Inspired by a disastrous stint dog-sitting a few years ago. Possibly to be continued. Enjoy.
Barking Up The Wrong Tree
Winston promptly stepped in it as soon as he had finished, the warm, odorous feculence squishing and squashing beneath his small ivory paw. He jolted forward from the curb, attempting to pull my arm out of its snug little socket as he lunged menacingly at the squirrel squatting nearby, examining the acorn he’d stashed in the same tree that Winston had inadvertently fertilized. I yanked him back towards me which provoked a loud, grating bark, and Winston furiously stormed back at me, his beefy frame dawdling circles around my new beige suede boots.
The squirrel bolted, ditching its prized nut to flee this slobbering, wrinkled, wretched wildebeest referred to by most as a bulldog. I felt a pang of jealousy as I watched the squirrel spring off the ground and scamper up the delicate oak tree that gave shade to this square of Chelsea sidewalk, instantly out of Winston’s reach and removed from the various atrocities the brute might commit on the ground. Just then, as if to taunt me, Winston’s front left paw, fresh with warm excrement, swiped the tip of my new shoes as he pranced around my legs. “GOD DAMN IT!” I shrieked, cursing the day this beast had ever been brought onto this earth, but moreover the day I let my sister, Violet, sucker me into taking care of her newly adopted godforsaken dog child while she honeymooned on the Greek Isles.
“Ohhhh, hey there big boy, ohhh yes, that’s a good boy!” A cooing, patronizing, yet distinctly male voice came from behind me, prickling every hair on my neck and sending my blood pressure through the roof. Why did dog people insist on speaking to these animals like an overindulgent mother speaks to her newborn baby? It’s not a human, it’s an animal, and a hairy, smelly, sneezy, drooling one at that. This dog was a permanent infant, except 80 pounds heavier and constantly licking my shins like they had a Tootsie-Roll center. Never before had I ever felt an urge to Purell my kneecaps.
“Winston is super touchy-feely,” my sister had raved. “We actually keep a slobber towel in every room of the apartment, because he’s just never not really dipping saliva somewhere. Isn’t that a riot?” I had stared back dumbfounded at my older sister as she related this to me, utterly in awe as she proceeded to give the dog a treat and let him lick her entire face, starting with her chin and sweeping across her eyes. There was so much liquid I half-expected her mascara to run. Winston had just finished eating most of Zoey’s wet cat food, and I had wondered if Frank would come home later and smell the Friskies Classic Tuna Paté all over Violet’s face when he went in to kiss her hello.
“Yessss, dat’s a good boy!” The man’s voice was closer this time, and I grimaced at hearing a grown man talk like someone dangled a baby in front of him and ordered him to make it clap. In the few days I had spent dog-sitting, I was never quite sure how to act when taking Winston for walks – I was afraid people would take me for a dog person, so I tried to actively show frustration instead of pride when he did things like pee on flowers or stop in the middle of the crosswalk when we were already jaywalking. I spun around with a scowl on my face, hoping to scare off this hyper-feminine maniac who so desperately wanted to reach out and touch the four-legged monstrosity with fresh feces on at least two of his scruffy paws.
The full-blooded male specimen bee-lining towards me and the animal would have knocked me off my feet himself if Winston hadn’t done so first, capitalizing on my brief loss of concentration to fully bind me up in his leash. He stood there panting with what I could swear was a full blown grin on his face as he watched me lose my balance and land flat on my butt on the cold October sidewalk. My bare hands smacked down loudly on the concrete to break my fall, and I immediately felt a sting on my palms similar to the one experienced by my ego.
“Oh gosh, can I help you up?” The divine being rushed over to my aid, kneeling down to try and disentangle me from Winston’s woven web of hyperactivity. The scowl that had been plastered on my face melted into a gaping jaw, unable to answer the heavenly body’s simple question.
“Wow, he really pulled a fast one on you, didn’t he?” His soft, rosy lips moved and words burst forth from within, and I found myself nodding as his hands gently touched my calves when he slid the leash out from underneath. Winston seemed equally stupefied at the wondrous figure standing before us, this ethereal man who had in just a few short moments wound his way into our lives. The gargantuan dog was actually still, sprawled out like a leapfrog mid-stroke (the bulldog version of sitting on all fours) waiting for the god-like creature’s next move.
The tall, dark-haired, eerily handsome mortal raised himself up on a pair of sturdy, jean-clad legs and I found myself staring up to the heavens above. The sunlight gleamed and hit his jet black hair in such a way that it cast an aura around his head, and at that moment I truly believed in angels. With Winston’s leash firmly clasped in one hand, the exalted one extended his other hand to me and graciously hoisted me up off the gritty sidewalk.
“Thank you,” I managed to eke out, unable to look at the sublime male directly in the eyes. I skirted his gaze, nervously brushing myself off. I had dragged myself out of Violet’s cushiony king-size bed to take Winston for his morning walk, hoping to wear him out so he’d be too tired to make a ruckus while I crept back in my bed til noon. I had neither brushed my hair nor donned a bra, and I hoped that my black pea coat was concealing my lack of chest support.
“No problem! I spotted him running around you from down the sidewalk, kind of saw that one coming. You’re sure you’re okay though?” Oh, how sweet! He was genuinely concerned for my well-being, his deep emerald eyes giving me the one-over while checking for signs of distress on my body.
“Oh yea, I’m fine, you know, it’s, umm, mostly my pride,” I replied nervously, tucking a wisp of my corn-colored hair behind my ear. I examined the handsome stranger’s face – his dark hair rested perfectly atop his head where I could tell he pushed it back out of his mystifying forest-colored eyes. His square jaw was strong and harbored the most splendid, brilliant rack of teeth I’d ever seen. Freshly shaven, his skin radiated perfection save a jarring, jagged scar above his left eyebrow. Instead of distracting from his beauty, the scar only seemed to highlight his otherwise unearthly symmetry.
“I’m Erick,” the supreme being offered, presenting me with his right hand. “What’s your name?”
“Alice,” I heard myself saying while I absorbed the warmth and contour of his manly, deft hands. “You know, like Wonderland.”
“Ha! Nice! I guess you could say I’m Erick, like Prince Erick! Gotta love a Disney reference once in a while.” He winked, and my eyes widened. Oh! He thinks I’m clever!
Erick turned his attention to Winston, kneeling down to give him a rough nuzzle on the head. The gluttonous critter was sprawled back out on the sidewalk, motionless in Erick’s aura. I’d never seen the monster so still.
“And what’s this little troublemaker’s name?” He asked, his voice getting all high-pitched and doting again. I bade myself to look past it – Everyone has flaws, I reminded myself. It must be his only one, there is no way this man-angel has two entire flaws. With that in mind, I forced a smile.
“It’s Winston,” I answered with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Hey there Winston! Aw man, I love bulldogs,” he said with a slight, sweet southern drawl, earnestly looking back at me. “I actually grew up on a bulldog breeding farm out in West Virginia. I didn’t have brothers or sisters growing up, so I was kind of like a wolf-boy with these bulldogs. I played with them all day, everyday, they were like brothers to me. Is he yours?”
“Mine?” I repeated, my voice rising with a mix of anxiety and perplexion. There was a lot of information to process at that moment – A bulldog breeding farm? Wolf-boy? Bulldog brothers? But at that exact moment Erick looked back up at me from where his perfect body and soul knelt next to the hairy cousin of a hog, and I found the kindest, most searching eyes staring back into mine, unworthy of their gaze. He wanted me to say yes, he needed me to say yes.
“Yes,” I lied. “Yea, it’s mine. I mean, yes, he’s my dog.”
“Wow, you sure are lucky, I can tell Winston here is a special breed. He sure looks a lot like some of my old dogs.”
“Oh yea, I’m totally lucky,” I confirmed convincingly. “Um, how many dogs do you have?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
“Too many to count back in West Virginia, but when I moved to New York a while ago I just brought my top three comrades – Johnson, Doc and Elvis. Wanna see ’em?”
Before I could say no, Erick whipped out his phone – three enormous, life-threatening dogs on top of a bale of hay stared acutely back at me out of the screen.
“My god, is that one a…” My voice trailed off. I couldn’t remember the names of any of those dog breeds. I could tell you all the provinces of Canada but I could never be bothered to learn the difference between a cocker spaniel and a German sheppard. They were all the same species of ick to me.
“Yea, Elvis is a Rottweiler. He’d been badly abused as a pup, but I took him in anyway, saw something in him, you know? He’s still got some anger issues, but it’s just a question of putting the muzzle on him when he’s around people. And I took out an insurance policy on him, just in case, you know, he gets carried away in public or something.” He began excitedly flipping through his photos of the four-legged monsters while I wondered what level of loose cannon a dog had to be before a dog owner felt compelled to protect itself against potential lawsuits it might provoke.
“Wow, you really must love animals,” I managed, trying to feign an interest and change the subject as far from dogs as I could. “So you said you moved to New York a little while ago, what are you doing here?”
“Well, I’d signed to this modeling agency, but once I got settled in and made a few bucks, I quit the biz and I’m currently getting my Ph.D in education at Columbia. I want to rehaul the public school system in the U.S., but specifically in Appalachia. It’s a region that’s dear to my heart. Not everyone had the same chances as me.”
I swooned. A do-gooder, a smart, Ivy League, good old-fashioned Southern do-gooder with Disney-prince looks. I shook my head, trying to wake myself up from this dream. Maybe I’d gone back to sleep after all.
“And how about you, Alice?” He asked me, the sound of my name leaving his sublime orifice ensuring me I was alive and awake. I told him about what I did, what I wanted to do, he laughed, I laughed, he bit his lip, I blushed, the sun shone and the birds chirped and the sun and the moon and the stars aligned and there was no more war or pain or poverty and wounds healed and eternal joy was reached and and then Winston spotted the same god damn squirrel scrounging around for that nut and proceeded to go entirely bezerk.
Winston leapt off the ground and charged across the sidewalk. A rickety old lady on her walker inching her way along the street found herself right in Winston’s path. The cheap metal walker went flying and crashing and the spindly old lady tipped back, slowly falling til she hit the ground, landing flat on her butt.
“Oh my god!” I screamed, rushing over to the poor, innocent, very senior citizen. Her bruisy, purplish, veiny skin was so frail, and I was scared she snapped her feeble wrist in half when she’d hit the ground.
“I am so sorry, oh my gosh, please don’t die, oh my gosh, this is all my fault!” I was panicking.
“Oh, hush dear, I’m quite alright,” the old lady assured me in a wavery, rattling voice. “I was a battlefield nurse at the Battle of the Bulge, I’ve been blown back by Nazi artillery much stronger than that little pup! How is he, is he alright?”
“He who? The dog?” I asked, bewildered. She wanted to know if Winston, the dog that almost ended her seemingly record-long life, was okay?
“He’s fine! I got ’em!” Erick’s chirpy voice sounded from behind me again, and Winston bounded up to me and the old woman, practically knocking her back down to the ground as he gave her face one big licking.
“Winston!” I shouted, trying to shoo him away from the poor old woman, but she just laughed.
“Ohhh, that’s a good boy!” She cooed.
“His name is Winston,” Erick added. “Isn’t he a catch?”
My upper lip curled in disgust. What was wrong with these people? An unruly dog nearly mauls a ninety-five-year-old war veteran to the ground and this is the reaction? I had to get out of there.
“I…I gotta go,” I stammered.
“Wait, what? Why?” Erick was confused.
“Well, umm, it’s late.” It was 9 a.m. I had to be in a bad episode of The Twilight Zone. I’d never actually watched The Twilight Zone, it was a little before my generation, but I was sure the plot lines ran similar to this madness.
“Okay, well hold on a minute, let me get your number. We could go out one night, or even better, we could take all the dogs out for a walk together! We could even make it a thing!”
I just about fainted at the mere idea. I shook my head wordlessly, unable to respond, felt around on the ground for Winston’s leash, and looked back into Erick’s big, beautiful, pleading puppy-dog eyes. I sighed.
“I can’t,” I replied, wishing so badly that I could.
“You can’t?” Erick verified with disbelief.
“No, I just can’t.”
And with that I thought I’d make a dramatic exit, mysteriously walking away from the dashing stranger on the random Chelsea street where fate had brought us together. But instead, Winston had laid back down again and wasn’t ready to leave Grandma, so I awkwardly tugged and pulled at the 80-pound beast while what could have been my Prince Charming helped the old lady to her feet, completely at a loss. By the time I made it into the lobby, I turned around and all that stood where Erick had once been was the scrawny squirrel, finally gnawing on its precious nut.