I have had one dog in my life. His name was Pepper and he was a cute, scruffy, black and white cockapoo. As you might guess, that’s a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle. When I was a kid and I’d get scared at night, I’d call out “Peppppppper … Peppppppper …” and he’d come bounding into my bed and snuggle with me. I try to do the same thing now with my daughter Hazel, but her bounding skills are not quite up-to-speed. I keep expecting to see her come scooching into our bedroom like an inchworm, wrapped as she is in her burrito-tight swaddle. One can dream.
Pepper was a good dog. He was a real humper, and we got him neutered way too late for it to make a lick of difference. But he was good-natured and didn’t bark or bite. His only crime was getting excited and running around when people visited. Especially my Grandpa Bob. He loooooved my Grandpa Bob. If we said, “do you want to go to Grandpa Bob’s?” he’d totally flip out. Grandpa Bob’s nickname for him was “runty dog.” “Ooooh, that’s a runty dog,” he’d say, rubbing Pepper up and down as Pepper wagged his tail furiously.
Pepper died when I was a freshman in high school. It’s amazing he lived as long as he did. He never spent a minute of his life on a leash; we just let him out the door a few times a day and he’d roam around the neighborhood at his leisure. In retrospect, it was maybe not the most neighborly thing to do. We lived in a fairly rural area but he still must have been shitting all over the neighbors’ lawns. It’s somewhat surprising no one ever shot him.
What they did do, finally, was plow him over with their car. Their collective car; everyone in my neighborhood shared a single car. No, not really, that was just an incredibly awkward transition.
My sister was driving us to school one day when she saw a sad, lumpen mess on the road. I did not see it. I was too busy concentrating on not being a dork so she wouldn’t make me get out of the car and walk the rest of the way to school. She immediately felt a wave of panic that the black and white shape was Pepper, but she didn’t say anything, hoping it wouldn’t be true if she kept it to herself.
Her fears were confirmed when we were both pulled out of 1st period. As she tells it, a messenger from the office came down and handed a note to her teacher, Mr. Willey, saying she’d been excused for the rest of the day. “What happened, Dinsmore?” he asked. “Did your dog die?” She swears this is what he said, and he meant it as a joke. This is the level of teacher we were dealing with at Clio High School, teachers who made jokes about kids’ dogs dying. I’m sure he wasn’t pouring salt in the wound; it was just an insanely lucky guess. But what if our mom was dying of cancer? No matter which way you slice it, it was a terrible joke. But Mr. Willey was a hard-as-nails Korean war veteran who would sometimes burst into tears in the middle of history lessons thinking about how tragic the world was. Jeff Rosenberg’s favorite Mr. Willey quote was, “It makes me want to cry when I see the streets running with blood.” So clearly this guy had bigger things on his mind than our cockapoo.
The other thing about Mr. Willey (we’ll get back to Pepper in a moment) is that he thought it was his patriotic duty to give an A to any piece of work that insulted the Nazis. I took Mr. Willey’s Wars class my senior year. At the end of every semester, we were expected to put together a creative project based on something we’d been studying. I always played by the rules, so I would spend weeks designing intricate dioramas and poetic tributes to our lost war heroes. Don would just scrawl out some half-assed piece of anti-Nazi propaganda the morning the project was due and we’d get the same grade. I watched him create his most memorable work one morning right before class started. Over the course of five minutes, he drew a flaming Nazi symbol on a piece of poster board. Underneath it he wrote: “The Third Reich: May It Burn in Hell Forever.” I believe he even spelled “Reich” incorrectly, although, to be fair, it’s not English. He got an A. My patiently crafted labor of love, a zoetrope featuring an exhaustingly researched recreation of a Civil War battle, got an A -.
And the third thing about Mr. Willey, which really has nothing to do with Mr. Willey, is that it was in Wars class that my friend Rion came out of the closet to me. It was not necessarily a shock … everyone assumed he was gay. But it was highly unusual. In 1993, high school kids did not come out of the closet. Especially in Clio. And there was a big difference between everyone assuming you’re gay and actually taking that on as your identity.
His method of coming out was pretty cool. Halfway through another powerful Mr. Willey lecture on the scourge of bayonets, he handed me a folded-up piece of paper that read, “I’m so gay I could scream.” I looked over at him and he nodded and made some kind of diva move with his head, signifying gayness. The only thing I could think to do was give him the thumbs up. We returned our attention to the lecture.
So Pepper was dead. I never saw his body; apparently it was a pretty gruesome scene. I didn’t know what to do with my emotions. He was there one day, and the next day he was gone. What I did, which is something a therapist would probably have a field day with, was distrust my memory. “Maybe he was never really here,” I thought. Is that narcissism, that if something is not in front of me, it probably never existed? Maybe I just never developed an understanding of object permanence.
My family remained dogless until I was a senior in college. I’m not sure what prompted my dad to go to the shelter and bring a dog home, but one day, he just up and did it. I guess he’d been wanting a dog all those years and my mom had been denying him. Probably because she would have ended up doing all the work. Which is the excuse I always heard earlier in life when I wanted a pet. And now that I am an adult, I can recognize that it was an absolutely valid concern; it always did fall to my mom to do all the work. She partly brought the problem on herself, though, by refusing to go all the way. If she’d let our pets starve to death before our eyes, we would have surely learned the consequences of our actions. That’s the key: let your children starve a pet. It’s for their own good.
The dog my dad brought home was a scruffy, excitable four-year-old that was found hanging out on the grassy shoulder of I-75. Amazingly, it was not squashed to death by Interstate traffic. “Good instincts,” my dad insisted.
He found out how good they were two days later, when he took the dog out back to do some yard work with him. Continuing in the pattern we’d established with Pepper, the dog was brought into the backyard sans leash. The fact that it had come to us as a runaway was promptly forgotten. And promptly remembered when the dog promptly dashed through the front yard and into the street and was promptly smashed by a car.
I was home when it happened, and it was a nightmare. The dog was still essentially intact, but its back legs were paralyzed. I spent an agonizing night sleeping on the couch next to the poor thing. I’ll never forget the horrid smell of slow decay that emanated from its fur. The dog was able to survive just fine on the shoulder of a busy expressway, but it became suicidal after just a few days with the Dinsmores.
The next day, my dad took him to the vet and had him put to sleep. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that’s the last dog they’ll ever get.