The Tale of Doniphan
I saw her beneath the overpass, everyday, for weeks, as I drove to work. She sat among the concrete pillars looking straight ahead, as if thinking, reflecting, as the waves of cars passed her by. Every so often she changed the direction of her gaze, observing the world that circled her: the unforgiving and indifferent morning traffic, spitting its smog, pollution, and incessant noise.
She was on the Westside, in the cross section between Doniphan and Artcraft, behind some railroad tracks and beneath the overpass. There are corners of the city, (there are corners of every city) that the homeless gravitate towards. They set up their belongings and they walk up and down the traffic line holding their sign, as the cars wait for the light to change. When the cars drive away, they remain there, cornered in what are often ignored pockets of society. But this was not a typical corner, it was more of a concrete island, separated by road, cast in the shade from the highway above it. No cars really stop around it, so no one would have seen her unless, among the shadows, her figure happened to catch their eye.
I assumed that she had a companion, that she was traveling with someone, but every time I passed I never saw anyone and there was no sign of a person’s belongings, or a backpack. She would sit right on the edge, as if contemplating jumping into oncoming traffic, or lie down deep in the shadows, or rolling around playing with what appeared to be a strip of black tape.
Maybe she had been abandoned there. Maybe she’d been wandering the streets for years and had found her way, like the homeless do, to this corner, this concrete island. A couple miles west of there, where I live in Canutillo, a quaint little town wedged between El Paso and Anthony, dogs roam the streets in packs, fall asleep in the middle of the road, chase your car as you drive by, and howl and bark endlessly. There are no laws that require them to be tied up. It’s not uncommon to run into a pack of dogs coming down Vinton road as they go for their morning stroll, parading the streets like gangs of hoodlum kids skipping school to cause trouble.
More freedom always means more possibilities for danger. These dogs are more susceptible to being roadkill, to being neglected. Once I was walking Samuel Beckett (my dog) and we found a dead puppy inside a Family Dollar plastic bag. His belly already invaded by maggots. Someone had thought that was the only solution. Someone had actually thought to themselves: I don’t want this so I will put it in a plastic bag and throw it away. Beckett found him first, curiously sniffing at the heap, and when I realized what it was I pulled him away and wondered if he had felt anything other than curiosity over a corpse of one of his own. He would probably not understand the tragedy of the plastic bag, left to rot there near some houses in Canutillo, Texas.
This corner dog became important to me. I named her Doniphan. She had already taken on a level of the mythical, entered the landscape in the surreal way that fictional characters enter one’s consciousness, through the imagination, through the emotional valves, through the visceral passages.
After driving by for two weeks or so, I decided to introduce myself. I parked some ways down and walked towards her concrete island. She heard me and she lifted her head, turned my direction, her ears moving in that antennae-like fashion. She watched as I approached. I assumed some kind of Shepherd mix, based on the ears and the coloring: black and brown, with dark eyes. She was cautious, but not aggressive. However, I knew that she was wild, or at least a street dog, so I had to be careful; she had probably had her fair share of human betrayals and was skeptical to trust anyone.
When I got close, we stared at each other. She didn't move and I didn't move. Then I walked a few more steps, and a few more, until I was close enough to reach out my hand. Her wet nose followed it and sniffed carefully. I got closer until she licked my hand, seeming relieved. I knelt down. Her fur was thick, rough, and slightly matted, clear signs of a dog that sleeps out in the elements. She sniffed at my knees and my hair.
The concrete island contains a section of rocks, a sidewalk, and in between are the railroad tracks. Somewhere around the rocks was a blue bowl filled with water. Someone else had been here, someone was watching for her and this, strangely enough, made me feel quite hopeful about the whole thing. I was not hallucinating this dog.
The next day I returned and brought along some sausages.. She ate them calmly and then sat down and let me pet her for a few minutes before I turned to go.
I would return the next day with some dry food and the next with some bologna. I would then come by more than once a day, simply to say hello. One time I brought her a toy,a squeaky hippo, but she seemed confused by it. She sniffed it and then walked away, preferring her old strip of tape. She’d grab the strip of tape with her mouth and roll with it, twirling it in the air like dead prey.
She never showed sadness when I left, or happiness when I arrived. Sometimes when I was there she would simply lay down and continue to watch the cars. She was expressionless, calm, and reserved. When I left her, she understood and there was no need for goodbyes. It wasn't that look your dog gives you when you’re leaving him behind for a few hours in an empty house. She didn't follow me to my car, nor did she bark, or whimper, or look up sadly.
Dogs are subject to the whims of humans, subject to their angers, their greed, their mistakes. My mother had a neighbor who tied her dog up once while they were cleaning out the yard. When they finished, they left, went to bed, went to work and school the next day. By the time they returned their dog had died of thirst and heat exhaustion. The worst part of that story was that there were two dogs in that yard, the other, named Princess, his best friend, his companion on the long lonely days, watched helpless as her friend died, clawing at the ground, trying to hide from the vicious El Paso sun. After that, Princess would howl randomly, lay down over the patch of dirt where her friend was buried, or whimper during the day as she paced alone. Princess is still alive and she sits there, staring at the wall most of the time. I wondered what kind of betrayal Doniphan had suffered, had she been pushed aside, forgotten, left for dead? Or was she simply a wanderer, a traveler just passing through?
She and I became friends, but I wanted her to be more responsive, to wag her tail, or jump up and down in excitement. It felt like I was visiting a depressed person, wise beyond their years, but burdened by an inconsolable sadness and isolation. I would come by and sit with her before work, after work. I brought her sausages and filled up her water bowl. If I was heading somewhere, I took Doniphan Street so as to get a chance to see her and drop off some scraps or a little bowl of dry food. If I was in a rush I would simply drive by and wave. She would see me and follow me with her eyes.
The truth is, none of it happened that way. The day after I got close for the first time attempting to earn her trust, the day after I managed to photograph her, she walked off her island and disappeared. I noticed her going off the underpass as I was driving away. She was following the railroad tracks, further down.
I drove by everyday after that, several times a day, and she was gone. I came back with sausages, but no sign of her. If I saw something on the road in that area, I winced thinking it was her laying dead on the road, but it would be only a plastic bag, or torn up box. About a week later the blue water bowl disappeared. Whoever had set that down for her had also given up on her return. All that was left was the piece of black tape. No indication that anyone or anything had lived or died here. I could not help but imagine the worst. I did not want to think of her as roadkill. I did not want to think of her euthanized, nobody to hold her in those last breaths when the needle fills the vein. I had waited too long to get near her. I had been no different from everyone else. I had kept driving.
I continuously look for her. I imagine that one day she’ll reappear there and I can apologize for not stopping sooner. I could explain to her that I had brought sausages. I like to think though that her companion finally came back. That whoever she was waiting for returned and they left together to finish their adventures. Maybe they travel the country together, climbing mountains, going through forest, traveling to city after city in a Kerouac-esque journey. Or perhaps someone took her home, where she would play with kids in a grass filled backyard, drinking out of a clean bowl and wagging her tail.
For a brief time I had had a secret in the city, discovered something magical and only I, and this mysterious water bowl person, had been privy to it. If I saw Doniphan sitting there as I drove by, lounging near the tracks, I had felt a strange sense of hope. Even now, when I drive by, that place holds potential. There is a lingering sense of the magical, like the glimmering possibilities in a Borges story. Perhaps this hope was connected to the thought that these kinds of unusual corners exist everywhere and all one has to do is pay attention to them; these are the corners were stories are born, but they are also the corners where the excluded watch the rest of us, distractedly driving by, preoccupied, to busy to stop.