THE LAST THING MY WIFE AND I DID TOGETHER was make small talk in a taxi.
Earlier that Tuesday morning, she’d said, “Will, it’s fine. I’m taking a cab out there anyway.”
“To the airport?” I asked, but didn’t listen to the answer. Usually I take the train to work, but Orville isn’t allowed on transit unless she’s wearing her service dog vest, and I hadn’t been able to find it in the morning’s panic.
On the way to the airport, as the driver accelerated through a changing light, Orville whimpered beside me in the back seat.
“Can she hear something in the engine we can’t?” my wife asked from the front, through the hole in the glass.
“No,” I said. “She knows red means stop.”
“I thought dogs only saw in black and white.”
“That’s a common mistake.”
I work with this dog every day and every day her honesty shames me.
SOME THINGS WERE MEANT TO FLY, like birds, and some things were not, like humans. When the two meet up in the air, they cancel each other out: matter and anti-matter. Last year, after a goose migration felled six planes in two weeks, the Dayton International Airport hired a team of dogs and their masters to chase away birds. I should clarify: Orville does the chasing, I do the pointing.
I’m trying to let the past stay in the past. But that’s easier said than done. Yesterday, at the end of my shift, I caught myself yelling at Orville. “It’s like you have no idea what’s happening around you,” I hollered.
When you think about it, there are lots of things we should let stay in the past. Elementary school bullies. Poorly played poker hands. A wife who discovered a city she loved more than you.
Whenever a shift seems unbearably long and the runways are vacant, I take Orville around back to where passengers walk across the tarmac, boarding the small planes with prop engines, the Beechcraft 1900s. I borrow the pilot’s hat and sunglasses and put them on Orville. I get her to sit at the base of the stairs and greet her travellers. Once, when a father was carrying his irate daughter onto a plane bound for Charlotte, he pointed at Orville. “Look who’s flying the plane,” he said. “Dogs can see things far away, things we never see coming.”
There’s another team that works here: Scott and his sheepdog Cat. Cat is a professional. She’s been bred for this. Orville isn’t any breed—just a mutt, sixty-five pounds. If you ask any child to draw a dog, they’ll draw Orville. Eleven months ago, I picked her up from the SPCA after seeing the Sarah McLachlan commercial. The pound named her Orville because she loves popcorn.
I don’t care at all about airport safety. Let the planes rain from the sky. I’m in this for the dog. Before I was here, I was the assistant manager at a furniture warehouse. Knowing I’d be sick with worry about Orville home alone, I brought her in with me but was told that dogs weren’t allowed. On the drive home, the radio announced that the airport was holding open auditions. We stopped in and when it was her turn, Orville stalked and then charged a flock of seagulls with an instinct you can’t teach, like she’d met them in a past life.
“Do you think the dog enjoys having to run all day?” my wife asked me two weeks into the job. She’d just returned home from a business trip to Louisiana and was still wearing her new “Life’s Easy in the Big Easy” T-shirt.
I told her about how, when there aren’t any birds around, Orville will chase down wasps, snapping wildly and then yelping in the pain of victory. It seems that there’s a part of her that must always be hunting. “Birds,” I said, “provide a healthy outlet.”
“Then why, on your days off, does she spend all day sleeping?”
I wanted to explain to her the bond between a working dog and its person. It isn’t like that of human coworkers who get to know each other at a breakneck speed, not out of interest but out of efficiency. Dogs want to know you too, but they take you in like drinking from a stream, a tongueful at a time: the difference is in knowing there’ll always be more.
If I thought she would’ve believed me, I could have told my wife about the time Scott had to fly home for his brother’s funeral and left Cat at a boarder’s. On the sixth day, the kennel received an envelope from Scott with only a blank piece of paper inside. They were about to toss it when one of the staff thought they should give it to Cat. When Cat’s snout touched the page, she began to bark with excitement and then rolled over the note again and again. Scott had held the paper in his hands for the whole flight there.
That is what I want to be asked of me: a blank piece of paper that promises return.
But instead we just watched Orville sleep, her paws shuffling wildly. My wife asked what I thought dogs dream of. “All the things they’d do if they had thumbs,” I said, and closed my own eyes.
THIS MORNING, we get radioed about a murder of crows on the north side of the taxiway. Scott and I get into the golf cart while the dogs jog beside us. The job isn’t just to chase the birds away, but to terrify them—to imprint in their memory the airport as a place of reckless violence.
When we get within fifty yards of the murder, we park the cart. Scott and Cat peel to the west of the crows while Orville and I go east.
We get into position, and I see Scott and Cat on the far side of the murder waiting for us. The crows have torn open a large black bag and even from half a football field away I can hear their wings wheezing as they flutter over the scattered garbage. I used to wonder how all this stuff ended up on the airport’s field, but after a while you just accept it as part of the place.
I hold my hand above my head and Scott does the same. I whisper “Okay” to Orville and she’s all shoulder blades as she skulks forward. From the opposite side, Cat has closed in as well. Scott bought Cat when his daughter moved out, leaving him alone in his rented bungalow. Cat’s real name is Catherine, after Catherine the Great.
When both dogs are within striking distance, they freeze—Orville’s front left paw suspended. I hold up my other hand and when Scott does the same we both cry “Havoc!” and the two dogs explode from their molds. The crows scatter a good three or four seconds before they get there. Orville’s never caught a bird. I’m not sure she’d know what to do with one if she did.
In grade twelve biology, we were forced to watch a movie called The Most Human Part of You. The movie, ironically enough, didn’t feature a single human but was instead a cartoon of a genetic code. Our futures, the movie argued, were written for us in the same way our pasts had been: definite and determined and impossible to change. Since Orville was a stray, entire reams of her history have been redacted. I’m told there’s a mail-order DNA test that figures out her breed, but I don’t want to chase the mystery out of her—her endless possibilities.
We park the golf cart at the end of the runway and the four of us eat our lunch. I snap open the Tupperware that holds Orville’s two raw chicken necks, her nose twitching in the air. Cat eats bison because of its protein, but I like feeding Orville poultry. “Imagine what the real deal tastes like,” I whisper as her teeth crush through vertebrae.
The Boeing 747s take off above us and eclipse the sun. It seems like they’re flying tantalizingly close, but in reality they’re already a half mile away.
After lunch, Scott goes to survey the control tower while I head towards the perimeter road. The airport covers 4,500 acres and most of our time is spent wandering it. At my insistence, Scott takes the golf cart, so Orville and I walk.
I take any excuse to visit the perimeter road. Some parts are far enough from the terminals that the droning of turbines is interchanged with the droning of grasshoppers. On the walk I find a backpack, a lampshade and a ski pole. Orville spots a couple of sparrows in the tall grass—nothing serious—but I let her bound after them, more reach than grasp. I’m not supposed to let her chase anything that doesn’t pose “a pertinent risk to the function of aviation vehicles.” But when you think about anything long enough you can find the risk.
There must be a part of Orville that knows she’ll never catch these birds. But she tries regardless, full of hope and desire and completely unashamed that everyone knows.
IN THE AFTERNOON: magpies and geese. The crows don’t come back.
IN THE EVENING, Scott and I are patrolling the runways. We turn a corner and there, not twenty feet in front of us, are two seagulls crouched over a bag of fast food. Orville’s body goes rigid but I don’t give the command because there’s an Airbus A330 pulling into its gate nearby and we’re not supposed to impede airport traffic. But Cat, with the self-restraint often found in hereditary monarchs, charges without permission. Orville breaks rank and pursues.
The seagull whose back is turned to us escapes, taking off in a straight line.
In a heartbeat, it’s a silhouette in the sky. It’s the one who’s facing us, who saw the dogs charge yet still wanted another beak-full of French fries, who doesn’t have enough time to turn around and so takes off towards Cat. Cat, startled by its boldness, lets it pass right over her. But behind her is Orville. And as the bird frantically tries to gain altitude, Orville leaps up, her hind legs departing from the tarmac, and closes her mouth around its webbed foot.
Passengers on the Airbus see the commotion and turn to watch Orville ragdoll her catch until the bird goes limp and the leg is severed and a high arc of blood is painted in the air. They see all of this through the cabin’s seal of silence. I’m about to go pull Orville off but Scott puts his hand on my arm. “Will,” he says, “you can’t hold back nature.” As I watch Orville and Cat set upon their fortune, I’m inclined to agree.
The punchline in all this is that the taxi I took to work that Tuesday morning was the same one my wife took to catch her flight to New Orleans. She couldn’t have packed more than a backpack because I would’ve noticed. Later that day, I found Orville’s service dog vest in my locker, took the train home and arrived to see the answering machine flashing. She’d gone down South. No, not for business this time. Just to live. We’d been in Dayton all our lives and even though she knew I wouldn’t follow, she still left. I’ve never been on an airplane, never left Ohio. I’m not sure I’d know what to do if I did.
Orville trots back to me, her face covered with blood like some Scottish warrior. She is proud and panting. Inside the plane, the seatbelt light flicks off and one by one the travellers stand up, retrieve their carry-ons and linger single file for their chance to leave. Their luggage is already circling the carousel. For now, here they are, patient and understanding, as their unclaimed futures revolve somewhere ahead of them.