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It's Nelly's World

Comparative Affection Studies

alec vanderboom


You suddenly spy them through the trees: the bent and broken pens, small dark houses with snow-caved roofs within, where once the family pet was exiled from life. Over days, over nights, he went slowly mad from sensory deprivation. The sight of these abandoned places--thank god, I think, that at least this one is no longer used--makes me involuntarily avert my eyes; as if I'd chanced upon a decaying crime scene. The original sense of horror is amplified by the sense that it happened here long ago. That ghost howls may be heard upon the wind, if one is unlucky enough to stand and stare. It was unheard when it occurred; now it must be heard forever more into the future, the cry of tormented souls without cease.

It is no easier, just different, to confront the dog of today in his lonely pen, or tied on a short rope that holds him back from getting near the house, or anyone to touch. There are still plenty of such solitary confinement cells here in this suburbanizing, formerly rural place. And now I am putting myself in the direct path of ten of them.

Every Friday afternoon, in a sort of return to the labors and convictions of my youth, when I walked dogs at the holding pens of the Akron, Ohio, humane society, I am now doing the same at Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption. This is a state-of-the-art facility, run by a woman who travels the country to lecture on the subject of the wellbeing of shelter dogs, but it still amounts to dogs kept alone in a box, no matter that the runs are clean and bright. The dogs are still desperate. The dogs still make me feel desperate. They lead me at the end of the leash, pulling me through the doors, and they are looking for something.

When someone close to you dies, your life stops too. Fluids refuse to move, frozen in the stems of your veins. The power source to the record player has been pulled, and the needle in the groove makes the sound of a sudden awkward decrescendo: BWOOooom. Then the music is gone.

If the someone is a dog, you might find yourself unable to go for a walk in the woods anymore; what would be the bloody point? The woods enter your senses through those of another, so that in effect you are joined together in one being, one being with two noses, four eyes. Your dog's happiness is so much yours that it alone makes the world spring into existence. Without her, no happiness or beauties are really there.

If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If you walk in the woods and have no genie of a dog appearing and reappearing in the distance ahead of you, does the woods actually exist?

Look at the back of her head as she alerts. This vision draws you closer to her: it is the heart of tenderness, though nothing you could ever tell anyone else. Her ears are pricked up, reaching. The two tufts of hair on the inside quiver ever so slightly, and this is the split second of love.

As I stand in the kitchen this morning, shoveling cereal at high velocity into my mouth--no time to sit down, for it's a busy life--I watch two squirrels outside the sliding glass doors. They are linked together with invisible thread, moving like a single drop of mercury that occasionally breaks into two, then rejoins. Up, down, over the shrubbery. They draw sinuous lines; when one speeds up, the other does too. They search, combine, and react as if one, pixilated.

And I have seen a squirrel mourning the death of his other half, lying curled and partly smashed in the road. This loss: just before the dark hole of winter, when you need another half, badly. He stood up on his hind legs, as if needing to be closer to heaven to ask something; then crouched, turned, and ran. Just as quickly he turned back, ran over and sniffed her. What? But tell me: I don't understand. He was dancing alone now, the dance of disbelief. What has happened here? Oh, god, no.

Somehow, the absence of any possibility of telling him what has transpired (who has expired) was to me most painful. Confusion is more horrible than death; it is like seeing death come, and come, and come.

The dogs howl on the other side of their closed dutch doors. I can see them briefly through the bars on the window, leaping, throwing themselves at the portal which might, just might, open. When I do, they cannot be contained. I drop one leash, get the other on, pick up the first, fumble with a clip while this rotating madness hurls itself at all corners--this, now this is desperation. This fifteen-minute walk is an exercise in management only. They cannot "hear" the words of give and take, of the imagined positive-reinforcement training I was thinking I would give. Ha! No way in hell. Instead we go careening out over the icy snowbanks. I get dragged through muddy puddles on the driveway. They are searching, searching, madly. Then they pull me back to the door. There was something in there, wasn't there? At least there is something familiar there, in the face of the older woman who volunteers and serves them dinner, calling out to the sound of thuds on the other side of a door, "Hush now, there, Zee! You know, I'm coming. I can only move so fast."

I commit a terrible crime when I put them away. They suddenly see they're in front of the door of their cells, and then they pull back. No--no! Not in there! I don't want to go back in there, alone. And I pull them in. I throw a treat to the opposite corner, in a bid for a few seconds where I can close the door without them slipping back through at a run. Evil. I am a jailer, the one thing I never wanted to be in this life. But I have to be one, in order that they can have fifteen minutes of freedom at least.

I close the door, and the wails begin. They follow me out to the car. I want to get home and have a drink and not think about them again for a week, because it is like pain. It is like being left back there with them, alone and confused.

"Bye, sweet dog," I say. "Lovely dog." I have loved, and they have hoped, for a few minutes on Friday afternoon. The nights are long, and dark.