Not all pet-sitting jobs are created equal; some of them are ridiculously easy, while others have so many obstacles you wonder what the hell you are doing there.
I was nearing the end of writing The Gyre Mission: Journey to the *sshole of the World when I took a job with a first time client, a referral from an animal hospital I have a good rapport with. She seemed normal enough over the phone, so I went to meet her. The first thing I noted with dismay was that she lived out in the boonies. Although it was beautiful out there in horse ranch country I saw I was going to have to travel quite some distance each day, sometimes twice daily over a large, gasoline-draining mountain. Next, upon meeting her and talking for a few minutes, I realized that she reminded me of Annie Wilkes from the book Misery. She didn’t use strange profanity and try to hobble me with a sledgehammer but, uncannily, displayed mannerisms similar to Stephen King’s bizarre, psychopathic character. Amazingly, considering that I am a writer, I stayed.
Now, I generally spend about an hour with a first time client, free of charge. I was there for over two before I told her I had to get going. To give her some credit, there was a lot to tell and show me, but an hour usually covers it. When I told her I had to get going she looked at me crossly and said: “I’m not finished yet.” In my head I thought: ‘Yeah? Well I am.’ To get out of there, I agreed to meet her again a month before the job started (I generally book jobs up to four months in advance). I did meet her again, and on that occasion stayed for another two hours as the lady rambled on and on. I had to tell her I had another job to get to simply to cut it short. To leave that time, I again agreed to meet with her once more, the day before she left. Normally I would have walked right there; when people act in this manner before I even start it usually means trouble. But I had the time open and wanted to make the money so I let it go.
Our third meeting lasted only an hour, but she said some things that were rather odd. I was instructed not to talk to any of the neighbors (she was feuding with a few of them) and to email her every two days with updates. She was very specific about that; not three days, not four, two. Then there were the garbage cans; with a ruler she showed me exactly how far she wanted them spaced apart on collection day. She also did and said other things that were odd, but I think you get the point. Wondering if I’d lost my mind, I agreed to these terms. But I made her sign a contract; I wasn’t going to lose money if she tried to make up some crazy bullshit and renege on my payment.
The first night of my three week stay clued me in on how all my nights spent there would go, and it wasn’t good. She not only lived in horse ranch country, she was also located next to some of the largest rooster farms in all of North County. What, you may ask, pray-tell, does this mean? What the hell do you think it means? Fucking roosters! There was one little bastard who couldn’t tell time to save his life. That little cock went off every night around two thirty, rain or shine. I’d be in the middle of a dream where I was getting intimate with Christina Ricci and suddenly I was wide-awake. One of the dogs (I realize I haven’t mentioned the pets: there were three; a year old Australian Shepherd named Rose; a twelve year old Springer Spaniel named Skippy, and Flash, a three year old cat) would sense I was awake and would want to get up. She’d jump up and down on my head with crazy abandon, irritating me to no end. It was all I could do to maintain my patience after the first several nights of this. You see, I’d try to go back to sleep but just as I did another rooster would go off, I’d wake up, and Rose would jump on my head. It was a crazy cycle.
So I tried to take naps during the day when my schedule allowed but Rose wouldn’t let me. Seriously. She’d be good until she saw me lie down, and then she’d start tearing something up or rough housing with the cat, barking her head off. The only way I could get a nap was by pretending to leave and then going outside and sleeping in my car. It was a hot summer though, so I had to have all the windows rolled down and I could hear the noise of cars and tractors and dogs and…yep! Roosters!
Sleep deprivation aside, it was a beautiful place, and the pets were sweet despite their desire to make sure I was a veritable zombie. I enjoyed the walks in the country air with Rose, and the owner had two acres covered with all kinds of fruit trees.
Which brings us back to Rose: she ate ANYTHING. The fruit on the trees was just the appetizer. One morning Skippy was copping his first squat of the day when I saw Rose watching, waiting. As soon as the shit hit the ground she put a napkin around her collar, picked up a fork and got her grub on. This has always sickened me, the eating of excrement. I was determined to stop it. So every time Skippy got into position, baking up another fresh batch of his particular morning special, I looked around to see where Rose was. She was always lurking nearby. When those turds dropped the flag was drawn and the race was on to see who could get to it first. Sometimes I beat her, sometimes I didn’t.
One morning the dogs didn’t come when I called them and I went to find them. They were eating the remains of an extremely large bird, feathers and all. I tried to stop them but they dodged around me, and just as I attempted to take them out of his mouth, I watched as Skippy swallowed a pair of legs. Later, when he crapped, those legs came out whole, with some feathers. Rose ate it. Another time it was a decapitated rabbit. I just couldn’t keep up with these two.
And on top of that there was this crazy elderly lady who showed up four days a week to water all the damn plants (at least that wasn’t my job) and she would talk and talk and talk (mostly about the owner and all the crazy shit she did) while I sat at my laptop, trying to get some work done. I’d asked her several times to give me her schedule so I could plan my day around her but she was always deliberately vague. She’d continuously show up at different times and beg me not to tell the owner. I inadvertently got her in trouble because in one of my emails I admitted I didn’t know when the woman was going to turn up on any given day, and then later covered for her, telling the owner she’d arrived on time but I hadn’t known she was there.
Despite all of that nonsense everything went fine. I’d lost my temper a few times (due to lack of sleep; I really need my sleep) but everyone was fine. The pets truly were a grand bunch, and I’d managed to do everything according to the owner’s particular needs.
As it ended I felt sad (I generally do; it’s like a Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing), but it was one of those jobs where I was also triumphant simply because I’d survived. All told I’d averaged about 4-5 hours a sleep a night, put a lot of miles on the car, and I’d gone through four tanks of gas in just under three weeks. But the book got finished and I was happy with it.
Although if you asked me if I’d ever stay there again, if I’d go through all that craziness and sleep deprivation and long drives…I’d have to check my schedule and see how badly I needed the money. I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a whore; taking a job like that proves it.
Monthly Archives: December 2012
The story behind the photo of Lily, the dog I dedicated my debut novel The Gyre Mission: Journey to the *sshole of the World to, unfortunately, is a sad one. It has been almost two years since her passing but not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, especially when I drive past the streets where I used to walk her.
I am used to making money off of other people’s misfortune, and in Lily’s case this was no exception. Lily’s owners were a married couple in their sixties, and the man (whom I never met) died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Left to her own devices, the woman hired me to help care for the dog, a wolf/German Shepherd hybrid. In my line of work I have a lot of clients like this, elderly women whose husbands have passed and are kind and caring enough to realize that their dogs need exercise and are willing to employ someone if they can’t do it themselves.
Lily’s owner was a very nice woman, but one thing I noticed over the almost three years I walked and pet-sat for her was a lack of intimacy between them. I never saw her petting her or brushing her, nor did she ever express any such desire. In fact, she told me that Lily had been her husband’s dog, one they had found in the small mountain town of Ramona, which I also feature (briefly) in my novel. Her story was that a male wolf jumped the fence where a female German Shepherd lived and, well, the rest is purely physiology. Lily was one of seven in the litter, and the man fell instantly in love with her. I believe he paid only two hundred dollars for her as the owner of the shepherd simply wanted to get rid of them.
When I came into the picture Lily was nine years old, and she was one of the sweetest dogs I’d ever met. Looking at the previous sentence I’ll graciously admit that almost ALL the dogs I’ve had the pleasure of knowing were very sweet; maybe it is in her passing that I’ve made her a martyr. That very well could be, but she took to me immediately and we became fast friends.
I was in the second year of operating my business full-time, and I must confess I was a bit of a whiner. I was gradually becoming aware that running a business by oneself (if you wanted to be successful) often times demanded a seven-day workweek, and I was having trouble adjusting to it. Sometimes the walks with Lily (with all of my dogs) were tedious, boring, and throughout I’d have a running litany of complaints going through my head about how I worked all the time and would rather be doing something else, even though this was solely how I made my money. But, with Lily and with the other dogs I came to know very well, it passed after my affections grew for them, and I began to see the walks as quality time that we had together. After the first year they became enjoyable, and I looked forward to them.
Time passed by and autumn of 2010 saw changes with the owner that I’d never suspected. I believe she was beginning to suffer from the earliest onset of Alzheimer’s as there were notes posted all around the house, reminding her to take her pills or take out the trash or run this or that errand. These notes were on index cards, taped up in various spots in the kitchen and living room, indicating that this was a permanent ritual, not something in passing. Yet she seemed to be fine, and Lily was in good health and spirits. I have to hasten to add that by this time I’d pet-sat for her over a dozen times, besides our three walks weekly, and I never deduced there to be anything that lie beneath the surface, any hidden animosity.
This became apparent when one day she called me and told me she wanted to get rid of Lily. She simply wasn’t an animal person, she explained, repeating that the dog had been her husband’s. She’d simply been taking care of her because it was what he would have wanted. And now, as it were, she was through. She complained that Lily got into things and destroyed furniture. Some of these grievances were true, but the reason for this destructive nature was that she was kept in a small enclosure alongside the house, left alone for hours on end. She was acting out because she was angry at being virtually abandoned. This is why Lily loved me so: I was, in fact, the only one who gave a damn about her, and when I pet-sat for her I kept her with me always, I never put her in the yard.
I was shocked, but told her I would do everything I could to help her find a new home. I wished I could take Lily myself but the nature of my business then and now is that I stay in other people’s homes fifteen to twenty days a month (sometimes more). I was and am single; I had no way of taking care of her and she couldn’t come with me on any jobs because she was mildly dog aggressive.
So I contacted everyone I knew through the animal hospital I’d previously worked at as well as past and present clients. A woman I’d worked with told me of a friend who rescued wolf hybrids and, excited that I might be able to help, contacted Lily’s owner. This was two weeks after she’d told me the news and, before I could tell her, she instead told me that she’d decided to keep Lily after all, was resigned to it in fact. I was relieved, of course, because this way I’d still be able to see Lily, so I kept the news to myself.
Two months went by, and in that time I pet-sat for her again. We spent quality time that I now treasure immeasurably, as it would be the last time of any significance we’d spend together.
It was in the end of January 2011 that I received the call from the owner. She very brusquely told me she’d found a new home for Lily, a place where she would get more attention, would be happier. She was bringing her there that very afternoon. I’d just walked Lily earlier that day, and when we returned from our trek I’d spent some extra time with her, just petting her and letting her lick my face. In retrospect (this is always easy to say after the fact, but I absolutely believe it to be true) I felt she was trying to communicate something to me, something I couldn’t quite understand. After speaking with the owner, I felt as if Lily was trying to say goodbye.
Sadness overwhelmed me after I hung up the phone, the thought of not seeing Lily ever again clouding my eyes with tears. Over the course of the next couple of days I resolved to visit the owner, to ask if I could get the new owners phone number so as to visit Lily from time to time. This story would get very long if I tried to explain every nuance, every detail that endeared her to me so, suffice it to say that in our shared experiences I loved her more than most.
I met with her three days later to pick up my final payment and return her key and after inquiring she adamantly refused, telling me that Lily was beginning a new life, she didn’t need any lingering vestige of her old one. Crestfallen, I pressed and, after several minutes the owner sighed and asked me to have a seat. I have never been one for precognition, but in her demeanor I instantly knew what she was going to tell me, in fact could have told her instead. After working in the veterinary field for as long as I had I’d seen many tragic, terrible things, and I knew that what she was about to tell me was going to fall in that category. Feeling a weight like a lead ball settle on my chest, I collapsed into an overstuffed chair.
“You’ll think I’m a terrible person, but I suppose you have a right to know…” she began, and sorrow clutched my heart. She’d gone and done it, the one thing you simply cannot take back.
“Lily and I never really got on that well, she was my husbands dog after all.”
I stared at her mutely, unable to say anything.
“She’d cost me so much money, destroying the fence, chewing the boards on the deck…when she kicked dirt into the air conditioning unit that was the last straw.”
“You had her put down,” I said through numb lips, feeling tears well up in my eyes but fighting them back. My anger was so strong that I was determined not to let her see me cry. Instead I stared at her impassively, keeping a poker face.
“Yes,” she said at last, her eyes dry, her manner unaffected. In her words I could plainly hear indifference, in her body language anything but quilt. “I feel bad, but it had to be done. I simply couldn’t keep her anymore.”
I let her ramble on for a while, on the outside calm but on the inside steaming. I couldn’t get out of her house fast enough, and once my back was turned to her the tears flowed down my face like a torrential rain, giant sobs making my chest hitch and shudder. I cried all the way home, and then cried some more once inside. Those haunting last few minutes with Lily played over and over in my head, the way she seemed to be trying to tell me something. And here I’d found a home for her two months previously…if only I’d known her owner was going to resort to this I could have helped her. I slept poorly for a week and, when the owner called one day and asked if I would keep what she’d done to myself, it was very difficult to be civil with her.
Two weeks later I needed to call Lily’s old vet regarding another pet I was caring for, a completely unrelated matter. I loathed the doctor for what she’d done, for assisting in what I’d come to think of as murder, but I required her advice. Surprisingly she took the call herself (most times you speak with a technician) and, after what she said, I knew she’d done so with the express purpose of speaking to me directly.
“It’s very sad about Lily,” she said, and I quickly agreed, not knowing what else to say. I didn’t want to criticize her judgment as I’d known her a long time and had a very good rapport with her. So instead I held my tongue. “But after what the owner told me, we had to do it.”
“What?” I asked, perplexed. She euthanized Lily for kicking dirt into an air conditioning unit?
“I never thought Lily to be the type of dog to attack children, but I guess we see a lot of surprising things in our business, don’t we?”
My mind whirled. Attacked children? What the hell? And then I realized what she meant, and with this sudden awareness I at once stopped hating her. Here I’d thought she’d been in cahoots with the owner, putting down a perfectly healthy dog, but instead she’d been lied to. Lily’s owner had made up a story so that the vet would take care of it, no questions asked. I should have known.
“Yeah,” I replied, seeing no reason to share with her the true nature of the situation. “It was really surprising.”
We spoke for a few more minutes and I hung up. It was then that I decided if I ever finished the beast of a novel I was working on I would dedicate it to Lily, so that I’d always remember her. Not that I could ever forget her, but I wanted to immortalize her the only way I knew how. A friend of mine later commented on the photo of her, after I published it, saying that the picture was a bummer because Lily looked so sad. My response was that it was supposed to look sad, given the circumstances but, in all honesty, it was the only photograph of her I had. Rest in peace Lily. I’ll always love you.
The Gyre Mission is my first published novel and, due to my current profession, was written at no less than forty different locations, give or take. Actually, I think it was written in more than forty places but that number seems fair enough I suppose. What, you may ask, do I do? Travel the world writing reviews of quaint hotels in scenic mountain villages, perhaps? Or possibly I am a journalist who has logged many hours in war torn countries, tirelessly compiling information so that the good people at home can stay informed? Nope and nope.
As unglamorous as it may sound I am a pet sitter/dog walker, and about three weeks out of every month I stay in other people’s homes, caring for their companion animals. I fell into it after a decade working as a veterinary technician. Pet sitting is a fine trade if you are a writer; based upon the number of pets you are caring for and the amount of time you need to spend walking, medicating, and playing with them, etc. it leaves you a lot of time to write. Of course, pet sitting alone can’t pay the bills so taking on as many regular walking clients as one can, as well as cats that need feeding, medicating and playtime helps supplement your income, unless you are like me and you wind up taking on too much. Next thing you know you are struggling to find time to write, in fact have to get up at four in the morning just to get in an hour before your day starts. Frustration!
To make the most of every day I began taking my laptop with me every place I went and if there was ever a free moment (anything, ten minutes, a half hour) I’d get something done. I wanted my clients to get their money’s worth so I never infringed upon their pet’s time, but if I had slotted them for an hour and I had another thirty minutes to kill before the next house, that time was mine.
Sometimes I was hired to walk dogs or look after cats and was warned by the client that there would be someone else in the house, an adult child, a roommate, somebody, but often times I never ran into them. Not unless I was staying past the allotted time to get some personal work done and they came home, that is.
On one occasion I was looking after three cats, showing up in the late morning to feed, medicate, brush and play with them. After I’d taken care of them I still had forty-five minutes or so, so I decided to get some writing done. A few minutes into my work a young man came in, introducing himself as the roommate. We shook hands, exchanged names, and I told him I was just getting something done and would leave shortly. He told me not to worry, to stay as long as I liked, then excused himself and went upstairs. So I continued to write, trying to regain my train of thought, when a TV was turned on, the volume quite loud. My first thought was that he was being passive aggressive; he tells me it’s all right that I am there but then tries to ‘scare’ me out with loud noise. I’d had many a roommate in my day, I knew all the tricks. I decided to finish the chapter I was working on.
But there was something not quite right with what he was viewing, that is to say the dialogue was a bit on the ‘sketchy’ side. It seemed to be a lot of groaning and panting punctuated by profanities that were demands rather than angry exclamations. Things like: “Take it you hairy bitch, take it!” Now, I am a very open minded person, I want to make that clear right now. Please do not misconstrue anything
I am about to say as being prejudice toward anyone’s sexuality. Moreover, I simply mean to convey the time and the place, the fact that it was somewhat inappropriate.
There were no female voices coming from the TV, only male. When the volume suddenly increased (indicating he’d probably opened his bedroom door) I thought it might be a good time to leave. This guy obviously wanted some privacy, probably to take matters into his own hands, so to speak.
I shut down my laptop, bade farewell to the cats and made my way to the front door, located in a large foyer next to the stairs leading to the bedrooms, framed by a wrought iron railing.
“Going so soon?” A voice floated down to me and, glancing up, I saw the young man standing there at the rail, shirtless, his torso glistening with either sweat or some water-based lubricant.
“Yes, I have to get to my next house,” I said easily, as I am accustomed to strange things happening to me. “It was nice to meet you.”
“And you as well,” he replied, rubbing his hands across his chest suggestively, tipping me a wink that was more like a leer.
Locking the door behind me I pondered my luck, the realization that if I had been of a different persuasion it might have been very flattering. That type of situation had never happened to me with a client’s female roommate, that’s for damn sure, nor did I think it likely it ever would. Regretfully, to this day it still hasn’t.
I continue to look after those cats, and I still run into the roommate from time to time. He never mentions that day, nor do I. In fact when we do talk, believe it or not, it’s about football. Go Packers!