Searching for a Dog in the Desert

No panic. No fear. If anything, what Brielle Bryson felt was very nearly a sense of wonder as she watched it all unfold from the rich, brown—Maple Sugar was the official designation and available only in the highest trim package—leather interior of her Cadillac Escalade.

She had no idea how this happened. She figured she must have caught the soft shoulder, then overcorrected and then overcorrected her overcorrection and, maybe, though she couldn’t be sure, she’d stepped on the gas instead of the brake, or perhaps she’d stepped on the brake too hard, or maybe in her confusion, she’d pressed both pedals.

Difficult to say exactly.

But regardless of whatever pedals she had or had not stepped on, the vehicle hadn’t slowed down; it had only gained speed as it headed diagonally toward a dry drainage ditch that ran parallel to the road.

Why is there a ditch here? she wondered as she sped ever faster in its direction. This is a desert. It was an odd thought to have at such a time, but none of what was happening to her was making much sense.

In a final effort to avoid the ditch, she violently racked the steering wheel counterclockwise, but the car did not obey, and the nose of the Escalade plunged headlong toward the base of the channel. Up until now, there had been no physical discomfort. The suspension of the luxury SUV was that good. But when the Cadillac hit the bottom of the ditch, it produced a powerful jolt that caused her to bite her cheek so hard, it drew blood.

And then the vehicle was no longer going down, but up. And for a moment, everything became very quiet. The horizon began rotating—90 degrees, 180 degrees—and she thought, “My god, the car is flying.” But just as quickly, the rotation stopped, and the immense, white—Crystal White Tricoat was the official paint option, and could only be had for an extra $500—Escalade came crashing to the ground, landing on its roof, which blew out most of the side windows along with the rear windshield.

Simultaneous with the SUV’s return to earth was the explosive deployment of the airbags, which pinned her briefly, though safely, into her supple leather Maple Sugar seat. The airbag deflated and, through the fractured windshield, Brielle saw the desert floor above her where the sky ought to have been.

It hadn’t even occurred to her that she might be hurt. And it seemed that she wasn’t, aside from the welt on the inside of her cheek. There was no pain, she could wiggle her toes, move her feet, her legs, everything.

But she had more pressing concerns than her own physical well-being.

For one thing, there was her Escalade. She loved the car, and it was less than four months old; it was also a lease. Her husband would be livid when he found out. And then there was the even more urgent concern of getting caught. She tried to think back to mere moments earlier. Were there any other cars on the road? She couldn’t recall, though she didn’t think so. But what about now? What about right now? There could be a car driving by, and they could be calling 911. The police could be on their way right now, she thought frantically.

And just like that, she heard a car pass by, and it sounded very much like it might have slowed down considerably before going on its way.

“Shit!” she hissed again.

There was a muffled whimpering from somewhere in the back of the SUV.

“Pinot!” she called.

Pinot, the family’s large Irish Setter, yelped then woofed and pawed his way out of overturned boxes and fabric bags emblazoned with inspirational expressions and sassy sayings: “B TIMES THREE: Boss, Bitch, Babe!” and “Wife, Mom, SHE-E-O” and “Happiness In The Heart. Money In The Bank.”

“Pinot, you okay, buddy?” Brielle couldn’t see the dog, but could hear him.

Pinot, being disoriented or perhaps terrified or maybe only because he might have spotted a jackrabbit, took off through the hole where the rear windshield had once been. Brielle saw a ruddy flash of fur as he ran off into the desert and heard his excited barks growing more and more faint. She unlatched her seatbelt and tumbled down into the soft headliner of the Escalade. She fumbled trying to reach the door handle, then gave up and exited through the blown-out window. Making her way around the car, she hopped over stones and a few scrubby cacti, and finally caught sight of Pinot out in the distance.

“Pinot! Here! Come! Pinot, come!” she shouted as loud as she could.

But the dog, if it had heard her shouts, paid no attention. Somewhere out over the horizon, after miles of parched, sun-baked earth, there was a private country club and a small gated community called Cactus Bluffs. Brielle had long tried to convince her husband to move there so they could more easily become members, but he’d refused to put their house up for sale because the market wasn’t strong enough yet. And anyway, he’d told her with the slightest bit of cruelty, you don’t even play tennis. You’d embarrass yourself out there. That had been nearly two years ago, and she’d had every intention of taking tennis lessons ever since, but had only gotten so far as buying Ralph Lauren tennis skirts and matching blouses.

Pinot continued on his course, disappearing into the desert, heading vaguely in the direction of the Cactus Bluffs. Brielle was hardly surprised the dog hadn’t heeded her calls. She’d taken him to a single obedience class when he was a puppy, but Pinot had hardly shown interest in it, and so it seemed like a waste of time for both of them. She’d still sworn to her husband that they’d finished the entire course with flying colors. As he had nothing to do with the animal and spent most of his time at work or on business trips, he was none the wiser.

“Goddamnit,” she said half-heartedly. “Think, Brielle. Think before some illegal comes driving by and decides he wants to be a good citizen.” The idea of an illegal acting like a good citizen made her giggle deliriously. She’d have to remember to tell that joke to her husband; he’d love it.

He would, however, not love that the Escalade had been in an accident. Brielle knew the damage was certainly noticeable, but she clung to some thin sliver of hope that perhaps it was largely, structurally, fine. All it had done, after all, was go into a ditch, then flip over on its roof. Sure, there would be scratches on the top, and some window replacement, but it might otherwise be unscathed, she thought, she hoped, she desperately, desperately wished.

She worked up the nerve to turn around and look at the car.

What she saw very nearly brought her to tears. No longer a gigantic gleaming symbol of automotive opulence, the Cadillac was now little more than wreckage. Even the once brilliant paint now looked dull and discolored, as if the stress of the crash had somehow made the Crystal White Tricoat turn ashen the way stress can make a person’s lustrous black hair turn gray. It looked like the Cadillac had been to the crusher, but was pulled from the machine before it could fully flatten the frame. The grille of the car, still sporting its oversize multicolored shield-like emblem, lay broken in the dirt beneath the overturned hulk, which bled coolant from its ruptured radiator—the green blood dripping grotesquely onto the mangled grille, through its chrome latticework, and into the parched earth. Thousands, maybe millions, maybe billions of shards and pebbles and granules of glass shimmered and glimmered in the sun like some mockery of diamonds.

Diamonds!

Brielle looked down at her left hand to find, in horror, the three-carat diamond was gone from its platinum setting. It had been a gift that her husband had let her buy herself for their fifteen-year anniversary. It was her favorite piece of jewelry, though she’d lost the entire ring once before. She had no idea how that happened. All she knew was that it had been on her finger when she’d met some friends at a wine bar. The next morning, the ring was gone. She hadn’t been able to remember much from the evening, and even less about her drive home, so she had no recollection of taking the thing off. But considering she’d slept in her clothes, she could only assume she hadn’t removed the ring. The next day, while her husband was at work, Brielle had rushed back as soon as the place opened for lunch, and had joyously reunited with the gem. She’d celebrated with a carafe of riesling, and had admired her ring as she sipped the sweet, silky liquid, and breathed long sighs of relief that her husband would never be the wiser.

But she had a sinking feeling she would not be so lucky this time. The only relief she felt was in discovering that the diamond tennis bracelet—her only real connection to or interest in tennis—was still on her wrist. She covered it with her hand, lovingly, protectively, like it was a small, vulnerable animal.

“My poor diamond,” she thought, and could feel herself getting emotional again as she hurried back to the driver’s side of the overturned Escalade.

She was just about to crawl in through the window, when a green, convertible Mazda Miata pulled up. Brielle had always hated Miatas. Thought they looked cheap, and there were far too many of them, unlike her husband’s Porsche Cayman.

“Are you okay?!” The driver was a woman in her twenties wearing a messy ponytail, sunglasses that looked like they were bought from a clearance rack at Target, and a flannel shirt that she borrowed from her boyfriend. Brielle could only assume she was wearing pajama bottoms, too.

“I’m fine,” Brielle said curtly, casually, as if flipping SUVs were a part of her daily routine. “There’s a tow truck coming,” she lied.

“What happened?” the woman asked with genuine concern.

Brielle concocted a story with almost no forethought, but the more she talked, the more she realized how truly great of a story it was: “My big, huge dog got loose in the back. Irish Setter. Purebred. Started jumping and barking. Loud. And then it leapt up front, right onto my lap. So I lost control of the car.”

“Oh my God! Where’s the dog?”

“What, you don’t believe me?”

“No, I just mean is it okay?”

“It ran off, alright?” Brielle said testily.

“Do you need to sit down, do you want some water? Are you hurt?”

Goddamn, she was gorgeous, Brielle observed. Probably had a perfect body, too. Brielle exhaled impatiently. “No! Leave me alone.”

“Lady, I’m only trying to help,” the young woman asked, sounding a little wounded.

“Excuse me, I’m not just some lady,” Brielle shot back. “And I don’t need your help. What I need is for you to go back to your little boyfriend’s house and make room for the tow truck!”

“Boyfriend’s house?” the girl said, appalled. “I’m an occupational therapist, and I’m on my way to the fucking children’s hospital!” She put her Miata in first gear, and took off, spinning her wheels as she left.

Brielle picked up a rock and threw it at the car. But it was a symbolic gesture; the Miata was long gone and the rock didn’t even reach the road. Brielle turned her attention back to the situation at hand. She knew damn well at least one other car had passed. Whoever was driving that, she figured, probably called 911. And then Little Miss Children’s Hospital might have also called the police, too. So she had to assume the cops were on their way.

First things first, she decided: she’d look for that diamond. Then she’d locate her pink Hydroflask—an expensive, leak-proof water bottle that could keep drinks cold for days (not that she ever kept drinks in there for days at a time). On this particular day, like every other day, her Hydroflask was filled with Sprite Zero and raspberry-flavored vodka.

With the car upside-down, there were only so many places to look for the gem. It wasn’t sitting on the headliner, so more than likely, she reasoned, it was either underneath a car seat or hidden in plain sight amidst the countless pieces of safety glass, which had broken into innumerable, tiny cube-like fragments.

The Hydroflask, however, was lying on its side on the closed sunroof. And she was relieved to see that it wasn’t leaking. Brielle snatched it and backed herself out of the broken window.

She was about to pour the drink out, but then something occurred to her: Pinot’s escape might give her the perfect excuse to get the hell out of there, away from the car. And that was important because even if she got rid of the cocktail in her water bottle, the police would be sure to suspect she’d been drinking. And she had. Not an amount that she would consider a lot, of course. But still, she’d had a very little bit to drink.

She quickly took stock of just how much.

The first thing she’d had was right after her husband had left for work. Their surly 13-year old daughter was sitting there at the vast marble island eating some Pop Tarts and reading some novel she couldn’t be bothered to look up from. Why she didn’t want to text or Instagram or Snapchat with friends was beyond Brielle’s comprehension, but it was certainly frustrating, as the girl had almost no social life to speak of, and Brielle very much doubted other kids—much less boys—at school wanted to talk literature. Brielle was rooting around the fridge looking for something for herself when she noticed that the chardonnay was practically empty. There couldn’t have been more than a quarter cup of wine left. And yet there it was, taking up valuable space. So she poured the wine into a small juice glass and tossed the bottle into their recycling bin along with six or so spent bottles of cabernet sauvignon, two other chardonnay bottles, one plastic vodka bottle, and an assortment of beer cans. She was just about to put the juice glass back into the fridge, but then she felt silly for saving such a tiny amount, so she did what anyone would do in that situation, and drank it.

After that, she’d had coffee. She didn’t like coffee, but she’d needed the caffeine to perk her up for the Sylvette meeting. So she’d made the coffee the only way she could stomach the stuff, which was with Bailey’s Irish Cream. She couldn’t have had more than the equivalent of two shots of that, and it was only liqueur, after all—barely stronger than wine.

Then she drove her daughter to school, and it was straight back home to have the girls over for the meeting. Brielle was their sales manager, and, of course, for a morning meeting, mimosas were expected. They also loosened everyone up, and that was important because she’d always told her girls that selling wasn’t supposed to be stressful, that being in the Sylvette Sports & Sunwear Squad was fun.

Brielle had needed to get them excited about these lightweight, UV-resistant, body-sculpting yoga pants and sunshirts. She’d convinced her husband to spend $3000 on a bulk of them, thinking she’d easily be able to mark up the cost by 40% and make a tidy profit. As it turned out, she’d vastly overestimated how committed to Sylvette they were, as only two of them bought any items, and it was a small handful that totaled $500. It had been a disappointing meeting to say the least. Not only had she fallen short of her goal by several thousands of dollars, she’d also splurged and, for the five ladies, she’d bought six bottles of prosecco—five and a half bottles of which they’d drunk.

They were gone by 10:30 A.M., leaving Brielle to load the dishwasher. She’d briefly considered cleaning up the living room, too, but that seemed entirely unfair to her considering that her husband almost certainly did not have to clean up conference rooms after he held meetings in them. So, instead, she finished off the remaining prosecco. It would have just gone flat by dinner, which would have been a waste.

Then it was back to work. She’d decided to take Pinot out to lunch at the Fountain Wine Bar in the Galleria. They had outdoor seating, and the dog made for an excellent conversation starter. That was key, since the idea was to meet other women who might have some interest in earning a little spending money by selling Sylvette products—supplied, of course, by Brielle. The idea may have been a good one in theory, but aside from a great deal on a bottle of lovely rosé, she’d struck out.

And that’s where she’d been driving back from when she’d had the accident. As for the vodka-Sprite, she’d always kept one in the car. She’d done it for years. It was just a little something to keep the buzz going or take the edge off.

Of course, she knew how the police would look at all of it: the early morning drinks, the mimosas, the rosé, the spiked Sprite that she’d barely even touched. They’d treat her like some kind of disgusting drunk, like some kind of degenerate, like white trash. As if white trash drove a Crystal White Tricoat Escalade and wore a three-carat diamond.

Thinking of her diamond made her want to cry again. She pushed the thought away.

Getting a DUI would be bad, there was no way around it. She’d lose her license. She’d be fined thousands of dollars. She’d lose the respect of her Sylvette Squad. She’d be unable to get around the area to recruit new members. And then there was her husband. It would be one more thing he could hold over her, use against her.

Perhaps worst of all, the court or lawyers might decide she needed to go into treatment, change her entire lifestyle. All of that because she had some prosecco for professional reasons.

No, that would not be good at all. She pried up the spout on the Hydroflask and sucked a mouthful of the vodka-Sprite. God, that was good. Sweet, fruity, refreshing, strong.

But that tale she’d come up with about the dog, that was one hell of a story. The dog got loose. That’s what caused her to lose control of the Escalade. The police would absolutely believe that. And why would she leave the scene of an accident? For her sweet, beautiful, gentle giant of a dog. What else would a loving dog owner do? She had to find the dog, rescue the dog, make sure the dog—not her, not her premium-level Cadillac Escalade, not even her three-carat diamond—was okay!

Yes.

Brielle set off in the direction that the dog had run. She took another pull from her Hydroflask. So good. And what a great product the Hydroflask was. It really did keep her drinks so cold. She grinned. This was an excellent plan. All she had to do was get herself away from the wreck, bide her time looking for the dog, and then when she was sure the alcohol had worn off, she’d make her way back to the car, and then deal with whoever it was she supposed to deal with: AAA, or insurance, or police, or all three. Then it was back home for a very well-earned glass of wine. Even better: margaritas.

And if she found the dog? Well, they’d busy themselves with a little desert hike. All she had to do was kill a little time.

On she jogged. Her decision to wear her Sylvettes was a good one. She felt like an athlete, training, working out, pushing herself, bettering herself. Rising to meet new challenges. It was an inspiring thought. “You’ve got this, Brie,” she told herself as she increased her speed. She looked over her shoulder, and the overturned Escalade was smaller now. Still no sign of the police, either. A little bit further, and surely she would be out of sight of the accident. “Come on, Brie!” she encouraged herself. “You can do this!” Her feet pounded the hard, sun-baked earth that lay beneath the shallow layer of dirt and gravel.

She wiped sweat from her forehead, and for the first time she noticed how hot it was. There was no shade. The blazing sun was high in the unblemished sky. She took another long draw from her Hydroflask, and the cool drink was like heaven. Of course, she realized, what she needed to do was just dump out the water bottle. It did her no good to keep drinking when her entire plan revolved around her waiting to dry out. Every time she took a drink, it was like resetting the timer. But she had just had two or three sips, and the drink was so good, so refreshing, it seemed absolutely absurd to just pour it out.

“Pinot!” she called, though not too loudly. She took another long drink from the water bottle. “God, yes,” she said lustily. “That is so fucking good.” The water bottle was, she could feel, only half-full by now. And it was a fair bit watered down from the melted ice. It seemed more foolish than ever to not just drink it, especially now that she was getting so very hot and tired. “Just a little further, Brie,” she pushed herself.

Once again, she looked over her shoulder to see if the wreck was out of sight, and she was surprised and delighted to find that, indeed, she could no longer see it. Just then a funny thought came to her. She remembered hearing once, as a kid, that people walked in circles when they were lost. Something related to their inner ear, maybe? Or perhaps the earth’s magnetic pull? She couldn’t quite recall. All she could really remember was that humans had a very difficult time going in a straight line. But, surely, she reasoned, she was headed straight. She hadn’t curved or turned a bit. There wasn’t much on the horizon to help orient her, but she would surely be able to sense if she were running to the right or left. As an experiment, she adjusted her direction right. As expected, she could feel the change. She course-corrected and eased her way back left. Again, her body sent her brain all the proper signals: going left now. Almost certainly that going-in-circles thing had just been one of those myths kids tell each other, like how toilets flush and water drains in the opposite direction in the Southern hemisphere. She took a drink from her water bottle, eager to finish the contents.

Wait. Maybe that thing about toilets and drains was actually right? Was it? Why would it make a difference which side of the equator you were on? Why would they manufacture toilets any differently? Weren’t they all made in, like, China anyway? Brielle giggled.

She took another sip of her cocktail. If only she could catch a slight, ever-so-tiny glimpse of the sun glinting off the Escalade, she could confirm that she had, indeed, been running in a straight line. Instead she saw nothing—only desert. For a very brief moment, she felt elation that she had successfully separated herself from the wreck. But this elation immediately turned to disorientation. The desert behind her looked both entirely unfamiliar, but also, perhaps, exactly the same as what she’d originally been running toward. How was that possible? Had she been turned around somehow? She took a drink. Which way was Cactus Bluffs? From the road, she could have pointed in the general direction, but now there was no way to get her bearings. She took another drink — a cool, wonderful drink to clear her head, which felt the slightest bit light as the brutal sun beat down upon her. Yes, the drink was good. It was so good. How could she have thought for even one second of dumping it out?

She twisted her upper body to try to get a better perspective of the view behind her. But in doing this, she must have lost her balance, or gotten her feet tied up, or tripped over a rock or a hole or a cactus.

“Fucking cactus!” she fell violently to the ground. She hadn’t even had enough time to brace herself for the fall, and so her cheekbone smashed into the dry, hot, hard ground.

She felt very little pain. That was another benefit to drinking, she thought. Dulled the pain. “Damn it,” she whispered. “My fucking face,” she groaned. “And my car,” she whimpered. “My poor Escalade.”

She should sit up, she knew, instead of just lying there with her face in the dirt. Her cheek was throbbing, and probably swelling, too. There would be a bruise, for sure, she knew. There might even be scrapes.

“Shit,” she said.

But it was comfortable there on the ground. Hot, yes. And there may very well be scorpions about. But for now, she was comfortable. She dragged the Hydroflask through the dirt and to her lips. She sucked the spout, filling her mouth, gulping the still delicious, still refreshing, still cool, still sweet drink, until she sucked nothing more than air. The spiked Sprite cooled her throat, her stomach, even her back.

Yes, it felt good there, wherever there was. It wasn’t exactly a chaise lounge, poolside at some resort where her husband sometimes took her when he had swank corporate summits to attend, but it was better than hanging upside down inside a wrecked SUV. Or in a jail cell. And even though the sun was relentless, she was wearing her UV-resistant Sylvette tops and bottoms. So that was good.

She had to pee, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering how much wine and spiked Sprite she’d consumed. It was so dry out here, she reasoned, she might as well just pee where she was and it would dry off soon enough. And anyway, she had plenty of new pants at home. She let go, and a wet warmth spread between and beneath her thighs. It wasn’t unpleasant, though it wasn’t particularly pleasant either. “Damn,” she chuckled, “dirt’s just gonna turn to mud underneath me,” she laughed.

Instinctively, she brought the Hydroflask back to her lips, and sucked, though it was empty. She chucked it as far as she could without moving anything but her arm. It landed a few feet away in the dirt with a hollow metallic sound that resembled the ominous tolling of a bell in the distance. “Way to get rid of the evidence, Brielle,” she congratulated herself. “Now remember, babe, you’re supposed to be searching for a dog in the desert. So one little nap, and then it’s back at it.”

She closed her eyes. Her cheek continued to swell, as if her body were growing its own pillow. There was so much to figure out. The diamond, the Escalade, the missing dog—hell, even finding her way back to the road. But it just felt like way too much for how tired she was. A short rest—a power nap—and then she could figure it all out. And she’d start with the dog. Then again, she reasoned, her husband hated the fucking dog anyway, and the stupid thing never listened, and their surly daughter, who didn’t seem interested in doing a damn thing but reading whatever dumb novels it was she was so obsessed with, sure as hell never walked it. Maybe she just shouldn’t bother looking for the dog, pretend like she couldn’t find him. That would make her even more sympathetic to the police. Officer, please, I looked and I looked but he’s gone. My poor dog is gone!

Yes. That was the best plan. Just let Pinot go, run free. With everything else going on, she didn’t need to go searching for a dog in the desert. Especially because that was the dog that had gotten loose in her car, had jumped up front, started barking, and had leapt into her lap. This was the dog that had caused her to lose control of the car and drive into the ditch. It was the dog’s fault. The dog’s. She replayed it all in her mind again and again, and the more she thought about the dog running around in the car, barking, leaping, wanting to play, the less it felt like something she’d made up on the fly, and the more it seemed like a real, actual memory. Yes, she could practically still hear it barking, still feel its large paws pressing into her thighs after it had jumped into her lap.

She was lucky she hadn’t been injured or even killed in the accident. And now, here she was laid out on the ground, her face injured all because she was trying to save the dog, the animal, whose entire fault this was. It didn’t even matter that the dog had run off, would probably be dead within 24 hours, felled by thirst and heat, preyed and scavenged upon by tarantulas, scorpions, hawks, and coyotes. It was Brielle who was the real victim in this. She was the one who had lost her beautiful car and her gorgeous diamond. And that diamond was not only worth a lot of money, but it also had so much sentimental value.

“Goddamn dog,” she whispered, and here it occurred to her that the dog might not be suffering and sweltering and succumbing to the heat and the predators. With its speed and agility and natural instincts, Brielle realized Pinot may have already made it safely to the other side of the horizon, out of the desert, into the opulent estates of Cactus Bluffs. He was probably prancing across the verdant, lush fairways of the golf course as she lay in the mud made of her own piss. The country club staff would see that it wasn’t some mutt, that it was a pure-blood regal breed, and they would take it in, feed it Chateaubriande, probably make it the fucking mascot. “Goddamn Pinot,” she wailed.

And now the tears began to flow. Tears not just of anger and resentment of the dog. Tears not just of pain and exhaustion and heartache over the Escalade and the diamond. But tears, too, of relief. It was good to have someone to blame. Maybe, she hoped, the dog wouldn’t find its way to Cactus Bluffs. She would never admit to wishing death on an animal so magnificent as a purebred Irish Setter, but it was only fair that it pay the price for running off, for not doing what he was supposed to do. Especially after all the havoc and destruction he’d caused. And anyway, she thought in the final moment before she fell asleep, they could always get another dog. They could always get another purebred Irish Setter. They could always get another Pinot.


David Obuchowski is a prolific essayist and fiction writer. His work appears in Salon, Jalopnik, The Awl, The Baltimore Review, Longreads, Deadspin, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere.