We stared at the battered bungalow we’d found on Craigslist. The landlady said it was once a “whorehouse.” This was in Asheville, North Carolina, and we assumed she meant in the old days of Thomas Wolfe, when such establishments were more commonplace.
Never, my friends, assume.
Waylon, our rescued bird dog, zigzagged the yard, nose to ground. My girlfriend and I had just towed a trailer loaded with dog beds and dream boards and IKEA furniture from San Francisco to the mountains of North Carolina, where I would later write the first draft of my novel about two kids lost in a cold, dangerous world, with nothing to depend on but each other and one remarkable animal.
I didn’t know how much the story would be ours.
I watched Waylon checking the perimeter of the yard, fenced in chain link. Suddenly, he went into full point, a furry arrow aimed at something hidden in the woody kraken of vines snarling through the back fence.
My heart roared.
Waylon. Can you think of a better name for a dog? His soulful eyes had called out to us from a tiny thumbnail, no more than 150 pixels square on Petfinder.com. Say what you want about Internet dating; I say destiny can ride those rails. We’d driven nine hours north of San Francisco, to the high desert of Oregon, to meet this dog who’d skewered our hearts. Our apartment did not even allow pets.
Waylon and his brother, Willie (of course), had been dumped by a breeder at the only no-kill shelter in miles, run by a silver-haired man in an eye patch. Both dogs were German wirehaired pointers, bred to sell. The one-eyed man said they were lucky. Sometimes breeders took the runts into the woods and shot them.
Waylon’s neck was scabbed from an embedded chain; he was mangy and sick. You could see his ribs. His face, long and bearded like a Civil War colonel’s, looked as if it had witnessed whole ages of sadness and strife. Maybe it had—dog years are long, after all, and some souls are old.
The shelter staff had never heard him bark or growl or cry. Not a peep. It would be two weeks before he spoke to us, and this in his sleep. Two months before we had his giardia and mange under control. He was the runt of runts, and he was the handsomest creature we had ever seen.
Back in Asheville, Waylon came off point, waiting to see what we would do. The provenance of the house was off-putting, sure, but we wanted a place with “character.”
Oh, we got it.
There were mice in that house and ants and drafts and ghosts. There was a creepy basement that flooded when it rained, a creepier attic, and neighbors who hinted at poisoning Waylon if he barked too much. We were accosted by meth-eyed men; I saw seven arrested in front of the house in the first two weeks, one attacked with a drainpipe. I kept a shotgun just inside the door.
On good days, we sat in a blue plastic kiddie pool and drank box wine while Waylon scouted for possums and moles and a giant groundhog rumored to live in the vines out back. He caught the same baby possum three times. Three times it played possum, truly, and gentle-jawed Waylon dropped it living and unhurt at our feet.
On bad days, Waylon leaped at hooded men who taunted him from their side of the fence, and we feared one would stick a knife through the chain link, silencing the dog who threatened the business of selling twist-tied bags of crank.
I’d been whittled to the bone before the cross-country move but didn’t realize it. I’d had a very high-stress job in California for years, writing when I wasn’t working. I’d quit that job to strike out on my own. Suddenly we had little money and fewer friends, and fall came. It felt like the whole world went cold. We were anxious, depressed, anxious again.
But we had Waylon.
We watched him patrol the fence while the trees rained gold. His coat was brown, brindled like a faint dust of snow. His hair was wiry, spangled with fallen leaves, his beard so long and old. He was our weapon against the shadows behind the fence, against sadness and doubt and pain. He was our warmth on the cold nights. Our joy machine.
My girlfriend’s mother—a dour member of old-guard New Orleans—came up for Thanksgiving. Her boyfriend brought his Colt .45 to dinner. He’d heard about our street. A mouse scurried across the floor during the meal, and I thought my future ex-mother-in-law’s head would explode. I’d brought her daughter to live in this place?
Waylon scrambled after the mouse, his pursuit curtailed only by a dangled sliver of fried turkey. Meanwhile I pursued the rodent from room to room with a traffic cone in tow. He stuck close to the baseboards, but when he darted across the living room floor, I dropped the cone over him like a blaze-orange witch’s hat.
I slipped a length of cardboard underneath and began carrying the trapped critter outside. When I pushed through the screen door, I realized everyone was following me. They followed me onto the front porch and down the steps and into the yard, passing the turkey fryer in the driveway. They stood behind me as I knelt and freed the mouse near the base of the fence, through which he could flee and be rid forever of the Civil War colonel, disguised as a dog, who wanted so badly to eat him.
When I looked up, a miracle of smiles.
We moved to a small cottage in Black Mountain and built a fenced yard for Waylon. He was diagnosed with elbow dysplasia that spring, but even lame at times, hopping on three legs, he never quit smiling. His separation anxiety back then was terrific. Once he managed to press his head through the wire bars of his crate, actually breaking the welds. We found him half strangled, bleeding, a smile locked on his jaws. See how much I love you?
I know, brother. I know.
All this time, we were working to make our way to the coast. Somehow, that seemed the answer to our problems. In 2011, we moved. We got married—a golden week—then separated six months later. We’d been together seven years. I think we’d struggled so hard, so long, we hadn’t had time to think about our own relationship. I think we could’ve endured anything together, any hardship, but being happy was something else.
We decided Waylon would go with Kristen—he was always a mama’s boy at heart. My last day with Waylon, I took him to a secluded spot on the sound side of Wrightsville Beach. Here we’d helped him overcome his fear of the ocean, carrying him out to deep water and making him paddle back. I wanted him to know these were our last hours together. He just wanted to swim.
Kristen and Waylon moved to Houston. I helped them load the U-Haul trailer, watched them drive away on a cold morning in January. Waylon rode shotgun, his pink tongue slung like a pennant in the wind.
He didn’t know.
A year later I cried. I’d seen a video montage of their first year without me, mainly shots of Waylon. It hit like a sledge. I knew what it was to be a ghost. To watch life unfold without you. And yet I was happy, because they were happy. Waylon was smiling in every shot.
I went back to one of my favorite books, like you do. The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller. The end of Book One. And I read the words again and again, making them my own.
Waylon. Little brother. My heart.
I say your name often. I say it now.
Waylon. You handsome son of a bitch. You saved us more than we ever saved you.
Taylor Brown’s debut novel, Fallen Land: A Novel, was published this year.