The Dog at the Fountain
I run into Professor Sullivan at the fountain near the Business building. It is spring – the sun isn’t exhausting yet; it’s still running at the perfect wattage. The fountain is set in the middle of the walkway, creating a pedestrian roundabout ringed by low, grassy mounds, beyond which stretches the black asphalt of the parking lots. The water shoots as high as one story from the crusty spouts hidden at the center, and then it crashes open, splaying itself like the frilled petals of some constantly generous flower.
I walk this way all the time to catch the shuttle to catch the bus and get home. I don’t usually run into anyone to talk to
Professor Sullivan tosses a worn tennis ball into the fountain for his great, fat, elderly dog, a black Labrador who goes everywhere on campus with him, usually holding that tennis ball lovingly in her mouth. She’s the resident spirit of the classroom where I take Introduction to Literature from her charismatic, inspired madman of a human. She lies next to his feet each class, and I’ve watched her sides rise and fall as she breathes and listened to her tail gently thwap against the low-nap carpet.
Now, she walks rather than runs into the fountain. She heaves her belly over the edge – a low concrete ring – and wades with deliberation toward the floating ball, which moves away from her in the current made by the falling water. When she finally gets it in her mouth, she heaves herself back over the edge and, sopping, heavily wet, saunters over to her human, and drops the ball at his feet with a splat.
He bends down, picks the ball up. The dog’s ears manage excitement. Her old body manages anticipation. She and her human have the same emotional air – distracted and fiercely alert at the same time.
Professor Sullivan – who insists we call him Phil because fuck authority – has hair that reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s, and I’m not just saying that because we read one of Bradbury’s stories recently for class. I’m saying it because he looks like the author’s photo. His glasses have the same square, black frames, and his hair is the same straight, white, overgrown hair. Though Phil’s hair is a bit messier, actually, a little less clean. There’s some chaos in Phil, expressed through bedhead.
Phil tosses the ball back into the fountain, a leisurely throw, and the dog starts after it again.
I feel as if I have a secret, secondary knowledge about Phil. He’s the father of a classmate who hasn’t quite stuck as a friend yet, even though I’ve known her since high school and was one-third of her medieval history study group. By knowing her, I know something about him that the other students in class do not. Something subterranean and inadvertent. Not that I’d ever talk to him about her. I mean, I’ve never talked to him at all except in class – and except now when he waves me over, and we say hello, and I stand with him while he plays the laziest, happiest game of slow-motion fetch.
Phil watches his dog with a bemused smile, the one he gets when one of us is talking in class, trying our best to say something smart. He’s proud of us, not in a false way, but in a way that encompasses our fledgling awkwardness. It’s a smile that seems to say: We all start out muddied and unable to fly. Isn’t it ridiculous? Isn’t it marvelous?
That’s when, standing there in the spring sun, I feel distinctly homesick.
Which only makes sense if you know that my father died a few years earlier, halfway through my teens. He was old like Phil, and a professor, too, and he and our old dog, both thick around the middle, both muzzle-grey, would walk slowly through our neighborhood in the winter evenings, my father wearing a blue knit cap like a seaman, and our short mutt of a dog trotting at his heels with a curled-up mast of a tail. They would both come home a bit winded, but happy to have been out, happy to return.
(I write these words twenty years after the fountain, on the day I learn Phil has died. Before now, I was embarrassed by it, the sentimentality of conflating Phil with my father. Now, it just seems apt. Mortality makes archetypes of us all.)