Other People's Dogs
Halfway through our 30's, my husband and I decided to leave our jobs and move to the mountains. I was working at Wal-Mart for thirty-five hours a week and no benefits, and I hated myself every time I pulled on my blue pinnie and went into that gaping maw of unfettered commerce. I should’ve finished the B.A., should’ve gotten the right credentials for the better job, should’ve listened, at least that once, to my parents instead of rejecting all their advice whole-cloth. I saw myself as an artist, but lately it had seemed I had less and less energy for making a pot and more and more interest in smoking it.
My husband, Dan, is a solid midwesterner who can fix anything, build anything, and put together the most complicated piece of electronic equipment you could imagine. He’s also dyslexic, so he didn’t do too well in school. He moved south following a girlfriend who broke up with him three months later, and we met when I took a gardening workshop at the community college, both of us interested in learning to grow what we could then put up and eat. My parents weren’t crazy about Dan (“who are his people?” my mother asked) but they grew to like the way he could repair anything they needed around the house and his willingness to get dirty and sweaty out in the yard when my mother needed a new rose-bed dug.
Once we made the decision, we started driving into the hills on weekends, scouting out territory. We saved our money, stopped going out to eat, turned down the thermostat, and dreamed through the winter. Early in March, we were driving through the Ozarks near Fayetteville and saw a sign: “Camp Kum-Bay-Yah, For Sale.” An arrow pointed the way down a dirt track. It was an old Methodist summer church camp, with a main building, a screened-in meeting hall, a swimming hole, a barn, a nurse’s station, and plenty of room for a big kitchen garden. Paydirt. It was weird, but it would work. We’d start with what was there and fix it up as we went along. And the view, over a sparkling, trickling creek across to a green wooded hillside, was beautiful. We’d have to rename the place, of course.
We called the number, found we could afford the price, arranged the mortgage, and planned to work on it all summer and move in come September.
The main building had a large central room with a big kitchen off the back. To the left and right were wings with bedrooms, presumably one wing for boys and one for girls. We figured to take one wing for ourselves, knock out some walls for a large bedroom and living area, and get the other wing ready for friends to visit. I could take one of the outbuildings, probably the nurse’s station, for a pottery studio, Dan could store his tools in the barn and maybe even have a goat and some chickens, and the meeting hall would be great for hot weather, keeping out mosquitoes while giving us a place to read and eat and hang out.
All summer, we took turns working on the main building and putting in and tending a garden. I was determined to grow and put up most of our food, supplemented by eggs, goat milk and cheese, and whatever Dan turned up in the woods. He’s a good hunter, but he only kills what we can eat.
While all this was going on, both of us happy as clams about our new life, I should say that most of our family and friends were telling us that we were crazy. What about health insurance? What about snakes? What about email and FedEx and cable TV? My mother didn’t say much, devoted as she was to Being Positive with her daughters, but her face said volumes. It said, “Where Did I Go Wrong?” and “Why Can’t She Be Like My Other Daughters?” and, finally, “This Must Be Dan’s Idea.” This last left her ambivalent, I could tell. She is very much in favor of Supporting Your Husband but she also felt that perhaps there might be some kind of marital exemption for Supporting Your Husband When He Wants To Do A Crazy Thing Like Move Out Into The Wilderness.
Both my sisters were used to me being the rebellious little sister, so they each just took me aside and promised I could stay with them if I started going stir-crazy and needed a break and/or a hot bath.
Once our friends started to believe that we were really going to do this thing, and that it might actually work, they began to ask about coming to visit. Dan and I had decided that we needed to make it through the first winter on our own, and that then we could start having people in, once we’d worked out all the kinks in the system—whatever they might be—and gotten some guest rooms fixed up in the other wing. Our two cats, Beavis and Butthead (Danny’s idea—I call Butthead “Little B” because I don’t like yelling “Butthead” when I want to feed them), had examined the premises and found them acceptable, with probably a lifetime supply of small skittery things to chase and play with and a number of warm sunny spots beneath south-facing windows. Dan had brought them home from Lowe’s, where he was working then. Someone had dropped off these two kittens, one coal black, the other snow white, by the dumpsters and he couldn’t stand to leave them out there on the first cold night of the year.
We got a nice wood-burning stove at a salvage place, Dan fixed up the old generator, we laid in a supply of firewood for the stove and propane for the cooking range, and on a sunny day in September we moved. Despite the hard work of supporting ourselves through the winter, staying warm and fed and clean, I often fell into dreamy, slumbrous states. Never before had there been such clarity in my life, such peace. No phone to answer (we used the one at the gas station and general store five miles away), nothing much to buy, no cars or customers or television or . . . stimulation. That was it—I had come to live with so much external stimulation that I hardly knew what it felt like to simply sit and look out at the trees, follow the path of sunlight and shadow across the hill, wait for the hawk that always showed up at dusk. We could get the NPR station from Fayetteville, but I was happy to listen to it just in the evening, once the sun went down. Without smoking a single joint, I could watch a terrapin make his way across the grass for half an hour, marveling at the sturdiness of his legs, the patterning of his shell, imagining what life looked like from his one-inch-off-the-ground perspective.
Danny and I seemed more in tune, better in bed, easier with each other than we’d been in a while. When the first guests started arriving, we were the pictures of relaxation, and the best kind, that earned after the virtuous work is completed.
Janice and Pete asked if they could bring their English bulldog, Jeeves. Sure, I said, lots of room for animals!
Carita and James asked about bringing their two standard poodles, Heloise and Abelard.
Susan and Cotter brought Beowulf.
Millie and Angela brought Oprah and Maya.
Jack (aka Big Jack, Jacko, Maniac Jack), brought Boner, Booger, and Pissant.
It became the summer of other people’s dogs.
Although I am aware that you should be able to identify yourself as either a dog person or a cat person, I am neither. I don’t dislike either felines or canines, I just don’t see the point. Growing up, we never had pets because my oldest sister, Caroline, was allergic to pet dander. Well, we did have fish, but who can get attached to a fish? They either eat or are eaten.
Dan likes cats because he says they’re very tidy, and he is responsible for taking them to the vet, worming them, even changing the litter box. It’s one of the things I like about him, that he never pawns those chores off on me if he can help it. But most of our friends seem to have dogs, and I’ve learned to get along with them, carefully. When I was seven a neighbor’s Pekinese I was supposed to be learning to pet chomped down on my hand and held on like a Gila monster until its jaws were pried apart. I had to get a tetanus shot and three stitches, though fortunately not rabies shots. When we were kids, rabies shots were rumored to be the worst fate imaginable, apart from actually getting rabies: two weeks of painful shots—in your stomach.
But, as I say, I’ve learned to live with my friends’ dogs, to see them as cute if slightly annoying children that never grow up. I’d never had to actually live with them, though.
The first time I walked out to the kitchen, morning-groggy, in my sock feet, and stepped directly into a warm puddle of pee, I was furious—and vocal. Susan shot out of the guest room, apologizing profusely. “Beowulf’s really housetrained, I promise!” she said. “Must be the new surroundings. I am so, so sorry.” I ended up feeling as though I’d overreacted. And he didn’t do it again, so perhaps it was just a singular accident. The trouble was, he must have sprayed a few spots I didn’t see or step in, because for the next two months each new dog that arrived had to mark his spot over the last dog, ad infinitum. I investigated the relative odor-removing properties of various sprays: Ur-Out!, Ex-stink-shun, The Pee-liminator. As a last resort, one Sunday morning, scratching my flea bites, wearing my chewed-up tennis shoes (without socks, as I had just soiled my last clean pair), I called my mother. Actually took the truck, drove to the gas station, phoned her number, and was crying when she answered.
“Honey, what’s wrong? Is it Dan?”
“No, Mom, no, I’m sorry. It’s all these dogs!”
“Did you get bit?’
“No. They pee everywhere. All of them. I’m so tired of cleaning it up.”
There was a silence as my mother digested the situation. “All your friends are bringing their dogs, and you don’t feel you can say no, and the dogs are urinating inside, and you’re being left to clean it up,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said, marveling, as always, at her ability to zero in on the heart of the matter. “They feel so bad when it happens that I just don’t mention it,” I said. “But I can’t take it any longer. I really can’t.”
“Junebug,” she said, calling me by my old childhood nickname, which somehow made me feel that it was going to be OK. “First, you need some baking soda. That’ll take away the smell and make them stop marking the territory. Then you need something to say. Let’s try this: ‘We have a lovely and secure pen where [fill in dog’s name] is more than welcome to stay.’ Say it after me.”
Feeling silly but also not crying any more, I repeated the magic phrase. Twice. “But, Mom,” I said. “We don’t. Have a lovely and secure pen.”
“That’s what Dan is for,” she replied. “He can build anything in no time.”
She was right. I picked up a very expensive, very small bag of dog food at the gas station store, which had just opened, because Millie and Angela had forgotten to bring any, and headed home to talk to Dan. On the way inside I stepped in a fragrant pile of poop, strengthening my resolve. I felt that Dan would be on my side because he’d already lost two chickens, Esmerelda and Samantha, to visiting dogs that summer, and because Beavis and Butthead had become shadowy figures, showing up for food but otherwise finding safe, dog-free perches on beams and the tops of cabinets throughout the long summer days.
Dan measured, sawed, hammered. I cleaned, vacuumed, practiced. By the time Carly and Sam asked to come and bring their dog, Wolf Blitzer, I was ready with my mother’s phrase, plus my own variations, and this is what I said:
“We have a lovely and secure pen where Wolfie is more than welcome to stay. Oh, and be sure to bring a leash for walking him—black bears have been sighted around here, and on top of that, you know those deer hunters are none too careful.” Nobody need know deer season doesn’t start for months.
Prayer of Initiation