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I don’t care for leaves and I don’t drive up to the mountains every fall to see them change colors. I do it for my dog. Milky is old and sentimental. She whines if I don’t bring her, and I can’t abide her whining. The fact that she has jumped from the car is not serious. She has pulled the same stunt for the past fourteen years, same hairpin curve, same Volkswagon Rabbit window, same dry leaves. I will find my dog; I always do.
Here we have a family car, a diminished old lab, a man pushing thirty who by routine and temperament seems a decade older: rhythms develop, of decay and remission. See for example the bald trails blazed in the rich ’70s carpet of my parents’ home; feel the split teak tray of their Scandinavian bar set. My shag, my teak. They left me the house and everything in it when they moved to Arizona. It was my brother Tommy who left me the dog. Arizona has the nation’s lowest leaf count; I can’t say how many leaves they have where Tommy went.
One weekend each fall me and Milky follow the Blue Ridge Parkway almost as far as Blowing Rock. We are in good company. The parkway can resemble a rock concert parking lot this time of year. Of the manifold displays of mortality, leaf death is the most avidly photographed. All the photojournalists on all the homicide beats in every city on earth could not match the necrophilic zeal and sheer number of tourists who invade the Smoky Mountains each autumn.
I suppose a person can learn something from nature. To see the leaves cling to the branches like flames, to feel a breeze and watch them expire: there is probably something in it. Milky must know.
It used to be the whole family had to squeeze into the VW; now it’s just me and Milky, the back seat loaded with french-fry cartons and commercial real estate textbooks. The drive up from Columbia is two-plus hours. Thirty minutes out of town, she begins to weep. A slow leak of air like an imagined noise at night, an artifact of the inner ear, a toy balloon. Milky has cataracts in both eyes. The orange, flame red, mottled yellow: the elderly lab sees none of it. The traffic.
Her sense of smell is still keen, though, and all she wants is to sniff the autumn air. Though it looks like rain, I lean across and roll down her window anyway. Her tail thumps the handbrake, one thump fewer than the year before. Her paws are on the sill, one ear audibly flapping, her snout scoops the air for analysis. She’s a puppy again. Then, just below Blowing Rock, as I brake on a tight curve, five miles per hour, maybe less, out goes Milky. Onto the grass shoulder, over the stone wall, and down the slope barking all the way as if she expects a reply. Barking with question marks. Her nose ruffles up the brush like my little brother is hiding down there under the dry leaves. It’s only a situation of hide-and-seek.
Thirty minutes out of town, she begins to weep. A slow leak of air like an imagined noise at night.
I ought to show more concern for the dog’s welfare. Instead, here is what I am thinking: that humans are craven apes. We act so hot, but even our language betrays us. Listen: it rains. It sleets. That arcane agent of weather, whatever it is, is too terrible to merit an antecedent. We give it a rootless pronoun as if the hand that flings down thunderbolts is too awful to name.
So it is: it begins to rain. It turns to sleet. The wipers, dry-rotten from summer drought, finger-paint my view into a vaguely maudlin greeting card—
For a Heckuva Grandson on His Birthday
—which is the very card that came with Milky Way on my fifteenth birthday. The Labrador mix pup was meant to be my present, but she loved my younger brother more. Even a dog could see which of us deserved her love.
A cousin in the art department at Hallmark once told me that autumn leaves are never used for condolence. “Too deathy,” he says.
Behind her eyes, Milky’s mind is going, too. She wags her tail at imagined voices. Hears her name in her sleep. Called to the back door by a dead master, not me.
Dog memory—I have it on good authority—is a neural cluster that evolved backward from the nose to drive the involuntary musculature of the tail. Human memory sprouted from the loose wiring at the backs of our eyeballs to reach our genitals. A leaf dies bright and scented with decay and doing so burns itself doubly onto the memories of man and dog, onto the organs of sight and smell. Shut your eyes and think of a maple in October. Picture your mother’s hands. I don’t recall my brother that well, could never describe his hands. Even his face is only the coerced grin from a school photo. I might find Milky in a corner of my dark home office crying to herself, and I can’t say why, until I remember that this is where Tommy kept his laundry hamper. My office was my brother’s bedroom.
Close one eye. What you see behind that shut lid is the scene before memory, and after.
I wonder how many more years Milky will have the vitality it takes to spring from a moving car. Her hips are failing. Cartilage. She takes supplements, New Zealand mussel extract. Some mornings she must be carried from her sheepskin to the food dish, from the back door to the azaleas. Her hind legs tremble with effort when she pees. One day, I think, she will miss the grassy shoulder altogether. Her knees will buckle on the asphalt, and that will be that. Maybe the time has come to stop indulging a nostalgic dog. Next year I should keep the windows rolled up. Lock the doors. Stay home. Don’t dwell on Tommy. But Milky whines, and I have a low threshold for brute sorrow.
Collecting her is usually no trouble. If I loop down the mountain directly below the spot where she jumped, I can stop at a scenic overlook and wait. Pretty soon, Milky will come crashing down the hill. I’ll just open the passenger door and she’ll clamber onto the sheepskin, defeated but content. She has tried to find our Tommy. Failed again, but at least she has tried. As the years go by and she grows frailer, this will have to be enough. I’ll press one hand on her heaving ribs, stroke her neck. Sometimes I’ll stop for a burger on the interstate and Milky gets one, too, no onions or ketchup.
Today it’s a different story. The sleet makes for slow going, and by the time I reach the scenic lookout it is dark. I see only the blue lights of a parks patrol car. They flog the slope, spin shadows from the pines.
Milky Way was Tommy’s baby. My dog but Tommy’s girl. Everybody said so. “Who’s Tommy’s baby girl?” our mother would say: “Yes, you are. You’re Tom-Tom’s little baby girl.” Milky allowed me to feed, bathe, walk her, but it was Tommy she bedded down with at night. It was Tommy whose plump still face she would breathe on every morning. Her breath could always wake him, like a trick from a shabby fairy tale.
It was Milky who made sure my little brother woke up before the rest of the family. He thought rising early made him more grown-up, and he had reason to hurry off into adulthood. Time was at a premium. The doctor said he had a faulty fuse, and though he meant well I have never found much comfort in metaphors.
My brother had subscriptions to Omni magazine and The New Yorker. I read Howard the Duck. I slept on the sofa. Put things off. Like every other adolescent I was immortal; all I had to do was wait out the boring parts and along would come life. I was starting senior year of high school and planned to attend Emory in the fall. But you don’t go to college with a dog. I told Tommy he could have Milky when I left.
The day my brother’s fuse finally blew we went up to see the leaves. Tommy was up at dawn. Kibble in the dog bowl, radio tuned to a news station. He started Mr. Coffee and made such a commanding racket that even I rolled off the couch. We stood in the kitchen, me, mom, dad, watching him load the Minolta. He delegated tasks: you pack the picnic stuff. You get the thermos, you the binoculars. You find the sheepskin for Milky; it should be in the hall closet.
It is heartbreaking to watch a boy practice to be a man. It is worse to see him practice for nothing.
A patrolman kneels over a putty-colored blanket on the side of the road. Milky has bitten him, but it’s nothing. He breeds Norfolks and understands. I gather her up in the blanket and settle her on the sheepskin, shut the car door. She’s scared is all, says the cop. I know, I say. “That’s all it is. Scared.” He asks was I here to see the foliage. I said I only do it for Milky. “I don’t care much for leaves.”
South of Blowing Rock, Tommy spit up and it was not from carsickness. Our dad pulled over or stopped, I don’t know which. I don’t recall how it got there, but I remember the ambulance being orange. The EMS was a woman and her hands were an angry shade of red. It started to snow yellow in her headlights. Our mother rode in back with Tommy strapped to a bed. I shut my eyes to see how tight they would go. Milky pawed at the glass and whined all the way to the hospital. I did not leave for Emory the following year. You can’t bring a dog to college.
Photograph: Susanne Nilsson
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