In 1999 my house was robbed. It was one of thirty-eight houses hit in my neighborhood that stood at the edge of Coffeepot Bayou in St. Petersburg, Florida. I had moved there only six months before to take a job as a technical writer for a company that developed home-health software. Coffeepot Bayou was a place beyond time at the end of Thirtieth Ave. North. The brick boulevard along the seawall meandered in front of old Florida plantation style mansions having huge yards landscaped with Bird of Paradise, peonies the size of tea saucers, the discordant bloom of blue hydrangea, and the relic of Spanish bayonet. Sun speckled was this passage lined with the narrow gills of Banyan trees, Palms of all kinds, and ancient Live Oaks from before the discovery of Florida, trees with their impossibly long and sweeping limbs festooned in moss, dangling down and swaying to the slightest breeze blown in from Tampa Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Over the seawall, out in the bayou were small islands of Mangrove pied with perched egrets. Occasionally, one or two would spread their wings in a brief flight, like white clouds brushed by a high wind, only to settle back elsewhere into the mound of tangled branches.
I had been saddened to tears to leave my country home in my beloved North Carolina to take the job that had been offered out of the blue. For twenty years the wild and sparsely populated area south of Chapel Hill had been my home. The last of these years spent in Snow Camp, once a small Quaker settlement from the early 1700s. I lived there on three-hundred-fifty acres surrounded by thousands more on all sides. My dog Molly and I could walk for hours and never see a road or a fence. I had a small garden, an apple orchard and a highly productive Bartlett Pear tree that rivaled Harry and David. But if we had to move, Coffeepot Bayou suited Molly and I just fine. Molly was my German Shepherd. Five months after we moved to Coffeepot Bayou, Molly succumbed to kidney failure. She was half the reason I chose the house we lived in and now there were no more morning and evening walks along the seawall and the unleashed freedom of Dog Beach, adjacent to the park. At first, in the stupor of a rough day at work, when I would forget, the absence of her tail thumping the floor as I came through the door was unbearable; there was an open pit where a living room once held her rejuvenating welcome each day; the elixir of love that every day would instantly lift all my burdens was no longer there. And then there was the robbery.
Walking into my house after work that day, I knew something was wrong, even before the shock of seeing the detached ends of the cable and speaker wires, and the vacancies that once held a television and stereo. With very few steps I was in the bedroom. The ceramic urn that held Molly’s ashes was gone; I had kept them, knowing someday I would return to the country or the mountains that she loved and there I would leave her. The knot in my stomach, the pressure in my chest expanded as I looked around. My guitar was gone, radio, lamps, watches case, clothes all also gone.
I called 911, “I’ve been burglarized, 615 30th Ave. North.”
“Are you OK, ” came the reply?
“Someone is on the way, don’t move anything.”
“OK, ” and I hung up.
All the drawers had been either thrown on the bed or the floor and emptied. Sweaters, shirts, mementos, all gone. The missing guitar was vintage Epiphone, very valuable. A cedar chest once belonging to my grandfather and all its contents gone. I went into the kitchen and all the counter appliances had been taken, the dishes and cookware. A cabinet door hung by one hinge and that was the fuse that made me explode. Being robbed violates a person no less than a punch or a kick to the gut.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The details make up quite a story, but to really understand its magnitude I should tell you more about Molly, even back as far as when we met ten years earlier. She was a pound dog, from the Chapel Hill, North Carolina SPCA. She was a black and tan German Shepherd and twenty percent wolf; she had enormous shoulders and a white chest packed with down. Her ears were large and they crowned her head royally. Being part wolf, her legs were longer than even most large dogs. Someone had spotted her on Franklin St. in the rain and put her soaked body in their car and drove her to the night repository of the SPCA, left a note, but never left a name. But it was not from the SPCA that I came to know Molly. A family in Chapel Hill selected her for their teenage daughter. Six months later their daughter went out of state to college and the family put an ad in the paper to sell Molly, which was the name their daughter had given her.
At that time I was going through a divorce, running two businesses and I had just lost a beautiful Shepherd named Gracie, who had been my friend for twelve years until she just got old. I didn’t want another dog. The inevitable reversal of role from protector to making the decision for euthanasia was not something I cared to go through again. Life with a dog is an ancient and complex weave. Over years you find they are bound to you like no other animal. It is a difficult love to lose. One week I saw the ad for Molly and ignored it. Week two it was still there and something compelled me to answer the ad. I can’t remember the name of the husband and wife there in the house that evening after work. I was so amazed at the beauty of the dog moping on the floor, her head resting on her front legs. I said I would take her. I wrote a check for two hundred dollars. The husband brought a leash and chain collar into the living room and Molly cowered even lower on the floor.
I took the chain, put it in my pocket, picked her up in my arms and drove home. That night, all night, she was sick to her stomach over and over until near morning she collapsed and I knew she was dehydrated. I called the emergency number for my veterinarian and left her in their care. I went home and finished cleaning up my house, then went to work. The next evening when I picked up Molly at the vet, they told me she had eaten some very contaminated food.
I called the people who had sold Molly to me and politely explained how Molly had been sick all night and had to be taken to the vet.
“Molly is OK now, but she had food poisoning from some food she ate. Could she have gotten into the garbage?”
“No, I don’t see how, the lid is latched because of raccoons.”
“Do you know what she had to eat late yesterday?”
“We’ve always fed her table scraps and leftovers from the refrigerator. We gave her leftover potato salad just before you came to get her.”
“Well, it was contaminated and she almost died. I had to rush her to the vet. If you ever have another dog, you shouldn’t feed them people food, it’s irresponsible.”
Now I could hear the voice on the other end of the line becoming irritated with me. I’m sure he could hear my anger at their carelessness and ignorance. There was one of those pauses meant to put me on the defensive.
Then after a long minute passed, “I don’t see how your dog getting sick is our responsibility. Owning a dog, you will learn has its challenges.”
“I’ve had a dog in my family for the last twelve years; I know the challenges and the responsibilities to watch out for their health and well being. It is not the best choice to feed dogs table scraps.”
“I grew up with dogs”, came the reply. “My daddy always fed his dogs table scraps. There’s nothing wrong with them eating what we eat; it’s better food than dog food.”
I wasn’t going to argue with this man. It was apparent he had a very different opinion and education regarding the treatment of dogs. In the country in North Carolina I had been exposed to a variety of opinions regarding the care of dogs. For many they were a part of the family and treated with respect and dignity and fed appropriate food for their biological requirements. I’d seen other dogs who spent their lives chained to a dog house in the back yard, or kept in cages except when it was time for them to go hunting. I politely wished him a good day.
Over the next six months, Molly and I got to know one another. She was wary of everything at first. Slowly she learned not to fear her collar and with the help of a fifty foot rope, she learned to come to me when I called; after that she was a brilliant student. It was as if old knowledge was surfacing and soon she was heeling and healing from whatever had imprisoned her spirit. The last hurdle was riding in the car. She feared it the most. I understood. The SPCA said she had probably been lost for weeks judging from her gaunt body when she was dropped off. I would lift her in the car and take her for walks along the river, or by the sea; I tried to outnumber car trips to the vet by a margin sufficient to make my car the vehicle to pleasant experiences.
I learned Molly was smart, not trick smart, although she would sit, stay and lie down, but those are essentials for the survival of a dog. She was protective and loyal. Camping, hiking and watching me catch trout were definitely her favorite activities. Hunkered down beside me, or on the opposite stream bank, she would watch intently as I worked a fly upstream, until the strike, and with that she would be on her feet watching the line cut the water. Appalachian trout are not very large, but Molly would follow their brief fight for freedom and then come over to see the water-glazed Rainbow or Brown trout as I removed the hook and slid the fish back into the water. We had been inseparable for eight years until that final ride to the vet, as I watched Molly relishing the wind on her face for the last time.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The police suspected there was a ring of young boys, run by a known thief name Maynard Stedham. The boys would watch houses and alert him when the owners would be gone and then together they would take everything of value in the houses. This went on for years. At last, they were caught when my house was emptied of all the things I had worked so hard to acquire. Taking Molly’s ashes was their big mistake and the accident that led to their capture. Stedham owned a house at Five Points not far from my street. He kept the grass mowed and for all appearances someone could have lived there. No one suspected what was inside the house. I didn’t even know about the house until a year later. During that time I found another place to live. I had been leasing the house on Thirtieth Ave. North. I decided to continue leasing and found an apartment on the other side of town. During the months until my lease expired, I endured the memories of my life with Molly that haunted me at first and then settled into an occasional dull ache whenever I would need to drive along the bayou and pass Dog Beach.
Almost a year later, one Saturday in my apartment I received a call from the St. Petersburg police department. I had been writing all morning in my office. It was a serene room with a balcony that overlooked an expanse of trees that stretch into a horizon, beyond which lay Tampa Bay. The room had been a sanctuary for me, allowing me to recover from several years of turmoil in my life. When the weather permitted, I opened the French doors and at night let in the calls of whippoorwills orchestrated, it seemed, with wind-swept sounds from the pines, oaks, palms, and, on the subtle fragrance of a salt breeze, the pattering of the large round leaves of the mangroves from the islands in Coffeepot Bayou. Mornings, the songs of Redwing Blackbirds, Mockingbirds and gulls drifted through the open doors as I wrote in what had become a peaceful meditation. This is where I was when the phone abruptly broke the spell.
“This is the St. Petersburg Police Department, are you the person who owned a dog named Molly?”
“Yes. She died last year.”
“Was she cremated?”
“Yes, what is this about?”
“Where are her remains?”
“What is this about, sir?” I was getting irritated with the Dragnet routine.
“Please, we’re trying to identify if we have the right person.”
“Her ashes were stolen when my house was robbed.”
“Where did the cremation occur?”
“Rainbow Bridge Pet Cemetery.”
“Could you please come downtown to our offices? We may have recovered your dogs remains. Do you know where the Police Department is in St. Petersburg?”
“Yes. I can be there in an hour.”
The only thing better than this would be if the entire last year had been a dream and I was just waking up. I knew this was not Molly as I had known her, but if they had found the urn, I could do as I always intended and spread her ashes in a place we had both cherished, our beloved mountains. I was dressed and in my car in five minutes. It was a thirty minute drive from Carillon Park to downtown, and there would be traffic everywhere. I began wondering what else they had found, my guitar, TV, stereo, maybe clothes. When I got to the police station, I identified myself and was led by a very empathetic officer to a large room with a row of twenty or so tables end to end.
“These are the items recovered in a house in Five Points from a year ago. We have the urn with your dog’s remains. You can look on these tables for any other items that are yours. Let us know and we will collect them for you. We think a lot of what was stolen has been sold at pawn shops and we are working on recovering as many of those items as possible.”
I walked and paused, walked and paused along the row of tables, astounded at the quantity of personal items that had been grouped together. It was sad. There were photos in frames of families, young and old, weddings, graduations, smiling, laughing clusters of people forever happy in those brief moments laying side by side on the white paper covering the tables, far from whatever had happened since, far from the indifferent hands that removed them to a vacant and dark house away from the wellspring to which they belonged.
There were other people walking and pausing with me. Some were crying as they discovered wedding rings, lockets, heirlooms — so many of all these lying like empty shells on a wide beach — hundreds of bracelets and watches, their second hands circling like lighthouse beacons as if calling attention to the line of searchers passing them. And there were those people crying who had stopped what they were doing, or cancelled their Saturday routines and rushed here with hope, only to find nothing.
At the last table, I turned to walk back to the office and get Molly’s urn, when I saw a small bronze figurine of a German Shepherd, sitting proud, its ears perked. A childhood poem by Eugene Field drifted into my mind,
The little toy dog is covered with dust…
and then I realized it was my figurine. I had purchased it years ago at an antique store. Now tears came to my eyes. Such small things live in us, gathered into the unnoticed spaces of our hearts, perhaps left by loss or carved out through pain. When they are gone there is a lack in us we do not always comprehend. There was no guitar, no TV or stereo, but there was this time-darkened bronze dog that symbolized all the years of unparalleled love and affection that had been mine to receive and give. It certainly belonged to someone else at one time and maybe someone after that before it was my turn to give it significance. Perhaps it is this movement that imparts the magic of such objects and gives them life. Now it was home again.
The police discovered the house full of items stolen in the neighborhood when a neighbor complained of a barking and whining dog. When they opened the door there was no dog. There were rooms packed with the personal belongings of households around Coffeepot Bayou. And there was a beige urn. In that urn was a bag of ashes with a small metal ID: Molly 31556 – Rainbow Bridge. The police contacted the cemetery and found my name associated with Molly’s ashes. This connected Stedham directly to the robberies.
It is fifteen years later that I write this. I just moved to the Arkansas Ozarks last August. Molly’s ashes are spread under a new maple tree in our front yard. Two weeks ago my sister emailed me an article about Stedham, where he filed a lawsuit against the State of Florida for abuse in their prison system. The article briefly mentioned that Stedham was imprisoned for grand theft and was done in by a dog named Molly. The small article brought back the memory of that time. The total value of what Stedham had stolen from everyone was over $200, 000. The St. Petersburg Times ran a half page story about the robberies and how the thieves were apprehended. Molly got her name in the paper and was the star of the story. Remarkable Dog Apprehends Thieves Even After Death read the headline. As I finish writing I glance up at my bookshelves. At the very top is a German Shepherd, proud, ears perked, a little covered with dust,
but sturdy and staunch she stands.
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