As solitary people will, I looked to a dog for company, an as yet unchosen dog. But where to get it and which breed to choose?
Somehow I didn’t pick the breed so much as it picked me. I met it in a park – the breed I mean, not the specific dog. This pit bull terrier was a rare sight for me, the streets not rife with them as they are now. Truth told, the only other pit bulldog I’d seen on a regular basis was Pete the Pup from The Little Rascals. That’s how few there were around back then.
His name was Rainbow, a handsome dog, mostly white but with patches of brindle, and he had his owner with him.
The first thing that struck me about the dog was his thinness. And yet, far from looking starved, he looked supremely athletic and ready for anything, a light in his eyes more confident than any I’d ever seen in a dog. The second thing that struck me about him were the scars he wore, some on his muzzle but lots more on his front legs.
Somehow I knew even then that it was a fighting dog I was meeting – and something stood still in me, some small shock of attentiveness taking hold in me.
Hadn’t I read White Fang years before? Hadn’t I that same heartfelt loathing of dogfighting that any other human being feels, provided he is sane? Did I not feel obliged in whatever way I could to rescue dogs from such men as would fight them?
The dog’s owner, one Adolph Torres, didn’t look anything like his dog. He was old and fat and either bald or shaved his head. He was surprisingly forthcoming as well, mistaking my inquisitiveness for enthusiasm. Even at that very moment he was working his dog for a match soon to take place. Working him how? Simply by walking. But then the dog pulled so hard in harness it was all the workout required.
It was a quarter hour spent gleaning info about fighting dogs, info that would never have been available to me had Adolph Torres been as suspicious of me as he ought to have been. Still, what I had gleaned impressed me. Was I anywhere near as game as these fighting dogs? Hell, I thought I had showed game in that fight with the Golden Gloves guy – and I’d fought him two minutes tops. And yet, if Torres were to be believed, these pit bulldogs would fight a full hour even while on the receiving end. Hell, they’d fight for two hours or, on rare occasion, even three, even to their death.
No, that couldn’t be true, mere hyperbole from a professed dogfighter with too big a mouth. Three hours?! Could he have been right? Was he right? I didn’t know.
I told him I wanted a pit bull terrier for my own. I told him I wanted the real thing, a pup out of well-bred working stock and I’d settle for no less – all of that perfectly true, as far as it went.
What with the enthusiasm of his listener, Torres half invited me to see his dog fight. The other half would have to wait. Torres might have had a big mouth, but he wasn’t nearly so mindless as he was naive. He’d think about it and call me, he said. Actually, he called me several times and became gradually convinced I was in his corner.
As for my part of it, sheer ambivalence. Yes, I wanted one of these dogs. Yes, I knew dogfighting was not only shameful but unconscionable. But I was no rat. Never was. I wasn’t going to lie my way into someone’s good graces only to betray him later. I was no goddamned undercover cop, speaking out one corner of my mouth then the other. But then the only other choice available to me was to come right out and say it:
“You’re a mean and sadistic animal, throwing two dogs together and watching them fight, betting on them.”
I never said the words, however much I might have thought them. And I wanted one of these dogs – not only to have so fine and courageous a companion at my side but to rescue him or her from whatever terrible fate in store.
Again, sheer ambivalence.
There I was at the site of a dogfight, a fish far more out of water even than usual. One of thirty or so men gathered around the “pit” – what in all Creation was I doing in that dark crowded little basement? A nausea roiling in my belly, I was on the verge of witnessing what I feared would be too horrible a sight to endure, perhaps too horrible to recover from, a sight made all the more nightmarish for its being real.
The “pit”? A mere sixteen-foot enclosure squared off with plywood walls. There was a rug on its floor, thin cushioning between the dogs and the hard cement under their feet. The pit contained a referee as well, very serious and signaling Adolph Torres to step in with his dog and another man to step in with his as well.
Faced in opposite corners, the dogs strained toward one another, their owners holding them back. The referee said, “Let go!” and they did, the dogs crashing together in the middle of the pit. The fight was on.
It was eerily silent, not a sound from either dog, certainly no growling. This was all business.
It was a brindle dog Rainbow was fighting, one named Tater. Tater’s owner was young, probably about my age, a man whose first name was the same as his last, and that’s as far as I mean to identify him. (I’ll call him Al Alberts here, that being as good a name as any.)
The odd thing was that the dogs, for all their biting and shaking one another, were so equally capable they almost canceled one another out. No blood, etc. No tearing apart, no squealing with pain, none of any of that. Only after ten minutes or so did I see a bit of pink on Rainbow’s white coat, some cut somewhere perhaps, its red diluted. Or it might have been a cut in Tater’s mouth bleeding out. I didn’t know.
I remember that a good many of our little crowd of spectators were very put out with poor Al Alberts for his having brought his Tater dog in heavy. “He’s too fat, he’s running out of air,” one voice said and several more echoed.
They might well have been right, but it never came to that. Ten minutes into the fight, I heard another voice say, “The cops are here!” Turning and looking in the direction of the voice, I noted a man looking out the basement window at whatever happenings outside. “Hey, the cops are here!” he said again, the words slow to register in the minds of the majority intent on the fight.
But then the quickness of group escape – men pouring through the two exits, one leading to the yard, the other to the house itself. I was back far enough in the line to gather and even to empathize with poor Al’s dilemma. Adolph Torres and the referee long gone, Al was the lone supervisor over two topnotch adult fighting dogs doing what they do best. What were his options? He could only repeat, half plead helplessly again and again: “Somebody help me separate the dogs.” His house, his basement, his dog – there was no escaping for him.
Out in the yard, when I looked back to see if I were being chased, I saw a cop’s head peeking over the fence, a most confused look about him.
Ai-e-e-e-e! I heard a yell. Glancing, I discovered Adolph Torres halfway over the fence where he’d got stuck on a nail. Yanking, tugging, and tearing a great rip in his pants, cuff to crotch, he managed to free himself, but not before letting out still another ear-splitting yell. And then he couldn’t get away from his dog fast enough, huffing and puffing, arms pumping, tired old legs carrying him faster than they had in years, the two halves of his trouser leg flapping like a skirt in the breeze. Talk about your ignominious exits (and it’s not every day one gets to use that word).
As it turned out, the cops didn’t know what they were there for. Some neighbor had called them, suspicious of all the many cars parked. Not exactly a sting operation: everyone except poor Al Alberts got away. The dogs, too, were of course “arrested” and on their way to the pound.
I had no idea where I was, out in the boonies somewhere. I managed to get a bus back to L.A. And that’s how it was that I got to see Tater, one of the gamest fighting dogs in the country, almost run out of air. Sly old Torres had put one over on Al Alberts, his neophyte opponent. Torres told him he could bring Tater in at any weight he wanted, and young Al, far from being one of the better conditioners, had brought Tater in too heavy.
I found all that stuff out later, of course. One would have thought I’d want nothing more to do with dogfighting and dogfighters after that. That wasn’t the case. I still wanted one of those fine game dogs for my own, and I meant to have one.
Instrumental in my questing after a good pit bulldog was a dogman I’ll call Pete Milner. As it was, Pete was Al’s partner in the Tater dog, the man who later broke Tater out of the pound, and the man who eventually sold me my first bulldog.
My experiences of pit bulldogs and dogfighters was far from over and had, in fact, only just begun.
Pete Milner was an overbearing and abrasive man at worst, a dedicated and top-of-the-line dogfighter at best. I didn’t like or respect him, or at least not at first. But he had an impeccably clean yard and yardful of some of the best-bred dogs not only in California but in the whole country. (That Tater dog, for example, had outgamed one named Rastus, an import from Texas and one most everyone thought was unbeatable. It took over two and a half hours for Tater to prove most everyone wrong.)
I got to know Pete a bit, earned his trust a bit, and became schooled in the rules and “philosophy” of professional dogfighting:
Fightingdogs were bred for what they do best and couldn’tnot fight, the good ones at least and according to their temperaments.
A dogfighter is, in effect, much the same as any other sort of fight manager/trainer/handler. Not exactly Angelo Dundee and Muhammad Ali, but comparable. Unlike professional prizefighters who are paid for what they do, these pit bull fightingdogs fight for the sheer pleasure of it.
Treat your fightingdogs with respect. They are gamer than you, as a man, can ever be, and to be honored for it. Bring them along slowly, protect them, and know when to throw in the towel.
How’s that for a nutshell? Did I buy it? Not till I saw it in action. Had I any intention of actively entering into the world of dogfighting? Not yet. I only wanted a good pit bulldog for a companion and friend, and that was it.
Which dogs did Pete Milner want to sell? It all came down to that. Puppies, of which he had several, were less expensive than proven older dogs. Did I want to start out with an open question mark? – or with a mature dog ideal for breeding should I want pups of my own?
My first memory of Red Tina was when, at my crouching down nearby, she rushed over and did this quick little turn so as to cradle herself in my lap. I even remember the first words I said to Pete about her: “She’s a charmer” – after which he gave me the lowdown on her.
Tina was of Tater blood, four years old, teeth ground to the gums from chewing on rocks, and lame in her back leg from an early-on training “roll.” She was game as could be and had already whelped several winners.
Six hundred bucks was a lot to fork over back then, but I did, and Tina was mine. How proud I was of that dog. A blocky little thing with a slightly roached back, her fighting weight would have been around thirty-two pounds – but she’d never have to fight, not ever again. I’d “rescued” her, you see.
Being walked, she was a perfect lady around other dogs – so long as they kept their distance. Even still, I carried a short “breaking stick” with me, a filed-off hammer handle for prying open Tina’s jaws should she have got hold of something she ought not have. I never knew when some fool dog would come running over to check her out. On the few occasions it actually happened, I simply lifted Tina up in my arms, keeping her out of reach.
Gradually, an idea had taken hold in me. Like Pete Milner, I too would have my own fine line of dogs. Loner as I was, Tina my closest friend and new central focus in my life, wouldn’t it be better still to have two such companions? Or three? Or even half a dozen more?
I was hooked.
But how, if I didn’t allow the dogs to fight, would I go about preserving that quality of gameness in my dogs? Was it even important I do so? You’re damn right it was. It’s what drew me to them in the first place, that gameness separating them from all other dogs – and not only from dogs but men – and not only dogs and men, but from any other higher species besides. Lions, tigers, bears, wolves, stags? – when if ever do two males of any of these species fight more than a few minutes before one of them runs off or tries to? I saw no spark of courage in all the universe that burned so brightly as in the heart of the game-bred pit bulldog. That above all things was what I revered in him and still do. I bought several more mature dogs from Pete and, in having done so, dedicated my life to them almost without reservation.
Like other dogmen of my acquaintance, I too moved to the boonies and had adequate yard space for even a dozen bulldogs, though I only owned four. Through it all I was learning from Pete, and so was Al Alberts. We were Pete’s two best students, his legacy being handed down to us.
When did I decide I might actually match a dog? I don’t know. It was as if I’d been swept from one place to the next and, upon arriving, hardly remembered at all who it was I had been. I’d seen maybe a dozen rolls, schooling sessions – every one of them with a view toward bringing some young prospect on as gradually as possible, always careful not to put more on a “starter” than he/she could handle, supplying experience, building confidence.
Three more dogs later, Tuffy was one of them. A female, all black but for a stripe of white up front, she was tall, lanky, and with hindquarters of steel. At forty-two pounds, she’d already been matched and won.
Adolph Torres, he of the quick escape and torn trousers, scented blood – mine, not my dog’s. Neophyte as I was, Torres figured I hadn’t the experience to properly condition a dog. It had worked against Al Alberts (or probably would have if not for the inadvertent bust), and so why not against me?
Pete set it up, held our forfeits, and would serve as both timekeeper and referee. As to the conditioning, that was up to me, a month’s worth. I’d already been feeding my dogs a half-vegetarian diet (much like my own) and exercising them daily. Hell, Tuffy was very nearly in match shape even before I began formally conditioning her. I’d been running her beside my bike all along and had only to increase her time and distance, working gradually toward three-hour workouts and twenty-five miles total. Her conditioning drawing to a close, she was managing such bi-weekly excursions easily.
Two days before the match was to take place, Pete came over to ascertain how well or amiss Tuffy’s conditioning had gone. Tuffy was out of his breeding and he wanted her to show well. He took one look at her and could only rave over how good she looked, slimmed down, muscled up, her black sleek coat shining almost aglow.
“How did you manage that?” he could only wonder. And before he left I had to write down for him exactly what regimen of feeding and exercise I’d followed. Truly, I’d never seen him so glad and animated.
A day later he was back.
“I’ve some bad news,” he said, handing me back not only my own forfeit money but Torres’s as well. “I shot off my mouth, bragged to Torres how good Tuffy looked, and by the time I shut my big mouth, I’d scared him off.”
I didn’t mind a bit. I was both glad of the extra hundred bucks and relieved Tuffy wouldn’t have to fight. Pete’s feelings on the matter were completely opposite from mine. He couldn’t apologize enough for his “talking out of school” and Tuffy’s being “all dressed up with no place to go.” In the mood I was in, I could only smile at Pete’s imageries. Oh, but he had a way with words did old Pete.
I never matched one in California. Tina had a small litter for me, a few of which I sold. I tried to and hope I sold them to responsible owners who came at least close to understanding the caliber dogs they had bought. I continued bussing to and from my job but switched my hours to nights. Days were for the dogs, my every spare waking moment of them. My reading, writing, and making music continued on but slackened off. The dogs came first.
Once, when several black guys (although of course dog thieves come in all colors and persuasions), youngish and friendly seeming, came by interested in a litter of pups I had – it was the strangest thing. Tina, always the friendliest of dogs to anyone she met, wouldn’t let them in the front door. Strange? Not a bit. Tina knew immediately what I would have to learn the hard way. Utterly fierce at the screen door, she set my visitors back a step, frightened she might come through. Polite host as I was, I immediately picked Tina up and carried her fiercely struggling self into the next room, shutting her in.
But what must Tina have thought of me? There she was telling me plain as the Italian honker on my face these guys meant me harm. What she knew directly and with every drop of blood in her, I foolishly needed proof of.
I invited them as guests into my home, showed them my pups, and gave them a price on one of them. They said they’d be back.
They came back, all right, but when I was out food shopping. They climbed the fence to my backyard, went straight to my puppy pen, and stole two pups out of it.
How did I know it was them? A mutual acquaintance told me so. He also gave me the address where I might find them, walking distance from where I lived. There only remained my getting my pups back.
Now it was me climbing their back fence!
How glad my pups were to see me. Weighed down on chains heavy enough to hold dogs five times their size, the poor things showered me with kisses. I had only got one of them free and up in my arms when four dog thieves stepped out of their house and toward me. Two of them had baseball bats and one carried a brick.
Incredibly, they called me a “dog thief.”
“They’re my dogs, and you know it,” I said. But of course I had to set the pup down and make my inglorious retreat.
I bought a Saturday night special, 22 caliber, and had it tucked in my belt next time I climbed that fence. I don’t know whether or not those guys were in the house, but this time they didn’t come out. I had my pups back.
I had a vice. I mean one more on top of whatever other vices I had. I enjoyed an occasional cigar. Sometimes I’d buy them and other times I’d shoplift them from my local supermarket. I got caught and arrested. I had to call Pete. There was no one else. He said later he was tempted to let me stew a few days but didn’t because there was no one else to care for the dogs he’d sold me.
He bailed me out and laughed and laughed when, at his fetching me from the hoosegow, I declared with some bravado that “Crime doesn’t pay.” On the way to his driving me home to my yardful, he told me this juicily gossipy story of Al Alberts having been arrested for shoplifting as well. It seems young Al had been gorging on candy while shopping and neglecting to pay on the way out. I’m not sure which is the worst vice, tobacco or sugar, but if you’re caught stealing either of them, the con- sequence is the same: you call Pete Milner to bail you out.
I was only just getting into the dogs, certainly never matched one. But it was a bad day for men like Pete, Torres, and half a dozen others I could mention. Times had changed, a whole new era ushered in. Suddenly the dogs and their men, no more a mere glitch at the edge of awareness, came under scrutiny. Post-Vietnam, these fightingdogs and their breeders were marked for extinction. The world, such as it had become, gave itself no choice but to eradicate that which it felt ought never to have existed in the first place, which is to say dogfighting.
How, anyway, does a world even begin slicing off a particularly unsavory portion of its own flesh? Why, with a media blitz, of course. And a catchy little tune that sang something like this:
Be aware, people, that there are these pockets of sick and sadistic men in our midst, turning their dogs vicious, forcing them to tear each other to bits in fights to the death.
The theme having been set, there was no end to the variations upon it:
The blood of chickens poured on the dogs, to whet their appetites for blood. Pet cats and dogs stolen from yards and dying terrible deaths at the jaws of these fighting dogs.
The more “whetting,” the better.
The newspaper accounts didn’t have to be factual. (Who was there to contradict them?) They only had to excite and incite. They only had to rouse up enough public outrage, enough misinformed “benevolence” to get the job done.
Fast forward to where not only had the media achieved its purpose but a good deal more besides.
True, the professional dogfighters had been hunted down, their dogs destroyed. And a more thorough obliteration of these few remaining stewards of the breed and their game-bred dogs would be hard to imagine.
But something else as well:
We began reading of children being maimed or killed, every week a new horror story. Suddenly pit bulldogs (so-called) were rife in the ghettos, the preferred choice of street thugs.
Where before no such reports had existed, almost overnight they became a common occurrence. That’s just how quickly our street thugs had thirsted up the media’s crash course on dogfighting – a veritable sadists’ smorgasbord to draw from, be inspired by, new meaning infused into mean little lives.
And so the media and their well-intentioned henchmen took proud credit for all they’d gotten rid of but none of what they’d caused. Which is not to suggest their work was anywhere near completed, mind you. There was, after all – and seemingly from out of nowhere! – a whole new breed of animal cruelty taking place on city streets. Lying newspaper reports had turned to self-fulfilling prophesies. Happily ever after would have to wait.
But I’ve gotten way ahead of myself.
A dogman friend of Pete’s came to visit and to check out my yard. He’d brought several pals along with him, and of course we discussed dogs, the various bloodlines and such. And while we visited and talked, I noticed that one of his entourage didn’t enter in, stayed outside our little circle, and kept very much to the sidelines. I glanced, met his eye, and sensed a coldness there if not an actual threat.
Soon after, Pete told me he’d seen my name on a police report and that he knew how it had got there. It was an undercover cop that had come visiting me that day. (Pete had a friend in the police department and had access to such information.) Pete’s name, too, was on that police report and his address as well. I fared a little better on that score, for while the cops knew my name they didn’t list my address. That undercover cop had failed to get it.
The handwriting on the wall all along, we were at last able to read it. Odd, the almost overnight realization of one’s having become an endangered species. Odd, that same realization forcing one into survival mode.
Soon after, Al Alberts would move to Arizona and, while never again risking ineptness in matching one, he’d become one of the best and foremost breeders of fine game-bred dogs in the country. Pete would eventually sell off all his pit bulldogs and keep a kennel of coursing hounds instead. I’ve no idea what happened to Torres.
And that leaves me.
I’d been corresponding with Don Bullard, a dogman from Texas, even looked up to him a bit, his perhaps greater knowledge and experience. At informing him my name had appeared on a police report, he invited me to Texas, even offering to come get me. He’d transport me and all my dogs to Wickett, Texas, where he and I would be partners. It was something to think about, the call of a wilder and woollier west.
Along about that time, another friend, Roland Kincaid, even while in his seventies, had bought a good little bitch from Al Alberts, Princess by name – one he wanted to match. He wasn’t up to working a dog properly, and so he and I struck a bargain: I would condition and match his Princess, Roland would front the bet, and I would receive half the purse if Princess won. Now I had Princess in my yard as well – one of six? Seven? Eight? I don’t remember how many. But where would I match her? Certainly not in California.
Having thought not carefully enough on it, I decided to move to Texas after all. It would be an adventure and the “smart” thing to do. Don Bullard and I would be “partners,” mutual friends looking out for one another – but each of us keeping his own yardful. No business arrangement was going to interfere with my relationship with my dogs. Not ever.
Came the morning when Bullard was to pick me up, and so he did. He was six foot four with mottled teeth and a laugh that struck me as mindless if not downright brutish. Truly, he seemed more a dullard than a Bullard. But perhaps I was being unfair to him, judging the book by its cover and all.
He’d traveled by camper, a trailer hitched behind it. We loaded up the dogs, all but Tina safely secured in doghouses serving as crates. Tina riding up front with me, her head on my lap, we were Texas bound.
Two and a half days of chitchat later – one night of sleeping on the road later – we were almost to Bullard’s place when I was formally greeted:
WELCOME TO WICKETT, TEXAS
I myself added another number to it making for a grand total of… one really small town.
Bullard’s yard was nothing less than appalling – dogs scrawny and ill kept, fly- and tick-ridden, living in weeks’ worth of dog shit. One looked on its last legs, hookworms most likely. Still, there was fresh room for my dogs and chain setups. But no, my dogs wouldn’t stay long in that hellhole. Better almost that they be put down.
I mean to zip along now on the salient points, my Texas years often a time of near madness. I knew right away what I was in for when Bullard introduced me to other dogmen not as his partner but as his “dogwalker,” that being a cheap-paying job requiring no more than one’s ability to put one foot in front of the other. Further, he portrayed himself as a sort of saint rescuing me from the law breathing down my neck in California. And so, in the eyes not only of these Texas dogmen but in the eyes of Bullard’s family as well – his mother, his young son, and two daughters – I was a pathetic charity case in need of just that sort of all-benevolent kindness and understanding only a bighearted and heroic rescuer like Bullard himself could or would have provided.
The scene was set. Depending on who was doing the looking, I was either a figure of amusement, pity, derision, or ridicule. And worse, I was no more than a deadbeat Yankee taking advantage of Wickett’s own self-declared good-old-boy little Texas darlin’, Don Bullard himself.
I didn’t cry about it. It was what it was. Quickly, I found work in the oil patch, a roustabout learning the ropes. I moved all my dogs to a little plot of land perhaps a quarter mile from Bullard’s yard. The land belonged to Bullard (what with our still being “partners” and all), but it was at least free of the flies and ticks that so tormented his own dogs. I bought a little trailer to live in, a mere matchbox of a thing. It cost eight hundred dollars, its “mortgage” to be paid off in the space of a year.
I’d found a home at last, my toilet a hole dug in the ground. But it had heat in the winter, my little trailer, a refillable butane tank doing the job. I had a little Coleman stove for cooking, a Coleman lantern for lighting and, once I’d got my electricity strung up, a tiny refrigerator and freezer besides. Given my almost comfortable little cot of a bed tucked in a small cubby hole at one end of the trailer, I had all the necessities and my dogs besides. Not the lap of luxury, but what else might I have required?
My dogs, too, were glad of their new yard, space enough for me to put them on sixteen-foot chains giving each of them a thirty-two foot circle to run in. And if I didn’t manage two or three times a week taking each of them off the chain for a run beside my bike, I’d failed in my responsibility to them.
It all sounds a little crazy, I know, but the dogs were why I was there. I’d given myself over to them. Not only were they my beloved companions but my role models as well. That was the extent to which I loved and revered them – for their courage, their capacity for play, the love they gave me in return, their belief in me, the trust they put in me. They were nothing less than my long searched after talisman in life. Whether in California where I was respected or in Texas where I was reviled, it didn’t matter so long as I had my dogs.
“California, the land of fruits and nuts,” Bullard might say and then give that mindless little chortle that passed for a laugh in him. But when he started going on about niggers and wetbacks, I had to turn and walk away. “Those are ugly words I don’t use,” I said to him. To his credit, and no matter what he thought about my views on the matter, he never again spoke to me in those terms. Maybe he had half a redeeming quality to him after all.
Early on, Bullard and I would occasionally roll our dogs against one another, short little get-togethers either for schooling or taking the edge off them. It was quickly established, however, that Bullard’s best was no competition even to my old retired few – and so much for each of us holding up his end of our “partnership.” His dogs simply didn’t measure up to all the praise he had showered on them in letters – not surprising since he’d never even paid for a dog, let alone a good price for one. He’d somehow scrounged and wheedled for his, and you get what you pay for. Either that or you end up with what cost you nothing, and worth every non-penny of it.
There was a strange, surreal, and even nightmarish irony to it all – Bullard playing the “saint” and I the “pathetic little Yankee deadbeat.” And yet our “partnership” in the dogs being the only reason for my presence there at all, I had brought everything to it and he had brought nothing.
First match – Dallas, Texas…
It was a long ride, the longest. Old Roland Kincaid’s Princess crated in the back of the camper and I sitting next to Bullard on the front seat, I could hardly have been more anxious. This was a big deal. There were to be seven matches in all, and some of the best and/or most notorious dogmen in the country in attendance – Maurice Carver, Don Mayfield, Bobby Hall, Don Maloney, Bert Clouse, and etc. Even Al Alberts would be there. One of his, a full brother to Princess and one he’d sold straight out of his yard, was being matched.
Princess and I versus the Fowler brothers would be the final match of the day. (Females always go last so the males preceding them catch no female scent while fighting.) First there was the washing of the dogs, guarantee no one was using a “rub,” something applied to a dog’s coat that would render him/her less likely to be bitten. Tobacco would make a good rub, a nastiness no dog wants to mouth.
And then the match, Bert Clouse our referee. It was a tough one in which the Fowlers’ bitch quit in just over an hour. Old Roland was ecstatic. He’d even taken trophy for best bitch of the day – not surprising, Princess being the only winning female of the day.
Al Albert’s was even more ecstatic, both the male and female of his breeding having won.
I was three years in Texas. But for Mike and Laurie, two good friends I’d made, there was only Bullard to talk to, and I barely did. I didn’t even want to see him. I respected his sad worm-ridden “bulldogs” more than I did him. Mike and Laurie would visit maybe once a month, and when I heard their car pulling up, it was as if I’d been let out of solitary confinement. The dogs were almost but not quite enough. I needed human contact, a word, a nod, a smile. How I looked forward to those monthly visits from Mike and Laurie – he a friend who respected and didn’t revile me – she of the soft western drawl and warm eyes.
Oh, but there was an otherworldly strangeness to where I was. Besides the dogs, I had a yardful of other critters as well, horny toads, roadrunners in search of a meal, sounds of wily coyotes in the distance. There was the six-foot rattlesnake I killed not three feet from old Tina. And when a hawk flew out of the sky and under my trailer to catch a snake, the beating of its wings were a pounding, concussions like a man punching his fists through walls might make, incredibly strong. There were mice galore, tiny babes of them climbed up on smatterings of weeds. Fire ants to to burn you crazy should they climb up your pants leg. There was no end to black tarantulas buried in holes in the ground, but then a small stampede of them when it rained. There was the scorpion that woke me, a crawling on my belly, and I slapping at it, not knowing what it was till I turned on the light. And of course ground squirrels and rabbits for nibbling at the small garden I’d planted.
Once while dozing in my trailer, I heard what sounded like a baby crying, and not just crying but wailing in distress, as if it were being killed. Running out onto the tiny porch of my trailer, I looked all around and saw nothing. Not even the dogs barked, listening as well. There came again that long drawn-out wailing note, not quite human. Then it stopped. I stepped down, paused, and waited. Soon it began again, a wail as mournful as any on earth, very near. Pinpointing the sound to a patch of brush, I walked straight toward it before stopping again. There was a something entwined there – a something with the long smooth body of a snake and yet the furry head of a rabbit.
Then I knew. I saw the baby rabbit was caught, all but its head disappeared down into the darkness of that snake, the snake having climbed up to swallow at its leisure the tiny rabbit whose mother was racing round and round, fight startled into her timid rabbit heart. Another plaint from the baby rabbit! – a cry rising up and up in all the wailing hopelessness of its tiny rabbit soul, then fading, fading mournfully away, a cry that might have been its last.
I hated it, the coldblooded eating of the warm, the obscenity of it. I stepped close and shook the branch, forcing the snake to cough up its prize. In silent swiftness the snake slipped down and was gone, disappeared into the weeds. I picked up the baby rabbit where it had dropped to the ground. It lay numbed in my hand, more in death than in life, my warm hands like a shroud to it, petting it. I looked all around, but its natural mother was nowhere in sight. I’d frightened her away as well as the snake. I put the baby rabbit into a box and left it where the mother might return and find it. Perhaps she did, for it was soon gone.
The weather, too, was not to be fathomed, the Texas elements strangely moody. A rain storm might spring up on the sunniest of days, last ten minutes, and then disappear as suddenly as it appeared. “Dust bunnies” sweeping through the yard might sometimes flip a doghouse clear over. Then there were the larger versions, awesome in their power – the two tornadoes that arrived simultaneously one day, one high up in the sky and no threat at all, the other on the ground, raising dust, and wreaking havoc on the tiny city of Monahans seven miles away.
One rainstorm lasted three days and three nights, literally. Till I woke one morning to find what looked like a river, wide as the eye could see, running through my yard. It put my dogs in great danger, was filling their doghouses and threatening to wash them away entirely. Worse, my Dusty, a good little bitch out of Tina, was on the verge of having to swim, her chain weighing her down. The problem was those great deep hollows worn away over the years by the dogs’ chains. These, now there was a flood, were as good as swimming pools in the last place you wanted them. I saved Dusty first, carried her into the trailer and left her there. Then I rushed outside again. Knee deep in water, I found whatever rocks and debris I could for stuffing under her doghouse, raising it up higher for her to shelter in. I worked all day at this and for all the dogs. I worked to exhaustion and beyond. And had I been at all a believer, I’d have prayed my own shelter wouldn’t topple over as well, its tiny porch underwater, the water lapping at the sides of the trailer.
The salient points, Freddy boy, remember? If you were a bit insane at the time there’s no point relapsing. Try, Freddy boy, it was more than thirty years ago. Surely you can write sanely about it now. Think of all that good time you had on your hands, how much having no TV or anyone to talk to freed you up for reading and writing. Remember how you cherished those bike trips to Monahans, that little public library where you could gather a whole week’s worth of reading, read a book, sometimes two a day, every day? That had to be worth something. And there was that little dogfighting novel you wrote, the excitement of having it picked up by Manor Books, the thousand dollar advance they paid. And then seeing your own little paperback on at least some few shelves. The Life of Humbug it was and a real bargain at just seventy-five cents.
Salient point one, since I’m numbering them: I matched six, won four and lost two. None of the dogs were ripped apart or died. If they had been I’d have been torn apart myself and would never have matched another.
Salient point two… but that’s the hardest one of all to write.
Bullard came over one morning. Peeking over my tin fence, he found me in the yard cleaning up after my dogs, my trusty shovel and bucket at the ready.
“I’m going to visit some dogman friends, wanna go?” he said.
“No, I’ve got a full day of writing planned,” I said. The last thing I wanted was to play Saint Bullard’s rescuee all over again.
“Oh, come on. You don’t have to write every day,” he wheedled. “Come on, take a break.”
“No, I don’t want to,” I said coldly, self-torture anything but a penchant of mine.
His face, too, turned fiercely cold.
“You know, I think it best if you moved out,” he said.
But my dogs! It was as good as a scream in me even while my eyes, hard and outraged, stared out my hatred of him.
“You never want to visit, you never want to go anywhere with me,” he complained. “You’re unfriendly all the time and no matter what I do.”
“Poor persecuted you,” I said.
But of course it was all over. And if I had no place to go and no way to get there, neither did my yardful.
Mike and Laurie took two of my dogs and, except for Tina, a friend of Mike’s took all the rest, assuring me they’d be well taken care of. Tina and I would stay a week with Mike and Laurie in Midland, after which Tina and I would fly to California.
But it was so very strange, such mixed feelings as were tearing me apart. Worse even than an amputated limb, the severing from my life all that I’d been living for. Sick over it, something in me was dying, striking me dumb, my inner thoughts a mere half mumbling lot of gibberish. But then, too, the sort of reprieve I felt, the escape not only from isolation and insanity but from prison as well, my very life offered up as a sacrifice to the dogs. Free, free at last. And yet all my life’s yearnings so very much implicated, entwined, and inexplicably enjoined in my love of the dogs. Freedom? What was that? To be free to die? To be free either to walk away from or toward life. But which was which? I couldn’t know. I didn’t have it in me to know.
I’d kept Tina. I’d stayed true to Tina, and that would be enough. It had to be. At Mike and Laurie’s she slept curled up beside me. She was so glad now to have me all to herself again she almost glowed.
She woke me one night, her body quivering, jerking like dogs do when they’re dreaming, only worse. I shook her, I called her name, and at last she came out of it, seemed good as new. Good as new till next time, as it turned out. Only next time it wasn’t so easy bringing her out of it.
Mike took me to his vet for the prognosis. At twelve years old Tina’s heart was failing. She would continue having such episodes. They would only worsen and, before the end, she’d likely undergo brain damage.
Still she clung to life. She’d have one of her “spells,” and I, very alarmed, would call her name – call her out of it, which I could do so long as I was with her.
For the last week of her life, I tried to be with her all the time, night or day. But the spells came more and more often. I spent her last night holding her, staying awake so if she fell too deeply “asleep,” I could call her out of it.
Of course it was no good. I couldn’t spend every moment of every day with her, watching her – and every night too. She would have to be put down.
Surreal, more like snapshots than memories, my last hour with Tina. The words I said to Mike and Laurie before carrying her in: “She doesn’t deserve this.” Inside the vet’s office where Tina did something she’d never done before, fought against my holding her still, struggled against me. She didn’t try to bite. She’d never have bitten anyone, the exception perhaps being those dog thieves she’d once tried to warn me against. But now she didn’t want the vet to touch her, struggled against it. She knew. She’d read me to the very quick of me, my beloved little dog. She knew I was saying goodbye to her and that she’d never see me again, not in this life anyway. That was why, weak as she was, she fought and fought. Although her physical heart was worn out and not much good to her any more, the courageous heart was not yet ready – would never be ready to say its final good bye to life, its passionate song – and to me!Not without a fight.
It was her final one, and she fought to the last.
The potion in her veins, she gave a little sigh and went limp in my arms. I could hardly see and I couldn’t breathe. Surely it was my imagination, but I sensed the gentlest of presences lift past my fingertips, a brief glimpse of something invisible lifting up, something like a little waft of air rising up, then gone.
Fucking memoir! How does one go about writing such self-pitying, self-justifying, masochistic shit as that without puking? You’re better than that, Freddy. Just keep telling yourself that. It was you who brought the dogs to Texas, no one else. It was you who chose that great pig of a man Bullard for a partner, no one else. And it’s for you to live with the almost nightly dreams – or dream – for there’s only one.
I dream it even still, though not so often, now that thirty or forty years have passed. Always it’s the same:
There’s a yard somewhere. I’m aware I’ve been away a good long while and have forgotten to feed the dogs. I look out a window and don’t see them, only their chains trailing into their doghouses. I’m sure then that some of them have died neglected. I go into the yard hoping at least some of them are still alive. Most times it’s only Tina who comes out to greet me, and how glad I am to see her – and how sad that none of the other chains have stirred.
My dream sums it up nicely, I think, where I did or didn’t, but mostly didn’t, live up to my responsibility. And dreams don’t lie, they come out at night to remind us where we ourselves have lied. And they never let us forget.