NICK, our dog three years before our children were born, came to stay two weeks at the end of the summer while Sue, his new owner, went on vacation. Six years ago, when we had moved to a thickly settled neighborhood and had just had a baby, we felt Nick would be happier living in the country. He needed more room and attention than we could offer. Nick was our Christmas puppy, born on Halloween, bought in front of the toy store on Christmas Eve. He was a little furball, black as licorice, with sharp teeth, cuddling with his brothers and sisters in a basket under the soft snowfall. Who could resist? His pedigree, said the man with the litter, was half Labrador, half golden retriever, but he soon outgrew both breeds. The Labrador retriever half was, evidently, Newfoundland retriever.
Nick had become a legendary uncle to our children. They've seen his picture in his photo albums and loved hearing the stories of his antics. Every dog owner can tell the story of the Sunday roast left on the counter and ``removed'' by the dog. But once, we told the kids, Nick ate an entire chocolate cake left on the kitchen counter, the kind of cake one calls a gateau, a recipe from the New York Times named ``b^ete noir.'' Nick surely realized the dessert had his name on it - just his kind of humor.
He poached food from outside the family. The janitors at the school where I taught had their 10 a.m. doughnuts missing one day. I happened to see Nick skulking around their basement lounge licking his lips, sugar crullers on his breath, so I felt compelled to nip over to the bakery for replacements to bail him out.
Nick slept under our bed because he was afraid of thunder and lightning, we told Hilary, age 4 and cautious about dogs. He would climb into bed with us the next morning, dust bunnies clinging to his ``Newfie'' fur. ``Nick can get into my bed,'' Hilary said when we told her that Nick was coming to visit. Soon she was even conversant with all of our nicknames for Nick: Nicky, Nickle, Biggie, Boogins, The Biggest One, Gooster, Dufus.
Days before Nick arrived Hilary started counting the minutes and explaining to neighbors just who the big black dog was (``Our dog before we were borned''), and how big he was (`He's big, but you don't have to be afraid of him because he's gentle,'' Hilary kept explaining, talking herself into composure), and explaining to us just how she would walk him, feed him, pat him, comb him, sleep with him.
When Nick finally walked into to the yard with Sue, Hilary scrambled right up to my top branches, her standard reaction to even the smallest dog standing on the sidewalk a block away. While she was clamped on to me, we watched Nick survey the backyard. Spencer, age six, immediately stalked him, rope in hand, eager to tour the park with ``his dog'' in tow.
Hilary jumped down to the ground rather soon when she saw Ariel, her one-year-old sister, careen over and say her word in the dog's face: ``Wow!'' By evening Hilary was brushing Biggie and giving him a hairdo. By the next evening, if Hilary had her way, we would have seen poor Nick in the bathtub getting a shampoo and blow dry. Within three days she was walking him to the park on the leash bossing me out of the way - ``Dad, you're always crowding me.'' Nick knows the way no matter who is driving.
It took Nick little time to find an old football to fetch and maul, a favorite hall corner in which to nest, the special spot underneath the highchair where the scraps fall. He shows Ariel what fun it is to feed a doggie; she understands the relationship and slips him the peas. He even follows her around with an eye on her milk bottle. She plies him with apple juice; this is not his cup of tea.
One evening during his visit neighborhood boys were exploding bottle rockets and Nick retreated beneath our bed for safety. Another night, during a particularly powerful thunderstorm, Nick sought us out for reassurance at 2 a.m. Spencer and Hilary, who generally need comforting themselves during the big booms, gathered around Nick on our bed and explained that ``it was all right, just thunder.'' What a scene: two parents, two kids, and the Newfie-golden-retriever-watchdog on the queen-size bed.
When we all pile into the minivan, Nick rides in the back with the flotilla of carseats. He herds the flocks of kids on the playground.
Nick was, for Spencer, a real animal for his lassos and rope traps; a kind of older brother. For a while, I was to be relieved of having to put my wrists and ankles into slip knots and led around the yard or jailed. Nick also fetches better than I do.
Naturally his presence is poignant for Lesley and me. We hadn't seen Nick during the intervening years and, though we expected him not to remember us, it was still a bit odd to think he couldn't reminisce about his former days as our dog! Nick was like a visitor from our marriage before children, a sojourner from the past crystallizing for us the accomplishments of the intervening years: the move to a new job, our first house, a baby boy, a baby girl, the move to a larger house, a big yard (``maybe we'll have a dog again someday''), and another baby girl. He is a time traveler from a galaxy that seems far, far away.
A few days before Nick was supposed to leave our house and return to Sue, I asked Hilary whether she was ready to own a dog. Had she liked having Nick around? ``Let's get a dog. The day after tomorrow,'' we said. Then Sue called. She had been thinking about something. Would we consider taking Nick back? She always thought of herself as a caretaker and it seemed to her quite natural to think of him returning to live with Spencer, Hilary, and Ariel.
We thought it over. It didn't take long to decide. We broached it with the kids at dinner. ``What would you think if Nickie stayed with us and became our dog?'' No answer was required, really. With a very Dickensian twist, Nick is our once and future dog.
I drive the kids to school in the morning since they attend the school where I teach. Nick hates being left behind and some days when he trots out to the car with us we just pop him in the back and bring him along. He gets to run on the soccer field in the morning, gobble up crackers and milk at snack time, and play outfield for the stick-ball game at recess. Of course you have to have two balls handy when a compulsive retriever is playing outfield or there will be nothing to pitch.
Hilary proudly and authoritatively walks him to the door of her classroom. He doesn't cross the threshold lest Chocolate the guinea pig have a conniption. During his first week as a first grader Spencer wrote about Nick in his journal. The title, of course: ``My Dog.'' The other day when I left him alone in my office, Nick ate my assistant's breakfast. I guess I'll bail him out again.