There’s a small bench in the Blythewood Ravine we nearly always stop at. Soon as I sit down, Island Girl comes running with a big smile on her face. She presses in close and, first thing I do, I remove her collar and give her neck a good rub. Then her back and haunches. She especially likes having her haunches rubbed—half-closes her eyes the whole time. When I’m finished, she gives me the look, I give her a Milk-Bone, and off we go again.


Today, a man about my age was sitting on the bench, a man I’d never seen before. I meant to walk on by but, as we neared, Island Girl went over to him and I could see that he liked dogs and, next thing I knew, he was sliding over on the bench and inviting us to join him. “Lots of room,” he said. I thanked him and sat down. 


He watched as I gave Island Girl her rub and, when I’d finished, he extended his hand and we introduced ourselves. He had a prominent dimple in one cheek and a most unusual first name.


“Your name,” I said, “is there a story behind it?”


“Well, I don’t know that I’d call it a story, exactly—not much of a one, anyway. My father’s name was John Smith—that’s the crux of it. He was a traveling salesman—crisscrossed northern Ontario several times a summer hawking a line of tourist merchandise to roadside trading posts and the like—beaded belts, moccasins, souvenir totem poles, stuff like that. Anyway, not wanting us kids to be saddled with lackluster names like his own, he persuaded my mother to name the three of us after places he drove through on his route. She got to name my sisters, Kawartha and Zephyr, and he got to name me.”


"Coboconk Smith,” I said. “You’re probably the only one.”


“Probably. My friends all call me Coby. Except Hank, that is—he’s always called me Jack. Everyone else, though, calls me Coby and you can, too, if you like." I thanked him and said I would.


“Why does your friend call you Jack?”


“Hank? He asked if he could the first time we met—said he could only remember names of people who looked like their names and I looked like a Jack—did I mind? I didn’t, and he’s called me Jack ever since. Speaking of names, what’s your friend’s name, here?”


“Island Girl.”


“Ireland Girl?”


“No—Island Girl, as in ‘tropical island’.”


“Pretty fancy—sounds like a racehorse.”


"I know. Friends of mine found her in a pound while vacationing in the Bahamas and, as a condition of adoption, it was agreed that Liz would get to name her and, Liz being Liz, that’s what she named her.”


"She’s not yours, then?”


“No, she’s not mine. I replaced her walker for a couple of weeks some years ago and, the second day I went to pick her up, you’d have thought I’d just returned from a two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan—she was all over me. As it happened, the feelings were mutual and we’ve been twice-weekly companions ever since. Mostly, we come here. There’s lots for her to do here.”


“Are you embarrassed when you have to call her?”


“Matter of fact, soon as I learned her name, that was the first thing came to mind—how embarrassing it was going to be to have to call her in public. Silly, isn’t it, what we worry about, sometimes. And, as it turned out, I had little reason to call her by any name, and still don’t. And when I do, I mostly just call her Girl.”


“And she comes when called?”


“Yes, provided she’s neither eating nor in hot pursuit of something she’d like to be eating—either of those, you can call till you’re blue in the face, she will not come.”


“So, what do you do in that case?”


“I trick her. I walk down the trail a ways and hide behind a tree. Losing sight of me makes her anxious and, after a couple of minutes, she’ll leave what she’s doing and come running up the trail in search of me. Works every time.”


“Smart move.”


“Actually, about the only calling I ever do is ‘Come here, Girl’ when she’s close at hand.”


Thinking I’d called her, Island Girl appeared suddenly from behind the bench and stood before me now, tail wagging, giving me the look.


“Sorry, Girl,” I said, “false alarm.”


She knew nothing of false alarms. She’d come when called and expected a reward. So I invited her close and gave her back and haunches another good rub, which she enjoyed every second of. But she’d come expecting a treat and still was. I explained to her that it was way too soon for another treat, that I’d just given her one a few minutes ago. She didn’t care, and my repeated ‘no’s only strengthened her resolve, so I relented, finally, and gave her a Milk-Bone.


“Tell me,” said Coby, “when you say ‘no’ to her a bunch of times, then give her the treat—isn’t that teaching her that ‘no’ means ‘yes’?”


“I’m teaching her to persevere.”


He laughed and gave me a thumbs up. “You’re a good teacher.”


He’d been fishing for something in his pants pocket and withdrew a wristwatch, now, which he held at arms length and squinted at. “Lost my glasses,” he said. “Damn. It’s later than I thought. I’ll have to run.”


He stood and shook my hand and said he hoped we’d meet again. I hoped so, too.

bench talk 1  

John Smith’s son