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ESSAY
Loki
Mike Coste

 Photo by Mando Gomez

Photo by Mando Gomez

I fumble with my tie and look into the rectangular mirror hanging next to the front door.  The back side is too long, and I shake my head, grunt, and pull the tie off.  Loki peers through the kitchen door.

“It’s okay Loke.”  I start tying the tie again.

Loki watches, still not sure what to do with me after three months.  Having just gotten used to a collar and leash himself, the spectacle of me trying to put one on must befuddle him.    

It used to be so easy throwing on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt or Hawaiian shirt to teach my summer classes.  Now, after nearly a quarter century working at the same college, I’m preparing for my first day at a new college, a new job. Now I am a dean, and I must dress like a dean.  Looking at the completed knot, I see the tie hanging four inches below my belt.  I yank the tie off and try again.  With my collar turned upward, I wrap the it around my neck once more, with the skinny side a little longer than it was the last time.

Loki has begun to figure out that his leash is to lead me around so I don’t get lost on our twice daily walks, but why do I need one?  Who will I lead?

***

Before he was born, I knew him. About two months before I started my new job, my future wife, Maryann, had called me and told me of a surprise waiting at home.  When I got to the door, I saw this scraggly little runt, his eyes bulging with surprise at the unfamiliar surroundings.  He was tiny.  Maryann, having been called to foster this fragile creature, asked if I was willing to help take care of him for a while until we could find a forever home.  The adoption agency had named him Checkers. She knew I love Shih Tzus had always wanted one named Loki.  Soon Checkers became Loki, and with that, he was a foster failure and now a part of our family.

People who are familiar with The Avengers love that he shares a name with Thor’s brother and nemesis from the comics, but I really had the Norse god in mind.  The writers for Marvel do a good job capturing some of the spirit behind the god in their character, but my dog is not capable of the supervillain’s mass destruction.  True, he has a tendency to rummage through important papers and shred them to uselessness, but that is the extent of his damage. He is smaller than the average Shih Tzu, about the size of the average housecat, with a dark mask, big brown eyes, and a white streak kissing his forehead.  His body is also white, punctuated with large black blotches.  His stocky form belies the emaciated state I found him in when he arrived, his head disproportionate to his body.  Now, he sports a short puppy cut, but when liberated, he had long matted hair that needed shaving.

***

I finally get the tie to come out to the proper length.  Loki is still in the doorway. I walk over to him and scoop him up, cradling him in my arms I catch our reflection. Having only moved in with Maryann, three months before Loki, I am new to the townhouse as well.  Without Maryann, I would not have had the strength to leave the college I had known for so long and embark on this new phase of my life.  She also went with me to Men’s Wearhouse to help choose the appropriate clothing for my new job.  I place Loki on the couch and put the jacket on over my shirt and tie.  I like the look; it feels like playing dress up.

I wonder how Superman did it.  He had to throw on a Clark Kent suit at a moment’s notice.  Did he wear a clip on?  I look in the mirror one more time and like the disguise.  Long sleeved shirts may be a bit stifling in the summer, but they easily hide the tattoo of the symbol for Om, stylized as the elephant headed god Ganesha, inked on my left arm. I really clean up well, and look back at the mirror and give myself a thumbs up.  Maryann comes down the stairs and tells me how handsome I look and how great I will be.  Eat that, Clark Kent! 

Of course, Lois never saw Clark as Superman.  Maryann, however, had been in the audience when I spoke at my former college’s graduation the past year.  When I left my faculty position, she was at my going away party, hearing all the stories and watching the comedic collection of video clips from various projects I had worked on.  Unlike Superman, who gained powers when he left his home planet, my suit is my kryptonite. Fully embracing my new role means abandoning teaching, the one thing I am recognized as being good at.  I clunk through the kitchen to the garage door in my shiny Joseph Abboud shoes, bending down to pet Loki as I leave.

***

According to the ASPCA web site,

Puppy mills usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. To minimize waste cleanup, dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is not unusual for cages to be stacked up in columns. Breeding dogs at mills might spend their entire lives outdoors, exposed to the elements, or crammed inside filthy structures where they never get the chance to feel the sun or breathe fresh air…The mom and dad of the puppy in the pet store window are unlikely to make it out of the mill alive…

Even as I read these words, I cannot imagine Loki’s life for three years under those conditions.  To start the day or greet Maryann or me on our arrival home, he will jump up and down, or race around the perimeter of the living room, continuing behind the couch sitting close to the wall for a few laps, showing his zest for life.  I cannot imagine him boxed in for three hopeless years, never experiencing the outdoors or the grass, never feeling the soft carpet under his pads.  How did he live without his post-morning-walk frozen blueberries? No stuffed monkey or giraffe and little human contact to enrich his life.  What kinds of hard people could not tear up at that sight?  Was him being one among many enough to harden their hearts?  He couldn’t even go mentally to his special place, because he would have no conception of what a special place looks like. 

***    

The god Loki served Thor well when his hammer disappeared.  I can only imagine Thor’s desolate feeling of separation at losing the source of his power. Thor asks for Loki’s help, and Loki immediately sets out to search for the hammer. On his return, Loki tells Thor that the Frost Giant, Thrym, had stolen the hammer and buried it.  Thrym refuses to return the hammer until the goddess Freya is brought to him so he can marry her.  Thor would have been quite willing to deliver her to Thrym to get his prized hammer back, but being married, Freya would not cooperate. Even so, betrothal to a Frost Giant was hardly a step up. 

Loki came up with a plan. He dressed the thunder god in bridal wear, put a veil on him, and delivered him to Thrym.  The humor of this story is lost on those of us who are used to Marvel’s Thor, with his high cheekbones and flowing blond hair.  The Norse Thor was a large stocky red bearded behemoth, more likely to play offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears than to model for Abercrombie and Fitch. With his great power of persuasion, Loki was able to convince Thrym that his bride to be looked a little haggard because she was nervous at the thought of the upcoming wedding.  Thor remained silent, hoping the ruse would work. Thyrm then produced the hammer and laid it on his beloved’s lap as a blessing.  Loki had thus enabled Thor to regain his power.

***

My dog doesn’t know how to behave, and he’s always on his guard. As for me, at work, even though I don’t wear full suits, it’s unsettling to look in the mirror and see a well-groomed man with a tie looking back, rather than the veteran teacher who had dressed down for his students and wasn’t in need of any of the outward trappings of respect.  I can no longer speak to an audience that knows me by reputation. The faculty treat me with the same skepticism I once had for deans, and other administrators admonish me to remember that I’m not an instructor any more.  Everything I say is put in a context I don’t quite understand.

Many days, I come home to torn papers all over the house, along with a wet blotch of urine on the carpet.  Loki eyes me suspiciously from his pillow in the kitchen, off by himself. I’m frustrated, but yelling at him would be senseless.  He doesn’t know.  He wants to know but he doesn’t.  I’m frustrated; he’s frustrated.  I go about the house and pick up the pieces of paper, throwing them out before attacking the urine spot.  I go over to Loki, pick him up and place him on the chaise lounge.  His eyes stare into the distance. I gently stroke his head and tell him he’s a good boy.  I remove my tie, pour myself a Manhattan, and fix Loki’s dinner.

***

Jung would call Loki a trickster.  The trickster (usually a male) operates outside of the rules, and his foibles, whether contrived or accidental, move the narrative of the myth to its culmination.  A good example of this comes from George Lucas, who is largely responsible for the great American myth Star Wars.  In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke learns of Yoda, a wise Jedi master, who can teach Luke the skills he needs to defeat Darth Vader.  Luke goes to Yoda’s domain and encounters a small furry creature who watches Luke futilely searching the swamps of the planet before the creature finally reveals himself as the very Jedi master that Luke seeks.  During training, despite Yoda’s entreaties, Luke prematurely goes on a vision quest and encounters Darth Vader.  After defeating Darth Vader in a fight, he pulls off Vader’s mask and Luke finds himself looking into his own face.

***

House training is a particular challenge.   As Loki was in a cage for his first three years, he lost the instinctual tendency to avoid relieving himself in his den. He wants to please, to be part of the pack, but he lacks a sense of boundaries and the difference between indoors and outdoors.  At first, I try to anticipate when Loki is likely to go, usually just after awakening in the morning or after a nap.  I notice him spinning in circles before he relieves himself.  When this happens outdoors, I give Loki a treat. I tie a bell to the doorknob of the front door, so he can signal that he needs to go.

As for the rest of his training, I reward Loki when he does the right thing, but I see the confusion in his eyes as he searches his mind to figure what I want.  Over time, he begins to figure me out. I give him a small piece of hot dog or cheese when he sits or stays, and he gobbles it up.  When I take him to Pet Smart for training, though, he seems to forget the lesson.  The instructor looks at me as if he doesn’t believe we had been working every day. Loki’s learning, but the other dogs in the class and the alien surroundings throw him off. 

Still, working with Loki at the end of the day is a welcome respite.  My work is as frustrating as Loki’s.  I have people with less than half of my experience acting as if I don’t know what it’s like to teach.  I receive condescension regarding matters I have been familiar with for years.   I walk in my new world as a stranger.  My back is starting to hurt and I think it’s the shoes.  At the end of the day, though, I kick off the uncomfortable shoes, put on some sneakers, and take Loki out for a few minutes of training. We head out to the grass across from the townhouse, and work on our routine, Loki on the end of a six foot leash.  I have Loki sit, and then see how long I can get him to stay.  He’s excited, so staying still is hard, but I get him up to ten seconds.  We walk back inside and get ready for his dinner and a short walk.

On the day of Loki’s last class, it all clicks.  We perform all the tasks correctly and pass the test.  Loki gets a Fozzie Bear toy and a certificate, and I take some pictures of him in a little doggie graduation hat.  I’ve never been prouder.  We did it!  Together.  We are a team. 

I buy some Sketchers and the Joseph Abboud shoes go to the back of the closet.

***

Shih Tzus were unknown to the Egyptians, but they did have a god named Anubis.  Anubis is associated with the underworld.  In countless mummy movies, we see the jackal-headed god as a symbol of death and foreboding.  In truth Anubis is a dog-like deity who, according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, escorts people through the underworld.  When it is time to weigh the heart to determine the fate of the dead, Anubis will at times put a finger on the scale to lighten the heart so the departed will avoid being devoured by the crocodile headed monster, Ammit.

***

I work the day after Thanksgiving.  Maryann is in retail so I never mind working the holidays.  Among the people taking time off is my Vice President whose sense of professionalism led me to continue wearing ties on a regular basis.  In the spirit of casual Friday, I wear jeans.  In the spirit of a lack of supervision, I bring Loki in for the first time.  I just hope he doesn’t pee on the carpet or chew on something visible. I walk him in on his leash, and to my surprise, he stays close after I remove it.  He follows me around the empty reception area and into my office. As I sit down at my computer, he curls at my feet.  Later, I walk down the nearly empty hallway to stretch my legs, and he he follows at my heels.

***

“Shih Tzu” is from the Chinese and means “noble lion.”  A legend has it that the Buddha, as he wandered about the countryside, would have his loyal Shih Tzu accompany him.  It must have been quite a contrast to see this great, large, round man with his pack slung over his shoulders, wandering throughout the mountains from village to village, stopping to teach and encourage his bikkhus, accompanied by a tiny bundle of fur looking like something better nestled safely in a child’s nursery.  I can imagine him sitting cross legged in the dirt, speaking with anyone who would approach about the importance of simplicity and subtlety, his little friend, curled up, unimpressed at being in the presence of a giant among humans, perhaps seeking only a gentle stroke or a small morsel before he drifted off to sleep. 

One day, as the two were ambling along, a band of robbers startled them from their walking meditation.  As the robbers surrounded the pair, their eyes widened with fear. Following their looks to the Shih Tzu, the Awakened One could see the small dog morphing into a ferocious lion, with large teeth and strong jaws.  As the lion let out an earth-shaking roar, the Buddha watched the robbers scamper off into the distance.   Turning back to the lion, he saw shrinking fur reforming itself back into his companion.  With a bright smile, the Buddha picked him up, and kissed him on the forehead, leaving a patch of white fur, an attribute of the Shih Tzu to this day.

***

Starting to settle in a bit, I’m still not quite sure I feel comfortable as a dean, but things are starting to feel more normal.  The new Vice President doesn’t seem to be as concerned that I dress in business professional, so I breathe easier without a collar and tie around my neck. She doesn’t object when I bring Loki in occasionally, and even comes by to pet him.  I start teaching online again, and, although I don’t have the large prime time classes that I had been used to in the past, I welcome the change.  

I also decide to take a creative writing to develop a dormant passion.  One assignment is to memorize a poem, and I choose Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”  Every morning I walk Loki, reciting as much of the poem to him as I can remember over and over.  In the silent dawn, we walk down the secluded lane that runs between the buildings of our complex, muffled by the late winter Colorado darkness hinting little of the promise of Spring warming that awaits. Noiselessly and patiently, Loki listens to my repetitions and puts up with my inability to remember the line, “Ever unreeling them- Ever tirelessly speeding them.”  I know he just wants to finish the stanza for me, but he keeps plodding on, the retractable leash launching forth, filament, filament, filament, out of itself.

***

On Sunday, October 13, 2013, I’m sitting on the far right side of the couch, wearing my orange Tigers t-shirt and blue baseball cap with the old English D, watching the second game of the American League Championship Series on TV.  Loki lies curled up on the chaise lounge to my right.  My Tigers are up one game to none in the series.  Leading the game 5-1, they are on the verge of winning two in a row at Fenway, which will send them back to Detroit with a solid lead.

Focused on the television, my optimism begins to fade as the Red Sox load the bases in the eighth with David Ortiz up at the plate.   Ortiz is the last hitter you want to see in this situation.  One swing from his prolific bat can tie the game.  Not the fastest of base runners, he can also easily ground into an inning ending double play.

The slugger strides toward the plate…

Ding ding!  Ding ding!

Looking to my left toward the doorknob with the hanging bell, I see Loki, sitting staring at me insistently, proud at having gotten my attention.  “C’mon Loke,” I plead.  “Ortiz is up.  Let’s just see this one at bat.” 

Ding!

 At that answer, and with a sigh, I take off my glasses, stand up, fit Loki into his harness, leash him, and let him out the door.  He takes me to the left following the wall of the house to the end of the garage. We walk across the alleyway to a small park to find a suitable tree. I’m glad to have an app on my phone that allows me to follow the game but my eyesight is poor without my glasses. I can barely make out the screen indicating the bases are full. As Loki turns to lift his leg, I glance at the phone.  The bases are no longer full.  The blurred numbers obscure the score, and I’m convinced that Ortiz has hit into a double play and the Tigers are well on their way to the Series.  We return to the house, this time across the lawn, and he hops up to the cement block in front of the door.  I let Loki in and unleash him.  Picking my glasses off the couch, I see the score tied at five. On my phone, I watch a video replay of the ball going off of Ortiz’ bat and soaring over the glove of Torii Hunter, who in turn falls over the right field wall as he dives for it.  The Red Sox go on to win the game and later, the World Series.

Pondering Loki’s role in all of this, the superstitious part of me wonders if my watching would have sent enough energy to Fenway Park to will the ball closer to Torii Hunter’s glove and a one-run sacrifice fly protecting the Tigers’ lead.  More likely, Loki saved me from witnessing this excruciating moment in real time, blunting the inevitable blow.

***

Many depictions of the god Ganesha have him riding on the back of a rat.  This is quite curious until one considers that Ganesha is the god of overcoming barriers.  That Ganesha rides on such a diminutive animal is a great object lesson.  In order to triumph, the great Ganesha, remover of obstacles and god of scholars, must make himself light.

***

Fridays aren’t usually very busy, so they are a good time to bring Loki in.  I pull up to the campus parking lot with Loki curled up on the passenger seat.  As I slow down in the parking lot, he sits up and wags his tail, whining quietly.  I pull into a parking space, and get out of the car.  Loki waits for me to open the passenger door, and I hook the leash up to his harness.  As wee walk into the entrance, I unhook his leash. We move through the hallway of faculty offices; he turns into each open door to greet the occupant and receive some strokes on the head.

I carry him down the stairs.  I had never taught him to use stairs because it was easier to keep track of him that way.  Entering my office area on a lower floor, Loki walks past the desks of my colleagues as they greet him in the kind of high-pitched voices that one reserves only for dogs and babies. He stops by my assistant Laura’s desk to collect a treat, and follows me into my desk. I relax into my chair as Loki settles by my feet. 

I hadn’t put much thought into what to wear.  I didn’t think about what a dean or a teacher should do.  Loki would see through all that anyway. Dogs aren’t much for labels. I reach down and scratch his head.  All Loki demands is that I be fully myself.  I don’t need a costume or a cape.  I need my dog.

Later, Loki paws on my leg. He’s bored. I pick him up, kiss his forehead, and return him to the floor. I get up out of my chair and walk, Loki at my heels, his head barely at the level of the bottom of my calf, down the long hallway, unsure of our destination.   If the psychic Frost Giants momentarily take the hammer I use to dispel self-doubt and negativity, I am confident Loki will help me retrieve it.


Mike Coste currently lives near Denver, Colorado and has begun writing creatively after a long and satisfying career as a college philosophy instructor. His works have been published in the Burningword Literary Review, Right Hand Pointing, the Colorado Independent and 34th Parallel. Loki was rescued from a puppy mill five years ago and now lives with Mike, Maryann, and his new rescue sister Star.  Mike's Twitter handle is @glassonion624, and Loki's is @Loki11387564.