One Saturday when I was in third grade, my family drove to the countryside near Fitchburg where Dad’s best friend from the Army, Richard Crawford, raised dogs in a backyard kennel. This was the first time Leslie and I learned that Dad planned to buy a dog.
When we arrived, Mom and Leslie went into the house; Dad and I walked around to the kennels. Mr. Crawford, dressed in jeans and Wellington boots, was hosing down the cages and cement runways. He held up his hand in greeting, finished the area he was flushing, and turned off the water. He left the kennel, taking off his gloves to shake hands with Dad.
“Good to see you, Dick. Not the most enjoyable part of breeding dogs.”
“I’m the man following the elephants at the end of the parade.”
The dogs barked and whined for attention, circling the enclosure, and throwing themselves up against the fence. None of them seemed dangerous, but for now, I was happy they were in cages. Their barking was so loud, I had to block my ears.
I walked toward the cages that had already been hosed down, my shoes squishing in the mud. An overpowering stink came from the enclosure. The odor made me gag and I almost threw up.
“Watch where you’re walking, young man.” Mr. Crawford called to me as I picked my way through the muck. “There’s dog shit over there.” I stopped in my tracks. Now what do I do?
“Mark, come back before you fall or one of your shoes comes off.”
I backed away, wondering if I’d already stepped in dog doo.
Mr. Crawford opened the cages and let out four dogs. Jumping up against him, two of the dogs were big enough to put their paws on his shoulders. “Down, you fool dogs.” He was obviously delighted with their affection. He bent down and picked up two rubber balls which he lobbed toward the trees on the far side of the yard. The dogs immediately raced after the balls, playfully growling and snapping at each other to gain an advantage. They ran back to Mr. Crawford and dropped the balls at his feet.
“Give it a try.” He tossed one of the balls to me. A red setter leapt in the air but failed to catch it. When I fumbled the ball, the setter caught it on the bounce and bounded back to me, her chest heaving from the exertion. She dropped the ball. When I bent down to pick it up, she licked my face. Her body was in constant motion, her eyes fixed on my hand. The ball was slimy with saliva.
The dog and I played with the ball for a long time. I finally got used to the slippery surface. When a brown and white dog tried to join our game, the setter growled from deep in her throat and the interloper jumped away.
The Crawford kids and Leslie ran out the back door. The other dogs followed the kids, darting between them, veering away at the last moment, impossible to catch. The Crawford kids, two boys and a girl, chased the dogs and, accustomed to living in the country, yelled at the top of their voices. Running with them, I also shouted with abandon. The freedom to run and run with nothing to stop me was exhilarating. The red setter never left my side.
When we stopped, bent over with hands on our knees to catch our breath, the dogs nudged against us, wanting to lick our faces. Leslie, younger than me, was scared at first, but soon allowed a beagle to come close enough to lick her hand. But if we tried to grab hold of the dogs, they jumped away, barking and looking back at us. The race started again.
I liked the red setter and hoped that she was the dog we’d take home. But when I asked Dad, he said, “No, we’re not getting that dog.” Instead, he pointed to the white dog with brown spots and a long, thin tail. He said the dog was a pointer. “You take her when you hunt ducks. She points in the direction where the ducks fall.”
I turned away to hide my disappointment. Why did we need a dog that pointed at dead ducks? I’d rather leave with no dog if I couldn’t have the setter.
Mr. Crawford took Dad hunting two or three weekends a year. Wives weren’t invited, so Dad went alone. Not owning a gun, he borrowed one from his friend. I wasn’t interested in hunting. I didn’t want to be around when Dad brought home dead birds and rabbits.
A large white barn on a foundation of boulders stood at the end of the lane from the Crawford farmhouse. Mr. Crawford and Dad walked down to the barn after lunch.
I trotted behind them. “Where are you going?”
Dad stopped and turned toward me. “We’re going to the barn. Mr. Crawford has a new gun to show me.”
Mr. Crawford said something to my father, and Dad nodded his head. “Stay at the house with the other kids. We’ll be going home after I’m finished down here.”
I watched them cross the packed earth that stretched from the lane up to the door of the barn. I was tired of running with the other kids. Looking at guns was better than sitting around bored. I wished I’d brought a book to read. Halfway back to the house, I saw a ledge of granite poking above the meadow. I sat on the rock, looking back at the barn, waiting for Mr. Crawford and Dad to come out. The field had been mowed recently and the smell of grass filled the air.
When my bum ached from sitting too long on the rock, I walked slowly back to the house. Leslie and the other kids sat on the front porch eating Jell-O, competing to see who could make the most noise sucking it through their teeth. Mom came out to the porch when she heard me. “Have you seen your father?”
“He went with Mr. Crawford to the barn. They’re looking at a gun.”
Mom’s shoulders sagged. “Run down and tell him we need to leave soon. I promised Grandma we’d stop on the way home.”
I was happy we were leaving. I didn’t like Mr. Crawford’s kids. I blamed them for keeping the setter. They wanted her for themselves and gave us the dog they didn’t like. They acted stuck up because they lived on a farm but just because their father raised dogs didn’t make them special. One day they’d have to hose the dog doo out of the cages and that was a job I never wanted.
I ran down the lane toward the barn. I rolled back one of the huge double doors and walked inside. Hot and dark. Unable to see where to go, I stayed by the door waiting for my eyes to adjust. The bales of hay stacked to the rafters made my nose itch. The sun’s rays were like a searchlight shining through the dirty window. The particles of dust swirled like a cloud of gnats.
I heard Mr. Crawford and Dad talking in a room up a flight of stairs at the end of the building. I walked past the stalls once used to stable horses, but now only storage for broken farm machinery and furniture. Their voices were indistinct, and I wondered what they were saying. I stopped at the foot of the stairs. “Dad.” When he didn’t reply, I started to climb the stairs and called again.
A door above me opened. “Mark, it’s too dangerous for kids with these guns. Wait outside.”
“Mom said it was time to go home.”
“All right.” Dad was impatient. “Run back to the house and tell her you found me.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“Mark, you can’t stay here.”
I heard Mr. Crawford moving across the floor. “You mind your dad, son.”
My father was angry now. “Wait in front of the barn. We’ll be out in a minute.”
I walked outside the barn and paced in a circle watching my shadow turning around me. After fifteen minutes, Dad came out. I noticed that he’d missed a button on his shirt which hung lopsided.
“Whew! It was mighty hot in there.”
“I’m sweating, too.” I pulled up my shirt, flapping the cloth to cool my chest.
Dad put his arm around my shoulder which surprised me. He rarely did this. “Let’s get our dog.”
When it came time to leave, Mr. Crawford, whistled to the pointer. She saw the open door of our car and jumped onto the backseat as if she’d been riding there for years. She stepped on Leslie and me until we moved, and she settled down between us.
Mr. Crawford passed a paper bag to Mom. “These cans of dog food will tide you over until Monday.” He closed the back door. He reached in to tweak the dog’s ear. “Enjoy your new family, Duchess.” She licked his hand. “Okay folks, good luck.” He rapped the car roof with his fist.
When Dad turned the car around, Duchess sat up and looked out the back window, whimpering a couple of times. Reaching up, Leslie put her arms around her neck. “Don’t cry, Duchess. You’ll have fun at our house.”
“Of course, she will.” Mom turned to look at us in the back seat. “Take turns patting her head but be gentle.”
Duchess turned in circles until she squeezed me into the center of the back seat so she could stick her head out my window.
“George, pull over. I need a cigarette.”
Leslie rolled down her window. The two of us hated cigarette smoke. Out of sight of the Crawford home, Dad stopped at the curb. He pulled two cigarettes from a pack in his shirt pocket. The lighter on the dashboard clicked.
Mom took a long drag. “Thank God. Just because they don’t smoke, the rest of us can’t? Is it a religious thing?”
Without answering, Dad pulled back into the street.
“Don’t forget we’re stopping at my mother’s.”
I fell in love with Duchess on the way home and never once regretted getting the dog I didn’t want.
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