Sidewalk Talk

by Tom Swift

His name was Cliff. He had leaf bits on his chest. He said this wasn’t his house. He lived some doors down. He had stood and greeted us as we approached.

“You are doing yard-work for your neighbor?” I asked.

He smiled through an incoherent answer. Cliff smiled easily. I’m not sure why he was there. It was none of my business.

“You must be a good neighbor,” I said. “We are not far away. We have leaves. When you are through here.”

In my memory — this scene is from our walk earlier today, just a hours ago — he looked a little like Bill Barr. Round and flat-haired. Of that age. Possibly I have watched too much coverage of the Mueller Report.

He asked about the university on my sweatshirt. He had gone to that university. He asked about my dog. “I am a dog person,” he said. Though he doesn’t presently have a dog of his own, he explained. He kept looking at B. He asked about his breed. His age. “I am a dog person,” he repeated.

Cliff told me about the dog he used to care for — a neighbor’s dog that spent “80 percent” of the time with him. “People thought it was my dog,” he said. “I had to explain that I was walking my neighbor’s dog.”

Conservative estimate: I have had interactions with 500 people on sidewalks and street corners and parks that I never otherwise would have met if it were not for my dog.

Dogs can’t speak. But they start a lot of conversations.

I am grateful for these encounters. Yet I am not the best small-talker you are going to meet. I am the guy at the party over in the corner talking more deeply to one person. I am not the one mingling about, dishing twenty-second pleasantries around the room.

My body wanted to move again. We repeated each other’s names in case there is another crossing of paths.

As we tuned back to the sidewalk, I felt a tinge of something. I wasn’t sure whether I said too much. Or not enough.