I met her on a Monday night, sometime after ten. Just off the plane from New Orleans, I could still smell the city in my clothes. I’d dropped by Casamento’s before heading to the airport, gotten a hug in the kitchen and an oyster loaf for the road. But if I’d thought that smell—buttered bread, grease, and mollusk—would stand me in good stead with the stranger waiting for me in Brooklyn, I was wrong.
As I banged my suitcase into the apartment, bellowing, “Hello, Little One! I’m home!” I caught a flash of kohl-rimmed eye, a flick of tail. Then she vanished under the sofa.
My husband had picked her up from an adoption event at a mansion in the Hamptons earlier that day—a skinny stray trucked in from the mountains somewhere, snuffling around a dog party Gatsby would have liked. She’d slept soundly all the way across Long Island, waiting until they’d reached home to unload her baggage: Dandruff. A garbage-bag phobia. And a terror of umbrellas so strong that when my husband had opened his, the little stranger had nearly hara-kiried herself under a Subaru.
I crouched down, tried a gentler tone. “Hello, Miss Pup. Would you come out now?”
Her smoky eyes glinting in the under-sofa darkness, she only slunk farther back.
A rescue dog is a four-legged mystery. Parentage, place of whelp, method of abandonment, are sucked into the twin black holes of dog brain, dog tongue. All the rescue group would give us was a vaccination record from a vet in West Virginia, an unlikely guesstimate of breeds (“dachshund/ beagle”), and a note, purportedly from the pup herself, that I’d swear she didn’t write:
Hi, I’m Hiro and I would love to become a part of your life. I am a happy, playful pup who loves to snuggle!
You can’t blame an orphan for tarting herself up a little, but snuggles did not seem to be forthcoming. We couldn’t even be sure that Hiro was her name. So we grilled her:
“Someone hit you with an umbrella, honey?”
“How did you escape from that Hefty bag beside the road?”
But no matter what or how we asked, the sleek little girl kept mum.
As she would not respond to the alias she’d come with, we decided to rechristen her. We wanted something funny but New Orleanian, something that would mark her as one of ours. That she was not native like us did not matter; a New Orleans name would be fitting. Like me, gone from home since Hurricane Katrina, she was one of the displaced. After rejecting a slew of monikers—Sazerac, Tchoupitoulas, Tipitina—we settled on Professor Shorthair (Shorty, for short), in honor of the late, great singer and pianist from Bogalusa, Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair, with whom she shares a lolloping singing voice, if not the mane.
Despite our inauspicious beginning, Shorty and I fell pretty quickly into rhythm. Mornings she’d join me in my office for coffee and the day’s pages (I was working on a novel about the near death of my city by drowning, and that dog beneath my desk was often the only thing keeping me afloat). Later we’d go for our walk. It was about a mile to the good dog park—the one where the “walker” with the van full of aggressive malamutes knew not to show his face—and we covered the distance in rain and shine and ankle-deep snow. It was there that Shorty found her pack—Birdie the Beagle and Nutley the Nut, Humphrey the Yellow Lab. The other dog parents wanted to know Shorty’s story—Yeah, with those ears she can’t have any beagle in her. Why’s she so well marked? She came from Appalachia, you said?
I’d joke that maybe she was an Elmer Fudd Hound, tell them about the bunny-infested parking lot of the motel in Roanoke, Virginia, where we’d overnight on our annual trips to my in-laws’ house in Cashiers, North Carolina. After 464 miles of pacing the backseat, gassy, Shorty would bound to the asphalt and point.
“Be vewy vewy quiet,” I ventriloquized. “I’m hunting wabbits.”
“You think she needs more outdoor time?” asked the guy with apartment-dwelling coonhounds.
We were fine—more than fine. And then we were not. I got pregnant; our range shortened. By the time the baby was old enough to tolerate a dog tussle, Shorty’s park pack had scattered. Nutley went with his new babies upstate, and Humphrey chased California dreams cross-country. Birdie was there, but he’d shacked up with Tillie the Cattle Dog, and, after a brief romp of hulloo, Shorty skulked into a corner and waited there, despondent, to go home.
But home—or what we called home—was no longer enough for her.
We moved to a new house where summer storms resounded like gunshots on the skylight, and familiar smells were
misplaced. By the time Superstorm Sandy blew into Brooklyn, Shorty was a shell-shocked mess again, army-crawling under the sofa as if bombs were raining from the sky. On the street, she snarled at any dog who dared come near the stroller. Ropes of spittle dangling from her jaw, she’d look at me, ears pricked for praise. I was supposed to feel protected—Shorty, my savior from the French bulldogs of Brooklyn Heights!—but instead I heard a canine whisper: This is enemy territory, lady. Take us somewhere we belong.
Maybe I was projecting. My child now in the world, my umbilical link to New Orleans throbbed. I felt anemic, desperate for live oaks and Gulf oysters, funk and family. I wondered if Shorty felt it, this longing for home, visceral and as dangerous as a hemorrhage.
As I planned our annual road trip south, my husband Googled, searching for photographic clues as to Shorty’s family line. I was loading the Igloo when he found it—“the page of Shorties,” or mountainfeistsquirreldog.com.
“Come here,” he shouted. “Look at all these Shorties!”
And sure enough, there the Shorties were. Prick-eared, tricolor, climbing trees after squirrels with the aid of that dewclaw she was always tearing off in the snow. Suddenly things made more sense: her hunger for the motel rabbits, her preternatural comfort with forests—an ease that led her to trot right over trailside snakes without batting one pretty eye. This was a mountain feist—a hunter, a country beast. She had no business in New York City—nor, perhaps, did we.
As we hit the highway, swapping the choked industrial margins of the city for the clean air of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, we rolled down our windows, and Shorty curled up on the backseat and snoozed. Somewhere between pit stops for country ham and the obligatory Roanoke rabbit hunt, we pulled off at a truck stop for gas. As Shorty scrabbled toward a neighboring pasture—the Blue Ridge smoking over a greensward dotted with cow turds—a trucker with a chaw in his lip descended from the cab of his semi.
“That’s a mighty fine feist dog you got there, ma’am,” he said, and spat.
There was no more doubt about who she was, where she belonged.
Later that week, watching Shorty bed down in some leaves during a downpour on a mountain trail, I had a revelation: It wasn’t some trauma from our past that kept us shaking under the sofa. No, we’d just gone too far from all the familiar things that made us feel like ourselves.
Sometime after that run down south, we decided we’d have to keep going, all the way to New Orleans, out of the big city for good. And so our whole family is home in New Orleans now and forever, surrounded by our pack of gumbo-making grandmothers and goofy grandpas, scruffy uncles and stylish aunts, cousin dogs—Hurricane the Hodgepodge, Levee the Bichon (R.I.P.), Yogi the Corgi, Toulouse the Bodyguard, Delachaise the Duck Dog—and Jimmi the Cat. I have my oysters again, and Shorty has her own tree and a passel of pet squirrels. She chases them across the lawn as night falls, barking madly.