Thursday, January 7, 2010

Simple pleasures

People fall in love with Max before they meet him. After you spend some time with him, Max becomes a little part of you. His spirit is so big, you can get lost in it.

I don’t see it at first, not until I really start paying attention to him. The more often I venture over to where he lives next door, the more I watch Max with great curiosity. When anyone walks by, he follows at the end of his line until he can’t go any further. Mostly he carries an old worn football in his mouth and if anyone even thinks about turning to face him he drops it at his feet then stands over it, looking down. His body tenses, ears point forward as tall on his head as he can make them and he waits for whoever stands nearby to kick the ball so he can pounce on it with his big jaw open wide, clamping down. I see utter joy in that action, so I start kicking the ball for him.

That was as far as our relationship went for the first year. He was still a guard dog, though I could see right away he was more gentle giant than hardened protector. A few times I wandered over to find Quincy with his head in Max’s food bowl and Max sitting quietly by as though he was quite happy to share his meal.

I learned a little bit about where he came from, but his story has grown in my mind and I’m no longer sure what is truth and what I have imagined for him.

I do know he came from a smaller community near Thunder Bay known for its farming and he spent his first years roaming free in open fields and forests alike. When life required his owner make some changes, Max was sent to live with in-laws, our neighbours. He was still allowed to wander, but was always reattached to his line when he returned.

By the time I meet him, he is an older dog, at least he appears to be. His back is crooked and boney. In some spots vertebrae stick out as though his spine is a rope piled on the deck of a ship at sea, tied in knots and stiffened by the salt water, I want to push on his spine and loosen the links, make it relax back into its natural position.

His front legs are strong and powerful, the light golden fur that covers his large feet is tarnished gray with sand and make me think of a prowling lion. The golden ruff that grows heavy and thick at his neck furthers the comparison. Ambers and caramels, highlighted by black, paint his gentle face, which strikes me to be like that of a curious child; it is open, he hides nothing. His ears stand tall and proud on top of his head, going from light to dark to light again at the tips. If I was to imagine the perfect German Shepherd, I would picture his face. He is a gorgeous dog.

When he turns to the side though I see his back slopes down to a limply hanging tail that flops awkwardly, like it is broken. His back end is clearly withering, skinnier than his front, it looks like it belongs to another dog. When he walks, he swaggers and sways like a sailor on leave and drags the toes of his back feet across the ground. No hair grows on those knuckles.

Like Quincy, Max has an air of experience about him. He seems wise, and bush smart. He also shares Quincy’s dislike of cameras. Unlike Quincy though, he craves attention and loves people. Where Quincy was international spy, Max is the quiet cowboy.

His way of saying hello to anyone is by head butting whatever part of your body is closest. If you happen to have your head near his he will smack you right in the forehead. It’s as though his excitement suddenly boils to the surface and is uncontainable.

When I start walking him, about a year after Quincy disappeared, Max and I become fast friends. He eagerly follows Bear and I over rocky hills and dusty trails. In the winter we walk the snowy, frozen river behind the house. Even though he swaggers a bit and drags his toes Max is still a strong walker, he strides out with purpose, excited I think at the prospect of a new adventure. We never go for less than an hour.

I hate clipping him back on his line when we return. It feels like a betrayal. He stands at the end of it watching Bear and I disappear through the trees to our house. I always look back and wave, yell to him that he’s a good boy and I’ll see him tomorrow. After the walks start, we never hear Max barking anymore.

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