Many years ago, I promised myself that I would write a column when either my car or my dog died, whichever came first. One of them is finally gone. I'll try to be funny.
Harry and my car were born about the same time. It was during the waning days of the first Bush administration, which is to say that both car and dog lasted far longer than could reasonably be expected, given what they were.
When we bought Harry he was described, technically, as a "Labrador retriever," and I suppose this is true in the sense that Tic Tacs are, technically, "food." Harry wasn't the square, shiny elegant type of black Labrador you can envision in the wilds of Canada on a hunting trip for ducks. Harry was the shape of a baked potato and the color of an inter-office envelope. You could envision him in the wilds of Gaithersburg on a hunting trip for nuggets of dried food in a carpet.
My car? A Mazda 323, the size of a file cabinet and so stripped down it didn't even have air conditioning, or airbags, or power steering, or a cup holder, or, if you want to get right down to it, any class at all. Its finish began to dull as I drove it out of the showroom, and within a year it had all the luster of cinder block. Its seats were made of a substance that sort of looked like leather only in the sense that cardboard sort of looks like oak, and they were upholstered with what appeared to be kitchen sponges. I know because over the years the stuffing kept leaking out through holes in the faux leather, which was as thin as an undertaker's smile.
I considered the car a generic car, and the dog a generic dog. Once, I was reading an article about people who raised dogs for food in Asia. And an Asian dog rancher was indignantly defending his profession, saying that he only used "basic yellow dogs." And I looked down at Harry, asleep as usual. Meat.
I always thought my car was too simple to break down. It was mostly just an engine and four wheels. What could go wrong? A computer breaks; an abacus will survive for millennia.
Similarly, I always thought Harry was too stupid to die. The medical definition of death involves cessation of all brain function; near as I could tell with Harry, all brain functions ceased at birth -- so really, what's the worry? To be blunt, Harry was never quite Lassie when it came to problem-solving. If an electrical cord was lying on the floor -- running, say, from a wall plug to a space heater -- Harry found the route over the cord to be as impassable as the Himalayas. He'd stand there, waiting for someone to move it so he could get by.
Harry always shedded hellaciously, particularly when he was nervous, such as during trips to the vet. Because of this, he was not permitted in my wife's car, meaning that my car always carried a thick carpet of Harry fur, which was actually fortunate, since it covered my car's own carpet, which resembled, in terms of beauty and elegance, a flophouse blanket. Some years ago, I found some antique political bumper stickers and put them on my car -- "Democrats for Goldwater" and "Pipefitters for Carter-Mondale." No one gave them a second thought; from outward appearances, it was entirely plausible that the car was that old.
Harry outlasted two other dogs in our household, and my car outlasted three other cars, and that's because, when you came right down to it -- when you consider what you ask of cars and pets -- the car was a good car, and Harry was a good dog.
The car was nearly indestructible, with a clutch so indomitable that it taught two teenagers how to drive a stick shift. It was their car for a while, serially, until they decided they merited fancier cars, and the crappy one went back to Dad. Of course, it outlasted the rest.
And the dog? A very good dog. If you own a dog, you already know what makes a good dog. If you don't, this one thing can sum it up: Some time ago, my wife -- who is studying acting -- was rehearsing lines from a play. Her character was a woman trying to talk her daughter out of suicide -- a monologue of excruciating intensity. My wife had to stop in the middle because Harry, who has no vocabulary but reads emotions quite splendidly, had become too upset. You don't need a brain to have a heart.
Anyhow, that's about it. I promised myself I would write this column, even if it hurt. Which it does.
I'll really miss that car.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.