Time to get ready," my father announces at 4:45, knowing
it will take us at least a good hour to get the sand and saltwater
and suntan lotion off and make ourselves reasonably presentable
to go out for dinner.
Amy immediately notes a change in tempo of the household routine,
a new sense of direction as we drop what we're doing and go to
our rooms to get cleaned up and changed.
As I turn off the water in the bathroom, I brace for what I expect
to hear: a paw scratching at the door. There it is. Oh boy, here
I open the door and there stands Amy, tennis ball in mouth, body
twitching with excitement, her expression shouting, Me too! me
A pang of guilt. This is going to take some explaining. "Amy?
Amy? Okay, I've got to tell you what we're doing."
She swings her head back to get a better grip on the ball, crouches
down on her front paws, then springs back to a full alert standing
position, trying to get me moving faster toward this new hunt.
"Amy?" I get down on my knees in front of her, smooth
down her velvet ears, and quietly explain just what is happening.
"Amy, we have to go out for dinner, okay?"
For a split second, she looks like she understands exactly what
I'm saying and all its implications, but then catches herself,
not ready to give up so easily. Out of the corner of her eye,
she spots a glimpse of sock, loose on the floor, slyly looks back
at me, and then edges toward it.
I grab the sock and put it on the bureau.
She drops her tennis ball and stares up at it, contemplating her
"Okay, now listen," I start again. "We have to
go out to dinner, okay?"
She stops looking at the sock. She looks at me, her expression
beginning to change from anticipation of a new adventure to bad
"Okay, see, we have to go out to dinner, but we'll be right
back. Okay? We'll be right back."
Oh, is she good! Sir Laurence Olivier? Helen Hayes? Rank theatrical
amateurs in comparison with golden retrievers. Within a second,
without missing a beat or changing costumes or makeup, she has
gone from joyous anticipation to a new widow's deep despondency.
"Okay, Amy?" I pat her, tickling under her ears where
she likes it. "It'll just be for a little bit. And you know
their rule about no dogs in the dining room. I know, I don't know
why they have that rule. No, you don't slobber. Yes, you're a
very, very neat eater. But listen. We'll be right back, okay?"
She refuses to look at me as I pat her, turning her head to the
side, and in the middle of my mumbling inept apologies, quietly
turns and, as if to a dirge, walks out. Across the kitchen floor
I hear her toenails clicking.
I know exactly where she's gone. And when finally we're ready
and gather in the front hall to leave, there she is, sitting in
the living room next to the picture window, not looking out at
the sun on the Bay or at the two rabbits playing tag on the lawn
or at the covey of quail emerging from the bayberry bushes to
search for their dinner of grubs in the grass. Oh, no: she's sitting
there staring straight at the back of the big old arm chair by
Clearly we've done wrong. We have broken a fundamental covenant
of her pack: that we all are the same—fellow rovers on earth
for a moment in time—one for all and all for one; a covenant
of eternal friendship. We are leaving her. Like sinners, one by
one we slink to the front door, ashamed of ourselves.
"We'll be right back, okay?"
"Amy, be good. You watch the house."
"Hurry up! hurry up!" my father orders.
Not even a glance. She looks at none of us, keeping her eyes straight
ahead, staring sadly at the middle of the back of the big old
Feeling like we have betrayed our best friend and not that interested
after all in going out ("Should we save the money and stay
home and finish the meatloaf?" "It's too late now, we
have reservations." "Don't be ridiculous, she'll be
fine."), we sneak out the front door, quietly closing it
From our table by the floor-to-ceiling windows, we watch the sun
setting behind the pine-covered hills across the Bay as a lone
sailboat makes its way back to harbor. The shallow bowl of New
England clam chowder with oyster crackers floating in it is the
taste of summer, the last drops of it mopped up with a piece of
one of those little homemade muffins, moist with native blueberries.
Swordfish, caught offshore that day, and then the warm Indian
pudding, as it can be made only on Cape Cod, with just a dollop
of vanilla ice cream on top. Oh, yes! But in the back of all our
minds is our friend, home alone, staring at the back of a chair,
waiting for our return.
Our nagging concern, of course, is that maybe it isn't acting,
that maybe golden retrievers experience a range of emotions unknown
to humans, higher highs and lower lows, uncontrollable joy we
can only dream of, unthinkable loneliness and despair we can only
hope we'll never confront. Mixed together in our huckleberry friend
is a child's exuberance, a sense of wonder of the moment, and
a philosopher's perception of "time's winged chariot hurrying
near." Why, when our time is so short, she seems to question
at each departure, why would you even think of leaving?
So, as much as we want to linger to look at the perennial garden
to try to figure out just how they get it looking so good with
the regal delphiniums blue as the Bay, mounds of coreopsis shining
like tiny suns, shasta daisies that whisper of summer meadows,
and the purple lavender, scenting the darkening September evening,
we hurry along to the car and home.
Golden retrievers know how to make you feel lower than a flea
on a cat's belly, but they never, ever hold a grudge.
We open the front door. There she is, quivering with delight,
squealing her joyous welcome, racing from one to another, jumping
up and hugging the legs of those whose legs need hugging, wriggling
from head to tail in pure happiness, squeaking in excitement,
making it quite clear that all is forgiven. From bottomless dejection
to boundless joy. Her family is home. Her pack is back. One. Two.
Three. Four. All here. All's right with the world. Who could ask
for anything more?
The worst, of course, is at the end of a ten-day or two-week stay.
By then, Amy has convinced herself, quite logically, that we have
come to our senses and agreed forevermore to be a part of her
pack. So sure of it is she that she has begun to cut down the
number of her nightly bed checks to confirm we are still there.
Of course we're still there. We will always be there.
And then early one morning, a morning just like every other morning,
a morning when our first weather observation notes the sun rising
above the Strong Island marsh and sparkling on the blue water
of the channel, a day with a brisk sailing breeze blowing through
the apple tree outside the dining room window, a day that will
be perfect for another adventure, there, on such a morning, suddenly
out of nowhere, there by the front door is: a suitcase. Once Amy
catches sight of it and stares for a moment at it, it's as if
the light were leaving her life, forever. No interest in eating.
No interest in what is going on at the breakfast table. No interest
even in a nibble of banana. It's happening again, damn it all,
she says to herself, or retriever words to that effect. They're
deserting my pack again.
"You're in complete charge, you know," my sister instructs
me if she's the one who has to leave a few days before me. "Take
her to Morris Island right after breakfast, okay?"
"Yeah, we will."
"And plenty of dog work."
"Otherwise, she's going to be morose."
"You're in charge."
"I know," I say, knowing full well the questioning looks
I will get that day, and the way, halfway down the beach at Morris
Island on a beautiful morning, Amy will remember, and stop, and
refuse to take another step forward, and how, when she gets me
walking in the right direction—back to the car—she
will pick up speed and fast walk all the way to the road, looking
neither to the right nor to the left, and wait by the door of
the car to get in, and, when we get home, the vigils by the front
door, and the wandering into the empty bedroom during the day,
and the bed checks for the next few nights that, night after night,
reveal an empty bed, and the toenails clicking across the kitchen
floor on her way back to her bed.
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