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Wednesday, 22 February 2006 00:00

With Mike gone, train’s call is truly lonesome

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Mike and I were not exactly a match made in heaven. In fact, I didn’t think we were much of a match at all. At the time we were “introduced,” I lived in a tiny rented house with an equally tiny yard, and I already had one dog, a skittish collie named Russ, who was skeptical of anything new, especially other dogs. I barely had room for Russ, and barely got the bills paid each month. The very last thing I needed or wanted was another dog.

So when a relative called and said a cute little black puppy, “the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen,” had wandered into her yard a couple of days ago and now refused to leave, I said “no” before she got to the inevitable pitch.

“But he is so cute,” she said, pressing forward.

“No, no, no,” I said, feet planted firmly.

“If you could just see his face.”

“I don’t want to see his face. Why don’t YOU keep him?”

“You know I can’t keep him. I guess if I can’t find a home for him, he’ll wind up at the pound, as much as it kills me.”

Checkmate. I knew I had been had. I told her I’d take him, but only long enough to find him another home and that was final. I immediately began making flyers to put up around town and started making calls to everyone I knew, more or less resorting to the same sorry emotional blackmail that had been used on me. I was desperate to relocate Mike before he even arrived. Where would I keep him, even for a couple of days? What would the temperamental Russ do when she saw him? How would I keep them separated in such a small space?

The next day, Mike arrived. He couldn’t have been more than three or four months old, with his little pot belly, a shiny black nose, eyes brimming over with mischief, and razorous teeth. I sequestered Russ in the basement long enough to get my bearings with Mike. He was all over the place, tail wagging like a windshield wiper set at high speed. He snapped at bees in the yard, ran the length of the yard back and forth for no apparent reason other than to work off some energy, and repeatedly pounced on my feet as if they were a pair of small rabbits trying to get away from him. I bent down to pet him, and he licked my face furiously, as if it were covered with honey.

Already, I could feel my icy resolve melting in the warm summer sun. I had about 24 hours to find him a home, or else no one would ever be able to take him away, not over my dead body. I made him a pallet out on the deck for the night, and spent the next day doing everything I possibly could to get him a home. It was pointless. I had a new dog, and that was that.

After two or three days, I finally introduced him to Russ, who promptly snarled and then lunged at him, causing Mike to retreat a few steps and assume a puzzled look, first at Russ, and then at me, as if to say, “What is WRONG with her?” It would be nearly a year before Russ overcame her hard-wired skepticism and finally accepted Mike into the family. Afterwards, they were best friends for life. Mike grew into an enormous dog, nearly a hundred pounds of pure muscle, but Russ was always jumping on his back, gnawing on his ears or neck, swiping at his legs, anything to pester him, which he loved. He would stand there stoically, tail wagging, seeming to laugh at her feeble efforts to annoy him. Finally, he would put one of his giant paws on her neck and gently push her away. They played this game every day, for years.

About a year after I adopted Mike, I bought another house with a slightly larger, fenced-in yard, which was much better for the dogs. They stayed outside during the daytime, and came in at night. From the beginning, Mike was literally by my side all the time. If I was in the kitchen making dinner, he would sit in the kitchen and watch, sometimes getting a stray scrap of something just for being there. When I was in the living room, listening to music or watching television, Mike was curled up at my feet, or even on the sofa with me, listening to music or watching television, too. At night, he always slept next to the bed, as if he were guarding me.

For nearly 14 years, he was a friend I could always rely on, even in the loneliest of times. We saw each other through some hard times and some great times in those 14 years. In other words, we shared a life. I bought my first home, got divorced, got promoted at work, lost my father, published a book, lost Russ to a sudden illness, met someone new, started a family.

About a year ago, we had a son. Mike was there for all of it. During the harder times, we literally clung to each other. More than once, I put my arms around his neck and cried my eyes out. I did everything I could to cheer him up after Russ died, but to be honest, he was never the same afterward. I tried getting a new dog for him to play with, but it didn’t work. He rejected the new dog like a body will sometimes reject an organ transplant. Still, he persevered, and remained by my side until last week, when his arthritis reached a point where he could literally no longer walk, or even get up on his own without help.

We put him on a blanket and took him to the vet, where they tried everything they could to get him back on his feet. They kept him a couple of days and did manage to get him on his feet, but he could neither get up nor walk without assistance. When the veterinarian went to get his file, I sat with him in one of the rooms and stroked his head. He wouldn’t really look at me, not directly. I knew he was telling me goodbye. Normally, when we go to the vet, Mike trembles and relies on my calm to get through the visit — shots, or whatever treatment he needs. This time, I was the one trembling, and Mike was the calm one. One last time, he was helping me get through a hard time, one of the hardest ever.

As I sat there with him in those last minutes, our life together flashed before me in a rush of images. Oddly, I thought of the train. We live near the railroad tracks, and that damnable train comes blasting through town every few hours. The train’s whistle is loud and shrill — the better to warn away approaching vehicles or the occasional kid playing on the tracks — but for a dog, well, imagine replacing your alarm clock’s beeper with a police siren. You would howl, too.

I don’t think Mike appreciated how much I was amused by his howling like a wolf, but when the train rumbled through I would stand at the kitchen window and watch him in the back lot, his snout thrust toward the sky, his deep bass note of protest in full bellow. Sometimes I would howl along with him.

Now the train’s chorus is gone. This morning, for the first time in the 12 years I have lived in the house, the train came through with its whistle splitting the silence like a log, and there was no counterpoint, no howl, not even a whimper of protest. It was an awful, sick silence. Now there is an emptiness in the yard, in the house, in my life, that is like an amputation, some vital part of me gone. Just as I feel the trembling about to set in again, I feel something tugging at my pants. My son, looking up, puzzled, pulling himself into standing position, arms stretched up. It seems like wherever I go, he’s got to go there, too.

(Chris Cox is a writer and a teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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