Friday, May 14, 2010

Today I am sore, I am tired, I have blisters on my feet, but I am immensely happy, and here is why.

It's now late Wednesday, but my tale begins on Monday night around 6:30 pm or so.

It was a glorious evening, nice and cool for mid-May but still sunny with the trees in full bloom. I lounged on the deck—there is no other way to live on the deck—and sipped on one of my father's beers—a Stella Artois, I believe it was—and contemplated dinner. The Reds would start soon and I hadn't watched them in a while. They were playing well; my interest was peaked. I decided I'd meander up to Chicago Gyros and eat something greasy while I watched baseball and drank beer. My Dad was outside and I explained my intentions to him.

“Get me a Gyro,” is all he said about it while he tooled with something in the dirt.

I reached down and petted Mojo on the head.

“I'll be right back, buddy,” I told him. It's what I always tell him. Most times I tell where I'm going. If I'm off to work, I don't say that I'll be right back, I tell him I'm going to work and that I'll be back that night. But he knows that without me telling him. Like all dogs, he is a master observer and picks up on the slightest cues from my behavior. Still, I like to believe that he is more observant than most dogs and is what we would call smart.

This time he didn't know where I was going and it bothered him. My Dad continued working on something, transfixed on his task. I wandered away from the house and my mind wandered away from the present. No one noticed Mojo follow me.

On my walk to Chicago Gyro, it dawned on me how content with life I'd been of late. It had been a good run for a while. I enjoyed my job, loved my woman and found being happy the normal state of being; there was nothing worthwhile to complain about it.

But like any good sports fan, I felt the jinx lurking just behind such pleasant sentiments. Superstition may be silly, but it hasn't lasted this long by accident. I see it as a weird byproduct of the freewill of humans. Prior to human intelligence there was no superstition on Earth. Things happened for scientific reasons only and there were no mysteries. Then somebody got the idea that too much of a good thing can only spell eventual disaster, which is invariably the case and then allows some sage of paranoia to leap up out of his hut and yell, “Ah ha! I told ya!” once the shit hits the fan. Based on that guy, the world can't shed the idea that maybe there is something to this superstition stuff after all which leads to all kinds of nonsensical traditions including organized religion, but that rant is preserved for another day. The point is, thinking everything in my life was gravy, immediately led me to regret thinking it in the first place for fear of swift personal tragedy brought on by the power of the announcer jinx—the announcer in this case being me.

I laughed off the notion and once more began considering ways to properly end the novel I'd been tinkering with off and on for years. Thirty minutes later I returned to my house with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada's Glissade and two gyros. There is a large grassy field next to my house where many dog-owners—myself included—use as a play area for their dog's recreation. Mojo loves this particular field. He has spent most of his life coming here to play and no dog has ever played harder in this field than him. Chasing the tennis ball is as much his job as tackling people is for Ray Lewis. It's no-nonsense and visceral. You would be impressed.

In the field on this day, was a different, smaller dog (Mojo is a Rottweiler-German Shepard mix and weighs in around 90 pounds). This other dog's owner was a college-looking dude—fairly non-descript—and was throwing his own tennis ball to this clearly amateur dog. I expected to see Mojo galloping along side this stranger showing it how the game is played, but he wasn't. If he saw this game taking place, he would have stormed the scene and caused a moment of fear and apprehension from the other dog's owner. “Why is this giant dog running at us unattended?” he would have asked himself. “What should I do,” he'd wonder.

My Dad was still fiddling with something and uninterested in the tennis-ball chase taking place nearby.

“Did Mojo try to play with those guys?” I asked him, assuming since he wasn't in sight, Dad had put him in the basement.

“Where is he?” Dad asked.

That's when I knew he was gone. His tennis balls laid there in the yard. I picked one up, called his name and bounced the ball to get his attention. Nothing. Dad tried yelling too—he does have a booming voice that dwarfs mine in a yelling contest, but still to no avail.

The only place I walk my dog is to my girlfriend Melanie's, so I set off in that direction. A middle-aged man who I often see in his yard was there now. He hadn't seen Mojo. I called Melanie and told her I was outside of her apartment and that Mojo was missing. We drove around for a couple of hours looking for him. I was also able to enlist my buddy Aaron and his dog Apollo. The two cars (Melanie's and Aaron's, as well as Dad's briefly), cruised the neighborhood with our eyes peeled. He was nowhere. After a while, darkness set in, and it began to rain. I relieved the drivers, borrowed Apollo and set off on foot. I canvased huge swaths of Clifton yelling his name every now and then. Nothing. I walked for a few fruitless miles and even had the unpleasant experience of hearing one pit-bull kill another other pit-bull, or at least significantly maim him, as I unintentionally got the dogs riled up by simply walking past their yard. I didn't hear anyone come out to check on the carnage. Needless to say, that only sharpened my worry and anxiety for my buddy, Mojo.

Eventually, I became listless and very tired. I reasoned that in order to search more tomorrow, I had to go home and get some sleep. I took the long way home, checking on all kinds of weird, dead-end roads and ended up at home near midnight, dogless and distraught.

Once the idea settled in that I was now giving up for the night, all the terror and fear for Mojo fully set in. There was only one way this saga would turn out okay, and that was getting my dog back unharmed. But there were countless ways it could go wrong, and they all consumed me that night in my bedroom. I'm not ashamed to admit that I sobbed then; a total emotional meltdown. The thing that wouldn't leave my head is that old dogs weren't supposed to run away. Yes, old dogs die, and that was a big enough challenge to wrap my head around, but an old dog wandering off just wasn't the way the universe was supposed to work. It wasn't right. I couldn't swallow it. I tearfully prayed to anyone tuned in to that kind of frequency that night, that I would really appreciate Mojo's safe return, and mentally projected at him to hang tight for the night and that I would find him the next day. It was a miserable night.

I fell asleep close to 1am. I woke up at 6:45 and was out of the house by 7:15. Anyone who knows anything at all about my regular schedule and sleeping patterns will unanimously agree that anything before 8am is completely unheard of, and yet that was the case. No breakfast but coffee, an umbrella, a rain coat and I was out again.

The part of town I was convinced hadn't been covered enough was the basin of McMicken and it's random offshoot streets. I considered the night before to walk around that neighborhood but it's kind of a rough patch of the city and I thought no one gains anything if I were stabbed, so I put it off for the next day. This was the next day and I plowed through those seedy no-outlet streets like I owned every abandoned apartment building in the neighborhood, still to no avail. It stormed that morning and I knew Mojo hated the thunder and I caught myself telling him that it was okay, like I always do.

I weaved through all the area's major parks on my way home to change into some dry clothes. I thought about eating once I made it back to the house but still couldn't do it—I drank some water instead. My next mission would be into the woods; I was really beginning to feel desperate.

I tooled around the woods near my house for about twenty minutes, skimming the wood line parameter. The wooded hills are steep bluffs of a sizable hill that our house sits atop. We live on the ridge of the hill that descends in many directions and my concern was that maybe Mojo had fallen or was stuck somewhere.

I moved into one section of the woods that used to be a trail that connected the grassy field that sits next to our house with the city park perched at the bottom of the hill. There were never proper steps on this trail, but many people used it, especially the Hughes High School football team who would practice on the lower field but still have to walk back to school after practice which meant climbing the trail up the hill every day. My sister and I and our friends used this trail all the time as kids. Now it's overgrown and not much of a trail; you wouldn't know one was there if you hadn't seen it before.

I took perhaps five steps into the wood line when I saw something odd on the old trail. It was a shirt that was sort of upright. The reason it was upright was because something was wearing it. That something also was wearing jeans and New Balance sneakers. It had large, hulking shoulders and was slumped onto the trail. It appeared that it was close to sliding down the hill. It was facing away from me and seemed to be leaning a bit against a nearby tree. It wasn't moving.

I looked over this thing and decided it looked an awful lot like a person and noticed something near its head. At first, I thought it was a long staff that was going through its head, but upon a few more seconds of observation, I determined that it was a necktie which was caught on a branch overhead and the other end was tied around his neck. This was what kept him from sliding down the hill along the old trail.

The idea that I was looking at a dead person began to set in. When it did, for some reason, I decided I should get a look at the person's skin. I for no reason was going to get any closer—I was roughly ten feet from it already—but I could see his hand. It was completely black. That didn't make sense. Dead people don't turn black, do they? I decided it was still inconclusive.

I looked at his head. His scalp was gray with wisps of black hair. At that point it seemed to me that this was either a corpse or a really elaborate hoax. In retrospect, I now realize that it was only my ego that allowed me to even hypothesize someone would go to such an extent to prank me, but I wanted to hold onto another possibility other than me actually finding a dead guy. I looked back at his shoes. One was curled in a very uncomfortable position, and they were decent gym shoes. For whatever reason, that was what convinced me that this was a person who, by my inexpert eyes, appeared to have committed suicide in the nearby woods less than a hundred yards from our house. That's when I realized it did indeed smell like something dead and I got the hell out of there.

I don't know anything about who it was, how he died or how long he was there. I do know this: both myself and our neighbor, Bill, smelled something dead in that corner of the grassy field for the last week or so; I found the body mere feet away from that corner of the field. Many residents on that street have witnessed a small homeless contingent congregate in those woods and I assume that this unfortunate soul was part of that group. I honestly don't want to know who he was or anything more about it.

It was one of the strangest moments of my life. It was a quiet, private discovery. It was creepy but not traumatizing—I couldn't see his face. No matter how you spin it though, it is sad. This man not only presumably killed himself, but no one came looking for him. He may have been homeless, and was likely haunted by depression we should be grateful we don't know about. If anything, I feel sorry for the poor guy. It took me, who was looking for something else entirely, to find him.

Once I did though, I continued searching for my dog. The way I figured it, Mojo could still be alive and the guy in the woods wasn't, so my priorities stayed true. I carried on through the rain and woods without finding anything else of any real interest. After a few more hours of nothing, I went home and called the cops to tell them what I found.

The first cop there was a youngster. He didn't like the idea of dead bodies. He also didn't like the idea of me being too involved in a crime scene so he was faced with the challenge of having me point the body out to him without me disturbing any evidence or anything. We reached the tree line and he didn't want to go in. I went in first, cleared away the branches for him and pointed the guy out. The young cop didn't like it a bit but he soldiered over to the body. I said, “From what we're looking at now, I determined that that's a dead body.”

He took two more steps, became visually grossed out and said, “It is. You need to get out of here.”

A slew of more police arrived. Adhering to traditional sexism, the men cops made the lady cop stay with me to chat while they investigated the scene. We mostly talked about my missing dog which I was eager to get back to finding, and she tried reassuring me with stories of a dog she found after missing it for two weeks. She took down my information and they “let me go home” even though we were all gathered on the driveway of my house.

The next stop was the SPCA. This was a chaotic place of scared, loud mongrels essentially screaming at you to take them home or back to their owners or anywhere else that's not called the pound. There were rows of cages of all sorts of dogs. I scanned the cages with a desperate anticipation feeling increasingly let down as the options dwindled to nothing. There was one dog there that looked a lot like Mojo. He was younger and smaller but had a lot of similarities; enough to make me stop and make sure it wasn't him. It wasn't. The guy working there was sympathetic and reassured me that they get new dogs everyday and that it's important to keep coming back.

I felt like my last real hope had gone and my sadness soaked all the way to my bones. I had officially let him down and now he was truly lost. Not seeing him again was a possibility that was hurdling toward the forefront. I started emotionally fragmenting and a deep regret began to build within my chest.

When I returned, more cops were there to talk with me. They wanted to know if I knew him or recognized him or moved him. They even asked if I saw any identification on him. It was a series of head shakes and “no”s.

My friends, Elliott & Jen, came over to help me look for Mojo. While I dealt with the homicide detectives and the rest of the Police Circus, Elliott & Jen made “lost dog” posters. After answering just a few more questions from the detectives, I caught up with the poster-making duo and admired their work (it was Jen's work, really). They made flyers to put on cars, posters to put on lamp posts and cardboard signs for busy intersections. We posted maybe six posters around two intersections when I got the call.

“Hi, I just saw the sign for your missing dog,” said a college-aged female voice.

“Yes?” I said.

“I found him. I have him. He's at my apartment.”

At those words, a thousand lashes were removed from my back. I thanked the woman as legibly as my lips would allow, and, for the first time in my life, had a happy cry.

Later that day, I leashed my healthy, happy dog once more and brought him back home. I gave the girl twenty bucks for her trouble and talked with Mojo the whole trip back.

He's an old boy, ten and a half, and I got him when he was only six weeks old. To have lost him would have been unacceptable. It would have gone against all logic, belief and superstition that dictates the universe in my head. Once I knew he was beyond my help, which was, in all honesty, long before I found any dead bodies, I put all my faith in humanity and it worked. People saved my dog. Not me, nor the institution of the SPCA, nor Mojo himself. It was a person who cared; a stranger.

I have ever so slowly become a person who believes that things happen for a reason, and while I trudged through muddy hillsides and pouring rain with sizable blisters looking for my aged and arthritic lost dog, I questioned that belief to its fullest extent. I never really believed that any superstition played a part in Mojo's disappearance, as coincidental as all of that may have been, and so it came down to finding a purpose to him disappearing to prevent me from giving up hope.

It still didn't make sense until I got Mojo back: Mojo ran off to make me look for him but it made me find the dead guy instead. And look at the nice, neat happy ending we have all tied up into a bow. I have my dog back, who spent his only night away—a stormy night—comfortably chilling with some young woman and her puppy in a Clifton apartment, I found a deceased human being who may have gone a lot longer without being found and now doesn't have to haunt the nearby woods, and the girl got twenty bucks.

Everybody wins!


  • At 6:48 PM , Anonymous Jeff A said...

    I have read this a few times, and it touches me more each time. The profound sadness I now feel for the guy in the woods is unlike any feeling I have had before. I have felt this way for people I know, yet never for a complete stranger I never knew, or never will.
    So, in my mind, the winners aren't only you, Mojo, and the girl, but myself too for finding a capacity for feeling something I thought impossible. NEVER stop writing...


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