Monday, October 26, 2009

For Joey

I'm mourning this dog more than any of the people I've lost in the past ten years. Earlier today the grief leaked out, my body making sounds I didn't know it could. It doesn't help there's no shoulder near to cry on, or that night shift makes emotions tougher to control. Perhaps weeping is weakness, but I'm just now realizing the weight of the role he played in this simplified life I've made, and the hole that's left, and I am weak, and so I weep. When you shut out the world, and you lose one of the few treasures you do embrace, it hurts.

Then there's the guilt; That I wasn't there when he needed me in his last moments, that I was distracted from our time together in recent days, that I may have missed something grave that was fixable or might have eased his stoic pain. But that's my MO. I haven't intentionally hurt any of those I love, but through selfish distraction or inaction, I've hurt them all; damaged them even. Joey loved me anyway.

Yeah, I know. He's a dog. And he had a pretty good life. A full life. We've been watching his muzzle start to gray and his powerful stride become less fluid. He nearly made a golden age and I should be thankful we didn't have to watch him suffer through a long decline. I felt he still had a few years left, though. That's the devil's deal you accept with a puppy. You won't grow old together. But I wasn't ready. A few more shifts and I had plans for him. We'd spend three weeks catching up after our summer was stolen from us. I owed him. We did everything together. He loved our time.

I didn't even choose him, nor would I have. Pit Bulls are a liability, or so I thought. We believed he might have some boxer blood, with long pasterns and a tall elegant frame. When people asked, we called him a Staffordshire, which is just an American pit bull. Terriers are bred to fight, and Joey was true to his instinct. We worked against it, but if another dog challenged him, he could be fierce. However, he was gentle and careful with kids, our cat, and even the little rat terrier that drove him to distraction. He was tireless in coaxing a tossed frisbee. He selected a smooth rock every outing, bringing it back to his garden at home. He sometimes carried them lengthwise like a cigar, or vertically stretching his jaws open, drool dripping from his goofy stone-loving face. He loved rocks.

When Vik found him, the poor family she visited was desperate to rid themselves of the litter. "They're beagles, medium sized!", they said. She knew better. We laughed about our medium sized beagle as our bond grew. He muscled up to seventy pounds. Most puppies are cute, and he was extraordinary. I'd trained a number of dogs, and was interested in Vikki. So I offered to take him on, not really knowing what to expect. The toughest dog I'd worked with was a St Bernard who stubbornly reverted as soon as his owner took the reins, and I didn't know bulldogs, or Vikki. But he was so eager, so full of life, so quick to learn and so anxious to please, there were no problems. He mastered basic obedience in days, and picked up hand signals as quickly as any lab or shepherd I've known. Vikki became my life partner, and Joey became my dog. He adored Vik, but he was my dog. He house trained himself, using the existing cat door. When he got too large for the door (which didn't take long), he'd still poke his head through to watch and bark at the world passing the little farm. I snuck up on him once and goosed his haunches. He yelped with startled embarrassment, then lurched his head back in. That was the first time I saw his wry smile. Those who think dogs can't smile didn't know Joey. He usually got the joke. His face was was so expressive. He loved to smile.

He still used the cat door as a window, but watched for ambushers. He grew until his head was too large for the opening, and one day when he became excited about a passing rattly cattle trailer (his favorite), he forced his head through anyway. He skulked into our room wearing the door he'd ripped from the wall, and we could only laugh and replace the door with a larger model. When I gave my old car to my teen aged daughter, I spent some time and money on it, including a paint job. Joey didn't jump on cars normally, but, seeing my daughter, he used the door for a banked turn and deeply scratched the still soft paint. We said he saved her the effort of avoiding the first damage, and she laughed about his "autograph". He knew that car and could hear it a mile away, trembling with joy at the promise of the affection it brought. He loved that car.

Some people cut a bulldogs ears, presumably to make better fighters of them. Sad. Joeys ears were like ermine, and he would sit or lay next to my chair while I typed or relaxed. He'd gently move his head under my palm, and I would unconsciously start to rub his ears. If I were distracted and accidentally pinched him, he would yerp like he'd been hit. But then he'd run his muzzle back under my wrist and look up with those huge soft brown eyes, and I'd know I was forgiven. He loved his ear rubs.

I don't know if Joey hated or enjoyed my harmonica playing. Before I played a note, just lifting it to my lips, he would start to sing. I should have filmed the times he matched the rhythm, or howled the saddest blues when the musical mood was right. It was more than coincidence; there was music in him. He loved to sing.

My mother came to visit and she wasn't well. I was concerned she might fall on the stairs, so I trained Joey to stay out from underfoot when she was on them. He shadowed her everywhere for the first few weeks of her visit. She'd climb fourteen steps, reach the top, and Joey would scramble up behind her. She'd forget why she'd come up the stairs and go back down. Joey would let her touch the bottom step and then tumble after. She laughs that he would "raise those ears and turn his head sideways as if to ask 'What the heck?'" When she felt better, she would walk the stairs to "improve her wind." And Joey improved his wind as well. She claims the stairs and Joey's good humor saved her life. He loved a good game, and he loved house guests.

While many folks would shy from attributing human-like qualities and feelings to any dog, I wish more people would demonstrate some of the behaviors this dog did. When his people were angry with each other, he'd pick up a frisbee and work his way between them. When we were down, he'd be sad with us, hugs and long faces all around. He had a joyous dance, a quizzical curious look when he played, a menacing tug of war growl and a gloating grin when he won (always wiggling back to give you another chance). He was a subtle manipulator, turning his back to the dinner table but just far enough away to avoid trouble while he drooled. If he was tossed a treat, he seldom missed a catch, but he always allowed the little dog to snatch any drops, knowing he'd get his share. He wasn't supposed to get on our bed, but we weren't consistent, so he'd sometimes wait until we started breathing deeper, then slowly transfer his weight one leg at a time onto the bed. If he were caught, he'd give you an "Oh hi, you're awake!" smile and try to curl up there anyway. Guests invariably slept with Joey at their feet; you couldn't resist him. When he welcomed visitors, he'd run up to them and place his head just below their knees; his version of a hug. When he sensed concern, he'd put himself between us and danger, real or perceived. I never doubted he'd die to protect us. When he met strangers, he let them know they were on his turf with a big voice and a serious posture, but once you cleared them, he started charming them, and he won almost everyone over. Our neighbor had been attacked by a dog as a child, and was terrified of Joey. I saw him go up to her one day and, beyond arm's length, lower his ears and sit, dropping his head in a submissive bow. She managed to take one careful step and pat him, just once. He knew. Her husband came into the yard and within minutes he and Joey were rolling in the grass. He was sensitive, generous, and affectionate. He loved people.

I did get caught over-pondering the depths of his imagination once. The desert sunset was stunning, and Joey was calmly sitting on the huge patio, gazing at the twisted black thorn tree silhouetted against a red ball on a brilliant orange horizon. I wondered if it were possible that a dog would notice a glorious sunset, or even think it beautiful. He certainly seemed focused on it. But as the sun sank, I noticed movement in the tree, and made out the shape of a distressed cat, stranded on a prickly branch, unable to move without getting stabbed or falling into the jaws of an attentive bulldog. That cat was always hunting birds near our feeders, and Joey had taken real dislike to it. I took Joey inside, and he sat in the window, watching the cat daintily picking a path down, shaking sore paws every time they were pricked. Joey didn't bark, but slowly wagged his tail. I thought again that perhaps he did value aesthetics, and the sight of that cat slinking painfully away was beautiful to him. He was loving it.

We'll be telling Joey stories the rest of our lives. I'm missing him hard, just now, but spilling here has helped replace some of the self pity with gratitude. I take comfort in the knowledge that Joey knew he was cared for. And I'm grateful we had the opportunity to be blessedly embraced by the complete devoted unquestioning love a great dog can give. If there is any truth to dogs resembling their human companions, then I am honored.

Good bye, my true friend. Thank you. It was a privilege to have known you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thirst and Howl

I thought I'd post a flyer about the keg and karaoke theme party I doubt I'll host on day three of next Month. I'm calling it " The Thirst and Howl the Third" party. We'll serve Maryann snaps. (Everyone liked her best) Fat guys singing sailor songs, skinny guys in silly hats, girls wearing coconut shells, and prizes for anyone who can sing the entire "Minnow" theme. It's sure to be the best time that ever wasn't, and I'll tell you why. Or not.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Floyd The Coward

Foolhardy, that's what it was. We were stopped at the light on Old Lake Road behind a whiny piped pickup full of side-hatted teenagers when a wadded Lota-Burger bag flew from the truck window. Floyd muttered from my passenger seat. He threw his door open, strode to the opposite lane, gathered the grease stained paper, and tossed it back into the truck bed. A skinhead with a cholo t-shirt and a wispy mustache growled out the rear window as Floyd ambled back toward our car.

"What the HELL do you think you're doing, OLD MAN?"

Floyd wheeled. "I'm returning trash to the garbage who threw it in my street." He glared.

Before the teen could respond, the light changed and the truck took off, spraying gravel. The kid in the window lost his balance and lurched back into the truck, causing his buddies to guffaw as they sped off, middle fingers flying.

The drivers behind honked while Floyd was painfully slow making his way back into the car. When I'd picked him up that afternoon, I'd noticed he had a hitch in his walk, and a look in his eye that was unlike any I'd ever seen there. He'd looked fearful, terrified even, and I'd never known Floyd be scared of much. But now he had Floyd's version of a Clint Eastwood swagger, and I was wishing he'd liven it up a bit. Ours was the only other car to make it through the intersection, and I wondered if I should be more wary of what waited in front of us or what followed behind.

"Valid question", I said.


"Exactly what the hell do you think you're doing? That was suicide! Kids today carry guns! It's not like when we were their age. Next time you want to call out a gang for littering, make sure it's YOUR car they find to destroy later, and maybe consult me about having your back." I paused dramatically. "I... have a LIFE!"

"Do you?"

I had to ponder that one. How could he ask? Of course I had a life. I had a set career path, an IRA, a girlfriend of a couple of years, a nice car and newer house. Compared with Floyd, I had plenty to lose! It was Floyd who'd made a mess of his life. He'd had several great jobs, but left them just about the time he verged on successful because he'd found something more exciting. He'd married his high school sweetheart and was booted only to grieve over his kids every day after. He once told me "I gave her everything she wanted, including getting out of her life when she asked me to." Child support had kept him pretty well broke, and his ex made visiting the kids so painful he just quit going. Lately, I noticed he was thinner and looked his age for the first time in the decades I'd known him. I was the closest of the few friends he had, and, for the moment, I was rethinking that.

When I didn't answer, he asked "Would you..? Have had my back?"

"Well yeah, I guess. It's not like you gave me a choice!"

"You guess. Wow. How underwhelming."

What did he expect? At eighteen we were sure we were bulletproof, and I'd have been silly enough to fight in the street over nothing, but I'd learned a few things he obviously hadn't. Was this the "huge favor" he'd called to ask for? To battle some midlife crisis? I was scared it might become a crisis of the end-of-life variety, and I wasn't ready to stand by him there. He'd griped about an insurance policy clause, and I'd convinced myself he probably just needed some cash, but decided to draw the line at a grand. At the very least, perhaps I could talk him out of whatever hare-brained scheme he was cooking.

I continued, "So, you were thinking I'd jump at the opportunity?" I mocked him. " Like, hell yeah! Let's kick some punk ass? Hooyah!"

"Something like that." He looked away, dejected.

I couldn't stop. "There were four young guys in that truck. They'd have killed us."

He didn't speak. I took a hard look. He seemed really down, overreacting a bit, I thought. His face was long and gaunt. His skin was milky and his eyes glazed. It hit me that he had not taken very good care of himself. In fact, in the conversation we'd been having before the road was trashed, he'd made a reference to a recent hospital visit, and now I wondered who or what insane act had put him there. I thought of my own fitness fetish and how I'd managed to stave off any serious illness. I remember inviting Floyd to the club once, but he said life is too short to run circles. If he had run a few circuits, maybe he wouldn't look so very tired now.

"So," I changed the subject, deciding to quit worrying about Floyd's question and get it over with. "What was it you needed? Whatever it is, you've got it. I owe you big time for that birthday shopping thing, oh, but I'm not available Sunday. I promised Kim..."

"Ah hell, never mind," he interrupted, but just then the little truck came into sight in the Dairy Queen parking lot. I managed to swerve into the treed drive behind the cemetery just in time, before we were sighted, but I could hear the thumping of their stereo as we drove away. I smiled over at Floyd as we escaped unscathed, and he was slowly shaking his head, resigned. He pointed to his sister's place as we drove by, so I swung around and dropped him off.

I never saw Floyd again. When I learned he'd been shot, I thought immediately of the kids in the truck. I called a guy I know on the police force and told him what I knew. He thanked me and said he'd look into it, but sounded less than enthusiastic. The newspaper said Floyd had been found on Old Lake road by his brother-in-law, Jake, who always seemed to me a smart and decent guy. He (Jake) had driven past the camp that morning on his way fishing, recognizing Floyd's old jeep. (I didn't know he fished.) He stopped that afternoon and found what was left of Floyd, thankfully before some innocent or family member showed up. The cops didn't find a weapon, and estimated the body had been there since the night before. They asked Jake a few questions, but I haven't heard any more about it, so I suppose it's a cold case now. At the funeral, Floyd's sister told me that the doctors had taken a good portion of what money Floyd had, but what was left, plus the insurance, had really helped his kids. And that was his entire legacy, except for some memories that haunt me.

Occasionally, an opportunity to make an honorable difference comes into our lives, sometimes involving risk. We may have to set our fear aside to even see the chance. I miss Floyd. I'm sure I could have helped, but deep in my brain I was too tied up to let myself know he was asking.

Resurrected fiction for the writing contest at