an excerpt from Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip

Joseph Dougherty

        At the moment Mr. Barbicane was falling asleep, Vivian Teller was waking up, suddenly alarmed by the presence of a burglar in her apartment.  Not only in her apartment, but in her bed with her.  Someone had come into the apartment while she was asleep and climbed onto the bed next to her, pressing their body against her back as she slept on her side.  

     She was about to bolt from the bed when she heard the burglar growl in his sleep and realized it was the dog she had rescued.  He must have gotten lonely in the kitchen and found his way to the bedroom of the apartment and climbed up on the bed to be with the woman who rescued him from the expressway.

     Vivian turned over, the dog adjusting to her movements, and looked at him.

     She had found a piece of clothesline in the apartment building garage and looped it through the dog’s collar for a leash then lead him up through the open courtyard, stopping to visit certain shrubs along the way, and up the stairs to the second floor balcony and finally to her front door.  Vivian tied the clothesline to the doorknob and ran into the apartment to get some towels so she could try to dry the dog before she brought him inside.  She got him from a stage of wetness to a condition of dampness and was surprised, as are all people unfamiliar with the breed, that a wet poodle smells better than any other sort of wet dog.  Vivian, at this point, did not know the dog she snatched from the roadway was a poodle.  She thought poodles were all, diminutive, yapping things.  This rather dingy, but apparently well-tempered animal, looked more like some kind of retriever/sheep dog combination.  He had deep brown eyes, ringed by tear stains, and a liver colored nose.  He appeared none the worse for wear from his adventure.

     Vivian brought the dog into her apartment, through the living room to the small kitchen where she debated about what to feed him and eventually offered him water in a mixing bowl and some shortbread cookies.  One of the things that proves the existence of God is the sound of a large dog drinking water from a bowl.

     When Vivian offered the first short bread cookie she did so tentatively, concerned that the dog might take it in his mind to grab a few fingers while he was at it.  She was surprised by the dog’s reaction to the offered treat:  He sat on the kitchen floor and extended his left paw.  Vivian took his paw and shook it once then offered the cookie again.  The dog tilted his head to one side, leaned in and gently closed his front teeth around the first third of the cookie and slid it out of her hand, like someone taking a cigarette from an offered pack.  Vivian said the thing all dogs enjoy hearing, regardless of gender.

     “Good boy.”

     He finished the water in his bowl and Vivian refilled it.  He seemed a very calm animal, curious about his surroundings but not apparently anxious about the circumstances that lead him there.  The collar, the offered paw, this was obviously not a stray, but someone’s pet and the theory of him escaping from cargo at the airport seemed more and more likely to Vivian.

     She told him to lay down and stay and was amazed that the dog did lay down and appeared to be staying as she backed out of the kitchen, turning off the overhead light, but leaving on the small light over the stove.  Vivian then went upstairs, took a quick shower and climbed into bed where she was surprised to realize how tired she was.

     The effort of running out onto the expressway, grabbing the dog and her stumbling retreat and fall were all starting to show up in her muscles.  But she had saved a dog and that was worth a couple of Motrin anyway.  Vivian fell asleep before she could summon the energy to get out of bed and take the pills.

     Then, sometime during the early morning, she was joined by the dog who must have been accustomed to sleeping on his master’s bed.  He was on his side, his spine pressed against her and his legs stretched out to the side.  His front paws were casually crossed.  As Vivian watched, he adjusted his position, first rolling over on his back exposing his high, surprisingly narrow chest, then completing the rotation to end up on his stomach, his nose tight against the blanket covering Vivian.  Once settled, he opened his mouth and made a series of quiet clicking sort of smacking sounds.  Then he sighed a sigh as eloquent as any Vivian had ever heard from any creature, man or beast.

     Suddenly the thought of surrendering this animal to his owners broke Vivian’s heart.  She had forgotten what it was like to have a dog and that previously unnoticed incompleteness now felt like a roughly cored void, a wound.

     To have a dog as a child is one thing, to have a dog as an adult is something much more profound.  The concept of loyalty and love, of being someone to whom another creature runs to and not from, children don’t think of these things.  Just when we start needing those reassurances is usually when we lose our dogs.  We have grown up and they have grown old.  We are crushed by the lose, rendered worse than inconsolable by our inability to make our dying friend understand what is happening to him, what all this slowing down and stiffness means.  “What is this thing in front of my eyes that keeps me from seeing you?”  “Why can’t I hear you coming half a mile away anymore?”  If we’re lucky they die in our arms, looking us in the eyes.  They leave us behind and we stagger home, torn open and promising to never again love anything that might die before we do.

     So, we move on, dogless for a time.  The priorities of life and work get in the way and it sometimes takes years to understand what’s wrong and more years to do something about it.  We need dogs so much more than dogs need us.

     Vivian reached down and put her hand on the dog’s head.  She stroked this head and his ear and along his snout and felt her own breathing calm in her breast, her sore muscles forgetting their complaints.

     “Good Boy.”

     There were things in the world Vivian could never grasp.  She remembered reading an article in the newspaper about certain Islamic teachings concerning dogs.  How dogs are considered unclean by some Islamic teachers who warn that Muslims licked by a dog must perform purification rituals.  Muslims are taught that anything a dog touches must be washed seven times, the final time in dust.  They are taught from an early age that even images of dogs or dog-shaped toys were sufficiently unclean that purification was required after touching them.  One man was advised by his spiritual leader that his pet dog was evil and should be driven away by cutting off its food and water.  Most disturbing to Vivian was the article’s mention of a tradition that held if a dog passed in front of someone preparing to pray, the dog would so taint the purity of the moment that the prayers would be meaningless.  The suggestion being that God turned away from dogs!

     Vivian could not understand what sort of faith could cast dogs in such a terrible light.  

     Vivian was unaware that not all Muslims share this opinion of dogs.  Bedouins feel very differently about their Salukis.  Salukis are allowed in the tents and are treated as close companions, as gifts of Allah to the children.  But the Bedouins were not mentioned in the article Vivian read because it had been written by a hateful man who wanted to do what he could to demonize the enemies of the United States in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The man himself didn’t like dogs.  The man preferred cats.

     Tomorrow Vivian would call someone she knew in cargo.  The dog might be reunited with his owners before the end of the day.  If not, he would stay with Vivian until such time as the reunion could be arranged.  Unless, of course, the dog had not escaped from cargo, that his presence on the road near the airport was just a coincidence.  In which case, well, she’d just have to take care of him herself.  She had rescued him and now he was her responsibility.  She’d just have to live with that.

     The dog, who answered to the name of Charley, knew nothing of the religious prejudices against him.  He was grateful for the water and the bed and the cookies and to not have to deal with cars which, frankly, he neither understood nor appreciated.  He was named Charley by the woman who cared for him throughout the first seven years of his life and who had died the previous month after suffering for more than three years with recurring anaplastic astrocytoma brain tumors.  Her name was Ruth.  


     Ruth left no instructions about what was to be done with Charley; she was afraid making such plans would guarantee her death.  So when she died, Charley made the rounds of friends from Ruth’s office, but that hadn’t worked out.  Finally, a distant relative was located and said they’d take the dog off their hands if they could ship him from Chickasha, Oklahoma to Orlando, Florida, which is how Charley came to be passing through the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport during the violent thunderstorms that suspended airport operations.  During the transfer from one flight to another a case containing a five octave cross strung harp fell on Charley’s case and cracked it open.  Charley ran from the airport into the stormy night where Vivian found him.

     Ruth had named Charley after John Steinbeck’s poodle, but Steinbeck’s poodle had not been white.  He was a “blue” Standard whose full name was Charles le Chien.  The year before Steinbeck’s Charley died at the age of eleven, he went with the writer on a cross-country road trip, sharing the cab of a three-quarter ton pick-up truck Steinbeck named after Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante.  Ruth read “Travels with Charley” when she was in high school and had promised herself a poodle.  It took her fifteen years to get one for herself, having to wait through a marriage to a man who didn’t like dogs and was, in fact, the author of the article about Islamic practices that so upset Vivian Teller.

     Charley had known something was wrong with Ruth, he knew she was sick, but he didn’t know how sick.  He had no idea where she was, but assumed she’d show up eventually if it was at all within her power to do so.  Meanwhile, he was warm and dry and the woman from the car smelled nice and smiled and he didn’t get the sense that she was sick the way he sometimes sensed it from Ruth.  He would deal with the situation with the patience of his kind.  He would make himself comfortable and repay the woman’s kindness as best he could.

Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.

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