Good dog

How a Steadfast Pup Helped an Author Find His Voice

A budding Mississippi writer learns a lot from his Lab mix

Photo: John Cuneo

I didn’t even want a dog. I was freshly back in Mississippi after a few years living abroad. Just a month earlier I had bought my first house, a nine-hundred-square-foot fixer-upper on a sagging street in downtown Hattiesburg, and I was feeling my way through the foggy beginnings of trying to write fiction because I had somehow decided that’s what I wanted to do, even though I’d never done it. I was a loner, feeling lost, and the last thing I wanted was another mouth to feed, even though at Christmas I had let it slip in front of my sisters that since I had a house now, I might as well get a dog. 

So, like good sisters, a couple of weeks later they got me one for my twenty-ninth birthday. It was early January and I drove from Hattiesburg to Jackson to meet Mandy, the older of my two younger sisters. It was a cold, rainy winter day, and we stood in a parking lot and she passed me this little black lump. A Lab/golden retriever mix. His eyes were closed, and he was sleeping in her arms. She handed him over and said, “Happy birthday” before I had time to explain I didn’t think this was such a good idea.

I headed back down Highway 49, the rain tapping against the soft top of my old Jeep Wrangler, the heat barely working, neither the defroster nor the wipers doing much of anything. I had set the puppy on the passenger seat, and he hadn’t stopped whimpering since. Finally, irritated by the weather, and the cold, and the lack of heat, I scooped him up and set him in my lap so he’d shut up. His little body was warm, and he went still and quiet, and as I looked down at him, all I could see was black. So that’s what I named him. Black. It was strong, direct, symbolic, and I liked it right away. It took almost two hours for us to get back to the house, but by the time we were there, I loved him already. In the span of a nasty winter afternoon, I no longer felt so lonely in this choice I had made to try to be a writer.

Only two living creatures didn’t look at me strangely back then when I said I wanted to become a part of the literary tradition of Mississippi. One I later married. The other was Black. And that was exactly how I said it to him as we sat on the porch on a late afternoon. A bottle of Old Charter. The serenity of a falling sun. Two dudes hanging out. Maybe I was testing him with such a grandiose statement, because I hadn’t written a hundred words worth a damn. Maybe I wanted to see if he’d flinch. I wanted to see if I’d flinch. I think I did. But he didn’t. 

It’s difficult to explain how much doubt is involved when you are beginning as a writer. I wasn’t trying to figure out how to write a good story. I was trying to figure out how to write a good sentence, and that takes patience. Something I’ve never had.

He was quietly teaching me. Teaching me to be still. To leave your feet right where they are and not run. Trust in what your gut is telling you.

I was fresh off ten years of restlessness, moving from place to place, even country to country, wanting something to grab hold of me, and then when it finally did, it happened to be this thing that was going to take years of doing to figure out if I was even good enough to try to be successful. I spent many evenings on the porch with Black. Just talking to him. Telling him how ridiculous this all seemed. Wondering if I had made the right decision. I told him the kinds of things you only tell a good friend, when no one else is around. He would sit next to me and look up with those sweet dog eyes, and there was so much kindness. So much acceptance. And he was quietly teaching me. Teaching me to be still. To leave your feet right where they are and not run. Trust in what your gut is telling you. On days when I needed to roam, he’d hop in the back of my truck and I’d roll down the window and we’d ride. I’d watch him in the rearview mirror, the wind pushing his shiny coat, his tongue out, a good and happy dog, and I’d think to myself—we’re gonna make it. 

I don’t know what happened.

We had just returned to Mississippi after a few years in Auburn, Alabama, where I had my first real job as a faculty instructor. Now Mississippi had called us back, this time to Columbus, a pretty little town where writers like Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty once walked the streets. Our first daughter was two, we were in an unfamiliar place, we had bought an old Victorian that was going to need years of work, I was accumulating more rejection letters every year, and my father-in-law was fighting his second bout with cancer. It was a tough time. 

I came in late one November night. I opened the gate to our backyard, and Black met me, as he always had. A little gray in his beard now. Moving more methodically. But always there. I talked to him for a minute and then he followed me up onto the porch where he slept, and I said good night and closed the back door. When I came out the next morning, he didn’t greet me. When I walked out into the yard, I didn’t see him. I looked at the gate and it was open about a foot. Black was gone. 

I don’t know if I left it open. I don’t know if somebody walked by our house and was doing something suspicious. All I know is that I walked the neighborhood, calling him, waiting for him to appear from behind some bush or along the street in the midst of a lazy stroll. When I had no luck, I hopped into my truck and drove around. And drove around. For days. I called the different vets in town to see if someone had shown up with him. I walked up and down city streets and looked over fences and into backyards. I looked for him on the side of the highway. 

But I never saw him again. 

I think about it all the time, and on the days when I’m sure it was my fault, like right now, I try like hell to forgive myself, but it never works. 

It is a strange thing to say, but I envy those who get to bury their dogs. Those who are there at the end, who are able to experience the practice of saying goodbye, who know where the small piece of earth is where your good friend is at peace. 

There is so much that we as Southerners associate with place. The plum tree in a grandmother’s backyard, or a swimming hole where we first jumped, or the shadowy highway that leads home. I like to watch the sunset drop down over the trees behind my house, the colors bleeding across the horizon. I like to feel the chill in the deep of the lake that hides away from the summer sun. I like that first autumn breeze and the leaves of the oaks and maples turning red and gold and watching my younger daughter try to catch them as they fall. What I don’t have for Black is that place to stand and remember. That place to kneel and take the dirt between my fingers and tell him how much I miss him, tell him about my daughters, tell him about the novels I’ve written and thank him again and again for helping me to be brave. Thank him for sitting with me and listening to my doubts and fears and looking back at me with only confidence in his black eyes. I wish I had that place to go and talk to him, like we used to, where only he and I can hear.