A Dog Story

I’m not sure why I am in such a hurry to write all this stuff down. After all, these memories have sat inside my brain for decades. A few weeks or months more should not matter much. It might be because I’ve finally realized that every story is both completely true and completely false. Even when a storyteller is trying to do fiction, he can’t help but reveal truths about his own self and greater truths hidden in the lives of his characters. And it is obvious that historians cannot write factual accounts of events that are devoid of bias, distortion, mistakes, misrepresentations, omissions, and lies. Only the winners get to write the history books. So, by waiting a long time to tell a story, I’ve changed it. If I wait longer, I’ve changed it again.

You don’t need to be T.S. Eliot to know that every beginning is an end, and every end is a beginning. Our beginning with William was inauspicious. My computer science grad program gave an exam that, if you got a high grade on, would substitute for two courses. When I didn’t get the grade, it meant one more semester in school. I thought Chris would be upset, but instead she said, “Well then can we get a dog!” William’s best stroke of luck had its genesis in one of my failures.

We found William underneath a pile of other puppies, trying to sleep, at the SPCA while the others were clamoring for attention. At first, we weren’t sure that the black thing in the back of the pen was a dog. I got him out for probably the same reason that we pick fruit from the back of the bin. He waddled around cutely for a while then licked Chris’s hand. That’s all it took. That little dog kiss got him his golden ticket.

He cried a lot during the first night, but after that he settled into a routine of tearing up cardboard boxes, pooping in the front lawn, sleeping, learning to sit-stay-come-roll over, eating, going for walks, and more sleeping. I did my studying at home and when I went to classes, William went with me, so we spent all our time together. We were living in Syracuse then, with a fair amount of traffic, but he learned to walk off lead. If he got ahead of me, he would sit at the next curb and not cross the street until I got to him and told him he could go. When I was training him, I would give him a sharp “No” and a little two finger whack on his back side. He acted like I was killing him. When he did something that he knew was bad, like taking a dump on the sidewalk, he knew he was in trouble by my “You come here!” tone. He would run top speed up to me, turn around real fast, stick his butt up in the air, and shiver with fright at the horrible punishment he was going to get. Then I’d give him his little tap and he would prance off, happy to have survived the ordeal – although this time just barely.

That summer Chris and I went camping in the Adirondacks a lot. We would load a ton of gear into our canoe and paddle out to a camp site where we would eat steaks and eggs and swim in the days and sit under a gorgeous canopy of stars in the nights. William got to go too. We didn’t realize until much later that he couldn’t swim. If he had fallen out of the canoe, he wouldn’t have lasted long with his thirty-five-pound body and his six-inch legs. We were aware that he couldn’t jump, however. One of our campsites was on a high bank above the lake. There were a lot of huge boulders at the water’s edge, which contributed to the beauty of the spot. One morning, while we were hanging about the campfire, probably eating, I saw William had climbed up one of the bigger boulders. He had his body all tensed up and it was obvious that he was getting ready to jump to the next rock, at least eight or ten feet away. I yelled, “William, no!” in the same instant that he launched himself out in a majestic leap of at most three feet. At the top of his jump, he maintained perfect athletic form then plummeted fifteen feet down into the lake. By the time I got down to help him, he was already coming back up the bank, wet, muddy, dazed, and dragging a big stick. In a forest composed primarily of sticks, he had found a particularly good one. He spent the rest of the morning lying by the fire and chewing on his prize.

When we moved to Delaware, our apartment complex charged extra if you had a dog. When I complained about it to Chris, she pointed out, “Dogs are cheaper than kids.” I shut up and paid the dog deposit. For a time, Chris took a break from work to take Art classes. The first fall that we were in Delaware, she had a class on Saturdays, so William and I went raspberry picking one morning. We had spent a good hour or two not getting many berries, when we came across a streambed that was absolutely loaded with berries. I climbed down among the bushes and quickly filled my bucket, while William had a great time splashing up and down the stream. I noticed a bug on my hand and flicked it off. When I saw another, I gave it a closer look. It was a big tick. I quickly flicked that one off and pulled up my sleeves. There were ticks on my arms. I pulled up my shirt and was horrified to see dozens of ticks crowding on my chest and stomach. It was suddenly clear why just this one spot south of Newark had not been picked clean. The locals knew that it was a tick nest! I grabbed William and got out of the stream, in the process accidently dropping my bucket of berries. I stripped off my clothes and pulled off as many of the ticks as I could see. Then I went over William, who was just as infested as I was. Back at the apartment I spent the rest of the morning de-ticking myself and my dog. I did a pretty good job because by the time Chris got home, William was cleaned up, and she only found a few on the top and back of my head. That ended berry picking for me. Now I leave the wild berries for the birds and the locals. I get plenty from Produce Junction.

After a year, we bought our first house just north of the city line in Delaware. As far as William was concerned, it was paradise. It was completely fenced in, so he could stay outside unsupervised, dig holes, bark at people or dogs passing by the front, pester the cats next door, find sticks, and lots of other outdoor stuff. Even better, we got him his own pet dog. At least he acted like the Airedale that we rescued was just for him. Chris had made a friend at one of her art classes, who was not only a good artist, but also raised terriers for show. Her name is Anna. Anna knew of a family that needed homes for Airedales that they couldn’t keep anymore because of the death of the principal dog caretaker. So, we rescued Maureen, a beautiful Airedale with some points toward her championship. For the next few years, we tried to show Maureen ourselves. As usual, William got to come along. At one show, a guy spotted William from across a field and called out in an excited and pompous voice, “My God! Is that a Czechoslovakian Wheaton?” His guess wasn’t completely off the mark since William was half Poodle and half Wheaton Terrier. But Chris didn’t cut the guy any slack. She yelled back in the same tone, loud enough to let his friends hear, “No. It’s a mutt!” But it was a very happy mutt.

Dog showing didn’t work out for us. It turns out that the dog handlers at one show are commonly the judges at other shows. Unless a dog has a professional handler at the end of his leash, he or she can’t win. We were still very happy to have Maureen. Anna’s husband was a very good upper-level manager at the same company that I worked for. The four of us played cards together a few times and when he found out that I liked baseball, he asked if I would help out with the Little League team in my neighborhood. The coach of that team needed someone to help. In particular, he needed someone with a younger arm to throw batting practice. I agreed, and that’s how, a few weeks later, I found myself getting out of bed really early on Saturday mornings to coach Little League. As usual, William got to go too.

I had grown up in a big family, so I was used to being around kids a lot and I love baseball, so practices were actually kind of fun. By the end of each practice, I usually got the start of a caffeine-withdrawal headache, but that was quickly fixed by massive helpings of coffee at a nearby diner. Chris was the first person to get annoyed at the routine. She expected me home and sleeping in with her on Saturdays, not playing baseball with strangers’ kids. Then one Saturday morning on the way out of the neighborhood, I stopped at the red light near the field. Except for the car behind me, there were no cars anywhere in sight. Extending the “right on red after stop” law to “left on red after stop,” I stopped and then slowly and carefully cruised through the light. The lady in the car behind me went nuts. She followed me the two blocks to the field and yelled at me, “I hope you coach better than you drive!” That puzzled me, until I saw one of the kids on the team slink out of the back seat of her car and hurry off to join the practice. I was instantly mad and almost quit the team right then. I just did not need to take crap from a parent when I was helping out their kid. But William had gotten out of the car and followed the kid that was escaping his angry mother. The kid’s name was Tony, and Tony was clearly William’s favorite on the team. Tony was the smallest kid on the team and one of the weaker players. Sometimes it seemed that he paid more attention to my dog, than he did to baseball. And right now, William was nipping at the back of Tony’s leg, trying to get Tony to stop and pet him. So, I swallowed my anger and went back to the team.

A few weeks into the games, I noticed Tony’s mom giving the head coach a reaming out on the sidelines. At least that’s what it looked like. Her face was red, her arms were flailing about, and it looked like she was crying. I looked over at Tony who was sitting in the dugout petting William. Tony looked grey and tired out, like he was mentally a thousand miles away. At the start of the inning, I asked Ed, the coach, “Why do you put up with that? And why do you keep playing her kid who is currently zero for twenty with 18 strikeouts?” Ed put his hand on my shoulder and said in a quiet voice, “It is okay. Really. You should let it go.” So, I let it go.

Until a few games later when Tony got his first hit. I coached first base, so I congratulated him on his hit. “I think I’m going to beat my dad today,” he said excitedly.

“Huh?” was all the response I got out.

“Yeah,” he explained. “When we both have a game, we have a contest to see who gets the most hits. Today I might beat him!”

I’m sorry, but I got really, really ticked off. I had quit the company team that I had been playing on because it conflicted with the Little League games, my wife was mad at me because I was ignoring her a little to do it, and now I find out the kid has a dad who didn’t quit his team to help coach his own kid’s team. I said nothing out loud, but to myself I spent two innings saying, “This sucks.” Then Tony got up again and got another hit. It was a little roller to the right of the shortstop who must not have been paying attention. It was the first time Tony had hit a ball that reached the outfield. The third basemen had run over quickly to pick it up, so I gave Tony the stop sign. It didn’t matter if Tony made it to second because we were in the last inning and the runners ahead of him, now safely perched on second and third, were the tying and winning runs. Of course, Tony ran thru my stop sign. The runner on second saw Tony coming, so he took off for third. Coach Ed sent the kid on third, the only runner slower than Tony, home. The fielder threw to second easily ahead of the runner and as Tony flopped on top of the base (I think he was trying to slide), the umpire called him out. The slow runner from third and the fast runner from second crossed the plate a moment later, but too late. The game was over, and we had lost again. Tony was still flopped over second, when William came tearing out of the dugout. At first, it looked like he was heading for Tony, but then we could see he was heading for the ball on the ground a few feet away. The ball was on the ground! Tony was safe. William grabbed the ball and ran around the outfield with it, while Coach Ed talked with the umpire. The umpire overturned his call, and we won the game. No one on the other team argued; everyone had seen it. For the first time that season, Tony was a hero.

We kept William on a leash during games from that point on. Unfortunately, Tony seemed to be on a leash too and didn’t get any more hits. He might have hurt himself sliding in to second or maybe he scared himself. For the last two games of the season, he didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm and actually asked Coach Ed to take him out of the last game after only one at bat.

A few weeks after the last game, Ed called me to chat about the season. He thanked me for pitching at practice for the fifteenth time. It was only when I was coaching Little League in my forties and had a sore arm from May to October from throwing 300 pitches three times a week that I knew that he really meant it. He also mentioned that Tony had been admitted to the hospital. He had been diagnosed at the end of the school year with a cancer that had been spreading rapidly thru the spring and summer. I got another call from Ed a week later to invite me to a Phillies game as a real thank you for helping out. Ed had super-box seats for Chris and me, for his wife and him, and for Tony’s parents. Apparently, the lady at the traffic light had been a distraught mother freaked out by the news that her son had a deadly disease. At the game she seemed sad, but peaceful. Tony’s dad was also very nice. He wasn’t some uninvolved and selfish deadbeat, but an early-middle-aged pudgy guy, who had obviously needed a few nights with friends to help him cope with a disaster. I felt about four inches tall, small enough to hide under William’s fat belly. But June and Gary, Tony’s parents, were good company at the game and the Phillies won, so I relaxed and enjoyed myself.

Chris and June organized a special visit for Tony at the hospital. They dressed William up like a baby and snuck him into the hospital in a stroller. It wasn’t much of a caper since the nurses on Tony’s ward helped disguise William and the head nurse took pictures. It surprised Tony, though. When his mom rolled in a baby stroller, Tony’s face fell with disappointment. When William wiggled out of the stroller and jumped up in Tony’s bed, Tony gave a little shout and started to cry. He held William for a long time. Then they both got down on the floor and played with a ball that we had brought along. When Tony got tired, we took William and said our good-byes. Tony was lying in the bed with his eyes closed, still holding onto William’s ball.

I don’t know if Tony got to grow up and have his own dog. We moved away in the following spring and lost touch with his family. By then he was back in school and doing a lot better. By definition, luck is completely random. The nature of randomness ensures that everyone gets the same amount of luck – not necessarily the same results, but still the same luck. That seems more possible over a very long time, like multiple lifetimes. A large proportion of humanity believes in reincarnation in some form and I’m not going to bet against them. However, even a single human lifetime is a pretty long time. I don’t think Tony used up all his luck on a single two hit game in Little League. I bet that right now he’s a middle-aged coach, icing down his sore pitching arm. Chris and I got our best rolls of the dice in our new home. When we were ready to become parents, kids came along. I know it doesn’t always work out that way.

We took a lot of walks with the dogs in our new neighborhood, and it didn’t surprise me that some of our neighbors learned the dog’s names before they learned ours. “Are you the owners’ of William and Maureen?” got asked several times. The dogs loved their new home, again with a fenced in yard, excellent for digging holes. By the time Kathryn was born, though, they were both old. First, we lost Maureen, and then William started to slow down a lot. When finally I knew that his body had broken down, I took him to the vet alone. William always loved the vet and picked his head up as we pulled into the parking area. His back end no longer worked or I’m sure his tail would have been happily wagging. I set him on the table and talked to him for a while. The vet gave William the shot and I continued to look closely into his trusting face, so that he would continue to see me and not be afraid. And the light went slowly out from my good friend’s eyes.

A few weeks after William died, I was up in our attic and opened up a plastic can full of material that Chris’ mom had given to her to sew with. A wave of nostalgia came over me. It was caused by the subtle scent of Mom’s perfume on the material. I closed the can quickly, thinking that I should keep the smell captured inside. Those plastic cans of material are still up there. Probably Mike or Kathryn or Rachel will have to throw them out for us. At least, if one of them reads this story, they will know why we have plastic cans full of material in our attic.

We also have a memory of William in the house. It’s a large abstract painting called “William on Vacation.” Chris likes this painting so much that she chose it to be displayed in a ground floor window art show on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. When she brought it back home, she leaned it against our fence along the sidewalk. She unloaded a few more paintings next to “William on Vacation” and it looked kind of like a street art show. William was there, as usual, and walked along the row of paintings as if he was judging them. Then he walked back to “William on Vacation”, lifted his leg, and peed on it.

“I guess that’s what the art critic thinks of your painting,” I told Chris.

“He’s a dog,” she responded. “That means he likes it!”

I sure do miss that dog.

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