Monday, March 23, 2020 •

Memories of Pawshank

April is coming, and so is the third week of staying home here on Pioneer Road due to the pandemic. We’ve managed fairly well, however I worry we might have peaked too soon. The first week was full of excited panic, thinking we had starring roles in a Hollywood end-of-the-world blockbuster. However, near the end of the second week we realized instead we’d been cast as extras; and this was no blockbuster but a home movie recorded in the basement of some guy named Marv. Now we begin the third week, and I wonder if we’ll get out of Marv’s basement alive.

Milo, our dog partner during these trying times, seems to have experienced a similar emotional trajectory. He was deeply suspicious the first few days when Laura and I didn’t leave for work. He guarded the front door, suspecting treason at any moment. But he quickly relaxed and began demanding long morning walks and afternoon belly rubs. He even conned us into building him a new bed in the living room, so he could take afternoon naps nearer his ever growing idol and burgeoning star of his life, his queen, Laura. He spent one afternoon draped in a blanket, his name embroidered on the side, demanding we call him Prince Milo. Frankly, I’d had enough—though the Queen is smitten. 

But as we begin the third week, I suspect the royal heir is tiring of these new developments. His routines, once so dependable, have now been shaken by late-night television binge watching, the absence of visiting grandparents, the shunning of dog parks, and the suspension of his beloved, twice-a-week doggy daycare. Things have gotten rough for poor Milo.

This morning, while Laura and I sipped our coffee and stared listlessly at the wall wondering what day it was, Milo sat at the front door and stared through the screen. Rousing myself from musings on the seasonal behaviors of stinkbugs,  I noticed a strange twitch in Milo’s tail. Suddenly I had the odd feeling that a plot was afoot. Was Milo part of a global canine conspiracy, in which dogs everywhere had conspired to keep their human pals home all day? Did dogs create this mess with the help of their bat friends, succeeding, realizing too late the awful reality of what it’s like to live with humans all the time? Milo certainly had the air of someone looking to go outside and get rid of us. This would not be the first time he attempted escape.

Laura and I were married last spring in Maine. Being a sort-of destination marriage, as it was a day-length drive from New York, we planned an entire week of fun and festivities for guests. We also planned to board Milo during this time at a nearby local kennel. For the sake of anonymity, and in honor of lifelong Maine resident Stephen King, let’s call this kennel “Pawshank.”

Pawshank had rave reviews. A newspaper article reported a famous politician had once kept his labradors there. A photo showed the two beasts and the man gleaming, basked in a salty, senatorial sheen, all three evidently rejuvenated by their stay.

Pawshank’s website described the grounds as acres and acres of beautiful Maine wilderness, securely fenced, boasting the freshest air in America. There was even a private pond with its very own loons, waiting to serenade your precious pup to sleep under the starlight. The matter was settled—while Laura and I dealt with the matter of our nuptials, Milo would live in luxury under the watchful care of trained experts, pampered to no end, and at a reasonable price too!

The day finally came when we drove through the pine forests of coastal Maine, looking for signs that we were on the correct route to Pawshank. The odd ramshackle cabin occasionally revealed itself through breaks in the forest that lined the winding two-lane road. Farther and farther we drove inland, leaving the touristy safety of the coast, into the dark interiors of wild moose country. We reassured Milo that he was about to have one of the greatest experiences of his yet young life, experiences which would broaden him and make him a more interesting dog to his peers back home. Milo seemed unsure, his snout stuck out the back window, his eyes wide, sniffing the god-knows-what mysteries that lurked hidden in the haunted wood.

“It’s okay, buddy,” I said, my knuckles white on the steering wheel. “It’s all going to be okay.”

Finally a sign flashed into view—“Pawshank Kennel & Rehabilitation Center.” I jerked the car into a long, paved driveway. A broad sloping yard led us to a handsome three-story house on the hillside. It looked promising enough. Several other nicely kept buildings, perhaps work sheds, nestled beneath tall cedars.

“Oh, this is nice, isn’t it?” Laura said, with a slight tremor in her voice.

We parked and I went to find the check-in desk. After 10 minutes of peering in windows, not hearing any noise from human nor animal, I discovered a large sign hanging from a metal post: “RING BELL FOR SERVICE.” The small silver bell tinkled in the evening air; quite pleasantly, I thought!

Soon I heard footsteps. Around a corner came a young girl wearing an apron and holding a rope. She introduced herself as a member of the staff; I introduced myself as the father of Milo, though I’m not sure how that sounded. We returned to the car, where two sets of desperate eyes greeted me. 

“Okay, Milo, time to go,” I said, nearly sobbing. 

The young staff girl led the three of us—Laura, Milo and me— to the kennel area, which lay behind the house, hidden from view. Several long, low buildings rose from concrete pads. Nearby was a wide open space, fenced, surrounded by tall evergreens—the run. No dogs could be seen anywhere, neither outside or inside the kennel we now entered. Inside the empty kennel were several 10-by-10 foot concrete-floored “cells,” separated by chain link fence. Each contained a water bowl and a small sleeping pad, and a small door that led to a private fenced-in cubicle outside, “for when the dogs need some air,” the girl said. Laura clutched at my arm. Milo leaned hard against my leg.

I tried to reassure everybody, “Well, quite Spartan, but that can be nice, right, bud? Get back to basics, like a spiritual retreat!” He looked up at me like was trying to sell him lemon juice, which he despised.

We turned over Milo’s embroidered blanket and his favorite toy to the staff girl, who greedily gathered the items into her possession. I wondered if she planned to take them home. She refused his leash, though. “Oh, we won’t be needing that. We have own restraints here.”

Time finally came to say goodbye. Milo stood on his back legs and buried his furry head in our chests, begging for mercy. It was too late. We knew he was innocent, but the judge had already given the verdict. As we left the building, Milo’s head appeared in the little cell window. He watched us leave, his big brown eyes judging us for our abandonment. The door slammed shut with a clink. Then the sky seemed to darken, all hope faded, a puppy’s dreams collapsing and compressing into a 10-foot cube somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Maine. 

“I really hope the wolves don’t eat him,” I said. Laura burst into tears.

We’ll never know what adventures befell Milo during his five-day term at Pawshank. Some said he had a glorious time and met many new friends. Others said he was bullied—that a mutt gang from Canada pressured him into joining their cause; but when Milo refused the tattoo confirming his membership, they ruthlessly bit at his curly tail and called him a dandy, causing him to secretly collect sticks that he gnawed into prison shanks each night in his cell. Another rumor had him falling in love with a beautiful Aussie—but Milo’s heart was broken when it was revealed that the Aussie was only using Milo to gain favor with the staff girl (who adored Milo) so to receive better treats and more petting. And yet another rumor said Milo took up writing a memoir during his stay, filled with witty anecdotes about deer poop and mud, telling tales of famous meaty treasure lost for centuries and buried deep beneath the earth; but nothing as of yet has been published. Only Milo knows what truly happened, and he hasn’t barked a word.

When wedding week ended, Laura and I were beyond eager to see Milo again. We drove along the woodsy roads quicker than a beaver’s tooth through balsa—there must be some saying like this—and excitedly talked about how much had changed and how big Milo must have grown since the five days we were away. When we finally climbed the long driveway I almost forgot to put the car in park before exiting, which would have led to the car rolling through the Pawshank homestead, which would have surely led to Laura and me serving a long sentence as Milo’s cellmates.

We practically leapt down the hill to Milo’s kennel. But before we could enter, we were stopped short by a scene developing in the large outdoor run. 

From the middle of the field came ferocious growling. At least six dogs were heaped upon each other, tearing and biting, fur flying—a prison riot! The staff girl was in the midst of the chaos, throwing elbows, grabbing at collars, and hollering at a huge mastiff named Molly. But where was Milo!

“Look!” Laura said, pointing.

About 20 yards outside the melee sat Milo on his haunches, observing the action. He seemed on edge—for obvious reasons!—prepared to distance himself further if need be. His eyes were anxiously fixed on Molly, as if he knew his own doom was at hand. I never knew a more relieved dog than when Laura shouted his name then.

“Milo! Come here!”

And suddenly Milo was against the fence, as happy as a prisoner can be knowing his release is imminent. The staff girl, her clothes muddied and tattered, gathered his things, and once we’d completed all the necessary paperwork, our family was whole again. 

“We’ve missed you so much!” Laura said, as we hugged Milo so hard we nearly ended his jail sentence by strangulation. “Did you miss us?”

Whether he simply missed us, or was happy to leave Pawshank, he was evidently very happy to see us again. 

“So how did he do?” I asked the staff girl.

“Um, does he like to dig?” She replied. Milo had never dug in his life. “Because he was digging holes a lot. Near the fence.”

She didn’t offer any more than that, and we didn’t ask. We got in the car and sped away, feeling lucky to have escaped with only mud beneath Milo’s claws, caused by his desperate attempt to tunnel out of Pawshank Prison.

So, on second thought, as Milo peered out the front door this morning, perhaps he wasn’t attempting to escape us. Perhaps he was only remembering that terrible week when he was locked up in the Maine woods away from the people he loved. Perhaps he remembered and felt grateful for the current circumstances, knowing it could be far worse. Perhaps we can all take heart in that.

Meanwhile, Laura, Milo and I will continue with our days, keeping an eye out for wolves and a mastiff named Molly.