When Rosie and I decided to abandon our carefree city-dwelling apartment-rat lifestyle and embrace our full responsibilities as transmitters of DNA from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, here is the order in which we kitted up for the bourgeois life: car, house, fence, dog, kids.
The car we got from a police auction in Queens, the house from a suburban broker of terrific efficiency and infinite patience. We moved our belongings out to Long Island one Saturday morning in the Spring of 1992, using a small van driven by a mainland-Chinese immigrant Rosie had located via the ads in a local Chinese newspaper. Our bed, the only large item we possessed, was strapped to the roof of the van. Around Exit 30 on the Long Island Expressway a light rain began to fall. Desperate to make it to our new house before the box spring and mattress got soaked, we egged on the driver to go faster. The poor guy doggedly refused to break the speed limit (I doubt he had a driver's license; most of the people in the small ads of Chinese newspapers don't) and we were counting the raindrops with nervous apprehension till safely in our new, our very own, driveway.
Having got a house, the first thing Rosie wanted was a dog. She had had a pet dog when she was a child in Mao's China, but the poor thing had died in circumstances not far removed from those I put into my first novel. I argued successfully that before we got a dog we should put a fence round the property. A local fencing company obliged. That accomplished, we set off for the animal shelter.
Having just bought a house we couldn't afford (does anyone ever buy a house they can afford?) and stocked it with furniture, and written a fat check to the fencing company, we were in no mood to contemplate $500 pedigree dogs. In any case, the main reason we had decided to move to the burbs was a determination get busy contributing to the mongrelization of the human race (Hi there, Mr. Schmidt! How ya doin'?) Having thus committed our own persons to the concept of hybrid vigor, we didn't want any high-strung asthmatic nose-in-the-air pure-breed animals around the house, sneering at our principles.
Strolling among the cages at the animal shelter, our eye was caught by a shaggy black and white terrier-oid mutt whose name card said "Taco." That card also bore the code "AR2." A kind assistant (there are no unkind people working in those places, I think: without an inner core of incorruptible kindness, you wouldn't be able to stand the smell) explained to us that this meant the poor mutt had been adopted, then returned, twice over. These rejections had obviously had a devastating effect on the poor creature's self-esteem. When we looked at him, he dropped his eyes, put his head down between his paws, his body language shouting out the conviction that no-one would ever love him or care for him, ever.
That, of course, was an appeal we could not refuse. We paid forty dollars for him. Driving home, there was a news item on the car radio: Boris Yeltsin had just deprived Michael Gorbachev of his right to a chauffeur-driven limousine. Rosie and I were in the middle of a discussion about giving the dog a decent name, both of us having agreed that "Taco" was utterly unacceptable. The news story made us laugh, and the dog became Boris right there.
That was in June of 1992. The shelter said they thought Boris was about a year old at the time. If correct, that means he is now 11½ — an octogenarian in people-years. He is a fixture in the neighborhood, from the good long walk he's had every morning since the first Bush presidency. People several blocks away call out: "Hey, Boris!" when they see him. Our kids have grown up with him. They take him completely for granted, of course, never having known a Boris-free universe. We had just one minor dog-child incident when the kids were small. Our little boy thought the most fun thing in the world was to stick his fingers into Boris's nostrils … until Boris did a remarkably neat ear-piecing job on the lad with one of his long side teeth. That single excusable misdemeanor aside, he's been the best-natured dog you could wish for. Whoever those people were who adopted-then-returned him so unkindly, they deprived themselves of a treasure.
Boris is getting old now, though you'd never know it from the enthusiasm he still displays for his daily walk. The vet tells us there are cataracts in both eyes, so that Boris will soon be blind. We comfort ourselves by telling each other that vision doesn't matter much to a dog; but it's hard now to avoid occasional thoughts about life without Boris, two or three or four years from now. Rosie is angry about this, given to raging against the heavens in the style of King Lear. Why, she asks, do stupid, useless, affectless animals like parrots, crocodiles, tortoises and even some fish live for a hundred years or more, while man's best friend gets only a decade and a half? Who thought that up? Where's the sense in it?
I myself am more philosophical, with a quiet faith that the large natural order of things is reasonable at some level inaccessible to mere human minds. I am also temperamentally opposed to sentimentality about animals, and in fact to sentimentality in general. It was Dostoyevsky, I think, who described one of his characters as "evil and sentimental." Just so. Life is to be faced with courage and resolution, tears saved for the truly big, difficult things. One of my daughter's little playmates, nine years old, and her parents' only child, was rushed to hospital last weekend and diagnosed with leukemia. From the tests, it seems that it is not the worst kind, and the prognosis is hopeful, but the poor kid will be in intensive care for a while yet, and the parents were mad with worry while those tests were being done. In the face of realities like this, it seems obscene to shed tears over an animal.
Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel the pull of man-dog affection very strongly. Some clever folk at Harvard and elsewhere have now reduced all that doggy loyalty and affection to cold "evolutionary strategies." We bond with dogs, these people tell us, because dogs are extraordinarily good at reading cues from human behavior, and responding to those cues in ways that ensure their own security and continued feeding. Well, pshaw, say I. Dogs are not cynical, except etymologically. They love us, and we love them back, without interest, as the tale of Old Shep illustrates; and all this is part of the Big Plan.
Here is another illustration, from the annals of Boris Derbyshire. Six years ago I had my left ankle smashed in a car accident. I had to hobble round on crutches for three months. A few weeks into this, Boris developed a very peculiar ailment: he lost the use of his left hind leg. He couldn't put his weight on it without pain — pain he expressed very clearly, with yelping and whining. We tried investigating, but the pain was so acute he couldn't bear us to touch the affected limb.
We took him to three different vets. Only the third had any explanation. Boris's hip joint was slipping in and out of dislocation, said this lady, a thing that occasionally happens. Nothing to be done without an expensive operation. Just rest him, try to stop him going up stairs … For weeks Boris dragged his game leg along, yelping and moaning, while we fretted and tried to comfort him. Meanwhile, my ankle mended, the plaster came off, and at last my crutches were stowed in the attic. Around the same time, Boris got better. Soon he was back to normal. There has been no recurrence.
"Evolutionary strategies" fiddlesticks. Now excuse me, I'm going to search around the internet for a recording of Elvis singing "Old Shep." Even us cold-eyed anti-sentimentalists have moments of weakness now and again.