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Best Boy
An essay reminds us: Don’t ever leave (the gate open).

The dog has run away again. It’s the third time this month. One of the construction workers accidentally left our backyard gate open, and Bowie wandered out. Or maybe he darted out—I don’t know, since, busy washing dishes and corralling the kids, I didn’t see it happen. When I looked out the kitchen window and saw the gate wide open, I knew he was gone. He’d never let an opportunity like this—for freedom, adventure —go to waste. I dropped the sippy cup I’d been rinsing, yelled at my husband to watch the kids and sprinted out of the house. I was barefoot, but didn’t want to waste another second. As fast as he runs, he could be two towns away.

But at the sidewalk, I stop. Because we like to give him variety on his morning walk, we take him on a different route each day. He could be anywhere. I have to decide which way he loves the best.

I tell myself to think like a dog. Or, more specifically, to think like this dog. Surely he would’ve stopped at the stained mattress our next-door neighbor left at the curb weeks ago, which we’ve all complained about. Bowie likes to pee on it to show his disgust. He seems to feel it’s his civic duty. I choose to head in that direction.

I ring the doorbell of the house three doors down, where his girlfriend, a Toy Poodle named Coco, lives. They haven’t seen him but promise to be on the lookout. What else might have sidetracked him?

I run past someone’s heartbreaking Lost Dog poster. I imagine making one for Bowie, hoping it doesn’t come to that: his Beagle face looking forlorn, his huge light-brown eyes ringed with what looks like Goth-black guyliner, the perpetual puppy pudge even though he’s eight and his tricolor is turning white with age and his black body is speckled with what we tell him is a “distinguished gray.” We haven’t been getting along that well lately; I have less time for him. He resents the fact that my husband and I have introduced two new babies, less than a year apart, into his life and sacred space. I imagine he misses our original pack—my husband, him, me—and the way we used to dote on him, our little Beagle prince, named Beauregard for how good-looking he was, then nicknamed the more accessible Bowie for the playful personality that quickly emerged.

If it was at all possible for a hound’s face to fall any lower, it did the day we brought our first daughter home from the hospital. I don’t know what he’d been expecting us to bring back after those few days away. A Labrador, maybe? It was like we’d given him socks for Christmas. Now that baby has a sister, and both girls love him rough. They squeal in his ears and kiss him a little too hard and pull his tail when trying to keep up with him.

No wonder he’s run away, I think, as I scream his name in every direction. I run a street over, checking to see if he’s loitering around the pachysandra he likes to poop in. But he’s nowhere in sight and the street is eerily quiet.

He had so been enjoying having the construction workers around: new people, new smells. He walked around them with a swagger, like he was their foreman, inspecting their work. He crawled under the house with the nicest one, as if to hand the guy tools as he needed them. He’d sun himself beside them during their lunch breaks, and afterward they’d give him whatever food was left—an orange segment, a bite of empanada. My husband and I joked about fitting him for a tool belt.

A couple of the workers climbed up on our roof right before I ran out, acting as aerial guides and promising me they’d yell if they saw him. Even though he resents the babies, Bowie’s always been tolerant. During the course of a year, he endures the bunny ears, the turkey headdress, the Santa hat. Each time, as he stares at the camera, his eyes say, “You know I descended from wolves, right? You know I could kill you but show great restraint and choose not to, right?” We’re certain that’s how he sees himself: he stalks … a tennis ball. He eviscerates … a stuffed animal.

Maybe he’s run off to be a wolf. Maybe he’s searching for the respect he feels he deserves. More likely, he found a scent and followed it.

I run to the trash bins in the alley two streets from our house, where he once found the remnants of a discarded chicken dinner. He checks in there every so often in hopes of a similar bounty.

He’s a mama’s boy, though he tries (and fails) to downplay it. Ever since he was a pup, I could say in a certain tone of voice from across a crowded dog park, “Who’s Mom’s best boy?” and he’d stop whatever he was doing and come running, tail wagging his whole body, as if to volunteer “I am! I’m your best boy! That’s me!” I yell it now in hopes he’ll follow the sound of my voice and find me.

Lately, when we go to the park, he rarely leaves my side. He sits next to me with an air of maturity, as though scoffing at the puppies tackling each other, doing all the things he used to do. He had a very long puppyhood, an extended and difficult adolescence. Yet I miss his puppy energy. I miss the feeling of endlessness to his life, our love for him. This dog has been with us since the beginning of our marriage, has seen me through some of my toughest times—infertility treatments, miscarriages, surgeries. I never needed a hot water bottle because I had my Beagle to keep me warm, to cuddle with.

The wind whips up and there’s a snap in the air. I’ve been looking for him for almost a half-hour, and it’s getting cold. This is a dog who burrows under the bedcovers every night; how will he survive in the wild? How disappointed will he be when he realizes there’s no one to pour chicken broth over his dog food, or give him a neck massage while watching TV? How will I ever sleep again, knowing he’s out here, lost, hungry, looking for home?

And how would I live without him? I thought about it when he got sick last year, but it was the sort of thought I had to quickly shake off for fear it would swallow me whole. I can’t—won’t—imagine life without that face, the face we fell in love with the moment we saw him peeking out of the empty plastic baby pool in the home of a crazy breeder in the San Gabriel mountains. He was the only puppy left.

“The runt,” the breeder had said between a puff on her cigarette and a hacking cough. Already feeling protective, I had lifted him up, covered his huge ears and said, “Nonsense. He’s perfect.”

Running around the neighborhood now, I’m feeling frantic, going hoarse, but still screaming. “Bowie! Cookies! I have cookies!”

Nothing.

I stub my toe on the uneven sidewalk and trip. My toenail is instantly throbbing and bleeding around the edges. I lie down on a lawn and curse, my face hot and wet with tears. He wasn’t even wearing his collar. I had just given him a bath and he was drying himself in the afternoon sun. When we adopted him, we had him microchipped, the “lojack for dogs,” but that assumes someone finds him, then actually makes the effort to take him to a vet’s office or shelter to be scanned.

It’s hopeless. He’s gone.

I remember 10 years ago when my parents’ dog died. My mother wailed into the phone, “That dog was my best friend.”

Though a lifelong dog lover, I was dogless at the time, and not only didn’t understand, but secretly pitied my mother, thinking that it was an imprudent overinvestment on her part. You enter into an agreement when you get a pet: you know in all reason and with near certainty that you will outlive this creature and will someday have to let it go—will have to endure heartbreak. And yet, you do it anyway.

Eight years into my own dog ownership, I get it now. He’s not just my best friend, he’s my first-born, and my love for him defies reason. He has his own room in my heart—a room not far down the hall from the space reserved for my children and husband. It’s not just that his love is unconditional in quality. It’s the quantity of that consistent love, which I haven’t felt before, or enough. My husband and I have the occasional fight and ensuing silent treatment. My daughters will grow into teens and hate me on and off for years.

This dog has never been mad at me.

I’ll never forgive myself for letting him get away. I should have paid more attention, but I’ve just been so busy with the babies. I feel like I’m failing everyone, especially him. I forgot to give him belly rubs, or decided that it was easier to navigate the behemoth of a twin stroller when I didn’t bring him on the walk as well. Most of the time when I talk to him lately, I’m scolding him. He has been acting out, developing an appetite for crayons, baby dolls, poopy diapers.

I turn around and notice that I’m on the lawn of the big white house with a crabapple tree that Bowie loves. He eats the apples. They give him diarrhea, but he still eats them whenever given the chance, so we usually avoid this house on walks.

“Bowie! Apples!” I call feebly.

Just like that, he appears far down the sidewalk. I can barely make him out. He stands still, stares at me, his tail waving like a flag. I yell his name. He bounds down the sidewalk, his ears back from the wind, the excitement. He charges toward me and jumps into my arms, pushing me onto my back. I can tell he knows. He knows he was lost, he knows he was scared and that I was worried. He knows I still love him as much as I did the day I scooped him up for the first time. I carry him the four blocks home, 40 pounds of pleasantly plump Beagle spilling out of my arms as he licks my cheeks.

He came back. Someday, he may not. Someday, he won’t be able to run that fast. Someday, I’ll have to decide when it’s time to let him go. But I refuse to sit with these thoughts for more than a second, because this afternoon, I am the luckiest mom alive: I have more days with my best boy.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 75: Fall 2013

Illustration: Hadkhanong

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Submitted by Mike Bailey | September 27 2013 |

Great story, Carrie. Beautifully told and written. More please. Brava and thank you!

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