Today is National Dog Day.
When Joe and I met, my Chicago family included a cat, a Chihuahua, and an 80 pound Doberman. Joe had a very small black and white television set. He ignored the cat, the Chihuahua ignored him, and my Doberman and Joe got along fine, so long as Joe moved towards me with permission and very slowly.
My animals have always been a non-negotiable part of my life. When I was pregnant with Cole, people wondered what in the world I would do if my Doberman did not accept my newborn baby. The answer was easy–there are plenty of families that want to adopt babies and I would find my son a good home. However, as luck would have it, my Doberman easily accepted the baby into the family pack.
I’m not about to delve into why anyone would continue a relationship with someone who would ask them to give up the dog, cat, or gerbil in their lives. I’m sure they have their excuses and you’ll excuses me when I tell you that is what they are– excuses. If you have a pet, all relationships should start out with this golden rule: Love me, Love my pet. It’s really just that simple.
For Better Or Worse: Rick Bragg – Dec 08/Jan 2009
When you marry a woman, you marry her dog.
A woman will leave you if you don’t love her dog.
You can dislike her lipstick, harangue her about her hometown, make fun of her droopy-ass sweatpants, and tell her, to her face, that her children are odd. You can track mud in on the hardwood floor, leave hair in the sink, and hold ignorant opinions on place settings, art, and the electoral college. You can blow the whole 401(k) on a ’71 Dodge Challenger, squander the rent on a side trip to Tunica, stare a little too long at the head majorette, tell her she might have put on a little weight, and maybe, maybe, talk ugly about her shoes.
But be mean to her dog, one time, and you will talk to lawyers.
If you cannot love her dog, you must pretend. You must rub her dog like you are shining a gold monkey. You must lie like a politician.
I know all this because I married a woman with a beautiful face, a fine mind, an excellent ten-year-old boy, and a sorry dog. And I had to pretend to love that dog so long, I forgot I was pretending and now no longer am even sure of my own mind.
Now, in our fifth year together, I do not know if I rub the dog’s ears because I like her, after all, or if I am just hoping to be seen doing it.
This takes some explainin’.
Her name is Shadow, because of her raven black coat, and she is the only Lab or Lab mix—we suspect her daddy might have been a traveling man—I have ever seen that is afraid of water. Because she hates water, any water, she is not bathed on a regular basis and has a smell about her, a smell my wife says is hardly noticeable but that I find to be reminiscent of rotting hogs. She is supposed to be a sporting dog, by blood, but does not like to walk on wet grass—or any grass, preferring a sidewalk—and will not go outside in the dark. She and her evil twin, that smell, live in the house with us like some teacup Chihuahua or a toy poodle, only bigger, about the size of a bull calf.
I have known good dogs, dogs with purpose. There is nobility in good dogs. I saw it in them when I was a boy, in the blueticks, redbones, and black and tans that were bred as carefully, as meticulously as racehorses in the foothills of Alabama where I was born. You could see it even as they pulled for days and days at the hateful logging chain that held them prisoner in a bare circle of dirt in my backyard. They slept in ramshackle plywood doghouses and ate from upside-down hubcaps off a ’63 Chevrolet, but they were as hard as marble, as slick as glass, all quivering muscle, glistening teeth, scarred faces, and torn-up ears. These were not pit dogs—not that abomination—but they were fighters, every one.
I used to chase their voices for hours and hours in the cold and dark, running up and down the sides of mountains as they trailed raccoons and possums through the foothills of the Appalachians. The creeks were ice water and the briars tore at my face and hands, but I hurried, hurried, afraid to let that sound, like a ringing bell, vanish in the dark. And then, finally, they would tree, and their voices would change, become more frantic, every dog different, distinct, as human voices are. Out of breath, my brothers and other kin would locate the tree, shine out big flashlights into the branches, and see the eyes of a big boar coon shine down at us. One of us, the bravest, would crawl up and knock him out, and then the fight would be on.
The idea was not to kill, but to hear the hunt, hear them tree, and see some sport on the ground, and I guess you could call it backward, but you would probably best do that somewhere outside the hearing of the ol’ boys who believe it was the best time of their lives.
There was one ol’ dog, Joe, who had been in so many fights that one ear was gone, and the other hung in strips. His whole body was crisscrossed with scars, but a child could wander up and pull on what was left of his ears, and he would just sit, and abide.
My momma had another good dog, the homely Gizzard, whom she named for Lewis Grizzard, but pronounced poorly, because the dentist in Pell City had done a less-than-perfect job fitting her false teeth. Gizzard went gray in his final years but had also suffered a terrible skin condition that caused all the hair to fall off his body from his neck back. So from the road, he looked more like a naked, gray-bearded little man asleep on the porch than anything else. But he loved my momma, was her constant companion, and was so intelligent and sensitive that you had to watch your mouth in his presence.
“He is ugly,” I misspoke once.
“Hush,” my momma said. “He knows what you’re saying and you’ll hurt his feelings.”
On cue, he got up and walked from the room.
Later, I was more careful.
“Well,” I said, “he’s still U-G-L-Y.”
“Hush,” she hissed. “He can spell.”
But while Gizzard was homely, he was at least not greatly odious, and was not afraid of water, or grass, or the dark, and was even quite popular with the ladies. Even as he lay near death, he would still struggle up from his bed whenever a female dog was in heat, and he would go courting. Sometimes he would disappear for days, then come limping home, exhausted, ribs sticking out, but with a grin on his face. It went on for years that way, until one time he couldn’t make it all the way home, and he just lay down in the middle of the road and died (at first, that made me sad, but then, on reflection, I decided I wouldn’t mind going out like that myself).
A good dog. There were others—rabbit dogs that helped put food on the table, cattle dogs that danced with mean bulls, others.
But the dog that came with the nuptials, near as I could tell, just slept, and stank.
My wife loved the dog because this was the dog in her mind’s eye whenever she thought of her three boys, two of whom were already on their way to college by the time I came along. The big black dog was in the Christmas cards, the Easter egg hunts, the vaguely unpleasant odor under the table at Thanksgiving dinner. When she thought of her middle son’s high school graduation or her baby boy’s first missing tooth, there was always the dog in there somewhere. Or at least that’s how I saw it, because there was no other explanation.
Once, casually, I mentioned that an inside dog might be easier if it were a smaller dog.
“Maybe you’d be easier in the house,” the wife said, “if you were smaller.”
I kept my opinions on inside dogs to myself after that. But even outside, this was an inferior dog.
She could not be left to play with other dogs, or even allowed chance meetings when she was on her leash, because she was prone to go wacko and snap at big dogs and try to eat smaller ones. She would bolt for other dogs and drag my wife and boy across the yard to get at anything else with four legs.
She was gassy, dangerously so. No point in beating that horse to death.
She suffered nervous breakdowns on a regular basis. She could not be boarded, because she would go insane. She could not be left alone in the house, because she would eat the door facings.
On walks—and I swear this is true—she would check to see how many poop bags her walker was carrying and then poop at least one more time than there were bags to contain it. She pooped, also, like a water buffalo, or a hippopotamus.
I guess you can’t blame a big dog for that. But she also seemed to be not the smartest dog. She knew that the opening of the refrigerator door meant food was being moved from one place to another but never realized that what came out of the ice maker was not food, too. So, every time you activated the in-door ice dispenser, she came running. She would not leave until you gave her ice, which she ate, believing it to be actual food. The wife and boy believed this to be charming.
Thinking that my wife could not be blind to what a cruel trick fate had played on her, as to dogs, I made one casual, benign remark about her “bad dog.”
She gave me one of those drill-bit looks and told me that if it ever came down to her or me…well, you know.
I do understand it. The dog loves my wife, unconditionally. She will stare into her face for hours, it seems, not just begging to be loved on, but enjoying her presence, her proximity. She sleeps by her bed.
The oddest thing of all is how she tries—actually tries—to talk to her. She does not just bark but howls and almost yodels, and if I had more imagination I would believe that the dog is trying to say something. She also believes she has fingers, and when my wife is through petting her, the dog paws at her, gently, petting her back.
So, I began to pretend. I asked for the leash when we walked her. I fed her ice. I rubbed her ears for hours.
And one day, the oddest thing happened. I finished rubbing her big head, and she petted me back. She patted me once, twice, three times. Then she walked away.
I walk her now and then when my wife is away. I am told I have to.
But one day, not too long ago, the big dog and I encountered a man with a little bitty dog on a leash, and I was envious, because how much trouble could that little dog be? Then I glanced down at that big, broad head, at my dog by marriage, and I had a less-than-original thought.
“My dog,” I thought, “craps bigger than your dog.”
Thank you MaryLee for sharing this story with me!