Grady was, when I first saw him, less than a year old. He was tall and slender, waving his half-length stump of a tail behind him, and he stared at me through the pane of glass that separated us, keeping me from laying my hands on his black-and-tan bespeckled coat and him from engorging his nose with the pungent scents I had no doubt tracked into the shelter. His concrete kennel was barren except for a tarnished blanket crumpled in the corner. It was the fifth blanket they’d tossed to him since he arrived less than a week prior. Had we not left with him — my mother and I — there would have been a sixth, and a seventh, and an eighth, until someone else snatched him up. But no one else was going to snatch him up. Despite his unremitting wag and his half-erect ears, Grady had an intensity to him that would have made White Fang think twice before squaring off. It was his eyes.
There were already dogs at the house. There were always dogs at the house. I was seventeen, and there had been only a handful of months since I came along where the number of dogs in the house was fewer than two. Grady, a German Shepherd mix, would be the youngest of the three when he arrived. The other two, an inbred Shih-poo and an austere collie mutt, looked on from behind the sliding glass door as Grady found a suitable place to relieve himself in their backyard. They had lost their pack leader a month earlier— a sturdy Golden Retriever named Fletcher — and now, in the face of a reckless young monster, longed more than ever for his level-headed leadership and poise. They shot dubious side glances at my mother and I while the brindle pup gamboled about the house-length yard under the light of the afternoon sun. In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the summertime sun burns so bright that the Arcadian clouds flee to the north for the respite of grayer days.
I’d always been enamored of German Shepherds, a fondness I’d harbored after a purebred named Bob that lived with the family until I was four. Whether it was his hue of singed wood that drew me in or the calm poise he carried beneath his brawny trunk, I took a special liking to Bob. Only fragmented memories relating to that majestic Shepherd remain at my disposal and appear to me as the first three smoky photographs in an expanding scrapbook. Cruel fate has willed that Bob appears only on the first page of my photo album. A white truck is parked outside the house on a bright morning. Bob stands in the truck bed looking towards the photographer. His enormous tongue, animated by the excitement of having defected for a night or two, dangles from his mouth like a limp stick of bubblegum. On the next page, a peculiar still life of the steaming horse-sized pile of shit Bob left in the center of the rug in my cramped bedroom. The final picture in the series features a tan Ford Bronco rumbling up the street before it will eventually disappear around the corner into the darkness of the winter night. Bob’s stomach twisted when he was six, an ailment common to breeds with large, deep chests. The cost of the operation — which promised a dubious fifty percent chance of solving the problem — was too steep for my parents. Three kids, three dogs, and a cat left little room in the budget for an emergency operation that had the same rate of success as guessing heads in a coin toss. Bob was driven off to an emergency vet on a drab Sunday night. The light in the photograph is refracted sporadically — moisture had collected on the lens. I suspect I had some notion that I might not see Bob again.
Unlike Bob, Grady was a half-breed. Whereas Bob’s fur was plush and sleek, Grady’s was coarse and bristly. Bob’s ears stood upright like prison towers. Grady’s ears were more animated, the floppy tips rendering it impossible for them to stand upright, try as he might. As to what it was that Grady was mixed with, there was no certainty. His boxy face and stout body gave the impression of some sort of Pitbull, which no one dared to mention due to the area ban on bull breeds. This left the possibility that Grady was part German Shepherd, part Hell Hound, a notion lent by the ease with which fire and brimstone was rained upon his new home. Little time existed between Grady’s arrival and the ruination of some object that serves to make a home reasonably proper. Bite marks manifested on the wooden legs of chairs and tables. Furniture was routinely disemboweled. Shoes, television remotes, CDs, underwear, appliance cords, and anything else that rightfully belonged to the floor and other low-elevation surfaces of the house were in constant peril and at any moment could be found lying pitifully in their own wreckage. The walls, even, were not immune to Grady’s tactical assaults, and it wasn’t irregular to find bits of drywall scattered haphazardly under conspicuous cavities in the walls of the living room or the hallways.
Five dogs had moved through the house before Grady arrived, including the two aforementioned, and none were able to dismantle the house quite like he seemed able to. The secret to Grady’s astronomical success was the ferocious speed with which he could pulverize whatever pleased him. Stuffed toys proved no obstacle for his razor teeth, and the sweet taste of their innards tempted him onward to couches and pillows. The bulbous ends of dog bones were swiftly whittled to sharp points by Grady’s fangs so that the pile of toys looked more like a collection of prison shanks. It became a sport to see how long it took to make a mockery of companies who dared to print the word “indestructible” on their packaging. Had I been a forward-thinking teenager, Grady would be known worldwide as the record holder for fastest time peeling a coconut; a record, they would say, that could not possibly beaten by anything short of a wood chipper.
There were lingerings of Grady’s past that hinted at crueler times and shed light on his impulse to destroy. Lift a hand to scratch your ear and he‘d cower away. Move too quickly to pet him and he’d whimper as if a fist was raised to strike. There was no doubt at all about what had happened before he made it to the shelter. It was discovered in short order that Grady could scale an eight-foot fence with relative ease, which surely allowed him to cut and run from whatever calamity had first befallen him. Thus were the seeds of wile and isolation sowed into his spirited being and he became what our local veterinarian referred to as a “junkyard dog.”
A junkyard would have been perhaps the best place for Grady. He would have done well with the boundless terrain, the lax rules, and the occasional scuffle to insert himself into. He could have destroyed anything he fancied with perfect impunity. He could have basked his muscle-bound body in the arid heat and retreated to his private hideaway when a repose was in order. Instead he was stolen away to suburbia, surrounded with pillows and couches from which he was prohibited to sink his teeth into, and expected to accept that this new pack of humans could be trusted more readily than the pack he had only recently escaped.
By the end of our first week together Grady had chewed through four or five pairs of underwear and basketball shorts, which I’d gotten into the slothful habit of tossing on my floor or on my bed, a pair of shoes, the corner of a textbook that belonged to my school, half a couch, an entire chair, and a handful of miscellaneous cords for lamps, computers, speakers, and telephones. The box of toys we purchased for the inbound pup — soft and hard toys alike — was pulverized before Cody and Riley could even sniff them. It became habitual to bring home a new dog toy each day only to find it the next morning in ruins. By the end of the second week with him, it was clear that we had purchased the six-million dollar dog and that the entire six-million dollars would be spent not on building MechaGrady but on rebuilding the home. So incorrigible was he, and so swift to destroy, that maintaining a perpetual eye on the brindle genius became the status quo. We kept a leash on him and forced him to stay by someone’s side throughout the day. Though we tried to share the duty between my mom, my dad, and myself, it was work-from-home Mom who ended up being dragged around by the compact brute more than anyone else.
This method of protecting the house didn’t stop Grady from devouring everything as much as it slowed the pace with which he did it. Like a priest’s daughter, our efforts to thwart his sinning only served to make him into a more cunning heathen. After a month of trying (and failing) to corral Grady, my parents began to talk about whether or not we ought to try to re-home the devilish dog. The efforts we had to expend to try to pacify him became too burdensome and my parents had spent more money on Grady than they had on probably every dog we’d ever had combined. It was a reasonable option, and, like all things reasonable, I hated it. There was a connection I had with the wildling that had developed seemingly before I’d ever seen him. I found myself thinking often that if I were a dog, I would be just like Grady. Other people would disagree. Hardly anyone would describe withdrawn, passive Ryan as a wild child. I rarely got in trouble at school or at home, and rambunctious was nowhere to be found in my vocabulary. I kept to myself and was content with not being noticed. Were I to be a dog, they’d say, I’d be like the ones who did nothing more than pant in the sun and wait for their dishes to be refilled.
Grady, I’m sure, felt that connection too. On the day when we had decided first to stop by the animal shelter, we had arrived hoping to find Grady’s brother. His picture caught our eye on the shelter’s website and we were interested. When my mother and I arrived at the shelter, we were disappointed to hear that he’d already been adopted.
“His brother is still here, though, if you’d like to see him,” the squat woman at the front desk informed us.
We looked at each other. “Sure,” we said, shrugging our shoulders, “what the heck?”
Grady had a tendency to stare, and his eyes, the piercing color of prehistoric amber that imprisons unsuspecting mosquitoes for millions of years, had the same paralytic effect that Kaa the Python’s pulsating peepers had over Mowgli. Despite the vigor with which his nubby tail would wiggle, I found it difficult not to feel as though he might on a whim suddenly lunge and swipe my nose from my face with his tremendous jaws and agonizing fangs. There was in his eyes the same predatory opportunism one expects to find in a pack of wolves outside a chicken coop. To describe Grady’s appearance in a single word: brutish. Later, when I would take him out with me in the world, strangers walking their dogs would cross us tentatively and ask, “Is he friendly?” He had never hurt anybody or anything, I’d say to them, which was true at the time. Grady would stand at my side, his eyes fastened to the squirming passerby and their innocent dog who was as eager as Grady was to try to make friends.
After my mother and I decided on taking Grady with us, I told her that I’d like to sit with him in the backseat during the ride home. Grady and I stood in the waiting area of the shelter while she paid for him and gathered up the folder of information they intended to send off with us about our new German Shepherd mix. He sniffed the linoleum floors and the plastic chairs, tugging me along as his nose piloted him from scent to scent. Afterwards, we waited under the shade of an oak tree outside the shelter while Mom brought the car around. Grady lifted his leg twice to mark different sides of the same tree, and visitors gawked at us as like teenagers loitering in a convenience store parking lot. “Stare all you want,” I thought. “This good boy is coming home with me.”
There’s always been a great calm that comes over me in the backseat of a car. I’m told it has to do with being rocked to sleep as babies. Grady and I settled into the back of the my mom’s small navy blue Volkswagen. The sunlight laid on us through the windows, and as we sped along the highway Grady lay down beside me to rest his head in my lap. I pat him between his ears and he shifted his penetrating eyes up at me. I called my mom’s attention away from the road so that she could see too, and we lauded each other for making such a swell choice.
Unlike Bob’s, Grady’s photo album is limpid and vivacious. I would find myself in later years thinking of that car ride as one of my most cherished images in the great volume of scrapbooks. The heavenly Colorado sun, my mother in the driver’s seat, and the only being I’d ever felt responsible for looking at me with the same adoration with which I looked at him — enclosed in a single frame was the warmth that would quell my heart when it was made barren by the ordinary strains of living. Were the picture to have a title, it’d be called “Home,” and, were it to be framed, it would hang alongside the collection of collars of dogs who’ve come and gone.
It’s widely held that a dog’s memory spans somewhere in the vicinity of three seconds. My grandfather, a renaissance man who among other things trained poodles for shows, told me once that dogs never forget a face. I imagine, then, that dogs assemble scrapbooks of turbid memories like children do — sporadic, almost incoherent, but nevertheless imbued with the powerful sensations and perceptions that tattoo the experience into their database. I like to envisage the photo albums their minds fashion.
Here, where I shat on the boy’s rug for no reason other than I needed a place to go.
There, the final car ride before my stomach pains were at last relieved.
And here, one of my most cherished photos, where the warm light of the sky heated my coat and I rested my muzzle for the first time in the lap of my newest friend. We looked at each other, and he stroked my head. “What a swell choice I’ve made,” I thought. “What a swell choice.”