I don’t want to have to tell this, but I’ll start as plainly as I can and we’ll go from there: Logan died on the sixth of July. It was sudden. He was about a year and a half old. The vet thought it was his heart.
One thing I have always believed to be true: one cannot have both dogs and dignity. It’s impossible. You have to decide between one or the other. Dogs have no self-consciousness, but going beyond that, they do not even know what it is. So they assume you don’t have any, either.
My dogs ate my dignity years ago. Decades. In my childhood, when they ate my three foot long realistic plastic alligator (and I am still sore about that.) I didn’t have much dignity to begin with, so it’s okay, and the fun of dogs makes up for it.
Now that the Florida heat is starting to set in, early evening is the best time to take Logan for walks. He has the back yard for excretion and digging holes; the walks are exercise for both of us. They’re leash training, too. Unfortunately, everyone else knows this is the Nice Outside Time as well, and as a result, I run into a fair number of people.
About two houses away from home, Logan spotted a small stick on the sidewalk. He picked it up, shook it, played a bit with it. I laughed at this, as I do, because Logan is hilarious. He took this for encouragement and trotted along, happy as can be, with the stick in his mouth.
We passed many people. There was a woman bringing in a sprinkler from her front yard. She didn’t give us much of a glance, but she did scold her dog (I couldn’t see it) for barking as we passed by.
Further on there were two guys, nineteen or twenty, Too Cool For Life, fiddling with a lawn mower at the end of their driveway in the most James Dean Careless Testosterone-ful way possible. Logan and I detoured around a car that was parked on the sidewalk, putting us closer to The Two Dudes. Logan trotted along, happy as a dog can be, because I’M ON A WALK and I HAVE A STICK! I followed along, every aspect of my bearing saying my derpy dog is fucking awesome, comprende? The Two Dudes stared, not entirely sure of what they were seeing.
… I get that a lot.
Past the halfway point I decided that Logan would keep this stick for the whole walk, no matter what. If he dropped it to look at something else, I’d kick it along the ground, or pick it up and have him jump for it. If I made it a desirable object, by having it when he didn’t, he would want it very badly and do anything to get it from me.
We passed the House With The Sighthound — Whippet or Greyhound, I don’t know, just that it is brindle, has a pink collar, and barks maniacally whenever anyone turns that corner. Logan kept his stick firmly, though his hackles went up a little. He’s still uneasy about being barked at.
We tromped through the backlots and field, occasionally playing Who’s Got The Stick, happy as could be because we were a girl and her dog (or a dog and his girl) out on a walk, with a stick, on a nice day, and nobody bothering us.
We turned a corner and spotted another man walking a dog. I hadn’t seen him before. Logan, stick clamped firmly in his mouth, stopped and looked at this new dog.
“Which way you headed?” the guy asked, holding back. The dog, about Logan’s size but stockier, Lab and something, looked bored.
I pointed. “Thatway.” Logan decided that he and his stick wanted to visit, and moved towards the man and dog.
“I don’t know about this one,” the guy said. “She’s not my dog. We met another lady the other day and…”
“Oh, he’s friendly,” I said, which is what I generally say well in advance when I encounter someone while I have my dog. “He likes other dogs.” I looked at Logan, who held his stick firmly and eyed this other dog as if to say, I have a stick, don’t you want it? “He, uh. He likes…. sticks.”
“This is my friend’s dog,” the guy repeated. “I’m walking her for him.” Thus proving that he was not only too cool for dogwalks, but also too cool for me and my goofy dog and my goofy dog’s stick.
I nodded and off we went, Logan and I, past a house where a whole family were arguing with each other in and around a car with all its doors open. A teenaged girl, also Too Cool For Life, stared critically at us before returning her attention to the discussion.
Sometimes ya just can’t win for trying. But who cares, when you have a dog and your dog has a stick, and it’s a nice evening for a walk?
I love my dog. I do. I love my dog. He is a wonderful dog, and everybody likes him, including me. I need to remind myself of that, days like this, when all I want to do is sell him to a laboratory for scientific experiments.
I keep getting pulled over, around here. It’s enough to make a girl paranoid. The car that I drive is mine in all the ways that count, like replacing the wiper blades and refusing to wash it until pollen season ends and actually being the only person who drives it, but on paper it belongs to my mother, because the insurance is about half as expensive as it would be if it belonged to me. I’m all for loopholes like that. The problem is that, when she stopped driving a few years ago, she never updated her driver’s license and it is now well beyond expired and into the archaeological record.
This means I get pulled over, because cops around here apparently have nothing better to do than run plates, and the computer pings the car as being Operated Illegally because of her expired ID, and then there’s a big to-do about my license and registration and who owns it and okay no you’re cool hey man it’s all good when really I want them to go away as quickly as possible, because I am never comfortable around people who are encouraged to whip out guns whenever they feel like it. They never do this during the day, and my dome light has never worked, so it’s a big production finding the necessary documents. “Hey, can I borrow your maglite?”
I swear, this comes back to the dog.
The last time it happened I was on my way to the airport, and a damn good thing I’d left early because while I can plan for traffic I don’t (but probably should) plan for a pullover slowed by a computer which is seemingly connected to the county databases by dialup. In a plain white SUV, mind, which seems like cheating. They should be marked. You know what’s worse than a Very Serious Business cop? A slow, chatty cop who thinks he’s funny. They never are.
“Yeah, I know,” I told that guy, when I was on the way to the airport, “it’s easy to mistake me for a sixty-eight-year-old woman.” Because I default to humor in any awkward situation.
“Well, yeah, kinda,” the cop said, grinning. He looked at me, and I must have been glaring daggers, because his Officer Friendly Chuckle switched off as suddenly as someone turning off a radio. The rest of the transaction, as it were, happened quickly. I give good glare.
All of this has made me a bit spooky, so when the prospect of the cinder blocks was brought up, I needed a little convincing. See, this really does come back to Logan — he is a horrible dog who likes to get under the house, which is up on pilings or platforms or whatever they are called because this is Flood Country With Sand Not Dirt and that’s how they built them, until the housing boom of the seventies and eighties. You would not think a dog of Logan’s size could get in there, much less comfortably have adventures there, but he does. He saw the cat dart under the deck once, and that was all it took: monkey see, monkey do.
The solution to this, obviously, is to acquire enough cinder blocks to cover the squeeze points between the deck and the ground. Well, no — the real solution would be to get some of that wooden lattice stuff and put it all around the deck, which would look much nicer and less trashy than blocks, but at this point I do not honestly care what it takes as long as the dog is no longer rolling around in the flea-infested sand down there where leprous armadillos and hissing possums hang out. Besides, I don’t have a saw. So blocks it was.
What I have learned since coming to this conclusion is that when you do not need cinder blocks you are constantly tripping over them, but when you do need them there is not a one to be found. Anywhere. For any reason. Ever. I kept my eyes peeled while walking Logan around the neighborhood: not a block to be seen.
I am sure at this point you are wondering: why not go down to the hardware store and buy some? Who buys cinder blocks? That’s not how they happen. They just appear. You find them in drifts of trash and discarded furniture on the side of the road. Or someone you know has a few sitting around and will happily give them away. Or you look on Craigslist and there are people begging you to take them after they demolished a shed or garage. Cinder blocks are migratory, except for when you need some.
When I was out with a friend and she pointed out a house that had been demolished – a lovely enormous heap of cinder blocks that were only going to the dump – I needed some persuading, because by now I am convinced the cops around here are out to get me. It’s not paranoia if they are, and oh, they are, and always when I’m in a hurry.
One five and a half point turn later, we were out of the car and grabbing greedily from a tall heap of smashed blocks, most of them conveniently broken by the demolition so that they were halves, with only one hole in each piece. They were old blocks, too: the inside holes were circular, not square.
A question that I still don’t have a proper answer to: was that theft, then, or recycling? I highly doubt a big pile of scrap concrete was going anywhere but the dump — except maybe if anyone nearby needed a block or two, thus perpetuating the endless cinder block migratory route. I’d much rather reuse something like that than buy new ones while the exact thing I need gets transported to a landfill because it’s old and designated garbage. There isn’t a difference, except for the bits of plaster and paint stuck to them. (Lovely 1950s turquoise.)
There’s such a, a compulsion I suppose, in this society, to always get new things, and with it the idea that doing otherwise is somehow distasteful. I don’t get that. Clearly this is the result of the questionable company I keep, all those loony lefties interested in freecycling and yard gardens, swapping around lists of 30 things you can use as flowerpots. I’m constantly seeing stuff like this, reuse and repurpose, how to turn shipping pallets into Adirondack-inspired furniture, arrange coffee cans on a drying rack so that when you water the top row of plants in the cans, everything else gets watered too. Once again, I am turning into my grandmother.
I like that way of thought: this is an object, with these properties: what can I do with it? We get so attached to what a thing is originally for that we don’t think of what else it can be. A flower pot does not have to be terracotta, or plastic made to look like it, with a perfect round hole in the bottom: it just has to be a thing that holds the dirt and lets the water drain out. But even as I write this, and as I like the idea, some part of me thinks “oh, that’s tacky, oh, that’s cheap,” as though I must purchase objects that other people have decided are specifically for the use I want to put them to. I’m not explaining this well, this thought kicking around in my head.
We brought the blocks home and I spent the next day fitting them into place. Two days later, my lovely wonderful dog, my dog that I love so much, my dog who unfortunately is a little too smart for his own good sometimes, figured out that he could bypass the deck entirely and slide on his side, kicking with his back feet, to get directly under a wall of the house where the concrete pilings are a bit too widely spaced.
I hope they haven’t cleaned the site up yet, I need more blocks.
“Well hello! Look at you, you’re a big lover, aintcha! Come here! Aww, who’s a good – boy? Boy! Who’s a good boy!”
Falkenburg is the only kill shelter in the county, so it’s where the lost and unwanted wind up. The aim is to get the animals out the door as quickly as possible. They are not as particular as some of the rescues in town, because they don’t have that luxury. They don’t insist on home visits and legally binding co-ownership paperwork for the life of the animal, because their goal is seeing animals walk out of the front door, instead of getting wheeled out of the back. They try to avoid having to send their intake into the euth room, where a person who’s stronger than I could ever hope to be tells the animal how sorry they are, before gently injecting them with a fatal mixture of drugs. There are worse ways to go: illness, injury, cars, predators, starvation, exposure, drowning, abuse, neglect.
I think Logan would have wound up in that room, with the apology and the injection. I can’t say for sure, but I think he would have.
The way Falkenburg works is this: if you want to adopt an animal, you apply to Be An Adopter. There is a bit of questioning here, and you fill out a form. You tell them why you want a new animal, update them on any previous animals on record as being yours, tell them where you will keep the animal. Once you’ve been approved, you go into the back and pick out the animal you want. Two people can put in an application for a pet; this way, if the first interested party cancels, someone else can still bring the animal home. This works the same if the animal is on a hold like Logan was, though the difference there is that the applicant(s) have to wait until the hold period expires.
“Ma’am, that is one gorgeous dog you’ve got there, I just wanted to say.”
Logan had, when I found him, been there on hold for a week. The hold period was ten days. I didn’t ask how long he’d have after that, since during that hold period anyone interested could put in an application on him. Nobody had. Some dogs nearby had two applications: smaller dogs, cuter dogs, puppies. No applications were put in after I submitted mine, either. Logan just didn’t get noticed. And I’m as guilty of that as anybody else. I’d been checking the shelter’s website for weeks before I went up there to visit. I’d made a mental note to have a look at Logan, after making a mental note to look at black dogs in general because of the Black Dog Syndrome, and even then I walked right past him. The friend I was with says I stopped and let him sniff my fingers before moving on. It’s possible. Likely. He was just a plain quiet dog. Didn’t even bark. His owners didn’t try to get him back, and if I hadn’t adopted him, who knows? The old man who brought Logan out for us to visit clapped me on the shoulder and thanked me for saving a life. I could tell he meant it. I think he was right — not because it somehow makes me feel better about myself, or that it makes Logan more special somehow — because even if Logan’s experience at the pound didn’t back it up, the numbers sure as hell do.
There is a theory that large black dogs are the least likely to get adopted. Black-dog syndrome, it’s called. There are arguments about whether it’s really a thing, and if it is, why it happens. Different theories — black cats are bad luck so black dogs are too; black dogs are assumed to be aggressive; black dogs do not photograph well; who really knows? But I’m pretty sure that it does happen. Shelter staff are familiar with it. I’m familiar with it too, because it happened to Logan, and that wasn’t the first. We walked right past Buster, 18 years ago. He was a weird little black mutt too. Best dog I ever knew — though, of course, they’re all the best dog.
“Aren’t you a handsome boy! Look at you!”
Logan can’t escape attention. He laps it up, of course, because he is Logan, and being ignored is the worst possible thing to ever happen to him in his entire life. Being scolded is better, to this dog, than being ignored. When I take him to parks, people want to pet him. If we’re running errands and he’s sitting shotgun in the car, people smile at him, or wave. I am told, often, how handsome he is, how smart, how sweet, how cute, how well-behaved, what a treasure he is, how lucky I was to find him at the shelter.
It’s sort of hard to square this with knowing that, me included, if all of these people had lined up and walked through the kennels out at Falkenburg, not a one would have stopped at run 118. I’m happy I did, even when the rotten little jackal coyote dingo shedmonster is nipping at my butt to herd me around the house. Dogs. Bless their annoying faces.
“Am I good? I want to be good. Here’s a leaf. Here’s a bit of paper. Am I still good? Can you zip me into your hoodie? How about now? Here’s a ball. You didn’t notice it before. Am I good now? You’re getting up? I’m going with you. What are we — the bathroom? Okay. I’ll lie here on the mat and wait while you shower to make sure you don’t accidentally go down the drain. I didn’t bring a toy. I’m bored. Can I be in the water too? I like water. I’m still a good dog, right? Right?”
I brought you a ball. I brought you a bone. I brought you a stuffed thing that squeaks. I brought you a rope. I brought you a bit of tissue I grabbed out of the trash can. I brought you another ball. It’s a really good ball. I’ll just climb onto your lap and put it in your ear for you. There. I brought you another stuffed thing that squeaks. You don’t want these things? Do you still love me? You still love me, right? I need to eat. I haven’t eaten in years. Decades. Also I have a ball.
This is what happens when I bring home something with Lab in it.
I counted the days down and, I am sure, annoyed the shelter staff by calling almost every day to check on the dog who became Logan. I brought my mother up to meet him, a few days before his hold expired, and she fell in love right away. I kept checking his page on the petfinder site and hoped that whoever had owned him before did not want to keep him. He’s such a good dog, I kept saying, or he will be; there’s a good dog in there and I can shine it up. Everybody thought I’d be able to do that, too. My mother took me aside and told me, with the sort of seriousness she usually reserves for asking if I’ll go to the store for her, that she had no doubt whatsoever about my ability to make this pup a Good Dog.
I tried names: Shadow, Watson, Elwood, Logan. I would experimentally shout them across the house, because a good dog name has to be easy to shout. I have a theory about dog names: the best ones are two syllables, each with a vowel, because the way we pronounce things in American English means the name will be a Happy Sound, not a Scolding Sound or an Angry Sound. Dogs don’t really know their names, not the way we do. To them, a name is “the sound the monkeys make that means me.” So it’s important to select a good sound, an enticing happy one, that they will want to respond to. My pets pick their names, more or less: I’ve never selected a name and then brought home an animal for it. I choose a few I like, and try them out, and see which one fits the animal.
The shelter names their intake, even the strays; I suppose that is a bit more personable than asking for dog A21605, or whatever. The name they’d given Next Dog was Buster. I’d already had a Buster, a wonderfully weird dog, one in a million, and that name would only ever be his. When the guy was filling in the forms on the computer, for me, and he got to the name, he asked if I’d like to keep that name or change it.
“Logan,” I said. That’s who he became, that day: Logan, a wriggly black mutt, a shelter rescue, a Lab mix with I think some Border Collie, a stray who’d been collected off the street somewhere, a funny little dog who suddenly was mine.
I forgot to ask them where he’d been picked up. Maybe I can call to find out. I did learn a few interesting things, waiting for his hold to expire. His microchip information was eventually traced to a person in Gainesville, who the shelter managed to contact; this person said they gave him to somebody else in Tampa before they moved to G’ville. They did not want him back. This second owner never turned up, and since the first owner claimed he wasn’t theirs anymore, the hold expired and he became adoptable.
There are so many things I wonder about, which happens with shelter dogs. Was Logan dumped? Did the Gainesville person know Second Owner? Had there been a third Previous Owner before the other two, who’d had a whole litter of Logans? How long was my pup wandering on his lonesome? Where was he picked up? Was he frightened, shy, aggressive, happy to be found? All of these things happened here, not long ago, and different people know it all, but I’ll never find out.
It took a while to get everything squared in the databases: on my first visit, when I applied to adopt a dog I was asked about every dog I have ever had, and for some strange reason one of the cats, too. That was a depressing recitation. Renal failure, 2002. Bad hip, arthritis, 2003. Respiratory infection, 2007. Seizures and neurological damage, 2008. Spinal tumor, inoperable, last month. All of them were euthanized at the vet when it was their time. That was okay until I got to Riley, of course. I still feel like I failed her, even though I know it was her genes and her body, not me. I probably always will.
Even with all of that done, we still had plenty to do on Logan’s Gotcha Day. Updated inoculation records for the cats (thanks, vets for, phoning that stuff in), official owner Of This Dog, proof of rabies registration number with tag and title; it went on and on. Last, the actual purchase. This is funny: they had heavy discounts during October because it is Adopt A Shelter Pet Month. My mother piped in and asked if they also offered senior discounts. (She adores getting senior discounts. She has a lot of fun with being old.) It turns out that they did, so after a moment’s work and a quick glance at her photo ID to add her to the records, my new dog cost all of five dollars, with a full vet checkup and a year’s shots.
Logan: the five dollar dog. We had enough left over for pizza.
After all of this I was given a thick wad of paper with copies of everything — which I have since lost, of course. The guy called over the intercom for a pickup for kennel 118 and told me that someone would meet us there.
The first time I went there and spotted Logan, I asked for a meet-and-greet so that I could figure out if he was a dog I wanted to have in my life. A nice older man with a short tidy white beard came up with a slip-lead and opened the kennel door. Logan was out like a shot, bolting down the kennel, while every other dog who saw this barked their fool heads off. JAIL BREAK! I dropped to my knees and called for Logan, who barreled up to me, and I grabbed him on impact, holding him still enough for the old man to get the lead around his head. The second time I visited, to introduce my mother to the pup, we got the same old guy. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Thank you for saving a life.” Aw. On Gotcha Day, of course, who did I see walking out as we were walking in? Same old guy. He wished us luck.
When we collected Logan from the kennel that last time, I dropped down by the door and made sure to catch him before he could take off. They offered me my choice of tiny nylon slip-leads, about as wide as a ribbon and slightly stronger; I picked a rainbow one, because every color goes with a black dog. I was happy I’d brought the nice big martingale along though – Logan was a bouncing fiend, pulling as hard as he could. He had a little plastic ID collar with his number written on it, but I didn’t trust that it would keep from snapping or slide off his head.
We brought him by my friend’s house, because we were in the neighborhood, and she wanted to meet Logan. He got to play with little Charlie, brave killer of frogs, and climbed onto every piece of furniture. After that, and a quick drive back across town — learning that Logan does great in cars, sits and looks out the window calmly – it was time for the pet store, to get a collar and some welcome-home toys. Finally, at the end of a very long day for a young dog, we came home. He was tired out, happy and friendly, exploring everywhere. My mom, like I said, fell in love at first sight.
For me, it took longer. The first couple of weeks were pretty rough. Despite what everyone who knows me had said about dog training, I had my doubts, because Logan has so much energy and one really bad habit: he’s the mouthiest little jerk I’d ever met. I had no idea how to handle that, because puppy nipping is one thing, but a full-grown dog (physically, anyway; mentally he’s still a snotty teenager) acting that same way is entirely different. A little scary too, considering I’ve got a fragile old lady and a fragile elderly cat in the house. Biting, with dogs, is a dealbreaker for me, and while he wasn’t doing that – play-nipping is another behavior entirely — I still worried that it would become biting, the big bad skin-breaking kind, and every day that the nipping didn’t magically stop I worried more. I swore at the Previous Owners, whoever they were, because a dog this size with that behavior had to have been encouraged.
Dogs require lots of patience, and a pretty strong stomach sometimes, and a willingness to be made to look like an idiot on a regular basis. And then some more patience on top of that, because they are dogs. I steeled myself to give this dog patience, and firmly reprimanded him every time teeth touched skin. I don’t know when the shift happened exactly, it was so gradual, but we passed a certain point and I stopped worrying. I could train this habit out of the dog. I could train other things into him. Recall with a proper sit-front happened quickly, though I need to really drill it into his head. Walking on leash hasn’t been bad at all. Logan followed me like a clingy shadow, getting up as soon as I did, following me across the house, jumping into the empty tub when I went to the bathroom. In bed he’d drape himself across me like a blanket, or curl up in a ball under my knees. And now, even though I still have a few tooth and claw bruises on my arms (I bruise in a stiff breeze, this is not his fault) I am grudgingly fond of the guy. He grows on you. Like a rash. And he will be a good dog. He’s got it in him.
It may be that I got him too soon: I know some of that crazy despair was the IT’S NOT RILEY clamor in the back of my head, and that still pops up every once in a while when he’s being rotten. But things look good from here. He dozes in my bed when I’m at the computer, follows me like a shadow, like the name I almost gave him, tirelessly brings me toys. He puts them in my lap, on my feet, shoves them insistently in my face, tries to put them — I am not kidding about this — in my ear. Any time Logan is near I can expect to be surrounded by a drift of toys that once had been Riley’s. That makes me happy, to see him playing with toys she enjoyed.
He is shameless, this dog: there is not a dominant bone in his body. He eagerly throws himself down on my feet, rolls over to show me his belly, placates me with yawns and rolling eyes and licks of his nose. If I step on him or accidentally bump him with a knee, he’s back moments later, as close to me as possible.
Can I sleep on your feet? Can I curl up in your sweater with you? I brought you a ball and another ball and the bone and the kong and a stuffy squeak thing and a stuffy honk thing and here’s a ball. Please love me. I’ll put the ball in your lap and you can throw it. I’ll put it on your book. I’ll put it on your phone. Can I sit on your shoulder and put my face on your face?
He really does jump into the tub after following me into the bathroom. The first time he did it I laughed and petted him, and I suppose that was all the encouragement he needed. He’s great in the car, and it’s so good to have a dog riding shotgun again. Dog is my copilot. He’s got horrible separation anxiety: he watches out the window unhappily when I go get the mail, and if I have to leave him at home I can hear him yelping his unhappiness from the driveway. He thought part of the skirting on the bottom of the couch was a tug toy, and pulled it off.
I think we’ll be all right, the two of us.
When death happens it’s almost an offense that everything else keeps going. You want it to stop and take notice of your loss. You want to be justified in feeling like the world has gone irretrievably wrong.
That’s not how it works, of course; you don’t get to have time off. Everything you had to do before, you still have to do. The world spins, the chores pile up, gravity keeps tugging.
That last was the one that got me.
It was, I think, about two or three weeks after the failed surgery day that we had to call in a repairman to look at my confounded air conditioner. The thing had gone very wrong, and there was a dripping crack in the ceiling. I had a sad line of coffee cans along the floor, to catch the dripping water, with wads of paper towel stuffed into each one to muffle the noise. Plunk. Plink. Thonk. Thwap.
If I had been caring more about anything, I might have noticed and acted sooner, but I didn’t. That happens. You get distracted, when everything hurts like a blow to the head, when you’ve been shredded by sudden and permanent absence. Waking up was the worst, because I’d forget, at first, what had happened, and my instinct as soon as I wake is to locate the dog. Oh yeah. Ouch. That was hard.
The repairman came and went, and I made Doctor Who jokes about the ceiling, and then out of nowhere, a bit past one in the morning on Sunday night or Monday morning, the goddamn thing came down. I had a gaping hole in my ceiling, about eight feet by four, replete with bugs and shreds of cellulose insulation and enormous pieces of the ancient 1950s rock plaster that was used for ceilings. It smelled horrible. It would have severely injured anything underneath it. It landed right where Riley’s bed had been — was still, because I couldn’t bear to put it all away yet. Too bad I wasn’t under the goddamned thing, I thought, more than a couple of times.
Gravity. It’s not just a rule, it’s the law.
We’d called for an insurance adjuster to come check on things when it was just a crack; the day he came was two days after things fell in, and I’m not sure he expected what he got, which was me in a determined Not Thinking About Things mood after a horrible sleep on a too-small couch and, god, whatever else. I don’t even know. Me in a machine fog. Lock it all down, get it all done. That’s a place, a thing, I didn’t ever want to be again.
“Ya got good shoes on?” I asked him. I led him through the kitchen and around the back of the house, since the bedroom door was impassable with fallen sheetrock blocking it. I took two of my collection of flashlights from a shelf in the kitchen and handed one to the guy. “You’re going to need this.”
It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I didn’t care. My dog was dead, too soon. So what if there was a gaping hole in my bedroom ceiling? So what if the insurance guy was baffled by my carelessness when I clomped in motorcycle boots across snapping pieces of sheetrock and plywood? It’s interesting, when you get to the point when you’re fresh out of damns to give. Kind of freeing, though it’s not a freedom you want to have.
Lucky for me, my self-proclaimed handygal friend was all over this: she made plans to come out and repair things and told me what I needed to do or acquire to get things ready. I dropped in at the hardware shop (where they ought to recognize me, at this point) for one thing and another, and ran into the mother of two of the neighborhood kids I’d grown up with. It was interesting to see her, this enormous and intimidating figure from my memory, now with steel-shot hair, shorter than I am, not as loud as I remembered, not scary in the slightest, and delighted to see me though I could not figure out why.
“She was a weird kid, but she turned out all right,” I remember her saying, almost to herself, and I wondered whether she was talking about me or her own daughters. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, really.
Cleaning up all of the mess was easy enough, with the heavy electrician’s leather gloves I use for gardening (along with a machete; yes, this is a Florida thing) and a respirator with barbie-pink filters on the sides, and a kerchief tied over my hair. I filled several heavy contractor trash bags with the stuff, and wound up filling my enormous county-issued trash bin to capacity.
It went easily because I was still numb, because numb was better than the alternative, hurting and bawling my face off until my eyes looked like they’d been modeled after Peter Lorre, because numbness is a relief, at a certain point. Lift all this heavy heavy shit. Throw away the dog things that got caught in the wreckage, the towels and the pee-pads, the little plush pig toy I’d repaired so many times, the knuckle bone that was the last thing she enjoyed before she died, the bed she’d laid on, that funny little ball with feet that smelled of rubber and vanilla: it was all mixed in with plaster and shreds of plywood and rubble and insulation. So it all went.
(I took Riley’s baby tag and put it on a chain along with two other pendants, lucky talismans of a sort, and waited for the first idiot to point out I was wearing a literal dog tag. Hasn’t happened yet.)
Then Jen came, one bright Sunday, bringing her Finnish determination and an infectious good mood, and I wound up having a lot of fun helping her patch everything. I fetched and carried, retrieved things that fell, kept the music coming, took notes and made lists, while she smoothed the gigantic ceiling hole, determined what needed to be fixed with the air conditioner (as it hadn’t, actually, been repaired in any way) and measured twice because we wouldn’t want to have to cut more than once. I watched her bounce up and down the ladders, into and out of the ceiling, as confident as a squirrel in a tree, and wished I was that good at anything. Maybe I will be, someday.
The interesting part of it all, and the part that made her so proud, was when we put the new piece of sheetrock up. It took two ladders, one next to the other, and each of us holding an end of the enormous patch piece. The first time we tried to fit it in, it wouldn’t go because there was a part of the ceiling that stuck out where it shouldn’t. The second time, I thought about yoga, and when I went up the ladder with a gigantic piece of sheetrock above me I did it barefoot, my monkey toes gripping the rungs carefully. That time was better, I was noticeably steadier, and I held the thing up for an arm-aching time while Jen did the same thing one-handed behind me, bolting it into place with a drill that had a light in the front.
Sisu, she says: sisu is the Finnish word for strength, for gumption, for chutzpah and determination and help-or-get-out-of-the-fucking-way, and I like this concept. We’d toss it back and forth: Sisu! Sisu! Check that sisu you got going there, girl!
Sisu is calling the aircon repair company and determinedly telling the chauvinistic manager that the repair was unacceptable and you refuse to pay, and then sticking to your guns even when you slip up and say “she” when you were carefully saying “my contractor” until that point, because of course a woman knows nothing about machinery men make money repairing unless she is carefully repeating what she’s been told. It was amazing how I was suddenly not taken seriously at all after the “she” slip; before it was agreement and apology, while after was “You know, I wouldn’t send a plumber in to fix a car, if ya know what I mean.”
“What I know,” I pointed out, “is that she fixed it and your repairman did not, and that sixty-year-old sheetrock would have put me in the hospital with multiple skull fractures.”
(If only, I’d think, sometimes.)
Sisu is writing the thank-you letters I’d been stalling on writing, to the Vet Who Scanned A Shark and his incredible big-hearted assistant, late in the night or early in the morning, and then picking up my dog’s ashes (too soon, too goddamn soon, but closure of a sort), only to have the bottom fall off the fucking seventy dollar wooden urn box thing when I tried to put the photo in. It’s finding spare masonry screws in my own toolbox, and repairing the stupid thing, and calling the crematory the next day to let them know what happened, “and some people, you know, might be freaked by that.” It’s trying so hard not to remember how small the bag of ashes was, how lifeless and baffling. That isn’t her, that’s nothing I want, that’s all I have left, that’s priceless because it was her, once.
You keep moving. You have to. There are things to do. You don’t have the luxury of completely falling apart and hiding until you’re ready to face the world again. Sisu: you keep moving.
After a while the numbness gets less necessary, and the pain stops being a suckerpunch and starts being soreness, like an old injury. Something that never healed correctly or competely. Something I get used to carrying with me, and it’s not the first hurt of that sort I’ve got, and sometimes I think I’m held together by baling wire and duct tape and some sort of perverse determination.
My neighbor is – or was, then – a friendly guy who does landscaping. He’s got a pit bull with a head like an anvil and a tail like a whip, brindle and friendly and very very calm. He’d come by to do the yard, and I offered him the last of Riley’s kibble because I needed it out of the house. One amusing day he weed-whacked my jungle while I cleaned the hell out of my whole car, stem to stern, because what Cool Neighbor Guy identified as a mess of pharaoh ants had built Manthattan in the trunk. I fobbed an old CRT monitor off on another neighbor that Cool Neighbor Guy knew; “Think of it like a Godfather thing,” I said, “I’ll ask you for a favor someday.” Likely not. I’d recognize him by sight, but I forgot his name, and now there’s nobody to ask, because Cool Neighbor Guy has moved.
Pain doesn’t stay the same, though sometimes a thing reminds you and rears up and punches you in the jaw, when you didn’t see it coming. Other days I’d find myself thinking that instead of needing my dog back, what I needed was a dog, because things were so thrice-damned horribly quiet around here. It hurt less, or differently; it does get easier to carry. And at one point I knew that I wasn’t ready to get another dog, not that day, but I was ready to start looking. So I looked at websites and I made some calls.
People talk to me, and I don’t know why — Cool Neighbor Guy came over one evening and asked to use my phone, then wound up telling me damn near his whole life story. It’s not a new story, not exactly, and not mine to tell here either. It was his and it was real and he was hurting, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger who isn’t going to judge you than to a friend or a relative who already has ideas about who or what you should be. I know how that works, and I know that sometimes people need to talk. I know that a lot of the time they wind up needing to talk at me, because, as I said then, cheerfully, “I’m a good vent!” He told me his story, and I listened, and did not in any way say or suggest that those things made him a bad person (some would, I’m sure) — instead, I was genuinely impressed that he’d noticed these problems in his life and figured out what needed to be done to fix them. I told him that, and offered similar stories from my life, or the lives of people I knew. I sat listening to him, in my pajamas, in a rocking chair with the fifteen year old Boneless Cat in my lap, wishing so badly that I could help and annoyed, again, at the world: people are hurting all over the place and mostly there isn’t a goddamn thing that can be done about any of it. Sisu. Keep moving. Laugh when you can.
I called one shelter and spent an hour talking to their adoption person about the dogs: this was a no-kill place where they could be selective and they knew their animals. I checked the website of another, which was a high-kill last resort shelter, which took dropoffs and all strays. I made lists and talked to friends. I had an idea of what I wanted in a Next Dog, and didn’t know when I would find it or what it would look like. I wanted a temperament, I wanted a solid dependable smart dog: the kind of dog who jumps when you say jump, because it doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise. All I knew for sure was that Next Dog couldn’t look like Riley. Not even close. It could not, in any way other than being a dog, resemble Riley. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.
(Do something for me, Riley-girl. You go find this dog. You make sure I get the right one.)
I spent an afternoon visiting at the no-kill shelter, filling out paperwork, wondering why everyone was so impressed at my fifteen year old cat (it’s not like that’s any accomplishment of mine: she keeps being alive and I keep feeding her!) and visiting with dogs who were, none of them, Next Dog.
I spent another afternoon at the high-kill shelter, not expecting to find My Next Dog, because I wasn’t ready in a thousand different ways, but then I stumbled across him anyway. It was flashing neon signs and being whacked upside the head with too many coincidences: there are some woo things I believe in that I don’t talk about – everybody got their something – that have me half convinced Something was At Work Here.
I recognized this dog, is all. I didn’t fall in love at first sight. I just looked at him and felt, inside: Oh. There you are. I filled out the paperwork before the place closed, got myself approved, and waited.
The last-minute scramble to get things ready took exhausting days, and somewhere in the middle of it the heat broke at long fucking last. Somehow I’d held onto a healthy not-numbed Lack of Damns, a peculiar sense of determination that is the absence of the anxiety that’s plagued me my whole life — this isn’t permanent, but I caught a few glimpses of what that life could be before it flickered away.
Sunday it was sunny and breezy, with the highs in the mid eighties. My Cool Neighbor Dude was moving out, and I said goodbye to him while I stowed things in the car: an old martingale lead, a packet of paperwork, a bottle of water and a mental to-do list.
I had to go see about a dog.