The Urban Gun Dog

Illustration by John Cuneo
by Guy Martin - Dec 10/Jan 2011

Tales of a canine expatriate

I drove up to get her on a bright September Saturday from a Walking Horse farm in the north part of Limestone County, Alabama. It was a fifty-mile round trip. There was a litter of setters, a sort of good drinking buddy had told me, and then, with the slight wince of apology that’s a sign that you’re in quail country, he delivered the news that the litter had kennel, but no field, papers. Irish setters, he said ominously.

This was what we might call parachute folding. He wanted to be sure he could bail clear of any future bloody accusations, possibly when we were drinking, of outright foppery on his part for foisting such an animal on me.

But here’s why we never know when a new dog might come at us: It’s simultaneously never the right time for a new dog, no matter what, and always the right time for a new dog, no matter what. I have learned that it doesn’t matter what you think you are doing in your paltry human life. Put another way, the natural world is in alignment when it sends a dog your way. It may be aligned for you or against you.

That said, a new dog was the last thing I needed in this phase. I was driving a badass 1967 two-door Pontiac—rusted through on the trunk—in which I kept having minor wrecks but which, Dorian Gray–style, kept weirdly improving with each wreck. The wrecks were the car’s way of letting me renew it piece by piece. I did possess a couple of shotguns and an excellent kit of white tie and tails (both inherited). But I hadn’t been hunting in a year, and, no matter how I stared at my calendar, I wasn’t being invited to many white-tie cotillions in New Orleans by those staggeringly beautiful black-haired French girls. Bird dog? Worst idea in the history of the world.

But the point is, at the Walking Horse farm, this charming Irish misfit jumped up out of the basket at me. So, there she was. She had good legs. I called her Marlene, after the incendiary Ms. Dietrich.

The funny thing about the dog, which I suspect was also characteristic of her namesake film star, was how many men she instantly put in motion. When I first got her, I lived across the driveway from my grandfather in a couple of rooms on the side of my great-grandfather’s house. My grandfather very much did not want the dog tearing up the oak floors, or the pine baseboards, or the mullions in the old glass front door, or anything else that he knew she was gnawing at.

After Marlene survived a couple of his inspection visits—it was, after all, his father’s house—Elmer Green’s faded blue 1948 GMC pickup rolled up in the driveway with a load of timber in the back that Mr. Green busily set about putting in a corner of the big backyard. Mr. Green was the best carpenter in Athens, Alabama, my hometown. It took him exactly two days in back of my great-grandfather’s house to build a pitched-roof doghouse and pen from scratch. He made it with no wasted moves, like God making light.

As I drove back from work on the second day, Mr. Green was stretching the wire between the fence posts and knocking the heavy staples into the posts with his hickory-handled hammer. I let Marlene out the kitchen door into the dusk. She was all of four months old, whirling around our legs like a dervish, bucking with life and busily grinding her nose into us, into the bushes, into the bright new fence, into the very ground.