The Dog Who Would Be King

I used to have this dog. He wasn't anything special, just a mutt who wandered into the yard one day. He didn't require a lot of attention and had one or two pleasant attributes: If you walked him, threw him a stick or a tennis ball, he was happy. I called him "Mud", because it seemed to suit him.

A couple of years ago, at night, while I was watching TV, Mud started making a fuss, sniffing at the door, whining, pacing. Finally I got up and let him out. He raced across the yard and pawed anxiously at the locked gate. I got a flashlight, a jacket, and I followed Mud as he scrambled up the rough canyon that runs against the end of my street.

I plunged through the overgrown brush, stumbling over fallen trees and debris, swearing to myself. I stopped to catch my breath. For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of the breeze in the overgrown Eucalyptus trees. Then Mud started barking somewhere above me, somewhere further up the hill. I figured he'd probably cornered a raccoon or a cat, but I kept climbing, struggling over a fallen chainlink fence and some broken concrete. I found Mud barking at a car that had come down over the embankment from the canyon road above. There was a driver inside the car, unconscious, but breathing. Mud stayed with the car as I climbed up to the road and went for help.

For awhile Mud became something of a local hero. It was fun for me even though Mud didn't seem to really care. But after a while, we fell back into our normal routine. Then, about a year ago, Mud started refusing to eat, kept digging his way out under the fence, and vanishing for hours at a time. One night, around two in the morning I awoke to a strange sound from somewhere downstairs. I put on my slippers and a sweatshirt and went off to investigate. I peeked in the pantry where Mud sleeps on a ratty old cushion, but he wasn't there. I went down the hall past the kitchen to a guest room that no one ever uses. The noise was coming from inside the room. It was a voice, a droning, muttering voice.

I pushed open the partially closed door. The bed was empty but the sound was coming from the narrow gap between the edge of the mattress and the far wall. I stepped around the footboard and shone the flashlight beam on the floor. It was Mud. He was stretched out on the old oak floor, sound asleep. His lips were moving and he was muttering, counting numbers in a vaguely incoherent ramble.
Yeah. That's right. Mud was dreaming... and talking in his sleep.

I was so surprised that I dropped the flashlight. It crashed onto the floorboards and the blade of light streaked around the room. Mud woke, picked up his head and looked at me. I stared at him, suddenly very afraid.
"Mud, you can talk..." I said.
Mud put his head down and looked away, then, in an even baritone said, "You're not going to make a big deal about this are you?"

It's a funny thing when your dog starts talking. You think you'd be happy. You think you'd start scheming up ways to profit, right? I mean, a talking dog. You hit the jackpot. You're gonna shuck off your old straight life and ride this baby straight up into the sky.

Well that's what I did. We made some videos and and we went viral. We got a publicist and we started slow, a few morning radio spots, a spread in the local newspaper. I was careful. I kept Mud's earnings in a bank account and tried to maintain a normal life for the both of us. Then, one morning, I found the house empty. Mud was gone.

A couple of days later, I got an email. Mud had signed with a big management company. Mud was moving on. He hit the big time and he wasn't just showing up on crappy news shows at the end of a leash. He showed up on "Ellen". He did an Oprah special. He made waffles on the Today show with Matt Lauer. A week after that he did two segments on Letterman, telling stories and riffing with Dave about his life as a dog. Mud was good. Really good. Better than a dog had any right to be.

A couple of weeks ago I flew to New York. I paid three hundred bucks to a scalper for a single ticket to a production of "Hamlet" at the Belasco Theater. Mud played the title role. He was a helluva Hamlet. He did the pathos, the indecision, the anger. Oh, sure he was still a dog, but what a dog.

I waited outside the stage door in the alley off 44th Street. I was one in a crowd of perhaps a hundred people. It was cold. Players and their entourages came through an unmarked red door. Ophelia, younger and prettier than I'd have thought, signed my playbill. Finally, Mud stepped out, surrounded by a trio of beefy body-guards. He was affable and generous. He barked for the crowd and signed autographs until his handlers got impatient. They cleared a lane through the throng as an oily black limo pulled up to the curb.

As he moved through his fans, exchanging pleasantries, I got into position near the car. I slipped inside one of the bodyguards as he pulled open the limo door and I stepped in front of Mud. He couldn't help but look me square in the face. We locked eyes. The bodyguards tried to push me away, but I held my ground. Mud wormed his way past me and made for the open limo door. "Mud!" I yelled, "It's me! Don't ignore me! Mud!"

Mud turned. The bodyguard tried to get him in the car but Mud shrugged him off. The dog looked at me hard, but didn't open his mouth, didn't say a word.
I swallowed, my voice was quaking, unsure. "I didn't know I had to share you," I said, "I didn't know you weren't gonna be my dog anymore."
Mud blinked and swallowed, his voice was thick and weary. He said, "This is what you wanted, remember?"

He shook his head disgustedly and turned into the car. The door closed, the engine revved, and the limo disappeared down that Manhattan street, tires hissing on the wet macadam. The crowd dispersed, and I found myself alone.

I got a cab to the airport and I went back home. I took all Mud's stuff, tennis ball, ratty old bed, leash, bowl, and I put them a box. I made space for the box on a shelf in the garage. Someday, maybe Mud will need his stuff. And it will be there for him. And so will I.

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