He’s huge, brown, part mastiff, part American Staffordshire, and the sight of his drooling jowls terrify most of the building’s residents. Yet my 100 lb, 9 year-old dog Buddy is gentle. He was socialized since he was a very young rescue, and he wouldn’t hurt anyone. He does suffer from separation anxiety if left alone in the house years after I adopted him. I’ve spent hundreds in obedience training, and he is still a work in progress. Recently he’s been barking incessantly, and on some mornings as I leave for work he wails, howling for company.
That changed when he met Joyce. Buddy’s short tail zigzags whenever he sees her. He can smell her sour odor whenever he passes by her apartment door when we walk upstairs. His uncropped, floppy ears stand erect at the shouts emanating from the 4 o’clock Eyewitness News anchor, or the dings and applause from the Wheel of Fortune at 7:45. Instead of throwing it in the trash, a departing tenant gave Joyce the TV set with a broken volume, thinking it perfect for a lonely old woman sitting in a dusting armchair six feet away.
“Aww Buddy,” she’d always say, as he slowly hobbles up the stairs and she pats him on the head. “You are a sweet boy.”
Joyce ran into me as I was carrying groceries upstairs. The Southern elderly woman turns on the charm, greets me with a wide smile at the top of the stairwell. Before I know it I’ve spent 20 minutes in the hall, and everything, from the election to the whereabouts of two tenants in 4F, is discussed. She knows I moved to this new city, to downtown Durham to find myself, and in a strange way I’ve grown to find her weekly presence comforting. Six months in, and we’ve developed a mild friendship to the point that we’ve even gone out for breakfast at the diner over on Duke Street. Over shrimp, cheese grits and strong morning coffee I try not to dwell on the failing marriage I left up north, or my missed therapy appointments. I evade phone calls from most of my well-meaning friends and family members. I’m getting comfortable with detachment, drifting in and out of emotional stillness, and almost, but not quite, ready to make new friends.
The last time I spoke with a friend who wasn’t a new one, was weeks ago with Shaunte, my trombone-playing friend from college.
“When it gets that bad, Aggie, just smoke.” He drops the phone and the thump on the floor pierces my ear, then he’s back, after a long toke. He is miles away, in his noisy, thin-walled apartment in the middle of Los Angeles. “Word,” I say. We exchange pleasantries, like I do with all my friends that do their obligatory check-ins, and I hang up. I’m less anxious as the months go by. I end up giving all my weed to Joyce.
She wanted to tag along with me to the Tobacco Trail, the 20-mile, paved path that snakes thru Durham. One of the entrances is at the Woods Edge complex. I was going to go for a short jog with my slow dog, and she insisted that she walk him and I go ahead. We started out in the warm springlike afternoon, just two weeks after feeling cooped up due to an ice storm. Blue, red, yellow feathered birds fly and chirp overhead, and the air smells like fresh peat. I love the tall Carolina pine trees that attract the noisiest crows. I learn to stop, watch hawks soar, and listen. Overhead a gold-crested brown one with a wing span that looks like a couple of feet, flaps downward, landing on a branch. Watching me pass with caution, its head rotates, then bobs as I head out on the trail. One massive inhale, and I gather as much cool air on the intake, then exhale, trying to find a rhythm in my run.
I forget to tell Joyce about the occasional squirrel that might catch Buddy’s eye, and cause him to dart ahead. It’s finally spring and the last vestiges of his youth come alive with all kinds of scents in the woods. Minutes into my jog however, I stopped checking back at the two of them as their shapes disappear around a bend.
Joyce must have taken a shortcut back. I found her lying face down in some soft mulch, near the juniper bushes at the front of our complex. Grateful she fell into some dirt and not some city pavement, I ran over. Good Lord, are you okay?” I asked, grabbing her arm and easing the old woman up from the ground. Buddy is nearby, sniffing and taking another pee into a bush. I do a quick once over of her frail yet dignified body, her gray hair still pinned tight into a bun. Nothing broken as far as I can tell.
“Joyce, I told you he’s too heavy. You could drop the leash anytime. Can you walk?”
“I’m okay, I should have let go.” She laughs, then brushes off the rest of the pine cones stuck to her sky blue jogging suit. Her eyes dart to the side as if worried Buddy would run out onto Hope Valley Road, but I knew he wouldn’t go anywhere. Smiling at the sight of the old mastiff’s wrinkled head, she motions to him.
Buddy lumbers over, panting, tail wagging, He has clear brown eyes, glassy like a teddy bear, brighter than any toy doll I’ve ever owned. After helping her up, I hand her the leash and she takes it, all healed and eager. I don’t have to ask her to smile.
“Aww, Buddy,” she says, and eyes the weathered wood of the apartment stairwell ahead. Securing the leash around her hand, she leans onto the rail and together they tackle the stairs. “You are a sweet boy.”