Meeting the puppy for the first time, my brother shook his head and looked at me like I’d made another bad decision. As dumb as dropping out of college and ending up on his doorstep. We were already sharing a cramped river cottage with two dogs and a hefty cat. His wife, fully pregnant, had given me the narrow bedroom that should have been a nursery. It didn’t matter. At 19, questionable choices seemed forgivable to me.
My brother crouched low enough to the ground so that the puppy could fall all over himself licking my brother’s hand. Wagging everything, the shepherd-collie mix rolled over for a belly rub.
Where’d you get him?
At the shelter. Can he stay?
My brother stood, pushed long hair back from his forehead. The puppy, all limbs and flopped-over ears, began to run in widening circles. Clumsy, he bumped into anything in his path: a bush, a stack of old lumber, my leg, my brother’s leg. Bounced off a garden fence and kept going.
Pleading, I made a few promises.
My brother sighed.
You should call him Bumper.
From the beginning, Bumper went everywhere I could reasonably take him. Hiking in the White Mountains. Swimming. Riding in a blue canoe. I keep the framed photograph of me in mid-paddle, stroking the air before one last push to the shoreline; Bumper, in regal sitting pose, balances one leg on the rim of the bow. Poised to jump as soon as he hears the scraping of fiberglass on sand.
As a summer employee at a local ski area, I helped sightseers on and off a chairlift. Sometimes Bumper rode the lift with me, my arm around his middle and his feathered tail hanging off the back of the chair. He’d stay with me at the top before exploring the mountain on his own, disappearing and reappearing with the stealth of a wolf.
Autumn meant a move to a shared house with friends. Camaraderie and cooking. Winter came and went with work, skiing, and dancing in bars. Temptation too. Someone chose me and we moved in together with urgency and little thought. As if pushed from the nest, Bumper began a pattern as an escape artist, out any door to wander through small neighborhoods like a townie running for office. After handshakes and treats, he’d always come home.
Months later and Bumper wore a bow tie at our impromptu wedding. Made everyone laugh when he stole cake and ran off the deck in a hurry. Winter again and Bumper was a climbing obstacle for a newborn girl, licking her fingers clean of sloppy oatmeal. He greeted a second baby girl, and a third, before I was twenty-five years old. It was easy to indulge myself in motherhood and ignore, or feign indifference to, my husband’s absences.
Our village house too small for all of us, and our marriage began its lengthy descent. With every raised voice, Bumper’s wanderlust increased. Slipping away from me, he left me wondering where he was going. Never caught and never brought home by anyone, Bumper would show up after a few days as if he’d never left. Each time I vowed not to let him out of my sight. I tied him down. Showered him with attention. He’d regain my trust then make a break for it as soon as anyone opened a door.
In the middle of anger and heartbreak, I realized he had somewhere to go: he was coming back clean, groomed, and happy.
Bumper had a secret life.
I taped a message to his collar: His name is Bumper. Please call me. And then I waited.
Her voice on the phone was unsure of me at first: a mother with two sons, loving Bumper as we did. Trying to convince him to stay, and wondering why he’d leave. I thanked her, told her we’d be leaving town soon. We were moving 10 miles away to a broken-down farmhouse with land to roam. A place to fix ourselves. I hoped Bumper would be content.
For a time, he stayed. Drifted through fields and woods, followed children, and teased the neighbor’s cows. But he left one afternoon, and no one saw him go.
Driving alone weeks later, I saw him back in town. Saw him jump out of an open bread truck at a convenience store with a package of English muffins in his mouth. I wanted to scream his name, chase him, and force him into my car. Tell him I still needed him.
Instead I watched him trot down the sidewalk, tail high, with treasure in his teeth.