As the years recede, as inexorably they must, and my step begins to falter, I have adopted a routine of taking my dogs for a walk up the long and leafy grade in front of my house, and back. It is the way I keep my body moving and my heart in shape, and how I fix an eye on my animal self, which unlike my imagination that could go on forever, will not.
There are four of us to keep each other company on these repetitive rounds—myself, two spirited Chihua¬huas named Jake and Lucy, and a lumbering Bernes Mountain Dog whom my wife has named Winnie after the fictional bear. The big dog’s colors are black and brown with a white slash at the throat, and she limps affably behind us, hobbled by hips displaced from over-breeding, bearing it all without complaint.
As we make our way up the incline, the little ones race ahead spinning out their spooled leashes, weaving as they go like furry kites, their noses to the ground following invisible trails. Jake is a black and white spot who hurries nervously on spindly legs that narrow sharply at the joints creating a pink translucence where the light pokes through. Lucy, a muscular auburn, is the alpha of our pack, with moves aggressive and hunter-like. This mar¬tial presence, however, is undermined by ears that flop at the ends and quizzical brown eyes whose rims are wrinkled like the progeria children who grow old before they grow up.
Our point of departure at the bottom of the hill is a stucco house with sand-colored walls and a red tile roof. In the front a realtor’s shingle indicates that my wife April and I have put the property up for sale. It is the third house we have lived in during a dozen years of a shared life. Our pre¬vious home in Malibu was perched like an eyrie on a cliff above the ocean, Avhile this one is inland, overlooking the San Fernando Valley from hills above Calabasas. The realtor has attached a brochure to the “For Sale” sign, which pro¬motes the property as a “Tuscan Villa,” perhaps because it is set in a glade of the coastal range, or maybe because of the lion-head fountain on the garden wall. The interior is fitted with other details intended to lend it an Old Country look— a wrought-iron chandelier and a built-in ivory-colored cabinet whose surface has been distressed to give the appear¬ance of age. Of all the environments I have lived in during the course of a life now reasonably long, this one has been especially comforting, and I am reluctant to leave it.
Our excursions begin with a procession to the end of the foyer where I have stored the dogs’ leashes in a wicker basket and stuffed the brimmed cap I wear now to shade the sun-damaged skin that can no longer repair itself. I have only to reach for the hat to elicit a fanfare of yelps that celebrate the simple, evanescent pleasure before us as the high point of the day. And every day. For it is always the same.
I don the cap sparking their canine cries, and fasten the leashes to their collars, a task made challenging by the canine frenzy. When the tussle is concluded and the small dogs harnessed, we step through the front door to begin our adventure. The dogs charge at the squirrels and hares foraging on the lawn, causing them to scurry into the meadow by the side of the house or up the embankment across the way where they disappear into labyrinthine burrows and make good their escapes. A pipe corral rises above the warrens, which is home to a sable-coated stallion with a diamond emblazoned on his regal forehead. His name is Clifton and every day as we approach he subjects us to the same deliberate inspection. Nearby, his companion, an aged pony named Robin, stands so still he seems frozen in time. His matted hair hangs like a Spanish Moss from his weathered frame and makes him look so ancient I am always relieved to see him still with us.
And every day, without fail, we attack them. It is Lucy who sounds our battle cry, while Jake seconds her alarms prudently from the rear. Jutting her head through the bars of the corral, she finally provokes the majestic creature who turns and thunders towards us. The sight is fearsome to everyone but the instigator who elevates her cries at the stallion’s approach, thrusting her body towards him.