The Dogs Go Too

Blue jeans, blue grass and faithful friends
By Murray Dunlap, November 2009, Updated June 2021

Murray & Zuppa

I’m sorry to tell you, sweet girl, but I might be a writer. I might be a writer who, on occasion, squirms into a tweed jacket and gives a quick reading. I might be a writer who goes to dinner parties and laughs loudest and can sometimes tell the difference between syrah and merlot (not really, but I’m full of bull). I might lift my glass into the light and I might sniff the cork. I might be a writer who will teach his students why plot does and does not matter; why character means more than anything; and why, if I’m honest, I don’t care what they write about as long as they get a bang out of it and I don’t get fired. I’m also in debt, drink too much, don’t have health insurance and ask strangers inappropriate questions on a regular basis. Lately, I’m thinking I should stop using the word might. You should know, sweet girl, I might even be a writer with dogs.

Just last month I picked up an abandoned pile of wiggling mud from the middle of the street and took her home. I gave her a bath and let the vet fill her full of antibiotics. Now it seems I have a puppy who looks exactly like a raccoon had sex with a fox. She has a bandit’s mask, a puffy cinnamon mane and a black stripe that starts at the nape of her neck and ends at the tip of her tail. She has a white swirl on her chest and ears like a wolf. I named her Zuppa for how much she looks like the espresso-and-mocha-soaked pound cake dessert you and I shared on our first night out. I named her Zuppa so that we would both be reminded of sitting across from one another and smiling wide when we realized how good espresso and mocha could be when it’s soaked up by pound cake and topped with whipped cream. I also tasted spiced rum and amaretto, and when I watched you lick the whipped cream off your lips, it was the closest I’ve ever been to attaining enlightenment. It made me a little sorry that the man you were looking at was me.

Blue, a 13-year-old Border Collie mix, is my first love. Blue knows her left from right, the difference between the Packway Handle Band, Grass Town and Seldom Seen, and has convinced more than one female police officer to let me off with a warning. She is made happy by the sound of her own bark; embarrassed by her own farts; and if I am anxious and stressed, apt to tell me she loves me with an empathetic barf. No one believes it, but Blue knows how to give me a wink if I say something worth listening to.
I have dogs and a pick-up, sweet girl. No sports car, no luxury sedan. Not even an eco-friendly hybrid or an electric or anything that runs on corn oil. And when I’m in my truck, it’s blue jeans and bluegrass and baseball caps. It’s sneaking cigarettes and a pint of scotch in the glove box. Sorry, sweet girl. When I’m in my truck, I can roll up my sleeves, keep a hammer on the floorboard, eat three cheeseburgers and drink all the full-strength cokes I want.
But most important, when I’m in my truck I can bring my dogs. Real live dogs. Not the idea of a dog, and not some metaphorical construction. But the flesh and bone and bug-filled fur. Most of all, a soundly thumping heart. In the truck, I’m not some stuffy writer pretending to love dogs because he knows he’s supposed to; I’m just a guy on the road with his mutts. Some guy with a sorry-looking beard and a pick-up truck and a crazy-eared half-human, half-canine stretching her head out the window, snapping at flies and anything else that might drift into range.
The thing about dogs, love, is that they change you. It can be a subtle thing, like a voice the person conjures when talking to a dog. A sudden shift from stodgy business lip to smoldering tones and indulgent cooing. Or it can be a full-body transformation. A lightning bolt through the nervous system that sets your Soggy Susan neighbor into jiggly fits of: Who’s a cute girl? Who’s the cutest? And: That’s okay! Your Auntie Susan doesn’t mind a little mud on her skirt! Don’t fight it, sweet girl. They change you for the better.
The only place I go where they don’t allow dogs is the library. It’s worth it for the reading, but oh how it kills me. I know the dogs are taking turns barfing on my bed and wondering just who I think I am, and I’ll tell you, some days I’m not at all sure. It is at the library that a writer should really feel at ease. But not me. No, just a quick reading stop now and then and that’s about all I have the strength for. I need the dogs more than I need the books. That’s for certain. I think I might enjoy playing the part of being a writer more than actually being one. So, sure, I go to the library, but if they would just allow dogs, well then, I’d be a changed man.
When I’m in my truck, it’s a time machine. Blue jumps in and sits up like a person (because she is, dammit) on the front seat with her nose to the wind. Zuppa is still a puppy, so she curls into a sleepy ball on the floorboard, exhausted from her daily wrestling match with the neighbors’ cat. And me, I’m traveling backward full tilt, to a time before all this writing. A time before all this man-made stress and man-made worry—AND NO libraries! Right now I’m about 19, sneaking cigarettes, eating cheeseburgers, turning up the bluegrass, and all I can see is the Georgia blacktop ahead, the pine trees blipping past to my left, and to my right, two very good dogs. Two very good friends. Blue takes a french fry with her talented tongue and sucks off the salt and spits out the potato. Zuppa barks at bicycle riders and both, for about the hundredth time this month, make me ecstatic to be alive. It’s dog-made happiness, and you can’t beat it with all the fancy cars and fat salaries in the world.
I might be a writer, but I’m also a man with a truck and two dogs. I’m a man who gets in that truck and forgets about all the horseshit and remembers what his soul is made of. When I pull on a soft pair of beat-up jeans and roll up my sleeves, the person I want to be appears. No illusions. No metaphors. I am sitting right here in this truck. So when I show up at your house, don’t be surprised that up in the front seat, sitting like a person (because she is, dammit), licking the salt off french fries and spitting out the potato, Blue is right there beside me. She always has been. In a few short months, Zuppa will be right up to speed. But I’ve got a back seat and they’ll make room. They know you’re worth it. They know you’ll come around.
I’ll give up cheeseburgers and cokes. I’ll quit sneaking cigarettes and lay off the booze. I’ll even trade in my pick-up for something that runs on corn oil as long as it plays bluegrass and has room for two big-hearted dogs. Two dogs and you. I’ll do just about anything to see you lick whipped cream off your lips and smile wide across the table at a man like me. A man who might be a writer. A man who might be a writer who looks like me and who has two dogs who go wherever he goes (including one hypothetical library).
Please understand. Please don’t fight it.
Because when I’ve finally convinced you to join me on this journey, when we’ve come to that happy middle ground where everyone gets enough of what they need and learns to let go of what they don’t, and when you show me again that knock-out smile and when I’m finally convinced that it is really meant for me, well, I’m sorry, my dear sweet girl, but the dogs go, too.
And maybe we’ll get them into the library, one day. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just going to be a part of our process. Let the dogs have time out, then get some reading and writing done. But you’ll be allowed, sweet girl. They would never close a door on you.

Photo courtesy of the author

Murray Dunlap's work has appeared in countless magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices.