One day, when a loving daughter’s mascot runs off into the woods, the family patriarch confronts memories of assimilation and broken families.
He let the dog out and waited behind the plate-glass patio door. The day was crisp, the sun peeking through thick winter clouds, but it was too cold to go out. Melted ice covered the deck, along with snow that had frozen over again. The last thing he needed, with his bad knees, was to fall.
The dog ran through the trees, down towards the barn — the roof of which was visible through the pines he’d planted forty years earlier. He kept beehives in the barn, but in the spring, worker bees abandoned their queen and the larvae and unhatched eggs died. He kept the barn door permanently open even in the winter, and when the dog was out she usually meandered in for a sniff, or relief from the cold. The old man, holding onto a kitchen chair by the glass door, watched from the house. The dog belonged to Emily, his youngest daughter, who had come from New York to Ohio for the holidays. She had lived with him during the Covid pandemic, and had gotten a rambunctious puppy that was now an adult. This afternoon Emily was driving back from Detroit with one of her cousins. They had gone to visit family there, and the dog had been left in his care. He slid open the patio door a crack and called out: “Zouzou!”
He could see the dog through the lower bare branches of the trees in the partially snow-filled clearing by the barn. Maybe it was his voice, or the wind; Zouzou stopped suddenly, head cocked. He shouted her name again to make sure, and just as she seemed poised to turn back and run towards the house, a deer caught her eye. The chase was on. Deer and dog ran straight into the woods.
“Damn,” the old man muttered.
Against his better judgment, he opened the patio door wider and stepped outside with great care. He wasn’t dressed for the weather: thin cotton pants, no sweater. Slowly, he made his way across the deck, holding onto the long wooden picnic table his family no longer used. The kids he’d had with his wife had grown up and moved away, and the kids he’d had in secret with another woman he rarely mentioned were finally old enough to start families of their own. Emily, now 27, was the last of these.
As a teenager, she had believed that the old man and his wife were her adoptive parents. It came as a shock to their conservative Arab relations that Emily, her sister Nora, and her brother Bobby were also all his children, along with another boy still, with a different woman. His older kids, by then middle-aged women, had been pragmatic about their suddenly enlarged family; they were grateful that the truth had emerged only after their mother’s death.
Of all his children, Emily was the most devoted to him. She phoned every day from her job in New York City, and took care of him when she came home to visit — despite his fierce independence. In his early nineties, he still got up at sunrise and drove seven miles through the Ohio countryside for coffee at the nearest McDonald’s.
In a loud voice, he yelled again for the dog. The sound resonated in the deep, empty spaces between the trees in the woods at the back of the house — but no dog materialized. Zouzou could have gone anywhere: the back or the front of the house, the rolling fields belonging to his neighbors. The deer were brazen; they went all over the place. He just hoped the dog hadn’t followed the one she’d spotted under the bridge, onto the Interstate.
He retraced his steps cautiously across the frozen, slippery deck and went back into the kitchen. There he exchanged his shoes for boots and pulled on a sweater, then a jacket. He swept up his car keys from the table and was about to descend into the basement, but changed direction and went down the hall towards the front door instead. He thought twice about locking it and left it a bit ajar, just in case — the dog was familiar with this way into and out of the house. He returned to the kitchen and focused his attention on the stairs leading down, one step at a time. In the basement was a bar where he had once entertained his cronies. Now the room was a home gym filled with a stationary cycle and rowing machine, which he used most days. On the other side of a door waited a garage large enough for two cars. He really had no choice. He had to go out and find that dog.
Many of the housing developments in the more suburbanized area of this township were newly constructed. Along the county line where he lived, however, stood older, rundown, wooden houses, between the larger estates that belonged to families that had inherited acreage or, like him, had bought undeveloped farmland whenever it became free. The old man drove a couple of miles away to a family whose property abutted his at the back. A track on their land went into the woods. But before he had a chance to stop at the house, his phone rang. It was Emily. She could see him in his jacket behind the steering wheel through the car’s camera.
“Hi, Dad. You and Zouzou going somewhere?”
“Honey, can’t talk now. I’ll call you back.”
“Okay,” she said. “Me and Leila are on the highway. We just crossed the Michigan state line.” She signed off: “Love you.”
The old man had known Dave, the owner of the neighboring house, ever since he had been a classmate of his eldest daughter in high school. Estranged from his own father, Dave would come over and have heart-to-heart talks with the old man. Dave became an adult, and had married a few times. He maintained the same taste in women: usually blonde, petite, lovers of the countryside. His current wife answered the front door. She knew animals, and was sympathetic to the old man’s predicament.
“Gee,” she said, her hands aloft as she considered the weather, “can’t say how good the track is back there. We’ve only been as far as the barn, ’cause of the snow. But feel free. You want me to tag along?”
“No, I’ll be okay.” The old man waved as he climbed back inside his car.
“If I don’t hear your car coming out, we’ll send in the plow!” She meant it only half in jest.
Behind the spacious ranch house, the once-muddied track showed deep impressions left by the plow’s industrial-size tires. The mounds of gray snow that had been pushed to either side had frozen, thawed, and mixed with mud; a recent snowfall had frozen them again. In some parts, the mounds were spotted a murky yellow: even in freezing temperatures, foxes, raccoons, and feral cats urinated. The terrain had a wrung-out, damp, sullied, uninviting look. The last low rays of the failing afternoon sun made a final retreat behind a low bank of foreboding clouds. The track petered out behind the barn, which housed the tractor plow. By a fence, a couple of horses in coats shivered. He inched the car further along and then stopped. As the trees thickened around him, he grew unsure which part of the leftover snow and grassy tufts belonged to the track.
He used the open door to pull himself out, and stood next to the car. The temperature was dropping. It was going to start snowing. The old man didn’t want the dog or himself to become trapped in the woods. He slapped his bare hands together for warmth, put them to his mouth, and hollered, “Zouzou!” In amongst the trees, his voice sounded closer, more contained. He turned and faced another direction. The dog’s name was shouted again when the phone rang. It was Emily.
“Now where are you?” she asked.
He sighed. He was going to have to tell her. “Well, honey, Zouzou ran into the woods after a deer.”
“She knows to come back.” There wasn’t a speck of worry in his daughter’s young voice.
He never liked correcting her. “This time she didn’t.”
In the few seconds it took for the news to sink in, he added quickly, “I’m in the woods behind Dave’s house. I thought she might be back here.”
“You’re where?” Emily’s voice rose suddenly. He could tell she was anxious. “That’s all I need,” she scolded. “Go home. You’ll fall down and hurt yourself. And who’s going to come out and rescue you? Daaad …” She sounded like a little girl again.
“I’m okay.” He always became annoyed whenever his kids thought him weaker than he was.
“Just passed Cincinnati,” he overheard his niece Leila announce, while driving. She was a solid, calming presence against the white noise of whooshing cars and trucks on the busy expressway. Emily’s words slightly slurred when she told him, “Okay, I’ll get off now.” There was no love you as she hung up. He could picture her face, screwed up. If she hadn’t started crying, she was about to.
Leila, at the wheel, kept an eye on the semi overtaking them in the lane to their right. She felt around for the box of tissues she kept near the driver’s seat. Grabbing hold of it, she shoved it towards Emily. Leila often broke down in the car when life’s difficulties became too much to bear. But the one thing she could say in her favor was that she’d never once cried over a dog. She was about to console her cousin, but Emily was already on her phone.
“Yep.” Bobby sounded somewhat annoyed when he answered. He was definitely coming down with something. It was winter, and he and his wife and their four kids — the three that were his and Theresa’s and BB, a cute Vietnamese baby girl they’d adopted — were always getting sick. The family had survived Covid, but their antibodies hadn’t been strong enough to ward off the virulent strain of flu that was making the rounds of the homeschooled kids who met a couple of days a week at the local library.
He could immediately tell Emily was upset. With their mother’s two older children, he, Nora and Emily — because of their father — had become a unit within a unit. Still, Bobby tried not to let his two sisters intrude on what had become an incredibly busy life. Between work, the children, and his studies, he didn’t have much time to do what he loved best: make music.
“Okay,” he said impatiently. “Stop worrying.” He leaned his guitar back against the wall, downed a couple of aspirins, and got ready. In his winter coat and rubber boots, a warm hat, scarf, and gloves, he stood by the doorway of the bedroom and told Theresa his reason for going out. Two of the kids were in bed with their mother; the other two were down the hall, tucked up in their cots. The way he felt, it was only a matter of time before he joined them. But maybe by then they would be up and about, and he could bring his miniature keyboard to bed with him.
“Take a flashlight,” Theresa — wan and sick-looking — called out from the bed.
“I have the light on my phone.”
Theresa nodded wearily. “Phones break. Take a flashlight, for my peace of mind.”
Bobby smiled. How did this slip of girl he’d met at church become such a pragmatic matriarch? “Get some sleep,” he said, and his voice softened as he added, “By the time you and the kids wake up, I’ll be back.” He tiptoed through the silent house and left through the garage door.
Nora, Emily’s sister, answered a FaceTime call at the One-Minute Walk-In Medical Clinic in Memphis, where she worked as a nurse. “Okay, calm down,” Nora said, peering into her phone. The connection was a little blurry, but she could see that Emily was distressed. “I remember something about lost dogs because my neighbor lost hers. Wait, let me look.” Nora swiped Emily’s image on her phone to access the Internet. Emily could hear the beeping of medical equipment, and what sounded like a crowd of people clamoring in the clinic.
Nora said to one of the other nurses: “Give me another five. I’ll be right out.” She whispered into the phone: “Because of the flu, it’s nuts around here.” Emily felt bad. On FaceTime, she could see that her sister was sitting in a cubicle, a mask under her chin as she sipped a quick cup of coffee. Nora tapped in Zouzou’s details: the color, gray and white; the breed, labradoodle. “How old’s Zouzou?” she asked.
“Three.” Emily stiffened. She had been good at holding back her tears, but at any moment they were going to erupt.
“Shush!” Nora typed in their father’s address. “All done. An email alert from www.mydogismissing.com has gone out to two hundred addresses within a five-mile radius of Dad’s house. Someone’s bound to see Zouzou and bring her home. Got to go—” With that, she cut Emily off.
Before Nora left the cubicle, she speed-dialed their mother’s number and told her Zouzou was lost in the woods, and that Emily was on her way back from Detroit, nervous and upset. Over the past six months, Nora and Emily hadn’t spoken much with their mother; the relationship had soured over something stupid. It had been more than a few years since Shirley had communicated with Emily’s father, but that didn’t matter when her children or their pets needed her. Shirley loved children and dogs. After getting off the phone with Nora, she put together an emergency care package of food, bottled water, dog kibble, and a small, warm blanket, and placed it in her car.
Emily began sobbing. The cousins’ trip to Detroit had been a washout. She and their other cousin had let Leila sleep in, and she’d missed going with them to yoga class. That had caused a nasty argument. Now Zouzou’s disappearance had compounded an already awkward situation. Leila glanced over at her passenger and said, “I’ve forgotten; in your twenties, you really feel things.”
Emily looked over through her tears. “What do you mean by that?”
“To be so worried about a dog …”
“Zouzou’s not just a dog.” Emily shook her head in utter disbelief. “She’s family.” My family, she thought to herself. But how could she expect anyone else to understand? Leila came from a close-knit family. She had grown up in the same house with her sisters; she had known her parents her whole life. Even though Emily’s family secrets had been revealed to all, it didn’t mean that everything was all right between, say, her and Bobby — although Nora had always been a solid older sister — or, worse yet, her parents. Zouzou had come into Emily’s life during lockdown, and had been a constant presence. She was there for Emily when Emily thought some of the people who should be, weren’t.
Bobby, meanwhile, called his father.
The old man picked up. “Hello, son! Emmie call you?”
“You bet,” Bobby said, matter-of-factly. “Dad, any luck?”
“Been driving around the neighborhood. Haven’t seen Zouzou yet.”
“I’m at the house. Thought I better call now. Who knows, the reception in the woods. You might think about coming home. I don’t want you to get sick.”
The old man bristled again. “Will you kids stop badgering me?”
The two got off the phone and Bobby stepped out of his car. Darkness came early. He was cold and felt like crap. It was just like Emily to lose her dog in the middle of winter. When they were kids, she had gone to live in the big house with Dad and his wife, and had grown up there. Bobby and Nora stayed at their mother’s. Dad regularly visited, and invited them over to play with Emily, but none of the kids knew he was their father. They thought he was a family friend who showed up with groceries whenever he visited their mother’s house. As they grew older, he intervened in a decisive way and made sure they went to college; but Bobby and Nora hadn’t been afforded the opportunities lavished on Emily.
Bobby’s adolescence had been troubled. Learning the identity of his father so late in life could have had long lasting repercussions, but Theresa had changed all of that. Having his own children had given him a different perspective. Sometimes dads did what they were only able to do, and sometimes that had to be enough. If only his sisters would cut their mother the same slack.
Bobby walked past the barn. Tiny sleeting bits of ice crystals stung his eyes. He could feel them stiffen his hipster beard, which all his male friends in their early thirties were growing. He had known the woods since he was a little boy, although he didn’t let his own kids play there. The tall, long grass between the trees crunched beneath his feet. Further in, he realized that no one looking for him would be able to find him. He was going to have to follow his footprints back out, and pray that it didn’t snow; he was a useless Hansel for not trailing breadcrumbs, as in the story he read to his children. The ground squishy underfoot in some places was frozen, rock-solid ice in others. It made him glad he was wearing his thick rubber boots.
Forty minutes later, another car stopped in front of the big house. Whatever Shirley thought she might feel seeing it for the first time in years was pushed aside by her worry for Zouzou. Down by the garage, Bobby’s car was parked in one of the spaces near the pond. Before she got out of hers, she called his number, but it went to voicemail. She arranged the provisions she had brought by the open front door, although she knew better than to call to anybody who might be inside. Before she got back into her car to leave, she walked down the driveway beside the house and glimpsed the long beam from a flashlight, combing the woods on the other side of the barn.
The old man decided he had wasted enough time driving around on country lanes, and stopped in the driveways of neighbors he knew, along with newcomers to the neighborhood whom he didn’t. Each time he rang the front doorbell, he asked the same thing: “We lost our dog, have you seen it?” All of them said “no” except for another, wizened grandfather like the old man, who suggested: “Don’t forget to check the camp.”
The old man nodded. He had forgotten Camp Francis of Assisi. Rented out for religious conferences, school sleepovers, and nature events, it was on the edge of the woods that started at the bottom of his yard and fanned out for miles behind his house. His car followed the roads leading to the camp, and he pulled up in a clearing surrounded by log cabins. He remembered the last time he was there. He had been looking for another lost dog. He and his wife and his second daughter, then 11, had two German Shepherds, Tipsy and King. Whenever they weren’t on the leash, they ran away.
He had probably spent years of his life searching for lost dogs, and the thought suddenly weighed heavily upon him — like fatigue. Instead of leaving his car, he remained in his seat and peered out the front windshield. He hit the switch to roll down the passenger-side window. Once satisfied that nothing was there, he slowly pushed open the door on his side and continued to take a good look around, without getting out. Absolutely nobody had been in the camp since the big snow had melted and frozen again. Only his tires had left marks in the snow still on the ground. All the log cabins were shut up. There wasn’t a soul for miles around.
“Zouzou!” he called through the open door. But he was tired, his voice weak. When he could, he stood up on the icy ground and held onto the roof of the car as he made his way to the trunk. He pressed the smart key and the lid flipped open. From inside he retrieved a Cleveland Browns scarf (he’d supported the team until the quarterback was accused of sexual misconduct) and a thick pair of winter gloves he only wore in times of emergencies. He never used to feel the cold, and as a younger man had prided himself on never needing a coat even during the worst winters. But everything, it seems, changes in your nineties. He also took out a small plastic bottle of water from a case of 50 he kept in the trunk, a habit from when he ran marathons. The nearly icy water soothed his aching throat. He called out the dog’s name again, but his increasingly hoarse voice wavered. He grabbed onto the trunk to catch his breath.
The last time Tipsy and King ran away, he had driven to Camp Francis of Assisi and had almost run into a pickup truck turning into the road leading to the camp. The two vehicles came to a stop nose to nose, inches from each other. The other driver, the camp’s maintenance man, got out, but the old man — then in his 40s — just leaned out his window. It was summertime, when the evenings were long, bright, and full of promise.
“Man,” scolded the maintenance man, “what’re you doing here?”
“I lost my dogs.”
The maintenance man motioned for him to get out of his car and follow him. Behind a mesh at the back of a truck stood a sleek German Shepherd. It was Tipsy. Once she was home, King returned as well, looking like he had missed her. Some twenty years later, when Emmie was growing up, the family had another German Shepherd, named Princess. He didn’t know why Zouzou hadn’t been given a generic name like the others. How did his youngest know about Zouzou, a character from the Egyptian film Khalli balak min Zouzou! (Watch out for Zouzou!) — which is what he’d been doing since that pesky dog had run away. The film had been popular in the 1970s. It was about a reformed belly dancer who forgoes the family profession in entertainment and focuses on her studies after falling in love with her college professor. It wasn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story, but something almost as important in the Middle East — respectability: a girl saved from the gutter of immorality by love.
The old man sat back in his car, rolled up the passenger-side window and realized that Zouzou’s name said everything about his experience as an Arab immigrant to America. He had hid his ethnicity even from his dogs. Emmie had been the one in the family keen to celebrate it. The old man shook his head. There had been too many runaway dogs. Princess took off and never came home. Emmie had cried so hard, he was sure she would be scarred by the incident for life.
Zouzou wasn’t at the camp; nor was she by any of the fancy new housing developments across the street from the extensive lawn surrounding the mansion belonging to LeBron James. The old man pulled up on the side of the road in front of the mansion, got out and stood by the car. People driving by must have thought he was another crazed basketball fan.
With a heavy heart, he stamped his feet to get the gravel and snow off his boots before climbing back inside the car. He wended his way back home and turned into the driveway. Before he had paid to get the long driveway properly concreted and paved, it had been almost impossible to make it up the graveled track to the house in wintertime. He thought of the night he and his wife had returned from a trip to South America to visit her family. With absolutely no traction in the heavy snow, the car slid backwards down to the road. Luckily, it had been past midnight, and nobody else was around. They left the car there and struggled through the knee-high snow with their suitcases up to the house. Back then winter was winter, not this hybrid mess of cold, wet, frozen slush that seesawed between mud and dangerous ice on account of climate change. That night his wife had been wearing a pair of boots she had gotten made for herself in Buenos Aires. In the snow, one got sucked off. She left it behind in the dark and walked to the house, one boot on, one boot off and one stockinged foot. The boot was never found, even after the snows melted in springtime.
Because of those years, the old man was in the habit of inching the car up the driveway in the winter. He was surprised. In the headlights there seemed to be more tire tracks in the smattering of snow than when he had left three hours ago — and some footprints, too.
Midway, he caught sight of a couple walking down the drive towards him. He stopped the car, and waited for them to reach him.
Eventually, a woman peered in through the driver’s side window, which he had lowered. “Are you the man with the lost dog?” she asked.
She continued, “My husband and I came out to look for it.”
They were in their 30s. Hell, thought the old man, only a young couple without a care in the world would come out looking for a stranger’s dog.
“How did you know?” he asked. “Did one of the neighbors tell you our dog was missing?”
The young woman said, “I received a text on my phone.”
The man with her was obviously her husband, not her lover. The old man could tell by the way they stood close, comfortably together in front of someone they didn’t know. The husband started to explain that the two of them had grown up nearby and had worked elsewhere, but had recently moved back. The old man didn’t recognize them, but thought that even so, there was a good chance that they had “borrowed” his driveway when they were courting. In another decade, when he used to come home at midnight after spending the evening with the mother of his younger children, he’d sometimes surprise a couple of high school students necking in a parked car, far enough away from the road and just out of sight of the house. He never blamed young people in love, and always gave them enough time to make themselves presentable as he drove up slowly behind them, stopped his car at a suitable distance and yelled out in a friendly voice — lest they panic — that they should turn around at the top by the house. It was time for them, and for him, to go home.
“You lost one dog or two?” the woman asked him.
“Just one,” said the old man.
The woman exclaimed to her husband, “I told you I saw it.” Her deep blue eyes regarded the old man. She was earnest, kindly, and Midwestern. “It went into the house.”
“It did?” He took off his gloves. Through the open car window, he shook hands first with the young woman and then with her husband. He added, “Thanks for all the trouble you’ve taken,” although he didn’t quite believe that the dog had made it back by herself. Before he drove off, he watched the couple in his rearview mirror as they walked hand-in-hand towards the road. That’s how he had been when he had gotten married: optimistic, attentive — until the rot set in. He and his wife met when they were foreign students. But America had too many temptations. By the time he had assimilated, so had his libido. He wondered whether or not he would do everything the same way again if he had known then that his actions would cause so much hurt and resentment.
At the top of the driveway, the exterior sensor lights came on, and the vista revealed the large, gracious, six-bedroom home that he and his wife had built, perfectly situated behind an elegant turning circle. He stopped the car at the front of the house and got out. The sidewalk, still snow-covered, needed salting. Down by the pond, he saw Bobby’s car. On the porch behind the columns, someone had left a dog bowl, a bottle of water, a bag of dog food, and a blanket in a box. The front door was open wider than when he had left. He trudged inside.
“Zouzou!” he cried out. The house was as silent as the grave. “… Zouzou!”
He looked downstairs, starting in the dining room overfilled with glass cabinets of cut crystal and Wedgwood china. His wife had loved fine things, and he lived in the lavish home she’d created. Before her death, she changed all the appliances in the houses and made sure they were under warranty. She had tried growing orchids in a special window installed above the kitchen sink, but the weather in Ohio was too cold for tropical plants from the Amazon. He would have been the first to admit that his treatment of her hadn’t been honorable or great, but she had been smarter than he was, and he was sure she’d known what he’d been up to. They never spoke about it, although, as she drew closer to death, there was an unmistakable tone in her voice that didn’t disguise the deep anger and disdain she felt towards him.
He turned down the short hallway that led to Emmie’s old bedroom, which she occupied whenever she came home. He peered inside, saw nothing untoward, and retraced his steps down the hallway to the kitchen and open-plan living room, and the extension and new bedroom his wife had built. Still no dog. He was back by the open front door, at the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor of the house. His knees usually stopped him from going up there, except to do his taxes, which he worked on every year in the study.
Using the banister, he pulled himself up. He had a strong upper body from all those hours spent rowing. It was the cartilage in both knees that was gone, because of the marathons. In the excitement of looking for the dog, he had forgotten about that. At the top of the stairs he entered his eldest daughter’s bedroom, which housed the same gold-trimmed white French provincial furniture from when the family first moved into the house. His eldest had been a moody girl who’d left home as soon as she was able to. He walked through the adjoining bathroom into his second daughter’s bedroom. Here, Emmie’s collection of American Girl dolls — which she refused to give to Bobby’s little girls — peered out from within a glass-fronted cabinet. Out through another door, he paused in the hallway.
On the walls were his and his wife’s framed college degrees and PhDs. He could almost see his wife instructing Shirley, the housekeeper, as they were being arranged. Next to them, someone had taped a black-and-white snapshot that showed him as a wiry, young, athletic man. Such a charming bastard, he nodded to himself. He had a smile women couldn’t resist. The door to the guestroom was open. He went inside.
There, on the bed, Zouzou was sleeping.
He sank onto the wooden chest at the foot of the bed. His thoughts went back to someone else who had gone missing. It was when he and wife had switched cars because one of them had to go to the garage for repairs. She went grocery shopping and left their youngest daughter in the car. His wife came out of the store with her shopping bags and couldn’t find the car or the child. The police were notified, and they called him at work. This was before mobile phones. Without saying a word to anyone, he ran out of the lab, thinking, if it’s that easy to lose a child, we should take precautions and make sure we have more than just one or two, in case any went missing.
It didn’t occur to him that his wife had been looking for the wrong car until he drove hers to the shopping center and spotted his own car among those parked. He stopped behind it, and could still see the surprise on his daughter’s face as she looked up from the book she was reading and rolled down the window. Stubborn and sullen in her parents’ arms, she was exhausted by their hugs and kisses. In a voice older than her years, she complained: “What’s all the fuss about? You people panic!”
He gazed deeply at the reflection in the mirror on the dresser. He hardly acknowledged Zouzou on the bed behind him, exhausted from her exertions. An old man in a jacket, Cleveland Browns scarf, and boots, his thin hair completely white, stared back at him.
“You stupid dog,” was all the figure in the mirror said.