“Should I… do anything?”
Lead him to the stage with fingersnaps? Point and grunt, put my foot in his butt? He’s a dog though I know better he’s some kinda mystic, a canine jinn-genius but I still don’t know, there’s a lot of people, the Coldtowne Theater packed to bursting. The path from the hall where performers wait to go on isn’t very long, maybe seven paces.
But those are human paces. Not beagle-dachshund stubby leg paces.
A dude at the dog park took one look and chuckled low into his goatee, “Whoa, Lowrider!”
Robin Goodfellow glared.
I consider the calculus, how many steps to the stage, the likelihood of distraction with all the crowd smells and ground noms, what if someone careens into the aisle right on top of him?
It’s dark but all he’s got to do is get to the light, the glowing stage for a grand performance. It’s the semifinals of the Improv Fantasy League, where competing troupes are assigned a mystery guest performer. One lucky group will get Robin—a veteran improviser, yes, but also a dog, but not just any dog, but still a dog, he’s only a dog.
“He’s a professional,” Arthur assures me before darting off. “Just set him down, he knows what to do.”
I’d seen Robin perform only once before, in Buddy Daddy with Arthur at the 2011 Twin Cities Improv Festival. I didn’t meet him then, though, only his human at an after party, setting in motion the slow doom of curiosity then crush then crashburnlove. We’re getting married in October and stuff.
By now Robin was slowing down, in semi-retirement. Sure, he’ll show up at the annual Austin Improv Collective Thanksgiving Potluck, wag and charm and eat all the crap off the floor. But he isn’t as energetic as he used to be. As Arthur contends, if he doesn’t look like he’s having fun, the audience won’t like it, and I’m sure he’s right.
Robin looks alert tonight, though, active and on, ready to enchant. He doesn’t do tricks, he does stony silences, he peers into your soul and says huh.
I hug Robin in as the show begins, tucked behind the doorway. Robin scans the crowd. The rims of his eyes are startling black, a sharp contrast to his tan and white fur. It looks like kohl, like an Egyptian prince, stage-made-up for the make-em-ups. I feel his fierce heartbeat, a dynamo beneath his ribs.
Do dogs get butterflies? Or just heartworms and fleas?
“And the mystery guest is… Robin Goodfellow!”
The crowd who gets it goes wild. I kiss my rogue prince and set him on the floor. He trots up the aisle and leaps on stage, does a turn and wags.
You know. A professional.
I’ve been putting off writing this, knowing it will wreck me and heal me and save me, salve me raze me. Put me on the funeral pyre, push me out to sea. Set my bones on fire.
I’m already crying, I’m always crying.
Cancer sunk its teeth.
We noticed he was losing weight but thought it only age, a geezer being fussy and slowing down. He turned 10 years old in May, after all.
We invited over dog and human friends. I made a grasshopper cake. Arthur made a beefcake. Both went over terrifically lookit that boy chow! probably the best day ever.
At his annual checkup early June we learned that weight loss accounted for a fifth of his body mass, dropping from 25 to 20 pounds. In following weeks and further tests well you can probably guess, though no one dared suggest how much time we had left.
Not sure I’d want to know anyway. Vets said he wasn’t in pain exactly, only feeling off, to run down, to awful. There were bad days and worse days, a barrage of delicious meats, anything to get him to eat anything, and it was hard. Baby food and Pedialyte mixed with broth. Blood draws and tired eyes. Lots of let’s stay home tonights.
He was so weird! Oh what a weird, wonderful dog.
Should you happen to tire of stroking his lumpy, liver-spotted belly, he’d fire you a look both expectant and demanding, to say nothing of his sighs impeccably timed, his full body exasperation signaling he will not suffer fools.
Every day Mudcat, our exuberant lab, tried to get Robin to play, a little downward dog come-at-me-bro action or a sudden dart outside off leash. Robin acceded a total of maybe three minutes a week. Arthur and I would cheer but only internally, careful not to look at each other and damn sure ignoring them. Drawing attention to his joy, his patronage and playfulness, his crushingly undignified animal behavior would instantly kill it.
Yet he wasn’t serious. Or you didn’t know how seriously to take him. He was his own dog and his own straight man, he could crack you up and take you down a peg with a glance. Yet for all his old man grumpiness bordering on mordancy (a mordant dog! heaven help me), he was so charming and sweet. He wagged right into my heart. He’d leap to kiss me.
If you didn’t know him, I know it sounds like I’m projecting—filling him with intent, the ability to predict beyond a dog’s penchant to please. But he had perception unmatched by any animal I’ve ever known. Arthur would joke he was a Buddhist monk and this was his final incarnation, his greatest performance, the best show for last.
Teach these silly humans what it means to love and be loved.
Or maybe this was heaven. Cheese, applause and belly rubs.
Mudcat is sweet but kind of dumb—that is to say, she really is just a dog. She knows Sit and that’s it, besides Treat and Walk. Hard to compete with a comedy wunderhund, not that she needed to. We love her energy and sweetness so much.
Family and friends keep asking how she’s doing. She’s a dog, she’s fine, she doesn’t know what’s happening, she’s the real zen monk right here, right now and it’s a DAY! it’s time to PLAY! to BONK HEADS! to eat TREATS! to be PRETTY and SHINY and SOFT!
It took me a few days to understand that question is deflection, misdirection, any some way to say how are you doing?
I still hear his little clicky nails on the laminate, phantom barks in the middle of the night. His body breathing next to mine. Right after he passed, I tucked away the blanket that he’d burrow in to sleep, after he was too weak to jump to the bed. I dunno I couldn’t, I just didn’t want to look at it and cry, though I cried anyway.
A week on I unearthed it, spreading it out for Mudcat—not for memory, just a bed to sleep, and she immediately started sniffing. And sniffing. And sniffing. And sniffing. And sniffing. And sniffing.
But. Wait. What?
No doubt she caught his final scent that was probably unclean. He’d lost the spit to preen, though I wet washcloths to polish his bones pushing through his skin.
How am I doing? Pretty fucking raw, preparing for a wedding every day I’m not working while trying to keep a grip, be bright and strong, trying to figure this out. What do you do when your best friend loses his best friend? Besides holding him when he lies on the floor and bawls.
So yeah Mudcat’s doing great. And yes—of course—however much I envy her ignorance and bliss, I wouldn’t want to forget how blessed I am to have known that amazing little dog. I also realize how lucky I am to be an adult and for this to be my first grievous loss. It feels uncouth to admit that the death of grandparents got nothing on this. But I didn’t really know them. For two years when at home I spent every waking hour with Robin—the sleeping ones, too, his warm body curled against the back of my legs.
In his final hour we talked about his friends and reminded him of all his favorite things—the shows he’d been in, the smells he smelled. In his final moments amid tears and love yous came gratitude.
Thank you, Robin, for being such a good friend.
Thank you, Robin, for giving us so much.
It’s dark but all you got to do is get to the light. A final bow to your best show.
Mudcat, get your ass out of the light.
We need you here, sweet girl.