Chauna Craig’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Sycamore Review, Lime Hawk Review, CALYX and Terrain.org. Her work has been recognized by the Pushcart Prize anthology and Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat. She teaches creative writing and coordinates the writing program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The Boys Ask Why I Won’t Get Them a Dog
My grandmother’s poodle had “milk fever” and couldn’t nurse her pups. So began round-the-clock feedings from a baby doll-sized bottle, my grandmother, mother, and aunt, sometimes me at age five giggling more than helping because the blind, black puppies squirmed in their dish towel cocoons. When their eyes opened and they began to move and play and eat more vigorously, I named the sweetest, littlest ones Cookie and Candy after my own favorite things. They sought me out because I cuddled them under my shirt and protected them from the rest of the roughhousing litter. No one explained to me that those puppies were already sold, that our vigilant care was not simple compassion for other living beings. These dogs were dollars. And one day they were gone.
When the family understood that I was heartbroken, they offered the leftover dog, the fat one that was so greedy we had to push him, stomach swollen, away from the bottle to feed the rest. His name was Harvey, and my mother tried to console me with the idea that he was named for a clown, and wasn’t that one of my favorite things? It was not. And he’d bullied my puppies, using their tiny ears as a chew toy, throwing his weight around. Besides, they’d really given him to my father, who did not want another dog, for his birthday, and not to me. He was never mine.
By the time I left for college, Harvey was graying and obese. His arthritic limp, the silvery cataracts, the constant flatulence that kept him ostracized behind closed doors—these should have earned him empathy or at least made him an object of my pity. They did not. And one day he was gone.
Suddenly, and for only a short time, I felt sorry.
She was another pup from that litter, the one my grandmother kept. Our black poodle, Pierre, had been bred with my grandparents’ dog, Coquette, a miniature poodle that I remember as fat and waddling with rosy beige fur. Her eyes were always gooey in the corners, and she was what my grandmother called a “bad mother” because she couldn’t nurse her puppies.
My grandparents often traveled in those days, before my grandmother was diagnosed with the Parkinson’s that eventually rendered her immobile. My parents, who went nowhere, watched the dogs and, because we lived across town, found it more convenient to keep Coquette and Princess with our dogs. It was like a family reunion, minus the sold siblings. On one of those nights my father found a pile of shit on our floor, and he flew into a rage, something I more heard that night than witnessed. I was in my bed counting sheep as my mother had told me to do when I couldn’t sleep. Shouts, whimpers, yelps. With no confession forthcoming, he beat all of the dogs and opened the back door to the night-blackened yard.
After his temper fizzled and my mother scrubbed the carpet, my father went to let the dogs in and discovered they were gone. Someone had left the gate to the side yard open. He whistled and called and finally had to walk then drive the neighborhood trying to find two black and two gray poodles in the shadows on the far edge of town. I remember leaving my bed to wait with my mother who was too distracted to insist on sleep. Our dogs returned to my father’s call first. He found Coquette lagging behind. But Princess was gone. My mother put me back to bed where I counted and counted and counted sheep that, in my mind, were shorn and groomed into show poodles.
The next morning, the day my grandparents were to return, someone found Princess. Two blocks from our house on the bypass that separated the city from the air force base. Dead. A pedigreed poodle turned to road kill. I know that my father felt awful, and we all dreaded the moment my grandparents pulled up our driveway to retrieve their dogs. I know how guilty and embarrassed he must have felt. But I learned, at age six, that it was safer to stay at home and take the blows.
When I was twelve, we got a backyard dog. He was a mixed breed Chesapeake Bay Retriever and Brittany Spaniel, a cute, brown floppy-eared puppy that grew up to be a good-sized dog, though not a good dog. His name was Sir Yazzmatazz—my mother's idea; I, still drawn to food names, had wanted to call him the less imaginative Peanut. I think he could have been a good dog if he'd been able to live his nature, achieve his potential. He was by blood a retriever. He needed to get and carry dead things, mostly waterfowl, and he needed more exercise than the fenced yard would allow. My parents had acquired him for one purpose only, to alert them to intruders. Our house had been vandalized that year by teenagers, most likely students of my father, who was an unpopular shop teacher. The vandals had heaved a stone through the garage window onto the hood of our new truck. They'd splattered eggs and rammed holes into the siding. They'd never been caught.
My parents decided we needed something bigger than a poodle, something that would stay outside and guard the property. I'm certain it never crossed my father's mind that he might try being a better teacher, that respecting the surly young men who hung out in his metal shop might be a better long-term preventative than a dog that wasn't even made for guarding. But they got Yazz, and he stayed alone in the yard most of the time, only permitted into the garage in sub-zero temperatures and, once or twice when it must have been blizzard conditions, into our house.
We liked him as a cute puppy, chewing and romping. But it didn't take long before my brother and I were taking turns throwing balls for the dog to chase just so the other one could take the garbage to the alley without being cornered and humped. I remember the time I was in the garage and my brother tried to outrun the dog to the door but wasn't fast enough to pull the knob before Yazz had him pinned, my brother's fearful face contorted against the window, his glasses at an angle as he tried to kick backwards while the dog clung with its forepaws around his waist and pumped its hips. I confess: I laughed from the safety of the garage that always smelled of motor oil, relieved it wasn’t me.
I know that Yazz could have been a good dog if he'd been taken for walks, scratched behind the ears, driven to the cabin to run through the meadow with the other dogs and drink from the river where Canada geese sometimes paddled. But the dog was there for one purpose and use that had nothing to do with his breed or expression of his particular personality, and he mourned that loss by gnawing his own leg raw until the vet strapped a bucket on his head that he swung side to side, driven mad by seeing it always in his peripheral vision. I once saw a polar bear at the Pittsburgh Zoo pacing forward and backward, swinging its head in the same repetitive gesture. It came close enough to the window that I saw its blank, unfocused eyes. “Look,” a woman told her little girl. “He’s playing a game. He’s dancing!” I cringed and moved on to other cages, seeing after that only crazed or listless animals.
My parents thought Yazz was not imaginative, but stupid when he began to carry large rocks from the garden cradled in his jaw like something he'd carefully retrieved for a more benevolent master than any of us ever were. Those rocks broke off every one of his canine teeth. I found one piece on the patio, a jagged ivory triangle I pretended was a shark's tooth like the one a classmate had brought for show and tell. I carried it in my pocket until I lost it.
In the spring of 2010, two months before I finally left my husband, my dentist joked that mothering two toddlers must be very stressful because I'd ground away my canine teeth and sheared part of a crown. In the car, I smiled into the rearview mirror and saw canines flattened, squared, lacking bite. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed sooner, that my attention had to be drawn to this loss, like so many others.
Pierre, the sire of Harvey Humdinger, was given to an elderly woman with a small apartment and a passion for purebreds. He had to be given away because he kept escaping our yard. One neighbor witnessed him hooking his forepaws over the fence slats and propelling himself up and over in a slow, painful climb. Not even the chicken wire my father used to wrap the back fence stopped him. That's how badly that dog wanted to leave.
My grandmother had a soft spot for runts. When she heard about a breeder who flushed down the toilet the weak and sickly pups of litters of silver teacup poodles, she rescued one and named it Boogie. The dog probably never exceeded three pounds, and its bulbous eyes looked off in opposite directions, wall-eyed like the character actor Jack Elam.
My grandmother was the only person who liked that dog. Boogie was spastic and nervous and, desperate for attention, she would frantically scratch my arms with her long, black toenails. Red stripes flared on my freckled skin like welts from a whipping. I would push her away and push her away again, sharp and mean when my grandmother wasn’t looking, and still Boogie would dig and shiver and dig harder. Sometimes she whined. She wanted to be petted and scratched behind the ears, but as soon as you stopped, she’d start scratching again. How pathetic, I thought, to need attention that badly. But always, while I slipped away to the basement alone to cuddle up to a book, that dog had a place on my grandmother’s lap.
My mother too had a soft spot for runts. Hereditary flaw, genetic mutation on our X chromosomes. Her friend, Vicki, had a litter of purebred Akitas, one of which was “messed up.” Something wrong with that dog, she insisted, clucking her tongue. She couldn’t sell the puppy—it acted oddly and couldn’t even stand up straight. Against her better judgment, she let my mother have the dog. I offered the name that stuck: Nikita, because it rhymed with the breed. And we’d call him Nikki for short, I declared, not telling my parents that I’d chosen it to impress my boyfriend because secretly I’d named my Christian mother’s dog for Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx. Once, when Motley Crue was at their height of mid-80s popularity, they’d headlined in Billings, their only stop in Montana, a state that rarely saw anything other than country music acts. The coolest kids in junior high had parents that drove them three and a half hours, got hotel rooms, picked them and their friends up when the concert ended. I was nowhere close to the coolest kids. And so I delighted to hear my parents and brother calling Nikki, Nikki, Nikki, which they called frequently and for no good reason.
Nikki was deaf. And that was only the start of his troubles. He was also prone to seizures, falling suddenly to the floor then turning in slow, jerky circles, his eyes rolled back and blank while my mother petted him and said his name over and over in soothing tones that made me want to cry. Nikki, Nikki, it’s okay.
I started to like that dog. He learned crude sign language for dog commands. We’d roll our fists backward and he’d know to come. Hands palm out, and he’d stop. He was fluffy as a kitten and much more affectionate. We all fell under Nikki’s spell while he fell under more of his own. Within a couple years, his seizures were frequent and painful to watch, and he took longer to recover, lying on the floor panting, his eyes rolling and rolling, unable to stay focused.
My mother took Nikki to his final visit to the vet. She left the house a stoic and returned limp and weepy, distracted for weeks. Vicki never stopped telling me that with everything my mother had gone through with that dog, she regretted letting my mother have him. Too much trouble, she said. Too much heartache. We should have wrung its neck at birth.
Scotty was the last dog to cause a fuss. My father mellowed after that one. By then I was in college, home on winter holiday, and my aunt and I had gone to the mall, stopping in the pet shop, only to look. She saw the blue heeler pup first, a surprisingly calm puppy at the back of the cage with eyes that could only be described as human in their intelligence. The dog watched his siblings rough-house and stared at us with one ear cocked as if trying to communicate how ridiculous such behavior was. If he had been able to roll his eyes, he would have. (Later I would learn he was sick, that “mature” behavior in anything so young is a sign of something wrong.)
My aunt picked him up, cuddled him, and insisted that we had to get my mother. And so we drove to the house and convinced her to come with us and then hold the puppy that immediately licked and nuzzled her neck. I don’t remember what conversation ensued or whether my mother expressed any doubts at the time; all I recall is that someone paid fifty dollars for the dog and that he stayed quietly snuggled against my mother, head peeking out of her winter coat when she walked in the house.
My father came around the corner from where he’d been watching television and stared. “That better be hers,” he said, referring to my mother’s sister, whom he loathed. I don’t remember exactly what followed, only that he raised his voice and raged, red-faced, while my mother cringed and my aunt tried to mediate, only to make herself a target. My mother eventually handed the dog to us and begged us to return it “before he kills it.” I thought of Princess. I remember, again, my mother crying, her face pink, wet, and crumpled. I had learned from an early age that a crying face was “ugly” and so couldn’t bear to look.
The tiny, furry bundle sat on my lap on our drive back to the pet store. I could feel the animal’s rapid heartbeat through my fingers. My aunt cursed aloud, expressing toward my father’s behavior a fury that I’d long buried. All I could feel was helplessness and a sense that none of this was a surprise and so not worth the energy of anger.
At the pet store, the clerk pointed to a sign taped to the front desk: “No refunds on pets.” My aunt tried to argue and explain, but it didn’t matter. The dog was ours.
We returned to the house, silent and full of dread, but my father had made his point—we’d all bowed to his rage—and this time he grudgingly accepted that the dog had nowhere else to go. Scotty became the best dog they’d ever had, barking when my brother came home past curfew, living as the guard dog he was born to be, staying in the house as some sort of substitute child, an 8x10 photo of him hanging on the same wall as my and my brother’s senior portraits. When Scotty passed away after only six years, my father wept too. I insist on that. Never mind that I wasn’t in the same house or even the same town anymore. I need to believe in his tears.
I have a small vertical scar the size of a dog’s tooth on the left side of my upper lip. It is the size of a dog’s tooth because it was shaped by the incisor of my grandparents’ poodle. As I remember the story (and I was very young, maybe four) I was playing under the kitchen table where my family was playing cards, hearts or pinochle, and the dog was with me. I remember a warning growl before my face lit with the fire of pain. I remember the taste of my own blood as I wailed and drooled pink saliva down my shirt. I’d like to think I was comforted and hugged and held and that someone let me bleed all over her, but I don’t remember that part. I remember the lecture, how it was my fault for teasing the dog and ruining the evening.
I sometimes hear my own voice, detached and clinical, instructing my children, “Well, that’s what happens when you…” I have to consciously remember to hold and comfort first and then, after the tears have subsided on their own, find the lesson.
The secret lesson is that there is no lesson and you will get hurt one way or another, no matter how well you behave. I never tell my children that.
Mac and K-Tee
It is not their fault, not really. They’re good animals, an Australian shepherd and a border collie—intelligent, faithful, quick to bark at anything strange and potentially threatening. They do exactly what their owners ask of them. But when I call my retired parents in a bout of post-divorce loneliness and ask them to visit, mention how long it’s been, say how my young sons miss them because I don’t know how to tell them how much and for how long I’ve missed them, they say they’re sorry. They can’t. Because what would they do with those dogs that depend on their daily attention?
The last time I drive my young sons over 1800 miles to visit their grandparents, they spend every morning outside, chasing the dogs and each other, hugging and mussing K-Tee’s black and white ruff while she licks nervously at their faces, keeping her watchful collie’s eye on them. They try to get Mac to chase a worn and gnawed tennis ball. Watching from the patio, I remember how I used to enjoy tricking Mac. I would raise my arm high and jerk it suddenly as though I’d just pitched that ball all the way to the fence and into the alley. He would lunge forward, his eyes scanning everywhere, his ears perked alert and waiting for the thud in the grass. He would look to me, expectant and confused, then back to the empty yard.
When my oldest son raises the ball to throw then hides it behind his back, I scold him. I tell him not to be mean. He argues that he’s not. I point to Mac’s milky, half-blind eyes. The arthritic, limping sway of his back legs. The way he collapses and buries his nose in his paws after only a few rounds of the game.
My son drops the ball and tells me that his father’s girlfriend has promised them a German Shepherd puppy, and he goes into the house to watch the sci-fi channel with his grandparents. His little brother shrugs and follows. K-Tee watches them walk across the yard, but Mac only raises his head at the slide of the heavy back door, checking whether he’s invited.
I study the scuffed tennis ball: grass-stained, damp with saliva, scabby where the fabric has ripped. I remember how I fake-threw that ball over and over, growing angrier each time because that stupid dog never stopped believing.
I pet each dog briefly. I tell them how good they are. Then I go inside to find my children and to wash that dog smell off my hands.