Essays

Beagleman

By Eve Kushner
This essay appeared in the January 2004 issue of the East Bay Monthly.

My husband and I began taking Crosby for long ambles during his puppyhood, when he’d tear through the house in kamikaze loops, waving socks or tissues from his mouth like victory flags. As he obviously required “unbouncing” (to borrow from A. A. Milne), we developed a routine, walking our neighborhood by day and Shattuck or Solano by night.

A multitude of beggars came with the nighttime scenery, most calling out feebly from doorways or muttering something sullen and ineffective. But Roy was different, always greeting us with the same energetic sales pitch: “Whatevah you can spare without hurting yo’self.”

Walking the dog becomes an exercise in role reversal with the most unlikely neighbor on the block.

We would apologize and walk on, not in the habit of giving away cash like that. We often write checks to charities, but the whole giving-on-the-street thing seems pointless if the money ends up squandered on a bottle of vodka.

Although we gave him nothing, Roy made a hearty effort night after night. “Whateeevah you can spare without hurting yo’self,” he’d chant, infusing each vowel with passion and stretching it out like a southerner. Even his consonants had great bounce to them, popping and resonating like nothing we’d heard before.

With ashy black skin, a yawning hole in place of his front four teeth (as if he’d narrowly survived a boxing match), and frail silver glasses that made him seem all the more vulnerable, Roy looked like he was barely hanging in there. But you wouldn’t know that from his forceful, persistent delivery or the way he showed up regularly for the most unrewarding job imaginable, always in a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled up and a small canvas hat on top of that.

“He’s better than anyone on our sales team,” my husband Arif said. “If he knew anything about computers, I’d hire him in a minute.”

Just when we thought the shtick would never change, Roy took notice of Crosby and added something new. “What kind of a dawg is that?”

Crosby as a puppy
Crosby as a puppy.

“A beagle,” we said.

“A beeeagle!” he said with glee. “Isn’t that a huuuntin’ dawg?”

“Yes,” we answered, though Crosby limited his hunting to the kitchen.

“The beeeagle is a huuuntin’ dawg,” Roy announced with new assurance as we kept walking.

Soon he eliminated the sales pitch altogether, greeting us like old friends each night. “The beagleman!” he’d exclaim upon seeing Arif, next inquiring about the breed’s hunting habits.

And that became our set exchange for what must have been years. At times the fixed script reminded me of Groundhog Day and the way Bill Murray felt stuck in a depressing inevitability.

Mostly, though, our routine with Roy struck us as funny, much as if he were an uncle guaranteed to yell, “Those damn commies!” whenever someone mentioned Russia. And as our evening stroll was a well-developed ritual unto itself, in which we nursed cappuccinos, admired every move Crosby made, and analyzed our acquaintances, the q&a session fit right into the night’s entertainment.

In the afternoons, I shopped alone for groceries, often finding Roy a few blocks from his evening post. And he called out as if I were a stranger: “Pretty lady, whatevah you can spare without hurting yo’self. Maybe after you get finished with your business.”

“Maybe,” I said, somewhat miffed at being unrecognized but also glowing from the compliment.

“Pretty lady . . . ,” he called again, and I turned to see if he wanted my attention. But no, it was another woman, and then another, who received his generic treatment.

Was it unreasonable to want him to remember me? Of course. He was obviously struggling. Standing on the sidewalk all day and night, he must encounter hundreds of “regulars” who begin to look alike to him. Only my South Asian husband and our beagle had any staying power in his mind. Even so, I longed for Roy to see me as unique, especially after our conversations about dog breeds.

Geri Engberg
Crosby in later life.

One sunny day, as I left the produce store with a satchel full of fruit and heard the usual “Pretty lady!” pitch, I cut him off.

“Don’t you remember me?” I said smiling, my loaded-up arms mentally akimbo.

He fell speechless and uncertain for the first time in all the years I’d known him. Looking as abashed as if he’d forgotten a friend’s name, he studied my face intently but came up empty. “Uh . . . uh,” he shook his head.

“I’m the beagleman’s wife,” I prompted him.

“The beagleman’s wife!” he shouted with relief and joy. “You’re the beagleman’s wife!”

“Yes, and you never remember me,” I said in a pointless recrimination.

“I don’t?” His befuddlement returned.

“No, but it’s OK.” Now that he knew who I was, I could feel magnanimous, because I’d fixed the problem. Surely he’d remember me the next time we met. I walked on as he announced to no one in particular, “The beagleman’s wife!”

After that, I passed him on countless afternoons and heard only the same stale call for donations.

In the fall of his ninth year, Crosby began walking with one rear leg aloft as if afraid to dirty his paw. His white-tipped tail, usually waving over his back, curled tightly between his legs. On the vet’s recommendation we eliminated Crosby’s evening walks, providing only short daytime outings. With our nights stretching out long and empty, Arif and I frequented the video store, always hearing a familiar voice as we approached: “The beagleman! Where’s your beagle at?”

“The beagleman!” Roy would exclaim upon seeing my husband, next inquiring about our dog’s hunting habits. That became our set exchange for what must have been years. At times the fixed script reminded me of Groundhog Day and the way Bill Murray felt stuck in a depressing inevitability.

“He’s home sleeping. He’s sick.”

“Sick? What’s wrong with him?”

We explained about the leg and how the vet thought Crosby had a bad back.

“Is he gonna pull through?”

We assured him that it was only a minor, temporary setback.

“Gooood,” he said. “I hope he feels better soon.”

As weeks passed, Crosby’s tail rose again, but the limp continued and the vet changed the diagnosis to arthritis. Crosby still seemed tired, so we let him rest. Meanwhile, we continued our manic video watching.

Little by little the script for our beagleman conversation changed, though it always started in a similar way: “The beagleman! Where’s your beagle at? He ain’t sick, is he?”

“Yeah, he’s home sleeping.”

“Maybe that’s his problem. He’s sleeping too much.”

Arif and I laughed. “A beagle could never sleep too much.”

“Well, I hope he feels better soon.”

November came, and as Roy grew a gray beard and replaced his wire rims with brown plastic frames, the vet gave Crosby a cortisone injection and prescribed glucosamine to repair cartilage. He soon became listless, his tail curled under tightly. The next few days brought diarrhea and repeated vomiting. By the end of the week, he was shuddering in his sleep. I brought him back to the vet, who suspected that the anti-inflammatory drugs had caused stomach ulcerations. The new recommendations: Carafate for the stomach, Rimadyl for the back pain, and a bland diet of cottage cheese, chicken, and rice. But then one of the new meds didn’t agree with him either . . .

When Roy asked about Crosby one night, I eagerly vented my frustrations. Roy listened closely, his eyes on mine, his lips tight with concern, his shoulders tilting to the side. “Well, that just messed him up worse, didn’t it?” he said as passionately as if it were his own beagle. Arif and I agreed. And as we entered the video store, Roy called after us: “I hope he gets better soon!”

“That’s nice that he cares so much,” Arif said.

“Yeah. I don’t know why, but it really touched me.”

“Mmm-hmm, me, too.”

We browsed the new releases but couldn’t let go of the topic.

“Think we should give him some money?” Arif said.

“Yeah, maybe.” The idea seemed odd after all our years of passing him by, our wallets staying deep in our pockets. But things had changed, what with Crosby’s uncertain status and our new need for the kindness of near-strangers.

As we exited the video store, Arif held out cash. Roy murmured rote words of gratitude but then stopped, realizing that it was a $10, not a $1. “God almighty, that’s like putting a stop in a leaking boat!” he shouted, laying two long fingers on Arif’s shoulders, then on mine. “God bless you! God bless you both!” Still dazed by his good fortune, he called after us. “I’ve got you all included in my prayers. God bless!”

The next time we saw him, we asked his name and introduced ourselves. Upon hearing Arif’s Muslim name, Roy broke into Arabic. To my surprise, so did Arif (who had absorbed some at mosques), and they had a brief exchange filled with q’s and s’s.

“How do you know Arabic, Roy?” I asked.

“I’m a Muslim, ma’am,” he said with evident pride.

“Ever have a job before this?” I said in a bit of a nonsequitur. I’d been wanting to know.

“Yes, ma’am, I was a welder, and I did a little youth counseling, but no one will hire me now, on account of I’ve been in and out of prison my whole life and now I’m fifty-nine years old.”

“Fifty-nine!” I blurted out rather tactlessly, because he looked ten to twenty years older.

As we exited the video store, Arif held out cash. Roy murmured rote words of gratitude but then stopped, realizing that it was a $10, not a $1. “God almighty, that’s like putting a stop in a leaking boat!”

“Yes, ma’am. And so it’s on account of that and on account of the prison time . . .”

Sadness washed over me as I pictured him behind bars and imagined what might have led him there. Despite all his verve, his life had narrowed to one option: standing outside on cold nights and holding a white plastic cup that looked like a beer mug from a football game.

With a few more questions I learned that he wasn’t homeless, as we’d assumed, but lived in a halfway house, chipping in for the rent and PG&E. I should have felt reassured, I guess, but couldn’t stop looking at him with wide, despondent eyes. He offered soothing words about how he was doing fine, doing jus’ fine, which still didn’t help.

I hoped he’d remember this conversation, remember that we’d penetrated each other’s souls just a little and progressed past no-name status. And to some degree I got my wish. In the following weeks, he greeted Arif with an Arabic pleasantry. But in the afternoons I remained one of many, many, many pretty ladies, possibly with change to spare.

As biting cold weather set in, Roy deteriorated, failing to recognize either of us at night. We saw him huddled in doorways, lurching to one side, not even bothering to greet strangers.

“He’s gone,” Arif said grimly, and we speculated about how Roy would cope for the rest of the winter, with the chilly air and maybe even alcohol or drugs getting the upper hand. We doubted that he’d ever recognize us again.

The new year came, and I walked by one Monday afternoon, smiling at him and expecting the usual blank response. Initially, that’s what I got. But his face fogged over with confusion, and he did a doubletake, then a tripletake. “Don’t you have a beagle?” he said uncertainly.

I confirmed that I was Crosby’s owner and kept walking. Then on second thought I turned and spoke to his back. “He died.”

“What?” he said, whirling to see me. “The beagle died? When?”

“Friday,” I said, trying hard not to cry and botching the effort.

He stared in astonishment. “The beagle died. The beagle died.”

In no mood for explanations, I headed for my car, Roy’s voice trailing after me: “The beagle died.” More faintly I heard, “You take care. I’ve got you included in my prayers.”

I wondered whether he’d recall what had happened or if I’d have to relay the sad news time and again, falling apart with each telling. That might prove cathartic, but it’d be a whole lot easier if he held onto the news.

And so he did, calling out to us one evening, “Aren’t you the people whose beagle died?” We were, we replied, explaining that cancer had spread from Crosby’s abdomen to his lungs.

“I’m sorry about the beagle,” Roy said that night, and a few more nights. “Are you gonna get a new dawg? Is it gonna be anothah beagle?”

Whenever I passed in the afternoons, Roy gazed at me with kind, caring eyes. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, pretty lady. You take care of yo’self. I’ve got you included in my prayers.”

We weren’t sure if Arif would still qualify as the beagleman now that Crosby had left our lives, but in Roy’s mind, the title hadn’t changed: “The beagleman! The beaglelady! The beaglepeople!” he rejoices when he sees us now. “It don’t look right to see you two without a beagle! Have you got anothah dawg yet? Is it gonna be a beagle?”

In this strange way, Crosby lives on. If it hadn’t been for him, we’d never have progressed past “Whateeevah you can spare….” The dog unwittingly made an utterly counter-intuitive situation possible: A weatherbeaten, destitute, quasi-toothless ex-con worries about our welfare, praying for us as if we were down on our luck. We worry about him, too, but there’s a vast discrepancy between what we can do and what he needs.

We sometimes give him money, and I recently slipped him Italian chocolate with ground hazelnuts, just to lift his spirits. (He was happy to know that the nuts had been ground: “I don’t have the teeth to chew ‘em, ya see.”) But the giving mainly flows in the other direction, and as guilty as I feel about it, I soak up all his kind words, glad to be known and grateful for any softness in a world that no longer contains my beagle.

Eve Kushner is a Berkeley freelancer. Her work appears frequently in The Monthly and The San Francisco Chronicle.