SKATEBOARDS AND A SHEEPDOG
By Carolyn Light Bell
Gus leaps three feet in the air, his open mouth appearing dangerously close to my face. “Out for a walk? I can’t contain my joy!” he barks, leaping and leaping. A handsome sheepdog with long, silky hair and a bouncing, happy gait, his appearance attracts people immediately. Children tug at their parents’ arms and point. A parent asks, “Excuse me. What kind of dog is that?” Prospective dog owners ask, “Does he require a lot of brushing?”
“Yes,” I say. “He’s a Bearded Collie. You’re welcome to pet him. I’ll hold him right here while you stand to his side and pet him.” I crouch down to demonstrate, petting him and stroking his back from head to tail. “His name’s Gus. Sit, Gus. We’re a therapy team. I ought to groom him at least twice a week but I don’t.”
“Where’s puppy’s ears?” a little brown girl in a pink hat stops to ask, partly hiding behind her mother because Gus is twice her size.
“Here they are,” I say, squatting down, weaving my fingers through the layers of his black-and-white coat, finding an ear and lifting it up gently. “You can pet him. He won’t hurt you. Or you can scratch him right here.” I scratch behind Gus’s ear, flipping his ponytail back to show his eyes. The child giggles and reaches her small, chubby fingers out to touch his hair, then squeals and recoils.
“Look! He has a ponytail too!” says the girl’s mother.
“That keeps the hair out of his eyes so we can make eye contact,” I say.
Gus failed the therapy dog test twice because he jumped up on the tester in loving exuberance. When he learned to keep all four paws on the ground, he passed. On the job at senior residences and schools, he’s so obedient, people remark how “chill” he is. I laugh to myself, knowing the many sides of Gus. This is my dream, to share joy with others so they’ll feel like I do when I’m with him.
Today’s the first day of full sun we’ve felt in Minneapolis since February. As soon as it hits fifty, flocks of people, nearly hysterical in their frenzy to conquer Lake Calhoun, burst out of their dwellings with ebullience, play volleyball in bikinis, and run headlong around the lake, earbuds or fitness devices draped across their half-naked bodies. Men in neon-green shoes with winter bellies chase visions of youth. Muslim women in long, bright skirts and hijabs flow gracefully in threesomes. Young couples in the bloom of romance rush the season in provocative, sheer clothing. Apple trees are aching to break their shells and burst into bloom. Orioles call in shrill melodies as they dip and flit elusively from one limey branch to another. Everyone has a role in the rites of spring.
It’s Saturday afternoon, the busiest time to go for a walk with Gus. Bad choice. I hate steering through obnoxious cell phone conversations. It’s an assault to my ears. Gus knows I mean business because I’ve put on his working harness and scarf. He glances up at me every few minutes to forecast my intent. He can tell by the tension on the leash if I’m at all bothered. A typical herding dog, he senses trouble before it happens. When he gets carried away, trying to shepherd in all potential threats, I rein him in.
He trots along beside me, connected to his harness by a worn leather leash, drawn smart and taut. Gus makes the world friendly. Since I carry a small purse filled with baggies, treats, and Gus’s business cards to be handed out for special admirers, I’m ready if anyone stops me. On the back side of his photograph card, a gift when we make therapy visits, I describe Gus as “athletic, agile, and witty.” To make known his fallibility, I add, “Gus hates loud wheely things like Rollerblades and skateboards.”
Several strings of rollerbladers fly by, the sound of their grinding wheels painful to Gus’s sensibilities. When I see one coming toward us, I dig into my little bag and bring out small morsels of venison and sweet-potato kibble. He has learned to look up at my bag when a rollerblader approaches. My second bad choice is to walk in the same one-way direction as the people on wheels, so they are able to sneak up behind us before I can hear them. The fact that Gus is able to hear them before I do makes him jumpy. Gus tolerates rollerbladers better than skateboards.
A bearded, twenty-something man, wearing bright-green sunglasses that hide his eyes, wheels right up to us fast from behind on his skateboard, uncomfortably close, brushing against us, passing us on our path designated for walkers only. Gus leaps up and twists to growl and snap at him, this threat to our space.
I call out, “Hey, wrong path! Wheels on the upper path!”
The man shouts back, “What’s wrong with your dog, lady? Can’t you get him under control?” He hops off his board and holds it out from his body, under Gus’s nose. Gus lunges at it, growling.
I stop short and yell. “You belong on the upper path! Wheels up there!” I point to the curving path a few yards up from the walking path. “My dog hates skateboards! It hurts his ears. Please. Move up there!”
A young threesome passes me and the skateboarder, turns to laugh at the scene. “That was cra-azy! He’s so cu‑ute!” says one girl, hair dyed black, arms and neck covered with tattoos of elaborate hearts, flowers, and a dagger dripping blood down her creamy shoulder. “That was wi-i-ld!” Wild? I think to myself. They’re confusing us with reality television. They have no idea how scary this is. The other girl, plump and blond, in a black satin skirt, with a broad-chested, smiling guy, almost seven feet tall, complete the trio of spectators. They pause. Speechless, mouths dropped open.
Gus has completely changed from a sweet, cuddly rug into a snarling beast, bent on biting the man’s long skateboard. His happy expression has become a mask of fury, lips stretched back, teeth bared. I’m having a hard time pulling him back because the skateboarder’s insistent confrontation smells and sounds like danger to him—a primeval instinct I can’t civilize despite our years of training.
I’m trying to walk on, but Gus is straining and finally achieves the extra few inches, his teeth meeting wood. He thrusts and parries a few more times before I’m able to pull him back and away. I’m dragging him now, closing my ears to the skateboarder, who’s still shouting at us.
I keep walking, breathing louder than the skateboarder’s shouts. My hands tremble, fingers numb from gripping the leash. He may have someone with him, also boarding, but I can’t be sure. It happens so fast I can’t remember exactly. Whirring skateboards anywhere around Gus’s ears—surprising him—are tantamount to terror. Gus keeps turning his head back to see if the skateboard is following us. He squats for a moment on the grass to relieve himself. Steady streams of people maneuver around us and reconverge ahead.
I re-encounter the threesome, now sitting on a park bench. They smile broadly at us. We are their show…a dog gone crazy. Gus sniffs their feet. “Beautiful dog!” the tall guy says, arms draped along the back of the bench, each arm around a girl.
Advancing toward home, I try to compose myself, wracking my brain for techniques to keep this from reoccurring. Once home, I hang up Gus’s leash, sigh with relief, and call a few friends to discuss the incident.
“No dog likes skateboards” is one friend’s remark.
Another suggests, “From now on, walk the lake when it’s not as crowded.”
Another, “If that jerk wants to board on the wrong path, call the police.”
I can’t forget. I order a skateboard online. It arrives, green with orange wheels, disappointingly small and benign, more like a toy than the three-foot-long, sloping speed demon that terrified Gus. I think I’ll have to work him into approaching the board, but he happily munches his entire dinner right off the little skateboard with no fear or aggression. I trade in an old set of Rollerblades for a longer board. I roll it a few times in front of him. No problem.
Danny and I had a lifetime of fun-loving, affectionate, loyal beardies. As herding dogs, they all wanted order and togetherness. Splitting off in different directions in the middle of a walk is a sheepdog’s signal to round us up. Several of our dogs nipped at the heels of people who appeared to be running away from them. Sylvester was terrified of groaning ice. When skateboards became popular, it presented a whole new challenge, suddenly a serious one. One of our females, Sasha, was terrified of skateboards and ran away, panicked, for hours when one whizzed past our house. A neighbor a few miles away called us when they found her.
Now, after a few days’ hiatus from the lake crowd, I feel brave enough to walk Lake Calhoun again. Minneapolis is even showier, but cooler and windier, than a few days before. Eagles dive for fish; hundreds of coots are bobbing in the water, gathering to migrate. I have plenty of treats in the bag slung over my shoulder. I am prepared.
It comes to me too late—halfway around—that I should be walking against traffic to see what’s coming. Instead of turning back, I press on. Gus anxiously checks over his shoulder every few feet. I’m making Gus neurotic.
There he is, the same skateboarder, without sunglasses, holding onto the rear rack of a girlfriend’s bicycle frame, smoothly coasting on his board on the upper path, casually tapping away on his cell phone. Gus immediately yanks me toward him. He looks up, his black eyes mocking us. I squint to see him better. His beard and hair are also black, cropped short, defining a strong jaw. He is pale-skinned, wearing a stocking cap, black tee shirt, and black long pants. Mephisto. Tormenting us, the heroic dog therapy team. He’s been looking for us. He says something to his girlfriend, who slows her bike down, keeping apace of us, trying to incite us.
* * *
In California a student argued loudly with me in front of class about his grade. It didn’t take much to flip from order to chaos during seventh period—forty-five teenagers on a Friday afternoon with weekend on their minds. He stretched his long arms across my desk, glaring at me, captive.
“I’m going to report you,” he said in a deep voice, drilling holes into my gut.
“Make an appointment with me to discuss this sensibly. Sit down! Now!” I said slowly, matter-of-factly, peering around him as the rest of the class jabbered into a clamor and stuffed their books into their backpacks. Fifteen minutes before the bell. Too late to call the office. Too early to dismiss class. I stood up. He lurched toward me and growled, teeth bared. The class broke into laughter.
* * *
“Hey, you don’t belong on the lake! You’re a menace,” the boarder yells.
What does he do to make me the loser? He’s just like that kid in class. I wrap the leash around my wrist, watching my hand turn white.
He continues his bullying censure. “You have no control over your dog. Anyone with an aggressive dog has no business being on the lake. I’m on the right path now. Your dog’s crazy. Look at him, lady! You can’t control him! He already attacked me once!”
Rollerbladers slow their pace, applying their heel brakes, to move around him.
Gus is amped up. Too many wheels. Too much sound. I shout back, “Oh, just shut up! Mind your own business and leave me alone!” I quicken my pace, move up off the walking path, cross the upper path, and cross the street to the sidewalk. Loons fly overhead, calling to each other, lifting my heart to the sky, reminding me no creature can be or should be completely tamed.
The boarder turns his whole body around to watch me. If I let myself go, I’ll be sorry. Epithets fill my mouth like crusts of hardtack bread. Obscenities. My breath is shallow. I hear myself panting. Adrenaline surges at high tide. Gus rears up. Ready to charge. I tighten my grip on his leash. Can’t drop my shoulders. I’m ready for war. Fight or flight.
There’s no point. He’s younger. Faster. I choose flight. Speed up. He slows down. Any moment he’ll get off his board, abandon his girlfriend, run after me across the grass, carrying his board. Gus will bite his board and him. I’ll be up shit creek. No witness. Just Gus. I run-walk across the street, elude him, racing home. Again he’s chased me home, afraid.
If Danny were alive, he’d have made a joke of it and quelled my fears. I’d see the whole thing as a fluke, not an ongoing threat. But I’m alone now.
For the next week, when we walk, Gus acts like a paranoid schizophrenic, jerking his head around to look behind him every twenty yards. The lake is large, 5.1 kilometers around—approximately 1100 yards rounding down. Thus Gus is turning to look behind him at least fifty-five times.
What am I doing to my dog? The sonuvabitch skateboarder doesn’t own the !@#$%^&* lake!
I stay off the lake again, watching happy joggers and dogwalkers from my window where I can view the parade. Gus and I walk in the neighborhood again, away from the lake.
I can’t imagine coming home to an empty house. It was so quiet after Danny died. No oxygen tank wheezing. No phone conversations drifting from his study. No television blaring. I still listen for his heavy breathing at night. Every ambulance whining past our house reminds me of Danny’s last trip to the hospital. Gus keeps me from getting stuck in the doldrums. He drags a toy or tosses a ball at me and I’m back to now.
One day we’re waiting on the front steps for a friend. A small, blue truck rolls into an open spot on the curb next to my house. Cute little truck. A young man, dark-haired, no hat, closely shaven, hops out of the driver’s seat, skateboard in hand. He slams it down and flies past, waving. Not thinking, I wave back. He stops and approaches. Oh no! I stand up. He’s smiling.
Not the same man, I assure myself.
Approximately the same age and height as the other guy. In his twenties. Dark hair. My heart races. I didn’t really see the other guy close up, just parts—his eyes, his beard, his chin. It was hard to see the whole of him. This guy has a completely different affect.
“If you’re going to talk to me, please get off your skateboard. My dog, Gus, is very afraid of skateboards and wants to eat them on sight.” He steps off his board.
“I love dogs.” He holds his board behind his back. Approaches. Gus is barking.
“Thank you very much. Here, do you mind? Just hand it to me and he won’t bother you.” He hands off the board. It’s heavier than a full grocery bag.
“I’ve been hoping to desensitize Gus. Even bought one, but it’s a short board and the ones around the lake are long. Gus is eating his meals on a little green board with orange wheels. My training sessions are fruitless.”
“I may have an old one at home you can use. Hi, Gus—how old is he?”
“Great. I’d be happy to help you out.” We exchange names and emails. He says he’s a student at a local university. He offers his hand. I put the skateboard in it. He turns away and boards down the street.
My God, angels come in all forms. I study him,holding Gus back. He’s exactly what we need. How could I get so lucky? Petals are falling in the fast wind. I remember a storm is forecast.
As he approaches the upper path, I see another boarder closing the distance between them. He’s dark too. With a beard. As they continue down the path, I can swear I see the two merge into a single silhouette, but I can’t really tell for sure. My eyes are old. I’ve seen a lot.
He knows where I live.
I lead Gus over to the little blue truck parked at the curb and tap the license plate number into “notes” on my cell phone.
At least I’ll have that. At least I can give that to the police.
About the Author:
Carolyn Light Bell’s work has appeared in Cottonwood, Crack the Spine, Forge, The Griffin, Limestone, Louisiana Literature, New Plains Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Phoebe, The Storyteller, Summerset Review, West Wind Review, and Salmagundi, among others.