Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nita Lou Bryant & Sheba

Who is in the photo at right?

Greetings from Austin, Texas. My name is Nita Lou Bryant and I write fiction, personal essay, and memoir.

My dog Sheba is a female tricolor basenji. The vet says sh’s geriatric, but no one knows her exact age.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

I have coffee with a canine every morning, but my dog generally sleeps through it, as evidenced by this photograph.

What's brewing? Any goodies to go with the coffee? Any treat for your dog on this occasion?

The perfect cup of coffee, in my opinion, is one brewed to espresso strength in a stove-top Bialetti, with one teaspoon of sugar and enough cream stirred in until the mixture’s the caramel shade of a tricolor basenji’s eyebrows. But I gave up sugar years ago and just recently gave up cream. So now I now drink what I call cowboy coffee, scalding hot and black. I imagine I’m hunkered down around a campfire out on the prairie, keeping watch for coyotes, while--oblivious beside me--my faithful canine sidekick snores beneath the morning stars.

How were you and Sheba united?

Several years ago my daughter announced, “I want a dog who’s small enough to sleep on my bed.” At the time we had next-door neighbors with two big, scary dogs who barked at every passing molecule. Extensive research to identify a breed that tended more toward silence led me to the so-called barkless dog. When a want ad appeared in the newspaper saying a basenji up the road in Pflugerville was in need of a new home, we went to meet her. In this photo [left] taken ten years later, the little dog who slept on the foot of my daughter’s bed through elementary, junior high, and high school poses for a pre-senior-prom photo with my daughter in our back yard.

How did your dog get her name? Any aliases?

Sheba already knew her name when we got her, so we didn’t change it. But everyone in the family seems to have given her a special nickname. My daughter calls her “Baby,” while my husband prefers the generic “Dog.” For some reason—I suspect it’s the sound of her dainty little white feet tap-tapping over the hardwood floors like someone shod in tiny high heels—I tend to call her “Missy” most of the time. At the kennel and at the vet’s office she’s known as Sheba Bryant, which always makes me smile. Until we adopted her I never knew that dogs had surnames.

Does your dog have any influence on your writing?

Sheba’s not yet appeared in any of my fiction, but she’s been mentioned a few times in my Cafe Nita Lou blog. In fact, the post that received the most hits ever, in all the years I’ve been blogging, features this picture of Sheba on our front porch. The photo [right] captures a classic Sheba-pose, paws draped over the top step. She is probably waiting for our longtime mail carrier, Buddy, to arrive bearing a treat for her.

Where is your dog's favorite place for an outing?

Judging by her extensive and distinctive vocalizing, Sheba Bryant abhors riding anywhere in the car. Her favorite outing is definitely a walk through the neighborhood. She especially likes to patrol Ramsey Park, where her petite size causes all the little kids on the playground to mistake her for a puppy they want to take home.

Who is Sheba's best pet-pal?

The two barky dogs I mentioned earlier moved away years ago, to be replaced by Sheba’s best over-the-fence pals, Boutrose and Thomas, on either side. Sadly, neither of these noble dogs is still wagging among us. But our next-door neighbors to the south recently adopted a little white Jack Russell named Trinity with whom Sheba enjoys touching noses through the fence.

What is Sheba's best quality?

Her intelligence.

An outdoor dog in Plfugerville, Sheba came to us knowing nothing of civilized indoor life. When we first brought her home she was easily startled, spooked by her own reflection in a mirror or a realistic-looking stuffed animal lurking on the floor. Suddenly there were a great many new rules she was now required to obey: not to be within sight while we are dining, not to set paw in my bathroom, not to snatch an entire sandwich from a child’s hand while she was looking away. Sheba learned our arbitrary laws with alacrity, and an obvious desire to please.

We learned a thing or two as well. For example, that this little basenji can be incredibly headstrong. As the vet put it, “If she gets an idea in her head, you lose.” For one thing, that means no walks off-leash unless the entire perimeter is secure. We also discovered that thunder necessitates coddling, while prolonged human absence from home leads to used tissues snatched from the trash and mercilessly shredded. (Eeuuw!)

What is your dog's proudest moment? Her most embarrassing?

I don’t know for certain how Sheba Bryant would answer these questions but I can imagine that this photo [left] taken a few years ago illustrates both. The pride of surreptitiously working herself into The Official Family Feet Portrait only to discover that—uh, oh--she was the only one present who’d not had a fresh pedicure!

But I prefer to end this installment of Coffee with a Canine with a more recent photo, taken the day my daughter left for her junior year at USC, in far-away Los Angeles. Geriatric but still alert and attentive, Sheba watches as my daughter packs to go. What thoughts, we wonder, are running through her faithful little dog head? Is she perhaps loyally vowing to hold her position at the foot of my daughter’s bed, just as she always has, until her favorite person in the entire world returns home?

Well, no.

In fact, since my daughter left home Sheba sleeps in my husband’s and my bedroom, on the carpet on my side of the bed. I have to remain mindful not to stumble over a tricolor basenji first thing when I get up. Only when the aroma of coffee wafts its way into the bedroom does she bestir herself to come join me in the family room for our cowboy cuppa joe. Thus do we greet another morning here in Austin, Texas: me on the lookout for coyotes and Sheba Bryant enjoying her first nap of the day.

Nita Lou Bryant's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue