It’s the Kind of Day That Makes Me Think of Riley


Today was that kind of day. Some color left on the trees. More on the ground. The grayscale backdrop that I love about November. That I didn’t always love.

I love to walk now, too, to leave my busy classroom, my busy house behind and head out mindlessly on my route. It’s another of those journeys you embark on only to look up a few miles later at your destination to ask yourself: How did I get here?

It’s the kind of day that makes me think of Riley.

It was November when Riley and I set out every day from a house that was so quiet, I should have been happy to leave it behind. But I wanted to hunker down that first fall of owning a dog. I wanted every light in the place blazing. After a last ditch attempt to salvage our relationship with a weekend away, the man I loved had said good-bye to me at a gas station on the Massachusetts Turnpike. From beneath the fluorescent bulbs of that indifferent place, I climbed into my own car, cold from having been parked all weekend in the lot of a shopping mall and knew: it’s over. What I wanted least in the world was responsibility and yet I had a puppy waiting for me at home. And not just any puppy. I had a Jack Russell (mix) before I knew what that meant. There was no getting Riley to cuddle up and be the furry pillow I could sob into. There were balls to chase and Rottweilers to terrorize, squirrels to decapitate, a whole world of backside-tucked-in-for-maximum-aerodynamics running to be done.

We lived in a tiny house on a street so narrow, it should have been a dead end. Across from us — I am not making this up — was a cemetery. To get to the ball field where a fence would corral the kind of feral creature Riley was off-leash, we had to cross a busy street and then move through neighborhoods of the kinds of houses I wanted one day and that seemed impossible: one hundred year Colonials with front porches, yellow squares of light illuminating the passing shapes of families coming home, coming out of the cold and into a place where someone might be cooking dinner, asking about their day. Riley was oblivious to anything but the scents ahead. He was his own sled dog team, 30 pounds of will tugging me forward into the gathering darkness. While he zipped about the ball field, I hunkered down on a bench and became some sort of goal he careened towards and then zoomed away from. His joy filled me with nothing but sadness. Impossible to imagine it, but there it was: I wanted to enjoy him, but winter loomed, an unforgiving season in which to heal.

A month later, dashing away from me just as we packed to drive to Westerly for Christmas Eve, he was hit by a car. He lay motionless on the street. I scooped him up and drove onto the sidewalk to pass cars on my way to the vet’s where he was pronounced miraculously unscathed. Sure, part of the tissue in his face later atrophied from the impact. He also had surgery for a cyst on his ear, and tore out the stitches from getting neutered. Then, he turned one. I threw him a birthday party and invited his vet. Despite that Riley was wearing a cone after yet another surgery, he chased his sister Betty around the yard until he crashed into a citronella candle and coated his face in it. He paused to try to shake it off and resumed his celebration.

Riley and I lived in two more houses together before settling here where the animal control officer, a patient man, stopped by only twice in response to the complaints of those whose dogs Riley victimized on their way past. Once we put up the invisible fence, Riley mostly stayed put. He was content to figure out how to unzip my father-in-law’s cooler to sneak out a turkey sandwich or to disembowel the girls’ stuffed animals. He could run anytime he wanted now and did so with the kind of abandon that had always possessed him.

Turns out, once he could be trusted to be out of a crate (he gnawed through two sofas while I showered; was capable of the kind of four foot vertical leap that would have earned him the notice of NFL scouts had he been human so no counter was safe from him, especially a counter with a one pound chocolate sneaker atop it), he was cuddly. Arranging himself via several mad rotations at the foot of the bed as soon as the lights went out, he wormed his way up the rest of the night until by morning, his head was on your pillow, his four legs firmly pushing you off the mattress.

I’m happy we made it here, to a house full of noise, to a fenced in yard that still allowed him his exuberant sprints. He is buried here beneath a granite marker that, by design, I can see from all the back windows of my house. The trunks of the birches around him are stunning against the November sky.

To keep Riley from leaping out and attacking dogs on leashes all those years ago, I bought him a seatbelt so he could ride up front with me in my convertible. He was a front seat kind of dog, and we drove together, he and I, through that painful November and towards the next, and much happier, thing.