A Sunny Day at the SPCA

From the start, when the dog first arrived, small, white and shaking, he would sit by the stairs and wait for my father to come home. When he heard the car pull in, he would dash down the stairs with high-pitched squeals, half-tumbling, half-falling, until, with calm expectation, he would face the door and wait for my father to appear.

“We haven’t tried a dog yet,” Mom said one night at dinner. “I think it might bring David out of his shell.” My mother was still in charge of family matters, food, cleanliness, conduct and guiding the lives of her six adult children, most of whom still lived at home. Her endlessly creative ideas for reversing David’s brain anomalies and turning him into the son they always wanted were futile. Guitar lessons, summer camps, Jewish social groups for special needs children, a video recorder—David partook in everything. Sometimes these ideas held his interest. More often they didn’t. The dog idea was the most farfetched, and I vetoed it, having no love of dogs myself. More to the point, David could not relate; it was part of the deep-down brain programming error that couldn’t be fixed. He attended special schools, played the piano by ear, took pictures of sunsets and trees and spoke to no one over the age of 3. The dog, who arrived with the name Triscuit, was 3 and a half.

The two did form a relationship, however unusual: Triscuit would hide under my mother’s bed whenever he heard David emerging from his room.

David would threaten the dog with a mop or yardstick, and delighted in pulling pranks on the beleaguered animal, dressing him in hats or sunglasses, then taking Polaroids of him. Triscuit finally wised up and learned to disappear. At this point, the dog passed from David to my father, who became his true master.

Triscuit obviously never sensed that my father hated animals. When Dad came home from work, the dog would just go nuts, as if my father were a warm-hearted dog lover. This was probably the first dog my father ever let touch him. When Dad walked in the garage door, the dog would charge, pelting my father’s hands with his cheeks and nose, gently biting the stretched-out, white knuckles which were eventually surrendered as caressing palms to the hot mouth. Dad was smitten. He nicknamed him Tris, massaged his white body and bought him special treats.

When autumn came, Dad began suffering a fatigue so monumental it broke the bounds of anything we ever heard of. It encased him, turning him into a stone statue. He was a lifelong workaholic, but could barely drive to the gift shop he ran in the nearby resort town of New Hope. One day he failed to come home at the appointed hour. I stood rooted in the driveway waiting for him to pull in. Half an hour, then an hour passed before his station wagon inched up the drive. How had he managed to drive the winding road home?  I opened his car door but he couldn’t get out. While he waited for his strength to return, I took his briefcase from the backseat and carried it into the house. He was too tired to talk. “What has happened to my father?” I whispered to myself.

A terrible thing had happened: He was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He asked the doctor how long he had to live. “Six to nine months,” the doctor said and sent my father home. At first Dad wandered in a daze around the house pretending he would soon be up and back to work. Then he began to spend more and more time in bed, a double bed, which seemed to get larger and larger while Dad grew smaller and smaller. The paraphernalia of the sick and dying took over the room; visiting nurses arrived to give Dad sponge baths and shave his robustly growing stubble. My father adored the nurses. So did my mother, who was sprouting dark circles under her eyes and turning for comfort to chocolate and licorice bits. When the nurses came she went food shopping for my father, returning home with bags of fruits and vegetables, which she turned into juices, as her health books instructed.

It was a long time since the dog had jumped up on my father with clumps of white fur floating to the ground. Instead, he followed my father from room to room, as my father, preparing to die, made his halting rounds from bedroom to living room, to bathroom to kitchen, and ate the special foods my mother prepared, which her macrobiotic sources told her would sustain him, even as he took to his bed for good. The dog wasn’t far behind, staying on his little pillow near the bed, napping as my father napped, peering around the room as my father peered round the room, each trying to assure the other they were still alive.

Both father and dog were dying, the man for real, the dog in psychosomatic reverence for his true master. In time, in the heat of summer, my father curled up in a half moon and gave up the ghost. The dog ran around the house three times yelping. I breathed a sigh of relief and cursed my hardness.

After my father had died and we had begun to forget the sound of his car rumbling into the garage, the dog started to await the arrival of my sister, Ellen, who with another sister, Lynn, had taken over the operation of my father’s store. Ellen came home the same way my father did, rumbling into the garage in Dad’s old station wagon and Tris was waiting. She claimed him as her own and spoke to him in the tender tones one reserves for their own beloved husband and children.

I had moved into a nearby apartment with hanging baskets of flowers on my balcony. At night, while falling asleep, I could listen to three separate sets of trains in the distance, the local from Philadelphia, the Amtrak from New York and a freight train, far, far away. The freight was the longest and the best. I would lie in my bed and listen to the wheels ringing over the tracks. It was like music, soft, rhythmic. Sometimes it took 10 minutes for the whole train song to end. You could look out your window into the darkness but never could you see a single train.

Although I lived alone, I still considered my mother’s house my home. Sometimes, if I was lonely, I would go over and make myself an egg or open a can of tuna. Although I still wasn’t crazy about Tris, I enjoyed taking him for walks in the night. He had a sixth sense for sniffing things out, rabbits or cats or the odd piece of food lying on the grass. I couldn’t hate him; he had his place, keeping everyone close.

I was witness to the household as the years went by and nothing changed. David still preferred his room to the noises and bodies of the outside world. I continued out of decorum to greet him and ask a few polite questions, although he had long stopped speaking. My mother persisted in trying to fix him, reminding him to put on deodorant or to clean up his shaving hairs in the bathroom. He was the only male left in the family.

Among the girls, there was always infighting. Ellen lost a swift struggle against Lynn to keep her share of the store. Brooking no competition, Lynn ejected her older sister from behind the jewelry counter and out the door. The store couldn’t contain them both. Ellen retreated home, becoming companion and personal assistant to my mother. Hers became an almost enviable position, protected by my mother from the unloving outside world, safe in her wide-skirted frocks, another closeted Emily Dickenson without the rhyme. Did Emily have a dog?  It seems fitting, a big shaggy maned retriever that she could talk to.

Ellen had her Tris. Her solicitousness, her attention to his every need, the lack of guile or deceit between them made it a durable relationship. Ellen, thin, with grey streaks beginning to twine through her dark auburn hair, stayed fit by exercising in the rec room and dieting on a regular basis. The dog, on a faster time sequence, began to get ailments, things that people suffer from. Ellen insisted, jokingly, that he was reincarnated from one of our distant relatives. Who knows?  Coming home from walks, he had to be checked for ticks. With great patience and solemnity, Ellen, with Mom hovering nearby, would pluck the ticks from his white, shaking body, using Vaseline-daubed Q-tips or the hot dying embers of sweet-smelling matchsticks.

Of more severity was his arthritis which curled his back into a hump and made his legs stick straight out. He would go up and down the stairs on his belly like going down a sliding board. The dog was getting old, all right.

The day came when, though he The day came when, though he breathed, he ceased to move, so, he ceased to move, so Ellen gathered him up in her arms—he was quite fat now—and carried him to the vet. The vet advised euthanasia.

Ellen refused. The vet gave her some thimble-sized pills to push down the dog’s throat. For two days it looked like Tris might pull through. Then he relapsed.

You don’t need to know much about dogs to know that Tris was on his last legs. He lay on his little pillow in Ellen’s magazine-scattered room. His entire being was concentrated on catching his next breath. From his pillow, he wheezed and panted and gasped, straining like a swimmer to get to the surface. He couldn’t make it.

Ellen awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of no breathing. Only the dog’s vast silence and the vacuum of two lives, hers and his, funneling into one, roused her. The mound of pinkish white fur was stilled.

“Do you want to know what he looked like when he died?” she asked me in the morning.

“Yes, tell me,” I said, not needing to know, but doing it for her.

“His eyes were half-open, glassy, and his teeth were bared like this.” She bared her teeth at me.

I am always there when it’s time to bury someone. I went with my mother to bury my father and I myself picked out the coffin. I felt, as the oldest son (though I really am a girl), that it was I alone who should pick out my father’s casket. Now it was time to bury the dog. Or rather dispose of the dog. This time, I was no longer the eldest son. I was the driver, the chauffeur. I was to drive them— Mom, Ellen and the remains of Tris—to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that mythologic ending place for all pets. Tris was fortunate. We brought him there already dead.

I picked them up at the house. Tris was ready, in a cardboard box without a lid. I could see his bared teeth. It was a pose neither I nor Ellen had ever seen before in life.

It was a sunny day in February, the kind where you see crocuses for the first time and smell a reminder of spring. The clouds were crisp and moving fast.

“Put the carton in the trunk,” I told Ellen, unlocking the trunk.

“It’ll fit perfectly in the back seat,” she said. She and my mother were already hefting it into the back seat.

“No! Put the carton in the trunk,” I said again, louder. There was no way that I would drive around with a dead dog in the back seat.

The sun would beat down on him, warming his forever cold body, and I might see him, his earthly remains, in my rear-view mirror. They put him in the trunk and then tried to get away with not shutting it all the way. I went back and slammed it shut. Someone in this family has to have common sense under pressure.

I took the scenic route to the SPCA, which closed at 3 p. m. on Sundays. They worried we wouldn’t get there on time.

“Where do you think you’re going?” my mother asked. “By way of Florida?”

“Ruthie,” said Ellen, who was looking out the back window at the trunk. “It’ll be dark by the time we get there.”

I assured them both I knew exactly where I was going. It was on the same street as the classical music station. True, I had never actually seen the SPCA but it shouldn’t be too far past the radio station. Or before.

But when, for the fourth time, we circled the sprawling white building that was the radio station, the SPCA was still nowhere to be found.

I feigned indifference. But inside I was terrified. If we didn’t find this place by 3, we’d be left with a dead dog on our hands. I pulled into an Acme supermarket and after asking around a bit, a peppy older man approached and offered circuitous directions.

We thanked him heartily, then looked at each other. “Do you think he knows what he’s talking about?” my mother asked.

“I believe him,” I said, putting the car into drive.

We got there with 45 minutes to spare. I wanted to crow like a rooster. The SPCA was an innocuous looking brick building that could have passed for a post office. Out front, a frisky young Dalmatian with legs as long as a colt’s was playing ball with his teen-age owner. They were as carefree as if this were their own front lawn. When we entered the waiting room and spoke to the receptionist, we learned the truth about the dog. He was going to be put to sleep. The thought that he must have some incurable disease ran through my head. But, no. It was even worse. He couldn’t stop biting children.

The receptionist had Ellen sign a form and told us to drive our car around to the back. We followed the road to the back door where two hefty men walked out to the car and, as if they did this all day long, lifted the carton with the dog out of the trunk. Ellen and my mother got out of the car. No way was I getting out. I watched instead in the rear-view mirror.

I heard Ellen and my mother cooing softly over the dog. C’mon, I thought, it’s just a dog. They spoke in the kindly, loving tones reserved for communing with the dead or near-dead. They had spoken this way to my dead father and they also spoke this way to my brother when, he, too, followed, intentionally, in my father’s faded footsteps. No one believed that David had it in him to think of such a thing. As for me, I never doubted his emotional sophistication for a moment. When he was 7, he heard me playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” on the piano and created his own version of it, a beautiful piece with dark, shimmering chords.

I hated to see them go. The only two men in the family. Three, if you counted the dog. Each so different, each so integral to the workings of the household. How would we manage with all of them gone?

One thing I learned was to stay away from dead bodies. I figured this out after seeing my brother lying in a hospital gown in the emergency room with his hairy legs sticking out and his shiny yellow forehead. He was dead of an overdose of antidepressants. The doctor had prescribed them to perk him up. They never worked. David must have saved them up. Now he was lying behind a curtain in a private nook in the ER. Blackheads peppered his nose and upper lip. I had never noticed them before. No, I had never taken the time to look at David for more than 10 seconds at a time. I really didn’t know how. “Who will pop these blackheads?” I asked myself at his bedside. “Shall I stay here and pop them all until I’m done?” I decided not to.

There’s never a need to look at a dead body. There is nothing on earth that you can do for them. Nothing. Not even if you yell and scream at the top of your lungs right into their faces. They will simply never hear you. Ever.

The man carrying the carton was carrying it high enough so that it was impossible to tell or even guess what was inside. For all we knew, it could have been a carton full of used encyclopedias. Whatever was in the box disappeared into the darkness of the building.

My mother and Ellen got back inside the car. I made a big looping U-turn. I wanted to leave as fast as I could. I was really in a hurry to get out of there. When we came around the loop again, one of the men had come back out again. Ellen rolled down her window.

“Are you going to do it today?” she called.

“Yes,” he said.

That did it. I tried not to let them see me, but I started crying. Big splashes of tears pelted with hot fury down my cheeks. Then it didn’t matter if they saw me or not because we were all caught in our own reflectiveness, our own emptied-out world, a world that had come and gone, where people we loved had lived and died, as quick as reading a comic book, then faded away for good.

We saw the smoke stack on our way out. It was not a big one, just a medium-sized smoke stack, about one and a half stories high. I wasn’t going to bring it to their attention. I was just going to drive by. But they saw it anyway.

“I wonder when Tris will be coming through,” Ellen said. “Maybe the Dalmatian will be coming through with him.”

“We’re not staying,” I said firmly.

I thought of the Dalmatian, charging the ball on the lawn when we pulled into the drive. If only there had been some way to get through to him.

About the Author

Ruth Deming

Ruth Deming is a poet and therapist living in Willow Grove, Pa. She recently won a 1998 Leeway Foundation writer’s grant award for emerging artists. She publishes a mental health newsletter, The Compass Quarterly, for people with mood disorders.

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