Animal Rescue
by Dennis Lehane
(read by James Colby)

[ADVISORY : Story contains adult language and criminal violence]

Bob found the dog in the trash.

It was just after Thanksgiving, the neighborhood gone quiet, hung-over. After bartending at Cousin Marv’s, Bob sometimes walked the streets. He was big and lumpy and hair had been growing in unlikely places all over his body since his teens. In his twenties, he’d fought against the hair, carrying small clippers in his coat pocket and shaving twice a day. He’d also fought the weight, but during all those years of fighting, no girl who wasn’t being paid for it ever showed any interest in him. After a time, he gave up the fight. He lived alone in the house he grew up in, and when it seemed likely to swallow him with its smells and memories and dark couches, the attempts he’d made to escape it—through church socials, lodge picnics, and one horrific mixer thrown by a dating service—had only opened the wound further, left him patching it back up for weeks, cursing himself for hoping.

So he took these walks of his and, if he was lucky, sometimes he forgot people lived any other way. That night, he paused on the sidewalk, feeling the ink sky above him and the cold in his fingers, and he closed his eyes against the evening.

He was used to it. He was used to it. It was okay.

You could make a friend of it, as long as you didn’t fight it.

With his eyes closed, he heard it—a worn-out keening accompanied by distant scratching and a sharper, metallic rattling. He opened his eyes. Fifteen feet down the sidewalk, a large metal barrel with a heavy lid shook slightly under the yellow glare of the streetlight, its bottom scraping the sidewalk. He stood over it and heard that keening again, the sound of a creature that was one breath away from deciding it was too hard to take the next, and he pulled off the lid.

He had to remove some things to get to it—a toaster and five thick Yellow Pages, the oldest dating back to 2000. The dog—either a very small one or else a puppy—was down at the bottom, and it scrunched its head into its midsection when the light hit it. It exhaled a soft chug of a whimper and tightened its body even more, its eyes closed to slits. A scrawny thing. Bob could see its ribs. He could see a big crust of dried blood by its ear. No collar. It was brown with a white snout and paws that seemed far too big for its body.

It let out a sharper whimper when Bob reached down, sank his fingers into the nape of its neck, and lifted it out of its own excrement. Bob didn’t know dogs too well, but there was no mistaking this one for anything but a boxer. And definitely a puppy, the wide brown eyes opening and looking into his as he held it up before him.

Somewhere, he was sure, two people made love. A man and a woman. Entwined. Behind one of those shades, oranged with light, that looked down on the street. Bob could feel them in there, naked and blessed. And he stood out here in the cold with a near-dead dog staring back at him. The icy sidewalk glinted like new marble, and the wind was dark and gray as slush.

“What do you got there?”

Bob turned, looked up and down the sidewalk.

“I’m up here. And you’re in my trash.”

She stood on the front porch of the three-decker nearest him. She’d turned the porch light on and stood there shivering, her feet bare. She reached into the pocket of her hoodie and came back with a pack of cigarettes. She watched him as she got one going.

“I found a dog.” Bob held it up.

“A what?”

“A dog. A puppy. A boxer, I think.”

She coughed out some smoke. “Who puts a dog in a barrel?”

“Right?” he said. “It’s bleeding.” He took a step toward her stairs and she backed up.

“Who do you know that I would know?” A city girl, not about to just drop her guard around a stranger.

“I don’t know,” Bob said. “How about Francie Hedges?”

She shook her head. “You know the Sullivans?”

That wouldn’t narrow it down. Not around here. You shook a tree, a Sullivan fell out. Followed by a six-pack most times. “I know a bunch.”

This was going nowhere, the puppy looking at him, shaking worse than the girl.

“Hey,” she said, “you live in this parish?”

“Next one over. St. Theresa’s.”

“Go to church?”

“Most Sundays.”

“So you know Father Pete?”

“Pete Regan,” he said, “sure.”

She produced a cell phone. “What’s your name?”

“Bob,” he said. “Bob Saginowski.”

Bob waited as she stepped back from the light, phone to one ear, finger pressed into the other. He stared at the puppy. The puppy stared back, like, How did I get here? Bob touched its nose with his index finger. The puppy blinked its huge eyes. For a moment, Bob couldn’t recall his sins.

“Nadia,” the girl said and stepped back into the light. “Bring him up here, Bob. Pete says hi.”

* * *

They washed it in Nadia’s sink, dried it off, and brought it to her kitchen table.

Nadia was small. A bumpy red rope of a scar ran across the base of her throat like the smile of a drunk circus clown. She had a tiny moon of a face, savaged by pockmarks, and small, heart-pendant eyes. Shoulders that didn’t cut so much as dissolve at the arms. Elbows like flattened beer cans. A yellow bob of hair curled on either side of her face. “It’s not a boxer.” Her eyes glanced off Bob’s face before dropping the puppy back onto her kitchen table. “It’s an American Staffordshire terrier.”

Bob knew he was supposed to understand something in her tone, but he didn’t know what that thing was so he remained silent.

She glanced back up at him after the quiet lasted too long. “A pit bull.”

“That’s a pit bull?”

She nodded and swabbed the puppy’s head wound again. Someone had pummeled it, she told Bob. Probably knocked it unconscious, assumed it was dead, and dumped it.

“Why?” Bob said.

She looked at him, her round eyes getting rounder, wider. “Just because.” She shrugged, went back to examining the dog. “I worked at Animal Rescue once. You know the place on Shawmut? As a vet tech. Before I decided it wasn’t my thing. They’re so hard, this breed . . .”

“What?”

“To adopt out,” she said. “It’s very hard to find them a home.”

“I don’t know about dogs. I never had a dog. I live alone. I was just walking by the barrel.” Bob found himself beset by a desperate need to explain himself, explain his life. “I’m just not . . .” He could hear the wind outside, black and rattling. Rain or bits of hail spit against the windows.

Nadia lifted the puppy’s back left paw—the other three paws were brown, but this one was white with peach spots. Then she dropped the paw as if it were contagious. She went back to the head wound, took a closer look at the right ear, a piece missing from the tip that Bob hadn’t noticed until now.

“Well,” she said, “he’ll live. You’re gonna need a crate and food and all sorts of stuff.”

“No,” Bob said. “You don’t understand.”

She cocked her head, gave him a look that said she understood perfectly.

“I can’t. I just found him. I was gonna give him back.”

“To whoever beat him, left him for dead?”

“No, no, like, the authorities.”

“That would be Animal Rescue,” she said. “After they give the owner seven days to reclaim him, they’ll—”

“The guy who beat him? He gets a second chance?”

She gave him a half-frown and a nod. “If he doesn’t take it,” she lifted the puppy’s ear, peered in, “chances are this little fella’ll be put up for adoption. But it’s hard. To find them a home. Pit bulls. More often than not?” She looked at Bob. “More often than not, they’re put down.”

Bob felt a wave of sadness roll out from her that immediately shamed him. He didn’t know how, but he’d caused pain. He’d put some out into the world. He’d let this girl down. “I . . .” he started. “It’s just . . .”

She glanced up at him. “I’m sorry?”

Bob looked at the puppy. Its eyes were droopy from a long day in the barrel and whoever gave it that wound. It had stopped shivering, though.

“You can take it,” Bob said. “You used to work there, like you said. You—”

She shook her head. “My father lives with me. He gets home Sunday night from Foxwoods. He finds a dog in his house? An animal he’s allergic to?” She jerked her thumb. “Puppy goes back in the barrel.”

“Can you give me till Sunday morning?” Bob wasn’t sure how it was the words left his mouth, since he couldn’t remember formulating them or even thinking them.

The girl eyed him carefully. “You’re not just saying it? Cause, I shit you not, he ain’t picked up by Sunday noon, he’s back out that door.”

“Sunday, then.” Bob said the words with a conviction he actually felt. “Sunday, definitely.”

“Yeah?” She smiled, and it was a spectacular smile, and Bob saw that the face behind the pockmarks was as spectacular as the smile. Wanting only to be seen. She touched the puppy’s nose with her index finger.

“Yeah.” Bob felt crazed. He felt light as a communion wafer. “Yeah.”