Here is another piece of Trying Montana, the book I never wrote about the time we spent living 18 miles north of Whitefish. It is a phantom book still, about the house we built, the time we nearly started a forest fire, the flood we survived, the deep friendships we experienced and the happiness we lived. But those are other stories. This particular essay might actually be a sort of prequel to the other linked tales you will find here with “More Trying Montana” in their headlines.
The rituals that we create to mark death are among the few behaviors that define us as human. I know I have seen animals express emotion, but we seem to be the only creatures who bury our dead with ceremony.
Beauregard, or Beau, as I began to call her when I realized I’d be calling her often, and often to no avail, was a flat-coated retriever. With long black hair and bright eyes that seemed always joyful, she was a perfect specimen of her breed, including the footnote about “headstrong, sometimes difficult to train.”
I loved her with a fantasy love that imagined blind retrieves with hand signals and the fine expensive shotguns I would one day be able to afford. When she chewed shoes I would smell wood smoke, and the watery musk of duck blinds and cigars.
Beau loved me. I could tell by how repentant she seemed after she would ignore my training attempts. Beau learned exactly half of retrieving. She was brilliant at locating whatever I would throw in the water, but instead of collecting it and returning, she would delight in swimming with it until exhaustion would overcome us both. I hoarse from calling, she muddy and spent, finally, upon shore.
She once swam halfway to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay when a seal distracted her from the yellow tennis ball I had been throwing. I sat on a rock, smoking cigarette after cigarette, wondering until after dark whether she’d return.
Years later, we were staying in the cheapest of motels in Kalispell, Montana waiting through the final real-estate paperwork on the land that was to become home in just a few days.
It was drizzling off and on, mixed with snow flurries. November had begun and winter with it.
The motel room had a smoky stove and half-sized refrigerator. There was a sleeping alcove that had a doorway but no door. The bathroom wall was so close to the toilet that my knees became intimate with wallpaper. The several paintings of blues and reds in gilded frames used velvet for canvas. The children didn’t like what was for dinner and Beau needed to go out. I picked up her leash and called her to my side. As I opened the door expecting her to sit as she had always done before she took off running, and was gone into the rainy night.
It had been years since I’d smoked a cigarette, but that night waiting for Beau to come back I remembered sitting on that rock on the Marin County shore of The Bay while she tried to retrieve a seal. The same taste of tobacco and salt spray was in my mouth as I called the county sheriff to inquire after lost dogs.
Hours later the call came that a black dog had been reported lying in the gutter three-quarters of a mile from our motel and would I please go and see if it was my dog that had been struck by a passing truck.
It couldn’t be Beau. She had survived her puppy years in the urban environs of San Francisco and lived through the coming of our two sons and the depredations small boys impose on dogs.
She had swum with marine mammals. She had always come back to the hundreds of campsites that were our home on the road all the way to Montana.
The neon glare from the all-night gas station liquor store I have come to refer to generically as a “quick-rip” made her open eyes dance alive as I knelt in the wet street. Her coat was glossy and wet.
Things always weigh more when they are dead.
I lifted her into the back of my pick-up truck.
I closed her eyes. I walked across to the store and bought some plastic garbage bags from the pretty girl behind the counter. They were called Hefty, and were an attractive steel-grey color. Back at the truck I wrapped Beau in a towel to keep the plastic away from her body and put her in one of the bags. I remember marveling at the built-in plastic ties that closed the bag. They were tennis-ball yellow.
I called the sheriff’s office to express my gratitude for the help. It was when the dispatcher suggested I could take “your dead dog” to the dump in the morning that I realized Beau had to be buried on our almost purchased land.
I could carve a wooden grave marker, a totem. I could attach her licenses and identity disks to the marker.
The next day our realtor, name of Ross, in a gesture that in retrospect made up for his other failings, offered the use of his freezer as Beau’s temporary resting place until we actually owned the land where we could bury her. Ross had been in Montana for about a dozen years and prided himself on educating newcomers. He’d once lived in Portland or Seattle and felt he understood the larger world. He marketed his real-estate business around that concept. He was a pale, polite man with thinning brown hair, and given to wearing corduroy and flannel.
My breath coalesced into fine motes of snow as I panted after struggling to put Beau, now stiff and awkward in her body bag, into Ross’s deep freeze. I stood in his shed shivering. He made me promise not to tell his wife about my dog in their freezer, growing colder alongside pale yellow paper packages red-crayon-marked as venison, elk and rabbit.
Outside, Ross told me to buy a chest-style freezer when we settled in. “The cold air sinks, so they’re more efficient. They’re better than those upright models.” I assured him I’d follow his advice. I fled into the evening, and stopped down the road because I could not see the road through my tears.
We finalized our property purchase by early December, in time for one of the state’s legendary blizzards. It dropped to 37 degrees below zero for a few days and soon thereafter I learned about shoveling the roof. If the snow gets too deep its weight will collapse the very rafters.
The cold snap iced everything solid and with the ground now too frozen for digging graves Beau spent our first Montana winter in Ross’s deep freeze.
Spring eventually came and with it snow melt and localized flooding. My friend Howard Bauer brought his bulldozer and backhoe out to our place to cut a new road after the one into our acreage was washed away. When I asked him to backhoe a hole out back near some birch trees for Beau, he laughed. “A grave’s just a hole in the dirt,” he said. “Where it is doesn’t matter. It’s only the remembering that makes it special.”
Howard was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness who befriended me after I hired him to install our septic system. He thought I was one of the Old Testament’s Chosen People. He had an excavation business, drove log truck, plowed some snow and was supremely successful at the inventive and necessary skills of Montana’s economic landscape. He was very strong, and although a medium-sized man seemed larger. He wore thick, black-framed glasses, could fix anything and make it better than before it was broken. I have never met a more generous or honest man.
I went and got Beau out of the freezer that afternoon. It was getting dark when I returned. Howard had waited. We put Beau in the hole and he used the backhoe’s front bucket to push half-frozen chunks of earth and dirt bright with blood-colored clay over her.
I drank some whiskey and poured a bit out onto the mound that had become her grave. Then we told each other stories about people we had loved that no longer lived.
It’s now been five dogs since we buried Beau.
She looked so much like a seal when she was swimming.
An earlier version of Burying Beauregard once appeared in the literary magazine Kinesis.