Today, my dog, Wolfgang, turns 10. According to canine lore, that’s 70 in human years. So, he’s technically a senior citizen. No one would ever guess if they saw his reaction when I return home after even a brief absence. He can still jump rather high and behave like the puppy he once was – and in my mind, will always be.
Animal lovers such as me don’t consider out pets…well, pets. They’re kids – our kids. Our babies. Our children. We treat them like adopted offspring, calling them boys and girls; spoil them like any parent would; and think how unfair life is when they die. I’ve always loved animals, especially dogs. I’m somewhat allergic to cats, but they have a completely different psychological structure from their canine counterparts. Dogs are like no other animal on Earth. I think only horses come close in terms of intelligence and loyalty. Dogs are just plain good. Better than people. I’d rather spend my life with dogs – and deal with the pain of losing one after a decade or so – than spend my life with another person. Most people suck. Even children grow up eventually and can be problematic. They cost too much to educate and take forever to bathroom train. They wreck your cars and drain your bank account. They get married to people you don’t like and forget what you did for them as a parent. Dogs are beautiful. They don’t have attitudes. They forgive everyone. And, they never forget what you do for – or to – them.
Although I’d wanted a dog for years, I never planned for one. My budget and my single lifestyle didn’t leave room for anyone else. But, nine and a half years ago – when my then roommate, Tom*, and I went our separate ways – the miniature schnauzer he’d adopted the previous summer became mine. It was a mutual agreement. Tom couldn’t take care of the puppy; he’d have to give him up. I shuddered at the thought. He could end up in an abusive home, a shelter, an animal laboratory, or with a bunch of Mexicans who think accordions are just as good as pianos. Besides, I’d already fallen in love with him – the puppy. Tom was a pain; scatter-brained, unreliable and riddled with illness. The puppy messed on the floor and stuck his nose into every kitchen cabinet or dresser drawer we opened. But, he was cool. He’s a canine.
Tom had a miniature schnauzer before named Zachary, or Zach. I’d only known Zach for a short time. But, I have to go back further. I’d met Tom in the late 1990’s. We struck up a modest friendship; we had a lot in common: rock n’ roll, cars, books and intellectual conversations. Like me, he was biracial: Caucasian and Indian – mostly German and Cherokee in his case. Unlike me, he acted like he was a full-blooded White boy. In the fall of 2001, while languishing in my one-bedroom apartment, laid off unexpectedly from my job at a bank a few months earlier, I started to peruse my address book. The September 11 terrorist attacks had made me – like most everyone else in America – introspective about our lives and the people who populated them. I’d never had many friends, but I wanted to stay in contact with the handful I did have at the time. When I called Tom’s cell phone, a strange greeting played back. It was his voice; something about “experiencing some difficulties” and to reach him at his mother’s house if you knew that number. I didn’t know his mother’s phone number. I didn’t even know where she lived. I could only assume she was in Texarkana, Texas, where Tom was born and raised. But, he’d never talked much about his family. So, I let it go and continued working on my writings and looking for a job.
In May of 2002, I decided to try Tom one more time, before obliterating him from my address book. I was surprised when he answered his cell phone. He was staying in a motel in Carrollton, where I grew up and not far from my far North Dallas apartment. I drove out there the following evening and treated him to drinks at my favorite bar near downtown. He’d had a rough time lately, he explained. He’d been in a drunk driving accident in August 2001 (he had done the drinking and driving) and ended up losing his apartment and his job. So, he returned to his mother’s house back in Texarkana to recuperate. By the time we reconnected, he’d found a job as a courier and was looking for a place to live. He’d stayed with one relative and a few friends in the Dallas area, but as he said, “that shit gets old after a while.” He had hunkered down in the motel; a creepy looking place off I-35E that “wreaked of drugs.” I wouldn’t know. I’d never associated with druggies. But, I guess Tom had.
I was working temporary jobs in those days and struggling to stay afloat financially. But, the thought of Tom – a really nice guy from my distant standpoint – staying at that wretched motel bothered me. I called him again and said, if he couldn’t find a place to live soon, he could stay with me for a little while. He quickly took me up on my offer. It was a good thing. A couple of days after he checked out of that motel, the police raided the place. Drug dealers had taken up residence there.
Tom and I decided to pool our resources and get a two-bedroom unit in the complex where I’d already lived for too long. He asked if he could bring Zach down from his mother’s house. I said sure. Zach was 11 years old at the time, and I’d only seen him in a couple of pictures Tom emailed to me.
Tom had gotten Zach as a newborn puppy in Texarkana in March of 1991; a birthday present to himself. Shortly afterwards, Tom’s father died. It was a sudden event, made even more painful because they’d been estranged for a while. Both his parents were in their 40’s when he was born. Tom also had a younger brother. Their oldest sister “practically raised” them. But, no sooner had they buried his father than Tom was involved in a car accident; someone slammed into him, causing him serious injuries. Just like he’d do a decade later, he spent time rehabilitating at his mother’s home. That ordeal and the stress of dealing with his father’s death was more than Tom could bear at times. His only consolation was Zach. “I loved just sitting there with him on my lap, patting him,” he told me. Tom would hurt “all over,” but caressing his new puppy actually made the pain go away.
He traveled everywhere with Zach. He’d take road trips, Zach dutifully by his side. He wouldn’t stay in hotels that weren’t pet friendly. In that unusually mild summer of 2002, I came to know and love Zach. A friend criticized me for taking the dog out for walks.
“That’s his job,” my friend told me, referring to Tom.
“It’s not the dog’s fault his daddy disappears for days on end,” I retorted.
Indeed, Tom often would disappear for days. He was a free-spirit type; a bohemian wild child trapped in the body of a conservative Republican. I fell in love with Zach. But, I came to despise Tom. He was more irresponsible than I’d ever suspected. He didn’t seem to understand that rent really was due at the first of the month; not the third or fourth. He couldn’t comprehend that electricity and phone bills were serious matters. And, he didn’t seem to respect the fact that I didn’t appreciate him bringing a friend over to stay for a couple of days in August. The guy was supposedly married with a kid, but he and his wife were having problems. On that second day, Tom loaned the guy his new Ford Mustang – and the guy took off with it; literally vanished. Police in a city just south of Dallas found it a few days later; out of gas, damaged and mired in a ditch. That’s when Tom learned his young “friend” had a warrant out for his arrest; he’d stolen someone’s wallet a few months earlier.
Drug dealers and thieves. Tom must be incredibly gullible, I told myself, or just liked the dangerous side of life. Maybe he bore some kind of bizarre death wish. Or, maybe he was one of “those people;” the dregs of society I’d always wanted to avoid. I grew angrier. You never really know people – I mean, really know them – until you either live with them, or have sex with them.
Then – amidst the confusion and frustration over the car and Tom’s increasingly erratic behavior – Zach got sick; horribly and putridly sick. He threw up repeatedly in Tom’s closet one night while Tom was passed out drunk. Zach had looked fine the previous day. Now, his ribs were suddenly showing and his eyes were hollow.
“You’re going to be alright,” I told him one weekday afternoon, after giving him a bowl of cold, fresh water.
He peered back at me; the empty gaze from his mocha brown eyes making me tremble.
The next day Tom decided to return to Texarkana and take Zach to his old vet. It was a Thursday, and Tom spent the better part of the day in bed with Zach cuddled up beside him. They left the following morning. But, it was too late. Zach had kidney damage beyond repair. As Tom walked into the vet’s office, the dog had a seizure.
“My little boy!” Tom cried a couple of nights later, when I finally spoke with him. He was back at his mother’s house. “He’s gone.”
I broke out into tears, too. I’d only known Zach for all of 3 months, but he’d already carved a special place in my heart. My mind flashed back 17 years earlier, when my parents and I had to put our dog, Josh, to sleep. He was less than 2 months shy of his 12th birthday. I sat at the foot of my bed and wondered how that would look to a casual observer: two 30-something men crying over a dead dog. Not that I cared what someone would think. People who don’t like animals wouldn’t understand. People who don’t like animals need to be smacked and then neutered, so they can’t reproduce.
I had a temporary job at a small company just down the road from the apartment and came home for lunch every day. One Friday afternoon, a week after Tom had left with Zach, I returned to the apartment as usual and was surprised to see his bedroom door open. He was probably napping, tired from a long road trip and still in mourning over Zach’s abrupt demise. I stepped towards the room, simply to close the door and was even more surprised to see Tom lying on his bed; a tiny ball of gray-white fur crawling around on his bare chest. He’d bought another miniature schnauzer on his way back to Dallas and named him Docker. I have no idea where he got that name.
It didn’t take long for Docker to settle into his new home. He was already displaying a radically different personality from Zach, Tom told me. Whereas Zach was quiet and reserved, even as a puppy, Docker was an extrovert. I’d arrive home for lunch, and he’d charge at me full speed, almost plowing into my legs. One evening, when I returned from work, I spontaneously stripped to my underwear and dropped to the floor to roll around with him. It became a daily ritual. His sharp nails and teeth scratched up my arms and hands, but I didn’t care. He was just a puppy, and I found myself falling in love with him.
Wolfgang at about 3 months, when he was still “Docker.” That’s Tom in the foreground.
I found myself liking Tom even less and less. He had too much personal crap falling onto his shoulders – aside from bad luck with some “friends” – and I always seemed to get stuck in the middle of the muck. I knew the remainder of the year would be more unusual than most when August produced only a single 100 degree day. People reacted as if a snow storm had hit, pigs began flying and the Texas State Legislature had struck down sodomy laws.
Over Labor Day weekend, Tom traveled back to Texarkana with Docker to party with some old friends. He’d already forgotten to pay his share of the September rent before he left. One night he spontaneously drove towards Shreveport, Louisiana to gamble and got stopped for speeding; a typical traffic violation in the “Bayou State,” even if you weren’t actually guilty. But, Tom also had an open container of beer, so the cop threw him in jail and impounded his new truck. His mother had to bail him out. A couple of weeks later he quit his courier job and went to work as a delivery driver for a floral shop.
In October, he learned he was diabetic. He returned to the apartment early one Saturday morning, banged around the place for a little while and then left. I’m sure he knew Docker was with me in my room, but he didn’t bother to check on his own puppy. Tom didn’t return that day, and I grew worried, which I hated to do; considering the aggravation he’d already caused me. Around 8 A.M. the next day, Sunday, he called me from a local hospital. He’d driven down to a fast food restaurant and passed out in his truck; he’d gone into his first diabetic coma. I picked him up a couple of hours later, Docker in my truck with me. The city had towed his truck to an impound lot. Tom didn’t have the money to get it out, so I loaned it to him. In November, the floral shop fired him; he’d taken too many days off because of migraine headaches, which were growing in frequency and severity. He’d even called in sick on his first day of work. On the morning of my 39th birthday, Tom staggered out of his room, stark naked and hungry. He made some toast and dropped into my easy chair to eat it. As I headed out, I suddenly noticed a flame by the stove. At some point, Tom had turned on a burner and dropped a dish cloth nearby; it caught fire.
“Jesus Christ, Tom!” I told him to call me on my cell phone, if he needed to get anything else to eat. I didn’t want him trying to cook in that confused state of mind. I didn’t want Docker and my vast collection of books and National Geographic magazines to burn.
In December, he found out what was causing those headaches: a brain tumor behind his left ear. His doctor back in Texarkana had finally referred him to a neurologist who’d diagnosed the problem – and given him less than a year to live. The tumor was inoperable.
“Are you serious?” I asked him that morning he told me. He’d returned at 5 A.M., and I was already awake, getting ready for work.
“Of course, I’m serious,” he replied rather calmly.
Of course, why would he make up something like that?
A bright moment popped up shortly before Thanksgiving, when I found a full-time job with an engineering company. Although the office was based in suburban Plano, I worked on a contract the company had with a government agency downtown. It felt so odd returning to work in downtown Dallas. During my eleven years with the bank, I’d grown accustomed to riding a bus and going to happy hours on Fridays. In the brief time I had that temporary job, though, I got used to driving home for lunch and not fending off homeless people while waiting for the bus. But, the adjustment was a small price to pay for landing a good-paying job with great benefits in a sluggish economy.
In January of 2003, Tom couldn’t pay his share of the rent – again. I’d already paid for the entire month of December, but he was drained financially. His oldest sister – the one who’d raised him – said she could help him pay off his remaining bills, but he’d have to move back to Texarkana and try to get his life in order. He hadn’t told anyone in his family about the tumor. On a Friday afternoon, he packed up what he could and returned to his mother’s house. I came home from work, and Docker tumbled out of Tom’s room, charging, as always, so fast that his little ears pressed back against his head. Tom left his bed, dresser, weight bench and a $700 debt. But, I got the dog!
“You’re name is Wolfgang,” I informed him during a midnight rechristening ceremony. “Wolf – gang!” He cocked his head, staring at me with an impish gaze.
Whenever people hear that name – Wolfgang – they chuckle. “It fits,” I tell them. “Believe me.” It was difficult at first, getting used to a dog that was truly my own. Josh had belonged to my parents and me. Zach had belonged to Tom. But, Wolfgang was all mine. I really wasn’t prepared for him. I got mad at him one day in February when he messed on the carpet near the kitchen. “Goddamnit!” I screamed into his little face, before shoving him across the kitchen floor.
He remained in a seated position, pirouetting along the linoleum, before slamming into his water bowl. I angrily clean up the mess and threw the dirty towels in the washer. Wolfgang didn’t look at me. He was terrified. And, I was mortified with myself. I approached him quietly, and he lifted one paw; begging forgiveness. He’s just a puppy, I had to remind myself. He can’t control some things. I looked at the carpet – the ugly gray stupid carpet that wasn’t worth the aggravation. I took Wolfgang back outside – and all was forgiven. I vowed never to get so angry with him again. I didn’t want to become the type of person I loathed: an animal abuser. People who don’t like animals should be smacked. People who abuse animals should be skinned, quartered and then shot dead.
It had iced over that February of 2003, and the wimpy government agency shut down for 3 consecutive business days heading into a weekend. Afraid of a little ice and snow, are we? My tax dollars at work. When I worked for the bank, ice and snow wasn’t enough to close an entire operation.
I guess cabin fever had set in, but I was still getting acclimated to the job. It was a strange operation in a strange environment with some strange little people. There had been no real training period, so I had to extract information from my colleagues the way terrorists try to get it from Navy SEALs. Our project manager, David*, wasn’t too sociable; he was like “Dilbert,” but not as flamboyant. And – in something that I thought only happened in the worst daytime dramas – his wife, Carla*, also worked for the company. They had met a few years earlier in the San Antonio office where he was a supervisor and she was a temp. He was married at the time, but got divorced and apparently pursued Carla. She followed him to Dallas when the company won the government contract in 2000, and they wed the following year. Now, Carla was pregnant with the first of their 3 children and having the usual hormonal mood swings. A month before I unwittingly joined the circus, Carla had a verbal altercation with another woman, Sarah*. As Sarah revealed to me later, she had tolerated too much of Carla’s special privilege status because she was the boss’ pregnant wife and cursed her out after a snippy email exchange. Sarah then marched down to David’s office and announced, “I just had an argument with your pregnant wife and made her cry – and I feel so much better about it.”
“What kind of company is this that allows the boss’ pregnant wife to work in the same office?” my mother asked somewhat rhetorically.
“If I knew the answer to that,” I replied, “I wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place.” But, in a sadomasochistic kind of way, I’m glad I did. As a writer, I saw the glorious potential in converting such a mess into a great TV series! ‘That stuff really happened?’ ‘Oh yea!’ ‘No, it didn’t.’ ‘Yes, it did.’ ‘No, it didn’t.’ ‘Whatever.’
It gets better – or freakier, depending on how you want to look at it. One of David’s college buddies also worked for the company; he was the tech support guy. Mike* – whose fetish for ketchup made him stand out in a crowd – was even more subdued than David. Moreover, Mike lived near David and Carla and carpooled with them. One morning everyone arrived to find a central database in the grips of epileptic seizures. Mike was the only one in our group (other contracting firms shared the same floor space) who knew how to work that program. He was late because David had to take his wife to the doctor, but forgot to tell Mike. It was almost noon before that one system began functioning again – about an hour after Mike dragged his narcoleptic form into the office. Sarah and some other women seethed with estrogenic anger.
Just when you think things couldn’t get stranger… Sarah’s younger sister worked for one of those other contractors. So, did a young woman who had a unique bond with Sarah. The other gal was married to Sarah’s ex-husband. Sarah, her sister and that other woman all had worked for a subcontractor firm owned and operated by…Sarah’s former mother-in-law. I thought, this isn’t a bad daytime drama; it’s a long-lost episode of ‘Hee Haw.’
But, wait! There’s more. I shared an office with my immediate supervisor, Robert*, which was a first for me. It wasn’t just odd; it was downright inconvenient. I mean, how did they expect me to take a nap in the middle of the day, when my boss sat right next to me? He and David had interviewed me the previous August. Like me, Robert was Hispanic and a native Dallasite. Unlike me – very much unlike me – he was a tennis aficionado.
“I didn’t know Mexicans even played tennis,” I told him. “Soccer, pool, boxing, tequila shots – but not tennis.”
Carla and I reported to Robert. She could only stay downtown if she wasn’t supervised by her own husband. That rule was established after she got pregnant; before then, Carla was under David’s supervision.
My mother almost had a stroke when I told her that.
Thus, the company created a separate group within the overall group and made Robert the supervisor, so Carla could report to him and not give the impression of gross nepotism. Lord! Can’t have that!
On top of everything, Robert’s wife and I had graduated from the same high school 20 years earlier. I vaguely remembered her. Damn! Just when I thought I didn’t have any direct connection to these people! Robert’s wife had interviewed for the supervisory job Robert had now; thinking, as a licensed paralegal, it was a law office type position. When she found out otherwise, she didn’t accept their offer; so Robert interviewed for and got the job.
Stay with me now. If someone had told me a year earlier that I’d work for an engineering company where the project manager’s pregnant wife sat in an office next to the one I shared with my supervisor who played tennis and whose own wife with whom I attended high school had interviewed for the same position thinking it was a paralegal type thing; where the tech support guy was best buddies with the aforementioned project manager because they’d gone to college together and now lived in the same neighborhood; all on a contract with a government agency that shut down when a couple of snow flakes fell, I would have cracked a rib laughing. There was one rainbow in this clouded drama: both David and Robert were liberal Democrats, so they had some measure of humanity. Ultimately, I got along well with both – and everyone else. Carla went on maternity leave in April and decided not to return to work. The dark clouds started clearing away.
What does this mess have to do with Wolfgang? Well, it seemed everyone in that office owned at least one dog. But, in March, while Robert was out of town on business, Carla sent an email to our executive manager, Sam*, in Plano, accusing me of having an “attitude.” When Robert called me, he asked if everything was alright between me and Carla.
“As far as I know,” I answered, not liking where this was headed.
Robert informed me about the email, although he hadn’t seen it. Sam had called him and told him “to handle it.”
“Handle what?” I asked.
“Whatever was in the email – about you and Carla having problems.”
“I don’t have problems with Carla – none that I know.” But, this odd feeling came out of nowhere telling me there was a problem.
“Listen, I don’t have time for this,” Robert snapped at me. “I’m too busy out here.”
“Don’t have time for what?” I felt like hanging up on him, grabbing my stuff and cursing out Carla, before heading out the door and back to the temp agency. “I’ve been talking to you for 10 minutes and I still don’t know what you’re trying to tell me.”
“Whatever that email said.”
“What exactly was in that email?” Did he not understand what I was asking?
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. Carla sent it to Sam, not me.”
What we had here was a failure to communicate. As I suspected, though, Robert thought this might have something to do with Carla’s pregnancy. When he mentioned that the second time, I almost lost it. “Well, don’t blame me for that!” I virtually shouted back at him. “That’s David’s fault!”
Robert advised me to make the best of it.
Yes, of course. What else could I do? Only 4 months in and I already hated the joint. I feared I would lose my job over something I didn’t even know had occurred with this pregnant chick who thought she was above the ethics rules that applied to everyone else. Ironically, the company boasted a strict code of conduct and stressed ethical behavior, in light of all the lucrative government contracts it earned. I analyzed the operatic quandary into which I’d been thrown and tried to imagine what ethical behaviors applied. If I lost that job, though, I might have trouble caring for Wolfgang. He had become my primary concern. I’d depleted my meager savings throughout 2002 and had nothing – and no one – to support me. Or, Wolfgang. I looked at him closely each day when I got home from work and told him I’d keep my promise. He’d never end up in a shelter or a laboratory. As he gnawed gently on my hands, I think he sensed that. He had to – he was the only one around me who was sane.
Like all dogs, Wolfgang developed his own unique personality. He has a fetish for towels and doesn’t like anyone messing with his paws. The broom and the ironing board send him into cacophonous fits, but he virtually ignores the vacuum cleaner. The very tip of his right ear almost always remains flaccid; unless he leans his head back a little. I didn’t have them clipped to give him that standard schnauzer look because that’s a stupid thing to do to a dog. His long black eyelashes surround large chocolate brown eyes, collectively giving him a cute Hallmark pretense – until you try to pick him up, or grab those paws. He’s not one of those cuddly little lap dogs. His bark matches the ones Josh used to deliver in decibel strength. His ferociousness has gotten him banned from two Petco stores; the groomers obviously pushed to the point of tears. When I grab the wire brush to comb his fur, he scuttles about in an alligator death roll. With short hair, he looks like an Italian greyhound, or a mutant Chihuahua. I have to wonder if the breeder deceived Tom and actually sold him a rare dwarf Rottweiler. He’s 20 pounds of raw canine angst – and I love every ounce of it!
I spoke with Tom a few times over the next couple of months, even sending him a birthday card in March. I kept him updated on Wolfgang’s progress. He liked that name. He hadn’t told his mother yet about the tumor. He wanted to wait until after her 80th birthday in April, when his siblings planned a huge birthday luncheon for her. I mailed her a birthday card, and she called to thank me. I waited for her to call again as the year progressed. I had told Tom to tell his mother I’d be at his funeral; to give me a call when the inevitable happened. But, I never heard from her again.
That year, 2003, turned out to be a hectic one for me. That summer I began traveling to San Angelo, about 230 miles west of Dallas, for a special work project. My parents had wanted me to hand Wolfgang over to the veterinarian’s office – the same one where we’d taken Josh – for safekeeping while I traveled.
“Are you kidding me?” I told my mother. “I can’t do that!”
“We’ll pay for it,” she said, fearing I’d lose my new job if the company found out I had to travel with my dog.
“They already know,” I said. “They don’t care.”
In July I finally moved out of that complex and into a better place up the road. I’d lived so long in the previous one I could have owned stock. Not that I wanted to – it had turned into a dump; rife with people who tossed trash everywhere and got into fights all the time. I feared for Wolfgang’s safety.
I marked 10 years with my Chevy S-10 in March and wondered how much longer it would last. The air compressor had gone out the previous year – if you’ve ever driven around in a vehicle with no air conditioning during a Texas summer, you’ll know what life is like on death row – and the front end started wobbling. By the start of summer, I’d made a crucial decision: I wanted to return to school and earn my college degree. I was 39 and finally realized my parents had been telling the truth for over a decade; it wasn’t too late to finish what I’d started.
In September, my father had his left knee replaced. That turned into a bigger nightmare for my mother and I than we’d expected. There’s nothing like dealing with a stubborn 70-year-old man who let his knee deteriorate over several years and then expects to heal overnight. That same month the father of one of my best friends died of cancer. They buried him on the same day my father was released from the hospital. In November, I turned 40 and, in December, I came down with the flu for the first time in all my years. My mother was right; life really does begin at 40. Life being your body trying to divorce itself from your sorry ass and hoping to break out on its own.
As I struggled through all the rancor, I’d come home from work, strip to my underwear and drop to the floor. Wolfgang would pounce, like…well, like a wolf going in for the kill. These became my Friday happy hours. I have a little boy to take care of now, I reminded myself. It was no big sacrifice. The dog was better than any string of potential dates or rounds of Bacardi and Cokes. It was nice to know there was another living being in the apartment besides my two plants. I rolled around on the floor with him almost every day after work. I picked him up and placed him on the bed with me when I woke up on Saturdays, laundry days. Caressing him and massaging his neck and back isn’t just comforting for him; it’s soothing for me, too. His throat muscles undulate, generating a cooing sound.
Although 2004 started out well, it took an odd turn in April when I severely sprained my left ankle. I took Wolfgang out on a Sunday night, before getting ready for bed. He crawled up to a tree on a slight incline, and when I stepped back – POP! My ankle rotated as far as it could without breaking. I dropped the leash and landed on my back in the middle of a walkway. Wolfgang scampered around me, whimpering and sniffing at my left ankle. I managed to haul myself up, walked him around a little more and then hobble back into my ground-level apartment. I awoke in excruciating pain early the next morning, and Wolfgang kept trying to get up on the bed. An emergency room doctor placed me on crutches and told me to keep it elevated and iced; adding that it would have been best if it was broken. That was reassuring. I made it into work that following week, but felt vulnerable navigating the hectic streets of downtown Dallas on crutches. I took a brief leave of absence from work and stayed with my parents, so I wouldn’t have to put Wolfgang on a leash. In the short time we hunkered down at their house, my folks came to love Wolfgang. His every movement and dollish appearance charmed them like nothing else.
Tragedy struck my father’s family twice that year. In May, his older sister, Teresa, died after a two-year battle with cancer. In October, his older brother, Jesus (or Jesse), died after spending nearly a year in hospital care. My father was angry at his two respective in-laws; feeling they’d always mistreated his siblings. I had lunch with my parents every Sunday and brought Wolfgang with me. On each Sunday immediately following the funerals, my father plopped into his easy chair after lunch and sat quietly and mournfully; groaning that his siblings still had some good years left in them – if only their spouses had cared for them the way my parents care for one another. Each time Wolfgang sauntered to a spot beside the chair and sat down, gazing at my dad. “What’s going on?” my father would ask with a smile, when he finally noticed him.
In January of 2007, I finally returned to college; an online program designed exclusively for working adults, retirees, disabled individuals and others for whom a brick and mortar institution would be impractical, if not impossible. My primary goal was to finish my higher education by earning a B.A. in English and become technical writer, like I’d always dreamed. But, I also wanted to make a good life for Wolfgang and me. Even though I’d most likely outlive him, I still wanted to ensure his years would be stable and happy. At the same time I started school, I enrolled him in a pet insurance program. I contemplated getting him a social security number and trying to pass him off as a human baby, so I could get a tax credit, but realized someone would figure it out after a while.
I never realized how much Wolfgang cared for me – how protective he could be – until I had foot surgery in October 2007. I had decided to give up my nice two-bedroom apartment – against what I thought was my better judgment at the time – and move in with my parents. I didn’t plan to stay for long; maybe 6 months I told a friend who helped me move. But, just when you think you have your future planned out perfectly, something happens either to screw it all up, or make you realize how fortunate you are. The bunion on my left big toe was grotesque, when I first saw the x-rays. It “wasn’t just one of the worst” the podiatrist had ever seen in his 20 plus years of practice; it was definitely “The Worst” he’d ever seen. He was going to use it as a reference case. If I never get a book published, at least I’ll leave some kind of legacy in this world – the patient known only as “Triangle Toe.”
I placed Wolfgang in another room that drizzly cool Wednesday morning, behind a dog gate. He still had the tendency to charge at me full-speed. Hobbling in on crutches, I knew I’d be too vulnerable. I acknowledged him when we finally made it back home, as I maneuvered my anesthesia-encrusted body into my bedroom. Wolfgang was shaking, my father told me later. Once I got situated in bed, I told my parents to remove the dog gate. I wanted my boy in the room with me. He barreled towards the bed and slammed his front paws into the side of it with such force I could actually feel a tsunamic-type vibration ripple through the mattress. He then dropped back onto the floor, turned to my father and unleashed a furious series of barks and growls at him. They weren’t the usual defensive outbursts; these were horrendously vicious. Through the glow of the night lamp I could see every one of Wolfgang’s teeth. His voice bounced around the room like a lead volleyball in a garage. He was angrier than I’d ever seen – or heard – him before. It was actually terrifying.
My dad reached towards him. “It’s okay, Wolfgang,” he murmured.
“Dad, don’t touch him!” I managed to blurt out.
Wolfgang lunged at him, almost snagging a fingertip. He then rushed towards my mother, almost making her drop his bowl of water.
“Just leave us alone,” I ordered my parents. “He’s angry, and I’m tired.” Once they departed, Wolfgang tried to get up on the bed again. He was still trembling with anger.
It took a couple of days for him to settle down. It took both of us much longer to get used to living with my parents. Damn! Here I was 43 years old, staying with mom and dad, in my old bedroom, the bulk of my belongings in storage. I couldn’t run around in my underwear or even shirtless (mainly out of respect for my mother) and I couldn’t serenade myself into Sunday mornings with my music and my wine. I missed my lava lamp – which had shattered during the move.
It took 5 weeks for my foot to heal enough where I could walk on it; until then, I was practically disabled. I returned to work the Monday after Thanksgiving. I hated to leave Wolfgang in an otherwise quiet house. At the apartment, I’d set up a CD to play continuously throughout the day for him; Native American, Celtic, or space age music. But, my stereo was in storage. I couldn’t return home and strip to my underwear to play with him.
At the start of 2008, my father’s health abruptly collapsed. What we thought was a case of severe indigestion turned out to be a hiatal hernia from the depths of Hell. Part of his abdomen jutted into his chest cavity, and his esophagus was detached. Where the food would go once it entered his body was a mystery; but that explained his years of heartburn and indigestion. He spent two weeks in the hospital, the first half in ICU. My mother spent three consecutive days and nights in the hospital with him, before she almost crumpled into a nervous mess. I took a couple of days off from work. This was worse than the knee replacement fiasco. It took longer for him to recover.
In September, as we worried that ongoing plumbing problems were the result of a broken pipe beneath the kitchen, my father developed shingles on his face; one of the worst places on the body to have them. He has a prosthetic left eye, and the shingles threatened his good eye. They damaged the nerves in his right eyelid; he could have gone blind. As he sat in his easy chair, watching the Dallas Mavericks or the Dallas Cowboys, Wolfgang would approach quietly and sit. Once he saw him, my father positioned Wolfgang between his feet and caressed his little head. The vicious canine that had almost bitten off his hand a year ago now looked like a precious stuffed toy. After only a few moments of rolling his fingers through Wolfgang’s fur, my father’s anger and frustration over so many sudden health problems evaporated. “This is my therapy,” he’d say.
Wolfgang’s presence became good for all of us. There’s nothing more upsetting than watching my parents struggle with the usual aches and pains of aging. But, seeing them interact with their “grandchild” is more soothing than any amount of wine. My mother’s chronic headaches began to vanish almost instantly, when Wolfgang gave her a semblance of a kiss; his wet black nose pointed up towards her puckered lips. The cooing sound that floats out from behind those needle-like teeth gently plants itself into our frazzled minds – and the bad stuff just goes away. When I got laid off from the engineering company in October 2010, I knew I had a place to live and two means of consolation: my writings and Wolfgang.
Like any pet owner, I could regale – or bore – you with stories of Wolfgang various activities. Those little things that make us stop and realize there’s an actual complex intellectual persona behind that furry face. The unique incidents that cause us to ask, how did he know to do that? How did he figure that out? You animal lovers know what I’m talking about. Pets, especially dogs, just seem to understand their human handlers. Through their eyes and their actions, they’re always tuned into us – right there just when you need someone filled with love.
About a year ago I was looking through some old pictures of Wolfgang, when I suddenly thought of Tom. He hadn’t hopped into my mind for a while. When did he die? Where was he buried? How did his mother deal with a child passing away before her? Or, did she? I kept her phone number and address in that same address book where Tom’s cell phone number used to reside. I almost called her one afternoon from a pay phone in the building where I worked. ‘Is Tom there?’ But, I didn’t. I just had too many other things to do.
But on a hunch, I decided to look him up on Facebook. I typed in his name – and there he was. Still alive, looking as good as he did 9 years ago, and living near Texarkana. I thought of leaving a note on his digital wall; something like, ‘Well, the dead has arisen!’ Or, ‘You bastard! You lied to me!’ Maybe, ‘Damn, bitch! I thought your ass had keeled over years ago.’ But, no. I didn’t care if he’d miraculously healed and I didn’t care if his mother was still alive, too. He’s not worth the trouble; people never are. He left me $700 in debt. But, I got the dog! Before I exited his profile, I happened to look down the screen a little ways – and saw a picture of a little gray ball of fur; a miniature schnauzer puppy.
Wolfgang enjoying a special meal for his 10th birthday earlier today.
For his 10th birthday, I gave Wolfgang two things only a dog could love and appreciate: a can of “Mighty Dog” and a brand new rawhide bone. He has no concept, though, of today’s significance. Dogs never do – maybe.
When I let him outside this morning, he hopped over the threshold and stumbled a little; his left hind leg almost buckled. Well, I told myself, he’s getting old. I have him on arthritis medicine. And, as I watched him amble onto the grass, my mind flashed back to the spring of 1985 and how Josh’s hind legs had begun to collapse. He’d developed hip dysplasia, which was incurable. We had to put him down not long after that; he was almost 12. Then, I thought of Zach and the vacant stare that came from his eyes when I tried to reassure him that he’d be fine. He was 11 and a half. Wolfgang is 10. Oh God! Let me keep him for a while longer.
It’s amazing how our society tries to save totally worthless human beings like murderers and child molesters – death penalty opponents really piss me off with their self-righteous indignation – but we let animals suffer. ‘We’ as in society as a whole – because if it was left up to me, every drug dealer and child molester would be tossed into the ocean for the sharks and whales. It’s why I cried when I saw animals stranded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, but I didn’t feel too sorry for the adults who were too stupid or too lazy to get out of town. It’s why I’d rather see a thousand sexually irresponsible people die of AIDS – prostitutes, crackheads and anyone (gay, straight, or whatever) who fuck like rabbits on Viagra – than see one animal suffer abuse or mistreatment. God save the animals and the children! Screw the adult humans!
I know – just as with Josh and Zach – that one day I’ll have to let Wolfgang go. It wouldn’t be fair to let him suffer. I’m a selfish bastard and I reserve the right to be greedy with my child. He’s worth the trouble. He doesn’t know how much he means to me. And, that’s okay. He’s just a dog – and that’s the best part of him.
*Names have been changed to protect myself.
Guarding the house – and his birthday bone; June 14, 2012.