I have heard it said that a fresh start is something rare; that is unless you manage to turn your new life back into your old one. In my ripening middle age, I left my family, my job, and some said my sanity to marry a man who lived on a Caribbean island. As if to further distance myself from my hitherto conventional past, I found myself settled in a tiny fishing village awash with rum, reggae music, and a treasure trove of West Indian characters. For a year or so I simply hung out, getting to know the place. When my money began to finish, I opened a restaurant perched on top of a set of mighty steps which had a spectacular view overlooking the yet to be christened marine reserve. Many astonishing things happened to me while I was living and working by the bay. But two hurricanes, a volcanic scare, and an ugly divorce later, I was still in love with the island.

One hot and unusually busy afternoon, the veranda of the café was packed with hungry tourists waiting to enjoy Fresh Local Food and Drinks as posted on the sign by the roadside. Anticipating a tasty lunch, they were unaware I had just separated from my husband, the staff in the kitchen was considering revolt, and my mother was reaching the end of a terminal illness. Fortunately the neighborhood dolphins were cooperating, providing live entertainment for the diners by splashing and jumping in the sea just out front. And although my nerves were frayed and my heart was broken, I, too, was doing my best to keep the customers amused in order to cover up for the extra slow service.

“Isn’t this a beautiful bay? It’s going to be a marine reserve soon, you know. The big rock over there is actually the rim of an extinct volcano. Hey, why don’t you have another rum punch?”

While setting up the drinks, I caught a glimpse of a large skinny animal staggering down the coastal highway in the direction of the restaurant. My island mongrel Ophine, who was sure she was in charge of security, went tearing down the steps to assess the intruder. The dazed dog (yes, it was a dog), keeled over in the middle of the road in response to her attention.

All of a sudden the tourists were no longer hungry.

“What is that?” one wanted to know.

 “It looks like its starving!” observed another.

 A third diner with a better sense of humor suggested that it must be very clever to collapse in front of an eatery.

 “With a dog lover as its proprietor,” I said, going down to investigate.

Before me lay the pathetic remnants of what appeared to be a full-blooded German Shepherd, surely the worst case of animal abuse I had ever seen. The dog was literally a bag of diseased skin and protruding bones, with only a few stiff hairs remaining on its scabby tail. One forepaw was almost severed, possibly an old cutlass wound.

Its pain glazed eyes stared at me hopefully when I bent down to take a closer look. “Sa ki fèt ou?” I asked it in Creole. It beat its tail in response. “I’ll bet you’re hungry,” I said, reaching out to pat its filthy head.

“Don’t touch it!” screamed one of my staff.

“Well, somebody has to!” I retaliated.

I called for the cook in the kitchen to send down a bottle of water, a bowl of milk, and a piece of chicken. The emaciated animal guzzled and gobbled all three, still lying on the pavement.

“By golly, I think this dog wants to live,” I ventured.

By then the tourists were getting their lunch, and I was able to check out the poor creature in peace. I was relieved to stop calling him “it” when I discovered he was a boy. The question was what to do with him next.  He was too weak to stand up, yet even in his shrunken state he was too heavy for me to lift.  I remembered a tall, burly guy who had just started renovating my neighbor’s house, so I walked over to see if he would come and help me out.

When he saw the dog, he immediately started shaking his head. “No way, lady. No way am I going to touch that.”

I finally managed to persuade him to wrap an old bath towel around the animal and lift him into the back of my jeep, unable to help noticing the gentleman’s ample muscular physique in the meantime. Shaking off my wayward thoughts, I headed out to track down the vet. He wasn’t at his home or office, so I paid a young man five dollars to take the dog out of my car. I then convinced the housekeeper to let me leave the patient in the doctor’s yard, making her promise to have him call me as soon as he returned. I gave the dog pat and told him to hold tight, and he wagged his scrawny tail a couple of times in appreciation as I was leaving.

I had so many other things on my mind just then; my crazy husband, my half-baked staff, my sick mother, but the fate of the dog haunted me. If he lived, I decided I would call him Rocky after the fighter in the movies.

The vet called early the next morning. “What is that thing you left in my yard?”

“I think it’s a German Shepherd, Doc. Is he still alive?”

“Barely,” he said, sucking his teeth. “What do you want me to do with him?”

“Use your best judgment. If things get too bad, go ahead and put him to sleep. Otherwise, I’ll keep him and try to nurse him back to health.”

Four days later, I coerced the same hulk of a man who was working at my neighbor’s to carry the dog up the steps and deposit him in a safe corner just behind the kitchen. Ophine took one look at Rocky, then another at me, and turned away in disgust.

Ou konpaweson,” I admonished her in Creole.

“You’re good in our language,” the giant laughed.

“I had to learn it to find out what all you were saying about me,” I smiled. “Anyway, thanks again for your help. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Joseph. My name is Joseph.”

The kitchen staff was outraged by the sick dog’s presence. One threatened to quit on the spot, and the other said she was going to call the health department.  While they were raving, I dished up a fish broth with a side order of dry dog food coated with cod liver oil for Rocky.

“This is what we’ll feed him for now,” I instructed as they stared at me in disbelief. “Three times a day,” I added. “Do you have any questions?”

Not only did they not have any questions, but they also stopped speaking to me unless it was absolutely necessary for about a week. Joseph, on the other hand, became a regular customer. He came by every afternoon on his way home from the job, purportedly to check on the status of the patient.  It wasn’t long before he was offering to patch up all the odd jobs that were neglected by my estranged husband.

Over the course of time, Joseph and I became friends. One day while enjoying a cold beer and a chat, he told me he had a seven year old daughter. Her name was Flora and she lived with her grandmother in his village. She loved animals, he said, and would definitely like to meet Rocky.

“Bring her by the café anytime,” I heard myself saying. “I’ll bet she likes ice cream.”

 In the meantime, Rocky was making a miraculous recovery. He was putting on weight and sporting a gleaming coat of new fur, thanks to daily sea baths, lots of love, and copious cod liver oil. No one could believe he was the same hideous creature that had staggered down the road just a few months before. And so well trained! Everywhere we went tourists and locals alike were astonished to see the handsome, well-mannered dog walking devotedly by my side.

As Rocky’s condition improved, Ophine began to reconsider her first impression of him. The two dogs became inseparable; bosom buddies, as island folks would call them. And thanks to Joseph’s attention, I, too, was making a healthy comeback, feeling like a whole person for the first time in a very long while. But although I was capable to opening my heart to a ragamuffin dog like Rocky, I was still far away from trusting a new romantic commitment, no matter how tempting.  

Business at the restaurant always slowed down when hurricane season rolled around. Since Flora was out of school for the summer, Joseph suggested it would be a good time to try planting a vegetable garden on some property he owned near his village. I had brought down a tent a few years before, and we set it up in the bush as a sort of hide a way. Rocky and Ophine were delighted. They hunted snakes, frogs, and lizards while Joseph cleared the land and dug new beds for Flora and me to plant. After a hard morning’s work, everyone was tired and hungry. We ate our picnic lunch around one o’clock, and then Flora took a nap while Joseph and I played cards and the dogs rested in a cool den they had dug under the tent. Our hard work came to fruition at the end of the summer when we began harvesting fresh produce for Joseph’s family and the restaurant. 

Rocky was well entrenched in his role as assistant café mascot by the time the tourist season picked up again. He greeted guests with a few thumps of his beautiful tail and listened dreamily as I told dog loving diners his marvelous story. But even though he was still eating his normal rations, I noticed he was starting to lose weight. When he began having trouble urinating, I decided I’d better take him to the vet for a checkup.

“This can’t be the same dog you brought in six months ago!” the doctor exclaimed. “But it seems we’re dealing with something serious here. His prostate gland is greatly enlarged. It’s probably cancer. I’m afraid you’re going to have to make a tough choice before too long.”

“How could this happen after all the care I’ve poured into you?” I cried, pounding on the steering wheel as I drove Rocky home. “Surely, a good dog like you isn’t supposed to suffer any more. Come on, Rocky, you can fight your way out of this one, just like in the movies.”

But the dog did suffer, recuperating only briefly between bad spells. He began to ignore his food and even snub his beloved Ophine. As the weeks passed, his eyes lost their sparkle. Soon his appetite vanished completely. I had to try really hard to come up with something special to tempt him to eat towards the end. Island pizza, topped with grilled fish and extra cheese, was his last meal. While he lay by my bedside moaning and groaning I made my decision.

 The next morning I had Rocky put out of his misery. Joseph and I buried him in the garden that afternoon. Flora was devastated when she found out Rocky was gone. Ophine missed him so much that she went into mourning, refusing food herself for almost a week. Joseph rationalized that the dog had been given a wonderful gift; if not a happy ending, at least a happy in between time. I was just plain sad.

One afternoon shortly after Rocky’s death, I heard some pitiful yelping coming from my neighbor’s backyard. A brindle puppy was jettisoned over the gate onto the highway just as Ophine and I were going down the steps to investigate. Cars and buses blew their horns and swerved to avoid hitting it while it darted across the road. When the coast was clear, the frightened little dog looked around for its next option. Ah, love at first sight. The pup came bounding over to me, wagging its tail hopefully. When I scooped her up in my arms, she covered my face with puppy- breath kisses. Hooked, I carried her up the steps and deposited her in the same corner that had first sheltered Rocky.

I named her Tootsie because of her four white feet. Perhaps because she was so small, Ophine accepted her immediately. Joseph and Flora were also enchanted when they popped in at dinnertime. Tantalized by the prospect that the future might be more appetizing than expected, all members of my adopted family ate heartily that evening, enjoying Fresh Local Food and Drink as posted on the sign by the roadside. 


Kristine Simelda is the author of two adult novels, a children’s novel, three novellas, a collection of short stories for young adults, and numerous poems and other short fiction. Born in the U.S., she has lived on the island of Dominica for the past nineteen years. 

1 comment:

RJ in SC said...

Thank you for such a wonderful short story. We found it very well written with great imagery and compassion. Please keep them coming!

RJ in SC

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