Things were fuzzy when I first came into the world. I remember a lot of scrambling and sometimes fighting to get at my mama’s teat, but there was always enough room once we settled into our respective places and I never went hungry. It seems in those early days all I did was eat, sleep, poop, and pee. It was an easy life, but not very exciting.
I’m a curious sort of pup by nature, unlike my brothers and sisters. They’re happy just wrestling around with each other or chewing on toys. I like to watch things.
Intensely observe the actions of others. Skillfully smell the air for the scents that help me to understand my world. I like to taste things, and the new grownup puppy food we started eating a few weeks ago is delicious.
I’m what you call a Bernese Mountain Dog. I’m not quite sure what I look like, but if I had to judge by my brothers and sisters, I’d say I’m black, brown, white, and really fluffy. Our owners are what you call breeders. My mama and daddy make baby puppies, and then people buy us.
Lately, people have been coming by to look at us. Prior to such an event, me and my siblings are brought out one by one to an outdoor bathtub where we are scrubbed with warm water and sweet-smelling soap. We’re then toweled off before being placed into a makeshift outdoor pen made of interlocking panels. There we dry in the sun and chew on blades of grass or each other’s tails. When the people come to look, we preen and act silly and look our adorable best.
If we’re one of the lucky pups, people will ask to hold us. Our owners will pull us out of our little pen, then we get to play with people and get belly rubs. They exclaim over how cute we are and even if we’re not chosen, there’s a general air of excitement buzzing through the rest of us while we watch from our pen.
This is one such day. We’re all bathed and smelling like flowers. It’s chilly out, so our man owner pulled one of the cars outside of his big, two-car garage, and set up the pen beside the remaining car. He then opened the big door for the people to come look.
Because I’m always aware of my surroundings, it doesn’t take me long to notice that one of the panels on the cage isn’t fully locked, and there’s a tiny gap at the bottom. While the other pups do somersaults and put their front paws on top of the cage to get the people’s attention, I nudge my nose through the tiny opening.
Next my head.
Wiggle a bit to get my shoulders through.
Then it seems I’m sort of squirted through to the other side.
I look over my shoulder. All my sibs are still trying to get the people’s attention and acting very foolish in my opinion.
I’m suddenly intrigued by a smoky sort of smell that’s coming from somewhere outside the garage. I scramble underneath the car, then belly crawl quite stealthily to the other side. Without a moment’s hesitation, I dash out and into what I call the big world. The minute the soft pads of my paws hit the crispy brown grass, a rush of jubilation over takes me.
I submit for a moment to the unmitigated exhilaration of freedom, running around in a tight circle for a few laps before flopping to my belly. The grass pricks at my skin because my fur isn’t very thick there yet, and I hang out for a bit while watching the people ooh and ahh over my siblings. Not one of them turn to look at me, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any important action.
The smoky smell hits my nose again, and my mouth waters. My tongue comes out and licks all around my snout as I lift my head to get a better sniff. It definitely makes me want to sneeze a bit, but there is a strong scent of some type of cooked meat underneath. I think I’ll die if I don’t get a taste of it.
It’s from somewhere—my gaze moves to the back of the property—just over there.
A thick copse of pine trees stands strong and tall. I’ve never been back there and it looks dark and a bit scary, but I feel an adventure calling me.
Plus… that smell.
It’s so delicious, and I can’t resist checking it out.
My eyelids are sealed shut with the type of nasty gunk that a hard night of partying leaves behind. The act of rubbing them with my fingers sends sharp bolts of pain reverberating throughout my skull. I believe my tongue is glued to the top of my mouth for a moment, but it comes free with a little bit of suction.
It’s a typical Wednesday morning for me. I didn’t have to work last night which meant I partied. It’s what I do because if I don’t put myself out there, how will I ever find what I need?
I manage to blink against the morning sun coming in through the living room blinds that are so worn and twisted they’re completely nonfunctional.
Not my apartment though and since I’m essentially a freeloader, I have no right to say a word about it. I just accept that sleeping on a friend’s couch means rising early no matter how hungover I am.
After freeing my feet from the ratty old afghan Charmin’s great-grandmother or some such person crocheted, I roll slightly toward the coffee table to root around for my pack of cigarettes. The bright sun has me keeping my eyes clamped tightly shut, so I’m going by instinct alone.
Which sucks because my hand lands inside of the overflowing ashtray. I immediately jerk it backward before making another attempt, grab air for a moment, and then stick my hand right back into the pile of stale cigarette butts and powdery cinders.
Squinting at my ash-covered fingertips, I realize it’s nothing more than a metaphor for my life. Floundering around, landing in crap situations, not learning my lesson, and repeating.
Prying my eyes open further, I roll my head and zero in on the pack of cigarettes. I grab it, squeeze lightly, and determine it’s empty.
“Shit,” I mutter, tossing it down on the scarred wooden coffee table that’s littered with beer cans, a bong, and an empty bag of Doritos. I vaguely remember partying last night with a few guys from the bar.
Even more vaguely, I remember Charmin and her boyfriend Chuck coming in. They joined us for a few bong hits before they took their own personal party to the bedroom. The headboard knocking against the wall and Chuck’s oddly high-pitched yips of pleasure had me laughing so hard I was afraid I’d pee my pants.
Probably wouldn’t have been as funny if I wasn’t stoned, but any time I can laugh at Chuck behind his back is good times for me. The dude can’t stand me, and the feeling is mutual.
I push into a sitting position on the couch, intent on getting all the way up and making my way to the bathroom. My head swims and my stomach rolls, so I just slump backward against the lumpy cushion. I drag my fingers through my hair, promptly getting them caught in a mass of brittle knots before letting out an audible sigh because now I have clean fingers but cigarette soot coating my scalp.
I’m a fucking mess.
My shoulders go tense when I hear the bedroom door creak open. I know it’s the bedroom door because there are only two off the apartment’s short hallway. There’s the bathroom, which does not squeak but also does not close all the way because one of the hinges has been knocked loose.
And then there’s the bedroom. Its hinges are secure but rusted, making it sound like a screeching eagle every time the door moves. I once sprayed some PAM cooking spray on it because it was driving me nuts every time Charmin or Chuck would enter or exit their room, but that just didn’t have quite the lube power of WD-40. I wasn’t about to buy a can as my funds are limited and precious to me. I’d live with the squeak as well as the bright light in the morning.
“Hope you’re going to clean that shit up,” Chuck says as he enters the living room.
My shoulders tighten even more. I’ve been staying at Charmin’s apartment for almost three months now. It’d been a good deal for me as she was only charging me a hundred bucks a month plus half the utilities to squat on her uncomfortable couch. I couldn’t afford anything more than that and on my part-time bartender’s wages, it was a stretch as it was.
But she started dating Chuck last month, and he moved in after four days of wild, passionate, yipping sex. I have no room to judge her for pathetically latching onto the man so quickly, because I’ve been accused of doing the same. As of now, I’m on the prowl for the next Mr. Right Who Is Totally Wrong because I just do better when I have someone to help take care of me.
It’s the way it’s always been.
In fact, the three months I’ve been living at Charmin’s since my husband kicked me out of our house is the longest I’ve ever been single in my fourteen years of adulthood. I feel so very lost and yet, I’m just wise enough to know how lame that makes me.
I don’t bother giving Chuck my full attention as it’s too much effort to roll my head his way. Besides, the dude grosses me out, strutting around in his saggy boxers with his hairy stomach rolling over the waistband.
Closing my eyes, I merely point out, “You could help clean it up. You didn’t mind drinking the beer and taking hits off the bong last night.”
“Wasn’t your beer and dope, though, was it?” he replied.
Fair point. It wasn’t mine, but it was the dudes I invited over to party last night. They were only casual acquaintances from the bar but given the fact they were providing the booze and drugs, they were my bestest buds last night.
I don’t reply to Chuck. He’s the type of person who has to have the last word anyway. The man has an ego that’s overstretched and filled with a false sense of importance, meaning he’s always right.
Because it would be more painful and nauseating to attempt a civil discourse with the man, I push from the couch and suck down the bile that wells up in my throat. I never bothered to take my shoes off last night before I passed out, so I’m almost ready to roll out of here.
Once in the bathroom, I take a much-needed pee. I try to ignore my reflection in the mirror as I scrub my hands and teeth, but there’s no getting around the fact I look about as pathetic as I feel. My hair is a lank, dry mess and my roots are about three inches long, which corresponds quite nicely to the fact I haven’t been able to afford a discount box of hair color from the drugstore since my husband kicked me to the curb.
I try to creep my way to the front door while Chuck roots around in the refrigerator.
“Hazel,” Chuck yells as I open the front door. “You going to clean that mess up?”
“Later,” I mutter as I step over the threshold.
“Later as in you’ll clean it up later?” he presses, and I make the mistake of sliding my gaze over to him as I start to pull the door closed. I quickly snap my eyes shut, trying to block out the image of him exuberantly scratching himself between the legs.
Pivoting quickly, I call out just before I shoot out of the apartment, “I’ll clean it up later.”
Right now, I need cigarettes.
Maybe a cup of coffee.
Jamming my hand into the back pocket of my skinny jeans, which are falling off me because I’m not eating much these days, I pull out a crumpled pile of money. By the time I reach the sidewalk that runs along old Highway 17, I’ve got them smoothed out and determine I’m the proud owner of eight dollars. It’s a good thing I’m working tonight because after I buy a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee, I’m broke until I can collect tips.
Old Highway 17 is different than the new Highway 17. It’s just a small portion of the original that runs north and south through Jacksonville, North Carolina but was relegated to a service road once a new bypass was built last year. It’s roughly a quarter mile long and from said service road you can access three bars, the ghetto-styled apartment complex where I now live, a pawn shop, and a convenience store. In the seventies and into the early eighties, this part of Jacksonville and a few more miles of Highway 17 were densely populated with bars, strip clubs, pawn shops, and tattoo parlors catering specifically to young marines who had just arrived at Camp Geiger to begin infantry school from boot camp. The drinking age wasn’t raised to twenty-one until 1986, and those glory days made those types of business owners very rich.
It was the same on the north end of town where Camp Lejeune borders the stretch of Highway 24—also a multi-lane thoroughfare that was studded with all kinds of business that would provide mischief and mayhem to young marines recently graduated from Camp Geiger and moving over to the big base.
As the owner of the bar I currently work at tends to lament to me on a nightly basis, that all changed when the drinking age was raised. Highway 17 started to dry up and one by one, the businesses started going under. Those that hang on do so out of a sense of nostalgia and mostly because the bar owners have strong social ties to what few customers are left.
Plus, they like to drink a lot.
I walk south toward the 7-Eleven, rubbing my bare arms against the chilly morning air. The weather has been weird lately. We’re four days into spring, but it’s hardly breaking the forties in the early morning hours, which is definitely not typical of eastern North Carolina. I’d been so focused on getting out of Chuck’s notice that I forgot my jacket.
Not a biggie.
The 7-Eleven would be warm, and I could enjoy a cup of coffee there while shooting the shit with whoever is on duty. I’m a frequent customer there to buy cigs and/or beer. If I wait it out for at least half an hour, Chuck would be gone to work by the time I got back.
As I walk past a large culvert a quarter filled with rainwater and months of accumulated trash, a barely perceptible sound reaches my ears through the early rush-hour traffic. On weekday mornings, there’s a steady flow of cars filled with young jarheads heading to the Marine Corps Air Station. It’s home to the loud helicopters and Ospreys that fly over Onslow County daily, and it’s where most of my current bar patrons work since it takes up much of the southern part of Jacksonville.
My thoughts turning me away from whatever sound I thought I’d heard, I almost make it past the wide ditch before I hear it again. A tiny yip.
Completely different from Chuck’s orgasmic coyote sounds, and far more pitiful.
I stop, leaning over the edge of the culvert that’s probably a good three feet in depth and twice as wide. The wet bottom is lush with a weedy type of foliage, green grasses, and proud standing cattails, interspersed with empty McDonald’s bags, cigarette butts, discarded lumber, and beer bottles.
Something moves among the greenery, and the slimy water ripples. I take a step back, because in my experience, I’m the type of down-and-out person who would get bit by a poisonous snake.
Another yip and my brain finally recognize it as distinctly canine.
My curiosity gets the better of me. I start a careful descent down toward the water, holding my arms out wide for balance. It only takes two steps before I go down onto one knee, the soft dirt and long blades of dewy grass causing my foot to slip out from under me.
“Shit,” I curse, and get two resounding little barks back.
Keening, pleading cries for me to come even closer to take a look.
Resigned to the large, muddy wet spot on one knee and realizing I stand a good chance of toppling head-first into the brackish water if I continue down, I move closer to where I hear more whimpers.
Using my hands to peel back a curtain of long grass, I see the source of distress.
It’s a puppy of indeterminate breed and color. It’s covered in the blackish muck and struggling against a tangle of barbed wire wrapped around the lower half of its body that’s nailed to a splintered piece of two-by-four. It looks like the puppy tried to squirm through a loop or something and got caught up.
Or even worse, someone intentionally wrapped that poor thing up like that and threw it in the ditch to die.
Despite its precarious situation, the little mud-slicked tail wags furiously for a moment as its head swings to me, fully revealing that the dog has one brown eye and one blue eye. That one crystal eye stands stark against the mud, almost colorless closer to the pupil and darkening to a faded denim on the outer edge. I wonder if it’s blind in that eye as it seems rounder and wider than the other.
Perhaps it’s just fear making it stand out that way, but it looks wild and desperate as well as insanely happy that someone has answered its calls for aid.
My entire body shivers, partly from the cold but partly from recognizing the terrible predicament this little creature is in. When my husband kicked me out of the house three months ago, I spent a few brutal nights freezing my ass off in my car because I had nowhere to go and no one to help me. It was a mere four days before Christmas.
I’d swallowed my pride, and begged Charmin for a spot on her couch. My car has since broken down and I can’t afford to get it fixed, so I walk where I need to go. I muddle through my life working the measly hours I’m allotted at the bar because the owner doesn’t want any of his bartenders getting close to a forty-hour workweek and God forbid asking him for overtime.
And so far… I’ve survived.
Twisting my neck, I tear my gaze away from the dog and glance back out to the edge of the culvert. Just a mere thirty yards away from a hot cup of coffee and a relaxing cigarette.
A deep shudder ripples up my spine, reminding me that my life is shit. I have no business helping this dog. Even if I free it, the damn thing will probably wander out onto the service road. If it doesn’t get squashed by a lone car zooming by on this dead road, it’ll most definitely be killed quickly once it ventures onto Highway 17. I’d be dooming it to certain death, whereas if I just leave it alone, it might work its way free of the wire and I can forget about it.
Heck… someone else might even come along at any minute to help the stupid thing.
Or… it could die from the elements, which would probably take a few days and promises to be an unbearably cruel and painful end to its life.
“Damn it,” I mutter as I reach for the puppy. I’ll get it loose from the wire, after which it can take its chances on the highway. At least if it gets hit by a car, it will be a quick death.
An easy end to its suffering.
It’s the most I can do for the little pup.