Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Still Life with Hound Dog

Red wool; hunting license pinned to a pocket puckered into the shape of a pack of cigarettes removed before the jacket is laid down.

Large oil painting hanging on museum wall: 18th century realism; men in red hunting jackets and crisp white pants sit atop stately horses; a pack of fox hounds leads the way.

Quiet dog in wire cage; one of a dozen; the others, beefy black labs and yapping mixed breeds, vie unsuccessfully for attention. The small hound in cage #3 stares as if to say what took you so long.

It takes me a long time to return from that city of bridges and islands, islands and bridges that I could never cross, where, as my mother said, I could be anything I wanted.

When my father wants to get Lucky back after he is done hunting and ready to go home, he leaves his jacket on the ground to give Lucky a scent to come back to. When he returns later in the day, he finds Lucky curled into a ball, asleep on the tobacco-scented wool. I, too, seek such a sign but find none.

Lucky is hit by a car. My older sisters watch. I am not born yet.

The anyone my mother said I could be is nowhere to be found. I return home, with no intention of staying. The dog in cage #3 saves my life.

My grandfather’s dogs, each one named Tippy, wait for him, unleashed, wherever he leaves them: outside bars or city hall, package stores or his mother’s apartment. Today the name Tippy makes me laugh: my grandfather emerging from a dark barroom into the light of a Hopper painting, Tippy looking tippy to the man who was dying and drinking himself dead.

Shelter volunteer shouts, Daisy’s going home, hands me a form and takes my fifty dollars, explains that Daisy cannot run off leash. As I tell her I understand, I am thinking to myself, she will.

Deep snow. Little legs cannot outrun me. An obedient spaniel as mentor. A pocket of treats. Daisy comes back.

She runs away, but not from me. She runs because that is what she was born to do: run and sniff and roll and wander. The woods are hers, but she is mine; she always comes back.

She finally outruns me; I cannot follow.

I dream Daisy alive again after twelve years and a thousand walks in a dozen different woods, under stars and sun and moon and clouds, all swirling at once in a landscape of thickly-applied oil on torn canvas. In this dream, she is running, her short legs speed her away, but her nose and maybe even her heart bring her back for a piece of stale cheese. Leaving, returning; coming, going; running, stopping – only when I snap leash to collar.

This, I think, is my life’s finest work: to love a thing for what it is with a heart in pieces but still thumping. So many beats as the heart asks and asks if it did all right.

... forthcoming in Dogs Singing: A Tribute Anthology, published by Salmon Publishing, due out in late fall 2010