The Slow Escape
Every now and then I’ll read about an ancient nursing home patient who wanders off in the middle of the night in his underwear, only to end up two hundred miles away at a bus depot or cattle auction. No money, touch of dementia, his wonky gait like a rubber duck in a wave pool. How he got there nobody knows, but get there he did. Maybe no one saw him, or maybe, like a garden snail, he moved too carefully to ever be noticed. Or, perhaps everyone just turned away from the nutty, stinky old man. This is precisely what happened to my old dog Flavio this past weekend.
At nearly seventeen, Flavio is shall we say, a miracle of nature. Twenty-eight inches at the shoulder and four feet long from nose to butt (excluding his feathery tail), he is simply too big to be alive at this age. I have checked his toes for magical rings of power and found nothing. I have fed him decent food but nothing special- no kelp shakes, gluten-free lamb burgers, mystical shaman powders, or chia seeds. Just dog food, a few chicken necks, and anything I can’t finish myself.
From the day we found him (actually he found us), he has endeavored to escape the surly bonds of Duno Land. Why, we do not know; he has it pretty good here. But, like Kerouac, he just needed to roam. When young, he’d leap fences like a gazelle, and run faster than a Fiat. We became infamous for recruiting the neighborhood kids to aid in in grand sweeps of the community, eventually finding him almost every time near a second-run movie theater about a mile away. Eventually we would simply drive to the theater and wait for his arrival.
He cannot jump fences now, or even run. He can’t even walk up hills. At best, he can make about one mile-per-hour on level ground, though stopping at every bush and sign post to smell and pee slows that down considerably. But the spirit still lives on; he gets the urge every now and again, and last weekend, three months short of his seventeenth birthday, Flavio decided to stage a “slow escape.”
Somehow, the side gate with its brand new latch was left open (or mysteriously opened) late Saturday night, while we were inside watching a cheesy 1960s horror flick on TCM. While we laughed at hippie witches and awful scripting, Flavio slowly, inexorably sniffed and peed his way down the street. For an hour.
When I went to bring him in, I saw the open fence gate and got that hollow feeling- you know what I’m talking about. That “oh no, my child is lost in Manhattan” feeling. Or more precisely, that “my crazy uncle has escaped the nursing home and is headed for the rodeo” feeling.
Factoring in a mean speed of about 1/3 mph., I reasoned that the nutty old guy could be at least eight or nine blocks away, or maybe more. Eliminating streets to our west (too hilly), we jumped in the car and began to search. My distance prediction included a major arterial about five blocks away, so I checked there first, to look for, well… a giant splat. Thankfully, no splat.
Most of the streets were dark or pitch black, so we had to drive at a crawl and shine flashlights out the windows. It wouldn’t do any good to call out, as Flavio is pretty much deaf as a log. Up and down streets, down cul de sacs, onto school property, over to a little park- no crazy dog uncle anywhere. Raccoons, cats (lots of cats), a possum I think- but no Flavio. And even though his favorite second-run movie theater was way up a steep hill he could never climb, we checked there too, just for old times’ sake.
After four hours of crawling around our neighborhood in my car (which began to emit an odd, bracelet-jingling sound from the front right wheel), we decided to go home and get an hour or two of rest, then go back out at sunrise, at around 5:45 am. I managed to sleep about ten minutes; my brain was too busy trying to think like Flavio… where would I go if I was a crazy old deaf dog?
I was convinced that he would be close, and that someone probably had found him and just not gotten around to calling the telephone number on his collar. If he’d been a frisky, cute puppy, or anything like what he was ten years past, my fear would have been that someone might keep him. But, Flavio is now adorable in the same way that Mr. Magoo is; in other words, no one would want to keep a loopy, wobbly, myopic, poopy old fossil dog for more than five minutes.
We started looking again, and drove everywhere, for three more hours. “Could he have gone farther?” I asked Nicki. “Could he be sneaky long?” She looked at me and shrugged. “It’s Flavio. Who knows.”
At 9am we drove back home to think up a Plan B- flyers, internet, Animal Control- the whole sickening process. I felt ridiculous, and ill. How do you lose a tortoise?
The phone rang.
“Uhh… I think I’ve got your dog.”
“Big old shaggy guy?”
“Sweet as pie.”
“Where are you?”
"170th, near 12th.”
Four blocks away. We’d driven about twenty miles around the neighborhood, and gone right by where he’d ended up at least twenty times. Damn tortoise dog.
I drove over. Flavio came wobbling over to me and gave me a look, as if to say “hey, where you been?” I thanked the guy profusely and gave him a copy of Last Dog On The Hill. Evidently Flavio had sniff-walked his way around the corner and three blocks down, where at around midnight, the guy saw him and put him in his back yard- maybe half an hour after he’d made his dawdling escape.
Back home, he sauntered around like nothing ever happened. I got a cookie from the jar, then thought about how stupid it would be to reward him for his demented wandering. But I realized that, at this stage, he had absolutely no idea of action/consequence. He was just a lovable, smelly old guy in his underwear, yearning for that one last rodeo. I gave him two cookies and a hug.
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