Most days Fred noses open the door when he hears the clock radio, then pounces on the bed and roots around until he can get me to rub his ears. One morning I didn’t miss him at first, but when I found him lying on the landing I knew he was dying. I carried him into the yard and tried to set him on his feet, but he fell over, helpless. Something terrible had happened during the night: Fred was paralyzed. I feared that he would not live long enough to make it to our veterinarian’s office. As usual, with pets as with children, it was the worst possible time: the all-night emergency clinic had already closed and regular office hours had not yet begun. I thought for a moment about just staying with him in the yard until he died. Many things frighten Fred—thunder, guns, strange men, big dogs, all cats—but veterinary offices terrify him. Still, I hoped for a miraculous cure I knew was beyond reason. Since I had work that needed to be done, I left him with the vet’s assistant and waited for a call.
The vet’s initial diagnosis was that Fred had suffered either a stroke or a broken blood vessel in his brain. In all likelihood he could not be cured. We all cried that night, and our two boys pretended to be men and said they would like to kiss Fred good-bye before the doctor put him away. I planned to stay with him myself. I thought I owed him that much. I’d bought him ten years ago to replace another beagle some kids had maliciously shot on the same weekend my oldest son was born.
Fred’s mother had been a field trail champion in Vermont, and he was muscular and deep-chested for pushing though the deep drifts that snowshoe hares can skim over. When he was young he would hunt for hours in subfreezing weather, with or without me. After we moved south of the snow and into the city, I spent $500 on a six-foot fence to replace the four-foot fence he could jump. It contained him for two days before he climbed it and commenced to hunt bunnies. I gave up and, eventually, so did the dogcatcher. Even so, Fred was a bargain. I couldn’t remember a day when the silly beast hadn’t made me laugh out loud at least twice. He was the handsomest beagle I ever saw, but much too foolish to be vain; as loudly as he bugled after rabbits, so he sounded when himself pursued by tomcats. His voice and his cowardice combined to make him a fine watchdog. We had this compromise: he would stand guard if we pretended not to know he jumped up on the furniture when we went up to bed.
But the doctor called again in the morning. He’d noticed a pain reflex, which ruled out the previous diagnosis, and x-rays revealed a cervical vertebra slightly out of place. Either from trauma or from a degenerative condition common