Read Autumn — Chapter 1
Autumn ran. She would start at one end of the field near our apartment and run to the other end of the field, turn around, and run back. Down to the creek! Through the water! Under the fence! Across the field! Back through the fence! It was like she was a study in the personification of prepositional phrases.
I could stand and watch her run like that for over an hour. I checked out a video camera from my college and videotaped her running. We made copies and sent them home to our families.
“Did you like the movies?” I would ask, hopeful. “Isn’t Autumn adorable?”
“Well,” came the invariable response, “It would be nice if there was more of you two in them and less of the dog.” But why would they want that? She was our baby.
Every day I would let Autumn out to play in the fields behind our house. She would go and play in the creek or chase cows. The cows didn’t really run. They would stand in a herd, heads down, looking at the dog playing in their midst, snorting and weaving their lumbering heads back and forth.
After she had played a while I would call out, “Brown Brown!” the nickname I pulled from nowhere and a term of endearment I used for her the rest of her life. I could lean out over the deck railing and see her in the field below.
“Brown Brown!” I would call. “Autumn!” Autumn would stop whatever she was doing and race up the hill, around the apartment building, up the stairs, and across the deck to me, tongue lolling and panting in happiness.
Life with our puppy was like most people’s lives with puppies. Autumn had a penchant for chewing, particularly our favorite shoes. Probably because we wore them more frequently and they smelled more like us, she gravitated to the shoes we wore most often. Several shoes were destroyed in the cause of raising our puppy to a dog.
We owned one of those fake-wood finish particle board entertainment centers. It lived in the living room and housed our television, VCR, movies, photos, books, and some small knick-knacks. One of the items on the shelf was a small, fuzzy bear with a shiny, green ribbon around its neck that I had purchased in a gift shop somewhere along our drive from Oregon. It sat on the bottom shelf under the television in front of a row of books.
Autumn loved it. She wanted this bear more than any other forbidden item in our home. I would come into the room and discover Autumn, a brown lump between her jaws.
“Autumn!” I would bark, making my voice deep as our dog training book recommended for scolding. “Drop that!”
Autumn would slink down, dropping the bear onto the carpet. She would look to the left and right, avoiding my fierce gaze.
This went on for several weeks. One afternoon, I was lying on the carpet with Autumn, holding her on my belly and snuggling her. I looked over at the bear. Autumn loved sucking on that bear, and I loved her so much, I decided she could have it. I reached out and removed the bear from the shelf, placing it on the ground in front of her nose.
“Here, baby,” I said while setting the bear down. “You can have it.”
At first, Autumn just looked at me. She had been told over and over that the bear was not hers, yet here I was offering it up. Finally, after some coaxing, she took the bear and started sucking on it. As was her usual m.o., after she sucked on it long enough to loosen the fabric, she tore a hole in it and ripped out its guts, leaving puffles of stuffing all over the apartment. Such was the fate of stuffed animals in our household.
For the holidays, we made an appointment and took Autumn in to JC Penney for a family photo. Dan and I dressed in our Christmas clothes and looked like complete dorks. Autumn looked flashy in her Christmas ribbon and bell. The photo I have from that day is of her in a Christmas box, the two of us grinning behind her as if we’d just opened a gift to find a lanky puppy inside. Her tongue is lolling and her eyes are shining. She looks so pleased to be alive.
Autumn traveled with me wherever I went. When classes began in the fall, I took her to school with me. Some professors did not mind the puppy who laid at my feet during lectures. There was a main campus with a central courtyard, and across the street from the main campus there was a long row of buildings that housed the English and Political Science departments, the rooms I frequented most. Generally, the professors in the buildings away from the central campus were the most willing to allow a dog to attend classes.
One afternoon when it was still hot, I left Autumn in the car with the windows rolled halfway down. I had a meeting with a professor in the political science department. Five minutes into my meeting, I heard shouting in the hall and a woof. Uh oh!
I ran into the hall to see a couple of women chasing Autumn down the hall away from me.
“Autumn!” I called to her. She skidded to a stop and turned towards my voice, then she gamboled towards me, her paws slipping on the linoleum. The two students almost ran into her and each other.
“Your dog crawled through the window,” said one of the women.
“It’s not safe,” the other scolded. “You should have left her tied up at home.” Was she nuts? I would never leave my dog “tied up at home.”
“She came in to find me,” I explained. “Next time I will bring her with me or close the windows further.” I was rather surprised that Autumn had escaped. The windows were only open about five inches, but apparently that was enough for my little dog to wriggle through.
“You better,” said the woman. “She could get killed on the highway.” I blanched at the thought and cuddled Autumn close to my chest. I would do anything to protect my puppy.
Not long after that, I was walking Autumn with me on her leash. I had been reading the Barbara Woodhouse book No Bad Dogs and working with chain training Autumn. She was a quick learner and had taken to leash training easily. She seemed to enjoy walking beside me, and would look up at me every few steps as we sauntered along.
By this time, Dan and I were both experiencing fairly extreme culture shock, as well as homesickness. We had been in Bristol about four months, and were constantly amazed how different it was from our home state. I think part of the problem was our assumption that because the town was in the United States, it would be pretty much the same as where we had grown up, in Oregon. This presumption was an error on our part. I had lived in other countries, but moving to those places, I had expected radical differences. Dan and I had not considered that living in our new town would be almost like moving to another country entirely. The food, the politics, the religion, the dialect, and more were all quite unlike what we were used to. It was a completely different culture.
One of our biggest adjustments to Bristol was the cigarette smoking. Tobacco was still a thriving cash crop in Virginia and Tennessee. Smoking was allowed in grocery stores. The non-smoking section in restaurants often comprised only three or four tables, usually in a place with no ventilation, making the fact of the section being non-smoking something of a joke.
There was also a major difference in how local people treated their animals. Sure, there were people in the part of Oregon we were from who tied their dogs out, but it was the exception rather than the rule. In Bristol and the towns near it, we saw dogs tied outside homes everywhere. During that winter, there was a cold spell where temperatures dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and all of the local newscasters urged people to bring their animals in for a couple of nights because of the cold. It simply was not the norm to do so. In our apartment complex, the other tenants were shocked and surprised that we kept Autumn in the house with us, and told us as much. We also had a pet rat, which was nearly unheard of.
Another major difference between Bristol, and indeed the whole east coast it seemed, was the rain. In Oregon, we would get occasional downpours, but for the most part, it drizzled most of the year. In contrast, the rain on the east coast would arrive suddenly and fill every available space with running, rushing, swirling water. The drainage systems were different as well, with fewer ditches and runoffs for the water. The result was that when it rained, there would often be small floods. The creek down the hill from our apartment was especially inclined to overflow its banks during these rainstorms.
Across the parking lot from our apartment, there were three mobile homes that the owner of the property also rented out. One of them kept a doghouse about twenty feet from his door, down the hill in the field towards the creek. There were two dogs tied to the doghouse – a frighteningly skinny hound and one of her older puppies. She had given birth in the summer when we first moved in. Gradually all the other puppies had been sold off or given away. The landlord had told us the dogs were supposedly some fancy hunting breed, but you could not tell by looking at them, at least if their care was any indication. They were both sacks of bones and covered in fleas and dirt. The soil in the area was a reddish clay that turned almost sandy when it was dry. Flecks of it filled their fur, giving them both a reddish tinge.
One night in late fall, it began raining like crazy. Huge, splattery drops came down by the bucketful, drenching everything within seconds. We could see the dogs standing in the rapidly rising water. The puppy especially was having a tough time because the water rose nearly to his neck.
Dan and I ran through the dark, first to the apartments, then from one mobile home to another asking who owned the dogs. Everyone said they did not know, but thought they belonged to the mobile home closest to the animals. We banged on the flimsy door. No one answered. We could hear a television over the pounding rain and the lights were on, so we banged again, both of us soaked to the bone. Finally, a man came to the door, eyeing us suspiciously. He was wearing a tattered flannel shirt and dirty, baggy pants. His hair stuck up all over his head, his chin covered in sparse hairs. His cheek was filled with tobacco, with some brown spittle clinging to the hairs at the edge of his mouth.
“Are those your dogs?” I shouted over the deafening rain, pointing to the two sodden creatures down the hill.
“Yeah, so?” he sneered at me.
“That puppy, he’s going to drown,” I turned and pointed at the dog. “See? The water is already up to his neck. And it’s really cold.”
“That water ain’t agoin’ a hurt it,” the man snarled at me, slamming the door in my face. I looked at Dan. Now what? The dog was tied to a leash only maybe three feet long. There was no way he could survive if the water rose even a couple of more inches.
Without even discussing it, Dan and I ran and untied the dogs. We could not see taking them into our house. The apartment was so small and the dogs so filthy and wet, they would probably have ruined the carpet, and we could not afford to be evicted. Instead we took them up the hill to a small shed that was built on stilts about three feet above the ground. We tied them to one of the stilts under the building.
I stayed with the dogs while Dan ran back to the house to get them some food. The puppy was shivering so hard, I was afraid he was going to have some kind of an attack or something. He was pure black, bone skinny and his fur covered in mud, but he had kind, brown eyes and looked up at me as if to thank me for getting him out of the mass of running water.
Dan returned with two heaping bowls of food. The dogs gulped the food down so fast, we were worried it would make them sick, but after the bowls were empty, they just wagged their tails and came towards us, cowering and wriggling, rolling over to show their bellies. We pet them and rubbed their ears, pleased the dogs were okay.
When we got back into the house, we called Jeannie and told her about the dogs. She lived with three other women, all of them dog lovers.
“We are going to come and get them,” she told us. “I don’t care if they arrest us. That man should be shot for animal abuse.”
“He probably won’t even notice they are gone,” I told her. “We never see him have anything to do with them. And the mom dog is so thin, you could put your fingers between her ribs.”
The next morning, the dogs were not there. Jeannie told me that she and her roommates had come and taken them both away. Sadly, the puppy later died. He had a case of canine leukemia and was too far gone to save. The mom dog, though, grew to be fat and happy. The girls had her spayed and found her a new home.
The man in the trailer never said a word to us. He did not ask if we knew what happened to the dogs, and didn’t get any other dogs while were living there.
Read Autumn — Chapter 3