My dog died, and a week later, my second son turned one.
I got Gita the year I turned sixteen. A quid pro quo, with the quo my being kinder to my mother’s boyfriend. A smart negotiator, I asked for the quid upfront, and rapidly abandoned any attempt at the quo.
I found her in the classifieds section of the Globe. Do people still do that? There used to be at least a column a week dedicated to puppies. For years, I’d read every listing for pugs. This was, essentially, pre-internet — I’d barely even seen a pug. But I knew what I liked: something endearingly funny-looking, snuffly, a people-pleaser. Years earlier, I’d owned a hedgehog for the same reason. The purebred pugs cost more than my mother was willing to pay (maybe I was not the only smart negotiator). This was around the time puggles were starting to take off; as a result, every breeder around was experimenting with cross breeds. A chipug? A pugoodle? How about a hug? I don’t remember what drew me to the jug above all other mashups. Faint reminiscences of Wishbone, perhaps. But there they were: a litter of jugs in Taunton, priced at around six hundred a pop.
Gita was the runt, which is how every good dog story begins, isn’t it? She had a black face and paws and a wriggly little fawn body. Her snout was more like a jack russell’s than a pug’s, and even though I thought I’d wanted those wrinkles and the snuffles that came with them, once she was in my hands, I didn’t.
“She’ll probably max out at twelve pounds,” the breeder told us. A slip of a thing. In the beginning, she fit neatly into the plush-lined pocket of my swim parka.
I’ve been reading Pout Pout Fish so often I know it by heart. Gita, like the squid, was squirmy, she was squelchy, she was slightly impolite. She was wild for our other dog, a big German Shepherd Malamut mix named Hansel — and he was equally, if more geribundedly fond of her. They had the same coloring, and the same thick, tufted underfur. Often, they would take off for jaunts around town, occasionally venturing as far afield as the Medfield State Hospital, where they’d be picked up by the police and driven home.
Gita is as much proof as any that there are seasons of life. In her first seasons, she was all Jack Russell, minus the barking. She could jump up ontop of my bed, four feet off the floor. She easily, gamely accompanied me on five mile trail runs. She had a field day with larger dogs, zipping between their ungainly legs and making them dizzy.
By the time I graduated from college and moved to Cambridge, she’d moved into a second season, and was almost all pug. Hansel had passed away. Gita had always been an eater, but now she was no longer offsetting all that eating with daily multi-mile rambles. When she moved into my little studio apartment in Cambridge, she was twenty-eight pounds, and looked more like a seal than a dog.
It was hard to put her on a diet when she lived to eat. Instead, I made her walk to my office in Watertown, and often back. Soon she was slim enough to enjoy it.
Apart from a predilection for begging, and badgering the trash cans she was too small to more thoroughly investigate, she was a perfect office dog. One Halloween, after we’d moved back to New York, she wriggled under a bathroom stall in her triceratops headpiece, startling — and then forever endearing herself to — our VP of product.
She was gentle, and tolerant, and had little need for people when it wasn’t mealtime, all traits that evinced themselves more and more over the years. By her final year, her presence was mostly felt in bodily traces, effluvia we groaned over, then erased. Her walks shortened and shortened until a block was more than she could manage. She grew thin, her bones finally apparent. At first the thinness was from muscle loss, but then her appetite — that thing that defined her — diminished. She was so light by the end.
She died in my arms while my sister looked on. We buried her in the backyard, just past the stout conifer I’m hoping to garland like hell come holidays. A week later, Irving turned one.
I bought a last-minute pie and my mother came over and we sang, earnestly, as he looked with big eyes at the tiny flame in the middle of a great expanse of pastry. The candle was in the shape of the number three, a remnant from my own birthday the previous year.
I think a lot about the relative lack of documentation afforded him, whereas I updated the diary of his brother’s first year daily. Though in truth, most documentation of either child ceased once I returned to work. I want to be fair, but realistic. I want to write, but I also want to exercise, to spend an hour after the kids are down with my husband, to pour through Tender and Plenty, to eat half a weed gummy and mindlessly, sloppily fold laundry. I want to write but in the little time I give to it, I think: I should finish this draft. I should end the years-long hold this novel has had on my life. And then i sit down to write about my now-dead dog and end up writing about my second son and don’t know as I’ve actually said much about either.
But oh, how I love this boy. My heart crimps like a shell anytime I think of him. The concentrated exuberance on his face as he walks towards me; his leonine romps up stairs. His soft half-away murmurs, the way he plays his lips like a washboard. How he bounces an adult-size basketball off the kitchen wall and catches it; bounces it again. How he fills his little wagon with cans of tomatoes and chiles he’s taken from the pantry. How he goes wild when he spots a dog.
I took a management training at work and learned that 7% of how we interpret any given conversation has to do with the words themselves. 60% is body language; the rest is tone. A tricky set of ratios in this day and age. I don’t read much into body language; I don’t look so much at the body. But tone — I’m very sensitive to, despite my own tendency towards monotone. Anyways, what this ratio, if it holds water, means is that babies have less of a handicap than you might think. Babies and dogs, for that matter.
Irving says “ball,” “dog,” “milk,” “more.” The last a full-body effort, with pounding fists and thrashing torso.
I listen to the bands of my youth. Guster, Dispatch, Radiohead. I bellow “Four, three, two, one / like a barrel of the gun” to the boys as we bomb down the flats heading out of town. I walk through the forest, through great pines and little beeches with their glowing yellow leaves. I read Luster and am thrown fullforce back into the city. My misspent youth was easier, softer, cushioned by whiteness and wealth — but shitty apartments and dull jobs “coordinating” and odd nights turned over to your true passion — the thing you are best at and yet is worth, somehow, much less than coordinating — and most of all, the veneer of sophistication we afford to older men simply for their having lived longer, for their “thirty-eight years of paid Con-Ed bills” and “mastery of middling wine lists” — these things are lingua franca of the city’s fledglings.
Perry and I go apple picking. I try to teach him the word “peck,” but he sees no use for it. A bag is a bag; the point is to stuff it until the string handles leave deep grooves in my forearm.
We call a man to see about some goats. Brady has sheared away much of the underbrush, but a seething patch of bittersweet remains. The goat man wears an outback hat and speaks with a twang; he tells us that the black cherry leaves, edible when live, turn poisonous as they dry. Cyanide. “Lots of plants do that,” he says. I look at the lawn anew. A cyanide minefield. But the goats — four little ones, Nigerians — will eat the bittersweet.
I finish Luster, start Home, by Marilynne Robinson. I was instantly drawn in because of the language, which is like a string of tea lights at night: simple on its surface, but hard to improve upon. The story is about a woman, Glory, who’s returned to her childhood home in rural Iowa to care for her aging father, long the town’s pastor, and about her brother, Jack, who returns as well, for reasons not yet made clear. Glory is the good daughter — but she’s also recovering, in a stifled way, from heartache (her husband has left her). Jack is the prodigal, the lone wolf in a flock of dutiful sheep — but he’s also lived, risked, made what his family considers to be grave mistakes and rebounded from them.
I’m telling you about the book as if I’ve read more than the first twenty pages. What’s stood out to me in them is Glory’s feelings about her own return, which grow more conflicted as days pass.
“The past was a very fine thing, in its place. But her returning now, to stay, as her father said, had turned memory portentous. To have it overrun its bounds this way and become present and possibly future, too–they all knew this was a thing to be regretted. She rankled at the thought of their commiseration.”
This is a very elegant way of describing a townie — a classification that I myself now fall under.
It is a strange thing, but the strangeness has been blunted by the pandemic, and the natural blur of raising two small children. (The same is true for Vermont: we look at photos from that time and think: but was it real?) Here, the setting is different, but the day’s curvature is similar. Except: here, I get to walk in the woods. It is not a thing to be discounted. The town is nearing its peak autumnal splendor but the woods will be a comfort anytime of year. Most mornings, I jot over the train tracks and into a spiderweb network of trails that run up to the borders of neighboring towns, or down to the lake, or west to the cliffs we called King Phillip’s Lookout, after the old Wampanoug Chief’s triumph here. I take one that passes an old stone wall and takes an abrupt rocky tumble before opening up into a fenny sort of field, riven with red maples and stipple bushes and a plant that looks like very tall dandelions but Picture This tells me is poisonous. It is beautiful in a lonesome way right now, but will be forlorn come winter.
The entire country, it seems, is thinking about winter — or deliberately avoiding thinking about it.
I think, myopically, that as long as I can walk in the woods, I’ll be okay.