Excerpt from 'Girl Factory'
By Jim Krusoe
Tin House BooksCopyright © 2008 Jim Krusoe
All right reserved.
It was early on a Saturday morning. I'd been sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee (black, two sugars), when I decided to carry the newspaper out to the balcony of my one-bedroom apartment and read it there. It was the sort of thing I liked to do when I had the time. I had just finished the comics, the weather report, and sports pages, and was deep into a section entitled Out and About when I came across the headline "Dog Too Smart for Own Good." But instead of the pleasant human-interest story I anticipated, I found a tale both darker and more disturbing.
According to the article, a dog named Buck, a particular mix of German shepherd, rottweiler, pit bull, and chow, was the product of a government-sponsored enterprise to create an animal of exceptional intelligence for use in the military. The whole course of the experiment had taken several generations of dogs to completely develop, the article explained. It added that, to the researchers' surprise, in the end they discovered that the gene for intelligence, at least in dogs, is somehow connected to the one for aggression.
It wasn't exactly that Buck was a mean dog, the reporter noted. Buck was far too intelligent for that. However, the animal's surly way and judgmental demeanor made many of those who worked with him feel so uncomfortable that they were unable to perform their own duties properly. They became self-conscious and began to make mistakes when the dog was around. The article hinted that there was more, but didn't say what. As a result, the army had released Buck to civilian life, but even there apparently he had a way about him that made people feel insecure. The unhappy result was that Buck was scheduled to be put down, and the entire breeding project had been written off as a failure. The newspaper named the location where Buck was being held prior to his execution. It was an animal shelter not far from where I lived.
I lowered the paper, picked up my cup of French roast, and looked out at the neighborhood. Below me and to my right, Captain Bloxheim in his plaid bathrobe was intent on watching his hose spray water onto a square of brownish grass. The loveable captain was a neighbor across the way, and had once been in charge of a cargo vessel in the Pacific. On second thought, he wasn't especially loveable, though he was still fit, and wore the kind of thin moustache that movie actors used to sport. From time to time he'd give me a piece of well-meaning advice, and I would nod to show I'd heard it. We were close and not, in the way that neighbors in an apartment complex often are. To my left, a small child was smashing a former table leg into splinters. Between them an old lady slowly made her way down the sidewalk. She listed badly to the right, her three-pronged aluminum cane thumping beside her like a claw.
Well, Jonathan, I thought, there they are, your fellow countrymen, all products of some random, flawed combination of genes that, good or bad, thanks to the Constitution of the United States of America, are being allowed to play themselves out in perfect freedom on the highways and byways of our cities and states as best they can. And meanwhile a helpless animal, an innocent by-product of man's tampering with the sacred code of nature, will not be allowed even a chance. It didn't seem fair.
Certainly, I reasoned, Buck hadn't asked to be created only to have his life snatched away just because some overly fastidious bureaucrat had changed his mind any more than the three humans beneath my balcony, or me, for that matter-I hadn't exactly chosen my fate. Not for the first time, I was sickened by the arrogance of my own species, by the arrogance of all humans, by mankind's endless capacity for cruelty, artificial limitations, and prisons.
St. Nils's only animal shelter was about halfway between my apartment and my job at Mister Twisty's yogurt parlor, and for the most part I didn't give it much thought. I walked by it on the way to work about ten most mornings, and then in the evenings or late at night passed it again on the way back home, but at that moment, reading the paper, I was suddenly struck by how, hypocrite that I was, each time I passed the shelter I picked up my pace ever so slightly in order to leave behind the smell of urine and feces and the primal stink of animal fear. That Saturday, however, that very morning, was my chance to make amends and face things head-on. I'd been given the day off from Mister Twisty's so that my boss, Spinner, could repair the refrigeration equipment, and while he did, the entire place would be closed. Just suppose, I thought, I pay Buck a little visit, if only to see for myself exactly what the situation is, and maybe to let Buck know that all humans aren't as bad as those cold-blooded researchers-that some of us are deeply ashamed of the acts of our fellow men. Some of us, possibly a great many of us in fact, want only to apologize from the very bottom of our stunted and selfish human hearts.
It was still chilly out, so I went back inside to find a jacket, and it was really more as an afterthought than anything that I took along a crowbar, slipping it up my sleeve so as not to alarm anyone.
Keeping one arm straight at my side in as natural a fashion as possible, I soon arrived at the shelter and asked the person at the front desk ("Animal Technician One" was stenciled on her shirt) where the dogs waiting for adoption were kept. Without even looking up from a game of solitaire on her computer screen, she pointed wearily to my left, to a set of double doors from which a continuous stream of barks, howls, and yelps emanated. "Jesus, send this idiot on his way tout de suite," her gesture seemed to imply. I noted with some satisfaction that she appeared to be losing her stupid card game. I wasn't big on games, except for chess.
I walked through the doors into a large area intersected by a maze of chain-link fencing. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, I strolled between the rows of cages as if I were looking for a pet, but really keeping an eye out for where the shelter might have stashed its most famous boarder, Buck. I wasn't so naïve as to believe that in the aftermath of the article in the paper some supervisor would not have understood the need for security precautions, however minimal. Still, as disinterested as I was pretending to be, the sight that spread before me was enough to break a person's heart: the litters of fat-bellied pups playing, napping, leaping up to greet visitors in the very shadow of the cast-iron gas chamber beyond the corridors of cages; the lean old dogs, somehow sensing the impossibility of adoption, lifting their eyes like the inhabitants of a terminal nursing home to each visitor who walked by the doors of their pens, hoarding their energy for a last-ditch tail wag or two, not even staggering up from the cold concrete floors where they lay in the sun, hopelessly trying to warm themselves one last time before the final chill; the plain-looking dogs, brown or black, or brown and black, furiously yapping for someone to take them home, as if against all odds they might somehow distinguish themselves from every other plain-looking dog yapping for exactly the same thing; and then, saddest of all in their way, the snarlers and the growlers, the exact fierceness they had worked so hard to cultivate and which they now displayed so bravely being the very trait that would seal them to their fates, their pathetic biographies on display for all to see-the families moved away, the divorces, the stories of having bitten some child who'd spent an entire morning (when he or she should have been in school) prodding the poor animal with a stick until the kid finally ran home with a couple of deep scratches on his face or a few puncture wounds in her arm and the very first thing the avaricious parents did was get on the phone with their lawyer and threaten to sue the dog's miserable owners, themselves the helpless flotsam of the human race.
Still, I thought, these dogs had kept the faith; they were the ones who had waited in the heat tied to tubular metal bicycle racks outside supermarkets; they were the ones who had to go outside to crap on days too cold or wet or too anything, when their owners even bothered to get up off the couch to open the door; they were the ones who had stood by their blue or red or green food bowls patiently drooling for a refill of essentially inedible processed mush; they had lain quiet and full of hope near thresholds, holding heavy, bad-tasting brown leashes in their mouths, had panted in overheated cars, had shivered in the rain to be let in, had waited alone in the dark for hours in empty, badly decorated apartments while their owners were busy screwing out their pathetic brains in hopeless one-night stands at somebody else's bachelor or bachelorette pad.
And what had been their reward for all of this? Only to be tossed off at the first sign of inconvenience, at the first pressed-wood Ikea sofa leg chewed just a little out of boredom, at the first peed-on imitation Persian rug, at the first alcoholic neighbor to complain that their barking interrupted his or her alleged concentration, at the first uprooted begonia plant, for goodness' sake. There they were, these dogs, with their once so pleasantly pretentious names: Duke, and Prince, and Major, curled now in damp and stinking corners or sitting at the doors of their kennels staring out, hopelessly waiting for the faces of their loved ones, none of whom would ever, ever appear again-all these faithful dogs, these trusting companions, all these poor doomed innocents, waiting for the gas.
But where among these unfortunates was Buck? I had walked up and down row after row of cages when at last I noticed a barrier of yellow tape across one corridor. It read CAUTION, like the kind of warnings that workers put up at accidents and gas leaks, and so I approached the sagging barrier and looked cautiously beyond it. There, down a long row of empty, open cages, I spotted one that had been closed with a heavy lock. I peered around and, seeing no one, ducked under the tape to discover for myself what sort of a beast was being kept under such tight security.
What I found was a largish dog with short brown hair, a dark, square muzzle, and black-rimmed ears that stood as straight as sentinels, one on each side of a broad, intelligent-looking skull. His eyes were deep-set and brown, and when he looked at me I felt myself blush at my own unentitled presumption, almost as if I'd been caught staring at a young mother playing with her child, perhaps on a blanket in the shade of a pleasant tree in a park, when she had thought they were alone.
The animal lifted his gaze to examine me for an unusually long moment, and then, shaking his head slightly from side to side, apparently decided that I was of no consequence. As he resumed pawing at some wood chips on the floor of his cage, I took a step back to indicate my respect for his privacy but continued to observe him. Every so often he would move a piece of wood, then stare, then move it elsewhere. Something was going on, but I couldn't figure out what, until I noticed that some of the pieces were relatively dark and others lighter. And then I understood: unless I was terribly mistaken, this magnificent animal was replaying Boris Spassky's losing game against Anatoly Karpov during the 1973 Soviet Chess Championship in Moscow. My eyes opened wider, and I could feel the space inside my brain swell with admiration for any creature who, like Socrates himself, could remain so calm and so disinterested on the very eve of his execution.
From time to time the dog glanced up, probably curious as to what I was doing there and also, I thought, just possibly amused to find himself the object of such empathetic scrutiny by the first human he had ever met who was capable of taking the full measure of his intelligence. If he was aggressive, he wasn't showing it, except for a certain recklessness in the way he moved his knights. I was no chess expert, but it looked very much as if he had found a solution too late for the disappointed Boris.
Whether or not this was true I was never to learn, however, because I was interrupted by a noise back by the yellow tape. When I turned I saw a skinny man in a khaki shirt and matching pants observing me. "Hey you," he said, "get the hell out of there."
I could, of course, simply have smiled, walked over to the uniformed stranger, apologized, and left the proud dog to his fate; but emboldened by the admirable canine's own coolheadedness (and also curious about whether he would pull off the win for Spassky), I decided to ignore this particular functionary. This decision, wise or not, seemed to outrage the man.
He yelled again and grabbed one of those shovel/dustpan contraptions they kept around the place to clean up. Then he banged it smartly on the ground as if to get my attention. "Hey you," he repeated. "You asshole."
For the first time the dog paused his chess game and watched me with genuine interest. "Buck," I said, "don't worry. This isn't your fight; it's mine, Big Fellow."
The animal rose to all four of his massive feet and pressed his muzzle against the door of the cage. "The lock," he seemed to be telling me. "Whatever you do, don't forget the lock."
The man came toward me, and I cannot say the reason exactly-the low pay, the completely tasteless uniforms, or even the constant sight of all those animals they cannot save-but I have often observed, both before and since that day, that people who work in such places, though I am perfectly willing to believe they may start out with the best intentions, soon (very soon, in fact) become hardened, rigid, even authoritarian.
Suddenly at my side, the man grabbed a sleeve of my jacket and began to tug as if he'd convinced himself that I was merely a visitor from another land who, not understanding English, needed only a more forceful and physical sort of demonstration.
"Stop," I said, and gave him a slight shove to remind him that he should keep his distance.
But it was this very gesture more than anything else that seemed to infuriate him. He lifted the scooping thing he had brought with him and began to wave it in the air, as if he were going to launch an attack from the sky. And then all at once he did: as swift as an eagle the scoop plunged down, narrowly missing my shoulder. Fearful for my safety, I whipped out the crowbar (which I'd almost forgotten about) and motioned that he should stay away. Incredibly, he still chose to ignore me, and when he raised his ludicrous weapon a second time, I was forced to give him a tap across his forehead, rather harder than I'd intended, I'm afraid, at which point he slumped in total silence to the ground, his legs twitching just a little.
Once I had been goaded to a course of action, I had no choice but to continue. Taking the bloody crowbar, I pried open the door of the dog's cage-the lock was strong, but the door itself, with the usual municipal logic to save money, had been made of a flimsy alloy-and popped it open.
"Freedom, Buck," I said. "You've got your freedom, guy."
The dog looked at me for a moment, as if to assess his newfound situation and my role in it. Then, with a tremendous leap forward, he raced straight down the corridor into a group of Cub Scouts, seized a smallish boy by his neck, and began to shake him hard. When the boy stopped moving, the dog flipped the Scout's blue-clad body over his mighty shoulder and headed for the exit, only to be met there by an old woman who, possibly confused by the sight of such a large animal carrying a uniformed child, made the mistake of blocking his path and shouting, "Stop!" and "Help!" Flinging the limp Scout to the ground, the now-freed dog turned his attention to the old lady, crushing the top of her head with a sound that was not at all the sound I would have predicted-which would have been that of an egg being cracked-but more of a pop, the noise of a paper cup compressed against the ground by a heavy heel. And it was that very noise, the pop, like an old-fashioned flashbulb on a camera, which seemed to freeze the whole scene into the finished photograph that would later be pasted into the album of my memory. There I was, still holding my crowbar, standing in one corner above the no-longer-twitching-or-troublemaking kennel attendant, while in the other corner of the picture's frame the dog was looking up from the old lady, perhaps as startled as I was at what was taking place, and in the center were all the people who had come early that morning, presumably to choose a puppy or bring home a darling kitten, their mouths now agape, their eyes now wide open, their fingers now pointed accusingly in my direction, and also, I suppose, a good percentage of them now reconsidering their decisions to adopt.
The dog was the first to unfreeze from the photo. Once back in action, he left the old lady where she lay, picked up the Cub Scout again, and bolted through the gates.
Excerpted from GIRL FACTORY by Jim Krusoe Copyright © 2008 by Jim Krusoe. Excerpted by permission.
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