Backyard Philosophy

When I started blocking out this piece, I had half a mind to send it off to Garden & Gun as a potential submission for their column “Good Dog.” However, when I started reading through the previous installments to make sure my piece had the style, tone, and voice they’re looking for, I noticed something that threw a Mason jar of cold water on all my big ideas. By each contributor’s name, I saw phrases like “author of more than thirty books,” “senior writer for the New York Times,” and “Pulitzer Prize winner.” But despite the fact I don’t have the pedigree those other folks do (Ha! See what I did there?), I went ahead and submitted it. Sadly, three months have gone by with nary a peep from those fine folks, so I have to assume my piece was DOA.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow was a damn fine dog. And this is a story that needs telling—regardless of where it’s published. I hope you enjoy.

 

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The concept of carpe diem has always resonated with me, but Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Virgil, Horace, the venerable prophet Isaiah, or John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society) have little to do with it. Most of the credit goes to Shadow, a black spaniel mix my family adopted in the early 90s.

He came into our life the way a lot of strays do—by happenstance. My father, a co-manager of a SAM’S Club and well on his way up the corporate ladder, finally knuckled under to my grandmother’s assertion that “Every growing boy needs a dog.” (Apparently girls like me could manage without help.) So we bought a copy of the Ocala Star-Banner, looked through the want ads, and found a few people in town who were looking to match homeless pets with owners.

“Now, don’t forget,” Dad said as he buckled his safety belt, “we’re not gonna get the first dog we see.”

“Alright, Dad,” we both chirped from the backseat, unaware we’d soon make liars out of ourselves.

We figured we’d start with the pooch closest to us and work our way out from there, but there was no need. The second Shadow came walking around the corner—replete with feathery feet, wavy Cocker Spaniel ears, and caramel-colored eyes—we were smitten. And when we heard that he was found shivering in the median of I-75 and jumped into the man’s car without hesitation, well, it added a second seal to the deal.

My brother and I fell on him like a couple of overzealous courtiers, and Dad realized his earlier decree had been rendered null and void by a wet nose and wiggly butt. He sighed and asked, “How much?”

“Nine dollars,” the man replied.

It had cost nine bucks to run the ad in the paper for a few weeks, and that’s the only thing he was looking to recover from the deal. Dad only had a twenty, and no amount of reasoning could get the Good Samaritan to take it. So we shot off to the corner market, bought three Coke Icees, and came back with change. A fiver and some singles exchanged hands, the gentlemen shook on it, and we went home with a dog—our dog—in the back seat.

Shadow (so named because of his black fur and despite my aggressive campaign to name him Falkor, after the luckdragon from The Neverending Story) was a dog of many quirks. No matter what we tried, he wouldn’t bark. He didn’t like his feet touched. He sneezed when he got excited. He was especially fond of hors d’oeuvres he snatched from the cat box. But strangest of all were his eating habits. If you gave him a hamburger patty that had been broken into pieces, he’d gobble it down. But that same piece of meat served whole? He didn’t know what to do with such bounty. Rather than eat it, he’d stand patiently by the back door with the food in his mouth, waiting to make a deposit in the Backyard Building and Loan.

No matter what we gave him—hot dogs, Rice Krispie treats, pieces of steak— if it was served in bits, it went straight down his gullet. Whole, it went uneaten into the ground. My guess is he wanted to put it away for hard times. After all, his life had been one of want, and having a ready meal under a nearby tree was probably a solid idea.

His incessant need to save made me think of my grandmother—gone four years earlier thanks to breast cancer—a woman whose fists the world had methodically tightened through poverty and hard work, hunger and necessity. A survivor of the Great Depression, she washed and reused tinfoil and disposable plates, stuffed her house with furniture she might one day need, and haggled at farmer’s markets with a zeal that would have impressed even Scrooge McDuck.

But there was one thing stranger still about Shadow. The dog loved ice cubes. If we gave him a piece, he’d chomp on it in the corner of his mouth, his lip curled like some furry version of Edward G. Robinson. (Yeah, see…. I got this ice, see…) One hot summer day, we kept feeding him cubes. With pieces one through seven, he happily crunched away and begged for more, but number eight was a bridge too far. He pocketed it and headed for the back door. We all watched as he selected a spot under a sago palm, dug a small hole, and dropped his already melting prize inside.

My family chuckled, both bemused and entertained, and called relatives that night to tell them the story. But it was a moment so adorably woebegone that I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along with them. We fed Shadow so often there was no need to forage in the backyard, but every so often, we’d catch him digging up his bounty and gnawing on a disgusting, dirt-covered goodie. The thought of him looking for that ice cube and finding nothing broke my selfish, sixteen-year-old heart in a way that nothing else could. So a vigil of sorts began. I stood on our screen porch and watched every time he was let out, waiting for him to return to the spot that I knew sat empty, plundered by meteorological forces beyond canine comprehension.

A few weeks later, my hunch paid off. Shadow headed for the sago palm, and I went inside to the freezer. Walking across the yard, my right hand already numb with cold, I couldn’t decide if what I was doing was noble or beyond ridiculous. More than once, I almost dropped the ice and went back inside. But I could see him digging, digging, digging…until he hit the spot where the treasure should have been. Then he stopped, paws in the earth and head cocked to one side in bewilderment.

There are moments when you know things with a certainty beyond argument. There’s no way to predict when or why they happen, and there’s no denying them when they do. Like a solid thump in the gut, they nearly knock you over and then fill up every hollow in you with the knowing until your bones are heavy with it. I felt it the first time I was betrayed, the instant before I was named the winner of a scholarship, and the early morning hour when my beloved grandfather passed.

“Hey, boy,” I said, reaching down with my free hand to scratch behind an ear. Shadow turned his dirt-covered face up to me, and while distracting him with lovin’, I stashed the cubes in the hole. He must have heard them clicking together because his head whipped around, and once he saw the loot was once again where he’d left it, the poor thing nearly wiggled and sneezed himself to death with the joy of it.

Smiling, I sat down on the ground beside him, not caring about the palm fronds poking me in the arm or the Florida sun sitting heavy as a blanket on my bare shoulders, and savored the matchless sight of a happy dog.

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