Today’s prompt from Ann Dee Ellis’s 8-Minute Memoir: “Messes.Big messes. Small messes. Emotional messes. Physical messes. Spiritual messes. Relationship messes. Scheduling messes. Take your messy pick. 8 minutes. Let it be messy.”
Day 10: Messes
This is about the biggest mess of a dog I ever had. A big, goofy, Brillo-Pad-looking, hot mess of a dog. My father brought him home from work one day, a pot-bellied pup that had barely been weaned. He carried the pup over to us in the front yard, then went inside the house without a word. What possessed him to break the dog home, I never knew, but it was probably the soft heart he kept hidden for decades behind that walnut-hard skin of his.
I took the puppy and let him run around, but his legs were so short, he crawled up at a tuft of fescue grass and got stuck there, little legs whirring but grabbing only air. We laughed at the poor thing while he whined and barked until he finally rolled over and off like a awkward pill bug, earning him the name Roly-Poly. Not the most dignified name, but it fit.
We lived in the semi-country back then, on a horseshoe shaped neighborhood off Cloud Springs Road near Fort Oglethorpe. Our yards were not marked by fences but by the gullies cut between the property to collect storm runoff, so the dogs in the neighborhood ran free. Roly-Poly spent exactly one not inside, before his constant howling got him kicked out. We built a fence out of chicken wire borrowed from my uncle across the street, and I built a rickety wooden box for him to sleep in. Every morning before we go to school, I would take him out to play, and he would stay in his chicken wire Ritz until I got back.
He was a sweet dog, but not overly smart, and I often found him stuck halfway under the chicken wire, trying to crawl out, but he was too fat to make it through the hole that his head had fit in to. He grew fairly quickly and within sex months, he reached the adult weight of 35 to 40 pounds. His gray fur had grown in poofy and patchy, full of large curls and waves, and he had a snout like a schnauzer with a hipster goatee. Great sprouts of hair sprung from his eyes like mouse’s whiskers, and his ears looked like old slippers covered in lint. He had a long, half curled tail like a puffball scimitar, and his butt was four or five inches higher than his shoulders, making him look like a galloping gray wedge. He was not an athletic dog, and his front feet would often get tangled up, and he would flip he over heels and keep right on rolling.
I fed the dog every day, once in the morning and once at night, but he still developed a hankering for the neighbors’ garbage. Like all people in the semi-country, we had learned to secure our garbage cans with the ropes or bungee cords to keep the dogs out. It was a lesson you learned when you get off the bus and found garbage strewn across the front yard and you had to be the one to pick it up, no matter whose dog had done the strewing. Roly especially liked the garbage cans of the people across the street. The youngest boy was as old as my brother, and he didn’t like my dog at all, something he told me most days at the bus stop. That dislike usually came out as threats of what he was going to do to Roly the next time he caught him, but I never took it seriously. Semi-country people like to run off at the mouth, and you can’t listen to everything they say. It’s partly from having Scots/Irish heritage and partly from not having a lick of sense.
One night, we heard a horrible howling sound. I opened the front door to see Roly barreling across the front yard, screaming and holding his head at a funny angle. I came off the porch and grabbed him, trying to hold his head still look enough to get a good look. There was a hole the size of a quarter in his scalp, and it was bleeding profusely. Somebody had struck him with something long and sharp, like they had tried to stab him. Across the way, the neighbor’s porch light went out.
We cleaned the wound and bandaged it, and although he had a white scar on top of his head, Roly seem to just roll with it. Then a funny thing happened. The midsize adult dog began to grow. Within a couple of months, he was a very large dog, probably weighing a hundred pounds. He could easily jump up and put both paws on my shoulders. He also developed a habit of chasing cars, something most my semi-country dogs seemed to enjoy, until he made the mistake of actually catching one. Roly wasn’t the first dog I owned to bite the wrong tire. Two years before when we lived on Fine Street, Peanut got hit by a church bus that I happen to be riding on. There are few things worse than singing, “I’ve Got the Joy Down in My Heart” and hearing the bump as the church bus runs over your dog.
I used to ride the church bus from Highland Park Baptist Church in downtown Chattanooga all the way out to Fairview Georgia, a distance of some ten miles. Highland Park was one of the first mega churches in the country, and they sent their young pastors and repainted school buses far and wide each Sunday to gather the children. A group of us would catch the bus at 8 o’clock sharp, and we would be given Little Debbies cakes as a welcome gift, with the promise of Double Bubble, Moon Pies, and Zingers on the way back home. It was a long ride, so we passed the time singing old church songs like “Deep and Wide,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” That was the last time I rode the church bus. There’s something about running over your pet that makes you lose your taste for Little Debbies and makes you wonder why Jesus doesn’t love little dogs, too.
I was thinking about poor Peanut when we took Roly to the vet to set his leg. The vet wanted to do x-rays and put on a walking cast, but my mother explained the financial facts of life to him. Roly came home with a cast made from a single metal tube wrapped in surgical tape that served as his splint/cast for six weeks. He was already a mess, but it was a pitiful sight watching him drag that metal cast around like a duck tape peg leg. When the six weeks were finally up, I told my mother it was time to take him back to the vet to remove the cast. She handed me a pair scissors and told me they charged fifty bucks to remove the cast, so I would have to do it myself.
The vet had shaved Roly’s leg before putting the tape on, but of course, six weeks was enough for the puffballs to grow back. As I try to peel off the dirty tape, I pulled fur with it. I tried soaking the tape, but it was too sticky, and I finally used my mother’s baby oil suntan lotion to melt the glue. After an hour tugging and pulling, the poor dog patiently licking up the excess baby oil, he was free. Once he realized his leg would bend, he shot across the road, narrowly avoiding a truck driven by one of my cousins, and crashed into the neighborhood’s garbage can head long. From inside the house, there was cussing conniption, and the neighbors flew outside, but I laughed my head off as they stood there shaking their fists, as my hot mess of a dog took off down the street, tongue lolling, like this was the best thing ever. And it was.
The next day, Roly-Poly wasn’t around when I got on the bus. He wasn’t around when I got home that afternoon, either. No one seemed to be able to find him, and I walked around the neighborhood, calling his name, expecting him to come running. I hand wrote a couple of posters and stuck them on Phone post, but nobody ever called about the dog. Days passed, then a couple of weeks, and strangely, I seemed to be the only one in the family concerned.
Then one day I was leaving school to catch the afternoon bus, and a bunch of kids were screaming at a big gray dog running around, jumping on them, and trying to steal their lunch boxes. It was him. Somehow he had managed to travel the six miles from my house to the junior high school. I grabbed Roly, tied him to a post to using my jacket, then went inside to call my mom. She picked us up a half an hour later, looking very put out and not at all nearly as excited as I was to have the dog back. That night when my father came home, I was calling the dog to eat. He shook his head at me, not realizing the dog had come back. It was one of many times he thought I had lost my mind. This time, the look didn’t phase me. My dog was back. I was happy.
A month before, we had decided that we’d had enough of the horseshoe neighborhood. My parents bought a house across the line in Chattanooga, so we would be moving to a new state and starting new schools. The new house had no fence, and Chattanooga had leash laws, so we knew it was going to be a problem having Roly. I had already begun designing a fence to keep him out of trouble.
The next day, my mother told me we were taking the dog for a ride.
The dutiful son, I got into her big green Oldsmobile and called Roly-Poly to the backseat. We drove out of the neighborhood and onto Cloud Springs Road. A few miles later, Mom turned down a road that went deep into the real country. Dirt rose behind the car, and the cicadas began to call out to the night. When we were in the middle of nowhere, she stopped the car.
Let the dog out, she said. I asked why. She explained that we couldn’t take him to the new house. I asked why again.
She got out and opened the door. Roly shot out, dashing into the woods is if it contained a hundred garbage cans. Then it occurred to me that Roly had not run away before. This was his second time she had taken him off, her phrase for dumping a dog on the side of the road. The first time, she done it without me. The second, she driven far enough away to make sure he would never find his way back home again.
How about we go to McDonald’s? She said and turned the car around. Want some french fries?
Behind the car, Roly-Poly emerge from the woods. He ran after the car with all his speed, but as the car accelerated, he fell behind and slowed to a jog. Finally he stopped in the middle of the road and sat down, his eyes filled with a look of complete betrayal. Choking back tears, I caught my mother watching me in the rearview, and I stared back at her with the same eyes.