Sunday, July 19, 2009

Taste of Honey by Kenneth R. Lewis

Ken Lewis is a police chief, and writer, who lives in Oregon. He is the father of five grown sons, and also the proud grandfather of three granddaughters, and a grandson; Karissa, Isabelle, Keira, and Collin Kenneth Lewis. His debut crime
fiction novel, “Little Blue Whales,” has been nominated for both the 2009 Oregon Book Awards, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Awards. He is at the moment finishing work on his second novel, “The Sparrow’s Blade,” the manuscript of which he will be delivering to his agent Angela Rinaldi at lunch in Portland, OR on August 7th. The book is the sequel to “Little Blue Whales” and is another work of dark crime fiction, written from the heart.


Taste of Honey by Ken Lewis

Even though it’s quite desirable these days for many mystery authors to want to try and write “dark crime fiction,” when I first started writing I used to wonder, and worry about, why my own stories seemed to be just naturally filled with so much darkness…and pain. I assumed it was because the career I’d chosen early on in life, law enforcement, was mostly comprised of witnessing, and sometimes participating in, events that were filled with darkness and pain, and it had therefore skewed my vision of the world, leaking into my personal life like water from a chronically dripping faucet. But in 2006 in an incident of pure serendipity, I learned something from one of my sons that not only answered my question for me; it set my heart free both as a writer, and a father, forever.

From 1986 until 1998 I lived in the small town of Forks, WA (Yes, the same Forks, WA of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” teen vampire series fame) with my then wife, our five young sons, and our dog “Honey Bunny.” I was the chief of police in the small community of La Push (another “Twilight” locale) 15 miles from Forks and I worked long hours, leaving home early every morning and usually getting home very late. When I say Honey was “our” dog, that’s somewhat of a misnomer. She was the boys’, and my wife’s dog from the very beginning. I wanted nothing to do with her. It wasn’t because I don’t like dogs. I love dogs. It was the fact that with five little mouths to feed, and adding the responsibility of taking care of a sixth, I believed she would only be trouble. An added burden that our already troubled family did not need.

She showed up early one September day as the school year started, a yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mix puppy, maybe six months old, who someone had dumped in our neighborhood on Trillium Avenue; for presumed reasons which would quickly reveal themselves. I happened to be home early for once, to greet my kids as they got off the bus after their first day of school, and witnessed Honey’s opening act. She was at the bus stop too, having spent the morning hanging around my wife and worming her way into her too soft heart, and when the pneumatic door of the school bus opened with a “whoosh” and the first child, our Matt, started to come off, Honey made her move. She leapt three feet into the air and clamped her sharp, needle like puppy teeth onto a sleeve of Matt’s new jacket we’d just bought the week before at Sears for forty dollars…and nearly ripped it off his arm. Then she went after another kid, and another, her excited, playful barks mixing with the screams of my boys; first in terror, and then a few moments later, delight, when they heard their mother say they could keep her, “just until we find out who her owners are.” You can probably guess the rest. We did, eventually, find out who Honey’s “owners” were, and in the end they turned out to be the Lewis’ who lived at 451 Trillium.

The dog was a complete maniac. She was the Energizer Bunny on steroids, powered by the world’s largest lithium ion battery. From dawn until dark, she jumped, barked, chewed, chased, crapped and peed her way into the hearts and minds of our family; everyone except me. And after a week long experiment to see how she might work out as an “inside dog,” and then another week of repairing all the damage she’d done, it was dear old dad who built a dog house for her in one corner of the backyard, and then went to ACE Hardware for a steel ground stake, and length of chain, to secure her there after she had chewed through three stout ropes in a row. She was what loggers around Forks in those days called “buck wild.”

We hadn’t had her a month, when playing a game of “catch the Frisbee” with the boys in our back yard, Honey boomeranged into the air wildly after the colorful spinning plastic disc, and then landed on the grass wrong, shattering one of her hind legs. I don’t know which sounded worse; her heart wrenching, pitiful cries from the excruciating pain she was in, or the heart wrenching, pitiful cries of all five of my sons who believed to a certainty that they knew what was about to happen next: a quick trip out to the city dump, and a merciful shot behind one ear with a .22 rifle to put an end to her suffering. Instead, I took one look at the suffering faces of my little boys, and then loaded Honey into the back of my patrol car and drove her sixty miles, with lights and siren on, to the nearest Veterinarian which was in Port Angeles, WA. The price the Vet quoted me for the surgery to repair her damaged leg was three hundred and eighty six dollars, the equivalent of a thousand dollars back then, and it was either surgery, or having her put down on the spot. I told him to go ahead and do the surgery, no matter what it cost. Honey had quickly become a huge part of my kids’ lives, and having her destroyed because of money would have been putting a price on their innocence and their right to happiness as children. And besides, she was a member of the family by then. An obnoxious member of our family, but family just the same.

Eventually, there were rules for the kids which my wife and I both agreed on; at least in the beginning. Honey was THEIR dog and therefore she was THEIR responsibility to care for; taking equal turns of course. The problem was that she had now grown so large, and was still so amped up all the time with sheer puppy exuberance; she was just physically too much for them to handle. It would take two boys to “walk” her around the neighborhood on her chain, and Honey would basically drag them all the way. One day Sam, who was, I think, nine or ten at the time, took Honey on a walk by himself and ended up being drug down the street half a block by her until he was rescued by two of his brothers.

Later at the house, as we were picking small bits of gravel from his face and applying band-aids and antiseptic cream to his road rash, he tearfully confessed that he hadn’t wanted to let go of Honey’s chain because he feared “she might run away from home.” Oh God. I could only hope.

But Honey Bunny was a survivor, eking out an existence inside her doghouse that first cold and rainy winter. Rarely was she taken for a walk, or even let off her chain. By spring she still seemed as happy as ever, wearing down and killing a huge area of new spring grass around her dog house the size of an alien crop circle, the circumference of which was the maximum reach of her chain. Another topic for my wife and I to fight over; just as we had done all winter long over a myriad of other small, domestic things, made larger than real life by the
significance of hurt we each attached to them. It had truly been our winter of discontent, and, as it turned out, it was the last winter we would ever spend together.

The next fall my wife got her own place in town and moved out, taking three of our sons with her, and I stayed in our home with the two boys who hadn’t wanted to go; Matt, the second to the oldest, and Dillon, the middle boy. And, because my wife’s new landlord didn’t allow pets, Honey Bunny. I hadn’t written “Little Blue Whales” yet and couldn’t have then, not even if you’d put a gun to my head, because I know now that I was busy living it; the darkness, and the pain. I cared for my two sons the best that I could. I threw myself into my work. I
planned my escape. I shot at Honey Bunny through my bedroom window nights with a BB gun.

I couldn’t sleep then. Not very often, and even when I did, not for very long. And I NEEDED to sleep. It was my only respite, the only relief from the never ending nightmare and agony of watching my family being torn apart in front of my very eyes; knowing that we had both let things go too far and that I was now powerless to save any of us, let alone myself. Poor Honey must have felt the same way, because in the middle of the night, every night, she would start to howl; a long, keening, mournful cry that seemed to go right through me. Racked by guilt, but burning with anger and frustration, I would throw open my bedroom window and yell at her to shut up. When she didn’t, I would fire a round or two at her in the dark in her direction until she did shut up, and then slink back inside her dog house. I’m sure I hit her sometimes, firing in the dark like that, because on occasion I would hear a sharp yelp; and then she would be quiet the rest of the night. After awhile though, it wasn’t even necessary to shoot.

All I had to do was stick the gun out the window and shake it. The sound of the BB’s rattling inside the magazine of the gun was enough to make her cower, and disappear into the shadows. But Honey never entirely stopped howling. Her emotional pain, like my own, seemed perpetual.

The day after Christmas that year I filed for divorce, and in early summer I found a new job as the chief of police in a small coastal town in southern Oregon. I went to court and fought for custody of all of my sons, and lost.

Fathers who seek sole custody of their children rarely win. Fathers who plan on moving out of state, and seek sole custody of their children, never win. But I was going anyhow. I believed, then, that was what I had to. Honey Bunny was still my responsibility, so I tried to find her a good home before I moved. But when I couldn’t, I called Animal Control to come and pick her up. The Animal Control officer came to our house with his van and put her in the cage in back.

My son Dillon was pleading with me and crying; begging me not to let him take her. And once he’d driven away with Honey to the animal shelter, to be euthanized in a week if nobody claimed her, every day for that next, longest week of my life, Dillon came to me with tears in his eyes, begging me to bring her back home. He even promised to get a paper route and turn all of his earnings over to me, so he could “pay for Honey’s fines.” He was only thirteen then. A little boy with a heart so big that it easily overshadowed my own adult one; like the moon does when it swallows up the sun in a solar eclipse.

I moved to Oregon. I cannot truly describe the loneliness, the feelings of utter despair, and regret, and loss I felt then over what had happened to all of us. Like my character, Kevin Kearnes, I sought to forget as much of it as I could, and at times I even prayed that the same black curtain of repressed memory which had fallen over Kevin in my novel would descend upon me also. But thank God I was never as unlucky as he was. Oddly, the one thing that stayed vividly in my mind, and became the iconic symbol of the failure of my marriage, and what it did to our children, was the wasted life, and ignoble death, of Honey Bunny. The memories I had of her; every unkind word I had cursed her with, every BB I had fired at her, and the ultimate death sentence I had handed down to her, turned in my gut for years like the blade of a twisted knife. I was tormented by that act, I suffered for it, I cried at times because of it. Finally, I began to write my novel, and there was plenty of darkness and pain in it to go around; a little too much for some editors, as it turned out. Kevin Kearnes, like me, had lost his children through divorce. And just like me, Kearnes had been forced to move on, ending up on the coast of Oregon. But you won’t find any scenes involving the family pet having to be sacrificed as a casualty of divorce in my book. I wanted to put Honey in it; but I just could not bring myself to write about her. It was all too real.

I started this blog piece by telling you about something one of my sons told me eight years later, that put an entirely new perspective on my personal feelings about writing darkly, and painfully, in fiction. I guess I should tell you now what that was. Ironically, it came about my through my own blog that I had for a short while, but took down from the internet because I was being stalked by a local mentally ill man, and I didn’t want to give him another five gallon can of gasoline to throw on the already raging fires inside his psyche in the form of intimate, and personal information about me. In 2006 I did a short confessional piece on my blog (can’t even remember the blog’s name now) about Honey Bunny; what had happened to her, and how guilty I still felt about it. I just couldn’t keep it inside any longer, so I thought, why not do it up right, and spill my guts to the world?

The following day I received an email from my oldest son, Shane, in Washington. He had read my blog and was writing to tell me that, in fact, Honey Bunny had only recently passed away a couple of months before. A girl he knew from his high school had adopted her. Their family lived on a little ranch in the woods a few miles outside Forks and had all kinds of farm animals as well as other dogs, and even some cats, too. This girl’s family was very involved in 4H activities, and Honey had been entered in several 4H contests over the years. She had been a
cherished, and much loved member of her second family when she passed away. She had lived a good life; a great life in fact. At first, I was stunned. Then bewildered. Then absolutely, joyously, elated! This wasn’t some fictional “happy ending.” This was real life. My life. And now this one painful part of it had not only been repaired, it had been restored to me. Not every terrible thing had befallen us after all, and to me, this truly was a miracle of redemption.

Now I don’t worry about my writing so much. I subscribe to the belief that a writer should write what they must; what is deep inside of them at the time they are engaged in the act of creating. Whether it’s darkness or light, pain or pleasure. Or something, or somewhere, in between. Because your writing, like your life, will someday all come into balance for you…if that’s what is meant to be. I don’t think that we write so much for the purpose of having an effect on others, as we do because we have already been affected by others ourselves. And that even goes for little stray dogs.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story, Ken. I don't think we can begin to know the depths of our relationships with animals. I think dogs like Honey come to us for a reason, and sometimes return to us, more than once, or whatever it takes for them to finally let us go.

Pat Browning

Julia Buckley said...

What a heart-wrenching story, and how relieved I was to know that Honey got a new home!

Glad you made it through the tough times and came out stronger, Chief.