My husband left me with four children for fishing. I lost my job. My house will be auctioned off on Monday. Today, I gave away my dog.
After our Jack Russell Terrier, Henri, marked the guitar standing next to the piano, I went upstairs and prayed for an answer as to what to do with him. He’s Elsa’s dog. She bought him when she was ten. I paid the other half for him and promised to help her train him. That promise I didn’t keep. For four years, he’s been loved only by Elsa who has remained loyal as she’s wiped up his pee and poop and slept beside him after he’s attacked yet another skunk.
She leaves for two months and he requires a great deal of attention. Without it, he misbehaves even worse than usual. Elsa will only get busier and she knows it, so I approached her with the idea of finding a good home for him.
Just then, he pawed open the front door which the wind had budged open and ran off to the neighbors’ house where he bursts through their doggy door and eats all their cat food. Then, he has the gall to hang out with their dogs, just out of reach of the owners, bloated like a stuffed sausage on their cat food, and barks at anyone who tries to come to the door as if it’s his house.
Dagne voiced all our feelings, save Elsa’s: “I hate that dog. When’s Dad gonna kill him?”
Against my true feelings, and to save Elsa’s, I reprimanded her, “Dagne! You shouldn’t talk like that. I know Dad says that all the time, but it really sounds awful when it comes out of you. Don’t repeat it again.”
She shrugged her little chubby shoulders and ran off to play.
Elsa meekly walked over to the owners’ house, apologized to them for the umpteenth time, and called him. With a spring in his step, he ran over, happy as Odie, thinking the entire ordeal was a wonderful game.
She returned, squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath. “I’m ready, Mom,” she said. “You can give him away.”
I hugged her, apologized for not helping her train him, and asked her forgiveness. She forgave me, but her shoulders were hard. I realized that to agree to give away your own dog must be really painful. But Paul warned me against making the decision for her. He never forgot it when his parents did it to him.
Tough decisions must be made. We’re losing the house. We plan on traveling for awhile. We’ll probably need to rent when we settle down. He’s a dog with a ton of energy. Nobody wants him. He misbehaves. He runs off. He attacks chickens. He chases sheep. He humps the other dogs. He marks people.
But he’s also very happy, sweet, and loves to be petted. And he’s cute. All white with a precocious black mask and naughty little black eyes.
So I prayed, God, help me find a good home for Henri. Then, I looked at Craig’s List and got the creeps. There’s a lot of evil people out there looking for innocent creatures to exploit.
Can’t do it, I thought. We’ll just have to suffer. Then, I decided to call the breeder. She places JRTs all the time and would have a client base to work with.
Instead, she wanted him! He’s never been neutered and his old bloodline is gone from her present dogs. She wanted him to sire some new litters. He’s a handsome dog, with muscled shoulders, tapered waist, and elite coloring.
I asked him what his life would be like. “Well, you know where I live — on a big ranch in John Day. Every night I put them in their own kennels to keep them safe from the coyotes, cougars, and owls. But in the morning, I let them all out. They follow me on the four-wheeler and go on hikes with me. I give them lots of treats.”
Elsa still seemed ready to give him away when I questioned her again. Henri was only too happy to help. He ran off again and she had to fetch him. Then, she tried to play fetch with him, but he got bored and ignored her efforts, deciding to do figure-eights without the ball.
It was obvious. We needed to allow our euphemistic want ad to be answered: good home for a dog who needs lots of room to run, preferably with other dogs.
I met the breeder in Mitchell. Mitchell was the town base where Paul would take kids on Intervention. The girls and I stopped in the town at least once a year to see Paul while he was at the ranch.
For anyone who hasn’t visited this podunk town, it’s a must-see. It’s the epitome of the dying West. It’s just a slight veer to the right off of Hwy 26. An American flag with a large, yellow ribbon tied around its pole waves in the breeze at its entrance. Beyond the ruins of a shop stands a single, purple Tiger lily, a leftover from someone’s garden. A consignment shop with a dilapidated sign that says Whole in the Wall leans crazily to the left. Closed and No Trespassing signs glare out its window. The Wheeler Trading Company sports a large sign that says, Welcome Hunters. Beyond the Little Pine Cafe, The Picture Frame (which looks defunct), and the Hotel is a park that seems to rarely see any play. Across the street sits Hugh with his feet up next to his gas pumps, reading a book. He wears a slouchy conductor’s cap and a trimmed, grey skipper’s beard with no mustache. He’s a burly frontiersman, intimidating in size and weight. I asked him where his bear was. He used to keep a bear in a cage next to his pumps and would wrestle with it sometimes for show.
He smiled and stood up to his full, intimidating size. “Ahhh, he’s retired,” he said. “He lives at my place now in an acre pen. He plays with the dogs and the chickens.”
“He doesn’t try to eat them?” I asked.
He waves his hand at me to indicate I don’t know anything. “Naw, he just plays with them. It’s a toss up as to who bothers who the most. Sometimes the dogs pick on him. Sometimes he picks on the dogs.”
A man in a pickup pulled into the pumps. Hugh dismissed me with a wave to help the guy fill up his tank. I looked down the street. It stretched empty but for a woman whom I assume is Judy, since she came out of Judy’s Place: A Little Bit of Everything. Next to her store is a flatbed truck with a spare tire in the middle of the bed and a cowdog curled up inside it, bored.
Without needing to look both ways, I pulled out into its single street and said goodbye to the town and headed over the pass of the Ochoco Mountains.
The Ochocos are the Girl Next Door of mountain ranges: sweet and inviting. Instead of imposing, austere firs, amiable, gregarious Ponderosa pines dot the hillsides. Did you know that the cracks in the bark of a Ponderosa smell like vanilla? It’s delicious. Stands of Quaking Aspens with their pale bark and silver leaves that twinkle and wink at you grow thick around seasonal creeks. Grasses cover the open ground, with red and orange poppies, yellow arnica, and blue-purple lupine peeking from the dancing fronds. On the steep sides of the hills, where the ground has slid away and there is nothing but dirt, an exotic mariposa lily might surprise you — looking like a misplaced hot house flower rather than a lone survivor on a barren wasteland.
I decided to stop at our old cabin where we spent a happy five years. The gate was locked but I slipped through the barbed-wire fence anyway. After all, it was my family that gave this place life and spirit. Gates can’t keep out such things. I tried the doors, which were locked. I looked in the windows and saw cleaning supplies littered on the floor. Then, I heard the chickens. This surprised me because no one was living in the house. I went around the side where the girls used to sleep and saw that the window was open. It seems whoever was working on the house was trying to air it out. Being not too old to be foolish and much too rebellious to think that such rules applied to me, I climbed through it. I looked at this little room which gave me such troubles with its minute dimensions — so tight and the windows so low that it made it difficult to place bunk beds. I spied the loft and remembered the hours the girls spent up there, playing Barbies. They’d each christened the ladder, even Dagne, by falling from it at least once — Greta probably much more than once. I walked through the little side room where I used to rock Ingrid and sing to her and look at the wood paneling that covered the slanted ceiling.
I went into the bathroom which doubled as a laundry room and I had spent countless hours rotating loads and folding it in the living room in front of a movie. We never used the shower but to put the litter of kittens that the teenage mother abandoned. Elsa tried to save them until her hands were scratched to death, but every morning, she came out carrying a stiff kitten with tears streaming down her cheeks. One, dubbed Zuke, lived to become my sister’s cat. Eventually, he was run over but he made it past a gruesome childhood, thanks to Elsa’s tender care.
I walked through the one-butt kitchen because it had only room for one butt and I remembered the little round table against the deep window sill, where all the girls used to perch to be fed. The table was red and the two chairs were blue. Paul and I sat in the chairs and the littlest one sat in the high chair and all the remaining girls sat on the window sill which was just the right height.
On Halloween, Paul made oatmeal and dyed it green and placed fake spiders on top. The girls made faces but thought it was great.
Then I walked through to the bedroom which Paul painted as a Valentine’s Day present and the two large, windows on both walls would catch sun all day making it the perfect place to nap. I nursed first Ingrid and then Dagne on the bed, soaking in the sun, and falling asleep together and smelling their milky breath and feeling their warm little satisfied bodies against mine.
But it was just a shell now. It was just a corpse until people lived and struggled and fought and sought and tried and hoped and cursed and blessed and laughed and hugged and cried and kissed in it. It was just walls and wood and plaster. It was nothing without my family or a family in it.
I thought about all the corpses of empty houses across the country, standing alone across the landscape like bones in a boneyard. And the wind will blow in them, around them, across them. But until people inhabit them, they will decay and be eaten by the moth and worm, the wriggling, burying packrats and mice will fill them, the snakes and birds emboldened by the quiet will move in, the spiders and their prey will engage in the ancient customs of eat and be eaten.
A house is nothing without us.
Have you ever accidentally stepped on an ant hill? I’ve watched my foot be the natural disaster and seen the deaths and quivering, shaking bodies and the mayhem and then they begin scurrying and busying and rebuilding! So it is with us. If we’re not dead, we rebuild our lives again and again. Once more, families criss-cross the country in modern-day jalopies in search of work, in search of hope, in search of a new life. Once more, we must find what it takes to live.
But we shouldn’t forget that we are the life — that our interactions, our loves, our table talks, our activities are what is and what matters. We are. And that’s something.