The caretaker tells me there are two dogs available, and I follow him down the long hallway to the kennel. He slips his key into the lock on the entry door and motions me forward with a flick of his head.
“It’s all yours, pal.” He pulls open the door and steps aside. “But make it snappy. I’m closing in ten minutes.”
“Thanks, again,” I nod and smile.
Inside the kennel, there’s a center hallway dividing two long rows of cages. All of the cages look empty. I stand still, listen, look around. This place was built for easy cleaning efficiency: concrete floors, cement block walls, chain link gates. It’s strangely quiet and I pucker-up and make a few soft, kissing noises. A hopeful whimper answers me from one of the middle cages. I wander over, peek in, smile at the shy blonde retriever pacing behind the chain link. I lift the latch on the gate and the nails on her paws click on the concrete when she scrambles out to the hallway. She wiggles her backside and bends her spine in the shape of a kidney bean around my legs.
“Hey there,” I say, and playfully scratch her rump. She warbles a high pitched song and wiggles some more and my low laugh echoes in the hollow spaces.
I walk back to the end wall where there’s a chewed up wicker basket sitting on a chest-high shelf. The retriever nips my heels. Inside the basket, there are three worn out tennis balls and a length of twisted, colored rope. I grab the best of the tennis balls and set aside the basket on the floor.
“Fetch?” I turn and ask the retriever, and her pink mouth opens in a grin.
Each time I roll the ball down the hallway, the retriever brings it back to me. This beauty could play this game all day. After a while, I hold the ball close to her nose and lure her back inside her cage. When I close the gate behind her, she licks my hand through the chain link.
“Don’t go anywhere,” I point my finger at her and smile.
I walk to the far end of the hallway to see the second dog. There’s a boxer in the last cage. He’s sitting in the center of the cage. He’s as still and quiet as a lawn ornament. His coat is brushed suede, and his body-builder’s chest has a white spill on it shaped like Africa. Two of his paws look like they have tiptoed through melted ivory. He is lean and muscular, as if someone has chiseled him from a boulder made of hardened honey.
It is troubling to look at the boxer’s face and head. His right ear is mostly gone, and the scrap that remains is thick and jagged with blackened scar tissue. Inside the ear cavity, veins and tendons pulse like a palm full of earthworms. His right eye is a sky-blue marble floating in watery milk. He is square and blunt, and his muzzle and forehead are as swollen as a street fighter’s knuckles. If the boxer senses my unease, he does not let on. He stares straight ahead and does not look at me.
I lift the fork latch to his gate and swing it open. Nothing.
“You are supposed to react in this situation,” I softly remind him.
I hunch low in his doorway so he can see my face. He turns his head and stares at the side of his cage. I place the ball on the floor in front of me. It wobbles on the concrete, and he squirms and sneaks the slightest of glances at it.
“Want the ball?” I tempt him with my friendliest voice.
Still, he will not look at me. His face is kind and menacing, and it offers no hint to what is inside of him. How can a living thing wear a face that says so few and so many things?
I push off the floor to stand and the boxer springs to all fours, rushes forward, scoops the tennis ball into his mouth in a single motion. He set me up…he waited until I stood up. He bumps past my knees and his cigar stub of a tail wiggles as he canters down the hallway. He opens his mouth and drops the ball into the basket on the floor.
“What…?” I ask no one in particular.
He mouths the looped handle of the basket and lifts it squarely off the concrete, then springs up to a hind-leg stand and sets the basket onto the shelf where I found it. He drops to all fours and trots back up the hallway. His padded feet make dust-broom slashes on the floor. When he gets to his pen he squirts around me, sits in the same place he just left, the same way. He still won’t look at me.
At the end of the hallway, the door opens and I startle. The caretaker leans his head into the kennel.
“OK chief,” he looks down the hallway and says. “Time’sup. Close the gate.”
I look at the boxer, then turn and tell the caretaker, “I’ll take this one.”
I pull my car into my driveway. The boxer is sitting straight up in the front seat beside me, staring through the windshield. When I walked him from the kennel to my car, I expected him to be fearful; but he stepped into the passenger seat without complaint. On the drive home, I petted him along his neck and shoulder. His skin bristled and he turned and looked out his side window.
I turn off the car and smell the burning brush from my neighbor’s slash pile. Soon, neighborhood kids will be splashing in piles of raked leaves or playing war games using fallen acorns as bullets and barrel covers as shields. I look at the boxer. While the caretaker was filling out the paperwork, I asked him what had happened to the dog.
“We don’t do background checks,” he shrugged and said.
I open my car door. “Ready?” I ask the dog, but he stares straight ahead. I get out, walk around the car and open the passenger door, clip on the boxer’s leash and lead him up onto the back screen porch. “Wait here,” I tell him. He sits.
I push through the back door into my cold and shadowy kitchen. My wife, Leanne, stands at the sink with her back toward me, a steam cloud rising from the hot water of the faucet. Tiny water droplets cluster on the bottom of the windowpane in front of her.
“I brought something home,” I say to her.
She turns off the water and faces me and my stomach plunges. The skin around her cheeks and temples is sinking into her face, and her eyes are hollow, dark and far away. Not long ago, her eyes were impish and could catch the sun’s light and twist it into a twinkle. It is mid-afternoon, and she is wearing a blue pajama top over baggy yellow bottoms. I want to walk across the kitchen and change her back to who she was six months ago. But I don’t know how.
“I brought a dog home,” I tell her.
“You…what?” She squints and I can see that it hurts her somewhere deep in the middle of her head.
I walk back to the door and open it.
“Come in, dog,” I say to the boxer.
He steps over the stoop and into the kitchen. His leash drags behind him like a flat snake that has bitten his neck and won’t let go. He walks to the center of the kitchen and sits upright and soldierly on the tile floor. Leanne and the dog look at each other.
“Why does his face look all beat up like that?” She frowns, looking up at me, the veins and tendons in her neck inflate.
“I’m not sure,” I tell her. “He’s a smart dog, though.”
She nods. “Does he have a name?”
I shrug. “He was found on the street. Why don’t you go ahead and name him?”
“I don’t know how to name a dog.” She looks at me as if this is something I should know about her.
“There are no rules to naming a dog. You just name them,” I explain.
She studies him for a moment. “I don’t know,” she says. “He looks a little like Ernest Borgnine.”
“You know, that gruff-looking actor from McHale’s Navy?”
“Oh, right,” I say, even though I don’t who she means. “OK, then. Good job. Ernie is a perfect name for him. Really good job.”
“Harry wanted a dog for his eighth birthday. Do you remember?” She looks at me and asks.
“Yes. Of course I remember,” I whisper.
She walks past the dog and into the front room. She climbs the steps that lead to our bedroom. The dog turns his head and watches her, but stays sitting in the center of the kitchen floor.
It has been three days since I brought the dog home. Sometimes, I forget that
we have him. He does not chew our furniture or go to the bathroom on our rugs. He does not nip our heels when we walk, or bark at noises that only he can hear. He sits in his corner of the front room and watches us. I have tried to get him to play fetch or pulling games with knotted ropes, but he has no interest. He eats and sleeps and when he has to, does his business outside. When I call him, he comes to me, but he does not respond when I stroke his fur. He is a robot dog, a zombie. He is as blank-faced as the Queen’s Guard of Buckingham Palace. This morning, Leanne came downstairs and looked at him sitting in his corner. Her face folded into a question mark.
“Whose dog is that?” she turned and asked me.
I have not talked to Detective Golner yet today. He is heading up the investigation on Harry. I call him on the bedroom telephone. Earlier, out in the yard, I poured the seed from Leanne’s bird feeders into a hole I dug in the ground. I told her that her feeders were empty and she had to refill them.
“I can’t go outside. Will you do it?” She asked.
“No. I don’t like the birds,” I lied.
She walked to the back door wearing pajamas. Her feet were bare. I stopped her and steered her into the front room. Kneeling on the floor in front of her, I shimmied the flannel pants down over her hips and legs where they lay in a crumpled pile around her ankles. I gently lifted each foot and slid the pajamas free. She stared blankly at the wall across the room as I helped her pull up a pair of jeans and thread her arms into the sleeves of a hooded sweatshirt. She sat on the couch and I unrolled socks over her feet, and then tied the laces of her sneakers in a neat double-knot.
In the bedroom, I cradle the phone to my ear and push aside the shade covering the window. Outside, Leanne is walking across the yard toward her feeders. She is holding a canister of birdseed. The dog is sitting on the corner of the driveway
and quietly watching her. The phone clicks and Detective Golner and I greet each other.
“Is there any news on Harry?” I ask him.
The phone is silent for a moment.
“No sir, nothing,” he says.
“OK,” I say. I suppose I should be grateful that they’re still looking after six months, but I’m not. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Nothing you haven’t already done,” he says.
My head hurts. I sit on the bed and press the palm of my free hand into my
closed eye. “What about flyers? Do you think it might help if I go out and post more of them?”
He sighs. “We’ve gotten some good news coverage, Mr. Creegan. I think the word is out there.”
I don’t know what to say next, but I do not want to hang up. When I talk to Detective Golner, I know that Harry can sense me looking for him.
“You still there, Mr. Creegan?” he says into the silence.
“Yes,” I answer, “I’m still here.”
“How’s your wife doing?” he asks in a soft voice.
I stand up, pace. “The same,” I tell him.
He stays silent. I know that I am making things awkward for him, but I can’t help myself. If I stop talking, I am afraid that everybody will stop talking.
“Well…try to hang in there,” he finally says. “I’ll let you know if anything comes up.”
“Yes. Do that. Please,” I say.
We hang up.
I wake up. It’s dark, I’d fallen asleep on the couch again. The left side of my body is cramped and numb with pins and needles, but I’ve come to like the couch. It has grown confusing to lie in bed beside Leanne. Sometimes our feet and legs accidentally touch, and we quickly and silently move them apart.
I turn on my back and look straight up at the ceiling. Last summer, Harry and I were sitting on the shoreline of Russell’s Pond. It was a sunny day and we set our fishing gear on the knuckled roots of a hanging maple tree and ate the peanut butter sandwiches that Leanne packed for us. Harry sprinkled some of his bread crust on the dirt so that the ants could eat. The sunlight bounced off the pond-water and made smoky swirls in Harry’s green eyes. After we ate, Harry watched me thread a squirming earthworm to his hook and scrunched his freckled nose.
“Does it hurt him, Dad?”
“No. I don’t think so.” I shook my head.
“Cause even though it’s only a worm, I don’t want to hurt him, right?”
I reached over and rubbed the back of my fingertips along Harry’s cheek. “Right,” I told him.
On the couch, I roll to my shoulder. The dog has left his place in the corner. He is sitting in the center of the room with his right side facing me. The light of the moon is leaking through the front window and it casts alloy streaks across the dog’s face. I look at his ravaged ear, the eye that does not work, the blue marble floating in watery milk. His vapory blue eye is moving in the moonlight. It’s watching me.
It has been almost two weeks since I brought the dog home. Every day, I feed him and fill his water bowl. I walk him outside. Today, I coax him out to our backyard. We stand on the grass at the top of the small hill on the back corner of my lot. In the winter, when Harry was little, he liked to sit in his snow saucer and spin down this hill. He pretended that he was flying.
I pull a tennis ball from my windbreaker pocket.
“Remember this?” I ask the dog.
I sit and place the ball on the ground between us. He looks at it. I flick the ball with the back of my hand. It bounces down the short hill and settles in the thin grass at the bottom.
“Fetch,” I point and say.
He does not move. I stand, stride to the bottom of the hill and pick up the tennis ball.
“Fetch…this is fetch.” I show him the ball.
I plod back up the hill and sit again. I set the ball on the ground between us.
“Fetch?” I ask him, this time in a higher-pitched voice, and he stares at the ball. I roll it down the hill again.
“Go ahead,” I say, and point to the ball. “Go get it.”
He sits still.
“Maybe I should have picked the friendly dog at the kennel,” I look at him and say, and then stand and walk down the hill, again. I pick up the ball, trudge back up the hill and sit. On the trees that mark my property line, most of the leaves have turned bright colors. I make slits of my eyes and look at them. They become orange and yellow hanging quilts that rustle in the soft wind. I set the ball on the ground and look at the dog.
“You don’t want to fetch, suit yourself.” I shrug.
He lowers his head and nudges the ball with his nose. It rolls down the hill and rests at the bottom. This time, his lumpy face looks at me.
“You’re the dog, not me.” I scold him. “Have you no shame?”
I stand up, walk down the hill and get the ball. For a moment, the dog watches me; then he stands and wanders toward the house. I climb the hill and sit back down. I miss Harry.
This morning, I wake up and feed the dog, then check on Leanne. She’s balled up in our bed, sleeping, and I let her be. I get dressed in some old clothes and go down into the cellar. I stack old paint cans that I’ve saved for touch-ups onto a wooden pallet. I wrap a rag around a broken broomstick and scoop spider webs from between the ceiling joists. While I work, I tell myself over-and-over that today is going to be a better day than yesterday. Maybe it will come true.
Mr. Carey called me from the plant last night. It must be hard for a supervisor to make such a call, especially a supervisor like Mr. Carey who makes it a point to try and appear hard nosed. He’s the one who told me to try as hard as I could to make today better than yesterday. His voice cracked while he spoke.
“I hate to mention this,” he told me before we got off the phone, “but the vacation time the guys donated to you is dried up. You have to come back to work soon.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It hardly seemed like a week ago when Mr. Carey called and told me a group of the fellows pitched in their vacation days so I could keep looking for Harry.
“Before I come back, I have to make sure my Leanne is alright. Would that be okay?” I asked him.
He didn’t answer right away. His breath sounded heavy and far away in the phone.
“I’ll see what I can do.” He finally told me.
In the cellar, I scoop a pile of musty dirt into a dustpan and toss it into the barrel. I turn off the lights and when I walk upstairs, Leanne is sitting at the kitchen table.
“Would you like me to cook for you?” I brush the spider webs out of my hair and ask her.
“No. I’m not hungry.”
“You should eat,” I tell her. “You are losing too much weight.”
She does not answer me. I peek into the front room and the dog is sitting in his corner. He sees me, stands up, and walks across the room and into the kitchen. He moves to the far wall and sniffs in a circle along the floor, then sits.
“This is something different,” I look at him and say.
Leanne turns and stares at him.
“Do you like the dog?” I ask her.
“Why doesn’t he like to be petted? I saw you trying to pet him yesterday. All dogs like to be petted.”
“Hmmm. All dogs except this dog,” I say.
She turns away from the dog and looks at me. “Tell me again.”
“Do you really think we should do this?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says softly.
I draw a deep breath. “We were in the produce section and Harry was being a pest,” I tell her, “You asked me to watch him while you went to the Deli.”
She frowns and closes her eyes. She rubs hard circles into her temples with the tips of her fingers.
“No, no…that’s not right.” She shakes her head. “Yesterday, you said that we were at the Deli first.”
She starts to cry.
“Did I? I’m sorry. It’s confusing for me too,” I say softly.
“And then what?” she pleads with me from her chair.
“Please…don’t…” I whisper.
“Why weren’t you watching him?” she sobs.
“I’m sorry. Please…forgive me.” I say.
Saturday, I sleep late. When I finally wake, I sit up and swing my legs off the couch. It has become my nighttime sanctuary, the couch. I do not have to answer questions that have no answers, or move away my feet when they mistakenly brush Leanne’s feet.
The dog is sitting across the room in his corner. He has been with us for almost three weeks and I sometimes wonder what he thinks of his new home. He is fed and housed and let outside to do the things that dogs do. For a moment, I envy him. Maybe anything more than those things is too much.
I stand up, shake the nonsense from my head and walk upstairs. Leanne is not in our bedroom and my stomach somersaults. I hurry into Harry’s room and Leanne is covered with blankets and curled into a tight ball, asleep on his bed. I stand at the foot of the bed and watch her breathe, slow and regular. I feel along the top of the bedspread and find her ankle. I gently take hold of it through the blanket and wiggle it back and forth.
“It’s late,” I say to her.
“You shouldn’t sleep so much. Please, wake up.” I shake her ankle some more.
“Leanne, please. Wake up!”
She bolts upright and draws a startled breath. Her eyes are wide, and for a moment, I see that once mischievous light in them. Then, slowly, she looks at me and her eyes turn dull.
“I want to know…” she pleads, then lowers back down to the pillow and pulls the blankets around her.
I drag myself downstairs and boil coffee. I open a can of dog food and empty it into his bowl against the far wall. The dog walks toward it and, as he passes me, I reach down.
“Hi, buddy,” I greet him in my friendliest voice. I slide my hand over his shoulders and back and he stares straight ahead, blank-faced.
“Forget I tried,” I finally say to him, and he walks to his bowl and eats. I wait for him to finish and then take him out to the yard. I spend the day turning over the soil in the garden for next year’s tomatoes and green beans. The dog sits across from me and watches the way I dig into the loam. Sometimes he tilts his head. It’s a good feeling, my hands sinking in the dirt and thinking about simple things like next year’s planting.
When the sun is low, I hang my gardening tools in the shed and walk back
to the house. The dog follows behind at his own pace. I push through the back door and Leanne is sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the centerpiece of plastic flowers.
“Harry is going to need new winter boots,” she looks up and says to me.
“Boots?” I ask.
She nods, turns back to the centerpiece. “You should pick up a size 6 for him next time you’re in town.”
There are times I forget how long the dog has been with us. I think, maybe, a month. Today, Tuesday, is the day of the week that Detective Golner and I usually meet. I drive to the Police Station and wait in the lobby until he comes downstairs to get me. In his office, I sit across the desk from him and he hands me a list of people who are helping us look for Harry. They are neighboring police departments and state and national organizations that deal with these types of cases.
“You showed me a copy of this last week,” I remind him.
“Oh, right,” he says. He folds his hands together and studies me. “I’ve been meaning to go over that with you. Maybe we should start meeting every two weeks.”
I let out a long breath and stare at him.
“I’m sorry Mr. Creegan,” he stands up and shuffles some papers on his desk, “but we need an outside break here. We have nothing more to go on.”
I nod and close my eyes. If I focus really hard I can sense Harry out there waiting for me to come and get him.
“Are you OK, Mr. Creegan?” Detective Golner asks me.
“Yes, I’m okay.” I stand up. “I’ll see you in two weeks, then,” I tell him, and walk out of his office.
When I get home, it’s dark. I climb the back steps of the porch and stop to watch a puff of wind send some fallen leaves chattering across the pavement of my driveway. I look up. The stars are small and lonely on the purple night sky. I find the brightest one and watch it blink Morse Code messages to its neighbor. I push open the back door into the kitchen. Through the doorway to the front room, I see Leanne kneeling before the television set.
“Have you hurt yourself?” I hurry across the kitchen floor.
She looks up and holds a disc in her hands. “What is this?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “Where did you get it?”
“In the draw of the end table,” she tells me.
The dog is sitting in his usual corner, and he looks at me but does not budge. Leanne slides the disc into the player and I help her to the couch where we sit. The picture on the television screen is soft blue fuzz, and then Harry’s face appears. It is a video from last winter. Harry is bundled in a puffy jacket and mittens and sitting in his silver saucer on the snow covered hill in our backyard. He pushes off the ground with his feet and spins down the hill with both arms raised.
“I’m flying!” He screams and laughs.
There is a jostling on the screen as if the camera is being wrestled with, and then Leanne clicks into focus. She is hunched over and waiting at the bottom of the hill to catch Harry. The camera moves closer and captures Leanne laughing.
From his corner, the dog perks. He stands up, walks to the center of the room and sits facing the television. On the screen, Leanne tilts her chin upward in a look of make-believe snobbery. She laughs at herself. “Stop,” she says, and holds out the palm of her hand to block the camera’s eye. Then she is back in focus, helping Harry out of his saucer and running it back up the hill with Harry chasing her.
Beside me, on the couch, Leanne begins to cry. The dog hears it and looks over his shoulder. His bad eye is a blown fuse in his dented head. He pushes himself up on all fours, turns, and slowly crosses the room until he is standing in front of Leanne. She looks away from the screen and down at him. They are both still for a moment, and then the dog inches forward and lay’s his chin into Leanne’s lap. She rolls her hands to the top of his head.
“I know,” she moans, and bends over to comfort him.
Last night, I slept in my bed beside Leanne. My feet moved near her feet. I kept them still and felt the warmth of her body. I listened to her breathing. It was soft and careful. She was awake.
This morning, the bed beside me is empty and I dress, go downstairs. The dog is not at his usual place in the front room corner and I move quietly to the kitchen doorway and rest against the door jamb. Leanne is standing at the counter-top with her back to me. She is spooning food into the dog’s bowl and he is sitting on the floor beside her, looking up. Leanne picks up the bowl and takes it to the dog’s place against the far wall. She places it squarely on the floor and steps aside. The dog walks to it, stands over it, lowers his head to eat. Leanne hunches down and reaches out to him.
“Good dog…” she coos softly, “good Ernie…” she says, and glides her open palm along his leathery length. His skin ripples and he leans his body into her; he offers himself to her touch.
Today was better than yesterday. Day was day and night was night. Leanne and I sat on the grass in our backyard and watched a quiet wind strip the branches of their remaining leaves. Ernie sat with us, and each time Leanne moved, Ernie moved. She looked at him once, sitting beside her on the blanket, and reached for him. He lay on his side, flat and calm, while she rubbed his head and shoulders.
In our bed, Leanne and I lie quietly together. The warmth of Leanne’s body is trapped beneath the blankets, and it wraps around me. Our bodies are almost touching, and both of us lie still. The red numbers on the alarm clock glow like soft embers. Outside, the light from the streetlight filters through the maple tree in our front yard and casts bony shadows across our wall. I stare at the shadows in the quiet.
“You were at work, weren’t you?” Leanne’s soft voice asks me from the dark.
I slowly turn my head on the pillow, but there is not enough light to see her face.
“Yes,” I murmur.
She sighs. I know that she is searching for the right words to ease her burden.
“And it was me, alone with him in the supermarket,” she says sadly.
I want to reach over to help her, but I don’t know how.
“It’s OK to keep me there with you if that makes it easier,” I whisper.
She is silent for a long time. I lie still. Just when I think she has fallen asleep, she moves a little closer to me. And then she rolls to her side, faces me, and slides her soft, warm feet across the sheet, tangling them together with mine.