Excerpt

The Friend

Sigrid Nunez

February 9, 2018 
The following is from Sigrid Nunez's novel, The Friend. After a woman loses her friend and mentor to suicide, she agrees to take his dog—the widow, "Wife Three," never wanted to keep the rescue. Not really a dog person herself, the woman is slowly overcome by the dog's silent grief. Sigrid Nunez is a recipient of the Whiting Writers' Award and the Rome Prize in Literature. Her previous novels include Salvation City and A Feather on the Breath of God.

Mostly he ignores me. He might as well live here alone. He makes eye contact at times, but instantly looks away again. His large hazel eyes are strikingly human; they remind me of yours. I remember once, when I had to go out of town, I left my cat with a boyfriend. He was no cat lover, but later he told me how much he’d liked having her because, he said, I missed you, and having her was like having a part of you here.

Having your dog is like having a part of you here.

His expression doesn’t change. It’s the expression I imagine in the eyes of Greyfriars Bobby as he lay on his master’s grave. I have yet to see him wag his tail. (His tail isn’t docked, but his ears have been cropped—sadly unevenly, leaving one a little smaller than the other. He has also been neutered.)

He knows to stay off the bed.

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If he climbs on the furniture, said Wife Three, all you have to do is say Down.

Since he moved in with me, he has spent most of his time on the bed.

The first day, after sniffing around the apartment—but in a listless way, without any real interest or curiosity—he climbed onto the bed and collapsed in a heap.

Down died in my throat.

I waited until it was time to go to sleep. Earlier he had eaten his bowl of kibble and allowed himself to be walked, but again without seeming to care or even notice what was happening outside. Not even the sight of another dog could rouse him. (He, on the other hand, never fails to draw attention. It will take getting used to, this feeling of being a spectacle, the constant photo-snapping, the frequent interruption: How much does he weigh? How much does he eat? Have you tried riding him?)

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Who doesn’t know that the dog is the epitome of devotion? But it’s this devotion to humans, so instinctual that it’s given freely even to persons who are unworthy of it, that has made me prefer cats. Give me a pet that can get along without me.”

 

He walks with head lowered, like a beast of burden.

Back home, he went straight to the bedroom and threw himself on the bed.

The exhaustion of mourning was my thought. For I am convinced that he has figured it out. He is smarter than those other dogs. He knows that you are gone for good. He knows that he is never going back to the brownstone.

Sometimes he lies stretched full out, facing the wall. After a week I feel more like his jailer than his caretaker.

The first night, at the sound of his name, he lifted his block of a head, swiveled it over his shoulder, and eyed me sideways. When I approached the bed, my intention to displace him no doubt clear, he did the unthinkable: he growled.

People have expressed astonishment at the fact that I wasn’t afraid. Didn’t I think he might do more than growl next time.

No. I never thought that.

But I did think of a twist on the old joke Where does a five-hundred-pound gorilla sleep?

It wasn’t quite true what I’d told Wife Three, about never having had a dog. More than once I’ve shared a household with a person who owned a dog. In one case the dog was a mixed breed, half Great Dane, half German shepherd. So I was not entirely unfamiliar with dogs, with big dogs, or with this particular breed. I was aware, of course, of the passion the species has for our own, even if they don’t all take it as far as Hachiko and his kind. Who doesn’t know that the dog is the epitome of devotion? But it’s this devotion to humans, so instinctual that it’s given freely even to persons who are unworthy of it, that has made me prefer cats. Give me a pet that can get along without me.

It was entirely true what I’d told Wife Three about the size of my apartment: barely five hundred square feet. Two nearly equal-sized rooms, a kitchenette, a bathroom so narrow that Apollo enters and backs out of it like a stall. In the bedroom closet I keep an air mattress that I bought a few years ago when my sister came to visit.

When I wake it’s the middle of the night. The blinds are open, the moon is high, and by the ample streaming light I can make out his big bright eyes and juicy black plum of a nose. I lie still, on my back, in the pungent fog of his breath. What seems like a long time goes by. Every few seconds a drop from his tongue splashes my face. Finally he places one of his massive paws, the size of a man’s fist, in the center of my chest and lets it rest there: a heavy weight (think of a castle door knocker).

I don’t speak, I don’t move or reach out to pet him. He must be able to feel my heart. I have the appalling thought that he might decide to lay his whole weight on me, recalling a news item about a camel that killed its keeper by biting, kicking, and sitting on top of him, and how rescuers had to use a rope tied to a pickup to pull the beast off.

At last the paw lifts. Next, the nose, thrust in the crook of my neck. It tickles insanely, but I control myself. He snuffles all around my head and neck then along the entire outline of my body, sometimes nudging me hard, as though to get at something underneath me. At last, with a violent sneeze, he gets back on the bed, and we both go back to sleep.

It happens every night: for a few minutes I become an object of intense fascination. But during the day, he is in his own world and he mostly ignores me. What’s it all about? I am reminded of a cat I once had that would never let me cuddle her or hold her on my lap; but at night, as soon as I was asleep, she would perch on my hip and sleep there.

Also true: the prohibition against dogs in my building. I remember when I signed the lease I didn’t think anything of this. I was moving in with two cats; the last thing on my mind was getting a puppy. The landlord lives in Florida; I have never met him. The super lives in the building next door, which is owned by the same landlord. Hector is originally from Mexico. As it turned out, he was in Mexico, for his brother’s wedding, the day I brought Apollo home. On the very day he returned, he ran into us as we were going out for a walk. I rushed to explain: the owner had died suddenly, there was no one else but me to take his dog, who was staying only temporarily. An explanation that seemed to me far more plausible than that I’d do something to risk losing a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment that, for more than thirty years, even during times when I was living out of town—because of a teaching job, say—I’d taken great care to hold on to.

You cannot keep that animal here, Hector said. Not even temporary.

A friend had told me about the law: If a tenant keeps a dog in an apartment for a period of three months, during which time the landlord does not take action to evict the tenant, then the tenant may keep the dog and cannot be evicted for doing so. Which sounded dubious to me. But it is, in fact, the law regarding dogs in apartments in New York City.

Stipulation: The presence of the dog must be open and not hidden.

Needless to say, there was no possibility of keeping this dog hidden. I walk him several times a day. He has become a neighborhood wonder. So far no one who lives in the building has complained, though no few startled at first sight of him, some even timidly backing away, and after one woman refused to squeeze into the small elevator with us, I decided we should always take the stairs. (Galumphing down the five flights he is a comical sight, the only time he ever looks ungraceful.)

If he were a barker, surely complaints would be many. But he is remarkably—disturbingly—quiet. At first I worried about the howling that Wife Three had told me about, but I have yet to hear it. I wonder if this is because he made a connection between howling and being banished to the kennel. Which may be a stretch, but that he doesn’t howl anymore is one reason I believe he’s given up hope of ever seeing you again.

*

You cannot keep that animal here. (Always that animal; sometimes I wonder if he even knows it’s a dog.) I have to report.

*

I didn’t think Wife Three was lying when she told me Apollo was trained to stay off the bed. She had made the assumption that he would adapt to a complete change in his surroundings without himself changing. I was not at all surprised when this turned out to be wrong.

I knew a cat whose owner had to give it up when her son became allergic to cat scurf. The cat was passed from household to household (mine was one of them) while a permanent home was sought. It survived two or three moves all right, but one more move and it was no longer the same creature. It was a mess—a mess no one was willing to live with and so the original owner had it put down.

*

They don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.

*

One night I come home to find my desk chair on its side and most of what had been sitting on the desk scattered. He has chewed through a whole pile of papers. (I would honestly be able to tell my students, The dog ate your homework.) I’d gone out for drinks after class with another teacher, and we had lingered. I was gone about five hours, the longest I’d ever left him alone. The spongy guts of a couch pillow litter the floor. The fat paperback of the Knausgaard volume I’d left on the coffee table is in shreds.

*

All you have to do is connect with Great Dane groups online, people tell me, and you’ll find someone to take him. But if you get evicted you won’t find another apartment you can afford, not in this town. You might have trouble finding a place anywhere, with that roommate.

I keep having fantasies like episodes from Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. Apollo foils burglars during attempted break-in. Apollo braves flames to rescue trapped tenants. Apollo saves super’s little girl from would-be molester.

When you gonna get rid of that animal. He cannot stay here. I got to report.

Hector is not a bad person, but his patience is thin. And he doesn’t have to say it: he could lose his job.

*

The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation assures me that it can take quite some time for a New York landlord to evict a tenant. It’s not like you’ll be put out in the street overnight, he says.

*

There’s a certain kind of person who, having read this far, is anxiously wondering: Does something bad happen to the dog?

*

Googling reveals that Great Danes are known as the Apollo of dogs. I’m not sure if that’s why you chose the name or if it was a coincidence, but at some point you probably learned this fact, probably the same way I did. I would also learn, in time, that Apollo is not an uncommon choice as a name for a dog or other pet.

Other facts: The breed’s precise origins are not known. Its closest relation is thought to be the mastiff. And nothing Danish about it: Great Dane, it seems, was used by a misinformed eighteenth-century French naturalist named Buffon. In the English-speaking world the name stuck, while in Germany, the country with which the breed is most closely associated, it’s the Deutsche Dogge, or German mastiff.

Otto von Bismarck adored the Dogge; the Red Baron von Richthofen used to take his up in his two-seat plane. First bred for hunting wild boar, later as a guard dog. And yet, though of a size that can reach over two hundred pounds and over seven feet tall standing on hind legs, known not for ferocity or aggression but rather for sweetness, calm, and emotional vulnerability. (Another, more homey epithet is “the gentle giant.”)

The Apollo of all the dogs. After the one known as the most Greek of all the gods.

I like the name. But even if I hated it, I wouldn’t change it. Even though I know that when I say it and he responds—if he responds—it’s more likely to my voice and tone than to the word itself.

Sometimes I find myself wondering, absurdly, what his “real” name is. In fact, he might have had several names in his life. And what, after all, is in a dog’s name? If we never named a pet it would mean nothing to them, but for us it would leave a gap. She doesn’t have a name, someone says of an adopted stray, we just call her Kitty. A name, for all that.

I like that, well before T. S. Eliot expressed himself on the matter, Samuel Butler stated that the severest test of the imagination was naming a cat.

And your own LOL-inspiring thought: Wouldn’t it be easier if we just named all the cats Password?

I know people who strongly object to pet-naming. They are of the same ilk as those who dislike the very idea of calling an animal a pet. Owner they don’t much like, either; master makes them see red. What irks these people is the notion of dominion: the dominion over animals that humankind has claimed as a God-given right since Adam, and which, in their eyes, has always amounted to nothing less than enslavement.

When I said I preferred cats to dogs, I didn’t mean that I liked cats better. I like the two species about equally. But aside from being unsettled by canine devotion, I, like many other people, balk at the idea of dominating an animal. And there’s no getting around the fact that, even if you find calling dog owners slave masters ridiculous, dogs, like other domesticated animals, have been bred to be dominated by people, to be used by people, to do what people want.

But not cats.

Everyone knows the first thing Adam did with the animals that the Lord formed out of the freshly created earth—the first sign of his dominion over them—was to give each one a name. And until Adam assigned them their names, some say, the animals did not exist.

*

There is a story by Ursula K. Le Guin in which a woman, not named but unmistakably Adam’s partner Eve, undertakes to undo Adam’s deed: she persuades all the animals to part with the names they’ve been given. (The cats claim never to have accepted the names in the first place.) Once all have been unnamed, she can feel the difference: the downing of a wall, the closing of a distance that had existed between the animals and herself, a new sense of oneness and equality with them. Without names to separate them, no more telling hunter from hunted, eater from food. The inevitable next step is for Eve to give back to Adam the name he and his father gave her, to leave Adam and join all the others who, by accepting namelessness, have freed themselves from domination. For Eve alone, though, the act entails another renunciation, that of the language she shared with Adam. But then, one of her reasons for doing what she did in the first place, she says, was that talk was getting them nowhere.

*

He must have had obedience training early on, Wife Three said the vet said. Judging by his behavior, he’d been socialized both to people and other dogs. There were no signs of serious abuse. On the other hand, those ears: entrusted to some butcher who’d not only left them uneven but cropped each one too much. Those pointy little ears on his enormous head made him look less regal, and also meaner than he was, and were only one of several things that would have disqualified him from being a show dog.

Who could say how he’d come to be in the park, clean, well fed, without collar or tags? Such a dog would not have run away from its owner unless something highly unusual had happened, said the vet. Yet not only had no one claimed him, no one had reported ever even having seen him before. Meaning he might have come from somewhere farther away. Stolen? Perhaps. That there seemed to be no record of his existence hardly surprised the vet. There were plenty of dogs whose owners never bothered to apply for a license, or, in the case of purebreds, register with the AKC.

Maybe the owner had lost his job and could no longer afford the food and vet bills. Hard to believe that someone who’d had him all his life would end up throwing him out to fend for himself. But: it happens more often than you might think, said the vet. Or say he had indeed been stolen, and the owner, on learning he’d been found, had had second thoughts. Life was easier without him, let someone else take care of him now! Again, the vet had seen it before. (So had I: Years ago my sister and her husband bought a second home, in the country. The sellers, who were moving to Florida, had an ancient mutt. A part of the family since he was a pup, they introduced him. When my sister and her husband went to move in, they were met by the dog, left behind, alone in the empty house.)

Maybe Apollo’s owner had died, and it was whoever then came into possession of him who threw him out.

Most likely we’ll never know where he came from. But here’s what you said. The moment when you looked up and saw him, majestic against the summer sky—that moment was so thrilling and so uncanny that you could almost believe he’d been magicked there. Conjured by a witch, like one of the giant dogs in the Andersen tale.

__________________________________

From The Friend. Used with permission of Riverhead. Copyright © 2018 by Sigrid Nunez.




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