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Less than a week after arriving in Los Angeles, I was walking in Runyon Canyon, a nature preserve tucked into the Hollywood Hills, just a few blocks above the lurid electricity of Sunset Boulevard. I was in the canyon primarily for a vigorous weekend hike through unspoiled wilderness and, just as an afterthought, not because I was obsessed or anything, because I had heard that Runyon Canyon was always teeming with dogs. (And their owners, of course.) Which, in my admittedly peculiar view of the world, made it about the loveliest place on the entire planet to take a walk.
I was near the end of the loop, coming downhill on a onetime fire road, past the ruins of an old tennis court supposedly owned in the 1920s by the great Irish tenor John McCormack. It had been a fine hike. I’d seen red-tailed hawks circling the canyon, and wild mustard plants, and scampering lizards. And dogs--dozens of them. Golden retrievers and chocolate Labs and short-haired pointers, and all sorts of mongrels, and very many of them had let me pet them and nuzzle them and tell them how irresistibly beautiful they were.
I was in a joyous mood because my dad was scheduled to visit my new home in less than a week, and when he arrived we planned to visit the local shelter, where he would help me select my very first Dog of My Own. The house I was renting had a big backyard filled with fruit trees, rosebushes, and, in what I took to be a very promising sign, an old-fashioned wooden doghouse, just like Snoopy’s. And in just a few days more, I suspected it might have a new four-legged tenant.
As I trundled down the path, marveling at so much wilderness hidden within a bustling city, I saw in the distance another pair of dogs, a big one and a little one, accompanied by their owner and coming my way. As I approached the trio, I could see that the larger dog was an all-black German shepherd, with a dazzlingly shiny coat. The smaller one appeared to be an all-white Jack Russell terrier, with a longer-than-usual tail. Neither dog was on a leash, but when their owner stopped walking, the big black one immediately sat at his master’s heel. A few seconds later, the little white one sat down too, as though he were imitating his big brother.
I attempted my usual opening gambit. “Beautiful dogs you have,” I said to the owner, a handsome and athletic man in his thirties.
“Oh, thanks,” he said, smiling.
Without hesitation, I moved to close the deal. “May I pet them?”
“Sure,” the man said. “Go ahead.”
“Hello!” I said to the shepherd. And in classic anthropomorphic style I asked, “What’s your name?”
His owner spoke for him, as often happens in these cases. “His name is Darryl.”
I stroked Darryl behind his ears and told his master how many German shepherds had been part of my family as I was growing up. The man politely feigned interest.
I noticed then that no matter what Darryl did, the little white Jack Russell did, too. If Darryl stood, so did the terrier. If Darryl presented his butt for scratching, so did the little white one. If Darryl became entranced by something rustling in a nearby tree, so did his diminutive buddy.
“They’re very cute,” I said, which is what I found myself always saying when I spent quality petting time with dogs. But I really meant it. “This little white guy. He’s adorable!”
“You like her?” the man said.
“I mean she. She’s adorable. She’s so white. And what a face! Look at those eyes!” I caught myself degenerating into goo-goo-ga-ga baby talk. “You’re so cute! You’re so sweet. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”
“You like her?” the man asked again.
“Oh, she’s spectacular,” I said, accepting a sloppy kiss from her across my nose.
“Well,” he said nonchalantly, “do you want her?”
“What do you mean?” I said, puzzled.
“I’ve been looking for a home for her,” he told me.
“You’re giving her up?” I asked, incredulous. “She seems so--I mean, she’s--oh, she’s just--she’s great.”
“I just found her two days ago,” he said. “Behind the doughnut shop over on La Brea. I figured I would bring her here, to the canyon, before I took her to the pound. You know, I figured some dog lover might want to adopt a nice puppy.”
I looked at the abandoned dog, the all-white Jack Russell. And then I realized she wasn’t a full-grown terrier at all. She was a puppy! Her paws were slightly too big for her body, and when I looked carefully, I could see that she still needed to grow into her ribs. “How old is she?” I wondered aloud.
“The vet says she’s probably three months or less,” her savior reported. “And she’s basically healthy. Has all her shots and everything.”
“And very well behaved,” I noted. “You’re so good! What a good doggie!”
“Oh, yeah! I mean, everything Darryl does she imitates. Very smart.”
I asked him what kind of dog she was, if not a Jack.
“The vet told me she’s a mix between white Lab and greyhound. But unless you meet the parents, I guess we’ll never know exactly.” As he spoke, the puppy looked up toward him, as though she understood she was being talked about. He knelt down and patted her on the head. “Good girl, Bogey.” She panted as he stroked her neck. “I’ve been calling her ‘Bogey.’ But only for a couple of days. I’m sure you could call her something else if you wanted.”
I knelt down on one knee, closer to her level. And just as my dad had taught me, I tested her reaction to my hand moving near her face, to see if she had been hit and taught to fear.
She didn’t flinch. She licked my palm.
“Well, she doesn’t appear to have been abused,” I said.
“No, no, she hasn’t been a stray or anything. This young girl who works at the doughnut shop has been taking care of her since she was born. But the girl’s, like, fourteen, and she can’t handle the responsibility. So, anyway, I just figured I would try here before she got put in the shelter, because, you know, there’s no telling what might happen to her there.”
I looked into the little white mutt’s eyes. Without being instructed, she sat down. I leaned in close to her muzzle, close enough to see her blond eyelashes and smell her soft odor, that comfortingly pleasant smell of puppies. She wiggled her butt and cocked her head.
I said to her softly, “Hello, beautiful puppy. Are you looking for a home?”
And just then she let out a gentle bark, an excited yelp, and began to lick my neck.
“I think it’s love,” her rescuer said, laughing.
I wiped a tear from my eye and said, “Yes, I think it is.”
Four hours later, after a breathless phone call to my daddy and an inspection of my house and yard by the rescued dog’s savior, the little white puppy had a new home.
And that’s how on July 1, 1994, Ella Guinevere Konik came into my life.
Ella Konik has had a good life. She’s hiked through Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains in the company of llamas. She’s chased squirrels through Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia. She’s dug deep holes in the wet sand of Venice Beach, California.
And she’s loved and been loved by hundreds of people, many of whom say their life was changed when they made the acquaintance of this remarkable mutt.
Ella has kissed celebrities. She’s been photographed for several magazine stories. She’s been mistaken for a purebred show dog, a movie dog, and a rare and exotic and expensive possession--and all the while she’s simply gone on being my mutt. And my best friend.
Ella has been welcomed into the lobby of my bank and the patio of the local Brazilian restaurant and the aesthetically bleak aisles of the nearby video store. She’s voted with me (usually for the Libertarian candidate). And trained with me for the Los Angeles marathon. And revisited Runyon Canyon hundreds (thousands?) of times, never tiring of the infinite smells and sounds and inspiring places to pee.
She’s waited patiently outside the supermarket and the copy store and the take-out Thai joint, since those unenlightened places have never welcomed her in as they would any other refined and well-mannered lady.
Ella has licked away my tears when I’ve been sad, and hopped on her hind legs with me when I’ve been happy, and snuggled me when I’ve been lonely.
Once, in the midst of my being divorced, Ella and I were involuntarily kept apart for nearly six months. I was allowed to talk with her on the phone and get reassuring weekly reports that she was “all right” without her daddy. But I knew that Ella had to be suffering. I surely was. It was agony--really, a physical pain in my gut--to not have her brilliant white fur on my clothes, her expressive ears and tail talking to me, her paws clicking on the floor. When the lawyers and the ex finally decided that Ella and I could be reunited, we met again at Runyon Canyon, not far from where I first saw her as a puppy.
I climbed the hill from my house, knowing that each step was bringing me closer to the friend I had missed for nearly half a year, the one constant source of joy in my life. When I got to the end of the street, where the park officially begins, I could see Ella sniffing the wild grass up a small hill, maybe fifty yards away. Her back was to me, but she was just as I imagined she would be, only whiter and prettier and more filled with life.
I didn’t have to call her. She knew I was near.
And when Ella turned and saw me standing at the bottom of the hill, my hands outstretched toward her, she broke into a sprint, yelping and crying as she ran. I knelt down to receive my precious mutt, and she nearly knocked me over as she jumped into my arms, kissing and whimpering and entangling herself between my legs in a crazy figure-eight pattern. I cried very hard then, relieved that the darkest months of my life were finished and knowing that my future would be bright, filled with her sunny companionship. My marriage was over, but my friendship with Ella would continue forever. While the grief of losing my wife would linger for years, the salutary balm of Ella’s love would make unbearable pains bearable.
Like most dogs, Ella has given me far more than I could ever give her. Yes, she’s always been well fed and well loved, and in her owner’s weaker moments she’s been allowed to sleep on the goose-down living room couch. But there have been far too many times in my life when I’ve had to go places that weren’t civilized enough to welcome her, times I’ve been forced to leave her behind to “guard the house,” times she’s surely felt abandoned by her supposed best friend.
I know she’s probably thought something like: “How come I always want to be with him, yet he apparently doesn’t always want to be with me?”
The truth is I almost always do want to be with her, especially as she grows older and our finite time together gets shorter with each sunset. But the land I live in, the greatest country in the world (and I mean that sincerely, without any sarcasm at all), does not feel about my magnificent friend as I do. To me she is a lady: elegant, smart, and endlessly amusing. To American society she’s just a dog. A pretty dog, sure. But not the kind of “lady” you’d welcome into a department store or a restaurant or a library or on a golf course or at a bowling alley or a movie theater. Ill-mannered children and their obnoxious parents--come one, come all. But a dog? A dog? Even a perfectly behaved, astonishingly smart, ridiculously charming dog? Forbidden.
Now, this sorry state of affairs--attributable in no small part, I would reckon, to our friends The Lawyers--makes me angry, just as any injustice makes me angry. But it makes me sad, too. Because I fear Ella mistakes my willingness to humbly abide my society’s laws as a tacit rejection of her fabulous company. I wish I could explain to her that, despite how it appears, I’d like nothing more than to take her to play golf with me. Or to do grocery shopping. Or see a matinee screening of My Dog Skip. But even Ella’s enormous (for a dog) vocabulary doesn’t allow her to comprehend abstract concepts. She doesn’t understand that good intentions do not mitigate painful results. To Ella, Daddy leaving her behind as he goes on with his life does not mean Daddy is flummoxed by a society that does not share his enthusiasm for canine companionship. It means Daddy is abandoning his alleged best pal.
Since dogs probably don’t understand the concept of time--at least not in the way human beings do--when I leave our house, Ella assumes I’ve left her forever, that I’m never returning. This is why she goes berserk with joy when I return home--whether I’ve been gone three weeks or three hours. To her it’s all the same absolute: Either she’s with her friend or she’s not. One state of affairs is good. One is bad. And every time I’m forced to create badness in her otherwise blissful life, I feel rotten. (And she knows it. When I leave without her, Ella hangs her head and refuses to look at me as I remind her how much I love her.) For an animal who is used to having her favorite companion near her far more than the average dog--I work out of a home office in which Ella has her own bolster bed in the corner--my absences sting more painfully.
Sometimes I look at Ella napping near my desk, or playing gently with her brother Sammy the cat (who likes to nibble on Ella’s ears while Ella sniffs his nether regions), or having a sunbath in the garden while birds and squirrels play in the tree canopy above her. I look at her and know that she has had a happy life, a good life. She’s enjoyed being a dog, and most of all she’s enjoyed being my friend.
But probably not nearly as much as I’ve enjoyed being hers.
I see her slowing, evolving from a hyperactive pup to an energetic adult, to an increasingly tired old lady. She’s eleven now. Being a big dog--seventy-three pounds of lean muscle--she’s probably entering the last years of her life. Someday far too soon I know I’ll have to say good-bye to her.
Until that horrible moment, I want her life to be filled with adventure and pleasure, peace and contentment, companionship and comfort. I want her to know that that she truly has been a good girl all these years. And that I love her.
I want her to know not only in words--of which she has a limited understanding--but in actions, which she comprehends completely, that I appreciate the light she has brought into my time on this planet.
I want Ella to know I'm thankful to have been her friend.
From the Hardcover edition.