Chasing Cars

By Christine Venzon

The incident plays out in my mind beyond its actual running time, like the time-stretched close-ups of guilty-until-proven-innocent suspects walking to the courthouse on Nancy Grace. It started in the parking lot that runs in front of the Super-1, past a Fred’s Drugstore and a Wal-Mart, and on to the Winn-Dixie, the major shopping district in this small Louisiana town. In theory, this is a shortcut that avoids the lights and traffic on the main drag, Laurel Avenue; in reality, it’s stop-and-go, with shoppers pushing carts filled with TV sets and 20-pound bags of rice, clogged with other drivers shrewdly saving two blocks on their trip. That Sunday afternoon, the August heat and day-of-rest lethargy raised the torpor index.

The dog emerged from a row of parked cars, a Border collie in body and soul. As if on command, he singled out one of the cars ahead of mine in the parade, approaching with ears pricked and tail tipping. He clung to that car all along the quarter-mile asphalt corridor. When it moved, he trotted alongside, urging it to keep up with the others. When it stopped, he stopped, patrolling the passenger side to keep it from bolting for the open field behind Earl’s Appliance & Auto Sales.

I followed them onto the narrow side streets, through a series of four-way stops. Intersections doubled the risk of escape, and the collie nearly went apoplectic keeping the car from ducking left or right. He circled behind, from passenger to driver side and back, yapping like a creature possessed. Then, barely catching his breath, he sprinted after as it took off again.

I was intrigued at first. Border collie initiative is an impressive thing. Dogs I’d seen at herding exhibitions were eager to the point that they visibly writhed with self-restraint when commanded, “Lie down.” This talent, I’d been told, is actually a muted version of the hunting instinct, rendered useful by generations of breeding. Today’s exhibition, it seemed, was the urbanization of that age-old drive.

But fascination turned to distress with each block. Between stops we were traveling at a brisk pace in dog terms-twenty miles an hour or so. In this sauna, he could run himself to heat stroke. Meanwhile, different scenarios ran through my head. Was he lost? Had he escaped his owner’s car – or been dumped? Had he latched onto this car in a case of mistaken identity? I imagined his confusion at being rejected like this by the people he thought had earned his trust and loyalty.

I sympathized with the people in the car, too. They must have been thinking the same thing I was: Where did this dog come from? How long would he keep this up? Should they stop? If they picked him up, would they be reported for dognapping?

Yet, I felt annoyed just the same. They could at least try. Certainly they had seen him. How could they not hear him, even insulated by the tempered glass of their air-conditioned cocoon?

Then another theory crossed my mind. I remembered how years ago my father tried to lose a dog, a stray that we kids had gotten too attached to, by letting it chase our car down a maze of streets, leading him miles from our house. Anger flared. Was I witnessing the same trickery now?

Suddenly the collie dashed across the road. He bounded down the culvert and up the other side, into the front yard of the house at the next corner. There he dropped in the grass, head up, tail wagging, as if in expectation. The car turned, and then turned again, into the driveway of that same house. Two children got out, swinging Wal-Mart bags. One stopped to scratch the panting, grinning head.

I drove the last few blocks home, charmed and chastened. Nothing nefarious here. No need to check for “LOST” posters stapled to utility poles or call in the ASPCA. Just a dog having fun, pretending he was not in some sleepy Southern town, but herding a flock of Shropshires on the Scottish heath, or earning the blue ribbon at the National Cattledog Finals. Let the rest of the dogs lie bored beneath the house. When life had no adventure, he would make ones.

I knew Borders were smart. I never realized they had such imagination. I’d invented the likely stories, falling back on stereotypes – the poor pooch, the heartless owners – and obvious explanations. The fresh and unexpected had eluded me. Present example notwithstanding, there are two things that are not long in this world: dogs that chase cars and writers who get lazy with their craft.

At home, I found a hairy bull thistle had erupted in my raggedly lawn, and scraggly strands of Louisiana vetch had further invaded. Invaded? No, reclaimed. After all, this land was once a coastal prairie. My yard was no eyesore, but a habitat restoration project. Far from digging them up, I should cultivate these plants, and some purple-head sneezeweed, too. Maybe someday the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken, which disappeared from these parts in 1919, would nest in the switchgrass that was growing as tall as my house. I put my mowing plans on hold and settled on the porch with a cup of iced coffee.

A dog’s life? Don’t knock it.

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