Maxwell Learns Restraint

(2,426 words)

Fact of life—we all need to learn restraint. Though I’m not as well trained as other terriers, even the best of us falters off the leash. I know what you’re thinking—Toto never wore a leash in The Wizard of Oz. Toto was the Babe Ruth, the Jack Nicklaus, the Pelé of Cairns. None of the rest of us can ever measure up. So, do us all a favor and lose the mental picture of Toto trotting happily behind Dorothy on the yellow brick road. Nothing robs us of our natural pluck more than these endless comparisons to the quintessential Cairn of the silver screen.

Sometimes I tear off after red Volkswagen Beetles. Can’t help myself. For one thing, I’m color-blind. Red looks like black to me. For another, from behind, Beetles reminds me of good old “Bear”—may he rest in peace—an old Newfie with a backside as broad as a tractor trailer, who used to live two doors down at 39 Mulberry Lane.

According to Dr. Bob, I have unresolved grief that manifests in irrational chasing behavior. Yes, Mister and Missus sent me for canine psychiatric sessions, trying to eradicate my car-chasing tendencies. Tearing after compact cars may not sound like such a big deal to you, but it actually landed me in the State Pen.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before being carted off to a maximum security correctional facility, the Missus gave me to the Prince County Animal Rescue League. I remember the fight she had with Mister the day before I left, not realizing I had crawled under the bed to eavesdrop the whole time.

Missus used a high-pitched whine whenever she was fed up. “I won’t subject the children to seeing the family pet being maimed or killed.”

I was bred to hunt, I wanted to add. I’m hardwired to chase things.

“Charlene—” Mister protested. “One more session with Dr. Bob?”

“Maxwell’s an unrepentant Beetle chaser. The children will be scarred for life if he got squashed by a car. He needs to disappear . . . quietly.”

“Please, Charlene. I love the little guy.”

I always knew Mister loved me best.

“It’s decided!” she said, draping my leash over the banister.

Oh, boy! I’m going out, I’m going out, I thought, sitting back on my haunches and raising my front paws (which gives me that I’m-so-adorable look). Then I remembered where the Missus was taking me, put my paws down, and rested my chin on top of them.

Out of spite, I barked during the entire car ride.

The rescue league was like a zoo—many smelly cages with people streaming by, always fawning over the babies—puppies and kittens. Well-behaved adult dogs were consistently passed over because everyone wanted to adopt puppies. The ladies working there were nice, but there were too few of them, and I didn’t really belong to anyone. Dozens of dogs competed for scant attention. So, we’d yip and howl and whine until someone came over and patted us on the head or scratched our ears or said a friendly word. Anything to help us remember we were once loved. Even I grew weary of barking and settled into pouting, then brooding, and eventually falling into a full-on depression.

One day, two men bigger than old Bear sauntered into the rescue league. They wore pressed gray shirts and had big black things that reminded me of metal boomerangs clipped to the waists of their pants. My neighbor, Bruiser the Bassett Hound, let out a mournful howl and passed wind—he’s a smelly one. If restraint had an odor, these gray shirts, Big and Bigger, epitomized it. They strolled past the row of cages, looking us up and down, laughing when they passed Bruiser’s cage because they realized he’d farted.

“Stop wagging your tail, Bruiser,” I said. “These guys are bad news.”

“Anything’s better than this place, Maxwell,” Bruiser said.

Dogs are nothing if not ruled by instinct. So, when Big Gray Shirt whispered, “Here, little fella,” and stuck his hand in my cage, well, didn’t I get a wagger going, trot right over, and lick his hand!

They ended up taking four of us—me, Bruiser, Pepe the chihuahua, and Sinéad the Irish Setter.

“Oh, and one more thing, gentlemen. That one,” the large red-haired lady told Big Gray Shirt, pointing to me, “likes to dig.”

“Dig, you say? He’ll be the most popular dog at the Pen,” Big Gray Shirt said, scooping up my leash. “Maybe we should call you Digger?” He stooped and scratched me behind the ears.

So, digging dogs are a boon at this place we’re headed? I couldn’t imagine where they were taking us. Nobody liked diggers in my old neighborhood. We were always getting cussed out for ruining people’s flowers and tearing up their pretty lawns.

As much as I despised the rescue league, at least there was no mystery to it. The Gray Shirts lifted us into the back of their van marked Maryland State Penitentiary to whisk us away to place we knew nothing about other than boomerangs hanging off one’s belt seemed to be a necessity.

We pulled up in front of a humungous gray box and waited outside a deeper gray metal fence—the tallest fence I ever saw. It made me wonder whether they had pet giraffes in this place. Why would anybody need a fence around their yard taller than a house?

I’ve never been too scared to bark before, but everything was so strange to me. The place smelled like misery, and I couldn’t collect enough spit in my mouth to start barking. “Where are we?” I asked. None of my friends said anything.

Surely Sinéad knew—she was smarter than all of us combined.

“Sinéad? Where are we?”

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” she said. “I think we’re at the slammer, the clink, the big house. They’ve taken us to a prison.”

“Prison?” I yelped and burst out crying. “Oh, Missus, I’m sorry for chasing Beetle Bugs. I’m so sorry. Please take me back, Missus. Please.”

“Shut it, jefe,” Pepe said, scratching his ear with his rear paw.

Sinéad cocked her head. “I watched The Green Mile with my master. I know about prisons. They’re full of bad people who hurt other people. The Gray Shirts hit prisoners with big sticks. The prisoners make weapons out of silverware and stuff to stab the Gray Shirts and other prisoners.”

“I wish you didn’t know so much about prisons, Sinéad,” Bruiser bellowed, but then everything Bruiser said sounded like a bellow. “Now, I’m frightened.”

None of us had the courage to say it, but we all knew certain kinds of people who perfected their meanness on animals. We’d either seen it or been subjected to it ourselves.

A buzzer sounded, piercing my eardrums. They walked us through the biggest fenced yard I’ve ever seen. Nothing Cairns like better than a fenced yard and a less-than-perfect lawn. Maybe prison wasn’t as bad as Sinéad made it sound. They even had a basketball hoop, just like at Mister and Missus’ house. A siren wailed, and Bruiser joined in with his mournful bay.

“Oh, Bruiser,” I said because I’d restrained my own fear of the unfamiliar. “Put a sock in it.”

“Maxwell, you’ve only ever had one owner,” Bruiser said, a big string of slobber hanging from his rubbery lips. “We’re getting new owners—I can feel it in my bowels. They’re going to change our names. No more Bruiser.”

“You may not be Bruiser anymore, but at least you’re alive.”

I’d heard the red-haired lady from the rescue league talking about what they do to the animals that no one takes home. Then she drew a finger across her throat. Mister taught me what a finger across the throat meant. “That’s better than you’d make out at the rescue league if we’d stayed there any longer.”

Yet another alarm sounded, electronic doors flew open, and a half-dozen guys in orange suits stumbled through. They queued up across from us. They looked hard and mean-spirited, like the kind of people who hurt dogs and little kids when no one was looking. People whose lives had been so bad that making others feel worse than they felt made them feel good.

“All right, you reprobates, you outcasts from society,” Bigger Gray Shirt began, “here’s the first batch from the shelter. Give them a look-see. Tell us if you find one you want.”

A huge Red Man approached me. His skin looked like an alligator’s and his big black eyes were full of more sorrow than Bruiser’s. He knelt down and patted me on the head with hands so big he could pinch off my head with one snap between his index finger and his thumb. I couldn’t help it. I peed myself.

“It’s all right, little fella,” he said, in a voice high and soft. “I’m not going to hurt ya.”

A happy yip slipped out, and my tail set to wagging.

The Red Man scooped me into his arms and hugged me. His chest shook like he was happy or relieved. So, I licked him in the face. Sinéad had said these men were here because they’d done bad things. The Red Man didn’t seem like such a bad guy at the moment. I wondered what he’d done that he could never leave his yard.

“Is that the one you want, Chief?” Big Gray Shirt asked.

Chief nodded, so Big Gray Shirt handed him my leash, adding, “He’s named Maxwell.”

“Maxwell,” Chief repeated softly. “Classy little guy. Suits him.”

Well, each one of us got a new master that day and none of them changed our names except Sinéad, whose master changed her name to Angie, after his ex-girlfriend.

“Be careful, Sinéad. I mean, Angie,” I said. “Find out what happened to your master’s ex-girlfriend and whatever she did, don’t ever do that.”

Every day for the next month, a nice dog lady came to visit the prison. She knew how to take care of us and how to teach the prisoners to work with us. She helped Chief and all my other friends’ owners, out in the yard mostly, teaching and reinforcing good manners. We learned the proper way to greet people, sit to go through doors, crate training, which I never had since Missus didn’t work outside the home. Every day, Chief and I would practice commands like sit, sit-stay, down, down-stay, to come when called, and heeling on the leash. I was a star pupil, Chief said. He was a kind master and so capable and devoted, the trainer suggested Chief teach me hand signals and other tricks.

At the end of the month, we even had Doggie Olympics. We had to crawl through a tunnel, jump through a hoop, race around flags on poles and climb a ladder. I got a red ribbon—second place. Guess who won first? You guessed it—Sinéad, the wonder dog. I mean, Angie.

Chief did something really bad ten years ago—he killed a whole family, I later learned—but you’d never know the way he treated me. I learned he was from the Ojibway tribe. At night, Chief would meditate and chant things in a language I never heard before.

I was never happier than the six months I lived with Chief. I realized that Mister and Missus didn’t need to send me to a doggy shrink. All I needed was basic obedience training. Working with Chief had made me the best dog I could be.

“I think you’re ready,” Chief said one night, while he was scratching me under the ears.”

Ready for what? I said, tail wagging.

“Maxwell, little buddy. You’ve been the joy of my life.” Then he picked me up and held me in his arms. “I’m going to miss you.”

Miss me? Where you going, Chief? Huh? Where am I going? Huh? Huh? We’re a team, Chief, a team. A good team, remember? We won second place.

“I’ve got to do something at the end of the week. I’ve somewhere to go, and I ain’t comin’ back,” Chief said. I heard a catch in his voice as he was talking, soft and low. “I deserve what they’re going to give me. I did something bad, and there’s just no saying you’re sorry and fixing it. You’re a good doggie, little buddy. Promise me, you’ll be a good doggie.”

I sniffed the Chief and licked his face all over. All a dog has are his instincts, and my instincts told me that was the last time Chief and I would ever be together.

I can dig you out, Chief. I may be a red-ribbon trickster, but I’m a blue-ribbon digger. Chief just shook his head.

The next day, the trainer lady came to the prison, piled us in her station wagon, and took me and my three friends to a shopping mall. She encouraged us to be on our best behavior.

“Look, Mama,” a little girl said, pulling on her mother’s coat. She was a cute thing who reminded me of Missus and Mister’s kids. “The cell dogs are here today. Can we get one?”

Cell dogs? We were cell dogs?

You would’ve thought cell dogs meant the same thing as “prize-winning show dogs.” Hundreds of people stopped by to stare at us that day. My tail got tired of wagging. Somebody said I looked like Toto, and I hoped they weren’t planning on adopting me because those Toto comparisons still grated. The whole time we were together, Chief never once mentioned Toto.

A single lady ended up taking me home that day. She wrote a big fat check to the Animal Rescue League, and the Trainer Lady handed me off to her. “Here you go, ma’am,” she said, after I had a chance to say goodbye to my friends. I’d sure miss them.

“Okay, Maxwell,” she said when we pulled in the driveway. “Welcome to your new home.”

Ma’am was sure sweet and gentle. She helped me down from the passenger seat and carried me over to the second-biggest fenced-in yard I’d ever seen. It had a sandbox for digging. She had little rope toys scattered about. She’d made a home for me—the nicest I’d ever had. Thanks to Chief, I knew how to restrain myself. Because Chief taught me well, I’d have a happy home for the rest of my life. I just knew, wherever he’d gone, he was smiling at his little buddy Maxwell.

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