A small black dog presented herself to my husband, Malcolm, while he was on a silent Jesuit retreat. She was chasing squirrels in wide, crazy circles under the live oaks. The retreats are held on a 180-acre campus of quiet in Convent, Louisiana, and the little dog roamed the property for three days without being fed although some of the men slipped her scraps. Malcolm texted me about maybe bringing her home, but only if no one claimed her. She didn’t jump up or bite, he texted, and I said, sure, because we all still missed Eddie, our family dog of twelve years. His heart had weakened, but the pain in his hips is why we put him down.
There were 100 men on retreat, and they left Manresa one-by-one without the dog, so Malcolm put her in his car, first driving her around, all of his windows down, to see if she smelled her people or recognized a street.
At our house it was plain to see she’d been house-trained and knew simple commands. She had been someone’s pet. She had a name but we gave her a new one: Ella.
And now Ella watches me through the porch door, wearing me down for a walk even though it’s a million degrees. I’m wary around her, not yet committed, but when I go out to pet her, she turns to Jell-O. She’s four months old and fifteen pounds, mostly Lab, black with a sleek coat, a pointed nose and a white star on her chest.
We go for a walk in City Park and she’s a squirrel maniac. She looks up, never down, following the pretty rodents as they race through branches. I short leash her because all the lurching hurts my back. She might’ve been trained to hunt.
Near the botanical garden, a raccoon stumbles around in a shallow puddle. They’re nocturnal but it’s noon. This one might have rabies. It looks like a Bourbon Street drunk struggling back to the hotel.
Ella strains on the leash to sniff and greet. Danger isn’t what she expects. Joggers stop to watch the sad spectacle from a distance, but I switch directions, checking over my shoulder to make sure the raccoon doesn’t follow us.
The dog’s been sleeping on a square red cushion beside our bed. Last night Malcolm woke at midnight to make sure she hadn’t wandered off to chew or pee, but there she was, sleeping, for a few hours.
Eddie was an outside dog. When he got loose he’d run away so we lived in a house with a gated yard. He was a chocolate Lab and 80 lbs., a sweet dumb dog who chewed through a leather sofa and the bumper of my car. At night he patrolled, and when he barked I’d get out of bed to shush him because Malcolm sleeps through noises.
I used to walk Eddie in the park with my two girlfriends and their dogs. We’d put on our black workout pants and sunscreen and head out for long talks about our teenage sons, our aging parents, our aging selves. After Katrina, Eddie lived for four months with my sister in Jackson because she had a gated yard and a swimming pool and her own white Lab. Her kids got attached to Eddie, and I know he did to them, too. I can understand how you can love two families even when you belong, mostly, to one.
It wasn’t long after we got Eddie home that he started stumbling, which we at first thought was tripping because he’d pop up like he didn’t want us to notice. Malcolm and I played along.
But on walks his hind legs had started to give way and he couldn’t get up. My girlfriends and I would sit on a bench and I’d ask him if he was okay, did he want to keep going? In his heart I know he did. But I’d phoned Malcolm at work. “Eddie’s really falling now.”
“Does he cry out in pain?”
“No, no,” I said. “But it’s harder for him to keep going.”
He’d left work early to take Eddie to the vet. He heaved him into the back seat of the car when normally Eddie would leap in before Malcolm could even say “kennel up!”
“We agree that he’s not going to suffer,” he said, and I nodded, yes, but I wasn’t ready to lose him.
Eddie had come home groomed and smelling good, handsome as hell. “His heart is weakening,” Malcolm said. “The circulation doesn’t get into his legs.”
“It’s okay to keep walking?”
“Shorter ones. You’ve gotten attached to him, and he’s old,” he cautioned.
“And you?” I asked.
“I can’t think about it,” Malcolm said.
Until Eddie, I’d been afraid of dogs. When I was six I was with my parents at a resort in Minisink Hills. They’d finally come home after being on tour for three years. They’d picked me up from my Italian grandmother’s house and I missed her so much I ached, but I was also glad to be reunited with my beautiful mother. She and my father were drinking cocktails with friends, distracted, and I was running around, showing off. I chased after a Doberman, and tried to ride him like a pony. He bared his teeth and knocked me down. My father says he picked me up but I don’t remember the comfort. It was the sixties and our neighbors down the lane had a collie. I put my arms around her neck like Timmy did with Lassie. I hoped that one kind pet could cure my fears, but our family suddenly moved to Italy, far away from my beloved grandmother, and I went back to being afraid, and unsure about whom I loved most.
For the last two days, storms have fired up and dumped rain on Mid City. I track them on the computer, jonesing for those animated splotches of orange and red that will water my garden. Doppler radar’s accurate to within a block.
All day we’ve been housebound. I take Ella for a walk. She crisscrosses in front of me. There’s a splash fountain that she wants no part of but I pull her in and she licks water off bricks. It’s 97 degrees and her coat is black as coal, a blotter. I’d seen a segment on the news about dogs and heat stroke. It took three people to lift a dead-weight golden retriever onto the table at the vet’s so they could put in an IV. After a few minutes, the retriever opened one eye.
Ella jumps in the lagoon and comes up dripping in algae. She needs a bath, but my husband will tackle this.
“This weekend,” Malcolm promises, when he calls during the day to say hi. Ella’s okay with the soaping, considers it petting, but bolts at the sight of the garden hose and finds a tight place to cower and hide. How to convince her that being clean will make her feel like new.
That night the dirty dog sits with Malcolm and me on the porch while we smoke cigars and drink bourbon. We talk about Errol, an old friend who recently died of hairy cell leukemia. Malcolm takes personally the death of men he knows. “Don’t leave me on a respirator,” he says. “Pull the fucking plug.”
“Like I can do that,” I say. “And what if you rally?”
Malcolm had been to see Errol three times. They were both Vietnam vets and Errol had been exposed to Agent Orange. The first time Errol was conscious and spoke to Malcolm. He said, “This is some shit, you think?” The second time he was on a respirator with a tube taped to his mouth. On Malcolm’s third visit, Errol’s son came out to say his father had awakened just long enough to squeeze the nurse’s hand.
“I mean it,” Malcolm tells me. “Pull the plug.”
“Whatever you say,” I say.
Ella holds herself like a sphinx and stares deep into the park across the street. I read that a dog can hear four times the distance of a human being.
The next morning, she does her business in my newly planted zinnias, so I run to Lowe’s and buy wire border and Dog Away to spray on the beds. It smells like soap.
A tropical depression has taken shape, the convection wrapping tighter. The sky is violet. I check radar to see if rain is coming for our yard so I don’t have to water the garden. This morning a mini tornado blew a city-issued garbage can up into a power line where it hung by its lid until the fire department knocked it down. Bad weather’s expected, but it’s not showing up. The temperature has dropped ten degrees. Storm cells are fickle, and when they change plans I feel duped.
My flowers need rain. Watering with the hose takes forever. I move from plant to plant. Ella tucks in between the fence and Malcolm’s bicycle.
Caterpillars have razored the papery blooms off the passionflower vine. They’re future butterflies so I cut them slack and let them feed, but the damage is brutal. Hanging from the top of the fence are chrysalis. The flowers were their host.
Yesterday the neighbors pruned their live oak. The arborist in the bucket cleared the power line and buzzed through hundred-year-old limbs. With this new canopy our yard has mottled light and there’s a spot to grow blue hydrangeas.
Malcolm bathes Ella on the front steps and she ducks between his legs for protection. I hand him the liquid soap. She slinks low to get out of the way, but he’s got her by the collar. Baths don’t last long and they pay off: Black silk, a few days of clean, and then it’s back to dirty.
On the weekends, Malcolm maintains the City Park hedge and he’s across the street with his gas-fed trimmer. He’s shaping the back of the C when a plump white chicken flies out. I watch from the porch as people snap photos with their phones. The bird pecks at grass and runs from kids who try to pet it. After Katrina, people dumped the animals they didn’t want in the park.
Malcolm, finished, stands on the porch with a cold beer. His legs are covered with tiny boxwood leaves and I spray them off with the hose. Ella bolts through the front door and we find her curled up in the kennel.
My mother grew up with dogs but my father didn’t like animals. He didn’t want a pet to tie him down. We moved around at a torrid pace, two years in every city, every country, until we lived in Canada for five years, before moving again when I was in high school to Mississippi. My mother went along for the ride, or maybe my father was trying to lose her. We had a cat, briefly. My father brought home a bushy, black angora cat for my mother that he named Orpheus. Orpheus didn’t come inside, but my mother fed him, and when we moved to Italy I imagine he waited by the back door for her to fill the saucer of milk.
Orange lantana has taken root in the replanted bed, and five new hydrangeas along the fence are establishing themselves. Ella sits between two of them. “No! No!” I say. And I can see in her eyes that she understands but makes no promises.
I don’t understand how a dog doesn’t give up on humans who drop you at a retreat and drive away. She doesn’t hold grudges. I do.
I sit with her on the back steps and she rests her head on my leg. Breeze shakes the crape myrtle. “Hey, girl, what’re you doing?” I open my palm and she licks, like it’s nothing new, like I didn’t used to not be okay with this.
The next morning, she is wired and frantic. Her vertical leap’s NBA-quality and she knocks a mug of coffee out of my hand. “What’s up with you?” I say. I put her outside and she races around the perimeter of the yard like it’s a speedway, jumps up onto a bench and sails off the other side.
We can’t go for a walk; it’s drizzling. While I make blueberry crumble for dinner, she destroys an herb garden, digging a giant hole under the fence to go after the neighborhood’s elusive gray cat. Uprooted basil and mint and oregano plants lay on their sides.
I catch her and yell, “No! No!” and stash her in the kennel so I can push soggy piles of dirt back into the garden and replant the tatters that are left. The rain comes down hard, finally, bands of weather. My hands are caked with mud. I’m soaking wet. My love for this puppy is under review.
I’m angry. I check on the computer to see if anyone on Craig’s List in Convent, Louisiana has posted a plea for little black dog white star on chest, but it looks like she’s still ours.
When Malcolm gets home we share a drink in the kitchen. Under our noses, Ella chews the end of a cabinet. “What the hell?” I say. Back out in the yard she goes with a bone.
“Time, also, for her to sleep in the kennel,” I tell my husband. We are one pretty picture with the jet-black dog on the square red cushion beside our bed, but she starts listening for us at 4:30 a.m. We can’t mumble those early morning sweet nothings because then she thinks we’re available. Her nails click on the hardwood floor and her tags jingle beside our bed. “Dogs get comfort from kennels when they aren’t used as punishment.” I looked this up.
Also, there’s a place on Airline Highway that teaches circus skills to pets. Jumping through hoops, catching balls mid-air. Not humiliating tricks like pushing a baby stroller in a tutu, but athletic stuff Ella might enjoy.
“We’re not doing that,” Malcolm says. “We’ve got to start over. Discipline, exercise, affection, in that order.”
He’s right. Commands make dogs happy. Commands and sitting on my foot while I read the Times-Picayune.
At least Ella doesn’t chew couches and bumpers. She gnaws on twigs that fall off the neighbor’s live oak, or gnarled hunks of dead ginger root left after I dug up the invasive ten-foot plant. Her teeth are bright white.
Malcolm is across the street, poking around the hedges for that chicken. If it wanted to get out of the weather, there are parts of letters to tuck into: the curve of the C; the arms of the Y and the K; the crotch of the R. It’s raining again and chickens are the low end of water repellency. We worry a raccoon got her.
There’s a scratched up dumpster in front of our neighbor Calvin’s house, ordered up by his stepdaughter, KC. He’d had open heart surgery and then a series of strokes and now the house is for sale. The dumpster is almost full after a day of hauling out magazines, potted plants, sweaters still in Macy’s bags, mildewed pool furniture, and what must be one hundred tennis racquets in good condition.
Ella sniffs at an empty bag of peanuts blown out of the dumpster by wind. She finds the one goober left. Gray green storm clouds have formed to the west, dumping the rain my garden needs on Kenner. You could get in your car and drive right up to the event. I’d like to will it over here. If I could hoard rain, I would.
I ask KC about Calvin’s dog, a muscular brindle. During Katrina, Calvin evacuated for what he thought was a day or so, and the dog broke out of the kennel in the back yard and disappeared for three months. One night coming back from tennis, Calvin walked up on him, waiting in front of his house, thin and tired, and brought him back inside.
“Franz. My mother’s been keeping him, but he had to be put down,” KC says. “We haven’t told Calvin he’s gone.”
City Park used to have five golf courses and we drive Ella to one to let her run off leash. Rangy weeds and wildflowers fill the fairways. The oaks, magnolia and cypress trees survived and the tee boxes are beat up but still marked with the number of yards to the hole. We stay on the path for golf carts.
The dog’s five hundred yards out, enjoying the rolling spaces. She circles back with a cracked yellow golf ball in her mouth. But when Malcolm directs her to drop it at his feet she sidles away like she’s in trouble. We look for clues in what makes her afraid, like the garden hose, and in what makes her happy, like this crazy forever running, where you think her other people must’ve had acres and no boundaries.
Gnats swarm. Ella’s swimming in a lagoon that used to be a water trap. We call her back. In the summer alligators lurk in there. And there are coyotes to watch out for. Spring floods raised the level of the Mississippi River, which drove them in from the batture. They followed the levees and, hungry, made their way into City Park. A dachshund had been circled and eaten by a pack of them while the owner stood there, helpless.
We beg Ella back with a bacon-flavored treat but an abandoned dog isn’t about to get left behind a second time. We are always in her sights. Eddie had the confidence to get lost. When he got loose we’d find him several blocks away. What did he want from this rush of freedom? To leave the yard, not us. One time Malcolm had come home to a driveway filled with rolled up and rubber banded Times-Picayunes, and our son, Andrew had to redeliver them to the neighbors.
When we put Eddie down, Malcolm sat by his face and stroked his head, and I kept my hand on his warm flank, through the first shot that put him to sleep and the second shot that stopped his heart. Andrew was with us but he left the tiny room to cry in the parking lot.
We keep Eddie’s ashes in a carved wooden box, near Malcolm’s cigars. One day soon we will scatter them in City Park, because Eddie was nervous inside the house. I always thought he was more Malcolm’s than mine. But one time I’d saved his life. I saw him out the kitchen window, shaking his head hard. A thick piece of rope hung from his mouth. I thought he was playing because even older Labs chew. Even so, I went outside to check. He was choking. I pried his mouth open with two hands and pulled on the wet rope. Three feet of it came out of him.
Later he was sleeping in a patch of sun, and I tiptoed to the mailbox so I wouldn’t wake him, but dogs sleep while they listen. He got up, yawned, then accompanied me, step for step, like an escort. When I got to the mailbox, he leaned his warm body against my leg, the way people settle into each other sometimes and forget they’re touching. I held still and leafed through bills and flyers to buy time, because all I wanted right then was this tiny moment with this good dog, and to go ahead and trust him.
I’d taken the drive with Malcolm to Convent for the second and last time to see if anyone had posted a lost pet sign on a telephone pole, or inside the local supermarket, or at the fire station.
“Finders, keepers,” Malcolm said.
Another Jesuit retreat was in session and in the distance the azaleas were at peak in shades of fuchsia and melon, white and gentle pink. Men walked deep in thought, or sat in chairs, reading, smoking, praying into the abundant landscape.
I wonder about Ella’s family before us, why they let such a kind dog go, but how right they were to leave her at a place where silent men go to forgive and be forgiven. This dog doesn’t forget. She misses other people but seems happy loving us. Still, I wonder if some kid watches out the window, Lassie come home.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of FAMOUS FATHERS & OTHER STORIES. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, The Morning News, Guernica, Narrative Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review. She is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. Her work has been performed at Symphony Space, Word Theater, and on WKQR. She lives in New Orleans. www.justlivehere.com