No one’s been bitten. No lawns dirtied. No one’s even seen one. But the house has begun to smell. You can smell it from the street.
“Keeps them locked inside,” says a man holding a child’s backpack. He watches from his driveway as I approach the house. “Give my neighbor a good knock.”
He means the door, of course, a good knock on his neighbor’s door, which is my intention. However, before making contact, I like to review the Rules of Procedural Policy. Follow these and everything stays under control. Number one, register all complaints (check). Number two, question complainants for just cause (check). Number three, investigate site for possible occupation of domestic animals in excess of code. I evaluate the externals. Landscaping kept up, minimum peeling paint, sinuous eave intact above the front door. The house is what those in the business call a starter, a couple’s first home. Usually the first baby’s born here and not long after the couple moves out due to space issues. What those in the business don’t mention is sometimes the couple’s finished long before a baby’s born. In my case, there was a baby. But it’s not the look of this house that concerns me. It’s the smell.
I knock on the front door. “Hello?” I say. “Anybody home?”
Barks blast from inside. The front door shudders from collected canines hurling against it. I cover my ears, standard procedure. More typical, of course, is cat collecting. People miscalculate the degree of feline unfriendliness and, especially if housebound or forgotten by friends and family, will take in one after another in the misapprehension that the more cats you have the less you will feel the indifference of the world.
I knock again, a good knock. A little door set inside the front door opens at eye level. I had not previously noted this little door and now am on guard. “Precinct Manager Deedra Stero, East Valley Animal Control.” I put my badge to the screen of the little door.
The individual says something inaudible in response.
“You’ll have to quiet them,” I shout. Quieting dogs takes time so I turn to face Pleasant Street. On the opposite side is the Chrysalis Preschool. Naptime over, children scuff past their teacher through the bright painted door. One little girl stops to braid her hair. When I noticed on the requisition that this house was on Pleasant Street, I was reluctant to take the call. But Pedro was on assignment for our supervisor, so that left only me to respond.
An audible reduction has been made in barking levels, demonstrating cooperation on the part of the individual inside. I turn back to the house.
Enter site in question only upon notification of headquarters, rule number four. I get Pedro on the line. “Requesting permission to enter.”
“What your eval?” Pedro says. “Need backup? Cages? Prods?” When I don’t answer, he says, “Nobody was here when I get back except Goose in sanitation. He say you took a code 5844 on Pleasant Street. You don’t take calls on Pleasant Street.”
“What were my options? The complainant threatened to call another precinct.”
“You near that preschool?”
The last child trudges off with her mother. Letting loose a big yawn, the teacher scans the empty playground then strolls back inside. I don’t recognize her. She must be new, like the high fence securing the preschool. “No preschool in sight,” I say and get off the line. Just then the door opens and I am hit with it, like when you lift a lid off banked garbage. An individual, tall, fit, clothed in denim and lace, stands in the doorway. “The neighbors are concerned,” I say.
“That’s awful nice.” Though it could go either way, I will identify him as male.
“Their concern is with the smell. My concern,” I say, “is with the welfare of the dogs.”
He opens the door wider and extends a hand, a welcoming hand. “See for yourself.” A smile. “If you can stand the smell.” His ponytail sweeps side to side as he inhales the air.
Covering my nose as if to sneeze, I say, “According to county records, a person by the name of J.J. applied for a dog license at this address. Is that you?”
When he nods, I say, “How should I call you?”
“J.J.,” I say, walking across the threshold into his house. With a brief touch at my shoulder, J.J. directs me down a hallway deep and tunnel-dark. Flies list overhead. Off the hallway, windows blush behind pink sheets. I reach for the wall to brace myself and hear the faint but steady slow pant of dogs. It’s coming from behind a closed door, the type that leads to basements, which are atypical in ranch-style homes. “They down there?”
J.J.’s hand comes up and pats mine, which is also a kind of patting of the doorframe upon which it rests. “Out of harm’s way,” he says.
J.J. continues down the hallway. When he reaches the kitchen door, he turns to me with another smile. This time I smile back. I excel at sitting down with these people and having a heart-to-heart. “Thank you for allowing me into your home, J.J,” I say. That’s rule number five, conduct oneself without judgment. This is key. The process is impersonal. Take J.J. Though he is wide through the hips, he is broad-featured and the body is muscular. He is…what? Oh, why do people muddy the water? J.J. is male, and I will conduct myself in accordance with my initial ascertainment.
J.J. offers a chair, which is situated beneath a dust-coated skylight. On the table, silk roses perk from a pickle jar placed on a doily. I adjust my radio belt before I sit. From another chair, he lifts a small dozing dog, some blend of the popular miniature breeds filling our shelters. Consumed by maternal urges, a person will adopt a miniature as infant substitute. Enthusiasm is tested when the new owner discovers the dog has defecated in her handbag.
“My latest conquest.” J. J. sets the dog on his lap, where it gnaws a patch of white lace along his zipper.
“How many would you say?”
“Conquests?” J.J. looks up, blinking.
“Dogs,” I say.
“Oh.” Silence. Then, “Who’s counting?”
“For one, the County,” I say. “Though there is no canine numerical limit by dwelling—”
“There ought to be!”
“Well, J.J., there is a total number of registered complaints. This house is one complaint short of a forcible reduction.”
“What are they saying?” He grins.
I refer to the file. “The following observation was made on Monday, June 15th, from an individual residing at the corner of 1666 NE 138th Street and Pleasant Street—”
“That’s that fellow next door.”
“‘It’s packed with dogs in there,’” I read the complaint aloud. “‘I don’t like dogs suffering. Some nights my wife cries herself to sleep just thinking on it.’”
“They should look in their own backyards,” J.J. says. “The dears.”
“To be fair, there’s no denying the smell—”
“Not so bad once you’re in?”
“Neighbors report never having seen a single canine out of doors.”
“House trained, every last hound.”
“And the waste?”
He commences to sing, high and flat, “All God’s creatures got waste.”
“May I make a friendly recommendation?” I say.
“Think I’ll die in here and they’ll eat me? You read about that.”
“Do your own reductions, one hound a day. Take it to the shelter or give it to friends.”
“Friends?” J.J. looks at me, longer than I’d deem necessary. He scoops up the dog on his lap. “Here.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Here.” He’s pushing it at me. “Here.”
Rule number six, avoid direct contact with animals.
“I cannot act as intermediary. You’ll have to take it to the shelter yourself.”
“Such an intrepid woman as yourself must have offspring.”
I reveal nothing. The personal is out.
“Have a heart.” He sets the animal on my lap. I look down and see that it is not one of the miniature breeds. It’s a puppy, the tender humid scent pushing up through the other smell.
“I can’t,” I say. “I’m not allowed.”
“No?” Into the puppy’s ear J.J. whispers, his fastened silky hair cascading across my thigh.
“It’s not County,” I say. “It’s my ex. He forbade me to bring more animals to our kid.”
“Ow,” he says, scooting his chair closer, “what did you bring to your child?” He pats my leg kindly. “Tell me everything.”
“J.J., I brought her a kitten, the whole litter as matters go, a dog, purebred, a conversant bird, a snake.”
“A snake!” J.J. covers his eyes and winces.
Clarification is needed. “Pets are known to help children get over a split,” I say. “But my ex complained about taking care of them.”
“You poor creature!” J.J. says, “You just couldn’t stop bringing them home.” His shoulders quiver. His mouth spreads wide on big yellow teeth. He is laughing himself to bits.
Ha ha ha.