Cooper, my little straw-coloured pug, was in a funk. I noticed him lying along the back of the couch, staring at the house across the street, a Spanish-style split level with rosebush hedges, for hours. He seemed flat, like the joy had left his body. His tail wasn’t wagging the same. I had to talk to him about it.
“Hey Coop,” I said while making dinner one night.
“Yeah?” He lifted his head and spoke quietly.
“What’s up? You seem a little off lately.”
“I don’t know,” he sighed.
“Come on, man.” I felt a bit nervous. He seemed so intense. “Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
“Okay, if you really want to know…” he looked away from the glistening chunks of beef in his metal dish on the kitchen floor and turned toward me. “I think I’m having some sort of crisis.”
“Oh boy,” I said. “About what?”
“The Knutsons. Across the street. Their dog, Misty. I can’t get over her.”
“Yeah, when she first moved here we had kind of a serious thing for a while.”
“When? They moved in like 6 months ago.”
“Six months is a helluva long time to a dog, Geoff!” He looked at me with pain in his eyes. “But she said I was ‘too serious’. I’ve seen this fucking Schnauzer around now with her. I don’t even want to think about it.”
“Huh, I’d never noticed their dog…”
“I mean, she’s way way too young for me anyhow, and she’s a poodle. They’re so…cold. What did I expect? But she made me feel like a man, you know?”
“Sure. Sure, buddy.” I went to pet him, but he bristled when I touched his fur.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep her chained out in the front yard all the damned time. Like what the fuck am I supposed to do? I can’t concentrate on anything.”
“And that was part of the appeal, I have to be honest, I felt I could help her through some of the trauma of being chained up all the time. She always talked about running away.”
“That’s tough.” I opened a beer and leaned against the counter.
“What a fool! I’m eight years old, for chrissake. I shouldn’t let her get to me like this.”
He tried to eat, mostly, it seemed, for my benefit. I felt guilty about not talking to him sooner when something was so obviously wrong. I almost offered him a drink. Come on Geoff, I said to myself. Get yourself together. He’s a dog.
I put Cooper out in the backyard. The back neighbours had a cat, so I checked in with him, newly aware of his social sensitivities. He assured me that it was “fine” and that the cat was “actually an okay guy”. I closed the living room blinds and the vet’s office. I told the vet’s assistant about Cooper’s problem and she murmured that she was sorry and rattled off some advice: he shouldn’t be left alone for long periods of time, I wasn’t to introduce him to new dogs right away until he’s had time to sort out his own issues and in under no circumstances was I to encourage him to drink alcohol. Ah, I said, proud of myself, my instincts about this are correct.
I used to have a “no dogs on the bed” rule, but I let Cooper fall asleep at my feet that night. I couldn’t sleep, haunted by the image of Cooper’s little yellow body sprawled on top of the couch, listless and depressed. I turned on my bedside lamp and watched him sleep on top of the duvet, watched his breath leave his body in small warm sighs. I could almost see his little heart struggling to mend itself.
That was all I could stand. I had to do something. I got out of bed. Cooper looked at me, exhausted and flopped his head back down.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered.
I put my jacket on and went out the front door. It must have been about 1 am. I crossed the street to the neighbours’, walking in the dark between the streetlamps. As I approached the rose bushes, I heard a hoarse little bark from the front yard. I froze. The windows stayed dark. I waited for a beat and walked to the metal gate between the hedges and let myself in.
I saw her in the corner of the yard, on a short chain next to a wooden dog house. Misty. I used the light from my phone to get a better look at her. Small and white, maybe grey. She barked again and I shushed her. I looked up into the empty windows above us. Nothing stirred.
“Come here girl”, I reached down and put my hand on her tiny skull. She was smaller than I had imagined, than the magnitude of Cooper’s heartbreak. She was shaking. She barked again. It was damp and turning from summer to fall. She shouldn’t have been out here all night like that. Coop had a point about the Knutsons.
“You are a sweet thing, Misty. I get it.” She sniffed my hand and wagged her tail. “What are we going to do with you?”
I unclipped the chain from her collar and turned my phone light off. I walked backward out of the yard, leaving the gate open between the rose bushes. I watched Misty.
“Come on now, you’re free,” I whispered. I thought about Cooper. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. But I was doing it for him. For my buddy.
But Misty just stood there next to her doghouse, shivering in the dark.