“Don’t get too comfortable, you’re not staying“ I said firmly to the chubby Rottweiler puppy that managed to firmly ensconce himself into the dirty laundry basket. He looked at me, uncertain of the tone of my voice and desperately trying to balance a sock on his head.
His owner had implored me to watch him for a while; “Please” he had said, “you’re home all day long and I have to drive to New Jersey to give an estimate on a landscaping job”.
“I’m home all day long, recuperating from spine surgery, I don’t have the presence of mind for a puppy”
“All he does is sleep, he’s a good puppy, I’ll be back, 6:30, 7 pm the latest”
That was four months ago. The puppy was still here. The owner had ceased to return my text messages and phone calls.
Pain was beginning to surge into my legs and my back started to spasm. I sat down, defeated.
He readily left the basket to secure a place between my legs with his huge head propped eagerly on my inner thigh.
“You expect head rubs don’t you?” I asked annoyed, that’s exactly what he expected. His brown eyes widened with glee. I patted his head. It wasn’t his fault he was abandoned. I wondered wryly if I could get him to understand me as well as I understood his gestures and mannerisms; to communicate in a secret language that only we understood.
“Dumb dog “I muttered, mostly to myself. “If I could get up and get my shoes, I would take you out”
He tilted his head as if trying to decipher my words. “I need shoes” I said angrily, angrier at the knowledge that I was unable to perform this simple task for myself than at the dog or task itself. Angry at myself; Angry at my current situation.
He took off then, his big head proportionately larger than the rest of him. He slid along the tiles of the hallway and into the kitchen before scratching his paws on the floor and turning into the front room.
“You dumb dog!” I called after him. I closed my eyes hoping it would help the pain subside a bit. A few more moments and I would get up again. A few more moments and there would be less pain.
He was nudging my hand. Push, shove, nudge, trying to put his fat head under my palm. Looking down, I saw him holding one of my sneakers by the laces. He was having difficulty trying to place the shoe under my hand, encouraging me with his nose to take it.
He put the shoe on the sofa next to me, and took off again down the hallway, paws beating against the ceramic tile floor, large protruding head taking the awkward lead.
I watched him prance back to me, proudly. His gait had shifted from the clumsy, eager puppy to the superhero dog. The shoelace was dangling from his mouth as he carried the other sneaker towards me. He put it on the sofa, looking at me, and eagerly found the same space he had previously occupied between my legs. He rested his head on my inner thigh again and I rubbed his head. I was surprised and mildly amused. It was silly to think that his actions had anything to do with my words. I rationalized that it was the mere anticipation and repetition of routine that caused him to link the absence of shoes with the idea of going for a walk. He recognized the pattern and filled in the blank. He was proactive in procuring what he wanted. He made the connection. It’s not as if he understood what I was saying.
Pattern recognition was however, a recognized indication of intelligence. Guess you’re not so dumb after all, I thought to myself.
The seasons passed and the weather grew chilly and damp. The change brought restrictions in my movement and abilities. The pain in temperature and humidity wreaked havoc with my body.
Our walks were replaced with bursts in the closed backyard where I would pull the lever on the backdoor of the porch and let him out to do his business. He would take off at high speed and romp around the entire perimeter of the yard as if securing the premises, then would proceed to always use the same square cement patch near the back fence. The entire process took approximately eight minutes and he would return to the backdoor and paw heavily at the wood, ensuring I knew that he, the champion of outdoor defecation had returned from his duty and that a reward in the form of a meaty bite was now earned and expected. He would sit in front of me patiently, and wait for me to remove the bag from its hiding place, unseal the top , remove the meaty bite then reseal the bag. He was ever vigilant of the process as if his gaze would ensure that no step was missed and his meaty bite would be delivered into his now watering bite. He would chomp away delightedly and lick his lips afterwards, ensuring that the last bit of scent was inhaled.
Dumb dog, I thought to myself, all of this militant precision for a meaty bite that was probably manufactured with flavored gelatin. What was it my psychology professor used to say? Ah yes, simple pleasures for simple minds.
It was the day before the ice storm was expected to hit and I felt every ion of barometric pressure on my body. It hurt to breathe. The mere movement of my diaphragm made me wince. I was wrapped in blanket on the sofa praying for death, finally understanding the psychology of torture; I would lie, bear false witness or confess to crimes when I was innocent. I would denounce everyone and everything. I would have done anything to escape the pain of my inflamed muscles and nerves screaming around the broken vertebrae of my spine.
The opiates I consumed put me in an inescapable stupor; restless sleep, mixed with bouts of confusion and intermittent consciousness; an acute awareness that I was in agony combined with a mental haze that prevented me from caring about the aforementioned agony. I slept for 36 hours. After I awoke, and passed through the various stages of “who am I “and “where am I “combined with “what the hell am I doing on the couch “, my thoughts went to the dog. Where was he ?
Although, he was sleeping peacefully on the floor beside me, I realized that 36 hours without going out would most certainly ensure that there would be many messes all over the floor and my heart sank at the thought of having to bend and reach and scrub to clean it my current condition.
I sat up gingerly and he immediately sprung into action as if startled by my activity. I stood up and slowly made my way down the hall, into the kitchen, into the front room. I held onto the wall for leverage. I inspected the floor and sniffed the air. Nothing. I circled the table and went into the bathroom. Still nothing. I returned into the front room and down the hallway towards the backdoor. Nothing. The dog followed my every step, watching me. I opened the backdoor to the porch and realized that in my delirium, I had left it unlocked. He bounded out the door running towards the perimeter of the fence to perform his patrol. I closed the door and made my way back to the sofa. I collapsed into a deep sleep.
I flew awake a few hours later, my mind racing, “he’s still outside”. I turned to get off the sofa and my feet landed on the furry lump on the floor. He looked up at me, confused, my unexpected actions had ripped him from sleep.
Did I imagine the walk through the house? Was I still sleeping? Did I let him back in and forgot?
I walked to the backdoor. It was unlocked, but closed firmly, the way I had left it.
That night, I slept on the sofa again, still feeling the residual effects of the opiates and unwilling to climb the stairs to my bedroom. When I awoke the next morning, he was not on the floor beside me. I visually scanned the room, before getting up and searching the hallway and the kitchen, where was he? You dumb dog , I thought to myself frantically, where are you ?
I looked out through the backdoor and saw him prancing in the yard, marching along the perimeter in his personal guardian of the fence routine. My mind was buzzing. When did I let him out? Did I forget to bring him in? Why is he outside?
I watched him from the back window after I made some tea, seeking reassurance from holding the warm mug, that I was not dreaming and very much awake. I sipped slowly and watched. He ran onto the porch and walked up to the back door. He sat patiently at the back door for a moment. He did not bark or paw at the wood. I saw the door handle lever turn as if possessed by an invisible hand, neatly swiveling to the open position and then the door was nudged open from the outside by a fat head. He walked completely inside, then turned around and jumped up on the door pushing it closed with his paws until it was firmly closed.
He looked at me, came into the middle of the kitchen and sat directly in front of me. He continued to look at me. Expectantly. I stared at him, in awe. We were dancing in silence gazes and he was leading, and I had no idea what the next step was.
He came over to me and nudged my hand, then sat down again. The stinging reality hit me and I was overcome by a feeling of incredible stupidity. He wanted his meaty bite. He had performed the task, whether enabled by me to do so or not, and he expected to be rewarded. I pulled out the bag and gave him a meaty bite which he took with a gentle swipe of his mouth on my extended palm.
In a quick after thought, I gave him a second meaty bite.
He paused only a moment looking at me, before taking the second treat from my hand.
He chomped greedily on the second snack, licked his lips, then looked up expectantly at me, wagging his tail in affection.
“Alright,” I conceded, “you can stay, but don’t expect too much!”
He continued to wag his tail, and followed at my side for the next 11 years.
There is a locket of his fur in a memorial heart necklace that I wear everyday. A framed poster size photograph of him in his beloved backyard, decorates the entire wall behind the sofa in the living room.
In the end, just as in the beginning, I was home all day. This time I begged him not to leave, instead of reminding him that he was not staying. I had him buried in the backyard with his favorite blanket and toy; A shady tree was planted soon afterwards to cover him and keep him cool on hot days. The dog that was not staying will be where he belongs forever.