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ESSAY
Bolt Cutters
Paulette Jolliffe

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The dog’s head lifted from where he lay in a bed of dirt. He looked up with dulled eyes, panting in the blunt rays of an indifferent scorching summer sun. A heavy chain held him to a weathered post, its radius too small to reach the shade of a nearby battered and slumping back porch. Sweat trickled down the center of my back as I walked towards him.

          A handful of small weary houses, thirsty for paint, were scattered in a yawning circle around the common yard where the dog lay. Unrestrained weeds which had valiantly pushed up through the dry hard ground were now hunched, withered, defeated under the sun’s glare; close by an old tireless car baked in dirt, its torso sunk into the earth’s crust, had also succumbed.

          The heats heavy blanket stifled all life. Even the few trees stood stricken dumb, motionless, not a drooping leaf stirred. Silence spread thick and far. No one was in sight, just the dog.  “Hi there, big fellow,” I called as I neared him.  He looked about four years old, maybe 50 lbs., maybe a pit-lab mix, and maybe white, maybe light brown, it was hard to tell, he was filthy. Etched ribs were visible under dirty fur and around his neck squeezed a collar so tight it had become embedded under his skin. That had to hurt like hell. I’d seen it before and knew surgery would be required to remove that collar.  I looked at the dog’s face and met his eyes; they brightened as if he knew what I was thinking, and his tail hit the ground, thump, thump.

          No trace of food or water was evident. Looking around I found a battered old bowl, its bottom packed with the omnipresent dirt. Washing it out with a neighboring hose, I filled it and offered it to the dog. He wasted no time drinking it down and I refilled it. He slurped the water down again. “Not so fast, buddy,” I told him,” It’s not good for you to guzzle.” He looked up and I saw relief surface; his eyes fastened to me and his tail offered a wave. I put my hand on his head and his tail kicked into full throttle wagging. He wasn’t aggressive. He wasn’t angry though I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been. I would have been.    

          “Anybody home?” I called out. “Anybody here?”  I knocked on the back door of the slumping back porch house.  “Hi, anybody here?”  I was prepared. I had come with a story. I was looking for Steve. Steve was going to sell me a bike. Through Craigslist. Was Steve here?  Nobody answered. I checked the time. 11 a.m.

          I refilled the dog’s water bowl one last time. “I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise,” I said to him and heard a thump, thump as I forced my feet to walk away.   

          By the time I got home my phone was ringing. It rang with frequency; my number had spread like wildfire in dry tinder. People called multiple times weekly, plaintive voices asking for help with dogs. I wasn’t an organization; I just liked dogs and tried to help when I could. I answered the phone. It was the woman who’d called to tell me about the chained dog. “Did you see him?” she asked. “Yes.” “Will you get him?” “Yes. Tomorrow.”

         Stealing dogs was not something I did on a regular basis but was willing if necessary and I did know how to cut a chain. Sort of.

          Certain Los Angeles streets are littered with pawn shops. I drove to one, asked for bolt cutters and paid $20 for a 24 hr. rental. At 11 a.m. the next morning I arrived at the home with the chained dog.

          There is a theory that you must become aware of something before you can see it. Once you’ve noted something - whatever it may be - your mind, which gravitates towards patterns, will then repeatedly call it to your attention. This phenomenon is referred to as the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon, randomly and oddly named after a German terrorist group. A book you just heard of, a new word, a pair of shoes; it can be anything, but once you realize its existence, you notice it everywhere. For me, that’s the way it worked with dogs that needed help.  For me, it started with Kapunzel.

          I didn’t know much about dogs when my eyes first landed on a soft ball of white fur—resembling a miniature polar bear more closely than a puppy— in a pet store window at the Los Angeles Beverly Center. Pet stores were something to be avoided; the small cages bothered me and I never went inside. But that day was different. Submersed in a mild funk due to meager funds and seemingly slim life prospects, I was in a weakened state and allowed myself to slip through the pet store doors and merge with the large crowd inside who stood staring rapturously at the white German Shepherd puppy.

          “He just came in from a breeder in the Midwest,” said a sales boy who’d sidled up beside me. “Do you want to play with him in the meet-and-greet room?”

          “Sure.”

          The puppy demonstrated fleeting interest in my outstretched hands in the meet- and-greet room, veering instead towards the balls and toys

          “He likes you,” the sales boy said. “Do you want him?”

          The kid didn’t bat an eye with his misrepresentation and he would never know how he changed my life at that moment, how I was precariously balanced on a threshold, teetering towards falling into a new world which would change my life. I didn’t know any of that either. I just knew I couldn’t answer no. Instead I was seized with impulse and asked, “Do you take checks?”

          “Yes,” the boy said.

          Writing a check for $1,100, I then walked out of the pet store clutching a bag of dog food, grasping and trying to steady a new leash which was attached to the pulling and exuberant white German Shepherd puppy. There would be no money in the bank to cover that check. It would bounce immediately and so, numbly but with a small smile, I followed the puppy out of the store straight into a new world— the world of dogs.

          Soon I found out that I had done everything wrong. Not only did I bounce the check – which the store was remarkably friendly about when I called them to confess my crime, amiably agreeing to a payment plan – but I had bought a dog from a pet store who did business with puppy mill breeders, which I learned was tantamount to dog cruelty, and I had purchased a dog spontaneously – bad – when in a depressed state – very bad.                   

         I named the puppy Kapunzel and as he grew into a 120 lb. German Shepherd, I grew too. He got bigger; I got more dog knowledge and I began to see the world of homeless and abused dogs. There were not enough homes for all of the dogs. Thousands lived in the streets of Los Angeles. Thousands more were euthanized annually at the city and county animal shelters; millions nationwide.  Kapunzel and I ran into dogs that needed help everywhere - at parks, while hiking, walking down the block or driving through the Los Angeles streets. Suddenly I began to see the endless numbers of dogs in need. Before long I was knee-deep trying to locate owners of lost dogs, trying to find new homes for abandoned dogs and providing care and giving shelter. Word got around, my phone number traveled and people began calling to ask for help.

          Turning the ignition off, I sat for a moment in front of the house with the chained dog and looked down at the bolt cutters in the seat beside me, its sharp mouth curling up in a smile. A wave of uneasiness washed over me. It had been over a decade since I’d last cut a chain.  I knew bolt cutters didn’t cut chains like slicing butter. It would take muscle, effort and time. Many years earlier I’d cut a chain and barrel off the tire of my car, attached by an irate parking lot attendant when I didn’t pay enough for parking.  I’d refused to acquiesce to the attendant, had been mad enough to find a way to cut the chain off of my car myself, locating bolt cutters at a pawn shop, sneaking into the parking lot and when the attendant was not looking, squatting down beside the tire of my car, applying the bolt cutters to the chain, squeezing the handles, surprised when the chain didn’t immediately break. I’d learned that it took a lot of effort and time which was challenging in a situation which also required stealth. I had emerged victorious and had driven away, chain and barrel left behind, bolt cutters on the seat beside me, never to return to that parking lot.  But that was many years ago. I stared down at the bolt cutters, realizing I had to get the dog. It would be unacceptable not to. No matter what.

          I needed a story going in.  The story would be that Rick was a friend of the dog’s owner, Steve. Steve had been thrown in jail and who knows how long he would be incarcerated. So Steve told Rick to get someone to take care of his dog. Rick had called me. I knew nothing else. That was the story. I attached it firmly to my brain.

          “Ok, let’s go get the dog,” I murmured to my accomplice, the bolt cutters, as I picked them up and got out of the car. The heat was just as thick and deadening as it had been the day before and the dirt backyard with surrounding houses was just as silent and still. No one was around. The dog was lying in the same spot; the bowl I’d used for water was bone dry. The dog’s head perked up, he recognized me and waved his tail.

          “Hi fella, how are you?” He grinned and his tail thumped on the ground.

          “Anybody here?  Anybody home?” I called out. I walked around the yard and the houses. “Hello? Anyone around?”  No response.  I filled the water bowl, gave it to the dog - who happily drank it down – and very carefully slid a slip collar over his head, gently tightening it into a snug fit against his tender neck, and got to work. Placing the bolt cutters mouth against the chain, I remembered breaking the chain from my tire so many years ago. This chain was thicker and I readied myself, keeping my story foremost in my mind. Rick called me, Steve was in jail. I squeezed the bolt cutter handles and the jaws of the bolt cutters chomped down onto the chain, leaving it unfazed.  But I expected that. I already knew the key was to stay single-minded, focused and methodical, quick but methodical. No thought other than destroying the chain and my story was allowed into my mind. I squeezed and squeezed the handles of the bolt cutters together, my palms quickly becoming sore and tender, blisters soon to come. It didn’t matter. Just keep going. The bolt cutters bit down hard on the chain over and over while I kept squeezing the handles. Initially it seemed impossible, the chain remained unperturbed, but with repetition I knew, hoped, the chains strength would diminish.  Do not stop. I squeezed the handles of the bolt cutters together again and again. Sweat drenched my forehead and salt threatened to blind my eyes. I blinked, wiped the sweat from my forehead with a forearm and continued to squeeze the handles. Finally there was a break, a small break in the chain. I squeezed the handles again, hard, and felt the palms of my hands cry out in pain, they were rubbed raw but the chain was beginning to break. I never looked up. I snapped the mouth of the bolt cutters into the break and pushed the handles together, mustering all of my energy. Finally the chain gave way completely, breaking. There was no time to celebrate. I looked up; thump thump went the dog’s tail. I looked around. The houses, the trees, the abandoned car stared at me silently. I picked up the leash and looked at the dog.   “Let’s get out of here, shall we?” I asked him and he readily agreed, jumping up, walking quickly beside me to my car.  I swung open the car door, the dog jumped into the back seat, I placed the bolt cutters shotgun by my side and we sped off, never to return.

          The dog received medical care, the collar was surgically removed from his neck, and he was adopted into a home to begin a new life. 


Paulette Jolliffe lives in Los Angeles and is a canine massage therapist. Her two loves are
dogs and writing short stories.