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It's Nelly's World

2. The Close Calls She's Had

alec vanderboom

This will be a chaotic composition, because I find my mind has blocked recall of most of these; perhaps they have all gone to reside in a locked box that is stored somewhere deep in the gray matter. So many of them have merged into a single image of Nelly racing down the side of our blind-cornered road between my house and my neighbor's, called there by the dual siren songs of the chickens in the side yard and their late dog Misty, who was Nelly's first Grandma . And the second that she turns in to their driveway, in my memory, a car races by. "If it had been just one minute later . . . " my catatastrophizing mind repeats in a horrified whisper.

I do not always take the good advice I am given, just as I do not always eat the food I am offered (if it is chicken, for instance). But I did follow the instruction to early and often pair Nelly's name, spoken in a particular singsong, with a luscious treat. Every time. Many, many repetitions. And this small investment has paid off big. I spent a lot of money fencing our property from the road, and putting a big gate across the drive. Do you think, then, that I close it every time? Am I consistent, or thoughtful? I leave you to ponder this in your own time; meanwhile, I submit the possibility that denial and justification are thick veils we throw over the truth when it doesn't suit us to look at it. "Oh, she won't go out the gate this time; she'll get in the car when I do"; "It'll only be for a minute." Then, in a panic, I've had to call her name as I see her about to trot out into the road. And she's turned on a dime and raced back to me. That's when I think: "Praise the lord, and B. F. Skinner. He just saved my dog's life."

I. At the rail trail, where the trail head is just off a rural highway with heavy traffic, all going 60 mph, Nelly headed off into the few backyards a half mile in to look for what rabbits or cats might be sunning themselves on a deck, as usual. But Melissa did not use her head this particular time, and instead of continuing farther on the trail, where she knew Nelly would soon return, she went off into the woods with the friend she was walking with in order to chase the two children she was also with (rule number one: do not dog walk with non-dog friends; and especially do not watch children at the same time). Oh, woe is the idiotic me. Nelly couldn't find us. So she went back to the parking lot. And when she couldn't find me there, she did the next logical thing: go out into the middle of Route 209. I only know this courtesy of a note someone placed on my windshield. (I guess they knew it had to be the right car because of the "If you love animals called pets, why do you eat animals called dinner?" bumper sticker.) It said, "Your dog was in the middle of the road, and stopped five cars." My heart stopped too. I do not know why it should have ended like this, Nelly in the parking lot, safe, waiting once more for me.

II. Winter. Snow on the ground. A good idea to go walking in an exquisite park on the edge of the Hudson. Bridge over waterfall. Trail up and down through woods; trail skirting a field. Three in the afternoon. By four, Nelly is gone. I am used to this; she wears craft-store bells on her collar when we go out. I can hear the bells at least, if I can't see her. The sound moves, but nothing appears. Periodically a flash of white may be seen. Eventually she returns. Not this time.

All the way to the end of the trail. Then back to the car. Back once again, even farther: now I hear the bells. She has taken it upon herself to go another mile up the trail than we had gone, and is now in the center of a veritable Grand Central of a briar patch. I see her footprints crisscrossing in the snow, a thousand paths cut by swift feet. She has gone completely mad. Completely hind-brain, as the neurologists would say. She is on the scent of bunnies. And she's not going to give up, even if it kills her. So I sit there. I try to dive on top of her when she emerges, but she's a Lamborghini. Then she dives back in where no human can follow.

Night is falling. Janet, who has stayed with me two hours into this adventure, finally leaves, reluctantly. I walk back two miles to get the car, so I can park up on the road just within sight of the briars. Then I get out and cross the field. Then I go back. Now, in full dark, I walk down the road to the nearest house. I use their phone to call home, as if that's going to help. My (former) husband will come, with our child. The people at the house tell me that when a hunting dog's lost, they leave a cardboard box containing some used clothing so the dog will eventually find it and sleep there. They give me a box. I take off my scarf. I am prepared to leave Nelly for the night, because it seems that is what it's going to take. The night. Home is twenty miles away.

I sit in the car. I can't see anything. Suddenly, as if in a dream, she is there, by my door. I open it, but before I can exhale, she is gone, streaking across the field to the briars again. I start the car, to try driving slowly down the road a piece, hoping she'll follow. She doesn't. My family should be arriving in a half hour. Then we will leave, and I will spend the night lying awake in bed, wondering if I'll ever see Nelly again.

Then, just as suddenly, she is there again. I see her white form by the bumper. This time, I open the door, and she hops in. Her tongue drags the seat. She is stuck with thorns like a pincushion. And she is so exhausted I wonder if she will collapse.

I see the lights of our other car. We all leave together. It doesn't seem possible. Four hours have elapsed.