In this prompt, I empty a suitcase full of everyday objects onto a large table. Some of the objects include: a tube of lipstick, a Fisher Price telephone with squeaky wheels and rolling eyes, a red plastic “kegger” cup, a melon scooper, a black velvet pump, a copy of “The Zone,” and many, many others. Everyone chooses an object, and then writes in response. I chose a big rawhide dog bone. Here’s what I wrote:
There were two golden retrievers in our family, but only one of them was mine: Baron. Our first dog was named Vino (my dad was in the wine business, and we’re Italian), and he died when I was twelve. We were the same age, so I have no memories of him when he was a puppy; in those black and white photos, he looks foreign to me. But I chose Baron, and I named him (inspired, no doubt, by the Peanuts comic strip—Snoopy and the Red Baron). And since he was a rusty cedar color, even as a puppy, the name suited him.
I talked my father into puppy shopping about two years after Vino’s death. By then, I was growing out of my stocky thirteen-year-old body and starting to look like a lanky teenager. I felt older too, felt my mother slipping way from me, saw my sister living away at college; I felt old enough to take care of a pet.
Mary was home the weekend we went to see our first—and last—litter. The four of us stood on the front porch of a military home and my father said, “Now, we’re just going to look. That’s all.” In the garage, ten Golden Retriever puppies of various shades—blonde to deep chestnut—greeted us by crawling over one another to get to the edge of their wooden pen. They were only six weeks old, so when one of us picked them up, they whined, but also offered puppy kisses and Puppy Chow breath.
One puppy was knocked out; he slept through our entire visit. “Let’s choose him,” I said. “He’s mellow.” That was Baron, and an orange ribbon was tied around his neck to mark him for us when we returned. I learned years later that a sleepy puppy in a litter of active pups is not the trait of a mellow dog; it usually means that puppy is tired out because he’s the one who is the most hyperactive.
That was Baron.
In the months that followed, I potty trained Baron with my dad’s guidance; I taught him to descend the steep, carpeted steps to my room in the basement (though for a few months he had to be carried up those same stairs until he learned how to do that). I taught him how to lie down, and to shake and speak. He would do anything to please us. “He’s a good dog, really,” my mom always said.
When we moved to California that January, Baron was only seven months old. He flew across the country on his own in a crate. When we claimed him at SFO, he was so happy to see us (and most likely, so stressed out from the flight) that he peed all over the concrete floor in the cargo area.
I want to tell you that he was more than a dog. (I know, every dog owner says something like this: “He was a family member, a companion”), but Baron was with me through all of the madness that was my adolescence. The nights I stayed up late and found Mom wandering in the hall, confused and crying. The days I came home from school and found the front door swung wide open, my mother talking to a wall in the garage. Any other dog would have taken that opportunity to escape into the great outdoors, leash free at last, but he stayed with her, and he waited for me.
Years later, after he died, I often dreamt about him. He was always leading me back to her, swimming across a lake to an island where she waited for me, barking for me to follow him down dark roads where she sat in a car, the headlights on, the engine running. He was a guide, somehow. We needed him, and he knew it.