He had been left out in the rain, in fact, several times that we saw. Nate left the basement door open for him, but the first month he was there Zeus would knock it shut by mistake with that big head of his and then sit out in the rain crying all night. But Nate solved that problem by attaching the dog’s lead inside the basement, so whenever the dog ranged along the full twenty feet of it he pulled the door back open. Didn’t matter. Zeus still sat out in the rain and cried. He sat out in the sun and cried, too. Loudly, piercingly, heartbreakingly, in a banshee wail that fell somewhere between a sob and an air raid siren, from the time we came home in the afternoon until we shut the back door at night. Sometimes we had to close the windows so we could sleep. When we opened the door in the morning to let Dorrie out, he started back up. It was the soundtrack of our lives; it made us edgy and sad.
“Nate,” I said over the fence, “bring him over to our yard sometime. He can play with the dog, work off some of that energy. We’d keep an eye on them.” Nate looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I could see my words fizzle and evaporate as I spoke.
“I don’t know why he cries all the time,” he said.
“He’s just lonely, Nate,” I offered. “He’s still a baby.”
“I just don’t know why he cries all the time,” he said.
It’s because you never touch him, you sociopathic fuck, I said – no, I didn’t say that. But for all the effect my spoken words had on him my thoughts were just as real, which is to say just as worthless. He sits outside tied up all day long and when you come home you walk right by him and go in the house and watch TV. You don’t talk to him, you don’t even look at him. You break his heart every single day.
We stopped speaking to Nate, our closest neighbor, because of how he treated that dog. At first he kept him on a chain that must have weighed fifteen pounds, then on a steel-core plastic-coated thing you’d use to secure a bicycle, but longer. It was because his fence was broken and his last two dogs, a couple of lonely Rottweilers who at least had each other, had run away. Because it was easier to keep a 120-pound dog tied up all day than fix the fence. Because he was only a dog.
I grew to hate Nate in the past few months, more, I think, than I’ve ever hated anyone. In inverse proportion, of course, to how much I loved Zeus. He was a sweet, gentle, smart dog. When he stood up on his side of the fence he was as tall as me. For a while I had piled a few bricks on my side, hoping they looked haphazard, so I could stand on them and the chain link fence wouldn’t cut my arms when I reached over. Just as I’d never experienced such a piercingly one-way hatred before on my part, I had never seen such gratitude on anyone else’s. Not from naked men, not from friends in moving vans, not at hospital bedsides. This was gratitude shorn of any promises of reciprocity, free from the usual attempt at bargaining some dignity back. Zeus had no dignity, he had no love. He only had me, and only for a while.
Zeus cried and cried, and when I reached out to him he stopped. He stood up on his side and I on mine, and I scratched around under his collar, cleaned the gunk from the corners of his eyes, rubbed the openings of his ears with the heel of my hand. He leaned into me. I told him sweet things in a soft voice he didn’t get to hear any other time: “You’re a good boy, Zeus, you’re a good boy, you’re a good, good dog.” And he dropped his barbell of a head into my arms and sighed with a shudder. He smelled bad, and he drooled. I would think of Mother Teresa ministering to the lepers, and one day when I got to work and looked in the bathroom mirror I found a long, thick slug of slobber over my ribcage, as if someone had jerked off on my shirt before I left: Bye, honey, you have a great day now!
Zeus did not have great days, or even, presumably, good ones. He wasn’t allowed in the house because he smelled bad and knocked things over, and although Nate claimed to take the dog for walks, I never saw this happen.
He sat and watched us all day. Zeus was not, for all his size and apparent oafishness, a stupid creature. He knew that on our side of the fence was a home where dogs were kissed and where balls were thrown, where the door was left open. Maybe before Nate bought him he lived somewhere with a soft bed to lie on, somewhere with treats in a box in a closet. We looked at Zeus and we could tell he knew: This is not the only life there is.
Eventually he dug under the fence and came up in our yard, the lead practically choking him. Nate’s girlfriend was home, and when she came out I told her that I was going to let him off and she should come over to get him. She was on the phone to Nate and he was yelling at her, for what I couldn’t say. But those ten minutes were quite possibly the best of Zeus’ life. He tore around the yard with Dorrie blissfully, trampling my new plants, tearing up the earth, and I wouldn’t have stopped him for the world. Nate’s girlfriend took him home, and the next day he did it again.
Nate couldn’t really be bothered to fix the chain link fence on his side, so we eventually boarded it up with plywood. It was ugly and haphazard and one more reason to hate him. Zeus sat behind it, peering out from the tall weeds like a lion in a Rousseau painting, watching us. And then one night he jumped over.
I wasn’t home, but luckily Jeff was. He got to Zeus and unsnapped the lead before he strangled, even as the dog panicked and growled. He called Nate, who was off partying in the city and none too happy at being paged to come deal with this. He showed up an hour later, drunk and belligerent, to collect Zeus. Jeff said he talked to him for a while, trying to explain just what was going wrong, why the dog was so unhappy, what could happen. He told Nate that I would sometimes cry over Zeus, which was true. Nate looked at him out of bleary eyes and said, “What do you want me to do? What am I supposed to do?” And it wasn’t, honestly, a question. “It’s my dog,” he said, as if that point weren’t clear by then.
Zeus sat in the yard and he cried, waiting for someone to rescue him, hoping it would be us. We couldn’t, though. The police wouldn’t come unless he was underweight or had sores or visible signs of abuse, although on a friend’s advice we bought a video camera we didn’t need and couldn’t afford just to document the howling and neglect in case it came to that. Animal Care and Control wouldn’t come if he wasn’t running loose. I could call the city to lodge a barking complaint, and I did, but all they could do was send two letters and then fine him. Mastiff rescue wouldn’t touch him unless the owner gave him up voluntarily, and there was no chance of that. He was Nate’s dog. Nate knew this because he paid for him. And the longer and louder Zeus cried, the less indulgent he was of my indulgence of his dog. “He cries,” Nate offered up one evening, “because you pet him.”
I had to admit this was true. The dog and I got to the point where it was like an affair. We stood at either end of our yards and watched Nate, waiting for him to go inside and turn on the TV, and as soon as that screen door slammed we were at the fence again, his head cradled in my arms, snuffling and sighing and me whispering sweet things. “You’re a good boy, Zeus, you’re a good boy, it’ll be OK.” Even though I knew to check for slobber in the mornings, I was pretty sure I smelled like a big, sad dog most of the time.
I also had to admit that it wasn’t, in fact, going to be OK.
For all that pained awareness, he was a dog. And promises don’t work on dogs. Not the true kind and not lies either. And at some point, when I had held him and loved him and whispered to him that I’d be back later and still his wail followed me up the steps as soon as my back was turned, I had to admit that like my one-way hatred of Nate, my fawning over Zeus was serving no one but myself.
So I stopped. Cold turkey, I just stopped petting Zeus, stopped looking in his direction, stopped meeting his pained gaze. It was like breaking up with someone, suddenly pretending they don’t exist when your heart is still torn up. If he caught my eye he’d whine softly: What did I DO? And I’d say “Hey, buddy,” and keep on wherever I was going. And I guess it worked. As his expectations crashed, as his doggy brain recalibrated the world so that This Was How Things Were, he stopped crying all the time. He’d whimper when he saw us, especially when the cat and dog were playing together – what an incredible world that must have seemed to him – but the loud, invasive misery stopped. Sometimes when he was home Nate would take him off the lead, and he’d bound from one end of Nate’s yard to the other like a puppy, batting a big plastic trash can around the way Dorrie would a Coke bottle. Mostly he stayed on the lead, though. Nate’s friends were afraid of him, and he knocked over Nate’s girlfriend’s three-year-old grandson with puppyish regularity. Summer came, and Zeus slept a lot.
A few weeks ago we noticed he was gone. I couldn’t say exactly when, having trained myself so well not to let my eyes wander that way. We had our theories: He’d escaped, or Nate had just gotten sick of having such a large and unruly dependant and had given him away. We hoped he’d found a happier home, but we both doubted that was true.
And then a couple of days ago, my other neighbor, the one I like, told me that Zeus was dead. He strangled himself on his lead one night when Nate was away. I don’t know where we were, but there’s every chance he did it trying to get over our fence again. That poor sad dog, just trying to get himself a little love in the world. In a way, I guess, he did escape.
I don’t know what else we could have done for Zeus. In a way I feel like I failed him. We saw something like this coming so clearly, but that still didn’t give us license to liberate him, and now there’s only bitterness in having been right. I will say that if I’d known how short his life would turn out to be, I would have been over there at the fence with his head in my arms every single day. Even if he’d never stopped crying. Even if it had driven us to distraction and useless quarrels. Because in the end we were all he had and even if that still wasn’t enough, it was something. I’m so angry, and I’m so sad.
Rest in peace, big Zeus.