The night the dog died, I was sound asleep tucked away in the corner of my massive room on the third floor of Davenport College. It was a troublesome sleep cluttered with the hope that maybe the dog — old, smelly and blind — would tough out the trouble he got himself into. What that exact trouble was, my mother did not know when she called that evening to tell me. The dog had been punctured deep with something sharp. Perhaps it was a spider of the kinds the Texas kids are terrified of — long, brown and spindly with a knack for hiding in dark places. Or maybe it was the thorns of the ornamental candelabra that sprouted up and towered over the living room like a corroded brass imitation of a grape vine. The dog could not see and was always running headfirst into the ends of tables and the pink plaster of the corridor walls. Perhaps he had run into a prickly situation, of which no one would ever know and he would never tell. Whatever it was that stung, stabbed, or stuck him, it cost him his life.
It was a spectacle of a life, at least for a dog and especially for one of his breed. Toy poodles are always falling into trouble, be it manholes or coyote dens. But a good number of them have the audacity to cheat death and live long, long lives. Before we met him and brought him home, the dog had spent months in the pound and five years doing whatever it is that toy poodles do in the wilderness of the Texan suburbs. He then proceeded to outlive all of our other pets. The parakeets, Barry and Bianca, who died the way lovebirds die — one of sickness, the other of heartbreak. The cats, Gizmo and Gizmo II, who wrestled their way out of the house and were never seen again. And the myriad fish who were won at county fairs, spent the night in an old glass jug, and appeared upside down, dead and glassy-eyed in the morning. The dog even outlived the spaces we outgrew. That tiny, ramshackle home that rested lopsided on the childhood street named after the natives whose land was stolen.
When I was a child, the dog and I would run in circles in the dusty backyard of that heap of nicotine-stained wood with the slatted roof. Now he runs circles in the back of my imagination, beckoning me to remember. He used to run in other places too. In the inside of our minivan piled high with the clutter of our old lives. Then in the empty rooms of our new brick home. In the quaint, dark cul-de-sac of retirees and young parents. And then finally into whatever stupid, sharp thing he ran into.
It was an abrupt end, the night he died. Abrupt, but not surprising. He had seen me go from elementary school to my junior year at Yale before he scampered off into the afterlife. He was eighteen — or nineteen, we were not sure. Over the years, his running turned into walking, then into waddling and finally into long days of resting on old pillows we had left in his favorite dusty corners. They were good years. Golden. All of them. He was the best dog. He was loud, and he was troublesome. He was a juggernaut powering through the most dire of things. Once, when our new home became infested with ants, he confused the poison with food and spent the next week in a catatonic state. And then one morning, he was up and at it like nothing had happened. Another time he fell down a set of concrete stairs, sat in a daze, and continued running. He refused to die.
When he was alive, we used to joke about his age as if we did not spend thirteen years poking fun at how old he was. I like to believe that he was perpetually old. He was just born that way — wrinkly and covered in age spots. We would laugh at how gullible he was, darting around for rubber balls that were never thrown, as if he did not see us that first day and fall in love. He trusted us with everything, and is that not the measure of an animal’s love for people? Is it not how they heap all their faith on us and trust us to give them corners to sleep in, sofas to climb onto, and shoes to chew on? Or are they smarter than they let on? Do they understand what we say, and do they forgive us when we are wrong? I will never know.
We used to say that the dog was old enough to have seen Jesus live, die and live again. Now we joke that his ghost whispers to our batty old cat, Rosa, telling her to let go and join him on some other plane of existence. She, too, has seen the rise and fall of presidents and countless suns. Perhaps she, too, refuses to go — and why do they live so long? Toy poodles and calico cats do not live long in the wild, but they live to be of voting age when they find families who love them. We loved the dog. I used to place him on my head when I sat at the family computer and played video games. I would sneak him scraps of my dinner. I would take him for walks around the bends of the neighborhood. When he got too weak, I would take an old pillow, blanket or pair of pants and give him a place to sit so he could give me company.
The first night he spent at home with us, he slept in my room. He kept me up, crying because the room was dark and unfamiliar. From atop my bunk bed, I grew irritated and began to talk to him. As a third grader, I believed that animals could understand human speech — and part of me still does. He cried all night, and I kept saying his name: Mickey, like the mouse. A fitting name for a small, brave dog. That moment, in that dark room in that lopsided house, the dog became my dog. He was Mickey, he was annoying and he was mine. The night he died, I was all grown up in a dark room crying myself to a troubled uneasy sleep, and there was no one there to talk to me.