Bully and I finally bonded the other evening. I was at Milagro's house waiting for her to dress for our excursion to a dance at the Puerto Rican Club. Bully sat at my feet staring at me intently. "¿Que pasa?" I asked and offered him my open palms to sniff. He jumped on the couch and snuggled next to me, his ears barely touching the sofa cushion. Only moments before, he had snuggled like that with Milagro's teenage daughter, Laly, who had since deserted him to step outside with a friend.
Bully (pronounced Boolie) is one of the dogs from the E&M Party Store where last summer artists, writers and neighborhood kids, including Laly, gathered on Sundays to paint art on its walls and write stories in the field nearby. I began the project as a way of substituting art for gang graffiti, which had appeared with increasing regularity on the store. Weather permitting, the dogs arrived with the kids and greeted us no less enthusiastically than they.
The store, located on the corner of Toledo and Scotten on Detroit's southwest side, is the centerpiece of the Cadillac-Fleetwood Arts Project, now expanded to include indoor writing workshops, studio classes with established artists, and trips to museums and galleries. For me, project expansion also means an occasional trip to the Puerto Rican Club, where I find the salsa and merengue rhythms compatible with the bump and grind of the Trinidad calypso I grew up with.
Months ago, I learned to always approach Bully cautiously and with palms down. Black with tan markings, he was the toughest and moodiest of the canine bunch, which originally included three other dogs: Mimi, Brownie and Polo. The two dogs most often seen at the project, Mimi, a curly haired cockerpoodle, and Brownie, a brown pothound (my parents' word for a mutt), are dead.
Who knows how Mimi died? According to the kids, she was either run over by a car or shot late at night, after Sam, owner of the party store, had closed for the day. "I saw it happen from over there," said one kid pointing to a corner of the field. Later the kids added that Mimi's owner, one of their cousins, sat in the back of a car crying for her death.
We buried her on a summer Sunday, the day after she died. As they drew their families and houses in sketch books, the kids kept referring to Mimi's death. I reflected on the deaths of my two best canine friends.
Bingo, a soft brown boxer dog, died from an overdose of green apples fed him by someone when my parents and I were away. I cried immediately -- big, fat, 5-year-old tears. My parents tried to comfort me, my father by saying in his Trinidad accent, "You know what dese people does give?" Meaning there is no accounting for the petty meanness of some segments of humanity. How, at 5, was I to know that? Not understanding that jealousy and mean-spiritedness could motivate someone to kill my best friend, I watched bewildered while my parents buried Bingo in the backyard.
A couple of years later, my father arrived home one night from his job at a gas station with a blond cocker spaniel sporting a brown, nearly perfectly oval scab over its right temple. A lady, riding in the car of a man whose gas my father had pumped, begged him to take the dog because her alcoholic companion was abusive to it. The dog's name was Jackie.
Not long afterwards, Jackie died, perhaps from injuries sustained at the boot of his former owner. The same day that Jackie died, the girl down the block, also named Jackie, lost her father in a horrible tanker fire. He was the driver. We both sat on the front steps of my parents' porch crying that afternoon, Jackie for her father, me for both of my dogs. Death is death and grief is grief when you are 7, whether for a close relative, a friend or a dog.
That Sunday one of the kids, sensing my preoccupation with dogs that day, asked if I wanted to see Mimi. "Isn't she buried?" I responded. One of the boys, round-faced and big-eyed, then asked if I knew how to run. Gently he took my hand and ran me over to view the remains.
The carcass I saw looked several days old -- a spot of black, dirty fuzz on a tuft of grass close to the curb under a tree. Flies circled it. I was stunned. If Mimi was worth crying for, wasn't she worth burying or at least removing from the street?
Thinking that a ceremony might give the kids and me some closure, I suggested that we bury her. "I'm not touching it," my running escort said.
So we got Sam's shovel. It was no match for the hard dirt and cement on the Toledo side of the store. The kids pointed out a mound of loose dirt near the carcass. We used that to place over Mimi while they said a few words of farewell. One said, "I hope you are in heaven."
Another was at a loss for words. "Wasn't she your friend?" I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. "Did you play with her? Yes? So then tell her goodbye." Two others simply said, "Goodbye, Mimi."
We buried Mimi almost diagonally across from the corner of the store where the Cadillac crest and angel murals meet. Then we went back to the sketch pads where the kids drew pictures of Mimi and scribbled a few more goodbyes.
The kids claim many of the dogs in the area as theirs. One boy said, "But we never take in dogs off the street." They are bilingual, kids and dogs. "Ven aca, Brownie," one of his owners called out. The dog ambled over to sniff at his hand, glancing indifferently at the rainbow mural. Brownie was later killed by two police dogs.
The city eventually removed Mimi's remains. Weeks after, the boy who invited me to run invited me to look up at the sky. "Do you see Mimi?" he asked. Mimi in the sky? All I saw were rippled clouds, fluffy, but no heaven for Mimi or any of us.
These days I have two cats, lazy as lima beans, and a ceramic dog that I inherited from my parents. It was a gift to them from my father's brother in Trinidad. Why I keep the dog I don't know. It sits obediently frozen in a corner of my bedroom. I glance at it almost every morning as I arise, hoping Trinidad sun still resides in its ceramic folds.
Already, the kids are asking when we will be back on the corner, painting. They claim the project as theirs. They comment on other murals. Ours is best, they say. When I recently went to gather the kids for a workshop, one of the fathers said in support of our efforts, "Art is great."
Yes, Jose, oh yes. Art is great. Especially when you try to bury a dog and the shovel won't work because the ground is too hard. All of your factory muscles and heart can't get that ground to break. And it's summer and the sun fools you into believing that if only you can dream, you can melt concrete.
You wake up one morning staring at a ceramic cocker spaniel and discover that for years you have been burying memory between your frozen synapses. That's when you realize that art is great. Really, really great.E-mail comments to [email protected]