My Dog Days

They’ve been steady companions as I’ve moved from house to house, station to station—and each one has provided me with a lesson about my life’s passage.

THE FIRST DOG I EVER OUTLIVED WAS MOE. He came with my family, which was in the process of getting bigger (I was the third child out of what would become five) and had adopted the dog to appease my brothers’ having to tolerate a new sister. Moe: a beagle named by boys. My delinquent brother believed he had named the dog after his favorite Stooge; my egghead brother thought “Moe” was short for Geronimo, whose history he was then studying. Moe was not exactly one of us. He lived outside, like the lawn mower, and over the years we spent a lot of time commanding and imploring him to shut up. Occasionally, my father took him hunting, which left both of them vaguely deaf. It was Moe’s baying that prompted my first sentence: “Moe bark.”

When my parents’ fifth child arrived, they moved us from our tiny tract house in Wichita, Kansas, to a giant dilapidated one. Moe and I got lost together our first night in that house, wandering the back staircase that led to the servants’ quarters. Everything was different in the new house—we even had a new sister. But Moe was the same. And though he spent the second half of his life in a much larger pen, he still lived outside with the garden tools and bikes, and we rarely visited him. There he sat at the gate, barking feebly. The big excitement was when he finagled an escape and we mobilized to look for him—in cars, on foot, on the phone—everyone horrified, hearts pounding, eyes leaking, to think he would die or disappear. But who could blame him for trying?

I was twelve when he died. A piece of my childhood had been irrevocably stolen away at the same time as I was going through puberty, heading off to junior high, wearing my first bra, sneaking my first sips of liquor, uttering my first curse words. Childhood snuffed, wrapped in a smelly blanket and buried in the backyard under a brick. For a while there was no replacement for old Moe. My parents made the usual dull excuses: No one ever walked the dog, the dog suffered, the dog sat outside barking; they, my mom and dad, would end up caring for the dog, no matter what promises we children made. Blah, blah, blah.

So it was a stealth operation, acquiring the new dog. It was a forgiveness-rather-than-permission kind of move, very teenage. I located a stray while wandering some neighborhood I shouldn’t have been in, smoking cigarettes with people I shouldn’t have been with. The dog “followed” me, attached to the end of my white studded belt, all the way home, across town. He looked like an Old English sheepdog cut off at the knees. His tail was so long it seemed as if he might tip backward on it, and he acted more like a cat than a dog, aloof and skittish. I named him George when he sort of responded to the name. He rarely barked, and he hid under furniture, refusing to come when called. On walks, he picked fights with larger dogs, as if he himself were large. More than once, he chased a smaller creature to its death. His one claim to some kind of charm was his right ear, which stood up while the left lay flat. This made him seem quizzical and sweet instead of malodorous and paranoid, which were his true traits.

When I left for college, George stayed with my parents, just as they’d predicted he would, and when he died and my mother phoned me, I thought for sure the grief in her voice was about my father or my niece or any other number of humans we loved. Nope. She was weeping over George, who had finally succumbed.

I was married by then and had a much more presentable dog to love, a dog who’d fit in at a Pottery Barn photo shoot or running in slo-mo on the beach. Buying a dog is significantly different from inheriting or adopting one. It’s not quite like buying a product, since dogs aren’t made on an assembly line, yet it isn’t the same as saving a mongrel either. Not quite. It’s more like dating, I think. You select your type—blond, dumb, sweet—and then watch the litter, looking for the one whose particular blond-dumb-sweet personality best suits your own, knowing in advance that you have some affinity. I wanted a golden retriever. I wanted a girl because I’d only had boys—unneutered, my dad of a school of thought that disapproved of lopping off a fella’s nuts. I myself have always wanted to be a gentle leggy blonde; why wouldn’t I choose her, instead of a fireplug with a Napoleon complex?

A golden retriever puppy looks more like a human baby than any other creature. I chose the most temperate of the girls. Flannery, I named her. (A year later, when I won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, my husband suggested we name our next dog Nobel.) I loved that dog like a child. She was much more rewarding than my earlier dogs, much more appealing than my cats. Right up until I gave birth to my daughter, the very day, hand on my burbling belly, I can remember thinking: I will never love anything as much as I love Flannery.

So Flannery was my biggest dog romance for many years. She was our first project, my husband’s and mine. We acquired her in Tucson, Arizona, where I went to graduate school, where we met, and where she grew up, much photographed and anthropomorphized. She moved with us to Chicago, where she gamely endured living in our tiny one-bedroom apartment, adjusting admirably to a suddenly circumscribed life. Down two flights of metal steps she had to go, several times a day, out beyond the manicured garden and parking lot, us with bags, her with a full bladder. City living in the frozen Midwest.

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