On my birthdays, we sit at the kitchen table and eat egg cakes. I’ve had nineteen birthdays, which is a lot of egg cakes. Maddie makes them in a miniature ramekin, so they come out round and just the right size. We take pictures and hang them on the wall, over my bowls. Nineteen is pretty remarkable, I know, for a bijon-poodle from the pound in Briarcliff Manor, New York. For anyone who is not a homo sapiens or a gorilla or a tortoise, actually. In fact, I think I am the second oldest dog in Dallas. Maddie called about six hundred veterinarians in the greater metropolitan area and for three hours, I was the oldest. Then, she tracked down a dachshund who is twenty-one. She is a reporter and is always doing things like that. Maybe I could meet the dachshund. I could tell him to ask for the carrots, if he doesn’t already. A lot of people don’t know about the carrots.
Early in the day, Maddie wraps the presents with streamers and piles them on the table. She surrounds them with cards that the girls make and leans them up against a burst of shiny silver paper with stars that shoot out from it in all directions. I ducked under a chair when I first saw it coming.
This year, I can’t see the star bouquet. It happened slowly, not like a shade that is pulled when nighttime arrives, but the way a fog creeps, then thickens. First, the steps to the backyard didn’t look like steps. The girls painted them yellow and pink to see if that would help. I tried, but couldn’t. I hung onto the shadows for a while, stretching my eyes wide and swiveling my head, trying to focus. I knew what the images were. I knew they were Maddie and Rox and Lucy, getting so tall. I stared at them, only them, when I felt the nothing coming. I didn’t want to waste the seconds, the last seconds, on door frames or curtain hems. They were in the living room, sitting on the couch in a row, snug. I saw three curved shapes, low, high, low. Then, darkness. I felt a scare in my belly and made my feet move straight ahead. I found Maddie’s ankles and instantly, felt myself lifted up into her arms. She didn’t know it was that moment, but she held me as if she did.
A breeze from the back door sends the eggs my way. It is time. Flipped from the ramekin, they emerge as a superbly formed cylindrical prism, flat on the bottom, two inches high. I find it difficult to wait for the cooling process, even at my age. You never get used to waiting. I have tried many tactics to relieve the anxiety. Tapping the floor, snorting, sitting on purpose, none of it works. The smells get into your nose, into your brain, and you are finished. It is like love.
The candle burns and I am picked up, sat upon a lap and held carefully for the song. I hear it vaguely, feel the vibrations in my back. Happy Birthday Dear Twyla. Happy Birthday To You. And the inhale of air into the lungs behind me, the wind of ritual catching my beard, the drift of smoke. I feel happy. I feel hopeful. I find my cake on the first try, and consume it with abandon.
A birthday doesn’t go by without my thinking about how I arrived here, with Maddie and the girls. It is not that I am overly sentimental. I’ve just been sorting out what it all means, recently, to have been rescued, then to have lived this life. But enlightenment comes when there is less opportunity in which to use it. So, I am of the opinion that you have to use it in a big way, and fast. Once you know, and your skin tingles and your heart fills and your brain latches on to purpose and plan, you have to do it, you have to do the one magnificent thing that will endure beyond your time. It is why you have been paired with your person, and she with you. It is the reason. It is the reason for all things.
With my family, I saw early on where this was headed. There would be no diving into river currents or sniffing out lost children in the woods. Theirs was not that kind of story. But my task was no less triumphant, no less necessary. We all have one. We all behold it, ultimately, if we live long enough. Mine revealed itself today.
The people who owned me first told the lady at the shelter that they found me on a highway. I was disoriented and frantic--a regular lunatic--the story went, until they swerved across three lanes, flew out of their car and plucked me from certain death. Of course, it wasn’t exactly like that, or anything close to that.
Look at me, I’m white and gorgeous and completely sane. Well, not so gorgeous and white anymore, but I was, then, when I was only six months old. And I never would have wound up on a highway. It’s just not what I would do. Maybe a park if a grill was going or a string of backyards…I did that once in Oklahoma…but not a thoroughfare, not even if a slice of London broil fell out of a ciabatta onto the yellow line. Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of cousins who would beat an eighteen-wheeler for a lick of London broil, but not me.
I tried to clear up the phony freeway story when they gave me away. But the lady behind the desk couldn’t possibly understand me because she didn’t know me, or how I think. The words were in my head, and had gotten to my eyes, but not all people take the time to look. The ones who watch, get it. You don’t need to whimper or scrape, even. They watch your eyes. But this woman was too busy. She had too many papers to sort and phones, lots of phones, ringing and buzzing. So, she put me in the pen with fences that were inside when they should have been outside, closed up by myself, wet cement under my feet. I didn’t understand why my human family discarded me, or why they fabricated a tale that made me seem delusional. They could have just said that they didn’t want me, that they forgot to talk to me and never looked anywhere near my eyes. They could have just said that.
I was not sure what was to come next, but I sensed that the busy lady was not going to be a relative of any kind. She could have been trained to communicate more effectively, but that would not be my role in life, I realized, watching her turn the key on my gate and trot back to her desk. A shame, really. She could have been moo shoo pork she smelled so sublime, but it was not to be. The place did not feel like a home, anyway. Real homes have teenagers who need to be walked and cheddar omelets cleaned from plates and only another cousin or two, not nine thousand, all chattering at once. Staying here was not an acceptable option.
So, I tried to get out. Three of the four sides of the pen were concrete. My only chance was straight ahead, through the chain link. I could see to freedom, visualize the result. I stood up on my back feet and stretched my front paws onto the fence. My plan was to make a hole in the metal, slip through stealthily and escape out the back near the cats, who would be curious and one-upped, but wouldn’t show it. The cousins could cause a commotion. I dug for thirty-six hours. I was a white dog with red paws. The top of my nose was skinned off. Blood dripped into my mouth but I continued, believing I could break through. Then, I saw her. She looked back and made the sad face, the one where the eyebrows scrunch and the head tilts and lips curve, and she bent down and rubbed my ear and told me she’d be right back to get me out.
And she was.
Certain experiences affect who you become. They sculpt you, I know now. This was one of them. I did not realize it then, skipping through the shelter door, happy enough just to be on the outside. I did not know that, in time, I would save the person who saved me. The ultimate rescue dog.
I jumped onto the passenger seat and watched her walk around the car. She had good posture. Small-framed, with a slight turn-out in her gait. Dancer feet.
“What were you thinking back there?” she asked me, getting in. “That was metal.” We looked straight at each other for a beat or two. Then, she held both hands open. I stepped over the gap in between the seats, circled once on her lap and found my place. She smelled like soap.
She turned on the ignition and backed out of the parking space. Just as we approached the exit to the lot, she stepped on the brake.
“Wait a minute,” she said, lifting me onto my back feet. “We haven’t had a proper introduction.”
I would like one of those, I thought, feeling my tail get stuck on the steering wheel.
“I’m Madeline,” she said, smiling. “Madeline Mitchell, no middle name. My grandmother had seven hundred syllables in hers, which annoyed her no end, so my mom, Eva, got a really short name, and no middle. And it sort of became a tradition.”
Wow. My new person was talkative.
“So, some people call me Maddie, some call me Mad,” she went on. “We’re going to pick a pretty name for you.”
Still standing, I extended my neck forward to get a closer look. She had a ring of yellow around the brown, and straight lashes, long and thick. I sniffed the air near her nose and mouth, detecting melon and lilac, and she pulled me into her chest. Just like that. My head found a spot on her shoulder, right where it curves into neck, and I pressed my face into her skin, underneath her hair. We stayed there like that, in the car, her small hands holding my back. I closed my eyes.
“It is very nice to meet you,” she said into my ear.
It is nice to meet you, too, Madeline.
The town was hilly and full of trees. It was summer, and cool, and not many people were outside. We drove a short distance and then slowed down.
“Here’s our street, Holly Tree Lane,” she said, turning left. “Kind of a weird collection of houses, I know, sort of Frank Lloyd Wrightish, but more rustic. I like a Colonial better, but it’s pretty nice, you’ll see.”
The people in my old house just mumbled.
“Okay, we’re the second to last one, here we come,” she said. “Wait until you see the back yard. You…will love the back yard. What are we going to call you, anyway?”
I didn’t know why she would call me something different from what I was already called. But okay, I could like a new name, I decided, sitting in the driver’s seat of my new car, in front of my new modern, but rustic home.
We got out and went around to the back, past low-lying bushes and pebbles, lots of pebbles.
“You ready for paradise?” she said.
I am ready.
The most superlative expanse of grass lay before me. Wide, flat, shady at the edge. Inspirational. I could not move, I was so overcome. I stood, staring. What to do first. Maddie dropped her end of the leash.
“Go ahead,” she nodded.
No, you’re kidding, right?
“Go, go,” she said, taking my chin in her hand. “It’s all yours.”
I couldn’t believe where I was. My legs quivered. All right. Here I go. I inhaled carefully, a few times. Pine, oak, tomatoes. She had a garden. And a cousin. I smelled a cousin. I followed the scent, my nose starting on the grass in front of me, then spreading out like a pendulum and before long, down the entire length of the gigantic rectangle at top sniffing speed until I got it, at the base of a small birch. There, by the root. Deep breath. A boy cousin. Then, the neuron fired, from the snout to the legs and I was off, in the trance, in the delirium of movement, of velocity, of bliss. Feet meeting under my stomach, ears back, head up like pride, like belief.
Maddie crouched next to me after I finally stopped to rest. “Twyla,” she said. “That will be your name. For Ms. Tharp, the choreographer, because you are very aerodynamic.”
Twyla. I liked it. Nickname, Princess Twy-lee.
She picked me up to go inside, to go inside my new home, with my new person who talked a lot and stared into my eyes with hers, ringed in yellow, twinkly and alive. But first, sitting as tall as he could stretch himself, the cousin. By the door. Looking out.
He had been watching through the glass door from the moment we arrived. Nothing moved on his body, not a nostril, not an ear, even as a wind blew over a pot on the patio.
I would have looked at the pot. In fact, I did look at it, and at Maddie as she put me down by the door and stood it back up. His eyes locked on me. I couldn’t determine his genetics, exactly. His front legs seemed to extend too high into his chest. The hair--wavy, straight, coarse and smooth, all at once--defied ordinary categorization as well as classical styling. You can discern a lot from the mouth and jaw, but his was pursed into an “O” shape just then, creating an expression of astonishment.
I stared back. Our heads were on the same latitude. He had not been informed that I was coming, and clearly, not that I was staying. So, I had to let him adjust, mentally, to the simple fact of my presence in his atmosphere, which meant that I needed to sit calmly and be evaluated. No performing. No imploring. He was rather adorable, I thought, and his power of concentration was impressive. In my previous home, I did not have a brother, or a boyfriend or husband--whatever he was to be. This was a terrific bonus.
“Let’s introduce you two,” said Maddie, pushing open the door. “Barney, this is Twyla. Twyla, Barney.”
He did not rush out of the house, but stepped gingerly, like the felines. I stood up.
Hi, I said.
He sniffed my nose, first, which I appreciated, and then the sides of my face and my nose again. His legs really were too long for the rest of him, except for his tail, which could have come off a stallion. All together, combined with an unusually pure fragrance, sea-like, almost, he was a complete rake. Highly intelligent, arrogant and there first, which means everything in the Kingdom, particularly if you’re a guy like Barney. Turf order is always significant. When you are small, competitive and inclined to scheme, as I was to find out, it becomes the justification for everything, at least in the beginning. I would have to mock him a little, show him up with the tennis ball, and give him no space. I sprinted to the center of the lawn. He followed.
Barney was a Midwesterner, saved two years earlier from a shelter in Chicago. Without warning, he flew fifteen feet across the grass, pivoted and tore back, stopping only to do it again, and again. I had not seen this before. Maybe this is what freedom looked like.
He stretched his legs out on the grass and panted. Then, he sniffed my privates and walked away. I stood by myself in the center of the yard, feeling a little unanchored, but entirely optimistic about what my life was to become. Though a remarkable chance for me, a rebirth, really, my arrival on Holly Tree Lane was, for Barney, an abrupt and unbelievable intrusion. People will blithely bring home another one of us, or a cat, or ferret, and presume that we will be as happy as they. We will not, until we come to see how we fit. Until we become a team. I knew that I was going to have to wait.
I followed Barney onto the patio, and into the house. He turned and froze when I crossed the threshold, staring so intently at me that I had to sit down. I thought that maybe, I shouldn’t look back. It was possible that he could tell me to leave, or push me back out the sliding door or take a bite out of my ear. I had no idea, having had limited experience with such relationships, but I understood the sentiment.
After a minute, he groaned and ran up the stairs. At the top, he crossed through the landing and walked quickly into a bedroom. The house felt big, coming from an apartment, and
seemed like too much square footage for one person. I stood by the bedroom door; Barney sat on a sofa, eyes sharp. Carefully, I stepped inside the room and paced the perimeter. I found a closet at the far end and smelled wool and sweat and spice. I recognized the male scent, but only in the closet. I sensed no evidence of him elsewhere in the house, which was neat and precisely arranged.
From the closet, I heard water running across the landing, and then my new name. Barney leapt off the sofa and beat me to the laundry room.
“Twyla,” Maddie called. “Let’s see about cleaning you up a bit. C’mon in here.”
I liked the “la” at the end of my new name. Maddie held it a little longer than you’d expect.
“I’m thinking that if we put you in some warm water, just up to your ankles, it should feel okay. I don’t think it will sting. Here you go, how is that?” she asked, lowering me gently into a deep white sink.
Oh, that hurts.
“Give it just a second and it will feel better, I promise.”
I looked down and saw dark clouds float from my paws. One at a time, Maddie sudsed the fur with baby shampoo, being careful not to touch the cuts on my skin. She had put her hair in a ponytail and rolled up her sleeves. Two hand towels waited on the top of the clothes dryer, folded in thirds, along with a tube of ointment and a container for pouring. I watched her face as she lathered each foot and placed it back into the basin. It was shaped like a heart, determined. Then, she worked on my beard. When she was finished, she drained the sink and filled it again, with clean water for rinsing. Finally, she spread one towel on her lap and sat me down, using the other one to dry each of my feet.
“We’ll wait until these start to heal to have a full bath,” she said, squeezing medicine from the tube and dabbing it on my nose and feet. “Anyway, you are incredibly clean for someone who has been traipsing on highways. I don’t know if I really believe that story, Twylee. I kind of think there was a different story, if you know what I mean. Tell me,” she said, turning me to face her, “you were not on a highway, were you?”
Not a country lane.
“I didn’t think so.”
A little while later, the entire structure shook with a slam.
“Watch the glass!” Maddie yelled downstairs.
“I keep forgetting,” said the man, Bill, dropping his sack on the foyer floor.
“It can crack. You have to close the door gently.”
“Okay,” he said, opening it again to retrieve his keys from the lock. “Watch.”
I went to the top of the steps to look. Bill put two hands on the door and ushered it to the threshold.
“I’m not cleaning it up when it breaks,” said Maddie.
I smelled his shoe. City. Gum. Gravel.
“You got the dog?”
“Yes, this is Twyla.”
“I thought we said you weren’t going to get the dog.”
Uh, hello up there. I have a name, thank you, a new name that I really like.
“We may have. Isn’t she cute?”
“So you just went and got her?”
“I did, a few hours ago. She was bloody from the cage, Bill.”
“I think it’s a big mistake,” he said, taking his foot away.
Maddie picked me up and kissed my head. “Rule number one: he doesn’t realize, so don’t take it personally.”
I did take it personally. He didn’t touch me, except for just about kicking me in the nose. Who doesn’t touch a dog, a dog named Twyla, when he meets her for the first time? Sure, human beings can be careless. They can lock you up and forget to feed you, or withhold water in order to skip a walk in the cold. My old people left me alone for days, and when they were around, they took better care of their dry cleaning than of me. I was a lap dog without a lap. Maddie and I went into the kitchen. She took out a bottle of wine from the refrigerator and poured a glass.
“Oh, it was pink,” she called to Bill, who had gone upstairs to change out of his suit. “He didn’t hear, Twyla. Let’s try again. Bill,” she called.
“What is it?”
“It was pink.”
“What was pink?’ he asked from the landing.
“The test. You know.”
He looked as if he didn’t know.
“The ovulation test, Bill.”
“I told you yesterday that today could be the day, don’t you remember?’
“When did you tell me?”
“It doesn’t really matter when. Today is the day.”
“Well, I don’t know if I can do it today.”
“What do you mean you can’t do it today?’
“Well, I’m just not equipped,” he said.
“What do you mean you are not equipped?”
“I’m just not, that’s all.”
“How could you be ‘just not’? What did you do with it?”
“What do you think I did with it?”
“I can’t imagine what you did with it on The Day, knowing it is The Day,
after I’ve been peeing into a cup for months. And pouring urine into test tubes.”
He stood on the top step, without a defense.
“It spills all over the place, you know,” she added.
“We could do it anyway,” he said.
Maddie walked out the front door and slammed it behind her. Those are sturdy windows, I thought. Within a few minutes, she came back inside and put on our leashes. We headed for the top of the street, and kept going. We continued up a hill, making a gradual climb through the neighborhood. At the highest point, we could see a slice of a river and a glimpse of the western bank, lit up in orange. Maddie sat on a bench and leaned back. Barney found a spot to lie down. They came here a lot, I could tell, the two of them. I sat on the grass, too, then inched my feet forward, little by little, feeling my way.
Barney stood on the edge of the bed, looking down. He made it clear that I was to sleep on the floor, on the cushion by the wall.
In the middle of the night, I woke to a clattering. It sounded like the lawn mower that my previous people kept in the garage. The noise was coming from Bill, on the far side of the bed. What was he doing, I wondered. He was not a machine. Maddie sat up and smacked him on the chest. He mumbled something and turned over. She twisted around on the mattress, changing positions and huffing. I walked to the corner of the room to get a better angle on the scene. Barney lay on his back in between them, his head on the pillow. With his front legs extended straight to the ceiling, he held the blanket up and off of his body. He must have been hot under the quilt. Barney had a phenomenal brain, I realized, standing in the dark by the closet door. The attitude was beginning to make sense.
Bill rumbled again and Maddie walloped him, this time on the arm.
In the morning, I followed Barney into the office. The door was open just enough for us to slip through. Maddie was typing at the desk, shifting her upper body side to side and squinting her eyes. Then she smiled and punched up her arms, left, right, left. “Yes, yes. Perfect.”
Upstairs, four rooms were positioned off of the landing. Only one had a bed. A second was for work, with books and a desk and ceramic cups of pens, pencils and markers, a separate container for each. On the wall, enlarged newspaper clippings hung in a row. A striped pillow sat at attention on the chair. Hydrangeas, gathered from the tree out front, filled a vase. This was a busy place, I sensed, the nerve center, where the thinking happened. It looked to me that Maddie spent considerable time here, tucked away, a strip of sky offering light, ideas. She did something with the pens. I looked again at the framed articles on the wall and saw that her name was printed on them, at the top. She wrote, I realized. She would be home a lot. It would be peaceful and serene. We would be artistes.
Barney told her to get up and take us out, pulling her thigh down in long deliberate movements. I waited on the rug, observing his technique. No panic, no frenzy, just controlled strokes in the desired direction.
“One sec,” she said. “Let me finish this graf. It was bugging me all night.”
Barney didn’t seem to care about the paragraph.
“Ow,” she said, still typing. “Now hold on. Like Twyla. Look at her, how patient she is. Good morning, Twylee,” she sang. “How was your first night?”
She stopped writing and read the words out loud: Of course, for many people whose mates work at home, too, the marital mantra “for richer, for poorer” does not include “for lunch.”
“Ugh, corny. I’ll fix it later. Okay, let’s go.”
Maddie pitched story ideas to magazines and newspapers, hoping to entice editors to make assignments. When Bill lost his most recent job a month earlier, she feared what might occur if he set up shop at home on Holly Tree Lane, across the second floor landing, with phones and visitors and papers strewn on the floor. He paced, weightily, and had a theatre voice that failed to modulate. He ate dinner food for lunch, blasting the vent above the stove, sautéing and chopping. You need an end-of-day mindset for sautéing and chopping, she told him, an acceptance that you’ve done all that you could until then. You cannot sauté at noon. Maddie sold the story about pairs of people who worked from their houses, and tracked down four couples who would talk about it. One made ceramic pots in the garage while her husband designed buildings in the kitchen. Fortunately for Maddie, Bill had secured since his firing several short-term projects at assorted companies located downtown. He still rode the train into the city each day, bought the coffee on the platform, talked small with the colleagues. Whatever it was, it was wonderful, as long as it was somewhere else.
“In the morning, we just go out back,” Maddie said. “Later, around 12:30, we do the long walk, like last night.”
I liked having the plan ahead of time. Spontaneity is important for the squirrel up a tree, the tackle of the cousin, the stealing of the mozzarella off the end table. But knowing the general regimen makes me feel secure. I can decide when to schedule the basics, the eating, the napping. We canines are all instinct, but we are not rash. Some human beings think we are without method. That is not the case.
The phone rang during breakfast.
“This will be Mom. Watch.”
“Listen, I’m going to Loehmann’s later. Can you come?”
We can hear the other person through the receiver. We don’t even need to be that close. This is how we know more than people think we do.
“Mom, it’s you.” She smiled at me and pointed at the phone.
“They’re having the big sale, you know, the summer sale.”
“The summer sale? Already? I have a deadline today, though.”
“Do it fast.”
“I can’t. It’s long, and it’s for The Times. I can go tomorrow.”
“It will all be gone tomorrow.”
“All the clothes? All the clothes will be gone from Loehmann’s tomorrow? I think some will be left.”
“Nothing good. I’ll call you from the store. What do you need? Tops? They have fabulous tops, with little straps. What about a skirt?”
“Mom, I don’t know. I don’t need too much, working at home.”
“Please, you’ve been in the Midwest too long. You’re like a farmer.”
“I am not a farmer.”
“A few pretty tops wouldn’t kill you.”
“I have some pretty tops.”
“All right. Come for dinner, then. Where’s Bill?”
“Working. And then he has some meeting at night.”
“Fine. Finish the story and come for dinner. Six o’clock.”
I was eager to meet Eva, even though she did not like dogs, except for Yorkies. I understand why people love the Yorkies. They are beautiful, in a helpless sort of way, but they have the same moving parts as a Doberman. I would not want to confront an affronted Yorkie.
Maddie brought my bed into her office. Barney spread out on the couch downstairs. Since it was only the first morning, I decided to keep her company while she worked. It is true that I wasn’t exactly invited onto the velvet couch from Soho, and wouldn’t be, probably forever. But for now, the office was where I needed to be. Maddie seemed to know me, already, and wanted to know me. I was not a possession to her, not something to have, but a partner of some kind, I sensed that first day. It felt unfamiliar. I wondered if it was love, or the beginning of it, or something close to it. The notion that I might, one day, maybe, have it, have love, made me breathe hard and flop onto my back, four limbs to the sky. She sat tall in her chair, tapping on the keys without looking down. Sometimes she bit her bottom lip. Sometimes she nodded. Every so often, she read sentences out loud.
“What do you think of this, Twyla?” she asked after a while.
It has a nice rhythm.
“You think it sounds clunky? It might sound clunky.”
Not really, but if you wanted to change the fourth word into a two-syllable word, that would be okay, too.
“The fourth word is holding me up. The three syllables, I don’t know.”
Go for two.
“I think two. There.”
She read the new sentence to me.
“Much better. Twy-lee, you are a skillful editor.”
She stood up every so often to twist her waist and bend up her legs. While she sat, she maneuvered on the chair into an alphabet of shapes and positions, straddling her legs and toes out to the side or raising her entire body up off the seat with her arms. She’d type, then throw back her head, close her eyes, then type again. It was like a trance, when it settled in. I watched the wondering, the crafting, hearing the keys move like flies against glass.
With one foot out of the car door, my olfactories jolted into high alert. I could not recognize the spice, the marinade. I got the garlic and I knew it was fish, clearly, but not flounder or sole, not the white swimmers. We don’t swim, diminutive mixed breeds. I have tried to wade in the blue plastic pond, the kind the human babies use, but my pads slip. Sitting makes me feel as if I’ve had an embarrassing hygiene incident and flattening down onto my stomach, well, I will do that when a cat twirls a baton.