Every Garden Party Needs a 3-Legged Dog
I’d lounge in my hammock, positioned just so, to make it easy to watch each Friday evening as the neighbors of my cul de sac gathered for cocktails, snacks and conversation. There appeared to be some sort of rotation as to whose yard to meet each week. Tonight was at the Nelby’s.
On the surface it looked quite harmless, and in reality probably was. But it still was a gaggle of middle class white suburbanites topping off their work week with a little comfort company, surrounding themselves with familiar faces, familiar stories, and a familiar vibe.
I was then and still am the only black person in the cul de sac. There had never been any tension between us. They were all friendly, a little overly neighborly to me, but I was used to that. White’s that weren’t racist were almost always anxious to parade that particular flag.
I’d yet to join their weekly wine-klatch, having politely spurned a couple of invitations. All of the assembled appeared to be married couples. I was single, lived alone in the typical structure of the cul de sac, a ranch style home with front lawn and requisite two trees. Like all of them, I had a dog.
It was Rusty, my two year old German Shepherd, who forced me to cross the street one Friday night, as the wine was flowing and the music playing and the conversation growing exponentially louder as the varietals were sampled.
There had been the sudden appearance of a large, older dog that I had not seen before. It lingered on the periphery, getting the occasional absent minded, almost reflexive behind-the-ear scratch from my neighbors, shifting their glass to the other hand and reaching down to rub, without missing a conversational beat.
Rusty had risen from her prone position under my hammock and sat rigid, ears firmly skyward, eyes unblinking.
It took about ten seconds before I realized the dog was missing its right hind leg, at the hip. It hopped along awkwardly but efficiently, sniffing at the snack tray that was just out of reach, paying no mind to the two large tom cats lounging supine on the lawn.
A sight like that was just enough to give the tableau an odd hue. These upwardly mobile homeowners with a handicapped interloper from the animal world now mingling with them was humorous in it juxtaposition if nothing else.
I noticed at least two of the men slipping the dog something from the snack tray.
I reached down and stroked Rusty reassuringly, calming her just enough to put a slight curl in the tips of her ears.
Los Arboles was a small town, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. The local college was a state school that cranked out graduates destined to fill most middle management jobs. There were no future CEOs or CFOs attending The Big Tree, as it was known. It was in a small town college, and the young people who flowed through it were going to remain that way.
The people in my cul de sac had escaped the ridiculous housing market in the Bay Area and settled in this sleepy little burgh to live a comfortable middle class life that, from all intents and purposes, and from my viewpoint in the hammock, was peaceful and idyllic. The ubiquitous SUV dotted the driveways, and some complimented the gassy appetite of the larger vehicle with a shiny little Prius sitting next to it like a father and son tandem.
That evening, once the tri-pod hound caught whiff of Rusty, it lurched across the street toward us. I grasped Rusty’s collar, but she seemed not to tense up and merely watched this physical oddity limp toward her.
I noticed the 3-legged dog did not have a collar. I casually rolled out of the hammock and let go of Rusty’s collar. She immediately bounded over toward the other dog and they sniffed while eyeing each other warily. Rusty lingered for a few seconds on the rear hip where there should have been a leg. Curiosity satisfied they both backed away and sat, staring at each other.
The assembled across the street took notice and turned to watch. The injured dog rose and went back to the party. Rusty followed.
I thought it prudent that I remain close in case things went sideways with the two canines.
“Hey Bobby”, came the shouts as I approached the Nelby’s lawn where they were gathered.
“Hey folks. Anybody know where this other dog is from?”
They shook their heads. Gabe Nelby said, “I think she’s from up the block. I saw her asleep on the lawn 3 houses up there, on the right, earlier today.”
I nodded. “She’s got no collar. I guess the 3-legged thing is enough of an identifying characteristic.”
They laughed. “Get you something to drink, Bobby?” Gabe asked.
The two dogs had plopped on the lawn, about ten feet to the left of the two cats, which though pretending to remain languorous, were now much more attentive.
“Cold beer would be nice, Gabe. Thanks.”
He rooted around in a big blue cooler and emerged with a dark bottle onto which ices chips clung, always a welcome sight to any beer drinker.
So then I found myself as the horse fly on the mound of ice cream. A pine cone dotting the hillside of snow.
I knew that my single status had been the convenient excuse thus far in avoiding this weekly tradition, when in actuality the racial disparity was truly what had caused my hesitancy.
I’d had many conversations with most of my neighbors. Nothing substantive, just casual discussions of the weather and sports. There had been the shared chores of lifting and moving that tend to develop among neighbors, an aspect particularly helpful for me when something heavy had to be moved or transported.
I was the most recent occupant in this end of the cul de sac, and they’d all made a point within the first two days of knocking on my door and introducing themselves. My standing as a former major league baseball player, and now the new baseball coach at The Big Tree had somehow resulted in me being given celebrity status. At least with the men in the cul de sac, there was always baseball to talk about.
I held a natural reticence toward group encounters, tending to embrace my more autonomous instincts. Also, I was lousy at small talk, which is what I imagined these little parties to be filled with.
I took a long pull on the beer. It was a dark Mexican beer and delicious.
They sort of casually parted their circle to include me and after an awkward moment, Gabe mentioned that the baseball season would be starting soon.
“Indeed. I think we could be pretty good, too. We’ve got a couple of pitchers that are going to be special.”
There were four couples in addition to me, nine of us in total. The attire ranged from golf shirts to Hawaiian shirts. All of the women wore either shorts or skirts. Two of the wives were quite fetching. Including Gabe’s wife Ginny.
I was in a polo shirt and cargo shorts, fitting in sartorially, if not otherwise.
Ginny was next to me on my right, and she turned and asked, “Derek, how old are you?”
A couple of people chuckled, probably figuring the question to be intrusive.
“I’m 41 Ginny.”
I took another swig of beer.
I saw Ginny exchange a glance with another of the wives on her right. They both seemed to nod, as if some kind of confirmation was reached.
Larry, the man with the woman Ginny had nodded to, asked “Ever been married, Derek? Any kids?”
“No, and no.” I grinned. “Always figured once I retired, I’d still be young enough to start a family. I guess I still am. Just haven’t found her yet.”
Ginny turned toward me again. “I googled you, Derek. Saw your career stats. Not bad at all.”
I nodded. “Thanks. I was blessed to be able to play all ten years with the Giants. Great organization and even greater city.”
They all agreed. We’d won the World Series in my last year, three years ago, and they were all huge fans. In fact, from a pole extending from the beam above the Nelby’s porch was flying a huge Giants’ flag.
The awkward stage had passed and the conversation returned to more mundane events.
I noticed all four of the animals had not moved.
I looked at the 3-legged dog that, though sitting inelegantly, seemed on balance.
I took another long pull on my beer.
I think I like that dog.