Taco struggled with the lock in Barnaby’s apartment. He could hear the sound of his dog scratching from the inside of the door, begging to be let out, as he jiggled the key. Finally managing to unlock the deadbolt and open the door, little Sharon spun around in circles at his feet, her tongue falling out of the side of her mouth.
“I’m here,” He said it bending down and patting the beagle mix on the top of the head so as to keep her from rubbing any more white fur on his pants. Her every movement seemed designed to pull him closer to the leash resting on the countertop, even as he used Barnaby’s bathroom, and refilled her food and water bowls.
“Okay, I got it. Let’s go.”
They walked to a gigantic dog run where all breeds ran around a torn up patch of lawn. Some of the owners stood in the middle and micromanaged their pet’s interactions, including one shaggy haired owner who made a point to interact with every dog. But most sat on a bench and stared into their phones. Taco leaned on the fence, relaxing in the warm spring afternoon.
After 20 minutes of leaning and looking out at the dogs, Taco looked back and saw an open seat on a bench, where he sat next to a smiling man in his sixties. The man held onto a black leather leash with a gold collar hook. Much like he had, Taco noticed that the man kept looking around at the other dog owners, most of which had no idea or interest in starting a conversation.
Taco nodded. “That’s a really nice leash.”
“Oh thank you. I think some of these other owners think I’m nuts for spending this much money on my dog. You know how it is.”
“Not really.” The man chuckled to himself and shrugged, and Taco wondered if he’d just insulted the stranger. “I’m only dog sitting for a friend while they’re away.”
He nodded and looked back at the running dogs. In Taco’s estimation the man hadn’t been offended. “You know this is already the longest conversation I’ve had with any of these dog owners in years.”
“Yeah? You come a lot?”
“Every day. Can’t tell Hunter no.” He sucked his teeth and looked out at the distracted pet owners. “You want to get high?”
Taco looked around at the other dog owners staring into their phones. “Is that cool?”
“After. I’m about to leave, there’s a spot by the water over that way.”
Taco thought it over for a second. “Yeah. I guess I could go for that. Let me just get Sharon.” Taco stood by the fence, hoping that she would walk over, while the old man called out “Hunter” one time, and said “Good boy” before Sharon looked up from the spot of grass she had been busy sniffing.
Taco waded in past the dogs, and gently latched the leash on Sharon’s collar, who immediately fell into place, and resumed her orbit around his walk out of the pen of dogs. He walked out to see the old man fastening a collar and a leash to a man in his twenties with a beautiful mop of curly hair.
“Good boy, Hunter.”
The old man looked over to Taco. “Okay…sorry, I didn’t get your name?”
The man hummed to himself and nodded. “That right? Well as you might have heard, my name’s Alvin. This guy here is Hunter. And this is?”
The man with the leash on his neck held out his hand and shook Taco’s hand. “Pleased to meet you both.”
Alvin pet Hunter on the head and started lead the group to the water, sparking a joint on the way. He hit the joint twice and passed it along to Taco. Taco inhaled and looked over at Sharon who was at the limits of her leash sniffing the mud around the pond.
“So how’d you two…meet?”
Alvin looked at Hunter, and they both shared a laugh.
“Do you want to tell him the story?”
Hunter scratched at the back of his neck ear, and said, “You start.”
Alvin rolled his eyes and smiled. Taco took another hit and leaned against the chain link fence.
“My wife passed on. Um, about four years ago. Heart attack. No kids, but we had a really great life. I had just retired. She was thinking about putting together a cook book. Great cook, by the way. She really should have been on TV, with the way she laughed all the time and told these great stories. That’s what our friends who used to come over would say when she was going at it in the kitchen. She’d need way more than a half hour, is the joke I used to make all the time. Then she’d tell everybody that it took her so long to get through a story because I was always interrupting her. But she probably would have had a hell of a show.”
“I’d retired. She’d planned a cook book. No kids. We’d had a golden retriever named Tracker years ago, but she’d died, and no matter how much Debbie had wanted another dog, I just wasn’t ready. The day I retired, she handed me a gorgeous black leather leash and collar and told me if I wasn’t going to pick one out with her, she was going to do it herself. Happy wife, happy life, as the saying goes. I told her we’d look the next day. Then she starts cooking to celebrate, we’re finishing the first bottle of wine, I ask her if she wants me to open another bottle and…”
Alvin took a deep breath and clapped his hands together.
“C’est la vie. My friends, old coworkers, they all visited me round the clock after she left. Every other night I had somebody sleeping on the couch, or offering to take me on a road trip somewhere. But, you know, that kind of dies down after a while. A year goes by. I’m not going to start dating. And I’m cleaning the apartment…come across that leash and collar. So I’m thinking it’s time to get a dog. I go down to the kennel, not thinking I’m necessarily getting anything. Just looking to see what’s out there. For whatever reason, it all feels wrong. I love dogs. Love them. I told myself I’m ready to get over Tracker, and I’m trying to…not get over Debbie, as much as start living my life again. But none of them felt right.”
Hunter waved with a bright smile.
“Okay, my turn. So I was living as a total street artist. I guess technically you might say that I was homeless, due to the fact that I was forgoing rent in exchange for the opportunity to crash on couches and floors. Just living out of my backpack. Whatever. I liked to tag public spaces. Did you ever see those little paintings of daisies with the old spherical cartoon bomb in the center? Used to be on sidewalks, or posters. Anyway, that’s me. So I’m totally in tune to the whole art vibe, and in this city if you see a guy in a suit and a leash with no dog, you start to think, ‘hey, maybe that’s an art’ you know? So I walk up and ask the guy what his deal is. And this stranger opens up and tells me all the stuff he just told you, only it’s way less organized, because he hasn’t told the story five hundred times. And I’m thinking, holy crap, this whole guy is an art project. He’s saying, ‘I can’t find a dog’ and I’m hearing ‘be my dog.’ And to tell you the truth, I needed some stability in my life. So I said I could be his dog. Live in his house, listen to his stories. Give him something, in a totally non sexual way, where he could have some companionship without ever pissing on his rug.”
Alvin shook his head. “I’m so messed up and lonely that I said yes. The guy could have been a murderer, or anything.”
The joint had made it’s way back to Taco, who took another drag. “So do you still get to do your art?”
Hunter laughed. “Yeah, no leash on the weekends. But I get his old butt out to events, and he’s my rock. As far as masters go, you could do worse.”
Taco nodded and tried to hold onto the meager tip of the roach. “I’ve got to get this girl back to her home. You guys going to be around this time tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” Alvin started to chuckle. “We’ve got a schedule to keep.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Taco shook their hands and walked around, trying to find his way out of the park. He let go of Sharon’s leash and let her walk by his side, no longer distracted by the smells and sounds on the walk back home.