Service Animals

by James Robert Herndon
“Do you know why the Americans with Disabilities Act used to let you register a snake? A snake's belly can sense subterranean vibrations like a Richter scale, and if you let a snake rest around your neck, it'll know what's going on inside you. Everything that moves: every pump, every secretion, every rise and fall, every clench and release. All of you. Spend enough time with a snake, learn how to listen, and the snake will tell you things about your own body that you'd have to pay another person $5,000 to tell you.”

JoAnn held eye contact with me as I spoke, and she made silent judgments I hoped were positive. Her line of sight dropped now and then to appraise Bruce, a rust brown rock snake hanging from my shoulders like a marbled leather scarf. I hadn't been on a date in nine years because I'd rather be alone than be evaluated by a stranger. The dropping sun coated Bruce, JoAnn, and all of the other guests in Piedmont Park with a supernatural glow, not unlike the one I saw before a seizure.

JoAnn said, “I don't know much about snakes. But I do know how it feels to value an animal that much. We're lucky, Walt.”

I was taking a risk I might be proud of one day. I'd been repeating this to myself from the moment I'd completed my CreatureCompanion.com profile, given Bruce's head an optimistic kiss, and pretended not to care that hundreds of lonely animal lovers were about to see a picture of my face and click the Don't Show Me More Like This icon. JoAnn's profile arrived in an auto-generated e-mail with the subject line “Someone Ideal for You, Walt?” In her profile picture, JoAnn had looked unsettlingly alert, her head tilted a bit to the side as she assessed the camera. She'd filled out only two fields in her profile, one word in each. City: Atlanta. Animal: Gabby. Fault-wise, I thought it was better for a partner to be cagey than to have boundary issues. But, still, Gabby… the Goat? Gabby the Miniature Horse? Worth knowing, before someone agreed to a date with you. She'd gotten the same e-mail about me and made first contact: Piedmont Park was more or less her yard, she said, and she wanted to meet in public to be safe, and how about a picnic of Bojangles' Fried Chicken and Biscuits?

“Do you not feel lucky for having Bruce?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do feel lucky, I suppose,” I said, brushing crumbs off our blanket. “I feel lucky for having Bruce in my life.” Bruce's tail undulated against my jacket lapel, and I lifted it to let her admire his iridescent scales. “I do value him. The trust, more than anything. Being able to feel a pure trust. Or as close to pure trust as you're allowed to feel. It's nice.”

The top two buttons of JoAnn's blue silk blouse were open, and from behind the third button the tarantula's leg had peeked up into view, pointing toward JoAnn's head like a landing strip of chest hair. Like a 15-year-old, I strained to lock my line of sight above her collar. “It's okay, you can look,” JoAnn said. “Gabby is shy around strangers.”

I'd forgotten how vulnerable a first date could make you feel, no matter how guarded you attempted to be. JoAnn looked like she'd forgotten too: she sat up straight and confident, but her eyes fluttered nervously toward the people passing by, as if someone might bust her for a secret crime. “Pure trust,” she said. “I like that, that's a good term. We can experience pure trust with an animal. It's so hard to trust another person sometimes, because you know they aren't truly with you. Their mind is hiding up in the bleachers watching it all, just like yours is. We're all scared of each other, so we hide up in our mind's nosebleed seats and judge the people down below.” She shrugged. “I guess it's a pure trust that's been strengthened with time, too. I've known Gabby so long. Phil and I adopted her eleven years ago, and she was our friend before she became a service animal.”

“Phil is… A husband?”

JoAnn nodded.

“Oh,” I said. It had taken less time than I expected for the jack-in-the-box to pop out. “Does Phil know where you are?”

She shook her head.

“Would he be mad if he knew?” I asked.

Her face looked as if it had frosted on the inside. “Phil died a year ago. I might have asked his permission to date again, if I'd been in the car.”

Classy, Walt. “Shit, I'm so sorry.” Classy as a wet fart in church. “I wanted to -- I'm sorry.”

Other people in the park, mostly couples and young parents, had been eyeing us since we arrived. All of the tree shade in the park had been occupied, so we'd been forced to spread JoAnn's picnic blanket out on the grass in full view of everyone. After my apology, we sat together in silence, staring at an empty Bojangles box. I pretended not to see passersby stumble when they saw the snake around my neck, glare at JoAnn with a parent's concern, and exchange a reassuring frown with the nearest bystander.

“It's fine,” JoAnn said.

“No, it's really not fine,” I said.

“Not fine at all.”

“I wasn't judging you, I'm not a judgmental person.” Unless I think I'm being judged. “When I'm nervous, stuff happens that shouldn't. I think it might be an epileptic thing.”

“Other epileptics would probably find that offensive,” she said.

“Right, see? This is what happens when I want someone to like me.”

“You're fine,” she said, in a tone that suggested otherwise. But she appeared to be smiling again. “I would tell you to relax and stop being shy, but I usually want to stab people who say that.”

“Me too.”

Gabby had emerged from JoAnn's blouse to bask in the fading sunlight on her shoulder. The concerned stares of onlookers went slack, now taking on the purely neural look of people watching a burlesque. Unaware of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the amendments made to it in March of 2011 that had turned JoAnn and I into criminals.

A well-built older man with two young girls hugging his khakis had been studying us for some time. When I checked to see if he was still there, he removed a BlackBerry phone from the holster on his belt and made a call. Bruce gave my neck a light pulsing squeeze, and I fetched the brown-orange bottle of lorazepam from my jacket pocket.

“You okay?” JoAnn asked.

“Fine,” I said, swallowing the pill dry. “I take an anticonvulsant every morning, but sometimes I need to take extra precaution.”

“Bruce warns you when a seizure is coming.”

“He warns me about a lot of things, and when he's scared like now, when we're outside in a busy place, it's harder to tell his warnings apart. I might just be tense.”

JoAnn nodded. “Sometimes Gabby will push the front of her head into my neck. She never bites. She'll just nuzzle the front curve of her fangs against me.”

To know a loneliness so sharp that any form of touch became a nuzzle: I wondered what it must be like, as if I didn't already have an idea.

“Her fangs feel like -- and I know this sounds unpleasant, but it isn't -- they feel like the round edge of two keys pressing gently into my neck cartilage. It's a massage I'd never imagined I needed. Gabby is small, and the pressure isn't strong. She does it when I'm daydreaming too much.”

I stared at the skin covering the inner ends of JoAnn's clavicle. Bruce constricted my collar, relaxed, and constricted again. “Do you ever wonder if she doesn't have anything specific she wants to communicate? If maybe she just needs to declare that she's here?”

“I don't think spiders declare themselves. They don't have to.” She brushed Gabby's abdomen with her ring finger. “That's what I love. Gabby is unmistakably here, all the time.”

“I wish more people thought about non-mammals the way you do,” I said. “Did they give you a hard time about getting her certified, back when it was legal?”

“She's never been certified.”

I nodded with sympathy. “You could file an application for emotional support animal status. I know it's a second-class rank for people who don't have a dog, but it's better than no legal protection at all. If you want someone to proofread your application...”

“I submitted one. They denied it.”

I asked JoAnn the one question that business owners and law enforcement can legally ask. It was an outsider's question, and while I no longer knew what I wanted to be, I was ready to force an answer.

“What service does Gabby provide?”

JoAnn took a calm, silent breath through her nose. “Presence.”

As a stranger becomes more familiar, what do you do? “Yeah, I bet that gets tricky on paper.” Keep on evaluating them? “I have nightmares about paperwork for Bruce,” I said. “I've been raked over the coals so many times. And Bruce helps with seizures! I can't imagine having an animal that helped with mental stuff and nothing else, the hazing they'd put you through. Any mental thing that doesn't require a straitjacket is just a glorified bad attitude in this country.”

“If Gabby were for mental stuff, I'd be all set,” she said. “I've done my homework on this, Walt. Gabby can only be a support animal for depression, anxiety, or panic attacks. I've thought about faking it. Getting a note from a shrink, filling out a form online, and off we'd go. Wherever I went in the United States, she could come as long I kept her in a cage, and showed everyone a certificate that says I'm emotionally disabled.” She began to smile. “But I know I never will, and I think I'm okay with that. Most days, I'm pretty happy to stay where we are now. We're close to home.”

Bruce's head was hanging too low. I repositioned him so that my neck evenly divided his body, and he gave me an appreciative hug. He couldn't reposition herself because he couldn't move backwards. I could but no longer wanted to. “What do you mean, presence?”

JoAnn studied me for an uncomfortably long time. I don't know what she saw, but I'm happy to know it was there.

“I'll show you,” she said.

I hadn't seen the BlackBerry man standing in front of us until he spoke.

He said, “Excuse me… Sir?” As if the snake around my neck somehow made it unclear. “You know you can't bring those here, right?”

“Those?”

His daughters took turns peeking at us from behind his legs. “This is a public park,” he said. “You can't bring dangerous animals here.”

“They're service animals,” I said.

“No, they aren't.”

I removed Bruce's old license from the plastic sleeve in my back pocket. When the man saw the phrase “I'm a Service Animal” in 20-point Helvetica across the top of the crinkled bond paper, he frowned and didn't read any further.

“I'm sorry, I don't mean to be insensitive,” he said, “but you understand, my daughters are uncomfortable, and I wondered if you might…”

“Walt,” JoAnn said quietly, turning to look at Bruce. “Will he behave himself in an apartment covered in tarantula hairs?”

“Bruce is a rat snob, he won't bother Gabby. No chance.”

“Let's not take any.” She turned to look at the man and his daughters. “We're leaving.” And to the small but growing crowd of onlookers. “We're sorry to bother you.”

Piedmont Park really was JoAnn's yard: Her apartment building stood beside the main entrance. We walked together, JoAnn holding a sky blue picnic blanket while Gabby hid somewhere out of sight, me carrying Bojangles trash in one hand and slowly petting an unsettled rock snake with the other. Silent all the way to her door. Inside her home, there were small black leather couches everywhere, and a wood floor so well polished I was afraid to step on it. In the middle of the living room stood the largest home terrarium I'd ever seen. The size of a knocked-over fridge, with a thick tree branch forming a diagonal staircase across the inside. The smell of talcum powder and Pine Sol were heavy in the air, as if JoAnn hadn't opened a window in a while. Maybe she was afraid Gabby would get away, but I couldn't picture Gabby anywhere but on JoAnn's body, in search of stable ground. Beside the big terrarium was a small one, travel-sized and made of clear plastic, shaped like a toolbox.

JoAnn knelt before it. When she held out her hand to me, she did not take her eyes off the little cage. I waited for a yes-or-no signal from Bruce, but he didn't move. Cautiously, I reached out for JoAnn's outstretched hand as if intending to shake it, but when we touched, I wrapped as much of my hand around hers as I could. Her palm felt like it had just been removed from beneath a quilt, while her knuckles, as I covered them with the ends of my fingers, felt like river rocks worn smooth and manually covered with skin. With her free hand, JoAnn carefully gripped Gabby at the waist with a middle finger and thumb, lifted the animal off her shoulder, and placed her in the small terrarium.

It is never easy: before bathing, before bed. Putting Bruce away for his own safety before I gave my body the different kind of attention it needed. At night, when I kneel to put him in his terrarium, I am kneeling before my own limits. Sometimes I think I know this kneeling better than I will ever know another person. But I am eager to be proven wrong. Bruce pours himself down my open hand and onto the branch in JoAnn's large terrarium. He curls himself into a small round rug hanging on a limb to dry. I kneel in front of JoAnn on the floor, and when we wrap our arms around each other, we do not kiss. We lay our hands flat on shoulder blades. We touch the spine dividing a long back, and our fingers quietly settle into the gaps between each other's ribs. Our fingertips remain still for a moment, eager to sense the life inside the other, and that this life is familiar, welcome, and close. We hold each other and breathe.
James Robert Herndon is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and the Clarion West Writers Workshop. He is co-founder of Equal Entry, a blog that shares information on assistive technology and accessibility law. He lives in Atlanta.

© 2013, James Robert Herndon