by David Jonathan Cohen
Once upon a time, there was a small dog who led a large life.
No one knows his name of origin. In the West Virginia prison where his documented story begins, the inmates called him Puddles. He was “the slickest dog in the yard.”
When the guards noticed Puddles, they called the dog warden. West Virginia shelters don’t keep dogs long. Fortunately for Puddles, and for our family, Homeward Trails Animal Rescue, was on the case. It posted his picture and story.
He was just what we were looking for. Our youngest child had begged for a dog for years. My wife Ruth and I are allergic to animal dander. A poodle mix, Puddles was hypoallergenic. He had hair, not fur, and didn’t shed. On May 10, 2008, he arrived in northern Virginia. Ruth, our youngest child, and I met him.
Puddles had to be coaxed from his travel crate. He trembled as he emerged. He rolled over in complete submission and exposed his belly. He was skin, bones, and tick scabs, and suffering from diarrhea.
Romeo’s dimensions were adult, roughly 14 inches high at the shoulders. His weight was nine-and-a-half pounds. (A year later, his still slim, muscular weight was 16-and-a-half pounds.) Our youngest child renamed him Romeo.
Ruth rushed Romeo to the vet, who estimated from Romeo’s teeth that Romeo was about a year old. A week of chicken and rice later, Romeo’s digestion began to improve. When I first walked Romeo, each block ended with his plopping down in exhaustion. Our youngest child doted on Romeo, and Romeo slept in his bed. Our three other children began as skeptics. Did we really need a dog in an already busy house?
My walks with Romeo began as explorations, one walk in this direction, another in that. Romeo’s stamina improved week by week. Our walks lengthened. He and I met Laurel and her dog Jerry. Laurel told us about the morning get-togethers of neighbors and dogs.
The gathering at the baseball diamond, by the church at 32nd and Chesapeake, allowed dogs to play and run together. Its waves of participants began about 7 a.m. and ebbed by 8:30. Among its mainstays were Marge and Mel with their dog Emmy. Romeo and I became regulars.
A few weeks afterwards, a jogger ran down the path between the baseball diamond and the Forest Hills playground. Romeo ran after him. I ran after Romeo. I found him on the grass strip between the sidewalk and Connecticut Avenue, between Appleton and Albemarle streets. I realized I had to reinforce his returning when I called. I couldn’t go home without him.
I began to play catch with Romeo. Laurel introduced me to Zuke’s Minis, treats that Romeo loved. They were three calories each. Each time Romeo brought back the ball, I gave him one Zuke’s. Romeo was quick on the uptake.
Our morning catch became a ritual, so much so that Romeo made a path down the hillock by the church across the grass to the batting cage. Vera, owner of Satie, dubbed the path Via Romeo.
A cartoon by Harry Bliss pictures a man showing his dog a ball: “I throw this ball, you go get it and bring it back – everything else will fall into place.”
Often on those mornings, Mel spotted aircraft from the same spot where Emmy ran. For Mel, the exercise recalled his days in the Air Force in El Paso, Texas in the 1950s.
My outings with Romeo settled into default patterns: to the Chesapeake Street baseball diamond in the morning, down to Davenport Street on 32nd and back along Connecticut Avenue to Fessenden Street at mid-day, and at dinner a loop back to Chesapeake Street. Ruth took the late shift with Romeo just before bed.
Former Senator James Sasser lived on 32nd between Ellicott and Davenport Streets. His son and daughter-in-law visited regularly with their two-year-old daughter, Martha Grey. When Romeo came by, she loved to pat him.
As I walked Romeo one morning, Senator Sasser called me over. His daughter-in-law was expecting a second child. She and his son asked Martha Grey her thoughts about what to name the baby.
Yes, that’s right: “Romeo.”
Romeo introduced me to Bumble, Rooney, Hank, Louie, Wasabi, Solly, Sparky, Chester, Bart, Cognac, Daisy, Howie, Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Kavalier, River, Rosie, Bentley, Sadie, Max, Thai, Riley, Buster, and others, from Yorkies to Great Danes, from chihuahuas to Bernese mountain dogs. I also met their owners. Everyone understood a dog person – someone a dog trained properly – remembered the name of the dog first.
Only dog people could discuss with straight faces the merits of different doggie poop bags, the reactions of their dogs to eating turf (Romeo was an aficionado), and the options for dog care if an owner had to travel. Only a dog person could have set aside a burial ground with tombstones for dogs on her estate (Marjorie Merriweather Post at Hillwood) or a memorial plaque for her dogs in her museum of modern art (Peggy Guggenheim in Venice). Only a dog person could have introduced me to the marvelous Natalie, a former vet tech who often cared for Romeo and with him formed a mutual admiration and affection society out of all proportion to his size.
Our children who began as skeptics? Romeo trained them, too. He comforted one after surgery. He took another on walks with her brother and later, her boyfriend. Romeo extended his reign to the extended family. When our great niece, then nine months old, cornered him and yanked his ear, he didn’t nip or paw her. He let out a yelp and backed away.
Romeo may have been the least alpha dog in the western world, with one exception: With puppies, he asserted seniority. On Fessenden Street, he and I encountered Edge, then 11 months old and roughly 10 times Romeo’s size. Romeo barreled into Edge’s shoulder, knocked him to the ground, stood on his throat, and growled down at him.
The thought occurred to me that one snap from Edge would have reduced Romeo to mincemeat. Nor did size deter Romeo from barking furiously at every white-tailed deer. Again I thought, one well-placed hoof, and you’re done for. On every occasion, the deer turned tail and ran. An ancestry of wolves carries meaning.
No wolf, though, would have waited for our family to sit for dinner before he went to his food. No wolf would have jumped on an ottoman to join in a weekly family ritual and gently paw my backside so I would pet him through it. No wolf would insist on sprawling on anyone who chose to lie on the living room couch where every cushion bore Romeo’s imprint.
Perhaps a wolf would have alerted us to the postman at every delivery, and to every passerby, human or animal. At 5 a.m. one day, our sentinel Romeo began to bark endlessly. Awakened and annoyed, I tried to shush him. When I took Romeo out at 7 a.m., I found a rear window of our car smashed, the car unlocked, and the steering column airbag gone. Romeo had done his best to let us know. (He had experience with outlaws.)
Romeo transformed my experience of our neighborhood. His past led Margery Elfin to write in the Forest Hills Connection a 2012 article, “Pooch Profiles: An Ex-Con In Forest Hills.” His walks brought me to volunteer with Northwest Neighbors Village, as I explained in 2015. And walking Romeo, I met a mother of a four-year-old named Romeo, a grandmother of an 18-month-old named Juliet, and women who pulled over their cars, rolled down their windows, oohed and aahed, sometimes offered him treats, and began to chat. It’s a good thing I didn’t know about the effects a dog could have when I was young and single.
This fall Romeo’s vet sent him and me to an internal medicine vet. The specialist diagnosed underlying conditions. They were inoperable. She prescribed daily medication and special foods. Romeo, Ruth, and I carried on, until Friday, December 6.
Romeo and I played our usual half-hour of catch that morning. I went out. When I returned, our house was a mess, and Romeo was lethargic. I rushed him to an animal hospital, where a vet suggested hydrating him, medicating his nausea, and keeping an eye on him. Her physical exam found nothing unusual. Ruth and I were scheduled to go out of the country the next day and meet one of our children, now working in Europe.
By Saturday, Romeo had not eaten or drunk. I carried him back from a short morning walk and rushed him back to the hospital. The emergency vet on duty gave him 50-50. I talked with Natalie. We left. On Monday, December 9, Romeo died in the hospital, with Natalie by his side.
Dog people have comforting myths for the loss of their dogs. Do an online search for “the rainbow bridge” sometime. I’m not big on notions of an afterlife. If there is one, though, I have a strong sense of what it looks like: “I throw this ball, you go get it and bring it back – everything else will fall into place.”
RIP, Romeo, loving and beloved.