“We don’t know very much about him. He doesn’t seem to be into anything like toys or fetch or what have you. But he likes treats. As you can tell.”
Indeed I could. The tennis ball the shelter volunteer had thrown across the play area rested untouched in the close grass. The big white bird dog I was considering adopting on a temporary, let’s-see-if-I-like-him basis had watched her throw it only because of the sudden movement. He cared about the unlimited possibilities locked within that tennis ball the way I cared about Keurig revolutionizing coffee, which is to say, not at all.
But the treat jar.
That was a different story.
The dog, I guessed, was about 70 pounds, white with a brown mask across his face and mismatched floppy hound dog ears, one solid brown and the other white with brown spots. He was big like I like them, but I had come for a brindled boxer mix. When I was told my pick was “kind of a handful,” I asked what they had in the way of a submissive good companion, someone who didn’t need a lot of attention or exercise.
“I am looking for a glorified stuffed animal,” I said.
I was still in shock from walking out on my yellow Lab, Ginger, 18 months earlier, when I left my first marriage. Her middle name was Fireball, and that damn dog lived up to every letter and then some. I loved her, we were inseparable, and I was the only one she would listen to when she chose to listen, which was only when she was being told to do something she wanted to do anyway. I drank a lot to not think about leaving her behind, she would have a great life with my ex-husband and his family and they loved her, but in her heart and mine we belonged together. I was her person. I never told her I was leaving. I just left and never saw her again. Then I got sober, spent a year without a dog, and didn’t admit it until several years later, but I was standing at this no-kill animal rescue partly because I was a dog person in search of a dog but mostly because I needed to make amends to Ginger. Every promise I failed her I would make up this time around.
“We call him Buck,” the volunteer said. This previously uninterested in everything dog wiggled in the sit position impatiently, eyes darting hopefully between the lid of the treat jar and her. The second the lid made its clinking scrape of release, revealing the hodgepodge of donated goodies inside, ol’Buck couldn’t stand it anymore, sprang to attention, and began stomping in circles, pushing into her legs, stomping in circles, nosing the jar, sitting, standing, holding out one paw, and eventually sitting for a split second so he could snarf the treat from her hand and peer hopefully at the still-open treat jar. “Okay, one more,” she said. Snarf. “Okay, one last one.” Snarf. “This really is the last one.” Snarf. He had this great clown-face smile, this “oh, goody!” look for the treats, the only time I saw anything that resembled a personality.
“He would eat the whole jar,” she said. She laughed and tried to pet him, but he didn’t get that any more than he got the tennis ball thing, so he sat patiently by the treats until he realized it really was over. His face closed up again, and he trotted off to sniff the grass.
“We have to warn you,” she said. “He has been adopted out once but was brought back. He isn’t house broken.”
Oh. This dog was probably seven or eight years old and not housebroken. He’d been at the rescue a little over 18 months and didn’t seem like kind of dog I was looking for. God, I prayed on my to the shelter, just the right one. Not what I think I want, but the right one. I’d learned this handy prayer in recovery soon after I discovered how poorly motivated my decision making skills had grown after ten years of drinking every day. For some people, getting a dog is a simple matter of choice. In this moment of my life, I thought that’s what I was doing, making a simple choice. I had to start practicing love and commitment, but there was an angry part of me super unwilling to love another animal like I had loved Ginger. I had a plan: I would care for this dog, but I wasn’t going to let him in.
“I can house break him,” I said. “But I need a week. If he hasn’t caught on, I’m bringing him back.”
I wrote TRIAL RUN on the top of the adoption contract. I’d never had what I call a “dead dog” before; dogs that have no life in their eyes, dogs who you can tell have their spirits boxed up somewhere and there’s never been a person to love them and open that up. And I’d never housebroken a dog before either, but I felt like, how hard could it be?
Really and truly, when I left the animal rescue in my pickup truck with a big, white, country ass birddog in the back, I believed I would return him if he didn’t housebreak. I didn’t realize, until he died, that his adoption was no simple matter of choice. That choice was a complicated one, a psychological, emotional and spiritual matter of wanting to recreate my entire notion of family relationships. I was a wrecked human being when I brought that dog into my life, starting to rebuild. Somehow I needed to prove I was not a piece of shit, that I could stand up for something.
So, yes, it was a mutual rescue.
“Look,” I said to his face, which was sticking through the small window between the cab of my truck and the camper shell. “I can’t call you Buck. It’s vulgar. But you’re old, and you know that name, so I’m not going to make this too difficult on you.”
I’d already picked out Roy Lee for the wild brindle boxer, and I didn’t want to let that go. It was a good name. At that time, in a voluntary celibacy that would, a year later, become quite involuntary, I was obsessed, pitifully, with Jeff Buckley, the dead 90s heartthrob singer/guitarist/prophet, who was my stand-in lover while I was working on myself. The dog looked like a Buckshot, so I could combine Buckshot with Lee, call him Buck Lee, and no one would know I secretly named my dog after the dead musician who owned the teenaged infatuation factory called my mind.
But, Buck Lee didn’t look right when I wrote his name on paperwork, and “Bucklee” posed an affront to my sensibilities. So, Buckley it was. Buckshot Lee Moore.
He stank like a bus station and peed on the corner of the stove. I gave him a bath. When I jumped off the deck into my above ground pool, he followed, unaware that the water kept going down, so when I opened my eyes underwater he was staring right back at me, bug-eyed as a monkey.
I fell so in love with him then, down down down my heart went so deep into his eyes that two days later I told my mom I’d rather kill a man than take Buckshot Lee back to that shelter.
A few days later, during some trust-time sitting on the edge of my bed as I was familiarizing him with the concept of sleeping 1) inside 2) on furniture 3) with me, he peered into the bathroom. He saw, in the large mirror over the sink, himself, and mistook it for another dog. Eyes wide, he threw back his head and ripped this glorious, spine-tingling, hilarious woooooooooo wooooooooo woooooo. The offending dog didn’t leave. Buckley glanced at me, confused, and I said “that’s you in the mirror, buddy. And me. That’s us.”
We sat awkwardly for a minute.
“You’re not a birddog at all,” I finally mentioned. “You’re a coonhound.”
It took me longer than a week to house train him. But he did take to peeing on the commode instead of the stove, which I thought proved how smart he was and how much he wanted to do the right thing. He was all set until I put up a real Christmas tree in the living room that December, which he mistook, rightfully so, as his personal bathroom. When Buckley was uncomfortable, he peed in the house, mine or yours, wherever he was. He had such a sweet, sad, lovable coonhound face, most people found his anxiety-pee charming. So, they forgave him with lots of kisses and treats, which I always considered his ultimate coup d’etat.
Buckley grew up in Brunswick County, North Carolina, to a family who abandoned him, at five or six years old, at the kill shelter when they left town. There were pellets in his chest from being shot, his tail was broken at the top as if someone had slammed it in a door, and, inside his right back leg, the hair grew every which-a-way over old scar tissue from being dragged down a road. He also had about 20 seeds of birdshot above his spine, which Andy and our Tampa vet discovered in X-Rays of his kidneys.
I don’t know any more about his background than that. But that was enough to explain his terror at loud noises, especially anything that sounded like a gun, and his eagerness to hide in the bathtub or shower during a thunderstorm. He would hide in the shower even if I was taking a shower, and once he climbed into the bath with me during a particularly thunderous summer storm in Fort Myers. He curled up between my legs at his end of the tub and rested his chin on the side, submerged up to his collar, as if he were doing nothing more than chilling on the couch. “Dude, seriously?” I said. He flashed me a look, the kind where his eyebrows see-sawed up and down as if to say, “Yeah, what? Why not?” and took a deep breath, sending a soft ripple in the bathwater.
Buckley lived with a (mostly) quiet fear of abandonment for the rest of his days, up until his last, when he was satisfied, finally, that I had made good on my promise never to leave him. I don’t know why, given his background, he kept his gentle nature. Buckley loved kids, there must have been some in that first family, and his face was the kind of face that stopped people at the dog beach, on walks, at the vet so they could remark about his face: “what a sweet face! what a sweet boy! look at that face!”
“He’s so swheeeeuuuuuuut,” the southern girls said.
“That’s a good lookin’ dog!” country boys said.
People usually wanted to love up on him, but Buckley wasn’t like that. He loved me, and, in time, took in Andy and they loved each other, but Buckley’s contribution to any occasion was mostly the great gravity of his gentle spirit. It did not take much love before Buckley came around to being a dog with a person. He woke up to it quickly, after a few weeks of sleeping in a bed and going on walks and being only mildly in trouble for doing things like eating whole bunches of bananas off the kitchen counter.
But he was always, as Andy noted, “deficient in his dog skills.” His reactions to many situations were un-pack-like, un-dog-like, so much so I took to explaining his behaviors to people by describing Buckley as somewhere on the autism spectrum. It was not a joke. He sometimes answered to our calls by running, with great determination, in the other direction, and he had absolutely no understanding of stepping around people. If he got in the bed with you, he would find his spot only after jumping on your legs and walking on your arms and nuts or full bladder. He stood on people’s toes for no apparent reason. He groaned peacefully when you rubbed his ears at night, like purring. I could pretend he was a motorcycle by gently twisting his right ear like a handle accelerator, and he’d respond rrrRRRRR rrrrRRRRR.
“Buckley,” I would say, “it’s time for an injustice!”
An injustice could be anything dogs don’t like to do: get ears cleaned, take a pill, have toenails clipped. But after every injustice, we’d give Buckley a treat, and so this great mystery of a dog got to the point where he looked forward to injustices and never suffered one without his proper reward. At the end of his life, he, too, defined what constituted an injustice, adding his monthly stints with Frontline and Heartgaard. “Was that an injustice?” I’d say, throwing the empty flea vial in the trash. He’d charge up his clown-face grin, stamp and wag and run to the bag of Beggin Strips, beaming at his fortitude in the face of such hardships as getting medicated.
Then he’d lay on the couch and sleep, sending out his soft ripple, waking up if I walked through the room to make sure I wasn’t going to leave.
Andy and I discovered, when Buckley left us last Monday morning, that so much of the sweetness of the FRF emanated from the dog. Our family balanced as mathematically as planets: Me, Buckley, Rufus, Andy, Clementine, in the order the family appeared in my life. Buckley carried a lot of weight. What started that hot September afternoon in 2008 at Southport Oak Island Animal Rescue ended in Tampa, Florida, November 10, 2014, in the corner of our yard, a wild Florida subtropical paradise created by Andy’s grandparents some 60 years ago.
Buckley had stopped eating except, of course, treats. Sunday night he started showing signs of kidney failure, followed by a grand mal seizure, Andy and I doing the best we could in this terrible moment. Buckley let us know, in his unceremonious way, he didn’t want us around for the end of it. We let him out in the yard, and he found a quiet corner next to the fence, hidden and protected under a canopy of oaks and a tall thicket. In the morning, we found him barely alive, and called his vet to help him. Andy cut a path through the overgrowth for the vet and the technician. They arrived, Buckley died. When he went, he went peacefully, and, poetically, within a thicket of wild ginger.
The path to Buckley’s Corner starts in front of my office window, where I write. I can only see the path, not where it leads. When Buckley died, I had the strange sense of plummeting out of orbit. As I told a good friend, I was prepared to walk with him to death, but I was not prepared to have to live with him gone.
In the time of our great love affair, Buckley brought me to the understanding of many aspects of love, including the profit of a gentle nature, the appreciation of treats and the rewards of faithfulness.
He showed me I was not a piece of shit, but rather a powerful person for whom Love makes a tender life possible. Buckley was, as you’ve figured out, just the right one.
I will be howling in the wild ginger for this dog’s spirit for a long time.
night night beloveds.