My first dog died just after I turned 18.
There were other dogs that I have names for and photos of but I don’t recognize my baby self so I definitely don’t remember Rosie, Frankenstein, and Beau. There was Clover, too, a hunting dog too mean to be left on the chain in the front yard because our house was a bus stop for the local schools. We kept her in back, tied to the wooden playhouse—two floors with a plastic steering wheel, gymnast rings, and this blue, yellow, and green tarpaulin roof. We gave up Clover to a work friend of my dad’s who passed her on, and on and on she went until Bill, a guy I interned with the summer after Lucky died. He said Clover settled down a lot after being re-homed so often. She needed the right person to love her and we weren’t that for her. I remember she was cute and that I was scared before she ever bit me, but little else.
With Clover in mind, I don’t know why we kept Lucky. He was a pound puppy two days past execution due to a clog in the euthanizer, thus the name. And if Clover was mean, Lucky was vicious.
He bit me so many times my fingers should be all scar. The little mutt, maybe up to my knees as a kid, would leap with a snarl and get my nose. That left a mark. He got Beverly, my sister’s best friend. And Kevin, the idiot neighbor boy who my parents, his father, and I all warned not to stick his fingers through the fence and I’d say Lucky growling and snapping his alligator jaw at the kid was warning too. Only the cat and my mom seemed unafraid while my dad, a giant to me as a kindergartner, left the room whenever Lucky sauntered in after devouring his kibble.
But he wasn’t bad, I guess. Just broken in the way dogs from the pound sometimes are.
He still had his doggy desires, like chasing the tennis ball—once. Then he’d wrap it up in his paws as he tore off the fuzz. When I’d reach in, you know, to throw it and give him that primitive joy of the chase for another 20 feet, he’d growl.
He’d rev louder as I got close and it became a game—no, a test of courage. To go as close as possible without getting the fur on his spine spiked and his lips curled so his crooked teeth showed how they’d lean into the gap where too intense tug-of-war had torn out teeth. The trick was to go low and slow. Stop if he got agitated. Start when he went back to balding the ball. So the game relied on courage, know-how, and patience, and even so I’d sometimes lose.
My friend Dirk lost a lot. He’d get so very close that Lucky went silent.
And Dirk thought that meant he’d won. He had made the beast submit. And so, he’d reach in further.
Lucky seemed to go quieter.
Then strike with a bark and snap and he’d keep gnashing till his neck was as far as it’d stretch.
We’d run or cry or just bleed from a mangled fingernail on the carpet. Really, there were no winners. Only losers of the brave and of the stupid variety.
So even while playing, Lucky was wild, but it wasn’t a sudden switch. There were tells and a lead-up that I knew, but in my insensitive youth, testing myself against the beast, I probably wasn’t what he needed to heal.
Every morning I’d take him from the chain in back and chase him with a leather leash dragging (knotted together where he had chewed through thrice) down the stairs to the basement and he, the king of this house, ran because if I caught the leash, I’d lash it like an Iditarod racer I’d read about, not realizing the memories of abuse it might scare up or the strength even a child had over a dog. I was young and unsupervised and now I’m very sorry for it.
As I got older and better about caring for him and big enough to take him for walks without getting yanked and scabbed—and, really, that was a big part of his good behavior. My size. He was to my thighs standing on end and his outbursts no longer swayed anyone but my dad. But it was a complex evolution for us all and it’s hard to say if it my treatment or just our relative size or his age, but eventually he became a good boy that I still miss.
When his age got to double digits, I was crying into my blue middle school locker while speeding through last night’s reading homework because my parents had talked about “sleep,” the least effective euphemism of our time.
Lucky’d been sick from some passing thing and they’d put him on the steroid Prednisone to treat it. The dosage was toxic. His liver was failing. His first blood tests said so, and my parents had to promise to get a second opinion just to get my sister and I to even eat our dessert without crying. We were getting a lot of ice cream that week. The swirly kind in that giant Prairie Farms tub with the flimsy handle that went into the freezer see-through so we could inspect for a lode of chocolate, but after two years on the shelf (not even half eaten), it was spoon-bendingly frozen and the container seemed made entirely of frost.
If I’d been older, I might’ve been less horrified by the discussion about “sleep” because everyone hated that, but what got me was the money factor. As a kid, I couldn’t understand why we didn’t just dump vacation funds and mortgage payments into a dog liver transplant or whatever luxury treatment might save him. To be fair to my parents, there was no guarantee that the costly options would work, but—again, as a kid—I couldn’t understand how the vet could charge us if Lucky died. We were paying them to save his life! Weren’t we?
Anyway, that period was a blur of feeling mixed up and that was the first time Missy Penderghast said anything to me. “Sorry ‘bout your dog,” and I knew then that this compassionate, intelligent, wonderful human being and I were destined for a lifelong friendship and love—except I was too shy, even in my misery, to do more than nod.
I don’t really remember how, but Lucky survived the liver failure.
The rumor mill that’d spread my locker crying to Missy P didn’t carry the good news with the same fervor and I failed to make clear to classmates that had asked about Lucky during the crisis that he had lived. So during a family tree project, complete with poster board, Lucky got his own branch next to Cupcake, our cat, and my sister got nothing, and as I presented photos of grandparents no one would ever meet, I was already trembling about being in front of the class and having to talk. Then I pointed to Lucky, announcing to everyone I’d taken the photo that morning (a model of preparedness).
Missy P interrupted to ask, “Didn’t it die?”
A few years later, I had my permit and Missy had moved or died or just had a locker on the other side of the high school. An announcement from the office pulled me out of Chem class while we were learning about electron orbits and spin. My grandpa was dead, I thought.
My parents had just visited Indiana last week after he collapsed in a Kroger’s parking lot, everyone thinking it another heart attack, which it was, but now the doctors knew he had lung cancer too and his ETD was a year. The ETD was wrong.
At home, Mom had piled fresh laundry into her suitcase for everyone and she was trying to close it without even spreading the clothes into an even layer so she violently shook the bag till enough socks fell onto the floor that she could close it. She was also shouting the whole time. About how she’d been working nights at the hospital so she was asleep when Grandma had called and she used a sound machine that drowned out the ringer, so Grandma called my dad who tried Mom again on the landline and her cell, but again, not loud enough, so he called Pam, the mother of the idiot neighbor boy Kevin, to wake up Mom. She tried the doorbell, then the doorknob, before finally stomping through the garden that surrounded the house to bang on the screen of my mom’s bedroom window, scaring her half to death.
“Is Grandpa dead?”
“No, he’s fi--” She stopped giving me that bullshit from last week that was to protect either me or herself from the reality. “You’ll get to say goodbye.”
This was my first real experience with death. I guess there were a couple funerals for my great grandparents but I only remember being told about those—I also remember their wiener dog. I was of no help to Mom. Everyone was a mess of tears or uncertain on what to do or say, but Mom was strong. She made me drive though. She needed to sleep.
Back then, GPS wasn’t really a thing. Smart phones either. And I’d never driven to Indiana before. It should’ve taken two hours, but I got lost. Imagine if--
Lucky was in the backseat. There’d been no time to book a dogsitter or the dog hotel so we brought him and in the flurry of grabbing things, we forgot his food. We left the garage door up, too, and contractors came by to fix the boiler in the basement and they rung the doorbell then just came on in through the garage and then went looking for either us or a check on the counter when they were finished and finally had to call my dad, who read them his credit card number over the phone while we were in the hospital waiting room. Dad drove up separately. He was at work at the time and he was going to meet my sister at home, who was off at her first year of Ole Miss, but for some reason they arrived separately and so did my uncle and his wife because they were now separated and I think by the end, we had seven cars at my grandma’s house. It could’ve been—some say should’ve been—one more, but my aunt never met up with us. I still don’t know that history. I hope she’s okay. Everyone was angry at her but they were just looking for someone to blame. She did visit my grandpa at like 3 am, the nurse told us, but she skipped the family support group and later the funeral.
We all saw him for a few days. My sister cried and my dad too and my uncle and his soon-to-be ex-wife, and my little cousin, maybe 6 at the time, but only because he wasn’t allowed to wear his Spider-Man pajamas at the hospital and he was too young to understand death so he didn’t cry about that.
I don’t think I ever cried.
Not even after we left with Grandpa still alive and my sister came back home for a day before the long trip back to Mississippi and it was the weekend, morning, when I got a call on my cell from my sister telling me that Grandpa had died. “Could you tell Mom?” I don’t know how she heard the news first.
We went back, bringing Lucky again, and had the funeral with just the eight of us, plus his body I guess, and we all gave eulogies. Mine made everyone laugh.
Mom asked if I was okay and I felt my eyes but they were dry and hers weren’t and I don’t remember, I really don’t, but I hoped I hugged her.
Lucky held on through several bouts of vet visits where they brought up euthanasia as the best option based on his comfort levels. Lucky had gone blind, his eyes milky, and he was deaf, getting surprised whenever he bumped into a chair leg or my leg, and sometimes he’d just stop, feeling the house shake as someone walked around and he’d look so pathetic trying to see them, hear them, or just smell them but nothing seemed to work anymore. We put a gate up to the stairs—sometimes. The gate was a hassle to climb over and whenever a tractor drove by, it fell, smacking onto the hardwood of the foyer, scuffing it, or it’d knock over a decorative basket of pine cones we kept on the stairs. Everyone hated the gated and Lucky was smart enough not to go up—right?
He was a sad old man, wandering the first floor looking for affection he spurned as a youth or looking for kibble he had dropped from his jaw mid-meal when a senile thought made him wander. Mom had to help him up onto the bed. We walked him in the back yard because he might fall in the pool, but also, we hated yelling for him in the dark corners, looking for the sheen of his cataracts in moonlight, or he might be tangled in the ivy behind the retaining wall. The leash was easier.
At Thanksgivings, the topic of sleep came up again because he might not survive the kennel during Christmas visits to Grandma.
But he did. They shaved him and when we left, they mistakenly gave him another dog’s toy, this long plush-covered tube with a dog head and wherever he squeezed, it’d squeak. With all that moppish fur gone, he felt peppy. Like he was 15 again. We’d throw the new toy and he’d run as much his arthritis let him and he’d stop halfway, forgetting, to lie on the cool hardwood, but he’d be smiling. First time we saw that in years.
So we thought he’d see me graduate in the Spring at least and I was worried he’d die while I was off at college because that’d be awful for him to go without one last cuddle from his best bud.
December 27, I was out with Dirk, my friend; Elle, my on-and-off lover girl person friend (it was very confusing what we were), and Elle’s friend whose name I never knew. We sat together at a late movie, Elle and I, and secretly held hands and shared popcorn and sometimes she’d miss the bag to give me a cheeky tease on the lap.
My phone kept buzzing.
The only two people who’d call were on either side of me so it had to be a parent and I was a rebellious teen who knew to be home by midnight. I ignored it.
We were watching I Am Legend, that Will Smith movie where he snapped his German Shepherd’s neck after the zombie infected it. I cried so much Elle reached over to comfort me and then realized that wasn’t appropriate for my mood so she just took my hand.
Afterward, we went to Steak n Shake for pancakes and french fries we’d dip in milkshakes and when I went to the bathroom, Dirk tossed his straw wrapper in mine. It was mostly gone already so I only pretended I was mad when I dumped half a bottle of pepper in his untouched strawberry shortshake, and then he—well, we maybe made a bit of a mess and left a sizable tip for the entire third shift. We were so loud inside that I had missed my phone buzzing up a storm.
Dirk couldn’t ignore it rattling against my knee on the drive home so he reached around the shift for my lower pocket of my cargo pants and lingered long enough to say, “I’m in your pants.”
I told him to stop. “What if it’s Elle?”
“Then I hope she sent a photo.”
I slammed to a stop at the traffic light by Mansion Road that I might’ve rolled through but last summer I’d gotten my first ticket so I was extra cautious even on this barren road between cornfields that’d just been sold to the city for a new subdivision. But for now it was empty. Just us in the dark. The music cranked too loud. I’m guessing here, but knowing how I was back then, it was probably Fuck It by Seether. This light was notorious for taking a minute and we’d gotten to it just after the switch so we had a wait.
Looking back, I wonder what Dirk would’ve done if I hadn’t been stopped.
He handed me the flip phone and said, “Call your dad.”
Instead I read the texts.
Lucky had gone up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the first floor. He was fat but managed to squeeze through the banister slats. He fell. He slammed onto the hardwood outside the office where my dad had been in his boxers doing the year’s taxes already. Lucky broke his back. My dad was home alone and took Lucky to the vet and saved him from any further agony.
I got out of the car.
I left my car parked at the paint, still running, lights on, and Dirk hit the hazards, as I paced around the car wanting to kick a tire but remembering how much it hurt last time and that wasn’t even about anything I can remember now.
“He left the fucking gate down!” I yelled into the night and I felt my voice roll over on itself in a wounded growl. “I mean… I did. But I was leaving! Late! And Lucky was in back. He should’ve put it back up!”
Dirk didn’t have pets. He didn’t understand. “Sorry, man.”
Headlights with their brights shining through the jagged corn stalks came up to the street we’d be turning down and Dirk pulled me into the passenger seat and drove me home then walked the ten blocks to his house.
Lucky was in a box in the garage, wrapped in a towel. It was like looking at a photo. Like it was him, but not really, and it made me so sad.
Dad was back in his boxers in his stupid creaking swivel chair. He offered a hug, or wanted one for himself, but I just stomped up to my bathroom where I slept on the shag bathmat till 8 am the next morning. It was winter break and Mom had just come home from her night shift.
“When are we burying Lucky?”
“Oh,” she said, flipping through yesterday’s mail. “Dad already did before work.”
Lucky’s new toy was in the family room, outside his wicker basket of frayed ropes, rubber-only tennis balls, Frisbees, and a slew of plushies he never slobbered on so the fur was still soft. I hid the basket in my closet.
A few months later, my sister had rescued her second dog, Copper, an abused vizsla that almost had its legs shot off by the her previous owner. She’d brought the poor girl to visit. Copper was terrified of men, especially in baseball caps, and she leaned against my sister when possible; otherwise it was against the bathroom door, or if my sister was out, against a wall—always trembling. I tried to give her space.
But I still had to exist in the house, grabbing lunch, going to the bathroom, or putting the dog out, and when I tried to bring Copper back in, she just kept running the perimeter of the fence, no matter how slow or gently I moved, and it had started to rain which Copper loved but I didn’t want her to get muddier or sick. It was only February. So I chased her inside, and I guess I scared her too much, because she darted through the house faster than I could follow with a mud towel, but she left a clear trail of print and fear urine. It was easy enough to avoid on the carpet, where the sprinkles darkened, but on the wood floors—I thought I was doing a good job straddling the stream until my sock soaked up something warm.
Copper’s mud prints had faded as the grime got wiped onto the carpet. I tried cleaning as I went so the muck didn’t set in.
When I found Copper, she had overturned the wicker basket in my closet and was hiding among the plushies, already asleep, her head between her paws, using a ball as a chin pillow.