Tag Archives: pets

Echoes on Carpet

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“Goodnight, little boy.  I love –”  I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room.  He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears.  Wolfgang was gone.

I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years.  I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes.  I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.

I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows.  Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat.  I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.

I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.

I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels.  It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it.  The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.

In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had.  The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining.  I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.

For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents.  But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me.  Some of the hotel staff came to like him.  The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room.  There mere sound of his voice frightened her.  But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.

That little thing can make that much noise?!

Yes, he can!

One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth.  Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency.  Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark.  Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.

A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet.  He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell.  I laughed.

I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone.  It’s the same with my father.  Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind.  It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.

Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them.  It’s such a weird feeling.  How could this happen?  Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together?  Talk about timing!

Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house.  It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years.  In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him.  I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever.  It was gone before day’s end.

At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines.  “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father.  Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic.  I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.

But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious.  There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca.  A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories.  Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper.  It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy.  I was about 5 when I wrote that.  And he kept it!  As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible.  But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.

And yes, it also made me sad.  But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine.  It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.

Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there.  It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless.  After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.

At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father.  I try not to get emotional in public.  Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together.  But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised.  It must have been the margarita swirls.  I was already on my second one.

Pete knows how I feel.  He lost his own father 12 years ago.  Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos.  “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone.  I didn’t understand.  All of Pete’s grandparents were dead.  What was he trying to – aw shit!  I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.

I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV.  His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth.  I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him.  His mother had lived to age 97.  Why couldn’t he?  What is the proper time of year to die?  It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days.  Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy.  As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S.  Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?

A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time.  I’d feel the pressure change in the house.  But it wasn’t a frightening sensation.  I knew my father was nearby.  He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs.  If I did anything right, I feel it was that.  I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.

There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone.  And the house is otherwise quiet.  I’ve never felt pain like this before.  But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed.  My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead.  I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.

 

*Name changed.

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Joy and Jasmine and Everything They Once Were

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“Are you girls okay?”  Giselle propped her arms on her hips and cocked her head.

The girls – Joy and Jasmine – had been acting more peculiar than usual all week long.  Cats were the oddest of creatures, Giselle reminded herself; her Siamese twins being no exception.

Joy and Jasmine often perched their wiry, milky-white frames atop something – the antique dresser, the entertainment center, or the highest shelf in the den where they were now – whenever they wanted to be alone.  Like all the cats she’d had in the past, Giselle knew feline personalities could be as fickle as they could be subdued.

Yet, as she stood in the den, staring up at her adopted children, Giselle noted – once again – that they appeared to be more intellectual than she previously thought was normal, or even possible.  Their eyes, the bluest she’d ever seen on anyone (human or animal), gave the impression they were actually thinking; they seemed to possess some degree of cognitive function.  But she always got the feeling the cats were waiting for something.  Or, someone.

Then it dawned on her.  They missed Robert.  They were his babies, too.  He’d been out of town for three weeks; this being the last phase of a year-long project for the engineering firm.

“Daddy will be home tomorrow night,” said Giselle, her hands clasped in front of her.

The girls remained still on the top shelf of the built-in bookcase, like a pair of porcelain antiques; identical and priceless, stoically beautiful, the perfect accoutrements to the array of chintz pillows and terracotta statuettes Giselle had scattered throughout their newly-purchased home.

But, yes, Giselle thought, they missed Robert.  “Okay then,” she said with a skewered grin.  “I’ll be going to bed in a few minutes.”

She turned off the two lamps in the den and gave Joy and Jasmine one final, loving glance.  Their eyes glowed softly, a quartet of azure orbs.

The house sat at the end of a short road, backing up against a tree-cluttered mound, which tumbled down into a shallow stream and back up towards an old farm-to-market road.  A four-bedroom ranch-style abode with a driveway that snaked around a thick magnolia tree to the garage had stood vacant for almost four years, the realtor, Carlene, had told them; since it was in such an odd location.  The couple who’d owned it previously had suddenly left, and the county had trouble locating them.  “They split up,” Carlene added, “and moved to two different states.  I think the IRS was after them.  They owed back taxes.”

Eventually, authorities found the duo.  Once they’d been set up on a payment plan, a county judge appointed an independent counselor to oversee sale of the house.  Carlene was merely trying to sell it and get it off the county’s hands.  But it was still a gorgeous house.

Giselle and Robert Fernandez ogled at the area, able to hear the stream murmuring in the distance, and found nothing odd about it.  “It’s perfect,” Giselle crooned, as Robert wrapped his beefy arms around her.  They were standing on the walkway; already enchanted with the simple charm of the house and its rustic setting.

Carlene stood nearby, beaming with shared happiness; her petite frame perched atop a pair of shoes with excessively high heels.  “Oh, I’m so glad ya’ two like it!”  Her southern drawl poured over them like honey mixed with syrup and brown sugar.

That’s when Giselle first saw the cats; Siamese cats – almost identical.  They sat alongside the driveway, side-by-side and partially obscured by the magnolia tree.  They seemed to be looking at her, and Giselle’s heart sank.

It had been almost a year since she and Robert had put down their last cat; about eight months after the other one turned up dead at the foot of their bed.  Not a good way to start a Monday morning.  They had already begun their house hunt – and vowed not to get anymore pets for a while.

A while arrived sooner than expected.  The cats kept showing up near the driveway.  Giselle tried several times to entice them to come with her.  But, each time, they’d scamper towards the rear of the house.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, Robert came back from a jog around the neighborhood, and the cats followed him to the front door.  They looked more haggard than before.  With a mild beckoning flip of his hand, Robert got them to go into the house ahead of him.

They managed to give the cats a quick bath – without getting scratched or bitten; an oddity unto itself, Giselle mused, knowing felines and water don’t mix well.  They gave the scrawny duo some milk and sat back to discuss what to do next.  Call the city pound?  A local animal shelter?  Giselle was more ready to give them up than Robert.  They had too much to do with the house, she reiterated.

Then, for no particular reason, he abruptly named them Joy and Jasmine.  From a distance, they truly looked like twins.  But Joy’s ears were darker; the only real way to tell them apart.  Joy was also somewhat more aggressive.  But their quirky, unimposing personalities worked their way into the young couple’s hearts, and – as unexpected as the adoption was – they didn’t mind.  And they decided not to give them up.

Amidst their chaotic schedules with work and refurbishing the house, Giselle and Robert made the time to take the girls to a local veterinarian to get some basic, necessary shots.  A short time later, they had the cats neutered by the same veterinarian.  The doctor noticed one curious thing, though; she couldn’t determine how old the cats were.

“Their teeth make them look to be about 10,” she said.  “But, physiologically, they’re around 5 or 6.  They don’t have any signs of arthritis or heart trouble.”  She just couldn’t understand how they were each about ten years of age, yet “not show it on the inside.”

Joy and Jasmine quickly became fond of Robert, lounging on either side of him the few times he sat on the couch to watch TV, or cuddled up at the foot of the bed – closer to him.  Giselle didn’t feel ignored.  She was glad to get some stray animals off the street and give them a good home.

Occasionally, however, the girls displayed their aloofness by climbing atop something and remaining there for the longest time.  Just like they were doing now.

Giselle carried a glass of water into the bedroom and took a shower.  After smothering her body in lotion, she donned an oversized Dallas Cowboys tee shirt and was leaning over the bathroom sink, trying to pluck a renegade eyelash from her left eye, when the bedroom lights flickered and then, shut off.  They came back on within seconds.

She waited a moment, but nothing happened.  The bedroom lamps had been doing that a lot recently.  At night Giselle would be in the bathroom or the closet – and, on one occasion, sitting up in bed reading – when the lights shuddered and then went out.  But they always came back on immediately afterwards.

She stood poised over the sink, though; wondering if someone had broken into the house.  She searched the bathroom for a makeshift weapon and found it in the form of a heavy shampoo bottle.  Only then did she realize that the bathroom light was still on, while the rest of the house was dark.  She didn’t want to ponder that curiosity any longer, so she turned off the bathroom light and inched her tiny frame into the bedroom; one hand clutching the shampoo bottle.

Something else came to mind.  Then she heard that sound.  Distant – giggling.  She crept to a window behind a nightstand.  She didn’t want to turn off the lamp or stand in front of it.  She could hear them – right outside the house.  Little kids giggling.

She was certain they were the neighbor’s children; a quartet of rug-rats who stormed through the area like rabid squirrels.  Other neighbors had complained about them.

Why they’d be running around outside at night was beyond Giselle’s comprehension.  “Do you hear that?” she asked Robert one night.

He listened.  “Um…no.”

“That laughing.  Little kids laughing.  They’re sneaking around outside.”

“At this time of night?”

“Yes!”

Robert usually had good hearing, but he never heard those kids running around outside in the middle of the night.  Joy and Jasmine could surely hear them, Giselle thought.  They always disappeared somewhere into the house at night; especially when the kids started their nocturnal excursions.  Maybe the kids had found the cats at one point a while back, Giselle surmised, and tortured them.  When her younger brother kicked a neighbor’s dog, Giselle – age 12 and all of 4’0” – smacked his face hard enough to make him cry and bleed at the same time.  Whenever she heard the neighbors’ kids bouncing around outside late at night, she clenched her hands; certain the vermin had harmed Joy and Jasmine at some point.  It’s why the cats had grown desperate to get into the house, Giselle told herself, knowing they’d be safe.

When she saw the neighbors leaving one Saturday afternoon, Giselle – crouched before a flower bed, potting soil spread almost to her elbows – scoured at them.  They didn’t notice her – thankfully; or they’d see the daggers flying from her eyes.  The elderly lady who lived across the street with her invalid husband – the first people in the neighborhood Giselle and Robert came to know – also happened to be in her own front yard, clutching a water hose and gazing at the family of six.  The elderly couple were the only people who conversed with Giselle and Robert for any considerable length.  Other neighbors weren’t so loquacious; nothing beyond a wave, perhaps followed with a ‘hello.’

Giselle turned back to the flower bed she was hoping to resuscitate.  “Little fuckers,” she muttered into the dirt.  She thought of her girls again.  How dare you hurt them!

She began moving towards the bed, when a thick mat of fur scraped against her ankles.  “Oh, God!”  The shampoo bottle fell to the floor.

The bedroom lights suddenly came on again, startling her again.  She returned the shampoo to its place in the shower stall and started looking for the girls.  She called for them.  The house was silent.  As she came to the end of the hallway, something else brushed against her; coming from either side.  She hopped back with a sharp scream.  “Goddammit!”  She retreated to the bedroom, certain someone else was in the house, and crept back into the hall with a baseball bat.

A faint, high-pitched noise made her look down.  Joy and Jasmine stood a few feet away.  “Oh, God!” Giselle moaned, her shoulders dropping as she exhaled.  “Girls.”  She caressed their heads; knowing the cats were still growing accustomed to the house.  She couldn’t get mad at them; she certainly couldn’t blame them for her overreactions.  She laughed, as she dropped the bat back into the closet.

She glanced back down the hall.  They’d disappeared again.  Where was their hiding place?  She grinned.  Anywhere!  She laughed aloud at her own anxiety and returned to bed.

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Seeing Robert sitting with the girls in his lap was as pleasant to Giselle as it was curious.  He kept staring into their eyes, and – from what Giselle could tell – they were gazing back.  His lips would move at times.  Giselle couldn’t hear what he was saying, but felt he must be reassuring the girls they were safe in this house.

“That patch of grass is dead,” Robert said.  He and Giselle stood in the back yard late one Sunday afternoon.

She could still smell the wood of the newly-erected, eight-foot-high fence.  For weeks Robert would come out there and stand in this one spot, just staring at the ground.  She’d be busy with the rest of the yard, when she’d catch him towering over that one area.

He was right, though.  Amidst the expanse of vibrant green grass, this one small patch towards the back of the yard stood out because of its beige coloring.  It looked as if some alien beings had descended upon the property and began carving out crop circles, before realizing they wouldn’t have enough room.

Giselle looked at Robert.  He seemed more upset by it.  Not just annoyed, she thought, but…disturbed.

“Well,” he finally said.  “I guess I’ll just have to dig it up and plant some new grass.”  He had just finished mowing the lawn and was tired.

But he was back outside the following evening, again standing over that one brown-grass area.  Just staring at it.  Occasionally picking at it with a hand, or rubbing his toes against it.  Wandering around it, cocking his head in different directions; like a puppy inspecting a new toy.

“Just replace it,” Giselle said one evening, after Robert had come back inside.

“Yeah, I will.”  He took a sip of water and mumbled, “When it’s time.”  He headed towards the bedroom.

“‘When it’s time’?”  Giselle repeated.

“You’re both so pretty,” she heard Robert say.  He sat in the den, the cats in his lap.  Giselle wasn’t really listening, but she suddenly could hear him.  “You’re okay.  You’re safe here with us.”

Giselle grinned.  Just as she suspected.

“You’ll always be safe,” Robert continued.  “No one can ever hurt you again.”

On the following Saturday she stood in the utility room, sorting through laundry, when Robert entered.  She didn’t hear him; the steady hum of the dryer being so abrasively loud.  He’d been fidgeting with his laptop.  “Oh hey, babe,” she said.

He almost bumped into her – as if she wasn’t there – and entered the garage.

It was so unlike him that Giselle couldn’t say anything.  She watched from the doorway as Robert grabbed a ladder and proceeded up into the attic.  It was only accessible through a square opening near the door.  Robert propped the ladder against the wall, again seemingly oblivious to her presence on the other side of the metallic apparatus.  “What – ?” she started to ask.

She could hear him in the attic space just above the utility room; rumbling around with the gracefulness of a giant boar.  “What are you doing?” she asked into the ceiling.  She noticed Joy and Jasmine perched at the opposite end of the utility room, closer to the kitchen.

A few moments later Robert ambled back down the ladder; carefully balancing himself while cradling a beige shoe box under one arm.  He dropped it on the floor and replaced the ladder.  He swept up the box, as he reentered the utility room – again seeming to ignore his wife – and sat down at the kitchen table.

The cats had left.

“What is this?” Giselle asked, pointing to the box.

“I – uh – I don’t know, really,” he replied with a smile.  He had removed the lid and was rummaging through its meager contents.  “I just had an idea to look up there.”

“Why?”

“I – don’t know.  I just did.”

The box bore a few photographs and a handful of papers; the latter yellow and crinkled.

Giselle and Robert sifted through the single stack of photos – all five of them.  One had a group of children gathered on a patio; another displayed the kids on a couch; one featured two little girls wearing identical dresses standing against a fence; one had a blurry image of a smiling young woman, captured as if she was in mid-stride, her over-sized sunglasses creating heavy shadows on her face; and the last showed a man and a woman standing beside a pick-up truck in a driveway.

“Who are these people?” Giselle asked.

“I don’t know,” Robert mumbled.

The handwriting on the papers was too faint and illegible to comprehend.

Robert continued flipping through the pictures – over and over – for several minutes, as if hoping to find some new detail.

His intensity began to annoy Giselle.  “So…what’s this all about?”

He kept perusing the photos and looking at the papers.

“Robert?”

“Yeah.”

She tilted her head forward, closer to his face.  “What is this?”

He sighed.  “I don’t know.”

“How did you know this stuff was here?”

He sighed again; a sound more of empathy than frustration.  “I…I don’t know.  I just had the idea to look up there.  I didn’t – I didn’t know this stuff was there.”  He kept shaking his head, as if uncertain of his own actions.  “Weird,” he finally said, packing everything back into the box.  He dropped a light kiss onto her cheek, before leaving with the box.

Giselle started after him and stopped when she heard the girls scuttle past.  She barely caught a glimpse of their tails, as they took off in the same direction as Robert.  Their sudden presence startled her.  She fidgeted her fingertips together, listening to the dryer hum.

On Sunday night Giselle drove Robert back to the airport for another business trip; this one scheduled to last only three days.  The following evening she busied herself with a few crossword puzzles and finally completed an aging history book that she’d actually first tried to read in college.  She placed the dusty tome back on a shelf and was surprised to see the girls when she turned around.  “Hey, girls!” she said with a smile.  She squatted down to caress their heads.  Their fur felt unusually cool.  “Are you okay?”

They didn’t answer her; they were just enjoying the massage.

Her phone rang.  It was Robert.  “Hey, babe.”

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Good!  How are things there?”

“Eh – kind of gloomy.  It’s been threatening to rain since last night.  But it’s just been cool and windy.”

“Oh, well –”

“Listen, can you do me a favor?  Not right now – it’s too dark outside.”

“Uh – yeah, sure.”

“Can you check out in the back yard and look at the spot where the grass is brown.  You know that one little area closer to the back side of the fence?”

“Uh – yes.  Why?”

“Can you just check and see if there’s anything odd under there?”

Odd?  “Like what?”

He was silent.

“Like what?”

“Um – just – uh – just see if the ground feels funny.”

See if the ground feels funny?  “What do you mean?”

“Um – I don’t know.”

“Okay…I still don’t know what you’re saying.  What – what’s with the ground out there?  What do you mean ‘feels funny’?”

“I don’t know.  Just – uh – just see if there’s like a bump of some kind right underneath that piece of grass.”

“Okay,” she muttered after a second.

“I keep thinking there’s a tree stump buried there.  You know – maybe the previous owners had cut down a tree and didn’t really remove the stump.”

“Oh, okay.”  That actually makes sense, she mused.  “I guess that could be dangerous, huh?”

“Yeah, it could.”

They both relaxed and talked a little more.  He told her he was lounging on the bed in his hotel room, butt naked with a steely erection; thinking about her.  He just wanted to get the “funny ground” issue out of the way first.

She wanted to start up on another book, as she dropped into bed, but decided against it.  She had a meeting at 8:30 the following morning.  But, as she lay in bed, staring at the crown molding and the ceiling fan, she couldn’t help but think of Robert’s curious request.  ‘Feels funny’?  What the hell was that all about?  Joy and Jasmine had curled up at the foot of the bed; an unusual spot for them, considering Robert wasn’t here.

Then she heard a faint giggle pipe through the bedroom window.  “Oh, goddammit!”  She sat up, staring hard at the drapes.  She heard another one and yet another; finally leaping out of bed and turning on the side lamp almost simultaneously.  “Stupid kids!”  She peeked out of through one side of the drapes, enough to see out towards the neighbor’s house, but not enough to be seen.

Nothing.  The neighbor’s bushes languished in a deep shade of blue.

She turned to shut off the light – bypassing the empty bed – and stepped back to the window.  Even with the bedroom darkened, nothing outside the house caught her attention.  She switched the lamp back on, smirked at the empty bed and sauntered into the bathroom.

The lamp shut off.

She dropped her shoulders with an exaggerated sigh.  The lamp had been functioning oddly.  It wasn’t the light bulb: she’d checked that more than once.

The light came back on.

A few moments later, she stood at the sink, patting her hands dry and wondered if the sudden irritation in her left eye was a lash.  She leaned forward, towards the mirror.

The bedroom went dark.

She slowly lowered her hand, keeping her gaze on the mass of darkness behind her; framed only by the bathroom doorway.  She felt a coldness roll up her back and onto her shoulders.  This wasn’t the neighbor kids running around outside acting stupid.  Someone had entered the house, she thought.

Again, she searched for a makeshift weapon and found it in one of her combs.  She crept back into the bedroom and looked down the hall.  She suspected for a moment the power had gone out.  But the bathroom light was still on.  She proceeded to the closet and grabbed a baseball bat; tossing the comb onto the bed.  She would have picked up one of Robert’s shotguns perched in the back of the closet, but she didn’t know if it was loaded and didn’t care to take time to find out.

She moved down the hall and reached for the light switch.  The light wouldn’t come on.  A shuffling noise a few feet away prompted her to search briefly for the cats.  She tried the light switch again, and the hall lamp illuminated.

Enough to catch something dart passed her.

Enough to make her stop blinking and breathing for a few seconds.  The light shut off.  She flicked the switch several more times, but the hall remained dark.

She finally took a deep breath and cocked her head towards the ceiling.  “Damnit!” she muttered, wondering how she must look – standing in a darkened hallway of her own home, wearing an oversized Dallas Cowboys tee shirt and holding a baseball bat.  She moved into the front room, just a few feet from the main entrance.

The hall light re-illuminated.

She glanced over her shoulder; curiosity mixed with frustration.  She turned on a lamp in the den and scanned the quiet area.  When she wheeled back around, Joy and Jasmine sat in the middle of the hall.  “Well…there you two are.”

They cocked their heads, as if they didn’t know why she was surprised.  Or pretending not to know.

Once back in her bedroom, Giselle dropped the baseball bat into the closet.  The girls curled beside one another at the foot of the bed, forming something of a crescent shape.  Giselle slowly climbed back into bed and turned off the side lamp; making only a quick note that the bathroom light had already been turned off.

When Robert returned home, Joy and Jasmine couldn’t stay away from him.

Giselle approached the three of them, as they sat on an easy chair.   “Well, look who’s become daddy’s girls.”  She reached out to tickle the cats’ ears.  They snarled at her, causing Giselle’s entire arm to snap back into her torso, like a measuring tape being recoiled.  She stood up straight, her mouth contorted in both shock and annoyance.  “What the hell!”

Robert – who had been staring at the girls all this time – merely threw an equally irksome glance at his wife.  That evening he hovered around the brownish patch of grass in the back yard for several minutes.  Giselle could only stand at a kitchen window and try to make sense of his behavior.

Then the girls suddenly darted towards him; coming from somewhere near the house.  Their abrupt presence – outside, of all places – startled Giselle.  The cats hadn’t been outside the house since she and Robert had taken them in – at least not by themselves.  They didn’t want to take the chance the girls would become feral again and end up lost or, worse, in the hands of some wicked children.  Like the kids next door.

She started towards the door, but returned to the window.  The girls had trotted up to Robert and started trolling that same patch of brown grass.  He squatted down to caress their heads.  She saw his lips moving.  Although their backs were to her, Giselle could tell the cats were listening to Robert.  He then began running his hands along the brownish grass, before caressing the girls’ heads and talking to them again.  It looked like he was saying more to them than to Giselle in the two days he’d been home.

He finally stood and marched back into the house.  He went directly to the office.  Giselle followed him and was surprised to see him rifling through that dusty shoe box.  “Robert…what’s going on?”

“Something.”

“What?”

“Just something.”  He fiddled through the pictures.  “Here,” he muttered, more to himself.  “Here they are.”

“Who?”

He dropped the pictures and strode back into the garage, almost brushing against Giselle.

“What – ?!  Robert!”  Only when she arrived in the garage did she realize the girls hadn’t followed him into the house.  “Wait a minute.  Where are the – ?  Where are Joy and Jasmine?”

Robert stripped off his tee shirt, grabbed a drain spade shovel and hurried back outside.  Again, Giselle followed him, but she stopped just outside the patio.  He proceeded to that brown patch of grass and began digging.

“What – ?”  She sighed loudly, but it dissipated into a heavy wind.  “Robert!”

He repeatedly slammed the shovel into the grass and, within minutes, had dug it up.  He kept digging, his torso and face already coated in sweat.

Giselle casually approached and began circling him the way she’d done when they first met at that July 4th barbecue.  All the other women had sauntered past him, trying to get his attention, as he talked with two other men.  Robert was the best-looking man at the party, and Giselle immediately became determined to meet him.  Her ploy had worked.  He stopped talking to his friends – one of whom was the host – and smiled awkwardly at her.

This time, though, her circling movements went completely unnoticed.  “Robert,” she said gently.

He kept slamming the spade into the dirt.  A small mound had begun to form to his left; something like a newborn island volcano breaking the ocean’s surface.

“Robert.”

He kept digging.  His gray khaki shorts had darkened with sweat.

“Robert!”

“What?!”  He stopped, still breathing heavily, and looked at her.

“What in God’s name are you doing?!”

“I’m trying to find them!”  He plunged the spade back into the small hole he’d created and pulled up more dirt.

“Find what?”

He kept digging; the mound growing higher; his breathing growing even heavier.

The sun had started to drop below the mass of trees behind the house.  The modest blue of the sky metamorphosed into a deep purple, and the light breezes turned into a steady wind.

Robert continued angrily slamming the shovel into the dirt.  And, just as Giselle was about to speak his name again, they heard a loud crack.  A near-splintering of wood.  The shovel had hit something harder than dirt.  “Oh God,” Robert muttered.  He moved some dirt with the shovel; more cautious now.

Giselle stepped forward, as Robert tossed the spade off to one side and squatted down.  His eyes remain transfixed on the hole.  And what was in it.  Giselle leaned over, as Robert cleared away more dirt.

The shovel had struck an object, and as Robert dug more hurriedly – this time with his hands – she realized it was a box.  A wooden box.

Finally, Robert was able to free the box.  He tried picking it up, but it was either too heavy or it was stuck.  As he strained his arms, the carotid arteries of his neck bulging with aggravation, the top of the box suddenly bolted loose.  Robert tumbled backwards.  The gritty wooden top rolled out of his hands and over the spade.  He crouched back over the hole and paused for a moment; hot breaths spilling from his mouth.

Giselle looked down, her body trembling.  The wind had intensified slightly, and she was getting cold.

The sky was the darkest shade of violet she’d ever seen.

A dirty cloth or sheet was stretched over the box.

Robert gently reached down and pulled it up.

Giselle heard the cats screech and whipped her head around.  She didn’t see them.  “Where are they?” she asked, partly to Robert and partly to the wind.  “Where’d the girls go?”

Robert’s breathing had slowed.  “Here,” he said.

“What?  Where?”

He pointed to the box.

She peered down into it.

“They’re here,” he muttered.  He loosely gestured to the bones in the box, still not looking at Giselle.

She felt colder, as she noticed two tiny human skulls.

“They’re here,” Robert murmured, breathing normally now.  “They’re right here.”

3f53689719bb45718b1991186d9c340a

© 2016

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Why My Dog Is a Tax Deductible Expense

“Come a little closer.  I dare you.”

“Come a little closer. I dare you.”

I decided at the start of this year to use the costs associated with the care of Wolfgang as a tax deduction.  A little background is necessary.  I adopted Wolfgang from a dilapidated former roommate thirteen years ago.  Tom* had gotten him in August 2002 to replace a much-loved dog of the same breed he had to put to sleep.  By the end of that year, however, Tom realized he could no longer care for the new puppy, and I realized I no longer could stop plotting to get rid of Tom by making it look like a game of pool and tequila shots gone wrong.  He’d have to give him up.  I couldn’t bear the thought of it.  I’d already grown too attached to the little furball and feared he’d end up in a home with someone more irresponsible.  Tom left in January, and the puppy stayed.  I renamed him Wolfgang.

He’s supposedly a miniature schnauzer, but I realized almost immediately that he’s an undiscovered species of canid: a miniature wolf.  Neither the Smithsonian nor the National Geographic Society has responded to my requests for a detailed analysis.  At first glance, he looks like any other small dog – cute and adorable.  But that’s part of the inborn ruse.  A closer examination, however, reveals the monster lurking behind the pools of dark chocolate known as his eyes and the fluffy silver and white hairs coating his face.  A serial rabbit killer, Wolfgang has terrorized more squirrels than the German shepherd I had decades ago.  A deep, loud voice resides within his little throat; another coy, inborn trick to make the unsuspecting believe they’re standing just feet from a coyote.  He is 22 pounds of raw, canine angst.

But he has become my savior in so many ways.  As I struggled with my freelance and creative writing careers, I realized the value Wolfgang adds to my professional life.  He is my therapist, focus group and lifestyle consultant.  He is the only one who truly understands why I say and do what I say and do, and therefore, is the only one who reserves the right to criticize me for it all.  He truly comprehends the reasoning behind my deliriously twisted stories.  He sees the genius of my mind; whereas others would see a psychiatric trauma case, a recovering Catholic or a porn star reject.  And, since we’re all bearing our souls here, I fit each of the above descriptions in the worst way.

Wolfgang at 3 months.

Wolfgang at 3 months.

Despite my occasional rapid-fire mood swings, bouts of euphoria mixed in with valleys of despair, Wolfgang has proven to be a constant source of inspiration and reality.  Most dogs are like that anyway.  And, as with most dogs, Wolfgang has his own unique personality.  He doesn’t have an attitude – a nasty trait exhibited by those bipedal cretins known as humans.  Just touching him puts me in a better mood, even if I’m already feeling good.  But it’s his visual responses to my stories that tell me if what I’ve written makes general sense.  In one tale, for example, I wondered if a rather mundane character should have a greater role.  Wolfgang’s empathetic gaze told me yes.  So I expanded the character, and the story benefited.  In another, I thought that a rather cantankerous individual was nevertheless crucial to the moral arc I was trying to convey.  Wolfgang’s snarl told me the bitch had to die.  Again, the story turned out better, after the character accidentally stumbled onto a paper shredder.

Aside from keeping his shots up to date, I had Wolfgang neutered years ago, which prolongs a domesticated animal’s life.  (Many people should have the same thing done, but not because their lives are worth prolonging.)  I bathe him every Sunday night and clean his teeth regularly by spreading a dab of canine toothpaste on a small hand towel.  (Actually trying to brush them turns into a physical battle, with my hands on the losing end.)  When his fur gets long, I brush it the day after his bath.  In this case, “brush” is a subjective term, because he often spirals into an alligator-death-roll maneuver.

I’ve had his health care covered through Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), which is now NationWide.  Because he’s almost 14, the premiums have increased.  But again, he’s worth the cost.  The money I’ve spent on that insurance, along with other veterinary bills and food, could have just as easily bought me a high-powered computer, an I-Phone, the complete Photoshop Suite to create art for my stories, and / or a week at a leather bondage festival.  I suppose I could have churned out some really good stories with all of that.  (Yes, even a bondage festival can be enlightening.  I have the handcuffs and thong underwear to prove it.)  But, without Wolfgang’s presence, I just can’t see any good stories popping out of my head.  What good are all sorts of luxuries if you’re not mentally fit?  I mean, look at the Kardashian girls!  Well… they’re mentally ill; they’re just dumbasses.  Regardless, medical expenses are often genuinely tax-deductible.

My followers surely know by now that I’m a devout animal lover.  I’d rather see a thousand drug addicts or sexually-irresponsible people die of AIDS than see one animal suffer due to human neglect.  A close friend shares my sentiments; he likes cats.  Cats are pretty, but I’m allergic to them.  Besides, when have you ever heard of a rescue cat?

Still, the more I get to know people, the more I love my dog.  I seriously don’t know how the Internal Revenue Service (a.k.a. the “Washington mob”) will respond to this deduction on my 2015 tax return.  And I seriously don’t care.  They can laugh all they want, which I’m sure they’ll do.  I’ve had worse happen to me, such as pretending someone who cuts me off in traffic is just having a bad day and they’re not really an asshole.

For now, though, I have another story to run by Wolfgang.  This one’s kind of mushy, so I have to conjure up a more creative demise than a demonically-possessed paper-shredder.

For real!

For real!

*Name changed.

 

ASPCA.

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Wolfgang at 10 and 70

Wolfgang, 2003.

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.

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