This is the opening of a novella I wrote. My plan is to submit the novella along with three short stories and an essay as a book entitled The Dog Thief and Other Stories to Kindle Shorts. If it is rejected, then I will just pubish it as a Kindle Single.
I posted the The Christmas Rats and The One-Eyed Woman and asked for feedback. To my immense surprise and gratitude I got some readers and made the Community Spotlight! I can't thank people enough for that.
This will be the last of my book project postings here since it really is sort of an impostion to take a political site like this and use it as a sort of trial run to see if people will read something I write. Again, thank you.
Author's note: the novella, short stories and essay all iinvolve, one way or another the interactions between humans and animals. Most involve the question of the limit or extent to which one is obliged to intervene when a wrong is being done. All of the pieces are fictional, including the ones written in first person. the narrator is just as much as fictional character as al the other people. (The dogs and rats are real.)
So...I would appreciate feedback. I am knew to the craft of writiing. I am very thankful for the supportiveness of this community
The Dog Thief
A dog staggers down a dirt track in the woods. It’s autumn and the ground is obscured by sodden leaves. In the damp silence it’s the dog’s motion, not his panting, that catches your attention. Tongue flapping and spit flying, he lurches along. You can see his eyes now. He is desperate.
Now view the scene from above. Along the track is a Berlin wall of moldy eight by four plywood sheets standing upright edge to edge. There is a gap in the wall and through it you can see a ramshackle collection of homemade dwellings huddled around a dirt plaza. An old pickup is parked by a honey bucket stolen from a construction site. On a tall pole droops the community totem: a limp, soggy MIA flag hanging in stubborn loyalty to the dead of a forgotten war.
Three men are standing by the gap in the wall. They are silently watching the dog’s clumsy race down the homestretch. He’s getting closer, scrambling, staggering, he’s nearly there. Finally he heaves himself across the finish line, the divide between his owner’s property and that of the three men. The dog collapses at their feet.
They don’t recognize the dog, but they can guess where he comes from. They look up the road expectantly, and here he comes: a fat, pale man in overalls. He arrives at a trot and halts, sweaty and breathless, at the property line.
He is big man with a shapeless pink head and ears that sprout out sideways like mushrooms. His loose wet mouth betrays weakness, but his tiny eyes have the strength of sheer pigheaded stupidity.
He takes up a stance with his weight thrown onto one leg, arms akimbo like a gunslinger, and attempts belligerence, “That’s my dog. Give him here.”
“No,” says Blacksnake. “Fuck off.”
Blacksnake is wearing combat clothes. Judging by the smell, it’s the same uniform he brought back from Viet Nam. He has a sizable pot belly, a grey ponytail, and a cynical gaze. His two friends also wear hodgepodges of old military garb. Upon closer inspection one of the “men” turns out to be a small, scrappy, one-eyed woman. All three are old, but look like they might have been pretty tough back in the day.
The fat man was never tough. He blinks, sputters, and starts a rant, waving one pink finger in the air, “That’s my sister’s dog. My mother gave him to my sister. He was stolen by these dope dealers. There’s a gang of dope dealers hanging around my house…”
Blacksnake interrupts, “Your sister is dead.” He rarely makes eye contact with people, but now he directs a glare straight at the fat man. “I said fuck off, Donny.”
Stand off. The dog sprawls in the dirt, worried brown eyes tracking the conversation. The three people don’t move, but somehow their bodies meld into a wall as dirty and mean-looking as their plywood barricade. Muttering threats, the fat man backs away. The three people watch silently, not bothering to jeer, as he turns and shuffles up the track toward his home.
And that’s how Larry, the three-legged pitbull, was rescued by Blacksnake and his crew. It was an impulse born of a marriage between spite and kindness. No one realized at the time that this simple act would set off a cascade of events including a series of miracles, a felony, a tragedy, and a happy ending straight off the Hallmark Channel.
Blacksnake, Donald and Elizabeth
Blacksnake and Donald are neighbors. They have lived in a state of low grade warfare since the seventies, but never previously have their skirmishes been about dogs. Their normal skirmishes have been about drugs (Blacksnake sells them), or maintenance of their shared road (Blacksnake maintains, Donald doesn’t) or about witchcraft. Donald’s mother was a witch, and it was a source of deep offense to her that Blacksnake never succumbed to any of her spells. There was a sister in the family, too.
Donald’s mother was such a memorably malignant woman that her neighbors still speak of her in whispers even though she’s been dead for years. She’s called, “Her up the road,” or just “her” as if the invoking of her name might conjure up her malicious spirit. Forty years as neighbors and Blacksnake could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’s been to her house, and those were occasions when he stood in her yard shouting while she made faces out the window and threw curses at him.
Most of Blacksnake’s acquaintance with Donald, his sister, and her is based on their treks by his compound to get to the bus stop down where the track meets the paved road. Blacksnake has decades of snapshots in his memory of the three of them passing by: the old witch gripping frightened toddlers by their shoulders, her shoving skinny children along, her marching beside teens now fat and soft from years of watching TV inside their tiny cottage. They used to hustle by pretty quickly, the children with their faces averted, while the old witch muttered dark invectives. Now that she’s dead, Donald will stop to chat sometimes on his way to or fro, not to be friendly, but just to hear the sound of a human voice. He still sees Blacksnake as the man who, by staying alive, made his mother look less powerful than Donald believed her to be. He hates Blacksnake for that.
The sister, on the other hand, would drop by sometimes on her way to town to ask if Blacksnake or his crew needed something picked up at the store. She never dated, never married, and never had children, but she took good care of her dogs.
“It’s hard work being normal when your family’s crazy,” says Ojib Bob.
Ojibwa Bob is one of Blacksnake’s friends and lives in one of the homemade cabins. He is shaped like a refrigerator and has long, white hair that hangs nearly to the small of his back. The years have bleached him into the ghost of an Indian. He’s speaking of Donald’s sister.
“She wasn’t that normal,” says Blacksnake. “Fuckin’ little bitch.”
This last remark is addressed to his cat, a winsome tabby, full of purrs, who is winding her body in figure eights at his feet. Blacksnake hunkers down. He touches her gently on her nose with one big, stubby finger.
“So how long ago did the sister die?” Elizabeth asks.
“Oh, shoot...” Bob furrows his brow.
Everyone thinks. Blacksnake guesses a year. The One-Eyed Woman puts it more like nine months. In any case it was Bob who let the dogs escape. The sister had five dogs, and someone locked them in her cabin after her death. Bob was up the track at her place, never said why, but probably he was there to forage. He heard the barking, tried the door, and found it locked. He hunted around in the yard and found an ax. The dogs barked hysterically as he whacked the door. He chopped the knob off, opened the door, and the dogs ran out. He isn’t into dogs, but he could tell they were in bad shape. He told Donald about the dogs, but the conversation degenerated, as usual, into a surreal flow of confabulations and drama spun out of the endless tawdry TV shows that fed Donald’s mind.
“So...are the dogs still there?” Elizabeth asks.
Everyone shifts around and shrugs. They are cat people down at the compound and didn’t think to go up the road to help the dogs. It was a major deviation from the norm when Blacksnake rescued Larry, the three legged pitbull.
Larry is there now, flopped at their feet. He’s a genial animal and very grateful to Blacksnake and his crew. On the day of his rescue Larry was scrawny, encrusted with dried feces, and had bits of foam stuck in his fur. It took most of the water in one of Blacksnake’s rain barrels to clean him off. The compound people care about Larry, but they don’t want to keep him because he tries to chase the cats. There’s no chance that he will ever actually catch a cat—he can’t run more than a few feet without falling over—and his efforts are hilarious, but Blacksnake doesn’t want his cats bothered. Somehow, through a strange process of small town osmosis, the news about Larry and his need for a home came to the ears of Elizabeth.
So who is Elizabeth? Hard to say. Apart from her dog rescue activities, I know nothing about her life. I can’t phone her. I don’t know her email or her address. She doesn’t seem to have a job. I only know that she has a weather-beaten face, a tight, firm mouth, and the hot, blue gaze of a saint, fired by the assurance of her own rectitude. Since she’s about the right age to be a former member of the Weather Underground, I asked her once if she was a fugitive from justice. She responded with a small “Heh.”
“I guess I’ll go up and have a look,” says Elizabeth. “See you later.” She gets some nods and smiles from Blacksnake’s crew. They think she’s funny.
This is how I came into the story.
My name is Maryellen. In terms of appearance I’m nearly Elizabeth’s doppelganger: sixty, but not gray yet, healthy, dressed like an LL Bean ad. Unlike Elizabeth, people know me. I live embedded in a context: my sister, my friends, and my neighbors. I am a widow, a retired teacher and a volunteer dog walker for a no-kill shelter. Although I call myself a Buddhist, I lack the self-discipline to meditate regularly and I have a jabbering, skittering monkey mind. People think I am nice, but I’m not; I just try to keep my more astringent observations to myself.
I share my life with Barkie, my dog of seven years. We are a close family; a typical evening finds us on the couch, me with my Kindle, Barkie with his chew toy. We live in a small house with a deck that over looks a bay. I like to cook, to read, and to watch the seabirds flying over the bay. Barkie is always right there near me.
Barkie was my great aunt’s dog. When my great aunt died, Barkie was part of the mess that had to be cleaned up. My sister and I drove across two states to get to my great aunt’s house and there we found a mountain of stuff, all meaningful to the old lady, the hoardings of a lifetime, but just junk to us. We sorted everything into three piles: stuff to toss, stuff to donate, stuff to keep. Very little went into the keep pile.
For me, the only keeper item was Barkie and that was by default. My sister would not take him, we could not donate him to Goodwill, and we didn’t want to toss him into the city shelter. So I drove home with a dog.
It was my intention to find a home for Barkie but that plan died a quick death. Barkie is a bad dog. For one thing, he bites. He’s a snap and release biter, just chomps and runs. He is also an unrepentant chewer of furniture, an alarm dog that goes off in spasms of barking all day long, and he hates all living beings except me. To me, he is devoted; am the sun, the moon, the stars and the last bus home. It’s a good thing he loves me so much because that’s why I love him and decided to keep him. He’s a corgie/terrier mix and I call him my incorgiable terrierist.
Barkie is my first dog. I assumed that he would be my last dog, too, until my doctor recommended that I get more exercise by volunteering at the local no-kill shelter. Now I know that I can’t live without a dog.
The exercise was recommended to me as a partial remedy for fits of depression, a problem I was born with. I was a lonely little kid, a gloomy angst-filled teenager, and have grown into the kind of adult who carries tears around like a full glass of water, always ready to spill. However, between the anti-depressants, walking my weird little dog, and exercising the rescue dogs, I keep my serotonin levels up where they need to be and generally I am pretty chipper.
The dog rescue where I volunteer is in Michlamac, a small town about twenty five miles from my home. It’s a kennel which can house about thirty dogs at a time. In addition to the housing for dogs, there is a kitchen, an office, and a lobby surrounded by fenced outdoor play areas for the dogs. It’s a happy place very much like an elementary school: bright colors, walls decorated with lots of pictures, noisy playgrounds. I get down there about every other day. My niche in the operation is to befriend the dogs that have been there too long: the old, homely, sad or angry dogs that get over looked. They get to be friends of mine, these quirky animals that don’t know how to ingrate themselves with adopters. I want to adopt them all, but Barkie won’t allow any more dogs in our house.
I was down there at the kennel one day, walking my regulars, when I overheard an argument going on in the lobby. It was Barbara, our kennel master, who runs the place. Most of the time she’s pretty easy going, but, when threatened, Barbara gets loud.
She was nearly yelling, “Well, I can’t take every dog. We’re full now, and we can’t take any more unadoptable dogs. We aren’t a sanctuary. We are a rescue, and I have to take dogs we can adopt out.”
She had that defensive body stance she gets when people are making demands on her that she can’t meet. I looked at the two people who were making the demands. One was a potbellied old man in army fatigues. He held his face averted and stared fixedly at the wall. Beside him was the woman I came to know as Elizabeth. She had her feet planted, her arms akimbo, and her chin stuck out.
“But the dogs out there are going to die. They aren’t being fed. I called Animal Control, but he won’t do anything. The owner said he doesn’t have any dogs, but I know for a fact that he has at least three,” Her light, thin voice had the persistent brain-penetrating quality of a botfly. She yammered.
“Well, I can give you some dog food to take out there, but I can’t take an aggressive dog, and I can’t take a feral dog. The black dog, maybe, and I will take this one, but I can’t take those other dogs,” said Barbara. By “this one” she meant the three-legged pitbull collapsed at her feet with his tongue hanging out.
I stepped forward, mostly to take the pressure off Barbara. I could tell that the sturdy woman’s persistence had more strength behind it than Barbara’s shotgun blast of words.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
The sturdy woman turned to me and began in her botfly voice to narrate the story. This gave Barbara the chance to flap her hands helplessly and retreat into her office.
The story was long. Elizabeth explained that out on the Manidoc Peninsula some crazy guy was slowly killing a group of dogs by neglecting them to death. Animal Control wouldn’t do anything. Three dogs had disappeared already. While she spoke, the old man, with his face still held rigidly at right angles to us, quietly began to ease himself out the door. I watched his odd withdrawal.
“He’s going back to the car,” Elizabeth explained. “He doesn’t like people.”
“Oh,” I said. Then, “I live on the Peninsula. Maybe I can help find some other rescue that will take the dogs away from that guy.”
This was a step out of my comfort zone. My role at the shelter was to walk dogs. I didn’t do adoptions, didn’t answer the phone, didn’t take dogs in, and I certainly didn’t go out to members of the public to confront them about the way they treated their animals; however, the fact that the dogs were starving on a property not too far from my home made the situation seem somewhat my responsibility. I could picture the dogs: probably chained out behind some trailer in the forest. I caught glimpses of dogs like that all the time while driving on the Peninsula and the sight always made me sad. Now, suddenly I had the chance to do something for some of those dogs. I saw an adventure unfolding in front of me: sad dogs turning into happy ones. I found myself smiling.