I Thought You Were Dead

Praise for
I Thought You Were Dead

“Chosen by independent booksellers as a recent No. 1 Book Sense Pick,
I Thought You Were Dead,
a novel about the bonds between dogs and humans, is heartfelt and nostalgic in tone … Stella's wisdom sets the luckless Paul on a brighter life path. It's her nobility … that gives the story its power.”

USA Today

I Thought You Were Dead
] has a low-key, indie-movie vibe, with Stella sounding like
's older, world-weary aunt.”

The Washington Post Book World

“With an irresistible voice, a completely relatable hero, and a dog named Stella who will steal your heart away, Pete Nelson has crafted a cunning and completely winning novel in
I Thought You Were Dead
. Read it, and you will fall in love.”

—Susan Cheever, author of
American Bloomsbury

“In the guise of a novel, Pete Nelson has spun a beautiful ballad out of the humblest elements: an old dog, a drinking problem, a Minnesota family and a woman torn between two lovers. Not at all coincidentally, he's also written a truly outstanding talking-dog story … With exquisite tone control, he has given us a story that's sweet and loving but never sentimental.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Stella the dog is always charming. And there's a dignity and gravity to Paul's affection for her … Their friendship [is] one of the best ever put down on paper.”

—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Hilarious and heartbreaking, Pete Nelson's
I Thought You Were Dead
will stay with you long after you've read the last page—a brilliantly funny, highly original, and heartfelt novel about a man who needs all the help (i.e., love) he can get and who finds it in delightfully unexpected places.”

—Mary Helen Stefaniak,
author of
The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia

“‘I thought you were dead,' Stella says to Paul when he returns home from a bar, on page one of Pete Nelson's new novel. Delivered by an aging, arthritic Labrador/Shepherd mix, the line displays the dry wit and dog logic that makes Stella and, by extension, much of this novel a delight … Yes, Stella talks. And the conversations are so charming and matter-of-fact that it hardly seems worth asking from whence this special power comes.”


“Pete Nelson has crafted a sweet, charming story about a man, his dog and the people in his life … A walk with Gustavson and Stella is a journey not soon forgotten.”

The Charleston Post and Courier

“If you think your dog is not only the best listener in your life, but you can actually hear its sage advice in your head, you should read Pete Nelson's
I Thought You Were Dead …
Nelson describes the friendship between man and dog with a lot of heart and understanding.”

The Oregonian

“Airy and almost miraculous … It's very wise about the way devotion—between animals and people, between people and people—can keep us going.”

The Palm Beach Post

“Nelson delivers readable prose and a flawed, likable character who is easy to root for. The author does a good job portraying the complexities of adult relationships without artifice.”

—The Cedar Rapids Gazette

“A sweet little novel … about relationships … Stella has a wry voice that might, just might, also be the voice of Paul's inner better angel. And if dogs could talk, they probably would talk like Stella—kindly, sensibly, usually about food … Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune

I Thought You Were Dead
is about the catastrophes that make a person realize his life is a mess, then do everything he can to put his life back together—perhaps, in the process, creating something better than he dared to hope for.”


“In this age of extended adolescence, here's a coming-of-age novel about a middle-aged man who's had no luck at much of anything, especially love. The fact that Pete Nelson can tell such a story without making the narrator's charming talking dog seem unusual is proof of his power as a writer. This book will make you laugh, cry, and want a dog you can really talk to.”

—Wyn Cooper, poet and author of
Postcards from the Interior

I Thought You Were Dead

Also by Pete Nelson

A More Unbending Battle
Left for Dead
That Others May Live
The Christmas List

I Thought You Were Dead

A Love Story



Published by
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of
Workman Publishing
225 Varick Street
New York, New York 10014

© 2010 by Pete Nelson.
All rights reserved.
First paperback edition, Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill, March 2011.
Originally published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 2010.
Printed in the United States of America.
Published simultaneously in Canada by
Thomas Allen & Son Limited.

This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary
perceptions and insights are based on experience, all names,
characters, places, and incidents either are products of
the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nelson, Peter, [date]
I thought you were dead : a love story : a novel/
by Pete Nelson. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-1-56512-597-1 (HC)
1. Human-animal relationships — Fiction.
2. Dogs — Fiction. I. Title.
PS3614.E449I33 2010
813′.6 — dc22            2009047626

ISBN 978-1-61620-048-0 (PB)

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Paperback Edition

For Jen and Jack

I Thought You Were Dead

Part 1

Individual heart cells beat at their own rate when separated from one another, a phenomenon easily observed beneath a microscope. It has long been known that when they are pushed together, they will synchronize their pulses. Recent studies have shown, however, that heart cells begin to synchronize slightly
they touch. It is not known how they signal across this distance. Some scientists speculate that this method of communication may be able to cross great distances and may explain how social animals bond, or how pets seem to sense when their masters are coming home, or even how people fall in love, one heart calling to another.

— Paul Gustavson,
Nature for Morons

Two of Them Going Nowhere

n the winter of 1998, at the close of the twentieth century, in a small college town on the Connecticut River, on the sidewalk outside a house close enough to the railroad tracks that the pictures on the walls were in constant need of straightening, not that anybody ever straightened them, Paul Gustavson, having had a bit too much to drink, took the glove off his right hand, wedged it into his left armpit, and fumbled in his pants pocket for his house keys.

The snow was coming down hard, which meant the plows would be rumbling all night, clearing the roads. It was early March. Paul would have to shovel in the morning, a favor he did for his landlady, who lived upstairs and hadn't raised the rent in years in part because of the kindnesses he'd done her. His go-getter neighbor would already have finished snow-blowing his own drive, salting it, sanding it, probably drying it with a hair dryer before Paul got out of bed. Paul didn't mind shoveling, even though he'd shoveled enough snow as a kid, growing up in Minneapolis, to last a lifetime. He had to be at the airport by noon to catch his flight back to the Twin Cities, a flight that might not have been necessary had he been more on the ball. Some days were better than others.

“I'm home,” Paul said, letting himself in and closing the door to keep out the cold.

“I thought you were dead,” the dog said. Her name was Stella,
and she was a mixed breed, half German shepherd and half yellow Labrador, but favoring the latter in appearance. Fortunately, she'd also gotten her personality from the Labrador side of the family, taking from the Germans only a certain congenital neatness and a strong sense of protectiveness, though since she was the omega dog in her litter, it only meant she frequently felt put-upon.

“Once again, I'm not dead.”

“Joy unbounded,” she said dryly. Stella had no sense of permanence and therefore assumed Paul was dead whenever he was out of sight, hearing, or smell. “How was your night?”

“I went to the Bay State and heard the blues,” Paul said. His head swam as he bent over to scratch her behind the ear, jingling her collar.

“Do you realize you're only slightly less routinized than a cat?”

“No need to insult. Do you want to go for a walk or what?”

“A walk? Yes. I think a walk would be nice. Is it cold out? I don't want to go if the weather's bad.”

“There's no such thing as bad weather,” he told her. “Just bad clothes.”

She could still walk to the door, though sometimes Paul had to lift up her hind end to help her get off her dog bed. Usually he took the dog with him wherever he went, but tonight he'd left her home because of the weather. They lived in an apartment on the ground floor of a double-decker between the railroad tracks and the cemetery in Northampton, a small college town in western Massachusetts.

Stella paused on the front porch, gazing apprehensively at the snow, then took a cautious step forward.

“Hold it,” Paul said, picking her up and carrying her down the three concrete steps to the sidewalk. He'd built a ramp for her to walk up, made from an old door with carpet squares nailed to
it, but walking down the ramp was difficult for her. He set her down gently. She walked ahead of him, sniffing at the Sliwoskis' bushes, and at the house next door to that, and in all the places where she'd stopped and sniffed every night for the seven years they'd lived there. She stumbled occasionally.

That made two of them.

Paul inhaled deeply through his nostrils. He felt snowflakes on his face. The neighbors across the street still had their Christmas lights up. The neighbors next to them were watching television. At the corner house, he looked up. The student who lived there, Journal Girl, he called her, was again at her computer, her profile lit blue in the second-floor window. Sometimes she was brushing her hair. She was lovely.

He examined the pavement at his feet beneath the corner streetlamp. The snow was falling in flakes fat enough to cast shadows that, as the flakes fell, converged in the circle of light cast by the sodium bulb overhead. He stood in the exact middle of the convergence and imagined he was absorbing some kind of boreal energy, then stopped himself before anybody saw.

“Did I tell you you're going to be spending a week at Chester's house?” he told the dog.

“No problem,” Stella said. “I like Chester.”

“What's not to like?”

“Why am I going to Chester's house?”

“I have to fly home. My dad had a stroke.”

“What's a stroke?”

“That's when part of your brain dies,” Paul said. “Either you get a blood clot that blocks an artery so your brain doesn't get enough blood, or else an artery bursts and you get too much blood. I looked it up.”

“And too much blood is bad, but not enough is bad too?”

“I guess,” Paul said.

“A conundrum.”

“A conundrum,” Paul agreed. “An irony.”

“So part of his brain died?” she asked.

“Something like that,” Paul said. They walked.

“What part? How many parts are there?”

“Lots. They don't know how bad it is. I was talking to a guy at the bar who said if they get to you in time, they can limit the damage.”

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