I'd heard him tell the story before. In fact, I'd heard it several times. The older man's brow furrowed and he looked at the ground as details came back to him with obvious clarity.
He said, "I was only 17 when I boarded that train. I sat down on the cushioned seat and thought 'What am I doing? Is this the right path for me?' Then I look out the train window and see my mother and father on the platform. I see my siblings. I see my dog. The train lurches and starts down the track and I look to the window again and see my sister, my favorite sibling, running after the train with my dog keeping stride. You know what I thought at that moment?"
"No idea," I said, though I knew exactly what was coming.
"I thought, 'Man, I'm going to miss that dog.'"
Storytelling is a gift that keeps our lives ordered, offering explanation for who we are. Keeping our stories in circulation ensures our own memories live. I read once that author Pat Conroy would hear someone's personal reminiscence and, if he liked it, would exclaim, "If you don't write that down, I will!" And, sure enough, he'd include a parade of short stories within the theme of his major novels.
A teaching career has ensured that I really enjoy listening to stories. You can't teach if you can't hear your students explain their lives: the good, the bad, the ugly parts, one and all. That aspect of my career bleeds into everyday life. Once again hearing the story of the dog chasing the train brought one to mind.
My family has had a number of dogs since my wife and I first married. We've had pure-breeds and mutts, dogs we paid for and dogs that literally wandered through our front door. But when we think of all our family dog stories, the main character will always be our golden retriever Charlie.
My wife gave Charlie to me as a Valentine's present about 15 years ago. Of course, I can still see my 8-year-old daughter holding him, presenting him with outstretched arms as if Charlie were really intended for me. "I found an ad in the paper and met some guy in a Walmart parking lot to buy him," my wife said, stroking Charlie's puppy fur. "The guy said he bought it for his girlfriend but found out she's a cat person."
She shrugged, then added as an afterthought, "Not sure how that relationship is going to work out."
I loved Charlie the moment I saw him--mostly because he made my kids so happy and my wife so proud. He didn't last long in my daughter's bedroom because he yapped all night, as puppies do. But we house-trained him, leash-trained him, and spent countless hours with him at our feet. That dog loved us. He seemed to smile when we awakened each morning; he jumped for joy when the kids came home from school.
I'd take Charlie on early morning runs and let him off his leash if no one was around. His reddish-blond body would whiz by me chasing squirrels, ducks, or whatever appeared on the River Trail. If I ran 10 miles, Charlie would end up doing 20 as he ran ahead, doubled back to check on me, then ran ahead again. He'd be exhausted upon our return, but still found the energy to jump for joy when the kids climbed out of bed, and he'd smile when anyone entered the room.
We enjoyed Charlie's energetic company for eight years. One day, he just seemed old. He moved slowly. He limped after a three-mile run, so I stopped taking him with me. Charlie took pains to stand in the mornings and his smile had turned into a grimace as he moved towards us. He became easily agitated.
I was sitting on a plane about to depart Charlotte when my mobile phone buzzed. My wife was crying. "We took Charlie to the vet and he's sick, really sick. They're going to put him down. The kids are a wreck. What do I do?"
I thought of Charlie's fuzz when we first got him. I saw him hopping from foot to foot whenever he heard a kid's voice. I saw him running headlong into the river, scattering ducks and geese, then sprinting down the trail before turning to check on me. "Let the kids say goodbye," I said, "That's all you can do."
Our kids came in one by one as Charlie lay on the veterinarian's table. They nuzzled him, stroked him, and cried. Charlie, for his part, seemed to offer one last slight smile.
Then he was gone.
I think about our kids and all those still writing their short stories, the ones that will shape their futures.
Losing a dog is not losing a human being. But there are moments in our lives when our stories, though short, produce meaning profound and lasting. My kids can tell you what they wore that day. My wife still tears up thinking about Charlie, simple dog though he was.
In this time of thanks, I'm grateful for the short stories of life. The one-off conversations, the semi-miraculous engagements, the moments of pain and bliss, dark and light. I'm thankful for them all.
And I'm thankful for the realization that, sometimes, short stories transfer ownership, making it difficult to remove scenes from one's mind. Now, I can hear the train moving, smell the diesel firing up, and taste the dust from the platform. I can feel the soft footfalls of a girl running and waving at her brother as the boy departs the family. And I feel a strange longing.
Man, I miss that dog.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.