Part 3: The Dog in the Clouds — Puppy Orville

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In the morning I took a rickshaw to a grimy old film lab on New Road. Normally I avoided the place because they scratched negatives by using squeegee tongs to slough the water off and used stale Indian chemicals that made prints fade in a few weeks, but in this case there was no time to waste. For one thing, I wanted to know if I really saw that dog in the clouds or if I was just drunk and seeing things while drunk and soaked and overprone to fantasy. Maybe it would have been a relief. It might have restored me to the way I always was, to someone who had never believed in signs. But if the dog did show up in the photograph, I would need it to identify him. To find the dog in the clouds.

The old man who ran the lab put his newspaper down on his desk and stubbed his Yak cigarette out carefully so as to be able to relight it later when I came in. He invited me to accompany him in the darkroom. When the negatives came out into the light the image of the clouds was there, but at that size, and with the black and white reversed, all we cold see was the black pinpoint of the moon. To speed up the drying of the negative he positioned a fan and a space heater. He saw my look of concern at the space heater and returned it with one of assurance that no harm would be done.  He offered me one of his Yaks at his desk while we waited for the negative to dry and he showed me a few prints he had made over the years. The light of King Brenda himself had passed through the lens of his enlarger many times. Formal portraits of Newari gentlemen standing behind their seated wives. A famous cricketer. The Bhimsen Tower. When the negative was dry, we went back in the darkroom and he switched on the safelight. I admired his touch as he worked. He was a pro. I had been too dismissive of some scratched negative in the past. Perhaps it had been my fault, and I had condemned over two grains of dust on the backplate of my own camera. He handled the negative faultlessly, clamping it in the ancient aluminum carrier and he focused the image without the use of a grain magnifier. The reversed image that shined on the white of the easel was mostly just white — the black of the night sky. I asked him to move the head of the enlarger up higher to magnify the center, where the moon and the dog were. He had a timer hooked up to the enlarger, but he eschewed the use of this the same way a pilot of a 747 on whose flight deck I was a guest once did his auto land feature in bad weather landing in Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei or someplace to demonstrate how much fun it was to do it the old-fashioned way, and he timed the exposure on an instinct for the light alone and pulled the paper from the easel and slid it into the developing tray. He got it right on the first try. The black edges of the night appeared first, and then, at the center, the moon and the dog. We parted as good friends.

At the time, it seemed like what I was about to do not only made sense, but that not doing it would not have made sense. I came down the old stairs concrete stairs from the film lab and stepped back onto the crowded street and looked around for the dog. So far, everything seemed to be proceeding on track, so it came as a surprise that he wasn’t sitting right there with a knowing smile and a slow wag. He was probably sleeping it off somewhere, getting ready for the night, when control of the city was returned to him and the rest of the Kathmandu dogs.

I was on good terms with some of the dogs nearby at Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu’s central temple grounds where I often visited my friend Ratna in his art shop, so I walked over there to check them. A few were sleeping on the steps of the temples or under rickshaws or piles of lumber, but none of them were the one. I walked back up the narrow streets to Thamel. As hard to believe as it was, not a single dog matched. Maybe it was going to be more challenging than I thought. I would just have to keep looking. I roamed around the streets, but after an hour or two it was clear that theses pye-dogs, with their angular features, had a completely different profile than the dog in the clouds. 

I took a break from the search at my friend Paki’s Nightingale Bookshop. We sat on his balcony and looked down on the main street of Thamel. Monsoon season kept the tourists away, so foot traffic was down. The few who were there tried to cheer themselves up by adopting the uniform tie-dyes and cheap local clothes worn in homage to the legend of the long-gone days of Freak Street pie shops and hashish dens filled with backpacking hippies. Of course the clothes could no more bring those back than carrying a copy of The Sun Also Rises would land you in Paris in the 1920s. The married women of the neighborhood walked in their graceful sarees, the girls, walking at least two-by-two, in the pants and long tops of their kuurta. With the strike on, the vegetables they were bringing home for the day’s dahlbhat were wilted and the potatoes pockmarked. The more well-to-do gentlemen strolled together in their traditional Nepali outfit of close-fitting trousers, pillbox topis and suit jackets. There was  a music that was particular to the streets of Kathmandu, composed of the creaking of rickshaws as their drivers stood on their pedals trying to make their way through the crowd and the bicycle bells they rang, the beeping horns of tiny black-and-yellow taxis, songs from Radio Nepal coming from the windows of those who had radios to share with everyone who didn’t, someone always hammering, and when you were lucky, which was often, a bamboo flute being played by a virtuoso.

The approaching curfew created a sense of urgency that was not lost on the dogs. Their routines were governed by a clockwork understanding of the humans out of whom they had to eke their living. It was a hard living at the best of times. To make it the two or three years a dog could at most hope to live for, she needed to anticipate not only the exact time a particular woman would leave her rice offering at which temple, but also the timing of the subsequent theft of it from the altars before some other dog got to it first. With the curfew, scraps normally left outside of shops later were materializing earlier and restaurants where tourists could be counted on to respond to hungry stares through the windows were closed. It was hard enough for a dog not to starve in peak season. In low season they didn’t have enough time to pick at their mange. The dogs were hustling.

A dog would trot by in the street below and Paki would ask, “Is that him?”

“Nope,” I would answer. “Look at him.”

Another dog would come by.

“Let me have a look at the picture again,” Paki would say. He would scrutinize it and crosscheck it with the dog. “Well…. Or… no. No. That’s not him.”

It was a good thing this was happening in Nepal, where people are reasonable enough not to doubt that magic is as elemental a force in life as gravity (as opposed to our western belief that no such thing exists, or that we acknowledge as long as it’s called luck). The only thing that seemed outlandish was that it wasn’t working out. Paki was as surprised as I was, though. He was wise enough to know that being impatient with it would’t help. 

This went on until Paki had to close up shop to get home before the curfew. We pulled the steel shutters down, and Paki said a quick prayer before getting on his motorbike. I went back to my room. The Japanese stringer had disappeared. I would never see her again until she appeared on a contact sheet back home in America. 

In my darkroom in Boulder, I made some 18 x 24-inch prints of the dog in the clouds and tacked them up to a couple of the walls in the house. I kept a smaller print in my jeans pocket. Once in a while some dog warranted holding his chin to get the right angle and squinting at him, but this would only make his owner ask me just what it was I thought I was doing. The photo checks tapered off, but the belief that I was getting the dog in the clouds didn’t. It did seem like the odds were getting longer. 

One windy, snowy February day about two years later, I was alone in the little stone house, missing a dog. Suddenly, as if an anti-schizophrenic drug had just kicked in, the idea of the dog in the clouds felt like a delusion. I shook my head at myself and thought: “Man, are you a fool.” What a nice little thing to have been inspired by back then in the magical Himalayan valley — the same one that had pounded both of my legs into powder, snapped my left arm in half, and banged me so hard on the head that ten years later it still felt like I always had a hat one size to small stuck on my head and couldn’t get it off. Clouds. With a dog in them. Jeez. What a bonehead. It was like the moment when you find yourself saying, “What do you mean there’s no Santa Claus?” The sort of thing that once you understood, became hard to believe you ever believed it in the first place.

I knew what I would do. I would reverse course. Instead of looking for the dog, I would take any dog. I’d get the first dog available. I pulled my snow boots on and went across the street in the blowing snow to the market and bought a newspaper. I brought it home and spread it out on the coffee table. It was filled with pages of classified ads for every kind of dog there was, enough of them to finance the whole newspaper. Afghans. Airedales. Anatolians. Australians. Basenjis. Basset hounds. Beagles. I flipped the page and came to Labradors and thought one of those would be okay. I began calling the numbers.

“Hi, I’m looking at your ad for Labradors in the paper. I’d like to get one,” I said.

“Okay. We’re expecting our next litter in May. We can send you an application to fill out and return with a deposit.”

“Oh — you don’t have any available now?”

“Sir, we don’t just keep them in stock them and sell them off like that. You have to apply.”

I didn’t know that. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know enough to go to an animal shelter, which is now the only way I would ever get a dog again.

I kept going down the list and asking the same question. Everybody told me the same thing. I was ready to figure something else out when a woman answered the phone.

“Well, yes,” she said, “I do have a litter, and they happen to just be ready to go  today. They’re seven-and-a-half weeks old. What are you looking for? A boy? A girl?”

“A boy.” I knew that much much and added, “How about a yellow boy?”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I haven’t got any yellows. I have ten black girls and one little white boy.”

“White?” I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white Labrador.

“Yes, a little white boy.No yellows, though.”

“Can I come and pick him up?”

“Sure.”

“Great. Don't sell him out from under me — I'm on my way.”

“He'll be here. Now, normally I get $450 for my puppies, but I’ll knock fifty off because he has a hole in his cheek and it’s going to leave a scar. You weren’t planning on showing him, were you? You couldn’t show him with a scar like that.”

A scar? I was the king of scars. I had more scars than I could count, though I have tried. I didn’t care about the scar. And there was no risk of ever my ever wanting to put a dog in a show.

On the two-hour drive to a little town way out on the worst of Kiowa County’s  frozen shortgrass prairie, I started to worry. What was I doing? How do you take care of a little puppy? What do you feed them? How do you feed them? Do they know how to eat? Where was he going to sleep? How do you house train them? What are you supposed to say to them? What if I made a bad first impression and he considered me a fraud? Would he be open-minded enough to give me another shake? Or would that be it?

I was pretty worked up by the time I arrived at the house. The breeder and her husband took me out to the corral in the back. The parents and an aunt of the puppies were there, all big, black, happy and handsome. They ran over to say hi, smiling and wagging and pressing their sides into everyone’s legs. The father of the litter was gigantic. They were all in a terrific mood. It was like a Labrador resort for them, with snow, puppies running around and food delivered on schedule. The only time they had to stop what they were doing was when some human came over to tell them how great they were.

In the corral behind the adult dogs, some black dots were popping up from the snow and disappearing back into it. It was the black puppies. They were like a school of baby sharks churning the water white in a feeding frenzy. Once in a while I could make out the pink tip of one of their tongues or the grin of a maniac or their skinny ratlike tails wiggling above the surface. They were buzzing around some target with the devotion of electrons orbiting an atom, relentless and more ferocious than one expects puppies to be. Any time whoever their prey was squawked — a pitiable and lonely squawk muffled deep in the snow — the black puppies all jumped up at the same time, delighted at the noise produced by inflicting pain on someone.

The breeder said, “Oh, they’re ganging up on yours again. I don’t know why but those sisters of his just won’t leave him alone. 

I couldn’t see him. 

“He’s kind of hard to see, being white and in the snow and all,” she said. “Honey,” she said to her husband, “would you just go get him?”

She opened the gate and when he got within range, the black balls of fur tried to swamp him to try to keep him from usurping their kill, but their maneuver was unschooled and it was hard going in the snow. They couldn’t get past his ankles. He scooped up what appeared to be a large snowball, dusted it off a little, and brought it back to the gate. It was the little boy. He wasn’t white. He was the color of a polar bear cub. The breeder brushed more snow from his round little head and his stubby snout while his pink belly hung down and his big paws dangled.

This was one tired-looking puppy. He stuck the tip of his little flap of a pink tongue through his shiny black lips and it flicked in a nervous pant between puppy teeth as sharp as needles. His nose was about the size of the mark a pool stick leaves on a cue ball. Now, clear of the threat of death, his plump little body drooped like the towel some half-dead boxer’s manager was preparing to throw in the ring to end a slaughter he had allowed to go for on too long in the hopes of salvaging a ruinous bet. I was sure he was wondering where he had gone wrong. I had asked myself the same thing for years. The puppy turned to look down when his sisters made it to the gate and demanded his return by forming into a single clawing black ball of fur and tails and tongues and tried to break through. His big ear flaps dangled forward as he looked down at them. On that scrunched little face I saw the strength of a wolf. He was already capable of dignity while staring death in the face.

“Aren’t they just the cutest little things in the world?” the breeder said, looking at the pack of failed murderers.

“Yes,” I said, “they are.”

We went in the house and the puppy was placed on the floor. He sniffed it for a second and noticed a chair and stumbled over to it to reposition himself underneath. It was hard going with those big paws and beefy arms. He sat down under the chair and his pink belly flattened out in a soft blob on the carpet. He turned his head to take a look around through sad, black eyes. Involuntarily his paws began to slide forward into a lying-down position, but he thought better of it and backed them up one at a time to stay sitting, because the one thing he knew was that you never know. He was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, on Earth or in the clouds or in a picture or anywhere. Moving gently, I got down on the floor and sat crosslegged near him.

“Have you decided what you’re going to name him?” the breeder asked.

For the two preceding years I had thought about that but never came up with anything. Five minutes before arriving at the breeder’s house, the name Orville popped into my mind. Half for Orville Wright, co-inventor of the airplane and half for Orville Gibson, inventor of the modern American mandolin. I liked the old-fashioned sound of it. It also had the advantage of having been neglected as a good name for a dog. I had met a lot of Olivers along the way, but never an Orville.

“Yes,” I said. “His name will be Orville.”

“Well, go ahead and try it out on him,” she said.

I edged closer to the puppy. I was 25 times his size but felt like a buffalo beside him and didn’t want to crowd him. When he put his ears up the top of his head wrinkled under the weight.

“Hi, there, Orville,” I said quietly. There is something magical about the first time you call a puppy by the name you give them. “Hi, little puppy. Hi, Orville.”

He gave me a direct, non-committal sort of look. I scratched at the carpet in front of him and held my hands in his direction and he decided to crawl a little way out from under the chair in a half-squat and began to sniff his way over to me with his head down and his thin tail corkscrewing nervously. As he got closer he peed a little. I picked him up and felt the softness of his belly and his chest and his fur in my hand for the first time. I cupped his tiny head in my hand and touched his ear to my lips and said, “Hi, Orville,” I said. Even at that size, he did what any dog will do when pulled, and pulled in the opposite direction and he felt surprisingly solid under the loose fur. “Orville,” I whispered to him. “That’s who you are now. Orville. You’re going to be my little boy.” And stuff like that.

“Well,” the breeder said, “What do you think? Do you still want him?” She needed to get on with dinner.

“Oh, yes. I do.”

I wrote the check for the $450 minus the fifty that got knocked off for the hole in his cheek and said good-bye to the breeders and carried the puppy to the car. I put him on my lap for the drive home and sat there for a minute. His back wasn’t much bigger than my hand and his body was sloshing around in puppy fur, as if he had been issued the wrong size at the polar bear boot camp. I held one of his paws. It was the size of the last two joints of my fingers and with my thumb I could feel the delicate bones of his toes and his new claws and the soft leather of his footpads. I don’t remember what I was saying to him, but I’m sure it was just as you imagine.

 Up to that point, he must have been processing being carried out and brought out to the car, but when I started it and he felt it move, he began to cry. At first he just let out a a few quiet whimpers, but within a few seconds he was wailing. He had a surprising range and added yelps and when those no good he began to screech. He dug in with his claws and under the loose fur his baby muscles tensed. I put my hand under his belly to hold him but he threw his stubby arms around and flung his head from side to side and tried to get a purchase on anything he could with his clumsy paws and scrambled his fat legs as fast as he could. I put him down and held him, but it didn’t calm him. I didn’t know what to do and when I tried putting him back on my lap he burrowed his snout between my thighs. The way that muffled his whimpering was heartbreaking, but also cute. I just kept a hand on him and tried letting him calm down before holding him again and talking to him but he didn’t want that either and kept flopping around to try make a break for it. I wasn’t expecting the amount of strength packed into such a small puppy and he caught me by surprise with a wild flinging maneuver that landed him on the floor, where he clawed his way into the space behind the pedals. If he had done that when we were underway I would have had to stop with the parking brake to avoid squashing him. I let us both calm down for a minute, but I couldn’t help thinking how lonely and abandoned he must have been feeling down there, and I snaked him out. 

Hanging by the crooks of my thumbs, I brought him up to face me. He wasn’t as big around as my hands around him were. Being suspended like this gave him something new to think about. He hung there and looked out the window the way you do when you’re not really looking at something but absorbed in your own thoughts. He was thinking that all life did was rob you.

“Oh, little guy,” I whispered to him. “You poor little frightened bear.” I brought him in closer and leaned down to feel the top of his head with my face. It was like a walnut. I couldn’t get over how tiny he was. How could a little mouse like this really grow to the elephantine proportions of that father of his? His whiskers were like eyelashes and there’s no point in comparing how soft he was to anything because nothing was ever softer or smoother. Holding him like this seemed to calm him. 

“You’re going to be all right, Orville Beker. Orville Beker. That’s who you are. Orville Beker, the best little bear in the world.” I pressed him closer and felt the skin of his flabby cheeks and his fleecy ears against my cheek. He relaxed a little more. “Yes, just a poor little Orville bear. A poor, poor, poor, little, little bear. So little and so lonely. The littlest and loneliest of all the bears in all the world.” He began to feel understood and his body softened up a little more. He seemed to like the sound of  vowels drawn out like howls. “My pooooor, poooooor, lo-ooo-onely, loooo-ooooo-ooooonly little, little sad bear.” He reached up with one of his paws and put it on my arm and I felt his head get heavier as he fell asleep. I didn’t know puppies could switch into instant sleep like that. He snored the smallest snore anyone ever snored, and when I heard it and  felt it in his throat I loved it. I held him like that for a few minutes before trying to sneak the car back into gear. He woke up. Before he could get upset again I whispered the same sorts of things at him and he liked it. On the rest of the drive he slept and woke. Sometimes he got worked up and cried like he did at first. But he seemed to like being whispered to.

Most of the dreams seemed to be of the good old days when he could still get milk from his mother. He went swlop-swlop-swlop-swolp-swolp with his tongue and cheeks and he let out tiny grunts of satisfaction and moved his arms and legs around to get a better position on his mother. In his dreams, there were no sisters pushing him out of the way and none of the outnumbered dogfights no puppy, no matter how valiant, could ever hope to withstand or hope to win. It was a fine, long drink of the best milk in the world and he sucked and guzzled until he had his fill. When he was done, he sighed and flexed his body luxuriously. I didn’t want it to end. Not because he had been calmed and wasn’t crying, but for the privilege of it. He woke and whimpered a few more times until I rolled him into a ball like a hedgehog and zipped him into the front of my fleece jacket. 

Later, at home, Orville cried some more until, against what little advice I had gotten one way or the other, I curled him up and put him under the covers in bed with me. That stopped it. The sound of his snoring kept me up all night — not because it was annoying, but because I didn’t want to miss it. 

Orville never cried again.

*          *          *

One day, a few weeks later, Orville and I came home from the store. He was beefing up quickly, but he was still a small enough puppy to be carried like a parcel under my arm, and he liked it as much as I did and let me know by constantly bursting into spontaneous jags of wagging and licking.

He did this spontaneously, but also as a signal to communicate his understanding of something. When he began to understand the words I was teaching him, in the market, for example, I would say, “See this, Orv? This is a banana. You will probably never care about the banana. The banana may will probably never interest you. But this, my little puppy bear, this is turkey. Turkey… turkey… turkey,” I would tell him, and he would put his hears up and stretch his neck out to lean his nose in its direction and then give me a lick on the nose that meant, “Ah. Turkey. Got it.” When we got home, I would reinforce his vocabulary by reminding him of the word as he sat with a serious puppy expression to watch me take things out of the bag.

“Look at this, Orville,” I would say.

The strain of cocking his big ears would wrinkle the top of his head as he paid attention.

I would take it out of the bag and say, “It’s — TURKEY!” and give him a sniff. When it looked like he was getting the idea I’d give him a piece.

I had been photographing him constantly and that day, when we came home, we had gone to pick up a fresh envelope of color prints from the Fotomat, and I was going through them when we came in the door. When I opened the door, we stopped there so I could take advantage of the light. One of the big prints of the dog in the clouds was tacked on the wall right by the entrance. That photo had become a thing of the past now, just something else up on the wall that I didn’t pay more attention to than an old refrigerator magnet.

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“Oh, look at this, Orv,” I said, showing him a picture, even though he never seemed to think anything of them. “It’s a picture of the cutest puppy in the world. Ooop -— look at this. A picture of some handsome little boy.” I shuffled through the pictures. “See this, Orv? A picture of the best puppy ever. Oh, and here you are with a stick!” And on and on. Even if he wasn’t interested in the pictures, his enthusiasm for good conversation made him wiggle and wag his tail and stretch up to lick me. For the rest of his life, Orville would always be a licky dog.

One of the pictures was a selfie of the two of us. I was holding Orville and he was reaching up with a big smile to give me a lick on the nose. The picture made me stop. I recognized the picture. I turned around to the big photograph on the wall and looked back at the picture of Orville and held the color picture up to compare the two.

“Well. I’ll be damned,” I probably said.

The picture was a match — a match of the dog in the clouds in every detail. The head, the lips, the snout. Even the way he was reaching up to lick me was the same as the way the dog in the night clouds seemed to rise in front of the full moon in the Kathmandu sky. Here he was. The sad little puppy — the first dog available that snowy day, the one who came out of the classifieds as soon as I let go of the search for him, was the dog in the clouds.

[End of Part 3. Part 4 to follow.]