What you can learn from your dogs! Jim Shepard has a few fond, rueful stories.
My wife, Karen, found a Wolf spider in the shower the other day that was somewhere between two and three inches in diameter. She'd turned on the water before she'd seen it and now it was sitting there drying out, spread-legged and a little stunned. I was going to kill it, but the sheer spectacle of the thing mesmerized us. We put it in a Mason jar. When our 4-year-old daughter got home from preschool, she put her nose up against the glass and the thing stood on its hind legs and extended its pedipalps, the way tarantulas do in nature specials. If you touched the jar at all, it rushed back and forth as much as the space allowed, enraged. It was clear that we had a fairly special spider here.
I figured I'd hang on to it for a couple of days to show various people that I wasn't exaggerating, and then I'd let it go after walking a block or two. I didn't need to see that son of a bitch again. And if I did see him again, his little reprieve was history.
So a day later, feeling a little like the neighborhood Saint Francis, I trooped across the street to a brushy slope, holding the jar out in front of me like someone carrying an isotope of radium, the spider hunching and gathering itself as if grimly trying to figure out what else could go wrong, and when I turned the jar over, it spread its legs and caught the lower branches of a young maple, scrambling up and stabilizing itself on a leaf, its weight bending and bobbing the leaf toward the ground. Its fierce little head tracked me while it crouched there swaying, looking more homicidal than grateful.
That week was Wildlife Week, in fact. We live near a protected forest in Massachusetts, which means that deer and turkeys and rabbits and the occasional muskrat periodically scuff through our yard. Even so, not so much in the predator line happens by. Two days before the wolf spider, though, Karen settled into her desk in our study to find herself nose to nose with a huge black bear outside her window. The bear was on his butt and had pulled the bird feeder down with both paws and was snarfing the seeds inside. He was so big that even on his butt he could reach it, and we had it hanging at shoulder height. He was so strong that he had the 30-foot pine on which it hung bent toward him as he pulled.
I was around the other side of the house shooting baskets with the kids. Karen called for us in that voice that unmistakably signals that something's hit the fan. By the time we all arrived at her study window, Dino, our 3-year-old beagle, had come out of his customary unconscious sprawl atop the couch, had pieced together what was going on, and was sprinting around in such desperation that he appeared to be levitating by at high speed, ricocheting from window to window and generating enough noise for a one-dog fox hunt.
The bear came off as mostly methodical, and about as dignified as something that obliviously single-minded can look. He was putting both paws into the effort of tilting the feeder enough to empty the last of the seeds into his mouth. Dino bicycled the glass with his front paws, hysterical with outrage, and the bear gazed over at him with some serenity and then returned to the mysteries of the feeder. This went on for some time—the humans oohing and aahing, Dino beside himself, the bear unhurriedly bobbing the feeder over his open jaws, like someone shaking sugar into his coffee—until finally I started banging on the glass with my palm and shouting (he was only four feet away).
You might have thought I was shouting at a movie screen. "Not enough noise, eh?" I thought, and gathered up some pots and pans from the kitchen and went out into the yard. Dino pinwheeled and gyrated like something on an electrified surface trying to get to us, but Karen had him hooked by the collar.
I ventured to within ten feet—how fast could they run, anyway?—and banged my pots and pans together. That he did notice, the way a fat man on a bench notices distant traffic. Poor Dino was now hurling himself at the window, his metal license ringing against the glass. I started bracketing the bear with rocks from the front walkway. One that whizzed by his butt made him drag himself to his feet and then to his hind legs. I was unhappy to discover that he was as tall as I was.
I made cattle drive sounds. He gave me some thought. I bracketed him with more rocks and he lurched into motion, at first toward me, and then he changed his mind and half-loped away with that rolling bear gait, looking back once, like an old man put out by hooligans making too much noise to let him watch TV.
Put out or not, he came back a half hour later. Same thing. Same pots and pans, different rocks. This time after he disappeared back into the woods, at Karen's suggestion I took the emptied bird feeder down—it was grooved with claw marks the thickness of pencils raked down both sides of the clear plastic—and she put it in the cellar.
That next Saturday night, Dino went nuts again and, given the giant featureless plain that is my thoughtlessness, I let him out the back door without fully taking my mind off whatever it was I was doing. When he refused to calm down outside, I followed him, mostly for the purpose of yelling at him, and in the darkness I could hear something that sounded like a washing machine being dragged through the woods. I called him, but he kept barking. Our motion light was out, naturally, so I had to go inside for a flashlight.
When I got back to the driveway, I played its beam around. Dino was invisible at first, his bark noticeably more hoarse. But there was the bear, lugging our full garbage can, its lid still on, up the hillside and through the woods, his arms around the widest part, the frat boy humping a keg. Apparently he hadn't been able to tear the bungee cord from the top and had opted for just walking off with the entire thing. I yelled for him to drop the can, and he did. Which disconcerted us both. Later when I told the story, people said, "Wait: the bear understood English?" To which I answered, "Hey: What can I tell you? I told him to drop it, and he dropped it."
I caught his face with the flashlight beam, and he looked at me like he was suffering from a headache. He gave me his second memorable look: this one more along the lines of You are one pain in the ass, boy. Then he left again. I could hear the crashing through the undergrowth for a few minutes, even over Dino's noise.
It looked like someone had dragged a boat through the woods. The next morning, I was able to follow his trail all the way down to a stream that runs off our property.
Soon after that he came back again and pulled the bag of birdseed out of the garage and tore it open and spread it around. Lucy's babysitter surprised him and apparently lopped a few years off her own life expectancy doing so.
Now we shut our garage doors when not going in or out. And when Dino goes into alarm mode—which is not a very common occurrence, given that he's one of the mellower beagles around—we investigate outside a little bit ourselves before we let him out.
Because in fact it's not true that when Dino was going nuts the night of the garbage can that I let him out without fully taking my mind off whatever I was doing. It was worse than that. I'd been trying to concentrate on something—some reading, or YouTube, or my own vacant look reflected in the windowpane, who knows—and I'd lost my patience when his barking had crossed the four-minute threshold and I'd gotten up and propelled him outside with what they used to call, in the 18th century, an angry oath. My family's seen me do it before. Much aggrieved, and never thinking, Hey, you just saw a huge bear out there, and you know the bear's been coming around.
In other words, I could have been throwing him out into one of those monster movies in which the dog who first sounds the alarm, when he's finally let outside, is only heard from again once, with that telltale yelp. Was I sending my dog into harm's way? For that moment when I opened the door, it didn't matter.
That's relevant because I've now had six dogs in my life, and as far as I'm concerned I killed two of them. I killed them by giving in to an irritable self-absorption and taking them for granted in ways that came back, and still come back, to haunt me. As taking things for granted often seems to do.
Karen and I have a lot of childhood photos of each other. One she loves is from around my first Communion, maybe even the day of my first Communion; sources disagree. Either on that day or very soon after, as a celebratory gift, my parents gave me my first dog, something for which I'd been pleading since the day I discovered that dogs existed. In the photo I'm probably 6. I'm posed in front of the unpainted cement foundation of our house, decked out in a new white shirt and black dress pants so tightly belted that I look like a cartoon. My hair, Brylcreemed, has been sculpted in the fashion of the period into some kind of breaking-wave arrangement. I'm holding Lady, my first puppy, who's on her back and squirming to get loose. My arms are out in front of me, the way someone might carry firewood. You can barely see her face.
What Karen loves about the photo is my face, which has clearly just passed some insane outer boundary of happiness, headed for somewhere else equally unprecedented. I remember during the taking of the photo being aware that I was insufficiently able to control my expressions. I remember, in fact, that day as being full of the sort of wild happiness that doesn't allow you to sit still, even when told, repeatedly, by pleased and weary parents, to sit still.
Lady turned out to be a German-shepherd-and-something mix, the something being an unspecified hound, probably, given her smaller size. We hit it off, by which I mean I thought about her morning, noon, and night, and spoke for her when people asked how she was doing. (As in, "Lady goes, 'I'm doing fine. How're you?'")
We sailed through six years like that. She was a supernaturally smart dog, by which I mean that she was certainly the smartest dog I'd ever had, and that she always seemed to know exactly what was going on with my emotions, which was more than I could say for any of the adults I knew, or, more important, for myself. If I was sad about something, she'd sit next to me and lean into me. She wasn't impatient with my sadness, as my panicky and overstressed parents tended to be. If I was mad, she'd go sit in her chair with her chin on her paws, keeping a wary watch. She seemed to register that patience was always the best way to deal with anger.
And on those occasions when I was exhilarated and ready to head outside, she'd pull her leash down from the hook in the kitchen and circle me with it with her own peculiar and high-energy happy dance, which was a kind of accelerated rocking-horse lilt: dog language for, "It's going to be a great day, isn't it?"
During the night she checked on everyone with the regularity of a night watchman. One early morning when I was sick with the measles, I woke to find her apparently having fallen asleep in the middle of one of her check-ins, sitting next to the bed, her chin on the mattress, snoring.
She was seldom leashed and roamed the neighborhood judiciously. She never fought with other dogs, or took much interest in cats. At least not that we ever heard of. She seemed to handle the unexpected lethality of cars with a kind of casual mastery.
But then, when I was 11 or 12, I was across the street at a friend's house, playing with toy soldiers, or as we called them, army men—why was I playing with army men at the age of 12? Let it go; let it go—and my friend and I had taken 20 minutes to set up a huge number of guys in some kind of Tarawa beachhead and here came Lady, jogging by to see how everyone was doing, and she trundled right through the Japanese defenses, churning up ten minutes' worth of work, and I shouted at her, and gave her butt a shove, and she spooked and accelerated out into the street, and got hit by a car.
I stood over her. My friend did, too, until he got too freaked out and ran into his house. The guy who'd hit her stood over her. He said stuff like it wasn't his fault, that the dog had just run under his wheels. He said he was sorry. Lady was on her side with her mouth open. She had an expression like she had run a mile and was unbelievably hot. Even I could tell she was already dead. The guy said he was sorry again and then pulled her by the paws out of the road and onto the shoulder. I don't remember now whether he went and got the nearest neighbor or the neighbor just came out of the house. I do remember the guy and the car being gone after a while.
The neighbor had his hand on my shoulder. He said I was going to be all right. He said it looked like she hadn't suffered. Finally he gave up and went and got his pickup truck and backed it around next to Lady's body. Then he got out and laid an olive army tarp on the road next to her and pulled her onto it by the skin of her shoulders and butt. I remember feeling piercingly that it was a heartless way to move her. I think he wasn't taking any chances on getting bitten.
He said he was bringing her somewhere, but I didn't register where, or, if I did, I don't register it anymore. He drove off and I stayed there in the street looking down at the spot on the pavement. Then I ran home.
I ran past my mother and into the bathroom and climbed into the tub. I pulled the shower curtain closed behind me. I wasn't ready to see the rest of the human race. I couldn't think of anything in the bathroom that I could use to hurt myself, but I was also too paralyzed to get up and find something in the garage.
My mother located me in there and asked what was wrong. I managed to tell her enough to send her over to the neighbor's. When she returned, she tried to comfort me and to get me out of the tub. She came from a big Italian family, so this kind of histrionic behavior wasn't new to her experience.
I wasn't comforted and I wouldn't get out of the tub. I told her by way of explanation that it was my fault. She worked to refute my position. We settled into a stalemate, and I remember she just sat, sad and helpless, on the toilet, not knowing what else to do.
She'd decided against calling my father, figuring why ruin his day. When he did get home, I heard her tell him out in the driveway, heard him cursing, enraged (at the cosmos; not at me), and heard him go in and make his summer drink—a Tom Collins, with its unmistakable sound of his long metal spoon clinking against the side of his big glass—and then heard him come back out and smash it against the side of the garage.
Eventually he swung open the door of the bathroom and asked me what the Christ I was doing in the tub. He hauled me to my feet, and got me out into my room. He did so principally by showing me how upset he was, which had the effect of making my position seem excessive and theatrical. He felt the way he did and he wasn't in the tub.
I never fully recovered from that day. Six months or so later my father mentioned at the dinner table that a friend of his had a puppy that he had to get rid of, and that maybe I'd like to go look at it, and I told him I'd probably kill it like I killed Lady.
I was reminded that I hadn't killed Lady, and that I shouldn't think that I had. I understood that, didn't I? Once I made clear that I did, the subject was dropped. A month later, he brought home another puppy, this one a male, part Dalmatian and part some kind of spaniel. The puppy was white and black with black ears. I named him Snoopy.
Snoopy lived to be 14 before he had to be put down. Where was I when that happened? A thousand miles away, teaching in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My father called after the fact, having employed the same logic my mother had about calling him concerning Lady: "Why ruin his day." So I sat in my attic apartment thinking I'd once again let my dog down: Like, where had I been at the crucial moment? Where had I been when Snoopy had gotten the injection? Had he been wondering? Had he been thinking, in his foggy dog brain, pretty much what he always did, which was, "It'd be easier, whatever it is, if we were all here?"
When I accepted a teaching job back East, I told myself that my reward for taking a full-time, possibly long-term job and living in the extreme northwest corner of Massachusetts was that I could get another dog. That turned out to be Audrey, half Irish setter, half beagle: essentially a slightly larger beagle with that beautiful Irish setter's red coat. Audrey went everywhere, from the Florida Keys to the Italian countryside, always with that endearing and barely controlled beagle's neediness: that skittish, stricken look and little trill that said, "You're not thinking of going anywhere without me, are you?" And after Lady, and after Snoopy, my answer was always, whenever it could be, no. She drank out of scummy fountains in Rome; she sat still for photo shoots over the FDR Drive. (Baffled relatives in Italy remarked when they first saw her, still petrified and shaking in her little crate in the baggage area, "You know, we have dogs here.")
She never needed a leash and I never needed to call her. If she started to stray, all I had to do was walk the other way. The instant she caught on, she'd come pounding after me, making little yips, indignant, panicked.
She lived 14 years. Her muzzle by that time was mostly white, from stress, I told people. Her hearing started to go. It became clear a large part of it was gone. How much? I kept meaning to get that checked out. Then her eyesight started to go. She bonked into things. I meant to get that checked out, too. She got disoriented enough that I started hanging out with her in the yard while she relieved herself.
You can see where this is going. Along came that night when I didn't, when she stood dumbly, her head down, by the door at the worst possible time, and I just opened the door and went about what I was doing and out she went. It wasn't a very busy street. As with Dino, with the bear, nine years later: Was I sending my dog into harm's way? For that moment when I opened the door, it didn't matter.
The police called. A woman had reported having hit and killed a dog outside our house a few minutes earlier. They'd found our number on the dog license. Karen told them that there had to be a mistake, because Audrey was still in the house. It turned out that Audrey was not in the house. Jim had let Audrey out.
This time I pulled the dog onto the tarp, and I loaded the body onto the back of a vehicle. It was my decision what to do with the body. It was shocking to be reenacting that trauma all over again. It was shocking to be standing over my dog feeling as though I'd made the same heartless mistake that I'd made before. She'd probably had no idea where she was when the car hit her. She had relied on me—"You're not thinking of going anywhere without me, are you?"—and that had been a big mistake.
I was raised Catholic, which may or may not be a surprise to hear. Some of my earliest memories of parochial school involve the nuns—Sister Marie Edmund, Sister Justine, Sister Caroline—reminding us insistently of how lucky we were; of how many reasons we had to feel fortunate. We had our health, we had mostly intact families, we were never truly hungry or cold. "At least you have your legs," one Sister would always say to anyone who whined or complained. And she was right.
W.H. Auden once remarked that there was one thing that all poetry had to do: "It must praise all it can for being and for happening." One of the great and never-ending blessings of dogs is that they never tire of demonstrating that by example. And one of the great consolations of our relationship with dogs is that we're given the chance, over and over again, to learn that lesson, and to behave as though we have, no matter how persistently we seem to refuse to do so.