Saturday, November 17, 2012

Short Story



I put on my hat and sunglasses. The dog looks up from where she is sitting on the couch.
“Woof!” she says, and goes for her leash.
“That’s okay, girl,” I say. “I don’t think we’re gonna need that today.”
We leave the leash where it’s hanging on the coat closet doorknob. I bend over and lace up my hiking boots. I feel as good as when I was running marathons. Suki’s acting like she’s two.
Outside, the world is a rainbow of vivid HD-3D images. The flowers reach out to touch us; the lawns are golf course perfect – almost too perfect.
“What a day, Suki,” I say. “Let’s go for a walk!”
“Woof!” she says, and rears up, putting her paws on my chest for me to lean down so she can lick my face.
We turn left when we reach the sidewalk. Suki is close by my side, just like they taught her in obedience school. Lou is out on his lawn next door. 
“Hi, neighbor,” Lou says, waving. “The pooch is looking good, today.”
“And so are you,” I say. I really mean it - I think I remember him having been ill.
We are headed down Allen Street toward the Antioch Golf Course. It’s not really a golf course – the name is a kind of local joke. It’s a 70 acre meadow next to the college, where they used to play Frisbee® golf. Now, they harvest the hay and have a small organic farm at the end nearest the campus.
A few houses down, Suki stops to poop on my friend Mike’s lawn. Normally, I would bag it and carry it until we get home. But, today, I don’t bother. The dog sits waiting for me to follow my usual routine.
“That’s okay girl,” I tell her. “We’ll get it on the way home.”
“Hey, look, Suki! Here comes Goldie.”
It’s the Carsons, mother, father and two daughters with their golden retriever, rounding the corner of Spillan. Everyone looks so good in this light. I wave.
Suki goes “Woof!”
Goldie woofs back. We all smile and move on. I stop to tell Bill to keep an eye out for Lou. But, when I turn, the Carsons are gone. So is Lou.
When we get to the Albrights' house, a man and his wife in a red pick-up pull up alongside us. The man is smiling. He looks like he wants to ask me something. We stop.
“Is that a red heeler?” he says.
“Yes it is.”
“See, I told you it was a heeler,” he says, turning to his wife.
“We’re thinking of getting one,” he says to me.
“They’re a handful,” I say.
He laughs as they drive off.
Debbie is in front of her house. Debbie always looks good, but, today, there is something different about her – fewer wrinkles, tanner. She smiles and waves. Her dog, a black lab, is in the driveway. His range is usually restricted by an electronic fence. Today, he comes all the way to the sidewalk, and he and Suki sniff each other all around, touching noses before they part.
A garbage truck is working near the corner of Allen and Livermore. I know the driver; he has picked up at our house for years. He always laughs when Suki barks at him. He understands; he has a heeler, too. This time, she stands quietly and watches.
“No bark, today?” he says, smiling. “She’s getting better.”
Suki gives him a “woof!”
At the corner, I tease her, pretending I am turning left on Livermore. This is a game we often play when we get here. She’s not buying it – heads straight across the street and waits on the other side. They say that dogs smile when they are happy. I believe that. She is smiling as I fake a double take and come back to her.
We are almost to the field. There is a squirrel in front of the Scotts’ house. She ignores it and we move on to where we turn left at the west end of the field. It is cooler on the grass where the path passes through an overgrown thicket. As we come out into the clearing, I notice a herd of deer on the east end of the field. Suki stops and points, raising one front paw like a bird dog. Then she turns to me in expectation of what usually happens next. I pull the tennis ball out of one of the large pockets of my cargo shorts. The excitement level is rising, eyes bright, ears pointed straight up, hopping around.
“Get ready!” I say, cocking my arm.
She takes off down the western edge of the field, anticipating my throw. She catches it on one hop and brings it back. We continue this game of fetch as we head across the field toward the spires of the old college.
The Boyles are sitting in front of their house where Kurt Street dead-ends at the field. “Yay, Suki!” they yell and clap, as she performs for them. Their own dogs, two blue heelers, are barking behind the house.
I launch a long one toward the center of the field. She grabs it on two hops, stops, turns and looks at me. With the ball still in her mouth, she turns away and runs off. I lose sight of her when she goes into a stand of trees at the edge of the field a couple hundred yards away. Something tells me to wait where I am, she will be back.
As I wait, I think I hear the sound of distant thunder. I look to the sky, but there is not a dark cloud in any direction. I wonder if the dog will be afraid. But, again, something tells me not to worry.
After about 15 minutes, I think I see her emerging from the trees. Yes, it’s her. As she gets closer, I can see she has something in her mouth. It’s not the green tennis ball; it’s large and pink. She brings it to me and drops it at my feet. It’s her old Frisbee, her favorite one that has been missing for years. It is all worn out and dirty, just as I remember it.
“I always wondered where that went,” I say. “I thought it was lost forever.”
She barks, and nudges it closer to my feet. I pick it up and toss it. She takes off and catches it before it can hit the ground. We play like this for what seems like hours.
I look back to see if the Boyles are watching, but they are gone and their dogs have stopped barking.
When Suki has finally had enough, she heels me all the way to where Herman Street dead-ends against the field. This is a common trait in Australian cattle dogs, the nipping at their owner’s heels. I have never been able to break her of it. I tell myself she does it because she loves me.
“That’s okay – that’s what you were born to do,” I tell her. “It can’t be any other way.”
From there, we angle toward Corry Street at the northeast corner of the meadow. We walk along in front of the college awhile, then cross the road at the entrance to the glen.  She wades across the stream at the bottom of the stone steps while I take the footbridge. She stops midstream and looks up smiling, as if to say, “Isn’t this a great walk?” From there we follow the trail to the Yellow Spring. I sit on a boulder, while she drinks.
“Come here, old girl,” I tell her, when she starts plowing the water with her nose. She comes over and sits on my foot.
There is no one else in the glen, today. The silence is making me uneasy. It seems I only hear the birds when I look up to find them. We take the trail to the cascades. I let Suki play in the water. It’s so quiet I can hear my watch ticking. I tell her we must be on our way.
We head back to the old bathing hole where, in another century, the spa and hotel used to be, then work our way back up the ridge to the edge of the glen. We come out on the bike path behind the firehouse and continue northward. When we get to Route 68, Suki turns right and starts up the road.
The cell phone in my pocket rings. I pull it out and answer it.
“Call her back to you,” a woman’s voice says.
“She just wants to visit Nick’s dogs up at the animal rescue,” I say.
“Call her back!” she says. “They’re not there.”
“Come on, Suk!” I call to her.
She comes and sits leaning against my leg.
“Where do we go from here?” I ask into the phone.
“Take the bike path to Ellis Pond!”
“Oh, yes, the pond... I forgot,” I say and hang up.
We follow the bike path north toward Springfield. It’s almost deserted and Suki pays no attention to the few cyclists there are, even when they greet us. We stop to watch the ducks on DeWine Pond. A border collie has chased them into the center where they float, scolding him from a safe distance.
“Silly dog,” I say to Suki.
She gives me a puzzled look, then realizes I’m not talking about her. She looks back at the kerfuffle on the water, her tail making large, looping circles.
We take the spur that runs between a cornfield and a patch of woods to where it crosses Polecat Road to Ellis Park. We cross over the spillway where the pond runs into a stream and follow it to where a herd of cows is lazing about. I expect the usual frenzied barking and running up and down the fence line as Suki’s instincts kick in and she tries to work the cows. But, on this day, she walks silently to the fence and touches noses with a curious calf.
We walk all the way around the pond and sit on the bench where I used to fish when we first moved here, before Suki was born. It seems so long ago, and yet, it seems like just yesterday. We are on the east side, looking across the pond to where the sun is making its way down across the fields, soon to disappear behind a barn and a pair of silos.
Suki is very tired, now. It has been a long walk. She lies at my feet, rolls over on her back, and waits for me to rub her belly.
“You’re still just a silly pup,” I tell her. “You’ll never change, not to me.”
She rolls back onto her side and starts to doze, as if she’s an old cattle dog at the end of a hard day of working a herd in the Outback.
Off in the distance to the west, I see a figure crossing the field toward the pond. As it gets closer, I can see it is a woman. She is wearing a white coat. She walks across the shimmering surface of the pond to reach us.
“It’s time,” she says.
“Can’t we stay a little longer?” I ask her.
She looks at her watch.
“If you want to say goodbye, you have to do it now.”
I get down on my knees next to my sleeping dog.
“Goodbye, old girl,” I tell her. “I wish I'd had a farm and a few cows for you. I know that playing fetch was a poor substitute. But, you always did your best.”
Suki sighs and goes still.
“Help me lift her onto the table,” the doctor says.
Together, we lay her on the park bench.
The doctor reaches toward me and removes my hat and sunglasses.

***

In the operating room at the animal clinic, an old man gently unstrapped a VR helmet from a dog that had just died and patted its head. The veterinarian’s assistant unhooked an IV, turned off a video monitor, and unzipped a new body bag.
“I wish I could do it again,” the man said to the vet.
She touched his hand. “You can – as often as you want. Take a copy of the VR recording with you. It’s a highlight reel of all the great walks you and Suki have had together over the last 13 years.” She handed him a VR helmet and a flash drive.
He wiped under his eyes with a dirty handkerchief.
            “What do I do now?” he asked.
“Come back next week to pick up Suki’s urn.”
There was a flash of lightning as he started for the door, followed in a few seconds by a loud boom. He turned and looked back at the dog on the table.
“One last question,” he said. “Could she hear the thunder when she ran off from the field?”
“No, in the real world, your dog was deaf and almost blind. She was never aware of anything happening outside the dreamscape. She had a great time alone in the woods, looking for her lost Frisbee. That and the heeling were the parts of the experience she added on her own. And all those dogs… Dogs are great. They’re perfect for all their imperfections, all the heeling, hole-digging, barking at bicyclists, not-coming when called...”
“Yes, my dog was perfect,” he said.
The man drove home in the rain. He sat alone in his computer chair with the VR recording playing in the gear on his head and experienced the dreamscape, again. He would play it a thousand times over the next few years and, but for one occasion, it would be exactly the same each time. It always ended with his dog and him watching the sunset over the pond.

***

I put on my hat and sunglasses. The dog looks up from where she is sitting on the couch.
“Woof!” she says, and goes for her leash.
“That’s okay girl,” I say. “I don’t think we’re gonna need that today.
The doorbell rings and I go to the window and look out. It’s my son at the door. He is ten years old. He is wearing the plastic batting helmet with the Yankees logo I bought him at the stadium.
“It’s Matty!” I say.
Suki runs to the door. She is dancing around, her butt just inches off the floor. I open it and watch as my boy kneels down and pets my dog. He looks up at me and smiles. A feeling of unmitigated wellbeing and joy floods my senses.
“Hi, Dad,” he says. “Let’s go for a walk!”

Copyright © 2012 by Virgil Hervey, all rights reserved.

5 comments:

Michael Kremer said...

Very nice story Virgil. Moving. Maybe it is because I am a dog owner, or maybe it is because I am a sci-fi junkie, but I really enjoyed it.

Virgil Hervey said...

Thanks, Michael. I especially hoped you would like it :).

Toad Hall said...

Just catching up Virgil. Great story, I teared up and I am an old fat guy who usually isn't easily moved, but Suki looks so much like my Molly it is hard not to. Thanks for the good read. I would love to think that was going to be possible in the future. I have had four great loves in my life and one is my dog. Thanks again.

LORIBELLE said...

Darn it! Now I am all teary at work. :-( LOVED the story! Now I want to go home and play with my red :-)

Virgil Hervey said...

Well, like Toad Hall, I'm an old fat guy who isn't easily moved, but I have to admit, I was teary-eyed the whole time I wrote the first draft of this on a plane trip from Tampa to Dayton. The big dude sitting next to me on the first leg of the trip must have been wondering what was going on. I teared up for all subsequent drafts and still do whenever I read it. I have also received a number of emails regarding this story. One fellow sent his condolences. Fortunately, Suki is right here under my chair as I write this, alive and well, and as Ferlinghetti would say, a real, live, barking, existentialist dog. I hope to have many years to appreciate her.