To Be Happy
When sadness turns her into a stranger, one decision may draw her back.
illustration by Jeanne Seagle
Your stocky bulldog, on the usual tight leash, almost breaks your wrist when he spots the tiny terrier across the street strutting down the sidewalk at a fast clip. What is that? you think. Could that really even be a dog? You yank your own pup back closer to you and pick him up; your dog’s got some issues, after all: always after birds, gunning for faraway squirrels. An innocent man on a bicycle or a jogging mom pushing a stroller results in barking, howling, drooling insanity, no exceptions.
(But he’s worse without a walk.)
Even though he is an absolute disaster, of course you love him anyway. Possibly, you even love him a little more because of his quirks? Regardless, you’re stuck with him — you’ve started to think that maybe he’s really the only important thing you have left.
Pawing, twisting, scratching, thrusting his football-shaped head and emitting an unnerving sound much like a yodel, he resists your control with alacrity. The terrier — you squint; could it be a Chihuahua? — struts on by, secure in his path and his mission. He glances your way. He meets your eyes. Did he just shrug a little? you wonder. Did I just see that or have I really lost it today? He continues down the sidewalk like nothing’s unusual in this scenario.
You reach your house and hustle your dog inside. You unclip his leash, and he desperately slurps up all the water in his bowl and looks at you panting and with a dripping muzzle, demanding more. However, you are on pause.
What to do? You jiggle your keys and shift from foot to foot, deciding. You averted one disaster, your crazy bulldog lunging after a pup a quarter of his size, but is that little dog going to be okay?
He’s so very small; he’s clearly confident, yes, but too much so for his size and for being out in the world all alone. His possible vulnerability propels you out the door, you at least remember to lock it in your haste, and then you choose. You run.
Your breath, unmeasured and raspy, the weird fall of your feet, that painful twinge in your back that halted all of this in the first place, all of the awkwardness of running again after not-running for so long comes together to make it clear that it’s been a while. You can’t save everyone — as usual, everyone’s preachy words reverberate in your mind — you never know when to stop, when it’s enough, they always say to you, they have since you were small.
The first brave, shy daffodils have pushed their way up out of the ground, and their determination inspires you to keep going. That change, that first spring burst come February, it’s, well . . . exhilarating. It’s so ridiculous, you think, but you can’t help but feel that if the flowers can persevere after this terrible winter, so can you. You are feeling that lovely blankness again, the thing that got you running in the first place, because it is the only time your mind ever drifted into something like ease. Does everyone have this paralyzing anxiety, the need to fix everything before it happens and to control everyone else’s next move? You have been the one quietly spinning out while no one pays any mind to it at all because it has become the norm.
You push through, gasping like you’re drowning on the abundance of air, and you scan your neighborhood as it appears this unseasonably warm February afternoon. You love it still after all the memories and the history, the failed attempts at moving, the notion that everyone else is leaving you behind for good, off to boast two stories, two children, two incomes, two freezers, two kitchens, and maybe even two dogs. You still love the quietness, the tameness of the neighbors’ weeknight-only parties, the summer potlucks of amiability when you socialize once per year and say you’ll do so more often — you want to, though the plans always fall through. You still love the way a few acquaintances who don’t know the whole story of this past winter can still be called upon to let your dog out when you work late — for lack of anything else going on to occupy you, you always seem to be working late. You still love the way the leaves stay on the ground until people pick them up themselves come March; it’s like a pact that everyone skips the autumn parade of silent and invisible leaf guys week after week and neat, bragging, bulging bags a mile long at the edge of the front yard. You still love that the elderly man in the immaculate house on the side street, the house you’re pounding clumsily past now, is still trying to grow a wispy tulip poplar in that very same spot as he was ten years ago, and it’s never going to grow, but he’s always trying. You love it here because no matter who else has jettisoned it, it remains your home.
You remember the lost dog. Where in the world is he? You don’t consider giving up yet.
You had quite a reputation back when this neighborhood was new and bright to you. You were the dog-finder. You saw more than you corralled, but you got your fair share. There was one collie running by the interstate. He hopped right into your car in the parking lot of a sketchy apartment building, and you located his owner in ten minutes through the number on his tag. Another sad untrimmed lab mix stayed in your backyard, even tried to dig out, but his owner walked by and spotted him at your gate the next day. That white pit bull you saved from starvation was the friendliest one of all. You’ve always had that save-the-day mentality down pat when it comes to lost dogs, something that comes easily to you, one thing that continues to feel right.
Running is starting to come back to you now. It’s only a jog at this point, but it’s steady enough. Your hands sway loosely back and forth at your hips, and you roll your feet forward with ease even though you’re wearing worn-out walking shoes. You have stopped being so persnickety about such things. Everything used to be perfect, and that got you nowhere. There is a kind of freedom in giving up on having the best things and saying the right words, setting aside old, proper ways in favor of what is actually best for you at this moment. Scary at first, it is becoming your reality, so you might as well embrace it.
The tiny dog, you think, where in the world is he? Where would I choose to go if I were that dog? You follow the path of the sidewalk even though it will lead you to places you have been avoiding for a while. One house in particular triggers discomfort; you don’t even drive by there anymore. It is where your friends — both of them, no longer yours — live, and it used to be your second home. You could walk there from your own house, and you often did, with some extra rosemary cookies for a random sit-out-on-the-porch time in the evening, or a book that just had to be shared.
You approach; their house is still as pristine as ever with its modern stonework and arches and softly glowing garden lights. They did not claim you after your world fell to pieces. How could somewhere you spent so much time seem so poisoned now?
The tears come, and instead of making you weak as their role was in the recent past, they make you angry. You are so, so sick of being sad. It has threatened to suck you under and keep you there for good. You are at the point where you will grasp on to anything at all as long as it forces you to experience another emotion besides this. A dangerous predicament, yes, but it is what’s going to get you through.
You scrub your eyes on the tail of your T-shirt and will yourself to stop. You step up the pace and fly by the house you will never enter again, and you cross over into victorious. Even more so because you spot him.
That dog, the reason for all of this, looks no worse for the wear. That trot he has lifts your heart and makes you hopeful for an ending that means something. He skitters down the sidewalk on the exact route you thought he’d follow. He’s well-trained enough not to zigzag in the street. He’s probably following the path he’s been taken on many times before by his owner.
He’s fast. He’s so much faster than you. You are determined not to leave him behind now that you have him in your sights. You speed it up. You stay focused on him and try not to scream out to him and scare him — you already know that you have to be stealthy with a dog in this situation. You have to be crafty and sly. You get close enough to see that he is wearing a ragged bandanna around his flower-stem-skinny neck, and is that a tick collar? Who puts something like that on a dog anymore?
He must feel you watching him, or he hears your steps slamming down behind him on the sidewalk because he does the very thing you do not want him to do. He swings his head to the side just enough to spot your approach. Game on. He bursts into a gallop so quickly that it seems as though his toenails are the only thing making contact with the concrete. The little race horse is in his home stretch, and he is going to win.
You try but you cannot keep up. You push so hard that your throat goes sandpapery from your gasps; the shin splints you used to work so diligently to avoid shoot back and cripple you.
“Wait!” you scream. “Come here!”
By some miracle, a woman is unloading groceries from her car not too far from where the dog has gotten to now. Her head snaps up at the desperation in your voice.
“Catch him!” you tell her. You can barely speak you’re so gone. “Grab him!”
“Is that your dog?” she yells back.
“Yes!” you tell her, and at that moment, you even believe it.
She bends down and he scrambles into her arms. You jump up and down like a child. You slow your pace and think about how to make this seem normal.
The dog is the best: long, graceful nose; short, reddish fur; hairless, spotted underbelly; smiling with his long, sharp teeth. He isn’t more than ten pounds. His ears stand straight up.
“Here you go,” the woman says. She holds him out to you, his legs dangling and swimming through the air. She raises an eyebrow at you. “Lost his leash?” she asks.
“Yes,” you tell her. “You can see how squirmy he is,” you add.
“Okay,” she says and turns back to the mass of brown bags in the trunk.
“Thank you,” you call over your shoulder. “I really appreciate the help.”
The dog burrows into your arms. He licks your hand a few times. You carry him in the crook of your arm like a clutch, and he relaxes his head on your forearm. Thunder sounds, a storm on the way, and he doesn’t shake or worry. A drop of rain hits you squarely on the part of your hair and then more gather. You are not worried; you have no concerns. Elated, you carry him home, and the only thing that comes to mind is that this is the very opposite of what would happen in an overly sentimental movie; instead of rain and gray clouds, it should be the brightest sun and gentle breezes, the bluest sky and most cottony clouds, because this is the best thing you’ve had happen to you in a very long time. And nothing can bother you now.
It takes your old bulldog a while to warm up to the idea of this unexpected companion who springs around him and nips his face in play and tries to eat all of the food the instant the bowl hits the kitchen floor. This new one is undeterred. He is pure love. He burrows under your fleece blanket when you watch movies and is ecstatic just to be sleeping next to your leg. He wakes up with a start every morning because he is simply so overjoyed to be awake. He frolics in your embarrassing, overgrown backyard as though it is his own personal heaven.
After a few days, the bulldog deigns to share his beanbag bed and takes a sprawling nap with the little one. Everything changes. They pull apart stuffed toys with carefully formulated planning. They fetch with abandon. They bark at nothing. Amazingly, they bond.
You wonder how you ever lived without him. You know you should do something, make an effort to find out where he belongs. You put it off. Your copier is out of ink, so you can’t print out signs.
You tell yourself you’ll get to it, but you don’t. You take him to a vet that’s much farther away from the usual place you go. You pray that he doesn’t have heartworms, and your prayers are answered. You pay for all his shots just in case he isn’t current on them. You get him the heart meds and the flea meds, and you get them for six months.
You knew you were missing so much, but you are surprised to realize it might be this easily fixed.
There comes a time when you must make a decision. It almost is not a decision at all. It is a decision you must make both with purpose and your own version of logic and reason; you think the thing to do is just to live with all sides of whichever horrible, wonderful thing that you decide. The main thing to consider is if the unbearable joy you discover it’s possible for you to feel is somehow worth the piercing slivers of guilt.
You try not to think too much. You hide him as well as you can. No more walks unless it’s late night. If it is absolutely necessary, he travels undercover in a plain beige carrier, door to door. You’re tempted to post a few of the cutest puppy pictures on your neglected Facebook account. You resist. You can’t risk it. It might allow the decision to fall into someone else’s hands. And you know now that nothing is worse than having a choice made for you. Those forfeited choices are the ones you most regret.
No one really cares except one person. It turns out that she just won’t leave you alone. You purposefully have not placed any pleading ads. You haven’t sent any emails alerting the neighbors. You haven’t told the vets in the area a thing. You never posted those fliers.
Still, she has heard a rumor. It’s true that everyone knows everyone else in this city, which is really just a big town in most ways. She thinks she has tracked down her dog. She does not yet realize that he may not be hers any longer.
It takes weeks for her phone calls to subside, but they do. There are tears involved on the other end of the line. The calls turn wistful after a month. You delete the messages upon the first telling syllable so that you don’t have to hear any of it. She gathered up the courage to ring your doorbell once; you knew immediately that it was her. She waited an interminable amount of time tucking her hair behind her ears and glancing around your porch before she trudged away to her car parked out front.
Bit by bit, she’s giving up.
So you curl up with the new one while the old one rests contentedly at your feet. This new one has that abiding, all-consuming love for you, like young dogs do. Always underfoot, he remains obsessed with your every move. He studies everything you do. He waits in his kennel while you are away and barrels out in a tumble of legs and yips and licks and joy once you release him.
They have no idea. They just exist in the moment. You learn from it. It’s a good way to be. You pet him and rub his ears and he sighs. He flips over on his back in a sign of full trust. He is truly content. It’s lovely.
How can it be lonely, too?
You think of the voice on the phone.
There is only one thing to do, one decision to make. It opens up before you like the only path there is. The possibility that you can change shimmers before you and beckons you to try. It looks a lot like hope. And for once, at whatever cost, you find yourself feeling what you never dreamed you’d be again.
Meet the winner of the 2013 fiction contest.
by Marilyn Sadler
While in high school, Amy Lawrence wrote short stories and “funny little essays.” She learned early the importance of editing and revising to make the piece “just right.”
That practice has paid off for Lawrence, whose story “To Be Happy” won the grand prize in our 2013 fiction contest. Indeed it’s the second time this Memphian has taken the top honor; her story, “The Pact,” won in 2003.
A lover of literature, Lawrence enjoys re-reading the classics. “I adore Southern writers,” she says. “Peter Taylor is one of my favorites.” As an eighth-grade teacher at Hutchison School, she introduces her students to such authors as Henry James, Willa Cather, and Eudora Welty, along with contemporary young-adult literature. “We choose the books, and we talk a lot about writing,” says Lawrence, who at age 22 earned first place in the 1999 Seventeen magazine fiction contest. “Every single one of my students impresses me when it comes to writing, so I just guide them as well as I can,” she adds.
A few years ago, Lawrence realized that creating fiction can be a lonely process. So she packed up all her notebooks and manuscripts, including two novels — one of which got “tangled up in the selling process” — and began to focus on food writing. She and her husband, freelance photographer Justin Fox Burks, are co-authors of The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook (Thomas Nelson, May 2013). They also created the recipe blog chubbyvegetarian.blogspot.com, and their recipes were featured in The New York Times Well blog in 2012.
“I had to get away from fiction for awhile in order to come back to it now,” says this graduate of Rhodes College and former copywriter for a local ad agency. In developing a story, she takes “a little bit from life,” imagines a situation, gives it embellishments, and gradually makes it her own. Her winning entry — about a woman who rescues a dog while trying to come to terms with heartache and loss — was inspired in part from her own efforts in animal rescue.
For aspiring writers, Lawrence offers truly wise words: “Become resilient and tough when it comes to rejection. Put your head down and keep writing, no matter what. The opportunities will come your way at some point if you’re hardworking and reliable and you’re trying to get better every day. Know how to edit your work and have the patience to do it — even if you need to put something away and come back to it.”
Beyond that, she adds, shed the ego “because that’ll be sure to hold you back. Press on, be flexible, and stay open to writing different things.” After all, she never dreamed her first book would be a cookbook, “but I’m so thrilled that it is.”
Finally, she says, “trust your mentors and rely on them. People really do want to help.”
For the story, which starts on page 84, Lawrence earned $1,000. Honorable-mention awards, each worth $500, went to Tom Bennitt, who lives in Oxford, teaches writing at Ole Miss, and has won various honors and awards, including a Pushcart Prize nomination; and Memphian Abe Gaustad, whose fiction has appeared in several publications and who’s working on a novel and a collection of stories.
We congratulate these three winners, and thank all who sent entries to the contest. We also extend sincere appreciation to our longtime cosponsors, The Booksellers at Laurelwood and Burke’s Book Store; without their support, this contest would not be possible.