sweet: 3.2
Barrie Jean Borich

The dog on the Calumet Expressway was no discernible breed, a good runner the size of a Doberman or Grayhound, sleek and short-haired, dark with russet markings. No collar. The dog ran toward my car as I wound around the exit ramp toward the old East Side, where I was headed to pick up Little Grandma. The dog sped toward the rumble of rusted sedans and semi trucks, into the far southside industrial speedway. Naked was the word that kept coming to mind. Where was that dog headed, so naked, so exposed, her flanks heaving?

This was near to twenty-five years ago, and I had already moved away from Chicago to Minneapolis. I was probably home for a short visit—an anniversary or wedding. Little Grandma lived alone in the old neighborhood and didn’t drive, her children spread out into the Chicago suburbs. We were the closest, her oldest daughter's family, just below the city limits where the knock-off bungalows faded into mid-twentieth century ranch houses. Just fifteen minutes south, we were usually the ones in charge of transporting Little Grandma and when I was home I usually volunteered.

It was a yellowish, smoke-stained drive to Little Grandma's, especially back then, well before the era when urban housing project towers were torn down, old mill tracks remade as bike trails, and in Chicago before the Superfund dumps were reclaimed as Harborside International Golf Center and the Calumet was renamed the Bishop Ford Expressway, after the clergyman who spoke at Emmett Till's funeral. This was the mid-1980s, when the Daley machine power grid had begun to either re-populate or replicate, but before today's green city cleanup had begun. The air itself on either side of the freeway seemed bruised and smoldering then, the horizon punctuated by the amber glow from the remaining steel mill and paint factory stacks, a panorama that taught me, when I was a girl, to understand the world as a bleary, glowing finger painting. And too, it was raining the day I saw the dog, the expressway encased in a dingy squall.

I am, without doubt, a dog person. The dogs I live with today receive wrapped presents on Christmas, sleep in my bed, have been known, on special occasions, to wear hats. Years back, before my spouse Linnea and I adopted our first dog, we rescued strays we found on the street in Minneapolis, keeping them in our ramshackle rental yard and putting up signs until their people came to claim them. Once two golden retriever puppies showed up at our back porch door on Easter morning, and it was easy for me, a former Catholic, to believe they were a resurrection gift. We brought them into our apartment and imagined them ours, until some rough-looking young men, either neighborhood gangsters or pretending to be, showed up at our door. This was the year we saw neighbor boys with guns stuffed into their pants, the spring city papers starting calling the street one block over from us Crack Avenue. The boys leaned up into our faces, calling us the worst words they could think of to let us know they could see we were lesbians, then accused us of stealing their dogs. We handed the puppies over. A few weeks later we adopted a dog of our own.

I wanted to save the expressway dog too, but what could I do? The dog was running so fast, headlong into traffic. I could never have caught up. But even if there had been a way, who's to know how long a stray with such wired eyes has lived wild, and if she did once hang out with humans who knows how they treated her? People have all sorts of ways of making dogs mean, and chances are a dog without a collar streaking up a freeway ramp was not running from a house where she got to wear hats. And did I imagine I could put Little Grandma and a feral dog in the same car, and then what? Let them wrestle for the front seat? I watched the dog veer toward me and the best I could do was swerve out of her way.

Dogs run. Running seems to be one of the ways dogs know they are alive. My own dogs smile when they run. Dogs running, when they run for joy, are bodies leaping into time, elongating a moment, a connection, a physical grace. Sometimes they even bark, as if singing into the moment. But the stray running towards the expressway was not smiling. Her eyes careened every which way as if to ask where is god, where is god, where is god?

What I remember of this running dog is not just the blur of her passage but also the backdrop she runs against, the prairie burned away by heavy industry, the earthbound poisons that likely made the cancer forming in Little Grandma's gut, the same landscape that may have led all the girls of my place and generation to develop a bruised, smoked-in sense of ourselves, unable to see heaven in any but the smallest circles of light. I assign my memory of this dog a female gender not because I could actually make out the details, but only because I identify with her pumping and straining leg muscles and those inconsolable eyes, a body in trouble, hurtling toward no good end. Wherever this dog came from, and whatever actually happened on the freeway, each pull of the dog's legs, each scrape of toenails against the grainy asphalt, read to me then, and still reads to me now, as the breathless, beleaguered female strain to keep on living.

This exit ramp circled over and around South Deering, feeding into the avenues that lead to Little Grandma's brownstone, a two-flat just a block from the Irondale housing projects where my mother's father started his drinking and my mother lived unhappily until she married my father. A few miles north human technology and ambition extrapolates into the wonder of the Chicago skyline, but down here, in the place that made the steel that make the skyscrapers possible, human passage is marked through the evidence of detritus, a valley of rust, sulfur stink and accidental scriptures of scrap. Here, before the coming resurrection that will turn at least some of this wasteland back to green, ran the body of a dog who now, many years beyond her natural life, runs in my memory as evidence, yes, of doggedness, a stuttering light, still alive, still running.

Barrie Jean Borich is the author of My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), winner of an American Library Association Stonewall Book Award. Her new book, Body Geographic, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. She's the recipient of the 2010 Florida Review Editor's Prize in the Essay and the 2010 Crab Orchard Review John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize, and her essays appear in recent or forthcoming issues of Ecotone, Seneca Review, Indiana Review, Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review, South Loop Review, and Seattle Review. Her work has been named Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading, and she is an assistant professor in the MFA/BFA programs of the Graduate School of Liberal Studies at Hamline University where she's the nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review.