As if one story could exorcise a lifetime of bad relationships. I’m sitting here thinking about love when the last person I loved dearly moved across the country without saying goodbye. The whole thing, my past relationships, have only one common denominator, me. Someone told me once that I don’t have friendships, I take hostages. Makes me wonder if I really do know what love is after all.
My ruminations are halted by the entrance of my daughter, who arrives with the dog. This dog is old. Born before the millennium changed. But he is so happy to see me, he remembers even after months. My ex-wife got him for the children, almost 16 years ago. He was so tiny and sick when they brought him home. He’d play and then eat and sleep and wake up and get sick. He couldn’t keep anything down. Then on Christmas, when the kids and cousins were playing with their new toys, nobody notices the dog. He is not new and shiny anymore. I took him out on his leash. He tried to eat a smashed candy cane but made a face and spit it out, probably too minty for him. Luckily, I had some meat. I don’t usually walk around with a plate of meat, but this was Tupperware and it contained some leftovers from Christmas. Must have been a good year that year because there was turkey, roast beef, salmon and shrimp. I gave him a little of each. He perked up a lot more and soon was tired enough to head back to the house. But about a half an hour later he needed to go out again. Something in what I fed him gave his little digestive tract a jump start. He was enjoying the joys of being housebroken and regular all at once. We walked farther than ever until the darkness came and brought frost to the ground and air. Since then he has only been sick about five times.
Puppies are cute, but adolescent dogs are loud and sneaky. Going in the trash to snatch a corn cob. No corn, just the cob. So we were all very lucky to have two human and one dog teenager(s) in the house. I’d come over Saturday mornings and we’d watch the girl do cheerleading for the youth football. Since kids have social lives and commitments I’d end up with the dog. His name is Balsam and he’s a beagle, Bassett Hound mix. More Bassett, be enough beagle to make him cute. But when it came to tracking, chasing, baying and pulling he was all Bassett. But he never did slobber much. There’s a hill in an orchard near his house where you can see the ocean. Well, it’s the Sound, Long Island Sound, but it tastes like the ocean and has tides. When it’s very clear you can see Long Island from the hill’s crest. Balsam and I would walk half a mile up hill and I’d take him off his leash. He’d run and come back and run away, maybe for an hour then when he was good, he’d sit down, let me pet and scratch and rub his ears, belly and neck. We’d walk home, another half mile and he’d sleep. What he was really doing was forcing me out. Making me non-sedentary. And the things we saw. A pheasant, iridescent in the strong midday light. Flocks of geese heading south when the orchard trees were bare and brown. In the spring, on the first warm night after the equinox we’d hear the peepers. Tiny, noisy tree frogs whose chirp was gentle and alluring, but when they packed together it made a cacophony that was all encompassing. After that the ospreys would return and fly up and down the West River all the way to Spinning Mill Brook. Sometimes they’d hover motionless, then fold their wings and drop. Reemerging above the treetops further downstream with a fish clutched in their talons.
The orchard was a safe place for him most of the year. Part of our friendship was based on food and he knew where the best peaches had fallen from the trees. I had to be careful so he didn’t gorge himself. And it was only peaches. He did not like apples, pears or plums. But I did. I swear part of the fun in the mid and late summer was taking a warm, sun drenched plum from the tree. I only took what I could eat, and when I shopped in the orchard store I put $5 in the big mayonnaise jar that was always raising money for local clubs and causes, to settle up for my snacking. And I almost forgot about the bologna. Because Balsam didn’t always return to the leash in a timely manner we carried bologna in a bag in our pockets to entice him close enough to leash him. Sometimes he’d try to be sneaky, grab at the bologna before he was secured. But once, bologna was not enough. My son and nephew came out with me that day. It was a January thaw day like 50 degrees. Sunny, slushy, a quick glimpse of spring. My nephew was holding the retractable leash. He was a normal sized boy of 10 not scrawny, actually wiry and tough. We had stopped and I was feeding him (the nephew) bologna because he was hungry, which was a side effect of growing. Suddenly the hound bayed and ripped the leash handle from his hand. The dog took off with the retractable leash handle bouncing and dragging along, After Deer!
Five deer had come into the orchard from the wood lot. Unseen they’d sneaked to the middle and were eating apples from the ground. Balsam stiffened as he got their scent. He howled once, kind of a yip bay. The deer looked up and took off. Flying almost. Bounding down the orchard hill. They were at the road and the dog was trailing 20 yards behind; like a safety with no hope of tackling the running back; just running, the dog rushed barking and baying with no chance of catching up. He hurtled across the road, through the corn field and into the woods. We walked home to get more bologna.
We assumed he’s come home once he reached the stream which he could not cross without getting wet. Reloaded with bologna, we headed back to the point where he’d disappeared in the woods. Hoping he’d greet us we, were soon disappointed. We looked where he went in, but we could not hear him. We decided to cross the stream and we looked for a way to do it and stay dry. Then we found the fish ladder. Someone, maybe a long ago Eagle Scout had built a fish ladder up a three foot high drop. The stream had once been dammed in the area for milling purposes. A sawmill, a grist mill, a sharpening mill had all used this ancient acreage in the state’s oldest town. Now a dull aluminum chute, it gave the alewives and menhaden a boost on their way. I stop remembering fish and dogs and think about love. Those fishes, like salmon fight with their last breath to meet and spawn. Women eggs. Men fertilization. Then they die. And a thousand other creatures come and devour them. Devour their love affair. Their need to return home and create the future becomes more important than survival. Now I think of the fox and mink and raccoon and bear and osprey and eagle, each with their own family, their own bonds, taking the fish. And I remember the most romantic thing I ever saw was a simple park bench plaque on the beach in Santa Monica, California, just down from the iconic pier that said;
“In Celebration of Bill & Darlene who Fell in Love Here, 1947”
What hit me was- in the midst of Los Angeles, on a beach that maybe the world’s most famous is a monument, not to Bill or Darlene, but their love. And I imagine very few can see it without feeling those warm feelings you get when you see a baby or a puppy.
We crossed the fish ladder yelling nonsense to the dog like; “I have nummies for my Boy” and” Balsam Come.”
Far off we heard barking and we headed towards it. The dog was trapped in a huge briar or bramble bush. 30 feet across. Tightly packed with sticks and stacks and loaded with thorns. The dog was in the bramble bush. It could have been a briar patch, I find no difference between the two in the dictionary except bramble maybe more British, and usually denotes a fruit-bearing plant. The dog had tracked a new scent, not the deer; unless they turned into small ground burrowing deer, into the center of a thorny thicket. The retractable leash has secured him fast. We try, first to remove him and the leash, then just him. Neither works so we head home for, another leash, an axe, a machete, a pruning saw, hedge trimmers and more bologna.
He was freed, after an hour of chopping and pulling. We never did get the leash back, but the old one held on the way home. I think he was happy to be going home and he pulled and dragged us less.
Sometimes when I look at Balsam I wonder if my fear of rejection and responsibility keep me from really feeling love for him. Is he just a chore? Besides getting me outside on walks he doesn’t play catch, he sleeps and occasionally asks for affection, brushing, petting, scratching. The only thing he does is greet us- with happiness no matter what- when we come in the door. And I begin to get it. Love by its very nature cannot ask for more. How can you ask more of a sunflower or the Mona Lisa (yeah sure, some petty bigmouth critic will say; bigger, better more vibrant, please)? The dog provides what the dog can. I accept that. I’ve looked for things in return and even Balsam has made behavior modifications to please me. All I can think of is that off-Broadway play. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
Dog Years. Contrary to popular belief dogs do not age seven years for every one human year. There is a very scientific conversion chart and it says so on the internet. My son explained the logarithm and like a two year old dog is like 18 and a five year old dog is like 35 but a sixteen year old dog is only like 77. This year his, sixteenth or 77th, calls for a party. We think he was born between October 15 and Halloween 1998. It will not be on Halloween because he hates costumes, except for his Lion King one. But he did keep his Bronco’s shirt and helmet on till half time this Superbowl. And he will dine on lamb and rice and carrots cooked fresh, hold the mint jelly. Dogs can live a long time. Memory dims. The only thing I remember was he came in the fall and it was before the millennium change, hence 1998.
The world’s oldest dog might be Max, a beagle mix who died in 2013 at 29 years 282 day. Next comes Bluey, and Australian Cattle Dog who lived 29 years 160 days till 1939. (Unfortunately, this dog was put down) then there’s Butch, Bramble (not Briar? must be British), Piccolo, Otto, Megabyte and Seamus. All over twenty years. Balsam could have the staying power. For his age and size he’s remarkably adaptable. Sometimes, I even question if my love is non-conditional for my children. Did I rush through each stage of their lives just to reach the one where they could buy me really cool stuff? I know I spent time with them but was my love adequate? One way to atone is by making the dog happy. And it’s strange what will make him happy.
My daughter worked her way through middle school as a dog groomer. So when the simplest new thing, and it’s really brilliant, I can’t imagine what took it so long; came, I went. A Self-operated dog wash! Just like the ones for cars, in fact, next door to the same carwash I used to go to for my undercarriage simonizing.
You put a five dollar bill in and you get; warm trickle, full spray, cold water, soapy rinse and underbelly simonizing. Balsam was leashed in a stainless steel tub. He hated the confinement but when the warm trickle started he relaxed. He waited patiently for the underbelly treatment yawning in calmness. After that, he smelled good for about a day and then reverted to a light sneaker/BO/Parmesan smell. One night he freaks. Barking running from room to room, agitated like a deer or animals were outside. Two hours and a mile and a half of walking later he is sleeping. Can dogs get dementia? Have we inflicted our cognitive illnesses along with our insight? I heard in Moscow that stray dogs have learned to use the subway to get to the better scavenging grounds. I know what this dog wants; to go out, to eat… by his posture, his bark, his movements. Is this any different from the mother who knows the meaning of each of her baby’s cries?
My daughter was in an accident and the dog stayed at her side while she convalesced. My brother-in-law suffered from cancer for years and the dog met him at the door each visit and stayed with him the whole time. And there was the eagle.
It was a warm February day and the dog was on his run chain in the backyard. Then he barked, then silence. Did it twice. When I came out for the third barking time, I saw it. A bald eagle was perched in old, dead cottonwood in the marsh. It was collecting sticks to spruce up its nest. I would have missed it. But the dog wanted me to see it.
Once he wanted to go out early, it was like 8 am and he pulled me across the field to the beach. The dog had moved from the orchard house to a one on the beach. He liked sitting in the morning sun. We walked across the field and the blades of soccer grass were frozen. It was cold. He stood sniffing the air on a hummock overlooking the beach. What was he sniffing? Why did he want to come here? Then I saw them, two harbor seals sunning themselves on a rock at half-tide. Was he doing it for me? Was it a coincidence? Did he know I liked seals, wildlife, other animals? Was he jealous? Maybe pure love has no room for jealousy? Maybe he did it to please me?
Last night the dog stayed over. We walked into the graveyard and stayed on the asphalt path. I miss my friend and I see his last name on a headstone. It is not him or his family. Then the dog takes me to a copse of cedar trees and tucked into a family plot is a small simple carved stone with one word on it. My friend’s nickname. Did the dog know? Having not read the signs the universe always sends properly before, I understand. He’s moved on.
The dog is very tired when we return home. He has some aches and pains and takes his time climbing the porch stairs. That night I relent. He can sleep on my bed with me, even though he is stinky. He gets his two front paws up, but doesn’t have enough oomph to get the back ones up. I reach over and cup his back paws in my hands and lift. He hops on and does that circling thing, round and round, till his spot is fluffed. My daughter looks in and says “Oh, Dad that dog really loves you!” I think yeah maybe, if it’s possible that dogs love. He probably just wants something. But then he puts his head on my hand and I scratch him behind the ear. Before I fall asleep I think of George Orwell, 1984. I am Winston Smith, and “I love the Dog.”