Kathleen McKitty Harris
When you and your husband were newlyweds in the West Village you’d wake up hungover and amble along Bleecker Street in search of cups of coffee and runny diner eggs and toast and call it breakfast, not brunch like people do now. Sometimes, you’d find yourselves in Soho. This was the mid-nineties, when the neighborhood was vibrant, but not yet the Great Mall of Manhattan, before the mortgage, blood pressure pills and driving teens to SAT prep classes. Sometimes, you’d cross paths with a regal, middle-aged, white-haired woman who walked between two Irish wolfhounds. She’d stride along Prince Street with them, draped in a mottled woolen cape — a Celtic warrior goddess on a quest for the Sunday Times — and the three would sway in unison, hips and flanks in synchronicity.
Most people would cross the street to avoid canines the size of large ponies. If you’ve ever encountered one in real life, their presence is plainly staggering.
You know this, because when you were a kid, you used to have one.
To your husband’s eye-rolling dismay, you’d head towards the woman and the two glorious beasts and extend your fingertips for a selfish graze against their wiry brindle coats as they sauntered towards you.
I had a wolfhound when I was little, you said as she approached, your eyes glistening.
Oh, so you know, she responded.
She smiled and let you cup their snouts in your hand, and pet their flat, furry ears. You talked about their grace and gentleness, and how most people never got near enough to them to understand this. You encountered the woman and her hounds a few more times over the years, and afterwards, realized that the only place she could possibly live with such gargantuan dogs was in a loft apartment in Soho.
When your family owned a wolfhound you lived in an attached house in Queens, with a postage stamp for a front lawn and seamed cement for a backyard, near busy streets and blocks of warehouses, with nary a grove of trees or open pasture anywhere in sight. This was not an ideal environment for a young child, let alone a dog that stood six feet high on its hind legs.
Yet in 1978, your parents drove you from Queens to a breeder’s farm in Wayne, New Jersey, to choose a wolfhound puppy. Wayne, New Jersey could have been Mars to you back then. You were all New Yorkers. You didn’t trust New Jersey. Your mother even packed a lunch for the trip.
Your father probably found the breeder from the Irish bartender at the watering hole he frequented on 46th Street, or from one of the red-nosed inebriates warming the bar stools every night of the week. He got it into his head that if the heralded Irish folksinger Tommy Makem had wolfhounds, then by God, so should we. It was our Gaelic birthright, even if we lived in a decaying hull of a once-grand city and no longer in the rolling verdant pastures in Northern Ireland, even if we had no place to keep the damn dog, even if we were a disjointed family of three, even if the word family was questionable.
At the breeder, your father picked out the runt of the litter. You used to think it was because the puppy was so small and vulnerable, but you now realize that your father was cheap. The puppy was gentle and blue-eyed, and you were ecstatic at the frenetic jumble of paws, teeth and tongue on your hands as you played with him out on the breeder’s Jersey lawn. You were eight, and you were an only child. This was your best shot at a sibling.
Your parents named the dog Tyrone, after the county in Northern Ireland that your maternal great-grandfather emigrated from. Your father completed the AKC certification paperwork, assuring a tax write-off if he sired him, and essentially deeming him of better lineage than ourselves.
As your father spelled out the dog’s name to the breeder, the man looked up and asked why we were giving an Irish dog a fakakta name like TIE-rohn.
TUH-rohn, your father said. Not Tie. TUH. It’s the name of a county in Northern Ireland. The breeder gave him an eh, suit yourself look and pushed his reading glasses higher onto the bridge of his nose while he finished the paperwork, while he sealed the dog’s fate to us.
Your father would repeat not TIE, TUH for several months afterwards, to questioning friends and neighbors. People never got it right. Like TIE-rone Pow-uh? they’d ask, in nasal Queens accents and Brooklyn dialects, much to your father’s displeasure. He’d say nothing, tap his pack of Marlboros against the side of his hand, and quietly light his cigarette.
The dog shook on your blanketed lap in the back seat as your father drove from the breeder back to Queens. You cooed to the puppy and ran your hand down the length of his bony back, until he stopped trembling and fell asleep. On the highway, you passed by a car on fire, and a group of firefighters restraining another man from climbing back into the vehicle. Someone must be in there, your mother said. Someone is suffering in there.
After two years of trainers and choke collars, wire crates and baby gates, destroyed furniture and soiled rugs, Tyrone was put up for adoption at the North Shore Animal League, the no-kill shelter that made it easier to admit pet owner defeat. Your parents both worked full-time, and your home was not conducive to the maintenance and care of such an animal. The dog was left alone for hours at a time in his crate while you were at school and your parents were at work. Not surprisingly, the poor thing grew neurotic and destructive. He chewed off furniture legs out of boredom. He unraveled rolls of toilet tissue, tipped water bowls and shredded stuffed animals, and pierced canisters of baby powder with his fangs, spewing talc everywhere. He once ate a neighborhood kid’s basketball. Whole. With a simple extension of its front legs, the dog would push your father—forcibly, easily—out of bed every night at 2 am to go for a walk.
Tyrone needed to run across acres of land, not in circles around a coffee table in a cramped Queens house. Tyrone needed the right environment, not the one he had been forced into. But that hadn’t happened, and now the animal personified every obvious wrong in your house, every fight and screaming match, every bottle of whiskey emptied, every bad decision, every glaring speck of dysfunction. Someone should have recognized the parallels between the dog’s behavior and the problems in your house, but awareness wasn’t anyone’s strong suit back then.
Memories of the dog still surface for you sometimes, especially this one: the acute feeling of being small and alone, on a harshly-fluorescent-lit morning in a Queens Catholic school classroom, with chipped ceramic statues of impassioned saints perched over your head, and sheets of silvery rain cascading at your visual periphery, just outside the school’s massive double-hung windows. You sat on a hard metal chair, with your hands folded on a faux woodgrain desk. That morning, you decided to stare intently at the patterns, the lines, and the appearance of veined streaks along the blonde wood surface, while willing yourself not to cry in front of your classmates. You thought about your dog — your friend, your protector, and your only semblance of a sibling—unknowing, tongue-wagging and simple, sprawled along the back seat of your compact Toyota as it sped east on the LIE. You recall the sense of his increased distance, mile by mile, as your father crossed the Nassau border and made his way to the animal shelter. You knew the dog was going to be given away to another family, to another kid’s love, to another grassy backyard and warm lap, to a better life. In that moment, you accepted what forever meant. And no more, for that matter. The simple, abject sense of loss, and the palpability of it, has remained with you ever since. So did the sense that the poor thing was finally free of that attached house on that busy Queens street, but that you would still remain tethered, crated and chained to the two of them, evermore.
Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in JMWW, Longreads, Sonora Review, Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s and The Rumpus, among others. She has also performed as a storyteller on The Moth Podcast, and co-hosts the “What’s Your Story?” live-reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two children.