Culture: Stories & Lit
The day after Thanksgiving is a busy one for the shelter
As far back as I can recall,my daughter has had a special connection with animals. I remember a visit to a petting zoo, when I said, “Look at the cow,” and from her three-year-old vantage point she observed, “That’s a bull.” Or the time at a farm when a goat jumped a fence and everyone ran away from it—and she, age five, ran toward it. She had more of an affinity for animals than I would ever have. My attention was focused on the two-legged variety as I dealt with people in a fastpaced, dog-eat-dog world.
So on the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday, when most people were sleeping late, eating leftovers or catching up on their reading—here we were at the animal shelter. Since I’d taken off work to recover from the pinched nerve that had forced me to slow down, it had become our “mother-daughter” activity.
I smiled, musing on the irony, because I had thought that having a daughter would mean dance recitals, shopping at the mall and visits to the nail salon with my little girl. My 12-year-old has exceeded my expectations, but not with ballet slippers or dolls.We had dogs: a life-sized stuffed Rottweiler; small plastic dogs; dog banks, posters and robots; encyclopedias that were dog-eared.When she was eight, we finally broke down and got a real dog, our Shih Tzu, Scooby.
Holding a writing pad and a library book, I look around, smiling once again at the small wooden sign above the front door: “Pets welcome, children must be leashed.” My daughter and I are here every Friday, photographing the new arrivals and posting them on the shelter’s Internet site. She thought of the job herself, inspired by the hours she spends on Petfinder.com, e-mailing the right dog to people she just “knows” need that dog to complete their lives. She has unbridled optimism, and is convinced that there is a home for every dog and that there should be a dog in every home.
I take in what will probably be one of the last warm days of late fall on the busiest shopping day of the year, almost as important as Thanksgiving itself in our consumer-driven society. As cars pull up, the shelter’s residents bark loudly in anticipation, eyes bright, tails wagging furiously. It almost sounds as though they’re saying, “Pick me!”
A family arrives in a silver minivan. An alpha mom, obedient dad and three boys about eight, 10 and 14 is my guess —shopping for a pet? All eyes are on the family as they walk past the pens and enter the building. Then they retreat to the car. As Mom retrieves a small pet carrier, Dad lights a cigarette, scratches himself and makes a call on his cell phone. Mom exits about 10 minutes later with her carrier purring, changing the course of a cat’s life forever.
More shoppers arrive. They move like Terriers in search of prey—swift and single-minded. Some are regular browsers, as far as I can tell; some are first-timers; others are bargainhunters, hoping to snare the occasional pedigree. Volunteers help themselves to leashes hanging on the walls. I hear them sigh with relief when they see that their favorite dogs are still there to be walked. Or is it a sigh of sadness that they haven’t been adopted yet?
A middle-aged couple stops to admire and pet Sheba, a brown-and-black mix sitting next to another volunteer’s mom, who is very attached to the gentle, two-year-old female. She once confided to me that she wished she could take Sheba home, but could not because of her five cats and blind father. She herself looks like a Persian cat, I think, with her dark hair, sable eyes and sleek movements. It occurs to me that I have probably been spending way too much time here.
Sheba wags her tail, jumps and kisses the man gently. The wife bends over and pets Sheba—Please, I think, please take her! The wife seems torn and sad, and her husband smiles weakly; then they return to their luxury SUV and leave.My silent prayer for Sheba’s future is not answered. After they drive off, I find out that they had recently lost their 19-yearold son and were looking to add something to their lives. I swallow hard. At that moment, I feel a pang for all the dogs who need people and for all the people who need dogs.
The stories go on. There is the family with four carrottopped toddlers looking at rabbits, while Grandma, who resembles a Mastiff, looks at dogs. I overhear them say that they are in search of that “just right” smaller dog to make their family complete.No luck for the Irish Setter,who would match their children’s hair perfectly. Not today.
A young woman dressed in a tweed blazer and jeans spends two hours trying to find a dog, to no avail. I wonder if she also takes such agonizing time to decide on the men in her life. She is looking for a companion to provide her with company, unconditional love and lifelong commitment. She is just not sure which one. Not today.
Volunteers keep walking in—some are regulars, taking their favorite charges out for a walk or run; others pull up with carloads of worn blankets, sheets, towels and half-empty bags of dry dog food. I see goodness, hope, sadness, joy, doubt and determination in the battered station wagons and rusty pickups that come bearing gifts.
The sun is beginning to set. I call to my bright-eyed daughter, who lovingly finishes brushing an old white Malamute mix. Time to go home and say a prayer that Spotty finds his perfect family or is still here when we come the next time. But first, we must go to the store and get dog food.
Update: Six months after this was written, Sheba was reunited with her original family. Her real name was Sandy, and we found out from the shelter that she was the hapless victim of a divorce, left there by a woman unbeknownst to her ex-husband or children. Sheba’s family spotted her photo on the Internet, and they were joyfully reunited.
Culture: Stories & Lit
What are the odds the past and the present will collide on a Manhattan street?
Jasper gets four walks a day. At 30 minutes each, he is on the road two hours daily, 14 hours per week, or 728 hours per year—equivalent to the month of April—with either Mike or me on the other end of the leash.
Given the math, it was odd that I would ask Mike to join us on one of my assigned walks that Sunday evening. But Mike’s mother had died the previous weekend and a code orange terror alert, warning financial institutions of an impending strike, had attracted swarms of cops to our United Nations neighborhood. We gravitated toward the security that only our little pack, in its completeness of three, could provide.
Neither of us was alarmed when a young man with tattoos and a shaved head sliced his way through a group of tourists in pursuit of Jasper, because Jasper, after all, is an 18-pound hottie.
Those who remember the “Thin Man” series call him Asta. In my opinion, Jasper, with his intense dark eyes, more sharply resembles a cleaned-up Colin Farrell. Reason enough, I figure, not to have argued with a woman who recently insisted that he looked just like me.
“Don’t tell me,” the hipster said. “That’s a Lakeland Terrier.”
I grinned, unimpressed.
“I had one once,” he said.
I dropped my guard. The odds of meeting someone with actual Lakeland experience are slim, like discovering a WMD in Times Square. I hope.
“They’re impossible to find. Where did you get him?” he asked.
Mike did, indeed, find Jasper. I had been the holdout. Since I grew up on a farm, the combination of “city” and “dog” made no sense to me. Mike, on the other hand,
“Pennsylvania?” the hipster said. “I had a Lakeland from Pennsylvania.”
“We got him from this guy who breeds, of all things, Lakeland Terriers and Great Danes,”Mike said.“His name is M. J.…”
“…Cohen,” the hipster completed.
“I got a puppy a couple of years ago from him. Weird, huh?”
We nodded. Weird.
“Had to give him up though,” he shrugged, “for work.”
The only way I could imagine giving up Jasper would be in a Sophie’s Choice moment of desperation. When Mike returned from his mother’s side for the last time a week earlier and collapsed, exhausted by the weight of her illness, Jasper, in an atypically affectionate move, jumped squarely upon his chest and began to lick his face. Proving that dogs often know what to do when people do not.
The hipster bent down to Jasper, but his girlfriend remained standing. She studied Jasper, carefully.
And then I did the math.
The hipster said that he got a puppy two years ago. Mike and I got Jasper one year ago…shortly after his first birthday. My ears buzzed, but not from the hovering helicopters. How had threats of terror, about which I could do nothing, blinded me to the clear and present danger crouched before me on the street, intimately caressing my dog’s ears?
I considered the options. I could: (1) remain silent and pray to be wrong; (2) make a preemptive strike, grab Jasper and run; or, (3) blow our cover.
“I think this little guy was yours,” I said, blowing our cover.
“You still call him Jasper?” the hipster asked.
I wondered if option two was still available.
“Well, of course,”Mike said.“He’ll always be Jasper. We could never change that.”
The hipster’s girlfriend looked nervously from the hipster to Mike. “This is weird,” she repeated. “He looks so different. I didn’t recognize him at first.”
Define “so different,” I thought, giving her the look.
The breeder had said that Jasper’s original owner was a photographer who had lived in New York before taking an assignment abroad.
“Oh, little buddy,” the hipster said. Jasper wagged his tail.Now I gave Jasper the look.
Mike and I had often imagined a version of this scene—the “deranged-birthfather- who-stalks-us-for-months-before- eventually-abducting-Jasper” scenario—in vivid, apocalyptic detail. Looking down upon the two of them, however, the hipster did not appear to be a dognapper.
Which could also mean that he was a very clever dognapper.
“It must have been so hard to give him up,” I said. The schmaltz was involuntary at this point.
The angle of the hipster’s head kept the tears pooled in his eyes until he stood and looked down at Jasper before gazing into the distance.
My grip tightened on Jasper’s leash.
“You guys have done a great job with him,” he said, finally.“He’s very happy.”
The hipster was not happy. He extended his hand to each of us. I said nothing in fear of suggesting visitation rights. He and his girlfriend continued down the street. Jasper did not put up a fuss, thank god.
Mike and I reached the end of the block before either one of us dared to look at the other, before we spoke and turned around, slowly, to see if the hipster was following us.
Clean Run Productions, $19.95
Kudos to Winter and the publisher for putting together this absolutely clear and well-illustrated book.Not only is it functional, but, with its more than 125 color photos and clean layout, it’s also attractive and fun to read. As its subtitle—Taking the Mystery Out of Massaging Your Dog —proclaims, it gives us the tools we need to help our dogs relax and feel better. Give your dog a full-body massage or, if time prohibits, a quick pick-me-up. The information is presented step-by-step in sections, so you can choose what works for the specific situation literally at hand.
Culture: Stories & Lit
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised, and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But indeed it was not real education, it was only show; she got the words by listening in the dining room and drawing room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble.
If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious; and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this, but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was.
By and by when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency-word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way—that was the word Synonymous.
When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down the wind on another tack and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash-in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment—but only just a moment—then it would belly out taut and full and she would say as calm as a summer’s day, “it’s synonymous with supererogation” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison, and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.
A young family undertakes a cross-Canada adventure to visit literary legend, Farley Mowat.
In 2007, with their two year- old son Zev and pup Willow in tow, the couple undertook a third excursion, this time to see the venerable writer and environmentalist, Farley Mowat. Heuer has said that it was through Mowat’s books—Owls in the Family, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing among them—that he learned about Canadian wildlife and threats to it, as well as gained a better understanding of his country.
When Mowat extended an invitation to visit him and his wife Claire at their Cape Breton farm, the couple—along with Zev and Willow—literally launched themselves on what turned out to be a five-month trans-Canadian odyssey, setting off by canoe from their home in Canmore, Alberta, and following a route that took them through the settings of some of Mowat’s iconic stories. From this, Allison created a feature-length documentary, Finding Farley, and Heuer is working on a book of the same name.
In 2005, we talked with Heuer about his Yellowstoneto- Yukon (Y2Y) trek, and when we learned that he had made yet another incredible dogenhanced journey—with a two-year-old child, no less— we made it a point to find out more.
Bark: On your 1998 Y2Y expedition, you were accompanied by Webster, a Border Collie mix. Is Willow his successor?
B: How does Willow compare to Webster as a trail partner?
B: What kind of relationship does your son Zev have with Willow?
B: In retrospect, what would you say was the primary benefit of traveling as you did?
B: From the philosophical to the practical, tell us how you taught Willow to ride in the canoe, and how she occupied her time while she was in it.
B: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the trip? KH: Managing Willow and Zev. They’d be clambering around—he’d be stepping on her or she’d be stepping on him. Sometimes all Leanne and I wanted was just some peace and quiet, but that wasn’t usually an option. The bugs were another challenge. When the flies got bad, we couldn’t do much for Willow. Some of the travel arrangements were also an issue. For the maritime section— 30 hours from one land mass to the next—we lucked upon a perfect guy who was willing to take us on board. He was a total dog lover and didn’t object to having Willow on his ship, or to the accommodations we felt she needed. We made little bouquets of spruce branches and grass and left them in out-of-the way places so Willow would have something familiar to go on if she needed to.
B: Were you surprised by anything that Willow did?
B: Did having Willow along enhance the trip in other ways?
B: How would you compare the Y2Y experience and this trip?
B: Tell us about Farley and dogs.
B: What’s next? Are there more “incredible journeys” on the horizon?
Culture: Stories & Lit
My wife finished her first set of chemotherapy in 2002. They were aggressive drugs, and Genie fought hard. In the spring, cancer’s grip was finally broken. We thought we could rest easy.
Then something odd occurred, something cold.
Cancer took Wylie, our first sweet dog, the summer of 2002. Cancer took Ruby, our tall red dog, the following year. And when Jackson — a bigger, stronger dog — died a few years later, he too was riddled with cancer. Our first three. Gone.
They had all stayed by Genie’s side — as close as close can be — as she battled cancer in 2001 and into 2002. As jumbled and full of distractions as that period of time was, their eyes never lost sight of Genie.
Is it possible, as Genie and I believe, that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live?
I know — too dramatic, too outlandish. No way could that be. Besides, cancer isn’t contagious. Good point, I guess.
There are few things any of us know with certainty.
I know a few things. Dogs are funny. They aren’t selfish. They are loyal. They ask no questions. They never doubt. They stand by our side as the world spins, as the world darkens, as the winds howl.
Sometimes you wonder why. Is it merely because we house them, pet them, feed them? Or is it something more? Could it be something more?
We speak of devotion when we speak of people. There are devoted people, and people in blissful love. What a beautiful thing, devotion. And how sweet deep love, which leads to devotion. It’s what we all want out of life — to be loved. To have someone there when darkness falls, and to warm us when it turns cold, as the world does from time to time.
The thing about people is that sometimes they hesitate. They may come around, they may love, they may be devoted, but, sometimes, maybe for only a fraction of a second, they’ll hesitate when times turn tough. They’ll blink.
Dogs don’t hesitate. They stand by our side, no matter the odds, the reason, the depth of cold. If we step into the blackest of nights, they step with us, and sometimes — most of the time — they take the first step.
And no matter their size — from the smallest to the largest — they’ll do what needs to be done to safeguard their human companion — their friend — even if it means giving their life. They don’t weigh the odds, or ask any questions. Dogs are selfless.
Maybe Genie and I are luckier than some, but we’ve known a number of devoted dogs.
We’ve seen three fall to cancer. Yes, I don’t know for certain that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live. But from the depths of my heart, that’s what I believe. They loved Genie that much, that’s what I know. And here’s one more thing: If they bought her but a mere minute more of life and time, they’d be happy.
I’ve seen and touched and felt such tremendous love.
Devotion. A truer sounding word I can’t name.
Author of Marcus of Umbria
We talk with Justine van der Leun about her new book Marcus of Umbria—a Bark Summer Reads pick. Deciding to leave the big city and a good magazine job, she packs it all in to live in a very small Italian village and a chance at love. What she finds instead, and where she finds it, makes for charming storytelling.
Bark: What compelled you to leave your NY city life and venture out to a (very) small village in Italy? And why that particular village?
Justine van der Leun: For love, of course! Or perhaps lust is more accurate. I had gone to Collelungo, on vacation, and while I was there, I fell helplessly for a local gardener named Emanuele. The stereotype of the seductive Italian exists for a reason. After just three weeks, I wanted to live with him in his tiny, rural town. I was working with a businessman on a memoir about Italian wine, so it was convenient for me to settle there. I returned to New York, sublet out my place, and booked a one-way ticket back.
B: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about the villagers’ attitudes towards animals? Had you expected that?
J: Collelungo was an ancient farming culture and the people had endured centuries of dire poverty. Though this generation is relatively comfortable, the people of Collelungo, like most farming cultures, have an old-world approach to animals. For them, animals are a means of survival. They raise everything by hand—the opposite of factory farming. Because of this, farm animals like sheep, cows, and pigs roam free on untouched land. On the other hand, horses were for casual sport, and the training techniques were, to say the least, not progressive; and cats were feral and expected to fend for themselves. Dogs were caged out back and used to hunt. The idea of having a dog inside disgusted people. In Collelungo, there was little concept of an animal’s emotional life; the mere idea was absurd to them. But even in that society, there were exceptions: People who adored their dogs; who spoiled their horses; who fed and coddled kittens.
B: Marcus is a English Pointer, a dog with an “intense” connection to everything around her, how did she redefine or refocus your own connection to nature?
J: Marcus changed everything. I’ve been watching her stalk and chase birds and bunnies and squirrels for four years now, and it never gets old. Before I met Marcus, I had no relationship with the outside world. I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by natural beauty, but all I wanted was to read indoors and move to New York City. But once I found Marcus in Italy, I began to walk in the woods, to look at the trees, to climb hills and ride horses. At first, I did it to see her joy, but soon I was able to feel my own joy. Now, even though we’re back in the states, I am nearly unrecognizable to myself: I run with Marcus in the morning, hike with her through parks and forests, take long strolls down the beach. We just spent a day canoeing on the Delaware Water Gap. I see nature from her perspective, as something right and necessary.
B: Since you rehabilitated a dog who was kept (if you can call it that) just for sport and had little human contact outside of the hunt, what affect did this have on you? Did it change how you viewed the human/dog bond? Did it alter your view of different cultures and how they treated their animals?
J: I rehabilitated Marcus with the help of a very generous behavioral therapist named Nikki Wood, whom I called crying when I returned to the States. I was at a loss for how to live with Marcus, who, because she lacked socialization and had been mistreated, trembled and ran whenever she saw a stranger or heard a loud noise. Nikki sensed that Marcus and I had a special connection and agreed to work with us as long as I would put in the effort. Did I ever! Training Marcus for nearly two years, I got a crash course in dog-human interaction. We think we know about our dogs, but we’re really so uninformed. I read all of Patricia McConnell’s books and really delved into the brain and heart of the dog, which was fascinating. I still have much to learn, but my new, more intricate understanding of her has really bonded us. I’ve seen such tremendous improvement in Marcus, who has overcome most of her fears. She will never be that super-confident dog with a great puppyhood, but she can now accomplish nearly anything. She’s more resilient than I could have imagined.
B: You weren’t expecting to meet up with the dog-of-your-heart when you went to Italy. If Marcus hadn’t come along, how differently do you think your experience there would have been? Would you have come home sooner or later? Do you think you could have settled there permanently?
J: I would have been home in two months, and that would have been a shame. I was wildly lonely and unfocused at first, living in such a remote foreign place. My relationship with Emanuele wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep me there. But when I found Marcus, I couldn’t leave her. Her existence also made me wonder what other surprises lay in store for me—and there were many! Marcus acted as my unwitting anchor and my little spotted tour guide. Because of her, I had the most illuminating year of my life so far.
Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog
With so many new books making their way to my desk, there is a special one to recommend—Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, a memoir by Susannah Charleson. Readers ride along with Charleson’s canine partner, Puzzle, a rambunctious, delightful and very smart Golden Retriever, from the moment the pup enters her life and through her training. With wit, charm and a deep understanding of dogs, Charleson’s story about her dog, and their long road together towards a fully collaborative partnership, is a revelation and joy. Look for an excerpt in our next issue!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Caring for two loves
I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help all sorts of people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of who I am responsible for, truly responsible for, the list whittles down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.
Rose is white with ginger ears and an extremely alert tail. She weighs 17 pounds even though she should probably weigh 16. She had some angry-looking lesions on her pink belly that made me take her to the vet two months ago. I gave her the assigned antibiotics wrapped in cream cheese or peanut butter, depending on what was around. But the inflammation lingered and then flared, exacerbated by Rose’s very focused licking, and I decided we should go back and try again. I had heard there was a dog dermatologist in town with a three-month waiting list, but decided to give my regular vet another try. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t go to the dermatologist if I had pimples on my stomach and so I don’t see why I should make my dog go either.
My grandmother is 94, a mere 13 in dog years. She lives in an assisted-living facility three miles from my house and four blocks from my vet. Sometimes I take her with us to the vet, even though it is a lot to navigate a scared dog and a mostly blind, very confused grandmother into the waiting room. Still, she likes the excitement of barking, the snuffling dogs, the chance to comfort Rose, who is inevitably trembling with her head pressed beneath my grandmother’s arm. Rose doesn’t like the vet, which would be a point too obvious to include were it not for the fact that my mother’s cat worships his trips to doctor. They are his 15 minutes of fame. He purrs for hours after coming home at the mere thought of having received so much attention.
“It’s okay,” my grandmother tells Rose and rubs her ears. “Nobody’s going to eat you.”
But Rose, for all her incalculable wisdom, is still a dog and we cannot reassure her that something really hideous isn’t about to happen. Maybe she does think that an enormous and drooling animal is waiting to chew her up behind the door of examining room number three. She vibrates in her fear, tucking her head down and her hindquarters in until she is the size of a grapefruit. How can I explain that this was all for the good, that I would never leave her here, that I would protect her with the same passion with which she protects me from the UPS and FedEx trucks? We have such a language between us, Rose and I, but in this case it fails us and all I can do is pet and pet.
My grandmother has said her leg was sore all week. There was a bruise behind her knee, a funny place for a bump, and so my mother and I kept an eye on it. As soon as my mother flew off for her vacation, I received a phone call from the assisted-living nurse. My grandmother needed to go to the doctor, immediately.
“Are we going to your house?” my grandmother said, once I had wrestled her and her suddenly useless, painful leg into my car.
“We’re going to the hospital,” I told her. “The doctor needs to see your leg.”
“My leg is fine,” she said.
“It’s fine because you’re sitting down. Do you remember it hurting before?”
“My leg doesn’t hurt,” she said.
Her leg is blowing up like a summer storm, dark as an eggplant now across the back and getting green in the front. Her skin feels tight and hot. How did it get so bad so fast? The doctor said her blood was too thin. She’s had a bleed into her leg, which is better than a clot, and was admitted to the hospital.
If twenty minutes in the vet’s office can turn my bounding, snarling, terrier mutt into a cowering grapefruit, three days in the hospital would cast my sweetly confused grandmother down into the bottom circles of dementia.
“Where are we?’ she asked.
“In the hospital.”
“Are you sick?”
“No,” I said, leaning over to lightly tap her leg. “You have a sore leg.”
“I’ve been here before.”
“A long time ago.”
“There weren’t all these pots and pans then,” she said. “Not so many red squirrels.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Where are we now?”
“Still in the hospital.”
“Do you feel sick?”
And so we went on in our circle, hour after hour. We had stepped outside of the routine we knew and found ourselves in a place where language was utterly useless. Still, we could not stop talking, the same way I talked to Rose while we waited for the vet. “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re a beautiful dog. There was never such a good and beautiful dog as you.” I whisper to her over and over again while I pet.
I could not call Rose and tell her I was at the hospital, and I could not leave. IVs can get pulled out much quicker than they can be put back in; I had already found this out. Every five minutes my grandmother swung her feet to the floor. “Let’s go now.”
I picked them up and put them back in her bed. “You aren’t supposed to walk.”
“Where are we?” she asked.
Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable? My sense of protectiveness for the two of them is fierce. They love me, and because their love is all they have to give, it seems especially pure. I love them too, but my love manifests itself in food, medical care, rides in the car, grooming. On Saturdays, I bring my grandmother home and give her lunch, and she always claims to be too full to finish her sandwich so that she can give half of it to Rose, who does not get sandwiches at other times, especially not straight from the table. I look the other way when my grandmother whispers to my dog, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t see us.”
My grandmother longs to have the ability to spoil someone again. My dog is the one mammal left who is unconditionally thrilled by her company. I wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink after the dishes are done and Rose sits in her lap while I blow it dry and pin it up in a twist. Sometimes, when I’ve finished with my grandmother’s hair, I’ll wash Rose in the sink and use the same damp towel to rub her dry. Then they lie down on the couch together and fall asleep, exhausted by so much cleanliness.
Back in the hospital, I cover my grandmother up with a white blanket.
“Your little dog sure did give me the cold shoulder,” she said, her voice full of hurt.
“She didn’t even come over and say hello.”
“Rose isn’t here,” I told her. “We’re in the hospital.”
My grandmother’s eyes move slowly from the window to the door, then back again. “Oh,” she said, glad to know she was wrong. She takes the white blanket up in her hands.
Three days later, my grandmother went home, her leg still sore but stable. I have told her she was in the hospital, but she doesn’t believe me.
Rose, on the other hand, remembers her antibiotic. After dinner she sits in front of the counter where the bottle is kept, wagging her tail. She thinks only of the cream cheese, not the medicine, because she knows that part of it is my responsibility.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Blue jeans, blue grass and faithful friends
I’m sorry to tell you, sweet girl, but I might be a writer. I might be a writer who, on occasion, squirms into a tweed jacket and gives a quick reading. I might be a writer who goes to dinner parties and laughs loudest and can sometimes tell the difference between syrah and merlot (not really, but I’m full of bull). I might lift my glass into the light and I might sniff the cork. I might be a writer who will teach his students why plot does and does not matter; why character means more than anything; and why, if I’m honest, I don’t care what they write about as long as they get a bang out of it and I don’t get fired. I’m also in debt, drink too much, don’t have health insurance and ask strangers inappropriate questions on a regular basis. Lately, I’m thinking I should stop using the word might. You should know, sweet girl, I might even be a writer with dogs.
Just last month I picked up an abandoned pile of wiggling mud from the middle of the street and took her home. I gave her a bath and let the vet fill her full of antibiotics. Now it seems I have a puppy who looks exactly like a raccoon had sex with a fox. She has a bandit’s mask, a puffy cinnamon mane and a black stripe that starts at the nape of her neck and ends at the tip of her tail. She has a white swirl on her chest and ears like a wolf. I named her Zuppa for how much she looks like the espresso-and-mocha-soaked pound cake dessert you and I shared on our first night out. I named her Zuppa so that we would both be reminded of sitting across from one another and smiling wide when we realized how good espresso and mocha could be when it’s soaked up by pound cake and topped with whipped cream. I also tasted spiced rum and amaretto, and when I watched you lick the whipped cream off your lips, it was the closest I’ve ever been to attaining enlightenment. It made me a little sorry that the man you were looking at was me.
Blue, a 13-year-old Border Collie mix, is my first love. Blue knows her left from right, the difference between the Packway Handle Band, Grass Town and Seldom Seen, and has convinced more than one female police officer to let me off with a warning. She is made happy by the sound of her own bark; embarrassed by her own farts; and if I am anxious and stressed, apt to tell me she loves me with an empathetic barf. No one believes it, but Blue knows how to give me a wink if I say something worth listening to.
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