Oliver had been living with Mrs.Bowman for over a year now. Her husband, who passed away two months after Oliver arrived, had found him one morning sleeping in their yard.
He was a large and well-proportioned dog, the size of a rottweiler, with a massive, square head. Mr.Bowman threw him some meat scraps, which he swallowed hastily. Imposing as he was, the dog didn't seem to be aggressive. He allowed himself to be petted, wagging his tail cautiously, more ready to run than bite. There was no tag on his thick leather collar, only the name “Oliver” written on it with ink. After having the dog checked out by a vet who pronounced him “a healthy, five or six year old mutt”, Mr.Bowman, against his wife's wishes, decided to keep the stray. Their entire property was fenced in. There was a large doghouse, empty for years now, and it became his new home. He was given free rein of the yard but was not allowed inside the Bowmans' home. Mrs.Bowman had two cats and, seeing Oliver's appetite, didn't want to take any chances.
A year before Oliver's appearance a new family had moved into the neighborhood. They rented a ground floor apartment at the end of the block, across the street from the Bowmans. The quiet residential neighborhood, with blocks lined with trees and elderly people keeping watch from their stoops was a welcome change from the busy and noisy apartment building they had lived in up until then. The Bowmans became one of the first families they made an acquaintance with. Though as soon as Mrs.Bowman found out none of her new neighbors shared her enthusiasm for the game of Bingo, she lost interest in “the new people”, as she liked to call them. Meanwhile the new people settled into their new home. The two children helped their mother as much as they could, cleaning and fixing up the run down apartment. Kenny, the elder of the two, took it upon himself to paint the rooms and carpet the floors. It had been almost five years since their father walked out on them and the boy quickly learned to accept the burden of being the muscle in the family. His sister Natalie felt the loss of her father the most. She had adored him, never leaving his side when he was around. They had the same eyes, light green with a shade of blue woven in. She was the one who answered the phone when he called to say he wasn't coming home. He asked to speak with her mother and she passed the phone to her without having the chance to tell him what she had made for him. She still had the little shoebox with the faded heart on it, its contents rattling inside whenever she picked it up.
It was not until about a month after Mr.Bowman passed away after suffering a heart attack that the old widow approached the family again. She wanted to know if either the boy or his sister could help her take care of Oliver or knew someone who would. She was getting on in years and it was difficult for her to get around. Natalie, who was thirteen at that time, volunteered to feed Oliver for her.
The unassuming girl had not made any friends since they moved into their new home and she welcomed the company of the ever-playful Oliver. She refused to accept the five dollars a week offered to her by Mrs.Bowman, who did not seem to be a wealthy woman. Since they were not allowed to have animals in their apartment, she took the opportunity to care for one. She liked to play with Oliver and did so often, as he also seemed to prefer her company over others.
Now that she was officially his guardian, every morning before school and right after she would go over to see how Oliver was doing. He always seemed to sense when she was coming and would stand by the gate, uttering low growls to himself, his long tail spinning in circles. At six every afternoon she would go to feed Oliver, bringing with her leftovers from her dinner in addition to the dog food Mrs.Bowman had set aside for him. Seeing this, when her mother cooked she made sure there was always some food to spare. She didn't want Natalie sharing her meals with the dog.
One afternoon Oliver didn't come out to greet her in his usual enthusiastic manner. Worried that something was wrong, Natalie ran into the backyard, calling out his name. He emerged from the doghouse slowly, a thick chain hanging from his collar. As he stepped toward her she noticed that he was limping, favoring his front, left leg. She knelt beside him and examined the injury. He stood there patiently as she tried to figure out what was wrong. There were no visible marks on his leg but when she touched him right above the paw he pulled it back, wagging his tail low as if apologizing for doing so. Natalie got up and walked up to the back door of Mrs. Bowman's home. The house looked deserted, the yellowy paint that had once been white peeling here and there as if some giant claws had scraped it. A black cat sitting on the window sill stared at her curiously. She rang the bell. A
few notes of Jingle Bells could be heard echoing inside. The shuffle of footsteps nearing the door soon followed.
“I'm coming, I'm coming!” a raspy, high-pitched voice rang out from beyond the door.
“It's Natalie, Mrs.Bowman.” she said, forcing herself to unclench her fists. The door opened slightly and an eye peered out at her.
“Oh, it's you, Natalie, hold on a moment.” she unlatched the door chain and opened the door wide leaving the screen door between them. She was a heavyset woman, her thin, oily brown hair sticking to her forehead in clumps.
“How's your mother, I hope she's feeling better?” Mrs.Bowman asked, her round face breaking into a wide grin, a set of pearly white dentures showing.
“She's better now…” Natalie answered, wondering how the woman knew that her mother had not been feeling well those last two weeks. Her mother made some friends in the neighborhood since they moved there but Mrs.Bowman was not in her confidence. She remembered overhearing one of them saying that Mrs.Bowman loved gathering little tid-bits of gossip about her neighbors. She was also known to spruce them up and pass them on to those who would hear it, or just couldn't bring themselves to cut her off and get away.
“…Why is Oliver on a chain?” she asked, anger building up inside of her.
“Oliver on a chain…oh, Oliver! My son thought it was a good idea. My cats like to run around outside sometimes and since Oliver's been here it's been such a chore making sure they don't get out. You know Oliver.” She smiled as if expecting Natalie to acknowledge her predicament.
“He would never hurt your cats…he…” She searched for the words that would change the old woman's mind, that would give Oliver back his freedom. Before she could gather her thoughts, Mrs.Bowman spoke.
” Cats and dogs don't get along, you know, and Oliver is always barking when he sees one. He barks at passersby too. People are afraid of him. I've been told by a lot of people that he should be tied up.” Seeing that Mrs.Bowman wouldn't change her decision, Natalie finally had to give up. She stayed much longer with the dog that day. Every time she gathered herself to leave, Oliver would follow her as far as the chain allowed and stare at her with his big, dark eyes. When she finally left the yard and started walking home, the tears that have been gathering in her eyes began to fall, colliding with the hard concrete at her feet.
With time she became used to the sight of Oliver on the chain, and he also seemed resigned to it to a degree. No longer able to chase through the yard after birds and squirrels, he began barking at them intensely. Usually that was enough to chase them off but there were some that were not bothered by it. This not in the least discouraged the dog from still proclaiming the yard to be his territory. There was someone though, whom the incessant noise drove insane. Mrs.Bowman would sit in her rocking chair watching television when his thunderous baritone would disrupt her concentration. She would stagger to the window and yell and curse at the dog to shut him up. Oliver would quiet down but as soon as he caught sight of another intruder he would start up again.
One morning Mrs. Bowman was watering the flowers in her backyard with a hose when she stumbled on a solution to the problem. As the dog began barking she sprayed him with water. This had an immediate effect. Oliver disappeared in the doghouse, eyeing her from within. From that day on she kept the hose in close reach by the window. Since the entrance to the doghouse was facing the house there was no place to hide from the water. Often she would soak the dog before a TV show started regardless of whether he was barking or not. Not wanting to miss any part of a program, she drenched him just in case. Natalie's attempts at convincing Mrs.Bowman to stop spraying the dog were futile. Afraid that she might be dismissed as Oliver's caretaker if she offended the old woman, she had to control her emotions. She loved being around him. It gave her a sense of being needed and the occasional lick on the hand from him was a token of his loyalty and affection for her.
As autumn began to fade, Mrs. Bowman had to reluctantly relinquish her watery weapon. With the onset of the cold weather she was forced to turn the water off and disconnect the hose. It had long become outmoded anyway. Oliver no longer barked at the little creatures around him. When he first arrived at the Bowmans' home he would spend a lot of time on top of the doghouse, a monument of strength and dignity, the lord of the yard. Now he seldom left the wooden box. Throughout most of the days he lay curled up inside, coming out only when he heard Natalie approaching.
Sometimes she would find that the food she brought him the previous day would still be there, untouched. He had a favorite toy, an old deflated basketball with which she used to play fetch with him before he was chained. To try to liven him up, she would nudge him with it until he showed interest in the ball. She held one end of it in her hand while the dog, with jaws locked on the other side, tried to pull it free, growling and wagging his tail. When he did wrestle it out of her hand, he would push it with his nose on the ground until he was jerked back by the chain. She would then get the ball and start the game over again. It gave her joy to see a glimpse of the old Oliver, and it was during those times she found it most difficult to leave him.
The first few snowflakes of the winter fell on a crisp Thursday afternoon just as Natalie left her house on her way to feed Oliver. The temperature had dropped well below the freezing mark the night before. Until then winter had not yet enveloped the city in its frigid arms. Expecting the oncoming cold, Natalie, with her brother's help, had carpeted the floor of Oliver's doghouse. Luckily they had saved some scraps from the carpeting that was used to do the floors in their apartment. She had also entreated her mother to let her have an old blanket of which there were a few around the house. She didn't have to plead with her long, and, before the cold arrived Oliver was lying on two of them.
A few days later it began snowing again. By nightfall the city lay under a thick blanket of it, and the snow continued to mount. A powerful wind lifted and spun the white quilt. Natalie stood by her bed in the dark, gazing through the window into the abyss, a restless sleeper with dreamless thoughts. The wind beat against the house, howling mercilessly. She put on her robe and came out into the hall, walking quietly past her mother's room even though she knew she had taken pills and was in a deep slumber. She hesitated for a moment and then entered her brother's room. He was asleep, the radio on his desk playing low. She turned it off and leaned over him.
“Kenny. Kenny, wake up.” She touched his shoulder. He woke up with a start, not recognizing her at first in the dark.
“Natalie? What do you want? What time is it?” he asked, looking around blindly.
“I can't sleep. It's snowing so badly out…and the wind…Oliver is probably sno…” she started to say, but was cut off by her brother.
“What can I do. Leave me alone and go to sleep,” he said irritably, knowing it wasn't over.
“Please, listen to me. He's getting snowed in over there. All we have to do is put something against the entrance so the snow doesn't get inside. What if he freezes to death overnight? Please, you have to come, I can't go by myself.” She turned away from him and took a step toward the window.
“What, are you crying now? Shit!” he asked half-angry with himself for being so tired and lazy.
“…No.” her voice trembled, she swallowed.
“All right, I'll go with you. Give me a few minutes to put something on.” He sat up, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles.
“Thank you. It won't take more than five minutes, you'll see.” She smiled at him as a large tear rolled down her cheek into her mouth. She closed the door behind her and hurried to her room to get dressed.
They walked slowly towards Mrs. Bowmans' house, careful not to slip and fall. The white figurines danced gracefully all around them, hindering their passage. Their windy partner, as if irate at the intruders, furiously blew the white powder into their eyes, obstructing their view. Natalie reached the doghouse first. Only half of the entrance was visible, the snow piled up high all around the structure. She pointed her flashlight through the opening. Oliver lay shivering in the far corner, and as he heard the girl call out his name, he lifted his head in her direction. The snow had not reached him yet but soon would have. Only after she started pulling on his chain did he get up and hesitatingly exit his dwelling. She cleared the entrance and the inside of snow as Kenny cut out a square out of the piece of carpet he had brought along to cover the hole. He skillfully nailed it right above the doorway, creating a swinging door.
“Happy now?” he asked, turning to Natalie. She took a step towards him and embraced him tightly.
“We're done. Let's get out of here. I got only three more hours to sleep.” he said, looking at his watch. He bent down, pushed the quivering dog inside and started walking home. He stopped at the gate until she caught up with him, and they walked on together, one happy and the other glad he could make her so.
The winter was a short one and with the advent of spring Oliver also seemed rejuvenated. It was as if the harsh weather hardened him, made him stronger. Mrs.Bowman, who didn't leave her house much during the cold months, was once again challenged by her dog. As before Oliver began barking at everything in sight. When she turned the water on him he would try to unsuccessfully avoid the stream but instead of quieting down went into a barking frenzy directed at her. Seeing that her old method was not working anymore, she finally gave it up.
On one particularly warm day on her way back from school Natalie stopped by to check Oliver's water dish. Seeing her coming from a distance, he greeted her with his usual wagging of the tail. As she got closer to him though, she noticed that there was blood on the side of his head. There was a cut above his right ear. Panicking, she ran up to Mrs.Bowman's home and rang the bell. It was some time before she came to the door.
“Mrs.Bowman! What happened to Oliver!” she cried out as the woman appeared.
“What do you mean, Natalie,” She looked passed the girl as if expecting to see someone with her.
“He has a large cut on his head! Who did that to him?!” the girl demanded, staring at Mrs.Bowman wide-eyed.
“I don't know. Maybe he hurt himself?” she answered, stepping out onto the porch and taking a look in the direction of the dog. “Oooh! Poor Oliver! He doesn't look badly hurt. See, he's wagging his tail.” She nodded at the dog. “Don't worry. He'll be all ri…” She was cut off by the girl.
“He's not alright! Someone must have hit him! He couldn't have done that to himself!” Natalie looked around wildly as if the perpetrator was hiding somewhere nearby.
“That is a shame. I know how much you like Oliver. The poor dog.” Mrs.Bowman shook her head, patting the girl on the shoulder to console her.
“We have to take him to the hospital,” Natalie said, beginning to calm down a bit.
“I don't have the money to pay for a visit to the hospital. It's just a cut; it'll heal itself. I'll get some towels to clean him off. And he'll be alright.” She turned to go in the house. The girl was left by herself on the porch. She was afraid to go up to Oliver, worried that the wound was a serious one. Mrs.Bowman reappeared with a roll of paper towels in hand.
“Come, Natalie. I'm sure it's nothing.” She led the way hesitantly. Oliver did not allow them to approach him. He started barking furiously as they got closer to him, the hair on his back standing on end.
“What an ungrateful dog. Here we are trying to help him, and he won't let us. Oliver, be quiet, Oliver!” the woman said. The girl walked up to him slowly, trying to calm the dog. He stopped barking, only retreating a step when she stretched out her hand toward him. She ran her hand over his back, trying to relax the tense dog.
“Well. My own…” Oliver snapped in the direction of the woman.
“Mrs.Bowman, I think it'll be better if I do this myself,” Natalie said, eyeing the woman. She took the towels from her and began wiping the blood off of the dog. Mrs. Bowman stepped back, watching the two from a distance. The cut was not as serious as it appeared at first. Wetting the towels in water, Natalie managed to clean the wound. It had stopped bleeding already and Oliver himself didn't appear to be bothered by it much. Natalie turned to where Mrs.Bowman had been standing, but she wasn't there, having gone inside the house. Mrs. Bowman continued to observe the girl from her window as she tended to the dog.
The wound healed quickly, and within a few days was hardly noticeable. The incident left doubts in the girl's mind, though. The strange way Oliver treated his owner raised suspicions in her. Who, besides herself and Mrs.Bowman, wouldn't fear approaching a dog of Oliver's size? The way Mrs.Bowman had treated the dog in the past was imbedded in her mind. Afraid of what else might happen to Oliver, thoughts of stealing the dog began passing through her mind. She might be able to find a decent home for the dog. She dreamt of sneaking into the yard at night, taking the chain off the dog and running away with him, far way from the old woman. One afternoon as she was playing with the dog, she heard Mrs. Bowman calling her. The woman wanted to talk with her. It concerned Oliver.
Natalie ran into her house, breathless. Kenny and her mother were installing an air conditioner in the kitchen. They stopped what they were doing, seeing how aroused she was.
“Oliver's going away! He's going to live on Long Island! He'll have lots of space…” She paused, trying to catch her breath.
“What? Slow down. What happened?” her mother inquired. Natalie ran up to her, taking her by the hands and spinning her around in joy.
“A friend of Mrs. Bowman's is coming to take Oliver away in a few days. He's going to live with him on Long Island. He has a house with a huge yard there! Oh! I'm so happy for him.” She let go of her mother and ran to her room. She jumped on the bed, thoughts racing about Oliver's new life. The man had two other dogs. Oliver would have friends to play with. No more chain, no more punishments. She would miss him, but he would finally be happy, finally free.
The day came when the man was to come pick Oliver up. Natalie would be in school at the time, so she had to say goodbye to him in the morning, before she left. She got ready for school an hour early, so she would have more time to spend with the dog. Mrs. Bowman had allowed her to take Oliver off the chain that day. As she opened the gate Oliver, hearing the noise came out to greet her. Natalie put her arms around him and held him long. She removed the chain from his collar and watched with delight as he ran around the yard sniffing the ground. He picked up the old ball and brought it to her, an invitation to join in the game. After playing for some time, the exhausted dog stretched out on the ground next to the girl, his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. She sat down next to him and rubbed his belly, offering parting words of advice.
“Oliver, you make sure you behave yourself in your new home. Be nice to your new friends. I'll try to visit you.” The dog, oblivious to the words, remained still, listening intently to her voice. It was time for her to go. She hugged the dog once more. Tears of joy and sadness mixed together and fell from her eyes. Oliver licked her face, wiping them off her cheeks. Before she left she stopped by to see Mrs. Bowman and reminded her to give the old, chewed up basketball to the man when he came for the dog. It was his sole and favorite possession. When she reached the gate she turned around, waving goodbye to her friend. The dog wagged his tail in return.
Around noon that day, Kenny was sitting in the pizza parlor, eating and talking with some friends. He had cut school that day in order to go with a friend who was going to buy a used car. A man walking with a dog on the other side of the street attracted his attention. It was Oliver. The man was Mrs.Bowman's son, he had seen him once before. The man stopped and turned in at the entrance to the animal hospital. Kenny watched him disappear inside with the dog.
“Kenny. How about if I get a Blazer? Kenny!” Someone tried to get his attention. He continued to stare at the closed white door, ignoring him. A few minutes later the man appeared again, alone, leash in hand.
“Kenny! What do you think?” Kenny slowly turned toward the speaker.