and ends (or, more truthfully, garbage).

His sock concept was thus: as he went through security, his shoes in a plastic bin being x-rayed, he wanted the toes of his stocking feet to read

POLICE STATE

It was an unwise decision to enable this scheme of Matt’s. I hated to think of the socks causing a ruckus. This was at the tail end of the George W. Bush era, and the often arbitrary-seeming protocols of the Transportation Safety Administration were still freshly stinging to both civil liberties and personal convenience. Matt would be flying to his hometown with his young son to visit his family, his first trip back east since his wife had divorced him six months earlier. It was an acrimonious split. Always eccentric, Matt’s actions had taken an erratic, wounded bent since.

But in the quiet of my office I stared at the thread, Scooter laying by my side, and it called to me. I cut it into three knotty segments and wound it into three balls. Scooter whined; he wanted attention, or the thread, or both. He was still new to us at the time. My husband and I found him at the Humane Society, where, technically, he was on sale because his first adoptive family had returned him after two days. He was lovable and gentle but hampered with serious abandonment issues, and he demonstrated his resentment at being ignored by peeing or chewing on absorbent, valuable items. When we first spotted him, he had a tennis ball lodged in his mouth, like the apple in the jaws of a roast suckling pig.

Scooter’s fur was immanently touchable, soft and silky and peltlike. His insistence on being near me at all times struck a chord with my vanity, too. If I read on the sofa and Scooter sidled up next to me, his tiny, warm body lounging right against mine, I had to occasionally put the book down, so overcome was I with waves of contentment.

About thirty blocks from our house was a lovely, large park on an extinct volcano. I’d suit Scooter in his blue nylon harness and jaunt past the drug dealers next door, then past the used car dealerships and the broad-daylight sex workers on the corner. We crossed over to the nice side of the neighborhood, where the yards had well-tended flower beds and wooden play structures and elaborate handcrafted lawn ornaments. Then we’d go up the hundreds of steps to the top of the expired volcano and be above everything.

Sometimes at night, I walked Scooter a few short blocks after dark. His white fur glowed with an icy blue tint under the streetlights and his black leash melted against the backdrop of the asphalt, and he appeared to swim into the darkness, moving forward unceasingly into space, into oblivion.

Sometimes on walks my mind melded with Scooter’s and we journeyed together aware of nothing but what was around us at that moment. Usually I mulled over silly things, though, like the challenge of how to embroider letters on tube socks. It was very gratifying when I had a breakthrough, enough so that I ignored my instincts to refuse the project. My brainstorm was to embroider POLICE and STATE on two while felt patches, which Matt could Velcro or glue to the socks himself.

I had plenty of important things to do—get my Oregon driver’s license, complete my music column, write a card to my best friend to welcome her new baby into the world, look for a better job.

I didn’t do those things. I seized the red thread. I sewed the stitches and sealed the deal.

•••

Scooter was our baby. We needed him to fill the holes in our American dreams. I yearned to raise intelligent, sensitive children who would someday be soldiers of reason in this pre-Apocalyptic world of ours. Periodically, searing waves of resentment befouled my mood then retreated into a sea of resigned acceptance. I had crappy insurance, and no coverage through work. I had no sick leave, either. We couldn’t function without two incomes, but my income was dwarfed by what solid child care would cost.

We did it anyway. We had the child. It was selfish, really; there was no way we could afford to raise a kid in the middle-class manner we assumed was our birthright. “We’ll make it work!” I’d insisted. We named her Frances. She eclipsed Scooter.

He did not take it well, and he chewed up two quilts, a handmade Winnie-the-Pooh, and various other lovingly crafted baby shower gifts. Every day after work when she was young, I buckled Frances into the stroller and clipped Scooter’s leash to it with a carabiner, and we went on a million aimless walks through our neighborhood, up the volcano and down again. Scooter stopped to poop and I collected his petite turds in narrow blue bags that the newspaper was delivered in. It gives me a strange satisfaction to imagine those turds preserved in a landfill for thousands of years, nestled right next to Frances’s pee-saturated disposable diapers. I hated having to buy them, but was proud of myself for finding the ones that cost the least per unit. They were called Cuddle-Ups, and were the store brand at the twenty-four-hour grocery outlet where I obsessively compared prices on bulk products and produce sales. I liked Cuddle-Ups for not having cartoon characters on them and not smelling like a baby powder explosion. I always got unscented baby things because I adored Frances’s default baby smell, the one she came with. Every case of Cuddle-Ups gave me dozens more opportunities to bury sodden time capsules of my daughter.

I still like the way Frances smells. She often wakes up in the middle of the night and staggers robotically to our big bed and slides in next to me, and when I wake up I nuzzle the top of her head and I take in the nice plain smell of her little girl hair. Another parent might be doing the exact same thing as their house gets bombed. Another parent might miss the smell of her little girl’s hair because her daughter was killed or taken away by an evil that’s steadily creeping its way to us. Another parent might have no comfort but the notion of his child’s pee in a diaper in a landfill outlasting life on earth.

•••

Frances has been peeing in toilets for ages, and her current contribution to landfills is the plastic packaging of the plastic crap all kids in America seem to accumulate against the wishes of their parents, even though usually it’s us parents who buy it for them. Scooter is sixteen now, we think. He’s slower but continues to shadow me all over the house. There’s no way he could make it up the volcano these days, and he can’t rally the enthusiasm to chew anything but his food. I carry him up the stairs and am thankful for his compact size.

Nothing bad happened when Matt bared his embellished socks in the airport security line. That happened later, and gradually. Matt now has two ex-wives, and he’s not allowed to see his kids. The reason isn’t as awful as you might imagine, but the preposterousness of the situation is beyond imaginable and thus incredibly awful. Essentially, he did a bunch of little things demonstrating poor judgment, amounting to a pile of POLICE STATE socks that were used against his favor.

But I am equally guilty of lapses in judgement. I embroidered those socks; I lavish more attention on our dog than I do on the man I am married to; I scowl at people who buy bottled water while I myself get those cans of fruit-flavored fizzy water; I tap on icons on my phone and dive into digital wormholes while the entire natural world churns on, hobbled from my gas emissions and industrial runoff, without me noticing or caring. I board airplanes as a white, American-born woman and don’t have to consider if my nationality or skin color might lead to my forced removal from an overbooked flight or the denial of my reentry to the country. “We’ll make it work!” I still insist. I choose to be ignorant because I am arrogant.

•••

The bed Frances crawls into is a king-size bed, the epitome of living large. My husband and I are slender people, and there’s no decent reason for us to have such an upgrade, but my sleeping patterns have improved slightly since we bought the thing. Even so, I get nudged awake by Scooter or Frances in the middle of the night and find myself unable to slip back into slumber. Unresolvable blockades in my mind force themselves to the center of my thoughts, things that are ultimately of little consequence: overdue bills, overdue writing assignments, teaching appearances, or roller derby bouts I have coming up. The stillness of the evening turns menacing, and even as I remind myself the world will not end if I don’t turn my cookbook manuscript in on time, I suspect the cookbook or the overdue bill is an innocent front for a universal menace. Why did we have a kid when I sincerely believe human existence will be vastly, miserably altered in our lifetimes? Why do we spend so much emotion and energy—so much­—on this one goofy dog, when around the world, societies collapse? Why does it feel like no big deal as our society collapses?

In the midst of these episodes, I consider the peace of having Joe and Frances and Scooter so close to me, and how perhaps experiencing that is as good a reason as any to have been alive for even a minute. Our king-size bed is a chunk of pack ice breaking off from a polar ice shelf, the penultimate level of an epic video game, and every night we will it to float us into the abyss of our destiny, the frigid ocean waters as black and sleek as obsidian. And we are together and it’s kind of okay.

I step outside of our lives and see us sliding deeper into the ocean lurking in our unassuming house. The vermillion thread winds a path all through the rooms and up the stairs, unspooling as Scooter trots ahead into the shapeless distance with an inexhaustible wad in his mouth, leading us to a land with no exit. We reach out and grasp the thread and yieldingly follow it where it takes us, into the closet down a rabbit hole to the end of the world, and the thing that I mind the most is that we don’t seem to mind much at all.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her first cookbook, Tasting Ohio, comes out in 2018. Currently she is working on a cookbook about foraged fruit.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Put Out

lab
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

I wish I could count on both hands the number of times Annabelle had gone missing, the number of times I’d found myself standing in the middle of a street or a stranger’s yard or a cemetery yelling her name, sometimes with a hint of irritation, sometimes with raw desperation. But I can’t. It happened too often.

She was my first dog and, as is true with so many firsts, I measured all dogs that came after against her, believing that all dogs possessed this mischievous streak, that all dogs were whip-smart, devising ways to test the limits of their person’s love as they chased squirrels and cats and bunnies and the occasional opossum. Some years later now, I know that this isn’t so, that Annabelle was something special, that she was an old soul, wise beyond her years, able to love and know me in a way I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again. Annabelle was not a people-pleaser, though she loved affection and was particularly sensitive to my moods. The one or two times I made the mistake of crying in front of her, I stopped when I realized she was scared to death and shaking. She didn’t like being hugged, but she was just so huggable. When I’d get down on my knees and put my arms around her and squeeze, she was the perfect size. When Steve met us and saw the way I hugged her, he always said she looked put out. But I couldn’t help myself. I just loved her so much.

To be put out by another’s love: to acquiesce to the affection of the ones who cared for and cherished you. This, I think, is what Steve meant when he said Annabelle always looked put out when anyone tried to hug her. I did most of the hugging, of course, and he’s the one who had the best view of the look on her face. After she died and we’d gotten to the point where we could laugh at the funny things she did when she was alive, Steve and I recalled the look on Annabelle’s face when she was put out, and he uttered the line that captured Annabelle better than any I could ever come up with. “Annabelle,” he said, “made acquiescence into an art form.”

Annabelle was a black lab mix, all black with some white speckles on her chest, her toes, and her nose. She had a white tip on her tail, as though she’d dunked it in a can of white paint in order to dash off a quick letter home. Steve and I had been dating for almost two years when I called him late one weeknight, frantic, because Belly had gotten loose and I’d called her and called her and she wasn’t coming back.

He hopped in his car and came over right away to help me search for her. As I walked along the sidewalk in the dark calling her name, I nearly brushed up against the hideous opossum that was surely the cause for her darting off when I went to bring her in for the night. The house I rented had a fenced-in yard, but there were stairs and a couple feet separating the back door from the fence gate. Lately I’d become lax with her and just opened the gate to let her walk back into the house. I’d begun trusting her to come to me because she’d shown me enough times in a row that I didn’t need to lead her by the collar. This opossum sat frozen on the top of the chain-link fence and I shivered and instinctively pulled away when I recognized what it was. Ugly little thing.

•••

We were fifteen, Hillary and I, walking together to her boyfriend Gary’s house when we spotted the flowers. Hillary and I did a lot of walking together—our houses were six or seven blocks apart and, even as we got older, we had no access to our own transportation. So we walked or rode the bus. This time we walked from her house to Gary’s, though I cannot, all these years later, recall why we were going there together. Hillary’s attraction to Gary bordered on obsession, but then, that was typical for us. When we found somebody we liked, we went all in. In the days before email and texting, we wrote endless notes to our loves, even long after our loves were no longer interested, had broken up with us, had told us to please stop. Some might call what we did a mild form of stalking. We called it devotion. Dedication.

•••

Belly had gotten loose in this neighborhood before, but it had always been daytime. And more often than not, as I’d gone out searching for her, she’d found her way home and would be waiting for me on the front porch as I made my way back around to the house. But this was different. It was 11:30 at night. It was dark. She was black. We lived a block away from a street with heavy traffic.

Steve arrived and I got in the passenger seat of his car. He drove very slowly around the streets of the neighborhood, both windows open, listening carefully for her bark—she was a vocal dog—in between calling her name. The neighborhood was made up of a number of one-way streets, so our route was somewhat restricted, but we regularly made our way back to my house to see if she was waiting for me on the front porch. After fifteen grueling minutes of this, I was losing my grip on what little hope I had that she’d be okay. She was a black dog. It was nighttime. Nobody would be able to see her. I was utterly dependent in that moment on chance, banking on nobody being out driving at the very spot Belly was running. I kept waiting to turn the corner to see a big black splat in the middle of the road. My Annabelle. My Bug. The love of my life.

•••

The first object of my devotion was Gerry. I believe I ran over his mother’s foot while rushing to escape his dead-end street after spying in his basement window. I didn’t yet have my license. I’m pretty sure she was fine.

As we were walking to Gary’s house, we passed a family-owned restaurant. Flower boxes on the windows held colorful bouquets of plastic flowers. Why not bring some to Gary, we thought. We walked on over, picked some like we owned the place, and kept walking until we heard a woman yelling at us to get back here. Young ladies! Get back here! Those are not your flowers to take! Hillary and I looked at each other. We really had no choice. What were we going to do, run?

Heads down, we shuffle back to the restaurant, which we now see is only the front of what is actually a very large home. The woman calls us up to her porch and tells us to stand and wait while she calls the police. We’re not going to just get away with this, she tells us. We can’t just steal something that doesn’t belong to us and walk away. She goes inside the house to make the phone call and her children peek at us from behind the screen door. We are an example for them. What not to be.

What made us stand there? Why didn’t we run?

•••

Steve continued to hold onto hope, reassuring me that she was going to be okay, that we’d find her safe, that she was just out on one of her adventures. “You know how she is,” he said. Perversely, the part of me that endlessly worried that I was never able to give Annabelle the amount of exercise she needed felt relief that when she did come home, she’d be good and tired.

As we were driving very slowly up one of the one-way streets, we realized that a police car was behind us. We pulled over so he could pass, but we signaled to him to roll down his window. “We’re looking for our dog. She’s black,” I called over to him.

“What’s her name?”

“Annabelle.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for her,” he said, and he drove off slowly.

•••

The police officer arrives and we’re whisked away. I recall his making some remark about the silliness of the whole thing, but that could just be me looking back. But let’s say he did say something like that. We took Hillary home first—her house was closer. I stayed in the car while he escorted her up the stairs to her older sister. Her mother wasn’t home. The officer came back, asked me where I lived, and drove me home. When we got to my house, I had to wake Ma from where she was sleeping on the couch, the tissues she’d stuffed between the cushions falling to the floor. Groggy. “What is it!”

“Um, Ma, there’s someone here,” I said, gesturing to the policeman, his presence dwarfing us both in the small dark living room with its wood paneling and its console TV that seemed never to be off.

He apologized politely for having woken her, told her why he’d brought me home, and promptly left. Ma didn’t blink an eye. She barely lifted her head from the couch. I called Hillary and we went back out.

•••

Our search continued ever so slowly, up one street, down the next, calling and calling in between attempts to keep myself from completely falling apart. We drove by the house again. No Annabelle on the front porch. The streets were so quiet. My stomach felt so sick. Around the block again. Up and down the one-way streets. Back around to my street, in front of the house.

That’s when Steve heard it. The faintest sound of Belly’s bark. “Did you hear that?”

I froze. Turned my ear to my window. And that’s when we both saw Annabelle booking it down the street perpendicular to ours, slowing down just enough to take the sharp corner onto our street, and then speeding up again into my long driveway. Steve stepped on the gas. I jumped out of the car and ran up the driveway. She stood there near the back steps panting, tongue hanging down, body shaking, and I held her. I was so mad at her but I was so happy to see her that I just held her and hugged her and told her how much I loved her. Not two minutes later, the police car pulled up in front of the house, and Steve went out to talk to the officer. It turned out that the officer had seen Annabelle running the streets and, keeping his promise to us, rolled down his window and called her name. That was all it took to send her running home.

•••

To put out is also to extinguish. What had extinguished Ma’s ability or willingness to rein me in, to set boundaries? Perhaps it was just the same old story: I was the last of five children. She was tired.

Or maybe she felt put out by the love and affection her children tried to show her until they finally gave up because something had extinguished it in her.

Or maybe it had something to do with the possibility that the last time she’d seen a police officer standing in her living room, he had been trying to comfort her because she had just learned of her husband’s death. Eleven years earlier, he had left her to finish raising all five of us by herself. She’d been put out in ways I still cannot imagine.

Or maybe all of this is nonsense. Maybe this is what we do as adults. We make gross and inexact comparisons between what our mothers did with us and what we did with our beloved dead dogs and we try to find a through line, a way to make sense of it all while making ourselves seem the more ethical party, the more mature actor. But in the end what we’re really doing is grasping so desperately and so terribly transparently at a way to understand how to make sense of the things we cannot bring home because we never lost them because we never owned them in the first place.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Re-Hound

wooden figures
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer D. Munro  

“Let me put my wife on the line,” my husband said into the receiver. Richard handed me the phone as if it were a loaded doggie-doo bag. “It’s the Greyhound Lady.” Richard was usually the talker on our family team, but he’d made his disinterest clear with a palms-out gesture at my replacement-pet search that said, “The greyhound is your deal.”

Richard’s “I’m not stepping in this turd” tone signaled a hitch. The woman on the phone introduced herself as the president of the rescue group. “I wanted to discuss your application,” she said, sounding as flexible as a fire hydrant.

I thought the problem might be my emailed application for adopting a greyhound, which couldn’t include the $50 application fee, a fee that rankled me. I’d never paid for a pet and had a soft spot for odd mutts; our current Lab mix, whose front end seemed to head in a different direction from his back end on walks, had been raised under a car by a homeless man and, as a puppy, was handed over to us without question.

The purebred racer, once placed, would cost an additional $300. This for a ribcaged dog that would be marched to the guillotine if not for my philanthropic heart and fenced suburban yard. Plunking down less money at the pet store for a puppy, no questions asked, beckoned with roly-poly enticement. But I didn’t want to be a cog in the wheel of puppy-farming. I understood the fee was for expenses, and I also couldn’t stomach the lengthy applications now the norm at humane societies: One had visited my neighborhood community center but wouldn’t let me in the door to look at the homeless cats until I’d filled out a two-page application. I left.

“Hi!” I said, all unicorns and rainbows despite the warning signs. The tangled phone cord attached to the wall of the garage, where we’d been when she called, trapped me in place. I mentally scanned our family’s schedule, determining when we could pick up the dog once we straightened out the missing application fee. We’d visited the greyhound rescue group’s information booth at a local store; a member told us about Mandy, a greyhound she thought would be perfect for us. I’d visited Mandy’s online profile obsessively, as I used to with the State’s postings of children in need of permanent homes, worrying that she would no longer be available by the time our application was processed. Now mid-December, we’d been unsuccessfully seeking a second pet for half a year after our nineteen-year-old cat’s euthanasia; a Christmas dog seemed meant to be, in a Norman Rockwell family kind of way.

The minimal application form was the clincher for my choosing a greyhound after leads on Petfinder.com all dead-ended—calls weren’t returned, or the dog had already been placed, or we grew suspicious at the sudden, exorbitant “relocation fee” for a different dog than the one pictured. Likely I’d be axe-murdered for my department-store wedding ring when we showed up at one of these out-of-the-way doggie homes.

I’m not wild about greyhounds. They look like sullen, emaciated fashion models passing up their own wedding cake. With their tucked tails, surely this breed coined the term “hangdog.” But disinterest was the point: I did not want to adopt a pet I would be tempted to love. I would care for it, but not adore it. Pets, like kids and herpes, are for life, but I had no more love left in me. The greyhound’s gaunt appearance mirrored my exhausted ability to love again after seven miscarriages, infertility testing and treatments, a near marriage-ending series of decisions about whether and how to be parents, a hoop-jumping and lengthy foster-to-adopt license process, applying for four kids we hadn’t met but being bypassed in favor of other prospective parents, and meeting “available” children at three awkward events where hopeful couples mingled with kids who needed families. I bonded with the babies in my belly, just as I fell hard for the kids behind the online profiles and the children who knew exactly why they were eating pizza with unfamiliar adults at Kids Fests, where we had chosen a kindergartener. We spent the spring visiting with him every weekend, adoring his waterfall giggle, only to have him returned to his biological mother without an opportunity to say goodbye.

And then, fourteen years after we decided to become parents, we met our six-year-old son, Ben. His frequent endearment for me upon moving in was, “I’m going kill you, fucking bitch.” I am his twelfth mother. His most recent foster mother, whom he’d called Mommy for three years, had changed her mind about adopting him when his behaviors became too much for her; Ben arrived on our doorstep a teensy bit resentful and angry. He’d learned how to treat women by watching his birth mother’s three boyfriends, one of whom had since been incarcerated for ballpeen hammering to death a mute, disabled man as birthday yuks for another girlfriend.

Ben could have the dog to love but I wouldn’t be tempted to.

I like a dog with an urgent wag. Greyhounds don’t bark, or wag, or even move unless you place a rabbit directly in their sights and threaten them with execution if they don’t finish first. After escaping certain extermination, they collapse like Southern belles in tight corsets and can’t be bothered to feign enthusiasm in a bleak world devoid of fake vermin.

Two sets of close friends owned and worshipped greyhounds and convinced me one would be perfect for Ben. Purebreds went against my grain but I warmed to the idea of saving a dog that slinks past the finish line in last place. The Humane Society guesses (not estimates; they actually have no idea because the practice is so guarded) that over 20,000 greyhounds are destroyed each year for want of adoptive homes once their racing days end.

The greyhound application form was short.

It had taken us several years to complete stacks of paperwork, hours of training, multiple interviews, and home inspections to qualify as foster-to-adopt parents. Ten thousand children languish in foster care every year in our state (and nearly half a million countrywide) for lack of permanent homes, and vying for an expensive domestic newborn or an equally costly overseas baby didn’t fit our M.O.

We’d written checks for application fees and required reports. We’d purchased a new house, two doors up from our last one, to qualify for the mandatory square footage for a child’s bedroom. We outfitted it with the requisite equipment: safety ladders, certified fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, outlet plugs, drawer stoppers, anti-doorknob twisters. Nothing out of the norm for First World biological parents, but in a house devoid of children, struggling to extricate steak knives or bleach reminded us of what we didn’t have. We traded in our two-door cars for four-doors and outfitted them with booster seats. We bought our first bathrobes—no traumatized child should be further haunted by witnessing our naked streaks to the dryer. We posted escape routes, moved furniture away from upper-story windows, cleared out the liquor (drinking it seemed easiest), hid the matches, bought approved bath mats, turned the water-heater setting down to lukewarm so that showers lost their pleasure, made sure nothing in the yard could hold two inches of water—all before the social worker inspections.

I’d managed to fail—twice—the fingerprint clearance required by the FBI. Not only could my uterus not manage a pregnancy, but my fingers couldn’t even offer up decent prints? I regretted that I’d never gone into bank robbery, since my identity was apparently undetectable. I drove a hundred twenty miles to a different fingerprinting office, where they used the same machine but first smeared my hands with Corn Huskers lotion, and I was cleared on the third try.

No thank you to another round of scrutiny, which no biological parent had to endure, over a dog.

The greyhound application, as brief as our energy level lasted after tucking in our son every night, largely involved guilting applicants into volunteering. The necessity of a fenced yard and not allowing your ex-racer to go off leash I’d known, although our greyhound neighbors often didn’t leash theirs; the dog was done with running and wouldn’t have chased a bleeding rabbit if it had stolen its kibble. Which led me to believe that a greyhound was just like any other dog: Once you got to know the individual dog, you understood its needs and what it took to keep it safe and happy.

“I have concerns,” the Greyhound Lady told me.

On the advice of greyhound-loving friends, I had been honest on the brief application about wanting my now seven-year-old son to walk the dog by himself around our block’s quiet, wide sidewalks. “That won’t be a problem,” they said, “as long as you don’t get a male fresh off the track. Let them know what you want so you get the right dog, like a smaller female who’s been retired for a while.” The greyhound-booth worker had done just that by recommending Mandy when I’d described our needs.

Ben needed something to be really and truly his, to have ownership and responsibility, for him to know that a living creature depended on him, and neither he nor the dog were going anywhere. The greyhound would likewise protect him on walks; nobody need know that the big, morose dog was as likely to attack as a platypus. Our cat’s death, less than a year after he’d moved in with us, had devastated Ben. “It was my firstest cat ever!” he’d wailed. “I’d only just gotted him!” Our almost-fourteen-year-old Lab mix was not long for this world, either, and I needed an understudy in the wings, ready to take his place.

Following the cat’s death, Ben’s behavior took a slide: He was expelled from after-school care and served a school suspension, prompting the State to consider sending him to an out-of-state boy’s home in Idaho instead of proceeding with the permanency plan with us. A boy’s home, maybe. But Idaho? The boy wasn’t that far beyond redemption, was he? Were troublesome foster children now harvesting our nation’s potatoes? We refused this plan, to the relief, surprise, and agreement of the State (boys’ homes are expensive; we were cheap). “Any other family,” the social worker’s report read, “would have returned this boy to the State.” But wouldn’t it be better for Ben to get the message that he wasn’t going to get shipped off again if he put in a poor performance? We hadn’t told him that we’d euthanized the suffering cat, but that he had simply died, not wanting Ben to connect childish dots about what happened to family members after they became a bother.

“What if a pit bull rushes up and attacks your greyhound while your son is walking him?” the Greyhound Lady asked me. “How would he live with that memory?”

The kid had more than enough unpleasant memories to get over already for us to worry about possible future memories. But I hadn’t played the foster-kid sympathy card with her, which I was generally all-too-ready to use if it benefited him, fearing it would backfire; foster kids, particularly older boys, come with bad reputations, such as animal cruelty. Common wisdom discouraged pets for kids with a history like my son’s, but he never seemed truer to the sweet-natured boy he was born to be than when he was with our pets. Any hope for him seemed lodged in his ability to care for a creature who understood hard knocks. A greyhound would love him like only a dog wanting a walk could. Not exactly with the exuberance of other dogs, but I imagined it might skulk halfheartedly to the door at the jingle of a leash if its bladder were full.

“I’ve lived on this block for over twenty years,” I assured her. “My cat creaked around outside for nineteen years and we’ve walked our dog for over thirteen years with never a problem. All the neighbors keep an eye out for Ben. We have an active Block Watch; the annual party’s in our front yard.” This, though nothing had happened on our block except for a garden Buddha statue disappearing and an elementary schooler’s piggy bank being stolen (the neighborhood then pooled their coins and gifted him with a bucketful). This was not Skid Row. “Chances are more likely the greyhound will be slobbered to death by our mutt,” I laughed. Greyhound Lady didn’t. Then it clicked: her apprehension was the greyhound, not the child, being attacked.

“But it could happen.”

Once they’ve served their spurt of usefulness in the racing industry, greyhounds might be killed by gunshot, starvation, bludgeoning, or by more humane methods for the lucky ones. She had reason to feel over-protective, but, because of farfetched scenarios, she would pass up on a neighborhood so safe it was practically Canada?

The numbers on my application spoke for themselves. Dog: almost fourteen, though big dogs often didn’t live that long. Cat, which as a kitten had been one of my first birthday presents to my husband: nineteen years with us. Married and lived on same block: twenty-one years. I’d been in my job for ten years and my husband for twenty. We were set as omelets. “Are you turning us down?” I asked, perceiving she’d already made up her mind.

“I’m uncomfortable with a child walking the dog.”

“He’s the biggest child in his class. He’s already almost as tall as I am. Are you telling me no?” I asked again.

As a typical Pacific Northwesterner, the woman could not spit out the word “no.” We explore feelings and ensure that all parties are equally uncomfortable with a compromise that’s never implemented. The Greyhound Lady couldn’t come right out and tell me that she would not approve us to adopt a doomed dog.

I could have groveled and negotiated. But I’d compromised enough already. I refused to try to persuade someone to allow me to take in what few wanted.

The application, with its check-marked box that applicants wouldn’t use the dog for racing or animal testing, was ridiculous; as if anyone with those plans would check: Yes, I will sell it to a research lab! I didn’t state the obvious: that we had common sense and wouldn’t set Ben out with a forty-five-pound dog by himself upon arrival. We’d work up to it, eventually winding back around to what she and I both knew as the truth: like most mothers, I would be the one who ended up walking that dog, a dog I would end up loving no matter how hard I resisted.

“You don’t know what might happen,” she said.

She was right.

I slammed the phone back in its cradle, free from what I thought I’d wanted.

“Wow,” my husband said. He describes me as the nicest person he knows, but since becoming a foster-to-adopt mother, my tolerance for time wasting and bullshit bureaucracy had worn thin. Richard liked this no-nonsense new side of his polite, often indecisive wife, who had often asked, “What would you prefer?”

“She wants a guarantee that nothing will happen to the dog! That I can protect it no matter what! Yes, a rabid dog could appear out of the courteous evergreen ether, but it’s just as likely Tom Cruise would helicopter in to the rescue.”

“I told you not to be honest on the application,” he said.

“She wants to ‘process,’” I air quoted, “so she can feel good about rejecting us.”

“You should have just told her you’d walk the dog.”

“The State gave us a human being without us lying. All she had to do was meet us and she’d know.”

“Everybody lies on those things. You didn’t play the game.”

“I am playing the game!” I shouted. “There are no guarantees!”

•••

We walked to church on Christmas Eve, the first time my husband had gone to church in the twenty-two years I’d known him. He had agreed with my suggestion of giving Ben a broader understanding of Christmas other than presents.

An unleashed little dog ran up to us and tailed us past a few houses, circling in front of us, behind us, between our legs. We stopped, though already late for church on our first try, concerned about her getting hit by a car in the twilight if she left the sidewalk. She flipped over, showing us her belly. She wriggled in the grass, her stumpy tail a white blur in the dusk, wagging fast as hummingbird wings. She grinned but didn’t bark. She wouldn’t hold still enough for Richard to read her tags. A college-aged woman emerged from a nearby house.

“Is this your dog?” my husband called out.

“Yeah.”

“She sure is cute.”

“You want her?” The five-year-old dog had belonged to her mother, who had recently died. “She’s a purebred. She has papers.”

A terrier. They have a name like terror for a reason. We’d puppy-sat one and named it Devil Dog. It had eaten our baseboards.

We returned Christmas morning with our geriatric hound to make sure they got along. The wire-haired Jack Russell pogo-sticked around him, butting his gray whiskers. “I’m not surprised,” the girl said. “She likes to stick her head in my roommate’s Rottweiler’s mouth. It’s a game they play.”

“Do you want to come look at our house or anything?” Richard asked her.

“Naw, I trust you.” She gave us the dog, her leash, bed, kennel, vet records, toys, and food without taking so much as our phone number. She couldn’t locate the American Kennel Club papers and said to come back for them, but we never did.

On the walk home, I changed the dog’s name from Moochie, which I found too negative, to Mochi, a sweet dessert. Perhaps the identity crisis resulting from giving a dog of British lineage a Japanese name might give her pause and bring some Zen to her zig-zag.

My mother choked up at the news, telling me that wire-haired terriers were her mother’s favorite dogs. I unearthed a picture of my grandmother as a young woman with her first two wire-haired Jack Russells posed beside her on the hood of a new 1936 Packard. Her handwriting on the back reads, “Peter, Lady Lou, and me.” My grandfather, mostly hidden behind a dog in the photo, isn’t named.

Mochi’s porcupine-quill fur sticks in everything: the furniture and rugs, our clothes, my heart.

I listen to my son, now legally adopted and bearing our last name, taking her for her walk, which he does every morning without reminders. “Come here, honey-bunny,” he calls in a high-pitched voice, perfectly mimicking my endearments. “Come on, sweet pea. You silly rabbit, you Mochi mouse, awwww.” He buries his face in Mochi’s neck and bears her away in his arms like a baby. He made it through the sixth grade without a single visit to the principal’s office and only two to the vice-principal’s.

I don’t tell him the truth. He thinks the dog is his. But she’s mine, all mine.

•••

JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is the First Place Winner in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition (under 100,000 monthly readers category). She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Full Grown People; Brain, Child; Listen to Your Mother; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.

 

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer D. Munro.

Winter Just Melted

dogprints
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Elizabeth Kavitsky

I moved when the birds flew away, when the squirrels had planted their meals in the dirt, and the trees shook off their skins. It was the beginning of my twenty-third winter. I packed unwashed clothes into a suitcase while my parents were at work. Suddenly I lived in Delaware, with my girlfriend Jen and her dog, Tubby.

Tubby did not belong to me at first. He was only my girlfriend’s dog. He was just a shedding thing who interrupted our kisses. I watched her play with him, jumping up and down, both smiling, as the floor squeaked and his mouth gummed her arms and his orange fur fell into the air and her long curls flew around her shoulders. I loved her.

One morning, Jen tried to put drops in Tubby’s ears. She coaxed him sweetly, petting him. His ears went back and his eyes closed in happiness. She grabbed the drops and stepped towards him, still speaking carefully. He saw the bottle and hid behind me. Tubby looked at me, and his eyes, a deep, sad, amber-brown, asked me to protect him. I stood still, not allowing Jen near his quivering body; his trust came so suddenly.

I started to walk him in the morning after she went to work, the ground freezing with winter. We walked across dark asphalt and around traffic, far from the apartment, to find a spot with grass and gnarled plants. Waddling from arthritis, he spent most of his time sniffing the ground, making no noises, except the occasional sneeze. I began to talk to him. Mostly about nothing. Then I spoke about my morning, my worries. I asked him if Jen would be safe and come home to us. I told him that I was scared I would not find a job, or even worse, that I would.

The weather darkened the mornings, and my fingers became red and numb in the chill. I searched out two pairs of gloves and wore both sets at the same time. He watched me as I layered my clothes before we ventured out. If we managed to leave at an early enough hour, I would sing to Tubby, knowing no one else would cross our paths. I couldn’t tell if he noticed my song.

Inside the apartment, I sat on the couch with my computer, my legs folded beneath me. He watched me. I didn’t have food, yet he came near me to be touched. He fell asleep with his head on my slipper. If I got up to wash dishes or to make lunch, his amber eyes watched me go, and his ears stood alert for my return.

One night, the sun was setting early and it was dark at seven. I stared at the ground, as I always did when we walked. The grass crunched under my boots. Suddenly I stopped. There was a form before me—a squirrel, dead in the brown grass. The night made its fur glint black and its eyes glow. Everything turned still. I shivered and pulled Tubby out of its path. He was uninterested. Streets and fences and the grass darkened, the world black except for the eyes of the corpse. I wanted someone to run to. I didn’t want to tell Jen. I wanted to seem strong. I was alone in my fear.

Snow started to fall too often, covering Tubby’s grass. His paws gathered ice when we walked. I wore layers that made me round and genderless. With every footfall, I wondered what would happen if my booted foot stepped on the squirrel, buried under six to eight inches of hardened snow. On the way back, I followed my old frozen footprints because they were safe. Tubby sniffed the fences and made new prints.

•••

One week, the snow stopped falling and everything began to drip. I saw the squirrel, dead and asleep, gnawed and frozen. I made a note of its place in my path—past the first tree but before the bend in the fence. I walked every day with Tubby, avoiding the squirrel, sucking in my breath as we came near it, breathing out hot air when we passed. Tubby walked back to the apartment slowly—he pretended he was old and sick. I knew better. I had seen him run, towards the hidden grass, beyond the buried squirrel, towards the fresh air. He did not notice death. He was never afraid.

Jen left our bed every day at seven a.m. to go to work. It was hard to let her go. I woke up wrapped in our pink sheets, her smell lingering next to me. It escaped as soon as I tried to breathe it in. I fell back into dreams, listening to the sound of hot rain pelting the white tub. She kissed me awake. I felt her breasts against my skin as she bent over, pale and soft and warm and dewed. Her hair flew around her shoulders, and I could smell the sweet shampoo. I pulled her close. One more kiss and she had to leave, to dress herself and drive through the cold to a tall building full of things to do. Some days I cried. I needed her and was left in an empty apartment. I was left to look for jobs online. Left to write. Left to take care of the dog. Some days I begged her to stay home. I knew we needed money, but some days, I did not care.

In my first grown-up winter, I did not think I would get used to solitude. The sounds of the apartment scared me, the banging of the heat adjusting, the ticking slats of the blinds nudging each other, the refrigerator making ice cubes. I tried to fill the place with television sounds, familiar voices booming from another place. I got lost staring at the white popcorn ceiling. I saw lopsided faces and dancing ghosts.

Nine months ago, my life was filled with tons of faces, buzzing, caring, laughing, and yelling. There was always noise. I could hear my college roommates baking bread and stacking dishes. There was always music playing in the apartments next door. I spent my parents’ money on beer and mac and cheese. There were always assignments, parties, meetings—always things to be done and I was happy never to have time to be alone. Time in my own company was spent in the shower or behind my eyelids in a dream.

When classes finished, we waited for the day when we would put on cheap robes and end our college days in front of hundreds of satisfied eyes. I stared out of my bedroom window, watching summer burn the grass, and ran outside in a bathing suit to sit on towels with my friends.

Soon, I would be standing in the snow alone, helping my dog find the grass. When I found my way back to the apartment I shared with Jen, I took off my coat, my hat, my two layers of gloves, my socks, and my boots. I looked at my matted hair and red cheeks in the hall mirror. Tubby sloppily licked the ice off of his paws. I wanted to show Jen my snow-covered boots and my red cheeks. I wanted to hear her praise. She did not come back from work until the sun set.

•••

It kept snowing. The sky was always grey and the ground was always white. I thought the snow looked like freshly grated parmesan cheese. I wondered if I should give a more flattering name to this celestial gift. I eyed the frozen cars and slippery roads from under my blue hood. I felt my skin flush in the nineteen-degree air, through which thirteen-mile-an-hour winds jerked at me and the dog at 8:30 in the morning. I walked home on cheese-covered roads.

Most nights, I sat nuzzling in my girlfriend’s lap, my head resting on her chest. Those types of evenings kept me standing. I longed for days where we sat around in oversized sweatpants and forgot about our empty bank accounts and frozen grass and the car with the broken headlight, and we simply lounged in one another’s warmth, sleeping in our smiles. One Wednesday, she was home from work because of snow. The weekend winked at us. Jen’s phone buzzed, jumping on the wooden end table. She picked it up, and her soft face tightened. Her uncle Brian was in the ICU. He had fallen and hit his head. He was unconscious and not breathing on his own.

Jen comes from a giant family with many uncles. I couldn’t keep their names or stories straight. I thought about my own uncles. I hardly ever saw them. My love for them was through blood. Jen was different; she loved her family, but more importantly, she knew them. She carried great empathy for anyone, a cloak of understanding that she could wrap strangers in, strangers on television or in line at the grocery store or standing near the highway in the cold. She was upset, but in a redundant way, as if these feelings were so familiar they were stale. She was used to pain. “He…” she said, “he has never been the healthiest person.”

I held her hand and kissed her and talked softly as she lied and said she was fine. She swallowed her fear and let it stick to her ribs. The day continued. I was happy to sink back into our relaxation. She liked to take her pants off at the end of the day and walk around in a baggy sweatshirt that barely covered her. She teased me as she walked. Her legs were long and pale and it was hard not to stare. I wanted to drink her and hold her at the same time.

As I walked our dog in the light that bounced off the sleeping snow, I worried about Jen. She silently let the hours pass after the phone call, without mentioning her own fears. I wanted to talk to her more after the walk. When I returned, my cheeks were red, and I smelled of frozen sweat.

As I took off my coat, my phone vibrated and blared my ringtone, a song by Young the Giant. Life’s too short to even care at all… It was my godmother, who only called when there was bad news. Two years prior, the morning that my grandfather died, it was her booming, tearless voice that told me. She spoke purposefully. She spoke as if from a podium. Now she told me my father was taken from work in an ambulance. He was throwing up uncontrollably. He couldn’t walk. He was sweating through his clothes. I felt very far away as I heard her explain: a CAT scan, an EKG, waiting on an MRI. They were admitting him. She would call me when they knew more.

She asked me if I was okay, if Jen was with me. I looked at the yellow walls of the kitchen that were marked and stained. Muddy snow melted from my boots onto the mosaic linoleum. My dad was sick. Tears flung themselves down my face. They felt unusually warm. Jen’s strong hand was on my back.

She pulled me to the sofa in the living room and held me. I did not say anything. I tried not to cry. I hardened. A selfish thought was bobbing among my fears. If Daddy dies, I’ll have to move back home. I hated myself. It was my dad, my dad. He was not supposed to get sick. He was not supposed to die. I looked at Jen, her galaxy eyes bright with sympathy. I told her I was sorry about her uncle.

I sat lying against her while Mame flashed on the television. I watched Mame over and over when I was a child. I knew Jen was only watching it with me because of my dad, but I took advantage. I watched Lucille Ball dance around and sing, and I breathed easier, and I waited. Mame was broke and trying to play “the moon-lady,” missing her cue and freezing on stage in a frilly white costume, when my phone rang. Life’s too short to even care at all…I’m losing my mind, losing my mind, losing control…

It was my mother this time. Her voice was soft and tired but filled with sympathy. The MRI was clean. My dad had stopped throwing up. They were still keeping him overnight, but they thought he was going to be fine. I breathed and crawled back to Jen. There was no reason for me to cry anymore. A smog of images started to dissipate…of my dead father, frozen like the squirrel, pale and cold beneath his grey mustache, my small arms trying to reach around my mother bent over in despair, searching for a black dress. I looked down at the dingy tan carpet…at the blue recliner with the broken handle…at my bare feet. “You can still be upset,” Jen said, softly, stroking my neck.

•••

The following morning, I stepped out of the lonely bed and walked Tubby before my eyes were completely open. I stumbled along the half-snowed sidewalk, holding the leash with gloved hands and a scowl. I passed children waiting for the sight of their orange bus. Their mothers had bundled them tightly, and they kicked twisted stop signs and teased each other. I passed a woman warming up her car. I passed a man hunched over carrying a yellow plastic grocery bag.

I wondered what people thought when they looked at me. I wondered if they glanced or if they stared. Did they think I was a boy? My coat was zipped up beyond my mouth and my black hat covered my hair and forehead and the tops of my eyebrows. I wandered, formless. Only eyes peeked out of my clothes. I wondered if people were scared. Did they see the fat mess of a crumbling dog who could barely smell the weeds sticking into his nose? Or did they only see a Chow Chow, with its aggressive reputation and fierce disposition?

I moved branches out of my way instead of ducking underneath them. The dog walked me. I stood and stepped with his ignorant permission. I followed his footfalls…one/two…three…four. Slow, arthritic, half mad. I had to keep my voice positive, “Come on, BUD! Good BOY…” I had to stop him from running into the street where cars would run him down without looking back. I watched his back leg shake. And I drowned in guilt. No, we couldn’t go that way. No. Even though you stood old and tired and did not have enough grass I could not let you go where you needed.

I tried to balance this dog on the edge of my finger like a glass figurine. My parents used to hold me up like this. They tried to keep me from looking at the ground where eventually we all crumble into fragments. I could see the ground now. Tubby teetered in my hands and I tried to be sturdy for him.

•••

Some mornings, life was perfect. I was in her arms and we were laughing at nonsense, and we forgot about our empty bank accounts and our brittle loved-ones.

My life was blissful and it also wasn’t, and that was exactly like walking the dog. It was my choice to walk him, though I had no choice at all. I could feel the guilt and anger, or I could breathe in the sweet air of the trees.

When I moved in with Jen, my mother asked to see me at least once a month. She made Jen and me promise to visit on my godmother’s birthday. This was the day before the Super Bowl, only a few days after my father was hospitalized with a fleeting storm of sickness, and my grandmother was just recovering from open-heart surgery. My godmother, Bobby, turned fifty-nine. I watched them all teeter in the air with my new, grown-up, eyes.

We turned into my parents’ twisted driveway. We sat in the car, sweating in our coats, filling out birthday cards and tearing price tags off of a chocolate mousse cupcake. I looked at my parents’ house. I felt older as I said those words. “Parents’ house.” Not my house. No longer my driveway, no longer my broken double door with painted gold handles, no longer my wooden spiral staircase. My parents had slowly stopped asking me to come “home,” but instead to “visit.” Whatever words she used, my mother still cried.

We walked inside and our boots squeaked on the marble floor. We gave presents and smiles and hugs. There was a new clock on the mantel of the living room. It was made of light stained wood. It was too simple—no numbers. Only a pattern of light and dark wooden dots told the time.

We sat on one of the giant corduroy couches, and our first official visit began. I sat next to Jen. Her coat covered her lap, and I leaned against her as we all talked. Bobby leaned back on the blue couch, her short white hair brushed high, her strong legs sheathed in jeans, her feet covered in thick woolen socks. Her eyes were quick behind her round glasses, and I saw as she tried to smile and laugh, even though she dreaded her birthday. We did not talk about it. My mother sat on the other end of the couch, her legs turned underneath her, wearing one of her unremarkable solid colored cotton shirts. My dad twitched in his chair; the springs had sunken in from his presence. He pulled at his grey mustache.

They talked, about the week, about the snow, stories that were mostly forgotten, movies mostly remembered. I listened as if I did not belong there and I did not know them. I drifted out and saw the wrinkles in their faces and their words. They seemed different.  Or maybe I was different. My mother paused halfway through her sentences while we waited in patient politeness. She cocked her head and asked me to repeat my words. Bobby talked deliberately, but became confused with names and stories. My father talked about his health. Bobby teased him, yelling at him from three feet away, “You are getting into the territory of old people! All you are talking about is your health!” My brother was still asleep in his bed, and it was almost two in the afternoon. My father stuttered in his defense.

I was twenty-three. I was living with my girlfriend. I had a credit card in my wallet with my name embossed in silver and could use phrases like “our apartment” and “our car” and “our bills” and “what should I make for dinner?” It happened all at once. I stood up straight, because all sixty-three inches of my bones were suddenly walking around alone. My parents were now made of porcelain and reading numberless clocks, and I belonged to a new family.

Somehow this was true. But it was also true that a few weeks before, I visited an urgent care center to be treated for bronchitis. I filled out the paperwork and signed my name and was just another coughing person. Unremarkable, just as I wished. A faceless voice called me behind tall double doors and I found myself in an expediting room. A man and a woman bounced around. The woman took my blood pressure and my heart pumped while the man asked how many drinks I had a week and if I smoked and what medications I was on.

The woman looked at me, braless under my sweatshirt, my hair short, sitting pale and patient, and asked me to verify my birth date. She apologized, saying she thought I was under eighteen. I was small again. I slumped down into my shoulders. Every day I took care of my family: my dog, my girlfriend. I walked through snow and tried to keep everything from crashing to the ground. But that nurse could not see that.

My mother crossed the living room to hug me. She began to cry. I asked her what was wrong.

“I just am having trouble understanding,” she said behind the giant teardrops.

“Is it Grandma? Daddy?”

She shook her head and poked her small finger into my stomach. I realized she still missed me.  She missed me like a mother who sends her child off to summer camp for the first time. She wanted me home. And I knew she wouldn’t stop crying when I left.

“Me?”

She nodded and cried harder. I held her close and patted her back. I was twenty-three, I was living away from home, but I was also an underweight baby, ignorant, sad, and waiting for the world. I tried to be like the wooden clock on the mantel. I tried to be without numbers.

•••

Two days later, I started early. I ate a breakfast of Special K Fruit and Yogurt cereal. I ate right out of the box, dropping some on my lap, my hand blindly searching for the sweet white bites of sugar. I made a mess, and no one could tell me not to.

I walked the dog before eight and we met no one on the road. Back home, the kitchen was still clean from the night before. I could not stop singing. The walls were thin and the apartment next to us was attached, but I felt alone. I sang “Danny Boy” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” I liked to sing songs where I could not quite hit the high notes. I sang in the bathroom to hear the echoes applauding me. I stood on the stairs. I walked slowly, feeling each carpeted step beneath my feet and breathing in my privacy. I peered over the banister, only to see Tubby staring up at me, brown eyes bright, wagging his tail as I sang “Danny Boy.” He could not hear well. He could not walk up the stairs any longer. But he heard my singing and he looked up at me and I swear he smiled. But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an “Ave” there for me… I sang as if it was a happy song. I sang as if I was both alone and in company. In each kind of singing, there were sweet notes of contentment.

As the weeks went by, whispers of warm air floated through Delaware. Vultures started to sunbathe in the mornings. The vultures were tall, black, bony women, wrapped in night-colored cloth, peering at me with apathy. I walked by them with Tubby, and they became familiar and comforting. One morning, Tubby and I passed two vultures that were sitting on the edge of a giant blue dumpster. I walked closer and closer, wondering if they would fly away, or if they felt safe in their flock. I soon found myself only three feet from being able to reach out and touch a black wing. I stared. They were beautiful. Their only movement was a slight turn of their heads. They looked near me, never at me. I stood in the world with my dog’s head buried in grass and smiled at the undertakers. Their eyes were deep, their heads only shriveled grey skin, but sleek and strong. “Hello,” I said. I kept walking, turning to look back at them. In that moment, I was nothing to them. I was too alive.

I grew up in my twenty-third winter. I stood alone and sang alone and remembered the true color of grass. Spring came as always. I watched the blades twitch in friendly warm winds. It was both a numberless spring and something new. Shadows melted away as the sun climbed.

•••

ELIZABETH KAVITSKY is a twenty-three-year-old student pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing from Carlow University.

Animal House

dog curtain
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

It’s been a couple months since my dogs started wearing diapers.

So far just a few people know, mainly the people who have visited my house since the diaper regime began. I’m guilty of the worst kind of Facebook hypocrisy. When I post pictures of my dogs (and I do it a lot), I employ angles that hide their diapers. It’s kind of like that studied angle that many women use for their selfies—the camera slightly elevated from the face so that the face is looking up. It’s more flattering, but everyone knows what they’re up to.

Before one friend came over, I texted her, “I should tell you, we’re making both dogs wear diapers now. You will know soon enough.”

I didn’t want things to be awkward for her. There’s not a polite way to ask about dogs wearing diapers and I feared that the silence would feel weighty.

My dogs aren’t wearing diapers because they have a medical problem or because they’re old. It’s because they are acting like jerks.

My first dog, Shaggy, is an elegant little creature. He’s a schnoodle, a schnauzer/poodle mix, and sometimes I think he’s not really even a dog. He’s got this meaningful way of looking into your eyes as he tries to speak English. He can say “hello” and “I love you.” My husband, who is not as skilled at listening as I am, disputes this, but trust me.

Our second dog, Harlow, is not a specific breed exactly. He’s a medium-sized, white hairy dog. Someone found him abandoned in a nature preserve and for reasons I don’t understand, we took him in. He had clearly been neglected in every way for some time. His coat was a matted mess. He wouldn’t take food from people. He didn’t know how to walk up steps. He was distrustful of everyone.

We took him to the vet, got him his shots, and had him neutered. I took him to a behavioral trainer, one that looks beyond commands like “sit” and “stay,” and, instead focuses on building his confidence and decision-making skills. I kept him by my side every waking hour, for months, at first on a leash, until he learned to follow me around, to come when I called. The change was like a miracle. He’s relaxed now, and he bonded with us. He’s got a sweet temperament. He’s almost the perfect dog.

Except he pees everywhere. Everywhere. If we put a bag on the floor, he pees on it. He pees on the furniture, on the walls. Once my husband Stan was lying on a couch downstairs and Harlow parallel parked next to the railing in the upstairs hall and launched a perfectly aimed stream of urine onto Stan’s head.

If I’m going to be totally honest—and at this point, what do I have to lose?—I’ll mention that Harlow has also, on rare occasion, pooped in the house, too. It’s a measure of how troublesome the urine is that I have no particular emotion when I find a pile of poop. It doesn’t happen often and is fairly easily picked up. One time he left a pile that was perfectly formed into the word “HI.” Since it was kind of a miracle, I took a picture of it before cleaning it up and posted it on Facebook. Then I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who is disgusted by pictures of dog poop, no matter how literary, and the kind that suggests I create a line of greeting cards featuring messages spelled out in dog feces.

We had this idea, before we adopted Harlow, that it would be good for Shaggy to have a dog friend. That if he spent time with a dog and not just us humans, he would learn to be more dog-like. It turns out that he didn’t learn much from Harlow. Except peeing. Our graceful, intelligent, little dog-person was now lifting his leg and peeing on the side of the couch. There really is such a thing as a pissing contest.

We worked more with the trainer. I don’t want to relive it all here, but trust me when I say that we did all the things. All the things. Finally she dropped her voice and said, “You could try belly bands.”

Belly bands are just what they sound like. Cloth bands that wrap around a male dog’s middle, attaching with Velcro. When my kids were babies, I thought it was sort of weird the way some moms went nuts over cloth diapers and cloth diaper covers. I don’t mean in a utilitarian way, but for the aesthetics. When I heard them gush about the cute patterns I thought it was a little pathetic. They’re diapers! They’re just going to be soaked in urine.

Now I get it. I started out utilitarian with the belly bands, buying just a plain white one for Harlow. But it made him look like an old man in tighty whities. Or like Walter White, cooking meth in the desert. So I bought a belly band with a cute peace sign pattern. And another one with stars. And one with tiger stripes. It made it all a little bit less sad.

I’m convinced that they have no idea why they’re wearing diapers. They don’t like them but they’ve come to accept them. When they come inside they wait in a little line for me to put the diapers back on them. If I could have just five minutes during which time they’d really understand English, I would tell them one thing: “Don’t pee inside.” That’s it. I believe that if they really understood that I wanted them to never pee inside again, that they’d make their best effort to avoid doing so. They want to please me. And yet they do the very thing that pleases me the least.

Since we started the diaper regime, our life has gotten better. The dogs don’t have to stay glued to my side. We’re not cleaning the carpets all the time. Speaking of cleaning carpets, now I’d like to share with you the secret of getting dog urine out of carpets. This is a bonus, a takeaway from this essay, if you will. It’s a process that’s very inexpensive but time-consuming.

First you need to find the spots where the dogs have peed. If your carpet is tan like ours is, it may be hard to see the spots after they have dried. That’s why you need a black light. Wait until nighttime, turn off all the lights, and walk around, shining a black light on the carpet. The urine spots will glow. Some other fluids will also make the carpet glow, but that’s your own business and who am I to judge? Once you’ve found the spots, mark them by surrounding them with masking tape. Turn on your lights. Then spray a mixture that is 50/50 white vinegar and water. Soak those spots. Wait for them to dry. If you’ve saturated them sufficiently, this will take a day.

Next spray them with hydrogen peroxide that has just a little bit of dish liquid mixed in. Really lay this stuff to the stains.

When that’s dry (and it will take overnight at least), sprinkle baking soda on and then vacuum it up. This gets out the odor and the black light test will verify that it did the trick.

So compared to that process, diapering a couple of dogs several times a days is not a big deal. Their diapers are almost always dry. The belly bands discourage them from peeing inside because there’s no fun in it. So it could be worse.

But still, I can’t help but consider the complexity we’ve added to our lives. Our kids, at sixteen and nineteen, are old enough to be pretty self-sufficient. I can forget to cook dinner and nobody is going to call child protective services. They can make their own damn macaroni and cheese. Things have gotten simpler for us from the days of busy, demanding toddlers who were hell-bent on electrocuting themselves and breaking all the eggs from the refrigerator. From those days, life has, year by year, gotten simpler. And yet, instead of taking advantage of the simplicity and lack of demands on our time, we did this thing that has made our lives infinitely more complicated.

We brought animals into our house. Sometimes when I think of it, the whole concept of pets seems bizarre. We do all these things to insulate ourselves from the unpredictability of nature and the outside world. We build houses, we seal the doors and windows. We avoid building a house on a flood plain. We install locks on the doors and a security system. We buy homeowners insurance in case there’s an act of nature.

Then once we have this safe, controlled environment, we bring in animals. I believed all along that Shaggy was kind of a person. But people don’t pee on the ottoman. They just don’t. When the whole peeing thing started I’d sometimes look at these dogs and think “My god. They are animals.” They seemed like just one step away from raccoons. Once I hired an expensive pest control expert to lure a raccoon family out of our attic. But we invite the dogs into our house. To live. We say, “Yes, you are a being who likes to chew on a beef bone that’s been buried and left to rot in the ground for a week. But by all means please live in my house, which up until now, has been kept in a fairly sanitary condition. Here, sit up on the couch with me and I’ll scratch behind your ears and possibly kiss the side of your face.”

And they’re unpredictable. When we adopted Harlow, we didn’t consider the possibility that he would be an unrepentant urinator and that he would get Shaggy started too. But it would have been reasonable to assume that he’d do some things that would bring complexity into our lives. Dogs do all kinds of things. They run away. They bite. They bark at the nice couple pushing a stroller down the street as if their baby was the antichrist. They tear up cushions, leaving the cushion carcass surrounded by mountains of fluff.

I think about entropy a lot. I mean, I think about it on a superficial level, the way non-scientists do, because as soon as I start reading words like logarithm and microstate and quantum thermodynamics, I find that I need to quickly click on Youtube and watch a video of a chimpanzee riding a Segway. But the idea of entropy is that systems naturally move from order to disorder. If you put an ice cube into a cup of hot water, the water doesn’t freeze; the ice cube melts. The molecules of the ice cube, which were frozen into a rigid order, are freed to move around as a liquid.

So is there also a sort of entropy at play in our personal relationships? When things become too simple, do we have a tendency to add elements that complicate them? In a sense, any time we take on the responsibility of caring for another being, we’re opening ourselves up to complications that we can’t predict. How do we know that the child we bring into the world won’t have a disability that will require us to reshuffle our lives? Or that the man we marry won’t have a stroke a year later? We don’t.

The issue of nurturing is all mixed up in this idea of personal entropy for me. I took in these dogs and that means I made a promise to take care of them, even if they brought chaos into my life.

I think we have pets because at a very fundamental level we have a need to nurture. And with that nurturing comes all kinds of risks. In the scheme of things, the diapers aren’t a big deal. But every time I put a diaper onto a dog, I’m struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. Dogs, healthy dogs, wearing diapers. But I’m also sometimes reminded of the bond we share with these animals, and the promise we make when we teach them to love us. When Harlow learned to trust us, to sit by us and awkwardly lean against our bodies, looking at us as if to say “Is this how it’s done? This love thing?” we lost the choice of letting him go. He was ours.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Getting Ginger

paw and hand
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Michele Coppola

My ex-husband died and left me his dog. It wasn’t an official bequest, but since all of his friends claimed to love her to death, really, but just couldn’t take her in, I drove five hours south to pick up the rickety Staffordshire terrier named Ginger who we had rescued together ten years prior.

“It’s wonderful what you’re doing,” said my ex-sister-in-law when she called me. “I’m sure Marty is smiling down on you.”

Not likely. The first time he’d gone to the hospital in liver failure, I’d texted him and asked if he wanted me to come down and get Ginger—but the only response I got was second hand from a mutual friend. He said that even though Marty knew he wasn’t able to care for the dog properly, he’d be damned if he was going to let me take her away.

“Alcohol is what’s taking his dog away,” I’d said angrily. “The same thing that’s taken everything away.”

•••

Ginger had been our first foster dog when I brought her home from the shelter a decade ago, her hopeful eyes looking up from a skinny, dun-colored body dangling with exhausted nipples. Confiscated from a home where she’d already been bred twice, the last go-round resulted in nine puppies who’d drained her completely. It hadn’t been hard to do since she’d barely been fed and had nothing to drink save a puddle of muddy Oregon rainwater. Marty and I were in love then—with each other, and with the idea of turning our three-acres-and-a-trailer into an unofficial dog rescue.

After several weeks of fattening her up and teaching her a few commands, we re-homed Ginger with an affable long-haul driver, who took her on cross-country adventures and fed her truck-stop meatloaf. It was a fine life for a sweet dog. But a year later, a bad accident on the interstate took the trucker off the road for good and brought Ginger back to us, also for good. Once she was again curled up on our couch, Marty and I found we couldn’t part with her.

“Animals were also close to McGuire’s heart,” read the article about my ex-husband’s death. At one time he’d been a popular DJ in the small town where he’d lived most of his life, and his passing made the front page. He was indeed an animal lover, poetic and soulful, with a malleable heart that never seemed to recover from the blows and dings that come with daily life. We were immeasurably compatible, and when we moved in together, we didn’t spend the weekend unpacking; instead, we used our rent money to take a road trip through Northern California, pulling off at scenic overlooks to make out and licking fast-food barbeque sauce off each other’s fingers. Tunes from an old Allman Brothers’ CD completed the new love movie montage.

Eight years later, he refused to look at me as we sat in our second marriage counselor’s dim office. “I’m not giving up alcohol for her,” he said. I felt my face flush red—not with anger, but with embarrassment. How lousy a spouse was I that my husband wouldn’t even consider sacrificing a half rack of Milwaukee’s Best to keep me? I remember wanting to protest that I’d cooked all of his favorite meals whenever I had the time and that when my face wasn’t mottled and puffy with crying, I wasn’t half-bad looking. But I didn’t. Instead, I moved into the other bedroom and told him I wanted a divorce.

•••

That memory still cuts me as I reach over to the passenger seat in my car, where Ginger is now coiled into a petrified ball. My hands smell like french fries and old socks after I pet her—just like the house where Marty had been living. It’s been seven years since I tearfully agreed to take our three other dogs to Portland with me and let my ex have the member of our canine family most likely to never leave his side. Ginger is fourteen now. When I tried to put the leash on her back at Marty’s house a couple of hours before, she hid behind his roommate. Finally I got her to come to me and I stroked her ears, something I remember she always liked. Still, her expressive brow was wrinkled with worry.

I’m a little worried myself. My current husband Bryon isn’t happy about having a third dog, but I have promised him that I will find Ginger another home quickly, something I already know will be nearly impossible. He and I squabble frequently; you can smell the dependability and routine on him like a nose-burning aftershave, and sometimes his rigidity is beyond exasperating. While he likes animals, he certainly didn’t want a house full of them. But he did want me, and I come with canines that bark when a squirrel sneezes and a cat who sleeps on his head. He never swats her down in frustration, though. He gently lifts her from his face and places her, carefully curled in the same position, at the foot of the bed.

We argued about Ginger the night before I went to get her. “I don’t mind you going to get the dog. I understand that,” he said. “What I don’t like is all the baggage that comes with her.”

“What baggage?” I asked, wiping away yet another large, infuriating tear from my clammy cheek.

“Yeah, what baggage,” he said, turning back to his laptop. “Go. Do whatever you need to do.”

I hate like hell that nearly every emotion I have comes out in tears. I don’t miss my ex-husband; during our marriage I slowly realized that this was how it would end for him and it’s why I left. And yet … there is something so profoundly sad about the way Marty slowly deteriorated in the last few years, like watching a fragile sandcastle that took a whole afternoon to build get washed away in the tide. But I still wasn’t prepared for his death when it happened, and now Bryon looks at my downcast eyes and thinks I’m hiding remnants of an old love. What I’m actually trying to conceal is the fact that I am beyond angry that after all of this time my husband thinks I could still be carrying a torch for my ex, and also furious that Marty was in such deliberate denial about his condition he wouldn’t make arrangements for Ginger, the companion he swore he loved more than anything in the world.

Back on the road, I stop for a sandwich at a drive-thru outside of Roseburg. I tear off a meaty corner and offer it to Ginger, who sniffs it warily, then buries her nose back in the dirty crocheted blanket that had been on Marty’s bed back at his house. I took it so that the old girl would have a familiar smell to comfort her, and also because I recognized it as one I had made for my ex many Christmases ago. Just one more thing from the past I’m dragging into the present that my husband and I will absorb because it’s what we do. We are boring and stable and responsible.

And yet, I am immensely appreciative of the fact that I have a working vehicle and the gas money to come rescue Ginger and a comfortable home where, until I find her a permanent situation, she can spend her days snoring contentedly on the couch. These resources are at my disposal in no small part because of Bryon, the man who has already called me twice to make sure I’m doing okay on the slick mountain passes. I feel reasonably sure that if the situation had been reversed—that I died and Marty were called on to come get a dog we’d owned together—he would have been both unable and unwilling to help. Not that he wouldn’t have regretted his impotency; in fact, my guess is it would have taken at least an entire bottle of booze before he didn’t feel bad about it anymore.

The sky is a watery blue-gray when I pull into the driveway of my house, the sun resigned to another day behind clouds. Ginger sits up in the passenger seat and shivers. I can barely breathe when I think about having to convince some reluctant person to take her in and then leaving her there to curl up in the dark corner of a strange-smelling place, leaving her to wonder why the man she loved so much didn’t want her anymore.

•••

“So we have a third dog now, right?” says Bryon, who is sitting on the bed smirking and rubbing Ginger’s belly. It’s been two weeks since I brought her home, and in that time we’ve discovered that in addition to being somewhat deaf, my ex’s dog is a bit incontinent, requiring potty breaks every two hours. Unfortunately, she is also petrified of the doggy flap, so we must get up and let her out several times a night. My husband doesn’t complain about it; he just rolls out of bed and stumbles to the back door with a sigh. I’d be happy to do potty duty, but Ginger wakes him up when she’s got to go; she sleeps on the floor by his side of the bed and follows him to the kitchen, where he feeds her bits of the flatulence-inducing cheese that she loves.

“Well, no, I’m still working on it. I posted her picture on Petfinder,” I say halfheartedly.

“Oh come on. Who’s gonna want her? She’s old, deaf, has to pee all the time. But she’s such a good guuuurl,” he purrs into her floppy ear. Ginger rolls over on to her back and snuggles her grey muzzle into his lap. She attached herself to him immediately when I brought her home, and if I’m being honest, I felt a twinge of resentment. Dogs live in the moment, so it’s entirely possible she didn’t remember me at all—but apparently she knew instinctively that Bryon, with his understanding eyes and strong, warm hands, was someone to be trusted.

I get up and wrap my arms around him. “Thank you,” I whisper. I love him so much for this, for the absolute conviction that society will start to unravel if he doesn’t step up, for believing that dismissing this dog to become someone else’s problem is just wrong. That is what Bryon does—even when it’s exhausting, even when I tease him unmercifully about his Eagle-scout code of honor and wish he could just relax, already. What I didn’t realize is that it’s hard to lighten up when you’re made of such sturdy stuff.

Perhaps Ginger knows what I am just learning: that in the end, love is really about showing up, again and again and again. I was there for her. Bryon is there for me. No matter where I step in this marriage, even out to the edges of his tolerance and my good sense, the floor is sound; there are no soft spots, no decay. It will hold me up, even with the added weight of my ex-husband’s elderly, incontinent dog.

•••

MICHELE COPPOLA is a veteran radio personality, copywriter, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian and Spot Magazine as well as the literary journals So To Speak, Melusine, and Short Story America. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she shares a bed with her husband, two dogs, and two cats. Ginger passed away a little over a year ago in Bryon’s lap.