Having written of my friend Freddy yesterday, I was set to thinking about these other posts. Also with my dad's guest post out this month, it seemed a perfect time to reintroduce a piece about one of his best friends. I only wish I could have done Reuben more justice in describing him, but I cannot convey his bold spirit in mere words.
A Dad and His Dog
Reuben was a hunter. He was a pedigreed Labrador Retriever, bred to be a hunter's companion - a dog who would watch to see where the dead fowl landed by the lake or the river and then, using his excellent sense of smell, retrieve it for his master. I'm telling you this because the human being he loved most in the world was not a hunter. That person was my dad, and they got along famously.
Dad had given up hunting by the time he got Reuben. True, he had once taken part in the sport, but, as he tells it, he shot a small bear once and felt such remorse over it, he never looked back.
Still, Dad knew Reuben was the dog for him when he first saw him as a small, weeks-old pup. Mom was getting him his Christmas gift, and they went to the breeder's to examine the litter. All the puppies ran away when Dad came close - save one, and he began gnawing on Dad's boot and growling.
"That's the one," said Dad decisively.
"Oh, I've already promised him to someone else," responded the breeder apologetically.
Dad persuaded him to give them the puppy. I don't know how; bribed him with a little extra cash probably. Maybe the man sensed the two belonged together when Dad picked Reuben up, but that faceless "someone else" was destined never to know what a fine dog Reuben would become, because Dad brought him home.
My first memory of Reuben is of the uproar he caused when he ate Annie's bath gels from her stocking Christmas morning. I couldn't have been more than three, but I remember the mass confusion. My dad was roaring because he was afraid Reuben would be sick. But I recall Reuben's little black body zipping across the carpet unfazed.
That was in Utah, I believe. After the powerline construction company Dad was working for went under, Reuben made the pilgrimage with the family to Tennessee.
He loved it there, and it was there that Dad found a substitute for his dog's desire to hunt and retrieve. He threw rocks to fetch in the field and in the creek. When Dad threw a rock into the creek from the culvert, Reuben sat at Dad's side, muscles taut, and watched it arc between the trees. As soon as he saw it splash, he sprang into the water and buried his head beneath the clear surface, burrowing around with his nose to sniff out the precise rock. Once he had the rock locked in his jaws, he'd bring it back to Dad.
There were times when I was frightened watching Reuben fetch those rocks, because despite the fact that the creek bed was comprised of thousands of stones of every shape and color, he never failed in recovering the exact rock you threw. So if you threw a large rock into the creek, Reuben would stay under that water for what seemed like forever, wrestling with it. Sometimes he'd almost have it, and he'd raise his blocky head, and it'd roll back along the stones at the bottom. Down Reuben would go again, wrangling the rock with his paws toward the bank of the creek, his nose beneath water until he could finally haul it up in his teeth. Never did he give up and grab another rock just because it was easier. He lived for the moment of triumph when he dropped the stone at Dad's feet, then sat with quivering anticipation of the next throw.
It was an exciting thing to watch, and Reuben took it very seriously. Once my Grandpa visited from Idaho and thought he would tease the fierce Lab. He found a decent rock to throw in the cornfield and showed it to Reuben.
"You ready, Reuben?" Grandpa asked with a smile.
Dad must have seen the twinkle in his eye, because he said, "You'd better throw it, Dad. He'll watch for it before he goes."
But he couldn't do much more than warn Grandpa, so he was silent as Grandpa drew his arm back and then brought it forward forcefully. Reuben watched the sky and gazed fiercely across the field. Not spotting the rock's landing, he turned his head sideways to look at Grandpa and saw the rock there, still in his hand. Grandpa was still laughing when suddenly Reuben leapt up and bit him in the stomach. Instantly, Dad rebuked Reuben who sat at his command. Luckily Grandpa was okay, even saying good-naturedly, "You warned me, Bud!"
Reuben had other sports he relished such as racing around the mailman's car when he came to the end of the lane. He'd race around it barking in his deep guttural voice even as the mailman tried to drive away. That postal worker hated our lane and lived in fear of the large Labrador at the end of it, which is unfortunate. He wasn't the only one, though. On the very rare occasion that a package would be delivered to our house, the delivery men would often refuse to exit their vehicles, honking their horns and calling to us to come get our package before our dog attacked them. I don't think Reuben really would have done it, however. And as he got older and got the Labrador's beard on his chin, all grizzled and gray fur, Dad used to laugh and show people that Reuben had lost a few teeth and his bark was really the only threat.
I'd like to say Reuben was our family dog, and in a sense he was, because he would have done anything to keep Mom and us kids safe. And he never turned down the opportunity of a back-rubbing when we kids would line up on the couch, our feet in the air for him to run under. Still, I am convinced that although he had a begrudging affection for us it is only because we belonged to the person he loved best in the world. When Dad walked in the door at evening time, Reuben went crazy with excitement at seeing his best bud come home. Then that ninety pound dog jumped up on his lap until Dad, groaning and laughing and rubbing Reuben's ears, begged him to get off. We kids had to wait our turn until Reuben settled at his feet, because that's just the way it was with our Dad and his dog.
Reuben and Mandy
On the car ride home this afternoon, Analisa, my daughter, told me that today in school she touched a corn snake. She told her brother Berto she put hand sanitizer on her hands and the front of her jumper in hopes that the snake did not leave any poison on her. I assured her that corn snakes aren't poisonous. And, anyway, a poisonous snake has to bite you, not just touch you.
"That's exciting, Ana!" I said. Then I promptly began to reminisce, "Your Uncle Natie and I used to love to chase snakes near the creek and in the garden in order to touch them."
"Why?" asked Berto.
"Because they felt weird. We thought it was cool."
"Did they ever bite you, Mama?" asked Ana.
"No, no. These were garden snakes mostly. We didn't go after poisonous ones like copperheads."
"But you did get bitten..."said Ana uncertainly.
"No, that was Paca (that's what the kids call my dad). Paca got bitten by a copperhead. And Reuben our dog did, too - a couple of times."
They knew about Paca getting bitten in the foot by a copperhead one day in the woods. I hadn't told them about what happened to Reuben, our Labrador.
Reuben was one of my dad's greatest friends. Because he sunk his teeth into my dad's boot at their first meeting, Dad chose him from a litter of purebred Labrador pups, those usually destined to be loyal to an avid hunter for their retrieving skills. Dad was not a hunter, and Reuben, a blocky ninety-pound dog of black whose limbs quivered in anticipation of retrieving even just a rock thrown into the creek bed, loved him.
I foolishly glided into the conversation just as easily as I slipped through the next traffic light.
"Reuben got bitten twice in the neck by snakes. He developed a tumor because of it," and I pointed to my neck, "here." The kids' faces were open, their eyes wide. This was a fresh story, and they cared about it already. "He couldn't eat because of the tumor. The cancer had spread, too. So he had to be put to sleep. And he was Paca's dog. Paca was heartbroken. He still doesn't like talking about it."
And there I can see my dad's face again, as he stands where the driveway meets the lane, telling us kids, just home from school, that Reuben was dead, that he had buried Reuben by the creek that afternoon. He couldn't bear the resurgence of sorrow he saw in our faces. His face was soft, malleable as he told us he couldn't talk about it anymore and turned away. It was a shock for us to see the fire usually so evident in his features replaced by this strange forlorn texture of sadness.
"So how long did he go to sleep for?" asked Berto.
"Berto," I said, looking intently into the rearview mirror at my son's sweet face. "When they put an animal to sleep, they put them to sleep forever. It was very sad. Very sad. Don't ask Paca about it. He and Reuben were buddies. Paca loved Reuben. I mean, he was a fierce dog, but when Paca came home from work, he'd jump up into his lap and lick his face. He'd try to get his whole body on Dad's lap until Paca told him to get down. And he was a big dog, too."
I was speaking the words, but still did not know I was affected.
"How'd it happen?" asked Berto.
"Well, Reuben wasn't afraid. He just wasn't afraid of anything. He'd chase the cows in Mr. Spann's field, the bulls, too - nipping at their legs and running circles around them until they charged him."
"Did they get him?"
"No, he was too fast. So, you see, when he found these rattlesnakes or copperheads, he'd bark and leap at them. Then he'd get too close, and they would strike. Paca buried him down by the creek," I said sadly, seeing the very spot with my mind's eye. "And Mandy's there, too."
Our Mandy, the multi-colored mutt who adored Reuben, leaping about his shoulders and yapping at him until, fed up, he growled and snapped at her. Mandy, who would follow you on a walk across the field to the woods. But unlike Reuben who was always ready to exercise and to guard you on your adventures, she would linger on the logging road, tilting her head at your inclination to explore before turning tail and deserting you, trotting back across the field to the house porch. Mandy who was so deaf and blind at the end, she'd bark aggressively at us coming home until she at last recognized us and hung her head and tail in embarrassment.
"How did he die? Mandy?"
"Mandy was a girl," I said a little defensively, as if my children should remember these pets that shared my childhood years, animals they had never had the great pleasure of meeting. "She was hit by the school bus as it came down the hill to pick us up for school. She loved to chase cars, and we couldn't stop her quick enough. Paca told us to go on to school, and he'd take care of her. He buried her next to Reuben by the creek. It was so sad..."
With those words I broke off, sobbing. "I'm sorry, kids. I'm sorry," I muttered, a little embarrassed by the tears that I hadn't seen coming, because I had not known I would be telling my children these memories of Reuben today. Hadn't known I'd be seeing Mandy lying in the road these many years later, hearing my dad's voice telling us to go on - it'd be okay, seeing the deep regret in the face of our bus driver, Mr. Owen.
The thing I did not tell my kids about that terrible morning was that as I sat crying on the school bus those many years ago over our beloved mutt Mandy, Reuben's little buddy, a stupid boy a few seats ahead of mine was loudly making jokes about dog guts being plastered on the tires of the bus and laughing. I listened in disbelief until I couldn't bear it anymore and cried, "Be quiet! That was our dog Mandy!" And he laughed again.
I'm crying again as I write this post. Isn't it strange that I have yet to get over that? A foolish boy making cruel jokes about something that so deeply saddened and shocked my siblings and I. Unfortunately, it is a permanent part of my vivid recollections of that day.
"Mama, are you okay?" my sweet Ana asked. "Are you really crying?"
"I bet Paca put something by their graves," said Berto. "So everyone can know they're there."
I searched the landscape of the creek with my mind, searched near the fallen tree trunks where we sat to have our wiener roasts in summer, and I could see the stone fire pit my dad had created by the bog and the spring. Reuben and Mandy are buried there, I know, but I can't recall any other landmark except the pit and the fallen logs.
"I don't know," I responded. "I don't know whether Paca did or not."
Somehow it's better not, though. No one else could understand the immense love we had for them, how much a part of our lives Reuben and Mandy were. We know they're there - Dad, Mama, Vinca, Annie, Nate and I. I can still see the patch of rich dirt where they lay. And that's enough. That's enough.