Have you seen this thing? This is just the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen!
She stands there with the toy in her mouth, holding it up as if to show me, then runs off with it, then comes back, then runs off, then comes back. With a shake, she flips it around, then drops it, and looks up again.
Get a load of this crazy thing! What IS this? It’s compelling, don’t you think?
I pick it up. Her ears are radar dishes, tracking every movement. I raise my arm and twitch, just a bit, in a fake-out, but she’s smarter than that. I fling it across the room, against the door, and she’s off like she’s tied to it with a rubber band, then snatches it, brings it back, shies away, and retreats to a safe distance to flop down on the floor with the toy between her paws.
It’s a little red fabric thing wrapped around a double-lobed rubber ball like a little snowman, trailing red straps that look like pieces of leash, just a toy without much consequence, but it is, right now—right here and right now—the most magical, wondrous thing ever created. Her long, gangly tail is uncontrollable, marking time on the rug, and she just goes after the thing again and again, from every angle, until—
She freezes, and her ears go wild, the radar searching the skies for incoming squeaky objects, and she looks up to me with her eyebrows caught in that look of perfect canine astonishment.
Did you HEAR that!? What the—
She manages to get hold of the toy just right, and it squeaks again. It only takes a second, that moment of discovery.
I did that! I made that sound, with this amazing thing! Watch!
For a moment, it looks like she’s going to need smelling salts. She brings it back to me, red tendrils aimed my way, in a dare. I take it in my hand, but she won’t let go, tussling with me in that ancient ritual that would be slightly cuter if it didn’t have something to do with a deep-down genetic understanding of how to break a neck. I give up on the fight, and she looks disappointed, then takes two steps forward and lays the toy at my feet.
Throw it throw it throw it throw it…
…And of course I do, and she races over and takes a defensive position on the other side of the room, a sudden inquisitive virtuoso of the magical squeaky toy, coming up with dozens of articulations of the sound, with long, whiny shrills and little patterns of pitched bird chatter, and I am sad for so many reasons, even as I can’t help but laugh at her.
Daisy is another kind of dog altogether. Rose, my dear little disaster, wasn’t much for toys, except for her green ball, which she’d fish out from underneath the couch, now and then, and take to her little den under the table, where she’d sit and bite it in a precise and regular rhythm that seemed to satisfy a need, making a gentle squeak-squeak-squeak until she tired of the thing.
In the last years, she just hurt, all the time, and when she felt lonely, she’d go find the ball and carry it back to her bed, then drop it, because she just didn’t have the strength even to bite her green ball anymore, not enough strength to get a single squeak out of it. I have the ball set aside, and I will give Daisy the world, but that green ball is mine alone now, something I can reach for when nothing will do but tears.
I wasn’t going to get another dog. It’s only been four months, though it seems like years have gone by, without the regulation that came from Rose, without her regular snoring, and her meals and ponderous trips to the yard, where she’d stand there, lost, wondering where she was. I wasn’t going to get a dog because sometimes the most natural thing in the world is to shy away from the things that hurt us, and that bring back the memories we’d rather let slowly fizzle away into our impending hazes of early senility, and Rose hurt, by the end, right down to that last moment, when she was there on the stainless steel table at the vet’s office after a series of seizures, sleeping under a sedative as the vet squeezed a hypodermic of red liquid into her vein.
Don’t hurt my girl, I thought, watching the moment unfurl, please don’t hurt my dog, but it was time, and she breathed in, then out, then in, then out, and that was it, after fourteen complicated years.
Daisy ran back with the toy, and I caught it, laughing, and waved it in the air, almost giddy with the ridiculousness of her, and those absurd, bat-like ears, then snapped it back and flung it into the next room.
If Daisy has the longevity Rose had, I will be fifty-six when her time comes. It used to seem so long, a stretch of time like that, and now it’s so much more conceivable, a road I’ve traveled from end to end almost three times now, and if I feel like I’ve become wise and grown into an full-fledged adult member of my species, it’s just because I’ve always been vain enough to think so.
She is so transfixed by that stupid little toy, like it’s a whole new world, and the part of me that might have made me a good parent if that had been destined for me stirs, joyously, into the flush of being. Every thought she has is telegraphic, played out on those big dumb ears and little eyebrows like sailors trading gossip on semaphore flags, and I feel like I already understand her in ways I never understood Rose, even when I tried.
Hey! Did you see my toy? I just can’t get over this crazy thing!
Daisy spins in a little circle, orbiting the tiny cosmos of the toy, then settles down on the floor and starts to play out a little rhythm of squeaky noises. It is so damned adorable I feel like I need an insulin shot, and yet I feel like I could cry.
It’s probably the first toy she’s ever gotten to keep, a novelty that she can’t quite believe yet.
She was rescued from a house in South Carolina, a festering morass of obsessive-compulsive hoarding, and the medical report points out that they pulled thirty-eight ticks off of her after they got her out of the locked crate where she’d had no food for days and no water for a while, too. They had to put her on morphine, her fleas were so bad, just to keep her from scratching herself to pieces, and yet she comes to me sleek and clean and smelling just enough like a dog to remind me that she is a dog, and now she’s my dog.
I wonder what she remembers.
I remember everything, and I wonder if that’s the invariable casualty of growing up and heading in the direction of wisdom—the sense that things cannot be divorced, that everything full of awe and wonder and delight has in it, just under the surface, deep roots tangled up in trauma. You think these things, sometimes, when you are as happy as you can ever remember being and still the ugly times are right there, right with you, as raw and vivid as ragged knots of freshly-healed scar tissue. You think these things when life changes, suddenly and almost without warning, for the better and you’re caught completely off-guard, waiting for something to cancel out what feels like it must be too good to be true.
When you’re lucky, or when you’re really grown, just like you’ve been thinking you were all along, you know that these things are always inseparable, always wrapped gently into each other like the tails of the taijitu and the truth that the things we think of as light and dark are always tied up in each other, revealed through reason and the humility that comes from realizing how little of what makes us wonderful is our own invention.
Daisy curls up ever more tightly, a ball of golden fur and ears wrapped around the little red prize, and squeaks it gently, quietly, just a few more times before she’s deep in sleep, dreaming of things I can’t even imagine, and I think of Rose and how much I loved her, and how she watched over me, even at her worst, and how she was there when things had never been harder, through death and loss and the deepest strains of depression, and she’s just gone…just…gone, and that is supposed to be impossible, because love is supposed to conquer all and set us free and make us happy forever and ever, and…
I spend enough time returning to an old familiar line from an old familiar book, because it speaks to me, and thinking about it just now, I find a tendril of an idea curling out of the soil.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
This Daisy, the one balled up on the rug with her new toy, isn’t that Daisy, and the name comes from a sentimental notion that I’ll name all my dogs from here on out after flowers, just like I did for the first one, just because of her little pink nose and the way she’d get red around the eyes like a person when she was worked up made me think of a flower and a perfectly silly name for a dog. She isn’t that Daisy, and still, the threads and tendrils and grasping green extensions of our thoughts tie everything together, and make everything about everything, on every level, unless we really work to deny ourselves that mixture of pleasure and the pain it takes to measure it by.
You think too much.
So they say, and it’s true, but some people say “think” when they really mean “feel,” without knowing it, and it’s true. I feel too much, and there are days when I know this only too well, and days when I know, at my core, that I wouldn’t change a thing, or give up any of the joy that can’t be completely separated from the moments of loss and sadness that have come and gone or are still looming, way off in the distance, when things start to wear out again. I have been lucky enough all my life to be able to fail to forget, to always have the measure of loss to remind me what’s here when I have the courage not to shy away, and if I look at Daisy and want to cry over Rose and all the things I wish I had still, it’s because I am alive and because I know that I have already seen the end of the world more than a few times, and will again. I can only escape that ending by denying myself everything else, and life is far, far too short.
Daisy is sleeping hard in that way that dogs do, when they’re curled up with their eyes pinched shut as hard as they can, and she’s far enough from here that I can gently reach for the toy, and hold it in my hand, feeling the texture of it, the cool dampness of the rough fabric it’s made from, and the way the rubber inside it yields to pressure, and right now, it’s something brought to life by the enthusiasm of a little dog from down south, who just wants something she can keep all for herself, and someone to fight her for it and throw it so she can chase it and chase it and chase it again. Her eyelids twitch slightly, and I hope I’m there in her dreams.
On my desk, the green squeaky ball sits where it’s been for months now. I start to reach for it, but stop myself.
The world keeps on.
© 2009 Joe Belknap Wall