Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Dalmatian

This piece is a little long for a single post. You can always read it in segments. When I finished the final draft, I couldn't bring myself to divide it. The whole thing took place in 10 minutes or so. That's about real time as you read. I wrote this memoir in my classroom this semester while my second graders wrote their own.

The Dalmatian

It was October. Almost Halloween. The air had changed in our small southern town in the past week. It would still get warm again, but the changing leaves had finally signaled an end to the persistent, muggy, hot days. The last several evenings had actually been cool, a welcome relief. This mid October morning was foggy. It wasn’t the thick soupy fog that we sometimes experience in the fall, but the kind that settles over the freshly plowed fields and pours across the moonlit country roads, trailing cars travelling through it like a ghostly tail.

I loaded my two sleepyhead boys into the Toyota Camry, buckled them into the back seat and headed through the country to the highway that would carry us across town to school. Devin, our second grader, was groggy but cooperative as I helped him slip into his pants and shirt. I hoisted him up against my shoulder and carried him through the garage to the car in the driveway already warming up. After dressing kindergarten Colin and laying him gently in the backseat and buckling him in, I put a small pillow under each of their precious heads and covered them with small blankets made by my mom.

This was our new car, the only new car I’d ever had and, most likely, the only new car I would ever have. Silver, shiny, not a scratch on it. There were no milk stains from spilled sippy cups or crumbs from car snacks. This car still had that special new car smell, the smell of new fabric and freshly molded plastic. I knew it wouldn’t retain that smell for long but it would be fun while it lasted.

Once, when the kids were really little and the car was still quite new, Devin referred to our new commuter vehicle as the “Boymobile” and the name stuck for many years.

This October morning was not particularly memorable when we got into our regular routine. The boys were asleep, NPR was on the radio and I was getting my early morning dose of the news. Highway 378 was about five miles away from our rural home. It was busy and fast. The posted speed limit was fifty-five but most cars travelled faster than that. At the time, 378 was mainly a country drive. There were a few scattered homes and some small shops but very few neighborhoods and no strip malls. There was an auto body repair shop, a little gym, a mobile home area with about twenty homesteads, a little cement block bar called Rags to Richies, a used car lot, and a sawmill, which cut boards and beams from rough timber.

As I was tooling along on that mid October morning, I barely noticed these familiar sights. My mind was on the school day ahead, my sleeping boys in the buckled up back seat with their car pillows and blankets. I thought about pulling the box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch out of the supply closet in my classroom and getting milk from the office fridge and making sure that they brushed their teeth before heading out to their own classrooms and their own day of school.

I had taken this drive for so many days that I was on autopilot – seeing the road, but not really seeing it, driving the speed limit but not being fully present. It was a morning like so many mornings, a day that began like so many days. Darkness, headlights, foggy mist, occasional streetlamps, intermittent windshield wipers slapping back and forth, Bob Edwards reading the news on the radio, snoozing little boys in the backseat. Just a morning like so many others.

Without warning, a dim silhouette moved across the road from my right. My instincts kicked in and I hit the brake pedal, swerving left into the divided highway’s turning lane. Then, as if caught in a camera flash – there it was, frozen in my headlights, a beautiful black and white dog. A Dalmatian. The light from my headlights reflected bright in its eyes. My own eyes wide, my fingers gripping tightly on the steering wheel, I pressed the brakes hard, already knowing that it was too late. The dog was too close. It ran straight into the path of my too fast car.

I heard and felt the impact as the right front corner of my car connected with the dog. There was a sickening crunching sound and a dull vibration I could feel as well as hear. That headlight immediately went out and the steering wheel shuddered as I swerved back into my lane.

My eyes searched the rear view mirror as I pulled right and drove into the parking lot of a small private gym called “Big Guys”. My wheels skidded loudly in the parking lot gravel. Throwing the shift lever into park, I looked into the back seat of the car to see Devin and Colin still asleep. The sound and vibration did not bother them in the least. I pushed in the flasher button on the dashboard.

There was a cool damp mist now as I got out of the car and looked onto the highway. I could see the dog’s form sprawled on the wet road. A man darted across to where the dog lay. He scooped it up and continued to the other side of the highway. Two men emerged from Big Guys gym. It was the size of a doublewide trailer. Both guys were large and very muscular and wore tight t-shirts. They were doublewides too.

“What happened?” said one. He had black hair and a really short haircut. It was the style my dad had back in the 60’s. We called it a flattop.

“I guess it was his dog,” I said. “It ran into the road.” I looked into their faces. I didn’t see blame. The other guy also had dark hair and a military haircut. It was short all over. They looked a lot alike. Brothers? They looked concerned.

They guy with the buzz cut said, “Didja hit it bad? We heard the brakes and a smack.”

“Yeah,” I said. We were about to cross the road. I was reluctant to leave the boys but at the same time I didn’t want to wake them. I didn’t know what we would see on the other side of the highway, but I was pretty sure that I didn’t want them to see. The three of us lined up to cross. I was glad they were coming with me.

Cars and truck flew by spraying water up from the road in trailing cloudy mist. Between the cars and trucks I could see the man, his big dog in his lap, his head bowed as though in prayer.

Finally there was a break in the traffic and the two big men and I ran across the road. The guy was sitting in the cindery dirt on the shoulder of the road. It was beginning to drizzle. As we got closer we could hear him moan. It wasn’t until we got close that I could hear the words he was crying out.

“My fault… so sorry… all my fault, Obie… so sorry…”

He was oblivious to our presence. He sat there, in the near dark, in the early morning drizzle, in his tears and in his pain. We crowded around him, off the highway but not by much. Each car and truck sprayed us with oily water from the rain-slicked road. And, while there were four of us there, this man was alone with his dying dog.

He had dark wavy hair and a red plaid shirt, blue jeans, leather work boots and thick horn rimmed glasses. Obie was across his lap, limp head dangling down. His coat was brilliant white with coal black spots. He looked beautiful. There was not a mark on him. He looked perfect. Except that his eyes were glazed over and blood trickled from his nostrils. His blood was black in the early morning darkness. The rain was misting over the man's glasses. “Obie,” he cried.

“Man, I am so sorry,” I said. “He was just there. It happened so fast. I couldn’t stop.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” He spoke softly. It was barely more than a whisper. I knelt down next to him. The body builders squatted down too. They were uncomfortable but they were not going back to the gym. Not yet. “I shouldn’t have let him off the leash.” He was crying. I couldn’t actually see his tears but I could hear them in his voice. “I never let him off the leash. He’s not much more than a puppy. He’s just a year old.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to us or to himself. It didn’t matter.

“I’m so sorry,” I said again. I reached out to touch the dog’s head, to rub Obie behind his ears the way my big yellow dog liked.

“No,” he said, more insistently. It was my fault, not yours.” There was a pause. “What’s your name?” he asked.


“I’m sorry, Tim. This is the last thing you needed on your way to work.” I didn’t know how to answer. His dog was dying in his lap. I had hit it with my car.

“Dude,” said one of the Big Guys, “Do you want to get your dog to a vet? Maybe there is time to save him.” Cars and trucks flashed by carrying their passengers to their own busy workdays.

“It’s too late for that,” said the sad man. We looked at Obie. He was still breathing but it was weak and irregular. When there was a break in the traffic we could hear rattling form his chest, saw the blood running from his nose. It was definitely too late. We all knew it.

“What’s your name?” I asked him in return.

“Mark.” He began to cry again, his shoulders heaving. Mark dropped his head. Snot dripped from the end of his nose. He didn’t care. I think the two Big Guys from the gym cried. I know I did. We stayed like that for a long minute. It was a tender moment I’ll never forget. Sitting with strangers in the cold rain, at the edge of an early morning South Carolina highway. A dying dog. Speeding traffic. Sleeping boys. Tenderness for this sad stranger. Two tough body builders with big hearts. And tears. And rain. And pain.

It began to rain in earnest. A big tractor-trailer threw up an uncomfortable spray. The Big Guys looked at each other, then at me. Then all three us looked down at Obie, cradled in Mark’s lap. He drew in a deep breath and exhaled raggedly. It was his last. The blood that was streaming from his nose slowed to a drip. The temporary kinship we felt was broken when Obie’s breathing gave out.

“I am so sorry, Mark,” I said again.

“He was my best friend,” Mark moaned. “I know that sounds stupid. But it’s true.” We paused, waiting for him to make the next move. I had to get back to the car. It was unlikely that the boys would wake up. Once we were on our way they stayed asleep until I woke them up when we got to school. But it was possible they would stir since the car wasn’t moving. I didn’t want them to be afraid if they woke up and I wasn’t there.

“Let’s get you back, man,” said the guy with the buzz cut.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “I know.” I took hold of one of Mark’s arms. The guy with the flat top took the other. Mark rose slowly but he didn’t take his eyes off of the limp dog in his arms. Flattop put his hand on Mark’s shoulder, sort of leading him from behind. We led him across that highway, pausing in the now steady rain in the turning lane to wait for a break in the predawn rush hour traffic before hustling him over to the other side.

“Sorry about your dog, Mark” said the guy with the flat top. He squeezed his shoulder.

“Yeah, man. That’s tough. Real tough,” said his brother. They meant it too. I was glad that they were there at that time. I was grateful that they could reach out to this sad stranger.

I peeked into the car. The windows were steamed. Sure enough, Devin and Colin were sleeping peacefully. “Where do you stay, Mark?” I needed to assess the damage to my car and get back to work. I knew that one of the headlights was out but I hadn’t heard any rubbing against the tire or any unusual noises from the engine. More than likely the damage, outside of the headlight, was only cosmetic. I knew that we’d be a little later than usual getting into my classroom, but I felt like I needed to stick around for a few minutes. Mark seemed to be in shock.

“Hmm?” He was alone with his thoughts. He hadn’t heard my question.

“Where do you live, man? Can I give you a lift?”

“No, that’s OK. We live at Victorian Lakes. It’s just up the road.” Victorian Lakes was a very modest trailer park. No lake. Nothing Victorian. “Hey, I’m sorry about your car.”

“Don’t worry about it. Are you sure you’re OK? What are you gonna do?”

“What am I going to do?” he repeated. Then he paused. The rain was coming down pretty hard now. It dripped from his earlobes and nose. Droplets covered the lenses of his glasses. “I’m going to bury my dog.”

“Do you want a hand? I’ve got some time.”

“No, man. You get on. This is something I need to do myself.” And he turned back the way he and Obie had come. His head was down. His shoulders sagged under the weight of his beloved dog. His best friend. I watched him for a minute as he walked back to the trailer park. I was getting soaked and we still had a half hour drive to work.

Getting into the car I switched on the AC and turned the temperature up to clear the condensation from the windows. I could see him in the rear view mirror. He slowed down and stopped in front of the trailer park. He turned in a slow circle looking confused. Dazed. Then he sank to his knees. He was kneeling in a cone of rainy yellow light being cast by the streetlamp over his head. He tilted his head back, soaking wet, kneeling there in that yellow light. He cried. I couldn’t hear him. My windows were up. Rain drummed on my car and the sounds of traffic drowned out all other sounds. But that big tough man, dressed in his working clothes, held that dead, limp, beautiful dog in his arms and cried.

That was about ten years ago. I never ran into Mark at the store or the bank. I never saw him again. My boys are both young men. Our big yellow dog, just a puppy back then herself, is getting older now. Her muzzle is turning white. Mine too. And she is creaky when she wakes up in the morning. Me too. But I appreciate the love and companionship of a good dog. I am sad that Mark didn’t get the chance to spend all these years with Obie. Maybe he got another dog to fill that void. I hope so.


Chris Hass said...

Having heard you tell this story in person, I know it's real. Still, the rain, the two big guys becoming a bit weepy, your boys sleeping in the backseat, the guy carrying his dog home to bury it - it reads like fiction. This is the perfect story and you told it remarkably well. You could never have made something like this up!

I had a connection but I'd rather not type it here. I'll try to remember to share it with you.

Kelly said...

I loved this; I totally cried, but I still loved it anyway. This makes me think of my dog. She was the family pet, but to be honest I think she belonged more to me and my dad than anyone else. We used to spend hours together, probably more time than I've ever spent with any human friends. I had a 'fort' in the sparse woods behind our house, and I would spend lifetimes back there daydreaming, planting a little garden or reading. During the summer, when the weather got to be so dreadfully hot, it was the only cool place outside the house. The dog and I used to find a bare patch of dirt, where it was so shady nothing would grow and lie down next to each other and nap for a couple of hours. (Fortunately I had a mother who didn't consider that sort of thing improper.) I can't picture myself trying the same thing now, but I never felt any unease about it then, because I felt safe as long as she was there. She never obeyed any 'orders' but always did exactly what she pleased, but I could sound a specific whistle from nearly anywhere, and before long you could hear the drumroll of her short little legs hoofing it around the corner. A few years ago we had her put to sleep; her heart and liver were enlarged and she was suffering terribly. I went to the vet's with my dad, because I didn't want her to think I had left her, there at the last. This sounds a little funny, considering I was a junior in highschool, but, you know, some things you just never grow out of. Your love for your dog is one of those, I think. Anyway, that's the only time I've ever seen my father's eyes well up. Anyway, sorry for the long story/comment, but your story brought all that back. It was kind of nice to sit here and remember for a moment, thanks.

Mamafamilias said...

This squeezed my heart. Dogs have been best friends in my family since I was born. I truly, truly hope he got another dog. Kelly's right, Puppy Dog was mostly hers, but she still had hold of all of our hearts.

Teresa said...

What a gripping account! You provide such a delicate balance between the turmoil and pain of the unfortunate accident and the tender beauty of your two peacefully sleeping sons. Life is truly amazing as seen from this one small moment!