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Original Essays

Three True Stories about Dogs, and a Bit about Animal Crackers

by Hannah Tinti
  1. Animal Crackers

    Animal Crackers

    Hannah Tinti
    "[E]very story is well wrought and cleverly crafted....[A]lmost every piece in this volume will interrupt your thoughts and invade your sleep." Library Journal
I grew up with dogs. We always had at least one, sometimes two or even three. But the king of our house was Harry, a harrier mix my parents bought when they were first married. He lived with us for eighteen years and was known by dog-catchers three counties over. Harry could climb fences, and famously once rooted out all of our Halloween candy and consumed it, wrappers and all. One of my mother's favorite stories about the family's devotion to our dogs is when Harry was bitten by a Great Dane. He was covered with blood, and my parents, distraught, rushed to get him into the car and to the vet. My brother Matthew had just been born, and when my mother ran back inside to get him from his crib, my father shouted, "Forget the baby!"

My parents are both huge mystery fans. When I started writing Animal Crackers, they told me: If you want to make any money doing this, you have to write a mystery. "Home Sweet Home" is their favorite story in the collection, because it has a detective and a dog — a black Lab named Buster, who follows his owners from Tennessee to Massachusetts. "Home Sweet Home" is about a murder in the suburbs, and it is Buster who discovers the bodies and eventually leads us to the killer. I wanted to see if I could drift from point of view to point of view while revealing the story, and Buster became the key. The reader slides in with him around the scene, as he leaves bloody paw prints across the kitchen floor, sniffs at some cereal, and chews a slipper taken from the dead man's foot. To my surprise, "Home Sweet Home" was picked for Best American Mystery Stories 2003. I told the editor that I hadn't really meant to write a mystery, but he didn't seem to care. It was the dog, he said, that sold them.

In the movies, everyone cries when the dog dies. In this and many other ways, it is easier to relate to an animal than another human being. An animal cannot speak. An animal has no ulterior motive. An animal is true to its nature. It is much more dangerous to love a person. Most of the characters in my stories are desperate to make some kind of connection, and sometimes that connection ends up coming from a rooster instead of a husband, a giraffe instead of a wife, an elephant instead of a family, or a bear instead of God. The more I wrote the more I became interested in exploring how and why human beings cross the line into "animalistic" behavior — the moment before a man commits adultery, or a woman becomes a murderer, or a little boy loses his mind.

After I graduated from college, I lived in a remote area, with very few streetlights. One of my neighbors had a big sheepdog that roamed free, and every time I drove down their road at night, the dog was there. The big white spot over its eye turned and flashed in my headlights, setting the dog against the darkness, like a ghost. I was always afraid of hitting it. Sometimes, the animal refused to move out of the way. I would have to roll down my window and coax it aside. I worried that another driver might run over the sheepdog. Might even try to hit it. The image of this dog in the night came back to me while I was working on a story called "Bloodworks." A man, driven by anger, runs down a sheepdog, then steps out of the car, and touches it. The dog smells like an old, wet couch, and somehow, is comforting. A relief of everything he has kept hidden inside.

Slowly, more animals began to creep into my writing. In "Miss Waldron's Red Colobus," a woman tries to escape her repressive father by traveling to Africa and disappearing with a troop of monkeys. In "Hit Man of the Year," a mafia gunman is hunted into extinction, along with the American prairie buffalo. In "Reasonable Terms," a group of giraffes go on strike at the zoo, demanding better living conditions. In "Preservation," a painter of dioramas is haunted by a stuffed black bear. And in the title story, "Animal Crackers," an elephant keeper collects the grim tales of his co-workers' experiences with the natural world. They tell him to watch out. Everyone who works with animals has a scar somewhere.

I decided to call my collection Animal Crackers, not only because of a deep and personal love of the cookies themselves (those perfect boxes, that small white string, the crinkle of wax paper), but because of the idea of opening a book and pulling out something different every time. I wanted to draw all of these animals together. To let them roam the pages with my characters, sometimes lifting them up, and sometimes taking them down.

When our beagle Molly was just about a year old, she bit my sister Norah in the face. Norah had been teasing the dog in the backyard, and afterwards, she ran and hid in the house. My mother found her in the bathroom weeping — not because her lip had been torn in two, but because she was afraid my parents would now put the dog to sleep. The doctors at the hospital all said that we should do it. My parents refused, and Molly never bit anyone again. She lived out the rest of her days with us, eating meals, sleeping, shedding on everything in sight, going for walks, and smelling the world. And now Norah has a tiny, tiny scar that goes up the side of her mouth, so that she looks, even in her saddest moments, to have the smallest hint of a grin. spacer

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