By Cathy Beaudoin
Like all the other nights we sleep by the river, my guide dog’s the one who ends up on the cardboard box, avoiding the roots and sticks that might poke her in the middle of the night. Still, the dog deserves better. I want to be better.
“Patience, where are you girl?” Her tail moves back and forth, and the sound soothes my battered psyche. I dig my elbows in the ground, and crawl towards her. Worried about incoming fire, I remind myself I’m in Boulder, Colorado, not in Iraq where a bomb exploded twenty yards from my bunk. The memories start to agitate me and I whisper, Jeremy…let the past go.
My fingers find the box, and I try to coax the dog into giving me some space. “Move over girl.”
The dog stretches her legs, groans, and ignores me.
“I said move.” Spit lands on the back of my right hand, but doesn’t dampen the memories. A miracle anyone survived, they said. Though I wasn’t killed, most of my vision was destroyed. I have a prosthetic left eye, and my right eye only sees shadows.
Patience inhales, stands up, and walks to the river’s edge. I listen as she takes a long drink of water. She lingers, and I shift onto the box. As the dog makes her way back to me, I hear her dragging her feet in one last morning stretch.
“Here.” My fingers tap the ground next to me. “Down.”
She lays down, curls herself up into a ball, and tucks her snout in deep between her hind legs. I touch the top of her head, then feel for the depression between her eyes. My finger slides toward her nostrils. The heat coming from her body reminds me of what it was like to sleep in a bed with thick covers. Me laying in my bunk. My insides harden, and the force of my hand hitting the ground frightens the dog. Damn it, why can’t I just let it go. Patience unfurls herself and, unsure about her culpability, waits.
“How am I ever going to lay in a bed again pup?” Patience moves her front paw so it touches my knuckles. I flip my hand over and squeeze.
Like most other mornings, our stomachs are grumbling. Guilt overtakes me, and I pull my hand away from the dog. She’s a yellow lab and, at fifty-five pounds, about five pounds underweight. She’s filthy. Her coat is matted, and needs brushing. I want to do better. But she’s worth more to me as a panhandler if she looks a little ragged.
“Here,” I point to my belly. The dog obliges, butting herself against my torso. We spoon for a minute and then get ready for work. I don’t look much better than the dog, and need to clean up. When it comes to panhandling, it’s important to look reasonably decent. Otherwise people will walk on the other side of the street. If strangers are comfortable enough to walk by me, Patience generates a lot of compassion. Anyone who looks at her can’t resist the kindness in her eyes, and the sentiment is usually worth a dollar or two. It’s a fine line with the dog though. If she looks too un-kept, people will call the cops. Or worse, they’ll call the Guide Dog Foundation, and those people will track me down and take her if they think I’m homeless, or can’t care for her.
I learned this the hard way. Once, the Guide Dog people saw us working the tourists for change, and repossessed her until I could prove I had housing, and some cash in case the dog got sick. So, I saved my money, put three hundred dollars in a bank account, and rented a room from the Angelica’s. Mr. Angelica fought in his own war, Vietnam, and Mrs. Angelica was a kind, gentle woman who tolerated men with endless nightmares. Though I rented a room, I slept behind the house, under a tarp, until I got the dog back. Once reunited, we moved back to the river. I still rent the room, just in case the Guide Dog people come around asking about us. But as I told Mrs. Angelica, it’s just safer to sleep outside than to sleep in a bunk that might be a bombing target. And I don’t want to keep sleeping in the yard. I know it bugs her.
Patience turns and sticks her snout inside my front pants pocket. Sometimes there’s a fistful of Kibble in there. But not today. She pushes her nose deeper.
“No.” I swat her. Damn dog needs food. Buying the food is a lot easier than carrying it around. I’ve been thinking about getting a knapsack, but never seem to get around to it. The dog’s been eating out of a dumpster for the last three days. Thankfully, it’s time to stop by the Angelica’s house to get my disability check. I do the math. Two hundred dollars for rent, twenty-one dollars for dog food, and thirty-five dollars for veterinary bills. That leaves me with a little less than two hundred dollars a month for myself. Sufficiently motivated, I get up and go pee in the bushes. Patience does the same. I take off my sweatshirt and, counting steps, head to the water’s edge. The dog knows my routine. I brush my pants, swish my hands in the chilly river, and bring some water to my lips. Once my thirst is quenched, I wash my face and beard. The beard is scruffy, so it’s easy to clean. I remove my T-shirt and splash water around my armpits. Once I’m close to dry, I dress, move the dog, and stash the cardboard box and sweatshirt in their hiding place. Then I grab my baseball cap, the dog’s harness and leash, and get her ready to go.
“Forward,” I say as I grip the leather harness handle. We head up the river bank, and on to a bike path.
“Right,” I command, and simultaneously take a step back so the dog can cross in front of me. “To the bakery.”
The dog knows the way to the bakery, and we walk the half mile in silence. The owner of the bakery did his time in the First Gulf War. He doesn’t mind us eating out of his dumpster as long as we don’t make a mess, or linger. It’s better than the grocery store. Too many guys get busted for trespassing there. When we get to the parking lot behind the bakery, Patience heads to the stinky, metal box hidden behind a wooden fence. Once I’m certain we’re out of sight, I drop the dog’s harness handle and leash.
“Down.” Patience drops to the ground. I flip up the hard, plastic lid, reach my arm in, and feel two heavy plastic garbage bags. I pull them out, and place them on the ground. Patience wags her tail and whines with anticipation. I open the first bag, and sift through the wet, sticky paper and plastic, feeling for food. Reeking of spent coffee grinds, the first bag yields a couple of pieces of edible bagel. I split them with the dog. She eats her portion in one giant gulp. The only thing edible in the second bag is a quarter of a sticky bun. I give it to the dog, and let her lick my fingers. When the dog stops licking me, I wipe my fingers on my pants. Then I carefully re-tie the garbage bags and drop them back in the dumpster. My mental clock ticking, I quickly close the lid.
“Let’s go girl.” The dog immediately comes to my side. I grab for her harness and leash. “Right.”
The morning “to do” list is longer than normal: get my check at the Angelica’s house, go to the bank, go back to the house to pay the rent, go to the grocery store. We head off. Our route takes us across a main thoroughfare, and into an old, quiet neighborhood. The dog diligently follows all my commands. We reach the Angelica’s house, and before we’re halfway up the sidewalk, the front door opens.
“Good morning, Jeremy,” Mrs. Angelica says. “Look who’s here! Are you staying?”
“No, Mrs. Angelica, just came to get my check. I’ll be back later to pay you.”
“The check is in your room, on the dresser. Do you want me to get it for you?”
“No, I can get it.” I drop the dog’s harness handle and leash.
“Down.” The dog drops to the ground. “Stay.”
When I step inside the entryway, my left hand feels for the wall and I move towards the kitchen. Distracted by the lingering smell of cooked bacon, a door knob hits my left hip. I stop, turn towards the door, open it, and feel for the railing. Once my fingers find the smooth wood, I descend to the bottom of the steps, and pause to listen to the activity above me. Someone walks into the kitchen, opens a cabinet door, grabs something out of a bag, closes the door, walks to the entryway, and then steps outside. I smile. Mrs. Angelica is breaking the rule about giving a working dog treats.
My thoughts drift. I wonder how Danny and I managed to survive that day in Iraq. Danny’s the reason I ended up in Boulder. He was in the same barracks as me when the bomb went off. He held some guy’s neck together with his bare hands for a long time. Too long. PTSD got him good. He was gruff back in Iraq. But if you were patient with him, he was loyal. He’s the one who convinced me to move out west when I got out of rehab. And he helped me rent the room from his parents when the Guide Dog people took the dog. His parents needed the money, and it was his way of helping. I try to shake the past, and take a couple steps forward. My fingertips drag across the top of the dresser until I find the sealed envelope. I grab it, fold it in half, and stuff it into my back pants pocket. When I get back upstairs, Mrs. Angelica calls out from the kitchen. “Here, over here Jeremy. Take some banana bread with you. I just made it this morning.”
As I move toward her voice, she puts the loaf, wrapped in foil, in my hand. Out of the corner of my right eye, I catch the sunlight coming in from the kitchen window. I drop the bread, and curl my fingers until the fingernails dig in to the flesh of my palms. Breath deep, just like the doctor said. It’s just the sun. My mouth closes. Air goes up my nostrils, then finds its way back out. I am not in Iraq. I am in Boulder.
“That’s right Jeremy, you’re here with me.” Every muscle in my neck locks up, and I start to tremble.
“Nope. Can’t do this right now.” Shit. I want to be better.
“It’s okay Jeremy. You’re here with me.”
“No. I…I…I need to get outside…PATIENCE.” I hustle down the hallway, and to the front door. Fumbling around for the latch to open the screen door, my fingers finally brush up against the lever. I release it, step outside, reach for the dog’s harness handle and leash, and scramble down the sidewalk.
“Let’s go girl. NOW.” As soon as I start to half jog, half run away from the house, the dog gets excited and breaks into a sprint. I hear Mrs. Angelica’s voice behind us.
“Jeremy, dear, don’t you want some banana bread?”
Near the main thoroughfare, Patience slows, then comes to a halt. I know we need to cross.
“Come on girl, MOVE.” I try to pull her forward, but she claws at the sidewalk. Somehow, she does not budge. I yank her leash again. She doesn’t move an inch. Whoosh. A vehicle passes by about eighteen inches from my face. Patience yowls.
“Aww, geez…okay, I get it girl. You have the eyes…not me.” I lean over, and stroke the dog’s head. She cracks her jaw with a yawn, and then sits and scratches herself. After taking a minute to regroup, we make our way to the bank.
When I step up to the teller, a female voice greets Patience, “Ohhh, what a cute dog. Can the dog have a treat?”
“Uh. Hi. Yeah, sure.” I hear the teller place a dog treat on the counter in front of me. I slap my palms around until I feel the treat, take it, and drop my hand by my side. A wet tongue takes it away.
“I need to cash my check. I’d like twenties and ones.” The teller counts out my cash, twenties first, singles next. I take the pile, fold it in half, and stuff it in my front pocket.
“Bye pup,” the teller calls out as we turn away from her. I direct the dog to the liquor store, and buy one 24-ounce can of beer. Once outside, the can is empty in less than sixty seconds. I give the alcohol a minute to find its way to my core. Feeling better, I command the dog forward. But instead of going to pay the rent, we make our way to the grocery store. I buy a four-pound bag of dog food, and a jelly donut. The donut is gone before the cashier gives me my change. Once outside, I rip the bag open and pour some Kibble on the sidewalk. The dog greedily eats the food. Once she’s done, I place the open bag in a plastic grocery sack, and swing it over my shoulder. The dog and I go around to the back of the store, and stash the bag in a dense set of bushes.
“Okay, girl, let’s go to work.” The dog and I walk to the outdoor pedestrian mall. It’s the best place to beg money off tourists. As we get close to our spot, I hear someone tapping a boot on the sidewalk.
“That you, Danny?”
“Ohh, isn’t it Mr. Blind Bigshot. You gonna work your pretty little girlfriend today?”
“Hah. Hah. Time to beat it Danny.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Don’t want to taint the tourists with my presence, do we now? I wish I had a doggie like yours. But I just watched a buddy die so I don’t git one.” And with those words Danny slinks away to let us work.
We’re about thirty yards from the corner of Pearl and Standard. There are a couple of reasons this is an ideal spot to pnahandle. First, it’s right next to a coffee shop, and people who buy coffee at all hours of the day usually have a casual attitude towards their money. Second, because it’s a tourist area, the same people don’t see us day after day. Finally, the sidewalks are wide here. People who don’t want to deal with me can comfortably pass by. This is especially important for women walking alone. They seem to live in fear of people like me. But the guys walking alone, or with their girlfriends, they like to support people they think are weak. One problem with our spot is the owner of the coffee shop. He’s threatened to call the Guide Dog people, and tried to get me arrested for loitering. He likes to yell a lot of crap about me to the cops.
“He needs to be off the streets. He should be working a real job.” I hear the anger in his voice, imagine the veins popping out of his neck, and picture his index finger pointing at me.
“Calm down, sir,” the cops have told him more than once. But he just gets more amped up.
“That guy shouldn’t be hanging around. He doesn’t take care of his dog. Look at how skinny that thing is.” Then he’ll scream, “Get a god-damned job, and stop hanging around outside my place.”
“Sir, if he hasn’t done anything wrong…”
“No. It’s not right…” Not right, I think to myself. Whatever. After all, I’m lucky to be alive, right? As long as Danny and I rotate guarding the space, we’re in compliance with the law. Unless a tourist complains about me, the cops leave us alone. Still, I try to keep the peace with Jewels. That’s what Danny calls him because of his gaudy rings and gold chains. But he doesn’t sound like any jewel to me.
As we settle in, the dog plops down with her butt flush against the building. The mornings are cool and comfortable. But it’s hard to make money in the morning. Most of the people passing by are locals. The bankers, real estate agents, and shop owners are easy to identify. They usually talk loud into their phones.
“Eighty-Six Parker Place is closing at noon. Did the updated mortgage paperwork come through on that?” This guy is a regular. He uses the same cologne my brother used to dab on himself when he went out chasing girls.
“Morning,” I offer as he passes by. On a rare day, he’ll acknowledge me with a grunt. The shop owners can also be testy.
“What do you mean the Packard delivery didn’t come in yet?” This is the guy who eats garlic every night, and doesn’t cover up his smell with anything. I stopped saying hello to him because he kept telling me to get off the street because I was killing business. The delivery guys though, they’re my brothers, doing the grunt work of bringing product to the restaurants and stores every day. They hustle down the street, huffing and puffing as they push their dollies. I never hear them talking on their phones.
I tolerate the slow pace in the morning because if we don’t stake out our spot early, we won’t have it for the more lucrative afternoon hours. Things usually heat up around the middle of the day. That’s when the tourists come out. Normally, if people pass by without slowing, I keep to myself. But if someone dawdles as they pass by, I try to directing their attention to Patience, “Beautiful dog, isn’t she?”
If there’s no response, I don’t push it. But if I can engage them, I have a good shot at getting some change.
“Yes, she is. Lab?”
“Yeah. I got her after I got back from Iraq.” I have a couple of tactics I use once people are engaged. If they sound moderately sympathetic, I usually follow up right away. “Spare any change today? Would be greatly appreciated.”
But if they seem really empathetic, I use a different line. “Yeah, you know I’m a blind vet. Would you consider donating a dollar so that I can cover my guide dog’s monthly vet bills? She’s due for her heartworm pills.”
Regardless of my approach, I never say much more. Silence is an effective strategy to employ when begging. Sometimes a stranger will press a dollar or two into my hand, or add to the coins I keep on the sidewalk, next to the dog. I figure it’s the guilt that gets them. And it’s not the guilt about seeing me. Like Jewels, most people probably think if I tried hard enough, I should be able to take care of myself. It’s the dog that gets them.
“Hey hero boy, how’s the money dog doing?”
“What’s up Danny, you making a beer run?”
“Yup, you want anything?”
I pull out the wad of bills from my front pocket. The twenties are on the inside, and nine singles are on the outside. I peel off three singles. “Yeah, get me a 24-ounce Pabst.”
“You know they’re $2.25, and I charge a dollar for my services.” I stick my hand in my pocket, pull out one of the larger coins, make sure it has a grooved edge, and give him the quarter. I don’t mind paying him for running errands during the day. He tries, but he’s not very good at panhandling. So he makes a couple of bucks by doing odds and ends for me and a couple of the other guys working in the area.
“Just get me a beer.”
When Danny comes back, we follow our normal routine.
“Be back in five.” My right hand signals for Patience to come while my left hand grabs the small brown bag.
“Bathroom,” I command. Patience heads off in the direction of the Town Hall. Once in a bathroom stall I pee, zip up, pull the can from the brown bag, and drink the beer in three gulps. The can safely stuffed back in the bag, I flush the toilet, and drop the bag in the garbage can on the way out.
“Water.” Patience guides me to the public water fountain. I bend down, turn on the lower spigot, cup my hands, and let the dog slurp at whatever collects in my palms. Once her thirst is quenched, she walks over to a grassy area, pees, and after three complete rotations, poops. I dig a paper bag out of another trash can, and pick up her mess. Once the dog does a final sniff of the area, we make our way to the hotdog cart where I treat myself to an extra-long hotdog with ketchup, mustard, relish and onions. The thing is gone in three bites, and we head back to our spot.
“Ohhh, look. Here comes the happy couple.”
“Get outta here Danny. Now.”
“Okay, Mr. Money Dog. But you better be careful. I saw the doggie van trolling the streets while you were gone. Maybe they be looking for you.”
“Thanks Danny. I can handle them if they come around.”
“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Smoothie. You got anything else you need done today?”
“Actually, yeah. Can you bring my rent money over to your mom?”
“It’ll cost ya. Five bucks”
“I’ll give you two or I’ll do it myself.”
“I said two or I’ll do it myself. You gonna do it or not?”
“Yeah, I could stand to get something to eat while I’m there anyway.”
I count out the rent money, plus two singles, and hand the bills to Danny. As he walks away, mumbles, “I wish I had a doggie.”
About two hours later I hear Danny’s familiar whistle as he comes around the corner. His boots are hitting the ground with renewed enthusiasm. He’s always happier after his mom feeds him. As he gets closer he asks, “How’s the happy couple doin’?”
I turn towards him, and the bright afternoon sun cuts across the useful vision in my right eye. The flashback is immediate and the bright orange flash of fire is more vivid than usual. Focus, I say to myself, you can do it. Just like the doctor said.
“Easy brother. It’s just me, you, and doggie here in Boulder. Okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” I suck air in through my mouth. “You know how it is…I’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, I get it.” Then Danny whispers, “Hey, looks like you have some prospects coming our way. I’ll be across the street if you need anything. Bye, bye doggie.”
As two sets of footsteps approached, their pace slows.
“Hey, nice dog,” a male voice says.
“Yeah. And she’s got the most beautiful eyes,” confirms the female voice.
“You serve?” he asks
“Yeah, two tours in Iraq.”
“IED get you?”
“No, incoming on the barracks.”
“Here man, here’s twenty bucks for you. We appreciate your service to our country.” He presses the bill into my hand.
“Wow, that’s generous of you.”
“Well,” says the female voice, “We get it. My brother served. He made it through, but we feel his pain.”
Feel his pain? I doubt it. The tips of my ears feel like they’re on fire. “Thanks man. It’ll help me take care of the dog.”
As the two walk away, the anger continues to build up in my veins. If you weren’t there, you can’t feel the pain. The bright orange blast, the screaming, the crying, the smell, the silence. No one will ever know the despair death brings. But hey, I should be working a real job, right? Like I’m doing nothing every day. Like I never did anything. The screaming, the crying, the silence. Breath, I tell myself. Air goes up my nostrils, and then somehow finds its way back out.
I hear a set of wheels rub up against the curb in front of us. “Hey, Jeremy, it’s Patrick, from the Guide Dog Foundation. We just want to check in with you, and see how the dog is doing.”
Shit. I start to hyperventilate. “Did that bastard call you about me again?” My left foot starts to tap on the sidewalk. “You can’t take my dog. I need my dog. You can’t take her from me again.”
“Jeremy, it’s okay man. Really.” A car door opens and then closes. “We just want to check on her, that’s all.”
“I know she needs a bath. I’m going to do it today. I promise. I’ll get it done today.” Fight or flight. Make a decision. Quick.
“Come on girl,” I say, and start to run towards the entrance to the coffee shop.
“Faster,” I say, and ignore the dog’s signal to stop at the curb. “It’s okay girl…I got it.” I feel Patience cut in front of me, and cross over to my right side. As she does so I trip and fall, but her momentum carries her into the street. Brakes screech. I hear her choke chain tighten. Someone yanks her backwards and the car avoids hitting her. The dog yelps for a full five seconds before quieting to a whimper.
“What the hell is goin’ on out here.” It’s Jewels.
“I got her, Jeremy,” Patrick says, and then turns away from me, “Don’t worry buddy, the dog was just doing her job. Nothing to worry about here. Everyone is okay.”
“Like hell everyone is okay. This guy can’t take care of himself, or that dog. That’s why I keep callin’ you guys. When you gonna do something?”
“Come on pal, back off.”
Still on the ground I ask, “The dog, is the dog okay?”
“Yeah, I think she’s okay. She avoided the car.” Patrick pauses, as if he needs to gather himself. “Patience did exactly what she needed to, she cut in front of you to keep you from going into the street. She did great, ha girl?” I hear his hands rub her body. “Her limbs feel good, how about you?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Thanks. For grabbing her.”
I hear Danny talking to the dog. “Hey, little girl, it’s okay.” She yawns, and whines.
“It’s okay,” he repeats until she stops. “I love you too little girl.”
“Is she really okay?” I ask Danny.
“Yeah, she’s okay, scared but okay.”
“She’ll probably be sore over the next couple of days though,” Patrick adds.
Still laying on the sidewalk, I ask Patrick, “What’s gonna happen to her now?”
“Nothing, you guys are a great team. It looks like she needs to be combed, maybe get washed up a bit. But other than that…”
Hearing the good news, I try to stand up, and Danny grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet. “Come on Jeremy, let’s get the dog home.”
Danny grabs my elbow, the dog’s leash, and the three of us start to walk toward the Angelica’s house. Jewels shouts at Patrick, “Hey, you just gonna let them leave?”
“Yeah, I am. That dog is being taken care of, and you really need to stop calling us unless there’s a real problem. You almost got them both killed.”
Yup, almost got killed. Lucky to be alive, they say. Danny pulls me in towards him.
“I got an idea,” he says. “How ‘bout I set up the tent on the screened-in porch for you and the little girlie tonight?”
“Yeah, I can set up the tent, lay out some foam pads, and you can stay at the house without having to worry about being inside. Baby steps, right?”
“I don’t know.” Fight the stink. Fight the crying. Fight the silence. I close my eyes and think about how the dog only cares about me. She deserves better. I want to be better.
“I guess so. But we need to walk over to the grocery store. I left some dog food in the bushes and I want to pick it up.” We go get the dog food, and then make our way to the house. After a home-cooked meal, I let Mrs. Angelica help me comb out the dog’s matted hair while Danny works on creating a comfy bed on the porch for us. Once we’re done brushing the dog, Mrs. Angelica gets a wet rag and helps me wipe the dog’s face. Finally, Patience and I go find Danny.
“Here,” he said. “Plenty of fresh air, you can hear anything goin’ on outside. Check it out.” I crawl into the tent, and the dog follows me. I turn and sit upright, and immediately try to sooth myself by rocking back and forth.
“Oh boy,” I mumble.
“You okay?” Danny asks.
“I don’t feel so good.”
Danny crawls inside. “Let’s just lay down. I’ll stay until you fall asleep. Down little girlie.”
I lay on my back and Danny settles on his side. The dog curls up with her back up against Danny’s stomach. I hear him giving her kisses. She groans and stretches out, putting her paw on my knuckles. I take it in the palm of my hand, and squeeze.