alex stella

I remember the night Animal Control came to my apartment. My four-month-old puppy Stella was laying on the floor, sedated and full of stints to drain the fluid from the deep, stitched-up gash running up her belly. Animal Control had received a report from an emergency veterinarian who had treated a dog that had suffered a severe attack that afternoon, and the lady with the badge looked past me and then at me and said is that dog’s name Stella?

Stella had been sitting next to me on a leash earlier that day in the parking lot of our apartment complex when a pit-ridgeback mix who lived in the building approached her. He sniffed around her and trotted off but within 15 seconds he was on top of her in a flash of teeth, digging into her belly with jaws that moved like garden shears. I jumped on him and started beating his head with my fists as hard as I could and a few seconds later he scampered off with his tail between his legs.

But the damage was done, and while her physical wounds would heal, Stella would forever be scarred.

Fear can be a forever kind of thing.

From that day on, she wouldn’t really trust anyone but me and would become legendary in the neighborhood for her aggressiveness with other dogs when she was on-leash, since being restrained and unable to escape is where she felt most afraid. Neighbors sometimes still walk to the other side of the street when they see us coming, even though I’ve built trust back into her and now, almost 10 years later, she’s friendly with the right kind of introduction to another dog.

If a dog tries to test her, she won’t back down, but she’s never been in a fight or bitten another animal. Well, she did nip a pug once that was hanging on her ear. But you can’t blame her for that.

And she has never attacked an animal the way she was attacked that afternoon in the parking lot.

Last night I was watching the sunset at the beach overlook near my house and as I turned for home I saw an old, graying dog unable to make it down off the 5-inch curb. His owner was coaxing him but he just couldn’t take the step, so they walked over to the ramp for wheelchairs and bikes and he eased himself down the grade slowly. He was so skinny and he moved so weakly, with such pain, that it was hard to watch.

I thought to myself someday that’s going to be Stella.

And then my breath caught in my throat.

That old, decrepit, dying animal was the same dog that attacked Stella almost a decade ago.

Walking behind them for a while reminded me of a scene in Breaking Bad where this violent and volatile but now elderly and dying crime lord is confined to a wheelchair, slobbering all over himself, and the only way he can communicate is by hitting a bell mounted on the chair. He’s still got this meanness in his spirit, but he has no way to express it anymore besides incessantly pounding on the bell and drooling out of the corner of his mouth.

Stella wasn’t the only dog that fell victim to this animal’s attacks, which were probably rooted in his own deep fear, since fear seems to be where most bad things come from. I didn’t press charges when he tore Stella apart because his owner, with her appropriately-placed-so-you-know-she’s-a-badass tattoos was so apologetic, saying through her tears that it would never happen again.

But it did happen again, a couple months later, when he attacked my neighbor’s dog inside their apartment. And who knows how many other dogs are out there whose trust he ruined, whose innocence he robbed.

But now he is dying. And if I let Stella get close to him, I’m sure she’d do her best to hasten that process. She knows, she can smell him and she can sense him.

And all I can do is my best not to let her carry with her what that dog tried to give her.

Because as much as I appreciate the power of forgiveness, I also appreciate the power of a line from a Springsteen song, where this guy has gone on a killing spree and is now before a judge and the judge sentences him to death and asks him why he did it and he says I don’t know, Judge, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

Sometimes there is.

And last night I saw it starting to die.