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2003-06-22 | 12:59 a.m.

One afternoon I was sitting in the trailer, on the phone to an editor in New York. It was a peak experience for a young writer and I was enjoying it at the cellular level. It didn't matter that I was nobody in the middle of nowhere; somebody in Manhattan wanted to talk to me. My friend Maxine was there, smiling at my good fortune, padding around quietly, doing my dishes. I covered the mouthpiece of the phone and asked her, sotto voce, to put Daisy out.

The editor was Georgianna "Ginger" Cohen, who is now an editorial director at Riverdeep Books, but who was at that time with Filcher & Mudd. We were talking books and I was being opinionated and funny, which she seemed to enjoy, and since it was her dime I spoke lavishly, lacing my general observations with tasty gossip and lightweight literary criticism. Though I had never met Ginger Cohen, we had friends in common, and I cannot overstate the happiness I felt over the warm and conspiratorial tone of this phone call. I was certain that we would become fast friends. After I hung up, I would surely be adding Ginger Cohen's name and private line to my address book, in pen.

It was a hot summery day and somewhere close by I heard someone fire up a power mower. A teenage boy pushed the mower around the trailer next door, hewing close to the trailer skirt, and Daisy barked furiously as he passed, straining against the tie-out cable attached to her collar. He ignored her, concentrating on his rows. She would have attacked him instantly if she weren't tethered to a stake in the yard. I had seen the boy out there mowing before, and I knew Daisy would keep barking as he made each successive circuit.

There was something not quite right about the lawnmower boy. It was something about the way he walked, and also the way he kept his head down, rigidly, as he mowed. But I thought it was nice that he could pick up a little work around the mobile home park. Make a little pocket money.

I motioned to Maxine to close the sliding glass door. Ordinarily I would have brought the dog inside, but I didn't want Ginger, representative of the New York publishing industry, Manhattanite, to hear Daisy's enraged barking. This was before the advent of long-range cordless phones, so like Daisy, I was tethered to one spot. I had told Ginger I lived in a mobile home with three dogs, playing up the trailer park for comic effect, but I wanted her to be merely amused by the incongruity of my situation, not convinced that I really was trailer trash.

Ginger had asked me about my work with genuine interest and I was knee-deep in exposition when the boy started screaming.

I looked at Maxine, who was standing stock-still in the kitchen with a frightened look on her face. "Hang on a sec, I think my dog just bit someone," I said hurriedly, and put the phone down on the desk. Outside, the boy was lying on the grass in a fetal position, crying and hollering, clutching his calf. Having taken down her prey, Daisy had retreated a few yards and wore an insouciant look.

When he saw me coming he quieted down and showed me his torn jeans and the bloody wound. It wasn't pretty, but neither was it very deep, I noticed with relief.

At first I couldn't figure out how it had happened. I had taken care to make the cable as long as possible without going over the property line. It stopped a couple of inches short of the boundary. This boy was mowing the next-door neighbor's grass, which should have kept him safely away from the dog. But when I looked at the mower, stalled mid-push, I realized that he had been mowing with the property line down the center of his path. Extra efficient, he'd been. That's how he had come to have one leg in my yard. Most people, faced with a snarling, snapping, straining dog, would keep their distance. But this kid wasn't quite right in the head. He was doing his job the best way he knew how.

I felt bad about what had happened, but there wasn't much I could do. I didn't have first aid supplies, and the boy's agitated parents were already jogging down the road to collect him. As soon as he spotted them, his wailing and writhing recommenced. I made my apologies brief, excused myself, and took Daisy inside, scolding her under my breath. Then I picked up the phone, apologized to Ginger for leaving her hanging, and told her I'd better go. Regret--you have no idea. Sorrow, really.

Within an hour there was a knock on the sliding-glass door. John Henry and Daisy pressed their noses to the glass as I pulled the curtain back and saw it was a beefy, freckled, red-haired county sheriff. My heart clanged with fear in my chest once, for emphasis. "All right, Daisy," I growled. If only Daisy would cooperate, I could get through this on the strength of the boy's having been on my side of the grass. But Daisy was never a well-behaved dog.

I pulled open the door a few inches and said hello. He said there had been a report of a dog bite, and he was required to investigate. I said, "Yes, that's right."

"Is that the dog?" he said knowingly, pointing to John Henry, all muscle and jawbone.

"No, actually, it was the other one," I said, indicating Daisy, who looked impish and feminine next to John Henry.

"Are you sure?" he asked skeptically.

"John Henry was asleep through the whole thing," I assured him. "It was Daisy." He still didn't seem to believe me, so I explained that she had been tied out, and he asked me to bring her outside, so he could see her. Here we go.

I grabbed Daisy's collar, clipped on a leash, and stepped out onto the deck with her, cooing Good girl, Daisy, in her ear as I let go. But that wasn't exactly what I was trying to communicate, and she seemed to know it. "Sit," I said lightly, and Daisy sat. Her eyes crinkled and she drew back her lips in what would have looked to anyone else like a smile, but I had seen her make that face before. Many times, unfortunately. I knew it meant she very much wanted to do something that I very much didn't want her to do, such as run madly for the cornfields or, more likely, take a big bite out of the sheriff. The thought of it all had her trembling from nose to tail. The sheriff took this for fear and, to reassure her, plopped a big, freckled hand on her head and ruffled her ears vigorously.

I tried to look calm, but I was on red alert. A stranger treating Daisy like an ordinary dog was as dangerous as me petting a black bear or a scorpion. But amazingly, she lifted her face to his and smiled her crinkly smile and licked his hand playfully.

"Did you bite that guy?" the sheriff asked her, verging on baby talk. "Did you do that? Huh? Did you do that?" Daisy closed her eyes as if overcome by pleasure, which I interpreted as her struggling to resist the now even more powerful temptation to bite him. She started to lick him a little more frenziedly, which could easily have led to "playful" nipping, so I gave her leash a slight tug and said in a low voice, "Settle down, Daisy."

Daisy glanced at me and resumed her sit-stay, complete with the wincing, grinning, and trembling. Every so often, she would look straight up at the sheriff, as if she knew this made her look smaller and more adorable. He was clearly smitten. All I had to do was explain, in an earnest, yet restrainedly adult voice, that the teenage boy suffered from some sort of developmental delay, that he didn't seem to realize the danger of entering our yard despite Daisy's hostility, and that Daisy, frightened by the noise of the power mower, had bitten him, bloodying his leg and tearing his jeans. Wouldn't the law protect me from a lawsuit if my dog, while securely tied up, had bitten someone on my property?

Yes, it would, he confirmed. Luckily, I had had the dogs to a vet for some reason and could show that Daisy's rabies vaccine was up to date. There would be no lecture today. Giving her one last tousle, the sheriff told Daisy to "be a good girl" in an indulgent tone and she licked him square in the face before he said goodbye.

"That was some acting," I told Daisy as I closed and locked the sliding glass door behind us. "Unbelievable." She fixed me momentarily with her always-level gaze, then wandered off.

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