There are more balls in this little apartment than you'd think possible and nearly every day our collection grows even bigger. It seems we cannot leave the apartment without Duncan stumbling upon a golf ball right below my window (the golf course is about thirty feet from where I live and quite often we're jolted out of our peace and tranquility when some errant golfer knocks his ball right into the side of my building, rattling the windows and scattering the cats). During the summer it's not uncommon to return home after a quick walk with four or five of them filling my pockets, which I then empty into the small bureau where I keep all of Duncan's toys. I pick the golf balls up because I worry about their size; they're just small enough that a dog could easily choke on one. I don't throw them over the fence because if I did our walk would cease and Duncan would sit and pine for the ball beyond his reach. And every walk thereafter he would pause and look longingly out in the tall grass at the edge of the course and whine at what could have been.
And so, reluctantly, I've turned into a bit of collector. The bureau gets more and more full each day and I'm not exactly sure what to do about it. You see, I'm a sentimental fool. I'm not a hoarder, but I do tend to hold on to things longer than I should. Not big things––those are easily disposed of––but the little things, which are quite often more important than the big ones. I have nearly all of Duncan's toys, even the ones chewed beyond recognition (remember Percy, the penguin Duncan disemboweled which I never got around to repairing? He's tucked away should I ever decide to fix him up and reintroduce him to the gang). I have the baby blanket he was sitting on when Ken first brought him home as well as a single unused puppy pad that's been lurking in a box since 2004. I have all the food and water bowls we've fed him from and each and every one of his collars. I have nearly everything, especially these drawers of balls and balls and more balls.
I took Roo out for our morning excursion to the park while it was still dim and very early, when it seemed only the birds were up, lazy and drowzy in the uppermost branches of the trees. I grabbed his tennis ball and the bright blue Chuckit Launcher I keep by the door and we walked across the street for our usual game of fetch. We played for nearly an hour: me throwing the ball as far as I could and Duncan chasing after it, returning it to my feet for his reward. For a Retriever fetch was not a game that came naturally to him so I worked long and hard on training him to bring the ball back by bribing him with goodies. He drops the ball and waits patiently for the treat he's earned. And if by chance there are no treats he very clearly lets me know there will be no game of fetch by running to the ball and laying down on it while he looks at me like, "I've got this thing you threw away. Better come and get it if you want it back."
On our last throw Duncan returned with a different ball, a bright green one, new and unscuffed. He was a bit dodgy about dropping it and meandered around me in a lazy, distant circle, his head down, the ball firmly and selfishly clasped between his jaws. When I finally wrestled it from him I asked where his old ball was. He rolled on his back, indifferent to my question, and tried to distract me with his bright pink belly instead. I tossed the ball for him and then walked back in the direction I'd thrown the original ball. I found it among the frosted grass, buried among the leaves, its color long gone, its surface old and matted from years of being tossed and retrieved, poked and gnawed on by Duncan's teeth
"What about this ball?" I asked him, kicking it beside the new ball. He looked down at them then back up at me. "Don't you want your old ball? It's been so good to you." He looked back and forth between the two, laid down, mouthed one then the other. "Think of all the miles you've run to get it and bring it back? It has been there every time you wanted to play and has come home with you, waiting by the door until you're ready to take it out again." He mouthed his old ball, his tail stirring the leaves behind him. "It's been a good ball, Roo. Do you really want to exchange it for this newer, prettier ball, a ball you hardly know?"
He whined at me, pawed at the old thing then looked nervously at the new one.
"The choice is all yours, Dunc. It's either the reliable, trusty old ball who has been your friend for a very long time or this shiny, new one you've only just met. And who knows where it's been! You decide. You can't have them both."
I watched him and waited, knowing in my heart he'd do the right thing. He went back and forth between the two, picking them up, biting once or twice then spitting them out to be replaced by the other. He pawed at them, sniffed them, rolled across both of them, marking each with the sweet smell of his back. He looked up at me for guidance then stared at them both.
And then he made his choice. He grabbed the ball, stood up and trotted away to the edge of the road where he waits for me to leash him up, the bright, new one firmly held in his mouth, the old one abandoned and forgotten.
"Well, old friend," I told the ball we've played with for years. "The decision is made. It looks like it's up to you now to find a new home." I stared at it a moment longer, fought my urge to pick it up and put it in my pocket and bring it back home where it belongs, but turned my back and walked away, leaving it tucked among this morning's hard frosted grass.
Duncan, no sentimental fool, didn't look back once. And so I think the day is soon coming when I'll be cleaning out those drawers and getting rid of our many balls.
Unless I go back and rescue it later, an act that will certainly doom me.