When Fergus sleeps he dreams of running. Jackie gazes down at him sacked out on the kitchen floor, his four canine legs cycling softly through the air, a pure, somnolent ode to roaming free. Poor Fergus never roams free. It's the leash for him, always; Jackie can take no chances. The dog's former owners told her that Fergus was untrustworthy, that he would make a break for it any chance he got. He'd run away a dozen times in the [End Page 9] four years they'd owned him. And who knows how many more times he thought of it?
His last escape was one for the record books. He'd been locked up in the garage and somehow managed to activate the electric door opener. Then he tore through the neighborhood for six hours. Jackie learned all this from Phil and Jenny Tarr, the couple who relinquished Fergus after four years of cohabitation and insufficient bonding—friends of friends of her estranged husband, Dean. Phil and Jenny live out in the suburbs of Long Island, so one Sunday Jackie borrowed a friend's car and drove from Brooklyn to Massapequa to fetch Fergus and bring him home.
Jackie is new to the world of pet ownership, but already she has found that it is freighted with metaphor. The vet calls her "Mom," as in "Fergus might be a little less nervous here if Mom comes in close and holds on to him." And of course Jackie complies and hugs Fergus around the middle while he gets shots in his haunch for rabies and kennel cough.
And there's Jackie's sister, Deirdre, who calls regularly from Vermont to rhapsodize about the "unconditional love" only a dog can provide. Although she has a husband and three teenaged children, she seems far more attached to her two cocker spaniels. During these conversations Jackie stares at Fergus and considers whether he's capable of love, unconditional or otherwise. She has her doubts.
Nevertheless, her decision to adopt him was made in an instant. A mass e-mail showed up in her inbox, the subject line announcing, "Fergus Needs a New Home." The note contained a brief explanation of the reasons, along with a picture of Fergus looking shaggy and slightly embarrassed. "Jenny and I are expecting, and we just don't think Fergus can handle it."
In the photo Fergus resembled a baby harp seal, with light-colored fur and worried black eyes. The injustice of his situation struck a chord within Jackie. She too has been underestimated and heedlessly cast aside, and she knows how it feels to be replaced with a newer model. She didn't plan on getting a dog, but then she never committed herself to not getting one, either.
Dean would be impressed. He accused her of being incapable of spontaneity. "The ficus in the dining room is less predictable than you are," he shouted at her the night of his party, a year ago, not long before he moved out. If she wanted to live that way for the next forty years, he said, she was welcome to, but he'd had enough. He had just celebrated his forty-fifth birthday and in its wake made an extravagant proposal: What if he and Jackie packed it all in to live on a boat and sail around the world—or at least up and down the eastern seaboard—for a year or two? They both knew their way around a [End Page 10] sailboat, so the idea wasn't entirely far-fetched. He craved adventure, and he wanted out of his dental practice more than he could put into words. It was a profession he'd chosen because his father had been a dentist and because it promised to be lucrative and stable. "When I look into the future," he told Jackie, "and see nothing but more of the same, day after day peering inside people's mouths, poking their gums, filling their cavities, fitting them with porcelain veneers, I get a dry, choking sensation like there's sand in the back of my throat."
Jackie experienced a similar sensation...