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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Sometimes, when you see the end coming, you want to look away. Other times, you hasten it yourself. Both are subconscious actions--like about 90 percent of the stuff we do in life. (Interesting; I just picked that number out of a hat, because it sounded about right: now I remember that someone said yesterday that 90 percent is the amount of brain we supposedly don't use. And I thought then, "Yeah, well, it's the part we don't use consciously." See what I mean about the subconscious?)

When you hasten the end, it could be said, like most children under ten you're not good with transitions. I am apparently under ten, and always have been.

After four years of boarding school, which I largely loved--evening smokes en masse by the hockey pond! a boy-to-girl ratio of six to one!--by the middle of senior year I was like a junkyard dog pulling so hard at his chain his neck is purple. I had preceded my approach to this sensation, in junior year, by running away from school one day. I'm sure it was just a minor coincidence that I had math first thing that morning, as well as that the day was one of those days of deeply saturated color, the popsicle blue of the sky vibrating against green and orange, a synaesthesia you can feel on your tongue. It inserted me into the kind of postcard I lived to buy when on vacation with my family in the sixties: scenic.

That day I got on my bicycle and rode the fifteen miles to my parents' house. They looked at me funny, then let me hang around, fed me dinner, and calmly loaded me and the Raleigh into the car and drove me back.

Senior year, we were given the option to fashion a project for the last month of school. What project, though? "How to Spend Days at the Beach without Really Accomplishing Anything"? "Richard Brautigan: How Much Can You Take"?

I love dogs; I want to leave boarding school. Hmmm. Maybe I should have gone to that math class after all.

My senior project ended up with me back home, working for the humane society of Akron, Ohio. Such as it was. My mornings would be spent in a Bartleby the Scrivener - esque endeavor, that of clipping the previous day's lost-and-found-animal notices from the small type of the classifieds at the back of the esteemed Akron Beacon Journal. Using aromatic school paste, I would afix these to the manilla paper of a large scrapbook whose supply of pages seemed endless. Then it was shut, never to be opened again, until I climbed the stairs once again to their dusty office, which seems forever captured in my mind in a grainy black-and-white shot from the buttonhole of a detective's Burberry.

But in the afternoon, I would head to the raucous precincts of life. Well, actually, death and life. Because in order to reach the humane society's few cages, I would first pass down the death row of the city pound. The dogs would leap against their bars, some to yell: Get me out of here!, others in their wish to pay me back for the deeds of the other miserable humans who had gotten them there in the first place. I could not bring myself to look at any of them.

I was wearing a pair of overalls I reserved solely for this part of my duty. Because the dogs in the humane society's cages lived there until someone got them out, and their beds were their bathrooms. They jumped all over me, tongues and paws and body slams. They smelled horrific.

It was my job to "walk" these beasts. The small yard of the pound, hidden under the great rusting iron of some bridge over one of Akron's steep valleys, was in a likewise hidden part of town. They twirled at the end of the leash as I walked them around and around. They sniffed eagerly, pulling me along as if to some dreamed-of freedom. They were happy in these moments. As my friend Jolanta says, it is heartbreaking how little it takes to make a dog happy. And, I add, how so many dogs do not get even that.

So, for a month, I doled out small happinesses to dogs, all of whom are now combined into one Unknown Dog in my memory. Then I graduated. I did not return to the city pound until one Christmas Eve twenty years later, when I ill conceived the idea to get a dog for my mother, who could have used one. But we did not see one there who was remotely suitable. As my little sister and I stood frozen in the corridor, a worker came up behind us. "See the ones with the green tags? They've got one more day." We collapsed into each other's arms, sobbing. My brother-in-law gently pushed us toward the door, because we might have stayed there until after Santa arrived. At our house. Not here.

Happiness in life only comes in small moments, no matter that we expect it in permanent amount. This is not merely the outlook of a person naturally given to dark thoughts. It is the knowledge of the Buddhists: all is flux. I am happy I was there for some creatures' small moments of joy; I had some part in theirs, and they therefore had a part in mine. Transitions are just difficult for me, that's all. They happen to be getting easier all the time, now that I am nearing eleven.