The signs went up in the neighborhood two weeks ago: "Lost Dog. Female Golden Retriever. 6 Months Old. Very Sweet. Family Heartsick. Reward."
One of the signs was posted outside the supermarket, and as I stopped to read it, a woman I didn't know also paused to look at it.
"That's so sad," she said. "I sure hope they get her back. I remember when I was a little girl and Ginger got lost. I cried for a month."
"I know what you mean," I said. "When Homer disappeared, I searched for him for six months. And dreamed about him for a year."
Then something funny happened: Standing there on that busy sidewalk, cars whizzing by, suddenly it seemed as though the ghosts of dogs past began to rise up and hover in the air above. It was like being in one of those Chagall paintings where flowers or people are always surrealistically floating above whatever reality exists below.
I mean, I hadn't thought about Homer for years. Decades, actually.
But now here I was remembering the day my mother officially declared Homer lost and suggested we compose an ad for the newspaper.
I don't remember the exact wording of the ad, of course, but I do remember the effort I put into describing Homer accurately. It was something along the lines of: "Tall, good-looking, incredibly friendly, part-Labrador, part-German shepherd, brownish-golden. Answers to name of Homer. Also answers to Pee Wee and Laddie Boy. Is probably hungry."
It's funny, but descriptions given by owners of pets are seldom realistic. I learned that while writing an article about the SPCA. I recall, for instance, a cat owner came in to see if anyone had turned in a "silver gray cat with violet-colored eyes." The person took a look around, then spotted this scruffy, oil-colored cat with light, watery eyes and screamed: "Elizabeth, it's you!"
The point I'm making is that maybe Homer wasn't brownish-golden but brown. And maybe he wasn't as tall as I remember. But he was friendly. And maybe he wasn't actually the best-looking dog in the neighborhood. But he was always hungry.
In fact, I guess my first memory of Homer has to do with eating. He was a stray dog -- and a hungry one -- when my father brought him home on a hot summer day. He'd found the dog, lean as a bone, hanging around the garage where the family Plymouth was being readied for a trip to the Mohawk Trail.
By the time the two of them got home, my father had already named the dog: Homer. It was a tribute, he told us, to a man who wrote a story about a sailor who wandered the seas, searching for his way home.
As it turned out, our Homer's wandering days were over. He fit into our lives just fine. Of course, he worked at it. There were certain duties, for instance, that he took on as his own. Protecting me from the bully in the next block was one. And walking me home from school was another.
See, that's what dogs did then. In fact, most afternoons at about 2:45 the neighborhood dogs would gather on the school playground. I remember looking through the window of Mrs. Stanhope's third-grade class and seeing them scattered around; some in half-sprawls, some in sphinx-like positions and a few rolling around in the soft, red dirt of the softball field. Homer usually fell into this last category.
But this familiar routine was broken one night when Homer didn't respond to the kitchen-door cries of: Here Homer, here doggie, here boy.
Things started getting tense the next night. We began walking the neighborhood alleys calling out Homer, Homer, Pee Wee, Laddie Boy. We looked in his favorite spots and drove the car as far away as the York Road Steak House, a place where Homer had once been led by his acute sense of smell.
On the fourth day, my mother said: Write the ad.
The ad produced some possible Homer-sightings. A couple of times we got our hopes up but arrived at the caller's home to find that Homer was not the only lost dog.
Once I remember our hopes soared when a neighbor spotted a Homer look-alike over near Darnell's Grocery Store. But it turned out to be a neighbor's new dog.
For months we kept alive the hope that Homer would return. Every morning I checked the furrow beneath the backyard hedges -- the one shaped just like Homer's curled body -- to see if he were there. And I looked for him out of the classroom window, oh, I guess, for six months or so.
The recurring dream lasted longer. For about a year. In the dream, Homer was cast as a rogue-dog buccaneer sailing the high seas. He even had a black patch over one of his eyes.
I'm embarrassed to admit it -- although only a little embarrassed -- but I still picture him that way.