Yesterday when Toby called to tell me he needed my help with something, I told him I couldn't do it. But he kept talking. "This is a good one, Nicki," he said, "This is important." I listened, and before I knew it, I had agreed.
So here I am, waiting behind the wheel of my Honda Civic at a quarter to one in the morning in a part of town that female university students are told to stay away from after dark. But I'm OK with that part. Toby lived here for two and a half years, during which time I was a frequent visitor. It's really not that dangerous, just rundown and depressing.
It doesn't surprise me that he's late. I turn off the engine but leave the key in the ignition so that I can listen to the radio. The college station is doing a marathon of The Cure. I wonder if some continuing ed student is behind the controls at this hour, someone closer to my age who grew up on this stuff, or if it's a nineteen-year-old on the other end of the sound waves fabricating nostalgia for 1980s Goth.
I turn up the radio and close my eyes. I try to laugh about it / Cover it all up with lies / I try and laugh about it / Hiding the tears in my eyes / Because boys don't cry / Boys don't cry.
There is a tap on the passenger's side window. I open my eyes and Toby, slender and dressed in black, bends down towards the glass. His baby-fine, sandy brown hair appears darker in the dim streetlight, and the moisture in the air has made it curly. Toby's hair predicts rain like the bark-stripped weather stick my parents used to have nailed up outside our cabin in Maine.
I pull the key out of the ignition, open the door, and look up and down the street. Toby's dented scooter is nowhere in sight. I wonder which of his art school dropout friends gave him a lift and am about to ask, but Toby sees my glance.
"I walked," he says. I nod. It's then that I notice the crowbar in his hand.
"Nicki, I need your help."
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"Yeah, thanks." Toby leans into the car to kiss my cheek. "But I need you to come with me."
Our mission here tonight, in this neighborhood where Toby hasn't lived for a month now, is to rescue a dog. His name is Boone and he is a purebred Rottweiler. Boone belongs to Toby's former neighbors, several adults living on the ground floor apartment of a sagging triple-decker. Toby decided months ago that Boone needed rescuing. He moved away so that he could return to save Boone.
"What do you need me to do?" I ask. "I thought I was driving the get-away car."
"You are, but first I need your help."
"I'm here," I say with a sigh, "So we might as well get this over with."
I step out of the car and let Toby kiss me, on the lips this time. But I flinch as I feel the cold length of the crowbar brush against my arm. I pull away and look down at the metal object.
"What's that for?"
"I need to make a bigger hole in the fence," Toby says. Then he adds, "Trust me."
He says this because he reads hesitation in my face. My face is like that: a transparent window into my emotions. Toby claims my eyes are blue when I'm irritated or feeling off and green when I'm intrigued and ready for adventure. I've always thought my eyes were a nondescript hazel color, but I like that Toby sees complexity in them.
I'm about to close the car door, but then I notice a man approaching on the sidewalk. He could be one of the people who live on the first floor of the triple-decker. I've seen them coming and going before and sometimes sitting on the front porch smoking cigarettes. They all look the same to me— pale and hollow-eyed with persistent coughs, even in the summer.
The man is smoking a cigarette. He nods as he passes us and Toby hides the crowbar behind his back.
"Hey," Toby says. The man continues walking without responding. He passes the triple-decker and disappears around the corner.
"Let's get going," Toby says when the man is gone. "I want to get out of here."
"You and me both," I say, but Toby is already slipping down the narrow passageway between a fence and the house where he used to rent an apartment. I shut the door—a bit too forcefully—and follow, glancing behind my shoulder to see if anyone is watching. There is a light in one of the second-floor windows of the house across the street. In the darkened window diagonally below that, I think I see a curtain being drawn back.
When I reach Toby, he is on his knees petting Boone through the hole in the fence. Only the dog's dirty black and mahogany snout is visible. Boone is panting heavily, a wet tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth and saliva dribbling from the mouth's upturned edges. Yellow teeth extend from grey gums.
"He doesn't look healthy," I say.
"That's why we're rescuing him." There is a hint of annoyance in Toby's voice. "They don't take care of him. He's nothing more than a junkyard dog to them."
I know all of this. From Toby's second floor windows I used to observe Boone chained up in the tiny back yard even in torrential downpours and snowstorms, with nothing more than a splintering piece of plywood, too narrow for the dog's substantial bulk, to cover him. From time to time his owners emerged from the back door to deposit some dry food in a plastic bowl or to toss him scraps. They rarely petted Boone.
But we did. And I was the one who named him.
We'd been dating over a year when a dog appeared one day in the neighbors' backyard. It was summer then, like it is now, so the windows were opened all the time. For two weeks we listened to the animal cry. It was a mournful sound that expressed more than the bratty whining of the spoiled, table-fed mutts my family owned while I was growing up. It seemed to Toby and me as if the dog was trying to communicate a profound sorrow.
We started to pet him through a hole in the fence. Over several weeks we worked that hole larger until we could each fit an arm through. We brought him treats, too: expensive doggy delicacies that he ate in one gulp. But it was affection that he wanted most. We would sometimes pet him for a half hour or more, but no matter how long we stayed, he always watched us go with heartache seeping from his brown eyes.
One evening at the end of that summer, a week or two past Labor Day when day began to slip into night without any preamble, Toby and I were crouched by the hole. We'd gotten comfortable with this almost-nightly routine, waiting for the cover of dark to make our back-yard visits. Toby's landlord, a Mr. Jankowski, was an elderly man. After dark, he and his house-bound wife didn't stir from their apartment, entranced by the cerulean glow of their television. They were watching some sort of unsolved mysteries show that night. If you encounter this man, the baritone voice of the host implored, call your local authorities immediately. Do not attempt to approach this felon. He is most likely armed and considered extremely dangerous.
"He could be anyone as far as we know," I said. "He could be one of the guys who lives in there." With my chin, because my hands were occupied, I indicated the junk house behind which the dog was tethered.
"Or he could be one of those arrogant lawyers you work for," Toby said. "Hiding out from the law under the cover of the law."
I thought about how I'd worked as a paralegal for Williamson, Dunst and McClough for five years and still Richard Dunst didn't know my name. The idea of him, or one of the other senior lawyers, being a fugitive didn't stick, though. He was too self-important to be anonymous.
"It could be Mr. Jankowski," I suggested. "He's made his wife incapacitated so she can't turn him in."
Toby nodded, considering this. After a moment he said, "Or he could be me."
I laughed. "Creepy. But maybe I'm Bonnie to your Clyde, in which case I'm on the run with you. We're a team."
Toby nuzzled my neck and transferred his caresses from the dog to me. "Yeah," he said, "We're a team."
We'd said goodnight to the dog then and went up to Toby's apartment. An hour later as I lay in Toby's arms, a chilly breeze drifted in through the windows and across my bare back, signaling the beginning of a new season. In the fall, I'd accompany Toby on long rambles through the woods, getting lost and not finding our way out until dusk. In the winter, we'd walk on frozen rivers under the light of the full moon as the ice groaned beneath us. Toby lived in the moment more fully than anyone I'd ever met, a trait that would slowly loose its charm as I learned that the moment was the only place that Toby lived.
"He doesn't have a name," I said after a few minutes. I didn't have to explain myself; Toby knew who I was talking about.
"I'm afraid of naming him," he said. "I'm afraid of getting too attached."
"But you're already attached."
Toby was silent for a moment. Then he said, "OK, you can name him."
It took me a while to figure out something good, but I finally landed on Boone. I chose this name partly for Daniel Boone, because I figured our Boone had lived through some adventures before he ended up on a three foot chain. But, also, there was something lonely about that name, something that implied heartache. Boone rhymed with loon, a bird whose doleful cry I remembered from the lake in Maine where my family used to spend two weeks every summer.
Things were good with Toby and me then. I didn't worry about the future because the now seemed satisfying enough.
Toby picks up the crowbar and starts prying the chain-linked fence. I crouch down behind him, resting my arm on the landlord's picnic table. Boone sits without being told. We both watch Toby work, the muscles in his tanned forearms straining against the molded steel.
I can see more of Boone from this angle. His head is large and square and his snout is short. He has a barrel chest and is mostly black, with mahogany patches on his snout, chest and paws, and over those expectant eyes. Toby says these last patches, small and round, are his eyebrows, but I've always thought they were false eyes, put there by evolution to deceive night-time predators into thinking their potential prey is awake. Toby doesn't believe this because he says Boone's ancestors were the predators. This might be true, but the way I see it, there's always someone you need to protect yourself from, even if that someone is lying next to you.
Despite Boones' dingy condition, he's a good looking dog. And smart. When the backdoor of his house creaks open, he knows not to make a sound. Toby freezes and then quietly lowers the crowbar. I deepen my crouch to remove myself from direct view of the back steps, where a woman now stands. She has a beer bottle in her hand, but she's not drinking from it. It's as if she's been holding on to it for so long, that she's forgotten it's there.
The woman is thin and mole-eyed. She is also tall, a fact that is accentuated by her position above us on the upper step. But then gravity seems to assert itself on her gaunt frame and she stumbles down into the littered yard and towards the fence. She almost trips over Boone before she sees him.
"Holy shit," she says. "You scared the shit out of me."
Boone stands and now I'm looking at the heart of mahogany fur on his bottom. His stump of a tail wiggles as he greets the woman. She reaches the hand that's not holding the beer down towards the dog tentatively and sighs as she drags her fingers across the top of his head.
"You're a filthy mutt, aren't you?" she says. Boone continues to wag his stump and the woman continues to pet him. This goes on for so long, I wonder if she has fallen asleep on her feet or is lost in some sort of trance.
I shift in my crouch, causing the picnic table to squeak. Both the woman and Boone look in my direction. Toby reaches out and squeezes my arm. For a moment, nobody moves. Even Boone's panting stops: a wolf in his pack anticipating an intruder. I wonder for a moment if Boone will betray us. If, perhaps, things aren't as bad for him in the heroin den as Toby and I imagine. The woman squints, looking like she's trying to make something out, but the glow of the streetlight is working in our favor, casting a ring of light that dimly illuminates the yard where Boone and the woman stand, but keeping me and Toby in shadows. The woman doesn't see us, and Boone doesn't let on.
"I'm not going to fucking get sprayed by a skunk in the middle of the night," she says setting her beer bottle down on Boone's plywood shelter. "You're on your own." She turns then and retreats into the house, more quickly than I would have thought she could move.
For a minute, neither Toby nor I budge. Boone watches the woman disappear into the house, his ears pricked up and his head tilted to the side. Poor dog, I think. Still hoping for something after so much disappointment. Is that loyalty or stupidity, I wonder? Are they, perhaps, two ways of looking at the same thing?
When it seems that the house has settled back into its drug-induced slumber, Toby picks up the crowbar again and begins working with renewed energy.
"I think I'm almost ready to try and pull him through," he says. "Are you all set?"
"I guess," I say. Boone seems ready. He tries to push his head through the hole and Toby has to shove him back so he doesn't get thwacked on the head.
At last Toby puts the crowbar down and pulls at the sharp metal edges with his hands, trying to bend them back to create a smoother passageway for Boone. When he turns to me, I see that there is blood on his palms.
"I'm going to unhook him and lead him through," Toby says. "You grab the crowbar and follow me. I'll jump in the backseat with him and you put the pedal to the metal."
I look at him a moment, but don't say anything. His face is sweaty and smudged with dirt and there's an uneasy expression in his eyes that I've never seen before. Usually Toby is the picture of composure even in the most trying situations. When my father was in a car accident— hit head on by an intoxicated teenager and we didn't know if he'd pull through—Toby was right there, comforting me and saying all the right things.
"Come on Nicki, we need to hustle."
"Why did you want me out back here with you?" I ask. "To carry the crowbar? You could have left it behind."
Toby stares at me. "It'll have my fingerprints on it."
"You're worried about leaving traceable evidence? What about your blood all over the fence?"
Toby shrugs. "Forget the crowbar, then, if you don't want to carry it. Let's get going, though."
"Why can't you just tell me that you need me? For the past nine months I've been going to a therapist to get over my emotional dependency issues. But maybe you're the one who should admit that you don't want to let me go."
Toby stares at me like I have hit him: his eyes flicker with fear-tinged surprise. When he speaks, his voice is soft but strained.
"Can you drive the car?" he asks.
His apparent retreat spurs me on. Like a wild animal, this display of weakness in my adversary makes me attack.
"That's what I said I'd do!" I snap.
The terrier belonging to Toby's former landlord begins to yelp. Boone strains against his chain through the hole and barks once, a powerful sound that makes me realize just how much dog is behind that fence.
"Shit," Toby says. He falls to his knees again and yanks at Boone's collar. "Push him back while I unfasten the chain. He's pulling too hard."
I place my hands at the dog's thick neck and push. It's like trying to move a concrete wall. Boone has seen the other side and he wants out.
A light in the landlord's unit turns on. "Push harder," Toby says. "I can't get him loose."
"Back, Boone," I say and lean in with all my weight. He gives just an inch, bumping the plywood and sending the beer bottle crashing onto one of the cinder blocks that holds up his pathetic shelter. It's enough for Toby to unhook his leash, though, and in the next instant, Boone has wiggled through the hole, adding clumps of fur to Toby's trail of blood. He jumps on top of Toby, who has fallen backwards onto the lawn. Toby giggles like a little kid as Boone licks the sweat and grime off of his face. The landlord's back porch light turns on and now it is I who tells Toby to hurry.
I run to the car, leaving the crowbar behind after all. I open the passenger's side door and move the seat forward so that Toby and Boone can jump in. Then I go to the driver's side, get behind the wheel and start the engine.
It feels like I wait a long time. The Cure is no longer playing on the radio. Nothing is on. The station has been put to sleep for the night. Everyone with a purpose is in bed at this hour, resting before they have to get up for work or class or to feed the kids breakfast before school. I should be in bed as well. It'll be hard to get through the day tomorrow. I have a real job, too. Toby is the problem. Toby keeps leading me off track. I keep letting him.
Boys—don't—cry, I sing. I wonder if Toby's heeded these lyrics over the past months. Since our breakup I've cried a lot, but then I was the one who was dumped. My therapist says this isn't quite true. She says I should recognize my role in ending the relationship, how for months I worked to define it and to chart its future, and how I repeatedly ran up against resistance from Toby, who never understood why things couldn't continue just as they were indefinitely. She says I clearly told Toby what I needed, a committed relationship that was heading towards marriage, and when Toby finally faced up to the fact he couldn't deliver on that requirement, he ended things.
Only things didn't really end.
I see Toby. He's running towards me at a frantic speed. At first I don't see Boone. Toby's lost him, I think. Maybe Boone's owners heard the commotion and came out to pull him back through the fence. Or, Toby's landlord caught him and threatened to call the police, so Toby is making his getaway alone. Or, (and I think of this last scenario with equal parts sadness and hope) Boone, once freed, has escaped and is now running the other way, loping through backyards, overturning barbeques and children's play sets, making his way to the beaded necklace of parks and greenspace that will take him, if he can avoid cars and dogcatchers, to real fields and forests, to a wilderness free of false boundaries and constraints, a place to which he must carry, somewhere deep in his genetic code, a map that centuries of human intervention could not erase.
But he is there, behind Toby, following at his rescuer's heels. Boone is even larger than I imagined; I can see this now that he is coming towards me. When we used to watch him from the second floor windows of Toby's apartment, height distorted our perspective. When we pet and fed him through the fence, only one part of Boone was visible at a time. When we were freeing him tonight I was too worried about getting caught to really see him. But now that he is bounding towards me, his size and power are evident. I know that if Boone chooses to be grateful to Toby for rescuing him that will be his choice. Other choices are possible as well.
When they reach the car, Toby sweeps his arm towards the backseat and Boone leaps in. Toby dives in after him, more dramatically than necessary, I think. I don't see anyone chasing them.
I put the car in gear as Toby turns himself around and leans out to close the passenger side door. I keep to the speed limit as I navigate the one-way streets. After a few minutes, I turn out onto a main road.
As we drive, Boone's panting fills the car. It starts to sprinkle and I turn on the windshield wipers. As the rain picks up, the windows become increasingly foggy and though it's pouring now, I have to crack open my window. Boone moves towards the fresh air. I can't see him, but I can smell his sour canine breath behind me.
"I can't get The Cure out of my head," I say after a while. It is the first thing that either of us has said since we got in the car. Toby has been strangely silent. I had expected him to gloat over his accomplishment, to exaggerate the narrow escape, but as I glance in the rearview mirror now, I see that he is staring out the side window. He looks sad.
"Really?" Toby says. I wonder if he even heard what I said.
"Yeah, Boys Don't Cry was playing when I was waiting for you. I haven't heard that in years."
"Hmmm," Toby says, and I drop it. As I drive, fat drops of rain streak the left side of my face like tears.
We get to his new apartment. It's a two-bedroom on the other side of the city that he shares with a roommate, someone he didn't know before he moved in last month. I wonder what the guy is going to think about living with a hundred-pound Rottweiler. I wonder if Toby's new landlord even allows dogs. My therapist would tell me that these things are not my problem anymore.
There are no parking spaces in front of Toby's building so I have to park a block away. Boone runs up and down the street, sniffing everything. I try not to worry that he's going to get hit by a car. Toby should have brought a leash, but I don't say anything. We reach Toby's building and pause by the front steps. Boone runs up to us and collapses at Toby's feet.
"He's your dog already," I say.
"Yeah," Toby says.
"I guess I should get going."
"It's late. You could stay. You have a long drive."
"It's not that long this time of night."
Toby puts his arms around me and hugs me. My head rests on his shoulder. He begins to hum and I catch the tune that's been tossing around in my head all night, ever since I heard it on the radio. Then, he begins to sing. I would tell you / That I loved you / If I thought that you would stay / But I know that it's no use / That you've already / Gone away.
Toby has a nice voice. Much better than mine. I don't sing along, but just listen while he croons out the rest of the song. When he's finished, we stay that way for a little longer, until Boone whines. We both look down at the dog and laugh.
As I drive away, I look in the rearview mirror. Toby is sitting on the steps of his apartment building, petting Boone and watching me leave. I hope that tomorrow he will bring the dog to the vet and that he'll give him a bath. I hope that Boone will be happy in his new home and won't long for the shackled familiarity of his old life. I have a feeling he is better off where he is now. I hope I'm right.