Scott H. Grenfell
Eight white-socked paws flashed under the two boxers leading the charge downhill. Sam Reynard controlled the dogs with two leashes in his left hand. His right arm swung at his side with jerky strokes. The great effort made the skin of his muscular body flush. He wore a grim, pink mask. The boxers' tongues hung from their jaws engorged with blood, swollen and pink, cupped at the ends like blunt, fleshy ladles, looking too big to return to their mouths.
The dogs panted percussively in front of Sam. Melanie, the smaller, brindle female, huffed softly and at a slower rate than Buster, the larger, fawn male. The differing volume and rate of exhalation combined to create a repeating pattern. The two lines of percussion would approach synchronization, attain it, and then lose it, only to approach it again--an endless sequence. As Sam ran, the hypnotic rhythm of the dogs' duet combined with the measured beats of each footfall and gasp to create a steady rhythmic pattern that fostered a positive state of mind. He called it a "groove." Endorphins further enhanced the good feeling. Music and drugs, the old mix. He felt twenty years younger--like a thirty year-old who could run forever.
"Good girl, Mel! Hey boy!" Sam's shouts of encouragement softened his otherwise harsh demeanor. Sam, in full stride, smiled at Buster. The boxer responded by thrusting his flat muzzle up towards him, chin up like a small satellite dish oriented for maximum reception. Both basked momentarily in the exchange of love.
The boxers then found something that puzzled and agitated them. Buster crouched slightly, shifted his weight to his haunches, lowering his front end and leading with his nose testing the air. His entire body pointed as he crept forward. Mel did the same, although always several steps and several seconds behind Buster, as if she were on a tape delay. When Buster could no longer contain himself in his tense, controlled approach, he broke and retreated, looking to Sam for relief?--release?-guidance? Mel, of course, did the same. The dogs were then drawn back to the find. The cycle of approach and retreat was repeated several times; each time the dogs came closer before they were repulsed. The dogs were extremely fearful; it was as if the object was on fire.
Sam first saw the object as a rusty-red mass obscured by several tufts of bunch grass. As he came closer, he identified it as the front half of a red fox. The head, neck, chest and forelegs were intact; the rest was missing. The horrible wound across the midsection of the animal had ragged edges, not the clean cut of a knife. It was as though giant hands had ripped it apart, saved the beautiful plume tail, and discarded the remains at the side of the trail. Sam was saddened by its death, for he recognized the fox as one he had regularly seen on that section of the road. In the past, he had admired the loft and luster of the fox's coat. Its fur was different in death-loftless and flat. This dull, red mass was too small and too insignificant to be the remains of that glorious animal ever followed by an erect banner of a tail. Sam had once been close enough to feel the heat from the golden fire in the fox's eyes as it gazed over its shoulder at him before plunging into the underbrush. Now, only ashes remained in the muddy yellow eye that stared at nothing. Death had snuffed the fire and taken the shine from the living.
Scrutinizing the dead animal settled the dogs. Sam's repeated assurances, "Good dogs," and "It's OK" helped some as well. But still disconcerted and expectant, the boxers circled slowly within ten feet of the fox, unable to look at it without cringing and curling back their lips. A single paw print, broader than Sam's fist, in a dusty spot near the dead fox solved the puzzle for Sam. Sensing his own danger, he looked up into the oak canopy above his head to a large limb-the perfect roost for an ambushing mountain lion. A blue jay screeched, hopping among the smaller branches, startling him into action. Quickly, he leashed the dogs and howled, " Hiyaaahh!" On that cue, the dogs rushed ahead on the trail, anxious to leave the cache of a big, dangerous cat. Sam followed, also relieved to be leaving this spot, but strangely thrilled by all he had seen. .
The trio returned down the hill, having run up the fire trail through Los Gatos Canyon, a trace of wilderness near their home. The trail was cut straight up the side of the ridge. Numerous landslides had narrowed the path with piles of rubble sloughed from the upside slopes. Entire sections of the trail had separated from the hillside and tumbled into the stripe of redwoods that lined the creek far below. At those places where both the upside and the downside were eroding, the way was reduced to a mere ledge on the edge of the precipice. The occasional emergence of the pattern of railroad ties onto the surface of the fire road was enough to suggest an abandoned and buried railway bed. Other artifacts--fallen buttresses, crumbling retaining walls and old footingsfurther indicated that a railroad once ran through this canyon. Sam mused to himself. Where have all the bridges gone? Long time passing.... The pungent aroma of menthol filled Sam's nose as they entered the small grove of eucalyptus. The heady smell evoked in Sam images of a childhood sickroom and Vick's Vapo Rub. A large float of turkey vultures soared on the thermals in the clear blue sky.
"Whoooooa!" With a gentle tug on the leash, Sam brought the team to a halt and unleashed the dogs. "Git!" The un-tethered dogs resumed their preferred, uneven pace. They raced ahead to splash in the creek, leaving Sam to catch up. Off again, they dashed after a rabbit that immediately darted back to the safety of the nearby briar warren. The dogs were left frustrated, snorting at the rabbit-sized entrance. They turned and scrambled back to Sam, demonstrating that they were still with him, only to forge ahead again. Back and forth the two canine yo-yos operated on invisible strings.
While running down the hill, Sam reviewed and organized the details of the events. He knew he had a good story. He stretched it a little, plumped it a bit and gave it some flourish before he put his account into a mental box. Then wrapped it in colorful paper and tied it with a silk bow. He brought home stories as gifts for his wife.
Distracted, Sam dragged a toe, tripped, and fell forward sharply to his hands and knees. The rocks scraped his flesh as he abruptly slid to a stop on all fours. Wincing in pain, he rolled to the side and sat on the ground to assess his injuries. His knees and palms were cut and bleeding. He was hurt, but not seriously - nothing was sprained or broken. Nothing that would prevent him from running home or running the next day. Nothing that would cause him to miss work at his restaurant. Those were his primary concerns--running and work.
He gently brushed the loose debris from his knees. His blood mixed with dirt, producing a red mud that striped his legs. Sam played with it a little and painted a spiral on his left thigh and a rectangle on the other leg. He brushed off his hands on his hips, but had to pick out the small pebbles forced into deep gouges in the meaty part of his hand. Sam wondered why his knees bled more than his shredded palms. The dogs, dragging their leads, cautiously circled him. They were again expectant and disconcerted--the same way they had circled the dead fox.
"I'm OK, guys. I'm still in one piece."
Sam stood up with a wobble and called the dogs. They were relieved to see him upright and rushed to him. Buster licked his left leg.
The dog backed off and Sam picked up both leashes and started to run howling, "Git!".
Away they ran. They soon came to the end of the dirt trail and onto a paved street. Sam pulled the dogs to the side of the road as a car roared up the hill and came to a gear-crunching stop beside them on the shoulder. It was Tom, Sam's friend and exercise partner.
"Tom!" he barked, the same way he addressed the dogs, with loud, short sentences.
"Hey, Sam. You got your new boxershe sure is ugly. A real monkey face."
"Noshe is beautiful," protested Sam.
"Sam, you ridin' your bike anymore? We're ridin' this Sunday. There's no way you can come?"
"I can't. My balance is off."
"You know you're crazy to take on another dog. They're going to knock you down and hurt you and it looks like they already have," said Tom, nodding his head toward Sam's bloodied, muddied and painted legs.
"The dogs add excitement keep me runnin'. It's like medicine; I just increased the dose. One boxer was not enough."
"You are losing it!"
At the sound of Tom's familiar voice, Buster strained to the end of his tether, reared up on two legs and threatened to bipedal over to Tom's open window and slobber all over his face. Tom saw two sets of claws menacing the perfect finish on his BMW.
"No, Buster! I'll break your neck," Tom warned as he thrust out a straight arm to stop the rush. His straight arm turned into a wave as he sped away.
"See ya--wouldn't want to be ya!" Sam shot at Tom's vanishing auto. Six years earlier, Sam first heard that little rhyme, while they were bicycling, as Tom slapped Sam with it as he surged past him at the summit of a hill. Surprised by Tom's strength, the words were seared into Sam's memory. On other occasions, Sam had taunted Tom with "Can't catch me!" or "Later!" at his little moments of glory. Now, years later, the taunts of both competitors still echoed as the words returned to bite again--remorse [from Latin remordere: re- again + mordere to bite] Sam longed for the competitive cycling and running of the past but also regretted the excessive competition in these exercises. This sharp one-two-punch of remorse stood Sam up and snapped him out of this reflective mood. "Hiyaaahh!", He bellowed stirring the dogs into action.
The trio resumed their run. With less than a mile to go, they were in the homestretch. Two blocks from home, Sam slowed to admire his broad shoulders and well-muscled chest as they were reflected in the window of a parked car. To himself he growled: I'm still an animal! The window mercifully truncated Sam and he was spared the reflection of his bloody legs. He was also still in a deep "groove" and unable to see his paunch. Nothing told him otherwise.
As the threesome reached their front lawn, Sam's twelve-year-old daughter, Molly, burst out of the front door--a blue and gold blur in soccer uniform--and raced to the car in the driveway. Molly didn't walk anywhere. She exited cars, houses, like she was shot from a cannon. Entering was the same: she penetrated like a bullet. When she saw her father, Molly stopped.
"I was sooooembarrassed!" she cried. "I just got a ride home from Lauren's Mom. We saw you walking down the street with nothing but short-shorts on. Lauren's little brother, Nathan, said, 'Mommy, he looks like he came from the jungle.'"
"Me, Tarzan. You, Jane," joked Sam.
"That's not funny, Dad. I'm serious."
"You saw me? I didn't see you drive by. I don't even remember seeing a car."
"You had stopped and you were looking into a car."
Sam's wife strode out of the house with a lawn chair on one shoulder, a loaded canvas tote bag hanging on the other shoulder, and carrying with both hands the big, red cooler. From under the floppy brim of a sun-hat she addressed Sam. "Where is your shirt? You can't walk around the neighborhood like that. Do you see any other men walking around shirtless?.. I'm taking Molly to her game. We'll be back around noon."
Their eyes locked for an instant, revealing a familiar distance. He was not going to give Barb her present after she dumped that load on the lawn.
"OK, Barb," he said as he took the cooler to help her load the trunk.
Both dogs followed Molly into the car, yanking Sam toward the open door.
"Get them out of there! They're filthy," yelled Barb, taking back the cooler.
His hands throbbed as he hauled the boxers out of the car. His runner's high was definitely in a nosedive and he was on the threshold of a bummer.
"Sam--look at your knees. You fell again. Two dogs are too many. It's a good thing you're sturdy. You should get in the tub and soak them in warm, soapy water... Were you painting yourself with your blood?. I won't even ask. We will be back hungry for lunch. Will ya have something ready for us? See ya later."
"See yawouldn't" Sam clipped the reprise short.
"Bye." Barb jumped into the car and drove off with Molly.
The boxers spun Sam around as they turned to greet Dellman, a friend and next door neighbor of twenty years, who approached Sam from behind, coming up the Reynard's driveway. Even in the middle of summer, Del looked like Santa Claus. White hair and beard framed his pleasant, Northern European features. Fit and tanned, wearing khaki shorts, he was the Californian Edition of Santa. Santa Lite. Sam knew Del wanted to talk.
"Hi, Sam," said Del, stopping two leash-lengths away.
"Hi, Del," said Sam, restraining the dogs.
"You OK?" Del pointed to Sam's bloody legs.
"Oh.Yeah. It's not as bad as it looks," said Sam, shrugging it off.
"Sam, I see now why you're walking funny todayyou're limping from an injury. That's different from the stumbling gait you have when you are "off." . A neighbor told me something that I think I should tell you. He said he sees you walking home late at nightwalking funny, like you're drunk. He wanted to know if you had a drinking problem."
"What did you tell him?"
"I said 'No,' He hasn't seen your recycling bin, with all those bottlesSorry;
I told him you had Parkinson's disease Then I felt bad, telling him that I wasn't sure"
"It's O.K., Del. Which neighbor?"
"OhI won't say. Does it matter?"
"No. It really doesn't."
Del gave Sam a brief, cautious hug, for Sam was sweaty, dirty and bloodied. The dogs swirled around the men tangling them all in a web of leather. Laughing, they fell down with the dogs.
Del pulled, himself up and away. "Bye."
Del returned to his yard.
Sam was puzzled, again. After twenty years, Sam still could not figure out his neighbor. Del the Riddle: one day, hot, the next day, cold. On, off; discreet, blunt-too many extremes. Today, he seemed sympathetic but then why was he passing on that nasty bit of gossip? Del was always unpredictable and complicated.
Sam thought about Molly's embarrassment. He knew she was disturbed by his symptoms: slow movements, shuffling gait and trembling hands. A normal dad was bad enough, but one who had a disease, wore odd clothes and sometimes not enough clothing was too much for her to bear. It also bothered Sam that his disorder was so evident. He had already ceased wearing unconventional outfits, which included hats that made bold fashion statements - like his flashy, red beret. It suggested the capability to protect and the potential to provoke. When Sam wore his beret he felt like a Guardian Angel or a Green Beret. It represented a confident attitude, which had always been one of Sam's strengths. The beret had been retired from his wardrobe; it drew too much attention to him. Now, he wanted to "blend in" more; sometimes, to disappear entirely. He wanted to conform and he decided to keep his shirt on in the future.
Sam led the dogs along the side of the house to the backyard for water and a grooming session, where most of the dirt, mud, burrs, ticks and foxtails were to be removed. As they entered the yard, Sam noticed Mel fitfully rubbing her left eye with her foreleg.
With both hands holding her head still for an instant, he saw the straw-colored foxtail floating on her dark brown eye, which was already weepy. The pointed plume moved across her eye as she blinked repeatedly. There was the danger that it might work itself under her eyelid and behind the eyeball. She struggled to break free of his grasp. He clutched her leather collar and pulled her closer. Mel stiffened, trying to shrug her head through the restraint. This cut off her air and Sam had to let up. He didn't want to strangle her. Not yet.
"Sit! God damn it!"
With his left hand, Sam grabbed a wad of skin on the side of her head. His right hand hovered above the eye, ready to pluck out the foxtail. It began trembling, making his thumb and finger an awkward claw unfit to take advantage of those fleeting moments when he was able to stop her writhing. Then she turned in her loose, young skin - and edge bred into fighting dogs; Sam needed teeth to grasp more than skin.
"Sit! Bad girl!"
He tried guiding the corner of his towel to touch and lift away the weed part. Sam's hand with the towel looked like a small terrier shaking a huge white rat. Nothing worked. His frustration increased, as did Mel's resistance.
"Goddamn Parkinson's! Mel, sit! Stay!"
Sam tossed finesse out with the towel. He seized Mel in a headlock as though he was wrestling a small steer. Mel resisted furiously, but made no attempt to bite Sam. The forty-five pound dog was no match for the two-hundred-and-thirty pound man in a no-holds-barred wrestling match. He leaned heavily on her, pinning her to the ground. The foxtail shifted to the corner of her eye. With his free hand, Sam thumbed the irritant out and onto her cheek where he brushed it off. The whole operation looked like a session of animal torture - a crazy cross between Big Time Wrestling and rodeo calf roping.
Releasing Mel, Sam looked to the only witness, Buster, to share his success. Buster sat absolutely still, like the RCA Victor dog listening intently to the Victrola. At least one of the dogs was obedient. I'm the good dog, communicated Buster. Sam laughed. Buster looked directly at Sam and farted.
"Good boy, Buster."
Sam finished grooming the dogs and left them in the backyard, where they slapped their bellies against the cool dirt in the shade of an almond tree. He headed directly to the shower. Under the warm flow of water, Sam replayed the adventure with the boxers; he wanted to get the details right. He had to re-wrap his gift for Barb. A bigger box was required to describe this eventful run. Sam recognized the importance of the players in the drama: the energetic dogs, the gibing athlete, the sensitive daughter, the sympathetic neighbor and the nagging wife. He knew Barb would object to her role. But his upbraiding was an important part of the story; it must not be purged. There is a wonderful purpose to the scolding of wives.
Tying a towel around his waist, Sam walked to the closet. As soon as he opened the door, Merlin, his cat, darted inside. Game time. He got down on hurting hands and knees and crawled over shoes and under clothes to retrieve his cat.
Sam touched something soft, but not the cat. He picked up his red beret that he had not worn for months. He thought of the kind old man, a customer at Sam's Caf, who had gently bothered him with the same question almost every day: "Where is your red cap, son?" And he thought of Barb's question, "Where is your shirt?" When you are missing something, people will tell you. If they care, they'll try more than once. Remors. They will bite, and bite again. Sam finally got both messages.
He moved to sit; the towel dropped away.
"Get out, Merlin."
The escaping Merlin brushed Sam's forearm. Perched on a mound of shoes and a wet towel, Sam put on the red beret, flecked with black cat hair, and smiled in the dark.