Curled, compact, into a loaf, despite the unbearable steam-heat of early June, the dog grunts and sighs. Rowlf — so named after both Ralph Waldo Emerson and the muppet-dog who plays piano — favors the cast-off couch-cushion by my feet when I’m typing, and in all weather, he likes to be covered with a blanket. By “covered,” I mean completely, as in swaddled head to toe, invisible. He is a dog of burrows and dens, fox-like. For the record, he is neither a word-smith nor a musician. His name reflects my own polarities of the serious and the goofy.
Though he’s alert, tensile with a rodent-hunter’s quick energy while watching squirrels from the picture-window, he doesn’t look much like a fox.
He’s similar to one in size and in the prey his tamed instincts still urge him to stalk, but his fur is short and slick, not at all thick-tufted with insulation from the weather. He’s muscular and lean, with a tightly tucked tummy and long, impossibly slender legs. The neck of a tiny giraffe. From the base of his ears back to the tip of his constant-wagging whip of a tail, he looks like a whippet or Italian greyhound, closer to the size of the latter, though not so delicate. Between chasing squirrels, and when he’s not doing the Ceremonial Dance of Dinnertime, his sleeping habits are most greyhound-like, in that he is always sleeping, as if to stockpile the immense muscular fire he would need to hunt for his livelihood, supposing that day were to come. It hasn’t yet, but he will be prepared.
From the faceward edges of his ears forward, amounting to a couple of inches, or approximately 10% of his length, he might be a Chihuahua. The other 90% is all liquid grace, from the ears that flop out sideways (unless they’re flattened back to his skull in what I call “Greyhound mode,” preparation to sprint), to the tail that he sometimes humbly sits on, when he would very much like a piece of whatever I’m eating, thank you. But that face, earnestly fixed on mine with solicitous hope and desire — it’s the slightly bug-eyed, short-snouted, and to top it off, crooked-toothed, face of maybe a Chihuahua mashed up with a Pekingese, but with short hair.
A former colleague of mine, upon seeing him with me for the first time, exclaimed, “what an ugly dog!” in a tone of something like amused revelation.
Most people, whether they mean it or not, go with the more standard, “awwww, what a cutie!” She said it, and then almost looked as though she’d surprised herself with her Emperor’s-New-Clothes-style candor, but it wasn’t the first time I’d met one of her filterless observations. It didn’t throw me for more than a half-beat. In fact, as the frankness of children or the professionally guileless can do at the best of times, her exclamation let me see the dog’s strangeness in a way I hadn’t before.
What did he look like? I hardly knew.
When I’d spotted him at a Humane Society booth set up near the entrance of an outdoor art fair, even from the first, all I’d seen was a gentle-seeming half-grown puppy who fixed his entire attention on me the moment I hooked a leash to take him for a test-walk. He was small and young and abandoned, his mother and siblings having been adopted months before. Something about him had made him the odd pup out, the one still being carted from adoption fair to pet store in hopes he’d win the rescue-lottery. To this day, he rates a ride in the car far worse than watching his people drive away without him. He regards the latter with injury in his eyes or his back turned to the window, but the former begins with drooling and nausea, and if it goes on too long, induces vomiting. On that first trip home with me, he huddled on my lap while my boyfriend drove. Near the end of the trip, he upchucked all over my feet. I couldn’t hold it against him.
Nor could I recoil from that face — I guess I’d have to say that in its lack of graceful proportion and failure to achieve noble lines, it’s endearing.
He’s the poster-pup of the Mutt archetype, a pooch of the people, a hardscrabble hound. I was always a sucker for underdogs. Losers of all stripes reduce me to verklempt sympathy and grandiose visions of heroic problem-solving. This is how dogs get adopted on the spot, of course. Perhaps I registered his bottom-toothed grin, his too-short-but-too-long muzzle, and his anxious, buggy eyes and went straight past the humor of them to their pathos. Mutt of circumstance, too funny-looking to win some little kid’s heart. Too small, too wiry, too short-furred, not cuddly enough, not friendly enough — and that tooth jutting up from the corner of his jaw, always exposed. Is he growling? Hardly ever. But some people, unaccustomed to dogs or just to Rowlf, think he looks fierce. Really? I always think. He looks scared. Of you. Back off, I think. Be gentle with him.
Be gentle with him.
That’s what I come back to, encountering the crooked-jawed, mismatched, sad-eyed, stumpy, rumple-furred misfits of the world, meaning nearly all of us at some point or other. We all need days of glorious recognition now and then, when someone falls in love with the most irreconcilable patch or pocket of us, beyond explanation.
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