The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Dear Mr. Marshal Frank,
We met once, two years ago in Columbus, Ohio. You showed up at my house, looking for your dog, Max. I was doing a lot of drugs then, but I was not, as many people must have assumed, homeless. I was not a vagrant. I was simply on drugs, most of which were in the opiate family, and I hung out at the park. I sometimes fell asleep there.
Was I a drug addict? Yes, Mr. Frank, I was. I was never as badly addicted as others I’ve seen. I’m lucky for that. I’ve never driven away a girlfriend or a wife. I’ve never been the target of intervention conspiracies from well-meaning family members. I’ve never, as my friend Nathaniel has, stumbled home to a house I’d moved from eight years ago and woken up on the couch to see a rifle pointed at me.
I was living with my aunt Margaret at the time, who, if I’m being honest, enabled my behavior. I mean, wasn’t it Aunt Margaret who bankrolled my addiction with cash left in the kitchen drawer, who fed me pills she willfully didn’t notice were missing, who ignored my descent because acknowledging it would have meant she had to do something about it?
Aunt Margaret and I had an efficient relationship that balanced my drug abuse with her enthusiastic avoidance of the truth about me. She worked the evening shift as a nurse at Riverside and spent her nights off, every single one of them, in Youngstown with her boyfriend, Kenny. You couldn’t really blame her if you looked at it from a certain angle.
But, like I said, I wasn’t too bad, as far as drug addicts go. I never shot up. I was scared to death of needles. And I didn’t keep bad company, which is sometimes the greater danger of addiction. You probably have your own addictions, like drinking or smoking. The strange part is, you know it’s not good for you, yet you choose to do it anyway. It’s a choice.
In the winter I walked around the perimeter of the park. For hours, in an area otherwise absent of life, I watched the wind blow little dustings of snow into somersaults. In the spring I stared at the flowering trees and shuffled along until my legs went jelly-like. Sometimes I woke up in unfamiliar places. I got beat up once on the south side near I-71 by a junkie couple, a man and woman of indeterminate age. They nabbed three Oxycontins, as well as the phone my parents had mailed to me.
But another phone arrived, also from my parents, who had stopped trying for the most part. They sent it so I could be in touch with my sister, who hadn’t stopped trying, though she and I hadn’t spoken to each other in five months. Aunt Margaret, with her sciatica, kept her prescription for Oxycontin filled and unpoliced. (Her addiction was the professional kind, managed and proper and easily overlooked by anyone who mattered.) And the people at the park — liberal young professionals, hip cyclists, tennis players — pleasantly ignored my quasi vagrancy, my dopey shuffle, my slovenly defeat: midday naps on a public bench, the blank face I inevitably bared when looking up from some novel, the same page of which I had been reading over and over for an hour. I think park visitors wanted me to be invisible. I think I fed off that, absorbed it, became who people wanted me to be.
So, from my comfortable distance, I watched the park hum with its daily rhythm. It was as if shifts clocked in and out. A group of morning dog people, diverse in age, dress, and what I took for nationality, descended on the park between eight and ten o’clock. This was a quiet group. There appeared to be no circumstantial friendships. They would apologetically untangle their dogs from scuffles and let the conversations end there. I noticed that this group in particular were more likely to introduce their dogs by name than themselves.
Your group, the after-work dog people, came from all directions, flying down the sidewalk with excited dogs and waving to each other. Were you all friends, Mr. Frank? Did your relationships extend beyond the confines of the park? Your group paid a kind of vulgar attention to your dogs, too, but at least you were amicable to one another. I sat on a bench, watching in a haze from my literal and figurative distance, and imagined the lives you all had when you went home: the preparation of meals, the petty arguments with live-in girlfriends, the separating of junk mail from nonjunk, the phone calls to loved ones, the taking out of trash, the exchanges with neighbors, the day’s-end cocktails in your manicured backyards. And yet here you were, standing in awkward half circles in the dirt off the main path while your dogs ran in packs and pissed on saplings and didn’t pay any attention to you.
I knew early on that Max was special. She was a taut-bodied pit-bull mix but without the meanness, even in appearance, that her breed is known for. She must have been the kind of dog who rolls over as soon as she sees you so you can pet her belly, like in the photograph on your flier. It was as if I could effectively judge the level of care you provided her by the sociable characteristics she exhibited. From where I stood — or slumped — you appeared to get from Max exactly what you gave her: sanity, ease, a hardy respect.
I had just woken up the evening you rang my doorbell. I was frozen in the living room, staring at the bookshelf and trying to decide on a title. Aunt Margaret had been gone for a few days, cashing in a month’s worth of vacation to do whatever it was she and Kenny did in Youngstown. The doorbell rarely rang. When it did, it was usually Jehovahs or Mormons or a Girl Scout with a worried mother. Still, I panicked every time it rang. My first thought was that it was some authority coming to either (a) detain/abduct/kill me or (b) tell me that Aunt Margaret had been detained/abducted/killed. I see now that my shiver at the sound of the doorbell, this vague threat of comeuppance, was also the anticipation of relief, of deliverance, of “hope buried deep below layers of haze,” as my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Howard, would say. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was waiting to be rescued, and whoever I imagined was on the other side of the door was the force that would ultimately save me.
Maybe you had seen me before on the fringes of the park and recognized me through the screen door. Like I said, I recognized you immediately, even without your young-professional uniform. When I opened the door, you said, “Hi. I’m not selling anything.”
Had I been able to use my facial muscles, I would have laughed. You were wearing trendy green slip-on shoes and a T-shirt for a band I’d never heard of. You were carrying a stack of fliers with that photo of Max on them. “I live around the corner there,” you said, “and my dog is missing. Any chance you’ve seen her?”
I wanted to say: I know you. But I just slowly opened the screen door and looked at your flier. The photo of Max was printed under the word Missing. She was rolled over in the grass, and it appeared as though she were smiling. I still have the flier. I’m looking at it right now, actually. Underneath her weight, age, breed, and name is printed “Please contact Marshal Frank” and your phone number and address.
I wonder what I looked like that night: greasy, clay-colored hair; a few-days-old beard; mesh shorts and a stained undershirt; sunburned skin from sleeping outdoors. When I’m trying to appear fully engaged, I squint my eyes, and it feels as though my face tangles up and my underbite juts out, toothy and uneven and ridiculous. I must have looked like that then, but if you noticed, you didn’t seem to care.
You appeared sad and exhausted. I shook my head. I might have said, “Sorry, man,” but I doubt it.
“Can you keep an eye out for her?” you asked. I nodded as you handed me a flier.
“She’s a good dog,” you said, sounding desperate for the first time. “Please call if you see her.” And then you turned and left.
I closed the door and went to take a shower. I pictured you knocking at house after house, interrupting people’s dinners and charming the women who pitied you. I changed into clean clothes. I swallowed three Percodans, then crushed a couple of Adderalls with a quarter and snorted them.
It’s hard to say what drove me to look for Max. Sometimes I look for the reasons I did or did not do certain things during this period, and the answer is usually that I was high. Also I liked you, as much as I could have liked anyone, and even envied you in small ways I wouldn’t have admitted back then. And perhaps I saw an opportunity to right some injustice that had befallen a member of my community, even if I barely counted as a member. But, to be honest, it was probably just because I was high.
I left the flier on the kitchen counter and grabbed a plastic baggie of Black Forest ham from the fridge. I took a length of rope from the garage and then walked the block and a half to the park. In the near twilight I started casing the perimeter. Young couples strolled through the hazy light. The pop of rackets hitting tennis balls echoed from the courts. I recognized a few of the vagrants milling about the homeless shelter and ignored one who took to his feet and wobbled as I passed, almost catching me by the collar. “Hey, kid,” he kept saying. “Hey, kid, I know you.”
There was little strategy to my efforts to find Max. I sat on a bench and smoked a cigarette, then walked some more. I whistled into the dark trees, circled the flower beds, and peered into the shallow pond. I stalked the parking lot on the south side, poked around the Victorian crevices of the old garden house and the gazebo, and strolled the paths spiraling out through the hardwood groves. I remember standing under this one tree with banana-shaped pods for what must have been almost an hour. I investigated the parking lot of the purple condos across Chestnut Avenue, emboldened by my mission. I was trying to think: Where would a dog go? What would drive her from one place to another? I was also not thinking. This is one of the pleasures of drug use: you can stop thinking. At some point that night, I realized there would be nowhere more inviting for a dog than the park. She had been loved there, after all. That much was apparent.
But Max wasn’t at the park. No people were, either. The park lights shone copper-colored rays down over the paths. I heard the traffic on I-71 and the shouts of bar patrons on far-off Park Street like a distant carnival. I was slowing down, the last of the Adderall making its way through my system. The crash of my opiated nerves was causing my legs to feel rubbery. I sat on a bench near where the dog people gathered. I slept sitting up.
I woke before sunup with the hood of my sweat shirt pulled low over my brow. I had lain down at some point. The entire left side of my body was numb. A light dew covered everything. I was startled awake by panting and sniffing sounds. I opened my eyes, and before they could focus, I saw just a tan blob nudging my crotch. Instinctively I slapped it away. It recoiled a few feet and growled. As my eyes adjusted, the tan blur became a dog with a stout snout and fleshy jowls. I reached for the bag of ham in my pocket.
“Max?” I said.
The dog tilted her head the way dogs do when they’re confused. She was filthy, with mud streaking her coat and reaching up her haunches like long boots. Behind her the faintest light of day bled through the trees and between the houses.
“Max?” I said again. “Is that you?”
Her tail wagged, and she stepped toward me and licked my face, whining in recognition or relief or just plain joy. That was love, Mr. Frank. I didn’t realize it then, but that’s what it was. Max licked my face and whined and made a whinnying sound and shook her rump with excitement. She inhaled the ham from my open palms. I felt as if I’d won something, as if I were being honored just for being myself. I petted her and wound the rope around her neck, then cinched it so it couldn’t come loose.
There was no one in the park but me. No dog walkers, no joggers, no other strays. No cars going by. There was only that early-morning still of the city. It was a Saturday, I think. The first shades of pink were low on the horizon. The rest of the sky was purple. As I walked home, rolled newspapers were lying in driveways. Max jogged alongside me with gusto, looking up at me every few seconds to smile.
At home she sniffed around Aunt Margaret’s house, her nails clicking on the laminate floors. She loped through the kitchen and living room and stared down the basement stairs. I filled a casserole dish with water and put some boiled chicken and week-old rice pilaf on a paper plate for her. She seemed to like it.
I filled the tub and scrubbed her down with Aunt Margaret’s peach-scented shampoo, and the whole time Max acted as if it were the greatest experience of her life. That smile. The ferocity of her tail. I rinsed her with a pitcher and toweled her off, and she shook, spraying droplets of water everywhere. Then we lay down together on Aunt Margaret’s living-room floor and fell asleep.
I woke groggy and confused and strangely sober, with Max licking my face. I grabbed your flier and Aunt Margaret’s bottle of Percodans and the cordless, and I put it all on the coffee table. I had every intention of returning Max to you. I knew it was the right thing to do, and I imagined your relief, your genuine sadness lifting as you were reunited with your dog. I considered the possibility of a reward. I thought about how, for the months and years that followed, you might come up to me at the park and ask how I was doing, and Max would wag her tail and roll over to show her belly.
Outside, the town was coming to the end of a bright afternoon. I sat on the sofa, staring at your number on the flier. I stared at it for a long time, phone in my hand, pills on the table, Max at my feet. I can still feel myself in that sober, unbroken moment with someone else’s dog, contemplating a life that belonged to someone else. Max looked up at me, her panting so loud in the quiet house. She seemed to wink at me, as though she grasped something I couldn’t.
My sister hates dogs and doesn’t trust them. She was bitten by our neighbor’s pit bull when she was nine. She didn’t flinch when they told her they had put the dog down; she seemed to approve. But when I called and told her that I’d found a dog, she was excited for me — or maybe it was just my steady, sober voice that moved her. Anyway, she drove seven hours that night to pick us up. We drove all seven hours back with the windows open, Max’s tongue lolling in the highway wind. The radio reception for stations out of Cleveland broke up as we neared Pennsylvania, so we turned it off, and, for the first time in five months, my sister and I talked. We talked the rest of the way home.
You might note that the postmark on this letter is from Staten Island, but I live far from there. I won’t be returning Max, and I’m sorry about that. Truly. I want to ask for your forgiveness and to make amends as best I can.
My sponsor, Howard, says that of the twelve steps, this one can be the hardest: facing the pain we’ve caused. The truth is, they’re all hard. I don’t claim to even understand them, but, nine steps in, I can tell you this: Sometimes we slip up for no good reason. Sometimes circumstances amplify our weaknesses, and a kind of negative momentum builds from there. We don’t want to acknowledge our fall in the first place, so we stay locked into a lifestyle that isn’t good for us. When we finally do take stock of our situation, we realize we don’t know how to live otherwise. But we know we need to live otherwise. The pain of knowing that but being too scared to change, too terrified of what freedom might mean — it spreads and becomes the damage we cause to others.
Please forgive the pain I’ve caused you, Mr. Frank. I know this letter is nothing like getting your dog back, and I imagine you still miss her. Maybe I’m not really making amends at all here. But I can’t give Max up. I just can’t. The best I can do is tell you that she is happy. She is healthy. She is loved.
I tell people Max was a stray, and that’s the only lie I tell anymore. She dances every time I get the leash out to take her on a walk. She squirms and wiggles her rear, and her front paws keep leaping off the linoleum in an ecstatic expression of excitement. I’ve never seen anything like it. When we’re strolling down the street, greeting the neighbors, there’s a kind of pepper in her step, a swagger. She’s proud just to be walking, it seems, and saying hi to this world, proud to be found after being lost.
I was moved by the authenticity of the narrative voice in K.C. Wolfe’s short story “Step Nine” [October 2014], and also by the narrator’s obvious attachment to the dog Max. My wife points out, though, that Max was basically kidnapped by the narrator, who conveniently ignores the impact this must have had on Max’s former owner. And what sort of future would Max have if the narrator, a drug addict, were to relapse? The responsible thing to do would have been to return Max and rescue another pit bull.