An empty collar


To this day we don’t know who his previous owner was, and we never discovered his true age. The vet placed it somewhere between six and seven years. Sometime that year a spray of white fanned across his face and chest, and suddenly he was older.

He had a quick energy despite the greying muzzle. All I had to do was wind up like I was going to throw and he’d fly across the grass. He didn’t even need to see a ball. And then came the afternoon when he hesitated before the open door of our car. His hind legs shook. He was trying to propel himself into the backseat, a small synchronicity of muscle and will, easy as breathing, which had worked countless times before. It was the onset of arthritis, or so we all thought. We lifted and pushed from the back and, with a little loss of dignity on the way up, we finally got him onto the seat that day. An open window in a moving car works magic on ruffled fur, and in less than a minute he forgot about his wounded pride.

He loved cars, and car trunks, and he especially loved the backs of pickup trucks. I got a call from someone into whose truck he had jumped. Who knew he’d dug his way out of the yard? But given half a chance, he would walk to the park two blocks away and make his way through the parking lot and down the road. A dog setting off alone, a ball clutched in his mouth, purpose in his gait—it was a seriously funny, charming sight. And it broke my heart. I believe he was looking for his missing owner. I have a feeling he saw him in the empty bed of every pickup truck he passed. We thought that perhaps his owner worked in construction. Maybe the dog stayed on-site in his truck. When he was found he wasn’t hurting for food by any means. He was groomed. He wore a collar.

So how did he end up wandering along the shoulder of a highway? With no tags?

The shelter left a message for us, and we picked him up in Los Osos, California. Their parting gift to him was a chewed, hollow, orange rubber ball, flapping open from a tear in the shell. He never let it out of his sight. Our daughter was four at the time. He was our first dog as a family.

His favorite hangout was the park. His addiction was chasing balls. We bought a ball thrower, two, several. They’re still in the garage, along with his old leash, any number of ragged balls. His bed. The devastation of an empty collar.

“He’s a dog. He belongs outside.” Those were the first well-meaning words of advice we received, and we followed them to the letter. He slept outside and came indoors only for food. He could tell time. The screen door would bang once to announce that it was five o’ clock.

He never barked. We wondered if his vocal cords had been removed, and one night, a week later, he decided he didn’t like the local possum. He had a confident bark, full-throated, loud. We couldn’t get back to sleep. We worried about the neighbors. He came indoors. He made peace with the possum.

He claimed the couch behind my desk. My kid helped herself to the other half of it. Sometimes they made room for me.

The neighbors adored him, as did the people who ran the kennel where he stayed when we were away. Random dog owners walking their charges in the park; fearless toddlers running anxious parents. He had a special way of approaching people, never straight on, never hurried, rarely if ever walking up to little kids. He took his time, and came at strangers a little sideways, lowering his head as he walked. His ears would soften even more. His tail never stopped moving. He’d look up at them, brown eyes, soft, wise, and as quickly he looked away. He stayed while he was being petted and didn’t wander off, content to sit and quietly mediate the conversation.

I discovered that he’d endeared himself to one other person, who had never met him. My co-worker in San Francisco checked on him daily over AIM, and never tired of hearing about his exploits. Bob died of cancer, and at his funeral I found our dog in his sketchbooks.


He spent his days following me around, partly because I talked to him, mostly because it’s what dogs do. His eyes would flicker back and forth, as if he were assessing the intelligence of what was being directed at him. At some point he’d decide that the crazy person had gone on long enough, and with a sigh he’d drop to the floor. Only to pull himself to his feet again and amble after me when I left the room.

One day he couldn’t get up. He refused all food. We lifted him and put him into the car. It was a Sunday. It took two hours to see the vet, and by that time he was on his feet and nosing around. We thought that maybe it was something he ate in the park. The vet administered a Vitamin K shot and we waited anxiously for the poison to work its way out of his system. We walked the perimeter of the yard, blocking all avenues of escape.

It happened again, and it took longer for him to recover. We were working in the yard that weekend, so we put him and his bed outside where we worked. One of us would stop every now and then and sit with him. He struggled to his feet. He gripped his ball, swaying on disobedient legs. This time, the vet kept him under observation for two days. When we came home, he lit out of the car and looked back from the corner at me standing by the open door, hysterical with relief. He galloped down the road. For a good, long time after, everything was normal.

Once, my husband was working on the couch with his laptop and was ignoring him. He picked up his ball—one of those hard, dense rubber things that doubled as a chew toy—and dropped all twelve or so ounces of it on his keyboard. My husband laughed, and closed the laptop.

I was alone with him when it happened.

He was restless, unable to lie still. I took a break from work and got up. On our way back from the kitchen he padded ahead of me, and I saw him stumble. His back legs gave out. He fell in slow motion against the wall. An arc of urine sprayed the carpet, and I remember thinking that it was going to be hell to clean up. He collapsed on the floor and I grabbed a towel and eased it under him. I dialed a number. No one answered. The car wasn’t in the driveway. I dialed again. I stroked his head. He didn’t move. His eyes ricocheted everywhere. My fingers kept dialing the same number. His breathing was loud. All that time, the only other sound in the house was that of my own voice talking to him. I don’t know what I said, mostly that everything was going to be OK, I think. I may have sang to him, but I don’t remember. A sigh went through his body. And his eyes stilled.

No one ever tells you about the slop, the messiness of death.

I kept talking to him as I cleaned him. I found a blanket and placed it over him. The phone rang. I went back to work, and waited.

Three of us slept in our bed that night, huddled into each other. My feet grew cold and kept looking for something to lie against. Around midnight I got up and lay on his couch, covering myself with his quilt. It smelled nothing like him. It smelled instead like it needed to be washed.

I wept. It was so stupidly unfair.

The hole in daily life was unendurable. We moved the couch into another room. Minutes, hours, nights, days, weeks, months went by. I gathered everything of his I could find and packed it all away, but for some time afterward we found stray balls hidden under chairs. My toe smarted from the hardened rawhide strip caught between a corner of the rug and the baseboard. I unearthed cans of dog food from the back of the cupboard.

I missed our talks. The silent form on the couch behind me as I worked. My shadow when I got up. The park. Rituals.

He wanted two things in life: to find the owner he lost, and a ball thrower welded to a robotic arm. I’d like to think he grew to want us, too. He was family, part of our lives for less than two years, but as essential as air. Then, his spleen ruptured. And he died of cancer.

He was a black Labrador with ears of velvet.

His name was Pie.