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Chasing Tails

The Subject

My family has a dogwalker, Alice. For the longest time the only way I knew her was through the notes she left, letting us know how the walk had gone that day. For the most part they were relatively straightforward, mundane even, just descriptions of the weather and the path that they had taken. But every once in a while she would throw in some detail, something disarmingly funny, and suddenly I felt like there was a world of stories contained in these walks that I had no knowledge of, and probably never would. When I finally got the chance to meet her, that feeling only grew.

The Angle

People like to invent stories, especially when there is an absence of information. Rarely, though, do those imagined tales perfectly align with reality. This creates an interesting conundrum when someone actually confronts the truth of a situation, a sudden tension between wanting to preserve a carefully constructed world and knowing that there might be an even more intriguing tale beyond the shattered illusion. 

The Profile

The notes were so simple at first. Day, time, weather, route — just the bare necessities. “Rainy today. We did the loop.” Their conciseness was refreshing. Poetic, even. Had Ernest Hemingway been a dog walker, these are the notes he would have left.

Alice came into our lives in 2013 when my family decided that Wesley, our joyfully dopey Golden Retriever, shouldn’t be spending his days alone. Since my parents both worked full-time and I was away at college, the next best option was to hire someone. My mom put in a call to Paws, a professional animal-watching agency whose website home page features a blurry photograph of a bunch of old people in holiday sweaters. Whatever message they’re trying to send is unclear, but elderly people tend to inspire an unreasonable amount of trust. We took the bait.

Paws policy dictates that employees are required to leave notes for their clients after each visit. For the neurotic pet owners of suburban Massachusetts, this was not only a nice touch, but also something of a dog-walking litmus test. After all, how are you supposed “trust” someone with your pet if that person can’t even use quotation marks correctly? I mean, really.

As far as quickly-scribbled, crudely-designed qualifying tests go, Alice’s beginning wasn’t exactly perfect. Her early notes were startlingly perfunctory, bordering on unfeeling. “All business done” sounded more like the cool professionalism of a hired assassin than the friendly words I expected from someone who spent her days with furry animals. I thought of Hemingway’s gun collection, and wondered if there might be an author better suited to this job. Elizabeth Gilbert, perhaps, or A. A. Milne.

My dog, however, was ecstatic. I’d never seen him more animated, and this was already the most absurdly happy animal I knew. Either Alice was drugging him, or these walks were going remarkably well. I started to shift my thinking about her notes, reading the brusque simplicity as an indication not of a calculating killer but of a no-nonsense woman who would faithfully protect any creature placed under her watch. Besides, even if we had mistakenly hired a hit man, she was doing a phenomenal job of walking our dog.

As tends to happen in suburbia, we fell into a routine: Alice would come every day to walk Wesley, and each night we would return to a fresh entry in the log of their activities. Occasionally she replaced “All business done” with “Wesley did all his jobs,” and we laughed at the idea of our dog worriedly mumbling about not getting his tax reports in on time. For the most part, though, there wasn’t much variation. The notes had a comforting predictability, set to become another unremarkable fact of life.

That was before the sit down strike.

Whenever we’re out on a walk and Wesley realizes we’re headed towards home, he has a habit of abruptly sitting down and refusing to budge. He thinks he’s being clever. My family mostly refers to this as “a pain in the ass”, but “sit down strike” was on a whole other level. I could picture the scene: Wesley doing his best imitation of an apathetic cat, doggedly determined not to give in to his tendency to shower all moving objects with adoration, and Alice, leashless hand on one hip, throwing a sassy comeback at his resistance. My laughter was tinged with desperation: I needed to know what else was happening during these walks.

Though the descriptions remained tantalizingly brief, the tone of the notes had transformed. They were no longer just reports of the weather, but tales of anger, adventure, misunderstanding, and love. It was like watching a romance unfold, replete with rolls in the grass, injuries sustained, and battles with mulch-obsessed neighbors. They were the old couple everyone aspired to be, the kind that could crack up when the other tripped, but also share the tenderest of moments together.

The details of Alice’s life were no less intriguing. She was the director of a local hand bell choir (characteristic of suburban Massachusetts), and the owner of a red moped (not). She got married the previous year, and had a daughter and a dog named Indiana. She loved crockpots, but deeply opposed kitchen renovations. I was mesmerized.

I know I probably should have stopped reading when I began to notice signs of both jealousy and addiction in myself, but I couldn’t. Alice had taken on celebrity status in my mind, the Google searches that turned up empty only fueling my fascination further. The weekend and holiday withdrawals were fierce; vacations were even worse. I pleaded with Wesley for stories, but he responded only with vacant panting. Alice had me hooked on a slow-release drip. I couldn’t get out if I tried.

We met one day, by accident. I had stopped home for lunch and was headed back out when she came in. She was older than I had expected, though her outfit — a blue t-shirt two sizes too big, khaki shorts that went down to her knees, white socks, worn sneakers — might have belonged to an 8-year-old. She had round glasses and a round nose, offset by the severe cut of her straight, gray hair. Her gaze was direct but gentle, and she let out an appreciative laugh when Wesley raced over to greet her.

This was it, my opportunity to find out everything there was to know about the woman behind the notes, but the loving look between dog walker and dog walked made me think twice. In that moment I realized that this was their time, their secret language, their story alone. I was lucky to get even a glimpse — asking for more would be unthinkably greedy. As if she’d read my thoughts, or, more likely, become extremely uncomfortable with my silent stare, Alice bent over and said to Wesley in the way that people only talk to dogs and small children: “I’m here for you, isn’t that right? I’m just here for you.” And then they were gone.

A few months later, Alice left a note letting us know that she was going on vacation: “When you watch the weatherman, we’re over his right shoulder in N.Y.” I chuckled — no amount of calculation could ever reveal where she was actually going. It was a trail of bread crumbs leading nowhere, a puzzle with no solution. But still I watched the weatherman’s shoulder, waiting for the day when I could figure out the rest.   

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