Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Not such a ruffian

“Is he a big suck?” asks the man behind the counter.

For a minute I am not sure he is talking to me. I am distracted by the fact that Murdoch did not start barking angrily at my back as I walked away from him and is not currently causing a scene in the parking lot.

I glance out through the glass door at my car where it sits at the gas pump, the passenger side window open just enough for Murdoch to stick his big head through. He stares at the building into which I have disappeared, his bottom teeth visible as if he is in the middle of saying something rather important, his brown eyes wide with mild concern.

How odd, I think, pondering the normalness of my dog at this moment. I very much want to reply, “Yes, he is.” But I can’t.

“Sort of,” I answer the man, thinking about how Murdoch likes to lay his head in my lap sometimes or lean against me when I am sitting at the computer, but then how it all usually ends in growling and sometimes bared teeth. And he’s really not very good with strangers at all.

“He kind of swings between big suck and I’ll bite your face off,” I elaborate.

“He looks like he could,” says the man with a laugh.

“Yes,” I say, wondering if perhaps I was too harsh. But it is not often Murdoch is out in public and I want to make sure we are all on the same page. I want people to know that my cuddly-looking dog will not delight in being approached by a well-meaning, dog-loving person, and I want people to know I have no delusions about what a well rounded, wonderful canine he is. I am not certain at all that Murdoch won’t bite. It is best just to lay that out for people.

But I am taken aback by this man; I have never had anyone ask me if Murdoch is a big suck, and I really wasn’t prepared with an answer. That was the kind of language reserved for Bear whose big black shape would loom inside the car while she looked forlornly out the window or jumped into the driver’s seat and honked the horn while she waited for us to return. No one had to ask if Murdoch was a big suck because he was usually throwing some kind of tantrum in the car, bouncing off the windows, barking intimidatingly and showing off his giant jaw with all those sharp white teeth while Morgan and I pretended not to know him.

As I look at Murdoch through the window of the store, I try to see him from someone else’s eyes, someone who has not wrestled for their life with this dog, someone who has not been dragged face-first down the road behind him in hot pursuit of a truck, someone who has not had to apologize to family members and friends when he has growled and snapped at them just for being friendly.

“He misses you already,” says another man who enters the store as the cashier hands me my change. I glance at Murds, then at the new arrival. “He’s whining for you.”

“Really?” I say and then I smile at them and skip a beat because the most appropriate thing to do next would be to comment on what a big baby he is, but in lieu of what I’ve just said I think better of it and instead stick with, “Huh. Weird.”

Not so much weird that he is whining, but weird that these two people have both taken the time to comment on my dog and I am not trying to deny that he is mine or explain, “Well, he’s a rescue,” to a series of understanding nods.

Perhaps, I think, as I head back to the car and pat Murdoch on the head, there is hope for the big suck after all.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A warrior just the same

Murdoch and I sit on the deck, side by side in the dark, his black shape invisible against the black, black forest. Above, the sky is full of stars. Ragged treetops are silhouetted against the not-quite-blackness of it and form a sort of ring in this clearing where we sit, as though a hole has been ripped in the deepest black fabric of the universe to peak beyond at another place entirely.

It is a warm evening after a string of warm days, a small and brief resurge of summer, and the air smells like yellowed leaves. In the woods somewhere, in that complete darkness of a moonless night, a bird sings a short refrain and then it is silent again.

I arrived home in the dark and called to Murdoch at the door, “It’s just me,” when I heard the uncertain deep rumble in his throat. I did not want to frighten him again like we did the other night when he didn’t know it was Morgan and I, and we literally scared the crap out of him.

That night we did not go directly to the house as usual after we pulled the car into the driveway, instead we stood in the dark discussing one thing or another before wandering up the gravel path to the door. Murdoch was not silent like he usually is when he hears us coming, but barked loudly, uncertainly and, in hindsight, I suppose alarmingly.

As I reached for the outer wooden screen door, Morgan, in a playful mood, whispered, “Wait!” then he stepped in front of me and banged on the door, rattled it on its hinges, and then pulled it open and threw open the main door behind it. We stepped back, expecting a wild beast to come leaping across the threshold, but it was silent and as I peered through the window I could see Murdoch had backed up as if to hide behind the door.

“I think we scared him,” I said.

“No way,” said Morgan, and then called, “Come on Murds!”

But he didn’t come out. He was busily sniffing the floor in a distracted manner and as we stepped inside we were greeted by a heavy muskiness, his scent had exploded over everything and on the floor, a little brown lump.

We were stunned for a moment and then our hearts sank. “We really did scare him,” said Morgan. “I feel terrible.”

“He’s trying to clean up.”

“He doesn’t have to do that,” he said, and ushered both Murdoch and I outside. Where Murdoch paced at the door until I managed to distract him with a stick and we played fetch by flashlight.

So, tonight when I again came home in the dark and heard the beginnings of an uncertain bark, I spoke to him through the door, let him know I wasn’t some giant dog-eating bear emerging from the woods, and invited him outside with me on to the deck to sit and look at the stars.

Beside me, Murdoch’s furry bulk is reassuring, companionable, and I feel such remorse for scaring him the night before, for embarrassing him. I never expected him to react the way he did, my big ferocious dog who will show his teeth before he licks your face. But then, I think, what better way to mask your fear in a situation you don’t trust. Be the first to intimidate.

I wrap my arm around his shoulder, squeeze him closer, kiss the side of his face. He growls. I nod to myself and smile and think about all the things I don’t know about my dog as we sit side by side in the black night, content in the quiet and solitude, just he and I and the stars brilliant overhead.