To complement our Sit, Stay (In), Treat Yourselves box, we are publishing our Sit, Stay (In), Read literary salon featuring original writing from some of the most talented writers (and dog parents) of our modern age alongside original illustrations by acclaimed artists. We hope this gorgeous series helps deepen the relationship between you and your dog, just as our Sit, Stay (In), Treat Yourselves box does. Feel free to make yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), invite the dog on your lap, and settle in for the timeless tradition of storytelling about dogs and humans. The first author in the literary salon was Carmen Maria Machado writing about her Beagle mix, Rosie. The second author in the literary salon was Porochista Khakpour writing about her Poodle, Cosmo. The third author in our series was Meghan Daum writing about her Newfoundland puppy, Hugo. The fourth author in our series was Nathan Harris writing about his mother’s English Mastiff, Millie. This week, we are excited to have Bret Anthony Johnston, director of the Michener Center for Writers and 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award winner, writing about Coffee Break, his first dog. The former professional skateboarder’s essay is accompanied by an illustration by Cindy Echevarria, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and Washington Post.
Years ago, a novelist reached out to other writers with a challenge: Dig through your family ephemera, find your earliest piece of writing, and compare it with your current project. I accepted immediately. What I found was a story called “Is It A Bear?” Written in jagged third grade cursive, it’s about a dog.
This is the gist of the story: In my childhood, my father worked long hours. He left our house well before sunup. If he returned in time for supper, he’d pull off his boots, leave them by the front door, and stretch out on the couch to rest his eyes. My job was to bring his boots to him after setting the table. How vividly I remember the day’s last light and my mother in our small kitchen—the sound of grease crackling in the skillet, the smell of butter smeared on bread—and my father’s voice, frayed with fatigue and warm with affection, saying, “Fetch them boots, boy.”
One evening when I went to grab his boots, I found a black puppy curled between them. He was snoring, and he rubbed his face with his paws without waking—a baby bear in appearance. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, though I knew my parents were watching me, and I knew they were smiling. In truth, I don’t remember asking if it was a bear. That titular piece of dialogue probably marks my first experiment with poetic license. We named him Coffee Break.
He grew into a happy and huge dog. Imagine a Newfoundland mixed with, say, a buffalo. Coffee Break would only take his heartworm medicine if we crumbled it over cereal and milk. He loved for me to pull him around the house on a blanket. He chased lightning bugs without success. He found toads in the yard and froze in motion beside them like a drug-detection dog on alert. When he got excited, he would jump and spin a 360° in the air. Then another. Another.
And, of course, Coffee Break inspired my first short story and likely started me on the lucky path that led me here. When the novelist challenged the writers to compare our old and current projects, her hypothesis was simple: What we first write is what we’ll always write. She was spot-on. I’ve spent my writing life on stories that involve families, animals, and surprises. From the beginning, I’ve associated my fiction with my dogs, and almost every sentence I’ve published has been written with one of them beside me. Lately it’s a Basset Hound or Boston Terrier—sometimes both, as the Boston likes lying on the Basset’s back.
Coffee Break is long gone now, as are my parents, but there’s a part of each of them in everything I write. I wake early and try to work as long as I can, just as my father did. His job was far harder, but by quitting time, I’m still pretty wiped out and often can’t help but close my eyes. I listen to the dogs’ gentle snoring, a sound so perfect, so unique and uniquely pure, that language itself fails. When the Basset shifts, she annoys the Boston, who considers jumping down. She’s too content in her place, though, so she readjusts and, soon, they’re both back asleep. The day’s last light lingers in the windows, and my mind teems with stories old and new, lived and imagined, a wild pack of dogs chasing sparks of surprising luminescence through the dark.
Illustration by Cindy Echevarria