On February 2, 2011, David and I went to a favorite spot on the Río Cuchujaqui with two other couples from Alamos. The point, a misguided one, was to take our friends beyond the limits of the city and into the edge of the unfolding wilderness of the Sierra. The two men had ventured forth to some extent, one on motorcycles with his male friends and the other on weekly birding outings led by local Spanish-speaking guides who play the unspoken role of bodyguards for participants who otherwise would not go into the countryside alone. The two wives are charming and good company but not of the outdoors persuasion. I also believe they are content to cling to the idea that Mexico – even though they live here and embrace selected aspects of the culture and defend the country to their far more pigeonholing friends – is full of dread and menace. The idea was to have cocktails by the river. We wanted to show them the beautiful river we love and the majesty of the mother mountains in that most reassuring of contexts: drink in hand. The footwear of the women was portent enough that bringing adults to a place they would never go on their own is bound if not for disaster certainly for bumpiness.
Shortly after we arrived at the river and set up our little chairs and clinked our glasses, a party of bearded, unwashed fellows came laughing through the brush along the river carrying firewood. I forget now whether they were speaking Spanish or French or some other language, but we managed to determine they had been in Alamos for the recent music festival and were sticking around to enjoy the outdoors. And down the river bank they traipsed to their encampment. I know their sudden rowdy appearance unnerved our friends. I admit they put me a little on edge, like seeing a mouse in a trap or a snake in the grass, but that momentary quiver was replaced by a sinking feeling that our own fragile sixsome was already beginning to disequilibrate.
I had prepared crustless cucumber sandwiches for hors d’oeuvres. Whatever possessed me to do that? I have never made such a thing in my life. They were dreadful, crumbly, and tasteless. The wind was blowing. The women did not like the wind. It kicked up dust and disarranged their hair. The small talk was infinitesimal. I was becoming quietly annoyed and impatient with our guests and with myself. I wanted to say, “Can we rewind this? Can we go back to Alamos and forget we ever asked you to come out here?”
The weather was changing. That night and the next, Sonora experienced the worst freeze in recent memory. Thousands of acres of crops along the coastal plain were lost, and in the foothills around Alamos huge deciduous trees and prickly pear and columnar cactuses were burned to a brittle crisp. Quemado. Our friends who live in the campo lost their beautiful gardens of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, and beans. The weather was changing in more ways than one.
The six of us were sitting in our wobbly camp chairs on the sandy river bank when a black dog slinked up and sat on the edge of our painful circle. Not a dog, an assemblage of bones in a mangy black suit. Now things began to unravel in earnest. I have spent every sojourn to Mexico in a studied avoidance of dogs. The road dogs, the street dogs, the market dogs, the starving dogs, the bitches with tits dragging the ground, the diseased dogs, the limping dogs, the dogs with balls. Dogs in my country rarely have balls. I want one, but David does not. So I have soldiered on thwarting my urge and honoring his wish. At this point, my armor cracked, perhaps because I was already snapping. Get me out of here, I was screaming in my head. It did not help that one of the women, a sentimentalist like me, started crying. So I started crying. The other woman remained stoical, and I don’t hold that against her. Get us out of here, the three spouses were probably thinking. All rationale people know the consequences of feeding a starving dog, but logic was not in play. We fed the dog. He was not so discerning of tasteless cucumber sandwiches.
We needed to come to a decision. I had put David is a terrible position and for this I will always be sorry. On his hands, he had a bawling wife and a starving dog. We broke our cocktail camp and put the dog in our truck. The stoical woman and her husband headed back to Alamos. The other couple, who had come with us, probably would have gone back with them but it was a two-passenger vehicle. David thought the proper thing to do was to inquire at the nearby ranch as to the provenance of the dog. As we were leaving, another starving dog slunk out of the underbrush, a female bearing a striking resemblance to the dog now in our possession. It was getting dark. We drove up the winding road that overlooks the river and stopped at Rancho El Porvenir. This hilltop expanse happens to be a desolate, hammered-for-centuries landscape, and the pessimist in me always takes note when we pass this way that porvenir means the future in Spanish.
I got out of the truck and yelled a greeting. Dogs – ten, a dozen – came running out of the deepening twilight, and a young man followed. He was a local Alamos fellow, sweet of demeanor, who had been hired as a watchman by an American couple who had recently bought the ranch. He lamented the proliferation of dogs, telling me that El Porvenir is a popular dog-dumping site. I described our starving dog and he said it probably belonged to the old man who lived in the rancho across the road. He wasn’t sure the man was at home but we walked over and shouted. No response, although more dogs came running. I asked the young man to explain to his neighbor that we had taken the dog home with us and that we would return with an update. He did not protest. If anything, his tone and body seemed to approve. It is, however, risky to interpret the meaning of strangers in the dark who speak another language. I never went back to find the old man and tell him what became of his dog. That is another thing I am sorry about.
We came home with the dog. He slept on a blanket by the front door. It was a very cold night for Sonora. He curled up in the tightest ball he could with his bones. He was warmer than he would have been up at El Porvenir. He had a sweetness that David never saw. The next day I drove him to Navojoa to the veterinarian recommended to us by our neighbors – the same couple who went with us and drove home with us. My whole person was swirling. Time, money, a futile venture, a marital impasse. If the dog has heartworm I will ask that he be euthanized, if not I will ask that he be neutered. And then what? A neutered dog that I know I can’t keep? I put him in the back of the truck. We had been feeding him the night and morning before. I doubt he had ever been in a moving vehicle, not to mention at high speeds on curving roads. He started convulsing in the back. He’s dying I thought. No, he was just vomiting. I found the vet after some searching, cleaned up the vomit, lifted the bones from the truck, took the bones for a walk to pee along the dirt road by the vet’s office. I am forever amazed at Mexico and my expectations of what the world should be like. Here was a highly professional veterinary in a fairly fancy building on a dirt street. The office person was a sweet skinny guy who said it would be 1 pm before I could see a vet. I put the dog back in the truck and went to shop. I bought some wine at the grocery store and found a music store where I bought a music stand to practice my accordion, my other futile enterprise. A Mexican dog and an accordion dream.
I returned to the vet. There was one calming interlude: I sat next to a very nice man who was a retired agronomist who was happy to engage me with my Spanish. We talked of crops and dogs and Mayo Indians and our shared preference for life in the country. I almost felt bilingual. As we talked, I watched other clients come and go and saw that the pet culture is changing in Mexico, at least in Sonora or in Navojoa. Well-kept women usually with their daughters came in to drop off or pick up little bred-up pocket dogs. Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus. There was small talk. I explained I was “rescuing” a dog from the campo. I believe most of the clients had never been to the campo.
Daniel, the vet, who examined the dog I first called Mr. X, was a handsome and engaging young man, thorough and also willing to talk with me in his native language. I thought to myself, “Daniel, it is so nice to be with you in my personal Mexican dog saga. If you were my husband, I could keep this dog.” After some blood work and more time waiting, he told me that Mr. X did not have heartworm; he did have rickettsia and malnutrition. OK, I am not going to have the dog killed. Daniel slathered some tick-flea juice on the spine of the dog and gave me some other meds. He said the neuter part would have to wait until Mr. X gained some weight. The cost of this first visit was one-tenth of an equivalent vet visit in the U.S. I drove back up the road to Alamos with Mr. X. I was beginning to feel I was in a vortex. At some point, perhaps on this return trip, I decided his name was Bag of Bones – Bob.
Bob flourished. He gained weight. His coat started to shine. He was frisky. He and Jack would play a little but not as much as he should have played with Jack to make David like him. He was snarly when we put food in his dish. I worked with him on a leash. I taught him to sit. I thought Bob was cute in his own campo way. David said Bob was profoundly ugly. It was a sad time. We all stood firm on the abyss – Bob and I on one side, David and Jack on the other – of mutual disagreement and discord.
February turned into March. I took Bob back to have his balls cut off. I lay in bed many nights while David was soundly sleeping thinking what is going to happen with this dog who has but one human friend on earth. The night after Bob was neutered, the surgical area of his former man-parts was bleeding. It looked awful to me. I wrung myself up into another frenzy and the next day drove him back to the Navojoa. They said, so nonchalantly, not to worry. Bob and I drove home. The road back and forth from Alamos to Navojoa became my private trail of woe and unraveling.
We were going to leave Alamos at the end of March. I had to find a home for Bob. I made bilingual signs. Please adopt Bob. Beto necesita buen hogar. I rode my bike all around town with my fliers. I put a message on the Alamos gringo chat group. I had a few nibbled but no takers from the expat community. It was excruciating. I did not want to cast out Bob. I had no choice. I wanted everything to be erased. I talked with Pancho Zavala, our friend and gardener, about how I had to find a home for Bob. I put one of the fliers at the feed store down by the Arroyo Aduana. David said if I could not find a home for Bob we would take him back to where we found him. El Provenir – the future. David’s calculus was that Bob had had a brief reprieve – the best days of his life – and in the life of a Mexican dog that counted for a lot. That reasoning almost made my head explode.
We went birding one Saturday morning shortly before our departure from Alamos. We took Jack with us and left Bob at home. I had come to have a chilly, distant feeling about Jack, our dog with a perfect life. When we got back home and were pulling up to park in front of our house, a man in a car was pulling away. Pancho was standing at our front door. His wife, Cecilia, was sitting in their car. There was a swirl of confusion. Jack jumped out of the car and I was trying to circle him out of the street and into the house. Through a jumble of Spanish, Pancho explained that Bob was in the car with the man pulling away. By a miraculous coincidence, Pancho had been at the feed store that morning when a man walked in, saw my Beto flier, and mentioned he was looking for a dog for his kids on his rancho. Pancho, in his inimitable ambassadorial way, must have told the man that he happened to work for the current keepers of Beto and he’d take the man to our house. When they arrived, and we weren’t there, Pancho opened the door and gave Bob to the man with a little bag of dog food. Pancho had lifted my ten-ton burden. I responded ambiguously, and that was another in my string of regrets in the chronicle of Bob. It all happened so fast. Bob was gone. I would never see him again. I was ecstatic and crestfallen all at the same time. I started crying. This completely baffled Pancho, of course, who now felt that he must have done a terrible thing. I convinced him, I hope, that he had done a wonderful thing. Pancho had done everything precisely right, and I had done my duty and kept the promise I did not want to keep.