Culture: Stories & Lit
Lab with a wise old soul helps family navigate loss.
There was little discussion of who would keep Tag, my brother’s young black Labrador Retriever, after John’s death. Tag was a living connection to John, and though a grief greater than my own was unfathomable, I knew my mother needed him most. She had lost her broad-shouldered, broad-grinned son. She needed Tag, if only to curl up with when death’s demons haunted. Tag and my mother mourned together. During their first year, a solid rap on the door would send Tag into the fullbody wagging frenzy he reserved for his master’s return. In the seconds before rationality reigned, Mom, too, hoped my brother was about to bound into the house. She had hung John’s Carhartt jacket and ratty baseball cap on a hook above his cowboy boots in her mudroom. It deluded her into thinking that he would be coming back from Colorado for Christmas vacation, with another semester of veterinary school under his belt, on the days when denial was her only method of survival.
John and I had often booked the same flight from Denver to Chicago to descend on Mom in unison for the holidays. On this winter morning I sat alone, squeezed between strangers. I dreaded Christmas without John.Uncovering the ornament he had made in first grade or his knit stocking, stretched out from our tradition of flooding each other with gag gifts, promised to reignite anguish that would feel new and raw all over again. At least I had Tag to look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see that dog.
I was approaching our prearranged meeting place outside O’Hare when I saw them—the unmistakable combination of my stylish mother behind the wheel and a slobbering, yet regal, Tag, straining out the back-seat window.My mom and I greeted each other cautiously, not out of animosity, but restraint. We instinctively knew that if we held each other’s gaze, the sorrow of another holiday without John would overwhelm our weak levee.
“I’ll sit in back with Tag,” I said in a desperate attempt to throw sandbags between our grief.“How’s my boy?” I asked into his eyes while ruffling his ears and scratching him under the collar, where he liked it best. As we pulled away from the airport, Tag straddled my lap to resume his position at the window.Breathing his freshly shampooed scent, I rested my head on his side and hid my burning eyes from Mom’s glances in the rearview mirror.
Despite the lapses between visits to my mother’s house, Tag and I were inseparable when we were under the same roof. He slept at the foot of my bed, trotted down the stairs after my slippered feet, waited as I fixed my coffee, and even crowded into the bathroom as I showered and blew my hair dry.What made this unusual was that Tag was generally aloof. While my mom adored her dog, she complained that he wasn’t cuddly, that he’d always give her his rump to scratch instead of his muzzle. I couldn’t help remembering that John was the same way.As the only male in our household for many years, John would often put the brakes on touchy-feely stuff. He told my mom he would give her backrubs— he on the couch, she sitting in front of him on the floor—only if she refrained from pleasurable noises. An “ooh, that feels good,” and his hands were in the air.“I’m outta here,” he would say and be off the couch, heading to the kitchen to pour himself a Coke. My practical self attributed Tag’s uncharacteristic affection to my resemblance to John. Like me, John had been fair-skinned with honey-colored hair; perhaps we even had a smell or pheromone in common. But my spiritual self believed it was more than that—that part of John’s soul was with Tag, and when Tag and I were together, John and I were too in some way.
In fact, until this trip home for the holidays, I had sometimes wondered if I should have inherited Tag. Tag’s adjustment would have been less jarring if he had stayed with me in Colorado and had an owner who was closer to John’s age and lifestyle.Yet, I knew my motivations were primarily selfish, and now I was witnessing how beautifully Mom and Tag were piecing their lives together. Mom had resumed her work as a photographer, and Tag now chased waterbirds along the shores of Lake Michigan rather than the chickens John kept on his property near the Rocky Mountains. Tag now heeled alongside Mom, though to her right side, the way my left-handed brother had purposely trained him so that he’d be away from the rifle on their occasional hunting trips. Tag’s stellar behavior evoked a pride in Mom, not only in Tag but also in her son’s fine ability with animals. Mom glimpsed John through Tag the way one sees a deceased loved one in a child who bears her likeness. As Mom and I sipped coffee in front of the Christmas tree on my first morning home, she invited me to witness a petassisted therapy program that she and Tag had become involved with over the last year. She was introduced to the program by a stranger who had remarked how well-trained Tag was.
“Yes, he is wonderful, but that credit really goes to my son,” Mom had explained. During the brief conversation that followed, the man said he volunteered with a group that helped others through the use of dogs. Then and there, Mom had resolved to sign up.
The next day, however, she’d questioned whether she had the emotional strength to work with people who had disabilities.We were grateful John’s departure from this world had been quick and peaceful. His girlfriend had smiled between sobs as she recounted that she and my brother had been goofing off on the mountain just moments before John, an expert skier, inexplicably collided with a tree, rupturing his aorta. John had, at least, not suffered—unlike those whom my mother would train Tag to assist. Despite her hesitations, Mom summoned the courage to contact the organization. “Chenny Troupe,” a cheerful woman answered. Chenny, Mom later learned, was the name of the pioneer dog of the program.
“My name is Mary Ann Alexander, and I have my son’s dog. Well, he’s my dog now,” she began.
The compassionate voice interrupted. “I know about your son,Mary Ann.My husband works with John’s father. I was at the funeral.My name is Carole Hunt.” This was an almost eerie coincidence in a city the size of Chicago. My mother’s resolve to train Tag in pet-assisted therapy was restored. Tag was hers for a reason. Maybe this was it.
When Mom received the Chenny Troupe brochure in the mail a few days later, she settled on the rug beside Tag to read it. The literature emphasized that, more than providing companionship, these therapy dogs helped with the rehabilitation of patients. The dogs needed to be not only well-trained but also gentle enough to work with children and energetic enough to engage a person with a disability. They must be patient and unbothered by wheelchairs, walkers, back braces or helmets as well as the awkward movements and vocalizations of some of the patients. Few dogs pass the rigorous obedience screening on the first try. The test date was only two weeks away. “You’ll do it, Tag,”Mom said, as she slid onto her side to lock eyes with her best friend. In a rare but increasingly frequent show of affection, Tag covered her face with kisses.
When the time came,Tag obeyed every instruction with an attentiveness that would have made John proud. Tag and my mother were invited into the program. Now, sitting in Mom’s kitchen a year later, I saw no trace of the initial butterflies she’d had, as she saddled Tag with his official work vest in preparation for tonight’s session. I, however, was nervous, even in my limited role as an observer. Then I remembered Mom commenting that Tag’s omniscient look had allayed her fears.When I saw the pure intention in his eyes, I felt my internal compass needle, haywire for over a year, regain its bearings.
Tag looked handsome, even cocky, as he leaped into the back seat to be driven to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). From the front seat I turned to tell him, “You know John wants you to do this, don’t you, smart boy?” Mom’s eyes smiled—the sandbags between us long gone—as we pulled onto Lakeshore Drive. The RIC elevator door opened to a large recreation room milling with patients, therapy dogs and their owners.Mom’s preeminence in the program showed as she was swallowed by the group to answer last-minute questions before the therapy began. Eventually, all the dogs and volunteers, paired with their patients, were spread throughout the room. In one corner, a young man negotiated trading his walker for a leash, while a teenage girl pressed her dormant vocal cords into service to command a dog to sit.
For Mom and Tag, this was the last night of a six-week partnership with a seven-year-old girl named Samantha. In an automobile accident on Christmas Eve, Samantha had lost her little sister and been partially paralyzed on her right side. She was in a wheelchair and had lost much of her speech. An older sister and both parents, who had survived the wreck with minor injuries, were there to cheer Samantha on.
Sam had fallen in love with Tag the first night they worked together. Initially, Sam would pet Tag only with her left hand, until my mother, remembering her training, urged Sam to pet him with her right hand. As Sam fought to communicate with her right side, Tag nudged her hand with his wet nose. Tag’s touch made Sam giggle, evoking a gasp from her mother, who hadn’t heard her laugh since before the accident. Slowly, Sam’s hand obeyed her brain’s signal. She extended her clenched fist enough to knock on Tag’s shoulder. It was a tremendous achievement. Every Tuesday night for six weeks, Tag helped Samantha overcome her paralysis. Sam learned to uncurl her fist to accept a tennis ball and then to throw it to Tag, who retrieved it and begged for more.
Their favorite game involved Sam balancing a dog biscuit on Tag’s nose while he waited for the command to nod his head and catch the biscuit. Now, Sam’s actions with Tag were almost fluid, and she said his name clearly.
Samantha’s mother, Julie, told us that every time they got into the car, the little girl would ask,“Tag?”—hoping they were on their way to the RIC. I listened as my mother shared with Julie her story of losing her son.My mother hadn’t wanted to burden Julie with our loss. Tonight, though, as Julie presented my mother with a bouquet of flowers for all she had done, it seemed appropriate.Upon hearing about John, Julie commented, “Your son was going to be a veterinarian so he could heal animals, but now his animal heals people.”
With Christmas behind me, I boarded my flight back to Denver. As I buckled my seat belt, I noticed Tag’s straight black hairs covering my beige corduroy pants, and smiled. Brushing the hairs from my lap, I thought how Tag was with me in more ways than just his shedding coat. Tag had taught me,my mother and even Samantha’s mom Julie that there is hope after tragedy.
In the days after John’s death, I had fearfully asked Mom,“Will we ever be okay again?” She responded that she did not know how we ever could be. Yet, we are okay—due in large part to a huge-hearted black Lab with a wise old soul.
Now it is summer and its long, warm days have arrived, we hope to catch up on our reading. To encourage you to do the same, we’ve compiled a roster of some of our favorites from the classic shelves, as well as some newer ones.
THE SCIENCE OF DOG
Man Meets Dog was first published fifty years ago, becoming a classic that every dog lover should read‹a slim, witty volume by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Konrad Lorenz. It was the first to delve into the canine mind and also launched the debate to what extend do its wolf ancestors affect modern dog behavior.
The Hidden Life of Dogs is a book made famous for the number of miles that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas clocked while tracking a Husky on his daily forays in her anthropological quest to answer, “What do dogs really want?” It is an enthralling account that brings a fresh understanding to the emotional lives of dogs.
Somewhere along the path of evolution two distinct animal species made the choice to “cooperate not to compete.” In The Animal Attraction Dr. Jonica Newby, an Australian veterinarian, poses the more fascinating question "If we didn¹t link up with dogs, where would we be today?" Her answers about our co-evolution are both surprising and wildly entertaining.
In Dog Sense, animal behaviorist John Bradshaw outlines what we can expect from our co-pilots as well as what they need to live harmoniously with us. Ultimately, this is what makes the book so appealing. He does more than simply lay out interesting theories; he uses science to advocate for a better life for companion dogs.
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz is a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away the layers of pre-conceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.
Dog’s Best Friend by Mark Derr who writes about the “culture of the dog” like no one else‹he goes well beyond the in’s and out’s of breeding and training examining all aspects about what makes our relationship to dogs tick.
MEMOIRS & LITERATURE
Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson. A fascinating memoir of the adventures of a Search and Rescue pup and how both she and her human partner mastered the course together.
In Dog Years, poet Mark Doty recounts how two dogs rescued and supported him during a time of deep grief. A tender, amusing and insightful reflection on the bond with have with animals.
The Proof is in the Poodle by Donna Kelleher, a holistic vet who has written a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of the ways we help out animals heal—physically, emotionally and spiritually. (2012,Two Harbors Press)
Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is a beautifully crafted tale of the wonders and absurdities of human life as only a dog could describe them.
Rick Bass’s Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had is a gorgeously written memoir about a remarkable “brown” dog who possessed a genius for the hunt. It is also a powerful contemplation about the natural world and how a dog can unveil its secrets to us, if only we are wise enough to watch and listen.
Donald McCaig’s Eminent Dogs: Dangerous Men is a book about the fascinating world of sheepherding and Border Collies and how the history of these dogs is infused by character of the people who admire then and who “partner” with them. Part memoir, travelogue, and part investigation into one of the oldest alliances mankind has struck with canines.
Dog Walks Man, a collection of humorous and absorbing essays by John Zeaman, conveys how the routine act of dog-walking can connect us to the joys of the nature.
Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Carolyn Knapp is the seminal book about, as its subtitle proclaims, the bond between people and dogs. A must read for all dog people—affirming that we aren’t alone in our dog-centricity. Knapp explored why dogs matter to us and concludes that we love them for themselves—for their very otherness and dogginess.
My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. This book is a lovely, unsentimental and very moving biography of a dog, an Alsatian female named Tulip. Ackerley is charmed and fascinated by her and his descriptions about her behavior and habits are among the more tender “love” stories ever.
Lee Harrington’s Rex in the City is the modern day story about how a young couple learned about the challenges of adopting an abused, untrained dog and bringing him up in a small NYC apartment. The author shares both her pains and her joys of their life with a troubled dog. But readers will be reminded—in a delightful way—that love does indeed conquer all.
Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB, has written a shelf-load of books in which she decodes the mysteries of canine behavior. Two we particularly like are The Other End of the Leash, which focuses on why we behave as we do around our dogs and how it affects them, and (with Karen London, PhD), Love Has No Age Limit, a much-needed primer on adopting an adult dog.
If you’ve wondered vets do day-to-day, read veterinary surgeon Nick Trout’s Tell Me Where It Hurts and Love Is the Best Medicine and get clued in.
WHO DONE IT?
David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter is a reluctant attorney whose real passions are dog rescue and his Golden Retriever, Tara. One Dog Night is the most recent entry.
In Spencer Quinn’s “Chet and Bernie” mysteries, narrated by Chet the dog, comments on the way dogs see the world ring true (and will make you smile). The fifth book, A Fist Full of Collars, is due out in September.
Our long-time favorite, Susan Conant, released a new “Holly Winter” mystery earlier this year, thank goodness; Brute Strength is number 19 in the series featuring the Malamute-loving dog writer and, of course, her favorite dogs.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I never had a dog. I grew up in a cat household, with a mother who disliked dogs for their digging and mess and noise. I can’t blame her, as we were five kids who had lizards, hamsters, parakeets, fish, and always, two or three cats.
But I wanted a dog so badly! I wanted a red Cocker Spaniel like Rusty, the fictional dog featured in novels I read again and again. I dreamed of a brave dog like Rusty, who swam into choppy ocean waves to rescue a boy, who sensed that a train was about to crash, who bounded into fields to find a lost girl. His coat was shiny and his eyes alert, and he was a hero.
At 12, I brought home a stray while my parents were on vacation, knowing our elderly babysitter wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. My mother did, on her return, and so the dog went to live at my friend’s house three streets away. I visited, but it wasn’t the same.
When I married my childhood sweetheart, I knew he didn’t want a dog, as he’d been raised with a black Cockapoo who hated everyone under twenty, and demonstrated it by biting them. We bought a house on a busy four-lane avenue, a former farmhouse with a big yard, and we had three kids.
Our first daughter was not a dog lover, as she'd been nipped on the hand by a boisterous Old English Sheepdog when she was two, and shortly afterward nipped on the face by an ill-tempered Sheltie down the block. Gaila likes rabbits. Our second daughter was not a dog lover, because she is obsessed with insects and wants to be an entomologist. Delphine collects bugs.
But our third daughter, Rosette, said Dog before she said Daddy. She is a kindred spirit, as they say. Our neighbor, who babysat her twice a week when I went to work, got a yellow Labrador puppy named Chelsea days after Rosette was born, and they slept together on the bed, Rosette with her fist curled around Chelsea’s felt-soft ear and her thumb in her mouth.
Her father and I divorced when she was only one, and Rosette began asking for a dog as soon as she could form sentences. When she was two, we took a trip to New York, just me and Rosette, and she met every dog in Gramercy Park, where we staying. By the second day she was calling them by name, those city dogs out on their walks, and we had to eat in restaurants with sidewalk tables so we could visit her canine friends, who truly seemed to recognize the smell of her chubby crumb-laden hand.
I tried to prepare: I bought books about puppies and their care, about puppies walking through meadows and cavorting with other baby animals. Rosette had other ideas: “Yellow Labrador, Irish Setter, Border Collie, Basset Hound, Beagle.” She got a dog breed book and we had to study their physical characteristics and temperaments. She was three then. In Prescott, Arizona, she identified King Charles Spaniels after an owner explained how rare the breed was, and she has remembered them since.
Having a child who loved dogs with this kind of passion was fascinating, but also intimidating. I knew we couldn’t get a puppy, as people had warned that work and school would take us away for too long. Having cried for hours over lost or stray dogs on our avenue, Rosette wanted to adopt someone from the Humane Society. So in November of that year, we walked the gauntlet of cages and barking, and wary or pleading eyes.
Rosette went immediately to the shaggy black Spaniel named Teddy, who looked so depressed he barely ambled out to the chain link. The big test was whether a dog could handle us as a family, so I’d brought all my girls and two of their small friends, along with one of our caged rabbits. The shelter assistant brought Teddy to us in the meeting area. He walked over to Rosette, licked her face, and sat beside her. He looked at the other girls as if to say, “Yeah, I see you.” He looked at the rabbit as if to say, “Yeah, you’re in a cage.”
Teddy had been found in a neighboring city, with a slight limp and bruised hip that indicated someone had been kicking him. He’d already been adopted once, but returned by the childless couple who’d kept him in an apartment for up to ten hours as a time, because he urinated inside.
He peed once inside our house, the first day, but never again. He waited patiently for Rosette to let him outside, where she fed him, picked up his poop, and brushed him. Solemnly, she repeated to me, “I made a promise and I am keeping it.”
Teddy is a classic shelter dog, in that he will never have had enough to eat. That first week, he ate a cake, plastic wrap and all, that had been left on the coffee table, and gobbled up a dropped Advil and a Flintstones multivitamin when I cleaned out my backpack. We stayed with him for hours, worried, while he waited for us to drop something else.
He wasn’t a Cocker Spaniel, Rosette assured me, paging through one of her dog breed books until she found him. Teddy had shorter, ragged ears, a taller build, a longer nose. He was a Field Spaniel, Rosette said.
I studied him those first months, wondering about his bravery and nobility. Would he have the chance to save someone, like Rusty, my heroic red Cocker? When I lifted Rosette into the air and twirled her, he ran over and put a paw on her leg to make me put her down. If I tickled her, he wedged his head between us, never growling, but looking sternly at me, as if to say I should know better. Soon, when older sisters or friends were playing rough, Rosette would call, “Teddy!” and with applications of his stinky breath and head butts, he would make them leave her alone. Once, as an experiment, I tackled Gaila, who is my size, and tickled her. Teddy just watched, slightly bored.
Teddy’s job was to save Rosette’s spirit. She has dog love threading through her veins from some ancestor, dog love wound tightly around her heart like the branching arteries displayed in her encyclopedia. Unlike her sisters, she never really had a father who lived in our house. Teddy was hers alone. She slept in his dog bed, and he slept on her small fold-out couch in the living room. He walked her to preschool with me every day, and her class, The Cute Kittens, mobbed him. He never barked or growled or even moved away. In his second week with us, Teddy sat in the middle of a circle of them, 13 three-year-olds, and Rosette talked about him. Then he ate 13 dog biscuits, to please everyone, and didn’t throw up. He submitted to inspections and hard head pats and screaming. His eyes never left Rosette. I realized the extent of Teddy's nobility, and I was willing to accept his neediness.
Because now, four years later, he is a needy dog. He has no other dog friends, though we’ve tried repeatedly. Not even Chelsea, who he attacks along with her sister Hannah, another yellow Lab. Teddy will never accept another canine, even on the sidewalk for casual conversation, and he’s injured himself repeatedly because his version of bravery makes him guard our fenced yard with blind ferocity. He has been bitten on the nose, while barking through the fence, by neighbors' dogs, and hurt his leg chasing Chows and even Pit Bulls. Nearly every house in our neighborhood has at least two dogs, but Teddy will not even wag at them. Two dogs in my brother’s tough pack, which runs in a nearby orange grove, like to visit us: We tried to acclimate Teddy to Soot and Charcoal on the front porch, which was fine until Rosette came banging out of the screen door to see them. Teddy promptly tried to take a chunk out of Soot’s back leg.
Last summer, he destroyed a rear anterior cruciate ligament, chasing down passing dogs like an aging football player. I spent a thousand dollars on your good leg, I told him, when we took him for surgery. Two days in the animal hospital, along with anesthesia, left him altered, so anxious that he has never been the same since. His new ligament works fine, but he won’t let me leave a room, blocking the doorway or the back of my chair with his body, in case he’s abandoned again. His marked resemblance to Richard Nixon on an unhappy day has deepened. Teddy stares at me in the morning, jowly and melancholic because it’s hot, or cold, or windy, or because I was asleep.
He hates it when we leave, and can't be left alone for even five minutes without trying to dig out or jump the fence. What with school and sports and errands, by the time we are done for the day he is beside himself. And that’s just when I usually have six or seven girls here for homework or basketball: Teddy sits under the basket, or sits on their papers, or tries to lie on my feet while I am at the stove, not a happy camper myself by that point in the afternoon.
I wanted a brave independent dog who would keep out the marauding cats trying to kill the rabbits, who would bark at strange men, rather than inspecting them for Del Taco burritos and hot sauce. I realize we are not drowning in the ocean or lost in a field, but some Rusty-like nobility of demeanor would help, rather than the baleful and incredulous eyes that say to me, “You’re trying to get to the cupboard for macaroni and cheese again, and I find that incredibly irritating when I am trying to get comfortable on your instep.” When we tell him to go lie down, Teddy moves five inches, and his look combines glare and guilt in a way that's so presidential that I have to laugh.
A neighbor takes care of him when we go to work or on vacation, since Teddy is terminally anxious now. This summer Rosette turned seven, and on an East Coast trip she brought her dog breed book to identify new friends. She learned the intricacies of Sheltie breeding, studying the double merle; she walked a Jack Russell Terrier, and worried about the breathing of a black Lab with a lung tumor. But the only time she cried was when she missed Teddy. Not her father, or grandparents, or friends. Only her dog.
I have watched her, all these years. No one else feeds or walks Teddy, or picks up his poop, unless Rosette is sick. She doesn’t always remember her homework, and plays no sports, preferring to amble around with her dog. I have had to learn patience from both of them, since Rosette is known as my Velcro child for her clinginess, and Teddy is called “the neediest dog on the planet” by our bemused neighbors, with their rough independent German Shepherds and Rottweilers. But I realize, looking around at my house with its pack of girls, all female animals with hierarchies and assigned spaces and conflicting personalities, that Teddy picked the right place.
He stares at me now, while I write, daring me to move a muscle, draped across the doorway. I am not ashamed to admit that I am used to chaos and company, and when my kids are gone, I need someone else in the house. It helps that I’m accustomed to company that regards me censoriously if I am not doing something useful, like laundry, dishes, walking, dropping crumbs or retrieving dog biscuits. This is the home of needy short animals, and Teddy fits in perfectly, bravely licking up stray puddles of toxic-blue Otter Pops, surviving the inexpert eye-pokes associated with brushing by school friends who have never had a dog, and lying with one eye open under the mulberry tree where Rosette reads, waiting for her to come down so he can rescue her with his patience and devotion.
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.
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