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.