On the sidewalks of my neighborhood, I chat with mothers and small children, gardeners, remodeling crews, although front-yard conversations aren’t very satisfying. They’re either conventional—“How old is your little girl?” I might ask—or somewhere between snarky and flirtatious—“That dog is walking you,” a roofer shouted down at me last week. Often conversations don’t happen at all. The self-sufficient don’t even make eye contact: horseman, pass by. Teenagers sitting on the hoods of cars or huddled around tailpipes ignore me. Kids walking to or from school sans parents have been instructed never to talk to strangers, never to pet strange dogs. I understand this, but part of me objects. They’re not supposed to talk to me? They’re not supposed to pet Alice?
Conversations in alleys, on the other hand, are always intimate.
Alice and I used to stop to greet an old white German shepherd who lay on a back deck, beyond a picket fence painted army green, a big red heart decorating the gate. The backyard was messy, vegetables planted here and there, open bags of mulch, a Weber barbecue abandoned to the rain, a splintering redwood picnic table.
“Hi there,” I said to the dog, but he always stayed put on the deck. He seemed to be meditating.
One morning we headed out earlier than usual, about seven o’clock, and found the dog sitting a few feet from the back fence. Alice wagged her tail, and I saw that the dog’s eyes were milky, unseeing.
Across the alley a woman in a fuzzy brown bathrobe opened a gate.
“He’s waiting for me,” she said. “I come over before work every morning with a treat, right after I feed my rabbits. Can your dog have one? They’re healthy.”
Alice had already planted herself in front of the woman, a front paw on one of the woman’s bare feet.
“Sure,” I said. I thought I heard a low growl come from the German shepherd.
“Okay, Jack,” the woman said, moving to the fence. The dog stepped cleanly around a pile of what was probably compost, covered now in mint, and the stack of clay pots next to it. The woman held out the treat, and he gingerly bit down on it, his teeth never touching her fingers. Soft mouth, dog trainers call that.
“He’s old,” she said.
I’m drawn to people who say what’s important, even if it means stating the obvious.
“Yes,” I said. The backyard might be a work in progress, but the dog’s work was just about finished.
The bath-robed woman had places to go. “Later, Jack."
Jack navigated the obstacles between the fence and the deck without a misstep, and lay back down in the sunshine. That might have been the last time Alice and I saw him, and I’ve never run into the woman again. Her back fence is tall. I can’t see over it. But I like knowing she’s there.
I haven’t blogged for ten days, and I’m having trouble finding the point. Whose red heart is painted on that green back gate?