Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Pack

Remember when you were a kid, and there was always that one house on the block where everyone met to play? For my neighborhood gang, it was the only house with a nice lawn, a green shag rug devoid of the pebble cairns, exposed roots and fire ant mounds of our own ignored yards. An elderly couple lived there; I have a vague recollection of a grandchild or niece who visited once during one summer, thereby providing all-time-forever-for keeps access to the verdant patch.

Our house is that house now. For dogs.

Murphy, the old black lab with the tennis ball fetish, lumbered over with a slobbery orb for us to lob as a method of greeting when we first moved here. Sylvia, our standoffish mutt, took his tennis ball and quickly determined he warranted very little attention due to his dawdling gait. He was too slow to be any fun for her; Murphy's like the chubby kid who brings the equipment to the game but still gets picked last for teams.

A year or so later, Murphy's family decided he needed a companion more fitting to their young daughters' size (and perhaps less covered in viscous goo). Murphy brought Bo over like a penance rather than an introduction—his lumbering posture apologizing, "Sorry, guys. This new kid's kind of a jerk. Can I still play?" Bo, indeed, is kind of a jerk. He runs like a rabbit and slams his fluffy little body into your ankles like a fur-covered slinky. Sylvia turns her ears back and refuses to look at him, doing the dog equivalent of rolling her eyes. His over-eager presence diminishes her entire species.

Recently, shoes started vanishing from our garage. We'd find stray pairs dotting the front yard, as if the wearers had evaporated mid-stroll. The shoes we recovered, for the most part, were not our missing footwear. Soon, cans and bottles we'd added to the recycling joined the front yard arrangements, along with someone's serving bowl and a nice box of new sidewalk chalk. Someone was taking our old stuff and replacing it with new stuff.

Finally, we caught Pete. Pete, a white pit mix with a dapper eye patch, spent a few days sitting on the periphery of the yard and avoiding eye contact, showing all the submissiveness of the new kid on the block. The boys broke the ice with him first, and soon he was rolling around in the fall grass with the rest of the pack. Sylvia finds him too large for her tastes, but she likes being able to outrun him. Pete won over Husband after day three or four of a missing boot; Husband kept instructing "Pete, bring me back my boot." On the way out to the mailbox one morning, he found the boot sitting on the front mat like an overnight package, and Pete sitting on the edge of the driveway watching. "Good dog, Pete." He had been exchanging items between three or four houses on the street, the Robin Hood of pit bulls.

I believed our house would be the neighborhood house for the boys. I daydreamed friends of the boys showing up with a whiffle ball and bat; I imagined settling petty arguments over the rules and procedures of Kick the Can and keeping a mega-pack of popsicles in the freezer for hot summer evenings. We live too far out for that to be the case, but I kind of don't mind the dogs. It makes me smile to look out and see Pete sitting on our lawn, at the edge of the driveway, with Bo flopped next to him in the sunspot. There's something affirming about being the preferred spot for a bunch of playmates, even if they do tend to poop on the grass.

As long as you don't start making them all popsicles, Sylvia groans.

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