Gary Prentiss has a hard time expressing himself, and when people discount him right off the bat, it gets harder. His words get mixed up and they don’t come out right.
“Sometimes people hear the way I talk and you can just tell they take the attitude they don’t want to deal with me,” he says.
That may be why he has a better relationship with animals than with people.
“I understand them, and they understand me.”
Prentiss, 58, suffered a traumatic brain injury eight years ago, when he was beaten up on a street in Wilmington, S.C.
After that, he felt as if he were stumbling around in a world that was at a 45-degree angle.
“I was seeing double for about a year. I was in a retirement home in South Carolina. My brain just didn’t function.”
Prentiss told me this as we sat in the living room of his modest, three-room house on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville — he in one rocking chair and I, in the other.
Angel, a big, white, 6-year-old Malamute peered out at me from behind his chair; in Prentiss’ lap sat Ginger, a 1-year-old brown miniature pinscher whose head is permanently cocked to one side.
That’s because she got hit by a pickup truck recently on the busy road outside his house and suffered a broken neck and skull fracture, Prentiss explained.
“I went to take her outside to the bathroom. My caseworker had just left. Usually Ginger goes to the back yard, but she went to the street. It happened so fast.”
It was a devastating moment for Prentiss, who saw the dog lying in the middle of the road, not moving. He thought she was dead.
A young man stopped to offer condolences but Prentiss was so upset he could not respond properly, said some angry things and never got the young man’s name.
Meanwhile, Prentiss put Ginger in a box and took her to the vet.
“For four hours she was unconscious and I was sitting there, breathing on her and talking to her to let her know someone was there. He gave her shots of medicine.”
Eventually, Ginger got better. Prentiss brought her home, overwhelmed with the realization that she had survived.
A couple of days later, he found a card in his mailbox. On the outside of the card was a heart and paw print with the words, “I’m sorry that you’ve lost your friend.”
Inside the card was a hand-written note:
“Sir, I am the guy who stopped by to check on you after your little dog was hit today. I live in Texas and was visiting friends there in town. The exact same thing happened to our dog, right in front of us. The person who hit your dog tried to stop in time but it happened so fast that they couldn’t stop in time and they had cars rushing up behind them. Unless a person has a dog, they don’t know how hard this was for you today. I’m sorry for your loss and pain. God bless, John.”
Prentiss was so touched by the note that he wanted me to tell his story, in hopes that the man would read it and learn that Ginger didn’t die after all.
“He went out of his way to go and buy a card and write something to me. You don’t find a whole lot of people who stop and do something like that. And I don’t know if it bothered the woman who hit her, but if it did, I want her to know it wasn’t her fault. I feel like it was all my fault. Ginger doesn’t have the brains to know that cars are killers.”
Prentiss is a gentle man, slim, with brown eyes and dark tousled hair. His animals — Ginger, Angel, a German shepherd named Mack and two cats, Missy and Kid — are his whole world, he said.
“They are shy because they don’t see people very much. But they are my family. I have no friends and no family left. I’m getting old and everybody is pretty much gone.”
“My dogs, they’re beautiful-natured dogs. I’m the type of person, because of me being disabled, can give my dogs attention and love them seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Prentiss’ life is pretty good right now, he said, but it wasn’t always so.
He grew up in New Jersey and his family moved to Oakland, Maine, when he was in high school. When he was 17, his mother died of cancer. He was so traumatized by her death that he quit school, moved back to New Jersey and promptly got into trouble.
He worked as a stone mason many years, traveled around the country and got in with some bad people. The former altar boy, Boy Scout and 4-H member was headed for sure destruction when he was nearly beaten to death on the street in South Carolina.
Which, as strange as it sounds, was a mixed blessing. It led him back to Maine, where his mother is buried and where he could finally find some semblance of peace.
“I came to Maine because it’s a rat race down there. My instinct told me to come back. I’m really glad. Maine is a peaceful state compared to the rest of the United States. There’s a lot of animal lovers in Maine, too.”
As he spoke, Ginger nuzzled closer. He kissed her head.
“Yes, Ginger,” he said. “I love you.”
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.