Gone to the dogs

It didn’t seem to matter how much I begged and pleaded, the answer was always “no.”  The conversation usually went something like this:

“But how come I can’t-”

“No.”

“Everyone else has-”

“No.”

“Why?  Why, why, why, why when-”

“No, no, no.”

“You had one when you were-”

“Lorraine, I said, ‘No.’ ”

And that was it.  Once Mom began using my name in conversation, it meant that if I continued, things would go downhill.  Formal names were used to punctuate the aura of growing impatience.

I begged, I pleaded, I was grounded, sent to bed.  I whined, I cried, I crawled- literally- on my hands and knees.

“You can crawl all the way to timbuktu, but the answer is still no.”  Mom was resolute.

All the other kids in school had a pet.  Every single person on the entire planet, all approximate four billion people, had a pet.  I was the only little girl, anywhere, who was deprived.  Or, this is how it seemed at the time.

Until one lucky day, when my brother, John, arrived home, auspiciously trailed by an all black labrador retriever.

“John, you can’t keep him,” Mom began.

“I know,” John replied.  “But watch.”  John walked the black lab outside and closed the door.  Mom and I followed John into the dining room where we surveyed the dog’s reaction.  The black lab sat on the mat staring at the door.  Next, he stood and pawed the door.

“My door,” Mom was displeased. “If that dog scratches that front door…”

“Just watch,” John interrupted.

Our new visitor turned cheerfully, trotted to the sidewalk, around the side of the yard which faced the sidewalk, and promptly jumped the fence.  He landed, smiling and unthwarted, in our pampas grass.

John started laughing.  “He’s great.  Isn’t he a smart dog?”

Mom looked at John.  She was trying not to smile herself.

“Well, he may be smart, but…”

“What can I do?  He follows me everywhere.  He just likes me.”  It was so nice to see John smiling.  He had seen some challenges this year.

Being sixteen and middle class in a neighborhood of upper class, wealthy kids was not always easy.  For instance, while John was learning to drive, Dad loaned his car, an orange Volkswagen bug.  As John stood pumping gas, high school acquaintances called from their corvette, “Hey, John, see you’ve got the family car today!”  Laughing, they sped off.  We were all used to this kind of chiding.  Steve moved out of Westlake as quickly as possible.  Ron ignored it, then moved.  But John and I were younger and stuck in the mire of the snotty brat pack.  I declared myself a hippie and denounced wealth.  John floundered and felt out-of-place.

One altercation led to what, in the 1970’s, would be called a fight.  Back then, we didn’t call it assault.  When young men or teen boys fought, it was the same scrapping done for centuries.  And like our fighting Irish ancestors before us, our family knew our right hooks from left.

For John, feeling out-of-place led to his share of fights and petty mischief.  An unspoken undercurrent ran through the house suggesting it was a blue-collar vs white-collar world, and if the rich couldn’t throw a punch, they were sissies.  As I say, this was unspoken.  When John came home with another report of mischief, Mom would instruct him not to behave this way, sometimes adding “even if they deserve it..”  Sometimes mischief reports were met with a heavily repressed smile.  Mom’s eyes would sparkle, though the corners of her mouth resisted.

Our new visitor, this black lab, sensed John’s good heart.

“Okay,” Mom relented, “what are you going to call him?”

Staggering disbelief overtook me.  We were going to have a dog!

It didn’t take long before things clarified.  WE weren’t having a dog- JOHN had a dog.  What this meant was that I was afforded the privilege of cleaning up after the dog, feeding the dog, but disallowed from the benefits of walking the dog, claiming it as my own, or referring to him as a family pet.  It was specifically John’s, except in the work sense of the word.

To be fair, Mom first waged a battle, trying to have Mac- John named the dog Mac- be a lesson in responsibility.  But at sixteen, John was disinclined to take up a life of reliability.  He knew if he didn’t feed Mac, Mom would.  If he didn’t clean up after Mac, Mom would.  And he knew Mom’s threats to get rid of Mac were empty threats.  For one, Mom loved John too much to take the dog away.  Secondly, Mom herself loved Mac, and so much was evident.

Mac stayed with us, following John everywhere he went.  Whether John was walking or driving, there was Mac beside him.  But this bliss was short-lived. One crisp spring day, John and Mac were fishing aside the lake.  A knot of strangers approached John, “Hey, that’s our dog.”  “No, it’s not.  It’s my dog.”  John had taken the proper steps with the animal shelter, and no one had claimed Mac.  Mac truly was John’s dog.

“It’s our dog.  Look at this…” they offered, calling, “Kunta, Kunta Kinte!”  The dog seemed to know the name, and responded favorably, wagging his tail.  He received his pets from the strangers happily, then returned to John.

“I don’t know what to tell ya, buddy,” John dismissed, “It’s my dog.”

When John left the lake, he noticed a car of people trailing him home.  It concerned him, and he kept Mac inside, by his side, for days.  They had to part ways when it was scheduled for John to report to juvenile hall, later in the week.  Mom and I drove John to the hall, and John was angry to go.  He blamed Mom for not “fixing things,” though there was nothing she could do to fix this.  She had tried.

Mom and I got home from the trip to drop John off with heavy hearts.  What’s worse, Mac was gone.  Mom panicked.  How could this be?  He had not jumped the fence in months.  It made no sense that Mac would jump it now, suddenly.  Mom wondered if Mac somehow sensed that John’s absence would be longer than usual, that perhaps he left looking for John.  “Get in the car, we’ve got to find him,” Mom ordered.  But as we drove around looking and calling out, we remembered the car of strangers following John home that day.  We knew it was likely they had returned for Mac.

The following week, Mom fretted terribly, alongside missing Mac.  She didn’t know how to tell John that Mac was gone.  Finally, upon his homecoming, Mom relayed the bad news.  John was livid.  He instantly blamed Mom.  He decided Mom had gotten rid of Mac purposely.  Mom’s heart was broken at the misplaced accusations.  She missed Mac still.

Through the ordeal, Dad remained quiet.  Dad’s policy during times of familial distress: duck and cover.  The men of the house never blamed one another.  If they retained their complicitous silence, blame would land on either Mom or myself.  And there was always blame somewhere.

When John seemed approachable, Mom tendered an offer.  “John, honey,” Mom’s voice filled with compassion. “How about if you get another dog.  It will be just yours, same as Mac was.  You pick him out.  It can be any dog you want.”

Again, I was blissful, resentful, grateful, and stunned.  I had crawled, literally crawled.  It wasn’t like I didn’t have my own issues.  I’d been battling anorexia and nearly died, but still was unconsidered.  I had cleaned up after Mac, fed Mac, loved him, and John had reaped only the benefits of pet ownership.  Why was he, once again, the recipient of parental benevolence?

A few days passed, and one afternoon brought a brand new, fuzzy surprise.  Mom, Dad, and I were in the living room, when John arrived with his new pet.

A slobbering, soft, ball of fluff galloped and trotted, circled, and leaped with wild unpredictability.  One bound was more adorable than the next.  His cascading, tumbling spontaneity seemed to surprise the puppy as much as it did us, his enchanted audience.  When he saw Mom, Dad, and me sitting on the couch, he leapt towards his new family without noting the step down into the family room.  With a silly somersault, he twisted sideways, and a slobbery smile accelerated towards us.

John’s new dog was a long hair German Shepard.  The family fell in love with him, except maybe for Ron, who was not a dog person.  Anyway, Ron and Steve were not living in the house anymore.  But for the rest of us, Oz was family.

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