Walking with Rio
A reflection on dogs and cats and life
By Maria Johnson
You stand in the living room, whining in a pitch I cannot ignore.
You fix me with eyes the color of hard candy, root-beer flavored. Clear and warm and sweet.
I solve the mystery by deduction.
It’s not food you want. There’s a scoop of kibble in your dish, wet with beef broth, and you won’t touch it.
You’re not in pain. You groan and shift when you’re hurting. Plus, you’ve just downed half a peanut butter sandwich made chunky with your morning meds.
“Go for a walk?” I say tentatively. I’m doubtful because your limp is pronounced this morning. A few minutes ago, I sat at the kitchen table and watched you hobble down then back up the ramp we built for you over the patio steps.
“Go for a walk?”
You confirm with a steady gaze.
Of course. You’re all about the walk, the run, the movement that expresses, better than anything, who you are.
You’re a leggy foxhound — “Imagine a beagle,” I tell people. “In a supermodel’s body” — born to the chase with nose and ears and stride that gobble up the woods with ease.
You’re a good sport, though. Most of the time, you settle for walks on greenways, trails and suburban streets.
So I slip the harness — the new one that doesn’t rub your shoulder — over your head, grab a plastic bag and my phone, and we set out into the neighborhood.
How many times have we walked this way together? How many miles have we covered in our menu of loops that start and end at home?
I do the math.
More than six thousand.
Your dad — your human dad, that is — figures he’s walked 10,000 miles with you.
That’s 16,000. And that’s just with us, in the nine years since we found you, when you were about two. God knows how many miles were on your odometer when you bounded into our lives, bony and collarless, as we were leaving a Mexican restaurant.
Tom, your human brother, who was 14 at the time, named you Rio for the restaurant.
Goodness, did you run.
In the dog park, in the woods, streaking across our broad backyard, flashing in and out of the Japanese cypresses with speed and ease that made everyone laugh in recognition of the truth. Your essence was there, in those slivers of seconds you were suspended over the ground.
But this morning, we walk.
Your Dad and I — knowing that our ambles with you are numbered — let you mosey and meander, sidetrack and sniff as much as you want.
The grass in cracks of asphalt.
The mulch under trees.
The acorns passed over by squirrels.
The green and white beacons of fire hydrants.
You salute them as usual.
Your right front leg quavers as you balance.
The X-ray was so subtle, the line where the bone density changed. How could such a small shadow change your gait, your life?
Your nails click in the concrete gutter. The fourth step is muted. You’re taking weight off that leg.
It’s weird, this business of knowing. None of us knows, do we?
But something changes when we have an inkling. We stop looking forward. We reel in our attention to now. You do this naturally.
Like right now. Buckled into the moment, you walk at the pace your body allows, which is slow. It’s a good time to slow down.
Spring is being born. The morning air flows around us like cool creek water, but the sun is warming, pulling new life from the Earth. Daffodils — the first I’ve seen this year — trumpet the news. Purple crocuses reveal tangerine exclamation points.
You stick your head into a storm drain to check for cats. It’s such a cliché. But cats drive you crazy.
You lift your head as we pass Moe’s house. Yes, I remember. You growled and barked at Moe, who tiger-stalked to the end of his driveway, squared up to you and swiped. You yelped and jumped back. A red line welled on your nose. You looked shocked. That was not supposed to happen.
The cat was supposed to run. You were supposed to chase.
Skittles, the cat that lived down the street, understood. When you lunged, he dashed, a puff of orange smoke. Skittles and his family have been gone for years, which is why I’m surprised when you pull me into his old yard and stand there a long time, staring at the stoop where he used to curl. What will I say if someone comes out of the house and asks me what’s going on?
“My dog sees the ghost of a cat that used to live here.”
Then I see what you see. It’s not a ghost. It’s Sudi, the fluffy black-and-white cat that has taken up with a family across the street. You rear and twist like a sailfish, fighting the line that binds you.
Your leash slips my hand. Sudi takes off. You take off. You’re wobbling like a car with a flat tire. And the gas pedal floored. Sudi sprints down a fence line and makes a hard right into a wooded patch. You make a hard right into a wooded patch. I make a hard right into a wooded patch.
I’m running as fast as I can, shouting at you to stop, plowing through the briars, jumping downed branches, catching glimpses of your churning back legs. My heart is hammering.
The vet warned that high impact exercise could fracture your shoulder. Please, God, don’t let me hear a cry of pain. And, PS, while you’re at it, don’t let my husband — who will be driving up the street any minute — see any of this. He would be so mad if you got hurt on my watch, just like I would be so mad at him.
Finally, I catch up to you. You’re jumping and pawing at the back gate of another house. Sudi has squeezed his way to safety.
“Damn you,” I say, picking up your leash and wrapping it around my hand twice.
You turn to me smiling, breathless, tongue lolling.
“Damn you,” I say again, sucking wind through laughter.
In your mind, in the moment, you are still you.
That is all you know.
That is all I know.
We limp out of the woods together and head home.
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry.