The year was 1997. The United Kingdom had just handed sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China. The Heaven’s Gate cultists committed mass suicide at their San Diego compound. The English Patient won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Pol Pot was still alive. These were heady, confusing times, and America needed a good, unambiguous hero. A hero that was a dog. A dog that could sort of play basketball. And thus, the legend and film franchise of Air Bud was born, earning twenty-seven million dollars at the box office against a mere three-million budget, and briefly catapulting its Golden Retriever lead actor and inspiration, Buddy, to canine superstardom.
Unfortunately, celebrity dog Buddy succumbed to complications from cancer the following year at the age of ten. The mythology of Air Bud continued however, and sequels were released at a rapid-fire pace. In short order, the fictionalized version of Buddy conquered (American) football, (the rest of the world) football, baseball, and even volleyball. And still to come was the Air Buddies spin-off films, about Buddy’s trouble-making puppies, including fan favorite B-Dawg, the relatable puppy who loves hip-hop culture. The puppies of the spin-off films had human actors do voice-over work for them, unlike the original Air Bud films, because of course dogs cannot speak.
Well, not until now, perhaps, because I’ve been sent up the meandering black roads of the Hollywood Hills by my drunk editor to interview the spirit of Buddy. We’re here to drum up anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the original film. Back in the old days, it was possible to celebrate an anniversary without resorting to communicating with the spirit of a dead animal, but the world is changing.
I should perhaps mention I don’t believe in magic, ghosts, the supernatural, vampires, zombies, Bigfoot, or really much of anything the least bit outside the realm of conventional wisdom. I’m not alone at least. There’s Maria, the only other journalist in attendance, an up-and-coming writer with more Twitter followers than God. She wasn’t even born when the Air Bud franchise first debuted.
Kevin Zegers (who had a recurring role in Gossip Girl!), the now thirty-something actor who portrayed the depressed child/human protagonist from the first four Air Bud films, stands apart from the rest of us, in what I suppose could be called a defensive posture, arms-crossed, looking ready to blow this popsicle stand at any moment. As someone who actually knew Buddy, this must seem quite disrespectful, not to mention a waste of time.
The final member of our moribund gathering is Bradley Kramer, who has informed us all several times that he is the author of the definitive history of the Air Bud franchise, Air Blood, Sweat, and Tears: The Unauthorized True Story of Air Bud, flitters from one room in this sleek mansion to the next, talking to himself, taking notes, bumping into things. He smells like a warm Domestic beer.
Our host in this quixotic endeavor is Leonidas Trelawney (born David Michael Brooks) and he is all vaguely sinister smiles and stray curse-words. He wears cargo shorts and an altogether too-large Big Dogs T-shirt, stained with barbecue sauce. Like most millionaires I’ve met, he’s a bit of a slob. We’re all standing in his wide-open and very damp living room, waiting for this strange rich man to make contact with Buddy. Outside it is dusk but inside it is madness. Crass futuristic art covers every wall, or at least every wall in which a samurai sword is not prominently hung. Each room features a different song on loop. The living room plays “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne, whilst in the master bathroom you are treated to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Right before Trelawney prepares to lead us to the room in which the “séance” will commence, Kramer and Zegers start arguing, their initial distrust of one another finally boiling over. Kramer has insinuated that the other dog actors who took on the role of Buddy in the myriad of Air Bud sequels were just as talented and just as driven. Zegers takes umbrage to this. I believe they are about to come to blows. But Trelawney diffuses the situation by simply telling his life story, which at the very least, bores Zegers enough to keep him from knocking Kramer out cold.
Trelawney worked as a cashier at a Community College bookstore for years until he decided he didn’t want to work at a Community College bookstore anymore. “I could always communicate with different energies, listen in on—for lack of a better word—other dimensions, other planes. But it took years to harness it, to make it reliable. You don’t just realize one day you can talk to fucking ghosts and shit. I tried to look the part. Lived in a trailer. Wore a robe like some goddamned druid.”
“What changed?” I ask, nervously sipping my fourth Moscow Mule as he leads us towards The Room.
“Got tired of the phoniness in the medium scene. Too many posers. Complete frauds. What kind of person pretends they can talk to spirits just to make a few bucks? Honestly? So, I set fire to my tarot cards, and said that I would die before ever agreeing to read a goddamn palm again. The spirits of humans are tough to reach, frankly pretty much impossible in most cases. But animals… animals were always easy for me. Animals don’t have the same walls.”
Zegers snorts at this. He still doesn’t believe. I’m not sure I do either, but I’m being paid actual money to at least humor Trelawney. Zegers has no such reason to play along. He’s the only one of us here who actually knew Buddy. They were co-workers. Friends, perhaps? Kramer glares at Zegers, who I gather had refused to grant Kramer an interview whilst he was compiling his Air Bud history. Trelawney leads us down the cavernous sterile hallways of his weird mansion. Outside, the sun gives up at last.
I’ve researched Trelawney as much as Wikipedia has allowed and he more than lives up to his reputation. In the mid-90s the man who for some bizarre reason renamed himself “Leonidas Trelawney” reached the apogee of his fame.
He pitched and subsequently starred in Medium Rare, a show about an over-the-hill racist detective who employed a medium to solve murders by communicating with deceased pets. The first season was a surprise hit, and Trelawney became quite rich quickly. The evidence of those early riches surrounds, this strangely opulent house more worthy of an A-list celebrity than some hasbeen spirit world huckster. The second season of Medium Rare did moderately well, but by the third season viewers had grown tired of this dead-animal centric police procedural. It was unceremoniously cancelled.
We enter what Trelawney simply calls “The Room.” It’s very obviously just a spare bedroom missing a bed. Instead, there is a long mahogany desk. Trelawney sinks into the chair behind it and the rest of us claim real estate on the two long orange couches pushed against the walls.
“Now, the leash, if you’d be so kind, Mr. Kramer.”
Kramer leans forward and digs something from the depths of his overalls. He hands Trelawney an inch or so of what purportedly was Buddy’s first leash, which he won at an auction for an amount of money that makes Maria and I laugh aloud. Kramer glares and reminds us that his Air Bud book is a best-seller on Amazon. Trelawney puts the leash on his desk, pokes it, clutches it, drops it, picks it up again. Then he smells it. I catch Maria politely rolling her eyes. He catches it too. But instead of haranguing this poor bored online #content creator, he begins to speak, to explain.
Because of their proximity and familiarity to humans, cats and dogs and other domesticated animals are relatively easy to contact and more importantly, it is apparently easier to translate their thoughts into something we’d be able to understand. Trelawney demands from us complete silence whilst he plunges into the spirit world or whatever. Most of us are all too happy to oblige. When one finds oneself in our situation, that is to say, waiting for the ghost of a dog to speak from beyond the grave, one is wise to attempt to wait it out. Maria and I both check our texts. I’m fairly certain Kramer farts twice. Trelawney gives no further instruction. He has closed his eyes. He runs his fingers down the tiny length of the leash.
“Got you, you golden son of a bitch…” his voice snaps shut on the room like an iron collar. His eyes open, and he looks at each of us, slowly, as if taking our measure, sniffing out our rhythms, our moods. I conclude that Trelawney is at the very least a talented actor. The light behind his eyes has been rearranged. Zegers snorts yet again. Kramer leans forward, about to speak. But it is Maria who strikes first.
“Is that you, Buddy?” she asks, monotonously, as if even asking this question is beneath her, which it is.
“I am the one you call Buddy,” Trelawney’s mouth says, “Though that is not my True Name.”
“What is your true name, Buddy?” Maria asks, looking a bit less bored, if not much.
“My True Name is mine to hold. It has always been so.”
“So, Buddy,” Maria says, suppressing a smile, “Where are you from?”
“I was flesh and fur made in the image of the High Skyfather like us all. I was born in what you call the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but spent most of my life in San Diego.”
“Who shot you, Buddy?” this from Kramer, “When Kevin di Cicco found you, you were covered in buckshot. Do you know who did that to you, Buddy?”
“Yes. A boy. A boy with his father’s gun. He’s dead now. So too is the father.”
Though Trelawney’s eyes were indeed open, he no longer seems to see exactly. He stared straight ahead. If it was a sham, he was laying the “trance” on a little thick.
“This is bullshit,” bursts out Zegers. He finds his will and his nerve and lends indignation to it, “Prove to me this is real.” He doesn’t actually snarl this request, but I register it as a snarl.
“Kevin, my friend. It is good to see your face again. You have grown. You are not fat. That is good. You always hated fat things, I do remember.”
“Is this true?” I ask Zegers, “Have you always hated fat things?”
Zegers has no time for me. He speaks at our Medium. “Tell me something only I would know. Something only Buddy would know. Or else I’m walking out of your creepy fucking house right now.”
“It is good to see your face. I meant what I said about it being good that you are not fat. There are many things only I know about you, Kevin, my friend.”
“Tell me one thing. Just one.”
“I could speak of the day, the sad day when you couldn’t remember your lines, so you spat on my head. It was frustration.”
Maria and Kramer gasp. Spitting on a dog’s head is universally abominable and also strange. I watch as Zegers takes this in. You might say he looks like he just saw a ghost. Or is talking to one. One that is a dog.
Zegers laughs, but it’s forced, disingenuous.
“Did you spit on Air Bud’s head?” I ask. “That’s not cool, man. You should apologize.”
Trelawney/Buddy speaks again: “You were frustrated, and I forgive you. You are my friend, Kevin. Now and always.”
“You also confessed to me your secret lust for the actress portraying your mother, Wendy Makkena. A good woman. You were a horny boy, Kevin, my friend. Such was your charm.”
This took the fight right out of Zegers. He lowered himself onto the couch and spoke no more. He just watched. Tears hovered in the margins of his eyes. The human heart yearns to be lifted up, but sometimes it can’t achieve lift-off. I watched this war play out in Zegers, as he drifted away without moving.
“There is nothing to forgive,” Trelawney/Buddy finally says, though nobody has spoken for quite some time. Zegers looks away.
“Did you enjoy filming the movie, Buddy?” I ask. “Did you have a choice?”
“Choice? No. Of course not. There is never a choice. There is only Eternal Necessity and the Holy Duty."
“Which was your favorite scene to film?”
“Each scene was bad, my new friend, but the scene of the clown stepping on a banana peel and falling into a birthday cake made me smile. You of course do not know this, but what you call ‘Golden Retrievers’ love few things more than watching clowns suffer. It is one of our oldest Sacred Laws. The producers forced me to dress as a clown. It was the most sophisticated part of the film, I’m sorry to admit."
“Buddy, Brad Kramer here. I’m uh, sort of an expert on the Air Bud franchise, and I was just wondering for my own edification, could you ever have predicted the type of response these films have elicited?”
“No?” Kramer is deflated. I can see the air and spirit leak out of him. This dead dog is really going for the emotional jugular.
“With respect, I was born a Good Dog and I died a Good Dog. Before my body expired to the Ash Kingdom, my leg was hacked off, amputated, as you would say. I was lucky enough to die during my Soft Dreaming. Yes, I did enjoy hitting basketballs with my nose. It was both real and true. Few things are both real and true.”
Maria speaks up. “You guest-starred on an episode of Full House, which is something of a nostalgia crossover. Nostalgia is very sexy right now. Do you remember anything about that?
“My cameo on Full House was the third worst day of my life. Everyone on that show was a monster. Uncle Joey with his prostitutes. Those maniacs, Kimmy Gibbler, Uncle Jesse, the Olsen Twins. They were all beasts. They smelled of gasoline and behaved as though they had scorpions swimming in their blood.”
I was feeling a bit drunk and wondering what the spiritualist endgame was. At what point does Trelawney “return” and tell us that he’s been pulling our collective leg the entire time?
“Buddy,” I say, “This is Alex Siquig for Complex Magazine. Is there something you want to tell your owner? The guy who found you, I mean? You know, the guy who wrote and then made you star in Air Bud? We can get him a message. There are ways. E-mail, and such. Texting. A lot has changed since… you know, you… died.”
“Kevin Di Cicco is a good man, a Rare Human of Renown. He taught me many things. Love, chess, basketball. With respect, that is all I shall say. Hearing my words would only break him. He is a man of science, not faith. As you can tell from watching Air Bud, a film that celebrates cold hard reason.”
And then in short order, like so many of my adult nights, chaos wins out. First the power goes out. Kramer screams for some reason, though it’s only slightly darker than it was a moment ago. I stand, a bit drunk, waiting for my eyes to adjust. We mingle in the darkness. Trelawney lurches to his feet and then doubles over, vomiting. Perhaps this is normal. Perhaps you throw up after a mental journey to another dimension. I’ll have to Google it. I notice Maria is gone, she must have slipped out in the confusion. Kramer is on his knees, demanding Buddy answer more of his questions. Buddy is gone, Trelawney wheezes, throwing up once more. Zegers has not moved. He appears to be deep in a ‘Nam flashback.
I stumble through the house, towards an exit, towards escape. I open the front door and find myself face to face with two brawny LAPD officers. One has his hand resting on the holster of his pistol, as if it were some old friend.
“Is Leonidas Trelawney here, sir?”
“Yeah. He’s in the Room. He just threw up.”
The cops wave a search warrant at me and inform me that Trelawney is under arrest for unpaid parking tickets. I shrug, point them in the direction of the Room and then I slip out of the house, find my PT Cruiser, light a Pall Mall, shove it into my mouth, and drive towards 101. I was deeply disturbed, as I am whenever confronted with the possibility that life is something more than beer and paying rent and the tangled relationships you develop with real human beings that are not ghost dogs.
When I get back to the motel I can’t sleep. I stagger out my door and find a Japanese restaurant that is open all night. I drink plum wine for a few hours and my thoughts are as heavy as twelfth-round fists. Could that actually have been Buddy? Buddy the dead dog actor?
And did it even matter? Of course it mattered. And of course it didn’t. It couldn’t be real. It wasn’t real. But, even if it wasn’t real, something inside me knew that it was true. Later, when I finally slept I dreamed Buddy was alive and strong and bouncing basketballs off his nose in some sepia-toned old-timey Hoosiers looking basketball court. When I woke up he was dead again. But it was still a good dream, like most dreams.