'A Dog's Life'


Jen Michalski



            The dog approaches you cautiously as you walk up to your apartment building. You are not a dog person, but this one, a smallish terrier mutt of some kind with matted white hair, charms you with its neediness, its act of singling you out—from several hundred thousand other city dwellers—for help.  

            You sit on the steps of the building and coax it over, holding in your fingers a corn chip that has lined the inside of your coat pocket for several years. Your new friend accepts this gold mine eagerly, his head moving up and down as he hammers through its stale hardness. He sniffs your hand, looking for more as you pet his head and slowly gain his trust. You wonder how your Maine Coon, Edgar, will welcome your new friend, if only for the night. Surely someone has called the animal shelter about him. It's possible, given his size, that he slipped underneath the gate enclosing one of the backyards of the brownstones uptown. However, he doesn't have a collar or other identification, and you notice that his muzzle is streaked with what looks to be blood. You envision him heroically---or tragically, depending on your perspective---capturing a squirrel and feasting in an alley somewhere, or maybe he just attacked the remnants of one of the pizza boxes pitching out of the dumpster a few blocks over.  

            You scoop him up after what seems like an eternity. He allows you to hold him and you quickly head through the lobby to the elevator before he changes his mind. In your apartment, he thoroughly scopes out every corner while Edgar perches, concerned, on the edge of your reading chair. You look through the cupboards for an appropriate meal, deciding on one of Edgar's cans of cat food, much to his indignation, and a slice of turkey. As your visitor eats hungrily, you marvel at his lack of collar, his lack of history. Such a nice-looking dog—you're not a dog person, but he might even be a pedigree after you wash him up. A West Highland Terrier, perhaps? You hope your good fortune isn't someone else's loss. You'll call the SPCA in the morning.

            He has a sad side, your new pet, that is. Often he lies on the sofa, head on his paws, looking at you lifelessly. He's not interested in toys and freaks out whenever you use dental floss. Even Edgar feels a little sorry for him and tepidly perches on the arm of the chair until a chirping bird or a shot of light, from the sun reflecting on a moving vehicle, arches across the room. You speculate that he's homesick, but nothing has turned up at the SPCA or the shelter in the past week. You could make fliers, you suppose, and decorate random lampposts within an eight-block radius, but you feel that's just too much—too much because you like the little guy and hope he comes around.  

            And he does, eventually. Slowly but surely, he picks up the knotted rope and brings it toward you, nudges you for a walk, rolls on his back on the rug in the sunlight. And he becomes less of a dog you found, a dog in hiatus, and more of a dog that's yours, that you've always had, who will always love you and you him. Whatever details that etched his former life begin to gloss over, to gel with a sense of uncomplicated clarity. He even has a new name, Harper, and you cannot imagine any other name for him. Always a Harper, you joke with him.  

            The one issue you have with Harper, one that you suppose could have ended his relationship with his former owner, is his aggressiveness. Harper barks and snarls at every man on the street, especially ones who try to pet him. You begin to take him to a behavioral trainer. It's not something you can quite afford, but you hate to give Harper up now, after you've won his trust and affection. One day, however, you buy a new pair of shoelaces. As you hold them out in front of you, measuring them evenly, Harper begins to bark and prance in front of you. Thinking perhaps he wants to play, you lower the taut strands to the level of his head and playfully push out at him.  

            It's something you cannot live with, no matter how much you love him. The gash in your hand from where Harper locked his jaw around it and wouldn't let go is still healing, after two weeks, and your doctor fears there may be nerve damage. You were so scared that you called your friend to come and take him to the shelter, even though it took the both of you thirty minutes to round up Harper, with oven mitts, into a box. Although the shelter informed you that Harper would be held for three days, in case his former owners claimed him, he probably would wind up being euthanized. Too many dogs, the man explains over the phone. People coming in, wanting to get a dog, they're gonna want one without problems, you know?  


            He approached you because of your denim jacket. He approached you because you were alone and because he had begun to crave human affection, but mostly because of your denim jacket. It reminded him of her, she who lay quietly in the yard, a light green serpentine coil of garden hose resting by her head, matching the raised curve on her neck from the wire used to choke her.

“Tuffy, what do you want? You want to go outside?” She had asked him in the kitchen when he reacted to a soft rustle in the yard and opened the door to let him out. He waited as she followed, and they walked together down the wrought-iron steps to the yard. The shuffling by the house had not been his wren and he was eager to see what else had stopped by for a visit. He rummaged near the cellar stairwell, trolling through the slats of wood left from last year's renovation, wood that had greened and grayed through the winter and housed the occasional termite or roach. He could smell the urine on it left by his wren as it pulled needles of wood from its soft pulp for its nest in the neighboring yard.  

            Tuffy was not duly alarmed by the man who was crouched in the shallow stairwell. Tuffy's interaction with family, friends, and neighbors of the girl had caused him no great concern. As the girl began to pick up, some candy wrappers that had mixed with the dirty rust-colored leaves toward the front of the yard, the stranger emerged. He was completely naked—a stark contrast of pale, lumpy flesh underneath black fur Rorshacked across his chest and genitals—naked except for a strange talisman about his neck. It was actually one of his own teeth, worn for, in his mind, its protective powers against the grey-eyed devils that pursued him. Tuffy would not realize the derangedness of the man standing before him, although she, turning to the sound of his short bark, would. She may have recognized such a break with reality, being a psychology major, as possibly schizophrenia, but the man was soon atop her, absorbing her small wiry frame into the frantic pool of his delusions and fat.  

            Tuffy barked. It was all he knew to do, even as he watched the girl struggle against the piano wire the stranger had taken from his mother's house, the mother whom he was visiting on a weekend pass from the inpatient hospital in the county. Tuffy barked repeatedly as the girl fell to her knees and the neighbors, used to Tuffy's battles with termites, roaches and wrens, read their newspapers or watched television.  

            When the girl fell to rest near the hose, a slither of candy bar wrapper still clinging to her cooling palm, the stranger reached for Tuffy. Although Tuffy did not know that the stranger had plans to kill and eat him, he now knew at any rate this man was someone not to trust. As the stranger's plump, calloused hand jerked toward him, Tuff forced tens of pounds of pressure through his incisors into the stranger's hand, puncturing the dry scabby flesh like a pencil through Styrofoam. The stranger withdrew, smearing the beaded blood onto Tuffy's mouth as he did so, and Tuffy ran, squeezing through a patch of fence the landlord had been lazy about repairing.  

            The stranger, confused and bleeding, ran up the alley and was hit by a car as he tried to cross the parkway. His leg was shattered, although he managed to keep moving several blocks north, scraping its malformed stiffness on the concrete like a wet eraser on paper, until subdued by two police officers. Tuffy, however, who did not know of the stranger's departure and subsequent apprehension, resolved not to return to the house. Even if he wanted to, his sense of direction from this side of town was a little sketchy. He was now fully ten blocks away, in another neighborhood.  

            Besides, the girl's family was not actively seeking him. Not yet. They were too busy with other arrangements, the girl's last respects, the police, the psychiatrists. The stranger was known by his doctors to cook small animals. Was it possible he consumed Tuffy before his unfortunate meeting with the SUV on the parkway? Was the bite on his hand Tuffy's last line of defense before his neck was snapped and he was thrown aside? The police never found Tuffy, and no unusual gastric movements occurred in the stranger at the county mental hospital where he awaited trial, so the family of the girl hoped that Tuffy escaped.  

            But they can't worry about him now. He was such a nice dog, they all concur, over coffee and midnight vigils in a dining room out in the suburbs, upset that they let their only daughter/granddaughter/niece/girlfriend move into the city. Someone will find Tuffy and give him a new life, they agree, although they think about posting fliers on lampposts around the girl's old neighborhood just to make sure. But then, exhausted, they head upstairs to sleep, and no one ever makes them.