Culture: Stories & Lit
But which one does she really prefer?
It’s become an early-Sunday-morning ritual. I stumble out of bed, throw on a ratty robe and wait for my apartment buzzer to go off.
It’s Bill, Becky’s other dad, come to take her for a seven-mile hike up into the wilderness trails of the Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Becky is my two-year-old black Lab. Bill, a steel-grey, captain-ofindustry type, is the capable, commanding and alpha dad who gives Becky the exercise and discipline she desperately craves, while I am the lazy, good-fornothing beta dad she’s forced to live with all the rest of the time.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes two daddies to raise this dog.
My old dog, Sam, died earlier this year; Sam was a once-ferocious mutt who had calmed down over the years, so much so that I could read the paper while taking him for a slow mosey around the block. Becky, recently acquired from a down-onhis- luck screenwriter, is a fancy-shmancy dog, an AKC-registered hound with more papers than a Mayflower descendant. She’s sleek and black and beautiful, like a well-oiled seal, and at 61 pounds, too strong and energetic for me to handle without a Halti, a choke collar, a bridle and a stun gun. (Just kidding about the stun gun.) Laurie,my wife,who’s also in better shape than I am (let’s face it,Dom DeLuise is in better shape than I am) is a mere slip of a thing, and prefers a genteel game of tennis to being dragged by a dog who’s pulling with the power of a tow truck in pursuit of every squirrel, bird, butterfly and blowing candy wrapper that crosses her path.
Which may be why Bill has volunteered to perform this unusual form of community service. Becky leaps up, yipping, at the first sight of his Ford Explorer, her paws scrabbling at the side door, her tongue hanging out, her neck straining at the Louis Vuitton collar and leash.(My wife’s idea,may I add.) Bill gets out to let her in, and I cannot help but admire his taut abdomen, his well-muscled calves, his take-charge attitude; even though he’s a few years older than I am, Bill hasn’t let himself go. I, on the other hand, never really had a hold on myself in the first place.
While Becky and Bill are off hiking and running and romping in the hills, and Laurie’s tearing up a tennis court somewhere, I go back to bed (on a well-timed pick-up day, the blankets are still warm), then set another alarm to get up and throw together a sad excuse for a brunch. Some coffee, some grapefruit juice, some pricey (but good) muffins from the new City Bakery in the Brentwood Country Mart. It’s the least I can do. Laurie tries to get home from her tennis match around the same time as Bill—often accompanied by his equally fit counterpart,Mimi —returns with Becky.
But sometimes they’re all a bit late, and that’s when I have too much time on my hands—time to think about how this all looks. My dog needs another man to give her what she requires, and everybody knows it. She needs the strong, sure hand I do not know how to provide. When we first got Becky, we briefly hired an expensive trainer, a big woman with short-cropped red hair and baseball cap,who observed my dog-walking technique. For a block or two, I did my best to control Becky’s wild and powerful lungings while at the same time trying to reason with her, to explain to her why she needed to stop pulling, or spit out the snail she’d just crunched between her perfect white incisors. “You’re a man of words,” the trainer finally said, fixing me with her gimlet eye. “Yes, I guess I am,” I said, modestly. “I’m a writer.” “Dogs don’t understand many words,” she said, taking the taut leash from my hands and effortlessly removing the squashed snail from Becky’s slavering jaws, all with a magical gesture of some kind and a simple “Leave it.” The dog looked up at me as though thinking, Is that all you wanted? Why didn’t you say so?
Why indeed? Because, as this dog has brought home to me, I lack the dominant gene. I cannot impose my will on anything: I can barely retrieve a soda from a vending machine. Do Becky and Bill, I wonder, laugh about that as they march over hill and dale? What do they say about me and my slothful habits? Does Becky implore Bill, her other dad, to—I can hardly contemplate this—adopt her, to give her the active, fun-filled life that I,with my sedentary habits and submissive nature, can never do?
Do they talk about my bald spot?
When the buzzer goes off again, and Becky bounds into the house, racing for her water bowl, everyone is all smiles.Bill says something nice like, “Oh, Becky’s home again, and wants to see her daddy.” And Mimi exclaims over the muffins.My wife, in her tennis duds, crows about her latest victory, and I try to turn the topic to a book review or an inflammatory editorial—whatever I’ve managed to read in the 15 minutes I’ve been up since the last alarm went off. But nobody’s fooled, not even Becky. We’re all wondering how long we have to keep up this charade, how long we have to go on pretending that Becky needs two daddies at all. I offer everyone more juice, and try to hold the pitcher—still pretty full and heavy—steady as I pour. But everyone, I fear, can see the tremor in my hand. Becky, in particular, doesn’t miss a thing.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Caught in the act
My daughter, an only child, has been deprived of sibling rivalry, so she does what comes naturally: She takes it out on The Dog. “You love him more than me,” she’ll pout, and of course most times I protest that it isn’t possible.
But who could blame her for suspecting differently? When she was nine, Kelly even caught me singing her “special” song to the dog. That was a bad moment. I never confessed that her anthem was once her father’s particular song in our halcyon childless days, and I had just adapted it for her. Kelly also went to pieces whenever I called the dog by her affectionate nickname, “Tootsie,” and I admit that I sometimes did it intentionally— what fun is being a mom if you can’t glory in a bit of passive aggression?
Interspecies relationships are hopelessly muddled in any household, especially since a family usually gets a dog for a kid. That’s a big mistake, because young kids don’t really like to take care of a dog and tend to tire of them the way they lose interest in the newest PlayStation game. I ignorantly passed down the kid/puppy tradition from my own family: I had received a puppy as a gift when I was eight, so I promised my kid one at the same age.
At the time, I forgot that I’d never once taken care of my dog, even though my family lived in a rambling exurban community where dogs didn’t even have to be walked. Filling her water dish was my only responsibility, but I still couldn’t hack it—at one point, after paying rapt attention in fourth-grade science class, I tried to convince my mother that my dog’s water dish was empty because of evaporation, not neglect. And so it went with my kid, who foisted off the dog care on me on its second day with us.
Sitting every day with me in the home office, the little dog became inordinately attached to me, as creatures are wont to do when you walk and feed them. But I felt swamped with duties, and it was a terrible recipe for family friction, going on for years as I struggled to do my work, stay interested in my marriage, prepare meals, help my kid with her homework, and walk and clean up after the dog. The puppy, a pudgy, short-legged Jack Russell Terrier named Silver, became the most pleasurable part of the domestic equation, providing endless hours of writerly procrastination. But when it came to my other duties, I was frequently seething in that way only moms can seethe—in a deep Vesuvian mode where the steam coming from one’s head is always present, threatening imminent eruption.
I don’t mean to suggest that the dog was perfect, but he was certainly the least demanding member of the household, and, being smart, he caught on to the family dynamic right away. Silver the dog knew that the kid was important, and he had to pretend to like the young hairless pup, even though she moved quickly and unpredictably and mostly tortured him. As a canine actor, Silver rivaled Brando or De Niro—he was positively Stanislavskian—and any visitor to our house would think he adored the kid. He would let her pick up and fondle him while he fell limp in her arms and traveled to his Canine Happy Place, wherever that was.Maybe it was a mountain made out of rawhide, or, more likely, a wonderland with unlimited access to all of her stuffed animals. But after Kelly fell asleep or let him down from the couch, he would immediately go upstairs to her room and destroy whatever toy she loved the most. It was uncanny —he always knew, and he had puppy teeth that could cut through granite. In a way, he was a doggy Mahatma Gandhi, practicing an extreme form of passive resistance. Hold me, hug me, bug me—but in the end, I will destroy the material goods you hold dearest!
Once, when my kid was 13 and the dog was five, she started descending into her customary self-pity. “You love Silver more than you love me,” she said, waiting for the usual reassurances.
That day I’d had some lousy phone calls and, later, a few glasses of wine.My kid was a teenager, so I figured she might as well know the truth. “Oh yeah?” I hissed.“You think I love you more than The Dog? Yeah, you’re right—why wouldn’t I adore The Dog? Why not? He’s always happy to see me when I come home. He eats anything I put down, and he listens to anything I say. And I don’t have to put him through college!”
Even I felt crummy during the stunned silence. I still feel crummy. That’s why, now, four years later, I am offering an olive branch, an apology of sorts. Well, actually, I’m offering my daughter something I think she will enjoy:
However badly you feel about The Dog, and my attachment to him, and however much you might resent it, consider this: I once threw away our dog’s beloved sexual partner right in front of him. Be glad that I can never do this to you.
Yes, it’s true. When I was moving from the East Coast to California, I stood in my daughter’s bedroom, took a large plastic bag and threw a big carnival stuffed bear into it. As I turned around to take the bag downstairs, I saw Silver.He was sitting quietly, looking on, and I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but I could swear I saw a small tear roll down from his left eyelid and hit his furry snout. I was discarding the only animal he’d ever truly loved.
Some background here: Of course,my dog was neutered, as all good doggies should be, however traumatic it is for their human relatives.My own mother didn’t trust me to neuter my dog, so she offered to take care of Silver when he was five months old, and when she returned him, he was missing some gonads. I thought he was much too young, and was vaguely upset, but figured she was probably right—I might not have done anything until a fellow doggy-park regular showed up on my doorstep with a strange litter of half-and-half Jack Russell Terriers and German Shepherds. Because, from the beginning, Silver had sexual charisma, attracting girlfriends twice and thrice his size.He was a regular Don Juan/Napoleon type with a seemingly high libido for a puppy, and I have the bad back to prove it: One morning at the park, Silver’s earliest girlfriend, a Mastiff puppy named Gertrude, ran right through my open legs trying to get away from my dog’s advances, and I ended up on the operating table with a shattered disk. Silver always went for the tall girls.
We first noticed Silver’s secret sex life with stuffed animals about a year after he was neutered. He would disappear for about 45 minutes up the stairs and then come back in a triumphant rush, scurrying on his little legs as fast as he could down the stairs, then stopping on a dime and looking up with his eyes glazed over and his tongue hanging out. If he could have produced a human sound, it would have been “Ta-da!”
I knew he’d been doing something bad, but when I arrived at the crime scene, I still didn’t get that my little boy had discovered himself. I was confused that I didn’t find anything chewed up—no pencil shavings, no wooden toy cars half masticated. Instead, there was Kelly’s four-foot-long stuffed whale, marooned in the middle of her carpet.
It was always the same: To the dog, size mattered. Kelly had half a dozen oversize toys that suddenly became members of Silver’s bordello. No shelf was high enough to prevent him choosing a partner for the evening. I felt like a pervert, or Jane Goodall, following my dog stealthily up the stairs to spy on his sexual sessions with a stuffed whale, two giant teddy bears, a large swan and, his personal favorite, Cinnamon the Pony. First he would steal the thing off the shelf, using any guile necessary, and many jumping gymnastics. Then he would arrange it carefully facedown, and then…well, he would go at it. If I yelled at him, he would leave the room for a bit and then return furtively. I have to admit that I even experimented with positions, seeing if he would “do” an animal if it were lying face up. Despite his small stature, if Silver found one of the animals that way, he would spend as much as 15 minutes flipping it over and arranging it “doggy-style.”Mind you, most of his sex partners were at least twice as large as he. But he was filled with shame if I should interrupt his session, and would walk around painfully, dragging his erection behind him. I felt badly for him—he had been robbed of his sexuality and was only practicing a charade that allowed him to establish his masculinity. For all I knew, maybe he thought that the sex menagerie was there for his use.
I should have stopped all the madness much earlier, especially since he eventually slipped a disk in his back and had to be rushed to the veterinary emergency room after a particularly strenuous tryst.
“Umm, I suppose I should mention this,” I said to the veterinary student doing triage. “He was having sex with a large stuffed teddy bear when this happened.”
The vet I was talking to looked all of 12 years old and pretended at first not to understand what I was saying. I went on, explaining that Silver had a habit of pleasuring himself with giant stuffed mammals.
“You better put those away right now,” he said sternly, although I could imagine him telling the story over beers later that night. “You cannot leave the toys around, or your dog could suffer serious consequences. Do you want him to be unable to walk?”
And so Silver’s sex life ended, I thought, that day. It was just as well. I hadn’t intended to actually illustrate sex for my child, but I found out a while later that she had often hung out in her bed watching the little dog romance the fake fur. “Eeew,” she said when she admitted it. I was horrified. What kind of a mother was I?
A bad one, it seems, for both my human and canine progeny. For although I put away the giant stuffed animals, hiding them on high shelves in locked closet around the house, I forgot one chintzy big bear, a very cheap, stiff old carnival prize that Silver had chosen only once in a pinch—stuffed with cardboard or newspaper, she was not cushy like the others, and her butt was a bit flat for a guy like Silver,who preferred some junk in the trunk.Yet he had certainly dallied with her at least once, and now, in the process of moving, I had unearthed her, only to throw her away again as he looked on.
Silver and I were both celibate for a long time in California until I decided he needed a new toy and got a stuffed Labrador Retriever that was certainly not life-size, but a bit larger than his other chew toys. Evidently size no longer mattered to my little dog, who was now middle-aged, and I returned from an errand one day to the familiar huffing and humping I’d heard in his halcyon days. He was doing it again! I watched and let him do what he needed, and then took the new dog and threw him away, too.
Sex partners come and go so quickly in doggyland, don’t they? But whenever I feel guilty, I think of how simple Silver’s breakups were, and how it might have been better if a few of my lovers had been kicked to the curb in a garbage bag. It would have been especially great to be able to do that with my daughter’s first boyfriend, too.
“I Done Them Wrong” ©2007 by Cathy Crimmins, included in Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, From The Bark Ediors; forthcoming October 2007 from Crown Publishers. Used with permission.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A screen treatment
Another guest arrives at the door and rings the bell. Everyone runs over to the door, evidently excited beyond belief, and stands or jumps around, jostling each other while staring at the door and yelling, “WHO’S THERE?!?! WHO’S THERE!?!?!”
The guest on the other side of the door yells back, “WHO’S THERE?!?!? WHO’S THERE!?!?”
Somehow, the new arrival enters and the party resumes as before.
The camera follows several of the guests around, including:
A muscular male dressed all in black who carries a Frisbee everywhere, clutched tightly to his chest. If anyone touches the Frisbee, he whirls abruptly around and stalks off, glaring over his shoulder.
Another man, dressed in plaid, rather jolly, who has a drooling problem. Every so often he shakes his head and drool flies onto adjacent guests, who don’t even notice.
A depressed-looking woman who spends the entire evening methodically ripping a large, stuffed chair to shreds.
A small group huddled together in a corner. They are all talking loudly and at the same time about completely unrelated subjects.
A huge guy, with jeans jacket and tattoo, who goes up to various people, drapes his arm over their shoulders and gives them a giant squeeze. Whoever it is immediately hands their hors d’oeuvre to the guy, who eats it.
A very small old lady with frizzy hair who leaps out from behind the furniture at passersby and speaks sharply to them. Even the huge guy is daunted.
The party Lothario who sidles up to anyone, male or female, and tries to smooch, but often misses the other person’s face. Nobody seems to mind.
Various bits of action occur:
A guest, looking out the window, suddenly gets very excited and yells, “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!” Everyone rushes to the window and joins in, yelling “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!”
Two people—one big, one little—grab an appetizer at the same time. They stand stock still, each holding on to it and staring out the corner of their eyes at each other. Suddenly, the big one whirls around and tries to walk off with it. The little person, however, doesn’t let go and is flung around in the first one’s wake.
In the kitchen, several guests have knocked over the garbage and are going through it.
In the backyard, several people with little spades are digging holes.
A fight breaks out in the living room between two guests, but it’s over in three seconds and the opponents hug each other joyfully.
Several guests can be seen hiding bits of food around the living room. They carefully scan for a likely spot, put the food down, then pick it up again and start looking for a better place.
One guest, with his hands full of food, simply holds onto it and snarls at anyone who approaches him. He keeps trying to add more food to his pile, spilling as much as he acquires.
Dinner is served:
Then all the guests eat as fast as they possibly can. Every so often, one guest simply grabs something off the plate of the person next to him/her. Sometimes that person grabs it back.
When everyone’s finished, they jump up and change places to inspect each other’s plates.
After dinner, everyone takes a nap. They are sprawled around the room, some in little groups huddled together, some on their backs on couches with their feet up on the arms and their hands flung over the back, some curled up awkwardly in overstuffed chairs with their chins propped up on the arms. Occasionally, we see limbs twitching and hear little contented noises.
Tug of war.
How many tennis balls can you hold?
A relay race in the back yard where the baton is never passed off. Each member of the team simply grabs hold when his or her turn arrives and everyone runs together.
Tug of war.
Singing together around the piano, but everyone sings a different song.
Grab the tail off the donkey.
Musical chairs, where shoving is allowed and you can sit on more than one chair. The big guy in the jeans jacket always wins.
Outside, on the sidewalk, a passerby is knocked down by a group of departing guests.
Everyone looks very happy, and the good-byes are loud and enthusiastic.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I can't throw. As a child, I was spared the humiliation of never being picked for either team in baseball by my friend Debbie, a prodigy with ball and bat who always chose me. She was a sort of one-person Red Sox Dream Team. Because of Debbie and in spite of me, our team always won, which is to say that hers did. Because I love dogs, I have never inflicted myself on a Golden Retriever or a Lab.
For the last 20 years, I have lived with Alaskan Malamutes. One of the mysteries of dogdom unexplained by science is why the fetch gene is extremely rare in a breed that evolved in the snowball-perfect environment of the Arctic. But rare it is. The typical Malamute has a powerful desire to fly after and seize moving objects but requires that the poor things be edible— squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, moles and mice.What’s more, Malamutes don’t share. If we bipeds want rodent delicacies for dinner, we’re expected to hunt them down ourselves.As to playing fetch, the Malamute attitude is that if you wanted those balls, you shouldn’t have thrown them away.
Or so I always believed. Then along came my Django, who is named for a legendary jazz guitarist but who should properly have been called Lou, Babe or Mickey. The dog is a fetch fanatic. When the rare gene manifests itself in Django’s breed, its effect is typically suppressed by competing genes that prevent Malamutes from engaging in such servile activities as picking up after members of a useful but lesser species.My late Kobuk would return a ball to me five or six times before he’d reach the disappointing realization that it was not going to spring to life and turn itself into a snack.My Rowdy never once retrieved anything but her obedience dumbbell,which she correctly viewed as currency exchangeable for beef and liver. She regarded Django’s insatiable appetite for fetch as stupid and treasonous; in her disdainful eyes, he was a brainless traitor to a proud and predatory breed.Rowdy’s scorn bothered Django not at all.Malamutes don’t give a damn about the opinions of others, including the heretofore universal opinion that I can’t throw.
So we play ball, Django and I. As I toss the ball, I follow the advice of athletically gifted friends: Just as Debbie used to advise, I keep my eyes on the spot where I’d like to have the ball land.Meanwhile, all on its own, the ball leaps out of my grasp and comes to rest elsewhere. On some occasions, it mysteriously drops to the grass at my feet before I’ve had the chance to launch it into the air.When the mood strikes it, it travels great distances and lodges itself in the depths of hedges. Once in a while, it perversely decides to roll under the gate and out of our yard.
True pitching, as I understand it, occurs when a human being sends a tiny little round object soaring through space in such a fashion that it miraculously arrives at a predetermined place. In my experience, true pitching is thus an aberration, perhaps, or a freakish coincidence, the kind of bizarre phenomenon that happens once in a trillion times and then only by accident. It has never happened to me.
Does Django care? He does not.Never once, even while digging through forsythia roots after his ball or while watching it fall like a dead thing at my feet, has he ever accused me of being unable to throw. On the contrary, he enjoys the delusion that I am Debbie. In his view, the Red Sox lost gold when they lost me. If you ask Django what he thinks of my pitching, he’ll tell you that by comparison with me, Curt Schilling throws like a girl. And that’s why I write about dogs.
On-call for roundup work
My mother was born 1916 to immigrant parents; her mother was from Hungary and her father was German. She grew up in New Brunswick, N.J. Fido—who was, I think, a Border Collie mix—was their pet, but he was also a working dog, and he took his job quite seriously.
My German grandfather was a butcher, and in those days (the 1920s), worked right next to the stockyard. Sometimes things would get a little crazy at the stockyard—a fence would break and a lamb would get loose, or maybe a pig would run off.
My mother recalls that her father would often call home and ask to speak to Fido. My grandfather would tell my mother to put the earpiece to Fido’s ear and hold it there. Fido—who could understand German, Hungarian and English—would listen intently. After he had heard enough, he would run to the front door; my mother would open it for him and off he’d go.
The stockyard was a couple of miles from their home, and if a neighbor saw Fido running down the street, he would be offered a ride to work. Needless to say, Fido was on a mission and usually would not accept a ride. It took him about 10 minutes to get the stockyard under control, rounding up strays and ordering unruly animals back in their pens. He was definitely at his best working, and happy to be of help.
The list goes out the window when the perfect dog comes in the door
I used to stop at Point Isabel, a sprawling off-leash dog park after work for my minimum daily requirement of canine affection. On occasion, a dog owner would ask why I didn’t have a dog. “It’s complicated,” I’d say, remembering the dogs I’d had in my life. Job, child, husband, aging parents, a weedy garden, house in need of constant repair—the dog wound up being just another burdensome responsibility.
But now I was older and wiser, minus one husband, and my daughter would be leaving home soon. Passing all those pooches at the dog park was briefly pleasurable, but not satisfying. Their devotion was reserved for their own special human companions. And that is what I longed for—something I was missing from family and friends, something humans just couldn’t provide.
So how to find the right dog for me? A good dog, a mellow dog, a dog who was good with cats (I have two), smart but not devious, a midsize dog, possibly a Lab mix, not a puppy. My list of druthers was long. Knowing about breeds and certain tendencies helps, but in the end the question remains: How do you pick the right dog?
My daughter had wanted a dog for years, and when we went to the Oakland (Calif.) SPCA together on that cool Sunday afternoon, we thought we were looking for a dog for her. The Oakland SPCA is not a kill shelter. It’s clean and well-lighted, and the attendants are very loving and tender with the animals. Still, looking at all the barking dogs shivering in their cages upset and unnerved me. Whatever I thought I was looking for escaped me, and all I wanted to do was to get out of there. That’s probably how the animals felt, too.
Finally, we came to the very last cage, which held a smallish honey-colored Chihuahua/Basenji/Jack Russell mix, about a year old, whom they had named Precious. Melina was instantly drawn to the little dog, and we went out to the yard with her and one of the attendants. Once Melina picked her up, she immediately began licking her face. This desperate, needy pup was cute as a button, but plainly not the right dog for me. Melina, however, insisted, saying, “Mom, we have to get her out of here.”
Though I wasn’t sure at that moment that Precious was the one, I decided to go with Melina’s plea. “We’ll have to change her name” was all I said. And so we dubbed her Honey and brought her home. It didn’t take long to find that not only was she housebroken, but she also knew the commands sit, stay, down and come.
She was also great in the car, cuddled pint-size under the covers and played well with other dogs. And though Melina had chosen her, it was crystal clear that Honey was my dog and I was her person. This perky mutt, who matched not a single one of my requirements—not mellow, not a Lab mix, terrible with cats—became, much to my surprise, my love bug.
Honey has easily adapted to our work and school schedules, and the cats have figured out how to deal with her. I wake up early to take her to the dog park, and race home after work to be greeted by more unconditional love than has ever licked, jumped, nibbled and danced at me in my entire life. She leaps like a deer, talks to me when she wants something, makes me laugh, feeds my soul.
The best-laid plans and all that jazz went out the window. Thanks to my daughter and perhaps even a little divine intervention, the right dog for me burst into my life when I least expected it. When I was a young girl, I believed in soul mates; now I believe in soul dogs. And now I get to say, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” every night.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But two hounds get it said
The tree is decorated, the stockings are hung, the Yule fire burns low and, according to an old tradition, at midnight on Christmas Eve … the animals speak.
COMET (Beagle, about age four): You think that’s Alex Trebek’s real hair?
C: Alex Trebek. You think that’s a hairpiece?
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lending a Hound a helping hand.
It was last summer when I found her. I was going to get a coffee at this place on Bull Street right next to a dog park. The heat had come already, but it wasn’t yet the wet, suffocating, thick, thick burning of late July and August.
I’d only experienced one summer in the South and I’d quickly learned that it was something you survived— a test of endurance and stamina. Just walking from my apartment to the car, I’d be drenched and sticky with sweat. The sun beat down mercilessly. The air constricted your lungs.
outta my last rehab. I fell in love with a girl who went to school down there, so I scrounged up the money for a Greyhound ticket and rode the bus for four days across the desolate, ugly, flat, flat highways of the central United States. I was broke, starving, exhausted. Actually, all I had to eat the whole time was a package of peanut M&Ms. I was skinny, skinny and dirty and wild. I’d been sober only three months. My last detox, off meth, heroin, cocaine, Xanax and an opiate blocker called Suboxone, was absolutely the most wrenching, terrible, painful thing I’d ever experienced. My body pulsed with tiny seizures as an electrical storm raged through my brain.
My stomach was a lake of burning oil fires, and I didn’t sleep for nearly two weeks. I mean, no sleep at all. The process of getting clean was long and raw and emotional. I was a mess, and the habits I’d picked up on the streets were nearly as hard to kick as the drugs—stealing, lying, scanning the curb as I walked for fallen change, or cigarettes, or maybe a purse or something.
There was a time when some family friends had tried to help me get sober, taking me from being homeless in San Francisco to their spacious apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I’d already become too feral and crazy. I stole from them.
I bit the hand that fed me, as they say. So, coming to the South, I was determined to do things differently. I moved in with my girlfriend and got a job at her school. I started working on my book again, a memoir about my addiction and my struggles growing up. I’d been sober nearly a year. And that’s when I found her, or, uh, you know, she found me.
I was walking in to get a coffee. It was summer, like I said, but not yet so hot that I couldn’t stand it. A woman called out to me.
It took me a minute to figure it out, but, yeah, she was calling to me. Her voice was all raspy like she’d smoked too many cigarettes, or, after looking at her, too much pot.
She was probably in her late 50s, with tangled grey hair and a sack dress covering her heavy body. She had beaded necklaces hanging down, and round Janis Joplin sunglasses. She was bent low, her arms wrapped around a shivering dog.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Hey, kid, can you come help me?”
The dog was super skinny—its ribs stuck out, its nipples were swollen and hanging down. It trembled, trembled, trembled as I came closer. It looked maybe like a Beagle, but with long legs and big, bugged, terrified eyes.
“I just found her,” the woman said.
I grabbed the dog by her neck and tried to lead her forward to my car. That was no good. She wouldn’t move. Eventually, I just picked her up and carried her shivering against me. As soon as she got inside, she climbed behind the passenger seat and curled up in a ball on the floor. I drove off, my heart beating fast—wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. At the shelter they agreed to check her out and put her up for adoption if I was willing to foster her until they could find her a permanent family. I had two cats at home, not to mention my girlfriend, but I figured they’d all be okay with it. They said she was a Hound mix, maybe Walker and Fox Hound.
When they led the dog by a rope leash into the back, well, that was when the problems really started. A vet tech with a needle went to give her a shot. The dog’s eyes went glassy, staring unblinkingly at her. And then the dog lunged, lip curled back, teeth out, barking, snarling, growling—ready to tear the tech apart in order to defend herself. I grabbed the rope and pulled the dog back and told her, “No!” and for some reason, she didn’t bite me, but instead took shelter behind my legs. And so the people at the shelter told me to have her killed. They wouldn’t work with her, and said that my only option was to drop her off at Animal Control.
I walked her outside. She was uncomfortable on the leash and kept stopping and tucking her tail between her legs. As I led her back to my car, scared she might turn on me at any second, I suddenly noticed she’d been scouring the ground and had picked up a Snicker’s wrapper. She was chewing on it frantically.
I took a breath.
I got her back in the car. I wasn’t going to Animal Control. I drove her home. She spent the first few days outside in our little back yard, huddled beneath a covering of bushes.We managed to get her a bath and out to another vet, though she had to be muzzled so she wouldn’t go after anyone there.
I wanted to name her Guitar Wolf, of course, but my girlfriend wouldn’t go for that, so she picked out Ramona and we put Guitar Wolf in the middle and then Jackson at the end, ’cause that’s the best last name ever. And so Ramona Guitar Wolf Jackson became our dog.
She was bad. I mean, so totally bad. She chewed up our house, ran away, jumped on people, lunged at all large men and anyone who ever tried to bum a cigarette off me.
She woke me up early and in the middle of the night and I had to walk her all the time.
Actually, it was really our walking together that made me fall in love with Ramona. Teaching her to trust, to understand that the world didn’t need to feel so threatening any more. I cared for her, like all those people had cared for me—taught me how to live and really participate in life again. So we’ve just walked and walked around Savannah.
Ramona and me…or, I.
Eventually, she’s learned to play off leash with other dogs in the stretching out parks. I gave her another chance, you know, and now she follows me everywhere.
This is my penance and one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever known. So when Ramona gets scared and comes cowering up next to me, I rub her ears and tell her to hold on. ’Cause that’s the same thing I tell myself.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Saving robins, one fledgling at a time
It was the dead of summer and scorching temperatures had parched the ground and burnt the grass that surrounds our complex of cottages. Helen, my Bull Terrier mix—all white with coffee-colored splotches, heavy-chested, and 58 pounds of tough-looking docility—was gently nosing something in the yard. I approached, quietly asking, “Did you find something, Helen?” (I talk to Helen about everything and she understands me completely.)
The “something” turned out to be a baby bird, scrawny, with that loose, puckered, “chicken” skin common to newly hatched birds. The tiny beak stretched up to the sky, opening and closing right next to Helen’s nose. Helen looked curious, quizzical even; she tilted her head to the side, not knowing what to make of it, but instinctively knowing it needed some help. Poised over the bird, she looked at me, bowed down to the bird’s beak, looked back at me.
“Look,Helen, a baby bird!” I exclaimed.Helen caught my excitement. “Where is its mama? Where is its nest?”Helen obediently looked around. I inspected the huge maple tree over my head and, not seeing any nests to which to return the fallen bird, filled a small plastic basket with leaves, twigs and grass, then gently placed the chick inside. I positioned the basket near the cottage porch, where we quietly waited for the mother to find her baby. Soon, a large robin hopped along the grass, landed on the basket and attended to the infant. As the days passed, Helen and I were patient observers, greeting that bird each morning and supplying the mother with worms for feeding. One morning, however, there was no little bird in our basket.“Where is the baby bird,Helen?” I asked in a sweet, high voice with just a touch of distress. Helen looked in the basket, sniffed it and then began sniffing the ground, looking for a scent. I heard a slight chirping sound in the distance.
We followed the sound,Helen with her nose to the ground. We walked around to the backyard, and Helen found the chick nestled beneath a bush. “Hello, baby bird. How are you?” I exclaimed, and Helen gently gave the bird a tiny nose nudge.Mama robin observed from the roof next door, stressfully, anxiously twirping.We left the family alone, removing ourselves to a peaceful distance. Thereafter, every morning, Helen found the chick’s new hiding place, and we greeted him joyfully while mama looked on.
One day, we searched and listened, searched and listened. Alas, we did not hear any chirping and could not find the baby bird anywhere! Concerned, we strolled slowly between and around the cottages.
Suddenly, mama robin swooped down from a rooftop, landing on the ground directly in front of us. She was agitated—twirping and chirping and calling in distress. I was startled that she had landed so close to us, directly in front of the unrestrained Helen. She hopped a few paces, turned and looked at Helen and me, hopped along and looked back at us, hopped and looked back, making sure we were following her.
The three of us—bird, dog and human—continued this way, passing three separate cottages, when suddenly we heard a faint “chkkk, chkkk, chkkk.” The mother bird led us right to the edge of a deep window well.We peered in, and there was that fledgling bird, two feet down, chirping its little heart out and making tentative flapping motions with its wings. Mama bird looked at us expectantly. I gently cradled the chick in my hands, and returned it to its improvised nest, placed in the crook of a large maple tree. The next morning, Helen and I were delighted to see mother and juvenile together on a neighboring rooftop.
Now, when I ask,“Where’s the birdie?”Helen looks all over, searching for fledgling birds. Each year we keep track of those new little ones, which we find hiding in bushes, behind garbage cans, sometimes beneath cars. On occasion, when I say, “Where is it? I can’t find it,”Helen runs to the window well and peers in, just to make certain it isn’t harboring a fallen bird that needs our help.
To this day, I am astounded and touched by the determination and trust of that mother bird, the gift of our intimate encounter, and the intelligence and gentleness of an amazing dog.How little we know of nature until we take the time to observe it.How fortunate I am to have Helen to show me the way.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Out of the doghouse, into pajamas.
"This", my dad said, emphatically pointing to the small pink and lime-green house with gingerbread trim located in the middle of our cement patio, “is for dogs. That’s why they call it a doghouse.”He leaned over so far that his unlit cigar tumbled out of the center pocket of his overalls. Cursing, Dad snatched up the cigar and blew on it. Once satisfied that it was free of dog hair and dirt, he resumed his lecture. “A place where dogs reside.Where canines dwell.Where fourlegged creatures slumber.”
“Geesh, I get your point,” I told him, offended that he needed to state his case so unequivocally even though I had been pestering him nightly about our dog Fritz’s inadequate sleeping quarters.
“Dogs outside. People inside!”Dad stared at me for a good five seconds to make sure he had gotten his point across. I threw my hands up in the air to show him that I understood what he was saying, but not why.He stomped off to the garage to enjoy his cigar in the only building in which he was allowed to smoke it.
For centuries, Fritz’s ancestors had trekked miles in the snow to dig wayward travelers out of avalanches in the Swiss Alps, but I was convinced he couldn’t withstand the nippy winters on our small farm in Washington State. I pleaded with Dad to allow our St. Bernard to sleep in my bedroom, but he remained steadfast.
My room overlooked our pastel, pinstriped, two-story garage; a cement mixer; and a burn barrel.However, it wasn’t without its luxuries: It was the only bedroom with a door leading to the outside. Thus, Fritz could climb in bed with me any time the temperature dropped below 70 degrees, and no one needed to be the wiser.
Seduced by this taste of indoor life, Fritz took to bolting into the house whenever the opportunity arose. Crouching low by the side of the house, he’d patiently wait for his chance to shotgun through the door. By the time his victims picked themselves up off the ground, Fritz would be comfortably settled in the center of the living room floor. Dad would try to roll Fritz over and pick him up. This often took numerous tries. When he was finally able to get Fritz up on all fours, he’d drag him across the floor in what we called Fritz’s “ski position.” Once Dad managed to get Fritz outside, he’d triumphantly slam the door shut and lean against the wall to catch his breath and enjoy his victory. Then my mother would open the door.
It might have been the physical toll the struggle took on Dad, or perhaps it was his secret admiration for Fritz’s stubbornness and persistence—whatever the reason, he eventually relented. Fritz slept by the wood stove on a piece of carpet Dad cut especially for him.
Heidi arrived shortly after Fritz passed away. A German Shepherd/wolf mix, Heidi never bounded up to greet us or allowed the cats to sleep on her stomach like Fritz did, but she let us throw our arms around her, enduring it until we lost interest and wandered away.While Heidi actually enjoyed the doghouse, Dad reasoned that she was far too independent; fearing she might run away during the night, he allowed her to sleep in the living room. Although we consistently found dog hair on the couch, no one could catch her in the act. And because no one was willing to get up at two in the morning, we turned a blind eye and ran the lint brush over the couch cushions daily.
Dad had a purebred German Shepherd as a boy, and constantly told us tales of his blinding devotion and intelligence. To him, the German Shepherd was the pinnacle of the canine world.When he heard through the work grapevine that a co-worker was getting rid of her German Shepherd, J.D., he couldn’t resist. My older brother and I were skeptical— Heidi adored our sister Wendy’s dog, Barney, a Husky mix, but showed absolutely no interest in other dogs. Thankfully, however, she got along fine with J.D. And while the woman at Dad’s office gave us a long list of J.D.’s dietary needs, she failed to mention the fragility of his emotional state.
J.D. would sink into bouts of depression and seek refuge in the only place that brought him comfort: behind the toilet. If we had had more than one bathroom, we could have worked around this, but we didn’t. So, at least once a week, we’d find J.D. sandwiched between the toilet and the wall, nipping and growling at imaginary threats.
Company posed a problem. Mom’s assurances that they could just ignore the large snarling dog didn’t seem to comfort our guests. It was only when they looked as though they were ready to straddle our nearest potted plant that Mom would relent and coax J.D. out of the bathroom with her soothing voice and a loaf of bread.
In a moment of desperation, Dad took J.D. to a dog psychologist, who informed us that J.D. had emotional issues. “Are you kidding me?” Dad yelled. “For $75, I could have told you that. I’m the one who has to turn around every time I sit on the toilet!” J.D.’s self-imposed bathroom exiles became part of our family routine and continued until his death. Heidi took J.D.’s death as she did his arrival, in stride. But shortly after, my parents went to my sister’s house to help her bury Barney, who’d succumbed to pneumonia.When they returned,Heidi went up to my mom and sniffed her, then went into the doghouse and refused to come out. She died a few days later on the morning of her vet appointment; my dad was prepared to load the doghouse on the back of the truck to get her there. Heidi was the last dog to ever use the doghouse.
The doghouse wasn’t even an option for Bodie, a black Lab I adopted from the Humane Society when my parents were on a trip celebrating their retirement. My mother made Bodie colorful bandannas to wear, and every morning he’d walk up and down the hallway barking what was referred to as his “I am the world’s greatest dog” proclamation. A proud dog with visions of long beach walks and mountain-climbing adventures, he was in and out of the vet clinic during his relatively short life with broken bones, arthritis, hip dysplasia and, finally, bone cancer.My parents said they wanted to keep Bodie close to them, so he slept in their bedroom.
Some years later, I moved to New Orleans and finally acquired my own dog, Dixie, a black-and-white Pit Bull. When Dixie was five months old, I started working longer hours and learned that the building I lived in was being sold. I called my parents and asked if Dixie could live with them for a few months until I got better situated. They adamantly refused. I pleaded. I promised. Finally, Dad shouted, “We’re not getting a Pit Bull. No way! That’s final.” Dixie flew out the next week.While my parents might have envisioned a snarling beast, they were surprised to find a very small, very happy puppy waiting in a carrier at the airport. Bodie was wary of her at first because of his fragile condition, but Dixie attached herself to him with such devotion that even he was won over.
The first warning sign that Dixie was going to become a permanent Northerner came when Mom said she was too busy to talk because she was making matching bandannas for Dixie and Bodie. The second sign was when I came home for a visit to find Dixie snoozing on the furniture—this was furniture I wasn’t allowed to sit on. My grandmother’s recently reupholstered antique couches were now covered in sheets with circus clowns and polka dots.
The third sign was Mom dressing Dixie in homemade flannel pajamas with pigs and hearts all over them. “You know we like to sleep with the windows open, and Dixie gets so chilled,” she explained. The final sign came when Dixie took to sleeping in my parents’ bed. While Bodie was the first dog to sleep in my parents’ room, no dog had ever breached the sacred ground of their bed. Dixie started at the foot of the bed, then moved to the middle, and now sleeps shoulder to shoulder with my parents.Mom argues that this is perfectly acceptable, since they never allow her under the sheet. “She’s a snuggler,” Dad brags.
My sister is perplexed by this gradual turn of events, but sums it up as emptynest syndrome. Except, she says, instead of the dogs being mere replacements, they’re more like upgrades.When I was a child, our dogs ate generic dog food dumped by my father into an old kettle that served as a dog bowl. Now, before my dad’s morning coffee is hot, he’s already cooking Dixie her meal: hamburger, oatmeal, veggies, brown rice and powdered milk. “That’s my little sensitive- tummy girl,” he coos, pouring the feast into her monogrammed bowl. The only time we had hot food in the morning was when we stuck our Lucky Charms in the microwave.
Did we wear our parents down, or was it time and circumstance that allowed them to become the dog owners they were destined to be? Without children to raise and a clock to punch, did they finally have the opportunity to truly appreciate the souls of these multifaceted creatures? Or, perhaps, just as older siblings pave the way for the youngest child, Dixie has Fritz,Heidi, J.D. and Bodie to thank for paving the way from the ramshackle doghouse to the middle of a luxurious king-sized bed.Whatever the reason,my parents learned with age that dogs don’t just fill time in our lives; they fulfill our time of life.
During one of my recent visits home, I awoke to find Dad asleep in the recliner and Mom camped out on the couch. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh,”Dad said, pulling himself out of his chair and stretching his stiff body. “Dixie was kicking a lot last night.” I was appalled. I loved Dixie too, but this was too much. Dad had just had knee surgery; Mom was getting over a cold. There had to be limits. I loudly expressed my opinion. “Shhh,” Dad scolded. I looked down at Mom, still asleep on the couch, wrapped up in one of her afghans, and apologized. Dad gave me an irritated look, then tiptoed down the hallway and quietly closed the bedroom door.“Don’t you know better? Dixie likes to sleep late on weekends.”And then he went out to the garage to smoke his cigar.
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