Nine summer tales
Happy dogs and endless summers
It might surprise you to find out that the pooch featured in this year’s summer guide is one of the great tennis ball retrievers of all time. On summer days, I used to walk him at a park with tennis courts and a slow-flowing creek. At a rise in the path, he broke for the water, skittering down a hill and under honeysuckle brush that would stymie any Lab. He rooted around the creek’s edge until he found a tennis ball lobbed astray over the high chain link fence.
He trotted up the grassy slope, his jaws locked around a ball as big as his own head. He dropped it at my feet, flinching with anticipation. I would heave the ball, and although I could not always see his movements, I could hear him when he splashed into the creek, his 14-inch wiener dog body plunging toward the bobbing tennis ball. He chomped the ball, returned to shore. He looked pretty much what he was—a hound dog with foreshortened limbs struggling for survival in a foreign environment. Dachshunds, after all, were bred for digging and killing rodents (the name means “badger dog”), not for swimming and retrieving. Yet his energy seemed boundless on long summer days.
Sometimes when he jogged up the slope, I ordered him to take hold. I suspended him in air and spun him round like a cholo showing off his pit bull.
Indulge me here. Let me sing of the glorious deeds of Brutus. Let me sing of the nine lives he stole from a hissing cat. Let me sing of his 15 years, that’s 105 to you and me, even with new and improved dog food formulas.
Summertime: the season of the pet.
What is it about pets and summertime that catches us up in this bear trap of sentimentalism? People who won’t offer a quarter to a starving human will spend hundreds rescuing a roadside stray. Film images of mutilated bodies evoke a numbing emptiness, while a limping canine makes our hearts go mushy. I could publish an obituary of my aunt and receive a few kind comments. I publish my little dog’s obituary, and a flood of warmth renews my faith in humankind. What’s up?
Pets are safe. Expressing emotions on their behalf is comfortable and comprehensible. The little beasts allow us to be more benign and loving than we otherwise allow ourselves to act.
So let me stir your mushy heart (Brutus does limp, by the way) with nine brief summer tales.
One. He’s the runt of the litter. Why keep the runt for me? I asked my mom. Couldn’t sell it? I have his pedigree by summer’s end, but he looks nothing like a classic dachshund. His snout is stunted, his ears are too short, and his screwy underbite would earn him the boot from any third-rate dog show.
Two. By late summer he becomes socialized at a dog park near Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. He huddles trembling between my feet, a puppy of six or seven pounds. Thirty and 80-pound dogs leap and snuffle. A guy points to Brutus and says, “You’re a god to him.” The idea creeps me out. In an Old Testament baritone, I order Brutus, “Go play.”
Three. His first and only trip to the steeplechase races, I’m focused on my mint julep under the drowsy sun when Brutus goes missing. He’s in the middle of the grassy horse track, sniffing at the hooves of one of the field judge’s mounts. I pray he won’t bark. I hang over the fence and call to him in a sweet voice.
Four. He targets black people on the street. I wonder if I’m a racist. He has this incredible stentorian woof. People on the other side of doors mistake him for a Rottweiler. With a little therapy, Brutus overcomes his racist behavior, and I congratulate myself on my egalitarian sensibilities.
Five. I’m reading inside, taking refuge from the summer rays. I look up and see Brutus prancing stage right to stage left, a dead squirrel flopping from his mouth. The tree rat is a third the size of my hound. I futz around in the heat, not sure whether to congratulate him on his kill or scold him for transmitting disease. Brutus cocks his head to ask, What’s your problem, dude?
Six. Rock climbing at Donner Summit. Severe shadows and a desultory breeze diminish the effects of the alpine glare. Brutus prefers to free climb, no ropes, no harness. Enough said.
Seven. Hiking back on the Pacific Crest Trail from the stone cabin at Mount Anderson, I sense Brutus lagging. I cup water in my hand, and he laps it up. Still he whines and paws at my calf. I pick him up. I’ve never done this before, except to heave him atop boulders he can’t circumvent. He is an 11-pound football nestled in the crook of my arm. He does 13 out of 14 miles by himself. I realize we have reached a turning point. This is the last of our long summer hikes together. He collapses in my pickup bed, exhausted. Given his stubby limbs, I estimate that he’s jogged the equivalent of a high altitude marathon.
Eight. Brutus has been trapped in the truck for hours when I reach the top of Rocky Mountain National Park. I crack open the door and turn to leash him, but he has already jumped out. He sprints for the tundra. Later, an embittered Coloradoan accuses me, “I saw your dog out there ruining the tundra.”
Nine. The neighbors are concerned this summer. Brutus wanders across the street, mostly deaf, completely blind in the eye with the cataract. He operates by nose. He is so low to the ground, he might get run over. Don’t worry, I tell them, that dog has nine lives. I share with them the time he jumped out of my moving pickup onto a busy highway. And the time he fell on his head and suffered years of unpredictable seizures. Sometimes people look at Brutus panting and inform me, “Your dog is thirsty.” Plus, I reply, he doesn’t have any sweat glands. Canines elicit kind intentions, which often translate into an insult—as if anyone cares for the Brute-meister more than I do. Even the mean guy at Rancho San Rafael probably had good intentions. He sneered, “I saw a rattlesnake here yesterday. Your dog would be dead.” “At least he’s small,” I said, “I could throw the body in the poop bag.” It’s the dawn of Brutus’ 15th summer. Getting run over would be terrible. But it would be a quick end. When my daughter’s new long-haired dachshund attacked Brutus, I was enraged. In his prime, I wanted to tell the fluffy little bastard, Brutus would have destroyed you. Now Brutus hides under my bed. I find myself in the ridiculous situation of measuring my dog’s “quality of life.” He eats, he poops. Every once in a while he gets excited about something. He lazes in the sun. And the question looms. When will mighty Brutus’ long summer finally come to an end?