Follow Your Dog

Boomer and I stride uphill, toward the farthest cul de sac. We’ll shoot through the footpath to the trail and head west. There’s another big hill that way we can tackle before pushing home. I’m in a crunch for time today, so there’s no dawdling.

As we reach the cul de sac, Boomer’s gaze is fixed on the footpath. He has the aspect of a Pointer. It seems as though he’s counting on his forward focus to overrule any inclination I might have to turn around at this point.

Behind us, a curled maple leaf jumps along the street, animated by the breeze. It makes a hollow, scraping sound. My first startled thought is that it’s an animal skittering toward us.

We stride from the blacktop to the hard packed dirt of the path. Now that we’re off the street I unclip Boomer from his leash. He gallops into his routine of leaving and retrieving scent messages. He might as well be dancing a jig. This is pure, unapologetic pleasure for my dog.

The trail’s attractions call him in a dozen different directions. He plunges into a spray of tall grass, then darts ahead to another, skids into a u-turn and races back to the first as though he’s forgotten something. More snuffling and snorting. He bounds through a pride of dandelions, investigates a mossy branch brought down by a recent windstorm, and sniffs a pudgy lab that’s waddled over to say hi.

I notice an old man in the distance, standing on the trail. It’s hard to tell which direction he’s heading. He stops frequently, and looks this way and that. I guess he’s either disoriented, or just noncommittal about continuing today’s exercise.

He’s dressed for a colder afternoon than this one. He seems breakable and weightless, like the maple leaf. His head is forward and his hamstrings are taut. Age has curled him into a crescent shape.

“Hey Boomer! Heel!” It’s my practice to bring Boomer to my side when we near someone else on the trail. He has pretty fair manners for a dog, but there’s no sense taking chances. It seems best to curtail his frolicking until we’re clear of the elderly hiker.

As the distance shrinks between us I see that he’s smiling at me. I get the feeling he’s anxious to tell me something. He’s waiting for me to come within speaking range. I smile back.

He lifts himself slightly on the balls of his feet as he begins to speak. His voice is small, without resonance. There’s something musical about it, though.

“If you’d follow your dog, ‘stead of the other way around” he offers with a chuckle, “it’d be more interesting for both of you.”

I’d expected a comment about the weather, or perhaps an inquiry about what breed Boomer might be. I laugh with him and say something like, “Yeah, I guess you’re right!” But inside it feels like he’s just nudged me off the rails of my purpose-driven recreation.

I pick up the pace, and make for the killer hill. It’s on my agenda to break a respectable sweat. Boomer dives into a posy of wildflowers, and the old man’s message echoes in my thoughts. I suppose it’s possible for angels to have poor circulation and bad posture.



Meatball lived in a ranch-style house two doors down from ours on Codwise Street. He was the Superintendent of Highways for the Town of Ulster, and his real name was Ed. I don’t know why he invited us neighborhood kids to call him Meatball; it might have been to ease the intimidation of his presence. His size and saunter, and the bigness of his voice always made me think of John Wayne. In my memory, the two men are one person.

Since Meatball was the Superintendent of Highways, Codwise Street was always kept in good repair. Potholes never got a chance to get too big. We didn’t have to wait long for the snowplows to come through in wintertime.

He also owned and operated the local garbage collection business. He housed his trucks in a huge garage he’d put up on the lot beyond his house. The return of his roaring white fleet in the afternoon was one of the ways we told time.

Donny Van Etten lived next door, between Meatball and me. He was my best friend until Kindergarten broadened our horizons. We spent our summers mostly doing things that made us very sweaty. That wasn’t difficult in the beastly swelter of Ulster County.

When we’d played ourselves into a sufficiently wilted state, we’d stare longingly through the fence at Meatball’s pool. If he wasn’t outside, it could take a while. Once he spotted us he’d holler, “Well, what’re ya waitin’ for? Go get yer swimsuits on!”

We’d take off like bottle rockets, and be back in no time, all suited up. It amazed us every time that he somehow knew how badly we needed a swim. It was like he could read our minds or something.

Our parents must’ve been embarrassed by our shameless angling, but Meatball genuinely liked us. We could tell. In point of fact, shameless is the perfect word to describe the way we waited for his invitation. We weren’t ashamed to be openly desperate.

It’s a hard thing to pull off without the grace of ignorance, though. As the years have accumulated, I’ve learned not to be bare. Part of becoming a grownup has meant attenuating my expectations and concealing my neediness.

But like the rest of humankind, I was made to expect good things. When I pray, I try to remember that it’s not unlike staring longingly through Meatball’s fence. I try to forget to be ashamed of my wilted, sweaty soul. It still amazes me that he knows how badly I need to be in the pool.