My uncle once owned a dog that did not love him. Despite his owner’s constant adoration, affection, and regular meal offerings, the mustard-colored mutt escaped the confine’s of both yard and house with a regularity that would have impressed Steve McQueen. Whenever my uncle arrived home from inspecting train wrecks — that was his job — he would discover the yard empty, his food untouched, or the window screen torn asunder. At such moment, my uncle would race down the street to our house, load my brothers into his truck, and slowly circle the neighborhood, shouting ‘Ralph! Ralph!” — for that was the dog’s name — ‘Godammit dog, where are you?”
Ralph would always emerge a day or two later from the woods, wet from a swim at the reservoir, or covered in briars. At which point, my uncle would hug and kiss the doe-eyed convict, while muttering in a sing-song baby voice “Such a goood dog! Such a goood doggie.” Ralph would be chained of course for another week or so, before his master would forgive his past transgressions. The dog, who knew nothing of redemption, gratitude or the human parole system, would immediately celebrate its freedom by running into the woods for another three or four days, chasing squirrels and sniffing deer pellets.
Each successive escape, the dog would venture even further from home: next-door, a mile, five miles . . . once someone found the animal wandering through the suburbs of Westminster, several zip codes away from my uncle’s yard and woods.
My uncle took to driving through the neighborhood less. After thirty-five years, he had gotten married, started a family of his own. He still loved that dog, but took less of an interest in its escapades. His kids — my cousins — visited my house frequently. Being a big kid myself, I took an interest in their Legos, Clone Wars action figures, and stuffed unicorns, teaching them how to collect coins and squash turtles on the Wii and which Jurassic Park movies were the best.
One day Ralph ran away and never came back.
My uncle did not search for him. I had expected a visit, the rumble and clatter of his old blue Ford. A honk of the horn would signal a glance out the window; a hand wagging a leash out the window was all the explanation we needed. But towards the end, he got tired of searching for something that did not want to be found. The Mary Poppins-story worked well for the kids. Ralph had left to find a new owner, to torture another lonely old man until he found a wife and family too. My brother, Patrick, invented the tale, pleasing the kids while teasing my uncle, who’d only smile and wink at his wife.
And who knows? Maybe it’s true. Maybe the dog actually knew, instinct-like that someone was coming for my uncle. I like to think that his weekly sojourns through the counties lengthened as my aunt drew closer, like some inverse countdown to marital bliss.
It’s a fanciful thought, I guess. Nothing more than a fairy tale, but we have so few mysteries in this 21st century. As a child, the world feels limitless as if anything is possible: dragons hiding in caves, ghosts in attics, genies in a lamp. Only when you grow into adulthood do you realize that history has already plumbed the depths and charted the edges of the map.
Just once I’d like to trick myself, to fool science into doubting its omnipotence. To embrace a little less knowledge and more curiosity, imagining mermaid from manatees and giants from windmills. To believe in dragons, miracles, and magical dogs again.
So if you happen to stumble upon an old mustard-colored pup named Ralph with a wagging tail and a mischievous look in his eyes, say ‘Hi!’ from my uncle and me. Treat him kindly, but beware that broken leash and torn window screen. If you suffer through the various escape attempts, something good might just come of all the frustration. I promise.