Tao Te Chihuahua

By Isabel Zermani

Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Many Octobers ago, another romance fizzled to a close like so many tiki torches at summer’s end. Cool weather returned with an aura of realism and slightly better judgment. We said we’d keep in touch as he left town, but we were poorly matched. He had only been a man-sized Band-Aid to the unease with life I felt.

I had started to take a walk every day at 4 p.m. when the ideas and desires of the day blazed too hot and needed the cooling balance of tracing downtown’s labyrinth, step by step. My strides redirected furious thought streams that log-jammed my mind. Proper meditation felt out of reach, but walking, I could do.

Somewhat alleviated by the day’s walk, the malaise remained. I still thought I needed a man. Which was true. I just didn’t know he was going to come in dog form.

Back at my cottage that afternoon, a visitor had arrived — traversing two sets of stairs — to my porch. I’d been chosen. A scrappy little sandy-colored creature batted his glassy, faraway eyes at me. Flies encircled him. Fleas sprung off him like a burning sparkler. Water interested him. Veggie sausage did not. I tied a long line of gift ribbon from his collar to the railing so he could have his freedom, but stay hitched while I made a run for a hamburger and flea shampoo.

He had a collar with a rabies vaccination tag from Floyd County, Georgia. He was thin and chomped mosquitoes mid-air. Patches of hair were missing. His belly was covered in a black tar as if he’d ridden the rails as far as they would go and wound up here. I called my little vagrant “Flop,” because like other men, he was temporary.

I spent the next few days on the phone, tracking. Floyd County Animal Hospital. The registered owner’s number.

Registered owner: “I don’t know nothin’ about no dog.”

Me: “Oh. He’s registered to you.”

Registered owner: “Wait. . . It’s coming back to me.” It was his sister’s dog.

The sister (in a breathy voice): “Well. . . you see. . . it’s not my dog. It’s my husband’s dog but he has a heart condition/can’t take care of a dog/let me get back to you/you sound like a real nice girl.”

How did this 11-pound dog end up 500 miles away in Wilmington? How long had he lived on the streets? No one knew. I did learn he earned the name “Trouble” for taking on an adult beaver. He also fathered a litter of pups. I called him by his old name, but he didn’t respond. I think he was ready for a change. A permanent one.

The sister (distracted as if she had something in the oven, someone at the door, hot rollers in her hair and the roof on fire): “I just think the dog’s better off with you.” Click.

I called the Band-Aid man to tell him about my new dog. He was watching a documentary on Elvis and joked he’d probably end up like that. I hurried off the phone. When people tell you who they are, listen.

“Napoleon,” the name he earned — both for the complex and his regal nature — became my man. Devoted to me alone, we did life together. Eating, sleeping, walking. He taught me the Zen of life, doing one thing at a time. His coat filled in and so did the emptiness I felt. He sensed well-meaning people and alerted me to the subversive by widening his eyes or launching into a full-on snarling attack. His theater, a threat only to the senses, was effective; he respected his independence and proclaimed you should, too. Fear of asserting myself had, at times, paralyzed me. Fear of being alone, fear of the unknown; those are the redwoods in my 4 p.m. logjam. And here is this little dog, absurdly unequipped for this world, living moment by moment, transcending fear and unapologetically trusting his senses.

A year later, after much patience and wisdom gained, I met a man. (After you let go of wanting something is usually just when it will arrive.) I worried how Napoleon, normally gun-shy and bitey, might respond when the man arrived for our first date. The two paid mutual respects and just like that, approval was granted. We walked down to the river at dusk for orange sorbet, all three of us, forming the merry band we would become.

Isabel Zermani, our senior editor, prefers the storied life.

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