I told part of this story to a few close friends last night when we were talking about money struggles. It was 1984 during the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. I was so broke. I had technically “graduated” but had saved my summer of sciences that officially would complete my BA by August.
Then I would begin my MFA in Playwriting at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
I wanted to be Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or a mix of the two.
It was a vague but heartfelt plan.
I had been an exchange student at Manchester University in England the year before, and I came back my senior at UT determined to keep studying like a British student and speaking with a slight British accent. I even changed my major my senior year from journalism to theatre with a minor in English because my British friends told me, “Journalism is a grotty trade-school occupation and if you want to be a real writer, study playwriting.”
So once back in Knoxville and still pining for Manchester, I threw myself into every English and theatre class I could take from stagecraft to playwriting to Shakespeare to costuming to theatre history and conveniently ignored the fact that I still needed to take the rest of my sciences.
After all, I had already taken and passed three quarters of Astronomy, and I just needed three more classes of something science-y. I can still recall cramming all night for an Astronomy exam and crying to my roommate, Nicki, as the sun rose into Clement Hall, “Why does Saturn have rings again? Why? WHY??? TELL MEEEEEEE!” She was also in the class and much smarter than me with organized and color-coordinated notes. (She’s now one of the directors of Special Education in Knoxville.)
I wrote extra papers on black holes to stay afloat in that class of 120 students.
But before I could begin my MFA in Playwriting in the fall, I first had to conquer a summer of biology, anthropology, and bioethics in six weeks or eight weeks – it was fast and furious. I also had to take a sophomore English class that I probably could have gotten out of, but it was contemporary fiction, and I wanted to take it. I figured it had to be better than the Renaissance Literature class where I suffered miserably through “Paradise Lost” sophomore year. I had no clue what I was reading or how to read it, and my professor wrote back on one of my quizzes: “I’d love to read this version.”
Finally, I took chorus because I wanted to sing, and I thought it would cheer me on in the world of sciences while working to be become a playwright.
I remember we sang part of Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
So it was the summer of sciences with a little singing on the side and no money. Then two wiener dog puppies, Rudy and Peter, came into my life through my friend, Annie, who had heard of dachshunds being given away in South Knoxville. She went and snatched up two.
Annie and I were living in a house on Lake Avenue, taking biology together. Annie studied abroad in Belfast not long after I studied at Manchester.
But how could I have thought getting a dog was a good idea – since I had no money at all. But I wanted a dog, and I figured it couldn’t that hard owning a dog. I’d grown up with them, and I loved them. I wasn’t quite like my mom who used to say, “I tell dog stories. I don’t tell kid stories. Parents bore you to tears with their kid stories, but have I got some dog stories for you!”
And Mother did tell dog stories. Our dog, Clancy, was like a sibling because she did his voice and he was the best dog – a black lab who loved us like crazy and was very patient playing orphans and nuns and grandmothers and ballerinas in mandatory backyard theatrical productions.
I’d only had experience with big dogs, and my brother, Duffy, who considered dachshunds a kind of sub-breed said, ‘You’re a big dog girl!”
My sister said, “She can be a little dog girl too!”
So Rudy and Peter, the dachshund puppies, came to live with us in an old rental house on Lake Avenue in Knoxville where there was no lake. Our landlord was Sonny Gibson, his mother was Gracie Gibson, and they were none the wiser about the puppies because we hid them when Sonny came around to collect the rent.
The puppies were born from the 13th litter of a brother and sister dachshund in Maryville. That was all we knew – inauspicious beginnings, maybe, but Rudy and Peter were beautiful puppies. I named Rudy after a German exchange, Rudiger, who was sad to leave Knoxville the way I’d been sad to leave Manchester. I couldn’t believe anybody would be sad to leave Knoxville. I couldn’t wait to escape Tennessee again, but I wanted to get my MFA in Playwriting and NYU wasn’t interested but UT was, so I figured a dog would be a great companion to a young, broke playwright stuck in Knoxville.
I don’t remember if the puppies had their shots but I doubt it. I certainly couldn’t afford it, but they were healthy and they were terrible in their good health. They ate shoes and chewed off the corner of my Loretta Lynn and Boy George album covers. They ripped potted plants out by the roots and shredded the dirt through the house like crazed gremlins as they grew.
But Annie and I loved them as did our other roommate, Craig, and we walked them and took care of them in that house on Lake Avenue with no air conditioning. I was now really broke only with puppies. My job had ended at the dorm that closed for the summer, and I was looking for another job, and then somebody mentioned giving plasma.
It wasn’t Annie, but maybe Craig? I don’t know.
You could get $15.00 for selling plasma and it would take a while but you’d be $15.00 richer.
I needed that $15.00.
So I sold plasma one afternoon, and on the way home, I bought a Burrito Supreme from Taco Bell.
I had just enough cash to get the Burrito Supreme and pay back Annie for groceries. We also lived with Craig who introduced me to Kiffen.
Now that I think of it – that house was so important. I got my first dachshunds and met my future husband in that Lake Avenue House, both of which I still have today – different dachshund, same husband. Craig became Flannery’s godfather and Lucy’s godfather, really, too, but that’s another story.
This began as a story about money but has turned into something else.
So after giving plasma, I came home with my Burrito Supreme on a hot summer night, and Annie wasn’t there and neither was Craig or our other roommate, a girl, Lena, who had a real job and high heels and potted plants (I remember that because the puppies ate a pair of her good shoes and chewed up her plants and she didn’t hate us for it. Or she didn’t act like she did but she moved out pretty quickly.)
So I was alone, but I had my Burrito Supreme which smelled so good. I was tired from giving Plasma, taking three science classes, singing on Thursdays in chorus, and raising these puppies. I turned on the Olympics on this old black and white TV and I set out my Burrito Supreme on the coffee table to eat it and to watch the athletes perform miracles in Los Angeles – a city I’d never been to and had only thought of as in terms of earthquakes and Hollywood.
I went back to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and when I came back my Burrito Supreme was GONE. Rudy and Peter had dragged it under the couch and devoured all but maybe three bites.
I crawled under the couch after them crying and trying to save it but it was useless. They ate it in under a minute. I yelled at them but I couldn’t even reach them. They knew better than to come out. Then I sat on the couch and wept and watched the Olympics and ignored my biology, anthropology, and bioethics texts.
Maybe I ate a bowl of cereal. Maybe there beer and bread? Or rice. Who knows?
Then a few days later something really awful happened – way worse than the devouring of my Burrito Supreme.
I lost Rudy and Peter. I had a lazy habit of putting them outside my window onto the grass in the mornings to relieve themselves. They were so little and they always stayed right in the yard. One morning I did this and they were gone within minutes.
I searched and called for them but they were just gone.
How could they be gone? They were puppies. I searched and called some more. Nothing.
Annie was already at work, and I had to go to my Anthropology class, so I told myself they’d be waiting for me when I got back.
I can’t even believe I was so irresponsible.
When I came back after class Rudy and Peter were not waiting for me like good puppies. I had to tell Annie. It was awful. She took it well but I felt terrible. I never should have let them out of my sight.
I think she said something like, “The puppies’ cosmos has shifted, but we’ll look for them. We’ll put signs everywhere.”
So we did – we hung signs and asked around. Days went by with no response. We were so sad, and I felt bad for yelling at them for eating my burrito and for not taking better care of them.
Then a woman drove by our house and saw the sign. She stopped the car and said, “The lady at the laundry-mat found some wiener dog puppies. Maybe they’re your puppies.”
So Annie and I went down there to talk to her. I think Craig went too. The woman was ice-cold and wouldn’t look us in the eye.
I said, “We live on Lake Avenue, and I hear you found some puppies.”
“No. Not me.” She didn’t look the least interested or concerned.
“You didn’t find dachshund puppies?” Annie asked.
“No, I did not. Nope.”
She was lying. Oh my God, she was lying! I had never had an adult lie like that to me with such frosty indifference.
“Are you sure?” Craig asked. “Two boy wiener dogs.”
Then she said, “Look, I don’t know nothing about no wiener dogs. I got work to do.”
That was the end of the conversation.
We walked back home turning over the lie again and again, trying to figure out what to do.
So we called campus police. A policeman came over and after hearing the story, he agreed to go talk to the woman who ran the laundry-mat.
He came back a short time later and handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. He said, “Here’s the number where your dogs are at. But if I was y’all, I wouldn’t do my laundry there anymore. She’s mad as hell.”
So we called the number and a woman admitted she had our dogs. Annie drove and picked them up because I had bioethics, and she brought them home.
It was a celebration and we never let them out of sight again for the rest of the summer.
By fall it was time to move. Annie couldn’t take Peter, so I took both dogs and moved into the Theatre House. I gave Peter to Paula Pell, a hilarious writer and actor, but Peter proved too much for her, and I didn’t want him back. Peter and Rudy separate were fine, but Peter and Rudy together were hell on wheels. I couldn’t do that to my new roommate, Keytha.
So Peter went to live with the family who ran the Box Office at the Clarence Brown Theatre, and Rudy became the theatre house dog. I took him everywhere from rehearsal to foreign films to film shoots to work at Apple Tree Bookstore.
When I think back on that summer, a collage of memories run together:
I remember that Annie and I took biology together, taught by a handsome guy, Rick, from California – the only good part of the class. He was so nice but his tests were so hard.
Annie made an A. I made a C. I was grateful for the C.
I made C’s and B’s in Astronomy too, and my roommate, Nicki, made A’s.
I think I made a B in Anthropology.
I might have made an A in Bioethics, because I loved it but I probably made a B.
I studied plays in that house on Lake Avenue. I auditioned for everything. After I met Kiffen and after the summer of sciences, I cast him in the first play I ever wrote called “All You Can” about a policeman who works the night shift.
Of course, there was a dachshund in the play.
An old friend recently asked me, “Were you in CATS for all Theatre?”
Yes, as a matter of fact, I was.
I was in the chorus of “Macavity, the Mystery Cat.”
But that’s another story too.
My mother got Rudy his shots when I took him home to visit my parents in Atlanta.
Then she adopted him when Kiffen and I went to teach English in China after I finished my MFA in Playwriting.
My mom fell in love with Rudy who cuddled with Clancy, the lab, who was very old by then.
But that’s also another story from another lifetime ago.
I didn’t become Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.
I did move to California and back to the South again two decades and three children later.
Annie moved to Chicago and became a children’s librarian.
I write children’s books.
I would like to write something about Olive, the newest dachshund.
But for now, I will close with the lineage of dachshunds I have known and a little clip from a movie we made directed by Rebecca O’Brien called “On Dachshund Pond.”
Rudy and Peter, the first wiener dogs.
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Bentley (old hound) and Uncle Bascom (on my lap)
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“On Dachshund Pond” with old Uncle Bascom playing Norman with Kiffen’s voice and fishing with Norah who plays Billy’s voice with Olive. 🙂
On Golden Pond – the inspiration 🙂