Tuesday, May 8, 2012

big as the sky.

On an October afternoon in 1999, I visited a shabby back yard in the North View neighborhood of Clarksburg, West Virginia. Not 20 minutes later, I left with who would become my great love for over a decade: my Kaiser. I was 23 and had returned to college after five years of bouncing around Clarksburg and Myrtle Beach and Miami Beach. I lived alone in the brick apartments on Valley View Road in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I went to college. The building had a rectangular cutout in the center, where stairs started at the ground level and went up to the fourth floor. Kaiser was scared of those stairs, so I would carry him up and down to our place on the second floor until he was brave enough to do it by himself. I forget how long that took. In that apartment, Kaisie met his first great friend, Michael, the singer-songwriter who was the first boyfriend I'd had since high school. They were great friends for years, even after Michael and I broke up. He even volunteered to watch Kaisie while I went to New York City with my friend Carrie. I bet they listened to Sam Cooke and shared scones from the bakery where Michael worked while I was gone.

We moved all over Morgantown, my Kaisie and I. From Valley View Road we went to the triplex on Quay St., where we lived next to Will, a pot-smoking, alcoholic college guy with lingering dark circles and a pleasant Rottweiler named Eisha, and above a nameless (and I always thought homeless) rotund old man who dressed his teeny dogs in sweaters and begged for money on High Street with his equally rotund girlfriend, whose hair looked like a maniacal steel wool pad. My place was two story, with a big attic that had all the makings of my bedroom, but Kaisie and I slept on the futon in the living room instead. Sometimes Michael slept over. I have the sweetest picture of he and Kaisie snuggling, fast asleep on that futon. On a fall evening in 2000, a bat visited Kaisie and me. I was sure my burly, part-pit bull would take care of business, but instead he nearly bowled me over trying to beat me down the stairs and out the door. Not long after that, I discovered one million roaches in the kitchen and some type of creature living in our walls. We moved out abruptly. The landlord, who had a French-sounding name and a West Virginia-sounding accent, didn’t sympathize with my critter-and-bug story and kept my deposit.

The basement apartment on Willowdale Road was very well kept, owned by a realtor named Fran. On the day I went to sign the lease, at the office on Beechhurst Avenue, dad came up and Kaisie rode with us. As soon as I opened the car door, Kaisie ran like hell. I can still see dad, also running like hell, trying to catch that big brown blur racing alongside the busy traffic. He never came when called, my Kaisie.

A few months into living on Willowdale, in 2001, Kaisie's best pal Phaedra came into our lives. My boss at the coffee shop found her running loose and figured I couldn’t resist. She was right. We quickly became a family of three: the angsty college girl, the neurotic brown part-pit bull, and the spastic black-and-white baby pit bull. The first night Phaedra was with us, Kaisie got loose. I searched for him until two a.m. and cried myself to sleep without him. The next morning, he was lying at the front door with a look that said, "Hey mom, where's breakfast?"

I can't remember if it was before or after Phaedra, but at my Willowdale place a car got hit by Kaisie. He ran right into the side of it as it descended the hill in front of our house. For a few seconds I was terrified. Kaisie flipped over, and got up barking. And that was that. He never had a run-in with a car again.

At Willowdale, Kaisie met his first girl-friend, Erin. If I had a sister, Erin would be it. We haven't seen each other in years, but we go through everything together, from afar. How she loved Kaisie; she'd pinch his saggy lips and kiss his big, blocky head, and scrunch up her face and tell him, "Aunt Erin loves you, Kaisie." All these years we've been apart, at the end of every phone call she says, "Tell Kaisie his Aunt Erin loves him." It was on Willowdale that Kaisie met his next great friend, Nate, the tattoo artist/painter/cook who became my love, on and off for nearly a decade. I can still hear the funny voice Nate would use when he talked to Kaisie and picture how his full lips would sort of raise up and press hard against his teeth when he was especially animated about talking to him. Nate was often with us at my next place, a triplex on Brockway Avenue. A dump, according to dad when he came up to inspect. Brimming with character, according to me. The winter of 2002 was especially harsh, as was the love between Nate and me. Rough as the pads on Kaisie's paws. Nate’s love for Kaisie was always perfect, though. I have a picture of them in my bedroom on Brockway: Nate ready to leave for work at the Blue Moose, where we both worked, dressed in a tan down vest and scarf, a sweet smile on his face, and an arm full of that sweet brown dog. Nate moved to Portland that summer, and Kaisie, Phaedra, and I, packing my crisp college degree, moved in with my parents until we could make my way to Portland, too; we never did.

Four years later, I made my way to Memphis. That's where Kaisie met his next girl-friend. Ellen. Within two weeks of knowing me, Ellen was at my tiny guesthouse on Nelson Avenue, on my futon with all 67 pounds of my brown boy in her lap. I have a picture of them just like that, with her kissing his head. She would squeal his name when she walked in and would spend much of her visit rousing him to the point of incessant barking. He had a great time with Ellen, his giant, yellowed canines always punctuating his smile. She once grabbed him around his belly, heaved him upward, and held him sitting upright in her lap — she's the only person who ever managed that. I have a picture of it, too. It was Christmas, 2007.

It hasn't been an entire day since Kaiser has been gone. Cancer, the vet said. So much of it crowding his lungs that his heart wasn't visible on the x-ray. Lung cancer? I don’t smoke. Who cares about that stupid x-ray anyway. Nothing, not even cancer, could hide my Kaiser's heart. He had such soul and such a personality. It would take pages upon pages to tell the stories of Kaiser. Two of my favorite things about him were also the most maddening: When he didn't want to go somewhere I wanted him to go, he'd lie down on his side and go limp, and I'd have to beg and plead and yank on his collar to get him up again; and when he wanted on the bed at night, he'd sit at the edge, whining that pathetic half-hearted whine of his, and I'd invite him up, but he wouldn't jump up until I positioned myself on the bed to suit him, and if I moved too much after he jumped up, he'd jump back down and the whole thing would start again.

As all endings, this one had a beginning: Last week, he started coughing. Within a few days, he stopped barreling into the house like he did every evening with Joker, my newest, foster-became-forever pit bull, as if to say, "Please, young'n, I can keep up with you." Kaiser had been a spry fella all his days, even after he was neutered and people said he'd slow down. He had a big bark and used it often; I hadn't heard it much in the past week. I knew something was wrong.

After the vet left the room, I hugged my Kaiser and stroked his snout. I took him outside and let him walk around in the grass that was so bright it looked cartoonish. I hugged him some more. Took a few pictures of us with my phone. Then we went back inside, into a tiny room with a dog bed, a chair, a sink, a bottle of hand soap, and a box of tissues. I petted his chunky head and slipped his soft ears through my fingers. And when the vet came back, I kissed his snout and my lips continued to brush against it while I told him, "Mommy loves you, Kaisie."

Dad buried my Kaisie yesterday evening, on the hill below the back yard. Mom and I told him to wait until the next day so he could ask someone to help. He said no, he wasn't going to leave Kaisie that way. So he dug and sweated and dug some more. Mom went to the truck bed and patted the black bag that held my best friend in the world. I didn’t touch that awful bag. We had already said goodbye. Instead, I stood watching dad, rocking back and forth with my fat baby snuggled against me in his carrier. My son met Kaiser only once — the afternoon I brought him upstairs from the basement to go to the vet. My pumpkin looked up at my baby boy, with those soul-filled hazel eyes. "You see the baby, Kaisie?" He looked at me like he understood. My two great loves, they would've been the best of friends. What a year it has been.

I used to tell Kaisie, "I love you big as the sky." Last night, the sky opened up and shed hard, trembling tears on my Kaisie's grave.

I will miss you so, so very much, my pumpkin. My great big brown love.

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