...i'll return to my regular snarky writing next week...
My father bought the Basenji without asking my mother about it. He knew we girls would get one look at the small, fox-red, white-muzzled dog, and there’d be no way she could object. I named him Rex, and for the first night in our house we swaddled him in one of April’s diapers—his corkscrew tail protruding from the top—and he slept in my bed.
|...yeah, that's me...in all my tom boy glory...|
Whoever had sold my father the dog had warned him of the mean streak prevalent in the breed. But my grandfather had a Basenji, a black and grey variety, and we’d been around Putteran all of our lives without so much as a howl scaring us. Putteran herded us around our grandparents’ Paso Robles ranch, but he’d never even bared his teeth.
My father spent most of the weekend constructing a fenced yard for Rex to roam. He chose the left side of the house because of the eucalyptus tree that would provide some shade, enclosing it with cyclone fencing and putting the gate right off the sliding glass door. The pen reached around the side of the house so Rex could guard our dirt road. From my parents’ bedroom window I spied on Rex without him knowing, mostly at night just before I went to bed. I’d press my cheek to the glass, hold my breath and move only my eyes while I scanned the dark yard for Rex. He would be sleeping inside his doghouse, sitting near the gate and peering into the sliding glass door where my family sat watching television, or lying atop his doghouse—his preferred pose as it allowed him to jump a great distance and look intimidating to anyone who passed.
My father built the doghouse with its raised floor and a top that opened on a piano hinge. We painted it yellow and put an old blanket inside, and the first night Rex slept outdoors he cried and howled. “He wants to sleep with me,” I told my parents, coming into the living room long after I should’ve been asleep.
“Dogs don’t belong in the house,” my mother said. She sat at the kitchenette, cutting Alpha Beta coupons.
My father’s lips pursed into a thin line. He let out a huff and stretched his back in his black recliner.
“Grandpa has Putteran in his lap. Scoshee comes inside.”
“Joyce,” my father said.
“Dogs live outside,” my mother said. “Your sister can’t breathe.”
April’s asthma had improved since we moved to the desert, but something as minor as Rex’s short, bristly hair could set her off.
“Go back to bed,” my father said. “He’ll quit in a minute. He’ll get used to being out there alone.”
And he did. He was standing on top of his yellow doghouse each morning when I came outside to tell him goodbye before I left for school. When I walked home from the bus stop, he was still standing, his nose lifted, smelling for me as I came down the road. He eventually wore away the paint with his nails and gnawed the corners of the plywood roof.
Rex needed something other than tumbleweeds to herd. So on the weekends my father trained him to run after birds. Crows landed in dark clouds in our back acre and my father eventually got Rex to run after them. Sometimes he launched himself into the sky trying to catch one. He never did, but when they perched in the eucalyptus he howled and snarled, causing my father to burst into a fit of laughter. We trained him with a Frisbee after that and then a softball. His mouth was too small for the ball, even after he’d reached full growth, but he snapped at the laces and eventually could get hold of a loose one and carry it back to me. After school I played with Rex. When my father came home, we played with him together.
But Rex growled and snarled at strangers. My mother and sisters didn’t care for him. It fell to me to care for him while my father was at work, feed him twice a day, and rub his fine short coat. We ran the length of the dog pen, and I walked him around the back acre on his leash. When it was time to fetch, I let him run to the back corner where the Ditmeyers had a fence where he’d turn and charged at me, trying to herd me into the house. Sometimes sidetracked, he chased a rabbit or crow. His fine red body stood out like a blaze in the yellowing tumbleweeds. Sometimes we raced up and down the street. He howled at cars and snapped at neighbors, and I wouldn’t fear a thing.
No other kids came around; they were afraid of our dog.
In the fall of 1987, just a few months after my father was sentenced to 101 years in prison, Rex went to the pound. I was at school when they came for him, and when I got home he wasn’t sitting on his yellow roof. The dog pen was empty. “Someone will adopt him,” my mother said when she told me, and I began to cry. “We can’t keep a dog. We can’t keep this house.”
Grandma came for dinner that night. She’d moved to the desert by then, and since my father’s arrest, I’d been splitting my time between houses. After we ate—a quiet dinner where I sniffed and couldn’t look at my mother—I went to my room with my He-Man figures. I fought the urge to sneak down the hall and press my nose to the glass in my mother’s bedroom. I had convinced myself I could bring Rex back if I stayed there long enough.
Before the arrest, Grandma often brought Brandy with her on her nightly visits to our house. She and Rex would touch noses through the fence, and Grandma would sneak him little pieces of chicken. “He isn’t mean. You’re mother just hates dogs,” Grandma said.
“So what?” my mother would answer her.
Grandma would shrug, as if to say, You’re an idiot. Don’t you know dogs are a man’s best friend?
Perhaps that was the problem all along.
Though they didn’t think I could hear, Grandma and my mother sat talking about what had happened the day Animal Control came for my dog. I heard them whisper “choking,” “muzzle,” “cage,” and “pitiful” while they sat in the living room talking the way they’d come to talk since my father’s arrest. I crawled into the center of my large bed, my face burning, my throat suddenly sore and tight. Rex had been put into a metal cell, the kind the janitor at school used to catch the feral cats living under the modular classrooms. They smelled like piss and shit and spray. And now Rex was in one. Or he was out at the pound, a place I imagined as jail for mean animals, where he’d be cooped up inside without his dog house, no fence to watch me through. That night I imagined I heard him howling for me. I soaked my pillow with tears, and in the middle of the night I snuck out into his pen and sat on the dog house waiting for him to come home. I watched the clear, cold sky and prayed to the only God I knew to please bring my dog back. Even if he couldn’t do anything about my father—as my mother had told me—I begged him for my dog, for my best friend. If I’d known he was going to be taken away, I told God, I would’ve let him run. I would’ve opened the gate and let his mean little body loose on the world. I would’ve given him an escape. I ended my prayer the way my father always ended his, “I ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Rex has been dead for over twenty years. I know now they must have euthanized him in the first week. He was dead when I waited for God to deliver him to me after school, dead when I thought I heard him howl, dead when I moved away from our T-14 house for good. He was dead when I cried and begged my mother not to leave the house because God was going to bring Rex back and I wouldn’t be there to rub his fine coat.
I still choke on the memory of him, the futility of childhood, my father’s laugh while Rex ran the acre catching Frisbees and herding crows. Though I never once wished or prayed for my father to return—in fact I soon learned to do the opposite—years after he was taken I still waited for Rex to show up wandering along a Littlerock dirt road, waiting for me to claim him.