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Nantucket
Essays
Volume 40 Issue 13 • July 29 - Aug. 4, 2010
now in our 40th season

A Noble Beast

by Robert P.Barsanti

On a hot afternoon, Homer and I sat on a Main Street bench in front of Mitchell’s.  I did most of the sitting.  Homer helped clean a toddler’s stroller.  He licked up all that nasty melted ice cream and Cheerios that had built up on the tray—and on a little pink face as well.  After that, Homer helped clean the sidewalk, he investigated the elm, and he gazed down the bricks for any wobbling croissants or pieces of bacon that might fall and become a pedestrian hazard. 

A black Labrador is his own reason.  Seated on the warm bricks, Homer suffered the affections of almost everyone that passed him.  He was scratched, rubbed, fed, and sniffed.  Strangers and tourists expressed admiration for the noble beast, and he suffered them gladly; so gladly in fact that he indulgently rolled onto his side so that a little one could more easily scratch his belly. 

Were you a dog, you would see Nantucket at its best.  You would see generous and affectionate people who will step out of their way to get you a drink or a snack.  Children would feed you Smartfood and watermelon creams.  You would wander dirt paths filled with exciting smells of deer, rabbit, and other dogs.  You would stand leg high in ocean water and fish for minnows and crabs while the occasional wave wet your fur. You would never enter a room without knowing someone’s familiar smell.  And that is how Nantucket is.  

For those of us on two legs, the island can be quite different; every blessing is its own curse.  In the hungover gray of November, the food is the same, the people are the same, the landscape is the same, and everyone wants to know when you will fix their downstairs bathroom.  Those familiar faces pen you into a permanent uniform that is slightly too small.  Doctors are always in their white coats, teachers always carry their gradebooks, and plumbers have their plungers in their carts at the Stop and Shop.  You can only buy anonymity on the boat.

The longer you stay on island, the more expensive that anonymity gets.  Old girlfriends work for ex-wives.  Prospective customers golf with the old disgruntled ones, and your old drinking buddies become cops.  People are complicated.  They have a knife in one hand, an extra beer in the other, a laugh on their lips, and a tape recorder going in their pocket.  They have different sides, different stages, and a propensity for landing face down. 

On the other hand, dogs are simple.  Their needs are petty and immutable; some food, some affection, and a quick trip to the woods twice a day.  In return, he is loyalty itself.  He greets an open door with joy, he licks tears off of faces and thumps his tail at the slightest smile.  Unlike every person on this island, he can be counted on to keep his counsel, support even the dumbest decisions, and whine sadly at the closing door.  He will rejoice in your success and nudge your leg in failure.  He is the “one absolutely unselfish thing a man can have” on this selfish island.  He will lick even the empty hand. 

Long time islanders weave their lives into their dog’s lives.  Dudley waited outside in the car while his master taught grammar.  Molly raced along the shore fetching sticks from the ambassador.  Rosie slept in the beds of doctors, nurses, and a lawyer.  Forrest and Hopey-Dope raised a Peace Corps volunteer, an actress, and a captain of industry.  Even Brownie and Billy Dexter had loving and loyal companions in their dogs. 

It’s too easy to get marooned in your head. In the small town of Nantucket, it’s too easy to hide inside a job or a house.   We put our earphones on, update our Facebook page, and brace for the next e-mailed outrage.  Everything gets weighed down with too much meaning and emotion on the island of your own skull.  We put labels on ourselves, then spend every moment trying to either erase or spotlight them.  The longer you stay marooned on the island of “I,” the more likely your dog will chew your shoes, knock over the vase, and poop on the floor. 

A dog tugs you out of yourself and into his world of good smells, long walks, and the promise of bacon.  The problem of Homer is solved by running in the woods, eating from his bowl, and pulling the legs off of an octopus.  And with the problem solved into smiles, the thump of a tail, and the stump of a stuffed animal, you can return to the island of the irresolute and unsolvable.  Suddenly, the superintendent’s interim budgetary timetable isn’t as important as well-chewed hedgehog.  His needs are your freedom. 

Homer was not mine, nor was I his.  He was a Prince of Troy and the King of  Queen Lake.  Yet, he licked my hand, rested his head on my boys’ laps, ate the crumbs and droppings off of my floor, and fell asleep under my desk.  I became one of the silly people who dropped him cheese and scratched his chest.  His loyalties lay with another, yet he shared himself as freely as he shared his hair.
And now he is gone. 

He wouldn’t eat, then he had a fever, and the vet came back talking about options.  Without pain and with the comfort of a familiar hand and voice, he left. 

Today, Homer is a hole in our lives.  He left his hedgehog and his octopus, his bowl and his bed, and ourselves.  His weight does not shift the canoe, his head no longer presses between the front seats, and he no longer weighs down the sheets at night.  We still hold the door for him, look for him beneath our feet and hear his step on the stones.  The death of a dog is not like the death of a child.  When a child dies, we are robbed of all that that child would become.  But when a dog dies, we lose all that we might become.  Without him, our lives return to being cheap, squalid, and selfish. 

At the MSPCA, the path is paved with the names of dogs like Homer.  Tucker, Tessie, Whoopie, and Stars are memorialized in granite.  They were all good dogs: “brave,” “Good friend,” and “Kind Spirit”—all words I would gladly have on my own stone.  But there is only one place to bury a dog; only one spot where he will turn his head and trot up the bank, soaked in lake water but eager at his name; only one place where he will rest his heavy head on your feet; only one bit of sand where he will roll like a puppy.  If you bury him within your heart, he will always come running.  And, on a summer’s night by the shore of a still lake, his face will glow amid the crowd of stars.

 

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