We got in late to San Antonio de Areca. It’s a small gaucho town about two hours northwest of Buenos Aires. We’d hopped a fence on the side of a dirt road and pitched a tent in the dark on a private estancia. There was a campground nearby, but we didn’t want to pay the fifty-five peso fee to sleep there.
In the morning, a police car came by just as the two of us rolled up our things and climbed back over the fence. We concealed the excitement of a narrow escape well. Through the heavy mist, we could see a few horses grazing on the other side of the Areco River and the sun glaring. It was about 6:30 AM, and hot already. We had to wait in town until 8:45 for a café to open, and that’s when we met him.
We’re sitting up against a palm in the town plaza, and we whistle the little black and white dog over. In the States, stray dogs are fairly rare, and depending on what area you’re in, nonexistent. They’re spayed or neutered and impounded, eventually euthanized. Here they are more common. In San Antonio de Areca, ubiquitous.
His ears perk at our call and his long tail waves with enough weight to move his backside. He’s grimy, but seems to be in fine condition. Dysplasia in the hips and mange, so common in other strays, is absent from his limbs and coat. Andrew pets him, but we have no food to offer. He stays with us in the moving shade anyways. Black with white spots and tall ears.
“Siéntate,” Andrew says. He does, and we are surprised.
When we go across the cobblestone street he follows, a few paces behind. He stays under our table while we eat medialunas and drink café con leche. We talk of our plans that day and include the dog in them. It’s a fine morning under the shade of the street’s trees, the sun strong in the sky. It’s nice to sit and rest my blistered feet. I tap my cigarette and the ash floats to rest on our dog’s rough coat.
“Let’s call him Ashy,” I suggest.
“No way, we’re in Argentina man, it’s got to be Che.”
I stop to think how many dogs in this country might be called Che, or if it is even as common as we think it is. I have yet to hear it. Either way, the topic is dropped and we keep bullshiting, and then pay the check.
When we get up to go, the dog follows.
“I’m going to get some things at the grocery, stay with our dog, yeah?” Andrew asks of me as the automatic doors slide open and he disappears into the store.
I stand outside with our packs. The dog sits by the doors, watching for Andrew. When they open, he hops up in anticipation, tail in motion. I cannot tell if he really has taken to us, or if he knows this place signifies food.
Cars begin to amble past, making their slow crawl over the cobblestone, their rhythmic clack joining a chorus of birds as the only two noises in the sleepy village. The dog picks himself up, yapping after the cars that roll by. He gets as close as he can to the front right tire, barking furiously for about half a block when he abruptly stops and returns to his post outside the grocery store door.
He’s cracking me up, this dog.
After the second or third run, he returns, and a woman with a shopping cart confronts him at his normal spot at the door. He is unsure which way to turn and is overtaken by its front end.
Seems he can’t pick a side.
The next car, a white pickup, isn’t in any exceptional hurry. It passes me without notice, but our dog shoots up after it. I don’t bother to whistle or stop him. I only shake my head to think how long this dog would last in Buenos Aires.
As the truck rolls past the café we had breakfast at, our dog has caught up with the front tire and has begun his stare-down with the hubcap.
Another dog, scraggly with long brown fur, is up on four legs the second the two pass him. He also takes up a bark, bites our dog on his hind. When he does, our dog flips around, under the truck bed.
The back tire hits him directly over the torso. His belly twists like a bottle cap. After the tire rolls over him and recoils from the obstacle, our dog tries to regain his footing, but all four legs are splayed in so many directions. A terrible squeal erupts from his pained jaw. He spins, falls to the ground. The truck turns a corner and is out of sight.
I cover my mouth in shock, and a small crowd gathers. An aging man rushes to our dog, scooping him up out of the street and resting him on the sidewalk where he pets the dog’s head. It is evident that there is nothing to be done. I watch as our dog takes labored breaths, drawing what he can.
The people who have gathered speak rapidly, and there is only one phrase I can catch, “Matarlo,” which silences the others. A woman sits with her child at the table and continues to sip her coffee, looking on with a hard face. We listen to the dog’s ragged breathing for a few moments, while the aging man continues to pet the dying creature.
A waitress pours a glass of water on his head, eliciting no reaction as it rolls over his open eyes and runs in rivulets in his greasy fur. The group is gone as soon as the dog takes its last breath and his belly drops.
Now we sit by a pool at a private resort and estancia. We talked the owner into letting us use it this afternoon for fifty pesos. It’s a little more than I hoped to spend but the two of us needed it. Blissfully quiet, the estancia is shaded here by tall winding trees, tipas blancas, and a sorrowful willow. Beyond the fence, horses graze for a few hundred yards, and beyond that is the spot we had pitched for the night next to the dirt road.
We’re alone at the pool except for a worker at the estancia who explained his politics to us and passed us mate frío at the edge of shade. Andrew tried to hand the mate back before it was empty. The worker shoved it back into his chest, not taking the offense. I had the luxury of learning from his mistake. His skin is a thorough tan, but Andrew and I are beginning to burn in the strength of the sun.
Posthumously, we call our dog Speed Bump.
“He was kind of retarded,” Andrew says after the laugh we have about his new name. It had been only a few hours ago since I watched the poor thing twist out of shape and die on the side of the road.
I would like to say I’m over it, but my mind continually drifts back and replays the sight without my willing it to.
We leave the pool around seven and start walking to the bus station. Along the dusty road and dirty river, another dog falls in after us. This one reeks of death. We see a gash in its left shoulder, open to the air. From the smell, I can tell it’s gangrene.
Although the dog is up and seemingly cheerful, I know it will be dead soon. We yell at it and tell it to split, but it still trails us some twenty yards back.
The sky over the flat land turns a creamy pink-orange. Shortly, our bus arrives and we pull out. The small village disappears along with the sun over the horizon.
Back in the city, friends ask us about our weekend, and we neglect to mention the dog.