A Walk by Cloe Axelson

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tennis ball in grassy lawnMost Memorable: September 2013

The first decision they make is whether to turn right or left out the front door. Bodie always wants to go left, to the grassy vacant lot that doubles as a park, but he doesn’t make the decisions. She does. And for her, the choice depends on the day and the time.

Weekday mornings they usually go right, for a quick walk around the block, because she’s almost always running late for work. Typically she tries to cram in too many things before leaving for the day: going for a run, packing a gym bag if she woke up too late to go for a run, washing the big pot from dinner the night before that’s been soaking in the sink, making a smoothie, ironing a blouse, packing a lunch (and snacks if she’s feeling ambitious), folding a pile of laundry, unloading the dishwasher, listening to the news for too long before getting in the shower, calling her mother. Everyday he watches her race around, half-dressed, cursing herself; to her the stare is an accusation. She looks at him looking at her and says, “I know.” But that’s only weekday mornings. Weekday nights they turn left, to the park, unless the field is too muddy, so she can decompress from the day while getting him good and tired out. And they always go left on weekend mornings, but sometimes they also drive to a bigger park on the other side of town that has more open space and a small, clear pond in which he likes to splash around.

He is about 50 pounds, with tight reddish-brown curls, brown eyes, round like marbles, and a black nose that’s always quivering in anticipation of the next interesting scent. At four years old, he excels at sitting and staying but hasn’t quite mastered come yet, and probably won’t. She accepts this about him. People have told her he looks like Rolf from The Muppets and perfect strangers on the street often stop them to say things like, “Good lookin’ dog there” or “Jeez, he really does look like a stuffed animal, doesn’t he?” Usually he’s tugging at his leash during these conversations with strangers, because he’s eager to play and she’s forgotten to put on the plastic training collar that pinches him when he pulls. He’s also constantly scouring the ground for any hint of food or paper, one benefit of city living: tissues, old bread, pizza crust, one time he found a foot-long hoagie.

On the walk to the park, they pass warehouses that have been converted into apartments, an auto-body repair shop, and a giant brick building that MIT is re-building into a science lab. Nine times out of ten, he pees on the way: sometimes on the green plastic tarp wrapped around the trunk of a tree in front of the lab, or just outside the entrance to the field, through the black chain link fence. He’s very particular about where he’ll go, sniffing a patch of earth before deciding whether to sprinkle a little of his own, or move on to another spot.  He prefers grass to concrete, a quality she thinks makes him somehow more civilized.

She talks to him as they walk along. “What do you think, Bode,” “I agree, Abby barks too much,” “I’m sorry you think it’s bullshit that you can’t sit on the new couch,” “I don’t know if Nelle will be at the park,” “you’d think that guy could get his car a little closer to the curb,” “trust me, you don’t want to befriend a cat” and so on. Every day, she makes him sit the middle of the sidewalk, often at mid-stride, so he can practice self-control. She squats down to his level, puts her hands on his shoulders, and says, “you’re very sweet and I love you very much.” He stares back at her and sometimes licks her nose.

There is nothing ambiguous about his love for her – she is his favorite. His ability to love so obviously is one of the things she loves most about him. He just wants to be near her. He likes to sit on her lap in the car, which she only lets him do when it’s not too warm outside and when she’s riding in the passenger seat. She knows he’s too big to be a lap dog, but she thinks it’s really something to feel his whole body sigh and relax into hers. He does the same thing on the foot of her bed, the full weight of his head on her thigh. When he’s sick in the middle of the night, she’s the one he nuzzles awake. And when she goes to bed, he follows her upstairs to the bedroom, even though her husband, who is usually still reading or working on his laptop or watching television, will take him out one final time before the whole house goes to sleep.

Bodie has more friends than she does in the neighborhood and usually there are a bunch of his buddies already at the park when they arrive: Waffles, Alice, Indie, Spot, Belle, Stuey. She can never remember their owners’ names. Bodie sniffs dogs and owners hello, nuzzling his whole body between peoples’ legs for a quick pat if they’ll let him. He likes to be scratched on his back, down near his tail, where his hair is curliest and most coarse. For a while, he had a notorious reputation as the neighborhood humper. On especially bad days, he’d mount other people’s pets soon after running in the gate. Every time, she’d say, “I don’t know what’s gotten into him” and “He’s so calm at home, really” and “I think he must be in a phase or something” before redirecting his gyrating hips. She imagines this is what it might be like to apologize for a kid who’s a brut or won’t share his toys. She and her husband want children, but haven’t been able to have any yet; she sometimes wonders if adopting a child is anything like adopting a dog.

New people at the park always ask about Bodie’s name. Is he named after Bodie from Point Break (a bad ‘80s movie with Patrick Swayze), or Bode Miller the skier, or Bodhi as in Buddha? If her husband is with them, he nods and smiles, but she can’t bear for people to think they’ve named their dog after Patrick Swayze or an Olympic skier who’s also a known ass. Bodhi as in Buddha is marginally better, but it still makes them seem affected.

“He’s named after Bodie from The Wire, the HBO show,” she tells anyone who asks.  “He was a mid-level heroin dealer who had a good heart in the end.” Seventy percent of people know the show and think it’s cool, the other thirty percent look confused.

She’d just finished watching all five seasons of The Wire when they got Bodie. She and her husband had moved from Boston to D.C. for the year so he could work in the new president’s White House. While he worked hundred-hour weeks trying to save the economy, she watched The Wire, and job searched and went grocery shopping and trained for a marathon and walked through every Smithsonian and visited every monument and spent hours alone on the couch in their apartment drinking red wine while watching the ceiling fan in their living room spin round and round. More than once, she’d told her husband he was a selfish bastard for making her move, and that he’d ruined her life. He’d agreed to a puppy because she’d been so lonely.

With her allergies, a shelter dog was out of the question, so they opted for a doodle: mostly poodle, some retriever, usually hypoallergenic. She found a breeder and checked their website obsessively for updates on the litter to figure out which puppy would be theirs. When Bodie was nine weeks old, they drove seven hours to pick him up in South Carolina, where the breeder lived, and Bodie sat on her lap the whole ride back to D.C.  His warm, little body made them a family. He gave them something different to think about, and that made them happier.

She also spent less time drinking wine and monitoring the ceiling fan because Bodie required her leave the apartment. He helped her make new friends. She’d stand with the same group in a tree-lined Capitol Hill park every morning and every night: there was the chatty, forty-something guy who worked at the Justice Department with a yellow Labrador puppy named Gus who Bodie loved to wrestle with; and the young single woman who taught ESL with a small white dog named Scout, a fetch savant. Scout taught Bodie to love balls. To this day, a ball of any kind can still capture his attention.

At the park, she finds two tennis balls in the grass (park balls that people have left for anyone to use) and shows them to him. His eyes follow the balls wherever she holds them: up, down, left, right, left, up, right, down, left; she can make him look like he’s dancing. Together, they jog out to the middle of the field where she instructs him to sit; which he does, always. She holds one ball above her head and makes sure he’s paying attention, then throws it to one end of the field and watches him race after it at full-speed. Once he’s picked it up, she throws the second ball in the opposite direction. He sounds like a racehorse as he gallops past, inevitably dropping the first ball in his excitement on the way to pick up the second. She admires him for his concentration and for giving his best effort on every toss. She wonders how her life would be different if she had Bodie’s focus. After one or two runs back and forth, he poops, usually in some removed corner of the field where no one else can see him. She swears this is because he’s modest.

She stops tossing tennis balls to collect his deposit, but not before thinking how his digestive system works like clockwork. Sometimes on the walk to the trashcan, she thinks about taking him to the vet for the first time, when she realized she was responsible for another living being; or the first time they went on a walk together, which was about thirty-five minutes after they met. They’d walked into a patch of fire ants on the side of a South Carolina highway. Bodie was fine, but her husband had to strip his pants off, right there, on the side of the road.

Poop disposed of, the game resumes, back and forth, back and forth, like a meditation, until he flops down from exhaustion, or it’s time to go home, whatever comes first. As he sprints to and fro, she unravels from the day. In the winter, she adjusts the game slightly by throwing snowballs, which he chases after with just as much gusto. And when they’re out in the dark, she can fake him out at least a few times with an exaggerated throwing motion, like a major league outfielder. She feels a little guilty about this, but figures she ought to outsmart him at something. Other dog owners watch with amazement as Bodie chases a series of invisible balls.

When she thinks he’s ready, she whistles, and says “Come on, bud, time to go.” If he’s being especially obedient, he trots over; but usually he sits at the far end of the field and makes her collect him. She hooks his red leash to his red collar and tells everyone in the park to have a good night as she latches the gate behind them. Usually, they walk straight home, no detours, except for a quick stop at the bank of mailboxes in her building.

But sometimes, on warm summer nights, just after sunset and once everyone else has gone home, she makes him lie down next to her in the middle of the field. She knows this won’t last forever. They inspect the grass and breathe it in, then lie on their backs side-by-side watching the moon brighten against the purpley-orange sky until it’s time for dinner.

cloe axelsonCloe Axelson has been a grassroots organizer, a ghostwriter and a public affairs consultant. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband, Sam and dog, Bodie. When not writing or working, she can be found jogging along the Charles River or watching baseball (she’s a life-long Chicago Cubs fan). Cloe is a student in Lesley University’s MFA program in nonfiction writing and also studies creative nonfiction at Grub Street. Her piece about the Boston Marathon bombing recently appeared in Boston Magazine online. Find her on Twitter at @cloeax.


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