No. 20 in “Nuggets I picked up from my dog,” inspired while walking the late Coffee J. Dogg.
I am summoned from my bed by a dreadful keening, a low moaning sound that rises gradually to a howl, like an old dog singing the blues. I come downstairs and find him half sitting, half lying on the hardwood floor, two feet from his soft bed.
I open the front door but he doesn’t want out. Nor does he want any water. Not even a treat. This is a first. Not even a treat.
I sit down next to him and he steals a look at me. I hug him and scratch his belly. He crouches down, lays his chin on his front paws. I get him to lay over on his side and I sit there.
He gets real quiet and closes his eyes and falls into a steady rhythm of breathing. I gently raise myself to my feet and begin a delicate tip toe up the stairs. But his head comes right up, his big brown eyes shooting me a terribly forlorn look of desperation.
So I go back and sit down next to him, and we go through the routine again. I get him quieted down.
I sit awhile in the yellow chair and wonder what I am supposed to do next. A slight breeze sifting through the front window tickles the curtain and breathes a shadow against the only illumination in the room: a small night-light, meant to keep the easily confused from waking in the dark, disoriented and afraid.
In dog years he has me by about 30, but we’re each more sensitive to the dark than we once were. We’ve each faced and survived scares in darkened, antiseptic examining rooms where murky futures are forecast through the shadowy light of an X-ray box. When those mysterious clouds of gray and white are read like tea leaves and pronounced with a frightening precision, it is very much like waking disoriented in the dark.
I remember the night, eons ago, when Brendan, only 4-years-old, got a terrible cold. I sat up all night next to his bed, listening to him breathe, holding my own breath until he’d release one of his. Not much to do in a situation like that but sit and wait.
At least I knew then what I was waiting for, hoping for. I was waiting for morning or a break in the fever or both. I longed to hear the smooth, blessed sound of tiny lungs going in and out again.
The morning always came in those days. But now I’m not really sure what I am waiting for. I know by now that Coffee isn’t going to come out of his latest long and hard spell of miserable. He has trouble moving his back legs, he can’t go up or down the two steps of the front porch without help, he doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want me to leave him.
A person, I suppose, will do almost anything to keep from thinking of the inevitable in a situation like that. I close my eyes and let my mind wander.
I find myself channeling the words to a sad, bluesy, going away song from Tom Rush some 40 years back. The one about his girlfriend getting ready to leave him on a train called the Panama Limited. I remember a New York Times music reviewer comparing Rush’s deep baritone to a couple of ball bearings rolling around on the bottom of an oaken bucket. What a great line, I wish I could remember that writer’s name. Instead, that howl in the night has triggered a memory of Rush singing of his bluesy gal:
“She got up a singin’ and a cryin.’
She said ‘Daddy, hey your
Momma gonna leave you now…”
The gimmick of the song is that Rush, playing slide guitar, makes an amazing variety of train-like sounds from the steel wheels shrieking on the rails as the engineer applies the brakes, to the tolling of the bell as the Panama Limited rolls into Union Station in Memphis, Tennessee.
I played the hell out of that record. I spent hours, days, weeks of my life learning to imitate the sliding steel sounds of his guitar on my Sears Silvertone. One day Katherine’s cousin Martha came to visit and I played the Panama Limited for her, pouring every ounce of my soul into those wailing Union Station notes.
When I finished, Martha was quiet for a moment. A beat too long. “You know,” she said, “when Tom Rush does that song, he makes his guitar sound like a train.”
I get up a singin’ and a cryin.’ The hound dog’s head springs up, he tracks my every move. I pull two cushions off the couch and lay them out next to him. I lay down and at last he is reassured and drifts off to sleep.
Me, I’m wide awake, thoughts a-churning. In the background I hear the lonesome cry of a train. Maybe it’s just a nearby dog. Or maybe it’s me.
As my eyes grow heavier than my heart, I slowly disappear, convinced right down to the toenails of my soul that, cousin Martha’s tin ear notwithstanding, I had that song nailed.
©Patrick A. McGuire and A Hint of Light 2013, all rights reserved.