Back in January, my wife bugged me to bring home two puppies from the pound that looked like little yellow foxes. They loved the woods, and before long I was nuts about them; then I got curious to find out who their biological parents were. The puppies were so cute that everyone I passed on the street would ask, What are they? I wanted to be able to say something more precise than mutt, or half-chow, half-Pomeranian, which is what the pound said they were. I also wanted to know how old they were, and how big they were likely to get.
Then, too, I felt that the puppies would like to revisit their birthplace, the way so many adopted people like to do.
The pound had guessed that they were born last July, and it seemed to me their first birthday was a good time to look for these answers.
First I got papers from the pound, in Beacon, N.Y., which said that someone I’ll call Rebecca Sloom had donated the puppies last October. I found one Sloom in the Beacon phone book and called her up with a sugary voice.
Mrs. Sloom coughed and acknowledged that she was indeed the puppy donor. She seemed guilty and told me what I take to be a string of lies about why she’d given the puppies up, a child’s allergy, surgery, asthma and so forth. I told her what a good job she’d done training them (but not what a bad job she’d done naming them–Tabby and Toby, which we promptly changed) and said I just wanted to find more like them.
Mrs. Sloom told me she’d answered a newspaper ad in an old Hudson Valley city, call it Peekskill. Mrs. Sloom had no memory of the breeder’s name, but she gave me exact directions to the house, which stuck in her mind. It was right next to the Red Cross on Pauling Avenue, had red trim, and the woman had tons of Pomeranians.
I drove up to Pauling Avenue on the Wednesday before the Fourth. Sure enough, there was a house with red trim next to the Red Cross. It was an old Victorian with giant stained-glass windows, a big creaky porch and an antique chandelier on the porch.
“You’re about to see your mother!” I sang out to my dogs, trying to get them in the mood, then parked across the street. My puppies spend all day in the woods chasing deer, and only one of them, Franklin, had a collar, so I affixed the only leash I had (a 30-foot one) to him and looped the handle end of the leash around the neck of the female, Mercer. That way I could walk them both on the same long leash.
But as we came up the sidewalk, Franklin, who is the bolder of the two, suddenly balked and set his front feet on the concrete and refused to go another inch. I had to cajole him and yell at him and finally yank him. It was out of character.
We went up on the porch and I rang the bell. I heard a sharp yapping from the back of the house that I declared in a syrupy voice was their mommy; then, visoring my hand against the glass, I peered inside. The place was frozen in another time. Thick red carpeting, a Marilyn Monroe plate hanging from the wall, a sideboard covered with a lace antimacassar and dolls with little books propped in their laps.
Then I noticed that Mercer, who is high-strung, had chewed through the leash, so she was just standing there. I tied the two broken ends together and rang again.
But no one came and I wrote out a note. I wasn’t sure how to address it, so I wrote simply “Hi!” and announced that my wife and I had gotten her dogs from the pound and loved them. Would she be so good as to call me?
I pushed the note under the door and noticed that Mercer had chewed through the leash again. If I were Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, I would say that Mercer was freaking out, but I’ve never liked people who tell you about the emotional lives of their dogs and even do voices for their dogs. I have no doubt that my dogs have an emotional life, but I don’t trust most people’s translation. In her latest book, The Social Lives of Dogs (our house is now littered with dog books), Thomas makes my point. Her characterizations of dogs are reminiscent of Little Women , with far less incident to back the portraits up. By the end of the book, she’s describing her ESP exchanges with her mother.
I didn’t hear from the dog owner. I thought maybe I’d been too breezy. So a few days later I sent a formal and fusty suck-up letter to the address, for “Resident Dogowner.”
But she didn’t answer that either, and on July 21 I bribed my wife to drive up there with me, by making her dinner and accepting her movie-rental choice. We set out at 6:30.
En route I described my many overtures, and my wife said, “Don’t you think you’re ignoring all the signals?”
“This is a campaign,” I said. “This is knowable information.”
We got there before sunset. The front door was open, and I left my wife with the dogs and went over, tucking my shirt in.
That wasn’t necessary. When I rang the bell, an older woman with blondish-red curls and a paisley house dress came out, dangling a Kool in her left hand. She looked as if her heyday was before Jayne Mansfield. “I think I adopted your dogs,” I said. “Oh, you wrote me a letter,” she said. “I would have called, but I’m in bad shape. I broke my back and I got other problems I won’t tell you about. I’m supposed to go to the hospital for counseling about a hysterectomy.”
With that, she led the way over a rampart of stairs, and down into the little kitchen.
It was teeming with maddened dogs. There were six or seven or eight in there, and they had taken over. All were Pomeranians, or close, and the woman, who said her name was Anna, sat down on a chair and, using the Kool as a pointer, pointed out her oldest dog, Miko.
“Their mother!” I cried out. Miko was dumpy and yellow, with a long snout and none of my dogs’ grace, but she had a certain devilishly dulcet look about the eyes that was unmistakably Mercer.
I told Anna to wait, then shot across the street back to the car and grabbed Franklin from the back seat. “Come with me,” I hollered to my wife. “What’s going on?” she said. “You’ll see.”
We didn’t have the leashes for my dogs, so we carried them. My wife stood by the sink holding Mercer, and I sat in a chair. All the Poms were barking nuttily, but the mother came up and stared happily into Franklin’s eyes. It seemed plain to me that she recognized him. He sniffed her appreciatively back, but was uncharacteristically stand-offish.
Anna said that the mother was the product of a chow and a Pomeranian, that some 18 years before a chow had jumped the fence and somehow impregnated one of her Poms.
As this tale was related, Miko turned from one of the puppies to the other with the same benign smile on her face.
And what about the puppies’ daddy? From what sodden depths of Peekskill had his genome blossomed? Anna motioned at the back end of the room, a wall of Plexiglas separating the mud room from the kitchen. Two black Pomeranians were going crazy, throwing themselves against the clear wall.
“That’s the father,” she said. “On the right. O.J. I got him round about the time all that O.J. stuff was on television. Then the police arrested me for having too many dogs, but I have a second place, so I said half of my dogs live there.… ”
I carried Franklin up to the Plexiglas, but the black dog went crazy and Franklin tightened in my arms. He was scared. That old Oedipal juice was kicking in.
At the sink my wife said, “Mercer’s trembling.”
Mercer’s always been high-strung; now she was pressed against my wife’s chest.
We stayed a couple more minutes, got Anna’s phone number. Then my wife said how we’d gotten the dogs from the pound, which angered Anna, and Anna told us about some lies Mrs. Sloom had told, and after that we went back across the street. Mercer’s tail was down. The dogs crept into the car.
When we got going, they both climbed into my wife’s lap in the front seat. Ordinarily they fight one another over my wife’s attention, but this time they were curled around one another. They looked like little puppies again, like they’d regressed. Mercer laid her head against Franklin’s neck.
“They’re upset,” my wife said.
“Put them in the back and see how they do,” I said.
“I don’t believe in animal testing,” she said scornfully.
But after a while she put Franklin in the back, and he laid down with a blank look. Franklin is goofy and enthusiastic; now he looked depressed. His more soulful sister stared off with a haunted, ladylike expression of deep injury.
My wife said that I’d traumatized them selfishly, that they had no desire to go back home, which turned out to be a Victorian dog hellhole. Their little lives had been dislocated several times already, they had surely feared that we were going to leave them back where they’d come from. They’d regressed, and even though we’d brought them away, they were still caught in their scary and awful childhood.
I told my wife she was anthropomorphizing, that it was just a stimulating outing, but I felt pretty guilty. I stopped at a Frosty and got the jumbo ice cream for $2.40, and when my wife and I were done, I set the rest on the bedroom floor in two containers before getting in bed to watch the movie. Then, that night, I let the puppies sleep in the bedroom. I was thinking, class is an irreducible fact of American life, even for dogs; the puppies had been horrified to revisit their past, having grown so accustomed to a kind of privilege. And this business of finding your roots is overrated. The point of reinvention is, you never have to go home again. The puppies understood that.
The next day, my wife told me that she’d lately surrendered to the same impulse I’d had and taken the puppies for a visit back to the pound, where there was what looked like a beagle mix in a cage. The puppies had sniffed him appreciatively, she said, then asked her to bring him home. Now that’s crazy.