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LADDIE

MY FOUR-LEGGED PROTECTOR

Don Marler


LADDIE

MY FOUR-LEGGED PROTECTOR

by

Don Marler

Publisher

Don Marler Enterprises, LLC

Wichita, Kansas


Laddie: My Four-Legged Protector

Copyright © 2016 by Don Marler
Don Marler Enterprises, LLC

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.

Don Marler Enterprises LLC
2325 N. Arkansas Avenue #4071
Wichita, KS, 67204
Email: randfan.one@gmail.com
Website: www.laddiebydonmarler.website

ISBN Hardcover book: 978-0-692-73822-1
ISBN Softcover book: 978-0-692-73823-8
ISBN eBook: 978-1-5323-0942-7
LCCN: 2017932709



Dedicated to everyone who has ever loved a dog



CONTENTS

1. Lassie Come Home

2. Pork Au Jus

3. Love without Words

4. Remembering Red

5. Tossing the Caber

6. Turtle Rock Sanctuary

7. Sugar & Peanut Butter

8. Polar Bear Fighters

9. I’m Sorry

10. Tex’s Training

11. Memorial Day

12. King

13. Not That Newspaper

14. Dime Banks & Coats

15. Scary Things That Bite

16. Goodbye, Tar Baby

17. Stay There

18. Never Give Up

19. My Caddie

20. Eva’s Gifts

21. Where All Good Dogs Go

Acknowledgements


AUTHOR’S NOTE

I bought my first camera at age six. It cost 50 cents and a Wheaties box top. It had a cheap plastic lens that took blurry, 1”x 1” pictures. Unfortunately, the images I captured of Laddie with that camera were too fuzzy to use in this book.

At that time, my mother, Irene, had a Kodak box camera with a glass lens and 3”x 5” negatives. The pictures she took came back from the drugstore somewhat sharper. She took the picture of Laddie; our next-door neighbor, Jeanette; and me that appears in Chapter Nine: “I’m Sorry,” as well as the one of Tar Baby and me in Chapter Sixteen: “Goodbye, Tar Baby.”

My Great Uncle Roy took the picture of Eva and me on her front porch, that’s in Chapter

Twenty: “Eva’s Gifts.” My great aunt Eva took the picture of Irene and me on my first day of school, shown in Chapter One, “Lassie Come Home,” and me wading in a mud puddle, which appears in Chapter Thirteen: “Not That Newspaper.” Before they passed away, both Irene and Eva gave me their photos and told me, “The pictures are yours now. Please do what you want with them.”

Susan Hampton, Samoyed breeder

At age ten, I purchased my second camera, which had a glass lens. It used flashbulbs almost as big as 40-watt light-bulbs, and it created crisp, focused images. That upgrade allowed me to take the sharp picture of my father’s welders that appears in Chapter Four: “Remembering Red.”

After coming home from the Marines at age 26, I purchased my third camera, a professional 35 MM model, to photograph Susan Hampton’s purebred Samoyed dogs that looked and acted just like my boyhood dog, Laddie. Susan, a Samoyed breeder, lived and raised her dogs in Bel Aire, Kansas. She gave me permission to use her name and image, and one of her puppies as a stand in for Laddie in his younger years, and her adult male champion in the photos in Chapter Nineteen: “My Caddie.” All other dog photographs are of Laddie himself.

I wrote Laddie’s story from memory, as honestly as

I could 55 years after it took place. All of Laddie’s story remains intact.


1

LASSIE COME HOME

Every year or two during spring rains in the 1940s, the Little Arkansas River would overflow its banks and flood our entire neighborhood in Wichita, Kansas. My parents, Tex and Irene Marler, would watch the floodwater slowly flow up 21st Street, and Irene would pray for the rain to stop before it came inside our house. Tex wasn’t religious, so he never prayed. When the rain didn’t stop, and the muddy water reached the floor of our front porch, Tex would put all of our furniture up on cinder blocks. Then he’d hoist me onto his shoulders and swim out to his big welding truck, open the door, and deposit me on the front seat. After closing the door, he’d swim back for Irene. The three of us would then drive sixteen blocks to Tex’s shop on Santa Fe Street. We’d camp out in the attic for a week or more until the water had receded enough to permit us to go back home. Our homecomings would be less than joyful. We’d reluctantly climb the front porch steps, knowing we’d be walking into a stink worse than a pack of wet dogs. Every time, the floors would lay covered by at least six inches of mud and sticks, and the walls would be stained by who knows what. Wasting no time, Tex would swing me up onto our sofa, and I’d watch the cleanup from my perch only inches from the ceiling. Tex would shovel wave after wave of mud out our front door and then Irene would use the garden hose to spray the floor and the base of the walls before chasing the last of the silt out the front door. She’d mop the floors and walls with Clorox water and then, so our floors could dry, we’d take to our beds and try to ignore the overpowering smells that made sleeping difficult.

Tex, Irene, and I first moved into our rental house, also known as a shack, in 1942, when I was just a year old. The house was in a poor northwest Mexican laborer’s neighborhood. The floorboards had been through so many floods and shrinkages from so many hot Kansas summers that the cracks between them had become wide enough in some places that we could see clear through to the ground. Tex and Irene never let on that they hated the place. But my Great Aunt Eva, who lived next door to us, would often say, “This is all anyone in the neighborhood can afford.”

~

It was 1945 when I started kindergarten at Waco Elementary. I was four years old, I had never been outside my city block before, except for when Irene made me go to Fairview Christian, Irene’s church, or to family reunions. So Irene and Eva walked me three blocks to school on the first day. Irene surprised me by gently taking my hand to guide me through the front gate. I wanted to enjoy her contact even though her change in behavior confused me. As we passed through the school’s front doors, I sensed the vast interior of the building looming over me. It felt like I might wet my pants, so I squeezed my insides as tightly as I could.

Me, age four, with Irene (Hall) Marler, first day of school

As Irene and I slowly climbed the giant wooden staircase leading up to the first floor, I smelled the sweet-sour odor of vomit mixed with sawdust. It reminded me of having the stomach flu and throwing up when I smelled my Great Uncle Roy sawing boards. Why does school smell like this? I wondered.

Irene pointed at the concrete stairs that led to the basement and said, “When I was here for the orientation for mothers of kindergarteners, I spoke to Mr. Brown, the school janitor. I know him from church. He told me his desk and cleaning supplies are down there, next to boys’ and the girls’ toilets.”

We reached the first floor landing, and Irene sweetly instructed me to look into the classroom off to our left. “See your teacher at her desk, talking to the other kindergartners?”

My classmates had already turned five, so most of them—many of them tan-skinned Mexican boys and girls from my neighborhood—stood taller and looked older than I. Being short, skinny, and pale, I stood out like a pasty gringo trying to hide in the middle of Pancho Villa’s gang.

Then Irene pointed at a sturdy wooden door with a frosted glass window that had black letters printed on it: PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE. Ominous shadows moved behind the glass. “You don’t want to do something naughty and have to go in there,” Irene said. And then the door swung open suddenly, and I jumped. Irene said hello to the smiling woman who strode out. Then Irene walked me into my classroom and stepped right up to my teacher, who introduced herself as Miss Gardner and then Miss Gardner asked me to take a seat at one of the tables. I found the last empty chair at a table for six children.

Irene and all the other mothers stood in a group by the door while Miss Gardner asked us kids to say our names out loud one by one. Then she explained that when we needed to use the restroom, we were to ask to borrow the restroom paddle that hung on the end of her desk. We were to show it to teachers we might meet in the hallway. Then Irene snuck out the door, to leave me alone with strangers.

The next morning I ran to school. Irene had said Waco Elementary wasn’t that far from our house, so I had to walk there without her. Being all alone when I saw the gray, two-story building towering in the distance, I felt a little sick. But then the bell in the school’s bell tower rang out, and it seemed to talk to me. “Don’t be afraid,” it said. “Things here might not be as bad as your mother warned you they’d be.”

By noon that Friday, I’d learned why the school smelled the way it did. One of my classmates had gotten sick and lost his breakfast on the floor. Miss Gardner notified Mr. Brown, and he soon clamored up the stairs, carrying a push broom and a dustpan filled with sawdust. When he lumbered into our room, his boney legs caused his overalls to bulge from side to side. I noticed he’d hung a red shop rag from his right hip pocket, but I didn’t know why.

Mr. Brown sprinkled some wood shavings on the floor and then swept up the vomit and sawdust mixture, stirring up a God-awful odor. I started gagging, and I didn’t stop until I looked away and made myself think about Jesus like my Sunday school teacher had said I should when something bad happened. Mr. Brown didn’t use his rag for anything, but after that day I never doubted that he had his reasons for carrying it.

At first, I was cautious around the other kindergartners. I’d look at the floor instead of staring at them. I’d avoid playing with other kids. But then when no one tried to hurt me, I relaxed some. Then I accidentally looked directly into the face of a boy named Larry who sat at my table, and he smiled at me. Wow! After that I smiled at all the kids in my class, and everyone except for one girl, who looked as afraid as I’d felt, smiled back.

One morning, I needed to do number one, so I asked Miss Gardner, “Can I use the restroom paddle?” Miss Gardner handed it to me, so I went down the stairs and into the bowels of the building. Enormous, scary pipes hung from the ceiling. They clanged, like the sound of Tex banging his sledge hammer on a piece of metal. Terrified now, I inched toward the restrooms.

And then when I passed an open door, I smelled the sweet aroma of tobacco and saw a man sitting in a small, dimly lit room like a squirrel’s cubby hole. The man was smoking a dark brown pipe. Then his head jerked up, and he saw me! It was Mr. Brown! With my heart in my throat, I scurried to the toilet. I was scared while I peed. I told myself that I’d never go into the basement again if I could help it.

As the days wore on, I discovered there were more good things than bad about going to school. Miss Gardner was the best thing. I could tell that she liked kids. She had a kind smile, talked nicely to all of us and never hit anyone when they were naughty. I could speak to her whenever I wanted, and she answered me. I also especially liked eating Graham Crackers, drinking milk, and lying on a rug.

My class had assigned seats. Larry sat on my right. He’d pick his nose when we ate Graham Crackers and drank milk. He was ornery. Once he grabbed a green crayon from the box of crayons he’d brought to school for art and scribbled with it on the floor. He said I should do it too, but I didn’t want to. Then when Miss Gardner caught him, I thought She’s gonna take him to that Principal’s Office where naughty boys go. She didn’t do it, but I was still glad I hadn’t joined him.

A girl named Marlene sat on my left. From the very first day of school, I understood why everyone said they wished they could sit next to her. She used a fancy rug during nap time and wore a fancy satin party dress and black patent leather shoes five days a week. I had to wear the same pair of holey jeans every day. She’d tell everybody, “My family is rich. We have a movie theater.” I’d look at her and think It’s not fair.

Since I didn’t have any sisters, I didn’t know how to act around girls, so I watched Marlene and the other girls and hoped I’d learn what to do. But instead, they just mixed me up. Marlene would say she wanted to draw a picture with me, but then when it was time to color, she’d work with Larry instead. I wanted her to like me, so I’d try not to act mad. But she didn’t care anyhow. And once during recess, for no reason at all, a tall, skinny girl named Kay wacked me on the side of the head with her purse. When I got home, I asked Irene why Kay did that, and Irene said Kay probably liked me. Well, I thought that didn’t make a speck of sense. I concluded that girls did stuff I didn’t understand. I decided it was safer to stick with the boys during recess.

Two weeks before Christmas, Marlene’s mother, who looked like a Pekinese wearing a wig, showed up at our class, carrying a handful of red and black birthday invitations. She handed them out, making such a fuss that I wondered if they were World Series tickets. I hoped they were. Miss Gardner read one of the invitations out loud. “Please come to Marlene’s birthday party this Saturday afternoon at one o’clock, at the movie theater on the corner of 21st and Market. You won’t have to pay to see the show. Everyone will get free popcorn. Your entertainment will include a Popeye cartoon, a Rocket Man serial, a Durango Kid movie, and a surprise, the main feature. You will see it in glorious Technicolor.”

I held my invitation in a death grip all the way home from school. I’d never been to a movie before. I trembled with excitement when I handed my gift to Irene. She read it and said, “I’ll let you go if you make your bed every morning and always eat everything I put on your plate.” Irene always made me straighten my bed anyhow, so that would be easy. And Sunday was the only day Tex stayed home and I always got something to eat. So the other six days a week eating everything would also be a snap.

It had snowed the night before the party, so on the big day I put on my jeans and t-shirt, and Irene helped me into my black peacoat, which she’d bought from the Salvation Army thrift store. I pulled Tex’s old, bright red hunting cap that had earflaps out of the closet, put it on, and pulled it down over my ears. Then I stepped into my cousin’s hand-me-down combat boots and laced them up with shoestrings full of knots. When I’d tried and failed to put on my brown mittens that were tied together with a three-foot cord, Irene had me take off my coat before feeding the string up one sleeve and down the other. After putting my coat back on, I peeked at myself in Irene’s bedroom vanity mirror and thought I looked pretty good.

Then Irene and I were ready to walk to the theater. As soon as we stepped outside, Irene began grumbling. She tromped through the snowdrifts, and I gasped for air and trotted along behind her. My short legs struggled to keep up with her. I asked her to hold on to my hand, but she said she didn’t want to. So I wiped my nose on my coat sleeve and ran. That helped.

When we reached the theater, we stood outside, and Irene handed my invitation to a strange looking lady in a glass booth. She had purple hair, wore pink glasses, and had red lipstick painted outside the borders of her lips. She talked to Irene through a round hole surrounded by a brass ring. “Marlene’s birthday party lasts two hours and forty minutes,” she said, talking out of one side of her mouth while a cigarette bounced up and down in the other. “Take your son to the candy counter and give the attendant this. She’ll give him his popcorn.” The woman slid a ticket stub through a waist high opening in the booth and Irene picked it up.

I followed Irene through brass doors and into the lobby of the theater. A couple of kids and their mothers were already waiting in line at the candy counter. When Irene and I reached the counter, a short lady with painted on eyebrows handed me a tiny bag of popcorn. “Can I have a bigger one, please?” I asked.

Irene slapped my arm and said through clenched teeth, “Be glad you got one at all.” A mother standing behind us coughed and then scowled at Irene, making Irene change her tone. “Now be good,” she sweetly said to me. “I’ll meet you here after the movie.” The other mother stepped up to the candy counter as Irene turned to leave.

Irene turned to leave, and I panicked. “How will I find you?” I asked.

Irene smirked. “Don’t worry, Donnie,” she said. “I have to come back and get you, or Tex would wring my neck.”

A lanky kid with pimples on his face, wearing a purple uniform and a yellow tie, motioned with his flashlight that I should follow him. I waved goodbye to Irene, but she didn’t wave back, and then I followed the kid. He pushed aside a curtain and led me down the middle of the theater to the front, where kids from my class were sitting. Larry waved at me and said I should sit next to him. With the sticky floor tugging at the soles of my boots, I slid by him and sat down. As soon as I pulled my coat and cap off and put them on the empty seat next to me, I immediately reached to feel the underside of my seat. My fingers ran over wads of gum plastered there. I wasn’t tempted to pry off a piece and chew it, because Irene had told me, “Don’t eat the gum that’s underneath your seat. It has polio on it.”

My seat was too high for my feet to touch the floor, but I didn’t mind, I just leaned back and munched on my popcorn. Then the lights went down, and the music came up, and the big screen showed Popeye eating spinach out of a can. Then his arms grew big and muscular, and he punched Bluto. After that, Rocket Man came on. I especially liked the part when Rocket Man jumped out a window, carrying a fire extinguisher on his back.

Next was Durango Kid. By the time he’d dashed behind a big rock to change into his black get-up and mask, I’d eaten all of my popcorn. Seeing my empty bag, Larry whispered, “My mom said it’s alright to throw that on the floor.” I looked around for Irene. I didn’t see her anywhere, so I threw my bag on the floor.

And then happy music played, lots of colors swirled back and forth across the movie screen, and the main feature began. A dog with a luxurious white mane and honey-colored coat ran across the screen, turned in place, and looked right at me! “Lassie!” a bunch of kids cried out. We were watching Lassie Come Home. The dog was so beautiful that I became dizzy, in a nice way. Tingles ran down my back. I felt like I’d never felt before. Happy inside.

Larry leaned into me and loudly said, “Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor are in this movie.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. I had no idea who Roddy and Elizabeth were, but there was no way I was going let Larry know that my parents didn’t have enough money to let me go to movies.

Looking at Elizabeth made my stomach feel warm inside. She had full red lips and beautiful, long, black hair. I thought she was a lucky girl. Her mother in the movie used a soft voice when she spoke to her, and she looked tenderly at her like she loved her. I thought that Elizabeth was a lucky girl. Seeing the way this mother treated Elizabeth made me wish Irene treated me that way. Then I thought If I had a beautiful friend like Elizabeth Taylor and a dog like Lassie, I’d be happy.

Lassie Come Home made me feel like I’d entered a different world, where everyone was happy. But then tears ran down my cheeks as I watched Roddy McDowall’s family have to sell Lassie. I turned my face away from Larry because he didn’t seem to like the kids who cried about stuff. Then my chest felt good when Elizabeth helped Lassie escape from a mean man, and I liked her even more. Then I squirmed in my seat when Lassie struggled to cross a raging river, and I raised my feet when he walked across sharp rocks. I cried when Lassie had no food, and a stranger gave him something to eat. I didn’t understand why I’d cried.

And when Lassie made it home at last? Well, when he bounded up to Roddy McDowall and leaped into his arms, I felt like I was going to burst. Roddy petted Lassie’s head and whispered things to him. I was sure he loved Lassie a lot. Then Lassie wagged his tail, looked up at Roddy and licked his face. And, right then and there, I realized I had to get a dog. I would love him, and he would love me back.

I felt like I’d run out of gas by the time the movie ended. I put my coat and hat back on and staggered out to the popcorn stand, wiping my eyes as I went. I saw Irene was talking to the popcorn lady, so I waited until she’d finished, and then I said, “We need to get a dog like Lassie, right away.”

Irene scowled at me like I’d said something terribly wrong. Why wouldn’t everyone want a dog like Lassie?

For the next ten days, I begged Irene, “Can we get a dog, please?” The more I asked, the louder she refused, but wouldn’t tell me why. And then her patience snapped, and she squeezed my cheeks between her fingers and drew close to me. “Your father already said there’s no extra money for a dog or its food.” Her breath smelled like rotten meat. “Do you know how much it’d cost to build a fence around our backyard?”

I had no idea what it would cost. But, I knew we weren’t the only poor family on the block. The Mexican families around us weren’t rich either. They all owned at least one dog, and they still put up a fence to keep their dogs safe. But, I knew what Irene would do to me if I mentioned that to her.

Irene released my face, and I ran and hid in my bedroom, where I cried. Then I had an idea. I went back to Irene and smiled at her, hoping she wouldn’t whip me for still wanting a dog. She didn’t return my smile. I said, “Would you please ask Tex if it’s alright for me to use my saved up birthday and Christmas money to buy a dog? I have over two hundred dollars in my postal savings account.”

Irene jutted out her chin at me. “Twenty-First Street is too busy. Your dog would get run over in no time, and then what would happen? Everybody around here would start bawling.” She was right about 21st Street being busy. We had cars and trucks going by all day. I’d seen a dog get run over one night when I was playing Kick the Can in our front yard. Yes, we’d need a fence. Tex could build one if he wanted to.

Irene turned away, but then she turned back. “Besides,” she said, “I don’t want dog hair all over my house.”

I started to tell Irene I would run the sweeper, but she cut me off. “I’m not gonna listen to another word about it. Drop it, or I’m gonna whip the hide right off your butt.”

I moped around before dragging myself outside. I don’t care what Irene says. I need a dog to love. It’s not fair. It’s my money, so I should get to spend it on what I want.

Then it occurred to me that I might have better luck if I asked Tex myself. So that night after Tex had finished eating his supper and had settled into his recliner, I cautiously approached him. “What do you want?” he gruffly asked. He didn’t like being bothered.

I smiled. Then I said, “Would it be alright with you if I used my saved up money to buy a dog?”

Tex just sat there looking at me.

I continued: “I would tie him up with our old, leftover clothesline rope so that he wouldn’t get run over. I would keep the rugs vacuumed so that Irene wouldn’t get mad that there was dog hair on them.” This place is always dirty anyways, I thought.

Tex cleared his throat and turned his face away from me. Then he turned back, tears in his eyes, and quietly said, “I know every boy wants a dog. But you can’t always get what you want.”

My eyes got wet again.

Tex pursed his lips. “I’m already spending a lot to take care of you and your mother. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“But—”

“Donnie! Even if you used your savings, you wouldn’t have enough to pay for a fence and dog food! You can’t get a dog, and that’s final! Now get outta here!”

I ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and sobbed silently. And then I thought of another way to get what I wanted. Great Aunt Eva could buy me a dog! I’ll keep it at her house!


2

PORK AU JUS

“Aw, honey,” Great Aunt Eva said after I’d gone next door and told her my dog idea the following day. “Roy bought Captain Midnight for me because I wanted a dog badly. I know he’d throw a fit if I asked for another one. As it is, he barely gives me enough cash to buy dog food, so….” Disappointed, I went home and shut myself in my room.

The following day, the blizzard of 1945 rolled into Wichita, forcing the bus station, train depot, and the major highways in and out of town to close. It piled up snow so high it even halted the heavy traffic in front of our house. But Tex’s welding truck could churn through anything, even snow that kept cars off the road. For traction, it had dual rear wheels that could carry a heavy load: a metal truck bed that held Tex’s giant welding machine, several tool boxes, thick steel oxygen and acetylene bottles, and an acetylene torch with hoses. To me, the truck looked like a yellow tank on tires. I liked playing on it. I’d pretend its fenders were slippery slides.

Me sitting on Tex’s Welding truck fender

After Tex and Irene married, they lived in Eldorado, Kansas, where I was born at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital. When I was one year old, Irene’s father, Milo Hall, loaned Tex the money to attend Boeing’s welding school in Wichita. Then Tex moved Irene and me to our rental house in Wichita, at 523 W. 21st Street. After he’d graduated from welding school, he worked a year for Harley Russell at Harley’s welding shop at 1717 N. Santa Fe. When Harley wanted to retire, Tex bought the business from him. He paid Harley for his welding equipment, supplies, and his customer list and then took over the rent on the ancient cinder block building before changing the name to Tex’s Welding Service.

Three days before Christmas, the blizzard was still dumping snow on Wichita. Tex had to drive across the north end of town and then to our house before I could get any supper. When I protested to Irene that I was too hungry to wait, she said, “Nobody eats anything until your father gets home.” So I set the table, and Irene turned her cooking stove off and came into the dining room. Then we moved a couple of dining chairs away from the dining room table and over to the far corner, close to the one heating stove we used to heat the entire house.

At a quarter after five, Tex’s truck rumbled into our driveway and came to a crunching stop on the snow. He tramped in the backdoor and stood on a carpet square while he stomped the snow off his boots before he took them off. He walked in his stocking feet to the dining room. With a worried expression, he removed his cap and gloves and carefully laid them on top of the heating stove to cook them dry. He hung his coat over the back of a chair and then carried that chair up next to Irene and me and sat down. He held his hands out toward the warmth.

The stove’s golden flame shone through its glazed front door, casting dancing shadows of our huddled bodies onto the far wall. Tex glanced over at Irene. Then he stared at her like he was bursting to tell her something important. Irene looked at his expression, but didn’t say anything. Then Tex blurted out, “This snow is killing my business. No one’s coming in. But I still have to pay my welders and cover the rent on the shop and the house.” He rubbed his hands together. “That means there won’t be any money left for buying Christmas presents.”

Tex’s announcement made my brain spin and my stomach feel like it had fallen into my shoes. A few days earlier, Irene had gotten into a rare Christmas spirit and told me all about what was going to happen on Christmas Eve. She’d said, “On Christmas Eve, Santa will bring you a gift while you’re sleeping. Since we don’t have a fireplace, he’ll have to park his reindeer and sleigh full of toys in our backyard. He’ll sneak in the backdoor and slide your present under the tree that Tex cut down along the river and brought home. Then Santa will sneak out to his sleigh and tell his reindeer to get going, so he can deliver the rest of the presents to kids all around the world.”

What happened? I wanted to know.

Irene looked at me and tried to smile. Then she looked at Tex and said with forced cheer, “We can still have a Christmas Eve celebration. I have some fatback and a loaf of bread in the freezer. I’ll fix that for us.” Pork Au Jus was Tex’s favorite meal.

I was tempted to complain about not getting a present, but I realized I couldn’t do anything about my family situation and told myself that I might as well quit wasting my energy feeling sorry for myself.

When Christmas Eve arrived, I sat on a metal step stool and leaned back on the kitchen counter while Irene stood by her cooking stove and turned strips of pork in her cast iron skillet. Her movements made the right sleeve of her soiled pink housecoat sway back and forth, and the heavenly aroma of the meat floating in bubbling grease made my belly cramp. I hadn’t had anything to eat all day.

Irene’s eyes were puffy. She and her holey bedroom slippers looked exhausted. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her when she looked this way. She kept glancing at the backdoor and mumbling, “How is a woman supposed to keep a man’s dinner hot when he doesn’t let her know when he’s gonna get home?”

Gusts of cold air pouring through holes in the linoleum on the kitchen floor chilled my bare feet and sent shivers up my back. I pulled myself up one step on the stool and rested my elbows on the latest crumbly bits of plasterboard that had fallen on the counter. Turning my head to gaze through the back window, I noticed that ice had formed a white frame around the inside of many of the window panes. Much of the putty had fallen away from the glass panels and the gaps had let in cold air. My stomach started making funny noises, and the enticing smell of cooking meat overcame me. I got up the courage to say, “Can I please have a slice of meat now?”

Irene glared at me. “Go set the table.”

“Can’t I at least have a small piece of bread?”

Irene pointed her fork at me and said, “Set the table.”

After climbing down from my perch, I dragged myself into the dining room and grabbed three plates from Irene’s used china hutch. Then I carefully arranged them and the silverware and glasses on her flowery oilcloth tablecloth. Finished, I dragged myself back into the kitchen and said, “Do you see him yet?”

Irene said nothing. Instead, she shuffled across the kitchen floor and peered out the backdoor window. She shook her head and said, “Your father will be home anytime now. Go scrub your hands.”

I ran through the dining room and into the bathroom.

“Use soap!” Irene yelled.

I turned on the faucet, passed my hands through the water, swiped them across a towel, and ran back to the kitchen.

Irene locked her attention on my hands. Hoping to distract her, I said, “Are we going to dip our fatback sandwiches in hot grease like last time? Tex said that’s what rich people in New York City do.”

“Maybe, if you promise not to drip juice on my tablecloth,” Irene said as she approached the cooking stove and started to fork fatback out of the skillet and lay it on a dishtowel. I drew closer and closer to the draining meat, so close that my nose almost touched the towel. Irene said, “Why don’t you play with your pick-up-sticks and leave me be?”

I took a step back. “What did Tex call the thing we did when we dipped our sandwiches?”

Pork au jus.” Then Irene got a faraway look in her eyes. “Do remember what your father said would happen if you ate your whole sandwich?”

I laughed and took off running toward the dining room. “Tex said I’d grow up to be a cowboy!”

Opening the dining room buffet, I grabbed the cardboard tube of multi-colored pick-up-sticks and ran into the living room, where I dumped them in the center of the blue throw rug Tex had bought at an auction. I plopped down on my belly and studied the sticks’ arrangement. How could I use my fingers to tease the top stick off the pile without moving any of the others, like Tex had taught me? A few minutes later, the vibrations from Tex’s truck pulling into the driveway traveled through the floor and into my stomach. I grabbed some of the pick-up-sticks and started shoving them back into the cardboard tube. The backdoor opened and closed. Then I heard the muffled sounds of Tex and Irene whispering in the kitchen. Then Irene raised her voice in anger. “I thought we agreed!”

Something scratched on the linoleum floor. It thumped against a wall. Then, before I could ask myself what was going on, a ball of fluffy white fur slid sideways through the kitchen doorway. Startled, I sat up, but when that thing hurled itself across the dining room straight at me, I fell backward. It had sent the dining room throw rug flying against the wall and made my pick-up-sticks explode into the air.

“What’s that?” I screamed.

A whirlwind of legs and a curled up tail ran past me and skidded to a stop. Then this out-ofcontrol, six-inch-tall beast cocked its head and turned its jet-black eyes on me. Its facial expression seemed to be asking me, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know how to have fun?”

Since this critter was small, I figured I’d pin it down by pushing down on its back with my right hand. My mistake. It turned its head to one side and clamped its razor sharp teeth on my forefinger. I jerked my hand away and used my other hand to grab the bundle-of-energy by the nape of his neck. Then I held him up in front of my face and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

A bright pink tongue licked the end of my nose, leaving a warm and wet kiss. Then the puppy turned up the corners of his mouth and smiled, and that was all it took to make me fall completely in love with him. I couldn’t believe he was mine.

I expected Tex or Irene to say, “Wake up, Donnie. You’re dreaming.” But they didn’t. Tex just propped himself against the doorway between the kitchen and dining room and smiled. Irene stood slightly behind him and frowned, her hands planted firmly on her broad hips. Then she looked up at Tex and said with a hoarse voice, “We agreed we weren’t getting a dog.”

Tex turned to her and spat out, “Don’t you worry your little head about it.”

“But we don’t have a fence,” Irene whined. “It’ll get run over in no time.”

“I’ll drive a stake in the backyard. Donnie can keep his puppy on a rope.”

“And what do you expect to feed it? Air?”

“Meat scraps… from Safeway!”

I wanted to yell, “Stop it!”

“You mean you’d give Donnie money for dog food?” Irene screamed.

“The meat’s free, Irene! It’s the trimmings the butcher throws away!”

It was just like Tex to finagle a solution to a problem. He’d always had common sense, even if he hadn’t had book learning.

Irene huffed and said, “Well, you should have talked to me about this first.”

Tex threw up his hands and turned away. Then he softly said, “I had to work.”

With that, Irene spun around, stomped into the kitchen, and said over her shoulder, “If I find dog poop on my floor….”

Wide-eyed, Tex and I just stared at each other.


3

LOVE WITHOUT WORDS

After giving Irene a little time to cool off and in anticipation of our pork au jus Christmas Eve dinner, Tex and I sat down at the dining room table and waited silently for Irene to serve the meal. My puppy kept bumping around under the table and whined and pawed at my leg. Tex wrinkled his forehead, puckered his lips, and shook his head, indicating that Irene being upset wouldn’t tolerate the puppy’s behavior. So I carried my puppy into my bedroom and patted him on the head. Then I closed the door, trapping him inside.

Before long, Irene emerged from the kitchen smiling with accomplishment, carrying a platter of fatback and a basket holding a warm loaf of bread and presented them to Tex. He grabbed the loaf of bread and tore it into three pieces, took the biggest one, tossed a smaller piece on Irene’s plate and an even tinier one on mine. Then Irene brought out a plate holding three little bowls of steaming brown au jus and soundlessly placed the large bowl in front of Tex and then a tiny bowl for me. She took the medium sized bowl for herself and sat down. She looked expectantly at Tex, hoping he would nod indicating that she could return thanks before we ate, but he ignored her. The only time Tex let anyone pray at his table was when his mother visited. Then he always made a show out of insisting that only his mother could return grace. He picked up his bread and sopped up some au jus with it.

I too used my bread to sop up the delicious nectar that Tex loved so much. But then my puppy started scratching at my bedroom door. Too famished to worry about him, I just kept eating. I slid a sliver of fat to the edge of my plate after making sure that Irene wasn’t watching me. My intention was to give it to my puppy, but then I glimpsed Irene turning to look at me with a snarling mouth, and I slid it back down with the rest of the meat on my plate.

Tex wolfed down his meal in four minutes, took a long drink of water, and then wordlessly pushed back from the table and tromped into the living room, leaving Irene and me sitting at the table, still chewing our fatback. Then he leaned back in his recliner and rested his hands on his belly.

Irene’s lower lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears. She shook her head, placed her silver ware on her plate, slowly got up, and carried her uneaten meal into the kitchen. Because I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t come right back to take my plate, I gobbled the rest of my food in record time. Then I put my greasy hands underneath the table and wiped them on the edge of Irene’s tablecloth.

When I carried my empty plate to the kitchen sink, Irene was already washing dishes. When I turned to leave, she swung around and grabbed my upper arm with one of her wet and soapy hands. Lowering her face to mine, she half-growled, “Tex only brought that thing home because he doesn’t want his welders thinking he’s a bad father. Do you hear me?” She paused to let that bounce around in my head, and then she said, “The first time that mutt craps on my floor, it’s going to the pound.”

Back in my bedroom, I squatted down and petted my puppy. He only tolerated it for two seconds before he began gnawing on my fingers. I dropped onto my butt and grabbed his head. I pulled him toward me, his nails scratching across the wood floor until his front paws ran into the edge of the throw rug. I lifted him up and touched my nose to his. I whispered, “Let’s go let Tex know how much I like you.”

I opened my door and walked across the hallway, through the dining room, and into the living room. I sat down on the rug in front of the sofa. I stretched my legs out in front of me and patted the top of one thigh. My puppy circled me a couple of times, and then I picked him up and plopped him belly first on my legs with his head looking up at me. I slowly stroked the velvety fur on top of his head as he smacked his lips and then drooled down the side of my pant leg, but it didn’t bother me. When he tried to roll over, I felt his warm breath. Then he sneezed, and Tex pushed down on the foot rest of his chair and sat upright. He looked at us, and his mouth formed something that could have been considered a smile.

In that instant, I felt warmth in my chest. I wanted to thank Tex for bringing me a dog, and I needed to do it before Irene came into the dining room. So I made up a little song right on the spot. “I got a puppy for Christmas, and I’m happy inside. I liked it so much that I almost cried.”

Tex cleared his throat and lit up a cigarette. His eyes looked sad. He glanced toward the kitchen and then leaned back again.

“I wanted a dog like Lassie,” I told my puppy. “And now I have one. I’ll treat you nice and give you food.”

Tex peeked at us out of the corner of his eye before he reached over and turned on his radio. He never could stand anyone thanking him for anything, much less anybody acting as if they loved him.

Done doing the supper dishes, Irene marched into the dining room and sat down at her Singer sewing machine. I guessed she still hated my getting a dog and was probably mad at Tex for not appreciating the meal she’d prepared. She flopped her going-to-church dress under the sewing machine needle and lowered the foot of the machine onto the material. She put her right foot on the treadle and made it rock forward and back, faster and faster. Tex kept glancing over at her like he was a child expecting her to yell at him.

After a while it got dark outside. Irene turned toward me and snarled, “Donnie, put on your coat and gloves, get the clothesline rope out of the bottom kitchen drawer, and take your dog outside to go potty.”

Giving Irene a wide berth, I went to my bedroom closet to fetch my coat and gloves. I heard tiny claws clicking on the floor right behind me, which made me smile inside. I liked that he wanted to go places with me. I went to the kitchen and opened the cabinet drawer, and a white head pushed its way between my legs, and a black nose poked itself inside the drawer.

Irene stood over me, her hands on her hips, while I started tying the clothesline rope around my puppy’s throat. But then I worried this might choke him, so I untied it and fastened it around his middle. “Hurry up,” Irene said. “I’ll find a box for him to sleep in tonight. I don’t want him running all over the house and making a mess on my floor.” She opened the kitchen backdoor and stepped out onto our porch, where she pulled a cardboard box and some pieces of cloth out of the tub of her wringer washing machine. She brought them back inside and tossed the box on the floor and dropped the rags in it.

I gave the puppy’s rope a tug, and then he and I squeezed past Irene and went outside. When my puppy saw the snow, he stumbled down the porch stairs and fell into a snowdrift. Jumping up to standing, he hiked his leg and did his business. How did he know I wanted him to do that? Then he trotted out into the backyard while I let out all fifteen feet of the clothesline like I would if I were playing with a kite. When I started reeling him in, he planted his paws, leaned back, and whined. “Aren’t you cold?” I asked him.

The puppy started backing up, so I ran to catch up with him. The moonlight shining down on his course outer coat made tiny droplets of ice clinging to his fur glisten. I later learned that this layer kept ice and cold from reaching his skin. I took off my gloves and dug my fingers into his soft undercoat. His skin was warm and dry. He wriggled free of my fingers and backed away again, this time going so far that he seemed to disappear in the snow. When he turned back to look up at me, all I saw was his two black eyes sparkling in the moonlight. Then he suddenly jumped into the air and landed headfirst in a deep snowdrift, and I realized that we had become playmates. And then, all of a sudden, my loneliness went away.

As the evening’s cold began making my fingertips numb, I put my gloves back on and tugged on the rope. I needed to go back inside. My puppy complied, but instead of trotting up to me, he put his nose down and plowed through the snow. I didn’t know dogs could do that! Then he scrambled up the steps and looked up at me, his curved tail wagging over his back. This dog likes me I thought. And then an unfamiliar feeling welled up inside me. Love.

When the puppy and I went back inside and stood in the kitchen, I told Irene, “I didn’t have to show him how to go to the bathroom. He just did it all by himself.” I bent over and scooped up my puppy.

Irene chuckled. I didn’t understand why, but then I didn’t care. The fact that she looked happy was enough for me. Then she pointed inside the cardboard box she’d lined with rags and said, “This will be his bed until he learns that he can only do his business outside. You have to keep him in here every night and get up at least once to take him outside. He’ll learn after a while that he has to stand by the backdoor to show you that he needs to go out.”

“How long will it take him to learn that?”

“That depends on how smart he is.”

“When I get up during the night to go to the bathroom, I’ll take him outdoors.”

Irene’s face darkened, and her voice turned menacing. “You better,” she said, “or you know what I’ll do.”

Irene’s repeated threat made me feel like crying. Once, Tex told me “When unwanted dogs are taken to the pound, they’re locked in cages to see if someone picks them to become their pet. If they don’t get picked, the people at the pound put them to sleep, a nice way of saying they kill them.”

Irene hovered over me as I set my puppy in the box. I stroked the fur on his head and watched his eyes as I scratched behind his ears. His eyes looked into mine, and his tail thumped against the box. He smacked his lips like he was eating something good. And then he smiled at me, and I didn’t feel like crying anymore.

Irene scrunched up her mouth and shook her head. “Quit messing around and go to bed,” she said.


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