The bathroom was empty. The floor was clear. There was no sign of him underneath the sofa. He wasn’t on the balcony, either. Looking at the roof of the cafe below, I started to panic. Raster wasn’t the most agile of creatures. Had he lost his balance?
“Raster,” I yelled out. “Raster!” People started to look out their windows, wondering what I was going on about. I noticed a faint shadow on the cafe roof. I could hear a dog whimpering. A small black head pushed itself out from underneath a ledge. Raster eventually pulled his body out and stood upright. My seven-year-old, arthritis-ridden, Miniature Schnauzer. Somehow he’d survived a fifty-foot fall.
Of all the luck. To have come half away around the world from California, only to fall off the balcony of a Best fucking Western. We could have done better, I thought, as my wife ran to get help. “Raster,” I yelled at him. “Sit!” Recognizing my voice, he looked up at me nervously, and sat down. His whimpering was growing louder. Finally, the hotel manager appeared, and climbed onto the roof. Within minutes, our boy was in his arms.
Placed on the lobby floor, Raster walked over to us. If you hadn’t known what had just transpired, you never would have guessed from his appearance. Though I feared he might be suffering from internal damage, Raster turned out to have been unaffected by his fall. The only discernible physical difference was that his voice had dropped an octave or two. He had probably been screaming for a while before we’d found him.
Things like this tend to happen to Raster. Two months after we first got him, a snake bit him. At first, we had no idea what had occurred. Raster had spent an entire week licking his front right paw. We figured he was just being obsessive. Worried, I finally took him to the vet, who, upon inspecting Raster’s paw, pointed out two infected puncture holes. “San Francisco is full of snakes,” he declared. “They’re everywhere.”
We adopted Raster when he was three years old. My wife had heard from a friend that a young Miniature had been abandoned, and was available from a local rescue agency. Already the parents of a two-year-old mini, and a gravely ill senior Standard, the last thing I wanted to do was to adopt another cute dog. The problem is that a free Schnauzer is really hard to refuse. They’re expensive, smart and ooze personality.
Schnauzers tend to make eye contact like humans. They use their paws to express themselves, as though they were hands. For individuals inclined to anthropomorphize animals, little projection is required. If you prefer pets to kids, they’re the perfect child substitute. Yet, Schnauzers have their limits. They are dogs, after all. For example, while living in Milan, in the absence of trees, ours developed a habit of peeing on the wheels of parked cars. Oftentimes, to the surprise of people sitting inside them.
We initially found it very hard to like Raster. The first month we had him, he frequently went to the bathroom inside our house. Insisting he sleep on our bed with us, he repeatedly tried to bite us if we got too close. Raster was a real piece of work. We were deeply frustrated by his behavior. For over a year, we worried that we had made a big mistake, that we were going to have to return him to the adoption agency.
Something held us back. Pity played an enormous part in it. Raster suffers from severe muscle deterioration in his hind legs, making such things as running and climbing stairs extremely stressful. He cannot walk for more than half an hour without having to be carried. Our veterinarian explained that a car likely hit Raster when he was young. Such severe cases of arthritis are typical of that kind of trauma.
In all likelihood, Raster has suffered from more calamities than that. His behavior certainly attests to it. For example, the percussive sounds of heavy rain will ruin his day. A thunderstorm will cause him to shake for several hours. Frequently, he’ll stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk, even the street, oblivious to what’s going on around him. His eyes focused on something afar, it is as though he’s forgotten his body exists.
Yet, this very same dog is also one who, following his recent fall, has been placing his front paws on my arms every night. Sometimes I’ll feel their touch in my sleep. Other times I’ll wake up in the morning to find his head on my chest, staring me right in the eyes. To say that he is grateful would be an understatement. Dogs are extremely conscious of care. They acknowledge it, and they reciprocate it, even if they can’t remember to avoid getting in the way of oncoming vehicles.
I don’t mean to imply that this behavior is somehow unique or new, although Raster is especially emotional right now. For the last two and a half years, he has been relatively easy to get along with, in comparison to the first year that we owned him. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, being put in one’s place can have its value. Not by people. Rather, by other dogs. One particular instance comes to mind.
Two months before we left San Francisco, I decided to take Raster on a short walk. Working from home that day, I figured he deserved a special treat. A solo outing, with me, to a park he really liked. We’d leave our other schnauzer, Pixel, at home, and enjoy walking together, alone, at Raster’s own fragile pace. At the very least, I hoped that being alone together would reinforce whatever bond he had started to develop with me.
One of the things we loved about Bernal Heights is that it’s full of dogs. This meant that whenever we’d take Pixel and Raster out for a walk, they’d get to socialize. Maybe, if circumstances warranted, they’d even get a chance to go off-leash and play. This trip was no exception, but not for the same reasons. As soon as we’d reached the park, Raster saw a big German shepherd. Feeling generous, I let him lead us in the dog’s direction. Within a manner of minutes, however, I would come to regret this decision.
Something about the shepherd really upset Raster. So much so that he immediately bit him in the face, right near the much larger animal’s left eye. Outraged, the shepherd broke loose from his leash, and began, for lack of a better word, devouring Raster. Within a matter of seconds, Raster had broken loose from his own leash, and was mauling whatever part of the shepherd’s body that he could sink his teeth into. Blood was flying everywhere. The shepherd’s owner froze. Anxious I was going to lose my dog, I dove in, and tried to separate them.
Big mistake. Both creatures decided to focus on my arms. I had to kick the shepherd extremely hard to get him off of me. That allowed his owner to finally restrain him. But not before Raster and I were covered in blood. Our own. Each other’s. That of the shepherd. Fastening his collar back around his neck, I picked my poor boy up, and rushed him to my car. I got him to the veterinary hospital in ten minutes. I walked into Saint Luke’s’ ER not long afterwards
Thankfully, I only had to deal with a couple of vaccinations. We were so shocked by the violence, I don’t think we ever took my own injuries seriously. I can’t even remember the types of shots I received. I got to go home the same night I checked in. Raster spent the next two days convalescing. He must have gotten at least thirty stitches. His injuries dominated our concern. They were far more severe. We feared for his survival.
Thankfully, Raster was not beyond repair. His physicians were impressed by his tenacity, in the face of what were quite serious puncture wounds. Still, they were optimistic, and gave him a clean bill of health. As long as Raster was kept on a very tight leash, that should prevent any further such calamities. To Raster, and to us. I can’t even begin to describe the vet’s amusement when he asked me how I was doing. As much as I didn’t want to identify, still, it was hard to not feel like a dog.
The day we picked Raster up from the hospital, he barely noticed us. Released, he walked straight out the door, towards our car. I grabbed him by the collar, and affixed his leash. Before I knew it, he was licking my hand. Then my face. For a dog that had bitten my wife’s cheek only a week before, the change was absolutely stunning. I closed my eyes and let him get comfortable. It’s been a cakewalk with Raster ever since. Except, that is, for the occasional misstep, like falling off the balcony of our hotel.
Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Crakow.