Little big dog

Chico rode into our family on a current of childish pleading and tears. My sister Teri and I found him at Victoria Park in Carson one Saturday when my brothers both had little league games. This was a huge park. The home of the Goodyear Blimp, which we’d often watched landing or taking off, its tethers waving in the breeze as tiny people manuevered it into or away from its dock. The park had many baseball diamonds and playgrounds. So, when the boys had games, Teri and I came along. Dad had moved out. Grandma had not yet joined our clan. Mom couldn’t afford a sitter and she absolutely refused to EVER miss a game. So, bored with the monotony of our brothers’ “small ball” games, we girls explored. First the concessions stand for licorice and a drink. Next, a pass through the playground. Then a stop to gather teeny daisies that I liked to fashion into chains for our necks. As I stooped and pulled miniature flowers from the grass, something unusual caught Teri’s eye.

“Hey, look. What’s that?”

Daisies dropped from my hands as she grabbed my arm and raced me across the field to a black lumpy object that wobbled a bit from side to side. It was a puppy. No collar. No people around to claim him. As we approached, he turned brown liquid eyes up to meet ours and let out a helpless little yelp. The sound sent an arrow into my heart–an arrow called Love.

Being the more decisive of the two, my sister scooped him up. The pup began to wiggle and lick her face, which probably tasted of Red Vines and strawberry soda.

“Oh, he’s so cute. We have to keep him,” she announced.

My heart filled with longing. “Do you think Mom will let us?” I asked.

“Well we can’t leave him here to die,” Teri said.

Her logic was irrefutable. We definitely couldn’t leave him to die. Even Mom would see that. Teri and I cooed over our new little friend as we walked to the baseball diamond where our brother Bobby’s game was in progress. By the time we reached the bleachers, we’d named the puppy Chico, which means “small” in Spanish (something we learned from our dad during his brief obsession with all things south of the border).

Our mother’s reaction to Chico took both of us by surprise. Instead of delighting over his sublime cuteness, as we had, she put up a hand and shook her head vigorously.

“No way. Absolutely not. We do not need another dog. I can barely afford to feed the one we have. Go put him back where you found him.” Mom refused to even give Chico a second look. But Teri was determined. She walked him back and forth as Mom turned her head from side to side. “But Mom. He’s a baby. He could die and it would be our fault.” Then she started to cry.

“Please Mom,” I added. “We’ll take care of him. I promise.”

“You kids don’t even know if he belongs to someone. We can’t just take him home. Some poor kid may be looking for him right now.”

“No way,” Teri said. “He was dumped in the park like garbage. They threw him away. And now you want to throw him away too.” Tears gushed from her eyes.

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” said Mom. I felt her resolve crumbling.

Other parents looked on with a combination of sympathy and curiosity. Just then, our little brother Ross walked up eating a Sno Cone. “Wow a puppy! Can we keep him Mom?”

After a solid fifteen minutes of pleading, Mom gave in.

“Good grief. You kids are gonna make me crazy. Let me see him.” She lifted Chico until they were at eye level with each other. He wiggled and took a frisky snap at her nose. “Trouble with a capital T. That’s what I see,” she said. Then she hugged him to her chest. “But he is pretty darn cute. (Sigh) Okay, but you have to feed him, walk him and pick up his poop. You’re responsible, Theresa Ann. I mean it. You slack off and he’s going to the pound.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” said Teri. And it was done.

Mom gave it six weeks.

By then, Chico had grown from 7 to 15 pounds. A short-legged low rider with meaty flanks, sleek fur, floppy ears and a square snout, he looked like a cross between a black Lab and a weiner dog. (Though we all agreed that was an improbable pairing.) One thing was certain. His capacity to wreak havoc was wildly disproportionate to his size.

Chico slept on the bed that Teri and I shared. He woke before the sun every morning, brimming with frenetic energy. His joy at being alive demanded to be shared. First he roused us girls with a growl, a nip, a lick and a pounce. When he was satisfied that we were awake, he ran into the boys’ room and catapulted himself onto their sleeping bodies. Mom had taken to closing her bedroom door out of self preservation. But he would not be dissuaded. He’d scratch and bark until she too was up and at ‘em. Then he’d go after Taffy, our sweet, mellow toy collie, who would look at us with beseeching eyes.

This morning reverie was anything but—especially for Mom who often worked late in her job as a typesetter at a printer’s. Tired from early rising, she came home each night to hungry kids, a messy house and fresh news of destruction.

“What’s he done this time?” she’d ask once hugs and kisses were doled out.

One day it was a mangled shoe. The next a bit of couch chewing. The next a favorite novel out of the old wooden bookcase—or even the bookcase itself. Chico had pooped and peed everywhere, ruining the carpet.

Our attempts to train him met with defiance and an almost jubilant rebellion. Every chance he got he ran out the door and tore around the neighborhood, eluding all efforts to catch him. He was, exactly as Mom had predicted, Trouble. Teri and I were quite clearly outmatched. One chaotic Saturday, Chico escaped when the front door was left open a moment too long. It was a golden opportunity as it coincided with mail delivery. Dog and mailman saw each other in the same instant. They locked eyes and froze. After the briefest of deliberations, the mailman turned on his heels and ran full speed to his truck, leaving a trail of envelopes in his wake. Chico gave chase, barking and snapping at the poor man’s heels. Mom screamed for Chico to stop. She might as well have told the sun to stop shining or waves to stop crashing. For Chico was an immutable force of nature, driven by primal desires far stronger than our collective will to tame him. To everyone’s relief, the mailman made it safely to his vehicle. Chico stopped short of the truck and began grazing on grass. His tail wagged happily. It took all five of us more than an hour to get him back into the house. Mom tossed him into the living room with an exasperated moan. Chico walked up to her only good purse, lifted his hind leg and peed.

“Shit! Okay, I’ve had it,” she announced, swiping at her white leather bag with an old towel. “Damn ornery impossible dog. Back to the pound you go.”

“You can’t,” screamed Teri.

“Too late. You girls had your chance and you blew it.”

“They’ll put him to sleep,” I said.

“Someone else will take him. He’ll be fine,” said Mom.

Teri and I held each other and cried in disbelief. Our tears had no affect. Mom carried Chico to the car, put him in the backseat, and drove away.

My conscience tormented me. Teri and I hadn’t lived up to our end of the bargain and that meant we’d be partially to blame for Chico’s death in the gas chamber. It was too horrible to bear. When Mom returned she tried to comfort us with soft words. But our grief was too great. Throughout the day, the tears continued until we were exhausted from the effort. Even the boys were sullen. Finally, Mom could take no more.

“Damn it to Hell,” she said and stomped out of the house with no word of where she was going. We heard the car screech out of the driveway. Another layer of guilt draped over me. We’d not only killed our dog, we’d driven our mother away. But soon she returned. And with her was Chico.

“I hope you kids are satisfied. I had to pay $6 to get him out of jail.” She looked Chico in the face again and said, “You got a reprieve, kid. You better deserve it.”

He jumped from her arms and tore through the house like a Tasmanian devil—exhilirated by his adventure and the return back home.

Things didn’t get much better with Chico. He never got to be a large dog, but his attitude was bigger than the Grand Canyon. He sauntered around like the king of the castle doing whatever he pleased and barking commands when he wanted something. And though he did eventually learn to go to the bathroom outside, his skills as an escape artist grew sharper with time. We could not keep him contained. Now and then Mom would threaten to take Chico to the pound again. But the threats seemed hollow because she loved him too. He made her laugh by running in circles after his tail; throwing toys in the air and wrestling them to the ground like live prey; and standing on his hind legs when he wanted food. You could see the intelligence in his eyes. And his independence was something she begrudgingly respected despite the inconvenience it caused us.

Then one night, Mom was up late reading in the living room. Us kids were sound asleep in our beds upstairs. Suddenly she heard incessant barking. Our collie, Taffy, was at her feet. It was that damn Chico causing trouble again. At first, she couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. Outside? No. He was barking his head off in the garage. Mom was fully prepared to berate the pesky mutt once again until she smelled smoke.

She ran to the garage, which connected to the main house by a door near the downstairs bathroom. The smell of smoke intensified. The normally dark garage was illuminated by the flickering glow of flames that could be seen through the window of the door to the backyard. Mom grabbed Chico and ran to the phone. “Fire! Everybody up. Out of the house. Fire!” She woke us kids and herded us all outside as she called the fire department. From the sidewalk we could see that the wooden gate directly below Teri’s and my bedroom was engulfed in flames. Mom turned on the garden hose and sprayed until the firemen arrived minutes later. They put out the fire in no time.

“You’re real lucky, Ma’am,” said one of them when it was over. “Guess that little dog saved your house, maybe your lives.” he said. He then held up the charred remains of something. “Looks like someone around here doesn’t like you. This was arson—gasoline in a milk carton. Probably stuck a straw in it, lit and ran. Pretty simple but effective. We’ll report it to the police. Could have just been some kids, but I suggest you watch your back.”

We didn’t find out who lit our house on fire. But from that point forward, Mom never questioned Chico’s place in our family. He’d earned his reprieve—one that lasted a very long while until he died at the ornery old age of 20.

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