I am not alone. I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He is really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (you can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).
No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950’s.
And I remind myself that someday, if my cards play me right, I will enjoy a real meal around a table, and experience all that I’ve been missing during these efficient years of isolation. I will clear the table and clean the dishes, I will sit on the couch and take a crack at the crossword, or catch a made-for-TV movie, or go run errands or consult a book of baby names for the offspring on the way, and eventually I will work on improving my bad habits and attempt to overlook my wife’s inadequacies (the quirks that were so endearing in those early days). I will, at last, learn to communicate openly and as an adult. Mostly, I will not be alone.
My dog is a trooper.
He’s never called in sick a single day of his life: up at the crack of dawn every day, including weekends, stretched, eager and anxious to take on the world. Or at least take a walk.
My dog takes his work very seriously, and has succeeded in making more friends than I have. He does not discriminate: men, women, cars, trees, and other dogs—especially other dogs. He wants to meet everyone, and he patrols the neighborhood like it’s his job. I, for one, admire his dedication.
Thanks to him, I am on a first-name basis with all the other dogs in my building, though I have a hard time remembering what to call their owners.
Take this guy: an older man (I don’t want to call him an old man), whose name I’ve never gotten around to establishing. I sort of prefer it that way, as he provides me with a mystery I enjoy embellishing. Where most of my neighbors are obviously what they are: mothers, fathers, bachelors, wives, working stiffs, senior citizens, anonymous law-abiding entities, et cetera, this man alone retains, for me and my imagination, an enigmatic air. He wears a wedding band, but I’ve never seen or met his spouse. He is friendly, so much so that it initially took me a while to warm up to him.
Maybe this is the way other people saw my old man. Yes, he is definitely someone’s father: he has rolled up his sleeves to punish, praise, clean, counsel, inspire, admonish, argue, approve, second-guess, support and silence. In short, things I have never done. And I think (I can’t help myself): he is a way I’ll never be.
All of us, of course, are more or less the same: we live, we work, we sleep, we eat, we love, we fight, we forget, we try to remember, we think, we wear down and then we die. In this regard, all living creatures are more alike than not.
But humans are different.
We know who we are, so we wonder (we can’t help ourselves) things like: What has that man done that I’ll never do? What has he seen that I’ll never see? What parts of the world he once lived in are gone forever, replaced by newer things that younger people, not yet born, will wonder about, in time?
If I had lived in the ‘50’s, that man might have been a spy; a professor, a pedophile (I would have called him a pervert), a recluse, a con artist—but above all, he most certainly would be a Communist.
If I had lived in the ‘50’s, I would eat an egg for breakfast each morning with either bacon or sausage or sometimes both, I would also eat pastrami sandwiches, drink whole milk and smoke endless streams of cigarettes, I would be father to as many children as God (most certainly a Capitalist God) saw fit to provide, I would live closer to my parents, I would miss church service seldom on Sundays and never on Holy Days of Obligation, I would know how to fix my toilet and sink if they dripped, I would never have had a shirt professionally pressed, I would drive an American car and never wear a seat belt, I would have a job that I could actually describe in one or two words. I would be, quite conceivably, content.
My dog is content. One thing is for sure: if my dog lived in the 50’s, he would be content, just as he would be content fifty years from now. After all, all dogs want is other dogs (I think my dog thinks I’m a dog). People aren’t like that, which, I suppose is why people love dogs. The older man and I love our dogs, and for a few seconds we watch them sniff each other.
“Hot enough for ya?”
“Yeah well, it’s the humidity!”
(To ourselves we say this).
Then we go our separate ways, exchanging pleasantries.
I say: Have a nice day.
Likewise, he replies, and then smiles. Not to mention a nice life.
I smile, and then walk away, still smiling. Who the hell does this guy think he is, saying something like that? How dare he say something like that. Unless he means it. No one says something like that. Unless they are actually, inconceivably content.
I’m still smiling, but then a sobering thought sideswipes me (again): That man is a way I’ll never be.
My dog is mad at me.
I can’t blame him.
He knows the rules: I don’t come home, I’m in violation of the contract (two meals, a bowl at least half full with half-clean water, and a minimum of three walks a day), so he is entitled to cut loose all over the kitchen floor, or even the couch.
But my pal is a team player; he has character. He held it. For me. And, I reckon, for himself; after all, it’s his house too.
His tail does its thing; I’m surprised he doesn’t take flight, and he is happy. Dogs cannot suppress that genuine love and honesty. But then, after the walk (and a piss that would make a drunken mule proud) he recovers and reverts to character: not taking the treat (Who wants a biscuit? I say. Not me, his back says), sitting on the other side of the room. Normally this would be my opportunity, my obligation, to win him over; shower him with affection and praise, but I can’t. I just don’t have it in me. The poor guy, he probably thinks I’m ignoring him. But I’m simply too hung over to address this injustice.
Eventually, inevitably, he comes around. The little wags every time I look over, the overtures of amiability, his minuscule capacity for indignation already exceeded. He follows me into the kitchen, and as I look around—still too ashamed to directly acknowledge him—searching for distraction, the oddly recurring thought once again arises: Can I possibly be the only person afraid to utilize the self-cleaning function of my oven? I don’t trust it. I don’t trust anything that makes promises it can’t keep. Then again, if I actually used my oven, this admittedly might be a more enticing feature.
In no time my dog is all over me, drunk from love as well as the fumes seeping through my skin.
I don’t mislead him: the best I’ll be able to offer is space beside me while I doze in and out of recrimination and self-pity. As usual, he has no complaints; happy to receive whatever I will give him. Dogs, after all, are not unlike humans: they need food and water, and shelter and support. But they also need love.
My dog punches the clock, chasing after creatures he has no chance of catching. He chases squirrels the way his owner chases women: blindly and brazenly, but with no idea what he’d actually do if he ever caught one.
Take off all your clothes, I say.
No, she laughs.
“Be careful,” I say as she gets down on the carpet to entertain my dog’s playful overtures. “He’s a lady-killer.”
“Like his daddy?” she asks, making it too easy, or not easy enough, depending on how it all undresses.
“Hardly,” I say, reaching for the bottle of wine that is equal parts incriminating and inspiring—mostly, and most importantly, it is empty.
“You two make a cute couple,” I say, equal parts innocent, honest, envious.
“Why don’t you join us?”
Put on all your clothes, I do not say.
“Are you drunk,” she says.
“Never,” I lie.
“Am I drunk?” she asks.
“Not enough,” I sigh.
“What did you say,” she whispers.
“Nothing,” I lie.
Take off all your clothes, she laughs.
Okay, I say.
When he was a puppy, my dog would whimper anytime I was out of sight. All through his infancy, all he seemed to want was to share space with me, inhale the air I exhaled, flirt with my feet with his nose. As he settled into the dog-eared years of adolescence, we got into a good groove: aside from the inevitable, and understandable, teenage tantrums; he was everything I could ever have hoped for. Once he was old enough to drive he would sometimes scold me: if I stayed out all night or stumbled through another substandard evening stroll, or when I collapsed from exhaustion after throwing a toy once or twice, he conveyed his disenchantment by setting up camp across the room, safely out of reach, to put his head between his hands and sulk. And stare. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.
Bang: Another day ends with a whimper and all of us respectable citizens retire to our tents and our troubles.
My dog is waiting impatiently, and greets me with his usual eagerness. If there is one utterly amenable character in my world, it’s him: he treats me better on a bad day then I could ever pay another human being to approximate.
Outside, the cold does not dishearten him and I remind myself to take notes.
A siren sounds and he howls, ostensibly in approval. Being a human, I think on more practical levels: A siren, at night, really does sound like a woman screaming. Or a man for that matter. And perhaps that’s the point.
Overhead, sleet sizzles on the imperious power lines, flirting with disaster each time it touches the warm anger that can kill it. Anxious electricity is all around me, earning its money like everything else.
And the cold—the confidence of the cold—subduing the air which has that heartwarming wood-burning scent of banked fires; which is odd, as my building only has gas fireplaces.
Up above, the moon glows, brazen and bright, kept warm (from behind) by a sun I can’t see. Suddenly, my dog becomes very excited, as he is known to do, and I nicely yank him back on the leash, as I’m known to do. When I can’t contain him, and he strains to get where he just was to the point of making loud choking noises, I finally survey the scene and see what he is so enthralled with: a damn trash bag. Half buried in the filthy slush, there must be a discarded bone; I can actually see a bone. A bone that looks a lot like a skull. As my dog sniffs ecstatically around me, I look down carefully and finally understand something that used to be alive is being cruelly preserved in this frigid mound. I disappoint my dog and pull him away from his discovery, and remind him that treats await both of us inside.
Her: “What about you?”
Me: “What about me?”
“Do you drink too much?”
“I’m just trying to avoid anything in my life right now that could be considered a cliché.”
“But you do drink too much.”
“Well, that’s kind of a cliché, right?”
“True, but so is sobriety.”
“I’m not talking about anything that insane, but how about moderation?”
“That’s the worst cliché of all!”
“I reckon I’m in okay shape for the shape I’m not in.”
“Well, you have to settle down sometime.”
“I don’t have to do anything of the sort.”
“Do you want children?”
“I don’t know…I can’t imagine my life without children.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I can’t imagine my life with children.”
“I know. If we didn’t need to have jobs to pay the bills we would probably agonize every day over which job to take…”
“Exactly. You just do what you have to do and have faith that it’s meant to be, you make it right, one way or the other.”
“So all it takes, apparently, is faith.”
“So what do you do when you don’t have faith?”
“You get a dog.”
*Five years ago, today. Gone, but impossible to replace and never to be forgotten.