He runs. He always runs. From the fleas that make him crazy. From the sting of their bites. From the tickle of their crawling. He runs to cool the heat of his skin, to throw off the invisible enemy playing at the roots of his hair. He runs, throwing snarls over his shoulders at the nagging predators that destroy his peace, snapping crazily at flies and bees as if they were airborne versions of the parasites and must be seized from the skies by stealth.
He runs, oblivious to the scene he is creating on this sunny day in July at Pleasant Hill Park. He does not notice the disapproving stares of old people who grip their canes in readiness to strike, or the protective movements of mothers who place their bodies between him and their children, or the expressions of alarm from dog owners who snatch their pets from his path. He does not know the fearsome sight he creates when he runs. He simply runs.
His name is Beau, meaning beautiful in French.
The irony was accidental. He was beautiful when I named him three years ago—when he was a bumbling comedy act of a mixed-Lab puppy, and I was a love-struck fifteen year old. But then he grew. His roundness took on edges; his starlit coat lost its sheen; his testicles ballooned and hung low. Beautiful evolved into charming. Charming into peculiar. Peculiar into homely. Homely into ugly. The chubby fur ball with droopy ears and floppy paws disappeared and a different dog took his place: a bull-chested, bony-legged, long-tailed mutt with a shocking case of mange.
The mange was caused by a flea allergy. When a flea bites the skin it leaves a trace of spit in the upper layers of the epidermis, causing an unbearable itch that Beau is helpless to ignore. So he chews. Ardently, ferociously, argumentatively. A single flea will get him so riled he’ll ransack the area until not a hair is left standing, and no amount of cajoling, yelling, pleading, hose spraying, or meat offerings from me, his so-called master, will distract him from his frantic campaign. The result of his obsessive biting is total baldness from mid-torso down. It’s a gruesome sight to behold.
I’m not negligent. At the first sign of mange I took Beau to the vet, who wrote me a list of things to buy and do. Shampoo the fur with medicated soap. Use a flea collar, follow up with powder. Treat the skin (he gave me a prescription). Most importantly, bomb the backyard with insecticides. A single flea will re-infect the coat. A single bite from a single flea will begin the process over again.
“Make no mistake,” the vet said. “It isn’t the flea. It isn’t the bite. It’s the spit that causes him the misery. He can’t handle the spit.”
It was a tall order for a teenager on a babysitter’s salary, but I did as I was told. I put my whole savings into the pricey products and came after the tiny terrorists with both guns blazing. But as the war dragged on with seemingly little progress I came to realize what I was up against. They were an army. I was one. Looking out over the quarter acre of our grassy backyard I could imagine the quiet life that propagated unchecked behind every rock, pebble, weed, seed, blade of grass, flower, stalk, and grain of dirt with the single-minded goal of nourishing itself on my dog. There might only be only one flea out there, but if I missed that flea somehow—and God forbid it should be a pregnant female—all my efforts would be for nothing.
Fleas breed in warm weather and hibernate in cold. We live in a sheltered section of Diablo Valley that cradles the sunlight, offering fleas a temperate climate year round for easy living. Ergo, the war was destined to continue forever. Although I mowed the weeds, sprayed the ground, fumigated the doghouse, and treated Beau’s coat, the fleas sprang about in joyous celebration of their full and fruitful life. The only tactic left to me was fire, but Mom wouldn’t let me burn the backyard.
I suffered along with Beau. His misery hummed like a low disturbance in my consciousness. I couldn’t clear my mind of it. I blamed myself more than Nature, or God, or any of the usual scapegoats. Beau was my only real responsibility in life outside of high school, and I was failing him. Where does one go from failure? Sometimes one is granted an unexpected reprieve. A blessing in the form of a catastrophe. A merciful mishap—painless of course. There was no telling what Life had planned for Beau. I would wait and see. I would let Fate decide.
And then one day, an expert arrived.
“That’s some case of mange your dog’s got there,” Grandpa said. He was standing under the eaves of the house at our yearly Easter barbecue, drinking Jack Daniels and smoking a long brown cigarette as my younger siblings hunted for colored eggs. As always, Beau was curled over himself chewing his bald tail in the middle of the yard.
“He’s allergic to flea spit,” I said.
Grandpa took a sip of whiskey and followed it with a drag of the long brown cigarette.
“Bad deal for a dog.”
“I did everything the vet said to do.”
Sip. Drag. “Vets don’t know anything. They just know how to charge a fortune for useless prescriptions. Why do you think they’re so rich?”
“Well, that’s depressing.”
“Look, kid. There’s only one cure I know of for that kind of mange, and it ain’t sold in a doggy salon.”
“Yeah? What is it?”
“Eucalyptus seeds,” he said. Sip. Drag. “Make a necklace out of ‘em and string it around the old boy’s neck. Fleas hate the smell of eucalyptus. Come within a foot, and they’ll jump. For the tail end, use motor oil. Slather the area with the oil and it’ll drown the fleas. The fleas that don’t drown will hop up to his neck where the seeds are. It’s win win. It’ll give the dog some peace.”
Now, Grandpa wasn’t like other old people you knew who went around spouting old people nonsense that told you nothing surprising or new. Grandpa was the quiet type. In fact, he barely ever spoke except to deliver wisdom, and his wisdom was always deep and gained from experience. So if you think motor oil for mange is wide of the mark, you must take into account that it comes from a man who’d swum the mouth of the Columbia River at the age of twelve along with the likes of Johnny Weissmuller, the actor who played Tarzan. He was a man who got hit by a Model T Ford while riding his bicycle, and had part of his nose ripped off by the crank. He was a man who could show you a ferocious scar on his hand from the fight he got into with a cougar while running trap lines in Nevada.
The eucalyptus seeds have a pleasant smell and make Beau look like a hippy dog with a receding fur-line. The motor oil, though, is a nasty mess. It stinks, it drips, it glistens, it stains my clothes, it corrupts the air. It seems like I’m committing a criminal act when I rub the slick treacle over him with my hand in a plastic sandwich bag, so I always accompany the routine with an apology. So sorry, Beau. Sorry, sorry, sorry. But Beau doesn’t seem to mind a bit. He stands perfectly still, grinning and wagging his tail, as if he knows I’m looking out for his best interest. As for me, I place my trust in Grandpa. The fleas will drown. The ones that don’t will hop toward the eucalyptus seeds. And those will jump the plank.
The results are not yet in. I apply the oil every day, and wait for Beau’s hair to grow back. For now his bald skin glistens. It is something we both live with—an unpleasant but necessary part of life. I take him places as I’ve always done, only I stopped taking him to Ocean Beach, because when he rolled in the sand, the sand stuck to the oil, and the oil-and-sand amalgamation that afterward coated the inside of my Volkswagen took hours to clean. I mostly take him to Pleasant Hill Park. At the park I apologize to people constantly as if my dog were a dangerous part of me that had come loose and had to be monitored carefully. I explain the home remedy to those that ask, and don’t blame them when they back away. Beau is a galloping oil slick that contaminates everything he touches with 140 weight Pennzoil, and you never know when accidental contact might occur.
It’s a popular park, with a baseball diamond, a playground, a basketball court, a swimming pool, and a big open area where I can lure Beau away from the picnickers and sunbathers with the tennis ball. Balls are things, like fleas, that must be captured, possessed, and destroyed, and Beau lives for the hunt of them. No ball, yet, has evaded him. He’s recovered balls from beyond the pounding waves at Ocean Beach. He’s dug them out of dumpsters, wrenched them from the jaws of dogs more fierce than himself that have dared to intercept them, extricated them from sewers, gutters, hedges, and bramble bushes, unearthed them from long-forgotten burial grounds. Once he gets his teeth on a ball he treats it like a giant flea, gnaws it, punctures it, crushes it, pops it, and massacres it, all the while that he delivers it—dripping with bubbly slobber, dusted with dirt, and bald to the rubber—to the hand that will throw it again.
In the open area of the park we are free. Out there I hurl the ball far into the distance and Beau dispatches like buckshot from a chamber, slicing the air in two. His homing skills are without equal. He doesn’t see the ball overhead, but his senses are so accurate in charting its speed, direction, arch, and descent that he consistently arrives at the ball’s very landing spot just in time to see the ball meet the grass and pounce like a flea. With a giddy, sideways grab that nature designed for sharks in a feeding frenzy, he seizes his rubbery prey, whirls, and charges back to me, sprinting madly, blissfully, exploding the mines of grass beneath his thundering paws, his tongue a thrashing eel, his ears flapping pennants celebrating a victory.
There can be no doubt of the level of ecstasy that is coursing through his body at this moment—fleas notwithstanding. Dropping the mashed and macerated ball at my feet, he takes three steps back, his muscles cocked for action like an athlete crouched for the fifty meters sprint. His eyes are happy C notes. His tail is a metronome on its highest setting—eighth notes pounding out their enthusiastic message. Throw the ball. Throw the ball. Throw the ball. But then something changes. He snaps out of his spell and looks over his shoulder.
Someone has unlocked the gates to the park pool. A man with a handcart is transferring some boxes of pool supplies from the bed of a truck into the pool yard. The double gates are open wide. Time stalls as chance opportunity winks at Beau. I feel a kindred buzz of prospects. My heart picks up a beat. I am in full communication with Beau’s spirit. I know—I tell you I know—what is about to happen. I can see into the future as clearly as if I were staring into a crystal ball. There is Beau, swimming in the middle of the pool, stirring his own oil spill, as dozens of people flee screaming from the water. And so it happens just as I envision it. With an alacrity that forsakes the need for thought, Beau is gone. The next time I catch sight of him he is mid-air over the pool, backlit by the sun, his varnish of Pennzoil reflecting the ambient light like a disco ball. He soars, hits the surface, is engulfed by water, a blue fountain erupts above him, his grinning face emerges, and he paddles, his front paws reaching high like a cantering horse as dozens of people flee screaming from the pool.
I love my dog. I sort of fear him, too. I’m entertained by him. I’m quite frankly embarrassed for him. I’m often repulsed by him. Sometimes I outright hate him—loathe the sight of him. Am shocked by his scabby, half-bald body, his twitching muscles, his strange, often foul breath, his alien-being erections, his large swinging testicles, his protean bowel movements, his recurring vomit, his sex lust. I pity him. I worry about him. I certainly sympathize with his condition. I sigh over him constantly. I sometimes embrace him as if he were a human—a sub-human from a lost tribe on a forgotten continent.
I have fantasies that he’ll die in his sleep and put us both out of our misery, or run away and live wild in the uninhabited fields beyond Mount Diablo. I don’t believe I would be hurt or upset or anything. I am sure I would feel nothing but relief. Because honestly, when I decided at the age of fifteen that I wanted a dog I hadn’t known what I was getting into. It wasn’t his fault he turned out to be more than I could handle. Or mine, really. And I reflect on that now, as I stand there in the park holding the slimy tennis ball and watch the scene at the pool. I tell myself I am the victim of unforeseen circumstances. I tell myself that owning a dog is much harder work than I had ever expected, and that I’m tired of it. I don’t want to think about fleas and motor oil anymore. I don’t want to shovel up his shit and bathe him and feed him every day and spend money on flea products and exercise him and apologize to all the people he accidentally slides up against. I don’t want to carry the weight of another creature’s happiness. My own weight is already too much.
And just like it happened to Beau, it happens to me: time pauses and winks at me. It says, Beau has got to go, and this is your chance to get rid of him. You don’t have to do anything. Just don’t call him out of the pool. Any minute now the animal control people will arrive. They’ll remove him from the pool and put him in the back of their closed truck and drive away. They’ll house him in a clean cage and feed him and wait for his owner to come and claim him. And when the owner doesn’t come, they’ll put him up for adoption. He’ll have as good a chance as any to find a happy home.
The swimmers huddle dripping against the fence. The lifeguards shout and wave their arms at the rogue black dog. I can’t see inside the office from my distance, but I am sure someone must be calling animal control right now. I don’t move. I’m captivated by my own bad behavior. Will I actually let this happen?
The covered truck arrives. Terry and I used to spit at these trucks when we saw them drive by, and call the drivers Nazis because they enforced the leash law. Now I feel a sense of appreciation for the two uniformed men who march into the pool yard carrying restraints; they are only doing their job. Beau is trying to get a paw-hold on the edge at the shallow end, but slips. The men reach past the eucalyptus seeds, grab his scruff, and haul him out. They fight to put a muzzle and a leash on him and Beau struggles, back pedaling as they drag him forward, his oily skin twinkling in the sunshine, his stiff forelegs and hind end painting a wet trail all the way out of the pool yard.
I can’t move. I’m stunned by my disloyalty. I’m questioning it loudly in my head. I can’t believe I’m capable of this horrible deed. Yet, I must be capable of it because I’m doing it. Moreover, I’ve done it. The animal control people have opened the back door of their truck and hoisted Beau inside and slammed and locked the doors. They’re looking at their hands and wiping them on their pants and getting into the truck. They’ve started the engine. The reverse lights come on. And I am still standing in the same place in the middle of the field holding the tennis ball.
As the truck disappears I feel a gulf open between Beau and me—a gulf that grows wider with every revolution of the truck’s wheels. And then the truck is gone, and I am alone. My thoughts and actions are calm and logical. He’s in their hands now. I look at the slimy ball in my hand. I won’t need this anymore. I toss it into the bushes, and wipe the slime off my hand. Well, I guess I’ll go home. I slowly walk home.
In my room I lie on my bed. My mind is oddly empty, my body weirdly numb. I listen to myself breathe in and out. I stare at the white ceiling. I try to imagine the freedom stretching out before me. It’s not hard to do. I won’t have to feed Beau tonight. No scooping the nuggets, scraping the leftovers, mixing the pan grease with a little boiling water, and stirring it all up. I can read a book instead, or better yet go to the movies. I ponder this unforeseen license with amazement. I am unfettered. Unbound. Liberated. And it was so easy. I used to be responsible for a big headache of a dog, and now I am not. Someone else is responsible for him now. I imagine Beau sitting in his cage at the pound, his giant pink tongue slung over his teeth, his eyes, ears, and nose alive to the new environment. The people there will probably think he rolled in an oil puddle in some driveway. They’ll shampoo the oil off and towel him dry. They’ll talk nicely to him, and speculate on his history. They’ll give him a Milk-Bone. Beau will love the human attention. He’ll see and hear and smell so many other dogs he’ll think he’s in heaven.
I close my eyes. I can feel Beau’s absence. Actually feel it. It’s a palpable void that encircles me. A space unfilled. A space of potential. A waiting space. I listen for the low buzz of misery generated by the chewing in the backyard. It’s gone, drowned out by the sounds of activities in the house. Mom clanking pans, preparing for dinner, the kids playing with their toys, laughter, talking, and music.
Somewhere else a protocol is taking place. The correct procedures followed. The system was designed for the humane treatment of animals. Otherwise they would not be called The Humane Society. Their priority is to house and shelter. They’ll take Beau’s vital signs, test him for rabies and worms. They’ll place an ad in the classified section of the Times. “Adult male. Mixed breed. Black. Homemade collar.” They’ll feed him every day and wait for the owner to appear. They’ll wait and wait. Over time Beau’s hair will grow back because his cage will be flea-free. He’ll gain weight from not running all the time. He’ll start to look like a normal dog. And then one day, a little boy will see Beau’s bright eyes and whipping tail and say, “I want that one, Mommy,” and the mother will ask, “Are you sure?” and he’d say, “Sure I’m sure, Mommy.” So the mother will pay the adoption fee and take Beau home. There will be a nice grassy backyard with a dog house, and big silver food and water bowls, and Beau will be utterly happy, the perfect companion for the little boy. Until the first flea finds him and bites him and infects him with its spit and Beau starts to chew, and the flea has babies, and the babies have babies, and Beau chews off all his hair again and resembles an African hyena. And the boy stops playing with him and his new owners wonder what kind of dog they brought home from the pound. And. . .
The heart attack begins sometime around midnight. It feels as if a strong man is trying to punch his way out of a duffel bag in my chest. It comes on suddenly and without any warning. One minute I’m pondering the positive outcome of Beau’s life change, and the next minute my heart is doing a violent fist bashing exercise. I’m having trouble breathing. I feel faint and nauseous. I’m afraid I might throw up. I sit up and hang onto my pillow and look around my room. It is one shade of color: slate gray. The color of treachery. The color of death. I’m going to die. I start to cry. Unquestionably, I did this to myself. You cannot betray your dog and live. My chest opens up and I draw in elephant-size gasps of air.
I spend the entire night this way, withstanding the chest punches, and gulping in too much air. In the morning I’m exhausted from the fight; my face is swollen, my eyes are dried out and sore, my mouth and throat dehydrated. I get up before the rest of the family, quietly push-start my Volkswagen down the street, and drive to the city pound. The sign says, “Closed. Will open at 9:00.” I sit in my car and listen to the air whistling in and out through my dry nostrils for two hours. I’m surprised I’m still alive when an employee opens the front door and flips the Closed sign to the Open sign. I stumble out of the car, enter the building, and approach the desk. The clerk, who looks knowledgeable, asks if she can help me. The expression on her face confirms that she has seen teenagers like me before.
“A dog. . .” I say. My throat clenches down over an explosive sob. My eyes flood. I stand there, waiting for the energetic punching in my chest to calm down. I look at the floor, the wall, the ceiling. I swallow and swallow. The woman has the smallest of smiles on her face. She knows the protocol. She opens an official book of some kind. She throws me a lifeline.
“Picked up at Pleasant Hill Park yesterday?”
“A black dog with mange?”
I nod, and nod, and nod.
She leads me to his cage, and I stand there, gasping for air, gripping the fencing, the galvanized steel mesh cookie-cutting my forehead, my eyes drinking in the image of my dog, my mind crying silent prayers of gratitude as Beau stands before me, wagging his tail and panting happily as if to say, “Oh, good. You’re here. What took you so long? Let’s go home.”
The price to own him again is sixty-five bucks, a whole month’s worth of babysitting money, and I write the check with such enthusiasm that my signature leaves the paper and veers onto the laminated desk. In the car, driving fast down Monument Boulevard, Beau’s head is out the window, his mouth wide open, and I am blinking through white water and gagging on the salty poison of my tears. “I almost lost you,” I shout to him over the wind that is blowing my hair up to the car ceiling. “They could have put you down today. And it would have been my fault!” It feels good to shout out the truth to your dog—it’s a little like going to confession and telling your sins to the priest. It’s not your job to absolve yourself for your sins in the name of God, it’s his job—the priest’s, or the dog’s. “Don’t you get it, Beau? I let those guys from the pound catch you. I watched them drag you off and I didn’t lift a finger. I was going to let them euthanize you. It was my choice!” Beau is way too happy to sense my distress, my relief, my catharsis, but I shout out the truth to him anyway for the entire drive home.
Entering the house with Beau, I expect the family to rush around us with ecstatic hugs and pats and loud exclamations of relief over the close call, but everything is exactly the same as I’d left it: flat, one dimensional, dull, and untouched by my experience at the pound. Even Mom is at her usual place in the kitchen, making lunches for my younger siblings, bologna, cheese, and mayonnaise on white bread, as she shouts for them to clear their cereal bowls and get ready for school. Terry is contentedly nursing her baby, Vinny is listening to music in his room, Jennifer and Mary are playing dolls, the finches are chirping in their cage. The family is ignorant of everything except its own goings-on. It doesn’t know that I have just returned from a long journey to a dangerous land where the outcasts of society perish at the hands of hired assassins. They don’t know that when I left I was young and idealistic, and that now I am old and worn out. So worn out I have to lean on the walls when I walk through the house, and take pills to relieve my aches. Nobody knows that I will never be the same person I was yesterday.
There is nothing to do, then, but pass tiredly through the house to my room where I can think things over. Beau follows, of course, probably wanting to know what fun things I have planned for him that day. In my room I close the door behind us and sit on my bed. Beau sits on the floor facing me, his mouth widely smiling, his black eyes like ebony stars, his ears perched high, listening for a command. We look at each other for a long time while I think about things that have no title or a subtitle or index or even summary, and try to put words to the thoughts that won’t materialize. And the minutes pass slowly as Beau waits for my genius to take hold, and I wait for the same thing. And when nothing happens I finally get tired of looking at Beau, and look away. That’s when Beau, with a suspicious movement that seems premeditated, leaps onto the bed beside me, and leans close. Instinctively I put my arm around his broad back, but quickly retract it when my hand touches the slimy motor oil that the pound people didn’t wash off after all. And I shout, “Yuck! Gross! Get off the bed!” And Beau jumps off, as happy to follow that order as any other, and sits facing me again, waiting for what will come next. What comes next is I open the door and order him outside. Happy to obey, he bolts through the door into the sunshine of a hot day, races around the yard to investigate the smells that have accumulated over the last twenty-four hours, and sits himself under the tree to take up where he left off.
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party