Our Shaggy Dog StoryApril 10, 2019
This is a long, anticlimatic story.
Some people call those kinds of stories “shaggy dog stories.” I don’t know why but in this case it fits, though I would describe Audi as more woolly than shaggy.
If I were writing this story as a screenplay, I would begin with a very long shot of a road cutting through a wooded area by a river on a bright late afternoon, with a figure running sloppily down that road coming into view.
We would zoom in and that figure would resolve into a man, in a T-shirt and expensive sweat pants, sweating profusely and sobbing intermittently. He is calling a name, his voice hoarse and breaking. He could be deranged. He is deeply upset.
We would then cut to the man’s viewpoint. He is looking down that road, the sun setting at his back, across a flat green alley between the woods and river, with the modest towers of a medium-sized American city rising in the background. It is beautiful but he does not see that. We hear his heart bumping, the intake of his breath. He alternates between a sing-song lilt and rasping cry. He is calling for his dog. Her name is “Audi.”
She was named for the car, because her people wanted a German name to complement the names they had given their other dogs, littermates Paris and Dublin. Paris and Dublin were named as they were because the couple who adopted them had dogs before them, a couple of labs mixes who each lived to be 15 years old and grew infirm in their last months.
The couple liked to take trips, sometimes overseas, but they didn’t feel they could leave their old dogs for very long. They became adept at making lightning trips, at going to Paris for three or four days. So they promised themselves that when the last of the old dogs finally died they would go on a trip for 10 days or two weeks. Probably to Europe, maybe to their two favorite European cities.
But then a couple of weeks after the last old dog died, the woman saw a photograph of some puppies online. They had been abandoned in a box behind a Waffle House in West Little Rock, but a waitress who worked there had seen the people leave the box and drive off so and gone out immediately to investigate.
She found four puppies, terrier mixes, all female. She had a sister who was involved in animal rescue. She called her. She found good people to foster the puppies.
They took a photograph of them — labeled it “the scruffy bunch” and posted it to Petfinder.com.
The woman, whose name is Karen, is my wife. She emailed me the photo of the puppies without adding any comments. I emailed her back. “I love them,” I wrote.
A few days later we went to Petsmart to meet them. A big gentle man put a wiry brown and cream puppy in my arms and told me “This one is the boss.”
There was another brown and cream puppy as well, and two black and cream ones. The like-colored ones looked very much alike and it seemed natural to take one of each color. The other two were also adopted that day. I think they went together as well.
So we did not go on our intended European vacation. Instead we got Paris and Dublin.
Audi showed up about four years later.
I’ve told this story several times before, but here is the shorthand version: Audi is probably a puppy mill Schnauzer whose ears were cropped inexpertly. (Whoever tried to dock her ears botched the job badly — though it doesn’t hurt her looks. She looks a little bear cubbish.)
My theory —which I borrowed from a veterinarian who checked Audi for a microchip after she came into our custody — was that the puppy mill people assumed she was worthless after the bad ear job, and dumped her in our old neighborhood, probably directly in front of a mansion owned by people who are known for taking in stray dogs.
But before they found Audi she trotted down the street to another neighbor. She rubbed against his leg like a cat. He thought she was Dublin (a very reasonable assumption; they do resemble each other) and tried to bring her to us. But we weren’t home.
So our across the street neighbor looked at Audi, and said she didn’t think she was Dublin, but that she couldn’t be sure. She called Karen at work to tell her that maybe she had our dog who had maybe gotten out of our yard.
Karen rushed home and saw that the little dog was not Dublin. But she was grateful to our neighbor and said that she would take it upon herself to find the owner of the dog who would become our Audi.
After a couple of days of trying, it became apparent to us that no one was trying to find Audi, who by then was Audi. We called her that because while we wanted to continue the conceit of naming dogs after European cities, we couldn’t think of a German city that sounded right.
“Berlin” was both too serious and sounded too much like “Dublin.” I suggested “Dusseldorf” but that didn’t feel right either. Munich, Essen, Bonn — Bonny? Finally Karen said “Audi” and it sounded right. It fit. Even though it was temporary.
If you have dogs you might agree that two are no more bother than one but having three complicates things. We loved Paris and Dublin and worried that they mighn’t ever accept a new dog. They were sisters and had little interest in playing with other dogs at the dog park. We were a tight clique. Audi might be better off elsewhere.
Still, we had her spayed and got her shots. We had her microchipped. She was such a sweet animal, we knew someone would love her dearly but we didn’t want the cost of adopting her to put anybody off. Within a couple of weeks we found her a home. So Audi got a new name and went off to Northwest Arkansas.
But that didn’t work out.
There was a misunderstanding between the woman who adopted Audi and her landlord — she could have one dog (and she had one before Audi) but not two. And then one day Audi bolted out her door and ran off into the woods. She was gone for a few hours, but eventually came back. But she was afraid to leave Audi — who she called “Carly” at home when she went to work. She thought she might escape again.
We had asked her to return Audi to us if for any reason she didn’t work out. So she tearfully called us and asked if we would take her back. Of course we would — we even had a back-up person who wanted to adopt Audi.
So the next weekend she drove Audi down from Northwest Arkansas. We agreed to meet in the parking lot of the Riverdale shopping center; it was during the Little Rock Film Festival that was being held at the theater there. When she drove into the parking lot, I saw Audi in the backseat. Then she saw us and started scabbling at the window and barking joyfully. She was glad to see us. I think we both knew then we could never give her up.
I remember that hand-off well; Karen said hello and went on to a screening at the film festival. I drove Audi back up the hill and re-introduced her to Paris and Dublin. I was nervous about this meeting; our girls had tolerated Audi during her earlier stay, but had not exactly warmed to her. They would make the final decision on whether Audi could stay with us or would move on to an apartment in Houston.
I brought her in and the girls walked up to her calmly and sniffed. Then all three ran out the dog door into the backyard. I made a movie of that moment. It’s probably out there somewhere in the cyberverse.And so we somehow made a family.
Maybe you know the rest. Audi became a therapy dog. She is uncommonly sweet and good with children, she crawls on their lap as they read to her. She visits nursing homes and assisted living facilities. She goes to church to greet the worshippers. A few months ago I noticed she was sometimes disassociating, staring blankly off into to space, during the early evening hours. I’d try to call her in for supper, and she wouldn’t move and I’d have to go out and find her, usually sitting between the chain link fence and her favorite tree.
That was one of the reasons I was looking forward to moving. Now she only has a dog run and not a quarter-acre in which she might find a place to hide. Yes, I have been worried about her. She has always seemed a little fragile. But that’s just what I think; I don’t know.
Now we go back to our man running.
He is not used to it really — he used to run but doesn’t much anymore. His knees grind. He tries to stay in shape but not in such a high-impact manner. He knows his form is awful, his shoes flap on the asphalt. He forgot to take his phone with him.
His mind judders back and forth between a couple of thoughts: Audi is safe, she is probably already back at home, she has been found. Audi is lost forever, scared, confused and hurting.
It takes a while for other possibilities to emerge: Audi wandered up some nice person, who took her in and will either take her to the vet or to a shelter where they will discover she’s been chipped and she’ll find her way back to us. Audi was confused and ran north in a neighborhood she doesn’t know but she will evenbtually find her way back. Audi has had some psychic break. Audi is dead. Audi is lost and gone forever.
The man slaps down the road into a new residental development. He stops at his new house to get his phone and his car keys. He drives off, to retrace his steps, to keep looking, at least until dark.
Apparently one of the examples they give to children when they talk about “stranger danger” is when a man rolls up in a car, lowers the window and tells you he’s looking for his dog. The man doesn’t know that, but he understands that he looks unkempt and maybe crazy; sweaty with matted hair and a desperate look in his eyes. Still the children listen to him as he describes Audi and asks if they have seen her. More than once two of them point in opposite directions. One says he knows he saw her behind the Dollar General Store. Another says he saw a dog running up the road toward Fort Roots.
The man writes his phone number on sheets of paper for everyone he meets. There is a reward for the dog he says. The tells the kids it’s a hundred dollars but he’d pay anything they’d ask.
Now I need to break in here for a moment and say that already I can feel my memory slipping.
I know I went out looking for Audi soon after I came home from the office on Sunday afternoon. It was storming and I was assembling shelves in the garage when Karen told me she was missing. I came in and searched the house on my hands and knees. I opened every cabinet door. I looked behind the washer and dryer. I looked behind the refrigerator. Behind the wine refrigerator. In the closets. I went out in the rain. I took Paris and Dublin with me. Karen waited in case she came home. We put it out on social media. We did all the things you do.
I went out again alone, swinging out in an ever-widening circle around our house. I figured she was probably close by. I looked in culverts, in the garages of the not finished houses. In the tall grass. In the weeds. Then Karen came out with the girls and we all searched together. A few neighbors asked what was going on. We told them. At some point I was in George’s truck and we were driving around asking people; I was without my phone though he had his and when we were told a dog had just run up a road I got out where it split off and he went one way and I went the other.
There were dozens of people helping — some of whom I don’t even know. I am grateful for you people, for your good thoughts and your actions. I know this is TLDR but I felt I had to write it down. I saw your cars and SUVs creeping through the neighborhood and I knew you were searching. I could feel your concern. I didn’t meet a soul who was unkind.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t lonely.
Maybe I shouldn’t say this but I’m probably not the way you think I am. I am not gregarious. I may not even be friendly. I am so often in my own head I don’t always consider other people. Back in the days when Seinfeld was a viable cultural reference I was sometimes described as a “no talker.”
I am a very shy man. I usually nod at strangers but I try not to engage. You might not believe this is you’ve seen me at some public event where I gave a presentation or conducted a panel discussion, if you’ve been in one of my classes or heard me on the radio or seen me on television. If you’ve heard me play music. I can do these things, I’m a pretty good actor and I have the knack of appearing unself-conscious on a stage. But in my real life I am quiet. I am lazy and I like my comfort. I don’t wish ill to anybody but I remember every perceived slight and tally up scores in my head.
I don’t like confrontation but I know I am no coward. I have a temper and under the right circumstances I can be violent. I can be reckless. I probably overestimate my physical abilities.
But I am not an island. I am nothing without my family, which extends to friends and animals, to the dead and a even some who may be completely oblivious to me.
So it’s more than overwhelming to know so many people cared about such a small thing, a lost dog scared of thunder, who turned out not to be lost at all.
I can’t figure exactly how to calculate it, but our posts about our missing Audi were shared on Facebook at least 400 times. And there were Tweets and re-Tweets, and gentle words all around. People driving through the likely streets, and stopping by the house, reassuring everybody.
And then the sun went down.
At least it didn’t storm that evening.
I woke up fatalistic Monday morning. We had done what we could do. Still I took an early morning run looking for her, and before I came into work I cruised the neighborhood, with Paris and Dublin in the backseat and the windows all rolled down.
We heard from the North Little Rock Shelter and the Sherwood Shelter but Little Rock was closed. Karen made up flyers. We answered hundreds of messages. At noon we took Paris and Dublin — who have been coming to our office during the transition — out for a walk around the block and four times were were stopped by people asking about the search.
By that time I had decided we had lost her.
And I was making rationalizations. We had seven years together. Some would say that that’s a good run.
I know there are people who say that dogs do not love us, that they need and manipulate us and we project upon them tender feelings because we’re soft like that. I don’t argue with those people because I think it’s just semantics; that what matters is our actions, every motive is nuanced.
I don’t care if Dublin loves me, so long as she receives me with her doggish patience, and she is happy, without worry and unafraid to be as she is. I am a complicated person, who could stand a little humbling, and I get it when I pet and stroke them, and scratch them beneath their chins. They are better beasts than we are; I genuinely believe that and we can only be made better for our spending time with them. (That said I know that Audi murders. I’ve seen the corpses of the chipmunks. I pulled young birds from out her jaws.)
So I say that I love Audi, and I believe that she loves her family, which is how she perceives us (as opposed to all les autres, as we privately call the world).
And I understand she is a fiction, that I assign to her notions and attitudes she surely does not hold. I know that dogs are simple, but they are not without their depths and hollows, and I know there is a part of Audi that I can not hope to know.
But I was glad to know what I could of her; and even though I was feeling scraped out and battered, sore from struggle, raw from crying, there was a part of me still proud. For I thought we had come through it, and that we would find a way forward together, and we’d always have our dear memories of Audi. And in a while it wouldn’t hurt.
I was proud we hadn’t in some bad moment, seeked to blame each other. Because who could imagine that some storm-shy dog would run out with lightning cracking and rain slanting, into a world furious and strange.
And it turns out that she didn’t. As you have probably heard by now, Karen found her hiding in a low cabinet, in the back of a rotating tray when she went home Monday afternoon.
She’d stopped off to change clothes before tacking up some flyers. She thought she heard a noise. She opened a door I know I’d opened before and saw a pair of paws. She pulled Audi out, she tritted over to her water bowl.
Karen called me at the office, catching me just before I left to check the North Little Rock shelter.
“I found Audi,” she said.
“Don’t you dare lie to me,” I told the woman who I love.
I have never before felt the feeling, a surge of relief and gratitude and surrender, that hit me in the office. I think I very nearly collapsed. And I know I made a scene. I was bawling like a baby. I couldn’t stop the weeping. I am embarrassed about that now.
And somehow it seems like such a small thing, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. What was gone had been restored to me. It took six minutes to get home.
I think there’s a lesson that eludes me. Audi didn’t leave us in her panic, she just dug deeper in. Maybe we were not such bad dog parents, we didn’t not notice her leaving, as the weather ripped and blasted.
She was always there among us. Like a cheap horror movie, she was always in the house.
This story has a happy ending, but I know its temporary. Audi’s back and Audi’s happy, but one day Audi will be gone.So will Paris, so will Dublin, all of us are promised nothing.But I’m not going gentle, I’m not bolting. I’m not leaving, I am staying. I’m hunkering down and holding on.