If I’m walking with Alice down one of Bellingham’s less subdued alleys and stop to talk to someone over a back fence, there’s a good chance that my opening gambit—drawn from a very limited supply—will be dogs.
Last week Alice spotted a long-haired cat, patchy brown and black, who’d been rolling in dirt. He put his back up, puffs of dust levitating with the fur, and ran away. Alice dragged me the length of a few back fences, yipping wildly, until the cat turned a corner. She stopped to reconnoiter. No cat.
“Sorry about the noise,” I said to a man standing six feet away. Beyond a waist-high, slatted fence, he pointed an electric pruning blade, still off, toward a tree in the corner of his lot that had once been pollarded. A crop of sticks sprang from each fisted branch.
“My dog gets excited when cats run away," I said. "She wouldn’t hurt them. She just wants to chase them.” The cat might be his, after all.
“I’ve seen you walk by before, out in front.”
“Yep, I think my dog peed on the corner of your lawn once.” On that occasion, not too long ago, he’d been sitting next to the window in a high-backed armchair, crystal vase lamp switched on next to him. He’d watched Alice do her business on his immaculate lawn and shaken his head tolerantly.
A woman had lived in that house, I decided at the time, but she’d been gone a while. That was her tolerance on his face, a way to remember her.
I usually keep these snap judgments to myself although I’m wrong only about a quarter of the time. (Ask me how I know that.) If I share them with my husband, he shakes his head tolerantly too, as if nature is calling me in only a slightly different way than it calls Alice. This leads to harsh words.
“Oh that’s all right,” the man said about the peeing event. He was seventy or so, round-bellied, dressed in a blue work shirt and jeans jacket. “I had a dog, too, a Dachsie. She got cancer.”
“I remember your sign,” I said. A yellow caution sign that said Dachsund Crossing had hung on his front door when we first moved here. When had it disappeared?
“Lost her a year and five months ago today,” he said.
“It’s awful when they die.”
“A guy I know says to me, it’s just a dog. What’s the big deal?”
“He doesn’t get it,” I said. “He won’t get it until he has a dog of his own, and then maybe he still won’t get it.”
The man nodded and glanced at Alice, who was nosing the fence, still hoping, I guess, to spot the cat. “Well, I’ll let you go,” he said. “I got to do something about this tree.”
“What kind of tree is it?”
“No idea, but it’s a pain in the nose.”
“Maybe you need a new dog,” I said.
“First I need to take care of myself.”
I decided not to ask what was wrong. The man waited politely until Alice and I had crossed the street before switching on the pruner.
While we headed toward the park, I thought that it must be less painful for some to grieve the deaths of pets than the loss of people. Others find it impossible to grieve for anyone.
I’ve come to the point where pet death and human death are almost on a par. Grieving comes easier every day.