I woke up with a start; it was 3:00 a.m. exactly. It felt like I wasn’t alone, though nobody was visible in the room.
“It’s just me, Boss.” This was a voice I had never heard before, but I knew without doubt it was my dog, the dog whose ashes had just arrived, two weeks after his death. They were in a box in my kitchen. He went on as if reading my mind, “no, I’m not connected to the ashes, dude.”
“Why are you here?” (That felt stupid.)
A sigh. “It’s time to move on, Boss. You’re spending all your time in the apartment. See people, man.”
Dogs don’t generally hang around as ghosts, do they? At least I haven’t heard of it before.
“Boss, get out of your head, and listen! I’ll tell you what I can about the details, but that’s not the important part. The important part is, you have to keep going.”
“Okay,” I said, meekly.
“Here’s the thing, Boss. I have a little layover time till my next, what is it……”
“Yeah, incarnation. Not a dog, I think. What I hope is, a horse. They run so fast, and they get to be with people. Anyway, I get to hang around here just for awhile. I asked permission to contact you.”
Who do you ask?
“Stop it! I don’t know, I just ask, okay? But you’re getting in the way of what I want to tell you, and I don’t know how long I have, so be quiet, Boss, huh?”
I was quiet.
“First, move on, like I said. Second, you did fine, okay? You made mistakes, I made mistakes, but we were pretty good together, weren’t we? You were so proud of me, and I was proud to be with you. We walked past all the dogs that were chained up and were barking; you never left me alone on a chain. You didn’t hit me, well not very much anyway, and I was sometimes really a handful. So you did good, you took care of me for fifteen years, and you should stop worrying about the tiny things.”
“So,…. uh, should I still call you Pepper?”
“Doesn’t matter. How about ‘Mister Dog?’ It felt special when you did that, and all the people who heard it thought so, too. Sometimes I could hear them repeating the name, ‘Mister Dog’ after we walked by. I think some of them didn’t know me by any other name.”
“Okay: Mister Dog. So, I have to move on – which is going to be pretty hard – and I should stop worrying about how I did as a dog owner. What else?”
“More of the same. I’ll keep repeating them because you keep getting messed up on them. That’s what you did with me, right? In the beginning? Repeat and repeat?”
I laughed, and Mister Dog seemed pleased, too. And then the thought, the ashes.
“No, stop it. I don’t care; do whatever you want. Well, I’ll say this: Don’t sprinkle them on all the trails we used to walk, okay? I know that’s what you were thinking. Bury the box somewhere that people come by. And dogs, too.”
And then I suddenly felt drowsy. The last thing I heard was his chuckle, “You were a very good boy.” It’s what I had always told him when he did something I wanted, sitting, coming, not crossing the street, not pooping in the wrong place, not eating the cruddy stuff on the sidewalk.
I live in San Francisco, very close to the ocean, near Cliff House if you know where that is. My apartment is a five-minute walk up from the beach – and when I say “up,” I mean it in the hills-of-San-Francisco sense. Mister Dog hated the beach, so we never went down there, usually instead walking the Esplanade, the sidewalk area just inside the seawall.
He was right; I had been fretting over having had him put down, killing him, though it seemed that what was left of his life was disintegrating right in front of me, and painfully too. The falls, the diarrhea every other day, the awful loss of weight from when he was at his peak – he was dying slowly and horribly. There was nothing else to do, but still, I had always prided myself on letting him tell me what he needed, and this one he couldn’t tell me.
The morning after his Visitation, I went down to that shoreline that he had hated, and walked along it for quite a while, watching the waves, sometimes scurrying out of their way. I thought it was my first step at ‘moving on.’ The walk tired me out, but it was still light out when I got back, so I assumed Mister Dog wasn’t likely to visit if I just took a nap.
But the shades had been tightly enough drawn in the bedroom, and he showed up as a dream. “Very nice walk. Good start. Next time pay more attention to the men and less to their dogs.” I woke up but fell back asleep quickly, without any further interruption, nor did he visit that night.
The next day, I took another long walk, this time northwards to Land’s End and then following the dirt path eastward that winds up at the Legion of Honor. At one point, I felt a sudden startle of fear, my hackles going up and sweat breaking out on my face. I spun around and saw a coyote staring at me, his hackles also up. Coyotes are not uncommon in the city’s parks, and I’m not usually afraid of them, but I couldn’t make sense out of what was happening. The two of us stayed in our places till our hackles came down, and then the coyote turned around and walked off. I decided to call it a day and walk back home.
That night, Mister Dog showed up; I woke easily this time. “Thanks for warning me about the coyote,” I said.
“Coyote? I wasn’t worried about the coyote; he was mostly curious to see who you were. In fact, I had to apologize to him just now for scaring him. But you were about to step into a patch of poison oak. It wasn’t so easy, Boss, to project myself in the bright light there, so don’t do it again, okay?”
“Yes sir, Mister Dog.”
“You’re still spending too much of your time in your head, thinking about me. That’s why things like that happen. You need to—“
“Yes, yes, move on.”
“That’s right, Boss, you need to stop thinking about me all the time. And especially stop judging yourself!”
“But look, you’re spending all this time thinking about me.”
“Boss, I’m only here temporarily; I’ll be somewhere else soon, no matter what I think about, so I can afford to do what I can now to get you ready for what comes next in your life. You made me feel important, Boss, and now I need to do the same for you. Be important in your own life, dude.”
There were no visits for several days. I made a real effort to meet people and have my own experiences, but I was still mourning Mister Dog. One afternoon, a dog I saw on the beach led me back to a man, and we had a nice talk as we walked back from the shore.
“Do you need a ride?” he asked.
“No, I live only two blocks from here.”
“Well, how ‘bout letting me take you there so I know where you live? For when we go out on a date.”
I blushed madly, I’m sure, but slid into the car. I had taken no notice of his looks, but during the short ride I realized he was good enough to look at. ‘Good enough’ meaning that his bright personality trumped his baldness and his little paunch. And of course, I’m older than he was, so I didn’t feel I could be picky.
When we got to my corner, I asked if he wanted to come in. It felt scary, and exciting.
“I’m afraid not,” he sighed. “This one needs a bath right now. Maybe I do, too, for that matter. What about tomorrow, for dinner? I can pick you up here, and we’ll go somewhere without the d-o-g.”
So we set it up. Inside, I realized that I was too excited to sleep, and wondered how I’d get a visit from Mister Dog. But I fell asleep as soon as I hit the sack, even though it was barely sunset.
And he showed up in my dream. “Nice going, Boss. The dog is kind of dumb, but you can’t have everything. At least you’ll get a chance to do that sex thing you like, you know, the stuff you haven’t done since I got sick. Make sure you get some new condoms, huh?”
Even in my dream, I giggled. “So you approve of this guy, but not the dog.”
“I don’t think he’s a keeper, but he seems harmless at least, so why not have a good time?”
I asked him if he had heard any news of his impending re-incarnation, and he was evasive, telling me it wasn’t “important.”
“Well, I hope it’s something you’ll be happy with,” I said.
“Yeah, me too.”
I slept the rest of the night without any other dreams,
The date was fun, and we did indeed get to do the sex thing. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, but the guy, Jack, noticed. “Boy, you sure are hot and horny, man!” he said, and smiled broadly. I didn’t bother to answer, because I was in fact too hot and horny, and wanted to get on with what we were doing. It was wonderful just having his body to hold, and to be held by him, and the ‘sex thing’ made it glorious.
When he was getting ready to drive me home, I asked where his dog was.
“Oh, I have him tied up in the back yard.”
“Are you afraid he would interfere?”
“No, I just like it better that way. You know, a dog should be in a dog’s place.”
Actually, I did not know, but there isn’t any point in arguing with a stranger about that.
Needless to say, Mister Dog had something to say about it when I got home. He didn’t even wait till I was asleep; as soon as the light went off he was there.
“Are you going to see him again?” he asked. I knew he didn’t want me to, but I played dumb.
“I don’t think so. What do you think?”
He snorted, “He’s shit, Boss. If you’re his boyfriend, he’ll treat you the same way he did the poor dog. You had a good time, and I’m really glad about that, but…. well, do what you want, man.”
I laughed. “I’m not surprised at your reaction. And you might be right, too.”
“Well, of course I’m right!”
I laughed again. “You were always sure of yourself. How many times did you try jumping something you couldn’t make, or walking farther than you’d be able to make it back? Still, I can’t imagine always having the poor doggie tied up every time I go over there, even if he is a dumb doggie. And I’ll bet it would just piss Jack off if I mentioned it. He seems to want to make all the decisions.”
We laughed, and then I fell asleep.
When I got a call from Jack a few days later, I didn’t answer it, or reply to his voicemail. That phrase “move on” started to feel annoying. How many times will I have to move on?
The answer showed up immediately. “As often as you have to. That’s it, dude. You did the right thing playing with him, and you did the right thing letting it go.” This was in the daytime, so I was surprised. “Look,” he said, “it looks like I’m moving on, too, really soon. That’s why I’m here now. And no, I don’t know where or what I’ll be.”
“Well, good luck, Mister Dog!”
I felt him backing me into bed then, and then his ethereal presence cuddling in my arms. “We were really good, Boss.”
I started to cry as I was holding what looked like nothing but air, though I could feel him in my arms. I hadn’t cried at all since his death, but now it all came out. “Mister Dog,” I managed to say, “we were great!” I could feel him nuzzling me for a second, and then whatever I had in my arms instantaneously went away. And then I, too, began to move on.