Finals Week: Creative Nonfiction

It was either very late or very early. I could no longer tell if the editing was making things better or worse. All I wanted to do was go to sleep. My rational brain had long ago disappeared under a pile of fluff and caffeine, but a thought echoed from the recesses of my skull: I would be very put out with myself come morning if I didn’t finish.

My final portfolio for Creative Writing was due yesterday and, as usual, I vastly underestimated the neuroses writers experience around a final deadline. It took me two days to edit less than twenty pages.

But it all worked out. My teacher even surprised us with coffee cake. (Though, sadly, no coffee was present).

The following is one of the pieces I submitted in my portfolio. It is a short memoir based on an exercise we did in class. The prompt: “I remember…”

The Non-retriever

I remember the first time I saw my dog. He was a skinny little thing with big brown eyes and all of the gangly awkwardness of a young fawn tripping over its own feet. After he finished howling his lungs out from behind the screen door, he wagged his tail so hard he nearly upset himself on the linoleum. He was nearly two years old at the time, and no longer had puppyhood to excuse his exuberance. He didn’t care.

I call him “my dog” out of childish habit, a need to claim ownership over this animal that I begged, pleaded, and manipulated my parents into finally getting two weeks before my tenth birthday. I began planting the seeds for the plot when I was five years old, when my parents were still ignorant of my capacity for remembering half-hearted promises, and to this day I consider the acquisition of this dog to be among my finest accomplishments.

But perhaps this is not the most complementary accolade to claim for myself. This dog, supposedly an AKC-registered purebred Labrador retriever, was one of the strangest living beings I’ve met in my life. Firstly, he didn’t retrieve, which the neighbors felt was an amusing case of misbranding. He would bolt after the ball and then stand at the opposite end of the yard, panting around the blue rubber, daring you to come and get it from him.

At first we thought perhaps he didn’t understand the concept. So my sisters and I orchestrated something of an interpretive dance in an attempt to exhibit the principles of “fetch.” The dog sat there, seemingly attentive to our demonstration, happily watching as three children scampered across the yard, one throwing the ball, the others running after it and bringing it back with high-pitched imitations of Mrs. Next-Door’s Yorkie. When we felt he had been adequately educated, we threw the ball for him once more, only to spend an exhausting half-hour chasing him around the yard as he bobbed and weaved around us, howling around the ball like an escaped convict. It was much later that afternoon, sprawled panting on the grass with an almost giddy dog and a slobbery blue ball finally in our possession, that we figured he understood the principles of “fetch” just fine. He just didn’t think much of them. After that, we gave in and let him do things his own way, eventually dubbing the game “lion” for the way his hackles would stand up as he crouched just out of our reach.

The dog was a trailblazer, an odd duck, an eccentricity. He gave little thought to conventional expectations and it often seemed as if his various misadventures were intentionally orchestrated for his own amusement. He was clever that way; you never could tell whether to be sorry for or angry at him when he, for example, ate a whole roasted chicken straight from the oven or lost control of his feet while in pursuit of a squirrel and went ice-skating across the floor into a houseplant. There was one thing, however, that we were quite sure he didn’t intend: despite obvious effort, he was unable to swim.

In keeping with his usual trend, the dog did exactly the opposite of what he was supposed to do while in the water. Instead of holding himself horizontally and calmly paddling along with all four feet underwater, his body would be almost perpendicular to the surface of the lake, front paws stuck in the air and flailing so hard that his head would nearly disappear behind a wall of spray. He looked like a panicky shipwreck. Unlike his intelligent disdain for retrieving, swimming seemed simply to evade him.

That changed one afternoon in the summer, when, through the potent combination of encouragement and embarrassment, we made something of a breakthrough.

We were out at the lake with our family friends and their dog, Sheba. Sheba was a Labrador/Golden cross and, as her name implied, did everything with an almost unnatural air of regality, up to and including swimming into the lake to retrieve a stick. She did this repeatedly throughout the afternoon, lofting herself into the air and paddling smoothly through the water to return her prize neatly to her owners’ feet.

Meanwhile, our dog was entertaining himself by turning awkward pirouettes in the water, paws flapping skyward, his splashes sounding like the rudders of those fiberglass paddleboats we used to rent by the hour. He had yet to figure out how to travel in straight lines.

The thing about our dog was that he was an observer. He managed, in between bouts of churning himself around the same five square feet of lake, to observe that Sheba was actually moving places, doing things. Namely, fetching a stick that he had just been chasing on land. Maybe it was jealousy. Maybe it was a competitive streak. Or maybe it was the way Sheba kept eyeing him with the prim assessment of “what a goon.” Whatever the reason, he churned over to the bank and trudged up the hill, watching Sheba closely as she waited for the next throw. The stick zoomed over their heads; Sheba blinked, waited for it to land, and then launched herself into the water. Baloo jumped after her.

We had all been watching, unsure of what he was up to. As soon as we realized, we dropped whatever else we were going and focused all of our attention on the muddy black lump flailing out after Sheba. I remember my sisters and I standing at the edge of the lake, yelling insensibly out over the water things like “Go get her!” and “Put your legs under the water! Under the water!”

I wonder if our feelings of exhilaration would in any way be similar to a t-ball parent watching their usually uncoordinated kid finally manage to connect the bat with the ball. That was our dog. Our ridiculous idiot of a dog was out there, churning his way after Sheba. He only managed to make it halfway out before she came back, sweeping by him with her usual elegance. But our friends, taking pity on our dysfunction of a dog, threw another stick out for him, just beyond his reach. If he could only stop splashing long enough to see it.

“Get the stick! Get the stick!” we yelled, oblivious to the indignant Sheba who had recently arrived back ashore.

He knew what “stick” meant. He spun in frantic circles, searching for the piece of wood almost camouflaged in the olive green of the lake. Then, finally, he found it. And after a moment’s consideration, he took it in his mouth.

The effect was almost instantaneous. The stick our friend had thrown was a rather thick, heavy bit of driftwood—so heavy that it forced our dog’s head down level with the surface of the water. And below his head, his front legs.

His legs were under the water. He was swimming.

He paddled back to shore to the sound of our wild cheering. The look on that dog’s face as he climbed triumphantly out of the lake was one of the best things I have ever seen.

And, after some bobbing and weaving, we even managed to get the stick back. Eventually.

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