I met her on a Monday night, sometime after ten. Just off the plane from New Orleans, I could still smell the city in my clothes. I’d dropped by Casamento’s before heading to the airport, gotten a hug in the kitchen and an oyster loaf for the road. But if I’d thought that smell—buttered bread, grease, and mollusk—would stand me in good stead with the stranger waiting for me in Brooklyn, I was wrong.
As I banged my suitcase into the apartment, bellowing, “Hello, Little One! I’m home!” I caught a flash of kohl-rimmed eye, a flick of tail. Then she vanished under the sofa.
My husband had picked her up from an adoption event at a mansion in the Hamptons earlier that day—a skinny stray trucked in from the mountains somewhere, snuffling around a dog party Gatsby would have liked. She’d slept soundly all theway across Long Island, waiting until they’d reached home to unload her baggage: Dandruff. A garbage-bag phobia. And a terror of umbrellas so strong that when my husband had opened his, the little stranger had nearly hara-kiried herself under a Subaru.
I crouched down, tried a gentler tone. “Hello, Miss Pup. Would you come out now?”
Her smoky eyes glinting in the under-sofa darkness, she only slunk farther back.
A rescue dog is a four-legged mystery. Parentage, place of whelp, method of abandonment, are sucked into the twin black holes of dog brain, dog tongue. All the rescue group would give us was a vaccination record from a vet in West Virginia, an unlikely guesstimate of breeds (“dachshund/ beagle”), and a note, purportedly from the pup herself, that I’d swear she didn’t write:
Hi, I’m Hiro and I would love to become a part of your life. I am a happy, playful pup who loves to snuggle!
You can’t blame an orphan for tarting herself up a little, but snuggles did not seem to be forthcoming. We couldn’t even be sure that Hiro was her name. So we grilled her:
“Someone hit you with an umbrella, honey?”
“How did you escape from that Hefty bag beside the road?”
But no matter what or how we asked, the sleek little girl kept mum.
As she would not respond to the alias she’d come with, we decided to rechristen her. We wanted something funny but New Orleanian, something that would mark her as one of ours. That she was not native like us did not matter; a New Orleans name would be fitting. Like me, gone from home since Hurricane Katrina, she was one of the displaced. After rejecting a slew of monikers—Sazerac, Tchoupitoulas, Tipitina—we settled on Professor Shorthair (Shorty, for short), in honor of the late, great singer and pianist from Bogalusa, Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair, with whom she shares a lolloping singing voice, if not the mane.
Despite our inauspicious beginning, Shorty and I fell pretty quickly into rhythm. Mornings she’d join me in my office for coffee and the day’s pages (I was working on a novel about the near death of my city by drowning, and that dog beneath my desk was often the only thing keeping me afloat). Later we’d go for our walk. It was about a mile to the good dog park—the one where the “walker” with the van full of aggressive malamutes knew not to show his face—and we covered the distance in rain and shine and ankle-deep snow. It was there that Shorty found her pack—Birdie the Beagle and Nutley the Nut, Humphrey the Yellow Lab. The other dog parents wanted to know Shorty’s story—Yeah, with those ears she can’t have any beagle in her. Why’s she so well marked? She came from Appalachia, you said?
I’d joke that maybe she was an Elmer Fudd Hound, tell them about the bunny-infested parking lot of the motel in Roanoke, Virginia, where we’d overnight on our annual trips to my in-laws’ house in Cashiers, North Carolina. After 464 miles of pacing the backseat, gassy, Shorty would bound to the asphalt and point.
“Be vewy vewy quiet,” I ventriloquized. “I’m hunting wabbits.”
“You think she needs more outdoor time?” asked the guy with apartment-dwelling coonhounds.
We were fine—more than fine. And then we were not. I got pregnant; our range shortened. By the time the baby was old enough to tolerate a dog tussle, Shorty’s park pack had scattered. Nutley went with his new babies upstate, and Humphrey chased California dreams cross-country. Birdie was there, but he’d shacked up with Tillie the Cattle Dog, and, after a brief romp of hulloo, Shorty skulked into a corner and waited there, despondent, to go home.
But home—or what we called home—was no longer enough for her.
We moved to a new house where summer storms resounded like gunshots on the skylight, and familiar smells were
misplaced. By the time Superstorm Sandy blew into Brooklyn, Shorty was a shell-shocked mess again, army-crawling under the sofa as if bombs were raining from the sky. On the street, she snarled at any dog who dared come near the stroller. Ropes of spittle dangling from her jaw, she’d look at me, ears pricked for praise. I was supposed to feel protected—Shorty, my savior from the French bulldogs of Brooklyn Heights!—but instead I heard a canine whisper: This is enemy territory, lady. Take us somewhere we belong.
Maybe I was projecting. My child now in the world, my umbilical link to New Orleans throbbed. I felt anemic, desperate for live oaks and Gulf oysters, funk and family. I wondered if Shorty felt it, this longing for home, visceral and as dangerous as a hemorrhage.
As I planned our annual road trip south, my husband Googled, searching for photographic clues as to Shorty’s family line. I was loading the Igloo when he found it—“the page of Shorties,” or mountainfeistsquirreldog.com.
“Come here,” he shouted. “Look at all these Shorties!”
And sure enough, there the Shorties were. Prick-eared, tricolor, climbing trees after squirrels with the aid of that dewclaw she was always tearing off in the snow. Suddenly things made more sense: her hunger for the motel rabbits, her preternatural comfort with forests—an ease that led her to trot right over trailside snakes without batting one pretty eye. This was a mountain feist—a hunter, a country beast. She had no business in New York City—nor, perhaps, did we.
As we hit the highway, swapping the choked industrial margins of the city for the clean air of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, we rolled down our windows, and Shorty curled up on the backseat and snoozed. Somewhere between pit stops for country ham and the obligatory Roanoke rabbit hunt, we pulled off at a truck stop for gas. As Shorty scrabbled toward a neighboring pasture—the Blue Ridge smoking over a greensward dotted with cow turds—a trucker with a chaw in his lip descended from the cab of his semi.
“That’s a mighty fine feist dog you got there, ma’am,” he said, and spat.
There was no more doubt about who she was, where she belonged.
Later that week, watching Shorty bed down in some leaves during a downpour on a mountain trail, I had a revelation: It wasn’t some trauma from our past that kept us shaking under the sofa. No, we’d just gone too far from all the familiar things that made us feel like ourselves.
Sometime after that run down south, we decided we’d have to keep going, all the way to New Orleans, out of the big city for good. And so our whole family is home in New Orleans now and forever, surrounded by our pack of gumbo-making grandmothers and goofy grandpas, scruffy uncles and stylish aunts, cousin dogs—Hurricane the Hodgepodge, Levee the Bichon (R.I.P.), Yogi the Corgi, Toulouse the Bodyguard, Delachaise the Duck Dog—and Jimmi the Cat. I have my oysters again, and Shorty has her own tree and a passel of pet squirrels. She chases them across the lawn as night falls, barking madly.
The last and damnedest thing a good dog will do for you is die. You know this going in, but when you’re handed a note by a four-year-old that reads, “Pleez cn I hav a dog???” you think, you hope, you pray it will be different this time.
Maybe you’ll die first.
Our daughter would certainly have formulated that request on her own, but her inscribed copy of Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip didn’t help. In part the inscription says, “Welcome to the world! Don’t read this book until you’re two years old. Get your momma and daddy to give you a dog like Skip when you’re in the third grade.”
Thanks a lot, Willie.
Hell, what did she need with a dog? I’d given her a stone marten. She adored her vintage fur complete with face and paws, the sort once so popular with 1940s movie stars. The two were inseparable. She petted, talked to, and slept with the lifeless pelt, and named it Lassie.
This could not be sustained.
From the beginning, dogs have meant the world to me in both life and art. They found their way into my work early on, mostly as metaphor, stand-ins for the frequent absence of a human presence. Delta Dog Trot—Landscape Askew is one such painting. It hangs in the lobby of Greenwood, Mississippi’s Alluvian Hotel and features a life-size bird dog. I once eased up behind a pair of well-oiled bar patrons locked in animated conversation in front of the painting. I was sure they were overwhelmed by the power of the remarkable artistic achievement before them. Instead, they were reminiscing in a highly emotional way about dogs they had owned but were now departed.
As an artist, I keep a PowerPoint presentation ever ready for museum docents, college classes, and the garden clubs. It changes from time to time, but one segment remains constant: a circa 1951 photograph of my brother and me at our makeshift lemonade stand. “5 cents a glass,” the sign reads. We are flanked by our two dogs of no discernible breed, Prince and Yellow Pup.
Later that summer and not long after the photograph was made, in the clear slow motion of irrevocable memory, I see Prince as he is hit by a car. My grandfather and I buried him in the woods behind his Webster County, Mississippi, home. I can still find the spot—and on occasion, do. To this day, I cannot get through this part of an otherwise entertaining and informative presentation without choking up a bit, as I do now.
But that is all in the past. The problem at hand was a daughter determined to have a dog. It was time for stalling tactics—research at the local library, interviews with dog owners, hours of Animal Planet programming, countless Westminster Dog Show reruns, even a visit to the kennels of a South Florida greyhound track with its owner, but alas these gorgeous, people-friendly animals were just too large. Our daughter was not fooled, and we’d begun to cave. Finally, her ever-resourceful mother found a suitable candidate online. Timbre-blue Whippets in Lexington, Virginia, had a damaged dog in need of rescue.
Timbreblue is a devoted family affair that whelp a couple of litters a year. Some of their pups had been named after things your mother admonished you not to do. “Plays with Matches” was called Ember, “Shows Her Panties” was Fanny, “Don’t Slam the Door” was Banger, and the dog that would become ours, “Blames Her Brother,” was, of course, Snitch.
It’s useful to know that the sight hound that has come to be our modern whippet originated in the north of England in the eighteenth century. This “poor man’s greyhound” was a poacher’s best friend, with quickness, agility, and speeds up to thirty-five miles per hour. The breed was adept at ferreting out rats and rabbits and excelled at “rag racing,” a straight-line contest of whippets sprinting toward their masters, who enthusiastically waved towels at the track’s end. These days owning a whippet means never again having to go to the bathroom alone.
From that initial drive home up Interstate 81 to Fairfax County, Snitch attached herself to the women in my family. She slept with my daughter and shadowed my wife’s every move while seeming to find a place of tolerance in her heart for the alpha male, me.
The dogs of my youth were of equal pedigree but different purpose. Purebred Walker Foxhounds were the preference of my old-school foxhunting grandfather. These working dogs with names like Lucky, Speck, Mary, Sally, Bo, and Buck were all legs, lungs, nose, heart, and mouth. They lived for the chase and had little use for us except to feed or release them downwind of a fox. The thought of snuggling up next to its owner would be as foreign to a foxhound as a passion fruit aperitif prior to a meal of Purina Dog Chow.
Snitch lived for the lap—and luxury. Imperial, elegant, loyal, self-contained, shedding little and barking hardly at all, this remarkably athletic animal ran, jumped, cut, and ripped up our turf with unrestrained abandon. She was an ingratiating joy to have and behold. Pampered and proud, she had no responsibilities except to be among us, but somehow that was enough. It’s counterintuitive, but this extraordinarily active dog out-of-doors became docile and downright cuddly once inside. She treated us like members of her litter, and we were charmed.
And yes, I fed her from the table.
Given the professional stake I have in aesthetics, I’ve got to admit I was seduced by the sheer sculpture-in-motion beauty of this creature. Bred to show, Snitch had been attacked by a Doberman while still a pup. She survived, but with a foot and a half of scars across her back legs and hind-quarters—flaws that only enhanced her uniqueness and made us wonder what she dreamed, what she remembered.
Snitch never forgot from whence she came, and neither did we.
Our relationship with Timbreblue and its extended family continued to open a window into a canine world we had not known existed. Long and detailed stories, literary gems really, were exchanged online. Amusing tales of whippet eccentricities and their shenanigans were shared among breeder and owners, as were the dos and don’ts of disciplining, remedies and cures for ailments, and recommended vets.
And then there was the Annual Family Reunion. All would gather at some preordained time and place to witness seventy-plus whippet kin zooming around an open field like baitfish pursued by a lemon shark. They were lighter than air, inexhaustible, and glorious to watch. The picnic was potluck for the people, Frosty Paws ice cream for the whippets, and then home.
Like all middle-class American dogs, Snitch was the fortunate recipient of unconditional love, devotion, and remarkable medical care. At various times in her life she had the veterinary equivalents of an orthopedic surgeon, an internist, a cardiologist, and a family practitioner. As her heart began to fail, she was prescribed increasing doses of clopidogrel, furosemide, spironolactone, digoxin, pimobendan, fish oil, and toward the end Viagra twice daily, to what purpose I can only imagine, but it all earned her an extra year or two, I suppose.
As our daughter grew up, Snitch grew old. After more than a dozen years of constant companionship, we watched her brindled coat turn gray. There had been countless road trips she patiently endured, tennis-ball-throwing sessions of which she never tired, outdoor restaurants where the waiter brought her water (and of course, I fed her under the table), plaintive looks from the window when we returned home later than she thought acceptable, Christmas mornings when she tore open her own stocking while wearing a pair of ridiculous felt reindeer antlers, and those bony legs and back pressed hard against whomever she selected to sleep beside.
In the spring of our daughter’s senior year in high school, on Good Friday, Snitch breathed her last.
On the third day, she did not arise.
It was over.
“She’s gone,” my daughter sobbed.
Her ashes are buried in a celebrated cemetery on our friend’s farm in St. Michaels, Maryland. She’s in great good company among Fenwick, Ambrose Bierce, Welleran, Charger de Fortunato, Maximilian, and other fancifully named and well-loved dogs. We can easily find the place, and often do.
But Snitch as well as Prince are like unto the dog of Willie Morris’s childhood, the ineffable Skip of whom he writes in the final sentences of his eponymous book.
“They had buried him under our elm tree, they said—yet this was not totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart.”