When we moved into the house my parents built in 1958, it looked much as it does today. There were no trees, of course. No roses had been planted and no basket of geraniums hung from the lamp post, but the shutters, the color of the siding and the roof shingles were nearly identical. Even the fire hydrant was there, blooming brightly red in the front yard, a reassuring token of suburban security.
The hydrant was to become a focal point of our life, but if you’re imagining on-going struggles with neighborhood dogs or conflicts with the city over improperly installed water lines, you’d be wrong. The reality was quite different. Placed conveniently across the lawn from our kitchen and dining room windows, the hydrant became a stage for pure entertainment, as well as the source of a surprise or two.
From the beginning, there was the strange obsession of a beagle named Happy. Extraordinarily handsome but slightly dim, Happy lived across the street. Despite his breed’s reputation for liking to wander, he was a homebody. In fine weather, he’d lie under the hydrangeas or on the driveway. In rain or cold, he’d laze about in the garage, sleeping on his rug or watching passers-by through the open door.
So sedentary was he that we wondered if he compensated by running down rabbits in his dreams. Certainly the fat, plentiful cottontails bounding through his yard never roused him to the chase. Still, a bit of the old hunting impulse seemed embedded in his heart, and when Happy decided to hunt, it was a sight to behold.
There were no preliminaries, no stretching or sniffing of the air to suggest he was considering his next move. He’d simply lift his head, jump to his feet and launch himself from his napping spot, baying with houndish enthusiasm as he sped off.
Flying across the street toward our yard, ears streamed back and tail held high, he’d pull up next to the hydrant and then, in a perfect imitation of a true gun dog, go on point. One forepaw up, muzzle extended, back feet planted and perfectly balanced, his form would have made any breeder proud. Unfortunately, the hydrant wasn’t going to run or fly, and no one was going to shoot it. It just sat there, and so did Happy, fixated on his red metal prey.
The first time we witnessed this tableau vivant, we didn’t know what to think. “Hey!” my dad yelled. “Come look at this crazy dog.” Gathering on the front steps, staring at the immobilized hound, we pondered. Did he think the thing was alive? How long would he hold his pose? Did his owner know he was out in the neighborhood, flushing hydrants?
In fact, his owner did know. After about five minutes he strolled across the street, waved, picked up his pooch like a sack of potatoes and headed home. Later he told us Happy always had to be reclaimed. Once he’d “caught” his hydrant, he wouldn’t leave.
At first, I thought the owner was exaggerating, but in a decade or more of watching that dog, we never saw him tire or give up. Eventually, someone – a dad driving home from work, kids walking to school, a neighbor raking leaves – would take pity and carry him home. Then all would be well, until he took another notion to hunt and headed back to his hydrant.
Some neighbors called him stupid. Others admired his tenacity. My dad suggested he just needed a little training to help shape his impulses. Whatever the truth, when our canine equivalent of the one-trick pony decided it was time to perform, he always had a willing audience.
In time, the story of the hydrant-hunting dog took on mythological proportions. Told and re-told well beyond the confines of the neighborhood, it sometimes seemed to astonish even the story-teller. The last time I heard the story told was in Missouri, as a friend regaled a fresh audience with the tale. Sensing their incredulity, he grinned and reached for a beer. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess when it came to Happy, you just had to be there.”
Over the years, just “being there” provided us with a wealth of stories related to that hydrant, stories we told with as much disbelief, astonishment and delight as the tale of dear, dim Happy.
Lolling at the dinnertable one soft summer evening, we noticed a rabbit plucking unmown grass from the hydrant’s edge. Hopping back to the middle of the yard, she suddenly disappeared as though vaporized. A visiting school chum figured it out first. “Babies!” she said, and that’s exactly what it was – a rabbit’s nest in the middle of the yard, unseen though in plain sight, undiscovered through all the mowing, step-sitting and car washing of an entire summer.
One late October afternoon, her hands deep in dishwater and her unfocused, kitchen-weary gaze sorting through the shadows, Mom’s attention was caught by a flash of movement near our small stand of birch. It was a squirrel, apparently running in circles for the pure joy of it. Overcome by his own exuberance, he ran head-first into the hydrant and knocked himself out. Unable to keep from laughing at the absurdity of it all but certain he was dead, Mom dried her hands and headed toward the hydrant to claim the carcass. To her astonishment, there would be no carcass to claim. Before she reached him the squirrel rolled over, gave her an embarassed glance and then staggered back toward the birches, dragging his tail beind him.
There was more, of course: the cat that caught the butterfly resting on the hydrant, the lizard that warmed himself every autumn afternoon, the cardinal fighting the huge, red interloper into his territory. It was like having a three-ring circus camped out in the front yard, or a particularly skilled magician. Nothing was required of us but attention and appreciation, qualities described so well by Annie Dillard in her exquisite Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass.
I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
Perhaps none of this – the happy hound, the cold-cocked squirrel, the passage from Dillard – would have come to mind had I not glanced onto my patio recently and noticed something protruding from the cactus I fondly call “His Blobbiness”. A friend offered him to me about ten years ago after becoming bored with a plant which, in his words, “didn’t do anything”. It was in some ways a fair statement, since the poor cactus really hasn’t appeared to “do anything” except sit in his pot and expand. In fact, His Blobbiness had kept such a low profile I was astonished when I walked out to explore the protruding “something” and discovered it was a bud.
In another few days, a second bud appeared. Two weeks later, there would be a third. They were elegant and beautiful, and their development was terrific fun to watch. While I waited for the blooms, I wondered: what color would the flowers be? How large? How long would the blossoms last? Would His (Her?) Blobbiness bloom just once, or repeatedly, like my lovely Godette?
Despite my attentiveness, I nearly missed the show because of a wrong assumption. My other cacti are day bloomers, opening in the rising warmth of the sun before fading and falling at night. Not so, His Blobbiness! When I photographed the first nearly-opened bud, I expected to get up the next morning with a blossom to celebrate. Instead, passing by the patio doors about eleven that night, my eye was caught by an unexpected patch of white, shimmering in the darkness.
As it turned out, my wonderful cactus is a night bloomer, producing blossoms the size of luncheon plates under cover of darkness. In the morning, the blooms would hold for a time, but by sunrise they already were fading. By noon they were closed, and by sunset they looked like little more than dying stems as the plant once again became its old low-profile self.
After the blooming had finished, I called my friend for a little good-natured ribbing. “So,” I said. “You think your cactus just sits around? Check your email.” “Is that real?” he asked after looking at the photos. “I never thought that cactus would do anything, and I certainly never imagined those blooms!”
“No,” I said, “I never imagined them either. Even when I knew they were coming, I almost missed them, but this time I was lucky. I managed to be there.”