I. Stay off My Property
For twenty-two months in the first years of the new century, I was the principal dog walker in my family. The other candidates for this honor were gone all day at work and school; at that point in my career I worked at home, and as generations of women can attest, the privilege carries certain care-taking assumptions.
The dog needing exercise and evacuation was a black miniature poodle. She stood out well against the white wood houses and lush green lawns of our neighborhood, and was cute enough that fashionable women in black SUVs pulled over and inquired of her breeder. She weighed thirteen pounds. Her waste was apparently highly toxic, especially to the real estate values of certain special houses, and she seemed to delight in using it to advantage.
Every morning around 8:00, after several sympathetic and territorial urinations and the obligatory poop in full view of the traffic on Lincoln Street, we took our second left turn and approached the house of the Ghost Dog. At two houses away her tail went up. When we were next door, she started to growl way back in her throat. Upon actually breaching the ramparts, she pranced and danced against the leash, choking, furious, showing how brave she might be this time if the big young boxer dared to get loose, as it did just the once, running at us to menace the Brave One, who jumped immediately into my arms. Its owner called indulgently, and turned away when I yelled something about leash laws. Perhaps she believed no apologies were needed, for her immaculate demesne and proudly high taxes clearly extended to the middle, yea, even to the other side of the street. Or maybe I’m an embarrassment to the neighborhood, a healthy male walking a poodle at an hour when salary men are long gone to real jobs. But Mia never forgot or apologized. Whether in response to my ire or her fear, she never failed to take on the brute in her mind and never failed, after she vanquished him, to dash to a corner of his yard and mark it for other dogs applauding her bravery.
The next special house often featured a fat cat sunning itself on the porch. This act of aggression provoked a staring contest, then some frantic barking as I pulled Mia away. The house was somewhat ramshackle for our neighborhood, the owner a nice older woman who smiled tolerantly and clearly didn’t mind the intrusion of noise. In winter, when the cat sought an indoor radiator, only occasionally did Mia remember to look fierce and murmur in her throat. She felt no need to mark this homely property, or protect me against the entitlements of private space.
In the afternoons, right after lunch, she took me down Lincoln the other way and we made right turns through the neighborhood. We passed the local controversy, a huge Victorian painted lime and blue and yellow, with tasteful highlights of orange. Mia often saved her solid elimination for its verge, perhaps in comment, but the owner, an artist of some kind who had designs on the house for sale next door, a house as big as hers, that she would join, presumably by means of catwalks or tunnels, with hers in a kind of commune of excess, never rushed out to protest. Perhaps she took naps in the early afternoon, perhaps she was like me dreaming of endless rooms filled with books and stories and papier-mache and light.
Some time later in the walk, one person did protest and asked, in a sepulchral voice issuing from her forested porch, if that was shit Mia was leaving on her lawn. I held up plastic in her direction and said, “I use bags, Ma’am. Would you like me to leave this one with you?” Or perhaps that second sentence occurred to me later (memory well serves our indignation). Mia never marked the place again, understanding a few words of English and a few more tones of voice.
And there were the rest of the ghosts to acknowledge: the house on the corner with the L-shaped porch, the yappy dog that ran its length, and the woman who wearily told it to hush; the friendly lady, rather hard of hearing, on Chester Street and her Scottie frantically barking and hurling itself against the door as we passed; the big German shepherd behind the chain-link fence, seen but once but forever feared as Mia stopped dead in her tracks and I had to drag her along. This dog’s world is stimulated by property lines and pet territories, to be sure, but also by pure memories uncomplicated by any deadly sin of pride or envy – of the smear on the pavement and the image of boiled-egg yolk she found weeks ago and got half of, of the place I slipped on the ice months earlier, of passing scented spirits we bipeds know nothing about. Man proposes, dog disposes.
For I saw only the physical property, and obsessively proposed its future value. I envied this one’s book-lined study, that one’s grand piano in the music room, and all the turreted Victorian aeries of literary fantasies. I used to envy the newly renovated yellow house on Lincoln, a Victorian farmhouse like ours but much bigger. But a brand-new McMansion went up on the vacant corner lot, and the yellow house looked ordinary next to it, especially, I imagined, to the fellow who owned it, my own Ghost Owner.
I was a generation older than he, or so I estimated from the one time he spoke to Mia and me from the side yard of his house, trowel in hand, khakis protected by kneepads. Seeing Mia about to put a fourth foot on his grass, Mr. Yellow voiced his fear of the cascade of pee – bare spots, lowered property values, bankruptcy, Armageddon. He demanded, “Stay off my property.”
Later, having moved on without comment, I kept enough of my university training to give this phrase a close textual reading. First, there was no “please,” for the threat of uric acid or worse overturned courtesy. Next, “stay off,” not merely “keep off,” implied that he was the kind of successful middle manager not only used to planning for the future, but living largely in it. Third, the dog was not mentioned, so I myself might have been the menacing object. Fourth, by using the first person singular he denied the existence of the minivan in his driveway and the high-sprung baby carriage displayed on the porch. Finally, one didn’t say “yard” or “grass” when one tried to compete with mansions next door; one said “property.”
I myself should have been past such worry. I had vowed I wouldn’t go back to the rat race. I vowed I would read book and write essays. Yet I felt that I was back 20 years to the first, proud, addictive blush of home ownership and expected success. I never was quite so desperate for approbation that the garden shed had to match the yellow of my house, or that I had to mark my claim with a tasteful oval plaque proclaiming “1896,” but there’s no doubt that the anxiety was still there. And when the new big job came calling, I postponed my plans and went back to living in the future, back to an office job slaving for security, back to financing not only the mortgages but the persistent reverie of comfortable retirement in Maine, as displayed in the glossies.
II. The Leash
The privilege of escorting Mia extended to our country walks in Maine, but there our feelings, hers and mine, were reversed.
For a dog that preferred to be a person, the woods weren’t all that comfortable, even if the roads we walked on were paved. There were no boundaries for her to remark on, and the scents – of fox and deer and marten, not to mention rural dogs, always the large breeds and always a threat to run at us in spite of the town’s recent institution of leash laws – must have been disconcerting. Our regular mile was a literal drag: her, by me, up the hill past the dogs and deer on Bay View; and me, by her, down Canns Beach Road towards the safety of home.
For me it was a joy to be free, if only for 30 minutes, of the demarcations of property and the phantasms of IRAs. The close presence of wildlife was inspiriting. I figured I could kick the dogs in the teeth if they were loose.
But I too walked with my tail down for a while, and not only from the canine menace. For a brief time a large German shepherd lived in a duplex near us on Canns Beach Road. It was usually tied, and just barked at us as we came down the hill on the leg home. One morning there was a moving truck in the yard, and a young woman taking a break from boxes, and the dog untied – and then it was running at us. Mia went on high alert. The shepherd jumped up on me, barking. The young woman ran toward us, calling for the dog and cursing with gusto, apparently not at the dog but at us as provocateurs. She and the dog disappeared and the danger was past. Actually, there was little danger – the dog meant no harm, this time – but my suburbanity was up and I yelled a few things, including some witty comment about leash laws, to the older woman watching all this from the second-story deck. She came closer to the railing and said quietly, Clouseau-like, “It’s not my dog.”
The implications of this statement only came clear a couple of days later. We were walking past the duplex, happy enough that the shepherd had left with the moving van, when a male voice inquired from the deck above our heads as to why I had yelled at his girl friend.
I said, intelligently, “Huh?”
“That was my girl friend’s dog. You goddamned yelled at my girl friend.”
I could see him now – disheveled, paunchy, balding, apparently drunk at 10:00 a.m.
“The dog attacked me,” I said untruthfully. “There’s a leash law here. Keep that dog on a leash.”
A chair scraped back. He was gripping the railing, leaning over. “I’ll put a leash on your goddamned neck,” he shouted. I turned quickly away and walked down the hill. “Leash on YOUR goddamned neck,” he repeated, and when I was nearly out of earshot, he said, “Fucking faggot,” in some kind of dim acknowledgement of the poodle and my LL Bean jacket and the outrage of people from away taking all the good property on the shore.
I spent the next few days there worrying about human predations, and the next few weeks back in the city worrying about the unguarded house. What toxic plan for destruction and revenge would he concoct? Would he set fire to the house? Uproot the astilbes? Spray-paint “Fagit” on the garage door? I had turned into my own Mr. Yellow, a coward and a worrier, always wondering if it was safe to walk out on life.
I walk Mia only on the weekends now. The pleasure of her company is enjoyed during the week by the two women known as “A Few Good Dogs.” On stationery printed with the poems of Frost, we receive daily notes on excretory success, sparrows flushed, territories sniffed. Carolyn compares Mia to Bartleby the Scrivener: when asked to cross the road or stop sniffing the snow, she prefers not to. I walk her past the yellow house. I murmur deep in my throat against the petty bourgeoisie, and continue on, looking at the houses, and don’t think all that much about literature anymore.