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Leaning

My god, the moon. Silver light flows down from it like honey. I could have driven here without headlights, could have wound up and over the shoulder of the San Gabriel Mountains by moonlight alone. It seeps into every corner of the desert, under each stone, behind each leaf of the Joshua trees here in our campsite.

Zeke knocks his food bowl over for the third time.

And a third time I pick each piece of dry food out of the dust, put it back into the shiny metal bowl. Each piece of dry food bears a coat of Pliocene lakebed soil. Were Zeke to eat it his stool samples might confuse the hell out of a paleontologist, what with their extra dose of 10-million-year-old tree pollen. But he won’t eat it. He never eats dog food on the road, but subsists on corners of sandwiches and take-out hamburgers.

Zeke watches me refill his bowl, wanders over to drink a bit of dust-covered water, then walks off toward the moon. He gets ten feet and then his tether goes taut, upending the food bowl again.

He has been patient today, so I have been patient with him. Four hundred miles from our house to Altadena, two hours spent in the shaded truck as we visited with Becky’s friend Lan, and then another two hours in the truckbed as I drove back into the Mojave. Lan’s parents would never let a dog stay in the house, or at least Becky would never presume to ask. She works into the night in Altadena preparing for Lan’s wedding feast tomorrow, and Zeke and I shiver in the desert. It is summer, and we are only at 2600 feet, but the wind is strong and constant in this part of the Mojave: it might as well be winter for the numbness of my fingers.

This morning Zeke took off full-tilt after a ground squirrel at a gas station in the Central Valley, skidding to a comical halt a foot in front of the barbed wire fence between them, all in less time than I needed to tell him “no.” I have told him “no” today with remarkable frequency. I prime the gas stove, light the burner, watch the flame leap and smoke until the burner warms. After we left Becky in LA he balked at getting in the truck bed. He always wants to ride up front with me, to stand on the shift lever and pull up on the handbrake with his dewclaws, to drip friendly spit on my right shoulder. His nails punctuated the rhythm of truck tires slapping the concrete slabs on the Antelope Valley Freeway: every two minutes he would claw at the window of the cab. In Rosamond I relented, opened the window as I filled the tank. He surprised me: instead of slithering awkward through the tiny window as usual, he just stuck his head into the cab and grinned the rest of the trip, an interminable 35 dead tired miles, blinking with me at the brief bright lights of Mojave and then back out into the illuminated lunar desert. He is remarkably tolerant of his tether tonight. He usually complains. He chewed through three of them before I found this one, a braided metal cord sheathed in thick vinyl. He sits at my feet as the water starts to boil, his tether in slack and dusty loops.

Lid off the pot, four scoops of coffee, lid back on the pot. In his first month with me we went to San Juan Ridge in the Sierra. A friend was living there, dating the son of a famous poet, and she invited us to visit while Becky was in China. Famous Poet’s son was glad to see us. He and I had worked together for a year. We left Zeke at my friend’s house and went to watch the solstice sunset on a nearby hill with some locals, then sang carols outside Famous Poet’s workshed. Son introduced us all — I was, apparently, the only one there with a last name — and then we trooped off to a party. I decided to check on Zeke first: it was only a mile’s walk out of the way. He was gone when I got there, the flimsy side door ajar. Five minutes of panicked searching and I heard a metallic clinking. The house stood at the edge of a cliff above the diggings; he was hiding in a small cave below the lip. If not for his trembling making his tags jingle, I would not have found him until morning. Something had spooked him but good, and after a brief joyous dance at seeing me again he resolved not to part from me for the rest of the evening. At the party, he had nearly chewed though the leash I used to tie him to the porch rail in the half hour it took me to realize he was the only one there at all interested in me. I sat on the porch for two hours with his head on my lap as the Ridge folks talked to each other.

That was five years ago and he has only started to relax, his separation anxiety abating to the point where he no longer howls every single day while we’re at work. A few drops of cold water in the pot to settle the grounds. I tap on the side of the pot to speed things along, hold my hands up to the moon to warm them. Old Luna has moved westward the way she does, and the white and crenellated badland cliffs across the valley grow striped shadows where wind and rain have furrowed them. We arrived too late to claim the sheltered campsites at the base of those cliffs. The wind has scoured this campsite clean of all but the Joshua trees. It rakes Zeke’s fur, the moon so bright I can nearly count the hairs. The ranger station was closed when we arrived, at ten PM or so, and I didn’t put six dollars in the box, not having anything smaller than a twenty. I wonder if we’ll be rousted tonight.

I pour myself a cup of coffee. There is a small bald hill behind us, a mound of white Pliocene sediment fair glowing bathed in moon. I unleash Zeke. We climb the hill. It seems taller from the top than it did from the bottom, the truck surprisingly small. The moon washes out all but the brightest stars. No tragedy there, as I mainly know the winter sky. Polaris is at my back: I would recognize the Great Bear if I turned around. No matter: the earth and moon are cosmos enough tonight. Zeke trots up and down the hill a few times, tail wagging hard against the wind.

And then he comes to sit with me. We look out southward over the desert. My god, the moon! We can see the layers of annual Pliocene flood in the lakebed cliffs a quarter mile south, the windshield streaks where I hit the wiper fluid lever to clear the worst of the dust. We can see the veins in each Joshua tree leaf. I sip my coffee, strong and still warm in the cup, and look at Zeke. He is grinning at the landscape.

He leans into me companionably, still watching the cliffs.

It is a thigmotropic partnership, this pairing of dog and human: we crave touch. Some touches reach deeper than others. The first long drowsy embraces Becky and I shared as a couple were like none I had ever felt. We fit, somehow and undeniably. One past lover’s fingertips rooted themselves comfortably in my central nervous system, and all she did was trace, light as air, the tendons in the back of my neck as I drove. How many times has Zeke rubbed up against me, stood there in the way as I walked in the door with the groceries and I would chide him? Not tonight. He leans into me and I am drowned in light, I sip my coffee and he leans into me, my dog breathes soft against my ribs and an owl takes wing from the far cliffs, and I sit here and Zeke with me and he leans.

Tonight, this moment atop this hill under this moon, tonight is the distillation of Zeke and me. It is endless.

And yet it will end, and we will sleep fitfully in the truckbed and tomorrow Zeke will wait patiently as I buy a truckstop shower, and he will sit in the cab under a shade tree during the wedding, with his guilt-stricken man checking on him every fifteen minutes, and then the drive home. Months, years will pass. Time will be taken for granted. He will look longingly at me as depression settles in for months, as I can barely rouse myself to walk him. He will stand with Becky and me as we argue toward divorce and back again. He will move with us from house to house, walk with me in desert heat and mountain snow and coastal stream, and I will recall this moment. I will remember this moment forever, I think to myself, and one day ten or eleven years from now, a week before Christmas, when he collapses in the little park near our house and cannot get up again, and tears steal their way down my face as the park staff console me kindly, and I wonder whether he will ever have a good day again and whether the time has come, and I wonder how cruel it will be to wait until Becky’s winter break so that she might spend a few days with him, and I’ll hoist him and after a moment of resistance he will relax and lean his shoulder into mine as I carry him all the way home and I will remember for the thousandth time this night in Red Rock Canyon. I will long again to have just stayed here, frozen in time atop this little hill under this cold summer moon, Zeke leaning into me content.

7 thoughts on “Leaning

  1. CCP

    I know this post is about Zeke.
    I don’t know Zeke. You either, for that matter.
    But I know Red Rock Canyon.
    And I know that campground, and I’m pretty sure I know that hill.
    I definitely know that moon.
    Your writing is so evocative, I can almost feel that lean.
    Keep on.

  2. Rob G

    but it got me at the end

    Sneaky bastard does that. You think you’re almost home free, then WHAM.

    Love to Zeke.

  3. Robert M.

    Moments ago, I had to explain to my boss why I’m crying at work.  I pointed her here, and I think she understands, because she hasn’t said anything else.

    There are moments, and friends (not limited to the two-legged kind), that we are not meant to forget.  Through my tears, thank you for sharing these.

  4. Sean Peters

    Your story reminds me of my own childhood dog, who died while I was away at college. I’m sure it’s not much consolation, but at least you can be there with him in his last days.

    You and your family are much on my mind these days. Wishing you peace for Christmas…

    Sean

  5. Suzanne Zane

    Thank you for this post. Just thank you.

    I miss my Cody dog so much, 3 years now since he died. Your words helped me to bring back what that lean was like. And the camping. And the moon.

  6. Cathy

    Once again, Chris, this is just the most beautiful writing anywhere.

    I want to tell you that your blog, especially this series about Zeke, speaks to me and for me as I struggle with the loss of my sister.

    Much love to you, Becky and Zeke.

  7. Heraclitus

    Chris, you probably know about the poetry of Galway Kinnell, but just in case you don’t, I thought I’d mention it and recommend it to you.  I think you’d like it a lot.  And, of course, amazing post.