My first dachshund Simon had to be put down. I held him across my lap while the vet stuck in the needle. My friend Suzy sat next to me in the veterinary clinic. She leaned her scrawny shoulder against mine. Suzy had a dachshund too — “Noodles.” I have known several dachshunds named Noodles or Noodle. Is it dachshunds’ supple noodly length that prompts people to name them that? Suzy’s Noodles was black-and-tan, male. I’m not partial to black-and-tans. Simon was that pretty roan pony red, a color that puts pictures in your mind of green meadow; in the meadow’s sunlit distance, horses run and their manes fly: that’s the red Simon was. Suzy had long, straight hair that she ironed flat; she stretched her hair out on the ironing board and ran a GE travel iron over it, because this was the late 1960s and we wanted long straight folksinger hair. Suzy’s kitchen reeked from singed hair and the hashish she smoked. Suzy hated that her hair was mousy. She wanted hair the color Simon’s coat was. She shampooed with henna rinse. When she came to my house she let her hair dip onto Simon’s back to see if the colors matched. Sometimes she got her hair Simon-red, sometimes she didn’t.
We found Simon in a Pennysaver ad. Why the family had to get rid of him was that he’d turned into an egg-suck dog. The neighbor threatened to shoot him next time he caught him lifting eggs out of nest boxes in his hen house. The people giving him away asked us to come after their children left for school. They said it was going to go hard on the kids to lose him. The house sat on a rise and was painted yellow. My husband was in graduate school, and we’d been living in shotgun rent houses. This yellow house, with well-tended gardens and aromatic pink roses creeping up a trellis that arched over the front gate, was the kind of house I wanted.
Simon took to us right away: he wagged his rattish tail, he ran his warm tongue over our hands. I held him; his heart beat hard. I looked up at my husband and said, “Can we?” and he nodded, “Sure.”
The three years we had Simon, he never gave a minute’s trouble. After one scolding he never again chewed Rebecca’s and Sarah’s Barbie clothes or Ken’s toeless feet. He ate what we fed him and didn’t complain. He let the girls and their friends pull on and off his sausage body the Carter’s nightgowns they’d worn as infants; he let them stretch him out in the dolly bed and tuck him under the dolly quilt. He never snapped, never bit, never grrred. He just grinned his wienie-dog grin. When anyone came home, he leapt and did doggy pirouettes. After I put the children down for their naps, I liked to lie on the couch and read. This was so long ago that I was reading The Lord of the Rings in hardcover. Simon curled between my hip and the back of the couch. He was my dog, deep down.
I sang the Simon song to him while he died. The song was a song the girls and I made up: “Simon bright, Simon light, Simon starlight, Diamond Simon.” Simon’s body went slack. I didn’t want to make it harder for him to die. I didn’t want to make him think I was going to toss him a ham bone or that we were going to walk in snow that drifted down fast outside the clinic’s smudged window. He was that rare dachshund who didn’t mind cold.
Simon’s back was gone — intervertebral disk disease, not uncommon among a breed with such a long spine and short legs — and that was why he was being put to sleep. We were too poor to pay to have his back fixed. Rebecca and Sarah needed shoes. The propane tank was near empty. I swore I’d never get another dog until I had plenty of money in the bank. My tears fell on his roan pony back. The vet carried him away. For a moment his warmth stayed on my lap.
We went home in Suzy’s VW. I dug the hole myself although my husband offered. I scooped away snow. I chipped frozen turf. My arms ached for days and my legs hurt too.
There’s got to be, I think, an extra green hump of rough Bermuda stems above what are now Simon’s bones. I guess I’m the only person who sings, “Simon starlight, Simon bright.” Maybe the family who advertised in the Pennysaver remembers, maybe the farmer into whose hen house Simon skulked, chicken house smell tugging at his nose, hunger for golden yolk firing off neurons in his doggy brain. Perhaps that farmer remembers with satisfaction how he told a family that lived over the rise in the yellow house with the rose trellis how if he caught that goddam wiener dog in his hen house one more time he’d shoot that sneaky SOB to smithereens. Maybe some neighbor girl, a mother now, remembers the afternoon she helped Rebecca wriggle Simon’s stumpy forelegs into a washed-threadbare Carter’s gown. Maybe she recalls that in the back of the gown, they scissored out a hole for the dog’s lively tail.
I meant it when I promised myself I’d never get another dog until I had plenty of money in the bank. So 1 went a long time before I got a dog of my own again. Rebecca, by that time, had an overweight miniature poodle named Cher. One winter when Rebecca was in seventh grade and Sarah in sixth, I began to long for a dachshund. I read ads in papers from the two nearby cities. I called the vet where Cher got her clippings. Nobody had anything but miniatures or black-and-tans or wire-hairs. I wanted a red standard with a smooth coat the color of Suzy’s hennaed hair.
Hugo came in a dream. The time in the dream was twilight. The color of the twilight was violet Hugo, in my dream, was named Hugo, and he was a dachshund, red-coated and smooth. But he was man-size. Had he stood erect, he would have stood 6'2" and weighed, say, 210 beefy pounds. He was traveling in a John Deere-yellow ski bus on a two-lane highway in Vermont, a state where I’d never been. He was wedged between other skiers. The skiers, excepting Hugo, were human. The humans were rosy-cheeked. The humans and Hugo wore knit caps. Bobbing yarn balls stuck up atop the hats’ crowns. They were like hats I knit every year for our church’s Christmas bazaar. The dream smell was of wet wool. The humans sang.
Group songs. “Farmer in the Dell,” I think. Hugo’s huge doggy head was thrown back, his doggy mouth was open and melody streamed out. I saw the melody as a series of musical notes rising and falling across a bass clef. Hugo, 1 thought, must be a tenor.
Outside the bus windows snow drifted down. High in the dark sky, stars twinkled. The bus hit a bump, the chassis bounced, and the humans laughed and shouted. Hugo turned to me. He said, “Come get me. I’m yours.”
I know this sounds unbelievable, but I did dream that dream and what’s even more amazing and too good to sound true is that the very next morning, at 8:30, 40 minutes after my husband backed out of the driveway, our telephone rang. The caller said her name was Nan; she heard we wanted a red standard dachshund. Nan lived four blocks from us, and she had two pups left from a Christmas litter of five. Within an hour I had written Nan a check for $100 and wrapped Hugo in a blanket and tucked him inside my down jacket and carried him home.
I never imagined I could call him any name other than Hugo. Why Hugo? I knew no one named Hugo. There was Hugo Black, an FDR appointee to the Supreme Court. There was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a German writer whom I’d never read. There was Hugo Wolf, the German composer whose lieder my mother sang, and Hugo Wolff, my mother’s vocal coach back in the late 1940s; he had a studio in Carnegie Hall next door to a doctor to whom my mother once took me to get a wart burned off my hand. There was Hugo Winterhalter, the father of elevator music, and of course Victor Hugo, the father of what, for me, are many unpleasant thoughts. My guess is that the name insinuated itself into my dreams because I had been reading the poet Richard Hugo, then still alive and teaching poets at the University of Montana in Missoula. I had been reading poems from his Death of the Kapowsin Tavern and his bitter Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir as if these poems were Bible stories; I searched the lines for answers as to how to lead my life, how to stay alive. From Death of the Kapowsin Tavern, I had memorized “Tahola.”
Where sea breaks inland, claiming the Quinalt in a half saltwater lake, canoes turn gray waiting for the runs. The store makes money but the two cafes, not open, rot in spray.
The autumn before Hugo was born, I drove across the Cascade Mountains into Seattle and down along the Pacific coast toward Grays Harbor County and Tahola. Wind rocked the car. Rain sluiced slantwise across the windshield. A sign along the road right before you made the turn toward Tahola read, “This Road Ends at Tahola” (and Hugo also has a poem by that title). As I drove into Tahola, the clouds pulled back and took the rain with them. Steam rose up off the potted roads, on each side of which board houses leaned. Smoke curled from tin pipes set askew on tarpaper roofs. Rangy piebald mongrels, scabrous and balded in patches with what I took to be mange, crawled out from beneath the succoring porches and ambled into the road. The dogs, maybe a dozen of them, flopped down and began to lick with long black-spotted pink tongues at sores, and the males, at loosed genitals. The dogs looked up at me, as I stood out of the car, and then looked back at each other, all the while never ceasing to lap at their wounds. Not a one of the dogs barked. The smell was saltwater, wood smoke, and the sick-sweet cancer rot stench of mangy dogs. My boot heels sank in mud and I stared down at my feet and stepped out of the suck that threatened to take me, boots first. When I next looked up, seconds later, a buzzing veil of flies — How many flies? Thousands? — had fallen upon the dogs. 1 didn’t stay around to meet the citizens.
The sign — “This Road Ends at Tahola”—became for me a watchword about how I’d better change my life or this was how I’d end up, like the speaker in Dick Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” a poem Hugo wrote after his girlfriend left him:
You might come here
Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down.
The last good kiss you had was years ago.
I am shy with a new dog and I was shy with Hugo. I could hardly look him in the eye. 1 was glad no one was home. The house was cold, upstairs and down. 1 added apple wood to the fireplace where, to the previous night’s banked fire, my husband had, earlier that morning, added logs. The fire took off. I curled up on the couch with Hugo, still wrapped in his blanket. He trembled, his tremors visible beneath his auburn puppy coat. I whispered, “Hugo, Hugo, Hugo.” I saw him as he appeared in my dream — dapper in his ski hat and singing in his doggy tenor. I was in love the way mothers are in love in that moment when a baby breaks out of them and cries.
Everybody took to Hugo from Day One. In Maxine Kumin’s story “The Neutral Love Object,” Kumin writes, “Once at a cocktail party a psychiatrist had told her that people make their dogs into neutral love objects, a repository for all the unspoken passion at work in the yeasty ferment of a family.” It was that way with us. “Isn’t he the most adorable puplet you ever saw?” Rebecca might say, to which Sarah would respond, “I love his popcorn-smelling feet!” They conversed, back and forth, even though normally they hissed and fought over who had whose striped red-and-navy knee socks and who had been in whose purse, reading love notes. Hugo sat between them; they took turns rubbing his puppy fat stomach and sniffing his popcorn feet Dachshund feet do smell like salted popcorn and so do some dachshunds’ ears.
A dachshund gives his heart to one person and Hugo gave his heart to me. When my husband left for work in the morning, Hugo rarely even peeked out from the couch where he burrowed in pillows. When the children left for school, ditto. If I so much as took out the trash, he moaned and threw himself against the door and when I walked back into the kitchen two minutes later, he leaped and grinned. Dachshunds do smile. Believe me.
At some point in Hugo’s first year, Rebecca and Sarah and I began to sit around and work on what we came to call the “Dachshund Creation Story.” We fiddled with the story for several years, adding here and taking away there and altering first one detail and then another.
Our story began with the notion that at some point in the first half of the 16th Century, God grew increasingly disgusted with humankind’s arguments over Him. He was weary to the point of migraine of the hectoring Swiss Zwingli, the bumptious and melancholy and lately uxorious Martin Luther, and equally weary of the abstemious John Calvin, to say nothing of the bed-hopping English king and the self-satisfied Roman swells holed up in their palaces, dining on peacocks and dear, one-mouthful birds like ortolans. For the most, God did not read these fellows’ theses and proclamations and endless exegeses of His Word or their tormented interpretations of His intentions any more than an established writer reads the dissertations on his work that are endlessly typed out by doctoral students. (In fact, God hadn’t read much since Thomas Aquinas put the last pen strokes to his Summa Theologica.) What did make God sick at heart were the wars fought in His name. But God had all the time in the world; He had in His hands the beginning and the end of time. He could wait them out.
But, alas, during these years, God did not sleep well. He comforted Himself with thoughts of new beings He might mold out of clay and blow His moist breath into.
Early on a particularly pretty summery morning, God said to His right-hand angel, “Today I want to create a new dog. 1 haven’t made a truly new dog in several centuries.”
God knew that the dog must have a function. Mankind, He sighed, demands utility, finds difficult loving someone or something in and of and for itself. Inspiration hit “Nobody,” He said to the right-hand angel, “with the exception of German foresters, has really, truly harried the sharp-toothed badger. This fellow I’m making, by golly, he’ll harry them.”
Rebecca and Sarah and I liked to imagine that God had an immense library of rolled vellums on which were drawings of His creations. So that we had God sit then on a high stool at His workroom drawing table and ask His angel to bring bloodhound plans. He studied the bloodhound’s short, smooth coat and somewhat elongated trunk. He rejoiced at the bloodhound’s miraculous nose. He sang a snatch of the Angelic Doctor’s Pange Lingua. He sketched. The dog grew long but not skinny, and although he was low to the ground, he was not so low as to high-center on every bump on a trail. God dreamed and doodled. He called for clay. Rebecca insisted on the clay. Thus began a frenzy of molding and thumping. He shortened the bloodhound legs. He narrowed the bloodhound tail.
Because this dog also must appeal to ladies, He took extra care with finishing details. He added circular whorls of hair on the back hocks, “rather,” He said, “like pockets.” He lengthened the neck, knowing how greatly women admire an elegant throat. He whistled Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, even though Beethoven hadn’t been born yet, and with His thumbnail worked the eyes’ almond shape. He fixed at the front of the prowlike chest another delightful whorl of hair, not unlike the corkscrew of braid that the yet-to-be-born Coco Chanel would one day add to suit jackets.
As I said, we fiddled off and on with the details of our dachshund creation story, adding, taking away. But early on, we found our story’s finale and that finale never changed. When God finished the new dog, what He had before Him on the worktable was the standard female dachshund, modeled in clay. All that was left to do was give the dog life. “Because we are sending it first to the Germans,” He said to His angel, “we will call it ‘Dachs-hund,’ ‘the badger dog.’ ” God stretched out His hand over the motionless form and said, “Dachshund, go forth into the world and take my love with you.” And then He pressed His mouth to the clay muzzle and breathed and breathed and breathed.
God, the girls and I decided, never could bring Himself to expel dogs from Eden. Dogs existed in a pure paradisiacal Eternal Now. Dogs lived the way the lilies live, or as Sarah explained it, “They don’t sit around asking themselves,
‘What’s for dinner?’ ” Dogs were untroubled by mind-body dichotomy; they were their bodies and their bodies did not lie. “Which means,” said Rebecca, “every thought they think is in every move they make.”
Hugo, like many dachshunds, had a mind of his own. Once he passed through puppyhood, he increasingly balked at any activity that might interrupt his immediate comfort. Once he decided upon some act he would or would not perform, he stubbornly kept to his habit.
We lived in a two-story house. During Hugo’s puppy-hood he was too small to walk up and down stairs, from living room to bedrooms. We carried him up and we carried him down. After he passed puppyhood, he took the stairs unassisted (an activity not that good for a dachshund’s long back). One evening, as he trotted downstairs behind Rebecca, he stumbled and fell, rolling to the landing. He cried out. We ran to the foot of the steps to examine and then comfort him. He wriggled out of our hands and walked on his own to the couch, jumped up and sat, staring into the fire. We gathered round him. He resisted our sympathies. When bedtime came and with it, the moment when normally Hugo mounted the stairs to our beds, he leapt easily off the couch, walked with grave dignity to the steps and stopped. We stood there with him, my husband and the girls and I, saying, “Up, Hugo, up the stairs.” Hugo did not budge. My husband said, “He’s probably sore,” and picked up Hugo, who by then must have weighed 20 pounds, and carried him upstairs. Hugo never, not ever, not once in the next 12 years of his life, walked either up or down those stairs. He was always carried. Always.
While he refused to climb stairs, he was happy when I bore serving dishes in to the dinner table to leap onto a dining table chair in order to study what was on the plates. He knew better than to try to make off with our food, but the quiver beneath his skin and the quiver of his nose made it clear that a moral debate was underway. He was not happy to eat kibble. He watched as we poured food into his bowl; he ambled up, sniffed, walked away. He ate kibble only as last resort. He patrolled the dining room carpet and kitchen tiles and got off with any dropped morsel. I swept off crumbs from the kitchen counters onto the floor and Hugo licked them up with what we called his “lick-lizard” tongue. When our friend David Hitchens passed out on the floor and snored through an afternoon, Hugo stood over him and licked out David’s open mouth. He was gentlemanly with Cher and made no attempt upon any bone she was gnawing or the cereal bowls Rebecca set on the floor for her, given Cher’s partiality to Cap’n Crunch.
When he slept, if one touched him in the wrong spot (and that spot was always changing), he grrred. If one moved against him in the night or during an afternoon nap, he grrred. He had to be locked out during lovemaking because he put testicles in peril.
Rebecca and Sarah, growing older, were ridding themselves of baby dolls, and one afternoon tossed Hugo a worn Betsy-Wetsy. He grabbed her up by what remained of her hair and scuttled beneath Rebecca’s bed. From that afternoon on, Hugo busied himself chewing Betsy. When nothing remained but her dimpled beatific face and plump trunk, we wrested her from him. We began, when we were at the Salvation Army store out on the highway, to search out rubber doll babies for Hugo. We bought them a sack at a time. He carried the dolls about by their hair and began his dismemberment by thumping the doll up and down on the floor, as if, we suggested, “to tenderize her.” He worked slowly, an arm was ripped away one day, a fat leg another. While he did this, he growled and showed his excellent white teeth. He didn’t eat the dolly body parts, but left shreds where they fell.
All dogs seem beautiful to their masters; Hugo was to me the prettiest dog I’d ever seen. Watching him chew a hapless doll or trot on his leash, his gait as rhythmically steady as if we’d set the metronome that sat on our Steinway parlor grand, I thought, “I’d as soon watch Hugo as look at great art.”
I used to announce, “I’d give a year of my life to know what Hugo’s thinking.” I used to mean that. If I were still young, I might say it again. Hugo lived so near the ground, his bloodhound nose at work wherever we went. He sniffed and I read with similar intensity and need; he sniffed other dogs’ urine spots and I read Dick Hugo’s poems.
Hugo grew to an admirable size, two feet long and 20 pounds. His stubby puppy muzzle lengthened. His chest bulked up. His roan red never faded. I loved to run my fingertips from his head to the base of his tail, first for Hugo’s pleasure and then for mine. I loved Hugo so much that I used to say, when averring the truth of some statement, “I’d swear on the life of my dachshund” that such-and-such did indeed happen. Then the person to whom I was speaking knew I was entirely serious. Everyone knew how much I loved that dog.
“Time passed,” Virginia Woolf wrote when she wished to indicate an interim filled up with activities she didn’t wish to describe. Time did, in Hugo’s and my case, pass. The girls were in their last years of high school; I was flustered — who would I be when my children left home? 1 was alone in the big house much of the day. I tended to talk to Hugo. “So, Hugo,” I might say, rising off the couch where I’d been reading, “how about you and I wander back to the laundry room and move clothes from the washer to the dryer?” At a period in my life when I often didn’t like myself, Hugo wagged and nuzzled, licked my cheeks and hands, looked up at me out of his brown eyes and his gaze didn’t waver.
The girls graduated from high school. I left home, left town, left Hugo. I felt worse about leaving Hugo than I did my husband. My husband knew that someday I would go. Hugo didn’t.
Those first years I missed Hugo so much. I thought, “He waits for me to come home.” I thought, “I won’t go back. I can’t.” Some mornings, after I knew my husband had left for work, I dialed my old telephone number and let the phone ring and ring while I closed my eyes and imagined Hugo asleep on the couch in his heap of pillows. When I got a bank card, I used Hugo’s name with numbers and extra letters tossed in as a password; I used his name, too, as a password for the several computer conferencing systems to which I belonged. Just being able to type in the name somehow brought him back to me: the salty odor of his popcorn feet, the feel of his coat beneath my palm. When the girls went home, my husband, their father, occasionally took snapshots and mailed them to me. I searched the photographs of Rebecca and Sarah smiling from the living room couch, Rebecca trimming the forsythia, Sarah stuffing a turkey. Hugo was always somewhere in the background, eyes often red in the color snapshots. I could see that his muzzle had grayed. His straight back had taken on a sway. One January, I opened an envelope filled with prints from a roll of film taken during Christmas. In one photo, Hugo stood in several inches of snow on the front stoop. His roan red face had turned white. His eyes had clouded.
A friend and I were driving down I-5 on a hot August day. He asked, “Why are you so blue?” I blurted out, “My dog died.” I did not say that Hugo waited all those years for me to walk back through the door and I never did. I didn’t say my husband had a girlfriend and she put Hugo, almost blind, out the front door to go to the bathroom and Hugo walked into traffic and a car hit him.
The seven deadly sins are pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. On any day I commit five. Envy isn’t one. It’s not that I’m virtuous or even that I’ve worked at not being envious; my lack of envy seems as inherent as my blue eyes. But at some point several years after Hugo died, when I saw someone — anyone —walk a dog—any dog, envy attacked me with such ferocity that it left toothmarks in my soul At the grocery store, I begrudged shoppers who hoisted Kibbles & Bits bags into their baskets. I have a friend who’s made a grand success at everything at which I’ve failed: she’s stayed with her husband, she’s made a ton of money on one book after another, she’s been funny talking to Terry Gross on NPR. Every victory, I’ve felt deeply happy for her. And yet when she acquired a cocker spaniel, I thought, even though I’m not partial to cockers: she has a dog and I don’t. Fantasies of my friend walking her spaniel obsessed me. I dwelled upon an image of her, curled up beneath a pool of lamplight on her flowered couch with her spaniel. I hated her.
When I confessed this to another friend, he looked puzzled and said, “Why don’t you get a dog?” I wouldn’t tell the truth. I wouldn’t say that I, who abandoned a dog who loved me, didn’t deserve a dog. I said, “I’m gone too much.” And I was gone too much to have a puppy, I needed a dog a year or so past chewing slippers.
I got Lily the day after Christmas at a kennel in the country. I’d intended to get a male. The kennel owner led me through a lawn, still wet with dew, into a large fenced-in area. He showed me to a red smooth standard, two years old. Robin was his name, and he strode about over the kennel’s spotless gravel with authority and masculine grace. His muscles moved beneath his shining coat; he looked as if he could wrestle. His testicles were the size of unshelled walnuts and they swayed as he walked. He gazed up at me from almond-shaped eyes; his gaze was confident.
His gaze was so confident that mine faltered. I looked away for a moment, and when I did, I saw in the comer of the large fenced kennel a smaller standard red dachshund. The dog’s muzzle was deep in a stand of grass. Her posture, that moment, reminded me of Eeyore’s, the melancholy donkey in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. “Who’s that?” I asked the kennel’s owner. He said, “That’s Tiger Lily.”
He excused himself, saying he needed to get back to the people waiting in his office. When we arrived we had pulled in next to a station wagon. A family of four, dad and mom and young son and daughter, were there to buy a pup, a ten-week-old red standard that the kennel owner told me was the last of a litter of four.
Tiger Lily was in the hunched Eeyore position because she was pulling up grass stems out of a stand of foot-high brilliantly green grass. I walked slowly toward her, admiring, as I walked, her roan red back. I sat on my heels and held out my hand. She continued pulling grass, pulling delicately, one dew-drop-spotted blade at a time and meditatively chewing, as a cow chews its cud. I said, “Tiger Lily, Tiger Lily.” I wiggled my fingers. As if she only then had noticed me, the dog lifted her muzzle out of the grass and turned her eyes upward to my face. Her long, delicate muzzle quivered. The nostrils, set in the end of her black nose, enlarged slightly. Her brown eyes sought out my eyes. Almost as shadow, beneath her auburn forehead, I saw a black widow’s peak. I thought, at that moment, “Her face is heartbreakingly beautiful.” I turned my hand palm upward and moved my hand to within inches of her nose. She did not move. She studied me. I murmured “Tiger Lily, Tiger Lily.” She turned her head back into the stand of grass.
My friend meanwhile, sat on a board at one end of the kennel’s enclosure and petted Robin, who wagged enthusiastically and then darted off to the kennel’s other end and darted back. My friend said, “I think this guy might be too much dog for you. He’s pretty big.”
There were other dogs, standard dachshunds, in other kennels on the property. My friend and I wandered through the wet grass from kennel to kennel. The dogs, seeing and smelling us, barked. We looked at the various dachshunds as museumgoers look at paintings. My friend said that I must tell him when I saw a dog I liked. He said, “Don’t worry about what they cost.”
The people in the station wagon started its engine; the kennel owner waved them goodbye. He strode across the lawn toward us. I asked about Tiger Lily. She was just past a year old. She’d had shots, been wormed, was in good health, was a good dog, a “busy, busy girl.” She came from papered parents, could be registered with the AKC. I said that she seemed shy. He agreed. She’d spent her life, he said, in the kennel, with Robin. “No one,” he said, “ever got around to buying her.” I asked if she were toilet-trained. He said, “She’s never really been in a house.” I asked if she’d been in heat and he said, “Once.”
My friend wrote the check. The kennel owner gathered Lily’s papers. I arranged myself in the passenger seat. The owner carried Tiger Lily out of the kennel, across the lawn to the car, and set her in my lap.
All the long drive home, I was scared. Lily—as I decided I’d call her, because I not only don’t like tiger lilies, I didn’t like the name — fell asleep. I stroked her and thought that her smooth shining coat melted like butter beneath my fingers. I thought how strong her muscles felt. I thought she was a perfect red. I thought I was nuts to bring a dog into my life. I thought that I didn’t want to love her because one day, she would die. I thought about Simon. I thought about Hugo. I thought she’d bathroom across my off-white carpets. I worried about how I would get her out early enough in the morning. I worried she wouldn’t love me. I said to my friend that the kennel owner seemed odd. I said I wondered why nobody ever bought Lily. My friend squinted into noon sunlight and concentrated on the heavy day-after-Christmas traffic and said, “Probably just like the guy said. Nobody got around to buying her.” I said I worried that there was something wrong with her. My friend said she looked dandy to him. He said that on Tuesday I could take her to the vet. I said I thought I should have her spayed. I said she seemed standoffish, and my friend reached over and patted Lily’s big, round rump and my bare arm and said, ‘That won’t last.”
We stopped at a Petmart. Lily had no leash, no collar, no food, no chew toys. My friend and Lily stayed outside. It had been so long since I’d owned a dog that I’d never been in one of these pet emporiums. It had as many aisles as a big supermarket. I rapidly filled a shopping cart. Out in the car, my friend attached Lily’s rabies tag to her new red leather collar. We clipped on the matching red leather leash and walked around the parking lot. Lily trotted along, nose to concrete, sniffing as she walked. “Lily,” we said, “Lily.” She paid us no mind. She walked ahead, sniffed tires, sniffed car doors, looked up when shoppers passed, sniffed again at concrete.
When we got her home Lily sniffed her way through living room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, up the stairs to the room where I work. 1 opened the kitchen sink spigot and filled my prettiest cobalt-blue bowl with water. I put it on the floor. Lily lapped up water. I mixed into another bowl kibble and half a can of lamb and rice dog food. I said, “I hope this is enough.” I set it down. Lily slowly ate until the bowl was empty. She trotted into the living room and sat down in the last patch of sunshine that would hit the carpet that afternoon.
Dog people use an expression —“hand shy”—by which they mean that when a human reaches out a hand to touch a dog that the dog “shies away,” appears startled, wary, even distrustful. A hand-shy dog may have been beaten or may be unaccustomed to human contact. I sat down on the carpet next to Lily. I moved my hand toward her head; she flinched.
I was relieved when my friend left and Lily and I were alone. Given how shy I feel with a new dog and how shy—and hand shy—Lily was, I decided I must simply pick her up and set her down next to me on the couch. I did. She didn’t tense when I lifted her off the floor, and when we were both on the couch, she looked up into my eyes and studied my face. I lightly touched her forehead. She scooted closer to me. I touched her forehead again. She scooted even closer and then stretched her head out over the top of my thigh. I stroked her, from her head down to her rump. She wagged her long tail slowly. I was in love and did not want to be.
Although dachshund owners may not say so to acquaintances, most of us sleep with our dogs. They, after all, were bred to burrow and take naturally to quilts and comforters. By the time I got ready for bed that first night, Lily had begun to follow me from room to room, cold nose touching my bare heel. So that when I walked into the bedroom and pulled back the covers, Lily stood at the side of the bed. I picked her up and she nosed down between the sheets as expertly as if she’d slept all her life in beds.
Two days passed. I worried so that she’d bathroom on the carpets that I took her out every few hours. All my neighbors stopped to admire her. Not anyone didn’t say how pretty she is, how her coat is so shiny, her face so beautiful. I walked her so much it’s a wonder I didn’t give her shin splints. Not only after so many years of doglessness did I enjoy watching her sniff at white alyssum or stiffen and bark at a cat, I also was thrilled to be one dog-walker among other dog-walkers. I had narrowed my eyes with envy when I passed men and women, leash in hand and dog running before them, and now I was one of them, a dog-owner.
I took Lily to the vet to find out about getting her spayed. The vet looked Lily over. She said she was healthy, had an exceptionally fine coat and color, strong legs and back. She said, “I see on the form that you wrote that Lily hadn’t had puppies.”
The vet spread out the skin around one of Lily’s eight nipples. “Look here,” the vet said. “Stretch scars. She’s nursed. Whoever told you she hadn’t had puppies wasn’t telling you the truth. She has.”
I realized, of course, that the man from whom we bought Lily never did say that she had never had puppies. I called him. I said, “I didn’t realize Lily had had babies.”
He said nothing. I heard dogs bark.
I tried again, “How many babies did she have?”
“The last was that pup I was selling the day you were there.” “Wasn’t she kind of young?” I asked.
“She came into heat really early, really young. That’s how it happened.”
“Who was the father?” I guessed but I asked anyway.
“Red Robin, that male out there, the one that you liked.” I heard more barking. I heard the man swallow. “A very sneaky rascal that Robin was. He didn’t give me much sign or pay that much interest in her and he’s young too, and I thought, ‘Well, nothing will happen.’ But he got at her. She was actually really young to breed; I wouldn’t have normally done it I usually like to wait until the third heat.” “How did Lily do, giving birth?”
“She was fine. She tucked up really good and didn’t show the signs of it too much. Four is not a real big litter, so it wasn’t real hard on her. Listen, please don’t tell your vet that it was an accident or that it happened when she was so young. The only reason I didn’t tell you was that I was embarrassed about that.”
I didn’t mind that Lily had had puppies. I didn’t even so much mind that the fellow withheld the facts about Lily. What I minded was that I had already made up in my mind a story of who she was. I had inaccurately imagined the life she led before she came to live with me. The kennel’s gravel was so clean and Lily herself so clean and sturdy. I had imagined that she grew up, unblemished and unwounded and untroubled — out in the country, surrounded by the kennel’s vibrant green lawns. Now I saw the hulking Red Robin scent out Lily’s first heat and stalk her across gravel. I saw him mount her. I saw her struggle to get away. I saw her girlish waistline expand. I heard her moan when she gave birth. I saw the four pups, at her from morning to night, pulling and tugging at the teats that I described as “the black buttons on your brown dress, Lily.” I thought how she looked so Eeyore-like in the grass, that moment I first saw her. While she pulled up dewy grass blades, was she waiting for her pup to be brought back to her?
I telephoned my friend who’d bought Lily for me. I told him what I’d learned. I give him credit for not scoffing openly (because surely, while I talked, he rolled his eyes and shook his head) when I said I felt poor Lily was almost a rape victim, that the owner’s carelessness and Red Robin’s lust stole her childhood from her. While I told him all this, I looked around the room to make sure Lily wasn’t listening. Ridiculous, but true.
Now I loved her in new ways. We were both hand shy. We were both wounded. And she was oh so touchable, she walked gracefully, took tidbits daintily from my hand, and she was so majestically stubborn on our walks, hunkering down and refusing to go forward when she caught on a bicycle wheel some scent that interested her. Early mornings, when we first went outside, she lifted her muzzle and sniffed the wind. The wind caught up and skittered a maple leaf. Lily pulled out the full three feet of her expandable leash and ran after the leaf.
One afternoon not long ago we are out for our walk. We walk down a slight incline toward a main street. Behind me I hear a high-pitched voice cry out, “Maxie! Maxie!” I turn and glance uphill. I see the elderly woman who lives several blocks beyond me, up the hill. I had seen her off and on for years, about this time of day, wearing, whatever the weather, the same short khaki jacket and supporting her slow, careful steps by leaning on two stout, matching Malacca canes. Now she stands, a cane in each hand. “Maxie! Maxie!” she calls again. Lily looks up from the grass, toward the woman. The woman drops the canes. The canes clatter to the sidewalk. Her surprisingly long arms fly up and then outward, as if she is positioning herself to take someone in her arms. Lily begins to wag. “Maxie,” the woman cries out, “Maxie.”
The woman totters. Lily and I rush uphill. By the time we arrive she has righted herself and let her arms fall to her side. I pick up the canes, ask if she’s okay. We are inches from one another; a musty odor rises off her coat. Her face is tiny and wrinkled; she wears carmine lipstick, perfectly applied. She talks breathily. She says she must beg my pardon. She says she’s 92. Sometimes she forgets she’s in the present and thinks she’s in some other year. She smiles. Lily wags, watches the woman’s face. The reason, the woman says, that she called out “Maxie” is that when she was young she had a dachshund named Maxie. “My husband was still alive then,” she says, “and my children were still at home.” I lift Lily so that the woman can pet her. The woman runs her age-spotted hand up and down Lily’s smooth coat. Lily wags.
Even now while I write, Lily curls her long body into a dachshund doughnut and sleeps, right behind me. I can feel the rise and fall of her breath against my hip. I’m down to bare bones. Romanced out. Children grown. Somebody looking in at us, I think would say, “Bleak life.” What I say, living it, is “Lucky.” I sing my new Lily song, “Leapin’ Lizards, Lily! Leapin’ Lizards, Lil!”