Dog Tale

All he ever did was be faithful. He didn’t have papers, but might have been a purebred black lab. The oldest daughter brought him home when he was about 2 years old. There never really was any question about whether he was going to stay. Hejoined the family like he’d always been part of it. He raised the kids, the babysitter on the lawn. Good natured. Easy-going. Oh boy. Outside. My favorite. Oh boy. Dry dog food. My favorite. What a great attitude. Always giving, never taking. Well, except maybe off the table or the counter. I remember once he downed a whole angelfood birthday cake while his people ate in the dining room, oblivious to his gorged ecstasy.

When the daughter moved out, he became the boy’s dog. He slept on the boy’s bed. They went fishing along the creek that fed the lake. Up through the hemlock bottom they’d go fishing the coffee colored water that issued from the peat bog five miles upstream. It was a mountain stream, short on food, short on predators that wanted to eat the native brookies. There were lots of big logs across the stream, deep pools under them. Undercut banks where the stream dug into the bottom creating pools maybe four feet deep, the stream itself only ten feet wide. There were trout in that stream, slow grown a big one was nine inches long. They were black from the tannins in the water, their lower jaws hooked from age. The boy’s grandfather claimed those fish were a hundred years old. Could have been, for all the boy knew. Maybe they’d fish for sunnies in the lake. Maybe they’d go below the dam. Long summer days spent with each other. There were projects for him to supervise. The building of a treehouse. The repair of an engine. All summer long they were inseparable. In the fall, the boy went to school. The dog waited for him to come home. Every weekday there was a familiar tromp on the basement stoop. The tail would burst into full wag. His boy was home. Oh Boy! My favorite!

In the winter, the people would intentionally keep the long, downhill driveway groomed for sledding. Sometimes it would get so slippery they had to put a few ashes on just so they could get the cars up to the house. When they rode sleds, the dog was in his glory. He’d prance along beside the sled nipping and growling playfully. The sled would veer towards the snow bank that lined the drive and he’d find himself merged into the deep powder. This could go on for hours. When they were all done, they’d go into the basement. The people would stomp the snow off their feet, shed snow clothes and go upstairs. He’d give a good shake, the water droplets flying in a spiral pattern off his back. Upstairs they’d get the woman to make hot chocolate, then collapse in front of the fireplace to roast their respective backsides.

Then there was the perfume. Spring brought the thawing and decomposition of carcasses left from the harsh winter. Ah!   Eau de dead animal. He never explained whether it was a costume or a disguise. I guess it was what the humans would call a foundation. Necessary. Functional.  Don’t leave home without it. Only his humans never seemed to get it. He’d get a great new scent on. Next thing he knew, Scotty was beaming him up to the bath tub. He tried, he really did. But he never could claim with any persuasiveness “oh boy a bath. My favorite.” He just stood there, resigned to the sentence, maybe shivering a little for effect. The tub was slippery. If he tried to make a run for it, there’d just be claws on metal. Firm arms restraining him until his penance had been paid. Then, even after he’d been dried with 3 towels, he’d give a thorough shake. It started at his nose. Went to his shoulders, his hips. Lastly, with a flourish, his tail. He could make that tail oscillate like it had no bones. Starting right at his rump when he had finished with the hip part of the shake. Finishing at the tip, like thunder fading into the distance. God that felt good. Almost made it worth the torture of the bath.

Sometimes he’d bolt when the front door was opened. His cold nose a cold chisel opening the space between person and door frame, the sleekness of his coat greasing the way to temporary freedom. Up the driveway. The people would call. He scoffed. He was out of range now. They could call all they wanted. It was time for a  run. First a visit to the neighbors to see what might be in the cat’s food dish. He did love cat food. Better flavor, he told me. A certain je ne sais quois, he claimed with a classy lift of his lip. Not that there was any mountain of naughtiness to occasionally poke above the valley fog of his purported goodness. Just sometimes it was refreshing not to be totally good. Once the cat food had been dispatched, it was off to get some exercise, check the dog mailbox where others had left their calling cards. The trip often led him out to the corner, where for a while, there were three other black dogs. There was apparently friendship, or at least solace, in the company of others of like coat. After a while he’d lope on back to the house, maybe a stop at the lake on the way. Just to see what might be interesting. He always had to think about how to make his re-entrance: whether to appear dejected and repentant or nonchalant as if the world was just fine and what? Did the humans think there was something out of order? Sometimes it wouldn’t matter what he chose. There was nobody there to scold him then let him back in the house. He’d just camp on the front porch and wait. They’d be back. He knew it.

There were admittedly times when he kind of wondered about his people. Sometimes they just expected him to be downright un-doglike. Make no mistake, he loved to go for a run when they rode bicycles or horses or sleds. They were his people. Any excuse to be with them, you know? Sometimes the people would take the kayaks and an open canoe down to the lake. The kids loved to go paddle around. Sometimes they’d go across the lake and have a picnic on the point that jutted out into the water. He would ride, albeit with evident trepidation, in the middle of the open canoe. One day, though, they pushed it a little farther than he wanted. The man got in his kayak and told him to Sit! on the front deck of the boat. Kayaks are nothing of not a bit unsteady, in a wobbly, irregular way. He sat. The man paddled slowly away from shore. You could see, in his dog mind, he was thinking of bailing off into the lake. A stern Sit! from the man, and the widening distance from the shore caused him to stay on the boat’s deck as they slowly stroked to the point on the other side. About ten feet from the approaching shore he decided enough was enough. With a scratch of claws on the smooth fiberglass of the deck that resulted in some flailing and thumping from various parts of his determined legs, he plunged ungracefully into the water. With a sputter and a snuuff to get the water out of his nose, he gained some semblance of composure. Better to swim in what you know than to endure uncertainty, tension and fear, he figured. What he didn’t know was that there was a return trip. For the time being, he was with them on dry land. Nothing could be better.

There were so many things he loved. Riding on top of a pick-up truck load of firewood. Wind in his whiskers, ears flapping. Scents popping up like shooting gallery characters, telling his nose of new, exciting things. Toes and claws grasping the stacked logs. Sometimes the man would load him in the pickup and go to work in the woods. Falling trees and pivoting logs required either constant vigilance or a safe place well out of the way. The summer shade of the pickup was at least safe. But one day the man himself, got hit by a tree and earned a trip to the hospital. Dislocated hip and a cracked cheekbone. Lucky to be alive. One evening the man and woman were talking on the telephone, and he could hear the man’s voice. The woman saw his cocked ears and held the phone down to his inquisitive ears. The man, in his hospital room said “woooooooooo” in a pitch that rose and fell in a hound-like melody. The story was, he later heard, that there were 5 nurses in that hospital room faster than you could sniff a bone. There was disbelief, incredulosity. You were talking to your dog? They asked. He was lonely. He misses me, the man told them.

If he was the man’s friend, he was the woman’s sycophant. Obsequious. Overtly overly attentive. There were rewards to be had, and none to be missed. She fed him scraps from the table. She tossed them to him. He got to where he was really good at catching flying objects. He had to admit that his intentness occasionally led him to catch things he’d have sooner let fly on by, like maybe a bottle cap or a brussel sprout. His rule of thumb, though, was that if it came from the table, and it was good enough for the people, it was good enough for him. His peripheral vision served him well; he could even pick off missiles launched from behind him.

When his people were at work or school, there were long, quiet days spent on the front porch. His duties included interloper interception, most notably the UPS guy. Defend the castle. It says so right here in the “how to be a dog” job description. Act ferocious even if you’re not. Every dog knows, he told me, that delivery guys are really casing the joint. Every one a suspect. And motorcycles. There’s just something about two wheels and an engine that offends the sensibilities. Get the fur on your scruff up. Stand it on end. Show ‘em you mean business, even if you forget and let your tail wag. It was effective. The UPS guy got so he’d leave packages at the barn, 300 feet from the house and make his escape before the dog even knew he had come.

The contract also specified that he was to act as the customs agent at the port of entry, which was the township road at the top of the driveway. When there were joggers or walkers or bicyclists, it was his job to saunter lazily up the drive from his guard shack on the porch. He had this good dog/bad dog routine down. Passport and registration he’d demand. A quick sniff of the leg downloading the coded information to his nose, and he’d wave them on through with a friendly wag of the tail. Sometimes, though, there was a more extensive inspection required before passage could be allowed. There could be contraband. Seditious communiques. Missives from headquarters. Some even carried novelettes that had to be read in full before the couriers were allowed to continue. The messages ranged from pleas for help (please spring me from this joint, brother)to the romantic (hey fella. Whatcha doin’ tonight?)to the downright absurd (What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino? Eliphino! Har har!). These people never even had a clue about the information they carried.

Sometimes there were errors in judgment,  though. Nobody’s perfect, you know? So one day there’s this pretty (according to humans) blonde jogging down the township road. She refused to stop at the port of entry. He crouched. He crept, catlike (that should have been a warning sign, right there). When it was clear that she wasn’t going to stop for the customary customs check, he sprang. No use of deadly force. Simply set on stun. He clamped onto her thigh from behind. Didn’t break the skin, but for her, it was a complete surprise. The effect was more like “terrify” than stun. If she only would have stopped when she was supposed to, he later lamented. ItT turned out she was the judge’s wife. Apparently she thought she was above the customs law. It made perfect sense to him, he said. He was just doing his job. And what do you get for doing your job?, he asked with resignation. You get exiled. Banished to Siberia, or at least to the other side of the highway that bisected the county. An inch is as far as a mile, he said. Sentence was passed. He was sent to live with his people’s oldest daughter. In a fenced prison farm. With a pit bull for a guard.

That pit bull never missed a chance to let him know where he was, or why, or who was boss. He never attacked, only defended himself. He was taller than the guard, still a strong eighty pounds. He could have taken her, he knew, but there would have been no point. He’d have still been stuck there in the gulag. He would only get a reduction in his meager ration of scratches behind the ears. He was fed a daily maintenance diet. Some folks eat to live; some live to eat he said. If he hadn’t had to eat to keep from starving, he wouldn’t have bothered. On rare occasions the tail wagged, even then lackadaisically, more out of habit than as a statement of the quality of life. He simply bided his time. Somehow he knew there’d be a return to his people.

The animosity between him and the guard continued to build. It got to where the daughter had to keep them in separate rooms. She had small kids. The threat of a mortal dog fight loomed, the elephant in the room. It had been a long five years in exile. He didn’t even care to defend himself but the pit bull wouldn’t let it rest. Then one night, in the dark of the moon, he was smuggled back across the highway, back home. It had to be surreptitious; the sentence had been for life. A small fence was hastily erected in the grassy area in front of the house, more for appearances than anything functional. He was home. The tail wagged. Sometimes at night, they’d “accidentally” leave the gate open so he could run. He didn’t range so far now. He was never gone long. Five years he was banished, and he hadn’t been young any more when that happened.

You remember the line from “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” Dragons live forever, not so little boys? Change dragons to humans, little boys to hounds. First he left behind his puppy playfulness. He became sedate. Even when his little black and white sidekick gnawed on his hocks, he looked resignedly rearward, shook the offended foot, and attempted to walk away. He no longer joined the kids in their games of Calvin  Ball (a game where the only rule is that there are no rules), but laid on the ground out of harm’s way and watched. Grey began to replace the black on his muzzle, creeping upwards towards his eyes the way spring creeps up the mountains around here. The eyes that enabled him to catch a morsel in mid-air clouded with cataracts. He still went through the motions in his feeble attempts to catch the shadowy objects his astute nose told him were worthy. His gait slowed to a hobble; his shoulders and hips hurt. He lost weight and muscle tone, gaining a gaunt, fragile look. But the tail wagged, still.

One afternoon the woman came home. She let the other dogs in, a thundering herd of three in a death race to get through the front door. There should have been a fourth. She found him down near the lower edge of the fence, unable to get up. He looked up at her apologetically, acknowledging that he had caused her some inconvenience. She helped him get into the house. Gave him a rug by the door, and there he stayed. He was there when the man came home from work. Through the evening. Still there when the man came down in the morning to read and study. The man sat at his computer. The sound of claws scritching on the floor told of immense effort as he gave his all to stand, to no avail. The man came over, helped him to his feet. He stood, wobbly like a new fawn, then collapsed just as quickly with a thud on the hardwood floor. He wanted to. He just couldn’t. The man scratched his ears. The tail wagged feebly.

The reconnoitering was brief. His end was near. The man had to work, so he said. The woman couldn’t lift him. The girl had school. So it fell to the boy, now a young man. Take him to the vet. The path was clear. The time had come. A syringe. A sedative. The taut frame relaxed. Faithful. He slept. Dragons live forever…. Relatively.

Truth was that the man could have taken him to be “put down,” as it was euphemistically called. Judas. The man felt like Judas, betraying him. What way was this to treat a loyal friend. Betrayal. Or was it release? Live. Work. Play. Love. In innocence. The gift of a life well lived, or the tragedy of existence?

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