The dog has a beard. It hangs straight down from his chin some six inches. And on top of his head is the dog version of a man bun, the black hair pulled up and tied tight with a rubber band. This is a hipster dog, lying on the wooden floor of Murphy’s Bleachers just outside Wrigley Field in Chicago, the local tavern most associated with the Cubs and a dog-friendly establishment. I’m here for a friend’s book launch. The book is a collection of stories from long-suffering Cubs fans who were finally able to celebrate a World Series win a couple of years ago. But its the dog that has my attention. More than the former Cubs players who are here, more than the Cubs ball girl, more than the old friends who have also stopped in to buy a book.
Sam is not with me today. She’s at home. But she’s on my mind as I drink a pint and eat quesadilla at a small round table near the pub’s entrance. Would Sam have tolerated the hairstyle this dog has? And what would be the equivalent for a female like Sam? Purple hair? Highlights? A perm? And the bearded dog—is he embarrassed by the ridiculousness of his look? Clearly the owner wants to give the dog a unique style, but maybe at the dog’s expense. He’s getting plenty of attention from anyone who enters Murphy’s. Look at that dog, they say. But I’m not sure the dog wants the notoriety. Or maybe he’s just used to occasional ribbing. I swallow my beer and consider—if I were the bearded dog, I’d be mortified.
In three days, Sam goes in for grooming. She needs it. Golden Doodles don’t shed, and that’s a good thing. But their hair can become easily matted, even with frequent brushing. And Sam is matted, a bit around the elbows and on her chest. And, she smells. I wouldn’t say this to her face, but a lot of playing in the backyard, rolling in the grass, and the nature of her hair has resulted in a rather unpleasant scent, a bouquet of staleness and wet wool sweaters. And Sam’s fur is like Velcro; it catches everything. Small sticks, leaves, and clumps of dirt stick to her and picking them out is a daily event. She’s work. But soon, she’ll be spruced-up with a nice bath and a good trim. The results will mean a much more pleasant looking and smelling beast.
I drink the last of the beer, chew the last cheesy tortilla, pay my bill, and as I exit, I pat the bearded dog’s head.
“I hope all the other dogs in here aren’t laughing at you,” I whisper.
* * *
It’s the day before the groomer’s appointment, and Sam and I head out for a walk in the forest preserve, an early spring hike in the woods. She’s looking ratty, still smells, and can barely see me through the fur that hangs over her eyes.
“Good thing I have you tethered. You can’t see where the hell you’re going,” I say as we step out the back door and I connect the leash to her collar. Sam is in the moment, she knows a walk is imminent; she’s present and mindful with no knowledge or nervous anticipation of what is to come tomorrow. And I’m not going to tell her.
Nearly every woman I have even known has been anxious before they go to a stylist. My wife is one. She frets over length and coloring. Is the shade right? Are the highlights too much? Men, too, get a bit nervous at the barber, but it’s not to the same level. A little around the ears is not difficult enough to prompt a high level of unease. Still, considering our own phobias about grooming, I can understand Sam’s disquiet. I hope the walk along the trails might take if of her mind.
It’s sunny and warmer than it’s been. Not too many cars in the parking lot. And as we start along the river trail, there is no one. Birdsong peppers the air. I spot a bright cardinal far up in a tree that has yet to sprout its leaves, but none of this matters. Sam appears tired. Head down. Not as excited about the walk as usual. Maybe it’s been too long since we’ve been to the forest. Maybe she’s familiarizing. Maybe she’s thinking about the grooming. The woods are brown, barren, but there’s a simple beauty. And I can see deeper through the scrub and brush. Squirrels scurry. But again, Sam is not interested. She, too, sees them, but there’s no pull to chase. She sniffs the trail’s edge instead and walks slowly, meandering.
A jogger passes. There’s a woman dressed in wool, a big hat, and gloves. She appears overdressed for the warmer weather. She smiles. The jogger ignores us. Sam ignores them. And I’m a little concerned now. Sam is not herself. Less attentive and she’s not angling for affection, which is usually the case when someone walks by. Now I’m certain she’s thinking about the coming haircut. She knows.
We spend a little less than an hour on the trail and at the end of the walk when we see the nature center, the trail office, we spot an older man, dressed in a flannel shirt and a heavy microfiber vest. He carries a green water bottle.
“That’s a big dog,” he says. There’s a hint of an accent. Czech?
“Actually she’s medium build for a Golden Doodle,” I say.
He tilts his head.
“She’s a mix of black Poodle and Golden Retriever,” I add.
“Yes, the hair. It’s like a Poodle.”
Sam sits on the trail. She pants and stretches her head out to smell the man. She growls softly.
“Unsure of me, huh?” the man says.
Sam’s tail begins to wag. The man pats her head.
“I hate when they cut Poodles all foofoo,” he continues.
Sam’s ears perk up.
“Not going to happen to her,” I say, offering a reassuring scratch behind Sam’s ear.
“There’s a reason for that foofoo stuff,” the man says. “Poodles were first bred as retrievers. Their hair was so dense, the owners cut them close, leaving the puff balls around their joints and ears to keep them warm, but the rest was cut to help them dry off when they came out of the water.”
“Really?” I want to believe the story but there’s a part of me that doubts it.
“But of course, women like the look, so, even though they’re not retrievers anymore, people still groom them all foofoo.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“All dogs were working dogs somewhere along the line.”
“I wonder what the Poodles back then thought of that hairstyle.”
“I’m certain they hated it,” the man laughs. “Just like they do now.”
I scratch again behind Sam’s ear again.
“I like your dog’s haircut better,” he adds.
I think I hear Sam sigh.
“Enjoy your walk,” I say. Sam stands erect, and turns to walk toward the car. In her step, I detect a little bounce.
* * *
On the way to the groomer, I roll down the rear window on the passenger side and Sam sticks her head out. The wind is attacking her hair like an ocean storm blows a palm tree’s fronds. The gusts make her lower lip twitch. She stays like this, head in the breeze for several miles. Then she pulls herself in. Her hair is tousled and sticks up on the top of her head, resembling the hairstyle of The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood.
When we arrive and I open the car door to let her out in the parking lot, she appears excited, anticipating something good and fun. She walks through the door with the eagerness of a child on a play date.
And then Jackie enters the room.
“I think she just realized what’s up,” I say.
Jackie is gentle, sweet. She squats down to Sam’s level and attempts to stroke the top of her head, but Sam cowers. I think she now knows what’s about to happen.
“Maybe she’s thinking about the grooming we had done before we found you,” I say to Jackie.
A past groomer scolded me for not brushing Sam properly. I was told Sam was so matted that the grooming might have to be quite close. It was very close and comical. When I saw Sam, I couldn’t help laugh. She was hideous, ridiculous looking—big, hairy, floppy ears and a tuft on the crown of her head. Her tail was bushy and out of proportion with the rest of her body, which was shaved nearly to the skin. A Q-tip. A big, black Q-tip.
“She was traumatized,” I say. “And it didn’t help that she saw me laugh and my wife laugh. Everybody laughed.”
“Awe,” Jackie sighs. “Dogs are sensitive to the way you see them.”
I immediately thought about my father giving me my first buzz cut. Down to the nubs. I was in 2nd grade. It wasn’t the neat, military crew cut look, like that of Sergeant Carter on The Gomer Pyle Show. This was a shave. Skinhead style. I counted the days until it grew in.
I shorten Sam’s leash and pull her closer to Jackie. She pets Sam’s head. “It’s okay,” she says. I hand her the leash and rub Sam’s back. “Just a little clean up,” I say. “No worries.” With that, Jackie begins leading Sam to the door to the back room. At first Sam pulls to escape, but with gentle coaxing, she moves forward. She does not look back.
* * *
Two hours later, on my return drive to the groomer’s, someone on the radio mentions that it’s National Pet Day. What a day to damage your dog’s confidence with a bad haircut, I think. But then I think again. It’ll be okay. Really, it will. Jackie’s good. She knows Sam frets about how she looks. And last time, she did a really nice job. The bigger question, however, is not what everyone else thinks of the haircut, but what Sam thinks of it.
Sam’s not quite ready. Another fifteen minutes, I’m told. So, I sit in the lobby and read. The book is entitled Short Leash by Janice Gary, a memoir of a dog and woman both recovering from difficult lives. I don’t want to minimize what Janice went through, or the dog, but the book seems appropriate.
Just as I get to the part about the breakup of the author’s marriage, Jackie emerges with Sam.
“She’s all ready to go,” Jackie says, holding the leash tightly as Sam pulls toward me.
Oh my, I think. Oh my.
Sam is not foofoo. But she’s definitely showing Poodle tendencies. I do not laugh. I do not laugh.
“She had some knots behind one ear and she was pretty dirt,” Jackie says. “Lots of chunks in her paws. She likes the mud, doesn’t she?”
“Hey girl,” I say. Sam twists and turns and crashes into me with enthusiasm.
“I had to go a little shorter on the body than I did last time,” Jackie says.
I run my hand on Sam’s back. Her fur has the texture of a mink coat, incredibly soft. The curls are gone. She smells like oranges.
“She was so patient,” Jackie smiles.
“I can see your eyes, Sam,” I say. Her dark eyes are alert, and she stares me down as if it is the very first time she is really seeing me. “No more Ronnie Wood,” I add as encouragement. And she’s not a Q-tip. But this new cut is rather long around the sides of her head and ears. I don’t say it out loud, but she now looks a little like Derek Smalls, the bassist from Spinal Tap.
I do not laugh. I do not laugh.
I pay Jackie, tip her, and make another appointment for three months out. On the way home, Sam leans out the window into the wind, just as she did earlier. She’s in heaven, and as far as she’s concerned, oh, so pretty. The groomer’s white neckerchief she was given to wear, a girly one with little purple and red hearts, flaps in the breeze. And when we return home, I take her for a walk around the block, a kind of runway strut, you might say. There’s a prance in her step. And when she sees two young girls playing basketball in a driveway, she pulls toward them. One, while retrieving the ball, spots Sam and smiles. Sam pulls harder toward her. Look how pretty I am, Sam says. I am very pretty today. The girl just as quickly turns away and returns to the hoop and her friend. Hey, Sam says, don’t you see how pretty I am? I am so pretty. And I smell absolutely fantastic. Yes, I am oh, so pretty.