Roof was a good dog and he loved Iris, had since the first day we’d brought her home. He barked when we pulled up and I got nervous all over again, and when we walked in I held her down to him and said, “This is Iris, Roof.” Then he licked her and I saw her smile, really smile, for the first time.
I brought them to the desert a few years later. We took two days to drive from St. Paul to The Middle of Nowhere, Utah, all three of us locked up in the cab of my truck. When we stopped to fill up the tank, I’d take Roof out behind the station and throw the ball for him. He’d run until he just about couldn’t move anymore, then he’d lap up some water and jump back into shotgun. Iris would be sprawled out in the back, asleep. A few hours later we would do it again.
The first night we stopped in North Platte. We got some burgers and fries and ate on a lawn near the burger joint. She gave a bit of her burger and a strip of bacon to Roof. Spring was freshly risen and it felt good to sit on the grass together. We pulled off on a BLM road and I set up the tent and Roof went off on a walk. Iris followed him. I put on some water for hot cocoa while they were gone, too.
They came back from the east, walking slowly together along the edge of the road. He was huge, a wiry-coated black hound sauntering through a field of greening grass. Next to him she looked smaller than normal, her shoulder just rising above his, long hair drifting in the wind. She had something cupped in her hands, “Papa,” she said when they got close; “Isn’t this pretty?” She opened her hands and showed me a white oval pebble.
“Mhm,” I said. “Do you want to keep it?” She nodded and I found a Tupperware in the bed of the truck. She put the rock in and told me not to lose it, “I won’t. Promise.”
“Where’re you going to keep it?”
I put it on the ground below where Roof sat, “That good for you?”
We sat again and she nestled herself into my shoulder to watch the sun set. When she and I had both drank our hot cocoa, I washed the mugs out and we all bundled into the tent. Iris slept between Roof and me. The next morning we were up early to start driving. I took down the tent while Iris and Roof waited for the sleep to drift from their eyes. Iris and I ate some oatmeal and Roof had some kibble and some of Iris’ oatmeal. I mixed too many Folgers grounds into some hot water, too, and called it coffee.
The roads were clear and the sky was blue as we headed towards Denver, arriving at the base of the Rockies a little before noon. We didn’t stop there. Roof was still asleep enough. A few exits into the mountains, though, I pulled over to let him pee and to run him around. Iris was awake enough, too, that she got out for a little while. She hadn’t been in mountains yet and was wide-eyed.
Then we kept driving. Iris tried to hold her breath when we hit the tunnels but she didn’t get very far. We had lunch in Silverthorne and a snowball fight on the top of Vail pass. After that we didn’t stop for a while, taking our time to wind down through Glenwood Canyon and out into the lazy curves between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.
She had to pee so we stopped again, in a town I didn’t know near Utah. Roof peed too. We got back in the car and kept going. I tooted the horn when we crossed the border. After another hour or two I pulled off and went down towards a canyon that I liked. The sun was starting to arc downwards. We turned off onto a dirt road and kept going. Iris stared out the window. I hadn’t been there with Roof since he was a puppy and I don’t know if he remembered where we were but he seemed happy enough.
The road wound its way out of the main canyon and out into an open expanse of orange desert, pricked with juniper trees and big rocks, crowned by distant mountains but endless. We headed towards the mountains, roughly, and pulled off the road as the sun was dipping below the clouds. Roof ran around and smelled things and Iris scrambled up on a big rock and looked out at it all. I put up the tent and pulled out my old camp stoves and put some water on to boil. Roof disappeared, “Roof,” I said. I checked on the water; “Roof!” I yelled.
“Roof!” Iris yelled. Roof came running back, tail held high, tongue lolling. The water got hot enough for me to put pasta in it. Roof left again. Iris came down and opened a jar of pasta sauce. Roof came back again to lay down next to Iris. The sun set. We ate dinner. Roof had some kibble.
We didn’t wait long to get in the tent and I pulled out my copy of The Wind in the Willows and started reading to her. “Chapter Six,” I said, “Mr. Toad. It was a bright morning in the early part of summer; the river had resumed its wonted banks and its accustomed pace, and a hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings. The Mole and the Water Rat had been up since dawn very busy on matters connected with boats and the opening of boating season; painting and varnishing mending paddles.”
“Papa?” Iris said.
“Do you miss Mommy as much as me?”
I put the book down and pulled her closer, “I think so.”
She sat silently for a little while and then kissed my hand, “Don’t leave, Papa, okay?”
“I’ll try my best, Bear. Should I keep reading?”
“They were mending paddles, repairing cushions, hunting for missing boathooks, and so on; and were finishing breakfast in the little parlor and eagerly discussing their plans for the day, when a heavy knock sounded at the door.”
When Iris fell asleep, I went to the truck and rummaged around in the bed for my watercolors. I sat near the tent and mixed a few shades of blue and started to paint. I did a rock outcropping first, dark and defined more by its lack of stars than by its own features. When I pulled out a new sheet, I looked up to the sky. Roof came out of the unzipped tent and sat beside me. I didn’t paint for a minute. Then I started, splashing down broad strokes of night-blue and lancing them with darker spires of juniper and domes of sandstone. In between the strokes I left room for the stars. I left the bottom of the page unfilled, too, in case I wanted to fill it in with dawn sandstone the next morning, pale orange beneath the endless blue of the night. When the moon rose, I stopped painting and lay back with my dog. Eventually I fell asleep there, uninsulated against the sand.
Iris woke up in the night, once, to pee, and she came and fell asleep beside me. I felt her lie down and I went into the tent and took my bag and pad out and wrapped her up in them. Roof didn’t wake up.
In the morning I took out one of the stoves and lit it. Its flame never went blue. I turned it off and shook it around a little. When I tried again it went up with a merry purr and I filled up the big, dented kettle my father gave me and put it on to boil. The stove was quiet enough that I could still hear, mostly, the sounds of the morning. Roof’s snoring and Iris’ lighter breathing. A sparrow’s chuckle and, far off, a coyote’s yip. A lot of silence.
I woke her up when the hot cocoa was cool enough for her to drink, pulling the bag over the two of us and letting her lean against me. Roof woke up less readily. I made oatmeal.
We played a few hands of cards, open hand gin; “Do you think we can play closed hand?” I asked.
“What if I let you win?”
She scowled, “Only if you don’t let me win.”
“Okay.” I won three hands.
“Let me win one.” She won one hand; “Let’s play again,” she said. She won that one, too. The sun rose higher. I took my watercolors back out and rummaged around in the truck bed for her pencils. She wasn’t a great artist yet but she liked drawing. I found her a good perching stone and boosted her up onto it. Roof laid down at its base. I sat down near them, in the shade of a juniper tree and in front of a good patch of prickly pears, and lost myself in their curves and needles. Then I painted a little yellow flower that was nearby, then I painted a different juniper’s shredded trunk, then some Mormon tea, “How’re you doing, Iris?” I asked.
“Good.” I painted a rock.
“Can we go for a walk?” Iris asked.
“Sure,” I said. We put on hiking shoes and cleaned up camp. I packed a day pack with a few water bottles and some bread and peanut butter and apples. We left, Roof trotting around us in circles while Iris held my hand. There wasn’t a trail for us to follow when we moved away from the road, and Iris went in front of me, jumping between little rocks and trying to stay off of the sand. Every thirty or forty steps she’d drop into a squat to look at a pebble. Once she turned around and brought one, a jagged piece of ochre rock, back to me, “Carry this.”
“Carry this, please.” I put it into a zippered pocket in my pack. We kept walking and had a water break. I put some water in a bottle lid for Roof and Iris and I each had a piece of bread with peanut butter. We saved the apples for later. We stopped on the edge of a little draw and sat down for another snack. A lizard sunned itself on a rock for a minute, before Roof noticed it. I called him off before he could try to dig it out.
A few thunderheads started brewing to the east and we turned around. Iris found another two pebbles and I put them in the same pocket as the first pebble. When we got back to the tent it had just started to rain. Roof wasn’t too wet, yet, so I didn’t make him dry off in the car. We all bundled in, “I think we’re right where the rainbow would be, Bear,” I said.
“Where is it?”
“No, no. It would be here if we were far away.”
I explained rainbows. Through the tent’s rain fly, the sky grew darker and rain drummed the cloth around us faster. It was good reading weather; “One fine morning the Rat, whose turn it was to go on duty, went upstairs to find the Badger, whom he found fidgeting to be off in and stretch his legs in a long ramble around his woods and down his earths and burrows.”
A few pages into the next chapter, the rain let up. I kept reading. “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was my favorite chapter when I was a kid and I didn’t want to stop. When I read, “And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they are wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all marvelously still,” I put the book down and stroked Iris’ hair as she nestled her head in my lap.
“Do you want to keep reading outside?”
We put on our shoes and went outside. On the way out of camp, I put the rocks she had picked up in her rock Tupperware. The late afternoon’s light was unfiltered by dust and the desert was brilliant and still, rejoicing in its newfound water. Iris and Roof led as we walked to find a good spot to sit and read, weaving between twisted trees. They went down into a creek bed and followed it. When it dropped a foot or two, Roof would go down just fine and I’d help lower Iris. The creek bed wound its way into an opening, eventually, next to an exposed undulation of pale rock. We sat down there.
I took off my shoes to let the wind brush against my toes and Iris did the same. Roof went off to explore and she, without saying anything, followed him. While they were gone, I laid down on my back and looked up at the clouds. There weren’t any thunderheads anymore, only dry skeins of golden-white unfurling themselves across the sky.
They were running when they came back, or maybe skipping, or maybe dancing. Roof’s tail was flopping as he followed his girl through a puddle on the rock. They looked at me and he smiled and she waved and I watched them go off again, long before the sun set, leaving two sets of water-stain footprints that lit up the rock for a moment before they dried.