The early cats in my life are going to be really hard to write about, so I’m going to skip it for now: right now you just get the dogs.
Vague Red Dog
Sorry, vague red dog. I only vaguely remember you: you must have been an Irish setter. You belonged to Chris, maybe. I remember riding on your back. I remember you as enormous, yet receding: you were as high as my shoulder, then my chest, then my waist, then gone.
Half blue heeler, half collie, all cop.
I mean cattle dog, not cop, cattle dog. A dog with an enormous sense of patience for kids but little humor. More of a cowboy than some of the cowboys I grew up with. I don’t remember him having fun, although I remember him always lying on the ground just out of the corner of my eye. Head down–all is well. Head up–stop what you’re doing and look around. Streak of black-and-white lightning–there must be something out in the cows. Rifles and shotguns were fetched.
He had two white dots on his eyebrows. They would twitch. That is not, in fact, funny.
He died after getting into rat poison under our trailer house. We weren’t allowed to sit with him as he died.
Strangely, we did not name my younger brother Andy and my sisters Katie and Betsy after characters in books or movies, but pretty much everything else that we named was after some character or another; we had a lovely blue-gray calf (the same color as a Russian blue cat) named Smurfette, for example.
Lady was named after Lady and the Tramp. She was a collie, not a cocker spaniel, but she was the same solid, silky brown. I forget who we got her from, but when they brought her home she was a) tiny, and b) so filthy that nobody could really tell what color she was.
We still lived in the trailer house at the time. The trailer house was a single-wide and rocked in the wind; it was fastened to the tiny old house that had served as the schoolteacher’s house back in the day when the county ran a country school in the front yard of the main house, complete with separate outhouse. The old teacher’s house had two rooms and served as storage, laundry, and entryway. In the winter my parents would let just enough heat into the rooms to keep the pipes from freezing. In case of tornado, you had to run across to the main house: no basement.
Mom dumped the puppy into one of the big white enameled double sinks in the laundry room and washed her while she whimpered.
She grew up under the eye of Bill, who never really saw her as a fellow cattle dog. She was never as good as he was, and she knew it. She would shove her face into your crotch and shudder. Hide me.
When Matt and I would go play, she would follow us around, but it never had the same authority. When her eyes twitched, it was to say, Oh God…I never thought it would be like this… She seemed to be perpetually horrified.
At one point she had puppies, but she was such a horrible mother that they were soon given away (or at least, that’s how I remember the story going). What I personally remember was looking at the nest of puppies in the hayshed across from the chicken coop and going, They take too long to have their eyes open. If they were kittens, their eyes would be open by now. The straw around them turned golden, if you pushed the bottom edge of the shed door away from the wall.
I want to say she disappeared or ran away shortly after that but I can’t actually remember. There were other things going on at the time.
I always felt sad for her. From her perspective, she was abducted from her family, thrust at a very young age into a job she wasn’t competent for but must perform; after the death of her cold-hearted, intellectual mentor, she tried to help raise the children of her abductors (who mostly ignored her), found comfort nowhere, found out she was incompetent as a mother and had her children taken from her…and eventually died forgotten.
She would have made a wonderful pet in the suburbs.
Note: I forgot to talk about the doghouse. The dogs stayed outside, in all weather; in the worst of it, they slept in the barns, with the horses or cows. The cats, of course, took care of their sleeping arrangements themselves.
Where we had the doghouse when we lived in the trailer by the old teacher’s house, I can’t remember. I did a mental walk around all of the sides: there are the California poppies; there is the back of the teacher’s house; there is the back of the trailer next to it, facing north and a gap between shelterbelts; there is the front of the trailer house and the wood steps up front, which may or may not be painted (this walk is a conglomeration of memories before and after we moved out of it), there is the front of the trailer house, pointed south toward the quonset and the chicken coop and the big house; there is the L-shape between the trailer and the teacher’s house. I can’t see the doghouse anywhere. When we move to the big house, the doghouse sits next to the shed in the front yard, the one where all the yard equipment and the cut wood goes. But I can’t remember, on the trailer house.
It had asphalt roofing tiles that I rubbed my hands over all the time, and came up to my chest. It had clapboard sides, and a raised bottom. The raised bottom was important: it kept the doghouse warm.
We may have left old blankets in there and stacked hay bales around the sides: it sounds like the kind of thing we would do.