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Animals Saved Me
by Richard Gilbert

First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

The 4-D Dog
by April Kelly

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Considering the number of dog owners in America, it is safe to speculate that on any given day a small percentage of the population wakes to find an unpleasant mess on the floor, as did Dylan Carter one Thursday in March. The difference between him and the others who made such a discovery that morning is Dylan did not own a dog. And he lived one hundred and twelve stories up on the card-access-only penthouse floor of the newest and tallest building in Chicago.

A year earlier, when he’d made partner in one of the most successful law firms in Illinois, Dylan believed he had added the third and final point to his golden triangle of desirability as a man. The Carter family fortune—by then laundered through four generations to cleanse it of its unsavory robber-baron origins—had ensured his privileged position in society from the day of his birth. It had also led him to view the rarified spectrum from which he would eventually select a mate as a quite narrow strip at the zenith of womankind.

A second unearned gift, that of good genetics, had made Dylan tall, well-proportioned and movie star handsome. A glance at photos of his maternal grandfather assured him he would never succumb to male-pattern baldness, and he would keep his meticulously razored hair well into old age, one day seeing it turn from black to silver.

He understood his lofty position and unlimited money could attract a top-quality woman, but the addition of incredible good looks guaranteed he could aim as high as he chose for that one perfect gem of femininity who deserved to share his life.

Making partner had fanned away any lingering whiff of the spoiled trust fund baby surrounding Dylan Carter, as he had worked hard to earn the reward on his own. Ready at last to begin an earnest search for a wife, he stopped dating the actresses, supermodels and avant-garde artists who had assisted him in sowing (without germination) the wild oats of his raging-hormones twenties, and started seriously assessing the debutantes, heiresses and royalty-adjacent European beauties who comprised the lofty plane of females in which he felt entitled to browse.

The heiress sleeping in his bed that morning when he slipped from under the covers to go make coffee had taken the reins of her family’s company at age 28, after her father had a stroke. For the six months it took him to recuperate and return, she kept things running well enough to show the old man he would not have cause to regret the lack of a son when the time came to turn over the company for good.

Paige was refined, intelligent, a Vassar grad and definitely on Dylan’s radar screen as a potential. They had sniffed each other out at galas, fund-raisers and charity 10Ks for months before having dinner at Henri last week, and their second date had ended in mutually gratifying sex the night before. Paige had checked all the right boxes on his application form for the future Mrs. Carter, Dylan thought.

Right up until his bare foot sank into a pile of excrement on his cream-colored wool Berber carpet.

The one-word expletive he cried when he looked down was singularly appropriate to the occasion. He reflexively jerked his foot up from the stinking mess, which threw him off balance so that he had to set it down again immediately to prevent falling over. This action left a perfect print of five toes and the ball of a foot rendered in umber ten inches from the mother load.

After glancing over his shoulder to make sure his outcry hadn’t woken Paige, he hopped to the kitchen on one foot, stopping in front of the sink and holding onto it with one hand while opening the cabinet below with the other. He was fairly sure Carmen stashed the cleaning supplies there.

Having never been required to wash anything other than his own body for thirty-three years, Dylan paused before the dizzying array of cans, sprayers, sponges and wipes. The bottle promising a “fresh scent of citrus” seemed just the thing to counter the foul smell wafting up from his suspended foot, so he squirted liberally before using a wad of paper towels to scour his sole.

Two more rounds of spritzing and swabbing finally satisfied him he was no longer tainted, so he carried the bottle, the roll of paper towels and the kitchen trash can out to the living room, where he knelt to do what pet owners have been doing since the first dog was allowed into the first cave.

Fifteen minutes later Dylan carried the plastic garbage bag to the chute by the elevator, returned to scrub his hands multiple times, then put up the coffee. He watched the liquid drip into the pot, unnerved by the events of the morning and, when Paige emerged from the bedroom, drawn by the aroma of Jamaican Blue, he eyed her with suspicion but dared not ask the question.

It wasn’t a story he could repeat to his colleagues at Durham, Kempe, Walliston, Finch and Carter, or to his family, but Dylan needed to vent. Luckily, Gary Delgado was free for lunch. Dylan didn’t ask his assistant to book a table at any of his usual high-end restaurants, as Gary was certain to show up wearing a tee-shirt from his eclectic collection, most likely with at least one offensive word in the humorous saying splashed across his chest. He asked Gary to meet him at Jo-Jo’s, their school days’ haunt.

They sat outside at a small metal table, its pedestal as wobbly as it had been twenty years earlier when the two had exercised their newly gained teen independence by dining al fresco on hot dogs and curly fries. The Carters had frowned on their son’s friendship with Gary. Although the children attended the same ultra-exclusive private school, the Delgado boy was on full scholarship, fluked in on the bases of scholastic achievement and high IQ, rather than the guidelines more predictive of future success: millions and millions of dollars.

Gary was one of those quirky people of whom can truly be said doesn’t live up to potential. Too scattered in his thinking to focus on a single career path, too inclined to follow every Alice down every rabbit hole, and too willing to test drive the latest club drugs, Gary earned a living doing what he called “this and that,” basically whatever held his attention right then. Several ingenious patents guaranteed a flow of income, but Gary let it accumulate in a savings account, never motivated to invest it, move it to a higher-interest resting place, or spend it on a more genteel life. He didn’t run in Dylan’s circle, but he had never aspired to, valuing the friendship despite their worlds intersecting so rarely.

After a debate over the ideal condiments for a hot dog, one that had pitted mustard and relish against ketchup and onions for two decades, Dylan recounted the story of the morning’s events. Gary, no newcomer to the world of peculiar sex practices and the wide range of strange indulged in by human beings, took the story at face value and asked Dylan if he was going to see her again.

“Oh, hells no!” Dylan’s usually impeccable communications skills always relaxed in his old friend’s company.

The last of the shared curly fries fell to the quicker fingers of the man in the business suit and the two did their backslapping good-bye, assuming a couple months would pass before they saw each other again.

That’s why Gary was so surprised by the early phone call the next morning asking him to come to Dylan’s condo ASAP. The doorman gave Gary the stink-eye, blanching when he read the tee-shirt, but allowed him in after calling Mr. Carter to verify the guest’s welcome.

Dylan threw open the door before Gary’s knock was done. “Come and take a look,” was all he said before turning and heading down the hallway. Gary shut the door and followed. The first thing he saw on entering his friend’s bedroom was Dylan, still in pajamas, pointing at the floor a few feet away. Even without the gross visual Gary would have known what was on the carpet by the disgusting smell.

“Dude, I thought you weren’t going to see her again.”

“I didn’t! I was alone all night and when I woke up, that was here.”

Gary considered this for a moment before asking, “Are you by any chance using Ambien?”

“No, why?”

“Well, some people who take it get up and eat in their sleep, and others try to drive their car. I thought maybe you could be a sleep-crapper.”

“Jeez, Gary, look at it. That’s from a dog, not a person.”

With sealed windows and only the one entry, there was no possible ingress for a canine unless it knew what code to paw into the keypad. And that’s after it talked its way past the guard.

Dylan and Gary opened every drawer, closet and cabinet. They checked the screws in the vent covers for the heat and A/C, felt along the walls for hidden seams that would indicate a secret panel or trap door. Nothing. And no sign of a dog. At the end of the two-hour search, a frustrated Dylan asked, “How is some filthy mutt getting into my condo?”

“Okay, I think we’re dealing with one of three things here,” Gary said. “A ghost dog, a canine-like alien or a dog from another dimension.” When Dylan stared at him incredulously, Gary hastened to add, “You’re right, the first two are stupid. What you have is a dog from another dimension.”

Queried as to why a dog from the fourth dimension would choose this particular condo in which to leave its three-dimensional poop, Gary pointed out they didn’t know for sure Dylan’s condo was the only one.

“And it isn’t necessarily the fourth dimension that it comes from. There are many other choices. Are you familiar with String Theory?”

When Dylan held up a hand to indicate he was not open to a physics lecture, Gary suggested he ask around to see if any of the other owners were having the same problem. Dylan couldn’t imagine how he would frame an inquiry of that sort to the chairman of the board of directors for the Chicago Symphony or the elderly widow who had founded the prestigious Cornelius Foundation.

Gary left, promising to give the problem a good, hard think. Dylan, too embarrassed to leave a note asking Carmen to dispose of the mess, cleaned it up himself. It was a humbling experience to do a job he wouldn’t ask his housekeeper to do.

For three more nights the poop fairy visited the condo, and Carmen had to add paper towels to her grocery list even though she was certain she had bought six rolls the week before. On the afternoon of the third day, Dylan’s assistant told him a Mr. Delgado was on the line.

“I think I have a fix,” Gary said. “What time do you get home?”

When Dylan’s driver stopped in front of the building, Gary was already waiting with a ten-pound bag of Purina One. The doorman didn’t dare cast a skeptical glance at the wild-haired man in the outrageous tee-shirt—Mr. Carter was among the building’s best tippers at Christmas—so when the men entered the lobby together, they were both greeted with a smile.

Once the elevator doors closed and Dylan slotted in his access card, he turned to Gary. “Dog food? I’m trying to get rid of the thing, not invite it to move in permanently.”

“Have you ever heard the old saying ‘don’t shit where you eat?’ Well, it isn’t only a morality guideline for horny businessmen.”

They filled one of Dylan’s hand-thrown ceramic pasta bowls with kibble and a second with water, then put them on a towel to protect the kitchen’s costly bamboo flooring. The next morning the food bowl was empty and the water was half-gone, but Dylan’s carpeting bore no unwanted gifts. He called Gary to tell him the ploy had been successful, but they both knew it was only a stopgap. Gary promised he was working on something more permanent.

Grocery shopping was a new experience for Dylan, but he had been unwilling to designate the buying of dog food to anyone who might ask questions. That’s why before leaving for work each morning he washed, dried and put away the two mementos of an old fling with a leggy blonde ceramicist. What Carmen didn’t know wouldn’t give her a reason to quit.

He and Gary spoke by phone several times a week, with Gary hinting he was on to something and asking Dylan to be patient. Meanwhile, Dylan fell into the routine of a dog owner, filling the large plastic bowls he had finally picked up in the pet food section of Albertson’s and setting them out every night before going to bed.

After a Friday evening wine tasting that had morphed into a serious putting-away of Grand Cru claret, Dylan came home and fell into bed without remembering to leave food and water for his invisible pet. He awoke the next morning with a hangover and a surprise on the carpet.

Five weeks after that first night deposit had disturbed his orderly existence, Dylan woke to a soft scrabbling sound coming from somewhere inside the condo. A glance at the digital clock on the nightstand told him it was 3:18 a.m., and, assuming the sound was being made by his canine visitor gobbling the kibble, he slipped from his 1200-thread-count cocoon and took a small flashlight from the drawer. He would finally get a look at the 4-D dog.

Moving silently across the carpet with the flashlight held loosely in his right hand, he exited the bedroom, deciding to leave the light off till he got to the kitchen so he could lay eyes on the dog before it had a chance to beam itself up, or whatever the hell it did to leave the condo every night. As he ninja’d his way down the wide hall, he realized the sound was not coming from the kitchen straight ahead, but from the living room to his left. Easing over to the archway that opened onto the vast sunken area dotted with leather couches, Eames chairs and Tiffany lamps, Dylan craned his neck to look inside. The tall windows that made up the west wall of his condo let in enough moonlight for him to see the empty space over the fireplace where his Matisse had hung and two very human figures taking down the Kandinsky from a multi-canvas grouping across the room.

With pounding heart he instantly knew the dog fiasco was part of an art theft scheme. He wasn’t sure how it all fit in—maybe to get him inured to sounds in the night so he wouldn’t wake up—but that had to be the answer. He was angry knowing he had been screwed with and angry his priceless paintings were being stolen, so he flipped the wall switch without considering the consequences. When light flooded the room, the two black-clad intruders dropped the Kandinsky and spun around to find Dylan bringing up his right hand.

“You! Stop!”

The first man saw a metallic glint off the flashlight and yelled, “Gun!” The second man whipped a pistol from his waistband and fired.

Thunder echoed off the high ceiling, but Dylan didn’t hear it until after the bullet had slammed him back against the wall. He slid down, pain radiating through him, as a second bullet exploded into the surface inches over his head. He watched the intruder walk toward him, weapon steady. The next shot would be the fatal one.

From the kitchen a snarling white shape launched itself at the gunman, fully airborne when it crashed into him and took him down. One shot went wild as the gun flew from the man’s hand and skidded across the floor. The second thief dived to retrieve the firearm.

Fighting to remain conscious, Dylan scrambled to his feet and made a dash for the alarm panel in his bedroom. Screaming sirens filled the condo but weren’t loud enough to cover the blast of another gunshot and an inhuman howl of pain. Knowing the building’s security team would arrive within minutes, Dylan shut and locked his bedroom door.

Gary found him in the emergency room four hours later, shortly after police detectives had taken Dylan’s statement. “Does it hurt?”

“Probably. But the drugs they gave me are working re-e-e-eally hard to prevent my knowing that.”

“The doc said you could go home, so I called Jimmy to bring your car and pick us up. I’ll stay with you and maybe try one of your happy pills.”

“Gary,” Dylan mumbled through his pharmaceutical haze. “They shot the dog. One of those scumbags shot him after he saved my life.”

“Oh, boy, those are good drugs.”

As Gary helped his friend into the tee-shirt he had brought, Dylan kept insisting the 4-D dog had come to his aid and been shot. Maybe killed. “And all to save my sorry ass.”

After Gary got his friend home and to bed, he inspected the living room. A vertical streak of dried blood on the wall next to the entry arch marked where a .38 slug had passed through Dylan’s right armpit, grazing a rib and missing the bones of the shoulder joint by inches. The forensic team had pried it out of the wall, along with the bullet that had narrowly missed his head. The third hole was high up near the ceiling across the room and Gary figured it must be from the shot Dylan had said went off as the huge white blur slammed into the gunman.

The police had found three bullets, but if Dylan was right, a fourth had gone into the dog. Gary stayed the rest of that day and night, filling food and water bowls in the evening, remembering at the last second to put down a towel to protect the floor. The kitchen floor in Gary’s own small apartment was impervious not only to water, but to anything short of a direct hit from a drone. When he checked them the next morning, the bowls were untouched.

“Knock, knock,” Gary said from the door of the bedroom.

“Did the dog come back?” Dylan asked, pushing up into a sitting position.

Gary shook his head. “No, but Paige sent a fruit and wine basket.”

“From Glendon’s.” It was a statement, not a question.

“How did you know?”

“It’s my set’s go-to place for births, deaths, weddings, bar mitzvahs, you name it. Glendon’s is Walmart for rich white people.”

“Ah. When you care enough to have your assistant send the very best.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve got stuff I need to deal with. Are you going to be okay here alone?”

“Yeah. I’ll call Carmen and ask her to pick up soup from Whole Foods.” He fidgeted with the silk duvet. “I just wish I knew what happened to him.”

Gary promised to stop by the next day, and an hour later Carmen arrived to tell Dylan the breaking news on the in-house grapevine. His condo was one of three that had been targeted. All were art thefts by criminals who hacked the building’s computers to get access codes, tied up the doorman and guard, then cleared out the most valuable pieces from two other residences before breaking in to his. Everyone was talking about how brave Mr. Carter was for stopping the bad guys.

“You are like a superhero, Mr. C.”

Dylan knew the real hero had four legs, not two, and he spent his day alternately napping and worrying about the dog. As a child he had begged for one, but his father claimed allergies and his mother claimed they were inherently filthy. Dylan only now realized the carpet color he had chosen for his condo was the very same pale cream his mother had vehemently defended against her seven-year-old’s hypothetical dog.

At 9:30 that evening Dylan filled the bowls and set them on the floor, not bothering to put down a towel first. He sat next to them with his back against one of the custom cabinets that had cost him a fortune, hoping the dog would show. It was the first time in his life he had felt empathy for another living creature.

His parents had always been supportive, but in an abstract way. Cool; distant. They had expected him to be perfect and he had, for the most part, lived up to their wishes. He saw Gary only at school or on the sly, not willing to bring a friend his parents considered undesirable into their pristine world of privilege, and he now wondered if that had ever bothered Gary. Dylan had done without a pet and learned to regurgitate his mother’s views on canine filthiness like a young religious zealot raised on a steady drip of someone else’s idea of God.

Women had been nothing more than exciting toys until his decision to acquire a wife. And then he had evaluated them the way an HR person might screen candidates for a top-level position. Dylan wondered if he had ever felt love. He thought he had a few times in his twenties, but looking back he suspected the concepts of love and sex might have gotten confused. He fell asleep sitting on the kitchen floor, waking early to find the bowls still full.

Messages filled his voicemail, flowers arrived from the law firm, and three more baskets came from Glendon’s, two from the tenants whose artwork had been recovered and one from his parents. He left the messages unanswered and insisted Carmen take the flowers and baskets home to her family. His own doctor came by to check his wound and proffer a higher-grade pain med, but Dylan declined.

Gary never came as promised; instead, he called mid afternoon to say he was finishing up something important. “I have to go see a guy in Springfield right now, but I’ll swing by your place tomorrow.”

Dylan was used to his friend’s attention being diverted by one mirage or another, so he wasn’t surprised, although he would have liked the company. Facing a second lonely night, Dylan filled the food and water bowls, and began his vigil, once again falling asleep in an awkward seated position cradling his strapped-down arm. He dreamed he heard a scraping sound. A whimper. Panting.

Dylan jolted awake to find a huge white dog lying next to him. Crusted blood matted the hair on its right side, the side that faced upward, as the dog panted heavily and tried to lap from the water bowl. Each time he lifted his head, though, his muzzle bumped the bowl and it scooted forward, always staying out of reach.

Dylan tilted the bowl and held it in place while the dog slurped noisily. After getting half the water down his throat and the other half all over the bamboo floor, the dog laid his head back down with a low groan.

“Easy, boy. Easy,” Dylan said softly. He put his left hand on the dog’s neck, feeling the silky hair flatten under his reassuring strokes. The big eyes closed and the pained panting subsided into whimpering sleep.

It took numerous phone calls and the inducement of a five thousand dollar bonus above the fee, but a veterinarian finally agreed to come to the condo immediately. On the basis of Dylan’s description of the injury, the vet brought everything he needed to perform surgery on the scene with a one-armed helper. A little after four a.m. Dr. Mitchell left the condo and Dylan stroked the dog’s neck and shoulder while he waited for the anesthesia to wear off.

The insistent ringing of his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning pulled him from his too-short sleep. A drying smear of blood and a scattering of dog hair were the only signs an injured animal had lain on the kitchen floor a few hours earlier. The phone was in the bedroom and on his way to answer it Dylan automatically looked around for the big white dog.

“You are not going to believe what I found out,” Gary announced enthusiastically.

“Well, Gare, you’d better pick up some coffee and come on over, because I’ve got a pretty unbelievable tale myself.”

Gary managed to hold still and stay quiet through the recounting of the night’s bizarre events, but the moment Dylan wrapped his story Gary was on his feet and pulling rubber bands off the rolled-up tubes of paper he had brought with him.

“The dog’s name is Bear. Short for Mr. Polar Bear.”

“How do you know that?”

“Stay with me,” Gary said, unrolling the first poster-sized sheet onto the kitchen counter and anchoring the corners with four ceramic coffee mugs he took from a wooden service tree. “This is a picture of the Chicago skyline taken from the Adler Planetarium.”

Dylan leaned in to look, but recognized almost nothing. “Are you sure?”

“You mean because you don’t see your building in the photo? That’s because this was taken on March twenty-ninth, 1933. That date ring a bell?”

“No, should it?”

“Okay, what night did your caca drops begin? Never mind, I’ll tell you. March twenty-ninth.” Gary pointed to a hard-to-see object in the photo, above the skyline but far to the left. “That’s an airplane,” he said. “Specifically, a 1931 Ford Trimotor.” In rapid succession he unrolled three more large prints, slapping each one down and indicating the left-to-right path of the aircraft over the city.

The fourth photo, which should have shown the small plane directly centered above the skyline, instead featured the black, white and gray bloom of a mid air explosion.

“Three cameras were running on timers, so I have more shots of the plane blowing up, but this one’s best for our purposes.” The next large sheet he unrolled was clear acetate with only one image, that of the Clarion Tower, the building in which they were standing. When Gary laid the acetate over the photo and adjusted it so the Clarion stood in its correct position among the many skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous, the top of the building overlapped the exploding plane.

As Dylan tried to wrest some meaning from the show-and-tell, Gary took out a smaller sheet of paper, a copy of a newspaper photo. It was folded in half, and he revealed the partial image to his friend with the casual aplomb of Vanna White unveiling a consonant.

“Did the dog in your kitchen look like this one? Because he was in that plane when it blew up.”

Dangling in the air in front of Dylan’s eyes was a dead ringer for the animal he had helped operate on six hours earlier. The same blocky head and straight white hair. The same eyes that had seemingly pled for help in getting to the water bowl. Dylan knew it was the same dog, and yet he understood it couldn’t be. After teetering on a fulcrum of doubt, he came down on the side of rationality.

“If I understand you correctly, you believe a dog was flying that plane when it exploded, and now it has overcome time and death to visit my condo.”

“See, this is the tone I hate. It’s the same dismissive voice you used when I showed you the cockroach shoes I invented when I was ten.”

“They didn’t work, Gary, and you broke your ankle when you tried to climb the wall.”

“If duct tape had been as sticky back then as it is now, cockroach shoes would’ve been awesome.” He unfolded the photocopy so Dylan could see the other half. “The dog wasn’t flying the plane, she was.”

Dylan looked at the grainy image of a beautiful young woman. She and the dog leaned against each other as she held up a trophy topped with a replica of a biplane.

“Her name was Susan Quillian, but a reporter nicknamed her Suzie Q when she won the San Diego to L.A. air race in 1927.”

That was the year Charles Lindbergh made his nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic, and public interest in aviation was almost manic for the next decade, with female pilots of special interest. Suzie Q and Bear became top draws at flying competitions and air shows across America, overshadowed only slightly by Amelia Earhart.

Suzie Q dazzled the crowds with Immelmanns and loop-the-loops in her de Havilland Tiger Moth, while her dog, too heavy to carry in an aerobatic routine, waited on the ground. For cross-country races she flew a four-place Stinson Detroiter and Bear rode second seat.

When she suddenly dropped out of competition three years after that win in her first race, rumors flew. One said she’d married a tycoon who forbade her from risking her life in the air. A second claimed she had a terminal illness and could no longer muster the physical stamina to fly. The most outlandish rumor, by far, was that she had been hired by Al Capone to smuggle contraband. And that one was true.

Dylan listened intently as Gary went on to tell a tale of gangland Chicago in the 1920s, when Johnny Torrio killed his uncle, Big Jim Colosino, and took over his operation. Bootleg liquor, whores, protection—Johnny sold it all with the help of his young henchman, Al Capone.

Among the many small businesses Al and two backup thugs shook down for protection money was Angelina’s, a restaurant on the South Side owned by Joe Bartolo, a man struggling to pay off medical bills and keep up with college expenses. His wife had died of cancer in 1921 and his daughter Susan had entered Northwestern in 1923, but his restaurant was popular and he managed to stay a half step ahead of financial ruin.

All that changed when Johnny Torrio and an estimated 30 million of his closest friends retired to New York in 1925, leaving the syndicate short-funded when it passed into the hands of the ruthless Al Capone. The new boss’s first order of business was to step up income from all sources, and suddenly protection cost more than Joe Bartolo could afford. The first time he couldn’t cover the vig they smashed up Angelina’s; the second time they smashed up Joe.

“How did you learn all this?”

“You’d be surprised at the number of gangsters who wrote their memoirs once they were locked away and knew there wouldn’t be any future income from criminal acts. So, after the beating, Joe takes out an insurance policy on himself. Two months later his restaurant burns down and he dies in the fire.”

“Capone torched the place?” asked Dylan.

“Maybe. Or maybe Joe knew a suicide would negate the policy and leave his daughter with nothing so he made it look like something else. There was plenty of history to point the finger at arson and murder, courtesy of Al Capone, so the insurance company paid.”

“What happened to his daughter?”

“Now, that’s a mystery. Susan Bartolo dropped out of Northwestern at the end of her second year and disappeared, never to be seen again.” Two years later, however, a young woman named Susan Quillian appeared on the flying circuit with a pair of biplanes and a big white dog, drawing media attention with her surprise win of the San Diego to L.A. cross-country race. She courted publicity for three years, her beauty garnering it even when she didn’t win first prize. And then she quit racing and hired on with Al Capone.

“That makes no sense,” Dylan said. “Why would she go to work for the man she thought caused her father’s death? And how do you know it’s even the same girl?”

“Revenge,” Gary said with a smile. “And Joe Bartolo’s wife’s maiden name was Quillian.” Suzie Q’s good looks and minor celebrity got her in the door, where she pitched Capone the idea of ferrying cargo from place to place via plane. His trucks were getting hijacked by rivals or intercepted by G-men more often than his greedy business model allowed, so the idea appealed to him. Plus, he liked her dog.

After a few test flights with only sawdust in the sealed boxes—Capone had to make sure she wasn’t working for the feds—Suzie Q began air-muling whatever needed a safe ride from one place to another. As trucks full of contraband fell into the wrong hands once or twice a month, Suzie’s SB-1 Detroiter maintained a perfect record: on time and without loss.

“So, Capone is trusting her more and more, even upgraded her wings to a Ford Trimotor. All-aluminum body and capable of carrying a much bigger payload than the Stinson,” said Gary, getting more exited as he told the story he’d been researching for more than a month.

“What was she waiting for? Sounds like she routinely got close enough to kill him.”

“She didn’t want to kill him; she wanted to rip him off. Take the money he’d shaken her father down for, and then some.” Suzie bided her time until late March of 1933, when an armored car transporting gold ingots from Cincinnati to Philadelphia vanished without a trace. An early morning call ordered her to fly to a makeshift airfield near Cicero the next night for a pickup headed to a Montreal warehouse owned by one of Al Capone’s Canadian business associates.

A dozen men with Tommy guns guarded the grassy landing strip as the Tin Goose was loaded, first with a dummy consignment of perfectly legal items in the passenger cabin, then with nondescript 20-pound boxes that went in the hidden, drop-down cargo holds below the inner wing sections. Suzie tried to appear as disinterested in the goods as always, but she surreptitiously counted fourteen of the small wooden boxes before she was given the okay to go. She climbed into the cockpit, fired up the powerful Pratt and Whitney engines, taxied across the moonlit field and flew away, never to be seen again.

“Okay, lets say she landed somewhere, hid the gold and then took off. What I don’t buy is that a photographer just happened to be at the Adler Planetarium that morning. With his cameras coincidentally aimed at the exact spot where the plane exploded? Come on.”

“The photographer didn’t happen to be there. She hired him the previous afternoon to shoot her pre-dawn flight over the city,” said Gary. “Told him she wanted to generate some publicity to restart her flying career. What Suzie Q actually needed was proof of death so Capone wouldn’t come after her with everything he had.”

Gary had spent the day before in Springfield with the photographer’s grandson, who had grown up hearing his grandfather speak of the tragedy.

“My granddad felt terrible about the young woman dying in the explosion,” the man had told Gary. “And almost as bad that he lost her dog.”

When Gary pursued it, the man said Suzie paid his grandfather $100 to watch her dog for a week, but sometime that night Bear broke the chain that held him in the yard, jumped the fence and ran away.

“Grandpa didn’t know what he would tell her when she came back for her dog, but after he saw the plane blow up he knew she wouldn’t be coming back.”

His grandfather sold the photo to the Chicago Tribune and it made the front page, ensuring Capone would see his cargo blasted to kingdom come.

Gary and Dylan sat in silence a few minutes, then placed a phone order for Chinese. While they waited, Dylan asked, “What do you think happened?”

“I think she put a bomb on a timer and parachuted out at the last minute. It was still dark enough for a jumper to go unnoticed, especially with the fireworks elsewhere in the sky. She retrieved the gold and lived a long and happy life far away from Chicago.”

“But if your theory about some Dr. Who time tunnel is true, Bear had to have been in the plane when it blew up. Why would she take him with her if she knew that was going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “Maybe he found his way home that night and hid in the Trimotor. Or maybe he went to the airstrip in Cicero where they’d made so many pickups before. After the boxes were loaded, the mob guys would’ve been watching the perimeter, not the plane, and Bear might have snuck on while Suzie did her pre-flight check.”

Gary was closer to the truth than he knew. Susan Quillian had thought Bear was safe with the photographer when she made an unscheduled stop ten minutes after taking off from Cicero, but once she locked away the last of the boxes she had spent thirty minutes unloading, while she was buckling into her parachute harness, the big white dog leapt aboard and stowed away. Only as she approached Chicago had she felt the familiar wet lick on the back of her neck, and by then it was too late.

At five-feet-three and 102 pounds, Suzie couldn’t possibly carry the 90-pound dog while she parachuted to freedom. With twelve seconds left on the timer and an ache in her heart at the unfairness of it all, she hugged Bear one last time and made the hardest decision of her life.

The smell of shrimp fried rice and broccoli beef hung in the air long after Gary had gone, but Dylan left the open cartons on the counter when he went to bed. He was haunted by thoughts of poor Bear. Abandoned. Left in that plane to die. And if Gary was right, the dog had wandered in some never-never land for more than eighty years until the Clarion Tower had been completed ten months ago and a portal of some kind opened in Dylan’s condo on the anniversary of the accident. Now that the passage was open, the dog could apparently go back and forth at will between the condo and…whatever.

It was all too sci-fi and woo-woo for Dylan to wrap his mind around, and yet, Bear was real. He ate real food and shat real poop, though, thankfully, in that other place now. And a veterinarian had done actual surgery on him. Dylan tried to sleep, but pain in his armpit and worry about the big white dog kept him tossing fitfully for hours.

Sometime deep in the night he heard scuffling and a thud on the floor alongside his bed, so he inched to the edge and looked down. When he saw Bear curled up on the carpet a lump formed in his throat and tears stung his eyes. He draped his good arm over the side and tentatively put his hand on the dog’s neck. He heard a heavy sigh and, a few minutes later, untroubled snoring. Dylan stroked the silky hair until he, too, fell asleep.

Early morning light filtered through the bedroom curtains, gently coaxing him back to consciousness, but when he opened his eyes he snapped awake. Bear sat next to the bed, pink tongue hanging out and tail rhythmically thumping the floor. Standing beside the dog, scowling down at the man in bed, was the beautiful girl Dylan recognized from the grainy news photo.

“So,” she snarled. “Are you the son of a bitch who shot my dog?”

Italians call it the thunderbolt. Less creative Americans call it love at first sight. Dylan had aimed high for a wife, but he never suspected he’d find her one hundred and twelve stories above the ground.