Phil Gulley: Lucky Dog

The best canines are the ones you meet by the side of the road.

Not too many days ago, my wife and I were at our farmhouse in Orange County when my better half decided to go for a walk. I told her I had work to do, but as soon as she left, I headed to the couch for a nap. Life on a farm is hard work, so the wise farmer rests whenever possible. There have been days on the farm when I’ve had so much work to do I’ve had to nap all day and sleep all night. The trick to the perfect nap is waking up and looking industrious before your spouse gets home. I’m able to do this because my wife is compulsive, and therefore predictable. She covers four miles in exactly one hour—no more, no less. If I set my alarm for 55 minutes, I can be awake, feigning productivity, when she walks through the door.
But on this particular day, an hour passed with no sign of my wife, so I got in the car and went in search of her. I drove south past Jack Lindley’s farm, past Darvin Apple’s woodlot, and there she was, walking down the road, a rat terrier trotting beside her. She hadn’t taken a dog with her, so I deduced she had acquired it somewhere along the way. My wife often leaves our home unencumbered and returns with her arms full, so I wasn’t surprised.
“It’s following me,” she said when I pulled up alongside her.
The dog revived but stayed half-hidden behind my wife, sensing his destiny lay with her. He was small and white with a brown, scarred muzzle. His fur was matted. If you’ve seen the movie Rocky and can recall the stooped, battered trainer played by Burgess Meredith, you will have a good idea of the dog’s appearance.

A collar is the canine equivalent of the wedding ring. Once a collar is purchased for a dog, there is no going back.

We took him to the house, washed him in the sink, and drove him to the vet’s office to see if he was microchipped, which he wasn’t. So we resorted to a more primitive method of information-gathering and placed him in a small room underneath a single lightbulb, hounding him with questions. He divulged nothing. We offered him water, cigarettes, and a nip of brandy, but he was silent. I was starting to admire his spunk.
The veterinarian studied him, thinking. “He might belong to the Andersons. They have rats.” The vet called them, and 15 minutes later a large woman, Mrs. Anderson, bustled into the room.
“That looks like Juno,” she said. “He ran away three years ago.”
If he had once been her dog, he gave no sign of recognition now and scooted closer to my wife.
“I have six rats at home,” she went on. “Actually, now I have just five. Backed over one this morning. Broke its hips. Had to shoot it.” She said this without a hint ofremorse, as if she were reciting a grocery list.
“I don’t think this is Juno,” my wife said. “He doesn’t look like a Juno.”
I agreed with her, though I had no idea what a Juno looked like. If he had been the Andersons’ dog, I had no intention of handing him over to suffer a similar fate. While I was agreeable to returning him to his rightful owner, I refused to do so to a woman who backed over animals, blew their brains out, and then talked about it so matter-of-factly that same day.
“I don’t think it’s Juno, but I’ll take him,” Mrs. Anderson said, reaching for him.
“That’s kind of you, but I believe we’ll keep him,” my wife said. She would have said, “Like hell you will,” but my wife is well-mannered. I saw the thought bubble over her head, like in the cartoons, and could tell that’s what she was thinking.
Mrs. Anderson left, dogless. The veterinarian checked for heartworm (negative) and intestinal parasites (negative) and gave him a variety of shots. Looking at the terrier’s teeth, the vet guessed his age somewhere around 10 years and pronounced him generally fit.

My wife is a magnet for orphans of all kinds, as if a neon vacancy sign announcing available rooms is flashing above her head.

We stopped at Tractor Supply on the way back to the farm and bought him a bowl (stainless steel), food (Purina), and a collar (red). A collar is the canine equivalent of the wedding ring. Once a collar is purchased for a dog, there is no going back. Once, we had another rat terrier, Zipper, for 13 years. She had died the summer before, but her collar still hangs on a peg at our back door.
“What do you think we should name him?” I asked my wife as we were headed back to the farm.
“How about Howard?” she said. Howard was her father’s name.
I tried out the name, anticipating the circumstances in which I might need to call for him.
“Not sharp enough,” I said. “Sometimes you have to get a dog’s attention. The name has to have a little crack to it. How about Jack?”
Jack is the name of my wife’s brother.
“He looks like a Jack,” my wife said.
“Jack it is,” I said.
Jack groans when he’s happy, which is most of the time, and at night he sleeps between us, belly-up, so we can scratch his stomach until he nods off. It doesn’t take long; Jack is always on the verge of nodding off. But he earns his kibble. In the daytime, while my wife is busy being a librarian to small children, Jack rolls up his sleeves, takes red pencil in hand, and edits my day’s production, all while chewing a cigar. It turns out he’s a whiz with sentence structure and punctuation. He was fortunate to have attended school 70 dog-years ago, when such skills were still taught in our public institutions.
We lounged in bed that first night with Jack between us, snoring. My wife, beside herself with happiness, asked, “When you woke up this morning, did you ever dream we’d have a dog by the end of the day?”
It reminded me of something that E.B. White once wrote: “A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.” Our sons are grown and gone, our hair is graying, and then a dog happens along, and we are young again. I don’t even need naps anymore. E.B. White called such a dog an accident of nature, but I call ours a miracle.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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