Pets floated away from their owners after Hurricane Katrina, leaving the streets awash in orphaned animals. In response a shelter sprang up inside Louisiana’s Dixon Correctional Institute. Housing pets in prison worked so well that the state made the shelter permanent. That’s how, long after the disaster, eleven incarcerated men became caretakers to ninety animals, and one of those animals became mine.

Once each year this shelter brings dogs to an adoption event at the Angola Prison Rodeo, the nation’s only remaining “convict rodeo.” Outside an arena where men wearing black and white stripes are bludgeoned by bulls, stray dogs bark from crates. Spectators who wish to adopt may trial-walk puppies on leashes alongside men who will never go home again.

Almost a decade ago I covered the event for a publication. As I passed through that puppy yard on my way to an interview, I overheard someone say in a sweet Southern drawl, “It’s her fourth Angola rodeo. Poor girl.”

Poor girl lay sprawled in her kennel, a skinny, despondent dog with the face of a greyhound, the body of a Lab, and the neck of a giraffe. Her name was Twin, and she wouldn’t make eye contact or raise her head for anyone but Wylie, her assigned caretaker. I overheard Wylie say, “We’ve had her over four years. I don’t know why no one wants her. She’s going to make someone the nicest pet.” It’s the way he said nicest pet—soft and grave, like he really meant it—that registered.

Nearby, vendors hawked food, children jabbered, dogs yipped, and incarcerated men ran from bulls to become the “winner,” which is to say, the last man standing—though the winner often got knocked down, too. In this rodeo imprisoned men are both sport and prop. Among other activities, they act as live bowling pins for the bulls, standing with one man at the front and four in the back. A human pyramid. The bull’s horns send them flying through the air or slam them into the wall or pound them into the ground to the thrill of the large crowd. Because I teach in prison, each time a man whacked into the fence (applause!), I thought of specific people I know well, people from my classroom, people whose stories I’ve read, people whose words, written in pencil, often describe being a kid no one wanted.

“Real gentle girl,” Wylie said at the same time the announcer whooped and the crowd cheered about another “pin” down. My anger spiked. Adopting Twin felt like saying, Screw you, to discarding. Twenty-five bucks and a signature later, she was mine.

Later came her side-eyed avoidance, her vile breath, her terror. This new friend took days to come out of the crate, a month to housebreak, to eat a full bowl of food, to lean into my leg, to look at me.


A year after I brought Twin home, I called the prison to speak to Wylie. I wanted to tell him he was right: she did make the nicest pet. First I had to speak to the administrator overseeing the dog-rescue program, who asked in a thick Southern accent, “Wylie? Why on earth would you want to talk to Wylie? He’s a retard, ain’t you, Wylie?” Wylie was in the office, waiting for my call. Over the man’s chuckling, I heard Wylie respond, but I couldn’t make out his words. “He don’t know nothing about nothing,” the officer said.

When he finally handed the phone over, I told Wylie that Twin’s favorite spot was anyone’s lap. When I grabbed her leash, she spun in a circle, then sat eagerly in front of me, locking eyes and politely putting one paw on my thigh. She would share a treat or her food, but she did not like sharing affection; when others came around, Twin stretched out her paws to block them from my lap, and groaned this long, guttural sound that seemed to mean “Please, mine.”

Wylie laughed and said that sounded right. Twin had lived inside a concrete kennel for four of her five years. Wylie, who also lived inside a concrete box, had gone to prison as a teen. He’d cared for Twin since she was a puppy, which meant he had likely opened her kennel to feed her and let her out thousands of times. I pictured him petting her and saying, “Hey, girl,” every single time he opened her door. Amid the slamming of cages and barking of other dogs, it must’ve been a comfort for her. And for him.

She refused to walk with me the day I met her in that muddy yard, but as soon as Wylie took the leash, she trotted willingly. He leaned down and spoke to her after I’d signed all the paperwork. He talked to her for a long while, her body resting against his legs. I could tell from the way she relaxed that she trusted him.

Before we hung up, I asked Wylie what his plans were when he got out. Quietly, he said he’d been thinking about creating his own organization that would teach other prisons how to take in strays and “treat them right.”


I ’d had Twin for four years when she grew listless, and her breathing turned wheezy. She coughed a lot, and her black nose dripped. Her affection remained intact, however, which is why I figured it was just a cold and waited almost two weeks to take her to the vet. (Maybe also because I was in the middle of a divorce, with full custody of my kids, while working fifty hours a week.)

The vet told my soon-to-be-ex-husband and me it was fungal pneumonia, which, at this stage, had a 10 percent chance of responding to the medication. Twin, who was terrified in the tiny kennel, and terrified in general of anyone who wasn’t family, would need to continue to stay in the hospital during the treatment, and the final bill would be around ten thousand dollars. Did we want to treat or euthanize her?

I don’t know why I didn’t research it. I don’t know why I didn’t ask for a day to think about it. Was I too overwhelmed to think clearly?

Even after all these years, I don’t want to tell you what we decided. I think it was the wrong choice. I asked Twin if she wanted to go for one last walk, and she perked up as if we were leaving the hospital and going home to her couch. She trotted outside alongside me and leaned in as if all her troubles were gone. As if she were safe.


Al joined our family the day he married my mother. We have one photo from the wedding, a Polaroid: He stands six feet, seven inches tall, shirtless, with a pink carnation tucked in his chest hair. A foot shorter and to his left, Mom wears a brown cotton dress and a matching flower in her hair. At five years old I stand between my two sisters, Kris (older) and Amy (younger), all of us wearing matching pink dresses and white bobby socks. We’re posing in front of what is possibly the only tree in Muleshoe, Texas.

That night, and many nights after, Al let me stand on his size-thirteen cowboy boots and dance the two-step to Kenny Rogers. Less than six months later he forced me to eat a whole box of cookies because I had whined for another. Cookie dust mixed with tears and snot as I ate my punishment. My sisters, unable to help, watched quietly. After I finished the container, Al hugged me and said, “Love ya, Baby.”

The names he called me changed with his mood: Jenner, Liar, Sissy, Chickenshit, Asshole, Baby Doll, Dumb Shit, Thunder Thighs, Squirt.

In the first year Al was a part of our family, I two-stepped through the air, weightless; I rode a bike while Al pushed; I sprinted past closets, scared of the dark; I was crying, always crying, but I never knew why.

He gave big, wraparound hugs. He pushed us into walls. He coaxed squirrels to eat from his enormous hand. He bruised our thighs with his belt. He baked cobbler using peaches he’d picked from our tree. He called me Hairy Monkey Ass in public. He would later call my sister’s boyfriend Hard Dick. Some of his name-calling was ridiculous enough to make you laugh—unless he screamed it, in which case you ran. His anger was a fierce wind, surging at unpredictable times from traumas I never learned.

“I love you,” he said daily. And also, “I don’t give a goddamn hell if Jesus Christ himself is sitting on the dashboard of this goddamn car, I’m not going through the drive-in / turning up the heater / changing the channel / turning around.”


Al mostly stopped parenting his own four children after he married my mom. During an unprecedented weekend when Al’s kids visited, he scrambled eggs while we sat stiffly and stared at bodybuilders on TV. As he cooked, I asked Al to sign a permission slip for school.

He took the slip from my hand, read it, and gave me a confused look. “Why would I sign this?” He said it like he truly did not understand. The six children sitting awkwardly in the living room turned from the TV to watch us.

“I need a parent’s signature,” I said.

He put the spatula down and stared at me. He paused with great deliberation. Somehow I knew what was coming.

“I’m not your parent,” he said.

Al had been married to Mom for about ten years by this point. He’d coached my basketball team, danced with me, hugged me before bed, come to my school plays. Now he handed back the unsigned permission form and would not look away, as if his ability to face me were proof that what he’d said was true.


Decades later, when Al was dying, I traveled down Highway 60 to say goodbye. Corn husks blew across the road, and combines harvested into the night. My body felt the memory of being a small child dancing for the first time on someone else’s boots, to someone else’s rhythm. I was in both bodies at once: a five-year-old on Al’s feet; an adult driving a car.

I’m glad that was the memory my body chose.

When I walked into his room, Al cried out from the bed and reached for me like a child. Surprised, I looked to my sisters for confirmation of what I was seeing. I wondered if it was the morphine doing all that caring, and I chose not to mind if it was. If there’s a gift in certain death, it’s a chance to control the ending, which one might confuse with the entire journey if one wanted to. And I did.

Al had endured a severely restricted diet for months, but now that he was in hospice care, he could eat what he wanted, and just then what he wanted was salami sliced so thin you could see through it. “Hear me?” he asked with a grin. He motioned with clumsy hands. “That thin!”

I asked the man at the deli to slice the salami like lace. The man, who did not know he was part of a sacred task, adjusted knobs and slid the meat against the spinning blade. When he tossed the first slice onto the scale, it was so thin it did not even register.

I brought it to Al, and he held a slice up to the light, admiring the cut. I’d gotten it right, and he rewarded me with a smile.

We held hands more in his last two days than we had in all our years together. I asked if he was scared, and he said, “Not if you’re here.”

Who is this man? I wondered. Who is he confusing me for?

A few days into my visit, he requested a grilled cheese sandwich—his literal last meal. I placed three different kinds of cheese inside two pieces of Asiago bread and grilled them until the entire house smelled of browned butter. Al said it was the best he’d ever eaten.

“Please, God,” he said, folding his hands and pretending to pray, “let me live one more day so I can eat three more.”


Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White was also someone’s stepdad, and by all accounts a devoted one. When I imagine an ideal parent—and I’m ashamed that, after all my own parenting failures, I still imagine an ideal parent—he is E.B. White.

In a letter to the humane society, White responded to accusations that he was harboring an unlicensed dachshund.

“If by ‘harboring’ you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket up over her,” he wrote, “I am harboring a dog all right. The blanket keeps slipping off. I suppose you are wondering by now why I don’t get her a sweater instead. That’s a joke on you. She has a knitted sweater, but she doesn’t like to wear it for sleeping.”


I was not raised around extended family. Nor did I grow up with a “chosen family,” a phrase introduced in 1991, the year I graduated high school, by Kath Weston in the book Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. In making visible the bonds queer people form in the absence of support from their biological families, Weston articulated alternate family models—ways to become, to select, and to name surrogates.

A former-student-turned-friend, brought up in foster care, introduces me to others as his “chosen family.” I’m honored that he says it so openly. I have friends who feel like family, but I’m reluctant to name that feeling, especially when they’re rich with relatives. Would it feel clingy? Unwelcome? If they agreed, could the relationship withstand the pressure of that title? Such are the doubts of a girl whose chosen dads didn’t choose her back, I suppose.


It has been four years since Twin was euthanized. Five years since Al died. I’m solo parenting my own kids, and I doubt I’ll ever remarry. Curious, still, about stepfathers in nature, I type into Google, “surrogate fathers animal world.” There are six. I try “capable stepfathers animal world,” which brings up a list of . . . surrogate mothers. There’s an orangutan who takes in tiger cubs. A Pomeranian who adopts a monkey. A dog who adopts a squirrel, a cat who adopts a squirrel—really every kind of animal willingly adopts squirrels.

My favorite surrogate of them all is the cat, Lurlene, who takes in a pit bull. A fly-infested, one-day-old puppy whimpered from a garbage can. Some woman brushed him off, named him, and tucked him right up against her cat, Lurlene, who was nursing kittens at the time. Lurlene mewed and fed the puppy along with the rest of her litter. In a photo taken a bit later, the puppy is gazing with milky, three-week-old eyes right into Lurlene’s whiskers. There are photos of Lurlene with all her kittens and that starving baby pit bull at her nipples, and their little heads and mouths are all frantic and needy, yet every one of them is being nourished, and Lurlene has this look on her face like Good God, let it end. She doesn’t leave the cardboard box, though, or thwack any of them with her paws. She feeds them. Then the kittens grow into cats and the puppy grows into a pit bull and Lurlene gets her nipples back.


Writer Hanif Abdurraqib kills me: “That anyone loves us at all is not a given.”


My alley neighbor, Jonathan, has a string of lights in his yard that loop from his detached garage, over the bistro table, and through the trees. He plugs them in when his daughter comes home from college. One night, when the lights were shining, I heard the clink of bottles and smelled a warming grill and heard him joke with his daughter about “little smokies.” Anytime I look out my back door and see glimmers between Jonathan’s oak leaves, I think a light-worthy someone must be over, and that feels safe to me, and a little special, the way I imagine it does to his guest. Under those trees and lights: a home. I wonder how different the world would be if every human knew that feeling.


Prior to marrying Al, Mom worked two jobs, seven days a week, and still needed government assistance. Would we have had an Al if my mom had lived near family, or if my dad had stuck around postdivorce, or if we’d had our own chosen family? In the absence of a village, we take a spouse—or so it seems. My mom had no choice: my sisters and I spent most of our time in day care under the care of people who didn’t care all that much. The year I entered kindergarten, Kris and I were on our own. Mom left for work at 4 AM and dropped Amy off at day care. Later Kris woke me, dressed me, and walked me to school. I remember butter-and-sugar sandwiches, stomachaches, and a boy who taunted us till Kris scared him off by tossing (someone else’s) garden tomatoes at his head. Mostly I remember school picture day.

Mom had rolled my hair in foam curlers the night before, coiling each section until my hair was engulfed by pink sponge. She asked Kris to take the rollers out the next morning, and she laid out what I was to wear: a white blouse with puffy sleeves and a maroon ribbon bow tie.

Kris coaxed me awake, then unspooled roller after roller. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a disaster. My hair was rounded, like a salon perm. Like an egoless grandma. My very head had tripled in size. I bawled while Kris tried to brush out the curls, but that only made the helmet fuller. I cried harder. She sprayed my hair and tried to smush it close to my scalp, but helping only hurt.

When it was time to leave for school, Kris laid the brush down, tied my ribbon into a bow, and locked the door behind us.


This was lifetimes ago. My sister and I now have grown kids, and she tells me she is weary of looking after everyone. Kris reminds me she began parenting at the age of seven. She means me, of course. She is ready for a break—fly-to-Mexico-and-never-return ready. I’ve only lately realized that trauma doesn’t always catch up with you until you sit down. My sister has finally sat down.

I haven’t seen the school photo in years. It’s buried in a box in Mom’s garage, tucked away with the picture of the five of us at the tiny Texas wedding and snapshots of grandfathers I never knew, a father I don’t remember, Al standing on red dirt in his big boots, a squirrel on the edge of a fence. Filed away somewhere, with no logic or respect for chronology, is that school photo, with its stock blue background and my eyes, red and puffy, far more noticeable than my hair. What’s not visible is the mother who needed support, and the immeasurable goodwill of the sister who stepped up to fill the void.


My final flock of backyard chickens was the hardest, in part because I’d named them after family. Amy was the smallest of the newly added chicks, and she didn’t live long enough to lay an egg. Kris survived all the perils, the earliest and bloodiest of which was when my dog (not Twin but another) burst into the coop and hauled the hens out to play. Just as he did with his squeaky toys, he picked them up by the neck and tossed them into the sky. He tussled them—joyful and wild, until they stopped playing.

Of all the motley-feathered pullets that bore my family members’ names, only Kris plus the elder hens remained. Three months after the dog attack, Kris suffered a weasel invasion in broad daylight. From inside the house I heard screeching and fluttering and my neighbor’s screams. By the time I could intervene, blood and feathers covered the coop. Several of the newest hens lay dead.

Again Kris survived. But every time I dumped grain into her trough, she attacked my hand. I wanted to make this right; I’d given the bird my sister’s name, after all. Alas, it was too late. Her beak was her defense, and she deployed it with precision. She left welts on my hand anytime I went near. My animal impulse against the pain was to whack Kris’s soft, golden feathers. Instead I sprinkled grain at her feet to show her I wasn’t a threat, but even that did not sway her.

One stormy night she wandered out of the coop and couldn’t find her way back. The next morning I discovered her wet and huddled under a tree. To my surprise she did not attack me, did not make a single murmur in her gullet when I picked her up. Her delicate bones felt so resigned in my arms that I thought we’d made a breakthrough. Eventually, though, she recovered and made it clear she’d simply been too tired to fight.


There were gentle days, too, of course. Days the chickens pecked beneath a sunny sky and roosted at sundown. Days when the dangers were scarce and the world was well. Whether the transcendent times made up for the brittle moments, I can’t say. Either way, the hens aged and stopped laying eggs. With my permission, my neighbor slaughtered Kris and the rest of the flock. I chose not to be there for it, nor to eat the soup she shared with me, including a container of broth made from Kris’s bones. It’s still in my freezer, golden and frost covered, some seven years later because I can neither use it nor throw it out.

Despite how much I loved their sounds and squalor, that was the last year I kept chickens. I told myself, Not again. Who needs that heartbreak in your life? Not just the heartbreak of watching a living thing struggle, but of failing to protect it, too. The grief of failing others is sharper even than being failed. And yes, it’s human, and yes, it’s inevitable. But that doesn’t make it less painful.

I focus so much on all of love’s failings, I’ve forgotten how nice it feels to try. Recently, in honor of my birthday, some friends rented a farmhouse with four squawking chickens and a wraparound porch. They brought homemade hand pies and chocolate cake. We read during the day and chopped vegetables for soup each night. I couldn’t wait to bring scraps to the hens. It felt nice to think of each carrot I peeled as a treat for the birds, to offer something that made them squawk and flutter. And of course it was a gift to find their eggs in the morning: multisized and multicolored, each one cradling a golden yolk. I am warming to the idea of raising chickens again. Just a few. It’s easier to support others when you, yourself, feel held.

My friends, who hear often of my neighbor’s yard lights, offered to help me string some at my new place. Because I am slower to accept care than I am to talk about it, I haven’t said yes, not yet. But if I do, I will hang those lights above a tiny coop, drape them above a circle of chairs, and let them illuminate the renegade sunflower in my small backyard. When my people visit, I will plug the lights in as a sign that they are worthy. That we all are.