Dianne calls me the doggie uncle. Every June, when she and her husband meet family at the beach for a week away from routine and responsibility, I move into their guest room to dog-sit. The room I rent from a friend on the other side of town is bare—mattress on a thin steel frame, flimsy particle-board bookshelves, white ceiling fan. No framed photos. No cherished knickknacks. Merely four walls and a roof. A place for storage and sleep. Dianne's guest room is a beach house replica. Whites and blues, starfish and anchors, rattan furniture. When waking from a night's sleep, instead of clipped lawns and cookie-cutter houses painted in one of three alternating color schemes, I expect to smell salt, see waves break against sand and roll back into the sea.
Two hours after Dianne and her husband are scheduled to leave, I head over. If they run late packing the car, or if, on the verge of hitting the highway ramp, they remember a forgotten phone charger or toothbrush, they can return and find their home as they left it. I can walk from the driveway, past Dianne's flower garden, to the front door and turn the key I picked up the day before, as though it were my own house.
Barney is the quintessential American dog: a faithful, easy-going golden retriever. A true Man's Best Friend. Every happy family in every story has a Barney. He greets me with a damp and soiled snowman hanging from his mouth. If I reach for it, he scampers off. I am not allowed to touch his snowman. It is his to parade. All week he serves as my second shadow, ever ready for a pat or a scratch behind the ear. Or perhaps he follows simply for companionship. Together, we spend afternoons out back, where, once I unlatch the patio screen [End Page 79] door, Barney performs his backyard ritual: patrolling the fence line for tall weeds and scrumptious lizards. We play fetch with a tennis ball or a stick or whatever else Barney brings me. At 12 years old, he no longer runs, but all day he will trot to what I toss. I tire long before he does. Sometimes I try playing tug of war—tug of war is my game—but Barney offers no resistance, dropping the rope at my feet the second I reach for it. He gets too much satisfaction handing over the object. It makes him feel like a good dog to return what was lost. All Barney wants in life is a toy and a hand to place it in. Whose hand does not matter. Dianne's, mine, that of the person who robbed their house that one fall afternoon. To Barney, one person is as good as the next. He never mourns his missing owners. Barney is happiness incarnate.
Everyone else likes Barney best, but even though he stands before me, he seems too good to be true. I prefer Saluda. Saluda never greets me. The sullen and bulky basset hound sits in front of the guest room window and stares at the driveway, hoping, with each passing car, for Dianne's return. Feet planted firmly in the hall, I peek inside the room to say hello and make sure she is okay. Saluda refuses to face me. If I step into the room, her shoulders tense. For all the bark she lets fly at neighbors passing on the sidewalk, every movement—every sound—frightens her. Thunder paralyzes her, as does my ringing cell phone and the beeping microwave. Dianne has said that Saluda was not always this way. As a puppy, she fell in love with the countryside on a South Carolina farm and spent her days running beside horses. Dianne believes a stable hand struck Saluda one day, taught her fear. Saluda's memory runs deep. And so she keeps her eyes fixated on the driveway, as though if she does not acknowledge me, none of this will be happening. As though her desire can undo the laws of the universe. Dianne will not have left. Her life...