One of my first paid jobs was at Kelly Kennels near Dorchester, Ontario. It was also the worst job of my career.
Every Sunday, I'd awaken a free man, be driven forty minutes into another world, and be dropped off a slave. The dual countdown would begin as the engine noise from our Hyundai Stellar faded over the hill to the west: one clock ticked off the hours until lunch, while the other tocked off the time until I got to go home. Both clocks sometimes stopped, and even ran in reverse if they wanted to.
Why would my parents offer their only child into slavery every week? They had their reasons. Looking back, I'll even concede (grudgingly) that they were good reasons. For one thing, it got me out of the house--which was not the easiest thing to do: it usually required something like a cattle prod. For another, I'm sure they felt that time around Bernie couldn't help but instill some sort of work ethic into me.
Bernie owned the kennel. He wasn't a harsh man, as slave drivers go, but he was demanding in that peculiar way that only old German men can be. He also worked his ass off: one of the few people I've met in my life who worked as hard as my stepfather. (My father-in-law's another such: why is it that all the workaholics tend to be in positions of some authority in relation to me? It only throws my inherent laziness into sharper relief.)
Bernie was actually a really nice guy with an infectious laugh. But something about his thick German accent made every utterance come out like a whipsaw and he ran that kennel with Prussian efficiency. I was there to work, and by God and sonny Jesus I did it. For fifteen dollars a day I worked pretty damned hard.
There were three outdoor wings of dog runs, a long room lined with pens on both sides, and an old barn off to the left that I rarely entered, not least because Hazel the bitch-monster lived in there.
My job involved proximity to a whole lot of dogshit and Javex. Shovel shit, pour Javex, scrub and repeat. That bleachy stench worked its way into every pore after a while: I'd exude Javex from Monday to Saturday, then go back on Sunday for another dose.
Once the runs were clean, I'd go into the puppy room and clean that. Puppies don't poop like other dogs, did you know that? What they mostly do is void seemingly impossible quantities of sludge with the consistency of jelly. If that grosses you out, think what I was going through.
I still remember the morning I was told I didn't have to clean the kennel or the puppy room. Sheer joy warred with extreme apprehension: I was spared my usual grueling tasks outside on a bitterly cold day...there just had to be something worse in store.
I was led through the house and into a large empty room with an ugly shag carpet of indeterminate colour. It looked like it might be yellow, but there was so much dogshit ground into it that you couldn't quite be sure. Apparently this had been the birthing room for a large litter of pups that had only recently made its way out to the kennel proper. A sane person would have ripped up the shag (along with the subfloor) and put something else down, something easier to clean, like stainless steel. Instead, I had to--I shit you not, ha-ha--clear a space to kneel down in before I could even start in with the trowel and two-tined shit-spearer.
I must hasten to say that this room was an anomaly, and a strange one: the rest of the kennel was kept spotless. No puppy mill, this. Bernie loved his dogs. I grew to love most of them, too.
Came the day of the septic tank. I've told this story so often now that I've got it into a well-worn routine. Endless repetition has leached the tale of much of its terror, which was, of course, the intention. It was, is, and I hope always will be the scariest thing ever to happen to me: I had nightmares for months.
I was performing my standard shit-shovelling duties when I noticed an iron plate laying on the ground in one of the runs. That same iron plate had always been there and I had never noticed it before: not unusual, if you're me. I further noticed (again, for the first time) a bunch of similar iron plates leaning up against the wall of the pen, and figured (not unreasonably, I still think) that the one on the ground had fallen and belonged with the others. So I dropped my shovel, entered the run, and bent to pick up the plate.
It wouldn't budge. It seemed to be frosted into the ground.
It being summer, this struck me as flatly ridiculous, so I exerted more effort. I was a scrawny kid, but I had some strength in me: I managed to get under the plate and began to lift it up. It was freakin' heavy. I took a step forward to get some leverage and was suddenly falling.
There was not even enough time to grab a breath before I was completely submerged into total blackness and implausible cold. I struggled to find my bearings but there were none to be found: I couldn't even determine which way was up. After thrashing about for what seemed like forever, I finally, inadvertently broke the surface and oriented myself. I had fallen into some sort of dark pool. An old routine of Bill Cosby's popped into my mind like an absurd Jack-in-the-box: how long can you tread water?
Except it wasn't water I was treading: it was a chewy mixture of dog excrement and Javex bleach. I still didn't know what it was I found myself in. I had a vague idea of what a septic tank was, but had never seen one before. If asked to describe one, I would have told you they existed out in fields and had an aperture wide enough to stick a hose in but no wider: no way, I would have said, could a human being fall into one.
None of that went through my mind. I could see the sunlight, could almost touch it, but couldn't get out. The walls were slick, with no purchase to be had...
...and I was beginning to tire.
I started yelling for help. The dogs in the runs on either side of me took up the cry, and spread it around. Hearing the melee, Bernie came running from the other side of the complex to determine what the problem was. He would have seen a wheelbarrow, a dropped shovel, an open gate, a hole in the ground, a bunch of dogs going nuts...and no Kenny. Pretty easy to put two and two together: he ran into the pen and plucked me out.
Back on terra firma, I was hit with delayed reaction as I regarded the hole I had fallen into. I couldn't have walked into it if I'd tried: not, at least, without breaking something. I had, by some miracle, stepped dead center into the hole and succeeded in only tearing off a few layers of skin on my back on the way down.
After a shower that lasted until I had used up all of Bernie's hot water, I went out to the kennel office and sat, bare to the waist, in a highback chair. Bernie asked me to lean forward so he could check out my back, and he crept up with a bottle of iodine and upended it.
Neither English nor German has words to describe that kind of pain. It can only be articulated with inarticulate screams and moans.
I was very articulate that day.
I owe both Bernie and his dogs my life. As it turned out, the tank I had fallen into was nine feet deep and widened as it went down. I had been incredibly lucky: the iron plate had not fallen back over my hole...I must have given it just enough of a shove as I was going down. I'd been down there for less than two minutes: I was told later that another minute would have rendered me unconscious from fumes I didn't even notice as I thrashed around.
The only lasting effect of my septic tank adventure has been a pure hatred for the smell of bleach.
After a few weeks off, I returned to Kelly Kennels. I'm sure I didn't want to, but my parents were implacable: I had to get back on the horse. I resolved to avoid any iron plates I might see and soldiered on.
Most of the boarding dogs would retreat as you entered their pens to clean them. They'd scoot back into the indoor part of their run. Some of the less socialized animals would growl a little, but none would ever try to escape.
Until the second week after my septic tank hiatus. I opened up one pen and this little moppy thing shot out and took off for the high hills.
Grimly, swearing bitterly, I followed it. I didn't know its name, and I'm not sure it would have come if I had. I led it a merry chase around the kennel until it vanished into the cornfield that abutted the property. I tromped up and down the rows, but there was no sign of a dog anywhere.
I went and found Bernie. I can't say he was overjoyed with the news: the dog was a boarder, and its owners were to pick it up in two days. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I went home that Sunday in disgrace, expecting never to be allowed back and probably to get a hefty bill in the mail.
Again my luck held: the dog came wandering back two hours before it was to go home: just enough time to thoroughly groom all traces of field and stream off it.
You'd think I'd quit. I didn't. I went back, sure that lightning couldn't strike three times.
One sunny Sunday I was sent into the old kennel to clean a pen shared by some boarding cats. Until that day, I didn't even know Kelly Kennels ever boarded cats; had I known that, it would have taken some of the sting out of working there. While I love dogs, I am most definitely a cat person. The chance to pet some little balls of fur and strike up their purrboxes made me brave enough to skitter past the pen of Hazel the bitch-monster.
Hazel's pen was immediately on the right as you entered, which is why I went in as far to the left as possible. Hazel was Bernie's baby: a German-trained, German Shepherd attack dog. Bernie alone knew the command that would call her off once she latched on to you and began to tear you up. Most dogs don't scare me. This one terrified me.
So, as I say, I skittered past her pen and walked down to the other end of the barn. In the far left corner was the pen with the kittens: they were miaowing pathetically.
I let myself in and cleaned a couple of litter boxes. stroking the cats that wanted human attention. As I exited, one of the cats saw her chance to escape and took it. She beamed between my legs and kitty-scampered off down the barn..straight towards Hazel's pen.
Here we go again.
I took a second to evaluate the possibilities. I could run for help...but if I opened the barn door, I was sure the cat would repeat Moppy's romp and never be found again. And if I stood here much longer, Hazel--who was working up into a killing rage (never a stretch for that bitch, let me tell you) would lunge right through the bars and there'd be one less cat in the world. The choice seemed as clear as it was daunting: I had to retrieve the cat.
Knowing that dogs smell fear and that Hazel relished the aroma, I swallowed as much of my fear as I could and walked the length of the barn, keeping my eye on the escaped feline. She had reached the end of her road: a closed door ahead of her, a snapping dog to her left, a blank wall on her right, and a menacing human stranger striding towards her. There was only one way to go.
I blinked in disbelief as I watched Kitty climb four feet up a concrete wall. Hazel, growling and slavering just to my left, evidently regarded climbing cats as a delicacy and launched herself upwards. Not quite steadily, I reached out and got my hand between the cat's belly and the wall...
...whereupon she turned and sank her teeth into the webbing between my thumb and index finger.
By this point, I was a fair judge of pain. Having a cat embedded in your hand hurts quite a bit, but not near as much as iodine pouring down your raw, infected back. I gritted my teeth and brought my other hand into play, successfully grabbing the wriggling beast and getting her back to the pen where she belonged.
I'd had enough: that was my last day working for Bernie. I've since been through many jobs, but despite scads of job stress, my life hasn't been in danger since. And while my current job is occasionally cause for real anger, I take consolation that at least I don't come home each day smelling of dogshit and bleach.