I’ve lived in Cedar Hill, TN for ten years, but I’d never seen a ghetto in the countryside before Saturday, Oct. 5th, 2013. Sandwiched between Charlotte and Nora in the backseat of Pidge’s Jeep Cherokee, passing one run-down, mean-looking trailer after another, I realized that slums were everywhere.
“How do you do this kind of work?” Nora asked.
Mason shifted positions in the passenger seat so that he could catch my eye. He loved this speech. Pidge turned down the hip-hop station on satellite radio. When Mason and I started fostering dogs for I Could Have Been Adopted, we gave Donna two rules: we could only take one at a time, and they had to be young so they didn’t clash with our already established pack. Those were my parameters.
“You have to harden your heart. You can’t save them all. Not here.” I sounded confident, experienced. “Animal overpopulation is an epidemic in Robertson County.” I told the same thing to Charlotte a few days prior. Harden your heart. Just a little bit. Just enough. Charlotte is my sidekick, a seventeen-year-old hipster with eyes as big as flying saucers, wearing Vans and skinny jeans. She’s willing to go anywhere I ask.
It seemed that the only thing that differentiated one mobile home from the next was the amount of junk piled in the mud yards. Some had chain link fences, others went without, but every trailer had at least two, sometimes three dogs lounging by their porch steps. A suspicious amount of them wore the distinctive square jaw and brawny body of a pit bull. We followed Donna’s mini-van to a singlewide trailer, distinguished by a mowed yard and two impossibly bright purple mums potted next to the front door.
Donna, ICHBA’s founder and sole administrator, had texted me yesterday, asking if I’d ride with her to see an abandoned pup.
I almost said no because our friends from North Carolina, Pidge and Nora, were visiting for the weekend. I hadn’t seen them in eighteen months. Getting a new foster dog meant spending a lot more time at home instead of kicking it at honky-tonks on Nashville’s lower Broadway. But Donna promised it wouldn’t take more than an hour, and we had room at the Farnival. Besides, Pidge and Nora said they wanted to ride along to see the dog.
The sky was the color of primer on metal, the wind keen. An early autumn cold front had descended just that morning, right after the rain, which had I listened to from bed, snuggled against Mace, hung over from too much red wine last night. Since I rarely booze anymore, my head panged especially hard all day.
But standing outside that trailer, listening to a neighbor tell Donna what had happened across the street, I felt acutely sober, like I cannonballed into a cold Canadian lake. It turned out that an eighteen year-old mother, her boyfriend, and their three kids moved away and ditched their dogs in the fenced yard.
All my senses zeroed across the street towards a mud and ragweed yard littered with plywood, insulation, cinder blocks, hay, ductwork, empty Marlboro cartons, and Big K plastic bottles. A waterlogged mobile home overlooked all of it.
It took me a second to see the dogs because my eyes had to pick through all that junk, shit that must have taken years to accumulate. Finally, they shifted positions, the pup crouching below her mother, as though she couldn’t decide if she wanted to disappear inside the earth or in her mother’s stomach.
Donna had it all laid out: I’d foster the younger dog, the Pyrenees-shepherd mix, who the neighbor guessed was under a year. The neighbor would feed the mother until one of our foster families had room for her. Until then, she’d have to stay where she was.
It took a while to wrangle her, but Mace and Pidge finally caught the younger dog. Mace gathered her in his arms, as though she was a small child that needed extra care, and carried her to Donna’s van. The rest of us stared at the mother, but the Great Pyrenees had no interest in the six strangers outside her littered pen, instead fixating on my husband’s receding form. Suddenly, she threw back her snout and moaned, as though she knew that if her baby got in that van, she’d never see her again.
Cowboy up, Melissa. Follow Mason. Leave!
But I couldn’t look away. The Great Pyrenees was magnificent, possessing a strong sense of otherworldliness, as though she walked out of a Tolkien fantasy novel or maybe Narnia. Like any minute she’d sprout wings and fly to whatever alien land she’d lived in before she got ditched in this dump.
Nora sniffed behind me, her boots crunching on the gravel as she hurried away. It was too much. She’d never seen anything like this before. Charlotte’s huge, round eyes welled with tears, but, like me, she couldn’t look away.
Hardening the heart suddenly sounded ridiculous. Unattainable.
“She can sleep in my basement for a few nights,” I blurted.
Donna beamed, but caught my eye. “So much for those parameters.”
“You’re a saint,” Nora said, as we piled back into the Jeep. Charlotte touched my hand. Normally, all that praise would have pleased me (I don’t mind a little appreciation now and again) but instead I felt terrible.
If I could’ve said something without breaking down, I would have told them that I’m not a saint. In fact, according to the unwritten rules of rescuing animals in Robertson County, Tennessee, I was a failure.
There is a fine line between helping these animals and hoarding them. I can’t lie. I’ve teetered dangerously close to the dark side on more than one occasion. If Mason and I had kept every abused and abandoned dog we’ve rescued up until the moment I revise this essay, we’d have thirty-two dogs living at the Farnival. And we’d officially be eligible for one those freak shows on cable TV.
See, it’s that fine line again. If you cross it, then all your good becomes bad. Ask Angelina Jolie. When you see pictures of that beautiful badass in those refugee camps, with her money and resources, you don’t think she wants to take all those children home? But no individual can save them all. Not even a modern day superhero like her. It’s a simple, ironic, and inescapable fact: to engage in humanitarian work requires emotional limits.
But on that gray day, despite my limits, I couldn’t harden my heart. Donna knew it. Of course she was happy the Great Pyrenees had somewhere to sleep for a few nights, but she didn’t forget to remind me about my boundaries, either. Careful, Melissa. Careful. That’s what she was really saying.
As Pidge drove us out that country ghetto, two, three, then four dogs, all unleashed and unfenced, all pit mixes, ran to the edge of the road, watching us drive away.
Next time. I’ll be tougher next time. I promise.