Olive weighs fifty-five pounds and is precisely too much dog for a studio apartment. She is a five-year-old standard poodle with a profoundly red coat. I do not trim her for showing, preferring her to look like a dog. She has been with me in North Hollywood since last November when her owner disappeared into the cloud of Alzheimer’s disease. You think Alzheimer's is tough on people, try explaining it to a dog.
She is the first dog I’ve had since I was in high school. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but Covid-19 hit and Olive and I have been in lockdown ever since. Thank God for Olive.
I work from home. I have a simple Ikea desk and a better than Ikea chair. Laptop and printer and life goes on. For those of us who don’t get sick.
Olive and I walk three times a day. Once in the morning to take care of what needs to be taken care of, this on a leash and just around the neighborhood. Then in the afternoon we’ll get in the car and drive to the off-leash park for mutual exercise. I wear a mask and carry sanitizer and wipes and a book in my back-pack. When the sun starts to go down we walk around the hood one more time. Routine is good. Routine goes a long way toward tricking you into believing there’s structure and purpose and reason at work.
I’m completely aware of the fact that I’m drinking too much. That started, or at least I started noticing it back in May. My evening libation crept earlier and earlier until it entered the late afternoon. By the time I take Olive for her night-time walk I can feel the tug of the whiskey on my equilibrium. Olive does not judge me.
When you start to drink earlier in the day, it makes it possible to drink so much more before you fall asleep. I wake up about five, five-thirty in the morning in spite of the alcohol. The hangovers blend into the general dread of how bad things are. It’s enough to keep me in bed, but Olive must be walked.
I take three Excedrin, put on a mask, and walk the dog. We walk past closed stores and shuttered restaurants, keeping our distance from the people we see. It used to be most of the people wore masks, but more and more we see people without masks. What are they thinking? Are they hoping for something to happen to them?
Work takes me from ten in the morning till about three in the afternoon. I figure I’m alright as long as I don’t start drinking until after I finish my work. I imagine what it would look like to be back at my desk in the office with a rocks glass full of Jameson’s close at hand and that keeps me away from the bottle till I shut down the laptop. So far.
Then Olive and I go to the dog park and walk around for a half-hour or so before we pick a corner where I can take a bleach-wipe to one of the plastic lawn chairs. I read my book, Olive stays close. She will run off with other dogs if they swing close enough to engage her. Three or four will rush by in a high-speed parabola and she’s up and after them like she’s been swept up in a comet’s tail.
Home and drinking and microwaving something. Feeding Olive, then looking out the window. I avoid the news. It’s never good. Never.
Last night was The Fourth of July. No public fireworks shows, but there were plenty of firecrackers in the hands of the general public. The first couple of bangs happened as we were getting back from the dog park.
We’d just gotten into the apartment when there was a dull thud through the window. It sounded like it was a couple of blocks over.
Olive jumped a little, tucking her tail, and froze just inside the door. She stayed there and listened. After a quiet minute she moved into the studio and watched me make a drink.
It got worse when it got dark. Rattly snaps of smaller firecrackers, window shaking cherry bombs. Olive went under the bed which is something she’d never done before. She wouldn’t come out for her dinner and she refused to cross the threshold when I tried to take her for a walk.
Then, about nine o’clock, some jerk set off what must have been an M-80 in the alley behind the building. It thundered and echoed into a cannonade, setting off a couple of car alarms.
I heard Olive’s claws skittering on the wood floor under the bed, trying to get traction. She shot out from under the bed and charged around the room in terror. She orbited the familiar space as if she just woke up in an alien landscape. I called her name, but she didn’t seem to hear me.
She slammed the walls as she looped the room, ducking under my desk, colliding with chairs. I grabbed her as she jumped onto the bed. She was vibrating.
She whimpered and keened and shivered like someone mad with a fever.
“It’s okay, Olive,” I said. “It’s okay.”
But she wouldn’t stop shaking. She couldn’t stop shaking. And there was nothing I could say, nothing I could do, to make her stop. To convince her not to be afraid.
Why shouldn’t she be afraid? I’m afraid. Everybody is afraid. Seems to me people are either afraid or insane. There aren’t any other options available anymore.
I felt something thicken in my throat. Holding my dog I started to cry. All these months, it’s never occurred to me that this would make me cry.
“It’s okay, Olive. It’s okay.”
I held Olive to my chest, unable to know with any certainty which one of us was trembling.
Joe Gillis is a writer living in California.