The brief wondrous life of Sonny Riccobono

It was march, and Seamus and I had just started dating. The rain clouds, while still black-grey and flinging down torrents of water, were broken, now, in moments, by patches of glorious, syrupy yellow light- the steamy northwest sun, emerging naked from its long, introspective sauna.

Seamus and I decided to go to Olympia for the weekend, with our dogs. In Olympia, two hours north and much closer to the ocean, the grass was greener and more feral, the dandelions more yellow, the sunlight more syrupy. We found the people of Olympia blinking against this new spring light, moving snail-like through the still-cool hours, and shaking mildew from their clothing. Seamus and I, overjoyed at being out of the city and so close to the large, damp forest, set up our tent in Otis’ backyard and then went to a potluck, where there were chocolate truffles made from nettles and everyone’s dogs played nicely in the grass overlooking some water that was, somehow, part of the ocean, and in which groups of people rowed small, narrow boats in unison. After the potluck we loaded the dogs into the truck- Kinnikinnick, bloated from drinking her weight in dishwater, and Emy, the calmer and more reasonable of the two- and set out to find Seamus his afternoon cup of very strong coffee.

I do not know Olympia very well, but it was on some unremarkable corner, with a small, economically depressed-looking strip-mall and maybe a law firm that was inside of an old house, that we found the dog. The dog was running down the sidewalk, and it was Seamus who spotted him first. Seamus pulled the truck next to the curb.

Get that dog, he said to me.

The dog was trotting down the sidewalk in a general sort of non-direction, somewhat frantically, but losing steam. I jumped out of the truck and walked behind him, briskly but not too fast, as if I was just walking somewhere random, as if the dog and I were just fellow pedestrians, thrown together by chance, on our joint journey towards the crosswalk of a very busy intersection. The dog continued to trot and at the corner he turned left. I followed, continuing to look straight ahead, as if his affairs were no business of mine and it was just coincidence that I, in fact, happened to be going left as well. The dog walked for half a block, slowed, and stopped. This sidewalk square, he seemed to be saying, was as good as any. I stopped next to him and picked him up. He weighed practically nothing. He was the smallest dog I had ever seen.

Back in the truck, Seamus and I had no idea what to do. It was thrilling to find a stray dog (that was in imminent danger!) but what to do next? Call the humane society? Animal control? Drive around and look for the owner? (This we did, half-heartedly, for about five minutes.) Should we put up fliers? One thing was for certain- the dog had no tags, and he looked hungry.

Let’s get him some food, I said. And a leash. I laid the dog on the front seat of the truck, between me and Seamus. A sunbeam fell on him from the open window, and his massive, marble-like brown eyes glinted wetly. He began to lick my forearm with his small, pink tongue.

HE’S SO CUTE! Said Seamus. Kinnikinnick clung, gecko-like, to the top of the front seat, and eyed the new dog suspiciously. Emy slept in the back, unalarmed. I touched the dog’s fur, looked at his small white teeth. The truth was, he wasn’t cute. Kinnikinnick was cute- small and brown and alert. Emy was cute- with her half-moon ears and good-smelling fur. This dog, however, was something else entirely- if there was a word to describe this dog, it did not exist in English.

Seamus and I had no idea what kind of dog it was.

Maybe it’s a long-haired chihuahua? The dog’s face looked kind of like Kinnikinnick’s- only more bulbous, and they were both small. But that’s where the similarities ended.

While Kinnikinnick was brown and sleek, like a little fox, there was no animal I could compare this dog to. This dog was white with patches of different colors, like a calico cat, and huge tufts of fur stuck out from his ears. His tail was long, plumed, and magnificent, and it curled, rooster-like, up over his back. I had never seen such a fancy dog. This dog was ridiculously overdone, like a like wedding cake or a catholic cathedral. Ridiculously overdone and then shrunk down really, really small. This dog was not just “cute”, this dog was a fucking Japanese animation. I ran my hands over the dog’s small body. His hair was long in some places, short in others, and on his underside it was matted with urine and what was probably poop. And beneath his fancy plumage you could feel his tiny, emaciated body, like the body of a bird. And he still had his balls- like huge brown chestnuts, lined up parallel between his back legs, as if there was no other way that they would fit on his body.
We bought a leash and a small can of dog food, and took the dog to Mae’s house.

We found this dog, we said to Mae.

No way, said Mae.

We put the dog on the floor with the food, and the dog began to eat. Not eat but snorfle, as if his face was a vacuum. Mae stood watching us, stirring almond milk into a bowl of oatmeal. Good light came through the windows and fell upon the tangles of tree branches that had been tacked in the corners. We offered the dog a small glass dish of water, and he consumed that as well.

Why is this dog so hungry? I asked.

Why is this dog so thirsty?

This dog is obviously neglected.

Feel his ribs, we said to Mae. She dutifully poked his matted fur, felt his tiny, prominent hip bones.

See his urine-covered belly, we said to Mae. She dutifully observed his stinky, tangled underside.

I Think We Should Keep This Dog, I said.

No way, said Mae. She was still eating her bowl of oatmeal.

Seamus’ eyes were glazed over in excitement.

Let’s keep the dog, said Seamus.

I took a picture of Seamus holding the dog, on the grass in front of Mae’s house.

Naomi, our friend in Portland, is a hairdresser and a fancy lady, and had been (somewhat quietly) wanting a little dog for some time, although her housemates were, at least at the moment, against it. Seamus and I had just found the best looking, most fantastical little dog ever.

I felt that this was Naomi’s dog.

I felt that Naomi’s dog had fallen from the sky. Naomi’s dog had escaped from a neglectful situation and run free, on the streets of Olympia, so that we could find it, and bring it to Naomi.

I sent Naomi the picture of Seamus with the dog.

Do you want this dog? It said.

Do you want this dog?

Seamus and I took the dog back to Otis’ house, and put him in the tent in the backyard. We hadn’t found any coffee so we climbed in as well, onto the airbed, and curled beneath the blankets for a nap. Good Olympia air moved through the mesh walls of the tent, bringing with it the smell of cedar trees, and far off was the sound of windchimes. It was cold out, still spring, but the three of us made a pocket of warmth, and I felt immensely contented.

When we woke, we couldn’t find the dog. He wasn’t between any of the blankets, or at the foot of the bed. Finally we found him, wedged beneath the airbed and the wall of the tent, in a little nest of blanket-corners. I lifted him up by his little bird-body and he blinked at me, his brown eyes watering endearingly. So easy, I thought, to lose such a little dog. He’s so tiny, you can lose him in a tent! Such a little scrap of fur, such a tiny spark of life!

What fire, I thought, as I looked into his too-big eyeballs, burns inside your tiny ribcage? What magical machinations make your existence possible? How small, your little organs?!

Back in Portland, I introduced the dog to my apartment. He immediately urinated everywhere, confirming my suspicions that he was not housetrained and had, in fact, been kept (so cruel!) in someone’s backyard. Kinnikinnick, while initially friendly, became much more guarded when she learned that all the new dog wanted to do was hump. His balls, still fastened so firmly to his undercarriage, were likely larger than his brain, and once hydrated and fed, it became apparent that he was driven by them to the exclusion of almost everything else. And Kinnikinnick, this fancy, rooster-like dog was certain, was destined to be his wife. But she, having been fixed, was firmly against this idea, and so they engaged in the elaborate small-dog acrobatics of the wrestle/hump deflection/snarly face/gremlin noises, much to the delight and entertainment of anyone who stopped by.

Naomi did some research.

“He’s a papillon,” she said.

I read the wikipedia page about papillons.

“They’re from the 13th century!” I said. “In France! Mary Antoinette had one! She clutched it as she walked to the guillotine!!

Naomi took the dog to the vet, and had him weighed. Four pounds exactly. He wasn’t just a papillon, he was a teacup papillon. He was, said the vet, a year and a half old. The vet cut off his balls. Naomi took the dog to the groomer’s, and they trimmed his matted fur. She fed the dog as much as he could eat, and he began to fill out, an ounce at a time. She named him Sonny.

As Sonny settled into Naomi’s house, with its collection of humans, its comings and goings, and its one other dog, his personality began to unfold. And, at least for the time being, he was a bit of a monster. Unhousetrained, he would poop in corners, the basement, the hallway. He would not come when called, would not respond to any sounds at all- so much so that for a time, Naomi worried that he was deaf. On a typical afternoon you would enter the living room to find him crouched, lion-like, above his rawhide bone, eyes blazing defiantly, a tiny, chain-saw like growl percolating from his insides. He would snarl and snap at the feet of strangers, and hop away like a ping-pong ball when you bent down to pick him up. He didn’t like to be held, and would wriggle like a fish in your hands when you finally caught him. He was like an optical illusion- so tiny, fluffy and kitten-like, so seemingly loveable- but on the inside, he was a maniacal sociopath- seemingly incapable of bonding with anyone.

But Naomi had patience.

Naomi didn’t have a car. Luckily, Sonny was portable. Naomi got a cute bag for him and stuffed him down into it, and carried him everywhere on her bicycle. Since he looked more like a toy than a real animal, she was able to sneak him into coffee shops, restaurants and shows. At night, in an attempt to make him cuddle, she stuffed him under the covers, but he popped out like a helium balloon and bounced to the foot of the bed where he curled up, just out of reach.

Still, Naomi had patience.

Boundaries were put into place for Sonny- no growling, no snapping, no attacking other dogs and humans. When he was being aggressive he could be flipped, using one hand, onto his tiny back, and held in place until he relaxed. He could also be picked up, at the scruff of his neck, much like the kitten that he was, and spoken to in a very authoritative voice- at which point the fight would lift off of him like mist, and his wet brown eyes would grow wet, and he might even- if you were lucky- lick your nose.

As the months went by, Sonny began, imperceptibly at first, to soften. He followed Naomi around like a wee shadow, and when she came home from work he would lift his front legs off the ground and clap his paws together like a tiny, animated toy. He would sometimes, now, allow others to pick him up, and he would even, on occasion, display something that was similar to affection. To reach this soft place in Sonny, however, to get him to do something like recline, casual-like, on your lap, as if that was no big deal, it was often necessary to wear him out physically first- and this was a challenge, as the fire that burned within him, in spite of his small size, was monstrously large.

In July I went backpacking with Kinnikinnick, Sonny, and Naomi’s partner, Finn. We picked a trail with lots of lakes, and there were such insane mosquitoes that we were forced to run, every second that we were out of the tent, to avoid being suffocated. (Exaggeration.) We didn’t want to run with our big backpacks on, so instead of carrying the packs for three days we hiked in four miles, pitched our tent, and the next day set out to jog the remainder of the trail. As long as we were running, the mosquitoes couldn’t get us, and as long as we wanted to be out of the tent, we had to be running. The night before, Sonny had been so hyper in the tent that Finn had barely been able to sleep- Sonny had thought that he was Outside, and that had made him feel Excited, and he had decided that he didn’t need to sleep, that he needed only to bounce like a flea back and forth across our sleeping bags, pawing excitedly at the nylon of the tent.

The next day we set out bright and early on our Epic Trail Run, hyper, sleepless dogs in tow. And it turned out that the trail, which passed by so many small lakes, was flooded in places, and in other places it was covered in patches of snow or blocked by fallen trees. The dogs, though, were not perturbed, and they vaulted over the puddles and slid over the snow patches like fearless, inexhaustible insects. The only humans we saw that day, on our long overland journey, were a pair of mysterious forest rangers, who would appear on the trail and then disappear, back into the foliage, as if by magic. We jogged sort of stumblingly through the forest from mid-morning to bedtime, our improvised backpacks bouncing against our shoulders, food and a water filter inside. We stopped at lakes to swim and eat chocolate and salmon jerky, and then we ran some more. Kinnikinnick and Sonny followed tirelessly along behind us, now and again darting ahead, ears up, to see what might be coming. Kinnikinnick, being the larger of the two, was able to leap, fox-like, over the fallen logs, but Sonny was too short and needed to be lifted, and he would wait, patiently, his eyes squinted softly in the forest light, for Finn to act as his hydraulic lift.


We returned to our campsite late in the evening, lowered our sore bodies into the flooded, broth-colored stream, and then put on every item of clothing we had brought so that we could crouch, for a few moments, in the thick, mosquito-filled air, and stir the gluten-free noodles in our camping pot. The mosquitoes enveloped Kinnikinnick and she bit at them, twitching and shaking her small body, but Sonny’s coat was long enough that he was impenetrable, and he watched us quietly in a rectangle of evening light, his small paws crossed contentedly. As we ate our salty noodles on the grass, the mosquitoes frantically biting at the backs of our hands, we saw that Sonny was, at last, tired. And that night he slept like the sweet, lovely little being that we had always imagined him to be- cuddled up in Finn’s sleeping bag or on top of mine, his little rooster-tail curled blanket-like around his torso, eyelids stretched peacefully over his huge, bulbous eyes. The next day we hiked the four miles out, and Sonny was so contented that he was sweet and agreeable for the rest of the trip, sleeping or letting himself be pet, squinting up at one or the other of us with his big, wet-brown eyes as if he was the most gentle dog in the world. And, when we returned to Portland, we were only admonished slightly for letting him run until his paws bled.

Sonny and Kinnikinnick, sleeping peacefully on the drive home.

As the summer waned, wee Sonny became consistently more agreeable and relaxed, and he began to bond with people more quickly, and allow himself to be captured and petted more easily. He was, as Naomi said, finally learning how to open his heart to love. He clapped his hands now for me, when he saw me, and when I lifted him up he licked my nose with his small, baloney-scented tongue. I would hold him in my two hands and bury my face in his thick, good-smelling fur, and in his small ribcage I could feel his tiny, beating heart. At first, he had been reluctant, and in time, he had grown softer. And like all wary little dogs (my own included) who are finicky and particular with their affections, when the narrow beam of Sonny’s love fell, at last, on my own heart, I was almost blinded by the caliber of its pure, uncontaminated goodness.

Two weeks ago, Sonny was attacked in a friend’s house by a larger, more aggressive dog. The attack was supposedly over a treat that had been dropped beneath the kitchen table, and in seconds it was over. Sonny died moments later, in the car on the way to the hospital. He had been in our lives for eight months.

Sonny’s death was a total shock not only to the people who had witnessed it, but to everyone who had been in Sonny’s life. Sonny, so seemingly alive, so full of fire and energy, was now, somehow, gone, blinked away, disappeared. It made no sense at all- like if you said an entire block had disappeared, or like the pacific ocean was now gone. Sonny was real. Sonny existed. Like how flowers exist, or trees exist, or rivers exist. There was the sky, the maple trees, the park, and there was Sonny. Just like how there was Kinnikinnick, and Seamus, and our friends, and school, and Emy, and our lives, our routines, our small dramas, our hopes and dreams and fears. In all of that, was Sonny. Firmly real. In the flesh. We had assimilated him into the fabric of our lives, and the tentacles of his existence were wound into the minutes and hours of our days- he was a three-dimensional object that we had manifested, running free on the streets of Olympia, and then subsumed, until there was no boundary between us and him, between our realities and his.

As yet, as quickly and bizarrely as Sonny had appeared, he was gone. I had never seen a dog like him, and there would never be one again. He had been created, the mold had been broken, and then, less than three years later, he had died. It made me question, suddenly, my assumptions about the existence of all living things- all of these animals, humans, objects that I assume to exist, that I trust to continue to exist, that I wake up each morning assuming will still exist. All of the things that I take for granted to be real, all of the trees and blades of grass, the walls of my apartment, my strange, grumpy neighbors, my small brown dog, the ground beneath my feel. All these things that feel so solidly REAL, so rooted on this side of the divide between existence and non-existence- when it seems obvious, now, that anything, at any time, could slip through to the other side, without a moment’s notice. Like a crack can open up in this current moment, this experience of reality that I assume, foolishly, to be somehow solid, and whatever is closest to the crack will just be gone.

How do you live, then, when everything you love can suddenly be gone? How do you make choices when what seems so real, today, on Sunday, can shift like loose gravel and be so different, after a period of time, as to be totally unrecognizable? How do you hold on, or not hold on, to what you love- how do you hold on and let go simultaneously, how do you stay present, constantly, in the moment, while making the assumption, still, that the sun will rise tomorrow?

Sonny did not exist, and then he did. He was not in our lives, and then he was. We did not know him, and then we loved him, we shoved some random clutter off the folding card-table of our hearts to make room for him. And there is always room, an extra corner, a few square inches of love. There is always room for everyone, there is always enough space. And then, after Sonny is gone, there is a small, Sonny-shaped hole. And the wind blows through it, and it has the feel of an old, abandoned house. And it’s lonely.

Sonny is gone, and if I learned anything at all from Sonny, it’s that we exist right now. Tomorrow, then, is anyone’s guess, but for the moment we are solidly, firmly here, so real that it’s nearly incomprehensible, so big and complex and infinite and alive that I can barely fit the idea of us into the field of vision of my heart. Because when we are real, we are almost bafflingly so- the realness of us spills out, all over everything, as if there is too much of it, an infinite amount, like there will always be enough, like we could never possibly run out. Our realness, not guaranteed to spill forward in time, spreads around us, instead, into space- shooting like energy light-rays into the worlds that we inhabit, vibrating every other physical thing in our existence on a scale of which it is impossible to comprehend.

My brain is small, and I cannot begin to understand the complexity of our realness, the size of our existence. I settle, instead, for a stumbling sort of impression, like fumbling in a dark attic, feeling objects with the palms of my hands. I tell myself that I am learning, through careful observation, the shape and texture of our universe, when in reality, by looking, I only grow more and more disoriented. I can only assume that this puzzle, like so many mysteries, is a thing that cannot be looked at or thought about directly but only felt, sort of obtusely, with the larger, blunter muscles of the heart. Not a shape but a rhythm, a feeling- not the object itself but its tangled, colored fringe.

Sonny is gone, and I’m starting to wonder if he ever existed at all. Did I make him up? What is more real, my feeling for him or his actual self? And what now? Do we let the clutter build up, until the card table is covered over again?

And what of the gaping, Sonny-shaped hole in the paper wall of reality, where the lonely breeze blows through?

Sonny was buried in forest park, in the soft, black earth beneath some big-leaf maples. It’s November and the air is cold, and rain falls nearly every day. A few weeks before Sonny’s death, Naomi had bought him a tiny, expensive jacket- shiny, black, and stuffed with down, it kept him warm as damp winter settled down upon the city. Naomi kept the jacket after his death and I know that now, in his new forest home, Sonny no longer needs it. Because the forest, crowded, tangled organism that it is, is arguably more real than nearly any city block. There is more life, more living, more movement, happening both above and below ground, in the forest, than I can possibly understand- and in this way the forest is like Sonny himself. And if it’s true that consciousness is a sort of trap, and death is freedom, then Sonny is home, his energies gone twenty-five different ways, to join the riotous cacophony of the rainforest- and he is neither cold nor alone, but sort of infinite- for as long as it lasts, and after that, will be something else-

And we love him, and we miss him, and that’s ok/is not ok, and that irreconcilable contradiction, whatever comfort that it is, will have to be enough.

6 thoughts on “The brief wondrous life of Sonny Riccobono

  1. This is one wonderfully written, beautiful story with a very sad ending.
    Thanks for writing and sharing it. Bill

  2. I am not quite sure how I happened upon your story, I was looking for a groomer for my Pomeranian and clicked on a picture of Sonny. Beautiful, well written piece. Thank you

  3. I too, don’t know how I came across this story. I was researching insect bites and saw this picture of an angel in the form of sonny. Thanks for sharing your story.

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