by admin | June 8, 2012 7:13 pm
Road To Redemption
This is a story about loss, redemption and a mutt named Rosie. It is true, far as truth goes.
Rosie belongs to my fiancé and her 13-year-old daughter — Julie and Abbie. She was an early Christmas present to themselves, a rescue puppy adopted from a local pet store. At the time she resembled a six-pound version of Chewbacca from “Star Wars,” allegedly half Yorkie and half poodle. Nobody really knew. What was certain was Rosie — named by Abbie — had the makings of a fine little dog. She was alert, immediately housebroken and took to three-mile walks on a leash as fast as a Lab takes to water. We three fell in love with Rosie, showering her with toys, talking baby talk to her, enduring her tongue licks on any available surface of skin, learning to keep anything valuable and chewable out of reach.
She instantly became the fourth member of this nascent family. As with many couples, jobs and a sluggish economy have combined to keep us living five hours apart for the past year — at times uncertain about the future, grouchy with each other. We are two middle-aged people who found each other but remain wary. Somehow, Rosie made it all better. She was an ameliorating presence who cheered us as we walked Longviews’ trails.
Rosie disappeared on a Saturday night in early April 2011. I was back in East Texas as most weekends. Julie and I were watching “Conviction” on DVD. Rosie happily chewed on the stuffed bear I bought her for Christmas at Tractor Supply, occasionally looking up at the television when she heard an animal noise. She has a way of peering at the screen that makes one think she actually is watching TV. I’m skeptical, her being a dog and all. We heard what sounded like gunshots outside about 11 p.m. and went to investigate. Rosie went with us.
Julie lives in a quiet cul-de-sac beside the oldest golf course in town. There is very little traffic. Rosie has come out with us many times before. Her biggest fault to this point has been spotting a foursome hitting their approach shots on the ninth hole — at least 200 yards away — and dashing off to say hello, me chasing behind and eventually making apologies to the amused golfers.
We realized the noise came from fireworks propelled from the country club, later learning they were the finale to a prom night. We stood outside admiring the sparkle-and-dazzle for a few minutes. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Rosie dart around the side of the duplex. We thought nothing about it until realizing, after maybe 30 seconds, that Rosie had not returned. We called, whistled, walked up and down the two short dead-end streets that comprise this neighborhood. Rosie was gone.
For more than two hours, until well after 1 a.m., we searched for Rosie. I drove across Cotton Street to the clubhouse parking lot, where boys in rented tuxedos and girls wearing fancy dresses likely bought in high-end Dallas stores milled about, in a time-worn mating ritual. I called for Rosie, whistled, called again. We awoke at daylight and began the search again. I knocked on doors of neighbors around the golf course while Julie wandered the fairways and nearby woods.
Anyone who has owned a pet — nearly two-thirds of all American households do — understands loss, or the potential. If you elect to own a dog, cat, hamster or horse, that creature is going to one day expire, likely well before you do. Many of us have dealt with consoling a child upon the loss of a beloved family pet — gone because of disease, old age or the damned dog just wouldn’t quit chasing the postal truck.
When a pet vanishes without explanation, the pain is magnified. The loss is but a pale shadow of the grief a parent must endure if a child disappears. I can’t imagine how that feels. I pray I never will. One gets a slight taste of that desolation when an animal one has come to love is gone without a trace. We searched all day Sunday, until I had to return to Austin. Coming and going gets old, especially when there is grief afoot. I placed an ad in the local paper and uploaded Rosie’s photo to its website. Every day, Julie paced the golf course and the acres of woods that border it, looking for Rosie’s body. One theory was that an owl or hawk had swooped down and made her a meal. I was skeptical such a horrific event occurred without us hearing all manner of screeching and howling. Julie went to the animal shelter each afternoon, enduring the depressing ritual of walking the dog death row in hopes of finding Rosie.
Hope faded. We spent a rare weekend apart. Abbie, trying to remain brave and distracted daily by the drama of being 13 — boys, Facebook, gossiping girls, pimples — finally had a meltdown one week after Rosie vanished. I was in Austin, sleeping through it all on a Saturday night, worn out with worry, sadness, uncertainty.
I drove back to East Texas the following weekend weighted by dread. Julie and I had become increasingly distant, the weight of Rosie’s disappearance adding to the stress of a long-distance relationship. We were polite but cool Friday night and Saturday morning and talked about how the chances of Rosie coming back were getting thinner each day. Julie cracked my heart describing her daily journey through the woods, looking for the puppy’s body, and then going to the shelter. I felt helpless, inept. I left her home late Saturday morning to run errands and at some point noticed a missed call on my cell phone. It was a local number. No message was left. Normally I don’t return missed calls, figuring if it is important someone will leave a message. But a niggle reminded me it could be someone responding to the classified ad, so I broke my rule.
The caller’s name is Warren. He works at a tattoo parlor on Highway 80, the shopworn east-west route that bisects the have and have-nots of Longview. Seedy is a charitable description of this stretch, where hookers and the homeless prowl the sidewalks all times of the day and night. I told Warren I was calling him back because I had placed an ad in the paper for a lost dog.
“Yeah, man, I just saw the paper for the first time today. Some dude at the homeless shelter next door has that dog,” he said.
Warren was certain because Julie had Rosie’s fur clipped a few days before she disappeared. Instead of looking like Chewbacca, she now resembled a long-legged brown squirrel. We were both upset over the dog-groomer’s overzealousness. Julie had sent me cell phone photos. I had used one in the newspaper ad.
“No way some homeless guy can afford to have a dog groomed like that,” Warren said, an excellent point that gave me hope.
I rushed to the tattoo shop, where Warren, a friendly 30-ish guy with tats covering both arms up to his shoulders, waved a copy of the ad in my face and proclaimed yet again, “That’s the dog, dude.” I drove a few hundred yards east to the Outreach Restoration House for Men, originally known as the Raintree Motel, a shabby collection of 1940s-style, A-frame bungalows next to a Diamond Shamrock and a used-car lot, across from one of the city’s main cemeteries. I began knocking on doors on a warm spring afternoon. Most were propped open to let the breeze into the windowless hovels. Few people answered, and of those who did several were hostile, others clearly stoned.
A large black man drove up in a shiny red Ford F-150 and asked if he could help. I told Rosie’s story. Gilbert took down my cell phone number and gave me his, said he knew who had the puppy. I was skeptical and left to pick up some groceries at the Kroger across the highway. I had partially filled the cart with vegetables to grill when the cell rang. It was Gilbert. “I got the guy here who has your dog. Where are you?” I left the shopping cart in mid-aisle and bolted out of the store, headed back to Outreach, a few blocks away. That’s where I met Johnny Tarvin, wearing a brown T-shirt and plaid cargo shorts, a wrist cast on the right arm, cigarette in the same hand.
At 29, he resembles a young Johnny Depp, with thick black hair, designer-looking glasses, a stubbly goatee and unwrinkled, clean clothes. Johnny is chain-smoking skinny and of modest height. One would never guess he lives in a shelter, has three felony convictions and has spent more than eight years of his young life in prison or juvenile detention. That is until he opens his mouth, because he will tell you pretty near everything within minutes. There is no off-switch in Johnny Tarvin’s brain. He bounced on his feet, nervously smoking as he gave me a capsule version of his life within the first 90 seconds we were together: felony assault conviction at 16, a five-year sentence — four in juvie and one in prison. Another stint in Florida for, he claims, being falsely convicted of beating someone with a baseball bat. He did beat the fellow up, he said, just not with a bat. His biggest mistake was hiding the bat that the other guy tried to use on him, before Johnny beat the hell out of him with his fists. Yet another term in an Arizona prison followed.
Johnny has an anger problem. He tells that to everybody he meets, probably as a warning. The man is explosive. But I found myself liking the guy, especially when he quickly told me, “Yeah, that’s the same dog,” as I described Rosie. “We need to get your dog back,” he said.
“So where’s the dog?” I asked.
Johnny said he had given the dog to a friend for safekeeping. He gestured at the cast on his right wrist. A fellow resident had kicked Rosie. This shelter houses ex-prisoners and societal dropouts who have nowhere else to go but can still pay rent. Johnny said, “Most people here are psychotic. Like the dude who kicked the dog? He’s psychotic. Now he’s got a broken jaw, but he’s still psychotic. I got a broken, fractured wrist, too.” Johnny said he gave Rosie to someone so that Johnny didn’t slug anyone else who abused the puppy, newly named Delores. My heart sank. This wasn’t going to be simple.
When I met Johnny, the guy he clobbered was still in the hospital with his jaw wired shut. The cops showed up after that incident. Johnny asked them, “What would you do if someone kicked your puppy?” That resonated, apparently. The cops issued a misdemeanor citation for assault, which Johnny showed me. I promised to show up as a character witness.
“So, let’s go get Rosie,” I said, poised to leap into action, arrive at a resolution. “She’s in Paris,” Johnny said. I knew he meant Texas, but it still meant a two-hour drive. “Let’s go,” I said. He agreed.
I walked over to the Diamond Shamrock and bought a copy of the newspaper, showed Rosie’s photo to Johnny. He continued talking rapid-fire in a New York City accent that got more pronounced the more excited he became.
“Oh, that’s her, man,” he said. “A guy met me in Teague Park, gave her to me for my birthday. Said she was the pick of the litter and that she was called Buttercup and that he paid $100 for her. Trouble is, she never answered to it, so I named her Delores, but I kept trying out different names.” Teague Park is known for its lovely duck-and-geese pond and also for being a hangout for people looking for love in all the wrong places. It is just off Highway 80, about a half mile west of where Johnny lives, but a long way from where Rosie disappeared.
Johnny Tarvin turned 29 on the day Rosie disappeared. He matter-of-factly tells me about first going to prison at 16 in New York for assault. (I later learn it was actually for sexual assault of an eight-year-old girl in Texas, for which he spent four years in juvie and one year in prison as an adult.) All told, he says, he has been locked up in eight jails.
This was all fascinating, but I’m on a mission. I ask Gilbert, the fellow who found Johnny for me, if it’s safe to ride with him two hours north to Paris. Gilbert said sure, Johnny won’t hurt you.
I call Julie, tell her what has happened and to prepare to ride with us to Paris. She is stunned at this possibly dramatic turn of events and quickly gets ready. I make Johnny stay outside the house while we confer inside; Abbie hides in the closet so Johnny won’t know she is here. I need backup. Julie and I agree I should call her youngest brother, Jim, who lives in Gilmer, on the way to Paris.
I explain the situation to Jim, a taciturn man in his early 40s. We are taking a volatile ex-con on a two-hour drive to Paris in hopes he will get Rosie back for us. That’s why I want Jim in the backseat along with Julie. “You will be packing,” I ask/tell Jim on the phone. He says, “Well, yeah!” It is likely that Jim brings a weapon with him in the shower, which is one reason I want him along. Plus, he is calm and tough. Julie gets in the back and politely introduces herself to Johnny.
On the 25-minute drive to Gilmer to pick up Jim, Johnny is frantically calling the guy in Paris who supposedly has Rosie, because Johnny doesn’t know the address. His messages become increasingly threatening:
“James, I’m headed to Paris to get the dog. I have the owners. I’m coming to get the dog. You better still have her, James.”
“James, you better pick up the phone, dude. You better have the dog, or you’ll be calling 911 when I find you.”
I counsel Johnny to stay cool. Johnny calls ex-girlfriends, others who might know where James lives. I am beginning to think this is going to be for naught but am determined to see it through. Minutes before we get to Gilmer, Johnny gets hold of James.
“Thank you, God. I love you James. You still have her, right? Don’t fucking play with me, James. Dude, I haven’t taken my pill today so my adrenalin is pumping. Where you at? I need the address.”
“Avinger? Where the hell is Avinger?”
Julie and I look at each other. Avinger is a hamlet only 25 miles from Gilmer, considerably closer than Paris. She takes the phone from Johnny. “This is Julie. I’m the dog’s owner. What’s your address?” It is 100 Project Street, the site of the public housing authority.
We stop at Walmart in Gilmer when we spot Jim’s white truck. Jim gets out wearing wrap-around sunglasses, a gimme cap, loose western-style shirt, starched jeans and boots. There is a pistol strapped in the small of his back, perhaps another one down his pant leg. I immediately feel much better about our chances of surviving this foray into the East Texas woods with a violent ex-con to meet Lord-knows-who at the projects in Avinger.
Johnny is talking non-stop.
“Why’d he say Paris? I guess it sounds good, sounds better than Avinger.”
“That’s the baby. Trust me. After all I told you about her, that’s her. She needs to be back home.”
“I’m not a big fan of Texas. It’s boring out here… The weather out here changes way too much.”
“One time Delores, I mean Rosie, ran up to a crack prostitute and started licking on her. I said, ‘Whoa, you’re not going to bring that to my bed.’”
“Every time I get right with God, Satan puts things in my way I can’t walk away from. I see somebody hitting a kid or hitting a dog, that’s something I can’t walk away from. You know what I mean?
“I can’t stand people that do dope. I want to stick that pipe in their throat. Dad was a dopehead. He shot me in the leg when I was 8.”
Jim isn’t saying a word sitting in the backseat, though I later learn he and Julie are texting back and forth while they sit together: “Can you believe this guy? Does he ever shut up?” I’m getting worried Jim is going to shoot Johnny before we find Rosie, just to make him hush. I surreptitiously check my iPhone to make sure it is still recording. When we first got in the car I activated the voice memo app. If something crazy went down, I wanted it recorded.
Johnny tells us Rosie/Delores never barks, loves everybody (even crack whores), had recently been professionally shorn and walks well on a leash. That’s how the tattoo parlor employer spotted her, because Johnny took her behind the shop every day.
“They love her. She runs up, and they start petting on her.”
I am convinced Johnny really did once possess Rosie but continue to pray silently. “Please, God, let this be Rosie and let her be safe. And if it isn’t her, give us the strength to deal with this blow.”
Johnny keeps talking.
“Man, she loves to lick. I woke up French-kissing that dog one morning. I mean, whoa, I didn’t like that.”
He told us he spent $80 at Walmart buying Rosie a retractable leash, new collar and tag, plus a couple of doggie dresses. That amount is exactly how much Johnny makes each week cleaning the church that owns the flophouse where he lives. Johnny and Rosie go through the drive-through at Burger King regularly when he can catch a ride, to get her a small hamburger. Julie and I both wince inwardly, since this was a dog we to trained to stay off the bed, only eat dry dog food and not lick us to death. We had failed thus far on the last item but had not given up hope.
The 25-mile drive to Avinger seems to take place in slow motion, under a robin-egg blue sky. I watch the GPS, which finally indicates we will arrive in five minutes. Nobody except Johnny is talking. Julie opts to stay in the car, alternating between holding her breath and praying silently. Johnny calls James again, gets the apartment number. The Avinger Housing Project consists of low-slung single-story apartments in varying stages of disrepair, a sad rusted playground in the courtyard, sticky-note colored pine pollen covering everything. Two children wearing tattered, grimy clothes watch as we head down the cracked sidewalk.
Johnny knocks on the door of Number 109, Jim and I standing behind him. Two young white men probably in their early 20s tentatively come outside. They’re skinny with poor complexions, sandy hair and terrible teeth — likely signs of meth addicts, a common addiction among the have-nots of the Piney Woods. An older man, who could be anywhere from 40 to 70, comes out, probably the dad.
Johnny reassures the two younger men. “I’m not mad at you no more.” They both slump shoulders in relief and hug Johnny. This is all well and good, but where is Rosie? I ask, “Can we see the dog?” They go back inside the dank apartment and come out with a skinny dog on a leash, shivering, green gunk oozing from her eyes. “Rosie?” I ask. She wags her tail and licks me. I am nearly certain it is Rosie but not completely. She looks different, somehow. Maybe it is the context, this crappy housing project deep in the Northeast Texas woods. Maybe it is the even crappier haircut she received just three days before disappearing.
I turn to Jim, voice shaking, stunned. “Would you get Julie to come here? I want to be 100 percent sure.” Moments later they’re back. Julie looks down, eyes filled with tears. “Rosie? Is that you?” She looks at the dog’s tail, which ends with a black swatch as if it had been dipped in paint. Julie looks at me, about to cry — as am I. “It’s her. That’s Rosie.” She scoops the dog up in her arms, and we say thanks. On the way out the two children run up to pet Rosie, and we stop to let them. As usual, Rosie is trying to lick the kids, her squirrel-like tail wagging furiously. Soon we’re back in the car and headed out of Avinger. Our little dog is coming home.
We let Johnny hold Rosie most of the way back to Longview. He clearly loves the dog as much as we did. Perhaps she has helped restore some humanity to an angry, troubled young man with a dim future. With three convictions and a pending assault case, even a misdemeanor, he faces prison once again. I offer to appear as a character witness to testify how he helped us get Rosie back, and shoot a photo of Johnny holding Rosie in the Walmart parking lot, cigarette in hand as usual. Maybe he can use the photo in his upcoming trial to plead for mercy.
Jim walks over and shakes Johnny’s hand, sounding like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.” “You did a good thing today, Johnny,” he tells him, gets in his truck and drives away. We take Johnny back to Outreach Restoration Ministry, and I slip a $100 bill in his pocket, though he never once asks for money. I promise to bring him a photo of Rosie and him.
On the way back, Johnny asks if we can run through Burger King and pick up one last hamburger for Rosie. We politely tell him Rosie’s BK days are over.
Rosie was bedraggled, badly in need of a bath. She picked up an eye infection, probably from staying indoors with folks smoking cigarettes and likely worse. But she had actually gained two-and-a-half pounds eating burgers and other human food in those two weeks. She quickly recovered and continues to bring Julie, Abbie and me great joy with her unalloyed affection, tricks and antics. Her fur has grown back. She never fails to draw compliments from passersby on the walking trail. We have never figured out how she disappeared, how she ended up an apparent pawn in some sordid encounter in Teague Park, miles away. Perhaps someone at the prom picked her up, thinking she was lost (she didn’t have her tag on, unfortunately.) We likely will never know. It doesn’t matter now.
In early June of that year, Julie and I were married under a copse of trees in the East Texas countryside. Abbie was at our side, family in attendance as the sun sunk below the pines. Rosie, held on a leash by Julie’s six-year-old nephew, was the ring-bearer. Our symbols of love and fidelity were firmly tied in a pouch strapped around her neck.
At last, we are a family.
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