Every diamond shop on West 47th Street was open seven days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. Sales people, guards, elevator operators, schleppers, cutters, setters, polishers, and even Lennie the Bum slaved throughout the holiday in hopes of scoring enough money pay off bills and buy presents for wives, lovers, and children.
Stores extended their normal hours to entice late-night shoppers. Thieves and gypsies made up more than 50% of the walk-ins. Hawkers fought over the Gs or goys. Old customers were as faithful as a runaway cheerleader on crack and they chiseled us for every dollar. Salesmen cut prices to the bone to close a sale. Diamond brokers ran out of stones worth selling. When the beautiful jewelry were gone, my boss Manny would shout, “Sell what you got.”
Moving dreck jewelry was impossible.
My sales were down 30% from 1999 and I would have been suffering from a serious dose of the Grinch, if I hadn’t wangled a few side sales of cheap studs from an upstairs Israeli broker. The diamonds were slightly flawed to the naked eye and the price was right. I made $100/pair and sold about 30 to friends seeking to happify their wives and girlfriends.
Our company Christmas party was on the 23rd. The restaurant was Italian. The wine was plentiful. I drank too much and hugged the daughter of Manny’s partner. Her father disapproved with a frown. She was his only daughter. He didn’t have to worry. We were only good friends. Still her old man was glad that I left before dessert.
The next morning I showed up to work with a bacon and egg sandwich.
A dead giveaway of a hangover.
Elizabeth had called in sick. I wish I had done the same, except I needed my salary, bonus, and commissions. Manny’s son, Richie Boy joked to Elizabeth that I was going to be his partner soon.
“I’ll kill the goy first” The silver-haired jeweler reached inside his cashmere jacket. He couldn’t unsnap the leather strap of his Beretta and gave up after ten seconds. “You’re a lucky man.”
“You got that right.” I hadn’t even risen from my chair. His daughter had unloaded his gun years ago. It was strictly for show. “Don’t worry. I know how to keep my place.”
"That’s a good thing.” The old man buttoned his jacket and patted my shoulder. He was better at managing his anger than holding a grudge.
Manny took one look at me and said, “Don’t let the goy touch anything valuable.”
“That’s fine by me.”
I needed little encouragement to ‘lb’ or ‘look busy’ for the rest of the day. Customers came and went without my assistance.
Richie Boy sold a 5-carat off-color pear-shape to a walk-in, a $15,000 diamond necklace to an old customer, and a $20,000 sapphire to a showgirl.
A good next to last day before Christmas, however a good portion of the afternoon fighting with his father.
Richie Boy wanted to cut out of work and go to Vermont. Manny was a workaholic. Quitting time was 6pm. Elizabeth’s father put his jewelry away at 2:30. We had little merchandise from our firm left to sell. By 3pm Manny called it a day.
“Lock the front door. We’re going home.”
“Don’t have to be told twice.” I plundered the jewelry from the front window like a Pirate of the Caribbean.
“You going home for Christmas?” Richie Boy asked, packing a box with diamond rings.
“Never fail.” At 48 I had only missed one Christmas with my family. A drunken weekend in the Isle of Wight.
“You could always celebrate it with us.”
“I’d love too.”
Richie Boy’s clan was infamous on 47th street for its familial dysfunctions.
“I think I’ve filled this year’s quota for time with your father.”
“I wish I could say the same.” Richie Boy would have to deal with relatives and wife on his own.
Once the goods was locked in the vault, Manny handed over my salary, commissions, and holiday bonus.
The first was on the money, the second required some cursing, and the third was less than I had expected, although more than I had feared for an off year.
“I wish it was more.”
“Yeah, we all do.” My fellow workers and I downed a quick shot of whiskey, then I dashed to the Port Authority bus station.
The conga line at Gate 84 snaked into a steady stream of north-bound buses. It was a little past 4pm by the time my bus rolled uptown.
I wasn’t the only person making a late start for home. I-95 was filled with packed cars. Traffic was tight all the way to the Sturbridge tollbooth and the bus arrived at South Station an hour past schedule. Scores of people waited for payphones in the train terminal. I skipped calling my older brother’s house. He knew I was coming to his Christmas Eve party. The clock said 8. Lower Mills was 30 minutes away.
I caught the MTA-Red Line to Ashmont. The T was crammed with last-minute shoppers and travelers completing the last leg of the journey home. I got off the trolley at the old Baker Chocolate factory and walked up Canton Avenue past brightly lit mansions. Snow crunched underneath my shoes. I was hungry and the scent of burning wood from spurred my steps.
Cars blocked my older brother’s driveway. The walk was showed no signs of a shovel. The path had been beaten down by the boots of guests. Glowing windows framed friends and family huddled around a table of food.
Tonight no one was worrying about diets.
Children chased each other around a Christmas tree drooping with shiny ornaments. I pressed the bell. A muffled scream of ‘Uncle Bubba’ sparked a stampede of nieces and nephews. The front door opened and warm hands pulled me inside. This was my Christmas.
Everyone had a name, until a dreadlocked dog nipped my ankle.
“That’s Coco.” My eleven year-old nephew patted the hyperactive toy poodle.
“Coco’s no name for a dog.”
My brother entered the room. He looked good for a man on the brink of fifty. We gave each other a hug and he looked at Coco.
“Dog? I don’t see a dog.”
“Coco’s certainly not a cat.” He picked up a glass of water. Wine was for later after the guests went home.
“I wanted Fang.” My brother posed his foot for a mock field goal attempt. “The shelter only had Coco.”
“But we love him.” My nephew clasped the squirming puppy to his chest.
“We’ll find out about love, when he needs a walk.” My brother pointed to the kitchen. “Go help your mother and sister with the plates.”
“Uncle Bubba just arrived and I don’t want to get my hands wet.”
My nephew dropped the dog.
“Good excuse.” I couldn’t have done better myself.
I hugged Frunka and my brother reiterated his command.
“Go help your mother.” My brother and I never questioned my father. He expected the same from his son.
“Do I have too?” These were different times.
“I’m not leaving yet, so obey your father or else Santa Claus will be late tomorrow.”
“Santa Claus is never late.” My nephew confidently skipped into the kitchen looking over his shoulder at my brother. “We have a special arrangement. I’m good all year and he treats me better than anyone else in the whole wide world.”
“The world’s best boy.”
“You got that right, Uncle Bubba.” The young boy skipped into the kitchen buoyed by dreams of tomorrow’s gifts.
“So what’s with the dog?” I bent over to scratch the poodle’s head. Coco licked my hand in gratitude. “I thought your wife said no dogs.”
“The kids wore down their mother.”
“Mom never surrendered to our pleas.” Our late mother held no affection for animals. Anytime we asked for a dog or cat, she scowled, as if we had tracked mud into the living room.
“I ever tell you I almost bought you a dog for Christmas?” My brother handed me a glass of wine. He had stopped drinking two years ago. “But Mom said she’d have to take care of it.”
“And you listened to her?” I was shocked by his admission. I loved dogs.
“You were a little careless then.” My brother was a straight. I was a hippie. His judgment wasn’t 100% wrong.
“A dog might have cured that.” I would have had to feed the dog every day.
“Let me guess.” My brother lifted his eyes in mock deliberation. He was a lawyer. His refined theatrics were a treat for the Boston courts. “You might have settled down?”
“It wasn’t out of the question.” A wife, two kids, a job with the Boston School System, a vacation house in Maine, and a Volvo station wagon should have been attainable goals. I had gone to the right schools. “After all a dog is man’s best friend. I would have sat by the fire. That’s pretty homey.”
“You were free to buy a dog after you left home.” My brother upheld that my vagabond ways arose from smoking marijuana. My first joint came at age 18. I had entered university as a math major. Pot proved to be a source of endless blunders in multivariable calculus.
“Somehow I never had the time.” HOW MUCH IS THAT DOGGIE IN THE WINDOW had been replaced by Tom Rush’s version of URGE FOR GOING once I was older enough to realize that girls liked hippies better than dogs.
“And you don’t now?”
“I have plans.” After the New Year I was heading to Thailand. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Tibet. The last was to say a spiritual goodbye to my deceased younger brother. Walking around Mount Khailash was guaranteed to expiate my sins as well as those of my baby brother.
“More running away. You can blame your lack of commitment on not owning a dog all you want.” He rolled his eyes. “But the real reason Mom refused you a dog was that you were scared of them.”
“No, I wasn’t.” Afraid of the snakes under my bed, but never a dog.
“You mean you’ve forgotten.” He smiled, as if he had an answer to a question I hadn’t heard.
“Forgotten what?” I was waiting for his reply, but several voices from the living room cried out, “Coco.”
My brother placed his water on a coaster.
“Sounds like time for a damage control.”
My nieces, nephews, and their friends raced across the foyer. Coco had a Barney t-shirt in his mouth. The posse gave up the chase at the stairs and my brother asked his son, “Why you stop the chase?”
“No one breaks a sweat over Barney,” a smart-aleck ten-year old answered with a smirk. I recalled his begging his parents for a stuffed purple dinosaur not so long ago and I scolded his snide ennui, “You were so into it last year.”
“Pokemon is as dead as Barney.” The kid was growing up fast.
“No, dead as Beanie Babies.”
“No, dead as Power Rangers.” Another boy laughed and they high-fived each other.
The children ran into the living room, laughing at their parents’ attempts to placate them with consumerism, while Frunka forlornly retrieved the shirt from the panting Coco.
“Why they stop loving Barney? I didn’t.”
“Sometimes people outgrow their toys.” I would have gone $1000 into credit card debt to hug my one-eyed teddy bear or my hillbilly girlfriend from 1978 again.
“You won’t outgrow me, will you?” My nephew put one arm around my waist. The boy was getting tall.
“Not this year and any one of this century.” I liked being around Frunka. He was smart and sensitive. In some ways the boy was a lot like me without the meanness.
“Thanks, Uncle Bubba.” He joined the other children opening gifts.
“He’s a good kid.” I said to my older brother. “Makes me wish I had a family.”
“It’s not too late.”
“Not if your wife has her way.”
His buxom wife approached a glass of wine in her hand. She had rejected my brother’s temporary state of temperance.
“Uncle Bubba, I have someone I want you to meet.” His wife was an incorrigible matchmaker and optimistically hoped her resolve might convert me into an honest man. “Meet Laurie.”
An attractive blonde in her late thirties followed in her wake. My brother’s wife exchanged two thumbnail bios with the expertise of a gameshow host introducing contestants.
Laurel had been recently divorced from a professional man and she admired my traveling around the world. I entertained her with tales from the diamond district. When she left for another party, I promised to call her. For her safety I threw her number in the fireplace.
I spent a good half-hour talking with my other brother, two sisters, aunts, uncles, and assorted relatives and friends of the family. I ate two plates of food. The ham was succulent and the potatoes creamy. Dessert would ahve to wait and I asked my father, if wanted a glass of wine.
“A Mer-LOT.” The septagenarian loved putting a heavy accent on the last syllable. I refilled his glass and mine. My hangover was buried under two glasses of chardonnay. I sat in the couch and we spoke about my late mother. He got weepy and I comforted him.
We drank a little more wine than we should have and fell asleep on the couch. I woke to a cascade of glowing logs spilling against the fireguard. Guests were leaving for Midnight Mass. Fathers held their daughters’ hands. Mothers ruffled their sons’ hair.
I had no wife, no family, and no house.
As I reached for my wine, Coco licked at my hand.
Scratching the little dog's skull, I pondered my brother’s earlier accusation of dogophobia, for a little puppy to call my own would have completed my life as a ten year-old boy in the suburbs south of Boston.
My next-door neighbor, Chuckie Manzi, had owned a fluffy-tailed mutt. I had pretended that it was mine, if only part-time.
After school I threw Skippy sticks and wrestled balls from his mouth. I envied Chuckie for owning Skippy. They went everywhere together. At dinnertime he faithfully tramped after his master and I would ask my mother at least once a month, “Can we have a dog?”
“No, because I’ll be the one stuck taking care of it.” With six kids she didn’t need any a heavier workload on her plate.
“I’ll walk it in the morning and use the money from my paper route to feed it.”
“And when you’re at school?” That question stifled my pleas, but a ‘puppy’ perennially headed my Santa list. The toy soldiers, plastic airplanes, hardcover books, stylish clothing, and $20 bills were no substitute for a yapping puppy, although one spring my mother eased her edict against pets.
Tossing Coco off my lap, I warmed my hands before the fire and said, “Rabbits.”
Winters in New England are long and even longer for ten year-old boys. The snow season of 1962 finally released its frigid grip on the South Shore of Boston in late-March. The southern wind thawed the ice-hard ground and soon fragile green leaves sprouted from trees throughout my hometown. Shortly thereafter spring officially arrived with the Red Sox’s opening day loss to the Indians.
The next day the Fenway team followed the debut defeat with a 12th inning win. This victory rekindled our eternal hope for a successful pennant run and the neighborhood boys congregated for the first of many under-teamed baseball games in my back yard.
Last year’s gloves were stiff from neglect and the Christmas gift baseballs shined in the afternoon sun. My brother, Chuckie Manzi, and I played ‘pickle’ waiting for the others to fill out the five-on-five sides.
My next-door neighbor was my best friend. His dog chased the tossed ball. Soon seven boys were laughing carelessly at Skippy’s running back and forth. The dog was faster then any of us, but couldn’t leap high enough to snag the ball.
“Your dog’s crazy.” I yelled winging the ball to my brother and Chuckie shouted, “Dogs are supposed to be crazy. Just like us.”
Three more boys ran into the field. Baseball caps on their head. My older brother, Chuckie, and I played on the same side as my two cousins. They attended St. Mary’s of the Foothills like us. The opposing five went to public school. The talent level was almost even, except my younger cousin OilCan could really whack the hide off a ball.
The ground rules were simple.
Any ball hit into the woods beyond the first base line was an out. A foul ball into my other neighbor’s yard was also an out, since they were in a property dispute with my parents. Two strikes and you were out. Two outs and the other team came to bat. The game was over once someone’s mother yelled for dinner. The team at bat had to provide the catcher. The rest of the rules were adjusted according to the score other than if OilCan hit a ball so far that we couldn’t find it, then that was an out.
A flip of a quarter decided first-ups.
The public school team scored two runs before striking out twice. Russell drove the first pitch over the centerfielder’s head for a homer. My brother ran out a weak hit to second. Chuckie squibbed out a single. I came to the plate with two men on.
“Wait for your pitch.” My brother was patient and I told myself to be the same.
The pitcher tossed a curve outside the strike zone by a foot. My awkward swing made contact and the ball rocketed toward the Manzi’s house. It smacked into the wall missing a bedroom window by inches and plunked into the thicket of rose bushes. The leftfielder scrambled to field the ball. It was beyond his reach.
As I crossed home plate, he yelled from underneath the thorny branches. “Rabbits.”
Both teams looked at each other.
Our suburban development was surrounded by deserted farmlands. Raccoons ate the garbage and foxes chased the chickens at the nearest stables. Last winter my brother spotted the shadow of a rattlesnake in the front yard. In the darkness I also imagined the wavering shape was a rattler. The police showed up with guns drawn and discovered the deadly serpent was a loose sheet of cardboard. Chuckie had a good laugh about our mistake. So did my parents. My brother and I hated snakes almost as much as the Yankees after that day, but rabbits were not a venomous snake and we ran to the Manzi’s house.
The ten of us kneeled on the ground. Damp seeped through my jeans. Chuckie held back Skippy, because a furry pile of bunny rabbits were huddled against the concrete foundation of his house. None of them bigger were than a Twinkie and I told Chuckie. “Get a box.”
He returned with an empty milk crate and I plucked the baby rabbits from the dirt furrow. Seeing them in the box, my brother asked, “What are you going to do with them?”
Skippy yapped his suggestion and I held the rabbits over my head.
“I’m asking Mom, if we can keep them.”
“You think she’ll say yes?” My brother’s timid voice betrayed that his guess was ‘no’.
My mother either feared or hated animals. Spiders and butterflies inside the house deserved death by newspaper. My father joked that TVs would never replace newspapers, because you couldn’t swat flies with them. My mother didn’t think his joke was funny.
“We won’t know until we ask.”
I looked over to our house. The door to the laundry room was open. We trooped to the clothesline and my
mother exited from the house with a heavy basket of wet sheets. She regarded the box with a frown.
“You touch them?” She expected a response in one syllable.
“Then their mother will abandon them, because they smell of human.” She shook her head with a sad resignation.
“So can we keep them?” My mother would never accept a dog, but I prayed these rabbits were different. She put down the basket of sheets. “You’ll take care of them?”
“I will, I will.”
To prove she had not misplaced her trust, I fixed up the box and fed the baby bunnies warm milk from an eyedropper. My older brother laughingly called their wooden home a ‘bunny jail’, but Chuckie volunteered to be a bunny guard. Bunnies were cuter than Skippy.
When Mrs. Manzi yelled for dinner, Chuckie asked, “Can I take care of a rabbit tonight?”
"They’re a family. Families stay together.” I replied and lay on the lawn with the bunnies curled on my chest.
The sun dropped closer to the horizon. My brothers and sisters watched TV in the den, as my mother prepared dinner in the kitchen. Mr. Manzi came home from the dry cleaning shop. He waved to me and entered his house.
Several minutes later my father walked up the street with a troubled weariness on his face. Years would pass before I realized that he hated his boss, but tonight he smiled at the bunnies.
“Your mother says you can keep them?”
“Yeah.” I lifted a bunny and he patted its head.
“That’s a surprise. They have names?” My father liked things to have a name. He was an engineer.
Rabbits didn’t have souls, so I didn’t have to name them after saints.
“I’ll name them after the planets.”
“None of them look fast enough to be called Mercury.”
“Not yet.” Mars would be the one with the reddish ears.
A bark ripped across the driveway. A large black-orange Doberman lurked behind a lilac bush. His eyes shined with hunger. My father picked up a rock and chucked it at the intruder. His aim was good and the dog yelped into the woods.
“Better keep those rabbits inside or a dog will get at them.” My father patted the rabbit in my arms. “Get inside. It’s time for dinner. And wash your hands.”
“Okay.” I walked inside the garage and placed the bunny jail atop the station wagon. Throughout dinner I couldn’t talk about anything other than the rabbits. Before dessert I asked, “May I please leave the table?”
“To look at those animals?” My mother seemed to regret her earlier decision.
“This better not interfere with your homework.”
She nodded her dismissal and I ran to the garage. The rabbits were where I left them. Safe in their box.
“I’ll be right back.”
I completed my homework in record time and then remained with the rabbits late into the night. Once they were older they would race each other for carrots. The losers would get the same amount as the winners.
Close to 11pm I crept upstairs. My younger brothers and sisters were asleep in their beds. My room was dark and my brother out cold. The door to my parents’ room was open.
My mother was under the covers. My father had been asleep for hours. The television was on low. The news showed Kennedy talking to his wife. My mother liked her, but had voted for Nixon. FAILSAFE lay on her chest.
“How are the rabbits?” Her insomnia had nothing to do with my father’s snoring. I had the same genes. Sleep came hard for both of us.
“I think they’re happy to be inside.” I whispered and my mother looked over to my father. “Nothing can wake your father once he’s asleep. Bunny rabbits too. They’ll be fine in the garage.”
“I hope so.”
“Get me some potato chips and OJ.”
“For the TONIGHT SHOW?” She loved Johnny Carson.
“You’re a good son.”
“Thanks for the bunny rabbits, mom.”
I watched a little of Johnny Carson monologue with her and then slipped into my bed with THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY. My eyes grew heavy and my first dream was of bunny rabbits adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Waking early for my paper route I dressed quickly into my school uniform. Grabbing a bottle of milk from the refrigerator, I entered the garage as anxious as a brand new father. My hand slipped inside the box to touch air. It was empty.
“Bunnies.” I called out. “Mars, Pluto, Venus.”
Bunny rabbits don’t make noise, but the tiniest panting came from underneath our station wagon. I kneeled on the concrete floor. Their little bunnies weren’t moving and I screamed. My father rushed into the garage, his tie undone. “What’s wrong?”
I blubbered out, “The rabbits.”
“Under the car?”
“Yes.” They were out of my reach.
My father picked them up one by one and laid the bunnies on the hood. “Two rabbits are dead. They must have jumped out of the box.
Mars and Jupiter.
The survivors were breathing like they were in a vacuum.
“Why they try to escape?”
“Son, you can’t stop animals from running wild and the other three are too hurt to live. We’ll have to put them down.”
“Put them down?”
I had read THE YEARLING and seen the movie version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ tale of a boy’s love for a baby deer. The father shooting his son’s pet proved Man has a much greater control over Death than Life.
“I’ll give them whiskey. They won’t feel a thing.”
“Can’t we bring them to the hospital?”
“Wish we could, but it’s better this way.” My mother didn’t like liquor in the house and my father went to the tool cabinet, filling an eyedropper with Canadian Club.
“You want to say a prayer?” My father held up Venus.
“Only if I could make them live.” I had stopped believing in God two years ago. It was a secret. I hated God for letting my friend Chaney drown. He couldn’t help the rabbits either.
“They will in another life.” A squirt into their mouths stilled her. Pluto and Mercury were next. My father laid the five bodies in the box. My older brother stood at the door. “What happened?”
“The rabbits tried to escape.”
“Oh.” His expression said God didn’t want us to have pets. He was still a believer. I cried and my father held me close.
“Go do your paper route and we’ll bury them when you get back.”
Every morning I delivered the Boston Globe and Herald to 54 houses in the neighborhood. My father thought that a boy should have his own money. I earned about $5 a week. My brother had 64 customers. He earned over $6 for a week’s work. We rode Raleigh English bikes. Every other kid in the neighborhood had a Schwinn.
Normally I read the news walking up to each house. This morning the words Civil Rights and Cuba were simply smeared by tears. I returned home thirty minutes later, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. My father had already left for work. My mother was waiting in the back yard with an open shoebox.
“Here’s the bunnies.”
They looked asleep. My brother had a shovel. My sisters were dressed for school. The sun was heating up the day. My mother checked her wristwatch.
“Better hurry up, the bus will be here soon.”
My attendance record had been perfect three years running.
“I’ll do it as fast as I can.” Chuckie trotted across the grass. He had heard the bad news. Skippy wagged his tail. Chuckie whacked him. “Go back inside.”
Skippy scurried back to his doghouse and we trudged into the woods. My younger sisters carried the bunny coffin between them. Rituals were second nature for Catholics children. I hacked at the ground with the shovel.
Soon the hole was about a foot deep. My older sister placed the box at the bottom and I covered my one-day pets with dirt. My older brother made the sign of the cross.
“Shouldn’t we say something?”
“I can’t.” More because I was too sad than convinced prayers were hocus-pocus.
My young sisters started singing HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL. The rest of us joined the song, but we didn’t reach to second chorus, because the school bus blew its horn.
“Get on the bus.” My mother yelled and the others running across the lawn to the house, grabbing their lunch boxes and school bags on the driveway.
I lingered at the edge of the woods, the shovel in my hands. My mother called my name. She was going to explain why birds and bees stop flying. I wanted a miracle and returned to the woods.
Nature is cruel. The dog from last night had a dead bunny in his jaws. The fur was white. It was Venus. I raised the shovel and yelled, “Stop.”
With a threatening growl the black-orange Doberman mauled Vunes’ lifeless body.
My mother ran to my side and grabbed the shovel. The dog recognized her hatred of animals and scooted into the woods. I gathered Venus’ bloodied fur in my hands. My mother shook her head. “Now you know why I don’t want you to have pets.”
“They were only bunnies.”
“I had a cat when I was young and it ran away. All my tears wouldn’t bring it back.” She held the box in her hands. The other four rabbits were untouched.
“Go get the bus, I’ll bury them deep, so no animals will get at them. Go.”
She wiped my face and I ran for the bus. I didn’t speak to anyone on the way to school. My older brother cleaned the blood off my hands. He also made sure no one ridiculed me. Chuckie and he were my best friend and they knew when to keep their distance. The death grip on my school bag frightened the other students from thinking about sitting next to me on the ten-minute ride to St. Mary’s of the Foothills.
The black-orange beast had forced the rabbits onto the car roof. Their deaths were its fault. An eye for an eye was best exacted in secret. No one, not my teachers, my friends, or family needed to know my plans and I said nothing throughout the school day.
My teachers and friends were used to my withdrawal from reality. They had seen it pass, but that afternoon
I bicycled my paper route in search of the bunny-killing Doberman. He was the evil spawn of the devil. I couldn’t find the dog anywhere on my circuit of Harborview, Ridge Road, Sassamon, or Neponset Streets
and bicycled back to my house, ready to heave the final Herald onto the stairs of number 157 Sears Road.
A bark thundered across the lawn and the black-orange Doberman bolted from behind a garbage can. I swung the rolled-up paper at his frothing head. Its snarling jaws snatched the newspaper from my hand, nearly yanking me off the bike.
I regained my balance and pedaled to the end of the street. The dog had given up chase in favor of shredding the paper across the lawn like confetti and his feral glare warned me to stay off this street. If it had been a bully, I might have obeyed, only he was a dog, and my genetic code demanded another course of action.
When I arrived at our driveway, my brother was playing catch with Chuckie. We had been raised as Irish twins. Thirteen months apart and he could read me like a comic book. “I know you’re thinking about doing something crazy.”
“No, I’m going to the Canyon.” The Doberman had to come from a house near the old sandpit and I was finding out which one.
“You want me to come along?”
“No, I’m just going to mess around in the Canyon.” This was my fight.
The Canyon was an abandoned sandpit overrun by small trees and weeds. Water oozed from the eroded slopes to form a stream alive with polliwogs. A dog barked from a nearby yard and I scrambled up the sandpit to peek through a hedge. The black-orange Doberman was nipping at the blue sundress of a laughing girl. She was my age. I had seen her at church. Her family was the new to the neighborhood. She was pretty.
I inched forward. A dry twig snapped under my foot and the black-orange dog lunged in my direction. My only instinct was for survival and I leapt into the Canyon, tumbling into the stream. The Doberman barked from the rim. I jumped on my bike and didn’t stop pedaling, until I was halfway home.
The Doberman was no normal dog.
My revenge would require drastic measures, yet if I succeeded, the girl in the sundress would hate me, the police might arrest me, and my parents would question what kind of child they had raised, but I wasn’t arguing with the ghosts of bunny rabbits. In my family’s garage I wrapped a short lead pipe with a newspaper and tape.
“What’s with that pipe?” My brother liked to ask direct questions
“Making a blowgun,” I replied and he accepted my answer with a shrug. Irish twins didn’t have to tell each other everything.
The next morning was a Saturday. Our neighborhood was quiet. Most families slept as I delivered the Globe and Heralds. I reached Sears Road with four papers, instead of three. My weapon was crude and effective.
One whack of the lead pipe wrapped in newspaper would kill the dog. My enemy was well aware of its danger and DJ caught me off-guard, as he charged from a thick bush at 157 Sears Road.
I swung the weighted newspaper. The pipe clunked harmlessly off his skull. This beast was indestructible and I pedaled for my life with his teeth chomping at my heels.
That evening my father demanded, “Why didn’t you deliver all the newspapers papers?”
“A dog attacked me. That dog you threw the rock at. He belongs to the new people on Sears Road.”
“Get in the car. We’ll have a talk with them.”
Within a minute our station wagon parked before the house. Three girls played with the muscular Doberman. The car doors opened and the Doberman’s ears perked up. Keeping his distance, my father asked, “Is your mother or father home?”
“My mother is,” the oldest girl replied with the dog by her side. “I’ll get her.”
Her mother came out in an old cotton shift and hair rollers. She was as beautiful as her youngest daughter and was well aware of her effect on men.
“I’m Mrs. Rolla. These are my three daughters. We moved from New York.”
“Welcome to the neighborhood.” My father saw no reason not to be polite.
“Can I help you?” The woman recognized this wasn’t a social visit.
“Seems your dog has been attacking my son on his paper route.”
“DJ? He’s dumb as mud.” The woman patted the dog and DJ grinned idiotically. “Sure, all dogs bark.”
“And barkers bite___”
Mrs. Rolla leaned against the door, studying my father with a covetous interest. He was a good-looking man.
“I’ll keep DJ inside in the morning. Your son can deliver us the paper. Is that okay?”
Mrs. Rolla’s youngest daughter smiled, as if school had been let out early for summer. Delivering their newspaper meant collecting the subscription money every Friday. The young girl might answer the door. The opportunity to speak with her outweighed my desire for revenge.
“I’ll drop the papers in the door tomorrow.”
“This arrangement makes the world a much happier place. It was nice meeting you.” He stammered a good-bye and we walked to the station wagon. I looked over my shoulder and almost yelped in terror, for DJ’s eyes were beaming with a murderous intent. The youngest daughter slapped him on the head. “DJ, stop that.”
It was too late to tell my father that the Rollas were aware of DJ’s ferocity.
On the way home he complimented the mother on raising such polite girls.
Thankfully Mrs. Rolla kept her promise and DJ vanished from my morning and afternoon paper route.
As April turned to May, the fear of DJ was replaced by my desperate attempts to attract the attention of Mrs. Rolla’s daughter. She blissfully disregarded my acrobatically riding on my handlebars or waving to her at Sunday Mass.
With each failure I withdrew deeper within my pubescent cocoon. I stopped playing baseball, fluffed my homework, and disobeyed my parents. My grades were slipping and my mother received a phone call from my teacher. She was not happy to hear that I was a C student. “Wait till your father comes home.”
My father’s harsh words were much more frightening than her smacking my hands with the wooden spoon and I dashed out of the house to the sandpit.
Bees buzzed between the wild flowers and birds flew after insects. I took off my shoes and waded into the cool water. The mud squeezed between my toes and the sun was warm on my skin, then a dog growled across the stream.
It was DJ.
His bark signaled that running wasn’t an option. This was a final confrontation. When I grabbed a flat stone from the ground, a girl’s voice asked, “You’re not throwing that at my dog, are you?”
Fearing DJ, I didn’t turn my head.
“If he attacks, I will.”
Mrs. Rolla’s youngest daughter walked into my line of vision. She was holding an ice cream cone. Her thin legs stuck out from under her sundress like two white rails. Her brown hair was pulled back into a bouncy ponytail and her eyes gleamed like green pearls. DJ had witnessed hundreds of boys’ reaction to the Rolla girls and smirked with yellowed fangs.
The Doberman’s head and DJ plopped by her feet.
“See, he’s a pussy cat.”
“DJ’s not a normal dog, is he?”
“No, we found him eating our garbage” The girl offered the dog her cone. He gulped it with the ferocity of a rabid shark. “He smelled horrible and looks like he had been living in the woods for the entire winter. None of us mess with him when he’s eating, but he won’t bite a friend and you’re a friend, right?”
She patted DJ’s neck and the Doberman looked like he was waiting a command.
“You had him attack me, didn’t you?”
“I had seen you at church.” Her admission was a surprise. Boys and girls our age were supposed to hate each other, but 13 was only two years away for the both of us and there was no sense in wasting time. She stood with one foot tucked behind the other. “My name’s Kyla. You still throwing that rock? I mean if you throw that rock, you might hit me. You want to hit me?”
“No.” My use of the English language was reduced to one word.
I dropped the rock and told her my name.
“You can come over my house. My mother will give you an ice cream cone.” She snapped her fingers and DJ dashed into the undergrowth. We walked to her house and by week’s end my neighborhood became a paradise populated mostly by her Eve and my Adam.
My father’s snoring woke and my head shuddered, as I discovered that I was no longer ten. Kyla was gone and I sat up rubbing my face. I checked on my father. He was out cold and his eyelids vibrated with the REMs of another place and time. The fire was dying and threw on another log, before going into the kitchen. My brother was washing dishes and I helped him dry.
“Have a good sleep.”
“Yes, and I remember DJ.”
“And how one Thanksgiving Mom cooled the turkey in the garage and DJ ate it on the front yard after you had left the garage door open.”
“I figured that it cooled faster that way.” DJ had buried his muzzle inside the turkey carcass. My mother called a hotel for dinner. She hated that dog and every other animals even more than before. I never heard the end of it.
“Mom told you to stop playing with Kyla.” My brother had a wicked memory.
“Only for a short time.” Kyla and I remained sweethearts almost all the way through high school.
“What are you talking about?”
My youngest nephew asked from the door. He loved hearing stories about the stupidity of adults, which were the only stories to tell on a Christmas Eve after the non-family members had gone home. Frunka sat on my lap.
“About a dog eating our turkey. My mother spent hours cooking turkey. We all had chores. Your father called it KP day. After the turkey had been cooked my mother had me put in in the garage to cool.”
“Why she do that?” Frunka was naturally curious.
“I have no idea, but I did as I was told and left the garage door open. We were throwing a football in the backyard and my best friend pointed to the front lawn and said, “What’s with DJ?”
“Who was DJ?
“A bad dog.” My brother answered from the table. He was holding hands with his wife. They were very much in love, even this many years after their wedding.
“The dog had its head stuck inside something and then I heard my mother scream.
“The turkey.” My nephew might have heard this story before, but not my version.
“I picked up a stick from the ground and charged to save our holiday meal. DJ ran from our yard, leaving behind a mauled meal. My mother cried, “Where are we going to find a turkey now?” My father looked at me and I thought that this was my fault. I didn’t even bother to explain my side of the story.”“When you’re wrong as a child, proving you’re right is a waste of breath.” My older brother was telling that to his son. “We thanked Uncle Bubba for ruining Christmas, but it didn’t turn out so bad, since DJ’s owners paid for our meal at a nearby hotel and DJ’s owner, Kyla kissed Uncle Bubba on the cheek.”Kissy-face.”“Later that summer this girl ate ice cream and smeared chocolate over her face. And Uncle Bubba would kiss her.” My brother and I loved making each other uncomfortable. All part of a healthy sibling rivalry.My nephew shuffled his feet nervously, as if he had once cherished a girl as messy as Kyla. Before he could ask my brother or me a troubling question, I grabbed the finished turkey carcass from the table and fit it over Coco’s head. The puppy squirmed in terror, and then barked with delight from within the Promised Land.“Bad Coco.”My niece and brother laughed. My brother less than anyone else. He really did like Coco. His wife entered the kitchen with a load of plates and reproached me with a playful slap.“Bad Bubba.”She was angry at my not asking her friend out on a date. We laughed harder to the cheers of ‘bad dog’ and ‘Bad Bubba’. My father came into the kitchen to see the commotion. I freed Coco from his prison and he snapped at my hand. My father said that the dog was dangerous, but Coco was no DJ.Two minutes later we were rehashing my abandonment at the Kittery tollbooth. Another family myth, but none of us challenged the untruth, because tomorrow was Christmas and I was with my family. It was a good feeling.Coco licking my hand. I must have tasted of turkey. Dogs are a sucker for food, then again so are men, which is why they are man’s best friend both now and forever.