The idea was to move to the country. It would be healthier for the kids, we reasoned, and maybe better for our struggling marriage. I'd always been a city boy; spent the majority of my adult life in urban settings, the previous seven years in Seattle. Little did I know what real rural life was like.
I had accepted a teaching job at a high school, about 30 miles west of Portland. The town seemed pleasant enough. Lots of trees and farmland, if you liked that sort of thing. Cathy, my wife, seemed to. She was originally a small-town girl and never looked fully comfortable with our urban lifestyle and hippy-dippy friends. I think, for her, moving to rural Oregon was a relief.
The girls were excited about the move too. Jessica was about 10, in fifth grade, and always ready for adventure. Gabrielle was five years younger and lived in the shadow of her big sister's oversized personality. We settled in and began a new life out at the end of Jack Road, up a steep gravel driveway. I started teaching at the high school, Jessie entered the middle school, which was in the same building as the high school, and Gabrielle began elementary school. Cathy took a job as a landscaper's helper, a hands-on physical job, but she liked the work, coming home every night with a smile on her face and dirt caked under her fingernails. She looked good too—healthy and flushed from the sun.
We tried to adjust to rural life. Some of it was quite lovely. The rented house sat on ten acres of wooded property. Jessie, most of all, would wander off for hours, alone among the trees. I was later to learn that she was having a hard time with the socialization process in 6th grade.
One Saturday afternoon, I took her to the mall in Hillsboro, the closest sizable town, to buy some new school clothes. On our way out of one of the chain brand stores, we saw a guy with a box of puppies. Jessie wanted to look. Mixed brown mongrels jumped, desperate to be held, in their own animal way knowing this was the only chance they had. Jessie was immediately in love. Maybe it would be good for all of us to have a pet, I thought. Somewhere, I remembered that Cathy was not fond of dogs. I conveniently put that out of my head and watched as Jessie picked the puppy she wanted, the one that most assiduously licked her face. I paid the dog guy the ten dollars he was asking. On the drive home, we named the pup Chinook, a male, who looked to have some German Shepherd in its genes.
I'll never forget the expression on C's face when we arrived home with the mutt. Her look said it all; said this adds another stick to the load I'm already tired of carrying. Said, you bastard, I can't take the dog away from our daughter, but I'd like to, would like to take it and you out to the creek and drown you both. She picked up the puppy in the box and went with Jessie and an excited Gabrielle to make a space for the dog in the garage. Didn't say a word to me.
The dog thrived, became a loved member of the family, but was not well-trained or disciplined. We all made halfhearted efforts, but it was easier to simply let Chinook roam about. If he was getting into mischief, well, that's what country dogs did. Only problem was that we did have neighbors out in the boonies. The Dobers lived on the spread adjacent to ours. They had three teenage boys, who trapped animals and sold their pelts. I'd only spoken a few words to Jed Dober, the patriarch, a stocky, grizzled looking man, a guy who worked his whole life with his hands and was, thus, both admirable and unknowable to me. My dad didn't even own a hammer.
The Dobers had a flock of ducks and chickens on their property, which extended down the driveway to an algae-covered pond where the ducks paddled about. Some days we would hear Chinook barking at the birds, but didn't think too much about it. He was still a puppy, still harmless.
Dober walked over to our house one afternoon to tell me that our pup was threatening the ducks. Not just barking but chasing and snapping, and, in his words, "It can't happen no more."
"But your dogs are down there too," I pointed at his two brutish-looking dogs, snuffling the dirt not twenty yards in front of us.
"My dogs don't chase livestock," Dober said. "I'd have the boys put them down if they did." He pulled his billed wool hat further down over his forehead.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked.
"Keep your dog away from the pond."
At dinner, I told the girls they should keep a better eye on Chinook and not let him wander about so much.
"Maybe you should get home and take him for a walk then," Cathy said. "We can't leave him locked up all day with no exercise."
"I have a job," I snapped at her. "In case you hadn't noticed."
"And you're the one who brought that dog in here, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Chinook belongs to everyone," I said. "You don't want me to get rid of him, do you?"
She stared at her dinner plate.
There was no doubt that the girls really loved this big gangly puppy, even though they were not so good at taking care of him. There were piles of dog shit all over the property.
"I'll walk him," Gay said. "As soon as I get home from school."
"You're too small," Jessie said. "Chinook will pull you all over the place."
"Not if I talk to him nice," Gay insisted. "He listens to me."
"Oh yeah," Jesse said. "You talk dog language, I guess."
"You'll both walk him," I interrupted. "If you want to have a dog, you have to take responsibility." I glanced over at Cathy, hoping she was appreciating my display of good parenting. "And use that leash I bought. Don't just let him run amok."
"What's a muck?" Gay asked.
"Just use the leash," I said. We all laughed. And so that was settled.
I didn't hear from Dober again. The girls were keeping up their end of the bargain, at least that's what they were telling me. Since I was keeping long hours at the high school, I didn't get home until well after the girls and Cathy did.
It was while we were all sitting down to dinner, around 6:30, that we heard the shot. It was very loud, like a car backfiring, but a few seconds after the blast we all heard the wail, a high-pitched squeal, that we knew immediately was Chinook. I pushed away from the table and ran out the front door, the rest of the family following behind. On one side of the dirt road, next to the pond, lay our dog, keeled over on his side, his tongue hanging out. The girls ran over and stooped beside their pet. On the other side of the road, stood one of the older Dober boys, cradling in his arms a long shotgun.
"Chinook has a hole in his side, Daddy," Jessie screamed. Gay was already sobbing.
"What the hell is going on here?" I demanded of the boy. "Did you shoot that dog?"
"My dad said not to let him bother the ducks no more. He was down here every day. Killed two of them." He looked down at the dirt and scuffed his foot around. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt him."
"You didn't mean to hurt him? What the fuck did you think would happen when you fired a goddamned gun?"
I knelt down by the girls and Cathy. Chinook had a gaping hole in his side.
"Is Chinook going to die?" Jessie asked.
"I don't know," I lied. "Let's get him up to the house." I shoved my hands underneath the warm body and lifted up. Blood spilled onto the sleeves of my shirt. Cathy took the girls by the hand and they followed me back up the driveway. As we passed the Dobers' place, Jed Dober stood there with his arms crossed over his chest. "Didn't mean for him to shoot the dog," he said. "Just wanted to warn you."
I stopped and stared at him, the dog sagging in my arms, the girls crying behind me. I couldn't find any words. I turned away and hurried up to our front yard. I imagined a racing trip into town, to an animal hospital if we could find one, but Chinook had taken his last breath by the time I laid him down at our doorstep.
We buried him that evening, out behind the vegetable garden and the sunflowers that Cathy had planted. We put his leash in there with him and his favorite toys and Cathy said a prayer and each of the girls said goodbye and I shoveled dirt into the grave until it was mounded up on top.
"Do dogs go to heaven?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know," I told her. "Maybe."
"Chinook should go to heaven," she said. "Even if he did eat that duck."
"Yeah, sweetie," I said. "I bet he will."
Before the next school year started, we moved out of Banks, into the next town down the road. None of us had been able to recover from Chinook's death. All the beauty and freedom felt sucked out of that country landscape. Now it was full of danger and pain and even death. City kids don't know about all the dying. We like to make up that hamburger only exists as a product under cellophane. The Dober family had no such conceits. They depended on the yearly deer or elk for their meat supply. Some days after the shooting, the youngest son brought over a hunk of venison for us. I don't know if it was a peace offering or a simple neighborly gesture, but I accepted the meat and cooked it that night. The girls refused to try it.
Out in the country, a dog getting shot is no big deal. Especially one that is young and crazy and chases after the neighbors' ducks. But to our little family, it was the end of a promise. Jessie has claimed not to like dogs ever since that day. She has yet to own another pet. Gabrielle and I still talk about what happened, a marker in our lives: the trip to Maui, graduation day, the divorce, when Chinook got shot.
For my part, I still have questions. Why didn't I rip the gun away and throw it in the pond, scream at old man Dober, set poison out for his dogs? The truth, though? It all comes back on me. Everything would have been different if I had taken the time to train that dog properly, if I hadn't bought it without talking to my wife. If I hadn't gone where I didn't belong.