Sweetie’s curled up, snoozing on her bed in the TV room, on the floor next to the easy chair where I’m curled up, snoozing too. She quivers in her sleep, dreaming of squirrels. She stretches her hind legs and lets out a languid fart, the kind that silently reaches up and pinches your nostrils with its clammy fingers, refusing to let go.
Wisps of her buttery fluff dance like tiny tumbleweeds into the corners of the room and bob there before rolling under the furniture. Sweetie’s still a glorious honey-blonde dame, aging well into her fifteenth year, a canine Carol Channing, a Labrador Lorelei Lee.
Almost totally deaf, and half blind, she sleeps most of the day. But she’s still alert and aware enough to get pleasure out of life. Walking her is a slow business now. She stops and savors every stump, hydrant and corner, reading every damned article in the Dogly News instead of just sniffing out the headlines like she used to. Crossing Court Street, she’ll sometimes stall five yards before the kerb for no humanly divinable reason, and then the light turns red. It takes a firm, two-handed push against her haunches to get her safely across the street. It’s like pushing a small, cream-colored car that refuses to re-start.
Sometimes she gets close enough to a squirrel’s wind to savor its scent, and then her grumpy geriatric cares are forgotten as she bounces forward, ears pricked. But for the most part, she’s not that steady on her feet, and after a forty-five minute walk around the block it takes her a while to climb the two flights of stairs to Father Peter’s apartment in St Paul’s Episcopal Church Rectory. Her back leg muscles have atrophied a little. Her aged yet elegant limbs are like the perfectly hosed, sparrow-thin legs of those immensely rich little old ladies who get helped out of huge black town cars on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Back in the early fall of ’93 I drove out of Seattle with some camping gear and supplies, to explore the country at a leisurely pace, no destination in mind. A couple of weeks later, I’d meandered as far as southern Utah. October 19th, I’d spent the day trying to drive a rough back road from Ephraim on Route 89 over the range to the little town of Ferron, from where I’d head south to cross Interstate 70 the next day. I can’t remember exactly why I took this impractical track, but it was most likely a desire to find a lonely spot to camp, and to experience some early-morning wildlife before heading southeast to Canyonlands. Halfway across the hills things got slushy and the car got stuck. Every effort to get it moving, wedging pine branches under the wheels for traction, got me sliding further toward a culvert with an icy ten-foot drop. I decided to wait.
I was lucky. A pickup truck with some friendly good ol’ boys, pre-season hunters maybe, came upon me and towed the car to a safe spot. I backtracked, and by late afternoon I’d got myself down to Richfield, where a gas station attendant let me use the hose to clean about a half ton of mud off the old blue Datsun. Got stocked up with food, water and stove fuel and by dusk, was heading east out of town on a narrow winding road which connected with Route 24 down to Capitol Reef and Hanksville. The road wound upwards quite steeply at times, with wide pullouts to allow powerful vehicles to pass the weaker ones.
As I slowed for a sharp turn, right by a pullout, I found myself exclaiming, “what’s a Dingo doing out here?” I’d seen a skinny yellow animal sniffing around the cold granite boulders. I pulled in and stopped. The dog was young with sharp ribs that ridged its fur. It stopped snuffling and looked up. I wasn’t sure if it’d be aggressive or not, but I rummaged around the back seat and got a bagel and a couple of slices of cheese and slipped out of the car. The dog looked at me as I squatted holding the bread and cheese at arm’s length, and then padded over calmly, a dirty tail between its legs. It sniffed my hand and ate the food, quite slowly I thought, given its ravenous-looking condition. It was a female, about six to eight months old, golden-haired, with a creamy undercoat. She was, apart from being starved, more slender-boned than a lab, but not shaggy like a retriever, with a fine silver snout and big velvety brown eyes. Had she been dumped? Or lost?
The dog had a strange wound on her lower back, a neat, sharp cut, still bloody, which had ripped or scalped off a small patch of her fur. Had someone cut her deliberately? Had she, in a panic, tried to crawl under some barbed wire, or caught the sharp metal edge of something? It was (and has been ever since) impossible to tell what caused such a wound, and the fur has never grown back on that small patch of skin, usually hidden by the long golden hairs sweeping back over it.
As the color drained out of the rocks and the sky got deep and grey, I looked down at her, and she looked up at me with a silent, steady gaze. I’d planned to hike deep into the Grand Canyon and various other wilderness areas, and I’d read that dogs are not allowed in national parks. A serious decision hung in the air between us.
After a minute or so of silence, thinking about the various abandoned dogs that had found us when I was young, I lifted her up and settled her onto the front passenger seat of the battered blue car. We drove off, back down to the supermarket in Richfield to buy a red collar, a chain, a bowl for water and a bowl for food, and some dog kibble. As we wound our way down the road she lay curled with her head on my right thigh, gazing up at me through those hypnotizing orbs. And this is how we’ve traveled.
I tried to come up with names, “Sage,” “Silver,” “Elizabeth” (the virgin queen), none of which were right. While I was thinking of proper names, I called her Sweetie, because that was clearly her nature. And Sweetie she is.
During those first weeks I left her alone once, in Albuquerque. I had a mountain of filthy clothes that needed washing, and had to tie her up somewhere to go and do it. She howled. She screamed like a fox caught in a trap Every moment I was out of sight meant abandonment, hunger and death. I had to run back and forth, soothing and calming her. I had some explaining to do as well, as I had been hit with a few filthy looks in public places from people who figured I owned a dog I starved and abused.
Even though we’d only got to look out over the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and not clamber to the bottom as I had planned, we managed to get some decent walks: around Bryce Canyon, through the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, up to the summit of Pikes Peak. As we hiked, we’d play hide and seek among the trees. If I climbed onto a sawn-off stump to gaze around, she would climb on to the tree stump next to it to gaze around as well. We spent another six weeks on the road, before ending up in New York City, by which time Sweetie had been seen by a vet, and had plumped out to an elegant sleekness, a figure she’s not yet lost.
I lived in New York a further seven years with my dog, mostly in a tiny garden apartment in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, rude, rough, salt-of-the-earth friendly, and cheap. I remember coming back home after a week on the west coast. I’d left Sweetie with my good friend Father Peter up at St. Paul’s Church. Letting the dog out to pee in the back yard I got a cry from my upstairs neighbor Millie, who’d seen us through her back window. All my Puerto Rican neighbors had been worried sick because they hadn’t seen or heard from me in a week. “Next time you go away, tell us!”
Sweetie had a pretty good life, rides around Manhattan with her nose out the window of a string of old bombs, hikes in the Adirondacks, summer days chasing tennis balls and swimming with other dogs in the lake in Central park. She was a soothing presence when depression hit, becoming big eyed and quiet and leaning in close. She’s been a kind of doggy Bodhisattva. A Doghisattva, with that mysterious monastic tonsure cut into her haunch. And every time I returned from a short trip away and went to fetch her from the Rectory I got a delirious welcome. She’d tear down the stairs, rear up and put her paws on my shoulders as I knelt, jumping around on her back legs and nuzzling. Then she’d turn back to Peter, and plop down on the floor equidistant from us both with a bored sounding sigh.
I had to leave the United States. It was hard to let go of the dog, but the flight to Sydney is long, and Australian quarantine is a six-month prison sentence for animals. Father Peter took the dog permanently, and when I returned a year later, temporarily this time, he decided to keep her. She’s had seven years of even more plenty as the parish dog of St Paul’s Carroll Gardens, a sleepy presence at Morning Prayer and a regular visitor to those shut in at home or in hospital.
After three and a half years away I’ve been able to come back and visit. Would my old dog recognize me after so long?
I want to remember the last few minutes of the long flight from Madrid via Philadelphia, and the first glimpse of a city I’ve always had mixed feelings about. Night had fallen. The plane swung over Brooklyn, and Manhattan rose to the northwest, sailing slowly toward us like an immense raft of stars.
Two hours later, I got to the second floor of the old Episcopal rectory in Brooklyn. Father Peter recognized me well enough and ushered me in warmly. Sweetie didn’t even get up from her bed in the TV room at first. She looked up though; her thin blond forepaws angled elegantly to the right as usual, gave a sigh, and eventually struggled to her feet. She’s needed to take her time over me.
I’ve found, on our regular daily walks, that Brooklyn has changed for the worse in some ways. Many Brooklyn old-timers have moved on. They’ve sold their brownstones to aspiring out-of-towners and bought detached houses down by Sheepshead Bay. Red Hook and Carroll Gardens have become polite and unaffordable. Starchy, pale young men and women scurry along on their way to the F train and jobs in the city, dressed in black, groovy looking, yet slightly unkempt, turning their dead-eyed faces away from the threat of every passer by. The newcomers have become versions of Manhattanites, psychological fortresses, as though each person was a gated community unto himself or his small group of friends, polite and dry to those outside the walls.
Most of those perambulating their pets prefer to remain in solitude with their charges. The other morning, a young man with a spaniel and a small, deliriously happy puppy chose to step out between two parked cars and wait with his back turned as Sweetie and I passed by, rather than engage. And last night, waiting to cross Union Street, the older man next to me dragged his dog away as it strained forward in a friendly snuffle, muttering into his scarf, “I prefer for my dog to meet other dogs during the natural course of things.”
I was flabbergasted and amused. “They’re just being dogs, you know,” I remarked. He gave me a brief, wary look as I added, “so why don’t we let the dogs be dogs? We can still keep on being WASPS!” (White Anglo Saxon Protestants). He scurried up Court Street, dragging his big black pooch.
Maybe there is something perverse about our hyper-urban human-canine relationships. I wonder how one of my Kurdish acquaintances might view the phenomenon? The sight of elegant, brittle-looking persons letting their lips be licked by their canine children, navigating the sidewalks in order to avoid contamination from human strangers passing by, while carrying, in their bare hands, small plastic bags full of dog excrement.
But I’m painting selective pictures here. There’s still friendliness and banter from other dog people, even if they are mostly those men and women who speak the rich, linguine-and-clam-sauce accents of the old neighborhood.
I’m in the car with Sweetie, driving outside the city and trying to get onto a busy parkway from the entrance ramp. Not sure about the one-way signs though. I want to wheel around and drive up towards a hilly park area where we can rest. I’ve let Sweetie out of the car. She runs beside me as I drive and I’m calling to her to keep to the right, the grassy side, and avoid the cars. Actually, I don’t see the car, only the dog and myself. We get up to the rocky, bushy area to park. Sweetie jumps ahead of me up the hill as we hike. A large creature jumps, or bounds out of the shrubbery. A deer? Sweetie barks and leaps at it in play. It nips her and jumps away. Its coat is shaggy and pale grayish, and it’s not a deer, it’s a wild pony or small horse. I see the horse walking up at the crest of the hill on his hind legs, like a naked, shaggy man . . .
I’m woken out of the dream at 8 a.m. by the clickety-click of four sets of toenails along the hardwood floor of the TV room, the delicate clatter continues over the linoleum floor in the kitchen. Sweetie needs to go out, and it’s my turn to take her.
Twenty minutes later, we pass a stoop on Clinton Street where a couple of grandmotherly types, clearly native to the area, are exchanging early morning news and views.
“So, who’s da guy she’s marrying?” asks one.
Her neighbor takes a drag from a Virginia Slim, exhales and croaks, “dey say he’s an Arab!”
Then, on seeing us pass, they both coo, “aww, wadda sweet doawg, you’re such a Sweeeeedie.”
We chat for a bit, about how well Sweetie is aging, and what a sweet thing she is, before they see us both off with cries of, “bye Sweeeeedie, and you take care sweetheart, Happy Harleydays.”
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org