I’m singing Amazing Grace as we walk down our back alley in the half light when a horsefly dives on Arlo. He does a snapping, jerking circle in which he deftly snatches, chews and swallows him — then nonchalantly leads me south to College Street.
At the junction with Kansas he stops and gives me his best brown-eyed Labradorian look, an appeal, I’ve come to know, to take the route of his choosing; in this case, west instead of continuing south.
Proceeding up Kansas I hear a crow high in a catalpa and think of Joe ‘Crow’ Speer, gone-to-grave poet and deep-in-the-mystery friend of my brother John who says every crow is God.
It’s early September. Clematis is everywhere – dusted on shrubs, running along fences, climbing garage crevices, draped over trees. Angel dust I like to call it. Breaks my heart, though. Makes me melancholy with memories of riding in the pickup to Menghini’s Packing House with grandpa Matt past lightly scented clematis blossoms flung across the countryside.
When we pulled into the packing house lot, the smell was anything but lightly scented. It was horrible stench. Like something rotten was burning. Then I heard squealing and bellowing sounds from somewhere around back. Later that day my older brothers told me, in graphic detail, what the mayhem out back was all about.
Next thing I know I’m thinking about death; a mile away in the Catholic cemetery across from Meadowbrook Mall at the grave of my great grandfather, John, who was killed in a 1919 coal mine rock fall, wondering about what it will be like to splinter and dissolve — cross over the stars of clematis floating along the fence line between us.
Arlo is now guiding me south on Catalpa. From the yard of every other house we pass, a dog yaps and warns us to keep moving. I have a paperboy flashback when a woman in a pink, chenille housecoat with a white towel around her head comes hurriedly out a back door, "Oh be quiet Buddy," she admonishes. "Shush! Be quiet now."
All of the sudden I become aware my own footsteps 1, 2, 3, 4 – the ancient rhythm of walking. There is certain magic and wonder in walking — most gratifying when solitary and meditative — but with a dog like the Labradorian to listen to my songs, musings, lamentations and poems, even better. Poet Billy Collins said you should only share your poems with dogs. Cats don’t appreciate them.
At Lakeside Park we stop and look around for Mr. Heron, our stilt-legged, prehistoric friend. Not there, but there are lots of ducks — both testaverdes and blancos — paddling on the pond. And nearby a gaggle of infamous Canada poopers grazing in the grass. I wish they'd go back to Canada.
On Chestnut we pass a fenced yard with two little boys, probably two and three, running around in child glee as their mother closes the gate on her way out to the car. The youngest runs to fence and says hello to Arlo. "Arf!" he responds, knowing it will earn him a treat from the ‘food guy.’
I tell mom she’s got a couple of cute kids. "Thank you," she smiles with love and a hint of exhaustion. "They keep me pretty busy." Yeah, I bet they do, I think to myself as I crunch, crunch, crunch through a mass of small twigs blown down and washed to the gutter by last week’s thunderstorm.
Arlo continues to lead, stopping occasionally to mark the way as he big noses along the curb and into the grass searching for edibles. After crossing over Euclid, we head up the alley to Georgia, and then over to the elevated WATCO walking trail on the old Missouri Pacific railroad right of way. Leaning against a bright yellow post, we share a snack — apple slices and tangelo wedges — and I feel the steel-on-steel, rock-a-bye rumble of the coal cars that once traveled there.
As we proceed up the trail I realize I haven't finished my morning routine so I launch into my best Pavarotti ‘Ave Maria’ impersonation followed by a metaphorical rosary, taking liberties with the Our Father and Hail Mary by emphasizing different words to give them a little more poetic rhythm and resonance (Mea culpa, Sister Beatrice).
Instead of turning back at our usual 3rd street juncture, Arlo decides to take the trail to 4th Street then back east into an eye-averting sun cutting through the clouds over the old Besse Hotel like the tip of a yellow, blue-green acetylene torch.
Just before we turn back south on College we get a shout out from a lady on her porch having a smoke. With a big smile and little kid eyes she asks, "Is that a Labrador retriever?"
"Yes, this is the Labradorian. Say hello Arlo."
"Oh my," she giggles. Arlo catches a treat and turns toward the corner.
As we stride along in silence, Arlo pulling hard for home, I glance over to see my myself and my shadow walking in perfect sync; then spy in the distance, a jagged line of clematis running along the top of a chain link fence and up into the trees.
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org