Learning To Heel
Rekha Ambardar


    The note from Claire, announcing her intent to file for divorce, drove me to the phone to call Edgar -- attorney and friend -- to wail.

"I should have known something was up when she wore that short leather skirt to the Ducks Unlimited banquet," I groaned.

"What?" Edgar asked.   He cracked something between his teeth.

"Quit chewing and pay attention,"  I demanded.  "Ducks Unlimited.   Where she met the bald headed, full-bearded sergeant major.  The bear hunter.   The deer killer.  She's never been the same since."

"Are you sure she means it?"

"Her empty closets and our cleaned-out basement suggest that she's not coming back, Edgar."

I wasn't ready for Edgar's response.  Two days later I found myself staring at Edgar rolling on my rug, playing with a two-month old  roly-poly black and white mop of fluff.

I smiled at the puppy's antics despite my progressively souring disposition.

"See how he comes to you, Al?  He wants you to be his daddy," Edgar said.

"Melanie would take this pooch if I let her, although we have two cocker spaniels.   Our neighbor wants good homes for all five of these little guys.

I told him I had a friend who'd take one.  Am I right?'

I would  have socked him in the face there and then if I hadn't been so sure that Edgar  meant well.  Besides, the little ball of fluff was taking on an unmistakable personality all his own, hovering around me, cuddling up in my lap, and, presently, dropping off to sleep, content that I would watch over him even on his first visit. And that's how I acquired Higgins.  Oh, it wasn't all bad, the peeing  on the floor and the turds,  and the newspapers spread out on the kitchen floor, which Higgins pointedly avoided using.

As each week went by with the deliberate slowness of a disabled slug the little black turds became less in evidence.   Now, I new fear attacked me. I saw the front door as a monster enticing Higgins away into fun -- and danger.  As soon as I got his choke collar on to his leash for a walk he would lunge and take off, full of energy, when   all I wanted was for him to trot alongside of me like they did in the movies. The Vet Clinic recommended dog obedience classes and gave me the name of the instructor.

On the first day of classes,  dogs and owners assembled for registration at the Zee Stadium at the waterfront.  A woman with a furrowed forehead, blue jeans and  a Search and Rescue Dogs sweatshirt took down names and obedience levels of the dogs.   She was accompanied by her German Shepherd, Lucky, the role model for lesser cannines.  The furrow on her forehead deepened as she talked to the owners and she showed a hint of impatience at the questions of some of those who claimed her attention as she set up for class.    But there was a quicksilver change in her as she greeted the dogs.   She played with them, cajoled them, talked to them.

Several chairs were arranged facing the entrance to the ballroom, where a long table held props -- lunge lines, boxes of paper towels for accidents, choke collars, treats and other dog paraphernalia.

I was curious about my fellow trainees in this venture.  I had never been to anything like this before, and with some trepidation, took my  seat, Higgins seated on the floor alongside of me.  I was afraid of being embarrassed by my dog.  I had already been embarrassed by my wife.

The hall was starting to fill up.  I noticed with curiousity that men and women were straggling in, some nonchalant, some anxious and intense, hovering near their dogs.   A small white Apso,  four  months old  and with its front paws raised like a miniature white tiger,  catching the attention of everyone.

And then I saw Claire and her new boyfriend, Jonathan Cole, wander  in with his six-month-old black Lab.  I felt myself  contract inside  as I sat straight in my chair and put my hand on the back  of Higgins' warm, fuzzy neck for comfort.    He turned  around and looked at me searching my face for expressions, the meaning of which he would never know.    But I was glad for the nearness of him.

The pair of them sat at the  far end of the hall after filling out the required forms.  I looked at a point straight beyond to where the woman instructor was standing.  With any luck I could avoid eye contact with Claire and her lothario.    Our lawyers were handling the divorce proceedings.  I  wasn't about to keep up the pretense of making civilized small talk. It was to be a short session that day.  Next Tuesday the classes would begin in earnest.

As we filed out of the hall I could almost feel Cole's sinister smirk on the back of my neck.  I had the incredible urge to wheel around  and grab him by the collar.   But I walked on. "Heel, Higgins,"   I called to him.

I drove off grateful that I wouldn't have to see them again until the following Tuesday, and then I'd chart out a plan of action to attend the sessions while  feigning   nonchalance  in  their presence. But it wasn't as easy as I had imagined.

Sally, the instructor, would give the command, "Forward,"  and the owners and their dogs walked in single file around the long ballroom.  Higgins was afraid of the hardwood floor, of the other dogs and the people  pressing around him.    He would walk a few paces and then plop himself down on the floor, or sit facing the wall, refusing to be cajoled by Sally, or anyone else, least of all, me.

From the corner of my eye I saw Claire, Cole and his dog, Toby walk sedately round and round the room as if he knew it all.

"Talk to him, encourage him,"  Sally said.

  "C'mon, boy, let's go,"  I said, desperation rising in my tone, hating the scene we must be causing, as he continued sitting there making small, whining sounds.

It was no use.  I left with Higgins after half an hour, not forgetting to pick up the handout for that day's lesson left out on the long table.

"What am I going to do with you, Higgins?  Did you see Claire and that goon?   And that dog .." I  voiced my  contempt.  "Higgins, we're going to do better."  He cocked his head and looked at me, tongue hanging out, smiling.

He reminded me of the  cartoon in which the frog sang the "Michigan Rag" in private for his  owner,  when auditioning, all he did was croak forlornly.

Only in real life it wasn't as funny as that.

The next class started as usual with the walk around the ballroom during which the owners gave the "heel" command to their dogs.   After a few rounds, Sally called out, "Scramble."  Then owners and dogs meandered any which way they pleased among other dogs and owners, mainly to teach concentration.

"Leave it,"  if they sniffed other dogs.  No loitering, no sniffing, positively no visiting either.  And no socializing among dog owners when classes were in session.

But presently  Higgins  decided he'd had enough and plopped on to the floor, refusing to budge, and just lay there with his face resting on his paws,  ignoring the hum of activity around him.

"Upsidaisy, Higgins.  Heel."  I tried everything I could think of, but to no avail.

Sally came over.  "Come on, Higgins."  She extended her hand with a treat in it, her face frothy with a friendly smile as she knelt down to talk to him, baby talk, which he seemed to understand.

He soon got up and followed her wherever she went.  "That's a boy."   She laughed delightedly.  I hadn't noticed until then how blue her eyes were, how they lit up when she smiled to show small, even white teeth and a dimple.

I stared at her inspite of myself and my baggage of misgivings, wondering what she was like in bed.  I looked away in disgust or longing, I didn't know which.  I had noticed no wedding band on her ring finger.

Soon, we were forming a threesome -- Sally, Higgins and I, at least in my own mind.   Higgins and I would arrive there earlier than the others, but not wanting to be obtrusive, I would walk him along the length of the ballroom, keeping him going for as long as he would before he gave up and plunked down on the floor,  a lazy, tired mop-haired dog.  No, correct that to withdrawn, shy, and droopy-tailed -- afraid of the floor, of other dogs, people, and I knew not what else.

Today, the police officers of the K-9 team were consulting with Sally on the finer points of dog training.  She was rising in my estimation every day, and I tried not to show it.

But  for me in that steamy crowded ballroom there were  only the three of us, Sally and me and Higgins.  She and I a pristine Adam and Eve contained in a primaeval mist under a night sky  decked with the winking ambience of subdued lighting -- artificial, but   significant  enough for me.

The classes chased each other in a tizzy.  To anyone who cared to ask I could at least say that  Higgins had been to obedience training  but that was all.   The progress was miniscule.  I didn't get him to do any of the things that dogs usually do, but on our daily walks he stopped taking off like a jack rabbit with me in tow. Even dogs have to go through graduation to prove their worth.

I went up the familiar steps of the Zee Stadium for the last time knowing that Higgins wouldn't come out with flying colors during  the judging.  But no matter --    he and I had stood it out to its miserable end.

Dogs were judged on their responses to commands --  sit, stay, down, forward, heel.   I watched, not daring to breathe as Sally called out the commands to Higgins.   He wasn't  a perfect 10 but he obeyed most of the commands, except "forward" and "halt."   I patted him fondly as he smiled at me, tongue hanging out.   So what if he hadn't placed within the top five -- okay,  the top ten.  The Number One place went to Toby,  and it didn't devastate me the second time around -- my wife running off with Cole and his dog taking first place in the judging.

I picked up the lunge line, Higgins' leather collar and jingled my car keys in my pocket to make sure they were there.

Sally was surrounded by people who had last-ditch questions.  I wasn't waiting to talk to her.  Whatever I had briefly felt  some  days  back  told me that I hadn't lost all human feeling over a bad marital experience.

I ran down the stairs with Higgins and out the glass door which he had hesitated to enter so many times before.  Freedom. As I revved up my Bronco, Sally appeared with something in her hand.

"You forgot Higgins' diploma.  If you're not doing anything tomorrow, come and see how we train our Search and Rescue Dogs.  You might find it interesting."

Yes, it would do me good to see how much patience it took to train a dog and let him know that his master in this doggy discipline racquet was also his caregiver.

I looked earnestly at Sally's dimpled smile as she waited for my reply.

"Yes, sure.  I'd like that,"  I said melting in that smile.

Because,  in  it, I saw  an oasis of hope.



Copyright © 2000 Rekha Ambardar
Published on the World Wide Web by "www.storymania.com"