Monday, December 29, 2008

Yellow Dog

I saw this cute movie with my family the other day. "Marley and Me" wasn't rocket science but it did have a way of tugging at your heart, especially if you're a dog lover. We have a big yellow lab like the one in the movie. She wasn't quite as crazy as a puppy, but she did have a habit of destroying every dog bed we got her for about the first three years. I did have to bury wire fencing under our wooden one so she wouldn't dig her way out. I did blow my knee out burying a wire for one of those "invisible fences" that she never did obey. And she did chew the heck out of the front bumper on the only new car I've ever owned - the very first day I got the car. Still, she is one of the best friends I've ever had. She's mellowed now. At the ripe old age of 9 she still walks with us at night but she doesn't drag me on the leash the way she used to. I know that when she's gone I'll be one sad man.

I wrote this memoir a couple years ago, about another big yellow dog I crossed paths with. At a K-mart no less. It was just one of those chance encounters that when you write about it, it becomes sort of permanent. Sasha was just a puppy at the time. She was still taking me for a walk instead of the other way around. Anyway, it's called "Yellow Dog".

Thunder rolled like a freight train across the summertime sky. There was a blue-green diffused light that I always associated with severe weather. The treetops, heavy with early summer leaves were lunging back and forth in the circular wind.

I found myself in the car on this early stormy summer evening. Dog food. I should have written it on the grocery list the week before. I ended up making my weekly trip to the store on Sunday and forgot the dog food. I had just enough for Sasha’s early morning bowl. My forgetfulness meant that I had to venture out on this windblown evening.

The storm began in earnest when I was about half way through Lexington. It was about then that it was clear that this was not an ordinary summer shower. It looked dangerous and the safest place was probably inside. Huge drops of rain, the size of grapes, pelted my windshield making it difficult to see. I switched the wipers to high. Low clouds, full of moisture raced across the darkening sky as I pulled into the crowded parking lot. There was an open space fairly close to the entrance and I hustled to get inside before I got too wet. The worst was yet to come – and it was coming fast.

As I walked through the wind and rain I shielded my eyes and hung my face low to avoid getting the rain in my eyes. It was chilly for this time of year. I felt goose bumps race across my arms and back. Unexpected movement to my left startled me as I approached the overhang to the store entrance.

An old ragged dog cowered behind some canoes chained together outside the store. It wasn’t much shelter but the dog managed to crawl partway under the lowest canoe to shield itself from the fiercest of the storm.

It was a big dog, about the size of Sasha, my yellow labrador retriever. It wore no collar. It was thin and bedraggled. Its ribs arched outward from a grubby yellowish coat. Its tail was tucked firmly between its legs and our eyes met for a brief moment before it looked away and settled into the shelter of the boats. One eye was slightly larger than the other and one of the ears had a huge tear in it. It was an old wound for it had healed leaving a wedge shaped hole in the tip. Bleary eyed and tired looking, the dog looked quickly away and slunk lower to the cement. It did not want contact.

I looked around to see if there was an owner nearby, not expecting to see anyone. I didn’t. This was a stray, its owner long gone. I wondered about the dog. Where had it been? How did it get here? What would become of it? I turned into the bright warmth of the store.

The image of the dog stayed with me as I walked through the aisles of the busy store, despite my efforts to think of something else. The storm raged outside. Occasional thunder rumbled through the ceiling and we could hear the roar of heavy raindrops as they pounded the roof. Overhead lights flickered occasionally. Customers gasped each time, expecting the power to go out.

The store manager, a huge, soft, fussy man with beads of sweat standing out on his upper lip, traversed the front of the store quickly looking important, barking orders to the cashiers and stockers. Walking back and forth, commanding his minions. He was nervous. He was in charge. He had the power.

The manager had the kind of eyeglasses which made his eyes look large and his big stomach bounced up and down as he walked from one area to another – giving orders. Power.

At one point our paths crossed as I was searching the signs above the grocery section for dog food and dog biscuits. When I asked him for the location of these he didn’t answer me or even look in my direction. Instead, he ordered a young man who was busy stocking the shelves to take me there. He had a vest on. “How may I help you?” was silk screened onto the back of the blue vest.

“That’s OK,” I said. “Just tell me what aisle.”

When I completed my shopping and was standing in the checkout line the lights flickered once, twice and finally the power went out altogether. There was no panic but the shrill voice of the store manager rose above the commotion, “Be calm, everyone!” he screamed in a terrified voice. “The backup lights will be on within a few moments. I repeat, BE CALM!” He brushed past me importantly, smelling strongly of cologne and sweat. I could faintly see that the doors had been stuck in the open position when the electricity went out. While it was stormy and dark outdoors, the darkness inside was so complete that the rushing clouds could be seen clearly. People were silhouetted against the storm outside.

As some moved toward the front of the store, toward the doors, a couple of Wal-Mart employees stood close by asking people not to leave until the electricity came back on – just to be sure that everyone had checked out and that no one was shoplifting.

As suddenly as the lights went out, the electricity came back on with a loud hum. The bright lights dazzled our eyes and the manager heaved a sigh of relief, mopping his forehead with a large red handkerchief pulled from his back pocket. As I stood back in the checkout line I saw a disturbing sight. There were red blotches all around the floor at the front of the store. As my eyes adjusted to the glare of the overhead lights I could see that the uneven spots on the floor were actually bloody paw prints in a path which led round and round on the shiny linoleum floor.

“There it is!” screamed a woman in the front of a checkout lane. Cowering in a corner near where the ice machine met the wall was the yellow dog I had seen earlier. Girl dog. Totally soaked, tail between its legs, head down in a defensive posture. It was shaking with cold, with fear. It held up its right front paw, which was dripping blood – it looked black – onto the otherwise spotless floor.

“Get that filthy thing out of here! Get it out of here!” yelled the manager frantically. He was waving his hands around like he was swatting some unseen flies. None of the store employees made a move to follow his command. His eyes looked even larger now and sweat stains were growing under his arms. Two of the cashiers slowly came forward and approached the big yellow dog. It cowered lower and looked at them menacingly. They were afraid. Big yellow dog was afraid. Blood dripped from the upraised paw. Silence. For a few moments everyone in the place was staring at the wet wounded creature.

That moment is etched in my mind; the spreading pool of blood on the gleaming floor, black in the harsh overhead lights, the ragged ear, the wet matted fur, the big store manager puffing and sweating, the scared cashiers inching their way toward the frightened, injured creature. The scene from an overacted movie.
The manager, agitated that his orders were not being followed quickly enough, broke the nervous silence yelling in a high pitched falsetto, “Somebody grab that thing and get it out of my store!”

The cashier closest to the dog stopped and crossed her arms across her chest. She had been offended and wasn’t about to take orders given so harshly. She walked to her station at the register. “Sorry,” she mumbled sarcastically, in a voice just loud enough to be heard by those around her. “That’s not in my job description.”

The manager was getting desperate. Not only was a wet and bleeding stray dog messing up his immaculately clean store, but he was being told off by an employee. Another cashier, not to be outdone by the back-talker, also turned away and said, “Why don’t you get it out of here?” She also crossed her arms over her chest and returned to her register with a look of smug satisfaction.

“I wouldn’t touch that filthy thing!” he snorted.

I broke open the box of dog biscuits before paying for it, left my basket on the floor in the checkout line and walked slowly over to the frightened animal. “Here old girl,” I spoke softly, offering the biscuit. Head down, water dripping from her ears, belly, snout and tail, she glanced up meeting my eyes for the briefest instant before again looking down. Lifting her nose slightly higher in the air she sniffed in my direction but wouldn’t accept my peace offering.

“Won’t somebody do something?! Call 911!” shouted the frenzied manager.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” grumbled an elderly man whose job it was to gather shopping carts from the parking lot. He walked slowly and steadily toward the big yellow dog. The old guy, “PAT” was on his nametag, knelt down and let the bleeding dog sniff the back of his hand. Then, sensing no danger from the frightened creature, Pat grabbed it by the scruff on the neck and dragged it in the direction of the door. Although it was a rather large dog, probably around 50 pounds, it slid easily because of the wet floor and its bloody paw. It left a red brown skid mark on the floor where it had been dragged. The old man pulled the dog. It struggled but didn’t snarl. It dragged its legs and resisted, but the man in the Wal-Mart vest shoved it outside into the pouring rain. The last I saw of the dog it was turning its head to the side, squinting in the rain, looking where to go. It trotted off to the right, head down, tail between its legs, favoring the bloody paw.

The store manager started yelling for someone to get a bucket with water and bleach to clean up the mess on the floor. I guess that was in someone’s job description because the employees began getting back to work and before long, a skinny guy with long greasy hair had a bucket and mop and was swabbing up the mess.

I finished my store business and headed back to my car. I looked around for the dog but it was nowhere in sight. I unlocked my car and switched on the heat. I sat thinking for a while, then started up my car and headed for home.

When I pulled into the garage, my dog Sasha was waiting for me. Dog smile. Wagging tail. She was glad to see me. I rubbed her chest the way she likes. She rolled over lazily onto her back, tongue lolling out to the side as I continued to scratch her. I thought of the dog from the store and wondered where she was.

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