Bonnie’s Scars by Steve Ulfelder

BONNIE’S SCARS

By Steve Ulfelder

There’s one gouge on her right flank, bigger than a quarter but smaller than a fifty-cent piece. Another in the webbing of her right foreleg. Several more on her left side. Eight or ten all told, capped by a three-corner tear on her throat that was clearly stitched by a professional.

I asked the lady at the shelter how the dog came by these scars.

“She’s small for a greyhound,” the lady said.

It was all she needed to say.

Greyhounds are a famously social breed, but the jungle’s the jungle. Stuff a couple hundred dogs in 3-by-3-by-3-foot crates twenty-plus hours a day. Each crate gets an armload of shredded newspaper that serves as the dog’s bedding, toy, and often toilet.

Jungle law prevails.

Bonnie had been torn at by the other dogs. The bigger dogs.

She wasn’t Bonnie when I met her. Her name was Gale Force. The tattoos in her ears indicated she was born May 22, 2009, in Florida. She is indeed small – 53 pounds now, much lighter when I met her. Many greys race at 70 to 80 pounds.

She couldn’t have been much of a gale or much of a force, because her Florida racing career was short and inglorious. She made a brief stop in Rhode Island before arriving at Greyhound Friends, a Hopkinton, Massachusetts, shelter.

At Greyhound Friends that day, after asking about the scars, I took the dog for a brief walk. She paused. I knelt beside her.

And she leaned on me. Leaned into me. Hard.

That was all it took. I fell for her. I will love her until one of us dies.

Then it was just a matter of whether she murdered the stuffed cat my son was swinging in the air.

More on that in a moment. For now, let’s backtrack.

You’re a dog person or you’re a cat person, right? You may have owned both, but in your soul you know which description fits you.

I’m a cat guy. Always have been, though I love dogs too. I’ve owned at least one cat, sometimes as many as three, for a quarter-century.

But I had a big birthday coming up, and I’d mused out loud that there are three things every man should do once in his life: own a pickup truck, shave his head, and get himself a dog.

My wife ought to know better, but she pays attention to these musings. She knew I’d shaved my head in college. And that I already drove a pickup.

So my birthday gift was the announcement that I was to get myself a dog.

Damned if I can say why, but I knew I wanted a greyhound.

Greyhounds are more reserved than most dogs. They don’t wag their tail for and lick the face of just anybody. You have to earn those wags and licks. My wife and kids, having pictured more of a cuddly-pup scenario, were disappointed. But they took the news like troupers, for which I’m grateful, feigning enthusiasm each time we visited Greyhound Friends.

This catches you up. Now we’re back at the shelter. My son is swinging a stuffed cat, getting set to toss it, and my heart is in my mouth.

Here’s the deal: For at least 3,000 years, greyhounds have been trained to chase small animals, catch them by the neck, and shake them violently.

It should be no surprise, then, that most greys cannot live with cats. Indeed, I had already made friends with one male dog but had been casually informed by the shelter lady: “That dog will kill your cat.”

“Huh?” I said. “You mean chase the cat around, maybe scare it some until they come to be best buddies?”

“No,” the shelter lady said. “That dog will kill your cat. That’s what I said and that’s what I meant.”

The dog I’d fallen for, the one that had leaned on me, was new to the shelter and hadn’t yet taken the will-it-kill-your-cat test.

Which is less scientific than you’d think. There stood Bonnie, still known as Gale Force, released from the leash. And there stood my son, winding around his head a stuffed animal that only vaguely resembled a cat.

I stood there too, holding my breath. I already loved that dog so much. It would break my heart to go home without her.

My son let fly the stuffed cat.

I crossed my fingers.

The cat sailed, then thumped to the ground.

The dog looked in the general direction of the cat.

Then she cocked an ear like a Disney-cartoon dog.

Then she lay down.

“Looks like your cat’s safe,” the shelter lady said.

Only then did I uncross my fingers and let out my breath.

We’ve had the dog a year now. We changed her name to Bonneville Ulfelder. She is the best dog on earth. Sweet. Gentle. Not a mean bone in her body. Takes nothing for granted. All she asks is to be loved and fed, and to have her fanny scratched once in a while. I walk her at least three times a day. I bounce writing ideas off her. She likes them all.

And when she runs, she takes your breath away. Do yourself a favor sometime: watch a greyhound run not because that’s its job, not because that’s how the dog minimizes beatings, but for the sheer joy of the running. Watch this sometime and try to tell me there is no God.

Bonnie’s come out of her shell quite a bit, but she still leans toward timidity. Always will, I guess.

Hard to blame her.

These days, my wife often catches me lying with Bonnie on the dining-room floor in an evening tete-a-tete. Whispering, reassuring.

My wife rolls her eyes. “What do you whisper to that dog?” she asks, hands on hips.

Until now, I’ve refused to answer.

I tell Bonnie she is safe. I tell her she is loved. I tell her she will collect no more scars.

Steve Ulfelder is the author of the Conway Sax novels: Purgatory Chasm and The Whole Lie (Thomas Dunne Books/Minotaur). Look for a new Conway book in 2013. You can connect with Steve at www.ulfelder.com.