alissa nutting




I have been dog-loving my whole life. I was born with an innate urge to hug dogs the way some people hug trees or piles of money.

My first dog ever was Tinky. He was also the only dog I had until I became a grown-up, and he lived in our backyard on a chain. Sometimes when my father let him off the chain, Tinky would put my small feet into his mouth in a gentle way. This frightened me at first. I cautiously watched his jaws for signs that mastication might further proceed.

When my father observed this, he said, Tinky likes the salt on your feet. His tone implied that Tinky was using me against my will and I was just too naive to pick up on it: it’s the salt he’s after!

But I gladly gave salt. I did not know about sweat and salt-production. Though if I had, surely, I would’ve worked tirelessly to make lots of salt for Eat-the-Foot. I would’ve taped black garbage bags overtop my limbs and gone jogging, extreme weight loss/salt excretion activities until Tinky spat out my feet, TOO salty, and then I would’ve felt a little defeated and sat down to rest.

As a child it was my job to take Tinky table scraps. They were in this pot that was scary because it was so big; it would’ve held 3–4 babies that had just come into the world. In this way I was forced to carry alarming things out to Tinky, chicken skin and grease and bones et al. That is dog caviar, my parents said, what a lucky, fancy boy Tinky is, but I didn’t believe them because they would say anything. Broccoli will put pretty hair on your girl-chest. (Didn’t.) The dentist is not robotic. (Fingers too-stiff with plastic smell). My parents were liars who had never put my feet into their mouths. However Tinky was sincere and eager to do so.

He died when I was eight. My father explained it in a very animal-liberation way: “He just looked so tired, so I said Tink, would you like to leave that chain behind you, and I let him run off.” Tinky was twelve and blind and deaf and we lived on a highway. When our lesbian neighbors who my parents denied were lesbians found out about Tinky’s passing, one said, “Good. Now he won’t have to live on that tiny rusted chain.” She said this to my mother, not to me, but my mother told me this different point of view in the hope that it would lighten my grief.

After Tinky died, I began having nightmares. My parents didn’t want another dog so they bought a hamster, Puffy. When Puffy got diarrhea I cried so hard that I fainted. The veterinarian prescribed him drops that healed his tiny turds, but then came the problem that Puffy did not like his cage. One night he escaped and ran into our well’s pump-drain in the basement. I discovered his bloated body the morning of my tenth birthday (the previous night’s birthday party activities had largely consisted of myself and my best friend Becky canvassing the house in a desperate search for rodent paw prints. The basement had spiders and smelled boring so it was shocking to discover that he’d chosen to hang out there).

In high school, I tried a parakeet, Rudy. It seemed to hate sitting still on a stick all day. There are all kinds of sad metaphors about caged birds, and they’re all true. Whose idea was it to cage birds?

Whenever I opened the cage door Rudy would burst out in paranoid flight then circle around the room until it ran into things and had to stop flying (for physical reasons). Whenever I kissed its beak it bit my lip. I pretended its bites were kisses even though that was a lie, and I was totally turning into my parents with the lies.

Since the bird and I didn’t bond too much I gave it to a nearby mentally challenged woman who had all types of pets including other birds and turtles. This was probably the happiest time of Rudy’s life. His cage was put next to a female bird’s and they fell in love, except they couldn’t actually mate because reproduction was not allowed (she already had nine or ten animals). She was not allowed reproduction either; I know this because one day she brought me a sample of a maxi pad that she’d gotten in the mail, asking if I would like to have it because her mother didn’t use them any more due to age and she didn’t use them due to an operation.

When I became a grown-up in college, my roommate wanted a cat and not a dog, so we got one. I didn’t dare bring up the possibility of dog, because it was an animal we were both sharing, and due to my eleven-year dry spell I was very dog-selfish. The cat had a snaggle tooth and liked to poop on my bed, but once in awhile it would cuddle with me. Cuddling was a trade-off, though, because in order to get it to sit in my lap I had to let it pierce my legs repeatedly with its claws. My roommate called this cat-action “making bread” and said all cats do it. Knowing the cat hadn’t singled me out for personal reasons somewhat diminished the pain of this bread-making.

After college I traveled a lot and couldn’t have a dog because most of the places I stayed didn’t allow them. Plus I spent all my money on drugs. But whenever I got to play with a dog I was grateful.

Then in grad school, a wealth of dogs entered my life. There was a dog shelter filled with dogs my husband wouldn’t let me bring home, but I got to go there and play with the dogs all the time and feed them and pick up their defecations from the shelter yard. This was exciting because new dogs arrived weekly.

The dogs’ appearances were especially unpredictable and not like pictures of dogs in books or on television. Often times the dogs were missing parts or had large scars or were of a mixed breed that, to some, was frightening and ruled out the existence of a higher power. These dogs were usually the greatest, though.

Also I found that people who owned dogs would go on vacation or to a long day of work and pay me to care for their dogs in the meantime. Sometimes the dogs were very calm and other times I couldn’t control them, but I always had fun and figured out a way for the dogs to let me pet them for as long as I wanted and for me to embrace them without them growling. Some dogs didn’t really want to be petted; they wanted to run away from home. They’d eventually let me pet them, though, if I was Persistent.

One of the dogs I sat for, a giant elderly Labrador named Penelope who I called Chenilleope, because she was so very soft and antique, got a new friend when her owners adopted a baby from China. The baby was a year old and loved the dog instantly and cared very much if she saw that the dog didn’t have enough food or water, or if she didn’t see the dog moving around in the house’s corners. Penelope is like a spider and loves corners, which the baby girl soon learned. She had to be taught how to pet the dog in a less-excited way that did not pull Penelope’s fur and tail, and she soon excelled at gentleness. I think that it’s amazing when I see the two of them, this giant sweet beast and this tiny sweet baby both lying on the floor together. Dogs are the best, I say, I like to tell the baby.

I begged and begged and begged and begged my husband for a dog, but he didn’t feel one was necessary until I grew ill. I didn’t have cancer but my spirits were low, and I wasn’t getting out of bed or making waste very often, mainly I just was be-ing, with or without fever. When the door opened and I heard paws, at first I thought he’d just borrowed a dog for me to play with, which was fine. After all, I’m a fan of big dogs. In college, I joined a webring of Newfoundland owners and made my own site where I pretended to have my own Newfoundland, Boris, by pasting and copying URL images of other peoples’ Newfoundlands that all looked somewhat the same and were taken from kind of a distance. I’d talk to other people about the difficulties and joys they were having with their Newfoundlands, and they would inquire about how life was with Boris. My favorite owner to chat with had the largest Newfoundland I could find within the webring. She told me this story where one time she was making pancakes while her newf was in the garage, and it broke through the side entrance door to get closer to the smell. My image of this was like that Kool-Aid commercial where the pitcher comes through the wall, but with a furry dog instead.

When I heard the paws coming I sat up in bed and gave a little pathetic cough, and I think my ears knew something my brain did not by the tiny sounds. Anything but a Chihuahua, I thought, because my pretend-dog had been big Boris, and little dogs weren’t as much my thing.

The dog was a Chihuahua mix though, some kind of terrier too, so larger (how’d you grow your Chihuahua that big, people ask me when they see him, as though I’m walking a blue-ribbon watermelon). Still, when I first saw him, I was a little teed. I’d waited so long to be a grown-up and have a dog, and then my husband said “yes” to dog but “no” to right-now, and then finally he gave in to the right-now and it was this small dog that to me seemed like one-quarter of a real dog.

The Chihuahua was shy in the beginning and had lots of head-scars, but soon he grew boisterous and silky and I realized I’d had small dogs all wrong. It was like a beautiful after-school special that tried to encourage boys that girls weren’t gross, and girls that boys weren’t gross, and ended with a sunset co-ed soccer game and the boys and girls high-fiving. You are my companion animal! I say to him all the time.

When he was shy I didn’t want him sleeping with us, because he was very nervous about human limbs and would make quite a disturbance when my husband or I rotated. Soon though the Chihuahua didn’t want to jump off our bed at night in a way that was very convincing, so we let him stay. He is an excellent spooner who radiates an intense amount of heat, and at first I kept waking up because spaces in my shoulder and under my chin that were usually normal-temperature and vacant were suddenly full and several hundred degrees too warm.

It’s compelling, though, how well creatures can adjust to one another. Now I cannot sleep without my dog nestled into me like I’m his mother koala. My own sleep-breaths have no idea what to do if they aren’t feeling him inhale and exhale. I love his fur-smell, even when he begins to smell like corn chips due to our very long walks in the sun.

I’m not a very mature person. I like to spend money I don’t have and I buy a lot of wigs even though I’m not bald. Also I collect menacing stuffed animals and have a bright apartment filled with theatre props although I am not an actor. I think this is because I don’t understand what being a grown-up is all about so I’m rejecting it in ways, with fake-money thinking and the vintage teddy bears with clown faces that I buy. In fact the only part I like about being a grown-up is how I have my own dog and he will cuddle with me pretty much whenever I want him to, unlike my husband who says I have creepy hands, not in a pervert way but in that I like to rub and pet his sides like he is a bear or a large dog and that is not the type of affection he most prefers.

Oftentimes in public, I’ll see someone approaching from far away with a beautiful dog and I’ll get very exuberant. Mostly people are nice when we finally are in the same space and they let me give their dogs hugs, but sometimes they Judge. When this happens I feel sad that they don’t understand I’m a dog enthusiast and a grown-up and should be allowed to frolic if I please.