at which point toby says, now wait a minute. am i being reduced to backstory, a series of quick memories, and a few unfortunate peeing incidents?
well, no. but you've been gone five years now. the memories get less vivid. i have clear remembrances, but they're moments, not days. that makes them harder to write.
tell one complete story about me. have you forgotten what i meant to you? how devoted i was? how devoted you were? we spent a lot of time together. there must be something you remember.
well, i could tell the story about when you saw the ghost in the thurber house. or the time pam miller's son threw a tennis ball off a cliff and you leaped into lake superior and the water was so deep and the cliff so high you couldn't get out and i thought you might drown. or that summer night when mark voigt and i took you swimming in twin ponds and then to dairy queen.
you've told all of those a hundred times. tell a new one.
you're pretty demanding for a dead dog.
i was always demanding, remember? i did things my own way. i ate in the middle of the night. i ran away at the first snowfall. i refused to take kibble from your hand. when i was old, i would only eat if you poured irish stew broth over my food. i pretty much went my own way.
that's not how i remember it. i remember you howling every time i left the house. i remember you watching my face so intently you once ran into a picnic table. that was at ellen akins' house in cornucopia.
tell a story about me. tell one you've never told before.
Saturday, March 3, 2007
The blanket on the couch moved. W was sitting next to it. He pulled it back in place and barked at me: “where have you been? You’re late!”
This was mysterious, not to mention unfair, since i always got home about this time. But despite his sharp tone, he wasn’t mad; he was laughing. The blanket moved again.
“Here, you take him,” he said, and he pulled the blanket away. A small gold and white puppy looked up at me, all short soft fur and big eyes.
“A dog? Whose dog is this?” I asked. "where'd you get him?"
The puppy gave a little shake and looked up at me. He was adorable, but I knew nothing about dogs. the responsiblity of taking care of such a little creature was staggering to consider.
“Merry Christmas,” W said. “He’s yours. I've had a hell of a time keeping him under that blanket until you got home.” And he scooped up the puppy and handed him over. Never mind that it was January and too late -- or possibly far too early -- for Christmas. I gathered up the puppy and cradled him awkwardly. he gave a little squeak.
He was unbelievably soft, with that cloud-like puppy fur. I stroked his head. How do you pet one of these? I wondered. I vaguely remembered reading that they like to have their ears scratched. i scratched his ears. He looked at me. I looked at him.
I had absolutely no idea what to do next. is this how people get dogs? someone just hands you one? and then what?
the puppy squirmed, so i set him down gently on the living room floor. he toddled into the middle of the room and squatted.
“No!” W and I both yelled, but it was too late. And at our shout, the puppy darted out of the room, leaving a tiny puddle behind.
The first thing to do, of course, was to give the dog a name. And the second thing to do was to teach him to pee outside. Neither task was easy. Naming him took days. the name had to fit. He was small and fluffy and fearful and sweet; he was a lovely pale blonde, with white paws and a crooked white line down his nose that my husband later said looked like the Coca Cola logo. (But that was years later. At this point, I had no husband. Just W., who was on the verge of breaking up with me. Or I with him.) he had a very black nose. from behind, as he toddled around the apartment, he looked like a hamster.
Naming another creature seemed a huge responsibility--almost an arrogance. It would be so easy to get it wrong. i considered and rejected fifty names (including "hamster butt.")
W. taught martial arts, and he wanted to give the pup a Japanese name. He thumbed through his Japanese-english dictionary and came up with two or three possibilities, but I shrugged them all off. This was not a martial arts kind of dog. This dog was the embodiment of sweet. I picked him up and set him on the desk and took his picture. He could fit in the palm of my hand, though not for long. He was already starting to grow.
w's idea of training was to bonk him on the snout whenever he picked up something he shouldn't, and holler, "drop it!" this sounds cruel, but it actually worked. it wasn't long before he'd drop anything on command, even food, and the bonking was no longer necessary.
other training was more problematic. i worked on obedience. (please don't laugh.) (oh, go ahead. laugh.) i crouched on the kitchen floor and called to him. “Come!” I said firmly, but with a little shake in my voice. I had no confidence that he would respond. But he did, racing in from the living room and leaping at me. “Good boy, Toby,” I said, and that was it. The name just popped out of my mouth. I said it again. "toby." it stuck.
We developed a morning ritual. I would come downstairs in my blue bathrobe and free him from the bathroom, where I vowed he would sleep until he was housebroken. Then I sat down on the kitchen linoleum, and Toby scampered over and crawled into my lap. I stroked him, and then we played; he grabbed the hem of my bathrobe in his sharp puppy teeth, and pulled, and I pulled back, and we shuffled around the kitchen that way in a funny morning tug-of-war dance. it was years before i could get rid of that bathrobe; the ragged puppy-teeth holes along the hem filled me with tenderness.
Loving him was easy. He was so sweet and goofy that I didn’t want to go to work; i hated being away from him. I’d never had anything so tiny, so soft, so vulnerable dependent on me. from the beginning, he watched my face with trust and hope.
But training him? that was something else. “Keep him kenneled up until he's housebroken,” the vet told me. “You do have a kennel, don’t you?”
Well, no. a kennel, that's like a cage. cages are cruel. this is not a zoo animal. this is a member of the household! so i let him roam the apartment, and he'd pee where he liked. i chased after him endlessly with vinegar and a sponge. i read somewhere that they won't pee twice in the same spot if you clean it up with vinegar, so i figured at the very least he needed to pee on every square inch of the floorspace and then he'd be done; he'd have to pee outside because there'd be nowhere inside left.
Everything I read advised that the road to housebreaking was consistency: you had to consistently put him outside and not let him back in until he had done his business. But from the very first, Toby was stubborn. He did not like peeing outside; this was January in Minnesota, after all, and it was cold out there.
So I’d put him outside and wait for the magic, but often, there was no magic. Toby just huddled against the house, looking longingly at the door. He would stand there, not peeing, for 20 minutes until I finally opened the door. He ran in, happily, and with great delight, and relieved himself on the kitchen floor.
for months, the duplex reeked of vinegar.
You have to think what it was like to live there, in that house on east fourth street. Ten kids, two adults, four kids to a bedroom, no privacy at all, mounds of clean clothes in the dining room awaiting ironing, a constant stream of dirty dishes, screen door slamming every five seconds, tension all the time. adding a dog to that chaos was unthinkable.
The biggest obstacle was Guv: he was afraid of them. he always said that every dog he ever saw barked at him. i think his unease might have stemmed from when he was a little kid in missouri and his father was the egg man. john used to drive out to farms in the countryside to buy eggs to sell on the streets of st. joe. sometimes Guv went with him.
at every farm, dogs roared out to the car and john heaved pieces of raw meat as far in the other direction as he could throw them.
when the dogs took off after the meat, john and guv made a wild dash to the farmhouse for the eggs.
this story never really rang true with me. if they had enough money for meat, why didn't they just eat the meat and skip the egg-buying entirely? but even if it was just a faulty memory, it stayed with guv, and he feared dogs all his life.
after we moved to duluth, Gramma and John visited us every fall, driving up on a crisp September weekend in that red chevy with the fins.
the autumn i was 9 i watched out the window and when their car appeared i ran downstairs to greet them. guv roared at me to stay back. i peered around the front door and watched. Gramma opened the car door and a black and brown dog with pointy ears hopped out. he was big. we always called that kind of dog a "police dog"; we thought of them as fierce.
guv was furious. he wouldn't let her through the front door, not with that dog; she had to go around to the side door and put the dog in the basement. he wouldn't let her take the dog out for walks if any of us was around. "leo, boo is a very gentle dog," gramma said, but guv was not dissuaded. they always fought anyway during these visits; boo gave them something to really fight about.
guv spent a lot of that visit standing guard at the basement door, making sure that none of us opened it and released the monster. one morning i walked past on my way to the kitchen and he jerked me away, shouting, "don't go down there! there's a dog down there!" it was thrilling to be in the same house as such a dangerous creature, and i was wild with curiosity to see it. i was far too frightened to act on that desire, of course, but david, who was much more adventurous than me, sneaked out early one morning and went for a walk with gramma and boo.
he was nonchalant when they returned. "it's just a dog," he shrugged.
even that remark filled me with wonder. just a dog? dogs were not in our orbit.
we had guppies once, briefly. does that count? holly won them in a game at endion's halloween carnival. she walked home through the chilly october night cradling the heavy plastic bag of warm water and small swimming fish. the fish thrived in a round bowl on top of the TV in the dining room, until holly went to a slumber party and their care fell to me.
"just feed them a little bit of food at a time," holly said. "fish don't know when to stop eating, and if you give them too much they'll eat it all and die."
i didn't believe this for a second. how can you not know when to stop eating? you get full, you stop. but if holly was right, i wanted to see what happened when they died. i suspected they might explode; certainly i'd felt like exploding before, mainly after thanksgiving dinner or on the fourth of july, when trish allowed us all the ice cream we could hold.
so i dumped in the food--smelly flakes that came in a little round canister, like parmesan cheese. i shook it and shook it and the water grew cloudy. the guppies darted to the surface. they did not explode. they did not die, at least, not right away. i got bored watching them and wandered away, and later someone had to flush them all down the toilet.
that was pretty much the extent of our pets, except for nancy's ant farm, which, i am happy to say, didn't last very long either. david once found a wounded robin that he kept in a cage. did we ever have gerbils? nobody seemed interested in a cat. i used to go to Woolworth's and look at the turtles they sold in the back of the store, but i knew better than to ever bring one home. animals, as i said, were not in our orbit.
and that is how i lived, finding animals to be somewhat exotic and possibly dangerous but very removed from my life. Until i was grown up and living in a shabby duplex on 7th street and 7th avenue east in duluth, and toby scampered into my life.