A History of Dogs by Claire Taylor

I.

I killed my parents’ beloved Golden Retriever. I didn’t murder her, but simply wore her down, did her in. That’s what they tell me. They got her as a puppy, shortly after they got married, and loved her like a child. She ate through the backseat of my mother’s car. She climbed a ladder to reach the loft of the barn they lived in for a while. She moved from city to city, town to town, state to state, cheerily, patiently putting up with every new transition. A decade in, she welcomed my brother. Watched him grow from infant to toddler while her muzzle greyed. Then I came along and she said nah uh, no way, not again, and called it quits. She was the greatest dog in all of history, my parents like to tell me. And I killed her.

II.

Sophie leapt out the window of our moving car. That’s the story I heard at least, having been too young to form my own memory. We were driving along a wooded road, windows rolled down, when Sophie spotted a deer. A flash of black through the open window and then she was gone. Disappeared into the woods. Lost to the forest. Maybe my dad pulled over and we spent hours searching through the brush, the tangled roots, calling her name. Maybe we hung signs in whatever town we were passing through. Called the local animal shelters, begged them please, please contact us if you hear anything. Or maybe she never made it to the woods. Maybe she hit the road and that’s as far as she went. Maybe she made it halfway, unnoticed – until the last second – by a passing car in the opposite direction. Or maybe there had never been a woods. No window. Only three little kids and a story of their dog running wild with the deer. I’ll bet she likes it out there, we might have thought. Sophie and all the forest smells. And maybe we felt a little less sad. Maybe we even felt happy.

III.

By the end of his life, Max had turned into a goose. But before he was a goose, he was a sailor. He liked to stand on top of an inner tube while we floated down the river. Head lifted, nose pointing like an arrow downstream. My mother would stick her drink between her thighs, slide her hands under Max’s belly and carefully lift and place him in the water. He’d doggie paddle from tube to tube, and we’d reach out to scratch his wet head. Then he’d make his way back to my mom where she’d lift him up again and set him down on the tube, saying, here you go, River Dog. His body slick with water, ears dripping straight into my mother’s lap. Those ears would stink for weeks on end. One infection after another. Oozy and putrid. My mother, sitting on the edge of the dock, would clip away the matted fur, squirt medicine into each ear, and hold his head firm and steady so he couldn’t shake it all away. There you go, good ol’ fella, she’d say, knuckles gently rapping the top of his head. All better.

Several years and 1500 miles down the road, the cute boy three houses over wants to know what’s wrong with the dog. We are new to the neighbourhood and it’s embarrassing, walking down the street, day after day, with Max making that noise non-stop. The tumours are pressing on his lungs in a way that makes his cough sound like a honk. Step, step, honk. Step, step, honk. Like we are a gaggle of geese having made our way north for the summer. Nothing, I tell the boy, that’s just how this kind of dog sounds. But now he wants to know what kind of dog this is. A goose hound, I want to joke. A sailor. A river dog. A mutt, I say instead. A good ol’ fella.

IV.

The snake bite alone was enough to be remarkable. Sam going from bad to worse as the venom travelled through his body. Sam fed one dropper of liquid at a time, unable to chew on his own, unable to lift his head. My mother repeating he’s gonna die, he’s gonna die, we just got this dog and goddamnit, now he’s gonna die. And my sister, crying and crying, heartbroken until she woke up one morning and Sam was fine. Sam was peachy. Sam was full of the wild, reckless energy that had led him to the brink in the first place. That alone was quite enough. For everyone, but Sam.

Next came the run-in with the neighbour’s car. Sam always chasing it out of the driveway and down the road, snapping at the tires, disappearing under the back bumper, coming within inches over and over again until finally, he came one inch too close and got pulled under and spit back out, yelping and wailing and unable to walk. Once again, he clung to life, weak and helpless on the bathroom mat. Well I guess that’s that, my mom said, and we all cried. But once again he stood up one morning and was good as new: battery recharged, ready to run.

And run he did. Up and down the yard, back and forth all day every day, barking and yapping and panting, his big floppy tongue dangling from his mouth. His big floppy tongue turning purple. His big floppy tongue getting lost behind the white foam spilling from his lips. What is happening, what is happening? All of us screaming. What did you eat? Goddamnit, Sam! Then my dad, turning on the hose, spraying water into Sam’s mouth and over his body. Soaking him, soaking him, as Sam lay there, already dead.

V.

He would put her in a bag, our neighbour explained. Fill the bag with rocks and then toss it in the river. Unless of course, we wanted her. Yes, we wanted her. Obviously, we wanted her, though I caught the quick look that passed between my parents. Oh god, not another dog.

She had an underbite that caught her upper lip and made it curl like Elvis. She had a habit of stealing diapers out of the neighbour’s trash can and ripping them to pieces that scattered across the front yard. She had a panicked look every time she jumped into the river – wild and bug-eyed as if she knew it had almost been the death of her. She had a growth on one paw that she’d lick until it turned red and swollen. Eventually, it fell off and grew back again a few months later. She ran around the dead-end neighbourhood with all the other dogs, the pack of them sniffing butts, chasing cars, bellowing into the night. One afternoon she slunk into the yard with a fishing lure looped through her bottom lip. A three-prong hook embedded deep into the flesh of her gums. It took two men to hold her down and pry the hooks free with a pair of pliers. This ridiculous dog, my father would say. This sad, nasty beast born from the mean bitch up the road who liked to attack joggers as they ran past. This yokel. This cur. But still, he ran a warm palm over her head all those years later. Still, he whispered in her ear: good girl, Josie, good girl, it’s okay. Still, he cried a little when it was time to say goodbye. Still, he cried.

VI.

We chose a glass door to let in the morning sun. This is how we pictured it: a colourful welcome mat, Ty asleep in a rectangle of light.

Email about the one on the left, my husband had replied to the listing I’d sent him. It was the first summer of our marriage and I spent my workdays forwarding him pictures of adoptable dogs. Labs, shepherds, terrier mixes. One fat old bulldog who looked like he was clinging to life. Too young. Too big. Too small. Too old. Too discerning, my husband. Too picky. Too patient. But right.

Ty arrived with his amber tail split into thick, matted chunks. Long, wild hair encircled his face like a lion’s mane. His previous owners had called him Titan – a powerful giant. A name befitting the size of his head, but ill-suited to the way he stood at the bottom of the spiral staircase barking and whining for over an hour, slowly working up the courage to take a careful first step. Ill-suited to the way he smiled like he was laughing. Cocked his head like he was in on a secret. Lifted his joyful face into the wind. This beautiful dog, who glowed like embers in the autumn sunlight.

Late one night on a dark road, he attacked the man who was attacking me. On an icy pier, he pulled me back from the frozen water’s edge, step by step, with gentle strength. This dog who licked my palm to halt my tears. Who felt my sorrow like a pulse in his temples, and again and again placed his heavy head in my lap like a weighted blanket, steadying my soul.

Sometimes I lie in the grass on the spot where I last pressed my lips to his forehead. Where I tucked my body against his and listened to the final breath leave his lungs. Where I placed a bouquet of Black-eyed Susans after they lifted him up, carried him away. Where I dropped my head to the ground and wept into the warm patch of grass pressed flat by his weight.

The construction started shortly after he died. Delayed and delayed for months – a hindsight blessing. He would have hated this, we said. Every day, hammering, sawing, the dreaded sound of the nail gun.

In the mornings, I drink my coffee in the new den where my son runs his toy trucks back and forth across the carpet. Outside the large picture window, butterflies land on zinnias, robins search for worms, a small bunny sprints across the yard. The room is bright and beautiful. The sun warms the empty floor.

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About The Author

Claire Taylor is a writer in Baltimore, MD. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and has received nominations for Pushcart and Best American Short Stories. In addition to writing for adults, Claire is the creator of Little Thoughts, a monthly print and digital newsletter of original writing for kids. Find Claire online at clairemtaylor.com and Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.

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