Good Dog

A Mythic Mutt

An exuberant stray named Troy proves that sometimes the last thing you want is just the thing you need

Illustration: John Cuneo

When my husband walked in the front door from a work trip early one Friday evening, he was greeted with a full-on Miley Cyrus dance party, featuring our five-year-old, Harriet, wearing one of her skirts like a tube top as she leaped and pranced around the dining room shoutin, “Hands up! They’re playing my song!” This was all fairly routine, but as Scott came into the kitchen, he glimpsed a strange mutt in the corner, one who was by then full-on twerking on our old dog Daisy’s head. Daisy didn’t seem to mind, but Scott stopped short. “What is that?” he said. “That’s Troy,” Lyda, our seven-year-old, who was thankfully much more into reading than twerking, replied without looking up from her book. “Troy?!” I said. The scruffy terrier had followed us home from the park just a few hours earlier, so I was surprised to learn he already had a name.

“Yes. Troy. As in the great city of…” Lyda spoke slowly, enunciating as if I were a mathematician instead of an English professor. The kid read incessantly and had recently gotten very interested in Greek myths. And while it had been decades since I last cracked either of Homer’s epics, I knew the basic narrative, Helen getting kidnapped by Paris, and how the Greeks were trying, as they had for a decade, to get her back. I think even mathematicians probably know how the Trojan War ended with Greek soldiers hiding themselves inside that huge and hollow horse.

Scott sighed, walked over to the stereo, shut off the music, and gave me the look that said I don’t think I signed up for this. It was a look we seemed to be giving each other a lot in those days. We’d been married just over a decade. I’d started a new teaching job and he was traveling too much. Between work, two little kids, and a hundred-year-old house in various stages of destruction, our conversations had become primarily administrative. We weren’t fighting, but maybe we should have been. All to say, the last thing we needed was another dog.

In the sudden Miley-less silence, the twerking stopped. Both dogs glanced up at us for further instruction and both girls started to wail at once, “Pleeeaaasssse!” I poured Scott two fingers of bourbon and we flopped down on the old leather couch we’d moved into the kitchen so we could paint the living room. It was early fall, which still feels like sultry midsummer in San Antonio, and the only reason I’d let the girls bring the dog inside in the first place was so we could give him some water. Scott suggested a truce; we would put Troy and his nice bowl of water out on the front porch. If he was still there in the morning, we would discuss keeping him.

Do I even need to say that the moment already felt fated, as if what was going to happen was already happening? Or describe how he sat, statue-like, facing the front door with his little chin lifted, waiting for as long as he had to wait?

Best as we could tell, Troy was mostly terrier, but his small stature and high-pitched yap suggested some Chihuahua in the mix. In any case, his energy was downright epic, as were his eyebrows, which gave him more than a passing resemblance to Martin Scorsese. From the moment the girls woke up, he chased them back and forth down the long hallway. More often than not, his short legs got going too fast so that when they turned to run in the other direction, he lost his balance and slid several feet on the pine floorboards before thudding solidly into the front door. By the end of the first week, he had chewed up two corners of our only good rug and one corner of the new screen door, and gotten the normally very mellow Daisy into two fights defending his honor at the dog park. It seemed the soldiers of chaos had set about sacking our already fragile city.

But then, one surprisingly cool weekend morning, in a move that now seems equal parts dubious Icarus-esque innovation and pure desperation to wear everyone else out, I hooked Troy’s leash onto Harriet’s EasyRider, a Big Wheel–like contraption that she steered with her feet. I swear to all the gods that he raised his eyebrows, leaned in, lowered his shoulders, and took off pulling the kiddie chariot as if this were a new Olympic sport. They picked up speed, then screeched wildly on two wheels around the next curve, amusing and alarming River Walk tourists in equal measure.

When we got back to the house, Scott was busy trying to reattach a door we’d had refinished. I was all excited to tell him about Troy’s new skill, but he seemed annoyed at the mess of us tumbling back into the house. “I’d just like to finish this,” he snapped. 

“Well, I’d like to finish anything,” I snapped back.

When we first married, we talked a lot about the importance of not keeping score, how we were on the same side, and that more for one of us shouldn’t feel like less for the other, but it was getting harder to remember all that good talk when it felt like there wasn’t enough time, money, or energy for anything, even kindness. I started to stomp off in a huff, and as I did tripped over Troy, falling hard to my hands and knees. “Babe!” Scott left the door half attached as he lunged to help me up, but before he could, Troy launched his entire wiggling self up and into Scott’s arms. All three of us ended up on the floor, where there was nothing much to do but laugh.

Like Daisy, who also came to us from the streets of downtown, Troy proved game for most anything. He stood patiently as Harriet dressed him up in a tutu, and didn’t even flinch when she added a pirate patch. He sat on the kitchen couch as Lyda read to him for hours, and was always the last one to leave the dance floor. He remained equally indiscriminate with his humping. Within a few months, we’d wholly forgotten what life was like before him.

Then, one afternoon, I got busy unpacking a Costco haul of groceries. The girls had a gaggle of friends over. The old door that didn’t ever quite shut right got left open. Scott was off somewhere, probably buying something to fix something else. It didn’t really matter whose fault it was. Troy slipped away as mythically as he had appeared. We put up signs and checked all the shelters. Mostly, we walked around the house feeling hollowed. 

You could say that Troy tricked us into loving him, but you could also say that he wiggled himself deep inside our hearts, and there loosed a little battalion of gratitude and generosity at a moment when we most needed it. Maybe the short time he gave us shouldn’t feel as heroic as it does, but it does. It’s been years now, and I still catch myself waking up hopeful, half expecting to find him still waiting out on the porch when I open the door. Even now, understanding how often love comes with loss, we’d open that door again.