Cowboy died in December, 2006. The following essay appeared in The Gloucester Daily Times, The Salem Evening News, and other publications.
I taught Cowboy to sit, to lie down, and not to walk on the dining room table. I also coaxed him into looking at sunrise for a few seconds, now and then. Apart from that, the education was one-sided. I learned to stop and smell roses. I learned the one-second grudge. I learned headlong hope. I learned to roll in leaves. Cowboy also rolled in dead fish, a yelping celebration of life I didn’t quite understand, though it was consistent with the examples I did follow. He was pretty much happy about everything, all the time.
Cowboy had been a stray near Ucross, Wyoming, a ranch I was visiting in the spring of 1994. The vet in nearby Buffalo said the black lab was mixed with collie, about six months old, and had probably been abandoned after the worst of the snow and cold, a concession to survival chances. I adopted him, named him after the state’s logo, and then headed home to Gloucester, Massachusetts, on a three day drive. Cowboy sat in the passenger seat during the day and I’d sneak him into motels at night. With that start, we spent most of his thirteen years together, the last few every day, all day, home and office.
My first lessons were about his past. For months he’d turn at the rumble of any pick-up truck. And he had bunked in a barn or trailer because the first night home he climbed the stairs with slow amazement. The bunk itself was high because that same night, and every one after and during thunderstorms, he clambered under our bed with quick familiarity. One day he even hinted at a previous name. My wife and I were talking about an actor we’d just seen and suddenly the newly christened puppy perked and jumped. But the odds that he had really been named Paul Scofield seemed so remote we stayed with Cowboy.
Of course, Cowboy couldn’t teach me how to solve problems, not in a detailed way, but he did listen with patience, providing an acceptable form of adult self talk, without the billing. There were also clear priorities. Dogs never diss, but it’s instructive what they ignore: TV, fashion, politics, the NFL, cars, cash. Super Bowl or Survivor or whoppers on Fox, it makes no difference. Offer a dog a hundred dollar bill and he walks away as if it were broccoli.
Let’s be frank. Dogs don’t think. Or if they do, it rises only to the level of inkling. Neither do dogs reason or have a sense of morality, our great invisible fence. I have never read these things into dogs. But neither exactly is there any lack of reason or lack of morals. It’s more that reason and morality have been considered, taken for what they’re worth, then trimmed down before they could interfere with the indicative mood, the hopeful, precise present where dogs so innocently live. It’s always Eden with a dog.
And so, Cowboy. He was happy with March. Or September. 3:00 a.m. was wonderful. Or noon. He greeted rain or sun with the same gladness. Snow and ocean were wonderful. Cheese, wonderful. Monday, wonderful. He’d shift from sleep to alert joy instantly, brown eyes again surprised and pleased by existence. He would cock his big black head at nothing and give it a bark.
Dogs do have vocabulary. Cowboy recognized ‘beach,’ ‘walk,’ ‘ball,’ ‘Sandy,’ and ‘John,’ all action words because it’s about doing with a dog, nothing is lyrical. At these sounds he jumped, cried and barked at once, by which he meant: ‘just so, oh yes yes!’ Other words included: ‘office,’ ‘bedtime,’ ‘up,’ ‘down,’ and ‘car’. He especially liked the verb ‘cheese.’ And, of course, he recognized ‘Cowboy,’ though if we referred generically to ‘the dog’ in conversation, he would turn, knowing that reference too, and be enormously uninsulted.
Cowboy’s favorite word was ‘out,’ to which he responded: ‘just so, oh yes yes yes!’ Most days we’d drive to the beach. If dog fog built up or if it was warm, I rolled down his window and he’d hang his head in the breeze, a lesson for living we all recognize. After the beach, he’d get back into the car with a single collected rock, much sand, and park his wet self with a happy sigh. At the bakery, we split a donut. Then we’d drive around for a while listening to Rameau or the Stones.
When Cowboy died, friends said, “Get another dog.” As if I were not missing Cowboy and our story, from that bright Wyoming spring to the vet vigils. A particular being who acknowledged me, whom I knew particularly, each of us for thirteen years a part of the other’s identifying world. No dog for now, not in ricochet, not in grief over a death that remains impossible. Cowboy is in the yard, on the sofa, under the bed, this desk. I still look for him in split seconds of hope before reason interferes. Denial? Just so.
In this empty house, Cowboy will slowly become his picture, passing into that fond anonymity that pet portraits have. Someone’s beloved dog. I’ve already given his food to the birds. I don’t flush the toilet twice or answer a staccato bark that means he’s again stitched himself to the pear tree. I am learning how not to have a dog. It’s a difficult lesson and one I don’t quite understand, but I will master it, like the others. I am living in the present. I am eating cheese.