“There’s a big dog downtown,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I was having trouble figuring out what made this observation phone-worthy. We rarely called each other; texting usually covered most of it. I’d pulled over to the side of the road to take her call and was feeling a little impatient.
“No, a big dog,” Beth said.
“It’s taking up all of Main Street, and the sidewalks, too.” I laughed, not getting the joke. Her tone was serious. “It just appeared. People are trapped under it. It’s on Facebook and Twitter and — ” I could hear her tapping at her laptop’s keyboard. “Jesus, Ian. The photos.”
I’d just crossed the bridge from Hadley to Northampton. I decided to drive downtown.
Yellow DO NOT CROSS tape fluttered across the entire four lane width of Main Street, from the cell phone store on the east side, looped around a cruiser’s side view mirror, to the candy store on the west side. The cops stood gaping, ostensibly there for crowd control, but the crowd was apprehensive. The roads leading into downtown were choked with cars and people. I abandoned my car by the railroad bridge and pushed my way forward, trying to comprehend the unreality obstructing our little shopping district. The dog. The big dog.
It looked like a basset hound, but the distorted scale twisted it into something grotesque, almost unrecognizable if you were too close. The creature (later determined to be female) pushed against crumbling buildings on both sides of the street. She lay there, her house-sized head flopped across the northbound lane, eyes closed, apparently fast asleep. Under a flap of lip there was a bulge, which would later be identified as a flattened 2010 Chevy Cobalt. In the following days, eighteen people would be declared missing and presumed dead. Two would later be revealed to be insurance scams, one an attempt to escape child support.
Witnesses claimed the animal just appeared. First, she wasn’t there, then she was. And then there was screaming and muffled car alarms and the grinding sounds of buildings twisting and buckling. She didn’t fall from the sky, she didn’t lumber out of the mountains and lie down for a quick nap, she didn’t rise up from the ground. She didn’t slowly materialize like on Star Trek, nor did she suddenly grow from a normal-sized dog to a Hindenberg-sized one. The dog just suddenly was.
You’d expect black helicopters. Hazmat suits and quarantine plastic bubbles. Swift, bloodless government response. Movies and books have led us to believe that this would be the case. And why not? We all waited for it. Twenty-four, seventy-two hours of anticipation.
Don’t get me wrong. There were helicopters. Plenty of helicopters, mostly media. And sure, there were a fair number of conspicuously inconspicuous sedans with out-of-state plates parked on side streets those first few days. Men appeared in town wearing sunglasses and suits and earpieces. They drank our coffee and crossed our crosswalks. They assessed, reported, and left. It was three days before the White House issued a short statement classifying the basset hound as a non-terrorist threat. Federal authorities didn’t want to touch the problem. Neither did the state. The dog was deemed a municipal problem. No National Guard, no Red Cross, no disaster relief. The city council pleaded their case to state and federal officials as if the basset hound was a tornado. The officials insisted it was more like a beached whale.
Ted’s Boot Shop, a bank, and Birdhouse Music were destroyed. Across the street, a hair salon, a clothing store, and another bank were badly damaged. Thornes, an indoor market, had to seal off its Main Street entrance, which was now completely blocked by a wall of hair and fat. Eventually three buildings would be razed after being found structurally unsafe, displacing thirty-one upper-floor residents and eleven businesses. Traffic was diverted a block over, down State Street, to the dismay of remaining Main Street businesses and State Street residents alike.
The dog required 24-hour protection. People were approaching her, touching her, climbing on her, pulling her two-foot long hairs out and selling them on Ebay. The Northampton police department put officers on overtime shifts until the budget was stretched too far. Before long, the city council couldn’t allocate any more money for the detail — they’d already dipped into the snow emergency fund. The city was in crisis. A non-profit organization was formed. The board of directors raised funds through concerts, house parties, a spring fun-run. Over time, they embraced merchandise, seeking to balance respect for the sleeping creature with the reality of the situation. There were T-shirts, stickers, movie licensing. The income allowed the foundation to construct a viewing platform along the head and belly of the beast. A stairway was constructed over the dog’s hindquarters, allowing foot traffic to flow relatively unimpeded. The dog hair continued to be sold off through officially sanctioned auctions (humanely harvested, naturally shed hairs, of course).
The shallow breathing was a concern at first. The Five Colleges assembled a team of scientists and researchers to study the basset. Breathing, heart beat, hair growth — the data pointed to some sort of fracture in time. The dog appeared to exist on its own plane of existence, enveloped by a temporal bubble of unknown origin. The team published a formula that tied the animal’s unreal scale to the way she experienced time. That fall, while the citizens of Northampton regrouped, coped, and adjusted their lives, the scientists estimated that the dog slept for about an hour in giant-dog-time. She snoozed undisturbed through winter and into summer, except for one bad dream that lasted most of July (she slowly twitched her back leg, systematically demolishing the Haymarket Cafe as she chased what was popularly believed to be a giant-dream-squirrel).
The town was divided into factions: Wake Her Up versus Let Her Sleep (the city’s official position was Let Her Sleep). The topic crept into every city council meeting, local forum, and letter to the editor. There was always talk of trying to move her, though no one knew quite how. Even if they did, there was no other town interested in taking her. A multimillionaire from Nevada expressed interest in airlifting the creature to the desert, to put her on display in one of his casinos. The foundation said no. That gave Northamptonites something else to argue about.
Time passed and the sleeping behemoth became a part of everyday life. The town adapted and learned to function around her and in spite of her. Visitors couldn’t help but express disbelief when they’d see townies strolling past the beast with their morning coffees or smartphones, not even glancing up. The dog was given a thousand nicknames: some cute, some clever, some disparaging. In a somehow very New England way, the one that stuck was “The Dog.”
As the one year anniversary approached, the foundation decided to celebrate. Plans were laid for The Dog Day Festival: a dog parade, dog show, food carts, music, activities for children, speeches, a memorial for the victims. The community pulled together to celebrate and mourn. People and pets came from all over the country, and the media returned in full force. It was a beautiful New England day. Hundreds of basset hounds sniffed hundreds of other basset hounds’ butts. Kids wore officially-licensed floppy-ear hats. As the mayor approached the podium on the platform for the plaque dedication, there was a rumble.
By the time the four-day fart tapered off to safe levels, seven people and thirteen dogs had died, and an entire neighborhood had been evacuated. The asphalt beneath The Dog’s rear end had melted, and City Hall was deemed permanently uninhabitable. The historic building was razed, and the debris was burned and buried in an old rock quarry up on the mountain.
The federal government maintained that this was not a terrorist attack, either.
I was awake at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning, restless and roaming downtown, killing time ’til the coffee shops opened. I ended up in front of The Dog, because there was really no way to stroll around downtown without eventually ending up there. The on-duty security guard, subcontracted by the foundation, snoozed in his Hyundai.
It was unusually warm for February, and the piles of snow turned to an impenetrable fog as I climbed the steps of the viewing platform. Like many a New Yorker and the Statue Of Liberty, I’d never actually stepped foot on the thing before. I looked up, the curve of the beast looming in the whiteness. I sat on a bench for awhile, picking at the already-peeling paint and staring at her wrinkly face. Folds of brow and ear and jowl drooped menacingly overhead.
Over the course of the last year, The Dog had come to fill many roles for the town: part confessional, part wishing well, part memorial. Visitors often spoke to her, bowed their heads in silent meditation, or left flowers, little notes, candles. It had never occurred to me to talk to her before, but that sleepless Sunday morning seemed to be the morning to start.
I’d had a rough year. I told The Dog about my heartache, and my workache, and my acute dissatisfaction with most everything in my life. I talked about Beth moving out. I talked about my grandfather, six years dead, and my perpetually broken car. I promised The Dog I would exercise more and eat less meat. I vowed to make more art and curb my Netflix binging. I told her I’d always wanted to see what Austin was like, SXSW and brisket. I would make a meat exception for Texas brisket. I told her that I was sad and lonesome. I told The Dog that I desperately needed coffee and sleep. I don’t remember how long we talked. Later, when I was interrogated by the police, I guessed around twenty minutes, but I was just giving them a number because they were demanding an answer to corroborate with the security camera footage. I don’t really know how long it was. I just remember the fog pig-piling on us, and the relentless silence of a sleeping town. I leaned over the railing and ran my palm across part of her mist-covered brow. It felt and smelled like a damp mop. The whole morning did.
The Dog made this town too small. I had lived here long enough to watch the college girls grow up and have children. I’d watched as sushi bars and cafes nudged out repair shops and thrift stores. The street punks and anarchists of a decade ago had graduated into full-fledged panhandlers and addicts. I was surrounded by stores full of bullshit for out-of-towners and condos locals couldn’t afford. I had no friends and two hundred nodding acquaintances. There wasn’t any air left in this town.
I wiped my hands on my jeans and closed my eyes and asked The Dog a question, a question hundreds of people had asked her over the past year and a half. Joking, cajoling tourists speaking in stupid baby-talk voices, trying to wake the beast, trying to make their companions laugh. “Would you like to go for a walk?” I whispered. Just my luck. Just my goddamned luck.
I stood transfixed for the next half hour as she opened her terrible, boogery eye.