The West |

Cow Dog

by Michael Chylinski

edited by Lisa Locascio

I used to live alone before I knew you

The cow dog is no more, and almost a year later now I grieve for him with a force that surprises me. He was a dog, to be sure, and what’s more not even my dog. In most conventional ways I barely even knew him. But then I would probably be described as a somewhat over-emotional person, invested, as my ex-wife would say, in everything that does not matter. I think that much of it can be explained by the fact that he had become a symbol of something that I still struggle to articulate, which brought me a sort of peace. Now I am without that.

I called him the cow dog, both with and without the article. No one else did, to my knowledge anyway. He just looked like a miniature cow, that was all, and for some reason I like nicknames. All of maybe twenty-five pounds, with a forlorn look that had to melt any truly sentient heart (unfortunately I had to substitute that word for “human”), he had black and brown spots on his light fur that just screamed “cow” from any nearer than a hundred paces.

And it was thus somehow appropriate that he would simply go sit in the street just about every late afternoon and early evening. The street was his pasture, I guess. A cow needs some space. He’d sit pretty much right in the middle, seemingly without—I dislike cliché, but I find no other phrase at hand for this—a care in the world, for typically a couple of hours, maybe three. He seemed to enjoy just looking around; often he appeared to barely even shift position, resting comfortably until darkness signaled to him—somehow—that danger was about.

This made him probably the most trusting being I have ever knowingly encountered. It is not as if our street is without traffic. It is a normal, two-lane residential side street not far from downtown Los Angeles, with older homes, 1910s and ‘20s Craftsman bungalows mostly, on either side. It helped, certainly, that his space was near one end of the street, and moreover a T intersection. So anyone turning onto his street was not going to be moving quickly, and anyone nearing his spot from the other direction would be slowing somewhat to turn either left, or more often, as it led to a larger thoroughfare a block down, right. It was usually easy to pass by on one side of him or the other once he’d been spotted, and he never responded to a moving vehicle, although he did seem aware. He was, I suppose you’d say, cool. Nothing ruffled the cow dog, not even the time three emergency vehicles raced past him to reach a house in the next block down. That time he did move, only to resume his position not two minutes later, facing the other direction, away from the disturbance. From that day on, cow dog had me. There is nothing as alluring as not caring.

I lived several doors down, and I had to have passed his little area more than a thousand times during those hours; probably three-quarters of those he was there, giving me at most a glancing look that conveyed nothing but benign disinterest. Indeed, though I was always glad to see him, I never interacted much with him in any real way. I would sometimes utter a quick “hey, cow dog” in my head as I gingerly passed by at shy of five mph, making sure in my mirror after that he was safe in his spot . But that was pretty much it, and the rest of the time he was nowhere to be seen, not even on walks. I never knew his owners very well either. Their small, weathered house sat on a slight rise behind a wall and a mass of tall bushes, and when I would spot either the man or his wife, both of whom appeared to be retired, they never seemed too interested in talking. Maybe that’s why the cow dog liked to sit out by himself: they just weren’t that engaging.

It goes without saying that everyone in the neighborhood knew to watch for him, but what continually struck me was that the occasional visitor or passer-through managed to as well. I always feared that one day the inevitable would occur, although I would probably be unwilling to face it or actually see the aftermath and would thus just remain inside—if, of course, I was even home at the time. Either way, the news would no doubt quickly reach me. But living alone, and not being particularly close to any neighbors, I would not have anyone to even really talk about it with—lest I wanted to go to the trouble of explaining the whole thing to someone unfamiliar with the neighborhood, and it seemed too personal for that—and so it would, as I was accustomed to things doing, fairly readily fade into the recent past, then the mid-past, and then, inevitably, just the past. I did not foresee ever moving from this street. One day many years later I would drive by and wonder: “Did there really used to be a dog that would sit out here every evening?” I’d keep going, staring at the spot in my rear view mirror before it disappeared from view, smiling slightly, trying to picture him again, imagining the direction he would have chosen that day.

And love is not a victory march;

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I do not recall the exact year I became aware of the cow dog, but I believe it must have been at least seven or eight years before his demise. I know it was not too long before my wife left. We had been married for a little over ten years and had forged a good-enough partnership. But she hated L.A.—I couldn’t really blame her for that, although I, a native, never could agree that the city “had no weather”—and after a point the glue that had appeared to hold us together so well just became a little too brittle. The slightest force seemed as if it would cause it to snap. And of course the world is full of nothing if not forces. I understood. The heart long ago struck me as being a little bit like a river, and one thing a river does not do is run uphill.

Looking back, although it didn’t quite seem it at the time, the turning point was probably the miscarriage. It was late, almost six months, so fairly unusual, and certainly more painful for it. I still have, in a drawer, along with many images, an audio recording of his heartbeat: one hundred fifty-four beats per minute. Healthy. Susan had been a little older, but there was never any explanation. But he may have changed everything. We stored the baby furniture in the garage and reconfigured his room back into an office—I sit there as I write this. We did continue to try, but she was never able to become pregnant again.

It hit her harder at the time, but as the months piled up I was the one who began to have more difficulty with it, which surprised me, and that disconnect started to become a wedge between us. It deepened, and by a year later we were practically unable to reach each other across it.

Still, I was devastated the day she moved out. Women have a strength that I believe most sensible men envy—I certainly do—and I did not leave the house for a good month. When I did venture outside, one warm early evening after sleeping until four PM and finally sensing the strength to do so, it was the cow dog I saw. He looked unperturbed and beautiful as the golden light played on his white fur, spotlighting the darker patches. I am not going to claim it was any sort of truly revelatory experience. I am sure my mind was slightly deranged by that point. But it moved me in a quiet way.

She had left town to move “home,” back to New York. There was nothing really keeping her here. She could have the humidity and whatever she felt like taking with her, which turned out not to be much—not even any of the records of the boy, which surprised me. I stayed in the house and tried to make a modest go of what remained of my life. I found a new somewhat tolerable job after being fired during my “lost month,” and continued on.

One day much later, as I sat in the new bar several blocks away that I would occasionally visit alone in the early evenings (right about “cow-dog time,” I would sometimes muse to myself), I met a couple who had moved to the neighborhood the year before. I had seen them walk by the house quite a few times as I sat on the porch, but had never done more than wave hello. But that night I discovered that the man, David, had played in a band in the ‘90s. I used to play bass as a teenager back in Detroit, and he was a drummer; suddenly we had something in common despite our different ages. His band had actually toured and released records, though, and one time after a few drinks I asked him if he had any crazy stories about those times.

There were a few of the expected sort, but it felt like in the end they just had not been quite a big enough band to have really racked up any of the classics I suppose I was hoping for. There was one weird story, however. I should preface its telling by saying that I do not hold a belief in another world beyond the one we inhabit—do not have “faith,” I suppose I would say—and I have not yet arrived at a way to reconcile what he told me. I thus offer it more or less as recounted to me. I cannot say I feel equipped to do much more.

His band had toured with some good artists—ones even I had heard of. One, Jeff Buckley, I was only vaguely familiar with, having heard the name once or twice. But apparently Buckley has a cult following—aided, as so often is the case in the music world, by an early death. He had drowned in a channel off the Mississippi River, just outside Memphis, in 1997, not long after David’s band had done a short European tour in support of the release of Buckley’s debut album.

The first unusual twist was that apparently Buckley was the only person David had ever asked to sign anything. He said that at first he was not even a big fan of Buckley’s music, but that after seeing a couple of gigs, that there was just something in his voice, something haunting about it. So, on a whim, he’d gone out and bought a cd copy of his album in whatever city they were in that day—Birmingham, or maybe Manchester—and Buckley had, when asked for his autograph, signed it like no one else he had ever heard of had ever signed anything, including drawing a small picture and underlining the “very much” after “We love you.” He’d scrawled over so much of the cover of the booklet that he’d had to use the space all the way to the bottom.

That was already a decent amount of love for only having done a couple of gigs together. But David said it somehow felt genuine, that Buckley just seemed like a good guy: funny, soft-spoken, maybe a little melancholy, but gentle, open. Nothing like the way he was written about by music journalists, who tended to describe him as arrogant. When they opened for him, Buckley used to play David’s drums during one song of every set; apparently he was, truth be told, so-so as a drummer, but he really seemed to love it, almost like a kid. He never missed a chance, never was elsewhere during their set or too busy.

He even had covered a song of theirs that he liked later on during his own gigs. It was dark and portentous, called “Alive,” and began with the line “I feel the time is coming.” David still couldn’t quite believe that it had, that Buckley was dead. He told me that he sometimes listened to a recording on Youtube of Jeff performing that song in a small venue. The video also included Buckley talking to the crowd beforehand, sounding hopeful, which was the part David liked best.

Then one day, a year or two after the drowning, his band returned to one of the venues they had played with Buckley, in Brussels. When they got to the dressing room David noticed a CD on top of the pile of towels that had been left there for the band. It was a copy of the album compiling the semi-finished tracks Buckley had been working on at the time of his death. a CD jewel case, flipped open, but with the disc itself missing. The booklet—the liner notes—was slightly wet. He was of course surprised, but figured someone had simply left it behind, maybe the stage manager, who had been walking in an out. But it soon became clear that no one had any idea how it had gotten there, especially on top of a pile of towels that had been placed there less than an hour earlier. They did the gig as usual and went back to the hotel. There was nothing out of the ordinary to the rest of the night.

David doesn’t know quite what to make of it all, still. It’s probably nothing but a very bizarre coincidence. But, as he says, Buckley—as his name implies—was partly Irish, and they do sometimes say that the veil between worlds is thinner there. Whatever the case, so much of it seemed laden with an odd resonance, from the moisture to the missing music to just the CD case, like the one he had signed that day, when he had been, David said, so emotional over some silly story that had appeared in the NME, in which he had been called “pretentious.” It was clear that he was hurt.

The jewel case was left right there where it could not be missed, in a venue they had played together. Buckley had even been in the same dressing room. It was, if nothing else, unsettling. David put the case in his bag and still has it. It sits at this moment a block away from me. I have seen it, and it is sort of eerie. Where it was wet is still a little wavy.

I have also since bought Buckley’s records myself, but I can’t shake the wish that I had heard him live. “Hallelujah” was the one, David says, the Leonard Cohen song that Buckley effectively made his own, which became his signature much more than any of his own music. It was almost a mystical experience hearing him perform it, he insists, on stage with nothing but his voice and an electric guitar. Just air moving. The recorded version, he says, is a joke in comparison, drained of the religious intensity, the distilled loneliness, of Buckley on stage, drenched in sweat under a single light. There, it was like a cry. And every night was as good as the last. Who can do that?

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

I wonder, at times, if I will ever be given something I can at least ponder, perhaps tell to someone in a bar some day. Just that—the telling, the slim promise present in that—would be something. The miscarriage, for example: It hits me most often at night, in that netherworld between sleeping and waking. It’s more of a sense, a primitive grasping, I suppose, nothing I can put a name to: but does the boy, in some way I will of course be unable to ever understand in this world, perhaps exist somewhere, somewhere where he is happy? Could that be my story to tell? A sign of some sort that would admit of some hope, or at least for someone who is hopeful?

I must correct myself: I see that I have written “in this world” above without even meaning to. Do I believe in another world? In my heart of hearts, I suppose I have to say yes. Well, perhaps not another world as such—would “realm” perhaps be more accurate? —but I must after all possess some type of faith, for clearly I want, I yearn for something, if nothing else a light that could illuminate the darkness just a little more clearly. And is that not enough? Is it not sufficient in a sense to hope that there is yet goodness and an order at the heart of things, and to seek, if not “proof” (for I do not even know what that would really mean), then perhaps simply some small confirmation every now and then?

The cow dog, for example, as well: I would certainly welcome word from him, somehow, call that what you will. Indeed, I would happily start with that. But how would that even arrive? I have been told of dreams experienced by friends and family that have sent a chill down my spine. Is that it? Or would it involve something much more oblique? Who knows, of course, and how silly in the end, even I admit, especially in relation to such an ultimately minor footnote to my life. I can, though, perhaps, at least hope that in some manner the cow dog may now realize it was not his fault, and that the child did not die. He was only hurt. But how could he have known that then?

It happened in an instant, and I only saw the aftermath, after running outside upon hearing the sickening noise. The cow dog had finally come up against a car driven by someone who simply did not see him. Or at least until it was almost too late. It was getting dark, and she was not from the area, had never been down the street before, actually. At the last minute she had swerved, and somehow, even at a relatively slow rate of speed, lost control. The cow dog was fine, but the car had run up onto the sidewalk and pinned a small boy of four walking with his mother against a wall. He was OK too, eventually. But was seriously injured, and appeared, perhaps, from some perspectives, to be lifeless. The ambulance had arrived quickly of course, had taken him away within minutes, but his mom and others around had been frantic, panicked. It was a chaotic scene. When it was over the street had returned for a time to something more somber than its normal calm.

Animals are, most people would grant, sensitive in mysterious ways. The cow dog knew something had happened, something bad, and somehow, I think he also may have understood he had played a role. Who knows, exactly? But after that he just seemed dispirited. Perhaps it was the owners (a fear of liability?), but I seldom saw him outside, and almost never again in the street—maybe a time or two, and, although this may sound like I am reading too much into it, when I did it was somehow without the same nonchalance. Four or five months later he was gone. I never knew exactly what: some illness, some cancer of the kind that so often strikes an animal unexpectedly, so who knows what really went into it in the end.

They said he was thirteen at that point, that he’d had a good life. And I would have to agree. It was, as it appeared, good: simple, self-possessed, seemingly content, helpful in ways he was not even aware of. And of a reasonable length as well. Does anyone dare ask for much more?

But remember when I moved in you;

And the holy dove was moving too;

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

David, though he is no longer exactly young himself, has a baby now. About seven months old. A boy. They had almost given up, he told me. I am so happy for them. I wave from the porch as they pass on their walks, and play with the baby when I venture out to meet them or run into them in the park. With his new teeth he has already put a couple of dents in my skin in just the last few weeks. They call him a baby cannibal.

Their boy will never see the cow dog. But that’s OK. I will tell him the story when he is older, will point out the spot, and he will use his imagination to supply the rest, just as I do when I picture being in the same room with Jeff Buckley and a hushed crowd as his voice arches skywards, broken and majestic at the same time. Otherworldly. Some things are meant to be, but simply for others.

I have seen both of the CD covers, actually. David keeps them in drawer, and occasionally places the signed one on a bookshelf to display it for a time. The signed and … the sign? Is that too pat? I leave those sorts of questions for others. For me, for myself, it is clear.

“Pretentious ... or in love?” the signed CD asks at the top.

Love, it is, of course. Yes, certainly. There is no doubt. And something in that direction was probably exactly what propelled Jeff into the river to go swimming that day, with his boots on and fully clothed, singing—if the account can be believed, as it almost strains credulity, “Whole Lotta Love”—while a friend waited on the shore before losing sight of him in the wake of a passing tugboat. Love, of the sort that begins virtually imperceptibly and ends by merging with something much larger than itself, in the interim rarely adhering to the shortest path between two points.

I do not take my recording out of its drawer. I am comforted by the fact that it exists, but cannot listen to it. I like to know it persists, though. Is it the holy or the broken Hallelujah?

I am somehow still content. I wait. As I mentioned, I do not foresee ever moving from this street. I have time. I grieve for the cow dog still, for what he somehow meant, in ways I have yet to fully understand, but nevertheless sense, as if by touch in a darkened room in which one cannot see.