“We just left you here, all by yourself, didn’t we, Sam?”
Leslie and I had returned from a hike at The Morton Arboretum, a 1,700-acre museum of trees not far from home. We had walked over three miles through fields of enormous oaks, strands of tall pines, and along trails lined with leafy plants now turning brown in early autumn. And we did it without Sam.
Sam sits under the dining room table, her eyes on me.
“You know we couldn’t take you, right? ” I ask.
Sam knows I’m talking to her and she must know I’m apologizing.
“It’s the rule,” I say. “No dogs allowed. We’d love to take you along if we could.”
Leslie works at the table, laptop open. She smiles. She knows I do this often, talk like this to Sam. She talks to her, too. But Leslie’s words are more of what you might expect—phrases meant to praise, mild discipline, announcements that food and water are waiting. My words, on the other hand, are attempts at conversation.
“We did all that walking this morning,” I continue, “but I’m still going to get you out this afternoon. In fact, in just a few minutes, okay?”
Keeping her eyes on me, Sam stands and comes close, her tail gently wagging.
“Yeah, I know. You want to go right this second.” I squat before her, our eyes are at the same level, and in a high-pitched voice, like a parent talks to a baby, I add, “Don’t you worry, I haven’t forgotten about you. No, no. I have not. Not you, girl. Not you.”
Sam’s eyes open wide. I see the whites around her dark pupils. She nuzzles her snout against my right thigh.
“Sam knows what’s coming,” Leslie says.
I put away the pots and pans that had been left to dry on the rack in the sink, and freshen the water in the small fish bowl, the home of a single guppy purchased a year ago by my step-daughter and me as a silly joke. I snap on the leash, grab a plastic bag, and at the steps to the rear door, as Sam stands in anticipation, I put my nose close to hers and and rub my hands on the sides of her head. And again, in that high-pitched voice, I ask, “Are you ready, girl?”
I would challenge anyone to prove to me she did not nod with approval.
These one-sided conversations are not at all unusual. I can’t count how many times I’ve encouraged Sam to “hurry up and pee” while standing with her in the frozen backyard in the dark on a frigid February. Or asked, “what do you have now?” when she’s dashed through the living room with a stolen article of clothing from the hamper. Or ordered her to “stop barking at the old Labrador” that walks past the front window with its owner in the early mornings. I say these things because I believe Sam, at some level, understands. But, truly, I don’t know for sure. Dog whisperers say that’s not the way it works. It takes incredible numbers of repetitive speech for a dog to understand specific words. Highly trained dogs, like police K-9s and dogs used in movies and TV, are continually spoken to in the exact same way, over and over and over. This is not how the typical dog owner communicates. And even with a highly skilled trainer’s repetition, dogs will never be able to decipher nuanced sentence structure. But what they can interpret, researchers say, is tone, the highs and lows of speech. Baby talk they get.
Sam’s tail is rapidly moving now. She knows I’m about to open the door. And when I say in a squeaky voice, “this is going to be so much fun, girl,” Sam balances on her rear legs and reaches her left front paw to me, placing it on my lowered shoulder. She may not understand the words, but Sam knows.
* * *
It’s a cloudy, cool day. I look up to survey the sky.
“You think it’s going to rain, Sam?” I ask.
Sam sniffs a stick that has fallen from one of the big trees in the front of the house. We head south, quickly east and then north.
“The Cubs beat the Cardinals last night.”
Sam looks up at me. She must be aware of how inconsistently the Cubs have played lately.
“I was talking with my students the other day about registering to vote. Do you think dogs should be able to vote?”
Democrat? Republican? Libertarian? Socialist?
Sam spots a small dog at the end of a leash up ahead. It’s a tiny one, a little bigger than a Chihuahua. Tan. Scrawny. At the other end of the leash is a tall man, maybe 40 years old, walking as if he’s favoring one of his legs.
“Want to say hi, Sam?” I ask.
Sam stands at attention. But when the dog comes close and I ask the man if they can say hello, he does not answer. He stops walking but does not look at me. I allow Sam to nuzzle up to his dog and get a sniff. But the dog, like the man, has no reaction. No acknowledging sniff. No bark. No tail wag. I smile, and the man looks away. “Thanks,” I say. And he walks on.
“Weird, Sam,” I say. “It was as if we weren’t even there.”
Sam watches the man and the dog walk toward the far south corner.
“I guess they don’t want to talk. Not like us. Huh, buddy?”
Sam turns back to me, we resume the walk, and I feel a few rain drops.
“Maybe they wanted to get back home before the weather changes.”
Sam isn’t buying it. But appears to have already forgotten the awkward exchange and is now sniffing the edge of a lawn for a spot to pee.
“There are some people who have trained their cats to go to the bathroom on the toilet, you know?”
Like the arboretum, the neighborhood is browning. The maples and oaks have not yet turned, but other trees are showing signs of the early season. The real colors should come in a week or so.
“Did I tell you, Sam, it’s good to be back in the classroom? The sabbatical was nice. But it was time.”
Sam finishes her business and we cross the street. The sidewalk is littered with a few fallen leaves, brown with curled edges.
“I always think about my father at this time of year.”
Sam is curious about a patch of the parkway that has been cleared of grass, raked and shaped for new sod.
“Dad used to love the fall.”
Sam picks up an acorn in her teeth and carries it with us for a few steps.
“We had a dog when I was a kid. This big collie. And Dad and I would walk in the woods with her. She was always right by my side. I’m sure we walked at other times. But I only remember the ones in the fall. I wonder why?”
Sam drops the acorn and grabs a small stick.
“It’s funny how we find ourselves missing people. What triggers that?”
It’s drizzling now but not enough to hurry. We turn at the intersection to head home.
“You probably don’t remember your father, Sam. But how about your mother?” Sam has had enough of the stick and drops it.
“Ever think what she was like?”
I’m silent for what is left of our walk, enjoying the sound of birds in the distance and that certain autumn scent heightened by the light rain. Still, I can’t help thinking of other conversations Sam and I could have—thoughts on the coming winter and whether or not to reseed our lawn before the snow, my calculations for retirement and if it might be possible in a few years, the intense pangs I still feel when I think of my late sister. And what about the world as it is? What would Sam have to say about immigration and women’s rights and police brutality? Does she think about global warming and the death of our natural forests? Does she cry about the junk swimming in our oceans? Does she wonder if angels are real?
At our driveway, I ask Sam to sit. She is puzzled, confused as to why I would ask her to sit here and not on the grass. She’s heard this command many times before, of course. Still, I have to push on her butt to get her to obey. She stiffens, wary of what might be next. I stroke the fur on her head to soothe any uneasiness and ask in a whisper, “Are you happy, Sam?”
Sam tilts her head to the left. Her long lashes flutter.
“I think you are,” I say, “but you can’t really tell me, can you?”
Sam presses her head hard into my hand and I ask again. “Are you a happy, Sam?”
Sam stands, dances around me, then stops and drops her front paws to the ground, arches her back, and raises her tail in the air. She offers a soft snort. I scratch behind her ear and she burrows her head between my knees. Sam cannot talk, never will, but she can listen, and she hears me. I know she does. She hears every single word.