Grey Ghost

There have been eight Weimaraners in my family’s history since 1960, when my father acquired the first as a hunting dog—-a pointer, a retriever, a swimmer with webbed feet. They weren’t just pets, just animals, though of course we bought them and we owned them, and yes we trained them too, and, save two, we eventually euthanized them. They did our bidding, but we did theirs as well. They played leading roles in our lives.

When he was fifteen, my son said to me, “I wish I was Harry.” That was my second Weimaraner. I said, “You’re kidding. Why?”

“No, really,” he said, “Everybody’s nice to him, and except when he goes running with you, he just lays around all day. He doesn’t go to school, he doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have to be anywhere, ever. That would be cool.” All true, I thought. But I also thought, when did utopia start looking like a dog’s life?

My first Weimaraner, Alexei, had sniffed and nuzzled and licked this boy when he was an infant, had slept beneath the crib, and had infested the poor child with fleas. But the boy had no memory of the dog’s presence in his life.

Alex was run over by a car when he was 11 years old, on Thanksgiving, 1985, while in the care of my father, when the boy was 18 months old. I was grateful. The dog was weary and impatient by that time, and I was worried about his aged responses to a sensory world that would be filled with my son’s pestering fingers.

My first wife and I acquired Alex as an 8-week old puppy in 1973, when I was in graduate school writing a thesis on early modern Russia. It was her idea. He took over my life.

I unleashed him on long runs every day in whatever open space I could find because if I didn’t, he’d tear something up—-a chair leg, a magazine, a book, a purse, whatever caught his canines’ fancy. One day, for example, he chewed his way through the library copy of volume 3 in Lenin’s Collected Works, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).

That was the same day he took a shit in the dining room of the apartment and peed on the couch. When I came home, I thought a demented decorator had broken in to rearrange the furniture, because my heavy black lounge chair, a birthday gift from my wife, was in the dining room, fifteen feet away from its accustomed place in the living room.

The seat of the chair had been gouged out, presumably, I quickly figured, by the dog’s teeth rather than an intruder’s boxcutter, but why was it so far from home? I finally realized that with every bite, Alex had yanked the chair a few inches away from its original station, so that by the time he was done, it was in the dining room overlooking his own pile of shit.

As I stood there assessing the damage and screaming at Alex, the two cats, Tiger and Ralph, bounded into the room, wondering what all the commotion was about. For some reason, a tin bucket full of cat litter was standing under the windows. As I reconsidered the possibility that a demented decorator had choreographed all this havoc, Ralph jumped into the bucket and took a shit that went over the edge and landed on the floor.

Why did I put up with this behavior? God only knows. But here’s a guess. We acquire pets and tolerate their wayward, inexplicable behavior because we need their affective recognition of our mastery, and that requires an acknowledgement of their will, as sentient beings who can decide to love us or not. To begin with, it’s the existential impasse of the slave master, but then—-or so we like to think—-it evolves into the normal dilemma of the parent, who has absolute power over the child and yet wants him or her to become a self-determining individual.

One night, months after my separation and divorce from the first wife, I came home to find that a five-foot jade tree I had nurtured for years was gone from the front window. WTF? Alex had dragged it into the bedroom, hoisted it onto the bed, and spread the dirt evenly, corner to corner, making an organic coverlet for me. The clean-up was simple, I just folded the blanket and dumped it in the garbage can outside.

Then one day Alex chewed up several 8-track tapes, just for fun. They were my ex-wife’s favorites, so I didn’t mind. I was especially pleased that he had destroyed the sound track to Barbra Streisand’s gooey remake of “A Star Is Born.” A couple of days later, when I took him for his run in the park, I received material confirmation of his comedic purpose.

Every ten yards or so, Alex would squat and shit something brown but shiny. When I caught up to him, I realized it was tape from an 8-track, and I knew it was Streisand. He couldn’t quite get it out all at once—-hence the interval stops. I lit a cigarette and stood on the tape, and yelled “Go!”

He bolted and stopped twenty yards away to squat, but then the tape was spooling out of his ass and he was running for real. He was a half-mile up the hill by the time that brown ribbon reached its end.

My favorite Alex story, though, features grilled Cornish hens. By this time everything had died except me and the dog. In fact, he had survived me by witnessing the death of my old self—-the one who was faithfully married, and had a mother and a sister.

I cooked six Cornish hens one night on the gas grill in the back yard of my Chicago apartment on Seminary Street off Armitage Avenue. My second wife, a big mistake I rectified by drinking and philandering, had invited an old friend from college days for dinner. Between us we ate three of those hens and drank three bottles of white wine.

The next morning I broke out the leftovers and made my way through most of another hen. Then, as per new habit, I drove the wife to her job off Michigan Avenue, where she worked as a kind of accountant for a company that managed a dozen Arby’s franchises. (How could I make that up?)

When I returned home, the remaining hens were gone, of course, because I had forgotten to stow them in the fridge and Alex had eaten them, bones and all. He had been careful, however, to pluck the fowl from the bowl on the kitchen table, so there was no mess to clean up. My disciplinary measures were accordingly mild. I said, “Alex, you’re such an asshole” and left it at that.

That night, I was getting ready to turn off the light when I noticed that Alex hadn’t climbed into his chair at the foot of the bed, where he always slept. He was, how to say this, addressing it intently, actually pointing as if he were about to flush a bird from the frozen corn stalks of my youth, the dreamscape where I’d once again raise the .20 gauge shotgun to my shoulder and shoot a random pheasant rising from its scant cover.

I said, “Alex, go the fuck to bed.” He broke his point, turned his head and back, but the rest of his body didn’t move. I repeated the command, which he understood perfectly well; still no movement. “What is it, what’s your problem,” I said, “Get in your chair, go to your bed, goddamn it, don’t make me get up, c’mon, man, it’s late.”

Nothing. So I got up and patted the seat of the nicely upholstered chair, saying, now cajolingly, “Go to your bed, Alex, it’s time to go to bed.”

He wouldn’t budge. So I collapsed into the chair and was immediately tilted to the right by a significant bulge below my left buttock. Once again, WTF? I got up, lifted the seat of the chair, and there was a whole grilled Cornish hen stuffed neatly into the back corner, ready for consumption.

I looked at Alex, he looked at me, and we both started laughing. His eyes danced, anyway, as I pulled the hen from its hiding place and offered it to him. He trotted off to the kitchen with it. I didn’t worry about the bones in his gullet, and I knew he wouldn’t make a mess.

“Good night,” I said, and got back in bed. I turned off the light, just listening now. He spent about ten minutes with that bird. I heard him climb into his chair.

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