We got Oscar when I was five. My Aunt Barbara in Germany thought I needed companionship. I had failed Kindergarden. Teachers said I didn't relate well to the other students and claimed I didn't have the necessary social skills to advance to the first grade. Maybe it was because I sat apart from the other kids and didn't play with them. Maybe it was one too many unexplained disappearances in the school. I have no idea. I don't remember.
I do remember going to the ``Dog Orphanage,'' as my mother put it, to check out the puppies. I remember being shown these two little black dogs. Both were attractive little pups with curly ears and white tuxedo stripes down the chest. One was skinny and sad looking, with straight hair and baleful eyes. The other was fat and curly haired, and tugged at his brother's ears, prancing about, as he was being shown off.
I wanted the skinny one. My mother wanted the fat one, thinking that he was cuter. I really really wanted the skinny one. His anemic bearing and unhappy demeanor seemed to mirror my own character. We got the fat one, because my mother knew best, and I cried. I cried and kicked and screamed until we actually got the dog, and he leapt up and licked me on the face until I fell over backwards giggling, half-heartedly throwing my hands up in defense.
Through some process I don't remember, we named him Oscar, after the grouch, a favorite role model of the time.
Without other siblings, and only a handful of spooky friends seen infrequently outside of school, Oscar rapidly became my chief social focus. We did everthing together. We'd talk together, go for walks together, and fight together, he biting my pants legs and I punching him in the nose. He'd bark and shake my leg back and forth in his jaws as though he had a rabbit caught by the neck. We spent so much time together that my mother had trouble telling us apart. She'd call ``Oscar,'' when she wanted me, and call my name when she meant him. It probably didn't help that I'd often follow him around the house on all fours. This would usually, this would lead us right into the kitchen, where he'd stay close to mother, waiting for handouts. I'd wait with him, and sometimes we'd get a cookie.
He slept at the foot of my bed with me every night. I really liked that, especially in winter, when his round furry tummy made an excellent foot warmer for my bare feet. This went on until I was about 13, when I got too tall, and would kick him off the bed after falling asleep.
He was a good tracker. I remember when he rudely interrupted Mrs. Stephanowitz's first grade class by pushing the door open with his nose and charging in to see me. He wagged his tail and barked, amidst the laughter of the other children. Mrs. Stephanowitz, however, neither barked, nor laughed, and informed me with a chill in her voice that I'd have to take him home. I got to miss a whole half hour of school by walking him home. If only he had visited me more often...
He never became thin. He never had a chance. My mother would feed us pancakes in the morning, every morning. I'd get four and he'd get six, or maybe he'd get four, and I'd get six. I forget. He got fatter the older he got. He finally died of obesity at age 13. I'm eternally grateful to him for eating those pancakes every morning. If he hadn't of eaten them, that would be me, dead at 13, pancake overdose.
Though chubby, he was still athletic, at least in his younger years. I kept him in good training. Sometimes when we'd go for walks, I'd put my roller skates on, and he'd pull me around Friar Circle, the Army neighborhood we lived in. Sometimes he'd pull me on roller skates, sometimes on my skate board. We'd go for about forty minutes. Strong neck on that dog.
One day he was out pulling me around on my skateboard when he saw a cat. I have never been so scared by the sight of a cat. We accelerated 0 to 60 in 2 seconds flat. Oscar was determined to have that cat. I leaned way back on my skateboard, laughing exhilarated. The cat went straight, then ran off the street and up a tree. Oscar swerved to follow the cat, and we hit the curb. My skateboard came to a halt and I flew off it to be dragged across the cement sidewalk and onto the lawn and halfway to the tree. When I got home my mother bandaged my knees and scolded me for being mean to Oscar and making him pull me around. In the future, I stopped wrapping the leash around my wrist, but instead held it more gingerly in one hand.
He exhibited something of Jeckyl/Hyde schizophrenia dependent on whether he was inside or outside. Inside, he was MC polite dog. He never chewed the furniture, and was friendly to guests. He spent most of his time laying on our living room couch on his back, his head on one of the end pillows. His legs dangled in the air, and jerked around a bit as he dreamt. His long ears flopped over so you could see the pinks inside, and his long dog lips peeled back away from his fangs.
He'd stay like that and snore. He took up the whole couch, and if you wanted to sit down next to him, you'd have to kind of rotate his body out of the way, or flip him onto the ground.
Outside he turned into the pudgy predator of the wild. The outdoors was his. The yard was his, the road was his, the sidewalk his, those trees over there were his, the clump of bushes over across the street were his, and those big shiny cars zooming up and down the street were his. He'd chase the cars, barking and biting at the tires. One day he was a little too successful in his pursuit and had his paw run over. 18 little paw bones broken. They did surgery. He didn't like the cast much. He didn't like porcupines much either, or skunks, come to think of it.
After the cast came off a guy on a motorcycle came to our door and showed us his bloody leg. He explained that he'd been riding up and down the path behind our house when a crazy black dog ran out of our yard and bit him. He expressed his extreme displeasure at being so bitten, and wondered if that dog might be ours. I forget what my parents said to appease the man, but those motorcycles made a lot of noise at night, and I thought he got what was coming to him. That night there wasn't so much noise, and I realized that Oscar and I were often going to agree on just who needed biting.
Later that year I was running some errand with Oscar, walking up the street to some store. A group of older kids were doing some inscrutable older kid thing farther up the street on the sidewalk. I was curious and went there with Oscar to see what was going on. They were all standing around looking at something on the sidewalk. I wanted to see. One kid turned around and glared at me. ``Get outa here, creep.''
I looked up at him. ``Why?''
``I said, get outa here!'' And he pushed me backwards onto my butt, and I screamed in fear.
Oscar leaped up and bit the kid's outstretched arm at the wrist. My hero! The kid screamed and ran off. Oscar stayed by my side and licked my cheek worriedly until I stood up again. We passed the group. No one hassled us. I smiled. Oscar knew who needed biting.
Oscar brought home a dead rabbit one fine Easter morning. Carried it in his mouth and dropped it on the porch. ``Bad dog!'' I said, ``You killed the Easter bunny!'' That Christmas I kept him locked in my room, just in case.
You might get the impression that he was a big dog or mean or something. He wasn't. He was a medium sized mutt, about knee height, or a little higher, a cross between a Labrador and a cocker spaniel. He had a lab's long legs and coloring, but the spaniel's curly hair, long ears, and big dark eyes. Everyone said what an attractive dog he was. Except for the kid, and the guy on the motorcycle.
He was a gourmet. Oscar was a gourmet. He could've worked for a cookie company in product development. He would certainly eat oreos, and he really liked pecan sandies, but he would sneer at the cheap cookies my mother sometimes bought to give him. Ever see a dog sneer? You hold the cookie up to his mouth, and he sort of turns his head away from it, looking away from you in shame. So you hold the cookie closer to his mouth, and he lifts that lip up in distaste. Finally he opens his mouth, carefully puts his teeth around it, and carries the cookie away, trying not to get too much of it on his tongue, where he might accidentally taste it. Finally, he chews it, really slow and carefully, with frequent stops, looking at you all the while. You might wonder what business we had giving a dog cookies anyway. I think it was the drool, and the oriental carpets, and the cleaning of the former off the latter.
Every so often we'd have Pepperidge Farm cookies in the house. If you made the mistake of eating one in front of him he'd make his eyes go big, stare at you hypnotically, push his ears back, and drool in your lap until you gave him one. He'd wolf it down, seemingly too fast to enjoy it, but for the rest of the of the night he'd lie on your feet, or bring you your slippers, or offer to paint the house.
Oscar had this weird way of celebrating his birthday. Actually, I guess WE had the weird way of celebrating his birthdays I'd make him a party hat out of construction paper, a rubber band, two staples, and some tape. Then my mother would thaw a hamburger patty and stick a few candles in it. Then we would (honest to god) sit him at the dinner table in an easy chair, and I'd put the party hat on him. He'd sit looking nervously around, wandering if we were about to take him to the vet or something. We'd light the candles, and sing him happy birthday, as he looked around unhappily. Finally, I'd blow the candles out before his whiskers caught on fire and he'd get to eat the patty.
These days I'm not so convinced he actually enjoyed those parties so much. We did, though.
He had a sixth sense about his birthday. A few times he figured out when it was, and would run away for a few days. He could probably tell what day it was on, because that was the only day of the year he'd see me rubbing my hands together evilly over my pad of construction paper. I don't know what a castrated -- oops ``fixed'' -- dog does for fun out in the wild for that long, but he'd be out there for days. Perhaps he gave it extra time just to make sure we weren't going to throw him a party. Sometimes he'd come back on his own, a few times my father had to bail him out of a local pound, and once we found him wandering around on a highway a few miles away, drunk, smelling of cigar smoke, and carrying poker chips.
That's how I'll always remember him. Good dog.
[ stay tuned for the stunning conclusion to ``One Night'' next issue ... right James? ]