Being bits of wisdom gleaned from daily walks with my dog, Coffee. He left for stars unknown in 2010.
The dog who lays down
Once a solid black hellhound of high speed, Coffee J. Dogg’s eyes and much of his 13-year-old snout have turned from gray to white, his speed from Mach-1 to mock turtle.
Some days during our walks he stops on every other lawn for a rest. At least once a day someone says “Hey, it looks like he’s taking a break! A Coffee break! Ho Ho!”
A six-year-old once told me “My Mom calls him the dog who lays down.” There’s also an older woman who huffs by the house each morning in a gray sweat suit. “Oh,” she sighs at the sight of Coffee, “I wish I could lie down right now.”
Coffee takes it all in stride, or lack of stride. Even squirrels can’t budge him. Once he would charge dutifully after a flickertail, sometimes smashing into the backyard fence as the squirrel snuck through.
Gradually he morphed into the phase where I would say “Look, Coffee, a squirrel!” He would turn and take a few obligatory running steps, pretty much to let me know he still could.
But after a brief trot, during which the squirrel often didn’t move at all, he’d also stop. He and the squirrel stared each other down and then went back to their business.
Nowadays, Coffee perks up at the sight of Mr. Squirrel, but just as quickly perks down. Rather than viewing this as the sad but inevitable decline toward mortality, I choose to think of it as the maturing of the beast.
Instead of acting like a forever two-year-old, it’s as if Coffee has finally reached that magic, statesman-like age of three.
I see this quite clearly in the mornings after our walk when I am seated at the kitchen table eating my cereal and reading the newspaper.
Directly ahead are the sliding doors to the back deck. Katherine sprinkles a cup of bird seed out there in the mornings, attracting chickadees, juncos, cardinals, the occasional tufted titmouse, and a squire of squirrels.
There are people who do not like squirrels. Entire shelves at the pet store boast the kind of bird seed that squirrels won’t or can’t eat. My thought is that squirrels are part of wild nature and they have to eat too. So we sprinkle one-size-fits-all seed.
After Katherine leaves the deck, the rank and file of the surrounding wild kingdom observe a discrete waiting period. As the branches of nearby trees fill with drooling birds, an intrepid volunteer invariably scouts ahead to make sure the coast is clear.
Ernie is the name I’ve given to this first bird to appear on the deck in the morning. Sometimes he’s a chickadee, sometimes a sparrow. Sometimes he’s a she. But always it’s an Ernie.
The Ernie bird drops down to the deck, takes a quick look around, then a peck or two at the seed. The rest of the birds watch carefully, expecting at any moment that Ernie will clutch his breast in agony and break into chirping soliloquy:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
But all he really does is take another peck at the seed as the flock swoops in with knives and forks and napkin rings.
“Look!” I say to the hound. “Ernie’s here!”
In days gone by Coffee’s routine was predictable. He would begin barking and scratching to be let out. Once the door was thrown open, he would launch a loud and fiery assault, chasing bird, beast and squirrel down the stairs into the back yard and beyond. He would return tail-waggingly triumphant, praised by me for being so brave and dogful.
Alas, no more. Today’s Coffee J. Dogg sits at the glass doors and calmly observes the action. It conjures the image of the Persian king Xerxes watching from a hill as his fleet engages in battle at Salamis. But maybe that’s just me.
Invariably fifteen or so small birds hop, flutter and peck across the deck, until the larger blue jays or cardinals drop in to flaunt their seniority.
Then come the squirrels. Maybe they are the same three or four squirrels every day, but it’s hard to tell. Maybe each back yard in America is assigned one handful of squirrels who work that territory their whole lives before retiring to Knott’s Berry Farm. Whatever.
Coffee sits for a half hour each morning, his nose inches from the glass, watching every move on the deck. While watching, he ignores all around him, even the loading of food into his bowl. Katherine says it’s his equivalent to watching a reality show.
Often a squirrel or a bird or two will hop up to the glass door and stare back at the old nemesis. Coffee will lean closer and sniff the pane.
No barking, no bird fluttering, no squirrel squirrelyness. I can’t help thinking that something passes between them during these tentative closeups. Perhaps not the kind of thought we humans are used to. Maybe just the sensation of kinship, the kind of melding of souls that the double-paned window allows.
Are they wondering out on the deck why the big guy doesn’t jump at them? Is Coffee thinking gosh these guys are okay, why was I chasing them all those years?
But civilization is such a fragile enterprise. If the door is suddenly thrown open, creatures revert without thinking to their basic programming.
You get your stumbling, limping charge, your barking, your scrambling, your squealing, your panic, your posturing, your sword-rattling, your flying feathers, hurt feelings, damaged pride, oaths of vengeance and unending enmity.
It’s why I never open the door until Ernie goes home.
©Patrick A. McGuire and A Hint of Light 2013, all rights reserved.