I’ll get to his finer qualities, but first—I am not a dog person. And I’m really not a puppy person. I don’t like their smell, and I particularly don’t like discovering their turds in my bare feet.
You may think it was Cracker’s misfortune, to come to be raised by me, to be barricaded at night into a corner of the bathroom, but I was the one who had to listen to him squeal.
Man he could piss me off. Like that time I walked into the trailer house and smelled something.
“What’s that smell?” I snarled.
Annamarie was sitting across the room reading a book. Crackers was by her feet, stretched out with his head on his front paws.
“What smell?” she replied.
“Like something died in here.”
“I don’t smell anything.”
Crackers lifted his head and sniffed the air.
“Over here somewhere.”
Annamarie came over and she smelled it too. The dog came over and sniffed around our feet. We looked around, but didn’t see anything, so I started searching. Down the hall, into the nook, into the bathroom, the closet. Nothing. Into the bedroom. Nothing. Under the bed. Nothing.
I tromped back down the hall, baffled. The smell seemed worse now.
“Maybe something died under the trailer,” she suggested. So I grabbed a flashlight and went outside. Crackers followed.
I searched under the trailer, but could not find anything obvious. But I still smelled something.
Still baffled, I headed back to the door. There I saw it—the unidentifiable remains of some unfortunate critter, mooshed into the doormat by a vibram soled boot. The bootprint, which matched my own size thirteen, was pointed toward the door.
I sat down on the edge of the stoop and lifted my ankle up onto my knee, and twisted my foot up so I could see the sole. More of the remains was embe dded in the lugs, and I could see carpet fibers embe dded in the glistening tissue. Crackers came over to sniff.
“SHIT!” I hollered. “Goddam you!” I screamed, whipping off the boot. “Godfuckingdam you!” I bellowed, as the boot chased the dog across the driveway.
But the boot could not catch up with the dog, so it gave up the chase and tumbled into the arroyo. Crackers just stood there by the fence, looking at me quizzically.
Crackers, however, had a generous heart. He forgave me for throwing the boot, like he forgave me for penning him in the bathroom.
Crackers was really Annamarie’s companion. He’d give me that low growl if I came on to her too strong. Still, we got along fine. Me, throwing a tennis ball, sidearm, just as hard as I could, skimming it down the dirt road, Crackers tearing after it, his paws sending up rooster tails of dust and gravel, until he reached full speed. He’d gallop back with the ball, nearly as fast, like Pete Rose, sprinting up the first base line on a walk, proud of his powerful legs.
Then I’d fling the ball again, way into the brush. Crackers would search relentlessly, never returning without it, never not eager to go after it again. An hour would pass, just like that.
He was a mutt we picked up at the pound. We got him after we were burglarized, back when we lived on Galisteo Street, in Santa Fe.
I know who did it, too. It was an Anglo guy who used to hang around the neighborhood. Don’t ask me to remember his name. He noticed our bikes parked behind the wall that formed the miniature courtyard in from of the flat, and struck up a conversation with me. He was wearing a gun on his hip, like some fetish object. “It’s legal, you know, as long as it’s not concealed.”
One evening he knocked on the door and I let him in. He made a feeble effort to make conversation, asking dumb questions about motorcycles. But he just sort of gazed around the room, not listening to the answers.
The next evening we came home and I noticed that a block had been knocked loose from the wall out front. Strange. Inside, it took a moment to discover the guitar was missing. Damn! Just an old gut string no-name. But still. Ohmygod—where’s my tool chest? (I had brought it home recently, after leaving the cycle shop.) It contained a complete collection of Snap-on wrenches and sockets, large and small air wrenches, special tools for beemers, and some custom tools I had made or modified. And the Impeach Nixon bumper sticker on the front panel. It took a day or two to miss the Yashica 35 mm range finder my brother had given me.
So we went to the pound selected a pup that looked like it might be a german shepherd. He got his name from a dysfunctional character in a John Waters movie. Just for good measure, I bought a gun. Then we moved out of town.
Crackers grew to be a formidable dog. He looked like a shepherd collie mix: shaggy coat, black, tan, and white, a husky trunk. But he had stubby legs like a Corgi. As odd as he looked, I saw many similar dogs running around the countryside.
Regardless of his lineage, the short strong legs stood him in good stead. We’d go for jaunts in the high desert, and when we’d come to the edge of a steep barranca, I’d pick him up—all forty-five pounds of him—and fling him over the brink. Then I’d leap after him, half freefalling, half trotting down the slope, just touching the ground whenever it approached, a quick little double step, tipTAP, tipTAP, not knowing where I was headed, or where I would land, letting my feet decide all that. Somehow, we’d arrive at the bottom, together, always upright.
I remember pausing at the rim of a broad, deep arroyo, watching some canyon jays on the opposite side. They were flying around erratically, calling out in crow-like squawks, but at a higher pitch. Just then, I remembered a bird call I had in my wallet. A girl from back east (the same one who sold me the windowpane) had given me a duck call, a total riff. I had stuffed it in my wallet and forgotten about it.
I sat down on the rim and unwrapped the package. Crackers sat on his haunches beside me as I read the directions. Then I put it up to my mouth and blew. The duck call must have meant something to the jays, because one of them immediately flew over to scope things out. Then a few more flew over. They were calling like mad, and I was calling back, trying to imitate their pitch and intonations. More and more of them came from out of nowhere, and soon there were countless birds, swirling and darting around us. Crackers would follow the flight of one, and then another, wishing he had wings so he could join them. Soon the birds got tired of the game, and one by one, went back about their business.
We slept out in the open that night, under the stars. Whenever I camped out, I was haunted by that scene from Easy Rider, where some thugs club Jack Nicholson to death. You could hike way back into the wilderness, imagining no one had every passed that way before, but no matter where you went, you’d look down and see a Coors can or a rifle shell. Before I went to sleep, I tied a thong around my wrist, with the other end tied around the revolver’s trigger guard. It was comforting to feel the warmth from the dog next to me.
His stirring woke me in the middle of the night. The milky way sprung up out of the mountains beyond, and ranged over our bodies. In the distance, a pack of coyotes was singing.
I reached over and grabbed the loose flesh behind his ear, and kneaded it slowly. He hunkered back down and closed his eyes.
It’s been a while since I heard a coyote sing, but I still can hear a feral call in the distance from time to time. It used to be—I would heed the call and chase after it, leaping off the edge with no clue, no care, of what the next step would be. But somehow, those journeys have taken me to a place where I am content, happy to listen to the voices without giving chase.