Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Guest Writer: Peter McNiff

The Dogs of San Francisco

Up on Alamo Park I walk Diva. There is a spot on top of the hill where I can let her off the lead to throw an object for her to chase and race around and work up a lather while, in between, she attends to her bodily functions. This morning when I throw her chewed up tennis ball she dissolves in the rolling mist. Trees and shrubbery appear as pale imprints. Erased along their edges, they resemble plant life on the floor of the ocean from which, as I watch, now looms a fabulous sea creature. This is Tim, surrounded by twenty canines attached by tentacles to a rope around his waist. When he stops they stop.
I greet him: “I see business is barking as usual.”
“You got to get down and dirty first,” Tim says, reaches into the satchel across his shoulder for a plastic sack, pulls one out, and slips it over his right hand. He was majoring in psychiatry at the time of the economy bust. His practice never got started. People who need him most cannot now afford him. He is good with dogs though. Clients hand over the keys to their kingdoms to have their little beasts exercised, as I do when I am out of town. When we meet we discuss life in general and today, dogs in particular.
“A lot of people tell me they love their pets and would die without them but they are too damned busy to walk them.” he says.
“Or just bone idle.”
“In some cases, possibly—no probably is nearer the mark.”
“I wish I had your patience, Tim.”
“This is not work really, it is entertainment. When owners complain about their pets I tell them, ‘Get a robot. You don’t need to feed them. Plug it into the wall let it do its tricks. No pooping.’”
“That is so soulless.” I say.
“That’s my little joke with them. No man is an island. Humans need human friendship. If other humans let certain individuals down badly enough, they may destroy their confidence, sometimes completely. They may break down. When that happens a cat or a dog may be the only friend they have in the world.”
Then it happens again. It is as if Tim’s words have found a nerve and pulled its trigger. I feel myself going to pieces. I try to reel myself in.
“I n-n-need,” I begin, but for some reason of late, I have begun to stammer. I kick start again. “P-p-people n-n-need soul m-m-mates.”
Tim’s eyes pounce on mine.
“You OK, man?”
He may be the right man in the right place to talk to about this problem but not yet. I am not ready for that. 
“Sure.” But I feel that emptiness that comes with something lost.
We watch a Dalmatian squat. When he finishes, Tim bends to scoop up what looks like a ring of German sausages, steaming on the morning air. He pulls the sack inside out, drops it into his pouch and picks out a fresh piece of plastic.
“You were saying,” I say, still pulling myself together, “D-dogs help the human condition?”
“Don’t knock it.  Dogs don’t talk back and they sure as hell don’t chase wallets or skirts. Some of my clients prefer dogs to people. A dog makes them feel good. Dogs hand over power over dominion to their owners. Dogs may fill the void when there is no one else. They are a warning device. They let you know when strangers are around, even if they only wag their tails at burglars, or bite the mail carrier.” 
“Hold on. Let me finish,” he says, his eyes widening in a comical way. “Do you known how many people depend on their dogs to dispose of leftover food? Sometimes those doggy bags really are for their pets. So here I am double-jobbing, street cleaner and dog walker, picking up the scraps they jettison. I mean, why shouldn’t I charge them double, man?”
I smile. For his services, Tim charges top dollar.
“Here’s another from my cracker barrel—any idea how many people believe their dog will bark to save them next time the San Andreas cracks open?”
A Kerry Blue goes down on her haunches.
He stoops to scoop up another dump.
“Better keep moving,” he says, shoots a wry grin and moves on with his circus.

Diva now has a friend, a tired looking Labrador with rheumy eyes and white muzzle. He springs to life when Diva nips his ear, nothing vicious, just having fun and then his owner drifts my way, as might a ghost from a graveyard, a woman in her thirties with a certain elegance, in a tan winter coat belted round the middle, and fleece-topped boots.
“Hello—is that your dog?”
I nod, smile.
“I think he has paint on his coat,” she says of Diva. It is true. Diva’s fur looks like a decorator used it to clean his brush.
“She,” I say, “is a bitch. Australian sheep dog I p-picked out at the p-pound. Or, maybe she chose me. Anyway, each of us is grateful for the other.”
“They really do show their appreciation when rescued from the pound.”
“Maybe they know just how close they came to oblivion.”
The Labrador tires, flops down beside his mistress. Diva wanders off and returns to deliver the ball at my feet, backs off and yelps. I pick it up and hurl it, and ball and Diva vanish.
“This old fellow is from a pound in Tucson,” the woman says. “Seven years ago December. The previous owner left him in the desert and drove away. I got him after—” she throws her eyes my way, confiding, “—after I broke up with my husband.”
Diva lays the ball at my feet and yelps, backs off, sits on her haunches, tongue lolling. This time I give the ball a kick, sending it into the shrubbery.
“I was in Tu-Tu-Tucson for s-s-six weeks, not too long ago,” there I go again. “Are you f-f-from there?”
“Not at all.”
There is a pause, brief enough for her to take in more information about me, glancing at my shoes then my eyes, before turning away saying, “I am from right here in the city of Saint Francis. I moved back with my parents.
I take a deep breath.
“I was in Tucson for a movie,” I volunteer.
“Are you an actor?”
“For part of a shoot—I wrote the script and directed.”
“A western?”
“It was about Billy the Kid.”
“Surely there have been too many movies on that theme.”
“Far too many and most of them mythical. Cinema tends to leave out the facts while somehow telling the truth.”
“And your movie succeeds where others fail?”
I recognise the hint of mockery in her voice and feel a rush of blood to my face.
“It was a documentary. Its aim was to expose the mythology about Billy,” I say evenly and without impediment, as one might pitch an idea across a table to a producer, full of self-belief. “The real story of Billy the Kid is one of emigration and hard times. Billie’s mother was from Ireland, probably pregnant when she sailed here on the migrant boat. She gave birth in New York, took in laundry for a living. She married and the family moved south to New Mexico where Billy’s troubles began and ended. The sheriff who became Marshall, Patrick Garrett, was a migrant Irish farmer—but you don’t really want to hear this stuff. You want go home and have breakfast, right?”
“No, please, I’m intrigued,” she says. “Do go on.”
“Another major character in the plot was Lewis Wallace, ex-soldier and at that time, governor of the New Mexico Territory, about to pardon Billy, but under provocation the kid shot his guards. Garrett ruthlessly tracked him down and killed him, which part Hollywood got right. Wallace was also a writer. At the time the Kid died,  he was putting the finishing touches to his best-seller, Ben Hur.”
“I know something of Wallace and Billy the Kid,” the woman says in a matter of fact way. “You must know that there are at least forty-five movies in existence.”
“Then I am p-preaching to the converted,” I say, and the wind drops in my sails. 
“I teach media studies,” she says. “Movies are my subject.”
Now I am the one doing quick takes—noting the commanding way she stands, legs slightly apart as if ready to defend her position, hands not so deep in her pockets, the confident angle of her head, the chic cut of her straight blond hair. She looks, well, attractive and now that I think of it, contrary.
“I d-don’t think I have s-seen you here before,” I say.
“Perhaps not,” she says and the shutters roll down, as if her privacy has been transgressed. I take a deep breath, holding in air for a slow count to ten, then expel it slowly. But nothing happens. I feel twitchy.
“Well, nice talking to you,” I say, and calling Diva to heel I hook the lead to her collar.
“Her name is Diva?”
“How lovely—my dog is Fleet,” she says, now I note certain warmth in her voice, a sea change, or perhaps a trace of desperation.
“Fleet—as in ‘track’ or ‘harbour’?” I say
She chuckles.
“—As in speed.”

I project a disengaging smile and move towards the downward path knowing that with each step the fog will swallow me for, as yet, I am ill-disposed to confide in perfect strangers that the woman in my life is missing, that she packed and left without a word, sometime in those weeks in Tucson and that if I had not gone there, searching for the lost soul of William Bonnie, my life might be as it was before.
At least, I have the ever faithful Diva to help fill this awful void but, for now, that is simply not enough.

© Peter McNiff 2010

Peter McNiff, current affairs producer based in Ireland, independent documentary film maker and web designer; short fiction broadcast by RTE and BBC; included in short story anthologies published by Heinemann (London) and Phoenix (London).  Has a Jacobs Award for television work; a Hennessy/Irish Press/New Irish Writing award; Cultural Person of the Year (2004) in his home town Greystones, Co. Wicklow.


  1. This has the variable depths of real life - so many shifting emotions, thoughts, conversations echoed in the shifting fog-bound images and dog breeds.
    I was brought to a halt (by which I mean thought-provoked not stumbled) by "If other humans let certain individuals down badly enough, they may destroy their confidence, sometimes completely" and drawn into the conversation between him and Fleet's owner - the 'disengaging smile' is perfect. Wonderful piece Peter, and most certainly a keeper.

  2. This was like walking through a dream - meeting parts of the self along the way. The setting was enveloping, soothing. You're a professional, plain and simple. This was a very enjoyable read.

  3. I never thought a story beginning with dog poop would entice me. But the day in the park setting had me on the leash. It's interresting how you change positions in the story. The ending definitley leaves room for more. Will tere be a part two?

  4. I could sense the writer wanting to connect yet not and also the woman from SF- how we protect ourselves emotionally-neither introduced themselves, only their dogs-
    a sequel as Jeanette suggests??

  5. Very nice work, Peter. You made me care about the characters, and I could feel the fog and see the dogs. This will be a great one for Michael's students to dissect!

  6. Lonely and sad, this piece speak to the disconsolate soul we all have within. very tight dialogue and well developed character. well done.

  7. What can I say? Brlliant! The pace and dialog are awesome. What I like most about your writing, is your ability to show the complexity of a seemingly benign interaction then flush it with quiet emotions. I’m often left to bear the weight of the story well after I'm done reading.

  8. The dogs are the men´s best friend and they help us to forget bad things but it is important that the owner take them care because they need us. in this reading the dog help his owner to talk with a nice woman. i like this reading.

    Adriana Blanco

  9. I agree with you, I think it's nice to have dogs to love and care of them, but it is also true that we must take time for them, i don´t think it´s a good idea that a busy person have one.
    It is also true that a dog helps us to feel accompanied and ones in any situation and even help us to socialize, but they can not be compared with human warmth.

    Very light and casual manner in which the story was written, i really liked it.

    Lucia Torija

  10. Is a good story. I liked the way you handled the story, the approach that you gave. I swear I imagine everything. You are good Peter.

    Elena Corzo

  11. STEPHANIE JIMENEZ GTZMay 11, 2010 at 10:55 AM



  12. I think it's an interesting story, although I am not a fan of animal stories this one has a twist that made me read with interest.

    Is it true what history tells the truth, a dog is a living being must be treated with much affection because it also has feelings and is not fair that they do suffer.

    If you want a dog you should be aware that you must be responsible for your new pet.

    Fabián Solórzano

  13. Well, This is a very interesting story. Dogs are a very nice pets, but they are not toys so you really need take care them.

    Some times is difficult have a pet because you have to spend some time playing and helping them, but they are good friends. Some times, as the story said they can help you too.

    José Fernando Vera Granados.


    This story is very very interest, because the people don´t taken conscience about the animals. This is a very good story about how the dogs should've cared, I don´t have a dog, but it´s good have a dog. My sister has a dog named Andriux. It's a very active dog who doesn't like the peace and the quietly. Because of that, it needs to go to run every day. I think than the animals in general need so love. This type of dog, like mine needs a owner very active and disposed to get some fitness with it. Thank you for the story teacher!

  15. I like the diaolg!!!! =) And i like it becuase i agree that people sometimes forget the importance of an animal.
    Having a pet is very difficult, i have one dog... "orejas" it's very lazy! lol! que just sleep, eat, sleep,eat =) i love my dog!

    I really like this story!!

    by: Mariana Lòpez Pèrez A01170880!!!

  16. montserrat tirado ruizMay 12, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    I really liked reading and I also think that dogs are men's best friend and we give lot of happiness but we must also take time to care them because they are living beings that need to eat, to drink water and to take a shower.

    As in reading, dogs help us in many stages of our life.

    montserrat Tirado Ruiz a01170993

    Sugiere una traducción mejor

  17. A great history it shows the important of the animals =D I agree with montse when she said the the dogs are men´s best friend! I have a little chihuahua and her name is coffe and now that I read that history I´m wanna be better with her :D


  18. I really like this kind of story because I love pets... Dogs are my favorite kind of pets. I think if you want to have a dog you have to take care of them, because they can feel like us. Also some times dogs help us to make friend like this story.

    Luis Adolfo Perez De los Santos.

  19. I really enjoy this reading. I agree with all the things that it says because sometimes you say you cant live without your pet but you dont have time to take care of it. I really feel like if I were in the story and my dog died yesterday so I realise a lot of things my dog did for me when I start to read this and definitively I wouldn't change my dog for a robot because although sometimes I get tired of getting care of him I really loved my dog and yes it might be difficult to have a pet but is worth it. (:
    Alba Guillen

  20. I like the story. It remembers me when I had a dog but I did not care about it. That dog turned very unclean and full of fleas.
    If you want to have a dog or any pet you must invest time for it.
    Dogs are the best pets for me because they are very noble and loving.

    Luis Eduardo Pimentel

  21. The story is excellent I like, in agree with alex and alba I think that you can understand better the story if have or had a dog as a pet, in my case i have 3 dogs in my house :D I love them I take care of the very well in conclusion a dosg is the best friend of the man, and dogs are excellent for companion. :D!!
    Maximiliano Ruiz Macias

  22. I loved this story, and I agree, dogs are beautiful.. I really hope to have more stories from you to read..

  23. The story is good! I think that my pet is so important for me. When you are alone in your house always will stay your pet there. Having a pet is an important responsibility and is not easy as everyone think. THAAAANKS


  24. I liked the this story a lot. Dogs are beautiful animals and they need special care. They need to be fed, to be bathed, and as all people or animal they need to be loved. After reading this story I learned that they are so important in our life.


  25. It'a amazing the way that you write, this reading really take my feelings... we always go around the world thinking in ourselves and we rarely take care of our pet. Now we have to understand that they also feel.

    Amazing Reading!

  26. Wao ... la descripción de todos los detalles en la historia, como la niebla y otras cosas me hizo sentir y casi en directo de la historia.
    Sin duda, el perro es el mejor amigo del hombre, a menudo vemos gente caminando o jugando con ellos, sin embargo la historia dice que existe, muestra la otra cara que a veces sucede con los perros carismático, y cómo estos son tan amable con la gente, tenía una perro hace mucho tiempo, ella era considerada como parte de mi familia, ahora ya no vive, porque ella murió de viejo, pero todavía ella recuerda muy a menudo.


  27. wow, its a good history but, a little strange, but is incredible how you can change the things, because you begin talking about dogs, and them about a movie with a woman who the character aparently know when he was with his dogs.
    I realy like the history. continue like that.
    ATTE. Jesus Coles

  28. I agree, I have 3 dogs, they don't live in my house but when I spend time with them I feel great and happy... I just love them... Dogs are beuatiful
    Also when you know there's a point where they must leave it's sad but you'll always have them in you memories...
    Loved the story
    Atte. Carolina Santiago

  29. I didn't know where you were taking me but enjoyed every step the journey and loved where I landed. Characterization, imagery, dialogue--superb and richly textured, throughout. Absolutely top shelf.

  30. What I particularly like in this well-told story is the dialogue which moves along with a rhythm of realism. Nothing fake about it! Great story!

  31. Reading this again is like visiting an old friend. Tim, the two main characters, Diva, and Fleet are all welcome to come into my head any time. Each time I finish reading through, although I feel a tinge of sympathy that our main guy still feels there's something missing, I feel as if I've taken another visit to San Francisco. Peter has captured the briskness in the air, and this story is real.


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