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August 16, 2005 - 5:31 pm


We had this dog named Rags when I was a kid. He was a matted, snaggle-toothed, little mess of a Shih-tzu/Lhasa-Apso/Poodle mix who wandered into our yard one hot summer day when I was about 6 and my sister was 10. We were immediately smitten.

Mary Beth held him while I ran inside and fixed him a pie tin of leftover ham and biscuits with milk. After he ate we sneaked him through the screen door and down the wide hall to our bathroom and gave him a bath in our big claw-foot tub. We wrapped him up in towels like a baby, and he looked just like a rat covered in wet rags until we brushed him out and blew him dry with the blow-dryer our mom used on us in the winter. Now he looked like a big puff of grey and white cotton dryer lint. He was a great sport about the whole thing, considering.

Eventually, we made the introduction to our mom while she was tanning out in the sun on the back deck. She wouldn’t admit it outright, but we could tell she liked him. My dad would be the real test.

When dad came home from work we gave him enough time to change out of his suit and into his shorts and huarache sandals and sit down to Walter Cronkite with an iced-tea before we brought Rags out of the bedroom. I believe his exact words were, “Uh-uh. We’re not keeping that damn dog.”

My mom deferred to his decision, and they ran an ad in the local paper looking for his owner. By the time we got the call about a week later, we were all in love with him – my dad most of all. Rags had been living in the house with us and laying the charm on like molasses. It worked. Mary Beth and I cried when dad hung up the phone. Waiting for that lady to show up and claim our dog was the longest 20 minutes of my life.

When she came in the house and said Rags wasn’t the dog she was looking for, it was all over. We knew he wasn’t going anywhere. He was with us for twelve more years. My dad called him Bud.

Rags was a little dog with a big attitude. I think he honestly had no idea he was only 15 pounds heavy and 15 inches off the ground. That dog had some cajones. Literally. They were large and black and a constant source of amusement for my sister and me. We called his ball sack “King of the Fleas” and poked at it when our parents weren’t watching. But when he had a little doggie hard-on, the exposed pink end of his penis caused immediate and debilitating mortification in both of us. It so did not go with the baby doll dresses and bonnets we put on him.

I can’t even remember what happened first to Rags, the list is so long. We said he had nine lives, but that doesn’t even come close to covering the number of times he cheated death. But I know one of the earliest was getting hit by a car. See, he really thought he could catch them. He certainly got close enough. Especially with the mailman.

Our mailman, a mischievous, grinning old man named Johnny who my child brain confused for a sadistic Captain Kangaroo with lambchop sideburns, was Rags’ mortal enemy. He tormented that dog unmercifully with his little mail cart, stopping long enough for Rags to catch up and pass him, then gunning it, leaving Rags in the dust, running to catch up again. Stopping, gunning it, stopping, all the way down the street, laughing his ass off the whole time, with Rags provoked to the point of heart attack, barking until he was hoarse. Every day.

Eventually, someone finally hit him. We took him to the vet and I can’t really remember, but I think they put his leg in a cast. That didn’t slow Rags down much. He still wandered the neighborhood on three legs like he owned it, challenging every other dog and human to question his rightful place as boss. He had a little skip in his step after that.

Not long after his leg healed, he confronted an Irish Setter who evidently didn’t know Rags was the local don. I saw the whole thing. He crossed into our yard, and when Rags bowed up and charged, the Setter was unfazed. He effortlessly took the little dog in his mouth, picked him up, and shook him like a piece of meat. I was frozen with fear, but I managed a scream so loud dad thought it was me who was being ripped apart. He tore out of the house, sized up the situation and went at that Setter with all he had. The dog finally dropped Rags who at least had the sense to stay down at that point. Back to the vet. He ended up with 10 or 12 stitches in his side and thigh – not bad considering the shaking he'd gotten.

He was still wearing the dressing on the stitches around his midsection when he disappeared. It wasn’t unusual for Rags to stay out all night now and then (the old ladies next door would occasionally lure him in with bacon and hold him captive until my mom would send me or my sister over to spring him), but he’d been gone for three days and should have had his bandages changed. My mom was so worried. Then, late one afternoon I was playing down in the woods behind our house and I was sure I heard his signature bark. I ran home and told my dad who then set off to find his Bud. Dad found him about an hour later trapped in a pit dug out at a construction site through the woods on the street behind us. It was at least six feet straight down and filled with wet red clay. He came back for a rope and enlisted the help of our neighbor in the rescue. Dad came home later with Rags under his arm, both of them covered in mud.

One fall day a few years later, I was on the front porch, and Rags came trotting up from god knows where. When I bent down to pet him I noticed a small spot of blood on his side. I called my dad, and he came right home. We took him into the vet, where we found out that apparently Rags had been shot twice with a pellet gun by some thug around the neighborhood. The vet removed one metal pellet from between his ribs, but cautioned against removing the second one which was lodged right next to his spine. Gradually it healed over, and to the day he died you could feel that little knot under the fur between his shoulder blades.

There was a stream that ran through the woods behind our house and a path all the way to the high school campus where the big park with basketball, tennis, and racket ball courts were. He’d been with my sister and me to the park lots of times and knew his way around pretty well. But, again, he disappeared for days.

As I’ve mentioned before, he never backed down from a fight. Even a fight with a water moccasin. He hobbled up the back steps to the deck and collapsed at the back door, unable to drag himself any further. I don’t remember who found him, but I remember how limp and weak he was. He was clearly almost dead, only we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him until we saw what looked like three or four pairs of tiny holes all around his penis and King Flea – unmistakably snake bites. Apparently he’d wandered into a nest of babies. That had to hurt.

He almost didn’t make it, but eventually, believe it or not, he pulled through. I’m telling you, that dog had a lust for life stronger than most human beings I know.

The last time he disappeared for any length of time we never knew where or why. We called around in the woods where we’d found him in the pit before. We checked with the old ladies next door. We called the pound, where they knew him personally from all the times he’d been hauled in. No luck. He was getting older by this time and we all thought for sure he wouldn’t make it home from whatever was keeping him. We were all upset, but my mom was a wreck. It was the dead of winter, and yet she left the back door propped open every night in case he decided to come home while we were sleeping. He was gone for over two weeks I guess, and one cold, rainy night, out of nowhere, he came tearing in the back door and jumped in the bed with my parents, cold, wet, and filthy but otherwise fine. My fastidious mother didn’t say a word about the ruined bed spread. She lifted the covers and let him crawl in between her and my dad. From that day on, he slept on their bed with them and never went out without a leash again.

My sister was already away at college when my mom died. I left the next year. My dad was left alone except for Rags, his Buddy, who was getting old and senile by then. He was incontinent, he had cataracts, and his hair was falling out. He suffered terribly from eczema. Still, my dad couldn’t bear to put him to sleep. They became inseparable – my poor, lonely dad trying his best to cope after losing his whole family, and Rags, falling apart, a shell of his former fearless self – clinging to each other, comfortable and familiar as two old friends.

Rags died in his sleep one winter night, and my dad could barely get the words out when he called me at my apartment in Auburn to tell me. My sister and I came home immediately. We buried him out back by the woods he loved so much. My dad was never really the same after that. I think in some way Rags reminded him of the best years he’d had. We were such a happy family and Rags was a big part of that, of those memories. When Rags died, the last vestige of that happy life died too.

My dad's remarried now to a great woman. They're raising two daughters who call him dad, and I know he’s happy for the most part. He's turning 60 this week, and his wife had planned a big party with lots of old friends, people from work, even his mother and only brother were coming in from out of town. But dad's been battling some health problems for a few years, and last week he had a relapse. He hated to do it, but he asked his wife if she could postpone the party. He's just not feeling up to it right now.

He never talks about Rags anymore - or any part of our old life for that matter. He doesn’t often give in to sentiment. Or rather he does, but he does it privately, with a look in his eyes instead of a page full of sappy drivel like this one. If I know my dad like I think I do, he doesn't think he can do those precious memories justice by saying them out loud, but I know he still thinks about his Budrow. I'm sure he remembers that dog's lust for life.


reading -Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
viewing -Old Yeller
listening -“Noah’s Ark” by Coco Rosie

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