Friday, June 09, 2006

Dogs IV: Bert

Soon after Toby’s demise—far too soon, he thought—his younger son, then 10 or 11, approached him about the possibility of getting another dog. He said no. Then his wife approached him, in league with the younger son, and implored him. It would be the son’s dog. The son would take care of it. He himself would not have to have anything to do with it. Please.

It was all bullshit, of course, but what could he say? He said yes (and later cried and told his wife how much he resented her role in the matter).

He took the younger son to the local SPCA to look at dogs.

In one kennel was an exceedingly wrinkly black dog, a dog so ugly that they both found it cute. And it seemed quite friendly, too. They expressed an interest in adopting it. They were told it was a Shar-Pei and that, because of all its wrinkles, it would need to be bathed every two or three days, lest it develop skin problems (only much later did he find out that this, too, was bullshit). Never mind, he said.

In another kennel was a dog that looked more like a small German shepherd than anything else. It looked, in fact, remarkably like Bob (only with a little less pit bull to it), so that, much later on, the two dogs tended to merge in his memory. Encouraged by the shelter staff, they took this dog for a short walk around the grounds. It was desperately friendly and eager. The younger son liked it. He himself had no objection to it, apart from his general objection, at the time, to getting a dog at all.

They decided to adopt it (him) and call him Dogbert. They had to wait for Dogbert to be neutered (at their expense, of course) and for the SPCA to investigate their fitness as an adoptive family for a dog that would otherwise almost certainly have been dead within the week—this was a step he understood but nevertheless somewhat resented.

In due course, they took Dogbert home, where he very shortly became merely Bert.

He built two short fences, separating the back yard from the front, so that Bert could be given the run of the back yard, rather than be confined to Toby’s old pen. It was a small kindness—he knew he wouldn’t be letting Bert in the house as much as Toby, or walking him as much as Toby. He really didn’t intend to have much to do with Bert, in fact—let the younger son and the wife walk Bert and play with him.

Which, to their credit, they very often did.

In addition to their similar looks, Bert was a lot like Bob in that he was not well socialized and could not really be trusted around strangers, particularly strange men.

If Bert lacked something of Bob’s fearful aggressiveness, he made up for it by being a nuisance barker. He barked incessantly, even when they were home and in his immediate vicinity. If Bert was not asleep, or interacting directly with a family member, Bert was barking.

They tried various remedies recommended by vets and trainers and friends. Nothing stopped Bert from barking. So they had Bert surgically debarked. The vet explained that the procedure would not stop Bert from barking, nor would it render him entirely silent, it would just make his bark very much quieter. And it did.

When people visited who did not visit often, or when tradesmen came and went on various errands, Bert would bark, and the people would remark upon how quiet and hoarse his bark sounded. When told that Bert had been debarked, people almost always seemed horrified, as if something very cruel had been done to the poor dog.

He found it interesting that people, even men, expressed no horror whatsoever upon learning that they had had Bert’s testicles cut off—that, of course, is what you were supposed to do with dogs’ testicles. He suspected, however, that most of the men, like himself, if forced to choose between their voices and their balls, would have chosen their balls—and he was a man to liked to talk. Not, of course, that it was an either-or proposition, or that Bert had been offered any choice in the matter. It was all a matter, he supposed, of what you were used to.

It was never apparent that Bert missed either his balls or his voice. It must be noted, however, that even after surgery, Bert was still able to bark; he just did it less annoyingly. Whereas… But never mind. Enough about Bert’s bark and his balls.

He didn’t dislike Bert. But he never warmed to him, either. He never treated Bert with overt cruelty. But neither did he treat him with much affection. In truth, he had as little to do with Bert as possible.

The younger son played with Bert when he was around and had nothing more pressing to do. The wife saw that Bert was fed. She walked Bert occasionally, and it was she who took Bert to routine vet visits—on one of his first vet visits, Bert earned a red folder; thereafter, she had to drug him and muzzle him before she brought him in.

But mostly, Bert lived uneventfully in the back yard. Bert was not, he supposed, an unhappy dog, as dogs go. Bert was delighted with what attention he got, which was sometimes considerable when the younger son was in high school and had many friends over to hang out in his lair in the garage.

But then the younger son went off to college and was home only during the summer and on holidays. And Bert got less attention. He got some. And he was physically well cared for. And, all and all, you could truthfully say that a lot of dogs got worse out of life. But that is not to say that Bert got what, in retrospect, he was now inclined to think that any dog deserved. He was far from proud of the way he treated (or did not treat) Bert.

Life goes on, though; good, bad, or indifferent.

One day, they noticed that Bert seemed to have a cold: runny nose, rheumy eyes, lack of energy.

When, a few days later, Bert was no better, the wife took him to see the vet. Bert was not very cooperative; the vet was scarcely able to examine him at all (that red file folder didn’t encourage him to try too hard, either). The vet prescribed an antibiotic and sent Bert and the wife home.

They gave Bert the antibiotic until it was all gone, per the vet’s instructions.

Bert showed no improvement at all. They called the vet. The vet said to bring Bert in again; this time they would give him a general anesthetic so that they could take a good look at him and take samples for biopsy.

Later that afternoon, he received a phone call from the vet. Once they had taken a good look at Bert, the vet said, it was immediately apparent that he suffered from lymphatic cancer. The vet told him that the cancer might well respond to chemotherapy. He said he would not put a dog through chemotherapy. At the time, he felt that he was being kind, not callous—it wasn’t a matter of expense; it was a matter of not wanting to see the dog die slowly and miserably as so many human cancer patients did.

And quite possibly, he was right. But in retrospect, he could see that his decision was made much easier by the fact that he was not much attached to Bert. He felt a little guilty about that, later.

The alternative to chemotherapy was to put Bert down. Yes, he said, let’s do that. At the time of the vet’s phone call, Bert had not yet awakened from the general anesthesia they’d given him for the exam. Would it not be kinder, he said, to put Bert down without ever letting him wake up? Unfortunately, said the vet, we can’t put the dog down without your written authorization; by the time you can get here and fill out the forms, he’ll be awake. But not very awake. And the euthanasia is quite painless.

He drove into town and filled out the forms. He did not want to see Bert before it was done. He did not want Bert’s body after it was done. He arranged for Bert’s cremation.

And that was the end of Bert.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Very Soul of Tact

I need a break from telling you stories about his dogs. So I will tell you this about him, instead:

He had a—to him—puzzling reputation—to the extent that a person with so few acquaintances could be said to have a reputation at all—for being blunt. Refreshingly candid, if you liked him. Tactless or even insensitive, if you didn’t.

And he honestly didn’t know how that had happened.

People seemed to think that he blurted out whatever he happened to be thinking, without regard for what anyone else might think or feel about it. And that was so very far from the truth as to strike him as comical.

If other people thought that the things he said were the same things he thought, then perhaps the things he said were the same things they thought, but would not say. Then, were the things he thought but would not say monstrous, beyond-the-pale things? Because, believe me, he had plenty of unexpressed thoughts.

He edited most of what he said carefully, taking into account both the feelings of others and the impression he wished to make on others. He was, in his own opinion, most of the time, the very soul of tact. He was, in fact, often so tactful as to fail to make himself understood—a situation that any Nihon-jin trying to deal with America-jin will understand completely.

He was afraid that, if he told you too explicitly and directly what he meant, you might think, not only that he was rude, but that he thought you were stupid—why else so belabor a point? So he would often merely call a subject to your attention, hoping that you would draw the obvious conclusions. And when you didn’t, he tended to think you were stupid. But wouldn’t dream of saying so, of course.

It’s true that he was constitutionally capable of being quite deliberately blunt, rude, or even unequivocally offensive. But that, he maintained, was entirely different from tactlessness or insensitivity. He would maintain, in fact, that to effectively offend someone you wanted to offend, it was necessary to be as sensitive as possible to the intended victim’s feelings. How else would you know just where to stick the knife?

But even then, he took pride in not sticking the knife where it would do the most damage, but only where it would do the desired degree of damage. Again, it required sensitivity—even tact, if you bear in mind that, at bottom, tact means touch.

His father had been tactless and insensitive. His father had been the kind of guy who would thank you for a Christmas or birthday present and, in the same breath, tell you that he actually had no use for it. And make you feel like an asshole—as if you’d given mittens to someone who’d just lost both hands to frostbite.

But he, himself, was not tactless or insensitive. He was sure of it.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, he would make the mistake of getting comfortable with someone. If he liked you a lot, if he thought you liked him some, he might think that meant that you got him, that there was no need to be guarded around you. That you did not require tact because the two of you were somehow in sympathy with each other.

And then he might say something that would turn out—to his genuine astonishment—to be... well, unfortunate. And he would beat himself up later for being so stupid. And then, very likely, he would come to resent you for thinking him capable of intending the insult that you perceived. It was disheartening.

Whether it was to his credit or otherwise, he had the Peter-Pan-like quality of never seeming to learn from that particular mistake—he did it over and over and over again.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Dogs III: Toby

The boys were briefly disconsolate about Bob.

He and his wife decided it would be best to get another dog. This time a puppy, so that they would not be inheriting the victim of someone else’s abuse. And this time a purebred dog, so that its temperament might be predicted.

But what breed would be best? They approached this question with seriousness, going to the library and checking out a book that described the characteristics of many different breeds. (This was in the days before the internet, when there were still some things that could only be found out from books.)

After a lot of reading and comparing and making of notes, they decided, for reasons that he could no longer remember, that a Bernese Mountain Dog was the breed that would suite them best.

With a naiveté that astonished him in retrospect, he opened the local newspaper to the Pets & Livestock section, expecting to find Bernese Mountain Dog puppies for sale. He didn't.

But there were Golden Retrievers, which were his second choice.

They phoned and made an appointment with the nice young couple with the Golden puppies for sale. The couple owned both the sire and the dam, and had a litter of seven puppies almost old enough for adoption: three females and four males.

So that he and his wife could get a better look at the puppies, the couple put the sire and dam outside. And because they knew they wanted a male, the couple put the three females out with their parents, leaving the four males inside for them to choose from.

One puppy pressed his nose against the sliding glass patio door and whined for his mother the whole time they were there. One hid behind the upright piano. One, the biggest and best looking of the litter, lay down sphinx-like in the middle of the rug and maintained a magnificent aloofness throughout their visit—he did not need his mother; he did not hide from strangers; neither was he interested in strangers.

The fourth puppy gamboled to them, and sniffed them, and untied their shoelaces, and seemed, as so few people did, to find them fascinating.

They paid $300 for that puppy (a 10,000% increase over Suzie) and took him home two weeks later.

And that is the beginning of Toby’s story.

He was still not prepared to have a dog living—and shedding—in the house. He built Toby a pen in the back yard and bought a nice dog house to go in it. And Toby slept there from his first night with them.

Looking back at it now, he was a little ashamed not to have made Toby more completely a member of the family or to let him sleep in the house.

Toby was allowed in the house frequently, though. And was always let out of his pen whenever any part of the family was outside. He seemed to be a happy dog. And seemed to thrive for the four years they had him. He never barked or whined, and was always enthusiastic in playing with his people.

Toby got a long walk every day, without fail, most of it off leash.

And that was Toby’s undoing.

From where they lived, it was a quarter of a mile or less to the vegetable fields that surrounded the town. In the early evening, or sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, when the fields were likely to be empty, he and his wife would put Toby on leash, walk him to the nearest farm road, and then let him run (Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of youthful exuberance!). Toby recalled well and always seemed to show a proper respect for motor vehicles. It seemed safe enough.

The fields were divided by a grid of dirt access roads. When any particular field was being irrigated, or had been irrigated earlier in the day, the roads around that field became impassably muddy. Usually that wasn’t a problem—they’d just turn right or left at the last intersection before the muddy stretch, and walk a different route.

One weekend afternoon, though, the irrigators succeeded in thwarting them completely—every route was wet.

The paved public road that ran along next to the fields had little traffic and very wide shoulders—effectively, it was flanked by another dirt farm road on each side. They decided that it would be safe enough to walk Toby along next to the paved road, given that he had never shown any inclination to chase cars and that he shied away from the noise of them.

About half a mile outside of town, as he and his wife were walking along talking, and paying imperfect attention to Toby, Toby discovered some road-kill at the very edge of the pavement and stopped to investigate. By the time they noticed that he was not keeping pace with them, they had left Toby behind by perhaps 50 yards.

Looking back towards town, he could see beyond Toby a car coming a quarter of a mile or so away. He called Toby. Toby, fully engrossed in smelling the road kill, ignored him. He called repeatedly, with growing alarm as the car came closer. Toby continued to ignore him.

He was worried, but not inordinately. Toby was very close to the road, but Toby was not in the road. And surely, the driver of the car, seeing an unleashed dog at the side of the road, would slow down and give the dog a very wide berth. It was a threatening situation, but not irretrievably so, he thought.

But the car did not slow down. Or give Toby a wide berth. (He found out later that something on the other side of the road had caught the driver’s eye, that the driver never saw Toby at all.) As the car got closer, Toby stayed right where he was, close to the road, but not on it.

Half a second more, and the car would have been safely past. But, at that last moment, Toby finally heard the car. Startled, Toby leapt directly into the car’s path. And, mercifully, was killed instantly.

The driver was very sorry, of course. He helped them move Toby’s body off the road and well onto the shoulder. And then the driver went on his way.

He and his wife walked home and told the boys what had happened. His wife stayed at home with the younger son, while he and the older son took the minivan to retrieve Toby’s body. They brought it home and buried it in the garden in front of the garage.

And that was Toby’s story.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Dogs II: Bob

When dogs sneaked back into his life, they did so gradually, and against some resistance.

He and his wife and their two small sons came home from somewhere one day and discovered a stray dog cowering in the front yard. He thought it looked like a shepherd/put bull mix, but would not have put any money on that hypothesis.

Whatever else the dog was, it was very frightened. And it was the sort of dog that is dangerous when frightened. It snarled as it cowered and would let no one near it. Nor would it be run off the property.

He discovered then something he had forgotten (if he had ever known it): He was good with dogs, when he tried. He could make his voice calming and his manner reassuring. The stray stopped snarling. And suffered itself to be approached, and touched. And gentled, seemingly.

The boys wanted to keep the dog, of course. He and his wife did not. They chained it for a time in the front yard, so that passersby could see it and, they hoped, claim it. They put up a notice on the bulletin board in the post office. They did not realize then that the dog had almost certainly been deliberately abandoned in their little town by someone who wanted to be rid of it—they would find out over the years that that was common practice.

No one claimed the dog. They moved it to the back yard and named it Bob.

Named and adopted or not, he would not let it in the house.

Bob gradually became comfortable with the family and with the boys’ close friends. Beyond that, he was generally OK with women and with children.

But not with men. Apart from our protagonist, Bob was afraid of, and hostile toward, all men. He snarled and snapped if any other man came near him. You really could not take Bob out, even on-leash, for fear he would try to attack some stranger. Bob, unhappily, was damaged goods.

And then one day, Bob knocked a child down. Did not bite him. Did not harm him. But scared him badly. They decided that day, he and his wife, that Bob would have to go.

They took Bob to the SPCA. The nice people there insisted on the cheery fiction that they were giving Bob up for adoption. They understood that they had brought Bob there to be put down. They felt bad about it. But they never doubted that it was the right thing to do.

Dogs I: Some Background

He could not remember any part of his childhood that did not involve living with dogs.

His grandparents kept and bred a string of Llewellyn setter bitches that emerged one from another over the years like slow-motion matrioshka. There was always at least one. More often, two.

And from his earliest recollection until his young adulthood, his grandparents also had a dog named Midge that was half coyote. Midge was devoted to Dad-Ernie, and, like him, hated cats. Every day, Dad-Ernie would send Midge out into the front yard to bring in the morning newspaper. One morning, it was raining, and Midge, for all his feral ancestry, did not like the rain. Dad-Ernie insisted that he go out to get the paper. Midge declined. Dad-Ernie spoke harshly to him. Midge acquiesced. And walked slowly out onto the rainy lawn, lifted a leg, and pissed on the newspaper. He then walked slowly back to the porch. He was not punished.

His own family, when he was young, had had two Llewellyn setter dogs, George and Linc, who were the offspring of his grandparents’ bitch, Hilda. And, though two setters might have been thought more than enough for a two-bedroom house on a town lot, his mother, at some point, had allowed him to buy a dog of his own, a tiny mongrel bitch that cost him $3.00 at a pet shop. He named her Suzy.

Suzy subsequently became pregnant by either George or Linc (his money was on Linc, the more enterprising of the two). How it had been accomplished, given the size differential, was anybody’s guess. But accomplished it had been. One Caesarian section later, Suzy was delivered of one stillborn pup and one live one. They kept the live one and called him Fang. And Fang was his dog when Suzy was gone.

Some time later, his little brother acquired somewhere a small mongrel named Farouk.

And so it was that there had always been dogs. (Oddly, he could not remember the fate of a single one of those dogs. Was that significant?)

Until he was grown and moved out. At which point, he discovered an unexpected delight in furniture that was not covered with dog hair, and rugs that did not exude an aromatic history of dog-related mishaps, and yards where you could walk carelessly. In short, he had discovered the joys of living without dogs.

And shared those joys with his young wife, with whom he might have been content to live indefinitely dogless.

They had a cat, or sometimes two. And once a goldfish. And after a time, the usual methods having been employed, they had two sons. But no dogs.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Winesburg, California

It was so small a town that it was not officially a town at all. Somewhere between 500 and 750 residents, depending on where you imagined the boundaries to be. The kind of town where everyone might be expected to know everyone else. And perhaps that was, in general, a valid expectation.

But he had lived there just over 20 years. With his wife. With his children, before they had grown and gone their ways. With a succession of hard-luck dogs and seemingly immortal cats. And he knew hardly anybody:

The next-door neighbors on the left were the Raiders: David, who maintained the park across the street; Linda, whose death from a cat scratch, of all things, the whole town knew about several days before our protagonist heard of it; and two sons, Chris and Jason, who were grown and mostly gone, but seemed to hang around quite a bit.

Beyond the Raiders were the Linds: Marcia and her husband whose name he couldn’t remember on a bet, and their two daughters, one of whose names he should remember because she’d gone to school with his older son, and their one son, whose name he couldn’t remember ever having remembered.

Next to the Lindss was a Mexican family whose names—even their surname—he did not know. He and the father of the family nodded and greeted each other affably if they ever met on the street.

And the last house on the block in that direction was occupied by people about whom he could have told you absolutely nothing. Except that they apparently owned a boat.

The next-door neighbors to the right were the Stewarts: two parents, two sons, one daughter, and one dog. He knew all their names, even the dog’s, but could never seem to remember all six names at the same time. Father: David. Mother: Heather. Older son: Coleman. Younger son: Emerson. Daughter: Evie. Dog (a mongrel bitch with an ugly disposition): Morgan. David was handsome and enterprising. Heather was gorgeous and carried a pregnancy as gracefully as any woman he’d ever seen. The kids were all blond and blue-eyed. And reasonably polite. And he disliked them all with a quietly growing intensity.

Next to the Stewarts were the Scandrets: Clyde, Gail, Cailin, Gracie, and Kearan. Or Kirin. Or something that sounded like a brand of Japanese beer. He referred to the kid as Bud when he referred to him at all. He found the Scandrets—by virtue of their distance, mostly—less irritating than the Stewarts. But only just.

Beyond the Scandrets lived the widow Ryan. Twenty years ago, she had not been the widow Ryan; she had been Mrs. Tom Ryan. But at some point, Tom died of something, and now she was just the widow Ryan, no other details available.

At the end of the block to the right lived an old couple whose names he might once have known but had long since forgotten. They were accomplished busybodies, and he disliked them more than the Stewarts and the Scandrets put together.

Who else in town did he know by name?

His arch nemesis, Jim Riley, lived on the corner of Railroad and Second, in a house that would have suited Bo Radley.

His son Ned’s friend Nick’s parents lived on Fourth St. He knew the family name, but could seldom remember it.

The Cranfords, Don and his wife, and maybe some of their kids still, lived in the big house at Llano and Third. Don did something having to do with fertilizer. Apparently something fairly lucrative.

The Fergusons lived on the corner of Hatton and Third. Sandy, the mother, helped raise guide dogs for the blind.

The clerk at the post office was named Cecilia. She didn’t actually live in town, but maybe you could count her, anyway.

That pretty much did it, as far as names went.

Who else did he know, even by sight?

There was the Catholic priest, who was always out walking his Dalmatian.

There was the guy across the park, who sometimes rollerbladed with his dog. His wife was a tall bleached blonde with just a little bit of a pot and very long legs that she was clearly proud of.

There was the couple on Hatton Ave. with all the religious and “happy family” bumper stickers on their minivan.

And the young mother on Railroad, whose toddlers played in the yard a lot.

And the lawyer on Third St., who seemed at once sad and friendly and a little addled, whose son was killed in a freak accident in the park one day.

And the friendly Mexican guy who lived across the street from the religious minivan and who owned a Siberian Husky that he couldn’t begin to control. He was drawing disability for a heart condition and spent a lot of time making firewood.

Not a lot of people to know, after 20 years in the same place. And what might have bothered him most, if he had given it any thought, was that it did not bother him at all.