One of us kids must have asked for a dog. Mom and Pop thought that we shouldn’t be deprived the way they were when they were young, so they obliged our every whim. ‘Sure,” they said. “Let’s get you kids a dog’. I know that it we must have gone to a pet store –not an animal shelter– to get our pet, because everything my parents got had to be brand new or it wasn’t any good.
I don’t remember how many dogs we looked at; I don’t remember which of us kids chose her over any of the others, I just know that we ended up with a tiny little gray and black schnauzer puppy. Her name was ‘Dolly’. (This is what happens when you let a five year old name the family pet). On the way home one or both of my parents broke into a rendition of “Hello, Dolly”. Even if I don’t actually remember it I know it happened. In certain ways my parents were as predictable as the cycles of the moon. On long drives, my father would always sing the only verse he knew of “Side by Side”:
“Though we ain’t got a barrel of money, maybe we’re ragged and funny, but we’ll travel along,singing our song, side by side.”
I know that a lot of households include their pets as members of the family. They send out cards that say “Please meet Scout, our newest bundle of joy! Scout is a Golden Retriever and is a direct descendant of George Lucas, Winner of the 1972 Upper Hudson Valley Dog Show!” And there’d be a picture of Mom and Dad and Johnny and Scout, playfully licking little Sally on the cheek.
Dolly, however, was decidedly not a member of our household. She was an accessory that my mother tolerated for the children and my father just completely ignored. On the rare occasions when Dolly was allowed to join us on trips, her designated seat was always in the way, way back of the station wagon with me and the tents. (So that you don’t think this was a punishment of some kind, I should probably let you know that I liked sitting in the way, way back. Yes, it was easier for me to fit back there than my taller brothers so I was always the default choice, but I would have chosen it anyhow. I loved looking at the long stretches of highway behind us; I loved to look out at the sky and imagining how far it went. As I got older I liked to pretend that I was a hippie hitchhiking on the side of the road, and this was just a ride that I’d gotten on the way to the commune. Or that I was a vagabond, hopping trains and sleeping in fields with other vagabonds, listening to someone play Woody Guthrie on guitar by the light of the fire. There was also the simple fact that the only other option would be for me to sit squashed between my brothers in the back seat. They would fall asleep and their legs would invariably fall open, pushing me into the other brother, who would tell me to stop pushing him and not believe me when I said it wasn’t my fault. Or worse I’d have to listen to Brian singing off-key and too loud right in my ear for miles and miles at a time while Mark stared out the window and tried to pretend that we didn’t exist. No, the way, way back was just fine for Dolly and me.)
I’m sure that in the early days when Dolly first came to live with us we were excited. I’m sure we played catch and rolled on the floor with her and did all the things that kids do with their new pets. We probably fought over whose room she would sleep in. I know that I was fascinated by her insatiable desire to eat other dogs’ poop.
My pride over being trusted to walk her up and down the street by myself, however, gradually turned to annoyance as I had to fight with my brothers over whose turn it was to take her out. I hated when she got all wet and muddy and I’d have to dry her off on the landing inside the front door because God help you if she tracked mud anywhere. I could never seem to get her dry enough and so Mom would have to huff and puff and do it again herself and I would just end up feeling bad for failing at this one simple task.
Mom never pet Dolly or gave her treats or took her out for a walk. All she did was bitch about her. Dog hairs meant extra vacuuming; Mom thought it was gross when Dolly would sit on us and get dog germs on our clothes; her occasional bark would grate on Mom’s nerves like rock music.
Now here’s where the story gets weird.
Sometimes I’d be sitting at the kitchen table watching my mom cook, and Dolly would come sniffing around under the counter for stray food. Mom would say, “Get out of here, you,” and shove her out of the way with her foot. It was never hard enough to be considered a kick but it was more than a gentle scoot—there was definite aggression in that shove.
One day I asked Mom why she hated Dolly. She’s furry and cute, I said. Mom sighed, sat down and lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag. “I don’t hate her,” she began. “You see, Tootsie, I had a dog once, a dog that I loved very much, and she died, and I can’t ever love another dog.” I was shocked. Mom had not only had a dog– a dirty, smelly animal, but she had loved it so much that it broke her heart when it died? Who was this mystery animal? When did Mom have her? And why had I never been told about her before?
“Her name was Suzannah. Your father got her for me when I first came to this country, she was a housewarming present. This was when Brian was still a baby; long before you or Mark was born.
Your father would be at work all day and I just had Brian and Suzannah for company. Oh, she was so beautiful. She was a Doberman, so tall and lovely.” Mom sighed again. She took a deep drag on her cigarette, wiped an errant crumb off the table and into her hand before depositing it in the ashtray.
“I don’t know if I should tell you the rest,” she said. “Maybe it will be too upsetting for you.” Of course I had to hear it now. “No, tell me. It won’t upset me. I want to hear it.” My mother looked deep into my eyes. “OK. You’re a big girl.” She took another drag. “Your father and I went out of town for a few days to visit some of his friends upstate. We left the dog with a vet to take care of her. That goddamn man,” she said, shaking her head. She tapped her cigarette against the ashtray. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” she asked. I nodded eagerly. “OK.” Sigh. “Well, your father and I went to pick up the dog, and the man says to me, “I’m sorry, your dog has died. We discovered that she had a brain tumor and she died. I didn’t have the number where you were so I couldn’t call you.” She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another. “But there’s more, you see,” she went on. “Some time later there was an article in the newspaper. It turned out Suzannah hadn’t died of a brain tumor. This vet, this doctor, was performing experiments, you see? He was performing brain experiments on peoples’ dogs. It turned out that he had killed them, he had killed them all with these experiments.” Mom’s eyes began to well up. She shook her head and took a drag off her cigarette, biting back the tears. “This man, this evil man killed her, he killed my friend. So do you see?” she asked, looking at me. “That’s why I can never love another dog. Suzannah was my friend, she was my best friend.” I leaned over and hugged her shoulders tightly.
“I’m sorry,” she said, patting my hand as she wiped away her tears. “I shouldn’t be telling you these things. You are too young.”
As horrible as this story was, Mom had trusted me too be mature, so I didn’t cry. Instead, I stood up and hugged her around her shoulders as tightly as I could. “Oh, Mommy,” I said. I’m so sorry for you. I’m sorry about Suzannah. That’s awful.”
“You are such a grown up,” Mom said, kissing me on the forehead. She brushed away the last of her tears. “You’re my big girl.”
In our house, bad moments were to be forgotten by spending money. Mom put out her cigarette.“Come,” she said. “I need a new bra. Let’s go shopping. We will find you something nice, too.” She rose to get her keys from the ceramic dish on the counter.
When we got to the mall we parked on the other side, the side where you didn’t have to pass by the pet store to get to Bloomingdale’s.