By Ed Staskus
Rytas Kleiza was born in the same neighborhood the same day as his dog, on a Monday, at the start of the week. The Lithuanian Village, the new community center in their North Collinwood neighborhood, was built the same year. He could have seen it from his crib on Chickasaw Avenue if he had been ahead of his time enough to look. He was able to stand at an early age, although he couldn’t make out what was what.
Ugne was his best friend, more good-hearted friendly closer to him than anybody except his parents. Unlike many of his friends she only tried to bite him once. Dogs never bit him, only people.
“Stop messing with her,” his mother yelled from the kitchen where she was making cepelinai, spilling her sentences into the dining room. But he wouldn’t stop messing with her, and suddenly she growled, bared her teeth, and jabbed at his arm.
They were under the dining room table. Ugne had a deadly scissors bite, but she looked up at him with her round eyes when he squawked, and didn’t squeeze her teeth into his skin, after all.
“You deserved it,” his mom declared, rolling up another whopping-sized potato and meat dumpling, not realizing the dog hadn’t bitten him.
Ugne, which means fire in Lithuanian, was a cross breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, parti-colored, black with a white patch on her chest. One of his friends told him Poodles were a weird religious cult, but Ugne wasn’t like that. She was on the level. She was on the small side, big ears and big feet, and a wavy tail.
Rytas got Ugne eleven months after he was born. His dad got Bandit, who was more-or-less a Beagle, two years later. Rytas grew up with both dogs. Ugne slept on his bed and Bandit slept underneath the bed, except when it was winter, when they slept together curled up around and on top of him.
His mother Gaile and father Andrius were from Lithuania, where almost everybody had dogs. They ran away from their Russian overlords in the mid-1970s, burning down their little farmhouse before leaving, setting their dogs free, knowing they would find a new home fast enough, giving the thumb to the Reds. They stole a small sailboat in Ventspils and made for Gotland, more than a hundred miles away. They made it there in record time. They made it to the United States soon enough.
Ugne and Bandit were his best pals. They laughed with their tails. They laughed it up every day and he gave both of them a brisk goodbye rub on the head every day before school.
His dad got Bandit because he wanted a hunting dog. But at the end of the day Bandit was gun-shy. They never found out why, no matter how many vets they took him to. They all ended up scratching their heads, saying they couldn’t explain it, since he was the only hunting dog any of them had seen who was scared that way.
Andrius had to put his guns away and learn to hunt with a bow and arrow. “Rupuze,” he swore under his breath. At least he didn’t bust out with “Goddamnit!” which meant real trouble. Rytas knew full well what “Goddamnit!” meant.
Ugne got stopped in her tracks in their driveway on Thanksgiving Day when they 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 his brothers and he rushed to her, she was lying on her side, quiet and still. They buried her in the backyard before the ground froze.
They 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 being 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 they took him to the vet’s office, he told them there was nothing wrong with him.
Bandit was just giving up on life. They all knew that. The house got quiet and sad.
When his dad carried him into the vet’s office to be put down, Bandit lifted his head and looked at his mom standing next to the exam table. He looked Gaile right in the eye. Everyone could see that a thought was going back-and-forth between them.
“That was hard,” his mom said, and after they buried Bandit next to Ugne, she said they couldn’t have any more dogs.
But two years later his younger brother told all of them he wanted a dog. “Everybody else has dogs. I want a dog, too,” he said. Their neighbor’s Lab down the street played footsies with a Shepherd that summer. In the fall there was a bushelful of black puppies. Everyone they knew took one, including his brother, which meant their mom got a new dog.
His dad named him Buddy, after the baseball player Buddy Bell. Andrius had been a big fan back in the day when the third baseman played for the Cleveland Indians. He grew up to be like a full-sized Lab with a delicate face, small ears, and a spotted tongue. When he was a puppy Buddy liked digging holes in the backyard, sitting in them, and staring out at everybody.
Sometimes he was The Shining. Other times he was a one-man Tasmanian Devil.
Whenever they left their shoes in the open by mistake Buddy would chew them to pieces. He gnawed on electric cords in the house and telephone wires on the outside of the house. Their phone once went dead for a week. He ripped the aluminum siding off the house, but couldn’t chew it, and so gave it up. But the garage was still sided in clapboard. 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 Andrius when he confronted him about it. His father had to contract for aluminum siding and get the garage done up. Buddy calmed down after three years, but not before being the most destructive dog anyone in their neighborhood ever heard of.
On his second Kucios they left him in a cage for the night while they went to Midnight Mass at St. George’s in the old neighborhood. The church was going on eighty years, the first church ever 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.
They stayed overnight with relatives and the next morning after Christmas Day breakfast drove home. Coming up the driveway they noticed all the windows were 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 them when they walked in. The cage he had been locked up in was still locked. His 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 on the floor. In the second-floor bedrooms their beds were set beneath windows and Buddy had jumped up on them so he could reach those curtains, too, and pull them down.
“He tore the curtains down so he could see us coming,” his dad figured out when he realized Buddy hadn’t put the snatch on all the curtains, only those in the windows facing the front yard and the driveway.
His father bought padlocks to secure the crate door so Buddy couldn’t ever escape again whenever they had to lock him up, but he did, over and over, like he was the Houdini Wonder Dog, no matter how many padlocks Andrius put on the latches. There was never a scratch on him, either. He wasn’t squeezing out. But by then he was finding his way in the world and his Christmas Eve rampage turned out to be a turning point.
When Buddy came of age Andrius 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 a titanic struggle. He whined and cowered when they rinsed him off with the hose.
His father felt like he was cursed, like it was Bandit all over again.
When they found out what happened, how the curse came about, they didn’t like it. Their next-door neighbor Emma Jean, whenever they were away the first summer they had Buddy, not liking his barking in his own backyard, sprayed him with their own garden hose until he stopped. Every time he barked, she snuck into their yard and sprayed him full in the face again
After they found out Rytas and his brothers, the day Emma Jean flew to Las Vegas with her husband to eat drink and lose money, broke every window of her station wagon with baseball bats. They left her husband’s car alone, since he was innocent. It was in the garage, anyway.
At home Buddy was their around-the-clock guard dog. He could wake up from a dead sleep in the blink of an eye, ready to go. He mistrusted all other dogs. They always knew when one was on the loose, thanks to him. He mistrusted all strangers, too. If a stranger came by their house, he watched them closely, and if they came up the driveway, he barked to let them know there was a dog in the house.
One summer a dog living two doors down started barking all the time and wouldn’t stop. Somebody called the police and complained, saying it was their dog. They were sure it was Emma Jean, but by then the families weren’t talking. When the animal warden came up the 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. Gaile answered the door. Buddy looked up at the animal warden and the animal warden looked down at him.
He told Gaile about the complaint. “But that can’t be right,” he said. “He didn’t bark when I walked up, or when I rang the bell, and he’s not barking now.”
“That’s right,” Buddy said to himself, giving the warden a soft eyed loopy grin.
None of them understood how Buddy knew to be quiet the day the authorities came to their house. But Emma Jean was off the hook. The three brothers put their baseball bats away.
Buddy was wild crazy for doggie treats. Whenever they gave him one, he wanted another one right away. He wanted more for the next minutes hours days. When they let him out of the house after treat time he would run right back in, barging through the door, his doggo tongue slobbering for more.
“Show some dignity,” they scolded him. “Do you want to be a fatso?” They never were able to break him of it. It was all just grist for the mill to him. He never got fat, either.
After graduating from college, Rytas moved away from home, to the other side of Cleveland, to the west end of Lakewood, living alone most of the time, except for an occasional girlfriend and weekends when one of his brothers dropped Buddy off. He missed having a dog in the house. Her had a busy life, between work, jogging in the valley, getting together with friends for a Cleveland Browns game, but at a certain point he wanted something anything in the house day-to-day.
Buddy was growing old. He was getting thin shaggy grayer by the month and having a hard time walking. Rytas knew he was dying and wouldn’t be seeing him much longer. He hoped the dog didn’t know, like Bandit had known. He decided to go to the SPCA shelter in Parma and find a puppy, sooner or later.
Rytas grew up with mutts. No matter what breed they dressed them up to be, Ugne was a mutt, Bandit was a mutt, and Buddy was a mutt. His family didn’t pay for dogs. They found them for free. He knew that, but his brothers had forgotten. His younger brother Matas bought a Victorian Bulldog for a thousand dollars. Since then, he had spent thousands more on special kennels, training, and designer food, not to mention weekly canine whisperer sessions.
His older brother Lukas and his wife bought a long-legged Jack Russell terrier. His name was Hank and he looked like Wishbone in the TV series. The real 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 crazy whenever Lukas 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 chewed up and spit out garages. Hank would just get crazier, crossing the line, barking like a madman.
“You’re in time out,” Rytas would say, pointing at him, shoving him down on his haunches. “Sit down there and don’t move.” He never really liked the dog but tried to hide it.
Hank couldn’t be left alone because he might have a seizure any minute. Rytas baby-sat him while he was in college, which was how he paid for his over-priced textbooks. No matter that Lukas complained, it was cash on the barrelhead. He had to have it. His brothers had done better with pork barrels than him.
Hank’s medication came with an eyedropper and Rytas had to be careful because a drop of it could and would burn human skin. He never understood why it didn’t burn going down Hank’s throat. The infernal pooch was inhuman.
Rytas knew when Hank was having a seizure because he always got stuck behind the sofa. There was a wall at one end. Something would happen in his fido brain, he would walk behind the sofa, and then couldn’t move backwards. He froze until Rytas noticed. With all his medication, vet bills, and emergency room visits, his sister-in-law told him, when Hank died at five years, he cost more than their first child.
He wanted to get a puppy at the start of summer, since he was a high school teacher, and had summers to himself. Knowing he probably wanted a Lab mutt, and knowing how Labs can be, he knew it would be best getting one when he was going to have free time. He wanted to be at home with the dog for three months. It would make the training easier.
Rytas called the animal shelter at nine o’clock in the morning the day his vacation started. They told him they had twenty-some new puppies just in from Tennessee. When he got there at in the afternoon there were only three left. Everybody wants puppies and snatches them up like snapping your fingers. He got that. Everybody wants to start with a new dog.
He had been to several shelters on his side of town, but all they had was full-grown Labs other people had given up on. He lived on the second floor of a Polish double and Labs start to have trouble walking when they get older. They get hip dysplasia. He couldn’t take a 60 or 70 pound already older dog to his second-floor rooms without taking on grief right off the bat. He had to be realistic.
Going up and down aisles of stacked cages in an animal shelter is a down in the dumps 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 a cheerless dead-end. It’s like walking through a prison where everybody is on death row and you can only pardon one of them.
The three dogs that were left at the shelter at the end of the day were two Boxers and a Lab mix. He didn’t know much about Boxers, and some other people were looking at both of them, anyway, so he turned his attention to the Lab.
Shelters say to lay the puppy you are interested in on its back. If it looks at you and shows submission, that’s a good dog. If they don’t, they might be headstrong. He put the 8-week-old mutt on his back. He held him down even though the dog wasn’t trying to go anywhere. He looked everywhere except up at him.
Rytas loved the white on his chest, and his one white paw, and that he was missing his tail. He thought it was a unique personality trait, even though he could tell that the no tail was a deformity.
“I’ll take the Lab,” he told the attendant at the counter.
“Are you sure?” he said. “He’s shifty-eyed, and did you see his tail?” That bothered Rytas. Because of the tail he didn’t have, he might not make it. That’s why he took him, finally, because of his missing tail.
He named him Bronislovas, which means glorious protector, but called him Bron, after LeBron James, who was bringing championship glory back to Cleveland. When he went to work in the fall, he 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 they drove there, passing landmarks like the Speedway gas station and Merl Park. A friend of his worked there. He paid special attention to Bron, clipping his toenails, training him to sit and heel, and keeping Rytas up to date on his progress.
Rytas never knew what got into him, but he started to think Bron needed a companion. He went back to the animal shelter. It was October, rainy and cold. He thought to himself, you know what, the puppies are all going to get adopted, so I’ll look at some of the slightly older ones. But most of them were either too old or too big for him, until he came to a row of cages full of puppies, all jumping up and down. In a cage 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,” the dog was thinking, laying there, his paws crossed in front of him.
“Can I walk him,” Rytas asked, and was given a leash.
He didn’t just walk when he walked. He pranced when we got going, which surprised Rytas 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.
“We think he came from a dog-fighting ring, a big one that got broken up. Even though he’s young, he still has a few scars, his front and back dewclaws are missing, and his tail’s been clipped,” a vet technician cleaning a nearby pen told him.
Tails are a weak point because they can be grabbed. When dewclaws are ripped off, they get infected, so psycho dog fighters surgically remove them. It’s painful if the dog is older than even a few weeks because dewclaws are more like an extra toe than a toenail.
The inside of his mouth was scarred, and there were lesions on his snout. He was a little less than a year old and a wide smile was pasted on his face as Rytas walked him around the perimeter of the cages.
“I’ll take him,” he 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.” It was the tail of two pups. It grew back better.
The new dog was timid around Bron for weeks, even though they were almost twins. Rytas named him Sabonis, after Arvydas Sabonis, the best Lithuanian basketball player of all time, so he and Bron would get along, and they did, finally. Sometimes he called him Bonehead, but only when he had to. He stopped taking Bron to the doggie day care since he and Sabonis had each other all day.
He bought 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, Sabonis would get skittish and aggressive, barking and feinting at them, although Rytas could see he was shaking. He was careful at the Lakewood Dog Park, making sure there weren’t too many other dogs for him to worry about.
He was walking them down Rockway Avenue one day, a nearby side street, when he overheard talk on a front porch, talk about his dogs. “I think they’re mini-Doberman Pinschers,” a thick-set man with eel-like lips hissed, as though they were supersized rats. “Dude, you should shut up, you don’t know dogs, at all,” he said. He knew how to talk down to teenagers when he had to. He knew how to talk down to nitwits, too.
Rytas had a vet look at Sabonis, but they weren’t sure what breed he was. He could have had him genetically tested, but that wasn’t going to happen. He needed a new hard-working vacuum cleaner before he paid for anything like that.
Sabonis was black and, like Bron, looked like a Lab Pit Bull cross. When he pinned his ears back his face went sleek. Rytas got nervous about it sometimes because so many people are anti-Pit. Bron was Mister Independent, but Boner wanted attention. He wasn’t a biter, although if he did, there would be trouble. His jaws were ripcord dangerous. When he had a branch in his jaws, the branch didn’t stand a chance.
Both of them loved ice cream. Rytas was not the guy who said, “No more ice cream.” He always had it in the house. If the dogs learned how to break into his fridge, they would.
Whenever he took them to the neighborhood DQ, they were ready to lick it, life and ice cream. They drove to the cone shack in his drop-top Chrysler 200. There was an Iron Wolf, the Gelzinus Vilkas, decal sticker on the back bumper. Anybody can be in a sour mood even on a sunny day, but not in a convertible. The dog days of summer are the wind in your face days. When they were ready to go, Bron and Sabonis vaulted into their seats like the Dukes of Hazard.
They both liked to have people around them and got excited when his friends come over. They enjoyed company. They barked and warned him about strangers, but the people they knew, they get beyond excited.
His brother had a cage for Hank. It was bigger and sturdier than the one their father had for Buddy, the escape artist who couldn’t be stopped. “God, why did you buy that big-ass cage for that little dog?” he asked Lukas one day after Hank was gone. It looked like it cost the heavy end of a week’s pay, at least his pay.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think I felt it had to be escape-proof.”
Rytas’s mutts were his best friends. They were the living breathing things he loved and spoiled. If it wasn’t for them, he would have spent too much time alone. They got him out of the house twice a day. There were fringe benefits, besides fresh air and exercise. Young women were always coming up to them, asking if the dogs were friendly, and he always said yes with a bright smile.
He knew his roommates were freeloaders. They didn’t pay rent and he had to feed them and clean up after them, too. He knew some people said they were just dogs. Why go to the trouble? He didn’t care what they said. He made sure to come home after work every day, so they weren’t by themselves. He walked them in the morning before work, after work, and sometimes before bedtime on summer nights. He could have read the collected works of Dickens Tolstoy Pynchon and become a literate smart man given the amount of time he spent walking his dogs.
At least they hardly shed. There was no problem with hair all over the house. He gave them a vigorous brushing twice a month, keeping them shiny and smooth.
He made sure to always be home for Bron and Sabonis and take them with him whenever he had to leave for more than a day-or-two. He never put them in a shelter or a kennel, even for a weekend, even if it was clean modern beyond words, because in a kennel they would be shut up in a cage for twelve hours a day. It would be like being traded to the Cleveland Cavs with the Chosen One gone.
His dogs were free of the grip of crates. They couldn’t handle it, locked up instead of down at the foot of his bed. They knew there was no safety at the wrong end of the leash. East or west, home is best. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, or a big snowstorm, it was circle the wagons at his house, rustle up the chuck wagon, and surf the flat screen for the most exciting NBA game they could find.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”