Dog – Excerpt

The dog, the dog, the dog—the dog had taken over her life.

But this was not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps she had needed to have her life taken over.

This—a thought on the fly, as it were, as she raced along behind the selfsame dog, the ridiculously expensive leash pulled so taut between them that if she stopped running to keep up with him, she feared the dog would choke to death—made her laugh out loud, and in response the dog stopped suddenly, too suddenly for her to stop, and she nearly tripped over him.

She was a little drunk. No doubt that explained at least some of this. The lament for sure, and possibly the wry judgment on herself. Almost certainly the laugh—a shock of noise to both of them after fifteen or twenty minutes of pure silence but for their footfalls on the sidewalk and the steady jangle of the metal tags that hung from the dog’s braided leather collar (his necklace, she called it when she took it off him each night after the midnight walk, so that their clanking wouldn’t disturb her sleep: Here, let me take off your jewelry, darling), plus her hard and shallow breathing as she did her middle-aged best to keep up with him. Also how close she’d come to falling, to breaking an arm or a leg or spraining an ankle, all because of a dog.

A dog she had never intended to own. The very concept—ownership of a living creature!—dismayed her. As did the concept of caretaking. She lived alone. She did not—it was not in her nature to—take care.

A dog she therefore had no business having.

The dog (but he was not even a dog yet but a puppy, just over eleven weeks old) was sitting on the cold sidewalk, considering her. He looked very serious.

“Silly,” she said, and bent to pat his head. “It was just a laugh.” The dog cocked his head—he looked genuinely puzzled—which made her laugh again. But this time the sound of her laughter didn’t alarm him.

“A human thing,” she explained, and oddly enough this seemed to satisfy the dog. He gave a little nod, or what looked to her like a nod (did dogs nod? She knew nothing about dogs), and stood and turned, then abruptly bounded ahead again, yanking her behind him.

Her name was Jill. The dog, unfortunately, was named Phil. She had named him herself. She hadn’t noticed (and this was strange, she granted, because she was a poet; you’d think it would have been impossible for her not to have noticed) the rhyme.

Well, it wasn’t altogether as strange as it appeared to be. This was what she felt obliged to explain when people asked. To begin with, she had named the dog Philip. It had not occurred to her that she would call him Phil. She was not the sort of person who clipped names short. She disliked even the word “nickname.” She had never had one herself. She had a name that sounded like a nickname, but wasn’t—it was the only name she had—and she disliked it. “Jill”: so girlish, so truncated-sounding. So lightweight. Even as a child she had known that she was not a lightweight, that the name didn’t suit her. From the time she was ten she had signed her schoolwork “J.T. Rosen.”

She had named the dog in a hurry. He had been called Dog—that was the poor creature’s name—by the “foster father” who had been keeping him, caring for him, since rescuing him from the pound. The man was a volunteer for an organization called Fostering Care, which meant, he told her over the phone, that his name was on a list of people who could be called to take in dogs that were about to be “put down,” to look after them beyond the pound’s two-week limit and try on their own to find permanent homes for them.

He couldn’t afford to become too attached to the dogs he took in as “fosters,” he said. “I made that mistake the first couple times. Learned pretty fast.” Still, a dog had to be called something—sometimes, he explained, he’d have one with him for months before a home was found—and long ago he’d settled on Dog, unless of course he already had another Dog with him when he brought a new one home. Jill considered this. How many dogs had he taken in, then? she wanted to know.

“Geez, who can say. Tell you the truth, I never counted. Hundreds, I reckon.”

She had to ask. “What happens if you take in another one after you’ve named one Dog?”

“Oh, I have four others out in my garage right now that’ve come in after Dog did. This Dog, the one you’re interested in, just so happened to turn up when I had no other dogs here except my own. But two, three days later came Pup, and then—bang—the next week there was Girl, Boy, and Guy. All real nice dogs. You might want to have a look at them too, if you decide to come over.”

“How about your own dogs?” Jill asked.

“Oh, my dogs aren’t available to be adopted out.” He sounded alarmed. “Those are my dogs. I keep them.”

“No, I mean”—she was embarrassed—“do they have real names?”

“They all have real names.” Now he sounded insulted. “Some names are just more…you know, attachment-oriented than others.”

Jill was silent, briefly, thinking this over: a man who felt comfortable uttering the words “real nice” and “I reckon” and “attachment-oriented.”

“That’s what I meant,” she said. And added, delicately, “Names that suggest you’re willing, even glad, to be…attached.”

“Oh, yeah, sure. They’re Gypsy, Lucky, and Fido—Fido sounds like it’s kind of a joke, I guess. But I liked the idea when it came to me. You know, it’s so old-fashioned. Not many people name their dogs Fido these days.”

“True enough,” Jill said. And because he seemed to expect it: “It’s a very nice name. They all are.”

The man’s name, improbably enough, was Bill. She didn’t tell people that. They would have made it part of the joke. She tried not to think about it, actually. It made the whole thing seem a bit of a farce.