The dog that never was

Despite the 'Beware of Dog' sign, no canine – friendly or otherwise – managed to take up residence.

A sign in Boca Raton, Fla., warns of a (presumably) genuine canine.

We didn't have a dog, but my father, a practical man, decided not to remove the "Beware of Dog" sign that the house's previous owners had left on the driveway gate. We were transplants twice over – he and my mother had come from Taiwan to the United States; his now-expanded family of five had moved from New England to Los Angeles – and here, after all those miles traveled and paychecks saved, we would make our home. Dad found it sensible to have strangers believing that a creature of instinct was standing guard.

What I really wanted, though, was a puppy. I bothered my parents about it to no end, thinking that the sign should reflect some aspect of reality – if not the beware part, then at least the dog. So my father must have figured he'd gotten a break when, one day, while in the car returning from a swimming lesson, my brothers and I spotted a tortoise crawling along the sidewalk. We clambered out and gathered around. He was about the size of a dinner plate. A slow-moving, noiseless, virtually maintenance-free animal, appearing on our way home from the Y. My father looked skyward. It must have been willed. He grasped the shell at three and nine o'clock, like a steering wheel, and set the creature in the back of the station wagon.

How a land tortoise ended up on a road in suburban southern California was a mystery. My dad speculated that the little guy had been hitchhiking his way around the country. To me, he was a most welcome passenger. Over the next few weeks, all the affection I'd been saving for a warm-blooded pet was unloaded on Snappy, who, despite his name, tolerated my hugs with stoic resolve. Sure, he was more reserved than a pup, but my new companion inspired daydreams about roaming unexplored lands, my home on my back, free from duties. Imagination got the best of me. One afternoon while meandering about the neighborhood, I suddenly realized that I'd left Snappy unattended in the backyard. The search was fruitless. Perhaps he was ambling on a sidewalk somewhere, maybe huddled in his shell on the floorboards of another family's car, taking his next ride out of town.

I was only about 8 then. Still, I knew that the already-dubious notion that I could be a responsible caretaker of pets was dashed for the rest of my childhood: A tortoise had run away under my watch. But adolescence came along, and it was toward the end of my senior year in high school that I had the audacity to bring into my parents' house Millie, a 3-month-old mix of various breeds, including beagle, which is mostly what she resembled. She'd whimpered and squirmed in the passenger seat the whole ride there. I explained to my parents that a school friend was hoping we could provide a warm, welcoming home. They frowned as I emptied a Ziploc bag of doggy nibbles in the middle of the kitchen floor. Millie picked at a few sheepishly, glancing at each of us between bites.

"Don't look at me like that," my father said, softening a bit. The animal then stood on all fours, gazed up at all of us gratefully, and urinated all over the linoleum.

Millie was returned. I shipped off to the East Coast for college. For the next 15 years, I felt as if I was carrying my home on my back. I lived under 19 different roofs in 11 cities, with significant periods in two countries abroad. All the while my parents remained in the same house – and always there was that sign, increasingly tattered by the elements, admonishing would-be intruders to "Beware of Dog."

Then there was the time I walked up the driveway to discover a brand-new sign – "Beware of Dog" – in place of the old one! And still, cruelest of fates, no furry friend in the backyard to justify the warning.

I have since made a new home, with the woman I love. Our house doesn't have a dog in the backyard, either. My wife, a practical woman, stresses the importance of hygiene if we're to have a baby. It's a not-so-veiled suggestion of what's to come, one that my own parents prefer to express in the declarative rather than the conditional. Apparently, they've forgotten that a land tortoise went AWOL under my watch. But as it happens, the idea of taking on a fellow traveler is slowly starting to grow on me. In my more daring flights of fancy I even consider placing a "Baby on Board" sign in our car, to encourage safe driving from nearby vehicles. Premature? Maybe. Or maybe not. Children, tortoises, puppies – who knows what precious cargo we might pick up on our way home.

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