The First: Noel
The blizzard barreled down on the dark city at fifty miles per hour, and as the wind whipped power lines in the air like jump ropes and sent empty shopping carts racing with loose debris down the curb, ice pellets slammed up against the side of the ancient, unheated lime-green Volkswagen bus that crawled down Chouteau Street doing ten.
Inside the bus, Randy Grim gripped the steering wheel and repeated after the voice on his stress-management tape:
"FEAR IS INSTINCTUAL."
"Fear is instinctual."
"FEAR IS AN ILLUSION."
"Fear is an illusion."
"YOU CHOOSE TO BE AFRAID."
Cold air blew from the heater and the ailing muffler rattled windows dotted with South Park decals. Coffee spilled from foam cup; the floor was already littered with wet snow, old blankets, Sonic Burger wrappers, and dog-food cans that rolled from one end of the bus to the other. On the dashboard, above an overflowing ashtray,was a manufacturer's warning: "Fahren nur mit verriegeltem Dach!"
Outside, snow blew in horizontal sheets across railroad yards, fields littered with twisted metal, and abandoned factories that stood like tombstones in a cemetery no one tended anymore. Across the road, redbrick row houses stared back in graffiti-gilded defeat. Uninhabited, lit only by the glow of downtown St. Louis six blocks north, the street seemed in no need of basic electricity anymore.
"FEAR CREATES STRESS."
"Fear creates stress."
"STRESS CREATES FEAR."
"Stress creates fear."
"YOU CHOOSE TO BE AFRAID."
Randy's boot stayed on the brake pedal. Windshield wipers slapped across glass. In the beam of his one working headlight, eyelets of cobblestones filled up with snow. Ice set like varnish on everything else.
"I choose to be afraid. I choose to be afraid. I choose to be afraid."
A wind gust toyed with the balance of the bus. Randy yanked a cigarette out of his coat pocket.
"I choose to be afraid ... ."
If the tread on the tires had been any thicker, he would have hit the thin yellow dog who shot from the black of the warehouse yard and into the band of headlights on the road, streaking from one edge of night to the other. Instead, Randy jammed his boot on the brake. A bald-tire slide. A skate across the ice. The steering wheel spun through his fingers as the bus pirouetted toward the curb, sending blankets, muddy gloves, and dog-food cans flying like clothes spinning round in a dryer.
The bus bounced off the edge of the curb, spun, and hit the curb again. Then, as if in slow motion, the front end of the bus sailed up--"Whoooa!"--and crashed back down to earth.
Randy stared out the side of a redbrick building. By his one headlight he could read the baroque graffiti: "Plur" ... "FanDang" ... "Gooze Boy."
"FEAR IS AN IRRATIONAL EMOTION."
He swiveled and looked out the side window to the street, where the yellow dog had vanished in a cyclone of white. Without turning off the engine, he reached behind the front seat and grabbed a black leather snare, pushed open the door, and jumped from the bus. His boots slid out from under him and he fell to the ground on his knees. He climbed up along the open door, dodging stabs of snow and ice, feeling his way blind along the side of the bus until he plunged out onto the street.
The chase was made as much on hands and knees as on foot, bolting forward, falling, gaining his balance, clutching at outcroppings of ice, falling again. It was like dancing on sheets of grease.
Ten yards ahead, the yellow dog ran up the middle of the road. Randy followed after her through a field of drifting snow. Then behind a line of darkened row houses. Then up a flight of stairs. Then across the top landing.
With no place left to go, the yellow dog turned, faced Randy, backed into a corner, and pinned her large ears back as she bared her teeth in silence. She was a small-boned German Shepherd mix with ribs jutting from her body like a splayed fan, and her eyes darted from Randy to the snare in his hand to the ground two stories below. The wind blew snow onto her face.
"Don't j-j-j-ump." The cold minced the words between his teeth. "I-I-I-t's okay. I-I-I-t's okay. I prom-m-m-ise, girl, tr-r-r-ust me."
He went down on one knee and put the snare on the porch andheld his hand out toward the dog nose. Her top lip curled up to show more teeth, but her head turned sideways, into the wind, because she didn't want to see what scared her.
"Don't be a-f-f-f-raid. Tr-r-r-ust me."
The wind clamored across the landing as if dragging chains behind it, and as Randy wrapped his fingers around the snare and slid his knees forward along the porch, the dog looked down to the ground, where wind sucked up snow eddies and flung them out into the night.
"It's g-g-g-oing t-t-t-o be okay."
Cold tremors raced through his arms, which felt lawless and distant and asleep. Like something he didn't own. He moved the snare toward the dog's head, and she flattened her body against the wall as her front legs curled up into her chest.
"P-p-p-lease don't be scared."
Behind Randy, a screen door slapped against brick. The dog's eyes shot over Randy's shoulder, and he spun on his knees.
An old woman stood in the darkened doorway with her arms stretched forward, as if dowsing for water. Randy stared up the nostrils of a small black gun and shoved his hands up toward the sky.
"I said, don't move."
"I'm t-t-t-ry-ing to g-g-g-et the, the, the d-d-d-og."
The woman waved the gun toward the stairs.
"Get your mongrel off my property, or I'll shoot you both."
"She's n-n-n-ot my d-d-d-og."
Randy spun back toward the dog and swung the snare like a lasso toward her neck. It landed true, but when he drew it in, the yellow dog reared up on her back legs and twisted left then right,away from the pull of the noose. Randy vaulted forward and grabbed her around the midsection, but she yelped and bit at his shoulder.
"You gonna git off my property or not?"
The woman, her robe flapping against her legs, wagged the pistol back and forth between the stairs and Randy. He grabbed the dog again and pulled her backward down the stairs with her heart pounding in his palms.
He reached the ground and stumbled across the yard, the old woman's threats still following him in muffled rounds through the wind: " ... not afraid of you ... mean it ... my property ... mine ..."
Out on the sidewalk half a block away, the bus rattled on the curb with its headlight splashed up against the brick wall. Randy dropped the dog to the ground. She thrashed and twisted against the snare like a bass against a hook; his numb fingers couldn't hold the snare against her bucks and twirls, so he shifted the handle to the heels of his clenched palms and pulled her backward toward the bus.
"Come on, girl. You can do it. You can do it."
The dog, terrified, collapsed into instinct and feigned lifelessness.
"Please, please get up."
Randy tightened the snare between his palms, but the dog's fear weighed her down. He couldn't pull her anymore, and because she was uphill from him on the plane of ice, he couldn't get the footing to step forward and grab her.
He shifted the snare's handle up under his armpit and turned toward the bus. But as he moved head down into the wind, his boots lost their grip, and he floundered to the ground and felt the snare rip away. He grabbed for it wildly, uselessly; he couldn't lose her now, and as he watched the snare's black handle slip away like a snake through the snow, the little yellow dog followed the momentumof his own fall and slid forward on the ice and into his arms.
Back inside the bus, Randy held his hands in front of heater vents that wheezed cold air.
"YOU ARE GIVING TOO MUCH FROM YOUR OWN BASKET."
Randy punched the eject button on the tape player and looked back at the dog, who was shivering on a pile of blankets.
"Your name is Noel, okay? Everything is going to be fine. I promise."
But cold and fear rippled through her skeletal body, and she turned her head away and stared at the side of the bus.
"I know how scared you are. But your bad days are all behind you now. Trust me."
Ice ticked on the roof and against the windshield and glistened in the shaft of his headlights. He yanked the bus into reverse, and as it clanked back up and over the curb and he pulled out onto the street, he glanced toward the abandoned warehouse where snow rolled like tumbleweed across its black yard.
He stepped on the brake.
While he could barely make out the hulking silhouette of the building through the sheets of the storm, the shapes in its yard were unmistakable.
Shadows in a line. Skeletal in the snow.
It was a pack.
And like ghostly lawn ornaments in the night, they sat in the yard, and they watched him.
THE MAN WHO TALKS TO DOGS. Copyright © 2002 by Melinda Roth. Preface © 2002 by Tony La Russa. Foreword © 2002 by Michael W. Fox. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.