A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
July 1, 2013
I don’t know if she caught sight or scent of him, but when Naso became aware of the mailman leaning against the rail fence, she bounded ahead to greet him. She was wobbly and slow, but she was really running, not just trotting.
We were in Sunburst Farms, a one-time county island of lot-split mini-ranches and hobby farms, long since rationalized and throughly engulfed by the behemoth that is the City of Phoenix. On one side is the burgeoning ASU West campus, with subdivided housing developments bristling like an unkempt beard in every other direction. But in the midst of all that city is a little bit of country, a place for horses and goats and perhaps a buffalo or two.
And Sunburst Farms is the Museum of Odors to Publius Ovidius Naso, my elderly Bloodpuppy. My wife Adora is a circuit veterinarian all through the mountains of northeast Arizona. Naso grew up with the smell of horseshit always around, and she grew up loving horses and every kind of livestock. There’s a vet’s office in the neighborhood that fills Adora’s prescriptions – you would not believe how little hassle this entails – so Naso gets in a good sniff every time we have to swing by to make a pick-up.
And it was fun to have her off the lead. She was a puppy in the White Mountains, around Show Low, and she got to run free a lot. That’s how I met her: No lead, no collar, no tags – just love at first sight for both of us. In the city, except at the dog park, there’s too much risk from cars – and too many lean-look’d coyotes in Sun City – to pocket the lead. But Naso is so enthralled by the animals in Sunburst Farms that I can turn her loose and just let her commune with her friends through the white-painted steel-pipe fencing.
“I love to watch dogs run.” The mailman said that. He was short and a little slumpy. He had a sparse beard and mustache salted with just a few strands of gray and slate-gray eyes that seemed to take a gentle delight in everything he saw. Naso was snarfling in his open hand, assiduously cataloging his last few meals. “They hustle everywhere. I mean, they’re mainly inert, I get that. But when they’re interested in something, they’re fascinated by it, and they can’t get over to it fast enough.”
I smiled at that. I’m too much aware of how slowly and painfully Naso moves now, compared to my girl in her prime. I said, “I like it when people move that way, too.”
“Ah, we can’t have that, can we? When I was a kid, my dad called it The Union Shuffle, this exaggerated slow walk the guys he worked with would take through a factory floor to announce to all the other men that they weren’t going to work any harder than they absolutely had to, goddammit. I didn’t believe in it until I got this job. Now I spend half my day hiding out so I don’t get in trouble for working too hard. Is that stupid, or what?”
I didn’t say anything, I just laughed. When all you’ve got to look forward to is your own extermination, the humor can’t get black enough.
“But what’s worse, I see it everywhere – this slow, lazy, indifferent lassitude about everything. To be passionate about anything serious in life is uncool, so the cool thing to do is dance The Union Shuffle under other names. And people are actually afraid to express any serious desire in life, because the thought of being mocked by their alleged friends is so terrifying to them. We don’t do anything serious, we don’t master anything new, we don’t have many children, and we don’t educate the few we have. The Union Shuffle is the official dance step of the auto-extermination of the human race.”
Now I will lay dollars to donuts that no one talks to you about stuff like this. Why not? I’m very much afraid that the secret to my success is Naso: The girl has a nose for interesting people. I don’t know how I’ll manage when she’s gone.
I said: “Goofing off half the day seems to have given you time to think.” Ham on wry. It’s what I got.
“You don’t know the half of it. I’m translating the works of Horace in my spare time – the other half of my work day. A full interlineal translation, sourcing everything back. Over the course of the next five-hundred years, as many as five linguists could footnote my efforts fondly.” He laughed, and I don’t know why he thought I would appreciate the joke, but I did.
I said, “Storge…”
He thought for a moment then said, “Yes. I had never thought of it that way.”
“I keep running into it everywhere. I want to call it the love of families, but family in this context means any stable, shared pursuit. The thing that makes any social group work, to the extent that it does, is the storgic love the members of that group have for it.”He smiled, his eyes focused on his memories. “I’ve only had one other job in my life, a pizza joint over on Thunderbird. I worked there for ten years, high school through grad school, and no one ever told me to slow down. To the contrary, everyone worked liked dogs, with the owners leading the way. The pay was shit and there were always unpaid errands and I loved it there. That was a family, and I’ve never been at home like I was there…”
That was maybe more than he wanted to tell me. Or maybe not.
“And that may be all the family I’ll ever have. Who dates me? Who marries me? Who has kids with me? I’m one of the world’s foremost experts on something no one cares about, and I’m not even employable, much less datable. Evolution is the survival of those fit enough to survive to breed. Who successfully reproduces in the world of The Union Shuffle? Whatever qualities I may bring to the world, the evidence argues that I am less than fit to breed.” He shrugged. “You play the cards you’re dealt, right?”
“And so… The taxpayers fund work that no one wants done, ostensibly paying for other work that is stupidly redundant in the internet age. And I get to pursue a passion – expressing my immense love to a humanity that will always be indifferent to the things I love – that would otherwise just be a hobby. Who’s not getting his money’s worth?”
He laughed and I laughed, but of course it’s not funny. Black humor is never funny. It’s just funnier than extermination…