Good Dog: Hurricane Muffin
In the midst of a tempest, a layabout canine saves the day
He wasn’t a good dog. That was the strangest part. Even when he was a puppy, Muffin, our cairn terrier, was yappy and mean, calculating and chewy.
His unpleasant personality may, in fairness, not have been his fault. Our block was a particularly staid stretch of South of Broad Charleston—the sort of place where a bench painted the wrong shade of green could cause a neighborhood uproar. An old-money street, frigid toward children, where shining hunting spaniels shadowed their masters with purpose. These dogs bore elegant, worthy names like Plantagenet, Woodrow, and Artemis. How could a dog, a terrier, called Muffin exist in such a place without holding a grudge?
My parents had moved us from the North (we quickly learned to capitalize the region, as if it were a different country) for university and medical jobs. Mom and Dad were geeks; they didn’t care about fitting in. They bought our rambling Victorian on the cheap from an old Charleston family who were unloading the place after a Faulkneresque bout of ruin and suicide. “Just ignore the bloodstains on the carpet,” my father liked to say to guests, secretly testing how long it took them to leave after that statement sank in.
Even among the new rules of etiquette, my parents still clung to their New York senses of humor. And when it came to populating their Southern manor, they wanted a funny dog. It wasn’t that they didn’t like well-behaved, reasonable canines. But why, they said, pretend to be something you’re not? After all, we were terrier people. We shrieked, we barked, we scratched places better left untouched.
It was my father’s job, one Christmas Eve in the 1970s, to procure the specimen from a litter “out in the country.” Highway 17 south to the peanut stand, the directions read. Turn at the dirt road, and honk when you see the blue trailer. If you get lost, DO NOT get out of your car. Bring dimes. Go back to the gas station in Walterboro and call.
The bundle seemed correct—fluffy, waggy, all that. My father felt good about handing over the two hundred dollars. There were papers, and the breeders looked, if not friendly, exactly, dog literate. Then, just as the pair hit the Ashley River bridge, the new dog leaped through the air and attached his adorable puppy teeth—all twenty-eight of them—an inch deep into my father’s exposed wrist.
You see, no matter how much we tried to ignore it, the thing was that Muffin sort of sucked. “This one’s a nipper!” my mother cried on Christmas morning as my brother’s toes bled through his Star Wars slippers. “It’s nothing. All puppies do that. Just don’t put him near your eyes, nose, ears, or any other parts you happen to like.”
Oh, Muffin. Bred to stalk rodents in the cool hills of Scotland, the dog lost his inner quest to move in the Southern climate. By three, his belly swelled over his legs, giving him the look of a hairy manatee. Despite thousands spent on special flea medicine, he developed a skin condition that caused incessant itching, quelled only by humping the furniture. A stench resembling that of a bloated whale persisted despite weekly shampoos. Watchdog ability? After sleeping through the day and evening, he would spring alive at 3:00 a.m., announcing, with a piercing yap, every gnat that happened by the back door screen.