Here is Chapter 27 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
The next morning, not long after Polly and Loren depart, Shirley bursts into mom’s apartment carrying a puppy under each arm. When I say “burst,” this description is no mere hyperbole. She literally kicks the door open with her foot, sending it forward until it strikes the door jamb next to mom’s china cabinet and ricochets back in her direction.
“Miss Laura — hey there, darlin.’ Sorry I ain’t brung us no pancakes, but my hands is full. Hey there, Michael.”
Mom and I both jump, startled at the audacious entry. Shirley normally waddles in on her bad knee, swinging and swaying, a metronome moving with a predictable cadence. Today she is a superhero making a superhero’s bold entrance at a crime scene.
Paula has left for work and Shelby is at school. Until this moment, it has been just mom and me. I am stirring Quaker instant grits while I struggle with a steadily increasing anger. Shirley is 45 minutes late. She has not called or otherwise explained her absence; mom somehow managed to dial my telephone number when she realized she was alone in the bed without the smells of coffee and bacon that signify her routine. Despite a busy workload, I have shunted aside my duties to help mom get to the toilet. I have fixed her a breakfast of toast, half a grapefruit, coffee, juice, and instant grits. The last thing I expected or needed today is for mom’s caregiver to arrive late — late and bearing puppies.
Daisy has been napping near mom’s computer stand. As soon as she sees the intruders, she is on full alert. She does not merely bark; that would be a sedate response, and Daisy is not about sedate responses. She howls. Lifting her snout up to the heavens, she positively shrieks. To arms! To arms, everyone!
Even Hortense, the overweight, lethargic Beagle sleeping near the couch in the living room, gets to her feet and waddles into the bedroom to see what all the commotion is about. After assessing the situation, she, too, erupts into howls, but they are low and guttural, nothing like Daisy’s high-pitched frenzy, and a shadow of Hortense’s former self. I have the distinct impression that if Daisy were not here, Hortense would abandon the enterprise. She simply does not have her heart or snout in the fight.
“Whoa, whoa. Shirley; what’s going on here?”
She looks at me and cocks her head as if she is explaining the facts of life to someone without good sense. “Why, Michael, them’s puppies.”
“Yes, I can see that. Why did you bring them here?”
“Them’s little puppies what Tank got over in Athens.” Tank is Shirley’s brother. I have never laid eyes on him, but I imagine a barrel-chested man with beefy arms and a huge frame. He cares about his sister, which presumably explains why he brought two puppies to her apartment in the projects.
She gazes down at the wiggling animals under each arm. “You needs to stop your squirmin.’”
I feel my temper slip even more than it already has. For once, I had expected a quiet day in the office. I have a massive pile of paperwork that screams for my attention, and I do not wish to attend Dog Fest USA.
If I am angry, mom has the opposite reaction. Her eyes almost pop from her skull. Frantically waving her left arm, she stares up at me. “Let’s see if we can get this puppy to work!”
They are Chihuahua puppies, barely old enough to be weaned from their mothers. One is black, brown, and white, a female, smaller than the other one. The boy is beige and white. The first thought that races through my mind is that the boy matches the curtains in mom’s living room.
Shirley grins. “Stop your squirmin’ now. Stop your squirmin.’” She looks at mom. “They sure do squirm, Miss Laura. They ain’t nothin’ like Chester. He would just sit there and behave hisself, but these’un squirm.”
She leans forward and drops the small packages on the ground. As soon as she does, the girl races around the bedroom, yapping and confronting the big dogs. Hortense barks steadily, but she is phoning in the performance; already she is losing interest. Her lethargy surprises me. During the Night of the Black Dog she could still give Daisy a run for her money, but lately “Big Girl,” as Shirley calls her, has acted more subdued than usual. I make a mental note to schedule an appointment for her at the Walton-Gwinnett Animal Clinic.
Daisy does not share Big Girl’s placid reaction. Watching the little Chihuahua speed around the furniture, she mixes in a huge dose of growling with her frenetic barking. Batting her head around as the little creature shoots past, she seems poised to snatch the dog up in her jaws on the next go-around.
Almost as if she is mimicking Daisy’s movements — and who is to say she isn’t? — mom whips her head back and forth, following the little dog’s progress. “Let’s see if we can get this puppy to work!” She laughs as she points.
I am almost at the end of my tether. “All right, guys, enough! Jesus, I can’t even hear myself think.”
The little boy dog, although physically larger than the girl, is far less intrepid. Instead of zooming around the room, his body shakes as though he has been dipped into icy waters and is suffering from hypothermia. After a moment, he lowers his belly to the ground and pees on mom’s rug.
I see the stream and shake my head. “Damn it, Shirley!”
“Oh, you better stop that right now, boy! Don’t make me beat you wif a dollar broom!”
Mom laughs hysterically. “This one is a mighty dog!”
Shirley reaches over to the kitchen counter. “Where them paper towels? Where they get to?”
Mom leans forward and strokes the boy dog’s fur, which causes him to shake more than ever. “This one says what he means!”
I rub the back of my neck. Take it easy, Mike. Take it easy: Slow, deep breaths. During the last couple of months, I have found my temper slipping more than it did in the early days of mom’s illness and recuperation. Maybe I need to make an appointment to see Dr. Carr after I take Hortense to see the vet.
Shirley scurries over to the carpet, a wad of paper towels stuffed in her right hand, and sweeps the little dog aside. “Don’t you worry, now, Michael. I’ll clean it up.”
“So tell me: What’s going on here, Shirley? What is all this?”
She leans forward, dropping the paper towels onto the floor and stepping on the stack. Immediately, I see a yellow stain appear as the paper absorbs the urine. She pulls up the first pile and replaces it with fresh paper towels. “For a little dog, he sure do pee a lot.”
Mom laughs. “He sure do pee a lot, yes!”
I rub the back of my neck and count to ten.
“Well, you know ‘bout Chester. Tank got me a new dog.”
Mom laughs. “Two dogs. Two dogs!”
“Well, that’s right, Miss Laura. He got two dogs.”
Chester was Shirley’s beloved Chihuahua. She brought him to visit with mom once or twice a week. Daisy was never comfortable with an interloper in the premises; we had to lock her away in the bathroom or upstairs when Chester was around. Hortense initially hollered at the little dog, but eventually she could not be bothered with anything that was inedible. In fact, she seldom glanced at Chester unless he was sniffing her rear end, in which case she would issue a warning bark that sent him scurrying for cover.
A few months earlier, Shirley had left Chester in her car while she was shopping for groceries in Quality Foods, a supermarket chain one step down from the Super Wal-Mart. Its great virtue is its proximity to the housing project where Shirley currently resides. Shirley returned with her groceries to find someone had stolen her dog. She was devastated. Determined to find the perpetrator of the dog-napping, she enlisted friends and relatives to search for the little fellow.
When she told me about it, I thought the search was in vain. Surprisingly, her door-to-door canvassing paid off. She located a woman who had Chester in her rented HUD house. The woman claimed he had showed up there one day, which may or may not have been true. In any case, Shirley simply stepped inside the house and wrested Chester from the woman’s grip. Such are the rites of ownership in the housing project.
Chester returned home, but he was sick: vomiting, shaking, suffering seizures, and finally falling into a stupor. By the time Shirley transported him to a man she called the “poor people’s vet,” Chester was in his death throes. He survived just long enough to run up a substantial vet bill. The best the vet could figure was he had been poisoned. Shirley asked me if she could sue the woman who had taken Chester into her home, but I did not see what a lawsuit would accomplish. If the dog-napper was living in a run-down rental house near Shirley’s projects, she could not have had any money or property worth seizing. I told Shirley we might try to coerce the lady into paying some of the vet bill, but I was not optimistic we would succeed. In the end, Shirley wisely let it go. The law of the projects, like the law of the jungle, can be vicious.
Shirley had mourned Chester’s passing for many months. She kept saying she wanted a new dog someday, but someday always sounded far away. Whenever she spoke of acquiring a new pet, mom piped up, too. She wanted a new pet.
I tried to explain the facts. “But you have Hortense. Isn’t that enough?”
“Miss Laura always be talkin’ ‘bout how she want a goat, Michael.”
“A goat? You can’t be serious!”
Mom would invariably nod. “A goat, yes. Miss Laura want a goat.”
“No way, mom. No way. You have got to be kidding.” I had visions of transporting a sick goat to the vet in the back seat of my Ford Taurus. It was an unappealing image.
“Miss Laura say if’n she get her a goat, she ain’t gotta cut no grass. The goat do all the work for her.”
“She doesn’t cut the grass now. I do.”
Fortunately, we do not talk of goat ownership. The dogs are the topic of discussion.
Still watching the little girl Chihuahua shoot around her apartment, mom points. “This one and this one is two dogs. Two dogs!” Whatever else the stroke has done to mom, it has not robbed her of her common sense and her elementary math skills. She knows what she knows.
Shirley leans up and heads back to the kitchen counter, grabbing a spray bottle of Woolite Pet Oxygen spot remover. “I didn’t want two puppies, but Tank, he don’t listen to nobody. He get over there and come home with two puppies, anyhow.”
“At least he decided to stay with Chihuahuas. They’re small and easier to care for than a big dog.”
“I done tole Tank I only want one dog, but he up and brung two. They brother and sister.”
Mom shakes her head. “I know it. Two dogs! I know it.”
Watching the two animals, I am dubious. “They don’t appear to be litter mates. Their coloring is different, not to mention their size. The girl may be a full-blooded Chihuahua, but the boy, well, I’d say he’s part Chihuahua and part something else — maybe Jack Russell terrier.”
Shirley seems unconcerned. “That what they tole Tank. They say they brother and sister.”
“You say he got them from someplace in Athens. He didn’t get them from a puppy mill, did he, Shirley?”
“A what now?”
“A puppy mill. You know — you read about these places in the newspaper every day.” I pause, immediately spotting my faux pas. Shirley most assuredly does not read anything in the newspaper any day. “It’s a place that raises puppies, but it treats them terribly, inbreeds them, and they often have health problems.”
“Well, now, I don’t know about any of that stuff, Michael. I know what Tank tole me. He brung two dogs, but I only wanted one.”
I am beginning to see a conspiracy afoot. “So are you going to keep both dogs, Shirley?”
“Huh-uh. I can only have one in my apartment.”
Uh-oh. Here it comes.
Mom looks at me with a strange light in her eyes. “Michael?”
I know what comes next.
I sigh. “Yes, mom.”
She points at the boy. He looks up at us, still shaking. He reminds me of a gyrating, over-sized vampire bat without wings.
“What about him?”
Mom points at Shirley. “This one and this one. Two dogs.”
“She has two dogs, but she only wants one.”
Shirley reaches down and scoops up the little girl. Startled by this action, she emits several high-pitched squeals. Upon hearing these strange sounds, Daisy resumes her barking with renewed vigor. Even lazy Hortense, now resting her large belly on the air conditioning vent built into the floor, raises her head long enough to get off a few half-hearted half-barks.
“This here’s my girl. I sure do miss Chester, but I reckon if I gotta get me a new dog, this’ll be the one.”
Again, I sigh. “So what happens to the other one, the boy?”
Mom is intensely interested. “Yes. What happens to the boy?”
“I reckon Tank’s got to take him back to Athens. He cost $100. It was $100 he paid for the girl and $100 for the boy, so he can get hisself a refund.”
“So it was $200 total.”
“That’s what Tank say.”
Mom’s head snaps around so she can look me in the eye. “This one has the joy juice for this one?” She points at herself and then at the little dog cringing near the wheelchair.
“You’re asking if you have $100 in your checking account so you can get this little dog.” It is a statement, not a question. I already know the answer.
I am in a quandary. I do not want another animal at our house. We already have Daisy and Hortense, to say nothing of the multitude of cats we have packed inside the house or the contingent of stray felines that regularly shows up in our yard to participate in what I call the “frequent diner program.” This half Chihuahua-half vampire bat that urinated on our rug five minutes ago is hardly a fit specimen of doghood. I doubt that Tank shelled out $100 for this dogflesh. If he did, he seriously overpaid.
And yet — and yet. If we don’t take him, he will go back to the puppy mill in Athens. I have never seen such a place up close and personal, but I contribute money to the humane society, and I read their quarterly newsletter. These mills are pathetic hovels where dogs are treated like meat, or worse, and used and abused for profit. I imagine the worst thing that can happen to a dog from a puppy mill — even worse than being born and growing up under such terrible conditions — is to leave and be returned. What will the puppy mill operator do with this reject? I shudder.
Even more important to me, mom seems smitten with this wretched creature. I won’t over-analyze the scene and suggest that she gazes down at this ugly half-breed and reflects on his defects as her defects, but I understand why she wants to take on this little loser. He is so tiny and vulnerable it seems unlikely that anyone else will provide him with a good home. The world can be an ugly place without someone to cast a protective cocoon around a person or a dog. The puppy has survived against the odds, and so has my mom. Perhaps they are two peas in a pod after all.
“I need to talk it over with Paula, mom. Okay? No promises.”
Even as I say these words, I know we will adopt the dog. I have capitulated. Once an animal comes into the fold, I find it difficult to let it go.
Nonetheless, I have left myself a small escape route. In the off chance that Paula argues against adopting the shaking, cowardly, pee-happy puppy, I am not the bad guy. I fought the good fight, mom. I went to bat for you. I went to the mat. Name your cliché. That is just my style — to make Paula the heavy.
“This one has the joy juice for this one?”
“Yes, mom. You have the money in your account to pay for him.”
She does not have the money, but I don’t want this decision to rest on $100. Paula and I can afford $100 — we can just skip going out to eat twice in a month — but the question is whether we want to take on another pet. It will have to have shots, grooming, food, and medical care when it is injured. Given the precarious state of my mother’s health, the ugly runt will be with us long after mom has departed the scene. The question is simple: Do Paula and I want to be stuck with a twelve-to-fifteen-year commitment to this quasi-Chihuahua?
I suppose it is marginally better than taking on the burdens of goat ownership.
“Leave him here tonight, Shirley, while we decide whether we want to keep him.”
Mom laughs. She is positively gleeful. “Yes. Leave him here tonight, Shirley. Leave him here, yes!”
Shirley smiles. Her plot has unfolded as planned. She conned us into taking one of the puppies off her hands so she would not feel guilty about returning him to the Athens puppy mill. Why else would she have brought two dogs to our house when she only intended to keep one? She nods as she watches the little girl’s frenzied gyrations throughout mom’s apartment.
I wheel around and point at Daisy. “As for you — for God’s sake, give it a rest!”
Daisy’s barking is not as sustained as it was at the outset, but she keeps up a steady, rhythmic pace that in many ways is more irritating than the initial outbreak. For her part, Hortense has lost interest in the episode and is lying down against on the floor grate. She occasionally raises her head to watch the girl dog zip by, but otherwise she is content to sleep peacefully on the linoleum.
Shirley finally finishes cleaning up the soiled spot on the carpet. She leans over the kitchen sink to wash her hands. “Well, now, Miss Laura, I see Michael done got you your breakfast. Let’s us fix up your new hairdo all pretty and nice and get some clothes on, darlin.’”
Still giddy over her new purchase, mom laughs. “Yes. Get some clothes on, darlin.’”