It’s telling that we never named really named him. He arrived, half-wanted, for my sister’s 16th birthday. We debated for a few weeks about what to name him. My oldest brother, always erudite, suggested “Canis,” the genus for dogs. I was only 12, so perhaps “Puppy,” was the junior high school equivalent.We gave up trying to name him after a couple weeks. He stayed “Puppy.” He was a generic.
He was clearly a terrier, not just in looks but in spirit. We were told he was nine-months old, but I don’t remember him growing or even changing much. He was skinny and scrappy, his coat was never quite right. His height and the spray of hair made him seem bigger than he was, but he was 25-pounds sopping wet.
My God he was fierce, though. Not long after we got him, he took on a white shepherd down the street. The shepherd guarded a house and a junkyard, making him, in fact, a junkyard dog. My friends and I were terrified of him. The shepherd, though, made the mistake of wandering too far up the street toward our house. Puppy took him on and slaughtered him. I just watched a video of a hyena taking on a zebra. The scenes really weren’t much different. The shepherd never came up the street again.
Puppy was also profligate. I saw him in action more than a couple of times. He didn’t seem to have a type, really. Some of his playmates were bigger, some smaller, some were purebred, some were mutts like him. Puppy decided to have a date once right in the middle of one of my Pony League baseball games. We threw gloves at them, tried to chase them off; even a garden hose didn’t stop him. He finished his job. Within a couple of years, we started to notice more and more dogs around the neighborhood who looked sort of like Puppy. Picture a beagle with that spray of fur or a spaniel with Puppy’s semi-deranged look in his eyes.
When he was around us, Puppy was a sweet dog though. We were latchkey kids, and whoever made it home first was greeted with an orgasm of Puppy’s excitement. In good weather, he would have been in the yard. He would hear the side gate, make for it on a sprint, and bounce off it before we could even swing it open. He would then race to the back door, bounce off that, and come bombing back at us. Our sideyard couldn’t have been longer than 40 feet, but Puppy would repeat this again and again. He would bounce off the back door, make it back to our feet, sprint back to the door, return, and on and on. He was so quick on his feet that he could do this 15 or more times before we got to the door. It wasn’t a bad end to a day at school.
Puppy had his inner circle. He challenged friends who visited until he had met them ten or so times. He controlled the flow of the house. All friendly traffic to our house was through the backdoor into the kitchen. Only strangers rang the front doorbell. I have no doubt Puppy would have mauled every stranger he could sink his teeth into, but he seemed to know a frontal attack might not work. He was only 25 pounds after all, so he would stand behind the door as it opened and begin this low, menacing growl. He would keep at it however long the conversation at the door took. The stranger would stammer and sweat, then snap from the pressure in less than a minute, turn and leave. Puppy seemed to especially like scaring off Jehovah’s Witnesses, even the cute girl from my high school, no matter how many times I tried to tell him not to.
As attached as he was to my mom and my siblings, he made it clear that he could have happily and successfully lived on his own. He escaped the house and the yard every chance he got. If we happened to go out the front door for some reason, he always got in our legs, turned us around, and bolted out. He would do the same thing if we carelessly left the gate open for a beat too long when we were taking in the trash barrels. He would be gone for hours but would always come back.
I remember one morning when Puppy was quite a bit older. He could have even been 10 or so, because we were all busy with college and the start of our careers and were only around sporadically . My oldest brother and I happened to be at my mom’s house one weekday morning. I was eating breakfast; my brother, who was living in New York at the time, was dressed for a meeting in Boston. My mom had left for school already when a noise at the front of the house distracted me. I stepped outside to look and–bam!–Puppy bolted through my legs, down the stairs, and out to the street. I remember thinking, If he could, he would be pumping his fist!
Something must have caught Puppy’s eye, because he bolted across our little street, cut through a small used car lot, and ran straight into traffic on the main road. A big car caught up to him and ran him straight over. I watched Puppy dragged from the front of the car, along its underside, until it spit him out the back. Cars started braking, tires squealing, including the car that hit him. Puppy scrambled to his feet, turned back toward me, and sprinted back into the house.
The driver and her daughter–God bless them–were distraught. They pulled over, got out, and came right over to me. My brother had already checked on Puppy. Apart from some mussed fur and a wide stripe of engine oil and grease, he was fine. This wasn’t his first rodeo.They were inconsolable though. They hugged each other and me as if we were plain crash survivors.
“Really,” I kept saying. “He’s fine. He does this all the time.” After I repeated this about 10 times, and they finally took note that my brother and I had perfectly dry eyes, they must have concluded we were crazy people. They put away their kleenex and left.
I tell myself I am good at remembering dates, especially sad ones, but for the life of me I can’t remember how long we had Puppy. We got him in 1971. I left for college in 1977 and I am pretty sure he was still at my mom’s in the winter of 1981-1982. I was staying at my mom’s a couple of nights a week, trying to do my best dealing with a 75-mile commute I was enduring until my then-first-wife could finish school and we could move closer to my work. Puppy and my mom were largely on their own, and he had settled down. My mom could walk him and he wouldn’t pee 75 times like he did with me or pull on his leash to break away. She would walk him around our little neighborhood and he would be a perfect gentleman. If she had to stop into a store, she would just drop his leash and he would sit there, like any normal dog, and stare at the front of the store until she reappeared again.
I honestly lost track of when Puppy died. My nephew, Max, remembers being told he had gone to a farm in New Zealand. Max was born in 1977 and that’s the kind of lie you can only get away with until a kid is maybe seven, so I am guessing Puppy left us in 1983 or early 1984. I emailed one of my brothers. He didn’t have much more of a clue than I did.
Nowadays we cremate our pets, keep their ashes. My mother would have considered that vulgar, so no doubt she just paid whatever fee the veterinarian charged to put Puppy to sleep and deal with his remains.
Nowadays we also take a million pictures, but I only have that one. It’s from Christmas, 1973. The object to the right of his front paws might be a ball we had gotten him as a present, but I remember my mom freezing a bone on Christmas Eve, then leaving it out for him to find it. There’s that crazy hair of his, the wild look in his eye. There’s a detail I forgot–a tuft of white fur on his left front paw, almost as if he had stepped into some snow. It’s a terrible picture really, out of focus, fuzzy. If it’s the only picture we have of him, and, really, he deserved better.