My father always said that he wanted a Viking funeral. When I was small I would listen to him, a construction engineer during the week and an avid sailor on the weekend, with an inarticulate mix of wonder and horror as he'd describe the ritual: how he wanted his lifeless body placed on his sailboat with our family dog, then the boat set on fire and pushed out to sea.
Though he recounted these wishes several times, I have this meshed and sort of conglomerate memory of him seated at the head of our kitchen table. His eyes would gradually then abruptly take on a sheepish gleam as he'd share the details in the lull between the end of the meal, just before the plates are cleared, while my mother fidgeted over one of my younger brothers in a high chair, and my older brother would grin back at my dad while his face lit with that subtle glee as it did when they shared something I could not see. All the while, in subdued horror, I envisioned our dog, Rocky, a Dalmatian-Sheep mix, engulfed in flames. Would he still be alive when set adrift? Tied down? Crying and whining in a panic, trying to escape? I never asked.
And, though each time, albeit in frightened fascination, the ritual's macabre details gripped my young imagination--even as a little kid, in the end, I didn't really take my dad's wishes seriously.
I can't quite recall ever recounting this throughout my teen years or young adulthood, and certainly my father was not ever present during most of these years to rekindle--even in a momentary nostalgic sense--the retelling of his chilling funeral plans. However, it does not surprise me that recently this came to mind often, as my father is now quite dead, buried only, in a most traditional and unceremonious fashion.
Instead, indeed, his very-much-alive dog is now at his grown son's side, and I'm walking him at the pooch's usual frantic pace, through the cold drizzle of a mid-March afternoon.
The dog, an overweight black lab-mutt, reminds me more of a parade balloon than an existing, breathing creature: his short, thin limbs jut out at almost side angles from his zeppelin-like body. And he teeters from right to left legs when he abruptly stops, always to sniff fretfully around on the grassy part of the sidewalk--he could be big and black, rocking in the wind, high in the sky over a Macy's parade. The whines are loud and anxious when he does this, and though I had patience at first as I was sure he missed my dad--I cut him even more slack, convinced that dad had spoiled him terribly. But now this constant crying had begun to annoy me past any point of patient restraint.
"Knock it off," I say, giving a few tugs to the leash. Standing still I feel as though I am getting wetter, as if moving at a good clip in between the dog's frenzied stops I might be somehow avoiding some of the raindrops. I arch my shoulders and zip my black leather jacket all the way up to my chin just as the dog jerks me forward, and along to the next promising patch of green.
I am a bit taken aback when I think about not recalling having given even one thought to Dad's watery blaze of an interment throughout most of my later years. Perhaps because this is in such sharp contrast to the way I am so surprised by how often it comes to mind lately. He died in a hospital in another state, where he lived alone and drunk in a run-down apartment. I had not seen him terribly often in the years since he left and each time my mind wanders in this direction, I am immediately irritated, and try to dismiss it all as quickly.
No, though I almost wish it would, instead of inducing sorrow or some sort of melancholy reminiscence, his Viking funeral was just so much more evocative of his alcoholic grandiosity. Such were the ways he'd inflate any sentiment, over-romanticizing to the point of sheer fabrication--especially in later years during our token times together and his retelling of events or recounting family memories. And this is what provoked me so: his rewriting of a past that was also mine, my personal history, and he'd come up with these vivid detailed accounts that never happened, or true events so completely overblown that they disengaged from any original context.
I stand at the corner and wait for a car to pull into the busy two-way traffic as the dog inspects the sides of a telephone pole. He raises a hind leg and gives a quick pee, then darts into the street in front of the mini-hatchback just as it begins to hedge and it skids slightly on the wet pavement even though it is barely moving. The driver, a young woman, angrily hits the top of her steering wheel with one hand, cell phone in the other, and I give a small, half-apologetic wave, and race quickly across the street behind the dog.
In the months since I'd "inherited" him, these daily walks have had become more ceremonial than any of my other routines--in that I always did it, tired or not, and also with some sense of responsibility. I got into the habit of shooting for three walks per day, but sometimes between work and the weather, I'd settle on only two. Typically, if there were to be three, they would be two short during the day and the long one later at night. Then, around ten or eleven, even later on the weekend, I'd head up to the main street and take him all the way down to the four-way intersection, cross over, then walk the entire length on the other side, passing my neighborhood and not stopping until the schoolyard at the far end, almost downtown.
Once there, I could let him off his leash to run. In the front of the school was a wide lawn fenced in on all sides and late at night, there were no children around or other dogs with which to sniff and scuffle. I also liked to stop here because my grandfather built this school in the late 1920s. The construction and engineering firm where my dad worked, before his drinking and departure, was started by my grandfather and the torch carried by his sons. They did a lot of building in my town in the decades after this school was first constructed, including the elderly housing complex behind and the sea wall that separated the groupings of small cinder-block apartment buildings and the harbor.
I liked to sit on the granite steps of the old school and have a smoke while the dog played on the grass. He was quite adept at fetch, and I could always find an ample stick in the dirt or break one off from the thick shrubs along the fence. I would throw to the far reaches of the schoolyard from my perch on the stairs and, after a few rounds of this, the dog would decide when the game was over by lying down wherever he was and gnawing vigorously on the wood. Sitting there, watching the dog, I'd often think of my dad's dad.
Though I never met him, I'd see him as a young man from pictures I'd seen, visiting this place as a construction site some eighty years earlier. I'd imagine him standing at this very same spot on the stairs, maybe taking a break, having a smoke himself, and looking out over the wide expanse that was now a lawn with the busy main street beyond. Did he see large spaces between the older buildings now crammed with three-families and the newer apartment buildings with scarcely a driveway between them? There were certainly no Hondas or SUVs lining every part of the curb. Then, probably spotted with an occasional parked Model T or horseless-wagon ... Not paved, but covered in dirt that rose in clouds of dust during midday traffic? Did a long cosmic arm ever reach across space and time to tap him lightly on his shoulder when he paused upon these stairs, causing him to imagine how what he saw might look over eight decades in the future? Did he dream a grandson he'd never meet, pausing, late at night while walking his dead father's dog--the dog of a son who was yet even to be born--sitting on these very same stairs, thinking of him?
I stand at the corner of the schoolyard along the border of the shrubs, looking for a stick thick enough to throw. After a few fruitless moments I turn to check on the dog now lying on the far end of the lawn, rolling in the wet grass. I lift my baseball cap back and wipe at the moisture gathering on my face. He is covering himself in dead leaves and mud so I whistle. He jumps up enthusiastically and, rather than running, pants heavily in dense grey clouds as he lumbers toward me and I don't wait for him follow me behind the school to the playground.
He runs past me in the alleyway, and I catch up with him as he is sniffing in circles around the bare soil bordering the swing set. He takes a few licks from a wide puddle directly beneath in the groove worn in the dirt from swinging feet. The rain has slowed to a light sprinkle and large, wide beads of water have formed on the stationary red and yellow plastic seats of the swings.
I brush some of the soggy, withered foliage and twigs from his fur, but some of the dead leaves just won't easily give, covering him like an amber and yellow shroud, the colors ablaze even in the muted sunlight, and I clip on his leash.
The slope down to the street is covered in mulch and the sweet scent of cedar rises above my feet like invisible plumes of incense with each step, rich in the moist air. The dog is pulling me faster than I can move and my wet sneakers slide out from under me as I do a little dance in order catch my footing. I almost yell at him, but am looking to see if the tide is low enough to expose some sand beyond the sea wall. I want to let him off of his leash, for the last time, before returning home.
Though I don't usually head over to the harbor-side on this stretch of the daily walk as I usually take this longer route at night, I like to walk through the elderly housing complex between the seawall and the playground. My father worked on this project when I was in grade school, and even rebuilt the seawall and moved it back to the street to expand the shoreline some, and I always remember coming here with him and playing by myself on the slopes of wedged granite slanting down into the sand, while he met with men in hardhats and spread out blueprints on the hoods of trucks.
I liked the feeling of continuity while passing through the schoolyard and the work of my grandfather, and down the hill to that of my dad, and down again along the slant of the wall to the water. And if the tide is low enough, which it is today, I can walk the small stretch of sand while the dog runs back and forth along the water's edge and dodges the lapping tide as if it were a playmate.
I stand on the cement part of the wall that borders the sidewalk, which is wide enough to walk along and stands about four feet taller than the incline leading down to the sand. The grey sky casts a stifled pallor on the water and sand, as if drawing all the dim elements together in the same ominous shade. It is just about full low tide so I release the clip of his collar and the dog leaps down onto the beach, darting and circling back to stop and inspect a shell or mound of seaweed. He lurches forward to the water and jumps back to the sand again and then actually into the water, just deep enough to cover his legs. I am surprised as, since he has come to live with me in the colder part of November, he has always retreated sharply from rushing waves and I assumed that he was afraid of the water, but he runs happily back and forth, splashing and freely soaking himself, not bothered at all by the drizzly cold air. I spot a piece of driftwood thick enough to chuck a good distance and call to him. He stops running and cocks his head sideways, wheezing eagerly. I toss it into the water about fifteen yards to his side and he splashes toward it, a little bit deeper now.
He comes plopping onto the shore and lies in the sand, chewing on the wet wood. I skim a few stones and each throw alerts his attention. He seems to contemplate going back into the water for a few seconds each time, but returns to his prize-at-hand. I'm cold now from lack of walking, but want to give him one more round before we head back.
I pry the grey wood, soaked in saliva and sea water, from his jaws, and he stands. He playfully growls while his tail wags furiously then he stops suddenly and becomes perfectly still. He bows his head all the way down with his nose to the sand and stays there for a few long seconds, not sniffing at all but as if waiting for me.
The wood is slippery but I hold at one end and hurl it back into the water. The dog bolts after it as it splashes a bit farther out than I'd planned. He darts into the water and swims toward the area where it landed, but not directly to it. He glances back at me a few times as if for reassurance, and this strikes me as sad for a moment--his eyes just now. He almost looks worried, but turns and keeps going. The wood is floating just beyond him, and almost blends in with the grayish-green of the water and I'm sure now that he doesn't see it, but is heading for something else about ten or ten feet beyond. He is swimming furiously now, quite determined, not looking back at all.
He is getting farther out, and all I can see is the slick black of the fur on the back of his head as he is well past the wood and almost reaching a solitary mooring bobbing slowly up and down on the waves. I yell to him but he keeps swimming toward it and I realize that he is determined to fetch it. He slows down a bit for a few moments like he is going to turn around, but it is as if the rise and fall of the mooring on the current is beckoning to him. He finally reaches and grabs a tight hold of the chain and turns to face the shore and attempts to swim back with it. I'm yelling more loudly now, and pacing back and forth on the sand. I look for something else to throw in the hopes that he will be distracted, persuaded to go after it instead.
There are people on a few of the porches of the elderly housing that overlook the water who have heard my yelling and come out to investigate. The dog's head is starting to go under periodically and I'm sure that he is exhausting himself, not even realizing that he has been furiously swimming in place all this time. I don't know what to do. I'm screaming now, throwing rocks and sticks and anything I can find, and my voice is getting hoarse. Am I going to stand here on the shore and watch my dead father's dog die?
No. I will not. I peel off my jacket, throw it on the sand, and head into the water. My jeans are like a lead apron on my legs as soon as they submerge, and get heavier the deeper I go. My flesh goes numb and the muscles begin to tighten almost immediately. The dog has already gone under for the last time as the frigid water reaches my shoulders and I begin to wade toward him with stiffening limbs.
The water is just over my head where he is, and when I reach him his body is almost completely under and floating a few feet away from the mooring. I grab him by the collar with almost immobile fingers and begin to pull him back to the shore. I hold his head above the water by pulling the collar up to keep his mouth and nose exposed, but he is not breathing and his head is hanging limply to the side. His body feels light, and it is as if I am moving very slowly, almost floating as I wade some, then walk with difficulty back to the sand.
There are many people on the porches now and someone has apparently called the police because two cops stand on the wall watching me, while behind them more people have gathered along the sidewalk. The police come down onto the sand as I fumble with my jacket, trying to make my cold arms and fingers work to get it back onto my shaking body. The cops are sympathetic and tell me that they have already called the dog officer, and that they would take care of the body.
When she arrives, she and one of the cops wrap the dog in a blanket and load him into the back of her white van. They take my name and address and phone number, though I can't imagine what for. Perhaps they'll send me a bill.
After they leave, there are still a few people on the sidewalk, some standing beside their parked cars, watching me pass by them with looks of gloom and pity. I am trembling, soaked to the bone; my sneakers make a sloshing sound as I walk. Don't anyone ask me if I need a ride, now.
An older man in stained overalls and an open raincoat leans on the side of a beat-up station wagon. I look at him for a second and then away, and into the back of his car filled with paint cans and crusty drop-cloths. His hands are tightly fixed into the pockets of a yellow rain slicker.
"He was not going to let go of that mooring," he says to me, as I keep my eyes on his car. "There was just no way he was going to let go."
"Stupid dog," I say blankly as I look up, but straight ahead as I pass by him and cross the street, go past the complex, up the through the schoolyard, throwing the empty collar leash into the barrel beside the swings, and head back home.