The little park was not far removed from civilization, but sitting under the oak tree, in the moments between the frequent passersby, Duncan could pretend that it was. The tree was a beautiful, old, gnarled oak tree that he thought about sometimes while sitting at his desk at work when he needed a peaceful visual to calm him down or stave off the empty feeling that everything he did was futile. The oak itself didn’t make the feeling go away, but it somehow made him care less. Having a decent picture of the oak, he thought, might help. Getting a decent picture, that captured the aspects he wanted to, however, was proving more difficult than he had expected. It was such a beautiful subject to photograph; he had thought that it would be easy to capture an attractive image. Someone more skilled in the workings of a camera and more practiced in framing an aesthetically pleasing shot could have worked wonders with it, but Duncan was neither of these things and the deep, brilliant majesty his eyes saw was somehow filtered out during the image taking process.
Every once in a while an ant came wandering along, so he had to check around him on occasion to make sure he wasn’t getting ants in his pants. Overall, though, it was a pleasant and comfortable place to sit. He leaned back and stared at the tree. Sunlight trickled through its leaves and the mottled shade around him changed slowly and smoothly from the gentle breeze tussling his hair.
Duncan was contemplating this effect of the light and wondering how he might go about capturing it, when the dog trotted by. A dog passing the small piece of trail he could see from his place of contemplation was not abnormal. The people that frequented this park were generally of three categories: exercising, contemplating, or walking their dogs. Sometimes people did several of these at once. There was a specific woman he saw often when he came to visit the tree, who would run at speeds Duncan considered a sprint, but she did them for multiple loops of the mile-long trail, and she did so keeping pace with 3 dogs. Another regular was the man Duncan called “the Brooder” in his own mind. There wasn’t much more to say about the Brooder that the name didn’t cover. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, and his hair was an untidy bush around his head. He could often be seen at this time on Sundays, staring at the trail in front of him while he walked, a little off to one side, a pensive frown on his face. If one watched him he could be seen on occasion to slow in pace momentarily, wave his head back and forth slightly as if debating a particularly troublesome point, then shrug and shuffle onward. Duncan noticed people that he saw regularly, but he was more likely to notice the dogs. He liked dogs and wanted there to be one waiting to greet him when he got home, but it didn’t feel like the responsible choice. “Soon,” he had been saying for about 5 years.
There were many dogs that he saw when he came at this time on Sundays. There was the heavy-weight chocolate lab that just wanted to sniff everything, and the group of four basset hounds that walked together like some sort of droopy sled dogs attached to a single leash and pulling the tiny woman attached to the other end so that she always seemed on the verge of tipping over. There was the ball-focused dog that was some sort of mix which included some large part German Sheppard. There was a tiny, white, fluffy terrier that was not shy about trying to get pet by every human it passed. Often Duncan saw an elderly pug that wouldn’t walk more than a few paces before sitting down and groaning until he was picked up. There was even a medium-sized pit-bull that wore a string of fake pearls atop her collar. Duncan had the vague sense that the woman who was usually walking beside the pit was attractive, but he couldn’t have picked her out of a line-up without the dog, he only remembered the glamorous, goofy dog with the string of pearls. On any given Sunday, there were more dogs than these around, but these were the core group that he saw almost every time.
No, it was not strange for a dog to come trotting down the path. What was strange about this one was that it was humanless. Perhaps, Duncan thought, the dog had just run ahead of its person a little and they were on the way. Duncan waited a few moments listening. He could hear the chatter of two teenage girls that where coming from the other direction, but he didn’t hear anyone coming from the way the dog had.
He stood and, tucking the camera back into its case, made his way to the trail. The dog had trotted a little past where he had seen him, then slowed to smell something. The two teenage girls ran past, talking incessantly while running, in the way of youth, and didn’t seem to pay the dog any mind; they didn’t belong to the dog any more than he did.
“Hey, buddy, where’s your human?” he called to the dog, approaching him. The dog looked at him and watched him approach, neither coming forward, nor running away. He was a medium-sized mutt of some sort with yellow, shaggy fur, long, floppy ears, and a thin tail. He could, perhaps have been part yellow lab, but the face was a stubbier shape and his body was much smaller. When Duncan got close, he crouched and stuck his hand out. The dog stretched his neck out to sniff the hand. He wasn’t wearing a collar.
After the customary sniff, the dog looked up at his face, then took a step towards him and Duncan reached up and rubbed the fur atop his little head. His little head pushed back into Duncan’s hand affectionately. Duncan used both hands to rub behind the dog’s ears, repeating the question “where’s your human, buddy?”
He looked around again, there was still nobody in sight. “Are you all alone?” he asked, making eye contact with the dog, “like me?”
The dog responded by pushing past his hands and angling his body so that it rested against his legs. It was, Duncan thought, as if he was saying, “Not anymore.”
A brief flutter of joy blossomed in Duncan’s chest and he sat down onto the ground. The dog climbing onto his lap, trying to lick his face. What if the dog WAS alone? Could he take him home? What real reason was there for him to not bring a dog home? He could scrape together the money for the extra deposit on his apartment, and he could budget for food and toys.
He stood up, realizing that he was getting a little ahead of himself. “We should probably look around a bit for your human, before I go getting you a key to my apartment, huh?”
The dog just looked up at him, tongue hanging out to one side and eyes smiling.
“Come on,” Duncan said, walking back the direction he had seen the dog come from, the dog watched him for a moment, then ran to catch up, staying level with Duncan’s right leg. He sniffed things as they walked, and looked around, but every few steps he would shift his weight ever so slightly so that his body would brush against Duncan’s leg. When other people came along, the dog shrunk from them or sniffed their dogs, but remained at Duncan’s side, while he asked each and every one if they had seen someone looking for a dog.
“Aw, little guy’s lost?” a man asked, reaching down to pet him. The dog backed away and remained out of reach. “Must just not like men; probably a woman’s dog,” the man offered, then moved on.
“Sure,” Duncan said with a smirk as the dog nestled back up against his leg, “you just don’t like men.”
They did the entire loop without a single person claiming the dog or having any information about a lost dog. By this time his new, hairy friend was starting to pant and Duncan realized that, being fairly hot out, the dog might be getting thirsty.
“Let’s head back to my car, get you some water, and call animal control to ask what I’m supposed to do,” he said, “Oh, don’t look at me like that, we need to check if anyone is looking for you, but if not, don’t worry, you’re coming home with me. You’ll like it there.”
On their walk back to the parking lot, Duncan let his imagination run away with him, imagining how it was going to be having this dog live with him. He smiled as he thought over potential names he could propose to see how the dog reacted. He contemplated, only briefly, if he would let the dog sleep in the bed. As a kid, his mom had strictly forbidden dogs from the furniture, but this was HIS choice and he settled very quickly on the idea that – once treated for fleas, of course – the dog would be taking over his bed in no time. The smile turned to a broad grin as he thought about becoming one of those guys that ran with a dog every morning. He had been a runner when he was young, but had fallen out of it as it held no real appeal to him, until he thought about running with a dog. For some reason, that was much better.
By the time they made it back to the parking lot, Duncan had already decided which bowls could be re-purposed for dog food. He had picked which blanket the dog would get to cuddle in that evening, and he had started contemplating how he was going to manage a trip to the store to get dog food and shampoo. He didn’t want to leave him in the car, how would he feel being left in a strange apartment alone? Could he leave him with a neighbor while he ran to the store? He didn’t really know any of his neighbors. The one he had met was an asshole with a loud television and a constant parade of different women coming and going at weird hours. The only thing these women seemed to have in common was that they screamed during sex. He didn’t want to leave the dog with that neighbor.
When they entered the parking lot, there was a Prius parked right by the trail-head, with an old woman standing next to it. When she saw them, her eyes lit up and Duncan’s heart dripped into his stomach. He immediately knew what was coming, and tried to smile, though it hurt.
“Oliver! There’s my boy!” she yelled, and the dog bound to her to get his head scratched. After a brief tousle, she opened the door, and, without so much as a backwards glance, the dog jumped into the car.
“Thank you for finding him,” the woman called to Duncan, as she went to the driver side, “that was so nice of you!”
Then, without awaiting a response, she was in the car and it was creeping silently out of the parking spot.
Duncan swallowed hard as he watched the car start to drive away, then looked to the trees at his right, taking a long, slow breath. “Sure, “ he mumbled to himself, “I was being nice.” The emptiness was back and he wanted, very much to go ponder the oak tree again, but he had already done that today, so he started toward his car. “That’s why I did it; I was being nice.”