Hagler had never needed much training. He was naturally smart yet low-key and without much inclination for chasing squirrels or capturing his own tail. A brisk, morning walk, maybe a few sniffs and scents before business, and Hagler was ready to curl up and nod off. Hagler loved nothing more than napping in the shafts of sunlight on the floor. His snoring was as common a sound in the flat as a turn of the page in Winston’s book.
Winston was fifty-five when he brought Hagler home. A mystery mix with the head of a lab but the bushy tail and shaggy haunches of a cocker spaniel. From the start, it was as though they agreed not to be too much trouble to each other.
Now at nine and sixty-three, some had noticed a resemblance between man and dog. Winston’s son joked how both dog and man were both skeptics. Hagler was never one to go leaping off the couch at the first promise of a treat or bone, just as Winston never dropped what he was doing if the phone rang. Both had taken on some gray in their years together. Hagler’s once shiny black coat had begun to show signs of age, just as Winston’s hair, starting to thin, glittered silver like a river in the sun.
Nine years together. A blink to Winston. A lifetime for Hagler. Their routine was earnest. Coffee, breakfast, a trot around Dumont park before setting in for a long, stretched out nap. Winston’s townhome was near the lake, but the lake had been appropriated by several flocks of ill-mannered geese who honked and bullied pedestrians for snacks and then shit without remorse along the bank.
That left the park. Only now the park was being rediscovered. No longer a peaceful retreat into nature with an occasional jogger or biker, the park had been overhauled as part of the city’s fight against obesity. The small playgrounds were stripped of anything metal or wood and refitted with bright, rubbery equipment that to Winston at least, belonged in a food court or some other kind of hell.
The result was that, like the library, the park had become a noisy, scheduled place. No longer a refuge or sanctuary, a place to read or catch a nap, it was now overrun by s new breed of parents. Wild eyed and fervent, they arrived in droves, leaping from minivans and Subaru’s with bike racks and kayaks and sacks of soccer balls and off road strollers. They coddled and explained, they had accessories for everything. They even gave muggers pause with their brash rebranding.
And the kids. Worse than the asshole geese. On more than one occasion, one of these pint-sized terrorists approached Hagler with sticky hands and demented stares, as though he were only at the park for their benefit. Winston stood aghast as the over caffeinated parents took pictures. One had even waved him out of the shot.
Winston had tried to sound stern when giving warning that his dog may bite. This was met with laughter as Hagler had retreated behind as the children closed in and the cameras flashed.
Afterwards, Winston tried a different route but this too proved costly. The bikers, out at all hours, evening and morning, whizzing past them in packs. Winston jumped and ducked and eventually had to be coaxed out from the trees where the Frisbee golfers shouted them down for getting in the way. From there they’d escaped to the baseball fields so that Hagler could take a decent shit in peace.
So it was purely by chance that Winston and Hagler discovered the dog park. They were merely retreating farther into nature, towards the back corner behind the tennis courts when they saw the fence.
Hagler had never been much on social gatherings. He’d once mounted a standard size poodle on the beach, to the horror of the women and children looking on, something Winston chalked up to the margarita Hagler had lapped up on the boardwalk. But with the park was closing in on them—bikers and joggers and a rain barrel workshop in the parking lot, the rabid pack of four-year-old’s on the soccer pitch—Winston clicked the leash on the dog’s collar and they shuffled to the dog park to have a look.
A prison yard would have been more comforting.
Dogs with sweaters, bows, vest, even one with a bow tie. Bells and ribbons. Hagler snuffled at Winston, but it was too late. A conversation had stopped. Heads turned. They’d been spotted.
Hagler’s copper eyes did the talking. Do not make me go in there.
Winston fiddled with the leash. All instincts told him to turn and fight through the pitfalls of the park rather than go into the terror dome. But Winston felt pressed by social contracts, manners, an innate compulsion to enter. He unlocked Hagler’s leash and opened the gate.
A lunatic terrier came romping along, plunging his nose into Hagler’s haunches the way one might stuff a foot in a boot. Hagler’s eyes widened as his hind legs were sent over his head. He let out a whimper and scrambled to his feet only to be accosted by a shepherd, two boxers, and a dachshund of all things.
Winston winced from a distance, as the owners continued to introduce themselves. Winston remembered a time when a man could own a dog, perhaps cross paths with another dog owner with nothing more than a slight nod. Not here. Politely detained, Winston was prodded over his job history, living conditions, his thoughts on war and politics and non-kill animal shelters.
A stout woman with a collection of ropes and harnesses looped around her arms smacked his back and stuck a hand towards his chest. Winston looked around. Weren’t they just letting their pets relieve themselves? Was this necessary?
Winston quickly discovered that this was less a park and more of a cult. These people met here every day, on purpose, following a schedule of what they called play dates. Winston could only nod and glance around in hopes of a ranger or security guard. His stomach roiled, and he took note of his surroundings, the thick cover of trees separating this part of the park from the parking lot, looking for an escape route or witnesses. Becasue anyone who had photo booth pictures with their dogs could not be trusted. Of that he was certain.
Things only got worse for Hagler. He fought valiantly, catching wet noses from all ends. He spun and snapped, but the dogs came at him without fear or dignity. They crashed into him in slobbering waves. The boxers being the worst, semi aggressive and foaming and with their grotesque, mashed snouts, it was impossible to tell if they were snarling or smiling.
Hagler pleaded for his master, but Winston had his own troubles, being tied up with two thick shouldered women with ball caps. He could tell by his owner’s nods that something was off, this was a mistake. His only hope was that they would survive and make it out of the chain link hell alive.
Winston fiddled with his leash. His Rockport’s caked with mud and his left pant leg was wet at precisely hind end height. No one seemed to care. They stood in the cage, watching the dogs like they were children, clutching bags of shit like trophies as they swung from their grip as they motioned to a herd of Korgies.
When Winston finally got a word in, casually hinting that his dog was old and that maybe they should get back, he was assured that nine was far from old and that Rocky here was eighteen.
Winston looked again to what he’d assumed was an old tree stump. The battered slope that was Rocky’s back held a festering collection of scales, the only fur left behind was springy and coarse, like speaker wires ripped out from the wall. Other hairs branched out from the dog’s petrified nose and ears. Fastened in Rocky’s skull were two foggy spheres. Come to think of it, Winston wasn’t entirely sure Rocky was breathing.
In the cage match, Hagler found running only aggravated the pack. The owners pointed and called out in glee. Getting through the wall of shoulders and slobber was no easy task, and whenever Hagler so much as twitched it was mistaken for a playful act he was pawed mercilessly before being bit in the ear.
Hagler did not want to play, just as he didn’t want to be bathed by six spotted tongues. His hips hurt. He wanted only to settle in his wedge of sunlight on the floor. He wanted to hear the pages of his owners book and the occasional click of the appliances in the other room.
The squeak of the gate. Two wild-eyed huskies bolted over like they’d done a line of coke in the parking lot. They dove right in with howls and yips. They were primal things, snarling at the other dogs but the owners only talked and laughed, their fresh coffees steaming in the morning air. Hagler tried to back away but he was lost in the shuffle. Dust and paws and tails smacking his snout. A dog bit his hind leg and he yelped. All he wanted to do was go home.
He was certainly going to die. Here. How undignified?
And then it stopped. There was Winston, parting through the dogs. He lifted Hagler and carried him away. He brushed off the paws and snouts and they marched out of the cage, past the slobbering dogs, past the hushed stares of the owners.
“Let’s get you home, boy.”
Hagler felt his tail wagging. Relief swept over him. He was overcome with the joy of being alive, at leaving this medieval device, at the thought of napping in the warm sunlight and lazy afternoons. Hagler lost control. He licked his master’s face.