It’s our last day house-sitting in Patzcuaro, and we’re feeling surprisingly blue. When we first arrived here, we were strangers in a strange town, occupying a stranger’s home, caring for the stranger’s strange dog. After three weeks living in their home with their dog, we’ve become part of the family and head of the pack. We get to know our way around their house and their neighbourhood. We eat in the local restaurants and shop in the local markets. We become locals, if only for a short time. We bond with the strangers’ dog; maybe too much.
At first light, Senor Orejas Frias, who sleeps in his own bed beside ours, wakes us with a kind of combo shake-flap of his ears (well, five to be exact, in case we didn’t hear the first four). The flap isn’t solely used as an alarm clock; he does it to ask for supper, a walk, a belly rub, or just to get our attention. Usually it’s because he needs a reassuring hug or kiss on the head, and we’re happy to oblige.
As usual, we stumble out of bed and open the door for him to go out. And, as usual, he never goes. Once he sees we’re up, he sneaks back to bed. We make coffee, catch up on e-mails, check the World Cup Soccer scores while he snoozes. By 8:30 precisely, Senor shuffles to the door and stands there, staring us down. The intensity of the stare is proportionate to how bad he has to go. Today he stares hard. We grab his leash and go.
We pass the usual places — the lingerie store at the end of the block called La Corseteria, open until late at night because you never know when you’re going to need new underwear. There’s the clothing store a few doors down called Lady’s, where a lone seamstress (Lady?) sits in a darkened, phone booth-sized shop, bent over a sewing machine. Not to be outdone, there’s the men’s store across the street with a sign that says it sells Smoking, Jackets (sic). We smell the bakery with no name before we reach it because of the delicious wafts coming from within. At the end of the street there’s the gay bar called, imaginatively, The Closet Café (it’s been closed for over a year, perhaps because, in this machismo society, it’s too out in the open). At the posada around the corner the manager is there, as he is every day, standing in the doorway, calling buenas dias!, and taking a step back as he eyes Orejas. We dodge the maids and shopkeepers swabbing and sweeping their walks in anticipation of the day ahead, softly greeting us, hola. Then we’re at the grassy knoll, where Orejas does his daily business like clockwork.
Except today the clock seems to have stopped: he refuses to go. No amount of coaxing and cajoling will persuade him he must take care of business before breakfast. He looks at us forlornly, as we wait patiently. Odd. It’s almost as if he senses we’ll be leaving today, and his sacred routine will be disrupted once more, just as he’s begun to accept the absence of his other pack leaders. So on we go to the plaza where, of course, he chooses to unload in front of lovers, morning strollers and street cleaners, who especially regard him with disgust. We pull out our plastic bag with much ceremony to assure them we would never allow the Senor to leave his mark. And his mark on this day is particularly big, soft and ripe. Call me crazy, but the way he looked at me, as I took a few tries to gather it all up, it was as if he knew we were going to leave him, and he was making a statement. Kind of like a dog’s version of a middle finger…
We took an extra long walk on this, our last day, past the Friday market in San Francisco Square, where indigenous crafts people from outlying villages come each week to sell their pottery, weaving and ceramics. We also pass the gringo market, where, also on Fridays, a handful of the town’s expats meet at this small posada to sell homemade brownies, empanadas, baguettes and ice cream. Mostly, though, they just use the gathering to exchange gossip, meet new residents and catch up with news from back home.
We climbed up an especially steep hill for a last view over the town and the lake beyond. We picked up the pace, however, when a roof dog noisily warned us away. Mexican roof dogs, or perros de techo, basically operate as a cheap security system, as they patrol from above, growling at intruders, real or perceived. In return, they’re given water and the occasional scrap, but overall, roof dogs, like most dogs in Mexico, are not treated well. It’s one of the toughest aspects of Mexican life to accept, the way the Mexicans treat — and mistreat — their animals. They’re not exactly hombre’s best amigo. It’s mostly gringos with big hearts and big homes who offer refuge to the dozens of skinny, scabby street dogs. Compounding the burgeoning stray dog problem is the fact that Mexicans believe neutering a male dog will make him gay. El horror. The senor doesn’t bark back, perhaps because he understands, from his own early life as a victim of abuse, that the roof dog is simply doing what he must if he is to be rewarded with the very basics of life.
Back at home, the much loved and pampered Senor Orejas eats half his breakfast, then wanders listlessly out to the backyard. He glances over his shoulder to see if we’ll follow, already attuned to our post-walk routine of reclining in lounge chairs to do some work on the laptop or just take in all the action around the garden. The stars of the yard are the hummingbirds, which I’ve taken to calling hummingpigs for making me refill their three feeders every second day. I swear the entire Patzcuaro population of hummers has laid claim to this mother lode of sugar water. We watch as dozens of the iridescent mini-birds hover, swoop and sweep through the trees, battling each other like Jedi starfighters for the sweet stuff.
Most days it’s peaceful out here. The bright pink bougainvillea attracts honeybees that buzz behind us, as lizards skitter up the walls, stopping to do push-ups at the approach of an interloper. Occasionally a brilliant, orange bird teeters on the top of a tall pine nearby. Other days we’re reminded every few minutes that there are roosters next door. Sometimes kids set off cuetas, or firecrackers, which sound like gunshots, for no good reason. On garbage day (which is actually three days a week), the truck is preceded by a boy trotting down the street ringing a bell to alert us of its arrival. This gives us time to rush outside with the trash and 15 pesos to tip him, while holding our noses at the stench emanating from the truck. The seemingly oblivious trashmen, who wear neither gloves nor masks, wave cheerfully from atop the rubbish. And then there’s that enterprising gas man (“Gawsssss!”), who decides to make a few more rounds just in case we’ve forgotten to fuel up.
It’s all very quirky and quaint, and we’ll miss it. We’ll miss the wonderful people whose home we’ve occupied for these three weeks, who’ve turned into good friends. Most of all, we’ll miss the cold, flappy ears of Senor Orejas Frias, whom we do indeed follow out to the backyard, where we cheer him up with a treat and reassurance that his permanent pack leaders are due home any minute. He seems to understand, and flops down in the grass, savouring his treat. Over these weeks he’s come to trust us, depend on us, and yes, love us. And we him. As I admire the profile of his handsome face in the sunlight while he sits regally, nobly, it’s unfathomable that someone could have done the unspeakable things they did to him in his young life. It’s a testament to his considerable faith in the inherent goodness of humans that he forgave, and decided to trust again. We’re better people for the privilege of having been able to spend time with him.
We’ll never forget him, and it’s hard to say good-bye. But as we take our leave, I lean down and rub that spot on his chest, where it’s soft as silk. He looks up at me with sad, knowing eyes. I tweak his cold ears and kiss his head. As I turn away, I hear the flap. I don’t turn back.