by J.S. Long
The dog at the back of the cage is snarling, head and tail low, ears back. My gag reflex momentarily kicks in, and I notice the cage floor is covered in shit. The dog bowls are turned over and stuck in crap. When the dog turns a little, I see her row of tits hung low and drained. She has scars along both sides of her head, ears got old tears that look like notches, and there’s a little grey around her muzzle.
Someone calls my name and I turn, see the front desk kid who’s got the tools of my trade in his hands. I take the oversized rubber boots, square-headed scoop, bucket, and hose from him. When he turns and faces the dog, the corners of his mouth go down and his head goes back. He’s looking down his nose at her. I hope he’s never gotten the chance to get close to her.
I’m a shit shoveler. There’s always a need for shit shovelers, never enough of them. Any town, any city, dog pound or shelter, and presto: instant job. But it’s more about working with dogs; shoveling shit is the way in.
The dog in the first cage is still growling, sometimes snarling, as I pop open her door and step in. I take my time, giving her my back, slowly scooping shit, plopping it in the bucket, letting her get acclimated. It’s been a while since this cage has been cleaned, and I wonder if all of them are the same. I feel her stare at my back as I work.
After half the cage is done, she goes quiet. She still stays as far away from me as she can, but I get her bowls and leave. I scrounge around and find some moldy dog food in a bag, in a closet marked “Food.” Finding some more in a storage room by the office, I grab a bag and start back. The kid sees me and asks what the hell I’m doing, there’s already food out.
I know I have a temper, but that knowledge doesn’t automatically give me control. The bitch who bore me married a punk who thought it his birthright to abuse his wife and kids. I ended up with a whole load of repressed crap, some of which precludes me from taking unnecessary shit from a whelp who still needs a wet nurse.
But I take a deep breath and relax, let this pimply-faced fuck slide, tell him that the other bag was empty. I don’t think he really cares, but he just has to piss on everything to show his dominance. Was I that stupid at his age?
Throwing the bag of food over my shoulder, I head back to the cages. Probably going to need more than one if I can work it so that all the dogs get some fresh food.
After washing and filling her bowls, I take them back to her cage, put them in the middle, and back off. She stares at me, her nose twitching away. She’s been abused, but she’s not aggressive. Got good stature for a mix, Rottweiler and … but she won’t eat just yet.
I pull her bowls, put them at the front, and start cleaning the rest of the floor. We maneuver like a dance, her at my back. The more I move one way, the more she moves the other until she ends up by the food. Over my shoulder, I watch her scarf it down, then slurp the water.
My knack for dogs comes from growing up in a house where dogs got the better deal. Mom’s favorite was a female German Shepherd named after the lady who gave her to us, Avon. As like begets like, Mom and Avon had a strong repulsion for males, including me. Neither allowed me to get close.
When the Rottweiler-mix finished eating, I move around to the front, so we’re back where we started. Having gotten a little closer, I see some caked-on shit in her fur. A bath is in order. It’s not like I ain’t been bitten before, but I try some commands. I have to use a bit of assertiveness, but she responds. I try some hand signals. This dog has had some training; every time she lies down, she crosses her front paws, like a Lady.
I scout about and find a bath in the back, full of garbage. After cleaning it out and making sure there’s hot and cold water, I grab a leash, head back to the cage.
To get a dog on a leash means getting close, and that requires some magic. I enter as before, only this time it’s all about being assertive but not aggressive – steady eye contact, calm demeanor, and the right body language.
She starts one way, and I block. She bares big teeth. I stay calm and steady. Of course, she has to do a little growling. She goes the other way, I block. Not long before she and I are in a corner. I know I’ve won when she lies down at my feet. I reward her with some light pets while I put the leash on. She’s still a bit shy, not sure what I want from her.
I lead her out of the cage, take my time, let her feel her way, and eventually we get to the bath. There are steps for a dog to get up and into the bath, but I’m not sure if she’s willing. She doesn’t even hesitate, climbs up and hops in.
As I wash her, she starts shaking. She’s not cold, just going through some psychological changes, but I use warmer water to rinse. In the middle of her rinse, she starts licking my face. I can’t afford another attachment right now. When I put her back, I pile on more food and watch her eat.
Cage two, three, and four: a poodle, chow mix, and a real Heinz 57, all relatively kept. Means Lady was singled out. I give them all extra rations, along with their friendly neighborhood shit shoveling service. I wonder if there’s a school for shoveling shit. Bet I could get a PhD. I dump the last of the dog food after a few more cages, mark the last cage so I’ll remember where I left off for tomorrow.
I’ve had enough for one night, and head out to get some fresh air. At the front desk, I tell the kid how bad cage one was. He gets all bend out of shape, says, “That bitch ain’t got shit coming,” and then something about, “if she ever bites me again….” Now I get the picture. I like Lady even more.
Leaving the office with the kid still muttering in his self-made turmoil, I hit the street. The first thing I encounter is the aroma of hazelnut coffee. Traffic is light, a couple of delivery trucks parked on the street. As I walk, a dude reading a newspaper and wearing sour aftershave almost bumps into me. After I pass the donut shop, I rush by an alley to avoid the stench of rotting meat.
I soon find my way next to a flowing crowd of seven and fold into it. Never want to be in front, never want to be in back ‘cause those get clipped first. From a couple of people ahead of me wafts the mustiness of a working girl that hasn’t been to bed yet. After a few blocks, I’m alone, but soon there’s one, then two, then more as the street lights get dimmer, the trash in the gutter gets thicker, and I get closer to the pad.
A block from our one-room flophouse, she rises as if out of nowhere. At first, all I see is a mane of dark hair and a lot of alabaster skin showing. Then the john steps from between two buildings, adjusting his fly. She turns and wipes her mouth with a rag, smiles when she sees me. God, what a smile. As we hug, I kiss her cheek and whisper, “I love you,” in her hear.
I ask her how things are doing, she asks why I smell like dog. I ask if she’s done for the day; she asks what I want for dinner. I grab her ass and tell her she is. She giggles and says I ain’t got enough money. This is our conversation, with no answers given. But all is well when she takes my arm, and we head home.
Two hours later, after she’s had her fix, a shower, a pot of mac and cheese, I watch her snoozing. She has a scar down the side of her nose, from a trick’s knife, who thought he got ripped off because he shot his load too fast. I love that scar, or maybe just the way she flaunts it. Her latest HIV test came back positive, but I don’t care. She cried for a little while, then went out and got a fix. I refuse to test now, what’s the use? If she dies first, I’m going to hunt down her stepdad. If I die first … who’s going to take care of her?
We met when I found her sitting on a park bench a few miles from here. She wasn’t crying, but she had some wet trails down her cheeks. I sat next to her. We did that for a while, just sat there. Then she started talking, and she wouldn’t shut up – half the time not making sense, at least not at first. But she was genuine and unassuming, and I loved her voice.
The next night and I’m back to shoveling shit. I give Lady some extra food, and while I watch her eat, it dawns on me. “Fuck, now I got another one.” I only clean three cages and then I’m at the front desk, like a junkie needing a fix, except I need a dog. My palms sweat, my eye ticks, and my feet won’t stop moving.
I ask the kid for the necessary paperwork, and he wants to know why I want that “mangy mutt.” I don’t say nothing, yet I feel the ache in my jaw as my teeth grind. He won’t leave well enough alone. After supposedly checking the records, he says that she’s past her date, that she’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow, that nothing can be done about it. And then he smiles.
My turn. I hop over the counter and this kid back-peddles, tripping over his own feet. But I’m right there, grabbing handfuls of his shirt, bringing us nose to nose, hoping my breath stinks.
“Listen dipshit, you either fill out the paperwork, or I drag your ass in the back and throw you in her cage. What’s it going to be?”
Seems that he’s more reasonable than either of us thought. A few minutes of him typing and I have a new member of my family. But then I wonder if the dog will outlive our AIDS. There’s also the melding of the two females. Guess I didn’t think everything through.
I head back to get her, picking up some things along the way. She needs leashes, bowls, collars (I should have brought a shopping bag, but an empty dog food bag will do), some doggy treats (mmm, those ain’t bad), and some premium canine fur cleaner.
Lady and I get to the pad and find my love still home, lying naked on the couch in front of the TV. She knows about Lady, I tell her almost everything. Not that I told her I was bringing a dog home. I introduce the two females and wait to see if any sparks fly. Nope, nothing but bonding. She gets on the floor and starts hugging and scratching. Lady just soaks it up, not quite comfortable, but getting there.
The two of them get curled up on the stained mattress in the corner. Both need to put on some weight. Sometimes I wish I could do better. It wasn’t that long ago that I was strung out, pushing the limit just to get well. Bent feelings always come unbidden, punishing me for visiting my childhood. She always knows, takes one to know one, so I have to hide within myself. Maybe next time I go out, I’ll just check out. Or maybe not.
J.S. Long lives and writes in Northern California.