Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tanya, the Cujo of Rice Avenue

(Cujo, of Stephen King fame.  We lived with a dog about like this one.)

I have had dogs all my life.  I would estimate that I am currently on number 9 or 10.  My first dog was some black mutt named Tag, which we had when I was four or five years old.  My parents had to get rid of him because he refused to stop chasing Mrs. Mumaugh’s chickens.  Mumaugh was a neighbor lady who was a Native American.  We have taken enough away from them over the past three centuries, so the dog went.  My first and only poem (circa 1952) was written about this dog:
I once had a dog named Tag,
And when I would call him his tail would wag.

If any of you proceed to publish that poem, please send me the royalties when they start pouring in.

The most memorable dog we had was a Border Collie mix named Tanya.  My mother acquired this one when we lived on Rice Avenue sometime after my father died, and we had the dog through my high school and college days.  Everything went smoothly for the first few years.  Tanya wagged her tail; we petted her, fed her, and watered her.  We tossed a ball; she fetched it.  She slept, she ate, she urinated and defecated, and she occasionally barked.  We provided food and shelter; she provided some company.  How complicated a contract do we need to devise? 

But then the problem started.  My mother always fed Gaines-Burgers to Tanya, which was a dog food that looked like a raw hamburger and came wrapped in individual plastic packages.  The production of this dog food ceased in the 1990s.  At first, Tanya would gobble up the burger as soon as she was given one.  But as she got older, she carried the meaty disc to a corner of the living room where she laid down with the prize like it was her baby, and she would threaten anyone who entered her personal space.  She actually bared her teeth and growled menacingly, and if you got even closer, she would snap at you.  I never wrote a poem about this dog, so maybe that omission planted some seed of insecurity in that puny Collie brain.

One day we hit a tipping point.  You see, Tanya would guard her burger for a couple of hours and look around the room to see if anyone was even watching her.  If you were, she bared her fangs.  (It was similar to my younger brother Jack, who hated it if you looked at him over the breakfast table in the morning while he ate his cereal.  He actually uttered a sort of a growl and bared his teeth, before he developed the habit of lining up all the cereal boxes in a semi-circle in front of him so he could not be seen at all.  Recently, Jack told me he was simply lining up those boxes so he could read the nutritional information.  Right!  I'm sure he couldn't even pronounce "riboflavin" at that age.)

But on one occasion, I got so angry about Tanya hoarding her food and holding the family hostage until she finished, that I got right in her face, pointed my finger at her, and screamed “Tanya, eat it!”  She snapped.  Tanya sprang to her feet and came at me with jaws and saliva flying and a growl that gives me cold sweats to this day.  I thought she was going to rip my JC Penney’s Towncraft briefs right off my body.  (It must have been a Saturday, because my brothers and I always spent the morning watching tv in our underwear.  In the weeks that followed this incident, we actually sat on the couch under a heavy blanket to protect us in case Tanya decided to attack.  We refused to give up the Saturday underwear thingie.)

Tanya’s weirdness provided my brothers and I with entertainment, however.  Whenever a new friend came over to the house, and they asked about the dog, we would tell them what Tanya liked the best.  “Just point your finger at her and say eat it.”  The reaction of the dog and the guest were quite amazing.  Many of these friends never returned.

I hated coming home to visit after I went off to Ohio State, because my mother would beg me to take Tanya to the vet for one thing or another.  No one else could even get her in the car without being attacked.  I think I may have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) years later, and it wasn't from my military service. One time, I took her to a husband and wife vet office in a nearby town to get Tanya’s nails clipped.  I think we had become persona non grata with all the local vets.  Somehow I got her into the office on her leash, and explained to the na├»ve vets what we needed.  I told them to be really careful with this dog; they would probably have to put her to sleep to do anything with her, I advised.  Advice not taken, apparently.  The next day when I returned to fetch the dog, the husband vet had his right arm wrapped in a fresh bandage, and his wife had her left arm wrapped in a matching arrangement.  “Yep, she got us both”, he volunteered.

There was one other personality in the mix---my blind grandmother.  My grandma had lived with us for years, and she was totally without sight.  The interesting thing was that Tanya often lay at her feet with one of those damn burgers, unbeknown to my grandmother.  When she moved her feet or began to rock in the chair, Tanya would start to bare her teeth and look threatening.  But Tanya never took it any further than that with the old woman who always thought that the snarky dog was as sweet as sugar.  Sometimes, what you don’t know, or can’t see, can’t hurt you.

Why my mother kept this menace so long after the dog went quirky is a mystery to me.  Perhaps it had something to do with wanting life to remain the same as it had been.  It was changing in our house.  I had left home already, and my brothers were not far behind.  Soon, our mother would be left alone with her invalid mother.  And Tanya would at least be there to keep them company, flaws and all.