Last Thursday, after living the first six years of his life as a largely law-abiding citizen, (I’m not counting the time he ate our rug or mistook my slippers for his; those early crimes were committed before he reached the age of reason), Rusty tossed respectability to the curb like an over chewed bone and embarked on a life of crime.
I’ve never seen him happier.
The incident took place on a drizzly afternoon. We were enjoying our usual walk when I stopped to talk for a moment with a friendly older man washing his car. He must have felt the need to explain to anyone who walked by why he was hosing down his Honda on one of Albuquerque’s rare rainy days, so he shrugged, grinned, and said, “I’m from Portland,” which I took to mean “I know this looks like rain to you, but trust me, it isn’t raining.”
The piece de resistance was an ordinary green tennis ball. Rusty has had lots of them over the years. They sit ignored in the corner in his toy basket until his friend Circuit comes over and carries all the toys outside. Rusty never takes the toys outside, because he doesn’t believe he can fit through his doggy door with anything in his mouth. He thinks Circuit is pretty cool for having this supernatural ability.
Anyway, Rusty has never cared much about any toy. He’ll play ball with you, if by playing ball you mean Rusty gets the ball, trots around a little, and waits for you to come try to take it from him. He’s never really understood the point of the traditional fetch game; it makes much more sense to him for the human to do the running.
I laughed with the car washing man and Rusty seemed to be in a hurry for once to get going, so we continued up the hill. I kept asking him what the big rush was, if he had big plans for the evening, but he was holding his head kind of funny and not answering me.
I’m not naïve to the fact that my dog can be sneaky. Rusty wasn’t even a year old the first time he faked having a goat head in his paw. We go on a lot of walks and we live in New Mexico, so we encounter a lot of goat heads. (And if you are not from New Mexico, and you are actually imagining the head of a goat stuck in my golden retriever’s paw, just go with that. It couldn’t be any more painful than what I actually mean.) We have a system, Rusty and I. He comes to a dead stop, lifts the affected paw as though he’s on point, and I, loyal servant and companion, kneel and remove the diabolical sticker.
Only this one time, there wasn’t a sticker. He just wanted some extra time to sniff out the new dog on the other side of the fence. I’m not making this up. After I fruitlessly searched his paw for a few minutes, he admitted he was faking it. He took his paw back and pointed with his head to the fence, where the now thoroughly sniffed dog was rustling around. “Sorry, I just really wanted to sniff him,” he told me, as clearly as if he had used words. Then he swung his head forward, saying, “We can go now,” so we did. I remember wondering at the time what else my dog was pulling over on me.
As he pulled me up the hill on the day he became a thief, he wouldn’t look at me. He cocked his head to the right when we reached the top to tell me which way he wanted to turn, and that’s when I saw the green felt gleaming between his teeth.
He ignored my half-hearted “drop it,” and kept going, for the first time ever sniffing absolutely nothing for an entire block. Every now and then he’d look over his shoulder at me, as if to be sure I understood that something important was happening. As soon as we got home, he ran into the house, down the hall, through the kitchen, and out his dog door into the backyard, never even slowing down to see if he could still fit.
I think he was showing his new ball his kingdom. He strutted around for a few minutes, and then came back in, ball in mouth, and lay down with it safely tucked between his paws. A little while later, he took a nap with his new ball all nuzzled up beside his nose.
If my life were a sitcom, this would be the part where the responsible parent takes the tearful child back to the candy store, makes him confess his crime, return the half-eaten candy bar, and trade the fleeting pleasure of chocolaty nougat for the presumably more lasting sense of righteousness that comes from having done the right thing.
I can’t do it. My dog is blissfully happy. I couldn’t make this elated dog give this ball back to its rightful owner if she were four years old, wearing pigtails and overalls, and standing in front of me crying.
Saturday afternoon I’m working on this essay and trying to figure out exactly what my thieving dog is teaching me about my commitment to joy and my lack of commitment to property rights when the doorbell rings. The man standing there when Rusty and I open the door is wearing Dockers and a tweed jacket, and he has some of the saddest, kindest eyes I’ve ever seen.
Those eyes, the ninety pounds of fur leaning against my leg, and the knowledge that my husband is upstairs in his office have lowered my usual “strange man at the door” defenses, so I’m actually listening when he says, “Have you ever wondered what happens after we die?”
Before I can say, “You mean, other than every day?” he hands me a pamphlet, says “There is some very comforting information in there,” tells me to have a good day, and walks off down the driveway.
These aren’t my mother’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. Growing up we lived a few blocks away from the Bethel Park Congregation on Irishtown Road, so it was pretty common for an eager believer to ring the doorbell on a summer afternoon and launch into an explanation of how we could be saved. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t hand you a pamphlet and tell you to have a good day. They wanted to convince you, and they had all the time in the world for you to come around.
One day, my mother, devout Catholic, decided she was going to make her case, too. She started explaining Catholicism to the Jehovah’s Witness, and the two went at it for a long time on the front porch.
Because it’s Saturday, I actually read the man’s pamphlet, and it’s full of Old and New Testament quotations about life after death. I’m disappointed that the argument is as circular as it is, so I find myself thinking about the marketing team who came up with the plan to focus on eternity in this year’s doorbell ringing campaign rather than contemplating life and death with capital letters.
It’s the beginning of November, so Sunday morning the banco at my church is covered in photos of the dead and we’re lighting candles. For some reason, ever since I realized I was ok with my dog being a thief since it made him so happy, I’ve had the old liberation theology phrase, “a preferential option for the poor,” in my head. It always strikes me to think how at odds that theology is with today’s politicians who claim to be on God’s side yet work to demonize the poor. “Poor in spirit” is ok; poor in body and material goods is lazy.
Not knowing who Rusty stole this particular tennis ball from, I’m not sure if my dog is Robin Hood or JP Morgan, but it turns out I’m just rooting for joy. I’m thinking that this whole life/death thing might be a spectrum, not an on/off switch, and joy is what pushes at the far right boundary.
It’s been a week now, and Rusty’s new tennis ball is still his most important possession. He brings it to me when I get home from work, and I chase him around for a little while, and then we both flop down to rest, tongues hanging out, feeling like it’s good to be alive.