Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Dog Tale

My parents had separated a couple of years earlier and my mom and I had moved into the little apartment in the back of her apartment building, just around the block from the Terrace Hotel, a block away from El Paseo. I was going to the American school back then and had some friends there and sometimes they came over after school and sometimes I would go over to their homes, but mostly I spent my time alone in the complex garden that surrounded our little apartment. There were two terraces of gray brick covered by a wooden trellis full of dark ivy that twirled around the long wooden poles like green spider webs covered in dark long leaves. There was a large white hammock stretched across one of the terraces and a white glass round table on the other one. There were gray walls towards the east that were topped by chain link fence and on the other side of the fence there was a vacant lot full of tall brush, garbage and dirt. There was a taller brick wall to the west that faced a small luxury hotel and its small curved pool. To the south was the apartment building, and the sound of the people in it, little dashes of lost conversation, names called out in the hot afternoon, doors shutting close, gates squeaking open, and the tall white walls that surrounded the mysterious windows where I could sometimes see a face or a couple of shadows. To the north were the three levels of garden, the large "capulin" tree where the bats lived, the rows of strange plants, the hills of dirt and the holes where puddles formed in the rainy season and, behind it all, the tallest wall of all that was covered in little gaps and holes and cracks where my little soldiers would go on endless hopeless quests and sometimes stay for months or even years, hidden in tiny lost caves, waiting for help to come. It was a vast contained world, always full of surprises, some that came flying in from the endless sky, some that crawled up from the black dirt, and some that came unbidden from my restless mind like explosions of new bright colors on an already complex canvas.
My aunt, my father’s sister, had become very good friends with my mother, even after she left my father. They had long conversations where they shared their stories of evil husbands and terrible unfair crazy men. They shared a love for luxury and a heartfelt hope for an end to injustice and poverty and they didn’t see any contradiction in their loves and hopes. My aunt gave me the first dog of that enclosed apartment lifetime. It was a small black skinny Dachshund that was only a few months old when she first arrived. She came with a strange name: Enriqueta. Maybe it was an attempt to capture some of her German heritage. Maybe it was simply one of a large litter and they had simply run out of ideas for names. But the strange little scared black dog that others had named Enriqueta came into my arms and she became my Enriqueta and, in the midst of the darkness of the garden and the gentle afternoons swinging back and forth on the white hammock, she became my loyal friend. She would come barking in her tiny high voice when I arrived from school. She would swing her tiny little tail back and forth to express her happiness upon seeing me and she would jump up on my lap to get me to caress her head, her long squishy body and her soft hairless stomach. In my father’s house, I had become used to our big German Shepherds that were strong and tough and serious and who loved me so much that they would dig deep into my arm so that I wouldn’t go, so deep and so hard that I would cry in horror and someone had to come and pull me away. Enriqueta was different. She was eager and soft and easy and her bark was like the tinkling of crystals in a light breeze and her fangs were like pointed fingernails that couldn’t really hurt me and her eyes were like little black marbles that bubbled out of her little skinny face and her love was gentle, open and free of any conditions or threats.
One day my mother’s workers placed little black pellets of poison around the terrace hoping to kill some rats. Little Enriqueta mistook the pellets for food and soon she was panting for her life in my hands, and I could see her little black marble eyes turning even darker as they shifted back and forth in their sockets and she was crying in little gasps that were so high as to almost be inaudible and her whole little body was trembling in my arms and I was simply wishing that she would somehow be ok, that she would soon be running again to greet me and that she could once again jump to my hand when I offered her a treat. But it was too late and she faded away in front of me in the terrace and I saw her travel from the state of trembling and struggle to a state of stillness and breakdown which people confuse with peace. We buried her in the garden and I made a wooden cross which we planted over her grave and I cried for many weeks and thought that nothing worse could ever happen.
A few months later, a friend of my mother gave me Luna which means "Moon" and she was bigger than Enriqueta and she was gray and black and white and not like any dog I had ever seen. Her snout was short and wide and her eyes were wild and full of restless life. I heard a couple of men saying that she was a mixture of German Shepherd and Dachshund and they laughed at the idea but they said that stranger things had happened and that when a ship is caught in a storm any port will do and, as I heard them, I pictured Luna’s mother as a port and her father as a ship in peril and I laughed at the vision as I ran my hand over her soft head and she let her long red tongue hang down, dripping thick smelly saliva all over the gray bricks of the terrace. She was strong and wild. She loved to run back and forth even in the small spaces of the garden, and her bark was much louder than Enriqueta’s. When the maid went outside to wash the driveway, Luna would be out there running circles around her sandaled feet, pulling on the hose and making her stumble over it . When I came home, she would come running, barking loudly and her bark would echo in the enclosed space of the garage and it would sound like a dozen large dogs, all eager to greet me. I would grab large sticks, twisted thin branches that had fallen from the capulin tree, and I would throw them into the darkness of the humid garden and Luna would go running and she would dig and search and run and, minutes later, she would be back with a very moist dirty stick in her mouth, panting and moaning and barking and finding any way to tell me that she was ready to play again.
One day, I was in the bedroom and I heard a loud sound from outside and then I heard the scrambling of feet and I heard Luna but she was not barking, instead she was letting out very loud screeches of pain. I ran to her and I found her under the circular glass table, and the whole terrace was covered in her blood and her front right leg was halfway out of its socket and there was deep red blood gushing from the joint and Luna’s eyes were wide and terrified and I could almost hear her asking me to help her, to stop the horrible pain and I could only stare and cry and then I called my mother for help and I came back to Luna and petted her head and tried to cradle her but she kept on twisting and scrambling in a hopeless effort to make the pain go away and the thick red blood kept on gushing and the gray bricks turned into a thick puddle of red and black and I kept on crying for her and with her as she twirled and screeched and panted in my helpless hands. A half hour later, my mother came with some workers and took her away. I laid down crying and hoping that Luna would come back running and happy and safe. She never did. The maid told me that a car had hit her when she ran wildly out of the front gate. My mom later told me that the veterinarian said that they could save her but she wouldn’t be able to use the leg again and they decided to kill her instead. I would have decided to keep her but it was too late and nobody had asked me. I remember sitting in the darkness, wishing I had gone with them when they took her so I could save her, so I could tell them that I would rather have her alive.
A few weeks after Luna was gone, my aunt gave me a new little Dachshund and we decided to call her Enriqueta. She was identical to the first in every way that I could tell, just as small, just as skinny, just as playful, just as black. She quickly developed the same habits: of coming to greet me, of running after me when I played in the garden, of waiting patiently in the terrace when I was reading, of coming to me and standing up on her hind legs when I wanted to play. Now the garden held the tomb of the first Enriqueta and the tortured memory of Luna’s last moments, but it soon became again a place of adventure where the new Enriqueta could simply love me and I could love her. All thoughts of the previous dogs were set aside and the new Enriqueta became the only one that there ever was, and the memories of the first became the memories of the second so that they faded into each other and became a single beautiful dog that needed me like she needed water and that would come eagerly running towards me whenever I called.
One afternoon, my mom punished me for some minor offense and I did not take the punishment lightly. I went to the garage, seething with fury, angry at the unfairness of life, imagining hundreds of scenarios where my mom would come to see the error of her ways, but all my visions were not enough to calm my rage. I needed some kind of revenge. Since my mom was beyond my reach I looked around for something else on which to vent my fiery energy. I saw the garage door, which was an intricate web of metal adornments covered with a thin vaguely translucent material which made the door a dark gold color in the sunlight. I ran to it and kicked at the door harshly, right at the corner. I saw a big piece of the door fly away towards the driveway and I saw a round hole that was left behind, a hole just a little smaller than my head. I was terrified. I had done something very wrong. I covered the hole with a piece of wood and waited for the punishment to come later.
Weeks later, when the incident had been forgotten, I was listening to a record that I had borrowed from my cousins. I had just learned how to use the record player and I had started to enthusiastically discover the beauty that came with music, specially music that I played when I wanted to and that I picked for myself. So I borrowed records and I played them endlessly, singing along with the lyrics, listening carefully to the instrumental parts, imagining the strange stories that went with them and then starting all over again. It was about six in the afternoon and the sun was already fading out and I was playing the borrowed record: a live recording of the Electric Light Orchestra, and I was singing along to the lyrics of my favorite song: "It’s a living thing… what a terrible thing to lose…" and I hadn’t thought of Enriqueta in a while and I remember hearing little scratchy noises in the distance and dismissing them and now I don’t know if I placed those noises there later in my imaginary memory or if I really did hear them but the song was playing loudly and the sun was dropping from the sky and it was getting darker and darker and there were little scratchy noises in the distance and I kept on playing and singing: "It’s a living thing…" and the garden was drenched in dark blue and green and the hammock was lightly swinging with the cold chilly breeze of the coming night and I was still not thinking of Enriqueta and there were little noises coming from the garage and I was singing "…what a terrible thing to lose…" and the night fell and the garden was so dark that the tree outside became invisible and the bats started to fly across the light of the little light bulb and I could hear cars coming into the driveway and one of them would be my mom’s but I still had some time so I played the record again and I sang with it one more time: "It’s a living thing…" and my mom came and asked where Enriqueta was and I turned to see her as the song played one last time: "…what a terrible thing to lose…"
The truth is that I would never know what happened to her, but in my mind I can see her now, scratching at the little piece of wood that was placed against the hole that I had made. Earlier she had gotten out and had been playing outside where she shouldn’t be and the maid had seen the wood out of place and she put it back without realizing that Enriqueta was outside and my little fragile black dog was now out in the cold, scratching at the wood, at the garage door, barking in her little tiny barks that could barely be heard even when there wasn’t a loud record overwhelming them, and she was probably hungry and cold and scared and she kept on scratching and barking but nobody came, so she eventually left and I can see her now lightly swinging back and forth as she walked down the sidewalk, away from our driveway, away from my hands, away from my life.
We searched for her throughout the neighborhood. My mother went with me for hours. When she got tired, then the maid would come. When she got tired, my Dad came and drove around with me. And we would stop at every house and listen, to see if someone had her in their yard, to hear her little tiny barks and hope that I could recognize them, that she could recognize me looking for her, letting her know that I still loved her, that I didn’t want her to go. I called her name many times through many metal gates, through little gaps in strange garage doors, over little fences and tall walls. As the days went on, the perimeter of our search got wider and wider and soon the adults around me realized that with every day that passed, the little hope that there had been was getting smaller and smaller and soon there would be no hope at all, but they were only trying to be reasonable and I was miles away from reason and I wasn’t ready to give up.
One afternoon I walked over to the church that was only a few blocks away and I knelt in front of the altar and begged the imaginary supreme being that I had been taught to believe in for help and I cried desperately on my knees and I thought that someone would come and ask what was wrong with the little nine year old boy that was crying so loudly in front of the altar, but nobody came. I thought then that in El Salvador maybe there were too many little boys crying, too many loved ones lost, for one more crying boy to be noticed. My Dad took me to see a priest that was famous for finding lost things, cars, people. He said he was infallible, he was the best. I met him and he was one of the gentlest, kindest people I had ever met but he said that he couldn’t help us. He said that the magnetic radiations coming off of me were too strong and that they dissipated any possibility of him finding my little lost dog. My mother took me to a fortune teller and she read the cards for me and she said that I would find Enriqueta many years later, and she would be sick, but she would still be alive. Even back then I felt that this was just a way to let me breathe again, a way to get my mind off the loss and off my great mistake and come back to being a little boy in a dark garden with three ghost dogs for friends. I could clearly see the
benign scam but I was also very tired and I let it work anyway, I allowed myself to make believe and I told myself that maybe the strange woman was telling the truth. It had been weeks since Enriqueta had left. I had to rest and I did.
I didn’t want another dog after that, not for as long as I lived in that apartment in the midst of the garden. And whenever we drove through the city, I would still look around for a little skinny black dog, and when I walked through the neighborhood I would still listen for the sound of my little dog barking, asking me to come to the door and let her in.
I walked down the same street today where some of the old houses had been turned into offices and the sidewalks were stained with thirty more years of cracks and accidents and the people seemed sadder and colder and heavier and the blue sky seemed a little less open and a little less true, and I caught myself listening carefully for little barks and tiny scratching sounds and I knew that, somewhere deep within, a little part of me was still hoping that Enriqueta would finally come home.
The front gate of the apartment building.

The logo for the building that my mom designed.
The front gate covered with dead leaves.
The hole in the garage door that
I made thirty years ago and is still there.

The church where I prayed and cried
for the return of my little lost dog.

The new dog that was sitting in front of the building,
reminding me that nothing ever truly changes,
but things are never quite the same.

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