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The Dog that Talked to God
By Jim Kraus
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Jim Kraus
All rights reserved.
Born in the wealthy enclave of Barrington, Illinois, in late autumn, Rufus was the smallest pup in a litter of four—black with white highlights, white eyebrows and chest. The breeder, a precise woman with a lazy eye, said that as an adult, he would most likely remain on the smallish side. That's a good trait for a miniature schnauzer. He had the look, even as a seven-week-old, of a polished, professional dog, holding a practiced dog show stance—legs back, chest forward, eyes alert—all inherited traits, genetics at its best.
But she said nothing about Rufus talking. Not just talking, but talking to God. In dog prayers, I imagine.
Though, in her defense, I would guess that she was unaware of this unusual talent.
And, also in her defense, if she knew of his abilities and had mentioned, "Oh yes, Mrs. Fassler, and the runt of the litter—the dog you want—well, he talks, and he claims he talks to God." I mean, honestly, if she had said that, or anything remotely like that, then odds are that the good dog Rufus would not be sitting in the chair opposite me right now, watching me type.
Perhaps if Rufus had been adopted into another home—a home with an owner who wasn't lost and confused and didn't need to be returned to the awareness of the existence of God—he would not have bothered speaking at all, except to bark at the door to be let out. Even Rufus is not sure of that possibility.
"I don't ask foolish questions, Mary," Rufus answered when I asked him about the odds of him spending his life with me, rather than some other, more spiritually healthy person.
But I digress.
* * *
I did not mean to cavalierly hurry past the most compelling element of this story: the fact that Rufus talks to God. And he talks to me—Rufus, that is, not God. Sometimes.
It's hard to be nonchalant or blasé about such an ability, I know. But I cannot leap into this tale without returning to the beginning. You need to know how all this came about. You need to know the origins of the story. After all, what would the Bible be without Genesis and the garden of Eden? Confusing, to say the least, and most likely incomprehensible. Imagine the Bible as a movie you walk into during the middle. You can make up your own backstory, but it would all be just a guess. Admit it: without that opening scene, not much of the rest would contain any internal logic.
As a child, I used to do that—walk into a movie theater whenever, and watch the film, sit through the ending, and wait for the opening reel to start again until I would say to myself, "This is where I came in." It was easier years ago, before the age of googolplexes and corporate theater chains. Back in the day, each theater had one screen and would play the same movie over and over, with only a cartoon and previews to separate one screening from another. Once I got to that point of having seen a particular scene before, I would leave, satisfied that I saw the entire story. I remember doing that to The Time Machine with Rod Taylor, a movie star without much reason to be a star. Seems ludicrous to me now. I had constructed my own narrative as to how Rod got to whatever point in the future he started at, which then altered my imagined story as the true narrative unfolded. With that movie, I was close to guessing the actual story and plot. Close, but, as they say, no cigar.
As a child, reconstructing a complicated narrative was child's play.
It is not so easy today.
* * *
Throughout my youth, my family owned pets. Owned, I suspect, is now a pejorative term. I mean, do we really own a dog? Or do we merely cohabit in the same spaces? The latter, I am now certain. My father, an impetuous man with a generous heart, once bought a squirrel monkey from Gimbels Department Store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—when department stores, I surmise, could sell squirrel monkeys.
A monkey proved to be a pretty interesting pet, but if you fed it something it did not like, it would simply heave it out of the cage. Neatness is not any monkey's most endearing trait.
I remember growing up with a mutt, the family dog, a loyal animal who became as much a member of the family as I. As a teenager, I stood beside her in the vet's office when he administered the oh-so-humane and oh-so-lethal injection to a lame, sick, dying dog. I remember her eyes, just as they went dark. I remember weeping all night over that loss.
In my forties (midway, if I am feeling honest) I found myself alone again. I was pretty certain I needed a dog. Christmas was coming and I did not want to be alone.
Before—well, before my current losses and tragedies—the parameters of a dog purchase became the topic of long conversations among Jacob, John, and me. It had been decided that hypoallergenic was a necessity; preferably non-shedding, small, with minimal genetic health concerns, loyal, good with children, non-nippy, benevolent, artistic, and kind. Just kidding about the last three, but we did have a pretty substantial list of preferences. The miniature schnauzer breed met all of our qualifications.
But we, as a family, never had a chance to fulfill that dream.
Alone, now, I decided to take action—and taking action was something I did not do lightly. Unlike me, the schnauzer, according to the breed books, had decisiveness bred into its genes. A good watchdog, the books insisted. A barker, but not a biter. Since I live in a relatively safe suburb, a barker would be sufficient.
I made a few calls; I looked on the Internet.
A friend advised against getting any dog. "They're all the same—stupid, hairy, and only interested in food. Trust me," she had said. "You will get companionship, but it will be stupid companionship. Like a blind date who you find out later cheated to get his GED, and who is five inches shorter than he claimed."
She owned an Irish setter, a truly small-brained animal. I say she owned it since she did all the dog upkeep in her family—feeding, walking, feeding, letting out, letting in, feeding, washing the muck off of it. The rest of the household liked the dog, but as is often usual for families, the mother remained stuck with all the dog duties. And to complicate things, her dog could not be described as smart—not even close to smart. It ran into the same glass sliding door every morning of its life. Like a chicken, it appeared to wake up to a new world every dawn. A pleasant dog, for certain, but, as noted, not very smart. And it often smelled wet. Most of us know that musty, yeasty, heady, nearly unpleasant aroma of a wet dog. Like wet newspaper. What they have in common is beyond me.
"But I'm looking at a smaller dog. Something that I can pick up if I have to," I told her.
It took two people to lift my friend's Irish setter, or a single person using a hospital patient lift—and where was one of those when needed?
"Jacob always wanted a schnauzer. Sort of like fulfilling a promise, you know?" I added.
My friend shrugged, apparently resigned to my choice, to my fate.
After all, how do you argue with one of the last wishes of a dead man?
There were a few AKC breeders near where I live who specialized in miniature schnauzers.
And when I was ready, only one breeder—the precise lady in Barrington with the lazy eye—had a litter with an unspoken-for puppy.
"I have a litter of four. The two females are spoken for. The larger male is going to another breeder in Florida. That leaves one male puppy. He's the runt of the litter. But he's healthy."
I attempted to make arrangements to complete the purchase.
"It's not that simple," she said, a slight note of caution in her voice. "Before you come, I have some questions. Save you a trip. I don't sell my dogs to just anyone."
"Of course not," I said, thinking it was a poor method of marketing puppies, but I played along. "I completely understand."
"Do you live in a house or apartment?"
"A house. It's too big for me," I said, telling this stranger more than she needed to know. "I plan on selling in a year or two, and moving to a smaller house. More manageable. But a house. A house, yes, not an apartment or a condo. I don't think I would do well in an apartment anymore. Odd noises and someone is always cooking with too much curry. So, yes, I have a house. I will have a house. Now. And in the future."
"Does the house have a yard? Will the new house have a yard?"
Don't all houses have yards?
"It does. And the back is fenced. It's pretty big. The landscapers bill me $40 a week to cut it ... so there's a lot of room for a dog to run. And if I do move, that house will have a fenced yard. Keeps out the riffraff dogs, if you know what I mean."
Her silence probably meant that she didn't.
"Do you work?"
No ... I thought I might pay for the puppy with food stamps.
Sorry. That's just me being snarky. Sorry.
"Are you gone all day? Will the dog be alone all day?"
Oh ... now I see why you're asking.
"No. I work from home. I write books. And I edit some. And I publish a newsletter for writers. But I'm home 95 percent of most weekdays. I do go out to Starbucks sometimes to write. There's something about having to block out other people's conversations that makes me concentrate more effectively. But that's only once a week. Maybe twice, if I'm stumped by something."
The precise lady waited, then spoke carefully.
"I wouldn't sell this dog to a single person who worked outside the home all day. These puppies need companionship. They'll get neurotic without a person—or people—around. Nothing worse than a neurotic dog."
She said nothing about dogs that had delusions of grandeur. Would I describe Rufus as ... delusional? Or would that just be me?
"Any small children in the home?"
I waited a heartbeat, as I have done now for these last few years, until that small scud of darkness passed.
"No. No one else. It's just me."
The precise lady must have been thinking "divorced," or "widowed," or "never married." I did not volunteer further information. She did not ask. Often, when even thinking about the past, even to myself—still—I would get teary. Buying a dog is no time to get teary.
"Well, why don't you come up this Saturday? The puppy won't be ready to leave for at least another three weeks. You can see how you'll get on with him. We can talk."
I hung up the phone thinking that I need to make a good impression on this woman, or else I'll have to find another breeder and the next closest—with puppies available—was in Ohio. I did not want to drive to Ohio. Not just yet. Maybe not ever.
* * *
I arrived at the breeder's home early—a lifelong trait. To me, being on time is fifteen minutes early. The setting was not exactly rural, but I estimated that I was a good ten minutes from the nearest Starbucks—or a Texaco station selling chilled bottles of Starbucks Iced Coffee. So I sat in the drive and waited. I would have really liked a coffee. Caffeine settles my nerves.
I rattled in the car, more than a little nervous.
The breeder was exactly as I had pictured: precise, wore her hair short, trim, with practical glasses clipped to a gold chain around her neck; with that one eye slightly off- kilter to the other. She may have been wearing Earth Shoes. I was unaware if they had made a comeback; hers looked sensible and organic with a leather strap. I admit that I am far from being style-conscious. I buy good clothes, good outfits, designed to last. I haven't purchased a new outfit in years ... well ... since before the accident, I guess.
She extended her hand for a firm handshake, and escorted me to the basement. I could hear scuffling and yipping as we descended. In a large, airy room, with French doors leading to the outside, now closed, two adult schnauzers were in a large pen with what appeared to be a large, single mass of wiggling puppy. The room smelled of dog—but that inviting new-dog smell.
"Sit down," she said, and for that second I was not sure if the breeder meant me or the dogs. I realized that I should sit.
I sat on a plastic chair—one of two in the enclosure.
The two adult dogs sniffed the air, not in fear, but in exploration, in greeting. The larger one trotted over to me, placed its front paws on my knees, and stared hard into my eyes.
Schnauzer eyes are dark, or mostly dark, so the iris in their eyes is all but indistinguishable. They are like cartoon eyes—all one color—so it is difficult to see emotion in them. And schnauzers are not smilers. Some dogs—like labs, for example—can pull their lips back and offer a grin, with a lolling tongue. (I have since discovered that labs aren't that happy. They are simply manipulative.)
The larger dog, apparently satisfied with what it was looking for, hopped down.
The smaller dog walked toward me, with what I took to be deliberate steps. It too placed its paws on my knees and stared.
"That's the mom," the breeder said, not using the word mom, but the breeder word for a female dog—a word, incidentally, that I have never liked using, either in anger or in scientific dog-calling. She was Rufus's mother after all, though the name Rufus would not be decided for a few weeks.
She stared deeply, as deeply as a dog can stare, without being distracted by the yelping of one puppy or the whine of another. She stared, just stared, for the longest of moments. Longer than most dogs stare at anything, with the possible exception of an empty food bowl. (This I have learned recently as well.)
I didn't know what to do, so I gently covered her paws with my hands—like offering a manner of assurance that I was a good person who would treat her offspring well.
After what seemed to be a long time, she sort of gave a nod, like she approved, or found me acceptable, or knew her one special offspring was exactly the puppy I needed, then dropped back to the ground, sniffed my leg and shoe for a moment, and walked back to the big ball of puppies in the corner. This was not her first litter, so she obviously knew the routine. Puppies grow up and move on in the wild, and they do the same if they reside in urban domesticity.
The breeder walked over, reached in, and extracted a small furry lump of wiggle, mostly black, with some white. She handed it to me.
"This one will be yours if you want."
I held the small wriggling bud of puppy cupped in my two hands with plenty of room to spare.
"The pup can't see real well yet, so all it sees is your hands."
I stroked the little face with a finger, gentle, but not overly gentle. It was a boy puppy, after all. The puppy seemed to like that, and promptly fell asleep in my hands.
"That's a good sign. Some dogs just stay all riled up—being picked up, carried, strange scents—they'll struggle to get away. Apparently, he thinks you're a safe place."
He was the most beautiful puppy I had ever seen.
And he fell asleep. My heart began to sing, just a little. After such a long silence, it startled me at its ability to do so.
This was indeed the puppy that I needed to have in my life.
More surprises came later.
* * *
The breeder gave me a list of things to do, and to have them all accomplished in the three weeks between the initial meeting and the final handoff—Rufus's adoption, as it was. The list was not extensive, but it was twice as long as I had anticipated.
"I can't visit your house, so you have to give me your word that all of it gets done. Okay?"
It was a command that I could not say no to.
I could see why she was good at training dogs. I really wanted to please her.
A dog crate; dog carrier for the car ride home; puppy food—one of two preferred brands—a water dish; collar, two leashes; one retractable, one a strong tether; the name of the dog's veterinarian; a picture of the fenced yard; an appointment set for a puppy class. The list ran on for nearly a full page.
Excerpted from The Dog that Talked to God by Jim Kraus. Copyright © 2012 Jim Kraus. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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