It is well after midnight and I’m standing in the dewy grass of our backyard. A puppy has been leading me by a blue leash in erratic circles for over 45 minutes. If you were to track our movements it would be like the drawings made with one of those childhood toys, the Spirograph. Tight circles looping here and there. I wander behind him, whispering words of encouragement and praise. I never thought I’d be here: A dog-owner monitoring the sleep and excretory habits of a 15-pound, 9-week-old Bernedoodle named Sully. But, here I am.
There are worse ways to pass a late summer night. Overhead, the Milky Way is a broad cloud of stars. Lightning bugs strobe on and off in the field. There is no wind. “Shooting stars” is a radically more romantic way of saying, “dying space junk.” But that’s what I’m seeing. Shooting stars, scudding east to southwest. The night is so completely still I feel somehow afraid to breathe, afraid I might ruin the perfection of the dark serenity. There is almost nothing stirring: no owls, no coyotes, no traffic ... I keep returning to this image of night as a set of talons, squeezing a larynx until sound is impossible.
The puppy seems to have finished his business, but I’m not convinced, so we stand on the wide cement back porch, and I see that the dog is enthralled. In the glow of the porch lights, moths flutter past my face, past the dog’s muzzle. Their wings are the soft sound of someone shuffling cards who does not want to be heard. The moths sometimes alight on the cement and the puppy springs on them, tiny jaws snapping.
Black ants crawl over the pale surface and he watches, as if all this were the most rapt film in the history of cinema. And there is drama. Ants slowing working their way across that surface. Moths, thumping against a Sylvania bulb, causing the light to wobble and flutter. The puppy is so tense, so entertained he’s like a kid let loose in an arcade with a 50-dollar bill. I haven’t been this exhausted in years, possibly since our son Henry was born. Those early days and nights of sleeplessness.
By and by we enter the quiet of the house. Everyone else is sleeping. The hickory floorboards creak as I guide Sully to his crate and try to coax him into the space. I lie on the floor and dribble bits of kibble into the cage. I whisper more sweet nothings. Finally, Sully is so exhausted he falls asleep on an air-vent and I transfer him into the cage. I tiptoe away and retreat to the back porch.
In literature about dogs, the prevailing trope is that pets teach us something otherwise unknowable about ourselves. Maybe it’s still too early for me to glean the particularities of what Sully has to teach me, but for now, I’m trying to see the world, and smell the world through new eyes, through dog eyes. I suppose I’m more sensitive to the fragrances on my fingers: dog-food, dirt, tomato leaves, mint ... I’m interested in the little organisms traveling across our land: the ants, the moths and butterflies, the grasshoppers.
I catch my sleep in two- or three-hour snatches, then awaken to the sound of the puppy whining. Lifting him out of his enclosure and cradling him — all dog-scent and oversized paws — is a powerfully warm feeling. I massage his belly and ribs and he rumbles out a noise I can only imagine is pleasurable. Then the leash attaches to his collar and we’re back out in the porch. Without that leash, I’d never be able to see Sully in the darkness. He’s a mostly black dog, with a patch of white on his chest and the tip of this tail. Sometimes when I’m wobbling bleary-eyed in the pre-dawn cool, sometimes my eyelids shutter as I stand, half-asleep.
If there was a moment when Sully broke through my emotional armor it may have been a day recently when I went to war with a mulberry tree near my mom’s house. The mulberry had been tormenting her for years. Dropping berries to stain the sidewalks. Attracting deer. I had no beef with the mulberry but lugged my chainsaw into town and went to work dissecting the tree. Sully sat shotgun in the truck as I shuttled loads of branches from Eau Claire out into the country for disposal. And that day, he laid his head on my thigh and I drove. I massaged his back and stomach. We rode along, amiably, quietly, like two old friends.
I realized as we traveled those country roads that the smells encased in the truck were all my favorite smells, all the smells of my grandfather. Gasoline, sawdust, chainsaw oil, fresh air, and, now — dog. My grandfather had always kept a dog, and there I was, driving his old pickup, a vehicle I’d inherited years back, his chainsaw on the floor, and a dog sitting beside me. I’d never considered until then that my perceptions of contentedness and even masculinity might ever relate to a dog, but I think all along they had. That in owning a dog, I was fulfilling some generational male need for companionship. Is that strange? As strange as setting out to write about a puppy, only to be overtaken by memories of a grandfather?
Sometimes, I’m grateful for the words I don’t plan, the unbidden prompts, the lost-and-found memories, the insights that come from exhaustion and discovery. The nights I spent awake, when I might have been asleep.