Autumn — Chapter 4

Read Autumn — Chapter 3

After a year, Dan and I were ready to go home. We were still homesick, and also the school I was going to was extremely expensive and not all the programs were as good as had been advertised when I applied. Dan had finally met the requirements for residency to obtain in-state tuition at the University of Tennessee, but we were both tired of the differences, and missed Oregon and our families. We wanted neighbors who would not look at us as if we were aliens. We longed for our friends.

Though we had not told our families, the two of us had gone to a justice of the peace in December and gotten married. The main reason we did this was because Dan could not qualify for financial aid based on his parent’s income and assets, yet they could not afford to pay for his university studies. After the marriage, we announced to the family that we were engaged and that we would be getting married the following summer. No one seemed surprised. Only Dan’s grandma seemed pensive at the scheme, believing we were still too young for marriage. We ignored her portentous concern, especially since the deed had already been done.

When Dan’s parents called to tell us they would allow us to live in their basement apartment for no rent if we stayed in Oregon after the wedding, we did not even think about it, agreeing immediately. I would attend the University of Oregon in Eugene, Dan would go to Oregon State in Corvallis, and we would live in Albany with his parents.

In retrospect, the decision to live with Dan’s parents probably sealed the fate of our marriage, but at the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. Living with Dan’s parents would not matter to financial aid since we were married, and paying no rent would allow us to go to school without having to work full-time. Considering I had worked full-time for my first two years of college, this part was especially appealing.

Once school let out for the summer, we set about selling all the furniture we had acquired during our year on the east coast, and boxing and shipping our belongings back to Oregon. This part was easy. Our biggest concern about the move was the drive back home in a car without air conditioning. We were leaving in late June, driving across the bottom half of the United States, and it was going to be hot. We also wanted to bring as much with us as we could manage to save on shipping costs.

Once we figured out how we were going to pack the car, the only room left for Autumn was at our feet in the passenger’s seat. This wasn’t going to be fun for either the passenger or the dog, but we were so happy to be heading home, we did not care. When we were ready to go, we got up at dawn and drove away, stopping only for breakfast since all our cookware was gone.

We drove straight for 25 hours into Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dan drove all of it.  He was so eager to get home he flew, breaking speed laws in five states. By the time we hit New Mexico, we were all exhausted and the heat was overwhelming. We arrived at noon and decided our best plan for the remainder of the trip was to sleep during the day and drive at night. We crossed Arizona in the dark, then drove north through Nevada during the early part of the day. The temperatures were staggering, near 120 degrees Fahrenheit, yet we had no complaints, gratified that the warmth was dry heat. After the dripping east coast humidity, we were fine with arid wind blowing in our faces.

Autumn managed the trip well. She was used to riding in the car, and since it was so warm, content to curl like a caterpillar, nose to tail on the floorboards. I was the passenger for most of the trip, propping my legs on the dash or in the edge of the yawning window.

When we finally arrived back in Oregon, we were exhausted, but happy. After the tawny deserts, Oregon was lush and verdant in early June. Driving north on I-5, the mountains were corpulent and green. Trite but true, there is no place like home.

Dan’s parents lived in a stucco, Pepto Bismol pink bungalow. Squat and square, from the outside the house didn’t look very big, but was actually quite spacious. They had renovated part of the basement and rented it out to some of Dan’s friends. This space was to be our new home. We would have our own entrance at the back if we chose to use it, or we could go through the house. We would share the upstairs kitchen.

Dan’s parents had a dog of their own, a black and white Border Collie named Murphee. To call Murphee neurotic would be an understatement. Typical of her breed, she wanted to herd all the time. She would skulk around, head parallel to the ground, a tennis ball gripped in her jaws. If she saw a human, she would drop the ball, then stop and stare intensely at it, her brown eyes occasionally flicking up to see whether the human was going to make a move to take the ball and throw it.

Autumn had not turned out to be the enormous beast we all predicted based on Maude and her paws. At just under a year old, she was only about twenty-five pounds. By the time she was six months old, it was clear to us that she was Cody’s daughter and not Jasper’s. Having spent many hours in the presence of the two potential fathers, we had witnessed Cody’s mannerisms in Autumn since she was quite small. Her trot especially was identical to his, their gaits like a Standardbred, front legs straight out in front as they moved. Cody was a very small Border Collie. I found it amazing he had managed to impregnate Maude, but such are the miracles of the animal kingdom.

Murphee, two years older than Autumn, was not much bigger, although she was much more filled out and thicker. Autumn was as tall as she would ever be, but still looked like a lanky dog teenager, with long narrow legs and a slim body. The two were destined to be nearly the same size, although Murphee was always heftier. Autumn’s fur was much softer than Murphee’s. Murphee’s hair was wiry and course. I often called Autumn “bunny ears” because of the blissful softness of the fur on her ears. All her life, rubbing those ears would bring me comfort.

We settled into the basement apartment. The space was open like a loft, only it was mostly underground. There were windows at the tops of the walls on both the east and west sides of the house, so we always had outdoor light. We set up the space like rooms, our bedroom at one end, an office in the middle, and the living room at the other end.

During Autumn’s entire life we had kept pet rats. She was used to them and was careful around them, having been bitten in the nose by our rat Shasta when she was only three months old. Sometimes if we were lounging on the bed or couch and holding a rat, Autumn would want to play with it or sniff it, but mostly she just left them alone.

Murphee, however, was entranced with our rats to the point of obsession. She would stare at the rats like they were tennis balls or sheep. If they were out when she was nearby, she would nose them roughly. I was certain that given chance, she would have eaten one of the rats. Because of this, we left the door to our apartment and the rest of the basement closed. Dan’s parents also used the other portion of the basement for laundry, and I wanted to maintain some semblance of privacy.

We kept the rats in a cage on top of a dresser in the “office” portion of our apartment. The dresser was one I had purchased used as an 11-year-old and refinished. One afternoon, I returned from my day at school to discover that Murphee, in her efforts to get to the rats, had scratched deep gouges all along the top of the dresser.

I was furious. Murphee was not supposed to be in our apartment, and she sure as hell wasn’t supposed to ruin my dresser.

After this, whenever Murphee would come down to whine at the door because she wanted to get to our rats, I would say, “Murphee, get out of here!” in a sharp voice. She would whine and claw until I either chased her away or took her back upstairs.

“Murphee, leave!” I would shout.

Over time, Autumn learned that “Murphee, leave!” meant that I did not want Murphee downstairs. She would growl a warning at the door. Because her growl sounded so fierce, we started saying the phrase when Autumn was terrorizing one of her stuffed animals. “Get Murphee!” we would growl, “Murphee, go away!” Autumn would shake the stuffed thing to death, growling like a crazed fiend, spittle splattering everything in her mock fury.

Over the years, even long after we had moved away from Murphee and the basement, saying the words, “Murphee, go away!” would turn Autumn into a crazy frenzy. I taught her a hand signal to go with the words. I would hold my arm down to my side and shake my hand really hard up and down, saying the phrase. Autumn learned that when I did this, she was to act like a crazy dog. When I stopped, she would stop abruptly. My thinking was that if anyone ever grabbed me around the body and arms, I could still make the hand signal so Autumn would act nuts, hopefully scaring the attacker away.

A few years later, I called into a radio program where the hosts gave out prizes for doing silly pet tricks on the air. “Murphee,” I hissed. “Go away!” Autumn snarled and shook. I stopped the movement. Autumn went silent. I made the movement again and she turned into a raving lunatic. I stopped and so did she. We won a DVD for our efforts.

Sometimes Murphee’s neurotic herding had unintended consequences. Dan was close friends with the two guys, Steve and Brian, who had rented the apartment from his parents for two years before we moved into it. They were a typical group of guys who had known one another since childhood. They liked hanging out and drinking beers, playing sports, and telling each other dirty jokes.

For Steve’s birthday the summer after we moved into the apartment, we decided to get him a crass, pornographic toy in addition to his real gift. After searching the local triple X store, we settled on a plastic labia. It barely resembled its intended design. The thing was baby mouse pink, with brown painted on the plastic to look like hair. There were also several nylon hairs that had been added for effect and a tube of plastic in the middle. It was hard to believe whoever designed the thing ever intended it to be anything except a joke.

We wrapped the toy in wrapping paper and gave it to Steve at his party, which was being held at our house. Dan’s parents had a fine backyard for entertaining, and we often invited Steve and Brian over for events like this one.

Steve opened the gag gift and reacted as we expected he would, with laughter and revulsion. The thing was perfectly hideous. The guys began tossing it back and forth between themselves. Murphee, as was the case anytime anything was thrown that she might catch, started tracking the thing in her Border Collie way, head low, one foot slightly in front of the other, never once taking her eyes from her prey.

Laughing hysterically, we threw it for her to fetch. She ran it down, retrieved it, then dropped it at Steve’s feet, staring at it rapturously. Over and over, we played this game, laughing until our sides hurt and tears ran down our faces.

In the house, we heard Dan’s parents come home. Murphee picked up the thing and ran into the house. We waited to see what would happen. A couple of minutes later, Dan’s mom and dad walked onto the back porch.

“We walked into the house,” Dan’s mom informed us, “And Murphee brought us this wonderful gift.”

She held the thing up for us all to see. “Can anyone explain why our dog is carrying around a plastic vagina?”

Read Autumn — Chapter 5

Autumn — Chapter 3

Read Autumn — Chapter 2

Our lives were extremely busy.  Dan had his job and was waiting to attend school until he had lived in the state for a year so he could pay in-state tuition at the University of Tennessee in Johnson City.  Dan worked the day shift, which began at 6 a.m.  His workplace was about 45 minutes from our apartment.  He car pooled for most of that distance, but we had to drive to meet his car pool at a location twenty minutes from where we lived.  We owned only one car, so Dan’s work hours meant that I had to get up and drive him to meet his ride.

Every morning in the pre-dawn, before it was even light, Dan would rouse me from bed when he had to leave. Without changing out of my pajamas, I would pick up Autumn and carry her to the car where I would fall immediately asleep. Once we arrived at the vacant, eerie parking lot in the middle of nowhere – and it really was in the middle of nowhere, a parking lot plopped in the middle of some farmer’s field – Dan would kiss us goodbye and leave us to get into the car of one of his coworkers.

I would clamber into the driver’s seat, Autumn on my lap, her head across my arm as I held the stick shift. When we returned home, I would climb into bed and Autumn would nestle under my arm, burrowing under the warm covers. It was the only time she wanted to sleep in the bed, preferring the floor under the couch for the main part of her sleep.  Autumn began what became a lifelong habit when she snuggled together with me in the bed. She would lie with her head across my neck.  Her fur was so soft, it was like wearing a warm fur stole. Two hours after returning from dropping Dan at his ride, I would rise for classes and Autumn would stay in bed until we were ready to leave.

I loved life at this time.  I was so naive and confident.  I thought I had everything all figured out.  I spent my twenties believing I knew it all; that I was invincible.  Oh, I knew there were facts of which I was not aware, other countries and places to discover.  But I thought I was pretty on top of things when it came to fearlessness, strength, and inner knowledge.  How little I knew, how much pain I had to experience to figure out just how clueless I really was, but that was years away.

In spite of my sophomoric confidence, I did know that I would love my child when I had one, but this did not stop me from loving Autumn with every bit as much devotion.  Watching her and experiencing her was pure glee.  My heart would fill up, and I would feel my chest tighten loving her.  When I had my human child, I truly experienced parental selflessness when, days after her birth, I realized my ego had to go and she had to become my center.  Until I had Milla though, Autumn was my child. Everything she did brought me delight.  I adored her.

Every couple of days Autumn would go out to run and play in the creek down the hill, regardless of the weather.  This meant that she was often muddy or wet when she came into the house. If only her paws were wet, she would stand at the door and wait while we wiped her feet.

“Towel,” I would say to her, picking it up when she arrived at the door, begging to be let in.  She would stand and lift each paw until all four were dried and wiped of mud.

If she was a real mess, I would carry her in the towel to the bathroom for a bath. Autumn loved baths, and would jump in, waiting for the warm water.  Sometimes she even snuck past the shower curtain and jumped in while we were showering.

When she was done with her bath, she would shake off in the tub with the curtain closed, then jump out onto the mat to wait for her toweling off.  As I rubbed her fur all over, scrubbing her face and behind her ears, she would wiggle, hopping her back end up and down and side to side, shoving her butt into the towel for a good scratching.  After she dried, the hairs on her rear became fluffy, white pantaloons.

I had been taking French and Political Science from a wonderful professor from Rome named Dr. Riviello.  He had a lilting and appealing accent, and taught with brilliant clarity and depth.

Dr. Riviello loved Autumn.  He too had a dog he considered his child, a Dachshund named Baci.  The two of us would talk endlessly about our wonderful dogs.  He was the only professor who allowed Autumn free roam of his classroom.  She would lie quietly under my desk as I worked.  Together we commiserated over our love for our dogs.

During first semester, Dr. Riviello invited me to apply to an honor’s program in political science. There would be an intensive history course studying the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, beginning with Hitler’s birth. The course would culminate with a study during May term in spring at the University of Munich. We would attend seminars in english three times a week with leaders in various aspects of political science. Our lectures would be in the late afternoon, allowing us to explore the city and surrounding areas during the day. We were also to take day trips into various places such as Berchtesgaden in the Alps, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a Bavarian village where Christmas is experienced all year round.

I applied to the program and was accepted. I was exhilarated at the thought of returning to Germany. I had lived in Hamburg for a short time in 1990. This time I would be staying in Munich. While I was excited to be going, I did not want to leave my little dog. I knew she would not understand. The two of us spent every waking minute together. When she wasn’t with me, she was with Dan. While I was in Europe, Autumn would have to stay alone while he worked. My stomach turned at the thought of her anxiety and fear at being left alone for long periods for the first time in her life.

To help acclimate Autumn to the change that would be coming, I started leaving her at home periodically. At first, she was a wreck. She chewed up several of my shoes and stuffed animals. I scolded her, but the scolds were half-hearted.

After several weeks, Autumn seemed to adjust to staying by herself. Our neighbors never complained about barking or whining, so we assumed she was okay.

In the days leading up to my departure, I left piles of clothing and traveling items around, organized according to my own system. Autumn would root through the clothes, then roll on them. I would chase her off, scolding. Moments later, she would be back in another pile, knocking it aside and mashing the carefully folded clothes.

Like a mother leaving her children, I filled my wallet with photos of Autumn before departure. I wanted to bring her image to mind at a moment’s notice. I also thought that at eight months of age, she would likely change dramatically in the time that I was gone. I was right about that. When I left she still looked like a puppy. When I arrived home she looked like a lanky pre-teen dog.

The day finally arrived for me to leave to go to Germany. We took Autumn to the airport with us. I held her the entire way, trying not to cry. I was excited to be going, but I was going to miss my baby. At the airport I kissed her goodbye and flew across the ocean.

Upon landing, I immediately called to check in and to let Dan know we had arrived safely. He told me Autumn had been sniffing all over the apartment, and that he was sure she was looking for me. She only finally settled down when he went to bed.

I asked him to put the phone to Autumn’s ear so I could say hello to her.

“Hello, Autumn,” I spoke into the phone. “Brown, Brown? How are you puppy? Are you okay? Mommy loves you.”

Dan came back on the phone. He said Autumn had cocked her head to the side, looked quizzically at the phone, then jumped down and started sniffing at the back door. Apparently the sound of my voice was confusing to her, so we decided that I would not talk to her like that again.

Professor Riviello also missed his dog Baci. I took Autumn’s photo everywhere I went and showed it to anyone who would look. My professor would show his as well, and the conversation among many of the other students would turn again and again to our perceived bizarre behavior. Some of the students on the trip had never been outside of the small town where the college was located. It seemed to me that they had a pretty narrow perception of acceptable behavior. They certainly considered our dog nostalgia as completely eccentric. They just did not understand. We both thought leaving our dogs was worse than leaving our partners; yet our partners could speak to us on the phone and knew where we were. Our dogs did not.

The weeks passed quickly. The lectures were fascinating, and I was having an amazing time. Too soon, however, the term was over and we were headed back home. Dan knew when I would be arriving. I told him to be sure and bring Autumn.

“Of course,” he said. “You know I wouldn’t leave her home for this!” I knew it, but I just missed my dog so much, I did not want to wait one second longer than necessary to see her.

Even though these were the days before major airport security when loved ones could meet their travelers at the gate, Dan had to wait outside because of Autumn. I raced through the airport, through customs and baggage before heading out into the warm spring afternoon.

Dan was parked at the curb, waiting with a lanky puppy on a leash. She had grown since I had seen her last. She looked like a teenage dog, and less like a little puppy.

I kneeled and called out, “Autumn!” She turned and looked at me, then squatted on the sidewalk and urinated. Oh, my little baby. We knew in that moment that my leaving had most definitely had had an impact on her. She must have thought I would never return, yet here I was.

She ran to me and jumped on my lap as I knelt next to her. She licked my face and arms and chest, her entire body writhing with her tail. Her mommy was home!

Read Autumn — Chapter 4

In Another Galaxy

I am not a giant of the legal community. I’m probably not even an ant. My first reaction upon seeing a headline about some giants of the legal community is that I am not one. I thought of many quips to describe how un-giantlike I am. Then later, I reread the headline, and actually felt a bit of vexation. Why is it that we as people create these categories and rank people? And further, why is it that in order to become a giant of the legal community, one must work for a big firm that serves everything but the interests of most people? Our culture is so backward, rewarding wealth and considering those who acquire it great. I’m sure these giants worked hard; it’s not possible for them to have worked little for the firms who employ them, but to what end? Actually since they are both partners, in a manner of speaking, they employ themselves, but it’s a pyramid scheme with the associates at the bottom feeding the partners. Considering this, it is they who are more ants than I am. This isn’t sour grapes; it’s reality. They slave to feed the queens. During my first year of law school when I figured out how the whole lawyer scheme worked, I felt a desire to work at a big firm for about ten seconds, then my natural desire to help humankind kicked in and obliterated any such desire. All of them wear their clients like badges of honor, and perhaps for some, these badges really are something to be proud of, but I just saw them as bloodsucking corporate parasites using these lawyers to further their own powerful aims. Gag. Be a big firm lawyer and learn how to fuck over the common people. No, thank you. Okay, this just ended up being a judgmental rant. That wasn’t where I was going. One of my best friends works for a big firm, one of the biggest. She’s a decent person. She, however, is also not a giant. In fact she’s planning to go to “part-time,” which in big firm parlance is synonymous with a 40 hour work week. No, thank you. Come to think of it, I am not diminutive in relation to the giants of the legal profession. They would say that’s because I’m not even a speck on their radar. I’m less than speck; I’m a quark. I’m the space between molecules, an intermolecular space. Ha! Yet thinking about it, I realized that to fit this description, I would have to care and I don’t, not one whit. I’m in another galaxy where giants are not the people who make the most money. So I’m just me — not a giant and not a quark and not even anything in between.

If It’s Not Okay, It’s Not the End

I have determined again what I already knew, that I am a hopeless romantic. Not romantic in the sense of rebellion against the industrial revolution and age of enlightenment, but romantic as in loving happy endings, but that isn’t exactly right either. It isn’t the happy ending I love so much as the happy possibility. Maybe romantic isn’t the best word; perhaps idealist. Yes, I’m an idealist (but I already knew that. I take those Myers Briggs personality tests and always end up the idealist (you are 1% of the population–lucky me!)). In any case, yesterday I saw Silver Linings Playbook and loved it. Just loved it. I left the theater feeling all warm and fuzzy. Then when gushing about it to a friend I realized it was similar to Crazy, Stupid Love, another film I absolutely adore, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Sliding Doors. I LOVE these movies. Love them. I can watch them over and over and over. I’m lying here thinking about them this morning because I was unable to sleep past 6:30 even if I didn’t fall asleep until nearly 1 a.m. because my daughter was wiggling because of the extremely late nap she took after a belated Thanksgiving dinner with Daddy and his family that ended with the nap beginning at 6. I thought she was down for the night, it was that late when she finally went down. I’m going to pay for this lack of sleep. Give me a few hours and I’ll be nodding off in my soup.

Alas, I digress. I’m lying here this morning in my sleepless state thinking about these movies and I realized yet again that yes, I’m a romantic/idealist. There is no getting around it. I like possibilities. These films are all like one another, and they are not typical romantic comedies. They are bittersweet. They are dark. . .then light. I leave them feeling like it’s possible the couples will last beyond the first blush of new love, that perhaps they will not be hating one another in four or five years, that perhaps because they see who their partner is and not who they want them to be, their loves might last. Yes, I’m an idealist. It will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

I do not always adore or believe romantic comedies. Some of them make me absolutely cringe. They can be so formulaic or so far from believable, I squirm. I hate the ones where the couples fight the whole time because they are completely different people and will not accept one another’s flaws, but they have incredible sexual tension and therefore end up together at the end because Hey! they can get it on. Incredible sexual tension is just that, incredible sexual tension. It is meaningless in the scheme of things. What happens when they no longer want to screw one another blind? Then they just hate each other. Boring. What was that film with Jennifer Aniston and the hot Irish guy who is a bounty hunter? Oh, right. Bounty Hunter. I didn’t buy it for a second.  They’ll be miserable in 8 months.

Worse are the movies where the man is a shit to women his whole life but this woman saves him. Suddenly he becomes mature and honest after being shitty. He discovers that she is so golden and perfect, he must give up his evil ways, and of course, she takes him back, or he gets her, or whatever. It’s a miracle! Yuck. Or one of the couple has trouble with commitment, but the other gets them and so they certainly must end up together. All is well. Commitment issues — poof! Gone! No Strings Attached or Definitely Maybe. I don’t buy it.

Yet in spite of these bad ones I don’t believe, there are some I do, some that make me want to believe in the happy possibility. Most romantic comedies I like well enough. It’s a go-to genre I can watch if I have a couple of hours to spare, but a lot of them I forget as soon as the credits roll. Yet there are a handful I truly love. I think Silver Linings Playbook might be one of them. I can tell a film is a real favorite if I enjoy watching it multiple times. I won’t know if this is a keeper until I have seen it again and still want to see it again. I’m hopeful about this possibility, that since I want to see it again now, I’ll want to see it again after seeing it again. I can add it to the list of movies I really love. I remain the hopeless idealist, wanting the happy ending.

Autumn — Chapter 2

Read Autumn — Chapter 1

Autumn ran. She would start at one end of the field near our apartment and run to the other end of the field, turn around, and run back. Down to the creek! Through the water! Under the fence! Across the field! Back through the fence! It was like she was a study in the personification of prepositional phrases.

I could stand and watch her run like that for over an hour. I checked out a video camera from my college and videotaped her running. We made copies and sent them home to our families.

“Did you like the movies?” I would ask, hopeful. “Isn’t Autumn adorable?”

“Well,” came the invariable response, “It would be nice if there was more of you two in them and less of the dog.” But why would they want that? She was our baby.

Every day I would let Autumn out to play in the fields behind our house. She would go and play in the creek or chase cows. The cows didn’t really run. They would stand in a herd, heads down, looking at the dog playing in their midst, snorting and weaving their lumbering heads back and forth.

After she had played a while I would call out, “Brown Brown!” the nickname I pulled from nowhere and a term of endearment I used for her the rest of her life. I could lean out over the deck railing and see her in the field below.

“Brown Brown!” I would call. “Autumn!” Autumn would stop whatever she was doing and race up the hill, around the apartment building, up the stairs, and across the deck to me, tongue lolling and panting in happiness.

Life with our puppy was like most people’s lives with puppies. Autumn had a penchant for chewing, particularly our favorite shoes. Probably because we wore them more frequently and they smelled more like us, she gravitated to the shoes we wore most often. Several shoes were destroyed in the cause of raising our puppy to a dog.

We owned one of those fake-wood finish particle board entertainment centers. It lived in the living room and housed our television, VCR, movies, photos, books, and some small knick-knacks. One of the items on the shelf was a small, fuzzy bear with a shiny, green ribbon around its neck that I had purchased in a gift shop somewhere along our drive from Oregon. It sat on the bottom shelf under the television in front of a row of books.

Autumn loved it. She wanted this bear more than any other forbidden item in our home. I would come into the room and discover Autumn, a brown lump between her jaws.

“Autumn!” I would bark, making my voice deep as our dog training book recommended for scolding. “Drop that!”

Autumn would slink down, dropping the bear onto the carpet. She would look to the left and right, avoiding my fierce gaze.

This went on for several weeks. One afternoon, I was lying on the carpet with Autumn, holding her on my belly and snuggling her. I looked over at the bear. Autumn loved sucking on that bear, and I loved her so much, I decided she could have it. I reached out and removed the bear from the shelf, placing it on the ground in front of her nose.

“Here, baby,” I said while setting the bear down. “You can have it.”

At first, Autumn just looked at me. She had been told over and over that the bear was not hers, yet here I was offering it up. Finally, after some coaxing, she took the bear and started sucking on it. As was her usual m.o., after she sucked on it long enough to loosen the fabric, she tore a hole in it and ripped out its guts, leaving puffles of stuffing all over the apartment. Such was the fate of stuffed animals in our household.

For the holidays, we made an appointment and took Autumn in to JC Penney for a family photo. Dan and I dressed in our Christmas clothes and looked like complete dorks. Autumn looked flashy in her Christmas ribbon and bell. The photo I have from that day is of her in a Christmas box, the two of us grinning behind her as if we’d just opened a gift to find a lanky puppy inside. Her tongue is lolling and her eyes are shining. She looks so pleased to be alive.

Autumn traveled with me wherever I went. When classes began in the fall, I took her to school with me. Some professors did not mind the puppy who laid at my feet during lectures. There was a main campus with a central courtyard, and across the street from the main campus there was a long row of buildings that housed the English and Political Science departments, the rooms I frequented most. Generally, the professors in the buildings away from the central campus were the most willing to allow a dog to attend classes.

One afternoon when it was still hot, I left Autumn in the car with the windows rolled halfway down. I had a meeting with a professor in the political science department. Five minutes into my meeting, I heard shouting in the hall and a woof. Uh oh!

I ran into the hall to see a couple of women chasing Autumn down the hall away from me.

“Autumn!” I called to her. She skidded to a stop and turned towards my voice, then she gamboled towards me, her paws slipping on the linoleum. The two students almost ran into her and each other.

“Your dog crawled through the window,” said one of the women.

“It’s not safe,” the other scolded. “You should have left her tied up at home.” Was she nuts? I would never leave my dog “tied up at home.”

“She came in to find me,” I explained. “Next time I will bring her with me or close the windows further.” I was rather surprised that Autumn had escaped. The windows were only open about five inches, but apparently that was enough for my little dog to wriggle through.

“You better,” said the woman. “She could get killed on the highway.” I blanched at the thought and cuddled Autumn close to my chest. I would do anything to protect my puppy.

Not long after that, I was walking Autumn with me on her leash. I had been reading the Barbara Woodhouse book No Bad Dogs and working with chain training Autumn. She was a quick learner and had taken to leash training easily. She seemed to enjoy walking beside me, and would look up at me every few steps as we sauntered along.

By this time, Dan and I were both experiencing fairly extreme culture shock, as well as homesickness. We had been in Bristol about four months, and were constantly amazed how different it was from our home state.  I think part of the problem was our assumption that because the town was in the United States, it would be pretty much the same as where we had grown up, in Oregon.  This presumption was an error on our part.  I had lived in other countries, but moving to those places, I had expected radical differences.  Dan and I had not considered that living in our new town would be almost like moving to another country entirely.  The food, the politics, the religion, the dialect, and more were all quite unlike what we were used to.  It was a completely different culture.

One of our biggest adjustments to Bristol was the cigarette smoking. Tobacco was still a thriving cash crop in Virginia and Tennessee. Smoking was allowed in grocery stores. The non-smoking section in restaurants often comprised only three or four tables, usually in a place with no ventilation, making the fact of the section being non-smoking something of a joke.

There was also a major difference in how local people treated their animals. Sure, there were people in the part of Oregon we were from who tied their dogs out, but it was the exception rather than the rule. In Bristol and the towns near it, we saw dogs tied outside homes everywhere. During that winter, there was a cold spell where temperatures dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and all of the local newscasters urged people to bring their animals in for a couple of nights because of the cold.  It simply was not the norm to do so.  In our apartment complex, the other tenants were shocked and surprised that we kept Autumn in the house with us, and told us as much. We also had a pet rat, which was nearly unheard of.

Another major difference between Bristol, and indeed the whole east coast it seemed, was the rain. In Oregon, we would get occasional downpours, but for the most part, it drizzled most of the year. In contrast, the rain on the east coast would arrive suddenly and fill every available space with running, rushing, swirling water. The drainage systems were different as well, with fewer ditches and runoffs for the water. The result was that when it rained, there would often be small floods. The creek down the hill from our apartment was especially inclined to overflow its banks during these rainstorms.

Across the parking lot from our apartment, there were three mobile homes that the owner of the property also rented out. One of them kept a doghouse about twenty feet from his door, down the hill in the field towards the creek. There were two dogs tied to the doghouse – a frighteningly skinny hound and one of her older puppies. She had given birth in the summer when we first moved in. Gradually all the other puppies had been sold off or given away. The landlord had told us the dogs were supposedly some fancy hunting breed, but you could not tell by looking at them, at least if their care was any indication. They were both sacks of bones and covered in fleas and dirt. The soil in the area was a reddish clay that turned almost sandy when it was dry. Flecks of it filled their fur, giving them both a reddish tinge.

One night in late fall, it began raining like crazy. Huge, splattery drops came down by the bucketful, drenching everything within seconds. We could see the dogs standing in the rapidly rising water. The puppy especially was having a tough time because the water rose nearly to his neck.

Dan and I ran through the dark, first to the apartments, then from one mobile home to another asking who owned the dogs. Everyone said they did not know, but thought they belonged to the mobile home closest to the animals. We banged on the flimsy door. No one answered. We could hear a television over the pounding rain and the lights were on, so we banged again, both of us soaked to the bone. Finally, a man came to the door, eyeing us suspiciously. He was wearing a tattered flannel shirt and dirty, baggy pants. His hair stuck up all over his head, his chin covered in sparse hairs. His cheek was filled with tobacco, with some brown spittle clinging to the hairs at the edge of his mouth.

“Are those your dogs?” I shouted over the deafening rain, pointing to the two sodden creatures down the hill.

“Yeah, so?” he sneered at me.

“That puppy, he’s going to drown,” I turned and pointed at the dog. “See? The water is already up to his neck. And it’s really cold.”

“That water ain’t agoin’ a hurt it,” the man snarled at me, slamming the door in my face. I looked at Dan.  Now what? The dog was tied to a leash only maybe three feet long. There was no way he could survive if the water rose even a couple of more inches.

Without even discussing it, Dan and I ran and untied the dogs. We could not see taking them into our house. The apartment was so small and the dogs so filthy and wet, they would probably have ruined the carpet, and we could not afford to be evicted. Instead we took them up the hill to a small shed that was built on stilts about three feet above the ground. We tied them to one of the stilts under the building.

I stayed with the dogs while Dan ran back to the house to get them some food. The puppy was shivering so hard, I was afraid he was going to have some kind of an attack or something. He was pure black, bone skinny and his fur covered in mud, but he had kind, brown eyes and looked up at me as if to thank me for getting him out of the mass of running water.

Dan returned with two heaping bowls of food. The dogs gulped the food down so fast, we were worried it would make them sick, but after the bowls were empty, they just wagged their tails and came towards us, cowering and wriggling, rolling over to show their bellies. We pet them and rubbed their ears, pleased the dogs were okay.

When we got back into the house, we called Jeannie and told her about the dogs. She lived with three other women, all of them dog lovers.

“We are going to come and get them,” she told us. “I don’t care if they arrest us. That man should be shot for animal abuse.”

“He probably won’t even notice they are gone,” I told her. “We never see him have anything to do with them. And the mom dog is so thin, you could put your fingers between her ribs.”

The next morning, the dogs were not there. Jeannie told me that she and her roommates had come and taken them both away. Sadly, the puppy later died. He had a case of canine leukemia and was too far gone to save. The mom dog, though, grew to be fat and happy. The girls had her spayed and found her a new home.

The man in the trailer never said a word to us. He did not ask if we knew what happened to the dogs, and didn’t get any other dogs while were living there.

Read Autumn — Chapter 3

Autumn — Chapter 1

July 19, 2005
As I write, Autumn is lying on the floor beside the desk in my office. She is dying. Her body is shutting down. We have an appointment with the vet this evening. I keep thinking it will be like the last few times I thought she was done, but she is so much more DONE now.

It reminds me of getting ready to give birth. I would feel the Braxton Hicks contractions, and they would hurt, but they were nothing like the real thing. Autumn has had some bad moments, moments that made me drive her down to Dr. Fletcher, only to have us sent home – thank God, a reprieve – but this is it, the real thing. Her life will be over; mine will start something different. I am looking forward to some of the differences, but I would take all the bad just to have her in my life, have her the way she’s been until recently.

She barks too much. She gets into trash and takes food she shouldn’t. But she’s also my shadow and my friend. She loves me with a devotion I do not deserve. All of her life, she has followed me wherever I go. She is my guardian angel. She will be gone too soon.

Chapter 1

Pigs danced in sequins and cowboy hats, corpulent tubes in clothing, their mistress equally as lovely, with cowgirl boots and a twang.  As our send off to college, we were watching pigs dancing.  Was this for real?

I wanted to go to school in the south.  Yes, there would be writing and riding, my two very favorite things, but the real allure was that the school was in the southern hemisphere.  What the hell was I thinking?

My boyfriend wasn’t coming for writing, riding, or the south. He was following me.  What the hell was he thinking?

As part of our goodbye, his parents planned a party and invited all of our closest friends and family. They insinuated that they had planned an incredible surprise.  Dan and I were certain it was air-conditioning for our car. We were crossing the country in July and the car had none. This seemed like the perfect gift to us.

We were wrong. As we sat in the cool midday sun watching the pigs crossing mini bridges wearing mini skirts and fringe, Dan and I eyed one another, despairing that we had not purchased the air conditioner ourselves.  The pigs had certainly been a surprise, just not what we expected.

The following day, the car loaded with everything that had not already been shipped, we waved goodbye to our family and prayed to one another that the drive would not roast us alive.  But really, we were not worried. We were excited about the upcoming journey, and I was all the more so because I knew, deep in my bones, that I would get a dog. I saw her sitting in the front seat of my car, going everywhere with me. I felt her presence there on the seat beside me. I had no doubt that she would exist. Driving across country, I brought it up several times that my top priority upon arrival would be finding a dog.

“Don’t you think we should think about jobs and things first?” Dan would ask.

“We can look for jobs with a dog, or we can look for both at the same time,” I replied, undeterred. “Plus I will have the work study job at the barn already, so I can look for a dog while you look for work.” Dan did not look convinced, but did not argue with me.

Once we reached Bristol, the town that lay on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, finding a dog remained my top priority. Dan had not yet experienced my enthusiasm. I think he really did not want to get a dog and thought having one would be a hassle.

I was adamant though, and I told anyone who would listen that I was going to get a dog. This proved to be a fruitful tactic. Jeannie, one of my new coworkers at the horse stable, had a roommate with a pregnant dog. She offered me one of the puppies when they were born. She warned me though, that the puppies were likely to be very large dogs, as Maude, the mother, was a beast.

“She is half mastiff,” she informed me, pushing the broom up the aisle. “Half lab, half mastiff, we think,” she added.

“I don’t care if it’s a big dog,” I told Jeannie, helping her to scoop the sweepings into a dust pan. Dan, at the stable with me to help out until he found gainful employment, only shook his head.

“We can at least look!” I exclaimed to him.

I told Jeanne that I wanted to investigate the so-called beast, but that I would likely take a puppy anyway.

The apartment we lived in was not large, by any stretch of the imagination. I marvel now, that we had managed to locate and rent an apartment across country in those pre-internet days. I had somehow figured out the name of the local paper and subscribed, then located the apartment through the classified ads. Over several telephone calls with the landlord, we rented it, sight unseen.

Considering how we procured the apartment, it really wasn’t as awful as it could have been, but it wasn’t that great either. It was out of town about five miles, lying nearly on the border of Virginia and Tennessee. We were on the Tennessee side of the line, but could actually throw gravel into Virginia, we were that close to the state border.

The owner and landlord had turned an old shop into eight apartments, four on each end of the building, two on top and two on the bottom. He did not have much imagination in using the space, and each apartment was designed like a single-wide mobile home. Our apartment was on the second floor. We climbed stairs to a wide deck we shared with our neighbors and entered through a sliding glass door that opened into the dining room and kitchen on the left, and living room on the right. A narrow hall ran the length of the apartment up the right side of the building, with a bathroom and bedroom opening to the left of the hallway. Our bedroom was at the end of the hall, its width that of the apartment. The walls were covered in mobile home wallboard, the fake wood kind with brown stripes. The place was carpeted in pure 1970s gold shag. I could not complain, however; there was a washer and dryer in the bathroom.

The landlord’s own actual mobile home sat up near the street. Our apartments and the parking lot next to them were in the field behind his trailer. Beyond our building were pastures full of cows and deciduous trees. A bubbling brook ran through the field next to the fence separating our field from the cow pasture. While the apartment was rather small, there was a lot of space outside, which reduced my concern about the size of whatever dog we obtained.

Dan continued to advise me to wait, and continued to insist that we should get a smaller dog. Through the phone and thousands of miles away, our parents counseled us against getting a puppy, and they certainly felt we should not get a big dog. They had heard us complain all too frequently of our diminutive and ratty apartment.

I ignored them. I cannot say what single-minded determination drove me on. I did not care if my new dog turned out to be an elephant. I wanted a dog and my new friend had puppies coming. It wasn’t rocket science.

I wonder now at my intensity. Was Autumn’s spirit out there, forcing me to make the choice? Did she want me to choose her after her birth? I don’t know. I had wanted a dog in Oregon, but for some reason, the move across country gave me the encouragement to make sure it happened.

We also were not one-hundred percent certain the dog in question would be huge, in spite of Maude’s size. There were two potential fathers in the litter. One was a German shepherd mix named Jasper. The other was a border collie named Cody. Both of these dogs were smaller than Maude. Genetics worked in both directions.

When I went to work at the barn the morning of August 16, 1993, Jeannie looked like the cat who swallowed a mouse. One look and I knew – the puppies were born. Dan still had not found a job and was helping me at the barn. We all worked impatiently to finish, then drove quickly to Jeannie’s house.

It was already hot when we pulled up the winding, dusty driveway late that morning. Jeannie’s house was also out from town, near the end of a gravel drive. A rambling, green, two story house with pointy gables, it was surrounded on three sides by a wide, wraparound porch.

On the porch, away from the front door, Maude was stretched on her side, twelve puppies in various states covered her body. Some were suckling. Some were sleeping. Some were crawling over the others. Some just lay there like lumps letting the others romp all over them. None had eyes. None had ears. Every dog color was represented. They were utterly adorable. I had no idea how I was going to choose.

What finally helped me choose was the moon. One wee puppy had a white, crescent on the back of her neck right behind her ears – a moon. It was about three inches long and a perfect arc. The rest of her body was a creamy golden brown. She had white tips on her paws and a funny, white hourglass on her chest, but the tiny moon stood out, a beacon ensuring I would choose her.

On our drive home after making our choice, I asked Dan, “What should we name her?”

“I have no idea. Mooney?” he answered.

I laughed. “Should we give her a human-type name like Edith, or a doggish name like Spot?”

“I don’t know. It depends on the name,” Dan said.

I thought for a minute. “She is such lovely autumn colors. Maybe we should call her Autumn,” I mused. “All that beige, with brown, and some white. She is colored like the end of summer, with the moon shining over all of it.”

“Maybe we could call her Summer?”

“Summer,” I said. Then, “Autumn.” Autumn seemed to flow from the tongue.

“I like Autumn,” Dan told me.

“Me too. I think that is what we should name her.”

Over the next few days, we made some other suggestions, but Autumn stuck. The name seemed to suit her. After we spent some time visiting her and calling her Autumn, no other name fit.

Two days after the puppies were born, Jeannie called to tell me her roommate’s father had cut off the puppies’ tails. We were both furious. These were mutt dogs, why cut off their tails? I went immediately to see and discovered that, thank heaven, Autumn’s tail had been spared. The guy had only cut the tails of half the puppies. One had bled to death as a result. What an idiot. Unfortunately, Jeannie’s dog was one of the dogs chosen for a docking. He now sported a stubby, black lump.

How different some things in my life would have been if Autumn’s tail had been cut. I would still have some Christmas tree ornaments she wagged off the tree, and several beverages whacked from low-lying tables would not have had to be cleaned up. But those mishaps were small compared to having a dog who showed her emotion so readily with her tail.

Over the next few weeks, Dan and I went to visit Autumn every day we could. We would sit with Jeannie and her roommates and watch television or movies in the evenings and hold Autumn in our laps.

At first, her eyes and ears were sealed shut. She held her four legs out stiffly, her claws splayed until we settled her next to the warmth of our bodies. She would fall asleep in our laps until we rose to leave.

A little over a week after she was born, we could see tiny slits in her eyelids, shiny brown eyes peaking through. Not long after that, it was obvious she could hear us. When we would make noises she would turn and look at us. The girls had moved Maude into their basement and off the porch to escape the ravaging humidity and heat, and to keep the puppies dry during the near daily rainstorms. Pretty soon the puppies were waddling around in the makeshift pen in the corner.

When Autumn was five weeks old, Jeannie called to tell me it was time to take her home. I had not been expecting to do so until she was eight weeks old. But apparently Maude, tired of feeding eleven babies, had stopped allowing them to nurse. They had been eating puppy food for over a week. They were rambunctious and growing, and the girls wanted them out of their house.

I was thrilled, and Dan had come around as well. All those visits to see our baby had warmed his heart, although I think the size of her paws had him nervous. She looked like her paws were going to be huge, which meant she would probably be large as well. We still weren’t sure if she was Jasper’s or Cody’s, although it was obvious from the puppies’ colors and various sizes that both fathers had impregnated Maude.

The two of us had gone shopping and bought Autumn a new, grey collar and matching leash, dog dishes, and toys. Like parents waiting to give birth, we were ready to bring our new baby home.

When we arrived to pick Autumn up from Jeannie’s house, she asked, “Are you sure you want Autumn? Because if you don’t, we have lots of puppies looking for new homes.”

I stared at her, incredulous. Why wouldn’t we want her? Was she kidding? We had gone and visited her nearly every day. I had held her for hours, even before she had ears that could hear or eyes that could see. “What makes you think we would want another dog?”

“My roommates want you to take another dog because Autumn is the friendliest of all the puppies. You know that she is the first to come running whenever anyone goes into the basement,” she informed me, smiling. “And she most loves cuddling and petting.”

It was true. Autumn loved people and had no reservations about visiting anyone who was nearby. I read later that the younger a dog is exposed to humans, the more socialized and happy the dog will later be. I believe that all that hugging, cuddling, and petting I did when Autumn was little made her the friendly, sweet puppy who came running ahead of the pack.

Jeannie knew there wasn’t a chance we would leave Autumn in favor of another puppy. She smiled as we gathered Autumn in our arms for the ride home.

Dan drove. I rode in the passenger seat, my little baby on my lap. She had on her huge collar. She put her paws on the edge of the door and looking out the window. I snuggled and cuddled her, thrilled she was finally with me.

First thing upon arriving home Autumn had her first bath. She was covered in fleas. The fleas were so dense it was like she had a second, dark, wiggling skin. I had to lather her up about three times to kill all of them. She also had a little pot belly, so I was sure she had worms. I had purchased dewormer ahead of time, knowing that with all those fleas, tapeworms were a guarantee.

We had planned that Autumn would stay in the bathroom for her first night. We were worried about potty on the rug. I bundled together some towels and blankets and made her a bed. I brought in a ticking alarm clock because I had read that the ticking reminds puppies of their mother’s heartbeats. We snuggled and kissed her, placed her on the floor, and closed the door.

She began immediately to howl and yelp. Loudly. We climbed into bed and waited for her to calm down.

She didn’t. The howls only grew in intensity.

Dan, finally employed, had to get up at four in the morning for his job. He was never going to get any sleep with this noise, plus I was worried about the neighbors.

“What are we going to do?” he moaned, trying to cover his head with a pillow.

I could not stand it. I could not let my baby be so sad. I clambered out of bed and went down the hall to let Autumn out of the bathroom.

“If you give in,” Dan informed me, “She will never learn.”

“If I don’t give in, neither of us will sleep,” I retorted. I snuggled Autumn a bit, then tried again to leave her and go to bed. I did not even make it down the hall to my bedroom before the bedlam began again.

I decided to erect some walls at either end of the hall and place newspapers all over the hall floor. I looked around for something that would work as a barrier and finally settled on cardboard boxes.

“What are you doing?” Dan hollered from the bedroom.

“I’m trying to make a place for her to sleep,” I informed him, cutting into the boxes and attempting to tape wide sections to the wallboard. The tape would not stick. Damn.

I then used push pins to attach the cardboard to the walls. This worked to keep the walls up. However, the pen I created did not make Autumn any happier. As soon as I placed her on the newspapers, she sat down and howled and yelled, louder this time.

I headed back into the bedroom to wait and see if she would quiet down. Amid the screeching, we heard some rustling coming from the hallway.

“What is she doing?” Dan asked me.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t want to go out there because she will see me and it will be worse.”

We waited. After a few minutes, there were some rustlings again, and then I heard Autumn immediately outside our bedroom door. I opened it to see our puppy, the cardboard walls felled behind her, waiting to be picked up.

In spite of the fact that I did not want poop or pee on the rug, this wasn’t working. I brought her into our room and into our bed.

Dan and I settled down into the covers with Autumn between us. She was so small, I was afraid she might fall and hurt herself. I turned off the light.

Within minutes, she started whining and then yelping.

“Seriously?” I asked her. “You don’t want to sleep with us either? What do you want?” Sighing heavily, I sat up, holding Autumn close. This seemed to be the only way to keep her from crying. After a time, I laid back down with her between us. She yowled for a few minutes, shuffling around in the darkness. I then heard her jump off the bed, but she wasn’t barking. The silence continued unabated and we fell asleep.

The following morning, I discovered her slumbering beneath our bed. There was a piddle on the rug. I ran Autumn to the patio and down the stairs. When she squatted again, I shouted, “Good dog!” Autumn regarded me as if I were a fool then sniffed the place she had peed.

We repeated a shortened version the next night. I tried the bathroom, but Autumn yowled before I even closed the door. I skipped the failed hall kennel and took her to our room. We started on the bed, and she barked until she jumped off and crawled underneath. It seemed that under the bed was where she wanted to be.

Over the next few days, whenever she slept, she went under the bed or under the couch in the living room. We had purchased some drops to place on newspapers that mimic the smell of urine so puppies will pee on them. This worked about two-thirds of the time. During the day especially, we could see that she was going to pee because she would sniff the floor and circle. We would either toss her on the newspapers or outside, whichever was closer. Sometimes she peed in response to our hollering when we saw her circling.

The floor in that apartment though, especially the hallway, was getting peed on. The carpet was smelly anyway, and the pee covered in various chemicals wasn’t an improvement. I finally broke down and bought a small carpet cleaner. It wasn’t much help, but it covered the chemical pee smell.

Autumn was so tiny. I have pictures of her standing on the edge of an upholstered chair, looking down at the floor that must have seemed so far away. I would put her in the laundry basket on the dryer when I was doing laundry. She would sit in a pile of clean clothes and watch me work. She was too small to jump out, and seem disinclined to do so anyway. Her paws were enormous in comparison to how little she was, so we were certain she was going to be a very large dog, but I didn’t care and neither did Dan; we were in complete love with her. She had won our hearts. Forever after she came to live with us, I described her as my first child, this little dog we plucked from a litter of twelve on the day she was born.

Read Autumn — Chapter 2