Dogs of California
by Allie King
If Saul was a Pitbull, or a German Shephard I would’ve understood, but he was a one hundred percent Ashkenazy Jew with a degree in accounting, a thirty-year mortgage and seven pairs of shoes. A podiatrist he met at our cousin’s Bar Mitzvah told him never wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row, and Saul being both a rule follower and an advice taker to hearter created a shoe rotation to support his falling arches and his compliant ambitions. Along with all this fine organization Saul had one bad habit and one serious flaw. Some nights, might be on the full moon, might be on Rosh Hodesh, he’d go out and dig up the yard. In the morning unearthed tree roots would show their naked flesh and Saul would crawl into the house carrying a stick in his mouth, his arms, legs, and face covered with mud - unrepentant. I blamed it on Ben, his boyfriend of five years, dumping him for another dentist.
This continued through the summer and fall, but when winter arrived, and snow covered the ground it became dangerous.
“Miriam, I think I have frostbite in my mouth,” Saul said.
I am always the one he calls when there’s a need for medical care, or bail, or a place to crash.
“Were you digging in the yard?” I knew the answer, but you have to start a conversation somewhere.
“Ughuh. Nobody gets hurt, consenting adults,” Saul said mumbling as if his tongue ached.
“Doctor or dentist?” I needed to find out if it was a tooth problem or a soft tissue problem.
“Doctor. You talk, hurt too much.” Saul avoided dentists at any cost – more of Ben’s malignant influence.
I told him I’d pick him up and we could go to urgent care.
On the way over I tried to devise a plausible explanation for the doc in a box, so they wouldn’t send him for a psych eval.
“My cousin’s fine, but since his boyfriend left him, sometimes he has to dig up the yard and chew sticks.” Sure, that would go over well. Maybe since he’s white and has insurance, it’s less likely they’ll try to 5150 him.
Saul limped up to the car, his Sunday shoes covered in mud, his jeans encrusted with dirt and moss and soaking wet.
“It might be hours of waiting, you can’t sit around in wet clothes,” I said.
Wearing clean corduroys and Monday’s shoes he made it through the Urgent Care ordeal and was sent home with some lidocaine and a referral to a social worker.
“Is it getting worse?” It was a calculated question because this was the first time Saul needed medical care after a romp in the yard.
“I miss Ben,” Saul said and dissolved into tears in my arms. His mother raised him right and there was a fresh box of tissues on the coffee table perched on a tea tray. I plucked two out and shoveled them into his hands careful not to touch his battered face.
After he calmed down and applied the lidocaine, I offered to heat up some soup. Saul waved me away, changed into flannel pajamas and went to bed.
I paced his tidy living room, thought about calling his ex-boyfriend Ben, called my sister, got voice mail, and went home. I never considered calling my aunt, Saul’s mother, because she only has time for her own woes and any call to her meant forty-five minutes of uh-huhs, and oh reallys.
My dog Ruben, a big honking labradoodle greeted me at the door with yips of pleasure, joyously circled around me and returned with his leash in his mouth. On our walk I talked with him about Saul and his deteriorating mental health. Ruben sat and barked at me. Well, why hadn’t I thought of that.
I waited until after dinner to call Saul.
“I know what you need to do,”
“Huh?” Saul said.
“You need to get a dog. If you had a dog, you wouldn’t need to act like one. You could get your gratification from watching the dog instead of having to do it yourself.”
Saul agreed we could go to the animal shelter on Sunday.
“Next Sunday. I don’t think they’ll let you adopt a dog with your red, green, and purple face. Promise me no more digging in the yard. If you need to chew on something get one of those cinnamon sticks they give to people trying to quit smoking.”
Saul abstained from digging in the yard and on a bright winter Sunday he brought Charlie, a Dachshund Pekingese mix, home.
You could tell from the minute they met, Saul kneeling down to pet little Charlie, that it was true love at first sight.
Saul showed Charlie the yard, his water dish and bed. I left them curled up on the couch. Saul reading the New York Times aloud.
After three weeks without a panicked call from Saul I dropped by to see if all was well.
Saul and Charlie were side by side in the yard playing chase the ball.
Saul took the stick out of his mouth and said “Thanks Miriam. Charlie and I love each other; he’s my soul mate. You can stand down – we’ve got it from here.”
From the car I called my sister.
“Gay love, bi love, asexuality, grey sexuality all fine, but this could get him arrested.”
“I don’t think he means it like that.” I sighed and rested my face against the cold window. “I think he means they understand each other, they like to do the same things.”
“Yeah, but Saul has to go to work in an office some times. How does he explain Charlie?”
“Maybe we can get Charlie designated as an emotional support animal.” I called the social worker to talk about getting a certificate for Charlie. She said there’s a process and a test for the certification.
“We could get Charlie certified as an emotional support animal,” I dropped by and reported to Saul. He was sitting on the floor, Charlie on his lap.
Saul pulled himself up to his full six-foot height, and I realized how long it had been since I saw him up on two legs.
“That’s an insult. Unless we get me certified as an emotional support animal to him too. We’re equals.”
“Except you work, drive to the grocery store and buy kibble,” I wasn’t sure what argument might be persuasive.
“Charlie doesn’t eat kibble,” Saul still upright and indignant stalked toward me.
“We eat gourmet meals; I prepare them myself from fresh organic local ingredients.” He plucked the top off a simmering pot on the stove.
“Smells bland,” I said.
“Charlie can’t eat anything spicy. You know that.”
Being a conscientious dog owner, I knew not to feed dogs onions, garlic, or raisins.
“Saul are you ok? I mean do you think you’re ok?”
“I’m fine,” he said dropping onto hands and knees.
The truth is he looked good. His bruises were healed and there was light in his eyes. Charlie came over and nudged at Saul’s leg with a ball dropping the red plastic sphere to the carpet. Saul picked up the ball in his mouth and made a feint at Charlie. Charlie jumped onto Saul’s back barking. Saul rolled over catching Charlie and hugging him to his belly.
“Who am I to judge,” I said. “Come for dinner Friday?”
“We’d love to.” Saul said and Charlie licked his chin. “Charlie has excellent table manners.”
After I lit the candles, passed the wine, and shared the challah we ate.
Saul was right, Charlie sat on his chair, didn’t beg, didn’t whine, didn’t fart. I’d laid a plastic mat on the floor to catch any debris, but Charlie was tidy.
“Did you enjoy dinner?” Saul seemed to expect Charlie to answer. Charlie gave a low woo woo and jumped down. Saul joined the dog on the floor and they rolled around, Saul laughing and Charlie woo wooing.
In preparation for the visit, I put my dog Ruben in the bedroom afraid he might learn bad habits, but Charlie remained a perfect gentleman all evening including sitting and offering his paw before leaving.
I called my sister to report on the visit.
“They seem really good.”
“You sound like you’re talking about a happy married couple,” she said.
“Maybe I am,” I said scratching my head.
“Do I have to start worrying about you and Ruben? Are you going to start digging in the yard with him?” I laughed.
“I don’t like the taste of dirt.”
I called Saul to check in because when we were growing up he was afraid of spiders and snakes and worms.
“How can you dig in the dirt and chew on sticks when you’re terrified of insects?”
“Charlie would protect me from anything dangerous. His sense of smell is ten thousand times better than mine.”
“What’s good about chewing on sticks?”
“It’s very satisfying.”
I couldn’t believe I was willing to consider chewing on stick might be a reasonable, healthy thing. My cousin Saul, the calm, rational, boring cousin, the one whose socks and belt always matched, the one who remembered everyone’s birthdays, advocated chewing on sticks.
“Charlie and I are going for a hike next weekend. Want to come? Charlie picked a trail on Mt. Tam.”
On behalf of myself and Ruben, I accepted.
Saul showed up with a backpack, water bottle and sensible shoes. Charlie sported a matching outfit – minus the shoes.
Hiking the trial they seemed to communicate telepathically, stopping and cocking their heads in unison when a bird sang out.
I called my sister to report.
“We hiked for four hours. Saul didn’t mention Ben even once,” This was a big change from the first months after Ben left when Saul called me daily to report on the million times he missed Ben.
“Maybe he didn’t want Charlie to get jealous,” I said.
“You’re starting to lose it. Do I have to start worrying about you?”
“You know how much I spent to get these teeth looking good. I’m not going to jeopardize them.” But I wondered what sinking my teeth into a soft stick would feel like.
I called Saul.
“Are some sticks better than others? Do some taste better or are they more fun to chew?”
“I like the ones that aren’t too long. Charlie’s willing to drag his across the yard, but I like the compact ones – easier to carry.”
I knew my sister would kick me if she heard this conversation. We were comparing the relative merits of sticks as if they were bottles of wine, or gourmet cheeses.
“This is my best relationship ever. I thought what I had with Ben was amazing, but Charlie’s attuned to my every mood. He can tell by my tone of voice how I feel. I never have to explain myself. He accepts me as I am.”
I did my own compare and contrast between my past relationships and my current relationship with Ruben. He was right. No relationship could be better than mine and Ruben’s.
“Can you promise me you won’t hurt yourself digging in the yard and chewing on tree roots again?” I hated to bring it up, but it was the elephant in the room.
“Charlie doesn’t believe in chewing on living roots. We only like abandoned sticks. You know, the ones the trees don’t need anymore.”
Now Charlie makes the rules. It used to be Ben, now it’s Charlie.
“Good night,” I said.
Ruben watched me brush my teeth and settled on the bed, placing his shaggy head on his pillow.
I kissed his snout, cuddled down under the covers and dreamed of sheep.
Allie King enjoys reading and writing about people, animals, and people who know they are animals.