The good thing about the snow is that the park is all ours once again. Our mornings are free of the runners who sprint back and forth across the fields and our evenings are clear of the dreaded Soccer Hoards and that wretched high school marching band. The cold and snow and subsequent slush have removed just about everyone except Duncan and me, one or two snow-shoe enthusiasts, who I never see except for the tracks they leave behind, and the few parks department workers whose job it is to de-ice the sidewalks and empty the garbage cans. So it was nice tonight to wander the trails and meander around the baseball diamonds, whistling my Autumn songs and having very one-sided conversations with Duncan until he stumbled upon the bright green softball resting in the mud on the opposite side of the fence.
Normally when the park is empty I remove his leash and we walk, sometimes side by side, sometimes with one or the other of us leading the way. Often Dunc ambles far aside to investigate the hedges near the fountain or to mark the trees, especially the scarecrow-looking dead ones with the neon orange stripe spray-painted around their trunks marking them for removal. And when I've ventured too far ahead he always stops what he's doing and rushes to my side, the sound of his tail alerting me to his presence, his nose poking the palm of my cupped hand for the treats I hold there. Then, once he's checked in, he ventures off again, to the puddle that needs a good tromping through, or to a pile of leaves that beg to be rolled in, good and hard.
It took me a minute to notice he was gone. I'd moved up the walk to the center of the four baseball fields where the concession stand sits empty, the bathrooms locked, the chemical-blue port-a-potties left as sorry substitutes, their odors repellent except to Roo. I turned and looked all around, didn't spot him, whistled once, waited for the sound of his hurrying feet and propeller tail pushing him forward, heard nothing and whistled again, louder. Still nothing.
"Duncan," I called. "Come!" That usually does the trick but tonight I was met only with a distant whine and a meager, sheepish bark.
And there he was, sitting in front of the fence staring at the fat softball on the other side. The gates are locked nightly, with thick, heavy chains and a big padlock, and the little clovers of snow still resting on the shady side of the locks told me they hadn't been opened in days. The fields were a mess of mud and slush no one would play on and the ball must have been left behind earlier in the week, before October turned treacherous and bitter. I couldn't get through the gate if I wanted, and climbing over the fence, as I've done on more than one similar occasion, was out the question with my tender back. There was nothing I could do for him, and knowing there were two drawers full of literally over a hundred tennis, base and golf balls waiting for him back home, I didn't feel all that guilty about not heeding his wishes this one time.
I whistled again, called again, but he merely sat and stared at me, and when that didn't work he crouched down low along the fence line and attempted to reach one feeble paw under it to scoop at the ball, which was easily six feet away and well beyond his reach. And when he glanced back up and saw I hadn't moved he began the soft whining, which soon escalated into louder whimpering which eventually transformed into a full-bellied, echo-inducing bark. He was like a child at a store, who, after demanding every shiny thing within reach, resorts to a full-throated temper tantrum, the kind that hurries a parent from the store, jaw clenched, whispering curses and threats. Only we had the park to ourselves and the sun was beginning to set so I couldn't have cared less how loud he barked.
On and on it went, and when I finally walked away, assuming my absence would hurry him after me, it only got louder. I ducked to the other side of the concession stand and waited, counting off the minutes, expecting silence followed by the clatter of his nails on the cement. But Duncan can be quite stubborn and his barking only got louder and more desperate. After nearly fifteen minutes of waiting I walked back and tried to explain to him that he couldn't have that ball, that there was a multitude of them waiting at home for him. I pushed the gate open as far it would go––no more than four or five inches––and watched as he attempted to squirm his way through it. I sat with him, I tried to distract him, I bribed him with treats, I tossed snow at him, but his attention would not leave that softball.
Finally I did the only thing I could: I leashed him up and dragged him, kicking and yapping, away from the fence, across the courtyard and down the other side of the baseball diamonds toward the wide field where he loves to run and roll. Once we were a fair way away I took the leash off and watched as he turned and headed right back the way we'd come. I used my loudest, sternest Papa Voice and told him no, which froze him in his tracks.
"Get back here," I demanded and watched as he slinked past me, head down low, eyes aimed anywhere but at me. "Now go be a dog," I said, giving him the command that really means "hurry ahead and get out of my hair for a few minutes." He did exactly as he was told, huffing and snorting once over his shoulder as he went. I watched him scurry down the path and head straight to the mucky, moss-laden drainage ditch at the intersection of two sidewalks. He glanced once over his shoulder and just as I opened my mouth to tell him to sit and stay he jumped in, swished his tail angrily in my direction and stuck his face right down into the water.
And when he came up, clutched in his mouth was a pristine, white baseball, smaller and more practical than the softball he'd spent nearly thirty minutes pining for and pouting over. He scurried away as I ran up to him and dropped it in the snow where he threw him down on top of it and rolled all around it, smearing its cold, mossiness across his back and belly, keeping as far away from me as possible.
One way or another he was going to come home with a ball. It was either the easy way or the dog way and there was nothing I could do about it.