HE HARASSES POSTAL employees to the point where official documents appear in my mailbox. A cop car once pulled up at the house with him detained in the back like a criminal under police escort, due to his loitering problems. When I have guests he rudely inserts himself into conversations that do not concern him, lying on the floor at their feet until they rub his belly. If I play the piano he howls, particularly when I play B-flat. He kills woodchucks with impunity and stands under trees barking at the squirrels in the branches. He has dug an ever-expanding hole in the garden where he can wallow in the mud—in fact he plunges himself into every available puddle in order to cake all his fur down to the root—including his copious tail and jodhpur–like plumes, so that he can go nowhere without exuding flaking stinky mud. Clouds of fur float about the corners of rooms like golden tumbleweed. He has a habit of taking spoons in his mouth and depositing them under chairs.
He had come to us back in the beginning, when he was a baby from South Carolina, in a minibus packed full of puppies bound for northern owners. So Tiki came, the only boy in a litter of girls (along with a litter of dachshunds and a half dozen lab mixes). Fluffy and unformed.
Two years passed. He quadrupled in weight and developed a personality. My life fell apart (not in reaction to but alongside his maturing). The only things left after the house and the furniture, the job and the children were gone, were the dogs—Tiki and his elderly sister Jezebel, an aging and imperious cockapoo.
They came with me from the house with the garden to the dingy apartment, even though my mother had warned me I needed to give up the dogs if I were ever to find a place to live. During this darkest time, when even my shrink didn’t know if he was going to see me from one week to the next, when nothing made sense and everything I loved was gone, Tiki was there. In my married life animals were not permitted on beds, but in the dark and dim constrictions of my life alone they were warmth. Nothing and no one else remained constant Their hearts beating and their ragged breathing were the rhythms I adopted. My treks around the block with Tiki and the semi–infirm cockapoo, Jezebel, were all that got me out of bed. Taking marginal care of them was my only tether to life: once in the morning to go around the block, and once in the evening. The rest of the time I slept. Tiki would bark to go out and I would say “I hate you Tiki,” but I got out of bed. At first I forced myself to walk just one single block. Sometimes not even that much. But gradually we went slightly longer distances. And then longer still. Those interminable days and nights gave way to a better life.
Five more years and I had managed to put things back together. Last summer, when I escaped suburbia for three months in the country, my joyous seclusion, contrasting with my previous abject exile, was only possible because Tiki was with me. He was my protector and my friend, he accompanied me everywhere, jumping and pulling at my sleeve when he wanted me to take him farther afield, allowing me to sleep peacefully in the darkest and loneliest of nights.
But one day shortly after my return to suburbia, I came home and the front door gaped wide open and the house was empty of Tiki. Because of his habit of wandering off—he has managed to thwart every fence I have erected—I cursed myself for not getting the faulty latch on the door fixed, but I didn’t worry. Not at first.
I went around the neighborhood calling him. I knew the places he liked: the thicket behind the apartment building, the road by the library, the parking lot of the theater. I called him, listening for the jingle of his collar. I peered down every alleyway hoping to see him bounding out. By afternoon I was talking to school kids at bus stops and to the police and the mailman. They all knew Tiki but no one had seen him since 10:15 in the parking lot a block away. I took to driving and yelling out the window. The next day I made posters and called the pounds for miles around. I put ads on the local websites and on Craigslist. Friends came to help. Strangers called, offering to help.
People called from states away to tell me about dogs that might be Tiki. Some of the dogs weren’t even close to being Tiki but I’d try to suspend my disbelief. I became connected to a network of pet lovers through Facebook. I stapled two hundred signs to poles, a constant battle with official sign removers. I checked lost dog lists as far away as Ohio—sometimes several times a day. The photographs of dogs that had vague resemblances to Tiki started to morph into him in my mind. I drove to far-flung shelters, witnessing the rows of cells with huddled inmates and always found that the dog I imagined was Tiki was a stranger. His bowl in the kitchen was like a stainless steel wound. Weeks passed. My signs became sodden or got ripped down. I continued to check the lost and found sites. I continued to put a reward notice on Craigslist once a week. People continued to call me about dogs that were not Tiki.
I slept for two days, returning to heaviness and hopelessness that I had known back in the bad time. His absence left me bereft and heavy limbed. But I could not succumb. I kept waking up thinking of new places to search and fresh strategies to employ. I realized there was more work to be done. I couldn’t let Tiki down in his time of need.
Days passed, and still whenever I turned the key in the lock the silence pierced me. I found I could now stay out late and visit friends without worry. No dog food running out. My bed was all my own. I missed him too keenly to appreciate these things. The signs grew sodden and faded and I would see him as I drove, peering out from every post, but he was growing more bedraggled every day. Every Monday I put his picture on Facebook and Craigslist. I offered a $500 reward. It seemed to me a significant enough sum to draw interest, even though I saw other people online offering thousands for the return of their dogs. The police, who knew Tiki well from his various escapes, told me that small purebreds get stolen all the time.
I became convinced Tiki was stolen. He would not just go away. He would come back to me if he could. If he were the type to abandon me, he had had too many better opportunities, too many other times when I had fallen short. I imagined him as a hostage unable to tell anyone his name. Once his collar was removed he had no ability to express anything beyond his inherent dogginess. A dumb animal unable to relate to his captors his history, unable to explain himself, a prisoner of his lack of human language.
Weeks passed into months and I started to think it was time for a new dog—Tiki wasn’t ever coming back. But still I kept up with the Monday Craigslist ritual posting. The new dog would be nothing like Tiki. Maybe a Doberman or a Rottweiler. I had read that large black dogs are rarely abducted.
Then on a Tuesday night nearly two and a half months after his disappearance, I received an email from someone saying she believed she had my dog. She had seen my Craigslist post. I called and—jaded by so many mirage dogs—asked if the dog her son had bought on the street had a tiny scar between his eyes, a remnant of a run-in with a Dalmatian years ago. She said yes. He was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, miles away both in distance and aspect. Within minutes my son and I were on the Garden State Parkway with the cash and a box of chocolate chip cookies that he insisted should comprise part of the reward, headed to a town I had never been, where rows of small houses almost all the same were shrouded in darkness, their mean small windows miserly with light. The identical houses had numbers that trailed off and then picked up without accounting for the spaces between them.
Lost, we were frantic, and yet we knew we could not be lost forever. Tiki had been gone from us too long and it seemed even the minutes wasted driving around and around became crucial minutes. After three calls to the woman, whose English was difficult to parse, we found our way. We rang the doorbell and from behind the door heard barking. Inside was a family, a nice family it seemed. The son, a twenty-year-old, had purchased Tiki for a hundred dollars a few blocks from my home but he didn’t come down to greet us because he felt either too sad or too guilty. The mother and the sister and the father and the Chihuahua and the pit bull were all there. Tiki was Charlie to them. He had been groomed and had a rabies shot he didn’t need—proof that these nice people were not the ones who took off his collar. He came running to me and my son, not with any more or less supply of licks than normal. In the car on the way home we showered him with loving words and ear scratches. He panted and looked out the window. It was as if he had never been gone at all.
I have always felt that pets are lessons in loss. Very few of them will outlive us—and frankly I don’t want a parrot or a tortoise. We have little graveyards in the corner of our gardens with makeshift markers. When you get an animal you are adopting something quite finite. We could avoid the sadness, but we would also be avoiding the pleasure of a love that, though limited in time, exceeds that which most humans can ever offer—a love that has no agenda, that won’t ever ask you to be any different than you are, that won’t demand more than food, water, and walks.
I am moving away from New Jersey now. Tiki and I are returning to the Catskills, where we have had our glorious summers. This may be my refuge, but it is his reward—a dog heaven of rodents and redolences, mud puddles and wind in the branches. My dog is a constant source of annoyance but he is constant. There are some who might say the same about me—certainly the former and perhaps now, the latter also.