Dog Driving

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Devon Ellington


It’s always tougher when it’s not your dog. You know how you raised your own hound. You know if he understands “no” and “that’s not your food” and “get that disgusting wet sock away from me.” But you don’t know how someone else’s dog will respond.

What the heck was I doing driving someone else’s dog around, anyway? A friend I’ll call Jay (because he will never speak to me again if he finds out I wrote about him—more fool him to hang out with a writer) took a job out west for the summer. The housing provided didn’t allow dogs, and didn’t pay him enough to find a place that did. So I inherited Charlie for the summer.

Part of the picture was my rented cabin in Maine. I’d rented it long before Jay took this job in Colorado or Utah or Wyoming or wherever it was. I wanted a quiet place to write, and I wasn’t going to give it up to spend August in Manhattan with a large mutt.

“Charlie’s never been out of the city,” said Jay.

“He’ll learn. Make sure I have his license, his rabies tags, and everything else,” I said.

“What if he has pollen allergies?”

“He’s a dog, not your girlfriend. He’ll be fine.”

Jay got on the plane for the West, and I packed the rental car with a laptop, plenty of books, a blanket or two, a few clothes, some wooden spoons, my coffeemaker, and the wok. That fit on the backseat. The entire trunk was filled with Charlie’s gear.

“You’re not wearing the raincoat, and you’re not wearing the booties,” I told him. He looked relieved.

I wanted him to stay in the back, but he was determined to sit in the front. I gave up after awhile, wondering if there was a doggie equivalent of a baby car seat, or if I was violating some law by having the dog in the passenger seat. I figured it was safer for everyone if he slept in the front while I drove, rather than me wrestling him to the back on the highway. He wore me down by the time we hit the Hutchinson Parkway.

Normally, I drive to Maine in a fairly straight shot, stopping only for gas and maybe once pull off in some cute little town to try a restaurant. But I wasn’t going to leave Charlie locked in the car. Even when we stopped for gas, he looked like he was afraid I’d leave him there. He sat up, his brownish-black fur in sharp contrast to the red and blue plaid blanket on the passenger seat. His long ears pricked forward, and he began to pant.

“Charlie, I’m only putting gas in the car,” I told him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He climbed into the backset, upsetting the wok with a clatter, so that he could watch me through the window as I pumped the gas. I remembered Jay got him from a shelter. He’d been abandoned to the shelter, and now he probably thought Jay abandoned him, too. No wonder he was worried.

“Here, have a cookie,” I said, when I got back into the car. I gave him three Milk Bones and a drink of water. Yeah, I’d make a great parent. Bribe the kid every time I felt guilty. Good thing I don’t have any. “Blues Traveller okay with you or you want more Thelonius Monk?” He didn’t seem to care, so we kept Blues Traveller on. It’s better driving music.

I used a drive-thru to buy lunch and parked overlooking the water in York Harbor, Maine. I rolled down the window a little bit. I didn’t want Charlie to jump out. He lifted his nose and sniffed the salt air. He looked back at me questioningly. “We’ll go for a walk after lunch,” I promised.

I unwrapped my messy burger, balanced my fries on the dashboard, and hoped I wouldn’t spill the soda all over myself. My half-finished coffee was still in one cup holder, and Charlie’s water bottle in the other. Charlie stuck his snout towards me aggressively. “Don’t even think about it,” I said sternly. Charlie sighed and settled back down on his plaid blanket, resting his nose on his paws. “I bought you one of your own,” I said. I unwrapped the second burger for him, and it was gone in a gulp.

“Let me guess—the new vegan girlfriend with all the allergies thinks you and Jay should be vegan, too.”

I swear that dog rolled his eyes at me.

“Don’t worry, buddy,” I said. “There’s a grill at the cabin. We’ll spend our summer as carnivores.”

I cleaned up after the meal and took Charlie for a good walk. It didn’t take long to get the hang of cleaning up after him—wrapping the plastic bag inside out over my hand and then flipping it over the turds. To give Charlie credit, he waited patiently until I got it right, instead of yanking on the leash as I bent over the mess, which would have caused me to fall face down into‚Ķ you get the picture.

We drove up Route 1 rather than going back on the Maine Turnpike. I had the windows partially rolled down so we could both enjoy the fresh air. Charlie’s tail wriggled along the seat, and he sat up, perky and attentive. His head turned from side to side, and his eyes followed anything that moved. I wondered how he would react if we saw a moose. I was more worried about fishers, actually. Fishers are vicious predators that resemble small bears, but behave more like jackals. I’d keep Charlie close.

When we hit Wells, I couldn’t resist. I had to stop at my favorite secondhand bookstore. At one time, it was someone’s two-story home. Now, it’s two stories of secondhand books. Stopping there is a compulsion, an obsession. No matter what crazy project I have to research, I can find a relevant book on the subject.

I pulled into the worn-down parking lot strewn with left-over brown pine needles and turned off the ignition. I looked at Charlie. He hopefully looked back at me. I sighed. “Yeah, I know. I can’t leave you in here, can I?”

I grabbed his leash. We walked up the wooden stairs. The row of Christmas bells tinkled gently as I cautiously opened the door. “Hello?” I called.

“Back here. Out in a minute.”

I waited. A minute or two later, the owner appeared, in his requisite navy and white plaid shirt, chinos, black-rimmed glasses, and salt-and-pepper hair that matched his beard. “You could come in, you know.”

“I’ve got a dog with me this time.”

“Housebroken?”

I looked at Charlie, who nodded. We’d never had a problem. “Yeah.”

“Bring him in, then.”

“Thanks.” Charlie and I entered. I had nearly an hour of sheer heaven, ambling up and down the aisles, poking through the unfinished wooden shelves. Charlie sneezed once or twice, as I slid a particularly dusty volume out, but he was admirably patient. I’d have to return the favor when there was something he adored.

It took several trips to the front counter to transport my treasures. I had a few dust balls hanging off my clothes by then, too. But I was happy. The owner rooted around until he found a box large enough to hold them all and began toting them up.

Fortunately, I’d paid off my credit card balance before the start of the trip. For a brief, shining, twenty-four hours, I was debt free. No more.

Charlie pulled on the leash. “Just another minute. I have to pay,” I said.

He looked up at me with “dense human” written all over his face and tugged again.

“What?” I asked.

He pulled me towards a box sitting to the side of the counter. He snuffled noisily, then looked up and barked.

“Is there a rodent in there?” I asked suspiciously. “Because, if there is, I don’t want to know about it.”

He gave me another exasperated look and stuck his nose back in the box.

“Those just came in,” said the owner. “Picked ’em up at a garage sale after the owner died. Haven’t gone through ’em yet. Take a look, if you like.”

I couldn’t resist. But I warned Charlie, “If anything jumps out at me, I’m blaming you.”

I got another look for that comment.

The books were mostly juvenile series mysteries from the early twentieth century—Ruth Fielding, Vicki Barr, Beverly Gray, Judy Bolton. As someone who grew up on Nancy Drew, I had a weakness for them. “I’ll take the whole box,” I said, without bothering to look through them all.

The owner stared at me. He lifted one or two books off the top and looked at them, then back at me. “You always buy somethin’ here when you come through. Even in the wintertime. How ’bout I give you the whole box for forty?”

“Great.” I played it cool.

He smiled. “Still more than I paid for them.” He wasn’t a fool.

“As it should be,” I replied.

He nodded, gave me the total, and I handed over my credit card. It went through, and both boxes of books were mine. “I’ll help you get them into the car,” he offered, “seein’ as you have the dog and all.”

“Thank you.” I balanced one box of books in my arms and had Charlie’s leash circled around my wrist. As we hobbled down the steep steps, Charlie stayed a step or two ahead of me, looking up as though he worried I would fall. The dog already knew me too well.

“Where’ll I put ’em?” The man asked. “Car’s pretty full.”

“On the floor, behind the front seats.”

We managed to wedge the boxes in, Charlie returned to the front, and off we drove. The owner even stood in front of the house waving at us as we rolled down the block.

We ran into a problem at the grocery store. When I left Charlie in the car, he howled as though he was tortured. People going to and from their cars stared at me, wondering why I was hurting my dog. I spotted two kids with skateboards.

“Got twenty minutes?” I asked.

“Why?” The taller, thinner one asked suspiciously.

“I’ll pay each of you twenty bucks cash to watch my dog while I run in and grab some groceries. He’s from a shelter. He has abandonment issues.”

“Twenty bucks each?” The shorter, rounder boy asked.

“Deal,” the first boy said quickly.

I shopped as fast as I could, tossing items into my cart and bowling over a couple of senior citizens in my eagerness to return to the car. I threw in an extra six-pack of beer, for my nerves. I paid the two kids their twenty dollars each.

“He’s an awesome dog,” the tall kid said wistfully.

“He is,” I agreed.

It was late afternoon by the time we pulled up to the cabin at Little Sebago Lake. Commonly called a “camp”, it was a two bedroom wooden house with a kitchen, living room and bathroom—and a screened-in porch overlooking the lake. The green paint was peeling, but unless Charlie planned to eat paint chips, I didn’t care.

I let him off the leash as I unpacked the car. He ran around, exploring the pine, ash and oak trees and the bushes. An unfamiliar bird called out. He raised his head, looking around, but chose not to pursue the sound. He ventured towards the lake and looked back at me. When I didn’t follow, he came back to trot beside me as I carried luggage back and forth.

I got everything inside, filled and set down his water dish, and popped open a beer. I gave him a couple of Milk Bones, and we headed onto the porch to watch the sunset. As I sat down, I knocked over one of the boxes of books I’d left sitting precariously on a small campstool. It was the box of juvenile mysteries. They scattered across the floor. A wadded up ball of newspaper with a distinctly fishy smell fell out—that was probably what attracted Charlie to the box in the first place. Charlie gave a whine and backed away, looking at me with large, scared eyes.

“It’s okay, Charlie,” I said. “I did it. It wasn’t your fault.” He hesitated. I held out my hand. He slunk over. I had to pet him for several minutes before he relaxed. If I ever found his original owner, the guy was in for a serious ass-kicking.

I looked at the scattered books. A trio of small, leather-bound volumes caught my eye. I reached for one of them. “What’s this, Charlie? What did you find for us?”

He tilted his head and then stretched out his neck for a sniff.

I opened the cover. “Myrtle Pierce, 1902” it read. I turned a few pages. It was a diary, written in a beautiful, neat hand. I caught my breath. I’d always wanted to find a genuine diary in a box of old books. And Charlie found it for me.

“Good boy, Charlie,” I said. His tail thumped the porch happily.

We were safe and snug in our cabin after a long drive, with months of unstructured time stretching before us. And now, a whole new adventure in the past beckoned invitingly. It was going to be an unusual summer.

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Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names, both fiction and non-fiction. Her serials “The Widow’s Chamber,” “Tapestry,” and “Cutthroat Charlotte” run on keepitcoming.net. She contributes regularly to FemmeFan with articles on horse racing and ice hockey. Her website is devonellingtonwork.com and her popular blog on the writing life, “Ink in My Coffee” can be found at: inkinmycoffee.blogspot.com. E-mail: quillgoddess[at]verizon.net.

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