The barber's dog has no hair. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. But there are big bald patches on his back and hind legs and his right eye is practically crusted shut. The dog is so filthy I can smell him in the open air from behind the chain link fence. I reach my hand close enough for him to sniff. He's shy at first, almost disbelieving, but pretty soon we're pals. He makes pig-like, happy cooing sounds as I pet him. I make happy cooing sounds too.
It's early in the morning and a woman on a bike stops at the curb and looks at us.
It's awkward, so after a moment I ask, "Do you know this dog? Do you know who he belongs to?"
She points to the sign on the building next door. Clean Cuts. "He's the barber's dog. I think someone comes around to feed him."
"He looks kind of ... uncomfortable," I say. "Is anyone ever out here with him?"
"Never," she says. "He's a watchdog."
The woman rides away, and I linger a few more minutes, wondering what to do next. The barber's dog has no idea what's going on in my head, so he just sits, all tall and proud, for everyone to see him getting his neck scratched.
When I finally gather myself to go, we're both a bit dramatic. What's the word for despair meets betrayal meets crestfallen? That's the way the dog looks at me, goop obstructing his pupils. He pushes his body as far into the fence as he can and lets out a soft cry as I walk away. "You're killing me," I tell him. My eyes aren't exactly clear either.
Back at home, I dial up Oakland Animal Services. "I'm calling about the barber's dog," I say and I give the address of the storefront next to the chain link fence.
"We know this dog," the woman on the phone tells me. "You're not the first person to call. Our team has been to the site and the owner isn't breaking any laws."
"Right," I say. "But I'm concerned because it was pretty cold out last night and the dog doesn't have a ton of hair. A lady on a bike said that the dog never goes indoors."
"The dog is fed, the dog has water," the woman says.
"But he's filthy dirty," I tell her. "And he's lonely."
"It's not illegal for a dog to be dirty," the phone woman says. "He has everything he's required to have. The notes here indicate there are even two doghouses on the property."
"Two doghouses?" I say. "He could have seven doghouses. He could have three leashes, two grandfather clocks, and a shoehorn. What good is that? He's out there day and night alone. What if his water spills?"
"M'am. He's not running around stray or starving so there's nothing we can do."
"He's starving for attention."
She seems genuinely apologetic. "I'm sorry, but that's not against the law."
"Well then what's the number for the Crappy Laws Department?"
I don't remember who hangs up first, but I'm pretty sure neither of us felt great about the conversation.
I show up at lunchtime but the barbershop is dark and the door is padlocked. Today is a weekday, so I'd counted on it being open. I'd practiced asking the barber if I could walk his dog. I'd even brought a leash.
Behind the chain link fence, sitting on the old bathmat I'd brought him yesterday, was the dog. He wagged to see me and I scratched him on his itchy back. We talked for a while (mostly me), and just as I was getting ready to apologize for having to leave so soon, the side door to the barber shop opened. A young man, maybe 25 years old, stepped out.
It caught me off guard. "Is this your dog?" I asked him, not at all like I'd rehearsed.
"Oh." I tried to think of some explanation for why I was sitting on the sidewalk with my hand through the fence. "Um. Well, I was just looking for the dog's owner. I ... uh ... He looks just like my childhood dog and I guess I had this crazy idea that I could maybe take him for a walk."
The split second between the man opening his mouth to respond and words actually escaping seemed like forever. "I know the owners. I'll get the key," he said. "Come by here tomorrow around this time and you can walk the dog." And then he sprinted across the street to catch up with his friend.
Could it have really have been that easy? I turned to the barber's dog and we did a little dance of joy. I hopped up and down and made funny noises and snorted. And the barber's dog hopped up and down to see me hopping and he wriggled on his back on the cement and licked my hands through the chain links.
And so now I'm depending on a stranger - a man who says vaguely, "tomorrow at this time" - to make good on his word to a fellow stranger. I've had close friends break sturdier promises. But there is a chance he'll show tomorrow. There is a chance.
Tonight, sitting in front of my computer and hoping it's not too cold outside, there's a glimmer of hope. I try to picture myself here, 24 hours from now, writing about the great walk I've had with the dog. There's a spring in each of our steps as we troll the neighborhood. I can't see it as clearly as I would like but I don't let the image disappear. As I type, I catch a faint whiff of the barber's dog, his stink embedded in the sleeve of my sweatshirt.
Except for the barber's dog, no one's waiting for me when I show up, so I tell myself I'm early. Then I see that the barbershop is open - and make myself go in.
"Um ..." I say quietly. "Hello."
The lone woman in the place stops shaving the old man in her chair and puts down the razor. I don't appear to be the typical client, and it suddenly gets quiet. I can feel all eyes on me.
"I'm looking for the owner of the dog behind the fence out there." I say to no one in particular. And then to the woman: "I was told I might be able to take him for a walk." I know I must sound like an idiot. My face is hot and red.
"Who told you that?" the woman asks.
"Umm. A man outside here yesterday ..."
The woman shakes her head and picks up a cell phone. She looks at me while she talks:"There's a lady here who says she was told she could walk Fella ... Yeah, she says someone told her yesterday ... Okay ... Bye."
She puts the phone on the counter and shakes her head again. "No. The owner says no. You can't walk the dog."
"Okay." It stings. But I tell her, "Okay. Thanks for ... you know ... checking for me."
Back outside I break the news to the dog. There's still a little time left in my lunch break so we make the most of it. Just the two of us, a beautiful fall day, and a padlocked chain-link fence. I'm about to leave when one of the men from the shop comes out.
"I just started working here," he tells me. "But I pet this dog every day."
I think I smiled. Or maybe I cried. "Bless you," I say, belying deep atheist tendencies. And then, "Could you make sure he has water too?"
He nods and says, "I'll try."
The barber's dog is lying on the cement under the truck when I get there around lunchtime. There's no sign of the bathmat I'd brought on Sunday morning. The toy is gone too. I'd seen both yesterday, which makes me think the barber has only been by once since Sunday. The piles of shit in the corner have also been removed.
The dog still looks and smells completely filthy but it's not an odor I mind, and I set to petting. He wiggles and kisses. For the first time I notice a little flappy skin piece on his chest. It doesn't look painful or cancerous (what am I, a veterinarian now?) so I figure it's the least of the worries of the barber's dog.
When my break is up and I have to go back to work, I dig into my bag to get the Kong I've stashed. He gets the hang of the thing quickly, biting and chewing on it to free the treats. I smile to see him busy and engrossed, and I want to stay and watch him as he puzzles out the rest of the goodies. But I don't have time.
On the way home, I compose a letter in my head.
We haven't always agreed on things, but I know you're trying to make better laws for animals in this country. Can you please hurry? I don't think the barber's dog has too many years left in him and I want him to know at least a little joy. I'm worried because pretty soon I'll run out of Kongs and toys and bathmats to bring him. Can you tell me what I should do now? I don't mean what legislation to support or how to act in general. I mean literally, what do I do for this dog tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.