The Blue Backpack

By Madelon Wise

James brought it out of the trunk of his car each time we pulled up to a parking space at the dog park. He proudly assured me that he got the floppy light blue nylon backpack with skinny corded straps for free.

Short, chubby, and bearded with dark brown eyes and a full head of longish brown hair, James is a self-satisfied 72-year-old man with a conflicted, labile heart that cannot see its own darkness.

“I like routine,” he would remind me frequently, as if I were too childish or thwarted by my genitals to recognize rigidity and control.

Yet our dogs were best friends at the dog park and I enjoyed their delightful wrestling and playing. Out of the doggy friendship emerged our own friendship of convenience and the daily dog park visits. As I spent most of our two-year alliance living with one illness or another, I appreciated the rides if not always the company. I prided myself on my ability to maintain a friendship with a person so different from me.

This is Madelon’s most recent dog, Pluto, a lab-boxer mix, and his favorite shark.

“The first round is freestyle, and the rope comes out on the second round,” he would smugly proclaim.

I introduced the rope when I brought a tug toy hand made from cotton clothesline. James and I got many laughs watching each 80-pound dog tug at an end and growl while they walked.

In typical little man fashion, James then had to go online to find the biggest rope possible. Cut it, knot it at each end, and place the one-inch diameter, yard-long marine rope in the blue backpack for every second trip around the dog park.

I’m sure that big rope came out of the backpack every day that James took my dog to the park while I was recovering from major, nearly fatal surgeries. Because the rope comes out on the second round.

After two months of staying home and recovering strength, I felt increasingly queasy about returning to the daily dog park trips with this man who has spent his entire adult life being told by one of the most misogynistic institutions on the planet that he is the closest thing to God. James acted with an unerring conviction that he was expert in all matters. Kind gestures and intermittent generosity were integral to the father knows best gestalt.

What did I dread about resuming the daily routine? Constant, repetitive patter about planes, trains, cars, buildings, the price of gas, his church, his taxes, his investments. Every trip was painfully predictable, with his occasional lapses into chauvinistic, racist, homophobic, or grossly ignorant comments providing a break in the monotony.

Once I resumed the forced marches to the dog park, I knew I had not been exaggerating in my dread of this routine.

His ceaseless talking was even more boring than it had been before the surgeries. I was exhausted by lack of sleep, unsteady on my feet, and just not in the mood for the entire James show. I did not return from the dead to tolerate bullshit.

As we marched endlessly on the uneven, rutted gravel path, out would come the little blue backpack and the Great Big Rope, and two big dogs wrestled, tugged, and growled at the “snake.” I would go to the left, and the dogs would go to the left. An inevitable dance ensued in which the dogs made certain to get under my unsteady feet every time the damned rope emerged.

“This is annoying you, isn’t it?” he inquired in response to my frustrated struggle, to which I replied that it was immensely annoying and all I wanted to do was be able to walk safely.

The next day, he did not bring out the blue backpack. Ah ha! Does this mean he is capable of hearing something I say? Yes. How wonderful.

But the day after the rope-free day, James deliberately and unexpectedly threw the rope one foot from my walking boots, and 160 pounds of dog flesh immediately pounced.

My shocked brain tried to grapple with how someone who was supposed to be my friend could fail to recognize that he was creating a dangerous situation for me.

“I knew this would annoy you, and I did it anyway,” he smirked. Malice lit his eyes.

Red flags had flown often in the landscape of our friendship, but here was a football-field-sized one that I could no longer ignore. I am slow to anger and have been successfully groomed to tolerate the unacceptable. Shaken though I was at James’s abusive behavior, I am grateful for such clear guidance and for a reason to end a relationship that was sliding inevitably toward sorrow. I will place this experience into my own backpack of life and throw it deep into a trunk where it can do no more harm.

(c) 2018 Madelon Wise

Madelon Wise, a transplant from the Driftless Area, is a gardening grandma riddled with radical biophilia. Writer, editor, permaculturalist, dog mom, musician, and storyteller.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to The Blue Backpack

  1. When Madelon shared this essay at my recent “Flash Memoir” workshop, I was struck by what a great example it is of object writing — constraining your writing to the concrete and specific, letting a “thing you could drop on your foot” be a firm central point around which the story unfolds. Try it!

  2. Marjorie Turner Hollman says:

    A great concept, with an amazing result.

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