old faithful: Mitzi was loyal, kind, and gentle. But I was 13. So I shot her.
Anyway, one afternoon, standing in my family’s circular drive on the outskirts of Waco, my cousin and I took turns shooting at trees. "Watch this," I said to him. "I’m gonna shoot Mitzi."
Mitzi was a mix of some sort, about the size of a Jack Russell terrier but without the fight, one of the first dogs I remember well. Mitzi never got excited much over anything. She was about to. I pulled the string taut and aimed. My cousin laughed, certain that I’d no sooner shoot Mitzi as him; besides, she was 40 feet away and moving. I might as well shoot at the sun. I slipped the arrow off the string as I pulled it back so that when I released the string, the arrow would stay in my fingertips and the joke, idiotic and obvious, would be complete.
"I’ve got her now," I said to him. "Bang." I released the string.
The arrow left the bow cock-eyed—the way missiles leave submarines. The arrow bore down on Mitzi who was trolling the edge of the driveway. My cousin was a man encased in ice. "I thought you were joking," he told me later. "Then you just shot."
People often talk about time slowing down during calamities, and I can tell you that shooting your dog with an arrow will do it. The arrow tracked Mitzi’s every step before hitting her in the left hip. The arrow stuck for a moment, drooped, then fell to the pavement.
Mitzi, God bless her, had no frame of reference for what had happened. All she knew to do was run for her life, a reasonable deduction if you think about it: the sky was hurling sharp sticks at her. Mitzi three-legged it to the safety of the carport. "You shot her," my cousin mumbled. "You shot her." I don’t know what I said in response. I can’t remember. I do remember running to Mitzi to examine her, to console her. But she wasn’t prepared just then to let my healing hands work. In fact, she was beginning to connect the dots: I was still holding the bow.
The wound was shallow and mostly bloodless, a nasty dent really. Fortunately, I had shot her with an arrow dulled by tree trunks and Coke cans. As if it mattered to Mitzi, I took the string off the bow, walked into the house, and put the bow in a utility room closet. I never shot it again.
For Mitzi, the trauma was mostly psychological; at least I never saw her limp again. Later she had a litter of puppies, three mutts in all, none of which looked anything like the others. All we could figure out was that there were three fathers. I could never hold it against her that she sought relief in the dens of varied lovers. One of the pups was a weenie dog; one was a Chihuahua; and the third, the keeper of the bunch, was a black, wire-haired, mixed-breed rat that began going gray the day she was born. We named the keeper Dolly. All my friends loved to say, "Hello, Dolly."
Like most people, my college years were dogless. The only people I knew who had dogs were hunters, who rose at odd hours and kept decoys in their trunks. I’ve never known a girl to take a dog to college. I didn’t have one, either; I had a goat. My roommate and I bought it on the return trip from a rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. Driving home we saw a sign that read, "Goats for Sale." Twenty dollars later, we had a young male asleep on the floorboard. We named him Spike.
Spike was exactly the novelty we needed. When we walked Spike around campus on his rope leash, pretty girls materialized. For a while he lived in my bedroom in our dilapidated, two-story, rented house. When Spike grew too large for my room, we moved him to the kitchen with the chickens and the duck. (Once people knew we had a farm animal, they dropped off their unwanted Easter presents.)
The older Spike got, especially after his horns came in, the less cute he was. Walking him was an uncertain and potentially embarrassing diversion. He bit people and butted them. I suspect the kidnappers picked up on this.
One afternoon we came home from class and found a ransom note, burned along the borders. The note demanded we leave steaks and beer on a nearby bridge. If we didn’t, the note warned, the goat would disappear. The kidnappers got no steak. They got no beer. But we did get Spike back a few days later after someone spotted him down the street, chained to a tree, eating irises. Ultimately, I took him to our family’s farm where his Animal House upbringing doomed him.
He repeatedly got into the caretaker’s house and ate cigarette butts out of the ashtrays. When Spike ran out of Marlboros, he ate garbage. When I took my girlfriend out to see him, she made the mistake of wearing a green velour warm-up suit, which he took to be an upright and shapely putting green. I had to knock him off of her. By then Spike was jumping onto the hood of the caretaker’s pickup. He kicked in the windshield.
A few weeks after taking my girlfriend out, I went back to check on Spike. He wasn’t on the lawn. I knocked on the farmhouse door. "Have y’all seen Spike?" I asked.
"He’s not here anymore," the caretaker responded.
"Did he run away?" I asked.
The caretaker squinted. Then he looked down at his boots. "He’s not here anymore," he repeated. And that was that.
There were dogs after Spike. I once gave my wife a Springer spaniel for Valentine’s Day. She was surprised—primarily because she didn’t want a dog—but then husbands often give gifts intended for themselves. Among the animal’s idiosyncrasies, Electra had a nervous bladder. One unkind word and she lost control of her insides.
Electra loved to ride in the car because she associated it with going to look for birds—which we did every Saturday. One summer evening, after my wife and I walked Electra, our next-door neighbors pulled into their driveway. Electra tore away from us. "Those people are going to take me to play," she must have thought. Electra timed her leap perfectly and landed in the lady’s lap before she could get off her seatbelt. We knew not to grab Electra, or yell at her, or do anything that might release the floodgates: our neighbor did not have this special knowledge. For a moment I thought we might get out of there with a nice note and a supermarket flower arrangement, but something spooked Electra. Maybe she realized that she was on an unfamiliar lap and that there would be no birds. The rest was pandemonium and ruined silk. As if to show that it wasn’t personal, Electra later did the same thing to me.
My favorite dog wasn’t mine at all. A friend and I got it into our heads that we were going to run and walk 100 miles on a course that started near Waxahachie and ended in the small town of West. Our contest was as simple as it was absurd: the first person to complain lost. By the time it was over, near midnight, our feet were torn apart and neither of us could remember who complained first. It had rained for eight straight hours.
At mile six, however, a brown cow dog started following us. I yelled at him to go back but every time I barked, he wagged his tail harder. We named the dog Scout. At mile 35, my friend and I sat near the overpass that crosses I-35 at Milford (we’d cached food and water all along the course the night before). While we sat there, Scout wandered off and was hit by a car on the access road. It makes a loud noise when a big dog gets hit by a car. The car spat Scout onto the shoulder, but the driver never stopped. We thought Scout was dead, but he got up, shook his head, and proceeded to run at top speed in two tight circles. I thought it was some kind of death dance. Then suddenly Scout stopped running, shook his head again, and made his way toward us.
We were sure he was going to attack us. Getting hit by a car going 60 miles an hour has to knock some switches loose. By then, my friend was moving around behind me. But Scout just sat down beside us. He was bleeding from his muzzle but otherwise unmarked. We felt his body for broken bones, for bleeding, for internal injuries. We found nothing, so we fed him two snack bars, gave him a bunch of water, and sat with him for a while. Eventually he made us get up.
Scout led the way until mile 50, when a friend picked us up to go home. On our way back to Dallas, we drove back by the farmhouse where we thought Scout lived and dropped him off. We watched him walk away in the darkness.
Two days later, I drove out to the farmhouse. I left a note asking the farmer to call me if he ever wanted to get rid of Scout. I told him he was the possessor of a noble animal attended by angels.
Months later, an unfamiliar voice asked for me. "You still interested in a cow dog down near Waxahachie?" he asked. We talked for a bit. The dog’s actual name was Jed. The farmer told me that he wondered what had happened to Jed because he’d slept for 24 hours the day after his return. But by the time the farmer called, my blisters had healed and I didn’t think Jed was fitted to life on the back half of a 75-by-150 lot. I told him no.