Unconditional

By Craig Kenworthy

Custody fights are nothing new to me. In my normal role as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), I speak up for children caught up in the court system. What is new is being ordered to prepare a report on the family life and best interests of canine kids, in this case two dogs named Gaspard and St. Chakra. Family Court Judge Rodriguez is a big dog lover who fears she can’t be objective. So she appointed me, a cat person, to evaluate their needs.

I know people like dogs because they give you unconditional love. Cats? It’s unconditional indifference. If I fainted a dog might try to summon help. My cat, UFO (Unidentified Feline Object), would decide the countertop is finally on-limits and use my body as a step-up. It’s always been cats for me. Although my late husband did once ask, “Why didn’t we just get a dog?” since UFO is a Norwegian Forest Cat who weighs 25 pounds with zero percent belly fat (something I am always jealous of.)

These dogs are litter mates, ruling out the Solomonic approach of giving one dog to Ms. Ava Anton and one to Derek “The Cheeks” Gaines (a professional trumpet player, hence the cheeks). Ms. Anton is a former WNBA player and the head of a local fitness center chain. They have no human children. Ava objects to what she sees as the lack of stability in Derek’s home life. Derek wants to maintain the current situation; sharing physical custody by alternating weeks, which is fairly common for human kids. As a result, for the first time ever I am doing a CASA report on living conditions of animals. This is so not covered in the manual.

• • •

CASA: Nadine Hoffman, initial home visit, unedited notes 1/7/2017. Others present besides children dogs: Ava Anton.

These two are Catahoula leopard dogs. (I guess a leopard dog can’t be all bad.) The American Kennel Club describes the breed as “…a multi-purpose working dog, well-muscled and powerful but with a sense of agility and endurance.” I describe them as short-haired, floppy-eared, light gray-tan coats with spots of course. About two feet high. Gaspard (older by seventeen minutes) weighs 75 pounds and has a bit of a paunch. St. Chakra (that name? Ava says she went through a severe ankle injury and that a mix of spiritual practices seemed to cure it) is a touch shorter and weighs 65 pounds. Gaspard is Derek’s mother’s maiden name.

With kids, I like to go out to a park with them. See how a parent behaves. For eight-year-olds (human ones at least) an attentive but not obsessive parent is a good sign. You want to see that kids will get a chance to fail, to grow and develop. The off-leash area we head to is a retrofitted ball diamond, the former infield making up most of it. There are only two other dogs kicking up dust here, a German shepherd with three legs named Hansel and something named Twinkle that looks like somebody close-shaved a sheep and then gave it a belt five sizes too small. Ava tells me Twinkle is a Bedlington terrier.

St. Chakra is standing still, letting the shepherd jump left then right around her as best it can. I ask Ava why she wanted dogs. She shakes her braided hair out with her large hands and leans forward, adding that she is okay with me recording this.

“I played professional ball for thirteen years. In Spain, Slovenia and Greece for the first seven. You try being a half black woman playing in smaller towns in southeast Europe. Let’s just say they weren’t buying my jersey. Had to rehab that bad ankle and live off of 14,000 dollars one year. Then I finally made the WNBA.”

Chakra has left the shepherd behind and now has her nose in a place no kid over three would think about sticking it. Twinkle doesn’t look too offended. Gaspard is rolling in what I hope is dried leaves.

“I promised myself that when I was done, I would get a dog. Because a dog doesn’t trade you to Athens on your birthday or decide that you don’t spend enough time on social media promoting the team. And it sure as hell doesn’t bump you too hard in practice hoping you might take a tumble, have to be out of the starting line-up for a while.”

A new dog enters the area, squeezing itself through the twin offset gates. It’s only a few inches shorter than me and probably heavier. Looks like a mastiff crossed with a Soviet era statue. Ava mutters under her breath and calls out in a flat voice: “Chak. Gasp. Now.” In less time than it takes me to type this sentence they are across the park and sitting in front of us, resting on their haunches. Ava does not smile, simply nodding approval at them. I ask her about Derek: “In my last season we went out to some club in Minneapolis. There was this musician. I had seen that look but not often. It was perfect concentration in the pursuit of excellence. During a break, he came down, walked past everyone else without stopping and came up to me and said: ‘Miss, if you will not at least tell me your name, I fear I shall have to lay down my horn forever. Because my spirit will have left my body.’ I asked Derek if he had a dog. He didn’t. I asked if he figured on ever getting one. He said, no, he figured on getting two. So, I told him my name.”

A few minutes later, we get the dogs on their leashes and head out. An older woman wearing the most orange sweatpants I have ever seen collects Twinkle before the dog/statue can get any closer to her.

Back at Ava’s duplex, I do a short tour. The kitchen smells of baking, the rest of the house of pine. Nothing is out of place, cleaning supplies and other high-risk items all locked away. Ava answers her phone so I step out to snap a couple of photos of the neat, fenced backyard. This results in having to throw the ball for Chakra and Gaspard at least twenty times before Ava comes to relieve me. I notice the ball is the only toy in sight.

The next day, I talk with Derek on the phone. He’s in Memphis doing a record. He says he knows Ava takes good care of the dogs when he’s gone. I know from past experience that it is possible to stop loving someone and still believe they love your children as much as you do. With Derek out of town for two more days, I decide to continue to observe Gaspard and St. Chakra with Ava. We agree to meet at the dog park the next day, just before my last human appointment of the afternoon.

Being a parent is an unending series of choices. Do you focus on the now? On the child’s long-term development? I’ve never, thank God, had to deal with a case involving a terminally ill child. Never had to worry about a parent outliving their child. But Gaspard and Chakra are almost eight. If things go well, they might live to 14. Ava and Derek will have to bury them, not the other way around. I am sitting on the dog park bench thinking about that when I hear Ava yell the dog’s names, her voice higher and faster than yesterday. I scan left and see that mammoth dog from the day before. It’s after the little Bedlington terrier, Twinkle.

The mastiff’s owner is outside the fence, playing with her phone. The woman in the orange sweatpants trips on the steps as she tries to run to her terrier. Gaspard is loping toward us. Ava is on her feet. I stand up too just as the little dog goes down, rolling over to expose its belly, show it is no threat. The mastiff doesn’t care. It flexes its jaws twice and starts to go for Twinkle’s throat. Ava is sprinting. Ava is too far away.

But Chakra isn’t.

She runs up the back of the bigger dog and grabs hold of its left ear with her teeth. Then like a cowgirl rope tying off a calf, she yanks the bigger dog over, right onto herself. They miss Twinkle by inches.

• • •

“I’m sorry. Can you tell me again your relationship to the patient?”

“I am Chakra’s court appointed special advocate.”

I can hear the veterinary hospital receptionist take a deep breath before she pulls the phone closer again.

“So I did hear you right the first time.”

“Maybe I better just come down there.”

I hang up and see a text from Ava. Chakra has two cracked ribs and a bruised heart. Ava got bit when she yanked the big dog off Chakra. The veterinarian says Ava’s wound is close to a nerve in her hand and she needs to go to the emergency room. Derek is cancelling his gig and will be home in a few hours. Can I come take Gaspard home? I start to say it’s against the rules to run errands for a parent, then decide that doesn’t apply to hero pet emergencies.

When I get us to the duplex, Gaspard just stares at the front door for half an hour. Then he proceeds to eat all the food in Chakra’s bowl after he finishes off his own. I head back to the animal hospital to meet Derek after Ava goes home. He’s asleep in a chair in the lobby. He tells me a bruised heart is a bad deal. Turns out the sac around it can fill with blood and start to crush in on the heart, forcing it to beat faster and faster until it fails. That means it’s canine sedation time. But Derek wants to be here just in case Chakra wakes up.

The manual on CASA reports says: Court reports must be objective. Any statements or observations must be supported by factual information, witnesses, and quotes. Without a basis in fact, assessments can be challenged as being biased and uninformed.

There is nothing in it about how to be objective about a saint who takes down a giant thug in order to save her smaller friend. Or about their sibling who drools on your hand when you keep trying to reassure him that she will be back. UFO sniffs me when I get home, then refuses to sit with me as I watch Season Four of Orphan Black (cloning — now that would solve a lot of my problems).

Two days later I am in Derek’s apartment. Chakra has a flexible wrap around her chest and instructions about no jumping and no running. Gaspard is in the kitchen trying to edge up the side of the cabinet without being noticed. I can smell the dirty roasting pan he is after, the char of beef odor that must be paining him.

Derek is a smaller man with a large mouth. He offers me a beer then realizes I will say no and puts both of them back in the almond colored fridge.

“Do you know why Ava and I split up?”

“Is that relevant to the dogs’ interests?”

Derek stands up then leans toward the kitchen and whistles once. Gaspard drops to the floor. Derek turns back to me but doesn’t sit.

“I wanted kids. Ava didn’t. So you tell me.”

I am thinking, well, why not add in another factor I have never dealt with. Sure, I’ve had people who didn’t want any more kids. But no kids? In that case, I don’t exist.

“You have kids, Nadine?”

“A daughter. She’s at school in Oregon.”

“Long way away.”

“Yes.”

“You gonna tell me if it’s relevant? Ava and kids.”

Gaspard gives me an out by jumping up on the arm of my chair, balancing there like an ill-planned circus act. I look into his large eyes again and start to rub his neck (one of our rules is limiting physical contact with the kids. That’s another SOP out the window).

“A stable home environment is important. How do you see yourself providing that?”

“Is this about me traveling for my work?”

I don’t say anything. Something I learned from a Tony Hillerman novel. A lot of non-native Americans can’t stand silences. They’ll start talking if you don’t.

“Ava knew the deal when we got married. Knew that I’d be gone a lot.”

Derek’s cheeks don’t seem that big when he speaks in a low whisper as if he is talking only to himself. Gaspard hops down and heads to the front door, whining. Chakra shows no interest so Derek gets down one leash (purple with little gold stars) and takes Gaspard out to the little pocket park two blocks away.

After assuring myself that Chakra is comfortable, I decide to survey the apartment for possible hazards. Of course, my checklist is designed for small people with opposable thumbs, not a species allergic to chocolate. Each room smells like dry dog and sheet music. There are at least a dozen chew toys scattered throughout the place.

The latch on the dishwasher door is broken and there is a strip of duct tape to hold it fast. Assuming the dogs can’t turn the unsecured knobs on the gas stove, most things in the kitchen look safe. The bathroom is cleaner than a lot of single men’s places. There is a small crack in the mirror, a bit of a jagged edge. I know this because I cut myself on it when I open the medicine cabinet door. Assuming the dogs don’t start flossing their teeth, it’s okay. But there are a lot of bottles in the cabinet. I finish snapping photos of the labels just as I hear the front door open. I flush the toilet to give myself a moment to fix my finger cut.

When I come out, Chakra is sitting in the chair where I was, rubbing her wrap against the arm. Derek is feeding Gaspard, the dry food spilling out over the rim. One of those voice-enabled speakers is playing music I don’t recognize. Derek lowers the food bag.

“I know I spoil them. Classic absent parent behavior. You like jazz, Nadine?”

He bobs his head toward the kitchen where the speaker is.

“I am afraid I’m one of those people who doesn’t understand it.”

“What kind of music do you listen to?”

“Books on tape.”

“I am doomed.”

We both laugh. The dogs come over to Derek, tails swishing in the cool air.

“I do understand loving your work.”

“How can you love what you do? People fighting over kids.”

I am thinking that anything I say will be taken as a clue on how to behave around me. I am thinking that until Chakra puts one paw in the air like she is asking a question and Derek stoops, not to pet her but to make a small adjustment in her chest wrap so that it does not rub her nipple.

“How good are you, Derek? As a player.”

“Good enough that I am frequently the second person they call. Do you know what that means?”

I shake my head. Gaspard is now behind Derek, trying and failing to pick up a squeaky toy tropical fish.

“It means I get called to fill in when the first choice gets sick or backs out. Most of the time that stuff doesn’t come with a two-week notice.”

2nd home visit unedited notes 1/13/2017, apartment of Derek Gaines. Others present besides children dogs: Ernest A. Gaines (Derek’s father)

Derek is back in Memphis for another studio session. This makes this a good time to get a better handle on Derek’s substitute caregiver. I ask Ernest where he takes the dogs when they go out for a walk. He smiles and picks up his cane.

Being the only woman in Roddy’s Hair Styling and Tattoo Removal Parlor is likely an impediment to the usual flow of conversation. (They did put away the ten-year-old Playboys when I sat down). Chakra is still not allowed to run but we walked the three blocks here at about one mile an hour anyway.

I step outside to sit at the bus stop with Ernest, then look back through the decorated glass to see Zeke spinning Gaspard in a chair, the dog holding onto the arm with his paws, the man leaning in like you would with a gleeful infant on the merry-go-round. Chakra is laying on the floor rolling in the unswept cutting from Zeke, one of Derek’s high school friends. I can hear the music inside getting louder. And then the dogs begin to bay, each almost in time with the other as a trumpet solo washes over the rest of the tune. Ernest shakes his head, grinning.

“Those two like listening to Derek practice. Roddy has his stuff on a playlist. They always do that when the boy hits that part.”

Just as we get back to Derek’s apartment, Ernest stops me, saying he has a question and a request. We stand on the front stoop with Chakra’s leash wrapping around my calf. I start to turn on the recorder but Ernest shakes his head.

“The judge is gonna do what you suggest. With the dogs, right?”

I shake my head in a slow arc.

“I don’t suggest. I report.”

“Well, at least listen hard to it?”

I nod my head. He smiles, his eyes kind, his forehead not.

“Please don’t… report that it if D wants Chakra and G, he needs to come in off the road. Musicians careers don’t always go in a straight line. He needs these moments.”

“Mr. Gaines, why hasn’t Derek gone to a place bigger than Thurlow County? To help with his career.”

“His mama is in a home now. Had a stroke five years back. She won’t be coming out.”

I have seen a lot of parent’s tears. Some that threaten to shatter your heart like a dropped glass. Some so fake you think Gandhi wouldn’t mind punching this person. Today, I decide not to ask a seventy two-year-old man about his son’s health, about all those pill bottles, about how he is supposed to help out with the dogs when his own wife needs his attention. Instead I leave him with two dogs who might be wondering why his face is already wet as he bends down to take their licking.

Google is the devil. It tempts you to do things you shouldn’t. Like look up all those medications in Derek’s medicine cabinet. It’s pretty clear he has some kind of inflammatory disease. How serious is it? Well, the side effects of the meds are pretty serious. My report is late. But based on what I am going to say, I figure being late is going to seem pretty small.

• • •

1/19/2017, CASA Nadine Hoffman final report on the best interests of children Gaspard and St. Chakra.

Home conditions of parents’ summary: Ava Anton provides a stable home with outdoor space nearby and a solid exercise routine and feeding at fixed times. She has secure employment and pet health insurance. The dogs are safe and well behaved when they are with her.

Derek Gaines has a clean but small apartment with limited exercise space nearby. He is often absent on short notice. His father is a loyal substitute caregiver but has his own challenges. Derek himself is suffering from early onset rheumatoid arthritis. Overall, Derek provides Gaspard and Chakra a less dog friendly and more chaotic physical environment than Ava does. He also provides them joy.

I often find maintaining objectivity with children is difficult. I now find that maintaining objectivity with dogs is impossible as witnessed by that last statement about Derek.

Will Gaspard and Chakra be healthy and well kept with Ms. Anton? Get plenty of stimulation and careful attention? Absolutely. Can Derek (and Ernest) provide the same stability and consistency that Ava does? No. Will the dogs miss them terribly? Yes.

The manual says I am not supposed to get too involved in a child’s life. That I must remain objective. Those are the rules and they are there for a reason. And I still believe in them. For children.

But the court saw fit to make me answer different questions. About what we owe creatures who will never go from dependence to independence. Basically, dogs have just today over and over again. Until they don’t.

They will never yell, “I hate you, I hate you” as you are standing in the parking lot outside the Winn-Dixie trying to remember where you left the car and then five years later at graduation, thank you for everything you did for them. A parent may have to decide whether to end their suffering and not the other way around.

And, so, my final recommendation is below. It is not unbiased although I think it is informed. It is not at all in keeping with the rules. For example, see Ms. Anton’s home visit notes, which immediately follow (I did encourage her to be as objective as possible):

Dog parent/reviewer: Ava Anton. 1/18/17. Initial visit at home of Mrs. Nadine Hoffman, CASA. Others present: Ms. Hoffman and one very, very large cat.

Ms. Hoffman has a well-maintained home with three bedrooms and a large fenced back yard in a quiet neighborhood. Ms. Hoffman is only six blocks further from the dog park than I am. There is a kiddie pool that she retrieved from the shed. The dogs love it.

Upon introduction, UFO the cat hides under the garden shed then comes out when Gaspard gets out of the pool and begins rolling in the dirt. The cat turns sideways but does not get its back up. Chakra sniffs her face and the cat swipes at her with claws retracted.

Nadine tells me this home review and her proposal for custody are all very much against the rules and that Derek or I can ask you to replace her if we want to. I don’t think I do.

Final recommendation of CASA Hoffman re best interests of children: I recommend that Ms. Anton and Mr. Gaines continue to share joint custody of Gaspard and St. Chakra. I also recommend the court appoint me as an alternate guardian in addition to Mr. Ernest Gaines. This will allow me to help out when Derek needs to travel on short notice. In addition, I suggest that Derek be required to take the dogs to their favorite off-leash park at least three times a week when he is in town. And that Ava buy more dog treats and toys.

I am sure you may have some questions for me regarding my “objectivity” and my overall analysis of this situation. If so, I plan to bring along my own two best advocates. I look forward to you meeting St. Chakra and Gaspard.

Respectfully submitted,

Nadine Hoffman,
CASA and former cats only person.

Craig Kenworthy is a fiction writer, poet and playwright. His work appeared recently in Noir Nation, Curating Alexandria and The Fish Anthology and he is a past finalist for the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. A former Montanan, he now lives in Seattle with his wife Karen and one very unreasonable cat.

The Plaid Horse inaugural $1250 Salute to the Dog Writing Contest honors man’s best friend and celebrates the emotional experience of sharing one’s life with a dog. We received a tremendous number of heartwarming, beautiful, and often funny stories about how much dogs impact our daily lives. To learn more about the 2020 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.

Originally from the April 2020 Issue.

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