Writing with Style
November 13, 2008
Better Living through Fish
All my life (with a little nagging) my parents have tried to get me the pets I wanted. We’d be sitting at the dining room table eating spaghetti and I’d sneak in a comment about a hamster in need of a home. I’d justify this by saying, “Well, Kathleen’s parents got her one and he’s so cute and fluffy.” Kathleen has been my best friend since I was three. She always got the good pets and she always got them first. So, I spent most of my dinners trying to guilt my mom and dad into buying me a fat, fuzzy creature they’d inevitably end up taking care of. It’s not that I didn’t love my pets or want to provide them with the best home (that damn hamster ate better than I did), I just had pet ADD and I’d grow bored with my smelly rodents and decide I needed to breed hedgehogs or start a frog farm.
When I was little, probably about six years old, I wanted a dog more than I had wanted to learn to read and write. My brother, Jon, and I spent hours at the library (yes, I said the library, antiquated, I know) looking at pictures of dogs and reading dog encyclopedias in order to come up with a good argument for our father. Getting my dad to buy us something in the realm of a dog was a process. He used to be an arbitrator for the NJEA, so everything was a case to him. If I presented my case for a Westie puppy and it sucked or lacked solid reasoning for why I needed a Westie in my life and how the aforementioned puppy would benefit the rest of the family—the case was closed—I didn’t get the stupid Westie. My dad is a great dad. He’s always tried to give me anything I’ve ever asked for (and my demands have often been absurd), but he has never liked having living members of the animal kingdom taking up space in our house.
My father’s father served under General Patton in North Africa; do you think someone like that is a pushover? So my dad never had any pets growing up, just a miserable hunting dog who bit small children for a laugh.
My brother and I were persistent. We usually figured out what kind of manipulation tactics worked best on our parental unit. After months of pathetic whining about how every other child in America has a dog, my brother and I were allowed to pick out our first family dog. But, there were first family dog caveats: it had to be from pure hunting stock and it had to come from Game Creek (they breed spaniels, but doesn’t it really sound like a McMansion development or a microbrewery?). The whole car ride there I was thinking, “I can’t wait, we’re finally getting a puppy, this is going to be so great.” I was a delusional child. I ended up with two stupid ass Brittany Spaniels who couldn’t hunt for s*** and ran head on into trees. Oh, well.
We had those dogs, Tom and Jerry, for a long time. Tom and Jerry got more shock collar than dog treats and spent their hunting years attacking little terriers. My dad took them out on one occasion, a swampy area infested with hillbillies and pick ups, where Tom apparently had it out for a Labrador. Tom was in-bred and much too freakishly muscular for a typical Brittany. Tom bit the Lab when the unsuspecting Lab tried to kick up my dad’s well-deserved pheasant. The Lab’s owner overheard all the commotion and, in turn, pointed his shotgun at Tom and told my dad he was going to shoot him. I can’t remember his exact words, but in his retelling of the story, I definitely remember my dad affirming that he was “going to shoot someone.”
Tom got hit by a car and died at the vet. About a year later, Jerry, the dumber of the two, got his by a car as well. Jerry had a broken back and made it home. I always thought that dog was an imbecile; he spent hours chasing his tail and hitting his head on his doghouse. But, there was something I cannot even express that I felt that day when we found Jerry lying on the step outside the backdoor. Sure, you can say dogs have these kinds of instincts, but there was more there—something honorable, something so innately instinctual, something that caused that dog to push through the excruciating pain of an obscenely mutilated broken back and return to the place he had known as home since he was a little puppy. I saw it in his face. He came home to die. It was so clear to me. Jerry placed his life in my father’s hands, because he refused to let anyone else end it. I remember my brother telling me to go to my room, but I didn’t and I continued to peer out the back window (I always was a pain in the ass). It was April and cold and gray and Jerry was lying on a freezing, poured concrete block. Why did that have to be the last thing he ever felt or saw? It could have been eighty-two degrees with a southwest wind and the air could have smelled like roses but I guess it still would have been total bullshit that my dog was dying.
My dad shot Jerry in the head. I promised I wouldn’t call him stupid anymore. Jerry, that is. He was never really stupid. He just looked and acted like something that should be named Jerry. We never got another dog. After that, I didn’t even want one. These days, I stick to fish.