“Wake up, Georgie boy.”
The cop gave the bottom of my shoe another sharp kick with the toe of his boot. I opened my eyes just enough to peer through the lashes, but I didn’t move yet. Start moving right away and you give up your dignity.
“Let’s go, George. You know you can’t block the sidewalk.”
I quietly started pulling my bags together and got to my feet. Dignity is one thing, but if you move too slow you just end up with a pissed-off cop. The young ones were especially easy to irritate, and this guy had only been around for less than a year.
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He liked to call me “Georgie boy.” I guess he figured it riled me up and showed some sort of dominance. I didn’t care either way. My name wasn’t even George. That was just something I told the police a few years back and no one cared enough to verify.
He was still talking while I gathered up my bags and loaded my blankets into my cart. I hadn’t bothered to learn this one’s name yet. I need to see they’re gonna stick around a while before I make the effort.
I grunted something to indicate I was listening and started pushing my cart down 25th Avenue while he was still talking. I’d been on the streets long enough to register when a response was expected and when they just wanted me to be somewhere else for a while. This was the latter. I probably scared a tourist. It happened a lot in this city.
The shopping cart rattled loudly on the uneven sidewalks. You think it’s rough when you’ve got one wobbly wheel in Kmart, try pushing a hundred pounds of your belongings while trying not to run into a jogger. For the most part, the path cleared in front of me like I was Moses leading my people. Few bothered to look directly at me. The only ones who ever looked me directly in the eye were the kids of tourists, and that only lasted until mom or dad told them that wasn’t polite. Then the whole family ignored me.
After a few minutes of walking, I could feel a shadow trailing behind me. I didn’t even need to turn and look. I just knew he was there. He was scruffy and light brown with a ragged, unkempt beard almost like we shared fashion tips. Small enough to avoid scaring folks, but big enough to take on a D.C. rat, the dog had been my companion since the beginning of summer.
I’m not sure where he came from or how we came to be a team. I woke up one morning under a tree that stands guard near the K Street Bridge, and there he was curled up a few feet away. I thought I woke up first, but now that I think back on it, I’m pretty sure he was looking through his lashes at me.
We’d been together since then, almost three months. Not every day. Some days he just isn’t around. I don’t know where he goes, and when I see him next he doesn’t say. I don’t figure it is any of my business. He doesn’t badger me when I come back from the soup kitchen to know the details of my life. I reckon I owe him the same courtesy. Living on the streets is hard and I can’t pretend that it ain’t. Wintertime can be especially rough, but you learn the tricks to survive. You know which churches will give you a warm place to stay and a nice meal with the minimum amount of preaching. You figure out which of your neighbors are just chatty crazy and which are more likely to stab you in the night if you don’t watch yourself.
I guess I had life more or less figured out when he came along. I think that’s why we get along so well. He doesn’t try to change me and I don’t try to change him. I tell him what I’m thinking, and he listens carefully with those big brown eyes. Sometimes he just isn’t interested and he’ll wander off right in the middle of one my stories, but that doesn’t happen often and I know I tend to blather on at times. By the time he comes back, all is forgiven and I usually share some of my food with him.
It’d probably be more interesting if I said he occasionally hunts down a rabbit and returns it to me so I can clean it and cook it up for the two of us. That’d be a lie, though. I doubt he knows how to hunt rabbits, and I sure as hell don’t know how to clean one. Lighting a fire is a good way to get the cops to come down hard on you.
I was just happy for a little companionship, and that he did just fine.
I parked the cart under a big white oak in Rose Park. Traffic was steady in the road down in the ravine, and joggers were constant. As soon as I spread my blanket and took a seat, he went off into the underbrush for a nice look around. I guess he’s just more curious than I am. I don’t have his nose either. To me, it’s all just weeds and bushes, but he seems to get a lot out of it.
By the time he came back, I was eating a snack of beef jerky and I tossed him a piece. He ate it, but it looked more like a chore than a treat. After a few circles, he lay down a few feet away from me with his eyes focused farther back into the park.
We both watched the rich dogs playing with each other while their owners chatted. Every so often, one of the dogs would look over at us and decide we weren’t worth the effort. My partner seemed to feel the same. The owners didn’t look at us at all.
“You could go play with them if you wanted.”
Brown eyes told me that I was wrong. The dogs might not mind him joining in, but the owners wouldn’t want him there. He was fine right here. I was glad he stuck around, even if I didn’t understand all the dynamics involved. As I fell asleep, he still watched the play area, but I couldn’t tell if it was longingly or just because it was more interesting than facing the street.
I woke up with the sun early the next morning. He wasn’t next to me, but that wasn’t unusual. He usually woke up earlier and went off to do whatever it was he needed to do. He usually joined me later in the morning.
Lunch time passed and I had collected a few dollars in change and was hoping to get something to eat. He hadn’t come back yet. Not unheard of, but definitely unusual. Maybe he was tired of the rut we’d gotten into. I kind of liked it, myself.
As dusk settled across the city, I started to worry, although I didn’t like to admit it. In the early days it was normal for us to spend a day apart, but over the last couple of weeks we had never gone more than a few hours on our own. Did something happen to him? Maybe a car got him or some kids hit him with rocks. I knew that people can be mean. Is there such a thing as a dog catcher? I’d never seen one, but on TV growing up it seemed that dog catchers were always scooping up mutts.
I stayed in the park again that night. I could have moved. He knew our regular spots and would have checked them all, but I thought I’d keep it easy on him, especially if he was hurt or sick. No sense making him walk halfway across the neighborhood.
The morning came and went, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was sad to think that our time together was done. If he had decided to move on to someone else then I couldn’t say no to that, but if he was hurt I wanted to help out. I just didn’t know how.
I pushed the cart back toward 25th Avenue. I liked it better over there even if I did get kicked out every so often. The grates blew warm air and the foot traffic was strong, so I could usually do all right on money.
On the way there, I saw Officer Baez parked at the corner. He was one of the good ones. He still woke me with a kick to the shoe and made me move along from time to time, but he was friendly and asked if I was getting enough to eat.
I stopped a few feet away from the window. I didn’t think it was a good idea to walk right up to him. We weren’t that good of friends. He noticed me pretty quickly though.
“Hey there, George.”
I shuffled my feet a bit and looked around for the words.
“You need something? You been getting enough to eat?” It was nice of him to ask, but I wasn’t worried about food today.
“The dog is missing,” I mumbled.
Baez looked at me and then over to his partner. I didn’t know her name since she was new. They regularly put the new officers with Baez.
“What dog is this? You have a dog?” “Not my dog,” I explained. “Just spends time with me. Can you ask the dog catcher?” I felt sort of stupid asking since I wasn’t sure the dog catcher was real.
“Well, the pound doesn’t regularly just drive around and scoop up dogs anymore. What’s he look like?”
“I think I know where he is. Never mind,” I said quickly and shuffled away.
I didn’t have any idea where he was, but it felt wrong to be talking to the police about him. Even if it was Baez. Our relationship was a quiet one and it was something I didn’t feel like sharing with outsiders. He’d either turn up or he wouldn’t. I couldn’t force something to happen.
My unease shifted to sadness and then eventually to acceptance as the days passed. I hoped that my little brown friend was still out there, but I figured he probably got hit by a car. I’d been almost hit lots of times crossing the street with my cart, and I’m pretty hard to miss. He wasn’t so easy to see, and even when we were right out in the open people tended to not really see us.
I missed our talks and those gentle rebukes he gave me with those eyes when I said something stupid. I had a few other friends on the street, but none who got me the way he did.
The leaves were starting to fall, and I was sitting on my favorite grate on 25th Avenue. As the weather got colder, I stuck more and more to my grate unless forced to move. The police seemed to go a bit easier during this time of year, even the young ones who liked to give me a hard time.
I watched a family approach, but tried to not seem too interested. They were locals. That is usually easy to spot. Dad was pushing a stroller, and mom was wearing a pink Redskins hat. It was the little girl holding the leash that had my attention.
As they passed by, the dog pulled over toward me and got close enough to give my hand a lick. The little girl seemed to find that funny, and she gave the dog enough slack in the leash to get close. She was probably only six or seven, but the dog was small enough to be handled by her without concern.
Mom and dad had pulled a few feet away before noticing they’d left part of the pack behind. The girl was staring at me, and the dog stood in between us looking at me with big brown eyes. He looked serious, just like I remembered, but he looked happy as well.
“Jilly! No! Don’t let him do that.” Mom came back and grabbed her daughter’s hand and actually looked at me. I’m not sure if they’d even registered me the first time they walked by.
“Sorry about that,” mom said, while daughter and dog watched.
“‘S’okay. He’s a good dog.” His eyes seemed to thank me.
“His name is Piper,” the little girl said. Mom looked impatient to continue on, but I don’t think she wanted to drag the girl away from me and look insensitive to the plight of the homeless.
“How do you know that?” I asked. The dog turned his big brown eyes on the girl as if awaiting her answer as well. She seemed a bit confused by my question.
“Cuz that’s what we named him. He’s Piper.” As though the logic was irrefutable.
The dog wagged his tail slightly every time the girl said “Piper.” He turned his gaze back to me. I looked at those eyes that knew so much and nodded. “That’s a good name. Good boy, Piper.” His tail wagged ever so slightly, and then mom was pulling Jilly along by the hand, and the dog had no choice but to follow.
As the family walked on, the dog was looking back at me.