Hubert by Cory Bortnicker

Sepia dog walk signSpring sprung on a Tuesday in New York, and change was in the air. Actually, not change, dog shit. I bent down to pick it up and tossed the bag into a nearby trashcan. Hubert, who’d taken the shit, and I were waiting on the sidewalk for the car to arrive. When it finally did, Hubert was too preoccupied to care. Out here, in the great outdoor expanse of the city, Hubert relished in all the distractions. The pigeons. The flowers. The piles of oozing trash. Hubert is a happy dog, is what Dog People would say. Hubert loves car rides in springtime!

I asked Hubert to get into the vehicle. “Let’s get into the vehicle,” I said. Hubert pretended not to hear and instead buried his nose in a patch of soil around a caged tree. “Our ride’s here, Hubert!” Still, nothing. I patted my thighs and called for him again. “Hubert!”

Hubert has attention deficit hyperactive disorder, I thought. Hubert loves to eat dirt!

Hubert was a basset mix, two years old and my very first dog. According to the volunteer at the animal shelter, Hubert grew up in Ohio. She told me his name was Chez. “You mean Shay?” I asked. “Like French?” “No,” she replied. “Chez.”

Were it not for reminding me of some low-grade processed cheese product or the name of a misogynistic redheaded high school jock, I could have kept Chez Chez. But on the advice of a friend, who insisted that bassets ought to be named after old men, I opted for something slightly more distinguished.

 

“Hubert!” I called again. “Let’s go!” Tired of waiting, I bent down to pick up all twenty pounds of Hubert and plopped him into the backseat of the car. I told the driver, an elderly Hispanic man, the address in SoHo and hoped he wouldn’t mind transporting a dog. Turned out he didn’t.

“Halo cutie!” the driver said, not to me. “Loohk a’dat cute dawggy! Halo dawggy!”

Hubert says thank you! is what Dog People would’ve said. Nothing, is what I said. I took out my iPhone and began furiously tapping at it, trying to look busy.

As we navigated downtown, the driver would take quick breaks to turn around and steal glances at Hubert. Each time he did, he giggled. The driver was, unquestionably, one of the Dog People.

“Tchu know,” he said proudly, “I a-looove my dawggies.  I have-a two dawggies. A hyorkie, and a cheeWAWA!” I nodded my head, and kept tapping at my phone, even more vigorously. “Dawggies are wahnderful creatures,” he continued. “Dawggies always part of my fahmalee. I had dawggies in Chile, I had dawggies in Europe, I had dawggies in Miami, and now I have dawggies here.”

“That’s a lot of dawggies,” I noted.

“Once,” he continued. “I spend $1,500 on vet bills for my hyorkie.”

“Boy, that’s a lot, isn’t it?” I asked, nervously petting Hubert’s skull.

“Oh yes,” the driver said. “But worth every penny. Tchu see, the human people disappoint-a me more and more, ebery year. But my dogs? They are loyal and loving forever! What ees your dog’s name?”

I looked down at Hubert. His face drooped in my lap. Snot had somehow ended up all over his ears, and the incessant stream drool that seeped from his mouth was forming a small lake on my crotch. I told the driver his name was Hubert.

“Hyooobert! I-a love Hyooobert! Hyooobert is a good dawggie! Hyooobert is a dog!”

What a smart driver!, I thought. Yes you are a dog, Hubert, yes you are!

“And where-a are you taking Hybooobert?” the driver asked next. “To the park? To your friends? To the beach?”

“Back.” I replied. “To the shelter.”

A terrifying silence followed. The kind of silence that comes only from deeply offending one of the Dog People. For a moment, I considered offering an explanation, but decided instead to invoke my rights as a human being who doesn’t have to explain everything he does to the random driver who happens to pick him up.

Finally, the driver just shook his head in disbelief and quietly said, “Back? But, why? Why? Why!?” In the absence of a noble, compact explanation, I told the driver, “it’s a long story.” In fact, it’d been a short one. I’d had Hubert for 36 hours.

Before getting Hubert, my mother asked me a similar question. “Why?” she asked over the phone. “Why on Earth would you want a dog?”

“Companionship,” I said. “It’s time I learn how to love.”

This had become a running joke in my family. Someone would bring up dogs. I’d remind everyone that I never had one. Then I’d make a sly remark about how I’m incapable of loving. Hilarious! Unfortunately, the joke was getting less and less funny every year, especially as I began to suspect it might be true.

“You know,” my mother said, picking her words delicately. “Dogs…well, honey, dogs are a lot of responsibility. What I’m asking is, is now the best time?”

I didn’t know. But I reasoned there was only one way to find out. My mind was made up. Hubert came home on Sunday.

The first 15 minutes with Hubert were an absolute delight. I snapped pictures of him. I set up his home. I petted him. I called everybody to share the good news. But then, right around minute 16, things started to change. I began realizing that Hubert had some issues, both indoors and outdoors. Which I guess means everywhere.

Inside the apartment, Hubert seemed content to crawl up into a ball and ruminate morosely. I wondered what horrible fantasy kept replaying in his mind. He didn’t eat. He didn’t play. Christ, he didn’t even stand up. I’d sit beside him, petting his head gently until he’d open those deep, knowing eyes and look at me. As soon as he did, he’d look away again.

Hubert knows, I’d think. Hubert sees right through me!  Terrified, I’d move to the couch, sit stiffly and think: “My God, what have I done?”

Outside was worse. Outside Hubert became an unhinged one-man dog show, hell bent on doing whatever the hell he wanted whenever the hell he wanted to do it. In short, our goals never aligned. For example, I enjoyed walking down the block. Hubert enjoyed wedging his head between fence posts. I enjoyed walking down the block. Hubert enjoyed stalking pigeons with relentless blood-thirst. I enjoyed walking down the block. Hubert enjoyed rubbing his face in concrete until something better came up. It took 45 minutes to walk him around the block. And each attempt at a walk ended with me having to pick him up and carry him home.

I Googled training videos. I researched doggy daycares. I even explored a site that advertised: “We’ll train your dog for you!” This option sounded particularly attractive because it was easy and didn’t involve me. Better yet, the training center was far away, in beautiful upstate New York. Hubert would be gone for six weeks! Six blissful weeks! Then I remembered how the point of getting a dog was to actually be with your dog, not send him off to college. I went to bed Monday night with a growing unease. I awoke Tuesday seized by horror.

Hubert was still there. He was still inside the house! My anxiety over his presence—and the ten-year commitment it implied—grew at a breakneck pace. I suddenly realized my best intentions had laid the groundwork for a very, very grave mistake.

Outside the shelter in SoHo, I paid the driver and quickly left the car. I plopped Hubert on the sidewalk and tried one last time to get him to follow me. “Let’s go, boy!” I said. Too late. Hubert had already spotted a pigeon and was tugging at the leash. “Come on, Hubert.” I said. “Come the fuck on!” I ceremoniously picked him up and carried him into the shelter.

“Chez!” the shelter volunteer said. “Hello, Chez!” Hubert ran right up to her, bursting with joy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was happy! He was playful! He was Chez!

Dog People can do anything!, I thought. Dog people practice dark magic!

After playing with Chez for a minute, the volunteer looked up at me, the human. “Oh, hello, there! What’s going on?”

“Oh, not much,” I began. “Just here to return the dog.”

She cocked her head in confusion. “Return him?”

“Yep. I’m here to…return the dog.”

“Return.”

“Yep. Returning.”

“I’m sorry. You mean you’re surrendering him?”

“Is that what you call it?” I asked.

“Well, he’s not a pair of pants.” she said. “He’s a dog.”

I nodded in agreement.

“Wow. OK. I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this,” she said. “I’ll need to get the paperwork.” She stepped into the back office. I looked around the shelter, at all the dogs and cats behind the locked cages, and I could taste my impending freedom, bitter and raw. I was many, many things, but a Dog Person I was not. She reemerged paperwork in hand.

“OK, so, I need to ask you,” she said. “Why do you want to surrender him?”

I paused. I wanted to tell her everything. The whole truth. How all my friends were getting married and pumping out babies. How I wasn’t. How long it had been since I’d been in love. How short it had been since I’d gotten sober. How I thought that a dog could bring joy to my life. How I wasn’t ready. How when all was said and done, I’d been growing increasingly concerned that I couldn’t tell the difference between courage and carelessness.

“Allergies.” I said, finally. “I got the worst allergies.”

The volunteer’s face relaxed immediately. “Oh no! Allergies! I have them too!”

“Oh no!” I said, feeling like I’d stumbled upon the only acceptable excuse for returning a pet. “And, geez, with all these dogs around, how do you handle that?”

“I poison myself,” she said. “Shots every week. Pills everyday. That sort of thing.”

I told her I thought it was very noble that she’d go to all that trouble for dogs. And just to make it perfectly clear that I was not prepared to go to similar lengths, I further explained that I wasn’t just allergic to dogs, I was also allergic to allergy medication.

“I understand,” she said. “I understand.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “I’m so glad you understand. And I’m so sorry about Hubert. I mean, Chez.”

She smiled. “It was the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s better to nip these things in the bud.”

What she didn’t tell me, though, and what no one ever had, was how to know when a bud is just a bud, and not yet a disaster. As I turned to leave, I waved goodbye to Hubert, but he was too busy wedging his head between the bars of a cage to notice as I walked out the door.

I left the shelter, free and alone. The blue sky had turned gray, and the wet spring air was getting crisp. I wasn’t sure what the last 36 hours meant. And I was afraid they’d perhaps meant nothing at all.

So I walked and walked through the Tuesday city, strangely quiet and devoid of human life. I walked past the flowers, the buildings and birds. I walked to a meditation center north of the West Village, a place where I could attempt escape now that I was living without the chemically induced kind.

It had been a month since I’d last meditated. Before starting, I reminded myself of a strategy I’d once been taught: just breathe and let go. Anytime the mind wanders, gently say the word “thought” to yourself and return to your breath. With that, I began. And I thought about Hubert.

His face. Thought. His nose. Thought. Why did I get that dog? Thought. You made the right decision. Thought. It wouldn’t be fair to him. Thought. It wouldn’t be fair to you. Thought. Sobriety is crazy. Thought. That guy is cute. Thought. Isn’t meditation great? Thought. I read that dogs always live in the present. Thought. Does that mean dogs are in a constant state of meditative bliss?  Thought. Why do I compare myself to everyone? Thought. Why do I compare myself to dogs? Thought.

The meditation ends. I exit the building and light a cigarette. I try not to think about anything too hard. But as I walk west toward the subway the myriad thoughts return, one after another. Sometimes, it just feels like too much. Sometimes, I just want everything to stop.

And then I look across the street and see a woman walking Chez. I can’t believe my eyes. He’s walking so smoothly. Gliding through the air, majestic and proud. My heart beats faster. I feel overwhelmed by coincidence. As I get closer, though, I see it’s not Chez at all. Chez had four legs; this dog has only three.

Isn’t that beautiful? I think. There’s a dog owner who stands by her dog. She’s really something. And that dog, he’s really something, too. That’s amazing.

Cory bortnickerCory Bortnicker is a writer and musician who lives in New York City. In 2008, he won an Emmy Award for writing and producing Hoofy & Boo, an animated business news show. He’s also the creator of the The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator, which lots of people seemed to enjoy. When he’s not, you know, at work or something, he plays in a rock band, The Grand Prospect. Check out corybortnicker.com or follow him on Twitter: @corybortnicker.

 

 

  1 comment for “Hubert by Cory Bortnicker

  1. I enjoyed the humor in this piece. The pacing spoke volumes about your interior life at that time. You were right to take the dog back. Maybe you’re a cat person.

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