Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Chapter 1: Divine Intervention Strikes Twice

On a warm Sunday afternoon in April 1990, I was sitting on a hillside in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, watching a timber race, when god spoke to me. Because more people claim to be familiar with the voice of god than with timber races, I should explain that the latter are jumping races in which a horse and rider navigate a two- to four-mile course studded with a dozen or more imposing wooden fences that range from just over three to nearly five feet tall.

 Equally imposing is the mind set of the timber race fraternity, which doesn’t like anything to happen that has not happened before. In timber country to heir is human, automatic teller machines dispense old money, and styles in hair and clothing haven’t changed since the flowering of High Prep in the 1950s. I normally don’t frequent that kind of scene—the sixties is the decade in which I am stuck—and most days I don’t like anything to happen that has happened before, but I was on assignment that Sunday for a horse magazine. The text of god’s message was simple. She said, “Phil, you need one of those puppies in your life.”

I wish I could report that “one of those puppies” was a pug. A writer couldn’t ask for a more compelling line on a book jacket: “The author’s heartwarming journey began that fateful Sunday afternoon when god told him to buy a pug.”

God, unfortunately, works in mysterious ways. The puppies to which she was referring were four Labrador retrievers. They were on display in the back of a Chevy Blazer parked at the bottom of the hill on which my wife and I were sitting when god spoke to me, which was, to set the record straight, the first and only time she has ever spoken to me. I have heard other voices on other occasions, but I have never been able to ascertain their origins.

As soon as god had spoken, I turned to my wife Mary Ann and said, “Let’s go look at those puppies.”

Next to god, my wife knows me better than anyone else does. In some ways she knows me even better, so I was not surprised when she said, “We’ve got a houseful of cats already. We don’t need a dog.”

Technically she was correct. We did have more than a few cats at the time, most of which I had acquired. I was about to complain that it wasn’t very sporting to intrude upon this discussion with facts when I remembered having read somewhere that a person doesn’t mean no until she has said it at least seven times. Therefore I suggested once again that we look at the puppies.

Once again Mary Ann said no. Actually, what she said was “Are you out of your mind?” which I took to be a no. That’s when I told her about god’s message—which she took to be a yes.

My wife and I had been together nearly eleven years by then, and during that time I had never attributed any of my brainstorms to divine inspiration. When I wanted to press a point, I generally resorted to sulking, pouting, cajoling, badgering, or whining, but never had I claimed that I had a purchase order authorized by god.

We left the timber races later that afternoon with a ten-week-old black Lab female—the yellow Lab in the litter had been claimed already. In the thousands of years since dogs were domesticated and puppies were first offered for sale, few purchases have been more ill-advised. What I knew about Labs could have fit on the front of a greeting card, which is where I had done my research on the breed. Beyond that I hadn’t given a thought to whether our lifestyle and a Lab’s were compatible.

Lifestyle? I thought Labs were bred to lie in front of a fireplace in a well-appointed den. What’s more I didn’t own a collar, leash, crate, or even a can of dog food. I hadn’t a clue what dog-proofing a house meant, and I didn’t have a fenced-in yard or a fireplace. Apart from the parent who buys a puppy in a shopping mall to stop the kids’ whining, this was the most reckless puppy purchase imaginable; but when god is on your side, the reckless seems reasonable.

By November of that year I was beginning to think god had a warped sense of humor. The eighteen-pound puppy we had brought home from the timber races had grown, sometimes audibly, into a sixty-five-pound dog of whom I was fond but with whom I could not coexist.

Unlike the Labs on greeting cards, lounging about placidly in red bandanas, our dog radiated more untamed energy than a nuclear power plant when half the supervisory crew is asleep and the other half is playing video games. She chased anything that moved and gnawed on everything that didn’t. She lived to get dirty and to roll in decomposing flesh. She preferred stagnant puddles to her water bowl. She wielded her tail like a battering ram, laying waste to the contents of the coffee table and inflicting stress fractures on the legs of anyone in her path when she bull-rushed her way through the living room. The only means of keeping her from pestering us when we wanted to watch television at night was to take her for a marathon walk through the woods in the afternoon. That exercise left her too tired to hector us at night. It also left us too tired to watch television.

I was just about convinced that the Son of Sam had gotten his instructions from a black Labrador retriever when our vet told me about a family with 2.5 acres and 2.0 children. This family had owned a Lab for twelve years who died recently. Our girl, I quickly decided, would be just what the doctor ordered for them.

Although I was happy to have regained control of the television set, the house was terribly empty without a dog in it. The departed Lab had left a hole in more than the living room rug. The emptiness was especially painful because I work at home. I choose to do so in the firm belief that Sartre was right when he observed that hell is other people. Dogs, however, are better than people. A dog doesn’t erect shrines to its children or grandchildren on its desk at work; a dog doesn’t complain about its husband, wife, partner, or bad-hair day all the time; and a dog won’t clog up your e-mail with dozens of lame jokes.

I wanted another dog, but rather than wait for a second message from god, I began reading up on dog breeds. I did so in secret at first, because my wife had informed me that we weren’t getting another dog unless god spoke to her the next time.

The more I read, the more discouraged I became. Large breeds need too much yard and exercise. Small breeds are high-strung, yappy, bad for a guy’s image, or still need too much exercise. I was beginning to suspect that my ideal companion animal was a Chia Pet, and that I’d have to get used to the idea of driving to the post office and the supermarket alone. Then one day as I was leafing through a dog magazine, I noticed a paragraph about pug dogs.

Pugs, I learned, don’t need much exercise, they love food, and come hot weather they prefer the great air-conditioned indoors. “My soul mates,” I exclaimed to my wife, who reminded me that no matter what dog magazines might say, we weren’t getting another dog without divine intervention.

That intervention arrived in a bookstore near 57th and Broadway in New York on a cold day in January 1991. We were killing time between interviewing Paulo Gucci and having lunch with Cleveland Amory. (I might as well drop the only names I’m qualified to drop in the first chapter and get them out of the way.)

As I was looking through a book, Mary Ann walked over and said, “I think this is a sign.” With that she held out a 1991 dog calendar, wherein the featured breed for January was a pug. I resisted the temptation to say, “How come when God speaks to you, She has to show you a picture?” I nodded profoundly instead.

“You ought to call Charlotte as soon as we get home,” said Mary Ann.

Charlotte was the president of the Pug Dog Club of America at the time, a position endowed with godlike authority. We had become acquainted with her by phone a few years earlier when someone gave her a longhair Scottish fold kitten we had bred. Every so often Charlotte called to let us know how the kitten was faring. The last time she had called, right before Christmas, I told her that I felt guilty about being the only person in North America who couldn’t get along with a Lab. She quickly recited half a dozen annoying things that Labs are known to do, then she admonished me to call her first “before you go and get another dog.”

After I had finished talking to Charlotte that night, I related the details of our conversation to my wife, but she insisted we weren’t getting another dog until she had heard from god.

“That’s not fair,” I argued. “We’ve got an unlisted number.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” said my wife.

The pug Charlotte sent to us, a nine-month-old, neutered, fawn boy named Percy, was chauffeured from Florida to Pennsylvania in late January by a dog handler returning home from the Florida circuit. We arrived at the handler’s house with a crate in the back of our Geo Storm hatchback. After visiting a while with the handler and his wife, we thanked them for taking care of Percy then carried him out to the car and put him into the crate. While Mary Ann returned to the house to get her purse, I said idly, “Well, Percy, how’s it going?”

At that the little chap nearly came out of his skin. He began to bark, whoop, and whine, leap up and down, and paw at the bars of the crate. I feared he might declaw himself, so I opened the crate. He fairly leapt into my arms, all because I had known his name.

When Mary Ann returned to the car, I put Percy back in his crate. He was still so excited that he peed all over the crate before we got to the end of the driveway and was obliged to sit on my lap the rest of the way home. He smiled the entire time, looking up at me occasionally as if to say, “Aren’t you happy god got it right this time?”

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