by Allison LaSorda
Claire left her building and passed though the noise of city workers emptying an abandoned apartment of its contents. Men in plastic coveralls carried garbage and unused paper towels down a rickety fire escape and dumped everything into the back of a pickup truck. This day was windy, and bits of trash swirled out and coasted over the building while other bits settled, mixed with the heaps of dry leaves assembling curbside. Close to ten in the morning she arrived at a café that shared its entrance with the doggie daycare. She walked through the daycare door, and four dogs mobbed her before their Pack Leader, Lars, could make his way to the front.
“Who’s here, who’s here, who is it?” Lars said in a voice that got the dogs more riled.
Claire pushed two Chihuahua mixes away with her foot, said good morning and strained to maintain eye contact with Lars as she knelt down to massage the pricked ears of a Doberman named Ace and give a polite pat to the Golden Retriever.
Lars and Claire had this deal where she could come in and hang out with the dogs if she fetched his coffee for him.
She stood up and the Doberman leaned against her leg so hard she stumbled a little.
“How’s it going?”
“Ace sure likes you. He’s getting spoiled by all your visits.”
“Aw. He’s alright.” She rubbed Ace’s forehead, right between his eyes.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today?”
“Living the dream, working.” Claire was holding out for a job she really liked, but for now she was responsible for retention at the Bank of Montreal. This entailed phone calls, mostly—convincing clients to invest, open new accounts, stay with the bank. She was senior enough that she could do this from anywhere. Still, she stayed in Toronto, and worked from her apartment. She’d come to Leg Up frequently, just to kill time. Sometimes she would tell Lars about her high-profile clients, not their names, but a rhyme that sounded like a name, or where they worked. This felt okay because Claire made up those clients to have something to tell Lars; it worked, though. She’d read that sharing a secret with another person is a good way to develop intimacy.
“You want a coffee?” she said.
“Please and thank you.”
“And how about Ace? What do you want?” The dog’s stub of a tail wiggled and he looked up at her. “I’ll be back,” she said.
Claire had made a deal with herself that she would convince Lars to go on a date with her by the end of this week. It had been two months since she accidentally walked in to Leg Up and was ordering coffee the way Lars liked it—light roast, with honey. He was essentially a Viking: fair, broad-shouldered, bearded. She’d been using Lars in her fantasies, he was unassuming to such a degree that he lent himself to it. He helped her inhabit another world, a world of kept warm by fires and long hair and potential.
Claire stood in line at the coffee shop and the baristas had begun to recognize her along with her order.
“One light roast one dark?” the barista with intentional silver hair said.
“You got it,” said Claire.
The barista and her co-worker whispered something to each other and giggled. Claire was out of her comfort zone already, in an alarmingly hip part of the city, and now, confronted with possible mockery. It was her own fault; she’d been showing up too much and her obsession was now transparent, though she hadn’t picked up on any resistance from Lars. Or, she figured, one of these baristas, girls with vintage jeans and bangs, knew Lars to a degree that she would not reach. Lars had likely mentioned her repeat visits to this effortless girl; Claire pictured the two of them laughing together in a hot tangle of a duvet cover. As she handed her change over, her fingers grazed the barista’s hand.
None of Claire’s friends knew about her excursions to see Lars and the dogs, though they knew she was a fervent lover of animals. She’d taken the temperament quizzes to reveal one’s ideal dog breed probably seven times, but each calculation left her matched with a different breed. Alternately she’d been pegged for a French bulldog, a Border collie, and, much to her dismay, a Corgi. Still, she didn’t take this as reflective of her personality to any serious degree. Her closest friend, Tory, often remarked on walks as Claire’s focus drifted to passing dogs that she should just make the leap and get herself a pet. “You could do it,” she’d say, “you’re practically made for it.”
Claire had grown up around animals. Her childhood home was a farm that featured a constant rotation of rescue animals, cats, dogs, even sheep, and there had been one case of newborn puppies, when her mother had unknowingly adopted a pregnant retriever. There was something different about each pet, even if they were littermates. Subtle traits, more than just dominant or submissive—some were intuitive, the type to lay with her when she was sick, others would only show interest if she were willing to play. Her mother justified this by claiming some of the pets would stay outside, but she was a softie, and soon all the cosy areas of the house became thick with critters.. Now that her mother was gone, Claire kept her distance from their farm, which remained empty and unused; instead, she endeavoured to embrace city life.
Claire handed Lars his coffee and sat beside him in the dog play area. The floor was covered in slabs of rubber material that interlocked like puzzle pieces. Conversations tended to ramble through their favourite spots in the neighbourhood, childhood habits, movies, but they never discussed dating. If Claire spoke about plans to visit someone, she’d make sure to emphasize the word friend. Lars seemed to have lots of friends, but made no distinctions between them.
The dogs took turns chasing, wrestling and huffing; pinning each other and then getting pinned.
“Does it ever get boring working here?”
“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Lars said. “I mean I’m not using my university degree. But then, I’m hardly ever grumpy once I get to work.”
“It’s hard to begrudge dogs.”
“Yeah.” Lars whistled and the Golden Retriever trotted over. “Even if I get a little frustrated, they just seem to be able to tell, and then give me some extra affection.” He wobbled the dog’s neck scruff in his hands.
“Big plans this weekend?” Claire knew that Lars didn’t work weekends. Since he was Pack Leader, he paid other employees to take the less desirable shifts.
“Not really, probably seeing a few friends for drinks. You?”
Ace brought a rope toy over and dropped it into Claire’s lap. She held one end while he twisted and tugged.
“Good boy. Me? Oh, I was thinking about going to this concert on Saturday.”
“Oh yeah?” Lars glanced over at her, his interest seemed piqued.
Claire had worked her way up to it. An activity they could participate in together. She gripped the rope, which was the only thing Ace was concerned with, and wondered what that kind of singular focus could do to shape her life differently. The concert was the date; time thick with potential, spent outside of this block with Lars, with no buffers, no animal distractions. She let go of the rope and Ace shook his head furiously, killing it.
“But I’ll probably just stay in,” Claire said.
“Well, that’s good too. Sometimes going out is overrated.”
“Hey listen,” Lars said. “I was going to wait until after work but I have to do this errand downtown at the bank. Do you think you’d be able to watch the dogs for an hour?”
“Oh sure, no problem.”
“You’re amazing,” Lars put a hand on her shoulder and stood up. “Okay, I’ll leave you the keys in case you want to go for a walk. But otherwise, they’ll take care of themselves,” he smiled.
“They’re good,” Claire smiled back. “They’ll miss you.”
Lars laughed a little and handed Claire the keys. “An hour tops.”
They said goodbye and Claire locked the door behind him. She thought about the deal she’d just bungled. Work would get done when she got home. Her workday felt unnecessarily stretched out, as most tasks took no more than an hour or two. Claire got up and sat in the middle of the floor with her legs crossed. The Chihuahuas took their queue and snuffled into her lap, and she felt guilty for pushing them away earlier.
Claire pictured what she was doing as her future, with Lars. When they’d own the daycare together, they’d enjoy each other and take turns working and compromise. It’d been a while since Claire invested herself in someone else. The last man Claire dated wasn’t a good guy. Well, he wasn’t the right guy, because who was she to decide what defines “good”. She hated arguing and when given a choice she would often go for a walk instead, even if it meant apologizing for something she didn’t care about. About six months in, they had one of those built-up, unavoidable confrontations where the state of one’s relationship trumps melting polar ice caps and war and sleep, this guy called her a child. She’d been dumbfounded. She slunk onto the floor, resting her head against the wall as he repeated it, “A child. It’s pathetic. Look at you,” he’d said. “You can’t even respond.” Tears streamed down her face quietly, and after twenty or so minutes, his anger turned to pleading. “I’m sorry,” he’d said. Claire gathered herself and when she broke her silence, asked him to please get out of her apartment.
The Chihuahuas chased themselves away from her and Ace sat next to her, mouthing a stuffed toy. Claire decided to go out for walk with Ace. She headed for Trinity Park where there was safe area for him to run—she wanted to see him in action out in the world. Only a few other dogs trotted around the area, following tennis balls and hunting scent trails. Ace wiggled with excitement, and Claire unhooked his leash. He bolted towards a curly, lamb-like dog—a Bichon Frisé, maybe. She watched him glisten, a black shark moving silently across the lawn. His paws barely touched the ground. He halted and let the lamb dog inspect him, the hair on his neck bristled up. Then, she watched Ace lunge for the lamb dog, pick it up in his mouth, and shake it. Claire yelled for him to drop it and he did, and she quickly clipped the leash to his collar. The scene slowed in front of Claire as the lamb dog’s owner berated her and Ace stood at the ready, panting absently. Claire couldn’t hear what the woman was saying but noticed that she looked wealthy, with her expensive, though muddy, leather boots. Her dog was clearly breathing, shaking a little in its owner’s arms. Lost in her own haze, Claire turned away and climbed the sloping path of the park towards the abandoned building then to her private entrance and finally inside the living room of her apartment, where Ace settled in quickly. She massaged Ace’s neck and watched his eyebrows fidget. The dog would be safe here.
Back at Leg Up Claire stiffened at Lars’s knock on the door. She put on a panicked face as he came in.
“What’s wrong?” Lars said.
“Ace. I was walking him—he’s gone.”
“By Tilden Park. I’m so sorry.”
“Shit,” Lars started pacing. “I’ve got to call the owner.”
“Why don’t I do it? It’s my fault.”
“I just—what the hell, Claire? It’s never happened before.”
“He’s a big dog,” Claire said, eyes on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and held her hands. “I’m just freaked out. We’ll find him, okay?”
“Let’s get a hold of the owner before anything else.”
“Maybe we should go look first, before we worry someone?”
Lars paused and considered this. “We have some hours before the Steve picks him up. That’s a good idea. I’ll just tell one of the girls next door to keep an eye on the door here”
Claire swelled with a little anxiety thinking back to those baristas but knew that this afternoon with Lars would be more meaningful than whatever was happening there. They were facing a crisis as a united front. But she couldn’t think of a way to back out of having placed Ace in a sort of safe house.
Lars and Claire walked across Tilden Park, asking people in the community garden, people picking up after their dogs, parents by the playground. Lars showed photos on his phone and strangers shook their heads. One man said, “I haven’t seen him, but I’ll tell ya, if I did I don’t think I’d approach that kind of dog.” To which Lars sighed, and said he didn’t blame him.
“Someone could have taken him though, he’s really pretty friendly.” Lars said.
“Does he have a microchip?” Claire asked. She sat on a park bench in the shade, tired from walking and lying.
“Have you ever lost a pet before?”
“Well, once our family cat went missing.”
“Yeah? What happened?” Lars settled himself on the bench next to her.
“We found him after ten days. He was hiding under the deck.”
“And the weird part was we’d checked under there, the first thing. He’d never been outside before, so, I guess he had to come back on his own terms.”
“That’s bizarre, when you think maybe a pet doesn’t want to be found.”
“But he never tried to get outside after that, like he’d had his adventure.”
“He recognized his comfy life.”
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Think Ace wants to be found?” Lars asked.
Claire stared at Lars for a long moment. Is this just about business, she wondered? Or does he really want Ace to be safe?
“Of course he does,” she said.
“We should call the owner now.”
“I can do it.” Claire considered that once she got a sense of things, once she was sure nothing bad would happen to Ace, she could safely tell Lars what happened. He would understand. So would the owner.
“Well, he’s a bit if a gruff guy. He’ll be upset, of course.”
“It’s my fault, I can take it.”
“Okay, but just tell him you work for me, at least.” Lars gave Claire his phone, then walked towards the baseball diamond to ask after Ace.
“Hello,” the owner answered.
“Hi—” she began pacing around the edges of the bench, suddenly uncomfortable in her body. “Hi, Steve? This is Claire calling, from Leg Up? I’m calling about Ace.”
She felt the frustration already building from the other line.
“We’ve had some issues come up, and—”
“Look, can you just tell me what the damage is?”
“Um, he didn’t—it’s not that. I was walking him—”
“Did he bite another dog? We talked about muzzles. I feel like I signed a contract with you people and I definitely spoke to some guy there, I thought it was the owner, about our experience with other care centers.”
“I’m a behaviourist,” she lied. “What was your experience with other care centers?”
The voice exhaled slowly. “Ace can be unreliable. I was told he’d be socialized around familiar dogs and that it wouldn’t be an issue.”
It was her fault for walking him. Or maybe Lars’s, since he didn’t warn her. She’d been spending so much time with him and the dogs and he wouldn’t think to confide?
“He didn’t attack anyone. But he ran off and we haven’t been able to locate him.”
“I’m very sorry sir,” Claire’s voice cracked. “We’re doing everything we can.”
“Well, shit. Should I come home early?”
“I’m in Tilden with Lars, the day care owner, but it’s not unusual for dogs to run off, and it’s not unusual for them to come back.”
“That dog’s been so much trouble,” Steve said. “I guess it probably won’t help if I come down there.”
“I’ll just get angrier. Okay. Let me know if you find anything.”
Claire held the phone away from her head. She looked around and Lars was walking back over to her. Conscious for the first time in a while of how she might look to Lars, Claire ran her fingers through her hair and relaxed the knit in her expression. Her frowning concern likely put him off her face, or maybe the tree-filtered sunlight could’ve been flattering.
“What’d he say?” Lars asked.
“He basically said he wasn’t surprised.”
“You don’t look surprised?”
“He kind of offloads Ace, in a way. People get overwhelmed with their work, their responsibilities, I don’t know. He’s not an easy pet.”
“Every time I see him he’s friendly.”
“You don’t live with him. Steve’s had some issues. And walking around with a Doberman people look at you like you’re a liability. If he bites someone, that’s it.”
“But like, you can’t put a dog down for one mistake, right?”
“It’s pretty cut and dry when it comes to aggression.”
Lars balked. “Claire, what are you even doing? You show up at my place when you should be working, and I trust you with my shop for one fucking hour, and you can’t even do that job?”
Her eyes welled up. “I thought maybe, we could handle this together.” She felt hot, pink blood rising into her cheeks and neck and turned away in case Lars noticed. Claire shifted her weight from one foot to another and looked past Lars to where he’d come from. In the bleachers by the ball diamond was a teenage girl sitting on a boy’s lap, talking to him, her face just inches from his. Nearby, one of those small carts with a hose suctioned up trash as it hummed along the curbside. Claire considered her deal with herself and then reeled it back.
“What do you mean,” Lars said, exasperated.
“This is actually funny.”
“I guess now I’m all set? You get to leave the problems with me and go home.”
“I’ll stop visiting you, Lars. That should solve a few things,” Claire started turning away, immediately regretting that she’d sounded so petty, so dour. She’d have preferred to be aggressive, or at least silent.
“What is happening?” Lars said.
Claire kept walking.
“Thanks for your help!” He shouted.
Lars’s sarcasm helped Claire move more quickly; she reassured herself that he was not the person she’d made him out to be. She passed through the sounds of the park, the growl of a grass trimmer fading as she walked by dozens of sparrows and their shrill chirping as they spastically flew out, hovered, and resettled in some ivy on the side of a house.
At her apartment, Ace perched sphinx-like on the kitchen floor as Claire sipped tea, as if he’d always been there. She’d read somewhere that if a dog encounters something frightening, or if it’s made sick by a certain food, it will only feel afraid again if it re-encounters it. A dog doesn’t walk around worrying about whether there will be an onion or a vacuum around the corner. It was probably not a coincidence that in all her tests she hadn’t been matched with a Doberman—proud, obedient, protective.
Claire washed dishes and wiped down the counters. The farm would be a wreck. Adopting Ace was providence. She’d done little to keep up the place but now was the time to put work in, to cycle through her mother’s belongings, and use the home that she was entrusted with. If not for her sake, then for the dog: he was depending on her now. Claire climbed into bed and switched off the light, and listened to Ace pad around the room; she was slightly resentful that he hadn’t calmed in her space, but conscious that she had no right to be. Eventually he curled up near the doorway, his sleepy breath deep and regular.
The next morning, Ace eyed Claire as she finished sending off emails and stayed attentive as she packed clothes and shoes into suitcases. It wasn’t likely that Lars would suspect that she’d taken the dog, he barely knew her, she figured. She texted her friend Tory that she was headed out of the city, and blocked Lars’s number, in case.
Her decision weighed on her in the car, Ace staring out the back window unaware, but as she drove, Claire felt more confident. The usual feeling that deterred her from returning home—a sharp, particular weariness—drained away. Claire pictured the land green and fresh, the dog running in circles around her, and then dispersing into the shadows cast by the deep forest beyond the paddock’s edges.
They pulled into the farm and Claire felt relieved to be away, and led Ace inside the house and shut him in while she unloaded her bags. She opened the door with her foot and heaved the bags down on the hallway floor. In the living room was lumpy patterned furniture, a stained pink carpet and its familiar wet animal smell. A draft crept in and roused her to find its source.
The back door was ajar. She stepped through to the deck pushing a loose screen that hung from the house. The property stretched long before her, she whistled loudly. Ace could be anywhere.
Allison LaSorda lives in Toronto.