This is an old story, with an older style. I share it with trepidation, but with the understanding that my dog will always be awesome.
I don’t place much trust in people. They’re good for bouts of conversation, but the dark insatiable nature of humankind cannot be trusted. There are a few exceptions to this, but overall I consider it a decent, if not an occasionally lonely, way of thinking.
I do, however, find an extraordinary amount of faith and trust in the eyes of the animals in my life. I could go on about how they don’t lie, cheat, or betray, but I’m certain that has little to do with it. No, the reason behind my love of animals is singular; no matter what you do to a pet or any animal for that matter, they will never talk back. I don’t mean the barks, meows, or squeals that they throw at you whenever they’re hungry or in need of affection. I mean language. No dog is going to start verbally chastising you as soon as you walk in the door after a day at school because you forgot to completely fill the water dish. No cat is going to start whining because her friend is going to the mall, and she really wants to go to the mall, but despite her best efforts can’t find a ride to go the mall. These things just don’t happen. And I’m thankful every day for that.
Every once in a great while, you come across an animal that completely rewrites your way of thinking. For me, that dog’s name was Ebony. She was a black Great Dane who stood nearly seven feet tall on her hind legs and weighed more than 150 pounds throughout most of her life. Her eyes overflowed with depth and an understanding of the world well beyond that of any animal I had seen then, or since. She had a white diamond on her chest that seemed to give her an air of royalty. She would always walk with me, even though she had never been officially leash trained, she was just happy being with her boy.
I remember one summer day in between sixth and seventh grade where I simply couldn’t stand the thought of being outside. The sun reached down and grabbed you by the chest, leaving you gasping for air as soon as you left the haven of the air conditioner. Most of my summer days were spent in the company of my cousin, and my two sisters. When we weren’t making afternoon phone calls to dad to try and tattle on each other over random acts of aggression, we pretty much tried to stay out of each other’s way.
My cousin Bobby, or Robert as he likes to be called now, had lived with me since before I can remember, had gone off for the day to spend time with his mom. My younger sisters, Autumn and Chloe, had commandeered the TV and unanimously decided that for the next four hours the TV was not leaving the Disney channel. In short; I needed something else to do.
My first inclination was to call my friends. I had two friends, Patrick and Michael. But both of them were off at some College for Kids because they were so ill-begottenly smarter than I was. So I was alone for the day.
That’s fine, I remember thinking, I’ll just go into my room and do something there. Ebony followed me into my room and we both lay on my bed. This is how we would spend a majority of our time together. She would lay down and try to nap and I would interrupt her so I could use her stomach as a neck support. At first she didn’t really care for it, but after a while it became something of a staple in our relationship. A time where we just enjoyed each other’s company until something peaked one of our interests and we decided it was time to move. She was on her side looking casually out the window directly next to her, and I lay on her stomach attempting to read a book that I had gotten at the school book fair the previous spring.
Quickly overwhelmed with boredom, I began to stare at the ceiling fan attempting to unlock my telekinetic mind powers to stop the wooden blades from rotating. When that inevitably failed as well I decided that the next best option was to go outside and play a riveting game of solitaire basketball.
It had been years since I had actually played basketball in my backyard. The once flat, dusty ground had more than begun to grow over with weeds and brush. This made dribbling something of a physical impossibility, but I’ll be damned if I’d let something like physics get the best of me.
When I finally came to terms with the inadequacy of my playing court and gave up I noticed that Ebony was up towards the front of the house staring past the gate and the world beyond. I let the basketball roll off into the grassy knoll that my backyard had become and approached her. I ran my hand across her back and looked with her trying to figure out what she saw that was so interesting.
The view from the gate was hardly awe-inspiring. The cracked unkempt garage took up nearly half of the view. What remained was littered with specks of similarly cracked concrete and dried brush that had been piling up beside the house for at least the past four years. I registered how utterly unappealing our surroundings had become. At that point I decided that both of us needed a change of scenery.
I walked back inside and grabbed a leash from atop the coat rack. Ebony sat and watched anxiously as I found her a collar and placed it around her neck. I tugged lightly on the leash to make sure it was connected and as soon as I could unlock the door, we were off.
I knew the neighborhood pretty well; I had lived there for most of my life. However, I rarely strayed from the set path that I had set out for when I was in elementary school. Just past the school was a park. The park consisted of two vastly different cultures. On one side of the park there were the houses that had the tirelessly kept front yards with the proverbial white picket fence. The other side, a mere 600 yards away the houses quickly fell into disrepair. The lawns became littered with various knickknacks and grass began to seep through cracked concrete.
This left the park as something of a middle ground where kids from both sides would come together. Sometimes. Other times it was different. One day you could find yourself playing a game of basketball with little or no tension with a plethora of different backgrounds, the next day you could find yourself dodging fists and hurling incomprehensible insults between one another for no other reason than someone didn’t feel like playing nice. Sure, blood was spilled, tears were shed, but we were all just kids; young, stupid, and belligerent. End of the day no one was all that much worse off than they had been before.
Still I liked the park; it represented a way for me to enter a world, while not entirely comfortable or safe, without the constant intervention of adults. Ebony seemed to enjoy it as well. She swept her nose back and forth like a metal detector, flooding her senses with all the nano-ecosystem had to offer. She would walk up the hill towards the children’s playground and watch as the children jumped around and howled at each other from the monkey bars. For twenty minutes we just watched. Occasionally a child would approach me and inquire if they could touch my pet goliath. She loved children. She was always aware of how intimidating her size was to most of them and would always lie down on her belly and slowly crawl forward to let the kids know that she was nothing to be afraid of.
After the novelty of our presence had worn off and the children had gone back to playing pirates and racing down the slides, we decided to move down the other side of the hill towards the basketball court and baseball diamond.
This was where I spent most if not all of my time. Most of the time Bobby would come with me and he would end up getting us both involved in a basketball game and various other ‘social situations’ that lacked the innocence of the former.
One of those aforementioned situations had happened the day before. Bobby had decided it was in his best interest as an incoming high school freshman to attempt to seduce one of the older kids’ girlfriends. This could hardly be called a rousing success. What started off as something of a light hearted flirtation, quickly escalated when the older kid decided he had seen enough of some punk-bitch freshman putting the moves on his woman. Soon they were in each other’s faces threatening to exchange blows and God knows what else in order to prove their masculinity to their mutual love interest. The bout ended before it started thanks to a well placed stroking of ego from the girl to her boyfriend. Still, the boy promised that he would have his revenge on my cousin.
While Ebony and I made our way down the hill, the basketball court was filled with over half a dozen shirtless teenagers playing a game of basketball. A few more girls sat at a bench beside the court cheering for their men. I’m not entirely sure how many of them I knew, but I immediately recognized the boy and girl from the day before.
Suddenly I didn’t really want to be there anymore. So I hurried my step and Ebony and I walked down the hill hoping to quickly pass the basketball court and make our way around the park and walk the other side back the way to my house.
No dice. The guy locked eyes with me half way down the hill and pointed at me from the court. Another boy from the court looked over at me. The mouths moved for a moment and they began to walk towards me. Apparently when he swore revenge on my cousin he forgot to add, “and your fat-ass cousin too”. As they approached me they began to throw the term ‘faggot’ around like it was the only words they actually knew. They rotated their shoulders, as if to taunt me about the beating I was going to receive.
I was not an what one would call an overly confidant child, I didn’t treasure the art of altercation like most of the kids at the park. I took no joy in causing or feeling pain. Call me a helpless romantic. This left me to be seen as the backboneless fat kid who had a strange amount of articulation when he spoke.
As soon as they were within spitting distance Ebony’s teeth drew back, her vocal cords projecting a low ominous growl. Back off. The two boys could have heeded the noise, but looked at each other and decided they weren’t intimidated. As they drew closer Ebony’s tone got more annoyed, her voice diving deeper until I could hear it reverberating in the side of her gut as she stood beside me. Seriously, back off. They kept coming towards me.
She let out a bark that stunned me and sent my shoulders flinching in fear. She had jumped in front of me. Her posture lowered, her head pointed up like a mountain lion getting ready to pounce. The two boys jumped back and began to slowly back track. I tried to pull her back, until I realized that when I flinched I must have dropped the leash. Shit.
I lunged forward to grab the leash and pulled back violently. Ebony didn’t even flinch. Her eyes were still locked on the boys, her voice still deep and gravelly. She barked one more time. The boys turn back towards the basketball court. They tried to hide the urgency in their steps. She watched them go. I remember her turning to me, the hairs on her back still standing up. Her eyes were soft again. She looked at the leash in my hand and glanced back up at me. So are we leaving now?
We walked past the basketball court and went on to the baseball diamond. A junior league team was scrimmaging and in the back right hand corner of the outfield we watched. No one minded.
Part of me was worried that the boys would call the cops or the humane society and I would end up losing her. I ran through the possibilities in my head. No one would tell my side of the story. They would only see a dog who wanted to blindly harm others. I didn’t want to lose my dog.
Ebony saw my fretting and nudged me with her nose. I looked just as she flopped onto her side, encouraging me to enjoy the grass with her.
As long as I lived with her she never once growled or barked like that ever again. She saw I needed protection and did just that. And in doing so delivered a message; Don’t fuck with my boy. No one called the police or the humane society, and never again did those boys try and pick a fight with me (my cousin was a different matter entirely). My nickname went from ‘fat-ass’ to ‘dog-boy’, a change I was more than happy to accept. I’m also happy to report that, yes, the grass was quite lovely.
My family disowned me during my second year of high school, after which I didn’t get to see Ebony much. Months would pass in between each inevitably doomed attempt to reestablish a line of communication. For Ebony time didn’t matter, she always greeted me with a swing her tail so hard her hips had no choice but to follow. She always remembered me and treated me as though I had never left, betrayed only by the ever increasing grey spreading across her muzzle. She would always find a way to nudge me into the living room. She would take her place at the end of the same old couch we had grown up on and look at me hopefully. Please? I couldn’t help but take my place beside, if only for a moment, to rub the back of ears just to let her know that though so much had changed, I still cared about her deeply, and nothing, no matter how drastic, would ever change that.
It was impossible not to notice how increasingly difficult the trip to the couch was becoming; her enthusiasm could only support her for so long before her hips would just not carry her anymore. Whenever this came up I would always mentioned to my father that when it happened I wanted to be there, and if that couldn’t happen, I wanted her ashes, expressing explicitly that I would pay for them regardless of the cost, believing it was the last respect I could pay to such an important member of my family.
Then, on October 3, 2008 I received an e-mail from my father telling me that they had had to put Ebony down that morning. I remember screaming, staring at the words on the computer screen as the weight of her loss rolled across the rest of my life. That I hadn’t been there at her ending and that I never would again…it hurt. More than I’m comfortable acknowledging.
She always loved me, and I her. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry. I’d be lying if I denied that my heart sank and I felt that I had lost one of the few true friends this life has afforded me. But I’d also be lying if I told you I didn’t remember that walk in the park and that every time I think about it, I smile.