Good Dog

Home is Where the Mutt Is

When it comes to a fresh start, there’s nothing like the power of a pup

Illustration: John Cuneo

The last time I cried over dinner with my now ex-husband, we were in a dark little tavern in South America, drinking wine and eating shellfish, late at night. During our seventeen-year marriage, almost half my life we were together, there had been more than a few restaurants cried in: I’d told him I was pregnant in a restaurant, stormed out after a fight on our second anniversary, wept hormonally in a bar so long it became funny to both of us. But the last time I ever cried over dinner with him was about whether or not we could get a dog.

We were on vacation, for godssakes, and without even reliable Internet for looking at pictures of puppies, never mind near a shelter or a begging child. We were alone; we might have talked of anything. But there was plenty of stuff in the ether I had only begun to sense the edges of: I had just finished a draft of a novel that would need to go back to the drawing board; family was ill, aging, broke; and our marriage was on the cusp of its last downward spiral. I brought up the idea that we might get the children a dog, and the next thing I knew, the conversation had launched into old, dark territory.

Our previous dog had been my idea to begin with, too, and things had not gone especially well. I had insisted on her at the beginning of our marriage, and in her long, odd, unstable life, she’d kind of turned the man off animals altogether. (There’s a metaphor here, but I’ll not plumb to find it. Suffice it to say, when we put her down fourteen years later, her file at the vet was covered with stickers that read “will bite,” although she never had.)

The idea of a dog became a kind of anti-talisman in the months ahead, a thing we held on to as we broke apart. Talking to the children about the fact that they would soon have two homes, both I and my ex-husband promised that now we could get a dog: this new we, the children and me. It was a small bright thing to offer, like bunk beds or your own bathroom, something to sweeten the pot. And a puppy: Nothing’s sweeter than that.

The truth, of course, is that the balm is temporary. The puppy itself is temporary. It grows up. And here were these kids, these perfect part-people we had done a damn fine job of raising to ages nine and fifteen, and now we’d hurled them straight into the most adult of circumstances: a delicate bifurcation of home. With it, we said they could have a part-time, four-legged friend. What we were really offering was another life, in every possible sense of the word. It would start small. The question keeping me up nights was: What would it become?

The kids and I drove from our home in Greenville, South Carolina, to a little rescue outside Atlanta to get Frances after we saw her picture on Petfinder. She was nine weeks old, one of twelve or thirteen, reportedly part Australian shepherd, part Saint Bernard, liver spotted and white with a peppered snout and pretty pale eyelashes. Of all the littermates wrestling in their enclosure, she was the one I wanted. I couldn’t really say why I was so certain, other than a kind of gut-level recognition I still trusted, in spite of the failures that had come before. I convinced the kids she was the one they wanted too, which was not hard because puppies are all cute in kind of interchangeable ways, and I honestly think they were having trouble telling one cuteness from another.

We named her Frances after Baby in Dirty Dancing, the all-time best swoon of a movie we’d watched a couple of nights before, after running through a laundry list of silver screen possibilities: Brigitte and Audrey and Rita and Jean. She looked like a Frances, I thought, and these things, too, have a way of snapping into place.

On the drive home, the dog stretched across the laps of both my son and my niece; there was the sense of having been here before. There was a long road ahead, and not just to Greenville. I wish I could say that I was circumspect, that I remembered the bad dog with her sticker-covered file, that I thought about whatever might have gone wrong then or what might go wrong now. But I didn’t. I rolled up the rugs and borrowed a kennel from my brother. I bought a fifty-pound bag of organic dog food. I announced that the dog could go anywhere but the couch, a rule upheld so long as I was in the room.

But I’m not always in the room, literally or figuratively, anymore. New jobs and responsibilities and schedules mean the house is empty a couple of days a week, the kids gone to their father’s, and often I’m not at my desk when they come home. Frances was still a puppy the first time I saw her recognize the sound of them in the drive. Her head shot up from where she lolled on her bed, and with a yip and a scramble across the hardwoods, she was at the door, practically trembling with excitement, ready to clobber them with her love. They dropped their bags and fell to their knees and let her lick their faces, and since then, this has been their coming home.

Now Frances is a little over a year old. Halfway between puppydom and adulthood, she’s full of contradictions. She splays out to take up the whole couch, bed, backseat, and yet she still tries to fit beneath my desk chair when she’s frightened. She’s got a standing high jump of about three feet but refuses to load up into the car or heft her white ass onto the bed without help. She looks like a seal, a swan, a Star Wars character, a bat; we are forever trying to lend her an alter ego, as though she needs to be more than just a dog. Because she’s always been more than just a dog for us.

We all share a tiny house downtown. Someday I’ll figure out the pound per square foot ratio, but it’s high. When a video game or cello practice vibrates through the house, Frances noses into my darkened bedroom, curling up with a dramatic huff on the rug. She’ll lick a forgotten coffee cup dry if she finds it on the bedside table. Perhaps the caffeine is a mistake: She looks, often, as if she’s been up all night, her eyes red rimmed and doleful. We figure this must be the Saint Bernard.

She’s still first to the front door, overly affectionate and protective in turns, sometimes all at once. When she sees my friend Sam, she gets so excited she pees on her own feet. My friend Brian, she will not stop barking, wagging her tail at the same time, her white ruff raised up to show the coppery colored fur beneath it. She won’t stop barking even when she’s licking his hand.

“She knows how to do her job,” Brian says.

He is the kindest man. Frances doesn’t know her job from a hole in the ground. She’s essentially a teenager, and you don’t know anything when you’re a teenager, much beyond instinct. Still, you make some pretty important choices on instinct. Who’s safe, whom to love. How you take your coffee.

These days, at dinnertime, we scrape the homework to the side of my great-grandmother’s dining room table, a gift from my parents in the new homemaking. Meals are simple on school nights, but we eat together. I feel Frances circling our legs (nobody puts Baby in the kennel), and I think how she’s kind of like our teenager, the adolescent of this new life we’ve got here, and it’s the only life she’s ever known: this tiny house, the three of us, her family.

And I’m ridiculously proud.