Walk #11: The Visit

It had been weeks. Our schedules had never matched. But finally, after trying to make it work many times over, on a midday Monday, my son and I are able to get together. We meet at a dog park. He brings Franco, his Golden Doodle named after Franco Harris, the football great. And I bring Sam, named after no one in particular.

Under tall blue skies and surrounded by the early leaf buds of spring, I begin with the matters at hand, as if to get the perfunctory out of the way.

“Okay,” I say, “let me hit the marks. First, work?”

Graham gives me the ups and downs of his job, a warehouse worker at a large import-export company. It’s pretty good going. But like all of us, he’d like a bit more understanding from the higher-ups about all the work he does. Graham is a good worker. He’s strong and aware. And he has always had a propensity for thinking beyond himself, maybe too much, sometimes. At least his father sees this. But I believe it is true.

“Wedding plans?” I ask.

Graham is getting married next year. It’s a long way off. But they have a venue and is ready to talk to photographers. There’s not much to update because there’s not much to do this far in advance. Still, I ask. Weddings dovetail with high emotion. Asking questions is a way of unearthing those emotions, and maybe easing any anxiety

“What about the search?”

Graham and his fiancé are living with his mom right now. They are planning to find their own place. Buy or rent? Not sure. When is the move-out date? Not really certain about that either.

And throughout the remainder of the conversation between a father and a son—words on the slumping Cubs, his brother’s upcoming trip to Mexico to photograph a wedding, the detailed cleaning Graham is having done to his frequently messy car— the dogs are off leash, running hard, paws slashing through dirt and the gravelly trail. Franco, breathless and panting, chugs behind Sam as she gallops across the pathway, through strands of trees, and in between shrubs and wild bushes. Franco is older. Chunkier. Sam, lean and long, is joyful in this game of doggy tag. And Graham, as we walk together, towers above me, big and bold. Even when he was a baby, he was still big in some way. He and his brother, two years older, had been exactly the same weight and length when they were born, but Graham just appeared bigger from the start. His hair was longer; a tousled tangle of hair, darker than anyone else’s in the family, almost black. When his mother and I would take him for walks in the stroller, people would think he was a girl—all that hair, those thick lips, that plump, soft skin. You are different now, but yet the same. Change comes to all of us. But yet we carry with us the characteristics of our earliest years. I guess I do, too. Yet, I can’t think of one. And I cam certain the dogs are the same. Sam’s hair might gray around her snout, but she will likely always be lean and long-legged and ready to be chased.

The dogs, zooming around still, suddenly stop. There is another pup, two of them, in fact, and the urge to investigate is innately strong.

When dogs meet, initial strangers, they rush to go nose-to-nose, or nose or butt, as if there is something of much importance to discuss, to share, as if they have dire business to speak about, dog business.

The two stranger dogs are with the same owner, an older man in a blue tee-shirt and shorts who smiles and watches the exchange from a dozen yards away. One dog is a Border Collie, with all of its patches of color and its nervous energy. It is less inclined to pounce toward the conversation, and stands aloof. But the other dog, a young one, caramel in color and smaller, maybe with some Border Collie in the genes, apparently has much to say, and trots toward Sam. They go nose-to-nose, as is the custom.

Hi. How are you? What are you doing? Do you like it here? Where you from? Do you like your owner? 

The little dog is anxiously enthusiastic. Sam appears tentative, but listens nonetheless.“Franco,” Graham says, “you going to say hello?”

Franco moves slowly, his tongue long and wet, a few steps behind, still huffing. He listens, too, to the caramel dog.

And you? What’s up? Are you with her? Nice day, huh? Do you come to the park a lot? And your owner, do you like him?

The man gathers his dogs, leashes one the indifferent one, smiles again, and walks by. The dogs follow, the caramel dog glancing over its shoulders.

See you again here, I hope. Enjoy the park. Have fun. Keep smiling!

“Must be that dog’s first time,” I say, whispering. “He’s a bit overly eager.”

Just ahead of us, a black and brown dog, sleek like a Doberman, is chasing another smaller dog, nipping at the dog’s side, snapping at its tail, snarling. The owner laughs.

“It’s like the playground in middle school,” Graham says. “Some kids are just little bastards.”

Graham and I call for Sam and Franco to come closer, and as we turn through a bend in the trail, we step more quickly. It is there that we meet the cartoon dog. It is only slightly bigger than a healthy Chihuahua, one floppy misguided ear, and it’s all white. Albino, maybe? There’s pink around the outer edges of its eyes. And it’s strutting toward us with fast feet that appear to be missing the point of their purpose.

“Oh my,” I say, loud enough for the owner—a woman in her 30s, walking ahead of her dog with the leash in hand—to hear me. “It looks like a character in a Pixar movie!”

The woman laughs. “She’s kind of goofy, I know.”

Sam is busy sniffing a tree, but she hears my animated greeting and apparently fearful of missing out on something exciting, she hurries over. The dogs touch noses, stare at one another. Tails twitch. And here we are again, dogs with something to discuss. But this time, unlike the high-strung caramel-colored pup, the visit is more of a handshake at a cocktail party.

Nice to meet you, and what is it you do for a living?

And what is it these dogs do for a living?

Over the course of our walk, more dogs meet, say hello, play, sneer, and sometimes, but less often, ignore one another. And as Graham and I catch-up on his plans for travel this summer—to Lake Chautauqua in New York to visit with family and to attend a wedding shower for his fiancé—I wonder how Sam and Franco assess these new dog park characters. They must do what we all do with people at a party—look them over, discover a sense of energy or not, exchange a smile or find themselves looking away. What is it that brings dogs together or shies them away from one another? It’s likely the same, in many ways, as with all of us. Our own worth and sense of self, self-confidence, our moods, the chemistry, the things we have in common. And when Sam returns to this park, if she sees the same dog, will she remember it, ask how things have been? Will she wonder about its job, its relationship with the fancy Poodle down the street, will they discuss doggie treats, share dog food recipes, ask if it has any summer vacations plans?

After the walk, Graham and I head to a pub where we sit on the patio and have lunch, the dogs tethered to our chairs. They slop water from stainless steel bowls the waitress has offered. Graham drinks water from a clear glass. I have a Smithwick’s in a Guinness pint. We settle in, silent. We are content. We have had our visit, albeit without memorable revelations. But we have had our say. And being together, here and now, is all the matters. Father and son. It is a far less frequent get-together as we grow older, and more cherished. Quiet and still, we sit, a respite after a healthy walk, savoring the goodness of a good tired. We need each other, still, despite that Graham is no longer a boy who must be looked after. And I—no longer the father who holds his son’s hand when crossing the street or tucking him in at night—do not need to protect him from the world with unabated attention. Still, here we are, together, and it is exactly what we both want. Maybe, too, what we need.

“Let’s toast,” I say, raising my beer glass. “To more of these kinds of days.”

Our glasses clink and we drink.

And the dogs lie under the table on their bellies, their paws resting against each another, happy and satisfied. Their visit has been good, for they don’t come often enough, much like fathers and sons. And so, when the world is off balance, as it frequently is, and the days have passed slowly before another reunion, I will remember this. And Sam, might you do the same?

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