How to Love a Boy tells the story of one woman's journey to help an adopted son from a traumatic early childhood find happiness through acceptance, love of nature, and the friendship of rescued dogs. She discovers that happiness may be elusive, even unattainable, but love - if you chose it - can be ever present.
The book is written in narrative prose. It contains several poems and some chapters occur as list essays. It reads like a good, old-fashioned story.
HOW TO LOVE A BOY
THE YELLOW DOG
My car’s engine hums at the edge of a parking lot and crisp fall air grazes my bare forearm resting in the open window. A small silver container of ashes hangs on a chain around my neck: my dead son, Brandon. He’d approve of this operation in every way, the mission is urgent, illegal, and someone innocent will be rescued. I drop my head and plant a small kiss on the silver tube. When I look up, I see a red and white fingers-crossed Oregon Lottery sign beaming above the convenience shop door.
A blue pick-up truck pulls into the lot. The driver sees me in my red Subaru and swings the truck my way. I’ve never met the woman in the driver’s seat, but I’ve promised to help her do something that could make us both Class C felons with mandatory minimum 3-year jail sentences if we get caught.
My criminal history so far:
1. nicked a piece of candy from a grocery store bulk bin as an eight-year old,
2. possessed less than an ounce of marijuana once or twice back in the day,
3. often drove faster than the speed limit, but collected only three or four tickets,
4. ran a stop sign, and finally,
5. purposely trespassed on the property of Honeywell corporation, a producer of
components for first strike nuclear weapons, which produced my only arrests, for criminal trespass.
Today’s caper is like nothing I’ve ever done before and my beating heart knows it, but after Brandon’s death you might say I’m not in my right mind. Or, maybe I’m in my rightest mind ever.
The driver of the pickup truck rolls her window down. She’s middle aged like me, with short, light brown hair. We exchange names, and yes. We’re the ones we’re looking for. Are we doing this? We are.
“Should we go into the store and buy some coffee or something?” She asks.
“No. Why have anybody see us who doesn’t need to? Let’s just do this.”
I follow her because she knows where she’s going. We hope no one is home, either at the house she’s moving into, or the one next door where we plan to cut a hole in the fence and nab the starving dog from the back yard.
Ever since a mutual friend connected us via Facebook and I agreed to come on this mission, I’ve been a little mad at this woman. She’s the one who noticed the dog fading toward death in the yard next to the house she’s moving into, so why didn’t she solve the problem herself?
I know the answer, that’s why I’m here. She can’t take the dog and keep it herself, because she’s moving into the house next door. She can’t leave it there, she can’t ignore it, or think it’s somebody else’s problem. She’ll see it every day. She needs someone to take the dog far, far away.
The country road snakes past berry fields and gnarly oak trees, their leaves turning gold. I follow the blue truck along the winding road until it pulls into a circle drive at a two-story ranch style house. Beside this house, two robust, shiny black Labs bark at us from large kennels. The woman from the truck strides past them, away from the ranch house and toward a small gray-green manufactured home on the other side of a 4-foot high wire fence. I slide out of my seat and follow along. Behind the fence, a yellow Lab totters toward us with ears perked up, eyes wide, and mouth open with a pale tongue sticking out.
Every. Fucking. Bone. Visible.
I can see the outline of each vertebrae, count each individual rib. Her abdomen is a hollowed-out cavern; her fur is dull and gray with dirt. With faded fur and skin shrink-wrapped around skeleton ribs and skeleton spine, this dog is a Halloween specter, a ghoul.
She’s fading to ghost-hood.
I suck air into my lungs. The spaces between my ribs expand with fits and stutters. My hand flies to my torso, pressing into ribs and muscles to quiet the spasms. Until this moment, I’d hoped maybe the woman was exaggerating, maybe the situation wasn’t as dire as she claimed. Maybe I wouldn’t have to do anything. At home, I have a thirteen-year old son, a partner, a job, two dogs, and a house. I can’t imagine even three days in jail, let alone three years.
The Halloween dog presses her skin and bones against the wire fence, pokes her snout through. I lean over to pet her and the ash container clinks against the metal fence. I’m in now. All in. I don’t know how we’ll accomplish this heist in the bright light of a Sunday afternoon, but I won’t leave without this dog.
Two days before the yellow dog fence maneuver, I’d been sitting at home, not looking for anyone to save. No foster puppies, no Canada geese, no squirrels, no stray dogs. No nothing. Brandon had died five months before. Forever nineteen. Forever breathless. Six weeks after I learned my son was dead, I tumbled down a muddy riverbank and smacked my ribcage into a stump, shattering eight ribs, puncturing a lung. “Too many fractures to count,” the ER doctor said. All summer, I recuperated on the couch, or in bed, or hobbled my way a few blocks to an acupuncture clinic. Breathing had been my biggest daily accomplishment.
With every poke of an acupuncture needle: images of Brandon. Brandon returned to worm’s meat, to dust, to ashes kept in a cedar box on our fireplace mantle and a silver cylinder hanging around my neck. With every poke of a needle, the sheltering cage for my heart: splintered. Rib number six pulled apart leaving an unprotected hole over my vulnerable blood-pumping heart. With every poke of a needle: an interlocking helix: death and injury, injury and death. After weeks of lying propped up in bed, then sitting on the couch, I finally sat at the big oak computer desk, checking email, and getting back to the world.
As I scrolled through Facebook, a photo of an emaciated yellow dog accosted me.
“What the …?”
I’d deleted, eliminated, and unfriended most individuals and all organizations that filled my feed with horrific stories and pictures of animal abuse; the cumulative effect too toxic, too depressing, too infuriating. I didn’t need my day ruined by the story and photos of a starved dog, mouth duct-taped shut and thrown down a garbage chute in Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore. I needed to keep my focus on home, where I could maybe do something.
An acquaintance tagged me in the post, Ask Mary Mandeville, she’ll do something.
I was not in the mood for doing something. I’d been doing plenty for twelve years – with my partner, Kim, raising one son (and then another) adopted from trauma and chaos and methamphetamine exposure and foster care. Look how that turned out.
So not looking for someone to rescue.
The yellow dog in the photo.
Every rib, every vertebra, hip bone, knee cap visible under yellow-gray fur and skin. Muscles atrophied around the skull giving that sunken look. Big black eyes, so hangdog sad. Desperate. Right here in Portland. Right now. The Facebook poster claimed to have called the authorities and been blown off. She’d tried sneaking food to the dog, but the dog vomited it up; the time had come for more action. She wanted people to flood the office with calls.
I prayed people would call. Better the authorities deal with it than me. I called.
Whatever their reasons, they weren’t going to do anything.
The yellow dog stands in the corner where two fences intersect. The woman and I talk quietly. Are we going to cut a hole in the fence? We have wire cutters. Maybe we could just climb over the fence and grab her? My torso still spasms at times. When I climb a long set of stairs, I can barely breathe. But I’ve started back to my work as a chiropractor. I could gut through a little pain to pick up this dog. Is anyone looking out the windows of the house?
“Hey there!” A man’s deep voice.
Shit. The soon-to-be housemate is home. My accomplice (or am I hers?) gives him some story about how we’re there to – what? See the pasture for her horse, see how much space she has for her stuff, some bs. I don’t know what she tells him about why I’m there with a separate car. Note to self: rent a car for future escapades of uncertain nature.
I scratch the back of my neck, rub palms together. Roll my shoulders around, scratch my scalp. Literally itching, nervous system on high, ready for action. The damned roommate needs to go away. Vamoose. Scoot. I have food for the yellow dog and I want to give it to her now. After an amount of time that approaches eternity, the two new housemates go inside.
The yellow dog barks a hoarse bark and hops up and down in a weak imitation of a puppy. I dash to my car and grab a half pound of raw meat and veggies in a plastic container. Back at the property line, I dump the food over the fence and onto the ground. The dog devours it.
“I won’t leave you behind,” I whisper. I finger the chain around my neck.
The housemates come back outside and wander along the fence edge. There are no signs of life from the yellow dog’s house, no open windows, no flick of curtains, no sounds. But this damned new housemate needs to leave if we’re ever going to get on with our dog-saving operation. I don’t say much; the two new housemates repeat themselves until the guy finally says he has to go. But he doesn’t go, he stands around like he suspects something. I twirl Brandon’s too-big class ring on my middle finger. I stretch my arms overhead. I pretend to stare calmly across the pasture while I calculate whether I can lift a Labrador retriever over the fence or whether we’ll need those wire cutters.
Nearly a century passes. The woman and her will-be-roommate edge toward their cars. She gives me a tiny nod; I don’t know what she means. The yellow dog woof-woofs; I do know what that means. I’m coming back for you, I telepath to her.
The woman climbs in her truck and pulls out of the drive. I follow. My heart rate hasn’t slowed down much in the last hour or two, my spine is squeezed by my shoulders and messed up ribs. This is a terrible plan. Actually, this is no plan at all. What are we doing?
I want that dog and I want her today. I follow the truck when it turns right, drives a short way, pulls into another drive and parks behind an overgrown hedge. After a while, the housemate’s extended-cab turns left where we turned right. From behind the greenery, we can see his truck pass the convenience mart, head up the ramp, and over the bridge.
This time we nod in unison and we’re off.
When I pull back into the circle driveway and climb out of my car, the other woman is already lifting the yellow dog over the fence. I dash over to take the bone-and-fur bundle from her – so light in my arms – and jog to my car, push and settle the now shaking dog into the back seat. “I’ve got you, sweetie,” I coo, stroking her bony head. If the woman and I exchange any words, they’re lost in the whooshing of blood swirling between my head and heart. I climb into the driver’s seat, slam the door, drive away and don’t look back. I drive until I, too, have passed the mart, crossed the bridge, and left the rural community behind.