I Follow the White Dog

Published on September 15, 2003


Russia is a country of women.

At least it was for me. I worked in the city of Samara as a trainer of English teachers, and ninety percent in that field were female. In our office, my boss and colleagues were women. Café servers and grocery cashiers tended to be women. When I ran into neighbors in my apartment stairwell, they were wives and daughters. Even along the romantic Volga promenade, there seemed to be more girls strolling together than lovers.

In lieu of sightseeing–because there were few genuine sights–I would buy a three-ruble tram ticket and ride the length of the line. The Nazis never crossed the Volga, never smashed Samara, and the result is that the sepulchral rows of Soviet block housing that pervade rebuilt cities suddenly give way to landscapes from a century ago: rutted roads of mud that wind through leaning wooden houses, and, in front of them hand-pump wells and sleeping dogs.

Spring was the best time for trams. From the window I saw the buds on tree limbs creep toward the day when they would crash into greenery. There were so many girls. In heels they navigated the broken, gappy sidewalks, holding hands together, eating ice cream, or drinking beer from bottles. They rode the tram in their spring dresses, clutching bouquets of flowers; their arms not yet tan. Once or twice I stepped off the tram after some girl whose eyes had inspired me, and let her lead me wherever, the way Don Quixote followed the directional whims of his horse Rocinante.

It turned out I was not the only one who explored in such a way.

I met the white dog riding tram 18, on a day with sun in the air, when the silt from the spring thaw had dried and layered the streets. The tram was not crowded, it being Sunday, only a few of us in back. An unshaven man took up one of the three plastic seats against the rear window, his dark suit sagging over his shoulders. The city’s hot water had been shut off with the season, and he smelled unbathed. There was a woman, bulky in a raincoat-suspicious of the fine weather, expecting it to end. She squeezed the bar above her head with one hand, and with the other a plastic sack of vegetables and newspaper-wrapped lilies of the valley.

Between these two was the white dog. His fur was rough, and down near his butt as coarse as a pig’s. He had sores around his eyes, but they were quiet eyes, somehow deferent; he let them drift from one passenger to another, and then finally settled on some neutral object.

I wondered whom he was with.

The unshaven man had his elbows on his knees, and his shoulders wagged with the movement of the tram. He caught me watching the dog.

“Ocharovatelnaya sobaka, da?”

Charming dog? I nodded, sure.

The woman in the raincoat made toward the door, and a moment later we clanked to a stop.

The dog shifted his stance to keep balance. His belly fur was clumpy with mud; it had the spiked look that young guys go for with gel. The doors hissed open. The woman sidled down the steps, clutching her bag and the handrail. The dog waited until she managed the last, steepest step to the pavement, and then he went down too. I could hear her talking: “That’s it. Don’t follow. Go on.”

The driver’s tinny voice came over the loudspeaker: “Careful. Doors are closing.”

The tram lugged forward, and I watched from the back window, the woman crossing the street with the white dog trailing at a respectable distance.

I didn’t think about the white dog until a few weeks later. I was riding the tram; he was outside, treading the sidewalk. This was far from where I had first seen him, but-it occurred to me-along the tramline. Did the white dog actually take trams through the city? I’d seen dogs at deadly intersections wait for traffic lights and look both ways before crossing. So climbing into trams wasn’t such a leap. And if the dog behaved himself on board-which he did-I couldn’t see the konductor booting him. Russians leave strays alone. They know that life is hard, and that winter is adversary enough. I’d seen the casualties a few weeks ago, when the dead appeared. With the spring meltdown, the brown heaps of snow against tree trunks and corner walls receded, and here and there, soggy fur and flesh emerged-the black remains of birds and cats and dogs.

The white dog, I hoped, was a survivor.

After that day, I started to keep an eye out for the white dog when I wandered through the city. It wasn’t till September that I saw him again. I found him on tram 18-the same as before-and it was near rush hour and crowded. People towered over him, and he lifted his eyes to us, wary of someone stepping on his paw.

At Klinicheskaya and Chernorechenskaya streets, near the old brick fire station, the tram disgorged a load of passengers, the white dog among them. The smell from the chicken grill trailer did not raise his nose; he followed the crowd around the back of the tram toward the sidewalk and the shops and the market. As the people dispersed, each going his way, I could see that the white dog had a lady. She was not the same one as before. She was thinner, slightly younger, a scarf in her hair, and she did not notice the white dog trailing quietly behind.

What could this dog want? A meal, probably. But, if so, he had a subtle way of going about it. There was nothing of the con in him. He played everything so unwhimperingly straight.

The white dog’s lady veered away from the bustle of the market, taking the Klinicheskaya sidewalk, and going by the row of flower sellers who sat on stools next to buckets of carnations and roses. Here the white dog paused.

He looked at the flowers.

He swung his head back to the scarved lady as she kept on down the sidewalk. Then, with what appeared to me like some kind of sad resolve, he continued after her.

It was strange, the dog’s performance. I was reading too much into it. A dog couldn’t dream of giving flowers. Whatever the case, one thing was clear. He was looking for a woman. He was a suitor.

The last time I saw the white dog, it was a wet day with winter approaching. I caught a glimpse of him from the tram. He was on Polovaya Street heading in the direction of the river. The crowd in the tram kept me from the windows. I didn’t want to lose him, so I shoved toward the doors, and when they came open, hurried across the street. I threaded through pedestrians and got closer. The white dog was up ahead, and like the previous times, a trot or two behind a woman. This one appeared older, with her walking stick; perhaps she was even a grandmother, a babushka. She didn’t look behind her.

They headed toward the intersection with Prospekt Lenina, passing guys in leather jackets selling videocassettes from tabletops, Tajiks with dried apricots, the legless man always camped there on his square of carpet.

The clank and rumble of a tram became audible, off to the right from Prospekt Lenina. Hearing this, the babushka increased speed, and the white dog matched her. They were coming up on the corner and a cluster there of flower sellers.

He is not going to stop, I was thinking. There is no way. I may have said it out loud.

The babushka passed straight by the flowers, working her cane faster over the sidewalk as the rattle of the tram became louder.

But the white dog stopped.

He didn’t sniff at any scrap on the ground. He simply stopped and turned his gaze on the flowers arranged in buckets three rows deep.

The red and white tram came squealing to a stop in the middle of Lenina. The white dog turned his gaze from the flowers back toward the babushka. She was moving on toward the cluster of people at the tracks.

There wasn’t much time.

He took one last look at all the flowers-so many of them! Then he lowered his head and crossed the street with hurried steps. The tram doors opened. The white dog converged with the group, nosed up behind the babushka, and they climbed inside.

I don’t think she ever noticed him.

All the next year, though I kept a lookout, I didn’t see the white dog. It is possible that he did not make it through the winter.

But then, again, his Russia was a country of women, and he only needed one. Perhaps he found her.

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