Rufus died last week. She had been my dog for many years, though she had been living with other people since 1976. She and I had spent some good years together and some bad years, and there were times enough when we had felt like each other’s only friend. Naturally, her passing called up these times, and I wondered again for the thousandth time at the decency of fate which allows us to receive comfort from so many of our fellow-creatures.
The first time I saw Rufus was in 1967 when she was just a puppy. She was actually just a dark waggle on the end of a leash in the hands of my friend Jerry. He and his new girlfriend, Dolores, were walking Rufus, their new pal, around the quad at Wake Forest. I don’t remember how they acquired Rufus but it had something to do with getting stoned. Back in the late Sixties, a lot of people acquired pets when they would get stoned. Prior to ownership there would be a melting kind of understanding, a deep perception into the soul of an animal, a sudden flash of mutual destinies, and in this manner, a lot of little dogs and cats changed hands. As a matter of fact, many marriages between human beings occurred in much the same way, such oftentimes being the powerful romanticism of drugs.
Here was Rufus, though, and I’ll never forget her. Her alert triangular ears were perched upon her large handsome head, which in turn was connected to her small corgi body. With her anomalous features Rufus never had any trouble getting laughs. “That is the weirdest looking dog I’ve ever seen,” said a friend of mine from California when I first introduced him to Rufus. My friend Jean Morrison said, “You know, your dog is quite hilarious to look at, and she’s obviously a very nice dog too.” You see, her legs were so short and her body so long that when she got excited, which was a lot of the time, her whole body would wag, and not just her tail — which, by the way, in her younger years, was like a black plume tipped in white, always held upright, always waving. She also had large mournful eyes, and these eyes were the second thing you noticed about her.
Jerry and Dolores had just met each other, two very stoned and angry people — and now they had a dog. For Rufus it proved to be an unfortunate entanglement. Emotionally, these two adults had no business being together. They didn’t respect each other very much, though they enjoyed getting stoned together. Jerry was a skinny working-class kid from Michigan, trying desperately to play ball in the minor leagues of intellectualism, while Sharon was a big, friendly Georgia yahoo whose main pleasure in life, other than getting stoned, was looking at pictures in magazines. Later on, when they were no longer together, Jerry would characterize Dolores as dumb and treacherous and she would remember him as mean and ineffective.
For Rufus this coupling of human animals who were in charge of her life was a disaster. They fed her all right, but on those hot Winston Salem nights in their little hot box of a rented room, low in spirit and out of grass, driven almost berserk by the barking of their puppy (an inveterate barker then) they would stuff Rufus in a suitcase and throw the suitcase against the wall. Poor Rufus — like most primitive creatures she could never, without the help of a scientist, figure out cause and effect. And so the next night she would bark again, unable to connect her bark with the punishment which so inevitably followed. She wanted to protect them from intruders and never figured out that she was the intruder.
I doubt that in their lives Jerry or Dolores would ever do anything else quite as terrible as this throwing of Rufus against the wall.
At the time, however, they seemed mostly like everybody else, wandering around here and there, dropping out of school, protesting the war, getting stoned, growing up. (It wasn’t until years later that I heard about what they had done to Rufus.) And yet one must remember that as young people they were fairly defenseless themselves — living in a society that no longer had any respect for their lives. Their treatment of Rufus must have seemed to them something like a necessary solution to a problem and not the terrible act that it was. It’s only when we’re older and more at ease to decipher the hieroglyphics of right and wrong that we come to see cruelty for what it is.
A year later Rufus and I began to share a house together when Jerry and Dolores moved into the other side of a place I was renting seven miles outside of Chapel Hill. The years spent in that house were Rufus’s heydays. We lived on a huge piece of land in front of a pond with ten miles of woods behind the house. Rufus, true to her corgi instincts, would hunt in the fields around the place, looking for anything that moved, though mostly, I think, she hoped for rabbits. Her way of hunting was odd and lovely: she would run through the high grass and leap suddenly straight up into the air, higher than the grass, glancing all about her for distant movement. It was strange seeing her jump not unlike a kangaroo across the field. She began to be called Roo at this time, though I don’t remember if it was because of her bobbing up and down when she hunted.
She had the eyes of a dog, and they always had a touch of fright about them, but always in the well of her eyes one could see an intelligence not unlike the intelligence in the eyes of simple people for whom loyalty is first virtue. In my life I have been in the presence of famous and powerful men who looked at me with eyes which admitted less kinship to the human species than the eyes of Rufus.
Townley, a big and terribly stupid Doberman, lived across the way and he managed to impregnate Rufus a couple of times. He also tried to kill all the male dogs in the neighborhood who had somewhat the same idea. Rufus must have had sweet blood, however, for her puppies by Townley all turned out to be friendly animals. Abigail, who died last year, was from her first litter, and I saw her around for a decade. She was three times the size of her mother. None of Rufus’s puppies, it seems, inherited their father’s disposition. As to their intelligence, well, nobody ever claimed that Rufus was an intellectual. Townley, that feeble-brained miscreant, was shot to death in 1970 as he attacked a bitch who was tied to a post and not in heat.
These were pretty nice days for everybody. I was in love and getting married. Old Jim Snipes was alive then, a black dairy farmer from up the road, and he would come over for hours at a time, telling old stories about Carrboro which we could only partially understand, so rich was his dialect. The University was a large umbrella which protected the likes of us from the glare of war. Dope was plentiful — the price of too much smoking hadn’t yet become an obvious fact. One cold winter morning I heard that Janis Joplin was dead — she ended up dying just like every straight person said she would. A friend was mugged on the streets of New York, and that was bad. Nixon and television were doing all they could to destroy the dignity of life in the country, but, as I said, dope was plentiful so it all looked a little cartoonish to me. One day I wrote an article for a local radical newspaper celebrating the Beatles’ Abbey Road, and the next week my article was answered by an article which described me and anybody else who liked the Beatles as “capitalist pigs.” Times just didn’t seem very tough then. If a middle-class person didn’t want to die in Vietnam, he could get a scholarship and a degree which in a few years wouldn’t get you a job in a junior college.
The odd thing was that it was a time of great clarity for me and my friends. It’s not that the times were so clear or that what we were doing made a lot of sense, it was more that we were in touch with certain elemental moods and humors which would to a large extent disappear a few years later when we became bound up in second-rate marriages and started worrying about dollars. In other words, we were to lose for long periods of time the sense that existence was charming. I could apologize forever about the lack of accomplishment during those years, the degrees half-completed, etcetera, but so much that has followed has seemed overbusy and humorless and free of the dignity of real choice, heart-pulsing choice, that any apology would have to take the form of a slightly bitter acknowledgement that life does indeed get tougher, unless you’re a fool. Well, then praise be those foolish times of our life.
Watching Rufus, I must admit, was one of the primary activities of those years, and an extraordinary activity it was. I know it’s not true but it seems like I must have spent a year of afternoons watching Rufus tend her puppies and go about her business — watching her growl, bark, steal the cats’ food, and prance off in front of us on our walks, her plumed tail waving too majestically, her furry chaps sashaying across the cornfields. Raised in the suburbs of New York I had never seen these facts of life and death close up, all this licking and grumbling, this hot sucking, these winter frolics. I tell you, nothing has ever seemed so right as those afternoons with Rufus. The wet membranes of birth, the occasional puppy corpse.
The fact is, however, that while I watched Rufus during those years I was also choosing sides. Perhaps I was there for all the wrong reasons (laziness, lack of ambition, an undeveloped sense of self), but it doesn’t matter now — I mean, there was such pleasure in peering over the edge of her box while she messed with her puppies, or tried to get loose from them, or turned over, or moaned so deeply from within the small barrel of her chest. In a recent Randy Newman song, “The Blues,” one of the singer’s personae recalls how one day in his childhood, full of sorrow, he went into his room and found that a piano “lay in wait for him.” Well, Rufus lay in wait for me. She was the best way to pass time. And how much, I wonder, did I end up betraying those afternoons? That way of passing time?
Watching Rufus put me in the habit of watching simple things. Perhaps this was her greatest gift to me. Eventually I was to become a photographer and would learn by looking through a lens that there are only simple things to look at, that is, what the self can simply see; but in 1969 I still believed that the exciting things of this world were external, and that by virtue of fame or power one could achieve this excitement. In a way, then, watching Rufus was a kind of apprenticeship to that idea of reality which, as an artist, would become my only idea of reality: that unless we insist upon the universal significance of our own private lives (its pleasures and sorrows), we are doomed to remain subject to the laws of boredom and categorization by which politicians and tv anchormen keep us enthralled. I would rather photograph any dog on the street, scratching himself, than Ronald Reagan — for with the dog, I don’t know what kind of photograph I’ll get, but with Reagan I do.
Eventually Jerry and Dolores moved into town, where there were more opportunities for a marriage to end. They left Rufus with me, along with a beautiful white cat named Kathy who was soon run over by a garbage truck while she slept. For them Rufus was too intricately connected to the eternally unfinished business of their lives. Who forgot to feed the dog? Who forgot to let her out? Whose turn was it to go to Franklin Street and give puppies away? Anyway, I loved her and they didn’t, and they knew that too.
When Jerry and Dolores moved out, two older graduate students moved in next door, Phil and Victoria. Phil was in Public Health and would play around for five years with a thesis which never got written. Victoria was finishing up a degree in psychology and she used the word “cosmic” a lot when describing human relationships. I liked them both until I found out that Phil didn’t like Rufus — actually he didn’t like much of anything that walked; he couldn’t even abide himself for any length of time. When Rufus would bark at a cloud which covered the moon (what was she barking at?) Phil would scream, high-pitched and snarling, “Shut-up, Rufus!” his voice shattering whatever stillness the night had promised. Like most dog-despising people, he never tried to figure out his anger — what part sprang from the malicious behavior of dogs, what part from his own phobic self. He had no grasp on the situation. He talked as easily about the miserableness of dogs as other people talked about the mediocrity of winter tomatoes. And of course he was so bound up in his attitudes that he never realized that other attitudes were possible. “Didn’t you want to shoot that dog last night?” he would say in the morning. “What dog?” you would ask. “The one that howled all night.” “Oh yeah, that dog.” More than likely he’d be referring to a dog that had barked three times around midnight.
One morning I woke up to find that Phil had wrapped a puppy’s entire muzzle in masking tape to prevent her from yipping. To his credit he looked awfully shame-faced when I asked him about it.
Needless to say, Rufus began to sleep in the house at night, where she seemed to abide by some notion of inside-the-house, non-barking conduct.
Because Victoria as a psychologist specialized in the cosmic evaluation of reality, she developed a coterie of young men who were delicately attuned to their own vibrations. Unlike Nabokov, they didn’t find that the word “cosmic” was always in danger of losing its “s.” For the most part these young men were the sons of well-to-do Chapel Hillians, professors and doctors. They were a very unenchanted bunch, low on illusions, and sour to the whole idea of any academic achievement, since, as they knew, the universities were filled with unimpressive people, that is, their parents and their parents’ friends. From an early age many of them had been in analysis. They represented themselves as a bunch of crazy guys, but really they were spoiled. Because they were well-off, they had the leisure to take lots of drugs and to hound their own souls with their disappointment in parents and society. It was simply possible for them to prolong their childhood, and they did. Ten years later they would be okay, they would be fine — chemists, lawyers, tele-communications experts, businessmen.
Rufus was their pet, Victoria was mother, counselor, and cook. They found something cosmic in Rufus to which I was never privy. It was odd hearing them go on about her various incarnations. One of them, a lanky lad who had the honor in this crew of actually having been in institutions, swore that he and Rufus had robbed banks back in Atlantis. And once late at night I heard a loud knocking at my back door and one of these young men, standing in the moonlight very stoned, asked me politely if he could introduce a friend of his to Rufus. I roused Rufus from her puppies — four sucking and squirming and squeaking little brown creatures — and brought her to the door where the introductions were made. “Oh, wow, Rufus, how are you?” said the young man. “This is my friend Willy, man, and he’s from St. Paul. Hey, man, look at her eyes. You’re telling me that’s a dog? Hey Rufus, how you doing? Look at her eyes, man. Rufus, you’re far-out.”
Living next to Phil and Victoria, Rufus was caught between the devil and the deep blue sky.
Our life in the country came to an end in 1972 when my first wife and I moved into town. One day it dawned on me that six years of teaching English was enough. It happened while I was teaching Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen” to a classroom of bored, well-fed children. Why should I be so ordinary, I asked myself. The question was full of wonder and freedom, and I left.
The first place we lived in was terrible for Rufus, a yellow cinder-block cube next to an apartment complex and its dempstey-dumpsters. Rufus had a patch of grass about the size of a coffin to romp in. A trailer park down the road had a few mean dogs, so she stayed pretty close to home. It’s obvious to me in retrospect that she must have had some trouble figuring out her territory, but, to tell you the truth, she was the littlest dog on the block and probably didn’t sweat it much.
One day a pack of dogs came in from the country, or anyway that’s what the Carrboro dog warden called them a few minutes before he pulled a .22 rifle from the back of his truck and drilled one of them right through the eye. I guess he was right about those dogs, but it still left me a little shaky. He figured killing dogs was just part of his job.
Because it was such a lousy neighborhood for her, Rufus spent a lot of time in the house with our baby, John Keats, who had just been born.
I should add that Rufus was not a dog who instinctively liked children. When she got a chance to know a child, she would be devoted in the way that dogs are devoted to children. But her special light didn’t shine on a child the first time she met him. In fact, she was probably disappointed in you for allowing such an unpleasant creature into her presence. She never forgot the way my three-year-old friend, Lydia, picked up one of her puppies, a little goofy black-and-white fellow — with her thumb in his eye and her fist wrapped around his ear. Rufus lunged at Lydia and made her cry and would have bitten her had not my voice commanded her to desist. For a second I felt like biting the child myself. A year or two later she nipped my best friend’s child, Brendan, under the table one Thanksgiving, but none of us worried about it since we all kind of figured that Rufus was in the right, and it was after all just a nip.
A child had to prove itself to Rufus — prove that it had a little dignity and wasn’t just some little unpredictable piece of nonsense, who was dangerous besides.
Raised in the suburbs of New York I had never seen these facts of life and death close up, all this licking and grumbling, this hot sucking, these winter frolics. I tell you, nothing has ever seemed so right as those afternoons with Rufus. The wet membranes of birth, the occasional puppy corpse.
Before the birth of my child Rufus and I were quite a pair. Against our wishes she kept having puppies and against my wife’s wishes I spent a lot of time watching them. I guess I was doing what is now called “getting it together,” though I don’t think there’s any way to say that without sounding precious and self-indulgent. The fact is, though, that getting it together is not that easy a thing, particularly if everything came easy for the first twenty-five years of your life. And perhaps it’s not bad for your back to find itself against the wall, or to feel sometimes that everything is falling apart, or that there’s nothing you want to do anywhere on the surface of the earth, or that nothing’s coming together, or that you’re not worth much. People use a bunch of terrible words like “stress” and “negativism” to describe this necessary passage through darkness, but that’s only because they want to be happy at the expense of truth. I mean, when everybody starts talking to you with the patience and understanding of a kindergarten teacher, you’re in big trouble. All these stress-fearing souls I’ve met over the past ten years, I don’t think they have our best interest at heart. They are abstract without knowing it, and full of words.
But what I want to say here is that while I was working out the terms by which I would live my life, Rufus was the best kind of dog to have. Why? Because she was interesting and full of affection.
Now with the birth of my own son, my days of dog-gazing were going to come to an end. There wasn’t anybody left in my life who was going to encourage any more mooning around. And honestly, after having spent so many years in universities, I was curious myself as to the nature of real work, what it would consist of and how I might measure myself against it. I became a photographer overnight because there was nothing else to be. Of course I didn’t realize at the time that looking was looking — the essential nature of the task doesn’t change just because you’re getting paid for it; or at least it shouldn’t; and in the best instances, doesn’t. But I couldn’t afford to think that at the time, so important was it to give my life a new kind of order.
Rufus was neutered and her days of being a mother came to an end. It was time. She was getting on to seven; her last litter had five puppies, and at the end of a day nursing, her tongue hung out like a salmon. There would be no more winter puppies allowed in the house, and another summer of nursing would age Rufus immeasurably.
Since I was going to go into a darkroom for a couple of years and stay there until I knew what I was doing, my son became Rufus’s great companion. And what kind of companions were they? Only the best I think. For I do believe that whereas adult human beings are forever strangers to the creatures which surround them, children aren’t — that no matter how hard we try to ally ourself with the still beating heart of the world, we remain separate from it.
But a very young child is a lamb and a puppy. Truly speaking, nothing could be more remarkable. For a brief period of time Rufus constituted a large part of my son’s universe. I don’t mean Rufus as a dog moving from room to room; I mean the aspect of Rufus which existed in my son’s mind before it decided that Rufus was a “dog,” before it knew of “dog” — that somewhat risible creature whom we feed and who rewards us with what we seem to require (and which it doesn’t even give its offspring), doggy-love, the jumping and the flurry.
In Elsa Morante’s novel History, an indisputably great book about World War II, the portrayal of dogs and their lives is particularly striking. They are given a regular language which is translated into our language, but it is a language which can only be understood by children and child-like adults. The dogs in the book would never talk around normal adults, those tired sad creatures who people the streets of the earth. One child, an epileptic, Useppe, holds realistic conversations with his dog, Bella. And Morante gives us no hint that these conversations are not to be taken seriously. It is a language of the simple too complex for the mighty.
I imagine that John Keats and Rufus held conversations from which I was, as an adult, barred. Some of them, I think, were about me. There were times when I was aggravated, hot, bleary-minded and despotic, and I had the distinct feeling that these two creatures not only moved out of my way, but did so in coalition — Rufus a bit wiser as to what was ridiculous about me, my son slowly catching on.
But that was a little later. My point is that when John Keats was a creature in touch with only a few living creatures, Rufus was one of them, and a very good one she was. Knowing that my son had neither the strength or the inclination to hurt her, she moved in close, licking, the latter half of her wagging. And if as newly-born acts of flesh we seek assurance and some odd potion of peace from the eyes of those around us, eyes which gaze down at us from some unimaginable point of experience and feeling, then indeed, we were fortunate that Rufus’ eyes were among the intimate few that my son first gazed on — for, as I said, she was a nice dog. She had the eyes of a dog, and they always had a touch of fright about them, but always in the well of her eyes one could see an intelligence not unlike the intelligence in the eyes of simple people for whom loyalty is first virtue. In my life I have been in the presence of famous and powerful men who looked at me with eyes which admitted less kinship to the human species than the eyes of Rufus.
Rufus’ last great friend before we gave her away to friends in the country was Cecilia Duke, now deceased. Cecilia lived across the street from our second home, on Pine Bluff Trail, in the basement of a duplex apartment. She’s been dead seven years, but when I walk down that cool tree-lined street with its three or four houses, I still see her walking toward me, three dogs trailing behind her. What is it that some people have, what intolerable vividness? She was such an original that almost anybody who met her for the first time thought she was crazy — and perhaps as things go, she was. She had a car once and she’d park it wherever she wanted to. She was thirty-eight and said she was twenty-nine. She did a Marilyn Monroe impersonation which was unequalled in my experience. And she didn’t eat or sleep or play like the rest of us either. Also Cecilia was suffering from ailments but was too afraid of the hospital to go there — she was afraid she’d never get out once she got in. In the brightly-lit world of a hospital, with its rules and regulations, she was certain she’d be lost.
Because of her raggedy-ann appearance she would often be followed in town by a pack of adolescent girls who would shriek insults at her. Don’t ask me why. She disturbed them, I guess. But then she would turn around and perfectly mimic their high-pitched foolish voices, allowing them to hear what they sounded like: mean little birds. And they would flutter off.
Cecilia never paid any attention to eating (except for a couple of sticks of butter which she would surreptitiously eat when she baby-sat for us), until the last night of her life. By then her ankles were so swollen with fluids that she could hardly walk, but she managed to pull herself up from her apartment to the woods beside my house where she clung to a tree and screamed for me to make her a sandwich. Even though she was only a few feet away from me, I never heard her. I was stoned that night and listening for the tenth time to Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris singing “Grievous Angel,” a song I had fallen in love with. I had earphones on.
The next morning she went to the hospital where she died in a hallway. Nobody, it seems, was in a hurry to get her to intensive care.
When Cecilia died, though, Rufus had already moved to the country, and she was the reason. You see, they became great pals. Now it wasn’t unusual for Cecilia to make friends with a dog, or for that matter, with any animal. More than anybody I have ever known, she attracted them. I could launch into all kinds of explanations for this magnetism of hers, but I will try only one: animals knew that this was one human being who lived by none of the rules in which they were usually entangled. She didn’t care about the floor being clean, or if there was hair on her bed, or if they chewed things up. Nor did she mind barking. She must have been very confusing to dogs in particular, who, unlike cats, much less social creatures, live with very complicated codes of behavior.
Even before we moved in, Cecilia was firmly enthroned as the fairy godmother to all the dogs in the neighborhood. In the late afternoons they would show up at her house where she would hold court. This consisted of unloading bags of groceries which might be full of animal treats, maybe some crackers, a bowtie for a dog, bells for a cat. For a couple of weeks she insisted on putting red nail polish on the claws of all the animals who showed up at her house. Up the block Dennis was reportedly annoyed when Sparkie came home all dolled up like a tart.
And once we moved in, guess who rapidly became the court’s favorite? Well, it should have been obvious to everybody that it was going to happen. The first time Cecilia saw Rufus, she screamed — it was love at first sight. She couldn’t get over the short legs, the amazing tail, the hilarious wag. Yes, love at first sight between this large eccentric woman and this odd little dog.
From this point on Rufus divided her time between Cecilia and us. Her loyalty was of course to us, her family, but her passion was all for Cecilia. It couldn’t have been any other way. With a wave of her plump arm, Cecilia could dispense dog riches.
Perhaps an old jealousy arises here when I say that there was something a little unlikeable about Rufus in this first phase of her friendship with Cecilia. She seemed downright bossy and officious. She stayed pretty close to Cecilia’s heels wherever she went and didn’t welcome the company of other dogs. Cecilia tried to talk to Rufus about her hostility, but Rufus was too snowed to listen. She might have replied, “All’s fair in love and war.”
These animals are really in our charge. They don’t merely wander through our lives. No dog in the company of a human being is the same as a dog in the company of dogs. Like children, if we harm them when they are young, they will remain harmed forever. If we treat them well, they someday will find the means of comforting us.
And none of this would have mattered if Cecilia hadn’t decided to take a job in town (we lived about a mile and a half from downtown Chapel Hill), working for a typewriter agency which paid her twenty-four dollars a week. It wasn’t a real job of course, maybe answering the phone a few times a day, but it was just what she wanted. Unfortunately she had to walk to work, and this is where the trouble started — Rufus walked with her. And once Cecilia got to her office, nothing could more approximate heaven than sitting by her feet all day; or maybe not all day, for Rufus could be seen occasionally sitting in front of the step that led to Cecilia’s second-story office. Perhaps her love would come down soon? You never know. And then of course there was the odd foray into town, and then the short jaunt to campus where a few thousand friendships could be made and a few hundred bushes sniffed.
I would be terrifically startled on coming out of the Student Union (where I had just spent five hours disguised as a student, working in a darkroom which didn’t have to be dismantled every morning when the sun came up) to see Rufus cavorting on the campus with ten other dogs, rushing here and there after squirrels, glancing ruefully at students who might have a sandwich in their hand.
“Goddamnit, Rufus!” I would yell. “Go home!”
And off she would run, her plumed tail waving, right back to Cecilia.
In fact, around 1974, Rufus and Cecilia became one of our town’s recognizable oddities. A large, handsome, sweet-faced woman, wearing no shoes, her clothes sometimes torn a little here and there, her short blond hair sticking out in a few directions, walking happily down the crowded streets, preceded by a sassy and funny-looking little dog who obviously regarded her mistress and charge as nothing less than a queen.
And then one day, a year after a leash law was put in effect, Rufus was picked up by the dog warden while sitting on the sidewalk outside of Cecilia’s office. We were all stunned. We knew a leash law wasn’t a bad thing, but we never considered that it would apply to Rufus. Rufus and Cecilia had become something like a fixture in town, and the town dog warden had always respected this.
But this was a new warden recently hired, and he was in full agreement with the new attitudes which were beginning to prevail in Chapel Hill: let’s call ourselves a “village,” but let’s act like a town. The street vendors of the Sixties, including the famous flower ladies of Franklin Street, were banned to a side alley or a bank’s arcade, and a rigorous leash law was passed. All the dogs, even the sweet ones, dogs with no social marks against them, were to be tied to ropes all day long. Was it because they didn’t clean up their own mess?
What could we do? I went to the dog pound with ten dollars and said to the man: “How about a break? My dog follows this woman into town everyday. She’s been doing it for a year. She sits in front of her office minding her own business. Everybody in this town knows Rufus.”
He said, “Sorry, no exceptions.”
Once again Rufus stayed in the house at night so as to miss Cecilia’s leaving in the morning. No luck. When we would let her out an hour after Cecilia had left, off she would run, her nose close to the ground.
One afternoon a blue taxi drove down Pine Bluff Trail. Cecilia sometimes took cabs, so it was not unusual. However, this time the cabdriver got out of the cab, opened up the back door, and out jumped Rufus. A little note was wrapped around her collar: “The dog catcher’s been sneaking around, so I thought I’d send Rufus home early.” I asked the driver if the fare had been paid, and he said yes.
Sensing our displeasure at having Rufus in town, Cecilia began to send her home regularly in cabs. This little dog had come a long way. She was the only dog in town who took cabs.
One day Rufus was picked up again, and this time the fine was twenty-five dollars. The next time it would go up to fifty. These people were serious.
I tried tying Rufus to a long chain, but this broke my heart. As far as I could remember, Rufus had never been tied up. As she lay on the ground, dreaming of town pleasures, her high-pitched whine would drive me to distraction. Like anyone in love, Rufus had no thought of consequences. All she wanted was to be with Cecilia. And if she wasn’t tied to a tree or kept in the house, off she would go, searching for her mistress.
But what could we do? Frankly, given the shape that my household was in at that time, the small failures which were occurring daily, the sense that everybody had made too many mistakes, not to mention the existence of a few money fears, fifty dollars would have been a real catastrophe. Whose turn was it to pay the fine?
I think it was in 1976 when Rufus was sent to the country. Kindly, friends of ours who had just bought a house ten miles outside of town offered to take Rufus for us. At first it was to be an “arrangement.” We would pay for everything that Rufus needed, and she in turn would have the run of their land. My son, when everything was explained to him, liked it that way, since by that arrangement he could still feel that Rufus was “his” dog. “We’re not giving Rufus away,” we said to him. “She’s just living in the country for a while. We’re buying her food and all that.” To tell you the truth, I believed it too, and felt soothed by my own arguments. I mean, it’s no small issue to give away your dog.
Nevertheless, it was a decision of which we should have been proud. So many of our decisions at that time were bad ones (such as sending my son to school at the earliest possible moment) that this one stands out like a shining light. Our friends in the country began to love Rufus immediately, incorporated her into their family, and shortly thereafter put an end to our food offerings. My son’s mourning lasted a very short while before life itself and all its amazements re-entered his eyes to distract him permanently. He simply considered Rufus to be his dog who was living somewhere else, and that was good enough for him. When his mother and I were to separate a year later, he would have a lot more to worry about.
For Rufus of course it was the right move. The present tense in which she always lived became a “dog” present tense once she was back in a reasonably unlimited landscape with its endless smells and vegetable breezes.
These animals are really in our charge. They don’t merely wander through our lives. No dog in the company of a human being is the same as a dog in the company of dogs. Like children, if we harm them when they are young, they will remain harmed forever. If we treat them well, they someday will find the means of comforting us. A friend of mine in New York City, Joelle, owns Tula, a skinny shepherd lady with huge, silly ears, who will precisely read the intentions of every passerby when they would take their nightly walk down Avenue B — a junkie who needs money will always get a growl; somebody coming home from a bar, nothing. New York City alone is filled with thousands of old people whose only remaining friend is a dog. They are dumb animals who live close to the ground, but there is a beneficence about them, a willingness to protect and to die for those humans they have come to know well. That there are vicious dogs is no more surprising than that there are vicious human beings. Along the great scale of creation, they are surprising creatures.
There really isn’t much more for me to say about Rufus. I’d see her once or twice a year and she’d always be glad to see me, though, as she grew older, deaf and muzzle-white, her greeting to me had about it the natural courtesy which she would extend to any friend of the family. When she died last month, I was reminded of all we put her through and of all she gave back. I realized I had been honored to know this fine animal. That we had all been honored by her presence.