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Personal Essays

Call and Response

Sometimes a book appears in your life and starts to pester you. The characters act like your friends. Events occur in the plot that reappear inside your home. It’s enough to drive a man to wonder which world is more real, until danger appears.

Mandla Reuter, The Agreement, Antwerp, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Micheline Szwajcer.

I don’t always enjoy reading. I don’t love books to death or place the moment curled up with a read as the penultimate experience that life can bring me. As of late, there have been more novels than I’m ready to admit whose lights have gone out on me after a few chapters. It must be me, not the author, I reassure myself. But I slide their paperbacks back onto my shelf with the bookmark waving somewhere out of the middle of the pages. Perhaps I’m expecting too much. There are limits to what books can do, after all.

I came across praise of Yannick Murphy’s novel The Call online. It is the story, as the reviews summarize it, of a veterinarian in rural New England whose young family is struck with tragedy.

It was enough to make me curious. A few pages into Murphy’s prose, my impression was “You mean the whole thing is written like this?” The paragraphs, from start to finish, have headings such as “WHAT I DID” or “WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER” or “THOUGHTS WHILE DRIVING HOME” followed by a colon and a one-liner or a page or so of exposition.

“Gimmicky,” I thought, turning the page.

But I turned more of them, until I forgot that the structure was unusual. The characters began to rise and stand up before me. I began thinking along the lines of the narration.

WHAT I DO: continue reading

WHAT THE CALL BECOMES: something beyond a book.

 

We bring home a guinea pig. He is fat and brown. My young daughters name him Oscar. My wife and I explain to the girls that he needs pellets in his dish and hay in his side tray and a full inverted bottle of water to be available at all times.

Oscar is skittish the first day with us. He spends most of his time crouching under the plastic shelter of his cage. But he warms to the giants in his life. He sniffs to see if more food is coming when we approach.

Oscar is skittish the first day with us. He spends most of his time crouching under the plastic shelter of his cage. But he warms to the giants in his life.

More than one person asks “So why did you get a guinea pig? They don’t do anything.” I tell them it’s to teach our daughters how to care for something else, to feel what it means to hold a small degree of dominion over another living thing. This doesn’t seem to answer the original question.

Once my daughters show their sustained consideration for the little creature, demand turns to a dog.

“Dogs are so nice,” my oldest daughter chirps, her head pressed against my ribs. “I want a dog so bad!”

“No, mademoiselle, we cannot have a dog in here.”

“I know we can do it, Daddy.”

“Did you remember to refill Oscar’s bottle this morning?”

 

The stoic David Appleton, the hero, father, and narrator of The Call, is typical of a certain kind of New Englander. He is a typical father. He might be typical of me. In any case, Yannick Murphy—a woman—has managed to get inside of the male head in a way I’ve very rarely read from any writer, male or female. Murphy understands how we’re unable and unwilling to just say things. How we never settle on the answers that can be funneled directly into words. How we downplay the bad stuff when it hits and refuse any gushing about the good. How we nurse our tenderness and play it off in jokes.

Amidst the open affection for her characters, Murphy also keeps animals breathing on every page.

Lines go:

WHAT THE OWLS SAY: We are in every tree within a five-mile radius.


Or:

WHAT THE COYOTES SAY: You have crossed over to where we live and now our howls could be the howls of your own heart you are hearing, or just us, our coats slightly ruffed from the November chill.

Meanwhile, descriptions and reviews swing almost deliberately wide of the point. The back cover summary describes the characters forced to “come to terms with what ‘family’ truly means.” Reviews at places like Kirkus and The Washington Post hedge their bets. The Post’s Michael Lindgren writes: “Though the book is packed with a bit too much country-vet talk (by the end you’ll know a lot about palpating cows’ hocks), it also features meditations on the physics of the universe…”

At least they accurately declare that the The Call is beautiful. 

 

We’ve found a dog. A classified ad announces a litter of three puppies.

We meet the owner and choose, from the puppies, the male with the brown ears on the otherwise polar bear-white fur. We name him Barnaby. He is a Coton de Tulear, a small, fluffy breed with a ripe black olive of a nose and an acute tendency to want to please people. Sometimes this breed is referred to as the clowns of the dog world. Ours, on top of that, also has an alpha tendency to growl when neighbors pass by. He serves and protects, then sleeps on our lap on the couch.

He is the first dog I’ve ever owned. Though I’ve been warned on this point, his introduction to the household is like that of a newborn. I revisit the waking at odds hours, the vigilance required toward objects as potential choking hazards, the up-close interaction with hot poop.

Likewise, I add a new layer of worry as to my broader influence. Am I conferring negativity, ambivalence, or weirdness? Am I reading his signals? Am I doing right by this sentient beast?

When I talk to Barnaby, he cocks his head to one side, trying to get a different angle on what I’ve uttered.

“What about you?” I ask him. He rights his head and sits.

The naysayers again ask “Why did you get a dog? You live on the third-floor of an apartment building!” But Barnaby is at home with us.

I rub the fur of his head, which grows over his eyes, and I walk out of the hallway and into the bedroom. When I walk back a few seconds later to double-check, he’s still staring at the same spot, guessing I’d reappear.

 

David Appleton takes his son hunting. From a tree stand, the boy is shot in the shoulder by an unidentified hunter, falls from the stand, and goes into a coma. David carries on, fights with his wife, groans with his other kids, and performs his on-call vet rounds, caring for the animals of the community such as a pregnant cow or a spitting alpaca. One passage, in a chapter titled “Still Winter,” has David putting a horse down and tipping its dead body into an open hole in the ground.

Though described in sparse detail, I fill in easily the remainder of these sequences. I see the expression of the horse’s owner. I notice the way other townsfolk stand when David inquires if anyone happened to spot the lights of a spaceship the other night. With the orange-covered paperback in bed with me, I picture David in the hospital at his unconscious son’s side, and the way David cares for the sick bat that turns up in the family’s bathroom sink.

A passage reads: 

WHAT THE HOUSE SAID AT NIGHT: I’m closing you in, and buttoning you tight.

 

Barnaby comes by Oscar’s cage often. The guinea pig, however, cowers back under his plastic shelter whenever the dog is near. Mostly Barnaby is there to chew on hay. He pulls a dry reed out of the side feeder and walks around the house with it hanging out of his mouth, like a hick just back from the county fair.

Barnaby waits to relieve himself out of doors, most of the time. He gets a treat and struts proudly when he does.

One late afternoon, with the sun disappearing into a blank winter fog, my girls and I and the dog scamper to a nearby park. Once on the grass, my older daughter takes hold of the leash and is immediately pulled forward by Barnaby, while I bend down to fix her sister’s scarf.

A fierce barking erupts. I jerk up to the sight of three large dogs, two German shepherds and a black Rottweiler-ish breed, surrounding Barnaby, who is four times their miniature. One of the German shepherds picks up our dog in his mouth and tosses him back to ground for the others to have a go at.

If anyone in the house asks me for a pet rat the answer will be a definitive “No.”

As I race to intervene, Barnaby produces a sound that is nothing I’ve ever heard. His yowl is human-like. The noise is of the terror of dying.

I yank on Barnaby’s collar, pulling him into the air. The bigger dogs pounce like this is an awesome game. I see a flash of teeth. Barnaby is dragged down again. I grab his body and I get bitten on the hand in the turmoil.

My daughters are screaming. A young man, the owner, approaches, making a desultory effort to tell his dogs to cut it out. He chuffs out an apology as I turn my back to him and his dogs. I snap that he needs to control his pets. I carry Barnaby away in my arms like a football while the girls follow at my side crying. The man offers an explanation that I don’t listen to. We get out of the park as quickly as we can.

On the sidewalk, I set Barnaby down. My older daughter slumps beside him, bawling. When we find blood on Barnaby’s fur, we all gasp. But I reassure everyone, after checking around, that it’s actually just dripping from my hand.

 

It never fails to surprise me when a book is resilient. A story can still sink into my own life. I can mimic its posture.

The accident with the narrator’s son comes abruptly, from nowhere and early on, so much so that I needed to go back to it and reread exactly what happened. The resolution comes from nowhere, too. We also see clues amidst the trees that might lead to the identity of the hunter who shot David’s son.

I want to go the woods. I don’t understand why David isn’t more relentless in finding the criminal.

WHAT OUR CITY’S PARK SAYS AT NIGHT: We can be manicured but still wild as all hell.

WHAT I WANT TO DO AFTER EVERYONE IS SAFELY IN BED: Take a pipe wrench to the fools of the world who don’t seem to get that we have with us smaller souls who’ve been raised to believe we will always be able to protect them.

 

Oscar the guinea pig soon grew fond of the dog too. He gladly shared his hay. I like to think a dog eating hay struck our little rodent finally as hysterical, and that he was maybe even a little touched.

Days after the incident in the park, my hand healed. According to the vet based on the tooth mark I had, it was Barnaby himself who turned and bit me. He was simply scared witless. My daughters forgot about the big, mean dogs. More or less. My wife and I filed a report with the municipal police who said they’d do what they could. We hadn’t given them a lot they could work with though.

Our dog would be okay. His nerves stayed jangled after the attack. He was quick to bark at others afterward. I would tell him to calm down, perhaps not as much as I should.

Murphy writes toward the end of her chapter “Spring”:

WHAT THE CHILDREN SAY: A pet rat! We want a pet rat! Can we have a pet rat please?

If anyone in the house asks me for a pet rat the answer will be a definitive “No.” But I carry my girls when they’re tired. I play tug of war with the dog because he’s bored and because his new teeth are coming in. Again, I walk out of the hallway and turn back immediately to see if he’s waiting.

I open a book and sit at night, the noise dialed down to a diligent silence where I’m surrounded by things that keep looking back at me.