THE DOG, THE FAMILY: A HOUSEHOLD TALE
It was the dog who raised me. Oh, the others came and went with their nurturing gestures and concerns, but it was the dog on whose ear I teethed and who watched me through countless hours with the sagacity and bearing of a Ugandan tribal chief.
You can see him straining at the collar as my mother, dressed to the nines, first introduced him to me, freshly home from the hospital, lying across the nurse’s lap, almost afloat, like an early Renaissance Christ child. You can see the muscles in his shoulders and neck. Perhaps he would have eaten me right then had I not been smelling of Mother, who I must say looks very pretty there in profile, probably about to head off to her Shakespeare club or into the city to see Paul Scofield in Lear, or something along those lines. Mother was very keen on Shakespeare, you see.
Going through the old photo albums you will find pictures of me in various stages of growing up, surrounded by the family: father, mother, sister, brother. But please notice, it is the dog at my side, seated upright, proudly displaying the musculature of his thick chest and the flame of white fur that ornamented it. I am his charge, the rest of them bit players. Not so much a Romulus-and-Remus situation as my having a guardian, a sort of dog uncle, rearing me in lieu of parents.
Actually, the dog looked very human, rather more so than one or two other members of the family. I had forgotten just how extreme was his facial resemblance to a human being until recently, when I showed my ladylove, Tarischa, an old photograph of the dog and me on the front stoop. Her eyes grew very large, then she began gagging.
We called him Granny or Grand, shortened from Twenty Grand, the famous racehorse after whom he was named. Father bought him on sale. He bought everything on sale. Grand was a boxer, purebred, but one of his ears was wrong; it didn’t set up properly. And his right eye dripped. He also had a skin condition, something like mange but untreatable. Father got him for peanuts, really: a treasure, if you looked past certain cosmetic flaws.
Granny was a killer, but only when off the leash out of doors. He killed the chihuahua next door and Ernie Middelhauser’s dog, Jo-Jo. He seldom attacked humans, only dogs, male dogs. Female dogs brought out his romantic side. You see, if you weren’t careful when you opened the front or back door, he would shoot by you or between your legs and be gone for days. Eventually, he’d turn up hungry, looking a bit haggard. Father would kick him for a while until he tired of the exercise, and Granny would take it stoically, without growling or baring his teeth, only looking back at Father now and then with an ugly sneer.
I did miss him when he was off on one of his adventures, left alone with my toy soldiers and the cartoon shows of television’s infancy. I recall one where a clown—I seem to remember his name was Cocoa—jumped out of an inkwell and made some difficulty for his creator. Cocoa was animated, the creator not: this provoked my imagination. After some difficulty, the creator always succeeded in getting Cocoa back in the bottle. There are certainly metaphors and allegories aplenty here if you go in for such things. Regardless, the dog would eventually return and we would pick up where we left off, no questions asked, no pouting or recriminations.
It’s not as if the rest of the family weren’t around. Father was at work, quite naturally, and Mother shopping, or perhaps at her Shakespeare club, which met on alternate Tuesdays. My brother would have been in the basement, at work on a model airplane, getting himself stoned senseless on glue fumes. Or if not in the basement, then in the apple tree, seeing how far he could get out on a limb before it snapped.
My sister lived in the attic. It was not such a bad thing to have her always up there, as she had Father’s unpredictable disposition. Well, not always: she would occasionally come down to gnaw the meat off the steak bone we were ordered to save for her. Oh, and there were the suitors. My sister had an hourglass figure and a pixie hairdo. She favored very stupid boys with dodgy backgrounds and convertibles.
Otherwise, she read her Latin in the attic or, when saturated with Ovid, would play her rock-and-roll seventy-eights on her portable. She played “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane” repeatedly, hundreds of times, for months on end. She would dance to this and other tunes: thump, thump, thump. No one in the family was particularly graceful, excepting the dog and, to a certain extent, me, having modeled my own movements on the dog’s. My brother was not graceful but had a primitive athleticism, as I imagine the young Tecumseh or Cochise must have had, an athleticism given almost wholly over to mayhem. My brother was not unlike the dog in the behavior he evinced out of the house. Nor did Father receive my brother much differently from the dog when he’d stagger home at last with his assorted wounds and bills incurred.
My sister spent so much time in the attic with her Latin that she broke the record for A pluses at the local high school and went off to Smith College after her junior year to study Latin in the Big Leagues of American Higher Education. Such intellectual prowess was unheard of at this particular high school and my sister became a legend there, her name synonymous with braininess. The only other equivalent celebrity from that high school during that time was the fellow who wrote the hit song “Flying Purple People Eater,” and there might even have been some challenge as to the song’s real authorship.
Mother didn’t like children, least of all her own, and me least among them. I was unplanned, an accident, a misfortune. You see, Mother and Father had taken the Fishblatts, their friends from around the corner, out to dinner, and everybody got quite drunk. That had been my parents’ plan: to get the Fishblatts drunk. It seems the Fishblatts were making ready for a divorce, which signaled no more impromptu get-togethers only a hop, skip, and jump away. I suppose the plan was that when the appropriate level of drunkenness was achieved, there would be a series of ribald and stoical jokes about the imperfect union of marriage, hoots of exasperation, and unbridled guffaws, and the Fishblatts would stagger home, enjoy an amorous reconciliation of robust proportion, and resign themselves to being stuck with one another for the duration, a circumstance relieved from time to time by visits with my parents.
Well, now, it didn’t turn out like that at all. The Fishblatts sobered up straightaway and got divorced. Mother became pregnant with me, years after she’d convinced herself she’d beaten that particular rap.
My appearance on the scene was unwelcome enough, but it turned out that I looked like the dog. I am not suggesting that Mother had been impregnated by Granny, not at all. You see, if Mother had only listened to her own mother and averted her eyes from the dog during the term of her pregnancy, it was said, this unhappy result might have been avoided. Nanny Farbisseneh, a tiny, dour creature originally from a bog outside of Kiev, who, when she spoke at all, issued terse commands in a broken English that drifted erratically into a goulash of Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish, held powerful, almost frightening influence over her three daughters, of whom Mother was the youngest. In the presence of Nanny, Mother and my two aunts were like zombified servant girls, oblivious of their own wants and those of their respective families.
Nanny Farbisseneh disapproved of dogs, and held a dim view of males of any species, so you see, a male dog, especially one with Granny’s imperfections, could succeed only in eliciting her unalloyed revulsion. But despite Nanny Far’s injunctions, Mother not only continued to look at the dog but gazed lovingly into his eyes (the right one caked with discharge) for hours on end. Mother, it turns out, loved fourlegged creatures, both cloven and hoofed, and, without exception, even the most vicious and recalcitrant, they adored her, not least of all Grand. True, Mother fed the dog and saw to the removal of his feces, but Granny’s love for Mother went far beyond this natural bond: the dog was in love with Mother, a situation that did not go unnoticed by Father, who routinely attacked the dog, either with his right foot or a rolled-up copy of The Atlantic Monthly brought down sharply on the dog’s black, concertinaed snout.
So Mother, who seldom, if ever, disobeyed Nanny Far, in this instance made an egregious exception, one that she would rue and suffer to be daily reminded of for years and years. In fact, so considerable was her distress at having been delivered of this curious whelp that not a week after my birth both my parents disappeared to Guatemala for a fortnight, presumably to console one another, divert themselves with Mayan figurines, rain forests, cloudy fermented beverages made from tubers—whatever one does in such places. But in truth, knowing Father, Guatemala was probably that season’s cheapest ticket. And Mother really, really wanted to get the hell out of Dodge.
My resemblance to the dog was not my only embarrassment to the family. I had a thick Czech accent as well, at least until the age of seven or so, when Father let our housekeeper, Christine, go. If memory serves, because she asked for a small raise after many years of devoted service.
Christine was a round, bosomy, gray-haired Czech woman, grandmotherly, if you will, but in the nice movie-and-storybook way as opposed to the Nanny Far way. Christine smelled of dough and fresh laundry. She loved me and had me entirely convinced I was the singular joy in her life, although I knew she had a son of her own. In the evenings, Christine would cook deep-fried potatoes, the smell of which was an enchantment. The memory of those potatoes stirs me to this day. It was an aroma of such pleasurable intensity that it seemed of another world and time, perhaps a subterranean wood-paneled beer hall-cum-restaurant somewhere in Bratislava, where officers, business leaders, and ladies of fashion would congregate a century earlier, taking refuge from the harsh elements and sustenance in the hearty, blissfully aromatic fare.
Then, after Christine had cleaned up, she would go home to her no-good, delinquent son, her three-room, cabbagey shithole, and watch The Joe Franklin Show, or some trash of that sort, like the ignorant bohunk she was. But to me, Christine was maternal beneficence, pleasure and abundance, my anti-Mother. Years later, as an adult, I would live with a young Czech woman, Canadian-Czech, and suck my thumb till it was raw as I watched her cook pierogi, chicken paprikash, her special Bohemian cookies. Then, when we were done eating, I’d lick her breasts while we copulated for hours, all the time thinking of Christine’s tattersall apron and the smell of her fried potatoes from across the years.
When Christine had left, Mother took it into her head to take a more active role in the rearing of her youngest child, me. The dog was sent whimpering to the den. It was just Mother and me at the kitchen table. I remember the moment very well, to this day. She clearly had plans for me, and her appraising, contemptuous look augured nothing good, at least insofar as I was concerned.
“It’s back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. for you, babykins,” she said to me. “Let’s lose the Kafka accent. It’s giving your father and me the creeps, and your brother and sister are too embarrassed to bring home any of their friends. You’re going to speak like an American child and act like an American child. And while you’re at it, wipe the schmutz off your chin.”
Had I forgotten what I told Mother at that particular point, her tittering rendition of it over the years would have been more than adequate in refreshing my memory: “I vont you should take a valk in dee voods and a beeg, bad volf eat you all whup!” That one really cracked her pits. “You really are the limit,” she said mirthlessly, shaking her head in dismay. I could hear the dog whining piteously from behind the closed parlor doors.
Mother explained to me that if I didn’t come around, and in a hurry, she’d make me take a job in Uncle Ja-Ja’s factory, blocking hats. Uncle Ja-Ja was Nanny Far’s little brother, although he, too, was ancient. He resembled an engorged frog with thick, black-rimmed glasses, and smelled of gherkins. Ja-Ja was always looking for cheap labor—child, adult, no matter—and surely would have jumped at the idea, but it was Great-Aunt Duhnny, the final authority among the Kiev bog contingent, who put her foot down. “Dog-boy go to school like ordinary child,” she said, and that was that.
Father worked and read the paper. Children and child rearing, in his view, belonged to the realm of the female, and in my case the dog. The children were Mother’s bailiwick. His job was to make money, then lose it, make it again, and so on, except when he was reading the paper, which was fillled with information on how to make money, along with insights into the perils of how it might be lost.
Money and the record of its activity was not Father’s only interest. He had a fascination with what he called “antiquities,” or at least what they cost. In particular, he liked bodhisattvas, religious statuary from the Orient of sacred figures like Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Kshitigarbha. Why a man of almost no formal education (having been repeatedly thrown out of school for antisocial behavior) should cotton to these small sculptures of holy beings who seek Buddhahood through the practice of perfect virtues, well … Regardless, the house looked like a Chinese souvenir shop, which was a terrible cross for Mother to bear. A frightful snob about such things, Mother, who cherished a Todd Haynes look in domestic interiors, would sit there on the living-room sofa, smoking her Salems, and, regarding the clutter of sacred figures, say, “Just look at all that shit,” shaking her head disconsolately.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, for Mother, Father, like those primeval forests that spontaneously autocombust every century or two to get rid of old growth and make room for new, every few months would go berserk and destroy everything in the house, invariably heading first for the bodhisattvas. I can only speculate in hindsight how many dozens of Avalokitesvaras (the bodhisattva of compassion, known as Kuan-yin in China) Father cracked over the mantelpiece.
As for the rest of us during these episodes, led by Mother, and with the dog bringing up the rear, we would retreat to the upstairs bathroom and lock ourselves in until it was evident the storm had blown itself out. It was not unpleasant to be in that small room with the rest of them for the fifteen or twenty minutes it took Father to “clear the brush out” downstairs. I seldom got to visit with my older siblings at such close quarters, and Mother seemed a veritable font of drolleries on these occasions. The dog was in good humor as well and relieved not to be on the other side of the door. When the crashing, grunts, and gargled imprecations subsided, we would proceed single file, in the exact order we had retreated, downstairs, where, inevitably, we’d find Father seated there in the living room, staring rather pensively at the rubble.
Years later, my psychologist girlfriend Clarissa would say to me, “Dog, has anyone ever suggested to you that you’re rather, um, labile?”
Fucking bitch … But turns out she didn’t mean what I thought.
The years passed. One day Father looked up from his paper and asked Mother where their two older children had gone; he hadn’t seen them in a while. “They’ve been away at college for years, darling,” she told him. The dog was getting on as well. I’d try to engage him in our customary frolic, but he’d only look up at me miserably, his dark jowls spread across the carpet.
In fact, Granny didn’t age at all gracefully. He had never been what one would think of as a good-smelling creature, given as he was to flatulence and halitosis, along with an indefinable but distinctly unwholesome smell emanating from his diseased skin. It was not at all uncommon for the dog to puke up something he’d gotten into, and the house really was beginning to smell like a doggie vomitorium. Other than that, he slept, occasionally breaking wind or struggling to his feet to pee at the base of this chair or that. Toward the very end, he’d even gone off his horsemeat.
One day I came home from school to find Mother weeping at the foot of the hall stairs. It was a startling spectacle. I’d have been no less astonished if she’d taken wing and commenced doing the loop-the-loops over the house; or had I encountered Grand up on his hind legs singing “Que Sera, Sera” in a tremulous countertenor. Uh-oh, where was the dog? Even at this advanced stage in his decline he would probably have roused himself and staggered over. The dog would have found Mother’s weeping no less peculiar and alarming than I.
So it was, staring at Mother with the curiosity and skepticism of an art historian or scientist dispatched by a museum to check out the phenomenon of “the weeping Madonna” in a dank little Italian church buried among the cypresses of some hill town, that I realized the dog was gone. Kaput. And with that realization came another: still a child, I was alone in the world; but far worse, alone with Mother and Father.