The Dog Who Lived Forever
How a long-lost companion became the stuff of legend
Just before my daughter’s second birthday, she began requesting bedtime stories. My wife and I had always read books to her, but now she wanted tales of my own creation. I’m a writer. I can do this, I thought. Over the next few nights, I gamely generated a good one about a kitten lost in the snow, then another about our neighbor’s dog sailing a boat. But soon I started drawing blanks. Finally one night, a couple of days later, at a loss beside my daughter’s crib, I said, “Once upon a time there was a dog named Annie.” And that’s when it all began.
You get only one first dog. Yes, you can have dogs all your life, but those that share your childhood loom with extra import over all subsequent years. My very first dog, a sheepdog named Shadrack, was old when I was born and died by the time I was three. I have no memories of him, so he doesn’t really count. But Annie, Annie was the dog, the dog of my youth.
The first Annie story I told my daughter was the creation myth. It goes like this.
In 1982 I was a five-year-old kindergartner in Greensboro, North Carolina. One lunch period an emaciated black-and-white puppy loped out of some scrub pines and into the playground. Apparently constructed out of little more than bones and questionable border collie genes, the dog knew she had just struck gold. (Gold, in this case, meant a bounty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches provided by me and my friend Ralph.) We fed her for about a week before my mother caught wind of the situation and put the dog in the car with the rest of us when she picked up carpool one afternoon. The thing was so sickly that before we even got home, Mom stopped at the vet and left her with Dr. Ken Eiler, ostensibly with the idea that he would put the emaciated dog to sleep.
Three days later, the vet called the house.
“Pam,” he said, “come get your puppy. She’s firing on all six cylinders now.”
What was a mom to do? Against all odds the creature was still alive, coaxed back to life by the miraculous Dr. Eiler. So we picked her up. If a starving animal can look brand new, this dog did. Her fur suddenly shone and smelled of clinical shampoo, but she was still lanky and bony, just a cleaned-up hungry puppy. She was a gentle girl, though, polite even in her need. My brother announced, “This is the best free dog we ever had!” not knowing that Mom had just footed a $350 vet bill. Mom suggested we name the dog after Little Orphan Annie. And so it was.
At home we filled Shadrack’s old dog food bowl with kibble, and Annie ate until she fell asleep with her head in the bowl itself, as if guarding the meal at all costs, not sure she’d ever have another.
I guessed my daughter would cotton to the image of a dog asleep in a food bowl, and I was right. After I finished the story, she requested it again. She requested it the next night. Soon she wanted more, and so I told others.
I told her about how, one day, when driving home in our huge silver Dodge Prospector, my mother took a sharp turn onto Country Club Drive, and Annie, who was sitting in the passenger seat enjoying some fresh air across the tongue, fell out the open window. Mom didn’t even notice until a few houses later when she looked over, found the seat empty, then turned to discover Annie stunned in the street behind us. I told her how, for my school’s annual fall festival, I dressed Annie as a Mexican bandito and entered her in the Halloween costume contest. I told of the Christmas chocolate incident of 1985, of Annie’s predilection for chewing felt-tip pens into shreds on the dining room carpet, of walks around the neighborhood, of tennis ball catch, of countless dog minutiae.