Nantucket Essays

Strange Customs

• by Robert P Barsanti •

I have a puppy.  He has been growing and the honeymoon is ending, but he can turn heads on the street and pose for a picture with the occasional toddler.  While many dogs have been chased into and out of my life, he is the first one to enter it from his beginning, and he intends to stay to the end.  We have to, strange as it is to say, build a relationship together.

At this point, we haven’t figured out the rocky parts quite yet.  His affection for me comes with teeth.  He nips at my cuffs, at my arms, and at any loose piece of clothing or hair.  I can ask him not to, or distract him with a firm belly rub, but he still looks up at me with warm eyes and white teeth.  We need to have boundaries between us, preferably made of skin.

In the living room, he is the honored guest.  Friends leave their sofas and their homes to come and stroke his belly, then present him with something new to chew and disembowel.  They look at us with new appreciation; as if together, we present ourselves out to a world that will love us (if only we don’t chew on it).

Downtown, the world does love him.  He processes as a bride would, accepting compliments and giving blessings as he passes.  Most stop and smile at a puppy; he dispels foul thoughts, bad days, and to-do lists with abandon.  We sit on a bench before the drug store and the world comes to us with spilled coffee, dipping danishes, and affection.  To see all the good that the world has to offer needs only a brick side walk and a small puppy with enormous paws.

In the months that we have been together, I have become better acquainted with his other needs, as he has with ours.  He no longer leaves a puddle in the floor or a package on the rug.  However, he will mutter and whimper at the odd hour and wait, patiently and painfully, for the gate to open and his turn to come.  He learns, slowly, the customs of the country.

He did not get his fair share of bravery and courage in the litter.  Darkness concerns him.  He will pause at the edge of the porch light and perch on the edge of darkness, then he will trot decidedly back up the steps to the door.  Rain leaves him disconsolate.  I stand out with him in the wet and cold while he pulls himself back to the door.  He likes the familiar and the friendly.  We find ourselves in each other’s eyes in the dripping dark; I insist he stays out while he requests a trip back in.

The world of people doesn’t adjust to the needs of the puppy.  Times come when I must leave him for work, or exercise, or Monday Night Football.  I can’t leave him in his crate without hearing the sad yips and barks in the driveway, nor can I return without his gleeful sprint to me (and the door).  He has made his way into my world with the odd stain and chew marks that affection and teething bring.  He breaks things and makes them ours.  The TV remote has teeth marks, the rug has an odd smell and the kitchen floor gleams.

He is adjusting to my world, but I am only a tourist in his.  Our new compatriots welcome us with handshakes and pats.  On the wharf, a fellow dog owner instructed us on the best ways to get on the same page.  It involved staring in his eyes and dropping keys from a great height.  Another suggested barking at him (loudly) and then biting him on the side of his mouth.  Mostly, however, we have been finding our own way together.    I give him snacks and belly rubs, then he sits on my feet and falls asleep.

He takes me to places that I have forgotten I had lived in.  We walk Sanford Farm to the water, as I have walked in the past, and the path is remade to a puppy’s height.  An opening in the scrub oak goes off in one direction, a pond hides in another and, right in front of us, is a cornucopia of road apples.  He leaps off and down Tupancy Links and chases the other dogs through the high grass and sand, pausing every few minutes to look back and find me on the road.  The other people admire him, and I admire the dogs with them.  We remain tourists in another country, squired about by our dogs.  In fading orange and growing purple of September, we look at each other as if we were in Paris.  It’s a strange new country, this doggy one.

But the country I left has grown gray and brown.  A world alone had such charms and such excitement once.  You could stay out all day, you could sleep all night, you could eat burgers on the sofa without fear of poaching.  The bachelor life has its sweet moments, but the long evenings spent together with a sleeping and farting puppy hollow that life out and let it collapse into a shell.

Two weeks after Labor Day, I stood in the morning of my new life, standing in a country where the moon sets into the predawn quiet and the last of the summer stars settle into a lowland fog.  Into this fragile quiet, one small dog nosed over a pile of rabbit pellets and then pounced on an unsuspecting nozzle, before he voided himself inside the rosa rugosa.  The future is a different country; they have strange customs there.

Articles by Date from 2012