June - 4 - 2009
Ronnie’d had dogs ever since he was a kid. Some were bigger, some were smaller. Some well-behaved, some weren’t. Some crazy. Some lazy.
They came from various places. One of them just wandered into their house one morning, another was a hand-me-down from a neighbor who’d moved away. In any case, it wasn’t difficult to get one. Back then, in fact, if you really wanted a dog, you could just go down to the pound and pick one up for a couple of bucks. No shots, no checkup.
There was one mutt named Bosko who Ronnie had found wandering around on the side of Route 20 that ran in front of the house. He had a tag with his name on it, but no other way of telling where he’d come from. When they first saw him, Ronnie and his Dad, he had that dumb “Where am I” look on his face that dogs have just before they dart out into the road and get splattered by a car. Ronnie’d seen it happen before. A screech, a thud, a yelp, some cussing… maybe some kids crying. It’s not like hitting a rabbit or a ‘possum. This was somebody’s pet, somebody’s friend. The worst thing was always to figure out what to do with the poor thing afterwards. Do you leave it, pick it up, call the police?
One time, a long time ago, Ronnie’s cat decided to follow him to school. She just started strolling across old Route 20 during morning rush hour wanting to be part of the group. Next thing you know, she was under the tires of a big yellow school bus. She was still alive, but mashed and moaning. Ronnie had to sort of scoop her up in his arms afterwards as the bus disappeared in the distance. The driver probably didn’t even know what had just happened. Sobbing and sniffling, Ronnie carried the poor cat back to show his Mom hoping she might be able to do some magic, say a prayer, give it some warm milk. Then maybe everything would be OK.
When his Mom saw it, she shrieked and nearly fainted. The poor thing, cradled in his arms, was a limp ball of furry mush with its crushed hips and broken hind legs. There was no magic for this cat, just the wringing of hands and Mom saying, “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” After pacing around the kitchen for a while scratching their heads, they decided to take her to the vet down the road, but there was nothing they could do either. The whole thing made for a long, miserable day of school.
Bosko lucked out, though. Ronnie’s Dad was able to pull over to the side of the road, and with some coaxing, got the dog’s interest long enough to grab hold of his collar. He looked hungry and weary, glad to find some friendly faces. He was medium sized, about 30-35 pounds. Easy to manage. When they opened the car door, he just scrambled in and made himself at home in the back seat. Within a few minutes, he was out cold, dead asleep.
Bosko was a sleeper, they came to realize. He didn’t seem to have any interest at all in being awake, he just took care of all of his business behind closed eyelids, snoring and twitching. It was a good thing he snored too. That way you wouldn’t trip over him in the dark. Ronnie liked watching Bosko sleep, lying there on his blanket on the floor. It was comforting.
Ronnie had a theory that he could never quite prove, nor had he ever tried. It was that animals actually control the world from their sleep. Psychic equilibrium. From there they’d balance all the energy that waking things disturb, then bring it all back to normal. It was a bit like photosynthesis, but instead of exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they’d exchange good for bad, love for hate, light for dark and so on. Ronnie’s theory applied to all standard “sleeping” animals. For instance, cats, which includes house cats, lions, leopards cheetahs, etc., then dogs in general, including coyotes, wolves and hyenas, dingos. Theoretically, you could also include hibernating bears, but it was doubtful that you could include cows or horses and fish since they sleep funny. In the most simple terms, Ronnie included on his list only animals that stretched and yawned. For that reason, birds were also excluded.
Death was the big sleep, and the death of a dog was something that made Ronnie very sad. Lord knows that dogs die, sometimes only after a few years. He treated the death of a dog the way a soldier would honor a fallen comrade. Being a good citizen, Ronnie always tried to dispose of his animal in an approved, hygienic way, civilized way. That’s why he used to go down to the pound to deliver a dog when it died. There he knew it would be dealt with properly and humanely.
One of these times, he’d driven down to the pound in his old Chevy pickup with Bill – a dog who’d simply died of old age – in the back. As he lowered the tailgate and solemnly reached for the Bill’s body, swaddled in an old blanket, he nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a deafening “boom,” like someone beating an oil drum with a sledgehammer, then another “boom” coming from the back of the building. The noise was so jarring and disorienting that he felt the need to go around to see what it was.
There in the morning sun, a man with thick worker’s gloves and a cigarette dangling from the side of his lips was heaving something into an enormous trash bin, the kind they carry on the back of a semi trailer to use at a construction site. “Boom” it bellowed as the object hit the steel walls of the bin. The man would then reach back behind him into a pile, and with both hands and a muscular, Olympic hammer thrower’s warm-up swing, heave another one of the objects into the bin. “Boom!” Again, the thunder echoed off nearby buildings, distant hillsides, decaying in the faraway mountains.
Curious, Ronnie stepped a little closer to the bin, wondering what could be making such a noise. When he was close enough to see the whiskers on the man’s chin and the sweat on his forehead, he realized that what he was heaving into the trash were the frozen, rock-hard carcasses of dead dogs; pets who had been lovingly delivered to the pound by their heartbroken owners.
Ronnie turned and slowly walked back to the truck, kicking at the dirt along the way. Bill, wrapped in the old blanket, lay cold and stiff in the back. Ronnie studied his outline for a minute under the blanket before he hoisted himself back behind the wheel of the Chevy and pulled the rusty door closed. Its squeaky hinges let out a wail, slow and metallic, as it slammed.
Ronnie’s mind swirled like the smoke from a cigarette as he drove back to the house. The irony was almost painful in his body. “So this is how we love our animals,” he thought. The ride home was blurry, the rush of thoughts, the wind hollering in his ears. He didn’t really notice any of the usual landmarks, the turns, the other farmhouses, the potholes, as the tires kicked up a mile-long plume of dust that hurried along behind them.
He noticed the fine lemon tree outside the kitchen window as he ratcheted tight the emergency brake. It seemed very noble that day. Bill had liked to sleep under it during the day. “Maybe Bill would like to sleep there now,” Ronnie thought. He got a shovel out of the shed and began poking at the soil. Soon he was tossing heavy shovelfuls of earth to the side, careful not to cut into the roots of the tree.
When the hole was finally deep enough and wide enough, the size and shape of Bill’s old, dead body, he carefully lowered him into it. He stood for a minute over the spot and thought some thoughts that he considered would be something a prayerful person would think, even though he wasn’t a particularly prayerful person. He wasn’t accustomed to to such things, but it just seemed right. Then with his shovel, he covered Bill up with the black dirt until the hole was gone.
Over the years, two other dogs joined Bill under that tree. The lemons were big and beautiful... some of the best he’d ever tasted.