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What is: Chet Baker?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Creature without whom I cannot live.

There's a Jeopardy question for you.

Sparked by a post by Jess Riley on her terrific blog, about her parents' aged Springer spaniel finally going to her rest, I began thinking more deeply about Chet. About what he means to me, about what life was like without him, about where we're going together. About the time that's coming all too soon, when I'll have to say good-bye to him. Yes. He's only two. But I think about it all the same, because I love this little dog too much.
Chet did something this morning he hasn't done before--he began whining at 7:06, the time when I should have been up and stirring. This raised a red flag for me; it was Chet stepping over one of my lines in the sand. He's my dog. He doesn't get to say when I should arise. And so I met him in the living room, behind the baby gate that keeps him honest, that keeps him from jumping into bed with just anybody, with a stern scowl on my face. "No. You do not whine in the morning. You do not tell me when I'm getting up. I tell you when you're getting up." And I booted him out into the frosty air on the minuscule chance that the whine meant he just had to offload. And as a cold reprimand for this oversight on his part.
We're evolving, Chet and me. Most of it is sunshine and daisies. He really is as cute and smart as he looks in his pictures, and as easy to be with. But we have our moments, too. He pushes, I push back.
I've been cooking this post for several days, and it really was just going to be a Chet Baker rhapsody in black and white, and then today dawned bright and clear and breezy; frost had just taken my zinnias and tomatoes (the earliest first frost I can remember); I worked like a demon all morning and had three drawings done by noon, and I got an attack of wanderlust. Called Shila and begged her to come out and thrash around The Loop with me. Bring your clippers.
So at about 1:45 p.m. that's just what we did, started clipping briars and sumac and spicebush, all the junk that's grown over the path since last spring, Chet happily roving around us. You have never seen a dog so happy as he was when Shila appeared at the door wearing hiking boots, camera and binoculars. That means only one thing. Actually, I had told him around noon that it was going to happen. He was lying in the sun, gazing at me, drumming a message into my brain. Do something, dammit! You just SIT all day long!

"Chet, you know what?" He raised his head. What? I just called Shila (ears prick) and we're going to go for a walk (head pops up) on the Loop! (leaps up, full play bow, roo roo roo roooooo!)
Scamper, cavort, boing boing boing.

Shila arrived, festooned in optics, clippers in hand. We snicked and snacked our way along the trail, clipping multiflora rose and black raspberry brambles wherever they crossed the path. We got to the Overlook where there are often cattle grazing just over a barbed-wire fence, and I leashed Chet to be sure he wouldn't try his luck with cow hooves again. There were no cattle in sight, so I let him off the leash. Shila and I stood soaking up the autumn colors for awhile, buffeted by a fresh cold wind, and then turned to go. A short way down the trail I realized I'd dropped my clippers at the overlook, and turned back to get them. Chet dashed along with me, unleashed. Duhh. My mistake, as usual. We got to the overlook, not five minutes after we'd left, and suddenly the pasture was full of cattle. Chet's ears came up, his head came up, and he was off, completely ignoring my furious shouts to come back. Our first bovine event of the autumn walking season. Obviously, his on-leash encounters with cattle had done nothing to dim his ardor for having his head stove in by a cow's lightning kick. He darted into the middle of the herd, which included a big Angus bull and a red-and-white crossbreed cow who was like Texas toilet paper--she warn't takin' sh-t off nobody. She steamed out after Chet, head down, and I saw this dear dog's death rolling out before my eyes. I squirmed under the fence, cutting an inch-long gash in my scalp as I did so, and lit out for the clot of cattle. Hoping the bull wasn't pugnacious, hoping I could get to Chet before he did. Chet was absolutely ignoring my shouts, immersed in the crowning canine glory of rounding up cattle. (Shila pointed out that he IS half bulldog, and let's think about what bulldogs did for a it?) She also pointed out, after we caught our breath, that today was Friday the 13th. That's Shila, always making connections.

This time, I wasn't going to wait for Chet to be done playing with cattle. I was going to MAKE him be done with it. So I ran down the hill into the pasture and whacked the living daylights out of him. I felt horrible doing it, because when he saw me right there he came slinking up to me Oh, you called? and I KNOW you don't smack a dog that's just come to your call, but...he'd been ignoring me for what felt like an eternity and I had to drive the message home right there in the middle of his crime. It's the first time I've given him more than a light slap in his two-year life. It was the kind of spanking you give a child who's just run out in front of a truck and survived it. It came from a deep YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THIS primal place in me. Unbeknownst to me, the red and white cow was charging up behind us, but I was so mad she'd have been really sorry had she tackled me. Bring it on, Bossy. She must have caught my scent and changed her mind at the last minute, and Shila, who was watching the whole thing from atop the hill, heaved a sigh of relief.

Shaking with anger, blood seeping into my hair, I escorted Chet back up the hill on his leash, hollering at him the whole time. We thought to head straight for home, but both Shila and I realized that wasn't the thing to do--we had to salvage this beautiful day somehow. So we got back on the trail and resumed cutting briars, which turns out to be a good thing to do when you're shaking with anger. The sticks and punctures and thorns in your socks go well with your mood, and you're fighting a foe you can defeat. Chet hung around much closer than usual (he'd better!) and after awhile of pretending he didn't exist I knelt down and he crawled up to me for some face to face apologizing. He got beef stew on his kibble for dinner.

Chet Baker just padded into the studio and leapt up on my lap, catlike. His short shiny coat smells like fresh-cut wood and cinnamon. He's as fresh and sweet as a newborn fawn. His jowls are soft, his tongue is warm and almost dry. There are 23 tiny black hairs on my white computer keyboard, another 500 on my pants. My arms are wrapped around him, my cheek is on his withers and as I said, I love him too much.

It hit me this morning that I'll probably be in my 60's when it comes time to say goodbye to Chet Baker. That was an enormous realization. This pact with a dog is a far-reaching thing, one that I did not enter into lightly. It took me thirteen years to screw up the courage to do it.jnursingchet

photo by Ric MacArthur

This dog will see me through menopause, if he doesn't get killed by a red-and-white cow or a coyote first. There will come a time when I will have to decide not when, but whether he's getting up the next morning. If we're lucky enough to make it that far together, that's what I have to look forward to. I can't bear that thought, but it's there anyway, pacing around in my head.

Chet Baker is not even two. He's already left an indelible print on my soul. What will the future bring? I can't begin to address these questions where my children are concerned; they're too overwhelming. My kids will outlive me; they'll just have to see what becomes of me as I age and fail. They'll have to address the questions about me. I think it's knowing I'll outlive my dog that makes me think about him in these terms. I've barely gotten to know him, and I already dread his loss. Such is the pact we enter, the ground we give up, when we fall in love with a dog.

photo by Shila Wilson


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