I have a reputation in my neighborhood. I am good with dogs. I love them. They love me. So when my many dog-owning friends (most of whom are also artists and travel a lot) are on the road, I end up with dog duty. Recently I had the pleasure of caring for two dogs at the same time—companions of next-door-neighbors, and dogs who are the very best of friends, and a pleasure to spend time with…most of the time.
The first morning of my dual doggy duty, I showed up at the house where I had left them the night before. After good morning pleasantries expressed through tails, tongues and paws, I leashed them and we—the three of us—headed out for our morning walk. We headed east, over by the new construction. I like it there, because I don’t have to feel bad about the dogs doing their business in yards. Don’t get me wrong, I always pick it up…unless it’s along the railroad tracks…or the ally…or that big lot that is so perfect for running dogs in—the one that sits empty, always freshly mowed, with signs all around it screaming private this and keep out that…I never pick up their poop when they go there, but pretty much everywhere else I do a diligent job of bagging it and taking it with us.
As we neared the end of the block, Lita (the bitch) stopped to do her business while Rem (the stud) stood patiently and obediently by. She finished her task and I knealt down, plastic bag cum crap glove in hand. I gingerly picked up the poop—all five soft, warm, rank pieces which Lita had strung out over a fifteen-inch path. Things were going well and I was feeling pretty good about being on the last fecal nugget, not having had to go back for any stragglers. All the pieces were forming together nicely, neither too hard nor too soft to clump. I was adding that last little ball to the mass and thinking about how if I were a dung beetle artist, this would be exactly the type of scat I would want to work with because so much of art, you know, is about finding the right raw materials, and these materials however repugnant were perfect for the inspired beetle… when the cat appeared. It had been there all along, in the tall grass between the new houses, but it had stayed low, out of sight, waiting.
You have to understand, now, that I like cats. I’m allergic to them, so a deep relationship with one would never work out of course, but I like them from afar as long as they stay indoors and are fixed. Needless to say, the cat in the tall grass between the houses was not indoors, and based on the number of kittens in the playground across the street, was probably not fixed either.
So, as I was saying, just as I squished the last of the deposit into the ever-growing lump in my bag, this cat jumped up from the tall grass and ran. And the dogs, pre-programmed to chase small furry running things, bolted after it. Seeing all this happen, I recognized the need to quickly react, but because I was collecting the sample from the grass with my right hand, and holding both of the retractable leashes in my left hand, I was completely unprepared. Like spuds from potato cannons, the two dogs blasted across the open lot after the taunting feline and before I could firm up my grip, both lines tightened, and one of the leashes popped from my grasp.
In a desperate, diving attempt I let go of the offense and dove after the offender, hoping to grab the escaping leash before it got out of reach, but the blasting bitch’s binding was out of reach and she was headed for the corner around which the cat had just turned. In the instant that all this happened, my right knee came down squarely on the bag I had dropped in front of me. Fortunately, the bag had landed in such a way that all the detriment was contained inside and although I could feel the soft warmth beneath, my knee came down on plastic. Unfortunately, the plastic on which my knee landed was the very bottom end of the bag where the dung-of-perfect-consistency was nicely packed, causing an immediate and quite remarkable piston-like action of the feces up the bag and out the other end with rifle-like velocity. The slip of the dung bullet from beneath my knee momentarily distracted me from the bolting bitch causing me to ponder the potential of such a weapon as I continued to sprawl forward in a slow motion induced by the recognition of impending trauma, mayhem and complete discord. Fearing I would never be able to repeat such a feat and therefore wanting to see the exact placement of knee, angle of bag and size and shape of the projectile, I tucked my chin and looked back towards the weapon just as the mushrooming ball exploded out of its casing and as I committed the exact scene to my photographic memory bank, time, which had only nanoseconds before been slowed, quickly caught up with the moment and as fast as my momentum carried me towards the ground, the bomb moved faster, catching up with me and impacting squarely on the half of my face containing the most direct portals to my olfactory sensors an instant before my forward motion was acted upon by the outside force of planet Mother Earth. Metaphor became reality as the world suddenly smelled and tasted like shit and the bitch disappeared around the corner towards the vacant, concrete weed lot along the railroad tracks.
Still in awe of the events of the moment, but realizing I had no time to calculate the exact physics I had just witnessed, I leapt to my feet. The little stud—clearly amazed by the fowl evil deed perpetrated on me by the bitch and as curious as I was that for the first time ever, I smelled and tasted worse than he did—led the way as we took off in hot pursuit, wiping unmentionable from my face with shirtsleeve as we sprinted across the street without looking both ways headed for the empty lot. That was when the sound of the unthinkable caused my heart to sink. A train was coming!
The cat was out of sight, but I could see Lita’s tail disappearing into the tangle on the far side of the lot and was pretty certain that if there was a fence in the thicket it was old and filled with escape holes. My heart raced as I tried to suppress the horrific thoughts that for a moment overrode the taste and smell to which I was inextricably linked. What would I tell her owners? How would I explain my lack of dependability? Would there be a way to make this up to them? Damn I smelled awful!
I opened my mouth for the first time since the impact to shout at Lita. Unfortunately, I had to inhale first and god only knows what manner of filth made it to my lungs in that breath, but these were desperate times. I flexed my diaphragm, and shouted her name. “L-I-I-I-T-T-T-A!!!” I felt like Rocky, blinded by his own blood, calling to his beloved Adrian after losing the fight of his life. I felt alone and desperate. “L-I-I-I-T-T-T-A!!!”
Rem and I entered the lot, the deafening rumble of the train combining with the olfactory distress to create an uncomfortable doom-portending numbness. Knowing I would never be able to face my friends and neighbors after such a lapse in responsibility, certain that in my present state no respectable human or canine could abide me, and unwilling to live the only life of which I now felt worthy—the drifting, homeless dung beetle damned like Sisyphus to push my burden eternally up the hill and up again—I held out hope that enough train, however slow, might be left for me to hurl my now worthless and offensive self beneath in a final act of penance. I hung my head and slowed down as tears mingled with feces—salty shit streams dripping from my chin in the sweltering, Tennessee heat. Hoping to find a moment of companionship and mercy in Rem before releasing him home and facing my sentence alone as it should be with any capital offender, I looked down to find that even he, the only one who could testify, at least to my intent, had moved on and was tugging at the leash in an obvious attempt to distance himself from the accused (and who could blame him). I allowed my gaze to wander the length of the lead to the little boy at the end. I felt horrible that I had exposed him in the innocence of his youth to such an atrocity, robbed him of his playmate, and not wanting him to witness the application of my self-imposed sentence. I knew the end of the train would be there soon and must make my goodbyes, so I made my way to silver stud. As I would have expected, he was facing away. I planned on making a quick release rather than force him to engage, but as I reached for his collar, my eyes fell ahead on the target of his attention: Lita.
There she sat, silent as could be, at the edge of the brush, the train rumbling by beyond, the cat nowhere to be seen. She must have heard my desperate cries, I thought. Somehow she had understood the danger, or at least tuned in to the passion of my calls and sensed the need to stop and wait, to reign in her primordial urges and trust in the wisdom of her charge. Together, Rem and I approached the beautiful little hound. I wrapped my arms around her but she sniffed and pulled away. I found where her leash attached to her collar and reached down for the plastic handle she had moments ago yanked from my grip, but the small, nylon lead was stretched tight, back into the thicket, towards the train that had now passed. I gave the cord a tug but it did not move. Unable to penetrate the underbrush to follow the path of the leash, I stood up and walked back to where I had seen Lita, lifetimes ago, follow the scent and sight of the house cat. Through a narrow tunnel in the brush, I could see the end of the leash hanging from an old, rusty and twisted barbed wire fence and it became clear. Lita was no Adrian. She had not heeded my desperate, loving call and waited for me. She had simply met the end of her rope—something we all face at one time or another. I implored Rem to sit and stay, set down his lead and crawled into the wood, following the path of cat, dog, and lead. I untangled the cord from the barbs and carefully retracted my way back to sweet little Lita. Back in the sun, I picked up Rem’s leash and the three of us walked to the house. Along the way, I stopped for the excrement, but all that was left was a remarkably empty plastic bag which I picked up and tossed into a construction dumpster. Back at home, I fed the dogs, washed my face, and said goodbye. The two dogs didn’t even look up from their breakfast as I opened the door and made my exit. They knew I would be back in the evening, and we would do it all over again. After all, I have a reputation to keep.