Sadie

We had to say goodbye to our good dog Sadie on 11/22/2019. Here’s a small digital shrine for the dog who gave our family so much.

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This is a portrait painted by dog aunt Heather.

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Here’s Evelyn’s drawing of Sadie in dog heaven, surrounded by treats.

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This is a short, lovely poem written by the poet and my friend Rocky Lungariello, from when he met Sadie in Bowling Green, Ohio. This was published in Sakura Review in 2012.

THESE BOWLING GREENS

After a handful of years, you’ll come across

an animal and friend in this Heartland:

a recession dog named Sadie—a poor creature left in a foreclosed home, alone,

with 24 ice cubes in the toilet. You’ll take a seat beside her, where ancient glaciers

pushed the earth to produce these bowling greens,

and you’ll see no reason to ever return home.

 

 

Here’s a personal essay about Sadie, originally published by Potomac Review in 2016.

 

 

My Dog Is a Good Dog

 

The animal control lady smiled at her clipboard, assured me it was merely procedure for an attack. My bandaged fingers laced my dog’s collar, gripped tighter. Her throaty bark thumped against my knuckles. “She does that for everyone,” I said. “Just happy to meet you.” I told the animal control lady what I’ll tell you: my dog is a good dog.

My dog lives by clichés of gentleness: she refuses to hurt a fly. I’ve witnessed her lap up a lethargic winter house fly, contemplate it within her mouth for a moment, and then return it to its death crawl on the carpet. My dog can’t even kill for mercy.

My dog chases cats only to lick their ears. My dog paws frogs and used to nose-kisses turtles. And, yes, once she dropped a baby bunny at my doorstep, neck bleeding through matted fur, ribcage shuttering. But that was an accident of too much wonder and thrill at a wild thing bounding through her yard. She couldn’t finish the job, never intended that end, and I was the coward who couldn’t snap the bunny’s neck.

 

My dog is a good dog. My dog is a shepherd mix. Mix unknown. At the Humane Society, they guessed Akita. In Japan, years ago—long enough ago to be lore—mothers would leave their newborn infants under the care of Akitas while they went to market. The Akitas’ signature purple tongues would loll under cribs, fluffy tails curled like a question mark, a loyal servant asking what’s next.

Sadie’s tongue is pink. I doubt our good dog is an Akita.

My daughter’s second word was Sadie. At two, she volunteered for her first chore of feeding the dog. She slides a giant mint green Tupperware tub across the tiles, scoops Sadie’s kibble into heaping pyramids, doles out treats and then crouches inches from her canines to study biscuit evisceration. She says, “Good girl,” while yanking fistfuls of orange fur. Sadie wears white socks, has brown eyes that look ringed in black eyeliner, eyebrows that rise and fall with too-human empathy. Her feather duster tail curls in a prideful Q, and the white tip kisses her haunches. The neighbor kids used to say, “That dog look like a fox.” Some of them run and scream when they see her, a scurrying retreat full of theatrical squeals. Fearing the fox is fun. But no need for fear. My dog is a good dog.

Pit bulls populate our Kalamazoo, Michigan neighborhood. Occasionally strays wander. They are freed by owners into the wild of the city, where they get hit by a car or caught and euthanized one week later. I’ve tried to catch a couple loose ones. Giant balls of ropey muscle, they’re stronger than they know. Parents in my neighborhood teach their children to fear those dogs. Fear bad dogs. Fear dogs. When I encounter a loose pit on my walks with Sadie, I pick her up, hoist her forty-five pounds to my chest. She looks embarrassed when I do it, tucks her tail tight. But I too fear bad dogs, even if I understand the unfair rhetoric of stereotypes. I don’t take chances. I only know my dog is a good dog.

 

Blood spurted from my cracked thumbnail. It gloved my hand in red, streamed down my wrist. My good girl Sadie raised her eyebrows. Her panting looked like an exhausted smile, tired at her human’s stupidity. Or maybe it was a feral grin, a you-should-know-better smirk. Dogs are animals. A dog is only a good dog to the extent that her loyalty yields food and safety. Nothing more than symbiotic evolution. They barter the illusion of friendship—wolves in good-girl clothing.

Do you not see her erect, cavernous ears? Do you not see her pointed muzzle, her dagger canines? This is carnivore. This is predator. Deep down in your glands, you remember this. A warning disclaimer is etched into your bones.

And yet my dog is different. My dog is a good dog.

 

We rescued Sadie from the Bowling Green, Ohio Humane Society in 2008, five years before our daughter was born. It took multiple visits to convince my wife. When we visited, she’d sniff our crotches and then retreat to the knees of the Humane Society worker. She squinted at us from afar. Very loyal, he told us. I wanted to be chosen like him. I wanted a dog whose love was selective and rare, rather than the dopey slobberers who’ll give it away to anyone willing to scratch their ear or rub their belly.

My wife baulked at the crotch sniffing. My own testicles sucked tight in an instinctual reaction of species survival. I wanted to trust dangerously, wanted to defy my body’s warning. We signed the papers.

They called her Shalimar at the Humane Society. This was not her name. She didn’t respond to the shape of its sound. Might as well have called her Shithead, Synecdoche, Rover, Jimmy Carter. On the drive home, we sampled names. We recited them and studied the orange tips of her ears in the rearview for reaction. I turned to meet her panting mouth full of teeth. I’d convinced my wife. I’d vouched for this dog, claimed I could sense she was right for our mini family. I had promised the perfect match, and now here were flashing fangs attached to an animal we couldn’t name. I imagined her lunging into the front seat, latching onto my wife’s jugular, blood splattered across the windshield. This new dog’s brown eye would wink at me through its death grip.

One of us uttered the right shape. Her ears flicked and her jaw snapped shut. Sadie. Our good dog named Sadie. We’d mouthed the approximate sound of who she used to be.

 

My good dog was a Recession Dog. During the housing crisis, there were many of these abandoned pets, enough for it to become nomenclature among dog rescuers.

They found Sadie in an abandoned foreclosure somewhere in northern Ohio. Inside: four dogs and seven cats. Shreds of a thirty-five-pound bag of dog food decorated the piss-stained carpets. Shit cairns marked corners. An empty toilet bowl licked dry. My good dog came from a motley pack, hours from feral cannibalism, or at least feline predation. This pack had made an evolutionary misstep. They bet wrong on some humans and their ability to manage an adjustable interest mortgage. Their evolutionary partners burst with the housing market bubble. They’d swallowed mortgages dressed up like filet mignons and secretly stuffed with razor blades and metal springs. Dogs never hesitate over choice meat. They trust appetites without heed. They gulp without chewing. We’re supposed to know better, but we want with impossible American Dream appetites. Blind trust in the impossible promise is easy enough. A house and a retirement and three kids and two cars and toss in a couple pets. We scarf down every morsel and pat our middle-class bellies. Until the razor blades, that is.

 

The summer of 2012, chicken wing bones speckled our sidewalks in Kalamazoo. The restaurant selling them must’ve been a short walk from our house. The customers were tearing flesh off these twig-bones and chucking what was left into lawns, curbs, driveways, dropping them wherever they fell.

This was Sadie’s favorite summer. On walks, she’d excavate bones, be swallowing them before I even knew she had anything in her mouth. Any good dog owner knows the terror of cooked bones. They splinter, the sharp edges blocking esophagi or piercing intestines. Sadie was swallowing nightmares, and I imagined a dozen scenarios of those chicken spears tearing her apart from the inside, from that place where I can do nothing.

Whenever I could catch her, I’d shake the bone out of her mouth. If that didn’t work, I’d dig into her mouth, my fingers fighting tongue and gums. Sometimes I’d get the bone. Sometimes she’d swallow before I could get a grip. We’d done this dozens of times.

In August, I was running with Sadie, had just finished the second mile that marked her limit. She was slowing down, zagging into shadows to avoid the evening sun slanting hot and close. I had another mile in me, was planning to drop her off at home.

Sadie stopped dead, dipped her head, and scooped up a bone. We started our routine. I pried her mouth open and slipped my hand inside. I pinched the thin bone, and Sadie’s tongue pushed it away. I found it again, slick with saliva. She twisted her head. I could feel her muscles convulsing, her attempts to swallow. But I almost had the bone gripped. And then her molars clamped upon my thumbnail. The texture of my thumbnail must’ve felt like bone to her teeth. My hand became another stolen snack, an innocent scrap for a good dog acting momentarily bad.

Dogs bite with a pressure of two to three hundred pounds with their front teeth. Add another hundred pounds at the back of their jaw. Humans bite at just over one hundred pounds, yet attempt to chew mortgages exponentially tougher.

Of course you knew her teeth would break my flesh, snap my thumbnail, crack a hole through the center. I told you my dog was a good dog too many times. The more the narrator assures you of truth, the more you suspect a liar. When Huck Finn says he’s going to hell, we know the truth. There has never been a more beautifully naïve lie.

You knew, and I should’ve known. But that doesn’t alter the killing force of her jaw, that wild part of her we’d demoted to grinding kibble. It clamped my thumb, cracked skin and nail. But then her jaw eased, yielded when she had hundreds more pounds. I felt censored grip. Dog mercy. I yanked my hand free and flung blood into the slant-sun.

 

My parents bought a purebred wired-hair fox terrier when I was eight. We saved for it as a family, filled a four-foot-tall plastic Coke bottle bank with spare change and not-spare change. My sisters and I would sometimes dump our allowances into the bottle cap slit. The plinking coins might conjure a puppy from thin air.

As soon as Foxy Lady’s teeth matured, she bit me every chance she got. Only me. My parents joked she was targeting the weakest member of the pack, the only boy in a house full of women. Foxy would ascend the matriarchal ranks through sheer jaw strength. In our house, Mom brought home the bacon while Dad’s record store floundered. Mom’s voice was law. Five miles down the road, Grandma Evelyn’s voice ruled even higher. Dad was low in the ranks, and his son wallowed in the mires. Foxy knew. Foxy bit. Foxy left welts through my jeans and drew blood, and I learned to hate dogs. I wanted my goddamn allowances back.

My parents took the dog to a trainer, and the trainer prescribed the weakest family member’s assertion of dominance. I was ordered to beat the dog. If Foxy tried to bite, I kicked and punched. I learned to make her whelp. I learned to protect my lowly rank in the pack. I stopped hating and I learned to teach dominance. My violence would transform a bad dog good.

 

Sadie was perfect right away, ready-made: potty trained, stayed in our yard without a fence or tie, only occasionally ate day-old-donuts my wife brought home from the coffee shop where she was a barista. Sadie was quiet and undemanding.

Most of the time, she slept. Though long and slim and lovely, she moved as little as possible, needed us as little as possible. I identified her as a cat-dog, independent, glamorous, calm. She’d climb to the top of our sofa, perch under a slit of sun. She’d lie down and cross her paws like a lady.

 

I screamed a slew of fucks after Sadie’s teeth punctured my thumbnail. I squeezed and blood spurted through my fist. The pressure of the crack in my nail along with my racing heart from running pumped a fountain. I cussed more, couldn’t look at Sadie. I opened my red-soaked hands and shook them at the sidewalk.

That’s when I noticed: across the street two young black girls from my neighborhood were watching in horror. They might’ve been eight years old. Their mothers had already taught them to fear the pits roving our neighborhood. But my dog is a good dog. My dog was the good dog I let the neighbor kids pet. I taught them to let her sniff your hands first. I coached the nervous ones: This is how you say hello to a dog. Your smell is your name to them. Now wait until she’s done sniffing, until she says with her eyes that she’s ready, and then you can pet her so-soft orange ears. See. Good dog. This dog is a good dog. Most dogs are good dogs.

But these two girls pushing a single shiny white bike with streamers and training wheels would forever manifest nightmares of fox dogs guzzling blood. These two girls would hear my unpracticed dog warnings of fucks and shits. These two girls would never trust dangerously.

 

We moved from Ohio to Kalamazoo in the summer of 2009. Sadie spent the day panting inside the U-Haul truck, next to boxes. We couldn’t coax her inside. She’d seen this before, knew that where the boxes went the people went. She wouldn’t take a chance leaving the stuff. She’d made that mistake before. She wouldn’t be abandoned again.

To this day, when we pack the car for a daytrip to the beach, to see friends or family for a few days, Sadie would prefer to sit inside a sweltering car and wait. Where the stuff is, that’s where the people go.

That day of moving, between lugging boxes of books, I spotted Sadie sneaking back into the truck, her fluffy tail dragging between her legs. I found her curled up inside. Next to her sat a petrified dog turd. One of hers she’d collected from the yard. She’d secreted this totem to bring her comfort, to prove she was here and this was her place. Among the stuff. Her stuff and our stuff. With the people. A good dog shouldn’t need the reassurance of ancient defecation. But there it rested against the shadowed plywood floor of our moving truck. There Sadie waited with her shit to go wherever the stuff went.

 

Michigan used to make things. It was a Mecca of manufacturing. Every Michigander learns this sad tale of faded glory. My sisters and I can still quote from the musical all fourth graders had to perform for their parents in the ‘80s. In the musical’s frame, two kids sift through a computer doing research—even though this is before the internet arrived, so I suppose they were accessing floppy discs of Encyclopedia Britannica. As they read articles, scenes form over on stage left including choruses who sing about lumber and coal mining and fur trade. I most remember the proto-rap number: “Motown assembly line, making cars and doing just fine.”

The median price of a home in Detroit in 2009 was around twenty thousand dollars. When we shopped for homes in Kalamazoo, our realtor joked about houses won at auction for next to nothing. “That one,” she said, pointing down the street from a foreclosure we were about to examine, “sold for $2,500.”

Kalamazoo is not Detroit. Kalamazoo is Derek Jeter’s hometown. Kalamazoo houses an expensive liberal arts college and a large university and Upjohn Pharmaceuticals. Kalamazoo makes beer and foodie hipsters and National Book Award winners. Kalamazoo boasts the Kalamazoo Promise where all kids who go through the public school system get college paid for. This promise should ensure that our community thrives, never sinks into Detroit. Michigan cities all fear becoming Detroit or, worse, Flint. Kalamazoo is rich in promises and faith.

For our first house, we did not buy a $2,500 foreclosure, couldn’t quite stomach a bargain built on ruined neighborhoods. But our well-wishing hope and the Kalamazoo Promise and First-Time Homebuyer Credits didn’t stop the bank from owning our neighbor’s houses. Owners turned into renters all around us.

 

My hand shook as I dialed my wife with one hand. I couldn’t bear to open the other hand, to see. I fisted a dish towel. I blubbered into my wife’s voicemail. It all seemed worse than it was. Joy Williams’ German shepherd Hawk bit her breast, tore through her hand, soaked her right side red. Sadie bit only one finger and stopped herself. My dog was better than that ghostly sweet best friend of hers, but still I felt terror.

At home, while I cried and imagined gangrene and rabies, Sadie relaxed under the coffee table. She watched me, crossed her paws, raised and lowered her eyebrows. If she realized I feared her, she didn’t seem to care. The jig was up. I’d learned my place and hers, me as self-righteous food provider, her as hunter turned teddy bear act.

 

They’re tearing down Detroit, razing run-down neighborhood and industrial blocks and then growing cornfields in the scabs. They’re pulling the city’s teeth and going back to red-raw gums. A block down the road from our house in Kalamazoo, a paper mill tower used to stand, the rest of the building already crushed to rubble. Over the years we lived there, they finished demolition, carted away a mountain of concrete, and let the commercial acres sprout into wild weeds, stalks and stems taller than my waistline. They rewidened the creek that used to transport lumber for the mill. Everything reverted back to its natural state.

But the soil knows what was there. You can’t erase all that sulfur and soot, the sweat and hope and dread tied into a paycheck. Those wild fields pocking the middle of the city can’t bring back the homeowners and the neighborhood market that thrived until the ‘80s.

My dad’s record store had little hope for success back then, even in its utopian suburban town of middle-class dreams and double mortgages. If you revert a deceased mom and pop record shop back to its original natural state, what do you have? Peel back the brick and mortar and a prairie and a plot look much like a vacant lot.

If we didn’t buy our house in Kalamazoo, though, someone else would have for a few thousand less. Some other good dog could be roaming our neighborhood, and a slightly less arrogant asshole could delude himself into thinking black kids need lessons on how to pet a good dog.

 

The next day, a doctor smiled over my black thumbnail. She pressed at it until a congealed bubble surfaced. She ordered a tetanus shot. We decided against antibiotics. A human bite would require antibiotics, she said, but dog mouths are much safer. We talked about dogs, hers and mine. Good dogs all around. Sadie was, I kept saying, such a good dog. I chanted this mantra into my black thumbnail. The doctor said it might fall off, and then I’d just be exposed, bruised flesh.

As good as dogs were all over town, the doctor still had to file a report with animal control. It would mean nothing, she assured me. They’d visit and find a happy dog home and go away.

Stowed in a file cabinet in Kalamazoo, on the other side of the brick wall where good dogs and bad dogs alike bark a kenneled cacophony, where pit bulls and Chihuahuas and dopey Labradors and infant-safe Akitas stream in through the intake door, where good dogs and bad dogs will be euthanized next week when no one comes to claim them, my good dog’s bad record rests, waits, will never be read.

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