During the summer 2019 in New Haven, Connecticut, I became invisible. Not in a sci-fi way like H.G. Wells’ protagonist, nor like Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator. I slowly faded from existence, just a nameless humanoid form, a disembodied spirit at the end of a leash. You see, a few months earlier, I got a new puppy, Herman, a dachshund, “the illest dog in New Haven.”
Herman became a part of our little family on February 9, an easy day for me to remember, the anniversary of the Sylmar quake in Los Angeles, 1971, which I experienced when I was 7, and my paternal grandmother’s birthday, forever after known as “Earthquake Day.” But Herman has registered far greater on the Richter scale in terms of my very existence, wiping my previous self from the Earth.
The girlfriend and I moved across the country petless in August 2018, under the impression that our lease did not allow us to have pets. Her cats, Spaz and Serena, died that year, and I had my dog euthanized, a blue merle Australian Shepherd named Moby-Dawg. Heartbroken, we forged our new life without so much as a beta fish, giving up the perpetual sunshine of San Diego to brave New England’s winter cold in New Haven. After the new year, we noticed more animals in our building and learned we could have up to two pets. She had been talking about getting a cat. She had never had a dog before, while I had owned many dogs. So the next day, we found ourselves at a place that specializes in AKC-registered pets. We checked out the corgis and a couple of other dachshunds, but it was the little red and white dachshund that captured our hearts. The girlfriend looked at me with pleading eyes. I held on firmly and said, “you have to at least sleep on it,” and convinced her to spend the night thinking about this monumental change to our life in our small 1 bedroom 6th floor apartment in the city. The next morning, before the alarm went off, she woke up and said, “let’s go, before someone else takes him.”
A red with double dapple spots, with a white flash on the back of his neck and a white streak down the bridge of his nose and on his chest and stomach, white boots, and a white-tipped tail like a paintbrush, weighing in at a mere 4 pounds, the miniature dachshund harpooned our hearts immediately. On the way home, we batted about some names. He had a wrinkled little old man’s face despite his 10-weeks. My pets always have literary names — a pair of cats named Jem and Scout, dogs named Jackson (Pollack) and Spartacus, and my Aussie, Moby-Dawg. We tried on a few old man names, Walt (for Walt Whitman), and Henry, but neither seemed to fit. With an ocean of names before us, and thinking about how I named Moby-Dawg, with his white forehead reminiscent of Melville’s white whale, we conjured Herman. It fit snugger than a berth for a strapping whaler.
Dachshunds have been a preferred dog of the rich and famous, and as I have begun my climb to famous writer, Herman is the perfect companion. Picasso had Lump, a German word meaning “rascal.” Andy Warhol had Amos and Archie. David Hockney had Stanley and Boodgie. William Randolph Hearst had Helen. E.B. White, famous essayist and author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, wrote often about his dachshunds, Daisy, Minnie, Augie, and Fred. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Napoleon Bonaparte had dachshunds as well. One needs a faithful companion when conquering the world.
I did not know much about dachshunds, so we did our homework. Dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers. Obedience is only 50% guaranteed, while faithfulness is 100%. Dachshunds are extremely intelligent. When Herman first saw the nature show Dynasties on our computer, he watched attentively, cocking his head, and listened. A hyena attacked and killed a painted wolf puppy, and David Attenborough dramatically said, “The puppy is lost.” At that moment, Herman whimpered and settled his frame down, as if he understood. Not as if he understood! He understood completely the monumental devastation of the scene. I have proof, as I had the presence of mind to video him watching the show.
Dachshunds are not fans of the cold or wet, and neither is Herman. He shivers and cowers and hides behind our legs. Fortunately, he is good-natured and loves all people and all dogs indiscriminately.
“The Illest Dog in New Haven.”
Once he’d had all his shots, we started our daily walks to explore the world. One warm spring day, while sitting on the benches outside the Yale University Art Gallery, a colorful street person ambled by and, with a sidelong glance toward us, stopped abruptly, backpedaled a couple of steps, bent over, and approached Herman and said, “boy or girl?”
“Boy,” we said.
“What’s his name?”
“Herman, we said.
And then he made his pronouncement, “That’s the illest dog in New Haven.”
And that’s when I began to disappear.
First, I lost my voice. The girlfriend left in May for a 3-month internship abroad, leaving me to train Herman during the formative 6 to 9-month period. A pleasant New England spring blossomed and I walked Herman daily. That’s when Herman’s stubbornness began. Dachshunds are 150% willful and stubborn. As a miniature with Dumbo-sized ears, Herman cowers at loud motorcycles, sirens that are streets away, and large city busses. They strike terror into his heart and he freezes mid-stride, bringing the leash-walker to a dead halt until he feels safe enough to continue his journey, made infinitely longer by his little legs. “Herman, come on!” “Herman, let’s go!” “Herman! Herman!” I would cry in the highest friendliest falsetto I could muster to get him to budge. Nothing would move him from his hunkered down state until he was ready to start walking again.
Second, I became a mere afterthought. We made friends at three local haunts: Three Sheets with its outdoor picnic benches; Rudy’s, a neighborhood bar with windowed doors that opened to the street in the springtime; and The Owl Shop, with its cushioned couches and chairs on the sidewalk. At each place, Herman would receive a king’s greeting. “HI HERMAN!” Waitstaff would pick him up, give him treats, bring him bowls of water, scratch his belly. It would be some minutes before they’d say, as an afterthought, “oh hi lee” in the most subdued way possible, returning immediately to Herman to say “You’re sooooo cute!”
As I sat with my beer on the sidewalk couch, strangers would pet and comment on him without even acknowledging my presence.
“Oooh, so cute!”
“That’s the cutest dog ever!”
Dachshund owners and lovers said, “Wow, we’ve never seen a dachshund that cute.” Some sour overly proud dachshund owners claimed, “He’s not the proper colors. He must be a mix. Looks part beagle.”
Upon hearing his name, people would smirk and snicker and say, “Herman! oh my, the cutest name ever! It’s perfect.” And Herman would eat it all up, puff up his little dachshund chest and take it all in. “Bye Herman!” they would say, waving. “You made our day!” while I quietly sipped into beer oblivion.
When Herman dead-stopped at the sound of busses and motorcycles and idling cars, passersby would explain what was happening:
“Oh, he’s tired.”
“Oh, he doesn’t want to walk anymore.”
“He wants to be picked up.”
“Oh, how cute. Look at him. He’s sooo cute!”
Third, I became merely an automaton, a necessary leash-holder, a weight to keep Herman from running every which way. Once he got used to our routine, he would walk on auto-pilot, practically running. Walking Herman down the street, a crescendo would rise to meet us. All eyes would turn to him. A frequent refrain, “oh my god!” followed by high-pitched squeals sent his tail a-wagging. Young and old alike would cover their mouths, point, and say, “look at that puppy!” Gaggles of visiting college girls would “Ooo!” and “Aaahhh!” in unison, a tsunami of sound that drowned out city traffic. The eyes of shyer types would widen, and they would silently mouth “Oh my god!” at the cuteness passing them by.
Fourth, as summer shadows grew longer, I grew even more translucent, a shimmering ghost holding a leash. One warm summer night at The Owl Shop, one gentleman (named Sam Adams — I kid you not) declared himself the greatest dog lover on earth. He snatched up Herman and would not give him back. He bought me drinks for 4 hours, while he snuggled with Herman and fed him treats. Past midnight, time to go, he slurred, “Oh, are you still here?”
Once I noticed a former co-worker with a small group of about 10 people, and I approached to say “hello.” The group greeted Herman with “ooohs” and “ahhhhs,” squatting to pet him. After about 10 minutes, my co-worker was startled as she saw me. She said, “Oh! Hello. I didn’t see that was you.” (It is difficult to see ghosts in the sunlight.)
Fifth, I became Herman’s nameless handler, the shadow with the treat bag. Herman learned tricks in obedience class all summer — how to sit, down, stay, stand, wait. He learned to roll over, shake paw, and how to choose a hand with a hidden treat inside with his little paw. He learned to stay and then, at the signal, come running to get his reward. We perfected his routines, at home, in the lobby, outside, at the park. But starved for other canine attention, he only wanted to play at obedience class. A young Aussie in class ran rings around all the other dogs, never missing a step, eyes focused on his owners, going left, going right, backing up onto a small platform. I owned an Aussie and know the ease of training such a smart dog, pre-programmed from birth. Anyone can train an Aussie. There is skill in training a stubborn dachshund to comply 50% of the time.
And now, finally, three months after the girlfriend’s return, my effacement from the Earth is complete. The girlfriend and Herman were overjoyed at their reunion. We three would walk downtown and she saw his enormous fan club: “HI HERMAN!” Even though he was bigger at 9 months old, he was still exceedingly small and looked like a puppy, topping out at 14 pounds. While she stays home with him during the day, I am at work. In the evenings, I try to play with him.
I call him to me, “Come, Herman!” and he does not respond.
I say, “Herman, down,” and he stares at me blankly.
I say, “Herman, wait,” and he runs to get a toy.
I say to my girlfriend, “Tell him to come.”
“Herman, come!” she says. And he rushes to her.
All those hours, all those treats, all that training, all for naught.
Someday, I will leave this earth, a famous writer. On my tombstone will be a leash hanging in mid-air, attached to an etching of a dachshund, with birth and death dates: Here Lies Herman’s Leash Holder. A nameless grave.
Herman’s first birthday is today, December 1, 2019. Happy birthday, Herman. May your star shine brightly for many many years. And may you learn to come, at least 50% of the time.