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A wayward Carolina dog and her pet beagle in their natural habitat.

more snapshots )


Aug. 1st, 2010 08:12 am
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She wakes me with a wheezy whine and a well-placed paw, an insistent jab jab jab with a single toenail raked down the back of my neck. I roll, yawn, and squint at her.

"Where's your snooze button, dog?"

Her head tilts, a little gesture of "what?" coupled with a barely-audible trill that turns into a yodel.

"C'mon, baby," I say, and set the old bones in motion, rolling out of bed in much the way an old fire tower would collapse, rusty joints shrieking and buckling as the sturdy struts of its aging frame start rolling down a hillside, picking up speed in a silent film breakdown until it crashes into a heap at the bottom of the slope.

My feet crash to the floor, one after another. The dog dances, her too-long claws skittering on the floor and reminding me of another chore that lies ahead in the list of things to do.

"Let's get some breakfast, huh?"

I pull off Route 1 with a trunkload of Swedish housewares, bed linens, and sundries, a run for booty on the last day before I knuckle down for a stretch. The sky is lush and expansive, a perfect canvas for the last of a summer day that has inexplicably failed to be another in a seemingly interminable series of sweltering nightmares here below the Mason-Dixon. I've got the top down and my new glasses on, the reward of clarity neatly counterbalanced by the frustrations of artificial refraction, where the ground is always moving, shifting in subtle ways as I step forward.

In the clear twilight, the clouds are all strings and filaments, threads strung out on the loom where the world faces its weaver. I have a small, delicious milkshake wedged between the seats and a roast beef sandwich in a bag, waiting for a moment when I can find a place to pull over and eat. I am on the right way home, but I pull off the main road and disappear down the rabbit hole that leads down, down into the immense peaceful labyrinth of the agricultural research center.

The roads get smaller and older and the built landscape falls away, all the strip malls and gas stations and business parks and servicenters and everything, just wiped out in one perfect wash of green—first the trees in a band of woods along the creek, then the road dives into the unlimited farmland of the center, concealed so perfectly in all this modern mess.

I pass the last private house holding out in the middle of the center, cruise through the wheat fields where the landscape dips to meet a little creek, and the sky is turning colors, going from blue to blue to violet to gold. I turn on my headlights, which open like demure eyes showing surprise, and as I round a bend into a straight stretch where the old NASA antenna test range used to be, a pair a lights bob at the edge of the road.

The fox is delicate and sleek, his tail slung low and swinging gently in pace with his relaxed canter. He's in the other lane, coming my way, undisturbed by the sudden appearance of a little red roadster, and something in me slows as I watch him. I let off the gas and he does the same, and the two of us slow down, effortlessly shedding momentum, until we settle to a silent stop, right there in the middle of the way.

He looks up. There's something miraculous in these animals, something deep and vivid and present that spoke to us all those millennia ago, and they wrote themselves into all our histories, the trickster gods stealing the stars from the skies.

Hi there, guy.

I stay. He stays, too. The passage of time is overrated.

This is the inherent problem with how we live now, the lack of these meetings, and the way we fade away into the wash of blue-white glare from countless monitors. These moments start to fade, the sight of something so rare and fine without the mediation of cages or videotape, the thought that you could just reach out and stroke the fur along his back, and we become something lesser, poisoned by convenience.

This is your game, little guy.

In time, an ear flicks around with the perfect precision of a rotating radar dish, and something is on, something that requires eventual, if not immediate, attention. The fox strides into a new canter, but stays right in the lane, trotting away westward in the fading sunlight.

I put the car back into gear and go.

"Catch it!"

I throw the toy, which is nothing more than a thick rope, tied into a hard knot at each end. Daisy bounds off the bed and intercepts it neatly in mid-air, then brings it back, turning away with the ridiculously oversized toy in her mouth every time I reach out.

"Drop it!"

She's getting the idea on that one, on the meaning of that turn of phrase, but she's young and filled with contrarian teenage energy, ready for a fight for ownership of the toy, even when I really don't want it. I've got my headphones on, the big ones that look like tuna cans on my ears, and I'm enjoying a nice butt-moving groove to start off a morning of golden sun and cool, fragrant breezes drifting in through every window. I snatch the toy and run for it, with Daisy at my heels.


There's a single cicada on my window screen.

I take a moment to sit there, right next to the window, just watching.

There's a click, a little squonky buzzzzzt, and he starts to sing there, calling out in the zzz-ZZZ-zzz of zipper love songs, so loud it's just impossible—so much sound coming out of something roughly the size of a peanut.

I think of TV Cowboy calling me in a panic in the middle of the emergence of Brood X back in '04.

"Joe, there's one of those things on my window screen! It's up here on the tenth floor!"

"It can't get in. Just enjoy it."

"You're an ass, man. It's making that noise!"


Perhaps I should have been a little more supportive, but it's a cicada for pete's sake, even if there's a great story behind why TV Cowboy was petrified of the little things.

I sit back and I smile in the way you do when you can either smile or wince—the way you remember funny things that get lost when life turns sad—and listen to the cicada singing, hanging from my window screen and looking for a date, the way his species has done it for more years than I could ever imagine.

The aroma of my sandwich finally gets to me and I pull off in the abandoned parking lot, deep in the Center, where there used to be a path down to a pond, labeled carefully with signs explaining the plants and trees there. The path is overgrown now, and the signs are gone, victims of budget cuts and the paroxysm of governmental paranoia that killed off all the best little-known places to go, but the gravel parking lot is still there. I pull in and turn off my headlights, which flip down obediently into the smooth line of the hood.

I unwrap my sandwich and take a long drag off my milkshake, enjoying the sounds of birds and insects and the nearby highway, which sings its own song of progress, a drone of tires on asphalt that rises and falls like something natural because it is as natural as the rest of the world, despite our unyielding propaganda to the contrary. The roast beef is rich and tasty, with that tang of au jus that's like meat tea, perfectly set off by the right selection of spices, and it's perched in the cradle of a sub roll from H&S—all told, a cheap delight for an era of expensive everything.

While I'm sit there, I hear heavy footsteps behind me, and I freeze, with a mouthful of half-chewed meat. The grass bristles, then the gravel crunches, and the footsteps multiply, coming closer in the near-darkness.

As a lifelong Marylander, the old stupid stories come back to me, the hoary tales of goatman breathlessly told by any teenager who ever lived within the orbit of Prince George's County, and even though I'm a grown man, I have a moment of paralyzing doubt. After all, construction workers and the police reported seeing a sasquatch at the nearby megamall just a few year s back, and…

Shit, it's goatman and I'm in a convertible!

I look into the rear-view mirror, and something large, brown, and furry is moving behind me.


I actually feel hot breath on my neck and that's it. I holler like a little girl the second I hear the loud snort and turn to face a full-grown deer, standing placidly next to the car and regarding the whole scene with a kind of contented interest. Two others flank the car on the right side, I exhale and laugh, which only disturbs the group a little bit, and finish my sandwich while the trio wander around the parking lot, only leaving when my headlights flip back up as I get ready to continue on.

Kids these days.

The coyote runs past as TV Cowboy navigates the DC gridwork. It's not a dog, or a deer, and has that low, lean, wild look that you just don't find in domesticated animals.

"Wow, a coyote just ran past us!" I remarked.


"A coyote. You didn't see that?"

"No. What are you talking about, now?"

"It was a coyote. There are coyotes all over Eastern cities these days. I think I read that there's a pack of them living in Rock Creek Park. They catch rats."

TV Cowboy just rolled his eyes. When we got back, I triumphantly thrust my laptop in his direction, with data to show that it was not, as usual, just me.

I turned up my music to that point where you can start to feel it, a little funk for a Sunday morning, and I bopped around the apartment in my headphones, just enjoying the groove. The dog followed me around, giving me that vaguely disapproving look that she always gives me when I've got my dancing shoes on, but I decided to bring her into the fun, so I grabbed her rope toy and took off for the back room with her at my heels.

I'd throw the toy so she could catch it, then approach her in that slow, taunting way that would get her in paws-out mode, squinting at me and then launching away in a giddy run. My place is just two rooms, so it's a limited game of chase, but she doesn't seem to care, and wags her tail hard enough that her whole body's swinging each way, with that absurd giant rope in her mouth.

I snatch it and toss it into the other room, and there's an immediate mechanical roar. Daisy charges back in, running between my legs, and looks up with her brows up.

That thing I don't like is making a noise!

With her hiding behind me, I find the rope toy next to the vacuum, which is running in place after I'd neatly hit the on-switch with my blind throw. With a toe, I click the switch again and the roar stops. Daisy trots over to make sure the big blue carcass isn't moving.

That oughta show you, stupid thing I don't like!

She wears me out, but something's got me laughing this morning, and we just stop for a second to sit, panting, on the sofa. I scratch her behind her ears and she rolls over, presenting her pink belly for a scritch. She's just so new and so energetic and fresh in the world, a little ball of curiosity and trouble, and for just a moment, I think of Rose and that day when she reached the end of the road, and I look back at Daisy, into those bright eyes, and it's just so wrong that one day, she'll be on that stainless steel table, all scruffy and worn out and tired, and it'll be the end of the line.

What are you thinking about?

Daisy tips her head, tucking her ludicrous ears back in a now familiar gesture of thoughtful surrender as I reach out to give her a scratch.

"Nothing, little girl," I say, as if I'm answering that imaginary question.

Her ears snap back to attention, and she hops down from the sofa, retrieves the rope toy, and brings it back to me.

"You're wearing me out, dog," I say, but I throw it anyway, and haul myself back off the couch for another trip around the apartment, and then another, and another, until it's time to settle down and wash the dishes.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
I woke up early, ready to go back to work and face the challenges of a new decade, with a simple, lovely quote circulating gently in my head like the strata of sweet-smelling pipe tobacco smoke.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

    - Albert Camus

It's a good way to start a year, drifting out of dreams to the words of a presumed absurdist, and I walked to the train station, rode to work with the landscape rolling past in shades of grey, and worked a reasonable, if a little frustrating, shift. At lunch, I thought of Camus again, eating my can of soup in front of the computer with Bach quietly counting the minutes on my little radio, and idly sat there, blowing on my spoon and reading about Facel Vega automobiles like the one that killed him—sleek, gorgeous, magical things...

The time drifts, some days.

At home, I curled up on the bed with the dog, aimlessly watching a little television and rooting through the random alleys of the internet, and I tuned in a familiar website about the kind of automotive minutia that gives me an odd sense of pleasure. Odd, too, that today's the fiftieth anniversary of the day Albert Camus died in that Facel Vega, wrapped around a tree with a train ticket in his pocket for the trip he'd meant to take, but was talked out of by his publisher.

I wonder how I know such things, and how these awkward moments collide.

I was still thinking of the coincidence, or whatever you'd call it, when an unseen hand, or at least the impression of one, turned the doorknob on the closet door on the other side of the room. The door clicked open, then gradually swung open with a theatrical cre-e-e-e-eak. I felt the electric thrill of gooseflesh, and wasn't sure how to react, except to tense up slightly in expectation.

The dog was less circumspect, and was on her feet, hackles raised in a twenty-two inch mohawk running down her spine, ears pricked, and letting out the kind of deep, visceral growl dogs make when they're not fooling around. I sat up, watched the door swing, then pause, then swing fully open, in what was probably just one of those tricks of an old and uneven house.

The closet was just the closet, packed solid with my excesses.

The dog was not assuaged.

I stroked her, if only to feel the bristly ridge of raised fur and the low rumble of an ongoing growl, and chuckled.

"Mister Camus, I presume," I said, to no one in particular, and went back to my distractions.

Hell, I never could make heads or tails of The Stranger, but you have to love an invincible summer.
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Have you seen this thing? This is just the damnedest thing I've ever seen!

She stands there with the toy in her mouth, holding it up as if to show me, then runs off with it, then comes back, then runs off, then comes back. With a shake, she flips it around, then drops it, and looks up again.

Get a load of this crazy thing! What IS this? It's compelling, don't you think?

I pick it up. Her ears are radar dishes, tracking every movement. I raise my arm and twitch, just a bit, in a fake-out, but she's smarter than that. I fling it across the room, against the door, and she's off like she's tied to it with a rubber band, then snatches it, brings it back, shies away, and retreats to a safe distance to flop down on the floor with the toy between her paws.

It's a little red fabric thing wrapped around a double-lobed rubber ball like a little snowman, trailing red straps that look like pieces of leash, just a toy without much consequence, but it is, right now—right here and right now—the most magical, wondrous thing ever created. Her long, gangly tail is uncontrollable, marking time on the rug, and she just goes after the thing again and again, from every angle, until—


She freezes, and her ears go wild, the radar searching the skies for incoming squeaky objects, and she looks up to me with her eyebrows caught in that look of perfect canine astonishment.

Did you HEAR that!? What the—

She manages to get hold of the toy just right, and it squeaks again. It only takes a second, that moment of discovery.

I did that! I made that sound, with this amazing thing! Watch!


For a moment, it looks like she's going to need smelling salts. She brings it back to me, red tendrils aimed my way, in a dare. I take it in my hand, but she won't let go, tussling with me in that ancient ritual that would be slightly cuter if it didn't have something to do with a deep-down genetic understanding of how to break a neck. I give up on the fight, and she looks disappointed, then takes two steps forward and lays the toy at my feet.

Throw it throw it throw it throw it…

…And of course I do, and she races over and takes a defensive position on the other side of the room, a sudden inquisitive virtuoso of the magical squeaky toy, coming up with dozens of articulations of the sound, with long, whiny shrills and little patterns of pitched bird chatter, and I am sad for so many reasons, even as I can't help but laugh at her.

Daisy is another kind of dog altogether. Rose, my dear little disaster, wasn't much for toys, except for her green ball, which she'd fish out from underneath the couch, now and then, and take to her little den under the table, where she'd sit and bite it in a precise and regular rhythm that seemed to satisfy a need, making a gentle squeak-squeak-squeak until she tired of the thing.

In the last years, she just hurt, all the time, and when she felt lonely, she'd go find the ball and carry it back to her bed, then drop it, because she just didn't have the strength even to bite her green ball anymore, not enough strength to get a single squeak out of it. I have the ball set aside, and I will give Daisy the world, but that green ball is mine alone now, something I can reach for when nothing will do but tears.

I wasn't going to get another dog. It's only been four months, though it seems like years have gone by, without the regulation that came from Rose, without her regular snoring, and her meals and ponderous trips to the yard, where she'd stand there, lost, wondering where she was. I wasn't going to get a dog because sometimes the most natural thing in the world is to shy away from the things that hurt us, and that bring back the memories we'd rather let slowly fizzle away into our impending hazes of early senility, and Rose hurt, by the end, right down to that last moment, when she was there on the stainless steel table at the vet's office after a series of seizures, sleeping under a sedative as the vet squeezed a hypodermic of red liquid into her vein.

Don't hurt my girl, I thought, watching the moment unfurl, please don't hurt my dog, but it was time, and she breathed in, then out, then in, then out, and that was it, after fourteen complicated years.

Daisy ran back with the toy, and I caught it, laughing, and waved it in the air, almost giddy with the ridiculousness of her, and those absurd, bat-like ears, then snapped it back and flung it into the next room.

Fourteen years.

If Daisy has the longevity Rose had, I will be fifty-six when her time comes. It used to seem so long, a stretch of time like that, and now it's so much more conceivable, a road I've traveled from end to end almost three times now, and if I feel like I've become wise and grown into an full-fledged adult member of my species, it's just because I've always been vain enough to think so.

She is so transfixed by that stupid little toy, like it's a whole new world, and the part of me that might have made me a good parent if that had been destined for me stirs, joyously, into the flush of being. Every thought she has is telegraphic, played out on those big dumb ears and little eyebrows like sailors trading gossip on semaphore flags, and I feel like I already understand her in ways I never understood Rose, even when I tried.

Hey! Did you see my toy? I just can't get over this crazy thing!

Daisy spins in a little circle, orbiting the tiny cosmos of the toy, then settles down on the floor and starts to play out a little rhythm of squeaky noises. It is so damned adorable I feel like I need an insulin shot, and yet I feel like I could cry.

It's probably the first toy she's ever gotten to keep, a novelty that she can't quite believe yet.

She was rescued from a house in South Carolina, a festering morass of obsessive-compulsive hoarding, and the medical report points out that they pulled thirty-eight ticks off of her after they got her out of the locked crate where she'd had no food for days and no water for a while, too. They had to put her on morphine, her fleas were so bad, just to keep her from scratching herself to pieces, and yet she comes to me sleek and clean and smelling just enough like a dog to remind me that she is a dog, and now she's my dog.

I wonder what she remembers.

I remember everything, and I wonder if that's the invariable casualty of growing up and heading in the direction of wisdom—the sense that things cannot be divorced, that everything full of awe and wonder and delight has in it, just under the surface, deep roots tangled up in trauma. You think these things, sometimes, when you are as happy as you can ever remember being and still the ugly times are right there, right with you, as raw and vivid as ragged knots of freshly-healed scar tissue. You think these things when life changes, suddenly and almost without warning, for the better and you're caught completely off-guard, waiting for something to cancel out what feels like it must be too good to be true.

When you're lucky, or when you're really grown, just like you've been thinking you were all along, you know that these things are always inseparable, always wrapped gently into each other like the tails of the taijitu and the truth that the things we think of as light and dark are always tied up in each other, revealed through reason and the humility that comes from realizing how little of what makes us wonderful is our own invention.

Daisy curls up ever more tightly, a ball of golden fur and ears wrapped around the little red prize, and squeaks it gently, quietly, just a few more times before she's deep in sleep, dreaming of things I can't even imagine, and I think of Rose and how much I loved her, and how she watched over me, even at her worst, and how she was there when things had never been harder, through death and loss and the deepest strains of depression, and she's just gone…just…gone, and that is supposed to be impossible, because love is supposed to conquer all and set us free and make us happy forever and ever, and…

I spend enough time returning to an old familiar line from an old familiar book, because it speaks to me, and thinking about it just now, I find a tendril of an idea curling out of the soil.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

This Daisy, the one balled up on the rug with her new toy, isn't that Daisy, and the name comes from a sentimental notion that I'll name all my dogs from here on out after flowers, just like I did for the first one, just because of her little pink nose and the way she'd get red around the eyes like a person when she was worked up made me think of a flower and a perfectly silly name for a dog. She isn't that Daisy, and still, the threads and tendrils and grasping green extensions of our thoughts tie everything together, and make everything about everything, on every level, unless we really work to deny ourselves that mixture of pleasure and the pain it takes to measure it by.

You think too much.

So they say, and it's true, but some people say "think" when they really mean "feel," without knowing it, and it's true. I feel too much, and there are days when I know this only too well, and days when I know, at my core, that I wouldn't change a thing, or give up any of the joy that can't be completely separated from the moments of loss and sadness that have come and gone or are still looming, way off in the distance, when things start to wear out again. I have been lucky enough all my life to be able to fail to forget, to always have the measure of loss to remind me what's here when I have the courage not to shy away, and if I look at Daisy and want to cry over Rose and all the things I wish I had still, it's because I am alive and because I know that I have already seen the end of the world more than a few times, and will again. I can only escape that ending by denying myself everything else, and life is far, far too short.

Daisy is sleeping hard in that way that dogs do, when they're curled up with their eyes pinched shut as hard as they can, and she's far enough from here that I can gently reach for the toy, and hold it in my hand, feeling the texture of it, the cool dampness of the rough fabric it's made from, and the way the rubber inside it yields to pressure, and right now, it's something brought to life by the enthusiasm of a little dog from down south, who just wants something she can keep all for herself, and someone to fight her for it and throw it so she can chase it and chase it and chase it again. Her eyelids twitch slightly, and I hope I'm there in her dreams.

On my desk, the green squeaky ball sits where it's been for months now. I start to reach for it, but stop myself.

Rose. Just—Rose.

The world keeps on.


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