The supermarket cereal aisle. I love this aisle. There are hundreds of boxes of cereal lining the shelves. Sugary confections that will rot your teeth, pump you full of vitamins, or liquify your colon.
But when I am in the cereal aisle, I don’t think about roughage. I think of somebody I once knew.
Her name was Ellie Mae. She was a black-and-tan bloodhound. Lanky. Long-eared. Her face had a perpetually ancient look. It was as though she’d been alive long before the invention of the chew toy.
She ate meals with me, showered with me, watched professional sports alongside me. She slept in my bed, head resting upon my chest until my arm went numb. We were fishing buddies.
Whenever I went into town, she rode shotgun. And in the supermarket parking lot, I would leave her in the parked car, windows rolled down, so she could sniff the breeze and greet anyone fortunate enough to fall into her houndish gaze.
One day—I will never forget it—I was browsing in the grocery cereal aisle, and I saw something traipse past me. Something furry and familiar. I turned to see a 90-pound black hound prancing through the sterile white linoleum supermarket aisles.
The dog was wholly oblivious to the cashiers, the bag boys, and the manager who chased her.
Then I realized that this was my dog. She had leapt from my truck’s open windows and come into the store after me. I felt like an irresponsible pet owner and a horrible person. Ellie Mae could have been hit in the parking lot, or wandered off. What a young fool I was.
But I was overtaken by the beauty of the scene. It was almost an ethereal experience, watching Ellie in that store. She was looking for me. And I can’t explain why, but I’ve never felt more loved by a dog than I did in that cereal aisle.
“Stop that dog!” yelled a frantic employee.
But I was too engrossed in the moment. It was so bizarre, and yet so special. No creature had ever felt so tormented by my absence that they broke all the rules to find me.
The employees went on to tell me that Ellie Mae had traipsed through the entire store on a hellbent mission. In her search for me, she’d managed to annoy one pharmacist, five butchers, ten bagboys, two turtle doves, three french hens, and a free-sample guy in a kiosk who threatened to press charges for what she did to his smoked tuna samples.
That animal left her mark on me as a human being. My life was changed by her. Losing her almost ended me.
But then, I’ve been fortunate enough to love a lot of dogs in my day. In fact, the hours I have spent with canines are among my finest.
I am a mediocre man with a hawk nose and Bugs Bunny teeth. But put a dog next to me and I feel like George Reeves. It’s just what they do.
I once had a rescue dog who was frightened of everything. Fear crippled him, like many abused animals. To him the sound of a doorbell was nuclear war. A soft scolding would have killed him.
His name was Hurley Joe, but we just called him Joe. The fear got so bad that he often slept in the bathtub. Late at night you could hear his claws clacking on the porcelain.
Sometimes I would sit with him in the tub until we both fell asleep. In the mornings I would awake with a dog in my lap and a lower back that needed an emergency laminectomy.
Joe got hit by a car one winter afternoon. It was a hit and run. I still don’t know how he escaped. And I still don’t know what kind of person can carreen into a living thing and leave it to suffer in the median.
Joe didn’t die right away. A college girl found him on the highway shoulder, convulsing and unconscious. His back was shattered and his head was contorted. The merciful Samaritan lifted the 80-pound dog, by herself, and rushed Joe to the vet where they did surgery.
Joe lasted two days after that. Those were a hard few days. My wife and I lived at the veterinary clinic. We carried him into a grassy area to do his business. We fed him by hand. We cried 40 billion tears into his black fur. We told him not to be afraid. We kissed him. He died in my wife’s arms.
You never get over something like that. And you wouldn’t want to, either.
The truth is, sometimes I wish I were part dog. I wish I had their unflinching sincerity, and their never ending need for affection. I wish I were more believing; less skeptical. More adventurous; less hesitant. More spontaneous; less careful.
I wish I got excited like they do about good food, warm sofas, or the possibility of meeting nice-smelling friends.
My best friends have always had four feet, and they’ve helped me grow up. Before them I was lost. After them, I knew who I wanted to be, and who I didn’t.
I hope to honor their memory from time to time by writing about them, but it never feels like my words do them justice. There’s just no way to put the canine into sentence form.
Even so, sometimes I catch myself thumbing through a mental photo album filled with pictures of one of God’s greatest ideas. A creature named Ellie Mae.
This, I guess, is why I love to visit the cereal aisle.