Saturday night. My wife, Susan, our Boston terrier, Lilly, and I are cuddled up on the couch doing what we do best: be together. Susan is hooking a small, plant-themed rug she started in a workshop earlier today. I am editing another chapter in my memoir. Lilly lays between us, her right haunch tucked into Susan’s calf, her left paw resting atop my right foot. When the three of us rest together, we’re almost always physically connected.
The section of the memoir I’m editing describes the time when Susan and I drove our first dog, Louie, up to northern California to meet his “grandparents.” Of course, I could never publish without running the copy by my two editor’s and sidekicks. So, I shared the story that follows.
Thanks for reading.
Rambling north on Interstate 5, we pass a large blue and white sign reading “GORMAN.” The panel the “O” is printed on had weathered and collapsed into the dense brush below. Craggy hillsides bordering the freeway vault heavenward, casting deep shadows on our car. We are descending into California’s central valley.
My wife, Susan, absent-mindedly brushes the side of Louie’s face with her fingers. He hums. She feeds him a shred of chicken. He moans in ecstasy. This is probably Louie’s equivalent of a holiday in Bermuda, gently swaying in a hammock while an attendant serves a bottomless piña colada.
Soon, the tawny ridges of the grapevine surrender to gently sloping alluvial plains. We hit the flats at about 8:45 A.M. The summer sun and the diversion of water by the stroke of the state legislature’s pen has left this once-verdant expanse a russet brown, desiccated bowl of tumbleweeds and dust devils. Within minutes of hitting the flats, the outside temperature soars to the mid-90s.
Louie sits up and plants his front paws on the center console. He pants. Heavily. Drool drips from his tongue. Susan catches the sun beating on the right side of his body. She rigs some shade for him by cracking the passenger window, slipping the brim of one of her floppy hats through, and gently shutting the window to hold the hat in place. Under this makeshift doggie parasol, Louie quickly laps up the bowl of cool water we offer him. We crank on the AC and adjust the vents to direct the airflow onto Louie. The streams of cool air whirl the short, soft hairs on his chest and neck. Louie’s eyelids slide to half-mast. He is soaking in all the TLC he may have missed in his other life with humans.
Methane breaches the closed vents and set’s Louis’s nose twitching. Brown clouds of nitrate puff like smoke signals above the rippling plains. Up ahead, the Harris stockyards. I never think about a cow’s final destination until we pass this particular boundary between pet and protein source. Louie would probably like nothing more than to writhe in a heaping cow pile right now, but he’ll have to settle for tasty treats and caresses instead. Feeding him takes my mind off my hunger for flesh that, in this moment, is hard to justify. The feeling passes.
For having been abandoned, Louie is a past master at receiving. What would it be like to let myself receive even the simplest gifts from others. To welcome kindness without suspicion. Or be compelled to immediately repay the gift twice over to keep the ledgers of friendship in my favor. How many times had I cancelled out the whimsical or spontaneous generosity of others by overshadowing it with my own.
A small storm cell hangs over the stockyards’ northern boundary, blotting out the sun as we drive beneath it. Susan and Louie sleep through the swishing of tires on wet pavement while I watch the windshield weep. Tears of gratitude.
I glance over at Louie as he sleeps. His parting breath quakes the length of his black and white muzzle and ruffles his flews. Louie is doing better than I expected on his first long car ride. He’s not the squirrely kid in the back seat like I once was. He’s not diving under a blanket spooked because the sun is chasing him. Louie is simply rolling along with life. For that simple skill, I am proud of him. As proud as I wish my father would have been of me if he had recognized the worthy and redeeming parts of my less-than-gritty character. Louie is our “son” and I will soon introduce him as such to his “grandparents.”
North of Patterson, the rolling hills flatten into green expanses laced with the purple ribbons of California’s aqueducts. Near the junction of Interstate 580, the mile marker reads: San Francisco 103. The reels on the odometer can’t roll forward fast enough.
To be continued . . .