Friday, August 10, 2007

Koi Dog Pondering

A posting in the local newspaper advertises a general interest meeting for a new dog park in our neighboring town. The notice reads: “Picture dogs gamboling off-leash, playing joyously in open, public space. For many dog owners, this would be a dream come true. For those who are afraid or resentful of dogs, it would be a nightmare. In a well-functioning dog park, it is a safe and responsible reality every day of the week.” I’m hooked at once. Ari and I both want this to be our reality, so I plan to attend the meeting.

Donning shoes and sunglasses, I meet the expectant look of a young dog now accustomed to daily trips in the car. She cocks her head in the direction of the front door as if to say, good idea! Let’s take a trip. I shake my head no, which causes her to slouch across the length of the doorway—a furry roadblock. I’m not wooed and leave her in the care of Greg and our friend Scott. Dogs gamboling in coastal town halls are not mentioned in the ad. I worry the fearful and resentful crowd mentioned in the notice might also be at this hearing. Even if they’re not, my adolescent pup is no practitioner of parliamentary procedure.

When I arrive at the meeting, I’m both surprised and delighted to see how many other humans in the area have similar fantasies about canines in public spaces. Like their dog friends, they tend to move around and group up in corners, so it’s hard to keep an accurate count. I estimate, though, that at least 30 people have turned out on this gorgeous summer day. The meeting is informal and has a kind of a support-group feel about it. Hi, my name is Kathryn and I want my dog to run free. Hi, I’m Dale. It’s been two months since my dog played outside with other dogs.

Hi, Dale.

The stories I overhear throughout the evening are both gloriously familiar and sometimes tragic: tales of dog antics and escape artists even Ari would admire, coupled with a few horrible stories of dogs hit by traffic or kidnapped. It’s a sober reminder of love and loss. Everyone present seems to agree about the importance of safe spaces for our four-legged friends. I volunteer to help with construction and canvassing, then spend the rest of the meeting fantasizing about safe dog saturnalia by the time the first maple leaves begin to fall. I can’t wait to tell the folks back home.

But when I arrive, Greg and Scott are too busy chasing Ari around and through the house to notice I’ve returned. As far as the pup is concerned, everything is a dog park—particularly this place right now. She’s in no mood to stop and learn about easement permits and new designs in water fountains. She’s in sheer ecstasy—cavorting about and beaming at the two grown men stumbling behind her. Park, schmark.

If asked, I suspect Greg and Scott would have other choice words right now—most likely ending in the same letter, but of the less printable variety.

Both athletic, the two men are physical complements to one another: Scott is long and lean, a dancer turned soccer player and coach. Greg is broad and muscular from years of football and far more diligence at the gym than his wife can muster. They embody wellness. That, of course, is of little consequence when trying to catch a juvenile dog.

Their expressions tell me that they have no time or patience for this game. The two are about to embark upon the last kayaking trip of the season. Scott has flown from his home in Colorado especially for the trip, and the plan is to spend a few days catching up before the two paddlers depart. Scott is an easy going kind of guy. A kindergarten teacher by day, he is well accustomed to the sights and smells of young mammals and can tell you stories about the bodily functions of six year olds that would make even a registered nurse pause. I’ve often joked that Scott’s school district ought to import him into health classes at the high school: a few anecdotes from him, and abstinence may very well become a viable form of birth control for teenagers.

This is all a long way of saying that Scott is not easily put off by anything, particularly anything of the olfactory variety. I can’t understand, then, why he would be exclaiming in loud peals of disgust every time he comes within 10 yards of Ari.

“MAN,” he shouts each time he approaches the gallivanting dog. “I MEAN, MMMAAANNNN! THAT IS WICKED BAD STINK!!” This is followed by one of a series of guttural noises—mostly unique combinations of vowels like “eeeoooooffff” or “uuuuuaaaaaggg.”

Greg, meanwhile, looks as if he is trying to lasso Ari rodeo-style with one of his kayak straps. As a college professor, he is accustomed to considerably fewer bathroom messes than those seen in a kindergarten classroom (though probably more than you’d expect). Regardless, he isn’t about to get as close to the pup as Scott.

I stand next to my car, frozen in amazement. I’m too far away to understand what about Ari is so rank, but the scene before me is so vividly Chaplin-esque, so absurd in its exaggerated chase and theatrics, I find myself looking around for confirmation that this is in fact my home, my husband and friend, my spiraling dog. As I do, the threesome completes yet another lap through the house, then across and over the front porch. While Ari and Scott dart past, Greg stops near the bumper of my car.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said.
I fight the urge to admit I already don’t.
“Ari’s been fishing,” Greg says, struggling to catch his breath. “For dead things.”

Before I can ask him to clarify, Scott limps back up the edge of our yard and towards the car.
“That dog is PUN-GENT!,” he shouts—drawing out the last word as if he were at a pig call in the deep south. “I’m talking RIPE!!”

The two men have both resigned from their pursuit. It is more profitable to alternately reflect and commiserate on their failed attempts than to continue. As they recount Ari’s new adventures in aquatic necromancy, Greg casts me the occasional look, which says—as vividly as Scott’s use of all capital letters—your dog, your problem.

Point taken.

I go inside for Ari’s leash and tin of biscuits, then set out through the yard and into the woods. I clamor over the rock wall, past the yellow “No Trespassing” signs and onto our neighbor Risto’s property. Several hundred yards later, I finally spy my dog. Or what looks like my dog. It’s hard to tell, since all I can see is an inverted quadruped whirling its paws in the air as it flops from side to side. I creep closer, hiding behind a large birch tree.

From my surveillance station, I can see that the object of Ari’s current infatuation is a giant—and once bloated—dead carp from Risto’s pond. As I watch Ari smear its now-oozing decay into her thick fur, flashbacks from the past two weeks came rushing to the surface: Greg mentioning that he had seen something bright and large floating in the center of Risto’s pond; Ari returning from unsupervised woodland jaunts with wet feet and matted fur, smelling of pond water and something slightly fishy; her increasing attempts to bolt from the front door. This has clearly been a project of some planning and initiative on her part.

I can’t say I entirely blame the pup. Before it was mashed by her writhing, the fish was a lovely mix of oranges and reds, and it probably measured about 12 inches in length. Even from her vantage on the edge of the pond, Ari would have seen the appeal of its limp form floating atop the water. She must have worked for days, nudging it towards the shore, before gingerly carrying it to this prime rolling spot, right in the middle of the trail, where it could explode in a pageantry of unthinkable decay.

If Greg’s memory is correct, this fish has been dead for at least a week. That’s a lot of time for it to become disgusting. As a child, I once stepped on a two-day dead sunfish on our beach. Still firm, it yielded under my bare foot with the kind of “pfffllltttt” that has made whoopie cushions famous. The sensation and resulting smell were enough to make me wear flip flops on that same beach ever since.

What’s happening in front of me now makes that childhood memory seem as rosy as a Disney movie. Other than its skin, the entire fish had turned into a thick, greenish-black paste, which my dog is now insinuating throughout her coat. From 15 feet away, I can smell the process as vividly as if I were actively taking part. Ari grunts with orgasmic pleasure as she flops this way and that, coating every inch of fur on her thick back. She is so deliriously happy, in fact, that she forgets to consider escape when I approach. Instead, she rolls her eyes halfway up into her head and shudders with pleasure. I’m shuddering, too, though for very different reasons.

It takes no small amount of effort to right this writhing dog, and she seems dazed as I pull her away from the fish. Forget airplane glue, these fumes are truly far out. I try some of Scott’s guttural exclamations. They seem more than appropriate in this setting.
Koi means love. I try telling myself this as I drag our coydog back to the house. With one hand wrapped around her leash and the other senselessly plugging my nose (as if such a feeble act could combat the stink), I repeat the statement like my own Shinto chant. Koi means love. Koi means love. It doesn’t help.

Scott refuses to enter the house once we force Ari inside. Cam scuttles into the basement. How can we blame either one of them? This smell is so powerful it has mass—a thick coppery cloud that hangs low and thick everywhere the pup has been.

We wash her. Once, twice, three times. The copper cloud in the bathroom begins to dissipate slightly, and we can once again see across the bathroom. Still, the stench is overwhelming. Greg gags violently. I begin to yearn for the common aroma of rotten snakes. That at least had an earthy bouquet to it. This stink, on the other hand, is preternatural. After two hours thumbing through a thesaurus, I still can’t find a phrase in the English language vivid enough to do it justice. Frustrated, I rise from the table and make my way upstairs just in time to see a flailing dog burying her stinking back into my side of the bed, wriggling her way across my pillow. It makes me want to cry, but all I can muster is a feeble “ppffflllttt.”