A slow throb of pain signaled it was morning. A dull headache from one too many cocktails mixed with the grating pit of sadness in my stomach. The day off seemed to ridicule us. There are no days off when your dog’s missing. The tedium screamed at me. Constricted by our inability to stop, I ignored invitations to Memorial Day barbecues and focused instead on how to use our open day.
The air seemed heavy with more than just impending storms as I logged onto my email to filter through hundreds of suggestions. An email from Annmarie, the woman who’d shown up on our doorstep, jumped out at me.
She started by saying that she never emailed from home because work kept her so busy that she demanded her home life be left alone. Her email went on to say that she couldn’t stop thinking about us and had already composed a list of ways she might be able to help. For starters, she’d reach out to her radio friends and ask to have a few of the morning radio hosts get our story on air. We couldn’t have bought that type of coverage — or if we could have, it would have been far beyond the reaches of our budget. Grateful for the help and hope, I replied to Annmarie with an overabundance of thanks.
Reenergized, we decided to continue with our Memorial Day plans. Our friends, Clodagh and Brian, had offered to take us out in their van again, this time including their own pit bulls as part of our street team. First, Clodagh had to run a fundraiser for the local Humane Society at her Irish shop in downtown Elm Grove, during the local Memorial Day parade.
Desolate, we plodded our way toward the entertainment. As we picked our way through the crowds of revelers, the heat pressed down on us. A bubble of sadness surrounded me as a kaleidoscope of parade images bounced past. The colors were too bright, the people too happy, and all I could feel was emptiness.
We reached the store and greeted Clodagh. Her infectious energy and love for animals radiated through her as she told us about her fundraiser for the Elmbrook Humane Society. Reviving our spirits, Clodagh introduced us to the shelter dog she had at the store that day to help promote the fundraiser.
I laughed at the shaggy pup and missed Briggs deeply. The puppy seemed to sense my sadness as he exuberantly licked my face.
As we waited for the Memorial Day festivities to die down, we outlined our plan. Fearless Clodagh was determined to go to the worst parts of the city. Through her animal activism, she was well aware of the places where dogs were treated the worst and knew it was quite possible Briggs was there.
The pit bulls that joined us were rescue dogs, Tash and Boru. They adored Clodagh and Brian and were full of spastic energy. I took some comfort in knowing they’d be coming along, because I truly didn’t know what was in store for us. Since the reputation of pit bulls being evil too often mistakenly precedes them, Tash and Boru’s very presence would be an added measure of safety.
As we made our way deep into the heart of the city, Memorial Day celebrations turned to empty homes and emptier despair. Josh and I sat in the far back of the van and taped posters to the side walls, ready to grab them and hand off to Clodagh as she jumped out the front door at each street corner. The van cocooned us in its lumbering safety, blocking the sad neighborhood views from our sight. The dogs circled endlessly as we crept along, licking us sometimes, then rushing up to the front to peer over the dashboard.
Turning to gaze through the back window, I watched a woman scream at her half-naked toddler on the sidewalk.
“It just feels so angry here,” I said.
And it was true. This place was eerily quiet, simmering with some strange mix of anger and emptiness that clung sullenly to everything and everyone in the neighborhood. Aside from the chastised toddler, there were no children running around or playing games, no barbecue grills smoking with Johnsonville Brats. It was as if Memorial Day had forgotten this place. The people who were outside sat quietly on their porches noting the presence of a van that they didn’t recognize creeping down their streets.
We approached a main intersection. With five streets intersecting, it formed awkward angles and offered plenty of street corners. This was prime real estate for dealers and hookers to gather, exchanging insults and laughter. Brian stopped the van here. With his dark hair and tan skin, Brian’s ethnicity was indeterminable. He insisted that we stay in the van to cover him. Anxiously, I eyed the groups of bored, drunken young men hanging out on each corner. Brian could easily be just the entertainment they were looking for.
“I don’t like this,” I said.
“It’s fine,” Brian said, and with a promise to stay in our line of sight, he got out of the van. As I watched him walk away, I hoped it wasn’t a decision we’d come to regret.
We watched as he snaked his way from corner to corner, confidently putting up flyers. His bright green Irish Hurling jersey stood out like a beacon. The dogs pressed against each other, with their paws on the dashboard, low whines emanating from them as they tracked his progress. Then, promptly breaking his promise, Brian disappeared around a corner and out of our sight.
“Oh shit, Brian! Really?”
We all went on high alert, and the minutes ticked by.
“Seriously, what is he doing?” Clodagh unbuckled her seatbelt and started to climb into the driver’s seat; belatedly realizing that she should have done that the second that Brian had exited the van.
Josh stood up and moved toward the door, ready to jump out with the dogs if necessary.
“Let’s go, Clo,” we said.
A flash of bright green caught our eye as Brian rounded the corner. He passed closely by one group of young men and began walking quickly toward the car.
The group turned, and a tall man with a hat pulled low on his forehead broke away from them. He began mimicking how Brian was walking and sped up to get close to him.
Then we saw him reach into his pocket.
Acting on impulse, Josh popped the door open quickly, and the dogs lunged, barking like crazy.
“What the fuck!” The startled man jumped back, then turned tail and ran back to the corner.
“Awwww, shit!” His friends laughed and ribbed him while calling insults to the van, yet noticeably keeping their distance.
Brian hopped into the idling van, and Clodagh squealed away just as Josh swung the door shut.
“What in the hell were you doing back there?!”
“It’s fine. I’ve worked in bad neighborhoods like this all over the country. You just have to act a certain way.” Incredibly calm, Brian remained unconcerned that he might have been within an arm’s reach of real trouble.
“Um, Brian, there was a dude following you, real close, like he was going to jump you,” Clodagh said.
“No kidding? Well, I’m still here. No worries.”
Blithely moving on, Brian continued directing us towards intersections in the neighborhood until my anxiety reached a new level.
“Can we move a little farther out now?” I asked, no longer willing to put anyone in jeopardy.
As we discussed our next move, my phone began to ring. I had suspected that this neighborhood would generate a whole new batch of hate calls.
“I sliced your dog’s fucking neck and let my dogs tear him apart.”
And so, just like that, it began again.
The phone calls from children were the worst. Disgusting threats administered from angelic voices was a brutal contradiction. They seemed too young to know such evil. After hanging up on yet another child who politely insisted that he had cut off my dog’s tail, I was reluctant to answer the next call on my phone.
“Yeah, yeah. I got information on your dog. Come meet me.” The caller was clearly a child, though I was unable to determine how old.
“Excuse me?” I motioned to Josh to have Brian pull the van over.
I listened to the kid as Boru came over and licked my face gently. I stared into his soulful brown eyes and wished I wasn’t sitting in the back of a van on a hot summer day, desperately searching for my own sweet-eyed pup. As the child’s voice droned in my ear, I swallowed dryly against the rage in my throat. My instincts told me that this child was toying with us. Yet, I had learned just how observant children are. If I ignored this call, I could be taking a chance on missing out on information about Briggs.
Knowing that this was most likely a set-up, I went against my instincts.
“Okay,” I heard myself saying to the kid, “we’ll meet you. Where do you live?”
After a song and dance about where he really lived, I was able to pull cross streets from him. Deciding to make him work for it, I insisted that he meet us at a McDonald’s down the street from where he lived. At the very least, we would be in a very public spot.
“Let’s roll,” I said when I hung up.
As I’d been smart enough to pull the kid’s location from him, we decided to drive there prior to meeting him at McDonald’s. We entered a neighborhood of small streets, smaller houses, and groups of people milling around in the road, with no regard for traffic. Laws mattered little in this neighborhood. Turning a corner, we followed a car with a large decal stuck across its back window: “Cocaine Bitch.”
Stay classy, Milwaukee, I thought.
The scene, typical for this area, unfolded for us outside of the van window. People clustered in groups on the streets and the sidewalks, passing drugs around casually as they sipped beer. Drinking in public was the least of their concerns.
Dogs were conspicuously missing from this picture.
As our slow-cruising van began to gather more attention, I suggested that we move on to McDonald’s. This particular branch of the “Golden Arches” was situated on a busy street of Milwaukee, tucked in a strip mall directly across from a grocery store and a gas station. More than a little concerned that we were being set up, we decided to park across the street from the fast food joint like some kind of stakeout team.
We already had the van, we might as well run some surveillance, I thought. Both the dogs whined quietly, unsure of our plan. We had no answer for them. All we could do was wait and watch.
I laughed at the absurdity of the situation.
“I truly have no idea what to look for. Should we be looking for a kid with Briggs on a leash?”
The kid hadn’t given us a name, a description, or anything, but we did notice one young boy who kept circling the lot on his bicycle. I wondered if that was our caller. We decided to drive across the street, and after we parked, Brian got out and did a quick run through of the McDonald’s.
Ultimately, the biggest problem was that we had no way of knowing if we were being watched. We couldn’t simply interrogate every male adolescent in the parking lot to see if they had called us about a dog. We already had a target on our back by offering a cash reward wherever we went. Follow the wrong lead and we might be sorry. Or worse.
Finally, Brian joined us in the van again.
“I didn’t see anything but people ordering food and eating, and no one approached me,” he said.
“Let’s get out of here,” I suggested, as my instincts were telling me that it was just another bullshit call — just one more child thinking it would be fun to mess with us.
Sadly, such is the state of the world — the good, the bad, and the ugly. For every person who stepped up to help us, there were many working against us. We had a choice: we could either let that bitter truth break our faith in humanity, or we could continue to hold on to hope and believe that there is an inherent good in people. We chose to believe in the good, simply because we had to.
Sighing, I refocused on the conversation, which was now centering on areas we had not yet been to. My companion’s voices bounced off the van walls, surrounding me in a storm of unanswered questions. My vibrating phone nudged me out of my fog.
“How come you ain’t come to the McDonald’s?” the kid asked.
“We were there. Where were you?” I said.
“What? You went? Where were you?”
“We were there. Where were you?” I asked again.
As his uncontrollable laughter filled my ear, I quietly hung up on him.
“It was a setup by a goddamn kid. I knew it. I knew it! He thinks this is a joke.”
My rage filled the van.
The last of our daylight was gone now.
That night, we sat on the couch and tried to process the weekend’s events. From false leads to fake-outs to threatening phone calls, we puzzled over why people were so cruel.
“Okay. I understand being motivated by money and wanting to know about the reward, but why would they threaten to rape me or kill our dog?” I asked. What was the point in threatening me?
Josh thought it was a true reflection of the state of our poor, battered inner city where feelings of anger, hopelessness, and sadness were pervasive. To us, our dog being stolen was a tragedy, but for those in the violence-filled inner city, loss was a daily expectation. Guns, drugs, and trying to get by day-to-day is their reality. In the face of that, our despair over a dog was both laughable and an opportunity to make money.
In the worst parts of the city, dogs were often used for more than just protection. Dogs were fighters and moneymakers. While my own personal belief lies somewhere between the death penalty and medieval torture for those who fight dogs, I knew there were people who see dogs as nothing more than expendable objects that they can use to turn a profit.
Put to fight…put to fight…put to fight…the phrase echoed through my head.
“Aw, that’s too bad ‘bout your dog. He probably been put to fight,” was said to us so casually over and over throughout the weekend. Just a way of life, right? Fighting dogs to make money, letting them die for a few dollars more. How horrific. How sad. How terrifyingly real.
I thought back to my conversation with the homeless guys in our alley who just so happened to be some of the nicest people I’d ever met. These were my guys — a fountain of information for me. They had their fingers on the pulse of what was really going on in the city because they were out there living in it. As we sat on the couch, I relayed their stories to Josh:
“Yeah, when it comes to a dog like yours, they’ll just pull its teeth and throw him in with the big dogs. They make your dog the mark to train their fighters.”
“I hear this one guy skins cats and puts ‘em in a burlap sack. He keeps ’em alive but lets the blood drip down. That brings out the dogs’ killer instincts, and they smell the blood and attack the burlap bag.”
“I seen the neighborhood kids walking door to door with their dogs, looking at other dogs, trying to arrange fights.”
Josh stated the obvious.
“No wonder everyone there is scared of dogs. They are constantly surrounded by dogs that are trained to fight.”
I grew nauseous thinking about Briggs, with his teeth pulled, blood dripping from his mouth, forced into a corner, fighting bigger dogs for his life. That’s the problem with the unknown. I had no idea of the truth, and the possibilities sickened me.