"Not a what?" Penny Lane asks, outside the back of the concert venue in San Diego.
William Miller knows no answer is going to work. Confessing "groupie" brings groans and derision... especially from the pretty blond who has that special something.
Zelda knows this movie well. Almost as well as her Mommy, who can talk along with it. Almost as famous -- in many circles -- as the "Almost Famous" promises in Cameron Crowe's Oscar-winning porject. It is the story of loving music and dreams and hope and potential. Zelda used to be snuck into the Green Hills 16 back when it was a theatrical release, back when my assistant and I used to close a little early a couple times a week to remind ourselves about what matters.
"Almost Famous" is whirring on the personal DVD player I've pulled into my bed. Yes, my bed: the sprawling antique French queem, carved with roses and made with good sheets and down pillows, a hippie quilt and a velvet blanket. It is a sleep cloud, very soft and firm enough to let you drift.
Tonight Zelda and I cling to each other, so I don't worry about her rolling and crashing to the floor -- or trying to take the stairs and tumbling to the bottom. No, she knows this is it. She wants her Mommy.
And after 5 weeks in the living room, I, too, am glad for my bed. Even as I don't really sleep. Instead stroker her soft, spft palomino fur, kissing the top of head, feeling her chest rise and heart beat. If this is it, I want it all.
And Zelda has had another big day. She has endured it and enjoyed it as only a queen can. A true regal who understands it's as much for those she bestows her four-pawed grace and dignity on as it is for her own entertainment.
She went to the beauty shop: Miss KItty's Bed & Bath. A wondrous place where she's boarded her entire life, with its snack time, play time, nap time, cuddle (for her) time, mean time and a staff who just loves dogs. Dogs and Zeldas, who is NOT -- she insists -- a dog.
Jeanette is a Clevelander, She and Zelda have that bond. She cries when the poodle comes in for that last groomie, but she knows the girl has to travel in style. She smiles into the cataracted eyes, and Zelda truly sees her.
Truly seeing is one of Zelda's gifts. She knows. She understands. She bores into a person -- and recognizes their essence, their fear, their dreams. She is unnerving to some, but mostly, she reminds people how liberating love without strings can be. Because Zelda doesn't want to "keep" you, she just wants to "see" you and celebrate that beauty.
When I go to pick her up, the groomer is in tears. Some of the people who've worked at Miss Kittys for years -- long enough to remember the three month illness that kept me from coming for her from Martha's Vineyard four years ago, others who rushed her to the vet nine years ago when blood came out of her backside and an immune disorder ravaged her little body -- wipe away tears, stroke her ears, whisper their good-byes.
It is heartbreaking. It is also a reminder to how powerful a special spirit can be.
Zelda looks at everyone deeply, smiles her Zelda smile, says "There is no good-bye"
Glen Rose, my dear friend, has offered to shoot her for me. He has shot so many people, form the Kings of Leon to baby artists I'm trying to help. He has a curiosity about people and a desire to reveal the essence. He and Zelda have known each other for years; they've always gotten along. It's that soul-sight that's given them common ground.
And Glen is ready. In that perfect photo studio across from Nashville's ancient City Cemetery down on 4th Street. With a light four times the size of the Wonderspaniel and his ability to see Zelda just as she truly is: something blazing with sweetness.
He and I laugh about all the common memories. Photo shoots in condemned buildings, outside abandoned strip clubs, on the road with Kenny Chesney. Zelda just keeps following the lense.
I am in some. Cuddling. Craddling. Trying to kiss her nose.
In her whole life, Zelda has only barked once -- when she thought Ali's son Eli was being eaten by a box. She has never licked my face or kiss me.
Suddenly, her pink little tongue is licking my lips. Is letting me know she loves me. Even if just this once, she will break with personal protocol. She will kiss me -- and leave prood.
But after a bit, she is tired. She gives and gives. Listens to the talk of magazines and moments. Has a few frames with Ali, who roasted her duck hearts and came to believe that some creatures are far more human than their physical being suggests.
It's a wrap.
Back home, there is more beef burgundy, a bit of white peach. She has some cinnamon rice cake -- the kind Krogers doesn't stock anymore -- and she savors every bite. She eats with wolfish enthusiasm, something she's not displayed in too long.
She knows this is the good stuff. She's gonna enjoy every taste, and lick the plate clean.
Then she curls up on the feather bed and dreams... maybe of what's next, maybe something more. But she sleeps, knowing there is strength needed, moments to soak in.
John Hobbs, an early riser who long after we were a "we" would come over in the morning to feed Zelda just to have time with her, had a gig. The Players -- Nashville's now "A Team." Zelda had never really heard him play the piano or B-3. He thought he could "get her in."
After all, Zelda had been getting in, wandered backstage hallways, enjoyed catering and ridden tour buses since she was 4. She knew "how to hang."
What better way to spend a final night then listening to truly great, inspired music.
But more importantly, there was Radnor Lake. Music City's version of Walden Pond, where the pretty girl had traversed the paved road and spillways for more than a decade and a half. With its trees and streams and smells, cool ground, sounds, air. This was the place Zelda was most in sync with her fauna self -- and where there was never a shortage of people to tell her how beautiful she was.
Radnor, where we walked two miles most days to keep her in shape. Because as long as she was in shape, getting older wouldn't register as easily -- and Zelda was not about anything but "let's go. let's see. let's dream."
Zelda'd walked more than a mile there ten days ago. Before the real failing began.
And so, we arrived, there on Otter Creek Road. Parked the car, did some business, tried to walk a bit. But the hips wiggled and circled and made it hard. I carried her most of the way... and confronted with a family of Canadian geese grooming near her favorite bench -- the one that afforded the Monet gaze across the water - Ali Berlow tested their aggressiveness, then played decoy so we could sneak to where we wanted to be.
Zelda's bench. Behind some tall grass, under a few emerald cloud trees. How many hours had she and i spent there? Doing nothing but watching the ripples on the water, the turtles sunning, the ducks lifting out of the lake and yes, even the deer coming down to the water to drink. It was her peaceful place. It was mine, too.
Draped across my lap, extra fluffy from her bath, Zelda listened and watched. She relaxed in a way she hasn't in weeks, not quite going limp, but letting the aches and the toxins and the tired go and just settling into my thighs, feeling safe, feeling whatever tranquil feels like in their most meditative state.
This was heaven. Well, here on Earth. She was going to be released, but this wasn't a bad place to be while she was waiting. She wouldn't have to wait long. She might as well enjoy the beauty of the moment and the love of her Mommy and Mrs. Berlow and everyone else who'd come into contact with the sprite on four paws with the long flowing silky ears.
It IS quiet here. Peaceful. The temperature falling. The slight moisture in the air.
It hits me. I open my phone: 7:19.
"She won't be here in 24 hours," I whipser. I want to die with her. I can't imagine. Yet, of course, it is so. And it is. Period.
Zelda continues regarding the horizon. She is unconcerned. Right now, the lake is beautiful. That's enough. She looks at me to say, "Don't cloud the beauty with your tears... This will be beautiful, too. I promise..."
And so, we sit a little longer. Decide to head back while the day is still dove gray. In that give them their dignity truth that I try to embrace, I snap the long fuschia web leash onto her pink skull and crossbones collar and lift her off the bench. Help her get centered: hips square over back legs, balance set.
Zelda wants to walk. On the wood chips and the gravel. Then down the road that leads out to the spillway. She goes slow, uses the guard-wall as a guide and as Peter Tosh would churn, "Walk and Don't Look Back."
Ali is worried about having enough time to get her fed, get us together, get to the club.
Zelda is slowing a little, weaving a bit. I think about picking her up, watching her from my lead dog positn out on the road. Zelda just keeps walking, but talks to me in that way she has since she was a puppy.
i KNOW what she's thinking. I've been translating for years. Tears come to my eyes.
I don't pick her up. We continue our glacial pace, moving down the blacktop, night air thickening around us and the bird songs getting louder.
Zelda has seen geese and turtles, a baby snack, fish jumping, an otter swimming. Now the birdies sing to her... They all want to see their little spaniel friend off.
When we reach the parking lot, I want to cry. Putting her in the car, I tell Ali.
"I couldn't pick her up. She said, 'It's my last walk. Let me have it.'"
We both cry.
Of course. Her last walk. Her last stroll. She wanted to enjoy it,, to feel it, to know the road under her paws and the way the curves and hills fall.
And there is a text. From Hobbs. That Ron, the nicest club owner in the world, would let the span in, have a table. Come on down.
We do. Arriving right before downbeat. The doorman winks, says, "Don't let her drink too much or get too wild."
I nod. Zelda talks in the place. A bar. Somewhere she's rarely been. Somewhere she clearly likes. Brent Mason comes over to say "hi." We explain why there's a spaniel at the Players gig. He clouds over. But he gets it. He has a big heart to go with that guitar blaze that's country and dexterity and soul and skill.
Michael Rhodes, the praying mantis bass player who brings the melodic sense of beat to Steve Winwood and Larry Carlton, takes the stage. He smiles at us, as does Hobbs.
Paul Franklin, a man who changed the steel guitar's possibility and shows golden retrievers, purses his lips. "Are you sure?" he asks, about being so close to his monitors.
"Oh, yeah," I say. "She loves it."
Zelda does, too. She follows the musicians about two measures behind. Her heart rate slows down and she returns to that state of blissful limp in my lap. She couldn't be happier, couldn't be more alive.
This, too, is heaven. To a spaniel. Well one of wildly refined taste.
"Since I Fell For You" and blistering instrumentals. And then...
"This... tonight...," says the bespectacled piano man, "is... for the wonderspaniel."
Puddles of notes, rising, descending, rippling emerge. They are progressions, transitions, minor key meditations and modulations. It is true jazz a la Bill Evans, evoking -- perhaps --"Waltz for Debbie."
Zelda watches raptly from her bed on my lap. Tries pushing up the sit "like a big girl."
Still the song swirls on. The other musicians fall into concentric circles, each soloing in a way that embroiders the motifs with a sense of passion. Passion for the music, for the talent, for a pretty girl about to fade away.
They all know it's Zelda's last show. They smile at her. They play for her. They make it burn slow and bright -- like the baby doll she is.
The song -- different from anything else the Players play, yet every bit as signature as the slamming stuff -- has been mentioned to me in far flung places in the oddest situations. Anyone who knows the Players knows "Holly's Song." It is one of those pieces of music.
But tonight, it is wholly Zelda Fitzgerald Spaniel Gleason's providence, and she exults in it.
Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues" follows. A still being cartographed variation on James Taylor's "You Make It Easy." More instrumentals. At almost the witching hour, the first set is done. Zelda is spent. It has been perfect. She can't believe how good they really are... the way Eddie Bayers holds the rhythm on his drums, the way Mason sings like he plays, the way Hobbs, her Hobbs, can coax sentiment from lines of music.
They all come to pay her court. To hug me. To say "hi" to Ali. To wish us well tomorrow.
Zelda takes it all in. Needs to get some air. But she's even too tired to potty.
John Hobbs had agreed to sing his Irish elegy "When They Lay Me Down," the most hopeful post-parting from the mortal coil song ever written. Zelda isn't going to make it that far.
She is in the tall grass, lying down, breathing the cool night air.
She wants to go home: to the good sheets and beef burgundy and full spaniel massage.
She knows enough to plenty and then some.
She is ready.
She is ready. Damn it. So much better at this -- like everything -- than I am.
She wants to go home. To lie down. To be stroked and whispered to. To sleep, perchance -- as Shakespeare offered -- to dream.
So we drive, turning the car towards Music Row. To take the long way home. Past all the places she's graced for nearly 17 years. Past the record companies, the management offices, BMI and ASCAP. By Carnival Music where she lay on a funky couch, watching Travis Hill and I pick through lines to find "Better As A Memory."
Soon Zelda will be that, too. And maybe -- or so i tell myself when Im trying to be adult -- she is better as a memory than as my pretty girl, so sick from renal failure, not able to jump into the big, big car, not hungry even for Kenny Chesney's special plain salmon in catering.
It is not for me to want to take hostages... Certainly not to watch my best friend suffer.
Maybe the memory is the kindest way to fix Zelda in forever.
Maybe I need to love her enough to let go.
Right now, though, Sapphire is talking about what it "means to be a fan... To love some band or some silly little piece of music... so much... that it hurts."
Zelda knows that feeling. Like me, it defined her -- and reminded me the potency of being a true believer, embracing the range of how it feels and finding dignity and a thrill in whatever you're handed.
She is soft. As soft as she's ever been. I pet her and she melts even deeper into me as the movie plays, the minutes pass and we wait for Dr. Scanlon at 6. This is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done -- and yet somehow, somehow Zelda will find a way to make it all okay. It's what she's done always; my guess is it won't be any different now.
"Not a what?" Penny Lane asks, outside the back of the concert venue in San Diego.