Deaf Sheepdogs

“It’s only two years,” I told a friend the other night. “In fact, four more months and we’re out of here, on to the rest of our lives.” She wasn’t so consoled, but then, neither was I.

I got into Iowa in April of 2012. I was living in Munich and I was tired of it, so I’d spent Christmas home in America, typing up three applications to MFA programs I thought wouldn’t accept me. Perhaps it was my ongoing online correspondence with my friend Meg, who went about her MFA-plying with zest and vigor; perhaps it was my mentor Argie, who’d told me once, during undergrad, that I had a shot at getting in somewhere; perhaps it was due to the fact that I didn’t know yet what I wanted to do with my life.

I was working in marketing, and, despite once accidentally spam-mailing eighty thousand people, I was not so bad at it. Somehow, though, the idea of working to live, of having money for trips to Istanbul, parties in our shoebox-sized student apartment, new clothes – it didn’t seem like enough. So I’d been writing short stories on the side. I’d half finished a novel in three months. I had all this material (even then – gory fixations with accidents and murders, set in beautiful locations) and so why not send it out and hope?

By all counts, I half-assed it. The average MFA applicant canvasses the country looking for spots; it’s not unheard of to mail twelve applications and get rejected by all, then try again next year. I wasn’t actively unhappy in Munich, so I figured I would just do three: UT Austin, Minnesota, and – because my kindly German professor, who was writing me a recommendation, thought I could at least try – Iowa.

At first, it progressed as I’d been sure it would. I was, in short order, shot down by both Austin and MN. When Meg texted me a somber, “Got my skinny rejection note from Iowa. Rite of passage! I will sleep with it under my pillow”, I figured that was it, the season was over. I stopped checking the little brass mailbox in our foyer. I tried harder at my job. I looked for Munich apartments.

And then, of course, it happened.

At parties here, I’ve told this story over and over, hoping to surprise others with my humility. I went to the mailbox and got the skinny letter. I opened it in the hallway, surprised they’d taken the trouble to mail it across the ocean. Dear Jessie, it read – something about the volume of applicants this year – and then – “Although we are unable to offer you a spot currently, we would like to keep your name on a short waitlist…”

Nader heard my screams echoing down the concrete hallway, and went to check on me. When he reached me, I was babbling something like “Of course it won’t happen, and if it does, who knows, maybe I won’t even go…”

He said I had to go. I said I’d think about it. I emailed Connie. She said she’d let me know. Tired of the waiting, sick of the four white walls of the shoebox apartment, I answered an advertisement placed by an American couple who were going on vacation for three weeks. They said we could move into their river-side apartment for free, as long as we watched their sheepdog.

I wish I’d taken photos of their sheepdog. I wish I remembered his name – he was the only one in the room when the email came, as a one-line email from Sam on April 10th. “Dear Jessie,” it read, “We would love for you to come to our program.” My shock filled the damp, drafty apartment. Dusk was setting. Nader was working, and so only the dog heard my giddy laughter, my phone calls to my parents and friends America (somehow the expatriates had a free telephone installed on which one could call the US), my out-loud wonderings. I couldn’t stay in anymore, so I decided to take the dog for a walk.

Their sheepdog was mostly deaf. He weighed around a hundred pounds. His long fur dragged in the sand alongside the river and carried it back to sully their floors. (“Don’t worry about sweeping,” they said, “we don’t”.) His light blue eyes were barely visible beneath his fringe, and his teeth were tall and meaty – he ate pounds of flesh for breakfast. His deafness only mattered when we took him on walks at night. Since he could not hear, he responded strangely to shadows – I could never know which of them might set him off, but when they did, he would lunge, dragging the person holding his retractable leash, and stand, snapping at nothing.

He had a particular fixation with a certain bridge that ran over the Isar. It was a railroad bridge, and frequently used; if you happened to be walking him by the river when a train crossed, he would stop at nothing in order to be underneath it and feel the vibrations. I’m not sure if it happened that day I got into Iowa and took him on a walk, but I tie the two together in my mind.

At dusk, next to the river, I heard a train approaching. He began to cock his head, to strain. I could not hold him back and so I unclipped his leash and watched him sprint over the sand, hair flying, ears wagging; he skidded to a stop and stood under the bridge, panting in circles, trying to reach the earsplitting rumbling directly overhead. He could feel it in his feet. It was a new sensation to him. What are you going to do with it, boy, once you’ve caught it? I yelled over the sand.

We’ve got four months and we’re out of here. It saddens me utterly. But there is always a next thing – time progresses, and it brings beauty, even if it leaves you with sand all over your floors.

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