My neighbor came pounding at the back door. “Devon is over at the school!” she shouted. “He’s got a school bus trapped. They’ve called the police. You better get down there.”
I didn’t need to hear more. Ever since I’d brought him home, this new dog Devon was mesmerized by New Jersey’s vast supply of things to herd and chase, things he’d never seen back in rural Texas: kids on skateboards and scooters, garbage trucks and snowplows, and buses.
He particularly loved buses.
Devon herded school buses at every opportunity. He could hear their throaty engines blocks away and began circling, offering the famed border collie eye. He had chased buses several times, once or twice halting them in the middle of the street.
By now, my wife and daughter and neighbors were used to seeing me tear after him through yards and across lawns, cursing and screaming, “Come!” and “Here!” and “Stop!”—anything I could think of to get his attention. Invariably, I failed.
Once I rushed out in horror to see him clamped onto a moving school-bus tire, hanging on while his body thumped onto the asphalt and then off. Fortunately, the bus was moving slowly. Devon was brave and determined, in his own way, and I was slowly grasping that my yard and its wooden picket fence were only mildly diverting amusements for him. He could burrow under the fence, nose its wooden slats apart, or, if all else failed, simply sail over it.
So I ran to the redbrick elementary school a couple of blocks from my home in Montclair, New Jersey. I could hear Devon barking as I got close.
A knot of anxious mothers had gathered there, agitated and upset. Montclair is not the kind of town that chuckles at the antics of demented border collies, especially when kids and school buses are involved. Devon was charging purposefully at the closed door, nipping as if the bus were a giant sheep, while the kids peered out the windows, shouting, and the driver held the door closed with his foot. Devon was a working dog with a purpose.
Outside, several mothers were circling their chicks, poking and stomping at Devon, crying, “Get off!”
“This dog is dangerous!” I heard one woman yell. “Did you call the police?” The more the screaming intensified, the more excited and determined Devon seemed to become. He wasn’t about to be run off by soccer moms or a bellowing bus driver.
I rushed up behind him, shouting, “It’s okay, he’s my dog, he won’t hurt anybody.” I even announced that he was a “rescue dog,” usually a surefire way to win sympathy and support. But my reassurance didn’t seem to ease the mothers’ minds, and I can’t say I blamed them. I knew Devon wouldn’t hurt the kids, but how could they know?
I heard sirens in the not-too-distant distance. Could they really be coming for us? A red-faced teacher or administrator shouted, “Here come the police. Get back.”
For somebody who had two mellow and responsive yellow Labradors, dogs whose greatest passions were eating and sleeping, this was high canine drama. I seemed to have suddenly acquired the John Dillinger of dogs.
The sirens sounded nearby as I rushed up behind Devon. I seized him by the collar and whacked him on the butt to get his attention. Startled, he looked at me, seeming to snap out of his trance. I’d neglected to grab a leash, so I picked him up, yelling silly platitudes to the angry parents and school officials.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I hissed to this impossible dog. Then—I can’t recall my thoughts, if I had any besides a vague fear that Devon would be marched off to the local animal shelter and imprisoned, perhaps even killed—I ran.
I took off, dog in arms, fleeing from the shouting kids, the ticked-off bus driver, and, especially, from the police. My only previous run-ins with the law had been traffic tickets; now I and my dog were fugitives.
Huffing and puffing—Devon probably weighed close to fifty pounds—I scuttled between the houses across from the school and then zigzagged like a burglar up driveways, down alleys, through lovingly tended backyards. Dogs barked, cats fled, a few people stuck their heads out their windows and stared.
One thing going for me was that New Jersey suburbs are densely built, with lots of gardens and garages to hide in. The people whose property I was invading wouldn’t know we were on the lam; they probably just assumed I was crazy.
The sirens got closer. I prayed for a water-main break or a fender-bender, anything to distract the police; surely, they had more important things to do. But then the sirens stopped, suggesting the police had arrived at the school, and weren’t rushing to some other crime scene.
This dog had been through a lot, and I wasn’t going to let him go to jail. Sweating, my heart pounding, I kept moving, taking refuge in a garage a few blocks from my house.
I hoped my neighbors wouldn’t turn me in—most had become fond of Devon…sort of. They’d learned that although eccentric, he wasn’t dangerous. But I couldn’t head home without drawing close to the school, risking apprehension by what I imagined was a burgeoning army of law enforcement and animal control officials. I could only guess how this was playing over police radios: Crazed dog attacking children outside school.
So I pushed Devon into a corner; holding him by the collar, I crouched down with him.
He licked my face frantically, a bit alarmed, I think, by my excited, fearful demeanor. Devon had a genius for getting into trouble, yet it also seemed to startle him that he had done wrong and upset me. The world appeared to make no sense to him.
“Don’t move or I will beat you senseless, you crazy son of a bitch,” I muttered. “You can’t go herding school buses, you just can’t. That was not a sheep!”
Looking at him, I was struck again by what a beautiful dog he was, black and white with a pronounced blaze on his chest. And by how much I had come to love him in so short a time. He had an elegant thin nose. His eyes were intense and beautiful, deep and black, and I saw a sweetness and sorrow in them, existing side by side with his craziness, which never failed to touch my heart. He seemed to expect to fail, a tough burden for a proud working dog. I wanted to help him succeed.
He had been with me just a few weeks, but we had grown attached, to say the least. When he wasn’t chasing trucks or buses, he wanted only to be with me. His devotion was grounding, his affection comforting.
Huddled in our garage corner, he was all kisses, licking me, offering his belly for scratching. I took off my belt and looped it through his collar, fashioning a short leash.
After a moment’s rest, we snuck out, crossed the street, and slunk into another garage. By now, Devon seemed to be getting the drill: skittering along beside me, stopping when I did, lying low.
Down the block, I glimpsed a police car, lights flashing, slowly cruising the quiet street. I didn’t relish calling my wife to tell her Devon and I had been arrested for molesting a school bus. Thank God people in town rarely locked their garages. We were three blocks from the school, four or five from home.
We sat for more than an hour in the cool, dark space, Devon a perfect gentleman, sitting still, dozing a bit. He seemed to be enjoying our quality time. Already he could read me well. When I was upset with him—not a rare occurrence—he could be quite well behaved.
What an absurd position to be in, I thought. And yet it was a wake-up call of sorts, a jolt of reality. If I wanted to keep this dog, I was going to have to learn a lot more than I knew, do a lot better than I was doing.
My friend Nancy’s house was just across the street. I peered both ways, saw no SWAT teams. Leading Devon by the belt, holding my pants up with one hand, I furtively rushed across the street and banged on her back door. Shocked, she took us in. Devon instantly took off after her cat, chasing her under the living room sofa.
When I collected him and told Nancy what had happened, she cracked up. It was, she said, the most ridiculous story she’d ever heard. “Go home,” she said. “They aren’t going to shoot you.”
“This is serious,” I insisted. “The police are looking for us. They’ll take the dog. He stopped a school bus.” Still incredulous but knowing how I already felt about this weird border collie, she grasped our plight. More than one neighbor would look the other way and help us out that spring.
A half-hour later, Devon and I were lying on the floor of Nancy’s minivan, a blanket over the dog. She pulled up to my back door. Carrying the dog under the blanket, I scurried inside and put him in a crate in the basement. Then I let my two yellow Labs, Julius and Stanley—gentle as manatees—into the backyard. No school-bus marauders here, officer.
A few minutes later, a police car did swing by, and the cop paused to look at the Labs as they lumbered over to the gate, wagging. He smiled, waved, and I waved back. Then I visited Devon in the basement, alternately hugging and cursing him.
For several days afterward, Devon and I only walked around the neighborhood before dawn or after twilight, or drove to parks in other parts of town. We did not make the evening news, or even the weekly paper. The two of us didn’t have much of a half-life as suburban desperadoes. Since no one was hurt, things died down. The police did, in fact, have better things to do.
But it was months before we walked past the school again.
I first heard of Devon when a border collie breeder in Texas e-mailed me. I had long been fascinated by the breed and I’d been corresponding with her for months about her dogs, but we had concluded—or so I thought—that border collies were not really a good fit for suburban New Jersey. We were right, too.
The breeder had read a book of mine in which I briefly described my life with Julius and Stanley. Like all good breeders, she had strong instincts about where her dogs ought to go. Now she was back in touch, saying she had a dog available, beautiful, bright, very dominant, a dog with…issues. She sensed we might be a match.
Devon was two years old and wicked smart, she said, and he needed a home. His life as an obedience show dog had crashed and burned. I still didn’t know all the details, but he had somehow messed up and vanished from the obedience circuit. Now he needed badly to get out of town.
I was intrigued, even drawn to the idea, though clueless. I loved my Labs dearly, but they were undemanding and easily trained—in fact, they hadn’t really required much training at all. They asked little of me beyond walks, treats, and companionship. They walked off-leash and never ran away, rarely barked, adored children, even those who pulled their tails or ears. They were delighted to encounter and greet joggers, landscape workers, and, especially, our neighborhood delivery people. The UPS and FedEx drivers kept a stash of biscuits for them. Sometimes—this was a secret—Julius and Stanley even rode with them in their trucks for a few blocks. The Labs would no sooner have halted a school bus than they would have jumped over the moon.
I couldn’t explain to my wife, Paula—appropriately skeptical about the logic of bringing a troubled border collie into northern New Jersey—why I wanted this other dog.
I didn’t know myself. It was just a feeling I had.
A few days later, Devon arrived at Newark Airport. In some circles, this part of the story is already well known.
Understanding little about this kind of dog, I opened the door of the transport crate to greet the just-unloaded Devon, and ended up on my butt, shocked, listening to the shrieks of travelers in vast Terminal C as this wolflike, black-and-white creature hopped from one baggage carousel to the next. Soon the Port Authority police were in pursuit. A portent, perhaps.
When Devon arrived, I was living restlessly in New Jersey, writing books and magazine articles and columns online, some about technology and what I felt was the great promise of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
My wife was a reporter working for The Washington Post, spending many of her days traveling in and out of New York City, about sixteen miles east of our town.
For years, my life had been structured around the care of our daughter—driving her to school and to the innumerable lessons, playdates, and activities that make up the lives of contemporary suburban children. Now she’d headed happily off to college and that role was gone. It left a big hole.
I was surrounded by people, but close to few. I had a couple of friends but, like so many men, little that was meaningful or honest to say to them. My troubled original family had died or drifted apart; the very notion of our family had disintegrated.
Like many people, we had gravitated to the suburbs to raise our kid, largely because we couldn’t afford to live in New York City. Yet I felt out of sync there, an oddball in a place that seemed awfully straight. I didn’t care about houses or lawns, and disliked the intensity of the obsession with children, even as I often succumbed to it.
I was well into midlife, learning how many clichés are true: Time was becoming a finite concept. I wasn’t old yet, but neither did I have forever to do the things I wanted and still hoped to do. More than anything else, I didn’t want to settle into a life of routine, passivity, and social and cultural ritual. I did not want to stagnate. I could envision spending my last years comfortably in New Jersey, harrumphing about change, walking the dogs four or five times a day, going to the movies on Friday, holing up in my basement trying to write—and I couldn’t bear the thought.
I was becoming one of those people.
My life seemed to be slipping through my fingers while I doodled and dithered, and I began to believe that my father’s hurtful, often-stated judgment of me from childhood was correct: I was not living up to my potential.
I actually had a recurring bad dream about collapsing from a heart attack on one of my innumerable walks through the neighborhood with the Labs.
I wanted—needed—my life to change, and it certainly did. The dog named Devon landed in the middle of my mundane, commonplace middle-class drama like a heat-seeking missile. I have had—and still have—many dogs, almost all of whom I loved dearly, but only one in my life so far was powerful enough to shake things up the way he did, to speak so directly, if unconsciously, to my heart.
Devon was instinctive and dominant, in the way of well-bred border collies—and explosive. As I learned that day at the school, you couldn’t simply coexist with him, as you could with some dogs; you had to react to him. Like all border collies, he needed work. I didn’t realize for some time that I was the work he would find.
Looking back on those first weeks together, I sometimes think he set out to take on, one by one, all the things that were troubling and challenging me—work, friends, drift and stasis—even though I have written and argued and believe that this can’t really be so, that dogs can’t think that way or set out to achieve such goals. Yet there’s no denying what he wrought, even if I still can’t quite comprehend it.
From the first, I loved that dog beyond words—an odd thing for a writer to say. He was a creature of my own unconscious in the way that some animals enter the deepest parts of lucky people’s lives. Everything that happened after he entered my life was unexpected and surprising.
The dog named Devon came radiating crisis and mystery. Every time we surmounted one drama or persevered through joy or grief, I thought my life with him had at last entered a period of predictability and tranquility.
I was always wrong.