The Parable of the Lost Basset Hound

The Parable of the Lost Basset Hound February 20, 2012

My lady friend’s family has been combing through my blog for evidence I’m a loser. Thanks to my edgy but disarming confessional style, the task presents about as great a challenge as combing the blogosphere for mentions of Jeremy Lin. If I had any sense, I’d beguile them with false intel — say, by blogging pieces like “How I Became Heir to the Zuckerberg Fortune.” But, being a spiritual memoirist and not a fiction writer, I’ll share a story that reminded me, on one hand, how God loves people, and on the other, that I am unfit to raise a child.

The child is actually a tricolor basset hound. She’s about eight and a half, or 60 in dog years. That might not sound very youthful, but as we’ll see presently, she’s always had a certain gamine-like charm that takes decades off her. Her name is Lexi, which sounds silly, though not half so silly as Dame Lexis de Nexus, her full legal name. She belongs to my friend Rick and his wife Yuna, and as I learned, they belong equally to her.

Rick and Yuna are a DINK couple — that is, Double Income, No Kids. Christian conventional wisdom holds that they and their kind are thralls to Mammon — perverts, swingers and Democrats who lavish their love and attention, not to mention their pay after taxes, on themselves. Where my friends are concerned, there’s a tiny kernel of truth in the last item. Several years ago, while helping Rick move, I was astonished by the sheer volume of stuff I found piled up in his spare bedroom. In addition to the home gym, I noticed golf clubs, a crossbow, several fishing rods and a tackle box full of lures, snorkelling gear including a spear gun, a dart board, a medicine ball, a mountain bike and a hat rack made from the skeleton of a saguaro catcus. Nearly every item on this non-exhaustive list was in mint condition. Rick had lit upon each in a fit of enthusiasm; when the fit passed, he consigned it to his armory.

One day, Rick called me up several years ago, asking, “Hey, buddy! Want to go with me to pick up a basset hound?” I shuddered, imagining Rick taking the dog on a couple of walks, and sticking it in the spare room as soon as he felt a yen for an albino macaw or a Burmese blue python. Desperate to distance myself from so infamous an enterprise, I begged off, but agreed to visit that evening, once the animal had been introduced to its new home. When I arrived, I saw what looked like a tiny tricolor bundle of rags lying still in a penned-off corner by the bathroom door. In Rick’s eyes, I spotted the unmistakable look of love.

In no time at all, I, too, was smitten. Despite imploring brown eyes, Lexi always had an air of what I can only describe as coquetry. Approaching people, she’d execute a 180-degree turn, presenting them with her doggie derriere. Then she’d look back over her shoulder as if to say, “If you want to scratch something, scratch that!” Though, at the age of two, she weighed no more than 40 lbs — making her, in effect, her breed’s own Audrey Hepburn or Olivia DeHaviland — she showed surprising strength of neck. On walks, she liked to toss her leash off her head and dart a few yards in whatever direction pleased her. Turning to face her oppressor, she’d throw him a look that said, “I give my love freely, sir; it cannot be chained.”

If I anthropomorphize Lexi, I’m not the only one. Whereas Lexi brought out the the lover and the poet in me, she brought out the parents in Rick and Yuna. Rick was all dad, the macro-strategist who chose protein-rich foods and vitamin supplements, vets and private rooms in pet hotels for when he and his wife vacationed alone. Yuna was the mom, which is to say the platoon sergeant, implementing policy and imposing discipline with nothing on her side but force of character. Swinging from towering rage to tender reverie through tearful wave of self-reproach, Yuna could have been my own mother. She could have been any mother since Eve.

Last Saturday morning, I was at Rick and Yuna’s house, and decided to take out the garbage. I meant it as a friendly gesture, a way of thanking them for being themselves. Their deadbolt has always put me at a loss — whenever I manage to retract the bolt to open the door, some instinct causes me to extend the bolt again before closing the door behind me. Sometimes, on my way back inside, I remember to retract the bolt again, so the door closes properly. Sometimes I don’t. When Lexi’s not curled up in her bed watching Kitchen Nightmares, she’s trotting silently back and forth across the house like a Viet Cong courier through the jungle. She measures barely a foot at the withers; tracking her movements means looking straight down.

All of this is to explain: 1) how Lexi got loose; and 2) why she’d been gone almost ten minutes before Rick thought to ask, “Where’s my dog?”

It’s possible to play the ensuing panic for low comedy, but doing so would libel the moment unforgivably. Rick and Yuna live on a residential street about 100 yards south of a six-lane thoroughfare called Ray Road. On the far side of Ray is Sunset Park. With a meadow for running in and shrubs for sniffing, the place is a regular Koh Samui or Ibiza for the likes of Lexi. If Lexi was invisible to us most of the time, we had no very good reason to hope she’d be visible to, say, the driver of a Ford Expedition, steering with her elbows while punching the buttons on her Smart Phone.

We divided the neighborhood into sectors and searched. A pair of dog-walkers told Yuna they’d seen a stray basset hound in Fry’s parking lot. A couple in a red truck took had taken her, or so they said, to Pet Smart, which checks lost dogs for microchips. Relief. Rick returned from Pet Smart, white-faced: nobody there had seen any stray basset hounds that morning. Panic again. “This whole story is sounding sketchier and sketchier,” Rick shouted to the room, pounding his knees with fists. “A pair of strangers tells my wife some people picked up my dog and took her to a dog food store? What the hell kind of sense does that make?”

In our thickening gloom, it made none at all. We were all cracking under the burden of guilt. I’d left the door open. Rick remembered that Lexi’s microchip led back to a condo he’d moved out of five years earlier. For the past couple of weeks, ever since Lexi had cut her chin on some thorns, Yuna let her go without her collar, the one with the tag that began, “My name is Lexi!” and proceeded, helpfully, to Rick’s cell number. For any story that began with such thoughtlessness, no end without a dead or vanished basset hound would drive the moral home. None of us deserved to see Lexi again.

Yuna decided the couple in the red track were dog-nappers. “Do you see any red trucks?” She asked as the two of us speedwalked into Fry’s parking lot. I saw five. “Do you have a surveillance camera?” She asked Fry’s manager. He did, but it only reached ten feet beyond the entrance. Rick called County Animal Control; a recorded voice advised him his wait would be 30 minutes. We drove to the county animal shelter and found it wouldn’t open for another hour. “Don’t they have a drop box, like a library?” Rick muttered as he tore out again into the street.

Though low on gas, we drove aimlessly, ending up, somehow, at Sky Harbor International Airport before regaining our bearings. Yuna was weeping silently. Rick was repeating, as people recite rosaries: “Red pickups! Pet Smart! Petco! Microchip checking center! It’s bullshit, all of it! She’s gone! Lexi’s gone! We’d better get used to it!” Loss has always triggered in me a protective numbness, a kind of mental morphine. Some mistake it for callousness, and it may in fact be. I was thinking it’d be a long time before Rick and Yuna invited me back to their place.

Then Rick’s phone rang. After a minute, I heard him say: “Okay. Just keep that basset hound locked down until we get there.” It was Pet Smart, where Rick had left his number. The couple in the red pickup had indeed dropped her off — after pausing to breakfast and shower. We raced down I-10, making Pet Smart in ten minutes. Rick and Yuna ran inside, hand in hand. Then I saw Rick emerge, holding Lexi in his arms at chin height, covering her cranium with kisses. Yuna followed behind, wiping away tear of joy.

Finding God in all things is a big part of Ignatian spirituality. Usually, I’m not very good at it. Most of the time, I don’t even try, since I’m afraid of coming up with something along the lines of Pat Robertson’s God-punished-Haiti-with-an-earthquake thesis. Last Saturday, in fact, my mind, along with Rick’s and Yuna’s, was running in that very direction; we believed in a God who smote basset hounds as a reproof to stupid humans. Now I believe in a God who is more merciful than just. He delivers basset hounds back into the arms of those who believe they’ve forfeited their right to keep basset hounds. That doesn’t explain the Haitians — it may be that God, like the court system, goes easy on white folk from the suburbs, though I do like to think it’s a little more complicated than that.

Then there’s the parable of the lost sheep. When I saw Rick cradling Lexi, I thought right away of the shepherd. (I have no doubt, by the way, that Rick would have been as happy to recover Lexi even if he’d had 99 other basset hounds at home.) If that shepherd was meant ot represent God, and if God can feel joy, does He also fly into panics? Is panic even possible for a Being who exists outside of time and is all-knowing? I would hope not. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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