I was driving, so I didn’t answer when Jess called the first time. But my creeping anxiety, when he called a second time, was so distracting anyway, that I answered, even though I was navigating the tricky, turn-y high-walled Jackie Robinson Parkway.
I had hardly said hello when he told me, “Angel ran away.”
I wasn’t alarmed, really. “I’m sure she’ll come back.”
My family had always had dogs and many of those dogs had been runners, mutts who took off sometimes, returning “sheepishly triumphant” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Douglas Adams). Even Angel had run away a couple of times before, although that had always been when we’d been upstate and my parent’s dog, a bad influence, had led the way.
This time, though, we were living in a house in a new neighborhood. We were having work done on the house and someone had let Angel out.
“I’ll drive around a bit before I get home,” I assured Jess. “Call me if she comes back.”
I wasn’t so easy about it, though, when she didn’t turn up in the next few hours. We spent the evening walking and driving the surrounding blocks, calling “Angel,” stopping strangers and asking if they’d seen a black dog with a curly tail running loose. No one had.
We’d gotten Angel from a shelter a few years before. She was the perfect dog for the people Jess and I were at the time we adopted her: we had no kids, we had a lot of patience, and we didn’t want a puppy.
She must have had it pretty bad before we met her, because she was terrified of everything for a long time after we brought her home. Perhaps in response to the shock of leaving the shelter, she physically shut down for the first week she lived with us. We placed spoonfuls of peanut butter intermittently on the floor of the apartment, tiny offerings of what he imagined might be her favorite food, hoping she’d relax enough to relent and eat something.
She did, eventually, and she also eventually learned how to walk down the block without freezing in fear when someone approached with a stroller or when the bus roared and creaked down the block. She even began to allow herself to be petted, started to tolerate a snuggle. She adjusted and became an almost-normal dog, although her skittishness had settled down deep. She wasn’t crazy about strangers. She detested children.
It was searing to think of Angel, alone, on the street. I imagined her cornered, a kind stranger approaching tentatively, holding out a hand. Angel, I knew, would cower, but if the person got too close, she might bark, snap, and even bite. I thought of her darting across busy streets, so tired, but too scared to stop running. I worried she’d be hit by a car and injured. I could see her, confused and limping, ever more distrustful of humans.
It wasn’t hard to imagine. These things happen all the time, of course.
We hung flyers around the neighborhood, offering a reward. We got a couple of calls, but they were always too little, too late: “I saw a dog like that about a week ago on 111thstreet.”
She’d been gone for about a month when a woman called to say she’d seen a dog matching our description in Forest Park, a few blocks from where we lived. The person on the phone told us that she’s seen a black dog with a fluffy tail walking on a leash held by a homeless woman.
It felt like a miracle.
Angel had found a person. This adorable, difficult, damaged dog had found a person who would make sure she was okay, who would keep her from running in the street or from being thrown back in the pound, who would protect her and feed her and, I hoped, love her. She wasn’t alone anymore.
But of course, I still worried. Why was this person homeless? Did she have enough for herself, not to mention a pet?
There is something acutely beautiful and human in the urge to care for another creature, especially when you yourself don’t have quite enough.
I’d been thinking about a lot of the stuff that wound up going into Iphigenia Murphy for a long time, but after Angel ran away, I found a way into the story. Imagining this person who was taking care of my dog got me thinking about the people in our communities that we don’t see unless we have a reason to look. Because I had a reason to look, I began to see all the people in and around Forest Park who were in desperate need: the teenager who waited at the Jackie Robinson off-ramp with a sign that said, simply, “Homeless.” The elderly woman pushing a shopping cart piled comically high with cans at dawn. The man sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes in front of the furniture store around the corner from us.
Wondering what exactly I would say if I did ever come across Angel and her new person, I started imagining scenarios, characters, possibilities. One scene became very clear to me: a jogger comes upon a homeless girl and her dog and approaches them, feeling a connection to the dog and hoping to help.
I never got a chance to live out that scene myself, because I never saw Angel again. I never got a chance to say thank you to the woman who was taking care of Angel or to talk with her about what a funny dog Angel was. I never got a chance to see if there was anything they needed, if there was any way I could help.
About a year after Angel ran away, Jess and I adopted another dog. Jenny is also a shelter-dog, but she’s bigger than Angel was and much less neurotic. Angel in the novel is a composite of the real Angel and of Jenny. Whenever Iffy’s Angel is exuberant, whenever she joyfully jumps up and knocks someone over, that’s Jenny. She’s a confident, happy dog.
But Jenny has an aggressive streak. Like Angel in the novel, Jenny is no joke: I’ve seen the hairs on her back stand up straight as she’s snarled and snapped. I have no doubt that she would attack someone if she thought they were a threat to one of her people.
So in some ways, Iffy’s Angel gets to have the life I imagined for my Angel. Not unlike Iffy herself, Angel gets to be a little less scared all the time. She finds out that she’s tougher and smarter than she might have thought. And she also finds her person—her people, even—folks that connect with her and really love her. It’s something I think we all—dogs and people—ultimately deserve.