Culture: Stories & Lit
Doing Double Duty as a Therapy Dog
The day I brought my puppy home to Manhattan, a giant article appeared in The New York Times reducing him to a fashion accessory. Headline news: Boston Terriers, dogs for the hipper-than-thou. But I didn’t get my little guy to lift my social status. I got him to lift my father’s spirits—and add quality to the time he had left.
A note to my husband Geoff and me lay on the nightstand in our spare bedroom, where my father slept on chemo days.
Of course he cared.
He wanted a grandchild, but he didn’t have nine months, and he knew it. The postscript on the note revealed another truth of my father’s heart: Second to grandchildren, puppies are the greatest gift.
My husband lobbied for a Husky. Taxis don’t belong in the mountains, I told him, and sled dogs don’t belong in the city.
“Then a German Shepherd,” he said. “German Shepherds will take a bullet for you.”
Clearly, we had different priorities in the dog department. He was thinking work dog. He was thinking guard dog. I was thinking lap dog.
In the end, we agreed on a breed by marital compromise.
The fairest approach was to go with my father’s preference. He kept a weathered photograph of a Boxer in his wallet, the pet of his Brooklyn boyhood who fetched lost baseballs from under the stoop and ate the broccoli his mother thought he’d finished.
“Boxers fart,” Geoff said.
At least we were talking about something other than cancer.
The dog talk let us be ourselves again.
We settled on Boston Terriers because they resembled Boxers—barrel-chested stance, erect ears and short shiny coat. And apropos of my father’s nature, Boston Terriers epitomized the all-American spirit of the people. That’s what the dog book said.
Picking out a puppy is like house hunting or wedding-dress shopping. You know in your gut when you’ve found the right one. The rescues at The Queens Animal Shelter didn’t warm up to us. At the kennel in New Jersey, the litter had worms. Then a listing on the Internet caught my eye. The breeder lived upstate, near Buffalo. I convinced Geoff to make the trek.
“I called the woman. Her name is Glenda. She has the bitch. Her daughter has the sire. Guess what her daughter’s name is? Jo-lene. Nine hundred people live in their town. Glenda’s husband Harry fixes machine parts.”
Geoff didn’t see why any of this mattered.
“These are the kind of people who have a boat on the lawn,” I said, “the kind of people who know from dogs.”
We met Glenda Hartman at the dirt road that led to her house. A fallen tree blocked the drive path, so we parked and followed Glenda on foot, up the hill. “That’s my son, sawing the branch,” she told us, and a brawny boy of about 19 tipped his baseball cap in our direction.
“You and Harry have how many children?” I asked, trying to get her to like me.
“Six kids and 16 Boston Terriers,” she said. “Harry will tell you about the pups. He’s out back taking the tarp off the boat.”
I winked at Geoff.
Harry washed down the boat and a six-pack of Michelob. One pup bolted out the screen door to greet Geoff and me. “Only fair I knock $100 off his asking price,” Harry said.
We couldn’t imagine why.
Harry Hartman explained as only Harry Hartman could: “One of his little gonads didn’t come down yet.”
Geoff named our puppy “Iverson,” after Allen Iverson, the point guard on the Philadelphia 76ers, because he’s black with one white sleeve like the basketball player in his signature armband.
“Iverson’s a champion,” I say, when he poops on the newspaper.
Geoff beams. “We don’t call him Iverson for nothing.” The NBA’s Iverson was an MVP.
When I’m working from home, the puppy jockeys for space on my desk chair. His wide-set eyes and the white blaze between them give him a quizzical expression. How can you be sad, he seems to wonder, looking up at me. Then he plunks his chin on my knee and lets out a sigh.
If I try to crawl back into bed, he woos me with impish charm. He runs around the living room with the handle of my hairbrush in his mouth. For the love of liver treats, he learns “roll over.” Since my father’s diagnosis, I’ve been trying to make everything okay and thanks to my Boston Terrier, sometimes it is.
My father recently spent an entire month in the hospital. He’d exhausted all treatment options. He couldn’t walk, was fed through a tube, spoke in a whisper. I arrived early one morning to visit him, the two of us alone in the stark room.
“Get me out of here,” he said.
I readied the wheelchair for a trip to the recreation pavilion.
“That’s where we’ll tell the nurses we’re going,” my father schemed and pulled out his intravenous lines. “Wheel me out the side door. Hail us a cab to your apartment.”
An untenable plan, I told him. He’d been prone to falls. His painkillers might wear off. The hospital could refuse to treat him over a stunt like this. “No way, Dad. I love you,” I said, “but there’s too much at stake.”
My father, a meatpacker, a Marine, macho personified, wept into his handkerchief. “I’ve been dreaming for weeks,” he gasped, “of playing with the puppy on a big bed.”
I did what a compassionate daughter ought to do. I helped him into his shoes.
“Do you know who this is?” my father said when I put Iverson in his arms. “This is my grand-dog.” He scratched the black diamond on Iverson’s belly. He bundled Iverson in a blanket and watched him tunnel out. Iverson licked his cheeks wet with kisses. The puppy didn’t see a sick man. He saw a smiling face. And I saw a Boston Terrier keeping my father from fading away.
My dog is no trendy trapping of urban swank. He’s way too cool for that.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Perky, pesky and utterly unflappable, a new neighbor makes himself at home
When I opened the cottage door to call our dogs—Molly, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and Barbie-Q, the little no-name brand—in for dinner, I recognized him immediately. New neighbors had moved in across the road two days earlier, and the Pug was part of their family; I’d seen him playing on the deck of their cottage.He looked up at me, big brown eyes round and appealing above the black mask that covered his snout, and wriggled his curly pig-tail.
Beside me Molly paused and looked up. I knew that expression. I glanced over at the neighbors’ cottage. No one was around.
“Okay,” I answered Molly’s silent request. I looked down at the Pug. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
He wriggled his tail again, then pranced up the steps and past me.
He proved to be an appreciative guest, his enjoyment of our doggy cuisine obvious as he burrowed his little black mouth deep into gravy-laced kibble. He even gave a lusty burp and licked his chops with gusto when he finished.
“Bruiser! Bruiser, where are you?”
He cocked his head to one side, then trotted to the full-length screen door and looked out, tail wiggling. His reaction left no doubt. He was Bruiser.
I opened the door for him and followed him onto the deck.
“He’s over here,” I called across the lane to the young woman in shorts and tank top. “He stayed to dinner.”
“Thanks.” She jogged across the road as Bruiser rushed to greet her. She introduced herself as Nancy as she lifted his squirming body in her arms.
“Bruiser’s an unusual name for a Pug,” I said, as she tucked him against her side.
“I named him after the dog in the movie Legally Blonde,” she grinned. “Hope he wasn’t any trouble.”She waved and headed back across the road carrying the Pug.
“Any time,” I called.
The trouble began soon afterwards. The next morning, in fact, when Molly dashed out as usual to fetch the morning paper at the end of the drive. At the corner of our cedar hedge where the carrier normally tossed it, she stopped short. No paper. She lowered her nose and began a serious investigation of the area. After a few minutes of watching my dog’s unsuccessful attempts to find the daily news, I scuffled into my moccasins and went to help her.
As I was opening the front door, I saw my new neighbor running across the road in slippers and PJs. She was waving something in a blue plastic sleeve. Under her left arm, Bruiser hung ignominiously.
“Sorry,” she said as she ran up the steps.
“Bruiser’s been watching your dog fetch the paper for the last couple of days. He must have thought it was a good idea, so he brought your paper to us.”
“No problem,”I replied taking the paper and giving Bruiser a little head-pat. “Shows initiative, right, guy?”He licked my hand, snuffled a Pug sound and wriggled his tail.
It’s been said you can’t outfox a fox. Molly soon proved that the cliché also applied to Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers. Bright and early the next morning, she posted herself on our front step.
The Pug proved to be a worthy opponent. As I glanced out the front window, I saw a small, black-masked snout peering out from the hedge.
I got my coffee and drew up a chair. This was going to be interesting.
A few minutes later, the carrier’s car appeared over the crest of the knoll. Instantly, Molly was on her feet, alert and ready. In the hedge, a small beige-andblack body also came to attention.
The car slowed at the end of our drive, an arm appeared through its open driver’s window and the morning news flew through the air. Simultaneously (or so it appeared) both dogs lunged.
The collision occurred at the corner of the hedge. A yelp, a squeal and Bruiser went flying. Molly paused a moment, shook to regain her dignity, then picked up the paper precisely in its middle and triumphantly trotted back to the cottage, the obvious winner in this war for words.
By then, Bruiser had scrambled to his paws. He too shook himself vigorously, paused a moment (I assume to make sure he was still intact) and proceeded to prance behind Molly toward our cottage.
When I opened the screen door for Molly and accepted the paper she carefully presented “to hand,” Bruiser, his joie de vivre apparently unabashed, trotted inside behind her, the corners of his mouth curled up in a good-natured grin.
The following morning, it bucketed rain and Molly opted to watch for the paper from the front window. Surely, she may have speculated, the Pug wouldn’t come out in such inclement weather for a fetch he now knew he couldn’t possibly retrieve.
Molly would soon learn never to underestimate the tenacity of a Pug.
I’d gone back into the kitchen for a moment when I heard the carrier’s car approaching and Molly’s excited whines. “No rush, girl,” I assured her as I headed toward the front door to let the now yelping, prancing dog out.
Then I saw the reason for her distress. Bruiser darted out of the hedge and lifted his leg. His aim perfect, he peed on her precious blue-sleeved paper.
Two weeks later, Nancy crossed the road to ask a favor. She and her partner were going to visit non-dog-fancying relatives for a couple of weeks. Could we keep Bruiser? No problem, husband Ron and I readily agreed. By then, Bruiser had become a frequent and welcome visitor. Barbie-Q and Molly enjoyed him, and so did we. So the Pug who came to dinner gathered up his collar, leash and bowl and moved in.
“He’s housebroken and doesn’t chew things,”Nancy said as she placed him on the kitchen floor. “There’s only a couple of tiny problems. He steals and he parties.”
“Oh?” we replied in surprised unison, although the former came as no surprise after the newspaper incidents. And as for partying. A Pug? Really?
The first couple of days, nothing untoward occurred. The three dogs played happily on the deck, in the yard and at the beach. On the third morning, however, things changed.
When I went to call the dogs in after their morning ablutions, I found a pair of pink plastic flowers, a few of their fake petals missing, on the deck. As I recalled having seen them on a neighbor’s lawn, I looked at Bruiser sitting beside them, a grin plastered across his pushed-up little face.
“Did you take those?” I asked pointing at the posies.“No, no! Bad boy!”
The black ears dropped repentantly… for a moment. Then he blinked an eye at me and wiggled his tail.
An hour later, when our neighbor went grocery shopping, I furtively stuck the two worse-for-wear flowers back in her garden. That was easy, I thought, as I trotted home. And now that he knew better, our houseguest wouldn’t do it again. He’d looked so contrite.
Apparently I hadn’t learned anything about Bruiser’s persistence during his paper-pirate days, I realized later that week. Each morning, our deck sported new booty. A tennis ball, a toy truck, a plastic shovel, a baseball cap, a deflated beach ball (I refused to reflect on how it had gotten into that condition) and, most alarmingly, what looked like a doll’s amputated arm.
But worse was yet to come. The next morning, a shoe appeared on the deck. Obviously new, obviously expensive.
“Oh, Bruiser!” I breathed, turning the slender, high-heeled strappy sandal over in my hands.“What have you done now!”
For a moment, my tone of voice made his ears droop and his tail straighten. For a moment he looked almost ashamed. Almost. And only for a moment. Then his tail re-knotted, his ears went up and his wide mouth widened in that now familiar roguish grin.
Ron joined me on the deck. “There’s only one thing to do about this,” he said. He took the shoe from my hand and, like the prince in Cinderella, set off down the road to find someone with its mate.
“That’s it.” On his return, Ron picked up the Pug and looked him squarely in the eyes.“No more stealing, understand?” For a moment, black ears drooped and the broad mouth sagged. For a moment one could almost believe he was truly sorry. Almost.
The instant Ron replaced the canine culprit on the deck, his entire body flashed back to perky exuberance. He turned to Barbie-Q, who’d been dozing in the sun, and began racing around her, barking and daring her to play.
“When did Nancy say she’d be back?” Ron asked as they made circuit after circuit of the cottage, barking and yelping.
That evening marked the beginning of a long weekend in New Brunswick. Shortly after 6, the air grew rich with the smell of barbecuing beef and pork from our neighbor’s barbecues. All three dogs—lying on the deck, bellies full of supper—sniffed deeply. Leaving them to savor the aroma, I went inside to clear away our dishes.
I returned to the deck 20 minutes later and found Bruiser missing. When 9 o’clock arrived and he hadn’t returned, I set out to look for him. Yes, most of our neighbors informed me, he’d visited their parties but he was no longer around. Finally, as darkness and mosquitoes gathered around me, I headed home. I hoped to find him on the deck. No such luck.
When the rest of our household settled to sleep (“He’ll be along,” Ron said confidently as he headed off to bed). I curled up on the couch with a book to wait… I awoke with a start when I heard paws on the deck. Stumbling to my feet, I switched on the outdoor light. There Bruiser stood, a big T-bone thick with meat clamped in his jaws.
“Where have you been?” I scolded, opening the door for him.
He glanced up at me disdainfully, then staggered up the steps and past me into the cottage, clutching his booty. He reeked of fat and barbecue sauce.
He looked up at me again, gave a weary sigh, then walked toward the kitchen. There, with a tired grunt, he climbed onto the couch that had become his bed at our house. It took the last of his energy to bury his booty under a pillow. The task completed, with another sigh, he settled himself on top of it and closed his eyes. His belly, bloated with the results of foraging from party to party, stuck out beneath him.
Nancy arrived home several days later. With big news. And a request. She’d decided to join the armed forces. Could we keep Bruiser while she was away at boot camp and basic training?
“Well…okay,”we agreed. For some reason, Molly chose that moment to demonstrate a trick I’d been trying to teach her for several days.
She lay down on the deck and covered both eyes with her paws.
Bruiser, sitting beside her, grinned.
Culture: Stories & Lit
From a new novel with a dog-rich storyline
When they got home, Everett watched Polly disappear into the bedroom to watch TV.He made himself a martini and sat down in the living room with the paper.His was a lonely life, he realized, even with a nubile girlfriend. Polly greeted him and chatted with him and kissed him and made love to him with youthful energy and cheer, but it was as if she did those things from across a great divide. The dog had followed him now and pushed his face between Everett and the newspaper, laying his muzzle comfortably on Everett’s leg. Everett was too sad to scold the dog at that moment. He didn’t stir. The dog didn’t stir. A gentle quiet descended. Everett realized he liked the feeling of the dog’s head on his leg, the warmth of a living being so close to him, demanding nothing, just there.He patted Howdy with one hand and held the martini glass with another. The dog had such silky ears, such a golden, silky face.He listened to the rhythmic tranquility of the dog’s breathing.
“Howdy,” he said softly.
Howdy looked up, his head cocked, his eyes dark and somehow reassuring.
Everett experienced an unfamiliar sensation.He looked into the dog’s eyes, and he was suddenly, intensely aware of the room around him, of the soft order of his furnishings and his life, of the soft order outside where day was giving way to night, of the TV sounds and the cold wet of the martini glass, of the smudgy feel of newsprint on his fingers, but mostly he was aware of joy —the wild, clattering joy of being alive.
“Howdy,” he whispered. “Howdy.” Howdy thumped his tail against the floor, and the two of them gazed into each other’s eyes, like lovers.
When Howdy jumped on Everett’s bed that night, Polly said, “Off!”
But Howdy, instead of jumping down, turned and looked at Everett, as if for further instructions.
Everett did not know any dog commands. “Just for a little while,” he said, which is what he used to tell Emily, but Howdy seemed to understand him perfectly and stretched out with a comfortable grunt.
“You’ve changed your tune,” Polly said.
“I’m only human,” he said.
A few days later, Polly and her brother George received a telephone call from their mother in California reminding them of the date of her sixtieth birthday and offering them frequent flier miles.
“A summons,” George said when they’d hung up. “Like traffic court.Might as well get it over with.”
“Or we’ll get hit with more fines?”
Polly shrugged. She had some vacation days due. It seemed a shame to waste them on family, but it would be fun to see her high school friends who had stayed in California. Then she had a startling thought.
“The dog!” she said.
George looked stunned.
“I forgot about him,” he said, looking guiltily at the sleeping hulk in the corner.
The problem was resolved in a way neither of them would have predicted. Everett offered to take care of Howdy while they were away. Polly was pleased and felt her importance in having such a devoted boyfriend. On the other hand, she was a little disappointed that Everett didn’t seem at all anxious about her impending absence.
“I’ll only be gone for a few days,” she said, prompting him. But he just nodded and said it wasn’t much time for Howdy and him to get to know each other, but it was a start. Everett, for his part, could hardly believe his luck.Howdy was coming to pad around his empty apartment. Howdy’s big plumed tail would swish across his coffee table. Howdy would sprawl on his bed, his couch, his carpet.He immediately began straightening pictures on the wall and plumping cushions, as if Howdy were a fastidious houseguest.
George didn’t like the idea of leaving the dog with Everett, but he saw no other possibilities. He had dropped hints to Jamie, but Jamie had responded with studied incomprehension. So on Friday afternoon, he gathered up Howdy’s toys and food. Polly was meeting him at the airport and he was to take the dog up to Everett.
Everett had left work early in order to be home when the transfer was made, and he opened the door when George rang, squatted down, and offered his face for Howdy’s greeting.George watched with grudging approval.
“Here’s his food,” he said, handing Everett a shopping bag with dry food and several cans.
Everett looked in the shopping bag, which also contained Howdy’s toys, a box of treats, and a detailed list of his schedule of walking and eating. Then Everett produced his own shopping bag and its contents: a new blue rubber ball, a squeaky plush hedgehog, and a ceramic dog dish with soft green stripes.
“Jonathan Adler,” he said, handing the dish to George. George looked puzzled.
“He designed it,” Everett said.“He’s a designer.”
George handed the bowl back to Everett.
“You can call to check up on Howdy,” Everett said. “Do you want my cell phone number, too?”
This was the friendliest Everett had ever been to George. “Howdy,”Everett was saying softly.“Howdy,Howdy,Howdy.” He patted his chest and Howdy immediately put his front paws there. The two of them stood gazing into each other’s eyes. George couldn’t help but smile.
Everett saw the smile and smiled back. George felt suddenly happy, as if the sun had come out. Oh, he said to himself. I get it. This is what happened to Polly. The smile.
“It’s so nice of you to take the dog,” he said.He almost meant it. He watched Howdy wagging his tail, and he had a sudden realization.He looked at Howdy, now lying on his back, then at Everett, now scratching the dog’s belly, and he thought, I am jealous of my sister’s boyfriend. And not even because Everett was his sister’s boyfriend, but because his sister’s boyfriend was taking care of his sister’s dog.
Oh, well, he thought, as he left the happy couple. I’m only human.
Everett clipped on Howdy’s leash a few minutes later and took the dog for a celebratory promenade up the block. At the real-estate agency around the corner on Columbus he stopped as he often did to examine the placards displaying tempting photographs of loftlike gems and spacious sun-filled one-of-akind marvels. But he found he was less intrigued than usual and led Howdy over to a fluffy white dog, introduced by her owner as Lola, and he peacefully watched the two dogs in their amiable examination of each other’s genitals.
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?
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