We Went to the
Copyright 2010 by Karen Treanor
Mother was a city girl, transplanted to a country town in Massachusetts by the exigencies of war. She was a woman of enviable inventiveness who managed to survive the years of rationing and restricted travel with skill and humour. When her husband returned from the fray with a mustache and a cigar habit, she cured him of both and set about turning him into a country gentleman.
Part of the trappings of a country gentleman apparently included a dog. I don’t think Dad was consulted about this, but was probably told that a dog would be good company for me whilst I sulked my way through the trauma of the arrival of the post-war baby, a much-unwanted little sister.
Two pure-bred beagle puppies appeared and then vanished in quick succession, carried off by infant canine ailments. A few years elapsed while we made do happily with my grandmother’s dog. When Laddie died, Mother decided that what was needed was ‘hybrid vigour’, or, as scientists say, a mongrel. Not only are mongrels cheaper, they were reputed to be stronger, less prone to disease and genetic defects, Mother explained. Dad pretended to have an attack of industrial deafness brought on by his war work, but that didn’t derail his wife; three days later we came home from school and found a terrier having what appeared to be a fit in the front yard.
“I found him at the animal shelter. He
was lost or abandoned, and they were going to put him to sleep if
nobody took him today. He’s just a bit nervous, he’ll
settle down once he knows this is his new home,” Mother said.
She had two bandaids on her right hand and one on her ankle. We
stood watching the dog turn somersaults and do back flips at the end
of a taut length of clothesline.
“I asked for a pony. This is not a pony,” said my sister, backing away slowly.
“How do you think I feel? I prayed for a date to the Year 8 dance,” I muttered.
“His name is Rags, isn’t he cute?” Mother asked. “Would you like to take him for a walk?”
I weighed up my options. Algebra home work or walk the dog. No contest. I swapped my book bag for a leash and set off with Rags. We made it to the end of the driveway before I decided that there was probably a really good reason why Rags had been abandoned. Every other step the dog leaped in the air and grabbed whatever he could with his needle-like teeth. Didn’t matter if it was cloth or flesh, once he got his jaws locked around it, you’d need a hydraulic jack to get him detached. In a brief moment of inattention on the dog’s part, I was able to shorten the leash and stiffen my arm in a horizontal position and frog march the beast back to the house without further injury.
“Rags is probably overtired, he doesn’t seem to want to walk,” I said to Mother. “And I have an English paper I have to do.” I escaped upstairs before she could protest, and hid out in my room until suppertime.
Dad came home and was greeted by bared teeth and growls. He was not amused. Rags was barricaded into the laundry end of the kitchen with an old sheet of plywood and a couple of saw horses. Mother served supper and kept up a bright ripple of chatter about what an intelligent little creature Rags was; how he’d catch rats and see off the marauding squirrels, and be a good pal for us. My sister and I exchanged glances: he’ll have to catch us first, we thought.
Despite our best efforts over the weekend, Chris and I were each and severally mauled by Rags, who devoured or destroyed the legs and cuffs of most of our play clothes.
Monday I was allowed to wear the suede jacket to school because it was book report day and I wanted to look nice. Mother and I and one of the aunts had joint custody of this prized item and wore it for special occasions. I got home and before I knew what hit me, Rags the Wonder Dog had leaped up and snagged a jacket cuff in his teeth. Growling and worrying at it, he ripped right through the edge and fell to the ground. Undaunted, he went for the other one. How nice: now I had matching fringe.
My screams brought mother to the door; Rags was dragged off to his kitchen prison and I sat sobbing in the dining room, looking at the ruin of the jacket. When I got home from school the next day, Rags was gone. I didn’t ask and Mother didn’t tell.
A peaceful six months passed. One evening in
April, Dad came home with a dog. “This is Susie,”
he said, coming in the front door with a cocker spaniel on a leash.
“Hello, Susie,” I said cautiously. A stumpy little
tail wagged in a frenzy of emotion. The dog wiggled her way
over to me and licked my hand. I patted her. She wiggled
some more. A large puddle spread out on the dining room floor.
“Poor little thing; she’s nervous,” Mother said, fetching an old towel from the cellarway. I could tell by her lack of apparent surprise that Dad must have forewarned her about the dog.
“Susie’s owners are going to Saudi Arabia
and they needed to find her a new home, one with older, responsible
children,” Dad explained. My sister and I exchanged
glances again: there was that word, the one that sets off alarm bells
in any children’s mind: responsible. We knew as an
article of faith that when responsible came through the door,
fun fled out the window.
Over the next few months we discovered the extent of Susie’s nervousness. Loud weather made her nervous. The telephone made her nervous. The door knocker made her nervous. Strangers made her nervous. And the final unforgiveable sin, the theme song to the TV show “Wyatt Earp” made her nervous. I was nursing a secret pre-pubescent passion for Hugh O’Brian, and the thought of not being able to have my weekly fix of the program was unbearable.
Mother tried keeping Susie in the laundry area with lots of newspaper to catch any leakage, but eventually the situation became untenable. Susie developed cataracts, and as her vision dimmed her nervousness increased and the olfactory leit motif of dog urine became a constant in the house. I don’t know which parent reached the breaking point first, but one day we came home from school and were told gently that Susie was an old, old dog and…..
We were dogless until the following spring. Just after Easter we came home from school to find a monster in residence. “This is Bounty,” Mother said proudly, standing at the top of the walk with a large animal on a short leash. “Valerie Shaw is going off to college and she needed to find a good home for her dog.”
“Looks like you finally got the pony you wanted,” I sneered to my sister, who was hiding behind me.
Bounty may not have been the world’s biggest Saint Bernard, but she’d have come pretty close. She had impeccable manners, and never jumped to bite our cuffs—had she had a cuff fetish she would not have had to leap, but rather bend—and she didn’t bark inappropriately. She liked to walk sedately on a leash, and other than an occasional cheeky squirrel, didn’t chase wildlife. She was almost the perfect dog.
There were only two problems with Bounty. Like all her breed, she drooled. Constantly and copiously. Our old New England farmhouse had wide varnished pine floor boards—until Bounty came. Her saliva spooled and puddled and leaked and flowed, and wherever it stayed for more than a few minutes, there the varnish vanished. She spend most of her indoor time in the dining room, it having been agreed that the carpeted living room was off limits. Why a large dog house was not purchased for her I don’t know—perhaps the parents by this time weren’t willing to invest money in what might be another short-term pet.
Summer was around the corner, so Bounty could spend a
lot of time outside, but we all wondered what would happen the next
winter. The dining room floorboards flaked and turned grey
where the varnish had come off, and the whole place took on a
distinctly seedy air.
Bounty’s other character flaw was a passion for my father that bordered on the unnatural. She’s been neutered, but there was a part of her still searching for a soul mate. She would lie on the front steps, taking up almost all the space, and listen intently. When she heard my father’s car downshifting at the corner of Topsfield Road she’d sit up, and the minute the car was parked in the driveway she’d gallop down to welcome Dad home. Dad tried to take this in good heart, but having a large dog leap at you after a long hard day at the office and a hair-raising commute on Route 1 tends to fray tempers a bit.
Mom started bringing the dog indoors until Dad was able to change his clothes and unwind a bit. In good weather, Dad liked to sit on a folding lounge chair in the sun, have a glass of beer, and read the Christian Science Monitor before supper. The day that Bounty’s fate was sealed was the day that she sneaked out and launched herself at Dad as he sat relaxing. 160 pounds of airborne dog met 150 pounds of unsuspecting human. The newspaper tore and crumpled, the glass of beer flew skywards, then obeyed the laws of physics, and the folding lawn chair folded. Bounty sat enthusiastically washing up her Bestest Friend in All the World while we children learned some of the words that Dad was supposed to have left at the Army Demobilisation Centre.
Two days later Mother said that it seemed clear to her that Bounty was really a farm dog, and that a wonderful new home had been found for her in West Boxford and we children would be able to visit her as often as we liked. We drove past the farm once, saw Bounty sitting alertly in front of a small barn, and never felt the need to visit again.
Another dogless year went by. Mother went back to nursing work part-time, as I was now considered responsible enough to take care of myself and my sister for the half-hour between the end of the school day and Mother’s shift at the hospital. It was nearly October 31st, my sister’s birthday, a date I always felt singularly appropriate. (She has often pointed out that her real birthday would have been several weeks into November if Mother had just hung on a bit.) One day we came home from school and heard whimpering in the pantry.
“I’ll bet that’s the pony you keep asking for,” I said, cruelly.
Chris tiptoed into the kitchen. There was more whimpering, and a bit of skittering, and then Chris reappeared with a collie puppy in her arms. It was doing its best to lap off the last of her summer freckles. “I think this was a card, but he’s eaten most of it,” she said, holding out a soggy bit of paper.
I pried it open. “Some of the words are smudgy, but I think it says “A brand-new puppy just for you. Happy Birthday.”
“Maybe this one will last,” she said, hugging the squirming fur ball.
And he did.
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