The Ball

The Ball

by Hayley Boyle

Once, in the early days after we adopted her, and when I was still getting to know this miraculously beautiful dog in her skittish and distrustful-of-most-humans teenage phase, I tried a fake out. I picked up the ball, and wound-up my best impersonation of a pitcher, stretching my arm out to full extension, then pulling my arm back behind me with the ball still in hand.

Most dogs fall for this sort of trick. They go running with excitement, and search, completely bewildered by why they can’t seem to see or smell their beloved ball. 

But not May.

She was far too smart for that kind of trickery, and with her eyes locked onto the greenish-yellow of the tennis ball she feigned a step away from me, tensed her muscles, and froze except for small, almost imperceptible twitches in her hind-quarters from the build-up of anticipation. She knew that I hadn’t thrown the ball. And after I said, jokingly, “Well, come on! Go get it!” and pointed out to the yard, as if I had thrown it, she let out a howl of disappointment. Almost as if she was correcting me, talking back, telling me what a dummy I was and that the ball was clearly still behind my back and I better let it go flying across the yard this time or else I’d be in real trouble.

And so I let the ball fly, and, almost simultaneously, she flew after it.

She came running back to me, breathing heavily, smiling—although maybe the smile was in my head. Her tongue was lolling out to one side, and she was gnashing the tennis ball in her teeth like a hyena with a fresh kill. Only she was far less intimidating than a hyena, albeit, at times, probably just as stinky.

Her tail wagged with the rhythm of the trees rustling in the early summer breeze. She looked up to me, made eye contact, dropped the ball, with her nose pointing to it as it bounced once, twice, then came to a stop at the toes of my sneakered feet. She then glanced back up at me, so briefly that I nearly missed it. She had determined that I was taking too long to bend down and pick up the ball. She took a step back, then another, although never averting her eyes from it, before letting out a rumbling “ahhh-wooofff!” in what I could tell was pure exasperation at my too-slow, human-paced reaction time.

I chuckled at her mini-temper tantrum. I never moved fast enough for her, and she never let me forget it.

And so I picked up the ball once again. Her head jerked up, following the ball with laser-focused precision, never letting it out of her sight.

I groaned at the wet mess of nylon hairs and dirt and slobber that I was holding in my hand. How could she possibly want to chase this stupid piece of rubber? But I threw it, as far and fast as I could muster, despite my disgust. Because she loved it. And I loved her.

She sprung up, and because, more often than not, she was fast enough to beat it to its final resting place, she ran the ball down and caught it before it hit the ground. To this day, I’m still convinced that dog teleported, because there’s no other explicable way she could move as fast as she did.

She came loping back to me, gnashing the ball yet again—now even grosser than the previous throw—wagging her tail, sun gleaming off her brilliant burnt sienna coat.

* * *

This was how it went. Ten times. One hundred times. A thousand times? Most days I’d lose count. I’d tire of the ritual before she would, and have to give her the bad news, “That’s all. Time to go inside. Drop your ball.”

She’d look dejected, her tail would droop, she’d lower her head and place the ball down so gingerly, like it had suddenly turned to glass and she was worried that this time it wouldn’t bounce, but break. She’d take a few steps away from where the ball lay still, lonely in the middle of the stone path in our backyard. She’d move toward the back porch, but before bounding up the steps to the house, she’d look back at it, as if to say, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back to play with you again tomorrow.”

More often than not she’d hear the command, “Time to go inside, drop your ball” and instead of following instructions, her obstinate side would surface. She’d instead bound up the porch steps with ball in mouth, signaling that, no, the ball comes with me. And I’d have to correct her, “No. Drop it.” The wet mess of rubber and nylon and dirt was an outside toy. 

She only got away with this ploy once, after I turned my back while opening the door, and she slunk into the house, thinking she had pulled the wool over my eyes. She plopped her body down on the carpet and went to town gnashing the ball, tossing her head up and down as she did. “May, I said no! The ball stays outside.” And she turned from excited pup to dejected dog for being reprimanded as I scooped the ball up and tossed it out the back door.

* * *

As she aged, she got slower in most things, sometimes even needing to be coaxed from a nap in order to go outside for a bathroom break. But she never tired of chasing the ball, although giving up at times well before I was ready to tell her it was time to go back inside. Then, maybe ten throws, and by the eleventh, she’d bound up the porch steps with the ball still in her mouth as she had a thousand times before, as if to say, “Thanks, but that’s enough for today. This old gal is ready for another nap.”

Even so, a cheery, “Where’s your ball?” would trigger a tail wag and dash to the back door, her furrowed brow and hazel eyes glancing back at me, that predictable impatient “ahhh-woof,” scolding me for moving too slow, all the way up to her last days.

Then, in those last few days, when she could no longer muster the strength to stand, let alone walk or run, her big, soft paws still twitched in her sleep. And I would bet everything I have that she was dreaming about chasing the ball.

The ball was everything—her one true love. Or, maybe, it wasn’t the ball. Maybe the ball was just the thing that produced the time we spent together, and that’s what she really loved.


Featured in our February 2021 issue, "Obsession"