First Love

My first love arrived on all fours one winter day in 1965. I was standing in line, shivering with grades K through 8 outside St. Mary’s on City Island. I stared at the wooden doors with my fingers tucked into my armpits, willing the nuns to emerge and usher us in when a disturbance made me turn my head.

A mid-sized mutt was making his way up and down the lines, greeting and sniffing, accepting pats on his head, and eluding full-body grabs. When he got to where I stood, he pointed his black-tipped ears towards my face, stopped, and sat down. I looked into the luminous eyes framed in soft fawn and felt a tug on my 8-year-old heart.

The dog followed me into school but was quickly escorted back outside, so I figured that was that. But, hours later, when the final bell rang, I saw that he had made a little nest between the boxwood and the brick wall of our school. I bent down and ran my fingers through his thick coat, and he nosed me in return. And then he followed me home, but of course, he couldn’t come in the house. I didn’t even think to ask.

After dinner, it began to snow. Mom was sitting on the couch, reading to my brothers and me. We crowded around her looking at pictures of the protagonist, a long-haired Dachshund named Wiener when someone knocked at our front door. Mom opened the door, and the woman on our step launched an attack. Snow flew as she berated my mother for leaving her dog outside on a night like this.

Johnny, Bobby, and I sat on the couch, open-mouthed. This was even better than the storybook that had captured our attention moments before. “What dog?” my mother stammered, “We don’t have a dog!” The woman stepped aside to reveal the chocolate-colored stray, plastered in wet fur and shivering.

Mom brought him into the house, the woman went away, I told my schoolyard story, and we regarded our first family pet. We toweled him off, each of us drowning in his gaze. Mom rummaged through the leftovers. She held out a piece of meat, and he gently took it from her hand. “What shall we name him?” someone asked. “Wiener!” one of the boys howled, and we all laughed.

My parents tried to find Wiener’s owner, but after a few weeks concluded he did not belong to our island community. They speculated that he had tried to follow his owner to work. Perhaps he had seen his human get on a bus, and maybe one day he had gotten loose and darted through the open doors of a bus headed for City Island.

Wiener ended up in New Jersey with my Nana where he roamed free with the rest of her dogs. He always greeted us with solemn consideration and a gentlemanly waving of his feathery tail. In the summer we kids spent long weekends at Nana’s, playing in her thick lawn, and racing up the hill through birch and laurel to explore the sandpits. Wiener lived a long life, pampered in ways I have never since seen anyone spoil their animals: with coffee and cream in the morning, liver and bacon for breakfast, calamine lotion on their pink tick-bit bellies, spoons of Pepto-Bismol when required, and ice cubes in their drinking water.

Of those many years with my first pet, one memory stands out. It was hot, and everything was green. Nana and I had been to the dairy, the one with the doe-eyed Jersey cow, and bought fresh cream and butter and a carton of raspberries. Wiener and I were playing outside when Nana called from the kitchen door. She handed me a bowl of raspberries and cream, which I took to a bench beneath a mammoth oak. Wiener sat in front of me, and we took turns. A spoonful of cream with a fat, red berry for him, then one for me, then one for him, our eyes locked, cicadas ticking in the woods, leaves rustling overhead.

I cannot for the life of me find a photograph of Wiener, and I won’t tell you how much time I spent looking. We all loved that dog, even my father, the man behind the camera, who recorded so much of our young lives. I decide that I’m done looking and that it’s better this way. This way there is no danger I’ll overwrite my precious memories with a picture of a nondescript dog. No image can capture the significance of those brown canine eyes.

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