Last night I was walking my dog through my neighborhood. Standing outside her house as if she were waiting for us, was a woman I first met four years ago when I moved to Pittsburgh. She told me her name then, but I didn’t mark it. The first time we met I wouldn’t say there was anything about her that was remarkable. She was polite, overly polite in the way that people who have lived in a neighborhood their entire lives are when they meet a newcomer. She liked my dog. She wanted to know my name. She introduced me to her father. He wanted to know my name. They welcomed me. After I made nice, my dog and I walked for a long time, admittedly getting lost in the streets in my neighborhood that seem to double back on themselves, or suddenly turn into stairs. When we passed by this woman’s house hours later she and her father were sitting on the porch. They smiled and waved and teased me about getting lost.
Since then I’ve seen this woman on and off. She told me once that she’d never bathed her dogs–two gigantic huskies. Once I walked past as she got into her car and drove away, her father standing in the yard waving. She was going on vacation, he told me. Her dogs both got loose and chased us a little bit one night. For several months there was a motorcycle in her driveway and she was often on it. Then there was only one dog and he looked suddenly old. He stopped coming to the fence. I passed in a hurry one day and the woman was in the driveway throwing a ball to a little boy. She tried to speak to me, but her jaw trembled. It scared me.
Then, one morning at my bus stop, there she was, jittery, sleep deprived, on the verge. She was talking non-stop to another man who rides everyday. I heard fragments of what she said, health issues, loosing her job, heroin, lawsuits. I remember thinking to myself, there hasn’t been time for this. Her collapse. The day I’d first met her was too close. The day everything seemed just fine, within reach.
Last night as she approached me her face heaved with grief. She was moments from tears and had been for too long. “I’m rescuing a new dog,” she said. “A collie mix.” Both of her dogs had died. She buried one in her yard and a little later, the other one laid down on the grave and didn’t get back up. She went out waving a hot dog, and this is when the tears were nearest, and when he didn’t come, she knew. She told me very intimate personal things. She sleeps on a mattress near the door in her house because she’s afraid to go upstairs. Her mother warned her about a fire. She’d discovered her mother’s body. I could almost see the image of this fixed before her mind’s eye. She was shaky, but looked better than she had at the bus stop. She’d been gardening. She pet my dog and let him lick her face. Her nerves made him a little jumpy but she didn’t notice. I asked her about the new dog, what she would name it. She wasn’t sure, something German probably. Something Alaskan. Mostly I kept saying, “a dog can save your life,” because I know that to be true.