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Excerpt

Excerpt

One Good Dog

He was a rough-looking thing. Big ears, wiry hair. His muzzle just beginning to grizzle. He looked like the sort who’d been living outside of society for a while, maybe never really been a companion. After a long parade of supplicants appearing before me, each wanting me to choose him or her, their noses pressed up to the chain-link fence that separated us, there was something in this one’s deep brown eyes, not a pleading --- pleading I can overlook --- but something  else. A quiet dignity, maybe even an aloofness, as if he really didn’t need me or my kind being nice to him. Yes. That was it, a haughtiness that declared he needed no one’s pity; he shouldn’t even be here. Don’t look at me; I’m only here by coercion.

Our eyes met and held, but then he turned away. Beta to my alpha. But in that brief gaze, I saw something I recognized. Maybe it was just that I saw my own independent streak, the one that has kept me on top. Or the eyes of a fighter down on his luck, but with memories of recent glory. Maybe I saw that underneath the rough exterior lay a heart, like mine, not entirely hard. You’ve got to be tough to live in this world, whether your lip is curled in real anger or fear aggression, you have to be willing to carry out the threat. This battle-scarred fella understood that, and on that basis I made my decision. He was the one for me.

So I wagged my tail.

***

I should explain a little about myself to you. A little bio. A thumbnail --- or in my case, a dewclaw --- description. I’m a little over three years old, still young enough to have to vie for position, old enough to go against only the best. I have good teeth, set in a strong jaw. One of my ears is sheered off at the bottom; the other hangs in a three-quarter break, and I keep it tight against my skull whenever I greet. My tail is as straight as a stick and I almost never let it rise above my back like some happy-go-lucky retriever. It’s a divining rod of my intentions, a whip, a warning. Depending on my circumstances, I’m forty- five or fifty pounds. When I’m on the street, I might shrink to a mere thirty unless I suss out the best Dumpsters and get there ahead of my vermin brethren. I don’t know what color I am; it’s an unimportant characteristic among my kind. What is important is that my anal glands describe my authority, my education, and my living arrangements to any who encounter me --- where I’ve been and where I’m going.

My urine marks a wide territory. I have no testicles. The first time I was nabbed, off they went. I’ll come to that part of my history directly, but I will say that by that time I was fully masculine, and I have not given up my boyish ways except for the fulfillment of my genetic destiny. I can do it, but I’m shooting blanks.

From birth, my manifest destiny, as arranged by the young men who kept my parents in cages in a cellar, was to fight. My size and sex determined that I received the best of care from those who had no affection for the animals holed up in the inner-city cellar. I got fed. I got to wear heavy chains around my shoulders to bulk up my body into a mass of rock-solid muscle. I got strong enough that two of these callow young men, boys, pups of their species, had to hold me back. I rarely saw daylight. I was a creature of the night, shuttled from one cellar to another in the darkness, an ill-fitting muzzle all that was between me and their hands. I don’t recall ever being touched by them in a nonbusiness way. All jerks and pulls and pushes; the end of a stick, the flat of a board. Had either of those two young men ever dared unmuzzle me and pat my head, I would have licked his hand. They were afraid of me, of what they had created.

As I say, I was born in an inner-city cellar. My parents, unusually, were both on- site, so I got to know them both. So many of my kind are not so lucky. My mom was a full-blood pit bull --- whatever that may mean in the lexicon of swaggering young men --- descended from a long line of dogs whose survival depended on their prowess in the fight arena. None of them particularly angry, but all able to be incited to destruction; all highly competitive when pitted, no pun intended, against an adversary. Like the gladiators of old, our adversaries aren’t of our own choosing, but chosen for us by the men who employ us. Fighting is our livelihood. Our predetermined career. A job. The hours aren’t bad, and if you’re good at your job, you get to live another day and do it again.

Mom, whom they called “Bitch-dog,” was scarred along her lips, even to where there was a half-moon of missing fl esh exposing her upper side teeth. Long retired from the pit, she’d become a breeding machine. Her dugs hung limp and wobbly; even after the authorities removed her from the cellar, her teats would never retract to their earlier tightness.

Now, we don’t identify one another by the breedist notions of those who cause our creation, but everybody knows that our different shapes and sizes, smells, and tail carriage help us to identify ourselves to one another. So, for convenience sake, I will say Dad was a blend of several types of “breeds” that have power and stamina; Dad was a mix of pit bull and rottweiler or boxer, maybe a little old-fashioned bulldog. Dad’s rottie parts gave him his height and bulk. His pit bull parts thinned out his back end but gave him a Bluto disproportion in his front end. He was a tough one in the ring, knew his game well, and he never gave ground. They called him “Fitty,” after some rapper they admired. It seemed to me, even as a youngster, that calling a gladiator like Dad “Fitty” was a bit silly. Although Dad and I were neighborhood champs, our boys were not contenders on the real dogfight circuit; thus were able to pass mixed breeds like Fitty and me off on their equally amateurish friends.

Naming conventions have ever puzzled us. If we don’t come when called, it’s likely that the appellation assigned to us is unacceptable. In my life I’ve been called many things, some of them not polite. We know one another by the names shouted at us, but more intimately by our scents. I think of my mother not as “Bitch-dog,” but by the warm scent of her particular skin, her particular odor nursing my less fortunate littermates. I was the big one. I was the one on the top teat. My lesser sibs perished in the boys’ brutal effort at selective breeding, tossed like so many field mice into the training cage.

On the street, my friends, and I’ve had many, are untethered by spoken names. I can visit them, even if they are out of sight, by their markers. Ah, there’s the tough little one. I see that the bitch who mates with big dogs has been hanging around the alley. Maybe I’ll wait for her. A further snuffle and I realize that she is now pregnant yet again. I see her in my mind’s eye, her teats swelling and her self-satisfied tongue lolling as she seeks out a safe haven for her nest. We think in pictures.

I picture the cellar in which I was born, comforted by the rich, warm scent of my mother’s skin and hair; curious at my first whiff of blood, the sweetish scent of it coming to me beyond the partition that separated us from the makeshift ring; not knowing what it was, but equating the smell of it with the sounds that came to me, the sounds of combat. My senses prepared me for my own experience, so that when I first saw blood, first engaged in a fight, it was as familiar to me as if I had studied the textbook.

When it was time to put aside childish things, I left my mother’s kennel and moved into isolation. I believe I may have howled on that first solitary night, but I was quickly quieted with a smack. Ever since, I have ducked my head at the sight of a fast-moving hand. My assailant tossed in a hard rubber ring, which I proceeded to gnaw, ingesting the slurry and vomiting in the night before I finally slept.

I picture the heavy chains that were looped over my head and onto my shoulders as I was paraded in the mean streets by the boys. They gave me a strong dog look, and I confess I might have swaggered a bit. I wasn’t fettered by the chains; I was proud of them. Around my neck a perfect uniform of tackle suited to controlling an uncontrollable animal. A collar that when jerked pressed prongs of metal into my thick neck. A leather collar fitted out with pointed studs was my dress uniform, the one I got to wear on formal occasions, like when the boys took me out to show off to their crew.

By the time I had reached my full size, the boys had begun my training in earnest.

Though I most resemble my mother --- longish body, muzzle like a shoe box, whiplike tail, I am big like Dad. The rottie parts are pretty thinned out, so I’ll never weigh in at ninety pounds like those bruisers, but I’m in the heavyweight category for my sport. Fifty pounds, all muscle and bone and spit.

How do we know what to do the minute we’re dropped into a pit? We don’t. The first time, all we know is that our men expect something from us. Their sweat tells us that they are challenging one another; their voices are sharp, encouraging, cajoling, berating, fierce. In a few moments, we know what to do. We know what they want. We pick up on their agitation; we get into the trash talking. We engage. And, like those old-time gladiators, we know that defeat is not an option. This is what our men want. This is our job.

From the first time my boys put me in the ring, I understood what was expected of me. I fought out of fear. I’m not ashamed to say that. If you didn’t fear getting your nose bitten off, you were as crazy as those boys. Be the aggressor and you might not get hurt, or hurt as much. I’ll say something else: I didn’t always hate it. When you’re a little hungry, isolated, when you never get to meet your fellows in any sort of comradely way, your noses never touching the communicating part, only recognizing one another through the scents left on the fence posts, well, you get a little testy. It was my only outlet. I was pretty good at it.

Adam is startled awake. The dog is facing the door, standing close to where Adam has fallen asleep on the futon. There it is again, a soft knock. Wiping the sleep grizzle from his mouth, Adam drags himself off the futon. The dog barks, one sharp, meaningful yap. “Shut up.”

The dog returns to his table cave, his job done.

It has been another week. The shelter is still closed, a water- main break having shut it down indefinitely. The animals have been dispersed to shelters across the state, stretching limited resources, and, no, Dr. Gil says, he can’t take the dog to one of them. He’d pushed the rules by letting Adam have the dog in the first place. Adam has to return him to Animal Advocates.

Like a bad house guest, the dog seems to have extended his stay indefinitely.

“I found this on my book rack and thought you might want it.” Gina DeMarco stands outside of Adam’s door. Her polar bear parka frames her oval face, the white of the faux fur contrasting with the olive tone of her skin. She’s a little breathless, and her cheeks are pinked with the cold.

“Come in. Come in.” Adam is embarrassed to be found like some old man in the middle of the day. He’s in his undershirt and jeans, his sockless feet in old slippers. He fingers the remote control to shut off Judge Judy. No one has ever come to see him here. His erstwhile adversary in the animal rights wars is the first person to cross his threshold since his landlord handed him the keys. A latent civility awakens in him. “I was just going to make a cup of tea. Would you like one?” He hopes that his breath isn’t offensive. Rafe served garlic mashed potatoes at lunch.

“I can’t. I’ve left the store. I just wanted to give this to you.” She hands him a thin book: Your Pit Bull, What to Expect and What to Do.

“You know that ---”

“I know you’re not keeping him, but you’ve got him till that shelter gets back in operation, so you might as well have it.” She doesn’t sound like a person bearing gifts. “No one who comes into my store is ever looking for a book like that. It was stuck in an order for books on tropical fish. Distributor said to keep it, that it was a mistake. You’re welcome to it.”

To be polite, Adam opens the thin book, which is filled with color photographs of dogs that sort of look like his dog. Like this dog. Except that these are posed and have equal ears. Chapters offer history, breed standards, and training --- housebreaking, commands like sit, stay, heel. Adam glances down at the dog, who is happily taking Gina’s petting; he’s rolled over to expose his belly to her fingertips.

“Thanks.”

“Read it.” Gina flips her hood back up. “You should know something about the dog if you’re going to just foist him off on someone.”

“Once the shelter is open ---”

“Yeah. I know. And you know that’s death row.”

Adam sets the book down on the coffee table. “Okay. Thank you for bringing it over.”

“No problem.” She pulls the front door open, and Adam feels a wash of disappointment.

“Wait, I’ll bring you a cup of tea if you want.”

Gina folds back the hood. She studies him with eyes the color of olive oil, eyes that suggest she hasn’t forgotten his association with the cosmetics industry. Then she softens. “That would be nice.” Nahss. That soft clue to a previous life. “It’s been a slow day.”

“Okay, then.”

“Bring him.”

“Why?”

“Just bring him.”

Clutching two travel mugs filled with hot water in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other, Adam dashes across the street between cars waiting at the red light. The dog lopes beside him, his satchel mouth open as if this is some kind of game, looking for all the world like a pet out for a romp with its person. Adam doesn’t look at the dog, just hopes no other dog appears while he’s carrying two cups of hot water.

Inside the pet shop, the air is fuggy with warmth and the scent of aquarium water. Adam is greeted by the squawks of the parrots, his eye caught by the tropical fl ash of color in a winter world. He sets the travel mugs down on the counter and fishes out two tea bags he’s thoughtfully put in a plastic bag. “I  couldn’t manage the sugar and milk, not with both hands busy, so I’ll just go next door and see what he’s got.”

Gina leans her elbows down on the counter, a posture that elongates her neck. Her molasses-colored hair is loose, and a layer curves against her cheek, framing it. “I’ve got both here. Don’t bother yourself.” She chooses a travel mug, one he’s picked up at Dunkin’ Donuts, and levers the cap off.

“I only have Tetley.” Adam proffers the plastic bag, lets Gina choose which sachet of tea she wants. He is still in his coat, still gripping the end of the leash.

“Adam, why don’t you let go of him? He can’t get into trouble here; there’s nothing much he can reach.”

Adam drops the end of the leash, but the dog stays put, unaware that he’s free to move around.

“How’s he doing?”

“Except for taking over the futon, and trying to attack any dog he meets on the street, I guess you can say he’s being good.”

“Being on a leash does that to some dogs. They feel threatened.”

“Seems more like he’s the threat.”

Gina bobs her tea bag, then scuttles it with a spoon she has produced along with the milk and sugar. “I think he’s going to be a good dog. He’s quiet.”

“I haven’t heard any complaints about barking.”

“No, I mean his demeanor. Some dogs are all movement. This guy likes to take it all in.” Gina looks over the edge of the counter at the dog, who looks up at her with adoration. “He’s a good boy.” This is addressed to the dog, whose tail ticks left and right.

“Are you sure you don’t want him?”

“I would, if I didn’t already ---”

“Have three greyhounds.” Adam takes the spoon from Gina and retrieves his tea bag from the bottom of his Star-bucks mug.

The object of the conversation suddenly finds it too hard to remain sitting and flops to the floor, stretching out on his side, releasing a contented grunt.

Gina and Adam pay close attention to their travel mugs. There is nothing else obvious to talk about. This is suddenly like a bad first date. A bad first blind date. There’s only one thing they have in common --- not the workplace, nor a school, nor a mutual friend, but a dog. The awkwardness of being imperfect strangers. Neither wants to resort to the weather, but no topic presents itself for a prolonged moment. Adam is unaccountably tongue-tied and wonders how fast he can drink his tea and get out of there.

Gina DeMarco sips her tea, grimaces at the scorch of hot water through the small aperture, and asks Adam a question. “If I can find any in the back room, would you like a cookie?”

“Sure, but don’t go to any trouble.”

Gina disappears and Adam breathes a sigh. What an imbecile he is. Why did he think she’d want his company? When Gina comes back with an opened package of Fig Newtons, he takes one and quickly asks her a question to fill in the silence. “How long have you owned the shop?”

Gina nips a corner off of her cookie and shrugs. “It seems like all my life, but I’ve only owned it per se since my grandfather passed. About twelve years. Before that, I just worked here. Once he started getting a little confused, he stopped waiting on the customers and just tended the tanks. Then one day, he turned the water temperature up on the angelfish and essentially cooked them. I came in and found him scooping them up in the net and then putting it back in the water and wondering why they were belly-up.” Gina shrugs, a delicate gesture. “I couldn’t leave him alone in here. But we spent a lot of time together even as he declined, so, in the end, I never had to put him in a nursing home. That’s all that I wanted; he’d been so good to me.”

 “You  were responsible for him, not your parents?”

“No. A long time ago, my mother and stepfather sent me up north to live with Grandpa; we haven’t been much in touch since.” Gina’s remark has the worn spots of an old story.

Adam tastes the fig on his tongue, rough and sweet. “Where’d you come from originally?”

“I was born in Louisville, but we lived all around, North and South Carolina, Texas. Any place with an army base, any place hot.” Gina leans her elbows on the counter. A barricade of donation jars leaves her a loophole through which to conduct business: greyhound rescue, miniature horse rescue, food bank, breast cancer awareness, therapy dogs, Thoroughbred rescue. Rescue this one; rescue that one; rescue me.

She rearranges the jars, soldiering them. “I have another stool back  here if you want.”

The space behind the service counter is narrow, an alley between the shelves on the wall behind them and the countertop with its displays of flea and tick remedies, pamphlets on how to feed your gerbil, your Betta fish, how to take care of your saltwater aquarium. Adam sits on the wooden stool he fi nds tucked under the overhang of the desk and sets down his tea. He pulls another cookie out of the package. “Your dad was in the army?”

“Dad and stepdad. My father was killed in Nam. My step-dad was his buddy.”

 “A lot of our guys are vets who served in Vietnam.”

“Your guys?”

Adam realizes the trap he’s set for himself. How to explain his “job” to Gina? Stein would have something to say about this, something along the lines of “Here’s your chance. Start with the truth and see where it gets you.” Stein is determined that Adam give up his sense that he has any control over history.

“I volunteer at the Fort Street Center.”

“Good for you.” Gina is looking at him with approval, ratcheting up her estimation.

A fan of dismay colors his cheeks. “Actually, it’s not exactly volunteering. It’s community service.” Adam sees the approval meter slide back down. He hasn’t practiced how to tell this story; he doesn’t know whether to blurt out the salient facts, or just hope she doesn’t want to hear more. Gina is intent on her tea, adding more sugar, a dollop more of the milk from the quart she’s found in the back of the store. Intent on not asking the question he can see forming itself in as she deliberately pays careful attention to doctoring her tea.

The dog, which has been meandering all around the store, dragging the four-foot leash behind him, suddenly notices that he’s on the wrong side of the counter from the people. He figures out how to get back there and comes up to Adam, pressing his blunt nose on Adam’s leg.

“Look who’s here.” Gina reaches across Adam’s knees to pet the dog. “You want a cookie, too?” Gina produces a dog biscuit, which the dog gently takes out of her hand. “He’s a sweetie, although I’m sure he’s been fought.” She reaches farther over to scratch the dog on the scar on his chest. Her elbow touches Adam’s leg. He thinks he feels the touch of her hair beneath his chin, but he keeps his eye on the dog. “They say once they’ve done that, there’s no saving them. But that’s not always true.”

Adam sips his tea, doesn’t look at the dog or at Gina.

“You could call him Cassius. Or how about George? You know, Clay and Foreman? Good fighters who were good men.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to name him.”

“Because you’re not keeping him?”

“Because I’m not keeping him.”

Gina pulls on her bottom lip, crosses her legs. “Let’s shoot the gorilla.”

“I’m sorry?”

“We’ve got unfinished business, and I think that if we can just have the conversation, we’ll feel better.”

Adam is stymied. Is she talking about his community service? Then it hits him. “We sold the division; the Fraîche Crème product was discontinued.”

“Yeah, but did you really stop animal testing?”

Adam is wholly unprepared for this. “Experiments were under way. Those were finished. No new experiments were begun. And no more rabbits were used.” It’s close enough to the truth. “I left the division shortly after your protest.”

“I know. You didn’t leave the division; you were promoted. I remember reading about it in the Globe. Best thing we ever did for you.” After all these years, there is still an obvious and righteous anger at Dynamic’s policies. The hand not holding the travel mug is shaking slightly, as if adrenaline is pouring through Gina.

Adam feels his own righteous anger simmering. He may have been promoted, which would have happened eventually anyway, but for six weeks Gina and her group made his life a living hell. Eggs thrown at his brand-new Lexus, the pre decessor to the one he is still driving; damning signs held by NATE volunteers who lined the public thoroughfare leading to Dynamic’s access road; shouts and accusations broadcast every night like clockwork on the local television channels; interviews with talking heads, who condemned him personally. Holed up in his division headquarters eighteen hours a day, consulting with public-relations people and attorneys, he barely got home in time to change for the latest dinner party or benefit; never had time to see Ariel before she was put to bed by the nanny.

A jangle as the pet shop door opens breaks the moment. Gina greets her customer by name. She takes a little while to wait on her customer, a middle- aged man fussing about pH balances in his tank. She discusses this problem with him, her elegant brows arced in concern for his trouble, but once she glances back at Adam, who’s still behind the counter, her cold glance tells him the topic isn’t finished. The customer pays for his purchases and jangles out the door. Once again they are alone.

“He’s a regular. Can’t seem to keep his fish alive, but he keeps trying. One of these days, he’ll either give up or get it right.”

“Sounds like the rest of us.” Adam swallows the last of his tea, which is still hot and which burns his throat as it goes down. “You can’t dwell on the past. You have to move forward.”

Gina nods and turns her attention back to her fast-cooling tea. “I understand. Sometimes there are things you just want to put behind you.”

“That’s right.” Adam sets his empty travel mug beside Gina’s on the counter. His is a little taller, a little narrower. The handles touch. “Although I’m learning that even if you put things behind you, they aren’t gone. They follow along like a phantom.” Unaccountably, the image of the dog running down the street with the pole trailing along behind pops into Adam’s mind and he realizes that very possibly this is that dog.

For his part, the dog makes a little rrrooor rrooor noise and his tail thumps against the old wooden floor.

Gina remains at the register, fiddling with the arrangement of bills in the drawer, quiet.

“I should go.”

“Thanks for the tea.” Gina hands him the two empty mugs. Slips the cookies back into their package, busies herself with small tasks.

Adam comes out from behind the counter, the dog behind him, the leash trailing. He feels deflated, disappointed, as if he’s failed at something, some attempt.

Adam stops at the doorway. “It’s history, Gina. Over and done with.”

“Yeah. Ancient history. We were both a lot younger then.” A hint of sarcasm.

“We didn’t understand what we were doing.” He hates that he’s defensive.

“Doesn’t excuse it.”

“Maybe not, but a whole lot more has gone on in the world since then.”

“Yeah, Enron, nine-eleven, Iraq, recession. Makes the eyes of a bunny seem somehow frivolous.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t know.” She sounds just a little defeated. “I guess you could make up for it.” She looks at the dog meaningfully. “A little payback?”

Adam tugs on the leash, bringing the dog to heel. The sound of the bells against the plate-glass door hurts his ears.

I almost didn’t come to his call. I was loose for the first time in a long time and I honestly thought that’s what he intended when he took off the leash. We’d communicated, him through touching me with his hands, me with touching him with my nose. A piece of the barrier that we both respected lowered a little bit. Like unrelated puppies, we slumbered on, tangled up, one with the other. So when he let me go, I thought that was his way of acknowledging that I should strike out on my own once again. Our time together --- for what purpose, I still didn’t get --- was done.

We went outside in the night, the neighborhood around us quiet as only city neighborhoods can be when the people are inside and the cars are furtive. The night animals, the mouse and rat, the city raccoon and skunk, lurked around every corner, but I ignored them, attached as I was on the end of the leash. Not much point in it.

There were no other dogs around; no scent more recent than that afternoon collided with my searching nose. I marked fresh territory. When we got to the empty place and the man unsnapped the leash, I took it that he was releasing me. Well and good, I thought. Fair enough. He’s served me fairly well, and I’ve behaved myself. Now is the time to scoot. Go fi nd that warm shelter beneath a bush, tuck my nose under my tail, and let go of this soft life of bed and kibble.  We’re done. Shake hands all around and cheerio.

I headed out into the dark, quartering the empty place, checking for the signs of other dogs, the warm smell of vole, of future meals. I became intoxicated with the odors of free creatures. Feces told me of scavengers and gourmets, of those who fed themselves, and those who enjoyed the servitude of humans, the easy dependability of scheduled meals.

Like I’d been enjoying for this little while. I knew that unlikely show of submission on his part wasn’t to be mistaken for subservience. I wasn’t going to fall for a pathetic belly-up as total submission. No sirree. We’d kept it simple: He fed me; I was pleasant enough. I didn’t owe him anything. Conversely, he didn’t owe me anything, either. I felt sorry for him in that moment, that’s all. He was grieving, and I offered a momentary solace. That didn’t mean we were ever going to be partners.

I heard his voice, understood the meaning, if not the words. A pat on the leg, a low whistle. I continued quartering, but I was torn between freedom and a warm place to sleep. Images of old pals and trash cans insinuated themselves into my thoughts as I found traces of both beneath the hard-packed snow.

He called again, a little louder, a little more concerned. Had I misunderstood? Had he been only allowing me a little privacy, a little decision-making latitude? I raised my head, stood as still as a pointer on mark. A sharpish breeze caught at the scraps of paper nestled among the ragged hills of iced-over snow, lifting them into eddies. I shivered. I really didn’t have to sleep rough tonight. I could just go with him. Take the leash.

Come, boy.  Here, buddy.

There was nothing in my experience that led me to believe that human beings were ever trustworthy. When I lived in the cellar, the boys who handled us could be pleasant enough, especially when I was winning. Or, with no warning, they could also kick us across the room. Why should I deem a comfortable moment between us a harbinger of a better life and not some anomaly? What did he mean by letting me go and then making those petulant noises? An assertion of pack leadership? No, I’d keep myself to myself. Pick the pack I wanted to belong to.

It was when he went quiet that I heard what he meant. In the absolute stillness of the winter night, I heard him sigh, a sound of capitulation, of disappointment.

I went back to him. Greeted him in the spirit of compromise. Attach your leash to my collar for now. I’ll wait till spring to book it.

Good boy.

***

Adam feels a surge of jitters as he snaps the leash to the dog’s collar. The hand-painted parrot is turned over to the WELCOME side and the lights are on in Gina’s store. It feels as though those little fish that swim across the rainbow of her storefront are in his belly. He’s only recently gotten it: the A to Z tropical fish on her window are angelfish and zebra fish. He’s tried not to stand in his own window as much, still smarting from Gina’s remark about his life. Well, he’s about to show her that he can make changes if he wants. He’s talked to Stein about this, about this irrational need to explain himself to a woman he has no relationship with, or, worse, who is an antagonistic acquaintance. Stein wants him to examine his motivations.

Gina didn’t talk him into keeping the dog. It was his decision, and one he’s going to have to live with, or live to regret, for a long time. He wants to make it clear to Gina that while he is committed to keeping the dog, she hasn’t shamed him into it; and to get some advice on training. This business of lurching at every passing dog on the street has got to stop. Maybe she can recommend another book.

“Come on.” He still hasn’t named the animal. Each time a name comes to him, he auditions it to see if the dog will respond. At this point, Boy is the most likely one. The dog neither comes to nor obeys any softly spoken word. Adam has gone through the little book on pit bulls, but it hasn’t provided much guidance. So, for now, it’s all intuitive. When he picks up the empty bowl, the dog comes. When he rattles the leash, the dog goes to the door. Any sudden movement, like when he cracked his shin on the coffee table and let out a yelp, startles the dog back into his hiding place beneath the table. This is not Rin Tin Tin. This is not Lassie. This isn’t even Marmaduke.

“Let’s go see Gina.”

The year has tripped over into March, but the air is still pure winter. It is just the time of year when warmer weather is impossible to imagine. The men at the Fort Street Center are hardened by this weather, cheeks and lips chapped and noses blue-veined and reddened along the edges. They take the plastic trays hot from the Hobart out of the rack and hold them close. They wear layers of clothing, castoffs donated to the Salvation Army or directly to the center. A big cardboard box sits in the foyer, where donors can drop off unwanted clothing. These days, it’s pretty much empty; anything wearable is on someone’s body.

Gina is standing framed in the doorway as they cross the street, and for an instant Adam thinks that she’s been waiting for him. She turns away; whoever she’s been watching for hasn’t come. Of course she’s not waiting for him.

The parrots squawk a reasonable imitation of a greeting as Adam and the dog enter the shop. Gina is standing with a fishnet in one hand. Despite the cold outside, the shop is warm and she is wearing a short sleeved, button-front white blouse that fits her shape and leaves a lovely triangle at the base of her throat. Her hair is down, softly grazing her shoulders. She  doesn’t look like a shopgirl; she looks like she may have a date after work. There is a drop of water clinging to her wrist.

When she sees that it is Adam and the dog standing in the middle of her small shop, she hangs the dripping fishnet on a hook and folds her arms across her middle. She doesn’t smile, but her expressive brows arc into question marks. “Thought that shelter was open again.”

Adam leans over and runs his hand down the length of the dog’s body. The dog’s tail swings gently side to side, but his eyes are on Gina. “I’m going to keep him.” He waits, his own eyes on Gina’s face, his lips parted in expectation of her reaction. He waits to see if the hostility with which she usually looks at him will, even for an instant, abate.

“What made you change your mind?” Suspicious, not approving.

Adam shrugs, a gesture nearly lost in the bulk of his jacket. “I don’t know. Things.” He is disappointed, feels like a kid with an underappreciated crayon drawing. “Got used to him.”

Very slowly, reluctantly, a smile comes to Gina’s lips. “If you want my opinion, I think you’re doing the right thing.”

The disappointment lifts; he has no idea why he wants Gina to be nice to him, but he just does, and even this mild approval feels nice. “I was hoping you’d say that. I still think I’m a little crazy.” The dog sits, drops his jaw into a cavernous yawn.

“Have you called Dr. Gil? To let him know?”

 “No. Why should I?”

“He’s going to want to know. Given your” --- she hesitates --- “peculiar circumstances, you may want to make sure he understands that you’re committed to keeping him.”

“All right.”

Gina reaches for a dog biscuit. “What are you going to call him?” She holds out the biscuit; the dog takes it out of her fingers like a gentleman.

“For the moment, the default name seems to be Boy.”

“No. No good. Every male dog on the planet gets called Boy at least half the time. You want something that will distinguish him from the pack.”

“Like being a pit bull isn’t enough?”

“No. You’re giving him a chance at a new life, a new identity.”

“Witness protection program for dogs?”

“Something like that. It’s not going to be easy, I hope that you’re planning on working hard with him.”

Adam has not planned any such thing, fairly satisfied with things as they are. Except for the aggression on the street. “I need to get him so he doesn’t pull my arms off every time we meet another dog.”

“He’s been taught that. He can be taught something else.”

“I sure hope so.”

“I’ve got a few business cards from dog whisperers. Let me see if I can find them.” Gina disappears behind the counter.

“When did trainers become whisperers? This guy is pretty tough; I may need to shout at him.”

Gina stands up. “That’s something you can’t do. Really. He’s got to be convinced that gentle is better.”

Adam recalls the dog’s quick bolt under the kitchen table every time he raises his voice on the phone, or at the opposing team’s interceptions on Sunday afternoon. “Yeah, he’s evidently the strong, sensitive type.”

“Don’t kid. He probably is. These dogs are made, not born, that way.”

“I’m not so sure about that, but time will tell.” Adam takes the business cards from Gina, flips through the little collection. He knows that he can’t afford a dog trainer, but he plays along. “Which one would you recommend?”

“They’re all good. But you should start with K-Nine Etiquette. He’s very good with problem animals.” She sets her olive eyes on Adam. For the first time, there is something besides disdain in them. “I really think that there’s hope for him.”

Adam can discern a willingness to be nice, or maybe just a willingness to see that he isn’t all bad. That maybe there is hope for him.

“Maybe you should call him Chance. You’re giving him one. And I think he’s maybe giving you a chance, too.” Gina blushes a little, a slow pinking of the little exposed triangle at the base of her throat

“Chance of what?”

Gina turns away, picks up the fishnet, and goes back to moving fish. Whatever she is thinking, she’s not saying, and Adam wonders if maybe she’s embarrassed herself with her presumption.

“Chance. Yeah. Maybe. You like that one? Hey, Chance.”

The dog, who has been poking his nose into the fi sh-food display, cocks his head at Adam and his satchel mouth breaks open in a doggy smile.

“I think he likes it.”

Gina hangs up the little net again and comes close enough to Adam that he can smell the light floral scent of her shampoo. She bends over the dog. “Looks like we have a winner.” She strokes the dog on his bulky head and then touches Adam’s forearm. “You’re doing a good thing.”

Now it is his turn to blush. He likes that touch, so simple, so human. It exposes a loneliness that is the central theme of his life.

Excerpted from ONE GOOD DOG © Copyright 2011 by Susan Wilson. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

One Good Dog
by by Susan Wilson

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 0312662955
  • ISBN-13: 9780312662950