Exit Redbone: Every Dog Has His Day Part 1
September 4, 2008
It’s been a week since Hurricane Ike rolled over our sky-blue house in Spring, Texas, and I’m lying on the garage floor with Redbone, our beloved family dog, a senile English Springer whose twisted hillbilly lineage actually makes him his own uncle. His once-chocolate muzzle has grayed to salt and pepper; his bounding back legs have stiffened to arthritic stone. Stroking his belly, my hand travels the soft swell of a grapefruit sized lipoma, one of many benign fatty tumors that have developed on his body, as benign fatty tumors commonly do in a dog this age and a breed this inbred. I avoid the feverish spots where he’s chewed himself raw, but the sleepy weight of my hand is too much on his spavined hip, and he growls to let me know. The doggie downer Gary administered earlier has taken full effect. Redbone’s eyes are as red-rimmed and spillish as if he just stumbled out of Nine Inch Nails concert.
I make an effort to get up. That doesn’t work. Redbone licks my bloody chin. He still loves me. But I suspect that on some level he’s known all day that I was plotting to kill him.
Redbone was having a bad time even before the storm. The last few summers have been hard on him. The week since the storm has been even harder. He’s not used to being tied up, but with the fences flattened by the wind and exposed power lines in the streets, we have no choice but to tether him to one of the still-standing porch posts, where he thrashes and bays until he makes himself ill. Nothing in his staid world is as it should be since the night he shrank into a puppy again and huddled in my arms, whining at the shrill chorus of witches in the wind and the shummering vibrations of the steel playground equipment across the street. Eight days later, his expression is still shell-shocked, utterly bewildered. The electricity is still out, so there’s no AC. Redbone’s tongue lolls in the oppressive heat, drop-jawed, mouthing the humid air.
Redbone has been wildly agitated since the storm, but I didn’t decide to kill him because he bit me. He’s bitten me many times over the last six months, and we both understand that this is not his fault, that these flashes of rage and frustration are as much an embarrassment to him as the way he’s taken to yelping when he poops. The point of no return was the sight of his canine incisors, bared and scissoring like jagged-edge pinking shears about eighteen inches from the spindly, sunburned arm of Riley, the four-year-old boy who lives next door.
We’re all cooking out these days, of course, so the morning air was full of campout breakfast. Pancakes. Bacon. Greasy eggs over easy. Redbone lumbered out of the garage and loped across the lawn. I caught up with him and seized his collar just as he lunged for the plate on Riley’s plastic Little Tykes picnic table. He wheeled, snarling, and even as he sank his teeth into my wrist, his big old doggie eyes were pleading up at me. Bacon, bacon, bacon. In the name of Christ’s mother immaculate, woman, do you not smell the bacon?
“Huh,” said Riley’s father, who is a nice enough guy but about as quick on the uptake as a persistent fatty tumor. Instead of scooping Riley into his arms, he just stood there next to the barbecue grill, spatula in hand, observing the scene as if he was watching a couple of rodeo clowns. Tears of pain and heartsickness stung my eyes as I struggled my dog back to our own driveway. There was no more denying it. Redbone had punched his ticket.
I spent some time crying in the bathroom, contemplating how to get the job done. I didn’t want to talk to Gary about it. He is the Clarence Darrow of denial when it comes to this sort of thing; we traveled this same downhill slope with an old dog we adopted shortly before we were married twenty-five years ago. I couldn’t bear to be cast as the prosecutor lobbying for the death of a dog I loved against Gary’s love-means-never-having-to-face-reality defense. The phone was nonfunctional, my cell service spotty, so I couldn’t call the vet who had no power in whatever office was left anyway, so no hope of getting help or an additional supply of the pet sedatives we’d gotten before the storm, anticipating Redbone’s distress combined with the thunder-chasing hyperactivity of Manny, our Boston terrier. A few hours after the Riley incident, as I waited in the long gas line for my twenty dollars worth of strictly rationed fuel, I saw an open drug store. I found sleeping pills in aisle five. A lone jar of creamy peanut butter stranded on a picked-over shelf.
After Gary administered the doggie downers and left to put in an extra nightshift at the ravaged airport, I assembled the extra creamy death on white bread. I figured ten sleeping pills would do the trick. Then I put in ten more, just to make sure. That left only four in the packet, so I put those in as well, sprinkling the contents of each capsule on a liberally slathered slice of bread. As I spread the second slice thickly, Redbone snuffled in anticipation, wagging his sawed-off stump of tail. With a broken, guilty heart, I knelt and hugged my arms around him.
“Been a long time since you had a nutter-butter sammy, huh, Mr. Bones?”
Come to think of it, it had been a while since I’d had one myself. We’d both come to an age where diet was so much about caution and so little about pleasure. Pondering the difference between being alive and truly living, I made myself a nice thick peanut butter sandwich, too, and carried the round cutting board out to the dark garage, where the open door was full of late evening air. Redbone and I sat down and ate our sandwiches without caution, without care, relishing the rare snatches of birdsong that managed to peek through the roar of gas generators. It didn’t taste as good as I thought it would. The bread was stale, and the creamy peanut butter had an odd post-shelf-life graininess to it.
“You’re a good dog, Redbone,” I whispered, scratching behind his shaggy ear. “Thank you for being such a wonderful part of this family.”
I started crying again, remembering how I’d slept on the kitchen floor with him his first night in our home. He was four weeks old, a calendar cute puppy with enormous paws and huge, soulful eyes that reminded me of Leon Redbone. My kids had already named him “Dodger Rodgers”, so they were dismayed to discover I’d rechristened him before they got up the next morning.
“Yup,” I said. “Redbone Blues Doggie. That’s his name.”
“How do you know?” said my skeptical second-grader.
“I said to him, ‘Puppy, if your name is Redbone, keep me up all night whining and then pee on my shirt.’ And he did.”
I bought a book about holistic new-age dog training. The puppy slumbered in my lap while I studied it from cover to cover. Then he peed on it.
“Redbone,” I said sternly. “You sadden me when you don’t bizzy in the bizzy place.”
The book suggested using the word bizzy because it was more easily distinguished. It also suggested expressing strong feelings and mimicking an elaborate system of behaviors designed to make him think I was his mother. After two or three weeks of rolling on the floor, barking, growling, fetching chew toys in my teeth and throttling him with my mouth on the downy scruff of his neck, I bought another book, this one written by a group of monks who train personal assistance dogs. These monks didn’t mess around with a lot of bizzy psychobabble. Puppy boot camp ensued, and within a few months, I had this dog respecting the sanctity of the upstairs carpet, walking at heel three miles every morning without a leash, and depositing his own chew toys into a plastic bin every night before bed.
“English Springers are a sociable breed,” the vet told me. “Four hundred years of hanging out with human beings. All this dog wants is to be the best friend of anyone patient enough to teach him.”
Redbone spent the next twelve years Velcroed to my side. He listened with rapt interest while I did phone interviews promoting my second novel and snoozed at my feet while I wrote my third. He gamely danced with me whenever I was fighting to stay awake and stolidly kept watch if I stretched out to nap on my office floor. When I laughed, he barked along; when I cried, he nuzzled my knees. He alerted me every afternoon when the elementary school bus arrived, rode in the back seat to pick up the kids from junior high, patiently waited for them to come home from college on the weekends.
Now we’d come to the end of our last day together. Redbone lay down on the cement floor, and I went to lie beside him, but squatting there in the dark, I suddenly felt a bit off balance. My head nodded forward, and I bumped my chin on the wooden arm of the Adirondack chair. The sharp edge and jolt to my jaw jogged something loose in the back of my brain. I touched my face, stared blankly at the blood on my fingertips, greenish black and shiny under the amber flashlight. There was a cloudiness, like sediment stirred up from the bottom of a fish tank, then a disconnected retracing of steps leading back, back, back, and then forward again to the moment when I set the two sandwiches side by side on the cutting board—as identical as two MREs in a POD—the sandwich of death on the right.
I watched myself eat the sleeping pill sandwich. Along with the realization came a tsunami of dizziness and nausea.
So now I’m lying on the floor with Redbone. My cell phone is in my pocket, smooth as a skipping stone and just as useful. Gary is as good as a thousand miles away. Across the street, the generators roar an ocean of sound that drowns my feeble cries for help along with the thin songs of the mockingbirds perched among the debris.
This is the end, I’m thinking.
But of course, it’s only the beginning.
Will Joni survive the Socrates sandwich of doom? Does Redbone receive a stay of execution? And what the hell does any of this have to do with writing and/or publishing? Tune in Monday for "Every Dog Has His Day: Part 2"...