The Dog Who Really Smelled
by Colin Campbell
McNabb woke up and lifted his head: he smelled a coyote. His collar tinkled as he swept his nose back and forth into the breeze. He was in the fenced-in side yard of Mister Ink’s home on Conejo Road. He could dimly see down the canyon to the ocean, where whales were spouting.
McNabb couldn’t see all that well, but he didn’t need to: his sense of smell was two million times more powerful than a human’s. He could smell that those whales had squid for lunch. One sniff, and his neural mechanisms generated a complete worldview, just like a human can take in an entire visual scene in a single glance.
He could smell the straggly twisted oaks, dry brush, eucalyptus trees, chaparral yucca, even the sandstone boulders had their own distinctive smell-shadows. He didn’t have to think about it, it was what his brain presented to him, just like our view of the world based on the impact of photons on our retinas.
He wasn’t scared of coyotes: he smelled coyotes all the time. Any coyote would be in trouble against big old McNabb, who was four feet long and weighed 75 pounds, even if he was only 15 inches tall. He and the coyotes knew each other, and they kept away from McNabb’s turf.
At first he thought the coyote was attracted by the majestic aroma of the meats being barbecued by McNabb’s humans, because that was all that was on McNabb’s mind. But in fact the coyote, two of them, in fact, he now sniffed, a mother and her cub, were being lured today by the water–Mister Ink’s kids had set up a water slide. McNabb longed to join them. It was a very hot day in drought season, and all the wildlife on the hillside were aware of the water that the kids were splashing around.
But McNabb was fenced away from the fun. It had already been an unusual day–two carloads of visitors had arrived, and they unloaded intoxicating amounts of olfactory exuberance: filet mignon, salmon, shrimp, bratwurst, hot dogs, chicken, beans, potato salad, pasta…
It was when he heard a third car arrive that the trouble started. McNabb loved humans and he waddled to the driveway to greet them, and when the car doors opened a dog smell tugged at his memory…it was almost familiar, just on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t place it.
And then the dog hopped down out of the Cherokee–and it was another basset hound! And then he recognized the dog–it was his own brother! He’d never forget that smell. He threw back his head and sang the loud melody of the basset hound.
“McNabb! Shut UP,” Mr. Ink said.
McNabb remembered his brother getting to some food faster than McNabb could get there, back when they were pups, and there wasn’t any food left by the time McNabb got there. McNabb moved forward and growled, a stiff-legged approach, a standoff, and the other dog bayed and danced around and the man pulled hard on the leash and said, “Lance! Sit!” but the dogs kept grumbling at each other. Lance looked exactly like McNabb, except he wore a service-dog harness vest made of suede leather.
“Here, McNabb,” said Mister Ink’s daughter, Ceanothus. She tossed a potato chip onto the flagstone and McNabb scrambled to get it, forgetting Lance in an instant. Lance was on a leash, but he shut up, too, and watched the chip disappear and then whined.
“You have to watch out for McNabb,” Ceanothus said.
“Does he bite?”
“No. He steals food.”
Mr. Ink and Mrs. Kitchenbreath led the new arrivals around to the picnic table in the yard and introduced them to the other two couples. “This is Tony Abruzzi and his wife Maria, and their dog Lance. We met at the kennel when we picked up our puppies on the same day five years ago.
“I started going to the aerobics gym next door to my office a couple months ago,” Mrs Kitchenbreath continued, “and it turns out Maria works there! So we’ve been talking about our dogs a lot. Tony works at the Port of Ventura and Lance is an official sniffer dog.”
Ceanothus said, “Does he sniff for bombs and drugs?”
“No, he searches for fruit and vegetables. His job is to keep unwanted bugs out of the country by sniffing through cargo containers at the Port to find fruits and vegetables they might ride in on.”
McNabb became jealous of all the attention Lance was getting, and that’s when Kitchenbreat locked him into the side yard: he was being too rowdy today.
McNabb really liked his humans. Really, really liked them. He thought Mr. Ink’s face is the best thing there is to lick. Mr. Ink was good for treats but for real food he needed Kitchenbreath. She was away most of the day, and came home just after the freeway stink every day and gave McNabb a bowl of food. She always had something cheerful to say when she bent down and talked to him and tapped him on the nose.
McNabb knew them by their own distinctive individual smells. To McNabb, people’s smells are as distinctive as a person’s face is to another person.
He also knew the family’s human names, of course. McNabb knew 83 human words, in fact, and could correctly attach the human sound to the corresponding smell, or place, or action in his own world-view. One of his favorite words was “Beach!” and his tail wagged extra hard whenever he heard it. And he certainly knew his name was McNabb.
McNabb knew Mr. Ink best, because Mr. Ink was almost always home in the studio smearing different kinds of ink onto paper. Sometimes McNabb liked to taste the dried colors on the brushes and pens, but Mr. Ink always yelled at him when he did that. Ceanothus was 11-year old Suzanne. She was 6 when McNabb arrived, and she still resented McNabb because she had been the star of the family. Then McNabb came along and everybody paid attention to him instead of to her. McNabb shook his head. Too bad, but McNabb had a serene acceptance of his own importance in the universe. Suzanne liked McNabb okay, he knew, but not the way 8-year old Andy did. McNabb and Andy had been best pals since the first day. He smelled a lot like Mr. Ink, in a way, but McNabb thought of him as Peanut Butter.
Suzanne was quiet and reserved but she spent lots of time climbing around in the hills and always came home smelling like wild lilac. McNabb didn’t know that word but the smell, Ceanothus, that was Suzanne.
Now McNabb was jailed in the side yard, watching the kids through the fence as they frolicked on the inflatable water slide and sprayed each other with the hose. They sprayed McNabb through the fence and he lumbered away to a point along the fence only fifteen feet away from where Mister Ink was tending the barbecue and talking to one of the guests. McNabb knew they were talking about him because he heard his own name.
“I’ve always wanted to ask you, Dan,” said the visitor, “why on earth did you get a basset hound?”
“I wanted a dog that would flush birds and rabbits and wildlife for me so I could photograph them and paint them. Bassets are slow enough so the critters aren’t scared of McNabb, so they don’t run away.
“But then I got the contract to draw clothes for the upcoming new edition of HISTORIC COSTUME FOR THE STAGE, and since then I’ve been so busy I haven’t taken McNabb for a walk in the hills in a long time.”
Then the food was ready. The humans had planned to eat outside but it was 101° and everybody went into the air-conditioned house. “Carla saw a coyote!” said one of the visiting children.
“That’s nice dear, now go wash your hands, we’re going to eat.”
McNabb was left all alone, outside, fenced in, sniffing delicately at the afternoon air, savoring the complexity of the olfactory universe, pitying the poor human’s pathetically sparse sensory environment. With the humans gone, the wildlife zoomed in on the precious water. The drought was so long that it had never rained during McNabb’s lifetime.
The waterslide overflow accumulated in a few puddles and a scrub jay landed and began drinking. Bees clustered around one of the puddles. A rabbit came in for a drink, stopping to stare at McNabb periodically. Then all the birds and rabbits ran away, and the coyote appeared. She lapped up water, then crouched and sprang and came up with a gopher in her teeth and ran away up the hill.
There wasn’t anything else going on, so McNabb took a nap. He woke up once when one of the visiting kids, Carla, came out of the house. She had a hot dog in one hand but she didn’t offer it to McNabb, and, feeling extra snubbed, he went back to sleep.
When he woke, all the humans were in the yard calling Carla’s name. One of the visiting boys said, “Maybe the coyote got her.”
Carla’s mother said, “There aren’t really coyotes up here, are there?”
“McNabb can find her, don’t worry,” Mr. Ink said, and he opened the gate. “Help us find the little girl,” he said to McNabb.
McNabb climbed up the hillside following the clear, plain trail. For McNabb it was like following a foot-wide stripe of glow-in-the-dark white paint. McNabb didn’t notice that he was leaving the humans far behind. McNabb is not as fast as a rabbit, no, but he’s faster than a human, especially uphill in this rough turf.
He plodded up the steep hillside, zigzagging patiently along the shining-bright scent trail. Yes, the scent trails of the coyote and Carla were on the same track.
When McNabb caught up to Carla, she had a stick and was prodding the gopher. In a little alcove against a rock outcropping was a coyote pup, and the coyote mom was 15 feet lower on the hillside staring down at the girl.
Except McNabb could see that the coyote mom was really watching the gopher, hoping the human would go away, but never considering an attack. Carla apparently didn’t see the baby coyote.
McNabb howled and the humans below started heading toward him. You could hear them clumping through the brush and soft soil collapsing under foot, small rocks tumbling down in the steep parts. The coyote darted and picked up its pup by the scruff of the neck and trotted rapidly away. Carla saw the pup and the mom and started running after them, but Carla was carrying the half-eaten hot dog McNabb was concentrating on. He got in her way and Carla tripped over him and fell. She bonked her shin on a rock and cried and then the adults were there.
“McNabb knocked me down,” she said. McNabb ignored things while he gobbled the hot dog. “I saw a coyote, and then McNabb knocked me down. It had a baby coyote.”
Everybody went back to the house and they praised McNabb and resumed the party. Then they caught McNabb stealing again, and banished him back to the fenced yard. It was getting late anyway. McNabb smelled the owls stirring around and getting ready to ride the night airs listening for unwary mice.