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.
I have dogs and a pick-up, sweet girl. No sports car, no luxury sedan. Not even an eco-friendly hybrid or an electric or anything that runs on corn oil. And when I’m in my truck, it’s blue jeans and bluegrass and baseball caps. It’s sneaking cigarettes and a pint of scotch in the glove box. Sorry, sweet girl. When I’m in my truck, I can roll up my sleeves, keep a hammer on the floorboard, eat three cheeseburgers and drink all the full-strength cokes I want.
But most important, when I’m in my truck I can bring my dogs. Real live dogs. Not the idea of a dog, and not some metaphorical construction. But the flesh and bone and bug-filled fur. Most of all, a soundly thumping heart. In the truck, I’m not some stuffy writer pretending to love dogs because he knows he’s supposed to; I’m just a guy on the road with his mutts. Some guy with a sorry-looking beard and a pick-up truck and a crazy-eared half-human, half-canine stretching her head out the window, snapping at flies and anything else that might drift into range.
The thing about dogs, love, is that they change you. It can be a subtle thing, like a voice the person conjures when talking to a dog. A sudden shift from stodgy business lip to smoldering tones and indulgent cooing. Or it can be a full-body transformation. A lightning bolt through the nervous system that sets your Soggy Susan neighbor into jiggly fits of: Who’s a cute girl? Who’s the cutest? And: That’s okay! Your Auntie Susan doesn’t mind a little mud on her skirt! Don’t fight it, sweet girl. They change you for the better.
The only place I go where they don’t allow dogs is the library. It’s worth it for the reading, but oh how it kills me. I know the dogs are taking turns barfing on my bed and wondering just who I think I am, and I’ll tell you, some days I’m not at all sure. It is at the library that a writer should really feel at ease. But not me. No, just a quick reading stop now and then and that’s about all I have the strength for. I need the dogs more than I need the books. That’s for certain. I think I might enjoy playing the part of being a writer more than actually being one. So, sure, I go to the library, but if they would just allow dogs, well then, I’d be a changed man.
When I’m in my truck, it’s a time machine. Blue jumps in and sits up like a person (because she is, dammit) on the front seat with her nose to the wind. Zuppa is still a puppy, so she curls into a sleepy ball on the floorboard, exhausted from her daily wrestling match with the neighbors’ cat. And me, I’m traveling backward full tilt, to a time before all this writing. A time before all this man-made stress and man-made worry—AND NO libraries! Right now I’m about 19, sneaking cigarettes, eating cheeseburgers, turning up the bluegrass, and all I can see is the Georgia blacktop ahead, the pine trees blipping past to my left, and to my right, two very good dogs. Two very good friends. Blue takes a french fry with her talented tongue and sucks off the salt and spits out the potato. Zuppa barks at bicycle riders and both, for about the hundredth time this month, make me ecstatic to be alive. It’s dog-made happiness, and you can’t beat it with all the fancy cars and fat salaries in the world.