Not long ago, I was speaking with a local sage, who in the course of our conversation said, “It takes a lifetime of work and wisdom to build a good life, but only one decision, hastily made, to undo it.” While I can’t recall every activity and decision that contributed to my good life, I do remember the precise moment and event that precipitated my fall—Sunday, Aug. 8, 1999, at 1 p.m., when I purchased a devious rat terrier of dubious origin.
Many a descent has begun with the violation of a simple truth—in my instance, seeking out a dog instead of the tried-and-true method of letting a dog find me. In the olden days, dogs were not purchased. They rambled about the countryside, panhandling until they stumbled upon a home with children in need of a dog. The dog that accompanied me through much of my childhood, Zipper, arrived at our doorstep when I was 1 year old. She was pregnant and unmarried, a condition tragically common among dogs, who mate with little regard for bloodlines or propriety.
My parents, knowing the tendency of one dog to multiply into five or six, stood at the front door and ordered her to leave, even as my older siblings were slipping her table scraps out the back door. This double-mindedness persisted through Zipper’s 16 years with us. She never knew whether her residency was legal or not, or whether a green card had been issued, so she slunk about, under the radar, traveling mostly at night, holing up in the daylight hours. Though our town required the purchase of a dog license, Zipper remained an undocumented alien her entire life, one step ahead of the law. Eventually, my parents made their peace with her, but they never went so far as to make our relationship official and public.
She repaid our hesitancy with uncorrupted fidelity, performing a variety of tasks without fail—escorting us to school each morning and meeting us at the school that afternoon to see us home, securing the garbage against raccoons and opossums, expelling from our Eden the occasional stray cat, and once, with an intense and focused fury, attacking a bully before he attacked me. For her labors, she received a throw rug in the back corner of the cellar on which to sleep, the scraps from our table, a bath each spring, and a rawhide chew each Christmas.
She died when I was 17 and away from home for the summer, working at a camp in northern Indiana. My mother wrote to tell me Zipper had wandered away and not come back, that dogs preferred to greet death in private, not wishing to burden their owners. In truth, she had been struck by a county highway truck and buried ingloriously with other roadkill in a pit behind the municipal garage. We did not learn this until several weeks later, when a man told my father the grisly circumstances of her demise. So deep was our guilt at her lonely, tragic death that nothing more was ever said of it.
Every dog I have lived with since has preferred the name Zipper. Our present model differs in every way from the original version. Where the first was without guile, our current Zipper is furtive and suspicious, seeking an advantage in every circumstance, spying out any situation that can be turned to her benefit. If even a grain of rice falls to the floor, she can be depended upon to snatch it before anyone else, sporting a mischievous grin, her eyes revealing a soul gone bad. She possesses the moral indifference of a hangman and would cheerfully sell out her best friend, which my wife supposes to be her, for a moldy crust of bread.
As for her dependability, it is nonexistent. Were a fire to sweep through our home, she would save only herself. Were I to fall in a well, she would keep it a secret. Were robbers to invade our home, she would haul the loot to their car and bite us if we intervened.
Unlike the first Zipper, who was profoundly grateful to be given a corner of the cellar, the current one sleeps on our marital bed, shedding copious amounts of fur, necessitating an almost daily change of sheets, without a hint of shame. On the rare occasion she is asked to vacate our bed, she slinks away with a malevolent glare, a low rumbling in the back of her throat.
In her 16 years, the first Zipper avoided all contact with a veterinarian, gutting out her few maladies with a positive determination. Our present dog scans medical journals in search of an affliction she can acquire, some misery that will require a visit to the veterinarian, an exotic strain of tapeworm or mange she can contract to extract sympathy and an extra morsel of food.
But her most serious defect is her cunning ability to make others think so well of her that my laments are greeted with disbelief.
“How can you say such things? She’s a perfect angel,” my wife says. “Just a precious baby girl.” She embraces Zipper, who looks at me from over my wife’s shoulder and sticks out her tongue.
I should have listened to my father, who once told me never to buy a dog, that it gave the animal an inflated ego, believing itself entitled to every luxury.
“Get yourself a mutt from the pound,” he said. “A dog on the verge of being put down. Let it see the needle so it will know it was saved only by your intervention. You’ll have a friend for life.”
Instead, in full view of the dog, I peeled five twenties from my wallet and handed them over to the woman on whose farm the pup had been born. The perception that she was worth good money seared into her canine brain, subverting the customary master/servant relationship, and our household has been out of whack ever since.
Recently, a mouse ran through our farmhouse kitchen. I pointed at the offending creature and said to Zipper, who had been bred to dispatch such pests, “Kill.”
“I just did my nails,” she seemed to say. “Besides, mice leave such a terrible taste in my mouth. Not to mention the germs. Why don’t you set a trap?”
The old Zipper would have risen on her arthritic knees and hobbled after the mouse, hounding it to the gates of hell. What a dog she was! I think of her still, waiting at the schoolhouse door to escort me home, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night staying her from the swift completion of her appointed rounds.
Illustration by Ryan Snook.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.