At the trailhead Zora always lingers too long, inhaling the scent of other dogs who’ve peed on the boulder by the kiosk, ferreting out who’s squatted in the sage, heavy with flowering stems.

“Hurry up,” I say.  “Spending too much time here is like reading a dime store romance.  The story’s way better up ahead, I promise.”

And it is.  Off the leash, she frolics, radiating wider and wider until she finds some deer and is gone for twenty minutes.  Too long.  I worry about her driving the chase into a street over the ridge.  I worry whether she’ll be able to find me when she’s finished running that story down, creating and telling it all at once.

Over the ridge I can hear her syncopated deer song, high and yearning, joyful.

good photo, sage and sunrise

She always comes back, tongue out, sides heaving, sharing her adventures through that Sherlock of a nose she bumps against my thigh and those eyes, wild and dark.

I pretend to be mad.  I put her on the leash and ask her if it’s worth it to lose her freedom by going so far away.

But I know the answer already.  Next to storytelling about others, running to find me with her nose to the ground is her quest.

If she could talk, she’d say she can’t  invite me along to chase deer, because then there’d be no me to come back to.

2013 December 022

Categories: dogs, outdoors | Tags: , | 4 Comments


what yearning looks like

what yearning looks like

For our dog Zora, spring and fall are full of yearning.  Each cusp season, she becomes a quivering, drooling, yowling mass of desire. She desires cats.  She desires birds.  She desires the mail carrier.  But what she desires most is squirrels.  Whatever constellation of breeds she’s sprung from has programmed her to believe  she will actually win a squirrel.  Any day now.

Training for the big day involves a regimen of smearing the glass with her nose to track squirrels in the backyard, whine-singing a song that will lure them to her, hurling herself at the fence they like to traverse, and going in and out twenty times a day to monitor the premises.  There are also hours of daintily gumming a stuffed chipmunk she’s had since we got her five years ago.  Other toys roughly approximating real animals have died quick deaths in a blaze of stuffing and plastic parts.  But Chippy is very precious –she would never fully ingest it.  Chippy’s squeaker is broken.  Chippy is also missing an eye and part of an ear, and looks a little an object used to foreshadow murder in a bad horror film.  It makes me wonder what she’d actually do if she managed to catch the real thing.

Zora spent the first month she came to live with us wearing a muddy track from the mimosa tree to the telephone pole to the gate to the garden in the backyard.  We’d just redone the landscaping, which she destroyed.  Her sole quest was chasing gray squirrels, especially a pair that came to play every morning about the same time.  One day I came home to find the three of them faced off, Zora crouched at the base of the telephone pole, the squirrels immobile, noses touching, fifteen feet up.  No one moved for three hours.

At our new house we also have squirrels, red ones, who make their gray cousins seem lazy and stupid.

It wasn’t long after we moved in that we met the new object of desire.  Arturo.  He’d come calling mid-morning, squatting by the back door while eating a sunflower head from our garden and looking at us through the glass.  Which is to say he was very close to the glass.  So close he used the window as leverage to extract seeds, never taking his eyes off our lives inside.  This, of course, was a thrilling new development for Zora, who could somehow hear him no matter where she was in the house.  Arturo would stay an extra beat, watching her smash herself into the glass, frothing at the mouth, just on the other side of his nuts, before he’d scamper off the deck and up into the oak tree.

Although I do often name things when I get the itch (We have a lamp called Celeste, I’m not sure why.  My truck’s name is Stella.  John’s mountain bike’s name is Jolene, as in please don’t steal my man…), I’ve never named a squirrel before.  I don’t know why Arturo is this creature’s name, except that he is VERY distinct.  He is easily the largest squirrel I’ve ever seen.  I mean, almost the size of a small house cat.  Despite his girth, he’s fast enough to still be alive, savvy enough to dodge all my attempts at taking his photo, and very decidedly the boss of this territory.

Arturo still comes calling every day, to the delight and crazed desire of Zora.  On the deck we’ve left an acorn squash that fell out of a shopping bag, one he quickly helped himself to, so he’s got extra inducement to make an appearance.  He’s clearly getting enough to eat.  He’s bigger than ever, even for a squirrel preparing for winter.  I’m a little worried about how much more weight he can gain and still get the job of squirreling done.

arturo's snack bar

arturo’s snack bar

Lately, he’s taken to sitting up on the fence near the deck.  Other squirrels in Arturo’s posse hang out there too, though not when he’s there.  In pairs usually, they run along the fence, making a chittering racket, doing a snake-charmer thing with their tales, dancing squirrel hip-hop with their back feet.

Arturo is always alone.  And he never does any hoorahing.  He just sits.  His posture is much the same as the sunflower seed window squatting, but his safer vantage point gives him extra time to taunt Zora.  Seemingly unperturbed, he eats, unblinking, languorously, while Zora throws herself against the fence beneath him, begging him to come down.

From the kitchen window the other day, I watched Arturo sitting on the fence, surveying the yard like some kind of mob boss while he consumed an entire chestnut.  It was a long squat, even for Arturo.  Maybe he’s got henchmen to deal with the Red-tails and Cooper’s hawks that troll the yards around here.  Maybe he thinks he can take out any house cat that crosses him.  It’s hard to say.

But he was clearly feeling very comfortable, because hanging down and resting against the fence was his massive nut sack.  I had no idea male squirrels could possess such impressive jewels.  But they there were, huge and hairy and disproportionate to his frame, on display as if was a rodent porn star.

I’m not going to contact Guinness Book of World Records or anything, though a quick online search tells me I’m not the first to be stunned by squirrel genitalia.  Arturo’s junk puts every photo I saw on the interwebs to shame, though.  Also, according to Uncle Google, red squirrels are supposed to be smaller than gray squirrels, and they’re more territorial than most species.  They store their booty in caches crammed with nuts, called middens, which are usually in the middle of their territory.  I’ve seen Arturo win some impressive arboreal battles against smaller squirrels.  It seems safe to say that our yard is Midden-landia for him, and if it’s true that he can live up to 10 years or more, Arturo’s here to stay, nut sack and all.

I don’t know how old Arturo is.  This season could be his swan song.  And it’s not all about love and admiration.  Days when I know he’s been mucking in my garden, gleefully digging up garlic bulbs when there’s plenty of food if he’d just climb a damn tree, I’m tempted to get a bb gun.  Not that I’d be able to hit him.  He’s far too crafty to get taken down by the likes of me.

Still, out of love and respect, Zora and I could help him lose a little weight by both chasing him, maybe help prolong his life.  After all, we are in his territory, and until one of his minions can figure out how to arm wrestle him out of it, Arturo’s the boss.

Categories: dogs, fiction, gardening, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

just feel the road

I was only about twelve when my Dad taught me to drive.  We kept it from my mother for a few years, an easy thing to do since most of those early miles were on dirt roads in Georgia, travelled so Dad and I could troll the woods for firewood in later summer and fall.  Going woodin’, we called it. Of his children, four of them girls, I was the oldest.  For a long time I think he figured there would be no son; I was interested in learning to do what I saw boys doing, and Dad wanted to teach someone.  So I learned to play baseball, chop wood, work on cars, and drive our enormous Chevy truck.

Dad was probably often nervous, though there was never any real evidence of panic.  That first year, I wasn’t tall enough to see over the steering wheel.  I sometimes sat on a phone book if the road was narrow, and I recall always gripping the wheel so hard my hands would remember that clutched position for an hour afterward.  “Just feel the road,” he’d say, and I had no idea what that meant.  “Keep that strip along the center of the hood lined up with the right shoulder.” I’d nod and try and focus on everything at once, which was hard.  Dad sat in the passenger seat, gesturing out the window with the beer he opened as soon as I took the wheel, wondering aloud how much wood we’d need to get through winter.

If the truck got too close to the edge of the road, he’d point me away from that spot with his beer –“You don’t want to pulse the gas pedal.  Steady and mellow.  That’s the way.” –then go on talking.  Writing this makes me smile and shake my head all at once.  Those were some of the best times I had with my father.  Inside the truck’s cab we shared a sense of joint purpose and camaraderie; our mission was to get firewood, but we were working at other things, too, namely how in the hell to speak each other’s language.  I wasn’t a handful of a kid, but I was their first teenager, and that was foreign territory for my parents.  In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for the passenger to drink in the car, nor for kids to drive early.  Looking back, what was uncommon was for this to be a father-daughter ritual.

I didn’t think too much about it when I was a teen, but now that I’m a parent, living in an age full of entitled kids, hyper-vigilant parents, and too many friends who’ve died in car accidents where drinking and driving was the cause, I can’t help but see the past through a new lens.  To be sure, I won’t duplicate this driving school method with my own kids.   Still, as a teenager, I was aware of the gift I’d been given, and how being able to operate a vehicle would unfold more freedoms if I did a good job and proved I could keep calm and carry on.

Of course, I didn’t always make good choices.  Who does?  The blessing and the curse of those years is an inability to see the world very clearly.  Early on in my driving career I scratched the whole left flank of a friend’s parents’ car against their garden hose reel handle.  I wasn’t supposed to be driving that car, which is another story I’m not prepared to tell – I’m not sure I even had a license yet.  My parents made me write a formal apology, deliver it in person, and pay for a new paint job.  Another time I let the car my sisters and I shared run out of oil and it threw a rod, ruining the engine.  My punishment that time was to spend weekends with Dad rebuilding the engine.

Now I’m the parent of a teenager, and the question of driving is beginning to occupy more space in our family conversations.  For many years, I imagined I’d be the parent who taught her kids to drive early, like Dad taught me, minus the beer drinking and the chainsaw.  But I’m thinking I’m not that cool after all.  Like a lot of boys, my son Owen’s a fidgeter, a disrupter, and full of restless energy that gets him into trouble too much of the time.  He’s book smart but not that street smart, despite our (mostly) patient efforts to help him build this toolbox.

Me:                  Why did you shoot your sister in the eye with a rubber band at point-blank range?

Owen:             I don’t know.

Me:                  Please help me understand why you opened the car door while I was driving on the freeway.

Owen:             I’m not sure.  I didn’t fall out, though.

Me:                  Help me see why you were hitting golf balls down the alley toward the neighbors’ houses.

Owen:             I don’t know.  But I didn’t hit any windows.

Me:                  You understand, right, when you respond in a nasty way to a group text that more than one

person can see it?

Owen:             Wait.  That was a group text? 

I don’t want to air all of our dirty family laundry (what would I write about?), but these sorts of episodes make me really wonder about letting Owen get behind the wheel of a car, even if I’m also there, not drinking beer while gently guiding him toward good driving and decision-making skills.

To wit.  This past Thanksgiving, when part of my extended family gathered at my aunt and uncle’s farm.  On this farm they have a golf cart, which they use as a utility vehicle to get my grandmother out of the house so she can see the property and breathe fresh air.  The kids believe this to be a false use for the cart – they spend hours driving it.  Picture a golf cart packed with kids.  Owen at the wheel because he’s usually the oldest cousin there.  There’s much careening down the slope of the west pasture too fast.  Dogs chase behind because kids are fun and will feed them treats they’re not supposed to have.  Kids hang off the sides of the cart singing, screaming and frequently falling off.  Often there’s crying and fighting.  They get back on and don’t tell their parents, because then the golf cart would be put into the barn on time-out.

My dog Zora loves the golf cart almost as much as she loves cats and squirrels.  She especially loves the wheels of the golf cart, which she attacks while making ferocious attack-dog noises.  I’ve trained her not to do this, so when I drive the cart she either gets in with me or runs alongside.  But Owen thinks Zora’s frantic, yipping game is fun, and so he encourages her.

Dogs, in the end, no matter how smart they are, are not that smart when they’re on the chase.  Boys I’ve given birth to, in the end, no matter how smart they are, are not that smart when they’re in a chasing game.  You can see where this is going.

Just before Thanksgiving dinner the kids came running back to the house to report that Owen had run the dog over with the golf cart.  We all went outside, my Dad included, who turned to me to say, “You don’t let him drive the car yet, do you?” Owen was walking up the hill carrying the dog.  He put her down and she stood up, though she kept licking at her backside.

Me:                  Please help me understand why you let her chase the wheel.  We’ve talked about that a lot.

Owen:             Well.  She wanted to.  Do you think she’ll be okay? I think she got stuck under the axle.

The next day, Zora couldn’t walk.  So we spent Black Friday at the vet shopping for x-rays that told us there were no broken bones or internal bleeding.  She’s hopped up on pain meds, and she’s going to be fine, though we’re only just taking short walks.

John and I decided a reasonable consequence for Owen was no more golf cart privileges at the farm.  At least for now.  It’ll sting as an outcome, because the next cousin in line is only ten.  She’ll be delighted to be the new chief driver, though.  Owen’s also had to write me a check out of his savings account to pay the vet bill, which is doubly painful because that money is meant for his future driving self.

Owen:             But how will I have enough money to pay for car insurance when I need it?

Me:                  (Response not fit to print)

As for Owen’s official driver’s training, I’m thinking I’ll import my Dad to do the job.  As long as he saves the beer for after.

Categories: dogs, writing | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

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