Harriet Houdini

By Bobby Neel Adams

Published in the New Plains Review - Fall 2014

 

 

     Harriet Houdini had the coloring of a German Sheppard, the floppy ears and dark lonesome eyes of a Beagle but was twice as tall and twice as skinny. She had the muted heart of an angel and the few times she attempted to bark it sounded like some kid torturing a trumpet.

     Harriet was incarcerated at the Douglas, Arizona pound and booked for the crime of loitering in the local Walmart parking lot. She was covered in scabs and had a limping gait when I busted her out.

     Like Harriet, I too needed a new home.  After eighteen years, New York finally chewed me up and spit me out in chunks. I sold my property and bought a stationwagon, leaving New York the day after the Polar Vortex. Wingnut and Chance - my two old cats - rode in the back while blanketing rain froze the moment it hit the windshield, reinforcing all the reasons why I left New York. We got to my mother’s house in Western North Carolina late.

     The cats stayed at moms and I moved on to New Orleans, Houston and then Austin Texas for a wedding, before heading south along Route 80 where the landscape resembled the crusty beard of a Javelina.

Enormous white pick-up trucks prowled America’s perimeter keeping the heartlands safe from illegals and narco-traffickers. Barren hills rose from the desert floor and as I climbed into the stony mountains, all I could conjure was: “dust to dust” – it was everywhere.

     Route 80 hugs the perimeter of the old Copper Queen mine, home to one of the nastiest labor disputes in the United States. In 1917, 1,300 striking miners were kidnapped by vigilantes, loaded on to cattle cars and deported to Hermanas, New Mexico without food, water or money. The 350 foot deep pit is first thing you see when you enter Bisbee. This man-made scar, monstrous in its beauty, is an orifice into the bowels of Hell.

      With the last light, I arrived at the boyhood home of my friend Chico. Rusted cars littered the backyard, each with a history of someone that arrived, stalled, and went no further. I picked a bed and stared out the window into the enormous heavens before dropping into a dead sleep.

     The following morning, I began looking at real estate of which there was no shortage. Over the next few days one house stood out for its location and price. To reach it, you had to climb a concrete stairway up the hill. It was open, with massive windows and a view of old town below. 

     On my third day I drove to Douglas, a sunburnt border town, and found the Cochise Pound.  There was nothing humane about it, except for Hector, the great shorn Indian, who was attempting to patch the bursting animal dike with a shovel and a bag of sand. Bisbee’s shelter was closed due to poor conditions and Douglas carried the overflow. Cage after cage housed the old, the new, and forgotten dogs. They each ended up there for various no good reasons. The concrete floor reeked of urine, and each dog leaped to the chain link fence when I walked down the corridor - except for one. Hanging back, she meekly smiled and wagged her tail despite being clearly unnerved by the barking hounds. I took a couple of them for a walk before driving back to Bisbee. In the morning, all I could think about was the skinny girl with the short Sheppard hair. I returned two days later to take her for a walk.

     She hated the leash and slipped her collar seconds after we left the front door. But the puppy stayed near and when I knelt down she lowered her head and approached. I scratched her ears and discovered the multiple bite scabs from a vicious mauling.

     “What happened to you?” I asked.

     The pup followed me back into the pound.

     “It looks like she’s taken a beating,” I told Hector.

     “I rescued her from the Walmart parking lot. There are many strays that live on the edge of town. She was bleedin’ when I picked her up.”

     “Could I take her to Bisbee for the weekend?”

     “No problem,” he replied.

     I left my phone number, spread a packing blanket on the passenger seat and she immediately curled up and closed her eyes. My first destination was the very same Walmart to buy food, collar and a leash.

Halfway back to Bisbee the pup woke and lifted her head to stare at me.

     “Do you need to take a pee?” I asked, pulling off on a dirt track. After stumbling to the ground we walked together along the thistly path. Several minutes later she veered into the scrub and behind some brush, she squatted and took an unseen piss.

 

      The dog’s name was obviously Walmart out of respect for Hector. But after hours of contemplation it seemed cruel to name her a place she would want to forget but because she had escaped the leash on our first outing Houdini came to mind  - too loaded. This led to Harry, an unfortunate name for a girl. “Harriet,” I said to her. She stared back with head tilted. “You are Harriet the great great grand niece of the escape artist Harry Houdini.” Her ears perked but had no clue what I was talking about.

Saturday I met David the Real Estate Agent at the house on Tombstone Canyon. Harriet encountered her first set of stairs and with great concentration bounded up them. After ten minutes of circling the property I told David that I wanted to make a low-ball offer.

 

     Harriet and I began exploring the trails and back steps around Bisbee. She had the eyes of a young pup and I the eyes of an immigrant – everything was fresh. When we went to Parker Lake she saw her first duck swimming and, it didn’t make sense. She raced back and forth wanting to get the duck but the water confused everything. Through her eyes, it didn’t make sense to me either. An inanimate thing that fluttered and suddenly became a new, scary creature. She growled at piece of plastic caught on the tip of a yucca. A farming implement with ribs of steel was a monster that stopped her in her tracks raising the hair on her spine. Through her eyes the world was dangerous and hilarious.

     “What kind of dog is that?”

     “I don’t know,” I answered. But this didn’t seem to satisfy my inquisitors so I theorized a new answer.

     “What kind of dog is that?”

     “A designer dog.”

     “What?”

     “She was put up for adoption because she didn’t match a very famous actor’s purse.”

     “Where did you get her?” (I’d never asked a person with a dog either of these questions).

     “Douglas Guantanamo… She’s not a terrorist. I helped her escape. Many of the prisoners are executed after three weeks.”

Hector told me Douglas had the worst adoption rate in the state and because of the increase of Bisbee dogs they were near their limit. I volunteered to help him walk dogs.

     I took Harriet with me on my first outing. Hector leashed a white pit-bull pup; she had crazy eyes and reared up on her hind legs like a bronco. This ball of spastic energy spooked Harriet so much that I left her with Hector. When I got back Harriet was in a cage. Her eyes said it all. “Why did you leave me here?” I leashed a gangly mutt with droopy eyes and long hairy ears. This time Harriet came along unleashed and both dogs did just fine. After four more dog-walks we left. Douglas Pound was terribly depressing. I might as well have taken a piece of cherry pie to a death row inmate and say, ‘Have a nice day.’                        

     Once I got the final contract papers signed on the Tombstone house I packed up the car and we headed to California. Harriet treated the car like it was her personal rolling bed and quickly conked out. We stopped for breaks but they were in some shitty rest stop or gas station parking lot and Harriet being a prude didn’t like pissing in full view of the world, so it took awhile.

      Our first stop was my friend Tom’s house in Borrego Springs. As soon as the car rolled to a stop Stella, his puppy, an Australian cattledog, greeted us in the yard. I felt protective of Harriet as Stella was a rubberband of energy, but it was love at first sight. They recognized each other as sisters and tumbled through the sand then leaped over each other like Chinese acrobats. At dusk, Harriet climbed the little hill south of the house to find a place to shit and soon after yelped. Stella stared in her direction with great concern. I found Harriet lying on her side with jumping cactus in three of her paws. I gathered her up and carried her to the house while Tom ran to the garage, returning with a pair of pliers.

     That evening the dogs flew over the couch and onto the beds until an exhausted Harriet ended it with a nip.

Stella was sad to see her sister leave.

We drove up 99 North and it was construction barriers all the way. Both of us were exhausted when me met my friend Dana standing in the middle of the street in front of his house in Winters, California.

Aside from visiting with dear friends, my plan was to photograph roadkill as Dana had a good friend with multiple specimens in his freezer. I was given a comfortable bedroom at the rear of the house and Dana made a bed of canvas drops for Harriet to sleep on in the woodshop below. After the lights went out Harriet began yelping. I worried that she was keeping everyone awake. After thirty minutes of tossing I finally gave up, went out to the car retrieving my blow-up mattress and tiptoed out the back door and made my bed on a pile of 4X8 foot sheets of plywood. This quieted Harriet but I slept like a leaf flipping down the gutter.

     When the sky peaked dawn, I inched myself off the deflated mattress. Harriet followed me into the backyard where I left her and went into the house. After pouring a cup of coffee, I looked for the leash.

     Putah Creek ran through the edge of town. After we traipsed down the hill, I unleashed Harriet and she cautiously approached the moving water to lap up a morning mouthful. A knobby-kneed heron ran through the shallows and awkwardly launched slow into the mist. Harriet stared in a trance.

     We headed upstream on a bed of newborn grass. Rounding a corner, a bald man appeared with two massive dogs the size of miniature ponies. I quickly leashed Harriet.  Moments later, both dogs spied us and bolted.

     “Get your dogs,” I screamed while Harriet cowered behind me. “Get your fucking dogs! She’s scared to death of them.”

     The thick man huffed and puffed with his leashes swinging, “They’re both teddy bears. They wouldn’t hurt her.”

     “Unfortunately she doesn’t believe that. She’s been mauled by a big dog.”

 

     Dog people are strange. It had been nearly forty years since I’d had a dog and since then I had been ninety percent disgusted by people who had dogs in the city. What a crappy life of small apartments and concrete. It was one thing to choose this life for yourself but to subject it to a dog was nothing but cruel. In fact I was having a hard time adjusting to calling Harriet ‘My dog’. I was willing to provide food, shelter, and friendship.  But ownership?

     The second day Harriet gave up some of her worry and slept through the night in the basement but was relieved when I called her name in the morning.

     On day three, Harriet woke up with a pink weepy right eye. As my eyes itched I assumed that we were suffering from early pollination of the walnut fields. I washed her off and she pawed her face. Later in the day she started hacking and spastically leapt to her hind legs spitting white foam from her mouth. Soon after I found a pustule on her belly and popped the puss out with my fingers.

     Dana and I discussed Harriet’s conjunctivitis but we were both sure that it would pass. To sooth her eyes I went to the pharmacy and bought an over-the-counter eyewash.

     Harriet and I stayed within eyeshot of each other, even while napping. I’m sure she sensed my presence. After five days of red eyes I finally decided to take her to the Vet. I drove across the river and turned down a tiny dirt road. Nestled in the corner of a walnut field was a small red clapboard house with a sign out front.

I explained to the woman behind the desk Harriet’s condition and filled out the forms. Weight and temperature was taken and soon after an Indian man introduced himself.

     I held her on the stainless table. “Do you think she has a cold, could that cause the pink eye and discharge,” I asked.

     “Your dog Harriet has a fever, her nose is dry. It’s not a cold. How long has your dog had the tremor?”

     “What tremor? She’s just nervous coming into the vet’s office.”

     “The tremor in her right side near her back leg.”

     “Well she was mauled by a big dog before I got her. She’s had a limp, but it’s getting better.”

     “This is a tick, I think it’s neurologic.’ Then I felt what he was referring to. “I think your puppy shows signs of distemper.”

     “What do you mean distemper? What’s distemper?”

     “You wrote down that she has only had one round of shots, correct? She’s supposed to have three – one every three weeks. Puppies are very susceptible to distemper and you are from Arizona where it is a big big problem. Distemper attacks the gastrointestinal track, causes conjunctivitis and runny eyes and in later stages attacks the central nervous system and the brain. It kills many dogs.”

     “I think it’s been three weeks since her first shot. Can you give her a second shot?”

     “I can’t give her any shots while she’s sick. I can give her antibiotics for her eyes and do a blood test, but if you want my diagnosis I believe empirically, by her symptoms, that she has distemper.”

     My stomach dropped. “You said that this could kill her, right?”

     “Yes. If she had diarrhea and was vomiting I would recommend that you put her in isolation at the hospital, but luckily there is no indication of dehydration.”

     “Just give me the antibiotics,” I told him, eager to get out of the clinic.

     Driving back to Dana’s, I broke into a sob. Concerned, Harriet stared up at me through soupy eyes.

I told my friends about the doctor’s diagnosis without conclusive blood tests. We began Googling distemper and things looked bleak, but I steeled myself believing that my little pup could break the odds.

     The antibiotics worked immediately and I felt fortified that things were turning for the better. Several days past and during the day Harriet sun-bathed by the pool. At night she had an increasingly hard time finding a position comfortable enough to fall asleep. In the morning I groggily let her into the backyard but she refused to leave the porch to relieve herself until I finally dressed, made coffee and put her leash on. Most of these days she acted like a puppy and was excited to discover new things but she slipped into lethargy immediately after our walk.

     I was finishing up my photography of dead things and planned to visit friends in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, San Diego and through the desert back to Arizona. But many of the people I wanted to visit had dogs and I didn’t think it right to bring a sick Harriet into their world. Several days before leaving, I returned to the Vet. He met me in the parking lot and as I held her in the front seat he drew her blood for the test.

     The day I left the results hadn’t come back. I drove south on Highway Five headed to Borrego Springs where my buddy Tommy would let us use his house while he was away in San Diego.

     The trip was awful - monotonous, tedious. I kept a constant eye on Harriet and sadly she felt no comfort when I touched her. She’d raise her head from sleep but was obviously disturbed by my touch. It was heartbreaking. I stopped more often than usual to try and get her out of the car, walk her and hopefully she would take a piss, but Harriet would take five to ten steps and go into a trance. It spooked me as I had no idea what she was thinking and her unresponsiveness worried me. I did everything I could to break these trances but neither side of the coin was a winner. I grew despondent by empathy and heartbreak.

Starving, I pressed on hoping to make it to Borrego before the sidewalks rolled up. Coming down the hill through a series of switchbacks I finally saw the lights of town. Harriet had been out for hours. I came down Main and walked into Carlees for supper, sitting at the bar with a load of drunks and a lousy house band.

     After dinner I attempted to retrace my way back to Tom’s house when my phone rang.

     “Where are you,” Tom asked.

     “Trying to get to your house.”

     “I’m at Carlee’s,” he told me.

     “What? I just left. I thought you went to San Diego.”

     “It got too late. Come meet me and I’ll take you to the house.”

     I made a U-turn and then followed him back to his new home. Stella was excited to see Harriet and she attempted to rally to play with her one and only girlfriend.

     “She looks so skinny.”

     “She’s always been thin.”

     “No she looks skinny, skinny. Her ribs are protruding.”

     It must have happened slowly and Tom having not seen her for over two weeks noticed it immediately. “I should get her inside,” I told Tom.

     That evening Harriet slept near me on the bed and I dropped like a log. In the morning I heard Tom juicing oranges when he cursed. “Oh shit.”

     “What’s wrong?”

     “Harriet peed on the floor.”

     “She did? She hasn’t done anything like that. Usually she wakes me up.”

     “I heard her. She tried to wake you. Then I heard her lapping up water.”

     Exhausted I got up, put on a pot of coffee and took Harriet out for a walk.

The day was uneventful. Harriet was in a stupor and I was too tired to make the drive on to Bisbee. Looking back I was entering my first stages of grief although I tried to convince myself that a bad outcome was not an option.

     The following day we left making the speediest trip possible. I remember nothing, except that Harriet was the most exhausted she’d ever been and her spasms were non-stop and all consuming. Then my phone rang and the Vet confirmed that Harriet was positive for distemper.

     We went straight to bed. In the middle of the night Harriet jumped on my chest standing over me like a sentry, licking me awake. I opened the sliding door and Harriet bounded into the yard. It made no sense. The fever had past, she’d broken the sickness.

     Elated, I arose with big hope. Harriet was hyper alert but by afternoon she was sleeping and unresponsive.

Distemper cares nothing about hope. It savages the central nervous system, eating a chasm in brain, leaving a loving innocent dog, ticking, thumping, twitching with no motor control and no moments of relief. I stood, willing to protect but unable to fight something so invisible and lethal. I would like to say I did my best but in reality I did nothing. My love meant nothing.

That evening I took her for a walk on the hill, overlooking town.

 

     My house closed the next day and I walked with Harriet up the hill to meet the agent. She stumbled up the steps and collapsed. After checking to see if all of the utilities worked the agent handed me the keys.

 

     And then there was Harriet.

     As I drove back to Chico’s house, we passed by the Cochise Animal Hospital and without thinking I turned in. Two women in pale blue smocks sat behind the counter.

     “Hi, I’ve got a dog with distemper.”

     “Distemper? Are you sure?” asked the older woman.

     “Yes. I’ve had her blood drawn and the tests came back positive.”

     “What vet?”

     “One in California.”

     “Is your dog here?”

     “Yes.”

     “Bring her in.”

     I went to the car and got Harriet and gave the Vet’s assistant the phone number for the clinic in Winters. They quickly faxed the test results to Arizona. Reading the diagnosis the Vet looked concerned. I told him that Harriet had become more and more lethargic and often tranced out and couldn’t get comfortable enough to fall asleep because of her persistent twitch.

     “The injury is done. It’s permanent and will probably get worse. Has she had seizures?” he asked.

     “Not that I know of.”

     “It’s damaged her brain and central nervous system. It’s nasty and leaves a trail of death.”

     I began to cry. Everything I didn’t want to know and refused for weeks to know, I knew. I was slain with grief.

     “Put her down,” I stuttered firmly.

     I was stunned with the quickness of my decision after weeks of muddled confusion. “Put her down.” Such a masked way of saying, “Kill her.” The decision about the quality of her life and most probable, horrible, death, was in my hands and in a mere moment I decided to end her suffering.

     The Doctor asked me if I wanted to be with her and I nodded yes. He sent me to the lobby to sign papers, shaved her, gave her a sedative, and inserted a shunt into her leg. I heard her yelp.

     Harriet was lying on a table when I returned.Through her glassy eyes, I was unsure if she even recognized me. I placed my left hand on her front shoulder and my right on top of the twitch in her abdomen trying to absorb the horrible spasm, then, I nodded my head. The Vet inserted the needle into the shunt and pressed a dose of Phenobarbital into my sweet dog. In ten seconds the twitching stopped. When it left her, she left me.

 

     They delivered Harriet in a black garbage bag. I drove to Chico’s to find a shovel and breaker bar. From there I continued to the backyard of my new home.

     My house was built on top of rock carved into the side of a hill. The dirt was full of stones and it took two hours to break through. Just after dusk, I tore the plastic bag open and dropped Harriet into the hole.

Then I shoveled the dirt and Harriet Houdini made her final bow.

     February 28, 2014 RIP.