We rescued him from the local animal shelter after spending several days looking at doggie glamour shots on different websites, comparing notes and speculating on personalities. Our children were very young, and we liked the idea of them having a dog they could grow up with, like I did with my family’s cock-a-poo, a little dog named Misty that I insisted on calling Brutus to irritate my mother, which was perhaps my favorite childhood pastime.
Now here was Walter, a generation later. We hadn’t really had a beagle-mix in mind, but a dog that could smile like that in those abysmal circumstances was irresistible. We knew he was the one immediately.
“His name is ‘Sundance,’” Tammy said.
“That’s absurd,” I said. “He will be known as ‘Walter.’”
“Family name?” she said.
Walter was great with the kids right away, although our son was still so young that he just giggled at Walter’s antics from the balcony section of a double-stroller that we positioned in the backyard, where Walter literally ran circles — or figure eights — around my aging black lab, Mike, who was living out what little remained of his golden years in the shadiest corner of the yard, far from the madding crowd.
Walter would pause every few revolutions to confront Mike, drop down suddenly as if about to pounce on him, get absolutely no reaction except one barely perceptible twitch of an eyebrow, and then tear off for the other corner of the yard as if yanked there by an enormous, invisible leash.
We had thought that Walter’s energy might reanimate Mike — I thought of the elderly people in the fitness center swimming laps or pumping iron, giddy and youthful as songbirds, chirping with each other happily between sets. They had inspired me for years to drag myself off the couch and into action, and I thought Walter might likewise inspire Mike to do … something.
If anything, Mike seemed to enjoy his slumber even more. His inert, hulking form lay in stark contrast to the little tornado of teeth and fur that spun around him. Day after day, his utter lack of activity took the form of a dignified protest, and eventually Walter gave up, paying him no more mind than he paid the concrete birdbath in the middle of the yard.
Walter is, without question, the most amiable dog I have ever owned or known. He’s the kind of dog other dogs would like to have a beer with. He has always loved people, too, except — inexplicably — for my longtime friend, Bill, who has almost the exact same nature. If some director wanted to make a buddy movie about Bill and Walter on a road trip to Gatlinburg or Myrtle Beach or someplace, I would watch it over and over.
Bill is the most laid back, friendliest person I’ve ever met. I just knew the two of them would bond instantly. Instead, when Bill approached him for the first time, Walter snarled at him as if his fondest wish were to rip out his larynx and shake it like a dish rag. Some past life drama, I guess. No other explanation.
I had thought Walter was a complete pacifist, an equal opportunity lover of all living creatures. This notion that was obliterated not long after we moved out of town and into the country, where we soon began finding horrifically disfigured carcasses of animals on and around our property.
We looked for explanations. We had added a miniature dachshund to our rolling stock by then, but the carcasses were larger than he, so that didn’t seem plausible, even with his killer’s disposition. We just couldn’t understand what or who could be responsible. Coyotes? Sociopathic children from the neighborhood? Extraterrestrial forces? Eventually, we confronted the awful truth — Walter was a groundhog serial killer.
“We have to stop him,” Tammy said.
“Yes, I agree that the situation is untenable,” I said. “But how?”
For years, we tried fencing him in. We went through a staggering array of fences — chicken-wire, electric, underground, you name it. If Lowe’s had it, we tried it. Unfortunately, Walter felt this was an elaborate game, an incredibly fun one, so much better than chasing a soggy tennis ball or a stupid Frisbee.
We put in chicken-wire, he dug under it. We buried it, he escaped through a drain pipe. We ran an electric wire around the perimeter of the yard, he jumped over it. We would get calls from the neighbors: “Walter’s out again.”
We’d get home after work, only to find him sitting high on the hill above our house in the shade of a Japanese maple, well outside the boundary of the fence, grinning at us, just beaming, utterly proud of himself.
Then, one day about seven years ago, he was mauled and nearly killed by a neighbor’s dog. It happened fast and broke our hearts. We wrapped him up in a sheet and took him to the vet. He was in surgery for hours and was given about a 50/50 chance of surviving, but he made it through and began the long, torturous process of recovery.
He didn’t smile for a long time, but gradually he healed. He never could quite walk the same — his hunting days were over for good — but in a year or so he was able to climb hills again, and even stairs when we let him in during thunderstorms, as we had all his life.
We moved his house right next to the front door, so he could be closer to us. It is not exactly a page out of Better Homes and Gardens, but he loves being closer to us. He especially loves it when the miniature dachshund and chihuahua-mix (another rescue) come outside, and the three of them walk up and down the driveway like the Earps and Doc Holliday keeping the streets safe in Tombstone.
Nobody knows how old Walter really is. They estimated his age at around three when we adopted him, so by that reckoning he must be about seventeen now, possibly even older. We’ve been thinking he may die any minute for about three years now. It has been seven years since he was attacked, and he was already getting on up in years even then.
He’s like an Old Testament character, enduring and abiding. He’s survived the flood. He’s survived the locusts. He’s still here.
The kids are just about grown now. Our daughter leaves for UNC-Charlotte in August. Our son will be in high school. They’ve grown up with Walter after all. It may take him about ten minutes to crawl out of his house every morning to see them off to school, but when he does, old Walter is still smiling. All his days are gravy now.