Home Is Where the Mutts Are

 

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By Ed Staskus

Ugne was born in the same neighborhood the same day as me, on a Monday, at the start of the week. The Lithuanian Village, the new community center, was built the same year. I could have practically seen it from my crib on Chickasaw Avenue if I had been ahead of my time enough to look. Ugne was always my best friend, more warm-hearted to me than anybody ever was.

Unlike many of my friends she only tried to bite me once.

“Stop messing with her, stop messing with her,” my mom yelled through the kitchen where she was making cepelinai, spilling her sentences into the dining room. But I wouldn’t stop messing with Ugne, and suddenly she growled, bared her teeth, and put them on my arm, squeezing.

We were under the dining room table. Ugne had a deadly scissors bite, but she looked up at me with her round eyes when I cried out, and didn’t clamp her mouth into my skin, after all.

“You deserved it,” mom shouted out, rolling up another whopping-sized potato and meat dumpling, not realizing she hadn’t bitten me.

Ugne, which means fire in Lithuania, was what we called a spoodle and everybody else called a Cockapoo. She was a cross breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, parti-colored, black with a white patch on her chest. One of my friends told me Poodles were a weird religious cult, but Ugne wasn’t like that. She was on the small side with soft heavy loose curls, big ears and big feet, and a wavy tail.

Mom called her Ugnele, her official name. I called her Fire It Up when we went running outside.

I got Ugne ten months after I was born. Dad got Bandit, who was mostly a Beagle, two years later. I grew up with Ugne and Bandit. Ugne slept on my bed and Bandit slept underneath the bed, except when it was winter, when they slept together curled up on top of me.

Mom and dad were from Lithuania. They ran away from home in the mid-1960s, burning down their little farmhouse before leaving, giving the thumb between their first and middle fingers to the Russians. They stole a small sailboat in Ventspils and made for Gotland, more than a hundred mikes away. They made it there in record time.

Ugne and Bandit were my best friends. They laughed with their tails. They laughed it up every day and I gave both of them a hug every day before school, and on weekends, too.

Bandit was a Beagle because dad wanted a hunting dog. But at the end of the day Bandit was a gun-shy dog. We never found out why, no matter how many vets we took him to. They all ended up scratching their heads, saying they couldn’t explain it, since he was the one and only Beagle they had ever seen who was scared of gunshots.

Dad had to put his guns away and learn to hunt with a bow and arrow.

Ugne got stopped in her tracks in our driveway on Thanksgiving Day when we were both 14-years-old. She was still full of life, still kicking around, other than being blind and deaf. One minute she was standing in the driveway and the next minute she had a heart attack and dropped dead. By the time my brothers and I rushed to her, she was lying on her side, quiet and still. We buried her in the backyard before the ground froze.

We had to put Bandit down when spring broke the next year. After Ugne died he started to slip away. They were like an old couple that had always been together. He went from being a healthy dog to becoming a decrepit dog. He gained weight, but then lost his appetite, lost weight, and started dragging his hind legs behind him like a cripple. When we took him to the vet, he told us there was nothing wrong with him.

Bandit was just giving up on life. We all knew that. The house got sad.

When my dad carried him into the vet’s office to be put down, Bandit lifted his head and looked at my mom standing next to the doctor’s exam table. He looked her right in the eye. Everyone could see that a thought was going back-and-forth between them.

“Thank you, I want it to end,” thought Bandit.

“That was hard,” thought mom, and after we buried Bandit next to Ugne, she said we couldn’t have any more dogs.

But four years later, when I was graduating from high school, my younger brother told all of us, including mom, that he wanted a dog. “Everyone else has dogs. I want a dog, too,” he said. Our neighbor’s Lab down the street had played footsies with a Shepherd that summer. In the fall there were a bushelful of black puppies. Everyone we knew took one, including my brother, which meant mom took one.

Dad named him Buddy, after the baseball player Buddy Bell. My dad had been a big fan back in the day when he played for the Cleveland Indians. He grew up to be almost like a full-sized Lab with a delicate face, small ears, and a spotted tongue. When he was a puppy Buddy Bell liked digging holes in the backyard, sitting in them, and staring out at everybody.

He was a one-man Tasmanian Devil.

Whenever we left our shoes in the back alcove mudroom by mistake Buddy Bell would chew them to pieces. He gnawed on electric cords in the house and the telephone wires on the outside of the house. Our phones were out once  for a week. He ripped the aluminum siding off the house, but couldn’t chew it, and so gave that up. But the garage was still sided in clapboard, not aluminum. He tore one side of it off, as far up as he could reach, and chewed the wood to shreds.

“Seriously, I was only outside for five minutes,” was the look he gave my dad when dad confronted him about it. Dad had to find aluminum siding and get the garage sided. Buddy Bell calmed down after three years, but not before being the most destructive dog anyone in our neighborhood ever heard of.

On his second Kucios we left him in a cage for the night while we went to Midnight Mass at St. George’s in the old neighborhood. The church was going on a hundred years, the first church for Roman Catholic Lithuanians in Cleveland. Before that they went to Polish churches, even though there was never a lot of love lost between them and Poles.

We stayed overnight with relatives and the next morning after Christmas Day breakfast drove home. Coming up the driveway I heard mom ask why the windows were all open. They weren’t actually open, they just looked open because most of the curtains in the house were gone.

Buddy was in the kitchen and beyond happy to see us when we walked in. The cage he had been locked up in was still locked. Dad rattled the door and inspected the sides. He couldn’t understand how the dog had escaped. Buddy Bell never said because dogs never talk about themselves.

The curtains were torn down and lay in tatters on the floor. In the second-floor bedrooms our beds were set beneath windows and Buddy had jumped up on them so he could reach those curtains, too, and rip them down.

“He tore the curtains down so he could see us coming,” dad figured out when he realized Buddy hadn’t ripped all the curtains apart, only those in the windows facing the front yard and the driveway.

Dad bought padlocks to secure the crate door so Buddy couldn’t ever escape again whenever we had to cage him, but he did, over and over, like he was Houdini’s Wonder Dog, no matter how many padlocks dad put on the latches. There was never a scratch on Buddy, either. He wasn’t squeezing out. But by then he was learning his way in the world and his Christmas Eve rampage turned out to be a turning point.

When Buddy came of age dad started taking him hunting. Labs are bred to be bird dogs, but Buddy wasn’t the best retriever of all time. He loved running around outdoors, and chasing anything that moved, but was terrified of water. Labs are water dogs, but even giving Buddy a bath was titanic. He whined and cowered when we rinsed him off with the hose.

Dad felt like he was cursed, like it was Bandit all over again.

We found out what had happened. Our next-door neighbor Emma Jean, whenever we were away the first summer we had Buddy, not liking his barking in his own backyard, would spray him with our garden hose until he stopped. Every time he barked, she snuck back into our yard and sprayed him full in the face.

After we found out my brothers and I, when Emma Jean flew to Las Vegas with her fat husband to eat and drink and lose money, broke every window on all four sides of her station wagon with baseball bats. We left her husband’s car alone, since he was innocent. It was in the garage, anyway.

At home Buddy was our around-the-clock guard dog. He could wake up from a dead sleep in the blink of an eye, alert. He mistrusted most other dogs. We always knew when one was on the loose, thanks to him. He mistrusted strangers, too. If a stranger came by our house, he watched them, and if they came up the driveway, he barked to let them know there was a dog in the house.

He knew the difference between walking past us and walking towards us.

One summer a dog living two doors down started barking all the time and wouldn’t stop. Someone called the police and complained, saying it was our dog. We were sure it was Emma Jean, but by then our families weren’t talking. When the animal warden came up our drive, Buddy sat in the living room window watching him. He didn’t bark once. When the warden came to the front door and rang the bell, Buddy went to the door and waited. Mom answered the door. Buddy looked up at the animal warden and the animal warden looked down at him.

He told mom about the complaint that had been made. “But that can’t be right,” he said. “He didn’t bark when I walked up, when I rang the bell, and he’s not barking now.”

“That’s right,” thought Buddy, giving the warden a loopy grin.

We didn’t understand how for once in his life Buddy knew to be quiet the day the authorities came to our house. But Emma Jean was off the hook. We put our baseball bats away.

My dogs to this day don’t get treats because of Buddy Bell, who was wild for them. Whenever we gave him a doggie treat, he wanted another one right away. He wanted more of them for the next minutes hours days. When we let him out of the house after treat time he would run right back in, barging through the door, rabid for more and more, grinning and barking.

“Have some dignity,” we told him. “Do you want to be a fatso?” We never were able to break him of it.

After graduating from college, I moved away from home, across the Cuyahoga River, to the far side of Lakewood, living alone most of the time, except for an occasional girlfriend and weekends when one of my brothers dropped Buddy off. I missed having a dog in the house. I’ve always had a busy life, but at a certain point I wanted something anything to be with me day-to-day.

Buddy Bell was growing old. He was getting more gray by the month and having a hard time walking. I think I knew he was dying and wouldn’t be seeing him much longer. I hoped he didn’t know, like Bandit had known. It was a kind of transition for me, so I decided to go to the SPCA shelter in Parma and find a puppy.

I grew up with mutts. No matter what breed we dressed them up to be, Ugne was a mutt, Bandit was a mutt, and Buddy was a mutt. My family didn’t pay for dogs. They found them for free. I knew that, but my brothers had forgotten. My younger brother bought a Victorian Bulldog for a thousand dollars. Since then he had spent thousands of dollars on special kennels, training, and designer food, not to mention weekly doggie whisperer sessions at who-knows-what an hour.

My older brother and his wife bought a long-legged Jack Russell terrier. His name was Hank and he looked like Wishbone in the TV series. Wishbone read books and dressed up like Shakespeare, but Hank couldn’t read and had epilepsy. Whenever he had seizures he twitched and lost all his motor skills.

Hank was high-strung and drove Buddy Bell crazy whenever my brother brought him along for a visit. Hank would go at him like a puppy even though Buddy was already of a certain age, and it pissed him off. He would bare his teeth and remind Hank that he had once eaten garages. Hank would just get crazier.

“You’re in time out,” I would say, pointing at him, shoving him down on his haunches. ”Sit down there and don’t move.” I never really liked that dog.

Hank could never be left alone because he might have a seizure any minute. I baby-sat him while I was in college, which was how I paid for my textbooks. No matter what my brother said, it was cash on the barrelhead. My brothers had done better with barrels than me.

Hank’s medication came with an eyedropper and we had to be careful because a drop of it could burn human skin. I never understood why it didn’t burn going down Hank’s throat. That dog was inhuman.

I always knew when he was having a seizure because he got stuck behind the sofa. There was dead-end at one end. Something would happen in his dog brain, he would walk behind the sofa, and then couldn’t move backwards. He would just freeze until somebody found him. With all his medication, vet bills, and emergency room visits, my sister-in-law told me when Hank died five years after they got him that he cost more than their first child.

I wanted to get a puppy at the start of summer, since I was a high school teacher, and had summers to myself. Knowing I probably wanted a Lab mutt, and knowing how Labs can be, I knew it would be best to get one when I was going to have free time. I wanted to be at home with the dog for three months. It would make my training it easier.

I called the animal shelter at nine o’clock in the morning the day my vacation started. They told me they had fifty-some new puppies just in from Tennessee. When I got there at two-thirty in the afternoon there were only three left. Everybody wants puppies and snatches them up like snapping your fingers. I get that. Everybody wants to start with a new dog.

I had been to some small shelters on my west side lakeshore side of town, but all they had were full-grown Labs other people had given up on. I lived on the second floor of a Polish double and Labs start to have trouble walking when they get older. They get hip dysplasia. I couldn’t take a 60 or 70 pound already older dog to the second floor without accepting grief off the bat. I had to be realistic.

Going up and down aisles of stacked cages in an animal shelter is the saddest horrible experience. It smells like underarms and hot dog water. There are signs on all the cages. ‘My name is Kimmy. I am a 7-year-old Labrador. I love playing with children.’ Wanting to take them all home is heartbreaking. It’s like walking through a prison where everybody is on death’s row and you can only pardon one of them.

The three dogs that were left over at the shelter at the end of the day were two Boxers and a Lab mix. I didn’t know much about Boxers, and some other people were looking at both of them, anyway, so I turned my attention to the Lab mutt.

Shelters say to lay the puppy you are interested in on its back. If they look at you and show submission, that’s a good dog. If they don’t, they might be headstrong, and you probably want to reconsider. I put the 8-week-old mutt on his back. I held him down even though he wasn’t trying to go anywhere. He looked everywhere except up at me.

I loved the white on his chest, and his one white paw, and that he was missing his tail. I thought it was a unique personality trait, even though I could tell when I felt it that it was a deformity.

“I’ll take the Lab,” I told the attendant at the counter.

“Are you sure?” he said.  “Did you see his tail?”  That broke my heart. Because of the tail he didn’t have, he might not make it. That’s why I took him, finally, because of his missing tail.

I named him Bronislovas, which means glorious protector, but I always called him Bron, after LeBron James, who brought championship glory to Cleveland.

When I went back to work in the fall, I enrolled Bron at Pawsitive Influence, a cage-free doggie day care. It took more than a week, but he warmed up to it. After the first month he got excited every time we drove there, passing landmarks like the Speedway gas station and Merl Park. A friend of mine worked there. He paid special attention to Bron, clipping his toenails, training him to sit and heel, and keeping me up to date on his progress.

I don’t know what got into me. I began to think he needed a brother. I went back to the animal shelter. It was in October and it was rainy and cold. I thought to myself, you know what, the puppies are all going to get adopted, so I’ll look at the older ones. But, most of them were too big for me, until I came to a row of cages full of puppies, all jumping up and down. In a cage to the side by himself was a bigger black pup about the same age and size as Bron.

“No one’s going to look at me, and that’s OK, la, la, la,” he was thinking, laying there, his paws crossed in front of him.

“Can I walk him,” I asked, and was given a leash.

He didn’t just walk when he walked. He pranced when we got going, which surprised me because he was a stray, although not a common stray. He had been trucked up to Ohio from the south somewhere, where there are lots of strays and kill shelters, but he was different. Even though things had gone wrong for him, he hadn’t gone wrong with them.

“We think he came from a dog-fighting ring, a big one that got broken up. Even though he’s young, he has a few scars, his front and back dewclaws are missing, and his tail’s been clipped,” said a vet technician cleaning a nearby pen.

Tails are a weak point because they can be grabbed, and when dewclaws are ripped off they get infected, so dog fighter psycho’s surgically remove them. It’s painful if the dog is older than even a few weeks old because dewclaws are more like an extra toe than a toenail.

He was missing part of his right ear, the inside of his mouth was scarred, and there were lesions on his snout. He was just over a year old and a wide smile was pasted on his face as I walked him around the perimeter of the cages.

“I’ll take him,” I said.

“He’s got a lot of Pit Bull in him.”

“That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

“What about his tail?”

“It will grow back.”

He was timid around Bron for weeks. I named him Sabonis, after Arvydas Sabonis, the best Lithuanian basketball player of all time, so he and Bron would get along on their personal basketball court, and they did, finally. I called him Boner. Sometimes I called him Sabonehead, but only when I had to. I stopped taking Bron to the doggie day care since he and Sabonis had each other.

I bought long leashes for them and took them for walks in the Rocky River Metropark. Off the leash they ran across the meadows and right to the river, and all that fall had a ball. Whenever another dog came near him, though, Boner would get aggressive, barking and feinting at them, although when I looked at him, I could see he was shaking. I never went to the Lakewood Dog Park, so they wouldn’t be around too many other dogs for me to worry about.

I was walking them down Roycroft Avenue one day, a nearby side street, when I overheard talk on a front porch, talk about Boner. “I think he’s a mini-Doberman Pinscher,” a thick-set man hissed, as though Boner was a supersized rat. “Dude, you should shut up, you don’t know dogs, at all,” I said. I knew how to talk down to teenagers when I have to. I know how to talk down to boneheads, too. I’ve had a vet look at Boner, but he wasn’t sure what breed he was. I could have had him genetically tested, but that’s not going to happen. I need a new vacuum cleaner before I pay for anything like that.

Sabonis is black and, like Bron, looks more like a Pit Bull than a Lab. When he pins his ears back his face goes sleek. I get nervous about it sometimes because so many people are anti-Pit Bull. Bron is Mister Independent, but Boner wants attention. He doesn’t bite anybody, although if he did, there would be trouble. His jaws are ripcord. When he has a branch in his jaws, the branch doesn’t stand a chance.

“Please just rub my head, that’s all I’m asking,” is what both of them are al about. They’re not about biting anybody.

Both of them love ice cream. I’m not the parent who says, “No more ice cream.” We always have it in the house. If they knew how to break into my fridge at night, they would.

Whenever I take them to the neighborhood cone shack, they’re ready to lick it, life and ice cream both. We drive to the DQ on Detroit Road in my drop top Chrysler 200. I have a Gelezinis Vilkas – Iron Wolf – decal sticker on my back bumper. Anyone can sometimes be in a sour mood on a sunny day, but not in a convertible. The dog days of summer are the wind in your face days for my dogs. When they’re ready to go, Bron and Boner vault into their seats like the Dukes of Hazard.

They both like to have people around them and get excited when their friends come over. They freaking love company. They will bark and warn me about strangers, but the people they love, they get beyond excited and are all over the place.

My brother used to have a cage for Hank. It was bigger and sturdier than the one my dad had for Buddy Bell, the escape artist who couldn’t be stopped. “God, why did you buy that big-ass cage for that little dog?” I asked him one day. It looked like it cost the heavy end of a week’s pay, at least my pay.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think I felt it had to be escape-proof..”

My mutts are my friends. I don’t necessarily want too many friends of my own, being on the loner end, so they are my living things I love and spoil. I know they are freeloaders. They don’t pay rent and I have to feed them and clean up after them, too. I know some people say they’re just dogs. Why go to the trouble? I don’t care what they say. I make sure I come home after work every day so they’re not by themselves. I try to walk them two and three times a day, in the morning, after work, and before bedtime. I could have read the collected works of Tolstoy and become a wise worldly man given the amount of time I’ve spent walking my dogs.

I make sure to always be home for Bron and Sabonis and take them with me whenever I have to leave for more than a day-or-two. I never put them in a shelter or a kennel, even for a weekend, even if it’s super nice, because in a kennel they would be slammed shut into a cage for twelve hours a day. Who needs that?

My best boys couldn’t handle that. I know they couldn’t. Neither could I.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.