Staring out the car window at a barren, late-winter landscape, I imagined incisors. My husband and I were driving to the SPCA for a puppy despite my aversion to dogs—to their teeth, really. The dog was happening, though, because I was even more scared of a home invasion. Actually, neither prospect seemed good.
When I was a kid, my next-door neighbors had dogs. Animals whose matted haunches—white fur streaked gray-brown from dirt—were eye-level to a child. Whenever my brother and I went near that side of our house, the pack rushed us, snapping their teeth and barking. I don’t know how we were never caught and mauled. Likely the dogs were chained, but my child’s eye would’ve seen the flash of teeth, the flying saliva, not metal or rope. I also don’t remember our neighbors ever coming out to tame the pack. There must’ve been parents yet I only recall two or three man-boys who cranked up Lynyrd Skynyrd and restored a car—set on cinderblocks in their driveway—only to smash it with sledgehammers and pipes once it was assembled.
Eventually Dad built a post fence along that side of the house. Even more eventually we moved away.
I glanced at Jason, confident in the driver’s seat. He neither shared my dread of dogs nor thought raising a puppy was difficult. He’d grown up with a Lab that was an arthritic old lady by the time I met her. Bill, my father-in-law, didn’t believe in leashing dogs nor picking up after them. They’re animals, he reasoned. And if the dog left their yard to roam the neighborhood, she was just following her instincts. One time, when I was visiting, I asked whether any neighbors minded the mess on their lawns, but Bill dismissed this with a flick of the wrist and a grimace.
It was 2003 and Jason, an infantry captain stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was deploying to Iraq with his unit any day now. I’d been terrified since 9/11—just days after our wedding—that he’d deploy to a war zone. Back then I considered locking him in a closet or shooting off some toes to “keep him safe.” We just lacked the closet and firearms to carry out those plans. Our whole marriage, it seemed, I was bracing for the next attack.
Jason and I floated the idea of a dog along with everything else that comes up once deployment’s imminent. I’d never seriously considered it, though, because (besides seeing them as vicious, biting things) they were forbidden by our rental contract. We’d lose our deposit—and could be evicted—if a pet was found in the townhouse.
After the first wave deployed in late February, a rash of burglaries erupted across town. People know which houses are Army houses; they know the guy with the gun is gone. The house next to ours was broken into, and along with jewelry and electronics, some weapons were stolen. (Also general knowledge—Army guys tend to have additional guns somewhere in the house).
Once the break-ins happened, I wanted a barking thing in my home.
Jason and I drove to the SPCA on a Saturday morning that felt more spring than winter. Neither of us wore coats. I wondered if I’d see him enveloped by a winter parka again, then banished that thought by focusing on the urine-and-musk smell that hit when we entered the shelter.
Sharp, staccato barking bounced off the cement floor as we walked along a corridor of chain-link cages. Jason and the SPCA volunteer, who wore a faded, black Loretta Lynn t-shirt, chatted easily. I was out of my depth. I didn’t know the first thing about dogs. Some of them were cute, but the smell and the noise—shouldn’t I be okay with that if I wanted one in my home? When Jason and faded Loretta turned, including me in the discussion of which puppy to adopt, I shrugged, deferring to their expertise.
“Kate, c’mon,” Jason said, nudging me toward the metal cages. “You’re gonna be the one raising this puppy.”
It was like letting a four-year-old decide which car to drive off the lot.
I settled on a little brindled ball that looked the least mean. Until that dog died, thirteen years later, people said she looked depressed or worried. That’s because she’s a deployment dog, I’d answer, only half joking, even though they had no idea what I meant.
As a stringy-haired lady at the front desk started our paperwork, she told us the pup had been born there eight weeks ago; they’d gotten the mom, a Boxer, off the street pregnant. The dad, she figured, was a Rhodesian Ridgeback. When Jason and I looked confused, she pointed out the line of fur along the puppy’s spine growing in the opposite direction. That was a Ridgeback trait. I just thought the dog had a knobby spine to go with her spindly legs. Her stomach was bloated from anti-parasite shots, which made the rest of her look sickly. (When my parents visited a few weeks later, Dad constantly covered his eyes and looked away. He didn’t want me to see him weeping. The puppy looked so sickly, he was afraid she would die soon).
While Jason filled out the adoption packet, I squatted next to our sad-looking dog on the worn, linoleum floor. Faded Loretta had put her next to me, like I was in charge. I tried to pet her without getting nipped by those sharp puppy teeth. We were spitballing names when the dog peed right there, shaking her paws free of liquid before padding away to hide under a chair, then watch me with keen, brown eyes.
I was unfamiliar enough with dogs to be mortified. This is my puppy and she just peed inside. Shouldn’t I have stopped that somehow? Isn’t this proof I’m already failing as an owner? But the stringy-haired lady was used to it. Said that’s why they had a tile floor. She mopped it up with paper towels, then continued our paperwork.
“How are we supposed to get her home?” I asked Jason.
“Uh, the car.”
“No. I mean how do we get her out of here? We don’t have a leash.”
“You pick her up and carry her,” he said.
You can do that?
On the way to the pet store (to buy a collar, leash, food, and crate), I tried to calm the squiggly, warm furball in my lap. Maybe she sensed my ignorance and fear, my anxiety about placing my hands anywhere near her head, which contained her teeth. Also, she needed a name.
Two days earlier Mom called to wish me happy birthday. The year you turn your day (twenty-six on the twenty-sixth) is supposed to be good luck. What were we getting into? she asked. Were we doing anything special?
Jason was buying toys and gear like crazy. Better sunglasses, a mini disk player, a weapon strap. Were all the right patches and insignia sewn to his uniform? Could I do that for him? He was like a little boy going to summer camp. Then he cleared his stuff from the house. It was all at work now.
There was the matter of where I’d go after May, once my contracts with the two colleges where I taught expired. Neither had work for me over the summer. Jason wanted me to go home to my parents in Massachusetts to save money. It felt like a failure to move home for a year, though. Like my husband’s gone so I revert to my parents? And what would I do there? Live in suspended animation? A half-woman, half-child, half-wife? Mom said I’d pay rent and cook a few meals a week. But what would I do for a freaking year? Could I even look for a job if I’d want to rush to Fort Campbell the minute he came home? Besides, to hear the other wives talk, staying near post during deployment suggested a stoic strength. Seeking out your parents was kind of weak.
I was loathe to stay here longer than I had to, though. This was a transient place. The two friends I’d made were long gone. Once Jason left, nothing was here.
Anyway, it was still technically winter. May was an eternity away.
We (I) named the dog Penelope, after Odysseus’s wife in the Odyssey. Penelope is the wife who stays behind when Odysseus departs for the decade-long Trojan War, then takes another ten years to get home. She is faithful, patient, and crafty. Through Penelope Homer’s telling his readers how an ideal wife behaves when her husband’s away. I’m the kind of person who reaches for these things, these literary templates. But I’m also the kind of person who then shifts that psychic weight onto an eight-week-old Ridgeback mix I sensed that I needed but was terrified of.
We have Penelope all of a few days before Jason deploys.
Penny has sad, hound-dog eyes, and I have no idea what to do with her. My cousin has a dog, so I email his wife in a panic. What do I do with a dog? How do I play with it? I can hear her laugh through the computer. “You can toss a ball or go for a walk. You can use an old sock.”
What do I use the sock for?
“Try it. Give the dog an old sock and see what happens,” she types.
I buy a book about puppies written by the Monks of New Skeet that a friend recommended. One precept that stood out: What is cute in a puppy will not be cute in a full-grown dog. Examples: jumping on people, sitting in your lap, sleeping on your bed.
Because I have to crate Penny while I’m teaching at night, I let her out after I return at midnight. When I roll into bed an hour later, I don’t have the heart to crate her again. She sleeps on my bed. (The Monks are right. It’s not fun when she’s a full-grown, sixty-pound dog).
Having her near me, though, makes it the slightest bit easier to stagger outside at 3 a.m. when she whimpers. Standing in dew-damp grass, braless under a big t-shirt, waiting for this puppy to go, the night is devoid of any sign of humanity. I’m not meant to be outside now, I think. I’m trespassing.
About a week into the deployment (the unit was in Kuwait), Penny started puking, squirting her stool, refusing to eat and drink or move. Scrubbing the worn carpet—this is why pets are banned—highlighted Jason’s absence. If he was here, he’d have to do his share. Or he’d know what to do when this one got sick. He’d be home so she wouldn’t be crated all evening, then end up on the bed for the night.
I blot vomit and wonder what he’s doing. Maybe eating dinner, or trying to read in the tent barracks, or cleaning sand from his gear.
From the television kids and celebrities are being interviewed for their opinion about the “current crisis.” What does their opinion matter? I think as I grab another towel. The guys are there. No one’s opinion is going to change that. It’s like asking someone their opinion about a volcano eruption.
I’ve never house-trained an animal, and even with the book by the Monks, I’m floundering. I register for a puppy training class at PetSmart with the meager hope of getting Penny to not squat indoors.
Half a dozen owners walk an obstacle course with hyper puppies. We practice stopping, sitting, and staying. Everyone else is a family—moms with kids or Carhartt-wearing men drawling about how they’re giving the wife a break by bringing the puppy here themselves. I’m the only solo owner, so the trainer partners with me when we work on coming when called and dealing with distractions.
I learn a bored dog becomes a destructive dog. The trainer shows us how to use toys to keep the puppies occupied. If I use a knife to get peanut butter all the way inside one toy, Penny will spend thirty minutes trying to get at it. (I learn it’s okay to give dogs peanut butter). I learn a strategy for house-training. Being around the other owners, I learn I’m intimidated by this roly-poly puppy.
On the floor I drag an old athletic sock of Jason’s around, playing a pounce-and-tug game with Penny. Rubbing her behind the ears, a feeling in my gut surges like a magnet, attaching me to the other magnet that is the floor. I can’t leave this place. This is where Jason left, so I need to be here when he gets back. When he comes home, I have to be where he can find me. If I leave, he won’t have a home to return to. Stay.
But I hate Clarksville. The thought of being here once work ends feels like drowning.
I call my in-laws whenever we hear anything. I think they dislike information about their son coming from me, the girl he’s been tethered to for less than eighteen months. I call anyway as soon as I hear something. Even if it’s late.
One night I’m talking with Bill, and our conversation turns to Penny. I mention the puppy training class that’s helping—
“That’s a waste of money,” he interrupts. “I’ve never heard of anything more stupid than puppy training. Well, I guess with Jason gone, you have to spend his money somehow. Whoever heard of paying money to take care of a dog?”
“I’ve never had dogs,” I half-mumble. And what did he mean, you have to spend his money somehow? “I don’t know what I’m doing. I need help—”
“Well. Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. I guess educated people do dumb things in real life. Whoever heard—”
“Bill. I gotta go. Talk with you later.”
I tug at the mauled sock gripped in Penny’s teeth, careful not to pull too hard. I learned she had baby teeth (just like a human), and if you’re too rough, you can yank them out accidentally.
Penny fought going on walks. She’d ball up and just refuse. I bought her this little harness because I was upset pulling the leash and choking her when it yanked the collar. But the Monks and PetSmart said she had to learn to be on a leash, to walk when I wanted her to walk. So we practiced up and down the cul-de-sac; I’d give her a treat when she didn’t plop in the middle of the road like a sack of potatoes. Eventually we were able to go around a block. Then a few blocks.
I’d fostered this notion that to be strong, to be a good wife, I had to stay and endure; the idea was a monolithic slab my brain couldn’t surmount. That, and feeling the only way to bring Jason home was to be where he left.
But that’s silly, I thought while walking Penny. I’m not a GPS. Whatever would happen to him was going to happen no matter where I was. Besides, it would just be a plane ride if I heard he was coming back. And what did I gain by refusing emotional support? I could go where I was loved, or I could stay in an isolated town, friendless and jobless. This whole time pride and fear had dressed up in a martyr’s costume. With two weeks left on my contracts, I decided to move home with my parents for at least the summer.
Dad wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a puppy—a set of gnawing teeth—in his home but accepted her as part of the package. Since Penny was housebroken by now, I rarely crated her anymore when I was out.
One evening Mom and I walked in the door, and Dad, who’d already been home, informed me that my dog got sand everywhere. Sand? Yes, sand. It was all over the family room. I needed to vacuum it right away and check whether sand was anywhere else. Where did Penny get sand? As I vacuumed I found Mom’s now-deflated pincushion under the coffee table. She’d been mending some hole and left the red, tomato-looking cushion on the table beside her work. Because I couldn’t account for all the pins, that was an after-hours trip to the emergency vet clinic, plus x-rays.
Mom was clutching her robe and shaking her head when I returned, after one, with my puppy. Once she was assured of Penny’s health, her face relaxed. Why did you get a dog? she asked. You’ve got enough going on. You don’t need this on top of it. She leaned over to scratch Penny under the chin. I hope she’s worth it.
I shrugged and led Penny to my old bedroom. Why did I get a dumb dog? I was afraid of being alone with the uptick of targeted burglaries. Primed as I was for disaster, it seemed inevitable, and I thought a barking thing was the solution.
The truth was this dog rarely barked. She looked more depressed than vicious, like she would emote an intruder to death. And I wasn’t even in Clarksville anymore. Nothing about my solution was actually a solution. The problem I envisioned hadn’t materialized.
From the foot of my bed, Penny watched me with wide, brown eyes.
My reader’s brain supplies the ending where Penny catalyzes a community, the lovable scamp connecting me to strangers through her puppy hijinks. But that wasn’t our narrative either.
A dog was probably the only thing that could’ve pushed me into admitting I needed help, because I couldn’t “power through” a puppy the same way I’d been dealing with the Army and my young marriage. Because of Penny I reached out to others, searched in books, paid for professional help, went to my parents, yet I was still lost—so maybe floundering was the point. I hoped Penny would alert me to danger so I could sidestep any panic and pain, but I couldn’t avoid life. Penny kept showing up as I muddled through it.
On her belly, Penny-Pot-Pie army-crawled a few inches to land beside me. I rubbed her back, still wary of pins in her stomach despite the X-rays’ negative result. She rolled so I could get at her belly, stretching her legs and looking at me like she’d been waiting for this all day. I scooched beside her and, with my finger, stroked the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. I couldn’t outsmart the unknown. Maybe that was just life.
By the time Jason came home from Iraq, Penny was a fully trained wonder dog. He eventually left the Army for grad school; we moved from Fort Campbell, and over the years, four kids joined our family. Penelope, the deployment dog, seemed like an anachronism with Jason home, with our busy family intact. There was a time your father was gone and I got Penny. I might as well have spoken of unicorns or Atlantis. Their dad being gone is a myth, something of the misty time from before they were born. Yet here’s the dog with her gray muzzle, slow gait, and now that funny-looking bulge near her backside. She’s proof Mom’s heart once cracked enough to let a wild animal in her home.
After Penny died, at age thirteen, the kids begged for a puppy. No, I said. Puppies are hard. You don’t know how much work they are. (I held out for two years).
Then my eleven-year-old got walloped by a brutal back-of-the-head concussion. It took months for specialists to clear her for a full return to school, but even with their medical stamp of approval, she wasn’t the same. Some days were good and we thought she’d recovered. Other days, she regressed into a mental fog that was almost always tethered to a deep sadness. Her light was gone. At a parent conference, one of her teachers said some days you could look at her and nobody was home.
So one Sunday in early March, we packed into the minivan and drove an hour to see a ten-week-old Mastiff-mix that had been rescued from a kill shelter in Georgia. She was brindled, like Penny. I need a puppy like I need a hole in the head, I muttered the entire drive. But this puppy wasn’t for me. A Penelope-shaped alchemy had gotten me through the deployment. I was trusting, with faceless fears surrounding my family, that another dog could walk us down that path again.