It's the new black.
When I walk into the cave, I see chaos. A tub of basketballs; a box of tennis rackets and helmets; golf clubs; a weed-whacker; the upstanding red wheelbarrow, upon which not much depends; bags of fertilizer; rakes; the family of bikes parked like dominoes; obligatory bike and basketball pumps; a shelf of paint; my desk, lamp, and copies of two short stories. It’s home to the functional objects of suburban domesticity which I ignore. It’s a place to work.
To my dog, it is a labyrinth.
McDuff sees what I do not see. He knows there is something brown and whiskery living in the tub of the basketballs. He follows its trail. He stands up like a meerkat, tottering, two and a half feet of feather-like white fur with erect tufts of triangular ears, black nose a satellite for trespassing rodents. Clubs and tires and wicker chairs get in his way. He stops to sneeze and cough and a double eye infection will be sending him to the vet later this week. He doesn’t care; everything in our unkempt backyard enthralls him.
McDuff is an unusual dog. He knows the precise moment in the evening to bark for dinner. He knows the words for WALK and TREAT and EAT and many others. He wakes up siblings on command. McDuff fears skateboarders and motorcyclists and their social influence; he is prejudiced against large males with sunglasses, knowing corpulent wearers of shades and baseball caps to be statistically more dangerous than others. His bark resembles Aslan’s roar and is more reliable than the doorbell. Those who hear him before meeting him are surprised to see the grin of an overweight football fan after two beers that disguises a mind from MIT. McDuff is never happier than with his pack.
According to my mother, the dog is named after the popular picture books about a well-meaning Westie; according to Dad, he’s named after the hero of the Scottish play. So McDuff is both Shakespearean and childish, a curious mix of grandeur and the desire to have his white-pink belly scratched while lying on the sofa.
Dogs traditionally make for good writing. David Shannon wrote about Fergus in Good Boy, Fergus, where the inept owner rewards the disobedient Westie for bad behavior. John Grogan turned his personal slobbering, waking nightmare into his source of income through Marley and Me. Jennifer Weiner’s wonderful Cannie Shapiro owed at least some of her charm to Nifkin, who in turn owed existence to Weiner’s own rat terrier. James Herriot milked many dogs and some cows too for All Creatures Great and Small.
Yet McDuff is less fodder for writing than he is an education in writing. To McDuff, our temperate lifestyle exists on the edge of a knife. At any moment, a skateboarder or ballcap-wearer or thunderstorm could wreak catastrophe on the universe. Heroes, even small fluffy dogs, have to sniff out the evil lurking in attics and basements and men’s shoes. If I despair over the khaki writing material our neighborhood provides, McDuff sneezes in the corner and then speaks to me telepathically: do not be deceived. This is not a shed or a cave; this is a labyrinth, and there are Minotaurs where mere mortals fear to look. – Gabrielle