Don’t ask him who he is. He isn’t certain, anymore, though he gets the occasional hint. The view from his sight line tells him little, other than his feet appear average and his limbs look good enough. Passing by a storefront window he catches a glimpse and stops, taken aback. Is that all there is to it, this body he occupies? He has heard the name “Tipper” or “Tip” a few times and it seems odd, something to note about a restaurant patron. Although he might be considered a sort of patron, he is certainly not a “tipper.” He’s more a nuisance, he supposes. But for the most part he is unperturbed. Once he was called “Ruffian” loudly, three times, by a woman who tried to get a small sack of steak bones from him, telling him this was bad for him, finally yelling he could just choke on them, then. Who was she kidding? Bad for her, maybe. He worked hard to snatch it away with ferocious bared teeth. Triumphant, for once! He likes the association with that so kept the name she threw at him.
Not being accustomed to giving an account of himself to anybody, there is also no documentation. No tags, no numbers. Ruffian doesn’t feel compelled to say anything about his story, such as it is. It matters little if he is great or small, handsome or passable, refined or common. Well, he knows he is not refined though he suspects he could pass with certain right touches. And it’s possible he’s some closer to handsome than not but, really, he also knows he tends to be patient with ladies of his ilk and so they get along. The main thing for him, though, is to keep going, stay alive, or if taking a break and hanging out also stay alive. Avoid burrs and broken glass, rats, raccoons and skunks; a handful of cats unnamed; barbed wire fences and security systems that are hair trigger. And bad meat. And bad tempered two-leggeds. Well, his own kind also leave some things to be desired, it’s true. He isn’t bursting with trust despite being congenial. Cautiously nice with second thoughts at the ready is his general mode. But a dog can only be prepared for so much, despite the basics about famed noses and ears and possible ESP. He’s not up on things enough to know about all that. He lives by instincts, the gut feelings even more now. That has to be good enough.
The neighborhood he likes most is North Hedges. He heard of it from the man who sells houses. This was at a coffee shop when he tossed a bagel remnant to pigeons. Ruffian caught it and got away in time to avoid pecking and swatting from all. Anyway, the praised neighborhood translates into high walls and dense bushes that also are boundary lines (good for relieving himself). There is the occasional old-fashioned fence. Many of the houses are humongous, a few reasonably sized. Leftover food is excellent everywhere. He likes best those with ordinary fences along side and back yards; he can wriggle past rotting or unevenly spaced wood slats. He waits until garbage day, very early to beat out competition, or for compost piles to be enlarged. Or a more rare treat from a generous dog-lover. Ruffian could search less enticing blocks nearby–has– but pickings are not even close to being as tasty.
There are also overhangs on odd, smaller second houses–the ones that shelter cars and such–and since it is known to rain even when sky is blue and breezes smell more verdant than mud-wet, this is a bonus. In fact, it rains all year off and on. So if he can find a spot under a roof line and only suffer dampness about the edges, he’s set. Recently it has been drier. His black and patchy white fur is not matted as badly as he can scratch and gnaw at knots and bits much better. There are a few random generous humans who feed him treats. And of course, Ruffian knows which cafes and restaurants to go to when they close. He otherwise roams, searches and negotiates with others like him or not.
But he stays closest to the house with a freshly-painted white fence that happens to be missing two slats. Ruffian can’t decide just why. Yes, their food is good. It seems a place that is overall safe, which counts for something these days when free-roaming animals get poisoned and turned in to the dog cops. It’s quiet, yet not too quiet; he hears music and it’s sweeter than usual noise. Often there’s a man seated at a stool, hands running over a black and white ledge of keys. Good sounds wander outdoors, even last winter at times. Ruffian sometimes curls up by the wall closer to the music but he prefers to remain at the back edges. Occasionally he will forget himself and join in a few bars which then brings two smiling faces to the door. This shuts him up.
There’s a structure in the back yard that is covered with a round and pointy roof, with chairs to sit amid vines and flowers that wind up lattice. The woman often sits there. She talks with people, sometimes the man. Marie and Marvin Briggs is what they repeated when someone asked if these were, in fact, their names. Ruffian heard them say them to each other enough after that. But that day there were many boxes and other unknown items dropped off on the porch. That was awhile ago; Ruffian hasn’t seen Marie outdoors much though he’s been roaming farther with the warm weather so has no doubt missed much. Sometimes he notices the piano isn’t played; that may not be a good sign. He also hears their voices getting loud and crying sounds, like Marie is speaking in pain. It bothers him mainly because it is different. It changes the feel of the entire house and yard. But Marvin, especially, yet notes Ruffian’s presence by managing fast eye contact or talking to him when he sits on the deck, glass or cup in his hand. But he doesn’t try to approach Ruffian. Or vice versa. They understand something of each other.
They both have seemed welcoming enough. Marvin calls out with the name “buddy”. Ruffian wishes he could correct him but now and then barks in return. The man then shows him a treat of some kind, a bit of sausage or chicken, even a portion of cold baked potato, then lays it on the decking so it can be gobbled up in private when they leave. Marie talks to him as she works in the garden even if she isn’t looking at him, her steady, soft voice an aid to his dozing. He gets worn out, out there. But he keeps to himself in the end. He isn’t in the habit of going to strangers, even if they are better known. They are people. He is canine and long on his own.
There are other canines and most of them are leashed or even tied up or worse, kept indoors which Ruffian finds ridiculous and cruel. They generally growl at him, warn him to stay away from their domain. Maybe these don’t know how to manage things without a leash or commands. He sits a distance from those yards, listens to threaten and complain, then goes on his way. If he barks and bares his teeth, too, much fuss ensures, the humans get involved with a very uncertain end. Often it’s not fun for either dog when all they were doing was having a conversation that didn’t invite humans into it. It is not so hard to come to a mutual agreement, in Ruffian’s opinion, with talk that is to the point.
But there are other canines as footloose as is he. More so, in truth. Not the usual motley crew. Canis latrans. Coyotes. They have been moving in and about more lately, and Ruffian has seen a few things, cats that don’t get to see the sun rise, rats and mice that just give up, other small creatures that need not bother moving in much less seeking emergency shelter. But for the most part Ruffian notes coyotes comings and goings with detached interest, as they do him. Ruffian realizes he is a bit bigger than most of them, though not a forbidding dog. He just can take care of himself after a couple years on the street but he is not interested in aggravating anyone, either. No competition can be had with coyotes form what he understands.
One certain coyote shows up– Ruffian is pretty sure he’s the same one– a few times a month. Tonight he’s around again. The Briggs’ should clean up their brush and mend their fence but since they do not, coyote and Ruffian have equal access. Well, Sir Coyote (as Ruffian has taken to calling him; he’s a bit royal in bearing) can jump higher, four, five feet or more, something to witness. And is better at this night hunting than he is, admittedly. Though not that close to being congenial, they acknowledge each other with a brief clear glance, eyes locking for less than a second. Sir Coyote tends to be entirely unheard and unseen by humans. He sniffs out rodents, other smallish creatures, makes brief work of it, is gone. If it was possible to be more communicative and join in, Ruffian would. But he knows better. He is outclassed by Sir, who was born wild, still is though now sharing sprawling, densely populated cities. A dog that was once cared for and owned by others and then lost to the byways and highways one day, Ruffian has learned about his wildness out of desperate need. It hasn’t been so hard.
But it isn’t his the same way as coyote’s. There is dog and there is dog. Sir Coyote is so fast and sleek, smart right down to his bone marrow, and displays talents Ruffian wishes he could recall or learn as well. Like being able to vanish without you knowing it happens. Playing tricks on the mind when you think you are attuned. Since Ruffian’s been close to humans, he has lost his wariness. He’s a raggedy pet that was inadvertently freed. Sir is a “Sir” for good reason.
Tonight Ruffian sees Marvin come out to the deck and he wonders if Sir will do something about that but no, he is intent on scouting and grabbing and gobbling, if in that quiet, efficient way. Marvin frowns at a sound he stirred up, studies the spot Sir was but a second before then rubs his eyes and sits down with legs splayed, arms crossed over his thin chest. He looks up at the half-moon.
“Are you out there, buddy?”
Ruffian lifts his head. The anticipation of more brings him to his haunches.
“I can’t sleep again. I wonder if I’ll ever sleep again.”
Ruffian is unimpressed, also would like to sleep so lays back down, puts head on folded paws. Half-closes his eyes. Sometime Marvin talks to him. It’s okay.
“She’s gone, did you know? Marie. Our Marie.”
Ruffian jerks hi head up. That name, that tone. He looks about. Marie. But she isn’t there. He lowers it again, watches from among groupings of daisies and newly showing-off hydrangeas blooming by downed, forgotten branches and a rich thicket of ferns. It’s his cool spot to rest, under the fancy ferns.
“Why do you insist on staying out here? Or is elsewhere? Not having a home is not good. Is it?” He scratches his own fur-like head of hair. “Maybe you feel something here…? It hasn’t been good, not for a long time, really. Buddy, I tell you, she tired of things. She’s sick to death of my piano compositions, too, which cuts to the quick…”
He stretches, yawns, making a cascading sound on the exhale. A dissatisfied whine. Ruffian nearly barks at him to settle down, but the man might jump up, come after him.
“You there or not? I thought I felt you…I had mediocre fish tonight, old frozen halibut. Not your ideal meal–mine, either. She would have known what to do with that because she is a chef. A high-paid chef, you know that?” He laughs. “Of course not, you’re a dog. Well, maybe you could tell from the nibbles she gave you. Well, I have leftover French fries if you’re hungry.”
Ruffian has an impulse to show himself, anyway, but thinks better of it. Marvin sounds and smells very alone but also grief-bound, that trapped soured sweet odor. He should definitely be asleep now, escaping himself. Ruffian should be dreaming, too–of chasing things and winning. Of teaming up with Sir Coyote and finding a strong pack at last. He gets tired of being alone, too, but always something doesn’t work out. He doesn’t like the mentality of a gang of dogs gone crazy, either. He’s better off here in the flowers and ferns, a few other choice spots around North Hedges.
But could be Marvin is better off on the deck looking at the sky. It’s sharp and brilliant up there. Stars holding their patterns, each perfect place. Ruffian yawns, too, licks lips and nose. He’s feeling a bit parched. Licks dew off grass.
“There you are!” Marvin leans forward, hands dangling over his knees. He then picks up his glass from the side table, holds it aloft, drinks from it. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be in close company with me tonight, either. I’m an idiot to have let her go! I’m a damned fool to have thought I could keep her with songs and lots of promises of better times…”
Marvin drinks again. Ruffian thinks he would like some of whatever that is. He’d like a really huge bowl of something, cool water preferred.
“The thing is, I have finally sold some songs, buddy! I booked more gigs.”
The man stands and steps off the deck. He holds out his arms to the fragrant, damp garden, then raises them to deep sky and far moon. “Merciless, that moon, it keeps shining on. Looks so cold. Like Marie can be.” He steps closer to the flowers, pauses, then calls to Ruffian. “Hey, I see your eyes! You’re not keeping them shut!”
Ruffian backs up on his belly. What is Marvin doing? He knows better, this man. He’s offered him food but Ruffian has kept his distance from the start. If Marie is gone, what next? Will Marvin take over his life? Then he’ll disappear. Why should he even bother to offer his scent, his warmth, his stokes to such a one as Ruffian? It would be dangerous for them both. Ruffian could bite him or worse.
This living on the run, it’s been working for him okay. He backs away, then stands and trots to the gap in the fence.
From across the way a bigger voice cuts through the dark. “Briggs! Shut up out there! It’s two-thirty in the morning! Can’t you hang it up by now? Just give us all a break? Go to bed, man!”
Ruffian noses his way through the elegant ferns, finds the gap and exits the yard, pushes through bushes on the other side that snag his coat. Stands tall on the sidewalk. He spots Sir Coyote running down the street. He very much would like to follow. Knows it’s futile. He’s stuck on the sidewalk, panting lightly, about to search for water.
“Buddy, you leaving me?”
Ruffian knows this sound and look. Marvin talks like a disappointed boy. Bewildered. He stands there with his long bare feet, those loose pajama bottoms, narrow chest vulnerable and pale, head of hair sticking out like Ruffian’s. He studies him with one white-tipped ear tilting this way and that, then the other turning, but his tail is not wagging. It’s waiting.
Ruffian considers this abandoned human. Weakened, downcast, tired out. He knows how these can feel. He steps the barest bit forward, stretches his neck out so his nose comes close, closer. Sniffs deeply. Marvin does nothing, looks at him with dark, silent eyes. Damp nose bumps against empty warm hand. Ruffian sits nicely and licks the salty skin.
Marvin squats on the sidewalk, reaches out, uneasily smooths tangled fur between Ruffian’s floppy ears as if making contact with something special–or potentially hazardous, he’s not sure which. Ruffian wants to ask what’s going on and where’s the blasted water, but says nothing. He’s looking at thin trails of wetness on Marvin’s cheeks. He wants to lick them clean. The whole man needs something more, much more.
Marvin gets up, walks away with the last of his energy so he can crawl into bed to rest awhile. He opens the gate in his fence, enters his pretty but Marie-less yard. Ruffian hears that sudden, almost silent loping and scans dense air over his shoulder. Sir Coyote is passing, head and tail low, silhouette compact and powerful, driven forward, onward with barely a glance at the dog on the sidewalk. He surely notices him once more but likely finds dogs a tad foolish, even inferior if truth is faced. Ruffian’s heart races as the coyote vanishes into shadow, then it settles. He steps forward, nudges the unlatched gate with his fine, strong head. Marvin has gone inside and locked his door. Ruffian sees the bowl of shimmering water and drinks long. Lies down on the deck, puts head on paws with a shuddering sigh. He is filled with an odd relief and easily tracks night’s wiles ’til daybreak stirs up life in them again.