Abigail Thomas is the mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve. She is the author of seven books, including the memoir A Three Dog Life, which was named one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Her most recent book is What Comes Next and How to Like It. She teaches writing and lives in Woodstock, N.Y.
Culture: Stories & Lit
September 27 2016
The dogs are my early-warning system. I have three hounds and a small scamp of indeterminate heritage. All rescues. They bark. They bark at people walking dogs. They bark at people not walking dogs. They bark at kids on bikes. They howl at deer, rabbits, squirrels and phantom creatures I can neither hear nor see. They usually stop after a few minutes and return to the house, but one afternoon, like Saint Teresa at prayer, they barked without ceasing.
I looked out the window and saw a man sitting among the trees across the street. He was bent over a guitar. How could he stand such a racket? I thought, and coaxed the dogs inside. Later I ran an errand. “You had quite an audience,” I called from the car. He looked up. “They make more noise than I do,” he replied, perhaps a bit defensively. Well, I thought, for god’s sake, of course they do. You keep sitting there.
I took soup to my friend Chuck and stayed longer than I’d expected, talking about, of all things, death. Death is on my mind. Another friend had died a week ago. Life dealt her any number of bad hands, but she emerged a strong, generous, inspiring woman. She was a Catholic, and her faith was unshakeable. “She is in the arms of her Savior,” I said to myself when I first heard the news. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I don’t believe, really, in a god I can identify, but I am as certain of where she is as I am that day follows night. I have faith in her faith. I told Chuck. “Even though I don’t believe in heaven,” I said, “I know she’s there.”
I doubt Chuck believes in heaven, but he is kind. “Heaven was waiting for her,” he said. We were lying on separate couches, discussing certainty (death) and mystery (what, if anything, comes next). We decided we were both comfortable with mystery. Nothing explained, nothing explained away.
When I got home, I looked for the guitar player, but he was gone.
That evening, Daphne, my black hound, lay at the bottom of the stairs and barked and barked and barked. She stopped when I moved the vacuum cleaner whose hose had configured itself into the shape of a striking snake. But she started up again. I had an unwelcome thought. I never lock my door. What if the guitar player was hiding upstairs? What if that was the reason for Daphne’s incessant barking?
I reviewed my options. I could give in to paranoia and go upstairs and search. But what if he was crazy, and attacked me? (This is where a tiny bit of paranoia can lead.) Or I could ignore the whole crazy idea. Gradually I calmed down. So did Daphne.
I called Chuck. He is interested in paranoia. “I don’t think the dogs would have been much help,” I said. “They bark, but have no bite. I would’ve been done in.”
“Yes,” he said, “but they’d never let him hear the end of it.”
The dogs woke up in the morning at six o’clock, as usual. We’ve been sleeping downstairs in the sunroom for several months. Climbing stairs had become too much for my oldest dog, Carolina, and I’d had a few bad moments myself. This room has a glass ceiling. Staring up at the night sky had taken some getting used to. All that eternity.
Three of my four dogs shot through the dog door, barking their heads off, searching for interlopers. Not Carolina. She took her time. She’s a tottery old girl, a lot like me. She went into the yard, peed, looked around and came back inside. Carolina needs a boost onto the sofa, but once there, she is happy. Like me.
She had a bad stumble late in the afternoon. It took me several minutes to help her get to her feet again. I led her into the bedroom, and heaved her up on the bed. Then I went out for dinner with Chuck.
When I got home, I checked on my Carolina. She wasn’t in bed. I went through the house calling her name. I even looked upstairs. She was nowhere inside. This was unlike her; she never went out at night. But even with the car’s headlights, a flashlight, a lot of yelling and wandering through the dark yard, I could find no sign of her. I repeated the search a couple of times, calling and calling. Finally I went to bed, leaving the kitchen door open, hoping to find her there in the morning. It was hard to sleep. The night was supposed to be in the 40s, and I worried about her.
I got up before the other dogs, and slipped out of the house at first light. Carolina was lying on the grass. She looked beautiful, and at peace, her coat like satin to the touch, but her body was cold and rigid and she was dead. I was shocked and sad and horrified that she had died alone, but there was also a kind of simplicity that impressed me. She chose where she wanted to die, and she lay down under a blanket of stars.
We buried her that afternoon, wrapped in blankets, dog biscuits sprinkled around. Good dog, we said, you were a good dog. My friend Roland loaned me a post-hole digger so I could plant zinnias around her grave.
Carolina was the last of my original pack. My old Beagle, Harry, died; my beautiful Rosie died; and now Carolina. Actually, I suppose I am the last of the original pack. But I’m 73 and there is way less left of life than the already-lived part. I understood now that you could go to bed at night and be dead in the morning.
The house I live in already belongs to my children, but it was becoming clear that my real dwelling place weighs about 175 pounds. Its hair is turning gray. It smokes and coughs. I feel terrible for this residence whose lease may soon be up. I’ve paid scant attention to it besides a little lipstick now and then, and a lot of sun. What part of me is me, and what part is not, I wondered idly, reaching no conclusion.
The dogs and I went to bed, all of us subdued. Daphne slept in Carolina’s customary place. I stared up at the stars, dead now for eons, their ancient light still traveling.
Culture: Stories & Lit
April 16 2012
My hound dog Carolina is sitting in the car, and I’m in the drugstore standing in an aisle I haven’t been down for fifteen years. Carolina is in heat. Such an archaic concept, heat. I’m looking for something to slip into the mesh pocket of a red Speedo-like contraption I’ve just bought for her. Who knew they made such things for dogs? I recall the flimsy little garter belts we girls got with our first box of sanitary napkins and the accompanying pamphlet regarding the human reproductive cycle. Light years ago. I pick an item that comes wrapped in pink and says mini and then I hobble over to Aisle 4b, Pain Relievers, where I’m more at home. My back hurts. I grab aspirin, pay for everything and head for the car.
Carolina’s nose is smeared against the window. Good dog, I say, good dog, and manage to get myself sitting down without screaming and I pat her big head and nuzzle her neck, and her tail thwacks against the passenger seat. Carolina is halfway through her first treatment for heartworm and going into heat seems grossly unfair. “Jesus, yet more trouble,” as some martyr said when the executioner reached in to yank out his intestines. (I can’t remember which saint this was, but my mother loved to quote him.) Before I start the car I line up the arrows, take off the cap, stab a pen through the foil seal and gobble down three aspirin.
This is my first experience with a dog in heat but the back pain arrived thirty years ago when I bent to pick a canned peach off the kitchen floor and couldn’t straighten up. My new husband seemed familiar with the problem. “My god, what is this called?” I cried as he tried to help. “It’s called my back is killing me,” he said. This version of my back is killing me comes from wearing a pair of stylish new red shoes that pinch my left foot and make me walk lopsided. I don’t know why I keep putting them on except they show off my ankles. At age sixty-three, ankles are my best feature unless you count cake.
When I get home I discover it’s nearly impossible to put this thing on my dog. There is a place for her tail and Velcro fastenings that go over her haunches but try sticking a dog’s long tail through the hole of a small slippery garment while the dog turns around and around in circles. It takes fifteen minutes and when I succeed, Carolina turns her baleful eyes on me and I want to apologize. She is a dog dressed like a monkey.
The next morning I can barely walk. My friend Claudette comes to the rescue. She puts Carolina on a leash lest a pack of hormone addled canines show up in my yard, and later she drives me to her acupuncturist. I have never been to an acupuncturist but I’m ready for help here. The process is very interesting, all those needles tingling in my feet and legs and hands, and so relaxing that I would probably doze off were it not for the needle stuck right under my nose. I just can’t stop thinking about that one. Nevertheless I do feel better until I hit the dairy case at the Hurley Ridge Market and reach for half a gallon of milk. On the way back through town we drive past the half-dressed youth of Woodstock lying on the village green. They are a beautiful sight, but what with my bad back and good memory I am glad not to be one of them. They have far too much future. Sometimes it is a relief to be over the hill.
Meanwhile, my fat Beagle Harry has found himself capable of leaping straight up into the air like Rudolph Nureyev. If Carolina doesn’t notice, and she doesn’t, he does it again. He is no longer capable of reproducing, but that doesn’t dampen his spirit. Rosie too is affected by whatever hormones are flying. She engages in much vigorous grooming, attending obsessively to the nooks and crannies of both Harry and Carolina. She would have made an excellent mother. Now and then Carolina rouses herself long enough to emit a howl. Everybody’s getting hot around here except me. I am just beginning to wonder where all the would-be suitors are when a big white dog materializes in the driveway. Ha! Carolina’s first admirer.
Harry and Rosie take up their positions on the back porch barking their heads off and I call my sister and tell her proudly we’ve got an intact Huskie hanging around who probably never finished grammar school. “Now you know how Mom and Dad felt,” she says. I go outside holding Carolina’s leash in one hand, and a mop in the other. The mop doubles as cane and threat, and I shake it at the ruffian when he comes too close. He looks at Carolina and she looks back. Oh yeah, I remember that look. If this animal were human he’d be wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. He’d be lighting a cigarette. Forget my bad back, my advanced years. If this animal were human and I were in Carolina’s shoes, let’s face it. I’d be all over him like white on rice.
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