Take it or leave it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

LAST DAY ON EARTH

We were instant friends. I had come home to pick up a few things when I heard a barking coming from what had been my brother’s bedroom. I entered the room to find what looked to be a playpen arranged on the floor and in the center of it the littlest thing, all black and furry.

I picked him up - he couldn’t have weighed more than a couple pounds – amazed that my mother had said nothing about getting a dog. I promptly introduced myself. I know that sounds odd, but it didn’t feel odd at the time. I carried him around the house, stroking him soothingly. I was to meet my father later that day, and since my mom wasn’t home and I didn’t know when she’d be back, I put myself in the little pooch’s place – I didn’t know his name – and felt how freaked out I’d be if as a baby I was taken from my biological mother and deposited in a dark room of an empty house, alone. So I took him with me to my dad’s. He nestled into my lap as though it were the most natural place in the world to be. From that moment on we were best friends.

I am not a dog person. I have never been. I’m not quite Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall from the movie As Good As It Gets. He was a misanthrope. I just always viewed dogs as sloppy, prone to shedding, and too in your face for my taste. I preferred subtlety. I was always more of a cat guy. Ironically I am allergic to cats and haven’t had one in years, and the last time I did, the coyotes took them. The coyotes took most of our pets: rabbits, guinea pigs, but never the dogs. Most of the dogs we had were too big. Trampie, whom my aunt Sheri had found on the side of the freeway and rescued, weighed about 50 pounds. Then Bailey, a Doberman who we got from my grandmother because he was too unruly and ferocious. Chauncie, the sweet Lhasa Apso that was a gift from the neighbors who were moving to a smaller house without a yard, was small enough to become wild dog food but Bailey, who was in love with Chauncie, would never have that. Snoopie, the beagle we had for a time, could outrun the coyotes, though once he did come back after a romp in the adjacent mountainside with claw marks on his shoulder. Snoopie only lived to be one year old; ironically his death had nothing to do with coyotes – he fell out of a moving car. Devo, our German Shepherd, weighed as much as three of the biggest coyotes, so they posed no threat. I coexisted with these dogs, who were more for my brothers and my parents. I sometimes would pet them, but it was more of a perfunctory tap to please my dad, who is a huge dog lover. When Devo died, my mother was devastated and we didn’t have a dog for ten years.

Then my brother gave her little Prince as a present. Prince – named after the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, since that is where we live - was technically my mother’s dog, but over the two years we had him I was the one who spent the most time with him. While my mother was at work, I was at home writing, and he’d often sleep by my feet. We bonded. We had little routines. I got used to having him around. To taking him out to pee. Giving him treats. Cuddling him, playing tug of war with the many toys he’d bring to me, most of which were twice his size. How he loved to growl. The dog had so much spirit. The only way I could get him to calm down was to grasp him by the hips and flip him upside down. He liked it. Of course there were things about Prince that annoyed me. He was demanding, and high maintenance. And he was a puppy, and you know how puppies are. Once he bit off the end of my USB connector and I got so mad I yelled at him and chased him to a corner where he cowered for two whole minutes. The next minute it was all forgotten and he was licking me insatiably. Prince was a ferocious licker. He’d go for the orifices: eyes, ears, nose. He especially loved the space between fingers, which he’d coat with several layers of saliva, all the while making a clucking sound, and then emitting a satisfied burp.

Recently my girlfriend of 3 years and I had broken up, and just by being by my side Prince had helped me through it. He was my companion. Warm, cuddly, and he smelled so nice. Of course he ruled the house. He had beds set up in several rooms, and if you closed the door he demanded that you let him in, scratching at the wood, and yelping at my mother. If my mother and I were in separate rooms, he’d every so often come check on me, then go back to my mother, with whom he slept. The house was his kingdom, and we were his subjects.

Prince unapologetically pooed and peed in the house. He refused to use the pads, and only infrequently would relieve himself on walks. But he was like me that way. If I have to go, there is no stopping me. So I couldn’t really hold it against the guy. It’s not like we could leave the door open and let him go in and out as he pleased, not with the coyotes. Twice I’d saved Prince, swooping him up in my arms when he’d got out of my sight and they’d surreptitiously entered the yard and waited. Even with Prince inside I had seen the coyotes patrolling the back yard and the front yard. Sometimes they’d call to him at night. The coyotes clearly view our property as their domain, and for years they’ve eaten not just our pets but squirrels, moles, and the rabbits Prince so loved to chase. With owls, hawks, and crows, our backyard and adjacent hills are a regular old Animal Planet. But I hadn’t seen any coyotes for a while.

It was cold that Sunday, and I decided to spend the day curled up with a book by the fire. Prince kept me company. Every so often he’d approach me, nudge me to be petted or coddled, or maybe see about finagling a treat out of me. A couple times I put down my book to get down on the floor to wrestle with him – perhaps a bit too rough, but wasn’t it good to play rough now and then, in case he was ever confronted by some animal? My mom walked him in the front yard, always on the leash, but there were many times – when we’d get the mail, bring in the groceries – when Prince would dart outside and snoop around. I knew that if one of those times a coyote happened to be waiting in the lurches, Prince would easily have been snatched up. I had read about coyotes snatching little dogs right off the leash. With Prince a hundred feet away from me, I wouldn’t stand a chance. But dogs will be dogs, and it’s so hard to always be on red alert, hyper-vigilant. Everyone told us it was best to keep him confined in the house at all times unless on a leash, no exceptions, but I felt like I was denying him something sacred when I’d forbid him from going out in our backyard and chasing away rodents and letting loose a few high-pitched yaps as he so loved to do. And when he’d done it, he’d come back to me with a strut, feeling so proud. His little spirit needed that.

And so it happened that Sunday night, the wind was whipping and Prince began howling. He’d wanted to go outside several times that day and I’d accompanied him. My mom had also taken him out for a walk only an hour before. And still he barked. He darted into my room, barking and raising his little paws in a gesture of imprecation. I tried to pick him up but he wanted with his soul to go outside, the call of the wild in his eyes. I was already in bed and it was cold so I cracked the sliding glass door open a little to let him step into the back yard, give a few lusty barks, and come back in as he often did. But the moment I opened the door, he was gone. And before I knew it, he had dashed down the side of the house, through the iron gate, and into the front yard. I leapt from bed and ran after him. I heard three yelps, and by the time I reached the street, there were three of them. Three coyotes, big ones, in the middle of the cul-de-sac, and they had Prince, or what I assumed was Prince, in the middle. I couldn’t tell. It was dark and I was about 100 feet away. I called after Prince, and when the coyotes heard my voice they took off like thieves in the night, in three separate directions, the closest one bounding up a grassy hill on the front of the property of the house two doors down. I thought (prayed) they had left their quarry in the middle of the street, shocked but unharmed. But our little Prince was gone. Not a trace anywhere, no blood, no hair, nothing. And I hadn’t seen him in the snares of any of the dogs. But surely one must have had him. I returned to the house and knocked on the front door where I was met by my mother. “Prince is gone,” I told her. I was in shock. My mother chastised me for letting him out without a leash, but she relented when she saw how upset I was. Her words gave way to tears. I went and lay down and could do nothing but stare at the ceiling, and ask why? Why had I opened the door? Why hadn’t I gone out with Prince? Why hadn’t I carried him in my arms? Why, why, why?

They say to spend every day as though it’s your last. Up until the catastrophe, that day we spent together had been perfect. And it had been his last.

By morning my mother had made several phone calls to share the unfortunate news and receive condolences from the family. My Aunt Linda said if Prince had been her dog this never would have happened, since she would have made sure never to let him get outside without a leash. I knew this would have been the safest thing to do, but what about his spirit?

The next morning I attempted to piece the mystery together. I examined the driveway for blood. There was nothing but a few drops of some liquid, long-since dried. I told my mother this before she left for work, and together we came up with a convincing hypothesis: the coyotes, attempting to lure Prince out, had peed on the driveway. No wonder the little guy was so amped up. They had defiled his property, and he wanted to confront them! Now it was up to me to confront them. I secured a few dog treats in my pocket – in case Prince were still alive, since I hadn’t seen them harm him or carry him off, such is the power of hope against all odds – and made for the property two doors down. It had been vacant for a couple weeks but workers had already gutted it in preparation for a large-scale renovation, presumably to attract potential buyers, so I had no qualms about walking up the grassy knoll where I’d seen the coyote flee. Sure enough, there was a passage leading along the side of the house to the backyard, which was nothing more than a porch facing a mountainside. I kept my eye out for Prince’s collar or the cute little black hoodie my mother had recently bought him. No sign. I walked through the house, fully expecting to see a coyote den. After all, they had to sleep somewhere, why not in a newly-vacated house? Actually, coyotes keep their dens on hillsides, I recalled having read. And the house was empty. I walked through the house, letting distant memories return to me. Many years before I had babysat at the house. It had been New Year’s Eve and I was thirteen. The child’s name was Brandon. Cutest thing. That had been the only other time I had entered the house. Oh, and when I was 16 and I had crashed my Jeep into the neighbor’s car, I had to knock on the front door and confess. They weren’t the Heims. These were other neighbors, also long gone. In truth, the house never did hold occupants for very long. And with a small backyard facing a barren hillside, no wonder. It was depressing. I looked at the hillside, trying to chart the path of the dog-thief, but all I saw was dirt and shrubs and . . . a hole. Maybe 2 feet square. Much too large for a snake hole, was my first thought, since I’d seen snakes in my own yard. Certainly not large enough . . .

I went closer. I heard several high-pitched yaps not unlike Prince’s. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. Could it be? Inside the cave I saw two glowing eyes staring at me. I stepped closer. The wind rustled the trees and the sun lit up the face of the cave. It was a baby coyote, staring back at me. Tan and furry, the little thing couldn’t have been more than 1 or 2 months, the age at which I found Prince. And it was lying in, of all things, Prince’s black hoodie. My heart sank. There was no mistaking it, Prince was gone for good. But at least I had closure. Where are your parents, little one? I found myself asking aloud. Wasn’t my dog enough food? Coyotes in lean times are known to hunt during the day, but would they leave their pup unattended like this? Then I remembered the dog treats in my pocket. I took out a slice of chicken jerky, and held it out to the puppy. By this time I had unconsciously grabbed a rather large and smooth rock and I knew what I planned to do with it once I got my hands on the little guy. After all, he was the enemy’s spawn! It took some coaxing, but at length the little thing inched out, enticed by the sight and smell of the treat, and when it lurched for it with its little mouth, I swooped it up, dropping the stone in the process. It looked up at me…trustingly. I heard rustling in the bushes. Mommy and daddy must be coming home. I took off for my property with my quarry tucked in my side, like a football.

An hour later I was sitting on the couch with the little pup. He was licking me just as Prince had licked me, just the day before. I couldn’t kill the little thing. If I did, I’d just be on their level, nothing more than a wild animal. But I could have my revenge. It is illegal to keep a wild dog for a pet. But no one will ever know, as I don’t plan to make the same mistake twice: Little Prince – for such is his name - will be strictly indoors.

OK, that last bit about finding the pup didn't really happen, but it sure felt good to write about!

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