Talking to Dogs

When I was 19 years old, I bought a pit bull from two shamans on 4th Avenue in Tucson.

“What’s a shaman?” I asked the women, who sat cross-legged on the corner, wearing patchwork strips of buckskins, suede, and varying leather textures, selling rare gems and puppies, as if they were in the same product line. Their skin also blended into shades of leather, the exchange of absorbing decades of desert sun.

“It’s like a spiritual guru. We understand the alignments of the stars, we see things, we engage a transcendence of the material world and use ritual to access a spiritual world…we understand animals and their connection to the earth…”

The taller woman had piercing green eyes, the kind you don’t trust, as if they were stolen, like rare gems, too glaring, too bright, for someone with such tanned skin. She puffed from a rolled cigarette and pushed the puppies towards me, starting to haggle, like we were at a street market in a third-world country.

Meanwhile, I was getting sniffed by a leashed potbelly pig with a pierced tail.

The Shamans were in town for the gem festival, an event that always seemed to attract a motley crew of gypsies and vagabonds. The pit bulls were probably too young to be taken from their mother, but looked sweetly helpless, and probably drugged by the desert heat, as most of us were during the barren summer months. We stumbled and wheezed, hence my decision: I was hazily determined that I could not live without one of these dogs.

Somehow I convinced my roommate, Heather, to split the cost of the new puppy with me. She wasn’t a pushover, but she was skinny, and easily swayed by my harebrained schemes. Once I convinced her to go on a date with the wily dishwasher from the bar where I waitressed.

She married him.

We returned to the corner with our checkbooks, where the puppies were panting, hot and desperately trying to climb out of the cardboard box.

Each of us wrote a check for 300 dollars, 600 dollars total, which even now seems ludicrous for any animal, particularly when investing in a notoriously vicious breed from a homeless woman. Still, I made peace with my depleted checking account, parted with my half of the investment and tripped happily home barefoot, holding our baby pit bull.

Like parents of a newborn, we sat on the kitchen floor and watched, admiring every  sniff and stumble, not having any idea what care she would need or how we would successfully rear her into adulthood. This must be what parenting feels like—blissfully ignoring the road ahead, just to get through the day.

Heather and I lived in a poverty-level apartment, a building that demanded I climb to the roof nightly to get to the fuse box to turn the electricity on. Also, I wasn’t allowed to have dogs in my apartment, which I considered only a minor snag in the 10-year plan. Within the hour, we had also considered puppy care through our remaining college years and grad school where we would have shared custody, even if we moved out of state.

After dark, I snuggled into bed with the new puppy we named Luna, Spanish for “moon,” her thin layer of white fur, reflecting a pale light. She draped around my neck, apparently to be close to my pulse, a comforting sound for puppies that miss their mother’s womb.

Before I dozed off, I heard a tapping at my door, first lightly, then with more urgency. I tip-toed across the hardwood floors and looked out the side window where I saw the Shamans standing on my front porch, whispering to each other. They knocked again, this time pounding aggressively, fist to wood. I unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door a crack.

When they saw me, they quickly straightened, like marionettes pulled to life. Smiling, their loosened, black teeth seemed to dangle from wide grins.

“Hiiiii,” they said in unison, like it wasn’t strange… like they had been over for tea in the past, like they didn’t just get me out of bed uninvited, not to mention, by stalking the address on my personal check.

Not wanting to seem too incredulous, I waited for them to start talking. I knew they would. Con-artists have a way with words.

“Sorry to bother you, but we are having a bit of an emergency,” the taller one said, almost giddy.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, genuinely sympathetic. They already knew I was an easy target.

“We need our prescription medications filled and we can’t cash the checks until tomorrow. Is there any way you could give us cash instead?”

Heather had woken up and was standing next to me, her stick legs protruding from oversized pair of boxers. We both kind of shrugged our shoulders and agreed, wanting a quick and easy solution to the con-artist-shaman-gypsies standing on the front porch. We put on coats over our pajama pants and I slipped on a pair of Converse without socks. The four of us piled into Heather’s Toyota, and  as if trundling along with two homeless women through the desert at midnight didn’t seem like a bad enough idea, we headed towards an ATM.

When we parked, I turned around and made, what I thought was a reasonable request, “Can we have the checks back then?” The Shamans, who we now learned were named, Taliya and Zuzi, looked at me blankly, like they hadn’t thought of this hitch in their ruse.

“Well, you see, that’s the problem,” Taliya said, the tone of her voice arching. She paused and nudged Zuzi who answered, “The thing is… that we gave the checks to our friend who was going to cash them for us, but now we don’t have them. How about we call her? Yes, let’s call her and tell her to rip them up.”

The second part of this plan made no sense to me, even as I stuck quarters into a pay phone, handed the phone over, and listened to Zuzi explain to some high-pitched woman on the other end, that they no longer needed the checks because we were giving them cash. Then she handed me the phone, “Okay, she’s ripping it up. Just listen.”

I put my ear to the phone and listened as I heard the sound of paper tearing slowly and meticulously on the other end, as if precision made it more real or drawing out the sound made it more believable. This was supposed to be the empirical proof I needed to trust that these two pill-popping puppy pushers had innocently given our checks away and now needed cash for prescription medicine at midnight.

While I was smart enough to know that they could have been ripping any paper at that moment, I did desperately want to believe it was our checks. Also, being young and from the Midwest, I was focused on conflict mitigation. I agreed and quickly convinced bony-bones Heather to empty her account as well. We agreed to fork over cash, in addition to the two checks a third-party supposedly and audibly, ripped up, before my very ears.

After handing over the money, we dropped the gypsies on the corner of Euclid and University and stumbled back into the house where Luna was crying and had pooped on my pillow.


The next morning, I stood outside of Wells Fargo until it opened and successfully cancelled my check.

Puppy-rearing was not as romantic as I had hoped.  Three days after the Shaman-scandal, I sold Luna (at half-price) to my buddy Nick, who realized that his potential to score increased exponentially when he was weilding a puppy. I remember handing her over to him on the street. Like a break-up, my heart wrenched, but I wanted to get it over with. I gave him the leash and told him to walk away quickly because it was going to be too hard.  Again, I stumbled home barefoot, this time, teary-eyed.

It is always surprising how quickly we can be taken, by love, by attachment, of an idea or hope.


There are still puppy mills in New York. One of the shops in Queens happens to be run by Russians: just walking in felt illegal. The men could have been holding machetes at the door and if you got too close to the dogs, you would feel a stern hand on your shoulder and get a Russian reprimand or get escorted out. One day after I had reached into a cage and was shown the door, I wandered about a block, and, saw a man standing in a trench coat. He whistled, sort of discreetly.

Then, “Hey!” he whispered again, “Pshht,” he was trying to get my attention. I looked up and he nodded his head, as if to say, “Girl! Over here.”

Furtively, he glanced around like we had just met on a drug deal, “You looking for a puppy?” he asked. Before I could answer, he opened up his trench coat, where three small puppies slept, tucked away in the pocket lining.

After my pit bull shaman ordeal, I have forbid myself from purchasing a puppy off the street, especially when the seller has a Russian accent.


South of San Francisco, my friends dog was left paralyzed by a degenerative disease. Chloe, the Corgi, had a wheelchair, but painstakingly pulled herself along the pavement on her front legs. She was 13-years-old this year. Without the kind of self-awareness it takes to sense pity, suffering, and shame, old age doesn’t seem as cruel in animals. Still, it was understood that her time was growing near.

For weeks, there was talk of putting Chloe down, even use of the word euthanasia—swirling philosophical debates on the right to live. But, for those who knew and loved her, it was easier not to think about this, even as her eating slowed, her movements, stalled, her rests, stretched longer into the days.

On the evening before Chloe was put to sleep, there was a solar eclipse. The neighbor came over with a welding mask. I pulled the straps over the back of my head and looked directly at the sun, my eyes focusing through the dark lens. I watched as the moon intercepted the sun, almost perceptively, like you could hear the sound of grinding. I whipped off the mask, and went to grab my camera. The eclipse made crescent shadows dance across the farm house and over the grass.

Excitedly, I passed Chloe on the sidewalk. I wanted to say, “Chloe! Do you see this? Have you ever seen an eclipse?” She looked up at me and blinked twice, sniffed the air, then laid her head back on the pavement.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had heard someone say, “Chloe is going to enter the spirit world tomorrow.” I wanted to tell her to enjoy this moment, this evening, and this light. But, you cannot tell a dog, that the day will be her last.

For the same reasons, when talking to a dog, you cannot articulate the rarity of a solar eclipse.

Before I left that night, I pet Chloe one last time, and touched her ear. She laid still. On the drive back to the city, I thought about the eclipse and I was reminded of Luna, the moon, my pit bull, who would also be turning 13 this year.

I saw Luna a few times before I left Tucson. She turned out to be a bit of a problem-dog with lots of allergies: she wore a permanent lampshade on her head and always seemed to get caught in cacti. Once she was swarmed by bees. At some point Nick could no longer care for her and I heard she was sent to Chicago to live with his mom who had a nice house and a yard in the suburbs.

For dogs, time passes differently. They enter our world, and depart, too quickly. Our intersections in life are often brief, and, endings can startle us, sometimes abruptly, often painfully.

I tried to remember the spirit world described by the shamans. I wished I had been listening. Maybe they would have something to say about this. I hope Chloe’s spirit world is a lot like the Chicago life I imagined for Luna—I hope that the spirit world, has a backyard, with lots of shade and room to run, somewhere out of the desert heat.

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