The Dogpark in Fall
Just because they could not stand the sight of the wounded animal did not make them angels. The woman with the big white lab they called Frosty had been bringing Pilot to these fields since before the boathouse. That was also before extension leashes that zip-line back to their handles or gourmet biscuits of liver and cheese snapped out of thin air to falsettos of good-boy and atta-girl.
When she was a girl her house was more alone than lonely. Horses sneezing in the meadow. Goats on the mountainside. She loved to watch the collies Father never named nip the sheep into place as they drank from the cold Connecticut.
On autumn days such as this, the air so crisp your first breath is like biting an apple, she brought Pilot here to nudge loose the secrets of those times from trees the amber of rotted metal.
But when her car rumbled down the drive leashes got re-attached to collars. Sniffers had to quit their investigations as wary owners ushered them to the other end of the field, away from that car beside the abandoned boathouse, whose brindled clapboards littered scabrous rinds of paint over grass and gravel.
One unlucky straggler witnessed Pilot's quivering steps down the makeshift ramp put there to help his ancient bones disembark. Caught in the wake of a perfunctory smile and her lapdog's curiosity, the unlucky young woman felt sick in both heart and stomach to see Pilot's welts, hot spots exaggerated to gaping pustulants, as though organs peeked through white fur to spy on the world's cruelties. The conversation went from prognosis to pity in less than three parting exchanges.
Alone again Pilot limped to the bush where he had buried the memory-treasure of a riverfish still flopping for its life.
A rustle behind them made the old woman turn from Pilot snouting through leaves to a team of owners and dogs coming out of the woods on the other side of the gravel lot. They glimpsed her in the distance. The cheer melted on their faces.
Unfortunately, dogs are not so blessed with intelligent fear.
The old woman heard it all before she understood. A sleek car wearing a tangle of racks both on top and behind sped down the drive noiselessly. Where its engine lacked lungs, its breaking tires shrieked. Mingled in the clamor, a desperate whelp delivered to the heedless teeth of oncoming tire tread.
Out of the mayhem a spill of labs with a standard poodle leading the charge bounded over to greet Pilot, whose tail joined the frenetic motion of his back legs to receive his old companions, whose owners were less delighted to approach the twelve year old animal shivering like a leper under a shrub. They were even less gracious towards the old woman.
"Goddamnit! It's Frosty she was running to see!"
"Pilot," said the old woman confused. "What happened?"
"What do you care," hissed another. "Let's go Sandy. Sandy come!"
"Bunny is probably dead no thanks to you," shouted the first woman.
The old woman trembled. "I don't understand."
"That car just hit Bunny, the little Golden," said a tall man in a green vest. "She was running to see your dog."
"How is that my fault?" The old woman directed her plea to the other two women. Ignoring her, they leashed and yanked their dogs back to the accident.
She turned to the man who lingered with his poodle. "How is that my fault?"
The poodle seemed intent on jumping entirely over Pilot's bowed head.
"My god just look at him," said the man.
"The vet says he's not really in pain. It's the cancer what eats the fur," she explained.
"Dear god in heaven," he said again.
The women by the accident were yelling into cellphones. One looked up and screamed to the man, "911 says they won't send an ambulance because she's a dog!"
The man nodded solemnly. The young couple that had been driving the car joined in the fretting over the whimpering shag rug crumpled under the driver's side tire.
"She's scared. It only grazed her," said the man more to the river than to the old woman. "She'll have a broken leg maybe. If that."
The fretting company lifted the quivering bundle into the car. Owners and dogs squeezed into the back seat and the sleek car drove them noiselessly back up the drive and away.
The old woman let out a sigh of relief. The man looked her dead in the face and said it was cruel keeping her dog alive.
"The vet said he's not suffering," she protested with a shake of her head so sharp it quaked the wrinkles of her neck.
"There's doctor's ways and there's the old way."
Through squinting eyes she estimated him to be half her age. She wondered if he knew his poodle's name, not just the name he or others gave to her, but the dog's true name.
When there was only one church in town, and that no bigger than the boathouse, she heard the preacher tell a sermon about Adam giving the animals their true names. Not making up a name and giving it to them but saying out loud the names each animal already went by. She daydreamed sometimes that she had that power.
"Let's go, Pilot."
"Put that animal out of its misery."
She wanted to yell something that would make him cry in his car on his way back to a lonely house. If this were the old time he'd be put out of his misery for talking so rudely to an old woman alone. But the illogic of that thought stretched it out till it disappeared, a carnival trick seen by torchlight at the taffy puller's tent. For if these were those times, she'd be a girl again, Father's dogs would be herding the sheep, each one lovingly named, and there'd be no significant difference between autumn and spring.
Michael Chaney is the author of Fugitive Vision (Indiana Univ. Press, 2008) and the editor of Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Wisconsin, 2010). He is currently working on a novel about the absurdities of the pharmaceutical industry.