Here is Chapter 15 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
The evening is known as the “Night of the Black Dog.”
The episode starts innocently enough. It is 11:00 p.m. and our day is winding down. Outside, the sky is black. Rain cascades down in sheets. It is a night for curling up on the couch and watching old movies on TV while sipping hot chocolate, stirring the fire, and discussing future plans. Perhaps we will tour the wine country. Tuscany, anyone? We have long ago tucked mom into bed for the night with hopes that she will sleep, safe and secure, until morning.
I am dressed in the SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas that Paula and Shelby gave me for Christmas as a joke gift. They are comfortable in the crotch, which I appreciate, but long in the legs, which I don’t. I am not quite five feet five inches tall, and I don’t need a cloth version of an androgynous cartoon character to point out my vertical limitations. Consequently, I have cut six inches off the pant legs so I don’t constantly step on the fabric as I walk.
Lying next to me on the couch, Paula has almost dozed off. She suddenly perks up. “Did you hear something?”
A pause. “I could have sworn I heard something.”
I half mumble, half sing. “It’s just your imagination running away with you.” The joke is lame and elicits no response.
We resume our somnolent television watching. The Channel 11 meteorologist with the hideously tacky toupee assures us that the rain will taper off during the early morning hours and leave us with a gorgeous day tomorrow. We must have faith in his prognostications because outside it resembles the storm scene from King Lear.
“There it goes again.” She presses a button on the remote control and mutes the TV.
“What is it?”
“You mean to tell me you didn’t hear that?”
“Hear what? Is it thunder?”
“You need to get your hearing checked.”
I chuckle. This reaction seems to aggravate her.
“No. I’m serious. You should get your hearing checked.”
This time, I do hear something. It is far-off, faint, hardly threatening. Fearful of the rain and cold, I wait to chart an appropriate course of action. I would prefer to leave whatever it is until the morning when, if our friendly neighborhood weatherman has called it right, the day will be magnificent, much better suited to a thorough investigation.
“Mike. Go see what that noise is.”
Heaving an exaggerated sigh, I hoist myself from the couch and trundle to the back door. As I feared, as soon as I yank open the door, water splashes in from the overhang.
“What is it?”
Slamming the door, I retrieve a towel from the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen and mop up the puddle.
“What did you see?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing to see except for an ass-load of water.”
“You’re not mad, are you? Are you made because I said you needed to get your hearing checked?”
“I’m not mad, period.”
“Well, you sound mad.”
“I’m just tired and now wet. I want to go to bed. Whatever it is can wait until morning.”
At that moment, as if to mock my statement, we hear mom’s unmistakable voice through the floorboards. We cannot make out the words, but clearly she is upset. Her Beagle is uttering a loud, piercing, incessant bark — more of a rant, really. Clearly, something is amiss downstairs.
“Can you hear that? Hortense is sending up an alarm.”
I sigh. “Yes, I hear that. I’ll check it out.”
I race for the interior door that leads through the basement to mom’s apartment. “Stay here. I’ll call you.”
Lumbering down the stairs with my heart in my throat, I wonder what I will encounter. Every time I barge into my mother’s apartment, I wonder what will greet me. Will this be the day when she suffers another stroke? Will this be the day when we must summon an ambulance or a hearse for some sad, mundane, final ride?
Yanking open the door, I am startled. Of all the things I expected to encounter, this huge black animal was not on my list.
He is a massive black Labrador retriever. Friendly, dripping with water, happy to be alive, he hurls his hulking form at my less-than-hulking form and slams me against the door.
Behind the monster, I hear my mother’s overly loud voice. “Go home. Go home. Go home.” She stands precariously on her feet with assistance from her walker. Behind mom, Hortense dances around howling as loudly as I have ever heard an uninjured animal howl.
For a moment, I think mom is speaking to me. My mouth drops open. When I realize she is addressing the dog, I return to my senses.
This happy fellow sports a collar but no identifying tag. He is somebody’s lost pet who wandered into our yard and sought refuge through the doggie door in my mom’s apartment.
“Go home. Go home.”
“Relax, mom. I’ve got him. Hortense — chill!”
I wrap my hands around the big fellow’s collar, but he twists and turns until he breaks my grip. Leaping around the room, he once again launches himself at me and, once again, I fall back against the door. He is not a vicious dog. His tail wags and his tongue protrudes from the side of his mouth. He is having great fun dancing around with my mother and me in her kitchen.
“Calm down, big guy. Calm down.”
My words mean nothing. He furiously wags his tail as he dances the Macarena.
“Go home. Go home.”
Weaving around the gyrating canine, I reach my mom’s walker. “Let’s sit back in your wheelchair. The last thing we need is for him to knock you down.”
“He is despicable.”
I laugh heartily. “Despicable? Aren’t you exaggerating a little bit?”
She points at her nightgown and frowns.
“I see your point. Well, let’s sit down and see what to do with our friend.”
I gently guide her to the wheelchair. After she is seated, I reach for mom's telephone and speed-dial our home number. I can hear the phone ringing upstairs.
Paula answers immediately. “Hello.”
“Please come down here now.”
Hortense's howling is unrelenting. I can barely hear myself over the incessant, high-pitched squeal.
“What’s all that noise? Is your mom okay?”
Hortense circles her prey, but the Labrador retriever seems oblivious to her presence. He is focused on me. His large pink tongue droops from the side of his mouth as he prances around mom’s kitchen. He is happy to be with us, dry, and in a friendly place. Hortense matches him step for step, keeping time with her staccato barking. Judging by the way her fur stands up along her spine, she is anything but happy.
“Come down, Paula. I’ll explain when you’re here.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’ll explain when you get here. Please.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
Mom wheels close to the dog, cane in hand. Her nightgown is soiled with mud and water, and her eyes are wide.
“It’s okay, mom. It’s a dog, but he’s friendly. It’s okay.”
The last thing we need is for her to suffer another stroke, my greatest fear.
If my mother has calmed down, I cannot say the same for this large interloper. He has not stopped his herky-jerky movements since I opened the door. Never have I seen such unbridled enthusiasm and excessive energy.
The door swings open and Paula enters with our dog, Daisy, in tow. Daisy immediately joins her companion, Hortense, in howling at the intruder. The Lab approaches Daisy in his usual spirit of overly-friendly exuberance, causing her to retreat behind me in case this lurking monster means her harm. He means no one any harm.
Paula looks at my mom, the dog, and, finally, at me. “Are you okay, Laura?”
I laugh. “Tell her what you said about the dog.”
Mom wrinkles her nose at me. She is perplexed.
“You said, ‘he is—.’ Fill in the blank.”
“Fill in the blank?”
“The dog is what?”
“Turd. The dog is a turd.”
Paula and I laugh. Hearing the increased mirth, the Lab dances in even more frenzied circles. The frantic barking from Hortense and Daisy increases.
“She was a little more cerebral earlier. She said he was despicable.”
Mom’s eyes light up. “Yes, despicable.”
I nod. “He’s a despicable turd.”
“A despicable turd.” Mom laughs, too.
“Where did this dog come from?”
I shrug. “I dunno. He’s playing it close to the vest.”
“Come here, fella. Come here.”
“How do you know it’s a fellow?”
She points to the dog’s hind quarters and my eyes follow her lead. “Oh.”
The happy behemoth thrusts himself onto Paula and she falls back against the door, exactly as I did.
Now it is my turn to point. “You should see your shirt.”
“You should see yours.”
I look down at the mud caked on my t-shirt and pajamas. “Damn! And I just washed SpongeBob.”
“Why don’t you take him outside? I’ll get Laura cleaned up.”
I grab the dog’s collar. “Okay, big guy. Let’s go.”
He allows me to lead him to the door without protest. Behind us, Hortense and Daisy howl as frequently (and loudly) as they can.
I jerk open the door with one hand and propel us both into the pouring rain. The happy Lab goes willingly at first — that is, until the first drops of moisture strike his skin. At that instant — and an instant is all it takes — he wheels about and dives for the safety and warmth of my mother’s kitchen. I step partially in front of his massive frame as he pulls away from me, but I simply am no match for him as he slams into me. We both re-enter the kitchen. He is still lumbering about as my dogs bark incessantly, and I am sitting on my butt wondering what happened.
From the bedroom, Paula and my mom watch my ignominious reappearance.
“Mike, take him outside.” Paula seems especially agitated.
I get to my feet and go for the dog again. Just as before, he allows me to take his collar and lead him to the door. Just as before, I propel us both outside into the rain. I have learned a valuable lesson, though. I reach behind me and pull the door closed so he can’t beat another hasty retreat.
As smart and resourceful as I am, the Labrador retriever is a little smarter and a little more resourceful. He tears free from my grip on his collar and charges through the doggie door, leaving me standing in the rain, shivering.
I open the door and step back into the kitchen.
Paula wipes mud and water from my mother’s face. The old lady finally seems to be calm. They are huddled together in the bedroom, and I can hear Paula cooing some low, soothing words even though I cannot make them out.
The dog continues hopping around as though we are all having great fun.
“What happened?” I can hear the exasperation in Paula’s voice.
Mom mimics her words and tone. “What happened? What happened?”
I slide a plastic cover in front on the doggie door and reach for our unwanted guest’s collar. “The despicable turd came back inside; that’s what happened.”
Mom laughs. “Despicable turd. Despicable turd.”
I escort the big fellow through the door and pull it closed it behind me.
Before I can leave him in the rain, he charges through the doggie door and knocks the plastic cover down as though no impediment exists. I am left standing in the rain, contemplating my options, which seem to dwindle with each passing second.
I yank the door open and find myself inside, defeated by a beast that should not be my equal in intellectual prowess but who seems determined to best me. My mother and my girlfriend look to me for guidance on resolving this seemingly insoluble problem. Dripping wet, I towel off my rain-soaked SpongeBob apparel and mop up the linoleum at my feet.
“I know. I know. Just don’t say anything. I’ll handle it.”
The exuberant creature approaches me as if to ask, what fun games shall we play now? This is the best time I've ever had! Hortense and Daisy step up their campaign of barking.
“Jesus, you guys. Shut up!”
Paula rolls her eyes. “Do something, Mike!”
Mom gets in on the action. “Yes, do something, Mike!”
Grasping his collar, I flip a switch to turn on the outside floodlights. Once again, I escort the dog to the door and propel us both into the rain. He does not care for the cold and wet. Struggling, he attempts to break free, but this time I am prepared. I plant my feet on the lawn and hold him with both arms. Although we buck and dance about, he cannot escape.
Justifiably proud of my accomplishment, I lead him to the chain link fence. It dawns on me that if he gained entrance once, he probably can do it again. I search the perimeter for signs of a hole or a section of fencing that has fallen, but through the darkness and rain, I see nothing.
In any case, my goal is to push him through the fence, slam the gate, and skedaddle. If I can get inside the house before he can pursue, perhaps I can prop a chair in front of the entrance to the doggie door and prevent a repeat appearance. It is not an ingenious plan, but it is better than no plan at all.
I have the element of surprise on my side, and it is enough to trick my friend. I swing the gate open and, using the full weight of my body, launch the big fellow through the opening. Before he can react, I slam the gate shut. We lock eyes.
“Sorry, buddy.” Turning, I start back toward the house.
From the corner of my eye, I see movement. The rear floodlight is lit, so I can just make out a large black shape as it backs up and runs headlong toward the fence. I should be using my time to scramble toward the safety of my mother’s apartment, but I am enthralled despite my initial misgivings. I turn to watch events unfold.
And unfold they do — quickly. Our friend sails across the fence as though he is a thoroughbred horse easily clearing a hay bale in a competition among stallions. As I stand marveling at his grace, the interloper runs full throttle through the doggie door. I realize that whenever he and I exit the house, only he returns with all deliberate speed.
Paula has the telephone in her hand when I return. Behind her, my mother is spewing her sing-song invective. “Go home! Go home!” Our dogs have renewed their howling.
Paula calls over her shoulder in a soothing voice. “It’s okay, Laura. We’ll take care of it.” She turns to me and glares. “I’m calling Animal Control. Can you get them quiet?”
She knows how I feel about Animal Control. “We’ll make sure they don’t him put down.”
“They hold him for seven days. We’ll search for his owner. Shirley can help us. Now get Daisy and Hortense to be quiet.”
“I just wish we didn’t have to call Animal Control.”
“Do you have a better idea?" She pauses. "We don’t have a choice, and you know it.”
“Hortense! Daisy! Want a chewy?” I give all three dogs treats, but the Labrador retriever won’t stand still long enough to accept his gift. It falls onto the linoleum. Hortense snatches it up.
Paula shouts into the phone while I stand and watch our dogs half-bark, half-chew their treats.
Watching the black Lab as he jumps onto my mom’s bed and prances around her apartment, I nod. We have no choice. If I can’t get the big lug to vacate the premises, we need a professional to do it.
That is how I came to sit in my garage at 1:00 a.m., soaking wet in my SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas, waiting on the Animal Control officer to arrive and cart off our unwanted guest. I have a leash clipped to the Labrador retriever’s collar. I give him bowls of food and water, which he greedily gulps while we wait. He is such a happy soul; I almost hate to see him leave.
The Animal Control guy is a big, beefy man, unshaven, with a large stomach and even larger, thickly-corded arms. He listens as I explain what happened. He also takes in my SpongeBob attire, which has started to dry and seems stuck to my body like a tight-fitting gay ensemble. He doesn’t say anything, but I can see the disgust he feels by the pinched expression plastered on his face. I reference my girlfriend at every opportunity, but he has already made up his mind about me.
With the pleasantries concluded, he jogs over to his truck, retrieves a long pole with a choke-collar on the end, and slides it around the Lab’s neck. The collar must be too tight because the big fellow squeals in pain and surprise as the man leads him to the truck. With a flick of the wrist and a deft maneuver, the Animal Control officer slides the dog into a cage grafted onto the side of his truck and flips a latch.
“Anything else?” He wears a poncho, which throws off the rain in furious rivulets. He strikes me as a heroic figure standing there impervious to the rain. He may be disgusted with me and my kind, but I am thankful for him and his kind.
“No, that’s it. Thank you, sir.”
He nods and turns to leave.
“They won’t put him to sleep for seven days, right?”
“And his owner can still claim him?”
“I can call to check on him if I need to, right?”
“Right.” He starts the engine and hits his headlamps. Pausing, he waits for me to say something else, but I fall silent. He refuses to look at me. “Okay, then.”
I watch as the truck slowly backs out of our driveway. In a moment, the taillights disappear around a curve in the road.
And so the Night of the Black Dog ends. Much to my immense relief, the owner eventually claims his dog. I call Animal Control a few days later and learn the lovable canine has left the building. We never discover how or why the exuberant fellow paid us a visit that night, but at least he is not put down.
In the meantime, I still have not gotten my hearing checked. Fortunately, I have retired the SpongeBob SquarePants PJs.