He did not know he was the topic of disparate bursts of conversation. Walking his dog, shaved head swathed in headphones, eyes red with tears and smoking fiercely made him stand out. He made the effort to smile whenever he caught someone’s eye. Dogs made you gregarious by nature, and he understood, even welcomed the opportunity to stop and do that.
He would walk for hours, even after a day on his feet, resenting his name badge, being patronised by people whose eyes would shine with that malign cunning, returning items without a receipt and threatening to get the manager. He mostly gave into them, lacking the energy to fight a cause that treated him as meat in the aisles, invisible to anyone who didn’t need something from him. His time with the dog was where he went to breathe.
The latest blow had been the last two years, watching his grandfather transform from a kindly, vibrant patriarch into a twitching, disorientated nerve, speaking in the glossolalia of morphine. A year after that, keeping vigil on Saturday evenings, anaesthetising his pain with the determination not to let his grandfather down. Then her death, awkward and sudden as a surprise wake. He wondered how much more he could take, and each evening, rain or shine, the walk with the dog would find him weeping for what had been, and what had been lost.
He spoke less to his family, even though the grief and pain had brought them closer. It was a form of survivor’s guilt and it needed silent avoidance to maintain. He would watch movies of vocal family reconciliation and confrontation, bitter at the camp ease with which people expressed their anger and joy. It was not that he lacked the words, but the words he knew were fragile vessels for something truly gargantuan, a black monster that needed an ocean to hunt in. A dinosaur, long thought extinct, trampling through the forest of his heart, looking for meat to sustain it.
He learned to manage. On the walks, he found songs that helped crack the carapace of his insect heart, let the light in and the poison out. He would walk to the point of exhaustion, littering the streets and alleyways with his tears until there were none to be shed any longer. He would never listen to Sometimes It Snows In April the same way, once it had slipped a blade of grief between his ribs, cut away the straps that kept him bound inside.
Someone suggested counselling to him once. He was not leaden or unsentimental, but he could not pass this over to a stranger, no matter how capable. This was, in the end, how he would honour his grandparents. His pain was nothing compared to theirs, but if he gave it, piece by piece, then he would someday wake up wistful rather than craven.
If he knew he were the topic of conversation, he would shrug and smile. A walk at a time, it came to him that it was better to drink of deep grief than shallow pleasure. His feet ached, the dog would scamper to the waterbowl and lick in gulping, breathy motions but both of them would be renewed in ways that only dogs and their owners could ever know.