A true story
Boise, Idaho 1977
I remember an insistent rapping of knuckles on solid hardwood rousing me from my sleep. My eyes opened and immediately I was awake. Pre-dawn light ghosted in from behind the drawn blind of my bedroom window. I lay still and listened to be sure. The sound came again: tap, tapÖpauseÖtap. The front door, near my sisterís room. Someone for her, maybe even me. Our 1909 ranch house was long and square and at other end lay my motherís room by the back door, where none of our friends dared to knock.
Slipping out of bed, I threw on my robe and tiptoed into the living room. My feet shuffled across the blue shag carpeting, raising static to my fingers. The caller tapped the code again, louder, but not much. Reaching the door, I grasped the antique metal knob whose skeleton key was lost somewhere through the ages. I drew it open a crack.
Pauly stood on the concrete stoop, sheltered by the awning and fifty-year old arborvitaes. Behind him eased the day, breaking gray and crisp. Late fall in Boise. A thick fog hugged the earth and the overgrown pasture beyond our long dirt drive was blanketed in heavy hoar frost, the first of the season. Across the narrow hay field, I could barely distinguish the wooden posts holding apart rusting barbed wire. Wrapping the ramshackle fence was a thick bramble of wandering blackberry that hid the empty watercourse beyond.
"I have cigarettes!" Pauly whispered, with a chilly smile. His face was ruddy with cold from the half-mile walk to our house on Bloom Lane from his on Hill Road. His butch blonde hair was hidden beneath a polyester stocking hat. "Get Lou Anne and címon, " he said. Pauly was my sisterís steady. I was Ďbetween boyfriendsí. As always.
Hampered by the thick carpet, I hauled the door wide and he slid past me, obviously grateful to be out of the frigid air. "Must be twenty five, thirty out," he said, rubbing his hands together. He owned no gloves and his navy pea coat was old and torn. After shutting the door, I suddenly felt the intense iciness emanating from his person. He smelled like clean air and wood smoke.
"Wait here," I whispered. "Donít make any noise." Weíd done this all before: out for a pre-dawn walk and two smokes before Mom got out of bed. Whenever Pauly showed up before my alarm went off, thatís how I knew it was a Saturday.
Lou Anne and I were dressed in moments and the three of us left in silence. Ambling along the street through the fog, our smokes were lit before we hit the ditch riderís road for the Farmers Union Canal bordering our land. I forget exactly our conversations: where Pauly found the smokes this time; how many bottles of wine Hippie had swiped from the corner market so far; how big our collection of Ďborrowedí real estate signs had become; we always put them back, just not in the same yard.
I remember being amazed at how the potholes in the ditch road always seemed different on foot than on my motorcycle. Seated on the Yamaha dirt bike I had them memorized: a Morse-code series of long and short side-to-side leans using only my hips. The holes were filled with frozen puddles of chalky air and stiff dark ice that crunched beautifully beneath my girlís cowboy boots. I was fifteen.
The morning air was light and still. Quiet. In the distance I could hear traffic, far away on State Street. Even here, where horse pasture still sprawled all around, one was still reminded of the city that spread like a sore across the Treasure Valley.
The big irrigation ditch was on our left, below the wild blackberry, and a stand of tall cottonwoods edged the path on our right. The treesí bare branches were ugly and skeletal, stabbing into the fog to make the frigid day seem almost depressing.
We had not yet turned to start our hike back when I heard a strange noise. I pulled at Louís sleeve.
"Listen!" I hissed. We stood stock-still and held our breath. Then we all heard it. A low, preternatural yowl that carried well through the fog.
"What is that?" my sister asked, her voice barely above a soft wheeze. She seemed to tremble from more than the cold. We all believed in ghosts.
"Hush!" I ordered, my eyes wide and staring into the air. Then we heard it again, low and muffled. The noise was alive and bone chilling. I couldnít move my feet. None of us could. The ash dropped from my cigarette.
Pauly swiveled his head, listening. Homing in. Yowwwwwlll. "Itís coming from that way." His reddened hand pointed ahead, into the dense cloudbank. Then the haunted wail turned to a single yap, then one long pathetic little howl.
"Itís a dog!" he cried. "Sounds lost."
"Or hurt," Lou Anne ventured.
I was both relieved and disappointed that we werenít facing the supernatural.
"Look!" Paulyís arm shot out, pointing toward the bottom of the wide ditch. The lazy flow of irrigation water was long gone, leaving it only a foot or so deep. For the first time that year the water was frozen and it would stay that way until spring. In the bottom, on the other side, something moved. The figure was many yards ahead and hard to make out. It had to be the dog. We ran down the edge of the dirt bank, then onto the ice. Fast and fearless we slipped and slid past jagged rocks frozen in place. Our frantic pace slowed as we came upon the creature. Suddenly we stopped, amazed at what we saw.
There wasnít one dog, but two. The first was completely frozen, just under the surface, dead and perfectly preserved. The other, who looked to be the first dogís littermate, was sprawled halfway out of the ice. His small front paws slowly dug at the smoothness of his tomb and his hindquarters from mid-stomach down were completely encased. He was frozen in solid. Apparently the dogs had wandered into the ditch and waded into the near freezing water, perhaps for just a drink. Hypothermia took hold and, in their slow wit, they became entrapped as the cold snapped. It was a miracle one was still alive. How long had he been here, struggling for his life? I looked into his dull brown eyes. He didnít seem to see me. He just continued to dig and claw slowly at the ice in front of him. His coat was dirty and plastered to his skin with icicles. A whine came from his throat and nose. What courage he must have! What will to live!
None of us said much, but there was no question what we would do. We turned quickly toward the ditch bank and came back with the first large, sharp objects that met our grasp: cold hard rocks. In temperatures that would shatter dropped plastic, we hammered at the frozen water around the little dog. Each jarring blow ran up my arms as if I were wielding a jackhammer. Our rapid, panicked breath billowed thick and steamy out our open mouths and dissipated around our heads. The ice flew in tiny, flinty chips at first, and then larger chunks came after. Below, the water still was liquid. As we worked, the dogís struggle toward freedom invigorated. I donít know if he understood we were there to help. Our presence upset him. His cries grew more numerous and pathetic. Tears began to flow down my face. I didnít think ahead, only of the moment. I had to get him out, lest he die before me.
It seemed an eternity passed before we were able to pull him free. His body was like a little sack of oats. I donít remember if he shivered at all then.
Pauly, exposing himself to the wintry air, ripped off his coat, leaving himself with only a short-sleeved cotton shirt for protection. He wrapped the pea coat around the dogís limp body.
Numb yet charged with adrenaline, we scaled the ditch bank and started to run. Pauly cradled the dog, trying to keep its head from bouncing from his awkward gait. The yowling stopped. I thought he had died. My stomach burned with dread.
Pauly tripped and fell hard into the frozen dirt road; he lay with the animal locked beneath him, panting and shivering so hard he couldnít stop. Lou and I towed him to his feet. Rocks, sand and his own blood were smeared across his bare right arm. Home seemed miles away. Pauly cursed and started to run with a limp.
By the time we made it to my house, Pauly was unable to speak. His shirt across his chest and the front of his pants were soaked with icy water and his lips were purple, but he had not stopped. He had not complained. Pauly never thought of passing the dog to one of us. And even after we arrived home, he still wasnít thinking of himself. Mom didnít approve of Pauly and he always avoided an encounter with her. Not that day. He stumbled through the unlocked back door, lurched another step, and pounded his boot against my motherís bedroom door, demanding her attention.
Framed in the jamb, Momís face hinted at shock for only a moment when seeing Pauly, core-cold, asking for her help with just his eyes. Her lips pressed together in a silent line. A one-time nurse, my mother knew what to do. Admittedly, she was better with animals than she ever was with people. According to her, all citizens held a plot to steal her money.
She didnít ask why we were up and dressed at six in the morning on a Saturday. Mother, in fact, asked us no questions. Instead, she swiftly and quietly went to the bathroom and drew a lukewarm tub.
She bathed and bathed the dog, for over and hour, cooing and talking low to him every moment. Unashamed of his own nudity, Pauly got in with him for a time, until finally his shivering stopped and the dogís began. Later we loitered nervously in the kitchen, watching mother work as if she were alone in the world with only a dog that needed her. Lou Anne fixed toast. I prepared hot broth from bouillon. The dog was going to live.
After heíd dried, we all stood around him and looked. He was a mixed breed with shaggy hair and although obviously young, he looked full grown. His coat was tan, all one color. He had bushy dark eyebrows that were thick and expressive like an old manís; the strands curled down over his eyes. He was darling, but most definitely a stray and never house trained, as we found out later. Pauly wanted to take him home. His family at first refused then later in the day, acquiesced. My sister pronounced his new name. From that day forward he was Frosty.
Lou Anne and Pauly lasted together only a couple more months, and then, as most crushes go, they went their separate ways. I never talked to Pauly after their break-up and rarely did I see him in the halls at Capitol High. It wasnít until years after graduation that I ran into him one day at a market. We chatted a moment and found we had both come to our own rescue and quit smoking. I was a writer, not having sold a thing. He was a fireman, married to someone I didnít know and had two little girls; I forget all their names. It was only then that I learned that Frosty had died peacefully one night in his sleep, nine years after the three of us hacked him out of the ice. He was a great companion, Pauly said, a good dog with a happy life. His words brought a tear to my eye, but Paul only shrugged and walked away.
I still sometimes think of Frosty and what mysterious forces led the dog to be placed in our path in such a strange way; for some, itís just not their time. But most of all Iíll never forget Pauly and his selflessness that day. Humanity is a wonderful thing. People like him will always be my heroes, and lost dogs my weakness.
© 2000 Bobbi McCutcheon
Bobbi McCutcheon is the author of a completed science fiction novel, which she's spent the last four years developing. She acquired a literary agent three months ago, but so far it has not sold. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, and now lives in Juneau, Alaska with her husband and three children.