You can imagine how KJs are plagues by the Great American Songbook. The next morning, as I dangle my legs off the edge of my back deck, overlooking the Carr Inlet, my internal CD changer clicks automatically to “Dock of the Bay.” I’m soon into that whistling solo that my singers are chicken to try – and whistling guarantees the end of my solitude. The blackberry vines give out a rustle, and out from his tunnel pops Java, world’s tallest standard poodle. He lopes my way on basketball player limbs, and I put him through the standard drill.
“Sit Java! Okay. This hand. Now the other.”
He sits and whacks my palm with either paw. It’s a poor imitation of a proper handshake, but this is the only trick he’s got. I grab a hank of his coffee-colored dreadlocks and reach down to thump his ribcage like a ripe melon. Then I go for the look.
“Listen carefully, Java. If someone – say, a poodle – wanted to describe the mass of an object, what unit of measure would they use?”
He peers down his long snout, but refuses to take the bait.
“Why a newton, silly! Now, a lot of people think the newton was named after Isaac Newton, but I happen to know it was Wayne Newton. You know, ‘Danke Schoen’?”
I sing a few bars, but still, nothing.
“He also invented the fig newton.”
Ah, that did it. Java cocks his head to the right like he’s actually, humanly puzzled. I’m sure it’s a trick of evolution – a hundred canine generations figuring out that humans dig the tilted head thing – but I wouldn’t trade the illusion for the world.
“Good Java!” I yank his moptop, and he gives me that slightly fierce V-shaped grin.
Another rustling comes from the human entrance, a trellised archway covered in passionflowers. It’s Floy Craig, and naturally she’s got baked goods, a plateful of apple turnovers.
“Floy!” I complain. “How am I supposed to keep this weight off if you keep tempting me?”
“Ha!” says Floy. “‘This weight.’ she says. I am surrounded by skinny people who don’t realize they’re skinny.”
This is all ritual, of course. If Floy opened a bakery, I would be first in line. But female custom demands protestation before piggery.
All the interaction gets Java barking, a lyric “woof!” that sounds exactly like Lassie.
“Now Java,” says Floy. “Don’t even start. This is not your carbohydrate of choice. So cliché,” she tells me. “A poodle who loves French B-R-E-A-D.”
“Especially” is a word containing far too many newtons to leave dangling in the air, but Java is unhappy with the way this conversation has left him out of the loop. He pries his snout under Floy’s hand, demanding a head scratch.
“Well!” she says. “All right, sillydog. Um, well… the other night, Java started that nervous muttering of his…”
“I love that! He sounds like an old Jewish man.”
“Well, yes,” says Floy. “But then he worked into a howl, which he never does. So I went out on the balcony to check and, well… We try not to be nosy neighbors, Channy, but you are just below us, and I heard you moaning. It sounded painful – and believe me, I know pain. And then you let out sort of a half-scream, and I guess that’s what woke you up.”
“Oh.” Now I’m really embarrassed. I hold my mug higher, hoping it’ll hide my face.
“I’m sorry, Channy. We both understand that there’s something you can’t tell us about whatever it is that brought you our way. But if you’re having nightmares… well, we’re just concerned, is all. And you certainly don’t have to tell us about it, but I do know some excellent counselors at the hospital.”
Again, Floy knows when she’s made her point, and when to let off the gas.
“By the way, a little fair warning: the little terrors will be by this afternoon.”
“Thanks. I’ll make my usual foster aunt appearance, and then I’ll do a little boating.”
Floy’s like me – she loves the grandkids, but she also knows her limits. And today, mine are pretty low.
Despite a later-morning drizzle, I am out on the back deck with Java and a cup of same. We’re playing fetch, but with Java it’s never that simple. He fancies himself a wide receiver, and is ruthlessly devoted to the offsides rule, refusing to leave my side until the “ball” (a bone-shaped pillow) has departed the quarterback’s hand. This leaves me with two options: lift a lame popup, giving him a chance to run beneath it; or give him the classic pump-fake, wait till he runs ten feet and looks back, then left a pass further downfield. The latter is much more satisfying, much more You, too, can be Peyton Manning.
Sadly, he only buys this trick a handful of times. Then he stays there on his haunches, giving me a look that says, Come on! I’m a poodle, remember? I’m not that dumb. So now I’m standing, hoping to add some leverage to my popups, while my coffee sits on a statue of Artemis, going cold. From this new vantage, I can see the distinct track that Java has burned into my lawn. Perhaps I spend too much time at this.
I reach way back for a good, high throw, but I louse up the release, sending the bone pillow too far. I fear that Java will end up in the brambles, but instead he veers right and bullets the passionflower archway, barking like crazy. I can swear I hear another dog barking back – and I’m close. Harry Baritone steps up the trail, Java leaping at him with joyous abandon. Once they clear the archway, Harry grabs him around the chest, leaving his head and front legs squirting out the other side of Harry’s looped arms.
“I remember this one,” he says. “Loves to wrassle.” He lets Java go and thumps him on the back. “Macho poodle.” Java’s all worked up now, panting in a half-growl, but Harry grabs his collar and smooths his mop-top. “There now, Mister LeBark. Settle down. Mom and Harry need to talk.”
I’m suddenly self-conscious, hoping my lounging clothes don’t look as grubby as they feel. “Wow, Harry. So weird, seeing you out of context. Um… want some coffee?”
“Yeah. That would be great.”
“Have a seat. I mean, an edge of the deck. Dangle your feet.”
I cheat my grubbiness by trading my sweatshirt for a clean windbreaker. I return to find Harry and Java playing tug-of-war with the bone pillow.
“This dog is tenacious.”
“Yep. And if you like your coffee warm, you’ll just have to give up.”
Harry looses his grip. Java takes his pillow to the lawn for a light-but-thorough chewing.
I am startled landward by the distinctive bark of TV’s Lassie, and I look up to find Java, wide-stanced on a boulder, delighted at his discovery. John Craig pops from the trees ten feet behind, at the end of one of those fishing-reel leashes, dressed in sweat pants, a T-shirt and a headband. John treats everything like a workout, and it shows. At seventy, he’s in better shape than most people my age (and is trying for better, preparing for a reunion of his old Navy squadron).
“Hey!” I shout. I wince at the volume, but then I remember that, for most people, 11 a.m. is not early.
“Oh!” John spies me and waves. “I thought Java was after another seagull.”
“Training for VP-21?”
“I ain’t goin’ for Mister Congeniality!”
“You’re going to make those old Navy guys feel bad!”
Java performs a time-step on the boulder and lets out a stutter of half-yelps, overstimulated by all the hollering.
“Hold on a second!” says John. “I’ll be right there!”
Dog and master disappear around the corner, and I feel like I’ve been abandoned – until I find a rowboat tracing the shore, afro silhouette at the prow. John pulls his way to my spot and plants his oar in the water for a brake. Java is stiff on his haunches, a perfect triangle of dog. John grabs an oar by the blade and extends the handle to me.
“Hold on to this. It’ll keep us from drifting apart.”
“Does Floy know you’ve got a boat?”
“I don’t. This belongs to Jerry Flores, my VP at the homeowners’ association. He’s got a private dock just around the corner. It’s a great upper-body workout.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah yeah. Everything’s a workout. Your dog is exceptionally calm.”
John lets out a husky laugh. “More like petrified. He lost his balance once and found out just how cold the Puget Sound is.”
“Thanks to Ensign Java.” I give our friend an awkward slap to the ribcage. Java’s still too anxious to move, but his eyes get big at the sound of his name. And by now I’ve forgotten why I needed to ask that question.
The present calls to me in a jangle of metal, and I know what’s coming: a merry flight of chocolate fur and a resounding “Woof!” I can almost parse the letters: W-O-O-F.
Java bursts through the trellised archway and takes a mighty leap onto the deck. He is completely unprepared for the effects of snow on a hard surface. When his paws fail to make purchase, he performs a four-footed Astaire routine and collapses, legs flying out like the poles of a wrecked pup tent as he slides on his belly, drops off the end of the deck and lands with a whump! During the entire stunt, he wears an expression that is both puzzled and ridiculously calm – and that’s the part that sets me off. When Floy Craig pops her blonde curls around the trellis, she finds me nearly suffocating with laughter.
“What the hell was that?”
“Oh!” I squeak. “Hard to… Can’t…”
She wipes off the opposite bench, takes a seat and watches me with much amusement. Then she sees the long swipe leading to Java, who’s standing in the yard, shaking himself dry.
“Ah! I can picture it now. He’s got the same problem with the tiling in the kitchen. Does that cartoon thing where his feet are just swishing around like a propeller. If we could only get one of these on tape, we could make some serious money. Can you talk now?”
Java has found a safe route to the deck and is nudging Floy’s hand with his snout, trying to jump-start a petting session. He barely gets a response before he’s off again, streaking through the arch at full bark.
“Oh!” I say. “That’s probably my friend. I’d better grab Java so she can get out of her car.”
“Can you hang on to him?” says Floy. I’ll fetch the leash so I can take him for a walk.”
I arrive at the driveway to find Java on his hind legs, front paws planted on the hood of Ruby’s Toyota. Ruby’s inside, laughing hysterically. She rolls down her window to greet me.
“He looks like this director I knew in New York. Very gay and very fierce.”
I grab Java by the collar and pull him down. “Java is on a comic roll this morning.”
Floy trots out the front door and hooks a leash to Java’s collar as I reel off the introductions.
“Floy, Ruby. Ruby, Floy. RubyJavaJavaRuby.”
Ruby gets out and waggles a hand over Java’s floopy head.
“That covers all the combinations. Nice to meet you, Floy.”
“I’ll take this monster far away,” she says, “so you two can have a nice quiet talk.”
“Thanks,” I say. Ruby and I watch as Java drags her around the bend.
My epiphany arrives with the sound of panting. I look up to find an actual horse, sitting on its haunches in the center of my room.
Java comes to my bedside and spatulas his long snout under my hand.
“Young dog! What the hell are you doing here?”
This is a muted call, coming through the hole in my ceiling. It sounds a lot like Floy. I take my phone from my nightstand, hit #1 on my speed dial and get Floy’s puzzled response.
“Hi. I don’t know if there’s a drip in my ceiling, but there seems to be a big poodle in the middle of my floor.”
“Oh, that’s hilarious!” says Floy. “But how the heck did he get there?”
“Doggy dumbwaiter? Extra-terrestrials?”
“I’m so sorry, Channy! I’ll come down and get him. If that’s okay?”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s fine.”
A minute later, there’s a rap on my French doors, and Java rushes over to inspect. I slip on my robe and undo the lock.
“Hi!” says Floy. I’m surprised to find her in her nursing uniform. Java pokes his head through the doorway, and she gives him a playful bop. “You goof! How did you get down here? Have you invented teletransportation?”
“Going to work?” I ask.
“Just got back.”
“You are kidding me.”
The ol’ Sunday morning six to ten. We call it Hell Shift. This morning, however, we delivered triplets.”
“Wow! That’s gotta be rare.”
“Only the second for me, and that’s forty years of maternity.”
Something else is on Floy’s mind, but she’s not coming out with it. We sprawl into one of those awkward silences where the only option is to play the housepet card. I scratch Java on the neck and say, “So how do we get him to reveal his secret passage?”
“Ah!” says Floy. “You found our favorite toy. Java managed to topple that over once. We had to search every shop in Northwest Oregon to find the right kind of sand for it.”
“He’s a rambunctious critter,” I say.
“Too long-limbed for his own good. He’s also just crazy for French B-R-E-A-D, which I think is just painfully cliché.”
Java cocks his head, which in this case means, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but at least you’re paying attention to me. When I turn back to the table, Floy has loaded me up with a steaming stack of pancakes, spotted here and there with igneous burstings of gooseberry.
And then somebody barks. And I wake up next to a dead hand. It’s mine. I fell asleep in an odd position, and my left arm has gone completely numb. I use my still-living right hand to nudge it out of my way, then peer across the room to see the numbers 5:54. and a fuzzy pyramid of pooch.
“Java! How the hell are you doing this?”
I am secretly happy to see him; in the face of such an obvious dream (where were the evil mimes? the radioactive pickles?), I am hungry for mystery. Java trots to my side, slips his snout under my hand, and I give him a thorough scalp massage. He is my favorite plush toy, and he knows it.
Then I notice the trail of muddy footprints he’s left on my white carpeting. At first I’m angry, but then I realize he’s just given up his secret. I creak to my feet and follow his tracks into the kitchen; they end at the sink. The cabinet door is unlatched. When I pull it open, I discover that my pipes now come with a backyard view. Evidently, John installed a hatch providing easier access to the plumbing, but neglected to close it when he fixed my garbage disposal last week. As if to demonstrate, Java ducks under the pipes and bounds into the yard, then turns to give me one of his Lassie-barks.
“Yeah-yeah. Very impressive.”
I reach for the rope tied to the hatch and pull it shut. But now I’m a little sad, because I have once again wiped my life clean of enigmas – I, who used to have so many. I also realize that I am not getting back to sleep, so I head for the shower.