When I was twelve, my mother and my newly acquired stepfather moved our post-divorce family to Newport Beach, California, along with my black Labrador retriever, Skipper.  Skipper did not like Newport Beach.  Although he was living in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Southern California, his new back yard was limited to a small cement patio; coming from his former living quarters, with a back yard replete with grass and flora and swimming pool, he was apathetic to the trade-off of status and an ocean-view.  Despite his growing depression, he never lost his inflamed sexual appetite.  Even the leg of a patio chair served his purposes.

Skipper was not the only one having trouble adjusting to paradise.

Soon after our move, I took Skipper for a walk, and he chose a choice piece of lawn in front of a mansion that overlooked the ocean.  He did his sniffing thing, becoming more agitated and excited at one particular section.

His hind legs scrunched and he plopped his rear close to the grass, in position.  His legs trembled and he pushed out a green-tinted (what had he been eating?) poop, and then another, and then one more: three logs, a defecation code, pointing to the sea.  Amazingly, they were the same size, as if he’d measured them with a ruler.

Since our move, I’d made a bad habit of not bringing the obligatory plastic baggie for excrement disposal during our walks.  Along with my general adolescent indolence, it was a misguided rebellion, using my dog’s waste product as a temporary graffiti marker in the perfectly groomed, staggeringly beautiful surroundings.

Just as we were making our get away, a hand grabbed my elbow and pulled me back.

“Pick it up,” a man ordered.  He was middle-aged and balding, with glasses.

I explained that I didn’t have a baggie.

“Use your hand,” he said, shoving me, so that I had to crouch on the grass.  He continued to grip my arm, leaned over.  “Push it in the gutter.”

I begged the man to allow me to go home and get a baggie.

He wore Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, but he looked uncomfortable, as if he belonged in a business suit.  His feet were pale and his legs were hairy.

“Do it,” he said.

Humiliated, I rolled the three sticky segments with my fingers, one at a time, across the sidewalk and another patch of grass, until they dropped into the gutter.  I did it as fast as I could and I had to scoot on my knees as I moved.  The man continued to grip my arm, moving with me.

“There’s more,” he said.

I felt the tears on my face.  He was referring to the glistening byproduct left on the individual blades of grass, wanting, I understood, for me to use my fingers to pinch and slide the residue off.

Instead, I stood, and he pushed me.  Skipper and I ran.  The palm trees, mansions, and grass blurred together.  I was crying loudly.

Dogs weren’t allowed at Big Corona Beach but we went anyway.  I left my shoes in the sand, and I unhooked Skipper’s leash, so that he could swim toward a group of seagulls lolling on the current.  There were blotchy marks on my arm where the man’s fingers had gripped me.  The waves crashed around me, and I lowered my hands, so that the foam washed my fingers.

I vowed never to tell anyone, and to get my revenge.

I was going to do the old tried and true light a paper bag full of dog poop and ring the doorbell and run trick, appreciating the idea of the man stomping out the fire and getting Skipper’s dung all over his nice Italian leather shoes.

As it turned out, I was too afraid.  What if I wasn’t fast enough?  The man had really scared me. 
I settled on cracking a couple of eggs in his mailbox.

I wish I could report that Skipper and I carved out a fulfilling existence in our new surroundings, but the truth is that we never adjusted.  And one afternoon, I came home from high school to discover that my mother had sent Skipper packing.  For the best, she said, informing me only that his new home was on a farm somewhere, and that he had enough room to run and run and run to his heart’s content.  And it was that image of Skipper that consoled me, imagining him chasing all kinds of fowl and farm animal; playing an endless game of fetch; attempting coitus with varieties of things, both animate and inanimate; and, when in repose, resting in a patch of shade, and panting slightly—tongue quivering at the side of his mouth, eyes squinted—in complete pleasure.

As for me, I continued to rebel against Newport Beach, mostly in ways nonproductive.  And twenty-three years since the day I came home to find Skipper gone, I still carry a photograph of him in my wallet.

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Victoria Patterson is the author of the novel This Vacant Paradise, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Drift, her collection of interlinked short stories, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the 2009 Story Prize. The San Francisco Chronicle selected Drift as one of the best books of 2009. Her work has appeared in various publications and journals, including the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and as a Visiting Assistant Professor at UC Riverside.

20 responses to “Adjusting to Newport”

  1. AnnMarie says:

    Oh Victoria… that is just heart-breaking. I don’t know that I could avoid rebellion either… Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you for your kind words! And for reading!

  3. One can only hope that the aftereffects of Skipper’s gift lingered a long odious life for many other dog snouts to sniff out and deposit their presents (or presence, if you will) on the luscious lawn of that very foul man! Long live Skipper…… in your mind, on the page, and in your wallet.

    • I just realized I’ve been making new comments, rather than commenting on the comments of others, as I intended. Thanks for your response! I think I’ve got this comment thing figured out now…

  4. Maybe other dogs had already pooped numerous times on that spot–and that mean man just cracked, couldn’t handle it anymore, when Skipper pooped? What a jerk, huh? Thanks for the response! Yay, Skipper! Good, good dog.

  5. Ah, the doggie bag. And not the leftover-food-at-a-restaurant doggie bag. That’s one thing I won’t miss about living in the city: picking up my dog Motzie’s #2. I yearn to return to the country… particularly on those days that my dog catches me off guard and goes #2 more than once.

    When I only have one bag.

    When I’m much too far to retrieve another and still remember where she pinched the loaf in the first place.

    Enjoyed your story Victoria. I hope the guy that grabbed your arm stepped in a pair of dog shit on that lawn of his… in his bare feet, it squishing between each toe.

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    Poor Skipper. And poor you! What self-respecting adult forces a child to pick up dog shit with her bare hands? SoCal ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    What an asshole.
    I’d really like to go and kick that man in the nuts for you.
    I don’t understand the big deal about dogshit anyway. It’s going to decompose.. so really, who cares??!!
    I’m so sorry you had to have this crappy thing happen to you, but you wrote it so well. I felt so bad for you, and so mad at him!
    P.S What a cute dog Skipper was – lovely photos.

    • Thanks, Zara! The best part of posting this piece for me was foraging through my old photographs for pictures of Skipper. I’d forgotten how I posed him in photos, possibly going through some strange photographer stage, i.e. the workout photo in this essay, with visor, tennis shoe, and hand weights. I put that last photo of him at the end of the essay because it looks like he’s laughing, as if saying, It’s all good.

  8. Phat B says:

    The funny part is, you know this guy had a gardener who probably came out twice a week. Its the whole misguided anger thing in Orange County. It most likely had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the guy’s wife having an affair. I grew up in Santa Ana and later moved to Tustin, and man those people are dog nazi’s. Irvine was the worst, but I can imagine Newport ranking right up there. There is a big blue dispenser at the end of my parents street now with plastic baggies and a trash can for dogshit. They call in complaints if your dog barks a lot. My parent’s neighbors even accused them of trying to poison their dog because a rat trap had fallen into their backyard. My mom was merely killing the rats that scurried across the shared wall, and was using nothing more than peanut butter for bait. Sometimes the traps would spring and fall onto the neighbors side of the wall, which would stir them into a frenzy of passive-aggressive handwritten notes. “You’re trying to kill our dog.” Handwritten notes. Left in the middle of the night. Not even a face to face conversation. Yeesh. And yet the rest of us carve out an existence in their shadow, worrying about non important stuff like feeding and clothing ourselves, and occasionally getting down and turning this mother out. Glad to see you haven’t given in. Orange County is a kickass place if you’re in the right mindset.

    • You’re probably right about that man. Yes, people go a bit crazy over dog things, especially in the richer neighborhoods. I talked to my long time friend on the phone today, and apparently I tried to convince her to put a bag of dog poop on the guy’s doormat as well–like outsourcing my idea because I was too chicken. She wouldn’t do it as well.

      Also, we were speculating about what “farm” my mom sent Skipper to–hopefully not the “big dog farm in the sky.” Skipper wasn’t super old or ailing or anything. He was just depressed. She’s always been rather enigmatic about this whole farm thing. I’ve questioned her many times.

  9. I’ve never done the flaming bag trick; not properly, anyway (oh, look! Post idea!). But I can imagine how much you wanted to do it… that guy sounds like quite the tool.

    But yeah. People get really worked up about the whole poop issue. I’m not saying there isn’t a right way and a wrong way to deal with poop, but there’s no need to get nuts about it.

  10. Thomas Wood says:

    I took this piece as a retrospective not on your memories of your dog, or pooping, or even adjusting to the peculiar tendancies of anti-dog-poop advocacy to be a form of acceptable sublimation in Newport Beach but, instead, as a sad example of what some men can choose to do with their outfits. Regrettably, that man was probably my neighbor.

    • Bermuda shorts and flip flops? Hairy legs? Pale feet? For some reason, I imagine that the man has since passed on. But maybe he’s still around. I don’t know? I know where the house is. Maybe I should just go ring the doorbell and find out.

  11. […] else do we know about her?  Her childhood dog, Skipper, did not take to Newport Beach, where the high school volleyball coach got a little bit too active in the lives of his student […]

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