It was early in the evening when a sharp knock on Doug’s front door catapulted Fred and Ginger into frenzied action and set the mastiffs to barking and hurling their considerable bulk against that unlucky portal, their claws making a desperate, scrambling sound against the already dog-ravaged wood.
The knock froze Doug into place, shoulders hunched around his ears and fingers hovering above the computer keyboard. His heart jammed high up into his throat, so much so that he was scarcely able to breathe. How, he wondered, had this intruder— whoever it was—managed to miss the big sign out front, the one with fluorescent epoxy resin letters that read “Beware of Dogs”? How had he (or she or they) managed to get past his heavily padlocked gate? And who was it anyway? Doug knew no one in Orchard Beach. Indeed, he had taken great care since moving to the small fishing village not to extend himself to anybody; to be polite and guarded and nothing more. He had learned from careful observation that it was safer for people with certain proclivities, people like him, to keep to themselves.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Of course, it might be Penny Flanaghan, his landlady; the cottage he rented from her backed directly onto her property. When he had asked if he could extend the chain link fence that walled off the cottage’s front and the side yards to also enclose the back (“For the dogs,” he had explained), she had replied no. “I need a clear view,” she had said. A clear view? Of what? Of him? Did she suspect something? Had she seen something? But he had been so discreet!
Again the knock and, barely discernible over the loud barking, “Hello? Hello! Come on, man. I know you’re in there. I see your truck.”
A man’s voice, scratchy and unfamiliar, but a man’s nonetheless, so not Penny Flanaghan. Relieved, Doug exhaled, slumped back in his chair, closed his eyes. Still, he reminded himself, attention must be paid; vigilance exercised. He opened his eyes and took in the image on his computer screen: a man and a Doberman Pinscher posted to his go-to bestiality forum. He quickly exited the screen, then, for good measure, powered off the computer before turning his attention to the rampaging dogs. “Fred! Ginger! Settle down! Just settle down!” He stood and, grasping each dog by its spike studded collar, dragged them back from the door—no easy feat. They were powerful animals.
“Who is it?” he asked, his voice tight in his throat.
“Hey, Buddy, it’s Moon Dawg! You remember Moon Dawg? Moon Dawg, your old chatroom pal from ZooNet?”
Moon Dawg? From ZooNet? Moon Dawg from ZooNet here in Orchard Beach? But Moon Dawg was from the US, someplace out West, Arizona maybe…or was it New Mexico? He couldn’t remember. He didn’t want to remember. Moon Dawg? Really! Doug closed his eyes and leaned his weight against the door, pressing his cheek into the scarred wood. Moon Dawg?
“Hey, Buddy,” the-man-called-Moon-Dawg wheedled, “You always said if I was ever in the neighborhood I should drop by.”
Yes, thought Doug, but of course, I didn’t mean it.
“Well, here I am,” said Moon Dawg. “In the neighborhood, in fucking Canada, man. Why didn’t you tell me Canada was such a big country? I thought it was just, I don’t know, north, but it goes on, man. It extends.” Then, “Hey, man, do you think you can let us in? If this is spring in Canada, I’d hate to see what you hosers call winter. Rhonda’s practically naked and I’m freezing my goddamned balls off.”
“Rhonda?” Doug asked weakly. Naked? he wondered.
“Come on, man. Rhonda needs to hydrate and I could use a beer myself.”
Doug closed his eyes. He sighed. “Sit!” he instructed his dogs. “Stay!” Then he unlatched the door.
Before him on the falling down front porch piled high with old flower pots and rusted lawn furniture stood a stunted man fifteen years his senior, gnarled as an old root and sporting a scrappy, grizzled goatee. On one side of his neck was a tattoo of a rearing horse inked in flowing lines. He wore a pair of faded bib overalls over a black NASCAR tee shirt, a red “Make America Great Again” hat, and held in one hand the electrician-taped handle of a bulging duffel bag and in the other, a leash attached to the pale pink, rhinestone studded collar of a doleful looking Harlequin Great Dane.
“Hey Schneewolf, bro!” Moon Dawg said excitedly, using Doug’s ZooNet nom de guerre. “We meet at last!”
“Don’t call me that!” Doug insisted as he hustled the man and the big dog inside the old cottage. “Don’t ever call me that!”
It took Doug the better part of one week to wrangle Moon Dawg’s real name out of the little man (Jerry Kovalcik) and nearly another entire week to ascertain that the ownership of Rhonda (not her real name) was a matter of some contention. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry had stolen the Great Dane from a rancher in New Mexico, then, seeking safe haven, had fled to Canada. Given that Doug was the only Canadian he ever had any sort of relationship with, albeit via the Internet, safe haven in Jerry’s view was his old chatroom pal, Schneewolf’s cottage at 145 Harbour Hill Road in Orchard Beach, Ontario.
Doug was alarmed to discover he was harboring a fugitive from justice, “You’re a dog napper!”
“Technically,” Jerry conceded, “but the truth is I rescued Rhonda from a living hell. You gotta understand, Schneewolf, New Mexico just wasn’t her scene.”
“Stop calling me that,” Doug objected. He shook his head. Schneewolf! What had he been thinking, he wondered now, to have given himself such a grandiose moniker when he was really little more than a “viewer,” not “a doer,” a dog lover, but not a “lover of dogs.” Not hard core. Not like that. Crack open a jar of peanut butter, pull on the leathers, set up the tripod for a few photos, always wear a mask…that was Doug’s thing. The tricked out truck, the two deceptively fierce looking mastiffs (huge sucks if the truth be known), it was all show. Jerry, on the other hand…Jerry, he feared, was the real deal.
“And, of course, there’s the fact that Rhonda and I fell head over heels in love,” Jerry added, looking dreamy, if a man resembling the offspring of a strip of beef jerky and a dehydrated elf could be said to look dreamy. “That’s gotta count for something.”
Three weeks in and Doug began to seriously worry that Jerry Kovalcik would never leave. The cottage was too small for two men and three giant breed dogs and harboring a fugitive from the law (and an untidy and demanding one at that) was taking a serious toll on Doug—not only the constant, nagging anxiety that Jerry might be tracked to his house and himself implicated in a crime, but also the extra cost to him in terms of beer, groceries, dog food, and remedies to address Rhonda’s various skin ailments: for her acral lick dermatitis—Manuka honey and Willard’s Water, for her dermatosis—zinc, for her mange (which was creeping)—borax and hydrogen peroxide; not to mention Vitamin E Oil to rub into her skin, anti-itch sprays, and Omega 3 fatty-acid supplements. And of course, there was also the cost of the mastiffs’ doggie daycare—sixty dollars a day! Not knowing exactly how exclusive Jerry might be, Doug had begun to feel uneasy leaving Fred and Ginger home while he was at work.
As for Jerry himself, he never ventured outside except to let Rhonda do her business, which was considerable and which he never picked up, dog poop being, in his estimation, “the most natural thing in the world.” “It’s not safe for old Moon Dawg out there,” he would remind Doug whenever his host asked him to do something that fell beyond his property line, like going to the kiosk at the bottom of the hill to get the mail or walking to the beer store himself. “You gotta understand, Schneewolf, I’m a wanted man.”
“Don’t call me ‘Schneewolf’!” Doug repeated for the hundredth time.
“Why not?” Jerry demanded. “Don’t tell me you’re ashamed of who you are, ‘cause you gotta get over that, man. You gotta live your truth.”
“It’s not my truth!”
“It is your truth, or it might as well be,” Jerry retorted, “I seen the pictures. I seen them on ZooNet. And everybody else has seen them on ZooNet and, if they haven’t, they can. The Internet is forever, man, and you’re on it. In chaps. With dogs.” He paused, then, narrowing his bloodshot, ice-colored eyes to slits, “And, by the way, Brother, if it ever occurs to you to snitch on me, to tell the cops where I am, then, well, I might just feel obliged to spread the word that my gracious host is, in fact, a fellow Zoo. Ain’t no Norm worth his salt wants a Zoo in their employ. Ain’t no Norm worth his salt wants a Zoo renting their house or around their kids, ‘cause they think we might also be pedophiles while we’re at it, either that or we’ll convert the kids like the gays do, or, God forbid, go anywhere near their dogs or even their goddamned cats, although what use a cat is I cannot say. Norms hate Zoos, Schneewolf. They want to lock us up, put us away. Hell, they would kill us, if they could.” He waggled his finger at him. He smiled, which was terrible thing when missing several key teeth. “So you just remember that, Schneewolf. You just bear that in mind.”
Just short of four weeks after Jerry and Rhonda’s arrival, midway through a lazy Tuesday afternoon in early summer when Doug was at work and the air was reverberant with the humming of bees and the grind of lawnmowers and Jetskis stuttered on the Lake below, an ambulance came barreling up Harbour Hill Road, rebounding off every pothole, its sirens blaring, its lights churning. It jerked to a stop in front of 142, a house three down from the cottage and discharged from its bowels a small army of paramedics who proceeded to storm the property with all their life saving gear. As it happened, Roger Featherstone, the old man who lived at 142, had suffered a massive stroke.
Jerry, alerted by all the commotion and initially convinced the OPP was finally coming for him, armed himself with a machete (he was damned if he was going to let himself be taken without a fight—or Rhonda either), shut the Great Dane up in the cottage, and hobbled down the driveway to Doug’s padlocked gate where he crouched down next to the chain link fence to watch the drama unfold from the dark confines of the wooded copse.
When it became clear to him that the bell had tolled not for him in this instance, but for an unknown old man instead, Jerry exhaled sharply, laid the machete down, and sat back onto his rear end before lurching to one side in the leaf litter and rolling into a ball, moaning in relief and whimpering as he rocked back and forth.
A week later, Doug came outside to find his landlady, Penny Flanaghan, a short, sturdy woman in her late fifties wearing a hibiscus studded moo moo and a fierce expression, standing in wait for him next to his truck.
“Oh, Mr. Pugh!” she said and he knew he was in trouble. It was the way she pronounced his surname—“Pee-euw” (an unfortunate surname by any reckoning and the nexus of an entire lifetime’s worth of bullying). As he approached her, full of trepidation, gulping, she thrust a redolent, bulging Foodlands bag in his direction.
“If I catch your friend letting his dog have a dump on my lawn one more time, I’m taking a photo with this iPhone my children got me for Christmas that takes such good pictures you wouldn’t believe—a phone!—and I’m taking it down to the OPP and charging him with violating Orchard Beach’s Poop and Scoop Ordinance and that’s a two hundred dollar fine! Do you hear me?”
“Damn it, Jerry!” Doug exploded. “What did I tell you about not letting Rhonda go on the Flanaghans’ property, particularly, no, especially since you refuse to ever pick up after her?”
“Poop is the most natural thing in the world,” Jerry said breezily. “Everybody does it. You do it. I do it. It’s biodegradable.”
“Well, Penny Flanaghan doesn’t like it and it’s her lawn and she’s my landlady!”
“Well, I don’t know what she’s getting so worked up about. She does it too. Poop, I mean.”
“That’s not the point, Jerry, and, to be fair, Rhonda’s poops are gigantic.”
“Which is why I don’t want them in our backyard,” explained Jerry, sounding reasonable. “Can you imagine? It would be like a minefield out there, only, instead of mines, it would be poop. Wouldn’t blow off your legs though.”
“Not our backyard, Jerry,” Doug corrected him testily. “My backyard.”
“Well, actually, Penny Flanaghan’s backyard,” Jerry replied. “Technically.”
Six excruciatingly long weeks had passed since the end of April and Jerry and Rhonda’s arrival at the cottage at the end of Harbour Hill Road. It was five thirty on a Saturday afternoon, and Doug and Jerry had planted themselves hours earlier in rickety aluminum lawn chairs on the front porch to drink beer and stare morosely out at the lake. From where they sat, they could see east all the way to the lighthouse and west to the pumping station. It was a spectacular view, especially on a hot weekend in high season when the lake was alive with sailboats and kite surfers. Overhead birds squabbled in the trees and squirrels chirped and barked, while in front of them, foolish Fred and Ginger lolled on their backs in the root riddled patch of lawn stretching down to bluff’s edge, feet waggling in the air.
Since noon, Doug had somehow managed to down eight beers. He was not usually a heavy drinker. As for Jerry, Doug had no idea how many beers he might have drunk, but he was pretty certain it was more than eight. Everything Jerry did was more. He was excessive by nature. Doug cast a fleeting, rueful glance down at his middle, which was beginning to soften and spread. Not thirty-four years old and already getting fat, he thought glumly, whereas Jerry. . . . how the hell old was Jerry, anyway? Fifty? Fifty-five? Surely not as old as sixty, but maybe. Doug shook his head. He couldn’t comprehend it. Jerry was so scrawny and scrappy. Where did he put all that beer?
“Too fucking hot,” Jerry observed now.
“Thirty-two degrees in the truck with a humidex of forty,” Doug agreed.
“See, that’s where you confuse me,” Jerry said. “Where I come from, forty degrees is damned cold. I don’t know why you Canadians can’t get with the program and do Fahrenheit like the rest of the world.”
“Excuse me, but the only countries that do Fahrenheit are the United States and some little islands somewhere,” Doug retorted.
“See, that’s what I mean,” said Jerry, maddeningly, taking another Coors Lite from the cooler planted between them, “America First.”
Doug scowled. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry was really beginning to get on his nerves; he didn’t know how much more of him he could take. Watching elegant, forlorn Rhonda disconsolately picking her way about the yard, probing for smells with her big, wet nose he wondered, not for the first time, if she was pining for her true owner, for the New Mexican rancher from whom she had been so cruelly stolen. He had raised her from a puppy after all. Probably loved her every bit as much as Jerry does, and she mutually so. How would Doug feel if someone stole Fred and Ginger? How would he feel about the person who would harbor such a villain?
“I know what I wanted to tell you,” Jerry remembered. “I found this note. On Tuesday, I think it was. Stuck in the back door when I went to take Rhonda out. It’s addressed to you.” He dug around in the pocket of his overalls and fished out a pale green envelope. “Here,” he said. He handed it to Doug.
Doug stared down at it, noting that it had been unsealed. “You opened my mail?” he asked sharply.
“Not mail,” Jerry corrected him. “Note.”
“It’s the same thing!” Doug protested.
“No, it isn’t,” replied Jerry. “See. It doesn’t have a stamp. If it was mail, it would have had a stamp. There’s a big difference.”
“No there isn’t,” said Doug.
“Don’t you want to know what it says?”
“Why don’t you tell me since you already know?”
“No need to get all huffy with me,” Jerry said. “It’s from some woman in the neighborhood. I think she must be the daughter of the guy that had that stroke the other day. You know. Down the street. She invited you for a drink. God knows how she got past Penny Flanaghan.”
Glowering at Jerry, Doug removed the note from the envelope. The front panel featured an elaborate mandala and the words, in an elegant typeface: “Namaste. The light inside me honors the light inside you”. He opened the card and read the note: “Hi, Neighbour, since you’re new to the Hood and I’m just returning to it after a long absence, I thought it might be nice to get acquainted over a glass of Pinot Grigio. Call or write me. Contact information is on my card. Yours, Deanne Featherstone, CHRP.”
He looked up at Jerry, “What’s CHRP?”
Jerry shrugged, “Who knows? There was a business card. Where did I put it? Oh, right.” He produced a card from one of the bib pockets of his overalls and handed it to Doug.
“Again,” Doug pointed out, “That was for me,”
Jerry shrugged. “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. We’re two amigos.”
“No, we’re not,” said Doug flatly. He scowled, squinting down at the business card. “She’s a Life Alignment Coach. What’s a Life Alignment Coach?”
“Uh oh! It means she’ll want to change you,” said Jerry. “Got to watch out for women who want to change you. A woman should be able to accept a man for who he is. It’s the natural order.”
Doug scrutinized the photo on the card—a doe-eyed woman of early-middle age with an excess of brown curly hair. “Her photo’s kind of hot.”
“Nawh.” Jerry shook his head.
“What do you mean?” asked Doug, “Look at her.” He held out the business card for Jerry to see.
“That’s probably an old photo and see how soft the focus is—how her features kind of swim on a blurry surface and she looks all moony?”
Doug squinted at the card. “I guess.”
“She’s using a Beauty Filter,” Jerry said triumphantly. “It’s an app. You put it on your phone to take selfies. She wants everybody to think she’s a lot younger than she really is, and you know what that means?”
“No,” said Doug.
“That she’s needy as all get out and demanding as hell.” Jerry leaned back in his chair, “This Deanne Featherstone is one woman you do not want to get involved with. I can’t even count all the red flags. That’s why I took the liberty of emailing your reply to her from your computer.”
Doug was flabbergasted, “You did what?” He demanded, “My reply?”
“I emailed her thanks but no thanks. I told her you like to keep to yourself, nothing personal. I was polite.”
“Damn it, Jerry, you had no right to do that and how the hell did you know my password anyway?”
“Because it was your dogs’ names, duh. Although I admit it took me a few passes to figure out that it was—fredampersandginger, not fredandginger.”
“That’s an invasion of my privacy, man, and, besides, maybe I would have liked to gone over to her house and had a glass of Pinot—whatever-it-is.”
Jerry barked with laughter, “You? A glass of whatever? With a woman? What do you know about women? Have you ever even had a girlfriend? You’d only embarrass yourself, and besides, we can’t have some Life Alignment Nancy Drew come nosing around this place, finding out things. There’s our situation to consider!”
“Your situation. You mean your situation,” Doug protested.
“Aiding and abetting a criminal,” Jerry said, “Consorting with a known zoophile. Being a zoophile. . . .”
Doug was silent for a moment. Then, bitterly, “Yeah. Thanks for reminding me.”
He took another beer out of the cooler. He opened it and sat back in his chair, staring stonily at the lake.
All there had ever been in his life that was pure and good had been dogs—little Patches when he was a boy and Dad beat the tar out of Mom. Later, after Mom kicked Dad out, gentle old Bruiser. And before Fred and Ginger, but after Mom died, Leo, whom he had loved beyond all creatures. But lately…lately, Doug had started to feel lonely for something else, something different. Dogs were great company, the best, but maybe a human being might need other human beings. At least, that was what everybody said. Well, Barbara Streisand.
So he had reached out to other people, people like him, people who loved dogs, people who loved dogs to a degree and an extent that other people might find strange, sure, even depraved, but people nonetheless. Surely that would be safe, he had thought, reaching out from the privacy of your own home, using an assumed name so you couldn’t be traced, swapping pictures in which your likeness was obscured so that you could—for once in your miserable, lonely life—be playful, exchange witticisms, have “friends”. What could be the harm in that, he had thought. What could be the danger?
He sighed, closed his eyes, and held the cold beer can against his forehead where a headache was beginning to percolate.
The danger was you could end up held hostage by some wizened old geezer and be forced, upon pain of ruinous exposure, to endure him taking up all of the oxygen in your life, spending all your money, getting you in trouble with your terrifying landlady, and now ruining any chance of a social life you might possibly, conceivably ever have.
Maybe Deanne Featherstone’s note was the last straw or maybe it was the eight going on nine beers, but Doug found himself mildly surprised to discover that he had finally had it. His eyes narrowed and he felt himself turning flinty.
“Hey, Jerry,” he said sharply, “That hat you’re wearing. You vote for that guy?”
“Well, I happened to be in jail at the time, but, if I could’ve—I would’ve,” said Jerry, puffing out his Bantam chest, naked underneath the straps and bib of his overalls. “He’s my guy. America First.”
“Well, you’re in Canada now and your guy…I hate to tell you…but he doesn’t like dogs.”
“’Course he likes dogs.”
“Nope. I read it somewhere. He’s never had a dog. Not one. Thinks they’re disgusting. Thinks they carry germs.”
“No way,” Jerry shifted uncomfortably in his lawn chair, scowled. “Fake news.”
“His first wife,” Doug persisted. “He tried to make her give up her little poodle.”
“Come on, Schneewolf!” Jerry exclaimed, “He wouldn’t do that!”
“Her poor little poodle named Chappy.”
“Well, a poodle…” Jerry hedged.
Doug bristled, “Are you a goddamned breedist, Jerry? Because I don’t tolerate breedists in my house. Every breed of dog has the heart of a dog! I don’t care if it’s a Bichon Frise or a goddamned Heinz 57! Poodles are dogs too, Jerry! Poodles are dogs!”
He wobbled up out of his chair and stood there, unsteady on feet that seemed strangely far away—his femurs felt loose in their sockets and his knees, gelatinous.
He made a vague circling gesture with his hand, before announcing, somewhat to his surprise, “I’ve had it with you and your ‘America First’ and your ‘Make America Great Again’ and all of that other American bullshit! I’ve had it with you and your big, dopey, mangy dog that you stole ‘cause not only are you a zoophile, you’re a goddamned thief and a mooch and just generally bad news and I want you out! Out of my goddamned house, out of my goddamned country, just out, gone, away. I don’t care what you do to me. I don’t care.”
He lurched over to where Jerry sat and stood for a moment, towering over him, his arms hovering above his head, his fingers spread and curled in imitation of a rampant grizzly.
“Go away, Jerry!” he hissed, “Get out! The two of you! I mean it!”
He gulped and blinked and then swayed a little, trying to regain his equilibrium.
“And now,” he announced irresolutely, “Now I’m going to take a dump.”
Turning abruptly on his heel, in the execution of which he nearly lost his balance, he staggered to the screened in door, flung it open, and stepped inside the dark cottage, letting the door rattle into place behind him.
Doug was sitting on the toilet with his cargo shorts and his underpants down around his ankles, when he heard the sound of his Silverado truck fire up and rumble down the long, curved driveway in the direction of the padlocked gate and the road beyond, picking up speed as it went. He frowned, trying to put two and two together, or, in this instance, three and three—the elements in question being his truck, the fact that he always left his keys in his truck’s ignition, and Jerry—what the fuck? Jerry was stealing his truck!
Doug leapt to his feet and lunged for the knob of the bathroom door, only to get tangled up in the bunched up clothing at his feet. This caused him to twist to one side, lose his footing and pitch backwards into the hollow core door, putting his elbow through the membrane of timber veneer. It took him a moment to extract his elbow from the shards of veneer and the door’s cardboard core, after which he fumbled, cursing, with his clothing for what seemed a ridiculously long time, given the apparent direness of his current circumstances. In the end, he managed to yank his briefs free of his shorts and up around his hips. As for his shorts, he gave up them altogether, kicking them to one side. Turning back to the ruined bathroom door, he flung it open so violently that he wrenched it off its hinges and was just starting off across the living room when he heard a tremendous crash coming from the direction of Harbour Hill Road and the sound of metal crunching against metal, followed by shouting and barking. He threw open the screen door just in time to see Rhonda lope round the corner of the driveway. She looked terrified—her ears flattened, her tail between her legs. The two mastiffs, conversely, passed her going the opposite way—towards the road—barking excitedly.
“Fred! Ginger!” Doug cried.
The dogs did not adjust their stride or look back, but ran full out. Doug glanced wildly around. The Silverado was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Jerry, although, mysteriously, his farmer’s overalls lay in a heap on the porch floor.
Doug cast his eyes heavenward. “Jesus Christ, Jerry!” he wailed, “What have you done?”
Doug arrived breathless, at the top of his driveway to find the accordion-pleated front of his Silverado encoiled in the snares of what remained of his chain link gate and embedded in the crumpled passenger side of an OPP vehicle. The black and white Ford Crown Victoria had been parked sideways across the end of his driveway to barricade it. The sight of the two ruined vehicles stopped Doug in his tracks, jammed his heart up against his epiglottis. Jesus Christ, he thought, my beautiful truck! Followed by, Oh, My God, Jerry’s gone and killed somebody!
“Who’s that? Is that the guy?” a man asked.
Doug twisted around to see Penny Flanaghan standing at the end of her laneway, flanked by two OPP officers. At the sight of them standing there intact, relief washed over Doug; they mustn’t have been in their vehicle when his truck rammed it. Jerry hadn’t killed anybody. A second later, however, that relief was overtaken by dread. What was the OPP doing up here? Who had called them and why had they barricaded his driveway? And even worse, what did they know? He recognized the man who had spoken—Officer Shawn Rooney, a big country boy peppered with orange freckles—from a previous incident in which a neighbor whose nephew, as Doug’s luck would have it, happened to be Rooney, complained about Fred and Ginger savaging his aunt’s Shih Tzu; the little dog had wandered onto Doug’s property through a hole in his fence and the resulting surgery had cost him half a month’s wages, not to mention he had felt absolutely awful. Shi Tzus were dogs, after all. Although it was sometimes hard to tell.
“No,” said Penny in reply to Rooney’s question, “That’s Pugh. His buddy’s the one you’re after.”
Buddy? Doug thought, aghast. “Hey!” he called out to his landlady and the policeman. “He’s not my buddy! No way! Not my buddy!”
“Then what is he?” snapped Penny Flanaghan. “He’s been staying with you for…like…forever.”
“A month!” Doug protested. “He’s been staying with me a month. Well, maybe six weeks. I don’t know!” This is it, he thought. All of my worst fears about to be realized: The Law has tracked Jerry and his stolen dog to my house—my house! They’re going to question him and they’re going to question me and he’s going to tell them about the pictures on the Internet because he’s a flaming asshole and then I am done for. I’m done for.
But then it dawned on him. Fred and Ginger! Where were Fred and Ginger? They were nowhere to be seen. They’d probably made it all the way to the lake by now and there was no telling how they would react to being free; they’d never gotten loose before. Was it possible that, like Lassie, they would make their way back to him on their own? Or would they wander stupidly out onto the highway and be killed by a semi? Then again, could they have found some small animal to attack and were even now tearing a feral cat or Pomeranian to shreds? He had to find them before it was too late.
But how could he get past all these people to go looking? Because, all of a sudden, everywhere he looked, there were neighbors, far more than he had dreamed he possessed—neighbors hanging off their front porches, neighbors standing on their lawns, neighbors congregating in the middle of the street—everyone flushed out of their homes at the sight of a police car on an otherwise quiet street, lights going to beat the band, a silent harbinger of shit about to go down.
Of all these neighbors, he recognized only two. Mrs. Lynch, the old woman who lived two houses down and insisted on flagging him on his way to work to tell him random neighborhood things—that winds of up to one hundred kilometers an hour were expected later that night so he might want to park away from the trees, or that the water was going to be shut off between ten and noon to repair a broken water main, or that this was the last day the county would be picking up yard waste. She was standing in the middle of the road behind the ruined Crown Victoria, cradling an enormous, apparently boneless tuxedo cat in her arms.
The second neighbor he recognized was the woman whose business card Jerry had shown him earlier that afternoon—a somewhat angular brunette in yoga pants and a filmy, hippy-sort-of blouse standing beside Mrs. Lynch. He was pretty sure this must be Deanne Featherstone, the woman who had invited him over sometime for a glass of Pinot Grigio, whatever that was. As Jerry had foreseen, the woman looked to be older than her photo had intimated; her face drawn, her hair lackluster, everything gone just a little too soft around the edges, but still, not bad looking. Deanne Featherstone, he thought, CHRP, Life Alignment Coach, and here I am, barefoot, drunk in my driveway, unshaven in my underpants. He squeezed his eyes closed and dug the heel of his right hand into his forehead. Oh, this is bad, he told himself. This is so, so bad. Maybe not ‘somebody got murdered’ bad, but bad. What could he do? How could he help himself in this situation? Could he slip away, go back to the house, locate pants? Would anybody even notice if he wasn’t there?
He half turned and was just starting to tiptoe down the driveway in the direction of the cottage, when Rooney shouted, “Hey, you! Mr. Underpants! Where do you think you’re going?”
Doug stopped in his tracks. “Oh, fuck me,” he mumbled, mortified, and sunk into a low squat in the gravel, just as the driver’s side door of the Silverado creaked open and Jerry Kolvacik, about whom everybody had seemed to have temporarily forgotten, half clambered, half tumbled from the cab.
He stood there for a moment beside the ruined truck, obviously shaken, wobbling as he tried to locate his bearings. He blinked twice, glancing quickly around him and back in the direction of the truck bed where Rhonda had presumably been before the collision, muttering, “Rhonda? Rhonda, girl?” before registering the presence of onlookers. Suddenly he snapped to attention, then sank into a defensive crouch, arms out to his side, fingers splayed. Save for his pair of high-topped, red Keds and his red Make America Great Again hat, he was buck naked.
Officer Rooney stepped forward, one palm hovering over his sidearm, “Hold it right there, buddy. You don’t want to be making any sudden moves now.”
Jerry took Rooney’s warning as a suggestion. Galvanized as if by a jolt of electricity, he sprang into action, bolting towards the house nearest to the ruined truck—the little bungalow belonging to the owner of the savaged Shih Tzu.
“What? Auntie Dorothy? Auntie Dorothy!” cried Rooney, but not before Jerry had flung open the unlocked front door and dove inside. They heard the clank of a deadbolt being drawn into place and a dog’s frantic, high-pitched yipping.
“Now not to worry, Shawn,” Mrs. Lynch reassured the distraught policeman. “It’s Saturday. That means Dorothy’s at the Legion for the Meat Draw. She’s never missed a Meat Draw in her life. She’s perfectly safe. But you’ve got to tell us what’s going on!”
Rooney sighed, “Mrs. Flanaghan here, she came down to the station today complaining that this guy up here was not picking up after his dog. Wanted to charge him with violating the Poop and Scoop Ordinance. She brought a photo with her for proof. Eddy here,” he indicated his partner, “thought he saw a resemblance between the guy in the photo and the guy in this wanted poster from the States. But it was the picture of the dog that clinched it—the dog the guy was supposed to have stolen. A Harlequin Great Dane. You don’t see many of those. Looked like the same dog in both photos, so we decided to investigate.”
Eddy was stroking the hood of the ruined Crown Victoria as though it were a beloved horse he was going to have to put out of its misery. “We should have taken the SUV,” said Eddy tearfully. “It was old. It served its time.”
The sound of the dead bolt disengaging.
The policemen froze.
Slowly the door of the bungalow eased open a crack and Jerry peered out like a housewife in dishabille greeting an unwanted salesman. “What do you want?” he asked gruffly.
“Are you Jerry Kovalcik?” Eddy Sparks barked.
“Oh, come on! We know you’re Jerry Kovalcik.” Exasperated, Rooney turned and called over to Doug, crouching in his driveway. “Is he Jerry Kovalcik?”
“Oh, he’s Jerry Kovalcik all right,” said Doug glumly.
“Ratfink!” Jerry snapped, “After all I’ve done for you?”
“What?” Doug responded miserably, “You wrecked my fence and my truck and my life and now Fred and Ginger are gone!”
“Ah, Schneewolf, they’ll come back!” Jerry crooned consolingly.
“Mr. Kovalcik, you’re wanted in the United States,” said Rooney, “Which means you’re coming with us.”
“But this is Canada,” Jerry objected.
“I’m a refugee,” argued Jerry. “I’m fleeing persecution.”
“You’re fleeing criminal charges in the United States. Canada has an extradition treaty with the U.S.”
“Damn it!” Jerry swore, “And my crime?”
Rooney sighed. He glanced around him at the assembled neighbors. “Well, not to put too fine a point on it, dognapping and bestiality.”
“Bestiality!” gasped Mrs. Lynch, squeezing the enormous, flaccid cat to her bosom.
“And there you have it, folks!” declared Jerry. “Bestiality! Even the term is prejudicial. How about ‘Zoophilia’?”
“Bestiality? Zoophilia?” Mrs. Lynch tugged at Rooney’s sleeve.
By now Sparks was talking into his cell phone. “Gabby? Gabby,” he was saying, “it’s Sparks. We need backup up on Harbour Hill stat. We’ve got a hostage situation.”
“So tell me,” Jerry continued to wheedle, “Is it not a contradiction that society condones the slaughter of animals for food but condemns zoophilia? Can’t animals give consent to intercourse by, for example, nuzzling?”
“Do you think you’re still in high school? Do you think this is the debate team?” Rooney demanded. “Come out right now with your hands up or we’re coming in to get you! On the count of three. One…two!”
The door swung open and Jerry stepped out onto the porch. With his left arm he clamped a squirming, rheumy eyed Shih Tzu to his naked chest. In his right hand he brandished a large kitchen knife. “One false move and the dog dies!”
“Now, calm down, Kovalcik!”
“You’ll never take me alive!”
“Put down that knife. Let the dog go.”
“I’m not going back to prison! And I’m not going anywhere without my Rhonda! Where’s Rhonda? What have you done with Rhonda?”
“Who the Hell is Rhonda?” Rooney asked.
“The dog,” Doug supplied. “The Great Dane. Her name is Rhonda.”
Just then Dorothy Bishop, the owner of the bungalow and the captive Shih Tzu, hobbled around the bend in the road, cradling a massive, bone-in ham in her arms. She was a small fireplug of a woman in her late sixties, peg legged and much afflicted by alopecia. Seeing the neighbors assembled around her house and the two OPP Officers, she wheezed in a voice scored by whisky and smoke, “What’s all this, Shawn?” A second later, peering over, “Sweet Jesus! A naked man’s got my Edgar! Does it never end with this dog?”
At that moment, Doug felt a presence loom up behind him, something viscous and cold striking the lobe of his left ear. He glanced up into Rhonda’s big, doleful eyes, alerted to her silent presence by a long spiral of drool descending from her capacious jowls. “Rhonda!” he cried. Then, realizing the power the dog had, he tottered to his feet and yelled, “Hey, Jerry! Look! It’s Rhonda! I’ve found Rhonda!”
“Rhonda?” said Jerry, his voice cracking as he turned to look in Doug’s direction.
Dorothy saw her chance. She rushed Jerry, heaving the huge ham at his chest. It hit with a wet smack. He staggered backwards, dropping the knife. The dog wriggled free and fled, yammering, into the night, Dorothy in hot pursuit. Jerry wavered a moment before regaining his balance and taking off down the hill, waving his arms wildly and screaming “Motherfucker!” at the top of his lungs.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” said Rooney and the two paunchy OPP officers reluctantly took off after him, lead footed, their hardware clanking against meaty flanks.
Four male neighbors in their seventies formed a rickety line across Harbour Hill Road, knobby knees exposed by Bermuda shorts knocking together, bony arms wavering as they blocked Jerry’s escape route. He slowed and, in that moment, Rooney and Sparks, wheezing and puffing, lumbered up from behind him like two great bears and fell on top of him at the bottom of someone’s driveway. There they managed to handcuff him, though not without some difficulty, for the agitated man never for a second let off screaming and roiling and slapping at their hands. “Good God, man,” Sparks complained, out of breath, “What the Hell are you on?”
Sirens blared, lights flashed. The back-up cruiser pulled up and two additional officers rolled out of the car.
“Hey, Shawn,” said one, taking in the scene at the end of the road. “What happened to your ride?”
“Buddy here t-boned it with a truck,” Rooney explained over Jerry’s high pitched lamentations.
“Shit, man!” The officer was sympathetic. “That was brand new!”
“Rhonda! Rhonda! Rhonda, I love you!” Jerry screeched, peeling his lips back in a ghastly rictus. His Make America Great Again hat lay crumpled, its brim bent, on the ground revealing a bumpy, shaven head.
“What’s with this guy?” the other officer asked.
“How do I know?” Sparks shrugged. “He’s an American. Let’s get him down to the station before I do something to him I’ll get in trouble for.”
The four policemen proceeded to wrestle Jerry to his feet, manhandle him downhill to the cruiser, and cram him, kicking and bucking, into its backseat. No sooner had they locked the doors on him, than Jerry wriggled onto his back and began to kick at the side windows with his Ked-shoed feet, his sinewy legs working like steel pistons. “Rhonda! Rhonda, I’m coming for you!” he wailed. Then, “Ack! Ack! Police brutality!” Wrangling himself upright and, pitching forward, banging his head against the Plexiglas barrier between the front and back seats.
The police car drove off in the direction of the village. Rooney and Sparks walked back up the hill, winded and disheveled, looking like bears that just finished rolling on the forest litter and scratching their backs against trees. They stood, hat in hand, sorrowfully contemplating the ruined Crown Victoria.
“Is it okay if I shut Rhonda up in my house and go looking for my dogs?” Doug ventured, “They got loose when this whole thing started.”
Rooney sounded tired. He scratched his head, then rubbed his eyes. “Yeah. Sure. Better do it. As I recall, those dogs have a history.”
“That wasn’t entirely their fault,” Doug defended the mastiffs, “Edgar was trespassing and they must’ve thought he was a cat.”
“Well, you’d better hope they haven’t found anything else they think is a cat, including a cat, or don’t think I won’t impound them,” Rooney warned. Then, with a wave of his hand, “Go on. Get out of here. Just don’t go far. We’ll have some questions for you to answer down at the station.” He scrutinized Doug’s face, “Oh, don’t be such a wuss, Pugh. Nobody’s looking for you, though you may want to think twice about the kind of company you keep.”
Doug’s knees wobbled with relief. “Yessir. Thank you, sir,” he said weakly.
Dorothy emerged from behind her house, smash-faced little Edgar blithering and making noshing sounds in her arms.
“He was hiding under the deck, poor thing,” she said, “And you know what’s the weirdest thing? It wasn’t me who won the Meat Draw. It was Lorraine Steed, only her husband can’t abide a ham so she gives it to me, and if I hadn’t had it, poor little Edgar here might be dead. The Lord surely does work in mysterious ways.”
“The Lord had nothing to do with it, Auntie,” Rooney admonished her, “How often do I tell you people, what with the world today and the Americans going all crazy down there with that carnival barker in charge, you’ve got to lock your damn doors!”
“But this is Canada, Shawn!” Dorothy protested, “and nothing ever happens in Orchard Beach!”
Deanne Featherstone stepped tentatively forward toward Doug. “I’ll help you,” she said. “Look for your dogs, that is. If you think it will be a help.”
Doug gulped. He blinked. Deanne’s eyes were huge, hazel, and tremulous under a brow. He suspected they had been temporarily smoothed by the balm of Botox. She looked as needy as all get out and demanding as hell.
“Sure,” he said shyly, “Yeah, that would be a big help. Thanks.”
“Put the Great Dane in the house first,” Rooney ordered him. “And for Chrissake, Pugh, put on some damned pants.”
Melissa Hardy’s short stories have been widely anthologized, published in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Short Stories and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Author of five novels and winner of both the Journey Prize and the CAA’s Silver Jubilee Award, Hardy was raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but has made Ontario, Canada her home for over three decades. She lives in a small fishing village overlooking Lake Erie with her husband and a gorgeous golden retriever.