by Christopher Bacas
On a cloudy November afternoon, the runaway dog headed south through a Victorian Brooklyn neighborhood. Shuttling down sidewalks, a black spindle unwinding in lengthwise turns. Legs, wisps of yarn, whipping down, then up into the skein. Scuff and click of paws un-synced to their motion; lightning flashes before the charge splits air. Overhead, massive houses linked eaves.
The run zigzagged through irregular blocks; cells in a massive, supine body. Cell walls: bulging chain link or ornate iron fences, mottled from scraping and accretion of paint, hedges, brick walls or ivied slat fences; permeable at angles and in raw gaps. She could thread these breaches at whistling speed. Her sleek coat catching, leaving tiny clumps of fur.
Driveways ran deep into their nuclei, connecting a garage or backyard. In the maw of each: garbage cans, white, green or clear membranes flapping cilia-like, bikes with rubber-sheathed DNA chains twisted around signs, silent toys clumped along cement culverts.
She forded each capillary street, barely slowing, angling through traffic. Her rump banged a fender and she fishtailed away from the blow, then straightened, accelerating. Across the flat, her momentum made the ground seem to bend from view, as if earth were a hinged disc and with each kick she plunged further down. Behind her, sidewalks, streets, whole neighborhoods tilted away under the unraveling, invisible tether of her shucked harness and leash.
On a dead end street, a guardrail topped with fencing protected the steep descent to an abandoned rail line. At the corner, the fence post leaned away from its mooring. She slowed. Her body wiggled, slotted the gap and careened down the hill. Dust eddies swirled behind her. Between tree roots, soft dirt glinted with shards of plate glass and broken bottle necks.
Down to the valley’s center; a pair of shiny rails laid over splintered wooden ties. On both sides, apartment buildings, parking decks and stores, thrust massive and bleak from the slopes. Their walls spewed trash onto thick brush. Long vines, fall browned, hung from branches, barriers, and fortified gates above the rail line.
She made for the first overpass. Underneath, in the cool, urine and damp earth smells clung to cement. All around, graffiti covered every surface. Each tag, on walls and pilings, judiciously separated from its neighbors; curatorial finesse keeping peace among a fierce clique of artists.
In grey November light, their metallic colors rang bright and hard. She slowed and swiveled her head. Above, a truck bounced over the road seam, its double rear tires burped and its load bounced up and back to the bed. The sound ricocheted: a pickup note, a slammed downbeat and their quickened echo. The dog exploded sideways into the light and away. The tracks led east through Canarsie and into Queens. The railroad ties erased every step.
That run is all my imagination.
The same afternoon, I headed home on a busy street, two dogs on leads: Coco, our tan pit bull and Orchid, a black lab. Orchid came from a local shelter. She was skittish with handlers and twisted on lead until her tongue turned blue. We brought her home to socialize with Coco. For three days, she never willingly left the couch. Mealtime, we put a food bowl next to her. She leaned over and ate sparingly. I took the dogs out together. Orchid, in a harness to prevent choking, seemed calm with her companion nearby. Coco fixed on me and we hoped her attention would instruct. In front of a cafe, a husky lolled under a chair. He was a hundred pounds, white and fluffy. Orchid saw him and bolted, plowing into a row of plastic chairs. The chairs fell under my feet. I tripped but kept both leashes in hand. Orchid was just off the curb and leapt into the air, twisting like a marlin. She ducked her head and pulled backwards. The harness dropped to the street. Haunches flexed deep, she turned and pushed off. Her first strides, geologically slow, ice calving from a glacier. Then, she broke away and disappeared around the corner.
When Orchid ran, I dropped Coco’s lead, grabbed the harness, and tore off, joined by a guy from the cafe. When we rounded the corner, she was a speck. We ran hard and watched her disappear. I jogged on for a few blocks while my stomach convulsed.
I made phone calls; none coherent. My wife, Beth, arrived with the car. She had already picked up Coco from the coffee shop where I ditched her. We drove around and around. I talked to cops and neighbors for an agonizing hour. After dropping my wife at the subway for work, I went home, made posters and returned to the Victorian streets. I crafted a speech. Its design: boomerang through hearts and return with Orchid.
Words leave your mouth, sliding on zip lines toward distant stations. They run up on each other, shunting, arriving in empty swings. Language is row on row of clicks, coos and grunts. Tales are built with spare parts. We sight a person, start talking, undulating bars already passing out of sight, and push more and more after. When our voices stop, that story continues into the void. While we sleep, gravity pulls it further. On waking, our stories are distant midways; cables and trams plunging from scaffolded towers.
My story came with two-inch squares of paper. Black and white photo of Orchid and our phone numbers squeezed on one side.
Four days after she ran, I got a call. The voice, a Brooklyn white-guy accent, the kind 1960’s TV employed to signify working-class.
“Yeah, you da one who loo-awst a do-awg?
“Yeah, well I seen hah”
“Where was that, sir?
“You saw her today?”
“Yeah. Ovah da west side”
“Yeah. She ran inta da poo-awk. Ya said she was skittish, right?”
“Scared of people and loud sounds”
“Yeah. She ran oo-awf when she seen me”
“What time of time of day, sir?”
“What time, today?”
“Around ten a clock”
“In the morning, then?”
“Yeah. Like nine, ten a clock. Black lab, skinny. That’s yaw do-awg?”
“Skinny black lab. Yes, sir”
“Ok, I seen hah. Good luck. Hope you find hah.”
He hung up, abruptly, but on purpose. His call, detailed enough to be credible, brief enough to feel mysterious. I didn’t call back. In four days, I’d walked nearly forty miles along the tracks and up and down every single block between our home and that dead-end street. Prospect Park was half-a-mile north, in the opposite direction of her run.
The park was near the shelter where Orchid lived for six months. The guy who ran the shelter, a legend in rescue world. He was my second call when she bolted. After hundreds of searches, he sounded absolutely calm:
“We’ll find her. Don’t worry. Just make lots of posters and get the word out. We need sightings so I can set a trap.”
Now, I called again.
“I thought she’d come back here. Put posters up in the park and update me on any sightings. Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”
Beth carefully edited more photos. We had a long run of rainy days. She attached waterproof sleeves to photos and over some long days, taped posters to every light pole and fence corner. With one pinned to my chest, I walked deep in the park handing out small flyers to anyone who would listen.
I continued to walk in the park almost every day; obsessively following its winding trails and speechifying to every dog walker. With dwindling light, there were fewer dog people in the afternoons. I made sure to get there between 8 and 10 in the morning for off-leash hours. First week of December, on a chilly morning, I walked the southwest corner, where a paved road and rutted dirt path run tangent the shore of a small lake. A tiny boat, riding low in the water, glided toward the path. Two men rode inside its grey metal hull: a brown, barrel-shaped man in front and a scrawny, pale one behind. The pale man held the tiller of a lunchbox motor, whose mosquito buzz became audible as they beached the boat. The man in front stepped out and turned toward the water.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for this dog.”
I handed him the paper and started talking. The pale guy interrupted.
“I’m the person you should be talking to.” He said, detaching and placing the micro motor on the boat’s floor.
“I’ve seen your flyer ’round the office. It’s a shelter dog?” His voice, low and gravelly with a distinct British accent.
“I work with them to find animals in this park. I find dogs here ALL the time. They run away from people. I can find them in a few hours. I know where they go. There’s only a few places they’ll go.”
He stepped down to the shore. The park-issued jacket flapped around his tiny body. He wore heavy work boots and tight jeans cinched with a woven belt. On his face: eye-liner, thick mascara and a bit of foundation.
“I’ve just finished a month long survey with Common Cause. We looked for homeless people. Swept the whole park, every inch of it. If your dog was here, I would’ve seen it.”
“But she’s scared of people. She might be hiding.”
“People think dogs can hide here. They have to eat, ya know, have ta come out every day. I know the signs. I would see them.”
“…I appreciate you telling me this. I’ve been coming here for the last month. I walked a lot…”
“Listen,someone took her. She’s young and pretty. They trapped her with food or something. They take dogs. Happens ALL the time. I can tell you, she’s not here. I’m sorry”
His voice broke off. He turned away. In child-size pants, his legs stuck straight up to the belt loops; no ass in the way. A tiny gold crucifix dangled from his left ear. On the lake, a raft of ducks and two pure white swans paddled by. The round man went to get the truck. I thanked the pale guy, walked part way around the lake with Coco, then headed home.
When I got home, my wife was doing her daily task: scouring the city’s shelters for strays, looking at page after page of photos. There were many dogs, mostly pit bulls: scared, open-mouthed happy or standing sideways with averted eyes. A couple black labs, too, but no Orchid. I told her about my lakeside conversation, sobbed, and rubbed my face.
I lost Orchid.
An inscrutable god oversaw her run. That spirit’s keep, impossibly high. After dozens of circumlocutions and a hundred offerings, no sign from the heavens.
Two days before Solstice, my birthday, I went outside. A few feet from the curb, a dead cat, on its side, paws outstretched, mid-stride, neck gushing like a toothpaste tube. Next to it, a small pile of white shavings. I bent down. The mound was all teeth, squeezed out by the tire. I found the super’s dustpan and lifted its body. Not completely frozen yet, it drooped. I pressed my hand on the fur. Out back, I slid the cat into a big trash can and replaced the cover. My eyes blurred with tears. I went inside to get Coco. We walked south toward the Victorian streets. Trees were bare in grey winter light.
I have lost so many animals and people. Each, passing from light to darkness, from where I can see, to where I can’t. Orchid gave us a few days, then she ran. I imagined her course. Each day, walking under the sun’s low arc, that vision shadowed me. Darkness, by my side, like always. Download Trim.0665B5B0-D567-492F-8709-403073E6CEA3