There have been times in my life when I have owned a single dog. However, most of my adult life, I have lived with more like a pack of dogs, four or five or even six at a time, and not well-behaved dogs, pure-bred Bichon Frises or King Charles Spaniels or the like, but dogs of questionable lineage and character and even more questionable conduct--dogs that bark for thirty minutes when a leaf falls on the house, dogs that drag bags of pastries off the kitchen counter, dogs that will, without a second thought, tear my hand open over a chicken leg or a squirrel carcass.
My extended family members, who are more of the one-well-behaved-dog-at-a-time mentality, think I'm nuts, but I am convinced that this indiscriminate taste in dogs goes back to my childhood, to the very first dog I remember, a dog who is larger than life in my memory--a virtual Tyrannosaurus Terrier.
I was six years old the day we got him, my brother ten, and we were having breakfast at our grandparents' house one day when my brother polished off his orange juice and said, "Hey, can we get a dog today?"
"Sure!" my grandparents said. "Whatever you want to do."
There was no discussion, no calling our parents to get permission. The next thing I knew, my grandmother and I were sitting in the parking lot of the local animal shelter staring at a dismal gray cement building. My grandfather and brother went inside, and I plugged my ears to block out the yowling emanating from the barred windows. Finally, my brother returned. In his arms was the filthiest, smelliest dog I had ever seen, a mid-size Terrier mix with a matted goatee and thousand-year-old eyes.
Now, my grandmother was a flexible woman, especially when it came to her grandchildren. In her house, my brother and I could stay up all night eating pounds of candy and watching TV. We could take sips from my grandfather's Rock 'n Rye, spray shaving cream all in my grandfather's hair when he nodded off in his recliner, read sex stories in True Story magazine, take the Nova for a spin down to the corner store. But there was one thing my grandmother could not abide: filth.
And so, though my brother and I pleaded and whined for the dog to sit between us in the backseat on the way home, my grandmother would not relent, and the dog rode yapping and yelping and all the way to our home--an hour away--in the trunk. When we got there, my grandfather lifted the lid and found the dog tangled in a mass of gnawed, multi-colored wires, a canine Christmas tree.
For some reason I could never quite determine--Because getting a dog was his idea? Because he was older? Because he loved him even before his bath right there in our driveway that very first day?--the dog was instantly my brother's rather than mine or ours. My grandfather extricated the dog and handed him to my brother who presented him thusly--hair matted, eyes wild, colored strands of wire hanging from his jowls--to our astounded mother.
The dog, once shampooed and towel-dried and brushed, had short hair of varying hues--brown and tan and black. My brother named him Shadrack, and aptly so, because like the young Judean who escaped execution in King Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace, Shadrack was a survivor.
Shortly after we got Shadrack, we moved to a house at the end of a short, gravel road that disappeared into woods, the very end of civilization, and Shadrack was allowed to roam free. He survived endless days-long journeys away from home, a dog fight that almost ripped his neck from his body, electrocution via a chewed lamp cord, and one unfortunate encounter with a garbage truck.
For such a rough and tumble sort of character, a guy who was frequently known to dumpster-dive for chicken bones and the like, Shadrack had refined taste when it came to music. In particular, he objected to Kenny Rogers' "Lucille."
The moment it came on our local radio station--which was frequently back in those days--he began to squirm. He pressed his ears against his head and flitted from my brother, to me, then to our mother. Turn it off, he pleaded. Turn it off.
And then Kenny began the chorus. It was soul-zapping, gut-wrenching, all that poverty and betrayal and longing--the four motherless children, the crops needing to be harvested, the would-be lovers who would never be, the farmer, so lonesome and alone. A low tremor began somewhere deep in Shadrack's throat. His goatee quivered, his neck arching high in the air, and he threw back his head and let forth an agonized, agonizing howl.
Perhaps the lonesome lyrics spoke to Shadrack's wandering soul and reminded him how it felt to be abandoned. Or perhaps he simply didn't care for Kenny's rendition of that tune. In any case, he howled and howled and howled some more. His cries were extraordinary, at once mournful and beseeching, rebellious and vulnerable.
Later, we tried him on some other Kenny tunes--"The Gambler," "Daytime Friends," "Coward of The County"--but he would barely look up. It wasn't Kenny. It was the song, and whenever he heard "Lucille," time and time again, he always fell apart like that.
Fortunately for Shadrack's vulnerable spirit, the song eventually became less popular, and he lived out his days in reckless bliss until one day he finally met his match in the form of a teenage boy on a motorcycle. I wasn't there, but the best I can determine, Shadrack went down in one dramatic thwap, a swift and certain end in the very prime of his life. It was a movie star passing, a James Dean, Elvis sort of demise.
After Shadrack died, we had a succession of other dogs--all purebred Cocker Spaniels who took bubble baths and walked on leashes and never once ate a lamp cord or bodyslammed a garbage truck. They were civilized dogs, dogs that fit the growing, upscale neighborhood that eventually had paved roads and leash laws and a neighborhood association.
And while I loved all of our other dogs, none of them was quite the same as Shadrack. Even if he hadn't exactly been mine, I had loved Shadrack with all of the intensity of a first love. Shadrack was the Willie Nelson of dogs--a maverick with a scraggly beard and a soft, spiritual side, a guy who lived hard and loved hard and knew a sad song when he heard one. What better first love than that?