The Eleven Dollar Dog

Karen Treanor

© Copyright 2002 by Karen Treanor


Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.
Some years ago my husband and I used to have Sunday dinner with his parents and after the meal, sit around over the coffee-pot and listen to stories of the old days. "That's a marvellous story, you should write it down" I often said, but, as is usually the case, no one did. Before another generation passes on with the stories unwritten, I decided to do it myself, and offer one of them herewith for your non-fiction contest. It is written from the perspective of the small boy my husband was then.

Eight years after my father had paced a maternity ward waiting room for what he believed to be the last time, I arrived. Dad, then 40, was not amused. he'd managed--barely--to raise three children through the Depression, and now he had four of them to feed through possibly years of war.

In those days teachers were paid the princely salary of $25.00 a week during the school year. In the summer, they were paid nothing. It wasn't until well into the 1950's that the school boards realized that teachers had to eat in the summer just like other people, and payments were balanced evenly over 52 weeks rather than 42.

By a stroke of luck, we had acquired a summer cottage. It wouldn't pass inspection by the Board of Health or the Planning Board these days, but in the forties it was considered adequate housing for warm weather. We were among the very few middle-class people who had a summer home.

Directly school ended in June, the entire family and my Father's dogs bundled into the 1938 Chevy and headed for the coast. The trip was a nightmare for the adults, but it was magic for the children.

The day we left home, with the heat of early summer already softening the tarmac, was the most important day in the year. Mother, known by all as "Flo", would sit wedged in the corner of the front seat, neatly gloved and stockinged despite the heat, her lips folded tightly together over unspoken prayers that this year there would be no flat tires, no sick children, no broken fan belt. In the back seat, Norinne, Patty, James and I would sit on the prickly grey plush upholstery, trying not to bounce with excitement. On the floor, in any space they could find, were the dogs.

Dad raised Boston Terriers, a good choice, for we could not have fitted any larger animals into the car. Lucky, Lad and Lady, with any of their offspring who had not yet been sold, would wiggle under the seats, whining and squirming, terrified by the noise of the engine and salivating copiously.

Travel by car affected Lucky in the most embarrassing manner: the minute the car began to move, Lucky's colon was seized by spasms, and for the entire trip our travels were punctuated by noxious clouds issuing from the hot darkness under the driver's seat. "Damn' dogs." My father would mutter, half under his breath. "Damned dogs!"

My Mother would sit like the lady she was, trying not to notice. Ladies never even thought the word "fart", let alone commented on the reality of the phenomenon. I alone of the travellers found Lucky's habits funny, and had been known to assist his efforts from time to time by applying a foot to his gut, to the utter disgust of my sister Norinne, who had still not adjusted to my arrival in the family, and showed no signs of ever doing so.

After an hour, or longer if we had a flat tire, we arrived at the narrow, bumpy road to Little Neck, where summer cottages clung raggedly to the hillside.

With whoops and barks of joy, the kids and dogs piled out of the car as it crunched to a stop in the weed-choked driveway. Here we were at last, at the palace of delights, free from the hated schoolrooms. Here we would live our real lives.

Swimming costumes were pulled from suitcases and yanked over fishbelly-white bodies, and without asking if we could help unpack, we'd tear down the rickety steps to the beach. From this day on, we took off our bathing suits only if forced by our Mother. Flo insisted on Saturday baths even if we had spent the whole week in sea water, which we usually had.

By time time we straggled up the bank to the cottage in the late afternoon, blue-lipped, salt-encrusted and with the beginnings of spectacular sunburns, Flo would have brought order from chaos and be busy fighting the old iron stove for our supper. It was a giant of its type: solid cast iron with nickel trim. At some time in the past it had been converted from wood to kerosene, and like many converts, it was not entirely at ease in its new state.

Dad would have cleaned the nesting mice from its innards, and the bird nests from the chimney, but after that he left it to Flo. Cooking was woman's work, and after a battle of wills Flo would reduce the iron monster to grudging service for the summer.

Eventually a hot meal would be produced and served. Afterwards we were sent to bed. The mattresses were lumpy, the beds unstable on their iron legs but freedom was worth a little discomfort. By the end of the first week each of us would have sorted out the lumps and sags, and found a sleeping position that accommodated the worst of them.

Sanitary facilities in the cottage were primitive but adequate. In a tacked-on closet at the back of the building an aged toilet crouched in solitary confinement, securely fastened to its mountings at a permanent ten degree tilt from the horizontal. Washing up was done at the soapstone sink in the kitchen. Weekly baths were a complicated procedure, involving a large tin wash tub and buckets of water heated on the stove. Water had to be carried in large galvanized buckets from the sink to the stove, the stove coaxed to heat the water, and then the buckets emptied into the wash tub, which had to be bailed out by hand afterwards.

The girls had separate baths, but I, merely a dirty little boy, got second go at my brother's wash water. I didn't mind, for James was a sort of hero, so far superior to a six-year- old that he hardly counted as a brother, but was more like a young uncle. It was an honor to share his bath water, and besides, he wasn't all that dirty.

As summer advanced we four went our separate ways. The girls chummed around together, their ten-month cold war temporarily suspended. It would be resumed in the fall when they had to go back to the city and share a bedroom, but it was nice to have a few months without the punctuation of their squabbles. It was ever a thorny problem that a family of six sharing three bedrooms would require some doubling-up. Here at Falley Downs everybody had a room to him or her self, consequently arguments were less frequent.

Falley Downs was so named because it looked as if it were about to collapse in on itself. Originally a two-bedroomed cottage, it had at one stage been a fish and chips shop, which explained why the whole front of the could be house lifted up on hinges in good weather. Over the years people had added on a room or a porch as need and fancy dictated, so that we now owned a five-room three- porch building. There was plenty of space for a family of six to spread out without stepping on each other's toes--or egos. Falley Downs was plentifully supplied with books swelling with mildew and inhabited by whole dynasties of silverfish. On the rare rainy days, we would sprawl in the living room, reading such classics as "Elizabeth and her German Garden", or the 1929 Motorman's Encyclopedia, or a 1910 edition of a book on etiquette. For the most part we lived on the beach.

With other parents in the area, my parents had chipped in to pay the cost of a Red Cross swimming instructor. Mornings were devoted to formal lessons, and all of us learned to swim exceedingly well. There was no choice: Dad had paid his share of the fees, and we would learn to swim--or else. No one ever dared to enquire what "or else" meant.

Besides the cottage, we also owned a boat, a 12 foot dory, clinker- built of oak and so heavy that it took the combined family to move it from its winter storage to the shore. Each year the boat had to be re-caulked, and occasionally scraped and painted. When it was water worthy, we'd all go for a ride, even Flo. She would sit bolt upright in the stern, holding the gun'ls and looking nervous. The wind tugged at her neat coronet of braids until it teased a few strands loose. This annoyed Flo, and I don't think she was aware of how young this little disorder made her look. It was my only glimpse of my mother as a young woman, a fleeting look into the past before raising four children on $25 a week had pressed her into the mould of a middle-aged matron.

The obligatory family ride over, Flo would sit on the beach for a while and watch the rest of us splashing around, then return to the cottage to begin work on another meal, boil a load of wash, or scrub a floor. I don't imagine she ever had much of a vacation. Looking back on it, her life in summer was twice as hard as in winter. At least a home she had a semi-automatic washer, a vacuum sweeper, and an automatic hot water system. With the cruel innocence of children we never gave a thought to her feelings, and accepted the fruit of her labor as ours by right.

Days at Ipswich began early. "Sleeping in" was unheard of. No one was ill in the summer: there was too much to do and see to waste time. Shortly after dawn, the rattle of stove lids and the aroma of coffee would rouse the household.

Flo would be in the kitchen, her hair still in a loose braid from the night. The heavy odor of kerosene would fill the house, underlining the scent of coffee and baking biscuits. After breakfast, the girls did the washing up. Beds were scrabbled together and called made, swimsuits pulled on (still wet and sandy from the previous day, if indeed they had been taken off at all), and we were off for the day.

Only sissies used the wooden steps down the sheer cliff to the beach: James and I leapt down the shifting sandy sides like mountain goats, yelling just for the satisfaction of the noise.

At the beach, James would often take me out in the boat to go fishing, and Dad would come along if he had nothing else to do. Usually he did have something else: keeping the cottage repaired was a never-ending job. Such an old building, left alone to the ocean gales for ten out of every twelve months, needed constant repair. Roof shingles had to be replaced, gutters tacked back on, flashing renewed, painting done, and a hundred other small and constant attentions paid to the old cottage if it was to keep out even part of the weather during our yearly tenure.

Each year whole colonies of mice had to be evicted from the premises. I don't know where they spent their summers, but they were always back the following spring.

My sisters would find friends from past years and go off in giggling groups with them, turning up at home only rarely for meals. Being sixteen and seventeen, they had things to do that a six-year-old could only guess at, and which didn't interest him at all.

Left to my own devices I would putter around the beach, swimming or beach-combing or building sand castles as the fancy took me. From time to time I would wander up to the house to see what my parents were doing. Sometimes, coming in quietly on sandy feet, I would catch them acting like grown-ups, sitting over a coffee pot and talking in what was almost another language. I understood little, but I understood more than they assumed a small boy could.

There were things called "taxes" which bothered my father one year. It was unclear if they were things he had and didn't want or things he wanted to buy and couldn't for some reason, but they took up a lot of the grown-up's interest. I had never seen a tax, and wondered what it looked like. Eventually it came to me that these taxes were things my Father had to buy, but didn't want, and that now, having bought them, he was "short of cash". I pondered this as I took the dogs for a run.

Running the dogs was the one job it was felt I was suited for by temperament and talent. As the little black and white bodies leaped to lick my face and bounded into the bushes with shrill yaps, I wondered how one became "Short of cash." My Father certainly wasn't short, so it couldn't refer to him personally. Cash I knew was money. But how did it fit with "short"? Maybe my Father wanted to buy some shorts, could that be it? Shorts of cash?

The mental picture was so incredible that I was sure I was wrong-- no one would make shorts of paper money, it wouldn't last one washing. And silver money would be lumpy to wear. Besides, how could you sew it together? It was apparently an insoluble problem, so I put it from my mind, and faced the more immediate problem of having lost my charges.

By the time I routed all the dogs out of rabbit holes and briar- patches and put them back in the kennel I had forgotten about the matter. .

The following week we all went blueberrying, and afterwards my Mother baked blueberry pies as if her life depended on it. A regular production line for blueberry pies was set up in the kitchen. I thought it was strange for a person to prefer to spend her time in a hot kitchen with a cranky stove, when she could have been at the beach. On the other hand, who could begrudge Flo her hobby when the end results tasted so good? We also did a lot of fishing, and for the first time ever I was promoted to tending two fishing rods. I had just turned seven that week, and took this new responsibility as recognition by my Father that I was getting pretty grown-up now.

We ate fried smelts and blueberry pies, and blueberry pies and fried smelts. I was delighted: this was the way for a kid to eat: fish and pie, and none of that bother about vegetables. No enforced glasses of milk, either--just heaps and heaps of fried fish and pie.

Flo took to sleeping late, and this gave me the chance to get my own breakfast. Like a sensible child, I of course chose to eat blueberry pie. As the week went on, the pies became less and less sweet. I had it in mind to comment on this lack to my Mother, but James told me to shut up and be happy I had a mother who could cook. He told me hair-raising tales of children whose mothers could not cook, and left me feeling like a twerp for thinking of mentioning the sugar. Such grown-up talk coming from my brother was shocking. I abandoned the idea of mentioning the sugar to Flo, and merely supplied the lack from the bowl on the table after that.

That Friday morning my Father dressed carefully. From my perch on the porch railing I could see Flo doing something with a fountain pen to the cuffs of his blue serge "teaching suit"'. I had no idea why Flo did this ritual--but every Monday during the school year as Flo stood in the front hall with her fountain pen and inked Dad's suit cuffs. It was just one more inexplicable grown-up thing.

Calling me, Dad told me to fetch Prince from the kennel. My heart sank: Prince was the last of Lady's litter, and I had hoped we were going to keep him. He was a model Boston Terrier, deep-chested, his coat blue-black, his stockings gleaming white. I took special care grooming him, hoping against hope that Dad would say "You've done such a good job I'm giving Prince to you." But he hadn't said that, and now I saw that Prince was to be sold, as many good pups had been before. In the kennel Prince snuffled happily as I fastened the leash to his collar. I snuffled back, but not happily.

In the car Dad looked grim. I wondered what I had done wrong now. I sat Prince down on the floor and told him to be a good dog. He wiggled his shiny rump and a puddle immediately spread out on the floor. "Hell, oh hell!" Dad muttered under his breath, slamming the gears into reverse and taking off down the drive without even saying goodby. I stood there, a sick feeling in my gut. What had I done? It must have been something awful, for my Father almost never swore.

In the kitchen Flo was washing up the pie plates, and she wasn't humming. I was hungry, but decided this wasn't the time to ask for anything. Instead I went off with the rest of the dogs to the blueberry patch. While they frolicked, I ate blueberries. Despite the sun, a small chill stayed with me for some time. That day we had pancakes for lunch, a real treat. Instead of butter ("fattening" said Flo) or maple syrup ("boring to always have the same syrup" said Norinne ) we had home-made blueberry syrup on the pancakes.

I'd like to have all three." I said, spearing a pancake. "Butter, maple syrup and blueberry sauce." James pinched me at that point, so I retaliated by stabbing him in the leg with my fork. By the time that altercation was sorted out, Flo had gone to her room with a headache, the girls had eaten the last two pancakes and gone to the beach, James had called me a little beast, and I was all alone with the dirty dishes.

I sniffled to myself, feeling how hard and unfair the world was. I considered running away from home. They'd all be sorry. Or would they? Heck, who cared anyway? Let them be mean, it didn't matter to me. Maybe I'd just pretend to run away, and see what happened. Taking the gravy boat of blueberry sauce with me (in case of starvation), I settled myself in the broom closet. It was partitioned from the kitchen by a dusty, faded chintz curtain, and made an ideal listening post.

Eagerly I awaited the consternation to come when my family would discover that their meanness had driven me away. I could see the scene in my mind's eye, and the longer I pictured it, the more satisfying it became. Perhaps it was too cruel, to put them through this agony? Nah, let 'em suffer. Maybe then they'd appreciate me. The pictures slid imperceptibly into dreams.

It was gloomy in the broom closet when I woke up. Worse, it was sticky, for in my sleep I had tipped the blueberry sauce all over my legs. Crumbs, I'd get it now. Maybe no-one would have to know--either I could really run away, or else I might be able to hide the traces of my crime. Hastily I scooped sauce off my legs and ate it--no point in wasting it, and besides, I was hungry again. My bathing suit was navy-blue, so the stains wouldn't show much.

I was about to come out of hiding, the new fear having driven out the thoughts of teaching my family a lesson, when I heard my Father's footsteps on the porch. Best to stay where I was for a minute.

"Flo, Flo, where are you?" he called.

I heard my Mother come out of her room. "Oh, Gene, you're back," she said, sounding tired.

"Back with the bacon, Flo!" he said, sounding jolly and happy, and altogether different than he had that morning. My tongue twitched in anticipation--bacon, huh? Bacon was a rare and popular food in our house. There was a thump as my Father put something heavy on the table.

"Gene, Gene, did you rob a bank?" My Mother also sounded happy, although why anyone would be happy to have a bank robber in the family was past understanding. It occurred to me she was making a joke, although it was incomprehensible to me. Anyway, it sounded as if Flo's headache had gone away.

"Johnson bought the dog. He paid fifteen dollars for Prince, and he said he'd take a bitch from Lady's next litter, and paid me five bucks in advance to give him pick of the bunch. What do you think of that?" The chair scraped the floor as my father sat down. "Here, Flo, make some coffee. I bought a smoked shoulder for dinner, there's a pound of butter, some beef, bread, I don't know what else, but there's enough.

My Mother kept saying "Oh, Gene", like she had forgotten how to say anything else. I peeked carefully from my hiding place, and to my utter horror saw my Mother sitting on my Father's lap, and they were smooching. Just like at the Rialto, when Johnny Mack Brown chased off the rustlers and rescued the dumb girl, my parents were smooching! I was offended beyond all telling.

After a minute I peeked out again. My mother was looking pink and happy, but at least she was behaving better, being at her accustomed place at the stove, rattling its lids and coaxing it to burn. My father was sitting back in his chair, rocking it back on its legs just like he yelled at us not to do. His jacket was thrown messily across another chair. He had his thumbs tucked in his suspenders.

"We'll be O.K. now, Flo, " he said. "Francis is coming next week, and he'll pay me back that ten dollars he borrowed over Easter. With that we'll be able to coast until the first paycheck in September. It was close going, though. I reckoned if I hadn't managed to get at least eleven dollars for that pup, we'd have to eat him."

He laughed, a deep, full laugh that seemed to come from his toes all the way up. Something in the air made me feel glad, although I hadn't understood what was so funny about eating Prince. Grown-ups were weird; there were no two ways about it.

Weird or not, I knew a good place to make my exit when I saw one. With the stealth of a Sioux on a raiding party, I crept out of the broom closet.

My Father's back was to me, Flo was busy at the stove, and I was a true adept when it came to silent vanishing acts. Three steps and I was across the kitchen floor to the doorway, another ten and I was across the living room. Out the side window and onto the path, and freedom was mine.

Racing up the little hill behind the house, I opened the kennels. "Dogs! Yo, dogs! Want to go for a swim?" I yelled. They tumbled out, yelping gladly as we all dashed for the beach.

Grown-ups might be incomprehensible, but a boy knew where he stood with dogs.

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