Good Dog: Walk Me!
How a soulful pug named James Brown helped a writer regain his stride
When you’re named James Brown, you ought to know what’s expected of you. “Hair is the first thing,” the original James Brown, the mighty godfather of soul, once said. “And teeth the second. Hair and teeth. A man got those two things he’s got it all.” Well, my James Brown isn’t much of a man. Actually, he’s not a man at all. He’s a pug—the forty-first smartest breed, I once read—and while his hair isn’t bad, his teeth are nothing short of a natural disaster. With his awful underbite, the falling-down faded white picket fence framing his lower jaw makes you wonder how he manages to eat at all. He looks more like a hobo than a dog. Of course, the original James Brown also famously declared, “I feel good!” and on that score, for nearly every moment of his eight years on this earth, my James Brown has had it covered. Our previous dog, an old hunkering chocolate-colored mutt named Buster, was always gentle and friendly, but he was a bit of a hangdog, as if each day he figured things were not likely to go his way so he might as well just stretch out under the table and catch up on his sleep. For James Brown, each day, every encounter, is cause for grand celebration.
James has been that way since he was a puppy, even when he fell and broke his left front leg. He’d swing around his bright red cast like a happy-go-lucky Captain Ahab. He’d chase squirrels, challenge daddy longlegs to climb his smashed-in snout, fearlessly scramble up onto sofas and chairs. He did all of these things badly, of course—not just because of the broken leg, but because…well, he’s a pug…because he’s the too-friendly fat kid down the street who shows up at your door day after day asking if you’d like to throw a ball with him or shoot hoops or maybe just hang out. You may not really want to, but what choice do you have? James Brown is an expert at just hanging out. He’s the hardliest-working dog in slow business, the certifiable Godfather of Slow.
What James Brown has never been good at, however, is taking a walk, which is, naturally, his favorite thing in the world to do. The problem is that James gets real tired real fast. Less than a quarter mile into any journey, his steps begin to slow. And slow. Egg him on, threaten him, promise him crunchy snacks or even peanut butter on a spoon—it doesn’t matter. His shoulders slump like Eeyore’s; he’d rather lose a race with a three-legged sloth than give a moment’s bother to hurrying.
The truth, though, is that walking with James Brown managed to save my life. Five years ago I developed a problem with my eyes that made it nearly impossible for me to read or write for more than thirty minutes a day, a serious blow for a college English teacher and author. My business is reading and writing books. So I didn’t have the first clue about what to do with myself. I was as lost as a man can be. Then it got worse: A cavernous despair settled deep inside my chest, shading my every waking moment in a kind of hazy gray mist.
In what felt at first like a futile effort to escape not just my life but my own self, I started walking. I walked for hours on end, back and forth across the three thousand acres of Sweet Briar College’s rural Virginia campus, the beautiful place where I’d lived and worked for two decades but had never felt compelled to explore. Though I tried again and again to leave James Brown behind on these walks, he insisted on going along. He knew what I didn’t—that I needed his company, needed his cheerfulness and good humor. He knew I needed my dog.
So I carried James across the tiniest of streams (he’s deathly afraid of water), and I discreetly steered him away from the things I could still see—groundhog holes and hornets’ nests and the carcasses of deer. In turn, step by step, day by day, James steered me away from the despair that had beset me. He made me see the world in a new light even through my ruined eyes. He led me into old barns speckled in sun-flecked shimmering dust, into hillsides of fragrant mountain laurel, through fields thick with wildflowers and crickets, stone outcrops shot through with quartz. Together we felt the seasons change, the fallen leaves thicken beneath our steps, the shadows lengthen until they seemed not those of a middle-aged man and his stumpy sidekick but those of a mythical giant and his faithful lion.
It took three years, but my eyes got better.
For a while after that, I confess, I kind of forgot about James. I forgot about him the very way you forget to feel grateful for the gift of drawing a deep breath each morning and facing another day. I finished my novel about a man who leaves New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches and winds up in rural Virginia. He’s adrift in many of the same ways that I’d found myself adrift. I’d written the novel because my childhood home had been destroyed in that storm and because I thought I had a few things to say about loss and grief and trying to find a new home.
Then, a year ago, I learned how loss isn’t ever just one thing, one moment, or one place. It’s not just a single spot in a long winding stream; it’s part of the stream itself, more water than rock.
The powers that be at Sweet Briar College suddenly announced that the school would close, that they didn’t think it could last much longer. Better to shut it down now, they said, than to watch its finances and enrollments steadily decline. Everyone at the college would lose their jobs, their homes.
So my wife, Carrie, and I took James Brown and all of our earthly possessions north to Massachusetts. We’d found jobs at a prep school named Deerfield Academy, and in the late afternoon James and I took up walking in this strange new place. We crept, per James’s usual pace, past grand historic colonial homes, out of which strolled regal golden retrievers and stout black Labs and impeccably coiffed standard poodles, each of whom approached James Brown not with disdain but with only the faintest curiosity. They knew that he was not—that we were not—of their ilk; that was all they seemed to need to know.
Carrie and I dreamed about our old house, which had been named Sanctuary Cottage; we remembered the wonderful writers who’d visited us there, the novelist Richard Ford sipping vodka on our porch; the poet Donald Justice dozing in the warm glow of our fireplace; my beloved mentor Lee Smith spilling forth with story after story in her magnificent drawl: Then he told someone I had some kind of awful wasting disease, which isn’t remotely true.
Sometimes, though, grace gets a foothold in your life. Sweet Briar College’s indomitable alumnae saved it; they went to court and claimed the college was created to exist in perpetuity, that it wasn’t allowed to end. They raised millions of dollars. They invited the employees back.
This past summer Carrie and I accepted their offer. And of course we brought James Brown with us. With Sanctuary Cottage in disrepair (how is it that empty houses slouch so quickly toward ruin?), we moved into a new home on campus, a white clapboard that rises above the college’s lake, an expanse of water vaster than the young James could ever have imagined when, cradled in my arms, he bravely crossed those tiny streams.
James has arthritis now, so our walks have gotten shorter and shorter, just down to the old dam at the end of the lake and back, less than a quarter mile all told. But even these brief strolls are infused with grace and consolation, reminding me that I’m home, surrounded by the sweetly familiar: mourning doves calling in the trees, deer skittering through the fields, James Brown’s flat snout skimming just above the red clay and fallen leaves. Sometimes, we simply step outside and spend some time peering off into the woods, attending to the quiet. I’m not sure, of course, what’s on James Brown’s mind in such moments as these, but I know exactly what I’m thinking: that you don’t ever know where your life is going to take you, but you sure as hell want your dog to be right there with you, step after step after slow steady step.