Nov 142010

Kyle Torke

I should have been less afraid of the barracuda.  Standing on the dock, snorkel and fins dripping from my right hand, facing the ocean, not on land and hovering above the ocean, I floated for a moment.  Seven distinct barriers surrounded me:  a bank of clouds on the far horizon sullied with lightning and banded by an emptied sky above and the flat water below; the wood of the pier beneath my feet and the water rising and falling against the pilings; a series of large stones to prevent the waves from stealing the sand; the sand and beach chairs like freckles; the row of beach front rooms with towels hanging across the banisters like flags of origin; the road behind the hotel; and the low, scrubby jungle heading to the east side of the island where the clouds eventually would storm.   My soon-to-be ex-wife huddled in one of the rooms, reading.  She told me the previous night she didn’t want to remain married.

While snorkeling, I could see the massive keel and rotor of the cruise ship hovering at anchor.  I could also see the sunken remains of a ship fifty meters away.  Between me and the wreck, full of fish and resting on coral, a kind of death pulsating with life, floated the barracuda, simply curious:  sixteen of them forming a circle, the largest behind me, probably four feet long, big with a toothy smile nearly one-third of his total size, as if they were children at recess surrounding the one weakling they knew they could kill.  Below me, two hundred feet of steadily darkening water and, most likely, a sandy floor upon which sea urchin slowly tumbled.  Above me, the sky filtered through the prism of undulating water.  Everywhere I looked, the clear lines of difference, from the barracuda to the rocks to the sand to the sky—I could go anywhere, but everywhere seemed prohibited.  I set out in the clear light of the morning to explore the wreck.  I would have to swim through the wall of barracuda.

Instead, I swam gently and noiselessly to the ladder, trailed by the fish:  who needed those translucent teeth, teeth like hypodermic needles?  Who needs those scars?  I had plenty of other sunken ships in my future.  The other fish kept a wary distance.  I travelled effortlessly from water to metal to wood.    Once I secured myself on land, I did not know what the barracuda were doing in the other world.  I felt safer on the pier, surrounded by the Caribbean sun, but a storm was coming.  On the horizon, I couldn’t see the failure of my marriage or the loss of my professional career, but only the solid bank of clouds pressed between sea and sky, a series of divisions weakening as the lightning coiled nearer and all became black.

The first dog I owned as an adult died jumping out of a two story window, first pawing and then crashing through a screen to charge after a squirrel taunting her from across the street.  The fall didn’t kill her.  She broke both of her front legs, just above the first joint.  After expensive and unsuccessful surgery, I followed the advice of a colleague’s wife, a veterinarian, and had the dog put to sleep.  The near whisper of her letting go on the stainless steel table, her eyes open and staring beyond the light, beyond me, was the quietest moment of Brickslee’s life and seemed inappropriate.  She did not die as she lived.  She was cremated, and I threw away her leash and collar—they were of little use during her life and of none after her death.

Fresh out of Grinnell College, accepted to many schools for graduate work but with little financial opportunity, I was working full time at the Inverness Athletic Club in Denver as a physical trainer and swimming coach and taking courses at the University of Colorado/Denver part-time.  I had, recently and serendipitously, been offered a Teaching Assistant position at the University of Denver and an opportunity to pursue a PhD in English; I had also let go the lease on an apartment I had shared with a friend for the first six months of the lease but had occupied as a single when Mike G moved in with his girlfriend.  The time was ripe for change.  I moved into a small apartment behind my mother’s house in Lakewood, on her property, and decided I needed a dog to keep me busy when I wasn’t reading Shakespeare or teaching composition.

I had always wanted roots.  I preferred stability.  A dog would provide the first anchor to keep me moored near some port.

I drove to the Denver pound and spent about an hour walking through the steel-fenced kennels.  At first, the stench of unwashed dogs and feces—and the incessant barking—was overwhelming.  The atmosphere radiated death.  In the 1990s, most kennels were not kill-free.  Every animal had thirty days to be adopted or be euthanized.  Their gas chamber accommodated seven to thirteen dogs, depending on the size, for any single procedure.  Two large dumpster at the south end of the facility were emptied of corpses every other day.  The workers wore masks of defeat and despondency; they cleaned the cages of animals they knew were doomed.

But the dogs themselves were built of energy, each one plugged into the electrical outlet of pure animal joy—wagging and jumping and barking as I stopped at the cage door.  In George Orwell’s “A hanging,” a dog bounds from the crowd, tongue lolling in joy, and licks the poor prisoner’s hand, completely separate from and oblivious to the human drama unfolding around him; in Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” a dog goes on with his doggy business as Icarus, something amazing, falls from the sky into the ocean.  I remember watching as a kid a television documentary on Indonesia where a man walked out to a kennel of dogs, steps inside to the tumult and joy of all the dogs leaping on him, licking his hands, begging to be scratched and loved, before the man selected one, took it out of the kennel, and beheaded it on a butcher table in preparation for using the meat in his restaurant.

I have no doubt dogs feel emotions—of anticipation, joy, dread—but they are not human emotions; they are rooted too firmly in the dog-iness of their much more compact, much more intuitive worlds where there is little room for misery (and no room for worrying about their own misery) because their happiness swells to such enormous proportions.  I have met sad dogs; I have met sick dogs, but I have never played fetch with a morose beagle or taken a walk with an introspective and self-absorbed Dachsund.  No dog writes poetry—the slaughter bench of human misery is but a flea to be scratched away.  The darker moods of human self loathing, of desires and addictions and mood disorders, of narcissistic mirror gazing or Sissaphysian angst, of romantic intrigues and financial double dealings, have no attraction in the face of a bone, a squeak toy, or the click of the leash being released from the collar.

The puppy that caught my interest was an eight-week-old chow-husky mix with brown fur and white markings.  Her siblings danced and yelped as she sat in the corner, patient with their antics, but not interested in playing.  I thought she had a steady, controlled disposition; I liked that she wouldn’t be difficult to train and seemed like the puppy most ready to have a master.

I discovered at my first visit to the Veterinarian that Brickslee, Bricks for short, had kennel cough.  After a round of antibiotics, her true nature emerged.  And she earned her name:  hard headed and a little slow of thought, though I always suspected she only played dumb so she could get what she really wanted—freedom to run around the world.

Bricks was always finding trouble—she had more lives than the cats who lived with my mother.  When she was only three months old, I was riding in the back of a friend’s pick up with Bricks on a leash, enjoying the weather and the wind in my hair.  I had my fingers loose on the puppy’s leash, but suddenly Bricks ran up my legs and jumped over the side of the truck.  We were traveling 40 mph on a busy street directly across from Northglenn High School.  In the moment I saw her leap, I realized I had two options:  release the leash and hope for the best or hold on to her and risk pulling her back toward the truck tires and in to traffic.

I let go the leash and yelled for the driver to stop:  “My dog just jumped!”   I watched Bricks hit the curb, roll, and lay still as several cars skidded around her.  I ran to her.  She was breathing, but I couldn’t see any blood; her eyes were closed.  She woke at the vet’s office when the female doctor inserted a thermometer.  Because it was after hours, the vet charged me double to tell me my dog was tough, had a few bruises, and was otherwise simply cantankerous and behaving like a puppy should.

Another time, when Bricks was two, I was writing an essay on Keats’ love letters to Fanny Brawne while Bricks played in the yard.  I could see her from the window just opposite my computer chasing grasshoppers and generally bounding through my mother’s garden.  While I pontificated about whether Keats and Fanny had consummated their relationship, I noticed the dog walking in a straight line from the fence to the apartment’s door, fence to door.  The behavior seemed odd, so I abandoned my exploration of 19th century sexual mores and discovered my dog had, somehow, wedged her nose between two slats of the fence, twisted, and broken the bones on her upper palate.  She was breathing with difficulty, blood snorting through her nostrils like some wounded asthmatic dragon.

The vet, who knew me by name, stuck what looked to me like long Q-tips in each nostril, straightening the bones and clearing the passage, provided me with some painkillers and antibiotics, and sent me home as soon as the nose stopped hemorrhaging.  “The pills are for the dog, not you,” he explained with a smile.

The experience was expensive, but most of the blood was outside on the lawn—unlike the time my mother’s dog, Lady, a feisty Australian Shepherd mix, taught Bricks a lesson by bighting a long scratch on her ear.  I didn’t realize dogs’ ears were so vascular, but when I brought Bricks into my apartment after I heard her yelp, the blood started to flow, and, apparently, the scratch irritated my canine companion because she bolted through the house shaking her head as if she had just emerged from a pond.  By the time I caught her and bandaged her head, my home looked like a serial killer’s workstation with blood splatter decorating the walls in patterns Jackson Pollock would have admired.

There were, of course, other medical emergencies.  When I was dating the woman I would, two years later, marry, I had two dogs, Bricks and Nikita.  Nikita, my girlfriend’s dog, was a sleek, reddish Chow-Akita mix, and for the first three years, the two dogs were best friends.  They were, in fact, a mirror of my own relationship:  new, fresh, full of generous companionship.  I took them camping, and on one adventure, they cornered a porcupine.  Nikita, more deliberate and cautious by nature, dove in for one curious bite and, consequently, had only a ring of quills around her nose and mouth, but Bricks, once she was poked, became infuriated and would not relinquish her attack.  I heard them howling from the campsite, and when I finally caught up to them, I had to pull Bricks off the porcupine, which merely ambled beneath a fallen log and disappeared.  Bricks had quills in all four paws, her chest, nose mouth, ears, and shoulders.  Quills poked out of her gums and nestled close to her eyes.  Little blips of blood formed at the base of each quill, which, I discovered when I tried to extract them, are barbed with rings that keep them anchored in the flesh.

I drove both dogs to the nearest veterinarian—who had to be called in to the office for an additional fee and after-hour wages.  He provided local anesthesia to both dogs, which didn’t put them under, but incapacitated them.  They lay on the tables, moving in slow motion.  Their tongues rolled out with precise, soft taffy grace and then rolled back in with the same deliberate precision as the vet used pliers and forceps to remove the quills, commenting as he worked on Bricks that she must be a headstrong and determined puppy.

Weeks after the attack, Bricks was limping.  Two more quills emerged from the flesh of her paws and one from her chest.  I had a vet remove the first two; I removed the one from her chest—and the broken pieces I extracted from her hind feet when time worked them from beneath the skin.

She received her most serious injury, though, when she tried to climb the fence surrounding the back yard of a house I rented near the University of Denver when she was five-years-old.  I had moved out of the apartment and shared a house with my fiancé.  The dog had scaled the fence, but slipped on the top bar, catching her hind foot as she fell backward and tearing her Achilles tendon.  Fortunately, my sister Karen worked for a veterinarian as a tech assistant, so he charged me only half his normal fee to repair the tendon.  Bricks limped around for about three weeks, but soon after she felt well enough to run, she began trying to escape again—she was, I believe, Houdini incarnate.

From her earliest days as a puppy, Bricks wanted to run away.  I wanted to  provide her freedom, but she would never return to me, ignored my whistles, appeals, hollers, and flung items (hats, balls, rocks, sticks, stuffed rabbits, clods of dirt, a whistle, a sandwich) whenever I let her off leash.  She wouldn’t wander away—she would sprint, and I would end up sprinting after her.  I don’t know what she was running toward—or if she was running away—but she seemed always to be happier when the future (a creek, someone else’s trash, another dog, a junkyard full of old tires, a muddy pond, a forest) was being chased.  She was not a lap dog; she did not want to be comforted and taken care of.  She wanted to live at break-neck speed, damn the consequences.  I feared for her; the world was full of bigger dogs and faster cars and broken bottles under the surface of the water.  She thought being off the leash meant she could fulfill her destiny.  Being tethered to a mere human, a protective human, would keep her from earning the scars that dogs must compare in the after life—battle wounds that provide character and give meaning to their brief jaunt on terra firma.

My disposition ran in opposite directions—or so I tried to convince myself as I moved toward marriage and a settled life.  I wanted the leash, the dog-run.  I didn’t want to run away.  I wanted to build walls and enclose myself.  I was finishing a Phd; I would become a professor; I wanted to publish, nest, father, and fall into a moribund, uncomplicated, happy life nestled at the feet and fire of domestic gods.

Because the responsibility of owning a dog was mine, and not my mother’s, as she told me, I had to find a way to care for Bricks when I was in classes or teaching.  At first, I left Bricks in the yard, but she quickly learned to climb the three foot wooden picket-fence, and two “dog at large” citations and many hours scouring the neighborhood later, I built a dog run with a six foot chain link fence.  She burrowed under the fence.  I poured concrete along the perimeter.  She learned to climb the fence and slink over the top.  I strung loose chicken wire across the top like razor wire.  But she continued to escape, to elude each improvement, and I didn’t understand how until I witnessed her take a running leap at the six foot wooden fence that made up one wall of her kennel, catch the top picket, pull herself to the top, and tumble over.

Nearly out of alternatives, I created a zip wire for her in the kennel and bought a harness.  The first day I tried the contraption, when I returned from a class on Milton and his relationship with his wife and daughters, I discovered her dehydrated and nearly unconscious, both front feet trapped in the harness as she had tried to pry herself out of the straightjacket.

When I allowed her freedom, invariably she found trouble.  Once when we were exploring the gardens on the University’s campus, she disappeared in some bushes.  I heard noises; perhaps she was being mugged.  When I called her, I was surprised that she burst from the bushes toward me followed by two cats, one black and the other tortoise shell, who sprinted in opposite direction. Bricks had a fish head and spine stuck to her collar like a tie.  She seemed proud of herself.

Another time, she bolted from a game of fetch with a lacrosse ball and ran into heavy traffic.  A car hit her without slowing down and sent her tumbling fifteen feet onto the sidewalk.  I was a distance behind her, running to catch her, when I saw her stand and walk toward me, tail between her legs.  She sat at my feet obediently, wagged her tail, and whimpered.  Little drops of blood leaked from her nose.  This time, no vet.  She seemed fine and, perhaps, had learned a lesson.

I don’t know if Bricks’s running away was temperament or some psychological need to disappear.  When she would escape, I looked—and usually found her rooting through trashcans or at the nearby park or in someone else’s yard, enjoying the sunshine.  She seemed, usually, as if she wanted to be found.  There were times, though, that I gave up—thought she really had pulled off the most magical of tricks:  permanent erasure.

In North Carolina, when she was nearly six-years-old, Bricks went on a walk with my young bride and a couple of friends at a state park, a three-mile circuit around some dense woods.  About a mile in, Bricks located a deer and took off after her.  I was grading poems from my introduction to creative writing class when I received the call that the woods had swallowed our dog.  I drove to the trailhead and walked three miles, blowing a whistle and hollering, hoping the woods found her unsatisfying and would spit her out, hoping she would from the black box and not be sawn in half.

We gave up and sat on a rock.  We were crying, resigned to the loss of our pet—when from between two aspen appeared our bloodied, sweat-stained dog, head bowed with fatigue, tonguing nearly touching the ground, both paws bloodied.  She could barely walk, but she lay down about fifteen feet from where we discovered her and rolled on her side.  I carried her to the car, fireman style, with her belly behind my neck, her legs clenched against my chest, and her head dangling as if she were dead .

I don’t know if she caught the deer or if she ran from one end of the preserve to the other or became lost or simply had a marvelous adventure, but one of her primary instincts was always to chase—butterflies, chickens, balls, deer.  I was walking her around a park in Lakewood, Colorado, one winter day; snow covered the ground, and the large lake was frozen.  I let her off the leash (the triumph of optimism over experience), and she immediately bolted onto the ice toward of flock of Canadian geese nestled near the center where the city had installed a bubbler to keep the ice from completely closing.  She tore into the birds with abandon and glee—too much glee, she discovered, when her feet failed to gain traction and she skidded into the open water and submerged.

Several people on the trail gasped.  The ice was too unstable for me to rescue her, and she had disappeared beneath the ice.  I was certain she was gone.  Then I saw her snout, then a paw, then the other paw.  The geese were honking and circling her as she inched her way onto the thicker part of the ice.  Someone said, “She’ll never make it.  She’s too heavy and wet!”  And another:  “Dogs have weak front legs—she’ll fall back in.”  Despite the Pollyannas, Bricks recovered her four feet and trotted over to me, disregarding the geese who followed closely, necks bent and hissing.  She submitted to the leash, and we avoided a citation from the officer who had watched the whole affair.  We were all safe now, and the remainder of the walk was completely unremarkable— a very safe, boring, and chilled tour.

Bricks loved the water almost as much as she loved avoiding my entreaties to “Come, Bricks!”  I spent an hour sitting on the beach of a small lake on the Elon University Campus one spring day as she chased three ducks from one end of the pond to the other.  The mother and two ducklings stayed about a foot in front of her, the little black nose bobbing on the surface like a water skier behind the ducks.  They seemed to enjoy taunting her.  After she had gone under twice and was struggling to catch her breath, she finally came to shore.  I was twenty minutes late for a meeting with the Dean.  I was sweating.  The Dean asked how my classes were progressing.

The dog did not have a mean streak.  She was confident and playful around other dogs, got along well enough with cats, and generally seemed happy to let the world roll out before her as the world should without interfering and without anger or resentment toward the natural order.  Like poor Lenny in Of Mice and Men, though, she sometimes played too rough.

I was working on a different essay (this time on Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter”) when I saw her playing with a ball in the back yard, tossing it in the air, throwing it to the side, running it down to toss it again.  I didn’t think much of the playfulness at first, but after a while, I thought, why is she still playing with a ball?  She had a notoriously short attention span.  When I went outside to check on her, she was around the back in the garden, near where my mother kept some chickens.  When I called, she came running toward me with her mouth closed, tail wagging.  She behaved with unusual solicitude.

I rubbed her head and would have gone back inside except I noticed, as she turned, that two small protruded her mouth.  I thought, how odd she’s not panting.  She had jumped the fence between the yard and the small garden and chicken pen, and snatched a yellow fuzzed chick.  She thought I wouldn’t notice, I guess, the two little claws hanging between her lips like dual cigarettes—one she had lit for me.

The pullet was too traumatized and bloody, once I pulled it from her mouth, to live, but was still alive; I felt the humane action was to kill it.  I smashed the baby chicken with a rock and returned to my essay, a little disturbed that my playful dog was an egg-sucking murderer.

After three years of living together, Bricks and Nikita started to fight; Bricks was never the instigator.  I faced a similar progression in my marriage.  Nikita became territorial, and she decided it was her time to become the home’s alpha dog.  The fights were aggressive and difficult to break up—I hit them with brooms, splashed water on them, screamed, hit them:  usually, I had to physically pull them apart, often at great risk.  Once, one of them bit my hand, and the digit between my wedding band and hand swelled to four times its natural size; a doctor had to remove my ring with a special cutting tool designed, apparently, for just such emergencies.

Nikita was stronger and faster, and often these fights go to the dog who is most intent.  For a couple months, we kept them apart, but then during a battle, Nikita seized and broke Bricks’s back leg, and we knew something would have to be done.  Shortly after this, Nikita attacked my one-year-old son, Conrad, when he picked up her food bowl.  Conrad took four stitches in his face, and my wife demanded I get rid of both dogs.

Nikita was adopted by a young couple; the girl had been a student two years earlier; they weren’t planning on having kids.  Bricks went to a student who moved with her to New Jersey; in that distant land, Bricks jumped out of a second story window in an attempt to punish a chattering squirrel.

The boy who adopted her did not pay her medical bills; he did not know what to do with a damaged dog (who had, by his account, been little but trouble since he had her—though she was a good companion, he said).  I drove half way to New Jersey to collect her.  She limped out of his car, both broken feet swollen and flapping as she walked on the leash.  Her head was bowed.  She had gained silver in her face and back the past year.  She wagged her tail and licked my hand.  She wanted to roll over and present me her belly to rub, but her feet wouldn’t allow her.  I gathered her in my arms and set her in the back seat.  I paid the boy a hundred dollars for his trouble.  I paid the vet’s bill for the surgery.  I put balm on the stitches sprouting like plum trees in the shaved patch of fur on both front legs.

I, too, was hobbled.  I was three years away from living alone in an apartment near campus, waiting for the judicial system to decide the fate of my marriage.  A year later, I would have to leave North Carolina for Colorado where my children had been relocated.  No one jumps in front of cars or out of second story windows, no one chases squirrels, and doesn’t come away bruised.

Perhaps we all die broken and defeated.  Perhaps Bricks’s wounds, the bones snapped as she pursued her doggy life, oblivious of my marriage’s failing, oblivious that she had been evicted from our family for the other dog’s misbehavior, unable to grieve as humans do with self-pity and cynicism, unsure, finally, why she was being punished with the raft of pain upon which life forced her to float the last few miles—perhaps the wounds are emblematic of the scars each of us accumulates.

My son is proud of the marks on his face—they give me character, he says, and a great story—and Bricks would have chased a ball had I thrown it for her in her last days, limping along on two feet that gained another joint, that would never heal, that the doctor said should be amputated:  and she probably would have run away when I called, too, because there is always some other adventure worth pursuing, and leashes merely keep us from catching all the things running away from us.

But no run is endless—eventually we find a wall we can’t scale or an ocean too big to swim or a storm from which no shelter will cover us, and so we stand on the beach surveying the vast roiling water, dark and quiet as the subconscious, and catch our breath.  We see and accept our limitations.  We see the circle of teeth that may or may not attack.  We slip noiselessly into resignation—the dull, cold fact that we can’t run anymore.

On the table in the veterinarian’s office, Brickslee lay as if she were sunbathing on her side, tail out flat behind her, mouth slightly open.  I rubbed her ruined feet as the light shifted in her eyes.  The doctor excused herself with a pat on my arm, and I heard the door close behind me.  The dog’s breathing slowed, the panting stopped.  I leaned in close to her face, the broken nose and scarred ear.

Bricks never regretted jumping fences, of running away.  She never feared what she couldn’t see and, instead, preferred to leap.  We pay a price for crossing boundaries.  Most of us stay on the beach or in our rooms—maybe our whole life.  Even the slightest chill in the water, or the slightest shadow under the waves, will have us retreat to shore.  We accumulate scars as victims, not adventurers.  The explorer part of us withers, and we are afraid to immerse fully into the mysteries spread before us, a nearly limitless horizon.  We retreat to the small strip of safety between the ocean and the jungle.

I wanted to say goodbye.  I wanted the moment to have meaning.

I put my hand on her hips.  I felt her feet twitch beneath my hand, and before I could say anything, her body lost all tension, and I knew she had leaped into the surf.