The Dogrunner

“Mrs. Tuh-house-suf-ski?” he asked as the woman answered the door. She stared at him like an owl, crumbling mascara magnified by her glasses, her graying hair twisted into a topknot like a question mark. He had written her name, address, and telephone number on an index card, and while he had tried to spell her name phonetically, it was impossibly Russian. “I am the dogrunner.”

She smiled, like one of those short plump stackable Russian dolls, crossing her hands over her ample bosom. “How nice to meet you,” she said. “Why don’t you just call me Mrs. T? That’s what my students used to do. I was a middle school English teacher until I retired.”

“Mrs. T,” he said, bowing slightly, holding the retractable dog leash to his waist as if it were a top hat. “How are you?”

“I am well, thank-you,” she said, smiling even more broadly. “And you are the dogrunner. Such an evocative title!” A dog began barking from somewhere inside the cottage, apparently a large one from the basso woofs. “That would be Hunter,” she said, “your pupil this morning.”

“I’m anxious to meet him,” the dogrunner said.

“Will you be warm enough dressed like that?” Mrs. T asked, her face furrowed with concern. She wore heavy corduroy slacks under a thick woolen tunic layered over a turtleneck, the clothing emphasizing her short stocky frame.

“Sure,” the dogrunner said, “once Hunter and I are running.” He wore slim black running pants and a black nylon windbreaker, an outfit that drew attention to his slight build.

“The wind is cold off Lake Michigan,” she said.

“You have a beautiful setting here,” he said, noting the view of the lake. “It must be wonderful here during the summer.”

“It is,” she said. “I’ve made a coffeecake for us. Why don’t you come in and have a piece and a cup of coffee while I introduce you to Hunter?”

“That sounds great,” he said, “but I don’t run as comfortably on a full stomach. Could I take you up on the offer when we get back?”

“Of course,” she laughed. “I should have thought. I’m not much of a runner.” She spread her arms as if she were about to take a stage bow. “As you can see!”

Hunter was a Golden Retriever who had not matured beyond the friskiness of his puppy days. But he was obedient, standing patiently when he saw that the leash was about to be attached to his collar.

“Now you be a good boy,” she crooned to the dog. “And don’t run him too hard,” she cautioned the dogrunner. “He hasn’t been getting much exercise lately.”

“I’ll let him take the lead,” the dogrunner said. “He’ll be fine.”

And he was. Hunter considered the dogrunner dominant, followed voice commands, and accommodated himself to the retractable leash. The dog peed frequently, scent marking the route, and while the stopping and starting was irritating for the man, he knew it to be a part of doggy nature.

Hunter and Mrs. T were his first customer. He had posted notices in the town’s only grocery store and bank, and the post office. Thus far, Mrs. T was the only one who had responded. The ad had read, “Experienced distance runner will exercise your dog,” and had given his telephone number.

And he was an experienced distance runner, competing in cross-country and track both in high school and in college. He had continued to train after he had graduated with a degree in journalism, and had done well in local road races. He had thought that with the proper work he might be able to move on to the national scene.

But his running career had floundered just as his journalism work had. He lacked the discipline to train on his own, and the running group he found was really only a cheerful herd of joggers. And at his paper, he was included in the first round of cuts when the economy began to tank, as advertisers went away, and the newspaper reduced its size.

After his unemployment ran out and he had not received a nibble from any of his newspaper applications, he decided to move to Door County. He had worked at a restaurant in Sister Bay summers while he was in college, made a fair amount of money, enjoyed running on side roads, and met interesting people. He figured he could apply for jobs from Door County as well as anywhere else.

And he had made some money. Tips at the restaurant were good, and he had done a little house painting on the side. But the social aspect of his work wasn’t as good. The college age workers seemed like children, and the employees his age all seemed to be reeling from substance abuse problems and failed relationships. And then there were the foreign workers. He wanted desperately to like them, but when he tried to have conversations, there were always disconnects, like he used to have when he tried to talk with his grandpa after his stroke.

But now the season was winding down, his hours at the restaurant were being cut and many days were too cold for painting outdoors. Some professional restaurant workers moved to Florida for the winter season, and then would return to Door County in the spring. He didn’t want to become a professional waiter. This work was temporary while he looked for a newspaper position. However, until he found one, he needed to supplement his dwindling income.

And that is when the dogrunner idea occurred to him. Door County had an aging population, wealthy retirees who could well afford to pay him to exercise the dogs they kept as companions or for security. If he built up clientele, the work might almost be fulltime and self-supporting.

Mrs. T had been watching for his return and opened the door as he and Hunter walked up to the front porch. “And was he a good boy?” she asked, as if talking about a grandchild.

“Yes,” the dogrunner said, “he was excellent, a wonderful running companion.”

“Good,” she said, smiling broadly. “I have the table set. Come in and have a piece of coffeecake.”

Hunter had a drink of water from his bowl in the kitchen, and then settled down on the braided rug in the front room, lying flat on his side enjoying the sun that came in through the row of windows facing the lake.

“What an incredible view!” the dogrunner said.

“Yes, it is, isn’t it,” she said, matter-of-factly, as she poured coffee for them. “Please sit. Could I take your jacket?”

“I’ll just put it on the floor,” he said. “I’m a little, uh, damp from perspiration. Sorry about that.”

She laughed and made a poo-pooing gesture with one hand. “It’s all good health.”

“Hunter looks comfortable enough,” he said. “I feel like joining him! That appears to be a good spot.”

“He loves it there,” she said. “I used to have dogs, before my husband passed away but they got to be too much for me. That’s an old rug, and I used to tell people that while some vintage rugs get thinner and thinner, mine just got thicker and thicker. From dog hair, you know. I’m not a very fastidious person. I’m not one to be put off by a shedding dog. Or a sweating man.”

“Your coffeecake is delicious,” he said.

“I’m so glad you like it. Have another piece.”

“Thank-you. I will.”

She refilled his coffee cup. “Hunter was my son’s dog,” she said. “That’s why I have him. When my son became ill, he couldn’t care for his dog. The two were very attached. So of course I took him. Even if he is a handful for me! But I’m not physically able to take him on the long walks he needs. My son was a jogger. Before he got sick.”

“I had a dog when I was still at home,” the dogrunner said. “But then I was in school, and then in an apartment, and now, my life is rather, uh, temporary. I look forward to the day when I can have a dog again. I’m kind of piecing a life together. Until I can find a full-time job. I’m a journalist. But I’m sharing a farmhouse with a bunch of guys, really a shack, employee housing. We pretty much live like animals. This is very nice!”

“You remind me of my son,” she said.

“How is he doing?”

She began to cry, not sobbing, but tears that quietly streamed from her eyes, as if she were a reservoir that had sprung a small leak. “I have a spare room,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to live like an animal.”

“That’s very kind of you,” he said, embarrassed, “but I couldn’t. I mean, I wasn’t hinting, I was just making conversation. I’ll find a real job soon, I know. I’ve been doing some free-lancing for the Peninsula Pulse. Maybe it will become full-time. At any rate, I’m keeping my finger in the pie.”

“Why don’t you look at the room?” she said, softly. “It has a view of the lake.”

“I’m sure it is fine,” he said. “But I have to go.”

“Will you take Hunter on another run?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said, standing and putting on his windbreaker.


“Uh,” he said, hesitating, “I’m not sure of my work schedule. Could I give you a call?”

She smiled. “Of course. Why don’t you take a few pieces of coffeecake with you? I really shouldn’t eat it. I’ll put it in one of those little plastic containers.” She stood and walked toward the kitchen.

“No,” he said, “no, I couldn’t. But thanks. Bye, boy. Goodbye, Mrs. T. I can let myself out.”

Gary Jones is a writer and teacher who lives in Northern Door with his wife of many years. He enjoys reading, gardening, and running.