Articles

In Memoriam: My Dog, Chloe


 

    Chloe came into my life on a brilliant October day thirteen years ago. My wife and I were transporting some furniture in my pickup truck to stash at her folksí summer place in the heart of the Adirondacks. Weíd reached a stretch of rather desolate two-lane county road when a reddish-brown blur caught my eye in the margin of the woods at the right side of the road. Then I felt a thump and looked back and saw an animal squirming in pain on the blacktop behind us. It issued a horrible, elongated, squealing cry.
    I ran maybe thirty yards back to it, saw that it was a dog, and bent down to it. There were no houses anywhere in sight. I didnít know what to do. By some desperate reflex, I scooped the animal up in my arms, ran back to the truck, and set off in search a vet. My wife took the wheel and we turned south heading for the nearest town of consequence, Warrensburg. I held the dog on my lap. It weighed no more than twenty pounds and was no breed I recognized. It had stopped squealing and squirming, but yelped whenever the truck hit a bump. A little blood ran from its mouth onto my pants. Its eyes were alert. I kept petting it and telling it that everything was going to be all right -- you just do, whether you believe it or not, and I really didnít know -- and I couldnít help but notice what a beautiful dog this was. Her eyes were so deep and lovely.
    As it happened, there was nobody around the vetís office in Warrensburg, so we drove all the way back to Saratoga Springs, where weíd started that day, to the vet who took care of our cats. They took the mystery dog into emergency treatment and I signed to take responsibility for the bill. A few hours later they called us at home to report. The dog, a female, had a fractured pelvis and tailbone, no other internal injuries besides a general bruising and shock. They wouldnít put her into a cast. I could take her home, they said, and keep her very quiet for a month or so, and she would probably recover fully. They estimated that she was about six months old, mixed breed, possible beagle and golden retriever, they couldnít really say, just a mutt.
    A strange destiny seemed to be at work in this situation. I would take this injured dog in, at least for a month, it now appeared. I had never owned a dog. I was a cat person. We had two at the time. My wifeís family had dogs when she was little, but they were always someone elseís responsibility, older brothers or her father. She was not enthusiastic about taking in this little wanderer, but what, I asked, where the alternatives for this dog? A little later, I fetched her from the vetís and made a place for her in the living room out of a cushion from a thrift-store chair that would otherwise go to the dump soon in any case.
    We lived, then, in a carriage house off an unpaved alley. It was private, woodsy, and secluded, like a country road strangely embedded near the center of our small town. The first several days I had to carry the patient out to the alley to relieve herself, but in a week she could limp out behind me on her own. I carefully refrained from giving her a name, because I didnít want to become attached. My wife left the nursing to me, an ominous development. The cats were not thrilled with the new lodger, but she was too gimpy to harass them and they went about their usual secretive business without impediment.
    After two weeks, the dog (as I referred to her) was doing well enough to go for short walks down the alley and back. I had made up my mind by then to take her back to the scene of the accident and search the vicinity for her owners. Though I was growing attached to her with or without a name, I assumed that some other family up north loved and missed her, too, and that I had a duty to at least try to find them. So, on another bright autumn Saturday, I drove back up into the mountains. Plying the road between Olmstedville and Minerva, I came upon a kind of rural hovel common among the impoverished denizens of the Adirondacks -- an assemblage of old trailer sections cobbled to various plywood ante-chambers. It was a still day and a pall of woodsmoke hung over the place. I turned warily up the gully-like drive. Three scrawny dogs barked violently at us. They were chained to stakes in a dusty yard strewn with the plastic and metal effluvia of a distant industrial society and looked enough like my passenger to be kin.
    A woman of about fifty came to the door when I knocked. You could tell that a diet of snack foods and beer, among other things probably, had made her very wide around the middle and ruined her teeth. She didnít invite me in but I could peer inside around her. The interior walls of the establishment seemed to be decorated with shotgun patterns, like a museum of domestic violence. The signature blue light of television flickered deeper within. The woman called to somebody else. Soon, a wiry man with obvious back problems hobbled out of the rank blue dimness. There were no signs of children. I had the dog on a leash. The couple regarded both the dog and me with a sort of defiant suspicion. I explained what happened. They flinched visibly at the word vet.
    "That dog ainít no good no more," the woman said.
    "Yeah, thatís a damaged dog," the man said.
    "And we ainít payiní no vet bill," the woman added.
    I confess that a strong disinclination to give the dog back to them now under any circumstances quickly overcame me. To protect my sense of honor, I suppose, I explained that my purpose in coming wasnít to dun them for money, but I didnít try to carry the discussion further. Nor did I state that Iíd already decided the dog would be leaving with me, in case they decided to argue that point. I just said, "okay," and led the dog back to my pickup truck and we went home together.

*

    I named her Chloe because it had a couple of good clear vowels for the purpose of calling her: Klo-weeee! Over that winter, she tutored me in the requirements of dog ownership. Walks, shots, treats, tricks, good, bad, up up up, down down down, out out out, stay! I had her spayed. She proved to be very intelligent and, ultimately, about as self-sufficient as a dog can be. Five months later, my marriage dissolved and not long after that, Chloe and I landed in a little divorce cottage Iíd bought cheaply in a depressed Hudson River town ten miles east of Saratoga.
    The cottage had been built by an eccentric Italian around 1900. Heíd painted angels on the ceilings upstairs, and there was even a remnant memory among the oldest people in town of this character showing up in a velvet coat and matching hat at the funerals of factory workers (of all nations) to deliver poetic eulogies. The factories (wallpaper, cardboard cartons) had been closed for a generation and these memories probably derived from only as recently as the 1930s, when the old-timers were children. The town, Schuylerville, had an H. P. Lovecraft quality about it. The 20th century had just beat the shit out of the place and left it exhausted. Everything in it was broken, dented, faded, forsaken. Many of the inhabitants were wards of the county social services. The economy was dead and buried. Once the town had had a newspaper, several clothing stores, and two vaudeville theaters. Now the old shopfronts along Broadway that werenít vacant contained second-hand stores. Hopelessness hung over Schuylerville like a miasma.
    For all that, I was not hopeless there, personally. The town and the neglected farmland surrounding it had many hidden charms. There was no new suburban junk of any kind at the townís edge, a rarity in America of our time. The town just ended at either end of the main drag and there you were in the country. My first spring there, I established a four-mile running loop that included a mile-long fragment of the Champlain Canal towpath (decommissioned 1913) and some other interesting terrain. At one point, the route took me over an old steel bridge across the Hudson River. It had a steel grate deck that Chloe could not walk over. The holes were bigger than her paws. I used to sling her over my shoulder and carry her across the river like a sack of birdseed, and we would resume running together, past the derelict fields, and over a concrete bridge that spanned the Battenkill, a tributary of the Hudson, and past the last small remaining factory in the area (it produced medical paper filters), and a couple of dairy farms hanging on by a thread, and finally across another, a third, more modern bridge back into town.
    Chloe was an amazing runner. Four miles was nothing to her. I nicknamed her the Brown Bullet. She came along with me on bike rides along a different route that took us about seven miles through hardscrabble dairy country up the west side of the river and back. It was mostly flat. Iíd stop often to make sure she caught up. It wasnít that I went too fast for her, rather that she liked to pause and smell things, or run out to explore a meadow, or make a side-trip into a culvert. I always waited for her. Then weíd watch the mud-covered cows grinding their fodder dumbly in the pastures until both of us were ready to go on. Later that year, I began taking her on my cross-country ski adventures with my friends. She learned to run behind me in the ski tracks, where the snow got packed hard, and she could easily cover eight or ten miles on a winter afternoon, the wonder dog among my circle.
    On all these outings I carried a fanny pack filled with dog biscuits, which I dispensed to Chloe on request. She developed the trick of running up to my hand and bumping it with her wet nose, which was my signal to dispense a liver cookie or a milk-bone. Through her lifetime, she must have consumed a thousand boxes of them. I was never quite sure whether I had conditioned her or she had conditioned me, but the net effect was a system that kept us together on outings. After the first couple of months, it was never necessary for me to keep Chloe on leash. She simply followed reliably, always. Once in a while, she would dash after something in the woods, but she always reemerged reliably somewhere along the way.
    In over thirteen years, she only actually caught two of the little animals she went chasing after. The first was a juvenile groundhog, which Chloe seized by the neck and shook so violently that the poor thing died at once of a broken neck. She pulled this appalling stunt in the corn-stubble field before the old steel bridge, and I was so horrified to discover that she possessed this residual canine instinct to kill, that I made her a pariah in the house for days.
    Chloe had one absolutely foul and revolting habit. She liked to roll in dead animals. Fish were her favorite, as they combined their own special premium savor along with the ripe stink of death, and since we were in and around the Hudson River all the time she had frequent opportunities to turn up a dead carp or a pike. She liked to get a good smear of the stuff on her shoulders, like an epaulette. I suppose that it made her feel invisible -- as though her enemies (whoever they were) could not track her. She did this perhaps five times a year. When she did, I made a great hullabaloo as I took her by the (otherwise idle) leash to the bathtub and scrubbed her down. She was not crazy about getting wet and averse to the soaps and deodorizing chemicals I used in the only-partially successful decontamination process. Most of all, she seemed disappointed that I didnít share her joy in stenchliness. Anyway, it would take days for the last faint molecules to wear off, and in the meantime she wasnít allowed to sleep on the bed with me -- another thing she just couldnít understand, and made me feel bad about, or at least I imagine so. Who really knows what dogs mean to have you understand, if anything?

*

    This was our happiest time together. She was young, I was not yet utterly un-young, and our life together in that little cottage in that spooky town was uncomplicated. I didnít have much money, but I had hopes. I was determined to persevere. I believed in the happiness that results from a life of purposeful activity (and still do). I followed my vocation as a writer, and I also waited on tables for a spell when the world wanted it that way. In the summer I worked on an herb garden and in the winter I put up new sheetrock. Chloe and I ran or hiked every afternoon, depending on the road conditions, and whenever I felt blue about my career, or worried about my destiny as a bachelor, she could make me smile by emerging from a patch of woods with her tongue lolling in a goofy way, as if to say, "Betcha wonder where Iíve been."
    I kept a kind of continual bohemian party scene going at the place in Schuylerville. Throwing parties is cheap if you can induce your friends to bring beer and wine. Food is cheap in America, folks. People would drop by, sometimes mobs. I was like Gatsby in Dogpatch. We had fun. By and by, I fell in with one of the party girls, an intellectual originally from a good Boston Jewish family, and twenty minutes later -- it seems in retrospect -- we were living together. She fell into the routine, joining me on the daily ramble with Chloe. A year or so went by, we got married, and all moved back into Saratoga, into a nice, big, old house on a quiet street. My second wife had some money of her own, rather a large chunk, actually, a fortune, to be precise. Her family had never owned a pet of any description, but she thought Chloe was extremely amusing.

*

    Chloe actually only got lost once in all our years together. It was around this time. I took her out to a friendís Fourth of July party in a very rural part of the next county. My wife didnít want to go for some reason I donít remember. When the fireworks went off, Chloe just freaked out and ran off somewhere. I searched for her all night long, way after all the people left the party, marching up and down the country roads in the vicinity, calling her two-syllable name until I was hoarse. I slept in the screen porch of the people who had the party, hoping that Chloe would skulk back now that the noise and confusion had stopped. But she didnít. At daybreak, I drove around the neighborhood some more, but didnít see her anywhere, and it was too early on a Sunday morning to stop at peopleís houses and ask after her, so I decided to go home and wait. Chloe had a name tag with my phone number on it.
    Around nine, someone called and said they thought they "might have my dog." I was overjoyed, of course, but the might have part baffled me for a long time afterward -- should there have been any question? Anyway, these people were kind enough to hold onto her and call. It turned out Chloe had strayed about three miles from the site of the party. Apparently she had just come up to the house and barked at the door as if to say, "Mind if I use your phone -- and, hey, you got any snacks for someone like me?" It took me three-quarters of an hour to motor back out there. It was an old farmhouse, but the people didnít look like they were farming the land. The joy that she expressed when she saw me was just out of this world for both of us. The lesson, of course, is that you must always have an up-to-date ID tag on your dog. They really work!

*

    Chloe was with me in three marriages. I donít want to give the impression that my second marriage entailed nothing worth writing about -- quite the contrary -- but this is not the place for it. Suffice it to say that marriage number two came to grief and that Chloe and I found ourselves in bachelor circumstances again. I moved into a rented apartment across town. Though large, it was not so splendid, but I did not intend to stay there forever. Letís say it was student housing caliber, the one benefit being that Chloe and I had all the rooms to ourselves. Chloe was now in mid-life. She could be relied upon to take care of herself to some extent. Obviously, I had to feed and shelter her. But I could let her out of the house whenever she wanted to relieve herself, and I could leave her outside in an ungated yard for half the day while I went off and did other things. She might ramble around the corner looking for pizza crusts or a slight change of scene, but she never wandered away and got lost again. She was always there waiting for me to return and delirious when I did.
    By and by, I found another human girlfriend, and I ended up moving into her cottage in yet another corner of town. Jennifer had a sheltie and a cat and all of a sudden, the five of us became a pretty sizable family. Chloe and the sheltie, Minch, got along together just fine. Sometimes they even played like puppies. The cat didnít like any of us. She was a calico, a breed renowned for aloofness, even by cat standards. When Jennifer and I got married. Chloe was a member of the bridal party. She wore a big pink bow around her neck that, inevitably, rotated around under her throat. During the actual ceremony, I am told, she stood beside us gagging on some fragment of hors díoeuvre that sheíd snatched from the catererís van. We used to tell people that Minch was her husband.
And so we all lived, happily ever after, at least for a few more years.

*

    At the end of last summer, we took Chloe and the rest of the gang to the vetís for a few days boarding. When we returned from wherever it was we went, the vet said that there was something not altogether right with Chloe. Her abdomen was a bit distended and a little hard. Weíd noticed it, too, but assumed she was just developing a matronly figure. She was, after all, twelve and half years old by then, entering her seniority. The vet recommended x-rays. When we came back, the vet, a young lady under forty, told me that Chloe had a large tumor in her abdomen and that she had perhaps a month to live. She suggested I make arrangements to put her to sleep.
    I honestly thought that was all there was to it: a death sentence. Jennifer was a little more skeptical and persuaded me to send Chloe to a specialist whom someone had recommended, a veterinary oncologist, a cancer vet. We did that. Actually, Jennifer took Chloe down to see him in Albany. I was obliged to fly around the country delivering lectures. The cancer vet, in turn, recommended a veterinary surgeon. The upshot is that this very skillful fellow removed a tumor about the size of a picnic ham that had been attached to Chloeís liver. It was an arduous surgery, but she came out of it very well and recovered swiftly. Large as the tumor had been, it had not invaded any other organs, and the surgeon had sectioned the liver in a way that would allow the organ to regenerate. The patient made a full recovery.
    That fall, we had acquired yet another dog, a female miniature dachshund we named Posy, because we have friends who convinced us that dachshunds are the most fun of all dogs. Posy became a great favorite of her "aunt" Chloeís, and I think she stimulated Chloeís recovery. Chloe would play with her for hours, and especially liked to lick Posyís ears. By spring last year, Chloe was going on a two mile daily ramble again, loping along as ever in the off-center gait that was the legacy of her long-ago interview with the undercarriage of my truck. She still chased squirrels along the way. She still liked to ramble around the corner and pick up edible odds and ends: steak bones, pizza crusts, a bag of donuts (yes, a whole bag), and once (God knows its provenance because we lived in the center of town) a deerís still partly-fleshed head. Chloe was an animal.
    Chloe lived a full year after her cancer operation and she might have endured another year, or even several -- weíll never know. Her hip had gone a little arthritic and she suffered minor incontinence even before her surgery (common in spayed females, we were told), which could be controlled with twice-a-day pills. But otherwise, she seemed fine. There was no evident recurrence of any tumors. Her weight remained constant, around twenty-five pounds. Then, one Friday night in the fall, just after the weather turned really brisk, we let her outside to pee before bedtime. She often stayed out as long as an hour if she found something to gnaw on. But after more than an hour this time I became concerned, and when the phone rang after midnight, I knew it was trouble.
    The police had found her on the street around the corner, alive but dazed, hit by a car, they said, and had taken her straight to the vetís. Well, god bless them, I thought. The vet who came on the line was the same man who had taken care of Chloe thirteen years earlier after I hit her with my truck in the mountains. She had a "superficial" gash on her chest, not deep, but six inches long. And one front leg was either badly bruised or possibly fractured, x-rays, would tell, he said. She was in shock and the vet was giving her medication for it. We were to call the animal hospital at ten the next morning, he said. Frankly, I was absolutely amazed that the vet had come into his place of business to care for her at that hour.
    The next morning, well before ten, another vet called the house to say that Chloe had passed away during the night, died in her sleep. She was an old dog, he said, and sometimes they just donít survive shock itself.
    We went up and got her. We gave them a dark green bedsheet to wrap her in and I put her in the back of the station wagon. Then, with Posy and Minch, we drove thirty miles over to my in-laws country house in a hilly corner of Washington County. You can see the mountains across the Vermont line from there. We had actually dug a grave for Chloe the year before, when we didnít know whether she would survive cancer and surgery, and wanted to make a resting place for her there before the ground froze. My father-in-law had filled it in over the summer, but we found it again. The grass was kind of patchy over it. The ground was soft and easy to re-dig. We put her in the earth perhaps three feet down. I said, a few words and strewed some milk-bone dog biscuits over her. It wasnít until I began to cover her up that I really started bawling. Her resting place lies under some apple trees, with a great sweeping view to the southeast. We had happily rambled those vales and fields many times together. She came into my life on a brilliant October day, and we lodged her in the earth on another October day that couldnít have been more beautiful. Now she is gone, except in our memories, and that is the end of Chloeís story.


Jim Kunstler is the author, most recently, of
Home From Nowhere (Simon and Schuster).

END

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Copyright © 1999 James Howard Kunstler