Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Summertime almost always makes The Observer think of the dogs of my youth, those constant companions who were always there as I tromped the wilds near Lawson Road in Little Rock, and later the fields and canebreaks of Saline County. It says something about the way that The Observer came up that the memory of summer always smells like wet dog.
There were two Silvers when I was a kid, both mutts. The first Silver — so named because of my fixation on black-and-white re-runs of "The Lone Ranger" — was a collie mix. I had her so early that I don't really remember getting her. In my memories, she is always there, whining worriedly when I got too close to the road.
There was a guy we'll call Frank who lived in a house near ours. To tell you what kind of guy Frank was: My cousins and I once sat on the hood of my mother's Pontiac and watched him lay the beatdown on a similarly stringy-haired guy in his yard until the cops showed up and carted him off. His weapon of choice: a ripped out payphone, one of the big ones made of cast iron, long since divorced from a booth somewhere.
For awhile there, Frank kept a red, horrendously mean dog named Diablo — a pinscher, I think now — chained in the middle of a trampled circle of dirt in the back yard. At that age, The Observer so small, Diablo lived up to his name: a hellhound, pony-sized, barking and snarling and snapping his chain taut when I got too close to the fence.
Once, when I was around 6, I was walking on the pond levee behind our house with Silver when Diablo appeared in a puff of brimstone, growling, trailing a broken length of chain. The terror of that moment is still complete and whole in my mind: the monster of my nightmares, set loose. I froze.
I had never heard Silver make an angry noise before. She was always such a good-natured dog that the sound of her growling was enough to startle me. When I looked down, she had planted her feet, head lowered. Every hair stood out on her, making her look like one of the wolves in her family tree, lips drawn back over her teeth, the growl hanging in her throat like the thrum of a terrible engine. She was smaller than Diablo, no match, but she edged forward, angling between us. When she did, he actually took a step away. I took that opportunity to run. I did not look back to see the terrible clamor behind me. When Silver came limping home hours later, my mother tended to her torn ear, and washed the blood out of her fur.
Silver's one vice was chasing our neighbor's ducks from time to time — never hurting them, never biting or killing, maybe just a little retriever in some distant corner of her DNA, like that bit of wolf that rushed up to save me when she faced down Diablo.
That's how she met her end when I was eight or nine: shot by the guy up the street while chasing a bunch of goddamn two-dollar ducks. Was it the saddest moment of life up until then, and for a good while after? Maybe. Probably. Almost surely.
It seems like I had Silver the First for a decade, though I know it can't be that long. A boy's life runs different than a man's — quicker in the heart, but slower in the head. These days, June, July and August rush past me in a sweaty, unpleasant blur. For a boy, the summers can stretch out into sweet, golden years.
Maybe it's the same with dogs, who love so much that they tend to burn hot and short. I sure hope so.
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