The Dreamlives of the Closely Held


I've seen the look in dog's eyes

a quick vanishing look of amazed contempt

and I am convinced

that dogs think humans are nuts.

John Steinbeck

From Travels With Charley


I’ve tried sneaking open the eyelid of the Red Dog when he is fitful with sleep, when he is running in place in that jumping seizure of dreaming. He has seen a rabbit before, perhaps that is his goal. He has seen squirrels; he has seen the occasional mockingbird. The world is full of game and goings. Perhaps he is just following me. I lift the red eyelid, as though it might show me something more about his dreaming, as though the image he chases will be projected on the green gloss of his retina for all to see. But what I get is just dark pupil, a blink and a tail wag—nothing like the remonstration I deserve. 


When dogs bring you up, there are several ways to be grateful. Something behind the ears is the quickest choice. There seems to be a node there of unending itchiness, or the sweet terminus of a vagrant nerve of pleasure that has gone dormant in our own heads. There is also a choice spot on the peak of the chest when it is rolled your way, there where the white of the chin shows in either supplication or one of the other complex nouns that dogs master without coming close to understanding (not in the way we do). We humans confound the big words with our philosophizing until they lose their magic—if they had any magic to begin with. Dogs, I think, are better at words like “joy” and “feel.” And by “when dogs bring you up,” I do not mean a simple awakening. I mean bring you up from, well, the downer down in the deeper sense of the word.


The count is holding at three for now. Dogs, I mean—the local residents. It is a number which the cats seem to prefer because it evens out the apparent odds in the household if not the actual weight of the two sides. The cats dream of zero canines—gone the stench of unkempt dogginess. They dream of canine subservience and canine embarrassment—cats atop harnesses, the cry of cat commands bawled at their lowly steeds. They dream of the world as their own and the deep food bowl endlessly overflowing—gone the black doggy thieves. Cats care not a damn for weight classifications that poorly assess feistiness—heavyweight, welterweight. In fact, they are laughable and meaningless classifiers in the cat brain. If you can envision a boxing ring peopled with Mike Tyson and, say, that smallest toddler from Rugrats then you may have a start. As long as you look at that ring and see the outcome with the cat’s eye: the vision of that muscled lug going down, the diapermaster perching on the Big Man’s voicebox and dictating his last dreams. Such is the power and the confidence of the ten pound cat.


The current dog in the transient spot, in the temporary position of vagrancy, is a female, mixed creation that looks like the RCA Victor dog on steroids. Black eye patch and bull neck, we call her Specklebelly when the mood suits us. When she sleeps soundly draped across the footstool, oblivious to the television, to the other dogs, to the Korean crisis, to passing sirens, sunrise and sunset, heaven and earth and the toothy God of the waking life of dogs, one of us will look over at her in her state of Zen comfort and shake our head and say, “Specklebelly is DOWWwwwn.” The “down” must be drawn and raspy, heavy with descent. We laugh. We are moved by jealousy. We forget we can get to such a state, if we truly can. The nirvana of deep sleep seems lost to us sometimes. We have never seen ourselves in sleep. We cannot conceive it looks as expert as this.



The Red Dog, the ruler and mighty-mite of the household, fears no displacement by this transient. He has seen them come and go. He has the confidence of the first dog in the house. His universe is small; he can conceive of being doglord of it all. He has seen it in his own dreams. He is over five years old—a sage comparatively. So the quality of Specklebelly’s revery and coma is nothing to him. He knows the drill. He knows the sleep of the mattress-top, he’s been deeply wedded to feather and pillow, to the warm pockets behind his owner’s legs and along the crook of her spine. And, somehow, I think he communicates this favoritism to the other dogs. I know not how. He may speak English in the dark. “Enjoy it while you can you dichromatic cur, you flavor-of-the-month.” I don’t want to witness this emotional overlording in action. But it is there in the air. I might be frightened by the methods and the intelligence involved.


Steinbeck, who strikes me as a man of true canine knowledge, would not have gone out on his loop around the country alone in the 1960s. He said as much in Travels with Charley. He could not bring himself to go on the journey with another human. It would somehow taint the trip and define it beforehand. But the old blue-gray poodle (blue-gray, Steinbeck says, when he is washed) could certainly go and sit with him on the seat as he wandered America in search of what was American. Charley served as both conversation piece and companion. I understand thoroughly. Whiskey aplenty and a fine dog and out into America in the sixties. Everyone who saw Steinbeck’s custom camper wanted to go along. Forty years later, I am with them.


The speckle-bellied dog was dumped at the school yard before the latest school session started. She was happily there among the earliest of children on the day my daughter found her. Sleeping, we assume, under the archways or in the bushes, thinking this was a place of unlimited children, a wonderland of small humans. I picked my daughter up from drill practice that day and she said the words she’d said before, “Dad. Someone left a puppy.” I tried not to hear; I tried to drive away. But her anguish was extreme. I got as far as the next turn before she unleashed her only weapon. “Fine, when I get home, I’m telling Mom that you left a dog and we will come and get her without you.” The tears were held in brimming ready. I backed the car up and she went and snapped up that orphan like it was her duty and her right. The black and white dog sat happily in her lap, dirty and mangy (apparently dermatologic mishaps go hand in hand with abandonment). My daughter hugged her like a long lost friend. I, as always, am easily shamed.


The Big Dog (dog number three, permanent number two) is not the alpha dog of the house (I remain, I guess, the alpha mammal). His size is deceptive. He is a baby, fearful of the noises of the world. He is the dog from under the bridge, the hairless and nearly dead success story who now weighs ninety pounds—he is the second comer who stayed. He is no longer nearly dead. He is vibrant and shiny with off kilter ears. He is mostly silent except for Wednesdays at noon when the city tests its tornado sirens. They are very fine sirens that crank up slowly from imperceptible to practical to truly wondrous. Big Dog lays his head back before the rest of us can even hear the rising intro of the noise, and he lows like the last lonely wolf on the planet. He gives a drawn “wooooo” that makes everyone in hearing range stop and review their relations and their goals in life. One looks around for a loved one. He croons long and low until he has vacated some wound in his soul out into the air around us.


I have not decided if Big Dog is under the guise that this Wednesday-siren-dog is dying some long punctuated death or just asking for weekly prayer. Big Dog’s answering call sounds like a note to the hopeless—we are out here, we have not forgotten. I have decided I may take up the practice myself—lowing when the pressure on my soul can use some release. When Big Dog performed his siren song on my father’s back porch, one day, on a visit there, it stopped my father in his tracks, brought him up from napping and football. Dad ran outside to see what profound lonesomeness had come to sing in his world. He found the Big Dog mewling his woundsong and immediately brought him inside to lay with him for therapeutic, tandem napping. Big Dog also sings the noise for sirens and police cars. When a tornado comes, he will mourn ahead of time the fall of destruction. I may go outside and call with him.


Steinbeck often watched his poodle Charlie dream his own dreams, on the long road through America, with the dog curled on the seat next to him. Sleeping dogs are sweet medicine and they also make a warm pool at the foot of the bed. I sometimes awaken for the Red Dog when he chases the demons in his sleep. He chuffs and woofs lightly; he kicks and murmurs. I would like to be able to press my fingertips to his red scalp and see what he sees. I think I want to know what is there. Of course, I may miss some of the dreaming events entirely. Surely, he must dream every night. Humans supposedly do, though we forget most of them by the morning. How can I know? The Red Dog must tolerate my own cries in the night, surely? It is the trade off of the shared bed.


Wilder Penfield once spent a period of several years touching the brains of people. This may be what brought me to the delusion of the transmissive fingertip. Eminent Neurologist, he must have been doing this trick even as Steinbeck wheeled around the United States in his camper. I never considered this juxtaposition. Penfield wasn’t particularly studying sleep and dreaming though, he was studying seizures. Which dog sleep does sometimes resemble—to my eyes anyway. Wilder was pressing electrodes onto the surface of brains while the brain owners were awake on the operating table. He cracked off their skull roofs with local anesthesia and then meticulously touched the exposed brains and asked the owners what they felt or saw. Humans, of course, being the only possible subjects for such a study.


“White Christmas,” they said. Or “there was someone smoking tobacco,” they said. These brains having been touched, I mean. One even said, “the toilet flushed and then the dog barked.” I have read this long medical paper so many times, it is yellowed and tattered like a beloved novel. Why in God’s name would there be a string of brain cells keepsaking the sound of a dog barking and a toilet flushing? Do we all have a place in our heads for the sound of toilets and dogs?


“The dog is chasing the cat.”


“It was he, he came, that fool.”


“There is someone near my left eye, but I cannot make it out.”


They used a metal ball to touch the brains. A small voltage charge was fired through it. I would love to see the volunteer forms the patients had to sign beforehand. And where did they get the voltage setting they used the very first time? Like I said, this is a useless method in dogs and monkeys. It was one to five volts, fifty to five hundred microamps, at any rate. Experience I suppose, defined it. The article from the journal Brain in 1963 includes photos of the brains with little bits of paper stuck on them. These were labels for the spots that were best for touching—ones and twos and threes upon the pink furrows.


Big Dog once began his profound lowing in his sleep at two a.m. This occurred at the foot of my bed. He has only done this once. Fortunately, he is not allowed to sleep in the bed itself—that is Red Dog territory. And there is surely a mass limitation factor for the bed. But the Big Dog’s lowing brought my wife and I bolt upright, simultaneously, from our own sleep. It was deeply dark. Strangely, my first thought was that my wife was making the noise. I was frightened by both the noise and by this thought. She has yet to forgive me for this. But do I have some place in my brain now where the Big Dog noise is permanently looped? Is there a place in my brain where I will always think for a moment that my wife is lowing in her sleep? Wilder would touch my own pink lobes and I would say, “my wife is calling into the dark like a wolf. She is howling a sadness into our home.” One wonders what it would take to shock the man. Did some of the exclamations make him burst out laughing or crave strong drink?


There is a video on the screen at my office which cycles through some information for the public. Over and over, the images go until the mysterious network changes them. It is a drone out there. But one of the images is of a dog that has only two legs. Presumably he has been in an accident. I know you are trying to picture which two legs. Surely, you are thinking a dog with both front legs in absentia must not be able to go on going on. And I think you would be right. They would build some sort of support trolley for that kind of dog. This dog is missing two legs on one side. Both left legs are gone. And yet the animal hops and cruises around on this green yard on this television screen like he was made to go this way. He needs no crutch and no trolley. I have frozen in place several times on my way through the waiting area and watched this dog. I do not know what the point is, but still I watch. And I think, no wait, I know, that in that dog’s dreams he still runs with all four legs. Hell, he may even have six or eight in the long green field of his dreamy pursuits.


“Was that my mother yelling?”


“All that you said at the end seemed to be mixed up.”


“Maple Street, St. Claire Shores, Michigan.”


All those street corners in my head; all those conversations. All those moments with dogs.


Peg is one of the local humane society angels. She has known more dogs than I think most people would consider possible in a sane woman’s life. One of them is a wild dog. Or wildish. His name escapes me. And he escaped from her. I think many times. But on this particular occasion, she was on a country road and the dog seemed to be seriously on his way to neverland and wilderness. When calling and screaming failed, she got the wonderful idea to draw him back by lying down in front of her truck with the engine running. The dog was curious. This was her reasoning. He was curious and would of course come back to see if Peg was, I don’t know, alive? Sleeping in front of her truck? Peg has a deep trust in the good instincts of dogs. She may have seen too many images of Saint Bernard’s wearing rescue gear. Instead of a dog, Peg looked up to find a family of human strangers staring down at her—no doubt, considering dialing 911.


“Ma’am are you okay?”


“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to lure my dog back.” I think she plopped back down in the dirt after delivering this striking news. One wonders what magic would come from touching Peg’s brain when it must be so saturated with dog memories.


“…that feeling of familiarity—a familiar memory—the place where I hang my coat up, where I go to work.”


“I saw three of them, but they were not before my eyes.”


Some of these verbal professions sound downright biblical. Though, now that I think about it, none of the touched brains gave any inklings about the image of God. God apparently does not appear in the memory banks of seizure patients. One of Penfield’s cases was a twenty-year-old man who, during the course of ordinary life, would see someone grab some object from another person and this would bring back a memory from age thirteen of playing with a dog, of grabbing a stick from its mouth and tossing it for games of fetch. This dog memory would be followed by a seizure. I imagined the caution required to be around this afflicted man. Fight over a cookie with your daughter and the next thing you know big brother is down. A small tumor was removed during the man’s surgery. It was pressing up against the temporal lobe, apparently directly against the dog-memory-play area. I like to think we have a dog-memory-play area. And I like to think dogs have a human-memory-play area. The Red Dog, I know, would choose to fill his dreams with tennis balls in various stages of loft and bounce. He would cycle electricity through the ball-chase area all night if it was up to him. I hope it works this way. Pressing the electrode against the Red Dog’s brain, Mister Penfield would get things like “he threw it, yes, it went behind the maple tree.” Or, “a big toss, hit the roof, went behind the azaleas.” Or “looping, looping high, high, over the fence, I’m going to get it. I’m gone.”


“This dog has ball toss madness”, Wilder might say very clinically.


“Wilder,” I want to say, with excessive familiarity, “do you have any dogs?”


Wilder doesn’t mention if the young man was cured of his seizures, or if he forgot his childhood dogfriend forever afterwards.


I try to touch my head directly to the Red Dog’s headbone now and then to see if some sort of communication may not bridge the eye or spark over between us from the black nose to mine. There are so many ways to try and live the dog life for just a moment. There are so many reasons to want to. There are so many ways that don’t work (but I’m still looking). The Red Dog is a doggy genius, you’d think the power of such thought might flash a glimpse or two of doglife around his head. So far it has not given me the irresistible urge to chase tennis balls. But I would give a great deal to know his thoughts sometimes. And he would, no doubt, give a great deal to be able to speak his own mind clearly to me. “Please, I love you,” he might whisper, “but could you NOT put your nose so stinking close to mine? I’m trying to sleep here.”


Steinbeck was only afraid a few times on his three month trip around the country. Not of gun-toting heathen or violent cloudbursts—the moments of fear all involved Charley’s health. The blue dog mattered. There was one serious incident where Charley appeared to be having bladder troubles. The old dog was far enough along in his years to have prostatism (yes, they have those too). Things locked up and the dog became extremely ill. Steinbeck’s only thought (they were far from civilized Veterinary medicine) was to give Charley some of his sleeping pills. His thought being that they would relax the bladder along with everything else. Somehow it worked. The blue dog went off to sleep and sometime in the night awoke and passed a river of urine. Afterward, he came back to bed and slept for twelve more hours. He slept the healing sleep of a dog just back from doom. I truly think if Charley had not survived, then we would now have one less Steinbeck book in the world.


Specklebelly sleeps again at the foot of the chair. She catches and runs at something mysterious, some electrical shadow inside the contented dogmind. If you pull close when she is doing this, you do not get to share her dreams, but you do get a nose full of rosemary. She likes to sleep beneath this overgrown herb in the backyard when it is sunny. It is now her permanent perfume. And I have become an odd connoisseur of the dog neck. It is a place of strange aromas. As the alpha man, you see, I think I am supposed to do this—press my face into the dog ears and the dog necks. Speckelbelly may have some delusion that rosemary pleases me. She is sneaky. And when I sniff cautiously at her neck, I sometimes nearly go down from the power of this intense rosemary vapor. Her temporary name is Molly but surely it should be Rosemary the Specklebelly dream dog.


We know we will miss Molly when she is gone. It happens every time; it will happen again. It is as certain as the Wednesday tornado sirens. It is good to sort things in your head under either permanent or temporary. This classification makes the world move more smoothly, though the smartest of us would lump the whole damn shebang under “temp.” This may be the wisest view. Though Wilder Penfield’s revelations have made me wonder now if the whole of life isn’t there in the head for good or for bad, for richer or poorer, until death do we part. (If we part even then.) Not just the fine stuff but everything: dogs baying in the bedroom, bathroom wallpaper, stretches of gray landscape out the car window, hundreds of hours of television commercials, clothes whirling around in the Laundromat washer. It is inspiration to aim the eyes more carefully.


We can only hope that once this rosemary dog is out there among the lovelorn and the laden, among the rest of dogdom, she will see us on occasion inside the rattles and the sighs of her best sleep. Surely we took up some recording space there in her head. You hope there is a place on the rumpled right or left side of her brain that will give back our image someday briefly and electrically with a tiny touch. Where we can still be the happy human deities of a past that lives on inside her black and white head: in a warm chair, with blankets and toys abounding, where a girl, a woman, and an alpha man are watching the tape of the world roll by with its lilting soundtrack—the chuffs and snuffs of three dogs sleeping.


We could wish for less.

And often do.