Thursday, October 30, 2008


All week, my car has been parked in the first spot I found after getting off the highway last Sunday, when I got back from New England. It’s a Tuesday-Friday spot, to take advantage of alternate-side suspension on Tuesday for Diwali, the Hindu Feast of Lights. I was a little uneasy about leaving the car there, because the block is nonresidential, which is to say subject to crime. When I got out of the car, I noticed heaps of crunchy windshield glass along the curb—not a good omen. Just as well that I have to move it tomorrow, Halloween. Something weird always happens to my car around Halloween.

It was autumn in New England, and there was shopping and Thai food and apples and cider and king crab legs and the last of the sweet corn. There was also a burial: Shadow, a fox terrier, died. He was my buddy, and I had been warned that he was failing, so I brought him one last toy: a fuzzy orange witch with a black hat and broom. Shadow would tear off her accessories first, then knock the stuffing out of her, rip off her head, and finally remove her squeaky heart. Sadly, he died before I arrived, and never got a chance. But at least this way I get to remember him as he was: a muscular little guy, like a torpedo, with a preposterously long, bony black nose (the better for rooting in foxholes) and avid black eyes, hurtling himself at me in ecstasy when I walked through the door.

Shadow was aptly named, and not just because he was black. He was originally meant as a replacement for another small dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Stripe, who got run over on the country road outside her house when she was still a sweet young thing. For all of Shadow’s thirteen years, there was anxiety about keeping him inside the fence. His favorite toys were garden hoses and hula hoops, which he’d whip around and bark at in the front yard. He used to run the length of the white picket fence, barking at passing cars and tractors, and especially at the school bus that was taking his boy away. Over the years, the fence deteriorated: pickets were replaced by chicken wire, and the gate wouldn’t close. Shadow could have gotten out anytime, but by then he seemed to be choosing to stay inside.

Shadow lay in state in one of the bedrooms on Friday night. During the night, there were mysterious squeaks that sounded like Shadow playing with a toy. It was the bird, a cockatiel (he and the dog were friends). It was as if he were imitating Shadow at play. The squeaks gave way to songs—the bird was accompanying himself. I'd never heard the bird sing at night before.

In the morning, the boy, Sam, now a young man, came home to bury his dog. He and his mother chose a spot across the road, and Sam went at it like a professional gravedigger. This boy has buried horses. He lifted the sod in slabs and laid it aside. After the first few shovelfuls, he used a post-hole digger to make the hole deep enough. He had bought two bags of pea-sized gravel and a bag of lime to sweeten the earth and keep any country creature from sniffing around. Sam’s mother carried the dog’s body, wrapped in a blue-and-white blanket, out of the house and across the road. Sam laid the body in the grave, along with a favorite length of hose, and we each took a ceremonial turn with the shovel. “All that’s missing is bagpipes,” I said. And someone produced a cell phone with a bagpipe ring tone.

After replacing the sod and tamping it down, and choosing a Japanese maple sapling to plant later, we went inside and reminisced, as one does at a wake. It was always hard to get a good photograph of Shadow, because his eyes and his face were so black, but I remember taking pictures as he tore apart a toy Santa, and the expression on his face when that Santa talked to him, saying “Merry Christmas, ho-ho-ho!” Shadow loved the city, and once, when he visited, I couldn’t resist buying him a red backpack at Petco. We put his cans of food in it and walked him home. Every time he went through a doorway, he would forget he was carrying a wide load and bump into the door. The last time we took him to Petco, we let him pick out his own toy. He tried out one, and then another, and then settled on the first and carried it to the checkout. It was so funny to see a dog shopping.

Later my friend realized that she had forgotten to take his collar off, and it had Stripe’s tag on it. Too bad. Shadow became his own substance years ago.


Andrew said...

That was beautiful. There are few things sadder than the death of a pet.

MJN/NYC said...

Thanks, Andrew. I didn't want to make anyone sad, but there's no getting around it.