Four days after his wife died Harry Donneley decided to buy a dog. He had no history as an animal lover. He had no friends that he took long hunting trips with and had never bonded with a dog on long stalks for game. But he wanted to buy a dog. He wanted to own a dog.
The pet shop at the mall came to his mind as he dressed. He rummaged for the check book on his night stand. He tapped at his jacket hanging in the closet and reached inside the pocket jangling with car keys. He went downstairs, locked the front door behind him, and walked to the car.
Harry didn't consider himself to be an introspective man, and he did not think about his decision to buy a dog. As he drove, he sang along with the popular songs on the classic light rock station. He thought about what kind of a dog he would like to have running around his house while he read and watched TV and ate dinner and slept.
He found a spot in the empty parking lot. As he guided the car between the white lines, he looked at the dark pet shop. It didn't open until 9 a.m., and the green digital readout on Harry's dashboard clock said 8:54. He whistled absently along with the radio and made no effort to carry a tune. The whistling was intended only as a noise to remind himself that he really was in this parking lot on a Saturday morning waiting to buy a dog. For the last few days, Harry had not always been certain when he was awake or asleep. He whistled or made noise to remind himself which state he was in.
Harry continued whistling quietly through the news report that began at the top of the hour. When the weather report came on at the end of the broadcast, Harry listened closely.
"Partly cloudy skies, the sun promises to break through in the afternoon, and high temps in the 70s," said the tiny voice next to the clock on the dashboard.
Harry flipped off the radio. It sounded like a good day to take a dog to the park.
Harry pushed open the pet shop door and smiled at the man behind the counter. "I'd like to have a dog by lunch time today, please."
"Tired of steak, sir?" the clerk laughed. His belly pressed up against the glass like the face of a trapped animal. "Well, we have some lovely dog fillets in the back. Could I interest you, perhaps, in a poodle cutlet?" The clerk snorted at his humor again. Then he waved his hand to show Harry that, of course, he had only been joking. His hand waved as if to say, "Don't take any of that seriously. I'd love to sell you the perfect dog!"
Harry smiled uncomfortably and looked around the shop.
"Do you know why I can say something like that to my first customer in the morning? 'Cause I own the place!" He laughed again.
Harry cleared his throat. "It's a nice day out there today, and I thought I'd like to buy a dog and take it to the park and walk it around." He looked, for the first time, at the dogs in the cages. "These dogs must want to get out in the open air sometime, right?"
The clerk scratched his head. "Are you looking to rent a dog, sir?"
"No, I meant that I'd like to buy a dog as quickly as possible this morning because it's going to be a nice day in the park." Harry worried that he sounded a little dopey speaking like this.
The clerk nodded, and the shaking of his head seemed to wipe the old expression from his face. His manner became one of a sincere store owner who wants the best for his customer. "Have you thought about what kind of a dog you would like?"
Harry spoke quickly, "As a matter of fact, I have. I was trying to visualize the right kind of dog for me as I drove over here this morning." Harry looked around the shop. "I'd like one that will play in the park and walk around my house and snoop in everything. I want a dog that will wander around the house so I won't know what he's doing all the time. Every now and then I can look up from my book or the TV and hear his footsteps in a room upstairs."
The clerk stroked his chin. The jokes were over. "All right, why don't you look around the shop and tell me if any of these dogs are what you had in mind. I'm going to the back room for a second to finish turning on some lights. Be right with you."
Harry took a few steps toward the glass cases. For the second time since he'd been in the shop he looked at the dogs. In the bad light, the dogs faced Harry like tombstones in a dusky cemetery. As more and more of the fluorescent lights came on in the shop, depth and shadows began to fill the spaces around the dogs. Their slightest movements leapt all over the wall behind them, making Harry wish he could own one of the playful shadows up there on the wall instead of the panting and listless dogs in the cases.
"Did you want a puppy, sir, or something with more training?" the clerk asked as he emerged from the back room.
Harry took his eyes off the wall and looked at the shop owner. "I don't want one of those aloof pets that doesn't even care who is feeding it."
"Ahh," the clerk tapped at his forehead, "You're describing a cat. Now a dog, wella dog is" Harry watched as the man's face searched for a clever phrase. After a few seconds the shoulders in the blue apron shrugged and settled for, " a dog is man's best friend."
"Yes, that's what I'm looking for. I don't want a cat."
The shop clerk moved forward until he was standing alongside Harry in front of the glass cases. "How about that one?" he pointed at a Cocker Spaniel.
Harry looked at his watch. It was almost 10:00. He looked at the dog.
"I'll take it."
Forty-five minutes later, Harry and his dog were in the car on their way to the park. The sun, as promised, was breaking through the clouds. Harry tried to run his fingers over the dog's brown coat every time he reached a stoplight, but the motion came out choppily, like he was trying to glide his hands over flypaper, and he stopped trying. Instead, he moved his hand to the leash lying unraveled on the passenger seat next to him. He decided to call the dog 'Harry Jr.'-at least until he could think of a better name.
Harry weaved in and around other cars on the park's asphalt parking lot. Harry was picky about his parking space. For fear of being sideswiped he did not park his car by itself. For fear of being robbed he did not park his car in a secluded spot. For fear of harm coming to his upholstery
Harry did not like to park in the sun. For pride in his physical fitness he did not want to park too closely to his destination.
This sunny day on a Saturday at the park, Harry was having trouble finding a spot that met his qualifications. The dog, maybe smelling other dogs, maybe sensing that it was about to be taken for its first real walk, began jumping around in the back seat. Harry was happy that the dog seemed to appreciate what he was doing for it.
"I won't worry about a parking space today, Harry Jr.! This is our special day!" Harry felt strange and then proud to have so quickly joined the ranks of those people that speak to their pets.
"Do you want to be friends, boy?" he asked. Harry shook his head yes for the dog and took the first space he saw. He turned to face the dog and stroked it as he had seen other dog owners do on TV commercials. His former brother-in-law had had a dog many years ago, and Harry tried to imagine what Carl would do with Harry Jr.
The dog waited patiently while Harry slipped the leash over its neck. "Don't worry about this leash, Harry Jr. If we find a free spot I'll let you run loose for awhile."
The two bounded out of the car for their first walk together. Harry held the dog closely on the leash, sometimes jerking the dog back too roughly. He felt embarrassed when the dog gasped for breath. He wanted to say something to it about being sorry that he was so nervous and sorry for pulling on the leash too hard, but by then they were in the thick of other dog owners, and Harry kept quiet. After a minute, Harry began to understand the rhythm of his dog, and the chokings stopped.
Harry observed other owners as they passed each other. No one stared. No one whispered. He was accepted as a dog owner. No one thought it amusing that a 44-year-old man was taking his first dog for its first walk. Harry's fear faded and was replaced with a humble pride.
The day was going wonderfully well until Harry heard a low, guttural growl at what he guessed to be about four feet behind him and to the left. He calmly glanced at Harry Jr. to see if his shoulders were tensed. The shop owner had warned Harry that tensed shoulders was a sign that a dog was preparing to fight.
Harry Jr.'s shoulders rocked loosely up and down as he sniffed another dog's shit. Harry liked to believe in the innate wisdom of the animal kingdom and reasoned that if his dog wasn't worried about the growl then he needn't be, either.
Out of curiosity, Harry glanced over his shoulder and saw a larger dog (he took it to be a German Shepherd, but he couldn't be sure) staring coldly back at his dog. The Shepherd had those dead milky eyes like the sharks Harry watched on PBS nature specials. Harry turned slowly back to his own dog. Suddenly he heard a terrible gnashing sound and a piercing yelp.
The German Shepherd was digging its teeth into Harry Jr.'s neck. The Shepherd's jagged white teeth looked like snow-capped mountains on a relief map as they sank into Harry Jr.'s fur. Harry felt like an idiot to have allowed himself to walk into this situation. Ninety minutes out of the pet shop, and his dog was being eaten by another animal!
The Shepherd tried to deepen its grip on the Cocker Spaniel. Harry Jr. made a mad attempt to spin around like some lumbering professional wrestler, but it didn't shake the German Shepherd. It was all happening so fast that Harry couldn't believe it was even happening at all. He wished they would fight slower so he could think.
Harry scooped the loose leash off of the grass and held it in both hands. A man came crunching up the gravel path. "King! King! Down boy!"
The two dogs were spinning in a frenzied pile of feet and tails. Harry held the leash tighter. None of this seemed real. The man came closer, and Harry whistled through his teeth to remind himself that right now he was awake. He had to keep reminding himself.
At 6:10 a.m. Harry's clock radio automatically turned on the all-news AM talk station at the bottom of the dial. For the next 20 minutes, Harry rose slowly out of sleep; car crashes, murders, natural disasters, and terrorist bombings fading in and out of his consciousness.
Harry rolled over and faced the clock. He could feel lines from the pillow etched into his face, and his mouth tasted like something dead.
He lathered up in the shower, the water pricking and pounding down on his skin. His "shower tunes" radio was playing a sports call-in program.
"Don Mattingly: is he the greatest player in the game today? Or to take it further, callers, put Wade Boggs, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and Mattingly in the same ballpark and put guns to their wives' heads. Who would walk out of there with the highest batting average? We're taking calls." Harry didn't have much interest in sports, and in fact he only began to listen to the program after his wife died. But he enjoyed the enthusiasm of the host and the seriousness of the callers.
As Harry reached for a towel and turned off the radio, a caller pointed out that Williams wasn't married during most of his career. "The question is flawed, Ken," he told the host.
With a mouth full of toothpaste, Harry remembered that he owned a dog now. Weren't dogs at their hungriest in the mornings? Harry tried to recall if that's what his brother-in-law said once.
He rushed out of the bathroom and went to the kitchen to feed the dog. It didn't have a name anymore. Harry planned to let the next owner name it. The dog ate sluggishly for a minute and then shuffled back to the corner by the garbage disposal.
"I'm sorry I didn't defend you a little better," he said. It didn't feel good to talk to the dog anymore.
Harry went on looking at the dog drowsing away in the corner on his green wool blanket. The dog's neck was surrounded by a thick, lumpy white gauze bandage that made it look like a kick returner on a football team; the freakish neck and the skinny body to support it. The dog's every breath was labored as if the journey from the lungs to the lips was restricted by the bandage. Harry watched and winced.
He bumped his coffee saucer, and the noise was exaggerated in the silent room. Harry stood up and went to the closet for his sport coat. His dress shoes scuffed on the floor. He thought of movies where a fugitive is slinking down a wet alley in the dark, and the detective leans against the wall to listen for the scraping against the damp pavement.
Harry put on his coat. He hoped that the dog would come to the door and bark or wag its tail or something, but it remained collapsed in the corner.
On his way to the car, Harry thought about the attack. It had been almost 36 hours ago, and it seemed to upset the dog more as time passed. Harry had been proud of the dog's stoic behavior at the vet, though it was explained to Harry that the dog might be in a partial state of shock. Later, on the car ride home, the dog was alert and even rode in the front seat with Harry. The dog appeared healthy, Harry's guilt subsided, and the episode seemed to be over.
But as soon as the two of them got home, the dog limped to a corner in the kitchen (which it had barely moved from since) and dropped. He wasn't responsive when Harry tried to pet him. He didn't appear to listen when Harry tried to explain why he had frozen at the park. He even ignored the treats Harry drove out to buy at the pet store on a special errand.
Harry accelerated past a battered VW on the beltway. He glanced at the driver as he went by. The driver was a younger man with a beard and bandana. He wore a Levi jacket. Veins bulged in his temple and neck as he sang along with his radio. Harry thought the man looked like Joe Cocker at Woodstock, the sort of person who was a natural dog owner.
Harry slowed his car so that he was once again alongside the VW. The driver continued his singing and with his free hand added some percussion on the dashboard. Harry wanted to ask the man, through the glass, if he'd like to have a dog. If the dog had been in the car with him, Harry might have tried to signal to the driver and point at the dog. Harry tried to think of a way to make his question understandable to the man moving along with him at 60 m.p.h. He cracked his window, and the wind came howling in, a whistling drone that made it even harder to think. After a minute Harry gave up and sped on to his subway stop. Twice he had to swerve around dead animals on the highway. The blood stains on the road were more frequent, and the concentration of cars much greater, as he neared his subway parking garage.
Riding on the subway, Harry tried to remember if he'd dreamed about an explosion at an Indian airport or if he'd heard about it on the news as he woke up. He was fairly certain he didn't dream it (the word "Sikh" kept popping up in his memory, and Harry wasn't sure who they were), but his subconscious had surprised him before.
For those last few weeks when he slept alone while his wife was in the hospital, Harry often found himself sorting out news stories and dreams during his subway rides. He remembered what an idiot he'd been at the office one morning by rushing in to tell everyone about a hurricane expected that afternoon. He worked the office up into a panic before he realized that it was a dream and not the early news on WMAL. They were taping Xs on the windows, listening to radios in every room, when he told them.
The train arrived at his stop. He walked out and joined the crowd rising up the escalators. He decided to stop worrying so much about finding a home for the dog because someone at the office would want it. The secretaries were always talking about pets.
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